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半斤八兩 (1976)
The Private Eyes

Reviewed by: Masterofoneinchpunch
Date: 11/12/2016
Summary: Half a catty eight two

While American audiences might have seen Michael Hui as a partner to Jackie Chan in The Cannonball Run his name is almost unheard of here. However during the 1970s he was one of the most popular comedians in Asia. His popularity in Hong Kong was so great, especially in films like this, he helped changed the dominant language of the region. While Cantonese was the dialect spoken in Hong Kong the Mandarin movies had been so prevalent that in 1972 no films were made in this dialect and only one film in 1973 (The House of 72 Tenants from the Shaw Brothers with a bit of irony). When former TVB host of The Hui Brothers Show Hui directed Games Gamblers Play in 1974 he helped helm an increase of Cantonese language movies that would eventually dominate the Hong Kong landscape and become the main dialect for the local cinema.

He was a boon to the production studio Golden Harvest and was their biggest star of the studio of the 1970s. But another question had recently popped into my head: what would Golden Harvest been without Michael Hui? Cinema had been dealt a blow with the premature death of Bruce Lee in 1973, but it could have been an inauspicious calamity for the Golden Harvest studio. Hui had already had a popular TV show. He had a hit with the Shaw Brothers in his first film The Warlord (1972). Three more films for the Shaw Brothers then he found a better contract with more freedom, more responsibility such as directing and writing, he could use Cantonese and even his brother Sam was already working for Golden Harvest. It was another coup for the studio over the powerful but rigid Shaw Brothers. Hui was not only instrumental in the rise of Golden Harvest but was a catalyst in the slow decline of the Shaw Brothers studio.

Michael Hui's third directed film The Private Eyes (not to be confused with the Tim Conway and Don Knotts movie) is often considered his best. It is my favorite, though I have liked all the Hui directed films I have seen. It was his most popular being the highest grossing Hong Kong film of all-time until Hui's Security Unlimited in 1981 (possibly Jackie Chans The Young Master in 1980 though I have read conflicting box office records; you also have to take inflation into account). Michael Hui plays Wong Yuk-see (internationally known as Mr. Boo) a former Cheung Chau cop, a miserly cheap detective who is slightly incompetent, always a skinflint and deducts from employee's salaries if they damage anything (this scenario is later used in Fearless Hyena 2 and many more HK comedies). He hires a down-and-out martial artist Lee Kwok-kit (his brother Samuel Hui -- a big pop singer at the time who sings the main song for the film with his band The Lotus) who was fired from his previous job at a bottle plant for goofing off and not correctly taking the straws out of used bottles. Along with a secretary Jacky and one other employee Puffy (another brother Ricky Hui: Mr. Vampire) they work a series of jobs with disastrous consequences.

The episodic nature of the different private eye jobs work quite well. There is a multitude of sight gags (one of the better shoplifting gags I've seen), nonsense humor, midgets, giants, and pretty much everything thrown in. The martial arts scenes with Sammo Hung as the action director are inventive and funny. You get one of the earlier Bruce Lee humor nods, with music from Enter the Dragon, and a scene showing that Five Animal Kung Fu might not be as usual as you think. The influences from this film on Hong Kong comedy are ubiquitous. Stanley Tong used the aerobic chicken sequence in Mr. Magoo. Stephen Chow is the heir apparent to Hui as Hui was influenced by actor Liang Xingbo (Leung Sing-po) who was also a TVB host for Enjoy Yourself Tonight (which is mentioned as an in-joke in the film which I finally understood). They played characters with an overabundance of hubris who gets their comeuppance and then turn it around. That does sound a bit like Don Knotts too.

Hui has his references as well. The knife game scene with Sam Hui beating up a potential mugger is reminiscent of a Terence Hill comedy (like Trinity is Still My Name or My Name is Nobody). Check out the name of the detective agencies: Mannix (TV series from 1967-1975) and Cannon (TV series from 1971-1976). There are also a couple of Columbo references thrown in. His disguises and some of his humor remind me of Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther series. And for those who like their esoteric trivia: the movie that plays in the theater is A Queen's Ransom a Golden Harvest film, one of my least favorite film from that studio. Neither the bad guys led by the omnipresent villain Shek Kin nor did the detectives look particularly interested in it.

An underrated aspect of this film is the cinematography by Cheung Yiu-Jo whose majority of work was for Golden Harvest and has done some beautiful work such as Project A. There are so many on location shots that you get a nice feel of Hong Kong in the 1970s. Since Hong Kong has gone through so many charges most of the buildings here are gone or with different facades. I like when films like this and Johnnie To's Sparrow showcases the city. Hui also has a playful use of screen wipes and in-screen shots with a most complicated one with eight different set-ups where it was similar to one in Francis Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player.

Much of Hui's work has a sociopolitical message and this does (the basic be better to your employees and especially the theme song) though it is less than subsequent work and never didactic, but its primary purpose of making people laugh works quite well. Fans of comedies should see this. Hong Kong aficionados should make this a top priority if they have not already seen this. It is one of my favorite Hong Kong films. Is that not enough of a recommendation?

I saw this on the Fortune Star/Joy Sales R0/NTSC DVD release. It looks quite good and the English subtitles are good as well. It has both Cantonese (5.1 and DTS) and Mandarin (5.1) audios and Chinese (Traditional and Simplified) and English subtitles. You can find remastered Hui Brothers box sets in R0/R3 and BD. I really want one of those. It has the Original Movie Trailer for this film and five new trailers for Hui directed films, including this one, in the R0 box set.

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: Inner Strength
Date: 05/06/2002
Summary: GREAT

Read the review by ‘Supercop’, as that sums up this movie perfectly. I agree, that this is one of the best 70’s comedies in Hong Kong, and one of the Hui brother’s best. Some of the best in the business are involved in this film, Michael, Sam & Ricky Hui, Sammo Hung, Raymond Chow, Mars, and legendary Wong Fei Hung himself, Sek Kin! I think this is also the film debut of Richard Ng.

Excellent film, recommended.

Rating: [4.5/5]

Reviewed by: hellboy
Date: 08/30/2000

The Hui brothers play against each other extremely well, in one of the best HK comedies ever! Not only is the movie punctuated with laugh out loud sight gags but also great comedy performances! Shek Kin is perfectly cast as a comedic villain. 9/10

Reviewer Score: 9

Reviewed by: SUPERCOP
Date: 07/03/2000
Summary: The brilliant Hui brothers.......

During the early 1970's, Hong Kong cinema was at a remarkable peak. Chinese/American actor Bruce Lee was the industries biggest draw, and Mandarin was the predominant cinematic language. However, a shocking series of events triggered a metamorphosis that ultimately led to what Hong Kong cinema is today. The first, and most affecting event was the death of Bruce Lee. Lee was the single biggest Chinese actor the world had ever seen, and his death produced a huge void that shook the industry to it's knees. The other event, a direct result of the former, was the emergence of key figures that would influence potential performers and directors for years to come. One of these figures was a former school teacher turned entertainer named Michael Hui. Not blessed with the looks and physique of his martial arts contemporaries, he instead possessed remarkable creativity and a deadpan verbal delivery in which helped to develop Cantonese as the territories primary cinematic language. These traits would also aid Hui in becoming the industries top comic actor. The mid-1970's oversaw the production of a variety of comic gems, most notably GAMES GAMBLERS PLAY (1974) and THE LAST MESSAGE (1975). Hui, along with his younger, more handsome brother Sam, created films that the local audience could easily identify with. This is because the predominant theme of their films concerns the struggles of the working class citizens, which make up the vast majority of Hong Kong's dense urban population. This theme is also made clear within the lyrics of the pop songs that inhabit each production (performed by Sam himself, who is considered the father of modern Cantopop). By 1976, the brothers were at the top of their game, and they would commence work on a production that became their comedic masterpiece. Joined by middle brother Ricky (who had a short appearance in GAMES GAMBLERS PLAY), the film that resulted was THE PRIVATE EYES, which set the standards for physical comedy within Hong Kong cinema for years to come.

The plot revolves around the exploits of a Chinese detective agency headed by the penny-pinching Michael Hui (his character is often referred to internationally as Mr. Boo). Joined by an emotionally drained assistant (Ricky Hui) and an ex-Vitasoy plant employee/kung fu expert (Sam Hui), the trio would serve their clients in whichever situation would make for the best comic possibilities. For instance, they are hired upon by a disgruntled wife to snap photos of her husband's affair, so that she can reap in the rewards in court. In addition, they are assigned to foil a string of shoplifting cases in a busy supermarket, which leads to a brilliant scene. But perhaps the most important bit centers upon a relentless gang (headed by the delightful Shih Kien, best known in the west for ENTER THE DRAGON) who is demanding ransom from a wealthy movie-theater mogul. "Don't call the cops, or else....," the thugs warn, so of course, who else to turn to but the trio of private eyes, who are in for the ultimate case of their lives.

THE PRIVATE EYES is presented in a manner that would be best described as a series of skits. This, as a result, allows the film to shift from scene to scene without being bogged down, resulting in a lightning pace that entertains the viewer from beginning to end. The brothers play off eachother with finesse, and exude so much chemistry on screen together that I would even, dare I say, place them in the same league as the trio of Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao. Although it is a given that Michael and Sam are skilled comediens, Ricky is the most underrated of the bunch, and in this film, he is given a particular chance to show what he brings to the table (which would probably lead to his solo roles in the future i.e.- John Woo's underrated FROM RICHES TO RAGS). Michael's direction is simple and to the point, adding some light touches which ultimately enhance the comic effect along the way (i.e. cues from JAWS and ENTER THE DRAGON in the oft cited kitchen fight). Sam (who is the greatest Cantopop artist of all time IMHO), as always, adds a memorable tune to the mix, which would become a staple of Hong Kong pop culture for years to come.

It is comforting to know that I am not the only one who is immensely entertained by this production, which left an undeniable influence on cinema all around the world. Stanley Tong Kwai-lai takes an entire bit from the film and implants it into his own Hollywood debut, MR. MAGOO (for those wondering, it is the cooking scene/exercise show schtick). In addition, Michael Hui's high-level usage of physical comedy would go on to influence today's top Chinese comics, most notably in the works of Stephen Chow Sing-chi (a terrific actor and comedien in his own right). In a recent Hong Kong newspaper poll of the best Chinese movies of all time, THE PRIVATE EYES is ranked high. Fans and critics have expressed enthusiastic support as well. Tim Young's, webmaster for the "Another Hong Kong Movie Page," cites the film as one of his top ten favorites. Respected film critic Barbara Scharres cites it as "one of the first social satires for the screen (in Hong Kong), (Dannen, p. 401), while Taiwanese filmcritic Peggy Chiao is in favor as well, citing the films "strong colloquial sense, and acid humor." (Dannen, p. 336) But perhaps Tony Rayns sums it up best when he calls THE PRIVATE EYES "the best comedy ever made in Hong Kong."

Reviewed by: hkcinema
Date: 12/08/1999

This film first established the Hui Brothers' comediesinternationally. It won high critical praise and went straight to the top of the box office charts in Japan. The story concerns a small detective agency and the problems it has staying in business and out of trouble; but essentially it is a social comedy and a very penetrating comment on the human condition.

[Reviewed by Rim Films Catalog]