Herman Yau is arguably one of Hong Kong film's strangest fruits. After all, it is hard to find a director whose ouvre shifts between the most despicable expoitation flicks ever conceived (Need I name them?), thoughtful sociopolitical commentary (From the Queen to the Chief Executive), taut crime dramas (On The Edge), or simply balls-out C-movie nonsense (Lethal Ninja). Granted, he can hardly be called an auteur, and often seems unapologetic about his status as a gun-for-hire, yet his B-movie portfolio is - while highly uneven - still miles above the bottom of the barrel that is, say, Wong Jing.
Unlike some of his CAT III colleagues from the early 90s, Yau is still working today, and with recent films like Gong Tau he even seems to be stuck in some kind of parallel universe where HK cinema didn't go belly-up somewhere in the mid-90s and effectively killed many of HK cinema's cult staples. Herman Yau, who looks like that friendly, metal-loving neighbour next door, is one of the last remnants of a - dare I say - exciting era that has by now been superseded up by one basically only consisting of mediocre Hollywood imitation and, well, Milkyway Image. Which is great and all, but sometimes I'm just missing the kind of economic creativity that got me into Hong Kong film in the first place. But enough with the pessimism, kids. Here are some of my favourite Herman Yau flicks. What are yours? (I'm excluding The Untold Story and Ebola Syndrome - that would make it too easy).
Troublesome Night series
From 1997 to 1999, Yau directed a string of six light horror movies which all shared the features of starring Louis Koo as well as being split up in shorter stories tied together by a number of common themes. Actually, they're not so much "horror" films as just creepy ones, and with comedic undertones at that. The different situations in which everyday people suddenly encounter otherworldly spirits are varied and constantly amusing, and while some films in the series are clearly better than the others (1 and 3 are my favourites), it's overall a consistently entertaining affair - surprising given such a quantity of sequels.
Kozo from LoveHKFilm once summed it up perfectly in his review for Troublesome Night 5: "It’s strange that a cheap series of horror movies could prove so engaging, but these unassuming flicks have managed to do just that".
This one starts off like your usual police procedural, starring the world's #1 typecasting superhero, Danny Lee, as head of a bunch of HK cops who're deep in debts because of the dwindling economy. In their desperation, they proceed to loan money from a triad-run organization, which only gets them into deeper trouble. What sounds like a schlocky Wong Jing comedy is turned into smart satire by Herman Yau, who never lets things go over the top and presents cops as actual human beings just trying to make a living, which is a thing not seen very often in Hong Kong film. Shark Busters is a fine piece of low-key filmmaking, criticizing post-handover Hong Kong politics in a comedic context. As such, some general familiarity with Hong Kong may be required to really enjoy this film's narrative, but the charming performances by Danny Lee, Siu Hung Hui and others, can be appreciated almost universally.
On the Edge
On the Edge is one of Yau's more recent films, and like the aforementioned Shark Busters, it takes what seems like a dried-out premise (undercover cop caught between police and triad sympathies) and puts it into a completely different light, this time by simply picking up the story where most others end: Undercover cop (played by Nick Cheung) finally puts a triad gang behind bars after years of hard work. Yet upon his return to normal police duties, he is not trusted anymore by his colleagues, and his old triad buddies have begun to hate him as well.
Undoubtedly one of Yau's most mature works, this one is also one of the most realistic portrayals of otherwise glorified undercover work there is, as well as yet another comment on society as a whole. Yau could have let the film slip into lurid, shallow action shenanigans, but his complete refusal to do so deserves utmost respect. Actually, the ending is a tad too much, but it's only jarring because the rest is so brilliantly subdued. It's a shame that the film didn't get the attention it deserved at the time of its release in 2006, when the film appreciation world was too busy watching Johnnie To running the industry with his left pinky. So if you missed it before, now's your chance to pick it up.
Nightmares in Precinct 7
And we're back to supernatural stories. This time, we've got Fong Jing (Andy Hui), a cop who, after waking up from a 2-year coma, can suddenly see and communicate with the dead. He uses this ability to track down a serial killer. And that's it. What makes the film work are the charismatic actors, most of all, Cheung Tat Ming as Fong Jing's ghastly mentor, and once again, Yau is good at sidestepping unnecessary quirks, like slapstick moments or other annoyances that usually make such a low-budgeted movie less enjoyable than it could be. Significant focus is put on the 2-year gap in Fong Jing's life, and it is there where Yau succeeds as well, by lending substance to stock characters: The policeman who learns from his mistakes, the caring (and coincidentally, rather pretty) nurse, the bitter ex-girlfriend. By the time the film's arguably unnecessary final twist turns up, you may find yourself realizing that you actually started to care about the people involved. It may be hard to find by now, but Nightmares in Precinct 7 is definitely worth checking out.
Playing out like a less sensationalistic companion piece to Yau's legendary two exploitation efforts, Taxi Hunter has Anthony Wong as Ah Kin running around slaughtering taxi drivers in various gruesome ways. Why? A cab driver is responsible for the death of his wife and her unborn baby. Ah Kin is at least nice enough to only kill the mean and evil ones, which allows the viewer to feel genuine sympathy for him. It's Yau's fingerprints all over the film, both with the exploitation elements as well as with the subtle social commentary. Very enjoyable, and unquestionably on par with Ebola Syndrome and/or Untold Story, which begs the question why it was never given a DVD release outside HK. Please, someone...