Princess-D (2002)

Written & directed by: Sylvia Chang & Alan Yuen
Producers: John Shong, Patricia Cheng & Solon So
Starring: Daniel Wu, Edison Chen, Angelica Lee, Anthony Wong & Pat Ha

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Nominations at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2003:
Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Wong)
Best Action Design (Tung Wai)
Best Visual Effects (Wu Jian-Rong, Chiu Cheng Ning, Daniel Ho & Alan Tuan)
Best Original Song: Seung fei (I Fly)
Music: Jonathan Lee & Sakae Tetsuo
Lyrics: Jonathan Lee
Performed by: Angelica Lee

Award at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2002:
Best Supporting Actor (Anthony Wong)

Nomination at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2003:
Best Visual Effects

Bey Logan once said that it is possible to produce worthwhile movies in Hong Kong that few goes to see and that Princess-D was a good example. I have to agree and since this is a slightly more complex drama, I can understand why it didn't generate enough money to be considered a hit. Directors Sylvia Chang and Alan Yuan have however created a movie that isn't truly great but doesn't seem to want to be either. At it's heart, it holds a theme that makes its way into the viewers heart though.

At a disco one night Joker (Daniel Wu) spots a female bartender that he thinks might be the perfect model for his computer game project. Her name is Ling (Angelica Lee from The Eye) and after some consideration, she agrees to come on board the project. He sees the perfect woman that he wants to immortalize in CGI but Ling is far from perfect. Inside and on the homefront she has troubles of her own...

Even if Hong Kong cinema still is going through a crisis and the majority of films doing well at the box office are not very creative, there's still a good amount of compelling productions to be experienced. The directors I like have, for the most part, been able to do movies that offers new take on genres or featuring structures and touches that are very much their own. The latter description is more true of Princess-D, a minor pleasure in the way it certainly is romantic but mainly begins flying when that very theme suitably takes over.

The film is divided up into a few little sub-stories in a way that may or may not have an ending. Directors Sylvia Chang and Alan Yuan however do invest time and commitment in all of them, both from a directing and writing standpoint. Obviously it is the princess herself, Ling, & her Joker that gets most attention but I took a liking to the fact that the younger brother Kid (Edison Chen from Infernal Affairs) and the father (Anthony Wong) mattered as well. Especially in the fathers case there really isn't a story to tell but nonetheless he and Kid are supporting figures in Joker's life that in no way gets in the way of the film's narrative. Same applies to the people around Ling, the mother, the son and the father (who's played by the film's composer, Jonathan Lee). Other movies let supporting character just literally stand in the background but considering the running time (and maybe thanks to this extended dvd version), the directors manage to find a place in the movie for all these.

Up close we get to follow Ling's life but are never really given a clue as to where the story is heading. Will there be bloodshed? Will there be tears of joy or sadness? Very hard to tell and after the final scene has rolled by some answers that you expected, may not have come. The attentive viewer will probably understand it on some level and for me personally it was not a question of what had happened but if I WANTED it to happen. There are many things unsaid between characters and even in the movie, the outcome is a question in itself. That doesn't sound like a very compelling way to wrap up a story but it's a conscious choice by the directors that works nicely. The Chinese title is roughly translated to 'I fly' and those two words hold a lot of meaning, especially for Ling. Those words, which we're reminded of thanks to the Angelia Lee song on the soundtrack, firmly anchors the movie even though it never reaches very high. Mostly due to mixed roster of acting talent that obviously can't elevate a movie of complex themes to greater heights. Director Chang and Yuen seem well aware of that and set their sights only mildly high, making the movie decent in a very good way in the end.

The main story revolves around creating a computer generated character and it's no surprise that the movie feature a good dose of CGI. It's at it's most hyper and frenetic in the first meeting between Joker and Ling. It makes sense here that it borders on fantasy because he is under the influence of drugs which makes this sequence pretty effective. Small bursts of CGI are created throughout to show that's going on in people's minds and I really only objected one or two times to overexcessive use of effects. The demonstration of Princess-D towards the end is well put together though, reminding us that it means something beyond the CGI. The washed out and well-defined cinemtography Mark Lee (Visible Secret II) adds well to the atmosphere without intruding on the story.

The cast deserves good to fair remarks and looking at the list of actors beforehand, Daniel Wu and Edison Chen are the weak links here. Starting with Daniel, I can't say I never disliked him in a film. There's no doubt that currently his range isn't impressive as such but he's managed to perform adequately in the roles I've seen him in. Princess-D isn't truly dependent on him even if he really is the leading man and I don't think he's yet come to the point where he convincingly can carry a film. Joker is the big brother and grown up but being a graphics designer there is a bit of geekiness there as well. He is smarter than we think though, at least he knows to care for someone who needs it. Wu is not called upon to perform any big emotional scenes but with some good writing backing him up, he passes. That he has choosen non-commercial fare to appear in I really like so he's a believer in projects or not very hungry for box office success. Edison Chen is a newcomer (made his debut in Gen-Y Cops) and generally he's not very well liked by fans or critics...or me. If anything, he's well cast in Princess-D though. His youth character is unsure of himself and full of childish energy, something that is then handled nicely by Edison in the acting. I won't go out on a limb and say it's a great performance but saying he fits this role is more truthful.

Two other performers outshines these two though, the latter one barely registering 10 minutes of screentime. Angelica Lee is already a star in my eyes after seeing her in The Eye and now this. It was a scared and vulnerable woman she portrayed in The Eye and some of that is visible in the character of Ling also. Ling is a young woman being forced to take care of her own family when the mother, father or son can't. She's had to adapt a street smart and tough exterior but the vulnerable and sweet side is not far away. Being part of the Princess-D project is a chance for her to sort out her troubles but also to maybe clearly see her goals of flying away again, to regain hope. What's created in the computer may be fantasy but still a manifestation of her dreams. Definite heartbreaking touches are wonderfully brought out by Lee who never strays away from any of the character traits. A very level headed performance. Anthony Wong is in the movie enough to get himself an award and while not a big part, I love seeing him in this kind of film. He's so natural, relaxed and he makes acting look ridiculously simple. Pat Ha also logs a fine supporting performance as Ling's demented mother.

I started by mentioning a Bey Logan quote and I'll end with similar words from him as well: "Princess-D wasn't a masterpiece but far much better than the movies people went to see instead". I couldn't agree more and I'll add that directors Sylvia Chang and Alan Yuen aims moderately high and reaches it, which has to be seen as a positive thing. There is a romance at the heart of the film but by the end, Princess-D has suitably instead tranformed into a minor pleasure where a figure, both in fantasy, and reality finds an anchor and courage to fly.

The DVD:

Note that this dvd edition is the Director's Cut of the film, running about 10 minutes longer than the cinema print. I can't document the differences but I didn't spot any jumps in quality when any new footage appeared. Megastar are reliable nowadays and their 1.78:1 anamorphic print looks great throughout. I noticed a little grain and some print damage appeared at the end. Colours felt correctly balanced as well as sharpness.

Two audio options are selectable: Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 and Cantonese DTS 5.1. The Dolby track is mostly dialogue based but the few lively sequences are handled nicely as well as music. Don't know if DTS was really needed but I'm sure the action scene in the alley will be a nice workout for your system.

The English subtitles were error free except for the dance scenes with Anthony. There was some letters and numbers that wasn't supposed to be there in the otherwise flawless subtitling job. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.

It's now becoming more of a common practice for Megastar to include some extras and besides the longer cut of the film we find some decent ones. Their Making of & Trailers section has just that content. The 16 minute 44 second Making of is, even without English subtitles, quite enjoyable. We first see Angelica and Daniel wandering the streets with a camera, asking people questions. Interviews with the directors (Sylvia still looks great) and the cast in combination with some enjoyable behind the scenes footage makes this a worthwhile watch. It's all underscored by the wonderful I Fly-song. The Teaser and Theatrical trailer finishes this section.

The option Princess D-diary takes us to a Chinese text only diary and I wish I could tell you what this actually was about. Seems like a thoughtful extra anyway. The standard extras then follows. First the one page plot synopsis, a cast & crew listing (with very basic bios/filmographies for Syliva Chang, Daniel Wu, Edison Chen, Angelica Lee and DP Mark Lee) and finally trailers for Visible Secret II, Dance Of A Dream and the Korean movie Friend appears.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson