The Lunatics (1986)

Written & directed by: Derek Yee
Producer: John Sham
Starring Stanley Fung, Deannie Yip, Paul Chun, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai & Chow Yun-Fat

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Awards at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1987:
Best Supporting Actor (Paul Chun)
Best Art Direction (Yang Wong)

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1987:
Best Picture
Best Director (Derek Yee)
Best Screenplay (Derek Yee)

That all movies should be judged after the final frame is definitly true for Derek Yee's The Lunatics. When people are mentioning the most shocking movies out of Hong Kong they mention such ones as Dr.Lamb or The Untold Story. After having seen The Lunatics, I personally feel it's the most shocking movie I've ever seen Hong Kong cinema produce.

Social worker Tsui (Stanley Fung from My Lucky Stars) is making his annual visit to the people and cases that he's handled over the years. Most of them are borderline insane and getting these back from the bottom of the society barrel is tough work. He's had one successful case though. He's called Tsuen (Derek Yee's real life brother Paul Chun) and has lived one his own one year after being declared healthy. This peace soon crumbles after Tsuen is denied seeing his son....

The Lunatics was Derek Yee's directing debut after working as a martial arts actor in Shaw Brother's productions such as Death Duel. After The Lunatics, Derek has made several greatly acclaimed Hong Kong movies which all have solidified his respect status in Hong Kong cinema. In his second film as director, which was People's Hero, I already saw a great filmmaker. I was very impressed at how he managed to create much tension in primarily one location and he also brought to the screen my favourite performance by Ti Lung (from A Better Tomorrow).

The strengths of this movie are many but we'll start with the amazing production design and art direction (that Yang Wong won an award for). The impression we get from the back alleys and the people inhabiting it is one of reality. It's not necessarily a gritty and raw reality displayed because it's feels so much part of the entire city, only not visible or acknowledged by anyone. The surroundings and actors are dressed in such a way that they become absolutely immersed into the world and you just have to look at Chow Yun-Fat to see what I mean. Derek doesn't really hint or warn us that the movie is going to turn dark. Slowly but assuring we follow Tsui and the journalist Miss Lau (Deannie Yip from Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars) through the slums, which take up a large part of the first half of the movie before the real plot kicks in. Despite that, it's very enlightening and interesting to follow and at the same time appreciate what Derek wants to say as a director. The score by Chan Fei Laap is a very good but minimalistic one that plays for short intervals to create dramatic tension and to highlight certain points. Even under the violent climax, there's many scenes of dead air, which creates the same, if not more frightening, mood.

That the movie eventually becomes so harrowing and shocking is due to the final act. I won't go into details but Derek's the filmmaker really shines here. As I mentioned, very little music is heard and basically all the scenes of violence takes place outside the camera frame. This choice in direction is highly effective and I think that if blood had been splattered on screen, the overall impact would've been a lesser one.

In The Lunatics, Derek decides to comment on the problem that, literally, lunatics are running loose on the streets of Hong Kong. There seems to be little effort in the society he shows us and few individuals work hard for something that feels impossible to solve. For instance, the character of Tsui have spent many years of his life trying to help and when his one hope falls back mentally, Tsui almost loses all hope. It must be hard to try and think that his work is very much needed but on the other hand you can't let so few people carry that burden. As human beings, we close our eyes and block out the problems around us and the only time we can't avoid problems, like those in the movie, is when a madman actually does something. It's very hard to predict though, sadly. In the case of Tsuen, the question that arises is why these people are let out in the society again but as I said , who knows if and when they will snap. Derek doesn't give or seek the answer to that but it's important to talk about it. Film is an excellent medium to trigger a debate and especially this film.

The lunatics characters are not stereotypical movie psychopaths but they are people who have been shaped by their miserable status in life. They may achieve some form of happiness in that as long as they're left alone, Tsui explains, but we sense that there lies something dangerous brewing under each one of them we meet. Derek Yee's comments are not evident or crucial for you to enjoy the movie. It's there if you want to embrace it and it seems like a valid message, even in 2003.

The acting troupe also immerse themselves nicely in their roles. Stanley Fung hits all the right notes in the role as the slightly out of hope social worker and beside him we see Deannie Yip as the journalist Miss Lau. At first she felt left in the background with nothing much to do but during the second half she becomes very integral to the plot. Among other things, she is the one that makes Tsui realize that he cannot lose hope in his line of work, the fight must go on.

The shining star of this movie (although it's a supporting role) is Paul Chun (Fist Of Legend and Hong Kong 1941). As Tsuen, he creates a very memorable portrait of a, at first, balanced human being that later is slowly descending into madness again. You'll be better off not knowing anymore before seeing the film as it would certainly kill a lot of the power he and it delivers. I've mostly seen Paul in even minor roles than this but I always got the feeling that he was a competent actor. His performance in The Lunatics may still be his career best. In smaller parts we see Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. They both make great use of the limited screentime they have and especially young Tony shows great skill in an early role. He would later appear in a bigger role in People's Hero.

Derek Yee's The Lunatics is one of those films that will stay with me for a long time. To me, it achieves its goals of delivering a poignant message and a terrific film at the same time. It's not so much a depressing movie but it hits you hard in the stomach. What a debut by Derek Yee!

The DVD:

First, don't be fooled by the dvd cover with Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung prominantly featured.. Obviously the main star Stanley Fung won't sell dvd's but if you go into this movie thinking Chow and Tony stars, you'll be disappointed.

Universe has really delivered an exceptional 1.85:1 transfer of a 1986 Hong Kong movie. The print has very little damage and the consciously muted colours are presented nicely. The few night scenes does suffer a bit though but they don't dominate the film.

Why didn't Media Asia decided to do a Dolby Digital 5.1 remix on this movie? I guess because it's a drama but I'm happy with that decision. The Cantonese mono track sounds clear and dialogue and music are mixed correctly. The Mandarin track is presented in 5.1 though.

The English subtitles seem a little lacking throughout the movie but do their job at conveying the plot for us. Bahasa Malaysian, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

The extras consist of Star's Files for Tony Leung, Deannie Yip and director Derek Yee. These are a step up from the usual basic files since they cover more of the awards each of the persons have won over the years. Trailers for The Lunatics, Alan & Eric Say Hello & Goodbye, Beloved Son Of God and Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing concludes the disc.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson