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Boundless Oceans, Vast Skies: An interview with filmmakers Mabel Cheung and Alex Law

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Court and spark, Tang Wei and Lau Ching-Wan, A Tale Of Three Cities (2014)

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.

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Chef or spy? A Tale Of Three Cities, 2015

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/BA: China!

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.

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Mother’s generation, A Tale Of Three Cities, 2015

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–

ALL: (laughs)

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?”

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Three divas, The Soong Sisters, 1999

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?

MC: Yeah.

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.

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Co-production dos and don’ts, The Soong Sisters, 1999

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.

AL: Right

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!

(all laugh)

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!”

BA/MC: (laughs)

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!

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Hong Kong local, Echoes of the Rainbow, 2010

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.

 

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The future, Ten Years, 2015

 

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?

AL: Right

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?

MC: Yes.

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–

AL: Yeah.

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.

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Alex Law and Mabel Cheung, Crystal Bear Award, Berlin Film Festival, 2010

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.

MC/AL: (laughs)

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?

AL: Yeah.

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

MC/BA: (laughs)

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.

 

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March 25, 2016 at 7:10 pm Leave a comment

This Is How We Do It: Two Thumbs Up at the Hong Kong International Film Festival

Mullet and perm, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Mullet and perm, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Premiering at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival and now in the midst of a successful theatrical run in Hong Kong, Two Thumbs Up (dir. Lau Ho-leung ) is a pleasurable timepass with a slapdash absurdist energy that carries it past its shortcomings. It’s also notable for being the second Hong Kong theatrical release this year starring Francis Ng (after Triumph In The Skies), who has mostly been AWOL in the former Crown Colony as he’s been trolling the more lucrative waters of the mainland China film industry for the past few years.

Two Thumbs Up is a caper film about a bunch of low-end crooks who devise the brilliant plan of rehabbing one of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous red-top mini-buses into a police van and then using it for various larcenous purposes. In particular they aim to intercept a shipment of corpses on the way to the PRC that have illicitly been stuffed with smuggled cash. All goes well until they encounter a second group of crooks with the exact same plan.

Pook gai, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Pook gai, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

This one comes favorably handicapped since it has a number of points that make me predisposed to like it:

  • Stars Francis Ng, which to anyone reading this blog should be patently obvious
  • Also stars Simon Yam, another fan favorite around here
  • Dialog in very vulgar Cantonese
  • Cheap, low-budget digital effects that in no way attempt to represent reality
  • Shot in remote, deserted rural nighttime Hong Kong locations to save money and to avoid the local constabulary
  • Includes hyperlocal references like a Softie ice cream truck
  • Slyly refers to the mainlander infestation of Hong Kong, substituting “cockroaches” for “locusts.” NOTE: This bit has apparently been trimmed from the PRC release in order not to offend mainland audiences and thus cut into any potential profit.
  • Garish and ugly, brightly colored polyester costumes
  • The awesome mullet and perm respectively sported by the usually dapper Francis Ng and Simon Yam
  • Rambling and illogical script that hearkens back to improvised Hong Kong comedies of old
  • Sentimental affection for losers, ex-cons, lowlifes and “scum” (the film’s polite translation for pook gai) who are secretly heroic
  • Cynical sneer of gangster gal, played by Christie Chen, who resembles a low-rent Guey Lun-Mei

The movie is a fairly lightweight bit of entertainment that hits its main thematic point pretty hard and pretty often (hoodlums can be heroes too!) but the delight comes in the sheer fun that the cast seems to be having as they run through their familiar paces. The veteran foursome playing the crooks, including Francis, Simon, Mark Cheng, and Patrick Tam, have great chemistry and almost every early scene with them merrily devolves into very loudly shouted Cantonese expletives. Like The Avengers (except not) they each rock individual and distinctly tacky outfits, highlighted by Francis Ng’s amazing extra-long mullet, green fringed jacket, and cowboy boots. Leo Ku as the serious and dedicated cop who uncovers their scheme is a good foil for the cursing and hamboning of the main cast, as is Philip Keung as the leader of the rival gang of crooks.

Some knowledge of Hong Kong film history also helps grease the viewing experience as the movie is rife with self-referential in-jokes and fan service moments. At one point early on in the film Francis Ng’s character (alternately known as Big F or Lucifer, depending on your translation) shows off his mad bowling skilz the local alley where he and his posse are killing time and plotting their big heist. Francis affects his patented swagga not after offing a rival triad but after successfully bowling a strike, which references his many years of gangsta leans throughout the past 20-odd years of Hong Kong movie history. Likewise it’s fun to see Simon Yam playing against his usual suave and debonair type as a frumpy loser with a bad perm living in a subway tunnel.

Macking, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Macking, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

The main foursome are also particularly amusing the first time they stroll out of the van in their policeman drag, with their non-compliant hairstyles and mack-daddy posture, their hats low over their eyes and thumbs slung into their belt loops belying their attempts to pass as respectable coppers. The veteran actors also make their characters likeable enough that once the crew is separated and in jeopardy the audience is actually invested in the fates of the four of them. These little touches make the movie work and goose up an otherwise pretty silly premise.

Although the movie isn’t without many plot holes, directorial obviousness, and failures in narrative logic, the engaging performances of the cast, supplemented by very silly CGI, editing, and art direction, make for a pleasant and entertaining day at the races. It’s certainly no Infernal Affairs or Hard Boiled but it’s not as horrible as a lot of Hong Kong product these days either, and at this point in time I’ll take what I can get.

April 20, 2015 at 4:45 am 2 comments

Together Again: Triumph In The Skies and the Rebranding of Francis Ng

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Francis checks in, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

The day-and-date release in the U.S. of the movie version Triumph In The Skies (more popularly known as TITS) represents a renaissance of sorts for my boy Francis Ng, who’s enjoying a resurgence of popularity after a bunch of down years. Although probably best known for his straight-up thuggin’ in classic HK gangster movies like Young & Dangerous, The Mission, Exiled, and many many more, Francis has in the past year or so managed to reinvent himself and his public persona as a romantic lead, a family man, and an overall good guy. Ironically, although Francis is mostly a movie king, his rebranding has been based mostly on the popularity of a couple recent television series.

The sequel to the Hong Kong drama on which TITS is based started Francis on his road to recovery back in 2013 as TITS 2 racked up the ratings and online views in both HK and China. Francis reprised his role as Sam Gor, the serious and intense pilot for the fictional HK airline Skylette who moons over his dead wife and hooks up with the young hottie Holiday Ho. As with the original TITS back in 2004, HK audiences (as well as a sizable number of watchers in China) lapped it up and Francis’ popularity, which had mightily declined for a number of reasons (crappy film selection, aging, orneriness, and overall poor career choices) started to rise again.

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Twee couple, Dad, Where Are We Going 2?, 2014

But what really got things going again for Francis was another television series, the Hunan TV reality show Dad, Where Are We Going 2? which aired in 2014 and in which Francis starred with his darling boy Feynman, then five years old. The show features six celebrity dads and their ultra-cute offspring wandering the hinterlands of China and interacting with their country cousins. Due in large part to the otherwordly twee charm of his kid and his strict but loving interactions with said child, Francis made a big impression as a warm-hearted patriarch and counteracted his past rep as both a movie villain and a pain-in-the-ass diva actor. Francis released a film while the show was airing, The House That Never Dies, which was a huge box-office success in China due in no small part to his popularity on DWAWG.

Because of the popularity of TITS2, TVB, in association with Shaw Brothers, MediaAsia and its China-based subgroup China Film Media Asia, and a couple other China-based entities, have thus teamed up to produce a film version of the iconic drama series about Hong Kong flight crews and their various romantic entanglements. But despite bringing back Francis as Sam Gor, as well as Julian Cheung Chilam as Jayden “Captain Cool” Ku, the film doesn’t manage to recreate the melodramatic success of the original 2004 series or its 2013 sequel.

Sammi rocks, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

Sammi rocks, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

To start with, the movie drops the viewer in medias res, which is fine if you know the backstories of the various characters, but is utterly frustrating for those unschooled in the minutiae of the characters or their past television lives. Weirdly enough, while relying on the audience’s assumed knowledge of the show, the movie also eliminates a lot of key narrative elements from the series, including the crucial love triangle between Sam, Jayden, and Holiday (who is gone completely missing in the movie), and in the film Sam and Jayden don’t even appear together. The film’s story consists of three vignettes featuring Sam, Jayden, and newcomer Branson (played by the inexpressive Louis Koo) which don’t interlock in any meaningful way. Aside from one scene, none of the male leads interact with each other, and Jayden seems to be on another continent for the entire film. Each of the vignettes lack any kind of dramatic tension, with almost nothing at stake for the characters, and they resolve in the most predictable ways possible. The film as a whole is missing self-awereness, irony, wit, or anything that might add a bit of an edge to the film, and the three narratives play out like long-form wristwatch adverts, with gratuitous product placements of bottled water, designer chocolates, and jd.com, the Chinese shopping site that miraculously ships within hours from Asia to London.

Amber & Chilam get wet, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

Amber & Chilam get wet, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

The lead actors don’t look too bad for their age (with Francis in his fifties and Chilam and Louis both mid-forties), and Charmaine Sheh and Sammi Cheng as the love interests are feasible and not too mismatched. Amber Kuo as Jayden’s girl-toy appears to be way too young for him, though, and their vignette in particular is pretty cringeful, relying on a remarkably tired plot twist and saddling poor Chilam with horribly clichéd romcom dialog about hearts living in other people’s bodies and the like. Sammi Cheng as a pop star (what?) is cool with her tattooed knuckles and hard-part eyebrow and she and Francis make a pretty pair, but the impetus for their hook-up is completely contrived. As a fangirl I did enjoy the sight of Sam Gor practicing his dance moves, but the question still remains: WHAT HAPPENED TO HIS FORMER GIRLFRIEND? There is also a gratuitous subplot involving a pair of mainland Chinese characters that concludes in the cheesiest way possible and which seems tacked on just so the PRC audience can hear a bit of Putonghua (inexplicably, the actor playing Louis Koo’s father also speaks Mandarin, though Louis Koo’s dialog is strictly in Hong Kong Cantonese).

As usual Francis does his thing, acting with his mouth full of food and with his eyebrows quirked, but honestly he doesn’t have a whole lot to do. There’s also a tiny bit of TITS fan service with Kenneth Ma and Elena Kong reprising their characters from the television drama and Kenneth Ma is anonymously humorous in the twenty seconds that he’s onscreen, but their appearances only underscore the calculated genesis of the film, in which the producers are trying to suck in as many customers as possible.

Pretty vacant, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

Pretty vacant, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

The entire viewing experience is like injesting an extra-large serving of Kraft Cheese Food Sticks, with lens flare, rainbows, designer clothes, and saturated color correction making for a pleasant but ultimately vacuous optical experience. Coming from a straight-up fanperson like myself who really wanted to like this movie, I think that, for all of its interminable schmaltziness, the TVB drama is actually a better product, since at least it had some interesting character conflicts and gave its performers space to emote a bit. The movie version is all hat and no cattle, with beautiful sunsets and ferris wheels and not much else. But the movie was number one at the box office in Hong Kong during the Lunar New Year holiday and made more than 100RMB during the same time period in China, which bodes well for Francis Ng and his rebooted career. He’s currently working on a film with Zhou Xun, he recently wrapped another Chinese romcom, Love Without Distance (directed by Hong Konger Aubrey Lam), and there’s already talk of another film sequel to TITS (noooooo!) Meanwhile, the Chinese film commerce machine rolls on, as TVB is planning to cash in with a movie version of another one of its recent dramas, Line Walker, with Nick Cheung and Lau Ching Wan rumored to star.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a mainstream movie like TITS is so overtly commercial, but being an optimist I always hope that these undertakings might squeeze in a bit of craft and care and maybe even some genuine artistry. No such luck here, but kudos to Francis Ng for riding the wave and coming out on top once again.

February 27, 2015 at 9:58 pm Leave a comment

Spread Your Wings: More airplane movie film festival

Kamal Hasan and ominous pigeons, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Kamal Hasan and bad pigeons, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Another round of international flights, this time on the much more updated Singapore Airlines. Not only does Singapore have a full 1000-plus slate of movies on demand but they have an entire Indian food menu to go with their Chinese and “Western” selections. Since they were out of the chicken mushroom rice noodles by the time they got to my seat, I ordered the chana daal, which came with lime pickle, some outstanding curried vegetables, a rather dry roti, and raita, which beats most U.S. airlines’ food service any day. Alas, they did not have the cup noodles featured on Cathay Pacific flights so my middle-of-the-flight hunger pangs had to be assuaged by a mediocre cold cheese sandwich. But lots of movies on tap!

Andy Lau Tak-Wah beaching it, Switch, 2013

Watch advert or dream sequence? Switch, 2013

Switch

This 2013 release was a sensation in China last year for all the wrong reasons as it was rated one of the worst movies ever on China’s online discussion forums, douban and baidu. The movie paradoxically was also one of the highest grossing films of the year in China, due to very bad word of mouth, and it indeed lives up to its negative hype. Truly unique and fascinatingly bad, it’s an astoundingly shoddy cinematic construction that plays like a bunch of fancy and expensive set pieces only tentatively linked together by a narrative structure. Genial superstar Andy Lau Tak-Wah portrays a super-spy assigned to crack the case of an arcane art heist involving two halves of a lengendary scroll painting. Along the way the film throws in a quartet of girl assassins on roller skates in clear plastic miniskirts, an obligatory psycho Japanese villain, and many gratuitous Andy-lounging-on-the-beach-in-Dubai shots, as well as fancy aerial shots of a car flying through the air dangling from a helicoptor attached to a magnetic grappler, a surfeit of swordfighting, explosives, and incendiaries, and many, many costume changes. The movie is full of technology fetishism at its best, and Andy Lau gets to be a combination of James Bond and a low-rent Tony Stark, complete with transparent floating holographic computer readouts and ridiculous gadgets. With its illogical leaps in time and space, the movie is great if you think of it either as one long dream sequence or as one long Andy Lau watch commercial.

lbh red

LBH does CYF, Red 2, 2013

Red 2 (Lee Byung-Hyun parts only)

Because I was fortunate enough to watch this on a plane I could skip over all but the scenes involving Lee Byung-Hyun, which absolutely elevated my viewing experience. In this one LBH demonstrates his much improved English diction and gets to play out a greatest-hits of Asian male action tropes. In his introductory scene he appears buffed out and naked, back and front, then goes on to assassinate someone with origami while wearing a kimono. Along the way he also brandishes two guns at time in a shootout, displays some high-kicking hung fu, and, in a pretty fun car-chase/shootout, practices a bit of Tokyo-drifting with a gun-toting Helen Mirren. As per usual LBH looks sharp in a tailored suit and holds his own as he grimaces and swaggers with John Malkovich and Bruce Willis. Somehow the audio on my seat-back monitor got switched to Japanese in the last five minutes of the movie so I missed out on all of the banter in the denouement, but I’m sure it was awesome and clever, and it was actually kinda fun seeing Helen Mirren dubbed in Japanese. In my fangirl dreams she and LBH have a thing for each other—spinoff sequel?

english-vinglish-4

Sridevi and flowers, English Vinglish, 2013

English Vinglish

I LOVED THIS MOVIE. The best thing I’ve seen in a long time, English Vinglish is a lovely family dramedy anchored by Sridevi’s charming performance as a woman trying to balance between duty and self-worth. Sridevi is brilliant as a beleagured Mumbai mom and housewife who comes into her own on an overseas trip to New York City by herself. I probably also liked it since the main character is a mother on a long trip away from her family, which, seeing as I was on a long trip away from my family, made me feel all sympathetic and stuff. Also, Sridevi wears some of the most excellent floral-print saris I’ve ever seen.

M_Id_374456_Fukrey

Fun and frolic, Fukrey, 2013

Fukrey

Another winner and another example of the resurgence of commercial Hindi-language cinema (aka Bollywood), Fukrey (“slacker”) is a bit like The Hangover, B’wood-stylee. The plot involves a quartet of Dehli townies who long to attend the local college despite their apparent lack of intellectual gifts. Among those aspiring students are Coocha and Hunny, a pair of cheerful losers who earn their living as dancers in costumed street productions of religious Hindu mythologicals, and who apparently have a foolproof way of predicting winning lottery numbers that involves arcane dream interpretation. Their interplay in particular includes some extremely funny comic moments and the two riff off of each other as deftly as Martin and Lewis. Dreamy musician Zafar is stuck in a rut—three years after graduating college he’s still fruitlessly pursuing his musical aspirations, which causes his sensible and levelheaded girlfriend, who also teaches at said college, no end to angst. Lali works at his dad’s popular restaurant and sweet shop and also aspires to attend the local college, though he currently can only take correspondence courses. Somehow the four protagonists get caught up in an increasingly tangled morass of financial woe, eventually ending up in debt to the tune of 2.5 million rupees to the local drug boss, a toughie named Biphal (the excellent Richa Chadda from Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2) who has “Sinderella” tattooed on the back of her neck. The plot twists and turns ala its spiritual predeccesor, the equally clever and irreverent Delhi Belly, making great use of that city’s crowded, dusty locale to accentuate the characters’ sticky situation. The comedy is deft and skillful and, despite many chances for overdoing it, director Mrighdeep Singh Lamba directs with a fairly understated hand. The characters are somewhat broadly drawn at first but become complex and sympathetic and Lamba has excellent and economic visual storytelling skills—his narrative structure and editing cleverly tie together all of the loose ends of the wide-ranging story. This is the best kind of movie to watch on a long plane flight, with a nice long running time that eats up hours, a fun, lighthearted romp of a story, and amusing and likeable characters. Throw in a few quick episodes of song and dance and you have a winner. Great stuff—

Kamal Hasan does this too, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Kamal Hasan does this too, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Vishwaroopam

An outstanding Tamil-language spy film written and directed by and starring the amazing Kamal Hasan. This is only the second Tamil film I’ve seen (the first having been Puddhupettai, starring the wonderful Danoush,) but it definitely won’t be my last. The film starts off in New York City as an upwardly mobile NRI woman (Pooja Kumar) describes her marital issues to her sympathetic psychologist. Somehow, through a series of complicated and indescribable narrative turns, the film ends up in the middle of an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where the plot takes a lengthy digression. The story then wends its way back to New York to further explicate links between Al-Quada terrorists, uranium, an oncology lab, and radioactive pigeons. A bomb scare and much frenetic action follows. Lead actor and director Hasan, who gets to show off his hand-to-hand martial arts chops as well as his classical Indian dancing skilz, among many other talents, anchors the film with his charismatic performance as the super-spy with a complicated personal life who wryly notes, “I have a lot of emotional baggage.” The movie’s production values are top-notch, the songs by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy are outstanding, and the war scenes pull no punches, with men, women and children blown up, shot, strafed, and otherwise becoming collateral damage in the vicious guerilla fighting. The only weak link is Kumar as the clueless wife—she’s not quite able to pull of her character with much conviction, though admittedly she’s not given a lot of to work with.

Anthony Wong brings it, Ip Man, The Final Fight, 2013

Anthony Wong brings it, Ip Man, The Final Fight, 2013

Ip Man: The Final Fight

I only got to watch the first five minutes of the latest installment in the ongoing Ip Man saga before the in-flight movie system on the plane was shut off. This chapter, directed by stalwart Hong Kong director Herman Lau, chronologically follows the unrelated Donnie Yen pair of Ip Man movies as well as the unrelated Wong Kar-Wai version, The Grandmaster. Yau did direct Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, the prequel starring Dennis To as baby Ip Man, so there might be some thematic continuity there but for the most part the Ips are all running in parallel universes. Since the flight attendants had already confiscated the headphones by the time I started watching the movie it was a silent viewing experience for me, but I did get to see a very nicely staged encounter in which Ip Man challenges an eager young disciple to a battle to knock the grandmaster off of a square of newspaper laid on a kitchen floor. I watched the rest of the movie a few weeks later after I got back home and it didn’t disappoint, as a fun little slice of bygone Hong Kong ala Echoes of the Rainbow. Anthony Wong is great as the middle-aged Ip Man, carrying himself with dignity, grace, and the inimitable Wong Chau-sang swagga. The movie also includes familiar Hong Kong cinema faces including Anita Yuen as Mrs. Ip, Eric Tsang as a rival martial arts master (who has an outstanding duel with Ip Man that’s a marvel of cinematic fight choreography in the way that it makes two non-martial artists look incredibly suave and skilled), and Jordan Chan and Gillian Chung (yes, that Gillian Chung) as a couple of Ip Man’s disciples. In the face of the continued encroachment of China’s commercial film industry on the Hong Kong moviemaking world, it’s nice to see a genuine HK film with actual Cantonese dialogue (albeit with Ip Man and Mrs. Ip feigning broad Foshan accents). Bonus points for Anthony Wong not being afraid to play an old, albeit very cool, dude.

February 2, 2014 at 6:16 am Leave a comment

Glorious Days: Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society

Andy Lau shoots without seeing, Blind Detective, 2012

Andy Lau shoots without seeing, Blind Detective, 2012

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.

Gordon Liu works it, 36th Chamber of Shaolin, 1977

Gordon Liu works it, 36th Chamber of Shaolin, 1977

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.

Andy-Sammi, Blind Detective, 2012

Andy-Sammi, Blind Detective, 2012

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.

Francis-CYF, The Last Tycoon, 2012

Francis-CYF, The Last Tycoon, 2012

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.

Nick-wig-Aaron, Conspirators, 2012

Nick-wig-Aaron, Conspirators, 2012

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–

Hong Kong Cinema

October 4–6, 2013
Vogue Theatre

San Francisco

October 4, 2013 at 10:14 pm Leave a comment

Life Like A Song: Triumph In The Skies 2 drama review

triumph F&F

Fala and Francis, reclining, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

I almost never watch American television, though I occasionally look at reality shows like Project Runway or Chopped when my daughters are streaming it on my computer, but I really can’t remember the last time I watched a U.S. drama on a regular basis. I have a hard time paying attention to anything more than 90 minutes long unless it includes singing and dancing in Hindi, so investing weeks and weeks in a TV show, no matter how good, is just too much commitment for me. Also, as an unreconstructed experimental film geek I’m very visually oriented, so I prefer my media to be less dialog and character-driven than is most television.

I’m not one for Asian dramas, either—again, the weeks and weeks of watching are just too much for me to do, and I find plastic surgery and eyeliner on boys a little distracting. That said, this past year I’ve watched two Asian dramas, but only because they starred two of my favorite actors, Lee Byung-Hun and Francis Ng. Last spring I watched IRIS (아이리스, 2009), the South Korean espionage thriller that stars the insanely hot Lee Byung-Hun as a special ops agent involved in various crazy political plots. Although much of the story strains credulity, LBH is quite good in it and the ample explosions, gunfights, assassinations, betrayals, and love triangles keep the show movie along briskly. I felt like I’d eaten too much deep-fried food after sitting through its 40+ episodes but it was fun to spend all that time watching LBH do his thing.

Francis Ng, Ron Ng, Myolie Wu, aligned, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Ron Ng, Francis Ng, Myolie Wu, aligned, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

More recently, I’ve been wallowing in Triumph In The Skies 2, the sequel to the hit Hong Kong drama that aired in 2003 on TVB that followed the lives and romances of a clutch of HK airline pilots. I watched TITS 1 on DVD long after it first came out, but with the advent of online streaming I’ve been able to see episodes of TITS 2 with English subtitles on a day-and-date schedule with its airing in Hong Kong. Like its prequel, the series has been quite a sensation since its premiere at the beginning of August, drawing high ratings and inspiring a wave of pilot-mania among Hong Kong’s citizenry. It was great to be able to watch Francis Ng as the lead character, Sam Tong, an upstanding and heroic airline pilot who is a much beloved character in Hong Kong. The show is nowhere near as hyperkinetic as IRIS, depending on romantic entanglements and other interpersonal relationships for its dramatic tension, but Francis, along with co-star Julian Cheng Chilam, made the show watchable. A bonus to watching it online is that I could fast-forward through the extraneous side-stories and go straight to the Francis plotlines. The drama is no great shakes and in fact is pretty mundane, with vast swaths of filler focusing on minor characters, flagrant product placement, and way too many subplots that are transparently designed to showcase TVB’s up-and-coming starlets. But TITS is one of TVB’s premium franchises and the station threw a lot of money at it, by Hong Kong television standards. There are many cute young guys looking suave in cadet pilot uniforms, including the sweet and dreamy Him Law, nice scenery in London, Taiwan, and Paris, and upscale Hong Kong characters with huge fantasy apartments and luxury cars.

Ingenues, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Ingenues, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

However, although it was a high-end, much-hyped TVB series, the drama exhibited sloppy plotting and dialog, pacing and editing problems, sketchy and uneven acting, and way too many extraneous characters and storylines. There were huge, illogical jumps in the timeline (to accommodate a pregnant character) and one of the main characters, Captain Jayden Koo (Julian Cheung Chilam) inexplicably disappeared from the narrative for many episodes. Of course television dramas are built around people behaving stupidly and making poor life decisions and this show is no different, with characters displaying irritating obstinacy, irrational stubbornness, and poor communication skills, and making bad, impulsive decisions. I suppose their dramatic idiocy is meant to make the viewer feel better about their own lives, but there’s a limit to how much illogical behavior is plausible. TITS 2 also suffered by comparison to TITS 1. If a love triangle or two worked in TITS 1, why not three or four in TITS 2? How about a weirdly obsessive, terminally ill ingénue chasing after a reluctant mate? TITS 1 had the deliciously agonizing dilemma of Francis Ng’s character, Sam Tong, in love with his best friend’s wife, so that the love triangle was truly triangular, with the relationship between all three characters holding significance. In TITS 2, the Sam/Jayden/Holiday triangle had much less piquancy because there was no deep relationship between Sam and Jayden, unlike Sam and Vincent’s friendship in the original series. It didn’t help that Fala Chen’s acting as Holiday, the fulcrum of the love triangle, was wildly inconsistent, though by the end of the series she had settled down a bit.

Francis emotes, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Francis emotes, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

For me, the main draw of course was Francis Ng, and he didn’t disappoint. Although TITS 2 was by no means high art (or even competent storytelling), as an opportunity to watch hours of Francis Ng every night for six weeks it was a quite a lovely indulgence and despite the drama’s general silliness, Francis absolutely killed in this show. Francis is an outstanding big-screen actor but he’s also an excellent small-screen actor, due to his mobile and subtly expressive face and his huge repertoire of physical expressions. The way he stands, the position of his arms, and his confident rolling swagger when he’s walking around the airport in his pilot drag like he owns the place all add up to a very satisfying viewing experience. His character was by turns depressed, repressed, anal retentive, or controlling, but Francis managed to make him sympathetic with just a well-placed flick of his eyebrows or a meaningful sigh, and he is the king of the single tear sliding down the cheek. In one scene, where he recalls his remorse at disappointing Zoe, his late wife, the range of emotions crossing his face was pretty amazing, demonstrating his impeccable mastery of non-verbal acting. Francis also gets bonus points for flaunting an array of beautifully cut Vivianne Westwood menswear (including a $250 hoodie with hand-painted stars on the sleeves and a gorgeous black velvet tux with a satin shawl collar) and looking ridiculously fit and charming for a man in his early fifties. Depending on the lighting and the skill of the makeup artists, Francis alternately looked pretty good for his age or like a star somewhat past his sell date. Some netizens were less than kind about Francis’ fifty-plus years, and it didn’t help that his main love interest was a woman in her early thirties, which often accentuated Francis’ age to his detriment. But the man can wear a tailored suit like nobody’s business and his signature “airplane head” pompadour was impeccably groomed throughout the entire series—there was literally not a hair out of place and the sculpted fade of his sideburns was immaculately trimmed to the exact same length for the entire show. Way to go, continuity department!

Julian Cheung Chilam, windblown, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Julian Cheung Chilam, windblown, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Julian Cheung’s new character, Jayden Koo, instantly became a fan favorite in the sequel, though to me the character was a narcissistic bore who thought he was the schiznit. In the first few eps Jayden’s popularity far outstripped that of Sam Tong, making the proposed Sam/Jayden/Holiday love triangle a non-starter. In order to appease the disgruntled Sam/Zoe shippers and to level the playing field for Sam vs. Jayden, Julian Cheung’s part was ruthlessly trimmed down in the middle episodes of the series and Francis and Fala’s budding romance instead took center stage. When Jayden finally reappeared some weeks down the line, after the show’s editing had tilted the audience in F&F’s favor, he seemed more like an obsessive stalker than a viable love interest. My conspiracy theory is that the producers realized that the audience wasn’t down with Francis + Fala and had to fatten up their relationship in order to make the love triangle plausible, at the expense of Julian Cheung’s screentime. That and the fact that the show’s ending had been spoiled even before the series aired took a lot of the dramatic tension out of the storyline. Through the magic of google chrome’s instantaneous (if garbled) web translations, it was also fun to follow the media frenzy in Hong Kong as the show aired. Apparently Sam/Zoe is one of the most revered pairings in TVB history and the way that Zoe was ruthlessly killed off between TITS 1 and TITS 2 (appearing only in flashbacks in TITS 2) really rankled the viewership. After the Sam/Zoe storyline was resolved in episode 23 some viewers swore off the show, though their defections didn’t seem to affect the ratings as TITS 2 ended up the highest rated show of the year as well as racking up many hundreds of millions of online views in Hong Kong and China.

Perfect fade, Francis Ng, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Perfect fade, Francis Ng, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

It was also pretty humorous to observe the stars’ various spats with each other via the media. Early press reports stated that Francis Ng and Fala Chen didn’t get along, but as the series progressed the purported tensions were denied, with Fala Chen at one point claiming “(Francis) just looks really fierce because when he furrows his brow, he looks very serious.” It was also funny to note is that many online commentators had very little sense of Francis Ng’s work outside of Hong Kong television, apparently not realizing the fact that he’s won several Best Actor awards for his film work, or that he’s known outside of Hong Kong primarily for playing badass gangsters, not lovelorn pilots, or that, as he says, “the majority of my fans have tattoos.” Despite all of its shortcomings the drama was a huge hit, with excellent broadcast ratings in Hong Kong. There’s talk of a feature film version of the show and all involved are scrambling to capitalize on its popularity. Julian Cheung has taken advantage of his increased profile by changing agents, recording a cover of the theme song from the original series, and buying a new Mercedes. Francis Ng has inexplicably signed an agreement to produce a cooking show for TVB. And Fala Chen is being touted by Eric Tsang as “the new Maggie Cheung,” although she has none of Cheung Man-yuk acting skills, charisma, or talent. Considering how meteorically fortunes can rise and fall in Hong Kong show biz, it will be interesting to see the lasting effects, if any, of the recent success of TITS 2. Related Francis Ng news: It was just announced that Francis Ng is attached to Sha Po Lang 2, the sequel to the 2005 Wilson Yip-directed Donnie Yen action/MMA film revered by many Hong Kong movie fanboys. Yip had wanted Francis to star in the original SPL (the part eventually went to Simon Yam) but scheduling conflicts prevented this happening, so it’s great that Francis will be joining the cast for this one. This installment will be directed by Soi Cheang (Motorway; Accident), who most recently worked with Francis on the film adaptation of the the ultraviolent Japanese manga Shamo (2007).  It will be nice to see Francis in a real Hong Kong crime film once again, as opposed to the soapy melodrama of TITS or the dreadful mainland shlock he’s been putting out lately. Can’t wait–

UPDATE: Although google is mangling the translation of this article, I think that it says that Francis Ng, Chilam Cheung, and Louis Koo are now confirmed for the movie version of the drama and that, due to her clashes with Francis and other cast members as well as her Marilyn Monroe-esque behavior on set (i.e., being late and not knowing her lines), Fala Chen has been dumped from said movie and replaced by Taiwanese star Lin Chi-Ling. What’s more interesting is that Benny Chan is now attached to direct and that the film supposedly will be an “action” movie. Chan is fresh from one of the top-grossing Hong Kong films of last year, The White Storm, which was a manly crime film starring Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Nick Cheung. Having just watched Big Bullet again recently, I can only hope that news of Chan’s involvement is true and that the brave and handsome flight crew will face terrorists, bombs, and mayhem on the streets and in the skies of Hong Kong. I’d pay to see that–

UPDATE 2: After many casting and directing changes the movie version of Triumph In The Skies is about to be released, just in time for the Chinese New Year’s holiday on Feb. 20, 2015 with a day-and-date release in North America. The publicity machine has been in full force and the film is one of the favorites in the New Year’s slate, although it’s going up against a new Sandra Ng sex comedy, 12 Golden Ducks, and Chow Yun-Fat’s latest gambling movie, From Vegas To Macau 2, which also stars A-listers Nick Cheung, Carina Lau, and Shawn Yue. The new TITS movie, directed by Matt Chow and Wilson Yip, focuses on romance and relationships, as well as nice scenery and tailored clothes, with Francis Ng paired with Sammi Cheng, Louis Koo paired with Charmaine Sheh, and Chilam Cheung paired with Amber Kuo. Could be great, could be sucky, but I’m watching it either way.

September 14, 2013 at 5:47 am 3 comments

Lovesexy: Vulgaria film review

DaDa Chen gives it her all, Vulgaria, 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.

Ronald Cheng in sequins, Vulgaria, 2012

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.

Chapman To, Simon Lui and mules prepare to meet their fate, Vulgaria, 2012

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!

Vulgaria

opens Sept. 28

AMC Metreon 16

101 Fourth Street

San Francisco, CA

September 28, 2012 at 6:24 am 3 comments

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