An Autumn’s Tale (1987) — December 3, 2013
A romance without a single kiss. Great performances from its stars (Chow Yun-fat and Cherie Chung, never grungier and never cuter, respectively), great use of New York locations (I love how the pre-Giuliani city gradually turns from post-apocalyptic to quirky as immigrant Cherie settles in), wrapped in a gooey ball of cheese and corn.
Added August 2, 2109:
One of the more underrated New York movies. A film that really believes in the city as a place where people come from all over the world to invent themselves. Also part of a cycle of films about leaving Hong Kong that sprouted in the wake of the Joint Declaration. A fairy tale about leaving home and finding all the best things about it somewhere else, without the looming threat of authoritarian takeover. Chow Yun-fat and Cherie Chung make such a gorgeous couple, even with him constantly unshaven and disheveled and her buried under wool scarves, sweaters, and skirts. Mabel Cheung is so great at capturing these two other-worldly movie stars in the run-down, pre-gentrification city, finding pockets of beauty that almost match their own. Shots of the bridge call out to Woody Allen, but the images are closer to Michael Powell.
Eight Taels of Gold (1989) — February 22, 2017
Who would have guessed that Sammo Hung and Sylvia Chang would be the most romantic couple of 1989?
Really wish Sammo had kept working with Mabel Cheung and Alex Law. He’s never been as good at acting as he was in this and Painted Faces.
Sammo plays a guy who’s been in New York for 16 years who heads home to rural China to see his family. Sylvia Chang is a girl from his old neighborhood who’s headed to the same village. They travel together, Chang acting against type as an unsophisticated yokel (this same year she was the exact opposite in All About Ah-Long). They fall in love, because they’re both adorable, but she’s engaged to a restaurant owner in Brooklyn, himself a perfectly decent guy. But he’s no Sammo.
Cheung has a marvelous eye as always, and even in a lackluster transfer the film looks fantastic: elegant compositions, beautiful Chinese locations, subtle use of color (as coordinated as Zhang Yimou, but more naturalistic). The tidal pulls of America, a more open Chinese future, the traditional Chinese past, and the still open wounds of the Cultural Revolution (graffiti slogans dominate the countryside, Sylvia is told by an armed watchman not to raise her arms too high as she dances, and even everyday language shows the degenerative effects of authoritarianism) is fascinating. Doubly so when considered as an expression of the Hong Kong condition (these are after all HK filmmakers), coming midway between the Joint Declaration and the Handover.
The last 15 minutes or so are exceptional. While seemingly headed toward the kind of have-it-both-ways double ending of A Fishy Story, Ah-Long, or Cheung’s previous film, An Autumn’s Tale, it goes and has the same final shot as Ran of all things.
Moon Warriors (1992) – July 19, 2017
Probably the most beautiful and most romantic movie Sammo Hung ever made, the latter likely thanks to the team of Alex Law and Mabel Cheung, who are credited for writing the script and planning, respectively, but may have each directed parts of the film, along with Lam Ching-ying. The action is credited to Ching Siu-tung (along with Corey Yuen, Chin Kar-lok, and Bruce Law), and in many respects the movie is of a piece with the wire-fu wuxias Ching was churning out with Tsui Hark in the early 90s (the Swordsman series and the like). Except Sammo holds his shots, eschewing Ching's blinding editing. Combined with the distanced set-ups necessary to hide the fact that none of the primary cast (Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung, Anita Mui, and Kenny Bee) are actual martial artists, this leads to long takes of stunt performers dancing amidst wildly colorful landscapes, sun slanting through bamboo groves or burning incandescently in the afternoon sky (this is the same phantasmagoric sky Tsui finds at the finale of The Lovers).
And yet, Sammo being Sammo, he undercuts all this lush, bloody romanticism by having Andy Lau's best friend be an orca named, in the subtitles I saw, "Sea-Wayne".
The Soong Sisters (1997) — September 21, 2015
Mabel Cheung’s 1997 historical epic about three sisters. The oldest (Michelle Yeoh) marries one of the richest men in China, a direct descendant of Confucius. The second (Maggie Cheung) marries Sun Yat-sen while he’s in the midst of overthrowing the Qing Dynasty and establishing his Republic. The youngest (Vivian Wu) marries Chiang Kai-shek while he’s in the midst of turning Sun’s Republic into a military dictatorship more concerned with killing Communists than fighting the Japanese that happen to be invading the country. Director Mabel Cheung introduces it as a fairy tale, three princesses getting the things they want (money, prestige, and power, respectively) at the expense of the family bond. The second marriage estranges Maggie from her father (played by Jiang Wen), the third estranges Vivian and Maggie, and all the while Michelle tries to hold the family together, more for the control over the nation that their unity gives them as for any feeling of familial piety. The allegories are obvious (a nation split apart, first with Western influence (the girls are sent away to America as children) then with internal disputes (finally the three settle in three different Chinas: Hong Kong, Taiwan, and the PRC itself). The film has the gorgeous sweep and cliched dramatics of Zhang Yimou’s films from the same period, but with a harder edge, a radical sting lying just under the surface. The women are vibrant, dynamic and highly intelligent. Their men are buffoonish, pompous, and ineffectual. The men are limited, the women capable of anything.
A Tale of Three Cities (2015) — September 30, 2015
A Hong Kong romance from the team of Mabel Cheung and Alex Law (she directs, he produces, they both write). Based on the life of Jackie Chan’s parents (though the story ends long before he was born), A Tale of Three Cities stars Tang Wei and Lau Ching-wan as a couple kept desperately apart by war (first against the Japanese, then against the Communists). In a Brady Bunch-like set-up, Tang has two young daughters and a husband she didn’t care for who gets killed by a clock during an air raid, while Lau has two sons and a wife dying of some unknown disease. They meet when, in the course of his duty as a Nationalist soldier, he catches her smuggling opium and lets her go. It turns out she’s his wife’s cousin and they meet up again when the war forces them from Shanghai to the smaller town of Anhui. He’s loud, illiterate, and usually drunk, she’s quiet, refined, and very smart. Of course they fall in love, but first the war (Lau is captured by the Japanese) and then family keep them apart (Tang’s mother doesn’t think he’s classy enough for her girl). The performances of the two leads are exceptional, Lau playing a typical role for him: a hard man with soft eyes. Tang though, is proving herself to simply be one of the best actors in the world right now. Last year she carried Ann Hui’s biopic The Golden Era (set during the same period, but much more experimental in style and tone) with a finely modulated performance as a psychologically unstable writer. Already in 2015 she’s been brilliant in a nearly a wordless performance in Michael Mann’s Blackhat and as the emotionally explosive center of Johnnie To’s musical Office. Her performance here is halfway between those two, with simple eye movements and precise gestures, she is curiosity and determination in the interior scenes, and in the many scenes of disaster she is broad and heart-wrenching, an expressive anguish that goes beyond melodrama. The film is a series of brief unions and long separations, as the two find themselves apart from each other and their children for increasingly long periods of time, mirroring the coming together and tearing apart of the nation itself. Cheung expertly keeps things focused, despite the leaps in time and location, and the film is a masterpiece of classical storytelling, the kind of lush historical romantic epic that Hollywood hasn’t managed to make in almost 20 years (Titanic is the last good one I can think of). Along with another such epic, 2014’s The Crossing Part One, directed by John Woo, it’s clear that these veterans of the Hong Kong film industry have once again bested Hollywood at its own game.