Best of 2012 Part One: Old Movies

An annual tradition here at The End, these are the best movies I saw for the first time this year, not counting recent releases (anything less than three years old). As always, the rankings are not meant to be taken too seriously, I saw a lot of great movies this year and would recommend each and every one of these.  I’ve included links to the ones I’ve written and/or podcasted about.

1. Good Men, Good Women (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1995)
2. Perceval le Gallois (Eric Rohmer, 1978)
3. A City of Sadness (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1989)
4. A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 1991)
5. The Time to Live, the Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1985)
6. Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004)
7. A Day in the Country (Jean Renoir, 1936)
8. Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
9. My Neighbor Totoro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1988)
10. Pyaasa (Guru Dutt, 1957)
11. A Woman Under the Influence (John Cassavetes, 1974)
12. The Saga of Anatahan (Joseph von Sternberg, 1953)
13. The Taking of Pelham One Two Three (Joseph Sargent, 1974)
14. The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975)
15. The Incredible Shrinking Man (Jack Arnold, 1957)
16. Broadway Melody of 1940 (Norman Taurog, 1940)
17. Man’s Favorite Sport? (Howard Hawks, 1964)
18. Blind Husbands (Erich von Stroheim, 1919)
19. The Bellboy (Jerry Lewis, 1960)
20. Night and Day (Hong Sangsoo, 2008)

21. Island of Lost Souls (Erle C. Kenton, 1932)
22. Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1987)
23. The Lodger: A Story of the London Fog (Alfred Hitchcock, 1927)
24. On the Bowery (Lionel Rogosin, 1956)
25. Where Now are the Dreams of Youth (Yasujiro Ozu, 1932)
26. Diary of a Lost Girl (GW Pabst, 1929)
27. Jet Pilot (Joseph von Sternberg, 1957)
28. Phantom of the Paradise (Brian DePalma, 1974)
29. A Summer at Grandpa’s (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1984)
30. Safe in Hell (William Wellman, 1931)
31. Passage to Marseille (Michael Curtiz, 1944)
32. Le notti bianche (Luchino Visconti, 1957)
33. Ali: Fear Eats the Soul (Rainier Werner Fassbinder, 1974)
34. Cutter’s Way (Ivan Passer, 1981)
35. Days of Youth (Yasujiro Ozu, 1929)
36. China Gate (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
37. Men in War (Anthony Mann, 1957)
38. The River (Tsai, Ming-liang, 1997)
39. Objective: Burma! (Raoul Walsh, 1945)
40. Cockfighter (Monte Hellman, 1974)

41. Mad Monkey Kung Fu (Lau Kar-leung, 1979)
42. Swing High, Swing Low (Mitchell Liesen, 1937)
43. I am a Fugitive from a Chain Gang (Mervyn LeRoy, 1932)
44. Kanal (Andrzej Wajda, 1957)
45. Comrade X (King Vidor, 1940)
46. The Poor Little Rich Girl (Maurice Tourneur, 1917)
47. Yesterday Once More (Johnnie To, 2004)
48. Death Race 2000 (Paul Bartel, 1975)
49. The Lower Depths (Akira Kurosawa, 1957)
50. Band of Angels (Raoul Walsh, 1957)
51. 3:10 to Yuma (Delmer Daves, 1957)
52. Daughter of the Nile (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1987)
53. City Streets (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)
54. Stage Fright (Alfred Hitchcock, 1950)
55. They Died with Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh, 1941)
56. The Constant Nymph (Edmond Goulding, 1943)
57. The Rink (Charles Chaplin, 1916)
58. Bardelys the Magnificent (King Vidor, 1926)
59. Waterloo Bridge (James Whale, 1931)
60. Saint Joan (Otto Preminger, 1957)

61. Golden Swallow (Chang Cheh, 1968)
62. Caged Heat (Jonathan Demme, 1974)
63. Hallelujah! (King Vidor, 1929)
64. So Long at the Fair (Antony Darnborough & Terence Fisher, 1950)
65. Near Dark (Kathryn Bigelow, 1987)
66. The Flying Guillotine (Ho Meng Hua, 1975)
67. Ill Met By Moonlight (Powell & Pressburger, 1957)
68. Eraserhead (David Lynch, 1977)
69. In the Cut (Jane Campion, 2003)
70. The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1983)
71. Broadway Melody of 1936 (Roy del Ruth, 1935)
72. Thunderbolt & Lightfoot (Michael Cimino, 1974)
73. Murders in the Rue Morgue (Robert Florey, 1932)
74. Liliom (Fritz Lang, 1934)
75. Merrily We Live (Norman Z. McLoed, 1938)
76. Executioners from Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung, 1977)
77. Number Seventeen (Alfred Hitchcock, 1932)
78. Wichita (Jacques Tourneur, 1955)
79. Springfield Rifle (Andre de Toth, 1952)
80. Il Grido (Michelangelo Antonioni, 1957)

81. I Flunked, But . . . (Yasujiro Ozu, 1930)
82. The Lodger (John Brahm, 1944)
83. Northern Pursuit (Raoul Walsh, 1943)
84. Killer Clans (Chor Yuen, 1976)
85. I am Waiting (Koreyoshi Kurehara, 1957)
86. Douglas Fairbanks in Robin Hood (Allan Dwan, 1922)
87. The Manxman (Alfred Hitchcock, 1929)
88. Flunky, Work Hard (Mikio Naruse, 1931)
89. Blazing Saddles (Mel Brooks, 1974)
90. Project A (Jackie Chan, 1983)
91. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)
92. This Land is Mine (Jean Renoir, 1943)
93. The Lady and the Beard (Yasujiro Ozu, 1931)
94. Legend of the Mountain (King Hu, 1979)
95. The Crimson Pirate (Robert Siodmak, 1952)
96. Show People (King Vidor, 1928)
97. The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945)
98. The Miracle Worker (Arthur Penn, 1962)
99. The Armor of God (Jackie Chan, 1986)
100. Our Vines Have Tender Grapes (Roy Rowland, 1945)

101. Swordsman (King Hu, 1990)
102. The Tin Star (Anthony Mann, 1957)
103. Midnight Cowboy (John Schlesinger, 1969)
104. The Devil and Miss Jones (Sam Wood, 1941)
105. Project A 2 (Jackie Chan, 1987)
106. Fire Down Below (Robert Parrish, 1957)
107. Cobra Woman (Robert Siodmak, 1944)
108. The Rising of the Moon (John Ford, 1957)
109. Busting (Peter Hyams, 1974)
110. The Edge of the City (Martin Ritt, 1957)
111. Les Girls (George Cukor, 1957)
112. Rabid Dogs (Mario Bava, 1974)
113. The Great Waltz (Julien Duvivier, 1938)
114. Annie Oakley (George Stevens, 1935)
115. Heroes for Sale (William Wellman, 1933)
116. Great Day in the Morning (Jacques Tourneur, 1956)
117. The Enemy Below (Dick Powell, 1957)
118. Cimarron (Wesley Ruggles, 1931)
119. State Fair (Henry King, 1933)
120. A Song to Remember (Charles Vidor, 1945)
121. Time Without Pity (Joseph Losey, 1957)
122. Peyton Place (Mark Robson, 1957)
123. The Green Green Grass of Home (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1983)

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A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas: Mad Monkey Kung Fu

If I had to pick a favorite Shaw Brothers director, and thankfully I don’t, Lau Kar-leung would be my choice.  His visual style isn’t particularly innovative or beautiful, and he doesn’t bring the raw, anguished physicality that distinguishes the work of Chang Cheh, or the sense of the spiritual transcendence found in the work of King Hu.  His direction is elegant and precise, valuing the clarity of the image above all else, particularly if those images involve bodies in motion.  In this sense, he’s the kung fu heir of Fred Astaire, who famously demanded that his dances be shot with as few cuts as possible, with the actors visible in full, head-to-toe shots.  I’m willing to bet that Lau’s average shot length is higher than most Shaw directors, as his films always seem to have a few scenes of extended single-take action, with dual combatants engaged in a series of movements as intricately intertwined as any Astaire-Rogers foxtrot.

Lau’s skills as a performer take center stage in Mad Monkey Kung Fu in addition to his obvious talents as director and choreographer.  I’ve seen him in smaller parts in other films, but never in as big a role as he plays here.  I’ll admit, seeing him actually perform his routines was as fun and exciting for me as when I first started seen Bob Fosse perform his own routines in movies like Kiss Me Kate and Give a Girl a Break.  Lau often worked with his adopted brother Gordon Liu, and the two couldn’t form a better, closer choreographer-performer partnership.  It’s great when two (or more) minds can collaborate in creating something as elaborate as a dance or kung fu routine, but there’s a special charge in seeing someone performing their own work, unmediated by the artistic drive of their collaborator(s).

Lau plays a traveling performer and master of the Monkey Fist kung fu style, which mixes quick, darting movements with circus acrobatics with goofy monkey-sounds and scratches.  The Monkey King story is an enduring one in Chinese mythology and films, but I still can’t help but think Lau was led in this more comically lowbrow direction following the breakthrough success of Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master (directed by Yuen Woo-ping), which was released the year before, in 1978.  Before this, the Lau films I’ve seen have all been very serious (Executioners from Shaolin, Shaolin Mantis, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) with the later even mixing in some King Hu-inspired Buddhist theology.  Even Heroes of the East (aka Shaolin vs. Ninja), from the same year as 36th Chamber, treats its comic premise rather seriously.  Mad Monkey Kung Fu starts seriously enough, with Lau’s performer Chen tricked into getting blackout drunk by a gangster (the great Shaw Brothers villain Lo Lieh) which leads to Chen’s sister agreeing to become Lo’s mistress and Chen agreeing to have his fingers broken so that he’ll never be able to do his kung fu again.  But much of the rest of the film is devoted to silly comedy and mugging.

Several years later, Chen is a struggling street performer (he has a trained monkey) who befriends a local pickpocket, serendipitously named Little Monkey.  Chen trains Little Monkey in the way of the Monkey Fist so that he can defeat the local extortion gang.  When that gang turns out to be headed by Lo Lieh, who savagely beats the unprepared Little Monkey, the training begins in earnest for a final revenge showdown.  These final training and fight sequences are some of Lau’s best work as a choreographer.  The last training session, with Chen displaying impossibly quick and detailed movements and Little Monkey quickly learning to mimic them until the two are totally in sync reminded me of nothing less than one of the great tap duets in film history, Gene Kelly & Donald O’Connor’s “Moses Supposes” from Singin’ in the Rain.  
Beginning with Mad Monkey, Lau increasingly seemed to reach for the blend of action and comedy Chan and Sammo Hung were then pioneering and that would reach its apex (or nadir, depending on your point of view) with the films of Stephen Chow and Wong Jing in the 1990s.  His next film, 1980’s Return to the 36th Chamber, is easily my least favorite of his movies thanks mostly to the lameness of its comedy, and though My Young Auntie, Legendary Weapons of China and especially 8 Diagram Pole Fighter (all made between 1981 and 1984) mark somewhat of a return to form, he never really regains the seriousness or ambition of the first 36th Chamber.  After the mid-80s, his career as a director pretty much ground to a halt (along with the Shaw Brothers studio as a major force in Hong Kong cinema), though he did have one masterpiece left: directing Jackie Chan himself in Drunken Master II.  Lau’s in his late 70s now, and hasn’t worked since acting and choreographing Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords in 2005.  But he does have a film upcoming: he’s credited along with Yuen Woo-ping as the choreographer for Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster.

A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas: Killer Clans

Showing more of a noir-by-way-of-Yojimbo influence than most Shaw Brothers films, this Chor Yuen-directed adaptation of a novel by Ku Lung shows that there’s more to kung fu movies than simple revenge and enlightenment plots. Chor takes his time setting up a world ruled by devilishly clever gangsters demanding absolute loyalty from their subjects. A master swordsman, Meng Sheng Wen, an assassin for hire, is ordered by his boss to kill the head of the Lung Men Society, Uncle Sun Yu. He takes his time heading out for the job (distracted as he is by a pretty, poetry-reciting girl living in the local Butterfly Forest) and in the meantime a gang war is started between the Lung Men Society and the Roc Society, a rival criminal organization. Various bodyguards are killed on both sides, and Uncle Sun’s secret weapon, Lo Lieh playing a mysterious man with a deadly, razor sharp hat, is killed, but by who?  Was it Meng?  A weaselly assistant-turned traitor? Or was it Uncle Sun’s right-hand man, the master of 72 secret weapons, Lu Hsiang Chuan (played by Yueh Hua, from Come Drink With Me)?

The film is simply bursting with minor characters that Chor, along with the great stable of actors at his disposal at Shaws, is able to give more depth than their screen-time really earns. The most poignant, and disturbing, scene in the film comes near the end, as Uncle Sun makes his painstaking (and rather unbelievable) escape from an assassination attempt. A man who owes him his life helps him, and the price for that loyalty, as he well knows, is that he’ll have to kill himself to prevent Uncle Sun’s enemies from getting any information from him. Unfortunately, both the man’s wife and two children also see Uncle Sun. So the man and wife commit the group murder-suicide honor demands. It’s absolutely heart-breaking, and pushes the bounds of good taste, not unlike Hitchcock blowing up the kid on the bus in Sabotage. It’s telling though that in a film about disloyalty and betrayal, it’s those who are most loyal and honorable to their bosses who seem to suffer the most. Not only this simple peasant family, but everyone who aids Uncle Sun’s escape dies for the cause while only by betraying his master does Meng Sheng Wen defeat the “bad guys” and ride off with the pretty girl.

Meng doesn’t have a “code” and he doesn’t do his job. He just does what he likes when he likes, like Mifune in the Yojimbo films. He has his own sense of right and wrong, and that is what dictates his actions, not some social construct like “honor” or “loyalty”. His greatest trait is that he’s flexible, where everyone else in the film is bound by their social status and proscribed role. Uncle Sun spends decades thinking up an elaborate escape route (to the point that he has a man living in the sewer below his house for years, waiting for the one day he’ll be able to help him escape on a boat) but never imagines that he could be betrayed by the person closest to him. Meng brings the Taoist corrective to the rigid Confucian world the gangs exploit. Meng is played by Chung Wa and while he brings a fine relaxed energy to the often overwrought Shaw Brothers world, but the role might have been better served with some Mifune-esque electric charisma. As it is, his character disappears for large sections of the movie, and at times he ends up seeming more passive and lucky than wise.

A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas: Executioners from Shaolin

Much like the anti-Qing struggle referenced in the first night of A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas, the legend of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple is a common narrative backdrop in kung fu movies.  Respectively they’re kind of akin to the role the Civil War and Little Big Horn play in American Westerns.  The Temple story is also a subset of the larger Qing-Ming war, as in addition to being a Buddhist monastery with a sideline in innovative kung fu techniques, the Temple was also, according to legend, a center for anti-Qing activism in the decades after they took over the country (late 1600s-early 1700s).  Central to the story is the character of Pai Mei (or Bak Mei), one of the five elders who survived the burning of the Temple and in some versions of the story brought about its destruction by collaborating with the Qing (he’s the Shaolin Judas or Benedict Arnold).  You might recognize the name from Kill BIll Vol. 2, where Pai Mei is the white-robed kung fu master who instructs all of David Carradine’s assassins, including Uma Thurman.  In that film, Pai Mei is played by the great Shaw Brothers star Gordon Liu, made up with a long white beard and eyebrows (“Pai Mei” apparently means “white eyebrows”).

Gordon Liu plays a small but notable role in Executioners of Shaolin, directed by his adopted brother Lau Kar-leung.  The two would of course make several great films together over the next decade, the greatest of which was made the next year, 1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, which takes place earlier in the Temple’s history and chronicles its entrance into the wider political struggle.  Executioners starts at the end of the battle for the Temple, with a fight between Pai Mai (played by Lo Lieh) and one of the temple masters played out before an abstract red backdrop as the credits roll, a Lau trademark.  After Pai Mai kills him, we cut to various monks fleeing the destruction and Gordon Liu gets his standout scene as he takes on the Qing forces so his brothers can escape.  From then, the film follows the life of Hung Hsi-kuan, played by The Flying  Guillotine star Chen Kuan-tai as he practices for 20 years or so to avenge his master’s death.

But here’s where the film gets weird.  Instead of simply training and working out the various martial tactics he’ll need, as in many another kung fu film (Shaolin Mantis, say, or in the best case, The 36th Chamber of Shaolin) or the search for a kind of spiritual enlightenment that’ll provide him with untold power (The Tai Chi Master or 8 Diagram Pole Fighter), Hung meets a nice girl, gets married and has a son.  The whole middle section of the film is in fact a marital comedy.  Hung meets Ying Chun, played by Lily Li, when he and his fellow fugitive monks are posing as street performers and keep interrupting her own performances.  They argue over whose kung fu is superior: his Tiger Style or her Crane Style and end up falling in love.  Over the next decade, while she does the laundry and raises their son and he trains to defeat Pai Mai, he repeatedly rejects her suggestion that he learn some of her Crane Style too.  When ten years have gone by, he challenges Pai Mai and loses, but escapes.  Pai Mai’s secret is that he can move his vital points (attacking said points are the key to defeating him) from his groin to his head at will, such that when Hung (and his master before him) kick Pai Mai there, their foot gets stuck in the empty space where his testicles should be.  Hung goes back to the drawing board (in this case, a copper statue filled with marbles, I’m unclear how this works) and figures out that he needs to attack Pai Mai only at certain times of day.  He trains for seven more years, again refusing to adopt elements of his wife’s Crane Style, challenges him again and loses.

Here the son, Wen-ding, enters the picture.  By his father’s orders, he’s only been trained in his mother’s kung fu style.  But the two of them find an old moth-eaten Tiger Style manual and Wen-ding trains for a year to take on Pai Mai.  By using a combination of both his parents’ styles, Wen-ding is able to defeat Pai Mai.  So, the unstoppable villain is a man who can willfully castrate himself.  A man alone is unable to defeat him, no matter his skill at the manly (Tiger) style of fighting.  Only through the combination of male and female (Crane) styles can he be bested.  Yin or Yang alone cannot defeat the void, the absence of Yin or Yang, it needs to be a balance of both together.

I’m not sure how much of the Hung story is original and how much based in legend.  It sounds very similar to the stories about Fong Sai-yuk, whose mother trained him in kung fu (she was the daughter of one of the Five Master of the Shaolin Temple who survived its destruction) while his father was active in anti-Qing resistance.  In one version of the legend, Fong Sai-yuk is killed by Pai Mai.  Jet Li played Fong in a pair of excellent films from the early 90s, but neither of them make reference to Pai Mai or the Temple, as far I as can remember.

Lau would return to the martial arts as marital comedy style of film to great effect a few years later in Heroes of the East (aka Shaolin vs. Ninja) in which a married couple argue over which nation’s martial arts are superior, his Chinese or her Japanese.  But I don’t think I’ve seen anything like the transgressive view of gender on display here from Lau before, or in any other kung fu film, for that matter.  Not until the gender-bending of Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II at least, and even that film is pretty misogynistic.

A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas: The Flying Guillotine

A crazed Qing Emperor suspects everyone around him of disloyalty, and when two well-respected advisors dare to suggest that maybe he shouldn’t have killed a bunch of innocent teachers and intellectuals, he decides to kill them, along with anyone else who might be disloyal.  He tasks another advisor with developing a hit squad of a dozen assassins utilizing that advisor’s newly developed super-weapon, the flying guillotine, a combination of razor-sharp frisbee and basket on a chain that in trained hands can decapitate a person from 100 yards and occasionally, inexplicably, explode.

Inevitably, certain members of the squad, though initially chosen for their martial arts skill and loyalty to the Emperor, begin to have second thoughts when they realize the nature of the people they’re assigned to brutally murder. This leads to the revolt and escape of the group’s most talented member, Ma Teng, played by Chen Kuan Tai (one of the villains in Crippled Avengers and one of the aged stars of Clement Cheng’s Gallants).  The multi-year hunt for Ma, combined with the self-serving schemes of the most evil member of the squad (Ah Kun, played by Wai Wang), tears the group apart and eventually kills them all.  The Emperor, of course, survives unscathed.

Director Ho Meng Hua is one of the lesser-known Shaw Brothers directors, though he was one of their most prolific.  He started there in the mid-50s, working in all kinds of genres before the kung fu boom of the late 60s and 70s.  I’ve seen a few of his other movies (The Lady Hermit, Vengeance is a Golden Blade and Shaolin Handlock) and while they’re all fine, he hasn’t really stood out to me, this is easily the most creative visually (lots of Lo Wei-style overhead shots to go along with the expected excellence in action editing) and interesting politically.  Lots of kung fu movies are set during the early years of the Qing dynasty, when the northern Manchu took over the country from the Ming Dynasty, leaving the nation’s dominant ethnic group, the Han, powerless for the first time in 2000 years or so (not counting the few hundred years of Mongol rule).  The situation is ripe for allegorical interpretation.  Whether you’re a Maoist celebrating the struggle against first the sclerotic Qing, then the invading Japanese and finally the Nationalist Kuomintang or an anti-communist refugee fled to British-ruled Hong Kong, you can see yourself on the side of right in the Ming-Qing battle.  Even Chinese gangsters (triads) like to see themselves as descendants of the secret pro-Ming societies that fought the Qing (see Johnnie To’s Election for the triads’ view of themselves as historical actors).

What we get with The Flying Guillotine comes at the tail end of the Cultural Revolution on mainland China, a decade of government-sponsered internal terrorism, with intellectuals, teachers, and just about anyone else being purged for lack of loyalty to the regime and/or ideological incorrectness.  In the film, we see the inner-workings of an assassination squad, under the thumb of an Ivan the Terrible-like emperor and armed with an unstoppable weapon.  Even under these circumstances, though, basic human decency shines through, as Ma Teng (and a couple other assassins) see the light and do their best to escape (the Emperor is far too powerful to actually be defeated).  On the run, Ma starts a family and lives a noble, peaceful life as a farmer, his drive to quiet domesticity contrasted with Ah Kun’s deceitfulness and backstabbing ambition that leads to the disintegration of the hit squad.  So, the film is therefore a neat allegory for the strife caused by the tyrannical PRC over the previous decade, with subjects encouraged to fight amongst themselves or simply hide-out, unable and unwilling to challenge the dominant power structure.  Or, conversely, the life of a peasant farmer was idealized during the Cultural Revolution: those intellectuals who survived got themselves corrected by being sentenced to the country to work on collective farms.  Thus, the film is about the struggle of the decent, communist farmer against the destructive ambitions unleashed by modern capitalism, with the Emperor standing in for the KMT’s dictator Chiang Kai-shek and Ah Kun, I don’t know, Nixon or somebody.  Or maybe it’s about the revolution in general, about how radical revolutions always decay into petty in-fighting over ideological purity leading to mass execution as happened in Russia, China and France (“guillotine!”).  Such are the perils of political allegory in Chinese film.  It is, after all, a nation that allows Taiwan to be its own country as long as everyone pretends it’s actually part of China.

Also, lots of people get their heads cut off.  That flying guillotine really is a horrific sight, and Ho does well to match it with the sound of it spinning through the air, such that by the end of the film, all it takes is that distinctive whir to set us on edge, unconsciously shrink our heads into our shoulders and wish we had ourselves a steel umbrella.