The Chinese secret societies known as Triads have inspired hundreds of movies, often revolving around the themes of brotherhood and betrayal, glory and dishonour.
John Woo, Johnnie To, Andrew Lau and Ringo Lam are among the directors who built their careers by focusing on the battles between Triads and cops and within the criminal fraternity.
Triads have been around for several hundred years – the first were formed in mainland China during the Qing Dynasty to protest against the Manchu dynasty.
Boaz Yakin's Safe, which stars Jason Statham as a former agent who rescues a twelve year-old Chinese girl from the clutches of the Triads in New York City, and opens here on May 10, is a minor Western entry in the genre.
For decades, the Triads exerted a powerful hold on the Hong Kong film industry. It was often alleged that Hong Kong films were made by gangsters, about gangsters and for gangsters.
Harassment and extortion were rife, there were rapes and kidnaps and two producers were murdered in 1992. The gangs have been less active in films since 1994 when the government passed laws which allowed police to expropriate the financial assets of Triad members.
If we've seen fewer movies on the Triads in recent years amid an overall downturn in production, it may be partly because organised crime has been weakened in post-Colonial Hong Kong. “I think Triad society is a thing of the past, outdated,” To said a few years ago. “Hong Kong today is an industrial society; it doesn't need special organisations, it has laws that are fairer to all its people. Like the Mafia in the US, the gangsters themselves have moved on from criminal activity to things like protection money and blackmail money from Hong Kong's unions and fish and fruit markets.”
Here's my assessment of the best, worst and middling movies centred on the Chinese Triads.
The most kick-ass:
A Better Tomorrow (1986)
John Woo's first Triad film features Chow Yun-Fat and Ti Lung as high-living Hong Kong gangsters and counterfeiters whose relationship is complicated by the fact that Lung's younger brother (Leslie Cheung) is a cop. The film shattered local box-office records, won numerous awards and changed the face of Hong Kong cinema.
As Tears Go By (1988)
Wong Kar-Wai's debut feature blends romance and brutal violence in this action-thriller about a debt enforcer (Andy Lau) torn between his loyalty for his loose-cannon “younger brother” (Jacky Cheung) and his love for his naïve country cousin (Maggie Cheung).
City on Fire (1987)
Ringo Lam's thriller stars Chow Yun-Fat as an undercover cop who infiltrates a gang of thieves who plan to rob a jewellery store but develops a friendship with one of the criminals. The frenetic final 15 minutes served as the inspiration for Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs.
Set in Macau during the waning days of Portuguese rule, Johnnie To's macho actioner is the chronicle of childhood buddies turned hit men who square off against a malevolent gang boss. “The movie is consistently engrossing and sometimes touching, thanks to its hard yet subtle characterizations and Mr. To's refusal to condescend,” said the New York Times.
Chow-Yun-Fat is a maverick, clarinet-playing cop nicknamed "Tequila" who forms an uneasy alliance with an undercover agent (Tony Leung) to shut down a giant arms-smuggling ring in John Woo's moody actioner (pictured, above). “The director's outstanding skills at an intricate mise-en-scene and staging action sequences with the precision of a ballet choreography are unmatched by anyone working in world cinema today,” said critic Emanuel Levy, who presciently predicted that Woo would be lured to Hollywood.
Infernal Affairs (2002)
Co-directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak's glossy thriller inspired Martin Scorsese's The Departed and spawned two sequels, redefining the Triad genre by focussing more on issues such as betrayal and integrity and less on blood-drenched violence. Andy Lau plays a young mobster that is ordered by his Triad boss (Eric Tsang) to infiltrate the police force and becomes a good cop. Tony Leung plays a police recruit who goes undercover to infiltrate the mob. “The movie pays off in a kind of emotional complexity rarely seen in crime movies,” enthused Roger Ebert.
The Killer (1989)
Among the most successful collaborations between John Woo and Chow Yun-Fat, it's the story of a hit-man who wants to quit the business after one final assignment which he's forced to undertake to raise money for an operation to save the eyesight of a cabaret singer (Sally Yeh) who was hit by a stray bullet during his last job. Woo has said the movie conveys “my philosophical thinking and my own version of righteousness.”
The Mission (1999)
Five Triad members are brought together for one mission: to protect their boss, Brother Lung (Eddy Ko), from unknown assassins. Johnnie To's thriller, shot in just 18 days, was hailed for its subtlety and controlled emotion. The twist: It's soon revealed that there's a rat in the ranks.
Movies with guts but not much glory:
Johnnie To's thriller set in Hong Kong's underworld has plenty of admirers but the characters spend more time talking, sipping tea and eating than getting physical. The plot follows the excitable, loud-mouthed Big D (Tony Leungi) and the calmer Lok (Simon Yam) as they vie to become chairman of their triad, elected by a group of elders known as Uncles. It's 20 minutes before the first violent act happens, 45 minutes until one guy is clubbed with a fence pole, and nearly an hour until there's a fight resulting in several casualties.
Year of the Dragon (1985)
Michael Cimino's melodrama, his follow-up to the infamous Heaven's Gate, co-written with Oliver Stone, follows Mickey Rourke as a New York cop and Vietnam veteran who's tasked with trying to control the violent gangs in Chinatown. The movie polarised the critics with raves such as Rex Reed's (“exciting, explosive, daring and adventurous stuff") counterbalanced by pans such as Pauline Kael, who labelled it “hysterical, rabble rousing pulp, the kind that goes over well with sub-literate audiences."
Young and Dangerous (1996)
Andrew Lau's movie is no masterpiece but it spawned numerous sequels, prequels and spin-offs and is credited with creating the “Triad youth” sub-genre. The plot follows a group of young Triad guys as they climb the ladder, fall foul of a rival Mobster and have their friendships tested by individual hardships.
Shanghai Triad (1995)
Chinese director Zhang Yimou's saga of a gang boss in 1930s Shanghai (Li Baotian) and his wilful, troublesome mistress, (Gong Li), a nightclub singer who taunts him, was the final collaboration between Yimou and Li. Roger Ebert branded it as “never involving and often pointless and repetitive.”
Love, Guns & Glass (1995)
Simon Yam plays a Triad boss who's double-crossed by an undercover cop and goes to jail in Ivan Lai Kai-Ming's action-romance. While he's in the slammer, his wife spends all his money and sleeps around. When he's released, he tries to turn his former gang into ethical criminals. “The screenplay feels like it was slapped together by drunken monkeys [and] the actors also seem to be sleepwalking through their performances,” sniffed one Hong Kong critic.