Men on the Dragon (2018) — July 7, 2018
Four middle-aged men work at a Hong Kong telecommunications company. In order to woo a potential client, the company signs them all up for a dragon boat race (basically an 18-man crew competition). As the company is laying off workers by the dozen every month, the men agree. They each have their own domestic trouble, with which the teamwork and exercise will help them come to terms. Two of them are unhappy in their marriage, one because his wife and mother are always fighting, the other because his wife is cheating on him. The youngest is unhappy because his girlfriend pressured him into giving up his athletic dreams (he played table tennis) for this soul-crushing regular job. The fourth (played by Francis Ng, who also produced) has a crush on his neighbor and is a kind of parent to her teen-aged daughter, though the woman is still in love with the girl’s absent father. The men bond playfully, with good humor and manly tears and the whole thing is sprightly and pleasant and while not everyone gets the ending he desires, everybody learns a valuable lesson, with hugs all around.
The Gangster’s Daughter — June 29, 2017
It doesn’t seem possible that Jack Kao has been playing aging gangster roles for more than 20 years now, but here we are. The frequent Hou Hsiao-hsien star (A City of Sadness, Millennium Mambo) wasn’t ever really a gangster (the tattoos covering his back in many a film are mere make-up) but he did hang around with them growing up: Hou’s Goodbye South, Goodbye is based on some of Kao’s stories. He’s exactly perfect for the fiction feature debut of Chen Mei-juin, a Taiwanese documentarian based in Los Angeles. Ally Chiu plays the eponymous daughter, Shaowu, a junior high kid who goes to live with her estranged father, a gang leader with a heart of gold, after her mother dies and she gets into trouble at school. Infatuated with the romance of gang life, learned almost entirely through movies and pop culture, Shaowu idealizes her father, and Chen doesn’t demystify gang life, rather she plays the generic story to its inevitable, innocence-shattering conclusion in bloody and senseless violence. The father-daughter relationship is warmly performed, highlighted by some lovely, terrible dancing, but the film is at its best in the margins exploring particularities of Taiwanese culture, its deities, rituals and the ordinance-infested landscapes of the small island of Kinmen.
Mrs. K (2016) — February 27, 2019
Absolutely here for the Kara Hui-aissance.
Here she is somewhere in Malaysia, being a happy housewife and mother when all of a sudden all these old Chinese directors (Fruit Chan and Kirk Wong) get killed off and it turns out Simon Yam is after her too. Old school Hong Kong filtered through Tarantino, it’s at least two levels removed from being a real movie, but Hui is terrific. The action is pretty solid behind all the editing, MMA style along the lines of later Donnie Yen films rather than the classical dancer Hui we loved in her movies with Lau Kar-leung.
The most honestly classical thing about it (not the Morricone-knockoff score or the freeze frame cast ID cards) is the running time of just under 100 minutes. A breath of vital fresh air in a cinema increasingly dominated by 140 minute Felix Chong morose-athons.
The Cube Phantom (2019) — January 24, 2020
Girl Walk//All Day, but about the struggle for democracy in Hong Kong.
Boundless (2013) — August 23, 2018
A portrait of Johnnie To at work, with what looks to be a couple of years of behind the scenes footage shot while director Ferris Lin was in school (this was his thesis project). We see To filming Life Without Principle, Drug, War, Romancing in Thin Air, and Blind Detective, and have interviews with him and many of his key collaborators (Wai Ka-fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Sylvia Chang, Yuen Bun, Soi Cheang, Andy Lau, Lau Ching-wan, Sammi Cheng), along with critic Shu Kei (who also produced), and Jia Zhangke.
Lin highlights some of the key scenes in To’s work: the mall sequence in The Mission, the cafe scene in PTU, a couple of scenes from Throw Down, and more. This serves as both a kind of greatest hits reel and a means for exploring several facets of To’s style, mainly his lighting and staging and his writing process (like early Godard and most Hong, there isn’t a complete script).
The film starts with some good old fashioned director temper tantrums and aspersions cast at the Mainland film industry and ends with his commitment to helping the next generation of directors flourish and grow within a uniquely Hong Kong film industry. And as all great directors must in their hagiographical films, he sings.
Someone to Talk To (2016) — July 11, 2017
The central idea of Liu Yulin’s Someone to Talk To is stated clearly in the title and repeated endlessly throughout the film: people are lonely and find communication with other people difficult. The screenplay, which Liu’s father Liu Zhenyun adapted from his own award-winning novel, is about a man whose wife his having an affair. He mopes through a wide range of responses, from murderous rage to learning to cook his wife’s favorite meal, but nothing seems to work and neither his lonely older sister nor his adorable young daughter are able to help. This is strictly bland melodrama, at its best recalling Yi yi, except with all the poetry and mystery drained out of it. Where Liu excels is in capturing the compromises and failures of life in working class China, a side of the nation we only see in small independent films while the mainstream national cinema is all glossy adventure and period pieces or fantastical displays of globalist wealth. The strain of trying to get by, both on families and on individual souls is palpable, as is the sense of separation from the fantastical world of capitalist successes. But when combined with the dreary repetitions of the title sentiment, the film becomes merely oppressive.
Archiving Time (2019) — October 23, 2020
This otherwise mild and pleasant doc about the restoration lab of the Taiwan Film Institute really reminded me how much I miss the projection booth. The feel and smell of film, the sounds of whirring projectors, the anxiety and dread that I’m gonna screw something up and mangle a print or have to cancel a show. It’s been almost a decade since I spliced anything. I doubt I ever will again. I hope I’ll be able to at least watch a film again.
Nero & Stephen Ng:
The Sinking City: Capsule Odyssey (2017) — November 15, 2017
After watching two Pakho Chau films in as many days it finally hit me who he kind of looks like: Jimmy Fallon. Which is weird, because Vincent Zhao in God of War also looks like Jimmy Fallon. It’s possible that as I’m getting old, everyone is beginning to look like Jimmy Fallon to me.
This one isn’t nearly as good as the other one, Herman Yau’s anti-rom-com 77 Heartbreaks. Chau plays a young man who convinces his fiancée that he’s moving to New York for work but instead moves into a tiny capsule in Hong Kong’s overcrowded and over-expensive real estate market. His plan is to save money by living there for two years so that he can afford to get married. Yes it’s a terrible plan; no the film has no interest in following it or his relationship with the fiancée. Instead, we meet a variety of kooks who also live in pods, along with their equally kooky landlord. There’s Babyjohn Choi as a guy who very much wants to be Ekin Cheng in Young & Dangerous but instead has spent 15 years as a Triad smuggling stuff with nary a knife fight or rumble to be found. There’s a trucker who keeps failing to find a place to have sex with his girlfriend, who sometimes pretends to be a cat. There’s an ex-con who struggles to find work while one of his fellow inmates, a rapist, finds love and wealth and forgiveness (because of the latter, not the former). Finally there’s the landlord, weird and mumbly and kind of funny, who finds a dog that turns out to be lost by a rich woman who offers a substantial reward and then gets kidnapped herself leading to a final 20 minutes or so of comic action. Oh, and there’s a neighbor who’s a nice single mom who makes excellent soup and is a prostitute with whom Chau kind of has a relationship with until she disappears entirely from the narrative. It’s all a dumbfounding mess, but depending on your tolerance for Hong Kong zany, a mostly amiable one.
29+1 (2017) — April 14, 2018
Kearen Pang’s adaptation of her own stage show, which she’s been performing, if the (very neat) closing credits are any indication, for over a decade. It’s about a woman on the verge of turning 30 who completely breaks down: job, family, boyfriend, all fall apart in a kind of spiritual crisis. She’s forced to move and stays at the apartment of a woman she’s never met, but who has the same birthday. Her opposite in every way, the absent woman teaches her valuable lessons about enjoying life and stuff. It’s all extremely hokey, but the cast (Chrissie Chau as the lead and Joyce Cheng (daughter of icon Lydia Shum) as the inspiration) are quite good (as are Elaine Jin and the ubiquitous Babyjohn Choi in supporting parts).
Apparently in the stage version, Pang played both parts, and the film suffers from not adopting that approach. As it is, we have the story of a pretty but sad girl being saved by a plain but happy girl and the whole thing plays as false and contrived. But with one actor in both parts, the second character is more free to be read as simply another, heretofore repressed, aspect of the lead. Her imaginary happy self.
Otherwise Pang adapts the story well to film (she also co-wrote Pang Ho-cheung’s Isabella, which is terrific, but this is her first film as a director). The first half is especially strong, with some striking images and clever montages. All that is buried by sap at the end, but it’s not unpleasant.
Guardians of Martial Arts (2017) — November 18, 2017
Jack Ma, one of the richest men in the world, daydreams about fighting all the best martial arts stars, and because he’s so rich, they actually go along with it. Neat to see Tony Jaa, Wu Jing, Donnie Yen, Jet Li, etc all together, with Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, and Ching Siu-tung doing the choreography. They do a respectable job of indulging the money.
Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014) — May 28, 2014
A remake of Chang Cheh's The Boxer from Shantung with nods to Bruce Lee as well, specifically Fist of Fury. It was written by Wong Jing, with action by Yuen Woo-ping and a decent co-starring role for Sammo Hung. Director Wong Ching-po shoots it in a dusty gray miasma (apparently he wanted to make in in black and white, but Wong Jing wouldn't let him because $money$, and this was as close as he could get) which mostly just looks gross.
The fights are great (Philip Ng as the hero Ma Yongzhen and Andy On as the suave gangster Long Qi, roles played by Chen Kuan-tai and David Chiang in the original), with some neat innovations. In Boxer, Chen announces his awesomeness by punching a guy in the fist. Ng does the same here near the climax (I'm pretty sure the fist he punches is Chen Kuan-tai's in fact, playing a bit part) and then one ups it by punching a dude in the foot, with bone-shattering special effects. Problematic though is the way Wong speeds up the motion of the fights. Not just because it's fakery (digital fakery being the hallmark of 21st century Hong Kong cinema), but because the herky-jerky motion looks so ugly (it's hard to describe, I've never seen anything like it. It's almost like a frame-rate stutter. It actually made me wonder if it was a problem with the digital projection we got at the Seattle Film Festival.)
So what we have in the end is a neat homage to some 70s classics, with some excellent star performances and great action buried beneath a hideous color palate and possibly intentionally glitchy movements. Andrew Lau's Legend of the Fist covers much of the same territory (and I'm pretty sure uses at least one of the same sets), but with smoother fights and an almost-too-gorgeous glossy visual style. YMMV, I guess.
Finding Mr. Right (2013) — September 16, 2016
It says something, I suppose, about the state of the Chinese film industry that it is able to produce something as resolutely, unremarkably competent as this.
The Chinese title, which isn’t much better, is Beijing Meets Seattle. The main character, played by Tang Wei, is a pregnant woman who flies to Seattle to have her son, because she can’t get a permit to give birth in China, because the boy’s father is married to someone else (this is apparently a real thing that happens). She picks Seattle because Sleepless in Seattle is her favorite movie. The film was shot almost entirely in Vancouver (the movie is so Canadian Sarah McLachlan is prominently featured on the soundtrack). And obviously so: a cut from B-roll of the Space Needle to the shore in Stanley Park; a helicopter zoom out of the Empire State Building reveals a plastic pastel replica of New York City. Even the Beijing scenes are phony (nary a speck of smog to be seen among the bright lights). The film flattens geography, turning the world into a bland, globalized fantasy of easy wealth, meticulous homes, and friendly police. It’s a perfectly-calibrated average movie for a perfectly-calibrated average dreamworld.
The performances are much better though, Tang Wei putting in a lot more work than the stars of Hollywood romances, creating an actual character out of the clichés, and making the even the most obvious notes seem true. There’s a weird meta-text too with her character arc (shallow and materialistic and a wanton unwed mother-to-be turning into a paragon of motherly virtue and the head of a nuclear family) following Tang’s own state-mandated rehabilitation after her temporary ban for doing sex stuff in an Ang Lee movie. TV actor Wu Xiubo plays off her energy nicely, with one of the quietest romantic performances I’ve ever seen.
It’s the kind of movie that opens and closes with “Someday We’ll Be Together”. But not the Diana Ross version, the cover version by Vonda Shepard, the leader of Ally McBeal’s house band.
There’s a Finding Mr. Right 2, released this year. It isn’t a sequel, it has the same lead actors (playing different characters) and director, and is properly called Book of Love. Glad to see that the Hong Kong tradition of marketing unrelated films as sequels to previously successful movies continues on the Mainland.
Blood of Youth (2016) — June 26, 2017
From China comes a convoluted tale of revenge and brain damage from director Yang Shupeng. A young man suffers a traumatic injury defending a girl at their orphanage, and ten years later the two of them are enacting a preposterously complicated scheme to revenge themselves on people whose importance to them only becomes apparent late in the film, as its various narrative threads coalesce on a rickety, over-cluttered boat that serves as a fitting metaphor for the film itself. The girl sends flirty texts to an orchestra conductor, who happens to be the unfaithful husband of the doctor treating the young man, a heist is foiled leading to a high-speed chase, a corpse is dug up, flashbacks are recounted, all in scenes of performative intensity handsomely shot in DP Cheng Siu-keung’s trademark shadows. There are many examples of this kind of network crime story in in recent Chinese film, but movies like The Coffin in the Mountain, Port of Call, or Chongqing Hot Pot are much more satisfying, their coincidental connections ultimately bounded by a basic rationality of action and reaction. Blood of Youth is ultimately unmoored from any kind of reality, and its phantom epiphanies are merely tedious.
Lush Reeds (2018) — October 1, 2018
One of those thrillers where it constantly feels like something is about to happen, but it never actually does. A noir of dread and alienation.
Port of Call (2015) — September 30, 2015
We talked a bit about Port of Call on our VIFF 2015 podcast, but I didn’t mention one idea I had about the film, which is that it’s a kind of update/companion to Peter Chan’s 1996 masterpiece Comrades, Almost a Love Story. In that film, Maggie Cheung plays a woman who emigrates from the Mainland to Hong Kong, works a number of jobs to survive (including at a local McDonald’s), has a deep connection with a character played by a major pop star (Leon Lai) with whom she bonds over a shared love of another pop star, Teresa Teng, and falls in with a big guy, a man of violence who loves her and takes care of her. In Port of Call, Jessie Li plays a woman who emigrates from the Mainland to Hong Kong, works a variety of jobs to survive (including at a local McDonald’s), has a deep connection with a character played by a major pop star (Aaron Kwok — though the two characters never meet, of course, their relationship, or rather, his with her, is the defining element of the film), and is obsessed with another pop star (Sammi Cheng). She too falls in with a bad crowd, and her relationship with a large man capable of violence leads to her doom.
Chan’s film is one of nostalgia, with Hong Kong as an aspirational place of freedom and opportunity, where one can move, work hard and eventually make it big (and then, prior to the Handover, make it to America). Its characters look backwards to their home villages, with Teng’s music as the aching symbol of the world they left behind. Yung’s is a film of horror, based on true events that occurred in the 2008–2010 period, the Hong Kong it finds is no longer one of hope, but of desperation, where the poor are set upon each other in twisted games of manipulation and violence, where even a glimmer of a true connection (facilitated by an internet chat) can lead to disaster. Cheng’s music is the aspiration, it’s what Li and her sister listened to when they were trying to learn Cantonese, it’s the music of hope amid failure. Yung set the film in the recent past, as much because that’s the time when the actual events occurred as because given the pace of change in China, the situation has already shifted dramatically. In his festival Q & A, he suggested that economic conditions have balanced out so much between Hong Kong and the Mainland’s urban centers, that such aspirational immigration is far less common (in fact, he points out that even in 2008, the dream of moving to Hong Kong was Li’s mother’s dream, the younger generation doesn’t look at the former colony in the same way). But there’s nothing particularly unique about the idealization of Hong Kong. If the Mainland is catching up with or even surpassing it in the realm of fantasy-creation, there will always be a disconnection between that dream, say the candy-colored consumer paradise of Go Away Mr. Tumor, and the gruesome reality of the poor folks who fall into nightmare.
Behemoth (2015) — November 24, 2017
Zhao Liang’s 2015 film, which was released here in the US in 2017, claims inspiration from the Divine Comedy. That it spends the vast majority of its running time chronicling the hellish conditions of Chinese coal mining, before briefly rushing through health care Purgatory and a vision of Paradise makes a lot of sense if, like me, all you’ve read of Dante is the Inferno. Industrial grime throughout is contrasted with primitive purity, in the grasslands of the steppe and the people who cling to the trappings of their ancestors’ nomadic existence there, a simplicity of contrast made palatable by the sheer beauty of the images (literal coal blacks versus verdant greens) and compositions (sheep grazing beneath a mountain of waste). Paradise is the most striking of all: a ghost city, newly developed and pristine, space for thousands yet eerily empty. A literal no-place as the logical end point of the body and soul crushing grind of capitalism.
10+10 (2011) — October 1, 2012
Twenty directors were commissioned by the Golden Horse Film Festival to each make a five minute film about something Taiwanese and the result is this collection, an unusually successful entry in the portmanteau film genre. Ten of the directors are veterans, ten are relative newcomers (hence the title), but aside from a couple names I recognized (Wu Nien-jen and Hou Hsiao-hsien, of course), I couldn’t tell you which was which, I guess that bodes well for the Taiwanese film industry. Seen as a whole, the film presents a compelling vision of Taiwan in all its diversity and weirdness, with some glances at serious issues thrown in.
My favorites: Wang Toon’s opener Ritual about a couple of guys hiking to a remote shrine to give thanks for a lottery win (they’ve brought the gods a DVD of Avatar, which they watch together on a sheet strung across the hillside); Shen Ko Shung’s Bus Odyssey, a grim black and white film notable mostly for its sound design (especially given that direct sound was practically unheard of in Taiwanese cinema only 20 years ago); Wei Te-sheng’s Debut, a pretty cheesy but heartfelt prayer for success in spreading knowledge about indigenous Taiwanese at a film festival; Hippocamp Hair Salon, a kind of Eternal Sunshine of the Spotless Mind with a Wong Kar-wai look and a darkly funny twist by Chen Yu-hsun; Sylvia Chang’s Dusk of the Gods, a moving meditation on religion and capital punishment (“Will a bad person like me get my good soul back when I’m executed?”); The Debut, by Chen Ko-fu, about a singer getting a True Romance-style pep talk from a glamorous phantom in 1968; Hou Chi-jan’s Green Island Serenade, another singer, this time singing for the radio in the black and white past, panning to the full color present — music as time travel; Leon Dai’s Key, about the urban loneliness of a woman who pretends to have forgotten her key in the hopes of getting to talk to someone, erupting into a flash-cut ballet sequence; Unwritten Rules, a clever and hilarious indie film set comedy about trying to cover-up the Nationalist flag a crew finds on location (line of the night: “Thank you for saving Taiwanese cinema.”); and finally Hou Hsiao-hsien’s La belle epoque, with Shu Qi hearing the story of her family’s golden heirlooms and posing for a portrait, which finds Hou for the first time (as far as I know) intercutting what appears to be archival or at least black and white footage into one of his films.
Ten Years (2015) — June 10, 2016
43512, I guess. But none of them are all that exceptional. There’s a stately sheen to the protest, slick, direct, simple. None of the hyperbolic excess and purity of anger you find the New Wave protest films. Those films are the expression of a generation’s scattershot anxieties, political and personal, fire and blood. The films in Ten Years are calculated, rhetorical. The great fear is the death of language, and with it thought, as a result of official edict or, more spookily, the machinations of myriad equally plausible conspiracy theories. One way to counter that is to speak plainly of your cause, and there’s no doubt that this anthology accomplishes that goal and has been effective, given the response both in Hong Kong and from the shadows of the PRC. Another approach would be the primal screams of a Dangerous Encounters — First Kind (or, for a more contemporary example, The Midnight After). But the New Wave couldn’t stop the Joint Declaration, maybe these Umbrella Generation directors will have more luck.