(Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers)
Turning 35 today and 17 movies as a director later, Derek Yee’s The Lunatics <癲佬正傳> still resonates strongly until today. Yee was only 29 years old at the time when he directed the movie.
The Lunatics <癲佬正傳> also happened to be his directorial debut after spending nearly a decade as an actor, appearing in movies like Lady Exterminator <阿Sir毒后老虎槍>, The Sentimental Swordsman <多情劍客無情劍> (both released in 1977) and the 1978 two-parter Heaven Sword And Dragon Sabre (Part 1 – <倚天屠龍記>, Part 2 – <倚天屠龍記大結局>). He may have directed several acclaimed Hong Kong movies such People’s Hero <人民英雄> (1987), C’est La Vie Mon Cheri <新不了情> (1993), Viva Erotica <色情男女> (1996) and One Nite In Mongkok <旺角黑夜> (2004), just to name a few. But I still find Yee’s directorial debut his best effort yet.
Given his experience as a former Shaw Brothers actor in wuxia movies, you would probably expect him to venture into the same comfort zone as a director for the first time. But The Lunatics <癲佬正傳> has nothing to do with swordplay or martial arts of any kind. It was more of a social drama, one that is particularly raw and harrowing in terms of its controversial issue surrounding mental illness.
Making The Lunatics <癲佬正傳>, even at the time was considered a huge creative risk. And while it wasn’t a huge success (grossing only HK$9.3 million), the movie did make an impact at the 6th Hong Kong Film Awards, where it earned five nominations in total. This includes Best Film (lost to the hugely popular A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色>), Best Director (lost to Allen Fong for Just Like Weather <美國心>) and Best Screenplay (lost to Chiu Kang-Chien and Lai Kit for Love Unto Waste <地下情>).
It did, however, famously won Paul Chun a much-deserved Best Supporting Actor award for his role as a mentally ill father as well as Best Art Direction. Written by Derek Yee himself, The Lunatics <癲佬正傳> opens with a memorable scene in the wet market, where we first saw a young man simply known as Doggie (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) playfully throwing crushed ice at one of the disgruntled customers.
The seemingly juvenile situation quickly escalates when he ends up swinging a cleaver, causing everyone to run away in fear. Then came the police and a social worker named Tsui (Stanley Fung), where the latter suggests allowing him to handle the situation calmly.
The movie is pretty much episodic at first, with scenes consisting of Tsui travelling from one place to another to help the mentally ill. Tina (Deannie Yip), a journalist looking to cover a story about mental illness in Hong Kong, tags along with Tsui initially as an observer, even though she tends to attempt to make conversation with some of the mentally ill peoples living on the streets.
Among them includes visiting a crazy old lady (Ma Suk-Jan) and later, a schizophrenic (Chow Yun-Fat) who lives in a shack and has a little daughter suffering from measles. The part involving Chow Yun-Fat’s character is later revealed that he has a little son out there somewhere — an eventual discovery that leads into a disturbing moment.
But the actual story kicks in once The Lunatics <癲佬正傳> focuses on Paul Chun’s character as Tsuen, who is supposedly recovered from mental illness after staying in the asylum for two years. Living with his mother (Lai Suen) in an old flat, we learn about Tsuen being a father whose wife has left him and has a young son.
The movie’s high point is undoubtedly the part where Tsuen subsequently suffering from a mental breakdown. At one point, we witness him eating a live chicken. And later during the shocking third act, he starts hurting people with a meat cleaver. Here, Yee partially draws his inspiration from the true story of the infamous Anne Anne Kindergarten stabbing incident, particularly in the scene where Tsuen runs away from an angry mob of residents and ends up in his son’s school.
For the uninitiated, the aforementioned incident took place in Sham Shui Po on June 3, 1982, where Lee Chi-Hang (the mentally ill attacker that Paul Chun’s Tsuen character was partially based upon) wounded 34 children, with four of them died and even injured several adults including a constable. The police managed to arrest Lee in the end and charged him with multiple murders including the earlier ones, where he killed his mother and sister. After Lee was diagnosed as schizophrenic, he has since locked up in a mental asylum.
Back to The Lunatics <癲佬正傳>, there is no overblown melodrama commonly associated with most Hong Kong movies, as evidently seen in Yee’s matter-of-fact direction. Even the comedy moment is kept to a bare minimum. Speaking of that, Stanley Fung’s comedic talent — best known for his role in the popular Lucky Stars <福星系列> movie series — is put into good use during the opening scene, where he defuses the situation by utilising props from a plastic sword to a Jackie Chan look-a-like hand puppet to entertain Doggie.
Yee also stretches Fung’s acting beyond his usual comedy repertoire that most of us associated with him in the Lucky Stars <福星系列> movie series. His character is leaning more on the dramatic side, where Fung proved his worth as a versatile actor after all.
His empathetic, yet perfectly restrained turn as a social worker is easily one of Fung’s best performances to date. Here, we see Fung’s Tsui trying to help as many mentally ill individuals as possible. But despite his good deeds and an overall selfless act, he soon discovers that there isn’t much of a difference he can do, leading to a sense of despair.
This is especially true during the film’s increasingly pessimistic moments, where he does whatever he can to save Tsuen from succumbing to mental deterioration, only fails to do so in the end. Surprisingly though, the fact that he was completely overlooked for a nomination in the Best Actor category remains baffling until today.
His co-star Deannie Yip brings solid support as the journalist Tina. But it was Paul Chun who stole most of the show, with his career-defining performance as Tsuen. Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai may seem like a mere stunt casting and yet, Yee manages to bring out the best in their otherwise cameo appearances as mental patients.
Easily one of the best Hong Kong movies ever made.