The Time You Need A Friend (1985)
Directed by: John Woo
Ku Ren (Suen Yuet - City On Fire, Pedicab Driver) and Shen Bien (David Tao - Run Tiger Run) are two retired silent movie comedians that are brought out to perform together on a charity TV-special for disabled children. The problem is that they both hate each others guts and are in no mood to settle their past problems, only make them worse. The surroundings do their best to solve the grave situation as the date for the television appearance draws near...
A remake of Herbert Ross's adaptation of Neil Simon's famed stage play The Sunshine Boys (the movie version starred Walther Matthau and George Burns, the latter receiving an Academy Award for his performance), John Woo's second film for Cinema City today remains an obscurity in his filmography due to of course a now out of print Mainland China dvd release but also all attention was not on Woo fully until the year after when he directed A Better Tomorrow for Cinema City. The Time You Need A Friend gives us a mix of Woo's comedy roots but with a touch of warmth and character that would make its into his action work subsequently.
A Hong Kong/Taiwan production, without a knowledge of any frame of The Sunshine Boys, I can't vouch for whether Woo and co-writer Raymond Wong lifted entire scenarios from Ross's film or just the template but for the sake of being forgiving, I'm going with the latter until proven potentially wrong. In any case, Woo, shooting in scope once more, handles his multi-mood material with grace, which is kind of a surprise.
The film certainly largely is a loud comedy with drama inserted at appropriate moments and initiated viewers of Hong Kong cinema will know that these can very much be contrasting moods and frankly not workable because of it. Raymond Wong and Woo knows this and takes on the challenge by making this loud, broad comedy hysterics clearly an integral part of our grumpy characters. Re-uniting for the first time in years, Ku and Shen carry out their aggressions towards each other in an actual aggressive manner so to salvage any form of humanity at least towards the good cause they're drafted in for, it's the surroundings that steer the boat towards clearing up old beefs but at the sight of innocence and humanity, Ku Ren and Shen Bien find their affection and respect for another. Another obstacle to actually overcome is whether or not their presence is welcome in show business anymore, portions of the film that plays out the strongest as the old men's newly found friendship must unite against a cynical TV-business.
Woo from the opening frame showcases his love for silent comedy and he celebrates great triumphs with actors Suen Yet and David Tao during several of their "bouts" as he plays out all manner of happenings with timing akin to any of the great silent comedy classics. It's not only endearing in execution and genuinely an insane part of the characters but it's more funny than any comedy I've seen Woo direct. The low's Ku Ren and Shen Bien go to hassle and hurt each other, while later supporting each other hinges a lot on chemistry and that Woo achieves in spades with Suen Yuet and David Tao. Grumpy old men is an easy direction to give but it works greatly. The two are also called upon to appear in created vintage footage of their actual past acts as well as reenacting them in the modern era of the film, something the men seems to cherish wholeheartedly. It may not actually be funny but it's a narrative design to show how out of touch they are with today's audiences. A later training sequence in preparation for the broadcast is a highlight also as Ku and Shen go through seemingly needed and unnecessary preparations, something again the actors perform with comedic joy (and the only usage of Woo's trademark slow-motion occurs here...for those of that are keeping track).
In a way you can argue that Woo and Wong's script really is too simply planned out as the structure seems to go conveniently through the motions, starting with the comedy and then going into the drama as Ku and Shen get their act together. Yet that's Woo's great, big compliment here as you need not complicate matters any further. He gets heartwarming results when the actors easily and confidently switches moods into the resigned old men that they are, playing much to a welcome low-key nature to the melodrama. Which is also a surprise considering Woo's handling of such scenes in his future actioners but A Better Tomorrow for instance was out to echo more of director Chang Cheh's style. The Time You Need A Friend is possibly an ode to Herbert Ross's choices or any other Hollywood movie Woo cherished over the years.
So despite going on a lot of assumptions here regarding the originality and validity of John Woo's work on The Time You Need A Friend, you can't possibly neglect what he brings, which is a genuinely funny, endearing and suitably low-key heartfelt story about two grumpy old men coming to terms with their own past and facing the immediate future with a humanistic outlook. Despite praise above, the film is never outstanding or a masterpiece but then again, it's hard to find any flaws, especially with the terrific and hilarious double act in actors Sun Yuet and David Tao at hand.
Mainland label WA offers up a 2.39:1 framed presentation (approximately). Heavier print damage can be spotted at times and lines through the print but overall it's a fairly colourful, sharp and solid transfer of an older film.
The original Mandarin language track is presented in Dolby Digital 5.1 and as usual coming from WA, the track contains an awful echo. Play it through the center speaker if you have a 5.1 setup as the original mono can be found there. Dialogue is clear and the track seems in fairly good shape despite the echo present.
The English subtitles throws in a few errors on occasion but never fails to come through with the translating. A set of Chinese subtitles is also available. There are no extras.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson