Young and Dangerous
Hong Kong 1996
Directed by Andrew Lau.

This is the one that started it all. Ekin Cheng lets down his hair and flics his bic in the urban underworld. Just entertainment or a Triad recruitment film? Lean a little closer and I'll tell you.

Some movies somehow transcend the film onto which they were printed, to reach into our subconscious and touch us or inspire us. Like Kubrick's 2001, which fueled in many young men the desire to explore space, to become astronauts. Or Gone with the Wind, which ran during the entire time London was under the blitz, and somehow gave comfort to its embattled citizenry. Or even Top Gun inspiring kids to become fighter pilots. Young and Dangerous is one of these films. I knew it instantly -- on leaving the theater, my first impulse was to come up to someone, chat with them for a while, then beat the hell out of them using plastic lawn furniture. Why? Because it's fun! Because I'm a Hung Hing boy!

This isn't the only movie I've seen that got under my skin this way, of course. There are many others. I remember specifically watching a midnight showing of AKIRA, then coming out into the rain washed streets of the city and wondering if I could use my telekenetic abilities to cause mass destruction. I envisioned cars exploding, buildings on fire, and everything dissolving in a weird, quiet, slo-mo burn. If there is any difference, I suppose, my Young and Dangerous fantasies were at least within the realm of possibility.

But just because the movie inspired me doesn't mean I did anything about it. I mean, thousands of people rush to see movies like Schindler's List, get all humanitarian and sentimental, then proceed to cut off another person trying to park in the same spot at the supermarket as if its the most important thing in the world. Likewise I wanted to put a pipe to the side of someone's head but didn't. The great thing about movies is that the very best ones can transport you into another world, another way of thinking, another lifestyle, and for a while, you lose yourself in that new persona. And the great thing about being a human being is that for the most part we can discern the difference between reality and entertainment. With the possible exception of the nightly news and pro wrestling.

Young and Dangerous is the first film in a series. A very long series. One which has, in just a few short years, inspired sequels, spin-offs, parodies, and rip-offs. Like the comic books it is based on, the film emphasizes stlye over substance, though it is certainly no slouch when it comes to the script department, building a complicated tale featuring dozens of characters which just becomes more and more involved as the series progresses. The Young and Dangerous series is the story of a group of boys as they live, love, grow up and die as triad members. These boys are heroes in the traditional sense of the word -- especially their leader, Ho Nam (Ekin Cheng), who demonstrates at every turn that he upholds the tradition of Jiang Hu, the honorable outlaw, like those whose exploits are celebrated in the classic Chinese novel The Water Margin. Lest there be any doubt, older Triad bosses will occasionally turn to one another and make asides to one another about Ho Nam, saying "He is so righteous."

Like all comic book heroes, they have their origin myth. Our story begins in 1985, when the boys have ditched their classes and are playing soccer on the playground. Just then Ugly Kwan (Francis Ng) comes by and gives them all a good beat down. Ho Nam stands up to him and gets an extra throttling, that is until Uncle Bee (Ng Chi Hung) comes by and breaks it up. "I will follow you," Ho Nam says, and the boys sign up. Not particularly spectacular as far as origin myths go, but there you have it. And the arch-villain Kwan has also been introduced. Now, as far as arch-villains go, he probably wouldn't make the cut to get into an episode of Batman: The Animated Series. Not unless his face was disfigured when he was pushed into a vat of acid or something. But Kwan is a pretty nasty character nonetheless, and just keeps getting nastier as the story progresses.

Ten years later, the boys are still working for Uncle Bee. They are looking good. Ho Nam rounds up the boys, cool as can be, while his own personal theme song rocks in the background. They have a full night ahead of them -- first its a brutal murder, then off to the karaoke bar. Remember now, they're good guys. You shouldn't only define murderers as bad, should you? And anyway, the guy really deserved it, so that's OK. Unfortunately, the now deceased was a friend of Kwan's, who gets so worked up he has to relieve some stress by beating on his girlfriend, then getting a quick hummer -- while still in the mortuary. Is he icky enough for you yet? Thought so. Turns out Kwan works in the porn industry, where the Triads make a lot of cash, and he's looking to be the number one man in the Hung Society. He carefully orchestrates a takeover, using Uncle Bee and Ho Nam as scapegoats, to become the number one man in the organization. It's only a matter of time before Ho Nam figures out Kwan's plan and tries to put an end to his wicked ways, and restore the old leader of the Hung Hing (played by the always suave Simon Yam) to his rightful position.

Kwan discredits Ho Nam's character by tricking him into breaking one of the Triad Oaths (number nine and/or thirty-four), and videotapes him doing it, too. It leads to a break in the gang, with Ho Nam's buddy Chicken (Jordan Chan) leaving in disgust, and heading for Taiwan. But of course he'll be back -- Chicken is, along with Ho Nam, the other star of the series. With short died hair, a cocky attidude, and a healthy enjoyment of sex, Chicken is too much of a loose cannon to climb the Triad ranks as quickly as Ho Nam, but he gives a great deal of color and life to the proceedings. The remaining members of their gang are Pou-pan (Jerry Lamb), a chubby guy with wire rimmed glasses, who occasionally acts completely retarded; Chou-pau, a long haired sexy type, and Ah Yee (Michael Tse), who distinguishes himself so well that I couldn't even remember his name until I looked it up.

Some people think that Young and Dangerous glamourizes joining the Triads, and that it is a very bad influence on the youth of today. I can't say I agree, and if I ever see those people I might have to get righteous on them with some cheap plastic chairs. And besides, Triad life isn't all roses. Sure, you get fast cars, lots of sex, and good friends to go to Karaoke bars with, but half the people you know end up dead, too, and you spend a lot of your time trying to get revenge for some reason or another. So I have to ask, is it all that glamorous? At one point, Ho Nam gets beat up so bad he needs his girlfriend to help him pee. They idle away the hours contemplating how a good tattoo can help people identify your body if your face is blown off. It's this sort of thing that helps keep a healthy perspective on the whole business.

Many people like to make lists of movies, top 10 best, most influential, worst, top 10 movies beginning with the letter 'R', some people even go so far as to categorize movies into various cultural or historical topics like 'gambling' or 'Triads' and talk about them that way. But if someone were to make a top 10 list of the most important Hong Kong films of the last 25 years, I think Young and Dangerous would make that list. There would also have to be A Better Tomorrow, a handful of Tsui Hark films, something by Jackie Chan. But this movie deserves to be on that list as well. When it came out, it was a breath of fresh air to the industry. Something new, something exciting, something actually well put together. The direction, the editing, the music, the acting, the script, all of these things were competently handled. This is the film that, for better or worse, made Ekin Cheng a star. Though here he is credited as Cheng Yee Kin -- he must have been between English names at the time. Ekin is suprisingly very good in this role. Some actors just get better and better as time goes on. Ekin is not one of those actors. Rather, he seems to get more stiff, and more dull as time goes on. Here, though, he is fresh, doing some acting, and even exercising his facial muscles to pull up a handful of expressions and emotions. Jordon Chan's star also started rising at this time, though it took a few more movies as 'Chicken' before he really took off. And unlike Ekin, he's improved since this early role.

Audiences made Young and Dangerous a hit, and clamored for more. Boy, did they get more. Want to know what happens to the Hung Hing boys next? Young and Dangerous 2 picks up right where this one left off. Want to know more about what the boys were like back in 1985, when they first joined the Triad? Try Young and Dangerous -- The Prequel. Can't get enough of that Ugly Kwan? Look no further than Once Upon a Time in Triad Society. This is only the beginning.

Young and Dangerous singlehandedly reinvented the Triad genre. Before, in the hands of John Woo and his imitators, the honorable Triad members were the old Triad members, and such old-fashioned ideas as honor among thieves and the culture of jiang hu were on their way out. The young Triad boys had no care for such foolishness, and wanted nothing more than money and power. The young triad members were like carrion picking at the decaying flesh of Hong Kong, a dying city. Usually things were brought to a head in a rain of bullets and lots of explosions as the old guard went out in style. Young and Dangerous reverses this trend. It says instead, hey -- the kids are alright. Traditions can be maintained. Hong Kong will not be destroyed by its own sin like some kind of modern day Sodom.

And should the Triad boys need a role model, well, how about Jesus? A priest (Spencer Lam) tries converting Chicken early on, while they are stuck in an elevator together, and pretty soon he is hanging out with the gang. The way he describes it, Jesus was a gang leader, he and his followers were righteous, striking at other gang leaders -- er, false prophets, and eventually Jesus even goes so far as to die for his beliefs. Like Ho Nam says, "Being a Triad, we are all prepared to go to jail...or to hell." A sentiment that, if the last word is modified to 'heaven,' Jesus would no doubt have agreed with.

Rating: Recommended (Recommended)

Posted by Peter Nepstad on May 04, 2004.

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