James Lee is no stranger to Singapore, having his films featured in various editions of the Singapore International Film Festival, such that this little island has the honour of hosting the World Premiere of one of his latest films, The Collector, featuring his Nth collaboration with Singapore's evergreen stuntman/martial artist/actor Sunny Pang, in movies like James' indie art house effort Call If You Need Me, and more commercial fare such as Petaling Street Warriors (co-directed with Sampson Yuen), Claypot Curry Killers, and with their creative camaraderie reaching new heights, a number of future projects to come.
Like James' Help! My Girlfriend is a Vampire, The Collector pays that 80s homage to Hong Kong films, with the former being that dabbling with the mainstream horror-comedy genre filled with none-too-scary ghouls, this film is firmly set within the nostalgic look back into the martial-arts action genre, full of stock cardboard but fun characters peppering the landscapes as nameless goons, all contributing as fodder for our protagonist, Sunny (Sunny Pang) to beat up, before he and his gang meet up with more formidable mini-boss opponents. And you know you're in good company from scenes of old when one on ones seem to take place in abandoned warehouses and other familiar locales such as dimly lit streets with time suspended as the focus flits from one fight arena to another.
But Sunny defers to using violence only at the last resort, usually when the debtors try to default on their loans and send their fellow supporters, hoodlums and friends to outnumber and intimidate Sunny and his usual partner Mohan (Ramana Mohan). Being the friendly neighbourhood debt collector, they have their fair share of networks to tap on when their latest mission sees Sunny taking pity on Ah Yuen (Nigel Kok), the kid who got abandoned by his dad Ah Niu (Jack Lim), who became elusive not only from Sunny but from another gang with whom he owes money to. Forewarned by a fortune teller about his demise should he not perform a good deed, Sunny takes it upon himself to protect the kid from his rivals who are intent on making Ah Yuen a collateral until his dad turns up, much to the frustration of his live in girlfriend (Yeo Yann Yann), a frequent gambling tai-tai who cannot stand children.
It's easy to state that the story is just an excuse for the filmmakers and actors to weave their action scenes together, but I suppose James Lee won't have it so that at the very least his main character does come off as a little bit more three dimensional. His Sunny is like an anti-hero who doesn't fear in garnering support from both sides of the law, being the enforcer type to his boss (played by Patrick Teoh) and an informant of sorts to Inspector Lim (Chew Kin Wah) of the Royal Malaysian Police Force. And despite his rather gruff exterior, he's all soft and fuzzy inside when alone with his lady love, trying his darnest best to persuade her to marry him and start a family together, which will of course serve as his exit strategy from his current career path.
The Collector is almost like a companion to his earlier arthouse work Call If You Need Me, which marked Sunny Pang's first collaboration with James, and yes, playing a debt collector as well, with a similar character look and design. But the earlier film was a lot more darker in nature, and an atmospheric, moody piece compared to this one which had its fair share of gaudy costumes, over the top characters, and humour, which can be dark as well as slapstick. But let's face it, we're interested in this because of the choreographed fights, and The Collector delivers with a slew of action scenes that varied themselves from the exponents and their signature styles and moves.
It was a number of years back where Sunny Pang was slated to star in a film called Knife, but for unknown reasons that film never took off beyond the pre-production stage. A master knife user, audiences will get a glimpse of his skill set here in a scene, before Sunny relies on pretty much Mixed Martial Arts to get the job done when up against formidable exponents. It's almost no holds barred in the fight design, with stunts and fisticuffs designed by Kenny Wong (who also made a cameo appearance as Master Wai), and best of all, featured other practitioners who just bump up the realism factor. There's Ian Yussuf who's the de-facto final boss tough guy who gets to go on an extended romp against Sunny, and despite some editing which cut a little way too late, it was worthy of how exciting final fights can be, with objects on set getting in the way of punches, kicks and throws.
I liked how Sunny isn't always alone, and James Lee spiced things up to provide a larger cast of fighters with the introduction of fellow collector Michael (Michael Chin - note how even the character's names follow the actors who play them, just like how HK does it in the 80s), who serves up his brand of wushu, holding his own especially in many scenes designed to even at times overshadow what Sunny can do, and got an earlier mano-a-mano of his own opposite rival Tai, played by Pooi Fook Chien who was also in another Malaysian kung-fu flick from last year known as Fist of Dragon in which he played one of the villains. This assembly of real life martial artists made the fights look a lot more real with the actors really having a go at each other, with stunt folk making up the rest to provide one heck of a battle after battle, even if at times it's lop-sided knowing how the outcome will turn out to be.
Like another Singapore actor Aaron Aziz who had made his name in Malaysia starring in the blockbuster hit KL Gangster, Sunny Pang looks set to follow in that footsteps in becoming a household name up north with a planned series of commercial, action based films, both in front of and behind the camera. It's a pity about the lack of such genre opportunities in Singapore, but I suppose with another James Lee helmed film coming up in this area together with Sunny who would go behind the scenes as choreographer, fans in this region should have something to look forward to. Watch out Gareth Evans-Iko Uwais, James Lee-Sunny Pang are just warming up!