This Week in Rankings

Since the last update I’ve been covering some film programs outside of the Seattle area, writing short reviews of a handful of films playing at the New York Asian Film Festival and Japan Cuts for InReview Online. I also made an index which includes some old and new longer reviews here for the NYAFF. There was a very cool Johnnie To series in SanFrancisco I made an index of older reviews for, and I proposed some alternate titles for Seattle’s too short but welcome nonetheless Hong Kong miniseries. And I have an index ready for the Old School Kung Fu Film Fest coming to New York in a couple of weeks.

Mid-year also passed since the last update, and as is tradition I listed a bunch of my favorite films of the year so far. Over at Seattle Screen Scene I reviewed Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2, Louis Koo’s giant alien cat movie Meow, Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come, DA Pennebaker’s Monterey Pop, Stevefat’s Weeds on Fire, and Wong Chun’s Mad World. Also over at Frame.land, I wrote about Samuel Fuller’s Merrill’s Marauders.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

Touchez pas au grisbi (Jacques Becker) – 17, 1954
Le trou (Jacques Becker) – 7, 1960
Merrill’s Marauders (Samuel Fuller) – 11, 1962
The TAMI Show (Steve Binder) – 12, 1964
Hong Kong Nocturne (Inoue Umetsugu) – 24, 1967

Monterey Pop (DA Pennebaker) – 12, 1968
Let It Be (Michael Lindsay-Hogg) – 4, 1970
The Beguiled (Don Siegel) – 14, 1971
The Black Tavern (Teddy Yip) – 18, 1972
Lady Whirlwind (Huang Feng) – 26, 1972

When Taekwando Strikes (Huang Feng) – 31, 1973
The Skyhawk (Walter Chung Chang-Hwa) – 39, 1974
Jumping Ash (Josephine Siao & Leong Po-Chih) – 18, 1976
A Grin Without a Cat (Chris Marker) – 5, 1977
Dirty Tiger, Crazy Frog (Karl Maka) – 33, 1978

Rock ‘n’ Roll High School (Allan Arkush) – 8, 1979
The Odd Couple (Lau Kar-wing) – 11, 1979
The Muppet Movie (James Frawley) – 14, 1979
The Young Master (Jackie Chan) – 9, 1980
The Victim (Sammo Hung) – 11, 1980

The Prodigal Son (Sammo Hung) – 8, 1981
Carry On Pickpocket (Sammo Hung) – 19, 1982
Jimi Plays Monterey (DA Pennebaker & Chris Hegedus) – 21, 1986
Millionaire’s Express (Sammo Hung) – 30, 1986
Broadcast News (James L. Brooks) – 1, 1987

Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung) – 10, 1987
Pedicab Driver (Sammo Hung) – 6, 1989
Skinny Tiger, Fatty Dragon (Lau Kar-wing) – 60, 1990
Beauty and the Beast (Gary Trousdale & Kirk Wise) – 46, 1991
Pandora’s Box (Adam Curtis) – 11, 1992
Moon Warriors (Sammo Hung) – 30, 1992

Blade of Fury (Sammo Hung) – 61, 1993
Don’t Give a Damn (Sammo Hung) – 57, 1995
The Watermelon Woman (Cheryl Dunye) – 16, 1996
Mr. Nice Guy (Sammo Hung) – 41, 1997
Beast Cops (Gordon Chan & Dante Lam) – 12, 1998

Something’s Gotta Give (Nancy Meyers) – 19, 2003
Infernal Affairs II (Andrew Lau & Alan Mak) – 23, 2003
Cinema Hong Kong (Ian Taylor) – 31, 2003
The Wrecking Crew! (Danny Tedesco) – 65, 2008
Hear My Train A-Comin’ (Bob Smeaton) – 71, 2013

Wolf Warriors (Wu Jing) – 111, 2015
The Edge of Seventeen (Kelly Fremon Craig) – 32, 2016
Wet Woman in the Wind (Akihiko Shiota) – 66, 2016
Over the Fence (Nobuhrio Yamashita) – 90, 2016
Mad World (Wong Chun) – 100, 2016

Blood of Youth (Yang Shu-peng) – 128, 2016
Someone to Talk To (Liu Yulin) – 138, 2016
Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui) – 4, 2017
Love and Goodbye and Hawaii (Shingo Matsumura) – 8, 2017
The Village of No Return (Chen Yu-hsun) – 10, 2017

Long Strange Trip (Amir Bar-Lev) – 21, 2017
Oh Hello: On Broadway (Michael John Warren & Alex Timbers) – 24, 2017
Duckweed (Han Han) – 25, 2017
Ingrid Goes West (Matt Spicer) – 26, 2017
The Tokyo Night Sky is Always the Densest Shade of Blue (Yuya Ishii) – 27, 2017

Meow (Benny Chan) – 30, 2017
Hengyoro (Gō Takemine) – 31, 2017
The Incredible Jessica James (James Strouse) – 32, 2017
Wolf Warrior 2 (Wu Jing) – 35, 2017

The Gangster’s Daughter (Chen Mei-juin) – 37, 2017
Extraordinary Mission (Alan Mak & Anthony Pun) – 40, 2017
Descendants 2 (Kenny Ortega) – 43, 2017
Despicable Me 3 (Pierre Coffin & Kyle Balda) – 44, 2017

Old School Kung Fu Fest

Hot off their excellent New York Asian Film Festival program, the folks at Subway Cinema have announced the lineup for their Old School Kung Fu mini-festival playing at the Metrograph in August. The theme this time is “Wonder Women of the Martial Arts” with seven features, five of which will be playing on 35mm. Every one of the films is a bona fide classic, and I’ve written or podcasted about all of them at one time or another of the last few years. Here’s an index:

Hapkido (Huang Feng, 1972)
The Fate of Lee Khan (King Hu, 1973)
My Young Auntie (Lau Kar-leung, 1981)
Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (Chor Yuen, 1972)

Come Drink with Me (King Hu, 1966) Also podcast
A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)
Yes, Madam! (Corey Yuen, 1985)

Johnnie To: Cops and Robbers

This week the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art begins an outstanding series of Johnnie To films, running through August 6. It focuses almost exclusively on his crime-related films and includes a number of movies which, even if they’re not outright inspirations for or films inspired by his work, certainly share a similar sensibility. I’ve written or podcasted about several of the films in the series over the last few years, here’s an index, listed in the order in which they’re showing.

Drug War (Johnnie To, 2012) (Podcast)
The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
Three (Johnnie To, 2016)

Blind Detective (Johnnie To, 2013) (Further Notes)
Office (Johnnie To, 2015)
Exiled (Johnnie To, 2006)

That last entry, for Exiled, is the episode of the They Shot Pictures podcast we did on To way back in March of 2013. While the episode focuses primarily on that film alongside Throw Down and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, I believe we discuss most of the other films playing in the SFMOMA series at least a little bit. The idea behind that episode was to counter the all-too-frequent division in studies of To’s work between his crime films and his comedies, something which this series unfortunately perpetuates (and, to be fair, which To has frequently encouraged, at least in discussing his films from the early 2000s).

I have to say it’s also a bit odd that the only films being offered as contextualization for To’s work are European and American crime dramas (and one Seijun Suzuki film), rather than films by his contemporaries like John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, or even something like Infernal Affairs, which both shows the influence the early Milkway films and in turn influenced his later crime films like Breaking News and the Election series.

But this is of course the difficulty I have with Johnnie To: there’s simply too much to discuss, too much context. His filmography is too vast to cover with any kind of concision, his network of collaborators and his impact on Hong Kong cinema too broad, his set of precursors too wide-ranging, to summarize with a mere handful of films. My chronological Johnnie To project became bogged down in contextualization, branching out in all directions through cinema past and present, even though it was confined only to Chinese language film. The SFMOMA series is great, and I’m extremely jealous we’ll likely never see anything like it here in the Seattle area. But it’s only a fraction of an ever-expanding whole that is the cinema of Johnnie To.

Duckweed (Han Han, 2016)

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Race car driver, essayist and film director Han Han had one of 2016’s biggest hits with Duckweed, a time travel comic drama about a son learning to respect his father. An update of Peter Chan’s 1993 classic He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father (Chan and his film are specifically thanked in the credits, along with the directors of Back to the Future, The Terminator and Somewhere in Time), Deng Chao plays an angry young racer who publicly spits venom at his aged father (Eddie Peng) during a victory speech. When the two are in a car accident on the way home, Feng falls into a coma, where he is transported (somehow, the film, thankfully, doesn’t care to explain how) back to 1998, where he befriends his father as a young man. Peng is the morally upright leader of a small gang, with one dim buddy, a loving girlfriend (Zhao Liying), and real-life future internet kajillionaire Pony Ma (Chan’s film similarly feature a future tycoon, with a character based on Li Ka-shing). Feng joins the gang and helps them try to navigate conflicts with a local gang leader who wants to criminalize the karaoke bar Peng runs (Peng doesn’t want the girls who work there to prostitute themselves) and ultimately a sleepy-eyed villain/real estate developer. At the same time he gets to know Zhao, whom he never met (his mother died shortly after he was born).

Much of the comedy is based in Peng’s inability to anticipate the future: he’s heavily invested in beepers and VHS tapes, linking his outdated ideas of technology to a moral code rapidly becoming obsolete in an increasingly capitalist China. Where in Chan’s film the younger man learned that his father was a community leader holding together a House of 72 Tenants like variety of refugees and the working poor, Deng’s reference point for his father’s life is something like the Young and Dangerous series, with Peng the stylish hero of a gang of good guys just trying to get by in an amoral world. That alone says something about our debased world, but Han Han doesn’t push it too far. Instead the films skims along neatly through deft action scenes (the vehicle stunts are pretty good, as you’d expect from a former driver) and nifty imagery. With an easy humanity and knack for underplaying comedy, Peng has established himself as one of the great stars of Chinese cinema today.

The Village of No Return (Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

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Settling down for Village of No Return I was expecting another mediocre Chinese genre film, an effects driven action comedy along the lines of Vampire Cleanup Department or Mojin: The Lost Legend, amiable thanks to a star turn from Shu Qi and a supporting role by Eric Tang, but ultimately weightless. Instead, it’s one of the cleverest films of the year, a sly satire on the rapid transformations of 20th century Chinese society and the changes they require in collective memory. Some three years after the end of the Qing Dynasty, a huckster arrives in a small village toting a myserteous device which he claims can eliminate worries. He tries it out on a few people, eliminating memories and gradually has erased the entire town’s minds, installing himself as their beloved leader and ordering them to dig all over town for hidden treasure. Shu Qi is one of the townspeople, the daughter of the former chief who has been forced into a marriage so distasteful she has to be chained to the house when her husband leaves town. The huckster frees her (after she kinda of murdered her husband) but then washes her brain into marrying him. But as she starts to figure out his scheme, a gang of bandits which includes her long lost love shows up to destroy the village at the behest of Eric Tsang, who wants to level it to build a railroad. The movie takes a while to build up steam, but once everything is in place it unfolds with unexpected and fascinating twists, with an ending far more ambivalent than it appears.

The village is mostly a collection of grotesques, venal and stupid, with the exception of a kung fu master who can’t fight because of some past trauma (the action scene he eventually gets is a highlight, an expert transposition of comic book style posing within a fight sequence). The bandits are more interesting, led by a woman who moonlights as a mail-carrier (she wears the old Qing style uniform), they’re more of an a capella group than a gang of killers, and their singing magnifies the film’s oddball yet weirdly traditional charms. Everything about the design of the memory-stealing device is delightful, from its mechanical seahorses to the animated proscenium which appears framing the black and white silent movie images of a person’s memory. The seahorses are a callback to director Chen You-hsun’s 2012 short Hippocamp Hair Salon, which was about a salon that could wash away unpleasant memories (clearly the fungibility of memory is something about which Chen has strong feelings). I saw it as part of the 10+10 shorts program, which tasked ten young Taiwanese directors and ten veterans (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Sylvia Chang, etc) with each making a five minute film. Chen’s film was one of the highlights, and Village of No Return follows through on that project’s promise.

The 2017 New York Asian Film Festival

As we here in the Seattle area get a handful of Hong Kong films for Handover weekend, on the other side of the country the New York Asian Film Festival begins. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be contributing a bit to InReview Online‘s festival coverage, and I’ll link to that here when it posts, but in the meantime here are some reviews I’ve written about some of the films that are playing in the festival over the next two weeks.

SoulMate (Derek Tsang, 2016)
The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui Hark, 2014)
Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back (Tsui Hark, 2017)

This Is Not What I Expected (Derek Hui, 2017)
Mad World (Wong Chun, 2016)
Vampire Cleanup Department (Yan Pak-wing & Chiu Sin-hang, 2017)

Duckweed (Han Han, 2016)
The Village of No Return (Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

At InReview Online:

Extraordinary Mission (Alan Mak & Felix Chong, 2017)
Blood of Youth (Yang Shupeng, 2016)
The Gangster’s Daughter (Chen Mei-juin, 2017)
This Is Not What I Expected (Derek Hui, 2017)
Someone To Talk To (Liu Yulin, 2016)
Godspeed (Chung Mong-hong, 2016)

The Best Movies of 2017 (So Far)

We are now halfway through the year and as has become an annual tradition here at The End, it’s time to look back at the best movies of the year so far. As I discussed in the 2013 halfway post, the consensus movie-dating system is nonsensical and posits New York as the center of the universe. Far more logical (and much easier to use) is a system reliant on imdb’s dating system, which locates a film in whatever year it first played for an audience. That’s what we use here for all Rankings & Awards as it’s the most fair to all eras and areas. (A dating system reliant on playing in a certain locality I think can be valuable for a publication that is geographically specific, like a local newspaper or website, which is what we use at Seattle Screen Scene. But here at The End, we have a global reach.)

A by-product of the system is that a number of films that first go into wide-release in any given year actually had their premiere in the year before. A number of the films on many critics’ halfway-point lists will include these films, films that find their proper home here on my 2016 list. And so here we have two lists: the Best Movies of 2017, following the strict imdb dating system, and the Best 2016 Movies of 2017, which includes those films from last year that you might find on a more chronologically-illogical list (and despite the title, also includes one film from 1985, which only premiered in New York this year). I also have a third list, Best Unreleased Movies of 2016, of last year’s films that have yet to see a New York release and therefore don’t (yet) exist by the standards of most critics. And a fourth list, a halfway version of my annual Best Older Movies list, counting the top movies I saw for the first time this year that are more than a few years old.

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