When a stakeout gone wrong ends in the death of a lady gunrunner, tough cop Sergeant Lau Chun-Pong (Chow Yun-Fat), on whom colleagues bestow the less than intimidating nickname “Mew Mew”, brings cute little orphan Ka-Ka (Chan Cheuk-Yan) to the New Territories, the northern part of Hong Kong where life is closer to rural Chinese villages than the breakneck pace of the big city. At a simple farmhouse, Lau runs into the child’s only surviving relatives, her fetching aunt Cher (Cherie Chung) and grumpy grandpa (Ku Feng), who is less than enthused about caring for this living reminder of his no-good daughter. Aided by Cher, Lau continues his pursuit of Mr. Hung (Paul Chun Pui), a respected socialite who happens to be not just a coke-snorting arms dealer on the side, but also Ka-Ka’s father. Despite their different backgrounds, Cher and Lau find themselves falling in love, although she has a feckless ex-husband (Lau Kong) hoping for a reunions and he has a psychotic Vietnamese hitman called Bullet (Roy Cheung) determined to see him dead.
The unabashedly romantic tone of Wild Search came as something of a surprise to English-speaking fans of Hong Kong cinema, who largely associated the team of Chow Yun-Fat and ace director Ringo Lam with hard-hitting crime thrillers laced with savage social satire: e.g. City on Fire (1987) or Full Contact (1992). Hong Kong audiences embraced the film as the latest in a long line of love stories pairing Chow with his equally popular co-star, Cherie Chung. She was discovered working in a toyshop in Chungking Mansions by director Johnny To and quickly blossomed into one of the era’s brightest stars. Beginning with Ronny Yu’s period kung fu adventure The Postman Strikes Back (1981), Cherie and Chow enjoyed a prolific screen partnership encompassing the arthouse drama The Story of Wu Viet (1981), classic romance An Autumn’s Tale (1987) and many more before ending with John Woo’s charming action comedy Once a Thief (1991). She retired from movies after marriage in 1991, but recently wowed fans with her return to the social scene, looking as glamorous as ever.
Loosely inspired by the Harrison Ford romantic thriller Witness (1985), Wild Search has its share of suspenseful scenes but is largely a character piece though none the worse for that, especially with Chow and Cherie’s mega-wattage star chemistry at its core. Unlike Peter Weir, Ringo Lam does not paint a rosy picture of rural life. The villagers emerge as flawed human beings: at times intolerant, uncooperative and belligerent, but still a tight-knit community who look after their neighbours. By contrast, it is the city-dwelling cop who exhibits more sensitivity towards the long-suffering Ka-Ka and wins the heart of country girl Cher with his kindhearted ways. Most Ringo Lam movies take a cynical view of human nature and depict a world on the brink of chaos. Wild Search argues a functioning, loving family unit can surmount the calamity unleashed by amoral criminals and indifferent bureaucrats.
Those expecting a more conventional, high-octane bulletfest may not respond to the deliberate pacing, but the film showcases many of Lam’s great strengths as a filmmaker, sadly absent from his more widely available Jean-Claude Van Damme action movies. Namely his facility with drawing strong, offbeat characters within the framework of a vividly detailed milieu. Lam also stirs in some amusingly observant domestic comedy while his favourite character actor, the snarling Roy Cheung injects some welcome menace as loon with a big gun and a short fuse. The dreamy score is by Lowell Lo, upholding a tradition of strong soundtracks in Ringo Lam movies.