April 23, 2020
The Singing Killer – Hong Kong, 1970
Director Chang Cheh’s 1970 film The Singing Killer begins in a Hong Kong disco that looks to have enough space for about twenty spectators. Never mind. As a bad paraphrase of an old saying goes, with fans as rabid as these, who needs more? See, after every song – and I mean that literally - they euphorically rush the stage, while ecstatically screaming Johnny!, the name of the band’s lead singer. Apparently, no one associated with the club has heard of the concept of security. In the film’s opening moments, we watch as the crowd sways to a song entitled “The Singing Killer,” the lyrics for which include descriptions of a homicidal criminal stalking a city and spreading fear amongst the general populace – lyrics you’d probably not want your children repeating at home. No matter – the audience eats it up. They also quite enjoy his next number, a slow, sweet ditty called (I think) “My Dream Lily,” and yes, they flood the stage upon its completion, too. For their sake, let’s hope his sets are short.
While “The Singing Killer” seems unlikely to have ever been a Top 40 song, it does a decent job at introducing the film’s lead character. Yes, in his earlier incarnation, Johnny was the worst of the worst – a violent thief, a key forger, and a breaker of hearts. This last one is not necessarily a crime, but characters make it a better measure of someone’s character than their willingness to act violently. And yes, he broke the heart of a young woman named Lily and feels so bad about it that he’s asked the local police to ascertain her whereabouts. In an early scene, Johnny rushes to one of his and Lily’s old haunts after receiving a note indicating that she is there waiting for him. He is sadly mistaken. Instead, he finds himself face to face with his old gang, and it soon becomes clear that they will stop at nothing to enlist his services. Ultimately, their efforts involve the elusive Lily.
The set-up is undeniably silly, what unravels even more so. One character, for example, begins the film a relatively nice guy and ends it the head of a criminal gang so large it is impossible to believe that the authorities wouldn’t have him under constant surveillance. Another is first presented to us as a manipulative, uncaring character willing to use anything and anyone to gain an advantage; by the end, she’s lamenting that Johnny has given his heart to someone else. And then there’s the odd inclusion of martial arts. I can believe that a common criminal would find redemption in music; I can even accept that he may have needed self-defense skills to make it in the criminal world, but how he got this level of skill is beyond me. And don’t get me started on the other characters who are suddenly master martial artists. At times, it was like watching the premiere of Martial Law all over again.
I could go on, but here’s the thing. For all it ridiculousness – from the villain’s Bond-like lair to the film’s over-the-top musical numbers (one begins with the lyrics “I’m trapped in a jungle safari” and is sung by Johnny in a circular make-shift wooden cage a la King Kong) - the film works. It presents a realistic scenario of someone being coerced back into the criminal world, and it becomes quite suspenseful as we watch two concurrent storylines – one involving Johnny and his blackmailers, the other a friendly detective who suspects there is more to Johnny’s sudden return to crime than meets the eye. A critical scene in a bank is masterfully shot, and the film’s finale, while including some of the more ludicrous elements of martial arts finales, pulses with vitality and urgency. The acting is hit-and-miss, but as Johnny, David Chiang is excellent, fully conveying the emotions of a bad man trying not to revert back to what is likely his more natural nature, and Tina Chin-Fei is terrific as Ho Man, the temptress with the supposedly hard heart.
Unforgivably, the film’s biggest fault is its inability to fully convey Johnny’s connection with Lily. This is a couple that has been separated for two years, and life has been incredibly unkind to Lily since their break-up. Their reunion should be emotional; there should be anger and confusion, tears accompanied by looks that pierce the soul and reveal the depths of longing in them. Instead, we get silent stares, soft hugs, and the repetition of their love’s name. It’s not enough. In fact, there’s more emotion in Ho Man’s face when she realizes she has lost Johnny than there is during Johnny and Lily’s long-awaited reunion.
Still, the film succeeds more often than not. It opens with a bang, rises in suspense, and ends with a crowd-pleasing rendition of the standard one-man-vs.-an-army motif. Sure, it’s corny at times and its musical numbers will likely remind some viewers of the Austin Powers movies, but it also draws you in and makes you root for the good guys to come out of top. Interestingly, in one scene, Lily tells Johnny, “You are the hero. Don’t use the gun.” So, what does he do in the next scene? Yep, he grabs a machine gun and begins mowing down the bad guys. It’s not his most heroic moment, but remember, he is the singing killer. (on DVD in Region 3)
*The Singing Killer is in Mandarin with English subtitles.