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Saturday, 19 September 2015


Welcome Back, One and All,

It's been a while, but I return with a new and very cult film for you to get your teeth and intellect into. But first, some background for you

Way back in the early 1990's, my local arthouse cinema showed this film, and at the time, I was still a youngster, and thus, there was no way I would ever be able to get in to see it. It was rated 18 and uncensored in the UK, but the MPAA in America were going to award it with the dreaded X rating. The director, Wayne Wang, decided to release it in the US, with a self-imposed "A for Adults" certificate instead.

At the time, the film's title intrigued me, and due to the rarity of information, and the fact that the Internet did not fully exist at this time, all I had was the brief write-up about it in the local arthouse cinema's monthly brochure. That film, was called LIFE IS CHEAP... BUT TOILET PAPER IS EXPENSIVE! Who couldn't love a film with a title like that?!

Director Wang is best known for works like THE JOY LUCK CLUB (1993), THE CENTRE OF THE WORLD (2001) and MAID IN MANHATTAN (2002). However, LIFE IS CHEAP... is one of his best and most unique works. It's also a piece of "extreme" cinema, hence why I am now discussing it on my blog.

The film is about a young Chinese American man in his twenties, (the film's co-writer Spencer Nakasako), who works at a Race Course, and is asked to courier a briefcase with mysterious contents to a gangster known as Big Boss, by travelling from America back to Hong Kong - a country he remembers little about. Big Boss also happens to be a tad ruthless, and extremely tough to meet, to actually hand-over the briefcase too! The film follows the courier's journey, and all the assorted strange and freaky characters he comes to blows with along the way.

Part comedy, part shock cinema, and part cultural diatribe about Anglo-Asian relations, this is an extremely unique film experience. For starters, the film is graphic, though not in ways you'd normally expect! The film certainly earns its X/18 ratings with ease. (In 1990, the MPAA didn't appreciate the scatalogical and adult content. Only when Wang decreed the film to be unfit for an X, did he self-certificate the film for US fans, and it did a small tour of US Independent Cinemas. In the UK, the film was distributed by the ICA - Institute of Contemporary Arts - in London.)

If you are squeamish about seeing documentary footage of the slaughter of ducks, then don't view this film, as it contains two extended scenes of such! Likewise, a cruelly hilarious scene of a gangster delivering a monologue to camera, whilst suffering from diarrhoea! And director Wang's wife, Cora Miao, plays the Boss's wife who is having a lesbian relationship with their own daughter! By turns sickening, and yet scabrously hilarious, this is nothing if not unique!

The film is part-English, part Chinese, and features many scenes where dialogue starts in one language, and then concludes in the other and dovetails between the two. So keeping tabs on the dialogue can be a little hard at times. However the film is brilliantly inventive and a surrealist experience like no other. As we travel from America to Hong Kong, we meet gangsters, prostitutes, parents, a newly-wedded couple, actors paid to dub porn, and teenage thieves.

One of the highlights, is an eye-watering 10-minute chase scene, when the briefcase gets stolen. The entire chase sequence is shown from beginning to end, with almost no edits, as the viewer is put into the first-person-perspective, and we "chase" the briefcase, through dark alleys, up stair cases, through car parks, and smashing into and through doorways. Like a computer game, this scene is revelatory, in that you are put right into the lead character's role, and you are left breathless by the end. In a cinema, the scene would be jaw-dropping. At home, on DVD, the scene still works extremely well, but may make some viewers nauseous, due to the extreme camera movements.

At 84-minutes on DVD, the film is short-and-sweet, but none the worse for it. In a pretty-decent Anamorphic Widescreen transfer, of a 1.85:1 print, the image is stable, clean and clear for most of the time. There are very occasional glitches and nicks in the image, as the DVD has been taken from a 35mm print, and due to the rarity of the film, these little errors do show up. However, do not let this put you off. It's still a solid transfer for this low-budget gem!

The subtitle options are either: all dialogue translated into English, or just English for the Chinese language scenes. They were both clear enough to be read, and I didn't notice any errors in them. And yes, the reason for the film's title is discussed in the film, and also explained by Wang in the accompanying Audio Commentary he provides for the film, which is also worth a listen. (Wang lives and works in America now, so the Commentary is in English.)

Getting hold of this film, is a little harder. For starters, it's never been released on its own, anywhere in the world, as far as I can ascertain. To date, the only way you can buy it, is as an Extra on the second disc of the US 2-Disc DVD release of CHINESE BOX, which stars Jeremy Irons and Gong Li.

You must make sure you get the 2-Disc version though! Also, be aware the disc is Region 1 encoded, and is an NTSC release too! So please make sure your DVD player/TV can handle this format. This release can be obtained relatively cheaply from or from either of the following two weblinks...

Amazon UK - Chinese Box DVD (Region 1)

Amazon USA - Chinese Box DVD (Region 1)

The price is a little under £9 GBP / $10 US respectively. If you are wondering why it's included as an extra on this film, well, apart from the fact that it's got the same director, the film is - according to Wang - a prequel to CHINESE BOX, and both films deal with culture clashes between the USA and Chinese. As such, watch LIFE IS CHEAP... first, then go on to CHINESE BOX. Just be warned, they are very different movies, aimed at very different audiences. LIFE... is aimed at cult and extreme cinema fans! CHINESE BOX is very much aimed at the mainstream audience. So, I certainly wouldn't recommend LIFE IS CHEAP for anyone who isn't extremely broadminded! You can watch them independently of each other, but viewers may get something extra from this unusual double-bill.

Ultimately, this is a quirky, offbeat little flick that really does deserve a much wider audience. I am really glad to have finally seen and bought this film, after over 25 years of searching for it. Definitely worth a look, if you like a walk on the wild side of Asian cinema, and can tolerate some extreme imagery. Just don't say you weren't warned!

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