Classic comedy captured spirit of Hong Kong

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 09 September, 2012, 12:00am
UPDATED : Monday, 10 September, 2012, 9:33am

The Private Eyes

One of my most memorable movie-going experiences in Hong Kong was also one of the earliest - a Christmas screening of
The Private Eyes during its initial run in December 1976. The antics of the Hui brothers connected with viewers in a manner that was electric - even a foreigner not yet conversant in Cantonese got caught up in the misadventures of the Mannix Private Detective Agency presided over by the clueless Joseph Wong (Michael Hui Koon-man), his smarter underling, Lee Kwok-kit (Sam Hui Koon-kit), and an assistant aptly named Pig Head (Ricky Hui Koon-ying).

The screwball sleuths and their even screwier cases were silly, to be sure, but the visual and aural escapades were so raucously spot-on that they came as close to an expression of the joyous side of the Hong Kong spirit as has ever been captured on celluloid. They also displayed the comic genius of director-writer-star Michael and his singing sibling Sam, who composed and performed the now-classic theme tune.

The Private Eyes demonstrated just how far Cantonese cinema had advanced in the mere half-decade since its supposed demise in the early 1970s, a time when Mandarin movies had become the norm and productions in Hong Kong's local dialect were deemed old-fashioned and box office poison.
The Private Eyes, by contrast, was the top ticket seller of 1976 and the first Hong Kong film to pass the HK$8 million mark. It surpassed the year's second-highest moneymaker,
Jaws, by nearly HK$3 million.

It's odd to see
The Private Eyes in the Hong Kong Film Archive's retrospective tribute to set designer Chan King-sum, but a great deal of its charm comes from its abundance of locales, including the city streets traversed by Sam's VW Beetle. It's a testament to Chan's skill that his sets fit so unobtrusively into the zany milieu they complement the gumshoes' high jinks.

Paul Fonoroff

The Private Eyes
, Sept 15, 7pm, Hong Kong Film Archive, with post-screening talk with Michael Hui; Sept 23, 2pm, Broadway Cinematheque