The Wong Kar-wai Jet Tone Collection Review
Not to be confused with The Wong Kar-wai Collection, Wong Kar-wai Jet Tone Collection might sound like it is a bit of a cash-in on the name of the famous Hong Kong director since none of his own films are included here, but rather they are films made under Wong Kar-wai’s production company. The use of the director’s name however is certainly justifiable in this case since, more than sharing a common heritage and producer, the three films collected here are thematically very closely related to Wong Kar-wai films of this period. Not entirely co-incidentally, they represent an alternative view on the three films included in The Wong Kar-wai Collection.
Most obviously, even if the tone and approach are completely different, Jeff Lau’s The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993) comes the same literary source that inspired Wong Kar-wai’s martial arts epic and was shot concurrently with Ashes of Time (1994), even sharing over many of the actors from that film. Eric Kot’s First Love – Litter on the Breeze (1997) is not only very much in the style of Chungking Express (1994), it’s more or less a parody of that film’s style and themes, even down to employing Christopher Doyle to send-up his own unique camera technique. The cinematographer’s directorial debut Away With Words (1999) meanwhile reflects the quintessential Wong Kar-wai/Christopher Doyle look and feel of the period, one that chimes in mood and theme with Happy Together (1997).
The Eagle Shooting Heroes (Jeff Lau, 1993)
Although they both come from the same source, both Jeff Lau’s The Eagle Shooting Heroes (1993) and Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994) take rather different and distinctive approaches to their adaptations of Louis Cha’s epic martial arts trilogy The Eagle Shooting Heroes. And even though they share almost identical cast listings, in contrast to the dark, moody introspection of the Wong Kar-wai version, Jeff Lau’s film is a comedy kung-fu pantomime of high-flying acrobatics and rather specialised kung-fu abilities that is played essentially for laughs. And it succeeds.
With its large cast and a willingness to push everything to extremes, the plot is typically labyrinthine and capable of going anywhere, but essentially it deals with the youthful exploits and complicated love affairs of the characters of Louis Cha’s novels. Tony Leung Chiu Wai is Ouyang Feng in this version, a cackling moustachioed villain trying to usurp the throne of Persia, but the Princess (Brigitte Lin) is protecting the royal seal. Having failed to completely master her Tsunami Punch technique, the Princess flees looking for help from Master Jiugong. In order to defeat Ouyang Feng’s unusual Toad-style Kung-fu technique, he advises her to find the Book of Yin to gain the necessary skills. On her journey, with Ouyang Feng in pursuit on flying boots provided by a sorceress (Maggie Cheung), numerous romantic misadventures, slapstick battles and confusion about identity ensue.
The Eagle Shooting Heroes then delivers exactly what it sets out to achieve – a kung-fu comedy. With an outstanding cast and high-speed martial arts choreography from Sammo Hung, it couldn’t really go wrong and indeed the results are thrilling and often hilarious. Highlights include Tony Leung as the cackling Ouyang Feng in an outrageous twelve minute battle with Jacky Cheung, reprising his role here as Hong Qi, the suicidal leader of the Beggar Clan, and Carina Lau doing a wonderful comic turn as macho warrior Zhou Botong who can’t keep his feminine nature and attraction for handsome young men hidden. With Tony Leung Ka-Fai being game for a laugh as a gay monk seeking deification and Leslie Cheung camping it up, the fiendishly complex plot involves much cartoonish facial expressions, comedy monsters in rubber suits, cross-dressing, mistaken identities, romantic entanglements, sausage lips, knob jokes, time reversal capers and a ‘Match of the Day’ “header”.
First Love – Litter in the Breeze (Eric Kot, 1997)
Spoofing Chungking Express’s pineapples with their expiration date as a metaphor for relationships, Eric Kot’s First Love – Litter in the Breeze notes that “They say love is like peeling an apple. A peeled apple quickly starts to rot. It turns into worm-ridden mush”, and like Wong Kar-wai’s film it finds two examples of unconventional love-stories. One story – after numerous WKW-like abortive storylines rejected because of budgetary constraints or not knowing how to end them - stars Takeshi Kaneshiro (who else?) in slightly more Fallen Angels mode as a garbage collector who is dating a sleepwalking woman (Wai-wai Lee) with no memory of their romance. In the second story Eric Kot is a grocery store owner, married with kids, but he still feels guilt over the woman (Karen Mok) he left at the altar ten years ago. When she turns up a his store and asks for a coke (“suddenly the distance between them was only 13mm”), he finds that she has drunk no Ashes of Time-style wine of forgetfulness and fears that she will seek a terrible revenge for the betrayal in the past.
Unconventional in its format, First Love can be initially pretty annoying if you don’t take to Eric Kot’s style of humour, find his meta-narrative interruptions and the MTV cutting distracting, and don’t get all the Wong Kar-wai references, but it eventually settles down and manages to be quite engaging in its quirky-funny love stories. Sure, much of the technique and approach is an affectionate exaggerated parody of Chungking Express, playing it very much for laughs, but there’s plenty of fun and invention here, a willingness to play with the format and with expectations of what to expect from a film. By the same token First Love also benefits from the approach – not least in the use of music - that captures the sense of crazy upheaval of the journey into the unknown that occurs when lives are thrown unexpectedly together though fate, chance or love, and it somehow even ends up managing to be rather touching and poignant.
Away With Words (Christopher Doyle, 1999)
Conceptually, there are a lot of interesting ideas in Christopher Doyle’s debut feature film as director. It’s certainly a cinematographer’s film – a particularly unique and individual cinematographer in this case – demonstrating the same visual stylisations and colouration that Doyle applies to Wong Kar-wai’s films, but in this case as writer, director and cinematographer, he also attempts to apply the same instinctive approach to characterisation, plot and particularly words, where the mechanics, structure, definition and grammatical rules are abandoned in favour of a more free, associative approach.
Most obviously, this approach is embodied in the character of Asano (Tadanobu Asano), a young man from Japan who has come to Hong Kong in an attempt to escape from a world where the sounds of words feel wrong to him, suggesting textures, smells and feelings that don’t fit with the objects they describe, filling him with revulsion. He holes himself up in the 'Dive Bar', a gay bar run by an English proprietor Kevin Sherlock (Kevin Sherlock), an alcoholic with a few personal problems of his own with regards to his identity and fitting into a world where he is regarded as an outsider. Through Susie (Mavis Xu), a barmaid at the bar – another outsider with problems that don’t really seem to be all that clearly defined – and Kevin, Asano and indeed the other two form a unique little team to find a way to communicate with the world again.
Or at least that seems to be the intention of the film, but somehow it never seems to make the idea work. Certainly the film is beautifully executed in visual terms, with Christopher Doyle’s photography at its most interesting, in a period between Happy Together and In The Mood For Love, rich in colours and textures, breaking down a traditional way of viewing the world in the same way as Asano’s playing with words. The performances, characterisation and, for want of a better word, plot, are less convincing. The fact that none of the characters seem whole rounded people can be put down to the possibility that they each represent conflicting aspects of Doyle’s own personality, but such a complex personality is Doyle that there’s little chance of them achieving a complementary fusion. The film then seems to just ramble and stumble from one sequence to another, never really cohering. It’s a measure of Doyle’s visual skill that Away With Words flows along quite nicely and doesn’t need any hook or narrative trickery to hold the viewer, but at the same time it never seems to add up to anything conclusive or even meaningful.
The Wong Kar-wai jet Tone Collection is released in the UK by Artificial Eye. The 3-disc set includes The Eagle Shooting Heroes, First Love – Litter in the Breeze and Away With Words. Each of the films is also available to be purchased separately. The DVDs are presented on individual dual-layer discs, in PAL format. In contrast to The Wong Kar-wai Collection which was region-free, The Wong Kar-wai Jet Tone Collection is encoded for Region 2 only.
There doesn’t seem to be a remastering of the films to the extent of the films in The Wong Kar-wai Collection, but the three Jet Tone films here still all look reasonably well here, even though they are all NTSC to PAL standards conversions. First Love – Litter on the Breeze, presented anamorphically at 1.78:1 looks best with any motion flaws scarcely visible in Christopher Doyle’s cut-up approach of different film-stocks, video footage and sections filmed off monitors. The quality of the image can be seen however in the majority of the film, which has wonderful tone, clarity and colouration and is free from any marks or artefacts. The Eagle Shooting Heroes also looks well – a clean colourful print free from any marks, anamorphically enhanced at a 1.78:1 ratio - but it suffers more from the standards conversion, colours fluctuating slightly, interlaced images causing motion issues. Away With Words is the weakest transfer. It’s also a standards conversion and looks slightly grainy and soft, showing some discolouration, chroma issues and minor aliasing. Despite its flaws however, it still captures the textures, colour saturation and qualities of Doyle’s cinematography reasonably well, if not quite as clearly and as well defined as it should be. It’s presented in its original 1.85:1 aspect ratio and is also anamorphically enhanced.
There is no 5.1 remix for any of the films here, just a standard Dolby Digital 2.0 track for each. First Love – Litter on the Breeze sounds practically mono and some of the dialogue is a little muffled, but this would be in keeping with the low-budget, haphazard approach of the film and the tone for the most part, particularly in the music score, is clean and well-defined. There are no real issues with Eagle Shooting Heroes either, the soundtrack clean and effective if not particularly dynamic. Away With Words is a bit rough in places, Asano’s narration sounding dull and booming, Susie’s higher pitch sounding sibilant and distorted. Combined with generally poor diction, it makes it extremely difficult to understand what is being said in the English dialogue sequences. In most cases, it won’t matter if you don’t catch exactly what is being said (Away With Words, indeed).
Each of the films has English subtitles only. The subtitles are in a white font and are optional and there are no real problems anywhere. Away With Words however only has partial subtitles for the Japanese and Cantonese spoken parts of the film. A significant portion of the film is in English – and as I’ve noted above, not particularly clearly spoken English – but no subtitles are provided for these sections.
There is only a Trailer (2:22) for First Love – Litter on the Breeze and a Trailer (1:53) for Eagle Shooting Heroes. There are no extra features for Away With Words.
A bit of a mixed-bag, including a martial arts comedy farce that is quite out of character among the usual titles that make up the Artificial Eye catalogue, there is nevertheless a meaningful connection in each of the three films included here, with a variety of moods, themes and tones that you’ll typically find in Wong Kar-wai’s work. The transfers for each film are mostly fine, but they are all marred to varying degrees by NTSC to PAL standards conversions.