Having already been released on the format by Joy Sales in Hong Kong, I can only assume this is a relabelled version of that master and thus identical. That iteration came with a DVD which contained extra features but other than the omission of that additional disc, all looks to be the same. The film was shot using Moviecam Compact cameras to give a fluid feel to proceedings, the intended result being a closer interaction with the action and a gritty look to the drama. For the most part, this is achieved.
Colours fluctuate stylistically, going from over saturated to bright in accordance with the narrative. Moments of quiet and reflection tend to bring with them pale faces and greyer shades, whilst the scenes of danger are highlighted by tinted diffused lighting. The night time features the bold neon signs of Hong Kong which shine against the backdrop of concrete buildings and a darkened sky. This shift can affect skin tones to a degree though as they can vary from drawn greyness to an orange hue dependent upon the scene. Both extremes, from the candy colours of pink and mauve of the child's birthday party and the extreme red light in the basement during the abduction, to the wan washed out shots of faces following tragedy are stylistically pleasing and handled well by this disc.
A by-product of the handheld camera is often a lack of focus, something many Hong Kong films are very prone to. This is not the case here as, for the most part, the centre of frame is crisp and clearly defined. The main talking point of the visual will be the heavy layer of grain apparent. Again, dependent upon the lighting, it can be gritty and noir-esque or just plain overpowering, how you judge this will likely hinge on what side of the grain and DNR debate you are on. To my eye it was generally well in keeping with the overall style but did fluctuate to a degree that made it more note worthy and fuzzy than it should have been and in the mix was a dose of digital noise which only clouded matters more so.
In general this is a strong, bold image that contains more detail than the DVD and has a depth to it that raises it furthermore. Colours are vivid and the yellow push of the visuals could be argued to be more sepia than anything else. The major plus point is the minimal print damage, something which can blight even more recent films of the region. Perhaps in places this can be a touch inconsistent with regard to shadow detail and thick grain, but the overall result is a worthy step up from the standard definition release of the film; a tad patchy and possibly open to debate, but for the most part a good depiction of the director's artistic intentions, just lacking subtlety and consistency. Beware if you're a grain hater, as even I found it a bit much at times.
Like the image, the sound is pleasantly free from major blemishes, the unfortunate snap crackle and pop and the dreaded hiss that accompany so many low quality DVD releases of Hong Kong films are nowhere to be seen (or should that be heard?). Dialogue is well synched and remains crisp and clear, although obviously not understanding Cantonese prohibits me from speaking too highly of the clarity of pronunciations. On occasion effects are added to the voices and the silence and echoes of shouting and screaming is nicely accomplished
The surrounds are allowed regular use, with the myriad of noises from a teeming cityscape pulsating through them like the life blood of an animate entity. Like most Hong Kong thrillers, the use of setting becomes almost a character in itself and this is no different, with the bustling streets vibrating with sounds that add to the labyrinthine nature of the pursuit. Traffic, voices, shops, restaurants and the like are all layered into the mix and the cumulative effect is a track that moves from silence to densely populated with ease.
The score ticks along with the rhythm of the film and creates a metronome effect that keeps the narrative energised when the chase is called to the fore. Rich guitar twangs are subtle and tight and integrate well along with the rest of the score into the strata of sounds. No one element of the overall mix pushes beyond the others to any great degree, with the end result being finely balanced. The one drawback is that the bass, though punchy against the backdrop of silence, doesn't hit as hard as an action thriller really requires. The impact of a devastating car crash has weight behind it but fails to truly shake your seat as such a moment should.
This is a mix that accompanies the picture well, being that it creates the requisite atmosphere and multi layered noises needed for an urban setting well. It doesn't stand out as epoch making but simply does all that is necessary to a decent standard.
Obviously with the American/Western market being largely unable to comprehend any Chinese dialect, subtitles were imperative for this feature. Director Dante Lam, script writer Jack Ng and production designer Yau Wai-ming take us through the various points of interest for viewers of the film. For the most part Ng handles the minutiae of characterisation and plot development, whilst Lam and Wai-ming focus more on the logistical side of production. There is so much covered that this has to be one of the best commentary tracks I've heard to date. From the casting of Tse to the filming of set-pieces, just about everything you could want to know about the film is divulged as well as several other interesting titbits. Lam keeps the pace of the track going smoothly by turning to his colleagues when a lull might be approaching and thus a steady momentum of information is kept rolling towards the intent listener.
I can't rate a set of extras that contains only one feature very highly, but I've always felt the Director's commentary was by far the most necessary of any surplus material to be placed on a disc. It's a pity Joy Sales didn't include any of the extras that were to be found on the additional DVD that came with their Blu-ray release in Hong Kong, but at least they saw fit to bestow this disc with the commentary.
The Beast Stalker as a package is primarily satisfactory. The film itself is not the greatest the genre has to offer but by the same logic, it is by no mean the worst either. Those without an interest in Hong Kong or Eastern cinema might see fit to mark it down a notch, whilst those with a passion for such things will no doubt raise it slightly higher, particularly when considering that it marks the return to form for Dante Lam. Like Woo's Red Cliff, it is hard to disentangle enamoured opinions for the film itself from those simply delighted to see a long overdue comeback. Most will fall somewhere in between and just see this as a decent crime thriller that has enough on offer to please the majority. Personally I didn't care for Tse in the leading role, but he is adequately counter balanced throughout the film by the ever dependable figure of Nick Cheung.
The disc is also somewhat open to interpretation, as the picture will likely divide many. I wavered between admiration of the gritty, grain heavy image, to mild annoyance that I was actually noticing its prevalence in some shots rather than others. The sound keeps things tight and never puts a foot wrong as it holds together the layers of atmosphere added to this bustling city. There could have been more in the way of extras and I'm a bit disappointed to note that the deleted scenes that were on the DVD of the Joy Sales release aren't present , but by all accounts they added little in the way of interest to the story and thus aren't a great loss. Of far more importance is the inclusion of a fascinating commentary track.
The sum of the parts are not enough to form the most highly rated Blu-ray package, but when considered next to the quality of the average budget foreign release available (as some are already lamenting over the Machine Girl HMV exclusive!) and the strength of The Beast Stalker's narrative, this is still worthy of further investigation and will surely be a must have for fans of the genre with a soft spot for mid to late 90s Hong Kong thrillers of this ilk.
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