Chow Yun-Fat in his award-winning role as Ko Chow in "City On Fire" (1987)

35 Years Later: City On Fire 龍虎風雲 (1987)

1987 was a banner year for then-32-year-old Chow Yun Fat, who largely dominated the Hong Kong box office with several notable hits, namely A Better Tomorrow II <英雄本色續集> and An Autumn’s Tale <秋天的童話>.

Then, there’s City On Fire <龍虎風雲>, which famously marked his first successful collaboration with Ringo Lam. The movie was particularly a personal breakthrough for Lam, who finally found his own artistic voice after spending his first few years between 1983 and 1986 working as a director for hire.

Turning 35 this year, the oft-told undercover-cop theme may have been done to death by today’s standard. But it’s hard to deny that City On Fire <龍虎風雲> remains one of the most influential milestones in the aforementioned subgenre in the Hong Kong cinema.

Working from a screenplay by Tommy Sham Sai-Sang, whose prior writing credit was the 1983 martial arts comedy called Tales Of A Eunuch <鹿鼎記>, City On Fire <龍虎風雲> follows Ko Chow (Chow Yun-Fat), who reluctantly accepts one last assignment from his superior, Inspector Lau (Taiwanese actor Sun Yueh) as an undercover. Apparently, his superior’s prior undercover cop (Elvis Tsui in one of his earlier roles) was killed in the streets on the eve of busting a gang of jewel thieves. After Ko Chow took over, he subsequently gained the gang’s confidence by selling them guns and even manages to forge a friendship with Fu (Danny Lee). Things get complicated when the police commissioner (Lau Kong) brought in an arrogant young inspector, John Chan (Roy Cheung in his breakthrough performance) to lead a special task force for the case.

Sun Yueh and Roy Cheung in "City On Fire" (1987)
Sun Yueh and Roy Cheung in “City On Fire” (1987)

City On Fire <龍虎風雲> scored an impressive 10 Hong Kong Film Awards including Best Film (lost to An Autumn’s Tale <秋天的童話>) while Ringo Lam and Chow Yun-Fat took home Best Director and Best Actor respectively. The latter particularly made history as the only actor to win the Hong Kong Film Awards’ Best Actor category back-to-back following his win for A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色> a year prior. He certainly deserved the Best Actor award for his multifaceted role as Ko Chow, who looks tough and cynical as an undercover and at times, playful and goofy with his girlfriend, Hung (relative newcomer Carrie Ng, who earned a Best Supporting Actress nomination but lost to Elaine Kam Yin-Ling for Derek Yee’s People’s Hero <人民英雄>.

Although Chow Yun-Fat steals most of the show here, City On Fire <龍虎風雲> also benefits from solid supporting turns, notably Danny Lee as Fu and Roy Cheung as the young inspector. Ringo Lam is in top form here, where he directed his movie with enough gritty realism and particularly, the way he depicts the grey area and moral ambiguity on both sides of the law.

In City On Fire <龍虎風雲>, there are no clear-cut portrayals of classic good guys and bad guys. Both sides (the police, especially Inspector John Chan and the gang of jewellery thieves) would do whatever it takes to reach their goals and that includes resorting to violence, casualty and sacrifice. Even Ko Chow isn’t the kind of a by-the-book and straight-arrow undercover cop but more of a conflicted anti-hero.

The famous Mexican standoff in "City On Fire" (1987)
The famous Mexican standoff in “City On Fire” (1987)

The action, in the meantime, is grim and nihilistic and devoid of the stylish aesthetics seen in the then-popular heroic bloodshed subgenre in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色>. The rest of the technical side is just as great including Andrew Lau’s perfectly atmospheric cinematography as well as Teddy Robin Kwan’s jazzy score and Wong Ming-Lam’s tight editing. Andrew Lau, of course, would go on producing some of his best cinematography works in movies like As Tears Go By <旺角卡門> (1988) and Days Of Being Wild <阿飛正傳> (1990). Ironically, he is later responsible for bringing the Hong Kong undercover-cop subgenre to a then-new level in Infernal Affairs <無間道> fifteen years later.

In addition to the two wins at the Hong Kong Film Awards, City On Fire <龍虎風雲> made a respectable HK$19.7 million at the time of its release. Ringo Lam returns to direct Chow Yun-Fat during the same year in Prison On Fire <監獄風雲>, which turns out to be a bigger box-office success at HK$31.6 million.

The success of City On Fire <龍虎風雲> also greatly influenced Quentin Tarantino in his directorial debut, Reservoir Dogs. The 1992 indie sensation was, of course, shared the similarity of Ringo Lam’s iconic Mexican standoff during the finale.

No doubt that City On Fire <龍虎風雲> is one of Ringo Lam’s finest works ever made. Even three years after his untimely death in December 2018, it was still hard to believe that he’s no longer with us.

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