The Untold Stories Capsule Reviews

The Untold Stories Capsule Reviews

Tony Au:

Dream Lovers (1986) — March 12, 2017

Chow Yun-fat plays a conductor who, just as he moves into a new place with his longtime girlfriend, Cher Yeung, begins having weird dreams of himself as a Qin Dynasty terracotta figure. At the same time, Brigitte Lin begins having visions of herself as a Qin-era woman. They both begin to see each other, in dreams and while awake: mostly being sad and in love, but Lin also sees Chow’s execution. Yueng takes Chow to see her grandmother, who introduces herself as a blind witch and tells Chow that he and Lin are reincarnations of lovers from over two thousand years before, and that they are destined to be together.

Alternating between languid, eerie encounters between Lin and Chow (she finds him at an exhibition of the Terracotta Warriors, which her archeologist father is a leading expert in), where they are, inexplicably to themselves, drawn passionately and hopelessly together, with more realistic responses to their relationship: Yeung’s breakdown as her relationship with Chow can’t compete with a multi-millennia romance; a secret Lin’s father and a colleague have been keeping for almost thirty years.

Director Tony Au was a leading art director for the New Wave (Dangerous Encounters — First Kind, Boat People and several other Ann Hui films, Stanley Kwan’s Women and Love Unto Waste, which also star Chow and Elaine Jin, who has a small role here) and he has a great eye for spaces: Chow’s unfinished apartment, Chow and Lin picnicking on Pringles and wine, the ghostly blue of Qin-era Lin’s home.

As a kind of ghost romance invasion of modern Hong Kong, it anticipates Stanley Kwan’s Rouge, but it’s much more somber. Both films can probably be read allegorically as expressions of post-Joint Declaration anxiety (the Chinese past coming back to reclaim the Hong Kong present), but reducing them to that does them a disservice.

Anthony Chan:

A Fishy Story (1989) — February 15, 2017

Did you know there’s a Maggie Cheung variation on Breakfast at Tiffany’s that makes extensive use of “Smoke Gets In Your Eyes” and in which the two down and out neighbors/lovers are repeatedly thwarted by lascivious men, rich women, and an extremely aggressive transportation union? Well, there is and it’s wonderful.

Evans Chan

We Have Boots (2020) — January 27, 2020

Evans Chan’s We Have Boots, premiering in its current form at Rotterdam, takes a more traditional view of the Umbrella Movement than something like Alan Lau's interpretive dance musical The Cube Phantom, focusing on several of its leading figures as they awaited trial for their activities (the charges amount to things like “inciting to incite to being public nuisance” and other trumped up nonsense). It appears to have been filmed in 2017 and 2018, and then re-edited with new footage as the 2019 protests broke out (it goes right up to New Years 2020, a mere three weeks ago as I'm writing). The result is a bit unwieldy, but never less than fascinating.

Like the movement itself it lurches from activist to activist, back and forth through time (the story of 21-year-old activist-turned exiled legislator Agnes Chow is particularly compelling, as is that of activist Tommy Cheung, who gets sentenced only to community service and thus is one of the film’s few main figures who is still eligible to run for office). Factions within the Umbrella Movement are explored, particularly its uglier, nationalist, and anti-Chinese groups (Pepe the Frog makes a couple of incongruous appearances, as a symbol for Hong Kong nationalism, or simply a cartoon misappropriated by a very different culture I don’t know, but it’s definitely weird). A picture gradually emerges of the Umbrella Movement as a generally peaceful, idealistic moment, with the crackdown that followed it and the persecution of its leaders ultimately leading to the darker, more violent and much bigger and longer lasting 2019 actions.

The film’s title comes from a poem by African-American writer Nikki Giovanni (“We begin a poem / with longing / and end with / responsibility / And laugh / all through the storms / that are bound / to come / We have umbrellas / We have boots / We have each / other.”). It’s one of the many links between the Occupy movement in Hong Kong and its inspirations in the United States (Martin Luther King’s “Letter from a Birmingham Jail” is quoted at length as well). Occupy was, after all, a global movement, one whose final effects have yet to be determined, here, there, or everywhere. In the U.S., a generation of activists have moved into electoral politics, hoping to reshape the Democratic Party and counter the increasingly crude forces with which capital defends itself from within the system. Alexandria Ocasio-Cortez, a young activist very much like the students of the Umbrella Movement, even had a similar slogan to Giovanni’s line in her run for Congress against an entrenched machine opponent: “They’ve got Money. We’ve got People.”

There are of course important differences between the last decade in Hong Kong and in the U.S. (for one thing, Ocasio-Cortez is allowed to run for office here, unlike Agnes Chow in Hong Kong), and this wonderful series at the 2020 Rotterdam International Film Festival gives so much great context to it, reminding us that every place has a unique history and politics of its own, that it is dangerous to conflate them and us, to view another’s experience only through the lens of our own small corner of the world. But the commonalities are vitally important as well. Because ultimately it’s all one struggle: of the powerless against the powerful. And there are more of us than there are of them.

Alex Cheung:

Cops and Robbers (1979) — March 6, 2018

A Hong Kong New Wave crime film with all the hallmarks of the movement: handheld shooting in the overcrowded streets, unexpectedly graphic violence, moody music and lighting (blues and reds) for psychotic villains, and lack of faith in the institutions of civil society. It follows the normie lives of a squad of detectives as they negotiate girlfriends, wives, and children. The villain is a cross-eyed, non-verbal gun nut who had been rejected in his attempt to join the police force because of his infirmity. He’s contrasted with the new member of the squad, a glasses-wearing youth known only as “Pretty Boy,” an enthusiastic young cop, thoroughly shaken by the violence he sees, the very opposite of the maniacal villain. Through it all is a score by Teddy Robin Kwan, who shows up mid-film in a hard rocking club appearance, playing the cops’ favorite song. The film’s opening, scored with Kwan’s sappy hippy jangle about the innocence of children (as they play the titular cops and robbers) ably sets the stage for the carnage to follow.

Alfred Cheung:

Paper Marriage (1988) — May 22, 2021

Maggie Cheung marries Sammo Hung in order to get a green card, hijinks ensue. It’s an amiable collection of bits, some of them (Maggie mud-wrestling, Maggie mugging for the camera, the fights) better than others (Maggie getting dunked in a toilet, Maggie getting peed on, Sammo explaining to Maggie that it’s ok for him to rape her because they’re married). Set in the West Edmonton Mall area of Los Angeles.

On the Run (1988) — July 19, 2020

One of the more fascinating little mini-generic cycles in Hong Kong cinema was when in the late 80s, following the success of A Better Tomorrow and City on Fire, folks who made their names in the period kung fu film started making bloody, brutal cop movies. Films like Yuen Woo-ping’s In the Line of Duty 4 and Tiger Cage, or Lau Kar-leung’s Tiger on the Beat movies. This one’s got Little Fortune Yuen Biao as a cop who stumbles onto a ring of corrupt homicide detectives when they hire someone to assassinate his ex-wife, the cop who was about to expose them. He doesn’t do any kung fu, or really any acrobatics to speak of. Mostly he just gets shot while everyone around him also gets shot. He does have a fight scene at the end, but rather than Yuen’s typical grace and elegance, it’s quick and savage, formless and manic. It reminded me more of Donnie Yen’s 2000s fights in movies like Flash Point than anything Yuen had ever done before or since.

More than just riding on John Woo, Ringo Lam, and Chow Yun-fat’s coattails, these movies at the end of the 80s are as much a result of the older generation of Shaws/Golden Harvest stars merging with the more confrontational sensibilities of the Hong Kong New Wave. On the Run's director, Alfred Cheung, is mostly known for comedies, but he also (co-)wrote the screenplays for New Wave classics The Story of Woo Viet (directed by Ann Hui) and Father and Son (directed by Allen Fong). And while the gang of bad cops features kung fu stalwarts Lo Lieh and Yuen Wah (and is led by Charlie Chin, a veteran of Hong Kong and Taiwanese film who was one of the “Two Chins & Two Lins” of 70s Taiwanese film who crossed over to the Hong Kong in the 80s, along with Brigitte Lin), the assassin is played by Pat Ha, star of Patrick Tam’s Nomad and Angie Chen’s My Name Ain’t Suzie.

The uneasy balance between the two styles, New Wave angst and dread versus the old school ideals of heroism and craft, is palpable, and gives the film its queasy, unstable feeling. It’s a world completely inexplicable to its hero, more cruel than he can comprehend. And as in many of these films (Johnnie To’s The Big Heat, for example, from the same year), the sense of doom is explicitly tied to the fear of the impending Handover. But it could just as well be anything else: there are no shortage of things in the world to make one feel like the end is nigh.

Jacob Cheung:

Cageman (1992) — January 15, 2020

Chinese immigrants to Hong Kong get a sympathetic look in Jacob Cheung’s 1992 Cageman. It’s about a run-down men’s hostel where the residents literally sleep in chicken wire cages, stacked on top of each other in a big concrete block of a warehouse. For most of its length, it’s a genial comedy about misfits, many of them refugees from the Mainland at one time or another (the midcentury wars led to a massive expansion of the colony’s population, far more than its housing or economy could accommodate), banding together in a spirit of community despite the dire poverty that surrounds them. It’s a type of film with a long tradition in Hong Kong (and around the world, see for example various adaptations of The Lower Depths, or Yamanaka Sadao’s Humanity and Paper Balloons), best exemplified by Chor Yuen seminal 1973 comedy The House of 72 Tenants, the smash hit film that almost single-handedly revived Cantonese-language cinema in Hong Kong.⁠ It’s got an amiable cast of character actors, led by Roy Chiao (A Touch of Zen, Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom), Teddy Robin Kwan (a Cantonese rock star who was a frequent bit player in 80s Hong Kong comedies), and Chinese-American actor Victor Wong (Big Trouble in Little China, Prince of Darkness, Jack Kerouac's Big Sur), and the film patiently details their lives as a young ex-con comes to live with them and two local politicians make grandstanding stays at the hostel. The politicians are there because the building is slated to be demolished, to make way for developers, but the men refuse to leave: desperate as they are, and as terrible as their living conditions may be, it’s still their home, and living in a cage is better than having no home at all. The final moments of Cageman are truly harrowing, as the cops inevitably arrive to drag the men away. “Officer, please don’t break my cage!” one of them cries, a lament as horrifying as it is heart-breaking.

Derek Chiu:

№1 Chung Ying Street (2018) — October 1, 2018

Like 1987: When the Day Comes, documenting revolution in the mode of commercial pop cinema, without sacrificing the pointed didacticism of the former or the emotional power of the latter.

Pair with Yellowing for perspectives on the Umbrella Movement. Or with The Wind that Shakes the Barley to extend the ideals and contradictions of revolution even further across time and space.

Clarence Fok:

The Iceman Cometh (1989) — July 18, 2020

Demolition Man, but with Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah coming from the Ming Dynasty into the present as a somewhat garbled metaphor for the Handover with Maggie Cheung in her wacky crazy girl phase (see also A Fishy Story) around to liven things up.

Yuen Wah is effectively nasty but Yuen Biao is too goofy either for the darkness of this world or for the romance with Cheung to really be convincing. Imagine not having chemistry with Maggie Cheung.

Eddie Fong:

The Private Eye Blues (1994) — November 15, 2017

In Eddie Fong’s 1994 comic noir, Jacky Cheung plays a deadbeat detective who gets assigned to find a missing teen-aged girl. She finds him almost immediately — the mystery is who she is and why everyone (the Mainland government, the British authorities, local Triad gangs) is trying to find her. She might be the Chairman’s granddaughter, she might be an escaped psychic — it ultimately doesn’t matter, and Cheung, swilling beer and moping about the breakup of his marriage, doesn’t particularly care. He’s the soul of Hong Kong on the brink of the Handover: everyone wants a piece of him and he just wants to be left alone.

In America, noir built tragedy out of post-war paranoia, men trapped in a world that no longer made sense after the atrocities of war and the reshuffling of social roles at home: women are dangerous harbingers of change and violence is a matter of course. The Girl in The Private Eye Blues isn’t a femme fatale, but her opposite, a manic pixie nightmare (Mavis Fan both looks and acts like Faye Wong in the same year’s Chungking Express) who claims to know the future, but only sometimes. Paranoia turns to farce, every shot a world off its axis, not in chiaroscuro black and white, but the hazy neon blue of the Hong Kong night. A world where the future could be predicted, but can’t ever be controlled.

Godfrey Ho:

Princess Madam (1989) — March 23, 2021

One of the cool things about the Angels movies that Teresa Woo made with Moon Lee is that even though the plots are silly, the acting generally bad, and the dialogue worse, the action scenes are all creative and carefully put together, performed and shot. Woo makes sparing use of slow motion: the best thing about Lee’s fights are their speed.

This film (also called Angel Protection, depending on whether it's trying to capitalize on the Angels series or the Yes, Madam series) was not directed by Teresa Woo. It’s a Godfrey Ho film, the first one I’ve seen, and it’s one of the laziest Hong Kong action films I’ve seen in awhile. I can’t remember the last time I saw so many kicks and punches fail to connect — a matter of framing and editing more than performance or choreography.

And so much slow motion too. One of the many tones Ho appears to be aping is that of John Woo’s The Killer, and well, this ain’t it. But for the three main actresses, this would be just plain bad.

Jeong Chang-hwa:

The Skyhawk (1974) — July 20, 2017

A weird confluence of the past, present and future of kung fu. Kwan Tak-hing plays Wong Fei-hung (as he did in almost hundred films from 1949 on), vacationing in Thailand with his apprentice Fatty, played by Sammo Hung. Sammo did the action choreography as well (and maybe you can catch his pals Mars and Lam Ching-ying doing stunt-work), but the direction is by Korean transplant Jeong Chung-hwa, who had a major hit for Shaw Brothers with Five Fingers of Death in 1972 before jumping to Golden Harvest the next year for The Devil’s Treasure, which also starred and was choreographed by Sammo Hung. The Skyhawk also features Nora Miao, in a far too brief role, which along with the setting amidst labor strife in Thailand, inspires echoes of Bruce Lee.

It doesn’t hang together very well, Kwan integrated better into the Sammo/Golden Harvest world a few years later with The Magnificent Butcher and Dreadnaught, and the moral philosophy of his Wong is on shaky ground in the vigilante early 70s. The villains have all the vices (gambling, drug dealing, forced prostitution, hiring Hwang In-shik, union-busting), but Wong is resolute in not responding to their provocations. His new disciple, played by Carter Wong (Sammo’s bland and handsome counterpart in the early 70s Angela Mao films), keeps fighting anyway, going so far as to ignore Wong’s command not to kill in the final battle. The tension is left unresolved, the two incompatible heroes just walk off into the sunset.

Lawrence Ah Mon:

Gangs (1988) — January 14, 2020

If the communal spirit gives Cageman at least a little bit of hope, even that is missing from Gangs, the 1988 debut film from director Lawrence Lau (also known as Lawrence Ah Mon). Much like Ringo Lam’s School on Fire, which was released the same year, Gangs follows a group of high school kids that are inevitably drawn into a Triad gang war. But where Lam’s film focused its outrage, blaming the plight of Hong Kong’s poorest teens on the ways specific institutions (schools, police, government, family) have failed them, Lau’s kids have no protective institutions in sight: they are simply alone in a world of gangs, violence, greed, and crime. They slowly get picked off, one by one, killed, maimed, drugged, prostituted, drowned, kidnapped, burnt, and so on, until nothing at all is left. A decade later, Hong Kong cinema post-Handover would be dominated by a series of films about teen Triads launched by cinematographer-turned-director Andrew Lau called Young & Dangerous. His blow-dried and gorgeous gangsters would learn life lessons about honor and loyalty and brotherly bonding over some dozen or so films in the late 90s and early 2000s. They bear roughly the same relation to Lau’s film as Michael Bay’s Pearl Harbor does to Elim Klimov’s Come and See.

Po-chih Leong:

Jumping Ash (1976) — July 7, 2017

The intersection between Hollywood exploitation and the Hong Kong New Wave, though the former may be the accidental byproduct of watching a cropped and dubbed version of this, apparently made for some kind of TV broadcast. Co-directed and co-written by Josephine Siao (with Po-chih Leong and Philip Chan, respectively), it’s a typical cheap 70s cop vs heroin dealers actioner, a Shaft knock-off with better fight scenes. Siao gets top billing, but she’s barely in it, instead it’s a vehicle for the generically hunky Callan Leong, an honest cop on the trail of a gang lord played by Nick Lam, who looks exactly like a Chinese Edward Arnold. A key film in the move toward realistic location shooting in Hong Kong, its handheld, documentary style images of the Kowloon Walled City and other iconic street level locations alone compensate for the looseness of the plot.

Patrick Leung:

Beyond Hypothermia (1996) — April 14, 2016

Only fitting that the first film produced by Milkyway Image should be a slick genre hybrid of blood-spattering violence and romantic tragedy. Jacklyn Wu plays an assassin with no name and no past, robotic and literally the coldest person around, who forms a tentative, yet deep, bond with Lau Ching-wan’s gregarious noodle seller just as her entire world, such as it is, collapses in a cascade of revenge. More focused than the haphazardly plotted A Moment of Romance, Wu’s 1990 film produced by Johnnie To, and more grounded in the blue-black night of Hong Kong. In that film, freedom is Andy Lau on a motorcycle, racing through the sunset. In this one, it’s Wu and the other, more earthy Lau on a raft, sliding down a rain-drenched street in the middle of the night, landing happily in a pool of mud. Both films end in tragedy: in the former one lover wanders the streets looking desperately for her man; in the latter, the agents of nihilistic violence literally trap them in a hail of bullets and crushed metal. But at least they’re together.

Patrick Lung Kong:

The Story of a Discharged Prisoner (1967) — July 4, 2015

Basically what would happen if the cast and crew of one of those Wong Fei-hung serials (the same villain (Shih Kien), one of the same choreographers (Lau Kar-wing) the same penchant for locking people in basements, the same reliance on ingenious devices, in this case a wardrobe containing a clown car’s worth of anonymous henchmen) got together to make a noir-inflected social problem film. On the evidence of this one film, I guess that would make Patrick Lung Kong the Phil Karlson of Hong Kong.

Bears about as much relation to A Better Tomorrow as The Killer does to Le samouraï or Reservoir Dogs does to City on Fire. Which is to say, not much at all of what’s really important in a movie.

Michael Mak:

Sex and Zen (1991) — July 23, 2020

What goes around, comes around.

Butterfly & Sword (Michael Mak, 1993) – March 28, 2022

Five minutes into this Michelle Yeoh makes fun of Tony Leung for having a small dick.

Directed by Michael Mak, the man who brought us Sex and Zen. But the action is by Ching Siu-tung and it's entirely in the wirefu style of his Swordsman movies: people flying around, heads flying too. In the first fight, Tony uses a bow to fire his sword at his enemies. Later, Michelle uses her oversized sleeves as a bow to fire spears made of further sleeve material as well as Tony himself. It's unclear if this version of the jianghu has developed arrow technology.

Based on a novel by Gu Long, possibly the same source as Chor Yuen's 1970s classic Killer Clans. Tony and Michelle are assassins hired by a eunuch to eliminate a rival wuxia clan that apparently poses a threat to the emperor. Mak doesn't seem the least bit interested in that, however, devoting almost all the space between Ching's action sequences to the heroes' romantic lives. For it seems that while Donnie Yen loves Michelle, Michelle loves Tony, who in turn loves Joey Wong, who loves him back.

Joey has left the jianghu, and thinks Tony has too, and there might be some kind of allegory there about wanting to but failing to leave the martial world behind when one has the chance, but honestly it's all lost in a film that feels like it was sliced in half like one of its many, many doomed extras.

Tong Kai:

Shaolin Intruders (1983) — January 16, 2011

Someone is killing the heads of the top kung fu clans, and all signs point to the Shaolin Temple. Three heroes investigate (after being accused themselves of the crimes) and must fight their way (non-fatally) through the temple before they are allowed to ask any questions. It’s a flimsy plot premise, but stronger than something like Heroes of the East (though that film is a lot of fun) and the fight sequences are very good. Director Tong Kai was a choreographer early in his career with Lau Kar-leung, and the similarities show. It’s hard to pick the best sequence, as all of the Temple fights are well done, but the showdown with the abbot on a room full of benches (prefiguring one of my all-time favorite fight sequences: the battle on the crowd in Jet Li’s The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk) would probably take it if I had to pick one.

Kirk Wong:

Crime Story (1993) — February 9, 2018

I don’t know that it’s quite the Oscar-calibre performance that Edward Yang seemed to think Jackie Chan was capable of, but he’s quite good and he did pick up the Best Actor Golden Horse award for it.

Kirk Wong directs and brings a new kind of grittiness to the Chan persona, a much darker version of the Police Story character (though more bound to the codes of ethical police work than Jackie’s descent into vigilantism). In fact, the first forty-five minutes or so barely features any fisticuffs — what action there is is almost exclusively vehicular. The mid-section of the film, as Chan tries to make his case against obviously dirty cop Kent Cheng, drags with a lot of dramatic side-eye acting punctuated by portentous chords, but the finale is pretty spectacular, filmed among the ruins of the Kowloon Walled City and blowing them all up.

Wong Tin-lam:

The Wild, Wild Rose (1960) — March 21, 2017

Grace Chang takes a 180 from the wholesome everygirl of Mambo Girl into this adaptation of Carmen by Wong Tin-lam, father of the notorious Wong Jing and character actor in many a Johnnie To film (he’s the large boss in the Election films, for example). She’s a showgirl of loose sexuality who specializes in singing Mandarin versions of Bizet songs and who has a well-hidden heart of gold. When an uptight pianist spies her prostituting herself to raise money for a friend’s wife’s surgery, he’s smitten with her generosity, or rather, the generosity gives him an excuse to give into his very repressed desires.

From here, it’s a bit like The Blue Angel, except if the Marlene Dietrich character actually really loved the Emil Jannings sap. The result is the same: he ends up destroying himself, but not because of the twisted wiles of a devil woman, but because his fundamental weakness manifests itself in nonsensical patriarchy (refusing to allow her to sing even though he can’t get a job). Her essential decency, and concomitant disregard for the inane mores of her terrible world, are the cause of her destruction, the worthless doofus she can’t help but love is only the instrument.

Wong’s direction is solid, not as fluid as Evan Yang’s work in Mambo Girl, but he builds a nice noirish atmosphere. The musical numbers are outstanding, but entirely confined to the stage, which is in keeping with the noir vibe. As in Mambo Girl, there isn’t an actor on-screen that can hold a candle to Grace Chang.

Yim Ho:

The Happenings (1980) — August 26, 2013

A group of discotheque youths attempt to skip out on their gas station bill. Things escalate quickly. Things fall apart.