Posts tagged ‘tony leung ka-fei’

The Beautiful Ones: Wong Kar-Wai retrospective at BAM/PFA

Cinematic, The Hand, 2004

A cinematic treat dropped at the end of 2020 as the Lincoln Center in New York launched World of Wong Kar Wai, its retrospective of mostly 4K restorations of Hong Kong New Wave auteur Wong Kar Wai. The bulk of the series has traveled to various venues including the Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive, where nine films are currently available for online viewing through February 28, 2021. The Roxie Theater in San Francisco is also showing seven films from the series through Feb. 25, 2021, including a  screening of In The Mood For Love on Valentine’s Day at the Fort Mason Flix drive-in. Although it’s great that the films are available to view in all of their restored 4K glory, it’s bittersweet that audiences aren’t able to watch them on the big screen where they belong due to the ongoing COVID-19 crisis in the US.

Struggles, As Tears Go By, 1988

I watched the BAM/PFA series in chronological order, and it was interesting to see the development of Wong’s signature style. His debut feature, As Tears Go By (1988), is a gangster film that stars Andy Lau Tak-Wah as Wah, a low-level triad in Mongkok who is constantly vexed by his triad brother Fly (Jacky Cheung), whose struggle with toxic masculinity conventions leads to much rash and insecure behavior. 

Although the film loosely follows the trajectory of classic gangland films such as Mean Streets, in which the poor life decisions of one character leads to the downfall of his sworn brother, Wong’s filmmaking style had already begun to establish itself. The audacity of some of the shots, such as the focus on the sharpness of Andy Lau’s jawline or the beauty of a cigarette burning blue in the dark, heralds Wong’s trademark visual characteristics, as does his use of slow motion action, neon lights and silhouettes. The film also includes the breathtaking sexiness of Maggie Cheung and Andy Lau in their underwear wrestling on a bed in a hotel room, another element of Wong’s emerging style as he begins to sketch out his aesthetic.

Charisma, Days of Being Wild (1990)

Wong’s stylistic elements came into sharper focus with his second feature, Days of Being Wild (1990). It’s a bit overwhelming to have a film populated with so many gorgeous movie stars at their physical peak, led by the sheer charisma and stunning beauty of Leslie Cheung in his prime and it really should be illegal to be that good-looking. Carina Lau holds her own as the feisty bar girl who gets involved with him. Maggie Cheung is mostly mopey and jilted in this one, though by the end of the movie she’s found her peace. Andy Lau is once again shockingly good-looking and photogenic–never has such a bone structure been so lovingly photographed. Jacky Cheung again plays the sad sack best friend, but here he’s much more restrained and nuanced. The movie closes with the famous mystery scene with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in a very small hotel room preparing to go somewhere where he’ll need two packs of cigarettes and a deck of cards. 

Charming, Chungking Express (1994)

Chungking Express (1994) is still as fresh and exciting as the first time that I saw it more than 25 years ago. Light and airy, quirky and charming, with pitch-perfect performances, it captures Hong Kong’s day-to-day life without malice or darkness. Wong’s film explores the transience of life and the fleeting relationships in a big city where anything can happen and the world is open and free. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle establishes the iconic Wong Kar-Wai look with his lighting design alternating between the moody, neon-lit style of the first story and the bright, natural lighting of the second story. Once again Wong’s cast of topline movie stars, including Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Brigette Lin Ching-Hsia, Faye Wong, and  a 20-year-old Takeshi Kaneshiro, adds glamor and razzle-dazzle to the film. 

Incandescent, Fallen Angels (1995)

Fallen Angels (1995) is a much messier and less compact film than Chungking Express, full of neon lights, dutch angles, and rain-slicked streets. If Chungking Express was Wong’s renaissance masterpiece then Fallen Angels  is his baroque turn, where all of his directorial tics are turned up to eleven. Karen Mok is in it too briefly and Leon Lai too much, but as in Chungking Express Takeshi Kaneshiro is quirkily incandescent. His character’s story is good enough to stand alone, with able support from a wacky Charlie Yeung and Chan Man-lei as his stalwart dad. 

Complex, Happy Together (1997)

Although as full of visual bravado as Fallen Angels, Happy Together (1997) is a stronger film because its character development is more complex. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is at his angsty best, conveying a kaleidoscope of emotions with a few flashes of his eyes, while Leslie Cheung is devastatingly effective as his mercurial lover. A gorgeous, moody film full of humanity, compassion, and sadness, this is Wong at his poetic best.

Elliptical, Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008)

Trippy and elliptical, Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008) holds up better than I recall from my initial viewing when the film was first released. All of the beautiful people are in this one (except for Andy Lau), including Jacky, Brigette, Charlie, Maggie, Carina, both big and little Tony, and Leslie as the lead character and narrator. Side note: why didn’t Heavenly King number four (Aaron Kwok) ever make an appearance in a Wong Kar-Wai movie? Too short and stocky? These things keep me up at night.

The odd narrative works if you let go of any expectation of linearity and it’s now quite amusing to see so many A-listers with their million-dollar faces obscured by matted hair, but there you go. Although when the film was first released martial arts purists were horrified by the blurry camerawork that wasted Sammo Hung’s action choreography, now it seems to all fit together with the tangled hair and blowing sands and Christopher Doyle’s grainy, oddly saturated cinematography. 

Star-crossed, In The Mood For Love (2000)

In The Mood For Love (2000) is perhaps Wong’s most acclaimed film, and justly so. All elements of the movie, from mise en scene to acting to cinematography to direction and editing, are stellar, led by Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung’s performances as star-crossed lovers. As with all of the 4K restorations in the series the digital remaster is sharp and beautiful, with the film’s saturated jewel tones shining through.

Magnetic, 2046 (2004)

2046 (2004) is an example of what happens when a filmmaker is given an unlimited budget and full artistic freedom as the movie is obtuse, too long by at least thirty minutes, and could jettison its entire science fiction framing device. However, the main part of the film, set in the late 1960s and a loose sequel to In The Mood For Love, is great, with Tony Leung now a womanizing cad following his failed relationship in the earlier film. Zhang Ziyi as his call girl lover is dynamic and magnetic, matching Tony’s acting chops beat for beat . Along the way Gong Li, Carina Lau, and Faye Wong make appearances, though their characters don’t have much arc to speak of. 

Unrequited, The Hand (2004)

The BAM/PFA and the Roxie series both include the little-seen one-hour film The Hand (2004), which was a revelation to me as it was the only film in the program that I hadn’t yet seen. Originally released as part of the three-part omnibus Eros (along with segments by Michelangelo Antonioni and and Stephen Soderbergh), The Hand is a gorgeous meditation on class and gender divisions and unrequited love, and  Wong goes all in with his cheongsam fetish. Gong Li as a courtesan falling on hard times and Chang Chen as her longtime admirer are amazing and the opening scene that the film takes its name from is a stunningly kinky set piece. The film makes a strong argument that Wong Kar-Wai should only make films set in the 1960s as the evocative art direction, from hair to costumes to set design, is on point and breathtaking. 

Although this series emphasizes his auteurship, Wong Kar-Wai didn’t operate in a vacuum. His work was nurtured by the strongest film industry in Asia at the time, one that churned out hundreds of movies every year that were exported all over the region. In some way Wong’s films gave an entre into Hong Kong cinema to snobby cineastes who might have disdained genre directors like John Woo or Tsui Hark. This retrospective brings back memories of that brief shining moment when Hong Kong was the center of the cinematic world. It’s especially melancholy to consider through the lens of 2020/21, when the city has been so drastically changed by China’s brutal repression of free speech there. 

Existence Is Longing: Wong Kar Wai

Berkeley Art Museum/Pacific Film Archive

December 11, 2020–February 28, 2021

Roxie Virtual Cinema

Available until February 25

World of Wong Kar Wai

Roxie Cinema

San Francisco

Drive-in screening of In The Mood For Love

Sunday, Feb. 14, 7pm

Fort Mason Flix

January 23, 2021 at 7:07 am 2 comments

Fade Away and Radiate: Tai Chi 0 film review

Angelababy, text, and explosions, Tai Chi 0, 2012

Tai Chi 0, actor-turned-director Stephen Fung’s new-school martial arts movie, opens this weekend in the U.S. after a pretty successful theatrical run in China. The first of a trilogy, Tai Chi 0  is chock full of what we in the nineties used to call self-reflexivity and is loaded with Brechtian bells and whistles, but ultimately the movie doesn’t have a lot of substance below it’s clever exterior. Although it was a lot of fun while I was watching it, the effects of Tai Chi 0 faded pretty quickly after I left the theater.

The movie’s premise is a nice homage to classic kung fu flicks: talented but naïve youngster attempts to hone his martial-arts chops by seeking out an elusive gong fu master, with many obstacles barring his way. Tai Chi 0’s main character, Yang Lu Chan, is born with a small fleshy horn on the side of his forehead that portends his inborn martial arts prowess. Unfortunately, whenever Yang starts an ass-kicking his life essence is dangerously depleted. In an attempt to counter the deleterious effects of using his powers, Yang journeys to Chen village in hopes of training with the master residing there, but tradition forbids any outsiders learning the village’s kung fu secrets. The movie has fun pitting Yang against villagers using mah jong tiles and tofu to defeat his attempts at learning their ways and Tai Chi 0 is best when it riffs on these familiar tropes. Sammo Hung’s classic action choreography carries the movie’s fight scenes, though it’s undercut a bit by Fung’s shaky-cam and too-quick editing.

Jayden Yuan Xiaochao, flexible newbie, Tai Chi 0, 2012

Showing some moxie in her role, Angelababy acquits herself pretty well as the spunky heroine, while Eddie Peng as her conflicted boyfriend torn between tradition and the lure of modernity epitomizes duBois’s double consciousness. Newcomer Jayden Yuan Xiaochao as Yang is good as the archetypal kung fu neophyte, though he doesn’t get to do much but fight sporadically and look innocently confused, and Tony Leung Ka-Fei is excellent as a laborer who secretly aids Yang’s quest to learn Chen village kung fu. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Big Tony’s been transitioning nicely to character roles, both here and in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

Big Tony, Tai Chi 0, 2012

Where Tai Chi 0 departs from its martial arts movie predecessors is through its constant use of quirky onscreen titles, constantly traveling camerawork, and other gaming effects. Recalling an old kung fu movie tradition (more recently adopted by big-budget mainland China agitprop flicks like 1911 and Founding of a Republic), actors are introduced by brief onscreen titles that also declare their resume (ie, “that’s Andrew Lau as Yang’s father: he directed the Infernal Affairs trilogy.”) Other titles both informative and ironic constantly pop up throughout the movie, including those detailing the progress of Yang through his quest, as well as onscreen diagrams tracing the speed and vector of a flying kick and other gameboyesque techniques. The movie also features a steampunky locomotive that resembles a huge cast-iron teapot, with grinding gears and smoking cogs straight out of Modern Times. While this is all very adroit and adds interesting visual texture to the movie, the tricksiness still doesn’t make for a really memorable cinematic experience, unlike, say, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Tsui Hark’s recent foray into 3-D IMAX which successfully exploited the latest innovations in movie technology to full and insane effect.

But Tai Chi 0 is certainly as diverting as most Hollywood blockbusters and it’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen, if only to catch all of the rapid-fire DFX. It’s fun to see a lot of expensive postproduction imaginatively utilized in a Chinese-language film and I’m all for expanding the boundaries of cinematic expression, so I’ll go see the next two movies in the trilogy. Especially if they make it to the U.S. in 3-D IMAX.

Tai Chi 0 opens October 19, 2012. Go here for showtimes.

October 22, 2012 at 6:08 am Leave a comment


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