Monday, November 19, 2012
Killers On Wheels (1976) review
KILLERS ON WHEELS 1976 aka SPEED GANG
Ling Yun (Kuo Ching-chung), Terry Liu (Chen Mei-chuan), Chiang San (Carrie [Jia Li]), Li Sung-ling (Johnny), Lin Wen-wei (Michael), Danny Li Hsiu-hisen (Huang Szu-wei), Mi Lan (girl gang member)
Directed by Kuei Chi Hung
The Short Version: Having previously dabbled in Hong Kong's version of the 'Rebellious Youth' genre in 1973 with THE DELINQUENT (co-directed with Chang Cheh), Kuei Chi Hung -- sort of a poor man's Werner Herzog and Umberto Lenzi all rolled into one -- adds another similar picture to his sleaze filled repertoire. This time, tropes of the Biker genre are present, but Szu Tu On's script places more emphasis on a Chinese version of STRAW DOGS (1971) with a dash of LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972). There's also some political themes of social class warfare present in this savage, sexist, stunt-laced story of four civilized vacationers terrorized by a gang of young cretinous bikers.
Kuo Ching and his wife, Chen Mei join her sister Carrie at her boyfriend's father's island villa. Accessed only by ferry, this isolated beach house is cut off from Hong Kong and only patroled by police every few days. While enjoying their weekend, the quartet are beset upon by a gang of young motorcyclists. The increasing harassment escalates into a cornucopia of extreme violence. Without any means of escape, the vacationers must fight for survival against the murderous gang.
In America, the Biker genre had already fizzled out in popularity a few years earlier. Revenge films, and movies about civilized people resorting to savagery to survive had not. With STRAW DOGS (1971) being the most obvious antecedent, Szu Tu An's (Szeto An) script also finds room to include references to Wes Craven's LAST HOUSE ON THE LEFT (1972) wedged into biker flick machinations by way of a political subtext represented by Hong Kong's then growing youth violence.
These underlying themes enter into the picture on a few occasions, but the rampant exploitation bullies them out of the way every time. As per so many of Shaw's crime (and even their horror) pictures of the time period, the last scene tries to pass off these movies as some sort of morality tale. For KILLERS, the final shot attempts to validate the violence of the preceding 95 minutes with a closing mantra drawing comparisons between manslaughter and outright murder. It's laughable that in some of these movies, the filmmakers try to parlay blatant exploitation as serious messages on out of control societal issues.
The exploitationally didactic Kuei Chi Hung was said to be quite the tyrannical director and that potentiality is in abundance in KILLERS ON WHEELS (1976); as it is in most of his works. Kuei was an underrated, sometimes brilliant filmmaker who never fully achieved the scope of his talents. His preoccupation with morbidity often hindered his output from being anything more than escapist trash -- but well made trash in many cases.
KILLERS ON WHEELS shows signs of an assured hand here and there, but sex, violence and glaring product placement for Yamaha takes center stage. It slips a few times with some intrusive "lighter" moments that serve little purpose other than to show how closely Hong Kong can clone the American Biker flick. These are also the segments where the politics rears its ugly head.
The angry bikers serve as inadvertent vassals for anarchists who believe they're entitled to the success, money, and easy living of those who have worked for it; and if you won't give it to them, they will take it from you. This is a timely subject and one that reverberates in America's currently crumbling society.
Youth violence was on the rise in HK of the 1970s (much like it was everywhere else in the world spurned on by radical changes in America's societal climate since the 1960s). Szu Tu An's script attempts to touch on this topic even if it amounts to the subject basically being glossed over.
The two brothers that head up this Yamaha ridin' gang of ruffians come from a wealthy family (some of the other members do as well). There's a brief scene during the opening where their parents converse about their sons. The father shows concern while the mother simply says, "Let them have fun." The father then questions his dislike of the thugs they hang around with while the mother states they can't be thugs since they come from families of influence. Meanwhile, the help staff have the same conversation noting that these kids, as privileged as they are, show no interest in studies.
That's pretty much the extent of this issues exploration. We're left to assume that the reason for this rebellion is that the parents show little interest in their kids, leaving them to their own devices; naturally presuming their social status assures their children's civility. This is an issue that goes much deeper with variant assessments as to its cause, but Kuei's movie is more interested in savagery and salaciousness -- this is an exploitation movie first, of course.
The true to life societal problem of well-to-do citizens having children that turn to petty crimes and murder was also the subject of several Italian crime thrillers during the 70s. These include crude, despicable trash like VIOLENCE FOR KICKS (1975), provocative trash such as YOUNG, VIOLENT & DANGEROUS (1976) and nauseating trash like DAYS OF VIOLENCE (1977).
Kuei's movie echoes elements of those, but feels more comfortable selling Biker movie wares and emulating Peckinpah's STRAW DOGS (1971). This gang of roughnecks might be noticeably young, but they have the same interests of their hellraising American counterparts -- partying, drinking, racing against each other to see who will bed down certain women (nearly killing one another in the process), mass orgies and publicly abrasive behavior.
Once the two couples begin their weekend getaway, the gang turns their sights on them. The harassment begins as increasingly vicious bully tactics such as groping the women, spray-painting graffiti all over their van, following alongside their vehicle squirting ketchup at them and tossing these enormous terrestrial leeches into the back of it among other aggressive actions. Notifying the authorities is brought up, but the hope that the goons will leave them alone proves fruitless.
It escalates to the point where the young males of the gang begin vandalizing the beach house. Finally, one of the group has had enough and fights back. It's here where the gangs "playfulness" takes a rougher turn. After luring the men away, the women are terrorized, raped and worse. The violence progresses leaving another dead. Outnumbered, the most conservative man of the group must now use his smarts to defeat the remaining attackers who lay siege to the isolated home. It's in this last 30 minutes where the film morphs full on into HK's version of STRAW DOGS.
Ling Yun, having been a major leading actor in Hong Kong since the late 60s, essays the Dustin Hoffman role. Ling does fine with the part, although the script as shot focuses more attention on the gang and their shenanigans and never totally embraces the concept of Peckinpah's controversial thriller till the last thirty minutes. The only occasions we spend any significant time with the two couples is when they're being oppressed, or in the process of being attacked. This shift of focus primarily to the antagonists proves fatal to the film reaching for loftier ambitions, relegating it to the Kingly virtues of trash status. But taking into account Kuei's fascination with sadism, this was possibly the intention all along.
Danny Lee was the go-to actor in HK cinema for bizarre, out of the ordinary Asian motion pictures. While Chang Cheh is largely responsible for his early success (featuring him in roles in some of his bloody wuxia movies), Lee (or Li Hsiu Hsien and Lee Sau-yin) was heavily marketed for his lead role in award winning director Chang Tseng Chai's failed drama, RIVER OF FURY from 1973.
Listed as a 'Guest Star' on promotional materials, he's not in the movie all that much, but this is easily one of his better latter 70s roles allowing him to play a modern day tough guy. Lee would get a second career boost in the late 80s in John Woo's THE KILLER (1989), and would enjoy much greater success from there onward.
Interestingly, promotional materials list a certain main characters fate as something different (and less spectacular) than what happens in the finished movie. The ending is also vastly different, and far more bleak than what is described on the films marketing paraphernalia.
KILLERS ON WHEELS also indulges in misogyny, a popular biker film and exploitation mainstay of the time period. The women are simply there to be ogled, teased and used as sex objects. The liberated female members of the gang also seem to show complacency for their sex toy status and encourage it. The two civilized women (played by Terry Liu and Chiang San) are treated much worse once the gang gets a hold of them. Considering the surviving adults must resort to barbarity to make it out alive, it's not too shocking that, after one of the women is raped and in shock, she's seen wandering around in a bathing suit being used as a decoy to lure out one of the bikers!
Aside from some nice photographic touches, this is little more than derivative, crass exploitation. It's doubtful this was ever intended to be anything more than that, but the attempt at raising a question or two on issues of the day is noted. Kuei Chi Hung was an eccentric, if cruel director who would do whatever was necessary to obtain a shot; even if it meant putting his actors in jeopardy. His brilliance was never 100% captured in his finished product (of his films available for viewing), although KILLER CONSTABLE (1980) comes damn close.
Click HERE for additional information, and a look at some of the promotional materials for KILLERS ON WHEELS.