Hong Kong 1941
Without a film by John Woo or Tsui Hark in the bunch, this selection of films from the now-passed high point of Hong Kong action movies is hardly definitive. They are, however, a great cross-section of HK film over fifteen years, just before the migration of talent to Hollywood and the handover of Hong Kong to China ended the golden age.
The oldest film in the bunch, 1980’s Magnificent Butcher, is also the best, a showcase for Sammo Hung, a contemporary of Jackie Chan though much less known in the west. The wonder of watching Hung in action is the spectacle of this graceless, barrel-chested man turning into a kung fu dynamo. The plot is the usual rustic comic revenge plot, but the fight scenes are classics, the chop-sockey equivalent of classic Fred and Ginger.
Jackie Chan’s City Hunter and the erotic thriller Naked Killer, both from 1992, are from the other end of the era, when a slick urban look had taken over the industry, and Hong Kong seemed intent on portraying itself as the city where the 80s never died. City Hunter is a profoundly silly film, an adaptation of a comic book with Chan as a womanizing private detective, but it has to be seen for the fight scene inspired by the arcade video game Mortal Kombat.
Magnificent Warriors and Hong Kong 1941, starring Michelle Yeoh and Chow Yun-Fat respectively, are HK takes on the brutal Japanese invasion of China before and during World War Two. One is a pretty standard action epic, the other a melodrama with the occasional fight scene, and they both showcase the rather loose approach to historical accuracy typical of HK cinema. Yeoh is, as usual, a joy to watch in Magnificent Warriors, which has the dubious distinction of being the most pyrotechnic of the five films.
Some care has been taken with these discs - the remastering is a revelation for those of us used to indifferent bootleg tapes of these films, and each disc includes at least a collection of stills, posters, and production notes. Interviews with cast and crew on some discs are quite revealing, as when Yeoh and Chan compare Hollywood with Hong Kong’s film business, and give HK credit for real creativity and spontaneity in creating action scenes, along with a relaxed attitude towards safety that results in the occasional concussion or broken bone.
The Life of David Gale
It’s hard to decide whether Alan Parker’s obvious political agenda compromised the mechanistic thriller that is The Life of David Gale or vice versa, but the fact is that Parker’s film essay on the death penalty succeeds as neither a murder thriller nor a political polemic.
Kevin Spacey plays a disgraced professor and death penalty opponent on Texas’ death row for the apparent rape and murder of a colleague. Kate Winslet plays the cynical but principled reporter who’s been assigned to interview him on the eve of his execution. There is, no surprise, something fishy about Gale’s crime, and Winslet has to beat the clock to find evidence to clear him.
The twist ending - nowhere near as shocking as it was supposed to be - effectively paints anti-death penalty activists as zealots, which might be what deflates both the suspense and the sense of outrage that Parker obviously wanted to fuel his film. By the end, though, a combination of Spacey’s baleful acting and plotting that makes Winslet look like a fool has already neatly hobbled the movie.
Includes director’s commentary, deleted scenes, and the sort of “making of” featurette where cast and crew congratulate each other on their moral bravery in making the film.
Night and Fog
To really appreciate its power, you have to imagine yourself watching Alain Resnais’ short but brutal 1955 film on the Nazi death camps without the deep visual memory we’ve all acquired of the Holocaust. Ten years after the end of the war, people were still trying to forget what had been discovered on the march to Berlin, and images of corpses and crematoria were still so shocking as to be considered unbelievable.
Resnais, with camp survivor and novelist Jean Cayrol providing the starkly poetic narration, wanted to shove the facts back in the public’s face, and if a half hour seems like a scant feature to put on a disc, keep in mind that it was more than most people could take fifty years ago. Criterion has filled out the package with a radio interview with Resnais, and priced the package cheaper than usual, making this haunting document a must-own.
The basic attraction of a film like Jonas Akerlund’s Spun, a day in the life of a group of California speed freaks, is the spectacle of glamorous young actresses like Brittany Murphy and Mena Suvari throwing themselves at the task of looking like ropy, skanky, diseased crank addicts.
For real connoisseurs of Hollywood tragedies, the performances of Hollywood living dead like Mickey Rourke and Eric Roberts will provide the draw. Akerlund and his cast do an admirable job of evoking the fantastic squalor of the committed junkie, but the film doesn’t escape the taint of play-acting, of vicarious sleaze and cinematic slumming. Includes a bare bones menus of special features, including unremarkable deleted scenes, trailers and a music video.