Revisiting SPL (Sha Po Lang) With Jamie MacDonald and Paul Findlay

The universal themes of family and morality make this one of the more accessible of Yen’s back catalogue

SPL: Qi Sha (7 Killings) is the power star, Po Jun ( Army Breaker) is the ruinous star and Ta Lang ( Greedy Wolf) is the flirting star. According to Chinese astrology these three stars, with their changes, could create or destroy that beautiful life of yours.

In his first collaboration with Wilson Yip, Donnie Yen plays Inspector Ma Kwan, a Hong Kong police officer who is due to take over Simon Yam's (Chan Kwok Chung) squad when he retires. Before he retires Chung and his team want to take down Sammo Hung ( Wong Po), the kingpin who controls crime in their district. To do so means they will to blur the line between what is right and what is wrong.

With the names attached to this project and what their body of work consists of you would expect this to be an action packed film, yet it is essentially an ensemble drama piece. There are two outstanding fight scenes in the movie but the plot is most definitely driven by the choices the characters make. Each character is well written, the individual members of the squad have their own unique personalities which lends a realistic feel to the storytelling.

We feel that for this project Donnie Yen has taken a step up in his acting. No-one can question his abilities when it comes to onscreen action, but it feels like with working with the cast he is part of he has made an effort to be on par with their dramatic talent. If you are going to get better at something you surround yourself with the best people to learn from and from the cast list for this Donnie Yen is surrounded by some of the best Hong Kong has to offer.

Sammo Hung, in perhaps his first straight gangster villain role, showcases one of his strongest performances with many layers to show both the strengths and flaws of his character.

Simon Yam, with an amazing 239 acting credits to his name, is perfectly cast in the role of Chan Kwok Chung. Yam, probably best known for his work in gangster and police dramas, has the most complex character in this tale, a man who is driven to do the right thing for his family but the road he takes is not easily navigated, making hard choices along the way.

In addition of these well established actors we have the genius casting of Wu Jing as Wong Po’s assassin Jack. Although not allotted a vast amount of screen time he makes an impact with the time he is given. We guess he is onscreen for about 10 minutes, and the first time you see him you don’t see his face but you are immediately made aware of his character is. A man of very few words his first line of dialogue very impactful “How could you kill, without your gun?”

These are the main four characters in the film and although the focus is primarily on them the rest of Yams police unit are by no means minor. His right hand man played by Kai Chi Lui is a strong person with a hard exterior, prone to outbursts of rage but as the story moves along you see the man underneath. Ken Chan plays the youngest of the team, a man who hints at the fact maybe this life is not for him. Danny Summer (according to IMDB one of the most famous singer/songwriters in Hong Kong) is a solid member of the team, he is shown be the heart of the group with his hopes of seeing his daughter again.

Central to this story is a theme of family with the timeline leading up to and concluding on Fathers Day. Throughout, each of our characters is shown to be wanting to reconnect or reminiscing about a loved one. We see the main drive of the story of the police team as a group of brothers wanting to ensure their niece and her father are looked after. There are even tender moments shown between the villain and his wife which show how well these characters are written. We all know there is nothing more important than family.

On a personal note this is the first Donnie Yen film that Jamie’s father connected with when he watched it with him, he could see why Jamie was such a fan. The universal themes of family and morality make this one of the more accessible of Yen’s back catalogue and is a good place for people to go if they have only seen him in Star Wars Rogue One and want to know more of his work.

This work is a great example of a modern police thriller in Hong Kong cinema. It is a Chinese film noir, a large part of it taking place at night, it gives a dark gritty feel to proceedings. Hong Kong is very much a character as well, Wilson Yip and cinematographer Wah-Chuen Lam bring the city to life which could draw comparisons to what Michael Mann has achieved in his career.

With this being a Donnie Yen film you expect fight scenes and we think the standout one is the alleyway fight between Yen and Wu Jing. Not only is this exceptional choreography but the build up of this is well executed from the previous scenes between the two characters up to the use of music and camera work as the two meet in the alley. With a blend of both rehearsed and unrehearsed elements this stands up as one of the best weapons based fight scenes ever filmed. Very brutal and stylized, one interesting thing is the use of colour. Western audiences are used to seeing the good guy wear white but in this case the wardrobe is switched, our hero wears black where his nemesis is clothed in white. In Chinese culture white is associated with funerals and this decision could be seen as to portray the character of Jack as Death.

There is perhaps a hint of how this will play out in the astrological meaning of the three stars in the title. This is an unrelenting film which as it moves towards the finale keeps the viewer on their toes, there is no clear cut direction to which the characters will go. The turmoil and pace of this film is such that the final shot is the most peaceful image in the work and fades out to conclude our story beautifully.

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