China White

CHINA WHITE (1989) is the movie where Ronny Yu tackles the ’80s Hong Kong gangster genre that we all fell in love with when we found out about John Woo, Ringo Lam and those guys. Like A BETTER TOMORROW or BULLET IN THE HEAD it chronicles the tragic rise and fall melodrama of dashing young anti-heroes who run a criminal empire and care about family and loyalty and what not. Like CITY ON FIRE it deals with somebody undercover getting too close to a crook, but in this case it’s a female informant falling in love with a guy who she doesn’t know is bad (so, a little bit like THE KILLER). But along with these standard genre themes we have the strongest example so far of Yu’s international world view.

That’s because it takes place in Amsterdam, where the Chow brothers, Bobby (Russell Wong, ROMEO MUST DIE, THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR) and Danny (Steven Vincent Leigh, RING OF FIRE, SWORD OF HONOR) have made a home, but must make peace or war with gangs of other nationalities. They’re most threatened by the Italians, led by Scalia (Billy Drago shortly before DELTA FORCE 2). This is a cutthroat internationalism, but Yu sees opportunity for these immigrants, and seems to come out in favor of cross-cultural/interracial relationships.

Bobby is a not-entirely-sympathetic lead until he stands up to his brother’s insults of his new girlfriend Anne Michaels (Lisa Schrage, a deep cut horror legend because she played the title character in HELLO MARY LOU: PROM NIGHT II). He met Anne at the casino, where she’s a blackjack dealer, and she sounds Australian to me but I guess the actress is Canadian. Danny keeps condescendingly calling her “that blond” according to the subtitles, which is not an accurate description of her hair color. We know what he means, I think, but it’s funny because he’s already shown a preference for actual blonds.

The shit kicks off when a bunch of dudes with uzis pop up, shoot Uncle Chi on the street, and Danny’s favorite blond prostitute in the breasts. The brothers escape in a shootout/chase that includes a crazy stunt where they tip a tall ladder across the channel.

In the car they flash back to their childhood to remember young Chi (Andy Lau, DRUNKEN MASTER II, THE GREAT WALL, DETECTIVE DEE AND THE MYSTERY OF THE PHANTOM FLAME) and his lady (Carina Lau, SHE SHOOTS STRAIGHT, DETECTIVE DEE 1, 2 and 3) bringing them on a fun-on-the-town montage before promising to take care of them when their gangster father (Alex Man, BRUCE LEE, MY BROTHER) is gunned down. I watched an import of the original Hong Kong cut, and I guess this gratuitous, nearly 10 minute detour isn’t in the international version, but it’s appropriate for the genre. It vehemently emphasizes their love for the old man, symbolizes their future by having them walk through a miniature city, and has Andy Lau bashing a guy’s head through the sneeze guard on a salad bar.

Anyway, Anne and her Jamaican friend unfortunately named Rasta (Frank Sheppard, KILL SQUAD, JOHNNIE MAE GIBSON: FBI) are undercover cops trying to get info on Amead and Scalia, but the real danger is standing up to sleazeballs like Phong at the casino, which leads to a vicious alley attack where some dudes throw her against a wall, slash her hand, rub pure cocaine in it and drag her to their crib. Lucky for her Phong is the same guy who crossed the brothers, and Bobby finds her when they come to shoot Phong after he ziplines onto a ferris wheel.

A scene that’s memorable in a different way is the one where Bobby and Anne go for a romantic beach walk and have a weird conversation.

“So you’re from America, huh? Alot of my favorite heroes are American.”
“Yeah? Who? John Wayne? Ronald Reagan?”
“No… H. Ross Perot. He’s got a weird sense of humor. And I like Howard Hughes.”
“Oh yeah? He was crazy though, just before he died.”
“No, he was crazy all his life. But he was rich and nobody cared.”
“Is money that important?”
“Well, it’s the only protection against uncertainty.”

(For non-Americans or young people, H. Ross Perot was a weirdo Texas billionaire who ran as a third party candidate for president in 1992 and 1996. It’s very strange to see a gangster in a Hong Kong movie talking about him.)

A little later there’s a pretty impressive bit of relationship advancement via edit. They’re having dinner…

Dissolve to sunset…

Dissolve to them enjoying the sunset presumably after having enjoyed something else…

And he tells her he has to go out of town for a week.

Hard cut to him hauling ass on a boat for a fuckin gangster mission to make an ambitious proposal to trade rocket launchers for drugs with a corrupt general out in a war torn jungle in Thailand.

(editor: Peter Jones.)

But while her boyfriend is on his business trip, Anne plants some bugs that will eventually be a complication in their relationship. Almost immediately after he gets back he convinces her to go to Paris with him, but she has to bring some work along: Rasta gives her the surveillance tapes to transcribe. So after romantic montaging in front of the Eiffel Tower and what not she learns the truth and leaves him. He swears he loves her, but she says he only cares about money. The H. Ross Perot thing should’ve tipped her off in my opinion.

One highlight comes completely out of the blue. Scalia has a guy tied to a chair for interrogation, and his efforts are not bearing fruit, so it’s time to call in the big guns. Suddenly we see the feet of a woman walking in high heels.

And it pans up and it’s this tough looking white woman here. And then she starts kicking him.

Later he hands her an ax. That can’t be good.

This badass enforcer lady is never explained, but shows up again briefly in the climactic battle, wearing a bow tie, bursting through a window and kicking the snot out of Danny before being knocked off a ledge to plummet to her maybe-death.

Gone too soon. I always appreciate a good colorful thug character like that, especially when it’s a woman beating up men. She doesn’t even get a name, she’s just “Henchwoman,” played by Saskia Van Rijswijk, a Dutch former Muay Thai champion. Van Rijswik only has a few other movie appearances, presumably in small role like this,but some versions of FATAL MISSION (1991) show her on the cover, so maybe I need to check that one out.

And wait— holy shit. She’s a singer, too! In 1985 she put out a single called “Kokutsu Dachi” (which is a defensive back-stance in karate), backed with “Thai Box-Fighting.” Seems like the cover is better than the music, but I’m gonna need to look into this further. By which I mean I just ordered a copy.

Anyway, even after the tragic loss (or swimming detour) of Henchwoman, Yu and stunt coordinator/martial arts director Chris Lee Kin-sang (PROJECT A II) give us a big climactic shootout with everybody running around on an old battleship, people going up and down and falling off of stairways, explosions and sparks of bullets hitting metal, brothers and lovers embracing the wounded. Hong Kong shit. The good stuff.

The screenplay is by Victor Hon Kwan and F.W. Silleroy. Hon got his start as assistant director and assistant production manager on THE SERVANTS. He had a bit part as a thug with a knife in THE TRAIL and was the “Ghost Father” in BLESS THIS HOUSE. His only other writing credit is on SHANGHAI HEROIC STORY, but he got plenty of work as an actor, most notably in Ringo Lam films. Silleroy’s only other writing credit was “additional dialogue” on BEST OF THE BEST 3: NO TURNING BACK.

I didn’t know to attribute any of its oddness to this, but it was reported many years later that Andy Lau, Alex Man and Carina Lau were abducted by triad members and threatened/blackmailed into appearing in the film (specifically the flashback part that does not appear in the international version). Some speculate that producer Jim Choi (better known as the very controlling manager of Jet Li) was responsible, since there were rumors of his involvement with Netherlands triads after he was shot to death in 1992.

But watching it before knowing that bit of, uh… behind-the-scenes trivia, I really enjoyed this one. It’s not the type of movie that comes to mind when I think of Ronny Yu, but it is a type I associate with my love for action – an oddball international cast of colorful characters participating in plenty of stunts, thrills, and melodrama. Familiar crime movie tropes injected with true personality. I really like this one, and I think it’s particulary ripe for rediscovery if picked up by one of the cool boutique blu-ray labels. (Assuming the triads wouldn’t get residuals.)

Tomorrow: Tony Leung wears funny wigs in the conman comedy THE GREAT PRETENDERS.

This entry was posted on Wednesday, April 5th, 2023 at 1:29 pm and is filed under Reviews, Action, Crime. You can follow any responses to this entry through the RSS 2.0 feed. You can skip to the end and leave a response. Pinging is currently not allowed.

5 Responses to “China White”

  1. It hurts to hear.that this one has value because I remember that VHS cover from back in the day but never rented it.

  2. As has been said elsewhere, this series is excellent, and I regret having seen so little of Ronny Yu’s output that I don’t have much to contribute.

    One of the things this series is doing is reminding me of what an extraordinary time the 80s and 90s were in Hong Kong film making and how even when I think I have seen a lot of these movies I’ve barely scratched the surface. That has to be cause for optimism, even if it also acknowledges that that moment is now past.

    I wholly respect the decision not to make much of the abduction gossip in reviewing CHINA WHITE, but I think Carina Lau was also kidnapped during the making of DAYS OF BEING WILD, or was that in fact the same abduction? The timing doesn’t quite seem to fit for a single event.

  3. Honestly not going too much into the abduction was not so much a choice – it was because I came across that information right after posting the review! For these earlier ones it’s hard to find any behind the scenes information in English, and the Wikipedia entries are usually sparse, so I guess I hadn’t bothered to check the one for CHINA WHITE.

    But for some reason I was looking at the Wikipedia after posting and noticed the “Incident” section. By their telling, it had been widely reported that triads abducted her for turning down a role, but it wasn’t publicly known which specific movie it was until “In 2008, film producer and former chairman of the Hong Kong Film Award Manfred Wong revealed on his blog that Lau was abducted and forced to fly to the Netherlands to act in China White, alongside co-stars Andy Lau and Alex Man, who were forced to do the same.”

    Unfortunately the citation for that information is not in English. It’s possible that there was more than one movie, that he was wrong, or that you heard DAYS OF BEING WILD from earlier speculation before his blog post.

  4. And actually it didn’t occur to me until Al Tran mentioned it on Twitter that the three actors in question only appear in that weirdly tangental flashback, which is only in the Hong Kong cut of the movie. Very strange.

  5. Thanks, Vern. Once again I am reminded how much better my life might’ve been had I learned Cantonese!

    But if we’re talking Wikipedia, I notice that Carina Lau’s own entry has the DAYS OF BEING WILD story but not the CHINA WHITE one. That seems to cite several reputable English language sources – CNN, New York Times, South China Morning Post – but as the CNN story doesn’t name the movie and the other articles are behind paywalls, I am really no wiser.

    There does, however, appear to’ve been an interesting development in 2002 when a local magazine published topless pictures of Lau taken under duress during the abduction. This seems to’ve led to protests against Hong Kong media ethics with Lau and other celebrities, including Jackie Chan, taking to the streets.

    At least I hope I’ve got that right. Wild days indeed, and, as you say very strange.

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