The Private Eyes (1976)
Reviewed by: Masterofoneinchpunch on 2016-11-12
Summary: Half a catty eight two
While American audiences might have seen Michael Hui as a partner to Jackie Chan in The Cannonball Run his name is almost unheard of here. However during the 1970s he was one of the most popular comedians in Asia. His popularity in Hong Kong was so great, especially in films like this, he helped changed the dominant language of the region. While Cantonese was the dialect spoken in Hong Kong the Mandarin movies had been so prevalent that in 1972 no films were made in this dialect and only one film in 1973 (The House of 72 Tenants from the Shaw Brothers with a bit of irony). When former TVB host of The Hui Brothers Show Hui directed Games Gamblers Play in 1974 he helped helm an increase of Cantonese language movies that would eventually dominate the Hong Kong landscape and become the main dialect for the local cinema.

He was a boon to the production studio Golden Harvest and was their biggest star of the studio of the 1970s. But another question had recently popped into my head: what would Golden Harvest been without Michael Hui? Cinema had been dealt a blow with the premature death of Bruce Lee in 1973, but it could have been an inauspicious calamity for the Golden Harvest studio. Hui had already had a popular TV show. He had a hit with the Shaw Brothers in his first film The Warlord (1972). Three more films for the Shaw Brothers then he found a better contract with more freedom, more responsibility such as directing and writing, he could use Cantonese and even his brother Sam was already working for Golden Harvest. It was another coup for the studio over the powerful but rigid Shaw Brothers. Hui was not only instrumental in the rise of Golden Harvest but was a catalyst in the slow decline of the Shaw Brothers studio.

Michael Hui's third directed film The Private Eyes (not to be confused with the Tim Conway and Don Knotts movie) is often considered his best. It is my favorite, though I have liked all the Hui directed films I have seen. It was his most popular being the highest grossing Hong Kong film of all-time until Hui's Security Unlimited in 1981 (possibly Jackie Chans The Young Master in 1980 though I have read conflicting box office records; you also have to take inflation into account). Michael Hui plays Wong Yuk-see (internationally known as Mr. Boo) a former Cheung Chau cop, a miserly cheap detective who is slightly incompetent, always a skinflint and deducts from employee's salaries if they damage anything (this scenario is later used in Fearless Hyena 2 and many more HK comedies). He hires a down-and-out martial artist Lee Kwok-kit (his brother Samuel Hui -- a big pop singer at the time who sings the main song for the film with his band The Lotus) who was fired from his previous job at a bottle plant for goofing off and not correctly taking the straws out of used bottles. Along with a secretary Jacky and one other employee Puffy (another brother Ricky Hui: Mr. Vampire) they work a series of jobs with disastrous consequences.

The episodic nature of the different private eye jobs work quite well. There is a multitude of sight gags (one of the better shoplifting gags I've seen), nonsense humor, midgets, giants, and pretty much everything thrown in. The martial arts scenes with Sammo Hung as the action director are inventive and funny. You get one of the earlier Bruce Lee humor nods, with music from Enter the Dragon, and a scene showing that Five Animal Kung Fu might not be as usual as you think. The influences from this film on Hong Kong comedy are ubiquitous. Stanley Tong used the aerobic chicken sequence in Mr. Magoo. Stephen Chow is the heir apparent to Hui as Hui was influenced by actor Liang Xingbo (Leung Sing-po) who was also a TVB host for Enjoy Yourself Tonight (which is mentioned as an in-joke in the film which I finally understood). They played characters with an overabundance of hubris who gets their comeuppance and then turn it around. That does sound a bit like Don Knotts too.

Hui has his references as well. The knife game scene with Sam Hui beating up a potential mugger is reminiscent of a Terence Hill comedy (like Trinity is Still My Name or My Name is Nobody). Check out the name of the detective agencies: Mannix (TV series from 1967-1975) and Cannon (TV series from 1971-1976). There are also a couple of Columbo references thrown in. His disguises and some of his humor remind me of Peter Sellers in The Pink Panther series. And for those who like their esoteric trivia: the movie that plays in the theater is A Queen's Ransom a Golden Harvest film, one of my least favorite film from that studio. Neither the bad guys led by the omnipresent villain Shek Kin nor did the detectives look particularly interested in it.

An underrated aspect of this film is the cinematography by Cheung Yiu-Jo whose majority of work was for Golden Harvest and has done some beautiful work such as Project A. There are so many on location shots that you get a nice feel of Hong Kong in the 1970s. Since Hong Kong has gone through so many charges most of the buildings here are gone or with different facades. I like when films like this and Johnnie To's Sparrow showcases the city. Hui also has a playful use of screen wipes and in-screen shots with a most complicated one with eight different set-ups where it was similar to one in Francis Truffaut's Shoot the Piano Player.

Much of Hui's work has a sociopolitical message and this does (the basic be better to your employees and especially the theme song) though it is less than subsequent work and never didactic, but its primary purpose of making people laugh works quite well. Fans of comedies should see this. Hong Kong aficionados should make this a top priority if they have not already seen this. It is one of my favorite Hong Kong films. Is that not enough of a recommendation?

I saw this on the Fortune Star/Joy Sales R0/NTSC DVD release. It looks quite good and the English subtitles are good as well. It has both Cantonese (5.1 and DTS) and Mandarin (5.1) audios and Chinese (Traditional and Simplified) and English subtitles. You can find remastered Hui Brothers box sets in R0/R3 and BD. I really want one of those. It has the Original Movie Trailer for this film and five new trailers for Hui directed films, including this one, in the R0 box set.
Reviewer Score: 9