Thursday, December 13, 2012
Jeffrey Lau's 1994 film The Eagle Shooting Heroes stands out among the weird and wacky world of Hong Kong comedies as possibly the weirdest and wackiest, at least in my fairly small sampling. A parody of the same source material that formed the basis for Wong Kar-wai's Ashes of Time, and featuring most of the same cast (it was shot either concurrently or just after that film, in an attempt to recoup some of the epic's cost overruns), it sticks mainly in my memory as the film in which the great Tony Leung spends much of his screen-time impersonating a duck. Lau also directed the two-part Stephen Chow epic A Chinese Odyssey, which is weird even for Stephen Chow.
So it was with much excitement that I rushed from the screening of People's Park to see East Meets West, which may or may not be a sequel to The Eagle Shooting Heroes (I didn't think it was at all, but a comment at imdb says so, and they're usually right, right?). I was not disappointed.
It starts with a lightning fast 30 minutes or so, when a whole bunch of characters are introduced, and back stories given, while jokes fly by faster than edits. One character, played by Karen Mok, finds her father, a former major pop star played by former major pop star Kenny Bee working in a haunted house: "being a zombie is a perfectly respectable profession!" They set off to find her hated step-mother ("It's God's will that I go to Guangzhou to chop the bitch!") who has gotten them into trouble over some debts. They hook up with a rich girl musician, her bodyguard, a single dad and his son and a wannabe actor/cab driver as they flee from hordes of homeless musicians ("Don't drive so Donnie Yen!") and reunite Bee's band ("The Wynners") to hold a fund-raising concert.
I saw Kenny Bee for the first time earlier this year in one of Hou Hsiao-hsien's first movies, the mediocre romantic comedy Play While You Play (aka Cheerful Wind), so it was a treat seeing him here, 30 years later. He's not as charismatic or funny as Teddy Robin, another 70s pop-star was in his hopefully career-reviving performances in 2010's Gallants, Merry-Go-Round and Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, but he's a lot better here than he was in that Hou movie.
Anyway, it turns out these people are all reincarnations of a group of gods that have been fighting a multi-millennia struggle against the eighth of their group, who became twisted and evil and defeats them in every lifetime. Lau has a lot of fun with the superheroes in the modern world conceit (their makeshift costumes are terrific: a bicycle hemet, a face covered with flour, single-lensed sunglasses, etc), a pleasant contrast with the bleak and miserable worlds of Hollywood films like Kick-Ass or Christopher Nolan's Batman movies. And while the special effects are merely OK compared to the state-of-the-art, giving the films a kind of plastic, phony sheen found also in recent films from Tsui Hark, Lau manages to create some nice, memorable images (though he doesn't quite have Tsui's skill as a visual filmmaker). The film loses some narrative steam towards the end, but it never stops being fun and clever. Even when Lau goes for sap, it goes for the biggest, gooiest, cheesiest love-conquers-all-even-a-heart-ten-sizes-too-small sap it can muster.
A few thoughts I jotted down while watching People's Park, a single-take documentary set in a park in the city of Chengdu, Sichuan by directors JP Sniadecki and Libbie Cohn:
- So this is a lot like Russian Ark, the single-take trip through the Hermitage directed by Alexander Sokurov, except that film was fictional and moved freely through time as it compressed and stretched hundreds of years of history into its one shot, whereas this film is a real-rime documentary, and therefore rooted in the present. A present which is now past, but that's beside the point.
- There's no subtitles and no story. Nothing appears to have been staged for the camera. But we're narrative-creating beings and not even the simple act of people-watching can stop us from making up little stories about the faces we see. That kid is sad, that man is hungry, those people are in love, those people can barely stand to talk to each other, etc.
- As the camera tracks along a bend in a small stream, the next film that comes to mind is Renoir's A Day in the Country. And also People on Sunday. Great films from the thirties about middle class Europeans hanging out in a public park on a sunny afternoon.
- Also the city symphony genre (À propos de Nice, Man with a Movie Camera). Why did they stop making those?
- These middle class Chinese folk are no different. In fact, they seem thoroughly Westernized. One guy flashes a peace sign at the camera. Almost everyone wears Western clothes. I see: jeans, T-shirts, slacks, print dresses, polo shirts, cargo shorts, sneakers, capri pants, cowboy hats. I wonder if these clothes have been adopted because they're 'evolutionarily' better than traditional Eastern clothing, or is it cultural, Hollywood, imperialism, like the way Clark Gable killed the undershirt industry with It Happened One Night, or James Dean caused a boom in blue jeans?
- Is there a specific term for fashion historians? What are their internal disputes like? Are there competing models of fashion history? Are there leftist factions that rail against the imperialist machine? Do they advocate a revolutionary fashion as a consciousness-raising measure? Do they assert that you can't fight the fashion hegemony while wearing the clothing style of the elites?
- That said, there is one big difference between their clothes and what you'd see in any given US city park: an almost total lack of logos, either corporate or team sports-related. In general there are just a lot fewer shirts with writing on them.
- There's so much music in this park. A band decked out in orange and white polo shirts leading a sing-along. People dancing in a square, not quite in time to the music coming from a loudspeaker. A long arcade is home to a band playing traditional Chinese instruments, as well as a group of people doing karaoke.
- The sounds in the arcade clash, reverberating against its columns creating an atonal distortion much like that Charles Ives recreated in Central Park in the Dark, which captures the sonic experience of walking through the park as sounds fade in and out, inspired by his father's habit of sending two marching bands in opposite directions around a square, smashing their sounds together and breaking them apart.
- After cruising through the cacophonous arcade, suddenly we break back outside where we see: couples dancing a waltz. A breath of classical air after the oppressively fuzzy modernity.
- Near yet another band playing, there's a man doing calligraphy in water on the stone walkway. Nearby is a kebab stand selling hot dogs on sticks. Meats on sticks is a universal human value.
- In the end we're back where we started: a group of people dancing to pop music (Michael Jackson is a universal human value) in a large plaza. These dancers are more professional than the out-of-time folks that started the film though. They seem like a descendant of Jia Zhangke's breakdancing troupe from Platform. Except for the old man who dances with a chicken. I have no idea where that comes from.