Fruit Chan Capsule Reviews

Fruit Chan Capsule Reviews

Finale in Blood (1993) — October 14, 2019

Fruit Chan’s second film. I’ve been unable to track down his first, 1991’s Five Lonely Hearts. This one’s a ghost story, basically a scuzzier version of Stanley Kwan’s Rouge (Ann Hui’s The Secret comes to mind too). This might be the last Hong Kong New Wave film, in that it feels like it should have been made a decade earlier. Lawrence Cheng plays a nerdy radio announcer who happens across an umbrella that’s possessed by the spirit of a woman who died because her cop husband (David Wu, the lust object from Starry is the Night), couldn’t stop sleeping with his favorite prostitute.

Right from the start Chan is doing the thing he’s best at, smashing together a pulpy comic horror story with a view of Hong Kong at its grimiest: sudden torrents of rain, sweaty buildings, and desperately hopeless people both alive and dead.

Made in Hong Kong (1997) — October 15, 2019

No future.

A day later and I’m still thinking about how this is a kind of remake of Dangerous Encounters–First Kind, but instead of Tsui’s psychotic nihilists who get in way over their heads, Chan’s teens are just the diseased detritus of an uncaring, cutthroat (literally) adult world. Tsui’s kids find out that the world is much tougher than they are, Chan’s know truth that all along, and cling to what little they can before the doom they feel is certainly coming.

Compare too to Ringo Lam’s School on Fire, where it is institutions that are failing the kids, and which therefore necessarily points the way to a solution: better institutions. There aren’t any institutions in Made in Hong Kong, only (incompetent) individuals.

Also, something about how Tsui and Lam are materialists, their hellish Hong Kongs the result of specific forces at play (capital, imperialism, etc), while Chan sees ghosts everywhere. His teens aren’t so much oppressed by history as they are haunted by it.

Added October 1, 2023:

Ryan Swen and I recorded an audio commentary for the upcoming Kino/Metrograph BluRay of Fruit Chan's Made in Hong Kong. Check it out.

The Longest Summer (1998) — July 13, 2018

The summer wind came blowin’ in from across the sea
It lingered there, to touch your hair and walk with me
All summer long we sang a song and then we strolled that golden sand
Two sweethearts and the summer wind

Like painted kites, those days and nights they went flyin’ by
The world was new beneath a blue umbrella sky
Then softer than a piper man, one day it called to you
I lost you, I lost you to the summer wind

Fruit Chan’s feature takes place between April and September of 1997, the summer of the colony’s Handover from the United Kingdom to the People’s Republic of China.⁠ A group of soldiers, discharged members of the British Hong Kong Army, are unable to find work in such economically precarious times and decide, in a familiar ‘why not?’ gesture, to rob a bank. But they aren’t the only ones: another, younger and more dangerous, gang robs the bank just before they do, a cosmic coincidence that kicks off a chain reaction of chaos and death.

Many a Hong Kong gangster film, dating back to Johnny Mak’s The Long Arm of the Law, released in 1984, the year of the Joint Declaration that set 1997 as the date of the Handover, has tapped into the apocalyptic fear and dread of the colony’s doom, but Chan’s underworld saga has an immediacy to it rare in the genre, attuned to the climate both literally and spiritually, seamlessly incorporating footage he shot during the actual Handover events with staged scenes of violent and romantic longing. The fictional world, tightly-plotted and -characterized in its first half, dissolves in the second in a dizzying unraveling of loyalties–national, societal, familial–all melting away in the black humidity of an unending monsoon. It’s a long summer and it’s the last summer. Its many, many fireworks (the Chinese title roughly translates as “Last Year’s Fireworks Were Especially Big”) celebrating with loud authority an uncertain future.

Little Cheung (1999) — October 25, 2019

Even though this features several of the same (non-)actors playing the same characters in the same location as Durian, Durian, this doesn’t appear to exist on the same timeline as the other film. At least, not as far as I could tell. This one is set mostly before the Handover, and I think the other one is too, but time skips by too quickly for me to really place that one event.

It’s about the adventures of a nine year old boy among the back alleys, dive restaurants, petty gangsters and elderly residents of the Portland Street area. The realist setting and style contrasts with the comic tone of his adventures, giving the whole thing an old fashioned feeling. If the first half of Durian Durian is a gritty reboot of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, then this is like a neo-realist Little Rascals. I suspect this is similar to the style and tone of Bruce Lee’s childhood films, but I haven’t seen any of them yet. There’s a clip of one near the end though and old man tells Little Cheung that Bruce Lee was the real Little Cheung, that our hero is just a fake. They argue about it.

Texture and setting is what’s most important here, as Fruit Chan doesn’t let any of his genre interests get in the way of the simple story of the boy’s coming-of-age. There’s no horror elements, any violence is off-screen (aside from frequent peeing in lemonade), and there’s nary a ghost to be seen.

Fan, the little girl who’s friendship with Little Cheung forms the backbone of the film, is a bit more developed than her character is in Durian Durian, though we spend less time with her family. We see her through Little Cheung’s eyes, in the same way we’ll see the true hero of Durian Durian through Fan’s eyes. Though in both films she co-narrates with the protagonist.

Durian Durian (2000) — October 24, 2019

First half is basically Fruit Chan’s gritty reboot of Breakfast at Tiffany’s, with a person observing the routines of their prostitute neighbor. (The observer in this case being a young girl rather than a writer/gigolo.)

But then in the second half, the prostitute goes home (from Hong Kong to frozen Northeast China) and the movie basically becomes Platform.

In other words, add another one to the already overflowing pile of great Chinese language films from the year 2000.

No ghosts in this one. It is haunted by food instead.

Hollywood Hong Kong (2001) — October 28, 2019

The first half is goofy and almost romantic, with Zhou Xun prancing around the denizens of a slum making men inordinately happy (a father-son pair of very large hog butchers, a young pimp with a website), like some kind of magical Mainland orgasm fairy.

Then, in the second half, she disappears and its revealed that she’s been running a scam on them all, demanding extortion payments via messages through her shady attorney. The comic tone is still there (a botched arm reattachment, a prodigal pig) but one late film death crosses the line between dark comedy and mean-spiritedness, though Zhou’s cynically happy ending is lovely.

Public Toilet (2002) — October 28, 2019

Everybody Poops


Never Shit Alone

Fruit Chan goes international, uniting the globe (New York and India, Hong Kong and Beijing, Busan and Rome) with the two most essential human impulses: the elimination of bodily waste and the search for magic cures to stave off the inevitability of the death of our loved ones.

It’s Chan at his most hopeful and utopian. Also very gross.

Dumplings (2004) — October 29, 2019

Easy to see how this started as a short, as there really isn’t a feature’s worth of material here. Just an idea (rich people eat fetuses to stay young) but no real development of it or drama or story to speak of. Bai Ling is terrific, but Miriam Yeung and Tony Leung (The Other) don’t have much to do aside from eating gross stuff.

The Midnight After (2014) — October 7, 2014

Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After was my favorite film from the Seattle Film Festival earlier this year, and it remains a favorite after seeing it again in Vancouver. It’s no less mysterious than it was on that initial viewing. Its dizzying series of inexplicablities seem more than ever to me an attempt at creating something more unsettling than the goriest horror movie: a film about the inability to comprehend the world as it is now, played out in a series of confrontations: generational, romantic, judicial, political, spiritual. The audience in Vancouver was much different than in Seattle. Bigger (the large auditorium was sold out, the pre-show lineup snaking through the mall further than I could track) and largely Chinese and Chinese-Canadian, the crowd was much more in tune with its daft chaos, laughing at all the right moments (the 40 or so people I saw it with in Seattle seemed more baffled than entertained). And seeing it at the end of a remarkable week in Hong Kong, with the instability and unknowability and fear of what will come when and if Hong Kongers get to vote for their own rulers in the coming years sparking massive protests throughout the former colony, only added to the film’s sense of urgency. One of the biggest and most uneasy laughs of the night came when the lost passengers, learning that they are now six years in the future, wonder if this strange world they’ve found themselves in is the result of the 2016 elections.

Kill Time (2016) — October 29, 2019

It’s a terrible title for a bunch of reasons: generic, boring, and doesn’t say anything about the movie. The Chinese title is 谋杀似水年华, which google translate tells me means “Murder”, though that seems like an awful lot of characters for one word. On letterboxd, critic and subtitler Kevin Ma tells me it actually translates as “Murdering Time That Flies Away”, which makes a bit more sense.

Anyway, it’s another love triangle centered on Angelababy that reaches back to the Cultural Revolution, like 2015’s Mojin: The Lost Legend. Also like that film, it’s overstuffed with characters and flashbacks designed to obfuscate a really very simple story. In that case, a CGI-driven treasure hunting film, in this one, a ghost-haunted murder mystery.

But it’s not much of a mystery, and the ghosts are of the sad and friendly and invisible kind, and so aren’t really much fun at all. In this sense, it relates to Fruit Chan’s earlier ghost-heavy work like Finale in Blood or Made in Hong Kong the way Johnnie To’s Linger relates to My Left Eye Sees Ghosts. That is, a lame and mostly dull rehash of former glory.

This was Fruit Chan’s follow-up to The Midnight After, which he made two years earlier after basically a decade away from feature films. Where that film is wildly unpredictable and unfathomable and inimitable, Kill Time, a few inspired images here or there aside, could have been made by anyone.

Three Husbands (2018) — November 12, 2019

Certainly the strangest adaptation of The Little Mermaid that I’ve ever seen.

Let Fruit Chan direct the Sub-Mariner movie!