Saturday, July 20, 2013

The George Sanders Show: Episode Four - Duel of Fists and Tears of the Black Tiger

This week Mike and I journey to Thailand and discuss Chang Cheh's 1971 Shaw Brothers boxing film Duel of Fists (aka Fist Attack) and Wisit Sasanatieng's award-winning genre mashup Tears of the Black Tiger, from 2000. We also talk about the best movies of the year so far, our Essential Kung Fu Movies and the work of director Apichatpong Weerasethakul. Hear me tirelessly rail against the evils of Miramax, Netflix and disrespect for Asian genre cinema in general as Mike vainly tries to make me stick to the subject at hand.

You can subscribe to the show in iTunes, or download it directly from our website.

Next week we return from abroad to San Francisco, the setting for Woody Allen's latest, Blue Jasmine. We'll be watching a pair of Bay Area-based films, Otto Preminger's Whirlpool, with The End of Cinema's official PGOAT Gene Tierney and Phil Alden Robinson's all-star caper/heist film Sneakers.

Thursday, July 18, 2013

This Week in Rankings

Since the last rankings update, I wrote five more entries in my Summer of Sammo series on Hong Kong genre cinema, about King Hu's genre-defing Come Drink With Me and Dragon Gate Inn, Lau Kar-leung's debut The Spiritual Boxer, Chang Cheh's iconic The One-Armed Swordsman and Chor Yuen's opulent Heroes Shed No Tears. And Episode Three of The George Sanders Show covered Stanley Donen's Charade its remake, The Truth About Charlie, directed by Jonathan Demme. But the big hit post of the week is apparently this thing I wrote about best of the year lists.

These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last week or so, along with where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to my short letterboxd reviews, where applicable.

The Idle Class (Charles Chaplin) - 9, 1921
Dial M For Murder (Alfred Hitchcock) - 19, 1954
The Man Who Knew Too Much (Alfred Hitchcock) - 12, 1956
Come Drink With Me (King Hu) - 9, 1966
Dragon Gate Inn (King Hu) - 2, 1967

The One-Armed Swordsman (Chang Cheh) - 7, 1967
Golden Swallow (Chang Cheh) - 7, 1968
A Touch of Zen (King Hu) - 1, 1971
Heroes Two (Chang Cheh) - 18, 1974
The Spiritual Boxer (Lau Kar-leung) - 11, 1975

The Magic Blade (Chor Yuen) - 14, 1976
Heroes Shed No Tears (Chor Yuen) - 16, 1980
Wheels on Meals (Sammo Hung) - 2, 1984
Mr. Vampire (Ricky Lau) - 18, 1985
The Truth About Charlie (Jonathan Demme) - 29, 2002
Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon) - 14, 2012

Wednesday, July 17, 2013

Summer of Sammo: Dragon Gate Inn

I've declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I've been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here's an index.

I keep saying The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is the Stagecoach of martial arts movies, but that's wrong, this is. Or rather, they both are, but they represent two perfect forms of distinct subgenres of the martial arts film. 36th Chamber is the kung fu training film, where the hero must be humbled, learn new skills and then apply them to achieve his revenge and the betterment of society. Dragon Gate Inn is a swordplay film, one with fantasy elements (though these are more subdued than in the wilder flights the subgenre would explore as it ran its course, for example in Chor Yuen’s Heroes Shed No Tears or Tsui Hark’s Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain), one that aims more for mythology than philosophy. Hu made it in Taiwan, after splitting with the Shaw brothers over disagreements during the making of Come Drink With Me, released one year earlier in 1966. The film became a massive hit throughout Southeast Asia, and can be seen partially as the movie playing in Tsai Ming-liang's end of cinema masterpiece Goodbye, Dragon Inn, the best film about working in a movie theatre ever made.

Structurally the film is elegantly simple. The first half sees the various factions arrive at the eponymous inn, a remote outpost on the Tartar frontier, a rocky desert landscape bordered by tall, forested mountains. The eunuch in charge of the nation's secret police has had a prominent general killed and exiles his family to the edge of the Empire, hoping to flush out any pro-general elements. Arriving at the inn in turn are the bad guys, a wandering swordsman, the owner of the inn, and a heroic brother and sister (the girl in disguise as a boy). As each arrives, the villains try various subterfuges to draw them into a fight or poison them, while pretending to be friendly. At night, the villains attempt a sneak attack on their rooms, in a sequence very similar to one in Hu's previous film, Come Drink With Me. At exactly the halfway mark of the film, 55 minutes in, one day and night has passed and all masks are lifted: the heroes have recognized each other and joined forces and will attempt to rescue the general's family.

The second half of the film spreads over two days and one night. The first day, the family arrives and the heroes defend them and the inn against enemy attack. This is built around two action sequences, one with the sister fighting a band of soldiers, the other with the wandering swordsman taking on an even bigger band and facing off against the local bad guy in charge. That night, the heroes are reinforced by a small group of soldiers from a nearby outpost and a pair of brothers who defect from the eunuch's forces. The second day is a chase sequence, as the heroes flee the inn and make their way through a mountain pass to safety. They're surrounded by the bad guys and ultimately face off against the eunuch himself, joining forces to defeat him (as much by using his asthma against him as their own skill - this may be lost in the translation, but I wonder if the asthma is a side effect of his extreme kung fu skills).

As in Stagecoach, character is revealed along the way, as much through gesture as dialogue. It's revealed that the heroes are all connected: the wandering swordsman, Hsiao, played by Shih Jun, who looks like a slightly less ghostly version of the villain in Come Drink With Me, white-robed and equipped with an umbrella (Wong Fei-hung style - identifying him as a good guy), is an old friend of the innkeeper, who was a lieutenant under the executed general and who also served with the father of the two siblings. The sister falls in love with Hsiao, though this is only apparent in the looks she gives him at certain key points. The two brothers have their own grudge against the eunuch. The eunuch doesn't get much screen time, appearing first in silhouette as his retinue slowly makes its way to the inn, but Hu always accompanies his appearances with a wildly atonal brass blare, which builds from a simple fanfare to an actual theme as we see him up close for the first time. The film isn't thematically deep, but the characters are individualized enough to become iconic rather than merely generic.

Dispensing with the effects-driven finale of his previous film, or the energy-shooting antics of wuxia films that came before and after it, Hu's action scenes are more or less realistic. There are more than a few trampoline jumps hidden by the editing tricks David Bordwell so well highlights on his website. Similarly the heroes are able to wave away arrows shot at them by a simple cut and flash of a sword. The fights are fun and suspenseful, but they never shock with verisimilitude or craziness. Compared to later martial arts epics, Dragon Gate Inn has a much smaller scale and much less emphasis on the actuality of fighting movements and much less craziness. But those films can tend to overwhelm with spectacle: we become more impressed by the actors on-screen, or the opulence of the sets and costumes than engrossed in the narrative unfolding before us. What King Hu achieves here is a balance between plot and action, between structure and character, between fantasy and reality, a simplicity of design and movement that reminded me more than once of the minimalist Westerns of Budd Boetticher. With his next film, A Touch of Zen, Hu would go further into the philosophy underlying the wuxia mythology, melding the action movie with Buddhist spirituality to create a truly profound epic. With Dragon Gate Inn, however, he was content to make merely a perfect action picture.

Summer of Sammo: Heroes Shed No Tears

I've declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I've been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here's an index.

I've only seen a few Chor Yuen films, so I don't know how much this is a signature of his, but with this movie he seems to be exploring what would have happened had Josef von Sternberg made a wuxia film. Or at least Von Sternberg's set designer. Hong Kong films are by no means strangers to ornate imagery, but I've never seen one that piled so much stuff in the foreground between the audience and the action. Flower, trees, rocks, curtains, buildings: the frame is ringed with objects, which also sometimes intrude and obscure the actual action itself. It's very striking, and Chor as well puts the full Shaw Brothers studio resources to work with vibrant violets and pinks and blues, flowing costumes, elaborate palaces and remote mountain sets that ooze fog from all sides.

Chor begins the film with a wild expositional burst impressive in its swirl even for the wuxia genre, introducing all the major characters and describing them and their motives in about five minutes. HK directors have never been afraid to throw the audience in the deep end, expecting them to keep up. After that initial burst, the film settles into a fatalistic tragedy about an evil genius playing all sides against each other in the hopes of coming out on top, kind of like Edgar in King Lear or Dashiell Hammett's Continental Op, with the loose ends explained at the beginning all neatly tied up by the end.

Alexander Fu Sheng stars, playing a young swordsman sent by his master to prevent the biggest crisis of the century. With his Wayne's World mullet and teardrop-stained sword, he mostly finds himself shunted off to the sides of the narrative as the various other factions get eliminated. The best character is a warrior who carries a magical wooden box that contains 36 weapons - he can pull out whichever he needs whenever he needs it. He thinks he's destined to be killed by Fu's cursed sword, and has a complicated personal history where he suspects he might be Fu's brother or something, but ends up being wrong about that. It's fruitless trying to predict the twists of fate and prophecy, even if you have a magic box.

Like many martial arts movies, the film is structured as a series of confrontations, as the various characters face off against each other either in fights or dialogue or both. The best comes about halfway through the movie as the woman at the center of some of the plotting exposes the villain's evil schemes and then cuts off her own leg. She then picks it up and hops over to one of the men who loved her unrequitedly and gives it to him ("this is the leg you loved") before heading off alone. It's almost as moving as it is absurd.

I don’t see nearly the depth here that I found in Chor’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan, though it certainly shows that film’s aesthetic sense, its exploitation of the artificiality of Shaws resources for the kind of abstract prettiness that won’t really be topped in the martial arts genre until the 2000s and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon  and Zhang Yimou's trilogy of arthouse kung fu spectaculars. Chor’s The Magic Blade shares a source novelist (Gu Long) and similar noir-like manipulations within an underworld subculture (seen also in Chor’s Killer Clans). But while The Magic Blade plays as a rough and pulpy version of Willy Wonka and the Chocolate Factory with Lo Lieh and Ti Lung finding themselves competing to succeed the king of the wuxia world, whether they want the gig or not, Heroes Shed No Tears has grander, spacier ambitions. You can get so caught up in figuring out the plot that you don’t notice as wild little bits and images seep into your subconscious and linger, long after you’ve forgotten whether the sneaky advisor works for the guy from Braveheart Hall or if that’s the guy who danced with the girl for three days and nights, and whose master made the sword and why is it crying anyway and seriously, what’s up with Fu Sheng’s hair - did he steal Nigel Tufnel's wig?

Monday, July 15, 2013

Summer of Sammo: The Spiritual Boxer

I've declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I've been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here's an index.

The most interesting thing about this, Lau Kar-leung’s first film as a director after a distinguished career as action choreographer and stunt man, is the prologue, which takes a sidelong glance at the Boxer Rebellion, in which groups of disaffected Chinese men, apparently convinced that through rigorous kung fu training and devout religious belief they could make themselves impervious to foreign weapons and attain a variety of other superpowers, rose up against the various imperialist forces that had been colonizing China for most of the 19th Century, slaughtering thousands of Christians and Europeans, and ultimately further weakening the Qing Dynasty in its last days as the various foreign powers unified to crush them. Lau calls out the Boxers as charlatans, exposing the trickery that enables them to convince the Dowager Empress of their abilities (as Chen Kuan-tai and Ti Lung appear invulnerable before her under the protective spell of a Taoist priest). The Boxers themselves, and Chen and Ti, don't appear in the rest of the film, which is an amiable comedy about a small-time huckster who more or less accidentally does some good deeds. But the implications of the prologue loom large. For the Boxers' trickery is that of the moviemakers: falsifiers of images, magicians who trick the audience into believing the impossible.

His first act as a director being the exposure of martial fraudulence, Lau then proceeds to build his career as a director on a contrary verisimilitude, on the depiction of actual martial arts by actual martial artists. This extends to the particular movements performed onscreen: Lau reportedly had serious clashes with Jackie Chan on the set of Drunken Master II over Chan's refusal to perform the orthodox Drunken Boxing style. Most of Lau's films will begin with a non-diegetic performance by the star or stars, in which the particular movements and kung fu styles that will be used in the film are demonstrated against a stark, one- or two-toned background. They are the baseline melodies of his films, the action scenes that follow are the variations and improvisations on these themes.

But of course, Lau will exaggerate. No one actually gets sliced, chopped or mutilated or killed in a Lau film. No one actually gets their teeth pulled out at the end of The Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter. What he brought to the martial arts genre was not documentary realism, but rather a grounding of his fictions in a basic reality, prefaced by a warning that not everything we see is to be believed, even stunts performed by the most skilled martial artists (as Chen Kuan-tai and Ti Lung, Lau's phony Boxers, most definitely are). Rather than cut around performers who can't actually perform the stunts required of them, or obfuscate with the rapid-editing, nauseatingly hectic handheld camera style of so many inelegant Hollywood action films, Lau's films are as much about capturing an actual athletic performance as it actually occurred as they are about anything else: we see complete movements and he cuts for clarity and emphasis, not obfuscation. He's not above the use of a trampoline to exaggerate the height of an actor's leap, but the commitment to reality remains, though the edges may get a little smudged.

I've often said in these Summer of Sammo reviews that the key theme of the kung fu movie is the conflict between the desire for revenge and the moral imperative to forgive, between the demands of loyalty and duty and the desire to withdraw from worldly concerns in search of enlightenment and spiritual peace. The tension between fakery and realism is a a kind of meta-theme of the genre as well, an opposition between fantasy wuxia films, crazy movies where people perform impossible feats with magical swords and spiritual energy has a marked similarity to laser beams (such as the films of Tsui Hark or Ching Siu-tung), and kung fu films proper, which are set in a more real world and are more grounded in their special effects and tend to feature hand-to-hand combat rather than fights using weapons (the films of Sammo Hung, Corey Yuen and Jackie Chan - Yuen Woo-ping distinguishes himself as a master of both subgenres). There are exceptions and cross-pollinations across all these distinctions, but the setup generally works, I think, to identify two very different approaches to film, and two different ways we in the audience process those films: as wild imaginative spectacle or with wonderment at the possibilities of the human body. I treasure both experiences, but Lau positions himself firmly on the side of humanism versus abstract expression, and against the belief in the impossible.

Circling back to the Boxers, the belief in them, and their own apparent belief in themselves, rested on a kind of credulity, that of a poor people living in an apocalyptic age, beset by calamity after calamity (invasion, natural disaster, economic collapse, governmental corruption, epidemic drug abuse) and turning an irrational eye toward leaders who would then exploit them for their own ends. The Boxers, when they're shown as true believers, are tragic figures. Often when depicted in film (in Tsui Hark's Once upon a Time in China II, or Lau's later film Legendary Weapons of China), they'll be played both ways: the masses as heroic yet pathetic victims of cynical leaders who tricked and manipulated them into committing terrorist and/or revolutionary acts. Lau's Boxers are fakes tricking the Empress herself into believing in them. But the hero of The Spiritual Boxer is also a fraud, in that he does not really have the ability to act as an avatar of the various gods he gulls people into believe he can call upon. He knows his special effects are phony but comes to realize the very real power of his actual martial arts skills, taught to him by the same master who taught him to be a cheat and a con-man. He is a skilled fighter and he scores very real victories against the various villainous figures he encounters. Without the bells and whistles, the religion and the trick swords, he can defend the weak and defeat the villains.