The boutique Blu-ray market for Asian cinema has boomed over the last few years. Criterion was previously a consumer’s best bet, largely focusing on pre-1980s prestige Japanese cinema. The golden age of Hong Kong cinema, as well as contemporary Hong Kong, Japanese and Korean efforts, mostly lay locked beyond regional restrictions, language barriers, and the mercy (and scruples) of distributors. In Australia, we were lucky to have an Asian-focused sub-label of Madman Entertainment called Eastern Eye. But this label eventually dried up as did easy access to the films it sold (as seen in the United States with Dragon Dynasty and the United Kingdom with Hong Kong Legends).
Thankfully, newer labels have been able to mine these movies — aware that fans would pay top-dollar, often outside their home region, to access the best versions of these titles. Eureka, Imprint, Umbrella, 88 Films, Arrow and even Criterion have expanded their offerings in Asian cinema. The more, the merrier. And into this market steps Chameleon Films, a new Australian boutique. Their stated mission: “In recent years, we’ve witnessed local distribution support for quality Asian cinema on physical media decline. We didn’t want to see that continue without intervention. Audiences deserve better today and hopefully well beyond.” That’s the kind of mission statement we like to see, and they’ve chosen quite the opening salvo for their initial three releases.
You could do far worse for a launch title than a Johnnie To film, and this is a great, but underseen, choice — exactly the type of important, high-quality if not headline-grabbing film that boutique labels should dust off and resurrect. Breaking News is most famous (and rightly so) for its technically stunning opening one-take shot with considerable moving parts. It’s a sublime experience to see a master like To direct in such a sophisticated, assured manner.
The film follows cops (led by Nick Cheung and Kelly Chen) on the chase of robbers (led by Richie Jen). However, as a To joint, it’s not actually that simple, investigating the similarities of the cops and robbers, as well as the role the media plays in matters of spinning the law-enforcement narrative. Meaty themes aside, it’s a no-muss, no-fuss 90-minute film with tight, riveting action.
In terms of extras, Chameleon’s set is hard to beat. I dare say no more definitive version of Breaking News has been released, especially in the West. There are archival interviews, behind-the-scenes features and a new audio commentary by the ubiquitous Hong Kong action-film expert Frank Djeng, who points out outstanding details (like how To uses language-switching to humanise Jen’s character). There is also a short video essay and improved English subtitles, as well as a booklet with great writing from Hayley Scanlon (offering excellent analysis in a contemporary geopolitical light) and a biographical essay from Mike Walsh on To and his company, Milkyway Image Ltd.
The Blu-ray looks and sound fabulous, a 2K restoration offering Cantonese DTS-HD MA 5.1 sound. I dug out my old Eastern Eye Breaking News DVD, and the upgrade is significant on all fronts. To fans will have another lovely edition in their library, and first-timers will get the initial experience in a fantastic package.
Summer Time Machine Blues
Chameleon shows off its Japanese cinema bona fides with this deep-cut breezy sci-fi comedy from director Katsuyuki Motohiro (best known for his anime work) and writer Makoto Ueda (who wrote the excellent 2020 film How to Build Mazinger Z’s Hangar).
Members of a school’s sci-fi club break the remote on their air conditioner during a stinking-hot summer. To remedy their discomfort, they resort to time travel to acquire a working remote. It’s all very cute, with a likably dorky teen cast and a slight, sweet romance to complement the dude-ish emotions and shenanigans. The time travel gets a light touch, too, as the movie unfolds like a delightful puzzle box. The film is easy to watch and entertaining, as the comedy and science-fiction mix well. The Japanese sci-fi fan in me also delighted in spotting Gundam and Matango posters.
Chameleon provides the rarest of extras for Summer Time Machine Blues, an audio commentary from non-English-language creatives (in this case, Motohiro and Ueda). Ueda also appears in a new 21-minute interview for additional context. There’s also the requisite essay booklet with writing from Scanlon, biographies of the creative forces behind the film, and a slice of contemporary Japanese cinema history. It’s a bounty for first-time viewers or experienced cinephiles.
Summer Time Machine Blues also looks as good as a Japanese film from 2005 will, with 1080p presentation and great subtitles to set the tone alongside Japanese DTS-HD MA 5.1 audio. This is a fantastic package for a hidden gem, and fans of mid-2000s Japanese cinema surely have a new favourite edition.
The final film in Chameleon’s opening salvo is simply one of the best of all time — Johnnie To’s Hong Kong masterwork, Exiled. (When a To movie exceeds 90 minutes, you know you’re in for something special.
A pseudo-sequel to one of To’s best films, The Mission (woefully hard to find nowadays), it reunites much of the cast and trades in the same themes of brotherhood. In 1998, former gangster Wo (Nick Cheung) tries to start a new chapter in life with a wife and newborn. However, an old mob boss (Simon Yam) sends two of Wo’s childhood friends (Anthony Wong, Lam Suet) as hitmen to kill him. However, two other childhood friends (Francis Ng, Roy Cheung) show up to protect Wo. Choosing to put their collective friendship above gang orders, the quintet decides to pull off one last job to earn Wo enough money to escape and start a new life.
As a combination of a Western and a Hong Kong crime drama, Exiled is To’s “dudes rock” movie, and the dudes do rock. His visual style operates at full force here with stunning visual tableaus and expert blocking. Thematically, To likes to point out logical and realistic endpoints of such grandiose notions of honour and brotherhood, and how they can catch people in a web of contradictions. But he also harmoniously marries these examinations to a true love of brotherhood (or mateship, as we’d say in Australia). It’s cool, but more importantly, it’s affecting. It will remind you of any friendship group you’ve had, and while you should bring popcorn for the gunfights, bring tissues for the drama, too.
Comprehensive extras include archival material and two commentaries by Frank Djeng — who cops to Exiled being one of his To favourites (no disagreement here), delivering one commentary with his standard-level expertise and then one that dives even deeper. It’s essentially a four-hour lecture on the film, a welcome and incredible extra that helps even those who’ve seen it numerous times enjoy the film more. That’s no mean feat. There’s also a video essay and a new interview with the film’s composer. The newly translated subtitles are excellent. I absolutely jumped for joy when a character addressing a baby in baby talk had baby talk in the subtitles; that’s how you use subtitles to humanise characters rather than direct dictionary translations.
A boutique set wouldn’t be complete without a collector’s booklet. This one contains two essays. Stephen Teo (who wrote a book on To) offers a great piece that sets a historically wider, directorially specific context. Dylan Cheung (who translated both of the To titles in their introductory releases) tackles themes of class in Exiled. Throw everything together, and that’s an impressively comprehensive analysis of the film.
This is probably the best Exiled has ever looked in the West, with a smooth 1080p transfer from a 2K restoration that blows away my old DVD copy. The sound is just as good, a crystal-clear Cantonese DTS-HD MA 5.1 track. As with Breaking News, Chameleon has delivered the definitive edition here.
Overall, Chameleon’s opening foray is exciting — delivering a brace of films that look and sound great with a bevy of extras and, most of all, great films. They come in the now-standard Scanavo clear case, and Chameleon has kindly included a numbered sleeve clean of classification markings. A small addendum: The subtitle font and colouring choices are great, too, and a pleasure to read on screen — clearly legible and never invasive, a crucial element that’s often flubbed. The only issue here? There are only three releases, but I look forward to their next lot and what films they’ll pick. (Please pick The Mission).