Sha Po Lang Review
Sha Po Lang or SPL refers to three stars in Chinese astrology that symbolise the dangerous characteristics of the films central characters, and how through their actions they could create or destroy the beautiful life of each other. In many ways this theme - despite seemingly being little more than an afterthought in the script - reflects the lofty goals set in director Wilson Yip's sights as he approaches what is ultimately a straight good vs. evil action thriller with a heavy emphasis on bringing out emotion that simply isn't there.
Detective Chan (Simon Yam) and his team have been relentlessly pursuing crime boss Po (Sammo Hung) in the three years since he was acquitted following the murder of the one witness Chan had managed to bring forward. In that time Chan has adopted the little girl left behind by the murdered witness, and also discovered that his time is limited due to a brain tumour. With retirement drawing closer for Chan his replacement, Ma (Donnie Yen) arrives to assess the team he will be taking over, only to discover the team at its most fragile as a situation arises that drives them to frame Po using evidence they believe will finally put their nemesis behind bars for life. But just how far are they willing to go, and just how much will Ma put up with for their ideals?
At its heart SPL is an incredibly simple film, with its various characters all falling into a known cliché from the cops who use questionable methods to the evil crime boss whose actions almost quantify the lengths his pursuers will go to apprehend him. These simple characters are further reflected by the script, which keeps dialogue straight and to the point, almost comically so at times with many of the exchanges punctuated by exaggerated physical actions to highlight what the writers attempted to get across in the stilted dialogue. Introducing some additional layers to these characters are two key elements, a character caught in the middle and the celebration that is Father's Day. Of these the most subtle is the character of Ma, who carrying some hefty baggage in the form of causing a suspect brain damage though a single punch, Ma is a character able to display regret for his past actions and is there to question the methods employed by Chan and his team. Ultimately he chooses honour for his new team over what is truly right or wrong, but his character does manage to project some perspective on the situation developing around him. The second element present throughout the film which adds some additional layers to the characters is that of what it means to be a father, with Chan, members of his team and Po all shown to be excited about the impending Father's Day celebration. This is an interesting element to bring to an action film, but one that is done so through some rather heavy-handed melodrama as these hard-boiled cops and detestable gangsters instantly drop their tough guy personas in order to get all mushy over what their little girls might buy them for a gift.
This heavy hand can be found throughout the film, as Wilson Yip does an admittedly wonderful job of making sure the film looks good (the group shots and the symbolism depicted within are particularly interesting), but in amongst the bevy of slow-motion tracking shots, fading transitions and many other attempts to draw ones attention to the scene at hand director Wilson Yip insists upon underscoring every last second with an incessant orchestral score that is designed to guide the viewer to the selected emotion for any given scene. With a string section that must have been screaming bloody murder by the time the recording had finished the rich musical accompaniment found in SPL is omnipresent, always making sure you're fully aware of what the director intends, and this in itself is the score's failing. All truly effective musical scores should rouse the emotions without ever detracting from the dialogue and visuals, while the truly great scores manage this without ever drawing any undue attention.
For many however the grandiose directing style and attention to the action movie rulebook 101 will prove to be entertaining enough, while the CAT III rating allows for some truly exaggerated blood-letting in the films many brutal killings and fight set-pieces. These elements are for the most part what fans want to see, though anyone looking for Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung to strut their stuff will - other than a couple of brief teasers - be made to wait until the final third of the film's relatively short running time. In the meantime however we do get a few hints at what is to come, mostly involving regular actors which see Donnie reach for his much loved cranking lever in order to speed things up and I guess from his perspective increase the viewers enjoyment. For me though Donnie has always taken things a little too far with his use of under cranking and once again some of the earlier bouts suffer because of this, while the talcum powder is in no short supply either!
Making a good impression throughout the feature is Jing Wu, a former national Wushu champion from Mainland China who other than a couple of impressive starring roles in Yuen Woo-ping's Tai Chi Boxer and Lau Kar-leung’s Drunken Monkey has found it difficult to break in a big way into the Hong Kong movie business. This comes as a result of his talent being discovered at a time when the desire to see traditional martial arts movies took a nosedive, so there was little call for his abilities especially given the fact he's a Mandarin speaker. But here, cast in a contemporary action thriller as a ruthless silent assassin who dresses in white and uses a sheaved katana blade as his weapon of choice, Jing Wu oozes with cool in the same way his victims ultimately ooze in their own blood. The Cat III certificate is well earned in scenes featuring Jing Wu alone, as his methods - be they drawn out and heartlessly cruel or swift and brutally efficient - call upon a great deal of the red stuff to be spilt.
Along with Sammo Hung in the leading villain role Jing Wu joins him for the "ultimate showdown" portion of the movie in which Donnie faces off against both for two very different but almost equally exciting fights. The first with Jing Wu sees Katana clash with a metal riot stick in what to my eyes looked to be hardly under cranked at all, yet was so astonishingly fast my jaw was left gaping on the floor as these two fighters square off in a backstreet alley. Visually and technically the fight impresses with Yen able to maintain the speed of short bladed weapon attacks yet make them engaging by putting slow-motion and tight-angles to good use on key changes in technique. The bloodletting in this set-piece is probably the most satisfying in the film, with Jing Wu's character taking the brunt of it after having earned both the viewers respect for his efficiency and to a lesser extent our disgust for the wrongs he has done the lesser of two evils amongst the characters portrayed.
The big cheese steps up for what is a fairly hyped portion of the film, Sammo Hung vs. Donnie Yen in what makes for another entertaining, though slightly less edge-of-the-seat affair. To his credit Yen choreographs an interesting fight that combines a mixture of his own famous kicking techniques with a proportional amount of grappling moves which are hinted at earlier in their first encounter. Presumably brought into the mix to account both for Sammo's sheer size and reduced mobility (the shot just prior to the fight erupting is really quite staggering, showing Sammo's towering stature that is built like a rock up against Yen, who, physically impressive as he is, looks rather small by comparison!) it gives the fight a good rhythm as it switches between hand and fist exchanges to grappling before ultimately moving to some fairly unforgiving (and somewhat unbelievable) throws and backbreaking lands.
Yen acquits himself well and comes out on top for the action segments of the movie he is credited with directing, and indeed other than the music which rarely takes a break though does change to suit the mood, the action scenes do have a signature of their own which is noticeably different to that of Wilson Yip's mark found elsewhere. This mark extends to the final moments which appear forced towards the negative for little other reason than creating a downbeat ending which ties in with the fairly loose concept the title refers to.
Released by Deltamac in Hong Kong this two-disc set is packaged in an attractive cardboard slipcase and like the majority of DVDs released in Hong Kong these days, is completely English friendly with packaging, menus and extras all offering English language features.
Pictures and Sound
Presented in 1.85:1 Anamorphic Widescreen the transfer here is very good with no apparent flaws on the print and generally decent encoding throughout. Black levels are deep, colours are vibrant and detail levels are high with the close-ups showing every pore on the actors faces, while the fast-paced action scenes are handled with ease allowing you to capture every move. The only gripes I can muster are related to noticeable gradients in colour such as the blue sky in the beach sequences, and the occasional sign of minor macro-blocking.
The original Cantonese language track is available in both DD5.1 EX (only 384Kbps) and DTS 5.1 ES (half-rate 768Kbps), and while both are clear and well balanced I found them to be somewhat lacking for an action film with fairly little in the way of directional effects and ear-popping base. A Mandarin DD5.1 EX track is also available, as are optional subtitles in Chinese and English with the latter being clear and easy to follow.
Despite offering a second disc of extras there really is very little of substance to be found with disc one playing host to the theatrical trailer and nothing more, while disc two holds about forty-minutes of heavily promotional material. In essence what you find on disc two is nothing more than an electronic press kit distributed to various media outlets to help preview the film. The extras include a 10-minute featurette that includes brief interviews with the key cast and crew plus some behind-the-scenes footage, all of which is incredibly sugar-coated with the actors playing up to the camera asking the audience to go see the film. The press conference held to announce the film's completion and first public screening at a charity event is equally promotional, only this time you have to face the laborious speeches of various executives involved both with the film's production companies and the charity who are benefiting. Rounding out the disc are four TV Spots of varying lengths and an 11-minute video photo gallery with the film's original score playing over various stills from the production.
For all its hype and the high expectations I had coming into the film SPL ultimately disappoints, with the most important aspects - such as a story with depth and characterisation beyond whose side they're on - effectively forgotten about in favour of producing a slick advertisement for Hong Kong action thrillers. In the wake of the recent Thai martial arts explosion this may be exactly what Hong Kong needs, but then with actors like Simon Yam and action stars such as Donnie Yen, Sammo Hung and Jing Wu Hong Kong can and should be producing efforts that are far more rounded than this one. As it stands SPL is good, simple entertainment though on repeat viewings the first half is somewhat touch and go as you wait for the action to boil and the melodrama to slowly burn as the music drowns out the smoke alarm.