Red & Black (1991)
Directed by: Andrew Kam
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Japanese troops invade a small village in China but the massacre is added upon by the presence of a Blood Demon who's possessed one of the soldiers. Chor (Lau Kong) sacrifices himself in order to stop the demon, the cave it originated from is sealed up and his young son Kong is raised by another family. When we cut to the Cultural Revolution in progress many years later, we see Kong (Lam Ching-Ying) being viewed upon with jealousy by the other son of his adoptive family, Tung (Tony Leung Ka-Fai). The latter therefore engages himself heavily in the revolution movement and sees his chance to expel Kong by claiming he's an anti-revolutionary. However the seal that has kept the Blood Demon out is broken and it goes on its possession rampage, eventually planting itself firmly in General Lui (Guan Shan). Chor and Kong has to unite, forget past differences and get Lui's daughter Shan (Joey Wong) to believe her father is an evil in red...
Not too subtle but very unique spin on a tried and tired genre by 1991, Andrew Kam does take the combination of a drama of historical change and the spiritual battle that goes along with it very seriously and lands his Red & Black on that grade of focused, scary and ALMOST thoroughly involving. He fails when portraying a few of the characters but puts forth such strength in the way he combines his elements. With a terrific streak of films with much blood, grit and teeth (I.e. the co-directed The Big Heat and Fatal Termination), Kam extends his eye for the effectiveness in gloom as he opens his flick in the 1940s.
It's mayhem on a budget but nonetheless very intense and a clear, ambitious, alluring signal of his intentions when revisiting a history close to his heart and the desire to provide straight faced genre entertainment. The era of the Cultural Revolution is no less manic or distressing compared to the Japanese invasion, with or without the presence of a Blood Demon. The familiar plot threads about how people join in on the words of the revolution out of necessity rather than belief in the movement isn't so much a hindrance for Kam's vision despite it feeling like recycled scenes from elsewhere. It's effective as a drama when we see Tony Leung's Tung finding the words of Mao to be a tool to get rid of a brother he never wanted. It's effective because there's clearly no patience or room for belief in the spiritual by many characters. No one listens to anyone talking. It's just a lot of loud voices either firmly believing in the politics or shouting loudly or long enough in the hope that the era will pass (Wu Ma's character fits this description). Unification is praised but a different unification against another red threat proves to be the main focus for a small number of characters. Reconciliation is clearly going to come via tragedy come ending time as well but Andrew Kam pretty much spellbinds us via the atmosphere provided when speaking of history in combination with the supernatural elements. Fortunately there's therefore no room for comedy as Billy Lau was not cast in this. There's room for humans however but Kam doesn't convince thoroughly that we should care for them all.
Despite taking a suitable half hour to REALLY get Red & Black off the ground, when Kam goes into romantic territory between Tony Leung's and Joey Wong's characters it feels very much like a failure because we're way more invested in the battles that are looming. In an odd twist the movie doesn't fall because it fails in what is certainly meant as a crucial corner stone to the story in intent. The reconciliation between the brothers is handled in a basic way that falls in line more with what works as a perfect vision for the movie too. Because as real as the times portrayed are, this is still handled as genre entertainment and it's a fast paced, eerie time because of it.
No one will walk away having NOT been affected by the human tragedy but you should instead walk away with a feeling of having witnessed something very entertaining, dark, eerie and that it got you to the edge of your seat. We therefore more fondly remember Lam Ching-Ying's Chor growing into the role of reluctant hero, the low budget ways to create an unseen Blood Demon presence and the theme of sacrifice ringing true within the battle in the Asian tinged horror genre Andrew Kam deals with here. So whatever weaknesses present that were attempted to take Red & Black into even more respected territory, they are smothered by awesomeness that is "just" there to provide escapist entertainment. The words of Mao as a plotline can co-exist with such a filmmaking choice.
The DVD (Winson):
Video: 1.71:1 non-anamorphic widescreen.
Audio: Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 and Mandarin Dolby Digital 2.0.
Subtitles: English, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson