Portland Street Blues (1998)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-08-29
Summary: Love in the time of triads
“Love is simple. I love you, you love me. In between there is cheating, hatred and revenge.” This is the view of the world of the emotionally and physically crushed Scarface and sums up this movie quite well. Love—filial, sexual, platonic, brotherly, just about any type of love—is dangerous and often leads to despair, pain and violent death. “Portland Street Blues” explores some of the aspects of love, pain and death in Hong Kong’s gang controlled urban wilderness.

The story is very well told. There are flashbacks and a story within a story but the editing and writing are tight so that it never becomes confusing. There are plenty of bad guys—and they are not balanced by good guys. The only positive force in this world is loyalty to one’s triad brothers (and sisters) although the older generation of gangsters is willing to sell, barter or give away their loyalty. Only the new wave of gang members knows how to take care of each other—which gives Raymond Yip a way to wrap up all the loose ends at the climax of the movie and its very rapid denouement.

This is one of the best cast movies I have seen produced anywhere. The three female leads could not be better. Scarface is played by the achingly beautiful Shu Qi. She has had an impossibly hard life—seduced and abandoned by a police officer who aborts their baby by kicking her in the abdomen. Treated at a back alley (or at least suspect) clinic, she becomes addicted to heroin. The cop attacks her whenever he sees her but she remains obsessed with him—Scarface is one very sick girl. The behavior of the cop is on the same level as the worst of the triad bosses—the police are shown as just another gang fighting for control of a section of the city. This is made official when the bosses of the Hung Hing gang target him for assassination since he is controlled by a rival group.

Sister Thirteen is a wonderfully written role, something any actress would love to do. She is vulnerable and tough, soft and hard, willing to kill but hating it. Sandra Ng plays Thirteen perfectly, both as a current crime boss and in flashbacks as a teenager learning how to prosper on the streets but being distracted by falling in love. Ng’s quirky looks serves her very well here but most striking is her ability to connect emotionally with the core of her character. Sister Thirteen starts as a slightly goofy teenager who, with her gorgeous friend Yun, steals money from horny men willing to pay in advance to sleep with Yun. The men are left empty handed and the girls make enough money to pay for an operation for Yun’s mother. She ends up as the toughest of the tough, meting out street justice with a silenced automatic to those who betray her. Sandra Ng makes us believe every twist and turn of her character’s chaotic life.

Yun, Thirteen’s one again, off again, maybe yes, maybe no lesbian lover, is played by Kristy Yang. While Shu Qi does some wonderful scenery chewing and Sandra Ng gives a master class in acting, Kristy Yang underplays everything. She remains loyal to and in love with Thirteen even after Thirteen accuses her of sleeping with the man she loves and of allowing the vicious SOB to kill Thirteen’s father. Kristy has a very expressive face and is able to express emotion by cocking an eye or curling a lip. Sandra Ng makes reference to this when she finally sees her former lover on TV—she is a soap star in Taiwan—and says she has a “camera face”.

A bit after the midpoint of the movie Thirteen says the she is the “luckiest person in the world.” She is safe from the streets of Hong Kong, protected by the man she loves. Her best friend has arrived and they make on odd but sweet family—an obvious contrast to the triad family she has left behind. Once she says this, of course, we know that things will be downhill for her from that point on, which they are.

The evocative score and lush cinematography complete an excellent package.

Highly recommended.
Reviewer Score: 8