Friday, February 13, 2009

DVD Review - The Enforcer

Although awkwardly re-titled The Enforcer for this Dragon Dynasty DVD release, Corey Yuen’s My Father is a Hero is still one of Jet Li’s better showcases for his then-widening emotional range. In 1995, Li’s abilities as an actor were finally coming into convergence with his physical prowess, and the film features a deeper emotional resonance than many of Li’s films had to that point, in addition to the usual array of physics-defying martial arts.

The plot of The Enforcer (which we’ll refer to as My Father the Hero from this point onward) uses the familiar Hong Kong action contrivance of the cop on a deep undercover assignment infiltrating a criminal organization, but nicely tempers it with a touching father/son relationship. The picture also features fascinating location photography in a pre-Olympic renovated Beijing that is fast disappearing (it’s also worth noting that very few HK films prior to 1997 were shot in the People’s Republic – likely a testament to the star’s enormous popularity). Li’s character, Kung Wei, is an undercover cop so deeply immersed in the Beijing underworld that his own family doesn’t even know that he’s on the right side of the law. When an associate of HK gangster Po (the great Ken Lo, chewing the scenery like a silent movie villain) finds himself behind Beijing bars, Wei is assigned to befriend him and help him to escape back to HK and infiltrate Po’s gang. But Wei’s decision isn’t easy; his wife has a debilitating asthma condition and he’s afraid of what his young son Ku (the superb Tse Miu) who idolizes him, would think if he learned of his criminal side. Once in HK, Wei soon finds himself ingratiated with Po’s gang and under the watchful eye of Inspector Fong (Anita Mui), who suspects that there is more to Wei than meets the eye, and traces him back to his family in Beijing just as Wei’s wife succumbs to her illness, leaving Fong with the responsibility of looking after Ku. She decides to bring Ku back with her to HK to be reunited with his father, but Po intervenes and grabs the child first.

Prior to 1995, the majority of Li’s films had been more traditional period efforts, but Jet Li’s style of fighting (mixing the more balletic moves of Jackie Chan with the rougher, tough-guy posturing of Sonny Chiba) lends itself perfectly to the modern setting. Li is obviously at ease with frequent collaborator Corey Yuen at the helm, giving him the confidence to tackle a wider emotional range than had been required of him previously. As the film’s title clearly spells out, the relationship between Wei and Ku is the central spoke that gives the film its dramatic resonance, and Li is given much to work with by child actor Miu Tse, who brings with him an amazing emotional range in addition to martial arts skills that only necessitated a double for the most complex movements. Their relationship is nicely laid out in the opening scene, when Wei, engaged in a street fight while on the job buying stolen passports, tries desperately to make it to his son’s Wushu tournament in time to see him compete. Wei actually bags an assailant and carries him on his back to the stadium (even having to “shhh” him at one point) where the thugs have tracked him down and attack. The scene that follows, where father and son fight together, could have gone wrong in so many different ways, but Li and Tse have such great chemistry that the scene works beautifully. The film itself is filled with such moments, particularly once Anita Mui arrives to escort the boy to HK. We first remember seeing Mui as Jackie Chan’s mother in Drunken Master II and stealing every scene she’s in; Ms. Mui was both a hugely successful pop singer and actress in Honk Kong, and her abilities as a dancer allowed her to do much of her own martial arts work onscreen. For the sake of familiarity, she was dubbed the Madonna of Asia – a remark which does Ms. Mui a great disservice. She brightened every movie she was in and died tragically of cervical cancer in 2003 at the age of 40.

In both My Father is a Hero and the previous year’s Bodyguard from Beijing, director Corey Yuen effectively established Jet Li’s presence in modern settings, incorporating the sort of wild gunplay associated with John Woo pictures with Li’s established martial arts style. He would go on to help choreograph the action scenes in many of Li’s Hollywood films, bringing the same wild invention to a series of films that desperately needed it. Li smartly positioned his films apart from those of his contemporaries like Peking Opera School alumni Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Biao by incorporating a more serious edge to the action scenes. The martial arts sequences in Li’s films aren’t lighthearted, silent movie-style ballets; while still breathtakingly acrobatic, they’re also rough, bloody street fighting scenes that play for keeps (not even young Tse is immune, being on the receiving end of several nasty blows that would never pass muster in an American studio film). The film also marked one of Jet Li’s final HK appearances before embarking on a largely successful Hollywood career in 1997 with an atypical villain role in Lethal Weapon 4 (and was the only spark of electricity in an extraordinarily dull show). While the emotional emphasis of My Father is a Hero may put off the casual fan (his Wong Fei Hung in the Once Upon a Time in China series is a more straightforward jumping off point) it’s the perfect ‘next step’ for those wanting to wade in just a little further in the rich waters of HK cinema.

Sadly, like most Hong Kong films purchased for distribution by the Weinstein Company, My Father is a Hero suffers from a nonsensical title change (as a title, The Enforcer is all but meaningless and does little but recall the Dirty Harry film of the same name) and sloppy editing-for-time that nearly ruin the show’s pacing, making the film seem longer – presumably the opposite of the desired effect. But a more crushing blow is the lack of a Cantonese audio track (though the film features both Cantonese and Mandarin dialog sequences) leaving only the English dub. While the English dub is no worse than usual, this particular film features far more dramatic scenes than the typical martial arts film – exactly the type of scenes that dubbing, no matter how expertly done, will hobble beyond repair. We’ll give Dragon Dynasty the benefit of the doubt, as they are likely forced to work with what the Weinstein Company provides in the way of source material. There is good news, however, as the release contains another superb commentary from the breathless HK cinema expert Bey Logan, whose chatty, informative tracks offer a dizzying amount of information on the entire cast and crew, even down to the bit-part Western actors. There are also 3 excellent long-from interviews – controversial producer Wong Jing, actor and stunt choreographer Ken Lo (finally without the shades and white gloves!), and best of all, an interview with former child actor Tse Miu, which will make you wonder why he isn’t working more as an adult – he’s still got the same charisma and that expressive face has barely changed! The cinematography, reflecting both the cold, gray winter of Beijing and the neon soaked, mid-90’s Hong Kong is accurately represented, and the transfer is superior to the previous Dimension release.