Is there anything that screams ‘Film Festival’ more than rolling the dice on a Secret Screening? Granted, after 15 years of dutiful service, the mad geniuses behind the New York Asian Film Fest have earned a certain amount of faith. Still, Asia is a big place (I think. I’m honestly not geography smart…), and there was no telling what kind of film we might be getting. It could have been something awesome… or it could have been a four hour documentary about goat herding in Tibet.
(No offense intended, all you lovers of Tibetan goat herding cinema.)
Of course, it’s not really about that, is it? The film being awesome in and of itself? The true appeal of a secret screening isn’t that much more complicated than the appeal of watching any film in the first place: that shared experience. That moment when the audience reacts as one to a big laugh or a well-played shock moment. We’re all on this journey of discovery together, and sometimes, that’s more than enough.
Awesome helps, though. It really does.
Given that this was promoted as an anniversary, it stands to reason that the choice would somehow tie back to their very first festival, way back in 2001.
A HERO NEVER DIES
A Johnnie To movie I haven’t seen?
For those who don’t know To, Johnnie To is one of the greatest directors to come out of Hong Kong… hell, some might argue, the whole world. He’s dabbled in just about every genre during his career, from musical to romantic comedy to horror to political thriller, but he always comes back to the action genre, which tends to be the best showcase for his uncanny gift for composition, choreography, and editing. As many shootouts as he’s filmed in a nearly 40 year career, he has yet to run out of ways to make each one of them feel fresh and new.
To elevates action to high art, while sacrificing none of the visceral thrill.
A Hero Never Dies is an early work (relatively speaking, anyway), and so doesn’t hit the heights he would later achieve with such classics as Breaking News and Exiled. But it is very good at what it does.
And what it does is rip John Woo a new one, and then some.
It’s an affectionate ribbing, no doubt. But unmistakable, from the title on down. A Hero Never Dies is merciless in its amplification of heroic bloodshed’s tropes into something approaching parody, while still being an absolutely sterling example of it.
Jack (Leon Lai) and Martin (Ching Wan Lau, whose cowboy hat game is sick) are members of competing criminal enterprises, but in the grand tradition of such things, their rivalry is imbued with a sense of mutual respect, and the knowledge that it’s only a matter of time before they’re forced to kill one another.
Also in the grand tradition of things, they are men of honor in an environment where their sense of honor tends to be a liability, as the people with the actual power have no such code, and profit and convenience outweigh loyalty ten times out of ten.
If you think you know where all this is going… well, you do and you don’t.
What becomes fairly obvious once the film kicks into high gear is that it owes a great deal of its themes and structure to John Woo’s breakout hit, and the progenitor of the heroic bloodshed genre, A Better Tomorrow, which deals in many of the same subjects. In fact, it’s safe to say that Jack and Martin are exactly what you’d get if you told both of them they were playing Chow Yun Fat and just turned them loose.
Though it’s not actually a comedy, A Hero Never Dies is not to be taken entirely seriously, or even at face value; the melodrama of the film is taken to its logical extreme, and tips over into absurdity with relish. However, it does so with such a straight face that it’s hard to tell the difference.
The closest the film gets to tipping its hand comes about 15-20 minutes in, when Jack and Martin turn an argument about who brought the superior bottle of wine to a bar into an endless series of elaborate methods of destroying wine glasses. The sequence goes on and on, just building in ridiculousness. But even that gets undercut by a conversation between Jack’s new girlfriend Yoyo (Yoyo Mung) and Martin’s longtime companion Fiona (Liona Yeung), where Yoyo points out that Jack and Martin are clearly friends, and Fiona has to school Yoyo on the grim reality of both their lovers’ situation, as well as their own.
A speech like that seems to indicate the tragedy of the film will be that these two, who would be so much better as friends, will be forced to kill each other. But that’s not at all what winds up happening.
Things come to a head very quickly, in a blistering hotel-set shootout that would be the finale to most action movies. And, in a certain sense, it IS the climax; what the film becomes from here on in is a very different animal.
It would be most uncool to reveal everything that goes down after that, but suffice to say, Jack, Martin, Yoyo, and Fiona all fall victim to — well, let’s call it “corporate restructuring” — and are separately forced to go on the run. There will most definitely be a reckoning, but the condition of our key players when they finally go about it, and how exactly it works out for everyone in the long run… well, let’s just say that in a Heroic Bloodshed movie, there are no guarantees…
This general unpredictability does the movie a world of good; it shoots itself in the foot by having the unbelievably awesome hotel shootout come halfway through the film; there’s basically no way to top it. The wildly over-the-top climactic shootout between, which has to be seen to believed, does it one better in terms of sheer derangement, but it still can’t top the earlier nitro fueled carnage. Later, To would learn to control his pacing for maximum effectiveness, but it’s interesting to see his skill in this rawer, less disciplined form.
Though A Hero Never Dies lacks Johnnie To’s usual elegance, it’s still a must-see for anyone who loves the Hong Kong style of gunplay. And to see it with an audience of equally surprised cinema lovers, most of us didn’t seem to have any idea what we were in for…?
Well, that’s kind of what it’s all about isn’t it?