Too Many Ways to be №1 (1997) — February 24, 2013
Wai Ka-fai absolutely off the rails. Gangster life is chaos and crazy shit is inevitable, so you might as well act like a badass. Maybe you’ll get lucky and end up the horribly crippled boss of your own Triad.
Needing You... (2000) — February 25, 2013
Sammi Cheng wears a red knit sweater with no sleeves, but matching arm warmers. Must be seen to be believed.
Love and capitalism are explored more thoroughly in last year’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, but this is much funnier and almost as charming.
Added February 15, 2018:
Such a slight romantic comedy, enlivened a bit by side-swipes at office culture, but essentially plotless. It’s terrific largely thanks to the charm of Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng and the frenetic camera movements of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, more Wai than To though, I’d guess, based on their previous and later work. It’s not the boring hand-held sloppiness of sitcoms or mumblecore, but rather the camera moves in and around with a purpose, bringing dynamism to a generic plot that’s mostly about waiting around for Andy to realize he loves Sammi. The in-jokes about A Moment of Romance (with the ghost of Andy Lau rescuing Andy Lau, or the fact that Sammi is obsessed with Andy’s character from that movie, which perplexes the Andy in this movie) hint at a self-awareness of the artifice of the Lunar New Year romcom, keying us into the fact that the primary purpose of this is just hanging around with its beautiful, silly leads. And as always, Sammi Cheng’s sweater game is on point.
Help!!! (2000) — March 9, 2013
Of all the Johnnie To/Wai Ka-fai collaborations I’ve seen, this is the most purely funny: a dark farce set at the world’s most incompetent hospital. I did not see the twist at the end coming, but I probably should have, knowing Wai. Recommended for all fans of ER.
Fulltime Killer (2001) — February 23, 2013
A more active camera than I recall seeing from Johnnie To, it swoops and cranes and pans more or less without reason. The Wai Ka-fai patented meta-twist in the last quarter of the film makes it all worth it, Simon Yam transforms from a cop obsessed with a killer to a writer obsessed with an ending to his book.
Wu Yen (2001) — February 16, 2018
Probably the closest Johnnie To will ever come to directing a huangmei musical, and that’s too bad. Anita Mui plays the Emperor, dumb and cowardly, Cecilia Cheung plays a fairy enchantress, accidentally freed in the woods, and Sammi Cheng plays Wu Yen, a bandit leader who becomes the center of the love triangle. She’s destined to marry the Emperor, but the fairy loves her and curses her with a red splotch over her eye. Her resulting ugliness causes the Emperor to recoil from her in horror and into the arms of the fairy. The plot is a series of variations on the same premise: the Emperor gets into trouble, goaded by the fairy, and Wu Yen rescues them. Then, when all is going well, the Emperor banishes Wu Yen for her ugliness. The troubles are increasingly dire, from an Olympic games parody to insurrections and full-scale invasions, but the pattern is always the same. It would be more wearying if the leads weren’t so relentlessly charming.
Mui’s performance (as both the Emperor and the Emperor’s ancestor, a friendly but incompetent ghost) is firmly in the huangmei tradition of women playing men’s roles, though she doesn’t do any singing (the only diegetic songs are sung in chorus, during interstitial shadow puppet sequences which mostly serve to relate battle sequences which take place away from the film’s few studio sets), and Cheung plays both male and female versions of herself (as a fairy she doesn’t have a human gender: in fact she’s basically just a giant anthropomorphic fox). She’s a man when pursuing Wu Yen, and a woman when pursuing the Emperor. Sammi Cheng only plays one character, but Wu Yen, as the best warrior (and athlete) in the kingdom as well as the prettiest woman, presents a kind of synthesis of the best stereotypical traits of “men” and “women”, opposed to the negative traits embodied in the fairy (deceit) and the emperor (lustiness). (Lam Suet’s mincing Prime Minister is another matter altogether).
There’s probably something to the fact that Sammi Cheng is still obviously gorgeous despite the mark on her face, something about how we tend to over-exaggerate minor blemishes in even the most ideal people. An even more pessimistic truth comes with the film’s indecisive conclusion. Rather than choosing one or the other, the three remain locked in their unresolvable triangle in perpetuity: it will always be the fairy when things are good and Wu Yen when things are bad.
Love on a Diet (2001) — February 28, 2013
Wai Ka-fai is Charlie Kaufman without the self-loathing
Narrative games as a reflection of fractured Chinese identity. Hong Kong split between Britain, China, and itself; Taiwan as China/Not China (see also Hou Hsiao-hsien’s blurring of fact and fiction in The Puppetmaster and Good Men, Good Women). There’s the official story and there’s reality and they are not the same though they interact and are inseparable. Wai’s characters move freely between the two, they’re not oppressed by unreality.
Wai gives postmodernism a happy face, as opposed to the nihilism of Kaufman, or even (at times) Tarantino or the Coens. The lack of a stable reality creates a free space for play. Allows contradiction, paradox to achieve the impossible (for example: Written By, where the creation of multiple narratives allows the characters to transcend death).
Game-playing is essential in Johnnie To’s films, his characters are always in conflict with “the rules”. In his Triad films, it’s the ideals of honor, nobility among thieves (in conversation with Kurosawa’s critiques of the samurai ethos, as well as Buddhism (but not John Woo’s Christianity), and the films tend to end tragically. In the comedies, mostly in collaboration with Wai, the rules are the very structure of reality itself. It bends, allowing the characters their happy endings. Some films lie in-between and their endings are mixed (Running Out of Time 1 and 2, Running on Karma), some start as one kind of movie but end up as the other (Throw Down, Life Without Principle).
Fat Choi Spirit (2002) — February 16, 2018
The only sports movie that really believes and fully understands the idea that it doesn’t matter if you win or lose. It doesn’t even matter that I have no idea how to play the game.
Thinking that this and Running on Karma are together the key works in the Johnnie To/Wai Ka-fai collaboration. Karma the serious drama compliment to the sunny good cheer of the New Year comedies. Both are about letting go of personal attachment and understanding that we are not in control. In Karma, we’re governed by fate, in Spirit, it’s chance. The combination of the two, fate expressing itself through chance, is the essence of To and Wai’s work.
Running on Karma (2003) — April 22, 2014
I’m still hung up on that list that called this a romantic comedy. I don’t think it’s either. There are some funny bits, but that doesn’t make it a comedy. In fact, it’s one of the most serious examinations of faith, and what it means to believe, of this century. And I am certain it is not a romance. Can’t we allow Andy Lau’s ex-monk and Cecilia Cheung’s earnest cop to just be friends? Must romance be a necessary motivator for plot? I don’t know why this irritates me so much. It seems like such a knee-jerk reaction, a failure to take the film seriously and deal with it on its own terms. Andy Lau in a muscle suit must mean that this is a wacky comedy. A man and a woman protagonist pair must mean this is a romance. Bleh.
It’s hard. The film, more than even most To/Wai products, defies generic classification. And it is so ingrained in Western culture that realism = seriousness and vice versa, that any hint of fantasy or the supernatural tells us to read “comedy” or fluffiness. And to be fair, To and Lau set us up for this the last time they put him in a big suit, for 2001’s Love on a Diet, which is most definitely a romantic comedy (albeit one with a darker tone than that label implies). But this film is not that film, and Lau’s suit here, certainly non-realistic, does not serve as a punchline. It’s a signifier of his moral state, the monk trying hard to believe but unable to get past the death of his friend, unable to let go the physical world. At his turning point, he decides to accept the demands of karma, he sees the logic in the philosophy, but he can’t believe in it. He rejects the life of the monk and enters the real world and so his physical form becomes inflated, pumped up by the desire, the need for revenge and his inability, his religious unwillingness to take action.
This conflict is at the heart of so much Hong Kong genre cinema: the demands of loyalty and duty versus the commandments to withdraw from the world, to let go of material things. Running on Karma is one of the most deeply felt, most dense works on the subject, the culmination of Wai Ka-fai’s mystical explorations, perfectly melded to Johnnie To’s moody genre exercises. I know the intention behind including it on the romantic comedy list is good, and nothing said in the description of the film is completely wrong (well, other than framing their relationship as romantic, which, arrghh) but it still drives me nuts. I need to let it go.
Turn Left, Turn Right (2003) — March 10, 2013
The platonic ideal of a To/Wai romance. Double sets of doubles, fate and chance. Is it just too straightforward to have as much of a following as their weirder, more meta- films?
Fantasia (2004) — October 27, 2014
Wai Ka-fai gathers a cast of favorites (Lau Ching-wan, Louis Koo, Francis Ng, Cecilia Cheung, and Jordan Chan) to riff on the Hui Brothers’ classic The Private Eyes. Sequences from the earlier film are lifted and twisted, and the three main actors do creditable impressions of the Huis, Lau especially is a perfect Michael (recognition of which comes in the film’s climax). It doesn’t have the patient approach to comic escalation that marked Michael Hui as a comedy classicist, but rather Wai’s more frenetic, post-Cinema City, Wong Jing and Stephen Chow-era piling up of non-sequitur zaniness, in this case mashing up elements of Jurassic Park and the Harry Potter movies. This is the kind of movie where a CGI dragon that communicates largely by leaving piles of pink yogurt shit all over a room represents the soul of Hong Kong’s coolest superstar. So yeah, it’s pretty great.
The Shopaholics (2006) — October 20, 2014
Director Wai Ka-fai’s 2006 film prefigures in many ways his 2011 film Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (co-directed with his longtime collaborator Johnnie To). Both are screwball comedies set among the super-rich of 21st century Hong Kong, complicated romantic structures held together only by the ruthless momentum of the scenario and direction and the charm of the lead actors. Cecilia Cheung (who starred in To and Wai’s Running On Karma) is a nurse and a compulsive shopper who goes to see a psychiatrist, played by Lau Ching-wan. He treats her, and also hires her. Lau suffers from a fear of making decisions and so of course the two are a perfect match. Then Cheung meets a rich man (Jordan Chan) who has a split personality: miser and shopaholic. The love triangle is further complicated by the return of Lau’s ex-girlfriend (Ella Koon), a relentless bargain hunter. The confusion seemingly peaks at a dinner party where the four principals all meet, along with Lau and Chan’s parents (the families have long been friends and are similarly afflicted: a gambling addict with a compulsion for foul language, a narcoleptic, and another shopaholic), one of whom is played by Wong Tin-Lam), but it only gets crazier from there, with the simple Philadelphia Story dramatics ignored for a wild farce, culminating in a mad relay chase through the streets of Hong Kong in prelude to a pair of weddings, scored to a relentlessly chipper version of “I Will Follow Him” with Paula Tsui as the matriarch calmly directing everyone through the streets with a variety of telephones.
The message is simple enough: living in the modern city is so stressful that it creates an endless series of pathologies in its citizens, largely around the capitalist imperative to consume as much as possible. It isn’t an especially deep thought, but Wai wrings a remarkable (even for him) amount of fun out of the tangles of relationships and neuroses he’s built up. Where Don’t Go is a more traditional screwball, addressing the economic crisis in passing and by implication, as its lovers blithely continue their ultra-rich existence despite the ruin that doesn’t quite surround them, The Shopaholics, coming pre-meltdown, is pure farce, cheerfully unaware that anything like an economic collapse is even possible, let alone something that could affect the lives of its heroes. The character names alone are a thing of beauty: the women: Fong Fong-fong and Ding Ding-dong; the Men: Choosey Lee and Richie Ho.
Mad Detective (2007) — February 17, 2013
Merging Running on Karma with Running Out of Time, To and Wai take the doubling of cop and killer to its extreme literalization. Mirrors don’t just reflect, they refract.
Written By (2009) — April 11, 2010
For the second year in a row, Kelly Lin starred in one of the most entertaining films of the Vancouver Film Festival. Last year it was in Johnnie To’s Sparrow, this year it’s this film written by frequent To collaborators Wai Ka-fai and Au Kin-Yee, and directed by Wai. It’s a kind of post-modern family dramedy, where the father dies in a car accident and his wife and daughter bring him back to life by writing a novel wherein they die in the accident and he lives. But then, the father in the novel decides to write his own novel where he dies and his wife and daughter live, and realities begin to merge and fall apart, and it gets crazier from there. What makes it great, though, is the very real human emotion that underlies it all: a deep sense of grief and sadness balancing out those narrative games. It’s the kind of balance Charlie Kaufman strives for and never quite achieves.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (2011) — February 19, 2013
Manic pixie dream boys duel in a mythical pre-and post-crash China. Buildings and businesses rise and fall for the love of a cute girl.