Pedicab Driver (1989)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2006-02-23
“Pedicab Driver” is an over the top soap opera in which one set of formerly star-crossed lovers dies not quite in each others arms and another pair is reunited on the very last frame of the movie. It takes a long look at working class life in Macao in the 1950s, as interpreted by the gaze of Hong Kong in 1989, with pedicab drivers, bakery workers and prostitutes at the center of the story. There are two beautifully choreographed and executed fight scenes both involving Sammo Hong. The first fight is with Liu Chai-Lang in which the combatants use kung fu and pole fighting. The second is Sammo against an entire gang of thugs—it is as brutal, fierce and deadly as anything on the Jade screen in the late 1970s. Some of the close-ups during this battle give as real a sense of the desperation and ruthlessness of hand to hand combat and some of the falls taken by the stuntmen must have really hurt.

The themes of “Pedicab Driver” are voiced by Bing when she says that “Everyone is a victim of social circumstances” and by a couple of the drivers when they talk about how men are ultimately responsible for prostitution. This takes place after the break-up of a completely disastrous dinner with the two new couples—Malted Candy and Siu Chui, Fatty Tung and Bing, plus several other drivers and the owner of the lunch cart who is responsible for the meal. While there couldn’t be a good time to discover that the woman you love is a prostitute, finding it out during a dinner arranged to introduce her to your close friends and being told by one of them that he paid to sleep with her a few hours ago may be one of the very worst. To underline the plight of women as shown here, Bing says that she wishes she could be a whore, since it would be much better than a bakery worker—especially a bakery worker who gets leered at, pawed and slobbered over the her boss. Macau in the 1950s among those who live from day to day was a tough place. Bing is further identified as someone who has to work in the city in order to support a family back in the provinces when she tells her boss Fong (a note-perfect portrayal by Suen Yuet) that she can’t afford to buy anything because she has to go to the bank and send her remittance.

The depiction of the life of a prostitute in a brothel is stark and unflinching. The john comes to the door, tells Uncle Fe that he can only afford a cheap girl and is sent to the last room where Siu Chui awaits. She tells him to undress, partially disrobes herself, lies down and tells him that kissing is not allowed. From the time the trick walked into the room until he walked out is probably about five minutes. Siu Chui gets her cut of the five dollar fee from Uncle Fe and asks how much she will have to pay Master 5 to buy her way out of the brothel. Even though it is several hundred dollars she still tells two of the other girls that she has to quit because she has met a wonderful guy.

The guy is Malted Candy who has fallen in love with Siu. They “meet cute”—cute and painful, since he runs into her in his pedicab. He is taken with her from the first, happily peddling her around the city and buying her a new pair of shoes to replace those that got crushed in the accident. Later there is a lyrical interlude with sappy music in the background, movie shorthand for the rapture of infatuation.

The scene in which the lovers are almost forcibly reunited was moving, poignant and quite original. Malted Candy had gone to the brothel to tell Siu that he loved her no matter what and that he still wanted to marry her. She refused to believe him—which made sense because he had driven her from the celebratory party earlier that evening. Both of them used the term “forget the past” during this scene but in completely different ways. Malted Candy meant that he would forget what he had learned that day and would remember only his love and wanted her to do the same. Bing, being much more practical and closer to the reality of the situation meant that they should forget everything that happened since they first met and were meeting now simply as prostitute and customer—that he should pay her, have sex with her and leave.

When Malted Candy returns to her, he is being carried by the drivers—being borne spread-eagled, almost like a sacrifice. They tell her he is dead—that he couldn’t live without her and wanted to die in her presence. Siu is persuaded to admit that if she would marry him if he were still alive—and he is, of course. The two of them, having gone through more emotional upheaval in a day than many people do in a lifetime, are now deliriously happy with each other, a state that cannot last in a movie like this. Being that happy is simply a prelude to being dead.

The end of the movie was thrilling. Fatty Tung has already shown that he is a master with his hands, feet and various weapons. Now he goes after the well guarded and completely egregious Master 5. He begins by making short work—very short—of several bodyguards. One punch or kick each is all it takes for them, then moves on to a much tougher thug, the guy who was the leader of the chopper wielding toughs who sent doomed lovers on their final journey together. When Fatty Tung is finished with him he is not only defeated but dead. The next opponent is the lead thug and the brother of the man that Fatty just killed. He is very big, skilled, ruthless and fit and is within an inch of beating Tung. He doesn’t, of course, and his dispatch leads finally to the creepy and cowardly Master 5 who is fittingly betrayed by his father and beaten to death.

This last sequence of fights was Sammo Hung at his best. They fought up and down a long staircase, jumped or were thrown from a high balcony and used whatever weapons that came to hand. It was meticulously staged and choreographed with the action building and becoming more brutal with the entry of each new participant in the carnage. Close-ups were used to heighten intensity of the battles and purple bruise make-up was liberally applied—these punches and kicks were supposed to hurt.

“Pedicab Driver” is a very good movie with well drawn characters. It is easy to feel empathy for the plight of the hard working drivers—things begin with the most recent chapter in what seems to be a long running jurisdictional dispute over which set of drivers carry passengers and which carry cargo—and the people around them. They have to be tough but also fall in love, get hurt and bounce back. The bad guys couldn’t be much worse—we first meet Master 5 when his gang beats a man to death while his wife is giving birth on the floor next to him. He then orders the wife (now widow of about ten minutes) to be taken to the brothel and the newborn raised to be a prostitute if a girl and thrown into the river if a boy. The characters wind up in situations that make sense within the overheated context of the setting and deal with them in ways that also make sense. While not quite a masterpiece it is well worth seeing.
Reviewer Score: 8