Friday, November 07, 2014

Running Out of Karma: My Lucky Star

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

In 2009, Zhang Ziyi starred and produced the ultra-manic-pixie Sophie's Revenge, a romcom in which she plays a cartoonist that nonetheless lacks a tenth of the nuance or emotional maturity of Caroline in the City. It was a big hit.

In 2013, she made a prequel, I guess, in which she reprises her role as Sophie. There's almost no connection to the previous film, the prequel status I guess comes from the fact that she's not yet a successful cartoonist, instead working at a travel agency. Also, instead of strictly a romantic comedy, Sophie finds herself, on vacation in Macao, getting accidentally mixed up in a James Bond film (a la Romancing the Stone, the story she finds herself in is eerily similar to the comics she's been writing, a hint of a deeper level of mental illness to Sophie the film never bothers to explore, instead it just lies there as a flat meta-joke and scene transition device, where the characters transform into drawn versions of themselves, a technique that felt stale 20 years ago in the first Young and Dangerous film). She meets a debonair spy, mangles his operation and gets targeted by the film's villain, who, in the film's weirdest twist, is played by none other than Hou Hsiao-hsien's favorite screen avatar, Jack Kao. The director is Dennie Gordon, a veteran of television and director of the David Spade classic Joe Dirt and the Amanda Bynes epic What a Girl Wants.

The spy story is rote and the comedy is both lame and boring, but the film, like Sophie's Revenge, is weirdly fascinating. Zhang, a brilliant dramatic actress and by all nonsense one of the more beautiful movie stars in the world, seems pathologically intent on goofing up her persona, ratcheting the gawkiness to levels that, in the hands of a more skilled director, almost remind one of Jerry Lewis. But given the inchoate swirl of digital fakery that surrounds her (the first film, though set in Bejing, weirdly had almost no sense of place; this one, spread through the Chinese speaking world in Singapore, Hong Kong, and Macao, with a brief coda in Europe, is even less rooted in any kind of recognizable place), the main effect we get is not of a clumsy and awkward girl, but of an actress who really, really wants you to think she's clumsy and awkward.

This kind of flagellation of the beautiful actress is a constant trope in the romantic comedy genre, of course, but Zhang takes it to uncomfortable levels (like everything else in the film, it isn't committed enough to make something truly obscene or transgressive, just kind of gross). She gets a dance sequence, which she of course clumsies up before being rescued at the last minute (by her man, who takes over a drum set and gives her a driving beat, which is, um, a metaphor I guess). To be fair, the dance is both choreographed and shot better than Zhang's dance in Rob Marshall's Memoirs of a Geisha, but that's not saying much. Why only Zhang Yimou has been able to capture Zhang's gracefulness as a dancer on film remains a mystery to me.

The man saves her and they continue their mission. The villain, Kao's boss, runs out to be a woman, naturally enough. She's got a black widow tattoo on her neck, and she has four dead husbands. Of course, she's also in love with the hero, and his betrayal of her is what sets the plot in motion (she's heartbroken and so wants to blow up Bermuda -- seriously) and ultimately proves to be her undoing. Sophie tags along and constantly screws up their operations until the climax, when her determination and spunk, well, don't exactly win the day, but lead her to be in the right place at the time when her brainless awkwardness accidentally causes something good to happen while the hero wins the day. Then she goes home, alone, because the man rejects her (he's a spy, just doing his job).

Back in Beijing she uses her new-found confidence to quit the job she's terrible at anyway and gets a dog. And somehow she's in Italy drawing pictures of people on the street. And then her prince comes and rescues her, for some reason, and they live happily ever after. Except they don't I guess because this is a prequel and there's no relation between how this one ends and the Sophie we know from the other film so what the hell.

Sunday, November 02, 2014

This Week in Rankings

I've been to Vancouver and back since the last update. Here's an index of my coverage of VIFF 2014. Since I've been back, I've been watching some Hong Kong movies, naturally enough, with reviews of Blind Detective, A Better Tomorrow III and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (I also reviewed Accident before I left). We've also had three episodes of The George Sanders Show, on Wavelength and Videodrome, on How to Marry a Millionaire and Down with Love and on Gone Girl and The Vanishing.

All of my various lists are up-to-date over on letterboxd, including my Running Out of Karma list, which is now up to 157 films. I've also got short reviews over there for most of the films I don't cover here.

These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

Little Man, What Now? - 5, 1934
Cat People (Jacques Tourneur) - 2, 1942
The Leopard Man (Jacques Tourneur) - 5, 1943
I Walked with a Zombie (Jacques Turner) - 7, 1943
The Body Snatcher (Robert Wise) - 25, 1945

How to Marry a Millionaire (Jean Negulesco) - 25, 1953
Creature from the Black Lagoon (Jack Arnold) - 27, 1954
Toute la mémoire du monde (Alain Resnais) - 7, 1956
The Nutty Professor (Jerry Lewis) - 9, 1963
Beyond the Great Wall (Li Han-hsiang) - 21, 1964
Videodrome (David Cronenberg) - 7, 1983

The Vanishing (George Sluizer) - 33, 1988
A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon - 7, 1989
King of Comedy (Stephen Chow & Lee Lik-chi) - 9, 1999
Toutes les nuits (Eugène Green) - 24, 2001
Russian Ark (Alexander Sokurov) - 7, 2002
Down with Love (Peyton Reed) - 10, 2003

Love Battlefield (Soi Cheang) - 15, 2004
Fantasia (Wai Ka-fai) - 19, 2004
The Death Curse (Soi Cheang) - 41, 2004
The Shopaholics (Wai Ka-fai) - 14, 2006
Cocktail (Herman Yau & Long Ching) - 31, 2006

High Noon (Heiward Mak) - 43, 2008
Ex (Heiward Mak) - 9, 2011
The Color Wheel (Alex Ross Perry) - 12, 2011
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui Hark) - 31, 2011
The Tale of the Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata) - 3, 2013

Blind Detective (Johnnie To) - 4, 2013
The Wolf of Wall Street (Martin Scorsese) - 10, 2013
Miss and the Doctors (Axelle Ropert) - 33, 2013
So Young (Zhao Wei) - 36, 2013
The Owners (Adilkhan Yerzhanov) - 53, 2013

130919: A Portrait of Marina Abramovic (Matthu Placek) - 61, 2013
Hill of Freedom (Hong Sangsoo) - 2, 2014
The Midnight After (Fruit Chan) - 3, 2014
Jauja (Lisandro Alonso) - 4, 2014
Uncertain Relationships Society (Heiward Mak) - 6, 2014

Horse Money (Pedro Costa) - 7, 2014
National Gallery (Frederick Wiseman) - 8, 2014
Adieu au langage (Jean-Luc Godard) - 10, 2014
Listen Up Philip (Alex Ross Perry) - 11, 2014
Gone Girl (David Fincher) - 12, 2014

La Sapienza (Eugène Green) - 13, 2014
White, Heat, Lights (Takashi Nakajima) - 15, 2014
Winter Sleep (Nuri Bilge Ceylan) - 18, 2014
Highway (Imtiaz Ali) - 19, 2014
Welcome to New York (Abel Ferrara) - 20, 2014
The Rehearsal (Carl-Antonyn Dufault) - 21, 2014

Heaven Knows What (Ben & Joshua Sadie) - 23, 2014
Ballet 422 (Jody Lee Lipes) - 24, 2014
The Golden Era (Ann Hui) - 26, 2014
Two Days, One Night (Jean-Pierre & Luc Dardenne) - 27, 2014
Mr. Turner (Mike Leigh) - 28, 2014

Ow (Yohei Suzuki) - 29, 2014
The Furthest End Awaits (Chaing Hsiu-chiung) - 34, 2014
Everything Will Be (Julia Kwan) - 35, 2014
Magnificent View (Nam Keun-hak) - 37, 2014
Exit (Chenn Hsiang) - 40, 2014
Broken Palace (Ross Munro) - 2014