Summer of Sammo: Pedicab Driver

This 1989 film once again finds Sammo Hung mixing tones in a highly unusual way, as what appears to be a light-hearted farce about human taxis turns into a very dark indeed exploration of human trafficking and prostitution in the lower class Macao underworld. Sammo plays the garrulous leader of the town’s pedicab union, and the film begins with a tense negotiation with the rival rickshaw drivers union in a warehouse like restaurant. Spooked by a cameo of Eric Tsang with a cleaver (chasing an unrelated cat), the two sides begin brawling, showing off some impressive group kung fu choreography (and a clever Star Wars parody). After this prologue, the first half of the film follows Sammo and his best friend Malted Candy’s attempts to woo a pair of pretty girls. Sammo’s girl is named Ping and she works at the bakery where he’s also a lodger. Ping is lusted after by the master baker, and he and Sammo get in several fights over her (she prefers Sammo, of course). Ping is quite casually treated as an object by both men (Sammo has no compunction about embarrassing her to prove his superiority to the baker), the only difference being the gross lasciviousness of the baker’s lust and the generally good-hearted nature of Sammo’s character. Malted Candy’s girl, Hsiao-Tsui, however, turns out to be a prostitute, and her pimp, Master 5, brings the first bit of horror into the film in an early scene that initially doesn’t appear to have much bearing on the plot. His men have tracked down a runaway prostitute and her new husband as she’s about to give birth at a midwifery. Master 5 has his men to kill the husband and, as for the baby, “If it’s a boy, throw it in the river. If it’s a girl, send it to the brothel.”

Sammo first encounters Master 5 on the street, where he’s propositioning Ping. Sammo steps in to help her and the two run away in a fun chase sequence. They end up crashing into a gambling house, where Sammo is set upon by a new, unrelated group of gangsters. Eventually he challenges the gambling house’s boss to a duel and it turns out to be none other than the great Shaw Brothers director Lau Kar-leung. What follows is completely superfluous to the narrative, but is nonetheless the best scene in the film. Lau is a terrific fighter, and seeing him face off against Sammo is a treat (be sure to see Lau’s starring role in his own Mad Monkey Kung Fu). Following this welcome digression, the film becomes a light romantic comedy for a half hour or so as the two couples fall in love. Then it becomes a dark tragedy as Malted Candy first learns Hsiao-Tsui’s true occupation from a friend, the man who helped him out when he first arrived in Macao, buying him his first pedicab. As Sammo, Malted Candy and their friends gather around a small table in their open-air tenement to discuss what to do about this revelation, Hung effectively puts across the terrible living conditions, the reliance on improvised families and communal networks and desperate hope for the future that drives these men without being preachy or melodramatic. That desperation, along with an effective bit of yelling by one of the driver’s wives, allows Malted Candy to set aside his patriarchal outrage at the way Hsiao-Tsui has “cheated” him and see the trauma and hopelessness that must have led her to the brothel in the first place. Able to see her as an equal, he reconciles with her and the two happily get married. Of course, that night Master 5’s men track them down and kill everyone in sight. All that’s left is for Sammo to take his revenge on the pimp and all his gang, including kickboxing badass Billy Chow, in a spectacular finale.

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