Monday, April 14, 2014

Song of the Day: Thrice All-American

Looks like we're moving to Tacoma, so to celebrate, here is Neko Case, the Official Sound of the South Puget Sound.

It's a fan-created video, which doesn't appear to actually have any images of Tacoma, but it's the best I could find on the youtube.

Friday, April 11, 2014

On Two (Lesser) MGM Musicals

I Dood It (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)

Vincente Minnelli's second film is pretty much a straight remake of Buster Keaton's last silent picture, Spite Marriage. Red Skelton plays the Keaton role, a sap obsessed with an actress who finds himself married to her when she wants to get back at her lover. The actress is played by tap-dancing dynamo Eleanor Powell, and the film's primary flaw is how little she's allowed to be herself.

Throughout her late 30s films, Powell proved herself a remarkable film presence, athletic and fast and graceful, her performances exploded the otherwise disastrously generic films she found herself in. (She arguably out-danced Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940, not even Gene Kelly could claim that accomplishment). When she wasn't dancing though, she was mostly harmless, charming, cute, but unmemorable. She gets a lot more to do acting-wise her and she manages to pull out off splendidly. Not just as the comic prop in the famous "putting the passed-out wife to bed sequence", the best sequence in Keaton's film and passably recreated here, but in the film's less spectacular spaces she manages to create a whole, realistic person, no easy feat in a Red Skelton movie.

The problem though is that there simply aren't enough musical numbers. MGM seemed to realize this, as there are a couple wholly superfluous number right in the center of the film, with Hazel Scott doing "Taking a Chance on Love" (the best song from Minnelli's debut, Cabin in the Sky) and Lena Horne singing "Jericho". These are terrific, but their only relation to the movie we're watching is that Skelton happens to be in the theatre at the same time as them.

Even worse is that Powell only gets three dance numbers. The first comes near the beginning, a fantastic Western number with rope tricks. The second is an all-too-brief Hawaiian dream sequence. The third is outright stolen from the climax of Powell's 1936 film Born to Dance, with Skelton simply cut into the footage where James Stewart was in the original. Try as TCM's Robert Osborne did to convince me that wartime necessity made such a recycling an understandable necessity, I remain unconvinced. It just smacks of corporate laziness. And Osborne didn't mention it, but as I suspected, that second number is ripped off too, from Powell's 1939 film Honolulu. Lame. Eleanor Powell had such a short film career, with only about ten films over eight years before she retired (there were a couple of minor roles to follow, along with a nightclub act, but mostly she focused on raising her son (she was married to Glenn Ford)). I've been trying to think of a kung fu movie equivalent for Powell. In terms of career brevity and performing skill, and subpar quality of the pictures she found herself in, the best match I could think of is Bruce Lee. She's obviously not the multi-national icon Lee was and remains to this day, but in terms of on-screen output, I think it's a fair comparison. If so, then this might reasonably be considered something like one of those Bruceploitation films that recycled old footage of him into a cheap formula product.

In the Good Old Summertime (Robert Z. Leonard, 1949)

It's tempting to say that the difference between The Shop Around the Corner and this its musical remake is the difference between the work of an auteur like Ernst Lubitsch and the work of a studio machinist like Robert Z. Leonard. Tempting, but that doesn't really capture just how much is wrong with this film.

There's the sitcomization of the plot, with the central conflict between the shop owner and his best employee reduced from the suspicion of sexual betrayal leading to attempted suicide to a simple misunderstanding revolving around a leaden prop-based running joke.

There's the total inadequacy of Van Johnson as the romantic lead. I mean, it's no easy task being compared to James Stewart, the greatest motion picture actor of all-time, but apparently Van Johnson was a thing with great popular appeal and I have no idea why. He's tall I guess. He's fine as Gene Kelly's morose, cynical, drunk sidekick in Brigadoon, but as the prime mover of this film he's inert.

There's the ghost of Buster Keaton, in the last of his MGM roles. At least in this one his character isn't named "Elmer". He'd be a waxwork in the next year's Sunset Blvd.

The best thing about the film, as usual, is Judy Garland. But the part wasn't written for her; she was a last-minute replacement for June Allyson. Rather than rewire the script to accommodate more music, instead they just awkwardly shoehorn in some songs for her to sing (because apparently when you buy a song score at a music shop, you want the clerk to sing you the tune (though if you can't read music, why buy the score?). The songs aren't very good, even the best one, the title song, sounds like a cheap rehash of "Meet Me in St. Louis" (not unlike the film's turn of the century Chicago setting and that earlier Garland film, actually). Of course, the film takes place almost entirely at Christmastime, so maybe naming the movie after that song wasn't the best idea?

Wednesday, April 09, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Ann Hui's Zodiac Killers

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

A somewhat misleading title, as the movie doesn't have anything to do with a zodiac, or really even killers. Instead this 1991 film is a portrait of Chinese students in Tokyo leading desperately miserable lives. Directed by the great New Wave filmmaker Ann Hui, it was apparently an attempt by her to move toward the mainstream by making a modern gangster film, though I'd say she already made that move with the fine 1984 melodrama Love in a Fallen City and her follow-up project, the two-part wuxia The Romance of Book and Sword (which I very much need to see).

Andy Lau, who had one of his first major roles in Hui's 1982 Boat People, stars as a young student with a tiny apartment filled with the detritus of pop culture (it reminded me most of Marty McFly's room, actually). He falls in love with another immigrant, the lovely and sad Cherie Chung. Chung loves a Japanese man named Asada, a former yakuza assassin. The first half of the film carefully lays out the somewhat hopeless dreams of the various immigrant characters: one is trying to rise up the ranks of the gangster world, one of Lau's fellow film students is looking for his old girlfriend, who had moved to Japan sometime earlier and is now lost, various girls are trying to eke out a living while not quite becoming prostitutes for disgusting Japanese businessmen, and so on. The second half follows a more conventional action film structure, with the chase and suspense sequences unfolding while just about all the diasporic Chinese come to tragic, often bloody, ends.

The melding of Hui's social realism with the heroic bloodshed genre isn't quite successful. It feels like a significant chunk of the film has been cut out, most noticeably the scenes where Chung meets and falls in love with Asada. As it is, it feel like we jump into a completely different world halfway through the film, and when Lau suddenly finds he has a rival, we have no idea who that guy is. Hui briefly flashes back to Chung and Asada's first meeting later in the film (an effect she repeats a few other times with other characters, such flashbacks being not at all unusual in these post-A Better Tomorrow movies, though they're unusually poignant given Hui's less hyperbolic style). Hui reportedly had some trouble getting the film distributed once production was complete, so I wonder if what survives is a compromised version of the original story. If perhaps the flashback refers to a scene that was in the original cut of the film but had to be removed to get the running time down below the Hong Kong-standard 100 minutes.

Despite all this, Hui's direction is sure enough and Lau and Chung nuanced enough performers that there's a real beating heart to this otherwise obvious plot. Hui isn't as flashy as John Woo or Wong Kar-wai, but her realist images are no less artfully composed: Chung and Lau in a subway station, passing trains briefly separating them; looks up at the skyscrapers of Tokyo as oppressive symbols of unattainable success; a beachside Ferris Wheel that serves as a reminder of Asada's youth as he too is an exile, even in his home country (a sentiment that also underlies a wonderfully desperate cameo by Kyoko Kishida (star of Woman in the Dunes) as an aged geisha who helps Lau and Chung at a crucial point. The Chinese aren't the only ones lost in modern Japan.) The editing and performance of the fight sequences is solid but unspectacular and a final chase sequence is wonderfully scored with a ticking, propulsive beat that recalls more the opening of Touch of Evil than the post-Matrix electronic pulses we get today. In one of her last roles before retiring, Chung gives one of her finest performances. Perpetually on the brink of tears, affecting the poses of a demure and deferential young girl, lost in a foreign world, her eyes nonetheless show flashes of a haughty, obstinate determination, as if she knows she deserves better than this terrible world.

Friday, April 04, 2014

Running Out of Karma: John Woo's Red Cliff

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Five years after his last American film, 2003's Philip K. Dick adaptation Paycheck, and a long, troubled and expensive shoot plagued by last minute casting changes, John Woo finally released the first half of his epic two-part film Red Cliff. It proved to be a critical and commercial success (at least in it's full version, the butchered American release fared less well), breaking box office records across Asia and gathering a plethora of award nominations. To date it's Woo's last film, his only other projects in the ten years since his return to Hong Kong being an advisory co-director role for Su Chao-pin's Reign of Assassins and The Crossing, due to be released sometime in 2014.

Red Cliff was released in two parts, in July, 2008 and then January of 2009, totaling about five hours of running time. The full version is widely available on Blu-Ray (look for the "International Version Part I & Part II" disc) and that's how I watched it, in two sections over one 24-hour period a couple weeks ago. I'll split this review into two parts as well.

Red Cliff Part One

This first half is almost entirely set up, with most of the 2 1/2 hours devoted to Takeshi Kaneshiro's Zhuge Liang convincing the leaders of the Southern Wu Kingdom (Chang Chen as the King, Sun Quan, and Tony Leung as his top general, Zhou Yu) to join the rebellion against the evil Prime Minister Cao Cao, a brilliant general who has for all intents and purposes usurped the Emperor and declared war on anyone who resists his dictates. Based on the account of late Han Dynasty (circa 200 AD) historical events depicted in the 14th Century Romance of the Three Kingdoms, one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Woo adds a degree of melodramatic motivation to what in the book (I've read the first half, which includes the events surrounding the Battle of Red Cliff, but my memory is a bit hazy, as usual) is more of a straight recitation of action, preceding as it does by several centuries the modern notion of the psychological novel.

Most bothersome in this re-envisioning is the implication that Cao Cao is fighting this whole war for the sake of a woman, Zhou Yu's wife Xiaoqiao, played by Taiwanese supermodel Lin Chi-ling in her first film role. Woo lingers on Lin and Leung together, being affectionate and loving and having steamy candlelit sex, as if trying to inspire the same jealousy in the audience that his Cao Cao must be feeling. It's unclear at this point if this storyline is going to end up being ridiculous, or an interesting Helen of Troy-type addition to the historical narrative. There are a couple interesting scenes with Cao Cao and a prostitute who looks like Xiaoqiao, kind of a Vertigo thing going on there hinting at Cao Cao's possible madness. Better realized motivations are Sun Quan's feelings of inadequacy before the memory of his more warlike older brother and father (resolved as all the best emotional crises are, with a tiger hunt) and Zhuge's fascination with Sun's sister, the wannabe warrior Sun Shangxiang, played by Zhao Wei. Subtlety of emotion or motivation has never been one of Woo's strengths, so I don't know that packing his war movie with so much of it was a wise idea.

Woo's on surer footing with the relationship between Zhuge and Zhou, two men used to being the smartest in any room in which they find themselves, their relationship is one of deep respect and rivalry. They're often seem to be the only two guys who actually know what's going on, and their private jokes and shared wavelength is a far more compelling romance than Cao Cao's blunted desire. Woo frames Kaneshiro and Leung closely together, his camera roving from one's side of the screen to other's, uniting them in their shifting one-upmanship.

We only get a couple of action scenes in Part One. It opens with the retreat of Zhuge Liang's boss Liu Bei, the noble anti-Cao Cao leader, which provides a chance for each of his three superheroic generals to cut down dozens of extras. Part One climaxes with the first skirmish of the battle proper, as the Allied forces ambush Cao Cao's cavalry in a neat demonstration of animal-based tactics as Woo explores the intricacy and violence of 3rd Century warfare. The infantry draw the small cavalry troop into a trap, with intricately coordinated movements of their shield wall isolating the various horsemen, who proceed to be cut down, first by spears, then by the generals (following the tradition of martial arts narratives, where the more powerful the person, the better their fighting skills). In the end, even Zhou takes part, Tony Leung throwing himself into the fray with the enthusiasm of one who actually knows what he's doing. Only Zhuge Liang doesn't take part: he's an intellectual; strictly an advisor, not a fighter.

The Battle of Red Cliff took place in the early 200s, roughly contemporaneous with the events in Ridley Scott's Gladiator and that film, along with Peter Jackson's Lord of the Rings provides a clear inspiration for the CGI-enabled epic scale of Woo's production. Long pull-out shots reveal hundreds of artificial ships as Cao Cao's navy makes its way down the Yangtze; phony (or certainly at least digitally retouched) landscapes emphasize the beauty of the South and the need to preserve it from Northern aggression. Judicious use of digitally slowed and sped up motion (as in Tsui Hark's 2005 Seven Swords) liven up the action's long unbroken takes. Here the comparison with Gladiator is important, as Scott smears his action into blurry, swish pan and quick cut nothingness while Woo keeps everything crisp and organized, with overhead shots orienting us spatially while simultaneously making apparent the tactical ideas behind the coordinated troop movements painstakingly designed by Zhuge and Zhou.

Red Cliff Part Two

The second half of the film opens with a quick recap of the first, then throws us right into the action. Cao Cao has brought his army down the Yangtze and taken up position across the river from the Wu fortress at Red Cliff. With the help of two defecting southerners, Cao Cao has assembled a massive navy to supplement his cavalry and infantry. Here the differences between Southern and Northern China and the kinds of wars they fight becomes relevant. Southern China is river country, marshy and lush. Northern China is more desert-like, with vast flat plains between mountain ranges. Sothern transportation is on boats, Northern on horseback. There's a cliche about the different styles of kung fu that developed in the two haves of the country, with the Northerners favoring a foot-based style with leaps and kicks, designed to dislodge horsemen, while the Southerners came up with a fist-based style, utilizing the strong arm muscles earned through a lifetime of rowing up and down rivers. Cao Cao's Northern Army is used to cavalry attacks, they have no knowledge of naval tactics and his men are plagued by seasickness (not to mention typhoid and various other illnesses the Northerners have no developed immunity to). But the Southerners are not only literally on their home turf but have the advantage of fighting their kind of battle. Given this, the fact that they are outnumbered approximately 800,000 to 50,000 doesn't quite concern them as much as you'd think.

Attempting to even the odds even further, as much as they can before the battle begins, Zhuge Liang and Zhou Yu make a wager. Again lost in their own world (Woo closes in very close on Kaneshiro and Leung, facing each other on opposite sides of the screen, their faces unnaturally close with all the other generals and advisors blurred out in the background) they challenge each other with a pair of impossible tasks. Zhuge must produce 100,000 arrows in three days while Zhou must somehow separate Cao Cao from his naval commanders. Failure to deliver means death. They succeed of course, but one's subterfuge is certainly more clever than the other's.

While the first half of the film was a lot of ground-laying and relationship building, the second half gets to unfold as a series of action and suspense sequences. There is one new relationship built, as Sun Shangxiang (the younger sister of Sun Quan) realizes her dream of taking part in the action on equal footing with the men by infiltrating Cao Cao's camp in disguise. On the course of her reconnoitering, she meets a young, slightly goofy, low-ranking officer (played by Tong Dawei) and becomes friends with him (she's disguised as a man for this adventure, in time-honored Chinese-girls-in-drag fashion). We first meet him as he distinguishes himself in a match of cuju, the most ancient form of soccer (note again the Northerners emphasizing feet, as even their preferred sport involves kicking a ball and not using one's hands). This is all a pleasant diversion from the main plot, as Zhao Wei makes for a delightfully earnest and capable Sun and Tong is solid as a nice regular guy who just happens to find himself fighting for the wrong side of the war. Of course it will come back around in the final battle, but that predictability doesn't make it any less sad.

Eventually, the preliminaries done away with and the ceremonial dumplings eaten (shouldn't everything commence with the eating of ceremonial dumplings?) the Battle itself can begin. For literally hours, Woo has been teasing us with the massive CGI-scale of the assembled combatants, Cao Cao's thousands of ships (locked together with iron bars to minimize seasickness) spied upon by the camera and Zhuge's messenger pigeons. Timing proves everything to the final fight, as both sides prepare to set the other's ships on fire. The difference is that Zhuge Liang, in addition to being a brilliant tactician is also a capable meteorologist. If Zhou Yu is the ideal of the wise, romantic poet warrior, Zhuge Liang is the scholar-as-farmer, the brainiac with his feet firmly on the ground. It's Zhuge's practical knowledge, the knowledge of the peasant classes, that allows him to accurately predict a change in the direction of the wind, and thus leads to the incineration of Cao Cao's inexperienced, poorly led navy.

But even that wouldn't have worked if it wasn't for the heroic act of Zhou Yu's wife, Xiaoqiao. Hearing that Cao Cao is apparently obsessed with her, she sneaks into his camp and makes him some tea. That sounds silly, but as performed by Lin Chi-ling the power and sexiness of the tea ceremony is readily apparent, as she corrects Cao Cao on the proper way to sip from his cup, the depths of his obsession become a little understandable. Thus distracted, Cao Cao waits to long to begin his attack, until after the fatal wind has shifted. His navy destroyed, it's all he can do to marshal his land defenses, but the dazed Cao Cao, so flabbergasted at the awful destruction reaped by the fire, seems incapable of decisive action.

As the battle plays out, through the night and into the day, the rout is on and the drama comes from whether or not Xiaoqiao will be saved in time. The various generals rush into the heart of Cao Cao's camp, leading to a classic multi-directional John Woo standoff, with swords in place of his traditional pistols. But this isn't the true climax of the film, just of the Battle. Instead the peak comes in the final scenes further exploring the most fascinating relationship in the film, as Zhuge and Zhou say their goodbyes. Meeting on an impossibly lush hillside, the two friends recognize the fact that their nation, now spilt in three ("Three Kingdoms" you know), is not in a place of perpetual peace, that conflict between their respective rulers is inevitable. But their bond transcends petty politics, and the most moving love story of Woo's career ends with the heroes locked together, nose-to-nose, the rest of their world irrelevant to the demands of mutual respect and honor and loyalty. To blood brotherhood.

Red Cliff deserves to rank with the great epic war movies of all-time. The battle scenes are intricately designed and beautifully shot, and the characters unique enough within their generic types (helped in no small part by an exceptional cast) to keep the spaces between the action interesting. Whether it's due to the running time, or the daunting amount of Chinese history that the film builds upon, unknown to Western audiences (which similarly plagues Chang Cheh's great historical epics The Heroic Ones, Shaolin Temple and The Boxer Rebellion), it seems that despite the film's favorable notices on release, it has dropped through the cracks, reputation-wise. In an ideal world, it would be our generation's Lawrence of Arabia.

Running Out of Karma: Two Tsui Hark Romances

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Love in the Time of Twilight

This should be seen more. It doesn't even have a wikipedia page, and the DVD I rented of it is cropped to 4x3, yuck. Anyway, it's just your typical mashup of Back to the Future, Ghost, Cantonese Opera, Looney Tunes and vomit jokes. It might be the best of Tsui Hark's four films from 1995. Has any director had a year with so many films that were so different from each other? The Blade is a dark as hell ultra-violent wuxia film, The Chinese Feast a farce about food and community, and this one an effects-driven, period romantic comedy (more on the fourth, The Lovers, a hallucinogenic romantic melodrama, below). What a year.

A variation on the multiple-couple format of his own Shanghai Blues and Peking Opera Blues, where a group of mixed-gender protagonists dance curlicues around each other and the plot with love and sadness, except here the couples are doppelgangers of the two central figures. What begins as a conventional romantic comedy (anti-romantic opening where the leads instantly hate each other and engage in an escalating prank war, in this case unfolding in a marketplace dominated by fortune tellers and religious rituals), turns into a sci-fi mystery when the man, played by Nicky Wu, after instantly falling in love with another woman spends the night with her and the next day finds himself setup and killed by bank-robbing bandits. And then his ghost comes back to take Charlie Yeung, the woman from the opening, back in time to save himself. Complications ensue. As does hilarity, romance, all kinds of liminal spaces ("the time of twilight" indeed!) and, as in the best Tsui films, quiet moments for supporting characters (the woman's father singing a song for his dead wife) as well as the heroes (a young couple entranced by the ephemerality of fireworks) that are genuinely beautiful.

Much of the action takes place backstage at a theatre troupe, where Yeung performs, mostly unsuccessfully. This is a recurring location for Tsui: you can find such troupes in both the Blues movies as well as in Once Upon a Time in China. These performative space, places where characters engage in make believe and often find themselves remaking their own plots, seem particularly in line with the playfulness of Tsui's approach to film, his willingness to take his films to unexpected places, places founded on traditionally low forms of entertainment: slapstick comedy, vibrant melodrama, violent, even horrifying action. What distinguishes Tsui's vaudevillian forays from the work of Wong Jing, or even Johnnie To's The Eighth Happiness (which ends with a meta-finale on a Cantonese Opera stage) and its derivative works is that no matter how crazy Tsui's narratives become, they are always grounded in clear (even basic) emotional drives. His people make sense even if their worlds do not.

The Lovers

Starts as your typical guy-falls-in-love-with-girl-dressed-as-a-guy rom-com, then turns into hallucinatory elemental melodrama. Also starring Nicky Wu and Charlie Yeung from Love in the Time of Twilight, Tsui here presents a fairly faithful version of the oft-told legend of The Butterfly Lovers, a story somewhat akin to European legends like Tristan and Isolde, Heloise and Abelard or Romeo and Juliet: star-crossed lovers kept apart by various social constraints, ending in tragedy. Yueng is a young woman from a prominent family of cosmetics merchants circa 200 AD. Trying to sand off her rough edges, her family send her to a local college, with the twist that in order to be educated, she has to pretend to be a boy.

This apparently is not an uncommon ruse, as her mother did the same trick when she was young, and the college's dean is an understanding and sympathetic woman (undisguised) herself. There is a bit of a gay panic subplot as Nicky Wu meets her and, despite thinking she's a boy, finds himself falling in love with her. But that subplot is fairly quickly resolved and ignored (as opposed to forming the foundation of the story as in some of the lesser works of Wong Jing or Sammo Hung, or treated with sensitivity and intelligence as in Peter Chan's He's a Woman, She's a Man) as Wu figures out that she's a girl and the romance proper begins, followed quickly by the unfolding tragedy.

Wu graduates the college and Yeung returns home. Now a minor official (he's been studying to pass the test that qualifies you for a governmental position), Wu proposes marriage to Yeung's family. But he's outdone by a representative of the wealthier and more influential Ma family. Wu and Yeung conspire to elope but are undone by her parents. As the lovers are forcibly kept apart, nature itself seems to take a side. The sky turns nightmarish shades of pink, purple and orange; tears of blood flow; fierce winds and rain batter the unnatural constraints of the social order. Finally, the earth itself swallows the lovers whole, uniting them in a death that would be horrific if it wasn't so romantic.

Romance and Tsui Hark seem an odd combination. He seems much more at home in wacky comedies and action movies, genre fare that allows him to both explore and update traditional modes of Chinese narrative while at the same time giving them a subtly subversive twist. Wong Kar-wai's brand of earnest wistfulness seems anathema to Tsui, and his best romances follow the sidelong, game-playing pattern that also marks Johnnie To's romances.

Thursday, April 03, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Stephen Chow's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

I see a lot of complaints that this, the latest from Stephen Chow, is "no Kung Fu Hustle (or Shaolin Soccer)" which, yeah sure, it's a different kind of movie than those. Those were the culmination of 15 years of Chow's comedy style, which burst on the scene in the early 90s with a string of smash comedies, built around lowest common denominator wordplay and slapstick parodies of popular genres (gambling movies with All for the Winner, cop movies with Fight Back to School, wuxia films with the Royal Tramp and Chinese Odyssey films, among many others (including a couple contentious collaborations with Johnnie To). Chow was arguably the biggest Hong Kong star of the 1990s, and Kung Fu Hustle in particular is a masterpiece, the pinnacle of the kung fu parody, driven by CGI to fully realize the live-action Looney Tunes-quality this era of Hong Kong comedy always strived for.

Journey to the West though has entirely different ambitions. It's still quite funny of course, and like most contemporary Hong Kong (or Hong Kong/Chinese, the various industries are increasingly intertwined) it is driven by special effects, most of which look quite good, and action. But building on the somewhat rote spiritualism of Kung Fu Hustle, Chow, along with his co-director Derek Kwok and a host of co-writers, appears to be exploring Buddhism with some allegorical seriousness. Freely adapting one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature, a work that has inspired numerous film adaptations, including the Chow-starring two-part 1995 film A Chinese Odyssey (written and directed by Jeffrey Lau) and the latest film from Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang, the film follows the growth of a young monk in training to be a demon-hunter. Played by Wen Zhang with an open earnestness very different from the cocky fools played by Chow in his prime, the young monk attempts not to destroy the demons, but rather rehabilitate them by freeing the good that he's convinced still lies within them (Skywalker-style). Demon-hunting being something of a growth industry in troubled Tang Dynasty (circa 600s AD) China, he quickly finds himself with a rival, played by frequent Hou Hsiao-hsien star Shu Qi. Shu takes the opposite approach, using some magic rings and nifty combat moves to ensnare the demons, a task she proves much more adept at than Wen.

Shu takes a liking to Wen, not because of his charm or handsomeness, but rather because she's attracted to the purity of his motives. And, having taking a vow of celibacy, his refusal of her advances only convinces her further of his righteousness, turning her on even more. As they encounter a series of demons (a giant fish monster, then a serial-killing pig, finally the Monkey King himself), Shu keeps trying to trick the monk into falling in love with her (or at least having sex with her), going so far as to set up an elaborate and bloody ruse (leading to one of the film's best recurring gags as one of her henchman's special effects goes awry). This episodic quest narrative, leavened with liberal amounts of outsized action and comedy and some truly inspired images (a demon-hunter with a notable foot, for one), is pleasant enough, but by the end of the film it becomes apparent that every episode has its role in the allegory Chow is building.

Each of the demons is a human who's soul has been poisoned by tragedy, their perversions the direct result of desire and attachment. They are markers for the things the Buddhist must renounce in order to achieve enlightenment. The fish demon is after revenge on a village that wronged him in a horrible way. The pig demon was consumed by jealousy after his wife cheated on him. The Monkey King, greatest demon of them all, dared to defy Buddha himself in declaring war on heaven in a psychotic expression of personal freedom. They represent impulses the monk must rid himself of, negative desires that lead people to their own destruction. At the same time, Shu's demon-hunter, who the monk has (chastely of course) come to love, comes to embody all that he must leave behind. Because enlightenment isn't just about renouncing life's negative impulses, it's also about understanding loss and suffering, and you can't understand loss if you don't have something you love that you have to let go.

So, rather than building to the kind of anarchic extravaganza that culminated Chow's best-known efforts, Journey to the West becomes increasingly serious has it goes along (not that there isn't darkness throughout the film, as each of the demon episodes features some shocking horrors). It doesn't follow the escalating structure of classic screwball and slapstick comedies, instead it follows the spiritual journey of its hero (similar to the path trod by King Hu's A Touch of Zen) tracing an epic arc from grounded realism through increasing abstraction to a kind of transcendence. Kung Fu Hustle is a feint in this direction, as Chow's hero ultimately masters kung fu and attains a kind of enlightenment, in a parody of traditional martial arts films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. But Journey to the West takes the ideology behind the generic form seriously and infuses it into its very structure. Chow plays it straight and the result is something I never expected: Stephen Chow's Au hazard Balthazar.

Friday, March 28, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Two by Woo

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Here are reviews of a couple of lesser, but worthwhile nonetheless, John Woo movies.

Heroes Shed No Tears (1986)

Sharing a title and nothing else with Chor Yuen's 1980 wuxia epic, this was John Woo's project immediately preceding his breakthrough A Better Tomorrow and only released after that film's success. It's easy to see why Woo had initially decided to leave this unreleased. It's probably the most ridiculous thing I've ever seen from him, the kind of movie people who don't like Hong Kong movies think all Hong Kong movies are like. That said, it's still a ton of goofy fun.

Eddy Ko leads a small commando squad of Chinese mercenaries into the Golden Triangle (the nebulous border region between Burma, Cambodia, Laos and Vietnam that is the source of much of the world's heroin, or at least was in movies from the 1980s) to arrest a drug kingpin and bring him to justice. They get the guy and escape, chased by his heavily-armed men. At the Vietnamese border, they arouse the ire of the local army outpost (led by the great Lam Ching-ying, probably most well-known as the star of the Mr. Vampire series), who join the chase. The Army then forcibly enlists the assistance of the local hunter-gatherer/ninja tribe. Of course, for some reason Ko has brought on this mission into the most dangerous place on Earth his young son, generally useless sister(?) and elderly father, who must of course be protected (the father doesn't last long, spoiler!), along with a whiny French woman they rescue from the Army along the way.

So what we have is the makings of a pure chase-through-harsh-terrain movie, along the lines of Cornell Wilde's The Naked Prey, Powell & Pressburger's Ill Met By Moonlight or Rambo: First Blood Part II. For better and worse, this is more in the class of that last one than either of the first two. There's a lot of guys standing around with really heavy machine guns mowing down bad guys who can't shoot straight and a lot of poorly motivated plot turns. Only the most obvious is the unanswered question of why this guy brought his family along. Did that bit of exposition get cut out and no one noticed or cared? Is it somewhere in the 11 minutes that were in the Hong Kong version that aren't in the 82 minute international cut, or did Golden Harvest cut it out even before releasing it locally? IMDB says those 11 minutes have an expository scene between Ko's character and his "sister-in-law", so I guess that's how she's related and maybe that explains it? Who knows.

Beyond that is a truly bizarre idyll near the end of the chase. Ko has led his motley crew to a hut  located on stilts in a clearing in the jungle, occupied by a spacey American. The American is an old friend of Ko's (they saved each others' lives in the War), and lives in this hut, surrounded by explosives, trip wires and bombs of all kinds, with three women in flowery dresses that never seem to speak. Now, I don't know what's stranger: that with three armed bands of killers bearing down on them, our heroes decide that a straw hut packed to the rafters with high explosives is an ideal defensive position, or that on the eve of said attack, rather than preparing for their defense, the American and his lady friends partake in some R-Rated drugs and group sex debauchery. I mean, sure, you don't have to shed tears, but how about a little common sense?

Once a Thief (1991)

If Cherie Chung hadn't retired after making this movie, and maybe had gone on to star in some Wong Kar-wai movies, would she be better known today? She was one of the key Hong Kong actresses of the 1980s, beginning with Johnnie To and her debut The Enigmatic Case and including classics like Winners and Sinners, The Story of Woo Viet, The Dead and the Deadly, An Autumn's Tale, The Eighth Happiness and Peking Opera Blues. Patrick Tam even built a whole movie around her and named it after her (Cherie of course, a bizarre romantic comedy in which lust for the star inspires the men around her (the other Tony Leung and longtime Shaw Brothers director Chor Yuen) to increasingly dangerous and ill-advised behavior). She retired because she got married (something of a trend at the time, this kind of thing also cost us some prime Michelle Yeoh years), but she's still only 54 years old. Someone should bring her out of retirement (her husband, sadly, died several years ago).

Anyway, she has almost nothing to do in this screwball heist movie, wherein she's the love object for both Chow Yun-fat (in full-mug comedy mode) and Leslie Cheung. The three of them, orphans, grew up under the tutelage of an evil thief, Fagin-style, and now they're using their powers against him, sort of. The plot doesn't make a whole lot of sense. Basically they steal European paintings from elaborately designed defense systems (like the one that hangs in the wine cellar of a castle, behind a secret door in a fog-enshrouded room, because that's where you want to display your favorite and most valuable oil paintings: in a damp basement behind a rock wall) and the father guy is a jerk. Cheung and Chow do all the thieving, leaving Chung at home (where she belongs!) to worry and do the cooking or something. And pass from one lead to the other (there's an apparent death, followed by an apparent paralysis), Cherie generally lands with the healthiest hero.

The heists are fun, the action is great (a neat car chase, someone inexplicably featuring a variety of evil security guards driving French station wagons), the comedy occasionally funny and the 1991 fashions exceptional, and did I mention that one of the final villains is a magician who shoots fire out of his hands and throws playing cards to deadly effect?, but this premise is one Woo would revisit a few more times, I think because he never really got it right (he directed a Canadian TV movie remake that was later spun into a series that lasted one season in that country after the Fox network didn't pick it up in the US.) Compare it to Johnnie To's caper heist/romantic comedy Yesterday Once More, which is faster, funnier, and cleverer with more emotional depth and visual panache.

Wednesday, March 26, 2014

Some Notes on George Sidney's Bye Bye Birdie

You can follow 30 years of the evolution of youth culture and its relation to show business just by following musicals from years that end in '3'.

1933: Gold Diggers of 1933, 42nd Street
1943: The Gang's All Here
1953: The Affairs of Dobie Gillis, Give a Girl a Break
1963: Bye Bye Birdie

As the years go on, the youth get younger: early 20s in the 30s and 40s, college in the 50s, high school in the 60s. At the same time, the performance dream gets more remote: the 30s and 40s stars are performers, albeit not particularly successful ones (yet), with the war in 1943 making everyone seem more adult than they are (and the musical itself breaking down that facade, Busby Berkeley's masterpiece ultimately reducing everyone to colored light and singing heads). In the 50s they're just starting out, in the 60s the stars seem to occupy another planet (Birdie is an object of worship/jealousy rather than an aspirational figure).

The next decades take that estrangement even further, as not only are the characters in the musicals no longer performers, even aspirationally, with their soundtracks (usually) removed from the filmic space to the non-diegetic ether, but the movies themselves are no longer even set in the present. Rather than engage with the youth culture of today, their directors revisit their own youth (either lived or experienced on-screen).

1973: American Graffitti
1983: The Outsiders
1993: Dazed and Confused
2003: Down with Love
2013: Inside Llewyn Davis

(This is partly a result of the arbitrary year-end choice. Fast Times at Ridgemont High, Pump Up the Volume, Clueless and Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench would be examples of attempts to document contemporary youth culture within the musical form, albeit still with the music removed from the performances on-screen. See also studio-era films that celebrated the filmmakers' youths, like Meet Me in St. Louis or The Strawberry Blonde). Still I think the general trend toward nostalgia is worth noting.)

Anyway, Bye Bye Birdie seems to me to be an inflection point, a last gasp of the lower-budget studio musical (big budget musicals were increasingly dominant, before they too would crash, dragging the whole system with them by the end of the decade) before The Beatles arrived the next year and blew everything to hell. As an attempt for studios to grapple with the rock and roll phenomenon it's a lesser version of Frank Tashlin's The Girl Can't Help It, and as a film it could have used more Tashlin-style surrealism. As it is, the director, George Sidney, was always at his best a more conventional Tashlin anyway, a steady hand with adaptations like Show Boat or Kiss Me Kate with a tendency to vulgar excess when let loose with Esther Williams in films like Jupiter's Darling. His patience and skill in utilizing the full-length of the Cinemascope frame with long, lengthy shots in the big group dance sequences goes to show that if they stick around long enough, even the weirdest directors become classicists.

As for the stars, well, Ann-Margaret. To go back to where I started, take a look at the evolution of the female heroes of those films: Ruby Keeler, Alice Faye and Debbie Reynolds are all of a type: cute, girls next door, pretty but unthreatening. Ann-Margaret though sings a whole song about how awesome it is to be young and hot. The film isn't about her becoming a star (though it is certainly a star-making performance), but rather about her learning to take control of her own life. As the film begins she's obsessed with Elvis-clone Conrad Birdie (whose sexual charisma is such that he inspires every woman in town to either faint or have a seizure in the film's first big group number) and in love with local boy Hugo (gladly submitting to future wife-hood through the pin-placement (pointedly not pin-exchange) ceremony). Through various plot machinations, she learns to take control of her own desires, break Birdie's spell and reunite with Hugo on her own terms. Though she's still aspiring to wifeliness, at least its because that's what she's decided she wants. Viewed another way, the film can be seen as a tragedy in that this poor girl can't really imagine any other role for herself: either sexual object or homemaker.

Janet Leigh's story somewhat parallel's Ann-Margaret's, in that ultimately she has to use her sexuality to inspire some jealousy in Dick Van Dyke's songwriter/scientist. That she does so at a Shriner's convention, and has to work really hard to get those men to notice her is kind of hilarious. 36 year old Janet Leigh still looks fantastic, and once the men finally see that they become a tidal wave. Leigh seems shocked by what she's unleashed in them, as though it was mere social mores that kept them from pawing after her, but once pushed so far they could no longer be restrained. Thus are the dangers of rampant female sexuality: better keep it locked down in wifehood!

And then there's the fact that Dick Van Dyke really wants to be a chemist, and his big career move in conjunction with Ann-Margaret's father, Paul Lynde(!) is to start selling amphetamines to animals (they dope a turtle) and humans (they dope a ballet conductor). I have no idea what to do with that.