Wednesday, March 23, 2011

Cherie Chung Week: Bet On Fire (1988)

Any film that opens with Cherie Chung striding into a beauty parlor and kicking a woman in the stomach can't be all bad can it?

Reminding me of the glory days of Hong Kong cinema -- the kind of stuff that made this whole hobby so infectious -- 1988's Bet on Fire is a gloriously tawdry affair.

Concerning bar hostess Cherie Chung's interaction with innocent salon girl Cheung Man, the film delivers some cheap thrills, I'll admit. Additionally, there are enough real dramatic moments here -- mainly concerning Cherie Chung -- that I feel a sort of need to defend Bet on Fire (1988) a bit. Read on!

Cheung Man's father (Shing Fui-On) falls in with some triad guys and gets wrapped up in a criminal case after sneaking out on wife Chiao Chiao (from numerous Shaw Brothers film, such as 1967's The Silent Swordsman).

Then mom gets hit by a car while begging boss Paul Chun for help in clearing her hubby's name.

Soon enough, Cheung Man's Ming is saying "I want to be a ball-room girl!" over a backdrop of the Hong Kong skyline at night and we can sort of guess where this is going. Within seconds, she's got her hair down and she's striding into a nightclub looking for work and quick money.

Maria Cordero is Mun Cat and look for singer Teresa Carpio here as well. Cheung Man wants to be a waitress but she's told that most girls end up in bed with the customers soon enough. In slow motion, Cherie Chung struts in as Hung, the superstar girl in Mun Cat's bar.

I wonder what audiences in 1988 thought of stuff like Bet on Fire? Did they find it fun, dramatic, or ridiculous? Did seeing some of the top actresses -- and one singer -- of the era slumming it in the underworld excite them? I don't think anyone then or now would mistake a film like this for a serious look at the seedy world of Hong Kong's nightlife, so we can only guess that this flick provided audiences in 1988 with some cheap, almost campy, thrills.

Cherie and Cheung Man are taken to the karaoke room of star customer (and patron saint of the great blog Bullets Over Chinatown) Charlie Cho Cha-Lee.

After Maria Cordero almost gets in a fight in Wu Ma's place, Cherie and Cheung Man decide to split with their new benefactors.

Charlie first takes the girls to a Japanese restaurant and the monkey business begins.

It's really hard to imagine that only a year after starring in a masterpiece like An Autumn's Tale (1987) that the actress would be playing drinking games with Charlie Cho Cha-Lee. When her character wins, only to puke blood onto Kimberly Road outside of the club, you know that this gal's got a hard road ahead of her in the rest of this picture.

Will innocent Cheung Man make it out alive with her money?

Look for a funny cameo from Stanley Fung Sui-Fan and Natalis Chan, along with Wong Jing, as a group of cheap club patrons.

By the time a fight broke out in the clubgirls' locker room and Teresa Carpio whipped out a pair of meat cleavers, my head was spinning. This flick was a trainwreck but I was loving every second of it!

The girls' rivals plot revenge with Boss Tong (Paul Chun) and his crony (Lam Chung). The word on the street is that Hung (Cherie Chung) and Ming (Cheung Man) have not gone to bed with any customers so far. Boss Tong plans to change that.

Bet on Fire (1988) operates on the ridiculous premise that both Hung and Ming can be superstars in the nightclub and yet retain their purity by never going to bed with the customers. Was this a plot device because the actresses didn't want to play real working girls? Who knows. It's a bit silly but at least the film affords Cherie's character a backstory. Poor Ming is just an innocent in the life for a quick buck and, presumably, to help her family.

Cherie's got her girls playing the stock market and things are great until the crash of 1987. Luckily, Cherie's got a good customer and advisor in an older Indonesian businessman.

It's nothing but melodrama in the film's final third as Cherie is saved from a gas leak in her apartment, has her dreams crushed, ends up in the hospital and so on. Cheung Man has her share of drama as well, especially after her father, fresh from his prison stint, requests a girl in a karaoke place and gets his own daughter!

This sort of thing is the stuff of a Lifetime TV movie but a Lifetime TV movie would never have Shing Fui-On chewing the scenery as he rages at his soiled daughter.

It's easy to criticize the leaps in tone and mood in something like Bet on Fire but those very wild shifts are exactly the sort of thing I like so much about Hong Kong cinema, at least Hong Kong cinema of a certain era.

Any film that mixes moments of subtle drama as Cherie tries to get out of the life with scenes of Cherie kicking chicks in the stomach in a hostess bar locker room brawl is something of a masterpiece in my book.

There's a nice moment near the end where Cherie Chung's Hung watches Ming and her family get their portrait taken. In that moment, there is the seed of a better, more serious minded picture. I'm not criticizing Bet on Fire (1988) but just saying that a few more subtle moments like that one would have made the film a near masterpiece and not an over-the-top spectacle.

Wisely, Cherie Chung underplays nearly every dramatic scene she is in. Her expression in the portrait moment says all that needs to be said. And in the one big scene with her Indonesian customer, she conveys quite a bit of drama with just her downward gaze. Cherie was an exceptionally subtle actress and it's unfortunate that there are not more examples of that subtlety from more of her features.

It wouldn't be too much of a stretch to compare her best moments here with her many excellent moments in the objectively better Hong Kong Hong Kong (1983).

And without giving away the ending of this thing, let me just say that Cherie Chung delivers another of those amazing moments. If you can make it through Shing Fui-On's Incredible Hulk-like ransacking of Paul Chun's mansion, you will be rewarded.

The ending of this film is both a bit silly and also wholly appropriate, saying something about the characters that the dialogue can't. Cheung Man can leave the life and the final shot is of her looking at someone who could never get out.

I know it sounds odd, but that ending put me in mind of John Ford's The Searchers (1956), of all things. John Wayne's Ethan Edwards provides a service and yet can't join the family because of what he's seen, or what he's done.

I won't go so far as to compare Cherie Chung here to John Wayne but Cherie's final line in the film puts her character in the same realm as Ethan's. She provides a means of release for Cheung Man's family and can't join them either.

Check out this review from YTSL on Brian's site for a less favorable take on the film.

You can buy Bet On Fire (1988) on DVD here.