Friday, May 24, 2013

This Week in Rankings

The big movie to see in the Seattle area this week is Johnnie To's Drug War, playing at the Egyptian on Monday as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. It's no longer To's latest film, since his Blind Detective appeared to rave reviews at Cannes a few days ago, but it's one of the few films with a 2012 date I'm still highly anticipating (along with Alain Resnais's You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet, which I don't think has a local release planned yet; the documentary Leviathan, which I missed the two times it played here; and Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha, which is opening today at one theatre in Seattle and one in Bellevue). Playing at the Grand in Tacoma this week is Christian Petzold's Barbara, about which I've heard nothing but good things and which I might make it out to see. Also, there's Star Trek.

I made some new director lists over at Letterboxd this week for Richard Linklater, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard, and also one for James Stewart on his birthday. Here at The End, I reviewed a couple of Rouben Mamoulian's early talkies, Applause and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Sammo Hung's Vietnam epic Eastern Condors.

Here are the movies I watched and rewatched over the past week, along with where they place on my year-by-year rankings, with links to my comments at Letterboxd.

The Crowd (King Vidor) - 8, 1928
Applause (Rouben Mamoulian) - 2, 1929
Lucky Star (Frank Borzage) - 6, 1929
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian) - 9, 1931

Northwest Passage (King Vidor) - 15, 1940
Le pont du Nord (Jacques Rivette) - 6, 1981
Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung) - 12, 1987
Shanghai Triad (Zhang Yimou) - 25, 1995

Summer of Sammo: Eastern Condors

It occurs to me that I'd never actually seen Sammo Hung in a starring role before. I'd seen him as a supporting actor and bit player, and as a director and fight choreographer, but never as the lead. At least not since his late-90s TV series with Arsenio Hall, Martial Law (believe me kids, this was a thing that happened). His reputation is that of a surprisingly agile fat man who helped revolutionize Hong Kong cinema in the late 70s/early 80s by blending comedy and special effects with kung fu (see also: Tsui Hark and Jackie Chan). Eastern Condors seems to therefore be atypical for Hung, as it’s a mostly realistic war movie with occasional comic relief, it appears to be going for a tonal mix along the lines of contemporary American films like 48 Hrs or Lethal Weapon, with the comedy being more physical than character-based.

Blending elements of The Dirty Dozen and Rambo, a group of ethnic Chinese convicts are sent by the US Army to blow up an arsenal they'd recently left behind (the film is set in 1976). On their way, they meet up with three women (Cambodian guerillas still fighting the Vietnamese), a fast-talking con man with a surprising knowledge of martial arts, and a lost Chinese officer. The cast very much feels like a family: Hung plays one of the lead convicts; his lifelong pal Yuen Biao plays the con man; his future wife Joyce Godenzi plays the guerilla leader (her first appearance in an action film and she very nearly steals the movie); Yuen Wah as the film's final villain, a giggling Vietnamese general; and several Hong Kong directors in smaller roles, including Wu Ma, Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen. These Yuens are not related by the way: Biao, Corey and Wah adopted it as a stage name during their time at the China Drama Academy, the Peking Opera school where they were students with Hung and Jackie Chan, while Woo-ping is the son of Yuen Siu-tien, a longtime actor and stuntman who he directed in Chan's smash hit Drunken Master. The strangest casting of all is Dr. Haing S. Ngor, the real-life Khmer Rouge refugee who won an Oscar for playing real-life Khmer Rouge refugee Dith Pran in Roland Joffe’s 1984 film The Killing Fields.

Ngor plays the officer lost behind enemy lines for years and apparently now insane. The film's most complex set of allusions focuses on him, in a sequence set in a prison camp. As in The Deer Hunter, the soldiers are in partially submerged cages and selected at random to participate in a game of Russian Roulette. Unlike in that film, it isn't the prisoners pulling the trigger, but Vietnamese children dressed as soldiers and playing with real weapons. When Ngor is selected, a gun is held to his head in close-up in a shot that recalls not only The Killing Fields but the famous photograph of a Vietnamese man being shot in a street, recreated as well in John Woo's Vietnam epic Bullet in the Head. It's a profoundly disturbing sequence with reality (Ngor's real life experience and the photograph) blending with fantasy (The Deer Hunter's made-up torture made more disturbing by the participation of children) far more densely than one would expect from a film that most of the time plays as a slapstick comedy.

Hung himself doesn't say much. Most of the wackiness is provided by Yuen Biao or more the more comic of the soldiers (Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen in particular have a funny and touching final scene together, attempting to hold a bridge against the Vietnamese Army while they slowly die of their wounds). Sammo is mostly the silent hero, kicking ass and making ridiculous stunt leaps and killing people with cocoanut leaves. He lost 30 pounds for the role, so he's more stocky than fat, but the contrast with Yuen Wah in the final battle is there: short and round versus tall and skinny, both actors remarkably fast. Hung's speed is what is most remarkable. Many of the early action sequences utilize slow motion to emphasize the purity of the actor's movements. But the final battle, a showdown between the convicts and the Army, almost exclusively is shot at normal speed, helping to ramp up the excitement. On one viewing, I can't say how much Hung's quickness is the result of under-cranking the camera or just his own ability, but either way, it's impressive to see.

Definitely a subject for further research.

Wednesday, May 22, 2013

On Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Somewhat surprisingly, director Rouben Mamoulian uses less Expressionism in this horror film than he did in the backstage musical Applause two years earlier, and he did so in the same year that Hollywood's co-optation of German Expressionism became complete with Universal's Frankenstein and Dracula.

That's not to say that this film is any less experimental than its predecessor. Instead of shadows, Mamoulian builds his horror out of close ups and POV shots, mostly of Frederic March as the eponymous Victorian monster and his hirsute dark side. The film begins locked in Jekyll's POV, a lengthy and slightly irised roving shot that firmly establishes both the obsessive tunnel vision that will destroy Jekyll and our complicity with him. We don't see March himself until he looks in a mirror, and his reflected appearances will become a recurring motif, culminating in his arrival in the background behind Miriam Hopkins's doomed showgirl, slinking out of the back of her head, a nightmare made tangible.

A repeated pattern of close-ups is even more disturbing. Mamoulian will begin a scene, say March and his virtuous fiancee Rose Hobart talking about how much they love each other, in a balanced two shot, both actors perpendicular to the camera. He then begins a shot/reverse shot exchange, but instead of the typical over-the-shoulder angle shots, the characters are framed dead-center, looking straight into the camera, like in Ozu, but closer, so that only their head is visible (Ozu frames them with neck and shoulders too). He then moves even closer, to extreme close-ups of the actors' eyes. The dialogue (their engagement is being delayed by her father, a proper gentleman) provides the context: the two are very much in lust and, bound by society, cannot express it in any way more physical than burning hot eyeballs.

The critique of Victorian sexual repression is very much on display in this pre-Code film, much more than in the earlier adaptation with John Barrymore or the later one with Spencer Tracy. Hopkins is present first as a physical object, stripping in her first scene with Jekyll, tantalizing both him and the audience with ample displays of flesh. Upon transforming into Hyde, the first thing he does is track her down and entrap her, for months it seems, in a kind of sexual slavery. The repressed male id, once free, expresses itself with not only violence and rape but the need to subjugate, to control, to repress the sexually attractive woman. Jekyll's need to repress his sexual desire is transmuted into Hyde's need to oppress the object of that desire. Thus Jekyll creates Hyde: both are monsters. And thus the men of the British Empire, with their relentless need to control not only the far corners of the world but the depths of their own psyche are exposed: nasty, crude, brutish and above all lustful.