Archive for October, 2013
So I got on the plane from Frankfurt to SFO on Sunday and I was horrified to discover that there were no back-of-the-seat individual video screens on the flight. I could not remember the last time I was on a flight longer than an hour without personal video service and since I was staring an 11-hour transatlantic flight in the face, I was pretty pissed off at myself for booking on United Airlines, which is apparently so impoverished that it can’t afford to upgrade its fleet to 21st century standards. That bit of first-world bitching aside, I started to think about the many films I’ve seen lately on those tiny little embedded monitors, so herewith follows the first in an irregularly scheduled series of reviews from the airplane movie film festival. All details from a haze of jet lag, leg cramps, and crappy airplane food.
The Great Gatsby: a fun and spectacular adaptation of F. Scott Fitzgerald’s classic book, this one by the reliably lurid Baz Lurhmann, who transformed the book into a video game complete with swooping camerawork, hiphop, and Leo DeCaprio brooding as the titular character. Toby Maguire not in a spidey-suit is good as Nick Carraway, the Jazz Age babe in the woods. Another little surprise was Bollywood legend Amitabh Bachchan in a small role as a Jewish bootlegger (since apparently Indian is the new Oriental). I haven’t read Fitzgerald’s book (what?) and I have no allegiance to its plot particulars so I enjoyed the movie as a standalone piece, with the Jay-Z soundtrack and anachronistic mylar party streamers adding to the shiny fun.
The Silent War: Tony Leung Chiu-wai as a blind guy helping the military crack codes in 1949 China. I either missed the plot point or it was never clarified as to whether Tony was helping out the Communists or the Nationalists, and I missed the last twenty minutes of the movie due to starting the film too late (a recurring error on my part), but the art direction was pretty authentically period and Tony and Zhou Xun, who plays a sleek Chinese spy, both acquit themselves pretty well. My movie-viewing experience probably suffered from seeing the film on a tiny digital screen, so if I get the chance I’ll watch it again to get the full effect of the nice cinematography and slick 1940s costume design, since I love the look of peplum skirts, finger rolls, and tweed coats.
Star Trek: Into Darkness. A dumb and dreadful followup to the excellent Star Trek reboot from a few years back that features a very Anglo Benedict Cumberbatch as Khan, which is weird since the character was memorably portrayed in previous incarnations by Mexico-born Spaniard Ricardo Montalban. Cumberbatch is properly menacing and he bellows in his best Shakespearean actor mode, but since Montalban’s archetypal Khan is permanently etched in my brain, Benny’s blue peepers and pale skin threw me off. Zachary Quinto continues his excellent vocal mimicry of Leonard Nimoy (who gets a brief cameo, looking very aged) and Chris Pine grimaces as young Captain Kirk. British actress Alice Eve is good as Dr. Carol Wallace, but her character’s braininess doesn’t preclude her a fan-service scene in her underwear. As a busty blonde she also has a passing resemblance to her TOS predecessor, Yeoman Janice Rand, which means that she & Capt. Kirk will probably get busy some time in future installments. Zoe Saltana as Lt. Uhura mostly exists to be the emotional proxy for the stoic manly men in the movie since every time a crisis comes up the movie cuts to her looking shocked or sad.
Iron Man 3: another film viewing tragically cut short due to my inept movie-watching time management. Robert Downey Jr. swaggers and smirks and Gwyneth Paltrow takes up space, and I suspect one’s enjoyment of the film is directly related to how much you like RDJ’s schtick. He’s a really good actor but I’m having trouble remembering the last non-Iron Man movie I’ve seen him in lately (Zodiac? Sherlock Holmes?). I wanted to see the end of the movie to find out more about The Mandarin, the neo-Orientalist character here presented as a middle eastern/western Asian character by half-desi actor Ben Kingsley. But alas my seatback screen went haywire halfway into the movie and I couldn’t get it to work in time to watch the whole thing. So I took a nap instead.
A Werewolf Boy: a charming little South Korean fable about a girl and her lycanthrope, here played with shaggy-haired K-pop charm by Song Joong-ki. This movie was one of the top grossing films in S. Korea last year so, although teen romances aren’t usually my thing, I wanted to check it out to get a sense of the South Korean pop culture gestalt. Although it’s supposed to be set “forty years ago,” around the 1970s, there were some glaring anachronisms in the art direction and costuming, but despite its shoddy mise-en-scene the movie was a fun little timepass. This is the second wolf-girl teen romance movie from Asia that I’ve seen recently, the other being Mamoru Hosoda’s animated movie Wolf Children, so I’m thinking—are werewolves the new vampires? Or if I want to put a cultural studies frame around it, what do the popularity of these films say about the ongoing transnational hybridity of Asian identities? Sorry, been writing a lot of academic proposals lately so my mind is locked in theoryspeak.
This year’s edition of Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society is chock full of star power, with new movies from some of the biggest movie kings and queens in Hong Kong. The opening night film, Bends, starring the glorious Carina Lau as a wealthy woman and the beautiful Aloys Chen Kun as her driver, looks at class divisions in contemporary Hong Kong. Cantopop also shows up in the festival, with Sky King Jacky Cheung appearing in A Complicated Story, and singing groups Grasshopper and Softhard featured in the documentary The Great War: Director’s Cut.
The festival also features a mini-retrospective of work by the late Lau Kar-Leung, the legendary martial arts director who died earlier this year, with rare big-screen presentations of 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977) and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), both starring the great Gordon Liu.
Also on tap is Johnnie To’s Blind Detective, starring another Sky King, Andy Lau, and his rom-com soulmate Sammi Cheng, together on screen for the first time since 2004’s Yesterday Once More. The premise is similar to To’s earlier film Mad Detective, in which the main character, here with the added characteristic of vision impairment, re-enacts past crime scenes in order to glean clues about the crime. The sight-challenged detective, played by Andy Lau, teams up with Ho (Sammi Cheng), a cop searching for a missing childhood friend.
The movie will probably be a rude shock for anyone expecting a Johnnie To movie like, say, Drug War or Exiled, as it’s pretty much a slapstick comedy with a few action elements sprinkled in. The film definitely leans toward the comic as the cast performs at a fever pitch, mugging and shouting at each other at the top of their lungs—at one point you can actually see the spittle flying from Sammi’s mouth as she bellows away. It’s a crazy farce that probably isn’t for everyone, but I had a great time watching Andy and Sammi go at it in the best screwball comedy tradition. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and a wacky good time is had by all, with the genial Andy Lau not afraid to look like an idiot talking with his mouth full and director To framing his stars against huge adverts for tea cakes.
Quite a few of To’s most deadly serious gangster flicks still have little timeouts for a spot of off-kilter humor, such as Nick Cheung eating a porcelain spoon in Election, or badass bodyguards playing paper-ball football in The Mission, or Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Lam Suet, and Roy Cheung in Exiled fixing up Nick Cheung’s shot-up flat like the triad edition of This Old House, and some of To’s movies, like Too Many Ways to Be Number One or Mad Detective, are one big comic goof. It’s one of the little quirky things that make Milkyway Image films so fun and such a departure from your standard crime movie, since they ride the spectrum from brutal violence to comic relief so rapidly and unexpectedly. So it’s not surprising to find To indulging in his zany side in Blind Detective. It’s a pretty silly movie and there’s a lot of extraneous nonsense, but it’s great to see Andy and Sammi, co-stars of seminal Milkyway rom-coms like Needing You and Love On A Diet, together again and playing off of each other comfortably and naturally. Even if Blind Detective isn’t as brilliantly bleak as Drug War or Election, the movie is confidently executed since, not unlike the titular hero, To can make these movies with his eyes closed.
More Hong Kong movie royalty make an appearance in The Last Tycoon, starring the legendary trio of Chow Yun-Fat, Sammo Hung, and Francis Ng, along with mainland star Huang Xioaming. The movie is a remake of The Bund, the 1980s Hong Kong drama that made CYF a household name as a righteous gangster rising through the ranks in 1930s Shanghai. The series was remade a few years ago with HXM in the same role that CYF played back in the day and, in a bit a stunt casting, in The Last Tycoon they reprise that role, with HXM playing the younger version and CYF the older version. The two also swapped dubbing chores for each other, with HXM voicing the character in the Mandarin dub and CYF working the Cantonese dub.
The film also features CYF and Francis Ng on the big screen together for the first time, despite both having long and storied careers in the Hong Kong film industry. Both performers rely heavily on body language and facial expressions in their acting technique, with Chow the king of the sorrowful gaze who lets his evocative eyes tell the story. Chow’s held up remarkably well for a man in his late fifties and now possesses the regal bearing suitable for this role. He’s also still quite handsome so it was entirely plausible that he would be a babe magnet involved in a love triangle with Monica Mok and Yolanda Yuen.
Francis Ng’s character isn’t a stretch for him as it’s his typical sinister bad guy role, but through his gestures and mannerisms he imbues the character with menace and unctuousness, and the intensity of his posture and the threatening way he smokes a cigarette attest to his skill and talent in bringing to life even the most banal character. Sammo Hung swaggers through the film as a corrupt cop but alas doesn’t get to show off much of his martial arts chops, but the real gangsta role goes to Hu Gao as CYF’s no-nonsense, butterfly-knife wielding bodyguard. The movie has an expensive look and feel to it (producer Andrew Lau may have also had a hand in the gorgeous cinematography) but director Wong Jing doesn’t quite have enough of a handle on the pacing or action to make the movie really move. With all that on-screen talent the movie should’ve been a knockout, but it’s more of an expensive misfire.
The festival closes with two more big-time Hong Kong movie stars, Nick Cheung and the third out of four Sky Kings, Aaron Kwok (what, no Leon Lai?) in Conspirators, but I can’t really recommend this Oxide Pang-directed thriller. The movie follow Kwok as a traumatized detective searching for clues to his parent’s murder some thirty years prior who hires a private eye (Cheung) to assist him. Set in Malaysia, the movie feels like a cheap 1970s Asian action film, and not in a good way. Nick Cheung is solid as Zheng, the Malaysian private eye, but due to an extraneous twin brother plot device he’s burdened with a bad wig for most of the movie. Despite the fact that he proved he could act in After This Our Exile, Aaron Kwok doesn’t add a lot of life to his characterization of Tam, the detective with a past. Oxide Pang’s direction mixes cheesy, uncompelling fight scenes (Zheng knows kung fu!), implausible and opaque plot points, and filtered lighting that’s supposed to add grit and texture to the film but mostly makes it look like it was shot on the cheap in a back lot in Kuala Lumpur, which it probably was.
I’m out of town this weekend so I’ll sadly miss all that heavenly big screen Hong Kong movie glory. No one else has any excuse–
October 4–6, 2013