Hong Kong 1941 (1984)
by: Leung Po-Chi
the DVD at:
at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1985:
Hong Kong 1941 certainly received its share of attention when Hong Kong Legends remastered edition was brought out in 2001 but as with other drama performances from Chow Yun-Fat, the large masses are really not seeking out gems like this or An Autumn's Tale. It's a shame because as cool as Chow Yun-Fat is as an action hero, it's the dramatic elements to his acting and characters that has always been THE highlight since my introduction to his work with John Woo. Even if Hong Kong 1941 came out 2 years prior to Chow's big breakthrough in A Better Tomorrow, he had already accumulated much dramatic skills (had a successful TV-career in series like The Bund and starred in acclaimed movies such as Ann Hui's The Story of Woo-Viet) and it's on display in this award winning, low-budget drama set in a turbulent time in Hong Kong history, December 1941.
Fay (Chow Yun-Fat), Nam (Cecilia Yip) and Keung (Alex Man) are three young Hong Kong citizens that becomes friends through their hopes and dreams during the pending invasion by Japan. Nam and Keung are lovers but he's not accepted by her family as a suiting husband. The three takes the strength of their dreams and tries to flee Hong Kong during the invasion but fails to do so. They will have to try and stick together during the dark times that will follow...
Produced by D & B (Dickson Poon and Sammo Hung's production company), Hong Kong 1941 is a splendid example of finely tuned storytelling but even more, a superior showcase of what you can achieve on a low budget. Told in flashback with voice-over by Cecilia Yip's character to guide us along, this drama beginning just a few days before Japan's occupation of Hong Kong on Christmas Day 1941 begins quietly enough, almost pleasant. This is one of many moods that the film will go through and it does so remarkably well.
Director Leung Po-Chi first faces the task of getting the main characters Fay, Nam and Keung together and we couldn't ask for a more natural meeting between the three. These times prior to the invasion are portrayed as not oppressed times but clearly tense ones. That means that the Hong Kong people are seen as joyous in bursts but inside, quite strongly so, they are dreaming of a better living somewhere else in the world. Hong Kong definitely already is a harsh place to live in, jobs are few, pay is low and the rice hard to come by. There's an early scene where Chow Yun-Fat's character, the incredibly good hearted anchor of this film, tries to smuggle himself out of Hong Kong by boat but is there immediately faced with being an underdog in order to get out. No difference than staying and not what the dream of going to Gold Mountain, as he describes it, is all about. Instead through the pain and good times, he gets aquatinted with two young lovers that are the picture perfect image of hope still brewing, even if they somewhat share the mindset many Hong Kong people are in at this point.
The mood set by Leung Po-Chi isn't about the oppression, the poverty or depression and compared to what we're going to see, it's kind of lighthearted and suitably low key. Only at times throughout the movie, the melodrama kicks into high gear but the directorial choices are so spot on throughout. When Hong Kong 1941 then shows the invasion of Hong Kong by Japan (through a wonderful sequence that can't show too much because of the low budget but doesn't have to) the film turns more grim and if the darkness had a bit of joy prior, it's that that holds the horror now. Hong Kong people are forced to divert from British laws and ways (even street signs are changed to feature Chinese writing only) and with that comes an anarchy that turns the people against themselves, just so you can have your rice for instance. The director isn't always concentrating on Fay, Nam and Keung but makes sure he conveys their development through all this eventually. Most of the people around turns selfish quick but these young ones do not. They instead, mainly Fay, uses the invasion to their advantage and still keeps dreaming despite many hardships along the way.
I described the first part of the movie as being lighthearted while the second really holds some disturbing violence and imagery. The anarchy generates looting, meaningless raping of the country and the critique presented by the filmmakers is a valid one. They don't take sides, to me it seems like that anyway, because it's equally a comment on how Hong Kong people turn bad but obviously it is due to the invasion of a foreign force. The event presented in the film are true still today, it's human nature like it's always been. As we roll along, we realize that the running time is filled with surprises. We're not seeing a conventional narrative and all up to the end there are revelations, shocks and character development of the highest level to keep us interested. It's a story that deals with what it takes to survive and while, as I described, very much low-key, it hits you where it aims; the head, the stomach and the heart.
The production design or rather the standing design is a star in its own in Hong Kong 1941. You can almost draw comparisons to another D & B classic, also starring Chow Yun-Fat, An Autumn's Tale. That production also utilized an already standing design, New Your city, to superb effect. Same is true for this movie and Leung Po-Chi here uses the run down architecture of Macau for his 1940s Hong Kong in a state of poverty. It's really believable and another reason why the film is so involving. Lai Siu-Ming's awardwinning cinematography captures all this wonderfully well. It's clean, crisp and very natural looking. Again, farfetched, but also something applicable to An Autumn's Tale.
Leung Po-Chi himself appears in the movie as a crazy old man everyone calls The Emperor. Totally insane but his direction of actors is far from that. He gets a natural and expressive performance from a relatively newcomer at that time, Cecilia Yip as Nam. You couldn't ask for a better look either as she's young, innocent looking and looks perfect standing next to either of her co-stars, Alex Man being one of them. I was only familiar with him through his bad guy turns in the average triad movies Rich & Famous and Tragic Hero so it wasn't with a whole lot of positive remarks about him that I went into Hong Kong 1941. Alex was an experienced TV-actor before and the slightly ruffian character is in good hands. There's an ignorance in him and he's someone not too far off the criminal side. He longs more than the others and becomes irrational at times because of it. You understand why Nam is in love with him though since he has a very sincere and loveable side to him despite shortcomings.
I wouldn't say the movie belongs to Chow Yun-Fat but he certainly makes an impression from frame one. You know perfectly well the different accolades he has received over the years regarding his acting and it applies to Hong Kong 1941 as well. Charismatic, suave, handsome and the character of Fay is one with a truly good heart. He represents one of the few Hong Kong people didn't become unselfish or gave up. However, as with other oppressed people throughout history, many didn't have a choice so it's not like the other citizens are totally unsympathetic in their ways. With Chow, director Leung Po-Chi effectively toys with the audience in terms of where the love triangle is going and Chow's strength at conveying those subtle but ever so important beats is nothing short of perfect. Stuart Ong, Wu Ma, Paul Chun and Sek Kin makes for a superb supporting cast as well.
Hong Kong Legends wisely choose not to market Hong Kong 1941 as an action film, despite the 18 rating by the BBFC. They instead gave the film a chance to strike a chord with the crowd that perhaps knew of or wanted to see who Chow Yun-Fat REALLY was. That's not neglecting the other strengths of the film though. It's an 80s drama classic with rare attention to detail in every department.
Hong Kong Legends presents the movie in a 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer. The print has been restored but I have a feeling it is actually one of those Hong Kong titles that was stored better than most over the years. Regardless it's a very vibrant transfer with zero dirt and strong detail and colours. Only the beginning seemed to have inseparable damage as it is very grainy but that clears up soon.
Hong Kong Legends didn't opt to remix the original Cantonese track into Dolby Digital 5.1 but instead presents it in 2.0. I can understand why as it sounds harsh and distorted at times but it works reasonably well and I prefer it to even a good remix. A 5.1 English dub is also included.
The optional English subtitles are excellent and feature no apparent errors while also conveying the story clearly. Dutch subtitles are also included.
Not packed with extras but the disc contains some worthwhile ones. We start with the feature length audio commentary with Hong Kong cinema expert Bey Logan. Bey had to do more research than usual since the film offers a historical perspective as well but that hard work turns into a terrific track. As usual, Logan goes over the careers of main performers and background faces, info that is familiar to us from prior commentaries. Director Leung Po-Chi gets a fairly extensive background check and I'm sure not all of the fans knew of his directing work in the West.
Bey clearly is in love with the film and points out several of its strengths such as the use of camera language and no dialogue to convey important aspects to the story as well as acting techniques. Both Chow Yun-Fat and Alex Man comes from a TV-background and Bey talks about how that work ethic is carried over to feature film. The history behind the events that occur and doesn't occur in the film is discussed which is a good help for those not overly familiar with this time in Hong Kong. Towards the end you might be surprised to hear that a certain legendary action director contributed to the film also. In his rapid fire narration and delivery of facts, some errors occur such as Logan claiming The Story Of Woo-Viet and Boat People are the same film.
The Interview Gallery contains two separate programs. Actress Cecilia Yip sits down to discuss Hong Kong 1941 and her career in a session shot specifically for this dvd. Cecilia speaks in Cantonese about her starting out acting and the interview quickly moves onto discussing the movie at hand. Yip mentions working with her male co-stars and how it was intimidating at first because of their star status. She goes over her motivations as an actress and her view on how you mix a political message into a film like this. Her admiration for Chow is again mentioned towards the end when she relates to an anecdote regarding the shoot of Peace Hotel. Cecilia looks fantastic and makes for a pleasant interviewee, making the 27 minutes and 55 seconds running time fly by. On my Pioneer player, the English subtitles could not be turned off.
(from the Cecilia Yip and Chow Yun-Fat interviews)
An older interview with Chow Yun-Fat (I'm guessing it was shot in 1993 when Chow visited the UK) is next. Chow is very charming and speaks, in English, mostly about his work with John Woo. Some of the stories have been heard but it was very interesting to hear about his contributions to the script of A Better Tomorrow. Hong Kong 1941 is not touched upon however but this 12 minutes, 39 seconds segment is a welcome inclusion.
Trailer Selection contains the excellent Hong Kong Legends trailer for the feature as well as its original theatrical trailer. The HKL promotional trailer for another Chow Yun-Fat vehicle, The Postman Strikes Back (directed by Ronny Yu), also appears. The HKL trailer for Hong Kong 1941 initially credited Poon Man-Kit as director but that was corrected in time for the actual release. It still incorrectly claims Lai Siu-Ming won his cinematography award in Taiwan. He did receive an award but in Hong Kong the subsequent year.
Further Titles holds HKL Trailers for the following films: Miracles, Eastern Condors, 2000 A.D, Game Of Death, Beast Cops, Once Upon A Time In China 2, Iron Fisted Monk, In The Line Of Duty, Game Of Death 2 and Encounters Of The Spooky Kind.
The Biography Showcase is a 23 page history of leading man Chow Yun-Fat and it offers a rushed but decent look at the successful career of Chow up until Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The Photo Gallery features 28 promotional stills from the film. Nothing to get excited about.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson