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Hong Kong 1941

Melodrama by way of the thriving Hong Kong film industry of the 1980s can be very hard to take when there aren't hundreds of bullets whizzing about to keep one from noticing how terribly corny the whole endeavor really is, which is a huge problem for Leong Po Chi's Hong Kong 1941 (1984). Fortunately, the film features a young Chow Yun-Fat, who, while two years away from his breakthrough performance in John Woo's A Better Tomorrow, still exudes that aggressive charisma that would make him one of the world's biggest movie stars. Chow plays Fai, an ambitious young man with designs on leaving the British colony of Hong Kong behind for the seemingly boundless opportunity of San Francisco or Australia. His decision, however, is not a popular one with his countrymen, who are steeling for a fight with the fast-approaching Japanese army. Hong Kong will need strong, able-bodied men like Fai to fend off this hostile encroachment, but he wants no part of the war. His best friend, Kong (Alex Man), feels differently, desiring to stay behind no matter how hopeless the situation. But Kong's resolve is tested by his girlfriend, Anna (Cecilia Yip), the daughter of a wealthy granary owner who greedily hordes his supplies while refusing to pay his workers a decent wage. Because her father is forcing upon Anna an arranged marriage with his business partner's son, she is inclined to follow Fai abroad, but just as they both convince Kong to flee the country with them, the Japanese invade. Though Fai and Anna are still prepared to leave, Kong opts to stay behind; ergo, out of the obligation of friendship, the other two remain as well. This decision, while noble, leads predictably to horrible tragedy, culminating with Anna's rape by a revenge-minded army officer who takes her virginity to spite her father. But, in a ridiculously cheery turn of events, this ends up working out well for Kong, who now wins the approval of Anna's father as a suitor for his daughter. After all, if the girl's been ruined, might as well give her out to any old peasant. Sure enough, it isn't long before the freshly raped Anna is dancing in the streets with her fiancée and Fai. But the atrocities are far from over. The Japanese, promoting Asian unity against the influence of the West, begin to recruit sympathizers to help keep the insurgent elements in line. Seeing an opportunity to spare his resistance-minded friends from trouble, Fai becomes an agent for the occupying forces. Meanwhile, Kong runs afoul of a local mob kingpin who is taking advantage of the suddenly unpoliced underworld to settle his own scores by torturing his debtors and enemies. This leads to a pretty unsettling sequence in which Fai attempts to save Kong by faking loyalty to the gangster. When his plan doesn't go quite as intended, Kong is left near-death, leaving it to Fai and Anna to nurse their friend back to health, at which point the film's threatened love triangle rears its clichéd head to maximum eye-rolling effect. If Hong Kong 1941 had the garish, gun-toting embellishments of the similarly themed, and far superior, Bullet in the Head, it might've been able to work as an outsized, operatic meditation on sacrifice and friendship. But by remaining grounded in the classical confines of the traditional war film, it's simply stupid and, worse, offensive. That's a shame, because Leong Po Chi stages a couple of fantastic action sequences (a tracking shot during the assault on Anna's house begs some rewinding admiration) that suggest he could've given the film the requisite heightened style to put it all over. Fox presents Hong Kong 1941 in an intermittently scratchy anamorphic transfer (1.85:1) with ear-piercing Dolby Digital 5.1 audio (Cecilia Yip's shrieking will have neighborhood dogs barking for blocks if you're not careful). Extras include interviews with actors Yip and Paul Chun, still galleries for the film and Chow Yun-Fat, original promotional materials, production notes, and a number of theatrical trailers. Keep-case.
—Clarence Beaks

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