Wednesday, May 20, 2009

What Price Honesty (1980) review


Pai Piao (He Zhong Heng), Sun Chien (Luo Zhang), Li Hsiu-Hsien (Ying Hao), Lo Lieh (Sun Long), Chiang Han (Chief Liu), Chan Shen (Fifth Master), Chiang Nan (Magistrate, Lord Ge Wei Wu), Yang Chi Ching (Imperial Envoy, Lord Huang), Li Li-Li (Ying Hao's wife), Lin Hsiu-Chun (Shu Lian)

Directed by Yuan Hao Chuan; Screenplay by I Kuang & Yuan Hao Chuan; Art Director: Johnson Tsao; Choreography by Yuan Hsiang-Jen (Yuen Chueng Yan)

"In this corrupt society, justice can't be done with mere principles."

"What's the price of honesty?...I advised you before and you didn't listen to me."

Upon graduation from the police academy, three friends are immediately assigned to Fu Yuan town, a city rife with criminality and corruption. Disgusted with the immorality inherent in the police force, the three friends vow to stand up for justice and dispel the unethical persecution of the innocent townsfolk by the shady officials. By doing so, the three friends put their lives and the lives of their loved ones in mortal danger.

Director Yuan Hao Chuan delivers a masterfully shot, yet extremely violent and brutal movie that is one of the best of the world reknowned Shaw Studio. It's a swordplay drama that among the studios many cinematic endeavors, it's one of the Shaws most downbeat and depressing movies, and that's saying a lot. With so many other 'gloom and doom' productions like FLYING GUILLOTINE 2 (1978), KILLER CONSTABLE (1980) and USURPERS OF EMPEROR'S POWER (1983), one would think that happy ending were against company policy at Shaw Studio. Yuan only directed two Shaw Brothers movies. The other one was the mundane and rather foolish, THE FIGHTING FOOL (1979). Both films are the polar opposite of one another and that film looks nothing like the work of the man who directed WHAT PRICE HONESTY.

In an interview, director Yuan stated that his maiden effort, THE FIGHTING FOOL (1979) was done strictly as a commercial venture and not what he really wanted to do. Furthermore, WHAT PRICE HONESTY (1980) was a film he was most interested in handling. In his own words, "Although it is a costume drama, it is designed to reflect the gloomy aspect of the bureaucracy, the social injustices and human frailties which are also evident in present day society." Yuan Hao Chuan was previously a television director of some repute.

THE FIGHTING FOOL (originally known as GETTING THE LION'S SHARE) was his first of two films for Shaw Studio. Despite taking several months to write the script, Yuan's first movie is a mess much of the time with only an occasional bright spot. However, he makes up for that films shortcomings with an expert hand at weaving a wonderfully grim storyline and characters you feel for.

Jason Pai Piao is the main star and he delivers a dynamite performance displaying a lot of determination and tragedy that, by the last half of the film, turns to bitter hatred and bloody revenge. Pai played a slightly similar role in Mo Tun Fei's A DEADLY SECRET (1980), a film that sees him viciously tortured as he is here in this picture.

In one of the most harrowing scenes in WHAT PRICE HONESTY has Zhong Heng wrongfully arrested and humiliated. He is then placed inside a jail cell holding all the criminals and murderers he had taken into custody. One of them is Sun Long (Lo Lieh). Having been blinded in one eye during an earlier scuffle, Sun and the others beat Zhong mercilessly even urinating on his face and forcing him to eat a cockroach among other things.

One thing I've noticed about the depiction of constabularies in Shaw Brothers movies is that they are often far more vile and cruel than the criminal element. From the stance taken by the law in this film, the life of a civilian surely was filled with terror and the threat of violence and certain death should the rules be questioned. The law seen in WHAT PRICE HONESTY (1980) is one of the most sadistic representations ever put to film. The police commit all manner of savagery. Not only taking bribes, collecting "protection" money and releasing criminals once they buy their freedom, they also partake in acts of butchery and murder.

Another movie with the 'Bad Cop' angle is Chang Cheh's FIVE VENOMS (1978). In that film, money talks just as it does here and no one is to be trusted. Those of an honorable and trusting nature end up framed, tortured and murdered in gruesomely sadistic fashion. The saying "Money is the root of all evil" is the central motif of WHAT PRICE HONESTY. Other Shaw movies featuring crooked constables (or their employers) of one sort or other are the classics, KILLER CONSTABLE (1980) and SECRET SERVICE OF THE IMPERIAL COURT (1984).

The screenplay by both I Kuang and the director perfectly conveys the hopelessness of fighting against corruption especially when immorality has penetrated not just the judicial magistracy, but higher up the chain of the supreme court officials. Even though they are outnumbered, those possessing dignity and rectitude will die with their values intact. A similar scenario was enacted in Kuei Chi Hung's masterfully directed and photographed, KILLER CONSTABLE (1980). That film not only made the Qing the main characters, but even went so far as to make a Manchu the "hero". The atmosphere is just as grim and doom laden as WHAT PRICE HONESTY.

Yuan's sadistic view of law and order contains many a memorable sequence. Many of these scenes feature some of the most cruel and callous individuals you are ever likely to see populating a movie. One of the most startling scenes involves a rather long bit where a character attempts to rape a young girl. Stripping her clothes completely away, the girl fights back. The camera frequently keeps her fully naked frame where the viewer can see it and it's right disturbing especially when the attacker knocks her unconscious and tries to have his way with her.

Waking quickly, the rapist then stabs her with a spear as help finally arrives. One makes this scene so unusual is the length of time the naked actress is shown onscreen with nothing to obscure her genitalia. I am curious if this print was a complete one considering the HK cuts generally were censored to a slight degree as opposed to prints for other Asian territories which were shorn of much of their nudity and violence. The prints for outside territories contained the stronger moments.

There's another scene that is outrageously brutal. To keep from revealing too much, it involves a woman who is targeted by the villainous constables. They go to her home and proceed to hang the innocent woman. As the villagers attempt to get inside, Chief Liu arrives and simply stands there waiting for the woman to slowly choke to death. With seemingly everyone out of the way who could expose their criminal activities, the violence continues temporarily unabated with the deathly frightened villagers in the middle.

That perennial bad guy, Chan Shen plays the seedy Fifth Master and there's nothing at all honorable about his character. Chiang Han plays the even nastier Chief Liu. He has a grudge against the three honorable and green graduates from the academy. Once the officials have Sun Long cornered at the ironically named 'Temple of Chivalry', Chief Liu sends the three men inside the temple to arrest Sun and free a police hostage being held within the refuge. Zhong Heng manages to injure Sun in the skirmish, but Ying Hao is brutally killed.

Once Sun Long is arrested, the captive constable emerges engaged in conversation with some of his associates, insensitive and brazenly ignoring the fact that one of the three men that stand for justice and refused to accept bribes lies dead inside the 'Temple of Chivalry'. What makes this scene even more impactful is that Ying Hao was relishing his birthday prior to being called away to duty.

The battle in the restaurant between Pai Piao and the criminal constables is brutally well done and executed to perfection. Betrayed by his close friend, Luo Zhang, Zhong Heng is set up by the corrupt police force for a pending heist of the police treasury. He is surrounded by his colleagues and engages them all in a violent confrontation. After his capture, it is learned that Luo Zhong, under duress, only agreed to help trap his friend because his family had been held hostage by Chief Liu's men.

The battle in the city streets towards the end is also an exciting sequence filled with enough adrenaline pumping heroics, spurting blood and severed limbs to make Chang Cheh proud. Pai Piao really cuts loose with his performance in this sequence as well as the scene immediately thereafter at the Temple of Chivalry where the only two good men have a last stand till the Imperial Envoy arrives to acquit them of their frame up. As incredibly depressing as the ending is, it nonetheless contains the macho bravado "Brothers till we die" attitude that permeates the best works of Chang Cheh. Fans of Cheh's films will find a lot of interest here in Yuan Hao Chuan's wonderful movie.

WHAT PRICE HONESTY (1980) is a highly recommended, lesser known Shaw Brothers production that doesn't deserve to remain unknown. It has a compelling and thought provoking storyline. The extreme violence often takes center stage, but the plight of the characters onscreen, whether minor or major, maintains the viewers interest right to the end. If you are a fan of martial arts films, especially those with a great story and characterization, than this is definitely one for your collection.

This review is representative of the IVL region 3 DVD from Hong Kong.
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