The Winter of Three Hairs (Yan Gong and Zhao Ming, China, 1949)

In Shanghai a homeless eight year old orphan known as ‘Three Hairs’ (Wan Lung-Chi) struggles to survive on the streets using his wits. After various adventures he joins a team of beggars but ends up captured by a Fagin-style criminal who tries to force Three Hairs to work for him. After escaping Three Hairs is adopted by a selfish rich lady who cleans him up, renames him Tommy and tries to control him like one of her pets. But during a big party at the lady’s mansion Three Hairs can’t stand the sight of his starving beggar friends outside so he raids the lady’s fridge for them and then lets them into the party with chaotic results. Thrown out of the mansion Three Hairs finds himself back on the streets but his spirit proves unbreakable.

Based on a famous Chinese comic strip this excellent film boasts a great performance from Lung-Chi that from the moment we see him wandering hungrily through an open air market – as images of chicken wings and sausages are superimposed flying past on the screen – is simultaneously humorous and heartbreaking. Through a series of adventures the brutal existence of Three Hairs is portrayed with compassion yet also without an ounce of sentimentality. This is a tough, scrappy kid with an unerring sense of right and wrong who may be down but never out. The climax, in which our kid lets his orphan mates into the lady’s rich mansion so they can enjoy the grub and in the process horrify all the posh guests, is a sequence that could have come straight out of a socially conscious Capra or Sturges movie a decade or so earlier. The political turbulence of the period, i.e., the Communists seizing power, meant production was held up for a year and script changes demanded by the censors. This is most obvious in the film’s coda which depicts the Communists arriving to liberate the poor and ropes Three Hairs in to cheer them on. But it is literally a 30 second scene right at the end of the movie and doesn’t do any damage to the previous 70 mins. Much of the production appears to have been filmed on the streets of Shanghai (there are some great shots of city life here with the few cars puttering up and down the street all but swarmed by folk on bikes) and the style evokes something of that same power as the works of the early Italian neo-realists. The hero’s nickname comes from the comic strip image of him with three strands of hair pasted on his otherwise bald head. It’s an image faithfully recreated for the movie. If you can find this, highly recommended.

Intruder (Tsang Kan-Cheung, Hong Kong, 1997)

Afer being impressed by Wu Chien-Lien’s performance as a female assassin in Beyond Hypothermia I thought I’d give her next film a try and I wasn’t disappointed. Intruder’s apparent failure at the HK box-office as well as the rumour that the local audience so identified the main characters ruthlessness with that of the actress playing her that it effectively put an end to Chien-Lien’s film career – at least as a leading lady – seems in retrospect very unfair indeed. Wu plays a mainland Chinese woman who in the first few minutes strangles a prostitute for her passport and then, having successfully tricked her way into Hong Kong territory, traps a taxi driver (Wayne Lai) in his own home and settles down to await the arrival of her sinister criminal husband. But things quickly get out of control when the taxi driver’s own mother turns up at the house along with the man’s child and Wu – taking orders from her husband over the phone – kills again and then decides the sweet little girl is a loose end who must also be dealt with. And speaking of loose ends, the prostitute Wu murdered at the start of the film turns out to have a husband in Hong Kong who’s determined to find out who it is who’s been travelling on his wife’s passport. When he eventually tracks Wu back to the driver’s home the stage is more than set for a right old bloodbath.

This is one intense, gruelling, atmospheric thriller with a strong sense of place and more than a splash of Grand Guignol horror. Wu Chien-Lien is frightening yet not unsympathetic as a remorseless killer doing it all for love in the form of a husband whose offscreen presence for most of the film leads one to suspect that the phone conversations between them might just be taking place entirely in her own head. In fact her husband does exist and when he finally arrives the reason for keeping Wayne Lai’s taxi driver alive all this time becomes horrifically clear. Both of them need passports to travel in Hong Kong but the husband doesn’t have any hands (fingerprints, y’see) because they’ve been chewed off by police dogs! He needs a new pair of hands, which means… Not lost on Hong Kong audiences of the time is the significance of Wu and her husband as mainland criminals who sneak into the territory and literally possess the body parts of an innocent Hongkie. With the handover to the Chinese just a few years away at the time this was released you don’t have to be any kind of genius to see Intruder as another populist expression of fear at what the territory’s loss of sovereignty would mean for its people (On The Run is another cracking example from this period).

As powerful as all this is Intruder has more going for it than horror kicks. The nightmare situation Wayne Lai’s taxi-driver finds himself in – literally gaffer-taped to a wheelchair and wrapped up like a mummy as he awaits a dreadful fate – leads him to reflect on how selfishly he’s behaved in abandoning his own daughter to the care of his mother. And as the long night wears on, the details of Lai’s pathetic life eke out (and in bitter contrast to the initial meeting between the two in which Wu posed as a needy prostitute to Lai’s braggart client), escape attempts are made and foiled and Chien-Lien shows unexpected sympathy to the little girl she’s abducted but finds herself unable to kill. Her husband of course has no such compunction and once he turns up the little girl ends up captured, buried and almost drowned before finally escaping by getting washed downriver in a raging torrent. It’s a nail-bitingly intense climax and on a technical level Intruder is extremely well done, especially its striking cinematography. Director Tsang Kan-Cheung really knows how to establish a sense of place. He’s very good at laying out the geography of Lai’s flat, in which the bulk of the action unfolds. On the strength of this it’s a shame he never directed again even though he’s forged a highly successful career as a screenwriter, Kung-Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer amongst them. As with Beyond Hypothermia, if you can find this one with the original Cantonese audio and without cuts, strongly recommended.

School Trip (Yoo Hyun-mok, South Korea, 1969)

On a tiny remote island off the Korean coast a schoolteacher named Mr.Kim takes a class of young children on their first ever trip to the country’s capital, Seoul.

Lovely account of country kids exploring a big city and winningly told through the eyes of the children whose wonderment at seeing the likes of skyscrapers and neon lights for the first time in their lives is as nothing to them watching a television interview with their teacher Mr.Kim (a charismatic Koo Bong-seo) being interviewed and thinking he’s actually talking to them. Along the way a variety of typically melodramatic SK subplots – from Mr.Kim’s estrangement with his wife (South Korean superstar Moon Hee), to the kid he’s had to leave behind in Seoul and another child’s search for the older sister who left the family home to find work in the city – are set up, explored and satisfactorily resolved. Responsible for one of the greatest South Korean films ever made, 1961’s brilliant Stray Bullet, director Hyun-mok uses a style that’s part-realist, part-poetic and in its story structure unexpectedly modernist in order to juxtapose the unspoilt beauty of the kids island home with the rapid industrialisation of Seoul and in the process make a subtle point about there being no place like home.

Indeed although the kids visit a local school and end up showered with gifts by the middle-class parents of the children they befriend the sheer extent of the wealth on show after they’re invited to spend the night at one family’s home (refrigerators, washing machines, bathtubs) leaves them struggling to take it all in. There’s lots of humour here (one of the kids, feeling tired, goes to sleep in a bathtub not understanding its true function) but underneath a kind of melancholia that modern Korean society should be favouring material assets over its own youth. It all ends happily though as both the kids and even Mr.Kim’s wife and child decide to travel back with him to the island and one is left with the overriding feeling that its director has rather sneakily managed to put one over on the censors. This was after all made under a military dictatorship and a censorship board keen to promote the benefits of rapid industrialisation. Ironically though this doesn’t feel like the film’s actual message at all.

Accidental Kidnapper (Hideo Sakaki, Japan, 2010)

One day Hideyoshi Date (Katsunori Takahashi), a debt-ridden, suicidal 30-something discovers a runaway kid named Densuke Aikawa (Roi Hayashi) in the back of his car. But when Hideyoshi realises Densuke’s parents are loaded he hatches an impromptu kidnap scheme and demands a huge ransom for the boy’s return. Unknown to him however Densuke’s father is a Yakuza mobster.

Charming road movie with a smartly written script which sells the admittedly familiar notion of two strangers who discover in each other the freedom denied them in their own lives. Densuke turns out to be running away because of his cold father, while Hideyoshi is a desperate ex-con quite literally at the end of his rope. Both actors are terrific in their roles with little Roi Hayashi particularly impressive because his performance so determinedly avoids any hint of sentimentality. Director Hideo Sakaki gets the balance of drama and comedy just right (the payoff is an amusing riff on the bullet train ransom sequence from Kurosawa’s High and Low) and a pivotal third act scene over the phone between Hideyoshi and Densuke’s mother (a quietly scene stealing performance by Yukiko Ehara) in which the latter asks her son’s abductor what the two have been up to and gets the kind of reply you’d hope to hear from any genuinely loving father not only exemplifies the story’s theme but proves quite touching to see. It all looks like a happy ending but can Hideyoshi avoid the wrath of Densuke’s determinedly unforgiving mobster father and assorted goons? Director Hideo Sakaki doesn’t disappoint on that score either. In short, a little gem.