Friday, April 25, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Peter Chan's Wuxia

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

Known in the US as Dragon, the actual title of Peter Chan's 2011 film is Wuxia, the name of a genre of both film and literature, a word that, if I understand correctly, is a compound of "wu" (military) and "xia" (chivalry, more or less). Wuxia stories are stories of warrior heroes, knights-errant, and wandering swordsman who walk the earth behaving nobly, following their code of honor above all else. They tend to inhabit a world outside the normal bounds of society called "jianghu" (literally "rivers and lakes"), filled with martial artists of various clans and sects that are perpetually at war.

Chan, director of the great 1996 romance Comrades, Almost a Love Story sets his film in 1917, the early Republican era in China, one of intense modernization between the demise of the Empire and the war with Japan. Takeshi Kaneshiro is a rationalist detective who, investigating the clearly-in-self-defense killing of a couple of thugs, begins to suspect that the hero, Donnie Yen, is more than a mere paper-maker. Yen, Kaneshiro believes, is a highly developed martial artist, and someone like that, with those skills, can only be an outlaw, an escaped killer (the setup is somewhat akin to David Cronenberg's A History of Violence, but what follows is (mostly) its own thing).

Kaneshiro's investigation is fascinating. The fight sequence that kicks the plot into motion comes shortly after the film begins. We see it play out as Yen fights with apparent desperation and lack of skill, a normal guy flailing about, lucking into defeating two more powerful adversaries. But as Kaneshiro looks into it, we get the scene replayed, Chan shifting camera angles to reveal the subtleties of Yen's technique, digitally freezing and zooming the frame for a closer look, even using CGI to follow nerve points through the body, showing the scientific, physiological basis for the apparently magical fighting techniques.

The film repeatedly questions the utility of Kaneshiro's pursuit. Yen, regardless of his past, is clearly now a good man. A husband (married to Tang Wei, most known here as the star of Ang Lee's Lust, Caution) and father and pillar of his community (his paper mill has even led to an economic revival of his village). He is liked and respected by everyone in town. But Kaneshiro's sense of duty has led him to repress his sense of empathy (literally, with acupuncture). He has made himself into a coldly rational detective, black and white only, consequences be damned. It's no surprise that Kaneshiro is right that Yen is concealing a dark past, the question is how can he atone for it?

One answer is by going to jail for his crimes. That is society's answer, and it is Kaneshiro's as he breaks a promise to Yen and reports his suspicions to the proper authorities. But that way leads to disaster, as corrupt officials tip off Yen's former gang as to his whereabouts, leading to bloody chaos in the formerly peaceful village and a striking homage to Chang Cheh's The One-Armed Swordsman (hint: someone loses an arm). Yen directs some tremendous fight sequences here, featuring older stars like Kara Hui and Jimmy Wang Yu (the One-Armed Swordsman himself).

The question remains of who is the more chivalrous: the detective who follows the code of law despite all opposition and consequence, humane or otherwise; or the crook who searches for personal reformation outside the designated legal channels? Kaneshiro's ostensibly normal and respectable world, the world of law and government and society is corrupt, passionless and unfeeling, for all its scientific advancement and insight. Can Yen's jianghu, for all its superstition, backwardness and ruthless, bloody horror somehow be the more humane world, in that it also allows the space and freedom necessary for redemption? There's no easy answer and Chan doesn't give us one. He leaves us, like Cronenberg did, with the family at the breakfast table, a replay of the film's opening sequence. Same motions, same family, irrevocably changed.

Thursday, April 24, 2014

Running Out of Karma: New Dragon Gate Inn

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

Nominally directed by Raymond Lee, who I don't think I've ever heard of before. His only imdb credits on films I recognize are for Film Workshop products that show the heavy if not exactly named influence of Tsui Hark and/or Ching Siu-tung (namely the Swordsman series). Tsui was pumping out movies like a madman in the early 90s, with 18 producer credits between 1990's Swordsman and 1993's Once Upon a Time in China IV, so it's likely that, after working out the screenplay with his co-writers (Charcoal Tan and Hiu Wing), he farmed off the actual direction of this to Lee, either alone or in combination with Ching (who had a mere ten solo or co-director credits over that same period, including his Johnnie To collaborations The Heroic Trio, Executioners and The Mad Monk). If anyone is the "auteur" of the film, it's probably Tsui.

The movie is a direct remake of King Hu's 1967 classic Dragon Inn (Tsui, Ching and Hu worked together on the first Swordsman film, a contentious collaboration that began as a comeback attempt for Hu and ended in his quitting, or getting fired). A powerful intelligence service called the East Chamber, run by an evil eunuch, has seized power and begun executing anyone that opposes them. They kill a general, then use his children as bait in a ploy to draw out his allies, who will attempt to rescue the kids as they are marched to the frontier.  Near the border, the Dragon Gate, there is an inn where all the principals will gather and the fighting will ensue. Hu's version is a masterpiece, slowly establishing the several factions in the first half then devoting the second to two days and a night of warfare. His characters are classical types (the woman warrior, the wandering swordsman) from wuxia film and literature, underplayed to bring out subtle nuances in their various relationships to each other and the martial virtues of chivalry, loyalty and duty that form the core beliefs of the genre.

Tsui and his team follow the setup of Hu's film exactly, going so far as to imitate the music of the original (the eunuch's arrival is always accompanied by a memorable fanfare of atonal horns). The characters are significantly different, though, modernized to add a dash of black comedy and sex. The inn is run by Maggie Cheung, leader of a gang of thieves who falls in love with the swordsman, played by The Other Tony Leung, who himself is in love with Brigitte Lin, the woman warrior who disguises herself as a man (because she's Brigitte Lin and that's what she does). The machinations of this love triangle run parallel to the attempts by the heroes to escape the inn out from under the noses of the eunuch's forces, with a little cannibalism and some action thrown in here and there. Cheung is fantastic in the many (and there are many) comic seduction scenes, funny and sexy and charming (the scene where she and Lin acrobatically rip each others clothes off is, well, you know). Her character isn't in the original, though you can find an precedent for her in Hu's later The Fate of Lee Khan (also set in an inn by a border). The Other Tony Leung though seems a bit lost and Lin spends most of the movie moping around the margins of the screen, looking longingly at Lin and sighing quietly. The scenes in the inn just aren't all that great, which is a problem when so much of the film is set there (whereas at least half of the original was fight scenes, almost none of this remake is). The film lacks the complications and twists of Tsui's best work (the not entirely dissimilar Peking Opera Blues for one), which it really needed to succeed after sacrificing the classical clarity of Hu's original. Still, as with pretty much any Tsui-related film, there are moments of great beauty (various interactions between Lin and her flute) and moments of great weirdness (the cannibalism, the fate of Donnie Yen's limbs).

Things improve when the final action finally begins. It is in the hectic Ching Siu-tung style: bodies flying everywhere, the rapid cutting and quick camera movements disjointing the geography of the frame while abstracting the various crazy poses of the combat. The guiding principle for Ching's action scenes is always speed: speed in the actors, speed in the cutting, speed in the camera's movement. When he gets all three going, the result is an overwhelming sense of chaos, a very different feeling than the Chang Cheh/Lau Kar-leung approach to action, with its emphasis on clarity of movement designed to foster an appreciation of the athletic skill of the actors. Ching's style is, I think, the more traditional one: editing used as a special effect, to hide the fact that the actors in wuxia films can't actually fly (in the digital 21st Century, that's no longer impossible, and we get the leisurely cutting of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero). But I don't think it's used, as it is in Hollywood, to cover up the fact that the actors can't fight, or to use the sensation of speed as a substitute for the visceral thrill of on-screen action. I think if you break a Ching action sequence down shot by shot, you'll find that all the necessary acrobatic movements are there, just as if you took out the photographic smeariness of Ashes of Time, you'd see some spectacular Sammo Hung choreography. The rapidity isn't design to cover up the action (as in Hollywood) so much as it gives you more action than you can possibly process, while simultaneously serving as a special effect. Lau doesn't need it because his films are "realistic" while cutting-as-effect is a device of fantasy.

Wednesday, April 23, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Wilson Yip's SPL: Sha Po Lang

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

A rote cop-triad story somewhat elevated by a serious commitment to operatic melodrama on the part of director Wilson Yip and composer Chan Kwong-wing. Sammo Hung is the gangster, Simon Yam the veteran cop willing to break all the rules to capture him. Donnie Yen is the new guy on the force, plagued with a still-functioning conscience. Rather than explore the intricacies of this scenario, territory which has been covered again and again in Hong Kong cinema post-A Better Tomorrow, Yip simplifies it to the extreme, and then throws us a curveball: it's not really a movie about cops and triads, it's a meditation on fatherhood, and namely what terrible parents all these guys are. The Hong Kong world SPL takes place is almost entirely devoid of women. The steel-blue streets at night are populated only by gangs of young men. At the slightest provocation they appear out of seemingly nowhere, spontaneously generated by discos and dive bars and video arcades, sporting black t-shirts, empty beer bottles and complicated haircuts. A fatherless generation, they follow Sammo's every command apparently because he's the biggest and the strongest.

As we come to know the cops, we learn basically nothing about them but their relationship to fatherhood. Yam, as the leader of a small task force (afflicted with a ticking clock brain tumor no less) has adopted a young girl, the child of a former witness, executed by Sammo's men. One of the cops is attempting to reestablish a relationship with his estranged daughter; one has a strained relationship with his own father (Donnie tells him his father is dead and he replies "I pretend mine is too"); Donnie himself is the son of a cop who was murdered by gangsters in the line of duty. (Sammo too is a father, his wife bringing home (after a couple of miscarriages) a newborn daughter as the film nears its conclusion). As the cops relentlessly pursue Sammo, manipulating evidence, bullying witnesses, killing suspects, these backstories take on a metaphysical power: the older generation, the fathers, failing so utterly at being decent people that it's no wonder the youth turn into nihilistic zombies.

But the kids have their revenge, in the form of Wu Jing, Sammo's top assassin. Clad all in white, the color of death, Wu systematically slices through the cops, a blinding flurry of remorseless, ruthless, soulless butchery. I don't think he actually has any lines in the entire film: he exists solely to kill. Most of the fight scenes, directed by Donnie Yen, involve Wu, and most of them are over before they start, so much does he outclass his opponents. There are two extended sequences though. One with Donnie and Wu in an alley (at night, tinged blue and shot through with shafts of sickly neon yellows and greens) and the final showdown with Donnie and Sammo. The Donnie/Wu fight is ridiculous and amazing, worth the price of admission by itself, as they say. Blindingly fast and intricate, shot mostly with medium shots and classically edited. As for the other fight, well Sammo was 53 years old when this was released in 2005, a streak of silver in his still-terrible hair, and he certainly had gained some weight in the 15 years since his last masterpiece, Pedicab Driver, trading his usual speed and acrobatics for a dare-I-say lumbering power. He mostly holds his own with Donnie, ten years his junior, but as I recall he fared better in Donnie and Yip's Ip Man films. The fight is more of a wrestling match than a proper kung fu duel, Sammo putting his added weight to use with a number of throws and much destroyed furniture.

In the end, as the fatherhood motif reaches its inevitably unfortunate conclusion, with a plot mechanic straight out of Greek tragedy and music swelling with melodramatic strings, we're left with a film more emotionally powerful than its basic scenario and imprecise narrative logic gives it any right to be. It doesn't so much make a coherent argument about fatherhood as it weaves a bunch of backstories into a basic, almost silly plot and then quite earnestly dares you to take it seriously. Yip's cinematography (shot by Lam Wah-chuen, who shot Fruit Chan's Made in Hong Kong and Jeffrey Lau's East Meets West) is in the ultra-crisp digital style of post-Infernal Affairs Hong Kong that cools the burry hotness of the red and blue tinged-nightlife of the 80s and 90s classics, making it seem at once more dangerous and more phony. It's flashy and stylish and all those words, but I longed for the controlled theatricality of Johnnie To's deep black shadows. The film's final image, though, is something special. It's as haunting and heart-breaking a moment as I've seen in any film this century.