A War Named Desire (2000)

Directed by: Alan Mak
Written by: Alan Mak, Joe Ma & Clement Cheng
Producer: Joe Ma
Starring: Francis Ng, Daniel Chan, Gigi Leung, Dave Wong & Sam Lee

Buy the DVD at:
HK Flix.com

Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2001:
Best Supporting Actress (Gigi Leung)

Director Alan Mak, together with Andrew Lau, scored box office gold at the end of last year when Infernal Affairs opened. Andrew's earlier directed work wasn't talked about in a positive way but people seemed to always mention Alan Mak's A War Named Desire as a must see. Produced by Joe Ma and starring Francis Ng are also enough reasons to check out a movie.

The movie opens with a shot of two wounded men driving down a highway. They are the triad Charles (Francis Ng) and his younger brother Jones (Daniel Chan from The Lucky Guy). Cut to the past and we see Jones arriving in Thailand with his girlfriend Jess (Pace Wu) to reclaim the money his brother stole from the family years ago. Jones gets it after being forced to kill off someone who betrayed Charles but his stubbornness leads him to the wrong place at the wrong time. He ends up being set up for murder by rival triad Henry (David Lee from Herman Yau's From The Queen To The Chief Executive) and it's up to Charles to execute what's going to restore peace in the triad community...

To watch a movie without any beforehand knowledge can turn out both ways and in the case of A War Named Desire, it turned out to be a powerful movie in the end. In my review of Infernal Affairs, I talked about Alan Mak being the story driven guy and Andrew Lau the visionary. After watching A War Named Desire, it's very evident that Alan is also into opening a movie up visually but he also has the skill of combining that with storytelling.

Triadmovies, triadmovies, Young And Dangerous 15, triadmovies...kind of tires you after a while doesn't it? A War Named Desire is one of those movies but by setting the movie almost entirely in Thailand, it creates a different feel (most triadmovies are set in urban Hong Kong) even if we've seen most of this before. The story doesn't give us any huge surprises in terms of character development or content but it's executed with such confidence that it rises above the conventions of the genre. The theme regarding loyalty doesn't come off as worn either and it's the mentioned confidence and assurance behind the camera that makes the familiarity factor almost nonexistent. What hurts Alan Mak's movie ever so slightly is that in the beginning there's quite a lot characters introduced and we're unsure how everyone relates to each other. This becomes very much clearer when the main plot kicks in though. Also David Lee's bad guy character is the one thing that feels like a big old cliché. There's nothing unusual about him and he isn't a very compelling character. David is a good actor though as seen in From The Queen To The Chief Executive.

As I talked about before, Alan Mak seems like the kind of director who wants to accomplish visual storytelling in parts. In A War Named Desire there's one section of the film that almost boils over with intense camera tricks such as undercranking and scenes are played out in still frames only. To me, it seemed more like a testing ground for these type of things rather than trying to actually say something with visual trickery. Ok, it's there to show the intensity inside of and surrounding the characters but it's rare when it's actually needed. Have to say that all this did not bother me very much though and I think Alan Mak can and will fine-tune this style to create a genuinely compelling effect. What's also noticeable stylewise is the strong cinematography, a strongly coloured cinematography. When I say strong I do mean good despite the dramatic and coloured look of the film. DP Chan Chi Ying's (Bakery Amour) work is greatly enhanced by the music (more on that below) and you are actually pulled into this shady world for 90 minutes. Not that I think the plot needed to be done with 'cool' and hip photography but it's definitely a well integrated aspect into the whole.

We also get to experience a fair amount of scenes with gunplay courtesy of action director Nicky Lui. The intention isn't to technically blow away Hong Kong cinema's best shoot-outs but in the context of where we are in the story, they work very well. The bloodshed rises and rises and the climax that takes place during the Thai New Year celebrations is a real standout. Peter Cheung's editing is really good in this sequence as well. The score by Mark Lui is a real driving force that makes this movie really powerful in the end. In the beginning of the film, the camera language isn't intense but the events within are that because of Mark's pounding score. Throughout we are then treated to a mix of both acoustic guitars and electronic music. The overall mood of the music is dark and Mark helps Alan realize that through his music.

So Good...'s favourite Francis Ng (if you hadn't already noticed) brings to the screen another excellent performance. Charles is calm and assured but when he snaps he's truly intense and effective. Francis plays the character in a more subtle way but in the action finale we see the facial acting and coolness that, in the past, he have displayed. A War Named Desire is one of the better examples of that side to Francis acting. Versatility applies to his acting skills and to see an example of that, watch Bakery Amour and this movie.

David Chan's character is young and stubborn but at the same time very determined, which both hurts him and works in his favor. Daniel is young, with not much credits under his belt and is the weak link in the cast. That sort of works because just like the character, he learns as the movie goes on. Dave Wong and Sam Lee are both good but the real revelation was Gigi Leung (from La Brassiere). It's a tougher role where she's pretty adept with a gun and she immerses herself very nicely into the role. That the academy decided to nominate her was probably because of a scene later in the film that is just....unbelieveable.

Alan Mak's A War Named Desire may not be noticed among all the triad movies out there but I should simply recommend that you go out and get this powerful action-thriller. It's not a film that will get 8 sequels and 5 spin off's. I guarantee you that.

The DVD:

Mei Ah presents the movie in it's original 1.85:1 aspect ratio. This is a very good transfer that displays the many colours nice and it contains almost no print damage whatsoever. Some scenes are a little soft but fact remains that this is a good effort from Mei Ah.

The Cantonese language track comes in Dobly Digital 5.1 and 2.0. It's also a strong track that uses all channels to draw you into the intensity of the film. Surrounds in particular sounded very good on my 2.0 setup. Same channel options applies to the Mandarin dub.

The English subtitles were of high quality and only 3 or 4 spelling errors turned up throughout the movie. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also selectable.

The Data Bank has the usual useless plot synopsis and cast & crew listing. A trailer for Love Paradox is on the disc but, as with some other Mei Ah dvd's, no trailer for the feature movie itself. Very disappointing.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson