Saturday, January 10, 2015
A new year has come since the last rankings update, which of course means I made some year-end lists, one of My Favorite Discoveries of 2014 and another of the Best Films of the Year (More or Less). I've also written several long reviews, on Pang Ho-Cheung's Aberdeen, Robert Greene's Actress, Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain, Wu Peng's The True Story of Wong Fei-hung: Whiplash Snuffs the Candle Flame and, continuing my chronological look at the films of Johnnie To, his 1988 The Big Heat. I also handed out some fake movie awards for 1999 and 1984.
On They Shot Pictures, we had our big two-part Year in Review Spectacular and should have our third John Ford episode up in the next few weeks. On The George Sanders Show we talked about Our Favorite Discoveries of 2014, the Best in Film from 1984 and the greatness of James Stewart.
These are the movies I've watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Capsule reviews or brief comments can be found for them on my letterboxd page.
The Shopworn Angel (HC Potter) - 8, 1938
Remember the Night (Mitchell Leisen) - 12, 1940
The True Story of Wong Fei-hung: Whiplash Snuffs the Candle Flame (Wu Peng) - 24, 1949
The Cheyenne Social Club (Gene Kelly) - 16, 1970
What's Up, Doc? (Peter Bogdanovich) - 19, 1972
Coffy (Jack Hill) - 19, 1973
They All Laughed (Peter Bogdanovich) - 9, 1981
Conan the Barbarian (John Milius) - 15, 1982
Choose Me (Alan Rudolph) - 4, 1984
Streets of Fire (Walter Hill) - 14, 1984
The Cotton Club (Francis Ford Coppola) - 15, 1984
Sixteen Candles (John Hughes) - 16, 1984
Furious (Tim Everitt & Tom Sartori) - 22, 1984
Love Streams (John Cassavetes) - 24, 1984
Dune (David Lynch) - 28, 1984
Conan the Destroyer (Richard Fleischer) - 47, 1984
Revenge of the Nerds (Jeff Kanew) - 49, 1984
Sunday in the Park with George (Terry Hughes) - 15, 1986
The Big Heat (Johnnie To) - 23, 1988
The Muppet Christmas Carol (Brian Henson) - 37, 1992
Golden Chicken (Samson Chiu) - 4, 2002
The Raid (Gareth Evans) - 22, 2011
Company (Lonny Price) - 25, 2011
It's Such a Beautiful Day (Don Hertzfeldt) - 10, 2012
The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness (Mami Sunada) - 29, 2013
Six by Sondheim (James Lapine) - 41, 2013
Frozen (Chris Buck & Jennifer Lee) - 48, 2013
Anchorman 2 (Adam McKay) - 69, 2013
Actress (Robert Greene) - 8, 2014
The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson) - 9, 2014
Hit 2 Pass (Kurt Walker) - 10, 2014
The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui Hark) - 11, 2014
Uncertain Relationships Society (Heiward Mak) - 12, 2014
Jersey Boys (Clint Eastwood) - 32, 2014
Into the Woods (Rob Marshall) - 34, 2014
Clouds of Sils Maria (Olivier Assayas) - 37, 2014
Aberdeen (Pang Ho-cheung) - 38, 2014
The Raid 2 (Gareth Evans) - 39, 2014
The Babadook (Jennifer Kent) - 43, 2014
Golden Chickensss (Matt Chow) - 44, 2014
Edge of Tomorrow (Doug Liman) - 50, 2014
The Imitation Game (Morten Tyldum) - 59, 2014
Friday, January 09, 2015
Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index. An earlier version of this review appeared here almost two years ago.
So here we come to the first film in the genre that Johnnie To would become best known for: the urban crime thriller. Released a mere seven months after his first big hit, The Eighth Happiness, The Big Heat finds To working with Tsui Hark for the first and only time. In 1986, Tsui (he claims) had convinced the comedians that ran Cinema City to make A Better Tomorrow, even though it wasn't a comedy ("Why would anyone want to see a depressing movie?" they protested according to Tsui in Lisa Morton's The Cinema of Tsui Hark). That film's runaway success launched a whole genre's worth of imitators, radically transforming the Hong Kong movie scene, the effects of which are still felt today. Films like Ringo Lam's City on Fire and Prison on Fire, Parkman Wong's Final Justice, Wong Jing and Corey Yuen's Casino Raiders (which To would direct the sequel to in a few years), Taylor Wong's Rich and Famous, Yuen Wo-ping's Tiger Cage, Patrick Tam's My Heart is that Eternal Rose, Wong Kar-wai's As Tears Go By, Corey Yuen's She Shoots Straight, Lau Kar-leung's Tiger on the Beat films (and on a parallel track, kung fu films descending from Jackie Chan's Police Story, the Yes, Madam and In the Line of Duty movies featuring Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock and Donnie Yen, along with Yuen Biao's Righting Wrongs, most of which were directed by Corey Yuen or Yuen Woo-ping), and more all quickly followed before the end of the decade. Into this genre stepped Johnnie To, maker of wuxia television and slapstick romantic farces.
The film was apparently a very troubled production, going through a number of directors (see this interview with its screenwriter, Gordon Chan, who would go on to write and direct one of Jet Li's greatest films, Fist of Legend, in 1994), and Tsui, working with Cinema City and his own production house Film Workshop, was in the midst of a half-decade of problematic working relationships with directors like John Woo (on the two A Better Tomorrow sequels) and King Hu (on Swordsman), relationships that seem to presage To's own difficulties in the late 90s in trying to produce other director's films in the early days of Milkyway Image. The Big Heat went through a variety of directors, and while To is the primary name, the mishmash nature of the film makes it hard to credit any one thing to a particular authorial voice. It's a cops vs. gangsters story, with Waise Lee as the about-to-retire veteran who learns his ex-partner (injured in the line of duty, a bad leg ala Mark in A Better Tomorrow) has been brutally murdered in Malaysia. He takes the case and assembles a team which includes a callow rookie, a Malaysian cop who always wears sunglasses and his regular partner, Philip Kwok, one of the Five Deadly Venoms, to take down the criminals. The plot moves briskly, with a minimum of melodrama or characterization (Joey Wang is sadly underused as the rookie's love interest), rarely taking the time to explain something in words that can be inferred from images, like the fact that Lee suffers from nerve damage in his left hand, which is why he wants to retire. Whether a byproduct of a chaotic writing and editing process, or an intentional storytelling choice, the result is a brisk and exciting cop movie, a step above the Taylor Wongs of the period.
There are other echoes of later To films, the most obvious example being a shootout between two groups of cops, one side suffused in fire engine-red light, with the other in deep blue (much like the blue in the opening of To's 1999 film Where a Good Man Goes), a ne plus ultra of late-80s Hong Kong neon. In its visual stylization and willingness to pause the action for several beats as the gunmen plan their actions, it presages many of To's later gun battles. The violence in the film is nauseatingly realistic, from the opening images of a hand punctured by a drill: bodies are beheaded, set aflame, run over by cars again and again, limbs shattered by bullets. It's more graphic than anything To would later depict (though the early Milkyway films certainly don't shy away from violence), more like the grotesque horror-comedy of something like Tsui's We're Going to Eat You or Ringo Lam's 1992 Full Contact than the restrained cool of Drug War or the Election films. Most To-like though is a magical bit of release near the middle of the film as the cops, rejecting a bribe from the film's villain, throw piles of cash into the air, watching it blow in the breeze, that recalls moments of childlike freedom snatched from bleaker realities in Throw Down (as when the plot is temporarily suspended so the three main characters can collaborate to free a red balloon from a tree) or Sparrow or the Running Out of Time films, which take what are ostensibly dark and violent gangster movie settings and turn them into spaces for play and possibility.
Waise Lee, the heel from A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head, is excellent playing against type as the hero (as is Chu Kong, Chow Yun-fat's friend in The Killer) playing equally against type as the bad guy. Lee is yet another To hero with a disability, see also: Throw Down, Mad Detective, Running on Karma, Running Out of Time, Vengeance, Yesterday Once More, Love on a Diet, Wu Yen, Blind Detective and, if being dead counts as a handicap, A Hero Never Dies and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts. But where most of those other films use the disability as a launching point for the character's transcendence of physical limitations, either spiritually or through an existential stand in the name of honor, loyalty, friendship, and/or love, The Big Heat remains thoroughly materialist, grounded in the world of Hong Kong's cops and gangsters before the fall. The sense of vague dread, of millennial fatalism that hangs over much of To's later work is present here, but it's given a more explicit and specific, and (therefore) rather less interesting, name: the gangsters openly discuss their plans to cash in while they can before the '97 handover of Hong Kong to China. The end is a plot motivation, rather than a mood. The result of these compromises is a very solid action movie that at times seems like it's going to burst free of its genre, but is missing that last little twist that would become the hallmark of To's Milkway Image films beginning a decade later.
The stand-out performance might be that of Philip Kwok. Kwok has done just about everything you can do in movies: direct, star, write (he was one of the writers on Once Upon a Time in China and America, the sixth(!) in the series started by Jet Li (who took the fourth and fifth films off) and Tsui Hark and the one which was ripped off by Jackie Chan for the big international hit Shanghai Noon (aka, the kung fu movie that my mom likes), although I've heard that Tsui and Sammo Hung may have ripped the idea off from Chan before he was able to make his version of the story), choreograph, produce, he even has an art direction credit (for Wilson Yip's 2004 film Leaving Me, Loving You, starring Leon Lai and Faye Wong). He was of course the Lizard in Chang Cheh's Five Deadly Venoms, but is probably most recognizable as Mad Dog, the bad guy with the eye patch in John Woo's Hard-Boiled.
Wednesday, January 07, 2015
Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.
This film, released in 1949, was the first of 77 times Kwan Tak-hing played the kung fu folk hero Wing fie-hung, kicking off a wildly successful series of serials that ran steadily for the next 15 years or so (including 25 films alone in 1956). I've only been able to see him in later films, homages to the serials where fans Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping had him reprise his famous role in The Magnificent Butcher and Dreadnaught, respectively. Yuen's father, Yuen Siu-tien (most famous as Jackie Chan's Drunken Master), plays one of the villains in this film, though he wasn't a regular in the series (Kwan's most frequent opponent was Shih Kien, the bad guy from Enter the Dragon). Lau Cham was a frequent actor, stunt man and choreographer on the series, and later his sons Lau Kar-wing and Lau Kar-leung worked on them as well.
I recently stumbled across this on youtube, it's the only one of the Wong serials I've been able to find with English subtitles (you can watch it here. It's in poor visual and audio quality, and the story is pretty rote. The first 30 minutes follows Wong as he rescues the wife of a local merchant from a bad guy who has kidnapped her and chained her in his basement (there are no credits, but I think this villain is Yuen Siu-tien). The second half involves a rivalry between Wong and another martial arts instructor, complicated by the heedless actions of Wong's student Leung Foon (memorably played by Yuen Biao in Tsui Hark's Once Upon a Time in China). The characterization is minimal: Wong's a stand-up guy and everyone knows it, though there is a hilariously uncomfortable scene where he's cornered in the bedroom of a young female admirer, the chasteness that was so essential to Jet Li and Tsui Hark's version of the character already well-established.
What is most of interest here of course is the action. There's a marked emphasis on performance, beginning with the opening shots of the film, a series of long takes of a lion dancer (Kwan himself) at work. In fact, the opening is very much reminiscent of the opening of Lau Kar-leung's Martial Club, one of his Wong Fei-hung films, where (after Lau himself explains to the camera what a lion dance is) we see a long performance followed by a fight breaking out among rival groups which Wong himself breaks up. I'm almost certain Lau is calling back to this film. Regardless, the realism of the actors' and stuntmen's performances are constantly highlighted, with director Wu Peng opting for long takes and long shots, with very little of the cutting or zooming for emphasis that would later become kung fu movie staples, nor any of the cutting to obscure motion or impact that has always been the Hollywood standard. Throughout the film there are little asides where a performer will display some kind of technique (which the subtitler has neatly annotated for us), including some eight-diagram pole fighting, various kung fu stances, but also a long performance of a Dragon Boat song, on the history and meaning of which the subtitler has provided a lengthy disquisition. This emphasis on realism is in stark contrast to the wuxia fantasies that had dominated the Chinese action film since the dawn of cinema. Here, in post-war Hong Kong is a new kind of action film, populated by actual practitioners the arts, using genre film as a new means not just of showing off their skills, but passing on their knowledge and culture (specifically Southern Chinese, Cantonese culture) to the next generations. This pedagogic impulse would become a hallmark of Lau Kar-leung's films.
There's a remarkable shot about halfway through the film in the middle of a mass fight sequence (the choreography strikingly complex relative to the simplicity of the rest of the film) where the camera cuts to an overhead angle directly above two fighters on a balcony while at the same time slowing down the motion just enough to make the effect noticeable. Alien music rises, a Tchaikovsky piano concerto of all things, and you can imagine that, probably for the first time, someone in the audience thought, "You know, kung fu movies are kind of like musicals!"
Monday, January 05, 2015
Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.
Look deep into the movie listings this January, past the big name awards fodder, the PT Andersons and the Rob Marshalls, the biopics and social problem films, and you'll find, in limited release, the latest picture from one of the most influential and important directors of the past 40 years, Tsui Hark, whose name remains so unknown in the US he's as likely to be identified by his personal name as his family name (for the record: he is Mr. Tsui, not Mr. Hark; pronounced "Choy - Hok"). As director, producer, writer and even actor, Tsui has played a prominent role in every stage of Hong Kong cinema since the mid-1970s, from the New Wave through "heroic bloodshed" and the wuxia revival of the 80s and early 90s; from the pre-Handover exodus to Hollywood to the present-day integration with the Mainland and the proliferation of digital technology. With at least a dozen classics spanning just as many genres, Tsui stands among the most accomplished directors in film history, Hong Kong or otherwise.
His latest film, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, like his previous two films shot in 3D, is the latest in a string of works linking traditional genres to contemporary digital technology, recasting gong'an crime fiction and King Hu-era wuxia in the language of modern CGI-spectacle with his Detective Dee films and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, respectively. Tiger Mountain is ultimately based on a 1957 novel by Qu Bo called Tracks in the Snowy Forest, a story from which was adapted into the Peking Opera Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy which was itself the chosen by Madame Mao as one of the Eight Model Operas during the Cultural Revolution. The film begins in the present, in New York City in the winter of 2015. A young man is at a cosmopolitan, multilingual and multi-racial party with friends (it appears to be his own going-away party) and encounters on the karaoke machine a scene from the 1970 film version of the Tiger Mountain opera. (This is similar to Tsui's own experience seeing the film when he was a young man in New York in the early 1970s, as he recounts in this interview.) It sends him into a fit of nostalgia ("It's your hometown!" jokes one of his friends), a reverie that will last the course of the film as he takes a detour from his cross-country trip to a new job all the way back home to China, where he watches the opera-film on his telephone and a smash cut brings Tsui's movie to life on-screen. We'll return to the young man at the end of the film, his story will remain merely the frame through which we view our war movie.
And a war movie it is, a fine example of a venerable genre. A small band of People's Liberation Army fighters are in the midst of the civil war that followed Japanese defeat at the end of World War II, operating against the forces of the Nationalist Kuomintang Party and various gangs of criminal warlords in the snowy chaos of Northern China. Righteous defenders of the common people, the PLA set-up base in a ravaged village and try to take down a gang headquartered at a former Japanese fortress and arsenal on Tiger Mountain. One man, Yang Zirong (played by Mainland actor Zhang Hanyu), attempts to infiltrate the gang while the rest of the 30 or so cold and starving freedom fighters, led by a wise and stoic figure known only as Captain 203, dig-in to defend the village. (Somewhat interestingly: in Teddy Chan's 2009 film Bodyguards and Assassins, Zhang played Sun Yat-sen, the revolutionary founder of the KMT, instrumental in the overthrow of the Qing Dynasty. Sun himself is a heroic figure as well in Tsui's Once Upon a Time in China II). The bulk of the first half of the film is a series of war movie character-establishing cliches (nickname-based male camaraderie, women and children in peril), though the film is blessedly free of pathos-inspiring backstory, punctuated by brief bursts of suspense and action (most impressively when Yang is attacked in the forest by a giant CGI tiger). The Other Tony Leung plays Hawk, the villainous gang leader, a veteran of the anti-Japanese war twisted both morally and physically (he looks as much like Danny DeVito's Penguin as he does the toweringly handsome Leung we've seen in so many other films), with a penchant for inventive means of punishing his enemies (you know you're in for a night when 15 minutes into the film a bad guy gets eaten by a bird). The second half of the film is a series of increasingly spectacular action sequences, beginning with a long and impressive, mostly practical-effect-driven, defense of the village that recalls no less than Seven Samurai in its depiction of the geography of battle and culminating with an explosive assault on the mountain fortress built around increasingly implausible, but no less wildly enjoyable, computer effects.
The film returns to its frame at the end, with the young man back in his home village, visiting his (great-?)grandmother at Lunar New Year. This ending deviously recontextualizes the film we've just seen. Rather than simply a fine, if rather rote genre picture made by a filmmaker named Tsui Hark, we're invited to see it instead as a product of the young man's imagination: it is his picture, not Tsui's. What Tsui gives us is his version of the way a person today might imagine what had been actual events, just as Madame Mao's opera was her vision, just as Qu Bo's novel was his version of events in the lives of the actual people who fought in the actual war, the actuality of which is impossible for us to experience or anyone to express. Thus the film's limitations (and strengths) are instead the limitations (and strengths) of our own era's imagination. Genre and tradition, the ways we tell stories, are the way we experience history, the way we keep the past alive. The way we depict the heroes of our past says more about us than it does about them, but if we do it right, the core of their experience, the heroism and idealism we valorize, will remain intact. What we pass on need not be the facts of heroism, the realism of it, but the spirit, the meaning of heroism. In this way, Tiger Mountain is somewhat similar to Nina Paley's Sita Sings the Blues, in which a woman reinterprets the Ramayana (and the sad jazz of 1920s chanteuse Annette Hanshaw) to help cope with the collapse of her marriage. More of a stretch but I still think similar too are the transformations James Lapine and Stephen Sondheim made to their play Into the Woods for the current adaptation, toning down the darkness and complexity to reflect (and perhaps appeal more to) a broader, literally more Disney-fied, audience. With Tiger Mountain, Tsui takes the politics out of what had been a deeply propagandistic work: his PLA never mentions Mao, never talks about revolution or the proletariat. Not being overtly political is as much a fact of the present blockbuster as the enforced ideology of the Model Operas was. The film we see, the young man's film, celebrates less controversial, more ancient, more universal virtues, virtues passed down from the past to the present, linked by the telling of a story. Tsui Hark has spent his career translating ancient stories to a contemporary vernacular, from The Butterfly Murders and Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain, to his epics chronicling folk hero Wong Fei-hung's adventures from the Boxer Rebellion to the collapse of the Qing Dynasty, to updated versions of Chinese Ghost Stories, Green Snakes and Butterfly Lovers. With a giddy embrace of the new and a slyly anarchic wit that at times overflows with into an expression of nihilistic rage (The Blade, Dangerous Encounters-First Kind), Tsui keeps pushing the past into the future, but the translation has never before been so felt, the absence of the past's conventions, or of a political point of view, so apparent. The young man, joyously, finds his connection to the past, yet we are adrift in history. We have great machinery for the telling of stories.