So I got on the plane from Frankfurt to SFO on Sunday and I was horrified to discover that there were no back-of-the-seat individual video screens on the flight. I could not remember the last time I was on a flight longer than an hour without personal video service and since I was staring an 11-hour transatlantic flight in the face, I was pretty pissed off at myself for booking on United Airlines, which is apparently so impoverished that it can’t afford to upgrade its fleet to 21st century standards. That bit of first-world bitching aside, I started to think about the many films I’ve seen lately on those tiny little embedded monitors, so herewith follows the first in an irregularly scheduled series of reviews from the airplane movie film festival. All details from a haze of jet lag, leg cramps, and crappy airplane food.
The Great Gatsby: a fun and spectacular adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book, this one by the reliably lurid Baz Lurhmann, who transformed the book into a video game complete with swooping camerawork, hiphop, and Leo DeCaprio brooding as the titular character. Toby Maguire not in a spidey-suit is good as Nick Carraway, the Jazz Age babe in the woods. Another little surprise was Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan in a small role as a Jewish bootlegger (since apparently Indian is the new Oriental). I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book (what?) and I have no allegiance to its plot particulars so I enjoyed the movie as a standalone piece, with the Jay-Z soundtrack and anachronistic mylar party streamers adding to the shiny fun.
The Silent War: Tony Leung Chiu-wai as a blind guy helping the military crack codes in 1949 China. I either missed the plot point or it was never clarified as to whether Tony was helping out the Communists or the Nationalists, and I missed the last twenty minutes of the movie due to starting the film too late (a recurring error on my part), but the art direction was pretty authentically period and Tony and Zhou Xun, who plays a sleek Chinese spy, both acquit themselves pretty well. My movie-viewing experience probably suffered from seeing the film on a tiny digital screen, so if I get the chance I’ll watch it again to get the full effect of the nice cinematography and slick 1940s costume design, since I love the look of peplum skirts, finger rolls, and tweed coats.
Star Trek: Into Darkness. A dumb and dreadful followup to the excellent Star Trek reboot from a few years back that features a very Anglo Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, which is weird since the character was memorably portrayed in previous incarnations by Mexico-born Spaniard Ricardo Montalban. Cumberbatch is properly menacing and he bellows in his best Shakespearean actor mode, but since Montalban’s archetypal Khan is permanently etched in my brain, Benny’s blue peepers and pale skin threw me off. Zachary Quinto continues his excellent vocal mimicry of Leonard Nimoy (who gets a brief cameo, looking very aged) and Chris Pine grimaces as young Captain Kirk. British actress Alice Eve is good as Dr. Carol Wallace, but her character’s braininess doesn’t preclude her a fan-service scene in her underwear. As a busty blonde she also has a passing resemblance to her TOS predecessor, Yeoman Janice Rand, which means that she & Capt. Kirk will probably get busy some time in future installments. Zoe Saltana as Lt. Uhura mostly exists to be the emotional proxy for the stoic manly men in the movie since every time a crisis comes up the movie cuts to her looking shocked or sad.
Iron Man 3: another film viewing tragically cut short due to my inept movie-watching time management. Robert Downey Jr. swaggers and smirks and Gwyneth Paltrow takes up space, and I suspect one’s enjoyment of the film is directly related to how much you like RDJ’s schtick. He’s a really good actor but I’m having trouble remembering the last non-Iron Man movie I’ve seen him in lately (Zodiac? Sherlock Holmes?). I wanted to see the end of the movie to find out more about The Mandarin, the neo-Orientalist character here presented as a middle eastern/western Asian character by half-desi actor Ben Kingsley. But alas my seatback screen went haywire halfway into the movie and I couldn’t get it to work in time to watch the whole thing. So I took a nap instead.
A Werewolf Boy: a charming little South Korean fable about a girl and her lycanthrope, here played with shaggy-haired K-pop charm by Song Joong-ki. This movie was one of the top grossing films in S. Korea last year so, although teen romances aren’t usually my thing, I wanted to check it out to get a sense of the South Korean pop culture gestalt. Although it’s supposed to be set “forty years ago,” around the 1970s, there were some glaring anachronisms in the art direction and costuming, but despite its shoddy mise-en-scene the movie was a fun little timepass. This is the second wolf-girl teen romance movie from Asia that I’ve seen recently, the other being Mamoru Hosoda’s animated movie Wolf Children, so I’m thinking—are werewolves the new vampires? Or if I want to put a cultural studies frame around it, what do the popularity of these films say about the ongoing transnational hybridity of Asian identities? Sorry, been writing a lot of academic proposals lately so my mind is locked in theoryspeak.
This year’s edition of Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society is chock full of star power, with new movies from some of the biggest movie kings and queens in Hong Kong. The opening night film, Bends, starring the glorious Carina Lau as a wealthy woman and the beautiful Aloys Chen Kun as her driver, looks at class divisions in contemporary Hong Kong. Cantopop also shows up in the festival, with Sky King Jacky Cheung appearing in A Complicated Story, and singing groups Grasshopper and Softhard featured in the documentary The Great War: Director’s Cut.
The festival also features a mini-retrospective of work by the late Lau Kar-Leung, the legendary martial arts director who died earlier this year, with rare big-screen presentations of 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977) and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), both starring the great Gordon Liu.
Also on tap is Johnnie To’s Blind Detective, starring another Sky King, Andy Lau, and his rom-com soulmate Sammi Cheng, together on screen for the first time since 2004’s Yesterday Once More. The premise is similar to To’s earlier film Mad Detective, in which the main character, here with the added characteristic of vision impairment, re-enacts past crime scenes in order to glean clues about the crime. The sight-challenged detective, played by Andy Lau, teams up with Ho (Sammi Cheng), a cop searching for a missing childhood friend.
The movie will probably be a rude shock for anyone expecting a Johnnie To movie like, say, Drug War or Exiled, as it’s pretty much a slapstick comedy with a few action elements sprinkled in. The film definitely leans toward the comic as the cast performs at a fever pitch, mugging and shouting at each other at the top of their lungs—at one point you can actually see the spittle flying from Sammi’s mouth as she bellows away. It’s a crazy farce that probably isn’t for everyone, but I had a great time watching Andy and Sammi go at it in the best screwball comedy tradition. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and a wacky good time is had by all, with the genial Andy Lau not afraid to look like an idiot talking with his mouth full and director To framing his stars against huge adverts for tea cakes.
Quite a few of To’s most deadly serious gangster flicks still have little timeouts for a spot of off-kilter humor, such as Nick Cheung eating a porcelain spoon in Election, or badass bodyguards playing paper-ball football in The Mission, or Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Lam Suet, and Roy Cheung in Exiled fixing up Nick Cheung’s shot-up flat like the triad edition of This Old House, and some of To’s movies, like Too Many Ways to Be Number One or Mad Detective, are one big comic goof. It’s one of the little quirky things that make Milkyway Image films so fun and such a departure from your standard crime movie, since they ride the spectrum from brutal violence to comic relief so rapidly and unexpectedly. So it’s not surprising to find To indulging in his zany side in Blind Detective. It’s a pretty silly movie and there’s a lot of extraneous nonsense, but it’s great to see Andy and Sammi, co-stars of seminal Milkyway rom-coms like Needing You and Love On A Diet, together again and playing off of each other comfortably and naturally. Even if Blind Detective isn’t as brilliantly bleak as Drug War or Election, the movie is confidently executed since, not unlike the titular hero, To can make these movies with his eyes closed.
More Hong Kong movie royalty make an appearance in The Last Tycoon, starring the legendary trio of Chow Yun-Fat, Sammo Hung, and Francis Ng, along with mainland star Huang Xioaming. The movie is a remake of The Bund, the 1980s Hong Kong drama that made CYF a household name as a righteous gangster rising through the ranks in 1930s Shanghai. The series was remade a few years ago with HXM in the same role that CYF played back in the day and, in a bit a stunt casting, in The Last Tycoon they reprise that role, with HXM playing the younger version and CYF the older version. The two also swapped dubbing chores for each other, with HXM voicing the character in the Mandarin dub and CYF working the Cantonese dub.
The film also features CYF and Francis Ng on the big screen together for the first time, despite both having long and storied careers in the Hong Kong film industry. Both performers rely heavily on body language and facial expressions in their acting technique, with Chow the king of the sorrowful gaze who lets his evocative eyes tell the story. Chow’s held up remarkably well for a man in his late fifties and now possesses the regal bearing suitable for this role. He’s also still quite handsome so it was entirely plausible that he would be a babe magnet involved in a love triangle with Monica Mok and Yolanda Yuen.
Francis Ng’s character isn’t a stretch for him as it’s his typical sinister bad guy role, but through his gestures and mannerisms he imbues the character with menace and unctuousness, and the intensity of his posture and the threatening way he smokes a cigarette attest to his skill and talent in bringing to life even the most banal character. Sammo Hung swaggers through the film as a corrupt cop but alas doesn’t get to show off much of his martial arts chops, but the real gangsta role goes to Hu Gao as CYF’s no-nonsense, butterfly-knife wielding bodyguard. The movie has an expensive look and feel to it (producer Andrew Lau may have also had a hand in the gorgeous cinematography) but director Wong Jing doesn’t quite have enough of a handle on the pacing or action to make the movie really move. With all that on-screen talent the movie should’ve been a knockout, but it’s more of an expensive misfire.
The festival closes with two more big-time Hong Kong movie stars, Nick Cheung and the third out of four Sky Kings, Aaron Kwok (what, no Leon Lai?) in Conspirators, but I can’t really recommend this Oxide Pang-directed thriller. The movie follow Kwok as a traumatized detective searching for clues to his parent’s murder some thirty years prior who hires a private eye (Cheung) to assist him. Set in Malaysia, the movie feels like a cheap 1970s Asian action film, and not in a good way. Nick Cheung is solid as Zheng, the Malaysian private eye, but due to an extraneous twin brother plot device he’s burdened with a bad wig for most of the movie. Despite the fact that he proved he could act in After This Our Exile, Aaron Kwok doesn’t add a lot of life to his characterization of Tam, the detective with a past. Oxide Pang’s direction mixes cheesy, uncompelling fight scenes (Zheng knows kung fu!), implausible and opaque plot points, and filtered lighting that’s supposed to add grit and texture to the film but mostly makes it look like it was shot on the cheap in a back lot in Kuala Lumpur, which it probably was.
I’m out of town this weekend so I’ll sadly miss all that heavenly big screen Hong Kong movie glory. No one else has any excuse–
October 4–6, 2013
The international film world is a trendy place, and programmers are constantly mining national cinemas for the next big thing. Among Asian countries, in recent years Hong Kong, South Korea, and Thailand have became the source for hot and happening directors such as Johnny To, Kim Ki-Duk, Apichatpong Weerasethakul, and more, as film fests try to scoop the latest and hottest genre and arthouse directors to liven up their programming. This year’s flavor seems to be the Philippines, as four new Filipino films premiered at Cannes this year. I call it the “Brillante Mendoza effect,” since that director has had a run of movies screening at tony international film fests like Toronto, Hong Kong, and Cannes, where Kinatay famously and controversially won the Best Director prize, after which Roger Ebert declared it was “the worst film in the history of the Cannes Film Festival.” Filipino movies have started to get more respect in Asia as well where, interestingly enough, they are often disregarded or ignored by their more established cousin industries in Hong Kong, Japan, and China. Veteran actors Nora Aunor and Eddie Garcia both won acting awards at the 7th Asian Film Awards in Hong Kong this year, and also won big at the Asia Pacific Film Festival in Macau and the Asia Pacific Screen Awards in Brisbane, Australia. So much like sisig and adobo are the food truck flavors of the month, Filipino cinema has become the new darling of international film set.
Erik Matti’s On The Job was one of the Filipino Four that screened at the Director’s Fortnight at Cannes this year and in the past few years his work has been popping up at festivals in Europe, Asia, and the U.S. Unlike Mendoza, his arthouse countryman, Matti’s a longtime veteran of Filipino commercial film and television production, starting out directing adverts for Filipino TV and moving on to direct a slew of genre product including horror, crime, and comedies.
A gritty, entertaining crime thriller, On The Job was produced for commercial distribution in the Philippines, not for international arthouse audiences, but Matti’s confident control of the material elevates the film from a mainstream genre picture to something more.
The movie opens with a no-nonsense sequence showing Tatang and Daniel, a pair of sketchy dudes, shooting down a man execution-style in broad daylight in a crowded street. Despite their faces being fully exposed the two killers are fearless, seemingly unconcerned about witnesses or the possibility of arrest. It soon becomes clear why they can stroll the streets murdering people—right after they do the deed they’re taken off to prison, where they’ve been residing as convicts for years, hiding in plain sight while the police search fruitlessly for them.
On the case is Senior Detective Acosta, a veteran cop, paired up with Atty. Francis Coronel, an up-and-coming young federal investigator whose father-in-law is a big-time politician. Acosta and Coronel’s relationship parallels that of Tatang and Daniel, drawing classic genre connections between cops and criminals.
On The Job plays up the corruption of the PI police and politicians and their links to their shadow partners, the criminals doing the dirty work of assassinations. Matti’s film boasts a strong premise, hyperkinetic roving handheld camerawork, great sound design, and smoky filtered lighting, with bursts of violence punctuating the narrative. Matti draws out strong performances from his cast, which includes heartthrob Piolo Pascual as Coronel, the upstanding young federale who falls into a pit of corruption once he starts investigating the case. Despite being very pretty, Pascual is believable as a driven and determined investigator whose family connections are a dubious benefit. Anchoring the film is veteran Filipino actor Joel Torre as Tatang, the middle-aged convict/killer who’s hoping to escape his shitty life situation by taking on contract assassinations.
What’s missing is a sense of exactly why Daniel, the younger convict, would willingly become a coldblooded assassin. Tatang, the older of the pair of cons, has a full backstory complete with a two-timing wife and a daughter he’s putting through college, but Daniel’s life is a bit sketchy. It’s not until more than halfway into the movie that we see evidence of a girlfriend or any other positive interpersonal relationships besides his friendship with Tatang. I get that he’s in prison and this might be a way to gain his freedom, but he doesn’t seem to feel a lot of remorse for the ruthless murders he commits. The movie doesn’t effectively reveal how the Daniel started out or where he’s going, only where he is right in the moment. This robs the film of some emotional impact beyond the visceral repulsion of his violent killings. However, his relationship with Tatang, his mentor-in-crime, is strongly developed and its ultimate conclusion is powerful and unexpected, yet logical in the scheme of the characters’ dynamic.
On The Job opens this weekend across the U.S. and has a chance to be a breakout Asian film in both arthouse and mainstream cinemas. Because of the genre’s enduring popularity and accessibility, crime films like OTJ have become the lingua franca in the international film world, and Matti may be the latest Asian director to cash in on the ongoing crime film wave.
Opens September 27
AMC Metreon in San Francisco
Century Tanforan 20 in San Bruno
Milpitas Great Mall in Milpitas
Union City 25 in Union City
Century 14 in Vallejo
I almost never watch American television, though I occasionally look at reality shows like Project Runway or Chopped when my daughters are streaming it on my computer, but I really can’t remember the last time I watched a U.S. drama on a regular basis. I have a hard time paying attention to anything more than 90 minutes long unless it includes singing and dancing in Hindi, so investing weeks and weeks in a TV show, no matter how good, is just too much commitment for me. Also, as an unreconstructed experimental film geek I’m very visually oriented, so I prefer my media to be less dialog and character-driven than is most television.
I’m not one for Asian dramas, either—again, the weeks and weeks of watching are just too much for me to do, and I find plastic surgery and eyeliner on boys a little distracting. That said, this past year I’ve watched two Asian dramas, but only because they starred two of my favorite actors, Lee Byung-Hun and Francis Ng.
Last spring I watched IRIS (아이리스, 2009), the South Korean espionage thriller that stars the insanely hot Lee Byung-Hun as a special ops agent involved in various crazy political plots. Although much of the story strains credulity, LBH is quite good in it and the ample explosions, gunfights, assassinations, betrayals, and love triangles keep the show movie along briskly. I felt like I’d eaten too much deep-fried food after sitting through its 40+ episodes but it was fun to spend all that time watching LBH do his thing.
More recently, I’ve been wallowing in Triumph In The Skies 2, the sequel to the hit Hong Kong drama that aired in 2003 on TVB that followed the lives and romances of a clutch of HK airline pilots. I watched TITS 1 on DVD long after it first came out, but with the advent of online streaming I’ve been able to see episodes of TITS 2 with English subtitles on a day-and-date schedule with its airing in Hong Kong. Like its prequel, the series has been quite a sensation since its premiere at the beginning of August, drawing high ratings and inspiring a wave of pilot-mania among Hong Kong’s citizenry. It was great to be able to watch Francis Ng as the lead character, Sam Tong, an upstanding and heroic airline pilot who is a much beloved character in Hong Kong. The show is nowhere near as hyperkinetic as IRIS, depending on romantic entanglements and other interpersonal relationships for its dramatic tension, but Francis, along with co-star Julian Cheng Chilam, made the show watchable. A bonus to watching it online is that I could fast-forward through the extraneous side-stories and go straight to the Francis plotlines.
The drama is no great shakes and in fact is pretty mundane, with vast swaths of filler focusing on minor characters, flagrant product placement, and way too many subplots that are transparently designed to showcase TVB’s up-and-coming starlets. But TITS is one of TVB’s premium franchises and the station threw a lot of money at it, by Hong Kong television standards. There are many cute young guys looking suave in cadet pilot uniforms, including the sweet and dreamy Him Law, nice scenery in London, Taiwan, and Paris, and upscale Hong Kong characters with huge fantasy apartments and luxury cars.
However, although it was a high-end, much-hyped TVB series, the drama exhibited sloppy plotting and dialog, pacing and editing problems, sketchy and uneven acting, and way too many extraneous characters and storylines. There were huge, illogical jumps in the timeline (to accommodate a pregnant character) and one of the main characters, Captain Jayden Koo (Julian Cheung Chilam) inexplicably disappeared from the narrative for many episodes. Of course television dramas are built around people behaving stupidly and making poor life decisions and this show is no different, with characters displaying irritating obstinacy, irrational stubbornness, and poor communication skills, and making bad, impulsive decisions. I suppose their dramatic idiocy is meant to make the viewer feel better about their own lives, but there’s a limit to how much illogical behavior is plausible.
TITS 2 also suffered by comparison to TITS 1. If a love triangle or two worked in TITS 1, why not three or four in TITS 2? How about a weirdly obsessive, terminally ill ingénue chasing after a reluctant mate? TITS 1 had the deliciously agonizing dilemma of Francis Ng’s character, Sam Tong, in love with his best friend’s wife, so that the love triangle was truly triangular, with the relationship between all three characters holding significance. In TITS 2, the Sam/Jayden/Holiday triangle had much less piquancy because there was no deep relationship between Sam and Jayden, unlike Sam and Vincent’s friendship in the original series. It didn’t help that Fala Chen’s acting as Holiday, the fulcrum of the love triangle, was wildly inconsistent, though by the end of the series she had settled down a bit.
For me, the main draw of course was Francis Ng, and he didn’t disappoint. Although TITS 2 was by no means high art (or even competent storytelling), as an opportunity to watch hours of Francis Ng every night for six weeks it was a quite a lovely indulgence and despite the drama’s general silliness, Francis absolutely killed in this show. Francis is an outstanding big-screen actor but he’s also an excellent small-screen actor, due to his mobile and subtly expressive face and his huge repertoire of physical expressions. The way he stands, the position of his arms, and his confident rolling swagger when he’s walking around the airport in his pilot drag like he owns the place all add up to a very satisfying viewing experience. His character was by turns depressed, repressed, anal retentive, or controlling, but Francis managed to make him sympathetic with just a well-placed flick of his eyebrows or a meaningful sigh, and he is the king of the single tear sliding down the cheek. In one scene, where he recalls his remorse at disappointing Zoe, his late wife, the range of emotions crossing his face was pretty amazing, demonstrating his impeccable mastery of non-verbal acting.
Francis also gets bonus points for flaunting an array of beautifully cut Vivianne Westwood menswear (including a $250 hoodie with hand-painted stars on the sleeves and a gorgeous black velvet tux with a satin shawl collar) and looking ridiculously fit and charming for a man in his early fifties. Depending on the lighting and the skill of the makeup artists, Francis alternately looked pretty good for his age or like a star somewhat past his sell date. Some netizens were less than kind about Francis’ fifty-plus years, and it didn’t help that his main love interest was a woman in her early thirties, which often accentuated Francis’ age to his detriment. But the man can wear a tailored suit like nobody’s business and his signature “airplane head” pompadour was impeccably groomed throughout the entire series—there was literally not a hair out of place and the sculpted fade of his sideburns was immaculately trimmed to the exact same length for the entire show. Way to go, continuity department!
Julian Cheung’s new character, Jayden Koo, instantly became a fan favorite in the sequel, though to me the character was a narcissistic bore who thought he was the schiznit. In the first few eps Jayden’s popularity far outstripped that of Sam Tong, making the proposed Sam/Jayden/Holiday love triangle a non-starter. In order to appease the disgruntled Sam/Zoe shippers and to level the playing field for Sam vs. Jayden, Julian Cheung’s part was ruthlessly trimmed down in the middle episodes of the series and Francis and Fala’s budding romance instead took center stage. When Jayden finally reappeared some weeks down the line, after the show’s editing had tilted the audience in F&F’s favor, he seemed more like an obsessive stalker than a viable love interest. My conspiracy theory is that the producers realized that the audience wasn’t down with Francis + Fala and had to fatten up their relationship in order to make the love triangle plausible, at the expense of Julian Cheung’s screentime. That and the fact that the show’s ending had been spoiled even before the series aired took a lot of the dramatic tension out of the storyline.
Through the magic of google chrome’s instantaneous (if garbled) web translations, it was also fun to follow the media frenzy in Hong Kong as the show aired. Apparently Sam/Zoe is one of the most revered pairings in TVB history and the way that Zoe was ruthlessly killed off between TITS 1 and TITS 2 (appearing only in flashbacks in TITS 2) really rankled the viewership. After the Sam/Zoe storyline was resolved in episode 23 some viewers swore off the show, though their defections didn’t seem to affect the ratings as TITS 2 ended up the highest rated show of the year as well as racking up many hundreds of millions of online views in Hong Kong and China.
It was also pretty humorous to observe the stars’ various spats with each other via the media. Early press reports stated that Francis Ng and Fala Chen didn’t get along, but as the series progressed the purported tensions were denied, with Fala Chen at one point claiming “(Francis) just looks really fierce because when he furrows his brow, he looks very serious.” It was also funny to note is that many online commentators had very little sense of Francis Ng’s work outside of Hong Kong television, apparently not realizing the fact that he’s won several Best Actor awards for his film work, or that he’s known outside of Hong Kong primarily for playing badass gangsters, not lovelorn pilots, or that, as he says, “the majority of my fans have tattoos.”
Despite all of its shortcomings the drama was a huge hit, with excellent broadcast ratings in Hong Kong. There’s talk of a feature film version of the show and all involved are scrambling to capitalize on its popularity. Julian Cheung has taken advantage of his increased profile by changing agents, recording a cover of the theme song from the original series, and buying a new Mercedes. Francis Ng has inexplicably signed an agreement to produce a cooking show for TVB. And Fala Chen is being touted by Eric Tsang as “the new Maggie Cheung,” although she has none of Cheung Man-yuk acting skills, charisma, or talent. Considering how meteorically fortunes can rise and fall in Hong Kong show biz, it will be interesting to see the lasting effects, if any, of the recent success of TITS 2.
Related Francis Ng news: It was just announced that Francis Ng is attached to Sha Po Lang 2, the sequel to the 2005 Wilson Yip-directed Donnie Yen action/MMA film revered by many Hong Kong movie fanboys. Yip had wanted Francis to star in the original SPL (the part eventually went to Simon Yam) but scheduling conflicts prevented this happening, so it’s great that Francis will be joining the cast for this one. This installment will be directed by Soi Cheang (Motorway; Accident), who most recently worked with Francis on the film adaptation of the the ultraviolent Japanese manga Shamo (2007). It will be nice to see Francis in a real Hong Kong crime film once again, as opposed to the soapy melodrama of TITS or the dreadful mainland shlock he’s been putting out lately. Can’t wait–
UPDATE: Although google is mangling the translation of this article, I think that it says that Francis Ng, Chilam Cheung, and Louis Koo are now confirmed for the movie version of the drama and that, due to her clashes with Francis and other cast members as well as her Marilyn Monroe-esque behavior on set (i.e., being late and not knowing her lines), Fala Chen has been dumped from said movie and replaced by Taiwanese star Lin Chi-Ling. What’s more interesting is that Benny Chan is now attached to direct and that the film supposedly will be an “action” movie. Chan is fresh from one of the top-grossing Hong Kong films of last year, The White Storm, which was a manly crime film starring Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Nick Cheung. Having just watched Big Bullet again recently, I can only hope that news of Chan’s involvement is true and that the brave and handsome flight crew will face terrorists, bombs, and mayhem on the streets and in the skies of Hong Kong. I’d pay to see that–
A new Johnnie To joint in U.S. movie theaters is an event to be celebrated and this month sees the stateside release of Drug War, To’s latest crime film. The prolific Hong Kong filmmaker has directed more than fifty movies since the 1980s and in the past ten or twelve years or so he’s become an international film festival darling, but only about a dozen of his movies have seen theatrical releases in the U.S. (the last being Vengeance in 2009). Drug War is his first crime film set in mainland China (his first ever was last year’s rom-com Romancing In Thin Air) and while it may look and feel very different from his earlier Hong Kong-based classics, in its subtle challenges to the status quo in the Chinese film industry Drug War demonstrates that To and his Milkyway Image production house are still creatively shaking things up.
The plot involves Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a Hong Kong drug manufacturer working in China who is summarily busted in the film’s opening sequence. In order to save his skin and escape the death penalty under China’s draconian anti-drug laws, Choi agrees to aid a crew of mainland cops, lead by Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei), in organizing a sting against his compatriots. The film then follows the uneasy alliance of Choi and Zhang as they trace Choi’s fellow drug-runners up the supply chain.
Drug War is in some ways a much more a standard policier than your usual To movie. Soi Cheang (Motorway; Accident) is credited as a second unit director and might have had a hand in shaping the look of the film, but the change in milieu from To’s usual Hong Kong stomping grounds to mainland China might also account for the difference in the film’s visual texture. The movie is shot in a predominantly blue palette with mostly natural lighting that feels more Ringo Lam-like than Milkywayesque. To also uses the wide-open, smoggy spaces of industrial China and its endless six-lane highways and anonymous cities as metaphors for the blurry ethical and moral road his characters travel down.
Nowhere to be found is the surreal high-gloss sheen of To’s earlier Hong Kong-based crime films such as Exiled, Election, or PTU, which were gorgeous visual paeans to the beauty and decadence of the former Crown Colony’s criminal societies. The grit coating the economy cars and paneled trucks cruising along Drug War’s Chinese roadways contrast starkly with the glossy sleekness of the luxury vehicles speeding down the roads of nocturnal Hong Kong in Milkyway classics like The Mission. Even the perpetually glamorous and handsome Louis Koo is scuffed up, his famously tanned, square-jawed visage occluded by scabs, burns, and an unsightly white bandage across the bridge of his elegant nose.
The film also displays little of To’s previous quirkiness, possibly reflecting the reduced influence of long-time collaborator Wai Ka-Fei or the recent death of longtime Milkyway screenwriter Kam-Yeun Szeto. Although there’s some submerged humor in the spectacle of a couple coke-addled flunkies driving endlessly through the vast Chinese landscape, as well as in the inclusion of a pair of deaf-mute brothers who man a drug manufacturing plant, for the most part the movie plays it pretty straight.
There’s also much less action than in To’s previous work, but when the guns do come out the excellent shootouts demonstrate To’s easy mastery of the action genre. This is especially notable in a brief yet effective gun-battle inside a drug manufacturing plant that escalates from handguns to rifles to explosives with military precision. The film’s climactic showdown recalls the ending of Expect The Unexpected (1998), nominally directed by Patrick Yau but most likely ghost-directed by To, in which a shootout leads to bloody and indeed unexpected results.
Sun Honglei shows some range as the stoic Mainland cop who once undercover transforms into a jovial drug dealer, but in contrast to the naturalistic tone of most of the movie his performance skates dangerously close to hamminess. Louis Koo is somewhat wooden as the enigmatic Timmy Choi but this is possibly appropriate, since he’s portraying a man with a lot to hide. When Choi mourns his recently deceased wife, however, Koo’s performance lacks the pathos and depth of emotion that a more skilled thespian such as Francis Ng or Lau Ching Wan might have brought to the scene. Interestingly, the most engaging supporting characters are the seven Hong Kong character actors, including Milkyway stalwarts Lam Suet, Michelle Ye, and Gordon Lam, who make cameo appearances as drug dealers in the second half of the film. This perhaps unconsciously reflects To’s comfort zone in dealing with Hong Kong performers vs. the less familiar mainland actors.
Though Drug War may not be quite as fabulous or fully realized as some of his earlier classics it’s an entirely respectable and watchable product that has a certain grim integrity. The film is one of the first that To’s made while working under SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television), China’s infamous censorship board, yet despite the censor’s approval To manages to infuse the film with a complexity of morality not found in many commercial Chinese films. Both cops and criminals are ruthless, amoral, and obsessed, using any means necessary to achieve their respective goals, and all meet similar fates in the end. The most interesting supporting characters are the aforementioned Hong Kong criminals as well as the deaf-mute drug manufacturers who, along with Louis Koo’s Timmy Choi, are the only characters with visible family ties. In contrast, aside from Sun Honglei as Zhang and Crystal Huang as a female detective, the mainland cops blend together in an anonymous blur. Some observers claim that the film is a parable for the fraught state of Hong Kong-China relations and To himself has spoken of the way in which he used the film as an experiment to see how far he could go in transplanting his Hong Kong-style crime movies to the mainland. If To in one of his first mainland productions has managed to sneak in some sociological critique under the noses of censors and push the envelope of acceptability under SARFT regulations then that bodes well for his fortunes in China. In the future it will be interesting to see how he copes with the strictures of working on the mainland and if he can maintain his vision and aesthetic despite SARFT’s watchful eye.
Many thanks to Ross Chen, Kevin Ma, Sanney Leung, Chuck Stephens, and Shelly Kraicer for their imput and assistance in this piece, especially their vital insights into Johnnie To’s clever subversions of SARFT restrictions.
Drug War North America showtimes
It’s July, the fog has swamped the city, and the Silent Film Festival (SFF) returns this week to San Francisco. Spanning an action-packed four days, the lineup includes classics, gems, and newly restored discoveries from locales around the world including Bali, Japan, Germany, Sweden, Denmark, England, Russia, and the United States. This year’s festival features legendary stars such as Louise Brooks (Prix de Beaute), Greta Garbo (The Joyless Street), Harold Lloyd (Safety Last!) and Douglas Fairbanks (The Half-Breed) and famed directors including G.W. Pabst and Yasujiro Ozu.
In contrast to the high-tone glamor found in the movies above, The House on Trubnaya Square is a sprightly little Soviet comedy that follows the misadventures of a cleaning lady in Moscow. As the cleaning lady rises through the ranks of the workers’ movement, the film satirically exposes the foibles of feudalism, capitalism, and socialism alike. As to be expected from the land of Eisenstein, the movie features great editing, along with excellent camerawork, choreography, and story structure, as well as a cheeky performance by Vera Maretskaya as the cleaning lady swept up in the social movements of the time.
Another notable program is the premiere of the recent restoration of The Last Edition, an entertaining yarn shot in San Francisco in 1924. The movie looks at corruption in the newspaper publishing business, in which an unscrupulous publisher takes advantage of an overly trusting pressman. The populist film sides with the workingman against the corrupt bosses, reflecting the sentiments of the Wobblies and other early 20th-century labor organizations. The movie is especially fun for its local flava, as much of it is shot at the Chronicle Building at 5th and Mission Street and concludes with an exciting chase through the streets of San Francisco, passing by recognizable landmarks including the newly rebuilt City Hall. The film also features huge mechanical presses, typesetting trays, switchboards and rotary phones, and other industrial age machinery that will gun the engines of your inner steampunk.
Also part of the festival is a presentation by John Canemaker on well-known newspaper cartoonist Winsor McKay that includes of illustrations from Canemaker’s bio on McKay as well as a screening of several of McKay’s brilliant animated films. Best known for his long-running comic strip Little Nemo, McKay’s animations are masterful, deft, and magical, ranging from the whimsical Little Nemo and Gertie the Dinosaur through the dramatic, realistic Sinking of the Lusitania. My personal favorite is How A Mosquito Operates, in which a prodigious bug repeatedly sinks its very sharp stinger into a sleeping man’s nose, its protuberant abdomen swelling with blood after each bite.
The Silent Film Festival is a rare opportunity to see these movies in all their big-screen glory, and it’s markedly more fun than watching DVDs by yourself at home. As per usual, all SFF screenings (at the gloriously appropriate Castro Theater) include live accompaniment.
July 18-21, 2013
429 Castro Street (near the intersection of Castro and Market Street)
San Francisco, CA 94114
The week of June 24, 2013 was absolutely monumental in the LGBT community, following the Supreme Court’s landmark decision on the Defense of Marriage Act. After watching Texas State Senator Wendy Davis’ schooling of the Texas GOP on Tuesday night*, I went to bed conscious of the fact that the Supreme Court would announce its ruling on DOMA and Prop 8 on Wednesday morning at 7am PST. I woke up shortly after 7am and immediately checked my facebook and twitter feeds to find the brilliant news that DOMA had been struck down and Prop 8 invalidated. There was nothing but joy all over my newsfeeds as everyone seemed to be celebrating the glad tidings.
That night we had tickets to the Frameline Film Festival at the Castro Theater, the heart of the LGBT community in San Francisco. We arrived an hour before showtime and lucked out on parking not far from the theater, although the streets were closed off and full of ecstatic, celebratory throngs. At one point it took twenty minutes to navigate a half block down Market Street to pick up my tickets, so jam-packed was the crowd, but I didn’t mind the inconvenience. It was fun to be out and about on such a historic night and even the weather in San Francisco cooperated, as it was uncharacteristically balmy and warm until well after sundown.
After basking in the glow of the celebrating crowds in the Castro, it was great to settle in at the 37th annual Frameline Festival of LGBT Cinema. I only caught three out of the dozens of films at the fest this year, but they were interesting in the various ways they reflected current events.
On that historic Wednesday evening I saw Arvin Chen’s Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? Chen grew up in the Bay Area but now lives and works in Taiwan. WYSLMT is his second feature, following his well-received debut Au Revoir, Taipei (2010)
Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow? is a charming and bittersweet tale of a man reconsidering his sexuality after nine years of marriage. Weichung (Richie Jen) has a young son on whom he dotes and a good job at an eyeglass store, and he and his wife Feng (Mavis Fan) seem content. But after Weichung’s boss abruptly leaves the steady-but-dull optician’s business to him (after happily declaring the end of his “relationship with glasses”), Weichung begins to question his satisfaction with life. Running into an old friend, the openly and happily gay wedding photographer Stephen, further catalyzes Weichung’s dissatisfaction. After a chance meeting with dreamy flight attendant Thomas, played by Hong Kong heartthrob Wong Ka Lok, Weichung has to make some hard choices about his life as a “former” gay man.
The movie is sexy in a subdued way, with unrequited lust rather than full-on passion supplying most of the erotic heat between Weichung and Thomas. In a role that’s a change of pace from the Johnnie To action films (Exiled; Breaking News; Punished) he’s known for in the West, Richie Jen is very good as the husband on the down-low. Wong Ka-Lok is beautiful and charming as Thomas, Weichung’s lovely temptation, and the rest of the cast is excellent, including glamourous Taiwanese pop star Mavis Fan playing it straight as Feng, Weichung’s earnest wife, with her real-life full-sleeve tats airbrushed in postproduction. Also outstanding is a subplot involving Weichung’s high-maintenance sister who gets cold feet a few weeks before her planned wedding to the nerdy and devoted San San (played with forlorn mopiness by Taiwanese rock star Stone). Chen directs the movie with a deft touch, with likeable characters, believable situations, and a light touch of magical realism, including a spot-on spoof of a weepy Taiwanese drama. The movie is poignant, funny, and enjoyable, with sympathetic characterizations of its many characters.
South Korea’s White Night (2012) is slow, beautiful, and deliberate, a very different kind of movie than Chen’s brisk and buoyant film. Won-gyu (another sexy flight attendant, what?) returns to Seoul after a two-year self-imposed exile following a traumatic event. He hooks up via the interwebs with Tae Jun, a motorcycle courier, and despite their initial antagonism, the two court and spark throughout a long and eventful night on the streets of Seoul. Director Lee Song Hee-Il depicts Seoul at night as a brilliant, glittering, yet somewhat malevolent site, locating his actors on rain-slicked streets and in shadowy, cramped interiors. His actors do a good job maintaining their complex and often conflicted relationship, with Lee I-kyeong as the streetwise Tae Jun in particular showing a lot of swagga and charisma. White Night touches on relevant issues including internalized homophobia and gay bashing and possesses some great sexual heat from the two hunky leads. However, despite the effectiveness of its moody mise-en-scene, the film’s elliptical and somewhat opaque narrative leaves a few too many questions unanswered.
Like Will You Still Love Me Tomorrow?, Two Weddings and A Funeral (2012, South Korea) also looks at the plight of a married man living on the down-low. But in comparison to Arvin Chen’s delightful and subtle film, Two Weddings and A Funeral, though heartfelt, is a much less accomplished piece of filmmaking. The film follows a gay man who marries a lesbian co-worker in order to convince his nagging parents of his heterosexuality, with a predictable lack of success. The film includes queeny friends, gay-bashers, tearz, and contrived situations, and is fairly clumsy and overwrought, filled with overacting and unbelievable plot twists, but there are some funny and charming moments sprinkled throughout. The Frameline screening was also marred by digital artifacts in the projection, which were distracting and took the viewer out of the story. The best part of the screening, however, was Jo Gwang-soo Kim, the film’s very sweet director, announcing to cheers from the audience that he and his partner, the film’s producer, were soon to be married. The two left the stage happily holding hands, yet another reminder of the great historical moment that we were inhabiting.
*NOTE: As a prelude to the repeal of DOMA, Tuesday night brought another significant civil rights drama, played out mostly on the internet. I stayed up well past midnight to watch the awesome smackdown of the Texas GOP by State Senator Wendy Davis, as she filibustered in her neon pink running shoes for 11 hours in order to block draconian anti-abortion legislation. After watching the whole thing play out on ustream and twitter (with the cable and broadcast news channels completely ignoring this fine political theater) I went to bed satisfied, as the bill was not passed in the Texas legislature. Asshat Texas governer Rick Perry has since called a special session to try to ram through the rejected bill, but Texans are not letting him slide by so easy this time. Later that week, thousands demonstrated outside of the state capital building in 100 degree weather, keeping a watchful eye on the sneaky Republicans as they try to roll back women’s rights in Texas. More to come as it develops.