Big Brother Cheng [大哥成] (1975)

Starring Chen Kuan-Tai, Karen Yip Leng-Chi, Tung Lam, Wai Wang, Chung Chan-Chi, Lam Wai-Tiu, Lau Luk-Wah, Wong Yu, Fung Ging-Man, Chan Lap-Ban, Chan Mei-Hua, Shum Lo, Yeung Chak-Lam, Bruce Le

Directed by Kuei Chih-Hung

Expectations: High.

Big Brother Cheng is the smash-hit sequel to The Tea House (it was the Shaw Brothers’ 2nd biggest film of 1975!), but it’s far different than I expected it to be. At the end of the first film, Big Brother Cheng (Chen Kuan-Tai) and his family are set up to have an all-together new type of story told about them. I was excited to see this promised new direction unfold, so when it was summarily dispatched within the first minutes of Big Brother Cheng I was completely taken off guard. Instead of venturing forward into a new life, Big Brother Cheng is immediately pulled back into his role at the tea house.

As we learned in the first film, managing the tea house is more of a secondary concern of Cheng’s. His real passion lies in protecting and strengthening his community, dispensing justice where he feels that the laws have failed the honest people of the area. The first film explores this through various stories involving different levels of law enforcement and how they handle the crimes that come to them, with Cheng trying his best to keep crime at bay through diplomatic means as well as physical. Big Brother Cheng is similarly structured, but here Cheng is more fed up and ready to go on the offensive against the crime in his area. For instance, when a rape occurs Cheng and his loyal staff capture the men and ruthlessly humiliate them by making them strip and run around the room with an assortment of bottles, cans and bricks tied directly to their penises. They may not have served jail time, but there is something to be said for the deterring nature of this kind of rogue justice.

The failing justice system of Hong Kong is a perennial topic in both films. There’s some discussion on the abolition of the death penalty (dramatized very well by Cheng Kang in Kidnap), but perhaps the most affecting instance of this kind of social commentary comes during the rape scene. The crime is crosscut with a TV interview with a criminal justice expert who throws out a lot of statistics about the violent crime rates of Hong Kong. He proudly and callously states that rapes in the city never exceed 12 a day, all while we witness one of those 12 rapes. It’s a vicious act, made even more vicious with the understanding that the individual is lost in the system. She has become a stat, the collateral damage of living in a big city, her criminals may or may not be punished for their act.

Cheng does his best to directly fight back against these crimes; being on the opposite side from the law, actually knowing the victims, he feels it’s his duty to protect and care for them. He takes pride in his community and wishes it to be a safe place for everyone. The key flaw in this is that Cheng is but one man. He leads the staff of the tea house in a crusade of justice, but when faced with taking up the mantle without Cheng, they plead with him to return. In order for Cheng’s justice to have any lasting effect, the community must realize that only by working together can they keep his dream alive, regardless of his presence there to lead the charge. The man is important to inspire and unite, but the legacy that lives on in the hearts of those he inspired is more important.

Within this theme is the entire point of making a sequel to The Tea House. That film felt finished in a way, and even though I was curious to see where they took Cheng’s character, I wondered how a sequel could really work. I was further frustrated to see the end of The Tea House seemingly negated, and the sequel returning to the episodic nature of the first film. As the Big Brother Cheng went on, though, I saw the entire picture. I saw that it wasn’t truly more of the same, but a subtle shift in character dynamics to bring the law enforcement theme that runs through both films to a perfect conclusion. Social commentary is deeply woven into the films’ scripts (by regular Kuei Chih-Hung screenwriter Sze-To On), with Kuei himself wonderfully visualizing the ideas on the screen.

The Tea House and Big Brother Cheng work together beautifully. In the moment they are both somewhat slow in parts, and the episodic nature of the crime fighting is sometimes a challenge to follow. In a way, though, it’s the only way to tell this story about inspiring a spirit of community around the places you live, work and do business in. It slowly reveals this atypically, and only through finishing both films and reflecting on them was I able to see the impressive quality that the films display. At first the story feels like it’s about the tea house and its employees, then you are led to believe it’s about Big Brother Cheng himself, but by the end the community itself has emerged as the overall focus of both films. Change does not come from a single place or a single person, it comes when everyone affected rises up and stands together.

In terms of action, the film is far from being a martial arts film. There are a few flashes here and there, but Cheng’s much talked about kung fu prowess is still largely unseen. Kuei Chih-Hung makes up for this by working in tons of brutal, hard-hitting gangland violence. It’s very kinetic and chaotically shot, yet also beautifully choreographed. It reminded me a lot of the style seen in ’80s and ’90s HK triad/crime films; the brutality mixing with intense stunt work to create a state of heightened reality unique to Hong Kong film. Based on this style and the success of Big Brother Cheng and The Tea House, I’m inclined to think the two films were an influence on the filmmakers that went on to further explore the themes and genre (such as Kirk Wong, Ringo Lam and John Woo). Kuei Chih-Hung may have never gotten the respect he deserved during his lifetime, but I feel like he’s the “Godfather of the Hong Kong New Wave” and his mark was undoubtedly left on the industry.

Next up in this chronological journey through the Shaw Brothers Martial Arts catalog is the wonderful Super Inframan! See ya then!