Sha Po Lang (HK - DVD)
Chris Gould checks out the new movie starring Sammo Hung and Donnie Yen
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Detective Chan (Simon Yam) is a hard-boiled Hong Kong cop and the head of a task force charged with apprehending the notorious criminal Wong Po (Sammo Hung). While incarcerated and awaiting trial, Wong Po orders the murder of the key witness for the prosecution as he travels to court to give evidence. Both the witness and his wife are killed during the ambush, leaving their young daughter orphaned and allowing Wong Po to walk free.
Three years later Chan, with only days left until his retirement and suffering from a terminal illness, decides to use what little time he has left to bring Wong Po to justice. After Wong Po’s gang murder one of his undercover operatives, an enraged Chan and his crew finally decide that they must do whatever it takes to put him away once and for all—whether legally or otherwise. They plot to frame Wong Po for the murder, doctoring evidence, threatening witnesses and eliminating the real gunman. None of this sits well with Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen), who has arrived to take command of the unit from Chan. While Ma also wants to bring Wong Po down, he insists on doing things strictly by-the-book.
However, when their plot fails and Wong Po discovers that he has been set up, he dispatches his enforcer, Jet (Wu Jing), to do deal with his enemies in a most lethal fashion. With both gangsters and police closing in on the corrupt cops, a conflicted Ma must come to terms with his own chequered past before deciding whether to play by the rules, or risk everything for honour and friendship by throwing his lot in with Chan…
Sha Po Lang is being touted as the film that will revive the ailing Hong Kong action genre, and there is much to like about the movie. The three leads, Simon Yam, Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, deliver competent and engaging performances befitting of actors with such important roles to play. Casting Sammo Hung as the tattooed underworld kingpin, Wong Po, proved to be a stroke of brilliance, and it was nice to see him playing something other than the fat bumbling sidekick I’ve seen in so many Hong Kong movies. I was also very impressed by the stunning martial arts choreography by action director Donnie Yen. While not as action-packed as many Hong Kong flicks, what’s on offer is well worth the wait as Donnie goes head-to-head (or should that be toe-to-toe?) with both Wu Jing and Sammo. The difference in stature between Hung and Yen is almost comical, but once they go at it you can’t help but to be impressed (especially with Sammo’s agility given his age and size).
My only real criticism of the film relates to the unexplored subplots woven throughout the duration of the movie, apparently created to show a human side to the characters (compensating for their totally amoral behaviour elsewhere). Unfortunately the comparatively short running time doesn’t allow for a complete exploration of these subplots, which mostly concern the impending arrival of Father’s Day and the relationship between the characters and their own fathers and children. There’s at least one other thread that, while fleshing out Ma’s back-story a little, seems terribly contrived and would probably have been best left on the cutting room floor. However, in spite of these weaker moments the film hangs together very nicely, even managing to offer a surprise or two towards the end. In fact, the closing moments of the film took me completely by surprise when I’d settled back in resignation of yet another ‘neat’ ending.
SPL is presented in a progressively encoded 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer, slightly cropped from its theatrical aspect ratio of 1.85:1. Being that it is a relatively recent release it would seem reasonable to expect nothing short of an outstanding transfer, and for the most part this is what we get. The stylised palette is very well-rendered, with strong, vibrant colours showcasing the lush greens, cool blues and bright neon of the Hong Kong surroundings perfectly. Blacks are also very solid for the majority of the proceedings. The image is nicely detailed throughout, and while film grain is more evident in some scenes than others, it never really distracts. There’s very little print damage to speak of, just the odd speck here and there, and watching on my 32” CRT through my progressive scan player didn’t reveal any particularly distracting artefacts, although a little edge enhancement was visible during some scenes. Even so, this is still a very capable transfer.
The disc has three audio options available: Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 EX and DTS ES 6.1 (matrix), and Mandarin Dolby Digital 5.1 EX. I chose to listen to the DTS track as it’s not that often I get to review a film with such an option nowadays. From the brief sampling I made there didn’t seem to be too much between the tracks, bar the usual differences in levels.
Whichever track you opt for, you’re in for an aural treat. To say that the mix is dynamic is perhaps an understatement, as there always seems to be something going on. Surrounds are used aggressively from the opening scenes, featuring plenty of discrete effects that actually enhance the viewing experience rather than being there simply for the sake of it. Dialogue is also clear and crisp for the most part (with only one obvious bit of ADR—used to replace native Mandarin speaker Wu Jing’s voice), with the dramatic score nicely balanced between it and the effects. Low frequency effects are also suitably forceful, eliciting the odd wince or two as the bone-jarring punches and kicks slam home.
Subtitles are, for the most part, clear and easy to read. However, there are one or two slightly awkward translations and the occasional instance where the subs fly off of the screen faster than it’s possible to read them. Thankfully this doesn’t happen too often.
The solitary extra on the first disc is the film’s theatrical trailer. It runs for a little over a minute and does a pretty good job of selling the movie with plenty of action shots and the like. This is in stark contrast to the Hong Kong trailers of old, which were often four to five minutes in length and gave away most of the plot. The trailer is also subtitled in English. Next we move on to the second disc, which contains a smattering of bonus material, again subtitled in English (queue collective cheers from Asian cinema fans across the nation). First up is a ten minute ‘Making of’ featurette. This is just your usual, run-of-the-mill promotional fluff featuring interviews with the cast and crew. There’s nothing of any real worth here, although it is always nice to hear from both Sammo and Donnie. The subtitles are a tad on the literal side, with the occasional wacky translation (‘wishing glowing sparkles in our new film’ springs to mind), but on the whole they do a decent enough job of conveying the sentiment behind the dialogue. I guess I should be grateful for the presence of English subs at all!
Next we have a series of very short, un-subtitled TV spots (four in total), followed by a rather odd twenty two minute featurette about a press conference held to promote the film. There’s a similar feature on the region three Ultimate Edition release of Kung Fu Hustle, and that is equally bizarre to this Westerner. The main focus of the conference is the charitable way in which the film’s financial backers have ‘donated’ a screening to help raise funds for a noble cause. Cue much awkward grovelling by the film’s action stars, followed by an all-to-brief Q&A about their roles in the movie. The conference is rounded off by a truly strange ceremony in which everyone sticks pink paper hearts to a board… Another oddity is that only half of the conference is subtitled, but thankfully it’s the important stuff that gets translated. I also spotted our old friend Bey Logan lurking in the background (the nose was a giveaway), which is hardly surprising given that he is responsible for Miramax’s recent acquisition of the film. Finally we have a photo gallery that runs for eleven minutes and is set to music from the film. There are no chapter stops and I quickly found myself growing tired of it, but I’ve never been that fond of still galleries.
SPL is a welcome return to form for Hong Kong action cinema, with its strong central performances and impressive fight sequences. As far as Asian cinema goes, Korea is still the reigning champion when it comes to producing consistently excellent movies, but this film goes some way towards redressing the balance. The DVD package offers a very pleasing audio-visual experience, and while the bonus content isn’t particularly impressive or insightful, it is at least subtitled in English. Should you buy this set? The answer would have to be yes. It’s almost worth it for the bruising confrontation between Donnie and Sammo alone. While the film is not without its shortcomings, it is still a thoroughly enjoyable way to spend ninety minutes or so.
You can purchase this title for $14.99 from top retailer YesAsia
Review by Chris Gould
For persons aged 18 or above only
Release Date: 11th January 2006
Disc Type: Single side, dual layer
Audio: DTS ES 6.1 Cantonese, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Cantonese, Dolby Digital 5.1 EX Mandarin
Subtitles: English, Traditional Chinese
Extras: Making of, Press Conference, TV Spots, Photo Gallery
Easter Egg: No
Director: Wilson Yip
Cast: Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Wu Jing, Ken Chang
Genre: Action, Crime and Drama
Length: 93 minutes
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