The Illegal Immigrant (1985)

Directed by: Mabel Cheung
Written by: Alex Law
Producers: Mona Fong & Wong Ka Hee
Starring: Ching Yung-Cho, Wu Fu-Sheng & Liao Chung Yu

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Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1986:
Best Director (Mabel Cheung)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1986:
Best Picture
Best Screenplay (Alex Law)

Cheng Jiun Chiou (Ching Yung-Cho) is an illegal Chinese immigrant in New York city trying to get a green card. With a limited grasp of English and opportunities created for him, he engages in a fake marriage with American-Chinese Li Shiue Hong (Wu Fu-Sheng) as a way of evading the authorities. However to get to this point, he has been forced to borrow money from Chinatown gangsters and it seems they are the ones that will come knocking on the door before the immigration officers. Outside of that, over time Cheng and Li do begin to form a bond, going so far as falling in love...

Mabel Cheung's debut feature, written by husband Alex Law (as is normally the case), at Shaw Brother's of all places but don't believe for a second this represents a martial arts side of the team we didn't know of (they were in charge of the dramatic scenes of Moon Warriors though). No, coming at the end of the Shaw's era, Cheung and Law were already in New York, dealing with the theme of immigrants like fellow filmmakers Clara Law and Stanley Kwan, only one movie away from Hong Kong's finest romance ever, An Autumn's Tale.

In actuality The Illegal Immigrant was a graduation work for Mabel Cheung, only one that drew the attention of the forces at Shaw Brother's. Expect nothing elegant though as Cheung and Law are merely armed with a shoestring budget and uses actual various New York locations for their attempt to achieve a realistic portrayal of struggling Chinese immigrants. In parts, Cheung clearly deserves her Best Director Hong Kong Film Award. Other parts, although they are fewer, are signs of a rough but talented filmmaker about to graduate.

It takes quite a limited technical expertise to achieve A snapshot of reality but of course writing has to be firmly at center stage for that well-done snapshot to happen and Alex Law's script does contain worthwhile and poignant passages. The cycle of various problems in obtaining and solving the green card issue is presented, with the sham marriage being the option for the characters at hand. A setup that can go both comedic and dramatic routes, Cheung's movie leaning towards the latter. She confidently portrays all this through the eyes of cinematographer Bob Bukowski, letting the amateur actors go about their business naturally and the direction largely works. Pace may not be refined or the performances for that matter but as the embodiment of Cheung and Law's themes, Ching Yung-Cho and Wu Fu-Sheng do fine. It's only when called upon to be emotional that all kinds of poor acting reveals itself but it's easy to be forgiving when Cheung would soon blossom as a director when employing actual seasoned actors in An Autumn's Tale (Chow Yun-Fat, Cherie Chung plus Ching and Wu appear in support in the classic romance).

Hints of darkness are dropped in by Cheung as the New York setting doesn't allow for any kind of notion of unification amongst the Chinese. No, in the face of money, fellow countrymen and women are prepared to knock each other over and while being so typically debut feature and student like in its cynicism, the movie holds some poignant, harsh truths under some ropey execution from time to time. The American setting receives some subtle criticisms as the immigrants voice a dissatisfaction with the fact that they are not welcome but ultimately the darkness and evil that occur isn't strictly a Chinese or American trait. It's simply about people and Cheung manages to even be a little harrowing when all's sunken in.

While a known profile such as Kenny Bee overseeing the score, the music tends to hurt (and outdate) certain crucial moments of the film but Cheung chooses to drop in very little cues, even being quite non-manipulative with the romance angle and this viewer appreciated the quite long, slow development between Cheng and Li as it takes several events for her to open her heart while he's not the type who is begging for love either as it all is a business agreement for them on several levels.

The Illegal Immigrant will never rank as Shaw Brother's finest gem out of their vaults or Mabel Cheung's either but while roughly executed, it accomplishes some fine things thematically. Mostly workable natural acting carries the films intentions home as well but again, it is a debut work and such normally appear unpolished. Mabel Cheung's style quickly became refined 2 years later when returning with Chow Yun-Fat and Cherie Chung to New York for An Autumn's Tale and The Illegal Immigrant can act as an interesting warm up.

The DVD:

IVL presents Celestial's restored transfer in a non-anamorphic 1.66:1 framed aspect ratio (box claims anamorphic 1.66:1). A low-budget shoot, colours still remain vivid and while the transfer appears soft, sharpness ranks as good overall.

The Cantonese (with some English mixed in) Dolby Digital 2.0 mono track sounds clear, presenting dialogue, music and effects well. Early on some dialogue sounds hollow but that doesn't appear, at least not in a noticeable way, again. A Mandarin 2.0 option is also included.

The English subtitles come with no noticeable errors but appear mistimed for a few moments and doesn't appear at all for a few others. Traditional Chinese subtitles are also included.

The standard Celestial extras turns up, starting with their newly created and subtitled trailers for The Illegal Immigrant, My Name Ain't Suzie, Maybe It's Love, How To Pick Girls Up! and Let's Make Laugh II. Movie Information section holds 10 Movie Stills (one of which is a behind the scenes photo), an image of the original poster (also seen on the back cover), production notes (in fact the plot synopsis) and decent biographies/filmographies for director Mabel Cheung, actors Ching Yung-Cho, Wu Fu-Sheng and Liao Cheng-Yu. They help in giving basic insight into the production of the film and reveals where Mabel Cheung and Alex Law found their cast. The bio's do not go much further into the careers of the filmmakers though.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson