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Hong Kong 1941
Under the looming threat of Japanese invasion and the British fleeing, Hong Kong residents are sent into a severe panic. Yet, for Ah Fay (Chow Yun Fat), former Peking Opera actor, layabout, and dreamer, leaving Hong Kong was always his plan anyway since he was going to seek his fortune in America or Australia. He bides his time while living with his aunt and tries to form a plan of escape. For street hustler Wong (Alex Man), his only concern is winning the hand of his girlfriend, Ah Nam (Celia Yip). She is the daughter of a rich family and is plagued by epileptic seizures. Ah Fay and Wong meet when they both work in Ah Nam's fathers rice factory. They find themselves to be instant companions, and when the factory is closed and the workers riot, their companionship is cemented as they run from the police. Ah Fay shares his dream of prosperity with Wong and Ah Nam, and as the Japanese close in on Hong Kong, the three attempt to escape. Ah Fay makes it onto the boat, but Wong and Ah Nam are too late; as they watch their new friend float away, Ah Fay jumps into the water and returns to them and an uncertain future under oppressive Japanese rule. Ah Fay is willing to stay and suffer the consequences, all for the price of friendship.
The three encounter many hardships. At first the city is in chaos, ruled martial law, and eventually, it turns fearful under the stern hand of the Japanese soldiers. Ah Nam's wealthy family is in ruin. Ah Fay, plays the part of Japanese sympathizer so he can get papers that will allow them to leave Hong Kong and escape to the mainland. Wong finds himself trying to build a nest egg for himself and Ah Nam (by selling clothes off the dead), but ends up in trouble when he tries to bail out his criminal friends. All this, plus the growing affection between Ah Fay and Ah Nam only strengthens tension, though Ah Fay proves himself to be a noble third wheel, mainly concerned with the welfare of his friend, rather than his own hormonal and emotional urgings. Will they escape? Will they prosper? Will their hidden affections drive a wedge between friends? Well, I wont ruin the film.
An ambitious blend of the turmoil of war with a lovers triangle backdrop, Hong Kong 1941 (1984) is uneven, but despite its large shortcomings still manages to be pleasantly entertaining and moving. The problem is, the film is more a melodramatic tv movie when it wants to be more like Shindlers' List meets Jules and Jim. While there are many extremes and nice touches to the story (Ah Fay comforting Ah Nam during a seizure is almost a sweetly-strange sexual thing), it is the actors who save the film from some clunky direction and storytelling. Their camaraderie and command of their characters makes the film worthwhile. And, it does manage to not be black and white on the issues of the time- the Hong Kong residents who kowtow to the Japanese or prey upon their own people are boldly and harshly criticized, which surely wasn't an easily digestible matter for Hong Kong filmgoers. There is just enough scope to the story and good acting, that even if the overall execution is not solid, Hong Kong 1941 is a film that gets points for trying.
Director Po Chi Lueng has a very lukewarm career, a common plague among Hong Kong art house directors. Educated in Britain, his films are known for a certain, low key style, unfortunately contrasted by some blatant flourishes (like in HK 1941 when they observe the Japanese secretly beheading a man, and outside on the street are little children, mock beheading each other, an image used not once, but twice). After his initial success (Jumping Ash 1976, co-directed with Josephine Saio), his sensibilities never really connected with Hong Kong audiences, leading to long list of moderate to no-success films, some of which over time have gained more attention, like Hong Kong 1941 and Isle of the Dead. He hasn't filmed a movie in Hong Kong since the early 90's and has gone on to direct the direct to cable USA thriller Cabin by the Lake and the 'love it or hate it' British horror film Wisdom of the Crocodiles with Jude Law.
As far as the actors are concerned: Two years after Hong Kong 1941, Chow Yun Fat would go from washed up tv actor to gain HK megastardom with A Better Tomorrow, and has only gone up from there. His role in Hong Kong 1941 won him some early acclaim and, even if his hands never touch a gun in the film, he is as charismatic as ever. Celia Yip has spent the last twenty years as a top billed HK actress in such films as Center Stage, Swordsman, Call Girl 92', and she manages well with her role, making "a rich girl who suffers from seizures and is divided between two men", less a romance novel cliché than one would expect. Alex Man, stable HK actor in films like As Tears Go By, Rich and Famous, Rouge, also fares well, though his character does suffer from being clueless and lacks the dimension afforded to the other actors.
***On a geeky side note, Ah Nam's father is played by Kein Shih, the evil villain Han, from Enter the Dragon.
The DVD: Fox
Picture: Anamorphic Letterbox. I previously saw the film on the HK import DVD that Tai Seng distributed. Fox's transfer is a real revelation compared to the HK import. No longer washed out and mired with technical quirks, the film has been given a very nice restoration. Fleshtones are warm, contrast is deeper, colors are more rich. Though the film still low budget and at times that makes the image subdued and gritty, the transfer her presents the film with a clarity that really does it justice.
Sound: Cantonese or English Dolby Digital 5.1 Surround o with optional English or Chinese subtitles. While English dubs are sometimes and okay optional on an action film or a comedy, voice acting on drama really raises the bar, and I didn't really like the English dub track. The original Cantonese mono track has been remixed and still has some of the troublesome all too common older HK quirks like a canned/distorted/reverb ridden track (mainly in Ah Nam's voice-overs). Still, it is a decent, primarily centered, track that fans of HK film will be satisfied by. The new subtitle translation is very good and greatly helps the film.
Extras: Chapter Selections--- Trailers, two for the film (old and new) plus trailers for Magnificent Warriors, Magnificent Butcher, Heart of the Dragon, Kiss of the Dragon, The Transporter, City Hunter and Naked Killer--- Photo gallery--- Promo Materials--- Production Notes--- Chow Yun Fat Bio and Gallery--- Interviews with actors Celia Yip (11 mins) and Paul Pui (8:26)
Conclusion: While it s a bit uneven , it is still a fine example of HK drama and has a very good cast of HK actors. The DVD transfer is great, restored picture and some decent extras, making it a worthwhile buy for fans of HK film.