The Iceman Cometh (1989)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-01-29
“The Iceman Cometh” is an effective melding of fantasy, wu xia, martial arts and 1980s Hong Kong kitsch. It works because Zheng, a Royal Guard and Feng San, a villain he has pursued across space and time are single-minded in their quest to return to the time of the Ming dynasty. Feng San wants to rule China and change history while Zheng simply wants to fulfill his promise to the king. Clarence Ford keeps things focused and straightforward so that even when the plot wanders a bit we never lose sight of what the combatants are trying to do. Among the potential distractions are cameos by Corey Yuen, Wong Jing and Stanley Fung; a quick detour to the modern day PRC to ridicule scientist there and Zheng’s encounters with late twentieth century technology. And then there is the doomed romance between Zheng and Polly, a hooker with a heart of gold. While the relationship between Polly and Zheng occupy much of the movie, it is the paired opposites of Zheng and Feng San that create the tension and forward thrust. They are Manichean opposites—Zheng is all good, willing, even happy, to die while tracing down and extracting justice from Feng. Feng is all bad, saying at one point that it is his turn to rob, rape and plunder. So we have good vs. bad, white vs. black, the Archangel Michael vs. Lucifer—and with the introduction of the beautiful if flighty Polly, we have a movie.

Maggie Cheung is sexy, funny, tough and heartbreaking as Polly. While structurally subordinate to the Zheng/Feng duo, Polly’s role is the glue that holds the movie together and gives the audience someone to identify with and root for. Some serious romantic sparks fly when Zheng and Polly are thrown together and their developing relationship is the basis for the well done if not terribly original comedy.

Maggie has a number of terrific scenes and she makes the most of them. One occurs when she is set up with a gross looking trick whose fantasy is to tie her up and pretend to rape her in a parked car. At first she tells the procurer that she won’t do it but a big stack of money and the threat of being splashed with acid convince her. She is quite funny while waiting for the while waiting for the trick to get on with his scenario, rolling her eyes in a boredom while pretending to struggle against the loosely tied rope in the back of the car. This is a light hearted parallel with two other, much darker scenes. One is when the Yuen Wah, pretending to be a trick, ties her to a faucet in a bathtub, her hands over her head and behind her, using her as bait to attract Yuen Biao. The other is the rape and murder of the robber’s wife, played by Lam Siu Lau. This is a brutally horrific scene. The torture, rape and killing is prolonged and lingered over much longer than necessary to help establish Feng San as dangerous and insane and is the only really disturbing part of this otherwise light hearted movie.

Another of Maggie’s gems comes when Polly has Zheng to her apartment for the first time and he is astonished with things like electricity, television and toilets. At one point the television has a scene of a woman—possibly a prostitute like Polly—being attacked. When the channel changes Zheng searches the apartment for the woman and her attacker, so Polly tries to explain TV to him. “Chinese Opera is taken down in a machine and then sent through the wire to the television” she tells him, while holding up a string of Christmas tree lights to show what a wire is. Given a number of explanations like this, Zheng somehow begins to understand how the twentieth century works, using pay phones, buying newspapers and speaking an understandable Cantonese. Given a guide like Polly it is a wonder he can even leave the apartment.

The relationship that develops between them is credible—or at least credible in the context of the movie, in which a 16th century Royal Guard falls in love with a modern day city girl with a hard edge. It is Polly that makes it believable—as a hooker/model who has obviously seen and done a lot of very questionable things, she isn’t that thrown by Zheng’s strange behavior—he is just another slightly (or more) insane man that she has to deal with using her guile, her body and her intelligence to manipulate him into being useful.

Yuen Biao does a very decent job with what is ultimately a pretty bland role. After realizing that the Ming dynasty he served was crushed centuries ago, he now lives only to be able to return to it and somehow be of use to His Majesty. He is surprised that he falls in love with Polly (as if anyone could avoid doing so) even after he realizes she is a prostitute and that she has been using him in a Hong Kong version of the badger game—in the then Crown Colony, when the outraged husband bursts into the hotel room, instead of blackmailing the mark he beats him up and leaves the female con to extract the money. Still very effective if non-traditional. Yuen is a capable movie actor when given the chance and he does well in “The Iceman Cometh”. Although Zheng is much too good a person to be very interesting, Yuen is in control of the character and gets quite a bit out of his occasional extreme close-ups.

Feng San, of course, is as purely evil as Zheng is good—and evil is always more interesting. Brecht noted this when discussing his play “The Resistible Rise of Arturo Ui”, in which Hitler and his Nazi henchmen are represented by Chicago mobsters in the 1930s. The Ui/Hitler character had all the energy—the entire play was built around him and the audience could not help but find all his force, fire and swagger to be attractive, even while being repelled by him. It is much the same with Feng—he is so completely depraved that he becomes a magnetic character, even though we know he is loathsome. While he murders, rapes and tortures enough for ten bad guys, it is a smaller, quieter scene with Polly that is also very telling. Feng is pretending to be a trick. He pays Polly and strips to his briefs—she is still fully clothed and is waiting in vain for Zheng to burst into the room for the next act of their con game. Zheng isn’t showing up, since he is outraged that she has made him a criminal and Polly gets increasingly fearful and distraught. Feng, seated next to Polly, leans across her, while she tries to avoid even touching him. His leering gleefulness at having her in his control tells as much about him as does his more explicit brutality. Yuen Wah is hampered by the role itself—he has little dialog but seems to have page after page of maniacal laughter. Yuen Wah has played villains for decades in Hong Kong movies and is as skilled as anyone as the bad guy. He does very well here but it could have been a real star turn if the character had just a bit of nuance or complexity.

The movie opens with a swordfight between Zheng and Feng. It is quite realistic (as these things go) with some well executed wire work but is mainly screen filling swordplay—fast, kinetic and exciting. There are occasional and effective cuts to close-ups of feet being planted or hands changing grips but it is mainly the clash of two committed, purposeful and very skilled men trying to kill each other. It is so well executed that I feel I can quibble just a bit, while staying within the context of the fight. A swordsman as adept as Zheng, once he had disarmed his opponent, would never have allowed the other guy to get close enough to use the short stabbing weapon that Feng had strapped to his elbow. But they had to go over that cliff somehow and this was a good a way as any.

There is a coda that wraps things up in a nice package but is mainly notable for Maggie’s costume, an indication of what was to come in years later in “Comrades, Almost a Love Story.”

This is an absolutely essential part of the Maggie Cheung oeuvre. It has good action scenes, is actually funny (including to non-Chinese audiences) comedy and features two strong male performances. What sets “The Iceman Cometh” apart from many Hong Kong comedies is that the comedy is played completely straight. There is no winking at the audience, nor are there double takes at obvious references to other movies, and no playing to the camera or mugging.

Highly recommended.
Reviewer Score: 9