BLACK MASK [1996]

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Directed by:
Written by: , , ,
Starring: , , ,

HONG KONG

AVAILABLE ON BLU-RAY: NOW, from EUREKA ENTERTAINMENT, LIMITED EDITION 2 DISC SET [2000 COPIES]

RUNNING TIME: 87 mins [International Export Version], 99 mins [Hong Kong Version], 100 mins [Taiwanese Version], Extended Version [102 mins]

REVIEWED BY: Dr Lenera

Black Mask

A man escapes from a secret military complex. Named “Black Mask”, he’s a member of a special commando unit where the members have been experimented on to make them especially strong and resilient. However, they’re becoming uncontrollable, so it’s been decided that they need to be killed. Black Mask tries to lead a quiet, non-violent life in Hong Kong as Tsui Chik, working in a library where he can immerse himself in books. However, the city’s gangsters are being wiped out with ruthless efficiency and the police, including Chik’s sole friend Inspector Shek Wai-Ho, are puzzled. Who could be doing this? Whoever it is or whoever they are, it seems that Chik will have to go back into action, while juggling the two very different women in his life?

Superheroes don’t always seem to take the concept of hiding their identity very seriously. For some reason, we accept Kent Clark’s glasses, even though it’s a ridiculous concept really, but the silly cardboard thing, which along with the chauffeur’s cap is obviously intended to remind viewers of Bruce Lee’s Kato in The Green Hornet TV series, and which Chik first finds in his fish tank[!], that our hero wears in this movie is probably something that most people will chuckle at, and find it silly that the heroine doesn’t realise that the person wearing it is the “geek” who works with her. But one thing that Black Mask does make us believe is that Li’s character can do all this amazing leaps, jumps, twirls etc. I think many will agree with me in saying that that kind of action works best in films set in the past, where folklore attributed such skills to legendary warriors. In modern films, it looks rather out of place. To be fair it’s often toned down in Li’a present-day pictures, but not always, and this is one of them. However, we buy it because Li’s playing a Universal Soldier-like “super soldier”, with enhanced abilities and endurance, and the viewer is treated to a good amount of mayhem to show this, though there’s less actual martial arts than usual, wires tending to be more used more than fists and feet, and it’s often rather clumsily filmed. Perhaps the most brutal of his films, with lots of nasty deaths and blood which caused the Hong Kong release to be censored, the feel is generally serious but, as one might expect, every now and again goes lighter, usually when the character of Tracy is onscreen, though many viewers may wish that she’d just disappear from it, seeing as Karen Mok fails to make the goofy role very likeable for much of the running time. The script also just skims over some aspects of the plot, and some footage even seems to be missing. Nonetheless this is still Li in action, and there’s still much to enjoy.

A slow zoom out from a warning sign to reveal a prison fence, followed by a throttling and an electrocution inside, is intercut with text telling us about this Squad 701, which was formed “in a certain country up north”. North Korea? Vietnam? We wants to know. Were screenwriters Tsui Hark who also produced, Koan Hui, Teddy Chan and Jor Ma told to be vague? A voice comes on to inform Black Mask, though he’s not wearing a mask here, that he’s in a prohibited zone and must go no further and surrender, otherwise he’ll be shot, but of course he takes no notice so is immediately surrounded by lots of men with gun. Of course many heroes would give up, it seemingly being impossible now to escape, but not this superpowered guy, who’s able to easily slide down a wire in a cage firing a machine gun,  run over a jeep which is driving straight at him, and jump over the lasers blocking his way to freedom. He’d be great at heists. Now we rejoin him some time later, in Hong Kong, in the form of library worker Chik who immerses himself in books and keeps himself to himself. “For me, this is the perfect place “ says Chik, who narrates that he’s “searching for that most human quality – feeling”. He also introduces us to his strict but also jokey boss and Tracy, nicknamed “Desparate”, who keeps on getting dumped by the hunks and rich guys that she goes for. Tracy is clearly intended to make us laugh, but is she funny? Two other coworkers get her to go for Chik, who she easily tricks into giving money to her, and gosh – might even be a virgin. Chik does have one friend – Inspector Chek – and they meet up regularly to play chess. Chik is now a peace-loving guy, who doesn’t like it that Chek wants to kill all the city’s drug dealers. Not interested in fighting, he needs Chek to come and save him from bullies and robbers, though when Chek has gone, Chik uses a few moves to knock out one guy who gets up. Clearly he’s still got it.

I could have done with all this being given a bit longer on screen, so it more gradually builds; we’re not even sure if he’s blocked much or all of his previous life out or not, memories possibly but maybe not coming back to him. Meanwhile the “leaders of the four great families” are meeting up to discuss all these killings that have been going on, though a certain King Kau cant be got hold off, so suspicion is understandably on him. One boss named Tai is driving to the meeting  – but is welcomed by not just loads of dead bodies but sprinklers that come out of the ground and emit gas. The culprits are so clever that they can set these up in between killing a hundred people and these other guys arriving, a period of time which seems to be very short, but then again, as is now revealed when one of them sticks a needle into Tai’s stomach, they are the other 701 lot, so who knows what they’re capable of doing? This leads to a bonkers variant of the bomb disposal scene. You know the kind, the “don’t cut the red wire, cut the blue wire” kind. I don’t know about you, but I love these scenes, and they usually manage to keep me in suspense even when I’ve seen them before. And here’s one where the bomb is inside somebody’s chest. Chik knows what to do, so he rings Chek and instructs him, it not really being his fault that he’s then mistaken for the Commissioner. Chek is puzzled as to how Chik is so knowledgeable; Chik claims he got it from books but Chek doesn’t believe him. Soon after, Chik remembers talking with Yeuk-Lan, a fellow 701 member, about how it was decided thar the members of the squad be eliminated. Meanwhile Chek finally finds Kau, but alomg come the vigilante super soldiers, though it’s not like Magnum Force where the vigilante have a point – these ones have nefarious aims. Chik goes up against them, but one of them is Yeuk-Lan, and soon Tracy is involved too.

Action often suffers from the way it’s shot, with too much use of Dutch angles and closeups which look they were filmed by a drunk person, such as people jumping while all we see are their arms or chest or whatever filling the screen. Director Daniel Lee clearly just let choreographer Yuen Woo-ping choreograph and nothing else, but his work is still great even if wires rather than skill are generally emphasised, with excellent wirework indeed, while the outrageousness of some of what we see will surprise some. The opening set piece gets things off to a fine start, and lets us know that the action in this film will not just be fast and furious but also pretty graphically violent. After this it’s a while before Li engages in fully fledged action again, but the blood and gore carries on, throughout there being a variety of kills and a particular interest in people losing hands and arms. Li even has some razor sharp CDs which he throws at people. The other super soldiers soon turn up to dispatch loads of normal human beings before Chik, now masked, joins in the fray and battles his past coworkers, one of whom happens to be Yeuk-Lan. We’re not sure if she was Chek’s girlfriend because in Li’s films, romance is just suggested or never comes to fruition, though there was clearly a bond. Li and Francoise Yip, who’d later briefly fight Li in Romeo Must Die, as Yeuk-Lan, combat twice, the second time very impressively in a maze of pipes which are high on top of a building., despite the latter being extensively doubled. Somebody else who’d have a rematch with Li in Unleashed aka Danny The Dog, and this time in a much longer encounter, is Mike Lambert. Their brawl here feels cut short but never mind, it’s followed by a terrific final battle with Patrick Lung, who looks like he was modelled on Ozzy Osbourne, as Commander Hung Kuk. It’s one of those fights where virtually everything around is incorporated, including involves a gun which fires animated bullets, an airtight chamber, large power cables used like whips, and oxygen tanks. The filming is much better too, as is a spar in a cemetery between Chik and the Inspector.

Chek is very prominent in the story too, which brings in a possible mole working for the enemy and an idea reused in Skyfall. The general story isn’t too bad at all – this is primarily an action film, and one that seems somewhat parodic at times [look out for some John Woo-like doves], but there’s perhaps too much vagueness in some aspects, such as the random seeming powers of the 701 lot, with one becoming a virtual zombie as he rises from his hospital bed to kill and be seemingly unkillable himself in a particularly vicious scene. Editing between scenes and even during scenes sometimes results in characters suddenly appearing and disappearing, and it even looks like some footage wasn’t shot that was intended to be, such as a bit where Chik is beginning to cut a hole in the floor of a jeep; we cut to the bad guys arming their guns, then both Chek and Tracy already underneath it. Tracy eventually becomes less annoying, though don’t expect any romance [which will hardly be a spoiler], and some viewers today would be offended by her reaction when it seems that, due to a misunderstanding, Chik might be gay, though, being honest, I’m sure that some people in Tracy’s shoes would still react in the same manner. In any case, the film’s emotional centre, as much as it is, is the relationship between Chik and Chek, despite one important scene which has a strange reactiion by one to the other. It’s helped immensely by the typically fine acting of Lau Ching-wan as the latter, making up for Li, in a role once intended for Donnie Yen, doing the almost-but-not-quite-wooden-and-still-with-immense-screen-presence that he often did. Perhaps if the scripthad gone more into his character’s emotional state and journey, Li may have tried harder. The great Anthony Wong has a fun small role as the loathsome Kau, who in the Taiwanese and Extended Versions is busy torturing and indulging his perverse sexual needs with a chained up woman – not to mention keeping his daughter’s severed legs amd his dead relatives in bags.

Do Lee and cinematography Tony Cheung overdo the blue and purple-ish filters? It sometimes muddies the action further. Teddy Robin’s bland music score in no way enhances the excitement, usually just quietly plodding along even during the action. Black Mask manages to be often exhilarating, but flawed handling holds it back from being as exhilarating as it ought to be.

Rating: ★★★★★★★☆☆☆

 

SPECIAL FEATURES

Limited Edition Two Disc Set [2000 copies]

Limited edition O-Card slipcase featuring new artwork by Grégory Sacré (Gokaiju)

A limited edition collector’s booklet featuring new writing on the film by James Oliver

Limited Edition bonus disc featuring two alternate versions of the film

 

DISC ONE

Fully uncut Hong Kong version presented in 1080p from a 2K restoration [99 mins]
It seems unclear as to whether this is a new transfer. Browsing the usual forums for this kind of thing reveals that there’s some debate about the issue, some claiming that the source is a 2016 restoration, to which Eureka have probably done their usual spruce up. What I can tell you, however, is that Black Mask nonetheless looks pretty good here; not on the level of some of the stunners that we’ve had from Eureka, but nothing to complain about at any great length. There’s certainly some softness, something probably not helped by the heavy use of filters, but grain is present in an even fashion, flesh tones look natural and blacks exhibit no crush. Really keen-eyed viewers will spot a few instances of macro-blocking, but there was nothing that jumped out at me as being actively poor. This version contains all the material censored from the original release.

Original Cantonese Stereo and optional DTS-HD MA 5.1 

Optional English subtitles, newly translated for this release

Brand new audio commentary by Asian film expert Frank Djeng (NY Asian Film festival)
Djeng begins by telling us that this track will be different to normal, not doing cast and crew bios and focusing more on the film as it relates to the superhero genre, a genre that barely existed in Hong Kong except for American imports, and he does do some of this, though a few bios do materialise. The result is one of Djeng’s best, containing some freshness along with familiarity. We have the film compared with its comic book source which had an orphan hero and focused on his relationship with a young boy while Chek was a woman as were the main villains. We also learn that the film was a box office failure, and that many think Hark really directed; looking at the film, I can see why. Djeng only references other films in their Eureka releases once, then coolly mentions this very thing.

Original US version presented in 1080p from a 2K restoration [87 mins]
Presumably Eureka couldn’t find a decent source for the International Export Version, but it’s the same as the later US Version anyway except for differences at the very beginning and the very end, so it’s no great loss. In any case, this is clearly a different transfer to the one used for the Hong Kong Version, as it’s brighter and more colourful, with even the filtering diminished, though not enough to ruin the original aesthetic. Technically it’s better, with less softness and no macro blocking.

This was the version I used to own on video. It heavily cuts down the first third, then is almost the same. The beginning collects together most of the black and white flashbacks, then greatly shortens the opening action scene and cuts out some of the best bits! Yes, for some reason the distributors decided that western audiences should be denied some really cool stuff! On the other hand, cutting the Chik and Tracy material to the bone, with every scene trimmed and two totally removed, probably helps the film. The level of gore is almost the same, but here’s an odd thing; there are a few shots which are of poor quality and which are clearly from the same source used for the extra bits used to complete the Taiwanese Version on Disc Two, the most notable one perhaps being two arms being pulled off, which is immediately followed by a mass shooting of one person. I don’t believe that these shots were originally in this version, even though I really don’t remember if they were in my video version, and my bible in these matters movie-censorship.com confirms this with caps. So why have Eureka included them? There must have been a reason. Were the US and /International Export Versions themselves cut down?

Original English dub and optional US release dub and soundtrack
Nether dub is particularly great but the first is slightly better. The US soundtrack replaces the original score with hip-hop. Considering the former was poor anyway, this can’t be c0nsidered sacrilege or ruination.

Brand new audio commentary on the US export version by action cinema experts Mike Leeder and Arne Venema
Much as Djeng seemed to step it up, Leeder and Venema top a lot of their previous tracks, their light-hearted yet informative banter striking such a good balance between sheer enthusiasm  [Leeder clearly loves the violence] and providing knowledge. Leeder says that the print is no clear that he never noticed Kuk being in the opening scene or a seemingly Caucasian guy in the last one actually being Indian, that appropriately named actor Money Chan tried to sell him his jacket when he expressed liking for it, and that Stanley Chan originally played Kau before he died of a heart attack and the press claimed Hark drowned him because the character originally died from being drowned. Meanwhile Venema notices that Hark likes showing fish in water, points out reshoots, and oddly suggests that the shots from the Taiwanese Version were always in this edit. Maybe there was yet another edit?

Mega Shock: a chat with Mike Lambert [29 mins]
This is an absolutely fascinating chat as Lambert, interviewed by Venema, tells of his job as a screen martial artist and then a fight choreographer. We hear that he’s not really fond of beat ’em up computer games even though he was heavily involved with one, that Woo-Ping would use the strengths and weaknesses of his performers rather than have them do everything the way he envisioned, and that action directors have so much more say and power in Hong Kong than in Hollywood; in the former they basically are the filmmakers for these scenes, while in Hollywood not just the “actual” director but the actors, producers, editors etc all often want input, and sometimes even cause reshoots to happen. Why is one particular fight in The Batman so good? It’s because Lambert’s digital pre-viz, which we see, was followed almost exactly,

Andrew Heskins on Black Mask [8 mins]
Heskins focuses largely on the director and the leads in this featurette, which reminds me as I still haven’t seen the apparently lousy Dragon Blade. He tells us that Chan stopped his initially interesting Hong Kong career to focus on Wuxia films for mainland China, gives us some information on Wins Entertainment Ltd. which launched franchises and tried to make Li into the next Bruce Lee but subtly, and mentions the sequel starring Andy On but doesn’t tell us if it’s any good.

Leon Hunt on Black Mask [17 mins]
Hunt doesn’t talk much about the film itself, but then we’ve already heard a lot about it, so he goes more for context. He looks at what he says are the four stages of Li’s career and considers Li one of the defining features off ’90s cinema, say that Black Mask belongs to  a group of eight films which didn’t go down too well with Hong Kong audiences, and says that Hark is really the person responsible for making Li a star.

Archival “making of” documentary [19 mins]
This Hong Kong promotional featurette, included on some previous releases, sees cast and crew bigging up the film along with views of artwork and a tiny amount of behind the scenes footage but not nearly as much as we’ve come to expect from these things. Disappointing, though Li seems rather passionate when he states how we need heroes.. This is in full screen and of mediocre quality, but of course we love Eureka for including anyway.

Hong Kong theatrical trailer [2 mins]

US theatrical trailers [2 mins]

US home video trailer 1 mins]

 

DISC TWO

Taiwanese version
As is often the case, the Taiwanese Version of the film contains a lot of extra bits and pieces. A good source for it wasn’t available, so Eureka have used the Hong Kong Version as the basis and added the extra stuff from the best print they could find. There’s loads more gore, far more than even the US Version, including impalements, head smashing and removal of a severed arm clutching onto a shoulder. And lots of dialogue scenes contain extra lines, often fleshing things out a little without loss of pace, while Kau sexually abusing a victim and showing his perverse nature is much, much longer.

Extended version
This combines footage from all versions. It’s most closest to the Taiwanese Version, with some bits not looking as good due to the source, but includes a few shots exclusive to the US Version. This was the version I watched for the earlier portion of this review, though I did check out portions of the US Version with both audio tracks, plus the Taiwanese Version. And it’s the version that I’d most recommend.

 

Personally I have some issues with Black Mask which prevent from being the great movie of its kind that it aspires to be, but everyone talking on the extra features in this set seem to love it, and this is still a stupendous release which covers all bases, even if the odd question remains. Recommended!

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About Dr Lenera 1982 Articles
I'm a huge film fan and will watch pretty much any type of film, from Martial Arts to Westerns, from Romances [though I don't really like Romcoms!]] to Historical Epics. Though I most certainly 'have a life', I tend to go to the cinema twice a week! However,ever since I was a kid, sneaking downstairs when my parents had gone to bed to watch old Universal and Hammer horror movies, I've always been especially fascinated by horror, and though I enjoy all types of horror films, those Golden Oldies with people like Boris Karloff and Christopher Lee probably remain my favourites. That's not to say I don't enjoy a bit of blood and gore every now and again though, and am also a huge fan of Italian horror, I just love the style.

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