Blog Directory CineVerse: Hot and sour Asian sauce

Hot and sour Asian sauce

Tuesday, March 8, 2022

Long before Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs, there was City on Fire, a 1987 Hong Kong flick directed by Ringo Lam and starring Chow Yun-Fat that impressed many fans of action films and expanded the “heroic bloodshed” genre. Our CineVerse club watched and conversed about this film last week and shared several key observations, summarized below (to listen to a recording of our group discussion, click here).

How was City on Fire different from your expectations or memorable in any way?

  • City on Fire belongs to the “heroic bloodshed” genre; per Wikipedia, this genre was “invented by Hong Kong action cinema revolving around stylized action sequences and dramatic themes such as brotherhood, duty, honor, redemption, and violence that has become a popular genre used by different directors worldwide.”
  • Examples include Hong Kong movies like A Better Tomorrow, Long Arm of the Law, and The Brothers, as well as Hollywood pictures such as Lethal Weapon, Face/Off, Bad Boys, and The Replacement Killers.
  • Here, the focus is primarily on action, violence, carnage, stunts, and thrills. Consequently, other elements of a Hong Kong heroic bloodshed work may suffer, resulting in, for instance, a weak plot or poor character development; in City on Fire, the girlfriend character (Hung) seems one-dimensional, as does Inspector Chan.
  • The movie becomes increasingly visually claustrophobic as we near the conclusion, suggesting that the walls are closing in on Ko Chow and the criminals.
  • Interestingly, there are no major martial arts or fight scenes that you would associate with an Asian action movie, and we aren’t shown any nudity, as audiences might expect of an R-rated crime film.
  • Although it is often cited as a significant influence on Reservoir Dogs, City on Fire actually has less in common with that film than many assume. The two works share similar themes, both feature main characters who serve as undercover cop infiltrators who hide out with the criminals after a heist, and each film depicts a Mexican standoff; but Tarantino’s movie has characters, dialogue, and interrelationships that are significantly more interesting and colorful.

Major themes

  • Conflicting loyalties, or “the blood of the covenant is thicker than the water of the womb,” per The Umlaut Reviews. Ko Chow must ultimately decide between staying faithful to his uncle and the law or having Fu’s back. He opts for the latter.
  • The risks and rewards of bonding with a bad guy. Ko Chow develops a kind of Stockholm syndrome after spending extra time with the criminal Fu; after being shot, he confesses to Fu that he is an undercover cop.
  • The dangers of work/life imbalance. Ko Chow is constantly torn between committing to his undercover job and his fiancée. She leaves him for another man because he prioritizes his profession above her.

Similar works

  • Reservoir Dogs
  • Point Break
  • The Departed

Other films directed by Ringo Lam

  • Full Alert
  • Full Contact
  • Wild City
  • Prison on Fire
  • School on Fire

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