The relationships discussed in the first part of this blog so far are between male characters, and this film would be in danger of being an overwhelmingly masculine film if it were not for the impact of 2 important female characters: Li Xia (played by Bonnie Fu Yuk Jing), mother and wife to Ku (played by Xie Mao) and Kung (played by Jet Li) respectively; and Inspector Fong Yat Wa, the Hong Kong cop played by Anita Mui Yim Fong.
Fu does not have many scenes as her character dies early in the movie, but this Li Xia still has a strong impact on the viewer due to the tragedy of her death (milked for all it is worth in high class soap opera style by director Corey Yuen). Li Xia’s loyalties could be seen as straightforward – she is a devoted and loving wife and mother. Her character is presented without complexity or depth, and nor is this necessary as her role in the film successfully fulfils an important function which is discussed below.
Anita Mui’s Inspector Fong, “thin and bad tempered”, is a strong main character in the film. Unmarried and childless, she is nevertheless caught up in her own mess of conflicting loyalties. Her first scene shows us that she is trapped in a hopeless relationship with one of her smarmy married work superiors, and we can gauge the depth of her attachment to this man when she voluntarily offers to be a hostage in his stead when Po’s gang stages a heist.
Fong is also shown to be intrepid, smart and physically and mentally tough. She is dogged in her pursuit of criminals, no nonsense in her handling of public safety during the Po gang’s explosive heist, and is martial arts adept enough to beat up a whole bunch of men at once. She is depicted as being a career woman who is devoted to her job. Like Kung, one of the most compelling claims on her loyalties is that of her responsibilities as a police officer.
Ironically, it is this single minded dedication to duty that leads to Fong becoming enmeshed in further conflicting loyalties as her job leads to her involvement with Kung, his wife and child. I think the movie makes clear that Fong and Kung will partner in the future (for all that they never quite get around to it in the actual film). In one instance early on in the film, Ku prefigures his acceptance of Fong as a possible replacement mother when he tells her that she looks good wearing his mother’s wadded jacket. In the final scene of the film, Fong snappily tells medical staff to back off to give herself, Ku and Kung some privacy to deal with what she deems as “family business”.
But the interesting thing about this is that Kung starts the film as a happily married and faithful family man. And when Fong meets Kung’s wife, they swiftly bond. Fong meets Li Xia shortly before Li dies, and is drawn into the tragic circumstances facing this family. There is a moment of dark humour when Fong initially tries to pass herself off to Li as a purveyor of adult merchandise – Fong, assuming that Kung really is the criminal his cover suggests that he is, misjudges Li to be some tough gangster’s moll. She is quickly disabused of this notion, as she observes the deep feeling that exists between Ku and his mother and the integrity that informs their actions and attitudes. For her part, Li quickly sees through Fong’s vulgar posturing. She judges Fong to be “a kind hearted person” (this is different from the “thin and bad tempered” label Fong gets from a male character) and guesses her to be from the Hong Kong police. In the scenes that Ku and Li share with Fong in their family home we see the three lying to each other in order to protect the other from unpalatable truths: Ku pretends that his father has written a letter and sent the money that Ku has raised himself, Li knows about Ku’s pretence but doesn’t let on, instead she tells Ku that Fong is a former classmate (as opposed to a criminal associate of his dad or a policewoman). Ku knows this can’t be true as his mother has no friends in Hong Kong.
Li’s death bed scene is a corker, and beautifully performed (especially by Fu). Before she dies Li, believing that her husband is about to go to gaol, makes her son promise to think of his father once a day and to write to him at least once a week. She also extracts promises from Fong – she essentially charges her to look after Ku and make sure that Kung is treated fairly by the Hong Kong police. She also asks Fong to deliver a letter to Kung. When Kung later reads this letter, he finds that his dead wife is asking for his promise to think of Ku once before he embarks on any course of action. Shortly after is the scene in which Kung has to throttle his own son in order to maintain his cover. Keeping the faith to his job and to his family places Kung in an untenable situation and problematizes the character trajectory of Kung for director Yuen and writer Wong Jing.
So Li’s function in the film is to fulfil the role of promise generator, if I can put it so crudely, for 3 of the main characters. This makes her role an important one, for it is the weight of promises that drives the characters through the film and puts them on a collision course with each other.
Li, as the gentle, virtuous, self-sacrificing wife, could be seen as a type of stock character that abounds in a typical melodrama. I am going to address the form of melodrama, and how it relates to My Father is a Hero, in my next blog.