RIC MEYERS: Hard Dorm
It’s about time I got around to Tartan – specifically Tartan Asia Extreme, since they’ve been inundating the DVD market with every Japanese, Chinese, Korean, and Thai “horror” movie they can get their well-manicured hands on. I put horror in quotes, because, in reality, many of their releases are actually episodes of The Twilight Zone and Tales from the Crypt with delusions of cinematic grandeur – essentially familiar ghost revenge sagas pumped and/or padded to feature length. I also say “well-manicured,” because, whatever the overall quality of the film they’re presenting, Tartan’s packaging is uniformly classy.
On the one hand, if you’ve yet to have Tartan’s special editions of South Korean director Park Chan-wook’s “Vengeance” trilogy (Sympathy for Mr. Vengeance, Sympathy for Lady Vengeance, and Old Boy), acquire them with all speed (and watch them in the aforementioned order, despite their actual release dates). On the other hand, I showed eighteen hours of Tartan’s other Asia Extreme releases at last year’s World Science Fiction Convention and didn’t see a single film that rated above “okay.”
So warned, let’s judge some of their latest releases from the special features perspective. First, there’s Dorm, a Thai award winner that strives to be like Guillermo del Toro’s The Devil’s Backbone. Both concern what happens to a young man in a creepy private school, and while del Toro connects the ghosts to the Spanish Civil War, director Songyos Sugmakanan weaves it within the universal loneliness of an outcast new student. It’s a well-made mood piece more than anything else, and a fine one, but, as previously mentioned, it would have been well-served as a ninety minute (or less) chiller, rather than the 110 minute saga it is.
Tartan attaches an interesting audio commentary with Songyos and some of his cast, in addition to a “making of” (which is really a ten minute on-set home movie of the complications that come of making a film with a pre-teen cast), a “behind the scenes” (which are actually a bunch of short prevue pieces detailing the cast and plot), fittingly eerie deleted scenes, a special effect featurette, and a welcome “character introduction,” which is like a visual program book. All in all, it’s a satisfying job.
Next, we have Arang, whose box features a review line that hits the nail on the head: “CSI Meets The Grudge.” If you’re in the mood for exactly that, Arang doesn’t disappoint. In fact, one of the charms of this brisk South Korean attempt to rework standard modern Japanese horror themes is the characters’ openly referencing their plot’s “homages.” When one detective character mentions a crime scene bystander with long, wet, black hair wearing a long gown, the other cop cheerily interjects “Must be a ghost!”
Arang’s extras are similar to Dorm (not to mention every other Tartan Asia Extreme title), but are more fun in that this director, Ahn Sang Hoon, seems to be doing a satire of the stereotypical, sensitive, inhibited, young filmmaker. His whispered, muttered, precious, rationalized utterances on how he wanted to make this obviously derivative effort “different” and “special” are pretty funny. In addition, both the “making of” and “behind the scenes” end with music videos, which are suitably self-reverential. Even so, of the many Grudge clones, this one is effective and watchable, with Nippon-flavored young female spooks appearing everywhere from a shower stall to a car wash.
But all this Tartan-ness is mere appetizer to this particular column’s main Dragon Dynasty course: The Two-Disc Ultimate Edition of Hard-Boiled — director John Woo’s last truly great action movie (before he came to America and slowly turned into a satire of himself). Hard-Boiled was Woo’s final Hong Kong-produced film, his last collaboration with his on-screen “muse” Chow Yun-fat, the film which most influenced the many “Woo-lite” knock-offs which followed (The Replacement Killers, Smokin’ Aces, et al), and one of the best “gun-fu” movies ever made.
To truly know why, all you have to do is watch the blazing, high caliber movie itself, and/or check the bountiful, fascinating extras. They start off with an eye-opening/lacerating interview with the director himself, in which he reveals how co-star Tony Leung’s eye got cut in one scene, how he personally nearly blew up Chow in another, and how he wanted the whole thing to really be a Hong Kong Dirty Harry by way of Steve McQueen’s Bullitt. There’s an entire “Interview Gallery,” in fact, featuring edifying, entertaining talks with producer Terence Chang, co-star Philip Chan, and legendary “Deadly Venom,” action director, and co-star Philip Kwok Choi. By the time you’re finished with them, you’ll know all too well why something as galvanizing as Hard-Boiled could never be made in America — or even remade now in China.
Beyond those, one of my favorite extras is the “Location Guide” featurette, in which a young lovely takes us on a tour of the film’s shooting (in more ways than one) sites all over Hong Kong — delightfully delivering interesting and intriguing trivia tidbits every step of the way. Finally, surprise-surprise, there’s an unmentioned extra extra: a “making of behind the scenes” for the long-awaited (and long delayed) John Woo’s Stranglehold — the Midway Games videogame “sequel” to Hard-Boiled starring a digitalized Chow Yun-fat. It’s going to be interesting to see if even the hyper-violent videogame world can match the cathartic cinematic bravura of this mass-murderous milestone. But it’s worth a shot (or two, or a million).
Now that I think of it, for a DVD viewing experience of several lifetimes, watch Park Chan-wook’s Vengeance trilogy followed by Hard-Boiled. That’ll be a day you may regret but you’ll never forget…!
Ric Meyers is the author of Murder On The Air, Doomstar, The Great Science-Fiction Films, Murder in Halruua, For One Week Only: The World of Exploitation Films, Fear Itself, and numerous other books and has (and sometimes still is) on the editorial staff of such publications as Famous Monsters of Filmland, Starlog, Fangoria, Inside Kung-Fu, The Armchair Detective, The Weekly World News and Asian Cult Cinema. He’s also a television and motion picture consultant whose credits include The Twilight Zone, Columbo, A&E’s Biography and The Incredibly Strange Film Show.