Man, Pedicab Driver, out now on DVD from Warner Archive, is a strange flick. The tone shifts from slapstick comedy, to whimsical romance, to a very dark and violent revenge flick. I love it because of, not despite, its schizo nature. This thing really needs to be added to the list of great cult classics.
Now, I haven’t seen a ton of kung fu movies. I’ve seen Enter the Dragon, of course. Mostly, I love getting those Mill Creek value DVDs at K-Mart or Walmart that cost five bucks and have about twenty movies crammed onto five discs. They’re so over the top, and whether they take a serious or comedic tone (and there’s usually a little of both, even if a movie is considered primarily a drama or comedy), they never fail to entertain. There’s absolutely nothing subtle about kung fu movies, which is what makes them so fun to watch with good friends, especially if there is drink involved.
Over my viewings of these cheap, low-quality DVDs with transfers sometimes ripped directly from a VHS copy, I’ve figured out several common characteristics that define kung fu comedies, and to a lesser extent, dramas. You’ve got to have one-dimensional characters who are basically archetypes, plenty of choreographed violence wherein people execute moves that would be impossible in a real world fight (and don’t forget the crotch shots). Most of all, you need a Big Bad, the film equivalent of the video game final boss, who is almost impossible to beat, although his minions are usually dolts who are dispensed with quite easily (why they decide to hire such idiots is always a mystery).
Pedicab Driver contains all these elements, but they play out in different ways: sometimes comedic, sometimes whimsical, sometimes very violent. You might not like this movie if you dig flicks with a consistent tone. The tonal shifts are a bit jarring as the comedy suddenly stops in the third act and the movie becomes a drama and a dark revenge flick. But all this just made the movie a more surreal, jarring experience for me. I really liked it. There really are no rules in screenwriting. Whether there will be an audience for your experiments is another matter. There’s an audience for everything, though it might be quite small. I mean, this isn’t exactly Stan Brakhage level experimentation, but it might be enough to drive away more than a few action movie fans.
Released in 1989, Pedicab Driver was directed by Sammo Hung, from a script by Barry Wong and Kai-Chi Yuen (Hung and Kin Lo have a story credit). Hung is a prolific writer, director and actor. He has over 175 acting credits. The guy keeps busy. If you’re a fan of buddy cop shows, you might recognize Hung from the late-1990’s cop show Martial Law (get it?), in which Hung was paired with Arsenio Hall. I’d never heard of the show before doing research for this piece, and I’m definitely not interested enough to check it out, but, who knows, like I said, there’s an audience for everything.
Pedicab Driver begins with Tung (Sammo Hung) pedaling his pedicab furiously down the street in late 1980’s Hong Kong. His big but wiggles back and forth, filling the frame. This is the first of, thankfully, not too many comedic references to Tung’s weight. For some reason, fat people have always been an easy source of comedy in kung fu movies. Yeuen Woo-Ping’s Drunken Tai Chi is especially guilty of this.
The first action scene takes place in a cafe, between feuding drivers. The whole place breaks out into a massive brawl between about twenty people of two different factions. This thing is crazy and really makes you think the movie is going to be a straight comedy. I mean, two fighters use fluorescent lights as lightsaber swords, complete with Star Wars-esque sound effects. There’s also some Three Stooges-type violence, with the ol’ eye-poke of doom being blocked when Tung puts his hand on his nose so that his opponent’s fingers can’t reach his eyes. The fight choreography is great. What a massive task, trying to organize all those people. I don’t envy someone having to coordinate all that action. Actually, this whole movie has great choreography.
After the fight, we really get into the meat of the story. We’re introduced to an old baker who works for Tung’s aunt, a real dirty old man who enjoys staring at his fellow workers’ breasts (they’re all women), especially the object of his affection, Ha-Ping (Nina Li Chi). He comes on quite strong and Ping is naturally quite disturbed by all this, but polite enough about the whole thing. He is her boss, after all, and responsible for her livelihood.
Ha Ping is an interesting character. She has absolutely no faults. Maybe she was Sammo Hung’s idea of the Idea Woman, but her virtue is impeccable, she’s always humble and willing to help people. Nina Li Chi is a very good actor, though, and brings as much depth to her character as she can, despite the script. Not only can Ping do no wrong but, of course, she’s beautiful. But kung fu movies are about action, movement. People exist in these movies to move the action forward, to get to the next fight scene. Ping is about as developed a character as you’ll find in these kinds of flicks.
After establishing the weird relationship between the baker and Ping, we meet Pretty Boy (Siu Chung Mok), a rather romantic young man. So romantic, in fact, that he literally stays up at night reading romance novels. Out driving his pedicab one day, he loses control of his bicycle as he rolls down a hill. Knowing that he can’t stop his bike, he yells at pedestrians to move out of the way so they don’t get run over. Unfortunately, Hsiao-Tsui (Fennie Yuen) can’t get out of the way in time and he barrels into her, knocking her to the ground. Concerned, Petty Boy gets off his bicycle and checks on her. Remembering an illustration in a romance novel he’d been reading the night before, he sees that Hsiao-Tsui looks exactly like a character in an illustration from the book. Pretty Boy blurts, “My dream girl,” which confuses Hsiao-Tsui, as one might expect. She’s wasn’t hurt very badly from the impact, so Pretty Boy offers to take her where she was headed at no charge. So she gets in the cart behind the bicycle and they’re off.
What Pretty Boy doesn’t know, and neither does the audience at this point, is that Hsiao-Tsui is a prostitute who works for a powerful gangster, the Big Bad of the movie.
The Big Bad is a strange character, indeed. A brutal, unfeeling man, a pimp and gangster, but everything about his appearance is comical. He has gold teeth and and an overbite. He actually reminded me of Mickey Rooney’s character in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, though toned down just a bit. But where Rooney was a white guy playing a gross stereotype, I guess I felt a little more comfortable laughing at all this because the Big Bad was played by a Chinese man in a movie written and directed by Chinese people. So, okay, whatever, I guess we’re supposed to laugh at they guy’s appearance, even if he does some incredibly brutal shit. Like, when we first meet him he’s confronting one of his prostitutes, who’s literally about to give birth as her boyfriend looks on. In the first real scene that indicates the brutality that’s to come, the Big Bad punches the pregnant woman and tells his thugs to kill the boyfriend. The boyfriend dies just as the woman is giving birth. I guess to really drive the point home that this is a very evil dude, Big Bad orders that if the baby is a boy, they should kill it and if it’s a girl, they should send it to the brothel. I don’t even want to think about what these creeps plan on doing with a newborn in a brothel, but, yeah, holy shit, what a way to introduce Big Bad. Yeah, okay, we get it, he’s evil. Damn.
After all this, Big Big runs into Ping and the baker on the street and quickly offers Ping a job working for him. Of course she refuses. Shit’s really about to go down when Tung happens to roll by in his pedicab. Ping gets in and he rolls off, but Big Bad and a few of his thugs get into a car and chase him. A rather comical high speed chase follows. Tung is able to shake them, but there’s a price: Tung loses control of his vehicle and it goes through the window of a gambling hall. The man who owns the joint is obviously pissed about the property damage, and challenges Tung to a fight. We get that fight, and it’s mostly played straight, but with some physical comedy on Tung’s part.
Now Pretty Boy and Hsiao-Tsui are falling in love. And so are Tung and Ping. There’s a montage that cuts between Tung and Ping and Pretty Boy and Hsiao-Tsui in which the couples just seem to start falling in love. There’s a pretty big tonal shift here, too. Now the movie turns into Total Whimsey. The tonal shifts are weird, disconcerting, but they really make what happens at the end seem even more brutal. I mean, this falling in love montage even includes cutesy animation. It’s sugary sweet. It’s really goofy. It’s pretty cute.
Did I mention I love this movie? I really do. I absolutely love the inconsistent tone. Because it clearly was deliberate. Sammo Hung wanted three very distinct moods at different points in his film, and that’s what he got. Of course, I love the brazenly bizarre nature of the movie, but I also believe that a film should be judged by, as best we can tell, what the filmmakers were trying to accomplish, not what critics or the audience were expecting the film to accomplish. And here we are, with a film that clearly succeeded, with a few minor bumps, on its own terms. The fact that it’s weird and knocks around our senses a bit is a cool bonus. Movies make their own reality. There are no limits.
But now to the third act, that weird part where the movie suddenly turns dark and becomes an action-drama. There’s a dinner with Tung and some of his pedicab driver friends. Tung is there with Ping and Pretty Boy is there with Hsiao-Tsui. Turns out the night before their friend Blue Beard was visiting a brothel and had sex with Hsiao-Tsui. After a bit of back and forth on why Blue Beard is so uncomfortable during the meal, he finally blurts out that Hsiao-Tsui is a prostitute. Of course the men get morally indignant and Pretty Boy calls Hsio-Tsui all sorts of names before she storms off in shame. Now, of course, Ping has to lecture the men because she’s the moral compass of the film. She points out that, had her own circumstances been different, she might have ended up where Hsiao-Tsui is. And besides, duh, there wouldn’t be any prostitutes if men didn’t keep, you know, paying to have sex with them. Jackasses. Well, she doesn’t call them that. She’s too nice. But they all realize they’ve been acting like fools. Pretty Boy goes to the brothel to apologize and ask for her to come back to him, but by then the damage is done. She’s been shamed and humiliated and just wants to be left alone.
What follows is perhaps the only tonal misstep in the movie. Pretty Boy gets shitfaced drunk and Tung and his buddies drag him to the brothel. They convince Hsiao-Tsui that he died and his last wish was to be next to her one last time. They pretty much scream at her until she admits that, were he alive, she would marry him. Sammo Hung and his writing collaborators were definitely trying to be funny here, but the scene plays out really creepy and emotionally manipulative and psychologically abusive. Chauvinistic, too. Anyway, in the world of Pedicab Driver, this kind of tactic works and Hsiao-Tsui agrees to marry Pretty Boy.
All well and good but it turns out that the brothel where Hsiao-Tsui worked was property of Big Bad and he’s not very happy at the prospect of losing one of his women. So he sends some thugs to kill Hsiao-Tsui and Pretty Boy. On their wedding night. It probably goes without saying, but everyone in this movie knows at least a little kung fu, so Pretty Boy is able to fight back a little, but he’s no real match for the thugs and Pretty Boy and Hsiao-Tsui are viciously killed with butcher knives. It’s some pretty bloody stuff, too. It was so brutal compared to the other fights that my jaw dropped a little. There’s really no going back to a comedic tone after that.
The climax of the movie involves Tung and a friend taking out all the thugs and eventually Big Bad. I’m sure I’m not giving anything away here. That’s really just how these things go. OK, so there is an attempt at a joke at the very end. The baker volunteers to take the rap for Tung and say that he killed everyone. Tung refuses, of course, and the baker laments that he never gets to be the hero. Everyone laughs and the image freezes. It’s like they forgot there was a pile of destruction and blood and bodies everywhere and figured it was an appropriate time for a little laugh. Weird, man. Weird.
This is a really good flick. Very nice fight choreography. Good acting. The tonal shifts were a little strange, but I never saw that as a flaw because the shifts were clearly intentional. Besides, it’s nice to be reminded every once in awhile that there really are no rules in storytelling. Screenwriters, directors, actors, take note. Follow your vision.