Peace Hotel (1995)
Reviewed by: ewaffle on 2005-11-15
“Peace Hotel” is a nihilistic period piece, an Eastern Western set in an indeterminate time and place. It begins and ends with Peckinpahish levels of slaughter. In between there are uneasy and not terribly effective mixtures of melodrama, action and even a bit of comedy—there are some terrific scenes but the whole is significantly less than the sum of the parts. By the end of the movie almost the entire cast is shown being killed or is said to have been killed, the experiment of the Peace Hotel as a sanctuary for criminals from other criminals has ended in failure and the audience is waiting for an excruciatingly drawn out penultimate scene between Cecelia Yip and the Chow Yun Fat (who is dead) to end. The two principals are excellent; the cinematography is overly artistic but looks good in places; the choppy story keeps the audience from identifying with any of the characters besides The Killer. The residents of the Peace Hotel are in real danger—they will be killed if The Killer doesn’t give up Shau Siu Man / Lam Ling to the Grand Hall gang are out to avenge the killing of their boss. Unfortunately those in the hotel are presented in such a slapdash and unappealing way that the audience doesn’t really care if they are put to the sword or not—when all of them abandon The Killer we aren’t surprised and when the Grand Hall leader begins to chop them up we don’t shed a tear. One assumes that there is a larger social/cultural commentary at work here, that “Peace Hotel” is a reflection of something that was happening in the SAR in the early to mid 1990s. If not it is simply an over-long 90 minutes of mass bloodshed, overly stylistic camera work, wildly uneven action sequences and enough over the top emotion for Cecilia Yip to fill a four year course at the Royal Academy of Dramatic Art.

Chow Yun Fat submerges himself in the role as The Killer (emphasis on THE, as if he is the only real killer and the rest of the murderous throng around him aren’t worthy of comparison) whose fearsome reputation keeps the Peace Hotel safe from marauding criminals for a decade—important since there isn’t even a hint of law enforcement or even any laws in this blasted landscape. He doesn’t unleash his thousand megawatt smile until the movie is more than half over—his depiction of the killer is so skilled that he becomes a different person, which is both good and bad. On one hand there is the possibly disastrous but still welcome softening of The Killer’s fierce persona as he nurses the miraculously recovered Shau Siu Man / Lam Ling back to health. On the other he becomes Chow Yun Fat, movie star.

This must have been an exhausting role for Cecilia Yip—her character is at the ragged emotional edge for most of the movie. She is the lynchpin of the film, the reason that the Grand Hall gang are constantly at the doorstep and the only character who changes during the course of the movie. She lords it over the residents as the new consort of The Killer in a very decent comic turn, then fails to seduce him. She is both defiant and afraid when she pleads for her life and impossibly noble when she returns to face her demons at the end of the movie. She is beaten to death and revived and has languorous love scenes with The Killer. It is quite a performance and one worthy of note.

There are several conflicting markers regarding the time period in which “Peace Hotel” is set. Everyone rides a horse—there isn’t a trace of an internal combustion engine—so it would be before the introduction of automobiles—later, I would imagine, in the wilds of China than in the wilds of the United States, as depicted in “The Wild Bunch” which was early in the second decade of the twentieth century. At one point Cecilia Yip’s character sings into a round carbon microphone that would date from the 1930s, although that sequence seems so out of character with the rest of the movie that it could be a fantasy scene, and there are three blind musicians who wear way-cool round sunglasses which point to the 1950s or later. Whatever the period, it was one of complete lawlessness, a time and place in which hundreds could be killed with no fear of intervention from the forces of civil authority. This gives the movie a sense of suspended unreality as if anything could happen, which actually serves it well, since the last ten minutes include too many plot twists, surprises and double dealing to be taken at all seriously.

There are a number of obvious quotes from other movies. The conventions of film noir are used a lot—low angle shots, atmospheric lighting, action taking place at the edge of the frame, lots of vertical and horizontal lines, even the almost constant presence of half opened slatted blinds. Toward the end of the movie there is a sequence of cuts between the hotel, where The Killer and Shau Siu Man are dancing, surrounded by the hotel residents and the galloping riders of the Grand Hall gang coming to attack them. Sequences much like this—domestic harmony contrasted with the coming whirlwind of violence—have been in a lot of U. S. westerns. “The Outlaw Josey Wales” and “Unforgiven” two films that feature Clint Eastwood (the U. S. Chow Yun Fat).

There were many missed opportunities in “Peace Hotel”—although, of course, one should always review the movie as made and not as could have been made—but one in particular stood out. When the residents of the hotel revolt against The Killer and decide to leave they talk about how they have been stuck for years in such an unchanging and isolated environment. But just a few touches during the course of the movie could have shown a real sense of claustrophobia that would lead the residents into such an obviously poor choice to leave the hotel.
Reviewer Score: 5