Over the years, Hong Kong 1941 has become more known for being the film that contained Chow Yun-Fat's breakout role in the realm of cinema, rather than the actual movie itself. That's a bit of a shame, because, overall, this is a finely-crafted picture that contains solid acting performances from not only Chow, but his co-stars Alex Man and Cecilia Yip as well, all under the tightly-wound bubble of a well-made and compelling drama about the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong during World War II.
While not as violent and gut-wrenching as some later efforts about similar subject matter like Black Sun and City of Life and Death, there are definitely some parts in this film that will be hard to sit through, particularly in the way the Japanese treated the Chinese. This sort of slant, of course, is to be expected, but to director Leung Po-Chi's credit, he spends just as much, if not more, time concentrating on how sometimes the Chinese people themselves were their own worst enemies in the situation, as essayed through Wu Ma, who plays a despotic pseudo-leader of a town who delights in torturing people, no matter their race.
This sort of film-making would probably be unheard of in modern Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, where revisionist history combined with pro-Chinese propaganda mandated through the Mainland government cause film-makers to sometime radically alter their products in order to satisfy governmental censorship, so that that they can get a slice of the ever-growing pie of the Mainland movie market. Hong Kong 1941 recalls a time when Hong Kong film-making was (for lack of a better term) the Wild West of cinematic production, where the idea of earning the almighty dollar, while still of great importance to producers, was set a bit to the side so that directors could freely construct their own visions and seemingly anything could find a place on the jade screen or in the well-worn VCRs of viewers all over the world.
Not to undercut modern productions, since Hong Kong and, to a lesser extent, Mainland cinema has shown that it can still produce powerful productions, but, far too often, the latest big-budget releases end up leaving the viewer with a feeling of disappointment rather than fulfillment, as film-makers practically fall over themselves to present the latest historical drama cloned from the previous dozens of releases in the genre, except with a couple of new freshly-scrubbed pop stars and slightly better CGI effects under their belt. Hong Kong 1941, and movies of its' ilk, while not containing as much polish as a viewer weaned on modern productions might expect, offer that much more, because the film-makers were dependent on their skills, rather than gimmicks like 3D in order to create something worthwhile.