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Hard Boiled Review

May 8, 2011

Now I’m not only recovering from screenings, but recovering from Canadian elections too. I don’t want to use this blog to push any politics so let’s talk a film that elicited genuine gasps and shock from the audience when it was shown at the Mayfair theatre in Ottawa: Hard Boiled!

On paper, the production of Hard Boiled is kind of a mess. Some scenes such as the the tea-house fight were shot when there was no shooting script. When the film’s screenplay was written by Barry Wong, Wong sadly died while on vacation leaving it unfinished. Plot points that were originally in the script such as a baby-poisoning psychopath are mostly lost in the mix with elements stirred in towards the end during the heroic and slightly hilarious baby-rescue. Other re-writes involve Michelle Yeoh who was originally going to have been cast in Teresa Mo’s role. I’m not sure why this was changed, but Mo’s character was greatly re-written after Michelle was unable to be in the film. I assume somewhere in Hong Kong there is a huge cabinet full of nothing but screenplay drafts for Hard Boiled.

Here’s where I’m a bit confused. All credits and books I’ve read relating to the film say that John Woo completed the script himself, but an interview on the Hong Kong Cinemagic website with director and writer Gordon Chan suggest that he helped finishing the draft of Hard Boiled after Wong died. Gordon Chan even goes on to explain little bits of his draft that are in the film such as the warehouse scene. If this is the case, how come his name does not appear in the credits? I’ve read most books relating to Woo and have heard two audio commentaries on the film and I never heard Gordon mentioned once. So what gives?

Despite production troubles and my own historical confusion, Hard Boiled is a film that can maintain quality while not just being over the top in terms of action sequences but in basic plot elements which range from implausible to silly. Let’s look at some enjoyable nonsense we have here:

Hard Boiled Hospital
Hospitals have secret underground weapons bunkers
with Scrooge McDuck-esque sliding doors.

Hard Boiled Song

Coded messages being delivered through Lionel Richie lyrics
(and sung by Chow-Yun Fat and Teresa Mo!)


Weapons are hidden in Shakespeare and bird cages!

I’m just scratching the surface with that kind of pulp! To match them, we have the equally over the top action scenes which I consider to be some of the best filmed. When mentioning action scenes like “the teahouse scene” or “the hospital scene” to anyone who has seen Hard Boiled, they know what you are talking about without hesitation. This level of action also separates some audiences as some find it goes too far, while others rejoice in the glorious chaos. Personally, I like this film quite a bit, but I do see it in a slightly lesser light than Woo’s other major Hong Kong films, such as The Killer, A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head. I do like it more than A Better Tomorrow II and Once a Theif. As for going too far, I think it doesn’t go as overboard as Kurt Wimmer’s Ultraviolet so it suits me just fine.

Even though I do love action cinema, I’m a firm believer that if you are not going along with either the plot or characters, than you can have gorgeous action scenes that will not impress if you don’t care about the characters or what they are doing. Woo has compared the film to Dirty Harry with it’s tough police detective who makes vigilante justice seem appealing and Die Hard. I agree, especially with Die Hard for having really riveting action scenes in an isolated area all while giving quality actors some roles which are a bit thin on character and interest. To further the comparison in Die Hard, there are two actors with a lot of charisma (Bruce Willis and Alan Rickman) while in Hard Boiled we have some of the best actors to have graced Hong Kong screens, namely Chow Yun-Fat, Anthony Wong and Tony Leung (the real Tony Leung, not the fake one). Their performances (especially Chow’s and Tony’s) I think give enough depth to their characters to make them rise above the slightly messy plot. Tony and Chow seem to be having a blast, but not everyone had the fun working with Woo on the film. This was Anthony Wong’s only film with John Woo and he was not to happy on set. Wong felt the film was too comic-book like and didn’t like how Woo treated his actors. This is interesting, as everyone in America who’s worked with Woo had said that he is very polite and kind on the set while in Hong Kong, Woo is sometimes referred to as “the black faced God” being dead serious while working. I wonder how everyone felt about him during the production of Red Cliff?

On watching the film at the Mayfair theater, the audience was really taken by it. I don’t remember hearing so many loud gasps come from the audience since watching the joker do his pencil trick years back. I think this goes to show the quality of the film despite any plot’s short-comings: it still is exciting, keeps the audience hooked and is still talked about today. It set some pretty high standards for the action scenes in an action film so despite it’s flaws, I think Hard Boiled could easily creep in to a list of the top action films of the 1990s.

Sources: [1] [2]

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DVD Hunting in Ottawa’s Chinatown

April 11, 2011

Inspired by this post at the A Hero Never Dies blog, I thought I’d show off what Ottawa’s Chinatown has to offer in terms of Asian DVD selling locations. There are some good places that offer DVDs for those who have decided to not opt into the world of ordering their films online.


Chinatown’s gate was only put in last year, but it’s pretty impressive.
Makes Little Italy‘s look like a joke.

The first place I’d discuss is what I believe is the New Capital Book Store (there’s so many signs here, I don’t know what is called what). Their film section is pretty minimal and I can’t say I’ve actually bought any films there, but they do have decent prices on imports. They also have some film posters there but they are mostly of Asian pop idols. Don’t expect a poster of The 36th Chamber of Shaolin to be waiting for you. I did find that I could’ve got Gallants there instead of ordering it online for a more extravagant price. Ah well, Live and learn.

The store is a bit hidden. The location of it on Google Maps doesn’t exactly show it off to well.


The only picture of the place I have! They are pretty anti-photography there. I suspect secret operations.

The only other place I’d hunt is the curiously titled “Ottopik”. If you could only go to one place in Chinatown for DVDs, I’d recommend this one for some physical film hunting. It’s in walking distance from the other place and you can see it here on Google Maps.


Tons of DVDs (and some blu-rays!) from Hong Kong, Japan and Korea!

They have a fairly decent selection even if some of the stock there is quite old. Some films have been there forever, as I’m pretty sure no one is rushing out to buy a copy of All’s Well that End’s Well ’97. What’s not shown in the photo above is that they even have some VCDs that they are trying to get rid of. They sell them at 4 for $20. Not exactly cheap, but the store is a bit pricey. There’s some unusual choice of films in stock. Next to some erotic themed films there was a copy of Inspector Gadget (?!). Other oddities include imports of some films that do not need to be imported (does anyone need a Hong Kong import of Rush Hour? Didn’t think so!). Other films I have no familiarity with at all. For example:

Happy Naked Christmas DVD
I’m not going to make fun of this as Happy Naked Christmas is potentially a masterpiece.

Ottopik has some blu-rays as well that they will gladly try to sell to you. The last few times I’ve wondered in there, the woman at the counter was quite chatty and has tried to sell me anything I looked at! From Karaoke machines to the blu-ray of Detective D and the Phantom Flame to Korean television series. It’s more amusing than annoying so I’m not bothered by it. She also made sure to mention that if I can’t find what I was looking for, she could order it for me. I’d rather order things myself and avoid the middleman in this case as their orders are just pulling things from Yesasia. Regardless of prices, it’s still fun to browse and see what’s in stock. If you are young or without your own credit card, it’s not a bad alternative to ordering online. It worked for me when I wanted my own copy of Bullet in the Head.

Speaking of Asian films, I remind all Ottawa residents that they should definitely attend the double feature of John Woo’s excellent action flicks Hard Boiled and A Better Tomorrow at the Mayfair Theater in Ottawa on April 12. The current DVD and Blu-Ray of Hard Boiled has dubtitles and I think A Better Tomorrow is only available through import. It’s definitely worth your $6. So cancel your plans and get your butt to the Mayfair! See you there!

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The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman Review

March 30, 2011

No one in my town was excited about The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman. I’m basing this on the fact that I was the only one in the theater when I went to see it. The idea of a private screening is a shame though, as parts of the film are so delightfully psychedelic, that I would love to see how a casual audience would have reacted to it.

Not exactly an anthology film, the slightly confusing story of The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsmen starts with a butcher named Chopper (Liu Xiaoye) who falls for Madam Mei (Kitty Zhang), a woman living in the House of a Thousand Flowers. Chopper attempt to get Mei is interrupted by the swordsman Big Beard (Senggerenqin) and is ejected from the brothel. Chopper meets a stranger who carries a cleaver who tells Chopper a story of about a famous restaurant known for it’s glorious eight-course meals. Only the dwarf chef (Mi Dan) knows how to prepare these meals and takes on an apprentice (Ando Masanobu) to teach his secrets. The apprentice however, has a secret vengeful agenda, that comes to place as the chef tells his apprentice the story about Fat Tang and how he came into possession of the special cleaver.

Butcher, Chef and the Swordsmen plot
Fig 1. Plot structure of the The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsmen

Take that Inception! We don’t have dream within a dream but a story within a story within a story. The plot in the film is scattered with the most interesting one being the second cooking themed story involving the chef. I can’t recall the last time that food has looked so good on film. The singularly-named director Wureshan’s background in television commercials must have had some part in this, but I’d also give praise to the Polish DP Michal Tywonluk.

I can’t exactly say who I would recommend this film too. If you are in it just for the action, the fight scenes are an editing mess with so much quick cutting it’s not easy to make out what’s exactly happening…and when you do it’s usually not as interesting. On the other hand, we have humorous scenes that are filmed exactly like a Street Fighter II battle complete with health bars. Wureshan says that he’s mostly influenced by American cinema, but the story in this film feels very Chinese while the energy and pacing feels more Hong Kong oriented. The acting in the film has it’s fair share of mugging and genuine talent, but it suits the story. Oh, and Kitty Zhang on the poster is a bit of a tease.

Kitty Zhang in The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman

Yes, her rose-printed head is the most prominent one on the poster, but she’s hardly in this. Not that it’s a problem as I throughly had a good time watching The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsmen but I can’t say I’m rushing out to see it again or grab it on DVD. If what I mentioned above peaks your interest than I encourage you to seek it out. I’m definitely up for whatever Wuershan will release next time. Maybe cut it down to one story next time?

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Ottawa Cinema: April

March 22, 2011

Sometimes I find it difficult to live in Ottawa as a film fan. All the quality indie theaters I love show films far too late or on days where I’m juggling other responsibilities and can not make it out see ’em. In contrast, I live within walking distance to a multiplex, but they seem far more interesting in promoting Beastly than anything else. No thanks.

But I should be thankful for what I get. Because in April I get probably the best double feature I could hope for:

Ottawa Mayfair John Woo Double Feature

Yes! 35mm prints of two John Woo/Chow Yun-fat collaborations are definitely a positive thing. It’s playing on April 12th. I’ll be there. Not a bad excuse to blog about two masterpieces, right?

Another film of interest is being shown on April 1st when the Mayfair plays Enzo G. Castellari’s Keoma. I can’t say I’ve seen it, but I have heard nothing but good things about it. I’m sad to announce that I’ll be out of town when they are showing a print of Once Upon a Time in China II, but you can’t win them all right? I encourage anyone from Ottawa to make it out to see it on Friday.

Before I leave town for the weekend, I did manage to find one theater that is showing The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsmen, but that’s a 20 minute drive out of town to get there. Ouch. The only day I’d be able to see it would be tomorrow. Should I attempt the drive? Or pass?

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Three Theatrical Hong Kong Films in 2011

March 18, 2011

Three Hong Kong action films are receiving a theatrical distribution in North America this year. I’m surprised they are pushing these titles over some others (cough cough Reign of Assassins) but I suppose someone thinks these have some potential to make a buck. The films in question are The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsmen, Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, and Yuen Woo-Ping’s True Legend. First let’s look at Legend of the Fist.

I’m sold! I hope it attracts some attention outside the already converted Hong Kong fan base. I’m giving brownie points to oddly named distributor (Well Go USA) for promoting the film as uncut and undubbed as well. They aren’t pulling a Weinstein or Miramax on us.

This lack of cuts could hurt the film’s reception however as if it’s anything like the other Chen Zhen films, then it will come off as insanely nationalistic. The xenophobic nature towards the Japanese in these films can only leave a bad taste in my mouth considering. These goes double considering the tsunami and power plant disasters in Japan. I’ll see how much I can stomach in this one. The trailer promotes itself as being from the director of Infernal Affairs but I think it should also mention the Andrew Lau’s other credentials.

Legend of the Fist Trailer Andrew Lau

Way more accurate. Politics aside, I’m still a sucker for how the whole thing looks. Having Donnie Yen and Anthony Wong doing their thing doesn’t hurt either. I’ll be paying top dollar for it when/if it swings into my town. Next is The Butcher, the Chef, and the Swordsmen which is coming out tomorrow! It hasn’t even been released in Hong Kong yet!

There’s not a lot of hype about this movie. It’s an anthology film partially funded by Fox making it a Chinese-Hong-Kong-US production. If three production countries aren’t enough for you, it has five screenwriters! Multiple-writers syndrome usually ruins a film for me, as it often becomes a pretzel-based plot that’s unsure of it’s own direction and tone. The only multi-writer exceptions I can think of are Children of Men and 48 Hrs. which make it through several writers without a scratch of confusion.

I’m baffled by the poster’s statement on Doug Liman presenting this film. I had to look him up as I was drawing blanks on why his name would mean anything on the poster would mean anything to anyone. Turns out he made Mr. and Mrs. Smith, Jumper and that Bourne film that wasn’t made by Paul Greengrass.

The

I guess he had his hand in the release of this? Liman has little to no following and it’s almost as jarring as reading critical acclaim from Brett Rhatner on my Jackie Chan DVDs. Let’s hope the gamble pays to release this pays off. Film Business Asia gave the film a good review, but also seemed to praise something described as “a whorehouse rap number”. Hmm. Unless this comes to a theater near me, I’ll pass.

Lastly, we have True Legend. It does not have an American trailer yet, but it’s got Yuen Woo-Ping directing and features Michelle Yeoh. Woo-Ping hasn’t directed a film since 1996 as he’s been busy making everyone else look good in The Matrix, Kill Bill, and Kung Fu Hustle. Why the huge break? I guess doing action scenes for top directors pays more than doing you own films but you’d think he’d get the directing bug again sooner. Speaking of AWOL directors, what’s been keeping Ringo Lam busy these days? Did Ringo give up everything after overdosing on Van Damme or was working on Triangle with Johnnie To and Tsui Hark the only work he could get?

Either way, it’ll be great to see something that says “Directed by Yuen Woo-Ping” on the screen again, so I’m ready for it. Let’s see how it’s being promoted. There’s tons of angles to approach this at, so what have you got for me poster?

True Legend American Poster Yuen Woo Ping

Aw, c’mon. What a weak teaser. This is typical “no faith in the film” poster making where the production company even hides the fact that it’s an Asian film. They could at least boast something about his American work but here there is nothing! Instead, we have a fist which is…leaking on a wall? I’m lost. That’s clearly black ink splashed around it but the fist is cracking the wall. Lamest graffiti inspired poster ever! Let’s hope that when it’s get closer to it’s premiere we’ll have something nicer to look at.

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