Directed by Leif Johnson
Starring Tien Hoang, Hai Le and Jan Le
Short Film Review by Seamus Conlon
Leif Johnson’s debut short film, Kowloon Killers is an homage to Eastern martial arts cinema that will certainly appeal to aficionados of the genre. This reviewer cannot claim to have extensive knowledge of Hong Kong action cinema and thus would have been unable to identify any obscure allusions there may have been, but that doesn’t alter the strength of Kowloon Killers as an impressive stand-alone piece of cinematic ballet.
In a threadbare plot, protagonist Hung (played by Tien Hoang) combats a masked triad gang in a supermarket for most of the film’s running time, although the short does conclude when an unforeseen force enters into the frame of the film’s deadly combat.
Narrative is ultimately unessential to Kowloon Killers, and this is to its credit since it enables the film to indulge in pure cinema rather than talking-heads dialogue scenes. The visual richness of the film is established in the titles sequence, where multicoloured neon signs in Chinese characters glow luridly. The following fight scene is satisfyingly virtuosic and Howard Mills’ cinematography sufficiently contains the space of the film’s interior locations to give us a complete perspective on the intricate choreography. The decision to put Donald Trump masks upon the faces of the villainous gang fighting against Hong and besieging the supermarket is slightly unimaginative, but a rare cheap moment in a film that is otherwise invariably impressive.
Whether or not much Western cinema has had an influence upon Johnson’s direction in this film cannot be certain, but there are nourish elements to Kowloon Killers. Aside form the crime plot and Western costumes, some of the films chamber shots have a chiaroscuro light contrasts and a visual intimacy at odds with the expansive actions sequence that dominates this short. Johnson’s electric synth score also gives brooding darkness to the film where he could have easily gone with knowing nods to the kitsch soundtracks of vintage kung-fu films as Tarantino did in his ‘Kill Bill’ films.
At the heart of the short film is Tien Hoang’s exhaustive and technically dazzling performance. The single constant amongst the chaotic flux of Kowloon Killers action, he performs a kaleidoscope of meticulously designed martial arts moves and never leaves the audience’s eye uninterested whilst being consistently in the spotlight for whole of the short. Between them, Hoang and Johnson have created a captivating short that will no doubt enthral fellow enthusiasts for the genre but will also genuinely captivates novices to it, a film that presents high quality action cinema but does not degenerate into pastiche.