The Vietnamese Connection

Usually in Hong Kong movies, the idealistic ending is only found in the Western cut whereas the Eastern cut has the realistic ending. For example, Last Strike had a happy ending for the U.S. release (where it was known as Soul Brothers of Kung Fu) but the H.K. release had what I would call a compromised win. As for The Gold Connection, the American cut (released as Iron Dragon Strikes Back) represents the director’s intent whereas the Taiwanese version represents the judicial system of H.K. and Taiwan i.e. if a character breaks the law, they have to be either legally punished or die. The U.S. cut of a Chinese movie doesn’t normally reflect the director’s intention, but this movie is the exception to the rule. The VCD version of The Gold Connection contains the print that was released in Taiwanese cinemas, hence why it was dubbed in Mandarin instead of Cantonese. It reminds me of the Malaysian print of Naked Killer (which became the prototype for the German print) in that there were additional scenes filmed to justify the titular character’s conduct. The justification was that she was an undercover policewoman.



The Gold Connection was produced by a company called Goldig Films, hence the blue logo below the blue title. Despite the criticism aimed at the preservation of old Kung Fu movies, it’s nice to know that this movie was considered to be worthy enough to be included in the National Museum of Taiwan History; and it should be because it’s a masterpiece of storytelling. The Gold Connection reminds me of Back to the Future because of how a TV news report in the first scene establishes the premise while eluding the attention of the protagonist. Both protagonists eventually find out (about the gold and plutonium respectively) but they only know the full extent of the trouble when it’s too late. Both movies in general operate by Anton Chekhov’s ethos that every element of a story should serve a purpose that goes beyond a one-off basis. This is commonly known as Chekhov’s gun. The Gold Connection is the best example of this in the martial arts genre. If you haven’t seen the movie and you don’t want to be spoiled, don’t read the rest of my article.


Foreshadowing in the First Act


1) In Ah Wei’s first scene, his girlfriend Amy rejects his marriage proposal. This foreshadows Ah Chiang’s girlfriend having a bride doll placed in front of her bedroom mirror. As a brief aside, it’s worth pointing out that three of the four friends have names begin with Ah i.e. Ah Chiu is the third friend. The fourth friend, Chung Ming, stands out because he has the highest-paid job. Unfortunately, him being an estate agent doesn’t foreshadow himself living in a house i.e. versus Ah Chiang’s shanty home or Ah Wei’s apartment.


2) Amy admonishes Ah Wei for being her brother’s Kung Fu teacher. Her brother is Chung Ming. The foreshadowing is that his fate is sealed by the fact that he is only learning something that Ah Wei has already mastered.


3) Ah Wei teases his girlfriend with an automatic camera that he has recently purchased. The rapid-fire flashing of the camera pays off brilliantly in the showdown.


4) He cheers her up by suggesting that they take some consensual photos. This foreshadows Ah Chiang looking at the February 1979 issue of Playboy at the beginning of the third act. As an aside, it’s only in the English dubbed version that you see him looking at Lee Ann Michelle – an English model who was Miss February: Playboy’s Playmate of the Month.


5) Ah Chiang ambushes Ah Wei as a way to sharpen the latter’s Kung Fu skills. When the fights move to a Kwoon (Chinese dojo), Ah Chiang using a knife foreshadows the elusive assassin using a long nail against Ah Wei in the showdown. The Kwoon fight also establishes Ah Wei’s leg-holding technique, which he only does again in the showdown.


6) When Ah Wei kicks Ah Chiang against a Chinese drum, a mask falls down next to his head. This foreshadows an assassin who disguises himself on the set of a Kung Fu movie near the end of the second act. It also foreshadows Ah Chiang’s two-faced nature. Not only does he lie about his greed for the gold, but he conceals his true identity. To his friends, he is a bald bus driver. To his girlfriend, he is a businessman whose identity is concealed with a wig and even glasses when push comes to shove.



7) Ah Chiang uses the snake fist style of Kung Fu, which Ah Wei modifies to the leopard fist variant in the showdown. Again, he doesn’t do this in any other fight. This suggests that he’s honouring the memory of Ah Chiang. These two scenes help to identify the movie as a Kung Fu movie, and not just a modern martial arts movie.


8) The leg grappling techniques which Ah Wei uses on Ah Chiang are only used again in the showdown for the final strikes.


9) When Ah Chiang wields a sword, it sets up that Ah Wei will use one in the showdown.


10) Ah Wei’s usage of the gymnastic rings pays off in the second act’s bus chase sequence – first by climbing onto the bus and then by throwing the tires at the gangsters.


11) When Ah Chiang then wields a spear, it foreshadows the assassin using a spear on the set of a Kung Fu movie near the end of the second act. Just to digress for a bit, I should note that the Taiwanese version contains more footage of what life is like in between takes on a Kung Fu movie set.


12) Ah Chiang tells Ah Wei that he should be able to lend him money because of his wage as a Kung Fu movie choreographer. It seems like nothing more than a passing reference to make the dialogue more interesting until you see the second act.


13) Ah Chiu works as a steam cleaner. Near the end of the first act, he experiences torture when one of several hoodlums shoves a steam tube into his anus so that he can give up the names of his friends.


14) Ah Chiang lies to Ah Chiu about needing $300 to pay three parking tickets. This foreshadows how the number echoes throughout the movie.


15) Ah Wei showing captured fish to his friends on the boat foreshadows the torture of Ah Chiang’s acquaintance, Ah Bo. The foreshadowing takes place in the form of Ah Bo having his head dunked into a fish tank.


16) The 666 on the bars of gold foreshadows the triple 8 seen in the below shot of a Chinese stadium. I made it less obvious by cropping the shot. In Chinese culture, 8 is a lucky number. Although they say the more the merrier, triple eights tend to be the most desired. If you scroll past my narrative analysis, you will find more on the three theme.



17) When Ah Chiang talks to his girlfriend about now having the money to afford her mother’s operation, it foreshadows the hospitalization of another friend’s girlfriend – Amy.


18) When Ah Bo is being dunked into the fish tank, it foreshadows Ah Chiang being drowned and stabbed while he is bathing. Coincidentally, the showdown sees a fish tank being collateral damage when the assassin swings an axe.


19) When Ah Bo is pushed to the ground following the fish tank dunking, he is underneath the tank in a way where the tank takes up half of the screen. This foreshadows a fish being chopped in half during the making of a Kung Fu movie in the second act.


20) Ah Bo getting hung foreshadows the hanging of Ah Chiang before the showdown. What makes it eerie is that Ah Bo’s head has been shaved so that he resembles Ah Chiang, although the shaving is not much of a punishment since his hair wasn’t big or long.


21) When Ah Chiang’s shanty home is being ransacked, there is a can of Lactogen that foreshadows lactose-esque foam coming out of the assassin’s mouth in the showdown. On a lighter note, it wasn’t some random prop. Ah Chiang drinks a glass of milk at the beginning of the third act.


22) The gang leader, played by actor San Kuai, finds a harpoon that Ah Chiang uses. This is as close as it gets to a literal Chekhov’s gun in the movie since he uses it on Ah Chiu when the latter is fighting San’s cronies.


23) Ah Chiu being shot is its own Chekhov’s gun. Despite San telling his henchmen to clean up the mess that was caused by the fight, they forgot to clean up a small puddle of blood. This tips off Ah Chiang that something is afoot. To digress for a moment, he narrowly misses being stabbed by the harpoon thanks to a tin of chocolates with the words “Good Hope” on it.


Foreshadowing in the Second Act


24) The first shot is a close-up of the Chinese poster for a 1976 French film titled Une Femme Fidèle i.e. A Faithful Woman. It’s known internationally as Game of Seduction. Contrary to what you may think with the poster, When a Woman Is In Love was not the Chinese title – only the English title in Hong Kong. Those three Chinese characters mean Love Apricot Red. Jon Finch’s Charles is an aspiring aristocrat who is obsessed with financial gain and sexual conquests. This reflects the character of Ah Chiang. In Roger Vadim’s film, Sylvia Kristel’s Mathilde meets Charles at his aunt’s home. In The Gold Connection, “aunty” is a codename for the gold. After the shot of the poster, Ah Wei and Chung Ming leave a cinema with Amy. What Ah Wei doesn’t realize is that, like Charles, he will also die.



25) When San Kuai and his men invade the home of Ah Chiang’s girlfriend, San presses fruit onto Ah Chiang’s head. This foreshadows the fruit that gets destroyed in the showdown.


26) The assassin pretends to be a stuntman in the second act. He is armed with a spear. He fails, so he uses an axe in the third act.


27) Chung Ming mistakes a bespectacled C.I.D. officer for being an assassin. Later in the film, there is a bespectacled bus passenger who seems innocent enough until you find out several scenes later that he is the evasive assassin.


There are three moments of foreshadowing that don’t get addressed in reviews because the VCD is rare. First, there was a scene that took place between Chung Ming’s property deal and the diving expedition near Po Toi Island. The scene was a date between Ah Chiang and his girlfriend at her home where roses are in vases. This foreshadows the shot of dying roses in Amy’s hospital room. The mise en scène is inspired because the women are thematically linked. The second foreshadowing is Ah Chiang’s nose being touched by his girlfriend’s left index finger. This foreshadows his alternate torture scene in the third act. Finally, a steps-located fight between Ah Chiang and Chung Ming in an outdoor location foreshadows a fight that Chung has with the assassin.


Numerology


In the first act, it’s implied that Ah Chiang needs $400. He gets $100 from Ah Wei, and wants $300 from Ah Chiu. Going by their occupations, the demand should have been vice-versa. Then again, Ah Chiang isn’t very smart. The $400 is quite foreboding, because the Cantonese pronunciation of four is similar to the one for death. However, Ah Chiang only gets Ah Chiu to cough up $100.


Chung Ming is also a liar. After the introduction to Ah Chiu, we find out that Chung is wanting to sell an apartment to an elderly couple. Although he puts his client’s interests before his own, he tries to speed up their decision by telling them that people are going to call him about it at 3:15. What starts as a lie becomes a half-truth as Ah Chiang is paging him about needing one more donor. What’s ominous about the 3:15 appointment is that the next day in the film’s storyline is March 15, 1979: when the four friends find the gold. Ah Wei tells his friends that if no-one else retrieves the gold in three days then the four friends can divide it equally.


Four scenes later, Ah Chiang visits Ah Bo’s shoe shop where we find out (via a prominently placed calendar) that the scene takes place on Sunday, April 8. Even though Ah Chiang is not very smart, he is smart enough to realize that he can’t show his gold to anyone straight away or it will be obvious that he lied. He also believes in superstition, so the 8th day of the next month was the best gamble. Given the director’s attention to detail, this can’t have been a mistake. Later on, we even see that the evil businessman has three phones on his desk.


In the third act, a thug leader threatens Ah Chiang by telling him that he has three days to pay a loan. A couple of scenes later, Chung Ming has to go to the bank by 3 p.m. or else he’s in trouble. Ah Wei even has three door locks. The display of 888 in the stadium is symbolic because that’s the third scene that takes place in the stadium. The scene is ironic because three people have been killed, and only three people are alive. If you’ve seen the film, you might think there are four people alive but It’s implied that Ah Chiang’s girlfriend was killed since we never get to see her or hear about her again. Unlike Ah Wei’s girlfriend, we never see the gold-digger be interviewed by the police. Her materialism had led to Ah Chiang’s greed, so she deserved to have the screws turned on her.


By the film’s end, it’s symbolic that only three of the four friends have encountered the assassin – Chung Ming, Ah Chiang and Ah Wei. As for the male cast in general, three of the dead good guys were surprisingly not killed by the assassin – Ah Bo, Ah Chiu and Ah Wei. It’s not surprising that John Woo’s Bullet in the Head (1990) was about three friends and a fourth ally negatively affected by Vietnamese gold. There’s even a scene involving the main friend alienating the greediest friend by throwing gold into the water.


This brings to mind another issue: the Taiwanese version of The Gold Connection sends mixed signals about the corruption of money. It’s okay for the men to be punished for being greedy, but not the women. Unlike the English language version, we don’t see Ah Chiang’s girlfriend being help captive and knocked out by one of the gangsters. We also don’t see Chung Ming’s sister being the victim of a fire attack. An even bigger irony is that Taiwan has a reputation for being a money-mad society. The most relevant example being the Taiwanese versions of H.K. movies being longer. The best example is the issue of gangsters spending lots of money to win seats in the government. Speaking of Taiwan, below is my analysis of the Taiwanese VCD.



When Ah Wei picks up the newspaper, we see close-ups of what he’s reading: the story of the Vietnamese immigrants and gold. What’s fascinating is his strength of character. He could easily have used the gold to convince Amy that he is the financially stable suitor that she desires, but he sticks to his principles. She is equally fascinating. Although she wants him to be more ambitious, she advised him (off camera) that keeping the gold would be a mistake. When Ah Chiang pulls up his bus in front of Ah Chiu’s steam-cleaning business, he takes out his box of money. After their conversation, Ah Chiang almost walks away for good until he realizes that he can use the nearby phone to call Chung Ming. I should point out that the VCD does not contain subtitles, so I don’t know was said. Reading in between the lines, it would appear that it was Chung’s idea to get the gold. After all, he’s the person who discovered it in the first place.



I could describe the above scene but the acting tells the story. What isn’t shown in my collage is that Ah Chiang’s girlfriend gets up to turn off the TV and sit at the opposite side of the room. This is when Ah Chiang tries to get in her good books. One thing that I would like to note about the VCD is that it reminds me of how some people on YouTube try to avoid copyright infringement by reversing the shots, even if it means that words are displayed backwards. Thankfully, the VCD doesn’t do this too often. One quirk about the Taiwanese version is that we are treated to a scene that takes place in a police station every time that something illegal is said or done. The first time that we are inside the police station, we see a white chief inspector who looks like Mandy Patinkin during the first two years of the Criminal Minds TV series. The next celebrity lookalike is Chin Chun, who looks like the Chinese equivalent to Gregory Peck.



In the above scene, Amy is being interviewed by him because she called the cops following the chase from the cinema to the empty mall. Chin Chun’s character, an inspector, is someone who is typical of the H.K. police – he is both good cop and bad cop. I feel sorry for Amy because her character is completely innocent in that she didn’t know what was going on with the gold. The way that Chin Chun acts at the end of this scene is just as pensive as the way that he looked in his first scene with Glen Thomson i.e. the Mandy Patinkin prototype (since Mandy was in his late twenties when this film was being made). In all versions of The Gold Connection, there is a phone call between Ah Wei and San Kuai where the latter informs him about giving up the gold in exchange for Ah Chiu. A few scenes later, there is another scene in the police station (the first two screenshots of the below collage). Presumably, the police are talking about the discovery of Ah Chiu’s corpse.



The Taiwanese version contained a variation of the surviving friends talking about what to do next. Ah Chiang and Chung Ming get into such a heated argument that they fight. Later, there is a deleted scene of Ah Wei leaving the stadium and trying to decide which way that he should go. The next new scene is one that puts a bit too much emphasis on respecting the shield and the iron fist that belongs to the long arm of the law. After we are introduced to the point-of-view shot of the assassin (evoking the POV shots of slasher movies), there is a shot of a busy H.K. street which pans down to a row of buses. The camera zooms in on the man outside of the front bus. This man is Chin Chun’s partner – a sergeant looking for Ah Wei’s gym. At the gym, the sergeant is joined by his partner. The man who they are interviewing is the muscular Kung Fu practitioner who took over from Ah Chiang as Ah Wei’s sparring partner. This bodybuilder, played by Chiu Chi-Ling, is surprisingly jovial…all things considered.



Ah Chiang’s fight with the gang had to be choreographed and edited differently since he used a telescopic baton (a retractable rod) in the regular prints, where the leading goon threatened Ah Chiang by sticking the baton up his right nostril. In the only scene that takes place in Chung Ming’s apartment, it begins with him knocking on the bathroom door so as to get Amy to come out. He then has to go to the bank and leave Ah Wei to essentially be Amy’s babysitter. As he sits and smokes, there is a POV shot of Wei looking at the door. He goes up to knock then smokes for a moment. Amy picks up a red statuette to smash the mirror, and Ah Wei barges through just in time to stop her from committing suicide. The scene ends with his face showing an expression that combines pity with guilt.



In the Taiwanese version, Lam Hak-Ming’s role as Chung Ming’s stalker and assailant was replaced with Phillip Ko’s assassin. This is because the H.K. version had Chung being stealthily stabbed by him on a busy street after being beaten and robbed by Lam. It’s worth noting that Chung had facial bruises in his fight with Lam. The decision to have Phillip revealed as the assassin earlier on ruins the suspenseful finale. They might as well have filmed Lam as another killer but one who gets apprehended by the police, thereby making the finale even more of a surprise. The final scene to take place in a police station begins with a close-up of a portrait that depicts Queen Elizabeth, since H.K. was a British colony before July 1 in 1997. The meeting ends with Chin Chun having a victorious smile.



The Taiwanese version of the showdown was more of a surprise than I was expecting. Because the censors wanted to eliminate all instances of short and sharp blades in the entire movie, the final fight is mostly to do with unarmed combat. There is one moment earlier on where they deliver a series of hand exchanges as they circle around each other. The axe attack happens earlier on, and even the leg showcase is kept to a minimum (they don’t quite release a barrage of kicking as they do in the other cuts of the film). The second half of the fight reminds me of a Bruce Lee movie in terms of the pacing being more measured (as opposed to a lot of Kung Fu movies where the pace ends up being monotonous because the emphasis is placed on non-stop striking). As you can see from the above and below shots, the lighting was more atmospheric. Don’t get me wrong; the fight isn’t completely different, but it will be confusing for you to compare the two versions since both versions have a lot of the same shots albeit in a different order. Hats off to whoever does a comparison video.



The ending is different enough to make me think that it’s a reshoot despite the fact that the Taiwanese version of a H.K. movie is usually released in Taiwan first due to the investment. The reason why I say this is because the black actor who plays the hitman looks like a different man altogether. Not only is he wearing different clothes from when he shot Ah Wei, but he has a visibly aged face. The other hitman looked like a twentysomething. This new hitman looks like he could be in his early forties. Anyway, this ending is what I would call an extended ending rather than an alternate ending. After the hitman drives off after shooting Ah Wei, we see a shot of money placed on a table. The hitman picks up the wad of cash then leaves. The bespectacled businessman calls “Uncle” to tell him that the job is done. Afterwards, several C.I.D. officers apprehend the hitman before he can get away for good. Other officers enter a back gate to the businessman’s garden so that they can arrest him without tipping him off.



One of the things that I like about this movie is that while it’s not Bruceploitation in the imitative sense, it pays respect to Bruce Lee by showcasing a poster of him in Enter the Dragon. How this is achieved is all the more endearing. Ah Chiang is fighting for his life in his girlfriend’s apartment when a thug kicks a wardrobe that slides across the floor to reveal the iconic and infamous image when Lee uses the nunchaku towards the end of the cavern sequence. What’s impressive is that Ah Chiang doesn’t use the steel-framed poster to attack the thugs like he did with one of his paintings. In fact, the fight scene (and the movie as a whole) is a precursor to the sort of prop-heavy fighting that Jackie Chan would do years later. Ho Chung-Tao even wears an olive green jacket like Jackie did in The Protector and My Lucky Stars. Back to the ETD poster, it was done to be appreciative of the fact that Ho only became a star by being a Bruce Lee clone. In Chinese culture, there is a saying: “When drinking the water from a well, one should never forget who dug it.”

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