Saturday, June 01, 2013

Summer of Sammo: Encounters of the Spooky Kind

Sammo Hung plays a regular guy whose reputation as the boldest man in town makes him susceptible to all kinds of dares, leading him to an escalating series of encounters with the dead in this smash hit, one of the first major films to combine kung fu, horror and comedy. A Mr. Tam, a leading citizen of the town, is sleeping with Sammo's wife and decides to get rid of him to cover his tracks. So he hires a renegade Taoist priest who has the ability to control the dead to kill him (by daring Sammo to spend the night in a temple holding a coffin). A fellow priest hears about this violation of Taoist beliefs and helps Sammo out, giving him instructions to counteract the killer corpses.

The first night, Sammo tries to hide from the corpse, which hops around like a bunny, unable to bend at the knees or elbows, it's arms held out straight like a parody of Frankenstein's monster. The second night, Sammo tries to keep the corpse in its coffin by throwing eggs at it when it tries to pop out. But he's double crossed (some of the eggs are duck instead of chicken) and has to fight the corpse. This is the first real kung fu fight in the movie and it's hilarious: the corpse's stiffness making it look like a breakdancing robot. The third corpse Sammo confronts is accidental: after spending the night sleeping next to it (Sammo's on the run from the cops after being framed for murder), it begins to mirror his movements. The result is a variation on the classic Marx Brothers gag, seen in Duck Soup, with Sammo trying to trick the corpse into beating itself up ("this corpse is too smart for me," says Sammo.)

The second half of the film finds the priests taking a more direct role, employing a Taoist version of voodoo to take control of unsuspecting humans (this kind of 'Spiritual Boxing' was the subject of a 1975 Lau Kar-leung film). A teahouse showdown begins with Sammo losing control of his right hand, a sequence that surely inspired Sam Raimi's Evil Dead. What follows is a spectacular kung fu fight, with Sammo showing off his otherworldy agility and speed taking on four swordsman armed only with a wooden bench, like an extended, souped up version of the fight from the end of Warriors Two. The fight ends with a Chaplinesque touch: Sammo defeats the swordsmen, twirls the bench around and places it on the ground. He crosses his arms with a satisfied grin and sits proudly on the bench, which immediately collapses, sending Sammo sprawling to the floor. These kind of silent comedy-inspired beats at the end of fights would become a Jackie Chan signature.

The film ends up in a rather disturbing place, evincing Hung's penchant for mixing moods (as in Eastern Condors). The two priests meet for a final showdown, preparing their respective altars ("when two sides are evenly matched, whoever has the higher altar wins" is the film's most important life lesson, as the priests position their altars on 30' platforms) and raising spirits to possess various proxy fighters. Sammo, inhabited for a time by the monkey god, has his showdown with Tam. The good priest incinerates the bad one (in a spectacular, and what looks to have been highly dangerous, fire stunt). As the good priest falls, exhausted and injured from his altar, Sammo rushes to catch him. . . and just misses, an unexpected and darkly funny comic twist and the perfect place to end the movie. But then Sammo's wife rushes out, pretending to have been a victim of Tam, kidnapped by him and held against her will. But instead of a goofy happy ending, with cuckold and wife reconciled, or even a darkly comic one with Sammo telling her off and sending her away, what we get is truly scary. Sammo grabs her, beats her repeatedly and throws her in the air. The final shot is a freeze frame of her flying, the shouted word "Bitch!" lingering in the air. It's not funny at all but creepy and more than a little misogynistic. Sure, she cheated on him, but the punishment seems far in excess of her crime. Like the ending of Jackie Chan's Police Story, where the nice guy cop, finally pushed to far, beats the crap out of an unarmed, surrendering criminal, the movie exposes a real aggression, a violent core to these martial artists. There is a darkness in Sammo Hung.

Friday, May 31, 2013

This Week in Rankings

This week I went to see my first-ever movie at the Seattle International Film Festival after 15 years living in the Seattle area. Johnnie To's Drug War was as good as I'd hoped it would be, I'm hoping to write about it at some point in the near future. The SIFF experience was pretty mediocre. The last time I looked at their website, the Drug War page spelled To's name three different ways ("Johnnie", "Johnny" and "Jonny") and for some reason there were over 15 minutes of trailers before the movie. Trailers are fun and all, but if you were trying to keep to a tight festival schedule they'd be extremely annoying. On the other hand, the SIFF venues are so spread out it'd be pretty hard to move quickly from one location to another anyway. Here's hoping Vancouver works out a deal with a centrally-located multiplex this year after the Granville 7 closed.

Inspired by how much I enjoyed his Eastern Condors last week, I've started a new series of Sammo Hung movies I'm calling Summer of Sammo. Along with that, I'm watching some Tsui Hark films. So far I've managed to review Zu Warriors, Warriors Two and The Butterfly Murders.

Noah Baumbach's Frances Ha added another theatre this week, playing at the former Metro Cinemas. That's easily my pick as the film to see in the Seattle area this week and I'm hoping to make it out there.

These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last week, along with where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to my comments at letterboxd. And with Drug War's move into my Top 5, I've updated my letterboxd Best of 2012 list as well.

The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester) - 10, 1973
The Four Musketeers (Richard Lester) - 16, 1974
Warriors Two (Sammo Hung) - 8, 1978

The Butterfly Murders (Tsui Hark) - 11, 1979
Wheels on Meals (Sammo Hung) - 5, 1984
Iron Monkey (Yuen Woo-ping) - 11, 1993

Cruel Intentions (Roger Kumble) - 45, 1999
Zu Warriors (Tsui Hark) - 22, 2001
Drug War (Johnnie To) - 5, 2012

Summer of Sammo Bonus: On Tsui Hark's The Butterfly Murders

Tsui Hark's audacious debut film is a horror mystery about killer butterflies that has more in common with Roger Corman or Dario Argento than the Shaw Brothers. It begins with a lengthy narration, describing how the world came to an end in two battles where most of the martial arts masters were killed (100,000 people died at the foot of Wu Tang Mountain). Now, 60 years later (a 36 year quiet period, followed by 24 years of the New Era, the numbers mean. . . something) the world is divided into 72 clans at war, jockeying for position amongst each other as kung fu magic begins to reappear on the outskirts of society. The narrator is a famous scribe named Fong, and he'll tell us the story of how he briefly became a part of a story about this wuxia world.

Various people are brought and/or lured to a recently abandoned castle belonging to a Mr. and Mrs. Shum. There's Fong himself, the leader of the Tien clan along with several of his soldiers (they're all numbered: the leader is No. 1 and the groups with him are a white unit led by No. 3 and a red one led by No. 10, a woman), and the female adventurer Green Shadow, who dresses and swings through trees like Robin Hood. They find the Shums, along with their deaf mute servant Chee, in the castle's catacombs, apparently hiding out from a deadly butterfly attack that killed all the other residents. What follows is a kind of haunted house movie, with hidden passageways, mysterious rooms and doppelgangers to be found. The mystery is compounded when Shum is killed (by the butterflies) and a letter is sent to three martial artists, who arrive and begin fighting each other and everyone else, apparently in search of some even deeper secret.

Tsui's visual approach is highly unusual for a kung fu film of the 1970s. Eschewing the long-shot, longer take style of most Shaw Brothers productions, Tsui instead rapidly cuts between closer shots, especially in the beginning of the film, filled with nature shots of butterflies in the wild. The inevitable fight scenes are spatially coherent, though, and the editing is not all that quick by the standards of modern Hollywood. At times the montage evokes the impressionistic editing Nicolas Roeg used in the late 60s and early 70s. Tsui’s modernism extends to his compositions as well. One scene shows No. 1 and Green Shadow talking one behind the other, her facing to the side while he faces the camera, focus shifting between them as each character talks rather than cutting between them (an instance of Tsui choosing mise-en-scene over montage). A shot like this wouldn't be out of place in a Bergman or Antonioni film, but I've never seen anything like it in a Hong Kong from this era. Tsui often has Green Shadow popping out of unexpected places in the frame. In her early conversations with No. 1, he never seems to know where she is, and neither do we. Right from the beginning, Tsui primes us to expect the unexpected. And as with any great horror movie, archetypically scary images abound: butterflies gathering in the branches above grave robbers like Hitchcock's ravens, a man seeing the silhouettes of hundreds of butterflies through the paper walls of his room, a villain clad head to toe in black armor, impregnable and killing everyone in his path.

With about 15 minutes left in the film, Fong has solved the mystery and explains it to the audience. It won't spoil anything to say that he's pleased the Art of Controlling Butterflies has come back into the world. After the apocalypse, Fong gets to see the return of magic and is tickled at the role he gets to play in describing it in words. At that point, Fong leaves the castle: the whodunnit and why is solved and he isn't particularly interested in how the final battle will play out. We see the implosive four-way showdown, but since Fong is our narrator, we can't be sure if what we're seeing is 'real', or if it's Fong's imagining of what happened after he left. Either way, it’s a negating conclusion: both sides destroy each other, the ground collapsing and swallowing them whole. Whether it’s the death of the interregnum, to be replaced by the old magical order, or that old order being defeated by its own contradictions before it can be fully reborn we can’t know. The final image we're left with is of Fong walking alone in a desert landscape, discovering himself among a battlefield of corpses. He catches a butterfly in his hand and lets it fly away.

Thursday, May 30, 2013

Summer of Sammo: Warriors Two

One of Sammo Hung's first films as a director, this period kung fu film is very much in the Shaw Brothers mold. It most resembles Lau Kar-leung's masterpiece The 36th Chamber of Shaolin also released in 1978, both in its plot and its middle section, an extended series of training sequences that utilize a variety of ingenious devices to help train the hero (see also: The Karate Kid). But Hung, with his character as the hero’s pudgy sidekick, a bullied dumpling vendor and kung fu-trainee, leavens his film with slapstick and goofy wordplay, whereas Lau's film is for the most part straight-faced, though certainly not as serious as the darkly violent epics of Chang Cheh (such as Crippled Avengers, the third great kung fu film of 1978). Lau’s later films would follow in the footsteps of Hung and Jackie Chan (and Yuen Woo-ping, whose first two collaborations with Chan, the smash hit comic action films Snake in Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, were also released in 1978) by mixing in low comedy with the spectacular stunts performed by his adopted brother Gordon Liu and never again, at least from what I’ve seen, reaching the spiritual heights of 36th Chamber (though the finale of Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter comes close).

In Warriors Two (it’s not a sequel, the title refers to there being two warriors in the story, like in Lo Wei’s 1970 film Brothers Five), Hung references the central philosophical conflict of 36th Chamber, that the hero is learning kung fu in order to exact revenge on the local gangster/tyrant, but the religious foundation of the martial art preaches disengagement and thus renunciation of vengeance, by having the master (Bryan Leung as Mr. Tsan) refuse to take on the hero (Casanova Wong as Cashier Hua) as a student because his motives are vengeful (“One party must stop seeking revenge or it will be an eye for an eye forever.” he says). The manager of the bank Hua was a cashier at turns out to be a gangster seeking to take over the town and when Hua discovers his scheme, the manager has Hua’s mother killed. Tsan, a respected doctor and renowned martial artist, doesn’t want to get involved, but when one of his students (Sammo Hung) pretends to take Hua on as his student, leading him in a series of hilariously bad exercises, Tsan agrees for the sake of the dignity of his martial art. The issue of the morality of vengeance is never again addressed. Indeed, the film climaxes in just such a nihilistic vengeance quest, though it ultimately ends with a physical comedy gag.

The fight sequences are exceptional, filmed in the Shaw-standard long-shot style, with a special emphasis on displaying the various positions and movements of the Wing Chun style of kung fu in close shots of hands, arms and feet edited together to maximize clarity and continuity of motion. Wing Chun was made world famous by Bruce Lee and is the subject of many movies, including Wong Kar-wai's upcoming The Grandmaster which is yet another telling of the story of Lee's teacher, the Wing Chun master Yip Man. Mr. Tsan (aka Leung Jan) is a real 19th century historical figure, and the film begins with a narration chronicling the history of Wing Chun, as it descended from master to student over hundreds of years (Yip Man was a student of one of Mr. Tsan's students). The attention to detail and focus on hands and arms recalls the technique-display sequences in Robert Bresson's Pickpocket. As Cashier Hua, Casanova Wong is a bit of a blank, though he acquits himself well in the fight scenes. Sammo Hung is the true star presence in the movie. He plays the buffoon well and in the final battle sequences, he shows off a remarkable range of skills, peaking with a shocking display of speed and leaping acrobatics as he defeats a pair of evil swordsman. The final battle is somewhat deflated by Hung’s comic duel with the evil bank manager’s sniveling pipe cleaner of a henchman played by Dean Shek, which isn’t all that funny and is anticlimactic coming right after the sword battle. But the final showdown, as Hung and Wong join forces to defeat the bank manager (who is now revealed as an expert in Mantis Style kung fu, seen in yet another 1978 film, Lau Kar-leung’s Shaolin Mantis) is suitably intense. One final note: nearly stealing the show in an early sequence, doing a Monkey Style kung fu in defense of the town’s mayor, is Lau Kar-wing, brother of Lau Kar-leung, business partner of Sammo Hung and an accomplished director and choreographer in his own right (Five Fingers of Death, Once Upon a Time in China). Lau Kar-leung himself played a master of Monkey Style a year later in Mad Monkey Kung Fu, which I reviewed last december as part of A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas.

Wednesday, May 29, 2013

Summer of Sammo: Zu Warriors

Last night I was flipping around hulu and found two movies with similar titles. One is labeled Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, which is the title of Tsui Hark's 1983 fantasy epic, and the other is called Zu Warriors: the Legend of Zu which is Tsui's 2001 film based on the same source material. The earlier film is a classic, a hallmark in melding high-tech special effects into the Hong Kong kung fu genre, helping spawn a subgenre of martial arts fantasies and also inspiring John Carpenter's Big Trouble in Little China. Zu was one of the first kung fu movies I'd ever seen, in either late 1998 or early '99, at one of the last Hong Kong double features in Seattle.

I moved to the city just at the tail end of Hong Kong cinema's trendiness: throughout the 90s, the Varsity Theatre (where I later worked) would play weekly double bills of Jet Li, John Woo, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark and so on. But with the exodus of talent off the island in the wake of the handover to China (all of the above went to Hollywood, at least for awhile), the deterioration of existing prints and the rise in the cost of running repertory, as well as the inevitable change in what counted as fashionable cult cinema, the films disappeared from Seattle screens. Less than ten years later, when we were trying to book Jackie Chan's Police Story for a little rep series we were running at the Metro, we were told that no one even knew who had the theatrical rights to those movies anymore. Any Chan, Li, or Shaw Brothers movie we could think of was met with shrugged shoulders and a blank stare by Landmark's film booking department. We ended up playing Bruce Lee's Enter the Dragon simply because it was owned outright by an American company (Warner Brothers). Anyway, I was excited to revisit Zu after 15 years, after becoming more fluent in Hong Kong and kung fu cinema in the interim and looking to spend this summer exploring the work of Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung in more depth. So seeing it was on hulu, and in a subtitled version no less, was very exciting.

But alas, both films on hulu are the 2001 movie. The one with the title of the '83 film is the one I watched, it's the longer, original cut of the 2001 film, running an hour and forty-five minutes. The other version is the Miramax US cut, which removes 20 minutes of exposition and character building, clocking in at less than 90 minutes. I watched the longer version (of course) and it was confusing enough. I can't imagine the shorter version being the least bit comprehensible. Both versions are subtitled, but the character names don't match the ones from either imdb or wikipedia, so I guess only a Chinese-speaker knows how many other ways Miramax fucked up this movie. (See my review of Yuen Woo-ping's Iron Monkey for another rant about Miramax and the subtitling of Hong Kong movies).

Anyway, the 2001 film, which I'm going to call Zu Warriors, is a CGI-driven fantasy epic, with a smattering of kung fu, lots of alien-to-Americans mythology and folklore and a more or less Buddhist allegory. The all-star cast includes Louis Koo, Zhang Ziyi, Sammo Hung, Cecilia Cheung and Ekin Cheng, but the real star is Tsui and his rapid-cutting, no time to breathe approach to story-telling. On top of some floating mountains, a bunch of immortals gather together to defeat Mordo (or Insomnia, or the Blood Demon), the embodiment and source of all evil (greed and jealousy), before he eats them all and infects the Earth below. Characters fly around, shoot spiritual energy out of their hands, get possessed, destroyed, reincarnated, enlightened and destroyed again. An endless cycle of creation and destruction where the only hope is unity: of the various mountain clans; of lightning and thunder; of human and immortal; of male and female; of mind, body and spirit.

The CGI effects have a fun comic book-quality, bright bursts of red and green and orange and blue stabbing across purple and yellow skies, at times recalling Harryhausen (an attack by an army of Mordo's self-replicatiing minions brings to mind the skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts) or Brakhage (the abstract color explosions of the film's final battle). They are decidedly not realistic, nor are they state-of-the-art, even for 2001, but surely those aren't the only standards by which we can measure visual effects.

Both of the most recent Tsui films that I've seen, the kung fu whodunnit Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, his second remake of the 1967 King Hu film Dragon Gate Inn, which remains after 45 years one of great masterpieces of action cinema from anywhere in the world, feature extensive use of CGI, though both are significantly more grounded in reality than Zu Warriors. The use of computers reopens an on-going tension in action cinema between effects and realism. Where does the pleasure in such films come from: the photographic record of remarkable physical displays by immensely skilled human beings, as in the work of the famously unaided Jackie Chan or from cinema's ability to capture the impossible, whether through judicious use of wires, trampolines and under-cranked cameras (as in the work of Jet Li), or digital effects that have no basis in physical reality whatsoever? Cinema can be a mirror or an illusion, but is one 'better' than the other?