Killer Constable (1980)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-05-29
“Mark _______ for 300 taels of gold and take his head back to the court”. So goes life with Chief Constable Liang Tin Ying, the far from still center around which “Killer Constable” whirls. Liang is the title character and we find out quite early in the movie that he more than deserves his nickname. He summarily executes a criminal rather than return him for trial because the criminal wasn’t important enough to bother further with. It is a brutal, bleak and harrowing tale of torture, murder and betrayal. The story set in motion immediately—empress angry that two million gold taels have been stolen by the Treasury guards, chief of security doesn’t think he can both recover the gold and keep the theft from being known. He recommends Liang.

Liang is an efficient, resourceful and brave officer whose preference for meting out justice in the field rather than bringing captured criminals back to the court creates conflict with his brother. In a very quick and dramatic confrontation Liang’s brother denounces him for “the stink of blood on his hands” and resigns.

Immediately afterwards in scene that parallels Liang’s denunciation by his brother, the oldest constable in the service demands to be part of the detachment tracking the guards. When Liang refuses, telling him to stay behind to protect the fort—exactly the same orders he gave his brother—the old soldier, played by Gam Biu, declares he will resign unless he can accompany his leader. The contrast between the two could not be more stark and it makes clear two sides of Liang’s character. He is loyal to his subordinates and inspires intense loyalty in return but is also remorseless and cruel toward perceived enemies.

For all his viciousness, Liang is a poor field commander. His men are courageous and aggressive but he leads them into ambushes where foes outnumber them and have more deadly weapons. He commits the greatest sin of a combat leader—he is profligate with the lives of those he commands. The action director has made him a poor swordsman. His only offensive move is to slash with his broadsword and he thrusts only to set up a parry. Liang’s shortcomings are obvious when he confronts an enemy in helmet and armor. His opponent is unarmed but is a kung fu master and almost wins when Liang’s slashes simply bounce off the armor.

There some very gruesome deaths including one of a constable who is tortured and nailed to a wooden gird where he is in constant agony. If he is moved at all the pain will only increase so he begs Liang to kill him. Later when Liang and some of his men are trapped in a ring of fire during an ambush another of his men throws himself into the flames becoming a bridge for Liang to escape and track the leader of the thieves. He is horribly burned and dies in agony.

Laing’s men capture a number of small time thieves who have 50 stolen taels here and 300 there. It becomes clear to the audience that these men—none of whom survive interrogation--could have run an operation to steal millions and we are not surprised when the real culprit is exposed.

A few formal notes:

Gwai Chi-Hung likes fire and makes good use of it. When the fire set as trap in one of the ambushes burns itself out the aftermath of the smoking battleground looks like an image of the end of the world—or at least the way it has been depicted in many films. Another instance is when Liang and his men approach what seems to be a burned village, its charred timbers, still smoldering ruins and dead bodies indicating complete devastation. It is an artifice, still another ambush that they have walked into. The dead bodies are actually criminals waiting to spring a trap, a trap straight into which Liang leads his few remaining men.

We know from early in the film that the butcher’s bill will be quite high. Liang offers to leave to of his constables home—the oldest who threatens to resign if not allowed to accompany him and a young lawman who is about to be married. He postpones his wedding so that he can go on the quest. It is obvious that these two at least will not live to see the end of the movie.

The only woman in the film other than the empress is Feng’s daughter. When she meets Liang for first time, after Liang had been badly wounded, we notice that her outfit is a mirror image of the constable’s uniform, dark blue with white fur trim. Not sure if this is supposed to mean something or if the costuming department simply like that pattern.

“Killer Constable” is an adequate but not outstanding study of obsession and obsessive violence. There aren’t any positive or likeable characters and the only ones for whom we would have any sympathy—Liang’s constables and some of the thieves—are obviously marked for death.