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City on Fire (Long hu feng yun)

(1987) rated: R

Director: Ringo Lam

Starring: Chow Yun-Fat, Danny Lee, Kong Lau, Carrie Ng...

Synopsis: Chow Yun-Fat plays Ko Chow, a reluctant undercover cop who must replace a fellow officer killed while attempting to infiltrate a group of jewelry thieves. He's done this sort of thing before with disastrous consequences, but his uncle, a police chief, pressures him back into it. As he earns the trust of the criminals, he begins to develop a tight friendship with one of the thieves, which only serves to complicate matters during the heist. Meanwhile, Chow is trying to salvage what's left of his relationship with Huong (Carrie Ng), with little success.

Review: About five years ago, a friend of mine got me hooked on Hong Kong cinema. Naturally, we found out about Chow Yun-Fat and John Woo, and later, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark. We would bum around Chinatown, looking for imports (this stuff wasn't nearly as popular back then, and thus it was much harder to find), and we ended up building quite a collection.

One of the most vexing films we found was called City on Fire, not just because of the complexity of the plot, but because the subtitles were so poorly done. Not only were a good portion of the subtitles cut off at the edges of the screen (often times missing an entire line of dialogue), but my understanding was that the translation wasn't very good to begin with. About the only thing I really knew about it was that Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs was supposed to be heavily influenced by it (some even consider it to be an outright remake). Well, fast forward 5 years, and now we have the new and "improved" DVD, boasting a new translation and quality audio and video transfers. Naturally, I wanted to take a look at this new edition.

Boy, was that a mistake. This new version was produced by Dimension Films, the Miramax subsidiary which has a reputation for buying up rights to Hong Kong films, changing the stories, dubbing, editing, bastardizing and then suing anyone who releases the original art. Sadly, City on Fire has suffered such a fate. The disappointing DVD has only a single dubbed English language sound track, and not even a good one at that. The "revised" dialogue is sometimes pathetic, laughable, and unbelievable (whose bright idea was it to make one of the villains exclaim "Show me the money!"?) In all fairness, as dubbing goes, it could be one hell of a lot worse, but that's no excuse for not including a subtitled version...

What makes all this unbearable is that this is what appears to be a pretty good damn film. Chow Yun-Fat gives a spectacular performance (its a bit of a departure from his normal image), only to be muted by the sub par dubbing (the old version may have had bad subtitles, but you could at least receive the full impact of the performances). I get the feeling that the story is greatly simplified (at the very least, all subtlety is lost), though my memory is unclear and I didn't have that great of a grip on it in the first place. That the film exudes any power at all, despite its lackluster presentation, is an indicator of the original film's strength. The one good thing about the DVD is that the video transfer seems to be good (certainly much better than the shitty video I originally viewed).

From what I've seen of both versions of the film I've seen, I gather that this is a good film, but also a film that has been greatly improved upon in its Hong Kong and even *gasp* American counterparts. Reservoir Dogs was simply an expansion of the last twenty minutes of City on Fire, and it benefits greatly from that tactic, as the ending sequence of City on Fire is by far the most compelling portion of the film (which includes, among other things, the infamous Mexican standoff). Director Ringo Lam does a fair job here, though he easily surpasses himself in terms of action sequences with another Chow Yun-Fat flick that he directed five years later: Full Contact. Countless other flicks would later explore similar territory, and improve upon it. Action sequences, in particular, were a bit lacking (especially when placed against the works of John Woo, for instance).

In the end, I'm left with a most frustrating dilemma. Here we have a perfectly good film, completely ruined by bad translations, bad dubbing, and horrific subtitles. Both available versions of the film are lacking the treatment the film deserves. Its worth watching if you are an aficionado (or if you don't care about bad dubbing, though in that case, I'd bet you wouldn't like the film anyway) or if you just want to see how badly Hollywood can mangle a decent film.

• Why must we ruin these films!?
• Was the film ruined by its presentation (dubbing, translate, etc.)? (I think you could figure out my thoughts on this)
• Is there a good film lurking beneath the bad translation? Did Reservoir Dogs improve upon this film? Or was it just a cheap knock off?

• City on Fire is widely considered to be the inspiration behind Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs, which is thematically similar and expands upon the last sequence of City on Fire greatly. The Mexican standoff is also prevalent in many of Tarantino's other works.
• Indeed, the 1994 film, Who Do You Think You're Fooling?, is a comparison of the films Reservoir Dogs and City on Fire, claiming Quentin Tarantino borrowed many elements of City on Fire without giving proper credit.
• City on Fire won two Hong Kong Film Awards, one for best director (Ringo Lam) and one for best actor (Chow Yun-Fat), and was nominated for several others.

Online Petition: Appeal to Disney for Respectful Treatment of Asian films (sadly, this won't do any good, but it makes you feel better:)

Reservoir Dogs
Full Contact
A Better Tomorrow
The Killer
Hard Boiled
Donnie Brasco
Pulp Fiction

The Store:
City on Fire (USA) : Poorly translated, dubbed, and bastardized. Easier to understand...
City on Fire (original) : Poorly translated and subtitled, but with original audio. Harder to understand and it seems to have limited availability...

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