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All About Ah-Long
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by Jay Seaver

"Maybe Chow Yun-Fat's best work as an actor."
4 stars

"All About Ah-Long" is one of only two movies where Chow Yun-Fat has a story credit, and it's maybe not coincidentally some of his best work as an actor, winning him his third Hong Kong Film Award and holding up well thirty-odd years later. He's far from the only reason to see it, but the movie is in his orbit and he makes that a good place to be.

His Ah-Long used to be a top motorcycle racer - old friend and coach "Dragon" Ng (Ng Man-Tat) thinks he could still be better than a lot of the kids he's training despite the three screws in his leg - but now works construction to provide a stable, if not fancy, life for son Porky (Huang Kun-Hsuen). Dragon thinks of Porky when an advertising agency contacts him looking for a charismatic kid who can do some BMX riding for a campaign, and the executive in charge, Sylvia Poon Por-Por (Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia), is taken with Porky immediately. It turns out that the three adults know each other from before Por left for America ten years ago - just long enough for her to be the mother Ah-Long told Porky was dead, although if that's the case, why is she so surprised to see Ah-Long has a son?

It's a situation that seems peculiar at first but which the film explains without a whole lot of fuss, using just enough in the way of flashbacks to establish just what sort of rebellious messes the pair were in the late 1970s. Screenwriters Ng Man-Fai & Philip Cheng Chung-Tai and director Johnnie To Kei-Fung do a neat job of referencing the sins of the past just enough for there to be some irony to what Ah-Long will do to assure a better life for his son without making him too self-aware of how he'd be doing something similar to what Por's mother did. There's also an impressive sort of restraint in how this never becomes a romance in the way Porky clearly wants it to. The kid may have a fairy tale of long-separated parents coming back together in his head, but the filmmakers let the adults be smart enough to realize that even though they've matured, they're in many ways even more star-crossed than they were ten years earlier, even if a lot of the attraction is still there.

The cast does nimble work with that, with Chow playing the shaggy working-class Ah-Long as a little more mature but not particularly refined, a fuzzy line between the often-callous young man we see in the past and the ex-con dad of the present. There are some "son's best friend and in many ways still a big kid himself" vibes to Ah-Long, but Chow and the filmmakers get that Ah-Long in many ways being the means there's an occasional meanness to him. Sylvia Chang makes an impressive complement to him; Por's well-collected professionalism never seems like a put-on but it's still easy to connect her with the more volatile version in the past, and she does a nice job of allowing the euphoria of discovering Porky exist side-by-side with the knowledge that this situation will not be easy going forward (she also has a story credit here and unlike Chow would do a great deal as a writer and director in addition to acting). There's a joke in the film about how Porky doesn't really look like either parent, but it's worth it to have Huang Kun-Hsuen in the part. A busy child actor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he's good at making Porky a reflection of Ah-Long with a hint of Por while never being precious or broad as kid actors often can be (heck, as he himself was in Eighth Happiness a year earlier), despite the fact that his big emotions aren't ever hidden. Ng Man-Tat is solid character-actor bonus.

Doing a small marathon of four movies To, Chow, Chang, and Huang made together (in one combination or other), it was striking what a different feel this had from Eighth Happiness and The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon. Between those garish farces, To and cinematographer Horace Wong Wing-Hang give this one a grainier, less colorful style that often evokes home movies without seeming drained, always in close enough to see emotions but never zoomed in so much that one loses the context of Ah-Long's world. Without scenes of him doing so, one can see that Ah-Long has tidied up his apartment to look better for Por, and the scene when Porky first goes to Por's hotel for breakfast drives home that he clearly couldn't imagine places like that existing in Hong Kong.

It's good enough to make it's finale something of a head-scratcher: Ah-Long enters a big motorcycle race in Macau after getting a haircut so that he looks a little more like the Chow that's a big movie star than the down-on-his-luck ex-con he's often vanished into. It's so oddly disconnected from the rest of the movie that one wonders if the producers demanded a big set piece that could be used in ads or if there's a thread of Ah-Long returning to racing and developing some sort of antagonism with one of the other riders that got cut. To handles the action well, of course, right up until the operatic end, but it feels tacked on from another movie with the same cast.

I'd see that movie, even if it's something of an odd match with this one, forcing a resolution that the film otherwise wasn't headed toward. With or without that last part, "All About Ah-Long" is still an impressive bit of work from some of Hong Kong's best.

link directly to this review at https://www.efilmcritic.com/review.php?movie=34191&reviewer=371
originally posted: 03/09/21 08:15:09
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USA
  14-Jul-1989

UK
  N/A

Australia
  N/A (PG)


Directed by
  Johnnie To

Written by
  Man-Fai Ng
  Philip Cheung

Cast
  Yun-Fat Chow
  Sylvia Chang
  Kun-Hsuen Huang
  Man-tat Ng



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