Frankie Chan’s Burning Ambition transposes the plot of Kinji Kukasaku’s The Shogun’s Samurai (1978) to modern-day Hong Kong, with striking results. A Triad boss (Roy Chiao) is thinking about his succession : his elder son Wai (Michael Miu) is an irresponsible womanizer, and so he chooses his more level-headed and business-savvy younger son Hwa (Simon Yam). He’s killed the same evening in a drive-by shooting secretly organized by his brother Hsiong (Ko Chun Hsiung), who’s consumed by the titular burning ambition, and has made Wai his protégé. This triggers a fratricidal war as two camps are formed within the extended Triad family : on one side, the boss’s widow (a steely Seung Yee), the chosen heir Hwa and his trusted uncle Kau Chen (Eddy Ko) ; on the other side, Hsiong, his puppet Wai, his two loyal daughters Tao (Yukari Oshima) and Hong (Kara Hui), as well as his exiled son Chi-Shao (Frankie Chan), who comes back to Hong Kong to assist his father, not knowing, just like his sisters, what treacherous strings Hsiong has been pulling. It all escalates in a series of bloody acts of vengeance.
Burning Ambition‘s chief quality is the consistency of its tone. From the opening minutes where Roy Chiao’s character is killed in front of his family, to the theatrical, hard-hitting finale, it maintains a purely tragic narrative that is broken only in one short scene where Frankie Chan and Jude Poyer ape Wong Fei Hung’s fighting style (with assorted musical theme). There’s even shakespearean overtones, from the unholy escalation of vengeance and bloody reckoning that calls to mind Titus Andronicus, to the similarities between Frankie Chan’s Chi-Shau and Hamlet, both mercilessly torn between a strong sense of filial responsibility and an agonizing awareness of betrayal. All things being equal, of course, but it’s enough to provide Burning Ambition with narrative potency that is above-average for a late-eighties Hong Kong fight film.
Not that the fighting takes a backseat : it is spread evenly throughout the film, both powering and complementing the plot. Fung Hak-On’s excellent choreographing allows for a variety of skilled fighters to shine, from the aforementionned Frankie Chan and Jude Poyer to the ever-dependable Eddy Ko and a young Robin Shou (using a slightly incongruous – given the context – three-section staff). But the best fight belongs to the dynamite duo of Yukari Oshima and Kara Hui : a relentless, unforgiving parking fight in which the two magnificent ladies fight barefoot on broken glass against an army of goons to protect their father. The scene easily enters the already crowded Honk Kong Eighties Fight Hall of Fame.
The cast, it must be said, is uniformly excellent, whether it’s fighting or not. It’s a true ensemble, with no one really taking the primary focus, save perhaps for Ko Chun Hsiung, whose treachery is at the film’s core, and Frankie Chan, who enters the frame late in the game but becomes a lead of sorts once he does. Chan has given himself a role that sometimes smacks of vanity, a brooding, motorcycle-riding badass, but his earnest rage in the final reel is quite efficient, while Ko (a major Taiwanese star in the sixties and seventies) makes his character much more than the cackling baddie he could have been, imbuing him with humanity and deep-set grief to nuance his villainy. Simon Yam and Michael Mui enjoy a bit of a smarm off, until a climactic and arresting reckoning scene between the two brothers, in which the two actors do wonders. Yukari Oshima and Kara Hui make the most of their limited screen time as a pair of loving but energetic sisters who would have deserved their own film. As usual, Frankie Chan also provides the score, which borrows heavily from Harold Faltermeyer’s Running Man but works quite well in its heartfelt synthness.
Long Story Short : A hard-hitting, tragic action film with a terrific ensemble cast and memorable fight scenes. Perhaps Frankie Chan’s best film as a director. ***1/2