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In The Still of the Night: Hong Kong Cinema film series

Plaid and pensive, The Golden Era, 2014

Plaid and pensive, The Golden Era, 2014

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.

Fung jai and Fat gor, From Vegas To Macau, 2014

Fung jai and Fat gor, From Vegas To Macau, 2014

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.

Written, The Golden Era, 2014

Written, The Golden Era, 2014

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.

Life in miniature, Aberdeen, 2014

Life in miniature, Aberdeen, 2014

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, 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 ordinance 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 Chan, 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.

November 11, 2014 at 3:25 am Leave a comment

Cool Like That: Who We Be book review

WWB_cover

Jeff Chang’s latest book, Who We Be: The Colorization of America (St. Martin’s Press), dropped last week and it arrives as the United States is in the midst of another particularly fraught period of racial politics. As recent events in Ferguson, MO have indicated, Chang’s book argues that we as a country and a culture are a long way from becoming the post-racial society supposedly heralded by the election of Barack Obama, yet despite the seemingly dire straits that we’re in, all is not hopeless. In WWB Chang recounts the effects of the changing demographics in the U.S. since the mid-twentieth century, from desegregation through multiculturalism to the shooting of Trayvon Martin and beyond, investigating the ways in which visual culture intersects with current and historical events.

WWB is an amazing tome, encompassing topics as broad as the civil rights movement and as focused as Budweiser’s “Wassup” ad campaign. The book is an outstanding look at the ways in which we as a people in the United States since the mid-twentieth century have moved through a sea change of perceptions, representations, and reflections of racial relations.

Beginning in the 1960s, Chang’s book interweaves topics as diverse as the Republican Party’s “Southern Strategy,” the 2001 World Trade Center attacks, the subprime mortgage scandal, Occupy Wall Street, and the psychology of advertising. Chang focuses on a range of culture creators including cartoonist Morrie Turner, whose comic strip Wee Pals featured a multiracial cast of kids, Faith Ringgold, an early advocate for the Black Arts Movement, Daniel Martinez, known for his performance art/museum tag/culture bomb from the 1993 Whitney Bienniel, and Shepard Fairey, designer of both the Andre The Giant “Obey” street art campaign and the 2008 Obama “Hope” image.

Jeff Chang in situ, photo Keith Villaluz

Jeff Chang in situ, photo Keith Villaluz

Chang does a great job exploring the ways in which real life, visual art, and commerce interact and influence each other. For instance, Chang explores a proto-multiculti Coke ad campaign from the early 70s that tried to latch onto the youth culture and nascent ethnic studies movement of the time but that didn’t mention any of the harsher realities of, say, the Watts riots. Another section of the book drills down into the racism and elitism of the 1980s and 90s New York visual arts scene, including a particularly culturally tone-deaf incident surrounding the white artist responsible for “The Nigger Drawings.” Chang closely examines this volatile period during which contemporary arts gatekeepers like the New York Times, gallery directors, and curators were forced to confront their biases against creative work by artists of color and queer artists, which reached a crescendo during the controversial 1993 Whitney Bienniel, which was vilified by the art establishment as “a theme park of the oppressed.” Chang then discusses the ways in which these so-called culture wars in turn lead to the commercialized multiracialism of the United Colors of Benetton “Colors” magazine and ad campaign.

Chang also astutely looks at what he calls “the paradox of the post-racial moment,” wherein the U.S can elect Barack Obama president, yet still has trouble reconciling Obama’s biracial identity. Chang’s analysis is particularly keen when exploring the current confused state of race relations in the U.S., describing what he calls the tendency for many people to be “colormute,” that is, to avoid talking about race for fear of being accused of racism. He ironically notes the convoluted logic behind those who frown on discussing race in any way, stating, “If bad people had used race to divide and debase . . . then good people would be polite to never acknowledge race at all. It was better not to say anything than to risk being seen as a racist.”

Chang concludes his book with two contrasting case studies–a detailed look at George Zimmerman’s murder of Trayvon Martin and the rise of the DREAM Act, the proposed federal legislation that addresses the citizenship status of undocumented young people brought to the U.S. while children. By juxtaposing these two cases Chang emphasizes the fact that, while the Martin killing demonstrates that the U.S. remains far from being a post-racial society, there is still reason for hope, as seen in the increased activism by immigrant youth of color under the DREAM Act.

Chang’s writing is clear and accessible, and his analysis is thoughtful, concise, and innovative. Though by no means a dis on the theory queens among us (and you know who you are), after recently wading through a few visual culture publications, it’s a pleasure and a relief to read an author who writes with clarity without sacrificing intelligent intellectual commentary. Who We Be is a significant and essential addition to the study of contemporary U.S. art, culture, and politics.

Jeff Chang is on a book tour to promote WWB! Find out more here.

October 28, 2014 at 5:43 pm Leave a comment

Que Caramba Es La Vida: Mill Valley Film Festival 2014

 

Maria del Carmen , Que Caramba Es La Vida, 2014

Maria del Carmen, Que Caramba Es Mi Vida, 2014

The Mill Valley Film Festival’s 2014 edition starts this weekend and as per usual it’s a star-studded affair, with guest appearances by the likes of Hilary Swank, Jason Reitman, Billy Joe Armstrong, Ellie Fanning, Laura Dern, Metallica, and many more Hollywood glitterati. The program also boasts an outstanding lineup of documentaries, including several by local filmmakers, so the reasons for driving across the Golden Gate Bridge (or the Richmond/San Rafael Bridge, depending on your homebase) are manifold.

Lupita (Las Estrellas), Que Caramba Es La Vida. 2014

Lupita (Las Estrellas), Que Caramba Es La Vida. 2014

This year the festival is spotlighting Spanish-language cinema from around the world, including the excellent documentary Que Caramba Es La Vida, an intriguing portrait of the fierce and talented women mariachis of Mexico City. Directed by veteran German filmmaker Doris Dörrie, the movie documents the experiences of several female performers working to make a mark in a field dominated by men. The film is shot mostly verite-style with no narration, as each of the women describes how she came to be a mariachi and why she continues in the business. Some come from mariachi families, with parents or grandparents who performed before them, while others are the first in their families to perform. A particularly compelling story is that of Maria del Carmen, a mariachi singer who lives with her single mom and young daughter in a small apartment in Mexico City. Del Carmen’s mother recalls that even as a girl, her daughter Maria had a voice “that went right through you,” and this is pretty apparent after hearing del Carmen soulfully belt out a couple songs in the Plaza Garabaldi, which is home to scores of mariachi bands plying their trade every night. The film depicts del Carmen’s everyday performance prep routine, as her mom and daughter help her with her makeup and hair, as well as revealing her concerns for her daughter’s future as a female growing up working-class in Mexico. The movie also follows Las Pioneras, a group of older female mariachi groups whose members who are now in their sixties and seventies and who started out as mariachis in the 1950s as teenagers and young women. The last quarter of the movie follows the Dia de los Muertes celebrations in Mexico City, neatly contextualizing the mariachi tradition. Que Caramba Es La Vida effectively looks at some of the social and cultural milieu surrounded the women, including the effects of drug dealers, misogyny, poverty, and crime on their ability to keep performing.

Rodrigo y Gabriela, For Those About To Rock, 2014

Rodrigo y Gabriela, For Those About To Rock, 2014

Mexican music of a different sort is profiled in For Those About To Rock: The Story of Rodrigo y Gabriela. Rock journalist and first-time director Alejandro Franco narrates his very accessible portrait of the popular Mexico City guitar duo, from their roots in the capital listening to thrash and heavy metal like Megadeth, Metallica, and Slayer as teenagers. Both subjects are fluent in English and were raised in middle-class Mexican families, so their stories for the most part are very different from their mariachi counterparts in Dörrie’s film. The film is a standard biopic of a successful musical outfit so, unless you’re a big Rodrigo y Gabriela fan, the movie is less compelling than Dorrie’s movie. The film starts out strong, quickly and succinctly contextualizing the Mexico rock music scene, but bogs down in the middle as it becomes a fairly  linear recounting of R&G’s career.Although the film is about musicians, one of its shortcoming is that there isn’t actually enough of R&G’s music in the earlier part of film, so if you’re unfamiliar with the duo you might not know what the fuss is all about. The film makes the mistake of telling and not showing, which weakens its impact—there are a lot of talking heads explaining things and not enough things happening instead. Whereas Que Caramba takes place on the streets and in the plazas of Mexico City, For Those About To Rock happens mostly in recording studios, backstage, and at clubs, and concerts, and is more of a fannish tribute about legend-building than an incisive look at the duo. There is also not much dramatic tension—the director refers to the story as a “fairy tale’ and it’s presented as such, with R&G destined to achieve their rock star ambitions. The viewer learns very little about either musician’s personal life or any deep, compelling reasons for why they make music other than “it’s fun”, and the film lacks a strong sense of a cultural context for who they are and where they came from. The film ends with about ten minutes of live concert footage that only underscores the relative paucity of music in the rest of the film, which may be enough of a reason for admirers of Rodrigo y Gabriela to watch the film.

The Mill Valley Film Festival eleven days beginning on Oct. 2 in various theaters in and around Mill Valley. Go here for complete schedule and ticket information.

October 3, 2014 at 5:43 pm Leave a comment

Ruffneck: Keaton, Laurel, and Hardy at the SF Silent Film Festival

A boy and his log, The General, 1926

A boy and his log, The General, 1926

Buster Keaton’s The General is one of those movies that are on every cinephile’s best-of list, and with good reason. Elegantly structured, coolly executed, and funny as hell, the film was Keaton’s own favorite, although it was the movie that almost ruined his reputation when it first came out. It took a long time to shoot, was prohibitively expensive, and absolutely did not make bank when it was released—Keaton’s rep as a comedic star took a big hit and his studio reined him in after The General‘s box office failure. The movie was anything but well-received when it was released in 1926, although it’s now considered a classic.

The storyline follows a railroad engineer and wannabe Confederate soldier during the Civil War (nimbly played by the diminutive Keaton) who traces the theft of his beloved railroad engine, named The General, behind Union lines. The movie features some of the most beautifully choreographed stunts of the silent era, involving huge piles of rolling logs, steam engines on collision course, and the spectacular demise of a full-size locomotive. The sight of an actual train engine falling many dozens of feet from a bridge to a riverbed is still amazingly impressive, even in this age of CGI and digitally created special effects. The film is Keaton at his best, with its stripped down, symmetrically structured narrative, its large-scale, dangerous, and perfectly executed stunts, and its underdog hero struggling within a vastly unsympathetic world.

Tearing it up, Two Tars, 1926

Tearing it up, Two Tars, 1926

Silent film comedy of an entirely different sort are the Laurel and Hardy two-reeler short films, Two Tars (1928) and Big Business (1929). Two Tars follows a day in the life of a couple of sailors on leave in Los Angeles as they go joy-riding among the California chaparral with a couple of dames. Although Stan and Ollie play sailors, all of the action in the twenty-minute movie takes place on a pair of landlocked Southern California roadways. Featuring Laurel and Hardy’s signature physicality and escalation of destruction, the short also includes some very suggestive digital manipulation of a gumball machine as well as several excellent Stan Laurel pratfalls. The short concludes with an epic traffic jam that would make Godard proud that illustrates the primal allure of large-vehicle destruction, the weaponization of cow pies and rotten tomatoes, and a gal getting a faceful of black ink.

Up at the plate, Big Business, 1929

Up at the plate, Big Business, 1929

Big Business is even more of a felon’s wet dream, as a small misunderstanding rapidly escalates into complete mayhem, resulting in an entire house vandalized down to its spinet piano and brick chimney. L&H play door-to-door Christmas tree salesmen plying their wares in the sunny, overexposed 1920s Southern California suburbs, which were about as sparsely populated as the high desert at the time. The two get into a scrap with a feisty homeowner and soon the axes are out and windows, doors, and a Model T fall victim to the OTT belligerence of the battling adversaries. The humor derives from the extreme reactions of both Stan and Ollie as well as their antagonist, played with righteous fury by L&H regular James Finlayson.

All three of these comedy classics are screening as part of Silent Autumn, the San Francisco Silent Film Festival’s one-day event on Sept. 20 at the glorious Castro Theater. Also notable are screenings of new restorations of The Son of the Sheik, starring the beautiful Rudolph Valentino, and the German expressionist classic, The Cabinet of Dr. Caligari. As per usual with all SFSFF events, each program includes live accompaniment, by silent film score maestro Donald Sosin as well as the always innovative Alloy Orchestra. Go here for complete schedule and ticket info.

September 16, 2014 at 4:39 pm Leave a comment

Typical Girls: Kenji Mizoguchi film series at the Pacific Film Archive

Making ends meet, Street of Shame, 1956

Making ends meet, Street of Shame, 1956

The Pacific Film Archive in Berkeley comes through once again with another outstanding series, this time focusing on legendary Japanese filmmaker Kenji Mizoguchi. Running through the end of August, this set gives you the chance to see much of Mizoguchi’s amazing oeuvre on the big screen and in glorious 35mm.

Along with Akira Kurosawa and Yasajiro Ozu, film historians consider Mizoguchi one of the Holy Trinity of golden-age Japanese filmmakers—the work of these seminal directors spanned much of the early and mid-twentieth century and has received massive critical attention. Among those three, however, Mizoguchi’s star has dimmed a bit, due in part to the somewhat unrelenting bleakness of his films. But his portrayals of the plight of women in a patriarchal society are pretty key, and his intricate camerawork and direction are still fresh and revelatory. The PFA series is a great chance to witness Mizoguchi’s masterful use of the filmic medium to examine the effects of a brutal and uncaring society on individuals caught in its strictures.

Mizoguchi’s brilliant use of the camera is in full effect throughout the series. Famous for including a minimum of close-ups and often shooting his scenes in extended master shots (a style dubbed “one scene, one cut”), he performs a kind of cinematographic butoh, with ultra-slow, beautifully choreographed push-ins, pans, and dollies that mesh with the characters’ actions and dialog in an intricate, intertwined choreography.

The PFA series include most of Mizoguchi’s well-known jidai-geki (historical dramas)  like the popular ghost story Ugetsu, winner of the Silver Lion Award for Best Direction at the 1953 Venice Film Festival, and The Life of Oharu, a masterpiece that’s a sad tale of a woman’s oppression, told with clockwork precision and driven by a bravura performance by Kinuyo Tanaka. In addition to his more famous historicals, the PFA is also screening several of Mizoguchi’s modern-day films. Mizoguchi is recognized for his period pieces, yet like his compatriot Akira Kurosawa he also directed several films that scathingly examine issues and problems of 20th-century Japan. As with his period films, these modern-day movies often center on the plight of women in a straight-laced society. Osaka Elegy (1936) is a bleak, brilliant, and economical portrayal of the social strictures that constrained women in a pre-feminist age. Elegy is buoyed by Mizoguchi’s sympathetic portrayal of the female protagonist, surrounded by exploitative, weak, or cowardly male figures who lend little support when the heroine falls on hard times. A proto-noir filled with deep shadows and geometric compositions, the film displays Mizoguchi’s mastery of the medium even in the 1930s.

Coiffed, A Geisha, 1953

Coiffed, A Geisha, 1953

Also from 1936, Sisters of the Gion is a surprisingly modern and unsympathetic take on the hard-knock geisha life, full of Mizoguchi’s gliding camerawork and one-take marvels. Hard-as-nails Omacha and her more sensitive sibling Umekichi are two low-end geisha in the Gion, Kyoto’s licensed pleasure district, who are struggling to make ends meet by landing “patrons,” customers who are mostly old wizened married guys. The film is a cutting indictment of the capitalist system that’s all about the money and is a good example of a Mizoguchi keikō-eiga (tendency film), which literally displays his socialist tendencies. Omacha is the deal-maker, trying to manipulate the system to escape the oppression of poverty, sexism, and misogyny, while Umekichi desperately believes that the system will work in her favor. The PFA series screens Mizoguchi’s remake of Sisters of the Gion, A Geisha (1953), which updates the story to postwar occupied Japan and which stars the famed Ayako Wakao in one of her first film roles.

The PFA series concludes with Mizoguchi’s last movie, Street of Shame (1956), which is an excellent example of Mizoguchi’s use of film to examine social problems. The story concerns a group of prostitutes in postwar Tokyo who struggle to overcome an andocentric culture insensitive to the needs of women. In a role that’s a departure from her parts in the period films Rashomon and Ugetsu, Machiko Kyo plays Mickey, a material girl who’s not above stealing her co-workers’ customers or blithely overextending her credit at local shops. Ayako Wakao as Yasumi is a no-nonsense working girl who plans to escape the brothel by becoming a moneylender and shopkeeper. The men in the film are for the most part weak, craven, or venal, preying on the female protagonists and only valuing them for their bodies or their beauty, or despising them for their vocation. Yet Mizoguchi makes it clear that the women are prostitutes only because they are given little other choice in society. In one amusing scene one of the women who’s left the profession to marry a small-town cobbler returns to the brothel. She laments that marriage is worse than selling her body to strangers as her husband forces her to work in the shop from morning to night, then expects dinner and sex at the end of the day. Mizoguchi’s narrative uses the women’s plights as a critique of capitalism, an exploration of the uncertainty and despair of post-war Japan, and an indictment of the constraints of a patriarchal society.

While many of Mizoguchi’s films are available on DVD, Mizoguchi is absolutely a big-screen director. His subtle use of the camera and his epic portrayals of women and men struggling to overcome their fate deserve to be appreciated in a movie theater and, as usual for this excellent venue, the PFA serves up his films as they were meant to be seen.

 

Kenji Mizoguchi: A Cinema of Totality

June 19, 2014 – August 29, 2014

Pacific Film Archive

2575 Bancroft Way

Berkeley CA 94720

July 22, 2014 at 8:33 pm Leave a comment

Fun and Games: Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons and The Guillotines film reviews

Journey-to-the-West-2013-Movie-Image

Don’t mess with Sun Wukong, Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, 2012

I recently had the chance to view two of last year’s top box-office draws from China, both of which are Hong Kong/China co-productions helmed by A-list Hong Kong directors. Both Andrew Lau’s The Guillotines and Stephen Chow Sing-Chi’s Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons are flashy, expensive commercial spectacles, but one shows much more directorial flair and cohesion of vision than the other.

Although it has about as much in common with the classic Chinese text as did A Chinese Odyssey, Stephen Chow Sing-Chi’s last riff on the Monkey King legend (which is to say, not a whole lot), Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, is still a brilliant film nonetheless. The narrative follows Zhang Wen, a callow and ineffectual demon hunter being chased by a much more competent and coincidentally beautiful demon hunter, Duan, (Shu Qi) who keeps futilely throwing herself at him. As with A Chinese Odyssey, the movie has a philosophical bent hidden under its humor, as Zhang Wen tries to balance between greater and lesser love while struggling to maintain his chastity in the face of earthly temptation (aka Duan).

Don't mess with Shu Qi, Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, 2012

Don’t mess with Shu Qi, Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, 2012

Chow Sing-Chi is in top directorial form with this one, mixing up pathos, slapstick, crude humor, and CGI. His singular cinematic vision is in full effect, starting with a long set piece involving a fish demon that takes its cue from Jaws, Super Mario Brothers, and Bong Joon-Ho’s The Host. Stephen Chow’s great gift is his visual virtuosity, his skill with deadpan absurdity, and his ability to draw out great comic performances from his actors. Although some of the CGI animals are a bit cartoonlike, some images are sheer genius, such as the brilliant and beautiful image of a bodhisattva gazing over the curve of the earth from outer space.  Shu Qi is also outstanding, by turns fierce, giddy, and charming as the demon hunter smitten by her younger colleague. She and Huang Bo, as one incarnation of the Monkey King, have an outstanding improvisational moment late in the film as Sun Wukong teaches Duan how to dance.

Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons, is essentially a very long backstory to its supposed inspiration about the Monkey King and his travels. The film has become the highest grossing Chinese-language film in China to date, so a sequel is now in the works, hopefully with some acting role for Chow as well (he doesn’t appear in this one). Quite possibly the second film will more closely follow the classic story, though with Stephen Chow that’s never a guarantee.

Metal mayhem, The Guillotines, 2012

Metal mayhem, The Guillotines, 2012

The Guillotines is another redux of a classic Chinese story, this time remaking Master of the Flying Guillotine, the seminal 1970s kung fu movie that starred Jimmy Wang Yu and the titular spinning metal decapitation machine. While director Andrew Lau (Infernal Affairs) infuses the film with a dusty, gritty feel and some fun fighting sequences, the movie still somehow falls short. The Guillotines follows an elite band of Imperial assassins who find themselves entangled in court politics and who are forced to flee the vengeance of the new regime. Starring 21st century movie idol youngsters including Huang Xiaoming, Ethan Ruan, and Shawn Yue, (who hail from China, Taiwan, and Hong Kong, respectively), The Guillotines was the number one film in China for a couple weeks before rapidly dropping off the box office charts. Despite its roots as an action film the movie is a bit of a downer as, aside from the thrilling opening sequence full of blood and fancy CGI, the assassins don’t actually get to demonstrate much of their prowess with the weapon that is their namesake.

Brotherly love, Shawn Yue and Ethan Ruan, The Guillotines, 2012

Brotherly love, Shawn Yue and Ethan Ruan, The Guillotines, 2012

Director Lau is an outstanding cinematographer and his camerawork and compositions make great use of light, shadow, and dust, but despite bromances between the various handsome and brooding characters, the film’s tale of betrayal and brotherhood is somehow less compelling than it should be. Continuing to stake his claim as the movie king of the future, Taiwanese popstar and Golden Horse award-winner Ethan Ruan shows some charisma as the Guillotine with a past. The ordinarily dapper Huang Xiaoming, recently seen as the young Chow Yun Fat counterpart in The Last Tycoon, is less effective as the renegade Guillotine, in part due to his ill-advised beard, flowing hair, and sacrificial, Christ-like demeanor. Still, the movie is an enjoyable time-pass and, with Andrew Lau’s high-caliber cinematography and production design, it’s probably pretty stunning to look at on the big screen.

Both films show the continued integration of Hong Kong and China’s commercial film interests. If mainland money means that Stephen Chow keeps making movies, then I’m all for it, since in Journey To The West he seems to have maintained a firm grip on his singular aesthetic. But the flip side of HK/China co-production is good-looking but unsatisfying big-budget movies like The Guillotines. With all of the high-end competition from commercial cinema product from Hollywood, Bollywood, China, or beyond, a movie has to have a more than slick good looks to stand out from the crowd.

Journey To The West: Conquering The Demons

Blu-ray disc now available from yesasia.com

The Guillotines

Opens June 14

Presidio Theater in San Francisco

June 8, 2013 at 3:38 pm Leave a comment

More Than This: Pen-Ek Ratanaruang at Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

Last Life in the Universe_by Pen-ek Ratanaruang_credit Palm Pictures

Mythic, Last Life in the Universe, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003

My pal Durian Dave tipped me to an excellent upcoming film series at the Yerba Buena Center for the Arts, Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang. Though not quite as much the international filmi darling as his countryman Apichatpong Weerasethakul, Ratanaruang has nonetheless garnered critical attention for his unconventional, atmospheric crime films. Six of his movies will be on view at YBCA for a three-week run, with the director in person April 4 at the screening of his latest film, Headshot (2011), and at the April 7 screening of Nymph (2009).

Last Life in the Universe 3_by Pen-ek Ratanaruang_credit Palm Pictures

Desultory, Last Life in the Universe, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2003

Ratanaruang teamed up with Japanese superstar Tadanobu Asano (Ichi The Killer; Thor) and Australian cinematographer Christopher Doyle (famed for his work with Wong Kar-Wai, among many others) for a pair of films included in the YBCA series. Last Life In The Universe (2003) follows Kenji (Asano), a Japanese librarian living in Thailand whose desultory attempts at suicide are interspersed with his equally desultory meanderings around Bangkok. Due to its overuse in describing Thai films I hesitate to use the word dreamlike, but in this case the term is quite apt. The film’s multilingual dialogue and lovely color scheme, with its burnished greens and browns, Chris Doyle’s gliding camerawork and deep-focus compositions, and the languid narrative pace possess the half-remembered structure of dreams. The film is leavened with an absurdist humor occasionally punctuated by brief bursts of violence, but the real story is the development of Kenji’s relationship with Noi, a woman he meets during one of his suicide attempts. After a tragic accident, the two retire to Noi’s incredibly cluttered and filthy beach house, which starkly contrasts with Kenji’s meticulously kept apartment, and slowly develop a friendship. Here Ratanaruang shows a pleasantly light touch, combining Doyle’s keen eye for color and composition with a delicate narrative sensibility. There is a quite beautiful sequence where Noi’s house cleans itself, with books and papers flying through the air like the toys in Mary Poppins’ nursery,  suggesting the mystic quality of Noi’s relationship with Kenji. Sporting a pageboy haircut and glasses, Tadanobu Asano is suitably restrained in his librarian role, with only a few brief glimpses of his full-back tat suggesting a history of violence.

On the lam, Invisible Waves, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2007

On the lam, Invisible Waves, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2007

Ratanaruang’s second film with Asano and Doyle, Invisible Waves (2006), proceeds in a similarly languid fashion. Passive hitman Kyochi (Asano) poisons his girlfriend, who is also the mistress of his mobster boss, then goes on the lam across Southeast Asia, which as shown here is much less exciting than it sounds. Kyochi endures a Kafka-esque boat ride in a janky cruise ship cabin and briefly wanders through Phuket, getting mugged in a fleabag hotel before the boss’s boys catch up with him. Asano’s quiet charisma anchors the film, along with a dark, fatalistic humor and Christopher Doyle’s brilliant compositions. A bit more linear than Last Life, the film nonetheless meanders similarly through its narrative without a huge amount of action. Mysterious blood smears, a cute baby, karaoke-loving hatchet men, and cameos by Hong Kong performers Maria Cordero and Eric Tsang populate the stark scenario.

Headshot 2_by Pen-ek Ratanaruang_credit Kino Lorber

Merit-making, Headshot, Pen-ek Ratanaruang, 2011

Headshot, Ratanaruang’s most recent film, follows Tul, a morose and disillusioned cop who becomes a hitman, mixes it up with various bad guys, falls for prostitute, and becomes a monk, not necessarily in that order. Unversed as I am in Buddhism, the film’s references to that belief system were very opaque to me—perhaps to another less philistine viewer they would have more resonance. Not quite as sublime as Last Life or Invisible Waves, Headshot wavers between violent action and long expository sequences, but the film’s non-linear narrative and Tul’s existential search for a moral higher ground elevates the film above a standard genre exercise.

Also included in the YBCA series are the black comedy 6ixty9ine (1999); Ploy (2007), which looks at love, desire, and betrayal; and Nymph, a surreal stroll through a haunted Thai jungle.

Thai Dreams: The Films of Pen-ek Ratanaruang

Yerba Buena Center for the Arts

April 4-21, 2013

Pen-ek Ratanaruang in Person April 4 and 7, 2013

Full schedule and tickets here.

April 3, 2013 at 10:20 pm Leave a comment

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