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
Oliver Wang’s new book Legions of Boom: Filipino American Mobile DJ Crews in the San Francisco Bay Area, dropped recently, looking at the history of an influential yet largely forgotten music and party scene from the 1970s-90s. As someone who was a high school student in the Bay during that time I really enjoyed the book—my older sister regularly attended Chinese American parties in the 70s and 80s that ran on a track parallel to the Filipino American scene and as an underage kid I snuck into the legendary Studio West disco after hours, not unlike some of the folks discussed in the book. So just on nostalgia alone the book appealed to me.
But nostalgia aside, Legions of Boom is notable for several other reasons. Wang does a great job analyzing the mobile DJ scene in relation to Filipino American immigration and demographics, as well as exploring the importance of sociological elements, such as the ubiquity of the Filipino American garage party, on the development of the scene. Wang also explains the critical importance of the introduction of beat-matching in the DJ scene, which led to DJs being able to more effectively control the mood and tempo of the dance floor. Wang also looks at the influence of gender roles in the Filipino American community on the mobile scene. For instance, he points out that many Filipino families from the East Bay suburbs didn’t allow their teenage daughters to go to parties across the Bay Bridge, a simple yet significant proscription that might have contributed to the lack of female participation in most mobile DJ crews. All in all, the book is a detailed and thoughtful look at the roots and outcomes of the mobile scene.
I had a chance to talk with Oliver Wang about the book in advance of its upcoming book release party in Oakland on Sept. 19.
BA: So as you know I really enjoyed this book for several reasons, not the least being that I’m a native of the Bay of a certain age. Can you talk about the genesis of the book from your perspective?
OW: I lived in the Bay Area from 1990 until 2006 and by the mid-90s, I was a DJ, a music journalist and just starting graduate school. This was in the immediate wake of Bay Area Filipino DJs like Q-Bert, Apollo, Mixmaster Mike, Shortkut, etc. being hailed as the best in the world and there was a natural curiosity for me – especially as an Asian American – to understand “why Filipino DJs? Why the Bay?”
As I had the opportunity to interview them for stories and what not, the common “origin” story they all told was that before they got involved in scratch DJing, they were all members of different mobile crews. That’s how I first learned that the mobile scene ever existed and while there was a lot being written about scratch DJs, there was almost nothing being written about the mobile DJs. As a journalist and scholar, the fact that this seemed underreported gave me the idea to dig deeper.
BA: When you talked to Qbert et al were they surprised when you said you’d never heard of the mobile DJ scene or had it faded from a lot of people’s minds by then?
OW: The scene never had a formal “end”…it just faded away over the course of the early 1990s as many crews simply ceased to exist and more nightclubs were hiring DJs vs. crews throwing parties.
BA: I think you talk about that demise pretty extensively in the book, as well as the rise of the scratch scene, which you discuss in an interesting way. I like that you break it down as the mobile crews being more collective while the turntablists tended to be more individualistic, if I can put a very reductionist spin on it. Can you talk a bit more about what you think this says about celebrity culture in the US?
OW: Hmm…I wouldn’t frame it in that way (but that shouldn’t stop anyone from making that argument if they’re so inclined). Scratch crews were more collective partially because the reason a crew formed was largely informed by the need for labor in helping to move and setup equipment. Obviously, the fulfilled other needs, especially social, but at the core, the DJ group/crew existed in the mobile years because they provided a necessary service to DJs.
Once nightclubs and radio stations began poaching individual DJs, the need for labor disappeared since those venues already have equipment. Now, all a DJ needed to tote was a few crates of records – if that – and they didn’t have to split the DJ fee five different ways or whatever else. So I do think the crews were victims of their own success insofar as the more prominent they were as crews meant that their DJs were also more likely to get poached away, thereby reducing the need for the crew itself to still exist. I suppose there’s some aspect of celebrity culture there – most crews didn’t have room for more than 2 or 3 DJs to be in rotation which meant that everyone else was in a support role and therefore not the center of attention. Scratch DJing, I think, was partially appealing because in a scratch crew, everyone can be a DJ and shine on their own. But to be clear, there’s many reasons why the scene faded; we’re just mentioning a couple here.
BA: Which is why folks need to read your book! Anyways, on a slightly different subject, you mentioned that you were also a journalist as well as a scholar. The book is really a good read not only for the info it contains but for the ease of understanding complex subjects and old fashioned “good” writing. How did your extensive journalistic work inform the creation of the book?
OW: I think I tend to approach researching a story vs. academic research the same insofar as if I’m trying to interview people, I apply the same basic skill-sets regardless of what the final purpose is for. So I don’t think I interview anyone “as a journalist” vs. “ as a researcher.” In my mind, I’m just interviewing someone. Where the influence comes in is around the writing. I want to create some kind of narrative. I definitely want my writing to be legible to scholars but also to a broader public and that was certainly something that, as a journalist, was very important to me.
BA: Going a bit further into that, recently there’s been some great writing in online forums about pretty deep and timely topics by folks who might in the past been considered scholars or academics. What do you think the effect of people like Ta Nehisi Coates and so forth having their work out there on HuffPost has been–as far as impacting popular as well as scholarly discourse? Sorry to veer off topic–
OW: I think what’s interesting is that we’re in the midst of a time where the idea of who/what being a “public intellectual” is being constantly negotiated and transformed. Partially, I think that’s because the language and ideas of critical theory, especially around race, gender, sexuality, etc., have crossed out of the academy and are now part of the lexicon for people who may not be academics in profession but are conversant in the language regardless. And meanwhile, you have a generation of young scholars who want a greater presence in the public sphere so they write op-eds or they appear on talk shows while publications like the Chronicle of Higher Education or personal blogs and the like facilitate the blurring of those borders.
On the one hand, it feels comforting – as someone who has always straddled both worlds – to see others who move comfortably between them. But it’s also accompanied by a general increase in volume, by which I mean both the amount of discourse we’re exposed to as well as the figurative loudness of it all. It’s important and necessary to have more voices out there but that also leads to much of it blending into static and the ability to filter through all that noise becomes a daily challenge, especially when you spend enough time on social media. Scholars and journalists alike seem constantly seduced by “hot take” culture. I’m probably guilty of that myself though.
BA: So the question being begged is, do you consider yourself a public intellectual? Or would you want to be considered as such?
OW: I always thought that “public intellectual” was a label that others described you as but not something you either aspire to or self-describe as…unless you want to be seen as pretentious and gassed up on yourself. I had a colleague once describe me as “a writer who teaches” and that felt about right; I’m 100% ok with that particular label.
BA: So when you were writing for music pubs back in the day did you envision yourself a prof or the author of an academic book about DJing? Or has that evolved over the years? I’m asking since I know a lot of younger folks think that their destinies are carved in stone when they are 21 and sometimes don’t realize the changes that occur on a regular basis throughout a career or a life.
OW: No. When I applied to graduate school, I’m almost certain I didn’t put anything in my application about studying popular culture – let alone music. I think I wrote something vague about “identity formation” or the like but back then, I tended to compartmentalize my various interests – writing, DJing, scholarship – rather than seeing them as related parts of a greater whole.
Part of it was that Asian American Studies then (and now, to a lesser extent) didn’t seem to strongly embrace the study of popular culture. My work always felt marginal from the “center” of the discipline, especially when I started to go to the annual conferences and I could literally count the number of papers on Asian American music on a single hand. It’s gotten (somewhat) better but I’m still amazed (and not in a good way) at how relatively little pop culture scholarship exists within Asian American Studies in comparison to African American or Latino Studies. It’s insane to me that in 2015, no one’s written a book about Asian American car culture! My father-in-law is a sansei from L.A. and he and his buddies were modifying and racing cars back in the 1950s and ‘60s and I grew up during the Asian import scene of the 1990s that helped give birth to some of what you see in the Fast and Furious franchise. At some point, I hope someone writes a book about Asian American dance crews. Or garage bands. Or Youtube videomakers. Or…you get the idea. A friend once joked there’s more books about Asian American literature than there are Asian Americans writing literature. I get how that works – certain cultural forms are embraced and given legitimacy in the academy vs. others and as someone else pointed out to me, if you’re Asian American and really interested in popular culture, you’re more likely to pursue that interest by making culture vs. studying it. But still, there’s so much work to be done around how Asian Americans engage with popular culture. Maybe my daughter’s generation will be the one who finally brings balance to The Force.
BA: (insert snark here about model minorities and tiger moms)
That’s funny b/c I was going to ask you if and how your training in Ethnic Studies and AA Studies informed your work.
OW: My grounding in ES and AAS certainly informed how I thought about race, identity, community, etc. but when it came to thinking about applying those theories and ideas to popular culture, it was largely scholars outside of AAS who I turned to, whether George Lipsitz or Robin Kelley or bell hooks, etc. I owe big thanks to Deborah Wong because the fact that she was studying Asian American popular music had a huge impact in knowing that such a thing was possible and “legitimate.” And Michael Omi, who was my advisor in grad school, was always supportive of my interests even if his own background wasn’t in pop culture studies. I also think if I didn’t have an outlet for those ideas – as a cultural journalist/critic – I might have felt more alienated in graduate school as a result but one of the benefits in being invested in both activities was that each served, in a way, as a release valve from the pressures of the other.
BA: Multitasking as holistic healing
OW: Ha, something like that. One of the best pieces of advice I ever got about being an academic came from Elaine Kim who told me, early in my graduate school days, that when she was in grad school, she a young single mom and that it kept her grounded in a healthy reality outside of the academy. I always took that to heart: be committed to your work but don’t make it your sole world and nearly 20 years later, I still try to follow that adivce.
It helps to have other responsibilities in life to distract you from your primary obsessions.
BA: Getting back to the book, your subject matter is from the late 20th century–what’s it’s relevance now to the Fil Am and As Am community? Does the mobile DJ scene still live on?
OW: There are still mobile DJs out there, no question (including a handful of crews that have survived since the 1980s) but the scene doesn’t exist any more; it hasn’t for about 20 years.
The “relevance” question is hard to answer for me because I never set out to study it with the idea that I had to prove its relevance to the current day. To me, the fact that it was this important phenomenon that few people outside of the scene knew about…that was reason enough to write a book about it. I’ll leave it to others to discuss how they see that history fitting into the current day but for me, the main takeaway is that young people can and will create remarkable things if given the right incentives and support.
BA: Since the book dropped a few months ago what has the reception been like, among scholars, people from the mobile DJ scene, the general public, etc?
OW: It’s been good! My favorite part is that at all the readings/events I’ve done, there’s been respondents who’ve come through and I’ve invited them to talk about their experiences directly to the audience. To me, that just makes sense: my primary sources are literally in the room.
The one thing that amuses me though is how so many people think my book is about Filipinos and hip-hop when I even say, in the book, explicitly, “this is not a book about Filipinos and hip-hop.” But as I also write in there, the reason people make that conflation is largely because Filipino Americans became such a vital part of hip-hop culture, they just assume the two things go hand-in-hand. That’s partially a legacy of the mobile scene.
BA: How has that been for you to see the response to your years of research and writing?
OW: I wish I could have gotten it out sooner but that’s a common academic’s lament. What’s been great to see is that I’ve heard of at least 3-4 different parties interested in creating a documentary around parts of this history. My hope has always been that if the book has any impact, it’s to encourage more people to explore all the aspects of this scene I wasn’t able to cover. Legions of Boom was never intended to be a comprehensive history. It’s an introduction at best but there’s so much more to that community and its scene to explore and document.
BA: Who’s organizing the book party and will some of the folks from the book be spinning? And will you take a turn?
OW: Francisco Pardorla, who helped lead the Images crew out of Union City/Fremont and was one of the main people behind the successful AA Productions (arguably the second biggest promoter in the scene behind Imagine), is throwing the “official” Bay Area book release party. He’s bringing out all manners of O.G. DJs from the scene. I don’t know if I’ll take a turn or not – I wasn’t spinning in the ‘80s! It’s just an honor to be in the company of the greats.
BA: And what kind of crowd do you think will show up?
It’s going to be a lot of the OGs from the scene plus their family. Should be a fun reunion night in that regard.
Saturday Sept. 19, 2015
581 5th Street
Oakland CA 94607
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