Hong Kong 1941 Review
Set in and around Hong Kong 1941 (as the English title so blatantly suggests) this film looks at the period in Chinese history when the Japanese invaded and effectively took over Hong Kong during World War 2 as part of their aim to unite Asia against the western world and in this case rid Hong Kong of British rule and influences. The particular story we are told that happens amidst this chaos is narrated by Nam (Cecilia Yip-Tong) the young daughter of a wealthy Hong Kong businessman. Here she looks back at what happened to herself, and her two companions throughout the struggle, Keung (Alex Mann) and Fay (Chow Yun-Fat).
Struggling to prevent herself from being married off to a stranger due to her father's old fashioned ways Nam and her actual boyfriend Keung are looking for a way to stay together. Fay on the other hand is an educated man with a passion to leave Hong Kong and explore the world. Keung and Fay become friends when they meet at the local Rice factory where they both find work and then consequently are put out of work. Drawn together by their individual needs the solution appears in the form of escaping to Mainland China, but when that fails times become harder still when the Japanese arrive in their village. Eventually all three of our main characters are thrust together in an attempt to survive the Japanese takeover which leads to them all facing a variety of hardships, during which an impending love triangle ensues (but is delicately handled without ever becoming sickening) and leads to each character fighting to maintain their honour by the films gripping climax.
Essentially an action drama that looks at real life events in Hong Kong's history Hong Kong 1941 is for the most part a triumph. In particular the acting from the three leads is of a high level with Chow Yun-Fat in particular standing out with a thoroughly convincing performance and of course the same natural charisma that has made him the superstar he so deserves to be. Alex Mann puts in a strong, somewhat sidelined performance while Cecilia Yip-Tong is for the most part very good, although sometimes she was not quite convincing showing her somewhat 'beginner' status as an actress which is unsurprising considering this was her first leading role. Still, these occasions are few and far between making it a minor, yet noticeable gripe. Visually Hong Kong 1941 looks quite stunning with continuously inventive and often beautiful cinematography that in comparison with the often static nature of the Martial Arts films being made at the same time the imagery on offer here really stands out and takes hold of your attention.
Despite these good points and the as yet unmentioned fine support from vintage Hong Kong veteran actors Shih Kien of Enter the Dragon fame (as bad guy Han) and in particular Wu Ma as Chairman Liu Yan-Mau (who also brings out the finest moments from Chow Yun-Fat) the film still stumbles in the pacing department. Even with a relatively short 97minute running time Hong Kong 1941 suffers from the occasional low point that allows your mind to drift away from what is happening onscreen which is mostly down to the quite basic plot and, proving that music does play a part in film, the weak musical score that really does not help a film of this nature. Moving past these faults we are left with a film that is still an enjoyable experience but it will never go down in history as one of the Hong Kong greats, though it will certainly appeal to fans of Hong Kong cinema and fans of historic dramas.
This Hong Kong Legends DVD is a dual encoded R2/4 release.
The digitally restored and remastered DVD transfer is of the quality we have come to expect from the team at Hong Kong Legends. Presented at the original 1:85:1 aspect ratio with Anamorphic Enhancement you may initially be disappointed by the grainy, low quality opening shot but you will soon discover that throughout the entire 97minute running time shots of this low quality are a rare occurrence indeed with the rest of the film blessed with a striking transfer. The print used amazingly features barely any damage with only the occasional blemish visible to those who are searching the screen in a desperate hope to find any. Grain is rarely seen and when it does feature it is kept to a bare minimum while the detail levels throughout are of a very high level for a film of this age. Probably the most stunning feature of this transfer is the colours that really bring out the often-beautiful cinematography rendering each shot in crystal clear clarity. My only real complaints are the occasionally soft shots which lead to a slight drop in fine detail, the occasional 'stock' quality of a few frames (mainly long vista shots) and the poorly executed layer change which has become an all to common bane of Hong Kong Legends releases.
HKL must have been delivered an exceptionally low quality Cantonese soundtrack for this release as we are only offered a basic DD2.0 Stereo rendition which as it is can sound quite coarse, and when the volume is set to optimum levels background hiss is noticeable but never really intrusive. Separation is kept to a bare minimum but then for a film released in 1984 it is hardly an issue as HKL have provided us with what is most important, the original soundtrack, though sadly they could not provide us with more. The English Dub is presented in DD5.1 Surround and what I sampled of it was certainly of a higher quality than the Cantonese offering with a significantly reduced level of background noise (though not completely without) and as you would expect the 5.1 Audio made use of the soundstage to a greater effect with the rear speakers main use being to project the musical score. Although I did not view the entire film with the English dub as I far prefer the original language for all foreign language releases I was suitably impressed with this offering as for a film of this subject matter the last thing you need is the typically cheesy efforts that are synonymous with Hong Kong films. The optional English subtitles are of the usual high standards with not a spelling or grammatical error in sight.
Ever since Bey Logan began contributing some of the best Audio Commentaries to the DVD Format via the Hong Kong Legends label I have been looking forward to hearing what he has to say about my favourite Hong Kong actor, Chow Yun-Fat, and as ever he does not disappoint offering both an insightful look at Chow's past while offering his own, well educated opinions. Generally easy going and always engaging Bey dispenses a huge array of information for the entire main and supporting cast all the while pointing out little gems of information like the Director, Po Chieh-Leong's cameo, a certain action-directors contribution to the film, extras and stuntmen you will have seen go on to bigger things and of course the regularly re-used locations on Hong Kong films while we are also treated to a quick history lesson on the films real life setting.
A 23-page text based biography on Chow Yun-Fat explores his humble beginnings to his now celebrated career and makes for an interesting and informative read. Within the interviews section you will find a 12-minute interview with Chow Yun-Fat and a more impressive 27-minute interview with the leading lady, Cecilia Yip-Tong. Presented in the 4:3 format the interview with Chow finds him speaking in English, with the help of a translator at one point, where he initially talks about his childhood, how he got into acting and then focuses mainly on his work with John Woo. While this is a good interview the majority of it was featured on The Postman Fights Back DVD and as such will not offer anything knew to HKL regulars, but its inclusion is more than welcome although the lack of any questions relating to Hong Kong 1941 is disappointing. The interview with Cecilia Yip-Tong is presented in Anamorphic Widescreen with clear and easy to read subtitles as Cecilia is speaking in her native language. The interview is almost completely dedicated to Hong Kong 1941 with only a small section relating to how she started in the movie industry. Combined with the Bey Logan Audio Commentary this proves to be a highly insightful look at the film while Cecilia herself appears easy going and is quite obviously enjoying herself, which also makes the interview fun to watch while you are taking in all the background information she provides on the script, her acting performance, the director and her co-stars.
Other extras include a Photo Gallery which features 28 pictures, some of which are actual behind-the-scenes/on-set photos making this a worthy inclusion. The final extras are a selection of Trailers including the Original Theatrical Trailer and the HKL Promotional trailer for Hong Kong 1941, both of which are presented in 1:85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen as is the accompanying The Postman Fights Back HKL Promotional Trailer (included here as its the only other title from HKL featuring Chow).
Hong Kong 1941 is a good film with some fine performances from everyone involved but it still lacks that little something to make it a must have and as such I would recommend you rent it first before taking the plunge. This Hong Kong Legends DVD is of course another fantastic release that bares all of their hallmarks from the great picture, merely adequate sound on this occasion, to a fine selection of extra features that upgrade the status of 'rent first' to 'buy it' for ardent fans of Hong Kong Cinema.