Thinking back on it, it’s difficult to sum up what the plot of this film is exactly, but made in a break from filming his grandiose epic folly Ashes of Time, it’s fair to say that Wong Kar-wai is going for a looser feel here, two stories of people passing by one another in a busy city, barely enough time to make a connection that’s lasting. Thinking back to when I saw it several decades ago, my abiding memory is its heavy use of the song “California Dreamin'” but watching again it’s not in it all that much and just in the second story, certainly not to Godardian levels of replaying snippets of music, though you get the sense that Godard’s New Wave work is one of Wong’s touchstones. But there’s both a denseness to the imagery — of a crowded city, of colourful lights and rain-slicked streets, of bustling shopping streets and little food stands — but also a lightness to the tone, with two flirtatious stories that touch on crime (because in the first, Brigitte Lin is engaged in drug dealing and kills those who double-crossed her, though the second just features Tony Leung as a cop stopping by for food on his downtime near where he lives) but really are about the feelings of the central characters in each, Takeshi Kaneshiro (also apparently a cop though we don’t see him in uniform like Leung) and the mesmeric Faye Wong who takes a job at a snack bar and, yes, plays that Mamas and the Papas song a lot. There’s an oneiric sense to Chris Doyle’s camerawork and a sense of fleetingness to each story, as if these characters will soon disappear into Hong Kong’s bustle never to be seen again, and indeed they seem to do that. It’s a very film-y film ultimately, but grounded in a very specific place and time — in many ways, to me, it is the apex of 90s filmmaking.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai 王家衛; Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Starring Faye Wong 王菲, Tony Leung [Chiu-Wai] 梁朝偉, Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武, Brigitte Lin 林青霞; Length 102 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), Wellington, Wednesday 11 August 2021 (and earlier on VHS at home, Wellington, December 1997).
I could easily do a week of Netflix films with only original titles (perhaps just romcoms) from the last handful of years, but they do also have older stuff. It’s a bit hit or miss what you’ll get, in fact it’s almost entirely random it sometimes seems, but there are a few ‘classics’ buried in there. For example, old Hong Kong action comedies like this one by Jackie Chan from the late-70s.
I’ve managed to miss out on most early Jackie Chan (aside from the peerless Police Story) so I figured it was time to catch up with his oeuvre. This film is firmly in the comedy kung fu vein of the kind that used to be mocked (and who knows, maybe still is) for the poor dubbing, but as watched on Netflix the English dubbing only crops up at random periodic moments (in a totally slapdash way; was this the artistic intention?). In any case, it’s a vigorous demonstration of all kinds of martial arts choreography, and very impressive most of it is too, but it lowkey has some character development too, as Jackie Chan’s Wong Fei-hung “Freddy” starts out as a swaggering show-off, making fun of his teacher’s skills before swiftly being put firmly in his place by, first, his aunt and then a moustachioed gentleman “Thunderleg” (Hwang Jang-lee) and so he submits to the training of the title character So Hua (Yuen Siu-tin). In a sense, it’s about Freddy overcoming his childishness and misogyny and this new respect for women (and, obviously, alcohol) helps him wins fights. So it’s silly, but it’s also a filmic Bildungsroman of sorts with a positive moral lesson for our foolish comedy hero.
Director Yuen Woo-ping 袁和平; Writers Siao Lung 蕭龍 and Ng See-yuen 吳思遠; Cinematographer Chang Hui 張海; Starring Jackie Chan 成龍, Yuen Siu-tin 袁小田, Hwang Jang-lee 황정리; Length 110 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Saturday 20 March 2021.
Another thing that’s useful about Netflix is it’s where a lot of the films that don’t get big releases in English-speaking countries can find their audience. Whether it’s Bollywood, Nollywood, or East Asian popular cinema, like this Chinese film (or maybe Hong Kong film: certainly here it was only on Netflix in Cantonese, but it looked like a dub). I’m not even sure it got much of a release in its home country, which makes sense given the events of 2020, but it’s on Netflix and if you like this kind of CGI-heavy fantasy adventure, then worth checking out.
A rather jolly monster-based romp, which I wouldn’t characterise as a kids’ movie (it has some fairly nightmare-inducing stuff at times) but has the sort of polished sheen of one. I’m not sure if the monsters are supposed to represent anything in particular for our protagonist (Jessie Li), but she doesn’t seem to show much spark in this film, perhaps because her character is supposed to be a little ground-down by life. Still, Mrs Lotus (Kara Hui) makes for a good villain and the monster CGI and fight scenes are quite fun, even if the latter takes up a lot of the last part of the film (at the expense of the monsters, who sort of disappear for a bit). I certainly liked it, even if I lost the plot a bit at times.
Director Henri Wong 黄智亨; Writers Fan Wenwen 范文文, Wong, Wang Yahe 王亚鹤, Alex Zhang 张卓鹏 and Disha Zhang 章笛沙; Cinematographers Po Wing Ho [Baorong He] 何宝荣 and Charlie Lam 林志坚; Starring Shawn Yue 余文樂, Jessie Li 李俊杰, Kara Hui 惠英紅; Length 104 minutes.
Seen at home (Netflix streaming), Wellington, Friday 19 February 2021.
I don’t have a specific theme for this week on my blog, so I’m just continuing to post some reviews from the Sheffield Doc/Fest.
This feels like a particularly urgent documentary, and as such it has a rather scrappy quality to it. There’s a lot of text and a few interviews, but mainly what it thrives on is the first-person footage of the protests, the civil disobedience, that have galvanised pro-democracy campaigners in Hong Kong for the last five or six years (at least). As someone who is far outside this particular conflict, there are a lot of people and details to take in, and it can be difficult to follow it all, but then again maybe a proper accounting of this time would take an epic length multi-part documentary. Even the two or so hours we get here (and I gather there have been several edits; this one has an epilogue which takes it up to May 2020, making it very fresh) ping all over the place, but they have an anger and a focus to it that becomes clear, from the covert colonisation being done by mainland China, to the various autocratic laws announced or sponsored on its behalf through pro-China HK leadership, plus the almost inevitable captions for each person we see announcing how they’ve been cracked down on or jailed or censured for their involvement. And as the ending makes clear, this is all very much just the beginning; protest and democracy is an ongoing process and will unfold for many years yet.
Director Evans Chan 陳耀成; Cinematographers Lai Yick Ho, Mo Ming, Wong Hing Hang, Nero Chan, Jeong Hun Lee; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at home (Sheffield Doc/Fest Selects streaming), London, Monday 6 July 2020.
If you’re trying to find positives about Amazon Prime — assuming you already have it for whatever reason, and not as a way of trying to encourage you to sign up — it certainly has more interesting older films than Netflix. BFI Player has the quality older titles, but Amazon has a random selection of various films that you may need to search for because they’ll never come up, but if you’re looking for old noirs or obscure 60s or 70s titles you can’t find anywhere else, Amazon can be helpful. This late-60s Hong Kong film was directed by a woman, one of the few in that period, and it certainly sticks out from the usual kinds of stuff that is nowadays what we think of when we cast our minds back to 1960s HK filmmaking.
This feels like some kind of sui generis outlier to Hong Kong filmmaking of the period, though I confess I’m hardly (not even remotely) an expert. However, it’s certainly striking film — partly shot by Subrata Mitra, best known for his work on Satyajit Ray’s Apu trilogy, and partly edited by Les Blank — and those credits suggest a genesis against a wider regional background of arthouse film practice. The fact that the film is also directed by a woman seems unusual too, and indeed the film is focused around an upstanding woman within the community, Mrs Dong (whose name provides the original language title for the film, played by Lisa Lu), in whose honour a ceremonial arch is being planned (requiring permission from the Emperor). The way that she exists within the community, and the structures of power that impinge upon her, are among the themes the film is dealing with, how she must subordinate her own desires to that of the community, and though it has a period setting, there are hints within the film that the filmmaker intends it as a more contemporary reflection. It’s a beautiful film, though, as you might expect from its cinematographer, with an expressive score (even if the subtitles in the print I saw were a little patchy).
Director/Writer Tang Shu Shuen 唐書璇 [aka “Cecile Tang”]; Cinematographer Subrata Mitra সুব্রত মিত্র; Starring Lisa Lu 卢燕, Roy Chiao 乔宏; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at home (Amazon streaming), London, Friday 14 June 2019.
There’s a lot of stuff you can latch onto in this film, but yet it feels so difficult to pin down or talk about because it is so fraught. It’s about people being evasive, who don’t want to be seen to be doing the wrong thing and who, at a certain level, live their lives within the frame the narrative creates for them and the camera allows them — I’m not sure if they can exist beyond these 90-something minutes and I’m not sure if I want them to. Anyway I’m being a bit vague because I can’t really pin down how I feel but when I first saw this 16 years ago I wasn’t married, and who knows what it’ll be like in another 16, but I’m fairly sure I’ll still love it, and maybe I’ll even have a deeper sense of it. In any case, Wong is clearly infatuated with Godard but luckily that doesn’t determine the course of the film: this is very much its own thing. Doomed romance, that yearning soundtrack, Maggie Cheung’s high-necked cheongsam dresses, the rain, the endless food being dished up, the smoke, the empty corridors. All of it.
Criterion Extras: There’s a short film called Huayang de Nianhua made up of archival clips, beguiling images of old (and to me, unknown) Chinese actresses, like a hint at what Wong was thinking about while making his feature.
FILM REVIEW: Criterion Collection
Director/Writer Wong Kar-wai 王家衛; Cinematographers Christopher Doyle and Mark Lee Ping-Bin 李屏賓; Starring Maggie Cheung 張曼玉, Tony Leung 梁朝偉; Length 98 minutes.
Seen at Embassy, Wellington, Tuesday 24 July 2001 (and most recently on DVD at a friend’s home, London, Sunday 5 March 2017).
There’s almost a subgenre of documentary that deals with activist issues of social justice campaigning, and that’s very much the wheelhouse of the Human Rights Watch Film Festival. Complicit is a fine example, focusing on the global electronics industry, specifically their factories in South-Eastern China (on the Pearl River Delta). It’s not so much the sweatshop conditions here as the workers’ exposure to dangerous chemicals (benzene most notably, which causes leukaemia), a situation not really being tackled by the enormous global companies contracting out the work. The filmmakers here are canny to focus not on the Chinese government but on these companies in their (as the title suggests) complicity with human rights violations — though that complicity obviously extends to the audience also, those who use these electronic devices (a certain fruit-based designer is particularly targeted). It’s the stories of the workers, and their often futile attempts to get recompense from or to even be heard by the companies, which are the heart of the film.
Directors Heather White and Lynn Zhang [Jialing Zhang] 张嘉玲; Writer Christopher Seward; Length 82 minutes.
Seen at Barbican Cinema, London, Monday 13 March 2017.
The title translates as “Beijing Meets Seattle”, but those were the settings of the first film (which I didn’t see), and instead our star-crossed lovers (Tang Wei and Wu Xiubo) here live in Macau and Los Angeles, the former setting introduced in tourist-brochure terms as a mecca for glamorous international gamblers. Indeed, I gather this sequel uses the same actors and the same basic premise, but is an otherwise standalone film — not that anyone would have any difficulty catching up with it, given the broad generic sweep of its storyline. The plot leans heavily on the romantic novel 84 Charing Cross Road in orchestrating a romance based on the anonymous exchange of letters between lovers which have been sent to that London address (London only shows up in the film’s rather absurdly, but almost touchingly romantic, denouement). In a sense, all of its contrivances are little more than absurd nonsense — and in its insistence on written letters, a strangely old-fashioned film — but after all, it’s a romantic weepie in which our two photogenic leads keep almost bumping into each other, as their feelings gradually deepen into love. Therefore, whatever reservations I may have, I still find it ultimately likeable, though it helps to see a film which finishes up in London at a cinema mere steps away.
Director/Writer Xiaolu Xue 薛曉路; Cinematographer Chi-Ying Chan 陈志英; Starring Wei Tang 湯唯, Xiubo Wu 吴秀波; Length 129 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Street, London, Friday 29 April 2016.
Stephen Chow has a directorial reputation for silliness, though I’ve only ever seen one film of his from 20 years ago now (God of Cookery). However, by all accounts, this latest one, a box office blockbuster in its native China, is very much on brand: it is utterly, ridiculously demented. The plot basically involves a colony of half-human mer-creatures (what even is the collective noun for mermaids et al.?) whose existence is threatened by ruthless capitalist Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) and his sea-life-destroying sonar technology. And so the mer-people send out Shan (Lin Yun), the mermaid of the title, to reel him in with her womanly charms, as she shuffles along, her tail awkwardly fitted into socks and shoes. For this effect — and in general throughout the movie — the CGI is pretty ropey, but presumably it’s intended to be, to point up the silliness of the conceit. By the time Xuan’s business partner Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi) is double-crossing him with a view to exterminating these aquatic pests, everything in the plot has become very contorted, but the film continues to throw out all manner of visual gags, while staying grounded in the budding romance between Shan and Xuan. Somewhere in all this there’s a strong message about environmental responsibility, and the power of love to transcend money (and, presumably, biology). Still, it’s all pitched at a sustained level of silliness that doesn’t always cohere, but at least ensures that it remains enjoyable even when the occasional aquatic bloodletting happens.
Pedantic Note: All the marketing calls the movie “The Mermaid” but I’ve gone with the English title appearing on-screen, which omits the definite article.
Director Stephen Chow 周星馳; Writers Chow, Kelvin Lee 李思臻, Hing-ka Chan 陳慶嘉, Chih-chiang Fung 馮志強, Miu-kei Ho 何妙祺, Ivy Kong 江玉儀, Zhengyu Lu 盧正雨 and Kan-cheung Tsang 曾瑾昌; Cinematographer Sung-fai Choi 蔡崇輝; Starring Yun Lin 林允, Chao Deng 鄧超, Yuqi Zhang 張雨綺; Length 94 minutes.
Seen at Odeon Panton Stret, London, Wednesday 24 February 2016.
This is a simple film too, straightforward in its emotional appeal to the audience by telling a gentle story of an ageing family maid, Ah Tao, and her increasingly close relationship with the family’s unmarried son Roger (Andy Lau) as she gets ever older and more precarious. It does a good job of toning down the more saccharine sentimentality that could have taken hold, favouring instead slow-moving compositions over wordiness or plinky-plonky muzak. At first Roger keeps Ah Tao distant, eating the food she cooks him without much ceremony, but after she has a stroke and must retire from her work, he finds himself taking greater care of her. In some ways, the story goes where one might expect, but it’s a pleasant, undemanding watch all the same.
Director Ann Hui 許鞍華; Writers Susan Chan 陈淑贤 and Roger Lee 李恩霖; Cinematographer Yu Lik-wai 余力爲; Starring Deanie Ip 葉德嫻, Andy Lau 劉德華; Length 118 minutes.
Seen at home (Blu-ray), London, Sunday 20 December 2015.