1941 Hong Kong On Fire

I have no doubt that Wong Jing set out primarily to make an exploitation film – but I wonder if even he realized just how gut wrenching this film turned out to be. The film covers a tragic period in HK history – the occupation of HK by the Japanese – and Wong does his best to make the viewer feel the brutality of the time. He does not use a fine brush to paint this portrait – but instead just pours it on by the bucket load – a constant series of rapes, murders, torture and slaughter. There were times that I really had to turn it off for a bit because it was just too much – and yet I also felt the need to continue – to see how the story ends. This is not a film for the sensitive or for those who get offended by insulting national stereotypes. There is no subtlety or fair mindedness to his characterization of the Japanese – all of them are killers, sadists and rapists. Clearly the historical record points to many atrocities perpetrated by the Japanese against the Chinese – but Wong goes perhaps too far at times.  Still even taking this into consideration, the film does carry an emotional (as manipulative as it is) impact and this is primarily due to the heartfelt performances of Chingmy Yau and in particular Veronica Yip.
The film begins in December 1941 and war clouds are on the horizon – but the people of HK are not yet too concerned because the British Empire of course protects them. Chingmy returns from school to join her family – her two sisters, her father (Law Kar-Ying) and her step-mother. She has a particular bond with her slightly dreamy, innocent sister Veronica Yip and the two talk about what it is like to be kissed and to be in love.
At a dance party the three sisters are invited to come act as extras at a HK movie being made and they meet the big star and have her sign her autograph – on a page ripped from the calendar – December 8th.  The next thing you know the Japanese have entered the studio and killed nearly everyone and repeatedly raped Chingmy and Veronica’s sister.
This is just the beginning of their troubles as Veronica is forced to service a sadistic general, the mother becomes a prostitute and the father becomes a reluctant collaborator. And then it gets worse! Along with this are other mindless killings of innocents and a couple horrific torture scenes. Not a pretty picture.
It really is too much – and Wong Jing can justly be accused of throwing together a melange of gratuitous violence and sex under the banner of a patriotic historical film – but it is saved to some extant by the relationship of the two sisters. They give this film a heart and they have a few very powerfully emotional scenes together, but you unfortunately need to scramble among the blood and gore to find it.

My rating for this film: 6.0