Kidnap (1974)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-04-28
“Kidnap” tells the story of a crime that went completely awry and consequences that arose from the bungled abduction. It centers on the four men who committed the kidnapping and the consequences on them and their dependents. The movie is much more sympathetic to the families of two of the criminals than to those against whom the crimes were committed, even though one of the victims was killed. It is not a caper flick and not really much of a crime movie—it is more interested in the dynamics of social class, the position of those with only a tenuous grasp on the bottom rung of the economic ladder and that class is the most important determiner of relationships in Hong Kong then. The performances are variable—some terrific, some dull; the structure is simple and effective; the plot is straightforward and uncomplicated.

A voiceover at the beginning tells us that “the purpose of this story is to stress the moral...” but it isn’t really a moral tale. “Kidnap” is a tragedy. While the four criminals aren’t tragic heroes or great men, necessary in the Aristotelian meaning it fits the rest of the definition perfectly—they want to achieve something that is beyond and should remain beyond their limits; they are overcome by a combination of fate and their own character flaws; they undergo a change in fortune—in this case a collapse; they (and the audience) learns something about destiny and the human condition.

The initial kidnapping is poorly planned with some important aspects not planned at all and succeeds due to some quick thinking by the four when confronted by a witness and an easily fooled police officer. The second one is a model of efficiency, audaciousness and perfect planning. One of the weaknesses of the movie as a crime drama is that the audience doesn’t see how this transformation, from bunglers to master criminals takes place so that the two crimes, while linked to each other in every way possible, seem to be discrete events almost as if they were done be different gangs.

The motivation is money—or the lack of money. Chao Hai Chuan needs money to support his family; Niu Ta Kang wants to take care of his aged mother; Ting Hsiao Chiang has an expensive gambling; Lung Wei is trying to impress a stripper. Some noble reasons, some quite the opposite but each man feels he is desperate straits and that crime is the only way out. They have worked within the system for most of their lives and have lost the illusions of youth. There can be only one end for them, of course, and since the beginning of the film is loaded with images of hanging we are not surprised when they are faced with the gallows.

Wang Fu Chiu, Lung Wei’s employer, is kidnapped and then killed. He is played by Lau Dan in a one-note performance which is exactly the way the part was written. Wang is hateful from his first scene to his last. He is a rich man’s son who enjoys humiliating others and takes obvious pleasure in destroying Lung Wei (Lo Leih) when they encounter each other at a night club. Wang is offended that such a low creature as Lung would think he could enter such an exclusive place. It is a powerful scene with Lau Dan positioned on an open staircase above Lo Leih, looming over him and almost literally belittling him. Lung is leaving, having fooled Chin Chueh (Woo Gam, who is over the top in every second of time she is on the screen) into thinking that he is a nightclub owner from Singapore who might be her ticket out of her current job as a stripper in a traveling carnival. No one is unhappy when Wang is killed—even his father shows more anger than sorrow—and he is barely referred to again after his dispatch.

The next person killed is also a loathsome creature, Shen, owner of a gambling house and loan shark. When Ting Hsiao Chiang unexpectedly pays off a loan plus interest Shen quickly realizes that he is part of the kidnapping gang. He makes increasingly outlandish demands for money from the four and makes it clear that once he has gotten everything he can he will turn them over to the authorities. He is another person at whose funeral no tears will be shed but once again the ineptitude of the kidnappers leaves them guilty of another capital crime and closer to being arrested.

The person we most identify with is Chao Hai Chuan in a heartbreakingly riveting performance by Fan Mei-Sheng. He does everything he can to provide a better life for his wife and children, losing sight of the fact that while they live in a claustrophobic tenement with shared a kitchen and bathroom they are a happy (or at least not unhappy) family. Chao is a skilled movie make-up artist and moonlights at the carnival where Chin Chueh strips, a job which everyone in the building knows about. And it may be one of the strangest second jobs that anyone in the movies has ever had, or at least the part of the job description that includes “pastes pubic hair on strippers” certainly is. I think that would be a jarring note in most movies and was especially so here.

Lung Wei is a more ambiguous character. Since he is the lead and is played by a handsome, charismatic movie star we think we should sympathize with him. But he is also impetuous and very dangerous to those around him—the people closest to him are all dead by the end of the movie. He is an unskilled worker in a business—major crime—that requires coolness under stress, precise planning and knowing when to back down. Lung Wei doesn’t have any of these qualities. Most importantly he isn’t in it for the money alone. He wants revenge on Wang, a very bad reason for a kidnapping. Chao Hai Chuan tries to convince him it is not the way to go, that the four of them could simply waylay Wang and beat him up but Lung wants to return the humiliation he has suffered. He is the leader of the gang but has few of the requirements of a crime boss.

Another difficulty with Lung Wei is his relationship with Chin Chueh. After his demeaning encounter with Wang at the nightclub he goes to Chin’s apartment and treats her much more badly than Wang did him. He threatens her with a knife, slaps her around and essentially rapes her. They wake up the following morning and she is in love with him. While Ching Gong simply highlighted what is glossed over but still present in many movies—that all some women need is some rough treatment to allow them to see that they really want the anti-hero—it seems more offensive and disturbing. If I am anachronistically imposing and early 21st century critique on a movie more than 30 years old, then so be it. In reality, of course, (and I know that movies aren’t reality) Lung wouldn’t have awakened at all. Beating up a tough stripper and then falling asleep in her bed would be a very good way to have one’s throat cut in his sleep. But I digress.

The end of the movie is as melodramatic and excessive as anything put on film. The four are only prisoners on Death Row the clock ticks (literally—there are several shots of a clock) inexorably toward the time of execution. Niu Ta Kang (Tung Lam in an understated and effective performance) is too ashamed to see his mother for the last time and, having dropped her final letter to him, isn’t even allowed to take it with him to the gallows. The letter is retrieved and tossed into his coffin. Chao Hai Chuan, in his last meeting with his family, tells his children he will be home soon. His wife collapses under the dreadful knowledge that they will lose not only Chao but will not be able to afford even the cramped living conditions he has provided—he will be dead and his family on the street. Just before his meeting with the hangman he looks at the barred window high on the wall and sees a ghostly image of his wife and children, an image that slowly recedes. At the very end he reverts to his happy go lucky former self, joking with the hangman. Lung Wei’s death is worst of all since he leaves this world in an agony of rage against Chin Chueh not a good way to enter the afterlife in any system of belief. While the noose is being fitted around Lung’s neck, Chin Chueh bleeds to death from a miscarriage on the road in front of the prison, failing in her last attempt to see him. Everyone dies and no one dies well.

“Kidnap”, while based on the last death sentences carried out in Hong Kong, is not about capital punishment. Unlike movies such as “I Want to Live”, “Dance with a Stranger or “Let Him Have It”, there is no question here of guilt nor is the morality of the death penalty questioned. The imposition of the death sentence is depicted as appropriate and just and gave Ching Gong and his principal actors a chance to draw out the coda of the film for everyone to get a dramatic death scene

Reviewer Score: 7