Posts tagged ‘johnnie to’

Hot, Cool & Vicious: Favorite movies, 2016

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Learning to breathe, Moonlight, 2016

Before we get too deep into 2017 here’s a baker’s dozen of some of my most memorable cinematic viewing experiences from last year. My only requirement for this list is that the film had to be seen on the big screen, whether in a regular theatrical run or in a film festival. Though I spent a lot of time last year consuming media online and on DVD those viewings don’t count for this list. There is in no particular order except MOONLIGHT is number one.

1. Moonlight: Barry Jenkins’ masterful, virtuoso film has so many strong points that I could (and probably will) write an entire essay about it, but here I’ll just mention one thing. Jenkins knows exactly when to have his characters speak and when to keep them silent, enacting a complex choreography between dialog and subtext that emphasizes the film’s theme of the performativity of gender, identity, and masculinity.

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Posse, The Mermaid, 2016

2. The Mermaid: Stephen Chow Sing-Chi returns to slay the Asia box office with this incredibly loopy cinematic manifestation from the inside of his one-of-a-kind brain. In Hong Kong in the 1990s no one made comedies like Stephen Chow and it’s good to see he’s successfully crossed over to the greater Chinese film industry. Chow continues to combine a uniquely twisted worldview, a highly refined cinematic eye, lowbrow humor, a beautiful visual sense, cynicism and romanticism, maniacal wordplay, slapstick, random violence, and gross-out humor in a way that no other filmmaker can match.

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Fleeing, Train To Busan, 2016

3. Train To Busan: Although ostensibly a zombie apocolypse flick, Yeon Sang-Ho’s film is also a melodrama, teen romance, road movie, and critique of capitalism all rolled into one thrilling ride. Gong Yoo anchors the film with his sensitive and vulnerable performance as a man caught up in a madness far beyond his imagining and control

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Meta, Three, 2016

4. Three: Johnnie To’s yearly masterpiece, which dissects the Hong Kong crime film vis a vis the hospital movie. Every shot and every scene is a meta commentary on its genre forerunners.

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Despairing, Old Stone, 2016

5. Old Stone: Johnny Ma’s indie film is a scathing attack on the hypocrisy and idiocy of China’s Kafka-esque judicial system as it depicts one man’s attempt to escape a spiraling set of circumstances that threaten to ruin his life.
Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Real, The Lockpicker, 2016

6. The Lockpicker: Randall Okita’s bleak & angsty drama looks at a teenager dealing with loss, alienation, and anomie in snowy Toronto. The film is a very slow burn that pays off in the end. The casual cruelty of high school students rings very true and as a parent of a teen I found this movie to be terrifying. Led by a very strong performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang, despite some confusing narrative moments the film sustains its tone of dread and anxiety throughout. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Yellow, Anti-Porno, 2016

7. Anti-Porno: Sion Sono’s playful and sexy pranking of Nikkatsu Studios’ Roman Porno films is made especially meaningful since it was produced by Nikkatsu itself. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Doppelganger, Fan ,2016

8. Fan: Shah Rukh Khan, the Badshaah of Bollywood himself, leads this twisted, meta examination of stardom and fandom, playing a dual role as both the adored and the adorer in a dysfunctional symbiotic relationship between a movie actor and his biggest fan. SRK is fearless in this film, exposing more warts than many other superstars might be willing to reveal. Director Maneesh Sharma delves into the darker side of fame, with the full support of his willing star.

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Masculinities, The Magnificent Seven, 2016

9. The Magnificent Seven: Antoine Fuqua directs a deeply subversive and radical film disguised as a Hollywood action movie. This joint shows that the subaltern can speak as well as shoot a gun. Bonus points for looking at alternate expressions of masculinity, male bonding, and homosocial love.

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Histories, United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1), 2016

10. United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1): Naeem Mohaiemen’s experimental documentary deconstructs the audio recordings of the conversations between members of Japan’s militant revolutionary Red Army and Bangladeshi government negotiators after the group landed a hijacked plane at Dhaka in 1977, adding in Mohaiemen’s own wry recollections of the event that he witnessed as a child via television broadcasts. Viewed at the 2016 Third Eye South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco.

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Writing, Mele Murals, 2016

11. Mele Murals: In this documentary about Native Hawai’ian mural artists Tadashi Nakamura creates a thoughtful rumination on giving up selfhood in order to serve community, art, and culture. Viewed at the 2016 CAAMfest in San Francisco

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Charming, At Cafe 6, 2016

12. At Café 6: In yet another highly satisfying entry in Taiwan’s teen melodrama genre, director Neal Wu draws out excellent performances from his young cast. Though it doesn’t stray far from its genre conventions it hits all the right notes with subtlety and emotion, effectively looking at friendship, fate, love, and loss. After spending way too much time looking at the surgically enhanced beauty of so many K-drama stars it’s nice to see Cherry Ngan’s snaggle-toothed smile and Dong Zijian’s imperfect boy-next-door charms.

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Off-balance, The Wailing, 2016

13. The Wailing: Na Hong-Jin’s creepy thriller had me off-balance throughout its running time, with its constantly changing POV and its refusal to adhere to genre conventions. Also in the mix is a strutting, scene-stealing performance from the ever-awesome Hwang Jung Min as a badass shaman, some incredibly disturbing man/dog violence, and boils and pustules galore. I was shuddering for days after seeing this one.

Honorable mentions: Line Walker; Spa Night; Equinox Flower; In A Lonely Place; We Are X

NOTE: An earlier version of this list appeared on sensesofcinema.com

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January 27, 2017 at 4:43 am 3 comments

Shall We Talk: Coming Home and Office movie reviews

Eason and a cast of thousands, Office, 2015

Eason and a cast of thousands, Office, 2015

In an interesting coincidence, two famous Chinese-language film directors have films opening in the U.S. this weekend, but their respective movies might puzzle the casual viewer expecting a certain type of cinematic output from each director. But on closer inspection both movies are in some ways throwbacks to early periods of each director’s filmmaking careers.

Starting with Hero (2002) and continuing through House of Flying Daggers (2002), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), and The Flowers Of War (2011), Zhang Yimou for the most part in the 21st century made a series of glossy commercial films that have been successful marketed in the West, and he capped off this run of box-office hits by overseeing the much-lauded opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So viewers who only started following Zhang’s career in the 21st century might think that his oeuvre is all about wire-fu, movie stars, a hypersaturated color palette, and an affinity for spectacle. But Zhang started out in the 1980s as one of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese directors who were noted for their realistic styles and politically astute commentary. Often depicting the ordinary lives of peasants in China’s rural countryside and usually starring Gong Li, Zhang’s first several features were poetic ruminations on the effects on everyday people of various types of systematic repression. These movies, including Ju Dou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and The Story of Qiu Ju, made Zhang the darling of the arthouse film festival set, so it was a bit of a surprise when he busted out with a string of martial-arts fantasies at the turn of the 21st century. But those later films were pretty big at the box office and thus many folks only know Zhang as a director of big-budget spectacles, so it might seem like a surprise that Zhang’s latest film, Coming Home, includes neither martial arts nor brightly colored costumes and sets. Astute observers, however, will realize that the movie actually harkens back to Zhang’s earlier Fifth Generation output from the 1980s and 90s.

Chen and Gong try to remember, Coming Home, 2015

Chen and Gong try to remember, Coming Home, 2015

Coming Home is a family drama set during and just after the Cultural Revolution in China and is based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by popular Chinese author Yan Geling (whose novella 13 Flowers of Nanjing was the basis of Zhang’s recent film The Flowers of War). The movie opens as former professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) surreptitiously arrives back at his town after escaping from a re-education camp. His devoted wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) attempts to meet him but is thwarted by the Chinese secret police and Lu is sent back to prison. Lu and Feng’s teenage daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), an aspiring ballerina, resents her dad’s outlaw status since it’s messing with her career plans to play the lead soldier/dancer in the school play, which Zhang drolly depicts as leftist musical featuring dancers en pointe who are wielding rifles in the service of the revolution. Cut to several years later, after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-70s. Lu again returns home but Feng has become addled from either a blow to the head, PTSD, early-onset Alzheimer’s, or a combination of all three, and thus doesn’t recognize him. The film then follows Lu’s attempts to reconcile with the amnesiac Feng.

Coming Home’s muted mis en scene at first seems a million miles away from the brightly colored, glossy sheen of Zhang’s martial arts movies but the film’s meticulous art direction, featuring scuffed walls, dull brick and wooden buildings, and threadbare wool coats and trousers, reflects Zhang’s careful attention to period detail and authenticity. The usually glamorous Gong Li tones down her customary high-wattage gorgeousness to play the dowdy teacher Feng, but in her performance she seems to have acting awards in mind, as she weeps piteously over Lu’s absence, then affects a glassy-eyed dolor to simulate mental confusion. (In fact, Gong was nominated for the first time for Best Actress for Taiwan’s 2014 Golden Horse award but lost out to Chen Shiang-chyi. In glorious diva fashion Gong subsequently pitched a fit, calling the Golden Horse unprofessional and vowing never to attend again.)

Chen Daoming shabby chic, Coming Home, 2015

Chen Daoming shabby chic, Coming Home, 2015

Although Gong is a bit off, Chen Daoming right on the money as the long-suffering Lu. His world-weary eyes and sorrowful demeanor speak volumes about Lu’s personal traumas and his experience becomes a metaphor for the human cost of China’s various social and political upheavals. Through Chen’s sensitive and understated performance the film becomes an allegory about the erasure of memory and the amnesia of the Cultural Revolution. In this way the movie hearkens back to director Zhang’s earlier films that focused on political and cultural critique, which preceded his more recent, more commercial output. Zhang also recently released another film set during the Cultural Revolution, Under The Hawthorne Tree, but his next project is the blockbuster Andy Lau-Matt Damon China/US-coproduction action fantasy The Great Wall. So he’s nothing if not versatile—

Chow and Chang, Office, 2015

Chow and Chang, Office, 2015

Also releasing in North America this weekend is the latest from Johnnie To, Office. Like Zhang’s movie, Office at first may seem like an anomaly in its director’s catalog but in fact the film, which is a musical comedy, has a lot in common with To’s past work. Though To is best known in the West for hardboiled crime movies like The Mission, Election, Exiled, and his last film, Drug War, he’s got a much more varied back-catalog than that. To got his start directing at Hong Kong’s television studio TVB and there he directed everything from romances to comedies to martial arts historicals, including the famous period drama The Yang Family Saga. His prolific filmmaking output includes the fantasy action films The Heroic Trio and The Executioners, the comedy farces The Eighth Happiness and The Fun, The Luck, The Tycoon, and Stephen Chow vehicles Justice, My Foot and The Mad Monk. Although his crime films have won him much love among Asian film fanpeople, To’s most commercially successful movies have been romcoms such as Needing You and Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart 1 & 2.

So it’s not as far-fetched as it might initially seem to be that Office is a musical, with all of its leads (except Chow Yun-Fat) singing at least one song in the film. The movie is a typical workplace drama infused with cogent commentary about the crisis of capitalism, The storyline follows two young acolytes at their first days on the job at Jones & Sun, a seemingly innocuous Hong Kong cosmetics company that’s actually in the throes of backstabbing and backroom deals. President Ho (Chow Yun-Fat) has a wife in a coma and Chinese investors knocking at his company’s door, while CEO Cheung Wai (Sylvia Chang) struggles to keep the company’s profits up and its products relevant. Salesman Wong Dawai (Eason Chan) is climbing the corporate ladder and is not averse to using personal relationships, including ones with CEO Cheung as well as fellow office drone Sophie (Tang Wei), in order to advance. Youngsters Kat (Tien Hsin) and Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) round out the ensemble.

Eason and Wei meet cute, Office, 2015

Eason and Wei meet cute, Office, 2015

But despite a stellar cast who admirably perform both acting and singing duties (with Cantopop superstar Eason Chan being the best and Tang Wei the worst among the vocalists), the real star of the show is the astounding art direction and set design by acclaimed veteran William Chang Suk Ping, who has won renown as the production and/or costume designer for innumerable classic Hong Kong films including In The Mood For Love, The Grandmaster, and Dragon Inn. Office was shot completely on a soundstage, with some outdoor scenes simulated via green screen, and Chang’s beautiful, stylized set dictates the mood of the film. Comprised mostly of brightly colored bars and rails, the set resembles a massive, skeletal architectural cage that encloses the action and the characters and lends a hermetically sealed, slightly claustrophobic feel to the film. The artificial staginess of the movie, with its simulated spaces and multiple levels of activity, recalls a Broadway musical more than a movie musical, with the set dominated by a huge, slowly revolving clockface. No pretense of realism is made in the film’s use of space, color, and structural elements, which adds to the knowing fakery of the movie’s design.

Production design a go go, Office, 2015

Production design a go go, Office, 2015

Despite To being the titular director, the film displays the strong influence of Sylvia Chang, who wrote and produced the film as well as playing the lead as CEO Cheung Wai, and who has an impressive resume as the director of films such as Tempting Heart (1999), 20 30 40 (2004), and Murmurs of the Heart (2014). Chang’s hand is clearly evident in the narrative’s complex personal relationships and its focus on the collateral damage of corporate machinations. To’s romcom background also comes the fore as the movie’s love hexangle recalls the similarly structured romantic entanglement in his 2014 movie Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart 2.

The weakest element of the movie’s musical conceit is its curious lack of interesting choreography. Despite taking place on a boldly designed stage set that cries out for equally bold movement through and across it, the movement during the musical numbers is surprisingly limited. The action during the songs in Office consists of mostly of synchronized head nods and a few characters walking in rhythm together. Office could stand to take a few lessons from Bollywood musicals, whose song and dance numbers fill every inch of the frame with dynamic, kinetic movement.

But all in all, the movie is a fascinating beast that promises to be brilliant up on the big screen. After first seeing in via online screener with tiny white subtitles I’m looking forward to watching it again in a movie theater where it belongs, and so should everyone, in my humble opinion.

Coming Home

dir. Zhang Yimou

opens Fri. Sept. 18

Office

dir. Johnnie To

opens Fri. Sept, 18, 2015

September 19, 2015 at 6:26 am 1 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

Don’t Take Your Guns To Town: Drug War film review

Breaking glass, Drug War, 2012

Breaking glass, Drug War, 2012

A new Johnnie To joint in U.S. movie theaters is an event to be celebrated and this month sees the stateside release of Drug War, To’s latest crime film. The prolific Hong Kong filmmaker has directed more than fifty movies since the 1980s and in the past ten or twelve years or so he’s become an international film festival darling, but only about a dozen of his movies have seen theatrical releases in the U.S. (the last being Vengeance in 2009). Drug War is his first crime film set in mainland China (his first ever was last year’s rom-com Romancing In Thin Air) and while it may look and feel very different from his earlier Hong Kong-based classics, in its subtle challenges to the status quo in the Chinese film industry Drug War demonstrates that To and his Milkyway Image production house are still creatively shaking things up.

The plot involves Timmy Choi (Louis Koo), a Hong Kong drug manufacturer working in China who is summarily busted in the film’s opening sequence. In order to save his skin and escape the death penalty under China’s draconian anti-drug laws, Choi agrees to aid a crew of mainland cops, lead by Zhang Lei (Sun Honglei), in organizing a sting against his compatriots. The film then follows the uneasy alliance of Choi and Zhang as they trace Choi’s fellow drug-runners up the supply chain.

Messy Louis, Drug War, 2012

Messy Louis, Drug War, 2012

Drug War is in some ways a much more a standard policier than your usual To movie. Soi Cheang (Motorway; Accident) is credited as a second unit director and might have had a hand in shaping the look of the film, but the change in milieu from To’s usual Hong Kong stomping grounds to mainland China might also account for the difference in the film’s visual texture. The movie is shot in a predominantly blue palette with mostly natural lighting that feels more Ringo Lam-like than Milkywayesque. To also uses the wide-open, smoggy spaces of industrial China and its endless six-lane highways and anonymous cities as metaphors for the blurry ethical and moral road his characters travel down.

Nowhere to be found is the surreal high-gloss sheen of To’s earlier Hong Kong-based crime films such as Exiled, Election, or PTU, which were gorgeous visual paeans to the beauty and decadence of the former Crown Colony’s criminal societies. The grit coating the economy cars and paneled trucks cruising along Drug War’s Chinese roadways contrast starkly with the glossy sleekness of the luxury vehicles speeding down the roads of nocturnal Hong Kong in Milkyway classics like The Mission. Even the perpetually glamorous and handsome Louis Koo is scuffed up, his famously tanned, square-jawed visage occluded by scabs, burns, and an unsightly white bandage across the bridge of his elegant nose.

The film also displays little of To’s previous quirkiness, possibly reflecting the reduced influence of long-time collaborator Wai Ka-Fei or the recent death of longtime Milkyway screenwriter Kam-Yeun Szeto. Although there’s some submerged humor in the spectacle of a couple coke-addled flunkies driving endlessly through the vast Chinese landscape, as well as in the inclusion of a pair of deaf-mute brothers who man a drug manufacturing plant, for the most part the movie plays it pretty straight.

Sun and gun, Drug War, 2012

Sun and gun, Drug War, 2012

There’s also much less action than in To’s previous work, but when the guns do come out the excellent shootouts demonstrate To’s easy mastery of the action genre. This is especially notable in a brief yet effective gun-battle inside a drug manufacturing plant that escalates from handguns to rifles to explosives with military precision. The film’s climactic showdown recalls the ending of Expect The Unexpected (1998), nominally directed by Patrick Yau but most likely ghost-directed by To, in which a shootout leads to bloody and indeed unexpected results.

Sun Honglei shows some range as the stoic Mainland cop who once undercover transforms into a jovial drug dealer, but in contrast to the naturalistic tone of most of the movie his performance skates dangerously close to hamminess. Louis Koo is somewhat wooden as the enigmatic Timmy Choi but this is possibly appropriate, since he’s portraying a man with a lot to hide. When Choi mourns his recently deceased wife, however, Koo’s performance lacks the pathos and depth of emotion that a more skilled thespian such as Francis Ng or Lau Ching Wan might have brought to the scene. Interestingly, the most engaging supporting characters are the seven Hong Kong character actors, including Milkyway stalwarts Lam Suet, Michelle Ye, and Gordon Lam, who make cameo appearances as drug dealers in the second half of the film. This perhaps unconsciously reflects To’s comfort zone in dealing with Hong Kong performers vs. the less familiar mainland actors.

Mirror images, Drug War, 2012

Mirror images, Drug War, 2012

Though Drug War may not be quite as fabulous or fully realized as some of his earlier classics it’s an entirely respectable and watchable product that has a certain grim integrity. The film is one of the first that To’s made while working under SARFT (State Administration of Radio, Film, and Television), China’s infamous censorship board, yet despite the censor’s approval To manages to infuse the film with a complexity of morality not found in many commercial Chinese films. Both cops and criminals are ruthless, amoral, and obsessed, using any means necessary to achieve their respective goals, and all meet similar fates in the end. The most interesting supporting characters are the aforementioned Hong Kong criminals as well as the deaf-mute drug manufacturers who, along with Louis Koo’s Timmy Choi, are the only characters with visible family ties. In contrast, aside from Sun Honglei as Zhang and Crystal Huang as a female detective, the mainland cops blend together in an anonymous blur. Some observers claim that the film is a parable for the fraught state of Hong Kong-China relations and To himself has spoken of the way in which he used the film as an experiment to see how far he could go in transplanting his Hong Kong-style crime movies to the mainland. If To in one of his first mainland productions has managed to sneak in some sociological critique under the noses of censors and push the envelope of acceptability under SARFT regulations then that bodes well for his fortunes in China. In the future it will be interesting to see how he copes with the strictures of working on the mainland and if he can maintain his vision and aesthetic despite SARFT’s watchful eye.

Many thanks to Ross Chen, Kevin Ma, Sanney Leung, Chuck Stephens, and Shelly Kraicer for their imput and assistance in this piece, especially their vital insights into Johnnie To’s clever subversions of SARFT restrictions.

Drug War North America showtimes

August 17, 2013 at 12:39 am Leave a comment

Too Much Heaven, Part Three: Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society

Buzz Chung, astronaut, Echoes of the Rainbow, 2010

This weekend the San Francisco Film Society presents Hong Kong Cinema, the first of two Chinese-language film festivals, which runs for three days with seven films from the former Crown Colony. Although it doesn’t include any blockbusters, the brief festival runs the gamut from romantic comedies to crime films to melodramas and is a good look at the range of films coming out of Hong Kong these days.  Herewith are a few of the films included in the series.

Punished

A sleek, economical crime film that’s actually a family drama in disguise, Punished is produced by Johnnie To and directed by Law Wing Cheong, To’s editor and frequent second unit director. The story moves along at a brisk and efficient pace, emphasizing the dysfunctional family relationships behind the kidnapping drama.

Moral choices, Anthony Wong and Richie Jen, Punished, 2010

Anthony Wong is outstanding as Wong Ho-chiu, a ruthless and powerful businessman seeking vengeance for his errant daughter’s kidnapping and death–his performance is subtle and explosive and as usual he can do no wrong. Richie Jen is also excellent as Anthony Wong’s bodyguard and hatchet man with his own family issues to deal with. Supporting performances are uniformly strong and the mood is mostly realistic throughout–the bad guys aren’t too bad and the good guys aren’t too good, so the film possesses a great deal of moral complexity. Each person has a motivation for his or her actions, justified or not, and no one is completely evil or completely good.

In the end, it’s a mother-daughter relationship that’s the catalyst for the resolution of Wong’s moral crisis. As with the best Hong Kong films the movie is also unafraid to tap into the characters’ deep emotional responses–men cry, women swoon, and children weep unashamedly. Director Law keeps things pretty straightforward, with none of the annoying quirks of fellow Milkywayer Wai Ka-Fei. The film makes intelligent connections between the corruption of big business, damaged family dynamics, and immoral criminal activity.

Meeting cute, Gao Yuan Yuan and Daniel Wu, Don't Go Breaking My Heart, 2011

Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart

An adequate rom-com that attempts to capture the uber-success of early 2000s Johnnie To flicks Needing You and Love on A Diet, Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart stars Louis Koo, Gao Yuan Yuan, and Daniel Wu in a love story set in Hong Kong and China. The three play young urban professionals, with Gao unable to decide between playboy Koo and nice guy Wu.

Gao’s dilemma becomes tedious pretty quickly since Louis Koo’s character is so clearly a womanizing asshole. It’s hard to understand what she sees in him, especially with the charming and sensitive Daniel Wu also courting her. But the plot demands a love triangle so the audience must suffer through her indecision for nearly two hours (whatever happened to the excellent concept of the 90-minute Hong Kong movie?) while she dithers between her two beaus. Director To even cribs from his own most successful romantic comedy, Needing You, by using the device of would-be lovers communicating the movie’s catchphrase by signage. There’s some clever usage of messages pasted on office building windows but even that seems awfully contrived by the end of the movie. Though both are cute and dimply, Gao and Koo never seem to really spark–Gao and Wu’s chemistry is better, with Wu nicely conveying a sense of romantic longing. Gao lacks the manic goofiness and exquisite comic timing of To’s usual rom-com muse Sammi Cheng and Louis Koo just isn’t charming enough to warrant Gao’s long-term fascination. Daniel Wu is very sweet as the long-suffering third party but he doesn’t have much character development except his ongoing dedication to a neon green frog. But as rom-coms go, this one is serviceable, with three good-looking and well-dressed lead actors amidst the glamorous backdrop of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers.

Choices, Teddy Robin and Ella Koon, Merry-Go-Round, 2010

Merry-Go-Round

Though it looks great, with beautiful, rich cinematography and art direction, Merry-Go-Round, (dirs. Yan Yan Mak and Clement Cheng) is just a bit too long and a bit too dependent on coincidence to be completely effective. Ella Koon and Nora Miao play two Hong Kong ex-pats living in San Francisco who return to the former Crown Colony after long absences. Koon’s character is a young bohemian with a hidden past, and Miao’s is a master herbalist who left Hong Kong to follow her bliss in the United States. Their lives converge in somewhat forced circumstances– the film’s narrative links its many characters with overly convenient plot twists.

Merry-Go-Round takes a light but serious look at death, loss, and separation. The film uses the idea of returning home as a metaphor for going back, not forward, in life, with several characters attempting to make amends for past misjudgments or dealing with the results of long-gone choices. It also makes some nice points about the advantages of moving on with life instead of dwelling on past traumas, with one character wistfully telling another, “I would have forgotten long ago but you keep reminding me.”

Teddy Robin, who won Best Actor for Gallants (also directed by Clement Chang) at last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, is very effective as the lovelorn manager of the coffin home/mortuary where Koon ends up working. Also excellent is Nora Miao as the imperious herbalist who so long ago followed her fate to the U.S. But the time structure of the film seems a little skewed–if some of the characters were young adults in 1938, that means that they would be in their nineties now, and the actors playing them in the modern-day sequences seem much too young to be nonegenarians.

Despite its handsomely mounted production design, Merry-Go-Round’s storyline is a bit too unfocused to be completely convincing. But it’s nice to see a Hong Kong film that’s a serious drama instead of the martial arts/triad/comedy flicks that the city’s film industry usually puts out.

Shoemaking, Simon Yam and Sandra Ng, Echoes of the Rainbow, 2010

Echoes of the Rainbow

A charming family drama set in 1960s Hong Kong, this melodrama by Hong Kong New Wave director Alex Law stars Buzz Chung Shiu-Tiu as Big Ears, a young boy whose shoemaker father, his mother and his older brother strive to make an honest living making and selling shoes in their working-class neighborhood. Though a bit soft around the edges, the film is best when it illustrates the community neighborliness found amongst the residents of the street. One pleasant moment occurs when Big Ear’s family takes its nightly meal out to the street behind their house to eat on a homemade dinner table built on top of a tree stump. They’re joined by the rest of their neighbors who are also dining al fresco, presumably to escape the heat of their small, non-airconditioned houses. This small but engaging scene underscores the sense of belonging, safety, and comfort found in an earlier, less hectic time and place.

The film also makes cogent point in its examination of class differences between Desmond (Aarif Lee) and his girlfriend Flora (Evelyn Choi). In one scene Desmond walks for a very long time from his humble street to visit Flora, eventually arriving at the toniest neighborhood in town. The length of his journey and his awkwardness and discomfort in such rarefied surroundings contrasts nicely with the sense of ease and belonging he feels in his own neighborhood and underscores the great gulf in social status between himself and his wealthier sweetheart.

Simon Yam and Sandra Ng are excellent as the cobbler and his wife, and Buzz Chung is endearing without being saccharine. Aarif Lee is suitably modest despite his blazing hotness and Evelyn Choi is sweet and charming as his love interest. Eventually the film succumbs to extreme melodrama but it still remains a lovely rendering of a more innocent time in Hong Kong history.

Ass-kicking, Sandra Ng, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Incredible

A period piece directed by Vincent Kok, the sometime collaborator of king of comedy Stephen Chiao, this superhero comedy feels a lot like a Lunar New Year film, with its wacky concept, broad humor, slapdash production design, and lead performances by popular stars Louis Koo and Sandra Ng. Koo and Ng play a married couple who are also the retired superheroes formerly known as Gazer Warrior and Aroma Woman (both excellent superhero names). The two erstwhile heroes have renounced adventuring and have settled down incognito in a quiet village where they run a pork bun shop. Their attempt to start a family and to live anonymously in peace is interrupted by a martial arts contest, a life-force sucking villain, and other outlandish circumstances.

Goofy and mild, with humorous banter between its amiable co-stars, the film is a bit talkier than you’d expect from a movie about costumed heroes. It’s carried by the charming performances of Koo and Ng, who are unafraid of looking ridiculous and whose good-natured interplay makes the film an innocuous and pleasant timepass.

Also screening: Redoubtable auteur Ann Hui’s All About Love, a lesbian love story starring Sandra Ng and Vivian Chow, and Benny Chan’s City Under Siege, an action film that involves toxic waste, mutants, circus performers, and other everyday Hong Kong denizens, starring Aaron Kwok and Shu Qi, with production design by the legendary William Chang Suk-Ping (In the Mood for Love, Rouge, 2046).

Hong Kong Cinema

Sept. 23-25, 2011

San Francisco Film Society New People Cinema

1746 Post Street, San Francisco

San Francisco

full schedule and film descriptions here

September 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm 1 comment

Sweet Dreams Are Made Of This: Top 10 Hong Kong Movies of the Decade

The Hong Kong Spice Boys, Exiled, 2007

This week I’ve been letting my geek flags fly, as I’ve been closely following the countdown of lovehkfilm.com’s Top 50 Hong Kong films of the decade. Webmaster Kozo, Hong Kong film aficionado extraordinaire, has been revealing ten films a day on his blog, Damn You, Kozo, with much commentary from the fanperson peanut gallery. Although Hong Kong films are not the ne plus ultra of film fandom that they were, say, fifteen years ago, more than 150 dedicated otaku responded to lovehkfilm’s poll, which was a completely unscientific open vote of anyone who wanted to send a ranked list of their favorite HK flicks of the past ten years. Being a dutiful HK cinema fangirl I compiled a draft of my top ten and, not surprisingly, the majority of the films on the list starred my personal favorite Francis Ng. Herein follows my list, with reviews of each film. Please note that the list is not a reflection on whether the films are cinematically or historically significant, but based purely on the amount of pleasure that I got while watching them. Which is really how it should be sometimes.

In reverse order:

10. Beauty and the Breast, dir.  Raymond Yip, 2003

Wacky comedy starring Francis Ng as an office lothario who bets he can seduce bespectacled smart-girl Michelle Reis. Luckily her dad is an herbalist and kung-fu master who sees through the ruse, setting up Francis and his accomplice, the hapless Daniel Wu, with an appropriate punishment.  Unlike most Hollywood actors, Francis Ng sees no need to safeguard his masculine image, which leads to an excellent use of prosthetic mammaries. Favorite scene: A conflicted Francis Ng manifests Good Francis (dressed in white with angel wings) and Bad Francis (in red with a tail and horns), who advise him on his quest to bed Michelle Reis.

9. A Gambler’s Story, dir. Marco Mak, 2000

A weird and loopy, stylized look at a down-on-his-luck gambler, played by Francis Ng, who tries to escape his miserable lot in life. Director Marco Mak mixes slapstick, violence, and pathos as only a Hong Kong director can do in this quirky and bizarre movie. Favorite scene: Francis and Suki Kwan win, then compulsively gamble away a fortune in a Macao casino.

Cecilia Cheung and Lau Ching-Wan show how it's done, Lost In Time, 2003

8. Lost In Time, dir. Derek Yee, 2003

A tearjerker par excellence, by Derek Yee, who also directed the 1993 classic Hong Kong weepy C’est La Vie, Mon Cherie. Lau Ching-Wan and Cecilia Cheung put on an acting clinic as ordinary people coming to grips with personal tragedy. Really one of the best melodramas ever made. Favorite scene: Orphanage scene!

7. PTU: Into The Perilous Night, dir. Johnnie To, 2006

Johnnie To’s dreamlike, surreal travel through nocturnal Hong Kong, with Simon Yam, Lam Suet, and Maggie Siu in search of a lost gun.  Possibly the closest To has come to directing an art film, with its poetic use of empty space and expressionistic framing. Favorite scene: Triad musical chairs in a late-night hot pot restaurant.

6. Shaolin Soccer, dir. Stephen Chow, 2001

Though not as brilliant as Stephen Chow’s 1990s mo le tau comedies, Shaolin Soccer still captures Sing Jai’s absurd and wacky persona, with the added bonus of crazy CGI that perfectly meshes with Chow’s insane worldview. Plus it’s a totally fun sports movie. One of the most pleasurable films on the planet, imho. Favorite scene: Stephen Chow demonstrates his kung fu parking skills.

Gigi Leung & Francis Ng a deux, A War Named Desire, 2000

5. A War Named Desire, dir. Alan Mak, 2000

An early film by Alan Mak, one half of the Infernal Affairs team, this intense thriller follows the fate of a pair of estranged brothers who find themselves on the run from triads in Thailand. Francis plays the older brother, a no-nonsense gangster who must choose between duty and honor. Gigi Leung is outstanding as a gun moll whose sharpshooting matches Francis’ shot-for-shot. Favorite scene: Gigi Leung methodically stalks her prey during a chaotic, cacophonous Thai New Year celebration.

Cecilia Cheung and Francis Ng mix it up, The White Dragon, 2003

4. The White Dragon, dir. Wilson Yip, 2003

Fun, frolic, and wuxia, with Francis Ng playing a blind swordsman who falls for bratty and spoiled, vain rich girl Cecilia Cheung. Although the action and comedy scenes are energetic and clever, the best part of the movie lies in the center section of the film, where erstwhile adversaries Francis and Cecilia court and spark. Favorite scene: Cecilia informs the blind, unaware Francis that girls would fall for him since he’s handsome and has straight teeth and a “tall” nose.

Stare-off of the century, Francis Ng and Anthony Wong, Infernal Affairs 2, 2003

3.  Infernal Affairs 2, dir. Andrew Lau & Alan Mak, 2003

The prequel to Infernal Affairs, which Martin Scorsese remade as The Departed, Infernal Affairs 2 is a magnificent gangster opus that operatically follows the fate of its many characters. Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Carina Lau, and Eric Tsang are among the stellar cast. Francis in particular is outstanding as the soft-spoken yet ruthless Triad boss bent on avenging his father’s murder. Favorite scene:  Francis mournfully toasts his late father at an outdoor noodle stand, with a cadre of equally somber triads echoing his gesture.

Francis Ng & Sandra Ng try to figure it out, Juliet In Love, 2000

2. Juliet In Love, dir. Wilson Yip, 2000

One of the saddest and most heartfelt genre films ever to reach the screen, with Francis Ng and Sandra Ng as star-crossed lovers who find unexpected solace with each other. Francis plays a low-level triad caught up in a net of fateful events. Sandra is a lonely restaurant hostess who befriends him. Favorite scene: Simon Yam as a mobster boss who indifferently slurps down hot pot while Francis stoically bleeds from a head wound in the corner of the restaurant.

Nick Cheung Ka-Fei shows 'em what for, Exiled, 2007

1. Exiled, dir. Johnnie To, 2007

The ultimate fanperson heroic bloodshed film of the decade, featuring an ensemble cast of hard-guy triad film stars. Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, and Nick Cheung shoot ‘em up on the eve of the 1998 return of Macao to China’s rule. An allegory for the ennui and anomie of Hong Kong and Macao residents during that time, with beautiful cinematography, a haunting soundtrack, and brilliant, tough-as-nails characterizations by the veteran cast, plus five, count ‘em, five amazing shootouts. Favorite scene: the prelude to the awesome opening shootout, in which Anthony Wong and Francis Ng remove ammo from their automatic pistols in order to have the same amount of bullets as Nick Cheung’s six-shooter.

Honorable mentions: Mad Detective; After This Our Exile; Election 1; The Warlords; Sparrow; Turning Point: Laughing Gor; Fantasia; Initial D; Wo Hu; On The Edge

January 1, 2010 at 9:53 pm 11 comments

Kinda Like A Big Deal: The Beast Stalker, Full Alert and Greatness in Hong Kong Movies

Nick Cheung with wonky eye, The Beast Stalker, 2009

Nick Cheung and wonky eye, The Beast Stalker, 2008

Just saw The Beast Stalker (Dante Lam, 2008) at the San Francisco International Film Festival and, although it held up pretty well and wasn’t an embarrassment, it wasn’t quite all that. Introduced by the Film Festival as “perhaps the best Hong Kong action film since Johnnie To’s Election,” this gritty thriller demonstrates that the former Crown Colony can still crank out hard-ass crime dramas. But the field has been mighty thin in Hong Kong of late and in other, more fruitful years, The Beast Stalker might’ve been just one of the crowd.

Former teen heartthrob Nicolas Tse plays a tough cop (!) haunted by the death of a child hostage he accidentally kills in a chaotic shootout/car crash involving malevolent gangsters, innocent bystanders and much shattered glass. Nick Cheung plays a kidnapper-for-hire in charge of snatching the dead girl’s twin sister whose lawyer mother is involved in prosecuting the crime. Their meshing stories play out in a dizzying spiral of guilt, honor, fate and obligation.

The Beast Stalker has several full-on child-in-extreme-danger moments and the cast realistically sports facial scars and other mementos of mortal peril, but somehow the film falls short of greatness. Nic Tse, further distancing himself from his youthful idol years, shrieks angrily at his subordinates, but he still can’t nail the crying scenes. Likewise, Nick Cheung, who won Best Actor statues from both the Hong Kong Film Critics’ Association and the Hong Kong Film Awards for this role, glowers menacingly but doesn’t quite bring the extra layer of pathos and complexity that might have deepened his portrayal. As my pal Laura, aka redbean, aka longtime Hong Kong movie fanatic, noted, “Anthony Wong would’ve eaten this role alive.” Unfortunately Anthony wasn’t cast and in this case Nick Cheung only makes a so-so substitute.

Lau Ching-Wan shoots straight, Full Alert, 1997

Lau Ching-Wan shoots straight, Full Alert, 1997

I recently purchased a copy of Ringo Lam’s brilliant crime thriller Full Alert (1997), which bears some similarities to The Beast Stalker in its depiction of the complex relationship between a cop and a criminal. But Full Alert has the inestimable actors Lau Ching-Wan and Francis Ng in the lead roles and their sublime skills breathe life into their stock characters and make the film’s cat-and-mouse story vibrant and believable. Francis brilliantly creates a strangely sympathetic yet reprehensible character and Lau Ching-Wan’s finely tuned fits of anger and frustration show a cop dangerously on the edge of sanity. The final confrontation between these two driven characters beautifully brings their fraught relationship to a stunning conclusion. On the other hand, The Beast Stalker’s antagonistic pair never fully reach the heights suggested by their intertwined destinies and their anticipated showdown is merely a tease.

Nick & Nic mix it up, The Beast Stalker, 2008

Nick & Nic mix it up, The Beast Stalker, 2008

Full Alert and The Beast Stalker both have magnificent car chases as their centerpieces, the work of car-choreography specialist Bruce Law. The action direction in The Beast Stalker, however, unfortunately succumbs to the closeups and nausea-inducing jerky camerawork now in fashion, whereas Ringo Lam understood the need for distance and framing in an action sequence. Attesting to its greatness, Full Alert more than stands the test of repeated viewings, even more than a decade after its release. The Beast Stalker is a exciting, smartly-made movie but if, as several critics have suggested, this is one of the best of recent Hong Kong films, then the bar has been seriously lowered.

Dante Lam will soon have another chance to make a great Hong Kong movie. His next project, Most Wanted Terrorist, has just announced its cast, which includes the dream team of Lau Ching-Wan, Anthony Wong and Francis Ng, along with Nick Cheung. Hopefully Nick Cheung can keep pace with his illustrious co-stars, as they’re widely held to be among the best actors of their generation. He did just fine opposite Anthony and Francis in Exiled, and even in The Beast Stalker he showed glimmers of potential. but if he’s not careful the rest of the cast is going to blow him out of the water.

Interestingly, Dante Lam has indicated that he will forgo any Mainland Chinese financing for Most Wanted Terrorist in order to preserve a Hong Kong sensibility in the film. Several recent HK/China co-productions, including Sammi Cheng’s recent Lady Cop and Papa Crook, have suffered from the restrictions of Mainland film censors, so Lam’s decision to avoid PRC money is an interesting one. With Hong Kong film financing languishing due to the economic recession it’s a bold and risky move, but Lam is determined to retain his artistic freedom without having to answer to the Mainland government.

Let’s hope Most Wanted Terrorist gives everyone involved the chance to strut their stuff to their fullest capabilities. With its killer cast and seasoned director, if all goes well, we could once again see greatness in Hong Kong films next year.

The Beast Stalker opens Friday, May 15 at one of the last places in the Bay Area to see Hong Kong movies on the big screen, the 4-Star Theater, 23rd Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco.

May 15, 2009 at 5:40 am 2 comments

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