My previous blog on My Father is a Hero was just a collection of random thoughts, but it also contained links to websites with a plot synopsis and cast and crew lists.
An important theme that runs through My Father is a Hero is the importance of keeping faith, whether that be to other people, your job or the promises you make. Several of the key characters in this film are confronted with the challenge of keeping the faith in trying circumstances, and it is this that drives the narrative.
The titular father, Kung Wei (played by Jet Li), is an essentially decent man who finds himself stranded in a web of loyalties during the course of the film. A devoted father and husband, living with his family in Beijing, Kung is also, unbeknownst to his loving family, an undercover cop. Kung is ordered by his superior to go deep undercover and infiltrate a Hong Kong gang. Kung is not able to share this information with either his family or the Hong Kong police force. Due to this cover his family and the Hong Kong police are left to assume that Kung is a genuine criminal. To make matters worse, Kung’s wife is dying and she and her son desperately need his presence.
To further complicate matters, Kung has to pretend loyalty to Po (played by Yu Rong Guang), the sociopathic gang leader he has been sent to spy on. In order to infiltrate Po’s gang, Kung participates in a set up escape that leads to his bonding with Po’s henchman Darkie (played by Blacky Ko Sau Leung). In the course of this escape Kung saves Darkie’s life, which earns him Darkie’s undying gratitude and staunch loyalty. This is useful as Darkie vouches for Kung to Po, and this facilitates Kung’s being accepted into Po’s outfit. But what emerges is that Darkie, although a career criminal, isn’t too bad a bloke and one suspects that he drifted into crime because he was just a bit dim. Darkie and Kung watch each other’s backs, and a genuine friendship develops between the two. Reciprocating Darkie’s loyalty is yet another personal obligation that Kung must shoulder.
As alluded to in the title, the central relationship in the film is that between Kung and his son Siu Ku (played by Xie Mao). In the early scenes we see that Ku is anxious for his father’s attention and endorsement. There is a particularly sweet scene where we see the two brushing their teeth side by side before practicing a martial arts breath technique, during which they grab the chance to give each other a furtive hug and pat on the back. Shortly after, in another scene, Ku forces his father to give up smoking by substituting cigarettes with confectionary. His father gives Kung his word to do so, telling his son that a man always keeps his promises. This is important, as all through the movie, when it looks as if Kung is putting his duty to his job ahead of his duty to his family, we see him sucking on the confectionary. This is a visual reminder that Kung is clinging onto at least one promise he made to his son.
For me, one of the most problematic aspects of the film is the violence experienced by the child. In the film’s darkest scene Ku is smacked around by Po until he is bloody. He is then throttled, seemingly to death. To watch a child endure this is bad enough, but what makes it worse is that it is Ku’s own father, Kung, who does the throttling. The reason for this is that Kung does not want to blow his cover and needs to prove himself to the watching Po as a genuine bad guy who has no connection to the child. Ku’s dialogue could be interpreted as him hinting to Kung that Kung should indeed put his duty as a cop first and do whatever it takes to “kill all bad eggs, no matter what, no mercy. My mum and I will support him”. As the film’s story continues, Ku bounces back and exhibits absolutely no sign of either physical or psychological damage. He apparently completely understands and supports his father’s actions. The end of the film sees them combine talents to defeat Po. My Father is a Hero has many merits, and I enjoy watching most of it very much. I can enjoy the final fight scene on the boat enormously (choreographically it is superb) but I am afraid that the scene showing the strangulation of the already battered and bleeding Ku by his own father goes too far for me. In this scene Kung appears to put his duty to his family too far behind his duty to his job. Despite Ku’s dialogue, the depiction of the violence at this point of the film is just too graphic and realistic and overwhelms all other aspects of the film’s text. In this one scene I think director Corey Yuen loses control of his movie and its themes for a few minutes. In the scenes that follow the movie succeeds as an action film, but the audience is denied the opportunity of seeing Kung successfully reconciling, on an emotional level, his duty to his family with his duty to his job.
Kung is one of a few characters in this movie who has complicated and conflicting loyalties. Darkie could be said to briefly have conflicting loyalties when Ku turns up at his gang’s headquarters, and he realises that Kung must be an undercover cop. But he relinquishes his loyalty to Po readily enough, and acts swiftly to rescue Ku and tries hard to reconnect the boy with his father. In an earlier scene he has, after all, promised Ku that he would bring his father back to him. Other than Darkie, most of the supporting characters have simple and straightforward loyalties. Ku’s best friend, Fatty, is clearly devoted to him. Po’s band of thugs unhesitatingly do his bidding, even in the face (or perhaps because) of Po’s often brutal treatment of them.
In the next instalment of this blog, I discuss the relationship between the female characters in the film and the power of the promise in forging that relationship.