I reviewed Johnnie To’s The Mission Cine-File Chicago. It screens Doc Films on 35mm this Tuesday.
Johnnie To’s THE MISSION (Hong Kong Revival)Doc Films (University of Chicago) — Tuesday, 7pm
Hong Kong’s Johnnie To arguably has been the world’s greatest director of genre films for the past quarter of a century and 1999’s THE MISSION, the coolest gangster movie since the heyday of Jean-Pierre Melville, is an ideal entry point into his prolific filmography for the uninitiated. After an attempt is made on the life of triad boss Brother Lung (Eddy Ko), he hires five professional killers (a who’s who of Hong Kong’s best male character actors of the ’90s: Roy Cheung, Jackie Lui, Francis Ng, Lam Suet, and Anthony Wong) to serve as his personal bodyguards while also trying to unravel the mystery of who ordered the hit. Plot, however, takes a major back seat to character development as scene after scene depicts our quintet of heroes simply bonding and playing practical jokes on one other (a personal highlight is the brilliantly shot and edited office-set sequence where the five co-leads engage in an impromptu paper-ball soccer match). When the action does come, as in a spectacular shopping-mall shootout, it arrives in minimalist, tableaux-like images of meticulously posed characters whose staccato gunfire disrupts the silence, stillness, and monochromatic blue color scheme on which the entire film is based. The quirky synthesizer score only adds to the fun. (1999, 89 min, 35mm) MGS
More info at www.docfilms.uchicago.edu.
Tag Archives: Johnnie To
I reviewed Johnnie To’s The Mission Cine-File Chicago. It screens Doc Films on 35mm this Tuesday.
It’s a bit too long and I never again want to see a horror movie that climaxes with “demonologists” wielding crucifixes and reciting bible verses in Latin but I still enjoyed the hell out of The Conjuring 2, a sequel that is far better than it has any right to be. Not as terrifying as the first (there is nothing to match the creepiness of that film’s Annabelle prologue nor the instant-classic “clap scene”), it nonetheless strikes an appealing balance between the goofy and the scary. The best sequence is the one in which Ed Warren (Patrick Wilson) croons Elvis’ version of “Can’t Help Falling in Love” to a group of children while accompanying himself on finger-picked acoustic guitar. It may be the least essential scene on the level of story but it makes me indescribably happy because it’s so old-fashioned and so much like something out of a (non-musical) Hollywood movie of the 1940s or 1950s. As with similar moments involving Dean Martin and Ricky Nelson in Howard Hawks’ Rio Bravo or the Sons of the Pioneers in John Ford’s Rio Grande, the narrative here stops completely cold so that someone can simply sing a song — in its entirety. It’s also the scene that best exemplifies the surprisingly warm-hearted tone of The Conjuring 2, an ostensible horror/thriller that, much more than its predecessor, makes the unusual decision to foreground the love story between its married protagonists. This, and the urban, working-class London setting — so different from the rural Rhode Island farmhouse of the first movie — ensure that director James Wan is able to produce something that feels aesthetically fresh even while he sticks closely to a familiar narrative playbook.
The mostly respectful reviews of The Conjuring 2 have predictably focused on the literary virtues of story and character, with the odd stray remark praising the movie’s elaborate displays of “moving camera.” While the camera movement is indeed masterful, I’d argue that it’s Wan’s mise-en-scene (that slippery term denoting how a director stages events for the camera) that truly impresses. No matter how silly his scripts might be (and this is the first feature on which Wan has taken a co-writing credit), this motherfucker knows how to organize space: he always takes great care to visually lay out the interiors of his locations — usually through tracking shots and crane shots in which the camera prowls, cat-like, through hallways and up and down staircases — so that viewers completely understand where each room is in relation to every other room. Wan then uses the viewer’s knowledge of the architectural layout of the space to build anticipation and tighten the narrative screws. A case in point is a scene involving a tent made out of blankets that is ominously positioned at the end of a long hallway. Wan puts the camera in a child’s bedroom and keeps the tent in frame but out-of-focus through an open door in the background, generating an incredible amount of suspense over what purpose the tent may hold within the narrative. Even better, he composes this shot, Polanski-like, so that only half of the tent can be seen in the frame. At the screening I attended, viewers were visibly trying to crane their necks around the frame of the bedroom door onscreen. Wan, an Australian director of Malaysian-Chinese descent, is arguably the only director making Hollywood genre movies today who possesses this level of visual mastery and it’s high time he was recognized for the being the auteur that he is.
The old-fashioned virtues of mise-en-scene can, of course, be readily found in contemporary genre films made outside of the U.S. — notably in Asian genre fare such as Na Hong-Jin’s The Wailing from South Korea and Johnnie To’s Three from Hong Kong. The latter film, a thriller set entirely in a hospital, recently had an under-publicized and too-brief run in a few major U.S. cities (including in Chicago at the AMC River East) and viewers who caught it on the big screen should consider themselves lucky — it reaffirms why To is the best at what he does. The plot centers on a crime boss, Shun (Wallace Chung), who has shot himself in the head during a police standoff before the movie’s narrative proper begins. In spite of the seriousness of his injury, Shun, handcuffed to a gurney, refuses surgery in the hospital’s Emergency Room in hopes that his minions will soon show up to rescue him. Again shades of Rio Bravo abound, not only in terms of plot (a criminal under police supervision waits to be sprung by accomplices while being holed up in a claustrophobic location) but also in terms of theme. Three is a virtual essay on how professional duty and moral responsibility intersect and sometimes come into conflict; the Cop (Louis Koo) watching over Shun and the Doctor (Zhao Wei) in whose care he’s been placed repeatedly clash heads in a location that is at once semi-public and semi-private, and over which neither has complete dominion. The A.V. Club’s Ignatiy Vishnevetsky, probably the most astute critic of To in the English language, memorably describes how the use of curtains to cordon off hospital beds “create proscenium arches for intrigue and misdirection.” No matter that Three falls apart in an over-the-top climactic shootout that involves dodgy CGI; To, like Wan, knows how to use location as character and the expressive theatricality of his sets is exhilarating to behold for most of the film’s running time.
In spite of near-unanimous praise, Jeremy Saulnier’s indie thriller Green Room is a movie that spectacularly fails to capitalize on the cinematic possibilities inherent in its central location: a punk-rock club under siege. The conventional wisdom regarding Green Room is that it’s a throwback to “early John Carpenter” but this analogy only makes sense when one considers the film in terms of narrative and genre elements, not in terms of actual filmmaking technique (i.e., mise-en-scene, cinematography and editing). Carpenter’s breakthrough film Assault on Precinct 13 (itself an unofficial remake of, you guessed it, Rio Bravo) involved a Los Angeles police station besieged by gang members. But what often makes the Carpenter of Assault, and its follow-up Halloween, so great is the director’s masterful use of the widescreen frame. Carpenter’s 2.35:1 compositions cleverly use foreground and background elements to create tension and build suspense (think of Michael Meyers repeatedly popping up in the background of the frame in the early sections of Halloween). Saulnier, by contrast, treats his ‘Scope compositions as if he were shooting in the square Academy ratio — close-ups might as well be long shots and vice-versa. Worse, he’s incapable of, or unwilling to, coherently lay out the space of his central location like Wan or To. In shots that are often under-lit, murky and ugly, his musician heroes (R.I.P. Anton Yelchin!) attempt to battle their way past their neo-Nazi tormentors and out of the club towards freedom, but viewers are frequently unsure of where these characters are in relation to one other. This ensures that Saulnier is only capable of generating surprise — in the form of out-of-the-blue bursts of violence — as opposed to good old-fashioned suspense (to borrow a distinction that Alfred Hitchcock liked to make). Is it effective on a visceral level? Sure. But Cinema it ain’t.
Here are a baker’s dozen of the titles I’d most like to see turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. I actually compiled this list before the release a couple weeks ago of CIFF’s “Sneak Preview” confirming that Blue is the Warmest Color will indeed receive its Chicago premiere at the Fest. I also forgot that the Jarmusch movie has no chance in hell of making the cut because it’s being released by Sony Pictures Classics, a distributor with a long track record of pointedly not submitting their films to CIFF. But whatever. Even if you don’t know or care anything about the Chicago International Film Festival, consider this a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-looking movies that should hopefully be turning up soon at a theater near you. I’m including links to trailers or clips wherever possible.
Early reaction to Claire Denis’ latest has been typically divisive but fans of the grand dame of French art cinema have reasons to set expectations high: this stars Michel Subor (who also starred in my two favorite Denis films: Beau Travail and The Intruder) as a sleazy businessman who somehow brings a middle-class family to ruin. More importantly, it has been described as Denis at her grimmest — as well as her most puzzle-like and elliptical. As someone who thinks Denis’ greatest strengths arise from the abstract alchemy she works in collaboration with cinematographer Agnes Godard and composer Stuart Staples, that is music to my ears.
Blind Detective (To, Hong Kong)
The Cannes premiere of Johnnie To’s latest seemed to provoke predominantly quizzical reactions from critics, many of whom condescendingly assumed that its more delirious elements were specifically designed to go over well with Hong Kong audiences. But for fans (who truly span the globe) of the world’s greatest genre filmmaker, this sounds like Johnnie To heaven: it reunites Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng (who first teamed up in To’s Needing You way back in 2000), the former as the title character who comes out of retirement to help solve a cold case. There’s also supposedly slapstick comedy, grisly murders, mystery, romance, cannibalism and “food porn.” Who wouldn’t want to see this?
Blue is the Warmest Color (Kechiche, France)
I’m still not sure how I feel about Abdellatif Kechiche, the talented Tunisian-born French filmmaker whose latest, a controversial coming-of-age lesbian love story, took Cannes by storm. I like the way he plays with narrative structure: there are scenes in his highly regarded The Secret of the Grain that are “too long” that eventually take on a kind of hypnotic quality (a scene of an extended family eating together, a climactic belly dance) and yet, aesthetically, he also indulges in an overuse of close-ups and a sub-Dardennes style of shaky-cam realism that feels uninspired. If nothing else, Blue is the Warmest Color should be worth seeing for the performances of the lead actresses, who, in an unprecedented move, were asked to share the Palme d’Or with their director by the Steven Spielberg-led Cannes jury.
Closed Curtain (Panahi/Partovi, Iran)
Incredibly, this is Jafar Panahi’s second film to be clandestinely made and smuggled out of Iran since the director was placed under house arrest in 2010 and banned from making films for 20 years. The first, the documentary This Is Not a Film, was shot on a cheap digital camera and an iPhone and dealt explicitly with Panahi’s imprisonment. (It was also one of the best films I saw last year.) This follow-up is a narrative — about a man and his dog on the run from corrupt government officials — in which the fictional story supposedly gives way to something more self-reflexive when Panahi himself appears onscreen. Closed Curtain received raves in Berlin where it won the Best Screenplay prize.
The Immigrant (Gray, USA)
I’m a latecomer in appreciating James Gray, an ambitious writer/director whose mature character-based dramas hark back to the New Hollywood of the 1970s. A year ago I was completely unfamiliar with his formidable body of work but I’ve now seen his first four films and I think each one is better than the last. So I’m especially excited to see The Immigrant, his first period piece, which won raves (but no awards) at Cannes. This deals with a Polish woman (Marion Cotillard) in early 20th-century Manhattan caught between a vicious pimp (Joaquin Phoenix) and a kind-hearted magician (Jeremy Renner).
Inside Llewyn Davis (Coen/Coen, USA)
With the exception of The Big Lebowski, which I think is a masterpiece of modern comedy, I tend to admire the films of the Coen brothers more than I actually like them (and some of their more smart-alecky exercises I actively dislike). I must admit, however, that Inside Llewyn Davis looks exceptionally promising — not because of the predictable raves at Cannes (where they’ve always been feted, and walked off with the Best Director prize even for The Man Who Wasn’t There) — but because of the subject matter: what looks to be an impeccable recreation of the Greenwich Village folk music scene in the early Sixties loosely based on the autobiography of underappreciated singer Dave Van Ronk. This has been described as low-key and unusually heartfelt. Oscar Isaac, Carey Mulligan, John Goodman and Justin Timberlake star.
Jimmy P. (Psychotherapy of a Plains Indian) (Desplechin, France/USA)
Arnaud Desplechin (Kings and Queen, A Christmas Tale) is one of the most interesting French directors at work today. Jimmy P., a Michigan-shot Franco-American co-production, tells the true story of the relationship between a French psychoanalyst (Mathieu Amalric) and an American Plains Indian and WWII vet (Benicio Del Toro). This got mixed reviews at Cannes (with the most frequent criticisms being that it’s too talky and cinematically conventional) but it also had its defenders and looks right up my alley in a John Ford-meets-A Dangerous Method kind of way. Kent Jones, one of America’s finest film critics, co-wrote the screenplay.
A Touch of Sin (Jia, China)
For almost 20 years Jia Zhangke has been an important chronicler of China’s present, illustrating how ordinary citizens have been affected by the PRC’s rapidly changing social, political and economic landscapes. A Touch of Sin has been described as something of a departure in that it includes gangster-movie elements, and shows how the lives of four loosely-related characters are touched by violence. Jia took home the Best Screenplay prize for this at Cannes. The title is a play on A Touch of Zen, King Hu’s seminal martial arts movie from 1971.
Manuscripts Don’t Burn (Rasoulof, Iran)
Mohammad Rasoulof isn’t as well known as Jafar Panahi but he’s a talented filmmaker who has likewise gotten into hot water with the Iranian authorities for his explicitly political work. His latest has something to do with two low-level government workers who are tasked with assassinating a dissident writer and making it look like a suicide. This won the FIPRESCI prize when it screened in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard sidebar. The title intriguingly alludes to a famous line from Mikhail Bulgakov’s anti-authoritarian masterpiece of Soviet literature The Master and Margarita.
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jarmusch, USA)
Jim Jarmusch’s latest, a vampire film about centuries-old lovers played by Tilda Swinton and Tom Hiddleston, received a lot of love at Cannes. Only Lovers Left Alive has been described as beautiful, poetic and funny, with — as is typical of Jarmusch — a wealth of allusions to the director’s favorite movies, music and literature. It has also been described as a tribute to the city and culture of Detroit where it was partially shot (and which Jarmusch has described as the “Paris of the Midwest”). Mia Wasikowska and John Hurt co-star.
Stranger by the Lake (Guiraudie, France)
Alain Guiraudie has won an ever-expanding cult of admirers since his feature debut Du soleil pour les gueux in 2001. In films like That Old Dream That Moves and No Rest for the Brave, he has crafted a singular style that combines Surrealism, homoeroticism, class observations and a nice feel for provincial locations in the southwest of France. Stranger By the Lake, a thriller set in a park known as a cruising spot for gay men, has upped his profile considerably: critics and audiences at Cannes responded favorably to its mix of sinister and erotic elements (including, apparently, unsimulated sex acts). This has already been picked up for distribution by Strand Releasing; given that distributor’s track record with CIFF (e.g., Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives), it’s a good bet that this will turn up at the festival.
The Three Disasters (Godard, Switzerland)
The Three Disasters is a short film by Jean-Luc Godard that is one part of a triptych known as 3X3D (the other segments are directed by Peter Greenaway and Edgar Pera). Godard’s short was named by some critics as the best film to screen at Cannes in 2013 (when it played in the Critic’s Week sidebar). This is Godard’s first movie in 3-D and it has been described, somewhat confusingly, as some kind of rough draft for his forthcoming and long-gestating 3-D feature Goodbye to Language. The Three Disasters contains clips from other films (including Piranha 3-D!) in the manner of the director’s earlier Histoire(s) du Cinema and apparently takes James Cameron to task for using 3-D technology in an uninspired fashion. This is the film I’d most like to see play at CIFF; I fear it may be impossible to see in its proper stereoscopic version otherwise.
Venus in Fur (Polanski, France)
As with 2011’s Carnage, Venus in Fur is another stage-to-screen adaptation by Roman Polanski, although this one sounds as if it may be a return to more personal territory in terms of its content: it details the sadomasochistic relationship between a tyrannical theatrical director (Mathieu Amalric) and an actress (Emmanuelle Segnier, Polanski’s wife) who insists she is perfect for the lead role in his new play. In spite of the fact that he has lived and worked primarily in France since the late-1970s, this is the first time Polanski has directed a film in the French language. Expect great acting, sexual perversity and expert single-locale mise-en-scene.
The lineup of the 2013 Chicago International Film Festival will be released soon. You can learn more, and see a sneak preview, at: http://www.chicagofilmfestival.com
It’s time for my annual wish list of movies that I hope will turn up at the Chicago International Film Festival in October. Even if you’re not a Chicagoan, I hope you will find this to be a handy guide to a bunch of exciting-sounding movies that will hopefully be coming soon to a theater near you in the not-too-distant future. I’m deliberately not including Wong Kar-Wai’s The Grandmasters and Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s Assassin, both of which made the previous two installments of this list but which I have now given up hope of ever seeing in my lifetime. I should also point out that some of my most anticipated releases of the fall, like Paul Thomas Anderson’s The Master and Clint Eastwood’s Trouble with the Curve, are scheduled to drop before CIFF kicks off on October 11.
Caesar Must Die (Taviani, Italy)
I’ve never seen anything by Italy’s esteemed Taviani brothers whose long-running co-director act dates back almost 60 years. Their latest sounds fascinating: a documentary about real life high-security prison inmates performing Shakespeare’s Julius Caesar for a public audience. This won the top prize at Berlin earlier in the year from a jury that was headed by Mike Leigh.
The Catastrophe (Smith, USA)
Yep, I submitted my most recent short film to CIFF and I’m still waiting to hear back. I’d be lying if I didn’t say this is the film I would most like to see at the festival. Fingers crossed!
Django Unchained (Tarantino, USA)
Could Quentin Tarantino’s much-hyped, southern-fried Spaghetti Western turn up as a gala presentation or closing night film? Well, he did bring Inglourious Basterds to Chicago in the summer of 2009, a few months before its official release, when CIFF gave him some kind of Lifetime Achievement Award thingy . . .
Dormant Beauty (Bellocchio, Italy)
Another old Italian maestro, Marco Bellochio, returns with an Isabelle Huppert vehicle about an actress caring for her comatose daughter. Bellochio’s 2009 feature, Vincere, which played CIFF, was superb, and Huppert (will she be speaking Italian?) is one of the world’s greatest actresses, so seeing this would be a no-brainer if it should turn up.
Drug War (To, Hong Kong)
The prolific crime film specialist Johnnie To made one of his very best films with 2011’s mind-bogglingly good dramedy Life Without Principle. This raises my expectations even more for Drug War, which sees To re-teaming with long-time collaborators like writer Wai Ka-Fai and actors Louis Koo and Lam Suet. Plot details are scarce but still photographs show a lot of men pointing guns. Intriguingly, this is also To’s first film to be shot entirely in mainland China in over 30 years.
Gebo and the Shadow (De Oliveira, Portugal/France)
Portugal’s Manoel de Oliveira, one of the world’s best directors, assembles a heavyweight cast of European talent for this adaptation of a 19th century play by Raul Brandão: Michael Lonsdale, Claudia Cardinale and Jeanne Moreau join Oliveira stalwarts like Ricardo Trepa, Leonor Silveira and Luis Miguel Cintra. Described as the story of an honored but poor patriarch who sacrifices himself for his son, this is the latest chapter in one of cinema’s most storied and freakishly long careers; at 103, Oliveira has already embarked on pre-production of his next film.
Holy Motors (Carax, France)
My most anticipated film of the year by far is Leos Carax’s long awaited follow-up to 1999’s Pola X. Holy Motors stars Carax’s perennial alter-ego Denis Lavant as an actor who constantly shuttles between multiple parallel lives. Or something. The rest of the formidable and diverse cast includes Edith Scob, Michel Piccoli, Kylie Minogue and Eva Mendes. This wowed audiences and critics alike at Cannes but went home empty-handed come awards time due to an unusually conservative jury headed by Nanni “Middlebrow” Moretti.
In Another Country (Hong, S. Korea)
Another year, another Hong Sang-soo movie that plays to acclaim at Cannes with uncertain prospects of ever turning up in Chicago. Only one of Hong’s last seven films, including five features and two shorts, has played here (The Day He Arrives recently had a few screenings at the Siskel Center). One would think that the presence of Isabelle Huppert in the lead role and the fact that the majority of the dialogue is in English would improve In Another Country‘s chances but one never knows. It seems U.S. distributors like their Korean movies to carry the “Asian extreme” tag, and their witty and intellectual Rohmer-esque rom-coms to be spoken in French – and never the twain shall meet.
Jimmy Picard (Desplechin, USA/France)
The last I checked, Arnaud Desplechin’s first American-set film was still shooting in Michigan but it’s conceivable he could have it ready for a Toronto premiere in September – and thus a local CIFF premiere the following month. Benicio del Toro plays the title character, a Blackfoot Indian and WWII vet, who becomes one of the first subjects of “dream analysis” under a French psychotherapist played by Desplechin’s favorite leading man Mathieu Amalric. The estimable director’s only other English language film, 2000’s Esther Kahn, is also one of his best.
Laurence Anyways (Dolan, Canada/France)
23 year old writer/director/actor wunderkind Xavier Dolan debuted his third feature at Cannes this year where it was well-received. Melvil Poupad stars as a heterosexual man in a long-term relationship who undergoes a sex-change operation. I was initially skeptical of Dolan purely because of his young age and his credentials as a former child star but after catching Heartbeats (whose English language title is a regrettable stand-in for the original Les Amours Imaginaires) at CIFF two years ago, I was completely won over; the guy is a born filmmaker and the two-and-a-half hour Laurence Anyways sounds like a logical and ambitious step forward for him.
Like Someone in Love (Kiarostami, Japan/Iran)
Abbas Kiarostami’s latest divided critics at Cannes, a lot of whom compared it unfavorably to his supposedly “shockingly accessible” Certified Copy from two years earlier. But it also had its defenders and a die-hard Kiarostami fan like me is chomping at the bit to see it. This is a Japan set story about the relationship between a prostitute and an elderly college professor. The ending is supposedly nuts.
Love (Haneke, France/Austria)
I’ve never warmed up to Austrian miserabilist Michael Haneke, who specializes in combining titillation and moralism in convenient arthouse-friendly packages. But his latest, which won the Palme d’Or at Cannes, sounds more actor-driven and appealing to me: it tells the story of a married couple in their 80s (played by French screen legends Jean-Louis Trintignant and Emmanuelle Riva) whose relationship is tested when the wife has a stroke. The ubiquitous “La Huppert,” who appears in three films on this list, co-stars.
Mekong Hotel (Weerasethakul, Thailand)
A documentary/narrative hybrid from the terrific experimental filmmaker Apichatpong “Joe” Weerasethakul about various characters congregating at the title location situated along Thailand’s Mekong River. Apparently pigs and Tilda Swinton are also somehow involved. Depending on whom you believe, this is either a minor diversion or a major masterpiece. Either way, count me in.
The Night in Front (Ruiz, Chile/France)
The great Chilean filmmaker Raul Ruiz passed away from liver cancer last year while putting the finishing touches on what he must have known would be his final film. The Night in Front, an adaptation of stories by Hernan del Solar, received a posthumous debut in a special tribute session at the Cannes Film Festival in May. Fittingly, it was shot in Chile, Ruiz’s home country, from which he had lived in exile for decades. If this swan song is anywhere near the league of Mysteries of Lisbon, the 4 1/2 hour Ruiz opus that preceded it, it will be essential viewing.
Something in the Air (Assayas, France/England/Italy)
Something in the Air has been described as a coming-of-age story set against the turbulent political climate of Europe in the 1970s with locations that include France, Italy and the U.K. This makes it sound like an improbable cross between my other two favorite films by director Olivier Assayas: Cold Water and Carlos. This was offered an out of competition slot at Cannes, which Assayas turned down. As with Jimmy Picard, the only way this will show up at CIFF is if it has a Toronto World Premiere first.
Stoker (Park, USA/S. Korea)
The great Korean director Park Chan-wook’s English-language debut boasts excellent credentials in an A-list cast (Nicole Kidman, Mia Wasikowska and Matthew Goode) and crew (composer Clint Mansell and cinematographer Chung Chung-hoon) and yet . . . the film seems to be languishing in Post-Productionland for a suspiciously long time. Stoker has been described as both a drama and a horror film and plot descriptions make it sound like a virtual remake of Hitchcock’s Shadow of a Doubt. How could this not be great?
Tabu (Gomes, Portugal)
With apparently explicit nods to F.W. Murnau’s film of the same title, this Portuguese/African co-production tells the story of an elderly woman living in contemporary Portugal with her black servant and then flashes back to tell the story of a love affair she had in Africa fifty years prior. I’ve never seen anything by the young director Miguel Gomes but the diverse locations and unusual two-part structure also make this sound similar to Daniel Kohlerer’s recent (and excellent) German/African co-production Sleeping Sickness. Both films were produced by Maren Ade, who is a fine young director in her own right (Everyone Else).
To the Wonder (Malick, USA)
As someone who saw The Thin Red Line five times in the theater, I’ve certainly fallen off the Terrence Malick bandwagon in the wake of The New World and The Tree of Life. And yet I still wouldn’t miss a new film by him for the world. The plot of this Ben Affleck/Rachel MacAdams-starring love story sounds like it will continue the autobiographical vein of The Tree of Life: an American man divorces his European wife and then embarks on a new romance with a woman from his small hometown. This is essentially what happened to Malick while preparing The Thin Red Line.
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Resnais, France)
I used to be somewhat lukewarm on Alain Resnais’ post-1960s work until 2009’s wild Wild Grass brought me roaring back into the fold. This new meta-movie sounds like a typically provocative and fascinating Resnais experiment: a group of great French actors playing themselves (including Michel Piccoli, Mathieu Amalric and Resnais’ permanent leading lady and muse Sabine Aszema) watch a filmed performance of the play Eurydice, which transports them back in time to when they had all starred in the same play years earlier. Some critics derided this as “indulgent” at Cannes but I say that’s like criticizing Thelonious Monk for not playing the piano melodically.
Zero Dark Thirty (Bigelow, USA/India)
Kathryn Bigelow’s long awaited follow-up to The Hurt Locker sees her reteaming with journalist/screenwriter Mark Boal in adapting the true story of the hunt for Osama Bin Laden. This was well into pre-production at the time Bin Laden was killed, meaning Zero Dark Thirty received an 11th-hour “mother of all rewrites.” Details on this are scarce but the excellent Jessica Chastain apparently has a prominent role as a journalist.
Life Without Principle, the new film from Hong Kong genre specialist Johnnie To, received its world premiere at the Venice Film Festival last fall. Shortly thereafter, U.S. distribution rights were picked up by the Indomina Group, whose website, as of today, states that the film’s release date is still “TBA.” It seems likely that Principle will not receive a theatrical release in the U.S. at all but may be dumped straight to DVD at some unforeseen point in the future. Fortunately, Mega Star, the film’s Hong Kong distributor, already released a superb region-free Blu-ray last month that will almost certainly be making my list of the ten best home video releases of 2012. Not only is it an impeccable HD transfer of a film shot on 35mm, which is beginning to feel more and more like an anomaly, the movie itself is one of Johnnie To’s best and most interesting – one that eschews the gangster movie conventions for which the director is best known in favor of a crime drama/social satire that examines the current global economic crisis from a variety of interesting angles.
The film’s dazzling first act revolves around Teresa (cute Canto-pop sensation Denise Ho), a bank employee who is under relentless pressure from her superiors to sell more investments. After making futile cold calls to potential investors from work, Teresa attempts to sell a high-risk investment to an elderly female walk-in customer who has a “low-risk profile.” Teresa is required by law to audio-tape their conversation, wherein she will explain the risks involved to the customer who is, in turn, supposed to respond to every statement with “I understand completely.” This sequence, which lasts a full ten minutes and involves Teresa and the customer going through the same spiel three times until they get it right, is a remarkable set piece of absurdist comedy. Although Teresa wears an obligatory fake smile and essentially tries to upsell the old woman into gambling on her life savings, To refuses to make her the villain of the piece. Instead we are just as likely to empathize with the employee as we are with the customer because To has been careful to illustrate how all of his characters are furiously pedaling on the same capitalist treadmill.
Who then is to blame for this clusterfuck of greed and corruption? Is it Teresa’s superiors at the bank? To and his team of screenwriters show how the bank makes money off of customer interest, even while those customers lose money by making bad investments through the same bank in an unstable market. (One of the film’s best gags involves a bank customer who is also a loan shark offering Teresa a loan with a lower interest rate than what her own employers will provide.) But To also shows how Hong Kong’s economy is affected by the markets of distant European countries. Hong Kong’s denizens listen to the radio, helpless, as the latest news of the Greek debt crisis and the response by the rest of the European Union causes the local market to rise and fall. To suggests that, in the world of high finance, the principle of the “banality of evil” applies: the buck never stops because everyone rationalizes that their actions are merely a reaction to someone or something else.
In a scenario of remarkable intelligence and complexity, Teresa’s story is but one of several plot strands twining around that of the aformentioned loan shark, a man who is robbed of 5 million dollars after withdrawing it from her bank near the film’s beginning. The other principal characters in Principle are Panther (Lau Ching-Wan), a genial, small-time triad member whose lowly station is directly attributable to his adherence to outmoded codes of honor and loyalty, and Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren), a good-hearted cop whose wife is constantly pestering him to purchase an expensive new condo. Over the course of two days, the various plot strands are drawn ever closer together, which leads to a deftly intercut triple climax that will alter the destinies of each character forever.
Life Without Principle is full of the filmmaking smarts that have made Johnnie To so beloved to cinephiles in the west. The bank scenes feature elegant camera movements, especially the repeated motif of slowly pushing in on a character, which, combined with the gleaming surfaces and monochromatic red/blue color scheme of the set design, suggest a world where everything is perfectly polished and mechanized and nothing is out of place. But To then contrasts these scenes with exterior shots of the urban jungle outside, where teeming hordes of money-mad people struggle to survive. In one inspired scene, we see Panther racing through the streets (that nickname is no lie), looking to borrow money from a former Triad brother who has since turned to making money by recycling cardboard boxes. To also repeatedly punctuates the film with shots of the Hong Kong skyline, where storm clouds constantly seem to be gathering, putting viewers in the mind of the figurative economic storm from which no one is unaffected.
Finally, although he doesn’t appear in the film until after the 33-minute mark, it is Lau Ching-Wan who imbues Life Without Principle with its charming, funky, offbeat soul. Lau, working with Johnnie To for a whopping 18th time (in what is arguably the greatest director/star pairing of contemporary movies), shows off some new colors in an already diverse palate in his creation of the lovable loser Panther. Sporting Hawaiian shirts under 1970s-style blazers, Panther is a frenetic busybody, shoulders permanently hunched, rapidly blinking, always scurrying around and trying to hustle money to help out a “sworn brother.” Panther attempts to cut costs for his boss’ banquet by forcing more chairs together per table at a restaurant and only ordering “healthy” vegetarian meals (because meat is more expensive), which humorously underlines the film’s central, egalitarian notion that everyone, even movie gangsters, are feeling the crunch in these tough economic times.
If Johnnie To is a “crime film specialist” then Life Without Principle is in some ways a typical Johnnie To movie. It’s certainly a film about crime, just probably not in the way that a lot of his fans might expect. And while nothing could be more Johnnie To than that (the man did after all once make a movie titled Expect the Unexpected), perhaps what surprises and impresses the most about this film is the shocking sophistication of its sociological insights. For sheer prescience, the only movie I’ve seen in recent years that can even compare is Godard’s Film Socialisme, another egalitarian film that extends sympathy to all of its characters. “Expect the unexpected” might as well be the motto for To’s entire career, for no other director of the past quarter century has done so much to reinvigorate genre filmmaking by so consistently pushing genre conventions in as many surprising, intelligent and highly personal directions.
The image quality of Mega Star’s Life Without Principle Blu-ray is flawless. The colors are nicely saturated and “pop” in the way that only 35mm color can. Even the occasional white speckles have a quaint charm, reminding us that what we are looking at is the transfer of a film that once ran vertically through a motion picture camera rather than a mere digital-to-digital transfer of pulsating electronic pixels. The soundtrack is likewise robust with a nice separation between the Cantonese dialogue track, the punchy sound effects and a catchy, vocal-heavy musical score (although I regrettably couldn’t take full advantage of the 7.1 sound mix with my 5.1 setup). In conclusion, I was fairly blown away by this Blu-ray, which instantly placed Life Without Principle as one of my top five favorite Johnnie To films (along with The Mission, PTU, Mad Detective and Election). I also feel it would serve as a perfect introduction to his oeuvre for anyone who has heard or read about him but not yet seen his films.
Mega Star’s Blu-ray of Life Without Principle can be purchased from the fine folks at yesasia.com here:
Life Without Principle Rating: 9.9
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).