(Disclaimer: This review contains spoilers)
Derek Yee’s immediate follow-up after the acclaimed drama in The Lunatics <癲佬正傳> sees the writer-director taking a cue from Sidney Lumet’s Dog Day Afternoon (1975) and making it his own.
The result is People’s Hero <人民英雄>, which turned 35 today and even after over three decades have passed, Derek Yee’s second film still resonates with his understated direction and top-notch acting showcase all around. Yee didn’t waste time establishing each character from the get-go, where we are introduced to different customers and employees in a bank. Among them includes K.W. Poon (Bowie Lam in one of his earliest roles in a feature film) and his reluctant girlfriend (Kit Mok Kit-Ling), who both work in the same bank. Then, there’s a loudmouthed customer who’s in a hurry played by Benz Kong To-Hoi, a mother (Lai Siu-Fong) and her rebellious daughter (Sabrina Ho Pui-Yi) and husband-and-wife (Teddy Yip Wing-Cho and Lee Ga-Sai).
It’s a routine day in the bank until the arrival of two young men including Ah Sai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and his friend, Boney (Ronald Wong Ban). They are planning to rob the bank but Boney already has cold feet. And it gets worse from there when he starts to suffer from epilepsy. When Ah Sai accidentally dropped the pistol from the paper bag, a shootout ensues that ends up with the security guard (Mansook Ahmed) getting shot in the arm.
Panic sets in as the robbery takes place, with every customer and employee in the bank starting to scream and attempt to escape. A uniformed cop witness the incident from the outside and quickly calls for backup.
But that’s the only beginning when Ah Sai and his friend find out there’s already another robber in the bank. The robber in question is Koo (Ti Lung), who also turns out to be one of Hong Kong’s most wanted criminals. He specifically requested the police to get in touch with Captain Chan (Tony Leung Ka-Fai) so he can with him through a series of phone conversations. His demand? Prepare a van and release his girlfriend, Lotus (Elaine Kam) from prison so they can escape and leave the city.
Clocking at just 82 minutes, Yee keeps the pace taut without relying on the usual violent action set pieces (except for the downbeat ending) typically seen in Hong Kong movies involving bank robberies, namely Long Arm of the Law <省港旗兵> (at one point, we see one of the characters referencing the title during a conversation) and City on Fire <龍虎風雲>.
Instead, the tension comes from the interactions between Koo and his hostages and the police while making good use of the confined setting of a bank to create a sense of foreboding dread and uncertainty. Yee, who co-wrote the screenplay alongside Lee Pak-Ling and Kwan Yiu-Wing also layered his story by humanising Koo, Ah Sai and Boney. They may have been bank robbers and from the general point of view, they are clearly breaking the law.
But at the same time, it’s hard not to sympathise with their action. Here, we learn about Ah Sai and Boney resulting in robbing the bank because they owe a lot of money from a loan shark. The money they loan in the first place has nothing to do with gambling but rather using them as capital to do a small business, only to get confiscated by the police. It was this dead-end situation that forced them to rob even if they seem nervous and reluctant, which can be evidently seen at the beginning of the film.
Then, there’s Koo, who may have been among the most wanted criminals but he’s actually not a heartless person who disregards a person’s life. He is kind enough to tend to the wounded security guard and even give them (the hostages) reassurance that he won’t kill anyone as long as they cooperate. In fact, he does not intend to hurt anybody but just wants to run with the money and his imprisoned girlfriend. Of course, it’s only to a certain point where desperation and the force of circumstance prompted him to take action that he doesn’t want to do.
Throughout the film, there’s nothing black and white as clear as day since everything is depicted in a morally grey area. In other words, there’s no easy answer to whether it’s right or wrong as we — as the viewers — watch the situation unfolds. And this is what made People’s Hero <人民英雄> such an intriguing mix of thriller and drama.
Following his comeback role in A Better Tomorrow <英雄本色> a year prior, Ti Lung excels with another one of his best performances to date as the conflicted Koo. Derek Yee, who happens to be an old friend of Ti Lung back in their Shaw Brothers era, reportedly invited him to play the leading role. It was a fruitful collaboration that earned Ti Lung a much-deserved Best Actor nomination at the 25th Golden Horse Awards, even though he lost to Alex Man for Gangland Odyssey <大頭仔>.
Ti Lung’s co-star, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai famously won his first Hong Kong Film Award in the Best Supporting Actor category while Elaine Kam took home the Best Supporting Actress award. The rest of the actors, notably Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Paul Chun deserve equal mention as two high-ranking police officers who do things differently in terms of handling the hostage situation.