Chow Yun Fat’s last film in the pre-Handover Hong Kong film industry before he went on to try his luck in Hollywood, Peace Hotel was directed by regular Johnnie To collaborator Wai Ka Fai, produced by John Woo, and has the feel of a swan song. Indeed Chow Yun Fat’s next Hong Kong Cantonese-speaking film would come almost 20 years later. So it is quite suitable that his character in the film is known only as “the Killer”, echoing arguably the apex of his Hong Kong career and his legendary collaboration with John Woo. The Killer, as a gorgeous black-and-white prologue tells us, once wiped out an entire gang of horse thieves responsible for the death of his wife (Wu Chien Lien). His killing spree led him to an abandoned hotel, where after an experiencing an epiphany he spared the life of the last gang member. 10 years later, the hotel is not abandoned anymore : it has become a safe haven for fugitives and outlaws, run by the Killer himself. In comes Siu Man (Cecilia Yip) a woman who pretends to be the Killer’s long lost wife in order to stay there for free. She is quickly exposed as a fraud, and to make things worse she’s wanted by a vicious gang for killing one of their leaders. When said gang shows up in front of the Peace Hotel, the Killer must choose between upholding his vow to protect anyone seeking shelter in the hotel, at the cost of an all-out war, or delivering Siu Man to the gang, with his growing love for her complicating things further.
This is a film about and for the the glory of Chow Yun Fat. He towers over the film, oozing charisma, filling up the screen, alternatively and effortlessly charming, stoïc, brutal or tragic, equally believable as hard-hearted Killer, grief-stricken husband, or warm father figure. This is not as completely sympathetic a character as he was known for playing : his treatment of Cecilia Yip’s character is less than chivalrous (let’s just say it involves a lot of slapping), and his initial killing spree is more senseless slaughter than heroic bloodshed. But Chow anchors the film splendidly, as he alwasy does, and cuts a striking figure of a tragic, doomed hero. The stunning Cecilia Yip holds her own next to him with a fiery performance and their chemistry powers the film along. Not to take anything away from Wai Ka Fai’s stunning direction, a wonderful neo-western aesthetic with dashes of Wu Xia Pan (Chow fights with a sword rather than the rifle he sports on the film’s poster), balanced with political references that situate the film firmly in early-20th century China and awash in a spirited and hummable score by the delightfully named Healthy Poon. The influence of John Woo is to be felt in touches of varying subtlety, from the doves that signal the Killer’s (itself a telling character name) epiphany, to an apocalyptic final shootout where he faces the gang on his own with a machinegun. But this is Wai Ka Fai’s film and while it doesn’t have much depth, it’s a stunning one.
Long Story Short : A stunning, heartfelt neo-western that makes up in charisma what it lacks in depth. ****