SPL : Sha Po Lang. by Wilson Yip (2005). Review from the Hong Kong 2-Disc DVD.
Probably the last of the SPL mentions around here, in review form that is. This film won't (and shouldn't) go away. It's important, and it's impressive. It's a re-invention, and it's strangely familiar, easy to watch, but not necessarily easy to see why it's on fresh ground that could be a rich vein to explore. See for yourself, see if you don't end up imagining the possibilities for turning things on their head in this way, in this or any other genre(s) you can think of.
Seriously brutal fighting, lovely dark landscapes with spot-lit buildings, neon lights and the streets of a city, rich countryside and coastal shots in colorful, bright and beautiful style. Substantial story that's first and foremost, both familiar and very unusual. Very nicely performed and structured, it should be a fresh start if other Directors managed to click with its' ideas. Another SPL review then? Yes, another SPL review, from an individual and a team member of ScreenAnarchy. For anyone interested then, you can read my thoughts on the film here, and there's lots more different peoples reviews in the archives which I will also be going back to later on and reading through for the first time.
Less is more. Difficult concept sometimes, slips from the mind and takes a while to sink back in. Can easily become 'less is less, plain and simple' without even having to try. Odd beast then, SPL. Certainly a case of less is more, much more. It's a case of taking what could have been an exercise in further relentless fighting and stripping 95% of it out. You're not left with the functional story of a fighting movie, you're left with space to breathe. You're not left with less effective or memorable action, you're left with a drama that uses fighting in key moments to great effect - very dramatic, frenetic, mind-blowing action - and therefore why I say that less is more, and that less is an imaginative reinvention of action movies, or action in movies more appropriately. Opposite end of the scale to a film like 'Ong Bak', which in itself is a classy action movie, but this isn't a chance to give people who like fighting too much value for money by simply throwing a star with such skills at the screen at every opportunity. There's room for both approaches, certianly, but here's something I haven't seen before.
Wong Po (aka Sammo Hung) is the local crime lord, and the Police are desperate to pin the man down and put him away, whatever it takes. Not affraid to try any tactics or take any action necessary, through their desperation, they manage to get themselves deeper into trouble with a man who they seem to have lost sight of in many respects. He's big, he's bad, you don't want to mess with him or his men, and yet they're pushing hard and taking risks. In the initial set-up of this relationship between Wong Po and the cops, we see how the action will come, or rather the way in which the Director holds off and then intends to suddenly kick in with the action. Into the mix comes the discussion of morality within both crime worlds, the police force and in the relationship between the two. There's also the loyality 'doing right by others' aspect, the 'taking care of your family' and the self-sacrifice or selflessness of both ways of living - a huge series of grey areas covered in an easy to follow manner.
The action though, it comes so quickly, it's almost becomes unexpected and it's all the more shocking for it. It's not the kind of fight scenes in standard cop dramas, it's full-on martial arts as per Sammo Hung (et al's) 'usual fare', and it sits in such an individual way as to make something truly new and special. Now, whether people latch onto this when watching, and either appreciate the difference in style, well it's hard to tell if that's always going to happen, and it's certainly a rich and refreshing potential perspective that could be applied similarly by other Directors - yes, it has that element of the freshness you saw in John Woo's Hong Kong movies of the late 80's / early 90's, but it isn't quite so obviously different at first, and could take a while to sink in. It's not just a style to employ the Director for, it's the team behind SPL's achievement that should show an alternative route for a whole host of others. It also makes great use of some nice modern editing techniques and visual flourishes that add to the freshness of it all.
The remnants of the action movie as we know it are in here then. The melodrama that's almost camp, the sentimentality, the reasonably stereotypical characters, the slow-motion shots, the broad angle landscapes, and much more besides. But it's almost as though they've spotted where the style elements are and maintained them, whilst also removing the fighting for the most part. You're left with something that has a different way of telling a dramatic story that can create a dynamic and very individual, new atmosphere that could suddenly switch to brief and satisfying action sequences. Unpredictable in some respects, very familiar and easy to watch in others, almost an accidentally successful blend that was carefully considered and aimed for.
A good chance then, that this is an easily accesible stepping-stone for action movie fans to take, a good chance any watching will be persuaded enough by the presence of the actors involved, all turning very convincing and unsual or substantial performances, and then they end up thinking (like I am) that a couple of hours ago I was convinced by several decades of almost 'production line' action movies in a repeated style that there was nowhere left to go, and now I can see the light, that there is a new way that things can be done, and SPL is the leader to that new ground - hopefully. Fine, there will undoubtedly be 'Ong Bak' films galore in the future, but there's also now so many other ways revealed to be doing this kind of film.
I can see many sitting to watch it, after seeing the trailer, and feeling initially disappointed. Don't fret though, there's a good chance it just needs a little time to simmer in the brain, ponder it, think about how all the nice production values, the stylish lighting and rich visual coupled with a substantial story and sprinkled with truly brutal but brief fights. It's something new somehow, comes out of a good knowledge and serious skill, gives us a chance of a completely new breed of action movies from either Hong Kong or anywhere else : actions movies that aren't there simply for the action in a way that becomes painfully repetative and relentless. Action movies with brains, with a story, with more power, and much more individuality.
'Sha Po Lang' Yesasia / ScreenAnarchy Poster Competition open until January 31st 2006.
'Sha Po Lang' at Yesasis on Hong Kong 2-Disc DVD.