Men Suddenly In Black (2003)
by: Edmond Pang
at the Hong Kong Film Awards 2004:
at the Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards 2004:
at the Taiwan Golden Horse Awards 2003:
In an recent interview, director Edmond Pang talked about the acting approach to Men Suddenly In Black as being serious even though it's a comedy. For me, that stance didn't seem special or a reason to work up much excitement about the film but Men Suddenly In Black comes from the director of one of the most fun comedies out of Hong Kong in the last few years, You Shoot, I Shoot. Therefore I went into this film with huge excitement and the end result can be summarized like this: Edmond Pang strikes again!
Kwok (Eric Tsang), Dr Lee Wing-Cheung (Jordan Chan), Tsui Kiu (Chapman To) and Paul (Spirit Blue) are on a mission. Their women are away for 14 hours and it's time to screw around because of it. Everything is carefully planned, most of the things go wrong fairly quickly but one thing they didn't count on. That their wives and girlfriends would figure out what they were up to. The hunt is on...
Director Pang's freshman effort, You Shoot, I Shoot is a difficult movie to top so going into Men Suddenly In Black with those expectations is not the wisest thing to do. A lot of things remain clear after watching his newest comedy though. Pang has a good sense of style for a film like this, there's sharp writing on display and ultimately he proves that You Shoot, I Shoot wasn't beginners luck.
Taking the subject of cheating on your wives and weaving it into a comedy can present a set of problems. The subject isn't a very pleasant one and you shouldn't joke around with it. What could've been one of my few criticisms against You Shoot, I Shoot was its approach to violence and death. On the other hand, it was only supposed to be a fun a movie and sometimes you should just let go of your moral standpoints. Men Suddenly In Black goes down a similar path but does divulge into reasons for the men's behaviour, without disrupting a flow to what essentially is a thriller-comedy in a way. Pang and his screenwriters makes the wise choice to not portray our four men in black as heroes or men to sympathize with. Even their reasons for going on this journey are pretty far fetched but probably makes very much sense within themselves. No, Pang is observing and capturing their behaviour, not commenting on whether we should accept it or not and that approach works well. Thanks to Erica Lee, the women's perspective is made clear also and they are far from flawless themselves. Therefore it creates a dynamic where most of the sympathy goes towards the women but also a study of couples who have this idea of cheating on their loved ones.
Men Suddenly In Black stands out in the current Hong Kong cinema catalogue because it's one of the few not taking on a tired, tried formula. Actually that isn't true to an extent and I'll explain why. For the majority of the film, the actors are performing the comedy and acting out the plot completely straight. That means, very few gestures and comedic hijinxs are on display but obviously it's directed in a comedic fashion. The dialogue is awfully clever at times since it's placed in a plot like this but would be awfully clichéd if it had belonged to what it actually should logically belong to, a triad-thriller. This is a daring approach, one that works very well because Pang never lets go of that focus. His actors are in tune with the material and never really acknowledges that they are funny, just that they want and are having fun which could also happen if this had actually been an expected genre piece.
Within this, Pang continues to infuse his film with a quick-cutting style to enhance the atmosphere. Again this is an example, just like the dialogue, that it wouldn't have worked in a thriller but for a comedy like this, Pang makes sure it's about adding a level of fun and not just cool shots he can do because he can. There's more of this in the first half while the second calms down. Through Wenders Li's editing there's a few terrific examples of how dialogue punchlines do wonders in its simplicity. Sure the actors like Eric Tsang in his first scene with Maria Cordero brings a lot but to seal that comedic point requires work all the way up till post production. Actually because of the serious approach to characters, this is not a laugh fest as such but it remains VERY amusing since the actual seriousness in the story is actually a gag in itself. It's tongue in cheek the way Pang uses the tone of course and by distancing himself from the fact that it's not serious makes for great amusing moments.
The first half also holds a series of movie spoofs without the film actually being one. You got a Fargo-esque opening disclaimer and the title sequence obviously is lifted from Se7en. Reservoir Dogs also gets a nod or two and Tsang gets to parody his own performance from Infernal Affairs. These aren't great spoofs as such but doesn't hurt the fun atmosphere. Arguably the greatest sequence is the chase in the alley that switches guns for water hoses and cameras instead. It's wonderfully staged by Tung Wai and strays from reality like most Hong Kong action movies do.
Pang switches the narrative to the women at a certain point and here are where the films falters a bit. He gets his points across from the women's perspective but he really should've included a better sense of style to this long sequence starting in the plane to the point where wives are stopped by the police. It's a bit tedious but Pang picks himself up when the men enters the story again and it's a pleasing ride all up till the end. Peter Kam and Anthony Chu are on board to provide the films overly dramatic score. It's composed like a b-movie thriller and really holds nothing back in moments of drama, tension or joy. Pang has communicated his vision well to the composers and they have responded with a score that is ALSO greatly in-tune with the film. Peter also provided the music for You Shoot, I Shoot.
The main leads, Jordan Chan, Eric Tsang & Chapman To do perfectly fine work but newcomer Spirit Blue, playing the young mainlander, obviously hasn't been given the most demanding dialogue or performance tasks because honestly I don't think he would be up to it. We leave the so called complicated acting to the veterans plus Chapman To, who is less annoying than usual. Maybe it's because he's in virtually every Hong Kong movie nowadays that we now have gotten used to him, in a negative way? The ladies consist of a serious of familiar faces with Candy Lo walking away with the acting trophy out of them. I really liked her determination and energy in her paranoid quest to catch the mean doing what they shouldn't. We also get a bunch of cameos, the funniest coming from Tony Leung Kar-Fai as a husband who got caught and now lives a prison existence with his wife, played by Sandra Ng. Cheung Tat-Ming, Eric Kot, Stephanie Che, Lam Suet, Chin Kar Lok and Sammo Hung also appears.
Men Suddenly In Black isn't better than You Shoot, I Shoot if you really, really must compare but it is a cleverly written comedy with performances to match that. Few Hong Kong movies try different approaches and Edmond Pang has proven now that he's got an eye for originality. He certainly makes Hong Kong cinema looks a hell of a lot better than it has for the last year or so.
This is a 2 disc Special Edition from Mei Ah that strangely hasn't been made available at all online stores. DDDHouse only sold this edition for a short while before only taking in stock of the single disc edition. People from North America apparently also have had trouble acquiring the disc from Yesasia's North American portal but the global site stocks the 2 disc version. I have no idea why this situation has occurred but since the discs comes in separate amarays, to re-pack the edition wouldn't be much of a problem. EDIT: Reports as of 04/05/18 is that the 2 disc version is now being sold in a single amaray as well.
Regardless, the 1.78:1 anamorphic transfer looks very sharp and colourful with only few specks on the print. A nasty line does appear briefly in the scene where the men visits Tony Leung's character.
The Cantonese Dolby Digital 5.1 track uses the surrounds very little but adds a lot of nice effects on the front stage. Dialogue is always clear sounding. A Mandarin 5.1 dub is also included.
The English subtitles has a few sloppy errors but on the whole seem like a well-done translation by Mei Ah. Considering the time post-production lasted (as you'll learn in the commentary), the subtitles should be considered excellent despite flaws. Traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles are also included.
On the first disc we also find an audio commentary with director/co-writer Edmond Pang, co-writer Patrick Kong and editor Wenders Li. Commentaries are slowly becoming more common special features on Hong Kong dvd's but what isn't common is the inclusion of English subtitles for the tracks. Mei Ah HAVE provided that for Men Suddenly In Black though (as well as traditional and simplified Chinese subtitles) and it was a pleasure to actually enjoy this track as a Westerner. Kong and Pang dominate heavily and discusses everything from how the project came together, the serious themes of the film and a wealth of production anecdotes.
The guys quickly sets the correct tone by expressing their appreciation for these kind of tracks and keeps things flowing with only a few small gaps of silence. Kong and Pang have good chemistry but does have a tendency to interrupt each other. That's a minor quibble and all throughout there are much informative subjects touched upon such as the movies behind the movie spoofs, what the Se7en credit sequence has to do with the plot of Men Suddenly In Black and Pang even points out scenes he's not happy with. There's much to enjoy here and the guys clearly had great fun while doing this commentary. The subtitles are more flawed than the feature but overall they relay the information by the filmmakers pretty well. Excellent initiative, Mei Ah!
Finishing off the first disc are trailers for The Romancing Star 1 & 2 (recently reissued in anamorphic transfers by Mei Ah) and the newest film from Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai, Running On Karma.
(director Edmond Pang at work and actor Tony Leung Kar-Fai in character, from the making of)
The 2nd disc, named 60 Minutes Special Mission holds the rest of the extras, starting with Director's Statement. This 2 screen essay by Pang briefly goes over how he misses the golden era of Hong Kong, mostly symbolized by the closure of the Tonnocchy Night Club (also a plot point in the film). He himself wasn't around for that era and he writes that Men Suddenly In Black is to him, in part, a memorial to the golden age of Hong Kong. A bit of a downer but it proves there lies serious thoughts behind what could be considered a whacky film.
The making of lasts 22 minutes and 8 seconds, comes with optional English subtitles (in addition to traditional and simplified Chinese ones) but is very low on good information. The usual cast & crew interviews appear but only a few notes by Pang and about Pang can be considered informative. The director talks about Hong Kong's bad economy as being a theme and how his mindset were during the shooting in regards to the merging of genres but that's about it. Big thanks to Mei Ah for providing subtitles but it's still program you'll probably only watch once.
The Deleted Scenes section disappointingly has no subtitles whatsoever so these 5 clips are hard to judge in terms of quality content. As far as I could gather though, 4 of them are extended scenes.
To access the Outtakes Footage you have to play a little game that involves choosing, in the right order, the places the men visits in the movie. Not too difficult but the reward is 7 minutes of actors flubbing their lines. Even if subtitles had been included, I doubt it would be funny.
Storyboard Comparisons (2 minutes, 14 seconds) showcases 3 scenes and how the filmed version compares to the storyboards. I have never been too keen on this kind of feature but it does nicely show the differences between what's drawn and what ended up being shot. That a Hong Kong movie actually used storyboards is a revolution in itself.
(a look at two poster designs in the photo gallery)
Next are some standard extras; the theatrical trailer and a TV-spot, a 30 page photo gallery that is dull except it features a few different poster designs for the movie and a music video by a band I'm not familiar with. It mostly consists of movie clips intercut with the band recording the song in the studio. Hong Kong always seems to make crappy videos and this is no exception. The Data Bank has the plot synopsis and a cast & crew listing. Select any of the male actors and you'll find a bio for the character they play. A feature that Mei Ah seem to have adopted recently. Finally, a phone card comes with this 2 disc set. Fun.
Mei Ah have taken a great step forward in terms of supplements by subtitling the audio commentary but it sadly remains the only real informative extra in this set. I applaud them for what they have done and let's hope they can do more. If you care about these things I suggest you write a polite email thanking Mei Ah for getting the Western market a chance to almost fully understand the extras features. Official website is www.meiah.com.
reviewed by Kenneth Brorsson