Duel to the Death (1983) — April 10 2018
An end of the line wuxia starring Damian Lau, who began his career specializing in this kind of thing with John Woo’s Last Hurrah for Chivalry and Johnnie To’s The Enigmatic Case, and directed by Ching Siu-tung, who choreographed maybe the best film in this New Wave genre cycle, Patrick Tam’s The Sword. Lau plays the Chinese designate for an annual duel with a similarly chosen Japanese warrior. The two champions are to fight for cultural superiority bragging rights, about which they both have mixed feelings. Lau thinks maybe killing each other for no reason is kind of dumb, while the samurai, Norman Chu, begins to suspect that his fellow Japanese are up to no good, something having to do with the gang of ninjas led by Eddy Ko that keeps popping up to kill people and steal stuff in spectacularly weird fashion.
The first half of the film traces the warriors' progress to the site of the duel, the estate of the now-forgotten Holy Sword school, run by an old man and his daughter (in time-honored fashion unconvincingly disguised as a boy). In the hours before the fight, the various schemes are revealed: trickery and dishonor renders the planned duel even more absurd, but while Damian, Shaolin-trained, is content to go home, Norman the fanatical samurai insists on the fight anyway. As always happens in this kind of movie, everybody loses.
This was Ching Siu-tung’s directorial debut, and I don’t know that he’d ever again make something so angry or nihilistic, I suspect that’s more a reflection of the burnt-out times than anything else. He’s on surer ground with the action than the melodrama, and his distinctive choreography (quick cuts, crazy wirework, total disregard for the laws of physics) is as spectacular as ever. You haven’t lived until you’ve seen a ninja get sliced vertically in half, peeling away to reveal another ninja charging at the camera, who in turn explodes as he gets stabbed, throwing the hero backwards to the ground, where he stabs another ninja hidden under the dirt, revealed only by the geyser of blood spraying from below. All of which takes about two seconds of screentime.
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) — August 10, 2020
Really just A Touch of Zen but done in the style of The Evil Dead. Which makes sense, given that both it and the King Hu movie are based on stories from the Strange Tales from a Chinese Studio collection. Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung’s idolization of King Hu would become more apparent with the Swordsman movies, designed as a comeback vehicle for Hu as a director. Of course, Tsui Hark being Tsui Hark, and King Hu being King Hu, that collaboration lasted only a couple of weeks before Hu quit.
But Tsui and Ching are weirdly enough a perfect collaborative match, Ching’s hyperactive approach to action, more or less just running a King Hu sequence on fast-forward, such that what we see is more a rapid-fire series of poses against an abstract space, blends perfectly with Tsui’s comic book narrative approach, winking at cliches while updating and reinforcing their essential truths for the present moment.
Maybe not as soulful as Tsui’s 80s masterpieces Shanghai Blues and Peking Opera Blues, but nonetheless a perfect pop contraption.
A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990) — August 10, 2020
Builds on the King Hu influence of the first film by grafting the plots of his Inn movies onto it, along with some Louis Cha twists and turns, making this essentially a test run for Swordsman II. Leslie Cheung gets arrested arbitrarily (Handover paranoia here in the roving gangs of cops rounding people up to meet quotas) and when he escapes is taken in by a gang of loyalists to a disgraced minister who is being set up to be murdered for speaking the truth to the Emperor about governmental corruption. The villain turns out to be a corrupt, sexually ambiguous monk. I think that makes this Tsui’s first attempt at remixing Dragon Gate Inn.
I’m imagining Tsui hanging out with Ching Siu-tung sometime in 1986, listening to his stories of making Come Drink with Me as a child and just deciding to spend the next five years remaking King Hu movies.
Also shares with A Better Tomorrow II the conceit of resurrecting the star of the previous film, with Joey Wong playing a new character who is not a reincarnation of or, apparently, a long lost twin to, her character in the first film. But she falls just as much in love with Leslie Cheung anyway. Who wouldn’t?
All that aside, the best thing about this are the creature effects, maybe the best of Tsui’s career. A drooling monster that’s like an Alien mixed with a dragon, a giant false buddha statue, heroes surfing on flying swords, ghost lanterns hurtling through space. It’s as weird and lovely as anything in either Zu Warriors movie.
A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991) — August 13, 2020
More a sad echo of the first two films than anything else. It seems to jump ahead a 100 years, with the tree demon from the first film resurrected as the antagonist. But Joey Wong is still its slave. Whether this is the same Joey Wong from either of the other two movies is unexplained. I like the idea that it is, that she keeps getting saved and then reincarnated as a woman who’ll be enslaved again in both life and death.
The emphasis isn’t on her tragedy though—if you hadn’t seen the other films, you wouldn’t know this is a cycle (I guess that’s how it goes in life, though isn’t it?). Instead it’s a mostly tired comedy about Tony Leung trying not to have sex with pretty ghost ladies. The first half is better, with Leung and his old monk master. When Jacky Cheung joins (maybe playing the same character from the last movie, though he hasn’t aged a day), things just get annoying.
The East is Red (1993) — June 22, 2015
I don’t even know where to begin with this one. I think it’s the densest, most slippery thing Tsui Hark ever was involved with. The androgynous villain from Swordsman II is resurrected, tries on a bunch of different identities and roles, from prostitute to Japanese ninja general, and realizes that her pursuit of invincibility was pointless all along because all she really needed was Joey Wong. Also Brigitte Lin rides a flying swordfish.
Executioners (1993) — March 8, 2013
Sequel to The Heroic Trio, except with more nuclear apocalypse, good guys dying left and right, and Takeshi Kaneshiro and Lau Ching-wan joining the all-star cast. Still feels like Ching Siu-tung is the driving force here, though the editing is more restrained allowing more time to take in Johnnie To’s visual abstractions, though they are mostly confined to playing with colored lights shot through with white.
Dr. Wai in ‘The Scripture with No Words’ (1996) — March 21, 2016
This was one of the first Hong Kong films I ever saw, in one of the last HK double features Landmark ran in Seattle in the late 90s. Famously there are two versions of the film: an on-set fire destroyed a bunch of sets, which led to budget problems and some reshoots to make an international version, which dramatically altered the film’s storyline. I’m pretty sure that’s the version I saw back then. The Chinese version is a meta dual-timeline story about a pulp novelist (Jet Li) who has writer’s block because his wife (Rosamund Kwan) is leaving him. His assistants (Takeshi Kaneshiro and Charlie Yeung) start writing it for him, an Indiana Jones-style serial which we see acted out with the actors from the real world all playing counterpart characters in the fictional one.
The plot of the novel makes absolutely no sense, as various authors (including eventually Li and Kwan) change it on the fly to reflect their perspectives on the real world events and characters. As a commentary on the silliness of using art to reflect life, it has a kind of lunatic greatness, the ultimate expression of director/choreographer Ching Siu-tung’s rejection of verisimilitude in favor of the fantastic image. Also, Jet Li fights a pair of sumo wrestlers, Billy Chow, and a giant rat.