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Andy Lau’s latest mainland China vehicle, Saving Mr. Wu, released in the U.S. this weekend with not a lot of fanfare. As far as I can tell it’s the first stateside release from United Entertainment Partners, one of China’s big distribution entities. As noted in the Hollywood Reporter in June 2015, “UEP touts itself as the number-one movie distribution network in China, with the company claiming it covers 90 percent of major cinemas in the country.” That same article noted that longtime Sony executive Steve Bruno joined UEP in June to lead its North America division, which will bring Chinese films to the U.S. and Hollywood films to China. Saving Mr. Wu is its maiden voyage into the North American movie market.
Saving Mr. Wu is a fast-paced, hard-boiled piece of crime filmmaking, with director Ding Sheng, who also serves as witer and editor, moving things along at a rapid clip. The pacing is similar in many ways to classic Hong Kong crime films, with very quick edits and terse dialog interspersed with bursts of action. The film’s cinematography is also evocative, depicting a mostly nighttime 21st century Beijing full of wide boulevards, high-rises buildings, and sleek automobiles.
The film is based on the real-life 2004 kidnapping of well-known Chinese television actor Wu Ruofu (who plays a supporting character in the film), with Andy Lau in the title role. Andy basically plays a fictionalized version of himself, and as such he’s very good at it. Unlike his recent role in Lost and Love, where he played a farmer, here he doesn’t have to hide his preternatural good looks, the fine tailoring of his clothes, or his $500 haircut, which is totally fine. Andy’s real life superstardom also makes the reverence some of the kidnappers exhibit towards him seem genuine, and when he croons a song to comfort his fellow kidnappee, a mournful sad sack who exists mostly to be the kidnappers’ punching bag, the rendition is heartfelt and understated. Wang Qinyuan is also effective as the kidnapping mastermind Zhang, a sneaky sociopath who dreams of a big heist that will lift him out of his petty criminalism. Liu Ye plays against his usual saintly and righteous type (one of his roles was playing a young Mao Zedong in the 2011 propaganda extravaganza Founding of a Party) and manages a bit of swagger as the lead cop on the case. Also excellent is Lam Suet as Mr. Wu’s trusted friend from Wu’s days in the military. Lam makes the most of his considerable bulk and his legacy of menace from many Hong Kong gangster roles to evoke a hard-ass, no-bullshit attitude.
Interestingly enough, unlike many movies that have to run the gauntlet of the PRC’s SAPPRFT censorship boards, the film gestures towards social critique. When Mr. Wu asks Zhang why he leads a life of crime, Zhang replies that the system in China is stacked toward the rich and powerful and that because of cronyism, ordinary joes like himself never have a fighting chance. Later in the film Mr. Wu acknowledges that he owes a lot of his success to luck and good fortune, rather than simply hard work and talent. The film also suggests that such a brazen kidnapping, which takes place in the middle of a crowded nighttime street in Beijing, wouldn’t have been possible in Hong Kong, where there’s a more evident respect for the rule of law.
The film is a bit dense in the details, flashing back and forth across several different time frames, and at time director Ding seems unsure of the strength of his storytelling, most clearly seen in his reliance on unnecessary title cards to identify the many characters big and small who zip rapidly across the screen. But the movie as a whole is well-made, sleek, and tense, with a gritty, realistic feel. Like last year’s excellent Black Coal, Thin Ice, Saving Mr. Wu is another notable addition to the roster of recent film noirs coming out of the PRC.
Saving Mr. Wu
directed by Ding Sheng
Century Daly City
and other locations throughout North America
In an interesting coincidence, two famous Chinese-language film directors have films opening in the U.S. this weekend, but their respective movies might puzzle the casual viewer expecting a certain type of cinematic output from each director. But on closer inspection both movies are in some ways throwbacks to early periods of each director’s filmmaking careers.
Starting with Hero (2002) and continuing through House of Flying Daggers (2002), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), and The Flowers Of War (2011), Zhang Yimou for the most part in the 21st century made a series of glossy commercial films that have been successful marketed in the West, and he capped off this run of box-office hits by overseeing the much-lauded opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So viewers who only started following Zhang’s career in the 21st century might think that his oeuvre is all about wire-fu, movie stars, a hypersaturated color palette, and an affinity for spectacle. But Zhang started out in the 1980s as one of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese directors who were noted for their realistic styles and politically astute commentary. Often depicting the ordinary lives of peasants in China’s rural countryside and usually starring Gong Li, Zhang’s first several features were poetic ruminations on the effects on everyday people of various types of systematic repression. These movies, including Ju Dou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and The Story of Qiu Ju, made Zhang the darling of the arthouse film festival set, so it was a bit of a surprise when he busted out with a string of martial-arts fantasies at the turn of the 21st century. But those later films were pretty big at the box office and thus many folks only know Zhang as a director of big-budget spectacles, so it might seem like a surprise that Zhang’s latest film, Coming Home, includes neither martial arts nor brightly colored costumes and sets. Astute observers, however, will realize that the movie actually harkens back to Zhang’s earlier Fifth Generation output from the 1980s and 90s.
Coming Home is a family drama set during and just after the Cultural Revolution in China and is based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by popular Chinese author Yan Geling (whose novella 13 Flowers of Nanjing was the basis of Zhang’s recent film The Flowers of War). The movie opens as former professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) surreptitiously arrives back at his town after escaping from a re-education camp. His devoted wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) attempts to meet him but is thwarted by the Chinese secret police and Lu is sent back to prison. Lu and Feng’s teenage daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), an aspiring ballerina, resents her dad’s outlaw status since it’s messing with her career plans to play the lead soldier/dancer in the school play, which Zhang drolly depicts as leftist musical featuring dancers en pointe who are wielding rifles in the service of the revolution. Cut to several years later, after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-70s. Lu again returns home but Feng has become addled from either a blow to the head, PTSD, early-onset Alzheimer’s, or a combination of all three, and thus doesn’t recognize him. The film then follows Lu’s attempts to reconcile with the amnesiac Feng.
Coming Home’s muted mis en scene at first seems a million miles away from the brightly colored, glossy sheen of Zhang’s martial arts movies but the film’s meticulous art direction, featuring scuffed walls, dull brick and wooden buildings, and threadbare wool coats and trousers, reflects Zhang’s careful attention to period detail and authenticity. The usually glamorous Gong Li tones down her customary high-wattage gorgeousness to play the dowdy teacher Feng, but in her performance she seems to have acting awards in mind, as she weeps piteously over Lu’s absence, then affects a glassy-eyed dolor to simulate mental confusion. (In fact, Gong was nominated for the first time for Best Actress for Taiwan’s 2014 Golden Horse award but lost out to Chen Shiang-chyi. In glorious diva fashion Gong subsequently pitched a fit, calling the Golden Horse unprofessional and vowing never to attend again.)
Although Gong is a bit off, Chen Daoming right on the money as the long-suffering Lu. His world-weary eyes and sorrowful demeanor speak volumes about Lu’s personal traumas and his experience becomes a metaphor for the human cost of China’s various social and political upheavals. Through Chen’s sensitive and understated performance the film becomes an allegory about the erasure of memory and the amnesia of the Cultural Revolution. In this way the movie hearkens back to director Zhang’s earlier films that focused on political and cultural critique, which preceded his more recent, more commercial output. Zhang also recently released another film set during the Cultural Revolution, Under The Hawthorne Tree, but his next project is the blockbuster Andy Lau-Matt Damon China/US-coproduction action fantasy The Great Wall. So he’s nothing if not versatile—
Also releasing in North America this weekend is the latest from Johnnie To, Office. Like Zhang’s movie, Office at first may seem like an anomaly in its director’s catalog but in fact the film, which is a musical comedy, has a lot in common with To’s past work. Though To is best known in the West for hardboiled crime movies like The Mission, Election, Exiled, and his last film, Drug War, he’s got a much more varied back-catalog than that. To got his start directing at Hong Kong’s television studio TVB and there he directed everything from romances to comedies to martial arts historicals, including the famous period drama The Yang Family Saga. His prolific filmmaking output includes the fantasy action films The Heroic Trio and The Executioners, the comedy farces The Eighth Happiness and The Fun, The Luck, The Tycoon, and Stephen Chow vehicles Justice, My Foot and The Mad Monk. Although his crime films have won him much love among Asian film fanpeople, To’s most commercially successful movies have been romcoms such as Needing You and Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart 1 & 2.
So it’s not as far-fetched as it might initially seem to be that Office is a musical, with all of its leads (except Chow Yun-Fat) singing at least one song in the film. The movie is a typical workplace drama infused with cogent commentary about the crisis of capitalism, The storyline follows two young acolytes at their first days on the job at Jones & Sun, a seemingly innocuous Hong Kong cosmetics company that’s actually in the throes of backstabbing and backroom deals. President Ho (Chow Yun-Fat) has a wife in a coma and Chinese investors knocking at his company’s door, while CEO Cheung Wai (Sylvia Chang) struggles to keep the company’s profits up and its products relevant. Salesman Wong Dawai (Eason Chan) is climbing the corporate ladder and is not averse to using personal relationships, including ones with CEO Cheung as well as fellow office drone Sophie (Tang Wei), in order to advance. Youngsters Kat (Tien Hsin) and Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) round out the ensemble.
But despite a stellar cast who admirably perform both acting and singing duties (with Cantopop superstar Eason Chan being the best and Tang Wei the worst among the vocalists), the real star of the show is the astounding art direction and set design by acclaimed veteran William Chang Suk Ping, who has won renown as the production and/or costume designer for innumerable classic Hong Kong films including In The Mood For Love, The Grandmaster, and Dragon Inn. Office was shot completely on a soundstage, with some outdoor scenes simulated via green screen, and Chang’s beautiful, stylized set dictates the mood of the film. Comprised mostly of brightly colored bars and rails, the set resembles a massive, skeletal architectural cage that encloses the action and the characters and lends a hermetically sealed, slightly claustrophobic feel to the film. The artificial staginess of the movie, with its simulated spaces and multiple levels of activity, recalls a Broadway musical more than a movie musical, with the set dominated by a huge, slowly revolving clockface. No pretense of realism is made in the film’s use of space, color, and structural elements, which adds to the knowing fakery of the movie’s design.
Despite To being the titular director, the film displays the strong influence of Sylvia Chang, who wrote and produced the film as well as playing the lead as CEO Cheung Wai, and who has an impressive resume as the director of films such as Tempting Heart (1999), 20 30 40 (2004), and Murmurs of the Heart (2014). Chang’s hand is clearly evident in the narrative’s complex personal relationships and its focus on the collateral damage of corporate machinations. To’s romcom background also comes the fore as the movie’s love hexangle recalls the similarly structured romantic entanglement in his 2014 movie Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart 2.
The weakest element of the movie’s musical conceit is its curious lack of interesting choreography. Despite taking place on a boldly designed stage set that cries out for equally bold movement through and across it, the movement during the musical numbers is surprisingly limited. The action during the songs in Office consists of mostly of synchronized head nods and a few characters walking in rhythm together. Office could stand to take a few lessons from Bollywood musicals, whose song and dance numbers fill every inch of the frame with dynamic, kinetic movement.
But all in all, the movie is a fascinating beast that promises to be brilliant up on the big screen. After first seeing in via online screener with tiny white subtitles I’m looking forward to watching it again in a movie theater where it belongs, and so should everyone, in my humble opinion.
dir. Zhang Yimou
opens Fri. Sept. 18
dir. Johnnie To
opens Fri. Sept, 18, 2015
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.
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.
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
I’m in Asia right now so I’m viewing the Ferguson grand jury verdict aftermath from afar, but this article is an outstanding resource for talking about all the issues around it. I can’t add too much more to it since it’s thorough and comprehensive.
Originally posted on [smut & sensibility]:
Introduction From The Curator
Note (11/29/14 at 8:00 PM EST): Holy moly, this got a ton of traction. Thanks to all the folks sharing, commenting, and helping us correct typos, inaccuracies, and the like! Keep it coming! Also please note that comments are moderated to filter out spam & I’m not on my computer 24/7, so responses and updates will not be immediate. We’d love to hear what you’re doing with this information, so definitely let us know of success stories in talking to family-members, using it in lesson-plans, and the like.
The only kind of bombs I fully support are truth-bombs, and that’s why I’ve come together with a group of POC and select White allies to write this post. We feel it’s critical to have conversations about social justice loudly, noticeably, personally as well as systemically, and eloquently*—in this case, specifically around Ferguson, #stoptheparade, #BlackLivesMatter, #IndictAmerica, and…
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2014 was a pretty good year for Hong Kong movies and this year’s Hong Kong Cinema, the San Francisco Film Society’s annual film series from the former crown colony, reflects this uptick in cinematic quality. Recent output from brilliant directors Ann Hui, Pang Ho-Cheung and Fruit Chan are part of the mix, superstars Chow Yun-Fat, Tang Wei, Nicholas Tse, and Louis Koo (twice) are featured players, and the films run the gamut from crime thriller (Overheard 3) to youth romance (Uncertain Relationships Society) to wuxia pian (The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom) and beyond. The series also includes a twentieth-anniversary screening of Wong Kar-Wai’s glorious slice of Hong Kong-meets-the-Nouvelle Vague, Chungking Express, which is definitely worth a watch on the big screen. A few other highlights follow.
From Vegas To Macau (dir. Wong Jing) is a cheesy quasi-sequel to Hong Kong’s many, many successful gambling comedy movies from the 1980s and 90s. Although luminaries including Stephen Chow Sing-chi and Andy Lau Tak-wah made their mark in gambling epics from that time, one of the pillars of the genre is God of Gamblers (1989), starring Chow Yun-Fat and directed by Wong Jing. In From Vegas To Macau Chow and Wong reunite in an attempt to resurrect their glory days, and by extension the glory days of Hong Kong movies, and the current film is a reminder of the best and worst of those times. In the plus column is Chow cutting loose in a wacky Hong Kong comedy, which helps to counter his mostly disappointing 10-plus years sojourn to Hollywood and which enables him to regain his crown as the Chinese god of actors. Appearing in the sidekick role, Nicholas Tse is an earnest straight man, and Chapman To overacts mightily to insure that Cantonese-language cinema’s laff-riot slapstick tradition continues.
For anyone who’s only familiar with Chow Yun-Fat’s iconic work as a soulful gangster in John Woo movies (and who haven’t seen him as a childlike amnesiac in the original God of Gamblers), this zany farce should be an eye-opener, as Chow turns on the high-pitched giggle and the crazy dance moves as a Ken, the godly gambler/con man at the center of the film. Watching a Wong Jing movie is kind of like blindly sticking your hand into a big mysterious barrel—you never know what random trash you’re going to pull out, and From Vegas To Macau is no exception. Wong strings together a series of vignettes and set pieces without regard to narrative logic, each scene clashing violently with the the others, and the tone of the film swings from action to slapstick to farce, with kung fu, booby-traps, CGI-enhanced card-shuffling, and fat-chick jokes all a part of the overstuffed mix. While it’s not a good movie in any sense of the word, its manic energy and illogical construction combined with the spectacle of Chow Yun-Fat goofing his way through a typical Hong Kong comedy makes it a decent timepass.
At the other end of the cinematic spectrum is Ann Hui’s The Golden Era, starring Tang Wei (Lust, Caution) as iconographic Chinese author Xiao Hong, who worked during the Republican era in China (she was born in 1911 and died in 1942) and who was one of the first modern-day female writers in the country to gain recognition. The film is beautifully made, with a lot of money evident in the stunning cinematography, costumes, and art direction, and boasts an excellent cast, but at three hours it’s overly long and at times glacially paced. The film makes liberal use of direct address, including an opening speech by Xiao Hong herself as she announces her birth and death dates, adding a self-reflexive layer to the narrative structure. Tang Wei is thoughtful and arresting as Xiao Hong, who was born into a patrician Chinese family but subsequently lived in poverty and uncertainty for much of her short life. However, her performance lacks a sense of agency and ferocity that a more intense actor might have brought to the role. In addition, those viewers unfamiliar with Xiao Hong’s body of work might be at a loss as to her significance, although many of the supporting characters repeatedly attest to her importance in China’s literary canon. Still, it’s interesting to see what director Hui has done with a generously budgeted film set in historical mainland China, since much of her oeuvre have been in the vein of A Simple Life or The Way We Are, which are much more quickly sketched stories deeply rooted in contemporary Hong Kong. Although there are stylistic differences between those movies and this one, Hui’s filmic intelligence shines through, as she’s made a smart and intriguing picture about the intersections of history, art, politics, and creativity.
Splitting the difference between Wong Jing and Ann Hui is Pang Ho-Cheung’s Aberdeen, which is an engaging look at contemporary Hong Kong through the lens of several intertwined relationships. The film follows the lives of the members of two related families, including a thirty-something actress/model (Gigi Leung) who is transitioning from her ingénue stage to something less well-received; her husband (Louis Koo), who is concerned that their daughter isn’t as pretty as he thinks she should be; his sister (Miriam Yeung), who’s obsessed with her fraught relationship with her late mother; and her husband (Eric Tsang), a doctor who’s making time with his receptionist. Intercut with these various subplots are a beached whale, unexploded WWII ordnance in the heart of Hong Kong, fantasy sequences with larger-than-life lizards, and Taoist funeral rituals. By interweaving these disparate elements director Cheung examines notions of beauty, fame, family, and loyalty amidst the backdrop of modern-day Hong Kong. The film continues in the vein of much of Cheung’s past work exploring Hong Kong life and relationships, which range from the brilliantly satirical Vulgaria to the rom-com Love In A Puff to the dark and disturbing Isabella.
In some ways Aberdeen recalls the glory days of UFO, the United Filmmkaers Organization production house that back in the 1990s was responsible for a slew of dramedies including Dr. Mack; Heaven Can’t Wait; Tom, Dick, and Hairy; and Twenty Something. UFO movies were smarter and less formulaic than the typical commercial Hong Kong output of the time and starred early 1990s superstars like Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Tony Leung Ka-Fei, Karen Mok, Jordan Chan, and Anita Yuen, all of whom were looking for prestige projects that were a break from Kong Kong’s usual kung-fu historicals or generic crime movies. Aberdeen carries on in this tradition, which stars current A-listers Louis Koo, Miriam Yeung, Eric Tsang, and Gigi Leung, as well as appearances from Hong Kong movie vets Ng Man-tat and Carrie Ng, in a quality production by a name-brand director. For the most part, although flawed, Aberdeen is infinitely more intelligent and watchable than much recent commercial Hong Kong cinema and gives its cast members a good opportunity to stretch out and to exercise their acting chops.
Hong Kong Cinema runs from Nov. 14-17, 2014 at the Vogue Theater in San Francisco. Go here for ticketing and full schedule.