Hong Kong cinema has produced its fair share of crime movies over the years, and a decent amount of cop movies too. They’re genres that seem to work well in the Hong Kong setting, and the people making them are able to infuse a lot of personality and style in them that makes them unique to Hong Kong. So when Eureka Entertainment released Rich and Famous and Tragic Hero with the description ‘influenced by The Godfather and Once Upon a Time in America‘ I was left wondering if these two films would still feel distinct, if they’d still have the same kind of flavour that makes Hong Kong cinema so enjoyable. Needless to say these fears were unfounded, as both movies proved to be an absolute delight.
Rich and Famous tells the story of Yung (Alex Man) and his adoptive brother Kwok (Andy Lau) who his father took in when they were children when Kwok was orphaned. Having grown up together, the two see each other as brothers, and Kwok treats Yung’s sister and father as his own. So when their father falls sick and medical bills need paying the two of them try to trick a local bookie into paying out on a fake ticket. When they’re caught they’re able to talk their way out of Yung losing a finger, but they are both landed in serious debt. Soon they find themselves caught up in the world of gangsters and serious crime as they try to get enough money to pay off their debt.
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Luckily, they catch the attention of gang leader Li Ah Chai (Chow Yun Fat), who takes pity on the two brothers, seeing that they’re in over their heads and trying to help their family. Chai gives them jobs in the organisation, and over the coming years they rise through the ranks, becoming Chai’s friends and trusted enforcers. Unfortunately, events come into play that will see a violent rift form between the two brothers.
It’s easy to see the comparisons to The Godfather with Rich and Famous, as the stories of Yung and Kwok are similar to that of Michael Corleone. The pair don’t set out to become criminals, and it’s through wanting to help out other people that they find themselves being slowly drawn into a world of crime and violence. Unlike The Godfather films, which show the uglier side of the Corleone family and makes it clear that they’re not good people, Chai and his group are very much painted as the good side here. Yes, they engage in criminal activities and kill people, but they’re always shown to be the reasonable people, who try to keep the peace, and who only kill in self defence. There’s very little talk about how they get their money compared to the other crime families, and you never see them engaging in torture or beatings like their enemies do.
This clear line of good and bad is mostly to illustrate the different journeys that Yung and Kwok will go on during this film, as one of them sticks with Chai, whilst the other will turn against him. It wants you to see one of the brothers as more inherently bad, more corrupted by their lifestyle; and it works well. It’s ironic that the word tragic is used in the title of the second film, as the first is very much a tragedy too, and seeing Yung break his bond with his brother, murdering people in cold blood, torturing his friends, and performing vicious acts has you feeling sorry for him as much as you hate him.
That being said, Tragic Hero shakes things up quite a bit, and makes a much starker distinction between the two sides in the conflict. Set several years after the first film, Yung has served his time in prison and has now risen up the ranks to become his own crime boss to rival Chai. So far the peace has been kept between the two, though everyone knows that Yung is waiting for an excuse to kill Chai. When Yung begins his machinations to take down Chai it begins a series of bloody events that will see innocent people brutally killed, and Chai losing everything. Fleeing the country, he goes to the one friend he has left, Kwok, who left the criminal life behind years before. But when Yung’s crazed lust for violence comes after them it will see the two brothers once again at odds.
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Rich and Famous is a film that focuses on the relationship between Kwok and Yung, and charts Yung’s slow descent into evil. In contrast, the sequel goes arch in its depiction of him, and Yung goes from a man slowly corrupted by crime into an unadulterated psychopath who finds joy in murder. It can at first be a bit jarring, but it’s actually a pretty interesting look at how hate can twist someone so completely. Yung has lived with his desire for revenge for years, and it’s turned him into a complete monster. It also makes the lines of good and bad so much starker here, and you’d be hard pressed to describe Chai as a bad guy in this film at all. He, and Kwok, are the heroes described in the title.
I can see that this change might not sit well with everyone, and it might be too drastic a shift, but when watching the two films together it does feel like a believable progression of these characters’ stories. Perhaps the most jarring change isn’t in the characters, but in the way the film is presented. The first film is a slower affair, more focused on characters, and is a crime drama with some smattering of action in a couple of scenes. In contrast, Tragic Hero is a dark action movie. The characters are well formed at this point, and there’s no more development for them to be had; Kwok and Chai are the heroes, and Yung is the villain, and that doesn’t change. So the film leans into the violence and the action more.
There’s a point in the film where you can feel the change, an event that means that everything changes, and it sets our heroes on a road that will lead to a sequence that feels like the Hong Kong equivalent of Commando, with explosions, gunfights, and extreme violence. Honestly, I kind of loved this shift. The moment that changes the movie literally made my jaw drop, and I couldn’t believe that the film had just done what it did. And as a fan of 80’s action films, seeing this character-driven gangster drama turn into one of the most intense action movies I’ve seen was a surprise and a joy. Tragic Hero will be the more divisive of the two films here, but for me it was a delight to watch, and a surprisingly interesting end to the entire saga.
The performances in both films are great, and Chow Yun Fat makes for a wonderfully charismatic gangster. He’s a kind and caring guy, and it never once feels like him being kind towards the people under him is an act. As such, when he needs to turn on the anger it comes across as much more surprising and intense. That being said, Alex Man is by far the actor you want to watch here. The first film sees him go from a kind young man out to help his family into someone who starts to be out for himself, eventually broken and twisted by his hate for others brought about by his own actions. His downfall is a tragic one, and because of how well he played Yung at the start of the film you can’t help but still care for him at the end. That being said, he’s absolutely chewing up the scenery in the sequel, leaning heavily into the role of villain. It feels like he’s having a lot of fun playing a character so openly bad, and you can’t help but love seeing him on screen even though you absolutely despise the character at that point.
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Along with the two films, presented in new 1080p restorations, the discs feature a couple of extras, including archival interviews with Manfred Wong and Michael Mak (both clocking in at 20 minutes), and a new short feature looking at the dubbing of Hong Kong movies in the 80s, again clocking in at around 20 minutes. Other than that there are new audio commentaries on both movies by Asian film expert Frank Djeng. Sadly, that’s about it, and both discs end up feeling quite light on extra material. This has been something that regular viewers of Eureka’s Hong Kong film releases will have noticed, however, and the lack of behind the scenes materials made at the time is really felt now, decades later. Whilst it would be nice to have seen more stuff included here it’s not really the reason why folks are picking up these new releases, and the films themselves carry the set well enough.
Rich and Famous and Tragic Hero are both enjoyable and entertaining movies with some great actors in the central cast. On their own both movies are entertaining and well made, though offer slightly different things. However, watched together the two movies make for a truly interesting story about these two brothers and the crime lord who forever changes their lives. Fans of crime movies, those who love character drama, and action movie buffs will all find amazing moments to enjoy in this new set.
Rich and Famous/Tragic Hero are out on Blu-ray on 24th July from Eureka Entertainment.