Peace Hotel (1995)

Written & directed by: Wai Ka-Fai
Producer: John Woo
Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Cecilia Yip, Chin Ho, Lau Shun & Lawrence Ng

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Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1996:
Best Original Film Song Yuen shuen yan nei (Entirely For You)
Music: Alex San
Lyrics: Erica Lee
Performed by: Ling Cass Pang

Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1996:
Best Actor (Chow Yun-Fat)
Best Actress (Cecilia Yip)
Best Cinematography (Wong Wing-Hung)
Best Art Direction (Hai Chung-Man & Yau Wai Ming)
Best Costume & Make Up Design (Ng Lei Lo)
Best Original Film Score (Cacine Wong & Healthy Poon)

Peace Hotel is a film that is not widely discussed but only known for being Chow Yun-Fat's last Hong Kong movie before he went to Hollywood to make The Replacement Killers. This movie also marked the directorial debut of Wai Ka-Fai and since then he has shared directing duties with Johnnie To on a few Milkyway productions. So a last and a first for actor and director respectively.

Chow Yun-Fat plays The Killer, a much talked about man who for unknown reasons was behind a blood drenched massacre 10 years back. Now he runs the Peace Hotel, a safe house for criminals who can live there without questions asked. The peace and calm is disrupted when a woman (Cecilia Yip from Hong Kong 1941) arrives and claims to be The Killer's long lost woman in order to get a room at the hotel. It turns out she is a low-grade conwoman and a thief, traits that The Killer greatly detests her for. Soon a gang of men shows up at the hotel demanding their revenge of the murder of their boss, an act committed by the newly arrived woman. The Killer then is faced with two options, either quickly get rid of the unwanted guest or stand by his sworn principle to protect anyone who wishes to stay at the hotel....

Fulltime Killer and Fat Choi Spirit were two movies where Wai Ka-Fat had a co-directing credit and they were two quite bad movies in my opinion. It was then difficult to know what to expect from this Hong Kong western because of the mediocre movies mentioned but also the fact that I had no idea what Wai Ka Fai's style or qualities really was. After watching the film one gets the impression that he doesn't want to be stylish unless necessary but there were some really nice intercutting between flashbacks and present as well as the same editing technique being used before action scenes. The latter could have something to with John Woo being the producer but I'm not taking anything away from Wai Ka-Fai's work.

Clear from the start is that this movie had some money put into it and our director nicely combines showing off the costume- and production design without compensating the need to push things forward in terms of story. He distances himself from the camera and let us watch the movie instead. That of course is logical since an MTV style of camera movement and filmmaking wouldn't at all fit into a period piece. Also Wai Ka-Fai surrounds himself with some veterans behind the camera like art director Hai Chung Man (the director of Anna Magdalena) and cinematographer Wong Wing-Hung (whom we'll talk about more below). This always helps to ensure a professional feel to the project and is also probably a blessing to a new director.

Surprisingly enough (or maybe not) the first half of the movie is more comedy oriented which mostly revolves around Cecilia Yip's character's attempts at stealing and lying in order to stay at the hotel. I did find some of this rather amusing mostly thanks to Cecilia's timing and charisma. The film becomes more serious after a certain point in the story and the comedy doesn't really fit in with that when you look back at it. It's a Hong Kong movie though and comedy can come and go whenever it feels like it so I'm not surprised to see it in this film.

All is not well in terms of storytelling in Peace Hotel sadly. Despite a rather uncomplicated plot some of the minor twists and turns are sometimes not made clear to the audience. Sure we can understand it enough but we feel that it's not entirely done right. This mostly applies to the second half where the mystery around The Killer is unveiled but even with some expository dialogue, things still feel a bit confusing. Drama sets in here and there with pretty big emotions in the air but Wai Ka-Fai can't quite take a firm grip emotionally on us. We do care about the fate of characters but the way scenes are played out we should've felt a lot more for them. The script definitely needed some fine-tuning but writing and directing is a learning process and who says you have to get it right the first time?

The nominated photography by Wong Wing-Hung (A Better Tomorrow) is very fitting for the western setting of Peace Hotel. Brown is the dominant colour but it's really well used and integrated into the story. Some of you may know that I'm no fan of colours in cinematography but this is one of those cases where someone actually knows how to use them to good effect. Wong Wing Hung's camerawork is mostly calm and only goes into overdrive during some of the action moments. The wild camerawork does feel right and wrong, right because it does create the chaos the director is looking for and wrong because the music video style creeps in here and it really shouldn't have.

If you expected an action spectacle as Chow Yun-Fat's goodbye to the Hong Kong movie world you were wrong. It leans more towards drama with a few scenes of action and bloodshed during the latter part of the film. The action choreography doesn't really stand out but just ends up being good enough for this story and setting. I did get a little rush seeing Chow Yun-Fat shooting hordes of bad guys while sliding down a ladder in a scene that is quite similar to THE scene Hard Boiled but in a good way.

Chow Yun-Fat and Cecilia Yip starred opposite each other in the 1984 war drama Hong Kong 1941 and it's really nice seeing them together again in this quite different film. You've seen better performances from Chow in the past and even in Hollywood films but he does show off some of his charismatic mannerisms to good effect here. He also injects the depth that is necessary for the character to work despite some weak writing. One aspect that didn't sit well with me was the turnaround from hate to love between Chow and Cecilia's characters. To me it seemed way too convenient to be believable but movies do get away with a lot of things, including this. The stunning Cecilia has a slightly more fleshed out yet still predictable characterarc. She has good comedic timing and handles the transition to the serious nature of the film pretty good also. The chemistry between the two is also one of the strong points of the film.

Peace Hotel is fair entertainment and I think Chow Yun-Fat went out in as much style as he could. I don't see any huge amount of depth in Wai Ka-Fai but there is talent somewhere in there for a number of genres.

The DVD:

Note that the newly released remastered Mei Ah dvd represents the theatrical cut of the film. In other words, it's missing the hotel shoot out (see above cap) that was added for the laserdisc and the old dvd edition of the film. This review is for the old Mei Ah dvd.

Mei Ah provides a surprisingly strong 1.85:1 letterboxed transfer. The beginning parts of the film suffer from some heavy print damage but the rest is clean. The strong brown of the cinematography gets a good treatment and blacks were surprisingly strong for a HK dvd and even a Mei Ah dvd!

As always Mei Ah provides a 5.1 and 2.0 Dolby Digital options for the Cantonese and Mandarin tracks. The Cantonese Dolby Digital 2.0 track sounded ok but I would've liked something more spread out for this kind of movie. Still better than a terrible 5.1 remix.

The English subtitles are of good quality with hardly any errors to be found. Korean, Bahasa Malaysian, Bahasa Indonedian Japanese, Vietnamese, Thai, traditional Chinese and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

Extras include the always useless Data Bank which consists of a plot synopsis plus a cast & crew listing. Trailers for Hard Boiled and The East Is Red are on the disc but strangely no trailer for Peace Hotel.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson