Queen of Underworld (1991)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2007-11-24
“Queen of Underworld” is a melodrama that covers about 30 years in the life of Ha, a waitress who becomes a prostitute and then a madam. Ha is a huge role, full of scenery chewing pathos. She loses her daughter, gets her back, stands up to some of the toughest hoodlums in Hong Kong and wins, gives several impassioned speeches—it is the type of part that actresses love and almost never get. Amy Yip does less with it than I thought possible. Given the role of a lifetime she does a walk-through while showing all the emotion of a telephone company recording saying that a number is out of service.

Ha’s life is defined by the men who either protect or abuse her. She moves from the small time pimp Ming to Crazy Kwong, a tougher pimp, to Brother Zai, a connected police officer and then to Master An who controls Kwong. She continues to Uncle King and finally to Brother Ho, who scares the hell out of everyone. Her progress is not completely unlike that of Qiu Ju as portrayed by Gong Li in “The Story of Qiuju” as she works her way through the legal bureaucracy of the People’s Republic seeking justice for her husband. In rough and ready capitalist Hong Kong a prostitute, even a very wealthy one, has to cut deals with whoever can best protect her, always looking for someone more powerful while among the principled Communists in the PRC (at least according to their movies) anyone, even a very poor farm woman, can get justice from the state. In each case our heroine must look to forces beyond her control for help.

The structure of the film is provided by Ha’s constant seeking out of more powerful men to sponsor her and by Amy Yip’s narration, a device that adds nothing to the audience’s understanding or enjoyment. There are the not unexpected scenes of extreme violence and sexual brutality. Even though Ha is beaten up regularly the worst of it directed at Butterfly, Ha’s daughter. While both of the men who commit the violence are punished, the first when Ha slices off his penis and the second when she shoots him in the head, her retribution doesn’t bring her peace in either case.

There are a few well done set pieces. One is the first time Ha confronts Handsome Chiu. Chiu has the upper hand with only Ha and her always faithful retainer, very well played by Shing Fui-On, there to deal with Chiu and most of his gang. All seems lost until Ha plays her trump card—her boss is now Brother Ho. Ray Lui Leung-Wai stomps into the room, favoring a crippled leg, wearing a gray silk sharkskin suit and looking as mean as anyone possibly could. He is used to being obeyed—Chiu winds up on his knees pleading for his life while his gang escapes out the back door. It is a very powerful scene, done (unlike most of the movie) with great restraint and economy.

Another fun scene is Ha’s speech to her assembled working girls on how to best separate men from their money with as little risk as possible. It could be seen as a parody of every super-motivational oration ever shown on film or television, a combination of “win one for the Gipper” (it is actually given in a locker room) and “do you really want to be rich?”. Ha comes across like a more attractive (and effective) Donald Trump. Unfortunately Amy Yip’s lack of affect in delivering the speech—clearly the word “flat” would be inappropriate—robs it of much of its humor.

From what I have seen of Amy Yip’s work there was no reason for anyone in 1991 to think she could play the central character in a melodrama which “Queen of the Underworld” proves.

Not recommended
Reviewer Score: 3