The Hell of Arms is released for the first time on French screens in a restored print, and you have to see it to be convinced that cinema was once capable of such nihilistic fury. We are in Hong Kong in 1980, at the first lights of the new local wave, where the colony seems like a Pressure Cooker ready to explode, from not knowing in what sauce, British or Chinese, it was going to be eaten.
Tsui Hark, led to become the most vibrant pyrotechnician of his generation (the Once Upon a Time in China saga, Time and Tide , the Detective Dee triptych), found himself up against the wall when filming this low-budget thriller, his third feature film after two consecutive failures ( The Butterfly Murders , in 1979, and Histoire de cannibales , in 1980). Concluding what the filmmaker himself called his “Trilogy of Chaos”, this astonishing outlet, which took the pulse of a territory holding its breath, laid the foundations of a hatched style, of a formal and narrative expenditure which would become its trademarks.
The story centers around three skinny-footed teenagers who kill time doing anything, like throwing paintballs at the neighbors. One evening, going for a trip in the car stolen by one of them, a rich kid, from his parents, they accidentally run over a guy in an alley, before the eyes of a stranger. This one, Pearl (Lin Chen-chi), is a raving madwoman, a sadistic pasionaria caught in an escalation of vandal gestures. She lives incognito with a police brother (Lo Lieh, an old martial arts star at the end of her career), too busy with his investigation into bomb attacks, but who can give her a beating on occasion. Pearl recognizes the three boys in the street, submits to them, leading them into a spiral of violence. The team notably steals a briefcase of bank orders worth several millions, which puts them directly into conflict with a horde of heavily armed British arms traffickers.
This wild stampede occurs in the “natural” maze of Hong Kong at the time, filmed in gradations of shadows and harsh lights like an open-air cage, a series of gloomy alleys invaded by waste, dingy cesspools, small apartments dark nested like hutches, colorful nightclubs and flooded parking lots. The whole thing ends in the hallucinatory heights of “Happy Valley”, the city’s immense cemetery, so saturated with tombs that the dead no longer seem to have enough room.
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