Starting this Thursday, the Roxie plays host to A Rare Noir Is Good To Find: International Film Noir 1949-74, the followup series to last fall’s wildly popular noir showcase, The French Had A Name For It, which sold out most of its shows in its week-long run of classic French crime movies. The team behind that blockbuster event, former Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine and Midcentury Productions’ Don Malcolm, have put together another great calendar of notable noir, this time from around the world. Included in the program are fifteen films from ten different countries including France, Japan, Finland, Hong Kong, Denmark, Mexico, Greece, South Korea, Brazil, and Poland.
Screening in a triple-bill matinee on Saturday are three films from Japan that exemplify Japanese cinema’s effortless mastery of noir. Underworld Beauty (1958), by legendary director Seijin Suzuki, involves a bunch of guns, a fistful of stolen diamonds, a feisty gal named Akiko and an honorable ex-con, yakuza, double-crossing, shivs, and wild lindy hops, all presented in Suzuki’s garish and exhilarating style.
The second film of the trio, Pale Flower (1964, dir. Masahiro Shinoda), is a bleak little tale of gangsters, gambling, drugs, and a mysterious woman named Saeko who hangs out at a flower-card den and gets involved with the recently released prisoner Muraki, who’s just finished serving time for a gangland hit. Shot mostly at night and populated by junkies, yakuza, and gamblers, the film is a classic noir tale of desperation, addition, and fatalistic longing.
Rounding out the threesome is Intimidation (1960, dir. Koreyoshi Kurahara), a low-budget psychological thriller about a bank executive who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and who is blackmailed into larceny and crime. Clocking in at just over an hour, the film almost feels like an extended episode of Perry Mason, economically telling a tightly wound story of human corruption and greed.
The Wild Wild Rose (1960, dir. Tian-Ling Wang) features Hong Kong superstar Grace Chang, who ignites the screen as a flirty chanteuse involved in an ill-fated romance. Chang is a five-tool player, as she can sing, dance, act, and emote, and also looks like a million bucks. Chang applies her multi-octave vocal range to Mandarin-language adaptations of several songs from Carmen including a jazzy version of Habanero, as well as the aria from Madame Butterfly. She’s also surprisingly sympathetic as a bar girl who claims she can steal the heart of any man she chooses and who finds that her own heart is also at risk. The movie mixes melodrama, romance, a gangster named Cyclops, young lovers on the lam, and killer song-and-dance numbers into a heady brew.
I love American film noir but I love the idea of global noir even more, and I’m totally amped that the Roxie is presenting this brilliant series. Don’t miss it—
March 19-23, 2015
3117 16th Street
San Francisco CA 94110
CAAMfest, everyone’s favorite San Francisco-based Asian American arts festival, starts up this week and as usual it’s stuffed with films from Asian and Asian American directors, musical happenings, and food events. The festival spotlights veteran documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, including a premiere of his new feature-length documentary The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, which is about the Cambodian doctor perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning turn in The Killing Fields in 1984 and whose mysterious murder tragically ended his life some years later. Former CAAMfest/San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival director Chi-Hui Yang curates a program of shorts, Playtime, that includes Trails, Cyrus Tabar’s hallucinogenic microportrait of Tokyo, as well as a revival of the rarity Snipers In The Trees (1985), an early experimental short by Curtis Choy (The Fall of the I-Hotel). Below are a few other highlights of the upcoming cinematic onslaught.
Dot 2 Dot
Amos Why’s debut feature is the real deal, an intriguing look at Hong Kong’s past and present that uses the city’s unique history and geography as a backdrop for a thoughtful commentary on the transience of culture, place, and identity. The film follows Chung, a Chinese Canadian expat returning to HK who leaves dot-to-dot puzzles inscribed on the walls of the stations of the MTR, Hong Kong’s ubiquitous subway system. A recent mainland China emigre (Meng Ting-yi) begins to decipher Chung’s cryptograms and the two begin a virtual courtship, linked by Chung’s mysterious symbology. Director Why captures a street-level view of contemporary Hong Kong that’s filled with ordinary people who represent the multifaceted denizens of the city in the 21st century. The movie includes lots of non-touristy Hong Kong locations and has a great feel for the everyday sights and rhythms of the city. Hong Kong movie fans can also spot Susan Shaw as a language-school headmistress, and Tze-chung Lam, aka the chubby guy from Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, as a teacher, as well as TVB star Moses Chan (hiding his celebrity good-looks behind black-framed eyeglasses) as Chung. Though it fondly recalls the Hong Kong of the past, the movie isn’t overly sentimental or nostalgic. It’s a nice look at what’s vanished in Hong Kong over the past few decades and the rapidly accelerating changes in the city.
This US/Vietnam co-production is a slick and creepy horror movie by Ham Tran, the director of Journey From the Fall (2006), which looked at the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants in the US, as well as last year’s glam-slam How To Fight in Six-Inch Heels. Hollow is a quite a departure from Tran’s debut film and demonstrates both the uptick in genre films directed by Asian Americans in the past few years as well as the trend toward US/Asia co-productions. The story centers on Chi, whose younger half-sister Ai apparently drowns in a nearby river, causing Chi much guilt and anguish. But when Ai later turns up a few kilometers down the river seemingly alive and well, things take a turn for the supernatural as the young girl develops a greenish pallor, scratches at mysterious wounds, and otherwise exhibits signs of demonic possession. The movie does an good job blending Viet ghost stories with modern-day horror film tropes and for the most part keeps the source of the mysterious child-possession hidden until the end. I would like to have seen a bit more agency on the part of Chi’s character but the film draws interesting parallels between sex traffickers and malevolent spirits, trying together past and present evils in Viet society. The movie is nicely shot, although the soundtrack relies a bit too heavily on sudden loud and jarring violin sounds to emphasize the scary bits in the story, but there are some nice visceral touches—it’s always rewarding to see pimps and child abductors vomiting gallons of river water.
Nuoc 2030 is another US/Viet genre film coproduction, this one a science-fictional look at Vietnam in 2030, which is by then mostly flooded by global warming. The film’s title plays on the dual translation of “nuoc,” which means both “water” and “country” in Vietnamese. Despite a modest budget, director Nghiem-Minh Nguyen-Vo does an excellent job of world-building with his imaginative use of existing locations and evocative imagery to suggest a drowned world. The poetic narrative centers on Sao, a fisherman’s widow searching for clues to her husband’s murder in a watery Vietnam of the not-too-distant mid-21st century. For the most part the film delicately renders its futuristic storyline with imagination and vision, mixing in environmentalism, genetic engineering, and a fatalistic romance.
Jessey Tsang Tsui-Shan’s outstanding documentary looks Ho Chung village, a small settlement in Hong Kong’s New Territories, an area which is currently undergoing a construction boom due to its location near the Hong Kong/China border. Due to the harshness of farming in the region many NT residents immigrate to Europe to find work, including the two generations of the Lau Family featured in Tsang’s film. Tsuan shot much of the film during the village’s ten-year festival that occurs every decade, using that event as a means of examining the ongoing village diaspora and its effects on the residents. The Laus dispersed primarily to France and the UK and the film also includes footage of their lives overseas, with the resulting French/English-speaking children, intermarriages, and mixed-heritage offspring. Only the family’s world-weary matriarch remains in the village, where she bitterly reminisces about the poverty and hardship of farm life and her still-raging anger at her late husband, who emigrated to the UK decades before and who was only able to return a handful of times to visit his wife and children. The film is an excellent testament to the effects of globalization and the costs of modernization on ordinary people but it’s by no means downbeat or depressing, as it also celebrates the endurance of and connections to the villagers’ cultural roots as they return every decade to celebrate the festival.
My Voice, My Life
Oscar-winner (and former San Franciscan) Ruby Lam’s latest film follows several at-risk Hong Kong high school students as they prepare for a large-scale musical production. This verite-style doc celebrates the struggles and accomplishments of those who have been left out of Hong Kong’s fast-lane, including students from a school for the blind, recent mainland China immigrants, and those whose academics keep them from top-ranked educations. Part Fame, part Frederick Wiseman’s High School, the movie subtly reveals a lot about the social strata of contemporary Hong Kong and its constantly changing cultural milieu.
March 12-22, 2015
San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley
The day-and-date release in the U.S. of the movie version Triumph In The Skies (more popularly known as TITS) represents a renaissance of sorts for my boy Francis Ng, who’s enjoying a resurgence of popularity after a bunch of down years. Although probably best known for his straight-up thuggin’ in classic HK gangster movies like Young & Dangerous, The Mission, Exiled, and many many more, Francis has in the past year or so managed to reinvent himself and his public persona as a romantic lead, a family man, and an overall good guy. Ironically, although Francis is mostly a movie king, his rebranding has been based mostly on the popularity of a couple recent television series.
The sequel to the Hong Kong drama on which TITS is based started Francis on his road to recovery back in 2013 as TITS 2 racked up the ratings and online views in both HK and China. Francis reprised his role as Sam Gor, the serious and intense pilot for the fictional HK airline Skylette who moons over his dead wife and hooks up with the young hottie Holiday Ho. As with the original TITS back in 2004, HK audiences (as well as a sizable number of watchers in China) lapped it up and Francis’ popularity, which had mightily declined for a number of reasons (crappy film selection, aging, orneriness, and overall poor career choices) started to rise again.
But what really got things going again for Francis was another television series, the Hunan TV reality show Dad, Where Are We Going 2? which aired in 2014 and in which Francis starred with his darling boy Feynman, then five years old. The show features six celebrity dads and their ultra-cute offspring wandering the hinterlands of China and interacting with their country cousins. Due in large part to the otherwordly twee charm of his kid and his strict but loving interactions with said child, Francis made a big impression as a warm-hearted patriarch and counteracted his past rep as both a movie villain and a pain-in-the-ass diva actor. Francis released a film while the show was airing, The House That Never Dies, which was a huge box-office success in China due in no small part to his popularity on DWAWG.
Because of the popularity of TITS2, TVB, in association with Shaw Brothers, MediaAsia and its China-based subgroup China Film Media Asia, and a couple other China-based entities, have thus teamed up to produce a film version of the iconic drama series about Hong Kong flight crews and their various romantic entanglements. But despite bringing back Francis as Sam Gor, as well as Julian Cheung Chilam as Jayden “Captain Cool” Ku, the film doesn’t manage to recreate the melodramatic success of the original 2004 series or its 2013 sequel.
To start with, the movie drops the viewer in media res, which is fine if you know the backstories of the various characters, but is utterly frustrating for those unschooled in the minutiae of the characters or their past television lives. Weirdly enough, while relying on the audience’s assumed knowledge of the show, the movie also eliminates a lot of key narrative elements from the series, including the crucial love triangle between Sam, Jayden, and Holiday (who is gone completely missing in the movie), and in the film Sam and Jayden don’t even appear together. The film’s story consists of three vignettes featuring Sam, Jayden, and newcomer Branson (played by the inexpressive Louis Koo) which don’t interlock in any meaningful way. Aside from one scene, none of the male leads interact with each other, and Jayden seems to be on another continent for the entire film. Each of the vignettes lack any kind of dramatic tension, with almost nothing at stake for the characters, and they resolve in the most predictable ways possible. The film as a whole is missing self-awereness, irony, wit, or anything that might add a bit of an edge to the film, and the three narratives play out like long-form wristwatch adverts, with gratuitous product placements of bottled water, designer chocolates, and jd.com, the Chinese shopping site that miraculously ships within hours from Asia to London.
The lead actors don’t look too bad for their age (with Francis in his fifties and Chilam and Louis both mid-forties), and Charmaine Sheh and Sammi Cheng as the love interests are feasible and not too mismatched. Amber Kuo as Jayden’s girl-toy appears to be way too young for him, though, and their vignette in particular is pretty cringeful, relying on a remarkably tired plot twist and saddling poor Chilam with horribly clichéd romcom dialog about hearts living in other people’s bodies and the like. Sammi Cheng as a pop star (what?) is cool with her tattooed knuckles and hard-part eyebrow and she and Francis make a pretty pair, but the impetus for their hook-up is completely contrived. As a fangirl I did enjoy the sight of Sam Gor practicing his dance moves, but the question still remains: WHAT HAPPENED TO HIS FORMER GIRLFRIEND? There is also a gratuitous subplot involving a pair of mainland Chinese characters that concludes in the cheesiest way possible and which seems tacked on just so the PRC audience can hear a bit of Putonghua (inexplicably, the actor playing Louis Koo’s father also speaks Mandarin, though Louis Koo’s dialog is strictly in Hong Kong Cantonese).
As usual Francis does his thing, acting with his mouth full of food and with his eyebrows quirked, but honestly he doesn’t have a whole lot to do. There’s also a tiny bit of TITS fan service with Kenneth Ma and Elena Kong reprising their characters from the television drama and Kenneth Ma is anonymously humorous in the twenty seconds that he’s onscreen, but their appearances only underscore the calculated genesis of the film, in which the producers are trying to suck in as many customers as possible.
The entire viewing experience is like injesting an extra-large serving of Kraft Cheese Food Sticks, with lens flare, rainbows, designer clothes, and saturated color correction making for a pleasant but ultimately vacuous optical experience. Coming from a straight-up fanperson like myself who really wanted to like this movie, I think that, for all of its interminable schmaltziness, the TVB drama is actually a better product, since at least it had some interesting character conflicts and gave its performers space to emote a bit. The movie version is all hat and no cattle, with beautiful sunsets and ferris wheels and not much else. But the movie was number one at the box office in Hong Kong during the Lunar New Year holiday and made more than 100RMB during the same time period in China, which bodes well for Francis Ng and his rebooted career. He’s currently working on a film with Zhou Xun, he recently wrapped another Chinese romcom, Love Without Distance (directed by Hong Konger Aubrey Lam), and there’s already talk of another film sequel to TITS (noooooo!) Meanwhile, the Chinese film commerce machine rolls on, as TVB is planning to cash in with a movie version of another one of its recent dramas, Line Walker, with Nick Cheung and Lau Ching Wan rumored to star.
I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a mainstream movie like TITS is so overtly commercial, but being an optimist I always hope that these undertakings might squeeze in a bit of craft and care and maybe even some genuine artistry. No such luck here, but kudos to Francis Ng for riding the wave and coming out on top once again.
The 13th Annual Noir City film fest has come and gone, and as usual it was a celebration of audience-participation in fedoras and fox furs, with free booze samples in the Castro Theater mezzanine between the double-bills.
The glorious week and a half of movies, co-curated by Noir City founder Eddie Mueller and local rep movie queen Anita Monga (she also programs the Silent Film Festival), featured bleakness, backstabbing, angst, and deceit, with some programming surprises to leaven the usual shadowy mid-century filmic fare. I made it out to a fair percentage of the shows, and although I didn’t dig out my peplum jackets or pumps, I did catch several great movies along the way.
The festival’s theme was the subject of marriage and the films all dealt with (un) holy matrimony in one way or another. First up on the docket were a pair of movies set in Edwardian England that were all about killing your spouse. Ivy is a fun black widow film featuring Joan Fontaine as the conniving title character. Although set a bit earlier in history than the classic mid-twentieth-century noir, the film’s gorgeous camerawork by Touch of Evil cinematographer Russell Metty oozed with classic noir imagery including shadowed faces, silhouettes, forced perspective, and similarly expressionistic lighting and camera techniques. The movie’s fancy art direction included gorgeous peplums, ribbons, and frills defining the Edwardian look, with lead actress Fontaine in particular tricked out in period wear, but the storyline, about a married women who wants to bump off both her husband and her lover, is classic noir.
The second film in the double bill, The Suspect, is a much more nuanced look at spousacide, giving its protagonist a layered representation that adds a complexity to his possibly murderous motivations. Whereas in Ivy the doomed spouse is a cheerful and likeable chap, the wife in The Suspect is nothing but misery and her demise is a blessing, not a crime, which makes her suspected killer a sympathetic character rather than a heel. This perception is hugely aided by Charles Laughton’s subtle performance as the cuckolded husband wanting desperately to escape his unhappy marriage. Laughton acts with his entire body and his facial expressions and body language tell the tale beautifully. Ella Raines as the love interest is also pretty good, though her English accent slips in and out. Director Robert Siodmak creates an excellent and suspenseful narrative structure worthy of Hitchcock that never fully reveals the guilt or innocence of the main character–did he or didn’t he?
The festival also included a trifecta of Barbara Stanwyck films. Stanwyck was always good at playing intelligent women chafing again societal restrictions and her roles in the three films at Noir City this year were no exception. Fritz Lang’s Clash By Night, an adaptation of Clifford Odets’ Broadway play, is a bit stagey but it includes great performances by Stanwyck, Paul Douglas, and Robert Ryan (who I’ve always found a bit creepy due to his wrinkly forehead and intense eyebrows) as the three points of a love triangle set amidst the Monterey fishing canneries. A young Marilyn Monroe is also good as a spunky cannery worker involved with an abusive boyfriend, demonstrating the acting chops that were sometimes obscured in her later, glitzier films.
Even more pointedly critiquing the strictures of the oppressed housewife ground to dust by society’s expectations is Crime of Passion. Though possessing a less stellar pedigree than Clash By Night, the movie nonetheless makes an airtight argument for the case that restricting women to confining gender roles leads to murder and madness. Stanwyck plays a hotshot newswoman who falls for a manly cop (Sterling Hayden) who then gives up her career to become the little woman. Seeing Hayden as a romantic lead is a bit weird for me, since I’m mostly familiar with his later career as a dissolute character actor. But Hayden began his career as a male model and was considered a babe when he was younger, though by the time this movie was filmed he’d already started to get a bit jowly around the edges. At any rate, his extra-large build is a worthy lure for Stanwyck’s feisty female news reporter and it feels plausible that an independent gal might abandon her career for the likes of such a hypermasculine specimen.
Rounding off the mini-set of Stanwyck was the classic noir weepy, No Man of Her Own. Stanwyck plays a pregnant woman abandoned by her no-good boyfriend who, through a set of implausible circumstances, poses as the wife of a man killed in a train accident. She and her newborn son are taken in by her “husband’s” family and the film mostly centers on the psychological strain of deceiving her new in-laws and fending off their warm and fuzzy affections. Based on a Cornell Woolrich short story, the film focuses on Stanwyck’s reformed outsider attempting to maintain her newfound place among a family of white Christian pillars of society. Stanwyck is as usual magnificent in all three films, using her face, her posture, and the subtle inflection of her dialog to convey the psychic crises of her characters as each struggles with devastating interior conflicts.
Noir City also included a couple films from the famous Thin Man series, starring William Powell and Myrna Loy, which focus on rich people who got the sweet end of the lollipop, and the A-list MGM production provided an interesting contrast to the grittier fare in the rest of the festival. After watching one-percenters Nick and Nora Charles sashay through the two films in top hats, satin smoking jackets, and feathery dressing gowns it was easy to discern the much different thematic and stylistic concerns found in film noir, which usually focuses on the losers in life. Similarly, the Claudette Colbert-Robert Cummings vehicle, Sleep, My Love (dir. Douglas Sirk) strictly speaking wasn’t noir either, as the wealthy heiress and her playboy suitor were entirely too optimistic and guileless to be true noir protagonists. If it had been a textbook noir film the lead character would’ve been the slinky photographer’s model Daphne, who snarls the classic lines, “I want her house, I want her life, and I want her man.”
An interesting side aspect that caught my eye: Chinese people and/or culture made appearances or were referenced in three of the films that I saw in the series. Yet as per usual for Hollywood at the time, only one of those representations, in Sirk’s Sleep, My Love, was thoughtful and not insulting. In that movie Keye Luke has a supporting role as Robert Cumming’s pal-friday, first appearing in an extended scene at his own wedding. Said Chinese wedding is only mildly orientalized, at first as a punchline to the Cummings comment that he’s invited to wedding of his “brother” (who turns out to be with his Chinese business partner, played by Luke). Later, the Chinese male gets to have a healthy and normal sex drive as he avidly makes out with his new wife in anticipation of their wedding night, and a running joke centers on the couple’s eager impatience to get to the honeymoon suite. Luke speaks unaccented English and is Cumming’s partner and friend, not subordinate or servant, which for the 1940s is pretty progressive. Props to Sirk for a balanced and sympathetic portrayal of Chinese culture in general and a Chinese man in particular.
The other appearances of Chinese culture in Noir City films this year consisted of standard stereotypes and reflect the casual racism that’s always been business as usual in Hollywood’s representation of Asians. In the otherwise respectable Barbara Stanwyck vehicle Clash By Night Robert Ryan’s cynical loner character Earl inexplicably does his “Chinese impersonation,”a ching-chong imitation of Chinese speech complete with the corners of his eyes pulled up. In After The Thin Man, the film depicts San Francisco’s local color in part by setting several scenes in a Chinese nightclub. Lum Kee, the nightclub owner and one of the many murder suspects in the film, speaks mostly unaccented English for the bulk of the film but his closing line of dialog is for some reason delivered in a broken ching-chong accent. Side note: before breaking out as a big-time star in the Thin Man series Myrna Loy was known for playing a series of yellowface roles.
Coming up in March will be the International Film Noir series at the Roxie Theater, organized by Don Malcolm, who put together the French Noir festival there last November, and Elliot Lavine, the programmer of I Wake Up Dreaming, the Roxie’s annual noir festival. More noir is always better, so I’m looking forward to ingesting more dark visions of crime, duplicitousness, and paranoia.
So there was a brief frisson of recognition amongst my film and art pals this morning to the video of Swedish director Ruben Östlund reacting to the news that his film Force Majeure hadn’t been nominated for the Best Foreign Language Film Oscar. Though it was pretty cheeky of Östlund to assume his film was a shoo-in, a lot of us artist types could totally relate to his mild freakout in a New York City hotel room (“Don’t undress!” pleaded his companion) as he faced this unexpected diss. Since constant rejections are part of the film/art world game, I definitely had a sympathy flinch or two when I watched the clip on my newsfeed. Östlund has since said that his reaction was sincere, (though some observers think he was pranking, especially since the video showed up on his production company’s youtube channel), but whether or not his mancrying was staged or spontaneous, it wasn’t too far from how I’ve felt many a time in the past. Of course, only five films from around the world get nominated and most do not, so Östlund is in plenty good company.
Another great movie that didn’t get nominated for the Oscar is Human Capital, Italy’s entry into the foreign-language sweepstakes. Opening this weekend, the movie is a cleverly structured look at class, privilege, greed, and desire in contemporary Italian society. The film opens with a quick sequence of events in which a bicyclist is hit by a car on a lonely country road, with the car’s driver continuing on without stopping. The movie then flashes back six months to deconstruct the events leading up to the hit-and-run from the various points of view of several key players including Dino, a scruffy social climber who mortgages his house to buy into a shady hedge fund, Carla, the anxious wife of said hedge fund’s unctuous manager Giovanni, and Serena, Dino’s teenage daughter who is involved with Carla and Giovanni’s spoiled son Massimiliano. Along the way the film touches on the social and economic divides within Italian society and the price that some people are willing to pay in order to advance themselves.
The film is sleek and fast-moving, efficiently weaving together the disparate versions of the story into a satisfying whole. Director Paolo Virzi has a sharp eye for social foibles and finds a lot of bone-dry humor in the characters’ dire situation. One amusing scene in which a group of catty drama aficionados critique the state of contemporary theater arts demonstrates Virzi’s knack for quickly and clearly delineating character traits and interpersonal tensions. He also elicits uniformly solid performances from his cast, lead by newcomer Matilde Gioli’s levelheaded turn as Serena—also good are veteran actors Fabrizio Bentivoglio as the cluelessly ambitious Dino and Valeria Bruni Tedeschi as the mournful, jittery Carla. Though based on a novel originally set in Connecticut, the story makes an effective transition to the suburbs of Milan, with Giovanni’s luxe marble villa, complete with indoor swimming pool and private tennis courts, contrasting with the Dino’s messy middle-class abode.
Director Virzi uses the multiple-point-of-view narrative technique, popularized in Kurosawa’s Rashoman back in the 1950s, to underscore the vast chasm between the stratified social classes in contemporary Italy. All of the characters believe in the veracity and reliability of their perspectives and for the most part can’t see beyond their own noses, suggesting a lack of empathy that contributes to social anomie. The exception to this is Serena, whose great sympathy for the plight of others makes her the moral center of the film. Virzi privileges her perspective by concluding the film’s fractured narrative structure with Serena’s point of view, which adds a small spark of hope that humanity might still rise up from the depravity, greed, and selfishness embodied by the other characters in the film.
A quick tip: this week is the start of the 13th Noir City Film Festival at the glorious Castro Theater in San Francisco. The ten-day festival is chock full of treats, many projected from 35mm prints. Favorite noir actors including Barbara Stanwyck and Robert Ryan, and directors Fritz Lang, Douglas Sirk, and Robert Siodmak, among many others, have films in the program, which is always a great time. Don’t miss it—I certainly won’t.
Opens January 14,
Landmark Opera Plaza, San Francisco
California Film Institute, San Rafael
January 14-24, 2015
Classic Chinese pop music, known as Cantopop or Mandopop depending on the dialect, is a bit of an acquired taste. It’s all smooth edges and soft sounds, designed to soothe and comfort, as opposed to, say, the techno-hip hop flavors of Kpop. It’s no surprise that Western imports like Air Supply, kings of the power ballad, are hugely popular in China and Hong Kong. There are of course exceptions to this, including the hard-rocking Cantopop kings Beyond, but the top of the charts in Hong Kong as well as on the mainland have since the 1980s been dominated by sleek pop balladeers such as Jacky Cheung, Faye Wong, and Andy Lau.
The cinematic equivalent of Canto/Mandopop would be Back In Time, (aka Fleet of Time), which recently played here in the U.S. as a day and date release with China. The film was number one at the box office in China before being bumped off the top spot by Jiang Wen’s Gone With The Bullets. Like a lot of Chinese pop music, Back In Time is competently crafted and pleasant to experience, but soft and cloying, without a lot of rough edges.
A slick weepy with attractive leads in Eddie Peng (most recently seen kicking ass in The Rise of the Legend and Unbeaten, among other manly roles) and Nini (chief flower in Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War), Back In Time is unabashedly nostalgic as it traces the relationships of a group of friends from their high school days to adulthood. The main narrative follows the reminiscences of businessman Chen Xun (Peng) as he recalls his chaste adolescent romance with the Fang Hui (Nini), a transfer student to his secondary school. Although the two promise everlasting devotion, for the sake of narrative tension their romance hits the skids. Will they kiss and make up or will they forever be lost to one another? The film’s gauzy, soft-focus shots of billowing curtains, rain-slicked streets, snowy landscapes, and characters literally crying in their beer heighten the overall sentimentality of the proceedings.
The movie is also fairly apolitical, despite spanning a period of great change in Chinese history (roughly 1999 to the present day). Although China went through a lot during that time, almost none of this is present in the film (except a reference to Beijing’s winning bid to be the site of the 2008 Olympics). Instead the film focuses on its youthful love story, which strips the narrative of most of its historical context and content. Compared to Taiwan’s similarly structured Girlfriend/Boyfriend (2012), which actively incorporated student political demonstrations into its story, Back In Time only briefly touches on events that occurred during its timeline. The rest of the film takes place in a historical vacuum, with the passage of time primarily reflected in the changing hairstyles and cell phones of the protagonists (with wigs worn with varying degrees of success, including Eddie Peng’s ill-fitting late-90s mop and Nini’s curiously changing hair lengths).
Lead by the pretty leading pair played by Peng and Nini, the film’s cast is winning and earnest, though in the earlier parts of the movie some of the performers look way too old to be high school students. There are also a few confusing plot developments such as a hissy fit at an outdoor restaurant that escalates without explanation into a knock-down brawl, but none of them as contrived or annoying as those found in the Nicholas Tse/Gao Yuan Yuan romantic drama stinker, But Always. But Back In Time, though by no means racy, also deals fairly frankly with sexuality, a change from many similar melodramas of its ilk that’s worth a few points in my book. At times the overwrought emotionality of the movie just barely avoids self-parody and isn’t helped by the swelling violins and tinkly piano on the soundtrack. But it’s a watchable timepass, especially if you’re in the mood for a deeply emo cinematic experience.
With Back In Time, distributor China Lion continues to hit its stride. Unlike the typical Asian genre fare of gangster, martial arts, and wuxia films usually distributed in the U.S. and aimed at Western sensibilities, CL’s most recent releases aim straight for the Chinese expat community. Its last five titles released in 2014—Back In Time, Women Who Flirt, Love On A Cloud, Breakup Buddies, and But Always—are romantic dramas or comedies and feature performers popular in China but mostly unknown in the U.S. even among Asian film aficionados, with the exception of Nicholas Tse and possibly Zhou Xun. These movies also differ from the output of international arthouse favorites like Zhang Yimou or Chen Kaige and are solidly middlebrow and commercial, created to entertain and not to startle, and have found an audience in the U.S. Deadline.com notes, “China Lion has had success with romantic dramas imported from Chinese-speaking regions in the past. They handled Beijing Love Story ($428K cume) in February and other past titles include Love ($309K cume) and Love In The Buff ($256K cume).”
Back In Time (as well as the CL releases that immediately preceded and follow it, Pang Ho-Cheung’s Women Who Flirt and the Angelababy vehicle Love On A Cloud) demonstrates that China Lion has figured out a winning formula that works for its Chinese expat niche audience. Though many of these films may not be appealing to the typical Asian-film fanboy in the U.S., to Chinese audiences away from home they’re just like listening to the latest Jacky Cheung CD—they’re a soothingly familiar entertainment experience.
Legendary director Tsui Hark has been a fixture on the Hong Kong cinema scene since the 1970s (except for a little hiccup in the 90s when he made a couple crappy Hollywood movies with Jean Claude Van Damme, but let’s not talk about that now). His string of significant cinema work started in 1979 with The Butterfly Murders, moved through the 1990s with a slew of indispensible films including A Better Tomorrow (producer), A Chinese Ghost Story (producer), and the Once Upon A Time In China series (director), and continues to the present day with a clutch of period action films including Detective Dee 1 & 2 and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. His latest joint, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, just opened in the U.S. a week after its successful debut in China, where it’s the top film at the box office.
The film is based on a popular Beijing opera (from the novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest) that was one the Eight Model Plays sanctioned by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. The opera was adapted into a film in 1970 that Tsui Hark, along with most of China’s other 800 million people at the time, viewed as a youth. Tsui’s current adaptation is a co-production of the heavy-hitting commercial studio BONA Film Group and the August First Film Studio, which is the film-producing branch of China’s People’s Liberation Army, and the influence of these disparate financing sources shows in the finished product. While it mostly passes as an energetic action/adventure movie, Tiger Mountain also has the smell of Chinese military propaganda, which inhibits some of director Tsui’s more maverick instincts.
The story is based on a true incident that took place in 1946 during China’s civil war, in which a small platoon of PLA fighters overcame a much larger bandit crew (alluded to as affiliated with the Kuomintang, the PLA’s opposition during the civil war) that’s holed up in a mountain stronghold. The film opens with a framing device in which Jimmy (Han Geng), a young modern-day Chinese student in the U.S., sees a snippet of the 1970 Taking Tiger Mountain film. As his buddies laugh at the old-fashioned opera stylings, Jimmy smiles fondly and later watches the film on his phone as he travels home to Harbin. The movie then cuts to the main action as the PLA platoon struggles to protect a village from the KMT bandits while confronting a lack of food and supplies as well as the onset of winter. As the situation worsens the platoon’s leader, known only as 203, decides to storm the bandit’s hideout on Tiger Mountain, sending in Yang (Zhang Hanyu), a PLA intelligence agent, to infiltrate the gang. The main body of the film follows Yang as he works from within the bandits’ lair while his compatriots endeavor to attack the stronghold from without. After a somewhat slow setup the narrative picks up speed around the forty-minute mark once Yang makes his way into the good graces of the bandit leader, Hawk. Following much intrigue and double-crossing the film concludes with a rip-roaring battle in the snowy mountain as the heroic PLA troops clash with the diabolical KMT bandits.
Tiger Mountain was released in China in 3-D (although its U.S. release is only in 2-D), and the film’s first brief battle sequence feels a bit too gamish, with slo-mo bullet-cam shots and computer-animated blood spurts probably better appreciated stereoscopically, The later, more extended action sequences, including an outstanding siege of a small village, are more engaging and rely less on CGI and more on real hand-to-hand combat and kinetic fight choreography. The climatic battle sequence and a brief coda involving a runaway plane are both pretty thrilling and demonstrate Tsui’s sure hand with action, characters, and special effects.
Tsui draws out solid performances throughout, although some of the film’s characters fall into standard war-movie types. Zhang Hanyu is dashing and resourceful as Yang, the fearless PLA spy sent to infiltrate the bandit camp, and he has several outstanding moments that convincingly demonstrate Yang’s ability to think on his feet. Tony Leung Ka-Fai plays a few years older in a bald-wig and hook nose as Hawk, the ruthless bandit leader, and it’s great to see him sink his teeth into the meaty character role. Lin Genxing is forthright, square-jawed, and handsome as the platoon’s captain but otherwise isn’t terribly compelling. Yu Nan doesn’t get to exercise her usual steely bravado since she’s mostly a captive throughout, though she does escape her bondage several times during the course of the film. Tong Liya as Little Dove, the doughty nurse, is predictably brave and lion-hearted. There’s also a cute little traumatized kid who gets to play a heroic role in the last battle as well as provide a manipulative emotional moment at the film’s climax.
As a Western viewer it’s a bit odd for me to root for the PLA since in my mind the Chinese army is forever linked with the 1989 brutality of Tiananmen Square, but PRC audiences undoubtedly have more positive associations with China’s military. Chinese viewers also probably feel a more visceral response to the strains of the familiar revolutionary opera on the soundtrack and find kinship with Jimmy and his nostalgic journey home to rediscover his family’s PLA roots.
In fact, Jimmy can be seen as a surrogate for Tsui himself, as at the outset of the film he recalls his nostalgic U.S. encounter with the original Taking Tiger Mountain film. Later, at the film’s conclusion, Jimmy is surrounded by a cadre of PLA soldiers and can only smile helplessly, submitting to the collective PLA memories, even as he tries to re-imagine a different version of the narrative’s conclusion. The PLA perspective, and by extension the August First version of the story, is too overwhelming to contradict.
Under different circumstances Tsui really could’ve cut loose but may have felt constrained by the sanctity of the material and/or by the military film office breathing down his neck. The film is much less irreverent and less of a pointed critique than some of his earlier productions that scathingly sent up organized religion (Green Snake), corrupt government officials (New Dragon Gate Inn), and colonial malfeasance (Once Upon A Time In China). Nonetheless, hints of Tsui’s signature style sneak in via the Road Warrior-esque bandit fashions including mohawks, facial tats, and various other quirky costuming choices that recall the art direction of Tsui’s earlier films including The Blade. Another glimpse of the film that might have been is an electrifying throwaway coda involving a speeding fighter jet, a long tunnel, and a very high precipice. Still, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is nowhere near as heinously patriotic as earlier glossy August First propaganda productions like The Founding of A Republic from a few years back. It’s to Tsui’s credit that he’s able to create a highly watchable and sometimes exhilarating film, however restricted he may have been by his material and his funding sources.