Sex, gore and outrageous, effects-driven action all figure in this Tsui Hark production that is also one of the most thematically ambitious Hong Kong movies. Hideyuki Kikuchi’s novel had already been adapted into an outstanding horror anime by genre specialist Yoshiaki Kawajiri. Hark - collaborating with pop video whiz kid, Mak Kit-tai - recreates the anime’s infamous opening scene. Secret agent Taki (Leon Lai) has a rendezvous with a beautiful prostitute, but when the head up to his hotel room she transforms into a hideous spider-creature. Taki has his fat hauled out of the fryer by his partner, Ken Kai (Jacky Cheung) who flies - like so many Tsui Hark characters, regardless of genre - in through the window. The opening scene is campier and lacks the intensity of the anime, but hereafter all imitations end. Hark and Kit-tai rework the original supernatural premise into a political, science fiction thriller.
It’s days before 1997, with Hong Kong poised for its handover to Mainland China. The city is under threat. Raptors, alien shape-shifters from another dimension, have infiltrated society by assuming human form. The government’s Anti-Raptor Bureau assigns Taki and Ken to investigate a street drug called Happiness, supposedly created by Raptors. Suspicion falls on Daishu (Tatsuya Nakadai, award-winning star of Akira Kurosawa’s Ran (1985), whose presence reflects the prestigious nature of this production), a powerful Japanese businessman rumoured to be 150 years old.
Ken and Taki harbour secrets of their own. Ken is actually half-raptor, struggling to find a soul mate and earn the respect and trust of his colleagues. Taki abandoned his lovely girlfriend, Windy (Michelle Reis) upon discovering she was a Raptor. Now she is with Daishu, and the former lovers share an awkward reunion at the tycoon’s birthday bash. It turns out the Raptor community is also being ravaged by Happiness. Ken, Taki and Windy are caught in the middle of a war between the benevolent Daishu, who seeks peaceful integration with human beings, and his rebellious son, Shudo (perennial bad guy, Roy Cheung), the drug’s real inventor who stages a violent coup. A spectacular effects set-piece involves liquid raptors hidden in cocktails, exploding heads, and a flying killer clock that assaults our heroes with lethal cogwheels.
The Wicked City zips by at breakneck speed with imaginative action (a group of Anti-Raptor agents use telekinesis to sling Taki at his enemies), surreal cameos (Yuen Woo Ping as a glowing eyed, baseball capped Raptor on organic roller-skates!) and bizarre sensuality (Shudo’s monster girlfriend transforms into a sexually voracious pinball machine and a shrieking motorcycle that just loves being ridden). Yet the sociological subtext takes The Wicked City beyond the level of flamboyant freakshow. Like much of Tsui Hark’s work from this period - such as historical romance The Lovers (1995) and revisionist, swordplay drama The Blade (1996) - it reflects his concerns over Hong Kong’s future beyond 1997. The city faces a moral dilemma, as a “foreign” presence (Nakadai’s casting cleverly alludes to this) raises questions about racial and philosophical identity. What will Hong Kong become in the face of changing values? Are they truly Chinese, or western, or communist? What makes humanity any different from the shape-shifting Raptors? Characters question their own motives but continue to do the wrong thing, and while morality is meant to reflect what is human, the only, truly moral character is Ken, the one person nobody trusts.
The delirious climax finds good guys and bad battling for telekinetic control of a jumbo jet circling Daishu’s corporate tower. However, Kit-tai and Hark sidestep the anime’s optimistic conclusion in favour of a darker fable. As with Green Snake (1993), The Lovers, and The Blade, Hark hoped a tragic ending would provoke a happier one in real life.
Hong Kong director, producer, writer and actor and one of the most important figures in modern Hong Kong cinema. Hark majored in film in the US, before returning to his homeland to work in television. Made his directing debut in 1979 with the horror thriller The Butterfly Murders, while 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain was a spectacular ghost fantasy quite unlike anything in HK cinema at the time. Other key films of this period include Shanghai Blues and the brilliant Peking Opera Blues.
Like many Hong Kong directors, Hark gave Hollywood a go in the late nineties and directed Jean-Claude Van Damme in Double Team and Knock Off. He returned home soon after to continue directing and producing movies like Time and Tide, the epic effects-fest Legend of Zu and romantic adventure Seven Swords.