Peace Hotel

Chow Yun Fat’s final HK film before departing for Hollywood is an extremely interesting effort that has been met with a lot of resistance from  HK film fans. Many find it too oblique, too dark, too disjointed and the characters too under developed. To some degree I can’t disagree with these assessments, but at the same time I found this to be a beautifully constructed film that is all about mythmaking. It’s almost as if the director Wai Ka-Fai took the character from The Killer (John Woo is the producer of Peace Hotel) and transposes him to a different time and notches up even more the legendary aura surrounding him.
This fits of course into the very Western (as a genre) feel that this film has. There are themes in this film that are found time after time in the Hollywood Westerns of the 1940’s and 50’s. Individuality, searching for identity, a man  left on his own to face the bad guys, the now peaceful man who has to once again pick up his gun to protect society are themes that run through many Westerns and are very present here. There are strong echoes of High Noon and Shane (even telling the story from the point of view of a small boy) that resonate through this film. And like the Westerns of John Wayne, Gary Cooper, Alan Ladd and Joel McCrea this film is about creating a myth – not simply telling a story – about a man much bigger and larger than life. Taken from the eyes of a small boy told many years later, it has taken on the characteristics of a “tall tale” – to be passed down from generation to generation – and with each telling becomes more exaggerated. I approached the film from this perspective and found it to be immensely satisfying.
There are a number of cinematic techniques that I really enjoyed about this film as well. The editing is simply brilliant, the lilting music weaves into the story line seamlessly (the three man band is a great touch), the tint that Wai gives the film is just perfect (it places the viewer in different space, a different era - and again gives off echoes of old time Westerns) and his use of the camera – at times creating a claustrophobic sense within the Hotel, at other times it feels cavernous depending on what mood he is trying to project – and his coming in for close ups and then backing away for widescreen shots is a pleasure to watch.
Though John Woo produces the film, one should not have expectations of John Woo like action. The film has action at the beginning and the end of the film (which is in fact seemingly much more influenced by Wong Kar-Wai than Woo). The remainder of the film is about this man, his hotel, the woman who enters it and the relationship that grows between the two of them. The film explores themes of identity, memory, community, revenge, sacrifice and love.

In the opening scene, Chow Yun Fat – called interestingly The Killer – is in the process of slaughtering a large number of men – and he sees his lover (a cameo from the glorious Wu Chien-lien) die in front of him. It isn’t until much later in the film that the truth of what transpired that day becomes clear. After the bloody massacre, a sickened Chow retires from a life of killing and opens a hotel in the wastelands in which anyone can receive refuge - no questions asked. No one is allowed to violate this sanctuary or they will answer to Chow. Over ten years a community has grown up within the hotel and as long as they stay within they are safe. Allusions to HK? – perhaps.

One day Cecilia Yip comes into the sanctuary seeking escape from a large group of ruffians and claiming to be Chow's dead wife at one point and one of the Soong sisters at another. Her performance is vibrant, enchanting and multi-faceted. Who she really is slowly surfaces over the film. The large band of killers gives Chow a deadline for turning her over to them – or they will kill everyone within.

My rating for this film: 8.0

Reviewed by YTSL

Though not as demented as “Fantasy Mission Force” and definitely not meant to be farcical like “The Eagle Shooting Heroes”, Chow Yun-Fat’s final Hong Kong movie -- before he headed off to try his luck in Hollywood -- is a rather bizarre as well as confusing piece of work.  While there does appear to be respectful nods in the direction of John Woo (who produced this film) in such as the naming of Chow’s character as “The Killer” and the appearance of white doves during a soulful moment, I have read about director-scriptwriter Wai Ka-Fai’s being particularly influenced by Wong Kar Wai.  Although this seems to have been detected most in terms of the filming style utilized for this 1995 movie’s action scenes, the production also does have an atmospheric feel of taking place in a social vacuum as well as unspecifiable time and place akin to the Wong Kar Wai script-written “Saviour of the Soul” (N.B. I had feared that it would be a somewhat hokey as well as improbable Eastern Western but have concluded that it was actually more of an ahistorical fantasy).

PEACE HOTEL begins with a murderous rampage of a sequence filmed in black and white that takes place ten years before events that will occupy the rest of the movie.  As if through mist and in a nightmare, we see a bald-headed man -- who looks to be responsible for the deaths of scores of men (and maybe one woman (The visually striking Wu Chien-Lien makes a haunting cameo performance here)) -- hunting down a clearly frightened and desperate youth, only to spare his life after cornering him.  These intense few minutes constitute an amazing section of film that will be hard to forget.
For reasons that I am still trying to truly fathom, the rest of PEACE HOTEL just doesn’t come close to it in memorability and quality.  Although it is particularly beautiful to view upon getting infused with color, possesses a rather good musical score (along with a Hong Kong Film Award-winning song) and seemed to have the requisite elements in place -- at least two strong characters, a complex and original story with its fill of romance, tragedy and mystery, etc. -- to be generally interesting, this (re)viewer actually found her mind wandering in places as well as working overtime trying to figure out what was actually going on with particular individuals along with the story as a whole.  Additionally, I must admit to having to fight off several urges to fast-forward through scenes that felt alternately superfluous and actually irritating (even while I needed to -- and did -- immediately rewind and rewatch the opening scene before giving my attention to the rest of the movie).
This was especially the case when the movie’s undisputed star (who apparently was the individual who first conceived of the perhaps too improbable story, and does receive writing credits along with Wai Ka-Fai for PEACE HOTEL) was not in the frame.  Of course, it’s not Chow Yun-Fat’s fault that he exudes so much charm and has so much presence that he overwhelms everyone else in the picture.  However, precisely because I felt such sympathy for the Killer who tries so hard to reform and create a haven for other retirees from the bad real world, I got thoroughly vexed by his becoming inexplicably enamored with a woman who so clearly was Trouble (Cecilia Yip possibly overacts but most definitely is awfully shrill as well as volatile in this over-the-top role) and was bound to create havoc in his realm.  Chow also provides an unfair yardstick for endowing with humanity what the production’s others actors could only correspondingly fashion into unattractive caricatures.
It surely was not the intention of the movie’s makers for Chow to look good at the great expense of the film.  At the same time, I can’t help but wonder how much director Wong and producer Woo were prepared to sacrifice in terms of overall plot continuity and role development to come up with a legend-style departure for his PEACE HOTEL character which could also be metaphorically perceived as their good wishes regarding the charismatic Hong Kong film giant’s future activities.

My rating for the film:  6.5