Saturday, August 02, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Notes on Alex Law's Painted Faces

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

A lovely account of youth spent in the China Drama Academy Peking Opera school, based on the experiences of Sammo Hung, Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen and the other members of the Seven Little Fortunes performing troupe that grew up to dominate Hong Kong Cinema from the late 70s through the mid-90s (and beyond). Sammo himself plays their teacher, Yu Jim-yuen ("Yu Ho" in the film) tough (hitting the kids with a stick is his preferred method of punishment) but sentimental and adorably awkward at times. In a sweetly romantic subplot, Sammo walks all over the island looking for a birthday cake for Cheng Pei-pei, a fellow teacher he's sweet on. Each of the interactions between these two kung fu movie icons is gold, and with nary a punch or kick between them.

The film is somewhat unexpectedly effective at conveying the double outsider status of the students: not only are many of them immigrants to Hong Kong (the master himself is from Peking) but their devotion to a dying artform, and the anti-modern schooling methods that make them great at it (most of the kids are essentially illiterate) doubly separate them from the quickly Westernizing world around them.

The film even takes the time to explore the world of Shaw Brothers stunt men, with Lam Ching-ying as Sammo's old friend, trying to get by, who takes one blow to the head too many. We and the young students witness his on-set breakdown, a scene made horrifying as much by the fact that we know what these kids are going to spend their lives doing as it is by Lam's harrowing performance.

I like to think that the scene of Jackie Chan (known throughout as "Big Nose") standing on a railing serenading his teacher on the eve of the school's closure served as an inspiration for the end of Dead Poets Society.

There's an odd Mobius effect whenever Sammo the actor is talking to Sammo the character, we're watching an older man constantly in the presence of his younger self, knowing that this kid will grow up to be this actor, making this movie about this kid who will grow up to be this actor. Sammo's performance is brilliant regardless (he won the Hong Kong Film Award for Best Actor), but that extra element makes the movie all the more poignant. Also he uses a turtle to prop up his bed, a position which said turtle appears perfectly happy to occupy for years and years.

This is the first of only three movies directed by Alex Law, who previously co-wrote the very solid Chow Yun-fat-Cherie Chung melodrama An Autumn's Tale, which was directed by Mabel Cheung, who co-wrote Painted Faces with Alex Law.

Friday, August 01, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Edmund Pang Ho-cheung's Isabella

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

First things first: Anthony Wong is in this movie. He is in three scenes and he is eating in every one of them. It's set in Macao and was released in 2006. I'm pretty sure he filmed his scenes on his lunch breaks during the making of Exiled. Anthony Wong is the best.

Set in the months leading up to the handover of Macao to the People's Republic in 1999, it's an off-beat father-daughter story. Literally off-beat, as the film has a rhythm I've never seen before. A seemingly inexplicable event will be shown, followed by the scenes which explain what happened. For the first half hour or so this weird push-pull structure slowly draws you into the story of a corrupt cop who meets his 16 year old daughter and tries to help her find her lost dog.

The dog is named Isabella, and so is the lead actress. A Portuguese name for a movie about a city moving on from its Portuguese past. Isabella Leong plays the daughter. 18 years old at the film's release, she was already a pop star and from her performance her, well on her way to a great film career. Spindle-limbed, all elbows and knees bursting across the screen with a manic energy that blows apart her father's sad decadent life. Their scenes in her father's languid, dilapidated apartment recall the middle section of Pen-Ek Ratanaruang's masterpiece Last Life in the Universe, a joyless space revivified. Leong is strikingly pretty, with sharp eyebrows and melancholy eyes. She appears to have retired from music and film in 2009 (after her only American film, the dreadful The Mummy: Tomb of the Dragon Emperor, a film mostly notable for wasting both Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh). That year, she married Richard Li, the son of Li Ka-shing, a Hong Kong legend and one of the richest men in Asia (he appears as a character in Peter Chan's He Ain't Heavy, He's My Father, played by Waise Lee), though they've since split up.

Anyway, as father and daughter get to know each other, bits of their pasts flash back. The dad's relationship with her mother, as well as the police corruption scandals he is somehow involved in (the passage of time is marked by intertitles informing us of various uncovered criminal conspiracies involving the Macao police force). Also the girl's relationship with a boy at school, one who loves her but whom she keeps at a distance, telling wild stories that don't quite fit the truth of who her father is and what he represents. Chapman To as the father has the more difficult role, making a guy who in most respects is a lout, boorish, womanizing, drunk, violent and corrupt, not only lovable, but admirable. It's a remarkable performance.

Set amid the crumbling colonial concrete of the city (so different from the shimmering skyscrapers of Hong Kong - there is an alien quality to Macao that is a world apart from the other colony, see it as well in João Pedro Rodrigues and João Rui Guerra da Mata's eerie 2012 film The Last Time I Saw Macao) and scored with a wistful Iberian guitar (the score, by veteran Hong Kong composer Peter Kam, won an award at the Berlin Film Festival. Kam also did the music for Johnnie To's Throw Down, Peter Chan's meta-musical Perhaps Love and the first two Golden Chicken movies), director Edmund Pang Ho-cheung conjures something truly unusual: a lament for a lost world that probably wasn't so great, and hope for an unknown future that might be even worse.

Tuesday, July 29, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Peter Chan's He Ain't Heavy, He's My Father

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Peter Chan Ho-sun's 1993 comedy is a variation on Back to the Future, with Tony Leung (Chiu-wai) sent back 30 years to see what his father, Tony Leung (Ka-fai), was like when he was young, though it presents a very different take on the past and our relation to it than Robert Zemeckis's classic. The plot device isn't science-fiction, but rather one of those goofy folkloric premises like the Freaky Friday variations. In this case, Jupiter crossing the Moon's path on Mid-Autumn night causes a manhole to turn into a wish-fulfillment portal. This grounding in magic rather than pseudo-science  mirrors the larger difference between the two films, that He Ain't Heavy is steeped in local tradition and culture (however made-up for the purpose of the film the plot is, the Mid-Autumn Festival is surely a thing) while Future values the present above all else, about instant gratification.

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly is embarrassed by his father's weakness. He travels back in time and his manipulation of past events transforms his dad from a shy, lower-middle class geek into a paragon of Reaganite manliness: confident, wealthy and draped in pastels. In the Hong Kong version of the fable, however, Tony Leung is embarrassed by his father's charity, by his unwillingness to engage in the kind of cut-throat economic and social ruthlessness that marked the colony as exactly the laissez-faire ideal the Reaganites desired. Traveling back in time, he sees the roots of that community: the tenement slums where dozens of people live crammed together, part of the massive immigrant wave into Hong Kong in the wake of the post-World War II Civil War which overwhelmed the colony's capacity to house and feed its population. The disparate crew barely eking out an existence only through the help and sacrifice of the others, his father towering as the strongest and most noble among them.

The reference is to The House of 72 Tenants, a film directed by Chor Yuen in 1973. It was the first in a wave of Cantonese language hits in the colony, leading the transition away from the Mandarin language films of the Shaw Brothers (who were themselves war-time transplants from Shanghai). Chor's film, following the episodic adventures of just such a group of slum-dwellers (think a sit-comic version of The Lower Depths), was enormously popular and remains a bedrock film of Hong Kong cinema (you can see its influence as well in Stephen Chow's Kung Fu Hustle, among other films). Tony Leung Chiu-wai's character in He Ain't Heavy is actually named "Chor Yuen" and Chor himself appears in a small role as an actor in the film (when the two are introduced, someone gasps "There's another Chor Yuen!?").

Anyway, rather than the young man reforming his father, He Ain't Heavy is about the younger generation (greedy, promiscuous and nihilistic as seen in countless films from the Hong Kong New Wave) learning the values their parents' found in the slums. It's about a son learning to appreciate the father he has, and in turn the son is changed by his encounter with history, as opposed to the other way around in the more ego-centric Hollywood film. Where the world revolves around Marty McFly, he transforms it to serve his immediate desires (nicer house, bigger car); the younger Tony Leung learns to see himself as a part of a whole, and all the more valuable and happy for it. The lesson Marty learns from that past is to 'stand up for yourself', which in this context means asserting your desires with a willingness to resort to physical violence, which will in turn earn the respect and love of the pretty girl next door and send the bullies of the world into groveling submission, shock and awe followed by being greeted as a liberator. The lesson Tony learns is that personal success is worthless if it is individual, that the only real happiness comes from family and community.

Running Out of Karma: Three Hong Kong Romantic Comedies

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Sophie's Revenge (Eva Jin, 2009)

Zhang Ziyi is the manic pixie at the center of a swirl of CGI whimsy in this romantic comedy, which is weird because while she's no doubt a terrific actress, she'd previously shown no aptitude whatsoever for comedy. She fares OK all things considered, showing an admirable willingness to make a complete fool of herself, as her character is repeatedly subject to all manner of slapstick abuse (drunkenness, wall climbing sabotage, a gushing catheter), though she projects adorability more than charisma.

Zhang plays a comic book artist who is dumped by her boyfriend for a popular actress (Fan Bingbing). As she plots her revenge (win the guy back and then publicly dump him) she's helped by another guy, who falls for her. The plot is a little sloppy, and while initially enlivened by Michel Gondry/Scott Pilgrim/Pushing Daisies-esque animations and dream sequences, it becomes exhausting after the first hour or so, at which point the film kicks the plot forward with a series of unnecessary and confusing twists (at one-time her conspirator doesn't seem to know her plan, then does, and then doesn't again) and a lame reveal. It's a Skittles movie: looks tasty, but you don't want to eat the whole bag.

Zhang starred in a prequel (My Lucky Star) released last year. That film was directed by Dennie Gordon, an American TV director who also directed Joe Dirt and What a Girl Wants. The writer-director of Sophie's Revenge, Eva Jin, doesn't appear to have been involved in the sequel.

Love in a Puff (Pang Ho-cheung, 2010)

Watching this immediately after Sophie's Revenge was whiplash-inducing. That film is an international co-production set in a characterless, near invisible Beijing, a high concept, glossy stab at Hollywood style romantic comedy (with Zhang Ziyi channeling everything from Bridget Jones to Caroline in the City). Pang Ho-chuneg's romantic comedy, on the other hand, is a indie (or "indie") take on the genre, filmed seemingly on the fly in the alleys, cellphones and nightclubs of Hong Kong at the pace and rhythm of everyday life. Where Sophie's Revenge was a big hit, Love in a Puff saw its box office take suffer when it was given a Category III rating. Hong Kong's Category III is roughly a combination of America's R and NC-17 ratings. It's traditionally the home of porn and ultra-violence and horror. There's no such thing in Love in a Puff, which as far as I can tell got the rating simply because of its profane language, or in other words 'No other Hong Kong movies in recent memory give a more vivid sense of how Hong Kong people talk in real life.’ (Perry Lam in Muse Magazine).

The film follows the meeting and developing relationship of Cherie (Miriam Yeung) and Jimmy (Shawn Yue) over the course of a week. The two meet at a communal smoking area, Hong Kong having initiated an anti-indoor smoking ordinance, driving the tobacco addicts into the few remaining dark corners of the city. Pang intersperses short interviews with the various characters, in the style of TV mockumentary-style confessionals, but the bulk of the film is devoted to following the characters and the very small moments that lead them to fall in love. It's shot in the peripatetic style that's become international shorthand for Realism!, but with the off-hand kind of pictorial virtuosity that defines Hong Kong cinema. Where the images of Sophie's Revenge are pretty but artificial, manufactured, Pang's images are just as colorful, just as beautiful, but seem to arise, like the love story itself, spontaneously out of Hong Kong itself.

Love in the Buff (Pang Ho-cheung, 2012)

Pang Ho-cheung's sequel to Love in a Puff, released two years later but following the previous film directly. Cherie and Jimmy, after dating for some time, breakup and move, separately, to Beijing. There they strike up new relationships (Jimmy with a flight attendant played by Mi Yang (who looks so much like someone but I can't figure out who); Cherie with a very nice bald guy), but when they meet they're inevitably drawn back together.

While not as ground-breaking as the first film, both in the language (toned down) and the characters (inevitable, since we already know these two people so well), it is a step forward in filmmaking for Pang. Gone are the funny but otherwise obtrusive interview segments and the camera is a little more grounded. We do get some meta-comic guest appearances from Ekin Cheng, Huang Xiaoming and Linda Wong that are reasonably successful, but it's mostly the performances of Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue that make this one so compelling. Yeung won the Best Actress Hong Kong Film Award for her performance, and Yue is just as good, with an understated, cock-eyed charm reminiscent of a young Chow Yun-fat.

Before watching these films, I'd known Pang only as the author of the novel that Johnnie To's Fulltime Killer was based on (he wrote it in his mid-20s). I'm putting him firmly in the Subject for Further Research column.