Monday, November 28, 2011

Long Arm Of The Law

Johnny Mak's Long Arm of the Law is widely acknowledged as a forerunner of the heroic bloodshed genre. It was made two years before John Woo's A Better Tomorrow blazed it's way on to Hong Kong cinema screens. Mak's film shares some genes with Woo's film but approaches from completely the opposite end of the spectrum. Where A Better Tomorrow romanticised it's characters, Long Arm of the Law presents it's, in as raw and real a fashion as possible.

A gang of mainland robbers meet up with an accomplice in Hong Kong, with a plan to rob a jewellery store. When they arrive at the store they discover it has already been robbed and the place is crawling with police, barely escaping, they are forced to lay low and formulate a new plan. With no money and time on their hands they inevitably complicate matters by getting involved with a local gangster who pays them to perform a hit, the situation is further complicated when it's revealed the target was a cop. With no option but to carry out the plan and with the police doggedly on their tail, everything spirals towards the inevitable shootout.

Much is made in the film of the camaraderie between the gang members, with a one for all, stick together attitude that quickly crumbles in the face of the situations they find themselves in and the choices they make within those situations. The screenplay makes much of the idea that they have no option but to make these choices, that the life they have in China is no life at all, Hong Kong's glitz, glamour and riches are just too much to resist for these poor country folk. Characters that appear at first to be everymen, suddenly flick a switch and become these desperate outlaws, capable of anything to get what they want. The movie shows great skill in shifting the focus between these viewpoints to avoid losing all audience sympathy. The police are shown in an equally poor a light, with a definite shoot first, ask questions later policy resulting in a number of casualties.

The action sequences in Long Arm of the Law are stunning, with superbly executed set pieces, culminating with a tremendous shootout in the now long gone Kowloon Walled City, a maze like slum of narrow alleyways that offers a wonderfully cinematic setting for the finale. I was taken aback by just how great the action is in the film, the violence is very strong, shocking in places and it packs a real punch. Only a couple of overplayed stunts take away slightly from the otherwise documentary like feel Mak creates. Don't be under the misapprehension this is just another shoot'em up action film however, it has depth and is much more than just exploitation fare, although it functions equally well in that regard also.

The cast consisting of mostly (with one or two exceptions) relatively unknown or even amateur actors, all acquit themselves well, the characters, while hardly complex are enough to not only involve you in the story but keep you completely gripped throughout the film's running time. If I have a criticism of the film, I would have to say for such a dark and nasty piece of work, there are a couple of awkward comedy moments that are completely out of place, and worse still they even have comedy stings on the otherwise very effective and sombre John Carpenter style score.

Long Arm of the Law is such an influential film and while it may not have kick started the heroic bloodshed craze, it certainly informed many of those films and is significantly better than most of them. The film was followed by three unrelated sequels for which Mak handed over directorial duties to his brother Michael, with him choosing to produce instead, and on the evidence of this film, it's our loss. Long Arm of the Law is in my opinion one of the best Hong Kong movies of the eighties and probably one of the best Hong Kong films ever.

Sunday, November 27, 2011

Hong Kong Movie Buying This Month Part Two

I mentioned  I'd been picking up titles missing from my HK film library and here are some of them, this is part two of this months purchases. A mixture of titles anyone interested in Hong Kong cinema need to have and older stuff that will never be released in the UK or probably anywhere other than Hong Kong.

First up for part two is Yuen Woo Ping's Dreadnaught. I've been trying to see this for such a long time but always somehow missed it, it was well worth the wait. A review will follow soon.

Wai Ka Fai's Peace Hotel, I've only ever seen this once before on a VHS boot and remember liking it, I'm not sure which cut of the film I saw as I know there are two different versions. I will no doubt review this one too when I get around to seeing it.

Daniel Lee's Black Mask, again I've only seen this once and I was really disappointed with it, my expectations were way too high and it was inevitable really that I would be let down. Given the cast and Yuen Woo Ping's involvement, I felt a revisit was in order.

Speaking of Yuen Woo Ping, next up are two of his D&B classics, Tiger Cage and Tiger Cage II. I remember being blown away by these two movies, but only ever owned the sequel on VHS. The first film is the remastered dvd and the sequel is the blu ray release, the difference in price was about £1!

To finish part two, a couple of films that I've never seen and probably don't fit the criteria of being HK essentials but both came recommended. Firstly Troublesome Night 4 was a featured review in Mike's Hong Kong Rewind Halloween reviews. 

Lastly we have Jamie Luk Kim Ming's The Case of the Cold Fish, a film I know little about other than it stars Michael Wong but comes highly recommended to me, and this was definitely a film that I was never going to be able to see in any other way.

More to come soon.

Saturday, November 26, 2011

Hong Kong Movie Buying This Month Part One

I mentioned I'd been picking up titles missing from my HK film library and here they are, well part one at least. A mixture of titles anyone interested in Hong Kong cinema need to have and older stuff that will never be released in the UK or probably anywhere other than Hong Kong.

First up is perhaps the most embarrassing omission from my shelves, I don't honestly know what happened to my dvd of this but I didn't have it. I know!

Next up, Tsui Hark's The Butterfly Murders, I saw this on UK TV years ago but never picked it up, the Mei Ah remastered dvd looks great and terrible in equal measure. The print looks to be suffering from some sort of chemical breakdown leaving a regular yellowy green mess across the image, apart from this the image is lovely.

The film that started me with this idea was Wong Jing's God of Gamblers, and I've finished up with two copies, the remastered Mei Ah edition and a Taiwanese double bill of this and it's official sequel. This looks like it could be a bootleg but I'm not familiar enough with Taiwan releases to be sure.

Fruit Chan is a Hong Kong director I'm ashamed to admit that I've pretty much ignored, Dumplings (Which I thought was excellent in both it's forms) aside. Time to change that so I picked up his Hollywood Hong Kong.

I've already commented on Facebook about Johnny Mak's Long Arm of the Law and I will be reviewing it shortly, I've made no secret of how great it is, and I cannot recommend it highly enough. I went for the blu ray which has had plenty of bad press, but maybe because my expectations were low I was pleasantly surprised, seen projected, it looked pretty good.

Finally for part one, the only film not from Hong Kong, Toshiaki Toyoda's 9 Souls. Rather than just buying it as I would have before, I rented this film, and loved it so much I then decided to buy it. If you haven't seen it, it comes highly recommended, again a review will follow.

Part two coming soon.

Thursday, November 24, 2011

Thoughts On The Exterminator Arrow Blu Ray

It's been a while since I last saw James Glickenhaus' vigilante action thriller The Exterminator, and in that time I'd forgotten just how seedy it is. The film features some of the most grotesque and reprehensible characters you'll find in movies and is packed full of exploitation goodness.

John Eastland (Robert Ginty), a vietnam vet, sets out to clean up New York after his best buddy Michael (Steve James) is paralysed by a gang called The Ghetto Ghouls. Eastland nicknames himself The Exterminator and lives up to the name as he relishes his task. Attracting not only the attention of the police, in the form of Detective Dalton (Christopher George), but the C.I.A as well and they aren't looking to play nice.

From it's obviously fake but undeniably effective Vietnam prologue (complete with one of the best decapitation effects I've ever seen), the violence flows freely, from the horribly unsavoury to the darkly comic, Glickenhaus covers just about all bases. The script is mostly played straight but has some fun dialogue including Ginty's catchphrase, "If you're lying, I'll be back". The cast is good, with plenty of memorable sleaze bags which a film like this needs, and Christopher George's cop giving good support to Ginty. Steve James, doesn't get enough to do and is pretty much wasted unfortunately. Ginty himself occasionally feels like he's in the wrong film but I couldn't help liking him anyway. The biggest star of The Exterminator though is the thick, grimy atmosphere provided free of charge by the streets of New York, which for a modestly budgeted film like this is priceless.

The Exterminator holds up pretty well as the exploitation film it is, while elements of the film try to suggest Glickenhaus was aiming for something more, the screenplay has too many holes and a little too much stupidity to achieve anything higher than a Saturday night beer and friends movie, and there is absolutely nothing wrong with that.

Arrow's blu ray release of James Glickenhaus' The Exterminator features a solid presentation of the film, with mostly good image and audio quality that varies a little from scene to scene, giving the impression the transfer was created from varying sources. Synapse released the film on blu in the US, I haven't seen that disc to comment on, but while the US version has a commentary from Glickenhaus, the Arrow disc has a few exclusive extras and although I'm not always a fan of the Arrow extras this disc has the best extra I've seen for a while, in the form of 42nd Street Then and Now.

Frank Henenlotter, the director of amongst others Basket Case and Frankenhooker, is our host as he talks us through the heyday of 42nd Street's grindhouse film culture through to the homogenised tourist trap it is today. Using brief clips from the film along with archive photos, the sheer amount of genre film titles shown on the cinema marquees is amazing, and a huge loss to genre film fans. It's a fascinating subject that deserves more time than the 15 minute tease we get here. Henenlotter is a wonderful host, packing as much info and as many anecdotes as he can in the time he has, he clearly loves his subject. The feeling of sadness and anger at what has become of 42nd Street feels completely genuine, and I don't know if his eyes are just irritated or if it is emotion from his reminiscences but in some shots he can be seen wiping tears from his cheeks as he speaks.

Tuesday, November 22, 2011

Rolling Thunder UK Blu Ray Release

When I covered Rolling Thunder way back in May, I stated that it was due to be released in June on blu ray in the UK. Well, that release never happened, since then various online retailers have had varying release dates for the disc. Finally, approximately six months late, we have an officially confirmed release date of the 30/01/2012 from distributor Studio Canal. The double play disc will also have the following special features :

An audio commentary with co-writer Heywood Gould, moderated by Roy Frumkes
Theatrical trailer with audio commentary by Eli Roth
Exclusive interview with star Linda Haynes
Screening Q&A with director John Flynn
Original TV spot.

The film is highly recommended and it will be great to finally see such a difficult movie to see, gain a real release, on blu ray no less, and it's available for pre-order for the bargain price of £7.95.

Monday, November 21, 2011

Movie Buying Update

Just a quick update on the Thank you Megan Fox post from a few weeks ago. Realistically I was never going to stop buying movies, so while I guess you could say I've fallen off the wagon, I have done much better in what I am trying to achieve, in the following ways :

1. I haven't bought any blu ray upgrades of films I already have.

2. I've only bought dvds of titles I can't see through other channels.

3. I've been strict with myself in only buying titles I know I want, as in no impulse purchases.

As someone with little to no willpower, especially when it comes to my buying habits, this is something of a victory for me. The major focus of my film buying has been my first love, Hong Kong cinema. I'm currently trying to pick up the HK films that any self respecting fan should own but that I don't, either because I've never bought them or that I've had but no longer do for whatever reason, this came from the realisation that Wong Jing's God of Gamblers was missing from my shelves. I've had it on VHS,VCD and DVD but don't have it anymore, and what HK film library is complete without it?

So this led me to other titles I'm missing, I have a largeish order in with Yesasia but many titles I'm missing are OOP, so in the next few weeks I'm going to compile a wants list for anything I can't find. This back to basics approach to film shopping has already paid off, one of titles I bought is Johnny Mak's Long Arm of the Law, and it's easily one of the best films I've seen all year.

Sunday, November 20, 2011

New The Great Magician Trailer, Stills And More Posters

With the release of Derek Yee's The Great Magician rapidly approaching, the publicity machine is going into overdrive, with a new trailer and some new stills and posters unleashed.

Derek Yee's movies are a little hit and miss for me, but I'm looking forward to this one, if nothing else the film looks exceptionally handsome, and with Lau Ching Wan and Tony Leung starring, the performances should be great.

Saturday, November 19, 2011

First Trailer For This Year's Doctor Who Christmas Special

The first trailer for this years Doctor Who Christmas special has been released. The episode is titled The Doctor, The Widow and The Wardrobe and was written by the show's head honcho Stephen Moffat, and it isn't hard to see where his inspiration came from for this particular episode.

I've been a little underwhelmed by the show since Moffat took over, despite loving his previous episodes on the show and really loving Matt Smith. The Christmas episodes are always fun though and with Bill Bailey in the cast, it's guaranteed to be funny. All will be revealed on Christmas day.

Thursday, November 17, 2011

Johnnie To's A Hero Never Dies Review

The following thoughts on A Hero never dies contains some spoilers, so please watch the movie first before reading this. You have been warned.

Produced by Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai and directed by Johnnie To, A Hero never dies is one of the most divisive of all Johnnie To's crime films, it polarises opinion of not only Hong Kong cinema enthusiasts but also ardent fans of Milkyway image. It isn't hard to see why, the film is an overwhelming mixture of Sergio Leone tribute, blackly comedic or even parodic heroic bloodshed, deadly serious melodrama and meditation on legend and myth, talk about having your cake and eating it!

For many audiences the mix just doesn't work but the film has a special place for me, which is why this blog is named after it. I love just how far over the top the film goes, and if you stick with it hard enough it comes right back around to be really affecting.

A Hero never dies stars Leon Lai as Jack and Lau Ching Wan as Martin, they play the right hand men of gang bosses Yam and Fong played by Henry Fong and Yen Shi Kwan respectively. Despite being on opposite sides they have a grudging respect that could almost, if they weren't always trying to kill each other, be called a friendship. Yam and Fong's gangs have been waging war for the past year, with many casualties on both sides, their men led by Jack and Martin have vowed to fight to the death, until only one gang remains victorious. A years worth of death and destruction are rendered worthless when the bosses enter a business partnership, leaving Jack and Martin betrayed and left for dead.
Yam and Fong try to erase all reminders of the men that served them so well, leaving Jack and Martin's girlfriends to inspire them to take revenge both for themselves and their dead brothers.

I think of A Hero never dies as being like Kurosawa's Yojimbo or Leone's A Fistful of dollars, but where Mifune's Ronin or Eastwood's Man with no name never actually stay and intervene in the town's affairs, leaving the two warring sides to fight it out between themselves. Yam and Fong, with input from "The General", tired of all the killing, settle for a share of the spoils, for the quiet life, without any thought of the impact on the lives of all the men and their families who have fought to the death for them.

The movie opens on the Saxophone bar, a place very important for the rest of the movie. The camera roams through the bar to settle on a bottle of wine with a label around it's neck that says Jack. During this scene we are introduced to the Raymond Wong score for the film, which uses the Japanese song Sukiyaki as a motif throughout the running time, this is the first nod towards the film's debt to Sergio Leone as the score sounds almost like a Hong Kong Morricone soundtrack.

The Leone/Morricone musical inspiration continues into the introduction of Leon Lai's Jack. Boss Yam having gone to visit a fortune teller, is horrified as Jack shoots the teller in the foot, as an example to his boss that he doesn't need him to make his decisions for him. The music surges upwards on the soundtrack as Jack and his boys take a piss against the palm trees. Love Lam Suet in this scene, when he realises Jack is unzipping his trousers and he decides to copy him, it's a very funny reaction.

Lau Ching Wan's Martin is introduced through a laser guided sight on a rifle aimed at Jack's head. Jack is retrieving the severed head of one of Martin's men to respectfully reunite it with its body, he smokes a cigarette, still with the sight to his head, and we know Martin isn't going to shoot him here, not like this. Immediately you're left with a feeling their relationship will be similar to the one in John Woo's The Killer between Chow Yun Fat and Danny Lee. It isn't quite as simple as that though as in the very next scene we see Jack in Martin's apartment as he shoots it all to hell, I don't remember Danny Lee doing that in The Killer! While the idea is similar, here it's taken to the extreme.

Jack and Martin, as in the relationship mentioned above are two sides of the same coin or yin and yang to each other if you prefer, while Jack is introspective and dresses down, Martin is loud in both personality and wardrobe, dressing like some sort of pimp cowboy and always chewing on a huge cigar.  While both men have differences, ethically they feel exactly the same about their profession, with their men and bosses being what is important to them, above even their own lives and women.

Wong Tin Lam has a small but memorable role as the go between for Jack and Martin, being threatened with death if he fails to remember every word of the insults they trade through him, a favourite exchange of mine being Jack's "Tell Martin to stick his shit face into his asshole" and Martin's retort of "I'm gonna crack his mother's ass with a bat".

This first section of A Hero never dies is very funny, we get the usual heroic bloodshed tropes introduced but then deconstructed and exaggerated until twisted into something far beyond what we have seen before. Usually this type of movie is quite earnest and mostly humour free, not the case here at all, and its not finished yet as the next sequence at the Saxophone bar is even more outrageous with Jack and Martin ramming their cars into each other outside, before entering the bar for a wine tasting, which quickly turns into more testosterone driven competition. As a live band belt out Sukiyaki the two men take turns to destroy glasses of each others wine, using evermore elaborate coin tosses from increasingly impossible angles. This particular scene is where many people lose patience with the film, which is unfortunate as its a really fun scene, ridiculous yes, but very amusing. Its another nod to Sergio Leone as it reminded me of the hat shooting sequence between Clint Eastwood and Lee Van Cleef in For a few dollars more.

It is during the bar scene that we are introduced to Jack and Martin's girlfriends played by Yoyo Mung and Fiona Leung, two of the most important characters in the movie. Fiona quickly shows her strength of character by taming Martin's temper, when he puts the bartender in an impossible position and threatens to kill him. Fiona takes control and the bottle of wine that we saw at the beginning has the label placed on it and is put on the shelf.

Martin is given the order to kill boss Yam, and goes to where he is hiding out. While there he visits the same fortune teller as Jack did and noticing the wound in the teller's foot, Martin follows Jack's lead and shoots him in the other one. He and his men then piss against the same trees, marking the territory like animals. Lau Ching Wan is great here, playing the absurdity to perfection, a special mention here for Martin's white suit and hat together with purple shirt in this scene, very stylish!

From here A Hero never dies takes a seriously dark turn into a baroque nightmare of death and destruction, after the fun of the first half the movie gets right down to exposing its black heart. Jack organises his men to protect boss Yam in the motel they are staying in, from the incoming Martin and his team, a really tense and exciting shoot out ensues with men from both sides falling rapidly. Martin enters the fray in a sequence of iconic shots of Lau Ching Wan coming out of the rain in his cowboy hat with gun blazing. In the panic boss Yam shoots one of his own men in front of Jack, giving Leon Lai a chance to show he has been watching A Bullet in the head, as he does his best Tony Leung Chui Wai impression, this moment is as close to actual acting that the heavenly king gets in the movie. Another mention for the fantastic score here, with some great whistling for even more of a Morricone flavour. 

With Jack and Martin left for dead in the carnage, and even worse left betrayed by the surviving bosses, it's here Jack and Martin's women come into their own. With YoYo proving her previously unseen mettle in saving Jack from the assassins sent to finish him off at a massive personal cost. Fiona is the real revelation however, easily both the strongest character in the movie and the strongest female character in any of Johnnie To's crime films.  Resilient and loyal, as Martin crumbles after losing his legs, Fiona suffers all manner of indignities in order to help him back to Hong Kong. The Raymond Wong score here is amazing with an Edda Dell'Orso style vocal added, still with the Sukiyaki motif, it adds immeasurably to the melodrama on display with the shot of Martin being lifted by crane onto a ship back to Hong Kong being particularly striking. 

Fiona and YoYo's sacrifice inspire their broken men on to the path of vengeance, the two were always destined to be unified, united in their cause to take down the men that betrayed them and their brothers. Such is the hysterical fever pitch at this point that it doesn't matter if they are dead or alive.

Lau Ching Wan is amazing in this film, the switch from larger than life cowboy swagger and bravado of the first half to the almost wordless shell he becomes in the second, it's hard to imagine anyone else being able to come close to the range he shows here. This maybe the best performance of Lau Ching Wan's career. Johnnie To's skill at getting what he requires from his actors is well known and with Leon Lai, he took a hugely bankable but severely limited actor and got what he needed from him. By making Jack have so little to do, it hides Lai's shortcomings and provides contrast to Lau's Martin. Lai is actually quite brave in his performance, with everything going on around him, it must have been very difficult to do nothing.

A Hero never dies was To's first official directing credit for Milkyway image, and stylistically the film feels meticulously thought out. From the lighting by Cheng Siu Keung to the extreme widescreen framing and the incredible score, To intended to make the heroic bloodshed film to end them all. A film that comments on it's genre, from parody to eulogy and everything in between. This once most prominent of genres in Hong Kong cinema, deserted by fashion and the filmmakers who made it fashionable, perhaps A Hero never dies was the film that killed the genre, as looking at it now, what else is there left to say after this? Where else could it have gone?

The importance of Leone's influence on A Hero never dies cannot be underestimated, as much as it's a Hong Kong film, it's iconic imagery and use of music are hugely indebted to Il Maestro. To's movie does a similar thing to Leone's, where his movies were set in a hyperreal, filtered version of the American West, and commented on the legends and myths of the Western, so To's does a similar thing but for Hong Kong and it's own version of the western. A dark fairytale of gangster posturing and hysterical melodrama, the film cannot be viewed in realistic terms and this is where the film fails for many of it's detractors.

In time, A Hero never dies will maybe be seen for what it is, a flawed masterpiece. Few films are brave enough to take their genre to these extremes, this alone is reason enough to praise the film. The fact that even with how over the top it's melodrama is and with all it's ironic cool, I still find it so affecting, more so in fact every time I see it, which makes it a truly special movie. I'm struggling to think of any other films where such a mix of hot and cold actually works, A Hero never dies is the rare film that for me at least, can have it's cake and eat it.

First Year Anniversary For A Hero Never Dies. Woo Hoo!

To celebrate my first anniversary as a blogger, later on today I'll be posting my thoughts on Johnnie To's film that gave my blog it's name but before that I'd just like to take this opportunity to thank all the great people I've "met" in the blogging community, who have helped me so much over this past year.

I would also like to thank my wonderful wife, without her tireless effort to support me, the blog just wouldn't have been possible, she proof reads almost all the posts, without which, the syntax would be terrible!

It's passed so quickly, it's hard to believe I've been doing this for a year. I'd been toying around with the idea of putting something out there for a while but never committed to it, and finally started it as more of a distraction than anything else. Now I'm in a position where I no longer need the distraction, I'm in it purely for the enjoyment and the contact with all my friends, and I hope to continue to enjoy all your company for a long time to come.

Wednesday, November 16, 2011

Rubbish HK Movie Covers : Dragons Forever

There have been many terrible covers for Hong Kong film releases over the years, many of them have been for Infernal Affairs, but Jackie Chan has probably suffered the most overall. The cover for Cine Asia's reissue of the Hong Kong Legends dvd of Dragons Forever has probably the worst I've seen for a while.

Not only does it feature a complete lack of imagination but also some terrible photoshop work. It's not only the front that lets the release down. Of all the Chan movies to mention when talking about celebrating his action sequences, why the fuck do they mention these three movies? Surely anyone looking at buying Dragons Forever would be driven away by the mention of that threesome seen below.

Now, Dragons Forever has never had the best of graphic design lavished on it but Cine Asia's recycling of the already awful HKL artwork but at a seemingly lower quality level is dispiriting for a release labelled as an "Ultimate Edition".

Here are a few more examples of the lack of effort put into the releases of this film, but generally all Jackie's movies, particularly since the success of Rush Hour.

The only one I could find that I actually liked was this one for a French release.

While the cover maybe terrible, to give credit to Cine Asia, well Hong Kong Legends really, the dvd certainly lives up to it's name as an "Ultimate Edition" thanks to it's AV quality and it's copious extras shown below. I'd just like for these companies to put a little more thought into the covers, or even just use one of the original poster designs, rather than this photoshop crap. Don't even go near the photoshop crap as original posters!

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