Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind

And now for a nihilistic movie released at the dawn of the 1980s, just as Hong Kong’s new wave was beginning to establish itself as a cinematic force to be reckoned with.

Also known as Dai yat lai aau him, Don’t Play With Fire and Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind, this was the third film directed by Tsui Hark, who would later be described as the ‘Hong Kong Steven Spielberg’. Spielberg might have made the similarly titled Close Encounters of the Third Kind but he certainly has never got remotely close to making anything like Dangerous Encounters.

If you’re wondering about the naming of Hark’s bleak – and then some – drama, yes, it consciously attempts to evoke Speilberg’s major box-office hit – and just look at that version of the original poster on the right hand side above. More specifically it refers to a 1956 Hong Kong law that decreed that explosives should be classified as ‘dangerous objects of the first kind’.

And there’s going to be many dangerous objects of the first kind in this movie.

Pearl in Dangerous Encounters - First Kind

It opens in a rain soaked maze of overcrowded apartments. We see an even more overcrowded cage, filled with white mice. A hand takes one out, then extracts a long sharp needle from a nearby candle with dozens of similar needles pierced into its wax. This is pressed into the mouse’s head, squizelling through its brain. This disorientates the poor creature, which is returned to the cage.

It’s a sickening way to start a film as the action does look like it might have been real. We’re then transported to some boys standing on the roof of a nearby building. They drop some kind of crude bomb which explodes next to an innocent bystander.

In an era when kung fu movies made by The Shaw Brothers and others ruled the roost, with chivalrous heroes as leads and happy endings, Hark’s ‘shock of the new’ vision would have made for, ahem, explosive viewing.

It was banned, though, by the Film Censorship Unit. This made headline news in Hong Kong in 1980, and Hark was forced to re-edit some of the more controversial scenes. Sadly, many were left on the cutting room floor.

Pearl (Chen Chi Lin), is a sadistic teenage sociopath – she was the one torturing the mouse. We see her at work where she pours a bucket of thick printer’s ink over a young girl for daring to criticise her, point her cop brother’s gun at neighbours and do something truly unspeakable to a cat.

After witnessing the three geeky young bombmakers (Ko, Loong and Paul) detonating a small bomb in a cinema, she blackmails them, forcing them to join her in the mayhem she has planned for society.

So is born our alienated and angry brigade or Gang of Four (the movie’s originally envisaged title) if you prefer.

Gang of Four - Dangerous Encounters 1st Kind

Events spirals out of control when, in the aftermath of a pointless confrontation with an American driver, Pearl finds a wad of Japanese bank orders worth millions of yen.

These cannot be cashed legally outside Japan, so Pearl and the boys seek out some local Triads, who might be able to launder them. The Triads offer a deal, but they’re not to be trusted. And the American and his friends, presumably Vietnam vets who enjoyed some leave in Hong Kong and decided to stay, desperately attempt to recover their treasure trove, no matter how many lives they have to end in the process.

The final section of the film is set in a vast and hilly graveyard and resembles the kind of violent climax of a spaghetti western. Even today the film is rated Category III in Hong Kong, their equivalent of an 18 in Britain.

Dangerous Encounters of the First Time still

Its nihilism also reminded me of two bleak North American dramas made around the same time, Jonathan Kaplan’s Over the Edge (1979) and Dennis Hopper’s Out of the Blue (1980).

Hark wasn’t in a good place when he shot the film. According to Pak Tong Cheuk’s book Hong Kong New Wave Cinema 1978-2000, he ‘transferred his discontent, accumulated over many years, to the images of this movie, producing scenes of blind, cruel massacres. The film is an intense, unrestrained expression of the film-maker.’

Despite this, it’s been called his ‘greatest contribution to the Hong Kong New Wave’ and over the years it’s picked up more and more of a cult following. But its commercial failure on release played a big part in persuading Hark to seek more mainstream friendly material.

It’s not a film for everyone – especially animal lovers – but it did lodge in my mind. Chen Chi Lin is excellent as Pearl, and repugnant as her character is, I did begin to root for her as the film progressed, albeit in a lesser of three evils way. The action sequences are handled expertly, and it’s never predictable.

I also generally liked the patchwork soundtrack. This includes a burst of Jean-Michel Jarre’s Oxygene (Part 4), extracts from Goblin’s work on Dawn of the Dead, and even the theme from The Warriors. No copyright infringements, I’m sure. Or maybe not.

If you like Dangerous Encounters of the First Kind then you might also like 1991’s Once Upon a Time In China, which was directed, produced and co-written by Hark.

The story of Cantonese folk hero and martial arts master Wong Fei-hung (Jet Li), this franchise inspiring epic is essential viewing for kung fu fans. Li is at the peak of his powers and is involved in some of the most sensationally kinetic action sequences that you could ever wish to come across, including an audacious and extended fight on bamboo ladders that has to be seen to be believed.

A major box-office hit locally, this is one of the very few classics that spawned an equally good, arguably even better follow-up. This was also directed, produced and co-written by Hark, who since his early new wave days has established himself as one of the most important names in South East Asian filmmaking with his genre-spanning movies. He’s collaborated with John Woo, Jackie Chan, Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung and Ringo Lam, to name only a handful of Hong Kong cinematic legends.