Friday, November 21, 2014

Running Out of Karma: The Eighth Happiness

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

When I started this Running Out of Karma project 53 weeks ago, the intent was to go through each of Johnnie To's films in chronological order, tracing his career as it developed with equal attention paid to his early and late films, his comedies and action dramas. As To's career is intricately woven through the past 40 years of Hong Kong cinema, I knew this would lead to many tangents and side trips as I explored not just his films, but their context as well. I'd have to familiarize myself with his contemporaries as well as their influences. But the intention was to maintain the chronological To as the spine of the series. But it hasn't really worked out that way.

Since the project began, I've watched somewhere in the neighborhood of 175 Chinese-language films,  from 1939's Empress Wu Zetian to 2014's The Midnight After, with extended forays into the work of King Hu, Lau Kar-leung and Tsui Hark, but I've only written about six Johnnie To films: the first three (The Enigmatic Case, Happy Ghost III and Seven Years Itch) and the most recent three (Drug War, Blind Detective and Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2). The one that had me stumped was his fourth film, The Eighth Happiness.

Following up on the Cinema City romantic comedy Seven Years Itch, To re-teamed with producer-writer-star (not necessarily in that order) Raymond Wong Bak-Ming for an ensemble film designed for release during the Lunar New Year holiday, a week-long (more or less) celebration that is the highlight of the Hong Kong film release calendar, when all of the big, star-studded blockbusters hit theatres. Wong plays the eldest of three brothers, each of whom will have a series of romantic misadventures. Chow Yun-fat, at this time the biggest star in the colony, hot off the smashing success of A Better Tomorrow, plays the middle brother while pop star Jacky Cheung, himself on the road to a successful film career (he'd win the Supporting Actor Hong Kong Film Award this year for his work in Wong Kar-wai's debut feature As Tears Go By), plays the youngest.

Cheung's story is the cutest and the briefest: first he's mistaken (a couple of times) for a sexual predator (he isn't), then he has to stand up to a Ping-Pong bully in order to win his girl. It's mostly innocuous and easily forgettable, but for Cheung's mid-plot scene of sadness, playing the violin to a half-empty glass of Fanta. Most likely much of his story was edited out, including a thread about his career as an aspiring cartoonist, which we see the resolution of at the climax, the first time it is mentioned, a hint of the slapdash approach to story that characterizes much of the film, apparently To and his actors improvised a lot, basically making it up as they went along. This is far from the highly controlled and determined feel of To's Milkyway work, with intricately designed plot structures and purposeful images, though I imagine the freewheeling, collaborative element still survives in the joint writing process that occurs before filming begins, leading many of the later films to be credited as much to "the Milkyway Creative Team" as to any single screenwriter.

Playing the most subdued and "normal" brother, Wong works as a television host of some kind, doing interviews and cooking segments and financially supporting his siblings in a palatial (by Hong Kong standards) house. He meets a woman who performs Cantonese opera whose husband has recently left her and her son. The have a romance that might have been sweet, but before it is crushed by the chaos created by his brothers, Wong has managed to make himself as unlikeable as any of the more obviously cruel figures in the film. The big date we see them go on is to a Raymond Wong film (Papa, Can You Hear Me Sing?, I believe) the sight of which brings them all to tears (it's a melodrama, he curses the filmmaker (which was him) for making it so sad) and he spends most of the evening asking the weather to intervene so he can sleep with the poor woman. She ditches him when she learns that he and his brother are the ones that have been prank-calling her every night for months.

Which leads us to the third brother, played by Chow Yun-fat. A flamboyantly fabulous sociopathic womanizer, Chow relentlessly pursues an equally amoral shopgirl played by Cherie Chung. He's also engaged to a very nice and very forgiving flight attendant played by Do Do Cheng. We hear Chow, in voiceover, explain his seduction technique (he plays the "sissy" or as one subtitle translation spelled it, the "cizzy") as one of disarming women with his femininity so they're more trusting of his advances, as well as its origins (he blames Wong for "making him wear dresses" as a young child). The implications and stereotypes of Chow's performance are simply too dense for me to unpack, and I've watched the movie three times and had a year to think about it. I simply don't know if it's good or bad. It's appallingly broad and offensive, but quite obviously intentionally so. I've never seen anything like it before or since. But he is the essential figure, both in the plot (it's his anarchic actions that complicate and resolve his brothers' romances) and in the film's appeal. You can't look away from him whenever he's on-screen, despite the utter awfulness of everything he does. It's not just a performance in bad taste, it's a performance utterly liberated from any idea of what taste is. The freedom it represents, the freedom to be truly, deeply horrible, is what makes the film some kind of great. Early in the film, Chow dances half-dressed in tuxedo shirt and jacket, no pants, suspenders slung bunched over one shoulder (as he will wear them throughout the film) to an electric Cantonese variation on the Blue Danube Waltz and it's as pure an expression of joy as there is in film history.

The film's conclusion seems an obvious nod to Tsui Hark's Peking Opera Blues, with most of the main characters on-stage in full Cantonese Opera dress singing the plot resolution (Wong apologizing to the woman he loves) while the audience (featuring cameos from Karl Maka, John Sham and Ringo Lam, among others) howls with laughter. The most interesting part of the movie though comes shortly after, in a short epilogue. Chow and Cheung live happily ever after with their girls, but right after the show we've just seen, Wong's woman's husband (Teddy Robin Kwan, naturally) returns and she runs off with him. Leaving Raymond Wong sad and alone and completely nullifying any sense of resolution that came from the film's climax, rendering pointless its entire plot. And then the whole cast gathers to wish us all a Happy New Year. It's glorious.

I suspect it's Chow's performance that made the film such a hit. To see the stoic and dignified Chow, the elegant romantic hero of soaps both on TV and in film as well as the iconic gunman of so many John Woo and Ringo Lam pictures act like a demented loon is undeniably appealing. The film was the first big hit of Johnnie To's career, topping the Hong Kong box office for 1988 (a feat he and Chow would repeat the next year with All About Ah-long). It still might be the film To is most famous for among Cantonese audiences, helping to usher in a wave of imitators that is still on-going, most notable the Alls Well, Ends Well series that began in 1992 under the direction of Clifton Ko (who directed the first two Happy Ghost films for Raymond Wong) and which continues into the present, the latest entry being released in 2012. The first one at least is pretty good, with some great work from Stephen Chow. Wong Jing's parodic inversion of the formula, 1993's Boys Are Easy is also pretty special. There will be much more about Chow Yun-fat, Wong Jing and Stephen Chow as  this series rolls along, as Johnnie To's career will be heavily intertwined with theirs for the next five years. But this is pretty much it for Raymond Wong.

Saturday, November 15, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2

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

The latest film from Johnnie To and Milkyway Image snuck onto screens across North America today with little, actually no, fanfare. It's playing as part of a package of Asian films that occasionally grace multiplex screens in some major markets. As far as I could track down, it opened today on single screens in Seattle, New York, Los Angeles, Boston, San Francisco, Toronto and Vancouver, mostly at AMC theatres (it's playing here in Seattle at the Pacific Place), and nowhere does it appear that there was any kind of advance publicity (AMC's website actually uses the poster from the first film to advertise it). My George Sanders Show co-host Mike randomly discovered that it was being released while perusing the imdb at work, and it seemed to catch much of film critic twitter by surprise. Mike and I quickly changed our plans to catch the movie on opening night, we ended up recording this week's podcast in the lobby of the theatre, before and after the movie. You can hear our discussion of it, begun about ten minutes after the credits stopped rolling, as soon as I edit and publish the episode (I'll come back and link to it here), but for now I want to write a bit about the film as well.

Beginning one year after the first film ends, financial analyst Cheng Zixin (Gao Yuanyuan) is still engaged to the winner of that film's love triangle, reformed alcoholic Qihong (Daniel Wu) (recall that for her he quit drinking and built a skyscraper in the shape of her shadow). They communicate only via Skype, however, as Wu is back in Suzhou putting the finishing touches on his/her building. The loser of the earlier battle, wealthy playboy financier Cheung Shen-ren (Louis Koo), is back to his womanizing ways, sleeping with any woman whose breasts are big enough to give him a nose bleed. Zixin gets a new job working for Yang Yang-yang (Miriam Yeung in the film's best performance: she's brilliant) and in the meantime shops for wedding dresses with her brother, Paul (Vic Chou). Yeung and Koo are rivals who quickly begin dating (as the story begins they open new offices in opposing skyscrapers, they flirt through the windows as Koo and Gao did in the first film), while Yeung is also wooed by Chou and Koo secretly is still in love with Gao while also sleeping with other random women. The relationships inevitably entangle in a screwball series of mistaken identities, twists and physical assaults, culminating in a climax that at long last unites The Graduate and Safety Last.

The sequel builds on the first film in several ingenious ways, doubling and inverting just about everything from its predecessor. More romantic than comic, if the first film had a flaw, it was that it was so sweetly, almost innocently joyous in its cuteness. Koo and Wu chase after Gao with increasingly implausible displays of charm and conspicuous consumption, the luxury world the characters inhabit blissfully untouched by the economic catastrophe of 2008 that launches the film's plot (as such, it is a companion piece to To's other film from 2011, Life Without Principle which looks explicitly at the fallout from the collapse from the perspective of a cop, a gangster and a low-level banker). The sequel raises the price tag while further disassociating its characters from reality (only once does Gao take public transportation this time around, and only to prove a point, rejecting both Yeung's Ferrari and Koo's Maserati). Central to the inversion is a trope Yeung's character introduces, that of "reverse thinking". She hires Gao because she's wrong about a prediction, as being consistently wrong is just as valuable as being consistently right, ably demonstrated by an octopus Yueng and Chou steal from a seafood restaurant (doubling the legs of the totemic animal from the first film, Wu's frog). This is a film about people who constantly make bad decisions, who always do the opposite of what they should. The sweetness of the first film gradually gives way to a deep, uncertain melancholy. In one of the film's first crushing reveals we see that Koo still watches the video he took of Gao dancing in the first film, projecting it on a wall every night accompanied by the sickly sweet love ballad she's silently singing, it's the only way he can get to sleep. The past haunts him and destroys him, Koo is aging gracefully as an actor, and his weariness and dawning realization that his playboy life is nothing but pathetic (on the heels of a perfect storm of flight attendants) goes a long way toward humanizing a nearly impossible character. Zoo's the most dramatic case, but the film reveals layers of darkness, self-hatred and lunacy within each of its principals. When the ending comes, it isn't the grand triumph of the first film, with Koo and Wu exchanging smiles and a friendly "thumbs-up", it's a world-shattering smash, the most powerful final shot since Abbas Kiarostami's Like Someone in Love.

Much has been made in early reviews of the film after its premiere at the Toronto Film Festival about its visual "flatness" and the fact that for the first time in quite awhile, cinematographer Cheung Siu-keung is not credited, with To Hung Mo instead taking the reins. This coincides with the film being shot digitally, a first for To, if I'm not mistaken. Well, To Hung Mo is no guy just off the street, having been in the camera department at Milkyway Image since 1998 and serving as co-DP with Cheung on Vengeance, Romancing in Thin Air as well as the first Don't Go Breaking My Heart. For sure the film is not as wildly shot as To's earlier comedies, which tend to use space-distorting lenses and unusual setups. The aesthetic here though is one of surfaces and reflections, necessarily flat images. The windows of the opposing skyscrapers are used much more creatively, expanding their Rear Window stages (increasing the size of the office window panes, the aspect ratio is doubled and tripled) transparent and opaque as needed, even in one glorious shot reflecting each other back in on themselves like an impenetrable hall of mirrors. Similarly flat and digital are the films the characters are always creating of each other with their phones (love objects for Koo and Chou, a necessary form of communication for Gao, both with Wu and her sidekick Lam Suet). The wide angles and swooping cranes of My Left Eyes Sees Ghosts would be wholly inappropriate here, in this world so glossy, so phony, so blindingly manufactured. It's a movie about straight lines: up and down and parallel parking.

Friday, November 07, 2014

Running Out of Karma: My Lucky Star

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

In 2009, Zhang Ziyi starred and produced the ultra-manic-pixie Sophie's Revenge, a romcom in which she plays a cartoonist that nonetheless lacks a tenth of the nuance or emotional maturity of Caroline in the City. It was a big hit.

In 2013, she made a prequel, I guess, in which she reprises her role as Sophie. There's almost no connection to the previous film, the prequel status I guess comes from the fact that she's not yet a successful cartoonist, instead working at a travel agency. Also, instead of strictly a romantic comedy, Sophie finds herself, on vacation in Macao, getting accidentally mixed up in a James Bond film (a la Romancing the Stone, the story she finds herself in is eerily similar to the comics she's been writing, a hint of a deeper level of mental illness to Sophie the film never bothers to explore, instead it just lies there as a flat meta-joke and scene transition device, where the characters transform into drawn versions of themselves, a technique that felt stale 20 years ago in the first Young and Dangerous film). She meets a debonair spy, mangles his operation and gets targeted by the film's villain, who, in the film's weirdest twist, is played by none other than Hou Hsiao-hsien's favorite screen avatar, Jack Kao. The director is Dennie Gordon, a veteran of television and director of the David Spade classic Joe Dirt and the Amanda Bynes epic What a Girl Wants.

The spy story is rote and the comedy is both lame and boring, but the film, like Sophie's Revenge, is weirdly fascinating. Zhang, a brilliant dramatic actress and by all nonsense one of the more beautiful movie stars in the world, seems pathologically intent on goofing up her persona, ratcheting the gawkiness to levels that, in the hands of a more skilled director, almost remind one of Jerry Lewis. But given the inchoate swirl of digital fakery that surrounds her (the first film, though set in Bejing, weirdly had almost no sense of place; this one, spread through the Chinese speaking world in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macao, with a brief coda in Europe, is even less rooted in any kind of recognizable place), the main effect we get is not of a clumsy and awkward girl, but of an actress who really, really wants you to think she's clumsy and awkward.

This kind of flagellation of the beautiful actress is a constant trope in the romantic comedy genre, of course, but Zhang takes it to uncomfortable levels (like everything else in the film, it isn't committed enough to make something truly obscene or transgressive, just kind of gross). She gets a dance sequence, which she of course clumsies up before being rescued at the last minute (by her man, who takes over a drum set and gives her a driving beat, which is, um, a metaphor I guess). To be fair, the dance is both choreographed and shot better than Zhang's dance in Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha, but that's not saying much. Why only Zhang Yimou has been able to capture Zhang's gracefulness as a dancer on film remains a mystery to me.

The man saves her and they continue their mission. The villain, Kao's boss, runs out to be a woman, naturally enough. She's got a black widow tattoo on her neck, and she has four dead husbands. Of course, she's also in love with the hero, and his betrayal of her is what sets the plot in motion (she's heartbroken and so wants to blow up Bermuda -- seriously) and ultimately proves to be her undoing. Sophie tags along and constantly screws up their operations until the climax, when her determination and spunk, well, don't exactly win the day, but lead her to be in the right place at the time when her brainless awkwardness accidentally causes something good to happen while the hero wins the day. Then she goes home, alone, because the man rejects her (he's a spy, just doing his job).

Back in Beijing she uses her new-found confidence to quit the job she's terrible at anyway and gets a dog. And somehow she's in Italy drawing pictures of people on the street. And then her prince comes and rescues her, for some reason, and they live happily ever after. Except they don't I guess because this is a prequel and there's no relation between how this one ends and the Sophie we know from the other film so what the hell.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

This Week in Rankings

I've been to Vancouver and back since the last update. Here's an index of my coverage of VIFF 2014. Since I've been back, I've been watching some Hong Kong movies, naturally enough, with reviews of Blind Detective, A Better Tomorrow III and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (I also reviewed Accident before I left). We've also had three episodes of The George Sanders Show, on Wavelength and Videodrome, on How to Marry a Millionaire and Down with Love and on Gone Girl and The Vanishing.

All of my various lists are up-to-date over on letterboxd, including my Running Out of Karma list, which is now up to 157 films. I've also got short reviews over there for most of the films I don't cover here.

These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

Little Man, What Now? - 5, 1934
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur) - 2, 1942
The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur) - 5, 1943
I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Turner) - 7, 1943
The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise) - 25, 1945

How to Marry a Millionaire (Jean Negulesco) - 25, 1953
Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold) - 27, 1954
Toute la mémoire du monde (Alain Resnais) - 7, 1956
The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis) - 9, 1963
Beyond the Great Wall (Li Han-hsiang) - 21, 1964
Videodrome (David Cronenberg) - 7, 1983

The Vanishing (George Sluizer) - 33, 1988
A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon - 7, 1989
King of Comedy (Stephen Chow & Lee Lik-chi) - 9, 1999
Toutes les nuits (Eugène Green) - 24, 2001
Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov) - 7, 2002
Down with Love (Peyton Reed) - 10, 2003

Love Battlefield (Soi Cheang) - 15, 2004
Fantasia (Wai Ka-fai) - 19, 2004
The Death Curse (Soi Cheang) - 41, 2004
The Shopaholics (Wai Ka-fai) - 14, 2006
Cocktail (Herman Yau & Long Ching) - 31, 2006

High Noon (Heiward Mak) - 43, 2008
Ex (Heiward Mak) - 9, 2011
The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry) - 12, 2011
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui Hark) - 31, 2011
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata) - 3, 2013

Blind Detective (Johnnie To) - 4, 2013
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese) - 10, 2013
Miss and the Doctors (Axelle Ropert) - 33, 2013
So Young (Zhao Wei) - 36, 2013
The Owners (Adilkhan Yerzhanov) - 53, 2013

130919: A Portrait of Marina Abramovic (Matthu Placek) - 61, 2013
Hill of Freedom (Hong Sangsoo) - 2, 2014
The Midnight After (Fruit Chan) - 3, 2014
Jauja (Lisandro Alonso) - 4, 2014
Uncertain Relationships Society (Heiward Mak) - 6, 2014

Horse Money (Pedro Costa) - 7, 2014
National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman) - 8, 2014
Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard) - 10, 2014
Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry) - 11, 2014
Gone Girl (David Fincher) - 12, 2014

La Sapienza (Eugène Green) - 13, 2014
White, Heat, Lights (Takashi Nakajima) - 15, 2014
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) - 18, 2014
Highway (Imtiaz Ali) - 19, 2014
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara) - 20, 2014
The Rehearsal (Carl-Antonyn Dufault) - 21, 2014

Heaven Knows What (Ben & Joshua Sadie) - 23, 2014
Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes) - 24, 2014
The Golden Era (Ann Hui) - 26, 2014
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) - 27, 2014
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh) - 28, 2014

Ow (Yohei Suzuki) - 29, 2014
The Furthest End Awaits (Chaing Hsiu-chiung) - 34, 2014
Everything Will Be (Julia Kwan) - 35, 2014
Magnificent View (Nam Keun-hak) - 37, 2014
Exit (Chenn Hsiang) - 40, 2014
Broken Palace (Ross Munro) - 2014

Wednesday, October 29, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Flying Swords of Dragon Gate

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

Tsui Hark's second variation on Kung Hu's masterpiece, after 1992's New Dragon Gate Inn (nominally directed by Raymond Lee). While that version added Tsui's Blues-movie style sexual complications, gender-ambiguity and a healthy dose of cannibalism while minimizing the fighting, this one ramps up the action and throws the whole thing into a 3D-CGI blender. The result is an uneasy mix of old school wuxia filmmaking with modern technology and Tsui's off-beat sense of character and coolness.

It begins as the other films do, with the evil eunuch leader of the East Bureau, a Gestapo force that's been terrorizing the populace in the name of the Emperor, holding a show trial for some honest officers that had been trying to expose his crimes. But right away, Tsui diverges from the traditional story: a black-clad assassin played by Jet Li bursts in and fights the eunuch (played by none other than Gordon Liu). This intergenerational showdown ends shockingly abruptly, and Tsui unmasks the new villains for his film: the West Bureau, and even eviler Gestapo led by an even more evil bad guy. This guy is the favored consort of the Emperor's most evil concubine, and the chase that will send everyone to the Dragon Gate Inn is a search for a pregnant maid, possibly but probably not carrying the Emperor's child. And also buried treasure.

The usual assortment of heroes and villains in disguise arrive at the inn, and like the other two versions of the story, the first half or so of the film involves everyone figuring out who everyone else is. There's a nod to the cannibalism of the 1992 film (itself an homage to The Black Tavern, a 1972 Shaw Brothers wuxia directed by Teddy Yip Wing-cho), but it isn't a major plot point. Added to the usual cast of estranged lovers are a gang of Tartar warriors, led by a tattooed and dreadlocked woman played by Gwei Lun-mei. Jet Li and his old friend Zhou Xun are the main romantic pairing: she's carried a flute for him (an homage to Brigitte Lin's flute in the 1992 film, perhaps) for many years and the two of them talk wistfully of the jianghu (the underground world of wandering knights that forms the homeland of the wuxia genre) and the sacrifices they've had to make because of it, a plot that leans heavily on memories of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Finally though, the fighting begins. Tsui retains his frenetic approach to action from his analogue collaborations with Ching Siu-tung in the late 80s and early 90s, adding to them modern technology. Tsui's first real commercial breakthrough as a director, after several edgier failures, was with 1983's Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, in which he imported Hollywood technicians to make a fantasy spectacular. He did much the same thing with 2001's phantasmagoric CGI-fueled Zu Warriors remake. With Flying Swords, Tsui made the first 3D wuxia film (there have been several since, I particularly enjoyed Stephen Fung's Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero and Stephen Chow's Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which was only released in 2D here). I haven't been able to see it in that format, or his second 3D film, Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon, so I can't speak to how well he utilized that technology. What I do know is that Flying Swords represents an extreme in Tsui's approach to wuxia action.

In 1995's The Blade, Tsui pushed the dizzying effects of camera movement and editing as far in the direction of bloody darkness as he could, creating a highly disturbing variation on Chang Cheh's The One-Armed Swordsman template, drawing out the blackest aspects of Chang's and Tsui's worldview, an overwhelmingly visceral vision of the jianghu as hell on earth. Flying Swords, on the other hand, couldn't be brighter or less realistic. It is wuxia as cartoonish fantasy, a world of freedom where literally anything is possible. There's hardly a realistic movement in the entire film, hardly a shot that hasn't been modified or manipulated by technology. This jianghu is a world without limits. Where if you want Jet Li to fight a dude while spinning madly hundreds of feet in the air inside a raging tornado, sure, we can do that.

Each generation gets the Dragon Gate Inn it deserves, I guess. King Hu's is a classicist masterpiece, one of the most efficient action films ever made. New Dragon Gate Inn captures the spirit of post New Wave Hong Kong cinema, reframing old genres with an exuberantly cockeyed sense of humor and a cast of gorgeous movie stars. Flying Swords attempts to merge this sensibility with the 21st century vision of action as the destruction of simulated cities, with an inhuman weather event both wiping out the iconic Inn and unveiling an older, more mysterious palace: the wuxia Shangri-La or Kingdom of the Crystal Skull. But we only get a glimpse of it before it too is digitally erased, leaving our actors alone, in the desert. What I'll remember though are not the effects, but the way Gwei lounges in a collapsed frame, at ease yet poised to strike, her eyes alone betraying her excitement at the upcoming action. And Jet Li's sad eyes, the tired face of a man who has spent a lifetime fighting only to see the world grow ever crazier. And Zhou Xun's grim determination to join him on his hopeless quest.

Tuesday, October 21, 2014

Running Out of Karma: A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon

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

I don't know all the behind-the-scenes details about this, I'm not sure that anyone aside from Tsui Hark and John Woo really know for sure, but as I understand it the story is: following the breakout success of the Woo-directed and Tsui-produced 1986 film A Better Tomorrow, the two reunited a year later for a sequel. It was a very contentious shoot, with Woo walking off at some point and Tsui finishing the film. They worked together again on The Killer, but split for good during the early days of the making of A Better Tomorrow III, conceived as a prequel set during the Vietnam War. They both made their own version of the story, with Tsui's official sequel released in 1989 and Woo's coming out the next year as Bullet in the Head.

The first A Better Tomorrow, itself inspired by Lung Kong's 1967 Story of a Discharged Prisoner, tells of the friendship between two mid-level gangsters, Mark and Ho, played by Chow Yun-fat and Ti Lung, respectively, and Ho's policeman younger brother Kit, played by Leslie Cheung. It's a crime saga about the unbearable demands of loyalty and honor among thieves and family bonds both literal and metaphorical. It was wildly successful and vaulted Chow to superstardom. The sequel is a fascinating mess, it seems exactly like the work of two highly individualistic and independent creators who don't agree at all on what kind of film they're trying to make. To solve the problem that Chow's superstar killer Mark dies at the end of the first film, Tsui and Woo invent a heretofore unmentioned twin brother for him and shoehorn him into the plot. With wildly over-the-top comedy, melodrama and violence, it's 80s Hong Kong excess of the highest order.

The third film is a prequel, which proves a much more reasonable and interesting way of getting Chow back into the story. Set in the final months of the Vietnam War, Mark travels to Saigon to help his cousin Mun (played by The Other Tony Leung) convince Mun's father to return with them to Hong Kong before the North wins the war. The father is played by Shek Kin, the villain in many a Kwan Tak-hing Wong Fei-hung serial and also in Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon. This was one of his final films, although he lived to be 96, dying in 2009. As all of Mun's schemes for getting his father out involve criminal activity, he and Mark quickly become involved with a mysterious badass woman, played by Anita Mui, named Kit. At the point we meet him here, Mark is a regular guy, a poor shot and not particularly cool. But he's tough and resourceful and we see him slowly turn into the superhero of the first film, right down to the origin stories of his iconic wardrobe: Alain Delon sunglasses, black duster jacket and matchstick in his mouth (for the first half of the film, he dangles an unlit cigarette from his lips; as he becomes more aggressive it changes to a matchstick: his oral fixation progresses from the thing that is burnt to the thing that starts the fire).

As is inevitable, both men fall for Kit, a situation only complicated by the return of her long-lost boss-gangster boyfriend Ho. (Here is where I point out how weird these character names are: Ho and Kit, recall, being the names of Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung's characters in the first film. It's like this universe contains an infinite number of potential Marks (the spontaneously generating twin of the second film) but a very finite number of character names for those Marks to interact with). Things escalate, trips are made back and forth to Hong Kong, everyone gets shot to hell and it all ends on the last flight out of Saigon.

The differences between Tsui and Woo's versions of the same backstory are striking and varied. Most obviously is the presence of Mui, a strong female character, the smartest and most capable individual in the whole film by far, the likes of which is wholly absent from Woo's work. Compare her to Cherie Chung's marginalized woman in Once a Thief, the part of the heist trio (with Chow Yun-fat and Leslie Cheung) that stays home and does the housework for the boys, or Thandie Newton's Girl Spy in Peril in Mission: Impossible II, a film almost entirely derailed the moment she goes from interesting antihero to passive objective. Chow's Mark was the iconic figure of Hong Kong cinema in the late 80s, an icon so widespread you see its influence still in Jia Zhangke's Still Life 20 years later. But in Tsui's film, the person Mark idolizes, the person who teaches him to be cool is Anita Mui. Between this and the balanced approach Tsui gives to the woman's point of view in many of his romantic films (Working Class, The Lovers, Love in the Time of Twilight, Green Snake, etc) as well as the brilliant job he and Carina Lau do in re-envisioning the notorious Empress Wu in the Detective Dee films, I wonder if Tsui should be getting more credit for progressiveness in his depictions of women, especially relative to such macho directors as Woo, Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Ringo Lam, Wong Kar-wai and others of that generation.

More than that though is the metaphysical difference in the films. Woo's "heroic bloodshed" films are about the codes of honor among men of action, with the tragedy coming from the ultimate incompatibility of those codes with the amorality of modern life in Hong Kong, as epitomized by his gangster villains, laissez-faire nihilists of the Randian variety that flourished in the latter days of Hong Kong's hyper-capitalist colonial life. This is all seen through a prism of Christian, specifically Catholic, iconography as his noble but doomed heroes sacrifice themselves for the sake of innocents. Bullet in the Head has much more in common with Michael Cimino's The Deer Hunter than it does with A Better Tomorrow III, though they're sourced in the same original screenplay. Tsui doesn't go in for grand statements about The State of Things, and sure as hell never puts anything into a religious context, Christian or otherwise. His heroes live in the same chaotic world as Woo's, but their losses aren't sacrifices, they're simply losses. Where Woo elevates everything he shows, with slow motion, melodramatic music and a seemingly endless supply of doves, Tsui drags us down to earth, down to the practical comedy and pragmatic horror of everyday life. The love triangle in Tsui's film isn't spiritual, it's mundane, and the conflict at its heart isn't between honor and dishonor, between heroes who follow a code and those who don't. Everyone in the film has essentially the same amount of honor: they're all crooks, to be sure, but no one's particularly vicious about it: it's not personal and not ideological; strictly business. Even Ho, the ostensible villain of the picture, isn't any worse a guy than Mark, he just happened to have loved Kit first, that's all.

That's not to say that Tsui's films aren't political, they most assuredly are. But what they aren't, at least relative to Woo's, are moralistic. Tsui began his career with a remarkable trio of punk anarchist films that, along with his fellows in the New Wave, turned Hong Kong cinema on its ear. As his career progressed, his films became more conventional, with wacky comedies, effects-driven extravaganzas, traditionalist martial arts films and lush romances. But that early spirit still lingers, in even his most mainstream films. If Woo is always reaching for something transcendent, something ineffable in his tales of sacrifice, Tsui is always knocking us down, urging us to see things as they really are, however absurd or inexplicable. Woo's heroes famously fire dozens of bullets without ever needing to reload, Tsui's are always finding that after a shot or two, their weapons are empty.

Saturday, October 11, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Further Notes on Blind Detective

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

I reviewed this a year ago and it's all still true. It's a terrific film, one of Johnnie To's best recent works. But rewatching it, another couple of things jumped out at me beyond what I mentioned there.

It's more intricately structured that it appeared to me at first, with a series of doublings between Andy Lau's detective Johnston and his suspects. The serial killer in particular is signified as an evil version of Lau: he dresses like his victims, he eats a lot, and he's obsessed with eyes.

Also: Lam Suet is a cab driver just like the serial killer (also the role Lau plays in the imagined recreations).

All of the crimes revolve around not-seeing, or at least hiding in plain sight. One killer hides a body, implicating a victim in his crime, a couple of killers hide in closets, the initial killer hides in the crowd, the hordes of people wandering and shopping the busy streets. The serial killer hides far out of town, and goes untracked for so long because his victims, rejected lonely women, are ignored and unseen by the world at large.

The dancing motif is present right from the first meeting of Lau and Sammi Cheng, their fighting off the acid-thrower being performed as a series of tango steps. I don't know much about the tango, but it seems like a dance where not looking at your partner (or looking at them with a particular kind of intensity) is especially important.

There's also a great touch when Lau finally talks to Gao Yuanyuan, the dance instructor he's had a crush on since before his blindness. They dance and he's much better than her: she keeps stepping on his toes. Because she's caught off-guard by him, or because he's practiced so much that he's surpassed her?

Interesting too that Gao, the center of the love triangle in Don't Go Breaking My Heart is here the love interest that the hero must get over in order to begin a relationship with Sammi Cheng, which is the same role she plays in Romancing in Thin Air.

Both this and Romancing involve the hero creating a narrative to help Sammi get over a trauma. In the first movie, Louis Koo literally makes a film to help her resolve the loss of her husband. In this one, Lau uses the Method acting like approach to detective work to create a narrative that ultimately solves (explains) an event from Cheng's youth that's haunted her for her whole life.

Both Running on Karma and Mad Detective use the same visualization approach to solving crimes. But those films are more spiritual, with karma and (possibly) ghosts aiding the police work. Blind Detective is resolutely materialist, turning the scene in Mad Detective where Lau Ching-wan eats an improbable amount of food into a two-hour movie.

The film is relentlessly monochrome, Andy and Sammi almost always clothed in black or gray, with only a few bursts of color (Gao Yuanyuan's red dress, the rich browns of the serial killer's mountain hovel) breaking the noir color palate. There's a signature To shot: overhead on a black street at night, three streetlights forming white spotlight circles that a young girl (imagined) runs through. This is in contrast to the whites and greens of Romancing and the popping blues and reds of Don't Go's screwball fantasy world. Typically To's comedies are very colorful while his dramas are more stark. Here he takes the slightly distorting wide-angle lenses of his comedies and puts them to use in the sombre world of crime, mixing his tones visually as much as the script does in narrative.

I just read the five reviews of Blind Detective linked to on its wikipedia page and they are uniformly bad. Not just in their view of the film, but in their writing and analysis. The laziest possible critical ways out. (Broad acting! Tonally inconsistent! Looks great! Silly and therefore a step back from his serious films like Drug War or Election!) That wouldn't be a big deal, there's no shortage of awful film criticism in the world, except that I'm pretty sure that the reason this didn't get a release in the US of any kind is because of these reviews in influential publications (the Hollywood Reporter, Screen Daily, Film Business Asia (which gave it a 2(!) out of 10)). At least Justin Chang's review in Variety does the film justice. Of course, it's not on the wikipedia page. This is an under-publicized problem with our system of art house and foreign film distribution: quite often the critics with the biggest or most influential platforms are, through ignorance or overwork or any of the random mood-altering events that can color your initial impression of a film, terrible at determining which films we should be allowed to see.