The Killer (1989) (Dip huet seung hung)


A Hong Kong standoff.

A Hong Kong standoff.

(1989) Crime Drama (Circle) Chow Yun Fat, Danny Lee, Sally Yeh, Kong Chu, Kenneth Tsang, Fui-On Shing, Wing-Cho Yip, Fan Wei Yee, Barry Wong, Parkman Wong, Siu-Hung Ng, Yamson Domingo, Siu Hung Ngan, Kwong Leung Wong, Simon Broad (voice), Dion Lam, Chung Lin, Hung Lu, Pierre Tremblay (voice), Hsiang Lin Yin  Directed by John Woo

There are those who are big fans of Hong Kong cinema of the 80s and 90s who will tell you that maybe the seminal film of that era and that place is John Woo’s The Killer. At the time it was hailed by the Western press as a masterpiece even though it surprisingly didn’t do well at the box office at the time as it was released shortly after the massacre in Tiananmen Square. Since then it has taken its rightful place as one of the finest films ever to be produced in Hong Kong.

Ah Jong (Fat) is a hitman for the Hong Kong triads. However, he is getting out of the business, having lost the taste for it and plans to retire after one last job. It goes off pretty well but during the fracas, a pretty nightclub singer named Jenny (Yeh) is injured by the muzzle flash from Ah Jong’s gun when his gun goes off next to her eyes. She will need an expensive corneal transplant or will eventually lose her sight completely.

Ah Jong feels a certain amount of guilt over the incident and begins hanging out at the nightclub to hear the singer, whose sight has become so poor that she doesn’t recognize him. He witnesses an attempted mugging on the singer and drives off the bandits. Afterwards, he escorts her home and eventually the two begin to fall in love. Ah Jong resolves to get her the transplant to save her sight and in order to do so, he contacts his Triad handler Fung Sei (Kong Chu) to set up one last hit, the proceeds for which should be more than enough to pay for Jenny’s operation.

At the Hong Kong dragon boat celebration he assassinates an industrialist. However, he is observed by maverick Hong Kong police detective Li Ying (Lee), who along with his partner Tsang Yeh (Tsang) begin closing in on the assassin. The Triad boss, the ruthless Hay Wong Hoi (Shing) refuses to pay Ah Jong what he owes him and puts out a hit on his former employee. Not a smart idea. Ah Jong isn’t about to go down quietly and together with Fung Sei determine to take what is his. Li becomes intrigued with the assassin when he rushed a child, hit by incidental gunfire during the shootout, to a hospital but by doing so gets caught in the middle of the war between Ah Jong and the Triad. One thing is certain; bullets are going to fly.

The violence here is stylish, influenced by such American auteurs as Scorsese and Peckinpah. The final shootout takes place in a church that is in the process of being renovated; noted cinematographer Peter Pau and his co-cinematographer Wing-Hang Wong use doves, a Woo trademark (although this was the first film he would use them in) with a gauzy focus to make the setting somewhat ethereal; a purgatory in which the protagonists will go either to heaven or to hell.

Chow Yun Fat is one of the most charismatic and able actors to ever come out of Asia. although as of late he hasn’t appeared in many films that have made it to the States he has continued to be one of the most in-demand actors in the East. He demonstrates his screen presence here, using his athleticism to good advantage particularly in the gun battles.

The relationship between Ah Jong and Detective Li is crucial to the film’s success and the relationship goes from antagonists to grudging respect to close friends in a short time. That might seem laughable to Western audiences but it feels organic. I will admit that seeing the film a second time 25 years after originally seeing it during its first American theatrical run that the film doesn’t hold up as well as I thought it might; some of the dialogue comes off as clunky and there is a cheesy factor that I don’t remember from my first viewing, when I was extremely impressed and became a lifelong devotee to Hong Kong-produced films ever since. Woo himself had to make some compromises due to run-ins with his producer, the legendary Tsui Hark. Like Woo, Hark is a man of strong opinions and the two butted heads over things like the soundtrack. Woo wanted Jenny to be a singer of sultry jazz songs but Hark didn’t think Asian audiences would like that and insisted that she sing Chinese pop songs. For the record, Woo was right.

The Killer has been a tremendous influence on action films in general; echoes of various scenes can be seen in just about every action film made since, influencing directors like Quentin Tarantino, Robert Rodriguez, the Wachowski’s, Luc Besson and Antoine Fuqua. Sure, there are some cultural aspects that may seem foreign to American audiences but the action sequences by themselves are worthy of study, particularly for the serious aficionado of action movies. While I left my more recent viewing less impressed than I had been after my first, I had to remind myself that many of the sequences have been so imitated that they seem less incredible now than when I first saw it, when I have to say without reservation that I hadn’t seen anything like this before. In many ways, it still can be said about this movie – it is an amazing piece of filmmaking and anyone who seriously loves movies should make the effort to see this film at some point; it is required viewing for any understanding of action movies and non-American cinema.

WHY RENT THIS: Beautifully choreographed action. Fine performance by Chow Yun Fat. Beautiful cinematography.
WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Somewhat dated. Some of the dialogue is a bit bombastic.
FAMILY VALUES: An incredible amount of violence, mostly bloodless although there are a couple of disturbing images. There’s also a little bit of foul language and a whole lot of smoking going on.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The subtitles were so badly translated during the first American theatrical run that the film was mistakenly promoted as a comedy..
NOTABLE HOME VIDEO EXTRAS: The Dragon Dynasty DVD/Blu-Ray version includes a location guide. Surprisingly, the now out-of-print Criterion Collection edition contained no notable extras.
BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $2.4M on an unknown production budget.
SITES TO SEE: Netflix (DVD Rental and streaming)
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Departed
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Leatherheads

Formosa Betrayed


Formosa Betrayed

James Van Der Beek goes in guns blazing.

(2009) Political Drama (Screen Media) James Van Der Beek, Wendy Crewson, Tzi Ma, Will Tiao, John Heard, Tom Jay, Chelcie Ross, Leslie Hope, Kenneth Tsang, Adam Wang, Mintita Wattanakul, Joseph Anthony Foronda, Tonray Ho. Directed by Adam Kane

Most people are woefully uninformed. For the most part, it’s simply because we don’t want to be but even if we did we rarely get much truth from either the media or our governments. The way things appear to be are often not the way they are.

It all starts with what appeared to be a robbery gone bad. Professor Henry Wen (Foronda) is shot and killed by what appear to be ordinary carjackers. However, things begin to go sideways. The police discover that Wen was an outspoken opponent of the current regime in Taiwan (this movie takes place during the Reagan administration, by the way). The suspected killers appear to be Taiwanese nationals. The FBI is called in and Agent Jake Kelly (Van Der Beek) is assigned to the case. When the suspects flee to Taiwan, Kelly is sent after them – but as an observer, not a participant. The actual capture of the killers is left to the Taiwanese police.

This much is made clear by the starchy Susan Kane (Crewson), a liaison from the State Department. Kelly is immediately thrown into a curious charade that simply extrudes intrigue. He is sent to parties celebrating his arrival; the police are remarkably uncooperative when it comes to letting him in on any real investigation. Kelly begins to suspect that something is rotten in Formosa.

Kelly is contacted by friends of the late professor; Ming (Tiao) takes him on something of a tour of Taiwan’s underbelly, where the face of democracy is replaced by a corrupt military dictatorship. Ruthless and repressive, it soon becomes evident that the murder of the professor was in all likelihood ordered by the Taiwanese government. This is not good news; it would be a diplomatic nightmare if word got out that a United States citizen (Wen was of Taiwanese descent but was a citizen of the U.S.) had been murdered by a foreign government, particularly one we didn’t recognize.

I am pulled in different directions by this movie. On the one hand, it is about something that is not reported on often in the United States. For that reason, I admire the film’s content. However, the execution leaves much to be desired. The setting is done as a standard thriller with many of the clichés of the genre, with car chases, shadowy figures, shoot-outs and lantern-jawed heroes.

Van Der Beek, who is best-known as Dawson Leary from TV’s “Dawson’s Creek” is actually more than satisfactory in the FBI agent role. He gets across the character’s competency as well as his idealism while remaining a professional demeanor. It seems to me that an actual FBI agent in a similar situation would act with the same demeanor as Van Der Beek’s Jake would; however, his actions going all cowboy on the Taiwanese does seem a bit far-fetched, although it’s the kind of thing that gets forgiven in other movies with traditional action heroes in them. Crewson does a pretty good job as the diplomat who starts out by the book but ends up sympathetic. Heard is also a good fit as Van Der Beek’s superior.

I suppose because the subject matter was so compelling I wanted the rest of the movie to match up to it, and simply put, the writing seems a little bit formulaic to me. The actors try to work through it and do at least decent jobs in roles that are pretty much by-the-numbers, but the movie is rescued by a compelling story that is at least partially based on actual events, which makes the movie even more fascinating in my eyes.

WHY RENT THIS: Casts some light on events not well reported in this country.

WHY RENT SOMETHING ELSE: Unfortunately, makes the setting a rather poorly executed potbroiler.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of violence, some of it unexpected and jarring. There is also a torture scene that some may find disturbing.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie was released on DVD in Taiwan on November 10 and proceeded to set records for single-day and single-week sales in Taiwan.

NOTABLE DVD EXTRAS: None listed.

BOX OFFICE PERFORMANCE: $326,034 on an unreported production budget; the film probably lost money.

FINAL RATING: 5/10

TOMORROW: The Fighter