AFI FEST Report: SPL (Sha Po Lang) Review

Editor, News; Toronto, Canada (@Mack_SAnarchy)
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Todd, Kurt and I took a bit a playful ribbing after our gushing over this film during TIFF, a film that very few people would see for another two months. But Peter has just outdone us all, seeing SPL twice during AFI FEST. That makes it really hard to love you Peter :::insert shaking of fist:::

Having seen the film twice within 48 hours, and then reading again the reviews by Kurt, Todd, and Mack, I have little to add. My initial reaction was "Zowie!!" The action is fierce and fabulous, the picture looks terrific -- neon-tinged primary colors dominate the palette -- and it's wrapped up in a classic police story. I walked giddily into the night.

A second viewing still rocked my house as I became more attuned to the melodramatic flourishes, the finely-tuned performances by the underplaying Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung, the continual, subtle nods to films like THE KILLER (and possibly THE WARRIORS?), the razor-sharp, efficient editing by the superb Cheung Ka-Fai, and the thunderous musical score by Chan Kwong Wing and Ken Chan.

Among the cops, Simon Yam is reliably strong as the squad leader, and Liu Kai-Chi (INFERNAL AFFAIRS II, KOMA) is explosive as a short-tempered team member. Wu Jing acts entirely with his body, which moves like a twisting, wickedly flexible rocket.

As a drama, SPL falls solidly within the realm of latter day Hong Kong highlights like INFERNAL AFFAIRS, BIG BULLET, TASK FORCE, and director Wilson Yip's own BULLETS OVER SUMMER. After my second viewing, my initial ecstatic reaction was tempered a bit, as I became more aware of its imperfections; still, I love that the filmmakers made a quality, balls-out Hong Kong film without any attempt to pander to Western audiences.

It's those Western viewers, especially, that seem afraid of Hong Kong melodrama -- confusing it with the emotional manipulation and cheap sincerity of Hollywood filmmakers like Chris Columbus -- so that could prove a stumbling block for some. But the action sequences -- choreographed and directed by Donnie Yen -- should win them over. And it is the brutal, deadly, violent confrontations between Yen and Wu Jing, and Yen and Hung, that deserve placement in anyone's top 10 list.

What the Weinstein Co. will do to the film remains to be seen. One imagines that the title will be the first to go, followed by snipping of some of the more violent bits to secure an "R" rating in the US. It's easy to imagine other scenes being trimmed as well. INFERNAL AFFAIRS was finally released in its orginal-language version by Miramax, but in just one or two theaters in one or two cities in advance of its release on DVD. The Weinstein Co. has less product stockpiled these days, and SPL could trumpet "Donnie Yen of HERO!" in its marketing.

SPL had two sold-out screenings at AFI FEST, and the crowd reaction was nearly entirely positive, with a much more vocal element on Saturday night cheering at a couple of key points.

The film opens in Hong Kong on Friday, November 18.

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