Country: Hong Kong
Genre: Drama/ Action/ Exploitation/ Comedy/ Suspense
Director: Cash Chin
TRASH CINEMA RECOMMENDED MOVIE
It is tempting to dismiss the events of 1941 Hong Kong on Fire as grotesque exaggeration. The film is a bloodbath, with Japanese slaughtering folks in hospitals, skewering babies, and raping every woman in sight. But I’m afraid that the Japanese really were this barbarous in World War II. Their atrocities are well documented. There is little in this movie that you won’t find in the history books.
What 1941 Hong Kong on Fire does is to take this historical material and turn it into a pop catalog of horrors, seen through the eyes of one middle class Hong Kong family.
When we first meet pawnbroker Papa Dai (Law Kar-Ying), he’s cheating a widow out of a priceless antique painting, which he pronounces a fake and buys for a pittance. His wife (Julie Lee) is just as dreadful. Papa Dai remarried after his first wife died, and the new wife treats her stepdaughter Oi Dai (Cherie Chan) like a slave. Papa refuses to intervene. Mong Dai (Chingmy Yau) is determined to find her sister Oi Dai a husband so she can get out from under the stepwife’s thumb and tries to play matchmaker, choosing Sam (Tok Chung-Wa), who is in medical school. But fate may get in the way of her plans. One day, Chui (Elvis Tsui), a rickshaw driver, rescues Oi Dai from a would be thief and sparks fly.
Then everyday life is interrupted by the Japanese invasion of Hong Kong. Folks are skewered by bayonets and shot and women are raped. Exploitation filmmaker that he is, producer Wong Jing makes sure that there are plenty of large breasts flopping around in these sequences.
Director Cash Chin pulls no punches. Yes, the drama, comedy, and war atrocities are filmed in a broad way, but it’s all undeniably disturbing and tragic.
We see how different people react to the occupation of Hong Kong, according to their essential characters. The most compelling journey is that of the father, who becomes a collaborator, even as the Japanese pile more and more humiliation and suffering on him and his family.
But ultimately, producer Wong Jing is an entertainer, so he makes sure that the tragedy is leavened with some payback. Traitors get their comeuppance and there is a somewhat satisfying mini-rebellion against the Japanese. Probably not very realistic, but without it, 1941 Hong Kong on Fire would be unbearable.
Screenwriter Chan Hing-Kar has created a snappy plot filled with compelling incidents. He’s also created memorable characters. His manipulation of our feelings is crude but effective.
Chan Hing-Kar is helped in this effort by a wonderful cast. Chingmy Yau is her usual mischievous self, Veronica Yip is demure and charmingly naive, Law Kar-Ying is rather loathsome as the bourgeois papa who will stoop as low as necessary to ensure his survival, but the acting prize in this one has to go to Julie Lee, as the shameless stepmother. Lee’s hard and used look is perfect for this harridan. She is spectacularly hateful in the role.
What keeps 1941 Hong Kong on Fire from greatness is a lack of elegance in the filmmaking. There is plenty of energy, but the storytelling can be clumsy at times.
Still, 1941 Hong Kong on Fire is a lot of fun, provided you have a strong stomach.
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