Archive for September, 2012
A couple days ago I had the good fortune to run across one of my favorite movies on youtube, Once Upon A Time In Triad Society, released in 1995 and starring the inimitable Francis Ng. An outstanding black comedy that savagely skewers any romanticized notions of triad honor among thieves, it’s also an excellent example of the kind of deliriously high-energy cinema that Hong Kong used to put out on a regular basis back in the day. After watching it again I lamented to myself the current shortage of truly insane and invigorating HK movies these days, most of which have been replaced by tame and decorous, high-tone product from Mainland China (see The Bullet Vanishes).
But my faith in Hong Kong cinema has been restored with Pang Ho-Cheung’s newest release, Vulgaria, which is a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong movies, with its mostly improvised, who-gives-a-fuck attitude, and its willingness to be loud, tasteless, and offensive. But this is no dumb and dumber—the movie is a spot-on look at the ailing Hong Kong film industry and the depths that HK moviemakers need to go to in order make a living these days, including producing tacky Category III movies, sucking up to insane Mainland financers/gangsters, and running low-rent mahjong dens complete with childcare and takeout meals.
Candy-assisted blowjobs, bestiality, crazy cursing, deep-fried field mice—Vulgaria goes there and it works. The movie’s cast includes some of Hong Kong’s best comic actors, some of whom appeared in the Wong Jing stinker Marrying Mr. Perfect. In that movie they floundered, but here they’re brilliant. Chapman To rocks as a hapless film producer trying to stay afloat by any means necessary, even if it includes the possibility of interspecies sex. There’s a line that he won’t cross, however, which adds a certain poignancy to the character’s plight and which leavens the unbridled cursing, sex talk, and casual coupling that makes up the bulk of the proceedings. DaDa Chen is also great as the good-natured, well-endowed Popping Candy, so named for the particular type of fellatio she blithely practices in order to get movie roles. Ronald Cheng in spangled clothes is outstanding as the metrosexual gang leader Tyrannosaurus, and the banquet scene with himself, Lam Suet, Chapman, and Simon Lui is one of the funniest things I’ve witnessed in many a movie.
Pang’s a whip-smart director and even in this quickie, low-budget flick he effectively manipulates the cinematic lexicon, with the film’s storyline effortlessly flashing back and forward in time. Another great thing about Pang’s films is their focus on the profane joys of the Cantonese language and Vulgaria is no exception. In this one the actors seems to be especially gleeful in utilizing as many creative obscenities as possible and there’s a particularly funny running gag involving the limited Cantonese-language skills of Chapman To’s Chinese American assistant.
All in all Vulgaria is one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen in a long time—-it’s got life, energy, and cojones to spare. Not only is it a smart commentary on the state of Hong Kong cinema today, it’s way more creative, vigorous and fun than most of the bloated, predictable product out there. Now if only more Hong Kong movies could follow suit, it would be like 1995 all over again.
UPDATE: Vulgaria has just scooped up a trio of nominations for the Golden Horse Awards-–Chapman To for Best Actor, Dada Chen for Best Supporting Actress, and Ronald Cheng for Best Supporting Actor. No nomination for screenplay, directing, or profanities this time. Awards announced November 24.
UPDATE 2: Ronald Cheng just won the Golden Horse for Best Supporting Actor–truly well deserved, IMHO. Not many people can convincingly play a man in love with a mule and Ronald did it with style and panache. Go Vulgaria!
opens Sept. 28
AMC Metreon 16
101 Fourth Street
San Francisco, CA
This weekend the Bay’s got another embarrassment of filmi riches from a pair of dueling Asian film festivals. This year’s editions of Hong Kong Cinema, and the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival both offer a ton of tasty movie treats.
The 3rd I festival, which starts Sept. 18, runs six days and features over 20 films from 9 different countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, The Maldives, Canada, South Africa, UK and USA. Among the highlights is Jaagte Raho (Stay Awake), from 1956, starring my new favorite actor Raj Kapoor and co-directed by Amit Maitra and famous Bengali theater artist Sombhu Mitra. Jaagte Raho’s story follows Kapoor as a thirsty man from the country that arrives in the city longing for a drink of water. He ends up trapped in an apartment block where he’s mistaken for a thief, spending a long, sleepless night being relentlessly chased by the misguided tenants. As he hides out in various apartments he discovers the corruption and deceit amongst the residents, with adultery, gambling, drunkenness, counterfeiting, greed, and theft among their unsavory traits.
Although his earlier films featured him as an angsty young romantic lead, in Jaagte Raho Raj Kapoor iterates his naïf-in-the-big-city persona that he repeated many times in his later years. Here he’s all wide eyes and pleading gestures as the country bumpkin, a stark contrast to the duplicitous, licentious lot pursuing him.
This is great stuff, sly and satirical, that cleverly exposes the hypocrisy of the corrupt tenants. It’s shot in shimmering black and white with a crack soundtrack with lyrics by Shailendra and music by Salil Choudhary, including the rollicking drunken ramble Zindagi Khwaab Hai. The legendary Motilal is outstanding as an inebriated bourgeois who takes in the destitute Kapoor, in an homage of sorts to City Lights—however, Jaagte Raho’s booze-driven hospitality has a much more twisted outcome than does the Chaplin film. The film concludes with a lovely cameo by Nargis, once again representing the moral center of the movie. This was the final film to star Kapoor and Nargis and coincided with the breakup of their long-time offscreen affair as well, so it’s especially bittersweet to see the famous lovers together for the last time. Jaagte Raho was a box office flop when it was first released, but it’s since been recognized as a classic. Interestingly enough, along with Meer Nam Joker, which also bombed when it first came out, Kapoor cites this as his personal favorite film.
Also of note at the 3rd I festival: Decoding Deepak, a revealing look at the modern-day guru that’s directed by Chopra’s son Gotham; Runaway (Udhao), Amit Ashraf’s slick and stylish indictment of the link between politics and the underworld; Sket, which looks at a vengeful girl gang in an East London slum; the experimental documentaries Okul Nodi (Endless River) and I am Micro; this year’s Bollywood-at-the-Castro rom-com Cocktail; and the short film program Sikh I Am: Voices on Identity.
This year’s edition of Hong Kong Cinema, the San Francisco Film Society’s annual showcase of movies from the former Crown Colony, has a bunch of outstanding product. The program includes a three-film retrospective commemorating the 1997 handover: Peter Chan Ho-sun’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story, which stars Leon Lai and Maggie Cheung as friends almost with benefits from two different sides of the HK/China border; Made In Hong Kong, Fruit Chan’s debut that’s a redux of the venerable Hong Kong gangster movie and which stars the young and skinny Sam Lee in his first role; and The Longest Nite, one of Johnny To’s nastiest crime dramas, with impeccable performances by Lau Ching-Wan and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as (of course) an immoral cop and a vicious criminal.
These three classics are hard acts to follow but several of the other films on the docket manage to hold their own. Both Pang Ho-Cheung’s Love In The Buff, an excellent romantic dramedy with Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue as the make-up-to-break-up lovers (full review here) and Ann Hui’s most recent feature, A Simple Life, starring Andy Lau and Deanie Ip as a man and his amah, (full review here) had extended runs in San Francisco earlier this year so this may be the last chance to see then on the big screen in the Bay Area.
Also good is Johnny To’s new romantic comedy Romancing In Thin Air, which To co-wrote with longtime creative partner Wai Ka-Fai and the Milkyway Image team. Set mostly at a vacation lodge in an idyllic high-altitude locale in China, the story concerns two romantically wounded individuals grappling with the peculiarities of their damaged relationships. Sammi Cheng is her usual charming self as the female lead, but although he’s likeable enough, Louis Koo as a Hong Kong movie star (!) is a bit lacking in charisma and doesn’t bring a bigger-than-life sensibility or the self-effacing humor that Andy Lau or a more engaging performer might have done.
Although the plot is seems at first to be fairly straightforward, the film gradually reveals Milkyway’s trademark weirdness. The story of Sammi’s missing husband, lost in the dense high-country woods for seven years, is a bit creepy, though I do like that when the husband courts Sammi he turns into a clumsy doofus. The film also includes a very meta movie-within-a-movie conceit and makes several sly jabs at the Hong Kong film business.
Less good are Derek Yee’s The Great Magician, a rambling and messy movie that’s a criminal waste of Lau Ching-Wan, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and Zhou Xun (full review here), and Roy Chow’s Nightfall, a turgid and ridiculous film that similarly wastes good performances by Simon Yam and Nick Cheung. I really wanted to like this movie, a wannabee intense and serious thriller, not least for its slick and attractive cinematography. But despite a gripping and violent opening scene the movie has some great gaping holes in logic and alternates between chatty exposition and absurd set pieces. Still, Nick Cheung is very good as a haunted convict with anger management issues, though Simon Yam is somewhat less good as the cop unraveling the mystery. Yam doesn’t have quite the emotional depth of Francis Ng or Lau Ching-Wan and so the payoff at the end of the film is weaker than it might have been. Michael Wong is quite bad as an abusive father, with a shrill, one-note performance and his annoying habit of speaking English at the most illogical moments. I kept imagining what Anthony Wong might have done with this part. The violence is a notch more gruesome than most mainstream Hong Kong films, especially in the opening fight sequence—looks like someone’s been watching Korean movies for tips on emulating their gory tendencies.
All in all, San Francisco Asian film fans are going to have to make some hard choices this weekend—not that that’s a bad thing by any means.
September 19-23, 2012, Roxie and Castro Theaters, San Francisco
September 30, 2012, Camera12, San Jose
September 21–23, 2012
New People Cinema, San Francisco