The Runaway Pistol (2002)

Written & directed by: Lam Wah-Chuen
Producer: Andrew Lau
Starring: Wilson Yip, Barbara Wong, Wong Yik Nam, Cheng Kam Luen, Kenneth Bi, Soi Cheang & Crystal Lui

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Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2003:
Best New Artist (Barbara Wong)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2003:
Film Of Merit

Nominations at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2002:
Best Picture
Best Director (Lam Wah-Chuen)
Best Screenplay (Lam Wah-Chuen)

Lam Wah-Chuen, like many profiles in the industry, have many skills to occupy himself with. When he's not shooting or scoring movies such as Made In Hong Kong, Little Cheung and Juliet In Love, there's an occasional window to direct as well. Having done his first features earlier in the 90s (Devil Girl 18 & The Beauty's Evil Roses), it wasn't until 2002 that he was allowed or allowed himself to head a production such as this again (in addition to being the writer, director of photography, editor and co-composer). The independently lensed The Runaway Pistol also drafted in, as actors, some of Lam past collaborators such as Wilson Yip (who had Lam as cinematographer on two of his films) and evolving directing talents such as Barbara Wong (Truth Or Dare: 6th Floor Rear Flat) and Soi Cheang (Love Battlefield). Produced by Andy Lau's Teamwork, this Category III rated story of the travels of an old gun sees Lam pouring out his not so positive thoughts of our world onto the screen.

A 1930s gun starts circulating between various characters, starting in Hong Kong when a Nepalese man steals it from his girlfriend. It's sold to a young rascal who commits one murder under the influence of drugs and so begins a trail of violence but who's truly responsible? The owners or the hardware?

The age old "guns don't kill people but people kill people" was probably the first stepping stone for Lam Wah-Chuen when planning out his ride of violence and despair. With occasional voiceover by the gun at hand, he's already threaten to derail a serious effort into goofiness but by keeping it as narration instead of animation for instance, its voice becomes a natural part of the narrative. Claiming that it was defective already after the manufacture in the 30s, it tries to put the blame on circumstances and people while it clearly also is an instrument out of control. If there was a stance on gun control made by writer/director/cinematographer/editor/co-composer Lam Wah-Chuen, it's an opinion standing in the middle. Does all this sound silly, arthouse and pretentious? Potentially beforehand yes but The Runaway Pistol is executed with nerve, humour and edginess while fully aware of the fact that its negativity won't sit well with every viewer.

Now, Lam isn't being cynical or negative for the sake of being cynical or negative. His view from Hong Kong seems valid and it's not that evil and destruction runs through people. It's rather a world full of surrounding destructive circumstances that eradicates any kind of notion of good very quickly. From the opening innocent torture of fishes by a kid to him witnessing a sexual act with the gun present, Lam makes sure early on what kind of road we're on. Swiftly moving from owner to owner, some downright aimless and awful people to some striving to be good, the gallery of characters suitably is developed almost from the fresh point of view of a gun. Same view as our point of view.

It makes sense therefore for Lam to be a bit shallow and even though his main theme is pretty one note, he holds a firm grip on the viewer with loose cinematography that goes through clean and seedy environments in an effective way. Main mood is of course a bleak one but Lam proves adept at adding black humour to the proceedings as characters are either completely whacked out, idiotic or fall victim to the flaws of the gun. Mainly through Barbara Wong's character, prostitute Jade, Lam adds a degree of sadness about the endless cycle of violence that may very well exist even without weapons. In a weird way, The Runaway Pistol is almost a template for a horror film waiting to happen.

If you were to single out horror though, it does exist here via the described mood and through various detours into graphic or hard-hitting off screen violence. Lam's camera captures the grittiness of it effectively and feels like a writer/director/cinematographer/editor and musician that is conscious about providing equal amounts of theme portrayal and suitable natural, gritty visuals.

It seems unavoidable that a plot regarding basically a talking gun would NOT come with pretentious arthouse sensibilities and one aspect I didn't care for is the use of point of view angles shot on video. If they had solely been from the eyes of the gun, it could've slipped through as they are other kinds of views compared to people but it takes place from the eyes of actual characters as well, making little sense in the long run. I could see The Runaway Pistol working as the examination as it is without the video portion of the film. Next time, ok Lam?

There's somewhat equal amount of focus on the various characters that we encounter but two of the more famous people portraying them is an obvious pick for acting judgment. Acclaimed directors Wilson Yip and Barbara Wong plays a couple with an abusive edge to their relationship, mainly courtesy of the debt ridden Ming that Yip portrays. Yip has had cameo parts in movies for buddies of his (such as Joe Ma and Soi Cheang) before but here is responsible for handling a character during 20 minutes. For what it's worth, he does naturally fit the useless, loser character of Ming but seems obviously not so restrained for the larger moments. One moment made me chuckle though as Yip is probably unknowingly doing a full on Francis Ng imitation during a confrontation but if you're going to draw inspirations from the people you've directed before, why not one of the best? Barbara actually did study acting in America so she provides a bit more believable dramatic chops as the prostitute Jade. In a minor triumphant way, she nails those aspect to Jade whether it's her observations towards clients, the loss of hope or craving for a violent revenge after abuse. I can't see Wong having a long term career as a character actress but she does well in this small film nonetheless.

Lam Wah-Chuen's almost full on contribution to every aspect in the end pays off in this disturbing, violent, sometimes funny but thoroughly bleak tale about our violent times. While the gun takes its stance on violence, Lam himself balances it with skill and brings good attention to the characteristics of our various people. You won't take home any happy sentiments here, which will turn many viewers off, but those more up for punishment will see an indie that promises acclaim for the future if Lam finds more work. He's not meant for the mainstream, that's for sure however.

The DVD:

Deltamac presents the film in a 1.76:1 aspect ratio approximately. Print is very clean while the various colouring of Lam's frame, be it subdued or strong, is presented well. Sharpness varies as this wasn't a very polished production but it's very much a serviceable transfer.

The Cantonese (with a few passages in Mandarin) Dolby Digital 5.1 track fares less well. Front stage is rarely given a workout while the whole track registers flat and slightly muffled. Dialogue is also way off the center speaker and almost half in the surrounds which requires some receiver adjustment to get right. A Mandarin 5.1 dub is also included.

The English subtitles tosses out the occasional spelling error but are well-worded otherwise. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included. The trailer is the only extra.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson