Saturday, June 08, 2013

Summer of Sammo: The Iron-Fisted Monk

Sammo Hung's debut film as a director, while heavily steeped in the 1970s Shaw Brothers style, already shows evidence of his distinct personality as a filmmaker. Based, like so many kung fu films, on a bit of folklore involving the struggle of the Southern Chinese to resist their new Northern rulers during the early days of the Qing Dynasty, the plot somewhat resembles that of Lau Kar-leung's Return to the 36th Chamber, released in 1980. Both films involve a dye factory in conflict with Manchu gangsters and who are aided in their struggle by a former resident of the Shaolin Temple. That film stars Gordon Liu as a man impersonating San Te, the legendary figure Liu played in the first film in Lau’s Shaolin Trilogy, 1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. In this film, however, Sammo doesn’t play a real monk either, he’s just a guy who was sent to the Temple to learn to defend himself by an actual monk (the one with iron fists, apparently, though not much is made of these appendages) who hoped he’d return someday to help people.

Like in Hung’s next film as a director, Warriors Two, the moral contradiction that is a revenge-seeking monk is not really explored, instead the film adopts a more Western ideal of justice: an eye for an eye, a fist for a fist. Unlike the more mystically-inclined Lau, Hung really appears to believe that violence can be a productive solution to social problems. His world is darker than the world of the Shaw Brothers, more graphically violent, with more nudity, more depravity. Given the situations that Hung’s characters find themselves in, with the sheer evil of their enemies (in this case, a gang that wanders around town raping and murdering women whenever they feel the urge), this mindset seems perfectly justified. But the cracks in this ideology begin to show in the 1980s, in the endings of Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind, Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam.

Similarly distinguishing Hung from his peers is his apparent reluctance to dominate the center stage, even in his own movies. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Gordon Liu and the like are the unquestioned stars of their films: not just physically in that they’re clearly the most talented fighters on-screen, but they’re the most charismatic, the most fully-realized characters, the funniest and the most active protagonists. They drive their films, the plot and the rest of the cast merely revolving around them. Not so with Sammo Hung. He appears distinctly uncomfortable in the foreground, preferring to stock his films with ensembles, decentering the narrative into a story about a group rather than a single star persona. The Sammo character in this film has his revenge motive (Manchus killed his father and trashed their noodle shop), but the prime mover of the action is a dye-worker named Liang, whose sister is raped by the Manchus and whose quest for revenge happens to intersect with Sammo. Similarly, the film ends not with Sammo standing alone against his enemies, but with he and the Iron-Fisted Monk (played by Chen Sing) joining forces to battle the villains. This fluidity of protagonism extends as well to Hung’s directorial style, integrating match cuts into otherwise typical Shaw-style fight sequences (deft mixes of long shots and close-ups with occasional handheld rushes-in for effect, the emphasis always on clarity of action and movement within a coherent space). He will occasionally (too frequently would ruin the effect) cut from Sammo throwing a punch to Chen’s enemy receiving it, and back again, linking the two heroes in our minds as we mentally connect the two shots and mimicking the fight choreography that sees the quartet acrobatically switch partners in a two-on-two stand-off. I don’t recall seeing these kinds of match-cuts in any other 70s kung fu films, but they will recur in later Sammo Hung films.

As will the diffusion of the solitary hero into a pair or team. Pairs can be found in Warriors Two (Sammo and Cassanova Wong, who makes a brief appearance near the beginning of The Iron-Fosted Monk as Sammo's sparring partner, compare to the Gordon Liu solo kung fu demonstrations that open many a Lau Kar-leung film) and Knockabout (created by Hung to provide a showy debut for his childhood friend Yuen Biao) in which Hung gives himself third-billing, as he also will in Wheels on Meals (behind Yuen and Jackie Chan). The Lucky Stars films (starting with Winners & Sinners) revolve around an ensemble, as does the film that kicked off this Summer of Sammo, Eastern Condors, in which Sammo hangs around the background for most of the movie while providing showcases to highlight Yuen Biao, Haing S. Ngor, Yuen Woo-Ping and Corey Yuen, among others. Pedicab Driver, the darkest Hung film I’ve seen to date, begins as a dual protagonist movie, shifts to an ensemble and ends with Sammo standing alone, most of his friends having been killed. Even Encounters of the Spooky Kind, which features Sammo as the sole protagonist throughout, shifts him to a supporting role in the final battle in which he becomes literally the puppet of a more powerful hero-figure (the friendly Taoist monk). I don't know of any other major star so willing to subordinate himself to the group.

This Week in Rankings

This past week I finally finished the series on Paul WS Anderson and Modern Auteurism I started back in April, Army of Milla (Part One: On Vulgar Auteurism, Part Two: On the Resident Evil Movies, Part Three: Resident Evil and Classical Auteurism). The controversy around Vulgar Auteurism gained in volume as the week wore on as other essays on the subject popped up across the internet. I particularly recommend this piece by Peter Labuza and this post by Girish Shambu. Late yesterday, John Lehtonen and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky posted this revision of the original Vulgar Auteurism post at Mubi, in the hopes of deflating some of the criticisms the movement has received by clarifying its intent and canon. I remain unconvinced that Paul WS Anderson is significantly more than the George Sidney of our time, but I also really like George Sidney.

My Summer of Sammo continued this week with reviews of Encounters of the Spooky Kind, Winners & Sinners and Pedicab Driver (and more to come). Someone at letterboxd is trying to create a site-wide survey to compete with the imdb Top 250, this list was my submission. It's the Top Ten I made last year, due to be revised late this summer, around Labor Day weekend.

This weekend I hope to accomplish two things I've been talking about for a long time: finally record the Akira Kurosawa episode of They Shot Pictures (talking about No Regrets for Our Youth, The Idiot and Red Beard) and make it out to a theatre to see Frances Ha. We're leaving for the movie in a matter of hours, my fingers remain crossed for the podcast.

These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the past week, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to my letterboxd comments, where applicable.

The Iron-Fisted Monk (Sammo Hung) - 11, 1977
Knockabout (Sammo Hung) - 15, 1979
Encounters of the Spooky Kind (Sammo Hung) - 8, 1980
Winners & Sinners (Sammo Hung) - 8, 1983

Yes, Madam (Corey Yuen) - 9, 1985
Pedicab Driver (Sammo Hung) - 5, 1989
The Chinese Feast (Tsui Hark) - 22, 1995
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella) - 40, 1999
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton) - 52, 1999

Thursday, June 06, 2013

Summer of Sammo: Pedicab Driver

This 1989 film once again finds Sammo Hung mixing tones in a highly unusual way, as what appears to be a light-hearted farce about human taxis turns into a very dark indeed exploration of human trafficking and prostitution in the lower class Macao underworld. Sammo plays the garrulous leader of the town’s pedicab union, and the film begins with a tense negotiation with the rival rickshaw drivers union in a warehouse like restaurant. Spooked by a cameo of Eric Tsang with a cleaver (chasing an unrelated cat), the two sides begin brawling, showing off some impressive group kung fu choreography (and a clever Star Wars parody). After this prologue, the first half of the film follows Sammo and his best friend Malted Candy’s attempts to woo a pair of pretty girls. Sammo’s girl is named Ping and she works at the bakery where he’s also a lodger. Ping is lusted after by the master baker, and he and Sammo get in several fights over her (she prefers Sammo, of course). Ping is quite casually treated as an object by both men (Sammo has no compunction about embarrassing her to prove his superiority to the baker), the only difference being the gross lasciviousness of the baker’s lust and the generally good-hearted nature of Sammo’s character. Malted Candy’s girl, Hsiao-Tsui, however, turns out to be a prostitute, and her pimp, Master 5, brings the first bit of horror into the film in an early scene that initially doesn’t appear to have much bearing on the plot. His men have tracked down a runaway prostitute and her new husband as she’s about to give birth at a midwifery. Master 5 has his men to kill the husband and, as for the baby, “If it’s a boy, throw it in the river. If it’s a girl, send it to the brothel.”

Sammo first encounters Master 5 on the street, where he’s propositioning Ping. Sammo steps in to help her and the two run away in a fun chase sequence. They end up crashing into a gambling house, where Sammo is set upon by a new, unrelated group of gangsters. Eventually he challenges the gambling house’s boss to a duel and it turns out to be none other than the great Shaw Brothers director Lau Kar-leung. What follows is completely superfluous to the narrative, but is nonetheless the best scene in the film. Lau is a terrific fighter, and seeing him face off against Sammo is a treat (be sure to see Lau’s starring role in his own Mad Monkey Kung Fu). Following this welcome digression, the film becomes a light romantic comedy for a half hour or so as the two couples fall in love. Then it becomes a dark tragedy as Malted Candy first learns Hsiao-Tsui’s true occupation from a friend, the man who helped him out when he first arrived in Macao, buying him his first pedicab. As Sammo, Malted Candy and their friends gather around a small table in their open-air tenement to discuss what to do about this revelation, Hung effectively puts across the terrible living conditions, the reliance on improvised families and communal networks and desperate hope for the future that drives these men without being preachy or melodramatic. That desperation, along with an effective bit of yelling by one of the driver’s wives, allows Malted Candy to set aside his patriarchal outrage at the way Hsiao-Tsui has “cheated” him and see the trauma and hopelessness that must have led her to the brothel in the first place. Able to see her as an equal, he reconciles with her and the two happily get married. Of course, that night Master 5’s men track them down and kill everyone in sight. All that’s left is for Sammo to take his revenge on the pimp and all his gang, including kickboxing badass Billy Chow, in a spectacular finale.

Tuesday, June 04, 2013

Summer of Sammo: Winners & Sinners

More a straight comedy than any of the other Sammo Hung films I've seen, though it does contain some interesting stunts. An amiable hang out movie, with Sammo and his buddies just playing around with goofy jokes and the barest necessities of a plot. Sammo and his four ex-con friends form a cleaning company and accidentally find themselves under attack by a gang of counterfeiters. The first half of the film mostly revolves around the group competing for the attention of Cherie Chung, who naturally enough falls for Sammo, the only one who isn't trying to get her. Sammo is the bumbling butt of their jokes, but he takes it all with good cheer. When Chung discovers that he is, in fact, an extremely skilled martial artist (of course), she asks him why he lets his friends pick on him when he could easily beat them all up. His replies that when he was a kid, he used to beat people up all the time, but he was alone. Now, even though they make fun of him, at least he has friends. It's as as sad a story as it is emotionally honest.

Jackie Chan is awkwardly wedged into the film as a cop who causes excessive amounts of damage to both suspects and property. Yuan Biao shows up to fight him in a completely random scene, one that serves only two purposes: getting Sammo and Jackie’s pal some screen time and showing off some cool kung fu. Chan also features in the film's most famous sequence: a high speed chase with Chan on roller skates going after a car on a freeway. This ends in possibly the greatest image in any Sammo Hung film: a massive traffic pile up that keeps going and going, like the one we only get to see the aftermath of in Godard's Weekend. Like Two Tars or the original Gone in 60 Seconds, it captures the anarchic, purely cinematic glory of automobile destruction.

Hong Kong comedies of the 80s and 90s can be difficult for American audiences at times, not because they’re dumb, or even for cultural or translational reasons (as can be the case with some of Stephen Chow’s more pun-reliant films, which are impossible to effectively convey in English) but because the comedy is so relentlessly goofy, its stars so obviously willing to do anything for a laugh, regardless of how ridiculous it makes them look. Sammo Hung spends this film in the least flattering possible outfits for his portly frame: a black catsuit, a too-small sailor's outfit, a bright red jogging suit. Chan roller skates in a banana-yellow tracksuit topped by a yellow helmet. There's a lengthy scene where the gang convinces Richard Ng that he's managed to turn himself invisible, so he wanders around the house completely naked while everyone pretends they can't see him. This kind of effort isn't cool, we value distance and irony, not silliness and wordplay. Outside of a brief flirtation with Jim Carrey 20 years ago, when was the last time physical comedy was the least bit respectable in America? A common reaction I see from Americans who aren't yet obsessive about Hong Kong movies is that the action is great and the comedy is something to be ignored, if possible. But I find it infectious. The relentless good cheer, the obvious fun the filmmakers have in putting it together, the honesty of the desire to just make people laugh: it's the joy of making movies.

Sunday, June 02, 2013

Army of Milla: Resident Evil and Modern Auteurism

Part Three: Resident Evil and Classical Auteurism

"This is one of the problems in resolving arguments between auteurists and anti-auteurists: the two sides can never agree entirely on what is good and what is bad."
-- Andrew Sarris, "The Auteur Theory Revisted" 

The first part of this series looked at the notion of Vulgar Auteurism, a loose accumulation of ideas and attitudes that have become increasingly controversial in the internet film critic community over the past year or so. I have some reservations about the movement, if such an amorphous body can even be called that, namely its potential over-emphasis on formalism and complications arising from the self-applied word 'Vulgar" (itself a repurposed pejorative, used initially, as far as anyone can tell, in a negative context by the critic Andrew Tracy in a Cinema Scope piece on Michael Mann, excerpts of which have been reposted in the wake of the clamorous twitter controversy stoked by Calum Marsh's use of the concept in his Village Voice review of the latest Fast & Furious movie a couple weeks ago), which is both ahistorical (because auteurism has always examined the "vulgar") and self-contradictory, because it accepts the high-low division of art it ostensibly is opposing. 

These reservations in side, I wanted to see the theory in action, so for the second part of this series I decided to look at the work of Paul WS Anderson, specifically his Resident Evil films, of which he has, so far, written five and directed three, in the hopes of uncovering an auteur hidden in the ghetto of a ghetto, the video game adaptation subset of the action movie genre. What I found was a clean visual style, skillful action editing, and a referential approach to genre cinema, one that relies on twisting and repurposing many of the films and tropes of the past 50 years, which, along with the films' approach to their characters as fungible and disposable, creates a coherent, if paranoid picture of the late-capitalist, digital world. The question remains, though, is that enough to call Anderson an auteur? Is a distinct visual style combined with recurrent thematic concerns all it takes to earn that label? And if so, does that mean the Resident Evil films are, for lack of a better word, good?

To try to answer these questions, I'd like to return to Andrew Sarris and the founding documents of auteur theory. Now, Sarris was not Moses and The American Cinema is not holy scripture (though it can seem that way when described by some of its early adherents). In fact, written into the very DNA of the theory is the fact that it is never complete, that there is never a final word, that everything is always a subject for further research, including the nature of the theory itself. And it may very well be the case that the Vulgar Auteurists are not thinking specifically of Sarris's ideas or methods at all, but some other formulation of the theory (like François Truffaut's or Peter Wollen's) or maybe not even Auteurism at all, that they could just as easily be Vulgar Formalism or Vulgar Lacanianism or whatever else happened to catch the ear and stick. I do think that there is value to be gained by examining Anderson through the lens of Sarris's method, however, even if it ends up helping me understand Sarris more than it helps me understand Mubi.

In Notes on the Auteur Theory in 1962, Sarris lays out the three general premises of the auteur theory. The quality of the film and its director will depend on which, if any, of these three criteria of value they meet. The first is the technical skill of the director:
A badly directed or undirected film has no importance in the critical scale of values, but one can make interesting conversation about the subject, the script, the acting, the color, the photography, the editing, the music, the costumes, the decor, etc. That is the nature of the medium. You always get more for your money than mere art. Now, by the auteur theory, if a director has no technical competence, no elementary flair for the cinema, he is automatically cast out from the pantheon of directors. A great director has to at least be a good director.
Here we hit a snag in the case of a writer-director like Paul WS Anderson. Sarris was writing during the late studio era, hoping to promote directors who stood out under the mass production conditions then at play, where the director had relatively little control over the various other crafts involved in the production of a motion picture (though that can be overstated: Hitchcock, Hawks and Ford, for example, were very rarely directors for hire with no say in the construction of the scripts they filmed). But 50 years later, the studio system seems an aberration, a mere blip in the history of cinema. In the modern era, films are assembled from the ground up, with the director often involved in every step of the process. This is not always the case, of course, but typically a director has more power over the total shape of a film now than they did then. With a director who writes their own films, one can hardly separate the script from an evaluation of their work as a potential auteur. And in Anderson's case, his scripts are uniformly weak. While their very genericness may be spun as a virtue, or at least seen neutrally as an elegant structure allowing a wide latitude for cinematic play, it's harder to justify his dialogue, which is functional at best and at worst, as in his Three Musketeers adaptation, sounds like a greatest hits mix of 80s action movie clichés. Additionally, his Resident Evil films are plagued by long stretches of exposition, growing longer with each successive film, most notoriously a ten minute break in the action of the fifth movie, which, following a spectacular opening shot and beautifully styled action sequence, brings the film’s momentum to a crashing halt. So, while his technical skill as a visual director is impressive, the fact that he is unable to create convincing dialogue puts into question whether or not he meets this requirement.

Sarris's second criterion of value is the distinguishable personality of the director. It is this premise that tends to be conflated with the theory as a whole, and as well is often the most misunderstood. To put it simply: all other things being equal, the personal film is the better film. Given the choice between two equally terrible (or mediocre, or great) movies, the film that expresses something personal to its creator is the superior work, because personal expression is a value in art in and of itself. Auteurism as a method is an attempt to discover an auteur's personality by looking at as much of their work as possible, and in as many different ways, sifting through the influences of studio, genre and collaborators to find the auteur's core vision of the world. It is always in search of more evidence, and this is its most noble attribute: Auteurism is always open-minded. 

Again, however, Sarris conceives of this personal core in visual terms due to the production standards of his time: "Because so much of the American cinema is commissioned, a director is forced to express his personality through the visual treatment of the material rather than the literary content of the material." This partly serves as a justification for examining "vulgar" content: if it’s only the visual form that the Auteurist is interested in, the quality of the subject or its verbal and narrative expression is irrelevant. But it also serves the polemical purpose of forcing the critic to examine a film in visual terms, to look at the totality of the cinematic product rather than focus on its more literary aspects. Americans, even professional film critics, are reasonably well-trained at analyzing plots and themes and subjects, while often lacking much more than a rudimentary understanding of visual aesthetics. In conceiving of directorial personality as primarily a visual expression, Auteurism seeks to redress that imbalance, to create a criticism of the totality of a film. It is somewhat disheartening, then, to see auteur status so often defined as simply coming from the repeated exploration of certain themes and subjects. For this reason, the Vulgar Auteurist’s focus on form over content is a welcome addition to the critical discourse. But, as Sarris wrote “Auteur criticism is a reaction against sociological criticism that enthroned the what against the how. However, it would be equally fallacious to enthrone the how against the what. The whole point of a meaningful style is that it unifies the what and the how into a personal statement.”

It is unclear to me, at this time, if Paul WS Anderson meets this second criterion of value. There are recurrent visual schemes in his work, specifically in the cleanliness of his action editing and his placement of individuals within spaces both vast and small, each conveying a sense of entrapment. However, his Death Race movie has none of the visual charm of his other 2000s movies, exchanging bright whites and vibrant colors for a dingy sepia-gray. As a writer, he consistently shows a suspicion of power figures, with a paranoid vision of corporations run amok pulling the strings of his victim protagonists. And he also evinces an unusual interest in mixing his generic forebearers, as in the way his Resident Evil films each seem to have a model in a previous example of action cinema, or the way he grafts steampunk onto Dumas, or modern conspiracy theories about Egyptian and Central American religious architecture onto the mythology of a pair of 80s sci-fi series. But these preoccupations lie only on the surface of his films. They are nods to meaning rather than explorations of ideas. Anderson skillfully reflects the shiny surface of post-modernity, but doesn't seem interested, as yet, in diving into its depths. The last Resident Evil movie, however, which twists the series upon itself in new and unusual ways, shows that he may be preparing to plunge.

The third criterion of value Sarris delineates is the most mysterious and the most troublesome. He calls it "interior meaning" which is vague enough, but then ascribes to it the even vaguer concept of mise-en-scène, which he unhelpfully defines as the indefinable quality a great director gives to their picture, the "Lubitsch Touch" as a critical concept. As best as I can figure, the third premise is a relational one. Sarris talks about it lying in the tension between a filmmaker and their subject, which opens up a few possibilities. Interior meaning could be described as the difference between a kung fu movie directed by Chang Cheh and a kung fu movie directed by Lau Kar-leung: find the differences and you find the special something each director brought to their otherwise generic, vulgar material. I don't think Anderson meets this standard, because I don't see much tension between him and his material. He has at times approached a transcendent visual artistry (the opening sequences of the fifth Resident Evil film come to mind), but too often his film evince little more than above-average action filmmaking. His paranoia is relatively common in science-fiction and so rather than creating a unique and personal vision of the world, Anderson's films can more rightly be described as competent treading of well-worn terrain. His last few movies, however, show potential, and so I'm unwilling to write Anderson off as an impersonal filmmaker. Perhaps he has it in him to perform the auteurial jujitsu necessary to turn the generic qualities of his movies into virtues, into a truly compelling and original statement about the world and/or the cinema itself, merging the blankness and fungibility of his characters with the schematic structures of their worlds and the interchangeability of their dialogue to say something truly meaningful. But I don't think he's made that complete a filmic statement yet.

And so we are led back to the question of evaluation. Is Paul WS Anderson an auteur, and are his movies any good and are these questions related? My answers are not quite, sometimes, and yes and no. A more formalist critic than me might have different answers to those questions, but I remain unconvinced that the flaws in Anderson's approach to story, dialogue and character can be compensated for by a facility for coherent action and cleanliness of visual space. In two separate reviews, Ignatiy Vishnevetsky refers to Anderson as "unpretentious" (of Resident Evil 5 at Mubi and of Soldier at the AV Club), which is both true and another way of saying his movies aren't very deep because he isn't trying to be deep. There's nothing wrong with that as far as it goes, the problem is that it doesn't go very far. But Auteurism isn't a binary system, where a director either has "it" or doesn't. Sarris's conception of film history in The American Cinema is of an auteurial spectrum, with the greatest directors, the ones who have most fulfilled the premises of the auteur theory, in the Pantheon at the top with a descending series of lesser categories below them (the categories are loosely designed, more an organizing principle than anything else, but still a useful construct for elucidating differences between types of filmmakers). If Anderson's chief virtue is that his films are enjoyable and unpretentious, then he belongs in the Lightly Likable category, the denizens of which Sarris describes as "talented but uneven directors with the saving grace of being unpretentious." Some of the directors in this category include Henry Hathaway, George Sidney, Mitchell Leisen, Mervyn LeRoy, Busby Berkeley, Michael Curtiz and Delmer Daves. Not bad company at all (some of them I'd place even higher, naturally) and certainly a group held in greater esteem than Anderson is, with his routine Rotten Tomatoes scores in the 30% range.

I'd like to end with a postscript on Sarris's final criteria. It seems to me that interior meaning can more tantalizingly be conceived as lying in the relation between a critic and a film, in the ways that certain films affect certain people in undefinable ways. The task of the critic is to find some way to communicate that indefinable experience. The auteur theory is not a theory of film, it is a theory of film criticism. It is a method for understanding what we value, why we value it and a means of expressing those values. In 1977, Sarris wrote:
[...]interior meaning, a term that gave me a great deal of trouble at the time, but one that has since come to define what all serious film criticism seeks to discover. Auteurism has less to do with the way movies are made than with the way they are elucidated and evaluated, It is more a critical instrument than a creative inspiration. Peter Wollen has suggested the hypothetical nature of the enterprise and I will go along with that. The cinema is a deep, dark mystery that we auteurists are attempting to solve.