Posts tagged ‘tsui hark’
Just got back into town and am diving into the thick of things at this year’s San Francisco International Film Festival, now running through May 7. I’m leaving town again on Sunday so I’m cramming as many screenings into the next five days as I can manage. Luckily there are plenty of great films to see. I’m hoping to make it to the Viggo Mortenson vehicle Jauja, by Argentine director Lisandro Alonso and featuring Viggo in a role that’s tailor-made for him as a Danish military engineer caught up in unrest in 19th-century Patagonia. Viggo he gets to acts in two of his native tongues, Danish and Spanish, and the film is a magical-realist version of the historical events it depicts.
Also on the docket is the 3-D version of Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Hong Kong director Peter Chan’s child-abduction drama Dearest, and City of Gold, the documentary about Pulitzer-prize winning Los Angeles food critic and mensch Jonathan Gold. If I were in town next week I’d surely go see the South Korean thriller A Hard Day but I’m hopeful that it will make it to a theatrical release stateside sometime soon. SFIFF also plays host to Jenni Olsen’s newest feature-length experimental documentary/essay film The Royal Road, which looks at butch longing and unrequited love against the backdrop of El Camino Real, the historic king’s road that stretches nearly the length of California. Indian director Chaitanya Tamhane’s independent feature Court also screens this week, taking a character-based, neo-realist look at the absurdities of the Mumbai judicial system and its surrounding social and cultural milieu, with results that are about as anti-Bollywood as you can get.
One of my favorite films from last year, director Diao Yinan’s neo-noir Black Coal, Thin Ice, has one more screening this week at the festival and it’s definitely a don’t-miss movie. From the very start, with shots of random body parts mixed in among train cars of coal shipping throughout the frozen northern regions of China, the film puts a distinctive spin on the classic noir structure. The film follows Zhang (Liao Fan), a less-than-scrupulous cop, as he becomes more and more deeply involved in the mysterious disappearances and murders of various hapless men, all of whom eventually seem to be tied to a classic black-widow character, played by the amazing Taiwanese actress Guey Lun-Mei.
Looping back and forth in time and place, with bursts of intense and unexpected violence, the movie effortlessly transfers the noir genre to the China’s bleak and wintry industrial north, making great use of the icy landscape and the characters’ corresponding desperation and hopelessness. Both Liao and Guey won acting awards (at the Berlin Film Festival and the Golden Horse Awards respectively) for their performances in this film and they embody the moral messiness and ambiguity of the best noir characters. As in all great noirs, everyone is complicit and no one is innocent, and the most innocuous situation, whether in a beauty parlor or at an ice skating rink, can suddenly change into a deadly trap.
So although I’m missing the big galas and parties at the beginning and end of the fest I’m still catching the meat of the event this week. As always the festival is a chance to see some of the best recent global cinema on the big screen.
through May 7, 2015
Legendary director Tsui Hark has been a fixture on the Hong Kong cinema scene since the 1970s (except for a little hiccup in the 90s when he made a couple crappy Hollywood movies with Jean Claude Van Damme, but let’s not talk about that now). His string of significant cinema work started in 1979 with The Butterfly Murders, moved through the 1990s with a slew of indispensible films including A Better Tomorrow (producer), A Chinese Ghost Story (producer), and the Once Upon A Time In China series (director), and continues to the present day with a clutch of period action films including Detective Dee 1 & 2 and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate. His latest joint, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, just opened in the U.S. a week after its successful debut in China, where it’s the top film at the box office.
The film is based on a popular Beijing opera (from the novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest) that was one the Eight Model Plays sanctioned by Mao during the Cultural Revolution. The opera was adapted into a film in 1970 that Tsui Hark, along with most of China’s other 800 million people at the time, viewed as a youth. Tsui’s current adaptation is a co-production of the heavy-hitting commercial studio BONA Film Group and the August First Film Studio, which is the film-producing branch of China’s People’s Liberation Army, and the influence of these disparate financing sources shows in the finished product. While it mostly passes as an energetic action/adventure movie, Tiger Mountain also has the smell of Chinese military propaganda, which inhibits some of director Tsui’s more maverick instincts.
The story is based on a true incident that took place in 1946 during China’s civil war, in which a small platoon of PLA fighters overcame a much larger bandit crew (alluded to as affiliated with the Kuomintang, the PLA’s opposition during the civil war) that’s holed up in a mountain stronghold. The film opens with a framing device in which Jimmy (Han Geng), a young modern-day Chinese student in the U.S., sees a snippet of the 1970 Taking Tiger Mountain film. As his buddies laugh at the old-fashioned opera stylings, Jimmy smiles fondly and later watches the film on his phone as he travels home to Harbin. The movie then cuts to the main action as the PLA platoon struggles to protect a village from the KMT bandits while confronting a lack of food and supplies as well as the onset of winter. As the situation worsens the platoon’s leader, known only as 203, decides to storm the bandit’s hideout on Tiger Mountain, sending in Yang (Zhang Hanyu), a PLA intelligence agent, to infiltrate the gang. The main body of the film follows Yang as he works from within the bandits’ lair while his compatriots endeavor to attack the stronghold from without. After a somewhat slow setup the narrative picks up speed around the forty-minute mark once Yang makes his way into the good graces of the bandit leader, Hawk. Following much intrigue and double-crossing the film concludes with a rip-roaring battle in the snowy mountain as the heroic PLA troops clash with the diabolical KMT bandits.
Tiger Mountain was released in China in 3-D (although its U.S. release is only in 2-D), and the film’s first brief battle sequence feels a bit too gamish, with slo-mo bullet-cam shots and computer-animated blood spurts probably better appreciated stereoscopically, The later, more extended action sequences, including an outstanding siege of a small village, are more engaging and rely less on CGI and more on real hand-to-hand combat and kinetic fight choreography. The climatic battle sequence and a brief coda involving a runaway plane are both pretty thrilling and demonstrate Tsui’s sure hand with action, characters, and special effects.
Tsui draws out solid performances throughout, although some of the film’s characters fall into standard war-movie types. Zhang Hanyu is dashing and resourceful as Yang, the fearless PLA spy sent to infiltrate the bandit camp, and he has several outstanding moments that convincingly demonstrate Yang’s ability to think on his feet. Tony Leung Ka-Fai plays a few years older in a bald-wig and hook nose as Hawk, the ruthless bandit leader, and it’s great to see him sink his teeth into the meaty character role. Lin Genxing is forthright, square-jawed, and handsome as the platoon’s captain but otherwise isn’t terribly compelling. Yu Nan doesn’t get to exercise her usual steely bravado since she’s mostly a captive throughout, though she does escape her bondage several times during the course of the film. Tong Liya as Little Dove, the doughty nurse, is predictably brave and lion-hearted. There’s also a cute little traumatized kid who gets to play a heroic role in the last battle as well as provide a manipulative emotional moment at the film’s climax.
As a Western viewer it’s a bit odd for me to root for the PLA since in my mind the Chinese army is forever linked with the 1989 brutality of Tiananmen Square, but PRC audiences undoubtedly have more positive associations with China’s military. Chinese viewers also probably feel a more visceral response to the strains of the familiar revolutionary opera on the soundtrack and find kinship with Jimmy and his nostalgic journey home to rediscover his family’s PLA roots.
In fact, Jimmy can be seen as a surrogate for Tsui himself, as at the outset of the film he recalls his nostalgic U.S. encounter with the original Taking Tiger Mountain film. Later, at the film’s conclusion, Jimmy is surrounded by a cadre of PLA soldiers and can only smile helplessly, submitting to the collective PLA memories, even as he tries to re-imagine a different version of the narrative’s conclusion. The PLA perspective, and by extension the August First version of the story, is too overwhelming to contradict.
Under different circumstances Tsui really could’ve cut loose but may have felt constrained by the sanctity of the material and/or by the military film office breathing down his neck. The film is much less irreverent and less of a pointed critique than some of his earlier productions that scathingly sent up organized religion (Green Snake), corrupt government officials (New Dragon Gate Inn), and colonial malfeasance (Once Upon A Time In China). Nonetheless, hints of Tsui’s signature style sneak in via the Road Warrior-esque bandit fashions including mohawks, facial tats, and various other quirky costuming choices that recall the art direction of Tsui’s earlier films including The Blade. Another glimpse of the film that might have been is an electrifying throwaway coda involving a speeding fighter jet, a long tunnel, and a very high precipice. Still, The Taking of Tiger Mountain is nowhere near as heinously patriotic as earlier glossy August First propaganda productions like The Founding of A Republic from a few years back. It’s to Tsui’s credit that he’s able to create a highly watchable and sometimes exhilarating film, however restricted he may have been by his material and his funding sources.
Two more Chinese-language films have their theatrical releases in San Francisco, and, although they are completely different in subject, tone, and treatment, both are testaments to the vitality of the new Chinese cinema.
City of Life & Death, dir. Lu Chuan, 2010
My head was spinning when I walked out of the screening for City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan’s devastating and uncompromising look at the Rape of Nanking (or Nanjing). City of Life and Death is an unflinching look at the infamous Japanese occupation and destruction of the Chinese capital in 1938–the film is a stellar example of the ways in which cinema can both explicate and elevate events from real life. Lu masterfully utilizes wide-screen, black and white, mostly hand-held cinematography, subtle and emotional performances, and a story structure that precludes simplistic nationalism.
At the very start in the first hour of the film Lu kills off one of the main characters, forcefully undermining any pretense of a conventionally told story and serving notice that the film will be merciless in the treatment of its characters. As in the real-life occupation of Nanjing, no one is safe and no one will be spared from the casual brutality of wartime and the mentality it fosters. The film also refuses to focus on acts of heroism, although though there are brave and unselfish acts throughout the film’s 2.5 hour running time. No single character is a savior, nor are there any simple answers to the inhuman violence that was perpetrated upon the citizens of Nanjing.
As a Chinese filmmaker Lu makes the unusual choice of presenting the well-known story, which has been used in China to demonize Japan, in part through the eyes of Kadokawa, a Japanese soldier. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the wide-eyed and impressionable Kadokawa’s terrified face as he and his fellow Japanese soldiers prepare to storm the walls of Nanjing. Kadokawa’s horrified responses to the violence surrounding him as well as the pivotal choices he makes at the end of the film belie any condemnation of the Japanese as inherently bestial or subhuman, The film refuses to lay the blame for the events in Nanjing on inborn flaws in the Japanese national character, instead placing responsibility on the insanity of militarism itself.
Viewers shouldn’t be deterred by the grim subject matter as this is filmmaking of the finest order. The wide screen black and white cinematography underscores the huge scope of the atrocities, and director Lu Chuan understands the value of a long, long take in creating an almost unbearable tension. The performances are also uniformly outstanding. Liu Ye is excellent in his brief but significant role as a pragmatic Chinese officer, utilizing his sensitive, evocative face to great effect. Wei Fan is also very effective as a bureaucrat working for the Germans who realizes too late that his position does not grant him immunity from the horrors around him.
A scene near the end of the film where the Japanese soldiers perform a celebratory dance underscores the violent group psychosis of war. While taiko drummers beat out a mournful cadence, the crouched-over soldiers move through the rubble-filled streets with blankly fierce expressions on their youthful faces. After the screen carnage of the past two hours their procession seems like an exercise in group insanity as the men move in hypnotic lockstep, driven by a rhythm dictated to them and with little will of their own. The scene becomes a grim and surreal commentary on the collective madness of war and the indoctrination that makes young men such as Kadokawa into unfeeling, obedient machines of destruction. This image and many others in City of Life and Death make the film absolutely essential viewing, The film’s current theatrical release makes it possible to experience it on the big screen, where its vast and detailed rendering can completely engulf the viewer and magnify its cataclysmic impact.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, dir. Tsui Hark, 2010
A film epic of a completely different sort than City of Life and Death, Tsui Hark’s extravagantly fun and fantastic movie is another example of the outstanding product coming out of China and Hong Kong. Like Benny Chan’s Shaolin, Detective Dee is a brilliant blending of traditional Hong Kong moviemaking with the super-high production values of recent mainland films.
Detective Dee is very loosely based on the exploits of real-life historical figure Di Ren-jie, also known as Judge Dee, who has been the subject of several Hong Kong and Chinese films, books, and television series. Here Dee is played by the ageless Andy Lau, as an implacable sleuth assigned to determine the cause of a spate of spontaneous human combustion.
Carina Lau plays another historical figure, Wu Zetian, who was the only woman to ascend to the Chinese imperial throne. Both Andy and Carina, who started their careers at TVB long ago in the 1980s, are excellent as the titular sleuth and the Empress who may or may not be his adversary. Carina Lau holds the distinction of being one of the only actresses of her generation (along with Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh) who is still working, and she brings a presence and authority to her role. Andy Lau has turned into an excellent screen actor and his ability to convey thoughtfulness and depth (despite his incredible good looks) is a result of his experience in more than a hundred films. He’s not afraid to take roles that emphasize his maturity, as seen here and in Shaolin, which is a nice testament to his graceful aging.
As expected from a Hong Kong fantasy film, Detective Dee includes a surfeit of cleverly staged action set pieces, underscored by director Tsui’s fantasmagoric set designs and kinetic camerawork. But Detective Dee moves beyond earlier Hong Kong films’ visual realizations with its excellent use of extensive digital effects. The world of digital effects has finally caught up to Tsui’s gloriously saturated cinematic vision and in Detective Dee he makes the most of them. Whereas Tsui’s 1990s fantasy classics such as Green Snake featured charmingly unconvincing rubber prosthetics and matte paintings, Detective Dee has the advantage of a full slate of DFX, here outsourced to a well-known Korean effects house. Tsui utilizes this to full effect in realizing his lavishly imaginative vision, which includes transmogrifying faces, a herd of talking (and fighting) deer, characters convincingly immolating from the inside out, and a skyscraper-sized statue of a female bodhisattva.
At the same time Tsui doesn’t let the digital madness take precedence over plot or characterization. The film’s story is a clever and well-developed mystery, and Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Li Bing Bing portray intriguing and complex characters. Tony Leung Kar-Fei is excellent as a revolutionary with a long grudge against the empress. In fine Hong Kong movie tradition, Li and Andy Lau court and spark as conflicted would-be lovers separated by duty and circumstance. As is his wont, Tsui also throws a bit of political commentary into the mix in his critique of the corruption of power.
Detective Dee won Best Director and Best Actress statues at the most recent Hong Kong Film Awards and represents a comeback of sorts for longtime auteur Tsui. Although it was financed by mainland Chinese money and performed in Mandarin, Detective Dee is still a Hong Kong movie through and through, and is an outstanding example of what might come from the integration of mainland and Hong Kong commercial cinema.
City of Life & Death
opens Fri. Sept. 23, 2011
Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema
601 Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Landmark Embarcadero Cinema
One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level
San Francisco, CA 94111
Landmark Shattuck Cinema
2230 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704