Monday, February 28, 2011

First Tentative Steps Into Cat III : Naked Killer

After listening to Kingwho? and SleazyK's podcast about Cat III movies This week in sleaze and really enjoying it, I thought it was time to catch up on some category III movies, as despite being a fan of Hong Kong cinema for almost 25 years, the only truly Cat III film I remember watching is Herman Yau's The Ebola syndrome, which I picked up on my first trip to Hong Kong way back in 1998. I had heard of the film, but didn't really know much about it. It was quite a surprise to be honest and I didn't like it at all, thoroughly mean spirited and nasty and despite Anthony Wong's great (?) performance, not one I will be in a rush to see again. For my first steps back into the (cess)pool of Cat III, I decided on something to ease myself in gently, the Clarence Fok directed, Wong Jing produced Naked Killer.

A film that I would imagine most HK cinema fans will have seen at some point, for some reason its one I never got around to. I saw the films trailer on another dvd, and it is absolutely fantastic, it sells the film perfectly and its easy to see why the movie found its audience. Produced to cash in on the success of Basic Instinct, this movie adds a distinctly Hong Kong flavour to that films excess and the result is much predictably much more fun.

Didn't want to much to be on show but anyone who has seen the film will know what this is!

Simon Yam, Carrie Ng and Chingmy Yau star in this sex and violence packed romp, its a fun ride that hits all the right notes for its target audience. The action scenes are handled quite nicely, and plenty of skin is on show, although it is a little more coy than I was expecting.

Simon Yam, ever the professional no matter what the film is, tries hard to add some depth to the thin character he is given, and he receives pretty good back up from regular Milkyway image comic foil Hui Siu Hung, although I'm not at all sure about the sequence with the sausages!

Naked killer really belongs to the girls, with Carrie Ng vamping it up to eleven, she is great in the action scenes and handles everything else with gusto! Including her lesbian scenes with her killer partner Baby, played by Sugawara Madoka, who provides the only real nudity in the movie. Chingmy Yau looks as stunning as ever and although she never really convinces as a killer, she does okay in her action scenes, and did I mention she looks amazing!

Clarence Fok may not be the best director in the world, but he manages with the help of his crew, not least the cinematographer Peter Pau, to make this film look incredible for the money it must have cost, with locations, production design and some outlandish outfits combining with the beautiful cast to make this look like a really expensive production. I can't imagine anyone who seeks this film out, not finding something to enjoy in its sheer trashiness.

Next up on my Category III odyssey is The Story of Ricky, then things will turn much darker as I have Taxi hunter, The untold story and Dr. Lamb all on the way, will I be able to stand the Cat III horror ? Stay tuned....

Friday, February 25, 2011

Hong Kong Blues

I've been feeling pretty miserable all this week, due to the online publication of the programme for the 35th Hong Kong international film festival on Thursday. I've known for a couple of months now that I wasn't going to be able to make it again this year, but looking through the programme at the films showing and the events taking place, it really hits home another year will pass without my wife and I experiencing the fragrant harbour.

Hong Kong 2006
Like fellow blogger A pessimist is never disappointed I do consider myself to be very lucky in having been to Hong Kong on numerous occasions, but once you get the taste, even visiting once a year cannot satisfy the appetite.

My last three visits have been based around the film festival, the first of these three being in 2006. We had only just been to HK in Oct 2005, but in Feb 2006, I found that the focus of the festival was to be the 10th anniversary of Milkyway image. I saw the list of films that were showing and the events taking place and just had to go. With only three weeks to left my wife, wonderful woman that she is agreed to a week to cover the main films and activities and quite honestly it was one of the best weeks of my life. We both enjoyed it so much that we did it again in 2007 for two weeks and 2008 for three weeks, we just wanted to carry on but unfortunately it wasn't to be, and the longer the gap between trips becomes, the worse the longing to go.

I felt miserable last year and the one before, however it was made slightly easier by the fact the festival focus in those two years were not so much of a priority to me. 2011 though is another Milkyway centric festival or Wai Ka Fai to be exact, Don't go breaking my heart, the new Johnnie To/Wai Ka Fai movie is the opening film of the festival and they will be present after the screening for a meet the audience session. The filmmaker in focus this year is Wai Ka Fai, with a wide range of his movies receiving screenings including Too many ways to be number one, The Longest nite and Mad detective, amongst others. Wai Ka Fai will also being doing a seminar titled Face to face, with the chance to meet and speak with him. Sigh.

Many other films I would love to see theatrically are also showing and that isn't even including the new films that are premiering at the festival. We have the time booked off work, but for various reasons we are not able to attend, I need to get a grip and just get on with other stuff but I'm just finding it hard. I know it sounds pathetic with everything going on in the world at the moment, but sometimes its hard to keep things in perspective.

One of my favourite HK photos

My answer in previous years has been to buy lots of Hong Kong movies and cram, if I can't go I need to bring that fragrant harbour home to me.

Thursday, February 24, 2011

Mail Delivery Hong Kong Legends

My best buddy the postman, dropped off a rather large and exciting box for me today, okay it doesn't look that exciting from the outside, but its dvd heaven...

because on the inside, its full of lovely Hong Kong legends dvds.

Picked these up fairly cheaply, and although they aren't the original release versions with the extras, they are the same transfers. I have quite a few of them already, but some of them are quite hard to find such as City on fire, Chinese ghost story, Peking opera blues, The Odd couple, A Better tomorrow II etc. so I'm quite pleased with this little lot.

The Hong Kong Iron monkey blu ray also arrived today, can't wait to watch that, love that film so much!

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

Ip Man 2 Thoughts

Before going any further with this I just want to say that I enjoyed Ip man 2 and that it is worth your time. But ...

Wilson Yip's follow up to his own Ip man, once again stars Donnie Yen and continues the highly fictionalised story of Bruce Lee's master. The story picks up with Ip man having moved his family to Hong Kong, after his troubles with the Japanese during the war, Ip man and family are facing a different kind of hardship as they struggle to make ends meet, Ip man is trying to establish a martial arts school to teach the Chinese martial art of Wing chun. A school is not a school without pupils and they are proving hard to find for Ip man, when pupils do start to arrive things are not as idyllic as he would like as complications caused by other martial arts schools and more importantly the colonial authorities test the stoic calmness of Ip man.
Sammo Hung plays the master of another martial arts school who is colluding with the British, making all of the schools pay protection money to the authorities so the schools can even exist. When Ip man goes against this, things are made very difficult for him, slowly Sammo and everyone else are shown through Donnie's legendary calm and integrity that extortion, corruption, and racism are bad and that everyone should just give peace a chance and get along with each other, but not until Donnie has beat the shit out of someone first.

Donnie's awesome calmness
Okay, so that last sentence is not strictly true but this film is so oversimplified that it may as well be. The first half of the film is very enjoyable, but even during that time and certainly as the story progresses  Ip man 2 has the feel of something thrown together very quickly to make some quick and easy cash, riding on the back of the superior first film. Where as the first Ip man movie was a quality production with some good acting and genuine emotion amongst the excellent action scenes, Ip man 2 is often unintentionally funny and feels hollow.

The best thing about Ip man 2 is undoubtedly Sammo Hung, both as an actor and as action choreographer. The movies best moments are when he and Donnie Yen share screen time together and the first half of the film is lit up by the fight scene between the two, this scene alone is reason enough to watch the movie despite its many flaws, but the quieter moments between the two actors are also very well done.

Sammo and Donnie in full flow

Unfortunately the film derails halfway through when it suddenly turns into an Anglo-Chinese version of Rocky 4, only even more jingoistic than that movie. The bad guys, played by two English actors Charles Mayer (the chief inspector of police) and Darren Shahlavi (Twister, the boxer) are just ridiculously over the top and if they had been in acting in a pantomime, they would have been told to tone it right down, never mind in what is supposed to be a serious film, having the bad guys portrayed as such ridiculously evil caricatures takes away any dramatic tension the film was trying to build and just left me laughing at it. The gwailo acting issue has been a problem forever in Hong Kong movies, I do not understand why Hong Kong directors do not seem to be able to get an even reasonable performance from a western actor in a Hong Kong movie. Is it that Chinese mainstream audiences want to see westerners portrayed in this way? For two actual English actors the accents are unbelievably fake, and worse still they seem like they are in the wrong movie, so far out of sync are they with everyone else, in acting style and ability. Two of the worst performances I have seen in a high profile film, ever.

I must break you

Ip man 2 is a disappointing sequel, not in terms of the action, but certainly dramatically. Sammo Hung's fight choreography is top notch, and if that is all you are looking for, great you will love it. If, however you are looking for the heart that was in the first Ip man as well as the action, then you will probably be disappointed. Bring on The Grandmasters!

Sunday, February 20, 2011

Wong Kar Wai's The Grandmasters

One of my most anticipated films of the year is Wong Kar Wai's version of the Ip man story The Grandmasters starring Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Zhang Ziyi, it has been quite a wait for this movie, but slowly more info and images are being released, the latest of which are from Berlin.

Still no release dates as you would expect with a WKW film, but I expect it will be screened at one of the glitzy international festivals. These shots look absolutely amazing, I'm not sure if they are from the actual movie or if they are just promotional shots, either way I can't wait to see the film.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Tsui Hark's The Blade Dvd Comparison UK vs French

Tsui Hark's 1995 The Blade is another in the list of Hong Kong classics to never receive a quality English friendly home video release. The Blade has been released in its native Hong Kong only on VCD and laserdisc, for some reason a dvd has never been made available. I cannot find any record of a legitimate US release either (although bootlegs have been around). So if you want to see this awesome film what options are open to us?

A Japanese dvd was released some years ago, which I have not been able to view, I am certain though that this release is not English friendly. A Thai release is available and that is English subbed but not anamorphic, and as such I have not bothered to track that disc down. The other releases available are the UK Hong Kong classics dvd, which is subbed but not anamorphic and the French HK Video dvd, available as a single disc edition and also as a two disc box set which are anamorphic but not English friendly.

UK dvd
The image quality on the UK dvd is very poor, the picture is overly dark to the point that during the darker scenes it is very difficult to make out what is actually happening, detail is virtually nonexistent and the video compression is also poor, again especially prevalent in darker scenes. Given the dvd was released in 2000 and the nature of the film and the shooting conditions, it was never going to look spectacular but even so it is a poor quality release. The UK dvd is now long out of print and thats not such a bad thing as the dvd does Tsui Hark's film no favours, it takes a beautifully ugly film and turns it into something just plain ugly.

French dvd single disc

French dvd two disc box set
The image quality on the French dvd is in comparison an absolute revelation, it is much brighter with better colours and skin tones. The image is sharp and detailed and the compression is handled far better than the UK disc, as you would expect given the advances made in this area in the six years between the releases. The dvd makes the film look like a relatively recent release, rather than a dirty,dusty and grimy sixteen year old movie. The dvd has the original Cantonese mono soundtrack with French subtitles and it sounds very nice, a French 5.1 dub is also available, although I'm not sure who would listen to the movie this way.

English subtitles are available to download to make your own version of the dvd and for the time being at least, this seems to be the only quality way to see the film.

Below are screen captures from the two dvds, while every effort has been made to capture as close to the same frame as possible, using the equipment I have it is not possible to guarantee it is exactly the same frame. The screen grabs are presented exactly as captured and have not been processed in any way, click on the capture to see it full size. The Hong Kong classics UK dvd is first, followed by the HK Video French dvd.

(The third capture was particularly difficult to get right, as it is a flash that lights Chiu Man-Cheuk's face and it makes it look like the French capture is too bright, but its just a difference in the frames.)

Having done dvd comparisons for The Mission and The Blade, it is lamentable that the two movies don't have releases in the US and that Hong Kong and UK editions are either very poor or also nonexistent.
Its no surprise that the French dvds are way out in front of the competition in the quality stakes, in all cases I have seen, French dvds of Hong Kong films are at least the equal of and usually better than any other versions other than in English language options, this applies particularly to image quality but also often to extras as well. Why do the French have so much more respect for their customers and the film makers than the their US and UK counterparts?

The next dvd comparison I tackle will be Patrick Yau/Johnnie To's The Longest nite. ( and surprise, the French dvd wins again!)

Monday, February 14, 2011

Tsui Hark's The Blade French Dvd Box Set

Tsui Hark's The Blade was (and still is) one of the seminal Hong Kong movies, its a film with ferocious power and it really hit me hard when I first saw it, but like many HK classics its had a rough time on home video. I recently had the good fortune to score the French limited edition dvd box set of the film from HKVideo, and my god is it fantastic.

Box front
I am not going to go into full detail about it now, but I wanted to post pics to show just how much love and respect this company shows to our beloved Hong Kong cinema, sure Hong Kong legends released some fine dvds (and didn't get enough love from some of the more pedantic fans around the internet) but this set is fantastic, I have seen flashier boxes with more elaborate trinkets but this has to be the best deluxe edition of an HK film ever released.

Dvd cover
You can also buy a standard dvd edition which looks just like the pic above, this is a single disc in a digipac.

Inside of dvd digipac
Le film as the French so eloquently put it
If you get the standard version though, you miss out on a book (In French admittedly, but it has some great photos in it, and a great reason to brush up on your French!), twelve postcards and a second dvd of extras.

Le book (I'm on a roll now)
Le postc, oh forget it
Second dvd
I am planning to do a comparison of this dvd with the UK dvd soon, similar to the one I did for The Mission dvds. The French dvd looks absolutely stunning and is a massive improvement over everything else available, legitimately at least. I will probably do something about the extras too.

One last thing for this post, visit I don't see it on many blog lists and Mike is a great writer with a serious pedigree and a long lasting love of Hong Kong cinema.

Wednesday, February 9, 2011

Johnnie To's The Mission Dvd Comparison

Johnnie To's The Mission is possibly my favourite Hong Kong film ever, its a film that has had acclaim from critics all over the world, and yet it has never received a quality, English friendly home video release anywhere in the world. Why?

Mei Ah HK dvd

The Hong Kong company Mei Ah released the film on vcd and dvd in late 1999, the vcd was acceptable for that format but a vcd is a vcd and that format is not of a high enough quality to count here. The dvd was a disaster, non-anarmorphic and plagued by horrible video artifacts.(which to be fair, was standard with most Hong Kong dvds at that time) Worse than this though, some sort of a watermark could be seen on the actual image. Mei Ah re-released the dvd sometime later to rectify the problem, but when this dvd came out, incredibly the watermark could still be seen.
The Mission was then advertised as being a title in line to receive remastering, part of a series of releases that Mei Ah would put out in the early to mid 2000's, this release never happened. A Mei Ah spokesman suggested it didn't happen due to the the the original elements not being of sufficient quality to be remastered, and so the dvd with the watermark is still the only version available from Hong Kong, the only thing going for this dvd is that it is English friendly.

TF1 French dvd
A quality dvd of The Mission is available in France from TF1 video, the dvd is in PAL format, the video is anamorphic and is much brighter and more detailed than the Mei Ah disc. The dvd also seems to have more picture information at the left side of the frame. The sound is available in either a French dub or in the original Cantonese with forced French subtitles, but unfortunately English subtitles are not available.

I have the French dvd and decided to have a go at creating my own English friendly disc from it, I stripped out all of the menus and subtitles until just the video file with the cantonese soundtrack was left. An .srt file was given to me and it was just a matter of matching up the two files together and burning back to a disc. It took a fair amount of effort as I had never done this kind of thing before, but I did it eventually and I'm pretty happy with the result. The screenshot below is taken with a camera as the subs wouldn't show on screen grabs.

As good as the homemade dvd is, I would still like a proper release, and thought I had found it when the mainland Chinese company Zoke released The Mission on their label. I read on a forum, from someone claiming to have the disc, that it had the same video as the French disc but also had English subtitles, I managed to get hold of a copy and disappointingly, can confirm that the dvd does not have English subs. I am unsure as to the legitimacy of the release anyway as it is clearly the French dvd, is it officially licensed from TF1 or is it just a rip? I remember them releasing Fist of Legend in a similar manner where the dvd was the French HK video disc. It comes in a slipcase that is a copy of the French artwork and then has a sleeve similar to the Hong kong artwork but with French text on the rear.

As the Zoke dvd is the same video wise as the TF1 disc I have not taken screen grabs from it, just from the Mei Ah and TF1 dvds, while every effort has been made to get as close to the same frame as possible from each dvd, using the equipment I have it is not possible to guarantee it is exactly the same frame. The screen grabs are presented exactly as captured and have not been processed in any way, the Mei Ah first and then the TF1.

So why is there no quality English friendly release? As far as the US and UK are concerned, unless the film gets the long rumoured remake treatment, I cannot see it being released now, the perfect time to release it would have been when Exiled was released, given the links between the two films. It seems that the dvd market in the two countries has reached a saturation point, where even older films by internationally renowned filmmakers like Johnnie To are seen as too large a gamble to release domestically.
Hong Kong wise, when the French release is as good as this, it seems unlikely that Mei Ah could not remaster The Mission due to poor materials, after all where did the master for the TF1 disc come from? In addition to this I saw the film theatrically at the HKIFF in 2006 as part of the Milkyway image 10th anniversary screenings and the print looked in fantastic shape, so I can only think that a rights issue is preventing a new release in Hong Kong, if this is the case, fingers crossed that it will be resolved soon so we can see a blu ray release of this masterpiece.
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