"Over the years I've survived even the darkest night and lived to see many dawns, each dawn renewing my hope. The one I remember the most happened when everything was at its worst and all seemed lost, during my darkest days in 1941."—Anna
Set, predictably enough, in Hong Kong in 1941, director Leong Po-Chi's (Cabin by the Lake) film centers on the angst of three young Chinese protagonists struggling to deal with the turmoil of life during World War II. Anna (Cecelia Yip) is the psychologically unstable daughter of a wealthy rice merchant who finds herself in a love triangle with two young men who work in her father's warehouse: a street thug named Kong Huang (Alex Man) and his listless friend Yip Fai (Chow Yun-Fat, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon). Anna loves Kong for his stiff-necked resistance to authority, but finds Fai's dreams of escape to Australia ("the new San Francisco") romantic. But chaos reigns after the arrival of Japanese occupying forces. Kong slips deeper and more dangerously into Hong Kong's pervasive black market economy, while Fai is conscripted by the Japanese to help maintain order. Despite her attempts to hide her gender, Anna is found out and raped during the looting of her father's house. The three protagonists are challenged with finding a way to reconcile their own relationships and save each other from Japanese oppression as well as their own self-destructive instincts.
It all sounds pretty good on paper, right? For the Chinese, the history of the Japanese occupation during World War II is wrought with all manner of emotion: anger, sorrow, frustration, impotence, fear, and guilt. It's a rich foundation on which to build characters. Unfortunately, Hong Kong 1941 squanders its potential. Koon-Chung Chan's script invites comparison to Truffaut's Jules et Jim and Godard's Bande á Part with its gentle use of romantic triangle clichés to explore deeper, more existential issues. But Leong's flaccid direction fails to strike the correct emotional chord. The picture suffers from a sort of flat affect. In particular, one feels very little tension surrounding Fai's snitch-like service to the Japanese, neither in the form of guilt on Fai's part or resentment from the other characters. Based on Fai's upright character and the grievous implications of serving a brutal enemy, this should be a major source of conflict, but it doesn't play as such. As a matter of fact, the movie moves inexorably toward his ultimate choice between continued obeisance to the occupiers or a redemptive act of self-sacrifice, but none of it hits the viewer in the gut. Chow Yun-Fat gives an admirable effort in the role, but his work is lost in Leong's scattered and muddy storytelling. It's fairly easy to identify the film's big moments on an intellectual level, but none has much visceral impact. Instead, the movie unfolds as a series of episodes, each a result of what came before but none upping the dramatic ante.
To make matters worse, there are a couple fight scenes that, while kinetic and well-choreographed, feel about as appropriate as kung fu would in Jules et Jim. Based on the subject matter, violent interludes aren't completely unwarranted, but this film yearns to be about character and none of the combat has any emotional resonance or reveals anything about the internal workings of the protagonists; it's all run-of-the-mill Hong Kong movie chop-socky. A climactic fight between Fai and a Japanese officer who lusts after Anna, for instance, begs to mean something, to set in stone Anna's and Fai's rapidly approaching destinies, but it unfolds instead as a simplistic revenge piece, the sort of pandering to audience bloodlust that is the stuff of cinema cliché.
Fox's DVD of Hong Kong 1941 is an admirable effort. The video transfer isn't bad. A 1.85:1 anamorphic presentation, the image is stable in fine-detail areas, colors are natural with fully saturated blacks, and edge enhancement is mild. The print used to create the transfer was mostly clean, and grain level is perfectly acceptable (I wouldn't trade it for more edge enhancement).
The audio is the disc's big flaw, but it has nothing to do with the DVD. Dolby 5.1 tracks are available in both English and Cantonese, and in each use of the entire soundstage is minimal and delicate. The center channel so dominates the proceedings, as a matter of fact, that it often plays like a 1.0 mono track. Both tracks exhibit very narrow dynamic range, with isolated distortion. The flaws appear to be inherent to the source. The voice acting on the English dub, which is the default audio option, is wretched. But most disappointing is that the ambient space on the Cantonese track sounds nearly as artificial as that on the English, so that the original Cantonese sounds an awful lot like a bad dub itself.
The English subtitles are slightly annoying in that the character's names have been semi-anglicized ("Anna" is actually Han Yuk Nam, "Kong" is Wong Hak Keung, and "Fai" is Yip Kim Fay). It would be a minor annoyance except Cecelia Yip reveals in the interview footage included on the disc that Anna's Chinese name is most commonly a boy's name, indicating her father's disappointment in her not being an acceptable heir, a significant detail in light of the fact that the repressive nature of gender roles is a major catalyst for the character's emotional and psychological instability.
I can't recommend Hong Kong 1941. Despite Fox's decent treatment on the technical end, the film itself fails to deliver on its potential. It could have and should have been so much more.
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Scales of Justice
• Interview with Cecelia Yip
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