The Pilferers’ Progress screened as part of HOME’s season of HK crime cinema, curated by Andy Willis in conjunction with The Chinese Film Forum of which Felicia Chan is a founding member. Fraser Elliott, PhD student at the University of Manchester, introduced the film.
First lets get one thing clear; I am in no way an expert on HK Chinese cinema (though I am pretty partial to the films of Johnnie To and John Woo). Nor have I seen enough HK films to be able to authentically situate this early work from director John Woo without surveying the wider social and political context of the time, which I’m not going to do in this brief digest. Of particular interest to me is the discontinuous form that Woo uses in this wacky slapstick vehicle as it reminded me of the Desai inspired Masala cinema of the 1970s-80s (Amar, Akbar, Anthony, Naseeb, Coolie). I say Masala because so much of the late 1970s Bollywood cinema absorbed a great deal of HK cinema particularly the action/kung-Fu idioms. One only has to go back and revisit the discombobulated fight (dishim! dishim!) sequences from any of the Amitabh films of the late 70s to realise that much of Asian cinema was a transnational filmic exchange; the flow though seems to have been largely from HK to Bollywood. One particular Indian film The Pilferers’ Progress reminded me of is the Kundan Shah satire Jaane Bhi Do Yaaro (1983); mainly because they are films that operate in an alternate universe and are to a large degree unclassifiable, impossible to label as genre films and safer to reason as playful artefacts of broad comedic modes.
Imaginably the soundest way to grasp Woo’s film is within the realm of slapstick, a performance style predicated on persistent narrative interruptions, a hyperbolic vernacular of Indian Masala cinema. It may have been Bollywood fanatic/blogger Beth Watkins who came up with the term ‘Paagal Subtitle’, an idiosyncratic Tumblr dedicated to the epic fail of subtitle translation. The Pilferers’ Progress would certainly fit into this lexicon of crazy subtitling yet undeniably some of the film’s charm extends from this (un)intentional? comical regard for the finer nuances of subtitle translation. By the way, how many would have predicated Lee Hoi-Sang (the kung-Fu heavy) would go on to become a great footballer too? Nobody, I guess. Except for Ronaldo. (Yes, now you need to google the following: first Lee Hoi-Sang and then Ronaldo…)