Monday, 10 September 2007

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000)

Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), Chinese period, wuxia, swordplay film
This is the most noted nuxia flick since A Touch of Zen, and it's the most famous nuxia flick outside Chinese community.

Feminist theme is what gains respectability for this movie in the West. To those who are not familiar with the Chinese wuxia genre, nuxia is a well established subgenre.

As a high profile, big budget wuxia (or as Ang Lee said that he tried to make this the best wuxia film there is), he was inspired by many SB produced wuxia. At least, he was influenced by or made allusions to the following SB movies (probably more):

The Love Eterne (1963)
Come Drink With Me (1966)
A Touch of Zen (1971)
Legendary Weapons of China (1982)

This film also opened the nuxia/wuxia genre to the world (via Hollywood). And reinvigorated the wuxia genre that had been dominated by the kungfu genre since Bruce Lee.

* This movie comes from the 4th wuxia book of a Pentology by Wang Du Lu.

* The Jade Fox is called Jade Eyed Fox in the novel. A Jade Fox is pretty stony, not much movement, it sits on a shelf. So why would anyone would call her that? A Jade Eyed Fox is a kinda species of fox with green eyes. Now, that's agile and cunning creature that befitting the character. Also read my description in Come Drink with Me for reason why Cheng Pei-pei was chosen for the role of Jade Eyed Fox.

Devils on the Doorstep (2000)

Chinese title: The Nips are Coming.

I couldn't decide if I should put this in the comedy section of my list. The English title suggests that it's a horror, and there're some war atrocities committed in the movie, but its original title "guizi lai le" (鬼子来了) is more indicative of a comedy. I finally decide to put it in the historical/war sevtion of my list.

Devils on the Doorstep (2000)This film is produced, directed, and acted by Jiang Wen. It won him a Grand Prix at the Cannes. This movie is banned in China because it was made without Chinese film Bureau's green light. He was banned for making movies for 2 years. He kept himself busy acting while he was put on ice for directing.

As usual, meanings are usually lost in the translation. And there're more such lost in the translations in the story, although it's done deliberately by the Japanese translator to save his own skin. There's also the mis-translation, or more correctly, mis-interpretation of the Chinese word 'going' to mean 'about to die'.

The film is full of gallows humour. For those who think this is a film satirises the Japanese soldiers, they're off the marks. This seems so because the bulk of the movie occurs during the Japanese occupation of the village. But the lampoon continues well after the surrender of the Japanese, and the arrival of the KMT. This is a anti-war film, not anti-Japanese film as it could easily be misconstrued. Far from an anti-war film, it's also anti-ignorance, and xenophobia on the part of some of the Chinese villagers. Besides, Jiang Wen is somebody who's too smart to make a Japan bashing film.

It also won Mainichi Film Concours - am annual award run by a Japanese newspaper - for 2003 Best Foreign Language Film.

The farcical nature of some of the humour reflects the farcical nature of war, while it's peppered with dark comedies, and ironies that are as sharp as a bayonets.

The movie is shot in black-and-white to give it a WW2 documentary/news-reel tone, as well as renders starkness.

Happy Times (2000)

It's nice to find out that Zhang Yimou, after a long and distinguished career, has FINALLY made a film about city folks in contemporary China.

It's a delightful comedy that is deeply poignant and evocative (Don't forget your dry hankie). It's a wonderful bittersweet Dickensian tale about kindness of strangers, and white lies of the most beautiful kind.

Happy Times (2000), Chinese drama filmThis movie could be viewed on 2 levels - as a simple Dickensian tale of kindness, cruelty, and hardship, or as a critical social comment on China today.

Its social resemblance to Victorian England is uncanny, but not surprising. They're in the similar stage of economic development (London fog and smog in Chinese cities is one CLEAR evidence). It's about the negative social impact of Chinese industrialisation. The old bus (called "The Happy Times Hut") that symbolises the good old times of romantic simplicity - maintained by Zhao - is being hauled away by crane - the symbol of China's ceaseless drive to modernisation - to make way for new things.

The story highlights the contrasts betwen the selfishness of the individualist culture of capitalism (Wu Ying's father and step mother), and the communal spirit of the old Communist system (Zhao and his retired fellow workers). In short, she is abandoned by the new selfish capitalist society, and supported by the old socialist system.

With all the breathless pace of change, people are nostalgic for the simple , idealistic past, and conveniently overlook the imperfections, and unhappiness of the old socialist past. This is how selective recall, and happy memories works. This longing for the simple past could be seen in the revival of all things harks back to the Mao Era.

This is China today. It's the best of times. It's the worst of times. It's Happy Times, it's unhappy times. But mostly it's Happy Times.

Fun Facts:
Zhang Yimou had adapted another Mo Yan's novel into his film. The 1st is Red Sorghum (1987). Mo Yan is a Nobel Prizewinner for Literature in 2012.  Mo Yan's stories are filled with rich symbolism. The original title of the novel is called Shifu, You’ll Do Anything for a Laugh. This is obviously a comedy, but Zhang had retained the dramatic, but restrained the comedy elements. The result is a bittersweet tale.

Yi Yi (2000)

The movie starts with a wedding where the bride is pregnant with a new life, and ends in a funeral. So the movie show the slice of life for the different family members of different age from the primary pupil to grandma, and their daily struggles between the wedding and funeral. The young boy deals with school bully (including the teacher), the older girl with friendship and dating, the wife with mid life crisis, and the husband with career and his old flame. Boohoo, the struggle of the middle class! It's saying money can't buy happiness. Money certainly can't bring meaning to your life (unless you give lots of it away then the act itself gives meaning). It's better off to have some money, then we can have the luxury in dealing such thing as existential angst and whatnot. A very nice position to have.

For those who hasn't seen the film, this movie poster (I hope they don't change it) shows the back of Yang Yang, a kid studies in primary school. Yang Yang likes to take photos, and especially the backs of people so he can show people what their backs look to them. The movie has a lots of symbolism like this. When you look into a mirror, you don't see your back, that's why the barber hold up a mirror to show you the back of your heads. Thus, the idea of reflections also frequently shows up in the film with various surface reflections of mirrors of apartments, cars, etc. Talking to grandma while she's in coma is also another form of reflections - hearing your voice echoing back to you. It's acoustic instead of light reflections.

The eulogy given by Yang Yang at the end is too wise for his age, but then, kids are usually much wiser than adults as we're too bogged down with too much complicated details and forget about the basics. A rubber balloon is something Yang Yang used to fill air or water with while adults insist on calling it 'condom'.

I can't say I particularly enthralled by this movie as its focus is too diffused for me. There's nothing wrong with this, just not my most favourite genre. But I don't dislike it, or else I wouldn't put it in this list. Artistically it's a great movie; emotionally it just doesn't ring my bell. It's like looking at modern abstract arts, it has lots to think about. It connects to me cerebral. Call me old fashioned, Picasso and Rembrandt connects to me much more viscerally. That's what I like in a movie. If I'm a boxer, I'll say, 'Aim for my guts, not my head'

Sunday, 9 September 2007

Not One Less (1999)

Having eaten the more sophisticated, brand name, sleek packaged food, there're times when we feel like eating something organic and natural; something that has no colouring or artificial flavour, and is wholesome, refreshing and nourishing for the body. If you find you're in one of those moments, you would like to check out this movie.

Not One Less (1999)This is a 100% authentic movie (ok, maybe 95% then). No props whatsoever. Just about all the 'actors' are real people playing themselves. But don't pooh pooh them because they aren't professionals. They all did a top notched job that would put many trained actors to shame. Perhaps, this is why they're so believable because they're not acting. And the kids in the school are absolutely adorable.

As usual, Zhang Yimou pulled off a very heartfelt story (at times delightful) where its simplicity and most of all, honesty is upheld at the highest regard throughout the film. Get your tissues ready.

Typical of most, if not all Chinese art-house films in general, and many Zhang films in particular, he addresses social issues. And in this case he highlights the income disparity between the city and country folks, the slow progress of the school reforms in rural areas, the plights they face everyday. Last but not least, the bureaucracy people face everyday. Teacher Wei's task of looking for a needle in a haystack in the city is made more difficult while she has to face bureaucracy every step of the way.

This film probably brings more awareness about the low level of education in the countryside in China than any media broadcast. Volunteering for school teachers in the villages become a cool and trendy things to do among the celebrities, thanks to Zhang and the persuasive power of a good story telling. Kid you not, I had the same impulse after the movie. And the humble chalks have never received higher respect.

I guess Zhang could be called the cinematic Charles Dickens of the 20th century China. It isn't hard to find Dickensian tales anywhere in China especially more than 20 years ago, or the countryside today where the living condition is probably not much better than the city folks endured 20 years ago. This is 1 reason why Zhang's movie concentrates so much on the country folks. There's no shortage of the tales of miseries. To find the kind of real life tales that made Charles Dickens or Victor Hugo famous during the industrial phase of the West, one only has to turn to China today.

Seventeen Years (1999)

Chinese title: Going Home for New Year.

Seventeen Years (1999)No, this isn't a banned film. This is a few non-banned film that won a number of international film awards.

It couldn't have been a banned film because the director needed the filming of an actual live prison, which requires the authority's approval. Naturally, you get a very close eyes on this project from the authority with such a politically sensitive subject. And the very human face that this movie puts on the Chinese prison system would make the film regulatory body to vote this film with both feet. Not only this isn't a banned film, the government would be more than happy to fund the project if he asked them for it.

Unlike Zhang Yuan's previous films, which rubbed the Chinese authority the wrong way. With his film, the director had emerged from underground to the mainstream. This movie is aimed (or at least) is screened in the Chinese domestic market.

I know a film that's being put on a ban list makes it sexier. But let's not judge a film only by its ban status (and the Chinese film regulatory body should be renamed to Department for the Promotion of Banned Films).

The title Seventeen Years has the same meaning as the movie Seventeen-Years-Old's Bicycle, better known as Beijing Bicycle. The age sits at the cusp of transition from childhood to adulthood in Chinese (and most other) cultures/societies. In this film, the number also refers to the length of prison sentence of 1 of our main character receives. So she spends an equal amount of her life in and out of prison.

The opening scene shows a middle-aged couple on a bicycle with husband paddling and the wife sitting behind at right angle. What a romantic scene, some audience might imagine. But the wife's facial expression paints a different picture.

And then the couple sit down and have dinner with their 2 daughters. This suggests this it isn't a normal family. I suspected a 2 kids family in Tianjin to be unusual in the 1990s because of the One-Child policy. As it turns out, the 2 daughters come from 2 separate previous marriages.

This marital arrangement sets up conflicts for this family drama, which is unfortunately both timeless and universal.

Full Moon in New York (1999)

Full Moon in New York (1999)If you aren't convinced that HK people, and by default HK film makers, were preoccupied by the experience of migrants in the period of 1980s and 1990s, just look at the entries immediately above in my IMDB list: 4 out of the 5 movies in this section of the list deal with various aspects of immigration (Mainland migrants living in HK, HK migrants living aboard, Chinese migrant returning home, etc).

And as usual, when this movie is about HK emigre living aboard, if you make a bet on the city in question is The Big Apple, the odds is overwhelmingly stacked in your favour.

This story is about a trio of female characters from 3 political regions of China living in NYC. The 3 characters were played by 3 actresses coming from the 3 respective regions of China. And the 3 of them are portrayed with the stereotypical ambitions of the 3 regions: HongKongers the capitalist, Taiwanese the artist, and traditional Mainland Chinese who has no career ambition, and put her priority of family above her own. Because of her role of a career housewife, she's portrayed as somebody who is much less intelligent and knowledgeable than her 2 other career female friends.

The conversation scene in the restaurant highlights the divergence of their views and attitudes due to their regional differences. But at the end, they find strong bonds among them despite their differences in career ambitions, and personal experiences. The similarities that unite them are stronger than the differences that divide them. They're bound by their shared cultural roots, and their experiences of an uprooted immigrants living in an alien place.

The Mission (1999)

Chinese title: Gun Fire.

The all-star cast consists of the round-up of the usual suspects of the all old hands in HK crime genre films - every single 1 of them.

There's little doubt that this movie is a prelude (not prequel) to Johnnie To's later film Exiled (2006), where many - not all - of the acting crew also made appearances as once again in the roles of professional hitmen. It isn't just the cast, but the sleek, cool, stylish arts direction that are also similar. But this isn't Johnnie To copying anyone but himself.

Unlike John Woo's heroic bloodshed gun plays that concentrate on the stylistic and martial art choreography, while Johnnie To's shoot-them-up flicks tend to concentrate on more of the technical details. So it's great for gun-nuts, or audience who are thinking of a career in hired guns.

Of course, like all heroic bloodshed flicks, the element of comaraderie is always there.

Saturday, 8 September 2007

The Bird People in China (1998)

The Bird People in China (1998)This director make several films with two recurrent elements : yakuza and Chinese. This film also has both.

The bird people phenomenom is what anthropologists call the Cargo Cult. I 1st heard about it regarding to the New Guinea tribal natives' spotting of a plane, of which they had never seen, and evntually turned it into a religion.

Yunnan has many tourist attractions, both natural and cultural. Many tourists (such as myself) go there to see the very colourful Chinese ethnic communities (PRC calls them nationalities). These ethnic communities are in various stages of cultural developments. Some even have villages marked by totem poles. The point is, some, like 1 ethnic group depicted in this movie would have developed this cargo cult because of their pre-industrial tribal culture.

This film isn't just about the cargo cult, but about how the Japanese characters relate and connect to them.

This film reminds me of Zhang Yimou's Riding Along For Thousands of Miles (2005) because of its many similarities, not the least is that both movies' central characters is a Japanese travelling to Yunnan in a spiritual quest. Indeed, that's what these 2 movies are all about - a hero's journey on a spiritual quest.

Most of the comments I made about that movie is applicable here. Perhaps, audience who's interested in this movie are probably interested in that film as well. You can read my comment on that movie in my other IMDB list.

I don't know if the bird people in Yunnan is a historical fact, or simply a work of fiction by the script writer. Regardless, it's a little known anthropological phenomena that worth understanding.

Pickpocket (1998)

Chinese title: Xiao Wu.

Xiao Wu (1998)
This is a story about our title character Xiao Wu or Li'l Wu. Despite being a pickpocket, he isn't all that bad once you get to know him. And the whole movie is letting the audience to come to know this marginalised character living in a small town in China.

While he picks other people wallets for cash, he takes the trouble to return their ID cards by depositing them into a post box so that his victims would get them back (from the police). While he might steal other people's money, he's victim of a girl who steals his hearts, and unlike him, returns nothing to him.

I think what makes this movie noteworthy is the popular documentary-like , social realism style of directing. Everything in the movie is shot with a total honesty without any kind of embellishment. This is a typical anathema to the make believe style of commercial cinema. The excellence of this directing technique matched only by the master of this medium - Zhang Yimou in such movies as Not One Less (1999), and The Story of Qiu Ju (1992). And so, if you like these 2 movies, you would likely to like this film, and vice versa. And this film is made between 2 of Zhang Yimou's movies I mentioned above.

There're also many interesting glimpses into the small town in China, e.g. the KTV parlour, the grubby bath-house, the dingy street scenes, the outdoor pool tables, the ease of making appearances on local TV, and the chain smoking as cigarettes are offered as a form of social greeting (or what I would like to call "the Chinese handshake").

P.S. this movie poster is obviously for the DVD box set that comes with 2 of Zhang Kejia's movies: Unknown Pleasures and Pickpocket. However, the 2 actors appear on this poster played in Unknown Pleasures, not this movie.

Beast Cops (1998)

English title: Beast Cops.

Our dynamic HK cops duo aren't too different from the Odd Couple (1968) played by Jack Lemmon and Walter Maltthau that later turned into a TV series (Randall & Klugman). I'm not surprise if the script writer was in fact inspired by them. Michael Cheung (Michael Wong) is the strait-laced, anal, no-nonsense, cleanly shaved, disciplined cop who believes that there's only a thin line divides the good and evil, between cops and robbers. And he's partnered with Tung (Anthony Wong). You've guessed it, Tung is the sloppy, undisciplined, unshaven cop, who's also a junkie and gambler and operates inside a large patch of grey area that bounded by the police and the gangster codes.

Well, if you're familiar with the Hollywood's Odd Couple, you know this arrangement would drive them crazy and the situations would supply us with lots of comic relief. Indeed, there is plenty. And quite funny too.

Anyone expects this to be a Ringo Lam or John Woo's type of shoot-em-up flick with plenty of ballet/martial graceful movement with their gun play would disappoint. In fact, Tung insists on putting their guns into the glove compartment when they visit the gangster's joint because Tung doesn't want to clean up the streets. He wants the streets remain as messy as his house, and his lifestyle.  As long as streets are quiet, he doesn't mind the mess. That's his method.
Beast Cops (1998)
Not that there's no action, there's some sporadic actions until the last 5 mins when Tung goes ballistics, sped up on a cocktail of mind altering drugs and booze. They turn out to be Best Cops, not Beast Cops.
It's an enjoyable crime flicks (if you don't expect non-stop heart-pounding action) with a nice balanced blend of comedy, romance, action, drama, heroic bloodshed, and character development. This is what cop soap opera genre supposed to look like, not unlike Tango & Cash (1989). And the HK's forerunner Curry & Pepper (1990) of this film, which fits the bill for this genre even better. They're crime flicks made for chicks. However, Beast Cops is the most blokey of them 3. And it transcends all these because it tries to challenge the judgement of what's black and white.

Fuyajo (1998)

English & Chinese title: Sleepless Town.

Very few people who can watch this movie without subtitle, except for Kaneshiro Takashi, who can understand all the dialogues speaking in its native tongues. Thanks to his mixed heritage of Chinese and Japanese (inherited a Japanese nose, and Chinese eyes), and the different places he lived and worked, he's able to speak Japanese, Mandarin, Hokkien, and Cantonese, which are all spoken in this film.

Fuyajo (1998)Although he wasn't required to speak Cantonese and Hokkien, one could still say KT is tailored for this role. In fact, he's more than qualified. 2 dialects over qualified.  I suspect he probably didn't even need to audition for the part.

There's an interesting development occurred after 1990s in the HK film industry that I liked where they eventually used the actors' original voice in the movies. I know, I know. For foreign audience of HK films, they would say, why shouldn't this be the case anyway. Well, it wasn't.  This was in fact an industry standard practise. Absurd, isn't it?

Before that, everyone's voice was dubbed. No, it has nothing to do with the actor's language problem. For example, Chow Yun-Fat, who speaks perfect Cantonese - and in fact can deliver lines in English as well - was dubbed in most of his films by another Cantonese speakers (who usually didn't sound as good as Chow). After the 1990s, everyone are given their own voice, even if they have an accent. For example, we found out that KT speaks Cantonese with a heavy Mandarin accent. Also, another Taiwanese actress like Brigitte Lin would in fact speak Mandarin in many Cantonese films. Both of these examples are found in Chungking Express (1994). Similarly, Michael Wong speaks Cantonese with a New Yorker accent, which lends distinctness and colour to his voice.

This is a forerunner of Shinjuku Incident (2009) where both films are set in Shinjuku, Tokyo, and both are in the gangster genre, and main characters are Chinese (from various parts of PRC) settling in the area. This film is less well known than Shinjuku Incident because of Jackie Chan's high status. While KT is well known in Asia, JC has achieved international profile. And if you expect more romance in this film because of KT, while more action in the other film because of JC, you're absolutely correct.

The look and feel of this film is top notched, which won it the 2 HK Film Awards in Best Cinematography and Art Direction. Don't take my words for it, take a look at the trailer yourself. The fleeting travelogue-like images of Kabukicho are also nice: basement pubs, striptease joint, eye-searing vertically rectangular neon lights, life-size posters of teen girls in bikini, and salaryman spews his supper and sake in the street. Bewdiful.

Fun Facts:
  • Mirai Yamamoto, who plays the female lead, is the daughter of fashion design Kansai Yamamoto.
  • Mirai Yamamoto also acted in Jackie Chan's Who Am I? (1998).

Bishonen (1998)

English title: Bishonen. Japanese kanji 美少年 meaning 'Beautiful Youth (boy)'. The closest English term is 'Pretty Boy'.
Chinese title: Beautiful Young Men in Love.

Bishonen (1998)This is the 2nd of Yonfan's LGBT film. This movie is brought to you by the letter 'G'.

The Japanese term used in the English title comes from the recent Japanese pop culture (even though the concept of bishonen rooted in medieval China, which in turns came from ancient India (along with Zen Buddhism)). The ‘boy’ in ‘pretty boy’ or bishonen are applied loosely as none of the characters in this movie are qualified as boys. The English usage of 'bishonen' applies to all pretty young men.

The Chinese title too is in Japanese (but readable by Chinese and understood it’s Japanese).

A Chinese girl told me that she prefers Korean TV dramas over Chinese ones because Korean actors are better looking. I was curious of her aesthetics, after some probings, it turns out it’s because of the bishonen (f)actors in Korean cinema (especially KTV). Ah so desu ne...

Apparently, this bishonen phenomenon haven’t taken hold in the Chinese cinema (as it has in Japanese and Korean cinemas, and originated in Japanese anime/manga). I guess wushu actors don't look good if they look too pretty, if you know wht I mean.

I haven’t watched many gay films to comment on the amount of homoeroticism in this film in any authoritative way. I could tell you - in an amateur way - that there’re fair amount of french-kissing (suggestive, not close up), skin rubbings (topless, no full nudity), and a steamy soapy shower scene between 2 male actors. There're also a number of scenes that could quite easily misconstrue as Calvin Klein underwear commercials (not that it's ever zoomed close enough to see the labels. It could be another brand).

The actors look somewhat uncomfy committing those acts - a litmus test that at least 1 actor at any given intimate scene is/are not queer folk(s). None of those scenes show any penis to spare the (few) straight male audience from waking up in a nightmare in cold sweat, and rushing to see a shrink (and turns out to be a very expensive viewing). Jokes aside, if Yonfan decided to pushing the boundary of sexual explicitness, he would end up in the HK Cat3 territory. I don't think he wants to go there. It would give this movie an automatic downgrade in critical success (and probably an upgrade in ticket sales. Maybe not). Let's just say the sexual explicitness has curtailed relative to his previous and 1st LGBT film, which has no Cat3 classification in Singapore.

There’re 2 actresses played main roles in this film. Ok, 1.5 actresses as Brigitte Lin played the narrator of the story and is never seen. She’s well known as an actress who played in numerous roles with gender ambiguity (because of her androgynous beauty). Another is Shu Qi, who’s well known for appearing in many films that deal with sexual explicit subject. She plays a lesbian here. No hanky panky from her at all.

Gender bending exist in Chinese culture in all kinda subtle ways in daily life from cross-gender performers in Chinese operas where male play female roles and vice versa, to eunuchs who are often portrayed as effeminate half men. But what I find the subtlest expression of gender ambiguity is the gender pronouns like 'he'(他), and 'she'(她) are pronounced the same (although written differently. This is true in both Mandarin and Cantonese, which is being spoken in the film. I suspect this applies to all Chinese dialects. I could be wrong).

So in many movies dialogues such as the conversation between Jet and Sam's mother becomes quite interesting. Jet told her that he's starting to date 'him' (meaning her son), and she assumes Jet says 'her' (a girl) because of her oblivion of Jet and her son's homosexuality. Such misunderstanding isn't possible in English unless one is avoiding the use of gender specific pronouns (I guess the same result could be achieved in English by referring to somebody with their unisex names like 'Joe', 'Chris', etc. But the English unisex names implies gender equality, not fluidity/ambiguity). Only the audience knows that misunderstanding due to gender ambiguity/fluidity in the language. Since the video I watched has only Chinese subtitles, I'm curious to find out how the subtitle translators deal with these gender ambiguity, in fact, I had given it some thought as how this should be translated, and I see no way how they could go around this without changing the intention and nuances of the conversation in a significant way. This is 1 good example of how something is lost in translation due to cultural differences.

Xiu Xiu: The Sent-Down Girl (1998)

Chinese title: Sky Bath.

The Chinese title is named after the title of the novel which this movie is based. It probably refers to the open bath that Lao Jin builds for Xiu Xiu. Lao Jin rarely has shower as water is scarce and the nearest source is more than 1km away. To indulge her city folks' habit for regular bathing, Lao Jin builds this pool, which is as large as the tent he lives in.

Xiu Xiu the Sent Down Girl 1998This film makes me think of Blind Mountain. I'm not saying they're the same movies, although they do share many similarities. I guess the brutality and the callousness of men towards the 2 respective heroines, and the stark contrast of this inhumanity with the backdrop of unspoilt natural beauty. This parallel becomes even stronger when the expression for this Cultural Movement is called 'Sending up mountains and down villages". Blind Mountain is about our heroine being trapped up in a remote mountain village. Both heroines use their body as currency as that's the only thing they've got under the circumstances.

One last similarity, both directors were banned from making movies for a number of years. Although with Joan Chen's case, the ban is probably more severe.

This remoteness, both physically and politically, is what traps our heroine. It's also this very same reason the Joan Chen was able to shoot this movie and avoided the authority's close scrutiny. Especially when this film was shot before it was approved. She outfoxed the iron-fist authority by shooting this film using approval for another project.

This film garners quite a number of international film awards. The fact that it's banned in China helps because making a film while fighting the Film Bureau is like doing it with one hand tying behind one's back.

The Longest Nite (1998)

Alternative English title: Hidden Reward.
Chinese title: Dark Flower (暗花).

In term of plot, this story could be described as a game of Cat & Mouse.

Sam the Mouse wears a moustache and a bullet proof vest, and is a cocky career corrupt cop, who thinks he's a cat.

Tony the Cat is bald, and works as a hired gun. Tony knows that he's actually also a mouse, just like his target Sam the Mouse, running inside a maze in an experiment that set up by the Scientist, who decides when to terminate the experiment.

Sometimes curiosity kills the cocky Mouse as well.

There's less humour than The Odd One Dies (1997). But whatever little humour there is subtle, dry and dark, as usual in Patrick Yau's crime flicks. No silly wisecracks, or lowbrow pratfalls. They extinct in HK films circa 1990 AD. To find those jokes, you'll have to unearth those old, relic of videos. Old joke? I know...

This is the best of Patrick Yau's trio.

Friday, 7 September 2007

The King of Masks (1997)

English title: The King of Masks.
Chinese title: Face Changing.

The King of MasksIf you don't want people to know that you cry like a refugee in a movie, you'd better watch this movie alone. This isn't a tearjerker, but a waterworks turner.

I always like movies that set in the Republican period, which although only covers an interval less than 0.5 century, it's nonetheless a very colourful and interesting period in Chinese modern history. Matched only by its many colourful and interesting human dramas that come out of it. These stories almost always, - no, it ALWAYS - questions, at least explores the many Chinese old cultural traditions, and beliefs.

Let take an example, the old man (and everyone else) in this movie are steeped in superstition, but at the same time, it's also this superstitions and beliefs that allow the old man to come to terms with his own misfortunes, and forgives his grand-daughter so readily.

And where did they find the little girl who played the 8-year-old with such astounding talents? Nor have I known any of the act(ors/resses) in this film .But they put on good performances.

Guanyin or Boddhisattva always has gender ambiguity in Chinese culture, though she's a woman. This reflects the patriarchal nature of Chinese culture. And similarly, the role of Bodhisattva (in the opera) is played by a male actor, Mr. Liang.

As I travelled to Sichuan in 2009, I'm happy to report that the art of face-changing is far from dying out. Everywhere I went, I was treated with this face-changing Opera from the river cruise I was on, or walking in the streets, or dining in the restaurant. Yes, the face-changing performer I watched in the cruise was in fact performed by a girl. And face-changing is so popular and common in Sichuan these days that it is no longer enough by itself, the face-changer had to do some fire-eating while wearing the facemask. I remember how worried I was that the facemasks may catch fire (we saw what happens in the movie when the grand-daughter examines the masks too close to a lit candle). And while I watched the fire-eating act, I was eating fire myself by drinking the soup from Sichuan steamboat. Actually, I think eating fire would be less hot (and is drinking soup from Sichuan steamboat the secret of the fire-eating training? I think so).

Does the face-changing a symbolism of the fast changing face of modern China? If it is, its messages are mixed. As a symbolism for the old man's changing attitude towards his old tradition of handing down his art only to male heir is obvious and clear from the Chinese title.

If I have to name the most gut-wrenching and heart-warming out of this list, I would nominate this film. If you like a moving story with the Dickensian social backdrop, get yourself a few boxes of tissues (and a fast face-changing expression from sobbing to smiling when somebody walks into the middle of your embarrassing moments).

The Odd One Dies (1997)

Chinese title: Only One Out of Two Will Live (两个只能活一个).

The English title translation sounds odd, but the Chinese title makes more sense, and sheds more light into the story.

The Odd One Dies (1997)
Patrick Yau Tat-Chi started his career working for TVB, and moved onto working for Johnnie To as assistant director. He left TVB to make this 3 solid, and entertaining crime flicks in barely over 1 year. It's pity that he haven't made anything similar since. In fact, his output has been dwindling to zero since this trio of gems: The Odd One Dies (1997), The Longest Nite (1998), Expect the Unexpected (1998). He has gone back to directing TV series, and left a nice footprint on the HK crime genre scene.

The trio are characterised as film noir (or more correctly called neo-noir) with graphic violence, bleakness, and hardboiled cruelty and brutality. Another thing that these 3 films have in common is that they were all produced by, not surprisingly, Johnnie To and his partner in crime flicks making, Wai Ka-Fai. Last, but least of the commonality is the keen exploitation of plot twists to spice up the stories. Especially for the latest, which is appropriately titled Expect the Unexpected (1998). Another thing we didn't expect was the suddenness of his departure from making movies.

Having pointed out the similarities, this movie is actually quite different from the later 2 which are more similar to each other). For 1 thing, it has more comedy, even if the comedy is dry and dark. As such, the comedy isn't even recognised as IMDB genre classification only mentions Crime and Drama. 2ndly, it also has more romance than the other 2. This is perhaps the choice of Kaneshiro as the male lead.

Fun Facts:
Kaneshiro has been labelled as the Asian Johnny Depp. It isn't hard to it in this movie with his reticent coolness, and also their choices of quirky films to play in.


Intruder (1997)

Some horror flicks simply gross you out, while others creep you out. This 1 is the latter. Not that it doesn't have gore or graphic violence to keep you happy like a clam (it's Cat III flick after all), it's just not gratuitous.

If you 'enjoy' Revenge: A Love Story (2010), you find similar level of graphic violence (and no nudity). I say films that creep you our rather than gross you out are horror flicks that examine the underbelly of human nature. Because of the realistic setting of these movies, it disturbs you at a deep level.

Stephen King's Misery (1990) is a case in point, and at some level, these 2 films are similar. Except the violence in this flick makes Misery (1990) looks like a walk in the park. In fact, the situation in this horror is even more believable. There's no psychopath who has a loose screw, and everything the 'villains' carry out in this movie are sane and coldly calculated. And yet they don't seem to be the meanest of people. That makes it the more unsettling.

Thursday, 6 September 2007

The Emperor's Shadow (1996)

If you like Cleopatra (1963), you would likely enjoy this movie as well. The 2 movies do share many things in common: sweeping historic epics, grand vista, the 1st emperors (of Ancient Rome and China), a tripartite relationship between 2 men (1 of them is the emperor) and a woman that give way to power plays, and the marriage is for the purpose of political expedience. The only significant difference is that the female in this movie is the Emperor's favourite daughter, whom the 2 men are vying love and affection for. Also the relationships between the 3 in this film are much more complex and filled with contradictions and ironies.

The closing scene showing the rite of the Qin King becomes the Emperor of China. After ascending a steep and long flight of stairs onto the top of the altar, the Emperor lit the enormous ding (or cauldron) with a torch. The scene has the pomp and ceremony of the Beijing Olympic 2008, which Zhang Yimou the director designed. Did he design the stage set for this closing scene? I guess not.

This is better than Cleopatra.

Forbidden City Cop (1996)

Forbidden City Cop (1996)
This is a send-up of the Chinese wuxia genre in general.

In the opening scene, 4 of the most legendary figures in the wuxia genre standing on a rooftop (as they often do in wuxia story, either because they look cooler up there, or it's actually cooler up there). They're none other than Simon Blows Snow, Xiao Li the Flying Dagger, Lu Xiaofeng, and one other (BTW, I'm writing all these from memory. There's ALWAYS one guy in a group whose name escape us). And these characters looks rather shabby, in fact, deliberately revolting! Quite far from the irresistible, dashing charmers that we all come to know. So if you aren't laughing out loud at this point, most of the jokes in this spoof is going to be completely lost on you.

Still, some of the more universal antics that are understood by all could still be had. Especially the many anachronistic and outlandish inventions in this flick like the pair of giant magnets.

Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996)

Comrades: Almost a Love Story is more than a love story.

HK people weren’t too interested in politics. Their religion is capitalism, and Money is their god. Came 1980s, out of a number of political events, serious, politically conscious HK film makers begun to address these anxious times. Well fortune isn't straying too far from the theme of this nice film.

Comrades: Almost a Love Story (1996)As flood of Vietnamese boat people landed on HK Island, to explore these experiences, Ann Hiu made her Vietnamese Trilogy – The Boy from Vietnam (1978), The Story of Woo Viet (1981) & The Boat People (1982).

While wave of Vietnamese refugees arrived in HK, as the handover of HK back to PRC in 1997 drew near, HK citizen themselves fleeing HK in droves in the 1980s. Another politically conscious female director Mabel Cheung tackled this social issues in her Migration Trilogy – Illegal Immigrant(1985), An Autumn's Tale (1987) & Eight Taels of Gold (1989).

With the Opening-Up and Reform of PRC in 1978, another political event that shaped HK’s social landscape. Movements of people between Mainland China and HK became possible. This movie explores that social happening.

This movie is the accumulation of all the romance movies that based on immigrant experiences since the pioneering Hong Kong, Hong Kong (1983). You could say this film is more than a decades long in the making.

The story covers a sweep of 1986 to 1995. In 1986, the socioeconomic divide between Mainlanders and HK locals were great. The Mainlanders were seen as country bumpkins by HK people with their Mao suits, ignorance of technology and their world outside China. While HK’ers were seen by our Mainlander Li Xiaojun (Leon Lai) as brash and loud.

In the period where the story takes place, there were socioeconomic stratification of sophistication with HK people being the highest in the pecking order, while Cantonese speaking southerners from Guangzhou being in the middle tier because while they're Mainlanders, they speak Cantonese, and Northerner being so far away from HK sits at the lowest rung of social and cultural meter of sophistication.

This socioeconomic stratification of cultural refinements can easily be distinguished through dialects. And so Mainlanders would be too embarrassed to listen to Mandopop diva Teresa Teng in HK for fear of being recognised as Mandarin speakers. Our enterprising heroine fails to take that social stigma into her business and make a miscalculation by selling Teresa Teng music CDs. Some social mis-readings could be financially expensive.

Many movies in HK during this period touched on this socioeconomic stratification of the Mainlanders. Another example being Her Fatal Ways (1991). The ‘Ways’ in the title refers to the many social faux pas of the heroine and her comrade from Mainland. The very word 'Mainlander' was tinted with put-down sentiment.

The HK's obsession in the socioeconomic stratification of Mainlanders, and our heroine Li Qiao and HK people's general obsession of wealth and social status all has to do with the fact that HK has a culture of strong class consciousness (inherited from both the Chinese and Bristish has a traditional cultures of class distinctions). This is very ironic because PRC had spent the 1st 3 decades in the class struggle to to create a classless society. After Opening-Up and Reform, our heroine from Mainland is trying very hard to upwardly mobile. Indeed, HK exported this class consciousness back to Mainland. Chairman Mao is rolling over his grave (probably a few hundred times already since 1978).

Also, while the Mainlanders aspire to be more like the HK'ers, HK people romanticising the West - as symbolised by Aunt Rosie's obsession of William Holden (aunt Rosie is prefered to be called by her English name). Ironically, the English teacher (Christopher Doyle - WKW's long time camera man), who's probably playing an American, is totally blind of class distinction, dating a Thai prostitute.

Towards the early 1990s in the movie, the film takes on the Mabel Cheung's migration story as the 1997 deadline looms near. Our central characters end up in, where else but NYC Chinatown (perhaps this is this movie's way of paying tribute to Mabel Cheung's movies). By 1996, the Chinese economic 'miracle' draws people back to Mainland China, and the word 'northener' or 'Mainlander' is now has an Olympic RING to it today (of course, 30 years on, the HK's rough edges have also been smoothed out, and people are mellowed out). In fact,by then instant millionaires overnight are common in China, while such occurrence is rarer than hen's teeth in HK. Talk about the quick reversal of fortunes and perceptions.

While I mentioned Vietnamese Trilogy, and Migration Trilogy, and they seem to address very different thing at 1 level, but at another level, all 3 things - these 2 Trilogies and this story - basically address the single common theme – people migrating to another places in search of better lives and the difficulties they encounter.

Romance fans needn't worry that all these social commentaries would get in the way of a good romance flick. And fans of Teresa Teng - like myself - would get an extra dose of bittersweet sentimental nostalgia.

This is 1 of the most insightful HK movie that captures the period in question, and the relentless pursue of happiness, wealth, social status remarkably well, and with gentle humour. Bravo!

End of the World (1996)

English title: Lost and Found
Chinese title: End of the World.

An enjoyable - if you enjoy feeling blue - romantic tragedy.

Ah, yes, feeling blue is actually a nautical jargon coming from sailors. You'll know what I mean after seeing this movie.

Let's me summarise the story like this:

When our central female lead asks Mr. Lost n Found to look for her hope that she had lost, he found it for her at the End of the World.

I guess it's serendipity when you try to find one thing or one person, you end up with a happier thing or person.

None of the many unfortunate characters in this film give up their hopes from the husband with 4 kids, the girl who waits for the red billed ducks, or the disabled staff in Lost and Found Company.

Wednesday, 5 September 2007

Shanghai Triad (1995)

Zhang Yimou's directing career could be LOOSELY divided into 2 phases. The 1st phase when he MOSTLY made artsy dramas, and the 2nd part when he made MOSTLY commercially established genre movies.

This commercial genre movie was made in his 1st phase (hence the LOOSELY description).

Because of his high profile as film maker, many well established genres that are quite familiar within the Chinese community, but mostly unknown outside it would get a boost in interests or profiles in those genres. This Shanghai triad subgenre is 1 example, the other is Republican period drama that's embodied in Raise the Red Lantern. And also historical costume drama genre like Curse of the Golden Flowers, and last but not least, the wuxia genre represented by Hero. Ok, Ang Lee had beat him to that last 1 with Crouching Tiger.

This Shanghai triad subgenre of the crime drama action genre was popularised by The Bund (1983), a TV series produced by HK TVB station, starring Chow Yun-Fat, Ray Liu, et al. Everyone in HK would know the theme song, regardless if they watched the TV series.

It seems - no, it's a fact - that Mr. Zhang is going through every established Chinese commercial (sub)genres in his 2nd phase of his career. What remains to be done, in fact, begging for it, is the kungfu genre. Would he go for it? Probably. Time will tell.

Zhang's career isn't too different from Ang Lee, who also started with dramas, and then started his 2nd phase of genre commercial hopping career (sci-fi, war, wuxia, etc).

I think this progression isn't coincidental. Commercial genre requires big budgets, and big budgets requires big names. It's only after you establish your names would studios willing to bankroll you with large amount of mullah. Human dramas only require actors, and they don't even have to be big names. Human interest dramas are like garage operations of the nascent Apple and Microsoft. Making drama movies are simply stepping stones to bigger (usually, but not necessary better) things. This is also why a country (sorry, CCP, I mean, a Chinese province) like Taiwan with a tiny film industry is making ALMOST only dramas. They can't afford to make commercial genre movies.

Bugis Street (1995)

English title: Bugis Street the Movie.
Chinese title: The Queen of Tranny Street.

Bugis Street (1995)A few Chinese directors – WKW and Ang Lee – had made some gay films, but Yonfan covered the whole of LGBT spectrum, and this movie started his future direction of directing.

This story is brought to you by the letter 'T' in his LGBT Trilogy. It looks like Yonfan is working on the 4 letters backwards.

Anybody who comes to live in Singapore today for a period but knows nothing about its colourful past would be surprise or maybe even shock by the revelation of this film given the popular - yet an incomplete at best, misleading at worst - image that Singapore has today: strict, ordered, and puritanical.

I have the opposite preconception about Singapore (I suspect it's a minority in this distorted view). Growing in the 1970s, my whole impression of Singapore was coloured by a single image that an adult impressed on me. He told me that Singapore was famous because of a street that populated by trans-genders.

I never knew what that street was until I come across this movie, and a final piece of jigsaw in my childhood puzzle is now completely filled in. In fact, I have been visiting Bugis Street for a number of years since I arrived in Singapore, and never in my mind would I connect this street with its colourful past. The area around Bugis Street today is a typical busy retail shopping, dominated by Bugis Junction and the nearby sleek National Library Building, where I frequented. No hint here reminds me of this past associations whatsoever.

Trilogy of Lust (1995)

Trilogy of Lust (1995)
Chinese title: Blood Love.

There has always been a split between hardcore porno and mainstream erotic movies. By mainstream films, I mean they're actually shown in cinemas. While it's very difficult to separate the two at times in terms of sexual themes. With movie censorship that are increasingly loosen over times, the boundary has blurred so much that it's quite impossible to tell.

In mainstream movie with strong sexual content, the films may contain extreme violence, and try to shock the audience with whole gamut of depravity from BDSM, incest, gang-rape, necrophilia, and anything the dirty mind can conceive. BUT, as long as you don't show the actual sexual organs, all is well. All sexual acts in such movies are simulated ones, either in HK or just about any other cinemas.

In short, the difference is sexual explicitness. Soft-core visuals with hardcore sexual themes are okay to pass for cinemas.

The reason for the split is obvious. When an actor performs actual sex in front of the cameras - as supposed to pretend sex - he/she is better known as porn stars. Their skill sets and career paths are quite different. No ambitious and/or hygienically conscious actors want to be seen in such roles. There're also the issues of how are they going to get green-light from their significant others in doing such roles.

This is where this movie has boldly gone where no actor has gone before, and in fact since. Julie Lee - the main lead and director - decided to show actual penetration with her co-actors on screen. And not surprisingly, all her co-actors are unknowns. She would have trouble convincing actors like Anthony Wong or Simon Yam or even lesser known actors who specialised in this area - like Charlie Chow - all of whom have appeared in numerous explosive HK's Cat III sexploitation flicks. Because in all of those movies, they were acting in having sex. Most of the times, they didn't even look like they were having sex; more like some yoga cum kama sutra fusion exercises. Some people called this hardcore porn Cat IV film for this reason, even if there's no such category because it has never been done before.

This movie broke new ground not only in HK cinema, few cinemas in the world have trodden this shaky ground, with a few exceptions of a few European cinemas like French. Well, the French gave us the word "risqué". Their pushing of sexual envelop went back as far as 19th century to Marquis de Sade who gave us another word, 'Sadism'. Vive la France !

Baise-moi (2002) is one such French movie, which was banned in Australia because of its actual sex being shown. This HK film is 7 years "ahead" of Baise-moi.

Julie Lee came from Mainland China, and in this film she added some social/ideological commentaries of HK and China, perhaps in a move to elevate this film more than just porn. The main lead's family is the victim of the cultural Revolution. But this thought-provoking plot was never thicken to any decent width.

The main female lead says that how much the main male lead reminds her of her brother, and then she has sex with him. It ends with a sexual climax while they play to the tune of East is Red (the anthem for the Cultural Revolution). They do this on a clip top overlooking HKIA where international jumbo jets land and take off. This is a metaphor on at least 2 fronts. Afterwards, they plunge themselves to the bottom where they are discovered by a former Communist cadre who ruined her family during the Cultural Revolution. While her family fell victim to the Cultural Revolution in Mainland, she falls victim to her own sexual revolution in HK. The finale is full of symbolisms, I give her that.

This is one of those movies that it can't decide which ways to go by going off in both directions, and usually losses out on both camps of the audience. In this case, it can't make up its mind if it wants to be a serious film with social and ideological comments or simply a daring skin flick that makes inroads into new territory (no pun intended here).

This is perhaps why it was originally dubbed in German (why not French ?), where the film was meant to show in German cinemas, not HK ones. I have also learnt that it had been dubbed into other European languages (like Portuguese). But I have yet learnt that it had been dubbed into Chinese (either Cantonese or Mandarin). In short, this HK blue film (or yellow film in Chinese) is too much to show in HK cinemas. I'm sure the DVD would be available in the HK afterwards.

One can imagine such a film would raise controversy in HK in the film circle (or anywhere for that matter in 1995), and it did. If her intention was to gain publicity for herself (I suspect highly probable), then she had achieved it with flying colour. One of the reason why she wanted the publicity was because while she had did several roles in the HK's Cat III smut flicks before this, she was never given the lead roles because of her age (pushing 40). If nobody offered you the lead role, give yourself one. And that was what she had done.

The sequel to this film was reverted back to the old practice, meaning the actors once again pretended to have sex, and delivered dialogue in Chinese with Chinese and English hard subs. I'm quite sure this sequel was shown in the HK cinemas. The sexual positions are far more outrageous than its prequel because it isn't actual sex, and so there's no regard for reality; the wire-fu sex could be deployed at will. Because of the fake sex, the sequel was able to include the usual suspect of Elvis Tsui - the King (or least Old Hand) of HK Cat III adult flicks - to play the male lead.

The sequel proves that this film is the one and only "Cat IV" skin flick for now and in the near future in HK cinema. If there is one in the near future, this film had pierced a hole through the category ceiling to give us a sneak peak. In the distant future, we'll all be dead.

From whichever one of the 69 positions you look at it, good or bad, this film made headway in HK cinema.

Tuesday, 4 September 2007

A Queer Story (1994)

Chinese title: Gay at 40. Or A 40 Year Old Gay Guy.

This gay film attempts to break some kind of record in the number of homoxesual issues and situations it could cram into a movie. It tackles every familial role from being a gay son to being a lesbian parent to being of course same-sex lover. It even tackles AIDS. It also shows how the different gay/lesbian individuals cope with their sexual orientation in their own unique way.

This film - like Ang Lee's Wedding Banquet - aims more at the heterosexual audience than the gay/lesbian community (not that I suggest they aren't watching it). While Yonfan's movies are more directed (pun not intended) at the queer folks.

The movie runs at 100 mins, which seems a bit long. I reckon it could shave off 15 or 20 mins quite easily while improve the tempo of the film. Especially the 2nd half. Overlooking this minor flaw, this is an enjoyable film.

Ashes of Time (1994)

Chinese title: Eastern Heretic, Western Venom.

Not surprisingly, fans of wuxia would be disappointed with this film. This is an WKW film with his characters being placed in ancient China, not a general wuxia flick.

Ashes of Time (1994)As I remarked in his previous film Chungking Express (1994) that his movies are slowly evolving with past linkages. This wuxia is essentially The Days of Being Wild takes place in Chinese ancient setting. Of course, I'm not suggesting the characters and stories are the same. I'm saying the theme of exploring the inner worlds of the characters in these 2 movies are shared by both. Let's say there're much more in common between these 2 movies with very different settings than this movie with just about any other wuxia you care to name.

In both Chungking Express and this movie (which are made the same time), started with a man whose love being rejected. Ouyang Feng in this movie, and the 2 cops in Chungking Express (as I said before, you need to watch WKW movies in the right chronological order).

The 3 sequential movies The Days of Being Wild (1990), Chungking Express, and this film all deal with loss of love, the handling of rejections, and the 6 characters (2 in each film) all cope with the broken hearts in their unique ways. In this 1, Ouyang Feng deals with it in a destructive way. He becomes cynical, bitter, and inflicting pain on others the pain he received.

I'm a big fan of Louis Cha (pen name Jing Yong), and especially the Condors Trilogy. The characters in this film come from the 1st instalment of Condors Trilogy, The Legend of the Condor Heroes, aka Eagle-Shooting Heroes. Instead of doing an adaptation to Louis Cha's novel, WKW made this a 'prequel' to Cha's novel.

This film tells of 3 out of the 5 important characters in Eagle-Shooting Heroes who lives in the 5 compass points of China (NEWS and Centre). The other 3 - 1 lives the north, and the other in the south and centre - are good guys. The 2 villains - 1 lives in the east, and the other in the west - appear in this film. As you can see, only the 2 bad guys were used for this film. This movie aren't about heroes (bad guys fill up WKW's works). It's a 'prequel' because the 2 characters in question - Huang Yaoshi, and Ouyang Feng are already past middled ages in Eagle-Shooting Heroes. This film tells how they come to be when they are younger.

This film takes place in 5 seasons (no typo. Chinese Almanac divides the years into 5 seasons. As are 5 compass points) with 5 seperate encounters with Ouyang Feng. In the 1st with Huang Yaoshi and Murong. In the 2nd with the peasant girl carrying eggs, and blind swordsman. The 3rd with HongQi. He leaves Ouyang Feng for the north, and later becomes the 1 of the 5 great martial artists of the 5 compass points - Northern Beggar. The 4th with the blind swordsman's widow, and Huang Yaoshi moves east and becomes the Eastern Heretic. The 5th, he moves west and becomes known as Western Venom.

Here's a link to those 5 characters from Louis Cha's novel.

Chungking Express (1994)

Chinese title: Chungking Jungle.

Chungking Express (1994)If you have been to HK as a tourist and try to get some money converted into HK currency or vice versa around Tsimshatsui area, it's unlikely your eyes would miss Chungking Mansions. This is a very busy area with huge concentration of expats, especially those from South Asia. And the word 'Jungle' in the Chinese title refers to the expression "It's a jungle out there". Or concrete jungle, which Chungking Mansions are.

WKW films are evolutions of his artistic visions. Slowly, his films are evolved from his previous ones. In another words, his movies are never independent from each other. In any given film, there're many connections and linkages to his earlier ones. Of course, the more recent ones have stronger connections than more distant ones.

Rather than talking in general abstract terms, let me offer some examples:

In the 1st 3 of his movies, the % in crime action genre, and % in romance genre could be break down as follow:

Chungking Express
Film   Crime Romance  Name
1st      70%     30%           As Tear Goes By
2nd     40%     60%           Days of Being Wild
3rd      30%     70%          Chungking Express

It's obvious that WKW was evolving from making crime action genre into more and more of romance genre.

In his 1st film, there's the promise of love that never realised. In his 2nd, the film deals with the the rejection of loves by 2 female characters. But this part only starts half way or so through the movie. And in the 3rd, the whole movie is about the copings of the loss of loves.

And WKW always like symmetry in characters and story structures, I pointed out a few of them in his 2nd (previous) film. As I said, his movies have past linkages. In this case, the symmetry in characters are across 2 movies, not within a movie. In previous film, a criminal dumps 2 girls, while this film, 2 girls dump 2 cops. See? swap criminal with cops, and swap the genders of characters being dumped.

As I pointed out in Days of Being Wild (1990), there're some important dates in it (note the word 'Days' in the title).

Similarly dates are featured strongly in this film, in fact more so - April Fool's Day, 1st cop's birthday, break-up days, etc. In short, the idea of time becoming important. Time heals all wounds, and love-sickness. And the time passing are marked by cans of pineapples that expire in his birthday.

The 1st cop deals with his loss of love by looking for another to replace it (too bad, better luck next time, cop!)

Chungking ExpressThe 2nd cop deals with it by denial, pretending that she has not gone: by not opening the envelope, by hoping she would come back any time, etc. And then by distancing himself by pretending that he's the soap, the towel, the house, etc. Finally he comes to accept the fact.

The important of time element is therefore captured in the film's focus on dates and time.

His next film is titled Ashes of Time (1994). Uhmmm...

Prediction: note the word 'Time' in the title...more about time...time will tell.
Better prediction: I will have more to say about time in that movie.

These are just 2 areas I pointed out. Other areas I can think of are casting, and story structures.

As it should be clear by now that WKW is making up his mind what he wants to put in his next movie as he goes along. This explains all the linkages/connections/associations among his films.

The making of this film is a perfect example. He made this film out of a spur of the moment (to kill time) while he was still working on Ashes of Time. He ended up with 3 stories for Chungking Express (1994). But since the 2 stories are already long enough to be featured length, he put the 3rd story into his future movie Fallen Angels. Also while he was making Ashes of Time, it shouldn't come as a surprise when he has TIME in his mind while writing the script for this movie.

What I said should demonstrate clearly that the nebulous nature of his stories, and the numerous cross linkages in his movies come out of his disorganised film makings. Well, one might say this is how a true artist at work. Out of chaos comes creativity.

What all these mean is when watching WKW films, you need to remember 2 things in order to appreciate his films more fully:
1. Don't skip his movies.
2. Watch them in the same chronological order that they were made.

Watch his films as you would with movie series. He makes movie after movie like sequels, but not in the traditional sense. More in the artistic sense. Indeed some of them are in fact sequels in the traditional sense.

Many believe that this movie has the highest critical success in Asian cinema. Not bad for a movie that was shot in 1 day, and at the spur of the moment. Never under-estimate the impulsive, nebulous, random impressionistic flashes of artistry that's embodied and amplified by the cinematography of this film. And that's the stamp of WKW.

In the Heat of the Sun (1994)

This is a multi-layered film that could be watched as a coming-of-age story that typically deals with all the universal issue of growing up - rebellion, the discovery of oneself, and conflicts of peer group's approval, sex, and relationships, and the usual teen angst. This part is universal, thus nothing new (and done to death). What is new is all this is taken place in the background of the Cultural Revolution. So this story could be viewed in turn of the 'lost generation' that caused by the fall out of that political events. Left unsupervised because of the Cultural Revolution, the kids become restless, shifting from place to place, picking fights, searching for love that they couldn't find at home, etc.

This film shows the Chinese lost generation where the Chinese youth had lost their moral and spiritual compass, reflecting the state of the country.

There're many thing that I could relate in this film: riding bicycles on the streets, the viewing of "The Red Attachment of Women" (in this list), or the Soviet films. Especially ones about the Revolution in 1917, or listen to decadent Western classic, and last but not least, street fights. I did all those things in the same period as depicted in the film. And also grew up without much parental supervision. In short, this movie might as well be the (tamer, gentler version of) biography of my adolescence. FYI, I had never grew up in PRC. But I DID grow up in a Communist regime (and fled it).

I love the scene in the movie where the kids sneak into a Western baroque interior cinema that's showing an 'adult' film with a scene of topless Jane Fonda (could be Barbarella. I can't be sure as she appeared in so many of her early films butt naked. FYI, she WAS a strong communist sympathiser, probably swept up by the whole anti Vietnam War movement). When the kids were discovered, the lights were swicthed on, we discover that the cinema is full house with party members. To justify to the kids for the watching of this Hollywood skin flick, the party member in the front row defends that they're watching this for critical judgement, and this film is poisonous to the mind. Criticism my ass (for a better mental image, Jane Fonda's ass). Don't you find the irony delicious when the poisonous Western decadent film happens to be starred with Hanoi Jane, one of their strong supporter in the West?

Ermo (1994)

Ermo (1994)This movie and The Story of Qiu Ju have more things in common than you can poke your stick at. Let's not waste a moment longer and make a list IMMEDIATELY (I list to make love - oops - I meant I love to make list):

1. Both stories are set against the backdrop of China's countryside. As Chinese art-house/social dramas are into addressing social issues, the Chinese countryside/hinterland is where many glaring socioeconomic problems arise. Some of the best directors in China like Zhang Yimou, Li Yang, etc, belonged in this camp.

2. Both are art-house films that uses social realism. I.e. Street scenes and people are real - aka unpaid extras. They lend authenticity to the movies. Although Qiu Ju sheds more light on the rural lives.

3. Both are comedy drama. In the scheme of things, their social/political problems are minor ones.

4. Liu Peigi played the main male leads - the husbands - in both. Only in Qiu Ju, he's less pro-active, and talkative. Being kicked in the balls has something to do with it. I say.

5. Both heroines are housewives playing the lead and title roles. This should count as 3 similarities? Never mind, l give my loyal readers a 66.666% discount for old time sake (aka readers loyalty program).

6. Both heroines are very determined characters to the point of stubborn. I love to hire them as my CEO if I have a company (if only). They're go getter. Once their goals are set, nothing will waver them from achieving that goals. Nothing! You don't want to be their enemies. No sire bob!

7. Most importantly, as usual, Chinese art-house/social drama films are dealing with social problem in China - in both of these cases, the issues of FACE. Let's face it, 'face' - like 'love', 'hate', and 'debt' - is a 4 letters word.

In Qiu Ju, if the village head simply apologises to our heroine, the movie finishes in 15 mins. But no bloody way. Such action would mean a loss of face. We can't have that. A big time official like a village head can't possibly stoop so low as to apologise to a lowly village woman! Please, get real !!!

And our heroine simply can't let go without an apology. The village Head keeps increasing his monetary compensation (instead of a simple verbal apology), but she won't budge. Or borrowing a Chinese expression, "she doesn't give face". It's a matter of principle. No face giving (不給面子) !

In this movie, the face of a family is measured and proportional to the size of the face of TV. If her TV has the biggest face, she has the biggest face. It's all very logical and mathematical. There's nothing irrational at all that I can see. Not at all. It makes perfect sense.

Our heroine sells noodles to save enough money for the the biggest TV in the village. Chinese word for 'noodle' is 麵, which is formed by combining the word 'wheat' (麥) and the word 'face' (面), interestingly enough. And they pronounce the same ('mian'. Coincidentally applicable both in Cantonese and Mandarin). So a Chinese joke would be that our heroine sells mian to get mian. Get it? I loik it. I loik it aloit.

8. In the end - ahhh - nope, I'd better not spoiling the ending. Let just say, I can see parallels in the 2 endings as well.

C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri (1994)

English title: C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri.
Chinese title: New Love without End.

C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri (1994)There's much to be said about the title.
The English title of the movie is actually French C'est La Vie, Mon Cheri. This is a 2nd romance movie in this list that contains a French title. This French title captures the sentiment of the film well.

To get more info, you need to look at the Chinese title. The literal translation of the Chinese title is New Love Without End. This suggests that it must be a remake of a classic called Love Without End, and it is. The old version received great acclaim, and Lin Dai the big star of her days (1950s and 60s) won a few awards played the female lead. This new one also won a few awards including Best Picture. Actually, there's a remake called New Love Without End made by SB in 1970. So this one should be called New New Love Without End. But they didn't call that for fear that audience would mistaken it for a comedy.

This remake, however, is quite different from the original. It's much more rich and complex.

An Odd Couple may be a better title if it weren't inappropriate for romance. The lovers are polar opposite in temperament, age, attitude towards life, and most important of all, basic principles about arts and musics. The last point is important because they're both professional musicians. One is sulky, pessimistic, stubborn middle aged man; the other is a bubbly, optimistic, adjustable young woman. Despite of, or perhaps because of these diametric, they fall for each other. Opposite attracts. The casting is perfect. I can't find a better cast.

The plot/story maybe somewhat 1960ish, but it's all the stuff that wraps around the plot - the characters, and their daily struggles that makes this movie quite watchable.

If this movie is a journey, more than ever, I would say it's the getting there, not the destination that's matters.

It's a wonderful feel good tearjerkers. 4 out of 5 boxes of tissues worth.

Monday, 3 September 2007

Iron Monkey (1993)

Iron Monkey (1993)Somewhat breaks the convention of kungfu genre. The martial arts in wuxia - sometimes called sword play - can and do defy the law of gravity. And these movies take place in ancient antiquity. They all have long hairs (both men and women as ancient Chinese never cut their hairs in their whole lives), and they carried swords. Best examples of these are Crouching Tiger, or Hero. In kungfu genre, the martial arts tend to be grounded, both literally and figuratively speaking. They may bend the physical laws a bit, but not breaking it. Examples are Bruce Lee's movies or Ip Man franchise.

My way of looking at it is this, in wuxia people spending times in jianghu (literally means rivers and lakes) while in kungfu genre they don't. They still have the world of martial arts or wulin (literrally means martial forest).

These are just conventions, not rules. There's no martial arts police going around enforcing it, and fine directors who break these conventions.

Iron Monkey sets in a period between the 2 - the Qing dynasty, also the last Chinese dynasty and modern time (starting from Republican Era). These Chinese wore long pigtails (rather than done up in buns), and shaved the front parts of their heads, and they don't carry swords (unless it's part of their professions). So it's neither a pure wuxia nor a modern kungfu genre. Because it straddles between the 2 periods, its martial arts takes on the characteristics of the 2 coventions.

Yuen Woo-Ping is very adept at this gravity defying stuff, and in The Matrix where gravity is only a computer program, and so getting Yuen Woo-ping to coach these martial art scenes seems logically, both literally and figuratively speaking.

Ancient Chinese wore buns to put on headgear, while women could put all kind of decorations (not the least a pair of chopsticks)