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Tag Archives: The Mission

Johnnie To’s THE MISSION at Doc Films

I reviewed Johnnie To’s The Mission Cine-File ChicagoIt screens Doc Films on 35mm this Tuesday.
mission
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.

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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).


Top 25 Films of the 1990s

25. The Lovers on the Bridge (Carax, France, 1991)

24. Audition (Miike, Japan, 1999)

23. An Autumn Tale (Rohmer, France, 1998)

autumn

22. Twin Peaks: Fire Walk With Me (Lynch, USA, 1992)

lynch

21. Taboo (Oshima, Japan, 1999)

20. To Sleep with Anger (Burnett, USA, 1990)

ToSleepwithAnger

19. The Mission (To, Hong Kong, 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.

18. La Ceremonie (Chabrol, France, 1995)

la ceremonie 2

17. Centre Stage (Kwan, Hong Kong, 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.

16. Eyes Wide Shut (Kubrick, USA/UK, 1999)

15. Groundhog Day (Ramis, USA, 1993)

14. The Piano (Campion, Australia, 1993)

piano

Jane Campion’s international breakthrough was this tough and beautiful feminist love story, set in the mid-19th century, about Ada (Holly Hunter), a mute Scottish woman and single mother whose father “arranges” her marriage to an English expatriate farmer (Sam Neill) on the western coast of New Zealand. Shortly after arriving at her new home, however, Ada embarks on an unlikely romance with George (Harvey Keitel), another Scottish emigre and an oddball who has “gone native” by tattooing his face and living among the Maori. The melodramatic plot twists that ensues will whip your emotions into a frenzy as expertly as the finest gothic novels of the 19th century, aided in no small part by Campion’s gorgeous mise-en-scene, a quartet of excellent performances (the three mentioned above plus Anna Paquin’s turn as Ada’s daughter) and Michael Nyman’s rhapsodic, piano-driven score. One of the best films of the Nineties.

13. Peppermint Candy (Lee, S. Korea, 1999)

Forget Memento and Irreversible, here’s the original “edited in reverse” movie – a tour de force of filmmaking that begins with the suicide of a thirty-something businessman, then skips backwards over the previous twenty years of his life to show the personal tragedy of one man’s loss of innocence and corruption set against the sweeping backdrop of S. Korea’s tumultuous recent history.

12. Goodfellas (Scorsese, USA, 1990)

11. Chungking Express (Wong, Hong Kong, 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.

10. Anxiety (de Oliveira, Portugal, 1998)

9. Naked (Leigh, UK, 1993)

8. Beau Travail (Denis, France/Djibouti, 1999)

beau

7. The Taste of Cherry (Kiarostami, Iran, 1997)

Abbas Kiarostami deservedly won the Palm d’Or at Cannes for this great film about a middle-class, middle-aged man who traverses the Iranian countryside in a Range Rover trying to find someone who will assist him in committing suicide. Each of the three prospects he “interviews” for the job are far apart in age and profession (a young soldier, a middle-aged seminarian and an elderly taxidermist), a set-up that allows Kiarostami to offer a wide-ranging philosophical treatise on the meaning of life and death in the modern world. The film’s unexpected and controversial coda, shot on video and scored to Louis Armstrong’s “St. James Infirmary Blues,” is hauntingly, ineffably right.

6. Goodbye South Goodbye (Hou, Taiwan, 1996)

5. A Moment of Innocence (Makhmalbaf, Iran, 1996)

My favorite Makhmalbaf film is this (pseudo?) documentary in which the director re-interprets a notorious event from his own youth – the stabbing of a police officer during an anti-Shah protest in the 1970s, a crime for which he was sentenced to five years in prison. Twenty years later, both Makhmalbaf and the police officer who was his victim cast and train two actors to play themselves as younger men in a recreation of the event. The very real anxiety the young actor portraying Makhmalbaf shows about having to stab the young actor playing the cop (with a fake, retractable blade) leads to a suspenseful, surprisingly gripping climax. A fascinating meditation on memory, history, politics and the cinema.

4. Nouvelle Vague (Godard, Switzerland/France, 1990)

nouvelle

Jean-Luc Godard’s late masterpiece features fading matinee-idol Alain Delon and the beautiful, enormously talented Domiziana Giordano as archetypal Man and Woman at the end of the twentieth century. The image track tells one story (a narrative involving characters who gradually swap dominant and submissive relationship roles) and the sound track another (the dialogue consists almost entirely of literary quotations from Dante to Proust to Rimbaud to Raymond Chandler, etc.) yet both frequently intersect to create a rich tapestry of sight and sound. Godard uses dialectics involving man and woman, Europe and America, art and commerce, sound and image, and upper and lower class to create a supremely beautiful work of art that functions as an affirmation of the possibility of love in the modern world (and a new poetics of cinema) and that also serves as a curiously optimistic farewell to socialism. Unusual for late-Godard is the constantly tracking and craning camera courtesy of the peerless cinematographer William Lubtchansky.

3. Satantango (Tarr, Hungary, 1994)

Based on László Krasznahorkai’s famed novel, which I haven’t read but which has been favorably compared to the works of William Faulkner, my favorite American author, this seven-and-a-half hour Hungarian epic is one of the defining — and most purely cinematic — movies of recent decades (unlike The Decalogue, director Bela Tarr wants you to see this on the big screen in a single sitting). The plot has something to do with a pair of con artists, Irimias (Mihály Vig, who also scored) and Petrina (Putyi Horváth), arriving at a farm-commune and swindling its members out of their money, but story seems like a mere pretext for Tarr’s despairing allegorical portrait of life in post-Communist Hungary. Krasznahorkai’s ingenious structure, said to be based on the tango (i.e., six steps forward and six steps back), shows the same narrative events multiple times from the perspectives of different characters and is perfectly complemented by Tarr’s utterly singular visual style, which combines epic long takes with elaborate camera movements. But don’t let anyone’s description, including mine, or the running time fool you: this eye-filling black-and-white epic is a much easier watch than its reputation suggests — there is plenty of dark humor to go around and even a fart joke for good measure.

2. Unforgiven (Eastwood, USA, 1992)

unforgiven

Clint Eastwood’s masterpiece about aging cowboys shows the end of the West as historical reality and the beginning of the West as myth. This aspect of the film is most obviously embodied in the character of dime store novelist W.W. Beauchamp, which allows Eastwood, like John Ford before him, to print both the fact and the legend. In some ways Unforgiven represents the end of an era (one could argue it is the last great classical western) but it can also be seen as the beginning of Eastwood’s own great late period as director, a prolific stretch that continues to this day.

1. A Brighter Summer Day (Yang, Taiwan, 1991)

Edward Yang’s four hour epic about juvenile delinquents in 1950s Taipei marries the ambitious societal portraits of the 19th century Russian novel (one gang leader even references War and Peace, memorably calling its characters “swordsmen”) with the romanticism, iconography and intense identification with outsiders characteristic of a Nicholas Ray picture. In other words, the personal story (involving a troubled fourteen year old kid played by Chang Chen) can be seen as an allegory for the identity crisis of an entire nation struggling to define itself in the aftermath of World War II. I saw a 35 millimeter print of this over a decade ago and I emerged from the theater unable to speak. No moviegoing experience has shaken me more profoundly to the core than that one.


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