Johnnie To’s latest joint Three just dropped on a day-and-date release in North America and China and it should please most of his followers, from genre film aficionados to cinema scholars. Although at first glance it seems like a straightforward action movie, in fact it’s a smart and nuanced film that shows To’s mastery of the cinematic language as well as displaying the continued development and refinement of his singular filmmaking style.
The setup is simple—a cop (Louis Koo) brings in a smirking criminal (Wallace Chung) to a busy Hong Kong hospital in order to ready the perp for surgery for a bullet lodged in his head. The criminal, however, has a different idea and refuses to consent to the operation. Meanwhile, the driven neurosurgeon who hopes to oversee the surgery (Zhao Wei) deals with the fallout from her inability to stop killing or disabling her patients. This seeming simplicity is deceptive, however. Three is in fact a complex and cerebral film that dispenses with direct character development, relationships, or other narrative conventions and instead relies on inference and suggestion to explicate its story.
Johnnie To set an earlier film, Help!, in a Hong Kong hospital but while that film was absurdist in an over-the-top way, Three is more of an understated absurdist movie. The film is almost parodic in its uses of stock crime film characters—the defiant criminal, the upstanding cop, the haughty surgeon, and so forth. To uses these conventions to accentuate the artificiality of the situation while adding refinements that add his particular filmmaking stamp to the proceedings.
To strips the film down to significant actions that imply rather than explain their relevance to the story, employing an elliptical storytelling style and spare, minimalist plotting that recall his 1999 film The Mission. As in that masterpiece To manages to convey vast swaths of meaning through simple, subtle gestures. In addition, like some of his more baroque films such as Mad Detective and Too Many Ways To Be Number One, To includes several quirky elements that juice up the proceedings. There are several oddball secondary characters include a long-time in-patient constantly searching for a power source for his devices, a suicidal paraplegic recovering from one of Zhao’s botched brain surgeries, and Lam Suet in yet another memorable turn as a clumsy cop who ends up oblivious to a knife half-buried in his ample rump.
Three also recalls The Mission’s minimalist approach to a hyper-violent situation. In that film, by stripping down the action To accentuated its violence. In Three, the gore is mostly found on the operating table, with the sound of cracking skullbones, the whirring of the surgeon’s electric bone saw, and closeups of the surgical needle stitching through skin and sinew creating a visceral revulsion. So when the real shooting starts it seems all the more intense and cathartic.
The film is full of repressed tensions, with each of the three lead characters a bundle of barely contained anxieties. To uses Louis Koo’s stolid stoicism to good effect here as Koo expresses his pent-up tension through the slightest clenching of his jaw or flicking of his gaze. Zhao Wei also effectively expresses the tensions of her neurosurgeon character, a PRC immigrant now working a high-stress job in Hong Kong, and her interactions with thesociapathic criminal are fraught with tension. These and other barely restrained tensions permeate the narrative and capture the hospital milieu’s underlying anxiety.
The film explodes into violence in the third act, and To’s cinematic mastery is evident in the climatic shootout, where the story is told with small visual cues that lead up to a shoot ‘em up melee. A powdering of dust from a shaking ceiling, the subtle shifting of glances from character to character, and a single smear of blood on small, blunt nail clipper presages an explosive melee that consumes the hospital ward.
The staging of the shootout is itself a self-referential meta-comment by To, recalling the bullet ballets of classic Hong Kong gangster films exemplified by John Woo’s heroic bloodshed films The Killer, Hard Boiled, and A Better Tomorrow. In an incredible three-minute long single take that mimics speed ramping, the slo-mo in this sequence is all mimed in real time by the actors and achieves a beautiful kinesthesia. Ironically, this sequence has all the choreography and grace that To’s last film, the musical Office, lacked. But it shares with that movie To’s gliding camerawork that is almost constantly in motion throughout the film and which is magnificently orchestrated in this long-take faux slo-mo sequence. Three also shares Office’s sense of theatricality (also found in Exiled, which was all about re-presenting the Wild West), with the film’s action taking place in a confined space, the hospital interior, which heightens both the narrative tension as well as the unreality of the mis en scene.
One thing I love about Johnnie To’s movies is that they can be enjoyed as commercial genre films and nothing more. But if you’re paying attention and are looking for more, they’re also layered and nuanced well beyond that, and Three is no exception. It’s another intriguing and intelligent film from To, who continues to make fresh and vital, significant movies even after decades in the business.
For locations of North America screenings go here.
Movies about famous people are a Hollywood staple, and stories about the disheveled lives of tragic pop musicians are an especially popular subgenre. Although I haven’t caught up with either the Amy Winehouse or the Nina Simone documentaries from last year, I recently saw two new biopics about American music legends that are currently making the theatrical rounds.
The first of these, I Saw The Light, traces the meteoric rise of country music superstar Hank Williams, following the last six years of his life as he dominated the charts with thirty hit songs (and seven number ones) in the 1940s and 50s. These include classics like Lovesick Blues, Jamabalaya, Hey, Good Lookin’, and many more. I’m a fan of Williams’ stripped down country tunes and I also like Tom Hiddleston, who stars as Williams, so I was cautiously optimistic about this one. Although enlivened by Hiddleston’s charisma the film alas is a pedestrian retelling of Williams story that veers away from the sharp edges of its subject matter.
Williams led an interesting life as one of early country music’s most influential singers and composers but the film focuses entirely too much on the boring relationship between Williams and his talentless estranged wife Audrey, as well as other relationships with various women throughout his life. Although the movie doesn’t ignore Hank’s drinking and philandering ways, it only briefly references his pill-popping and his morphine addiction. Weirdly enough, the film elides what might have been one of its most dramatic event, Williams’ sudden death from a drug/alcohol/heart problem cocktail at age 29. Instead we get a solemn epilogue that explains his passing and its effect on his fans.
Tom Hiddleston demonstrates why Loki is the best part of the Avengers franchise, showing off his magnetism and his lean and lovely good looks. He also sings all of the songs himself (although Hank Williams isn’t that tough to imitate) and looks dapper and hot in various vintage suits. But at age thirty-five Hiddleston seems a bit too old to be playing Williams in his mid to late 20s, with his receding hairline and crow’s feet telling the tale.
The movie also fails in its attempt to make Williams into a spiritual ancestor of 27-club rock stars Morrison, Hendrix, and Cobain, mostly because the film averts its eyes whenever the picture might get too seedy. We don’t see Williams at his worst and the film’s glossy star treatment avoids showing anything too messy. Cherry Jones as Williams’ mom brings a salty dimension to her character and there are hints that her contentious relationship with Audrey could spark into something more lively, but even their mild catfights are sadly muffled. Entirely too genteel when it should be down and dirty, the movie lacks the edge that would elevate it beyond an episode of VH1’s Behind The Music. In addition, the film never gives a sense of Williams as a musician or a musical talent besides his ability to make hit records. It’s more about his celebrity than his artistry and as such doesn’t offer a lot of insights into why Williams merits a movie of his own in the first place.
Miles Ahead, which looks at the life of legendary jazz trumpeter Miles Davis, is an entirely different story. Don Cheadle directs and stars in this one and, unlike I Saw The Light, the film revels in Davis’ eccentricities and dirty laundry, as well as giving a sense of his enormous musical gifts. Alternating between a fictional account of Davis’ lean years in the 1980s, when he was suffering from artist’s block and hadn’t released an album in more than five years, and the 1950s when he made his most celebrated music and was also married to his first wife, dancer Francis Tyler, the film doesn’t shy away from Davis’ cocaine habit, his cheating on Francis, his love of guns, or his questionable taste in clothes in the 1980s. Cheadle presents Davis as a complex human being with many warts as well as a celebrity and a musical innovator. Like Hiddleston, Cheadle also plays many of the songs in the film, apparently having spent years learning the trumpet in preparation for this role.
Cheadle adds some imaginative cinematic touches to the movie that give a sense of the addled and sideways-thinking interior of Davis’ head. In defiance of conventional moviemaking logic he includes several clever fantasy-based scene transitions and during one sequence he abandons realism completely, cutting rapidly between 1980s Davis getting into fight at boxing match and 1950s Davis playing his horn in a session in a nightclub. The scene ends up with 1950s Davis and his combo jamming in the middle of the boxing ring while 1980s Davis flees the scene. Despite mostly having control over the more fantastic elements of the storytelling, Cheadle’s cinematic invention at times threatens to go a bit too far. An extended plot element involving the heist of the master recording of one of Davis’ studio sessions featuring Ewan McGregor as the obligatory white guy, aka a completely fictional character invented to appease Hollywood investors, at times veers very close to becoming a Guy Ritchie movie complete with car chases, shootouts, and shady gangsters. Here the movie plays fast and loose with some of the facts for the sake of ginning up the narrative to make it more commercial.
The film’s treatment of another aspect of Davis’ life also reflects Hollywood’s tendency to avoid representing difficult topics for fear of losing audience and profits. The movie soft-peddles Davis’ abusive relationship with his first wife Francis, making him out to be an overly controlling partner instead of an out-and-out batterer. While it’s creepy that Davis forces Francis to abandon her career as a dancer, the film implies that the two of them loved each other despite Davis’ abusiveness. However, Cheadle doesn’t shy away from another less-than-rosy episode Davis’ life, recounting Davis’ 1959 run-in with the NYPD during which he was beaten and jailed for walking a white woman to a cab. In these days of heightened awareness of police brutality against the African American community this sequence takes on an added relevance, documenting the historical precedents for contemporary discrimination and racism.
Though not without flaws, Miles Ahead is a much more risky and creative biopic than I Saw The Light. Add in Cheadle’s spot-on depiction of Davis in all his quirky genius, either as the suave and sexy 1950s Miles or the frazzle-haired and coked-out 1980s Miles and the film is pretty consistently engaging throughout its running time.
CAAMfest 2016 finished up last Sunday, but not before hosting the legendary Hong Kong director Mabel Cheung, screening her newest film A Tale of Three Cities, as well as her classic 1999 epic historical The Soong Sisters. I was lucky enough to sit down to talk with Mabel and her husband and filmmaking partner Alex Law (who directed Echoes of the Rainbow, among other excellent Hong Kong new wave films). Although Cheung and Law worked with mainland China film production entities back in the nineties when they made The Soong Sisters, in the decade and a half since then the Chinese-language film market has completely changed. I talked to them a bit about their experiences creating A Tale of Three Cities as a Hong Kong-China co-production, their thoughts on the constant migration of the Chinese people, and the intricacies of dealing with the Chinese censorship board, among other topics.
BEYOND ASIAPHILIA: So I know you’re here for your new movie. Maybe you should talk a little bit about how you found the story and why were you interested in it?
MABEL CHEUNG: Well, It started as a documentary more than ten years ago. That’s the time when Jackie Chan suspected that he’s not his father’s son. And so he asked his father, and his father said “Well, I’m growing old so maybe I’ll tell you the story before I die. Otherwise it will be buried,” and so Jackie Chan had to go back to Australia, because his father works in the American Embassy there. So he asked us, “Would you be interested in coming along? To listen to the story? I’ll pay for everything,” he said (laughs). So he said, “Just make a family video. It’s not supposed to be a documentary.” So we went because it was the Chinese New Year holiday and it will be nice to spend the holiday with Jackie Chan.
So we went and listened to the story. But we didn’t expect that it was going to come out to be so dramatic.
Alex Law: Because at that time everybody in Hong Kong thought that Jackie Chan’s father was a chef because he’s pretty well known for his cooking. He likes to cook for his friends and (Jackie Chan’s) mother was like a household maid working for the American Embassy in Hong Kong. But suddenly it turned out his father was a spy and his mother was an opium smuggler (laughs)! It was so surprising!
BA: So the people who raised him were not his parents, or did they just have two different lives?
MC: They were his parents but they have different lives in China. They were each married to a different spouse. And each had two children from the previous husband and wife. And then they got married to each other eventually in Hong Kong, and Jackie Chan was the only child they had. Because of the war, you know, the spouses died
BA: I know that the film is set in China. Is it also in Hong Kong? A lot of your past movies were about people who are separated from their homeland who have to travel elsewhere. Is this also similar to that? Does this film also have an immigrant story?
MC/AL: Yeah, actually it’s an immigrant story except that it happens during wartime. They escape from Anhui to Shanghai and then to Hong Kong after 1949 when the communists took over. So it’s also a story of immigration. But then this always happens in Hong Kong. You know, Hong Kong is a place for all the immigrants. And then we immigrated elsewhere for different reasons.
MC: This happens all over and over, in Chinese history. In San Francisco they have a lot of illegal immigrants in the 19th century for railroad builders and gold-diggers, and then during the Qing dynasty in 1911 during Sun Yat-Sen’s time everybody escaped from China, then in 1949 the exodus, and then the Cultural Revolution, another exodus, and then in Hong Kong before 1997 everybody tried to immigrate as well.
AL: It’s a little like a merry-go-round, actually. People like to escape and then come back.
MC: And then they also emigrate to Shanghai and Beijing and the other way around.
BA: So from Hong Kong back to–
MC: And now they are starting to emigrate to Taiwan.
AL: They seem to be tightening and tightening censorship and suddenly people disappear–
BA: In Hong Kong?
AL: Yes. Little things like that scare people.
BA: Are these mostly people of who are wealthy or middle class? Or do the working class escape also?
MC: No working class. In the past, of course, it is the working class during the Qing dynasty but now I think it’s people with money.
AL: Middle-upper class–
MC: They think of the future.
BA: Because they can’t afford to leave without money. So then the working classes are stuck.
MC: We made this film for my parent’s generation because they all escaped–like Jackie Chan’s parents, they escaped from China to Hong Kong in the 1950s. And then we were born in Hong Kong. Their generation of people built modern Hong Kong. They have to start to build a home from zero and with no money, and they left everything behind in China. I think that people who could escape to Hong Kong at that time must be the best and the strongest.
BA: Is that the general consensus that the strongest came?
MC: I think so. If you look at Jackie Chan’s father, he’s very strong and very charismatic and you know that he can fight and shoot people, he can kill, and you know he’s a survivor.
BA: What about the ones who go to the US?
MC: I think so too. I mean people who survive. Of course the weaker ones would die or run away–
MC: Can they survive the poverty? The people who can survive and have families must be the strongest.
AL: A friend of mine told me that every time there’s a war— take for example, the second world war–he said that people who finally survive the concentration camps live the longest. They had long, long lives because they were so tough–they are the toughest people.
BA: What about the people who stayed in China?
MC: I think they survive all the different revolutions or whatever, the movements, so they are very I strong. Look at China now, there are very strong people.
BA: That’s pretty interesting if you think of all of this different migration going on through history.
MC: And now Europe. The same thing goes on, which is a more less the same at the ending of my film. People escape as they smuggle themselves on a fishing boat, and a lot of people are crammed at the bottom and a lot of people die even before they reached their destination.
BA: So why do you think you’re attracted to these kind stories?
MC: Because I want to make a film about my parent’s generation. I think I owe that generation a story. I didn’t have time to, for my mother. I didn’t listen to her story and then she died ten, eleven years ago. And at that time we already knew Jackie Chan’s father because we had made that documentary with him. And then we become friends afterwards. We drink and have dinner and we have a good time, and so he told us more stories about his lifetime.
MC: Jackie Chan’s mother passed away right after we finished the documentary.
BA: So was she able to see it?
AL: No, she was suffering from very serious Alzheimer’s and she could not quite know who’s who.
MC: Except Jackie Chan.
AL: Yeah, she would look at her son and she would smile a little bit. She looked at everybody else like, “Who are you? Who are you?”
BA: So this is the first co-production you’ve worked on with China?
MC: Not really. The Soong Sisters is also a co-production. It was at the beginning of co-production, before 1997.
AL: It was before the kind of co-production we have now. Because back then Hong Kong had all the money, all the people. So all the Hong Kong filmmakers would go to China to look for a studio to co-produce with and Hong Kong would provide all the money, the people, the creative people–
MC: And the boss. (laughs)
AL: And China would provide the location, the equipment, the props–
BA: Because the Chinese film industry wasn’t as big at that time–
AL: No, it wasn’t.
MC: And they didn’t have the money.
AL: Or the expertise.
MC: But now it’s definitely changed around.
AL: Yeah, now it’s the other way around.
BA: How has that affected the filmmaking process?
MC: Well, the censorship system is more or less a thing, except that now the Chinese production company controls everything so you have to report to them. Before, we had to report to the Hong Kong film company.
BA: Is there difference between what they expect?
MC: Actually, our film companies are very good and so we initiate the stories. They read the script and they liked it, so they didn’t interfere too much. And so we have the same creative freedom as we had before with The Soong Sisters. Even with casting and everything. We have the casting before and we submitted the scripts to the production company so they knew exactly what would happen. The cast, and the crew, everything we have already put together.
BA: So you put a package together? But then what when it goes to the Chinese censors?
MC: This is even better than The Soong Sisters. Back then the censors cut eighteen minutes from The Soong Sisters but this one they didn’t even cut anything. Just one or two places where I think the writing was wrong on the posters. Otherwise they didn’t touch the film.
BA: So then it was pretty smooth for you.
AL: It was much better than we thought or we feared.
BA: Had you heard that there would be problems? Or issues with co-production?
MC: Because of The Soong Sisters experience we were quite worried about the censorship.
BA: Because they cut so much before? But now you send the script out before you start shooting, right? To the SAPPRFT (State Administration of Press, Publication, Radio, Film and Television)?
MC: That was okay too. Because now I think it’s not so centralized. They allow the local government to decide. And the local government is usually friends with the film company. So sometimes for local productions they don’t even read the script. For local filmmakers, I think. Not for us–they have to read our script.
BA: Because you’re from Hong Kong?
BA: Because I know that one of the things that I think some people worry about is that Hong Kong directors have to change scripts or the things that writings about because they’re working with Chinese censors.
MC: It’s not the censors but the production company. If you’re not a strong creative person and you are a director for hire, the production company will give you a script and you do it according to their wishes. But then there are also directors who submit their script to the production company and then they have creative freedom, if the production company accepts the scripts as they are.
BA: Are there projects that you that you wanted to work on but you’re not able to do in China yet?
MC: Not really. Maybe because we can’t find investors mainly! (laughs)
AL: First of all, we more or less know what projects will pass or what will not pass.
BA: So you know ahead of time. You don’t submit into something that is not going to get approved.
AL: Yes, there are some taboos that they will never, never let you film, like too political, no ghost stories–
BA: That’s pretty curious to us in the US about the ghost stories. Why is that?
MC: They think maybe it will lead people to superstitions.
AL: It’s very funny. They will say, okay you cannot have a ghost in your movie but you can have a yao. Yao, meaning like a genie–let’s say an animal that turns into a genie. If you talk about a wolf that turns into human being, that is a yao, or a snake that turns into a very seductive woman, that is a yao. So you can have yao but you cannot have a ghost.
MC: I don’t really understand why, though. Yao can also turn people to superstitions.
AL: Yeah, for me yao is almost like a ghost because it does supernatural things.
MC: Maybe they think that a person cannot turn into a ghost.
BA: So it can be an animal turning into a person but not a person turning into a ghost.
MC: Because an animal turning into something is incredible. But the person turning into a ghost, people may believe it, maybe. I don’t know (laughs), I don’t know.
BA: Maybe you just don’t do it.
AL: Right. Nobody can quite understand that, but that’s what they say. No ghost. (laughs)
BA: Anything else? No politics right?
AL: No, no politics.
MC: No religious things–taboo.
BA: No religion? Nothing religious at all? Like even Buddhism?
MC: Better not!
MC: I don’t know. I mean it’s different from time to time.
BA: No drug dealing?
MC: Drug dealing? Yes sometimes— drug dealing is allowed
BA: But you have to be punished right? (laughs) Oh! No gangsters!
MC: At the end, the police cannot be a bad person.
AL: It’s a little bit like in the 80s in Malaysia. They have similar censorship and so it was very funny because every time you have a bad cop, at the end in the movie you always see the bad cop’s twin brother coming in. It was like, “That was not me, that was my twin brother who was actually a gangster.”
MC: A bad cop must get killed or something. He must die at the end
BA: The police have to die if they’re bad?
AL: If he is a bad cop, he has to die!
BA: In Malaysia–so it’s same thing in China now?
MC: I think so. You remember the film Infernal Affairs.
BA: That’s right, they made a China version.
MC: A China version where Andy Lau died in the end!
AL: So funny! Another way to get around the system is that you always see the bad cop suddenly snaps awake and says, ”Oh! What a bad dream!”
MC: Yeah, if it is a dream then you can even have a ghost.
AL: I think so! I haven’t tried that. But as long as you have the bad cop waking up and saying, “I shouldn’t have done that, not even in my dream
BA: I remember there was a movie a couple of years ago where there were ghosts. Then it turned out to be a drug trip–
MC: Ah, like that person is crazy or something–
MC: Do you think the audience knows that there are restrictions?
MC: Oh, they know. They think it’s really a laugh!
BA: What was the last time you made a film in Hong Kong? Was it Echoes Of The Rainbow? Do you still want to make films in Hong Kong that are only financed in Hong Kong?
MC: We never consciously say that we want to make films only in Hong Kong or in China or wherever because if you look at the films we produced, wherever it is suitable to make a film or wherever we have interesting topics or a good cast, we’ll make a film. At the beginning of our careers we made a film in New York, An Autumn’s Tale.
BA: I love that movie.
MC: And then we made a film in China, Eight Taels of Gold, which was before everybody did. Because that person went back to China, so we shot in China. So it’s a necessity of the location. I think as filmmakers we shouldn’t restrict ourselves to making films only in Hong Kong or China. I think we should widen our horizons and make films wherever there’s an interesting topic.
BA: Have you seen the film Ten Years?
MC: Not yet, but it is a big controversy in China.
AL: I think it was getting more and more popular in Hong Kong and then suddenly the cinema chain cut it because it was too popular.
MC: They got pressured from China.
BA: How does that affect the filmmaking community when you find out something like that?
MC: I think the film director’s guild gave it a special jury award.
BA: I think it’s nominated for Best Picture also?
BA: That’s a very local film, right? Do you think that there is still an audience for very local films like that in Hong Kong?
MC: The box office is very good! I haven’t watched the film yet but it’s about ten years from now and the things that will happen to Hong Kong. The young people especially were very interested, and that reflects their fear and their concern about the future of Hong Kong.
BA: Do you think more films like that will be made and shown?
MC: For as long as they can make money then (laughs).
AL: There are still more other organizations, some people, who are you know worried about the future of Hong Kong, and then every now and then you would see these producers with the visions who will say okay you do it. Ten Years I think was produced by a religious organization in Hong Kong.
MC: They paid for it, but it was very cheap to make.
AL: It was done by five new directors on a shoestring budget.
BA: But then how did it get distributed? How do people find out?
MC: It was only shown in one cinema that’s for special films, independent films like that. So people heard about it and more and more people. Only it is shown in one cinema but I heard it’s full the a whole day, and so people heard about it and so more people lined up for the tickets and so it got bigger and bigger.
BA: And it spread to other theaters?
BA: And then it stopped.
MC: Right, and then it stopped.
BA: So that reflects a lot going on politically in Hong Kong as well, like the localization movement. How is that affecting people making movies in Hong Kong? Is it separate, the idea about politics and filmmaking? This one seems to b very close to that, but how about commercial filmmaking in Hong Kong?
MC: But in Hong Kong we don’t have the censorship problem so we can make any film. I think people will make any films they like while they can. You don’t know when the censorship system will come.
BA: Do you know if that’s making people make more of these kinds of movies right now because they can?
MC: I don’t know, actually. After Ten Years—
AL: People get more cautious?
MC: I don’t know about the commercial film companies—they would not dare to invest anymore in films like that but then of course there are independent filmmakers that who can make films like that in a very low budgets, or with volunteers.
BA: Does it seem like independent films get an audience in Hong Kong?
MC: It is not getting more and more popular–
AL: Ten Years was a minor hit and then it got bigger and bigger, when suddenly it was cut off from the cinemas
MC: Cut off because of the cinema owners, I think.
AL: Not because of the box office but because the owners or the distributors got worried.
MC: Because they also have business in China. So I think China can control people by the economy, with the business.
BA: So it doesn’t have to be threatening?
MC: No. They don’t even have to say anything. (laughs) That’s what they do with the rest of the world, too. Everybody who wants to do business with China has to kowtow, right? Even the queen has to get an invite (laughs).
BA: China is very powerful now, business-wise, but it’s unstable in a lot of ways.
MC: The economy is going down again.
AL: It never been stable, actually. In the past 100 years, China has never been stable. Although financially they are getting bigger and bigger. And even the film market is now number two in the world next to America. They say that in two to three years it will surpass the USA.
BA: Is that for mostly Chinese language-films that are locally produced in China?
MC: Yeah, I think the best-selling films. The Chinese films have surpassed the Hollywood films.
BA: Like the Chow Sing-Chi film (The Mermaid) is huge–
MC: But then of course the Chinese government controls the release of Western films. They will not get the “golden time” (note: these are the times during the year such as the Spring Holiday when Western films are prohibited from screening in China).
AL: Sometimes when it (a Hollywood film) gets too big and too popular, they say stop, and then suddenly it disappears also!
BA: So how does that affect you all as filmmakers?
AL: It gets more difficult to get a producer to finance your film. Because they are worried and they only invest in films that they believe will make money.
MC: Yeah, the comedies and action films, they are safe.
BA: If you want to make something like this last film, for instance, that is less like an action film it’s harder to find financing?
MC: It’s always difficult to find investors for our films. For A Tale of Three Cities we spent about ten years trying to find an investor because it’s not a kind of mainstream thing and they don’t want to risk, you know.
There was one film company that expressed interest, and then we went into production. That was five years ago and we have the casting ready and everything. But then they calculated the budget and said it’s too high. Because it’s a film where people escape from one place to another we wanted to shoot in the actual locations–so from Anhui to Shanghai to Hong Kong and the big exodus and the illegal immigration and all the people and it’s is really expensive. They backed out because they think the budget is too high and they do not want to risk. Then we waited for another two years for Nansun Shi, who is a very good producer. She found us the money and so we started again.
MC: Because Echoes Of The Rainbow is a low budget film it is easier and you get government sponsorship in Hong Kong but A Tale of Three Cities cost us like–
AL: 70 million–in American dollars that’s how much–a hundred? No, hmmm.
MC: It’s in renmenbi—70 million.
BA: So then Echoes was how much approximately?
MC: In Hong Kong dollars. It’s only–
AL: 12 million? 1 million USD
BA: But Echoes was very popular. It made back its money?
MC: Yes, yes.
BA: And won awards? But not anything like the Chow Sing-Chi movie.
BA: And that’s what they want right?
MC: With the investors, money is the first thing, you know. If they are not sure they will not invest. There are so many people who want to make movies.
BA: They all have these movie theaters now they have to fill, right?
MC: Oh, there are lots of films being made in the China. And maybe no more than half make it to cinemas.
AL: And maybe even less than that. The majority of Chinese movies don’t get shown theatrically and there’s so many films that you’ve never heard of.
BA: What did they do with them?
MC: They put them on the internet. Now the internet pays quite good money.
BA: But you want to make movies to be shown in theaters?
MC: Sometimes now people open the movies at the same time on the internet and also in the cinema.
BA: So then, do you think of yourself as a Hong Kong filmmaker? Or a Chinese filmmaker? Or just a filmmaker?
AL: I would say just a filmmaker
BA: But maybe twenty years ago you would say Hong Kong filmmaker?
MC: Or basically a Hong Kong filmmaker who wants to be a filmmaker everywhere (laughs).
BA: I know some people make European co-productions—
MC: No, no.
BA: Then you have to find somebody French to be in your movie
BA: What do you think you’d like to do next? Do you have a project you’re working on? Or many projects probably?
MC: Yeah, we have ten scripts written already but we’re trying to get investors.
AL: Waiting for the producer–
MC: Actually every one of our film has problems with investors (laughs). So we’re used to it.
It’s March so that must mean it’s time for CAAMfest, San Francisco’s annual Asian American film festival. As with past iterations, the ten-day fest includes a generous helping of documentaries, narratives, shorts, and animation from Asian and Asian American and diasporic directors.
Notable this year is the strong slate of Asian American documentaries, including the Opening Night film Tyrus, directed by Pam Tom (Two Lies), which looks at Chinese American animator Tyrus Wong, the man behind Disney’s Bambi, among other iconic characters. Also of note are Breathin’: The Eddy Zheng Story (dir. Ben Wang), which follows the life of the titular Chinese American poet and prison activist; Daze of Justice, (dir. Mike Siv) which looks at the trial of Khmer Rouge war criminals in Cambodia, and Ninth Floor (dir. Mina Shum), an examination of the historic 1969 occupation of Sir George Williams University in Montreal by Jamaican student activists.
Another doc of note is Tadashi Nakamura’s latest, Mele Murals. Nakamura (Jake Shimabukuro: Life On Four Strong; A Song For Ourselves) has again produced a winner in this beautiful and moving story about two Hawai’ian artists who gradually learn about themselves, their art, and their culture. Commissioned to lead the creation of a large-scale mural on the walls of a public school in Waimea, graffiti artists Estria Miyashiro and John “Prime” Hina gradually immerse themselves in Waimea’s history, culture, and community through their involvement with the mural project. As the project progresses Prime discovers a heretofore unexpressed connection with his Hawai’ian heritage, while Estria learns to overcome his ego and his need to be “the artist.” Featuring some beautiful digital cinematography, Nakamura’s film includes a remarkable sensitivity to and empathy with his subjects. Prime talks about growing up shuttling between his divorced parents and the resultant disconnect with his history and culture, and Estria develops an understanding of the importance of respecting the wishes of the group over individual needs and desires. Director Nakamura understands how human beings interact with place and the land and he often frames his shots with a lot of sky and horizon, placing the people as part of the landscape and not just centering the human experience. The final scene is powerful and moving and all I can say is MIC DROP.
Another fun film is Tanuj Chopra’s Grass, a narrative about a day in the life of two weedheads as they smoke a huge amount of cannabis and hang out in a park in Los Angeles. The plot, such as it is, follows Cam and her buddy Jinky as they contemplate a backpack full of buds that Cam’s boyfriend Austin has given them to deliver to a third party. Cam and Jinky can’t help sampling a bit of the goods and one thing leads to another as they gradually imbibe more and more of Austin’s weed. Mostly comprised of the absurdist running commentary by the increasingly lit protagonists, the film features spot-on dialog that effectively simulates the sensation of smoking many joints over a short period of time. Emily C. Chang and Pia Shah are hilarious as the stoned protagonists as they gradually become higher and more paranoid throughout the day. Chopra breaks up the two gals’ crazy rambling and obsessive discussions about pizza with a synthy score, hallucinatory bumpers featuring food porn and blooming time-lapse plants, and a few well-placed digital effects to heighten the generally baked proceedings.
For those looking for films on the Asian tip, Taiwanese director Sunny Yu’s narrative The Kids is a poignant and effective drama about two teens facing adversity as they try to make their way in an adult world. Set in working-class Taipei, the film includes heartfelt and unaffected performances by the two young leads. The actors portray adolescent parents of an infant daughter who are slowly being crushed by the weight of grownup responsibilities. And for those looking for a more commercial Asian cinematic experience, CAAMfest is showing the South Korean historical The Royal Tailor, which stars the hot and charming Ko Soo as Lee Gong-jin, a rakish fashion designer who turns the Joseon court upside-down and who becomes romantically entangled with the young queen (played by ingénue Park Shin-Hye, star of hit K-dramas The Heirs, You’re Beautiful, and Pinocchio).
This is only the tip of the iceberg of CAAMfest’s bounteous programming slate, which also includes music shows, panels, and food events. Tickets are selling fast so go here to get yours before they’re gone.
The Mostly British Film Festival is in full swing in San Francisco this week (closing night is Thursday Feb. 25) and it’s a great opportunity to see a lot of indie and classic movies that might not otherwise get theatrical release here in the states. Established eight years ago, this year’s festival includes movies from the UK and the former British empire, including Australia, and India.
Following along the current craze for film noir, MBFF screened the Richard Widmark/Gene Tierney vehicle Night and the City (1950). Directed by Jules Dassin after he fled to England following his blacklisting during the McCarthy era, the movie transplants the noir aesthetic to London, making great use of the city’s seedy docksides and proving that betrayal, backstabbing, conniving, and cheating aren’t strictly the domain of U.S. crime films. Richard Widmark does his thing, using his kinetic and expressionistic acting style to enliven the character of loser and conman Harry Fabian. Gene Tierney looks pretty as the moral center of the movie but doesn’t get to do a lot with a character that’s much less compelling than her leading turn in Laura. Despite an unintentionally comic climactic wrestling match, the film is an excellent example of noir’s examination of dark side of human existence.
MBFF also screened Women He’s Undressed (2015) Gillian Armstrong’s documentary about legendary Hollywood costume designer Orry-Kelly. Orry-Kelly was a native of Australia (as is Armstrong) who made his way into the U.S. movie business during its golden age in the 1930-60s. Armstrong’s doc includes lots of Orry-Kelly’s glamorous costumes for stars such as Bette Davis, Marilyn Monroe, Ingrid Berman, and Barbara Stanwyck, and also outs Cary Grant in a big way, describing his on-again-off-again affair with Orry-Kelly over the many years of their relationship. Intercutting dramatic re-enactments of Orry-Kelly’s life, interviews with top Hollywood costume designers, and many examples of Orry-Kelly movie wardrobes, Women He’s Undressed is a fun and light little romp through gay Hollywood.
The highlight of the festival for me was the chance to see Mike Leigh’s Secrets & Lies on the big screen. I’m a latecomer to Leigh but now that I’ve seen the glory of his brilliant filmmaking I’m trying to see every movie of his that I can track down. As with most of his oevre, in Secrets & Lies Leigh explores the emotional devastation of complex human relationships. After the death of her adopted mother a young black woman discovers that her birth mother is white. Leigh’s film paints fully fleshed out pictures of each of the characters, who are brilliantly realized by actors Marianne Jean-Baptiste as Hortense, the adopted woman, Brenda Blethyn as Cynthia, her birth mother, and Timothy Spall, Cynthia’s brother. Curiously, although it’s a central element of the film, Secrets & Lies elides the narrative’s racial aspect. Although it’s significant that Hortense is black and Cynthia is white this is used mostly as a plot device and not as a means of exploring race relations in the UK in any depth. None of the white characters express any racial animosity toward Hortense and their shocked reactions to her seems to be based mostly on the fact that she is Cynthia’s long-lost daughter and not that she’s black. There’s a passing allusion to Cynthia’s father’s disapproval of Hortense’s biological father, a Jamaican man, but the film implies that the issue of Cynthia’s youth at the time and not the race of the her lover resulted in her giving up Hortense for adoption. Nonetheless, the movie is an excellent look at the overt and underlying tensions in family relations. Secrets & Lies also further indoctrinated me into the cult of Timothy Spall, who I love as a leading man despite his being stocky, doughy, and far from handsome. He’s without a doubt a sensitive, charismatic, and highly underrated actor and he was robbed last year for not getting an Academy Award Best Actor nomination for Mr. Turner (also directed by Leigh). I’m always happy to see him in performances outside of his role as comic relief in the Harry Potter franchise.
The Mostly British Film Festival concludes this Thursday, Feb. 25 with a screening of A Royal Night Out at the newly renovated Alamo Drafthouse in the Mission District. For more information and tickets go here.
My first introduction to one of my favorite cinematic genres, film noir, was way back in grad school at the School of the Art Institute of Chicago, aka SAIC. Richard Peña, who at the time was the film programmer at the Lincoln Center in New York City, was doing a guest teaching stint at SAIC and one of the classes he taught was all about film noir. It was in that class that I was introduced to all the classics—Detour, The Big Heat, Out Of The Past, Farewell, My Lovely, Gun Crazy, They Live By Night, Pickup on South Street, Double Indemnity—as well as latter-day rarities such as Otto Preminger’s mid-60s British noir Bunny Lake Is Missing. That class had a huge impact on me and started my lifelong love for movies about the seamier side of life.
So I always look forward to seeing noir on the big screen and this year’s Noir City film festival at the glorious Castro Theater successfully slaked my thirst for dark cinema. I was in the middle of writing a series of long academic articles so I wasn’t able to make it to as many shows as I would’ve like to, but the ones that I saw were top-notch. Once again organizer Eddie Mueller and film programmer extraordinaire Anita Monga put together a captivating, engaging slate of films. After fourteen years of programming most of the classic noirs have been shown to death, so the challenge is in finding fresh material to fill the bill every year.
In that vein my Noir City 2016 experience started with the Argentine film, Los Tallos Amargos (The Bitter Stems, 1956). Recently restored with the help of the Film Noir Foundation, Noir City’s parent organization, the movie is a gem, following the gradual descent of the flawed leading character, a Buenos Aires newsman who get caught up in a spiral of paranoid deception that eventually leads to murder. The film is on American Cinematographer’s Top 100 list (at #49) and it’s all about the chiaroscuro lighting and snazzy cinematography. The film demonstrates how well the noir esthetic travels, as it combines classic American noir conventions with Argentine innovations including Astor Piazzolla’s stunning tango-based score.
The highlight of the festival for me was the thrill of seeing In A Lonely Place (1950) again. I first saw this movie back in that life-changing class in grad school in Chicago and I always enjoy watching it. Humphrey Bogart and Gloria Grahame as star-crossed lovers are a noir film match made in heaven and their soulful performances complement the angsty storyline perfectly. Bogart is fearless as the tormented screenwriter Dixon Steele, bringing some of his darkest shadings to a character that supposedly very closely matched Bogie’s personality IRL. The chemistry between Bogart and Gloria Grahame is fierce and Grahame’s flawless performance matches Bogie beat for beat. Combining a sharp-eyed look at the world of mid-century Hollywood, Nicholas Ray’s masterful direction, and the one of the most emotionally devastating endings ever captured on celluloid means that once again I was completely wrecked at the film’s conclusion.
The second half of the Bogart double bill, The Two Mrs. Carrolls (1947), also shows off Bogie’s acting chops, and co-stars another member of noir royalty, Barbara Stanwyck. Set in England, The Two Mrs. Carrolls features Bogie as an anguished painter with a shady past who may or may not have killed his first wife in order to marry an ingénue, played by Stanwyck. Even though it’s not a great movie, Bogart and Stanwyck are undeniable in their talent, charisma, and screen presence. Acting-wise, they both hit a lot of notes in this one, effortless demonstrating their command of their craft. Barbara Stanwyck in particular utilizes the brilliant instrument that is her voice to convey a vast emotional range.
The last film I caught at the festival was The Bad And The Beautiful (1952). A bit classier than your average noir, this MGM product, directed by Vincent Minnelli, stars A-listers Kirk Douglas and Lana Turner in a tale of greed and betrayal in Hollywood. The film is littered with great character actors, highlighted by Gloria Grahame’s cute and charming turn as a Southern belle married to an F. Scott Fitzgerald stand-in, played by Dick Powell. Kirk Douglas shows off his alpha male chops and Lana Turner is beautiful, glamorous, and vulnerable in her platinum blonde coif and on-fleek fur-trimmed and beaded gowns, making this considerably less seedy than, say, Detour or Double Indemnity. But noir’s world-weary cynicism is still present in this bitter tale of one man’s ascent to the top of Hollywood over the bodies and careers of some of his best friends and lovers.
I could have easily spent every night at the ten-day festival but alas my other life obligations made that impossible. But I’m more than happy for the chance to see a bunch of excellent noir on the big screen every year, complete with mid-century cosplaying audience members and free gin in the mezzanine between films, so I’m grateful for Noir City’s annual lovefest to one of my favorite film genres.
UPDATE: Noir City will be hitting the road later this year! Here are the confirmed dates and locations:
NOIR CITY Hollywood: April 15-24
NOIR CITY Austin: May 20-22
NOIR CITY Chicago: August 19-25
Go to the Noir City website for more updates as they happen.
The advent of the new S*** W*** release means that no other big Hollywood movies are opening this weekend, which has an added hidden bonus for fans of Asian cinema. Although most US multiplexes have booked the return of Han, Leia, and Chewie, theaters still need to fill out their calendar to give the illusion of choice for moviegoers. Aside from a few holdovers from past weeks and some other counterprogramming hoping to catch the overflow of those not fortunate enough to have gotten advance tix to SW, there are three big Asian movie spectacles opening up this weekend in San Francisco.
Included among those are two huge Bollywood blockbusters featuring some of the biggest stars in India. Dilwale includes the legendary jodi of the baadshah of Bollywood, Shah Rukh Khan, and Kajol, the violet-eyed movie queen who has starred with him in several giant hits over the years. Dilwale purports to be a romance/action film and the trailer includes longing glances, exploding cars, automatic weapons, slapstick masala humor, and pretty European scenery, so it will either find a huge audience in South Asia and beyond or fall completely flat at the box office. SRK has a massive fanbase and a lot of goodwill banked over the years so despite the film’s apparent formulaicness I’m betting that the former rather than the latter will occur.
Going head to head against Dilwale in India and here in North America is Bajirao Mastani, another lavish spectacle starring New Gen superstars Ranveer Singh (Lootera; Gunday), Deepika Padukone (Chennai Express; Tamasha), and Priyanka Chopra (Dil Dhadakne Do; Mary Kom). The latest historical epic from quirky visionary Sanjay Leela Bhansali (Saawariya; Devdas), Bajirao Mastani follows the story of the famous Maratha general Peshwa Bajirao and his two romantic interests, a warrior princess (Padukone) and Bajirao’s loyal wife (Chopra). As with all Bhansali films the art direction is completely gorgeous and over the top, this time utilizing a beige and sandstone palette accented by deep, saturated reds and greens. Real-life lovers Singh and Padukone were brilliant together in Bhansali’s 2013 Romeo and Juliet epic Goliyon Ki Raasleela Ram Leela and hopefully Bajirao Mastani recaptures some of their intense chemistry. Chopra is one of Bollywood’s best actresses, with presence, gravity, and beauty, and she’s also been making inroads in Hollywood lately, most recently as the star of the ABC action series Quantico.
Rounding out the clutch of Asian film spectacles opening this weekend is Mojin: The Lost Legend, another big-budget CGI spectacle from mainland China’s movie mill. This one is full of A-list Chinese stars including Chen Kun, Huang Bo, Shu Qi, and Angelababy, with an appearance by young Hong Kong actress Cherry Ngan (The Way We Dance) as a Japanese schoolgirl assassin. The storyline follows a pair of down-and-out adventurers, Hu Bayi (Chen Kun) and Wang Kaixuan (Huang Bo), former tomb raiders and treasure hunters who end up scraping by on the streets of New York City Chinatown in 1986. Somehow they are enlisted to rob a tomb they’d disastrously encountered twenty years prior, and the movie follows their exploits as they travel to Mongolia to find their fate. Shirley (Shu Qi) goes along for the ride based on poorly sketched and gratuitous romantic subplot with Hu.
Director Wu Ershan (Painted Skin: The Resurrection) continues his patented ADHD style of filmmaking, as the disjointed plot jumps back and forth in time from China to Mongolia to New York City. The film intersperses large swaths of nonsensical exposition with lackluster fighting and action scenes loaded with egregious CGI. The cast gamely attempts to inject some energy into the witless proceedings, with the usually excellent Huang Bo in particular trying to enliven things with scenery-chewing and profanity, but the film remains a paper-thin excuse for a string of not-very-spooky tomb-based action scenes and strangely juxtaposed set pieces. I actually enjoyed the maniacal weirdness of Wu Ershan’s first feature, The Butcher, the Chef and the Swordsman (2010) but here the scenario falls pretty flat, as the effects overwhelm the story and characterizations.
My favorite part of the movie is the flashback to the Cultural Revolution that includes clueless Red Guards giddily singing CCP propaganda songs and foolishly deriding ghosts and spirits for being counterrevolutionary, but this sequence of political irreverence is short-lived. The rest of the movie relies on a turgid plot and lack of characterization that is sorely lacking in wit or originality.
So if you’re not feeling The Force this week, these are a few options for cinematic spectacle instead. Catch ’em while you can.
UPDATE: Saw both Dilwale and Bajirao Mastani last week. Dilwale: not good. A few brief incandescent moments of SRK-Kajol magic surrounded by many long passages of utterly boring masala crap. I love SRK but this is a shyte movie.
Bajirao Mastani, on the other hand, is utterly enthralling. From its very first moment I was completely hooked. Top-notch art direction, costumes, songs, and performances, with Ranveer Singh bringing the swagga as Peshwa Bajirao, matched in fierceness and intensity by Deepika Padukone as his warrior princess lover. Priyanka Chopra as the third leg of the love triangle is strong and steady. The film is almost too gorgeous in its warm beige and red color palette, with crazy detailed costumes and the best pearl and jewel earrings on men that I’ve ever seen. The songs and choreography don’t stop, with old-school dance sequences featuring a cast of dozens in moving in fluid unison. A complete delight for the eyes and ears, with a passionate love story at its core. Highly recommended.
opens Dec. 18, 2015
Dilwale, dir. Rohit Shetty
Bajirao Mastani, dir. Sanjay Leela Bhansali
AMC Van Ness 14, San Francisco