Hong Kong audiences are no stranger to movies about righteous cops, badass triads, and the undercover agents caught somewhere in between. But a single movie can explore only so much; imagine what a television series could do with such a premise. The format of episodic television lends itself well to developing a character fully and also allows for ample coverage of how an undercover agent could conceivably rise up the ranks in the triads in order to take them down from within. And while a television program of this kind may indeed exist, E.U. is not quite that type of show.
Instead, E.U. takes the familiar trappings of your average Hong Kong crime thriller and domesticates the genre for mainstream consumption. While that statement may sound like an out-and-out slam, this curious transformation is actually part of the show’s initial appeal. As the series develops, however, these limitations strain the boundaries of verisimilitude.
Of course, E.U.’s real claim to fame is the introduction of a character named Laughing Gor (Michael Tse), who proved so popular that he was given his own spinoff film in 2009, the Herman Yau-directed Turning Point. Despite Laughing’s popularity, Michael Tse is not the star of E.U. He’s not even the co-lead. Ron Ng, Sammul Chan, and Michael Miu share that honor instead. Similarly, Kathy Chow (returning to TVB after a long hiatus) and Elanne Kong are actually more central to the plot than Laughing.
Still, Tse demonstrates enough charisma to outshine them all. Even after taking in a few episodes, it’s not hard to see why audiences fell in love with Laughing. Funny, unpredictable, and oddly righteous, Laughing is basically the kind of character that Francis Ng would play if E.U. had been a feature film. That’s not meant as a slight to Michael Tse; he thoroughly owns the role of Laughing. Somehow, he’s able to be magnetic and charming, even when his character is acting outrageous or just plain weird.
But still, if the show isn’t expressly about Laughing’s personal arc, then what’s it all about? Running thirty episodes, E.U. (short for “Emergency Unit”) is actually a sequel to 2007’s On the First Beat, which itself was a follow-up to 2005’s The Academy. The show centers on two police officers: Lee Pak-Kiu (Sammul Chan), a fussy, by-the-book neat freak, and Chung Lap-Man (Ron Ng), the sloppy and more rebellious one. The two bust perps by day and come home with each other at night. While the two dress like Gap models, bicker like an old married couple, and dote on each other in a similar fashion, they are not romantically involved, but are instead old friends from their academy days.
The crux of the plot is the arrival of an ex-con named Kong Sai-Hau (Michael Miu) to Hong Kong. Stuck in a Taiwanese prison after taking the fall for his buddy To Yik-Tin (Lam Lee), Hau is eager to get a fresh start. Lucky for him that Tin has risen up the ranks to the level of triad boss in the intervening years. Tin also happens to be married to Ching Yeuk-Sam (Kathy Chow), who takes an innocent liking to Hau when he moves into their fancy estate. Hau seems to have no illusions of entitlement and instead wants to reunite with his estranged daughter, You You (Elanne Kong).
Interestingly enough, You You sell bootleg DVDs to make a living and shares an apartment with a low-level triad named Speaker (the very funny Lam Chi-Sin), who just so happens to work as a snitch for Chung Lap-Man! Oh, and if that six degrees of separation weren’t enough, a cleaning lady (Angelica Lo) in the first episode is not only the mother of greenhorn cop/possible Pak Kiu love interest, Fa Yuck Bo (Leung Ka-Ki), but she’s also the deadbeat mom of Sam! And that’s just the tip of the iceberg, as E.U. quickly reveals itself to be a television show built almost entirely on coincidences. The way in which people bump into other at fortuitous times makes Hong Kong look like a tiny backwater village rather than a bustling metropolis of millions.
One of the more engaging aspects of the show is the way that the limitations of television – in terms of production values and perceived audience expectations for episodic drama – impact E.U. in ways that one would rarely see in a major Hong Kong film. Even in a comparable American television show like Law and Order or CSI, the characters retain some semblance of a larger-than-life appeal. The constraints of the TV format in Hong Kong, however, amount to some very “un-cinematic” heroes and villains. To be clear, as cool as Laughing Gor may be, both he and his triad brethren aren’t exactly the kind of gangsters you’d see hanging out in a John Woo or Johnnie To movie. Heck, they’re even a different breed of gangster from the Young and Dangerous crew.
As far as the triads in E.U. go, they may kill a person every dozen episodes or so, but their day-to-day activities seem to be limited to drinking tea, having power lunches, and making idiotically exaggerated tough guy faces to both the cops and one another. There’s a certain fascination in watching these “soft-boiled” gangsters go through the motions, even if they probably wouldn’t last five minutes in the real world. The only triad in the show that feels even remotely authentic is Hau’s Taiwanese cellmate-turned-acolyte. Actor Kam Kong imbues the character with obvious street smarts and a quiet, cautious demeanor that makes him seem smarter than pretty much everyone onscreen.
But the cops aren’t exactly iconic either. If you’re looking for characters like Hard Boiled’s toothpick chewing Tequila Yuen (Chow Yun-Fat) or Infernal Affairs’s Chan Wing-Yan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), you’ll be sorely disappointed. The absence of harder edged characters is perhaps no surprise as the show seems to be meant as a thirty episode advertisement for the police force. There isn't even a reason that the show should be called E.U. at all. Sure, Pak-Ku works in the Emergency Unit when the show begins, but he’s promoted to OCTB about halfway through the series. Further, his buddy Man has no official ties to E.U. whatsoever; he begins the show as a member of the HK equivalent of vice squad and later becomes an undercover cop. By story’s end, the only people on the show who are actually members of E.U. are the supporting characters, who – aside from the overbearing Yuck Bo – have no importance to the overarching narrative at all.
Most puzzling of all is the overall characterization of the police. If this show is meant as a recruiting tool for the Hong Kong police force (there are PSAs at the end of each episode), then why are all the cops self-righteous prigs, incompetent jerks, boring shlubs, or some combination of the three? One aspect worth singling out is the over-the-top earnestness of Pak-Kiu and his colleague-cum-love interest, Yuck Bo, which becomes increasingly hard to stomach as the series wears on. Certainly, the powers that be on E.U. divvy out a comeuppance of sorts for these characters to get them to lighten up, but it doesn’t quite work as a believable character arc. If you want a better example of the loosening up of “goody two-shoes” cops on the beat, you’d be better served watching James Yuen’s Crazy N’ the City or even Edgar Wright’s Hot Fuzz.
It also doesn’t help that the undercover aspect of the show becomes an increasingly difficult premise to accept. The show spends at least half of its episodes pitting Chung Lap-Man against the triads, before a mistake gets him kicked out of the police force, only to go deep undercover. There is no way in hell that Man could have left the cops and worked his way up the ladder to become a trusted source. I don’t care what that one year montage says. In fact, it seems unlikely that any of the undercover agents featured in the show should have survived as long as they did when their cover was blown. Their ability to maintain their status in the gang after getting their cover blown stretches the limits of believability. This isn’t exactly Donnie Brasco.
But the real key to the show seemed to be the enigma of Hau. Michael Miu turns in a slick, Janus-faced performance that is saturated with ambiguity. Making sense of his quick turns from wannabe family man to lovestruck dope to cold-blooded, calculating sociopath (often within the length of a single episode) seemed wholly dependent on what his actual endgame was. Unfortunately – spoiler warning – he doesn’t have one, or if he does, it’s a very confused plan. Is he manipulating the organization to destroy it? Does he just want go straight and become a family man? Does he have a lust for power? Even he doesn’t seem to know.
What was initially refreshing about E.U. was the way in which characters act on the information they receive – if they want to see someone, they see them; if they want to talk to someone, they talk to them. Things that I expected to get stretched out over the course of several episodes or even an entire season get addressed or resolved immediately. Part of that comes from the fact that the characters are allowed to act like human beings and not chess-pieces, which I found amazing for what is essentially a cops n’ robbers soap opera.
However, there are a couple of caveats. One, while the lack of wheel spinning is much appreciated, the show seems to run out of gas way too early. And two, the characters begin to act more like soap opera clichés than cops and criminals – whether they be real or cinematic. When a young girl becomes a celebrity blogger and her undercover boyfriend takes the time to post on her page to give her encouragement, it’s ludicrously mind-blowing fluff. When a subplot about uniting a lost dog with one of the show’s supporting characters suddenly appears in the final batch of episodes, you know the program has gone completely off the rails.
Still, I have to admit that E.U. was, for the most part, fun to watch. But it can’t really be taken with any degree of seriousness. I applaud its attempt at crafting a “triad soap opera,” even as I acknowledge that it takes one too many liberties with what we call “reality” to be even remotely credible. Fans of Turning Point will want to check this out, as well as audiences interested in a very domesticated take on cop and triad life. For the rest, you might be better served rewatching Infernal Affairs or Hard Boiled for the eighty-eighth time. (Calvin McMillin 2010)