A new South Korean action movie is usually a cause for celebration in my house and after the trifecta of ass-kicking historicals last year (The Pirates; Kundo: Age of the Rampant, and The Admiral: Roaring Currents) I was looking forward to seeing Memories of the Sword, which opens this weekend in North America. As a big Lee Byung-hun fangirl, I mean, scholar, I’m also happy to see one of my favorite actors in a genuine starring role after suffering through his supporting roles in a string of mediocre Hollywood movies (GI Joe 1 & 2; Red 2, and Terminator: Genysis). And since LBH’s last historical film, Masquerade, was outstanding, I had high hopes for this new one. Alas, Memories of the Sword is no Masquerade, and doesn’t stand up to the big three historicals from last year either.
I should’ve known that things were amiss when Memories took forever to be released. Although it began production in 2013 and was completed in 2014, the film has languished for many months due to a salacious blackmailing scandal involving LBH (who’s married) and a couple of younger women. That tawdry episode concluded earlier this year with prison sentences for the two women.
So despite a big-name cast that also includes Jeon Do-yeon (The Housemaid) and Lee Junho from boy band 2PM, the bloom is off the rose as audience buzz for this one has died down to a murmur. But the film has other flaws that make this one more of a miss than a hit.
Right off the bat the film throws down the wire-fu gauntlet as young swordswoman Hong-Yi (Kim Go-eun) leaps many feet over a tall sunflower, then bounds high in the air across a grassy field. Following a swordfighting competition that she enters in drag, Hong-Yi encounters Yu-Baek (LBH) who is intrigued by her martial arts skills. The film then follows a convoluted narrative of betrayal, ambition, revenge, and concealed identity involving Hong-Yi, Yu-Baek, and Hong-Yi’s foster mother Sul Rang (Jeon Do-Yeon).
Although the movie possesses the usual sheen and polish of South Korean commercial movies, the film is burdened by a vastly overcomplicated plot and a dour overall demeanor. Everyone has something to hide and the angst is laid on pretty thick as characters weep regretfully while slashing and stabbing one another. The interlocking interpersonal relationships recall the intricacies of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon minus Lee’s poeticism and his strong sense of narrative rhythm, and in fact the film resembles CTHD in its costuming, its scenes of fights in bamboo forests, and its complicated court intrigue.
Yet Memories is missing Ang Lee’s masterful touch, as the film’s characters repeatedly explain their motivations and relationships to one another through long, anguished speeches or angry outbursts. Not much is left to subtlety or suggestion, yet the film still manages to bog down in confusing plot details. It’s not helpful either that most of the characters have two names and identities, which is not a spoiler in any way.
Lee Byung-Hun as usual cuts a commanding figure as the ambitious Yoo-Baek, and Jeon Do-Yeon is her expressive and emotive self. The younger actors, Kim Go-eun and Lee Junho, are also fine, though Lee doesn’t have a lot to do. Kim is convincing as the young swordswoman driven to vengeance by forces outside of her control and it’s nice to have a female protagonist in a martial arts movie. But the film feels murky and overly serious, with a leaden sense of import that drags down the story. Some of the images are quite lovely, including a beautiful swordfighting scene in a field of pale, feathery grasses, but too often the movie falls back on clichés like the metallic ringing of a sword drawn from its sheath that’s repeated a few too many times. In addition, when their demise would be inconvenient to the plot, several of the main characters have the death-defying ability to survive seemingly fatal sword wounds.
It’s always fun to see the lavishness of a South Korean movie on the big screen but with Memories as well as last month’s Assassination, both films feel a bit overstuffed. In both cases the over-the-top aesthetic of South Korean commercial cinema works to each film’s detriment, smothering any sense of artistry or nuance under a blanket of glossy emptiness.
Memories of the Sword, dir. Park Heung-sik
opens Fri. Aug. 28, 2015
AMC Metreon 16
135 4th St Suite 3000, San Francisco, CA 94103
Back in 1980s and 90s when Hong Kong cinema ruled the world, the undisputed god of acting was Chow Yun-Fat and his most renowned collaborator was the king of heroic bloodshed, John Woo. But close on Woo’s heels was his grittier, darker compatriot, Ringo Lam, who also made several classic HK crime movies starring Chow. Beginning with City on Fire and continuing through Prison On Fire 1 and 2, Wild Search, and Full Contact, Chow and Lam worked on a string of indispensible action movies that defined the crime film genre in the former Crown Colony.
But after directing eleven films from 1987-1995, many of them excellent and some of them masterpieces, Lam’s output declined—in 1997 he made a crappy Hollywood movie with Jean Claude Van Damme, then returned to Hong Kong to direct the brutal and amazing post-handover cop-and-criminal film Full Alert. But since 1997 Lam has only directed six films. So it was with much rejoicing that Hong Kong movie fanpeople reacted to the news last year that Lam was directing his first film since 2002 and was returning to Hong Kong to make it. That film, Wild City, opens this weekend in the US on a near day-and-date release with China and a month before its debut in Hong Kong.
The story concerns T-Man, a former cop who comes across a forlorn woman drinking in the bar he now owns. As with many dames in crime movies she’s nothing but trouble, and soon T-Man is embroiled in a mess, along with his hotheaded half-brother Chung, running across gangsters, thieves, crooks, and cheaters.
The movie is a throwback to Lam’s glory days and focuses on themes and situations from his classic films with Chow. Not only that but it’s set en la calle in Hong Kong and much of it is in very vernacular Cantonese. If you close your eyes you can almost imagine that it’s 1992 all over again, except that since this is the 21st century the movie stars the ubiquitous Louis Koo and half of the cast are from Taiwan or the PRC, with the dialogue littered with the unmistakable presence of Putonghua.
Like a lot of Lam’s ouevre, Wild City draws on several classic film noir tropes. Tong Liya plays the beautiful and mysterious woman with a dark past. Louis Koo is the disgraced former cop with the impulsive, loose cannon half-brother (Shawn Yue) whose nuts he repeatedly has to pull from the fire. The bad guys, led by the moody Joseph Chang (here playing against type as a Taiwanese gangster) are ruthless yet possess a strong sense of loyalty and brotherhood. The nighttime streets of Hong Kong are dark and slicked with rain and Lam’s camera roams restlessly with its characters through the city’s environs.
As with Lam’s past films, the characters are nuanced and shaded, with the good guys displaying flaws and the bad guys showing grief and remorse. Lam also includes his trademark social critique—the very first image of the film is of a Hong Kong 1000 dollar bill that dissolves into a nighttime skyline of the city. The film then cuts to a street-level view of crowds of people in the city at night, lingering on an image of a homeless woman living in a cardboard box, with Louis Koo’s voiceover stating, “We are all driven by one issue: money.” The plot turns on the rampant greed ruining the lives of the characters as well as destroying Hong Kong, and much of the narrative focuses on the looming presence of a shiny suitcase full of gold and currency, with its corrosive influence a metaphor for capitalism’s corrupt effects. The film also reflects Hong Kong’s current state of anxiety, with several characters expressing the difficulty in finding a place to call home.
No one directs an action sequence like Ringo Lam and Wild City includes a crackling car chase, violent murders, and hand-to-hand beatdowns in close quarters. There are also swaggering triads, corrupt lawyers and businessmen, and other denizens of Lam’s nocturnal Hong Kong universe that add a general sense of foreboding to the proceedings. Yet at the same time Lam allows for a glimmer of hope in the darkness, and the film’s conclusion is perhaps less dark and cynical than his past work. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Lam has mellowed but SPOILER not everything completely goes south like it might have in his past films.
If you’ve never experienced a Ringo Lam Hong Kong movie before, now is the time. Wild City won’t stay in theaters long, so this is your chance to witness some of what made Hong Kong the center of the moviemaking universe back in the day. And if the film does well enough, Lam will be able to get financing to direct more movies and we won’t have to wait eight years for his next joint to drop.
directed by Ringo Lam
opens July 31, 2015
Century 20 Daly City
1901 Junipero Serra Blvd
Daly City, CA 94015
2200 Clement St
San Francisco, CA 94121
and selected theaters in North America
I don’t know if I’ve ever met Kristina Wong face to face but she’s very present in my various newsfeeds. So as is often the case with 21st century social media relationships, at least in a facebook-friends kind of way it seems like I know her. Thus it’s only appropriate that her new solo show, The Wong Street Journal, opens with a quick discussion of her online presence and how its addictive quality has affected her life. Although eighty minutes isn’t all that long in the cosmic scheme of things, during the length of her performance Wong deftly illustrates the difference between superficial twitter wars and a thoughtful and intelligent discussion of various trigger topics like race, colonialism, white privilege and savior mentality, or what she dubs “nuance versus likes.” At the same time Wong is never didactic, preachy, or monotonous and skillfully keeps the show bubbling along at a fast and funny pace. Bursting at the seams with imagination and powered by Wong’s energetic performance, the show breaks down its subject matter with wit, humor, and intelligence.
Despite its title, the show doesn’t have a lot to do with the stock market—instead it’s an amusing travelogue to Northern Uganda, where Wong confronts her (yellow) savior complex and her honorary white person status. After a rapid introduction outlining Wong’s social media addiction and her lust for likes, the 80-minute show follows Wong as she travels to Africa for a quick artist’s residency at an NGO that gives micro-grants to women in the region. There she encounters underground hiphop producers, community activists, and the changing state of Uganda after its decade-long civil war. The story moves along rapidly, driven by Wong’s engaging and slightly neurotic but always self-aware persona as she comes to grips with her first-world privilege while inadvertently recording a rap album that later climbs the charts in Uganda.
Wong’s gift for lightly and intelligently dealing with hot-button topics like the tumultuous history of Northern Uganda and misperceptions of Africa as a region (which she outlines via the saga of celebrities adopting babies from various countries on the continent), makes The Wong Street Journal highly accessible yet continuously thought-provoking. Wong includes a brief but very useful explanation of white privilege for those who might need it, and which seems especially relevant post-Charleston, followed by the amusing revelation that in Uganda Wong is considered white.
She makes the most of her low-fi aesthetic, most prominently evidenced in the show’s fun and clever felt props and backdrops which include big red felt hashtags and a rolling scroll of felt scenery of Uganda complete with removable velcro’d animals, and which are sewn by Wong herself (proven by the sight of Wong assiduously sitting at a sewing machine fabricating fake dollar bills before the start of the show). There are also a few well-placed bits of video and audio supplementing the story but for the most part it’s all Wong all the time as she fills the stage with her kinetic and engaging, high energy performance.
As Wong notes, the show is all about delving deeper into a subject than a cursory facebook thread can do, proving the value in taking action in real life instead of being glued to the screen night and day. As someone whose primary visual aesthetic experiences are mediated (that is, I watch a lot of movies) it’s always fun for me to see live theater and Wong’s show is one of the most original that I’ve witnessed in a while. I’m looking forward to the next chapter in her ongoing performative observations.
I did not come willingly to Lav Diaz. My personal cinematic preferences run to fast and economical 90 minute Hong Kong action films—one of my favorite films is Johnnie To’s 84-minute gangster flick The Mission, which manages to complete its main narrative arc in about 50 minutes, with a 30 minute coda tying up the loose ends. So the idea of sitting through a film by a director known for his ten-hour epics wasn’t high on my list of things to do, and while I wasn’t exactly kicking and screaming when I was talked into attending my first Lav Diaz film, I did approach it with some trepidation. But after experiencing that film, the 4.5 hour Norte: The End of History, I was hooked.
I actively sought out my second Lav Diaz experience (which is the best way to describe viewing his films), the 2014 documentary Storm Children: Book One, which I thought was pretty brilliant. Despite its relatively brief running time of 2.5 hours the film is still an immersive experience, shot in black-and-white and with very little spoken dialog. As in Norte, Diaz uses extremely long, mostly stationary shots to emphasize the action within the frame, which at times consists of very little action at all. Recording the aftermath of 2013’s Typhoon Yolanda (also known as Haiyan) on the seaside village of Tacloban, Diaz’s technique makes the viewer become an active participant in the revelations of the film. The documentary opens with a long static shot of cars driving through water that has all but submerged the roadway, the sound of the swishing tires comprising most of the soundtrack. Following this, Diaz’s camera observes a couple kids as they attempt to fish something out of a fast-moving stream of flotsam below a bridge. This takes possibly twenty and up to thirty minutes of screen time. Another sequence documents more kids digging a mysterious hole in a great mound of sand or shale, very gradually unearthing various items that are never really identified. Again, this sequence runs for very many minutes with almost no camera movement or edits. The effect of these extremely long static takes induces an almost palpable shift in the ways one views a film—instead of the brief and restless, cursory absorption of a surfeit of visual information, the viewer sinks into reading a few simple yet significant actions. This type of perception is almost hypnotic and literally alters the consciousness of the audience, making the viewer’s experience highly visceral and immersive.
Diaz’s slow-burning technique also allows viewer to make significant narrative and visual discoveries at their own pace—he lays out the information without overtly drawing attention to it, which allows viewers to puzzle out the meaning themselves. A great deal of the latter part of Storm Children takes place near the shoreline where kids play amongst huge ships. It takes a while to realize that the ships are all aground, some many, many yards onto dry land, and that the typhoon’s force beached them with its immense strength and violence. It’s a thrilling and singular way to receive cinematic information and adds a depth and level of intellectual and visceral participation to the viewing experience like no other.
Thus it’s with high expectations that I go now to my next Lav Diaz screening. Upcoming as part of the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts New Filipino Cinema series, From What is Before (Mula sa kung ano ang noon), which won the top prize at the 2014 Locarno Film Festival, screens June 27 and 28. A black-and-white narrative about the early days of dictator Ferdinand Marcos’ regime and its effects on a remote village in the Philippines, the film again utilizes very long, almost static shots and black and white cinematography. As with previous Diaz films the telling is as important as the tale, and the tale here, the advent of Marcos’ despoiling of the Philippines, is very important indeed. It’s a rare chance to go through the immersive experience of a Lav Diaz theatrical film screening and is not to be missed.
From What is Before (Mula sa kung ano ang noon)
dir. Lav Diaz, 338 minutes
June 27 & 28, 2015
Yerba Buena Center for the Arts
Just got back into town and am diving into the thick of things at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, now running through May 7. I’m leaving town again on Sunday so I’m cramming as many screenings into the next five days as I can manage. Luckily there are plenty of great films to see. I’m hoping to make it to the Viggo Mortenson vehicle Jauja, by Argentine director Lisandro Alonso and featuring Viggo in a role that’s tailor-made for him as a Danish military engineer caught up in unrest in 19th-century Patagonia. Viggo he gets to acts in two of his native tongues, Danish and Spanish, and the film is a magical-realist version of the historical events it depicts.
Also on the docket is the 3-D version of Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Hong Kong director Peter Chan’s child-abduction drama Dearest, and City of Gold, the documentary about Pulitzer-prize winning Los Angeles food critic and mensch Jonathan Gold. If I were in town next week I’d surely go see the South Korean thriller A Hard Day but I’m hopeful that it will make it to a theatrical release stateside sometime soon. SFIFF also plays host to Jenni Olsen’s newest feature-length experimental documentary/essay film The Royal Road, which looks at butch longing and unrequited love against the backdrop of El Camino Real, the historic king’s road that stretches nearly the length of California. Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane’s independent feature Court also screens this week, taking a character-based, neo-realist look at the absurdities of the Mumbai judicial system and its surrounding social and cultural milieu, with results that are about as anti-Bollywood as you can get.
One of my favorite films from last year, director Diao Yinan’s neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice, has one more screening this week at the festival and it’s definitely a don’t-miss movie. From the very start, with shots of random body parts mixed in among train cars of coal shipping throughout the frozen northern regions of China, the film puts a distinctive spin on the classic noir structure. The film follows Zhang (Liao Fan), a less-than-scrupulous cop, as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the mysterious disappearances and murders of various hapless men, all of whom eventually seem to be tied to a classic black-widow character, played by the amazing Taiwanese actress Guey Lun-Mei.
Looping back and forth in time and place, with bursts of intense and unexpected violence, the movie effortlessly transfers the noir genre to the China’s bleak and wintry industrial north, making great use of the icy landscape and the characters’ corresponding desperation and hopelessness. Both Liao and Guey won acting awards (at the Berlin Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards respectively) for their performances in this film and they embody the moral messiness and ambiguity of the best noir characters. As in all great noirs, everyone is complicit and no one is innocent, and the most innocuous situation, whether in a beauty parlor or at an ice skating rink, can suddenly change into a deadly trap.
So although I’m missing the big galas and parties at the beginning and end of the fest I’m still catching the meat of the event this week. As always the festival is a chance to see some of the best recent global cinema on the big screen.
through May 7, 2015
Premiering at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival and now in the midst of a successful theatrical run in Hong Kong, Two Thumbs Up (dir. Lau Ho-leung ) is a pleasurable timepass with a slapdash absurdist energy that carries it past its shortcomings. It’s also notable for being the second Hong Kong theatrical release this year starring Francis Ng (after Triumph In The Skies), who has mostly been AWOL in the former Crown Colony as he’s been trolling the more lucrative waters of the mainland China film industry for the past few years.
Two Thumbs Up is a caper film about a bunch of low-end crooks who devise the brilliant plan of rehabbing one of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous red-top mini-buses into a police van and then using it for various larcenous purposes. In particular they aim to intercept a shipment of corpses on the way to the PRC that have illicitly been stuffed with smuggled cash. All goes well until they encounter a second group of crooks with the exact same plan.
This one comes favorably handicapped since it has a number of points that make me predisposed to like it:
- Stars Francis Ng, which to anyone reading this blog should be patently obvious
- Also stars Simon Yam, another fan favorite around here
- Dialog in very vulgar Cantonese
- Cheap, low-budget digital effects that in no way attempt to represent reality
- Shot in remote, deserted rural nighttime Hong Kong locations to save money and to avoid the local constabulary
- Includes hyperlocal references like a Softie ice cream truck
- Slyly refers to the mainlander infestation of Hong Kong, substituting “cockroaches” for “locusts.” NOTE: This bit has apparently been trimmed from the PRC release in order not to offend mainland audiences and thus cut into any potential profit.
- Garish and ugly, brightly colored polyester costumes
- The awesome mullet and perm respectively sported by the usually dapper Francis Ng and Simon Yam
- Rambling and illogical script that hearkens back to improvised Hong Kong comedies of old
- Sentimental affection for losers, ex-cons, lowlifes and “scum” (the film’s polite translation for pook gai) who are secretly heroic
- Cynical sneer of gangster gal, played by Christie Chen, who resembles a low-rent Guey Lun-Mei
The movie is a pretty lightweight bit of entertainment that hits its main thematic point pretty hard and pretty often (hoodlums can be heroes too!) but the delight comes in the sheer fun that the cast seems to be having as they run through their familiar paces. The veteran foursome playing the crooks, including Francis, Simon, Mark Cheng, and Patrick Tam, have great chemistry and almost every early scene with them merrily devolves into very loudly shouted Cantonese expletives. Like The Avengers (except not) they each rock individual and distinctly tacky outfits, highlighted by Francis Ng’s amazing extra-long mullet, green fringed jacket, and cowboy boots. Leo Ku as the serious and dedicated cop who uncovers their scheme is a good foil for the cursing and hamboning of the main cast, as is Philip Keung as the leader of the rival gang of crooks.
Some knowledge of Hong Kong film history also helps grease the viewing experience as the movie is rife with self-referential in-jokes and fan service moments. At one point early on in the film Francis Ng’s character (alternately known as Big F or Lucifer, depending on your translation) shows off his mad bowling skilz the local alley where he and his posse are killing time and plotting their big heist. Francis affects his patented swagga not after offing a rival triad but after successfully bowling a strike, which references his many years of gangsta leans throughout the past 20-odd years of Hong Kong movie history. Likewise it’s fun to see Simon Yam playing against his usual suave and debonair type as a frumpy loser with a bad perm living in a subway tunnel.
The main foursome are also particularly amusing the first time they stroll out of the van in their policeman drag, with their non-compliant hairstyles and mack-daddy posture, their hats low over their eyes and thumbs slung into their belt loops belying their attempts to pass as respectable coppers. The veteran actors also make their characters likeable enough that once the crew is separated and in jeopardy the audience is actually invested in the fates of the four of them. These little touches make the movie work and goose up an otherwise pretty silly premise.
Although the movie isn’t without many plot holes, directorial obviousness, and failures in narrative logic, the engaging performances of the cast, supplemented by very silly CGI, editing, and art direction, make for a pleasant and entertaining day at the races. It’s certainly no Infernal Affairs or Hard Boiled but it’s not as horrible as a lot of Hong Kong product these days either, and at this point in time I’ll take what I can get.
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