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It’s time for yet another release from the good people at Hong Kong Legends. John Woo’s Once a Thief is a comic crime caper with an entirely different tone than the masterful Bullet in the Head, but given the presence of a cast featuring the cream of Hong Kong acting talent I was hoping for something special from the iconic director.

Once a Thief
Once a Thief stars Hong Kong cinema legends Chow Yun-fat, Leslie Cheung and Cherie Chung as a trio of street urchins who are adopted as children by the cruel underworld crime lord, Chow (Kenneth Tsang). In order for them to pay their way Chow teaches the children how to steal, and it is while engaged in this act that they are befriended by a kindly policeman who takes pity on their plight. Assuming the role of godfather, the cop tries his best to keep the wayward youths on the straight and narrow throughout their formative years.

However, by the time they have reached adulthood the friends have graduated from petty theft to become highly successful international art thieves, stealing valuable paintings to order at the behest of various corrupt individuals. The passing years have also seen romance blossom between Red Bean Pudding (Chow Yun-fat) and Red Bean (Cherie Chung). Following their latest heist, in which they steal a painting for a wealthy Frenchman, Red Bean Pudding and James (Leslie Cheung) want to attempt one last job before they retire, much to the consternation of Red Bean.

When their plans to steal a priceless and reputedly cursed painting go awry, Red Bean Pudding sacrifices himself so that James can escape the trap. As time passes James and Red Bean turn to each other for comfort and eventually marry, but their lives are turned upside down when Red Bean Pudding reappears, paralysed, wheelchair-bound and with one thing on his mind—revenge against those who betrayed him. Top of his list of suspects is their former stepfather, Chow…

Once a Thief
Presented in slightly cropped but anamorphically enhanced 1.78:1 widescreen, Once a Thief looks very nice indeed. I wouldn’t say that it’s up there with the very best restoration work to come from the label, but the image is generally very clean and surprisingly detailed for the most part (although there are one or two scenes where things get blurry). Colours are accurately rendered and both contrast and shadow detail remain good throughout; this belies the age of the film even if it is less than fifteen years old (you have to remember that Hong Kong films generally don’t age as well as their Hollywood counterparts). There is also a certain amount of visible film grain, but it’s nothing too distracting. Overall this is a solid effort.

As is usual we’re given the option of Dolby Digital 5.1 in both the original Cantonese and dubbed English. As is the case with any foreign cinema that lands on my doorstep, I gave the dub a wide birth and went straight for the original language track. The track has much in common with other Hong Kong Legends releases, in that it is predominantly a stereo driven affair with occasional use of the surround channels to flesh out the musical score. Dialogue is always perfectly clear, even if it does suffer from the dreaded Hong Kong looping phenomenon, while sound effects pack as much of a punch as any other Hong Kong film of the time (that is to say satisfactory if a little flat). The only real problem I had with the soundtrack was the dreadful music, but again this is a problem inherent to many Hong Kong movies of this era.

Once a Thief
As usual we start with a Bey Logan commentary track. It will come as little surprise to hear that this is yet another good effort from the man with the encyclopaedic knowledge of Hong Kong cinema, although it doesn’t quite live up to the very high standards set by his best work. Even so, the track is full of interesting and informative details that will be of particular interest to those viewers who are relatively unfamiliar with Hong Kong action flicks. Bey clearly has a love of this particular film, and it was particularly interesting to hear his point of view considering my relative indifference towards the movie.

Next up we have Bey Logan’s tribute to the late Leslie Cheung, entitled Walking through the Shadows. This is an affectionate retrospective of Cheung’s career that examines both the public and private faces of the actor. Cheung was as close to openly gay as possible in Hong Kong, yet he was able to play the straight romantic lead in a number of classic films. It was clearly a great shock to his many fans when he leapt to his death from the roof of Hong Kong’s Mandarin Hotel in April of 2003.

Next up we have a short (ten minute) interview with producer Terence Chang entitled Brother in Arms. The interview is conducted in English and Terence discusses the beginnings of his relationship with John Woo (way back in 1978), before moving on to talk about Once a Thief itself. For instance, he reveals that the film wasn’t originally indented to be a comedy, but the financiers dictated both the tone and release schedule of the movie. Of particular interest to me is the fact that he acknowledges how uneven the film is as a result of this interference. Chan then goes on to discuss the stars of the piece, with particular attention to the talents of Chow Yun-fat. The interview is punctuated with snippets of the film itself, which helps to prevent boredom from creeping in.

Once a Thief
Finally we come to what will most likely be the most highly anticipated interview of the bunch, Up Close and Personal with John Woo. Clocking in at a little over thirty minutes, this is surely one of the lengthiest interviews Woo has given in some time. While his command of English isn’t as good as his producer’s, Woo talks openly about his motivations for making Once a Thief, namely the relatively poor box office showing of his masterpiece, Bullet in the Head. He goes on to discuss how he wanted to make a ‘quick and easy’ film with Once a Thief; one that would cheer him up after the depressing reviews of Bullet in the Head. Woo also talks about working with his close friends and the experience of filming in France, even down to the differences in shooting in Paris, Nice and the Riviera. He also draws attention o the distinct shift in tone once the action moves back to Hong Kong, and this is certainly something that is very noticeable when watching the film. Overall this is a decent interview, which like Terence Chang’s before it, is broken up by the inclusion of footage from the film.

Also included on the disc are trailer galleries that feature both the promos and theatrical trailers for Once a Thief, as well as Hong Kong Legends’ trailers for Woo’s The Killer and Bullet in the Head.

I really wanted to enjoy Once a Thief more than I actually did, but unfortunately the film contained far too much slapstick for my liking. In fact, Bey Logan touches upon this and other elements that may serve to alienate Western audiences on the commentary track. The film’s particular brand of humour seems incongruous with the action scenes, especially when the slapstick occurs during an intense battle for survival (Chow Yun-fat overacts outrageously at times). It is this kind of humour that stands as the biggest barrier between me and my enjoyment of a great deal of Hong Kong cinema. I can’t really blame the films, because they’re made with a different audience in mind, but I do think this particular film suffers by trying to be all things to all men. The end result is an uneven piece that does everything adequately, but nothing particularly well.

Once a Thief
As for the DVD itself, well it represents yet another solid release from the label. Both aural and visual elements are pleasing, while Bey Logan’s commentary track alone is worth the price of admission. Throw in a reasonably generous helping of interesting interviews and you have a disc that I have no problem recommending to fans of the movie. However, those of you with similar tastes to mine might like to check this out from your local rental store before parting with your cash.