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"What on earth is going on here?"
A region 2 DVD review of SEOUL RAIDERS / HAN CHENG GONG LÜE by Slarek
 

You should never, we are told, judge a book by its cover, but brisk but cheesy opening titles of Jingle Ma's Seoul Raiders – a kind of James Bond meets kiddie manga – does give a fair flavour of what is to follow.

We're plunged strait into the action, as such, as attractive and ambitious female thief JJ (Shu Qi) stalks the corridors of the high-tech headquarters of a powerful criminal gang and past the bodies of unconscious security guards, only to discover that well-dressed, freelancing secret agent Lam (Tony Leung) has got there ahead of her. They've both come for the same thing, a set of plates for forging US currency, which are destined to be sold on to a powerful gangster known as Polar Bear. A battle with a hoard of security guards follows in which the case containing the plates repeatedly changes hands, but although JJ finally escapes with the case itself, Lam has pocketed the plates. Hoping to collect a sizeable reward, he arranges an exchange with US agent Owen Lee (Richie Ren), but Lee is not what he seems, and having drugged Lam he grabs the plates and heads off to Korea to sell them to Polar Bear. Lam, with his three devoted fighting female assistants, gives chase.

Not a drop of which is even remotely believable as it plays out on screen. This doesn't necessarily matter, as Hong Kong comedy-actioners are rarely grounded in the rules of the real world or that worried about the credibility of their storylines. Which would all be well and fine, were it not for a few things that just kept niggling at my enjoyment...

  1. The characters. To say they lack depth or, to a large part, charisma, is an understatement. As with director Ma's previous Silver Hawk, they are little more than cartoons and often played accordingly. Lam's all-female troupe in particular function as a half-arsed Korean Charlie's Angels, their ever-present grins and the anime-style biker's get-up of one of their number casting them more as decoration than any sort of real force for protection. Leung keeps things under the expected level of control, which is a relief when paired with Shu Qi's sometimes over-the-top cheeriness as JJ (the sequence in which she flees in her boat and laughs and slaps her hand on the case at her perceived victory over Lam is a prime example), but never develops his character into the third dimension. The result is that it's hard to actually care about any of them.

  2. The comedy. To a large extent, it just isn't funny. Of course it doesn't help that much of it is based around characters that are not developed enough to invite either identification or sympathy, let alone provoke a laugh. There are, on paper at least, a couple of sequences that should have been a riot – a fists-up stand-off between Lam and a Polar Bear's deputy that goes on so long that the watching gang get bored and start wandering off, and a punch-up between Owen and JJ that prompts Lam to pull up a chair and open a packet of crisps to watch – but both are effectively nobbled by the execution.

  3. The fights. Now these are the raison d'être of martial arts actioners, but here are unspectacular and shabbily staged to camera, lost in a blizzard of edits and behind-object camera wandering. Sometimes they are also shot in near-silhouette to further detract from the fighting skills of the participants.

  4. The underlying politics. A personal one here, but there appears to be almost a subjugation of Chinese and even Korean identity here in favour of loyalty to America and fuck-you capitalism. Just about everyone, good guys and bad (and we know the bad guys are bad because they sneer and bully and are linked to anti-American TERRORISM), appears driven by a thirst for personal wealth. The film even ends (skip to the next paragraph if you don't want to read this) with Lam expressing his intention to go off and make lots of dosh while he's still young.

  5. The music. Tackily generic at best and annoying at worse, it reaches its nadir with a fight between Lam and Owen in a spa pool and a really horrid ballad whose subtitled lyrics (written by Ma) wonder: "What on earth is going on here? What on Earth are they doing to each other right now?" This is also meant to be funny. Oh mercy.

Which leaves the film with only its breezy pace and relentless good cheer to lean on, and for this weary viewer it just wasn't enough, especially less than a week after basking in the comic-action delights of Wheels on Meals, also released by Hong Kong Legends. And when the action doesn't make the grade you are left to dwell on the more absurd aspects of the plot, such as why, in a huge criminal organisation with millions of dollars at stake, a dangerous gang leader doesn't think of handing out guns to his hired goons, or even carry one himself.

sound and vision

Framed 1.85:1 and anamorphically enhanced, the transfer is on the whole rather good, but a few more dust spots are visible than on the standard Hong Kong Legends release. Colours appear to be sound, with the silvery-blue influence of some scenes a deliberate choice by director Ma and familiar to anyone who has seen Silverhawk. Contrast and sharpness are good, and black levels appear solid throughout.

The original Cantonese soundtrack is available as a 5.1 or DTS mix. Both are rather impressive, the principal differences being ones of volume and wallop, with the DTS coming out tops on both. Explosions and car collisions are appropriately alarming, and the LFE kicks in nicely in the night club scene. Surrounds are used well in places – a loud whistle from the rears at the fashion show made me jump off the sofa.

extra features

The Promotional Gallery contains the UK Promotional Trailer (1:17), and the Original Theatrical Trailer (1:34), which is in Cantonese with English subtitles. Both are anamorphic widescreen. Promotional Art (5:01) contains a collection of poster artwork and production stills, which the camera drifts over and zooms in and out on, accompanied by music from the film.

Seoul Girls: A Travelogue might well be seen as a rather frivolous inclusion, consisting of five mini-featurettes (2:02 each) in which the Korean Charlie's Angels introduce Shu Qi to various aspects of Korean life, namely spas, food, Korean rice wine, shopping and plastic surgery. I have to admit to rather enjoying this extra – the similarities between Korean and Japanese social life (which I thoroughly enjoy and always miss when back in the UK) are numerous, and it brought back some fond memories. The fact that the girls are all very pretty has nothing whatsoever to do with my involvement in the piece. No sir.

The Making of Seoul Raiders also has five mini-featurettes (also 2:02 each) in very much the same style as the above. The first three, focusing on actors Tony Leung, Richie Ren and Shu Qi, are a mixture of behind-the-scenes footage and mutual back-slapping. The final two are largely centred around the filming of the final scene, involving a fight around a light aircraft on a highway. You heard me.

Director's Cut: An Interview with Jingle Ma (22:39) is actually rather interesting, as the director covers the background to the film's story, casting and working with the three leads, working in Korea, filming on crowded streets, his move from cinematography with direction, the colours and look of the film, shooting the finale, the Korean film industry, and how giggly the Korean actresses got when working with Tony Leung, whom they all fancied.

Deleted scenes (4:54) actually consists of only two, and one of them lasts for 4 minutes, being a rather plodding sequence in which JJ makes breakfast for Lam, who revives an unfunny Big Comb gag from the opening scene. Slightly more interesting, character wise, is a shorter scene in which Lam and Owen discuss whether, if JJ were drowning, they would save her or the plates first.

summary

I did try, I really did, especially given my fondness for Hong Kong action cinema, but it's hard to get that excited about anything in Seoul Raiders, a relentlessly fluffy film experience that, like Silverhawk, seems primarily targeted at a younger audience, or at least one with little experience of old school Hong Kong action comedies. It is well enough presented on this DVD, with an OK selection of extras, but you'd do well to not be sucked in by the presence of the great Tony Leung and check it out before handing over your hard-earned cash.

Seoul Raiders
Han cheng gong lüe

South Korea / Hong Kong 2005
95 mins
director
Jingle Ma
starring
Tony Leung
Shu Qi
Ricie Ren

DVD details
region 2
video
1.85:1 anamorphic
sound
Dolby surround 5.1
DTS surround 5.1
languages
Cantonese
subtitles
English
extras
Promotional gallery
Seoul featurettes
Behind-the-scenes featurettes
Interview with Jingle Ma
Deleted scenes
distributor
Hong Kong Legends
release date
27 February 2006
review posted
4 February 2006

related review
Silver Hawk

See all of Slarek's reviews