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72 Martyrs or 犀照 (2011)

January 28, 2013 Leave a comment

72-Martyrs-2011-Movie-Poster-2

Political history is always a challenging topic for storytellers since, by definition, the current generation not only has the benefit of hindsight but also the power to change the way the past is shown to fit modern needs, e.g. Shakespeare revised historical facts to make good theatre and rehearse moral arguments about the propriety of rebellion. In this film, we come to the centenary of the sequential revolts and uprisings in China of the early twentieth century. The political decision was made to invest in a number of films to explore some of the individual events leading up to Xinhai Revolution and the birth of the modern Chinese state, e.g. 1911 or Xinhai geming (2011) and The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake or Jianhu Nuxia (2011) dealing with a slightly earlier martyrdom. I suppose at one level, this is an example of state-funded propaganda. The modern political need is not simply to remind people of how the Communist Party got going. It also needs to confirm the only reason it was ultimately successful is because it garnered enough support from the people. Albeit the modern party has evolved and no longer makes policy with quite the same revolutionary roots, it still needs to reinforce messages of self-sacrifice and the need for the people’s continuing support for those policies.

Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) , Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho)

Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) , Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho)

 

The topic here is the Second Huangzhou Uprising which took place on the 27th April, 1911. Since almost all those who took part knew they were likely to be killed in the attack on the Qing Representative in the province, their willingness to sacrifice themselves for the cause was inspirational. In part, the reason for their fame was the letters they wrote to their families and loved ones before they went into battle. These were later published and individual contributions like that of Lin Jue Min who wrote to his wife, have become classics of modern Chinese literature. Thematically, this was covered in To My Wife or 百年情书 (2011) which follows Lin Jue Min’s life from 1905 to 1911, showing the balance between love for his wife and his patriotism. With one other film already in the pipeline dealing with the same subject matter, the director Chiu Sung-Kei took the decision to deal with the more general history of the lead up to the uprising. Instead of focusing on the seventy-two and having dramatic sequences showing them first taking command of the Qing compound and then being overwhelmed, it offers a more gentle analysis of the relationship between the Qing representatives, the gangs and the revolutionaries.

Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui)

Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui)

 

The immediate group of revolutionaries is led by Gao Jian-Fu (Liu Kai-Chi) and newspaperman Pang Da-Wei (Tse Kwan-Ho). They are joined by Luo Zhong-Huo (Zhao Bingrui) who has spent time with Sun Yat-Sen in Malaysia. To raise money, Luo makes friends with Jiang Mei-Xi (Irene Wan). She’s under the general protection of gang boss Fang Hong-Zhi (Wang Jianchang) and despite the man’s jealousy, is able to secure money from him. This funding is also in repayment of Luo’s intervention to solve a turf dispute between the gangs. His timely action disrupts a dispute by disabling a gang leader. Fang’s daughter Wei-Ru (Elanne Kong) is also attracted to the newcomer and is a revolutionary in spirit. Trying to keep a lid on this volatile situation is the corrupt Li Zhun (Eric Tsang) who, as the Quing representative, is also dealing with the British in the heroin trade.

 

At its heart, this is a very simple and low-key film. The local revolutionaries grow tired of being told to wait. They know the extra few days added to the schedule are not going to make any difference. They will all probably die in the uprising. Indeed, they acknowledge their role is to be as martyrs. If the people are to be provoked into anger, they have to see the brutal way in which the regime deals with revolutionaries. History shows their sacrifice was not in vain. As a film it’s quietly understated and rather melancholic. Although there’s heroism on show, it’s in the quiet determination to make every life count in the greater struggle. 72 Martyrs or 犀照 makes a thoughtful contribution to the patchwork cinematic review of this period of Chinese history.

 

The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan or 证人 (2008)

The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan or 证人 shows Hong Kong at its best and worst. It’s directed and jointly written by Dante Lam, the other scriptwriting credit going to Ng Wai Ling. At its heart, there’s a simple story of a serious criminal who orders the kidnap of the prosecuting lawyer’s daughter and instructs her to destroy the DNA evidence that would lead to his conviction. Needless to say, this whole plot depends on the lawyer not disclosing the kidnap and being willing to go to jail for obstructing justice — a fate that would separate her from her daughter in any event.

 

Well, always start with a bang, so they say, and this film is no exception. There’s a police raid planned by Sergeant Tong Fei (Nicholas Tse) to arrest Cheung, a major criminal wanted for a number of crimes including robbery and murder. The team divides into three and each group is supposed to co-ordinate their entry into the premises to capture the target. Unfortunately Michael (Derek Kwok Jing-Hung), leading one of the teams is late in breaking through a door and there’s a shooting with Sun (Liu Kai-Chi) narrowly escaping serious injury. Nevertheless, they capture Cheung who’s almost immediately rescued from police custody. Tong and Sun take off in pursuit. There’s a bad crash at a traffic junction, disabling all three vehicles involved. The criminals see another vehicle parked by the kerb. It belongs to a prosecuting lawyer, Ann / Gao Min (Zhang Jingchu) who’s standing beside it arguing with her estranged husband on her mobile phone. With Ann knocked to the ground, her car is driven away. Tong emerges from the wreckage of his vehicle and starts shooting. The fusillade of shots brings this second getaway car crashing to a halt. When the boot is opened, Tong discovers he has accidentally shot a little girl. The criminals found her on the back seat when they took the car and stuffed her inside the boot as they drove away. Cheung is in a coma. He’s rearrested but, after three months, he’s fit to be tried.

Nicholas Tse and Liu Kai-Chi on the trial of the kidnapper

 

We now enter the parallel dimension of coincidence. The prosecuting lawyer was the one standing by the kerb as Cheung took her car. The decision of the Hong Kong prosecuting authorities to allow her to continue in the case is therefore bizzare. Prosecutors must be seen to be dispassionate, yet she has every reason to manufacture evidence to ensure the conviction of the man indirectly responsible for the death of her daughter. At one level this is a wholly unnecessary complication. A plot to kidnap the child of a prosecutor would stand just as well with someone unconnected with the case. Ah, but the scriptwriters have a darker game to play. Our hero, Sergeant Tong, never formally returned to work, spending the three months trying to come to terms with his guilt. One of the ways in which he has passed the time is in befriending the dead girl’s sister, Ling (Wong Suet-yin). Indeed, Tong is at the school watching over her (he’s not the titular beast stalker, you understand) when the kidnap occurs. He’s knocked unconscious and the kidnapper, Hung Jing (Nick Cheung Ka-Fai) escapes. Now Tong has the emotional burden of having killed one daughter and failed to protect the other.

Zhang Jingchu as Ann deciding how loyal she is as a prosecutor

 

Although he has not been the best of squad leaders, Tong has retained the loyalty of those in the team. Even Michael (his cousin) who messed up, forgives him and they all agree to help him find the girl without formally alerting the police about the kidnapping. We therefore have the mother who’s pressured to taint the DNA evidence that will convict the villain. Then there’s the kidnapper. He’s losing his sight and trying to look after his wife Li (Miao Pu) who’s been injured. She’s incapable of speech, bedridden, and wholly dependent on Hung Jing to care for her. Tong and Sun, his main man who was injured in the original chase and now carrying a permanent leg injury, are now on the job. With Michael’s help to tap Ann’s mobile phone, they identify the city block where the girl is probably hidden. It’s now reached an interesting point.

 

This is a story about guilt and how you deal with it. Here’s a mother who would never have lost her first daughter if she had not stopped the car to argue with her husband on the phone. Although the policeman “innocently” pulled the trigger, she’s the “but for” cause of her daughter’s death. She cannot sleep at nights, blaming herself. Here’s a cop who feels so guilty at the mess he presided over, it’s as much as he can do to stop himself from committing suicide. Amazingly, there’s no internal investigation into this catastrophic sequence of events. No-one seems to want to consider whether Tong should be tried for manslaughter or suffer any kind of penalty. He’s just left on his own for three months.

Nick Cheung and Nicholas Tse fight for the gun

 

As to the kidnapper, Hung Jing, he’s also carrying a burden of guilt. In another completely unnecessary backstory, the scriptwriters decided that, if the other main characters are feeling guilty, Hung Jing should not be excused. I find this deeply annoying. In my own culture, this is everegging the pudding. It’s adding a contrivance in the form of a coincidence. Simply having him as a professional killer dragooned into a kidnapping would have been sufficient. Weighting him down with all this backstory is trying too hard to improve on an interconnected plot that’s already overly complex.

Dennis Kwok proving surprising loyal in helping out his cousin

 

As to the ending, the chase and fight goes on too long and, although the existing relationship between the policeman and the kidnapped girl does add a element, enabling him to encourage her and get results, it all drags with an overflow of self-pity from the two adult men involved. In the worst sense, it’s all terribly melodramatic and hammy.

 

So The Beast Stalker or Ching Yan or 证人 is good in part and, if you are inclined to take a benign view of an average Hong Kong thriller, it’s a not unenjoyable way of passing almost two hours.

 

For the record, Nick Cheung won the Best Actor in the Golden Horse Awards 2009 and the 15th Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards and the 28th Hong King Film Awards. Liu Kai-Chi won the Best Supporting Actor in the 28th Hong King Film Awards.

 

Other films by Nicholas Tse:
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
Storm Warriors or Fung wan II (2009)
Treasure Inn or Cai Shen Ke Zhan (2011)

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