R.C.'s Review of Zong heng si hai (Once a Thief)


  • 3 years ago via Flixster
    Zong heng si hai (Once a Thief)

    Zong heng si hai (Once a Thief) (1991)

    I haven't actually seen many John Woo movies. I own Hard-Boiled, sure, but I've never seen A Better Tomorrow or The Killer or even, as I hoped for a bit while it was in a local theatre, Red Cliff. But this one, being less well-known, I was able to pick up at a serious discount on travels some years ago, and shrugged thinking it must have some kind of redeeming qualities, coming out of the team responsible for so many well-respected movies (I had not, at that point, even picked up or watched Hard-Boiled, so it was as blind a buy, for my personal taste, as could be). The cover art for the Region 1 release is a little out of place, implying a serious action movie filled with gunplay and explosions. It's not explicitly noted that this is a comedy, with simple "code" like "light-hearted" and "mixed with comedy and romance" only just barely alluding to it. Then again, I make it a point to avoid back covers as much as possible, so I was really misled. Or would have been, if I thought cover art was at all representative. I've been known to judge books by their covers (or at least choose whether to read them, most often being drawn in rather than pushed away) but rarely movies. Unless they have an extremely interesting looking monster or creature, but that's neither here nor there in this instance.

    Joe (Chow Yun-Fat), Jim (Leslie Cheung) and Cherie (Cherie Cheung)­¹ are three orphans adopted by Chow (Kenneth Tsang) and trained to be thieves. Their current objects of interest are valuable and historic paintings. A crated up Modigliani is their first target, taken only during its transport, in the first of many relatively complicated action scenes. After this acquisition, they take it to its prospective owner, The Frenchman², who wants them to run another job--an extremely profitable attempt to acquire Paul Trouillebert's "Servante du harem," which is also strongly desired by Chow. The Frenchman offers them a substantial sum, but Cherie tries to run interference and mistranslates back to the boys, attempting to discourage the Frenchman and let Jim and Joe believe they are indeed taking up the job. Despite promises to quit, Cherie wants to retire and so Jim starts off to make the theft anyway, though their "Godfather" (Chu Kong) is a policeman who recognizes their good hearts, has also strongly encouraged them to stop. The theft itself is managed quite easily, but the two are caught up in the end and violence ensues, changing how they do things quite thoroughly--in a less light-hearted moment.

    I found myself drifting away from this movie at multiple points, perhaps because I was out of practice with watching definitively dubbed movies. By "definitively," I mean that all languages are dubbed, similar to Italian movies in decades past, where all audio is ADR and syncing is not heavily sought after. It's hard to tell if the actors are even speaking Cantonese (the other language track given on the Region 1 release) as there is a slight variance in vocal charater to onscreen character. Of course, it is a Hong Kong movie, so one would think Cantonese was the language of choice, but who knows for certain? No one I can contact, that's for sure. Still, it is a pretty big jump between the two and it made it difficult to concentrate, wondering if I was at least getting a reasonably accurate audio stream to tell me what the intended characters were like, even if subtitles might suffer in accuracy. A nice averaged out medium is often helpful for this, and I had no idea whether I was hearing or reading anything properly. Having the names "Joe" and "Jim" really did not help my impression of the subtitles, as it smacked of laziness in giving the characters anglicized names. In the course of attempting to decipher this, though, I discovered the film is occasionally categorized as "mo lei tau," which is a comedic style most closely associated with Stephen Chow. I have yet to watch his movies, but I always got the impression they were very heavy on comedy. This sort of re-arranged my expectations a bit, though I'd already noticed the movie is heavily oriented in that direction, though it seemed more like a romantic comedy with and action movie jammed into the cracks somehow, which is vaguely disorienting.

    The plot is not completely paper thin, but it is still pretty weak and hardly the basis for the movie. It's simplistic heartstring-tugging for all emotional involvement, but it doesn't hold itself as anything more than that. It comes off as a framework to fit in jokes and stunts, a purpose that, in all honesty, it's pretty well suited to. It's fun when it should be, and the action scenes are very Woo, with that hint of reality in amongst the insanely impossible reactions to physics and prescient gunplay from our protagonists (landing and aiming exactly where an enemy happens to be next entering a room, for instance), with bodies that move with the obvious force of physics working against their ridiculously athletic flips and such. A leg that does not maintain a perfect straight line, that sort of thing. It gives it just the right kick of believability alongside everything else to make those scenes that much more exciting.

    Overall, it's not a film I am terribly excited about, but there are some gags and stunts that blow the so-so plotting and characters out of the water. Plus, Chow Yun-Fat at the very end is completely worth it.

    ¹For reasons I looked into but could not find linguistic explanations for, "Joe" is often listed as "Red Bean Pudding" and Cherie as "Red Bean." I'm guessing this is some weird mixed joke where the characters making up their names in Chinese translate as these things but sound acceptable as names despite this. That, or there are actual names there that just translate to this. I have no clue, and not being in on the joke or cultural reference, I'm going to skip doing any more with it than list this information here as a footnote.

    ²I cannot find any (English) listing for the actor's name, so my apologies to him, but I haven't got a good solution outside of learning Chinese really, reall quickly, which I can't feasibly do (bad at languages anyway) and I am out of contact with the only Chinese speaker I am at all friendly with.

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