The Story Of Woo Viet (1981)
by: Ann Hui
at the Hong Kong Film Awards 1982:
Well before we go into the dvd section of the film, a little explanation is in order. Released on VHS and simply ported to dvd, Beverly Wilshire's release of God Of Killers is in fact a re-title of the 1981 Ann Hui movie The Story Of Woo Viet. Honored at the Hong Kong Film Awards with the Best Screenplay award and screened at Cannes, Ann Hui's film also gave a young Chow Yun-Fat an early chance to showcase his drama skills. A household name through the TV-series The Bund (also starring Ray Lui), Chow's movie career initially started under contract with Goldig Films, making appearances in lackluster fare such as Hot Blood and Massage Girls. He remained "box-office poison" for a few more years but as for performances backed by substance at the script stage, it starts here...
Ann Hui on the other hand had assisted the great director King Hu early on in her career and subsequently moved on to TV-directing in the late 70s. Touching upon controversial subjects such as corruption made some of her work go unaired but it was with the episode Boy From Vietnam in the series Below The Lion Rock that a trilogy began taking shape, focusing on Vietnam. That's where The Story Of Woo Viet enters the frey historically, presented thankfully with subtitles by Beverly Wilshire. Watching the disc, you divide your time equally between joy and rage as the presentation is horrible while you remind yourself of the fact that this is one of the few, if not the only, English subtitled version of the acclaimed film.
Woo Viet (Chow Yun-Fat) is a refugee from Vietnam who after killing the Viet Cong for so long seeks a way out via Hong Kong to start anew in America. He meets up with social worker, and longtime pen pal Lap Quan (Cora Miao) who's very giving but is about to sacrifice herself completely for Woo Viet's cause. During one night in the refugee camp, Woo Viet kills off a Viet Cong Special Agent that has already murdered several people that came in on the boat from Vietnam. Desperate to get out promptly, he and fellow Vietnam refugee Sum Ching (Cherie Chung) receive help in obtaining forged passports through a contact of Lap Quan's. She is left behind, having gained nothing aside from an eventual hopeful future for two other individuals. Dreams are crushed though when Woo Viet and Sum Ching arrive in the Philippines as she is kidnapped and forced into prostitution...
With her eye fixed on the ugliness and dirty back alleys of life, Ann Hui, working from Alfred Cheung's award winning screenplay, gives us a look at world that resembles a dark, bottomless well. Woo Viet may come from a different country but it's not much of a change of scenery as corruption and corruption in politics still exists and follow these characters wherever they may go, as it turns out. You can be goodhearted in a world like this but with that comes a ruthless cruelty, that means that many people on the way are eventually going to get hurt. The saint of all these, Cora Miao's Lap Quan never ever receive any rewards for her work yet she's someone, in this case, who's sees it as her duty to reward even if it means not progressing herself. When we eventually find out that Woo Viet and Sum Ching are caught in an ever ending cycle of despair and corruption, Ann Hui's downbeat social commentary comes to life very well.
In a way The Story Of Woo Viet almost promises to be underdeveloped due to the low-budget and understated nature of the film. The former is a fact Hui utilizes well to her advantage and the latter she balances with skill. Woo Viet feels terrible shame towards Lap Quan as he's basically using her despite her being giving to the extreme. Yet, it's the rules and facts of this world, even the Hong Kong one and my point is that Hui rightfully never dwells on that meaning through passages of exposition. If you've decided to dedicate yourself to the film, not even the Beverly Wilshire dvd presentation can overpower the underlying message.
Not that Alfred Cheung's script is incredibly complex by today's standards but it's very easy to put this 1981 effort in perspective as the new wave boom of directors had new, critical voices, Ann Hui being one of them. If you look at Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind, Sketch, The Beasts or any other efforts of the era, there existed no desire or need for glossy packaging as the atmosphere wasn't about that. Therefore, the location photography here by Bill Wong (Rouge) and Tony Au's (who directed Chow in Dream Lovers) art direction, albeit minimal, suitably blends with themes and messages to good effect.
Ann Hui also deserves a huge amount of kudos and credit for being probably the first feature film director to really tap into the skills of Chow Yun-Fat. From frame one, the good hearted Woo Viet comes through and a few frames later, the calculated killing machine that is Woo Viet comes through, all very skillfully balanced by Chow. No one represented righteousness on screen better than him it turned out but it's firmly on display this early on. The Story Of Woo Viet, Hong Kong 1941 being good, pure dramatic examples of that. Throughout the film, it always feels like sketchy character portrayal by Hui but even if sporadic, characters like Lo Lieh's Ah Sarm is very much alive. Hui uses Ah Sarm as a powerful mirror for Woo Viet as he most likely will become him eventually. One poignant shot sees Woo Viet break a mirror and all the Ah Sarm and Woo Viet character-meaning is poured onto the screen by Hui, through so little.
Cherie Chung's supporting presence is felt, in this her first of many fine collaborations with Chow Yun-Fat, as the fellow countrywoman of Woo Viet. It's about them sticking together, an unspoken bond that's speaks very much to the themes of the film. Finally you have the beautiful Cora Miao, who went to star with Chow in Ann Hui's Love In A Fallen City (produced at Shaw Brother's) who doesn't do much but it's again a testament to Hui's very scattershot but careful character treatment that makes the character crucial.
Ann Hui's The Story Of Woo Viet is one of those dramas opting for strong social commentary on a rough filmmaking surface but those who decides to stick with it will find after the final frame that a powerful, sometimes shocking, tale exists under the low-fi nature of the film. Using these small means, it allows Hui to firmly plant a downbeat theme of bleak futures, and with a young Chow Yun-Fat logging his first acclaimed performance, it's a drama that's rightly received acclaim over the years.
As mentioned, the Beverly Wilshire dvd presentation is below most low standards. It's simply their dreadful vhs ported over to dvd but flagged anamorphically to give the impression that this is a widescreen presentation. It's soon apparent that cropping is going on when looking at the subtitles and comparing captures from the dvd and Pearl City's unsubbed (and out of print) vcd. Beverly Wilshire's framing is more closer to 1.40:1-145:1 in actuality (and the film most likely was shot in 1.85:1). The viewing isn't terribly awkward in terms of stretching and squashing however. But this is a worn VHS print with poor resolution, blacks and shadow detail and various slight tape defects along the way.
The Cantonese 2.0 Dolby Digital presentation sounds fairly muffled but most of the dialogue comes through ok. The handful of scenes with English dialogue suffer though. A hum on the track can be heard at times but is not overly distracting.
The biggest hurdle to get by is the imbedded Chinese/English subtitles. First off, watching this on your standalone player and on a TV-screen is nigh on possible as the subtitles pretty much all throughout resides below the bottom frame due to overscan. Watching it on your dvd-rom however reduces much of that but there are still stretches of the film that are very hard to read. The grammar seems adequate and while the cropping cuts off many sentences, following the plot overall is possible. There are no extras or a menu.
Thanks to andras for help in identifying various crew on the film.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson