Kin-lun Lam's directorial debut, 49 Days, is a gorgeous looking film that unfortunately suffers from some really disjointed storytelling and plot devices and an ending so contrived that it's actually painful to watch.
Set sometime in the past (the early 1900s?) the film tells the story of Lau Shing (Stephen Fung), a young man who is leaving the small country village where he was raised as well as his wife (!) to try his luck at city life. He's taking a couple of friends along with him for the ride and their plan is, once they arrive, to setup shop selling medicinal herbs. Before they leave they all get together for a big family portrait but the camera gets knocked over, a sign of bad luck and of things to come for Lau Shing and his pals.
From there we skip ahead a few years and Lau Shing's shop is doing very well. His wife keeps writing to him wondering when he'll come home to visit but he's too busy with his work for that to happen, but eventually, once his wife's behavior seems to become more erratic, he figures he should head back to pay her a visit. The night before he's to head back, he hits up a local tavern where he has a chance encounter with Susie (Debbie Goh) who just so happens to sell medicine from Europe and America. Susie falls fast in love with Lau Shing but he pushes her away and intends to take off the next day to return home. Eventually Susie ends up at Lau Shing's storage house where she runs into his brother in law, Pang Shi (Raymond Wong). The two of them hatch a plan to burn the building down so that he'll return and so that Pang Shi can cash in on some insurance pay offs. The fire starts and many of Lau Shing's co-workers who had been sleeping in the warehouse burn to death. Lau Shing shows up just in time for Pang Shi to blame him for the fire and he's subsequently arrested.
Once he's in prison, Lau Shing befriends a guard and somehow manages to get himself a pretty lawyer to take on his case though her interest in it isn't so much that she wants to free Lau Shing as she wants to prove herself to her father (Wong Yat Fei). The trial doesn't go well and so she decides to bring Susie in to help her but she's disappeared. They lose the trial and Lau Shing is going to be sentenced to death – or so we think. The lawyer gets injured only to be woken up by a phone call from Susie and the day is saved when somehow a magic hole opens up in the wall of Lau Shing's cell that transports him back to his old country village. When he arrives the cute lawyer and some of Lau Shing's friends are there and they intend to clear his name once and for all by proving that Pang Shi was the one who really set the fire.
What a beautiful looking film 49 Days is. It's very slick, quite colorful and makes excellent use of shadow and light to ensure that everything drips with atmosphere. Too bad the plot jumps around so much from comedy to drama to horror to action then back to comedy then to mystery that it really doesn't end up making a whole lot of sense. There are too many plot holes and disjointed subplots in this film for it to really work, which is a shame as everything looks fantastic and by rooting the story in some interesting Chinese mythology the script could have had some real potential.
Tai Seng's 1.85.1 anamorphic widescreen transfer is quite nice. Some sections are a little dark but this looks to be a stylistic choice on the part of the director and the cinematographer, and not so much a fault of the actual disc itself (you'll notice this during some of the spookier scenes). There aren't any problems with compression artifacts, the image is strong and clean from start to finish, and print damage is not an issue either. Some mild edge enhancement is noticeable as is some line shimmering along the edges of the buildings in the movie from time to time but other than that, this is quite a solid presentation. Skin tones look lifelike and natural, color reproduction is good, black levels are strong and stable, and aside from the aforementioned darker scenes, there's a pretty strong level of both foreground and background detail in the picture.
There are three audio mixes supplied on this release. In Cantonese there is a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix, and a DTS 5.1 Surround Sound mix and in Mandarin there is a Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround Sound mix. Optional subtitles are available in English and in Chinese. Audio quality on this set is very nice indeed, with the DTS 5.1 mix getting the slight edge over the competing tracks. Bass response is lively and strong, especially during some of the more action and horror intensive scenes and the dialogue comes through loud and clear and is never overshadowed by sound effects or background music. The subtitles are easy to read though there are definitely some odd phrasings from time to time as well as some legitimately confusing typos.
The only extra features on the first disc are a handful of trailers for unrelated films and some animated menus and chapter selection options. That means that the rest of the supplements are on the second disc, which starts off with a Making Of 49 Days featurette that clocks in at just under ten-minutes in length. In this piece we learn about where the idea for the story came from and we see the cast preparing for the shoot by praying at a Buddhist temple.
After that we're privy to some Behind The Scenes footage which is presented here with out much context or narration of any kind but which serves to at least give us a look at how things went down on set during the production. A collection of outtakes and a music video close things out.
While the presentation that 49 Days has received on this DVD is quite nice (and pretty much identical to the Hong Kong release) with both excellent audio and video quality and a few extras on top, the film itself is a mess. It's a very pretty mess, but it's a mess never the less. It might be worth a rental if you're really into stylish cinematography and set design and don't care so much about the narrative but otherwise, you're best to leave this one alone.
Ian lives in NYC with his wife where he writes for DVD Talk, runs Rock! Shock! Pop!. He likes NYC a lot, even if it is expensive and loud.