MILLIONAIRES EXPRESS – HK 1986
This weekend I just stumbled upon this small fine piece of a early DimSum Western from the 1980s , hiding deep in my DVD rack. When I bought the DVD some 5 years ago I did not realize its importance but now I consider it as one of the few existing HK film Western attempts that bears an own unique local signature while riding on traditional Western elements.
MILLIONAIRES EXPRESS (HK) aka SHANGHAI EXPRESS (US) aka SHANGHAI POLICE (Gemany) incorporates a tremendous star power for its time. It almost appears like the entire who-is-who of local filmmaking is united in this production and everyone seemed to had huge fun while shooting. The good chemistry between its actors translates upon the screen and creates a huge fun ride through a wild compilation of genres. The extremely fast paced plot combines 3 storylines that eventually merge in the final showdown.
Now the story does not really matter in this action and slapstick packed wannabe-Western and is simply exploited as an excuse to run fast to the next scene for another absurd situation which the infantile character tabloid has to master. The entire film is an enormous mix out of everything available. It starts off as a Snow Western deep in the mountains and ends in a desert like scenario with the traditional shanty town. Every single detail appears to have undergone a fusion of East and West. We can spot traditional Western elements like the saloon, the gambling tables, Americans in Civil War time’s uniforms. But wait a minute! What do US soldiers do in a scenario set in China? What are Russian Red Army soldiers doing in the snowy mountains of Canada? And what are Japanese Samurai doing in the shanty town that clearly looks like being located within the HK territory?
Sammo Hung throws everything into one big pot, stirs it heavy and cooks a hyper inter-cultural dish. One can clearly spot glimpses of US Westerns as mentioned above, However, the element of Samurais being in China´s Wild West could be read as a political statement but I rather think a deliberate reminiscence on Terence Young´s RED SUN is a safer bet. The more the film takes on speed the more Hung orientates it towards the classic adventure genre. Films like INDIANA JONES were definitely its blueprint, also considering the coarse espionage and intelligence approach of the story.
However, since this film was produced during a time where the ‘97-Syndrom already seized the artistic minds of HK filmmakers, this film definitely reflects the sentiments of its time. The exploitive use of action and nonsense comedy (some Moleitau) clearly reflects the confusion and situation of a HK society in the mid 80s while facing an unpredictable future full of radical changes. The most direct evidence of this inner social conflict can be found on one of the prisoners´ clothing’s, bearing the number “1997”.
With all this confusion among the characters, story, locations and props the visual style is kept straight forward as usual for this decades films. Hung rather focuses on physical action extravaganza like Kung Fu fights, stunts, slapstick that is shot very traditional, most in wide shots with large number group compositions. He needs to convey and communicate this special and only advantage of his film: reality in stunts and action. When people jump off a three storey building you will see it in one wide angle take, no cuts! Yuen Biao jumps off a roof set on fire, hits the ground, jumps up and runs along as it is the easiest thing in the world (watch out for this scene in the trailer below). This is basically the essence of action cinema made in HK during the early 80s. It´s real and everyone can see it. Hence, this does explain the relative low amount of violence as guns are barely in use here. But it also holds the reason for almost no use of sophisticated camera movements or even special designed compositions or camera tracks that would serve a storytelling purpose.
Finally, Hung grounds his film another time, in the end credits sequence while showing off making of shots revealing how the crew created the film. Now this is similar practice to Jackie Chan and is supposed to give the film a link into reality by, again, highlighting the fact that things are being hand-made without any tricks or special effects. It takes away the illusion, deliberately, displaying that it all is not just magic. It is hard work and needs a lot of crafts to pull off.