Running Out of Karma: Wilson Yip’s SPL: Sha Po Lang

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

A rote cop-triad story somewhat elevated by a serious commitment to operatic melodrama on the part of director Wilson Yip and composer Chan Kwong-wing. Sammo Hung is the gangster, Simon Yam the veteran cop willing to break all the rules to capture him. Donnie Yen is the new guy on the force, plagued with a still-functioning conscience. Rather than explore the intricacies of this scenario, territory which has been covered again and again in Hong Kong cinema post-A Better Tomorrow, Yip simplifies it to the extreme, and then throws us a curveball: it’s not really a movie about cops and triads, it’s a meditation on fatherhood, and namely what terrible parents all these guys are. The Hong Kong world SPL takes place is almost entirely devoid of women. The steel-blue streets at night are populated only by gangs of young men. At the slightest provocation they appear out of seemingly nowhere, spontaneously generated by discos and dive bars and video arcades, sporting black t-shirts, empty beer bottles and complicated haircuts. A fatherless generation, they follow Sammo’s every command apparently because he’s the biggest and the strongest.

As we come to know the cops, we learn basically nothing about them but their relationship to fatherhood. Yam, as the leader of a small task force (afflicted with a ticking clock brain tumor no less) has adopted a young girl, the child of a former witness, executed by Sammo’s men. One of the cops is attempting to reestablish a relationship with his estranged daughter; one has a strained relationship with his own father (Donnie tells him his father is dead and he replies “I pretend mine is too”); Donnie himself is the son of a cop who was murdered by gangsters in the line of duty. (Sammo too is a father, his wife bringing home (after a couple of miscarriages) a newborn daughter as the film nears its conclusion). As the cops relentlessly pursue Sammo, manipulating evidence, bullying witnesses, killing suspects, these backstories take on a metaphysical power: the older generation, the fathers, failing so utterly at being decent people that it’s no wonder the youth turn into nihilistic zombies.

But the kids have their revenge, in the form of Wu Jing, Sammo’s top assassin. Clad all in white, the color of death, Wu systematically slices through the cops, a blinding flurry of remorseless, ruthless, soulless butchery. I don’t think he actually has any lines in the entire film: he exists solely to kill. Most of the fight scenes, directed by Donnie Yen, involve Wu, and most of them are over before they start, so much does he outclass his opponents. There are two extended sequences though. One with Donnie and Wu in an alley (at night, tinged blue and shot through with shafts of sickly neon yellows and greens) and the final showdown with Donnie and Sammo. The Donnie/Wu fight is ridiculous and amazing, worth the price of admission by itself, as they say. Blindingly fast and intricate, shot mostly with medium shots and classically edited. As for the other fight, well Sammo was 53 years old when this was released in 2005, a streak of silver in his still-terrible hair, and he certainly had gained some weight in the 15 years since his last masterpiece, Pedicab Driver, trading his usual speed and acrobatics for a dare-I-say lumbering power. He mostly holds his own with Donnie, ten years his junior, but as I recall he fared better in Donnie and Yip’s Ip Man films. The fight is more of a wrestling match than a proper kung fu duel, Sammo putting his added weight to use with a number of throws and much destroyed furniture.

In the end, as the fatherhood motif reaches its inevitably unfortunate conclusion, with a plot mechanic straight out of Greek tragedy and music swelling with melodramatic strings, we’re left with a film more emotionally powerful than its basic scenario and imprecise narrative logic gives it any right to be. It doesn’t so much make a coherent argument about fatherhood as it weaves a bunch of backstories into a basic, almost silly plot and then quite earnestly dares you to take it seriously. Yip’s cinematography (shot by Lam Wah-chuen, who shot Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong and Jeffrey Lau’s East Meets West) is in the ultra-crisp digital style of post-Infernal Affairs Hong Kong that cools the burry hotness of the red and blue tinged-nightlife of the 80s and 90s classics, making it seem at once more dangerous and more phony. It’s flashy and stylish and all those words, but I longed for the controlled theatricality of Johnnie To’s deep black shadows. The film’s final image, though, is something special. It’s as haunting and heart-breaking a moment as I’ve seen in any film this century.

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