On paper, Herman Yau's Rebellion sounds like a can't lose scenario. A gritty, violent looking tale of triad loyalty set on the mean streets of Hong Kong's Eastern District with a strong cast directed by the man who gave us The Ebola Syndrome and The Untold Story? Sign me up. That lovely red triangle with the CAT III logo on the box serves as a veritable guarantee of bloody action - maybe some bullet ballet, maybe some nasty hand to hand combat, there's gotta be some bloodshed in here, right? It's a Herman Yau Category III gangster movie, how can it go wrong?
The story takes places right when a triad leader named Jimmy is murdered. His right hand man, Po (Shawn Yue), is stuck with having to take on the role of leadership that his former boss has since left empty until his successor, Mrs. Wah (Ada Choi), who happens to be Jimmy's widow, returns back from her travels. At this point, she'll gather up the other four local area triad bosses and they'll elect an official replacement. Po's temporary position of power upsets Blackie, (Chapman To), an up and coming player in the gang world, and Blackie feels that according to the rules under which the gang's operate, he should have gotten the position in Po's place. With this in mind, Blackie decides it's time to show the current, older reigning triad bosses that a change in leadership is long past due.
As Po goes about trying to figure out the details behind his boss' death and drinking far too much for his own good, Blackie begins forging alliances with some of the other triad players in hopes of swinging them to his side. Once he gets a bit of momentum going, he finds himself in the middle of a gang war. The territory finds itself split wide open with warring factions contesting rights and Po caught in the middle of it all.
Rebellion starts off strongly enough with a great set up and a very memorable introduction for Po (he gets loaded and pukes everywhere) but once the set up, as good as it is, is established the plot starts to wander in too many directions at once. Unlike Johnnie To's Election films, which benefit from the large cast of characters and multilayered plots, Yau's film winds up more than a bit disjointed and the last half feels rushed and messy.
What saves the film and makes it worth watching are a few key qualities. First off is Shawn Yu as Po, the man who finds himself in the middle of this mess that he really didn't expect to be involved with in the first place. His performance is very strong, subtle enough that you can believe him in the role but at times, tough and slick enough that, yeah, this guy is definitely right to play a young triad type (or at least the cinematic version of one). As the lead, Yu is very good and while the rest of the supporting cast is also strong, here he shines and he's the best part of the movie. Also interesting are a few moments of interaction between the various characters. Yau's horror films, often dismissed as nasty, gory exploitation, actually show that the director has a knack for staging and setting up memorable set pieces and there are moments here where he puts that talent to use. A perfect example is a scene towards the end of the film where the war is coming to a boil. Man armed with machetes run down the busy streets intent on using them against their opponents. Revealing the end would spoil a large part of the film but the buildup ,the way that Yau shows all of this coming to a frenzied head is visually exciting.
Unfortunately, the fact that the script and storyline jumps around as much as it does really hampers what could and should have been an amazing film. The end result is a picture that has moments of greatness that are counteracted by a choppy flow, a sometimes confusing narrative making for a really uneven whole.
The 1.85.1 AVC encoded 1080p high definition anamorphic widescreen transfer on this disc isn't reference quality but it has to be a step up from the standard definition release. Colors run the gamut from looking a bit flat to looking really bold and well defined depending on what scene you're watching. The outdoor shots with the neon signs in the background look nice, some of the indoor shots that take place inside a grimy apartment don't always appear as strong but they are at least in keeping with the picture's gritty aesthetic. A lot of the scenes that take place at night are a bit on the soft side and don't have the greatest shadow detail and edge enhancement is pretty common, so this is far from a perfect transfer, but there are scenes where detail is pretty strong. The end result is a fairly inconsistent looking image. The image is stable, strong and free of any major print damage but the edge enhancement and periodic DNR combined with sporadic softness definitely hurts things a bit.
Cantonese language tracks are provided here in DTS-HD 5.1 Master Audio and Dolby TrueHD 7.1 while a Mandarin track appears in Dolby TrueHD 7.1 only. Optional subtitles have been provided in traditional Chinese, simplified Chinese and English, though unfortunately the English subtitles are riddled with odd phrasings and periodic typos and really would have benefited in a big way from some editing and/or proof reading. That issue aside, the Cantonese DTS-HD mix here is quite good. Gun shots are nice and punchy and have a pretty hefty impact, while delivering clean and concise sounding dialogue. Channel separation is strong and directional effects are good, while the levels stay properly balanced throughout playback. There aren't any problems with hiss or distortion worth noting and this is a crisp sounding track with a nice, strong low end and a distinct sounding high end.
Extras are slim on this disc. Aside from a trailer (2:33) and a still gallery, the only other supplement is a Making Of Documentary (6:22) that features interviews with the cast and crew and which features some behind the scenes footage. Unfortunately there are only Chinese subtitles provided here which makes it tough to figure out just what exactly is being discussed if you don't speak the language (which is odd, as the trailer is subbed in English). A menu and chapter selection submenus round out the extras. All of this material is presented in standard definition, anamorphic widescreen.
Yau's Rebellion has moments of searing intensity and drama with a really effective atmosphere of impending violence, but unfortunately the plot is too disjointed and meandering for it to really mean anything by the time it's all said and done. The transfer is just as uneven as the film, with moments that really shine and moments that definitely could have looked better. The audio is solid, but the extras are nothing to write home about, resulting in a presentation that really is a mixed bag in almost every possible way. Fans of HK gangster films might want to see it for the moments that do shine, so on that level, it's worth renting.
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.