Sha Po Lang by Wilson Yip (Review)

When its firing on all cylinders, there’s nothing I love as much as Hong Kong cinema, and Sha Po Lang is a reminder of almost every reason why.
Sha Po Lang, Wilson Yip

Yes, yes, yes… a lot of people have been talking about the decline of Hong Kong cinema over the years, and certainly, when compared to the glory days in the late 80s/early 90s, the country certainly has fallen. I’m sure than when people see that what was once one of the greatest filmmaking countries in the world is releasing movies such as Where Is Mama’s Boy? (featuring American Idol favorite William Hung), they’re tempted to throw up their hands, stop importing HK DVDs, and maybe even pray that the Apocalypse comes even faster.

But there are still bright spots, movies that take what have always been HK cinema’s great strengths (memorable performances, emotion-filled drama, not-cheesy sentimentality, and kick-ass action scenes) and repackage them for the 21st century. Films such as Just One Look (which might be one of the best teen romance/cinematic nostalgia movies I’ve seen since Cinema Paradiso), One Nite In Mongkok, Lost In Time, and of course, Infernal Affairs. And I think it’s safe to say that one can add Sha Po Lang to that list.

Unrepentantly dark, bleak, and wrought with the sort of manly existential melodrama that made us fall in love with John Woo back in the day, Sha Po Lang is also incredibly glossy, stylish, and prone to sometimes get bogged down by its own excess. Oh yeah, and it also features several action scenes that are just stunning for their sheer knock down, drag out intensity and brutality — just the way we like it.

The film’s title refers to three stars in the Chinese astrology, stars that have the power to destroy or create a beautiful life for someone. It also refers to the names of the film’s three main characters, Chan (Simon Yam), Po (Sammo Hung), and Ma (Donnie Yen), three men who seem absolutely determined to destroy eachothers’ lives, as well as their own, by their violence, corruption, and vengeance.

Chan is a police detective who has been obsessed with capturing and imprisoning Po, a notorious gangster. This quest takes on additional urgency when he discovers that he has a potentially fatal brain tumor (the first of the film’s largely successful attempts to make the various characters as desperate as possible). But Chan isn’t merely interested in justice, it’s become a personal vendetta, especially since his goddaughter was the child of a police witness that Po had assassinated. And he and his close-knit team are willing to bend any law in the book and intimate any witness to do so.

Chan, however, is set to retire in a couple of days, and his replacement is Ma, who is something of a celebrity in the department. Not surprisingly, Ma is also carrying some baggage of his own, and although idealistic and hoping for a clean start at first, soon gets dragged down by the corruption around him.

What follows is a cat and mouse game between Po, Chan, and Ma. Po is obviously guilty of great crimes, but always manages to squeak by with just a slap on the wrist. Which infuriates Chan, and later, Ma, pushing them to put even more pressure on Po, which causes Po to commit even more heinous acts in retaliation. It’s a neverending cycle, and it’s pretty obvious that the film is going to end up in a dark spot.

The constant corruption within the police officers is reminiscent of moral ambiguities explored in One Nite In Mongkok, though not nearly as effective. This is mainly due to the fact that Sha Po Lang really lacks any subtlety whatsoever. The characters are very one-dimensional, archetypes merely there to push forward the plot and put out all of the necessary melodrama. However, the film achieves such a momentum, and moves forward with such force, that it’s quite gripping as it continues its downward spiral, regardless of how flat the characters might be at times.

It was actually a pleasure, in a twisted sort of way I suppose, to watch a film that wasn’t afraid to get as dark and dramatic as Sha Po Lang. Not in an exploitative or unredeemable manner, mind you, but still, Sha Po Lang gets pretty dark. You’d be tempted to think that the sun never shines in this particular region of Hong Kong, that the only light comes form the harsh neon glow of the city at midnight, which is captured in all its sordid glory by writer/director Wilson Yip.

The film moves with the grace of sledgehammer, with all of the emotion, drama, and characterization conveyed in long, heartfelt monologues about the nature of the law, right and wrong, corruption, and the importance of Father’s Day. And thank the Lord, some of these conversations even take place up on the rooftop overlooking the squalid, neon-washed city, with the manly characters sitting down across from each other, dressed to the nines in their slick suits, with the requisite sweeping soundtrack underscoring each and every word. It’s cheesy and earnest as hell, and like the sucker I am, I eat it up everytime.

And speaking of sledgehammers, let’s talk about the action. While not quite as action-packed as one might be led to believe from all of the hype (the first 2/3 of the film is much more a police procedural than anything else), it certainly has it where it counts. The film boasts three great screen martial artists in the cast: Donnie Yen (Hero, Iron Monkey), Wu Jing (Drunken Monkey, Tai Chi 2), and Sammo Hung (too many classic films to pick just one). And all three strut their stuff every time.

The film features two very impressive fight sequences towards the end. The first is a knife and baton fight between Yen and Wu Jing, and according to rumors, was completely unscripted or unchoreographed. Both Yen and Wu Jing are martial arts masters in real life (Wu Jing even attended the same martial arts school as Jet Li), and so they just decided to wing it. The resulting duel is not nearly as polished, but it is fast and furious, with some impressive knife-work on Wu Jing’s part.

The final climactic fight is between Yen and Hung, and it’s just brutal. Again, nowhere near as graceful as one might expect. In fact, it sometimes resembles a wrestling match more than anything else, mixing Yen’s exceptional acrobatics (there are a couple of aerial kicks that had my jaw on the ground) with Hung’s bulk. It’s always a thrill to watch Hung move onscreen, simply because there’s no way a guy that big should move as fast or nimbly as he does, even after you remove any fancy editing or camerawork (with Sha Po Lang does have in spades).

I have a feeling that, had I seen Sha Po Lang in Toronto along with, say, the Twitch gang, I’d be raving about the film a whole lot more. This is certainly a crowd-pleasing film, especially if that crowd should happen to see the movie around midnight. There were several scenes were I could perfectly imagine the Midnight Madness crowd just going absolutely gonzo. But I didn’t, and so, I think my opinion of the film is tempered by such.

Make no mistake, Sha Po Lang is a fine film, especially for those of us who have been fans of HK cinema for years. Chances are, however, that you’ve already seen this movie several times by now. I can see the uninitiated scratching their heads though, wondering what the screams were all about.

As for me, I just feel satisfied and relieved. Hong Kong cinema isn’t dead, not by a long shot. It seems like every time I feel that way, every time I feel tempted to just ignore Hong Kong altogether and leave them to their Wong King movies, something else comes along that starts the love all over again. When its firing on all cylinders, there’s nothing I love as much as Hong Kong cinema, and Sha Po Lang is a reminder of almost every reason why.

Now, let’s just see what Yip and Yen do with Dragon Tiger Gate.

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