Pale Sky (1998)

Written, produced & directed by: Yeung Yat Tak
Starring: Sammo Hung, Kenny Bee, Alice Lau, Emotion Cheung, Richard Ng & Helena Law Lan

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Medicine salesman Wan (Sammo Hung) is pronounced dead after a car accident and at the same time another traffic victim needs an organ transplant. Wan carries an organ donor card and the doctors promptly make sure a lost life saves another. Problems arise when Wan actually awakens on the way to the morgue and finds out the organ taken from him was his penis (thanks to his friend Jacky, played by Emotion Cheung, filling that in on his donor card as a prank). Desperate to get it back he hires himself a lawyer and begins the search for the man with his manhood. It turns out to be Michael (Kenny Bee from Shanghai Blues), a wealthy businessman. Instead of a bitter fight in the courtroom, the two actually become friends and Wan realizes he may not be the sole victim here...

After reading that synopsis you may think that the writer/producer/director credit is a typo, surely must be Wong Jing instead? No, this comedy-drama is the brainchild of Yeung Yat Tak (Bomb Lover) and in the end he manages to make a movie with a sweet message. He touches upon a handful of themes, some more than others, but what he truly wants to say, in all it's simplicity, is that we have to examine our lives, discover the positive aspects that outnumbers a physical loss like this one. Does it really result in a life of unhappiness? Wan and Michael will make difficult choices during the the course of the film but before that, through their friendship, they both reexamine how they look at things in life, something that wouldn't have happened if the accident hadn't.

Drama and comedy can sit right next to each other in Hong Kong movies but chances are that the comedy side of things will be outrageously broad while the drama is better handled. It's something you expect after a while and I did, going into Pale Sky. The broad comedy does reside in the first half of the movie but what Yeung takes it down a few notches so it doesn't erase or makes you forget about the human aspects of the story. Wan's sidekick Jacky is the one who gives us the verbal and physical comedy but he's a pure annoyance. He exists for no other reasons than for comedic purposes and I would've been happy to have him cut out entirely. With Sammo, there are crazier moments when we see him desperately trying to see his penis again, acting like a madman in his attempts (cue gay humour). Somehow it isn't as broad as it sounds. Wan is indeed very irrational but the reaction of seeing something that belonged to him, now belong to someone else feels realistic and even human. Gradually director Yeung Yat Tak leaves the comedy behind him and uses it in selected places instead, where a laugh is a nice relief amongst the seriousness. Drama dominates more when the characters have to make their choices and for instance in Michael's case, we see an unexpectedly dark scene where his traffic accident comes back to haunt him.

Yeung jumps between a few subplots that for the most part feels well fitted into the narrative. Certain moments one can sense him directing with full dedication and others letting himself be a bit sloppy. One subplot that feels totally out of place is one where Jacky injects himself with drugs to learn more about the penis transplant and to redeem himself. Here Yeung sets a darker mood AND employs wacky physical comedy that, again, should've been cut out. We don't like or care for this character and the movie would've flowed better without him. Movie rules apparently are that a stupid, comedic sidekick must be written into a movie like this.

Not fully developed but nice is the subplot featuring Wan's mother (played by Helena Law Lan) who suffers from Alzheimer's. She has understood that her son is gone so when he shows up she naturally thinks he's a ghost. She therefore constantly tries to burn gifts for him to have in the afterlife. These scenes are nicely acted both when Sammo & Helena are alone and when Kenny Bee tags along. Which brings us to more of a technical aspect. Now and then Yeung stops and for the calmer moments between characters, he lets it play in one distanced shot. A much appreciated direction with me since I love to see actors do their thing uninterrupted. Maybe I should go and see plays more often?

There's not a huge amount of score composed for Pale Sky but the majority of what's here isn't very memorable to be honest. Cues in a few different scenes are so badly choosen that it kills dramatic moments but the use of a simple piano piece does nice things for the mood in other scenes. Many of Hong Kong cinemas most memorable romantic movies uses the solo piano and that simplicity always enhances greatly in my view. Kenny Bee himself along with Wing Lo, Edward Chan and Charles Lee are credited for the score.

Sammo doesn't deliver one kick or punch in this and instead gets another chance to flex his acting muscles. He doesn't disappoint. Wan says at one point, in reference to how he's supposed to act in court, I'm no Chow Yun-Fat. While that is true in terms of acting skill, I genuinely find it more thrilling to watch Sammo act than fight. As a film Pale Sky divides it's time between comedy and drama, same goes for Sammo's performance. He doesn't play the comedy as something out of character but makes it part of Wan. The comedy is good but it's the dramatic work of his that shines. The disappointment in Wan after losing his best friend is evident as well as the happiness when he realizes how much support he has from the ones closest to him. When befriending Michael he gets a chance to kill off his preconceived notions of the upper class because both are victims and social status doesn't matter because of it.

Kenny Bee seems to have grown into a better actor over the years and he has nice chemistry with his co-star. Both are also in tune with each other when it comes to the comedy. The big acting revelation in Kenny comes when we see the darker sides of Michael's persona, the unsure and scared side. You can't keep up appearances forever and unlike Wan, the support around him is not as strong. In good supporting roles we find Richard Ng as the father of Wan's girlfriend. That creates a funny aspect of the story because the boyfriend and father characters are closer to each others age. Richard reprises acting we've seen him do in comedies before but adds nice, small dramatic touches as well. Already mentioned but Helena Law Lan is terrific and would go on playing senile again the following year in Wilson Yip's Bullets Over Summer.

Yeung Yat Tak's Pale Sky has it's good and bad points but in the end is a surprisingly worthwhile comedy-drama. A simple but sincere message is baked into the film plus Sammo the actor on good form is undoubtedly a good reason to recommend this film.

The DVD:

Widesight's disc is framed at 1.85:1 and the print is clean all throughout. It's very soft and bright though but you don't expect great work from this now defunct company. Acceptable and watchable.

The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track is, like many other Widesight 5.1 tracks, all crammed into the center speaker. No obvious problems in the sound though besides it sounding quite flat. A Mandarin 5.1 dub is also included.

The English subtitles are burned in and while they presents no huge problems in terms of grammar, about 4-5 scenes has white underneath the subtitles which makes them very hard to read. No extras are included.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson