Tuesday, December 9, 2014

Am I Dreaming? A Hero Never Dies On Blu Ray

What's this, a new post? What could possibly have awoken me from my blogging slumber? It's only news of a Japanese blu ray release of Johnnie To's A Hero Never Dies, that's what! Is this some kind of a Christmas miracle?

A huge thank you to Donlee, who absolutely made my day this morning by emailing to let me know this is happening. Further digging provided info that the film is currently on a limited re-release in Japanese cinemas (Oh I wish I was in Japan right now), before it makes the jump to blu ray early in the new year courtesy of Amazing D.C.

Of course the disc isn't English friendly, but that has never stopped me before and there is no way in hell it's going to stop me from picking this up. I've already started work on the subtitle file in eager anticipation. While many people are counting down the days to Christmas, I'm counting down the days to this dropping through my letterbox.

What chance now of The Mission I wonder?

Sunday, September 21, 2014

The Mission VCD Extra Subtitles

I'm not sure what prompted me to do it, but the other day I gave the Mei Ah vcd of Johnnie To's The Mission a spin. This vcd was how I saw the film for the first time, and I haven't watched it on this format ever since, so I was surprised to see that it contains subtitles not present in any of the dvd versions I've ever seen. As you will see in the screenshots below, these are timed with the opening sequence in which the characters played by Lam Suet, Anthony Wong and Roy Cheung are introduced.

The subtitles on vcd releases were usually the same ones featured on the film's theatrical prints, so does anyone remember if they were present when the movie played in Hong Kong's cinemas? I've seen the film theatrically, but I was feeling such euphoria at seeing it on the big screen that I can't remember if they were present or not. I'm guessing not as I'm sure I would have noticed, but then again...

Sunday, August 17, 2014

Found In My Locker Clearout

Following on from my Draconian Days post, I found an old newsletter from the guy who I bought my HK movies from. It's from Aug/Sept 1997 and is something of a relic of the time, with the films being on VHS and "Laserdisc prints" mentioned as though they're the latest thing. This was just before the internet became the norm and dvd began to take off. I've included only the first two pages and masked the guy's contact information to spare his modesty.

Interesting to note that just after the handover the guy is already mentioning about the "scene being slow at the mo!" and unfortunately it hasn't got any better in the following 17 years. Previous "issues" had much more Hong Kong related info, unfortunately I no longer have any of those.

£10 per film for a VHS copy, wow!

Sunday, August 3, 2014

Video Nasties : Draconian Days And My Own Experience Of The Hysteria

Nucleus films recently released the sequel to their hugely popular Video Nasties : The definitive guide, which features Jake West's follow up to his earlier documentary Video Nasties : Moral Panic, Censorship & Videotape (which I covered here). West's new film titled Draconian Days follows directly on and takes us right up to 1999 when James Ferman, then head of the BBFC retired. I'm not going in depth on Draconian Days, just sharing a few thoughts before talking about my own experiences of the time.

Draconian Days has a similar mix as the earlier documentary of archive and film clips, interspersed with talking head footage, and the two films would blend together almost seamlessly as a double bill. The film spends much of it's running time focusing on Ferman and his reign as head of the BBFC. I know many horror fans, myself included, demonised Ferman throughout this period, as the UK was subjected to some of the most stringent cutting in the Western world. Horror fans would begin frothing at the mouth at the mere mention of his name, and to some extent he did himself no favours with his superior attitude and seemingly utter contempt for the proletariat. Famously when speaking about the reasons for refusing a certificate for The Texas Chainsaw Massacre he said "It's alright for middle class cineastes to see this film, but what would happen if a factory worker in Manchester happened to see it?". How that alone didn't create riots in the streets is a wonder to me. Ferman also had serious problems with particular content in film, famously sexual violence and weaponry, particularly knives but especially anything from the martial arts. The latter of which were cut without question, regardless of what type of film they were featured in.

The documentary actually treats Ferman in a pretty fair way, highlighting not just the negatives of his time, but also the work he did to prevent the escalation of hysteria surrounding the James Bulger murder, when the press went completely barmy all over again. We should all be thankful of Ferman's presence when it came to David Alton's frankly idiotic bill, that effectively tried to ban anything above a PG rating for home viewing. It says a lot about a country when you have MPs like Alton, so desperate to make a name for himself, going to the lengths he did in the name of self promotion. It makes me wonder just who votes these idiots in, oh yeah it's us!

At this point the film changes focus and edges more towards fan service, as the underground tape trading circuit is covered. The frustration of being unable to view the films you wanted to see in their uncut form led to an explosion of illegal trading, helped by the thriving fanzine scene. Place a classified ad in the zine of your choice and wait for the postman to deliver list after list of rarities. I did get a real nostalgia fueled buzz from this section of the film, but I question whether it should have been in there. I feel it would have worked better as an extra rather than as part of the film, but that's just my opinion, I had a great time watching it.

We then go back to Ferman and the decision that brought his demise, as he seemingly became more and more autocratic. He made the decision to legalise hard porn, something he did without much in the way of discussion, and that was pretty much that, the decision upset the wrong people and although he got his way he was quickly emptying his desk afterwards.

Overall what strikes you when watching Draconian Days is the quality of the journalism. It's a hot topic at the moment for me, just how terrible reporting has become, both in print and on TV. This highlights in many ways how this is nothing new. With knee jerk reactions to awful events proving to whip up a frenzy of disinformation and outright lies and stupidity, and normally sensible people losing their heads in the frenzy of hysteria.

My own experience of the madness began with a knock at the door on a Friday afternoon, it was the police. At the time I was still living with my parents, they knew I was tape trading, but weren't bothered by it, at least until the knock at the door. Two C.I.D officers asked for me, luckily it was my father who answered, rather than my mother. He was calm as he asked the officers what was going on. This gave me time to bolt upstairs to stop the whirring vcrs from copying whatever it was for whoever. I was petrified, panicking I literally ripped the cables out of the back of the top deck and threw it under the bed, because of course no one would think to look there would they? At that point I thought about trying to hide the tapes that were on show, but where? As sense was beginning to return to my brain I realised I wasn't going to be able to hide them and that I was running out of time. The two officers came upstairs to my bedroom, had  a cursory glance around and then asked if I knew a specific person. I remember saying no, because in the moment I genuinely didn't remember. They jogged my memory by showing me a photocopy of my letter to him. They then asked which of the video nasties I had. Sensing their hearts really weren't in it, I told them I had only two, taking The Evil Dead and Zombie Flesh Eaters (complete with b&w photocopied covers) from the shelf and handing them over.

Ah, the old vcr balancing act. A familiar setup to many involved in tape trading I'm sure.

At this point, I thought about the letter and where the hell my correspondence was. If this was how they were working through the network it was important they didn't get hold of mine. To my horror, it was just laying there in full view, on the bed, the folder open with letters on show. As casually as I could I moved to position myself where I was blocking it from their view, hoping they hadn't seen it yet. Fortunately, they didn't conduct any kind of search, they said they'd seen enough and that we could carry on the conversation downstairs. As they left the room I grabbed the folder, stashed it out of the way, took a deep breath and followed.

Nasties such as The Killer and Gone In 60 Seconds. Great job!

From there I was told I would need to make a formal statement at the station, and then depending on if a prosecution was going to go ahead I may be called as a witness in court. In the end they didn't even confiscate The Evil Dead or Z.F.E, instead leaving them with my father, like I was a naughty child!  Later that evening I went to the station, father in tow. Before going in, he gave me some of the best advice I've ever had, "Say as little as possible, don't speak unless they ask you a question and if you can answer with one word, do so." It was probably pretty mild as far as these things go, but I felt like I'd been grilled for two hours when it was over. They spent almost as much time asking what was wrong with me (because I liked horror films) as they did about the actual details of the case being investigated.

The notorious Dr.Giggles, Dirty Harry and Pantyhose Hero. Oh the horror!

Over the next couple of weeks as more and more raids took place, hitting the headlines in typically hyperbolic style (I remember seeing footage with where they'd confiscated that well known video nasty Assault On Precinct 13), my paranoia grew and grew. After my close shave and pure luck in avoiding a similar fate due to the complete lack of interest of the officers assigned to question me, my thoughts began to drift to the others who had been raided. What if they hadn't been quite so lucky as I had? What if they'd left correspondence in plainsight? Could I expect another visit? Surely if I popped up on the radar again, they have to look deeper into it? I'd been warned by my father to cease anything and everything to do with the trading, but he stopped short of telling me to lose the tape collection. This wasn't really necessary as I was still absolutely terrified, and as a precaution I stashed the tapes at a friend's house who wasn't involved in the scene. As for the correspondence, I burned it and hoped all my fellow traders had done the same, and that was that, my tape trading days were over.

I was lucky this didn't happen to me.

As my paranoia began to fade (although my heart jumped whenever there was an unexpected knock at the door), I heard nothing for months, thinking the case had fallen apart and it had all blown over, I began to relax. Out of the blue I got a phone call requesting my presence in court. I had that familiar sinking feeling again. I'm quite shy and absolutely hate any form of public speaking, so the thought of giving evidence in front of a court full of people was far more terrifying than any of the horror films I've seen before or since. The thought that I could be at least partially responsible for sending someone to prison for no more a crime than trading a few video cassettes was gut wrenching. The first day of the case, another witness failed to turn up, which for anyone who doesn't know is a huge issue, with appropriate consequences without an extremely good reason. So after a day of sitting around, I was told I'd have to go back the next day as well, great! On the second day, everyone was there and I gave my evidence, being careful of what I said to make the testimony as favourable as I could. In truth, it was nowhere near as horrible (from a personal point of view at least) as I'd anticipated, but the whole experience soured my feelings towards horror and for a short while at least, film altogether. Of course it didn't last long, as my love for Hong Kong cinema re-kindled my passion for film in general, but I was buying vhs copies of the latest HK movies rather than trading.

I never did find out what happened to the guy in the dock, I'd like to think that common sense prevailed, but sense, common or otherwise was in desperately short supply during this period, with MPs and journalists (and perhaps even judges) falling over themselves to jump on the gravy train of publicity that was the video nasty.

Saturday, July 19, 2014

School On Fire Composite Version

Earlier this week an "uncut" composite version of Ringo Lam's School On Fire appeared on a certain cult movie tracker. Created and uploaded by someone known as Clarence, this version painstakingly splices the cut sequences from the Tai Seng vhs (apparently the only uncut release of the film anywhere) into the Joy Sales dvd. That dvd was the edition I viewed when I reviewed Lam's film here. (Check the comments section for details of a similar project that was shown in a theatre no less.)The additional footage is obviously of a lower quality than the dvd's quality, however to get the chance to see this footage within the context of the film is something very special indeed.

The sequences inserted back into the film are briefly described here, needless to say this post contains HUGE SPOILERS, so if you haven't seen the film yet stop here!

During the sequence near the beginning showing the different classrooms, an extra class is shown where the teacher engages a pupil in a conversation where the student talks about gambling. In the class where someone has drawn a condom on the blackboard, the teacher asks who is responsible and gives what will become her stock punishment of a 1000 lines of what is written on the board. The text is untranslated.

In the sequence that kick starts the film's plot, Lam Keung and Scar brawl in the street, during the fight Scar smashes Lam Keung's head through a car window. A cut is re-inserted here showing him pull a knife out of his schoolbag before setting off in pursuit of Scar. When he catches up, the fight carries on and we see Scar dodge a kick from Lam Keung, that knocks a pregnant woman down a flight of subway steps. A shot of Lam Keung using the knife to slice at Scar's hands is also added.

Wan and Chu Yuen Fong are summoned by Suave to meet him in the street, Wan asks what's the matter? then tells Chu to get back, before one of Suave's henchmen pushes Wan. At the end of this sequence a further shot is added of Suave flicking his cigarette butt in Wan's face.

As Suave brings Chu Yuen Fong back to the rooftop hangout, the scene of 3 triads playing cards is extended with shots of them preparing drugs. Later in the same sequence as Suave enters, a shot is added of him pulling a quilt off a bed to uncover four (underage?) in a bed.

As Chu Yuen Fong is about to dump Scar, she's informed that he's providing money to pay back her debt to suave.

During a nightclub sequence, Suave comments further on George's abilities with the ladies, and how his men could learn more from him.

After Suave throws Chu's father over the barrier and onto the pineapple cart, a few more seconds are added as he is restrained from attacking Suave. An extra shot of Chu's father being stabbed is also added.

When Suave is released by the police and goes back to the nightclub, Chu follows and there is an added shot of her pulling a knife and attempting to stab Suave. In the ensuing brawl, a further shot is added of Scar launching himself with the knife to stab Suave.

As the police become involved in the scrap, we see a little more footage of Bull being stabbed and slashed on the nightclub stairs.

When Suave makes a run for it, there are two brief additions of Wan, Chu and Scar's pursuit into and through a restaurant.

As Suave overpowers Chu and his henchmen hold Scar, Suave tears at Chu's clothes as he threatens to rape her. Added footage here shows Suave going further by tearing off Chu's panties and using them to wipe blood from his face, before throwing them at Scar while taunting him.

Finally, footage of Suave falling onto the spikes on the school wall is added, and held with blood trickling down over the Chinese characters (untranslated) fixed to the wall.

At this point I'd like to thank Clarence for his time and considerable effort in putting this project together. While far from a perfect way to see a film, this kind of composite edit is nevertheless invaluable for films like School On Fire that are unlikely to ever be seen complete again otherwise.

What difference do the re-instated cuts make to the film? That's a difficult question, on the one hand not as much as you may think. Yes, some of the added footage is shocking, and it's not hard to see why the censors were so upset by the film, but Lam's film was (and still is) so powerful and incendiary anyway, it could be argued little is actually added by re-instating the cuts. On the other hand it's important to remember this is as close as we're likely to see to the filmmaker's original bleak vision, and regardless of opinion on the footage itself, that is what really matters. In my opinion making this fan project one of the most significant "releases" of the year.

In addition to the film itself, Clarence adds a few "extras" at the end of the film, including the alternate opening credits from the vhs. The best of the extras is a translation of the scene from right at the start of the film where George reads from a magazine or comic. This sequence is untranslated on the dvd, but is subtitled on the vhs. It would have been better perhaps if this had been incorporated into the composite version, but at least it's there in some form. For anyone who is interested the full translation is below.

Saturday, April 26, 2014

Craft Corner : Making Laserdisc Covers

Well, this is as craft orientated as A Hero Never Dies is ever likely to be anyway!

A huge part of the never ending appeal of the laserdisc format is it's glorious artwork. If that is missing as it was for these discs I got a while back from Kingwho?, then it's just not the same. It's still all kinds of cool, but I NEED covers for them, otherwise I'm left with an uncomfortable itch I just can't scratch. So how to solve the problem?

While scouring the Hong Kong streets for rare movies and other swag, I came across the vcd release of The Underground Banker, and had the idea of using the cover artwork to fashion a sleeve for the laserdisc. As a vcd cover is roughly square, it should make for a pretty good fit.

I found a photo printing company who do 12" by 12" prints, scanned the cover at a ridiculously high resolution and sent the file, a few days later a tube arrived with two prints. They offered two types of paper, so I ordered one of each to see which looked better. In addition I got some plastic record sleeves via ebay to hold the cover and protect the disc. Here is the result, my "new" Underground Banker LD.

I'm not completely happy with the result, it turns out the vcd sleeve wasn't exactly square, which resulted in the one edge of the image being slightly cropped off. The 12" size isn't quite right either, the print needed to be slightly larger, but the company I used doesn't do the correct size. I was happy enough with it to try again though, but rather than farm the job out I bought this beast of a printer to do my own prints. It will print at the A3+ size meaning 13" by 19", so 13" by 13" is possible which is a much better fit. Not only that but it scans at A3 size, meaning a laserdisc cover will almost fit. The downside is the size of the thing, the printer is huge and the box is about the size of a small barge!

Going into anything like this inevitably results in a few teething problems and the first couple I did myself aren't quite right either. The size is perfect but the paper I used turned out to be not so great, they look good but having used a matt paper they lack a certain vibrancy due to the paper absorbing the ink a little too much. I think I may have been better off with a semi gloss finish, some of which is on it's way, and hopefully that will help create the finished article.

Here are the two I've completed with the printer, Street Of Fury (From the vcd) and Chungking Express (From the Ocean Shores dvd).

If anyone can help me out with vcd cover scans (600dpi should do) for The Private Eye Blues, Sexy And Dangerous, Days Of Being Wild and Happy Together, I'd be very grateful.

Saturday, April 19, 2014

Dante Lam's That Demon Within

The closing film at the 38th Hong Kong film festival, Dante Lam's crime thriller That Demon Within sees him re-team with frequent collaborator Nick Cheung. Who recently made the headlines after winning the best actor award at the 2014 Hong Kong film awards for his last movie with Lam, 2013's Unbeatable. Despite Cheung sharing top billing here, it's actually Daniel Wu who takes the lead in Lam's latest, with Hong Kong's "best actor" having surprisingly little screen time.

Dave Wong (Daniel Wu) is a troubled police officer, a loner whose only friend is an old lady he calls granny. Shunted from precinct to precinct due to perceived mental problems, he winds up stationed at a police box inside a hospital. Wong is inextricably drawn into a violent armed robbery case when Hon (Nick Cheung), the cop killing leader of the gang of robbers, is seriously injured while trying to escape the scene of a heist, and is brought to Wong's hospital. Wong unwittingly provides the blood to save Hon's life, who subsequently escapes to continue his brutal work, leaving more cops and innocent bystanders dead. Berated by his peers for having saved the killer, Wong's already damaged and fragile psyche is pushed ever closer to the edge as he sets out to make amends.

That Demon Within is dark, black as night dark. Lam smothers his film in the iconography of death, from the obvious horrific violence to the more subtle references and everything in between, this film drips with it. As a result audiences will inevitably be divided by it. Seriously, look elsewhere for a good time! In spite of a few flaws, That Demon Within is an impressive addition to Lam's filmography. It looks superb, with a heavy oppressive atmosphere generated by the visuals, enhanced by an interesting score. The problems with the film are in the screenplay, the story feels somewhat confused, as though the psychological elements and the narrative were difficult to meld. This is perhaps not surprising given the attempt to mix cop thriller with horror, Chinese myth and superstition with true crime (inspired by Tsui Po Ko, a police officer turned bank robber and cop killer) along with the psychological theme. It's an admirable effort but it lacks the required focus and intricacy to deliver on it's ambition, resulting in a tacked on explanation after the narrative has played out, which doesn't feel quite right.

That Demon Within feels as though with a little more polish on it's screenplay it could have been a great film, rather than the decent effort it is. Once again the use of cg has to be mentioned. I understand audiences demand ever more spectacular sights in film, but really if the cg isn't up to standard then why bother? It takes the audience out of the movie, and almost ruins That Demon Within's hellish finale. That being said Lam's film is great looking, exciting and always interesting, it delivers something that feels fresh, never easy in the cops and robbers genre. It will be interesting to see where Lam goes next, given just how different That Demon Within is to the crowd pleasing Unbeatable, on the strength of this film, I'll be along for the ride.

That Demon Within was released on 18.04.2014 in Hong Kong and on selected screens in the US courtesy of China Lion Film.

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