Thursday, August 07, 2014

Running Out of Karma: King Hu's Legend of the Mountain

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

It starts with a Wagnerian incantation: elemental imagery calling forth the natural world, music rising with the sun, the mountain, the clouds and the river, always the river, rushing, falling, churning. A Touch of Zen begins much the same way, but this world is depopulated, not even a spider mars its surface. When the lone scholar does appear, he's dwarfed by his surroundings, a pinprick of consciousness in an beautifully indifferent nature.

What follows is a ghost story, one that, unlike A Touch of Zen, Painted Skin and The Enchanting Shadow is not an adaptation from medieval Chinese literature (at least as far as I can tell, credits are murky) but rather an original screenplay by King Hu himself. An itinerant scholar, played by Hu mainstay Shih Chun, is tasked with translating a powerful Buddhist sutra. So he can work in peace, he's sent to a remote, supposedly abandoned temple complex. The people he finds there are a little odd, most notably Tien Feng's demonic mute servant Chang and Hsu Feng's pretty young girl Melody. Shih gets drunk one night and ends up marrying Melody, but it turns out she's a ghost who wants to steal the sutra for herself (in reciting it, an evil spirit will gain the power to control any human). Exactly how many people Shih meets are ghosts and how many aren't becomes the central mystery of the film, with everyone, his friend Tsui, a mysterious pair of priests (one Buddhist, one Taoist) and a local barmaid (Sylvia Chang, looking impossibly pretty) knowing more than they're willing to say, everyone's hiding something, no one will simply tell poor Shih what is going on. Throughout Shih will remain largely clueless to this other world that surrounds, guides, manipulates and tricks him.

Where A Touch of Zen follows a kind of religious progression from everyday superstition to the abstract awesomeness of Roy Chiao's Buddha-nature, Legend of the Mountain looks backward, not to any one religious doctrine, but to a fundamental level of reality that neither Buddhism nor Taoism can fully explain or control. For long stretches the film is wordless, with the music and Harry Chan's images of nature giving us a glimpse, a feeling of this foundational world, one where the border between life and death, past and present and future is more porous than we are trained to believe it is.

But yet, far from a dry spiritual meditation, or even a Malickian heartfelt grasp at inexplicable profundity, Legend of the Mountain is also really funny. The film's central montage, on the occasion of Shih Chun's wedding night, duplicates the rhythm of the opening, but throws in lots of shots of insect sex, because, you know, nature (I nominate "King Hu's Nature-Sex Montage" as the next great band name). The ghosts are constantly bickering and conspiring amongst themselves, no one listens, everyone is afraid of everyone else. Hu plays out these shifting alliances and secrets, the quick eyes, the halting speech, in long shots, where we always see more than any one character, most especially the hapless Shih Chun. As a wuxia mystery film, it feels more in the spirit of Tsui Hark's debut The Butterfly Murders (also from 1979) and other New Wave works than it does the contemporary kung fu films of Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, Lau Kar-leung and Chang Cheh. Hu was always slightly out of step with the mainstream of martial arts cinema, but always leading the way forward.

Shih is terrific as the scholar, dogged yet constantly befuddled, but ultimately competent (you do feel for him when he finally discovers how much he's been manipulated and the film's final shots wouldn't work if we didn't know this man so well as he stands alone against a raging river). It's a very different character than his ultra-confident swordsman in Dragon Gate Inn or even his not-as-clever-as-he-thinks scholar in A Touch of Zen. And enough cannot be said about Sylvia Chang, her ingenue performance here, as in Li han-hsiang's 1977 Dream of the Red Chamber (a stunning musical she starred in with Brigitte Lin), is almost unrecognizable from her grown-up roles in the late 80s (the Johnnie To films Seven Years Itch and All About Ah-long (which she also wrote), let alone her work as the best thing about the Aces Go Places sequels. More recently she's become a director of note, though I've only seen her short from the Taiwanese 10 + 10 compilation, a very moving film about capital punishment and religion.

The film was shot in Korea, at the same time and with some of the same sets as Hu's other 1979 film, the similarly titled Raining in the Mountain. There's apparently a longer, three hour cut of the film (the one I saw was just of the standard 100 minutes) that sounds amazing. Harry Chan shot both films, two of his first screen credits (he shot two other films in 1979: Ronny Yu and Philip Chan's The Servant and Cecile Tang Shu-shuen's The Hong Kong Tycoon. Chan spent the 80s and 90s working mostly in Hong Kong, on a couple of the Aces Go Places films as well as Tsui Hark's Working Class, and worked for Peter Chan's UFO in the 90s (He's a Woman, She's a Man). He's apparently spent the last 15 years or so working in Canadian television, including The Collector, jPod (his last credit, in 2008) and Saban's Ninja Turtles: The Next Mutation.

Monday, August 04, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Liu Jiayin's Oxhide

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

Liu Jiayin's Oxhide II was my favorite film at the 2009 Vancouver Film Festival. It's one of those marvelous film-going experiences where you don't know what you're seeing, and it turns out to be something wondrous, in this case a two and a half hour movie about a family making dumplings, shot in nine long takes, each set-up 45 degrees counterclockwise from the previous shot. It remains one of my favorites, and her short 607, which I saw at the 2010 VIFF (the family in a hotel room bathroom, making an undersea adventure out of their hands and a few mundane props), only confirmed by belief that Liu is one of the great filmmakers of our time.

So it was with great trepidation that I finally sat down to watch her first film, Oxhide, which won the VIFF Dragons & Tigers competition at the 2005 festival. I've had it here for months, but finally I built up the nerve and was not disappointed. Not as rigid as the sequel, or as magical as the short, it is nonetheless a striking piece of filmmaking. Again starring Liu and her parents, her long, oblique takes follow some period of time in their day to day lives. Process sequences: examining a piece of leather for defects, making sesame paste fit for consumption with noodles, cleaning some dirty windows, are interspersed with family arguments, which tend to be about one of two things: money and why Jiayin isn't growing any taller.

The money angle is somewhat expected, but Liu brings a fresh take on it. Her father initially prints some signs for a sale: everything 50% off. This works and he brings in some much needed cash to their tiny apartment (made all the tiny by Liu's compressed scope frames). But soon he becomes disgusted with this. He's set a fair price that compensates him for his labor. Why should he be forced to offer things at a discount, even a fake discount (by raising the initial price)? It's the charming obstinance with which a generation that's seen massive economic and social change negotiates the truly weird places they find themselves. You can't help but admire the guy for all his pig-headed foolishness.

Always Liu's camera is looking slightly away, she's giving us only side-long glances at her family (the murky quality of the available images certainly doesn't help, on film Oxhide II looked much brighter than what I have available here). Like what we're seeing is caught accidentally, not framed and composed for the cinema (though, as I recall, everything is carefully scripted beforehand in both Oxhide films). This can be frustrating at times (we spend five minutes staring at a table as Jiayin and her father work on the computer - why can't we see what they're working on), but I wonder why we're so curious. Shouldn't we be somewhat ashamed to look straight-on into other people's lives? Nothing tabloid-like or scandalous goes on here, and maybe that makes our peeping even worse.

Sunday, August 03, 2014

Running Out of Karma: King Hu's Painted Skin

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

King Hu's final film, it is, like his greatest work (A Touch of Zen) and his first film as an assistant director (The Enchanting Shadow), an adaptation of a story from the 18th Century collection of folk and supernatural tales Strange Stories from a  Chinese Studio by Pu Songling. Hu's previous film had been a failed collaboration with Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung on the first Swordsman film, and I wonder if there wasn't a bit of "I'll show you" at work in Hu's decision to make a film so closely related to Tsui and Ching's A Chinese Ghost Story, going so far as to include that film's female star, Joey Wong, in his cast.

Like Zen and Come Drink with Me, Painted Skin features a shifting protagonist. We begin with Adam Cheng's bourgeois nobody. He meets the ghost of Joey Wang and learns she's being trapped in-between the afterlife and reincarnation by a demon called "The King of Yin/Yang" and seeks out two Taoist priests to help her out. Then Cheng disappears from the narrative and we follow the priests (played by veteran supporting performers Wu Ma and Shun Lau) for awhile as they seek out an even better priest to fight the demon. Then we follow the super-priest (Sammo Hung) through the final third of the story.

In Zen, the similar progression from everyman to super-priest is tied up with  every other element of the film, as the heroes become less worldly and more divine, Hu's filmmaking becomes more abstract, more purely visual, more inexplicable. Painted Skin though remains grounded in the same kind of swathed in pale blue light early 90s wuxia world from beginning to end. The villains, whether through poor subtitling or lack of budget or both, always seem slightly comical and ridiculous, even when they're committing horrible acts (a far cry from the baby-killing demons in Ching Siu-tung and Johnnie To's The Heroic Trio, which also was released in 1993 and involves the netherworld creeping into the everyday and a journey into darkness to defeat it). Hu doesn't cut his wire-work stunts at the dizzying pace Ching does, but neither does he find time or space for more realistic fighting. The result is just a slower version of silly fights. If Hu didn't have such a brilliant eye for composition, light and space, the film would be intolerable.

It's fitting that Hu's final film would star Sammo Hung. The two had a long and fruitful collaboration, with Hung reportedly serving as an assistant action director on Come Drink with Me, though he was only 14 years old. He had small supporting roles in Dragon Gate Inn, A Touch of Zen and The Valiant Ones, and served as action director on the latter two as well as The Fate of Lee Khan. He looks old here, made up with a gray beard and wizard robes, aside from his introductory scenes, he doesn't really get time or space to develop his Taoist Gandalf character, nor does he have much opportunity to show off his fighting skills, given the supernatural nature of the action (Lam Ching-ying gets such a chance in a too-small cameo role as "The Purple Taoist").

Sammo appears to have peaked with 1989's Pedicab Driver. His 1990s directorial efforts are of low reputation (the only one I've seen is his final film, Once Upon a Time in China in America, the idea for which he either stole from Jackie Chan (Shanghai Noon) or vice versa) and he hasn't directed anything at all since 1997. That year he left Hong Kong for the US (oh how I long for a DVD set of his cop show with Arsenio Hall, Martial Law) and since his return to Hong Kong, has worked exclusively as choreographer, producer and supporting actor. All lot of small roles like his performance in Painted Skin, tantalizing with memories of past greatness but almost never reaching the heights of his previous work.

Running Out of Karma: Samson Chiu's Golden Chicken 2

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

The first Golden Chicken filtered 30 years of Hong Kong history through the life of one ridiculous prostitute and dared you not to be moved by her. Samson Chiu's sequel, released one year later tries the same trick, but with 30 years of Hong Kong cinema instead, most specifically the work of Wong Kar-wai.

Beginning in the year 2046 (the year Hong Kong finally will be fully incorporated into the People's Republic, and also of course the title of Wong's career-summarizing masterpiece, the editing for which was still in progress when this film was released), we meet Sandra Ng's Kum, the eponymous hooker. Now an old lady (she's had some work done), she meets a despondent young man and tries to talk him out of erasing his memory (as Hong Kongers of the future will do to deal with their romantic traumas). She tells him stories of a very bad year she had, 2003, with the message that as bad as it was, she wouldn't give up the memory for anything. The bulk of the film then is three stories of Kum's year. The first is her comical involvement with a couple of terrible johns: Ronald Cheng plays a man who is weirdly obsessed with her body hair (he has a memory problem: keeps forgetting his wife, Angelica Lee) and Anthony Wong as a client who's apparent goofy kinkiness is actually suicidal. Next is a section devoted to the SARS epidemic and the medical workers who work tirelessly to fight it, epitomized by a masked doctor played by Leon Lai. The third and by far longest story is Kum's lifelong relationship with her cousin (think As Tears Go By) Quincy, played by Jacky Cheung.

This story weaves Quincy into the margins of Kum's life as told in the first film. He's an inveterate schemer, an amoral capitalist who shows up every few years to charm Kum out of some money and break her heart. He's an ideal of a kind of Hong Kong ideology: one Christmas his big romantic gesture is a massive set of Christmas lights covering a skyscraper, drawing a giant $ on the HK skyline. Cheung matches Ng's manic performance, and both wring surprising pathos out of a film where the main character is named "Kum".

As in the first film, the high point comes with an Andy Lau cameo at the end. He leaves us, and Kum, with the promise that when we close our eyes and open them, we'll see our Hong Kong, the one we love most. Kum sees the 1980s skyline at night, blue and red and yellow and black, bright and in constant motion, a shot that could have come from any number of John Woo or Tsui Hark or Ringo Lam classics. I'm going to say it's from A Better Tomorrow.