Wednesday, March 19, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Tsui Hark's The Blade

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

The Hong Kong New Wave burst onto the scene in the late 1970s with a radical new approach to the genres that had dominated the local cinema scene for the previous decade or so, specifically for our purposes here, the martial arts film. Countering the elaborate costume epics of Shaw Brothers auteurs like Chang Cheh and Chor Yuen were grungy, darkly violent fantasies of swordplay like Patrick Tam's The Sword and Johnnie To's The Enigmatic Case (To is not generally lumped in with this first New Wave batch, but I think he meets all the arcane requirements). Tsui Hark's first feature, The Butterfly Murders brought a modern visual aesthetic to the genres, with lighting and shadows creating depths and obscurations where the Shaw's studio kept even the bleakest scenes bright and colorful. These films, along with modern day stories like Ann Hui's Boat People and harrowing tales of angsty teenage violence like Yim Ho's The Happening, Tam's Nomad and Tsui's Dangerous Encounters - First Kind, were critically lauded, and some even managed to find an audience (as well as help launch the movie careers of icons like Andy Lau, Leslie Cheung and Chow Yun-fat), but fairly quickly most of these New Wave directors were absorbed into Hong Kong's mainstream.

Tsui imported Hollywood technicians to make his effects-driven wuxia spectacular Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain and hung around the Cinema City studio making goofy comedies with the wags there (Working Class, Aces Go Places III). He also made a pair of genre-bending masterpieces, Shanghai Blues and Peking Opera Blues. As well he branched into producing, helping revitalize John Woo's career with A Better Tomorrow and continued his experiments with effects-driven wuxia with Ching Siu-tung and A Chinese Ghost Story and the Swordsman series. Then, with one of the five films he made in 1991, Tsui revived the kung fu film with his epic Once Upon a Time in China, firmly establishing Jet Li as a superstar and launching a renaissance in period fighting films. A renaissance which, with the warp speed of Hong Kong generic cycles, had largely played itself out by the mid-1990s.

Then, in 1994, Wong Kar-wai, like To excluded from official New Wave status on a technicality (he didn't start in movies until it was too late), finally released Ashes of Time, his reinvention of the wuxia film, after a shoot so long and grueling it spawned not one but two masterpieces during its creation (Chungking Express and eventually that film's spin-off Fallen Angels) as well as a hilarious parody of the same source material, featuring mostly the same cast (Jeffrey Lau's The Eagle-Shooting Heroes). Ashes harkens back to the New Wave projects of modernizing the martial arts genre, with a convoluted plot structure (made somewhat clearer in the recent Redux version, the only version currently available, though there is a DVD of the original somewhere, I saw it 15 years ago), narration in Wong's idiosyncratic fashion and a story that focuses more on Wongian themes of lost love and memory that it does on fighting. The fights themselves (choreographed by Sammo Hung, another director with an argument for being considered New Wave) are modernized as well, shot in a grainy, up-close, constantly moving style, smearing the action into a blur of dust and costume and blood. Ashes of Time, of course, failed to do much business and Wong didn't return to the genre until this past year's more traditional but still impressive for sure, The Grandmaster.

So that brings us to 1995 and back to Tsui Hark. The Blade, one of the three movies Tsui directed that year, probably inspired by Ashes of Time, is a return to the New Wave project of modernizing wuxia. But where Wong infused the traditional swordplay story with lush visuals and swoony spirals of wistful longing, Tsui exposes the dark violent core of the genre, remaking Chang Cheh's classic The One-Armed Swordsman with the gory glee of his 1980 kung fu cannibal film We're Going to Eat You and the nihilistic heart of Dangerous Encounters - First Kind. He does for the wuxia genre what Chang's The One-Armed Swordsman did for the state of the genre at the time of its release in 1967. Chang's film began an apparently inexhaustible cycle of films about violent men with elaborate honor codes torn between the demand for revenge and the desire for peace. Echoes of Chang's films can be found throughout the martial arts films of the 70s, the 'heroic bloodshed' policiers of the 80s, the kung fu revival of the 90s and the cop-triad films of the 21st century. What he brought to The One-Armed Swordsman was a new kind of violence to the genre, both graphically physical and torturously psychological. In contrast to King Hu's more stately, abstract wuxia vision, which was revising the traditional form (say Kwan Tak-hing's Wong Fei-hung serials of the 1950s) in a different direction at the same time. The differences between the two directors can be seen in a sampling of the titles: Come Drink With Me, A Touch of Zen, Raining in the Mountains vs. Vengeance!, The Blood Brothers, Crippled Avengers. Chang's heroes lead short, bloody lives, but they die standing up, finding a kind of transcendent heroism in their sacrifices for the sake of their honor codes, while at the same time implying the nullity at the heart of those same codes. The New Wave revisions to this tradition excised the heroism and emphasized the nihilism, the films of a generation raised by refugees in a densely-packed laissez-faire oasis trapped between two violently opposed worlds. Extremely bloody, jarringly (as opposed to gracefully) violent films of deep shadows and jagged cuts, where every character is venal and ugly, our heroes only slightly less so.

To The Blade, Tsai adds a narration in Wong Kar-wai's style, the voice of the master's daughter. A sociopath in both films, manipulating two of her father's pupils into a competition for her affection; in Chang's film it is she, in a burst of anger, who slices off the hero's arm. In this remake, though she's no less unpleasant, she's as much a victim as anyone, and a fitting narrator for our film, a tale told by a lunatic. The arm is lost defending her from bandits, positioning even the crazy daughter as one of the good guys in this world. These bandits menace the town, trapping and decapitating a monk and inspiring fear and loathing wherever they go. We're introduced to them at the start of the film, as they entertain themselves by capturing a dog in a bear trap, shades of the opening to another nihilist classic, Sam Peckinpah's The Wild Bunch. The hero, On Man, and his friend, Iron Head, work in a foundry, making swords. Iron Head attempts to organize a resistance to the bandits while On doesn't want to get involved. On leaves, the daughter chases after him, bandits attack, he loses his arm.

As in Chang's film, On is rescued by a farm girl (covered in dirt and illiterate, barely verbal even) and nursed back to health. They in turn are menaced by the bandits, and eventually he learns some one-armed kung fu. Meanwhile, Iron head and the daughter search for On, and Iron Head becomes obsessed with a local prostitute. In the bleakest inversion of every inn scene from every Shaw Brothers movie, where see the loud and lascivious revelers slap her around and have their way with her, as Iron head watches, seething from the balcony above. Finally he acts and rescues the girl in an orgy of destruction. But, because everyone in this world is the worst, he finds he has to tie her up to keep her from going back to her old life. It wasn't a romantic heroism that drove him to save her, but the lustful drive to possess. As she watches Iron Head degeneration, herself tied up as well, the last shreds of the daughter's sanity surely shatter.

The various factions come together, as they always do, in the finale. On realizes that the bandit chief is the same magically-tattooed assassin who murdered his father, and revenge is extracted; a whirl of spins and leaps, everyone wearing black, everyone getting sliced open. The villains are defeated, but there's no chance everyone lives happily ever after. The world is too far gone for that. The best they can hope for is a little while to rest a bit before the horrors begin anew.

Not surprisingly, the film failed to find an audience at the box office, as the many of the bleaker New Wave efforts failed 15 years earlier. (Blame for this is often laid at the feet of the cast, with no names and a lead, Vincent Zhao, who is not the iconic star Jimmy Wang Yu was in the original. I think the cast is just fine, though. It's hard to be charming under a pile of muck.) Shortly thereafter, the exodus of talent from Hong Kong to Hollywood accelerated: Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Sammo Hung, John Woo, Corey Yuen, and in 1997, Tsui himself. The martial arts film was seemingly played out, with Johnnie To and Milkyway Image's triad sagas, along with fellow travelers like the Young & Dangerous and Infernal Affairs series, capturing the Hong Kong action audience. The opening of the Chinese market led to some spectacular wuxia arthouse films, stately productions like Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Zhang Yimou's trilogy of Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, John Woo's epic Red Cliff and Tsui's own Detective Dee films and a variety of films about Ip Man (five in the last three years, I believe, including Wong Kar-wai's), while new effects technology has lent a glossy sheen to even the lowest budget productions. But as far as I've seen, no one has yet taken up the black mantle of the New Wave wuxia film.

On Tsai Ming-liang's Journey to the West

When I was young, in the first half of the 1980s, my punishment for whatever childhood infractions I committed was being made to stand facing a wall for some indeterminate amount of time (probably ten minutes, but which felt like and hour or two to an eight-year old). I committed a lot of infractions, so I became quite used to this, in fact I learned to enjoy it. I'd stare at the wood-paneling (1980s), count the small nail holes, follow the flow and swirl of the knots and the minute contours of the wood. Forced to stare at the same thing for a long time, I learned that if you look at it long enough, anything can become interesting, I learned that boredom is something that can be overcome.

Little did I know this experience was training me to watch Tsai Ming-liang films. This hour-long short (available free this week only here), a continuation of his shorter 2012 film Walker, observes Lee Kang-sheng as he walks, dressed as a monk in flowing red robes, through a city. This time it's Marseille, and there appears to somewhat of a plot, hinted at in the title and clarified in an accompanying note from Tsai:

"His walking, so special and so slow, in all the four corners of the world recalls that of Xuanzang, the holy monk of the Tang dynasty, who traveled thousands of kilometers seeking the holy scriptures. In the classical Chinese novel "The Journey to the West", Xuanzang frees the Monkey king from his prison at the foot of a mountain. In Marseilles, there is a rock that resembles the face of a monkey: in the bay of monkeys. Fashioned by the effects of time, Denis Lavant's face is like these rocky shapes and I am irresistibly attracted to it. That was how I started to think of Lee Kang-sheng walking on his face..."

The film opens with its longest shot, an extreme closeup of Denis Levant's face, lying on a diagonal, half in shadow. As Tsai forces us to stare at it at seemingly interminable length, the face becomes something else, an alien landscape of valleys and mountains and rivers and crevasses; every pore, every grey a story, every fold of Levant's now 50+ year old face containing multitudes. We'll revisit this face at the seaside, I assume at the Bay of Monkeys Tsai refers to, making literal the transformation from face to landscape.

Most of the film though chronicles the monk's journey through the city. These shots come with a fun, Where's Waldo-esque challenge as you try to pick him out in the crowd (hint: he's the thing that's not moving). But they also seem to be allegories for Xuanzang's journey. A pungent red wall becomes perhaps the scene of a mighty battle the monk witnesses, a long staircase a descent into the underworld. The monk begins to appear in reflections, the mirror in a man's apartment, a glossy wall overlooking a plaza packed with travelers and people at play (a crowd gathers around a man playing the piano, another man sets adrift giant bubbles). Are the mirrors indicative of his journey to "the other side"? In one of the film's final shots, the monk is being followed by what looks to me like Denis Levant, also walking very slowly past a sidewalk cafe, following a patch of sunlight. The Monkey King, freed at last, being led back to the East?

Tsai leaves us with this postscript, from the Diamond Sutra:

All composed things are like a dream,
A phantom, a drop of dew, or a flash of lightning,
That is how to meditate on them,
That is how to observe them.

Monday, March 17, 2014

On Wes Anderson's Grand Budapest Hotel

The Andersonian hero makes his own world. Not exactly a fantasist, he (and it's almost always a he) is a man out of time. An aspiring thief (Bottle Rocket), a master thief (Fantastic Mr. Fox), wildly impractical teenagers (Rushmore, Moonrise Kingdom), a discoverer of hidden worlds (Life Aquatic), families of prodigies (Royal Tenenbaums, Darjeeling Limited). Their opponents are the depressing realities of everyday life, the warn-down depressions of middle-age (Moonrise Kingdom, Rushmore), the accumulated disappointments of unrealized dreams (Life Aquatic, Darjeeling Limited, Royal Tenenbaums), or simply friends and family who lack their creative ambition and would rather settle down for a quiet life (Fantastic Mr. Fox, Bottle Rocket, Life Aquatic).

Ralph Fiennes's M. Gustave is The Grand Budapest Hotel's explicitly designated man out of time. A lone patch of civilization in the barbarous world of a fictionalized inter-war Central Europe. Dandyish and perfumed, prissy and effete, he swears like a drunken Marine and is very committed to his duties as concierge, going so far to please his guests as to sleep with all the rich, elderly ladies who come to stay at the palatial hotel (for he is their holding action against the inevitable declines of age). Against him stands not merely a personification of the real world or a more practical counterpart, but rather the systemic decline of civilization itself, murderous greed and the rise of fascism. Set against not merely the greedy inheritors of one of Gustave’s lover’s fortunes, but the increasingly menacing martial forces of a Nazi-like state, Grand Budapest Hotel is, I think, the first Anderson film to acknowledge an outside political reality whatsoever (rather than simply politics as family and personal relationships). That it deals with a phony version of an 80+ year old movement should come as no surprise.

You can divide Anderson's heroes into the young and the middle aged. The kids seem like they'd be out of place at any time, their interests are not contemporary (playwriting, saving Latin, Benjamin Britten, Jacques Cousteau and young adult novels that don't revolve around vampires), their diction unusually formal (a device that afflicts all Anderson characters, but is especially jarring coming from the young), a convoluted mix of ten cent words, out-dated slang and contemporary bluntness. The middle-aged look back on their youth as a lost golden age as they find themselves set adrift from the family and friends that supported their dreams in their youth (it's not hard to see Max Fischer in Royal Tenenbaum, Sam Shakusky in Steve Zissou). The young seem old and the old seem young. These heroes are occasionally arranged in (surrogate) father-son relationships: Rushmore, Life Aquatic, Moonrise Kingdom. Such is the case in Grand Budapest with Gustave serving as mentor-hero to war orphan Lobby Boy Zero (and further relationships which cascade down the decades to the present day).

Not exactly nostalgia, but a longing for and a burning desire to resurrect the past is the guiding spirit of Anderson’s mise-en-scene. Dollhouse diorama worlds of right angles, 90 degree pans, stop-motion animation, obsessions with books and the readers of books. It’s a dynamically two-dimensional cinema, colorful and bright and flat, so resolutely idiosyncratic that it’s damn near impossible to find a review of one of his films that doesn’t utilize the world “stylized”. His cinematic references tend to be more spiritual than specific lines or images, the Lubitsch of the 1930s infects every scene of Grand Budapest Hotel without citation, as the essence of Night of the Hunter snuck its way into Moonrise Kingdom. The artificiality of his world is compounded by an ever-expanding repertory of character actors, recognizable faces in outlandish make-up and costumes populate the edges of his stories, while the central roles are as often played by unknowns as knowns. These are ultra-modern approaches to an ancient filmmaking form: the repertory of actors recalling the studio era heyday when each new film promised a Guy Kibbe or Lee Tracy or Frank Morgan or any number of other character actors grown familiar and lovable through repetition. The visual style moves even further back, to the flat staging of the silent era, and of course even beyond that to theatre and literature. But rather than Guy Maddin-style attempts at recreating the earlier, imperfections and all, Anderson updates the old forms with the latest technology, breathing new life into abandoned forms.

Idealistic and innocent, but certainly not na├»ve, M. Gustave is more like Anderson’s young heroes than his burned-out contemporaries (Mr. Fox as well is a grown-up idealist). But as a remnant of an earlier age, he shares with the older heroes a nostalgic worldview, a looking-back at a lost golden age, though the mechanics of that looking is more convoluted than ever, with a nesting doll flashback structure (each era with its own aspect ratio) that recalls Passage to Marseille, among other things. Gustave is already out of place in 1932, yet we see him thrice more removed: in a story the aged Zero recalls in 1968, recounted by the Author in 1985, read by a young girl in 2014. In 1932 we see the end of M. Gustave's era, the death of one of his lovers, the war that takes over his hotel and then his world. In 1968, the hotel is falling apart, kept barely alive as a crumbling shadow of itself by Zero (though pointedly not as a link to Gustave, but to his wife, to the time he was happiest:, for 1968 Zero is himself a man out of time). In 1968 the triumph of barbarism is assured and by 1985 it’s victory is almost total: even the children brandish weapons as a young boy interrupts the Author's address to the camera with a (toy) gunshot (he apologizes shortly thereafter, a slender thread of civility). In the present, even the author is gone, like Zero, like Gustave, he can only be found in a snowy cemetery, civilization kept alive in his book. The girl is alone, but the grave is not abandoned. Keys hang from his tombstone as at a concierge's desk, left by admirers, despite the degradations of history, there are still some who believe in M. Gustave's lost world.