Archive for January, 2009

Film review: Scott Walker: 30 Century Man

Scott in shades

Just saw the documentary Scott Walker: 30 Century Man last night with my pal Danny P. I’ve been waiting for the film to get Stateside distribution for a while (it was completed a few years ago and has been cruising the festival circuit since) so needless to say I was pretty excited to finally see it. At one point a few months ago I almost broke down and bought the movie on dvd but, being a big-screen kind of person, I’m glad I waited. (I think a film-watching experience is almost always enhanced by seeing a movie in a room full of people–for instance, seeing the excellent Arlene Dahl flick Wicked As They Come last Saturday at the sold-out Castro Theater with 1,400 other noir-crazed people was infinitely more thrilling than watching it alone in my house on Turner Movie Classics—but I digress).

Anyways, 30 Century Man traces the career ot Scott Walker, one of the greatest pop singers you’ve probably never heard of. With his 1960s trio The Walker Brothers (not really brothers, and not really named Walker), Scott busted open the British pop charts with a string of top ten hits including the soaring Burt Bacharach ballad Make It Easy On Yourself and the peppy gloom-pop classic The Sun Ain’t Gonna Shine Any More, both number one singles in Britain in the mid-sixties. Both Scott and his nominal brother John were pretty young things and they quickly became the subject of much teenybopper love in the two years that they were topping the UK charts. Scott in particular was an object of desire, not only for his blond Beatle bob but for his sweetly melancholic baritone voice and his talent for imbuing banal pop tunes with a suffusion of emotion and depth. Through interviews and archival footage the film does a good job depicting the substantial Walkermania in the UK at the time.

The Walkers with birds, 1967

After the Walker Brothers broke up in 1967, Scott reached a creative peak in four solo albums that contained a mix of orchestral pop songs ala Dusty Springfield (he shared the same producer, Johnny Franz, with the equally brilliant, mercurial Springfield), Scott’s own self-penned, poetic musings, and several covers of the songs of Belgian music-hall singer/composer Jacques Brel. The first three of these esoteric collections climbed high on the British charts, but the fourth, consisting only of Scott’s own compositions, failed miserably. Scott’s career went into eclipse until 1981, when The Teardrop Explodes’ frontman Julian Cope (amusingly described in the film as “a foremost expert on Britain’s stone circles”) packaged several of Scott’s songs in a none-too-subtly titled compilation, The Fire Escape In The Sky: The Godlike Genius of Scott Walker. Suddenly, after nearly 15 years, Scott Walker was cool again.

30 Century Man includes interviews with a veritable who’s who of edgy British pop singers—Jarvis Cocker, David Bowie (who also executive-produced the movie), Brian Eno, Marc Almond, Ute Lemper and a host of others—who speak admiringly of Scott’s singing and songwriting. The film utilizes the interesting technique of shooting each person listening intently to a Scott Walker song, their faces transformed by pleasure or emotion. As one who has been repeatedly captivated by Walker’s recordings, particularly Scott’s rich, lavish mid-sixties solo albums, I found these passages to be particularly effective in capturing his music’s ineffable allure.

The latter portion of the film focuses on Scott’s last three solo albums, starting from 1984 and released over a span of 22 years (!). During that period Walker’s music took a severe left turn and these collections are dark, haunting, and decisively anti-pop and anti-commercial. In the film Walker states that once he’s finished a recording he never listens to it again, and certainly some people feel the same way about this part of his oeuvre (a quick peek at Metacritic’s user comments of his last album, The Drift (2006) reveals only two ratings, 10 or 0, with almost no middle ground).

Scott Walker wails, 2005

Scott Walker wails, 2005

30 Century Man features an extensive interview with Walker who, for a renowned recluse, is very affable and articulate. Now in his sixties, Walker retains his Midwestern twang (he was born in Hamilton, OH) and resembles a grown-up Opie from The Andy Griffith Show. The film nicely intercuts Walker’s intelligent and straightforward commentary with footage documenting the wacky process of recording The Drift, which included a percussionist pummeling a slab of ribs, a metal garbage can being slammed on a large wooden box, and an orchestral string section being asked to replicate the sound of tanks approaching from fifty meters away. Subject matter ranges from the collapse of the World Trade Center to Elvis Presley’s dead twin to Mussolini’s mistress, who insisted on being shot with her lover.

Like Scott himself, 30 Century Man is coy about revealing the personal details of Walker’s life, instead focusing on his creative output. While some might find this a flawed strategy, in a mediaworld littered with Behind The Music and The Osbornes, I though it was a refreshing change of pace. In the end, it’s all about the music, and that’s fine with me.

Three phases of Scott Walker’s career:

Early

Middle

Late

Advertisements

January 28, 2009 at 3:36 am 4 comments

Quickie fangirl post: teaser trailer for new Francis Ng 吳鎮宇wuxia movie Tracing Shadow 追影

First stills for Chasing Shadow!

Francis Ng & deadly chopsticks, Tracing Shadow 追影, 2009

Just wanted to fire off a fast post about the appearance of a new, very brief teaser trailer (see below) for the upcoming Francis Ng wuxia pic Chasing Shadows. Looks like the movie will be full of the old-school 1990s style wire-fu & special effects that I cut my teeth on back in the day.

The very first Hong Kong movie that I saw long ago at the Roxie Theater in San Francisco was A Chinese Ghost Story, with its amazing action choreography by the great Ching Siu-Tung. His trademark style includes lots of beautiful night photography, swirling fog, gravity-defying synchronized stunt performers, flowing robes, and flying people bounding over rooftops and through forests. He’s the action director for classics including Swordsman 2, New Dragon Inn, and House of Flying Daggers, among many more.

Chasing Shadows, in which Francis Ng not only stars but codirects, with Marco Mak, looks like a throwback to those glorious movies. According to news sources,

“As a form of tribute to past wuxia films, not only does the film contain various well-worn wuxia elements, but it also has the protagonist, his nemesis, and the four exponents named directly, onomatopoeically, metaphorically, in part or combination after the famed wuxia directors: Chang Cheh, Li Han Hsiang, Tsui Hark, Chor Yuen, Sammo Hung, Liu Chia Liang, Tong Gai and King Hu, possibly with some of them doing cameos.”

The movie also stars Jackie Chan’s son Jaycee Chan and Pace Wu. Ching Siu-Tung’s protege, Ma Yuk Sing, is the action choreographer for Chasing Shadows and Ching’s influence is pretty clear in the trailer.

First stills for Chasing Shadow!

The lady in red, Tracing Shadow 追影, 2009

Needless to say, my anticipation meter is off the charts with this one.

UPDATE: According to Twitch, as of late March the film’s title has been altered to “Tracing Shadow 追影,” which I’m not sure I like more than the original. “Chasing” seems a bit more active and dynamic than “tracing,” but I’m not the marketing expert so who am I to say? Looking forward to it at any rate & hoping it rocks.

Here’s the teaser trailer for your viewing pleasure. There’s a very short subliminal of Francis at the very end of the clip fyi.

UPDATE 2: New trailer for Tracing Shadow 追影 below, which lists a July 2009 release date. It’s mostly in Mandarin, except for one cryptic English intertitle that states “kung fu all star,” and seems to be living up to previous reports that the film will be a martial arts comedy. Francis Ng appears briefly about halfway through, getting water thrown in his face, striding across the screen, and later comically twitching his eyebrow. The rest of the trailer heavily features clips of Jaycee Chan, backed by a raucous electric guitar riff, no doubt aiming straight for the lucrative youth market. I’m sure I’m missing lots of other significant information due to my lack of Chinese-language skills–if anyone else wants to fill in the blanks it would be much appreciated.

Director Ng & cast at Tracing Shadow press conference, June 16, 2009

Director Ng & cast at Tracing Shadow 追影 press conference, June 16, 2009

There’s also a lot of information in the Chinese press this week about the launching of the film’s website but the translation I got through google translate gives me a headache so I can offer little insight. But here’s a picture from the press conference. Francis has his hair in the little topknot he seems to have adopted for his role in Laughing Gor, which he’s shooting at the moment.

UPDATE 3: English translation about the press conference here, plus another view of Francis’ topknot.

Happy Francis Ng with topknot, Tracing Shadow press conference, June 2009

Happy Francis with topknot, Tracing Shadow 追影 press conference, June 2009

UPDATE 4: Go here for The Making Of Tracing Shadow 追影. Caveat: it’s on youku.com, the Chinese streaming site, which sometimes loads awfully slow, and the video is all in Mandarin. But it’s got nice behind-the-scenes footage of the movie shoot, with interviews with all of the stars including Francis, Jaycee Chan, and Pace Wu. With the movie being released in just a couple weeks the hype is becoming deafening. Huayi Brothers are obviously banking on this to be a big summer hit and every other day there are more movie stills, interviews, and other fluff about the movie all over the Chinese press. It will be interesting to see the actual box office once the movie’s out.

Tracing Shadow movie poster, July 2009

Tracing Shadow 追影 movie poster, July 2009

UPDATE 5: Here’s the latest Tracing Shadow 追影 poster, and here’s the official website. Navigation is in English, though the movie clips, synopsis and other info are in Chinese. The gallery has tons of stills that showcase the movie’s fancy costumes and art direction, featuring lots of animal furs, elaborate upswept hairdos, and saturated blacks and reds.

twitchfilm.net also has the first English-language review of the film and it’s pretty favorable.

And here’s the cool little music video from the movie—it takes several scenes from the film and incorporates them into a comic-book style layout. The song is Zhui Ying 追影 and the singer is Cong Haonan 丛浩楠.

Francis Ng drowns his sorrows at Laughing Gor: Turning Point premiere

Francis Ng drowns his sorrows at Laughing Gor: Turning Point premiere

UPDATE 6: Alas, despite the massive hype, it looks like Tracing Shadow has tanked at the box office in mainland China. Apparently it went head-to-head with Wong Jing’s latest inane comedy, On His Majesty’s Secret Service, and lost big time–according to NetEase Enterntainment, OHMSS earned over $100 million yuan at the box office, while Tracing Shadow took in a measly $13 million. Not only that, but Wong Jing apparently claimed in an interview that he wasn’t afraid of duking it out with Tracing Shadow because Francis Ng’s earlier directorial efforts (9413; What Is A Good Teacher; and Dancing Lion) also tanked at the box office. Way to rub salt in the wound, dude! It’s especially painful because earlier Francis had predicted that Tracing Shadow would easily take in at least $100 million. No wonder Francis Ng looked so tweaky at the Laughing Gor: Turning Point premiere. He had probably just heard the bad news about ticket sales for Tracing Shadow.

The film opened today (Sept. 2) in Hong Kong to much less fanfare. Wonder if HK audiences will give their homeboy some support or if the movie will die a slow death in the Special Administrative Region as well.

UPDATE 7: Tracing Shadow just hit the torrent streams so that probably spells an end to any theatrical box office. Some commentators on twitter were less than charitable about the film.

tracing shadow is a very indiscriminate mess

tracing shadow is a lousy movie. i’m sad that I spent more than half an hour to get to this conclusion.

watched the film tracing shadow online, download a waste of time, a waste of computer hard-disk space

You know it’s bad when people who watch the movie for free are dissing it.

But Francis might take some comfort in the fact that On His Majesty’s Secret Service also got reamed by the tweeters:

this is really a rare year of lousy movies—tracing shadow and OHMSS are tied.

Strangely enough, Huayi Brothers might not be too fussed about Tracing Shadows less-than-stellar performance. The film presold to several Asian territories, so chances are that HB got its investment back even before it was released.

January 25, 2009 at 11:02 pm 2 comments

President Obama President Obama President Obama President Obama

I just like hearing, reading, thinking and saying that phrase.

44th US president

44th US president

I got up this morning to watch the inauguration today at 9am PST and I have to say that it was a pretty fun experience. Our new leader looked very presidential in his black suit and red tie, alternating between smiling and furrowed-brow seriousness. He also mixed in an occasional laugh, most notably during his sweaing-in when he and Supreme Court Chief Justice John Roberts got tangled up in the wording of the oath, and even threw down an “Amen!” during Rev. Joseph Lowery‘s benediction.

As fantastic as this was to watch, tears for me came not during Obama’s swearing-in per se, but during two quick cutaways during the proceedings. The first was a shot of Rep. John Lewis from Georgia, the veteran civil rights activist whose skull was fractured by Alabama State Troopers on the bridge in Selma in 1965 and whose endorsement of Obama during the Democratic primary was a turning point in the campaign. The second was a brief reaction shot of a teary-eyed, anonymous elderly African American woman watching the ceremony from Memphis, TN. Both Rep. Lewis and the elderly woman personally knew the pain of living as second-class citizens in their own country, whose oppression was based solely on the color of their skin. And both had lived to see this historic day, when an African American was sworn in as President of the United States.

My two daughters watched the inauguration with me and when I explained to my 8-year-old that at one time African Americans (and by extension other people of color) were legally discriminated against based solely on their race, she could hardly believe me.  It was incredible to her that someone at some time in this country had to use different bathrooms and drinking fountains and were forbidden to eat in restaurants and ride in the front of the bus because they weren’t white, and that this had been sanctioned by law. My daughter’s innocent disbelief, together with the moment I saw Rep. Lewis and his unnamed compatriot in Memphis on television, made me realize what a a great abyss we as a country had crossed today. Not that we’ve reached the promised land by any means, but it somehow seems a bit closer than it did just a little while ago.

Konrad Ng & Maya Soetero Ng, The First In-Laws

Konrad Ng & Maya Soetero Ng, The First In-Laws

Note: It was nice to see some diversity in the television coverage of the inauguration today, in crowd shots on the street in D.C. and across the country. It was also fun to see Asian Americans represented in the First Family, with both Maya Soetoro-Ng, Obama’s half-sister, and her husband Konrad Ng sitting directly behind the new President. Cute couple–

UPDATE: Check out Danny Plotnick’s great review of the pre-inauguration party at the Lincoln Memorial that featured Stevie Wonder, Bruuuce Springstein, Beyonce, and Pete Seeger, especially his dish of the bombastic Bono.

UPDATE  2: Jay Z’s got a special version of Young Jeezy’s “My President Is Black” that he freestyled at an inauguration afterparty in DC. Looking for the full lyrics online–here’s a sample:

“My president is black, in fact he’s half white/So even in a racist mind he’s half right/If you’ve got a racist mind it’s alright/My president is black, but his house is all white!”

January 21, 2009 at 12:52 am 5 comments

Where is the love? The Asian guy in Milk

Kelvin Yu as Michael Wong is not in this picture, Milk, 2008

Kelvin Yu as Michael Wong is not in this picture, Milk, 2008

Don’t get me wrong—I really liked Milk, the new Sean Penn biopic about San Francisco’s own gay martyr and political icon. As someone who was (just barely) old enough to remember the actual events portrayed as they happened (or do I just remember watching The Times of Harvey Milk?), I thought the movie did a great job depicting the sexy, exhilarating place that was the 1970s Castro district as well as the political intrigue of San Francisco’s City Hall. Gus Van Sant’s not afraid of lots of gratuitous boy-kissing and as far as I’m concerned there can never be enough shots of James Franco’s bare ass. As a Bay Area native, the real-life San Francisco locations resonated for me and the final scene of the candlelight procession brought this heartless beyotch to tears.

But a little fly in the ointment, as usual, was the depiction of the film’s Asian American character, Michael Wong, who was one of Harvey’s inner circle. Apparently the real-life Wong’s extensive diaries from the time were an invaluable resource for the filmmakers, but those expecting a breakthrough Asian American male role in this film will be disappointed. Kelvin Yu as Wong is little more than a flower vase, pretty much relegated to window dressing despite the fact that he’s supposed to be one of Harvey Milk’s closest advisors. Throughout the film Milk affectionately calls Wong “Lotus Blossom,” which is cute but a little too close to the usual emasculated Asian male epithets for my liking. Kelvin Yu claims that the character is “biting, caustic, acidically comedic and intelligent,” but too few of those characteristics come through in the final cut. Instead we see Wong on the sidelines supporting Milk, with precious few actual interactions between the two. There are also makeout scenes galore for most of the characters major and minor, but Wong doesn’t seem to rate a kiss from anyone, male or female.

Some of this may stem from lingering issues resulting from the infamous casting call for the character, which described Wong as “asexual” and “the ultimate dork. Very, very nerdy.” Kelvin Yu states that Gus Van Sant eventually decided against portraying Wong as sexless and dorky, and apparently the real-life Wong has given the depiction his stamp of approval, but in the finished product Wong is still bland and mostly invisible.

Dork or not? Kelvin Yu

Dork or not? Kelvin Yu

It doesn’t help that the good-looking Yu was made homely, with Ugly Betty glasses and an unflattering haircut (although this is apparently is true to the real Wong’s actual appearance at the time).

I’m trying to overcome the tendency to nit-pick any Asian American portrayals I see in Hollywood movies but it’s a hard habit to break, especially when those images are still few and far between. Here’s hoping John Cho fares better in Star Trek—

UPDATE: For a longer take on the film in general, see Sunny Vergara’ s nice little dissection.

January 14, 2009 at 1:18 am 7 comments

San Francisco politics: The inauguration of Eric Mar

Jade and Eric Mar on the campaign trail, 2008

Jade and Eric Mar on the campaign trail, 2008

Just went to Eric Mar’s inauguration to the San Francisco Board of Supervisor’s down at City hall today. I’ve known Eric, his wife Sandy & Eric’s twin brother Gordon since we were all undergrads back at the dawn of time, so it was really great to see him sworn in today. I’m a sucker for speeches that thank family members and I was especially choked up when Eric mentioned his late father, who died four years ago right around the time my own dad passed. Eric’s daughter Jade is just three months older than my older daughter so seeing Jade out of school and all decked out in her party duds to see her dad sworn in was also a kick for me.

Eric’s been a long-time activist and organizer in the Asian American community and he’s been a tireless advocate for the disenfranchised since our college days long ago. He’s been on the San Francisco School Board for the past eight years and this past November survived a bruising campaign to represent San Francisco’s 1st District, which comprises the inner Richmond. He and fellow progressive David Chiu were targeted by San Francisco’s downtown business establishment and were both subjected to smear campaigns that impugned their character, their patriotism and their personal lives. Today both were sworn in as Supervisors (Chiu from the Chinatown/North Beach district) in large part due to a huge grassroots support from their neighborhoods. Together with incumbent Carmen Chu this marks the first time that three Chinese Americans have simultaneously been on the Board of Supervisors in San Francisco history.

As icing on the cake, David Chiu was also elected President of the board today. The process of his election was an interesting example of SF politicking—it took eight ballots to break the deadlock between Sup. Sophie Maxwell, who was supported by allies of Mayor Gavin Newsom, and the progressive candidate, who was at first David Avalos, then David Chiu. Eric Mar played a key part in brokering the deal that sent Chiu to the President’s seat. With Maxwell and Avalos in a near deadlock, with neither able to gain a majority for for several rounds, Eric switched his vote from Avalos to Chiu. He followed up his vote-switch with a cogent and articulate plea for supporting Chui as a President not only for Chinese Americans but for all San Franciscans. Veteran progressives Ross Mirkarimi and Chris Daly, who had withheld their support for Avalos, then switched their votes to Chiu, giving him the majority and electing him Board President. It was a subtle and interesting moment of political intrigue, clearly delineating the lines between various factions on the Board. It also indicated the political modus operandi of various Board members, as well as their possible future alliances. Mirkarimi and Daly clearly enjoy the bold power play—Eric Mar’s style is much more subtle and close to the vest. The five supervisors who supported Sophie Maxwell are an obvious voting bloc allied with Mayor Newsom—the remaining six supes are more loosely allied, with sub-alliances within the larger group. Interestingly enough, Daly did not support his former aide John Avalos in his bid for Board president but eventually threw his weight behind Chiu. Time will tell if the lines of allegiance will become more clearly drawn in the future, or if Board alliances continue to fluctuate throughout the next term.

UPDATE: here’s more information via my friend and colleague Malcom Collier.

Hello Valerie

Nice blog but not quite accurate – my fault maybe as I had a mental block when you were talking to me at city hall. In late 1990s we had three Chinese Americans on the Board – Leland Yee, Mabel Teng, and Michael Yaki. Yaki is 1/2 Chinese American, 2/8 Japanese American, and 1/8 Hawaiian Native. So unless you want to leave out the mixed folks, today is not the first time with three CAs on Board.

In case you are interested, I looked up the terms:

Mabel Teng, 1995-2001 – she was the first Asian American, not just the first AA woman, to win a city wide election to the board without being appointed to the position first. All previous persons won after being appointed first and running as incumbants.

Leland Yee, 1996-2001

Michael Yaki, 1997-2002

George Chinn (I think that is the spelling) was the first Chinese American to serve on the Board, appointed 1973. Gordon J. Lau appointed to the board 1977 and later elected, but not city wide – there were district elections then. Tom Hsieh Sr. won citywide after being appointed to a vacancy in 1986, then won elections in 1988 and 1992.

UPDATE 2: My buddy Danny Plotnick has another take on the board president election which takes the pols to task for their flagrant manipulation of the system. Change we can believe in or more of the same?

UPDATE 3: The effervescent sociologist, scholar and person-about-town Grace Yoo takes another look at the event, and the post-party spreads, on her brand-new blog.

January 9, 2009 at 1:23 am 1 comment

The end of the world as we know it: crunchyroll deletes user-uploaded files.

crunchyrollThe new year brought an unwelcome surprise to the 4.8 million people who belong to the on-line video streaming site crunchyroll.com, sometimes referred to as the Asian youtube (though it was founded by UC Berkeley undergrads and it’s based in San Francisco). Since its launch in 2006 until Jan. 1, 2009 the site had hosted music and games as well as literally thousands of films, anime, and Asian dramas. Almost all of its content was illegally uploaded by members, meaning that anyone could stream from a huge selection of material at absolutely no cost. As expected from such a massive, unrestricted site, depending on the source material and the skill of the uploader, image quality ranged from good to crappy.

For example, due to the ineptitude of the member who posted it, the site’s version of Exiled had Mandarin and Cantonese audio tracks running

Gratuitous Francis Ng pic, Exiled, 2007

Gratuitous Francis Ng pic, Exiled, 2006

simultaneously, which led to a surreal viewing experience to say the least. Other movies had serious sync problems or were uploaded from vcds, but almost all of the material had English subs and the streaming was fast and reliable, so it was a great place to indulge in a lot of no-cost Asian movie watching. (In contrast, watching a non-subbed movie on youku.com, the Chinese-language streaming site, is slow torture. Aside from the language barrier, the site streams like cold molasses and a ninety-minute movie can take twice that to get through.)

Free is always a good price and I can attest to crunchyroll’s addictive quality–it enabled my Francis Ng binge from last month and I was able to watch at least a dozen of his movies, including a couple not yet available in the US on dvd such as Shamo and One Last Dance. I was also able to wallow in all 35 episodes of one of Francis’s turgid HK melodramas, The Great Adventurer, wasting a week of my life wending through its labyrinthine storyline.

Crunchyroll’s dilemma began when the site started offering higher quality streams for members who “donated” six dollars per month. Because of its legal murkiness, this opened the site to potential licensing lawsuits, as it began profiting from copyrighted materials it didn’t own. Suddenly it wasn’t one big happy filesharing family—with nearly 5 million members someone was making some coin, and the site recently made moves to correct this possible legal sinkhole. No doubt realizing the thin ice such flagrant copyright violations implied, at the start of 2009 crunchyroll purged its entire stock of non-licensed programming and began to host only legally licensed shows. Gone were all of the Korean, Hong Kong, and Japanese soap operas, the extensive library of films and anime, and everything else that made the site imperative for obsessive Asian media-watchers. As expected, most of the membership let out a collective shriek, but in order to further cover its ass legally, the site will likely not add back those titles. It’s instead instituted a subscription system that, in cooperation with anime distributors, will allow paying customers to selectively view whatever shows the site can license.

As for those of us who gorged on free movies and dramas, the ride is over. Of course it was too good to last—I’m glad I was able to enjoy it while I could. Here’s hoping another similar site crops up soon.

UPDATE: Oops, busted! Looks like Huayi Bros, the big-time Chinese film producer and distributor, is going after several Chinese-language sites for illegally hosting the brand new Mainland China film, If You Are The One, which was released on Dec. 18 and has already hit the intertubes. Named in the lawsuit are Sina.com, Sohu.com, Youku.com, Tudou.com and VOC. Maybe crunchyroll pulled out of the illegal filesharing game just in time.

UPDATE 2: Interesting analysis here about how China’s latest crackdown on Internet smut may be a harbinger of larger things to come. Good discussion of the issue in relation to the recession, politics and the social compact of China’s economic boom.

January 6, 2009 at 7:24 am 6 comments

Takeshi then and now: The Warlords, Red Cliff and the aesthetics of dirt

His role in The House of Flying Daggers (2004, dir. Zhang Yimou) notwithstanding, Takeshi Kaneshiro has almost always appeared in modern-day movies. But in 2007 he was cast in two prominent historical dramas, The Warlords (dir. Peter Chan) and Red Cliff (dir. John Woo). How did Takeshi’s decidedly modern visage affect these two Hong Kong costume dramas? The results in each film are somewhat different and are a telling indication of perceptions of Chinese films in Asia and in the West.

Movie kings dirty up, The Warlords, 2007

Movie kings dress down, The Warlords, 2007

In The Warlords, Peter Chan’s gritty, realistic flick about a 19th century Qing Dynasty power struggle, Takeshi and his equally famous and glamorous co-stars Jet Li and Andy Lau are called upon to play their parts clad in animal skins and splattered with blood, sweat and mud. Jet Li reportedly gained weight and dirtied up to play his part (and was rewarded with his very first Best Actor statue at the 2008 Hong Kong Film Awards); he and the usually dapper Andy Lau also shaved their heads and grew scruffy beards for the film. At the start of the film Li vomits convincingly and Andy Lau has sex still dressed in his war togs.

Takeshi in furs, The Warlords, 2007

Takeshi in furs, The Warlords, 2007

Takeshi, however, did not shave his head, though he did sport a tidy beard. Still, it was hard to spot Takeshi-the-movie-star in this flick, due to the strength of the film’s mise-en-scene. The film’s blood-caked impalings, stabbings and general fisticuffs, and its evocative smoky-toned cinematography overcame Takeshi’s good looks and he managed to fit into the overall rough-hewn look of the movie despite being one of the most beautiful people on the planet.

In Red Cliff, however, the film’s art direction is much less down-and-dirty and much more stylized and this somehow makes Takeshi’s perfect nose and expensive haircut more anachronistic than in Peter Chan’s film. John Woo’s film aims for the heroic, not the realistic, and here Takeshi’s Prada-model gorgeousness shines a bit too brightly for a period piece. Although co-star Tony Leung Chi-Wai cuts no less a handsome figure, he’s a bit stronger actor and is a little more convincing as a third-century Chinese warrior. Tony also gets to wear armour and swing a sword in a big fighting scene, whereas Takeshi watches on the sidelines in pristine, flowing white robes without a hair out of place.

Pristine Takeshi, Red Cliff, 2008

Pristine Takeshi, Red Cliff, 2008

Somehow Takeshi’s overt modernity works against him much more in Red Cliff than in The Warlords and this is underscored by each films’ respective directorial vision. Peter Chan’s film feels much more in step with current Chinese cinematic trends, moving away from superficial heroic images towards a deeper, more serious critique (in the same way that Johnnie To’s Election 1 & 2 completely deglamorized the Triad film, in contrast to the gauzy romantic fantasies of gangster brotherhood from Andrew Lau’s Young & Dangerous series). In comparison, John Woo’s film seems like a nostalgic, old-fashioned look backwards at classic Shaw Brothers and 1990s wuxia productions. Interestingly, a truncated version of Red Cliff is slated to open in the U.S. and Europe in 2009 while The Warlords has not received distribution outside of Asia. This perhaps reflects outdated perceptions of Hong Kong films in the West, where the most recognizable HK actor is the long-dead Bruce Lee and most viewers relate Chinese films to out-of-sync dubbing and chop-socky action pieces. Since precious few Western viewers keep abreast of current trends in Chinese cinema it stands to reason that John Woo’s conventionally retro, faintly Orientalist vision of history is more marketable outside of Asia than Peter Chan’s more contemporary presentation.

The Warlords was a big box office hit in Asia and, Red Cliff, Part 1 similarly broke box office records across Asia. Release of Red Cliff, Part 2 was moved up to capitalize on the success of Part 1 and it premiered in Beijing on Jan. 4. The Warlords cleaned up at both the 2007 Hong Kong Film Awards (eight awards including Best Picture, Best Director, and Best Actor) and the 2008 Golden Horse Awards (Best Picture, Best Director). Red Cliff, however, was shut out of the major awards at this year’s Golden Horse presentation, with only four nominations and no wins. Perhaps as with the Academy Awards and the last installment of the Lord of the Rings trilogy, Red Cliff, Part 2 will fare better at awards time than its predecessor. For now it remains to be seen whether it will duplicate the The Warlords’ hometown awards success.

January 1, 2009 at 7:08 pm 7 comments

Older Posts


supported by

Blog Stats

  • 382,503 hits

Archives

tweetorama