Thursday, September 26, 2013

VIFF 2013 Preview: Blind Detective

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

I'd heard of Johnnie To before I ever went to the Vancouver Film Festival, having read David Bordwell on him at his website. I'd even seen a few of his movies before: dubbed versions of the Heroic Trio films during my first brush with Hong Kong movies in the late 90s, and Election 2 on Instant Netflix (under its American release title, Triad Election, I watched it not knowing it was a sequel). But seeing Sparrow at my first trip to VIFF in 2008 was a revelation. I knew To as a Hong Kong action director, John Woo with more shadows, less Chow Yun-Fat. But Sparrow was something else entirely, that same heroic bloodshed world but with a Jacques Demy twist. Light, colorful, whimsical and warm. In the years since, I've dipped in and out of To's Milkyway world (including a lengthy run through his filmography earlier this year, in preparation for a They Shot Pictures episode about him), loving almost all I've seen, including Written By by his longtime collaborator Wai Ka-fai, which I saw at VIFF 2009. I missed Vengeance that year and Drug War last year (though I caught up with them a few months later at the San Francisco and Seattle Film Festivals, respectively. Neither fest holds a candle to VIFF, of course) and, much to my dismay, my train leaves town in the middle of the screening of his latest film, Blind Detective at this year's VIFF. So, as part of my warm-up for the festival, resorted to other means to see it (it's out on Blu-Ray in Hong Kong already, pretty easy to find).

The big draw in Blind Detective is the reunion of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng. Pop stars and cultural icons, it was the series of romantic comedies they made with To in the early 2000s that essentially saved his Milkyway Image company from collapse. The first few years of the studio saw the release of several dark gangster dramas, mostly ghost-directed by To, that failed to find much of an audience. But Needing You, an office romance with Lau and Cheng, proved to be a big hit and for years thereafter To would mix wacky romances in with his more serious crime films. Cheng and Lau each made six films with To from 2000 to 2004, including two where they were paired together (Love on a Diet and Yesterday Once More). But after 2004 neither worked with To again until 2012's Romancing in Thin Air (in which Cheng stars opposite Louis Koo, who is playing a very Andy Lau-type movie star). This period also coincides with a more serious turn in To's work. From 2005 until 2011, he didn't make a single romantic comedy, and with the notable exception of Sparrow, the films are serious melodramas (albeit often darkly sardonic ones) all taking place in the triad gangster world (except for the strangely inert romantic drama Linger, from 2008, a more straightforward, less interesting version of the 2002 Cheng vehicle My Left Eyes Sees Ghosts). But in 2011, To returned to the romance genre with the lush screwball Don't Go Breaking My Heart, and 2012's meta-epic Romancing in Thin Air.

Johnnie To's filmography is so dense and so vast, that part of the fun of each new release is in finding the connections between it and his previous work. Drug War, for example, forms part of a trilogy with Expect the Unexpected and PTU, each film a procedural following a team of cops tracking a group of criminals and ending in a dramatic gunfight. The 2009 film Vengeance forms a rough trilogy about groups of hitmen with The Mission and Exiled, all ultimately about the pointlessness of the revenge demands in the Triad honor code. Similarly, both his 2011 films deal with the fallout of the financial crisis, with Life Without Principle's crime drama highlighting its effects on the various middle and criminal classes and drawing somewhat unexpected parallels between them, where Don't Go Breaking My Heart uses the crisis as a plot point that barely registers as a blip in the lives of its upper class financier characters, consciously recalling the fanciful milieux of Depression Era screwball comedies. Romancing in Thin Air is a summarizing film, one that incorporates and synthesizes elements of romantic films from throughout To's career into a single grand statement on the cathartic power of cinema; it's To's 2046. Blind Detective presents a couple of interesting contrasts. The most obvious is with 2007's Mad Detective, which has a similar title and is also the story of a young cop enlisting the eponymous former cop to help solve a recent crime. Lau Ching Wan's Mad Detective approaches his investigations with the same techniques as Andy Lau's Blind Detective: he goes through the criminals' motions until he sees exactly what they did, and we see his vision of the recreation on-screen. These visions recall as well Running on Karma, in which Andy Lau plays a former monk who can see people's karma, the crimes they committed in past lives. Again, he's called in to help a young detective solve a crime.  Like that film as well, there's a strong romantic element to Blind Detective, though it's played here as comedy where in Karma it's tragedy (there's a smaller tragic love story in Mad Detective as well). The new film then represents not only the third part of a "vision"-based crime solving trilogy, but a synthesis of To's comedies with his crime films. (Yesterday Once More accomplished something similar, in combining elements of the romantic comedies with To's Running Out of Time caper films). The violence in these films is at times stomach churning, the dark and depraved killings clashing tonally with the wide-open romanticism of To's heroes, as if to say "the world is scary and terrible, but. . ."

Most interesting to me is the formal contrast between Blind Detective and Drug War. The latter might be To's tersest film: its characters are almost entirely defined by action, with no back story, no history, no personal lives or small talk. They are professionals, cops and criminals alike, and the story is relentlessly forward-moving, like the long non-stop drives the cops must endure as they crisscross the country pursuing the crooks, it never lets up until the explosive finale. Blind Detective, though, meanders here and there, taking its time, losing itself down subplots of other, unrelated crimes actual (with To stalwart Lam Suet) and romantic (with Gao Yuanyuan, who sparkled in Don't Go Breaking My Heart but is clearly outshone by Cheng here) all while indulging in Andy Lau's prodigious appetite (this may be the most food-obsessed of all Johnnie To's movies, even more so than Love on a Diet, which was largely about Andy and Sammi wearing fat suits and eating everything they came across). Where Drug War is tension and suspense and momentum, Blind Detective is leisurely digression. It's the Hatari! to Drug War's Scarface.

Similarly, Andy Lau's performance is in contrast to his prior work. His character resembles the one he played in Tsui Hark's very popular Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Like that film, Blind Detective is a mystery rather than a noirish gangster melodrama like most of To's crime films, and Lau plays the Holmes/Poirot figure. But where Detective Dee matches Lau's suave star persona, the Blind Detective is something new. He looks and dresses like the coolest guy on the planet Andy Lau of previous To collaborations Running Out of Time and Yesterday Once More, but he's wildly antic, shouting his lines and gleefully running with abandon from one inspiration to the next. (One of the film's best jokes involves someone finding Lau's partner, Guo Tao, to be the "cool" one of the pair). At times Lau almost seems to be parodying Lau Ching Wan's manic To performances (most obviously the one in Mad Detective). More than 30 years after his breakthrough in Ann Hui's Boat People, I can't recall a more buoyant, more childlike, more aggressively open Andy Lau.

At over two hours long, this is one of the longest of Johnnie To's films (they usually clock in around 100 minutes). It's even longer than the Sammi Cheng-starring wuxia farce Wu yen, a similarly digressive tale, but one that tends to sag with the accumulation of subplots and wild gags. Blind Detective never drags. The more time we get to hang out with Andy and Sammi, the better. And the more romantic comedies from Johnnie To, the better as well. For too long they've been shunted aside in favor of the supposedly more "serious" crime films. His next film is Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2, and I can't wait.

Monday, September 23, 2013

VIFF 2013 Preview: Nobody's Daughter Haewon

Part of my on-going coverage of VIFF 2013. Here is an index.

I saw my first Hong Sangsoo movie at the 2009 Vancouver Film Festival. It was Like You Know It All and it was my second favorite of the 18 movies I saw there that year. Shortly after I sought out a couple earlier Hong films (The Woman on the Beach and Woman is the Future of Man) and was underwhelmed. The familiar tropes were there (blocked director on vacation, crimes of the heart, drinking, bifurcated narrative structures reflecting in on themselves) but the moves just didn't seem as much fun. I chalked it up to the particular circumstances of that first viewing: seeing a film at a film festival that pokes fun at the insular and more than a little absurd festival experience. Perhaps he just wasn't as great as I thought he was.

But Hong redeemed himself in my eyes at the 2010 festival, where his Oki's Movie and Hahaha were again two of my favorites, each film taking his formal playfulness in bold new directions while retaining the self-effacing comic spirit that initially won me over. Since then I've managed to see almost all of Hong's films (including In Another Country, the most charming film of VIFF 2012 and Romance Joe, another VIFF 2012 favorite by Hong's longtime assistant director Lee Kwangkuk). These films, along with 2008's comparatively epic Night and Day and 2011's Marienbad-esque The Day He Arrives amount to as remarkable an on-going streak of greatness as any director working today (Oki's Movie remains my favorite of the dozen I've seen so far). Since he took 2007 off after Woman on the Beach, Hong's made eight features in six years, counting 2013's Our Sunhi (one of my most anticipated films of VIFF 2013) and Nobody's Daughter Haewon, which premiered at festivals earlier this year. Hong has yet to see his festival popularity translate into proper theatrical distribution in the US. Oki's Movie, The Day He Arrives and In Another Country all played in New York in 2012, but only the last one saw a wider release, most likely due to the art house popularity of its (French) star, Isabelle Huppert. Several of his films are available on the various streaming platforms, but he doesn't even have his own Director's Section at Scarecrow Video. Maybe this will be the year he finally breaks through to attain arthouse star status. My fingers remain crossed.

Continuing a recent trend, one that denotes a sharp break with his pre-2008 work, the film focuses on a female protagonist, though one who isn't any more heroic that Hong's usual cast of drunken, lecherous filmmaker/professors. Haewon is a pretty girl who is constantly told how pretty she is and seems to have become dependent on that flattery, no matter how poisonous it ultimately becomes to herself and the people around her. In each of the film's sections, she conjures a man that adores her, and the film's mysterious final line ("Waking up, I realized he was the nice old man from before") recalls the profound final rumination from Oki's Movie ("Things repeat themselves with differences I can't understand") a line that has come to epitomize so much of Hong's work for me. One of the great pleasures of diving into the Hong universe is that each movie gains in relation to the others. No other director I know of more obsessively explores the same basic elements in film after film: a film director/student/professor who has an affair he shouldn't have (with a friend's wife/girlfriend, with a student, or both) while wandering cold, unglamorous Korean cities and/or vacation spots; studies of venal, hypocritical drunks that critique without judgement, the foibles of Hong's people being ours and his rather than cruelly displayed objects for scorn, scolding and ridicule. With these basic characters and settings, and his deadpan minimalist visual style (marked most distinctively by the utterly atypical use of zooms), Hong conjures seemingly endless variations.

Haewon finds its closest companion in Oki's Movie, which focuses on a student who had an affair with her professor and takes a couple of hikes up a mountain. Haewon's affair occurred at some point in the past, though she considers rekindling it. She also takes two trips up a mountain, the location of an old fort-turned-tourist spot. Like In Another Country, Haewon features a lackadaisical to the point of abstraction framing device: three days that begin with Haewon describing them in her journal (public table, cup of coffee, handwriting in a notebook, voiceover narration) where last year's film had the narrator writing three versions of a film she wanted to make about a French woman on vacation in Korea. On each day, the narrative is abruptly interrupted as she wakes from a dream, erasing and resetting the story as we'd known it (this also happens in the middle section of In Another Country, as well as in Night and Day). With these films, along with the four-short film structure of Oki's Movie, the endless repetitions of The Day He Arrives, the self-delusions of Hong's heroes have taken a metaphysical turn: not only are they not honest with themselves and each other in their romantic lives, but the very nature of their world has become unstable, liable to be rearranged or erased with the stroke of a pen or a sharp cut in the film. Where the earlier films (and also Hahaha) were built around coincidence and repetition, the later films have become Duck Amuck with horny, drunken film school denizens.

I find myself pondering the title as much as anything else. Hong usually favors straightforward titles, ones whose meaning is immediately apparent (at least lately, his early titles are beguiling in their lingering prose: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, Woman is the Future of Man, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors). The first section explains quite clearly that Haewon is somebody's daughter, as it involves her spending a day with her mother on the eve of the latter's move to Canada (Vancouver, I assume, for the film festival). The film itself begins with Haewon meeting Jane Birkin (unnamed in the film) and telling her how much she admires her daughter (actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, also unnamed). The title then has, at least, two possible meanings: given the relative fame of Birkin, Haewon's mother is a "nobody" and perhaps this is what is keeping Haewon from becoming the successful actress she wants to be (she says she'd give her soul to have Gainsbourg's career). Or, being sad and abandoned by her mother's move, Haewon is forced to become an adult: she is no longer simply somebody's daughter and must take care of herself, become an individual in her own right. She then spends the next two thirds of the film pursuing relationships with a couple of older men (both professors and therefore father-type figures) while brushing off men her own age in some kind of Freudian irony. Parent-child relationships have largely been absent in Hong's work thus far (most of the kids have been little and mostly off-screen, as the director's child is in Haewon). Though a mother-daughter conversation does open In Another Country. Perhaps these are the first-steps in the integration of another trope into the Hong universe, another fraught relationship with which to play and poke and have fun.