When I first received the disc for 49 Days, I was unfamiliar with the film, so I turned the box over to read the description on the back. What I found was a long, jumbled summary that didn't make a lot of sense. The best I could figure was that it was some kind of crime and/or legal thriller with supernatural elements. I blamed the incoherence of the summary on bad translation.
I was wrong.
The reason the box description of 49 Days makes no sense is because the movie makes no sense. In fact, I give whoever put the package together credit for getting as close to sorting it all out as they did.
Let's see if I can do better.
Lau Shing (Stephen Fung) is leaving his provincial village to go to the big city, where he will set up a business selling medicine made from traditional Chinese herbs. He is taking several of his fellow villagers with him, making it a sort of family affair. Women cry to see their men go, but spirits are light enough to take a group photo--only the picture never gets taken. A bumbling pal knocks over the camera, a bad omen for the trip to come. At this point, we're watching a family drama.
Jump ahead four years, and Lau Shing's business is flourishing. He hasn't been home the entire time, however, and his wife's letters are becoming increasingly strange. Though his brother in law, Pang Shi (Raymond Wong), urges him to stay, Lau decides to visit his family. On the eve of his departure, he goes to a night club, where he is coaxed into a romantic dinner with Susie (Debbie Goh), a dealer in Western medicine. She has a crush on Lau and doesn't want him to go. To ease the sting of his refusal, she goes to his warehouse to wander around for no real reason, running into Pang and his gas can. He's going to burn the building down, and he thinks he and Susie now have converging interests, as she wants Lau to stay and he wants money. How these two things connect is not explained to the audience, but given that we are now watching a mystery/thriller, presumably we will find out.
The warehouse catches fire, and the rest of Lau's cohorts are trapped inside, since apparently they all live there, too. They run around and start to burn to death in a couple of scenes of spectacularly excessive gore. Lau turns into an action hero, leaping across rooftops to get into the warehouse, something not even the firemen manage to do. Somehow, he gets back out. I don't remember exactly how that happened, but suffice to say, he's the only one who did. The firemen find the gas can, Pang fingers Lau, and then he's on trial for his life.
Still with me? Because we haven't even reached the half hour mark!
Lau Shing's guard in prison owes him for taking care of his mother, so he helps the herbalist by going to his friend, Lam Siu Chin (Gillian Chung), who just happens to be the cutest inexperienced attorney in town. The only thing is, Lam is starring in a screwball comedy, so she doesn't want to take this dreadfully serious murder case. Only when she urinates too close to where her father (Shaolin Soccer's Wong Yat Fei) is burying his own father and messes up the feng shui of the sacred site, unleashing a flock of ravens so dense they black out the sky, does she agree to take the case, figuring when she springs Lau it will prove she's not a screw-up. Little does she know, however, she has now stepped into Silence of the Lambs (dear editor, don't let me make a pun out of the lawyer's name here) and when she walks in the prison, some dude is going to grab her through the bars and lick her neck. Ewwwwww!
Naturally, she screws up the trial, as she seems to just sit around and wait for Susie--who we're now told has disappeared--to show up. She sees Susie once or twice, but it's clear to us that Susie is a ghost, so it's hard to tell why Lam keeps thinking Susie will answer the subpoena. When the disgruntled judge can gruntle no more, he convicts Lau, leaving Lam with only five days to make her appeal before Lau is sentenced to death. Too bad she falls in a giant plothole in the middle of the street, bumps her head, and enters a coma! Thankfully for all involved, Lam is due a break, so a phone call from Susie wakes her up on the day that Lau is going to have his head and body forcibly separated, leaving her with just enough time for her to somehow arrange for the executioner to make some incantation so that a hole of light opens up in the wall, and Lau runs through it into the forest outside his village. Lam is waiting for him there, and they are going to clear his name Scooby-Doo-style, going up against the evil Pang, who is actually hanging out in a yakuza picture where he owes a bunch of money for gambling debts. As if that weren't enough, we're soon going to find out that Lam's family is living a movie directed by M. Night Shyamalan.
By the way, did I mention this might be a period piece? The camera in the opening is one of those ancient kinds where the photographer hides under a sheet to take a picture, and I don't recall seeing any cars. Similarly, no phones or other means of speedily sending messages back and forth between town and the boondocks. Lam has some really nice business suits, however, so maybe she has a time machine that takes her to the dressing room at Contempo Casual.
If you've made it this far, don't worry, you only have half an hour left before the whole thing collides into one completely asinine climax. I've even saved a ton of surprises for you should you decide to wade into this genre swamp. 49 Days is the directorial debut of Kin-lun Lam, and hopefully the cinematic slaughter will stop here. To be fair, he's not completely without skill, as 49 Days has style to spare. Of course, just like everything else in this production, he doesn't actually apply it sparingly. Random bursts of slow-motion or sped-up stock are peppered throughout to no real effect, De Palma-esque split screen is used for when Lau walks the Green Mile, and occasionally the director even indulges in CG. This over-the-top showboating is really unnecessary, since all the average shots are actually pretty nice. The film is lit like the world is full of neon, which again makes zero sense if 49 Days is a period piece, but it shore is purty.
The subtitles are incredibly bad, perhaps in an attempt to allow English-speaking audiences to view this as a comedy. Just what exactly is Pang doing when he is "percolating public funds," for instance? It sounds pretty awful, whatever it is. Similarly, for a movie that relies so much on math, they could have sprung to buy the translator a calculator. The magic invoked to allow Lau Shing to keep going after his death sentence mentions he has "7 times 7 of 49 days," but I gathered from the later urgency of the situation that it actually is really only two weeks. Also, Chun Bo (Law Mon), the executioner (or, in this case, "executor," which I think means he will handle Lau's estate after chopping off his head), says that karmically he must retire before his death toll exceeds 100. Lau is his 99th straight kill--which doesn't stop Chun from sparing Pang's life at the climax so he doesn't go over his limit. 49 days is really two weeks, and 100 kills is really 99 in this crazy mixed-up world!
The DVD transfer of 49 Days is actually really good. The colors are vibrant, and given Kin-lun Lam's aforementioned penchant for high gloss, this at least puts the film's best foot forward. The picture is formatted for anamorphic widescreen (no aspect ration is given), and the disc is all-region, NTSC.
Be forewarned, the menu on the main disc is extremely annoying, as it opens with audio of Lau's daughter sniveling from midway through the movie. It's like having icicles stabbed into your ears. Also, the selections are printed on a piece of paper resembling the letter sent to Lau on his wife, and as you can see in the screencap, the words end up appearing extremely small on your TV.
Viewers can choose between a Dolby 5.1 or DTS sound mix of the original Cantonese track, and a 5.1 mix of a Mandarin audio track. There are three subtitle categories to choose from: Traditional Chinese, Simplified Chinese, and English.
Disc one only has a small amount of extras: two trailers for 49 Days and some for a handful of other movies. Disc two is entirely special features, some of which are subtitled in English, some of which are not. A cursory 9-minute "Making Of" gives a little background on the folk tale that inspired the film, and shows the crew going to a Buddhist temple to pray for a good shoot. They also covered the cameras with red cloth to bring the endeavor good luck--which never makes up for lack of a good script. Strangely, only the narration on the feature is subtitled in English, and all the actual talking during pre-production meetings and on set is not. On the other hand, the CEN television special on 49 Days is much more in-depth, going over several aspects of the various supernatural elements of the story, including explaining the true nature of those 49 days. These are all fully subtitled, and actually rather interesting. Addendums in this section include cast and crew interviews, but with no English. (It's a constant adventure! You never know what's around the next menu!)
Additionally, there is a rather unfunny blooper real, a couple of short promotional bumpers with more behind-the-scenes footage, a music video, and text filmographies of the cast and crew. All but the latter two have English subtitles.
The outer packaging for the 49 Days DVD is given a real high-end treatment. The film comes in a glossy slipcover with full-sized color images. Inside the plastic case, there is a foldable game board, a miniature die, and game pieces for Lau, Lam, Pang, and Lau's daughter. The game board features all the main characters of the movie, and I think you are trying to lead Lau from his earthly life to some kind of mystical paradise. If there are any instructions, they are in Chinese, however, and to be honest, I don't think the board really says very much. Too bad. The DVD manufacturers could have used the game to help us figure out just what the hell is going on around here.
A pretty nice job is done on a DVD for a movie that really never deserved to be put on DVD in the first place. There aren't enough hours in your life for this kind of thing, so if you see 49 Days at your local video store, I hope for your sake a big hole of light opens up in the wall so that you can jump into it and escape this awful movie. Skip It.
Jamie S. Rich is a novelist and comic book writer. He is best known for his collaborations with Joelle Jones, including the hardboiled crime comic book You Have Killed Me, the challenging romance 12 Reasons Why I Love Her, and the 2007 prose novel Have You Seen the Horizon Lately?, for which Jones did the cover. All three were published by Oni Press. His most recent projects include the futuristic romance A Boy and a Girl with Natalie Nourigat; Archer Coe and the Thousand Natural Shocks, a loopy crime tale drawn by Dan Christensen; and the horror miniseries Madame Frankenstein, a collaboration with Megan Levens. Follow Rich's blog at Confessions123.com.