The Enigmatic Cases Capsule Reviews
Temple of the Red Lotus (1965) — June 23, 2015
The Shaw Brothers dove headfirst into wuxia in 1965 with this, the first in a trilogy previously adapted as an epic serial (one of the longest movies ever) in 1928. Future luminaries abound, from Jimmy Wang Yu and Lo Lieh making their debuts to reliable supporting actors like Tien Feng and The Love Eterne star Ivy Ling Po to future director-choreographers Lau Kar-leung, Yuen Woo-ping, and Tong Kai as stuntman extras. Wang Yu plays a young man who gets caught up in a gang war he doesn’t understand while he seeks some revenge for his murdered parents and falls for a pretty girl. Long sections of taking and walking feel like they belong more to the huangmei world than wuxia. There’s a sequence done much, much better a decade later in Shaolin Mantis, where the young lovers have to escape a compound by besting various family members: instead of fighting their way out, they mostly accomplish their escape through begging and whining. What action there is is generally too sped-up and too quickly edited. The final sequences, multi-person combat intricately choreographed and patiently shot, with the occasional ingenious device, are a hint of better things to come. Director Hsu Tseng-Hung would go on to a couple dozen relatively minor wuxia over the next 15 years or so at Shaws and Golden Harvest.
An Elephant Sitting Still (2018) — February 27, 2019
“Because. . . no reason.”
Totally see why people dig this, and that final shot is indeed something else.
But to me it’s just Love Exposure without all the fun, the craziness, the grossness. Love Exposure with all the life drained out of it.
Clan of the White Lotus (1980) — February 6, 2018
The Flying Swords of Dragon Gate to Executioners of Shaolin’s Dragon Gate Inn, by which I mean it’s a weirder, sillier remake of a great film. Choreographed by Lau Kar-leung but directed by Lo Lieh, who plays the head of the White Lotus Clan. He’s the brother of Pai Mei, the White-Eyebrows priest who in the prologue is defeated by a pair of Shaolin warriors as revenge for his betrayal, which led to the destruction of their Temple. In a twist on the Shaolin story, their victory has convinced the Manchu to allow the rebuilding of the Temple, despite its history as a hotbed for anti-Qing resistance. But the local Qing commander (Wang Lung-wei), a former student of Pai Mei, goes rogue and enlists the White Lotus Clan to crush the surviving Shaolin monks. Gordon Liu, playing Hung Man-ting (who may be the character called Hung Wen-ding in Executioners, the son of Hung Hsi-kuan) and his sort of sister-in-law (Kara Hui) are the only survivors.
In Executioners, the boy Wen-ding combines his father’s Tiger Fist and his mother’s Crane Style into one art to defeat Pai Mei by hitting his fatal pressure point, which the villain could move from his groin to his head at will. In White Lotus, Liu and his friend, Wu Ah-biu combine to defeat Pai Mei, but again with Tiger and Crane styles, respectively. That doesn’t work against the White Lotus priest though.
Liu repeatedly tries to defeat him, but every time he fails. Eventually Hui teaches him how to fight “like a woman”, demonstrating more fluid, softer movements which will enable him to actually touch the priest. This isn’t Wing Chun, but rather a variation on Jackie Chan’s female drunk kung fu from Drunken Master, though Liu commits to the persona more willingly (he seems a natural at embroidery but definitely not childcare). Ultimately even that isn’t enough and Liu must combine the new “womanly” style with elements of acupuncture to hit the priest’s fatal pressure points with sharpened knitting needles.
So, for his final attack, Liu ambushes Lo Lieh while he’s taking a bath, adopts a more feminine identity, and penetrates him in exactly the right spot.
Wicked City (1992) — March 17, 2017
Roy Cheung turns into a giant octopus demon and rides an airplane that may be an illusion, but no it’s a real plane, but no it’s an illusion, but no it’s real.
Leon Lai and Jacky Cheung and Yuen Woo-ping all wear glasses, though none of them actually appear to need vision correction.
Sometimes they wear sunglasses. At night.
This is about Hong Kong being surreptitiously taken over by demons disguised as humans, which hints at an allegory of the Handover. Except the evil demons (there are some good ones) are ruthlessly capitalistic drug dealers. The drug they sell is literally called “Happiness”. So it’s also an allegory of Western imperialism. It’s also an adaptation of a novel by Japanese writer Kikuchi Hideyuki, so it might really be about Japan. But after a prologue in Tokyo, Cheung whisks Lai back to Hong Kong, never to return.
Tsui Hark wrote and produced, Andrew Lau was the cinematographer. It was directed by Peter Mak, who co-directed another movie in 1995, but otherwise has apparently been working in television for the past 25 years.
At one point, Roy Cheung has sex with a demon who has taken the form of a pinball machine. He shouts that he’s going to get the high score.
Tatsuya Nakadai stars in this movie.
The Blonde Fury (1989) – July 26, 2020
Cynthia Rothrock vehicle that's kind of a showcase for Sammo Hung's late 80s stock company. Mang Hoi directs. Normally an action director and supporting actor, maybe most recognizable as one of Sammo's buddies in Pedicab Driver, this is his second of only two directorial credits. He does the choreography along with Corey Yuen, and the plot is more or less a rehash of Yuen's Righting Wrongs, with Rothrock as an American cop sent undercover to Hong Kong to bust a counterfeiting ring run by Ronny Yu, director of The Bride with White Hair. Mang Hoi plays a reporter who gets mixed up in the case while Chin Siu-ho plays an annoying cop. Other familiar faces abound: Wu Ma, Melvin Wong, Billy Chow, Roy Chiao.
Sloppily put together, and not very funny, it's nothing more or less than an excuse to see some excellent fight scenes and stunt work. It's the kind of movie that makes you appreciate why the great Hong Kong films of this period (including Rothrock vehicles Yes, Madam and Righting Wrongs) truly are great.
Hu-Du-Men (1996) — March 27, 2016
A backstage domestic drama with Josephine Siao as a Cantonese Opera star who is about to emigrate to Australia with her husband and her step-daughter. She meets an aspiring actress (Anita Yuen) who has an abusive father and a nice boyfriend. Her husband’s upset that his daughter appears to be in a lesbian relationship with a short-haired girl. And her co-performers are giving the innovative young director she’s hired a tough time. Siao negotiates it all with the kind of intelligence and charm that demonstrates why she was possibly the best actress in the world in the late 20th century who remained almost totally unknown in the United States. (If you know her at all, it’s probably because she played Jet Li’s mom in The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk).
Somewhat weird trivia: Fruit Chan was the assistant director on this film, one year before his indie breakthrough Made in Hong Kong, while director Shu Kei served as assistant director on Yim Ho’s 1980 New Wave touchstone The Happenings (which Shu also co-wrote). Shu Kei is better known as a prominent film critic, he also worked as the PR man for late 80s powerhouse studio D&B Films.
Angel Terminators (1992) – January 25, 2022
About as good as you’d expect given the totally generic title. It’s one of two films directed by Wai Lit, who appears to have had a solid career in 80s B movies, none of which I’ve seen. Sharon Yeung and Kara Hui play supercops, the kind who stop on the way to taking Hui to the airport to beat up bad guys. Hui leaves town (for a training course in Scotland(?), which leaves Yeung to fend for herself when Kenneth Tsang returns from exile in Thailand (nothing good ever comes to Hong Kong from Thailand), takes over the Triads, and starts fucking with Yeung’s boss, who has a gambling problem and whose wife (Carrie Ng) used to be one of Tsang’s girls. One thing leads to another and Hui returns home to find Yeung addicted to heroin thanks to being imprisoned by Nishiwaki Michiko, a whole bunch of people dead, and now even Dick Wei is in town to help out Tsang. It all ends about as well as one could hope it would. It’s a nice big sleazy role for Tsang, who had a long career as one of Hong Kong’s great supporting actors.
A Borrowed Life (1984) — March 16, 2015
Wu Nien-jen’s biopic about his father. Was going to suggest that it would make a great double feature with Ann Hui’s biopic about her mother, Song of the Exile and then look at that: Wu wrote that film too.
At one point late in the film, Wu’s mother mentions that “the postman” helped them find a new house. I assume this is the same postman that helped them move a big rock out of their house after a typhoon, but I wonder also if there’s a relation to the postman that steals his girl in Dust in the Wind. So many postmen.
Anna Magdalena (1998) — November 10, 2014
A wild twist in the final third turns a fairly standard love triangle (two roommates, one a charming slob (Aaron Kwok), the other shy and fastidious (Takeshi Kaneshiro), fall for the same woman (Kelly Chen)) into something truly weird and wondrous. Packed with cameos (including Wei Wei, star of 1948’s Spring in a Small Town) and a whole lot of Bach.
So Young (2013) — October 22, 2014
A much better version of Summer Palace is this, the directorial debut of actress Zhao Wei. Based on a popular novel by Xin Yiwu (and also on some of Zhao’s own experiences), the film was wildly successful at the Chinese box office, one of the highest-grossing movies of 2013. The romantic complications of a group of college kids, four girls, four boys, at an architectural school in China sometime in the 1990s. It focuses on one pair, the clever and independent Zhang Wei (played by Yang Zishan) and the determined and aloof Chen Xiaozheng (played by Mark Chao, who successfully took on the Andy Lau role in Tsui Hark’s Young Detective Dee), filtering the stories of the other schoolmates into the margins. The central romance is well done, the conflict, ultimately being class-based: Chen grew up poor and very much wants to be rich, girls can only distract him from that mission. Most of the other conflicts in the film revolve around the same issue. We see snippets of the students’ hometowns (rural/industrial, grey, poor) that are contrasted in the final third of the film (taking place seven years after graduation) in the sleek modernity of 21st century China’s hyper-capitalist urban hotspots.
It’s in that final third that things begin to fall apart, but not so much to wreck the film. We see flashbacks to scenes that were missing in the first section of the film, filling in details and solving mysteries (but not all of them). Heiward Mak uses much the same technique in Uncertain Relationships Society, but her stories fit together more seamlessly, her attention to her massive cast of characters is more diffuse, such that every one is fully-developed, whereas some of the minor characters in Zhao’s film are neglected. Reportedly Zhao’s original cut was three hours long, so perhaps in the fuller version of the film this isn’t a problem.
Still, she elicits a great set of performances from her young and largely inexperienced cast (Yang Zishan in particular is a star in the making). The film lurches in style from CGI princess fantasy to handheld shaky-cam, neither of which extreme entirely works, but for the most part Zhao keeps things light and elegant, the bold colors of modern Chinese digital cinema only occasionally falling victim to the creeping plague of Hollywood teal and orange.