Credit: Orange Sky Golden Harvest
Fight Back to School is completely nonsensical, cliché and ridiculous in both its plot and execution. Never has a film asked anyone to suspend their disbelief so high you could land on the moon. Yet, everything about it just works; a shining example of slapstick comedy blended with social commentary.
Pretty much all of my friends growing up have either seen or heard of this film, which is a given because it was filmed at my school back home (albeit a decade before any of us were born). It was a bragging right of sorts, that we inhabited the same dark classrooms and sun-faded basketball courts as some of the most iconic actors in Hong Kong comedy cinema. Stephen Chow stars as Chow Sing Sing, a cop who goes undercover to retrieve a senior officer’s stolen revolver. The catch? He’s planted in a high school as a new student. Hilarity ensues when he realises he doesn’t have the brains to keep up, and to make matters worse, he begins falling for a teacher.
It wouldn’t be a proper mo lei tau flick without Chow’s frequent (and dearly missed) collaborator Ng Man-tat, playing fellow undercover cop “Uncle” Tat. Between the two of them come absurd jokes that satirise the education system: the school code running from floor to ceiling, cheating on a pop quiz with a pager and some fruit, and being punished with public humiliation for said cheating. I remember being ten years old and cracking up at Chow and Ng’s deadpan delivery – half my life later, I still do the same.
Chow and director Gordon Chan are no stranger to artifice: there’s no pretentious cinematography or acting here. Camera shakes and overly theatrical facial expressions are embraced wholeheartedly and paired with Benny Hill-esque music. With all the highbrow, auteurist films floating around today, it’s a welcome breath of fresh air to go back to something so self-aware of its own comic origins. I feel that’s a real credit to the depth of Hong Kong cinema and all the genres contained within it, although perhaps also a discussion appropriate for another time.
Credit: Orange Sky Golden Harvest
It’s a real shame that foreign audiences are likely to miss a lot of the humour; a particular virtue of the Cantonese language is its propensity towards wordplay and the sheer amount of slang available. But subtitles can only go so far, and while the film is still funny, I sometimes hesitate to recommend it to others. Fight Back to School is so emblematic of Hong Kong culture that the question of whether viewers can understand the jokes extends to whether they can also understand the city and its people. Hong Kong has always been a city of change, and with change comes anxiety. Mo lei tau serves as the perfect antidote: there’s no better way to stave off fear than juvenile comedy that transcends generations. But maybe that’s only us and our twisted sense of humour…
I’ve been away from home for a while now, and I find myself clinging to bits and pieces of what I used to take for granted. Sometimes I wish I’d go to bed and wake up on the other side of the planet, back with my family and the friends who are still there. Obviously that’s impossible, but films like Fight Back to School remind me of what I love about home, and what I might have to look forward to when I go back.
For now I think I’ll have to settle by rewatching this film. That classroom where Chow had countless chalk dusters hurled at him? I probably spent quite a few lunchtimes there hiding in the corner trying to play Minecraft on the school internet (as you can tell, I wasn’t very rebellious). And the playground where he was forced to stand with a placard denoting him as a cheater? That’s where I ran around flying the school drone, irritating the entire building with its relentless buzzing. All those moments may now be lost in time, but rewatching this film takes me back to when things were a lot simpler and all I had to worry about was what piece of homework I had to rush for the next day. And that’s why it’s one of my favourite films.
Edited by Barney Nuttall, Deputy Film & TV Editor