Wednesday, January 01, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Peter Chan's Comrades, Almost a Love Story

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Last night I rewatched one of my favorite new-to-me films of 2013 as my last film of the year, and happily it remains as great as I initially thought it was. A descendant of Paul Fejos's 1928 Lonesome, about two people who find love in the urban crowd and then lose it. The crowd here is Hong Kong in 1986 and the people are Maggie Cheung and Leon Lai. Freshly emigrated from Northern China, Lai barely speaks Cantonese or English but gets a tiny space to live and a job delivering chickens by bicycle. On his long-anticipated first trip to McDonalds, he meets Maggie Cheung, who knows the lingo(s) and offers to help him get English lessons (from none other than Christopher Doyle). They become friends, and then friends who sleep together. They fall in love to the sounds of Teresa Tang, the Taiwanese singer who was wildly popular in the Mainland in the 70s and early 80s: their fandom marks them as outsider hicks in trendy, ultra-modern, present-obsessed Hong Kong. But inevitably they break-up because Lai has a girlfriend back home and Cheung has a dream of financial, not domestic, success.

A few years later, they meet again, Lai married to the girl from home and Cheung shacked up with Eric Tsang, a Triad boss with a heart of gold (a rare serious performance from Tsang, normally a lunatic ball of farcical nonsense). But again the timing is not right, and a brief failure to maintain mere friendship ends in rain-drenched heartbreak. The film's final sequences are almost entirely dialogue-free. Several years and another continent later, Cheung and Tsang are hiding out in New York, while Lai is working at a Chinatown restaurant. Cheung thinks she glimpses Lai and chases him through Times Square, but she loses him in the crowd. A few years later, hearing the news that Teresa Teng died, Cheung wanders the streets, Teng's music running through her head. She stops to watch the news on some TVs in a shop window and as the music swells, notices that Lai has been standing next to her, watching the same news. The film ends on their smiles, followed by a brief coda recasting the opening shot of Lai's arrival in Hong Kong on the train, we learn that Cheung arrived on that train as well, that the two had bit sitting next two each other the whole time, sleeping back to back, their heads touching.

Director Peter Chan takes an unusual approach to the urban isolation romance. Rather than frame his characters in long shots, emphasizing the crowds around them (as in Lonesome) or their missed connections (as in Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai's Turn Left, Turn Right), he shows them in tight close-ups and two shots, adoringly close explorations of the stars’ lovely faces. While there are occasional establishing shots of crowds (Lai bicycling through the Tsimshatsui district, narrating his life in a letter home; Lai navigating a crowd lined up for new housing, bringing water and chocolate to Cheung), for most of the film we are seeing the two leads either alone or together (a few times from the point-of-view of an ATM machine, the pair alone in a small square patch of screen space) while the world outside is reduced to blurry, fragmented noise. Even Eric Tsang is introduced to us only in pieces: first his massive, tattooed back, then brief glimpses of his face. It's not until his relationship with Cheung is established that we see him as a whole.

Similarly we snatch bits of other romances that surround them: Christopher Doyle and Lai's Thai hooker roommate Cabbage, barely dramatized but which will end sadly. Lai's aunt and her obsession with a single night she claims she spent with William Holden, the high point of her life, a night so perfect the rest of her life could never hope to match it. Even the sad story of Teresa Teng, a star beloved in her youth who died young at 42. The flip side of romance is tragedy, just as the immigrant's dream is a romantic one, the yearning for a better world, for perfection, and the failure to realize it, or, even worse, of finding it and failing to keep it. The film captures this whole range, and thus is Comrades the most romantic of films, not just a love story (almost).

Tuesday, December 31, 2013

A Top 25 Films of 2013 List, More or Less

It's the end of the year, so I'm going to go ahead and make a Best Films of the Year list, even though I haven't seen any of the big recently released films yet (Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and so on). I'll have a more official list come Oscar time, to go along with my award nominees and winners. That list will follow the strict imdb definition of all the other lists here at The End, but for this one, I'm going to use the flawed, but more generally accepted US theatrical release "standard", by which I mean I'm going to include a bunch of 2012 movies and exclude a bunch that have only played festivals so far. Here's the list, with links to my reviews or podcasts.

1. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)

2. Drug War (Johnnie To)

3. Night Across the Street (Raúl Ruiz)

4. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)

5. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada)

6. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)

7. Nobody's Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo)

8. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)

9. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman)

10. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

11. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

12. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)

13. Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)

14. The World's End (Edgar Wright)

15. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)

16. When Night Falls (Ying Liang)

17. The Last Time I Saw Macao (João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata)

18. Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas)

19. Memories Look at Me (Song Fang)

20. You Ain't Seen Nothin' Yet (Alain Resnais)

21. Three Sisters (Wang Bing)

22. People's Park (JP Sniadecki & Libbie Cohn)

23. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

24. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)

25. Emperor Visits the Hell (Li Luo)

And because I can't let it go, these are 10 films I saw in 2013 that I had to cut out because they haven't had a US theatrical release as far as I can tell. Call them the Best 2013 Films of 2014 (if they get released in New York next year):

1. La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson)

2. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)

3. Blind Detective (Johnnie To)

4. Our Sunhi (Hong Sangsoo)

5. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers & Ben Russell)

6. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)

7. Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai Chunya)

8. Yumen (JP Sniadecki)

9. The Great Passage (Yuya Ishii)

10. Trap Street (Vivian Qu)

The Best Older Movies I Saw in 2013

An annual tradition here at The End, these are the best movies I saw for the first time this year, not counting recent releases (anything less than three years old). We also did a George Sanders Show on this subject. As always, the rankings are not meant to be taken too seriously, I saw a lot of great movies this year and would recommend each and every one of these. I've included links for the ones I've written and/or podcasted about. Shorter comments for most of these, along with more lists and such can be found on my Letterboxd page.

1. Throw Down (Johnnie To, 2004)
2. Comrades: Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan, 1996)
3. Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark, 1986)
4. The Red and the White (Miklos Jancso, 1967)
5. Pedicab Driver (Sammo Hung, 1989)
6. Yearning (Mikio Naruse, 1964)
7. Wheels on Meals (Sammo Hung, 1984)
8. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)
9. Flowing (Mikio Naruse, 1956)
10. Nomad (Patrick Tam, 1982)

11. Dirty Ho (Lau Kar-leung, 1976)
12. My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2002)
13. Dangerous Encounters - First Kind (Tsui Hark, 1980)
14. Applause (Rouben Mamoulian, 1929)
15. A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)
16. Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 1990)
17. The Contract (Michael Hui, 1978)
18. Robin and Marian (Richard Lester, 1976)
19. Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)
20. Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, 1962)

21. Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1988)
22. The Sound of the Mountain (Mikio Naruse, 1954)
23. Obsession (Brian DePalma, 1976)
24. The Victim (Sammo Hung, 1980)
25. Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994)
26. An Angel At My Table (Jane Campion, 1990)
27. Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928)
28. Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974)
29. Porco Rosso (Hayao Miyazaki, 1992)
30. Fat Choi Spirit (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2002)

31. Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung, 1987)
32. Righting Wrongs (Corey Yuen, 1986)
33. The Miracle Fighters (Yuen Woo-ping, 1982)
34. Le pont du Nord (Jacques Rivette, 1981)
35. Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004)
36. Pilgrimage (John Ford, 1933)
37. Yes, Madam (Corey Yuen, 1985)
38. The Wold Shadow (Stan Brakhage, 1972)
39. Déjà vu (Tony Scott, 2006)
40. Repast (Mikio Naruse, 1951)

41. Running on Karma (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2003)
42. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (Chor Yuen, 1972)
43. Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (Wai Ka-fai, 1997)
44. No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa, 1946)
45. The Chess Players (Satyajit Ray, 1977)
46. Modern Romance (Albert Brooks, 1981)
47. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
48. Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
49. The Muppet Movie (James Frawley, 1979)
50. Running Out of Time 2 (Johnnie To, 2001)

51. Crank (Neveldine/Taylor, 2006)
52. Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965)
53. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)
54. Hapkido (Huang Feng, 1972)
55. Turn Left, Turn Right (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2003)
56. Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford, 1960)
57. On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (Hong Sangsoo, 2002)
58. Boat People (Ann Hui, 1982)
59. Iron Monkey (Yuen Woo-ping, 1993)
60. Running Out of Time (Johnnie To, 1999)

61. The Heroic Ones (Chang Cheh, 1970)
62. The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973)
63. Expect the Unexpected (Patrick Yau, 1998)
64. My Heart is that Eternal Rose (Patrick Tam, 1989)
65. Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984)
66. In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1993)
67. Sons of the Desert (William A. Seiter, 1933)
68. Yesterday Once More (Johnnie To, 2004)
69. The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)
70. The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)

71. Green Snake (Tsui Hark, 1993)
72. Man on Fire (Tony Scott, 2004)
73. Fantomas (Feuillade, 1913)
74. Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988)
75. Encounters of the Spooky Kind (Sammo Hung, 1980)
76. Raining in the Mountain (King Hu, 1979)
77. Casino Raiders (Wong Jing & Jimmy Heung, 1989)
78. Le Doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)
79. Magnificent Butcher (Sammo Hung & Yuen Woo-ping, 1979)
80. Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929)

81. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)
82. Northwest Passage (King Vidor, 1940)
83. The House of 72 Tenants (Chor Yuen, 1973)
84. He's a Woman, She's a Man (Peter Chan, 1994)
85. Full Contact (Ringo Lam, 1992)
86. Lady for a Day (Frank Capra, 1933)
87. Butterfly Murders (Tsui Hark, 1979)
88. The Moderns (Alan Rudolph, 1988)
89. Belle toujours (Manoel de Oliveira, 2006)
90. The Fate of Lee Khan (King Hu, 1973)

91. Royal Warriors (David Chung, 1986)
92. A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-tung, 1987)
93. In the Line of Duty 4 (Yuen Woo-ping, 1989)
94. Mother (Mikio Naruse, 1952)
95. Tricky Brains (Wong Jing, 1991)
96. Ninja in the Dragon's Den (Corey Yuen, 1982)
97. Tale of Cinema (Hong Sangsoo, 2005)
98. The Four Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1974)
99. The Sentimental Swordsman (Chor Yuen, 1977)
100. Wind Across the Everglades (Nicholas Ray, 1958)

101. Magnificent Warriors (David Chung, 1987)
102. Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932)
103. The Happening (Yim Ho, 1980)
104. Two English Girls (François Truffaut, 1971)
105. The Odd One Dies (Patrick Yau, 1987)
106. Love in a Fallen City (Ann Hui, 1984)
107. Help!!! (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2000)
108. Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986)
109. Dressed to Kill (Brian DePalma, 1980)
110. Knockabout (Sammo Hung, 1979)

111. Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)
112. The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (Hong Sangsoo, 1996)
113. All About Ah-Long (Johnnie To, 1989)
114. The Pawnshop (Charles Chaplin, 1916)
115. Whirlpool (Otto Preminger, 1949)
116. Dreadnaught (Dreadnaught, Yuen Woo-ping, 1981)
117. Boys Are Easy (Wong King, 1993)
118. No Blood Relation (Mikio Naruse, 1932)
119. The Garden of Earthly Delights (Stan Brakhage, 1981)
120. Domino (Tony Scott, 2005)

121. The Sword (Patrick Tam, 1980)
122. Dragnet Girl (Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)
123. Drunken Monkey (Lau Kar-leung, 2003)
124. Boxer Rebellion (Chang Cheh, 1976)
125. Shaolin Temple (Chang Cheh, 1976)
126. Scattered Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1967)
127. One AM (Charles Chaplin, 1916)
128. The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996)
129. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
130. Vengeance! (Chang Cheh, 1970)

131. Alls Well, Ends Well (Clifton Ko, 1992)
132. Mothlight (Stan Brakhage, 1963)
133. I Can't Sleep (Claire Denis, 1994)
134. Winners & Sinners (Sammo Hung, 1983)
135. Ingeborg Holm (Victor Sjostrom, 1913)
136. We're Going to Eat You (Tsui Hark, 1981)
137. Universal Soldier: Regeneration (John Hyams, 2009)
138. Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Mikio Naruse, 1935)
139. The Diary of a Chambermaid (Jean Renoir, 1946)
140. Ruby Gentry (King Vidor, 1952)

141. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)
142. She Shoots Straight (Corey Yuen, 1990)
143. The Longest Nite (Patrick Yau, 1998)
144. Prison on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1987)
145. The Idiot (Akira Kurosawa, 1951)
146. The Spiritual Boxer (Lau Kar-leung, 1975)
147. Just Pals (John Ford, 1920)
148. Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978)
149. Security Unlimited (Michael Hui, 1982)
150. Apart from You (Mikio Naruse, 1933)

151. The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930)
152. Resident Evil: Afterlife (Paul WS Anderson, 2010)
153. Working Class (Tsui Hark, 1985)
154. Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962)
155. Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1988)
156. Heaven Sword & Dragon Sabre I & II (Chor Yuen, 1978)
157. Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971)
158. The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)
159. The Idle Class (Charles Chaplin, 1921)
160. Love for All Seasons (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2003)

161. The Prodigal Son (Sammo Hung, 1981)
162. Warriors Two (Sammo Hung, 1978)
163. Eye in the Sky (Yau Nai-hoi, 2007)
164. L'Intrus (Claire Denis, 2004)
165. Enter the Fat Dragon (Sammo Hung, 1978)
166. Mr. Vampire (Ricky Lau, 1985)
167. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)
168. The Private Eyes (Michael Hui, 1976)
169. Millionaire's Express (Sammo Hung, 1987)
170. Heroes Shed No Tears (Chor Yuen, 1980)

171. Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars (Sammo Hung, 1985)
172. The Iron-Fisted Monk (Sammo Hung, 1977)
173. The Big Boss (Lo Wei, 1971)
174. Mama (Zhang Yuan, 1990)
175. The Magic Blade (Chor Yuen, 1976)
176. Heroes Two (Chang Cheh, 1974)
177. After This, Our Exile (Patrick Tam, 2006)
178. An Exercise In Discipline - Peel (Jane Campion, 1982)
179. Blood Brothers (Chang Cheh, 1973)
180. Challenge of the Masters (Lau Kar-leung, 1976)
181. Zu Warriors (Tsui Hark, 2001)
182. Late Chrysanthemums (Mikio Naruse, 1954)
183. Dragons Forever (Sammo Hung & Corey Yuen, 1988)