Category Archives: Hong Kong action

A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (1989)

1 star out of 4. Dull, mindless, and a complete waste. Awful.

They really should have called this: Chow Yun-fat stands around and does little of nothing while finding a coat and pair of sunglasses. Catchy, right?

After butting heads on the second film, producer Tsui Hark and director John Woo parted ways  and abandoned plans for a prequel film…one that was supposed to have taken place in Vietnam. Woo had written a script but that was shelved and later became Bullet in the Head (1990), which is such a superior film to this travesty that it hurts. Badly.

Hark took over the directing reigns for this “prequel” film, where Mark Gor (Chow Yun-fat) must go into Vietnam in the midst of war to aid his relatives in getting to Hong Kong. Of course this involves him gaining some of the aspects of his character from the first film, but the film handles this so poorly that all we see is Mark get a pair of shades and a trench coat.

Mark and his cousin Mun encounter an alluring gun runner and both fall in love with her. This love triangle becomes further complicated when Kit falls for Mark who will not return her affections because Mun spoke first. Eventually, Mark gets his cousin and uncle back to Hong Kong and the love triangle become more complicated when Kit’s gangster boyfriend returns and begins trying to kill Mark and Mun.

Eventually everyone winds up back in Vietnam with guns. Some uninspired fights follow. The blessed credits finally come up.
This film is tepid. It’s dead throughout with even the action scenes coming off as low grade made-for-tv fodder. There is simply no reason to care for any of the characters because their cardboard structure. The plot is crap, the film looks like crap, and you feel disgusted with yourself after having sat through this pointless mess.

I don’t even want to go into detail after seeing Woo’s Bullet in the Head. These two films have virtually the same idea, but Woo’s film is about the loss of humanity and growth combined with a musing on the bonds of friendship. It is a film that never stops giving, whereas A Better Tomorrow III never stops milking the viewer for their reverence of the first film. That is if you have any left after ABT III ends.

Avoid this travesty if you liked the first film or the second. It just has no reason for being. The story is awful, the dialogue is dull, the characters are uninteresting, the locale doesn’t even seem like Vietnam and just who exactly read this and thought it would be a good idea?

EDITIONS: Essentially there’s just the IVL DVD from their boxset of the ABT trilogy. It looks clean enough, the video is 16:9 progressive NTSC, Cantonese mono, and the English subs are understandable. But I really wouldn’t recommend this disc unless you were already buying the boxset.

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Filed under 1 star, Chow Yun-fat, Film, Film Review, Hong Kong action

A Better Tomorrow II (1987)

Yay Mark's back! Oh wait...what the...?

3 stars out of 4. Weird and disjointed film.

Let me start by saying this. This is a strange movie.

Since A Better Tomorrow had such phenomenal success and took China by storm there of course had to be a sequel. And of course, they had to rush this into production in order to capitalize on the first film’s success.

So…no wait that isn’t the problem. The problem with ABTII is the fact that the producer and director had different ideas on the way the film should go. The final film clocked in at over 2.5 hours and no one could agree on what to edit out to achieve a standard runtime. So someone brilliantly decided to have a third party of standard editors who had nothing to do with the film come in and do a rush job to make a shorter cut of 104 minutes. This is what was released and is a big reason why the film really makes no sense.

The film as follows picks up with Ho in prison three years later and the authorities now want to utilize his talents to investigate his former mentor Lung Si. He refuses to dig up dirt on Lung and quickly changes his mind after discovering his younger brother has undertaken the assignment. He tries to warn his brother off, but of course Kit refuses so the two brothers must once again work together in order to resolve the case.

In the midst of their investigation, Long is framed for the murder of a rival and Ho decides to ferry him out of Hong Kong and into hiding in New York. His daughter and brother are both killed and this drives Lung into a state of madness. So magically Mark’s twin brother Ken comes to take care of the raving Lung. Unfortunately the way these scenes are played are so over the top that nothing can be done to hide the fact that it’s an actor sitting on the floor throwing food around like a child.

There is one giant plot device that should be getting to anyone who has seen the first film…since the major star character of the first film obviously could not return the producers had to do something. I know! Let’s replace him with his identical twin brother who has never been mentioned before! And that’s exactly what they did. Chow Yun-fat returns as identical brother Ken who has conveniently been away in America this whole time and can just magically come back and do what Mark did. Hmmm…well at least Chow is in this movie somehow, because he’s about the only thing worth watching. Ken is introduced in one of the oddest scenes I’ve ever come across, where a mobster demanding protection money from his restaurant is harassed to apologize to a bowl of rice. And for some strange reason Chow does a bad English voice on the Cantonese soundtrack.

You just need to see it for yourself. I still don’t know if it’s awful, funny, inspired or-oh who am I kidding? It’s Chow yelling about apologizing to the rice. I love it. It’s inspired. (I think.)

Multitudes of goons come gunning for Lung once again, and Ken goes into action. The same can be said for John Woo, because it’s really the action that gives you any reason to watch this cobbled together film. Chow even has another great gun battle moment on a staircase. Lung somehow snaps out of his bad acting and he and Ken go back to HK. They rejoin with Ho and Kit to discover one of Lung’s partners behind the scheme.

Kit is killed doing some reconnaissance on villain in a mansion and the remaining three go in for revenge. That’s really all there is to it. The entire conclusion of the film  is a mindblowing, ecstatic, unbelievable orgy of violence. Guns, grenades, C4, an axe and even a samurai sword get thrown in. The body count rises to over 90 and Ho, Ken and Lung wear the requisite black suit and tie combo of cool. Of course another bit of HK cinema ripped off for Resevoir Dogs.

Chow & Co. don't need any more QT ripoffs.

Woo has  publicly disowned the film save for the ending action sequence. In fact, if you just took the action as a separate film you’d really have something special on your hands. As with all Woo films it’s simply exquisite. But the story just doesn’t work. There are so many great little moments and dramatic flairs that then get torn right back down by the stupidity of the next scene. ABTIIcannot decide whether it’s a comedy, a soap opera or an action film. I place this problem directly on the discord between Hark and Woo and the bad nonsensical editing.

It isn’t a bad film, but one that could have been much more. And it is this thought that ultimately drags it down even further. You start on the what-if’s and suddenly wish the 160 minute original version would surface.

But could someone please tell me why Chow Yun-fat will inhale a lighter’s open flame? It’s unbelievably cool for no apparent reason.

EDITIONS: Like the first film, the best video versions to have in the States are the IVL trilogy box or the Anchor Bay single release. Anamorphic 16:9 progressive video, Cantonese mono, English subs but those on the IVL disc have errors. The Anchor Bay has a slightly more filmic image to my eyes. But avoid the first pressing of the disc because that was issued with the wrong soundtrack.

Comparison between numerous versions:

http://caps-a-holic.com/vergleich.php?vergleichID=507

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Filed under 3 stars, Chow Yun-fat, Film, Film Directors, Film Review, Hong Kong action, John Woo

A Better Tomorrow (1986)

3.5 stars out of 4. The film that firmly established HK action cinema.

A Better Tomorrow is a film that made many firsts. It was the first in the wave of Triad/gangster films that took China by storm in the classic period of Hong Kong action cinema (mid 1980’s to early 1990’s), the first major film from the partnership of producer Tsui Hark and director John Woo, Woo’s commercial breakthrough and last but most important: the film that brought together Woo and Chow Yun-fat.

Oh, and it did become the most successful Chinese film of all time too. (At the time.)

People simply couldn’t get enough of this story. The freshness that ABT brought to the Chinese film world is incalculable. It is a film about young people made by a younger generation ready and willing to do what was necessary to bring the story to life.

Did they actually succeed? You be the judge.

How does the coolest guy in the history of time light a cigarette?

A Better Tomorrow follows the lives of two young Triads and the trial they must go through in order to maybe achieve the film’s title. As in all the HK action films, the characters are always human no matter what death defying feats they accomplish. This means they can feel pain, fear and especially anguish just as much as the rest of us. And it is this that really sets all of these films apart from simple action fare. It is because they can emote that we so strongly relate to these characters. It is because he is  still human that Chow Yun-fat’s Mark in this film became so universally heralded. And imitated. Anybody know where to find a long trench coat and Alain Delon sunglasses?

Sung Tse-Ho (Ti Ling) is one of the Triad’s most successful operators, primarily dealing in the distribution of counterfeit money with his partner in crime, fellow Triad Mark Lee (Chow Yun-fat). His younger brother Kit (Leslie Cheung) is in training to become a policeman. Ho’s father knows of his true occupation and appeals to him to give it up so that he and his brother will never have to be on opposing sides.

Ho is then sent on an assignment to make a deal with a gang in Taiwan. The boss sends along a new man to learn the ropes from Ho, with Shing being the dutiful employee. They are double crossed by the Taiwanese and in order to let Shing get away, Ho turns himself in to the police.

Mark reads of Ho’s capture and goes to eliminate the Taiwanese leader. He succeeds but not without sustaining a significant wound to the leg which leaves him crippled. Kit is attacked by a gunman, and in the resulting struggle his father is killed. Ho gains his release in three years and is quickly shown by all that there  is nothing left for him.

All Ho wants to do is go straight and live a simple life just like any other man. Shing is now in charge of the Triads and stirring up trouble. Kit blames ho for their father’s death and would rather kill him than even speak his name. And Mark, the once charismatic Triad one-man army is reduced to being Shing’s crippled janitor.

Mark wants to go back to where they were by taking down Shing. Ho cannot believe the change that has happened to Mark, but cannot reconcile this plan with his new reformed self. Kit also begins to become obsessed with Shing’s eradication. Ho becomes caught in the middle when Shing begins to pressure him to rejoin the Triad.

Once again, Ho is between tumultuous choices but now between the two people he holds most dear. The Triads are now closing in. and all poor Ho wanted to do was to drive his little taxicab.

What quickly becomes apparent is the mastery the filmmakers have for the craft of character. Unlike what you might think, there isn’t really that much action in this film. Everything is and must be motivated by character. Thus each decision made is totally weighted by conscience  so heavily that you can feel that weight just watching in the dark.

But when the action does erupt…you know it can only be John Woo behind the lens. The moment when Mark enters the restaurant where the Taiwan gang is cavorting, trench coat flowing in the slow motion breeze and .45 in hand you know it’s about to seriously go down. It’s a really interesting thing to see, a director just beginning to discover his own cinematic voice. A large part of A Better Tomorrow is this foundation of Woo as a distinctive filmmaker.

And the other is…

Chow. Yun-fat.

In a film designed to favor one actor as the standout, being given the cripple role really doesn’t sound like much to write about does it? But it was not Ti Lung who became the massive star because of ABT. There is a reason why all the youths of Hong Kong dressed in dark trench coats and sunglasses . Chow steals the film. Completely. He sparkles. He shines. He positively smoulders. We first see him in coat/sunglasses uniform lighting a cigarette with a flaming $100 bill! And this is in the opening minute or so of credits! This character has an internal sense of self that gives this outer sense of invulnerability. It looks as if nothing could ever touch Mark, and yet something does. We meet him three years later, his spirit seemingly as broken as his braced leg. But it isn’t. He has simply played the sides and bided his time until he can make his way back to the top. But when Ho refuses to re-team for this blaze of glory, Mark must try and gather together the shambles of his life. Whether he can do this becomes our central concern because of how much we care for this guy. He is still just a human being like the rest of us. And why can’t a Triad be a hero?

Ultimately, A Better Tomorrow is about the struggle of morals in our modern culture. It doesn’t matter that this is a Chinese film, the problem is universal. A gangster can be a better person than a cop, but if you are that gangster with good morals, what do you receive in the end other than loss?

EDITIONS: For those of us here in NTSC land, it can be extremely difficult to see Asian films in a proper format. And I’m just talking about the basics: Correct aspect ratio, original audio, English subtitles actually translated from the dialogue and NTSC format. For ABT, the choice is pretty simple: choose either the Anchor Bay DVD or the remastered Fortune Star/IVL  A Better Tomorrow Trilogy boxset. Both will give you NTSC, 16:9 1.85:1, original Cantonese mono, and English subs. That said the IVL subtitles do have errors and really aren’t up to scratch. You’ll get the idea but this is a big flaw.  The Anchor Bay image is darker and to my eyes a little more representative of a film image. The subs are better though. The IVL box can be imported from playasia.com for about $25, while the AB disc is out of print. It was released with the first sequel and these might be found for cheap in used shops. Just make sure you get the second pressing because these were originally issued with parts of other films on the soundtrack!

Comparison: http://caps-a-holic.com/vergleich.php?vergleichID=506

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Filed under 3.5 stars, Chow Yun-fat, Film, Film Directors, Film Review, Hong Kong action, John Woo

The Killer (1989)

4 stars out of 4. Immortal film. Unforgettable.

Easy to pick up. Hard to put down.”

If Hard Boiled is the John Woo film with the most action, The Killer has the most drama. It forms the perfect reflection to Hard Boiled in that it represents the full emotional sweep Woo is capable of. They are a perfectly balanced yin and yang, and easily the greatest “action” films ever made. This is a delicate film, one of deep characterization and involvement. It is a metaphoric meditation on the meaning of self-preservation and one’s moral code.

Just to preface, this story is about emptiness and pain. These are people with codes of honor who are beaten by a world so far gone that they find no solace in any of it.

The film opens with the Killer (Chow Yun-fat) (depending on your subtitles named: John, Jeff, or Ah Jong) waiting for his next assignment. His contact arrives and gives him his information. Sidney is a former assassin himself and feels a kinship towards Jong but cannot rectify this with his business ethics. Ah Jong  arrives in a nightclub and then erupts into an detached slow motion infused bout of violence but inadvertently blinds the club singer.

Six months pass and we see that Jong can not shake his guilt over blinding Jenny. In his mind he never harms anyone who is an innocent, and yet he has destroyed her entire life. This one little rule has kept him from questioning his actions for years but now he can no longer hide from himself. They are  both destroyed, for Jong’s personal code has been shattered. He spends all of his time watching Jenny and finally rescues her from street thugs. This puts them together for the first time and romance begins to blossom. (Yes I know this sounding a bit like Magnificent Obsession.)

He decides to take one more job in order to pay for an operation to restore Jenny’s sight. Meanwhile,  Detectives Li and Chang are partners who meet constant aggression with the Triads. They are assigned to protect an important businessman who everyone knows to be a Triad leader. Li witnesses Jong killing their man and leaps into pursuit with Chang. Jong is double crossed and ambushed by a squad of Triads. In the crossfire a little girl is mortally wounded and Jong risks his life to save her. He grabs a car with the detectives in pursuit and instead of trying to get away rushes into the emergency room to save the girl. This selfless act combined with the grace of his exit from the hospital begins to plant a seed of respect in Li’s mind for Jong. They may be on opposing sides, but they share the same principles.

The Triad who hired Jong now wants him dead because he was seen committing the assassination. It’s all part of the rules. Li makes a connection between the mysterious killer and the gunman in the nightclub. He and Chang determine that Jong will probably have made contact with Jenny.

Jong refuses to leave without his money and this pushes Sidney to go beyond himself to try and get it for his friend. They agree to meet in the church…

The Killer is all of the foundation of Woo’s previous films but with a confidence to simply do what the director wanted. This frees him up considerably and allows for the film to become effortless. Not once does it ever become melodramatic. Slow motion and repeating shots in rapid succession became his “trademark. But I must tell you, it was all by accident!” (Woo, Fox Lorber commentary) Here, the “Triad” gangster film of Hong Kong action cinema becomes something else entirely.

If you really look at it, no one wins. *SPOILER* In the ending, John dies and his eyes are shot up so that he cannot donate them to Jenny. In a moment of pure agony, Jenny and Jong crawl on the ground grasping to find each other in blindness before Jong finally expires right next to his love who cannot find him. Li then executes Weng as he surrenders to the police so Li will be arrested for murder. And the money will be confiscated by the police so Jennie will not receive her operation in any case and become permanently blind. Everybody loses. Game over. *END SPOILER* Trust me, this one will keep you dwelling over it’s ending for days on end. Days.

The Killer is Woo’s masterpiece, forming a perfect circle with Hard Boiled as the ultimate in action cinema. Chow Yun-fat is one of the most charismatic leads in the history of time. Every note is so perfectly played that you fall under the film’s spell. This is life-changing stuff. What can we ever do to get Woo to make films like this again?

“You’re an unusual cop.”

“You’re an unusual killer.”

EDITIONS: The Killer somehow fares even worse than Hard Boiled on video. In Region 1 there was the Criterion disc which was non-anamorphic, color tweaked and damaged. The Fox Lorber disc used the same transfer but the color scheme was a bit muted, contrast was boosted, and the image was cropped. The John Woo commentary is great though. It repeats some of the things from the Criterion track, but here Woo is fired up and gives a very interesting listen.

Avoid the Dragon Dynasty release like the plague. The DVD and Blu-ray were sourced from the German DVD transfer from EMS which is in 25fps PAL format. The PAL to NTSC conversion was done badly and the image is thus interlaced. The original German DVD has more information than the Blu-ray!! This Blu is probably the worst I’ve ever seen, it’s 1080i interlaced, undetailed, runs at PAL speed, has DNR and should be burned. The DVD has more detail!!

Your best bet is to track down a foreign edition on DVD because the previous US editions are long out of print. I personally watch the Criterion DVD because it was my first experience with the film and I’m used to the way it looks. Plus I just really really hate PAL speedup. There’s a new Hong Kong Blu-ray out that is supposed to be marginally better than the DD disc, but it lacks the original mono track. It is likely just an upscaled SD master though.

And I do hate the English opening credits on some prints. The white text is huge and fills the screen wrecking the tonal balance.

Comparison of all SD versions:

http://caps-a-holic.com/vergleich.php?vergleichID=44

Sidenote: I must mention that the first time I saw this film I nearly had a heart attack-at one point in this film: CHOW YUN-FAT ACTUALLY DRIVES MY CAR!!!! (I drive a white 1987 Acura Integra) AHHHHHH!

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Filed under 4 stars, Chow Yun-fat, Film, Film Review, Hong Kong action, Immortal Films, John Woo

Hard Boiled (1992)

Chow Yun-fat, shotgun, and a baby. This is as good as it gets.

4 stars out of 4. The greatest action film I have ever seen. Immortal film.

Nothing can prepare you for Hard Boiled. This is without a doubt, the greatest combination of realism and fantasy found in action cinema. I consider it as the second half of an unofficial duology of director John Woo remarking on the aspects of action and death from the points of view of the so called “good” and “bad”. (The other film being The Killer.)

In the first five minutes, a tranquil bird-filled teahouse is completely destroyed by gunfire. The body count is already towering over the majority of US action films, and most importantly Chow Yun-fat has picked up two .45’s. Oh. My. Dear. God.

Towards the end of this sequence, two gunmen are attempting to escape Chow’s hard boiled super cop Tequila. They fire on the run which forces Tequila to hang over a stair railing.

And then this happens. You will never be the same.

All of the action in this film is choreographed in such a way that it completely astounds the senses. Woo had long been an admirer or Sam Peckinpah, who had been credited with creating ballets of violence in his films. Here, the ballet becomes a symphony of sheer unbelievability. Nothing really compares to this. The trademark use of slow motion and repeated shot intercutting that Woo became known for is ramped to its extreme in this overload of Hong Kong action cinema. It is glorious.

The story revolves around Tequila and his attempts to track down the gun runners behind the gangsters in the opening sequence. His unorthodox methods are intercut with the story of rising Triad,  Tony (Tony Leung) who is introduced as a stylish hitman as he guns down a deserter in a public library. Tony works for boss Uncle Hoi, who is facing a large threat from his rival in the gun trade Johnny Wong, who also happens to be completely psychotic. (and a fan of brightly colored jackets…)

Wong decides to recruit Tony to replace the man killed in the library. He sets about this by attacking Uncle Hoi’s warehouse and forcing Tony to kill Uncle Hoi. This accomplished, Johnny is now the head Triad. Then Tequila comes down from the ceiling on a wire and takes on the entire convoy of Triads in an even more breathtaking action sequence.

The sequence ends with Tony and Tequila coming to a Mexican standoff, and Tony spares Tequila because as an undercover agent, he cannot kill a cop. That’s right, he’s an undercover. (!) The film then conspires to bring the two together in an unofficial partnership so that Tequila will work from the outside whilst Tony works from the inside. Everything leads up to the epic conclusion in a packed hospital where Johnny has hidden his weapons cache. This really lasts for an insane amount of time. Woo goes beyond himself to pull every last stop including a must be seen to be believed three minute single take  in the midst of all the chaos.

To top everything, in the middle of everything an entire ward of newborn babies must be evacuated. The inventiveness of this staging never lets up.

This film is so stylish, so well-crafted and so much damn fun that you don’t care about any logic. In this world, people are still killed needlessly, heroes bleed and feel pain, but a shotgun can be a portable cannon and one cop can take down an entire warehouse of Triads. Although the believability is stretched there is no one moment where you cannot say to yourself, “that just might be possible!”

The actors smoulder with emotions ingrained into their faces. These characters do serve the purpose of setting up the action, but unlike nearly every other action film they are defined characters rather than cardboard characterizations. They have real emotions and desires instead of cliches they live by.

This was my introduction to Hong Kong action cinema and for John Woo both his last HK film and to date last collaboration with Chow. (Can we ever get these two back together? Please!!!!!!!) It is thus a farewell of sorts, to a short lived kind of filmmaking that could blend fantasy and imagination effortlessly with realism and melodrama into a “heroic bloodshed“.

And there is little cooler in this world than Chow Yun-fat  flying through the air with two blazing .45’s in slow motion. Come, enjoy yourself and be a bit of a 5 year old again for two hours.

EDITIONS: Hard Boiled has one of the worst home video histories of any film. Every edition is seriously flawed in some way. The first DVD release was by Criterion and is likely their worst catalog release. It is a port of the Laserdisc transfer, severely cropped, has subtitles based of the English dub, muted colors and very contrasty. There are some nice extras and a commentary track. This went out of print, for the Fox Lorber release which looks slightly better but is edge enhanced. The commentary is different, but with similar content. There are numerous foreign editions, some with great video, but these are all in either PAL format or lack English subtitles.

Currently the best way to see the film is through the Dragon Dynasty DVD and Blu-ray release. This transfer is based off of a European transfer, anamorphic 16:9 1.85:1, includes the original mono, the colors are relatively intact. Unfortunately the disc has English dubtitles. The transfer also appears to have been cropped and then stretched back to 1.85:1. The Blu-ray is merely a 1080p bump of the same master. Both can be had for around $10 and actually feature some extras. Still, it could be worse. (Like DD’s release of The Killer) If Criterion cannot ever get this back in the collection, maybe a Hong Kong release might come along that would actually be a decent transfer but I doubt it.

Buy it now. You will not regret it. Soon you’ll have seen it 20 times. I promise. You will get the score stuck in your head.

Especially “Sad Kong”. This serves primarily as Tony’s theme, but damn is it haunting.

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Filed under 4 stars, Chow Yun-fat, Film Review, Hong Kong action, Immortal Films, John Woo