Because The Heroic Sisterhood knows how important movies are to you.
Last year at the San Francisco Hong Kong Cinema festival I was able to see one of my favorite Milkyway films on the big screen:
I’m not going to review the film here but you can find an excellent write-up by Kozo at LoveHKFilm.com. My buddy Hero also provides a review with good background information on his Milkyway-tastic blog A Hero Never Dies.
What I really want to talk about is a type of story character that I dig a lot: the Anti-Hero. And I’ll attempt to explain why I think “The Longest Nite” is an outstanding crime film.
Cut to the chase.
What intrigues me so much about this film is how my initial feeling toward a character can shift 180° solely because of plot. The protagonist, a rotten cop (Tony Leung Chiu Wai), is possibly the most disgusting anti-hero I’ve ever encountered in cinema. He steals, lies and cheats. He beats, tortures and kills everybody including women. Normally anti-heroes do very bad things like kill people so in order for viewers to identify with and like an anti-hero, he must exhibit positive qualities like bravery, loyalty, generosity or gallantry. For instance, Arthur Penn’s romantic anti-heroes “Bonnie and Clyde” (1967) exhibit all of these qualities and love each other and are really good looking, which makes audiences not only sympathize with them but freakin’ adore them. In “The Longest Nite”, Leung’s character exhibits only one positive anti-hero quality: loyalty to his triad boss. That’s it. Other than that he’s a complete asshole.
But as the plot moves forward, I find myself beginning to like him. Just when he seems to have established himself as a sickening villain, he is betrayed and framed by his boss. Something confusing and complex begins to happen: his role shifts from predatory wolf to fairly innocent sacrificial lamb. Although he remains a complete asshole, his relative position in an evil world has changed and I become aligned with him. Watching him squirm as he tries to save himself from impending slaughter evokes quite a bit of sympathy in me. The noose tightens, and by the beginning of the third act I badly want Leung to win his survival struggle.
Evoking sympathy for this horrible character is not an easy thing for the film makers to accomplish. Yet it happens, and it accounts for at least half of the enormous tension and risk in “The Longest Nite”.
The other half of the ball-sweating plot is driven by Leung’s antagonist, an assassin played by Lau Ching Wan. He is typical anti-hero material: brave, smart, resilient, never gratuitously cruel, and kind to women and children. From his first onscreen appearance, he is immediately sympathetic as the relative good guy in a very bad world. Of course I want him to win. Oh, wait a minute. I thought I wanted Leung to win.
When Leung and Lau start to compete in a life and death struggle, I don’t even know what to feel anymore. The fight is not simply between good and evil, it is between two anti-heroes who have both gained my sympathy. I really just want both of them to win, gosh darn it. Conflict heaps up on top of conflict. Ugh, it’s so complicated.
A standard movie story places a viewer squarely in the corner of one sympathetic hero character. He loves his girl and kittens, he’s righteous but misunderstood, and he must fight an enemy who usually does not evoke any sympathy at all (although if the enemy can evoke sympathy, he is a lot more interesting and memorable). But in “The Longest Nite” there are two heroes. Or perhaps two enemies. Or they are both the anti-hero. There is no clear line. I’m confused and torn, just like in real life.
And then gosh darn it, after their epic struggle they both fucking die. Usually this is the right ending. The classic anti-hero should die because his downward journey leads to only one end. Bonnie and Clyde, Scarface, “The Boxer of Shantung” Ma Yong Zhen, and “Public Enemy” Tom Powers follow that glorious, cathartic journey. But in “The Longest Nite”, Leung’s and Lau’s deaths are particularly frustrating. They are both desperate. They both want to live. And their violent ends serve to show that they were not the free, powerful men they thought they were. In the end they are nothing more than meaningless pawns in a system where only the nastiest and most powerful survive. I mourn them both equally.
Kudos to Milkyway’s finest script writers Wai Ka Fai, Szeto Kam Yuen (RIP) and Yau Nai Hoi for damnfooling my emotions this way. Kozo says in his review that “there is nothing and nobody to connect to in this movie” but I feel a connection to both characters. And I assume, maybe wrongly, that the script writers did too. Maybe I’m just a sicko. However, I am not alone in thinking that “The Longest Nite” is an outstanding crime film.
I find anti-hero stories much more compelling than movies about clean, polarized heroes and villains. This may be because I share with “The Longest Nite” (and many Hong Kong movies) the underlying perspective that life is suffering and that in this world the powerful always abuse the powerless. When this kind of “pessimism” is the baseline perspective in storytelling, morality is pretty relative. The conflict is not between simplistic “good and evil” but between “fucked-up and even-more-fucked-up”. I don’t expect anyone to be good, and neither does “The Longest Nite”. It searches for answers on how to survive in a fucked up world… and it does not find them.
I search for answers and don’t find them either. Like most people in this world, I have no power. I often ponder whether crime actually pays. Because I suspect it does not, I examine this moral dilemma via a safe outlet: watching movies. Anti-hero films like “The Longest Nite” (also some pre-code Hollywood, French, Italian and Mexican gangster flicks) are non-sanctimonious, sometimes fairly realistic “what if” explorations of impulsive behavior and choice-making. Watching anti-heroes eat shit onscreen reminds us why we choose to avoid robbing and killing. Why we should not compete for power. Why we should stay out of prison. Stories like “The Longest Nite” are, for me, important and meaningful because they remind me of what happens to anti-heroes in real life. I guess I’m one of those people that need constant reminding.
I really don’t want my head chopped off. I prefer to just stay in my little house safely watching movies about other people having their heads chopped off.
Lesson learned. Thanks, Milkyway!