The Hui Brothers DVD Collection Review
Up until the mid-70's Hong Kong had been largely producing Mandarin films; a language synonymous with the multitude of famous Shaw Brother's flicks to peek throughout this early period. In 1974 things would take a drastic turn when comedian, Michael Hui left behind Shaw Bros (for whom he made four films with) and signed up with Golden Harvest to produce a series of Cantonese films. It was after the box office success of his first Golden Harvest film, Games Gamblers Play that Cantonese would once again become the predominant language for Hong Kong's cinematic endeavours. With 1975's The Last Message, 1976's The Private Eyes, 1978's The Contract and finally Security Unlimited in 1981 Hui's name would be forever remembered for notably changing the history of filmmaking in Hong Kong and presenting a new kind of comedy. One more thing that made these films so special was the family unit that was Michael and his two brothers Sam and Ricky. Together they formed a comic trio that often ran across the same line time and again: Michael - the brains of the bunch, the cranky schemer, forever trying to make a quick buck, or he who leads an authoritative existence for which he demands respect. Sam - the laid back hippie songster whose infectious tunes would breathe life into each film with their relevant lyrics about everyday life and hardships, albeit with a catchy beat, later acknowledging Sam as the Godfather of Canto-pop. Finally, Ricky - The guy who always got into trouble at some point but whose lovable persona made him a great counter balance to the act. Together the trio was unstoppable and their entertaining adventures have since stood the test of time.
So let's celebrate the Hui brothers as we take a look at their five feature films, remastered and presented in this must have collection.
Games Gamblers Play (1974, 107mins)
After getting caught for his bad deeds Teng (Michael Hui) once again finds himself in prison where he continues his trade as a professional con man. His life of cell time solitude is soon interrupted when a young man by the name of Liu (Samuel Hui) is given the same room to share. Liu dreams of being a perfect con man and in Teng he finds inspiration. Together they decide that once out of prison they will join forces to make their fortune. Liu's words of "How can we fail"? soon come back to haunt him as the pair try and try again to make a profit that sees them taking on card sharks, to entering TV contests and failing at every turn.
The Hui brothers' first box office smash sets up what is to be a familiar theme for future productions and that is the tale of the hard working man. Michael Hui takes the reigns for his Golden Harvest directorial debut that sees a wealth of famous faces coming and going, including the late James Wong in a funny turn as a game show host, hosting an altogether different kind of Jeopardy show.
Michael and Sam strike up a brilliant repertoire together that provides an evident amount of strength to the film that relies upon their chemistry for so much of its run time. Michael Hui honed his comic skills over the years and to see him take on a task as huge as writer, director and star is a much applauded one. Helping him along is Sam who provides the first of many memorable scores, with his hit song that emphasises some of the points being made on screen, and while Ricky only turns up in a small role his scene with Sam is a joyous one.
While the film follows a predictable path it never falls off the rails because like the masters of comedy before them, the Hui gang know exactly when to hit their mark. Forget the inessentials as they really don't matter. This is simple, undemanding comedy that delivers more than its share of fun moments.
The Last Message (1975, 98mins)
At the Hang Seng Sanatorium Ah Tim (Michael Hui) makes his daily rounds as he happily steals prized possessions from the dead at the morgue, while one of his co-workers, Li (Samuel Hui) sticks to his mundane duties as a nurse. When Li discovers what Ah Tim has been up to he forces an alliance in order to get a fair share of profits, or else report Ah Tim's crimes. One day a patient comes in by the name of Cheng (Roy Chiao) and starts to babble on about a princess and a hidden treasure. At first Ah Tim and Li dismiss the man as simply being crazy but as time goes on they become more wrapped up in his story telling and try to obtain information as to its whereabouts. When Cheng passes away they decide to hunt the treasure down, but it isn't going to be easy with a scattering of hopeless clues surrounding them.
The Hui brothers' second film, that again sees Michael and Sam take the predominant roles is an interesting but troubled follow up to their previous outing.
While the premise is an interesting one and certainly a concept that should do tremendously well given the confines of its setting the film travels along a cumbersome path. This is undoubtedly the slowest moving of the bunch and spends far too much time in dragging out scenes and particular jokes. One example that sees Ah Tim and Li work on their patient Cheng serves few laughs past the main set up yet is further revisited several times in the duration. That said Michael and Sam still manage to entertain with some excellent gags including their treasure hunt which stands out the proudest.
The Last Message is to my mind the weakest of the five features but that's not to say it doesn't entertain, it just isn't classic Hui material. While there are fleeting moments of inspired comedy the storyline (for what its worth) is somewhat jumbled and fails to get its message across as clearly as later efforts would. The film is different enough to warrant some praise because if there's one thing the Hui family are clear about it is to always try something different and The Last Message is a great addition to their eclectic choice of setting and storytelling, one from which they evidently learned from and produced more polished efforts later in their career.
The Private Eyes (1976, 96mins)
Joseph Wong (Michael Hui) is a private investigator who runs the Manix Private Detective Agency with the help of "Pighead" (Ricky Hui) and his secretary, Jacky (Angie Chiu). Wong is a very strict man whose ideals aren't always beneficial to those around him. His staff are underpaid but he believes that they should be happy all the same working for him. While he fails to offer them better wages he also cuts costs in every way possible, cutting corners if need be and calculating every little thing he can think of in order to save a dollar or two.
One day a young man named Lee Kwok Kit (Samuel Hui) visits Wong's office after recently being fired from his factory job. After a rocky start Wong decides to take on Kit, offering him minimal wages and no benefits. The pair soon begin their partnership as they investigate a series of cases that range from cheating spouses, con men, shoplifters and finally to their ultimate case that will see them face off with a gang of dangerous thieves.
The Hui brothers’ struck gold with their third outing that broke all box office records in Hong Kong and to this day remains the king of earners in its home territory. This doesn’t come as any surprise as The Private Eyes was the film to finally showcase the trio as being masters of their craft. Having grown and learned considerably from their previous films they utilised the niche that they worked upon to deliver a film not only highly entertaining in a comical sense but also in a moralistic and societarian way.
This third project finally saw Michael, Sam and Ricky work in perfect unison, with Ricky (now free from his Shaw Bros contract) given a bigger role their respective characters were each drawn out to a level that would remain the same for their two remaining films. Michael knows exactly what his family members are capable of and in a smart move he keeps things simple. Again Sam performs the music and sings the film's main theme which is easily the most memorable from their five features, with its upbeat, yet unsubtle lyrics that drive home the message and form the basis of what it is that the film is ultimately focusing on. The subject matter about the average working man, spending long hard days grafting and getting no respect or recognition for it may seem serious and indeed it is but let us not forget this is a comedy and Michael Hui sure knows how to deliver a message.
The Private Eyes, while seemingly a series of quick vignettes offering little in the way of a huge scale storyline is comedic craftsmanship at its best, with each piece meticulously played out to perfection. There's no forgetting Michael's encounter with a "thief" that takes place in a kitchen as he wields a string of sausages as if he were Bruce Lee, or when Sam must hide in the bath tub while Richard Ng gets naughty with a lady friend. With its heavy reliance on visual gags, rather than the word play that Michael favoured in his previous film it can quite easily be recognised as a small masterpiece that paved the way to greater things.
The Contract (1978, 97mins)
Chi-Man (Michael Hui) has dreams of becoming a famous television personality but an MTV contract has prevented him from getting any exposure over the past six years. Longing to void the remaining two years of his contract things begin to look hopeful for Chi-Man's career when he meets an executive at rival company Cat TV, who offers him the contract he's been dreaming of. Unfortunately the new boss over at MTV refuses to end his contract leaving Chi-Man with only one choice - to steal and destroy his MTV contract. He’s going to need help to achieve this so enter his inventor brother, Chi-Ying (Ricky Hui) and new acquaintance, Sam Hui - a struggling magician who also dreams of greener pastures.
Never one to shy away from making his point, Michael Hui this time sends up the entertainment industry and delivers more classic, Hui goodness. Michael finds time to set up a series of bizarre events, not least of which is a hilarious sequence in which he fends off a huge thug with a parrot – and just when you think they couldn't possibly get any better – does so while wearing a dress. With Sam and Ricky's essential presence the Huis' send up their chosen topic in style, outlining industry and working man hardships in a business that can be the cruellest in the world and yet at the same time fulfil every ones' dream.
Sticking to the formula they used in The Private Eyes they once again give us a series of brilliant comedy and stunt set pieces that ends with Michael dancing his way merrily through a troupe of silver-clad performers in a finale worth savouring. The Contract is full of foolish antics but this is what has always been so lovable about the trio, Michael, Sam and Ricky have never been afraid to exploit themselves and poke fun at each other so as long as they continue to enjoy themselves, in turn so will the viewer.
Security Unlimited (1981, 91mins)
At a top security guard agency Michael (Michael Hui) has spent the past fifteen years at the top of his game as a chief instructor. Looking out for number one he rarely gets any respect from his colleagues and of late his methods have been considered outdated by the rest of his team. His second in command, Sam (Sam Hui) has been waiting for a chance to take over leadership for quite some time, having grown tired of being a lackey. One day Ricky (Ricky Hui) seeks a job opportunity with the firm and despite being too short he manages to get on the team. Now Michael, Sam and Ricky must prove their worth as they face a change of leadership with bigger plans on their mind, in a series of comedy vignettes that sees the Hui brothers' go out on a high note in their last feature together.
Two years in the making and the Hui brothers' swan song, Security Unlimited is a fabulous achievement. Michael and Sam once again write a screenplay that has as much attention focused on making a statement as it does in delivering a series of comedy gems. Much like The Private Eyes however, this follows the rule of presenting the audience with enough visual gags to make up for any lack of plot, which basically culminates in a showdown between our guards and a group of villains in hilarious fashion. None of this matters, these films were never meant to challenge the viewer on any great level and the important message that lies within is made abundantly clear in what is arguably the brothers' second most famous film of the five presented here.
For this last outing Ricky is given a greater role. One that remarkably showcases his brief yet dramatic range, steering from his usual comic persona to presents him not only as a lovable fool but a sympathetic man when he eventually learns of his loved one's out of hours activities. However brief, this moment remains a memorable one and the consistency continues on as Ricky steals almost all of his scenes, up to a point when it's time for Michael and Sam to take over and when they do the results are comedy gold.
IVL present this collection of films in a sturdy, if not ugly lime green box. Due to the extremely close quality in audio and visual presentation I have decided to review these segments reflecting the set as a whole.
Those who have made do with Universe's past crop of releases can now upgrade as each film is presented anamorphically in their original 2.35:1 aspect ratios. The long wait has proved worthwhile as each film looks to be in tremendous shape with very clean source materials showing little in the way of dirt. There are no major defects in any of the transfers and I can confidently say that I don't think these films have ever looked better, but then their circulation on the DVD format has been somewhat limited over the years. The Hui brothers' world is a very colourful one and these films are nicely complimented with deserving transfers that show off all the colours of the rainbow in glorious 70's fashion in often pin sharp detail. Naturally a little softness creeps in and there are some minor compression niggles and finally some edge enhancement but overall these films look great and should satisfy any Hui fan.
For an idea of just how much better these releases are I have provided a comparison between the new IVL release of The Private Eyes and the old Universe disc. Flesh tones appear more natural in the new release and shadow detail is now improved, with stronger black levels.
IVL have provided Cantonese 5.1, DTS and Mandarin 5.1 surround options. Sadly the original 2.0 mixes are nowhere to be seen, an option that would have been welcomed despite the fact these new mixes are not half bad. I opted to listen to each film in 5.1, only sampling the DTS track as I didn't think it was particularly suitable.
For the most part the films sound very good. Dialogue is crisp and clear and Sam Hui's ever wonderful and reliable musical numbers sound great. The films have naturally aged and on occasion there is the odd crackle but IVL must be commended for their efforts. In particular I am pleased to say that they have restored the original music and sound effects to Michael's kitchen brawl that features in The Private Eyes whereas the old Universe DVD used a replacement track. So now the film can be heard as intended, complete with Bruce Lee cries and Enter the Dragon musical cues!
Each DVD features optional traditional Chinese and English subtitles, which read well but are not free from errors. The worst culprit is The Private Eyes, omitting sentences on two or three occasions and though it may not be too hard to figure out what people are saying in these instances (plus add to the fact that this reviewer already knows what is being said, having owned the Universe release) it is rather poor all the same. Overall the subtitles are acceptable, with a few grammatical errors here and there but most importantly, the films are still easy to follow.
The extra features are unfortunately limited in this collection but at least we can be grateful for what little is here. The following are found on the Games Gamblers Play disc…
Sam's 9 Minutes
This actually runs less than 9-minutes, clocking in at the 8-minute mark, but I digress. Here we get to see previously unseen footage for some kind of promotional feature that shows Sam and his group "The Lotus" take us on a little studio tour. We get to watch Sam write some lyrics and see his band sing a couple of songs and generally have a good time.
This feature is not subtitled.
This truly is a gem. Running for approximately 5-minutes this is an extension of Liu (Sam Hui) and his girlfriend's (Lisa Lui) trip along the beach. After having a nice time they run into two guys, one of whom is none other than Sammo Hung. Soon Lui gets defensive and decides to try his skills against Sammo in this hilarious segment that shows Sammo looking to have a great time in what turns out to be a completely off the wall encounter. Sam Hui is in high spirits, looking marvellous as he takes on various guises that range from Thai kick boxers, swordsman and even the great Bruce Lee. I presume that this may have been cut due to run time but whatever the reason it is great to see it as an extra feature. It's a rare thing that thankfully we can now all see.
Even better this scene features optional English subtitles and is presented in anamorphic widescreen.
Each DVD features the respective original theatrical trailer as well as newly created promotional trailers for each individual film.
The Hui brothers' are a legendary institute whose work helped to define a new era in Hong Kong filmmaking. As important as their films are they are also infinitely entertaining, providing several solid hours of genuinely funny material, despite a couple of misses here and there. IVL have done a brilliant job presenting these classic pieces and are proving to be a very strong contender in Hong Kong, against Mei Ah and Universe. As a big Hui brothers fan I am happy enough and I'm going to keep my fingers crossed that IVL gets their hands on the Aces Go Places series and hopefully many more Michael Hui features.
9 out of 10
8 out of 10
6 out of 10
3 out of 10