Directed by: Dick Cho Written by: Irene Au & Git Man Producer: Robert Chua Starring: Max Mok, Gigi Lai, Terence Fok, Patrick Hon, Jeffrey Lam & Lo Gin
We haven't forgotten that the Category III rating is more than T & A (ask your parents) and although Secret Signs mostly got its rating based on the triad depiction, venturing into it based on director Dick Tso is another big reason personally. Although impressing more in 1998 when going dark and disturbing in A Chinese Torture Chamber Story II (and when going low budget and wacky the same year in Chinese Erotic Ghost Story), it represented a year when our Dick found a voice. The voice heard mostly throughout large parts of Secret Signs connects to a bloody reality though. The movie is presented by Jet Li's manager at the time, Jim Choi who in 1992 was shot dead. Reasons rumoured to be that he refused to sign his hot property to a production company connected to triads. Secret Signs recaps the reaction of the entertainment industry who wanted to bring to light the unfortunate closeness between the thriving Hong Kong cinema and organized crime and the movie takes on the role of documentary for its first reel. The start of an eerie, unsettling 20 minutes leading into a rather regular but violent triad tale, the established thread runs through Secret Signs and it becomes effective because of it despite working with an often used template.
Documenting the rise and fall of Mainland immigrant Yuen Wing-Kam (Max Mok) and his ultimate fate at the hands of the ICAC (The Independent Commission Against Corruption), first Dick Tso takes us to New York, London, Amsterdam, Sydney and through rough, grainy footage of the night streets coupled with the tales of heavy triad influence that brings drugs and violence into the respective areas covered, Dick Tso is effectively exposing a reality and giving us a jolt who's sat down for yet another triad flick. This is not exploiting a very unfortunate, real life event. This is bringing a honed sense of reminding in a grim way and then showcasing in a fictional film in reel 2 and onwards how little fun and games there is in the plight of a lonely immigrant and the subsequent violence.
Although it has to be said as a documentarian Cho could've dialed down his scope a little as we pretty much get it when focus is merely on New York's Chinatown and the various interviews with people from the New York Police Department. Slowly transitioning from a seemingly staged interview with a Holland based gangster to Max Mok's tale, you are hard pressed to say that much content is put forth. No the remaining hour merely has a few beats but director Cho's simple treatment works really well as it's mostly an unflinching look at a triad fate. The journey is quick for Max Mok who loses his family in the waters between Mainland China and Hong Kong so this little hope stance of course quickly has him slashing people away as a new brother in one of the triad gangs. Some group slashings and loud mouthed negotiations over tea later, there are a couple of traits that continually work in Cho's favour.
First of all lead Mok is the only VERY recognizable face so by not casting the likes of Shum Wai, Shing Fui-On and Michael Chan (all of whom are great additions to a genre effort normally), the picture constantly reminds us of a reality established in the documentary footage and also using the low budget to a visual advantage (plus quality of the vcd is enhancing the mood believe it or not), the dread and danger is very evident. In the background you also have an eerie score usually blasting away and action director Tung Wai shoots clear and suitably stylish brawls that usually doesn't skimp on the blood. There are in fact effects-shots for once for various stabbings and beatings throughout.
It's again easy to see Max Mok's character isn't heading anywhere heavenly anytime soon despite a shortlived romantic angle with Gigi Lai's character and the reel within the grasp of the ICAC is a tough watch as the police use questionable efforts themselves to try and stop what Dick Cho is asking us to contemplate. But it's answering violence with violence, they dehumanize as a tool to move forward but Yuen Wing-Kam is such a small potato the ICAC wasn't going to win any wars by breaking him. Therefore it's all a grim reminder that very few solutions exist for solving closed circles of violence and triad influence. And in the end, there is a drugged out Max Mok fighting animated demons and we start applauding Dick Cho for some minor poignancy in Secret Signs. It's a usual triad flick infused with the unusual and unfortunate need for reminding us of the zero percent fun and games this world ever represented.