The Direct to Video Connoisseur

I'm a huge fan of action, horror, sci-fi, and comedy, especially of the Direct to Video variety. In this blog I review some of my favorites and not so favorites, and encourage people to comment and add to the discussion. If you click on an image, it will take you to that post's image page, which includes many more pics from the film and other goodies I couldn't fit in the actual review. For announcements and updates, don't forget to Follow us on Twitter and Like our Facebook page. If you're the director, producer, distributor, etc. of a low-budget feature length film and you'd like to send me a copy to review, you can contact me at dtvconnoisseur[at]yahoo.com. I'd love to check out what you got.

Tuesday, June 15, 2010

Dip huet seung hung aka The Killer (1989)

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I'm skipping around a little in our DTVC Wild Card look at Hong Kong cinema, going from Bruce Lee's films of the early 70s, to two John Woo greats of the late 80s early 90s, first The Killer, and then Hard Boiled. I did this because I didn't want to take too long in discussing Woo. For me, by going from Bruce Lee to John Woo, we maximize the energy early, and get us off to a great rolling start.

The Killer has Chow Yun-Fat as an assassin who almost blinds a woman caught in the crossfire while he's carrying out a job. This makes him feel guilty, and he wants to earn enough money for a cornea transplant so she can recover her sight. Unfortunately, in carrying out his last job for that money, he's seen, and the Triad boss that hired him wants him dead. At the same time, Danny Lee plays a police inspector on his trail, whose intuition is telling him that, though Chow may be a killer, he's not without honor and is redeemable.

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Here's a question: what do you get when you mix Seijun Suzuki's Branded to Kill, Charlie Chaplin's City Lights, and some of the best action scenes you've ever seen? You get The Killer, and it feels so good. It starts off with an amazing action scene, where you get Woo's trademark gun fights, where he makes gun play as beautiful as the best Hong Kong hand-to-hand martial arts battle. The end is an even better shoot out inside a Catholic church. And in between we're treated to a classic Yin and Yang story about a cop and killer, two sides of the same coin, with similar virtues and codes of honor. Think indie art house flick mixed with awesome action movie-- and it all works.

The biggest difference between The Killer and the Bruce Lee films we covered earlier, is that those were not necessarily high quality films, and instead became great due to Lee's presence. The Killer is a director driven action/drama that could be conceivably considered one of the top 50 films of the decade. Yes, Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee turned in great performances, as did many others in the film; but all of The Killer's greatness comes in Woo's vision. Anyone can make a Yin and Yang movie about a hired assassin and the cop chasing him, but Woo does it in a way that's extremely elegant and clean-- which is astounding considering we're talking about a movie that showcases myriad scenes of violence and destruction. (As it turns out, if Tsui Hark had his way, we would've gotten a drastically different film, so we're very lucky.)

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Chow Yun-Fat and Danny Lee have amazing chemistry, and Woo is able to utilize this, even when the two aren't sharing screen time. I'm not just talking about the more obvious scenes where Woo edits the film so the two look like they're doing the same things either. From the moment Danny Lee is introduced as the other side of the coin, the two are tied together, and Woo makes us feel that, even when one is on screen for a long stretch of time without the other.

There's this term that gets thrown around a lot when talking about dramas: Shakespearean. As someone who loves and reads Shakespeare rather frequently, I'm pretty familiar with his works, at least familiar enough to say that when people refer to a movie's tragic ending as Shakespearean, they often don't know what they're talking about. Ran was Shakespearean. The Killer definitely was not. I think what it is is people often don't have the capacity to put into words what they're seeing on the screen-- I know I often don't-- or what they're reading in Shakespeare's plays either, so they look at what they see for anything similar-- in this case a tragic ending-- and say "it's Shakespearean." A tragedy does not Shakespearean make.

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Finally, a quick note on the transfer. The DVD cover image above is from the out of print Criterion Collection version, which I haven't seen yet. (If you're wondering, it can run upwards to $90 used.) I watched the Dragon Dynasty version, which was still pretty great, and I see now they have a Blu-Ray version as well. I have a feeling, because the Criterion version came out in 1998, that Dragon Dynasty version is actually better because it's so recent, so if you're spending $90 (or more) on the Criterion one, you're doing it just as a collector's item-- which isn't a bad thing either.

I tried my best not to give too much away in the sixth paragraph for those who haven't seen this yet. It is one of my all time favorite films, and reviewing it for the DTVC was one of my own selfish reasons for wanting to do Hong Kong films here. You can get the Dragon Dynasty version of Netflix, and I'm sure it's available to buy anywhere as well.

For more info: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0097202/

8 comments:

  1. Interestingly, many of the reviews on Amazon.com rip into the Dragon Dynasty Blu-Ray version saying that the transfer is horrible and the DVD version is actually better! So, buyer beware on that one.

    THE KILLER is a fantastic film to be sure, loads of great gun battles (I esp. like the one in the house where Chow and Lee take on a ton of baddies). Woo and Chow definitely had a De Niro-Scorsese relationship which resulted in several classic films together and it was kinda cool to see them team-up yet again for a video game sequel to HARDBOILED!

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  2. Love both this and Hard boiled, it's very fortunate that my local library happened to carry both films, as for Kevin Smith, I think he's pretty overrated, in fact I actually liked Cop Out more then any of his other films,though Jay And Silent Bob Strike Back had some good moments, though those mostly came from the Hollywood satires rather then the titular characters, because but IMO Jay and Silent Bob just weren't interesting enough to warrant an entire film devoted to them.

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  3. I will say this. Ran was actually a Shakespeare adaptation of King Lear. I would argue that Bad Lieutenant 1 isn't one but Ebert argued such in his Bad Lieutenant 2 review as a Shakespearean tragedy. The Killer I don't think would count as such either, but one that I would argue would be sort of in style with such would be A Better Tomorrow 2. Not even the first one so much, but the sequel because it ends in tragedy begiting tragedy and finally ending with a moment of realization of tragedy before submitting to such. I'm not going to give it away but it's actually very poetic. I really like A Better Tomorrow II.

    That said you could argue A Nightmare On Elm Street 3 as a shakespearean tragedy because Nancy finally reunites with her loved one (who is dead) and is killed. (What do you wonder why she wasn't in 4?) All the basis of Shakespearean tragedy implies are people who face a conflict, try their hardest to solve such but each action and each circumstance leads to tragedy and their responses to such which leads ultimately more to more tragedy.

    The Killer is pretty much one circumstance and attempt at redemption not really tragedy over tragedy. Hard Boiled the same. A Better Tomorrow II is basically tragedy upon tragedy and a final act that leads to more.

    If we really want to play it, we could say Kickboxer 1 is a Shakespeare tragedy, because his brother is crippled, he reacts by training for revenge, his girlfriend is raped, his master's dog gets a knife thrown at it and his brother kidnapped, then he is forced to endure punishment of throwing the fight and although his master helps him against such, it still leads to his death in Kickboxer 2. Which then involves his brother, and his brother's wife being raped and abducted and so on. Indeed even Tong Po suffers tragedy in losing his status. The reason this is, is mainly because Shakespeare has pioneered the way we look at tragedy and conflict and normal actions. Indeed it comes off silly in many ways when combined with the greek mythology (which action flicks are highly dependent on) but drama is based overall on Shakespeare and his take on the human condition.

    It should be noted I could even make a better case for the first Friday The 13th. Especially if you step back and look at the true faith, in that ambitious teenagers (killed in transition for a summer job) with dreams, love and a zest for life are systematically murdered by a woman so heartbroken about her son, and yet everyone in that walked on that land (except the cop)dies. (Yes one girl survives but watch the first five minutes of 2) Actually that's even more tragic than a shakespeare tragedy.

    The wonderful things about movies is that if you distort them you can make the most fun movie into something tragic and sad.

    That said, I really can't put an upside to Hostel, mainly cause it just bores me too much to mine for the tragedy of such.

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  4. Of course I know Ran is King lear, that's why I put it as an example! (hahahaha!)

    For me, Shakespearean is when someone borrows actual story elements from one of his plays, but often, instead, the term is used to describe any kind of work that ends in tragedy. I think you're right in saying that these people want to say Greek Tragedy instead of Shakespearean.

    Look at your examples of piling on. What Shakespearean play does that? Hamlet didn't pile on. Othello didn't pile on. Neither did Macbeth, or King Lear, or even Romewo and Juliet. It's the Greek Tragedies that tend to pile it on.

    You could make the argument that The Killer had some King Lear in it, because it was a guy whose less than stellar past has come back to haunt him, but that doesn't exactly work either. Even though he was a killer, he still wasn't the bastard Lear was.

    As far as the transfer goes, JD, I'm glad you put that out there about the Blu-Ray so I can warn my friends. And as far as Kevin Smith, Michael, I really liked Clerks. That was something transcendent. It seems like after that, when Kevin Smith got a bigger budget, he had trouble, to use one of his terms, getting his films to "iris in". Chasing Amy wasn't bad, and I liked Mallrats as a fun film, but the others seem to lack focus, like he just can't stop throwing more stuff in.

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  5. Okay King Lear is about the king who gives his daughters (It's the daughters in the original play right?) in kingdoms, two that don't love him and one that does, the one that does refuses to say how much he cuts out and he goes to his first born she offends him and shows her true colors, his second born is even worse, he then takes this tragedy being lost in whatever with Kent being his aid then he is finally reunited or so she is killed and he kills the guy and restores order but it's too late. In other words this is tragedy after tragedy.

    Romeo and Juliet. Romeo meets Juliet and they start meeting and falling in love, Tiblet (I played Marcutio in the play in high school) challenges Romeo and Romeo tries to make peace because of Juliet, however such isn't taken and Marcutio stands up for his friend to which he is then killed, so to lose his best friend Romeo kills Tiblet, the price (or king or whatever) forces Romeo into exile, in the meantime he goes through the heartbreak without his beloved, then Juliet comes up with such idea to runaway together, in which Juliet will fake her death, Romeo already heartbroken is told such and there he visits Juliet's tomb (with the people involved with the plan missing Romeo by minutes) then he kills himself, than Juliet wakes up to see that Romeo is dying and she kills herself. If that isn't tragedy piled upon tragedy based on reactions of the characters then I don't know what is.


    Clearly if it's not an adaptation in the sense it isn't really shakespeare like but the main threads of how one unfortunate turn follows another is but what Shakespeare is known for.

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  6. For me King Lear is only truly tragic at the end, and all the events that lead up to it are indicating that Lear is having to face the tapestry that he has woven. Romeo and Juliet I guess I see as the same thing. The message is the same in both cases: we reap what we sow. As King Lear raised his family in a world of violence and betrayal, he had to expect his children to follow suit-- and that he wouldn't recognize that the one that didn't was his most loyal until it was to late. With the Capulets and the Montagues, it took them losing their children to realize their feud was what killed them. Mercutio wasn't an individual tragedy, it was a harbinger to the bigger one, as was Tybalt's death. It's not as much piling on, as it's simply not reading the road signs. I think we always see Romeo and Juliet in terms of a love story, when it's really about parents and the example they set for their kids-- and almost saying the generation before sometimes needs to be taught by the one after, and not the other way around.

    I guess what I'm saying is, in Shakespeare's world, shit doesn't just happen, it happens for a reason. Even when bad guys do things, like Iago, it's really the hero, Othello, who's the bad person for being so weak. But also, just because a tragedy happens for a reason, like in The Killer, it's not necessarily Shakespearean. China has a rich literary and mythological history as well, which is why I focused on the Yin and Yang aspects. You could also bring up Confucianism. Calling The Killer Shakesperean almost writes those other literary and spiritual traditions off, doesn't it? (which I think you were saying as well when you said The Killer wasn't Shakespearean.)

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  7. Hey Matt!

    I just made your site the number one link on my site!

    Thanks for putting a link to mine. (Our site is actually called Comeuppancereviews.com) sorry for the confusion.

    Keep up the great work!

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  8. I'll make that change for you. I was actually going to go with comuppancereviews, but I saw that title on the site, so I went with that. I'll make the fix ASAP.

    As I said, I should've done it a long time ago anyway, and I'll give you a bigger shoutout next week. Thanks too for putting my link on your site!

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