Dead End [死角] (1969)

Starring Ti Lung, Li Ching, David Chiang, Chen Hung Lieh, Angela Yu Chien, Chen Yan-Yan, Goo Man-Chung, Fang Mian, Guo Hui-Juan, Cheng Miu, Poon Oi-Lun, Yip Bo-Kam

Directed by Chang Cheh

Expectations: High. I’m excited to see this one. Looks great.

For Chang Cheh’s fifth 1969 release (out of six), he decided to take another crack at a contemporary setting. Unlike the playful nature of The Singing Thief though, Dead End is a depressing, meandering take on the French New Wave style of film about troubled youths. It’s not a style you’d initially think of Chang Cheh tackling, but his solid track record should be enough to get asses in seats. Looking back on this film from the future, it also has the added distinction of being the first starring role for Hong Kong legend Ti Lung, as well as the first film to pair up the on-screen duo of Ti Lung and David Chiang, a team so successful at the box office that they, along with Chang Cheh, were known as the Iron Triangle. I wish I could tell you that this first team-up was something special, but unfortunately, at least for me, it was sorely lacking.

Ti Lung plays a young man employed as a typist by an insurance company. As the opening credits roll, it’s clear he hates his boring job. He turns in an assignment and then sullenly walks to the high-rise window, either taking a quick break to watch the traffic below or to contemplate jumping. It’s never made explicitly clear on purpose, but given the following film, I’d guess that both weren’t far from the truth. Where Ti finds no love in his work, he does enjoy hanging out with his mechanic friend David Chiang, and riding around in their old car affectionately called Old Master. The car is the means by which Ti Lung achieves childlike happiness, and one day it leads them to meet Li Ching, a rich girl stranded on the road next to her broken-down Mercedes-Benz coupe. As any film viewer can tell you, the troubled youth/rich girl romance is destined to end poorly and the tale in Dead End is no different.

Like the youth it attempts to portray, Dead End meanders through its storyline, letting standard plot-driven narrative fall by the wayside. Instead we are given a general direction, and Ti Lung and company simply go about their lives. There is a framework of a traditional plot, with tension stemming from the relationship between Ti Lung and Li Ching, but without any real character depth or time spent developing the tension, it’s nearly pointless. It kind of feels like a Chang Cheh version of a Wong Kar-Wai or an early Truffaut film though, so if that sounds somewhat intriguing you might want to look into this one.

While the narrative and the storytelling in the film is definitely lacking, it does feature some interesting touches. There’s a great scene that happens about halfway through after Ti Lung is given the first indication that his newfound relationship isn’t condoned by Li Ching’s family. He angrily takes her to his car after being slighted by her brother, when suddenly a shitload of cops fill the street and warn of flying bullets. A lone gunman comes around the corner, doing his best to take as many cops with him in his rageful, final act. In the end, the man is gunned down with twin machine guns and the violent image affects Ti deeply. As he is about the leave the scene, he sees the man’s gun and takes it home with him. This moment, and possessing the gun, forever alters his course in the world, and it is by far the most developed and intriguing aspect of the film.

Whatta smile!

The acting is something worth noting though, with lots of great raw talent on display. In his first starring role, Ti Lung knocks it out of the park, perfectly playing the youth happy with aimlessly frittering away his life. He is relentlessly charming and it’s no secret what Chang Cheh saw in this young actor. David Chiang gets far less screen time, but he does a great job with what he’s given. The chemistry between the two is electric, and they immediately feel like old friends on-screen. In my youth I pretty much wrote off this era of Shaw Brothers in favor of later, more advanced pictures, so my position coming to this film is not one of unfiltered adoration. Li Ching looks beautiful as always, in addition to delivering yet another standout performance. She’s more reserved here than in the swordswoman roles of previous kung fu films, but she owns the screen whenever she’s on it. The moment when she agrees to Ti Lung’s request of a first date and she flashes that gorgeous, subtle smile, my heart pretty much melted. And a short mention must be given to Chen Hung Lieh, who gets almost nothing to do in the film other than look badass in a suit, but goddamn, does he look badass in a suit or what?

(Editor’s Note: Some contextual spoilers ahead! For those hoping to view the film, skip past this next paragraph. Thanks!)

The final act does get more interesting than the preceding film as some of the plot threads finally start to come together and pay off. The whole film is layered with emotion, but it took until this section of the film for me to actually be fully involved with it and the characters on-screen. Ti Lung slowly has the things he cherishes the most stripped from him, taking him down a path that he feels is his only way out. He’s been forced down a proverbial dead-end street, and it’s absolutely tragic to watch. The ending is highly reminiscent of Rebel Without a Cause (to the point of theft), but it’s still resonant, impacting imagery and quite depressing.

Dead End isn’t a typical Chang Cheh film, and it tries hard not to be. Unfortunately it’s not exactly successful at repurposing the loose, French New Wave style of filmmaking into 1960s Hong Kong, but it is a good effort nonetheless. There are a couple of action scenes, but as Ti Lung is a delinquent youth, he’s not supposed to be a very good fighter and the action sequences are choreographed accordingly. It’s not everyday that you can say the action was bad in a Chang Cheh film, but like I said, it was clearly done this way on purpose. It’s an interesting film in Chang’s filmography, and gave rise to many more contemporary, youth-based Hong Kong films in the following years, but Dead End could have been much better.