If you’re a regular reader of sites with an interest in Asian cinema on the net, you probably already know all about Sha Po Lang (SPL). You’ve read all four very positive reviews on twitchfilm, you’ve read Grady’s review at Kaiju Shakedown, and you know what’s what. A modern Hong Kong film, starring three very well-respected martial arts stars from different backgrounds, with a gritty, crime setting and a lot of neon lights and breaking glass. A throwback to the early nineties heyday of HK cinema, and a gauntlet thrown down to today’s slow-motion wire-fu pretty-boy films.
For those that haven’t gobbled up all the hype on the film yet, however, here’s a précis. Simon Yam is Detective Chan, a hardened copper who’s heading for retirement very shortly. His life is consumed by one thing: the desire to put away grizzled crime kingpin Po, played in fine form by Sammo Hung. Their mutual animosity is out in the open: an early scene has Po and Chan squaring up to each other in the street with a couple of golf clubs. Chan’s crew of policemen are utterly loyal to him and his goal, willing to go beyond police procedure (and moral principles) to get their man.
Into this situation steps Ma, played by Donnie Yen, the morally upright, leather-clad replacement for Chan. Chan’s gang of policemen don’t immediately accept him, trying to hide their activities against Po and complete his arrest before Chan’s retirement. With one dark night in Hong Kong left before the handover of the case to Ma, they spring into action — and in response, Po sets his hatchetman (Wu Jing) to work, with a long knife and a bright smile.
SPL really comes off as a distillation of many of the things Hong Kong film was best at in its heyday: it’s got the dark, inner city triads-versus-cops setting reminiscent of the early 90s, good actors playing larger-than-life charactors, and strong action sequences performed by talented martial artists. All the pricipal players give good performances; Simon Yam is great as the dramatic lead, while Sammo Hung puts in probably the best dramatic performance I’ve ever seen him give. Wu Jing comes across as amoral and unstoppable as Po’s grinning, silent assassin, a very different character from his other film and TV work. Donnie Yen works a bit harder in this film than usual, though he still has time for the occasional moonlit pose.
The film has a few flaws: the occasional piece of dodgy dialogue, for example, but that doesn’t stop SPL from being the best action film Hong Kong has produced in a long, long time. Just seeing Sammo Hung, Donnie Yen and Wu Jing work is worth the price of admission on its own. Hopefully others in HK will follow suit and return to the modern, kinetic action film as a genre.
Update: Now that Eastern Eye have an excellent Australian DVD of SPL available for local fans of HK film, we thought we would add a little information about the disc. It’s presented well; an excellent video transfer, with good English subtitles and both 5.1 and DTS Cantonese audio tracks. We’re treated to a featurette on the making of the film, with a bit of commentary from the director and most of the lead actors, with some behind-the-scenes footage of the action sequences. There’s also some footage of a press conference in Hong Kong, plus the TV spots that were used to locally advertise the film. Finally, there’s a reasonably short collection of stills for the film and trailers for several other Madman/Eastern Eye releases.