RIC MEYERS: Nights from the City of Violence
I love action movies. So does Korean film director Ryoo Seung-wan, which is made abundantly clear in the ample extras for the Dragon Dynasty two-disc Ultimate Edition release of The City of Violence. Originally I wasn’t going to review another Dragon Dynasty DVD so soon after my praise of their Hard Boiled and Crime Story remasterings, but I was overwhelmed by the sheer mass of action movie analysis available for this South Korean labor of love.
Ryoo is an award-winning director of such international cult favorites as Arahan and Crying Fist, but even after those successes, and others, he was dissatisfied with the compromises he felt inclined to make because of producer and studio collaboration. Sitting down with friend and co-worker Jung Doo-han – the stunt coordinator and action director for such Asian classics as The Foul King, Legend of Gingko, Fighter in the Wind, and A Bittersweet Life – they formulated a compromise-free concept.
Or, as Ryoo himself put it: “What if we made a film for under a million dollars with characters like those from John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, who go to a place like Roman Polanski’s Chinatown, have to struggle and fight like in Jackie Chan’s Police Story, I film it like Martin Scorcese’s Raging Bull, edit it like Sam Peckinpah’s Wild Bunch, and set it to something like Sergio Leone’s soundtrack for The Good, the Bad, and the Ugly?” The result is The City of Violence, a well-named film if ever there was one.
Upon setting eyes on the kinetic movie poster I had no idea that the charismatic stars were also the director and fight choreographer, but to dodge more compromise by having to train out-of-shape actors to take on the roles of childhood friends investigating, and taking vengeance for, the murder of a colleague, Ryoo and Jung co-star themselves – a sticking point throughout production. The movie itself is a linear, lean, mean, and exciting thriller which plays like a Japanese yakuza film filled with golden age of Hong Kong kung-fu battles, but, thanks to the hours and hours of special features, it plays like an action film tutorial.
There’s so many docs, featurettes, alternate scenes, deleted sequences, bloopers, trailers, and interviews that they break it down into Pre-Production, Production, and Post Production sections – the ingredients of each overlapping from segment to segment. There’s fascinating examinations of the film’s development, preparation, training of the actors, design, choreography, filming, promotion, and release, in addition to an illuminating piece just on the Seoul Action School. Topping all that off is audio commentary on the film by its director/star, as well as a completely separate audio commentary by the choreographer/star on just the many action set-pieces alone.
Although the quotes and sequences are often repeated in the mass of extras, the joy of an action film like this is that the fight scenes beg for repeated viewings to catch every nuance. This becomes especially interesting when, early during filming, you discover that Ryoo ruined his knee and Jung was scarred – but, because of their movie’s tight budget and schedule, neither could do anything about their injuries until after shooting wrapped! It gives a whole new meaning to every grimace and camera angle.
The City of Violence is a real thriller, and loads of fun to watch, but the DVD Ultimate Version is another amazing example of how discs can deepen and resonate a viewing experience. Perfection? Not quite. There’s a subtitle misspelling or two, occasionally the titling falls over itself trying to name the speaker, identify the clip, and tell you what is being said, and the action itself is restricted by Korean tae kwon do’s limited real-world martial applications, but these are mere trifles in the face of the overwhelmingly positive achievements. For fans of action movies, this release is a four-year college education.
Now for something completely different. Following the utter brutal yang of The City of Violence, it was a pleasure to settle back into the soothing yin of Nights from the Alhambra, a new double CD/single DVD set from Canadian composer and crooner Loreena McKennitt. I’ve been a big fan of hers since stumbling upon her song All Souls Night in a VH1 compilation CD many moon’s ago. Since then I’ve been collecting her albums and visiting her website.
For those not in the know, Loreena can be unfairly compared to Enya, but I far prefer McKennitt’s mix of Celtic and Middle Eastern rhythms with her romantic, poetic themes. Another arrow in her arsenal is music to illuminate the lyrics of Tennyson (The Lady of Shalott) and Shakespeare (Cymbeline), among others. Nights from the Alhambra is a 100 minute concert she performed with her eclectic orchestra of unusual instruments at an evocative Spanish palace in Granada, and a soothing, satisfying compliment whether played on a stereo or TV.
It’s a bit unfair of me to include it in this column, since it’s only extras are really the audio CDs (containing the exact same playlist as the DVD) and some inter-song commentary, but blame it on my fannish devotion. McKennitt is worth checking out. Listening to (and watching) her after visiting The City of Violence only strengthens each experience.
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 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.