Look Out, Officer! (Si hing chong gwai)

Hong Kong (1990) Dir. Lau Sez-yue

Ghosts are supposed to be scary, malevolent beings intent on frightening and tormenting us not helpful and agreeable. Casper The Friendly Ghost set a precedent in kids’ comics but in film they have be few and far between. Which brings us to this late Shaw Brothers comedy.

Police officer Cheung Biu (Bill Tung) and partner Li Kam Chin (Stanley Fung) are called to investigate an abandoned warehouse but find nothing, though Biu decides to look further whilst Chin returns home. Biu finds a secret drug-making factory but is attacked by the gang members and killed by their boss Tang Lee Yang (Kong Fong) who makes it look like suicide.

Arriving in heaven, Biu is unhappy to find his cause of death is suicide which is frowned upon but insists on being allowed to prove he was murdered and get revenge. Since he can’t do it himself, Biu is given magic spells to help a saviour on earth, calamitous rookie cop Chi Sing (Stephen Chow). However, Sing is more interested in picking up girls, setting his sights Ah Yuk (Vivian Chen), who just happens to be Chin’s daughter.

Look Out, Officer! is listed as a remake of a 1986 Sammo Hung comedy Where’s Officer Tuba? though not a direct one as the plot differs wildly, the only shared factor being the phantom policeman. Interestingly, Stanley Fung had a small role in the first film but has promoted to be a bigger part this time with fellow veteran Bill Tung, but this was more a vehicle for the soon to breakout as a megastar Stephen Chow.    

Chow may or may not have had a hand in the script by Steven Tsui but the silly humour he is known for in his own films as writer and director is present here. Hong Kong comedy is aimed primarily at an audience that will understand and appreciate it, except the puerile toilet humour prominent here is inexplicably universal so arcane regional gags are balanced out by Carry On meets Bottom lewdness for all to, ahem, enjoy.

Nowhere is this more evident in the recurring lewdness spell that turns the victim horny. It is first used by Bui on his superior, played by 80s sex kitten Amy Yip to torment Chin but mostly as an excuse for her get her baps out. Then there is the obligatory backfire turning Sing onto Chin for an uncomfortable gay gag, which ironically wouldn’t have been less contentious 30 years ago than seeing an old lady wet herself.

By virtue of being dead, Biu is the least developed of the three central characters though that isn’t saying much as Sing and Chin hardly do more than go from reluctant partners to trusted colleagues. In the case of Chin, we learn he is a Taoist and his reason for leaving Biu behind at the factory was to perform his ritual prayer session to fulfil his wish to grow is arms longer because reasons.

Sing is less spiritual, the only thing he worships is the female form. Ah Yuk is introduced walking past Sing in the car park when a Bui assisted gust of wind blows up her long white skirt Marilyn Monroe style. You can guess the rest. You may recall the main plot was to prove Biu was murdered and avenge his death – congratulations, you are doing better than scriptwriter Tsui as this barely features as the main focus for the cast.

Instead we are treated to mostly comedic episodes revolving around Biu’s magic, Sing’s wooing of Ah Yuk and the tension this incurs, occasionally punctuated with crime related slapstick fights that attempt to ape Jackie Chan but lack his invention and panache. Where the film redeems itself is in the final act when Tang, now a ghost himself, battles Sing, Chin, and Biu in an “everything but the kitchen sink” type spectacular blow out.

The SFX up until this point in the scenes involving Biu’s magic look badly dated for 1990 and rather rudimentary but in the great tradition of saving the best till last, it seems the bulk of the budget was reserved for the finale. Depending on your mileage/tolerance for lowbrow humour this might be a case of better late than never, but it is the final scene in heaven that goes a long way to earning a pass for what precedes it.

Yet, there are slivers of satire referencing the then topical issue of influx of Vietnamese immigrants to Hong Kong. A scene in a massage parlour where Sing is to meet an undercover cop with a Vietnamese password is pure comedy; a more serious moment features an irate male immigrant upset at the treatment of his people by the locals and was going to commit suicide as a result.

Unlikely to make much sense to audiences today, the clear incongruity of including this subject, which then summarily disappears, is perhaps the oddest part of the whole film without any point of reference. This essentially renders the tacky material as almost “normal” if equally incongruous, though very tame compared to many similar films. It is really a matter on context however, the contention being the story was fertile enough to merit its own relative, cogent comedy.

From looking at the energy of the cast and their commitment to the zaniness, clean or tasteless, they are having fun and don’t seem to be aware or concerned if it is tawdry or not. This at least helps that they are in full “entertain the audience” mode rather than deluding themselves this is high art, leaving those of us wincing at the dated puerility feeling churlish for doing so.  

Viewing Look Out, Officer! today, as Hong Kong continues to make comedies like this, we can see how some aim a little higher, including Stephen Chow, but its crude essence is still present in the modern DNA. It’s a fun film that could have been better from being more focused and less awkward.

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