[Welcome to Peter’s Kung Fu Corner: a monthly column dedicated to retrospectives on the martial arts films I grew up watching. We’ll be covering all kinds of Hong Kong action films from Bruce Lee all the way to Joseph Kuo. Get ready to be introduced to some weird, wacky, and utterly badass films.]
It’s nigh-on impossible to claim that comedians such as Buster Keaton, Charlie Chaplin, or even The Three Stooges were not influential outside of the US. Their broad approach to comedy with slapstick antics and situational dilemmas defined much of early cinema’s history and that easy-to-translate style led to incredible success overseas. While coverage of that overseas success isn’t as well documented, one needs to look no further than the boom of Kung Fu comedies in the 80s to see just how treasured those early comedy acts were.
While Jackie Chan has always been compared directly to Buster Keaton, his Peking Opera school brother Sammo Hung may have taken even more influence from the comedy legend. While I never realized this back when I first saw it, Winners and Sinners plays out more like a classic Warner Bros. comedy than it does a traditional Kung Fu flick. There is a bevy of physical comedy, awkward situations, Cantonese wordplay, and celebrity cameos that makes the experience come off more theatrical than any of the work Hung had created prior.
Released in 1983, Winners and Sinners marked a turning point for Hong Kong action cinema in a number of ways. It was the first time Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan appeared on screen together, even if Chan’s role is an extended cameo. It was also one of the first times an ensemble cast of not only Kung Fu actors, but Hong Kong celebrities would get together to create a crowd-pleaser. In addition to that, the movie further developed Hung’s modern-day style, taking his films away from period pieces and putting them firmly in contemporary settings (this was first done in 1982 for Hung’s film Carry On Pickpocket).
I still can’t quite recall why I ever purchased the old DVD in high school. I think Jackie Chan’s face being plastered all over it gave me the impression that he would have a larger role. This marketing tactic wasn’t limited to the US as even the original Hong Kong poster puts Chan in the center, though below Hung’s massive face. I guess I just assumed this was another hidden classic, which isn’t entirely wrong.
The general plot of Winners and Sinners starts to mean less and less as the film goes on. It starts off with short skits of four of our main protagonists getting caught committing some petty crimes and being sentenced to a couple of years of jail time. This includes Teapot (Sammo Hung), Curly (John Shum), Vaseline (Charlie Chin), and Exhaust Pipe (the late Richard Ng). While at the station, the four happen to see another man, Rookie (Stanley Fung), getting hauled in. They form a pact while inside to stick together and help each other stay out of trouble once released, eventually founding the Lucky Stars Cleaning Company.
That’s basically it, too. The movie eventually wraps back around to tackle the goings on of gangster Jack Tar (James Tien), who was seen exiting the prison in lavish style at the intro, but all of this is just a loose reason to have the characters get together and riff on each other. As noted on Frank Djeng’s commentary track contained on Eureka’s Blu-Ray set, Hung got the idea for Winners and Sinners not only from old Hollywood comedies but from The Italian Job. He wanted to create something of a heist movie with disparate people coming together. I’m not exactly sure if he captured that same style, but it does make some sense.
To uninitiated audiences, Winners and Sinners might come off as too screwball for their liking. Oftentimes when you read reviews for Cantonese comedy flicks, people simply won’t get the style of humor on display. There are a few places where the cultural divide between being born and raised in the US stops me from really understanding what I’m witnessing here. Most of the comedy is physical enough that you can laugh at the situations, but other times it requires knowledge of either Hong Kong celebrities and their on-screen personalities or Chinese customs that aren’t widely known outside of China. Since Winners and Sinners was something of a test case -and even a direct response to the wildly successful Aces Go Places just the year prior-, Hung reins in a lot of the idiosyncrasies and keeps things more about the relationships between the central characters.
As soon as the Lucky Stars get out of prison, for example, they get on a bus and begin to “brag” about all of the heinous crimes they committed. I shouldn’t have to explain why this is hilarious, but there are a few things to note. Pedestrians in 80s Hong Kong rode on minibusses and would often pay after getting to their stops. It’s atypical to how public transportation works in the US, where you pay beforehand. So, when our protagonists are talking about viciously killing people, they are doing so to get out of paying.
A lot of the comedy in Winners and Sinners works like this, too. It subverts expectations by having one character say something and then having another character do it. Referencing Frank Djeng’s commentary again, all of the personalities of the main characters are the opposite of their real-life counterparts. Hung was a nice person, yes, but he wasn’t a simpleton. Richard Ng didn’t have an obsession with taking his clothes off. Charlie Chin was often cast as a romantic lead, yet here he strikes out with every woman he approaches. For Hong Kong audiences, it was hilarious to see these stars doing something so diametrically opposed to their normal roles.
Richard Ng, in particular, is instrumental in subverting familiar Cantonese comedy tropes here. Ng brings a lot of his British humor to the role, creating situations that play out very similarly to Monty Python skits. While Ng was born in Guangzhou and raised in Hong Kong, he went to London for schooling and picked up a lot of foreign sensibilities. He brought these back to Hong Kong, launching a career that was far more liberal than the average Hong Konger had ever seen. It leads to a big sequence in the middle of Winners and Sinners where he is posing naked while props strategically hide his nudity.
There is also another big scene where Ng’s character starts singing in a rather horrible fashion over a walkie-talkie while two musicians come up to randomly play a Rod Stewart song. While American audiences might think it’s funny that these two blind homeless people are actually accomplished musicians, the real joke is that the musicians are played by Albert Cheung and Elisa Chan. They were both hugely popular at the time of this film’s release.
Being this is a Sammo Hung film, though, Winners and Sinners isn’t just comedic situations and nothing else. This is why I think the film left an imprint on me when I was younger, but there are a couple of action scenes strewn about the film that feels nothing like Hung’s earlier work. That shift to modern times really changes the choreography from feeling flashy and operatic and more into gruff realism. This is helped by having Jackie Chan around, who does his usual schtick of incorporating the surrounding environment into the battle.
As I before above, this was the first time Hung and Chan were on-screen together, so seeing them team up and knock some thugs around is an absolute joy. Happening in a burger joint, the two lay waste to some fools while tables get flipped, trays get thrown, and some guy gets kicked out of a window. It’s a real shocker when it happens as you simply aren’t expecting such hard-hitting action in what was ostensibly a comedy film up to that point.
Winners and Sinners also has one of the most overlooked stunts that Chan has ever performed. While aided by a couple of different stuntmen due to hectic filming schedules, there’s a chase sequence about an hour into the film where Chan is skitching off of cars while on rollerskates before he ducks underneath a truck. There is some undercranking going on to give the illusion of faster movement, but the stunt is so ludicrously dangerous that it’s a wonder how Chan ever survived the 80s. It also results in a ridiculous multi-car pile-up that Hung states was inspired by The Blues Brothers. Something like 50 cars end up getting trashed and it’s just a sight to behold. As much of a detour as Chan’s character is in this film, you can’t deny how awesome it is to watch cars fly through the air and crumble on the ground from the impact.
While the comedy never stops, the back half of Winners and Sinners shifts into more of what you’d call a typical Kung Fu comedy template. There isn’t a tremendous amount of action for a movie running nearly two hours, but with the first half of the film completely devoid of action, I suppose Hung felt the film had to end in a big way. We also come back to that gangster I mentioned and the storyline focuses on The Lucky Stars mistakenly taking a briefcase full of cash. It’s a bit stupid if I’m being honest, but watching Richard Ng do a boxing schtick to only then actually punch someone in the face is a riot. I’m also super surprised that Hong Kong beauty pageant winner Cherie Chung is seemingly doing her own stunts.
The success of Winners and Sinners would lead Hung to create more films with the same principal cast, resulting in The Lucky Stars trilogy. This main trilogy would consist of Winners and Sinners, My Lucky Stars, and Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars. Since Hung had created the first film as a response to Aces Go Places, the two series would eventually collaborate in a film titled Lucky Stars Go Places, though that film marks the departure of not only Jackie Chan but some other cast members. People were really into these films, even if the subsequent releases would focus less on action and more on really poorly-aged sex comedy.
While I wouldn’t recommend checking out the other movies, Winners and Sinners is a prime example of Cantonese comedy at its finest. It’s not too out there with its antics while also not being too safe to write off as childish. Some of the finer details here may not ring true for Westerners, but if you allow yourself to soak in the atmosphere and gel with its offbeat cast, you might just find an entirely new world of comedy waiting for you.
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