Saturday, December 07, 2013
A Cinema City film in all but name, as Tsui Hark directs for his own production company, Film Workshop, this comedy with pop star Sam Hui (of the Hui Brothers and Aces Go Places) and rock star Teddy Robin (of Tsui's own All the Wrong Clues. Tsui himself rounds out the trio of workers trying to get by in the world of benevolent old owners and evil middle managers (none other than Ng Man Tat - it's going to be weird seeing him as Stephen Chow's sidekick again after he's so great in these 80s villain roles (A Better Tomorrow II, My Heart is that Eternal Rose)). The three work in an instant noodle factory (is there a Cantonese word for 'ramen'?) and play a variety of pranks to undermine the bosses. Much to the irritation of Tsui's wife (Leung Wan-yui), Tsui brings the homeless Teddy home to live with them. Tsui and Teddy make a great comic pair: tall and thin with, as Bordwell puts it "an intimidating goatee" and short and squat and almost always wearing sunglasses. Sam falls in love with the boss's daughter, Joey Wang, but she hides the fact that she's rich from him (Sam wonders why a fancy Rolls Royce is always following them everywhere they go on their neon-lit dates through the city at night). Then everyone plays soccer and everyone cheats.
Rather than grafting a Socially Important Message onto an essentially silly comedy (the example that comes to mind is Eddie Murphy's The Distinguished Gentleman, one of the worst movies I've ever seen), Tsui comes at it from the other direction. He takes what could be, in less interesting hands, a serious scenario about worker exploitation and the lives of the poor in a booming economy where the rich keep getting richer and makes a farce of it. The humor comes organically out of the heroes' anarchic rejection of the social codes that enforce fealty to the bosses, no matter how treacherous they are. Every prank becomes an act of protest. Even the love story plays backwards: it is Joey's superfluous wealthiness that is shameful, not the tiny apartment Sam shares with his mother. The politics isn't the least bit profound, but it is a little revolutionary.
I was disappointed that Tsui's breakthrough hit All the Wrong Clues (...For the Right Solution), lacked the oppositional elements that made his first three films so exciting, opting instead for pure farce and parody. His entry in the Aces Go Places series followed in that vein, privileging goofy special effects over not only politics but quality stunt construction (I much preferred the second film in that series, directed by Eric Tsang). Working Class I think gets closer to the heart of what makes Tsui a great filmmaker: the mixing of New Wave politics with popular genre filmmaking. It's not the commodification or assimilation of leftist ideals into a corporate mainstream, but the repackaging of them as a shiny, goofy treat, a cookie full of arsenic for the exploitative middle managers of the world.
Monday, December 02, 2013
After finding success in his return to filmmaking with 1986's Happy Ghost III, Johnnie To re-teamed with actor-writer-producer-Cinema City studio head Raymond Wong for a more conventional romantic comedy, loosely inspired by Billy Wilder's popular 1955 Marilyn Monroe vehicle The Seven-Year Itch. Wilder's film is an adaptation of the play by George Axelrod, who worked as a screenwriter and director as well as playwright. It's one of my least favorite of Wilder's films, and also my least favorite of Axelrod's works (he wrote The Manchurian Candidate, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter and Breakfast at Tiffany's, and also directed the sublimely weird Lord Love a Duck). By reputation this remake might also be the least of all Johnnie To's 50-plus films but, while it certainly isn't great, it's not without interest. That's one of the nice side benefits of being an auteurist: even an artist's worst films can be interesting and enjoyable because of what hints or insights they might provide about the greater works. As a sidenote: this is actually one of Pauline Kael's more interesting objections to the Theory in her essay Circles and Squares: why is the mere act of recognizing an earlier, usually worse, use of a certain technique or trope interesting? Why should that be a critical value? I don't really have a good answer for that, but I think it might simply be an attraction for a certain kind of person, one who enjoys putting puzzles together. Finding an earlier example of a later line of dialogue or character type or whatever is like discovering a new piece, perhaps revealing not only more about the whole, but a fresh way of seeing the already-assembled pieces. It may not make the movie better, but it might make watching it more fun. But anyway, even Seven Years Itch isn't a particularly bad film, it's just not all that funny.
Raymond Wong, tall and skinny, bespectacled and awkward, cursed with a giant head (I say this with affection as a tall, skinny, bespectacled, awkward, giant-headed man myself) plays a mediocre salaryman living with but not technically married to Sylvia Chang (who sparkled as a tough as nails cop in the first half of the first Aces Go Places movie). His mother-in-law constantly berates him for not throwing the expensive wedding party that would make their union official, while his brother-in-law, the omni-present Eric Tsang, is constantly trying to borrow money and/or tempt him with prostitutes. Bored with his life and irritated at the way Chang always sings Chinese Opera with her gay cousin (this is literally how he's referred to throughout the film, if the subtitles are too be believed: either "Gay Cousin" or "Cousin Gay") and makes him the same boring breakfast, Wong begins daydreaming about infidelity. On a business trip to Singapore, he carries on a lengthy, montage-filled flirtation with a pretty girl in red stockings, who of course turns out to be a jewelry smuggler using him as an unwitting mule. Then things start getting weird.
Back home, Wong tries to reignite things with Chang. So he takes her to Singapore and tries to get her to dress and act exactly like the other girl. There are shades of Vertigo in these scenes, which are the best in the film. To playfully repeats the same camera set-ups and movements from the earlier sequence, but to comic effect as Chang plays the scenes all wrong, falls asleep out of boredom and Wong becomes increasingly frustrated. The role-play fails and Chang strikes up a flirtation with an older Chinese-American businessman (apparently named "Mr. Money"). Eventually Chang catches Wong with the other girl (she's come back to retrieve a smuggled ring she'd misplaced in Wong's bag which he'd then accidentally given to Chang as an apparent engagement ring, naturally) and leaves him for Mr. Money once they return to Hong Kong. A car chase ensues (with Wong getting sidetracked at a "couples only" hotel, where Chang catches him paying a prostitute so he can enter, as happens). Eventually Wong makes a big scene at the airport, which apparently fails to work and then it all ends happily.
It's that ending that's most relevant to To's later work, as the concept of the Grand Gesture will become a fundamental part of his romantic comedies. Needing You, in fact, follows much the same trajectory in its final third, with Andy Lau chasing after Sammi Cheng and trying to prove his love as she tries to leave Hong Kong with another, much richer, man (via boat this time rather than airplane, boats being both more cinematic and more final). Don't Go Breaking My Heart consists almost entirely of Grand Gestures, as Louis Koo and Daniel Wu compete for the love of Gao Yuanyuan with a series of increasingly elaborate creations, from Post-Its on office windows to massive skyscrapers. Most of the other romantic comedies feature them as well (the movie Koo makes in Romancing in Thin Air, the ghost's actions in My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, the final theft in Yesterday Once More). In To's films, the lover, almost always the man, has to prove himself worthy of the woman's affection. He has made some mistake that has kept them apart, and he must atone in as elaborate and as public a way as possible. In the later films, the heroine is unconventional, a prankster sort who doesn't fit in well with straight society. By making his grand gesture, the hero proves that he is willing to play the game with her, that he too cares little for the rules of social decorum.
The romantic comedies are told from the perspective of the woman, or at least it's her with whom we most identify. But that's not the case with Seven Years Itch. But for a few scenes of Sylvia Chang in cooking class (where she hears gossip from her married friends), almost every scene is built around Raymond Wong's character, and he's not a particularly likable one. Despite a few attempts at critiquing the kind of patriarchal ethos that attempts to justify infidelity (articulated by Tsang and Wong's male co-workers), the script wants us to root for him, to see his lying and conniving lustfulness as quaint and charming, or at best benignly ridiculous. To gives us a montage of lady parts, close-ups of breasts and legs and asses walking the streets of Hong Kong as they're ogled by men at every turn (including a recreation of the famous Marilyn Monroe subway grate upskirt-shot from Wilder's film, one that lingers for quite awhile on the unfortunate woman's improbably complex lingerie) that is somewhat reminiscent of a similar scene in Orson Welles's F for Fake, but it doesn't seem like that's nearly enough to defuse the boorishness of every male character in the film (Gay Cousin excepted). At times it seems like Wong and To very much want us to dislike the main character (while Chang plays the most emotionally coherent and likable person in the film), but the generic demands of Cinema City-style goofy slapstick prevent them from going all the way with it. Given a darker turn, they might have produced a cogent critique of Wilder and Axelrod's source material. Instead the film just gets lost in its ambivalence, while giving us a glimpse of better things to come.
Next Up: The Eighth Happiness
Sunday, December 01, 2013
Since the last rankings update, I launched a new review series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong Cinema that I'm calling Running Out of Karma because I couldn't come up with a snappier title. So far I've covered his debut film The Enigmatic Case, John Woo's A Better Tomorrow II, Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues, Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire as well as the Happy Ghost series, of which To directed the third installment. Those reviews and more can all be found in the Index.
I've also recorded some more podcasts, four episodes of The George Sanders Show (The Big Parade and The Red & The White; Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure and Three Ages; Monsieur Verdoux and Bonfire of the Vanities; and Computer Chess and The Chess Players) and a new episode of They Shot Pictures on Claire Denis, focusing on Beau travail, L'intrus and 35 Shots of Rum.
These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.
Three Ages (Buster Keaton) - 3, 1923
Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin) - 4, 1947
The Red and The White (Miklós Jancsó) - 2, 1967
The Chess Players (Satyajit Ray) - 4, 1977
The Contract (Michael Hui) - 7, 1978
All the Wrong Clues (...For the Right Solution) (Tsui Hark) - 29, 1981
Aces Go Places (Eric Tsang) - 25, 1982
Aces Go Places II (Eric Tsang) - 15, 1983
The Happy Ghost (Clifton Ko) - 21, 1984
Happy Ghost II (Clifton Ko) - 35, 1985
Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark) - 4, 1986
Happy Ghost III (Johnnie To) - 23, 1986
Prison on Fire (Ringo Lam) - 25, 1987
A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo) - 35, 1987
Seven Years Itch (Johnnie To) - 40, 1987
The Eighth Happiness (Johnnie To) - 29, 1988
Bill & Ted's Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek) - 16, 1989
The Bonfire of the Vanities (Brian DePalma) - 41, 1990
Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata) - 8, 1991
Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo) - 5, 1995
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski) - 7, 2013
Wednesday, November 27, 2013
A conventional yet effective prison drama from director Ringo Lam, who appears to have cornered the market on "on Fire" movies with this and City on Fire, also from 1987, along with the next year's School on Fire. All three were made at the Cinema City studio, where Lam was quickly distinguishing himself from his occasional collaborator, Johnnie To (the two more or less co-directed Happy Ghost III and twenty years later accounted for two of the three parts of Triangle, with the third being by Tsui Hark). The 'On Fire" films were big hits, capitalizing on Chow Yun-fat's superstardom, and Lam even attracted a following in the US (he spent some time making Jean-Claude Van Damme movies in the 90s, along with John Woo and Tsui Hark), most famously with City on Fire serving as an inspiration for Reservoir Dogs.
In Prison on Fire, The Other Tony Leung plays the new guy, sentenced to three years for accidentally getting a jerk who had skipped out on the check at his father's restaurant run over by a bus. Leung is great, tall and skinny with oversized glasses and a look of constant, terrified bewilderment, but his character is unrealistically naive, if not outright stupid. Chow Yun-fat, a veteran prisoner with a happy-go-lucky attitude attempts to show him the ropes (generally leading to Chow slowly shaking his head in resigned disgust as Leung ignores his wise advice). At one point, Chow explains that they're in the jungle: Chow's the monkey and Leung's the lamb, but Leung doesn't seem to get the point, he keeps trying to impose outside standards of honesty and forthrightness to the prison world. The two run afoul of the local tough guy as well as an evil prison guard (Ho Ka-kui and Roy Cheung, respectively, both of whom are fantastic and menacing, Cheung with teeth-gritting, bug-eyed intensity and Ho with glasses, a slight paunch and utterly conscienceless), leading to some intense and violent confrontations. Both stars get to flip out in slow motion, it's pretty great.
Prison movies generally function as microcosms of society, providing opportunities for critiques of capitalism or the state or both. Those elements are here in force as well, most explicitly when the prisoners go on a hunger strike because the prison has raised prices for things like cigarettes beyond what they can afford with their meager pay. The prison functions as a pre-union style corporation (workers can only buy from the company store) and as an instrument of state terror, enforcing its arcane rules with the threat of violence while the guards manipulate the prisoners against each other to save their bureaucratic faces. The system explodes for one brief shining moment that recalls an ultra-violent Zéro de conduite, doused in water and blood, but it will quickly reassert control. Leung's innocent never really wises up, nor does he effectively change anything. The best he can do is get out when his time is up.
Tuesday, November 26, 2013
But first, a note about authorship. As with most, if not all, of Johnnie To's films in this period, it's impossible for an outsider like me to assert with any confidence who exactly was responsible for any given element in a film. Especially given the communal working conditions at a studio like Cinema City, where the star of the film, Raymond Wong, is also the writer and the studio co-founder and where Tsui Hark, as dominant a force as there was in 1980s Hong Kong film (exceeded perhaps only by Jackie Chan) is in charge of the visual effects. The imdb doesn't even credit Johnnie To as director on the film, giving Ringo Lam that title and relegating To to Assistant Director (which is just weird, To talks about it in an interview in Stephen Teo's indispensable book on To as if he directed it, though he does make a special point of saying how happy he was to just be the working director on the film, and not be responsible for writing the screenplay as well. Wikipedia and Hong Kong Cinemagic credit Lam and To as co-directors). The on-screen credit lists To as "Acting Director" which is somewhat ambiguous: did he just direct the actors while another person was in charge of camera placement, shot construction, etc, or was he merely filling in for the real director? But the simple fact is that none of that really matters. It's fascinating (at least to me) as historical background trivia, but when looking at the film through the auteurist lens, when trying to see glimpses of the Johnnie To to come in this early film, it doesn't so much matter who was responsible for what. If there are qualities of To-ness in Happy Ghost III, elements of the film that would become distinctive traits of his later work, then it doesn't really matter if the initial creation of those elements was the idea of Lam, Wong, Tsui, Maggie Cheung, a particularly skilled gaffer or anybody else. In fact, I assume that at this relatively early stage in his career, To was still soaking up influences wherever he found them. Throughout the next decade, a hallmark of To's career would be his willingness to collaborate, his ability to work with other, often dominant personalities (like Tsui Hark, Stephen Chow and Ching Siu-tung). Indeed, his collaborations with Wai Ka-fai continue to account for some of his best work. Auteurism isn't about assigning credit, it's an inductive process whereby looking at a vast number of films we can begin to tease out the particular elements that a certain artist brings to their work. We can't fully understand what makes a Johnnie To film just by watching the films for which he was the sole, or at least most dominant, creative force, because we'd have nothing with which to compare them. We would have no way of knowing which elements are peculiar to the genre he's working in, which are culturally specific to the nation he's from and which are uniquely his own contributions. And still we wouldn't be able to assign credit anyway because we have no way of knowing what actually goes on on his film sets (maybe Milkway Image is an elaborate conspiracy set up by To to steal credit for other directors' work, I don't know, I suppose it's possible). The best we can do is gather evidence, make comparisons and propose hypotheses.
The Happy Ghost was released in 1984 as a vehicle for studio head Raymond Wong, a comic actor and writer (note that Raymond Wong Bak-Ming is a different person from Raymond Wong Ho-yin, a much younger actor who appears in many later Johnnie To films beginning with 1997's Lifeline and also Raymond Wong Ying-wah, a composer who scored several To films as well as many of Stephen Chow's, including Kung Fu Hustle). It's part of a cycle of horror-comedy hybrids that swept Hong Kong in the early 1980s, influenced by Sammo Hung's Encounters of the Spooky Kind and Tsui Hark's films (his early genre hybrids as well as his pioneering importation of Hollywood-style effects with Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain). These films play off Western horror movie conventions, but place them within the Chinese religious tradition of Buddhist and/or Taoist folk tales (see for example the Mr. Vampire series, Ching Siu-Tung's A Chinese Ghost Story and even Tsui's Green Snake). Like Encounters, The Happy Ghost provides an intriguing blend of moods: not just horror and slapstick comedy, but also a surprisingly dark portrait of Hong Kong youth. Beginning with a prologue ripped straight out of any given Hollywood slasher film: a group of teenagers on a camping trip find themselves in a temple ruin, haunted by the eponymous specter. The film then becomes, for the most part, a teen drama as the Ghost is brought back by one of the girls to their boarding school, where he has a series of adventures (basically he makes things worse and then better and then is threatened and then saves the day). It's the unsettlingly realistic depiction of the girls' lives that is most memorable: one sleeps with her boyfriend for the first time, gets pregnant and is abandoned by him; another is severely stressed out by a test, gets caught cheating and tries to kill herself. These aren't sitcom kids along for a goofy ride, they're recognizably of the same cohort as the nihilistic youths of New Wave films like Yim Ho's The Happening or the hopeless rich kids of Patrick Tam's Nomad. It's like Scream but with the characters from Kids. The Ghost himself, despite his moniker and outward appearance, conceals a dark past: he killed himself after repeated failures both professional and marital. This mixing of moods, wild, unpredictable swings from farce to melodrama to action movie and back again, are one of the more intriguing features of Hong Kong cinema, the best of them deftly avoiding the feeling of calculated sentimentality that can plague similarly blended Hollywood films.
Following the success of the first film, Happy Ghost II was released in 1985, again with Clifton Ko directing and Raymond Wong serving as star and co-writer. Set at a different girls' school, Wong this time plays a dual role as the Ghost and his reincarnation, a clumsy teacher named Sam Hong. Sam has been plagued his whole life by an unwelcome super power bequeathed him by his ancestor, which tends to magnify his clumsiness (it's basically a telekinesis type thing). He arrives at the school after a cadre of mean girls has run off their latest victim (Sam is their eighth teacher, if I remember correctly). Leading the girls is Fennie Yuen, in her first role (she went on to play Blue Phoenix in the Swordsman movies, among other things), playing "the Chairman" with an air of disaffected maliciousness. The girls spend most of the film making life miserable for Sam, despite his using his powers to help them cheat at sports (which the Ghost did in the first film as well). Eventually he gets fired, gives up his powers and gets them back (a plotline not unlike that of Superman II) and everyone has a party on the beach. This sequel is much brighter than the original, with Wong playing up the slapstick (a scene where he destroys the classroom of his love interest teacher is particularly impressive) while any trace of the series' horror roots is lost.
The third Happy Ghost film was released in 1986 and though it still starred and was written and produced by Raymond Wong, it has a distinctly different look to it. Partially this is the result of the special effects, much more elaborate and modern than in the first two films, utilizing computer graphics and supervised by Tsui Hark (who also has a small role in the film as The Godfather, the gatekeeper of the afterlife). But also the film is simply more composed visually than the first two, which are rather perfunctory in style. Whether To or Lam is responsible for that I can't say, as both have shown keen eyes as directors. But there are a couple images or motifs that will recur in To's later work. The most obvious is the use of colored light, electric reds and blues that suffuse and dominate the screen, especially in night scenes (the blues) and interiors (the reds). This trope is by no means unique to To (Ching Siu-tung, who choreographed the action in Happy Ghost III, uses it in Swordsman II, to name one example) and I'd actually taken it as an 80s Hong Kong, or at least Cinema City, trademark. But then in watching A Better Tomorrow II I realized that John Woo's films are almost always realistically lit, so maybe it's a To-specific contribution? A subject for further research. To will continue to use this kind of color abstraction throughout his career, most especially in the late 90s with Milkway films like A Hero Never Dies (red), Where A Good Mans Goes (blue) or The Odd Ones Dies (orange). Less obvious, but perhaps no less indicative of an artist at work is a very simple, very brief shot, an establishing shot of the school. Shot from enough of a distance that the white, four-story building fills the frame, doors and windows fronted by open balconies running the breadth of the structure, we see the girls waking between classes. It's an elegant image, one that captures the unique architecture of the building (and perhaps implies something about the rigid, ant farm-like qualities of the school environment), the kind of throwaway transitional shot you don't think much of at all. Except we never saw it in the second film, though it uses the same building, the same walkways and classrooms. It may not be the shot of a great artist, but it is evidence that someone was paying attention. This kind of detail, of care in framing and composition is striking when watching the second and third films back-to-back: Ko and Wong are good at setting up gags and sustaining a variety of tonal moods, but Lam and/or To have a better sense of where to put the camera and what to put in front of it.
But the most striking thing about Happy Ghost III is the performance of Maggie Cheung. We know her now as one of the great stars of the last 30 years, with a string of brilliant performances in art house classics (In the Mood for Love, Irma Vep, Centre Stage, Hero, Comrades Almost a Love Story and so on). But in 1986 she was a former Miss Hong Kong runner-up most known for playing Jackie Chan's cute girlfriend in 1985's Police Story. But she gets the central role here, as the ghost of a failed singer in search of reincarnation who is continually stymied by Wong's clumsiness (here reprising his role as the teacher Sam, as well as the Happy Ghost). After two failed reincarnations, she vows revenge on Sam and begins making his life miserable, terrorizing his classroom and possessing his students. The students have undergone another change as well: from the barely getting by strivers of the first film, to the arrogant and entitled mean kids of the second to well-behaved and rather dull kids this time around. This is most evident in the transformation of Fennie Yuen's character, from a bad girl in dark glasses to a perfect class prefect, the only time she shows the spark the character had the the previous film is when she's possessed by Maggie Cheung (literally) and gives the famed Kubrick stare: chin down, eyes up, maniacal grin. The first half of the film is a series of tricks Maggie mischievously plays on Sam (the spirit is always playful here, no darkness to be found). In the second half they become friends (including a magical music video sequence as they frolic around the city at night) and eventually end up saving the prefect from a gang of pimps.
There is a tonal mixture to the film, but it's of a different flavor than that of the first film. Instead of horror and comedy, it's a blend of comedy and melodrama, and melodrama of a surprising depth and resonance. In this respect it fits in very well with Johnnie To's later romantic comedies, many of which blend an anarchic style of body humor (either with slapstick or makeup effects, for example the use of fat suits on Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng in Love on a Diet) with an almost tangible sadness and sense of loss (My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Romancing in Thin Air). This film doesn't reach anything like those heights, and I'm inclined to give most of the credit for the film's emotional ambivalence to Maggie Cheung, who is of course adorably spunky yet also reveals her character's sadness (she too committed suicide, but also her heartbreak when Sam kicks her out as well as late in the film, when she's convinced she'll never be reincarnated (which is also a cool visual effect where Maggie fades to black and white)) and joy. The movie is better at the joy: the profound kind when Maggie hears that people have discovered her lovely pop song 20 years after her death for sure, but more importantly the sheer glee with which she toys with poor Sam. She's the first incarnation of a character that more than any other typifies and unifies Johnnie To's cinema: the game player. From crime epics to romantic comedies; in cops, gangsters, bankers, gamblers, thieves, musicians, actors, wrestlers, and pickpockets, what marks a Johnnie To character is the spirit of play, the complex interweaving of chance and fate and the pleasure they take in competition, in performance.
Next Up: Seven Years Itch
Friday, November 22, 2013
Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.
I first saw this eight months ago, on my first night home after the birth of my second kid (I had rented it from Scarecrow Video and needed to watch it before returning it the next day). Needless to say, exhausted and occasionally interrupted, I remembered very little of the experience, other than that I liked the film quite a bit. Happily, a more clear-headed rewatch confirms that initial vague impression: this is a great movie, perhaps the best melding of director Tsui Hark's twin impulses toward subversion and entertainment I've seen yet.
The setup follows two plotlines that will come together and intertwine with a third, each focused on a female protagonist. Brigitte Lin plays the daughter of a local warlord. She dresses like a man (having spent time studying in the West, and also because she's Brigitte Lin) and is secretly a revolutionary. She and fellow revolutionary Mark Cheng (memorable as Louis Koo's able assistant in Johnnie To's Election 2) have to steal some MacGuffins from the general's safe. Cherie Chung (from The Enigmatic Case) plays a musician who stole a box of jewelry from a soldier (Tung Man, played by Cheung Kwok Keung) in the chaos after the previous general was run out of town. Through a series of complications, the box ends up at a local theatre troupe, where Sally Yeh, daughter of the director (played by film director, actor, clock Wu Ma), wants very much to go on-stage but can't because women aren't allowed to perform. Lin and Cheng also find themselves at the troupe, as it's the favored entertainment for the most powerful people in town, including the local police commander/gangster Liu, who becomes infatuated with the star actor, Fa.
That covers the first 20 minutes or so of the film, what follows is an elegantly structured twisting and deepening of the characters and their relations as the film progresses through a variety of suspense and comic set pieces. Ching Siu-tung choreographs some exceptional action scenes, usually featuring Mark Cheng jumping into or shooting a bunch of bad guys (the sequences at the theatre make ingenious use of the space's multi-leveled design, with Cheng diving under and jumping over tables and benches, then on the main stage and up to the stage above it before swinging across the rafters and finally onto the rooftops), but there are also cunningly designed short sequences like the one David Bordwell describes early in Planet Hong Kong, where Mark and Cheung and Cherie hide in Sally's bed from her father. The two father-daughter relationships are especially poignant, with Lin's eyes exploring every aspect of her self-hatred for destroying the father she loves while opposing everything he stands for politically. It's most remarkable to see her usually implacable image break down in anguish near the end of the film and even in happiness in a brief middle section where she gets drunk with the other girls. As well Wu Ma brings a note of knowing sadness to the theatre director father, a man who we took as a stock type gains nuance when we realize exactly why he so strictly keeps his daughter away from the stage: because if she catches the eye of the powerful, she'll be forced to prostitute herself for the sake of the company (as Liu attempts with Fa). Complex as well are the film's romantic relationships. Not so much the main one between Mark and Brigitte (if that even is a romance given Lin's ambiguous orientation), but the all but unspoken one between Cheung (whose soldier I don't think is even named in the screenplay) and Cherie, which exists almost entirely in the subtle looks he gives her of longing and disappointment at her more venal moments. That soldier, in fact, is one of the more fascinating characters in the film: a hapless guy, bullied by his fellows, who joins the revolutionaries by chance, falls in love with a girl and ends up saving the life of the heroine in a spectacular last minute rescue. There are few martial arts films I know of that have so many richly developed characters and relationships. The only one that even comes to mind in Tsui's own epic Once Upon a Time in China.
The Peking Opera setting provides Tsui a world full of potential meaning, and he plays it up beautifully. The gender reversals required of the all-male stage echo the real-life reversals of Lin's character, as she not only dresses like a man but takes on the traditional hero role (note that it's the women who rescue the men time and again). When the other two women make it on stage, they become women impersonating men impersonating women, just as they more or less unwillingly take on the roles of revolutionaries. Eventually, the politics that undergirds the plot comes to be seen as a form of performance, with one general shuffling on stage as the other exits, the rebels scheme amounting to a lifting of a curtain (exposing certain warlords as conspiring with foreigners) all while the real power lurks behind the scenes, in the form of the black clad local police force. That the local commander is both bluntly evil and homosexual (as well as the ultra-effeminate depictions of the male actors) might be a cause for concern were it not for the sincere warmth with which Tsui depicts the homoerotic relations between the three women (Sally in particular seems infatuated with Brigitte). Instead, what we see is sexuality, with politics, as another kind of performance that serves to either mask our baser urges (the violence of the commander, the greed of Cherie) and/or complicate our nobler ones (the father-daughter relations, the multiple instances of self-sacrifice throughout the film, as each hero in turn faces death to save the others).
The result is a film not too far in spirit from the anarchic nihilism of Tsui's earliest films, the burn-it-all youth drama Dangerous Encounters - First Kind or the cannibal comedy We're Going to Eat You. But instead of merely exposing the world, politics, and human relations as a sham, Tsui instead finds a humane warmth at our core, while simultaneously celebrating the artistry of that disguising performance itself: Mark's ultra-cool secret agent and Lin's resolute stoicism, as well as the athleticism of the opera performers. The film opens with a series of close up shots of Peking Opera costumes and props and actors, scored to a traditional sounding song with a modern synthesizer beat. And it ends with a close-up from that same series of a performer in full make-up, laughing maniacally at us, or maybe with us.
Thursday, November 21, 2013
Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.
After its formation in 1980 by actors Dean Shek, Karl Maka and Raymond Wong, the first film released by Hong Kong studio Cinema City & Films Co. was 1981's Laughing Times, a comedy starring Shek as "the Chinese Charlie Chaplin" that appears to be some kind of mash-up of The Kid and City Lights (I haven't seen it yet). It was directed by a young director who had spent the previous decade wandering from studio to studio with modest success with both action movies and comedies, John Woo. Also in 1981, Cinema City produced the fourth film, and the first hit, from director Tsui Hark, whose previous three features had helped launch the Hong Kong New Wave with their anarchic punk attitude and mixture of Western techniques, genres and themes with more traditional Hong Kong genres. All the Wrong Clues for the Right Solution was a clean break from all that, a comedy starring Karl Maka and Teddy Robin that Tsui called a "silly movie. All the movies I've done before were very serious and very depressing." (That's what it sounds like at least, I haven't seen this one yet either. I have a lot of movies to watch and this project is growing bigger by the day.) For the next decade Cinema City provided a home for some of the best directors working in Hong Kong. Not just Woo and Tsui, but Ringo Lam, Eric Tsang (who launched the Aces Go Places series, some of the most popular films of the decade), Ronny Yu, Corey Yuen, Yuen Woo-ping, Lau Kar-leung, Clifton Ko and, of course, Johnnie To.
After Laughing Times, Woo made a few more comedies I also haven't seen: the promising-looking if dubiously titled Plain Jane 3: Plain Jane to the Rescue, starring Josephine Siao and Ricky Hui; Run, Tiger Run, scripted by Raymond Wong and starring Teddy Robin and Bin Bin as characters named "Teddy Shit" and "Benny Shit" (Bin Bin also starred in the Andy Lau/Cynthia Rothrock film The Magic Crystal, a Wong Jing phenomenon that recently played at Scarecrow Video in Seattle); and The Time You Need A Friend, which is apparently a remake of The Sunshine Boys co-written with Raymond Wong. The last two of those were also produced by Cinema City. He also made an action film called Heroes Shed No Tears at Golden Harvest, which he was reportedly unhappy with and had shelved (it shares a title with an epic Chor Yuen fantasy film). Then, seemingly out of nowhere, Woo directed one of the greatest action films of all-time. A smash hit that made Chow Yun-fat a superstar and whose visual style revolutionized action cinema the world over while all but inventing a new genre, which I guess we've decided to call the "heroic bloodshed" film.
A Better Tomorrow is a wonder. Working on themes inherited from a variety of sources, including but not limited to the crime films of Jean-Pierre Melville, American gangster and noir films, Westerns and the wuxia films of Chang Cheh, with whom Woo had worked as an assistant director in the early 70s (and which are on display in an early form in his own Shaw Brothers swordplay film Last Hurrah for Chivalry from 1979), the story focuses on a gangster (played by Ti Lung, star of many a film by Chang and Chor) and his three "brothers". The youngest is literally his brother, played by Leslie Cheung, who is training to become a cop and is unaware of Ti's criminal life. The other two are his Triad brothers: Chow Yun-fat as Mark, a badass with cool sunglasses and an iconic jacket and Waise Lee as Shing, a new member of the gang. The film explores the shifting demands of loyalty and the warrior code, as Ti attempts to go straight and Mark becomes a laughing-stock after he is severely injured in a gun fight, leaving him with an awkward limp. This is contrasted with the unraveling familial bond between Cheung and Ti, cop and crook. Loyalty and honor, and evil as the lack of respect for those ideals (as Shing betrays his brothers for personal gain) is a thematic hallmark of the genre, as is the mirroring of hero and villain, the creation of equivalencies between characters on opposite sides of the law. Beyond the film's contributions to fashion and visual style (which are considerable) it is this thematic scheme that forms the foundation for most of the crime films that follow in Hong Kong cinema, and in particular the work of Johnnie To, who continued to explore the genre's complexities after Woo left for Hollywood in 1993.
A Better Tomorrow was a massive hit for Cinema City, Woo and the film's producer and co-writer, Tsui Hark. As such, a sequel was inevitable. But almost immediately problems began. Chow Yun-fat's character had died at the end of the first film, but a sequel without the man who'd become the biggest star in Hong Kong was unthinkable. So, of course, they decided Mark had a twin brother that nobody bothered to mention in the first film. The film is most horribly marred by a new character, a former Triad gone straight named Lung and played by Dean Shek. After Lung is betrayed by one of his underlings, Shek goes crazy and ends up in an insane asylum, where he is found by Mark's twin brother Ken who nurses him back to health in tedious and endless scenes where Shek refuses to eat. Shek's performance in these scenes is abysmally broad, so much so that it out-balances his later scenes, when he's returned to his apparently bad motherfucker real self. The film's most bizarre food-related scene, though, is a notorious one in which Ken, a restauranteur in New York, is shaken down by some mafia hoods and harangues them in badly dubbed English, with Chow giving his loudest DeNiro impression while the dubber channels Pacino. (The best part of the scene is at the end, where a cop shows up, sees Ken trying to force the mafia guys to eat some rice at gunpoint and tells the hoods, "You'd better eat it!")
Woo and Tsui bitterly fought over the final cut of the film, though as far as I know many of the stories circulating about the film's production are merely apocryphal, including this one from wikipedia that claims Cinema City's editors cut each reel individually, with no supervision by Woo or Tsui or communication with each other. Tsui reportedly wanted the film to focus more on Shek, my only guess as to the reason for that is that he was trying to make a parody of the first film, while Woo wanted to play it as a straight epic. The first film is incredibly tight, its melodrama flowing logically from the restrictions imposed on the characters by their code, with the result that all the death and destruction seems to inevitably and tragically spring from one initial act of betrayal, from one code-violation. But the second film is meandering and unfocused, with bizarre twists of logic and character (especially almost every scene involving Leslie Cheung), with no flow or momentum to the story (multiple times a suspense scene will cut away to a 90 second scene with Cheung's pregnant wife crying about something dumb, only to cut right back to another bit of suspense). My favorite bit of nonsense is the insertion of an unexplained character who makes what appear to be comic book or storyboard characters out of the people and events from the first film. Is this a thing? How does this guy know all that? And how exactly is he the (only) one who knows Mark has a twin brother?
Reportedly Woo has all but disowned the film, excepting its final shoot-out sequence, a spectacular showdown in which the three heroes take on a house full of bad guys that truly is something to be proud of. The action choreographer on the film was none other than Ching Siu-tung. I'm inclined to give Woo auteurial credit for the sequence, however, as it's more in keeping with his approach to action than Ching or Tsui's. Ching and Tsui are of the fast-cutting, impressionist school, well-adapted to fantasy films like Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain or Swordsman II, whereas Woo's films are notable for their precise compositions, smoothness of motion and occasionally strikingly long-takes (best exemplified in what I still think is his finest film, 1992's Hard-Boiled). Ching is always in rapid motion, with bits of movement cut together to create a dizzying effect where Woo is most known for his extensive use of slow-motion, not an abstraction of the body as it moves through space but a reification of it, lending his figures a quasi-religious significance. The final fight of A Better Tomorrow II leans more toward that Woo style than anything else. It's capped by a beautiful showdown between Chow and a silent assassin (you know he's a super-bad guy because he never says anything) that is perhaps the only scene in the film to depict anything like the moral complexity of the honor codes that drive the first film.
Ching Siu-tung would have a massive hit of his own in 1987 starring Leslie Cheung with A Chinese Ghost Story, produced by Tsui Hark for Cinema City and his own company, Film Workshop. Ching would continue to work with Tsui (as well as Johnnie To, a longtime friend going back to their time working in television) throughout the late 80s and early 90s. But Tsui and Woo, after making 1989's The Killer, Woo's breakthrough film in the West, split over the next A Better Tomorrow movie, a prequel which Tsui took over and directed as A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon and Woo adapted into one of his greatest films, 1990's Bullet in the Head with Tony Leung, Jacky Cheung and Simon Yam. Both Woo and Tsui moved to Hollywood in the early 90s, in anticipation of the colony's handover to China. There they both directed films starring Jean-Claude Van Damme and found moderate success. Both are back working in Hong Kong, where Tsui has had a renaissance with CGI-fueled fantasy films like the Detective Dee series, while Woo's last completed (solo) feature is the massive (and stunning) epic Red Cliff. Cinema City has produced only two films since 1991.