The movie opens in Taiwan, introducing us to Kwong (Andy Lau) a reckless Triad boy racer as he and his girlfriend (Ngok Ling) compete in a very dangerous Fast & Furious scooter race through the Taiwanese countryside. Things take a deadly turn for the worst leaving a rival Triad racer dead, and Kwong being targeted for revenge.
He is forced to leave his girlfriend behind and flee to Hong Kong where his new boss sets him up in the spare room of his mistress, Sue (Liu Hsiu-ling) a single mother and one of his mistress’s.
As Kwong earns his keep, a relationship begins to develop between Kwong and Sue, one that you know will have unfortunate circumstances. Things get even more complicated when his girlfriend arrives from Taiwan, and a strange three way relationship takes form as he finds himself torn between the two women he loves, and who love him back.
Kwong also crosses paths with Wah (Kelvin Wong) a Chinese immigrant turned would be gangster. After some early misunderstandings, the two outsiders form a friendship and with the Cops on his trail, Kwong and Wah head to nearby Macau, where things take a dark turn with fatal consequences that lead back to Hong Kong and the two women in Kwong’s life.
Runaway Blues, directed by David Lai (Operation Scorpio, Women on the Run) is a hugely under-rated dark ride through the Hong Kong underworld genre.
The film has all the elements; Andy Lau as the oh so cool but ultimately sensitive hero, an increasingly bizarre love triangle (the bizarre aspect being how easily everyone seems to accept the complicated relationship that has developed, if only real life could be this easy?), Triad Hack and Slash action, fast bikes, bone crunching stunt work (quite literally at times), some mice moments of martial arts action, some clever humor, both conventional and non sequitor and a story that works well with various twists and turns that keeps melodramatic clichéd moments fresh, aided by some very strong performances.
Along with the rarely seen Mahjong Dragon, Lonely Fifteen, and Operation Scorpio, this ranks as Lai’s best work as a director, one wishes he’d do more films like this-in recent years he’s seemed quite happy to concentrate on being the quiet half of an East/West cinematic team with Corey Yuen (Yuen Kwai) on everything from Kiss of the Dragon, DOA & the entire Transporter series of films. Lai gets some very strong performances from his entire cast, with Lau making a charismatic hero, and both Liu Hsiu-ling and Ngok Ling being given the chance to stretch their dramatic and physical muscles to make their characters believable and stand out further than the usual clichéd girlfriend characters of so many films.
Andy Lau’s role in the original A Moment of Romance from the following year always gets a lot more attention as a prime example of his gangster heroes from that period, and while I’m a big fan of Moment, it’s a far more romantic view of the underworld, even with its tragic moments whereas Runaway Blues pulls no punches as characters get battered and bruised, cut and bleed, and have lasting emotional and physical scars from their fights in this movie. Lau begins the movie as the seemingly brash young hero but you quickly get to see there’s a lot more to his character than meets the eye, the minute he’s forced to flee Taiwan and head to Hong Kong, his arrival and subsequent bonding with Liu’s character is very believably handled and you understand the reason their relationship forms, as they are two lost souls looking for comfort in a harsh world.
Taiwanese actress Liu Hsiu-ling sadly never really got the chance to stretch her acting muscles as much as being called upon to often do nothing more than look beautiful (something she does very well!) Her best films would have to be Sweet Surrender, Yuen Biao’s Kickboxer, and the Hong Kong take on the Wonder Years, the comedy Yesteryou, Yesterme, Yesterday where she played the young heroes older object of desire. Runaway Blues is probably her strongest role, as she not only gets to show her dramatic strength as an actress but also just how gutsy she could be, throwing herself into some very hard hitting stunts and action beats in the film. She retired from the industry in the mid 90’s.
Ngok Ling who plays Lau’s Taiwanese girlfriend is very much a mystery, having only appeared in this and Whampoa Blues later the same year, before she disappeared from the industry, it’s a pity as she gives a solid performance and gets to carry the very memorable final moments of the movie…SPOILER ALERT where she is seen walking through torrential rain to the morgue where she retrieves the bodies of both Lau & Liu’s characters, and the film ends with the memorable image of her lying on the slab embracing the both of them.
Mainland Chinese actor Kelvin Wong who made his debut in Peter Wang’s A Great Wall, and whose credits include memorable turns in both Casino Raiders and The Moon Warriors (both with Lau again), High Risk with Jet Li, Police Story 3: Supercop with Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh and Sammo Hung’s Don't Give a Damn gives a very strong turn as Wah. It’s the young and skinny Wong who appears in this film, he bulked up for his career in later years often playing a very John Lone’sque villain. It’s great to see him enthusiastically throwing himself into the character, whether he’s embarrassing Hong Kong triads who make fun of his poor Cantonese and Mainland Chinese background by speaking English to them, or patriotically battling Andy Lau’s character, or lamenting the precariousness of the life path that both he and Lau’s characters have chosen, he’s in fine form. Wong became one of my first and closest friends in Hong Kong when I arrived, and his guidance and advice has served me well over the last 23 years, and his death in the late 2000’s was a great loss on both a professional and personal level.
The film has an incredible look thanks to cinematographer Lee Ping-bing, who makes the best use of location work in Taiwan, Hong Kong & Macau, managing to give each location a very individual style. The film also has a fantastic score including one of singer Dave Wang Chieh’s best songs, a haunting ballad used in the film and reprised during the film’s final moments and end titles. Combined with some very evocative imagery, it stays with you long after the film has ended.
Runaway Blues is a true classic of the heroic bloodshed genre that deserves much more acclaim than it has received and we’d advise anyone who’s a fan of great cinema to track down a copy of the film that is available on a remastered Hong Kong DVD.
RUNAWAY BLUES TRIVIA
- The film's action director was the late Blacky Ko (Or Sau-leung) who can be seen in the film as the rival Triad racer. He was an actor and action director whose credits include everything A Better Tomorrow where he was credited as Cylon Or. Jackie Chan’s Police Story, Curry and Pepper with Stephen Chow and such kung fu classics as Secret Rivals 2.
- The alleyway fight between Lau & Kelvin Wong’s characters makes numerous references to it being a battle between Taiwan and China, with the two leads ending up wrapped in their respective countries colors before joining forces to take care of a Cantonese speaking Hong Kong Policeman, before they mock the Police HQ’s lack of understanding of their mutual mandarin speaking.
- Both Wong & Lau suffered for their art during the making of the film, Lau takes plenty of bumps and bruises while Wong was nearly crushed under the wheels of a double decker bus performing his own stunt. The finale of the film, which sees the two of them getting crushed in a car when a truck crashes into them, crushing the car. To achieve the shot, the two found themselves being crushed in a car when a truck crashes into them!