A Case For Greatness: FULL CONTACT

Looking back at Ringo Lam's masterpiece.

Classics never die, but they seldom get replaced. Cinema is populated with enduring, venerated works of art that deservedly adorn list after list, but those lists are rarely updated, and less often expanded to include new, equally worthy entries. Organizations that give out annual awards are constrained not only by the limitations of formatting, but perspective - they can’t anticipate which film will survive the buzz of its initial acclaim or success and become part of the cultural firmament. And then there are just certain films or even genres that too infrequently receive the critical attention they deserve, are too obscure to break through to bigger audiences, or just aren’t taken seriously enough to merit consideration alongside the ones we “all” already know we love or respect. A Case For Greatness, this series, tries to argue for, and to champion, forgotten or underappreciated films in a variety of genres that may be worthy of being called “classics.”

The recent passing of the late, great Ringo Lam pushed Full Contact back into my thoughts, but like the other titles in this series, it’s not only a worthy candidate for canonization but one that holds considerable personal value in my cinematic education. Like any self-respecting cinephile who frothed at the mouth over Reservoir Dogs upon its 1992 home video arrival, I spent the next few years attempting to decode and catalogue its influences and inspirations. At that time, and even for an exceptionally curious Charlotte, North Carolina teenager, Hong Kong cinema had been largely a curio, so it wasn’t until I discovered Wu-Tang Clan, went off to college to study film, and eventually, went to New York’s legendary 43rd Chamber video store that my true appreciation for its merits began to develop.

As much of an impact as a 16mm print of John Woo’s The Killer had on my moviegoing appetites during freshman year, 43rd Chamber deepened and refined that sense of exhilaration: it was a store that almost exclusively sold bootleg VHS tapes of Asian action movies, from Shaw Brothers classics to the latest odysseys from Woo, Tsui Hark and their contemporaries. I not only sought out titles I’d heard in hip-hop lyrics (The Fatal Flying Guillotine, etc.), but gave myself over to the store’s proprietor, who sent me home - or more accurately, back to school - with suitcases full of films I didn’t know anything about except I had to watch them as soon as possible. Lam’s Full Contact was one of my favorites - and finally revisiting it in a digital format, it remains a meat-and-potatoes counterpart to Woo’s slick, operatic thrillers, and a brilliant primer for a certain era of Hong Kong cinema, from its superstars to stylistic foundations.

The film stars Chow Yun-Fat as Ko Fei (or “Godfrey”), a thief and hustler who helps his friend Sam (Anthony Wong) escape the clutches of a loan shark only to get double crossed during the heist meant to earn them enough money to pay off Sam’s debts. Sam develops a successful career as a criminal working with his flamboyant cousin Judge (Simon Yam) and his volatile team of thugs, eventually taking up with Ko Fei’s girlfriend Mona (Ann Bridgewater). But after nursing his wounds, Ko Fei returns for revenge, enlisting Sam to help steal a shipment of guns that belong to Judge. In classic form, Ko Fei and Judge soon find themselves locked in a climactic, winner-take-all confrontation with Sam in the middle, forced to decide where his true loyalties lie.

Although the film honestly earns its place at #89 on Time Out’s 2014 list of the top action films, Full Contact has a personality of its own, and with the exception of a few truly amazing flourishes, largely eschews the technique-heavy style that Woo had by 1992 made Hong Kong boilerplate. Lam creates much of his mood in each frame and with camera placement rather than with its movement or film speed, creating a more realistic, emotionally engaging story for the audience, even when the characters and their melodrama escalates to potentially ridiculous levels. That said, the filmmaker seems heavily visually influenced by Don Simpson and Jerry Bruckheimer’s ‘80s output - a lot of motorcycles driving through manhole steam, and an opening credit sequence that recalls Flashdance even if it’s set to Extreme’s “Get The Funk Out” - and he seems more than happy to use slightly unrealistic lighting or an improbable juxtaposition in order to amplify the intensity of a sequence.

But it’s the characters rather than the action or overall style that make Full Contact intriguing. Ko fei, for example, is tough and resilient, but he’s not the sort of unflappable bad ass that Chow played in Woo’s iconic films The Killer and Hard Boiled; his fighting style is more that of a brawler than a martial artist, and even if he can easily handle multiple attackers (like he does in an early scene rescuing Sam), Ko Fei’s parries feel like believable reactions and improvisations. Neither is he a moneyed criminal: Ko Fei participates in the initial heist in order to pay Sam’s loan shark, but primarily to repay Sam for funding his mother’s burial. His later efforts to exact vengeance are driven partially by his personal vendetta, but mostly to pay for medical assistance for an innocent young woman who is badly burned in the incident where Sam was instructed to kill Ko Fei. He’s scrappy and resourceful, but not infallible, with a deep understanding of human nature, and a relaxed confidence that makes him a natural leader.

Sam, like Ko Fei, begins the movie as a street urchin, a hustler whose heart is in decidedly the wrong place to prevail in a life of crime. Desperately in debt, Sam brokers the deal with Judge that he doesn’t realize was meant to end not just in Ko Fei’s death, but his own; because Judge is his cousin, he is luckily spared, but his own life comes at an enormous cost when he’s forced to be the one to kill his partner and friend. His cowardice is rewarded with the career that neither he nor Ko Fei ever had, but when Ko Fei unexpectedly returns, Sam yields to his demands for help, and ultimately, his own guilt. In Full Contact, there is no honor among thieves as there might typically be in one of Woo’s films, but there is honor among friends and family, and the ensuing betrayals and recriminations carry real emotional weight.

What’s interesting about Mona, the woman who comes between Ko Fei and Sam, is that she is as smart and empowered as they are, and she doesn’t have time for either character’s bullshit. She truly loves Ko Fei, and the development of a relationship with Sam seems to come out of their mutual grief over his death (it mostly transpires in montage). But when Ko Fei shows up, she’s both thrilled and disappointed by his return; he doesn’t reveal Sam’s betrayal to her, but he also doesn’t really try to win her back. He’s instead turned his efforts to helping the young burn victim he rescued. But Mona points out a powerful, uncomfortable truth to Ko Fei when he finally makes himself known: even if Sam betrayed him, Ko Fei betrayed her when he did not return. And she makes the decision to leave both of them to one another, perhaps knowing that the bond they share will prove self-destructive - to each other, and anyone else in that ever-tightening circle.

Finally there’s Judge, the film’s formidable villain, whose charisma is showier but just as magnetic as Ko Fei’s, making for a consistently compelling dynamic as the two men lock into an escalating, often flirtatious struggle. The subtitles may not do adequate justice to the hints and entendres that pepper his speech, but Judge’s homosexuality is both foregrounded in his appearance and some conventional signifiers, and also downplayed as any obstacle to his absolute ruthlessness. (He brandishes a brightly colored scarf that conceals a variety of weapons, such as the knife he uses in the opening scene to stab a young woman to death.)

I can’t speak to whether Simon Yam’s performance is truly iconoclastic, but it feels surprisingly progressive for the time period in which the film is set, and it adds surface-level clarity to the frequent subtext of action movies where partners, adversaries, cops and criminals fall into an often more than vaguely homoerotic relationship with one another. Judge’s openness is quite honestly refreshing - and more than that, he and Ko Fei have real chemistry! His growing fascination with Ko Fei isn’t homicidal because he’s gay, but the fact that he’s gay complicates and transforms the dynamic of what becomes an inevitable showdown.

While these character dynamics are unfolding, Lam departs from what is primarily a restrained visual approach to create a handful of indelible images, in some cases using traditional film language - in one scene, Sam descends a hallway lit in white towards Ko Fei, whose motorcycle lights cast a hellish red glow around him - and in others gimmicky but thrilling techniques. (There’s a gunfight in a club where the camera follows the bullets from Ko Fei and Judge’s guns from their chambers to the body part of their targets.) But even if it largely lacks - or maybe more accurately, chooses not to use - the spectacular choreography or cinematic style of so many other films from that era, Full Contact ultimately distinguishes itself as a delightfully gritty, emotionally resonant thriller that deserves reappraisal even in a decade full of bona fide classics.