All the Wrong Clues

In a discussion on the films of Tsui Hark, “All the Wrong Clues” tends to barely register as a footnote – a near forgotten film of his near the beginning of his career and clearly a film that falls outside of his acclaimed work as an auteur filmmaker. In a sense though this was a very important film in his career. Prior to it he had made three independent and innovative films – The Butterfly Murders, We’re Going to Eat You and Dangerous Encounter – 1st Kind – that were the heart of the Hong Kong New Wave movement, but all of them were met with general indifference by movie goers. Even with this unpopular track record, Cinema City recognized his talent and asked him to direct one of their films.
Teddy Robin Kwan and George Lam
It was an odd pairing that proved beneficial to both parties. Cinema City had a very different vision regarding films than Tsui did at this time. Formed by actors Karl Maka, Dean Shek and Raymond Wong in 1980, their mission was to make comedy films that had broad family appeal. Make it funny, fast and contemporary.  Their most successful films, The Aces Go Places series, were built around this mantra.  Nothing perhaps could be further from the dark sceptical political mood that Tsui fostered in his first three films. In an interview Tsui confesses that he was happy to just make a ”silly film, absent-minded and mindless*” for a change. Though he often knocked creative heads with the folks at Cinema City, they ended up with a film that was both quite commercial and yet had definite aspects of the Tsui imprint that was to foretell his style over the next fifteen years.
Karl Maka and Kelly Yiu
The movie was in fact a big commercial success – number four at the box office in 1981 – and it began a string of successes for the new company. Tsui was to direct two more films for Cinema City – Zu: The Warriors from Magic Mountain and the third instalment of the Aces Go Places series – and then later he formed a partnership between his production company Film Workshop and Cinema City for which a number of his great classics were made. At the time when All the Wrong Clues was released Tsui received a bashing from some film critics for veering away from the grim reality of his previous films, but in truth after three box office shrugs he very much needed a success to establish himself as a commercially viable filmmaker. Without doing so he would have had great difficulty raising finances from producers and investors (an issue he is currently having) for future projects in Hong Kong.
Maka, Eric Tsang and Tang Kay Chan
The operative word for “All the Wrong Clues” is definitely silly  - in fact it is totally silly from beginning to end and is chock full of sight gags, pratfalls and general nonsensical insanity. Starring in it are three of my least favorite Hong Kong actors – the droll but dull George Lam, the diminutive and annoying Teddy Robin Kwan and the always loud and often obnoxious Karl Maka. Nevertheless, I enjoyed the film to some extent for its anarchic Marx Brother’s like comedy and a plot line that swerves about like a fly having a sugar fit. Even within this low brow comedic straight jacket, Tsui is able to throw in some lovely flourishes from time to time and he shows a very able hand at creating the logistical complexities of a fast moving scene with multiple people. I have to say if I didn’t know going in that this was a Tsui Hark film, I never would have guessed – it is much more Cinema City than Tsui – as opposed to his next film Zu that very much bears the signs of what came to be known as a Tsui Hark film.
Lam, Mistress (?) and Marianna Wong
George Lam plays a toothpick chewing private detective deep in hock and not a paying client in sight. He gets a visit from the number one killer (Eric Tsang) of top gang leader Ah Capone (Karl Maka) who warns Lam not to mess around with Capone’s mistress. He then proceeds to bust up Lam’s office in a parody of the Bruce Lee scene in “Marlowe” – except instead of falling to his death he ends up entangled like a bright Christmas lit decoration down below.  At the same time Maka is released from prison with a plan in place to unseat his rivals at the “four families” (Walter Cho and Fung King Man being two of them) and to kill his nemesis Lam.
Lam’s good friend Chief Inspector Teddy Robin - who sort of takes on a Claude Raines type character here except that he is shorter than a bar stool and has a mean left hook - hears of the danger to Lam and locks him up in jail. A fashionably dressed woman (Kelly Yiu of Sister Cindy fame in Naked Killer) with a long cigarette holder that could  precede her by minutes shows up and bails George out.  Her much older husband (Tang Kay Chan) fears someone is trying to kill him and wants Lam to look into it. Into this complicated equation comes the woman in distress (Marianne Wong) who tags along with Lam during an escape from Maka and turns out to be the daughter of the old man. Soon everyone is double-crossing everyone else and there is a Mexican stand off of the oddest type yet.
The film basically makes fun of and plays with the genre of hard boiled noir with its cop/detective relationship, femme fatales and betrayals. It is treated in a light tongue in cheek manner that makes for enjoyable though not very substantial viewing. Tsui utilizes a few nifty camera tricks – shooting various scenes in silhouette, making good use of shadows (i.e. the opening shot in which a long shadow of a man in the alleyway turns into three people walking in unison), placing the camera at odd angles and producing some interesting color schemes.
Fung King Man, Walter Cho, John Sham and Bolo Yeung
There are also two well-done frantic comic action set pieces that showed Tsui had an able hand with the logistics of lots of people moving around like chess pieces at hyper speed. The first set piece is an all-out brawl in an art deco  nightclub that begins with Bolo Yeung trying to pick up George’s girl and shifts to general mayhem, then turns sharply into a square dance, back to mayhem, to a kung fu waitress and then a Russian mazurka – all to the piano playing of John Shum and on occasion the cross-eyed To Siu Ming.  The finale later takes place in a jigsaw puzzle of a warehouse with all competing interests attempting to kill one another amid bouncing ping pongs and bald headed mannequins and ends in a sly conga line with a gun pointed at the back of everyone’s head. It’s all rather silly fun.

As a note - George Lam and Teddy Robin were again paired as the same characters in the 1983 film All the Wrong Spies, but this one was directed by Robin and Tsui Hark acted in it as a Japanese agent.

* "The Cinema of Tsui Hark" from Lisa Morton

My rating for this film: 6.5