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What Price Survival by Daniel Lee (Review)

What Price Survival is truly an unsung and under-appreciated movie from Hong Kong cinema’s golden period.
What Price Survival

When I started watching Asian cinema 6 – 7 years ago, and Hong Kong films specifically, it was a revelation. I truly felt like I was seeing something unique, something I’d never seen before. Of course, there were the mind-blowing action sequences. But more than that, it was the sense of style that characterized Hong Kong cinema that drew me to it — the kinetic camerawork, the almost surreal atmospherics, and the often overwhelming melodrama and tragedy that flows throughout so many great Hong Kong films.

Of course, I’m not the only person to ever feel this way. I’ve read articles about critics who were simply flabbergasted when films by directors such as Jon Woo (specifically A Better Tomorrow) finally made it over to this side of the Pacific. They were completely taken by surprise by its unabashed appeal to, and manipulation of, the viewer’s emotions, be it with balletic expressions of violence (in John Woo’s case, his shoot-outs) or the intense melodrama that is heaped on the movie’s characters.

Watching What Price Survival, a remake of the classic One-Armed Swordsman (which I have not seen), I’m reminded of what drew me to Hong Kong cinema in the first place. While being a powerful film in its own right, What Price Survival also serves as a bit of nostalgia for me. When I first watch it, I experienced the same feelings of amazement and wonder that I experienced when I first saw The Bride with White Hair, Butterfly and Sword, Duel to the Death, and other wuxia movies. But at the same time, it presents its own unique version of the Hong Kong action/wuxia staples of revenge and honor.

The movie begins with a duel between two rival clans. Although Pai Fukuo (David Chiang) defeated Chingkuo (Norman Chu) several years earlier, Chingkuo has returned for a rematch. Using a deceptive sword technique, Chingkuo manages to defeat Pai Fukuo. But rather than take his life, Chingkuo asks to have Fukuo’s only son. Fukuo is forced to comply in order to save the lives (and honor) of his clan. Chingkuo takes the boy, Ning, and raises him as his own son, telling him that Fukuo killed his real parents.

Ning (Hsing-kuo Wu) is now a young man, and Chingkuo sends him to kill Fukuo. On the way, Ning encounters his real father when Fukuo’s entourage is attacked by a sword-wielding motorcycle gang. He tells Fukuo, not knowing who he is, that he’s on a mission to avenge his parents and that Fukuo is the killer. During the conversation, Fukuo realizes that this is his long-lost son, setting up the tragedy of their duel. Ning arrives at Fukuo’s compound and realizes who he is about to fight. During the battle, Fukuo teaches Ning the philosophy of his clan, hoping that he’ll see the error of his ways. However, Ning’s rage at finding the alleged murderer of his parents is too great and he attacks Fukuo with renewed vigor each time.

During the climactic battle, Fukuo is finally betrayed by his student Ankuo (Damian Lau), who had been bribed by Chingkuo in return for power. And, as we find out, Ankuo had secretly been love with Fukuo’s wife Susu, and had always begrudged his master her love. Returning from the duel, Ning finds a letter that Fukuo had given to him before he died. It’s a letter from his long-dead mother, and reading it, Ning realizes that Chingkuo has lied to him and that he has just killed his real father.

Ning confronts Chingkuo, but is easily beaten. He’s saved by Hsiao-Lian (Charlie Yeung), Chingkuo’s daughter, and the two escape the clan’s base. Holing up in an rundown house by the train tracks, the two of them try to escape the violence of their past. However, the violence seeks them out when Jie (Jack Kao), their best friend and Chingkuo’s righthand man, arrives, hoping to draw out Ning and win Hsiao-Lian for himself. (It’s interesting to note how the love triangle between Ning, Hsiao-Lian, and Jie echoes the triangle between Fukuo, Susu, and Ankuo, with predictably tragic results.) The stage is set for the final showdown between Ning and Chingkuo, again with predictably tragic results.

Much of what makes What Price Survival such a solid and intriguing film is its sense of style. While it’s true that Hong Kong cinema always has style to spare, this is doubly true in this case. While the film is essentially a wuxia (swordplay) movie, full of frenetic fight scenes and balletic sword moves, the movie is not set in feudal China. In fact, it doesn’t really seem to be set in any specific time or place.

Characters may wave swords around but they’re dressed in the long trenchcoats and flowing scarves of John Woo’s “heroic bloodshed” movies — at anytime, they look like they might whip out a .45s and machine guns. They drive around in horse-drawn carriages, steam locomotives, and 1940s-style cars; dance to 1950s-style love songs and fight to big band jazz; and walk through 1920s-style hotels, art deco complexes, and ancient, torchlit caves.

At times, this pastiche can get a bit overwhelming. And it’s certainly quite surreal (though thankfully not as surreal as the artsy mess of Saviour of the Soul). But this use of settings that are faintly familiar and yet placed within in a strange, new context adds so much intrigue to the movie.

Heightening the surrealism of the movie are the numerous duels, which are shot in the same blurred, abstract slow-mo and fractured camerawork that Wong Kar-Wai used to an equally abstract effect in Ashes of Time. (Indeed, many of Wong Kar-Wai’s trademark flourishes are all over this movie.) During the battles, it looks less like swordsmen leaping at eachother than a mass of abstract paintings or Gaussian blurs slicing through the air, intercut with scenes of the grey sky, light-filled windows, and other static images that heighten the energy of the other scenes as well as hint at the freedom that eludes the honor and guilt-driven combatants.

The film is full of many striking scenes and images. When we see first see Ning, Hsiao-Lian, and Jie, they’re walking together arm in arm through a peach orchard, surrounded by trees in bloom. The scene is suffused with golden light, giving it a warmth that is absent from the rest of the movie. When Ning and Jie have their final confrontation, it’s in an old-abandoned warehouse. It’s full of junk and rusted machinery, and yet glorious shafts of light shine in through the broken windows, as if several dozen spotlights were sitting outside.

One of the film’s most memorable images comes at the end, when Ning is confronting Chingkuo and his clan in a snow-covered forest clearing. The film’s contrast is pumped so high that Ning, wearing a white suit, almost blends into the background, the only clearcut images being the dark trenchcoats of Chingkuo and his men. But as the fight goes on, Ning begins to stand out more and more, but only because of the growing number of bloody cuts on his body.

At times, What Price Survival almost gets too “out there” for its own good. The sword-wielding motorcycle gang attacking Fukuo looks like they’d be more at home in the desert wasteland of a Mad Max movie. The duel between Ning and Fukuo is spliced with scenes of Chingkuo watching a troupe of female dancers perform a kabuki-like performance; as the duel between father and son increases in intensity, so does the performance, until the dancers are tearing at their clothes and hair while moaning in agony. When Ning and Hsiao-Lian escape from Chingkuo’s clan, it’s set to the aforementioned jazz, but its exuberance feels out of place compared to the melancholy and contemplative music that makes up the rest of the film’s score.

But what allows this frankly surreal film to ultimately work, even when it’s at its most bizarre, is the melancholy that pervades every scene. A sense of tragedy and a willingness to heap all sorts of loss on its characters gives What Price Survival an almost laser-like focus. Even if you don’t know the specifics of the film’s ending, you really do know how it’s going to end, and that inevitability is riveting at times. Further enhancing this melancholy is the film’s wintry setting; the bleak skies and leafless trees impart a definite and sharp chill to the movie’s atmosphere.

The first time I watched What Price Survival, I actually found myself quite numbed by the tragedy of it all. I was at a loss for works and just wandered around in a funk for awhile. I wanted to write a review, but I just didn’t know quite what to say. It’s not that the film is an extremely powerful one that left me a sobbing wreck by the time the credits rolled, but it did have an effect on me. Watching it a second time several months later, the same scenes I remembered being so affecting the first time had a very similar effect.

For my money, What Price Survival is truly an unsung and under-appreciated movie from Hong Kong cinema’s golden period. Perhaps its unorthodox blend of old and new locales, of different styles and eras, made it stand out unfavorably in Hong Kong’s fickle and trends-driven cinema market. But its blend of tragedy, drama, and impressive action are as old as Hong Kong cinema’s roots.

As far as I know, the only version of the film widely available is a PAL-formatted import from the Netherlands (which means that, as much I’d love to take screenshots so you could see the film’s amazing visuals, I can’t). I would love to see this film to get remastered and receive a new, wider release on DVD. It’s a truly unique film, worthy of cult status à la The Bride with White Hair, and yet at the same time, it reminds me of everything that made me love Hong Kong cinema in the first place.

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