Posts tagged ‘chow yun-fat’

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

A God And A King: Chow Yun-Fat and Shah Rukh Khan

Chow Yun-Fat sparks it up, A Better Tomorrow, 1986

Chow Yun-Fat sparks it up, A Better Tomorrow, 1986

After viewing Rab Ne Bana Di Jodi, my first Shah Rukh Khan film, at this year’s San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival, I’ve been happily watching as many of his films as I can get my hands on. Since I’ve been living under a rock since my first daughter was born in 2000 I’d never had the pleasure of viewing one of Khan’s movies, though I’d heard of him before. His dominance in the Hindi-language film market reminds me of the heyday of Chow Yun-Fat, another flamboyant and charismatic actor who in his prime ruled supreme over his film industry and who in the 1980s and 90s was the undisputed lord of Chinese-language cinema. However, Shah Rukh Khan’s fate may be very different than Chow’s, as he’s so far chosen a different career trajectory than his suave Chinese counterpart.

The King of Bollywood looking suave, 2009

King Khan looking suave, 2009

Khan, also know as SRK or King Khan to his fans, is the reigning monarch of Bollywood, India’s Hindi-language commercial film business that turns out movie musical extravaganzas by the hundreds every year and that’s one of the biggest film industries in the world. Khan is by nature an exuberant, flashy actor who’s also able to turn in more subtle performances as befits the role he’s playing. Like most Bollywood stars he’s also an excellent dancer and he’s got great comic timing as well. Not to mention dramatically arched eyebrows, dimples to die for and a recently buffed-out bod featuring a killer six-pack. Shah Rukh Khan’s first name literally translates as “face of the king” so it’s fitting that he’s the top actor in Bollywood. The 43-year-old performer has appeared in over sixty films since breaking into the scene in 1992, including Dilwale Dulhania Le Jayenge, which has been running continuously in Mumbai theaters for a record-breaking 700 weeks since its release in 1995. Khan’s won seven Filmfare Best Actor statues as well as many other Indian film awards and his name is a virtual guarantee of box-office success throughout the subcontinent and beyond.

CYF in his prime, The Killer, 1987

CYF in his prime, The Killer, 1989

Similarly, from 1976-1995 Chow Yun-Fat appeared in more than 70 films in his native territory of Hong Kong and he was the standard-bearer for the heyday of Hong Kong cinema in the 1980s and 90s. His easy charm and screen presence, graceful athleticism and overall hotness garnered him huge critical and popular acclaim in classics like A Better Tomorrow, Hard-Boiled, and The Killer (all directed by John Woo), as well as City On Fire, Prison On Fire, and Full Contact (Ringo Lam), God of Gamblers and God of Gamblers Returns (Wong Jing), and An Autumn’s Tale (Mabel Cheung) and All About Ah-Long (Johnnie To). He was nominated ten times for Best Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards, with three wins, for A Better Tomorrow (1986), City On Fire (1987), and All About Ah-Long (1989). Like Shah Rukh Khan, his name on the bill meant surefire ticket sales, not only in Hong Kong but throughout most of Asia. At that time the native film industries of Korea, Thailand, Vietnam and other Asian territories had not yet fully developed and audiences depended on Hong Kong imports for much of their cinematic fare. Chow was Asia’s biggest movie star and was commonly known as the “God of Actors.”

Thai Chow, Anna and the King, 1999

Thai Chow, Anna and the King, 1999

In 1997, Chow decided to try his luck in Hollywood, hoping to parlay his huge popularity in Asia into a successful career in the West. Things initially looked promising, with the Los Angeles Times declaring him “the coolest actor in the world,” before he had even appeared in a Hollywood movie. But his first U.S. films, including The Replacement Killers, The Corruptor, and Anna and the King, were less than successful and since then the roles he’s gotten have been a mixed bag. Hollywood has never really figured out what to do with Chow, as evidenced by his relatively paltry output of only nine movies in the twelve years since his trek across the Pacific (compared to his starring in ten films in Hong Kong in both 1986 and 1987 each). He’s been in a few successful films, including Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but his highest-grossing Hollywood film to date has been Pirates Of The Caribbean: At World’s End, where he played a sinister Fu Manchu-type character that was such a stereotypical caricature that the Chinese government trimmed ten minutes of his performance “for vilifying and defacing the Chinese” before allowing the film to screen in China.

Chow Hawai'ian, Dragonball: Evolution, 2009

Chow Hawai'ian, Dragonball: Evolution, 2009

CYF’s most recent film, Dragonball: Evolution, is a supporting, Mr. Miyagi-type role that’s a far cry from the towering heroes of his prime. Chow is obviously cognizant of his disappointing travails in Hollywood. In a recent tour of Asia in support of Dragonball: Evolution, he noted, “American audiences know only Chinese kung-fu movies and nothing else about us, and I am not a kung-fu actor. We (Asian actors) don’t get any non-kung-fu or non-gangster/fighting offers. We only get Asian-specific roles. They don’t offer anything non-ethnic to us, not like they would do for Denzel Washington or Will Smith.”  Chow has recently returned to Hong Kong cinema, appearing in Ann Hui’s The Postmodern Life of My Aunt (2006). His next role is the lead in the Chinese biopic of Confucius, the seminal Chinese philosopher and scholar, which began shooting this week.

Buff, toned and cut Shah Rukh Khan, Om Shanti Om, 2008

Buff, toned and cut Shah Rukh Khan, Om Shanti Om, 2008

At 43 years old Shah Rukh Khan is now about the same age as was Chow Yun-Fat when he left Hong Kong in 1997 to try to conquer Hollywood. Khan is at the top of his game both as an actor and as a producer, with his Red Chillies Entertainment putting out hit movies like 2008’s Om Shanti Om, which is the second-highest grossing Bollywood film of all time. In 2008 Newsweek named him one of the 50 most influential people in the world (Barack Obama topped the list).

With his fluent English and charisma to burn it might seem like SRK could be a crossover performer, yet when asked if he’s likely to try his hand breaking into Hollywood, Khan is philosophical, noting, “It’s not like Steven Spielberg is waiting with a script for me. I don’t think I’ll ever be offered a great international film in my lifetime, so I’d rather be a king here.”  However, SRK fans spotted him paired as a presenter with Slumdog Millionaire star Freida Pinto at the last Golden Globe Awards and in front of an international television audience he came off like a champ.

Khan may also be approaching Hollywood from a different angle, as a mogul rather than as a performer. At one point there were reports that Walt Disney Productions planned to invest $30 million in Khan’s Red Chillies production house. This might ultimately give him more creative control over any roles he might take in Hollywood, since money talks in Tinseltown.

I can’t help but think that SRK has learned something by observing Chow Yun-Fat’s frustrating attempts to break into the top ranks of Hollywood. Other Hong Kong actors also seem to have been watching Chow’s painful efforts and are either approaching Hollywood with caution or are sidestepping it altogether. Comedy superstar Stephen Chow Sing-Chi so far has simply re-packaged his HK product for the U.S. market (Shaolin Soccer; Kung Fu Hustle), though at one point he was slated to star in and direct the big-screen version of The Green Hornet. Instead of braving Hollywood, Francis Ng has polished up his Mandarin and is mostly taking roles in Mainland China productions. And the numbers of Asian American actors who have had to flee from the U.S. to Asia to find success are legion, including Daniel Wu, Daniel Henney, and of course Bruce Lee. Although times are changing and Slumdog Millionaire won Oscar’s Best Picture this year, roles for Asian lead actors are still non-existent in Hollywood (sorry, John Cho). If Chow Yun-Fat, God of Actors, with his mind-blowing charisma, talent, and good looks, has had to struggle to make it in the U.S. and is relegated to crappy films like Bulletproof Monk, why should lesser mortals expect any better?

NOTE: Thanks to my colleague Marlon Hom for the Chow Yun-Fat interview translation.

UPDATE: Rumor alert! I just heard that Chow Yun-Fat is possibly slated to portray Sun Yat-Sen in the new Peter Chan-produced HK blockbuster, Bodyguards & Assassins. No link yet–will update when confirmed.

UPDATE 2: Alas, rumors about CYF playing Sun Yat-Sen were inaccurate. He decided to take the part in Confucius instead. Though I’m sure he would’ve been great as both Chinese icons. Now Leon Lai Ming is rumored to be Sun Yat-Sen, which would probably suck, since Lai Ming is boring, can’t act and has no charisma. But he’s tall, so maybe that’s all that matters.

UPDATE 3: Maybe SRK is heeding Hollywood’s siren song after all. Reports state that he’s angling to meet “serious” film director Deepa Mehta in hopes of landing a role in one of her arthouse flicks, the better to possibly attract the attention of Oscar voters in the near future. If this is indeed true, let’s hope that King Khan fares better than CYF in his dalliance with Hollywood.

UPDATE 4: Go here to read about my night with Shah Rukh Khan, as an extra on his latest film, My Name Is Khan.

Here are a couple Shah Rukh Khan musical numbers for your viewing pleasure.

Dard E Disco (Pain of Disco), from Om Shanti Om:

Suraj Hua Maddham, from Kabhi Kushi Kabhie Gham, with Kajol:

April 1, 2009 at 5:39 am 25 comments


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