Advertisements

Monthly Archives: September 2011

A Hong Kong Cinema Primer, pt. 2

A continuation of my list of essential Hong Kong movies. This part of the list includes titles released between 1986 and the present.

A Better Tomorrow (Woo, 1986)

With this 1986 action movie extravaganza, John Woo almost single-handedly kicked off the “heroic bloodshed” genre, where the conventions of the period swordplay film are transposed to the mean street of contemporary Hong Kong. This tale of two brothers on opposite sides of the law (one a cop, the other a counterfeiter) has all of Woo’s soon-to-be trademarks: outrageously choreographed shootouts, mawkish melodrama, references to Martin Scorsese and Jean-Pierre Melville, and the charismatic Chow Yun-Fat at his most iconic – sporting sunglasses and a trench coat and with a .45 in each hand. Boo-yah!

An Autumn’s Tale (Cheung, 1987)

Or Another Side of Chow Yun-Fat. While Chow will likely always be most closely identified with John Woo shoot-em-ups, I think his best performance is in this beautiful romantic drama by the relatively unheralded female director Mabel Cheung. An Autumn’s Tale was shot entirely in New York City and charts the exceedingly poignant love story between Jennifer (Cherie Chung), a Hong Kong native who moves to the States to join her no-good, cheating boyfriend at NYU, and her cousin Figgy (Chow), a gambler and wastrel who nonetheless proves to have a heart of gold. The two leads are superb and the deft use of New York locations makes this sweet and touching film a priceless time capsule.

A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching, 1987)

Producer Tsui Hark (often referred to as “the Steven Spielberg of Hong Kong” for his proclivity for big budget fantasy) teamed up with action choregrapher Ching Siu-Tung for this awesome remake of the Shaw Brothers’ 1960 ghost story classic The Enchanting Shadow. Leslie Cheung plays Ling, a traveling tax collector who seeks refuge for the night in a haunted temple where he falls in love with a beautiful young woman (Joey Wang) who turns out to be a ghost! Scary, funny (Cheung is hilarious as the bumbling Ling), thrilling, romantic and with delightful special effects (I’m especially fond of the tree spirit with the killer tongue).

Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui, 1991)

As producer/writer/director Tsui Hark inaugurated a new wuxia boom in the late ’80s and early ’90s with titles like Swordsman I and II, Dragon Inn and the Once Upon a Time in China films starring Jet Li as real life doctor/martial arts hero Wong Fei-Hung. Set in the late 19th century, the first and best of the series pits Wong against the forces of British and American colonialism as well as local Chinese gangs and throws in a taboo romance between Wong and his Aunt Yee (the lovely Rosamund Kwan) for good measure. A serious, intelligent kung fu film with fight scenes as exciting and cinematic as the best dance sequences from the golden age of the Hollywood musical.

Actress (aka Centre Stage) (Kwan, 1992)

Prior to the rise of Wong Kar-Wai, Stanley Kwan was Hong Kong’s most prominent art film director. Often distributed under the English title Centre Stage (an ill fit since that connotes theatrical performance), Actress is Kwan’s masterpiece and one of the all-time great Hong Kong films – a biopic of silent Chinese film star Ruan Ling-Yu (Maggie Cheung in her first great performance) who committed suicide at the age of 24. Shuttling back and forth in time, set against a backdrop of political tumult and audaciously including clips from Ruan’s classic films as well as documentary segments featuring director Stanley Kwan and the cast of Actress, this is essential viewing for anyone who cares about cinema.

The Bride with White Hair (Yu, 1993)

In many ways the ultimate Hong Kong film – a Romeo and Juliet style love story liberally dosed with fantasy, comedy, over-the-top action and colorful, expressionist sets. Brigitte Lin (a Garbo-esque icon of mystery and beauty) plays Lian Ni-Chang, a girl raised by wolves(!) who works as an assassin for an evil cult. She falls in love with Zhuo Yi-Hang (Leslie Cheung), a Wu Tang Clan commander and the chief rival of her bosses. The conflict both characters face, between professional duty and the desires of the heart, is almost inexplicably moving given the film’s outrageous, absurdist tone. But that kind of off-the-wall genre-busting is what Hong Kong cinema is all about.

A Chinese Odyssey (Lau, 1994)

Jeffrey Lau, Wong Kar-Wai’s more commercially-minded cousin, directed this ambitious and masterful two-part adaptation of the classic Chinese novel Journey to the West. Part one is subtitled Pandora’s Box, part two is subtitled Cinderella; both must be seen in sequence to be understood. The convoluted but consistently entertaining plot tells the epic story of how Buddhism came to China courtesy of Joker, a bandit who discovers that he is the reincarnation of the “Monkey King.” Lau’s masterstroke was casting Stephen Chow, one of the most popular Hong Kong actors (and filmmakers) of the late ’90s and early ’00s, in a relatively early performance that is arguably his finest. It is no exaggeration to say that Chow recalls no one here so much as golden age Charlie Chaplin in his flawless blend of comedy and pathos.

Chungking Express (Wong, 1994)

One of the definitive films of the ’90s, Wong Kar-Wai’s refreshingly original spin on the romantic comedy tells two parallel but unrelated stories involving heartbroken cops (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Tony Leung) who attempt to get over recent break-ups by becoming involved with strange new women – a counter girl at a fast food restaurant (Faye Wong in her first screen performance) and an international drug smuggler (Brigitte Lin in her last). Wong’s innovative visual style, predicated on handheld cinematography and optical effects that turn nocturnal Hong Kong into an impressionistic blur of colorful neon, ideally compliment the film’s alternately sweet, funny and melancholy tone. The cinematic equivalent of a perfect pop song.

The Mission (To, 1999)

I’m fond of calling Johnnie To the world’s greatest genre director and this film, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is the best place to start exploring his work. After an attempt is made on his life, a triad boss hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male actors of the ’90s) to serve as his personal bodyguards while trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot however takes a serious back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes bonding and playing practical jokes on each other. (A personal highlight is the brilliant sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper ball soccer match.) When the action does come, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness and monochromatic color scheme on which the entire film is based.

Infernal Affairs (Lau/Mak, 2002)

Directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak reinvigorated the cop thriller with this inventive and complex doppelganger story about an undercover police officer (Tony Leung) who infiltrates a gang and his opposite number, a gangster (Andy Lau) who becomes a “mole” in the police force. In addition to the swiftly paced storytelling, beautiful cinematography (Wong Kar-Wai’s longtime DP Chris Doyle is credited as consultant) and Leung’s impressively tortured performance, what really impresses here is the extent to which the film eschews physical violence in favor of old-fashioned suspense based on cat-and-mouse style chase scenes. Deepened by references to Buddhism (the film’s original title translates as “Continuous Hell”), this is far superior to the Hollywood remake (Martin Scorsese’s The Departed).

Advertisements

Festival Screening and Lecture Alert

My short film At Last, Okemah! will be playing as part of the Comedy and Narrative Short Fiction program at the Estes Park Film Festival in Estes Park, Colorado on Sunday, September 18th at 1:15pm. Members of the cast and crew (but alas not me) will be present. More info, including how to purchase tickets, can be found here:

Estes Park Film Festival

On October 22nd, I will be presenting a midnight screening of James Whale’s The Old Dark House at Facets Multimedia – so mark it on your calendars and come prepared to join the midnight madness! It will be showing as part of “Fright School 3”, a month-long series of horror movies to celebrate Halloween. Any of my students who attend will receive extra credit. Check the extra credit page of your course website for details. More info about the screening, including a description of my presentation and how to purchase tickets, can be found here:

Facets Fright School


The Last Ten Movies I Saw

1. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Fassbinder)
2. Man with the Movie Camera (Vertov)
3. The Slumber Party Massacre (Jones)
4. L’atalante (Vigo)
5. Sweet Sixteen (Sotos)
6. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
7. Bed and Sofa (Room)
8. Our Hospitality (Keaton)
9. Some Came Running (Minnelli)
10. Nosferatu (Murnau)


A Hong Kong Cinema Primer, pt. 1

For many cinephiles Hong Kong remains synonymous with the kind of wild and woolly action typical of the movies that first broke through in the West in the late 1980s and early 1990s: the kung fu of Jackie Chan and Jet Li, the outrageously choreographed shootouts of John Woo and the wuxia (or period martial arts) films featuring physics-defying “wirework” characteristic of director Tsui Hark and choreographers Ching Siu-Tung and Yuen Wo-Ping. But Hong Kong cinema has always had much more to offer, as the list of titles below (including comedies, musicals, melodramas and unclassifiable art films) should make clear. In the early 1990s Hong Kong could boast of having the third most prolific movie industry in the world (after only Hollywood and Bollywood), an astonishing statistic given the then-British colony’s small size. In 1994 alone over 400 locally made films were released in Hong Kong theaters. In recent years that number has sadly dwindled to a couple dozen features released annually due to a downturn in the economy, rampant piracy and the migration of talent to Hollywood and elsewhere. Nonetheless, the rich, glorious past of Hong Kong’s film industry, fully justified in being called “the Hollywood of the East,” is well worth exploring in depth. One can only hope that it will someday rise again.

The list is divided into two parts. Part one below covers the late 1950s through the early 1980s, an era with which even some Hong Kong cinema aficionados aren’t familiar (although it was arguably the territory’s true classic period). Part two, to be published next week, covers the mid-1980s through the present. In chronological order:

The Kingdom and the Beauty (Li, 1959)

The Shaw Brothers Studio was the most significant movie studio in the history of Hong Kong, ushering in the territory’s first golden age in the late 1950s. One of the quintessential films of this era is Li Han-Hsiang’s The Kingdom and the Beauty, a handsomely mounted musical/historical drama about a young Emperor (Zhao Lei) during the Ming Dynasty who goes AWOL and falls in love with commoner Li Feng (Linda Lin Dai), the “beauty” of the title. A great example of Hong Kong’s “yellow plum opera” genre as well as a terrific showcase for Lin Dai, an icon of style and beauty who committed suicide at the height of her fame – and thus sealed her legend as the Chinese Marilyn Monroe. Remade as Chinese Odyssey 2002.

The Wild, Wild Rose (Wong, 1960)

In the 1950s and 1960s Hong Kong enjoyed a prolific, star-studded golden age in which films were made according to an assembly line style of production similar to Hollywood’s studio system of the 1930s-1950s. The chief rival of the Shaw Brothers Studio (the MGM of Hong Kong) was the MP&GI Studio (later Cathay) who were known less for lavish sets and costumes than for documentary-style location shooting. The Wild, Wild Rose is an MP&GI masterpiece directed by the formidable Wong Tin-Lam (father of the future hack director Wong Jing) that transposes Bizet’s opera Carmen to the noirish setting of Hong Kong’s Wanchai district. A fantastic vehicle for the immortal Grace Chang, a musical star who usually played innocent ingenues but who burns up the screen here as the notorious man-eating nightclub singer Sijia.

Come Drink with Me (Hu, 1966)

King Hu was arguably the greatest of all Chinese directors. He got his start with the Shaw Brothers where he made the wuxia classic Come Drink with Me in 1966. Unfortunately, his slow, meticulous working methods caused him to run afoul of his superiors and most of his subsequent masterpieces were made in exile in Taiwan. Come Drink with Me is one of the most influential martial arts films of all time and a very unique one in that it centers on a female protagonist (Cheng Pei-Pei). This is just one of the many respects in which Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (where Cheng was cast as the villainous Jade Fox) pays homage to Hu.

The Arch (Tang, 1969)

Cecille Tang’s masterpiece is often cited as Hong Kong’s first “art film” and indeed in terms of style this ascetic Ming dynasty period piece often feels like the Chinese equivalent of Andrei Rublev. Madame Tung (Lisa Lu) is a schoolteacher and widow asked by the government to provide room and board to cavalry Captain Yang (Roy Chiao) who arrives in her small farming village to protect the harvest from bandits. Both Madame Tung and her adolescent daughter develop feelings for the Captain during his stay in a quietly devastating romantic tragedy marked by minimalistic dialogue and haunting, austere black and white cinematography courtesy of Satyajit Ray’s regular director of photography Subrata Mitra.

Have Sword Will Travel (Chang, 1969)

Hong Kong’s most important martial arts director in the wake of King Hu’s departure was Chang Cheh; he directed both Golden Swallow (the sequel to Come Drink with Me) as well as the massively influential One Armed Swordsman starring Jimmy Wang-Yu. My own favorite Chang movie is Have Sword Will Travel from 1969, featuring the popular duo of David Chiang and Ti Lung. The plot concerns a love triangle between three people whose job is to transport a large shipment of Imperial silver but it’s the action set pieces and dreamy, expressionistic cinematography, which achieves an almost abstract purity in its focus on form and color, that prove to be the real stars of the show.

Fist of Fury (Lo, 1972)

Bruce Lee was a genius martial artist and a charismatic actor. Unfortunately, in his short career he never quite found the proper movie vehicle to match his talents. Fist of Fury is the film that probably comes the closest with Lee playing Chen, a Chinese martial arts student trying to avenge the death of his teacher at the hands of Japanese oppressors. Worth seeing for a number of iconic scenes such as Chen smashing a “No dogs or Chinese” sign, the first appearance of Chen’s nunchaku and the climactic fight between Chen and Petrov (Lee’s real life bodyguard Robert Baker).

The Magic Blade (Chor, 1976)

Chor Yuen is one of the most neglected of the major Hong Kong directors. He started off as an independent in the ’50s and ’60s, directing low-budget but charming Feuilladean mysteries like Black Rose and The Spy with My Face. But Chor really hit his stride in the ’70s after signing a contract with the Shaw Brothers and making a series of stylized swordplay films based on the period novels of Ku Lung. This outing, about rival swordsmen teaming up to find a mysterious weapon known as “the peacock dart,” is his best – a beautifully directed action film that combines the conventions of traditional wuxia with elements from the spaghetti westerns of Sergio Leone as well as the James Bond franchise.

The Private Eyes (Hui, 1976)

Most of the films produced in Hong Kong prior to The Private Eyes were spoken in Mandarin, the predominant dialect of mainland China, even though the majority of the population of Hong Kong speaks Cantonese. This changed almost overnight with the phenomenal success of writer/director Michael Hui’s hysterical, Cantonese “nonsense comedy” about a low-rent detective agency staffed by Hui and his real-life younger brothers Sam and Ricky. Like all Hui brothers comedies, this is characterized by Groucho Marx-style wordplay that is probably best appreciated by Cantonese speakers; however, there is also a healthy dose of physical comedy – Michael Hui brandishing sausage link nunchaku is funny in any language.

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau, 1978)

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin is The Searchers of kung fu movies – the absolute pinnacle of the genre, often imitated but never equaled. The plot tells the fictional story of how Shaolin martial arts spread beyond the Buddhist temples in 17th century China as the native Han learned to fight against their Manchu oppressors. Starring the charismatic Gordon Liu and directed by his brother, the legendary choreographer Lau Kar-Leung, this film focuses almost exclusively on training sequences rather than fights, which contributes mightily to the uplifting theme of self-empowerment. Essential viewing whether you are a martial arts fan or not.

Project A (Chan/Tang, 1983)

Jackie Chan is to martial arts what Buster Keaton was to physical comedy; both pioneered a way to combine their respective genres with jaw-dropping and death defying stunts in order to bring the world first rate entertainment. This stuntman-as-auteur style looks increasingly impressive from our 21st century CGI-laden vantage point; dangerous stunts have become obsolete simply because they’re no longer necessary from a technological point of view. However, something has been lost in the process – audience excitement over knowing they are seeing something done “for real.” Having said all that, I’m not the world’s biggest Jackie Chan fan. As much as I love his insane stunt work, I find his outrageous facial mugging and frequent indulgence in low comedy to be annoying. But these aspects are more subdued in Project A, an exhilarating action-filled comedy with Chan as a Chinese coast guard officer fighting pirates at the turn of the 20th century. The clock tower climax, an homage to Harold Lloyd in Safety Last!, is nearly as impressive as in the original.

To be continued . . .


%d bloggers like this: