The Hong Kong film industry has recently lost a veteran director: Billy Tang (Hin-Shing), who passed away earlier this week at the age of 69 due to head-and-neck cancer known as nasopharyngeal carcinoma.
Like most of his peers, he got his early start working in the television studio as assistant director for Reincarnated <天蠶變> series in 1979 at Rediffusion Television (RTV). He also famously involved as one of the co-directors for the popular ATV series My Date With A Vampire <我和殭屍有個約會> in 1998.
But Tang is better known for his works in the feature films, particularly during the golden era of Category III movies in the 90s. This includes memorable entries like Dr. Lamb <羔羊醫生> (1992), Run And Kill <烏鼠機密檔案> (1993) and Red To Kill <弱殺> (1994).
Whereas Tang’s works are more prolific during the 90s, it’s easy to forget about his first two feature-length directorial efforts including Vengeance Is Mine <血夜天使> and Dragon Fight <龍在天涯> — both of which were considered minor and little-seen efforts compared to his aforementioned films in the 90s.
Beginning with his feature-length directorial debut in Vengeance Is Mine <血夜天使> in 1988, he already proved his worth in a Category III genre. A rape-revenge drama where he served as a co-director alongside Lee Chi-Ngai (credited as Chi Lee), the movie centres on a young nurse named Jane (Rosamund Kwan) who had an unfortunate night while she’s on the way to her rich boyfriend’s (Poon Chun-Wai) party. She ends up being abducted halfway and gang-raped by a group of thugs led by Pi (Kent Tong) in the woods.
Although Jane is later saved by a kind taxi driver (Derek Yee’s Kao), she refuses to report what the thugs have done to her to the police. However, it was a mistake that soon complicates matters further as the same thugs continue to harass her and her colleague/friend Amy (Pat Ha).
Unlike Tang’s inputs in his later Category III movies, Vengeance Is Mine <血夜天使> is surprisingly subdued by comparison. But that doesn’t mean the movie is easy to watch, particularly with his harrowing depiction of rape as well as some of the graphic violence (the one involving a character getting dragged across the concrete chained to a speeding motorcycle comes to mind).
The movie isn’t the kind of the usual rape-revenge drama often seen in a Category III movie. At least not in the way where the rape victim becomes immediately offensive and start to take matters into her own hands. While those moments did eventually take place, most of the movie’s running time is spent in focusing both trauma and dilemma of how a rape victim remains helpless and chose to stay silent instead. Such a result might frustrate those who prefer their protagonist becomes more proactive in a vigilante-like action to punish the wrongdoers.
And yet, this is where I found Vengeance Is Mine <血夜天使> as an intriguing rarity for a Category III movie. The kind that doesn’t choose to sensationalise the disturbing subject matter as a lurid form of how-far-can-you-go-to-provoke-the-audience sort of entertainment. The movie may have been patchy in places but the above-average acting performances did their best to overcome most of the flaws.
Rosamund Kwan’s rare leading role in this movie proved that she actually has dramatic acting chops to play such a challenging character. More like one in a million in her otherwise superficial career, where she is largely known for her flower vase role or playing second fiddle to Jackie Chan (1987’s Project A II <A計劃續集> and Armour Of God <龍兄虎弟>). And of course, many fans would remember her the most as Aunt 13 in Once Upon A Time In China <黃飛鴻> franchise.
The supporting cast including Pat Ha as well as Derek Yee and Kent Tong deliver solid supports in their respective roles. With the exceptions of some of the awkwardly-misplaced moments (Philip Chan Fei-Lit and Tang Siu-Lam’s bits of the odd-sounding triumphant score during the courtroom scene and the curiously-added timebomb scene), Vengeance Is Mine <血夜天使> remains one of the best underrated Category III movies worth checking out.
Next up is Dragon Fight <龍在天涯>, which marks Billy Tang’s second and also his first solo directing effort in a feature film. Released a year after Vengeance Is Mine <血夜天使>, this is more of an unexpected change of direction for Tang, given his majority of later works in violent Category III movies.
The story — credited to James Yuen — involved two childhood friends Jimmy Lee Kwok-Lap (Jet Li) and Tiger Wong Wai (Dick Wei), who both toured in San Francisco as part of the martial arts troupe. While on the airport to head home, Tiger chose to abandon the troupe and seeks better opportunity. He ends up meeting a mafia boss (Henry Fong’s Marco) and eventually working his way up the ranks.
But Jimmy, who tries to convince his friend not to leave the troupe earlier, finds himself stranded in San Francisco after missing his flight home. Fortunately, he gets to know Andy Yau (Stephen Chow), a Chinese immigrant who works as a delivery boy and also a fan of Jimmy’s martial arts troupe.
Despite its somewhat compact 96-minute running time, Dragon Fight <龍在天涯> suffers from a tedious pace that is spent wasting on mundane fillers. The comedic moments during the first half, particularly the one involving Stephen Chow is decent enough, even though it sorely lacks the actor’s signature mo lei tau (nonsensical comedy) touch later in his career. It is actually understandable, given the fact Chow is far from the established and popular actor at the time. Before his popularity soars greatly during the 90s, Chow’s performances — including this one — are largely relegated to supporting roles.
The movie also featured Jet Li in one of his pre-Once Upon A Time In China <黃飛鴻> fame, where he excels during the fighting scenes. The fight itself — choreographed well enough by Dick Wei himself — isn’t the usual acrobatic style commonly associated with Jet Li’s action films but more of violent and brutal styles.
While the action is top-notch, they aren’t enough to overcome the glaring flaws of this movie. Draggy plot aside, Dragon Fight <龍在天涯> is notorious for its bad Cantonese and English dubbings/speaking roles.
As for Billy Tang, his direction comes across as pedestrian and flat for most parts. He’s more like a work for hire here, with only a few exciting moments where he gets to show his flair for visceral action sequences.
Vengeance Is Mine <血夜天使>
Dragon Fight <龍在天涯>