SPL (2005)

Directed by: Wilson Yip
Written by: Wilson Yip, Szeto Kam-Yuen & Jack Ng
Producer: Cheung Shing-Sheung
Starring: Donnie Yen, Simon Yam, Sammo Hung, Liu Kai-Chi, Ken Cheung, Chan Tat-Chee & Jacky Wu

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Award at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2006:
Best Action Design (Donnie Yen)

Nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2006:
Best Supporting Actor (Liu Kai-Chi)

Award at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2005:
Film Of Merit

Chan (Simon Yam) has since many years sworn to take down ruthless crime boss Wong Po (Sammo Hung) but have given up the all out correct moral ways in pursuit of his goal. His team has gone a corrupt route with him, trying to balance that with family but now clean cop Ma Kwan (Donnie Yen) enters the frey as Chan's replacement. On the eve of Father's Day, all forces will collide in a final battle, starting with the brutal murder of one of Chan's assigned undercover agents...

So after the hype has cooled down a bit, So Good... steps in late considering its love affair with the works of Wilson Yip. But SPL sure deserves the spotlight and that it's the multi-talented, multi-genre traveler Yip (1*) that stepped in to breathe life into the action- and thriller parts of Hong Kong cinema again is truly exciting. From Juliet In Love to SPL, the path isn't straight as per Yip's way of choosing genre work but the path taken is very welcome as it sees Wilson working commercial cinema to much more his favour than ever before. The craving for the film's release was quite well-built into the fan community and the final package deal of SPL equals some very sincere choices. Choices having to do with the utilizing of the likes of Sammo Hung and the fact that he's genuinely wanted for once, not a goon for hire. If that then runs through the production, combined with cool stars from now and then, you can mix together a brew to actually bring back fans to Hong Kong cinema, not just for the action. Sometimes you just have to give some rabid fans credit, they want quality like we all do.

Coming from the dark mind of writer Szeto Kam-Yuen who more than willingly has dished out some quite downbeat tones throughout his scripts (2*) and with the explanation of the title SPL (short for Shao Po Lang 3*), it's easy to to pick up on the dark sides to this story. Coupled with the fact that it's set primarily in 1997 only seems to reinforce that fact. There's a method to portraying the dark facets of man and also to tip-toe around clichés. The latter is really a sign of director Wilson Yip the sadist as he ticks of one cliché after the other in order to gleefully challenge himself to do good work despite.

But throughout, the questions of moral, right, wrong and the consequences of these actions affecting your privilege to value family matters are thrown at us, creating involving cinema to a fairly good degree. While none of the dialogue whenever venturing into these thematic territories is by any means fresh, it's instead delivered with a frankness that sparks the viewer's brains to think along with the film. In a way heavy handed stuff but Yip populates the frame with a handful actors well adept to embody the central theme of the film with a suitable degree of subtlety in the performances. Especially Liu Kai-Chi can say a whole lot with single body movements or even none at all. He almost feels like THE inspiration for the nice, consistent subtlety, again for the genre, on display in SPL. Then again, Yip can be an even bigger form of a sadist towards his characters as life turns out to be pretty unpredictable. Stars are shifting, life is and certainly the film corresponds to that notion.

The "depth" is in no way creating arthouse cinema as intentions are clear to deliver a crime-drama first but the obvious selling point from the very beginning when rumours of SPL began circulating was to be the action. The now award winning action scenes courtesy of Donnie Yen that is. We live in a time where different esthetics have taken over in terms of editing, staging and Yen certainly has displayed a problematic stance throughout all this, primarily by the use of film speeds. However he's in tune with director Wilson Yip's tone to SPL, thank god. We get slightly otherworldly skills displayed but the overall intentions leans towards brutal, quite extensively gory and also to perform as much clearly in the frame without cuts for the longest of times. With scenes designed for Sammo Hung as well, Yen knows to tap into the trademark power of Hung's past work and it's quite exhilarating overall to get this combo of bone crunching bloodshed, still while being true to the internal meaning of the film.

On the topic of Sammo again, immediately you get a sense of a director wanting his actors and Hung makes for an effective villain that even is the subject of the sub theme of families. The contrasting emotional factors in the character is hypocritical but this applies to the corrupt cop characters as well. Underlying blurred morals. You also get Simon Yam and Donnie Yen quite on top of their game and relishing the challenge to act out cop movie stock aspects, featured for the umpteenth time. Jacky Wu however is a cartoon character but you've never seen such a menacing one in recent times. Wu relishes in getting a chance to flash his Wu Shu skills and represent the ultimate brutality the film has to offer. The Category III rating feels warranted.

SPL does indeed represent a comeback vehicle for Hong Kong action cinema and Donnie Yen publicly stated that they needed to bring something to the table for once in the light of the success of Thailand's Ong Bak. With a director at the helm understanding that as well, the team assembled delivers a good ol' fashioned brutal saga with exemplary pace, well-honed instincts for deeper meanings (this is where Wilson Yip comes in) and for action of today. The industry is still a little engine that is able to run, as embodied by the old and new guard of actors in the film. Are you ready to embrace a cop movie like many others but one done in such a frank, expected way that it actually becomes an injection of freshness in Hong Kong cinema? I hope you are and I know now that even more of you are clearly in it for a lot more than just the punches and kicks. Sometimes you underestimate the fan community.

The DVD:

Deltamac presents the film in an aspect ratio of 1.78:1, with anamorphic enhancement. Nothing to complain about here as detail, blacks and sharpness are excellent. Expectedly for a new film the print is spotless as well.

An expansive and involving Cantonese Dolby Digital EX 5.1 track serves the film well. Cantonese DTS-ES and Mandarin Dolby Digital EX 5.1 options are also included.

The English subtitles are free of errors of the obvious kind but do play over a scene 12 minutes in that is clearly designed to be sans dialogue. Traditional Chinese subtitles are also available.

Released as a 2 disc set, first platter has the subtitled theatrical trailer while the remainder can be found on the second platter (also equipped with optional English subtitles aside from the TV spots). The Making Of (10 minutes, 2 seconds) sees actors talking characters, themes, praising Wilson Yip while the action directing gets an examination in terms of influences. Mostly a superficial program but some of the shots from the set are cool to have.

Press Conference (22 minutes, 28 seconds) is a largely un-edited and stale affair while the actors at hand are not there to go really go in-depth but only to provide some encouraging talk of anticipation for the flick. 4 TV spots and an animated Photo Gallery (11 minutes, 27 seconds) comes next. Why companies insist on not giving viewer control over this latter feature I have a theory on but I still reserve the right to find the execution featured here unacceptable. At any rate, it finishes this rather light package.

reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson

(1) His best works are in intimate affairs such as Juliet In Love but also in the quirky delights Mongkok Story and The Mummy, Aged 19.

(2) Having been involved in screenplays for Expect The Unexpected, The Longest Nite and Love Battlefield, you can't but to think of Szeto as dark thinker.

(3) Sha being the Power Star, Po the Ruinous Star and Lang the Flirting Star. Could be easily explained as destruction, conflict and greed as well.