This Week in Rankings

This week I went to see my first-ever movie at the Seattle International Film Festival after 15 years living in the Seattle area. Johnnie To’s Drug War was as good as I’d hoped it would be, I’m hoping to write about it at some point in the near future. The SIFF experience was pretty mediocre. The last time I looked at their website, the Drug War page spelled To’s name three different ways (“Johnnie”, “Johnny” and “Jonny”) and for some reason there were over 15 minutes of trailers before the movie. Trailers are fun and all, but if you were trying to keep to a tight festival schedule they’d be extremely annoying. On the other hand, the SIFF venues are so spread out it’d be pretty hard to move quickly from one location to another anyway. Here’s hoping Vancouver works out a deal with a centrally-located multiplex this year after the Granville 7 closed.

Inspired by how much I enjoyed his Eastern Condors last week, I’ve started a new series of Sammo Hung movies I’m calling Summer of Sammo. Along with that, I’m watching some Tsui Hark films. So far I’ve managed to review Zu Warriors, Warriors Two and The Butterfly Murders.

Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha added another theatre this week, playing at the former Metro Cinemas. That’s easily my pick as the film to see in the Seattle area this week and I’m hoping to make it out there.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last week, along with where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to my comments at letterboxd. And with Drug War‘s move into my Top 5, I’ve updated my letterboxd Best of 2012 list as well.

The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester) – 10, 1973
The Four Musketeers (Richard Lester) – 16, 1974
Warriors Two (Sammo Hung) – 8, 1978

The Butterfly Murders (Tsui Hark) – 11, 1979
Wheels on Meals (Sammo Hung) – 5, 1984
Iron Monkey (Yuen Woo-ping) – 11, 1993

Cruel Intentions (Roger Kumble) – 45, 1999
Zu Warriors (Tsui Hark) – 22, 2001
Drug War (Johnnie To) – 5, 2012

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Summer of Sammo Bonus: On Tsui Hark’s The Butterfly Murders

Tsui Hark’s audacious debut film is a horror mystery about killer butterflies that has more in common with Roger Corman or Dario Argento than the Shaw Brothers. It begins with a lengthy narration, describing how the world came to an end in two battles where most of the martial arts masters were killed (100,000 people died at the foot of Wu Tang Mountain). Now, 60 years later (a 36 year quiet period, followed by 24 years of the New Era, the numbers mean. . . something) the world is divided into 72 clans at war, jockeying for position amongst each other as kung fu magic begins to reappear on the outskirts of society. The narrator is a famous scribe named Fong, and he’ll tell us the story of how he briefly became a part of a story about this wuxia world.
Various people are brought and/or lured to a recently abandoned castle belonging to a Mr. and Mrs. Shum. There’s Fong himself, the leader of the Tien clan along with several of his soldiers (they’re all numbered: the leader is No. 1 and the groups with him are a white unit led by No. 3 and a red one led by No. 10, a woman), and the female adventurer Green Shadow, who dresses and swings through trees like Robin Hood. They find the Shums, along with their deaf mute servant Chee, in the castle’s catacombs, apparently hiding out from a deadly butterfly attack that killed all the other residents. What follows is a kind of haunted house movie, with hidden passageways, mysterious rooms and doppelgangers to be found. The mystery is compounded when Shum is killed (by the butterflies) and a letter is sent to three martial artists, who arrive and begin fighting each other and everyone else, apparently in search of some even deeper secret.
Tsui’s visual approach is highly unusual for a kung fu film of the 1970s. Eschewing the long-shot, longer take style of most Shaw Brothers productions, Tsui instead rapidly cuts between closer shots, especially in the beginning of the film, filled with nature shots of butterflies in the wild. The inevitable fight scenes are spatially coherent, though, and the editing is not all that quick by the standards of modern Hollywood. At times the montage evokes the impressionistic editing Nicolas Roeg used in the late 60s and early 70s. Tsui’s modernism extends to his compositions as well. One scene shows No. 1 and Green Shadow talking one behind the other, her facing to the side while he faces the camera, focus shifting between them as each character talks rather than cutting between them (an instance of Tsui choosing mise-en-scene over montage). A shot like this wouldn’t be out of place in a Bergman or Antonioni film, but I’ve never seen anything like it in a Hong Kong from this era. Tsui often has Green Shadow popping out of unexpected places in the frame. In her early conversations with No. 1, he never seems to know where she is, and neither do we. Right from the beginning, Tsui primes us to expect the unexpected. And as with any great horror movie, archetypically scary images abound: butterflies gathering in the branches above grave robbers like Hitchcock’s ravens, a man seeing the silhouettes of hundreds of butterflies through the paper walls of his room, a villain clad head to toe in black armor, impregnable and killing everyone in his path.
With about 15 minutes left in the film, Fong has solved the mystery and explains it to the audience. It won’t spoil anything to say that he’s pleased the Art of Controlling Butterflies has come back into the world. After the apocalypse, Fong gets to see the return of magic and is tickled at the role he gets to play in describing it in words. At that point, Fong leaves the castle: the whodunnit and why is solved and he isn’t particularly interested in how the final battle will play out. We see the implosive four-way showdown, but since Fong is our narrator, we can’t be sure if what we’re seeing is ‘real’, or if it’s Fong’s imagining of what happened after he left. Either way, it’s a negating conclusion: both sides destroy each other, the ground collapsing and swallowing them whole. Whether it’s the death of the interregnum, to be replaced by the old magical order, or that old order being defeated by its own contradictions before it can be fully reborn we can’t know. The final image we’re left with is of Fong walking alone in a desert landscape, discovering himself among a battlefield of corpses. He catches a butterfly in his hand and lets it fly away.

Summer of Sammo: Warriors Two

One of Sammo Hung’s first films as a director, this period kung fu film is very much in the Shaw Brothers mold. It most resembles Lau Kar-leung’s masterpiece The 36th Chamber of Shaolin also released in 1978, both in its plot and its middle section, an extended series of training sequences that utilize a variety of ingenious devices to help train the hero (see also: The Karate Kid). But Hung, with his character as the hero’s pudgy sidekick, a bullied dumpling vendor and kung fu-trainee, leavens his film with slapstick and goofy wordplay, whereas Lau’s film is for the most part straight-faced, though certainly not as serious as the darkly violent epics of Chang Cheh (such as Crippled Avengers, the third great kung fu film of 1978). Lau’s later films would follow in the footsteps of Hung and Jackie Chan (and Yuen Woo-ping, whose first two collaborations with Chan, the smash hit comic action films Snake in Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master, were also released in 1978) by mixing in low comedy with the spectacular stunts performed by his adopted brother Gordon Liu and never again, at least from what I’ve seen, reaching the spiritual heights of 36th Chamber (though the finale of Eight-Diagram Pole Fighter comes close).
In Warriors Two (it’s not a sequel, the title refers to there being two warriors in the story, like in Lo Wei’s 1970 film Brothers Five), Hung references the central philosophical conflict of 36th Chamber, that the hero is learning kung fu in order to exact revenge on the local gangster/tyrant, but the religious foundation of the martial art preaches disengagement and thus renunciation of vengeance, by having the master (Bryan Leung as Mr. Tsan) refuse to take on the hero (Casanova Wong as Cashier Hua) as a student because his motives are vengeful (“One party must stop seeking revenge or it will be an eye for an eye forever.” he says). The manager of the bank Hua was a cashier at turns out to be a gangster seeking to take over the town and when Hua discovers his scheme, the manager has Hua’s mother killed. Tsan, a respected doctor and renowned martial artist, doesn’t want to get involved, but when one of his students (Sammo Hung) pretends to take Hua on as his student, leading him in a series of hilariously bad exercises, Tsan agrees for the sake of the dignity of his martial art. The issue of the morality of vengeance is never again addressed. Indeed, the film climaxes in just such a nihilistic vengeance quest, though it ultimately ends with a physical comedy gag.
The fight sequences are exceptional, filmed in the Shaw-standard long-shot style, with a special emphasis on displaying the various positions and movements of the Wing Chun style of kung fu in close shots of hands, arms and feet edited together to maximize clarity and continuity of motion. Wing Chun was made world famous by Bruce Lee and is the subject of many movies, including Wong Kar-wai’s upcoming The Grandmaster which is yet another telling of the story of Lee’s teacher, the Wing Chun master Yip Man. Mr. Tsan (aka Leung Jan) is a real 19th century historical figure, and the film begins with a narration chronicling the history of Wing Chun, as it descended from master to student over hundreds of years (Yip Man was a student of one of Mr. Tsan’s students). The attention to detail and focus on hands and arms recalls the technique-display sequences in Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket. As Cashier Hua, Casanova Wong is a bit of a blank, though he acquits himself well in the fight scenes. Sammo Hung is the true star presence in the movie. He plays the buffoon well and in the final battle sequences, he shows off a remarkable range of skills, peaking with a shocking display of speed and leaping acrobatics as he defeats a pair of evil swordsman. The final battle is somewhat deflated by Hung’s comic duel with the evil bank manager’s sniveling pipe cleaner of a henchman played by Dean Shek, which isn’t all that funny and is anticlimactic coming right after the sword battle. But the final showdown, as Hung and Wong join forces to defeat the bank manager (who is now revealed as an expert in Mantis Style kung fu, seen in yet another 1978 film, Lau Kar-leung’s Shaolin Mantis) is suitably intense. One final note: nearly stealing the show in an early sequence, doing a Monkey Style kung fu in defense of the town’s mayor, is Lau Kar-wing, brother of Lau Kar-leung, business partner of Sammo Hung and an accomplished director and choreographer in his own right (Five Fingers of Death, Once Upon a Time in China). Lau Kar-leung himself played a master of Monkey Style a year later in Mad Monkey Kung Fu, which I reviewed last december as part of A Very Shaw Brothers Christmas.

Summer of Sammo: Zu Warriors

Last night I was flipping around hulu and found two movies with similar titles. One is labeled Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain, which is the title of Tsui Hark’s 1983 fantasy epic, and the other is called Zu Warriors: the Legend of Zu which is Tsui’s 2001 film based on the same source material. The earlier film is a classic, a hallmark in melding high-tech special effects into the Hong Kong kung fu genre, helping spawn a subgenre of martial arts fantasies and also inspiring John Carpenter’s Big Trouble in Little China. Zu was one of the first kung fu movies I’d ever seen, in either late 1998 or early ’99, at one of the last Hong Kong double features in Seattle.

I moved to the city just at the tail end of Hong Kong cinema’s trendiness: throughout the 90s, the Varsity Theatre (where I later worked) would play weekly double bills of Jet Li, John Woo, Jackie Chan, Chow Yun-fat, Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark and so on. But with the exodus of talent off the island in the wake of the handover to China (all of the above went to Hollywood, at least for awhile), the deterioration of existing prints and the rise in the cost of running repertory, as well as the inevitable change in what counted as fashionable cult cinema, the films disappeared from Seattle screens. Less than ten years later, when we were trying to book Jackie Chan’s Police Story for a little rep series we were running at the Metro, we were told that no one even knew who had the theatrical rights to those movies anymore. Any Chan, Li, or Shaw Brothers movie we could think of was met with shrugged shoulders and a blank stare by Landmark’s film booking department. We ended up playing Bruce Lee’s Enter the Dragon simply because it was owned outright by an American company (Warner Brothers). Anyway, I was excited to revisit Zu after 15 years, after becoming more fluent in Hong Kong and kung fu cinema in the interim and looking to spend this summer exploring the work of Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung in more depth. So seeing it was on hulu, and in a subtitled version no less, was very exciting.

But alas, both films on hulu are the 2001 movie. The one with the title of the ’83 film is the one I watched, it’s the longer, original cut of the 2001 film, running an hour and forty-five minutes. The other version is the Miramax US cut, which removes 20 minutes of exposition and character building, clocking in at less than 90 minutes. I watched the longer version (of course) and it was confusing enough. I can’t imagine the shorter version being the least bit comprehensible. Both versions are subtitled, but the character names don’t match the ones from either imdb or wikipedia, so I guess only a Chinese-speaker knows how many other ways Miramax fucked up this movie. (See my review of Yuen Woo-ping’s Iron Monkey for another rant about Miramax and the subtitling of Hong Kong movies).

Anyway, the 2001 film, which I’m going to call Zu Warriors, is a CGI-driven fantasy epic, with a smattering of kung fu, lots of alien-to-Americans mythology and folklore and a more or less Buddhist allegory. The all-star cast includes Louis Koo, Zhang Ziyi, Sammo Hung, Cecilia Cheung and Ekin Cheng, but the real star is Tsui and his rapid-cutting, no time to breathe approach to story-telling. On top of some floating mountains, a bunch of immortals gather together to defeat Mordo (or Insomnia, or the Blood Demon), the embodiment and source of all evil (greed and jealousy), before he eats them all and infects the Earth below. Characters fly around, shoot spiritual energy out of their hands, get possessed, destroyed, reincarnated, enlightened and destroyed again. An endless cycle of creation and destruction where the only hope is unity: of the various mountain clans; of lightning and thunder; of human and immortal; of male and female; of mind, body and spirit.

The CGI effects have a fun comic book-quality, bright bursts of red and green and orange and blue stabbing across purple and yellow skies, at times recalling Harryhausen (an attack by an army of Mordo’s self-replicatiing minions brings to mind the skeletons of Jason and the Argonauts) or Brakhage (the abstract color explosions of the film’s final battle). They are decidedly not realistic, nor are they state-of-the-art, even for 2001, but surely those aren’t the only standards by which we can measure visual effects.

Both of the most recent Tsui films that I’ve seen, the kung fu whodunnit Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame and Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, his second remake of the 1967 King Hu film Dragon Gate Inn, which remains after 45 years one of great masterpieces of action cinema from anywhere in the world, feature extensive use of CGI, though both are significantly more grounded in reality than Zu Warriors. The use of computers reopens an on-going tension in action cinema between effects and realism. Where does the pleasure in such films come from: the photographic record of remarkable physical displays by immensely skilled human beings, as in the work of the famously unaided Jackie Chan or from cinema’s ability to capture the impossible, whether through judicious use of wires, trampolines and under-cranked cameras (as in the work of Jet Li), or digital effects that have no basis in physical reality whatsoever? Cinema can be a mirror or an illusion, but is one ‘better’ than the other?

This Week in Rankings

The big movie to see in the Seattle area this week is Johnnie To’s Drug War, playing at the Egyptian on Monday as part of the Seattle International Film Festival. It’s no longer To’s latest film, since his Blind Detective appeared to rave reviews at Cannes a few days ago, but it’s one of the few films with a 2012 date I’m still highly anticipating (along with Alain Resnais’s You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet, which I don’t think has a local release planned yet; the documentary Leviathan, which I missed the two times it played here; and Noah Baumbach’s Frances Ha, which is opening today at one theatre in Seattle and one in Bellevue). Playing at the Grand in Tacoma this week is Christian Petzold’s Barbara, about which I’ve heard nothing but good things and which I might make it out to see. Also, there’s Star Trek.

I made some new director lists over at Letterboxd this week for Richard Linklater, Eric Rohmer and Jean-Luc Godard, and also one for James Stewart on his birthday. Here at The End, I reviewed a couple of Rouben Mamoulian’s early talkies, Applause and Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde, and Sammo Hung’s Vietnam epic Eastern Condors.

Here are the movies I watched and rewatched over the past week, along with where they place on my year-by-year rankings, with links to my comments at Letterboxd.

The Crowd (King Vidor) – 8, 1928
Applause (Rouben Mamoulian) – 2, 1929
Lucky Star (Frank Borzage) – 6, 1929
Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian) – 9, 1931

Northwest Passage (King Vidor) – 15, 1940
Le pont du Nord (Jacques Rivette) – 6, 1981
Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung) – 12, 1987
Shanghai Triad (Zhang Yimou) – 25, 1995

Summer of Sammo: Eastern Condors

It occurs to me that I’d never actually seen Sammo Hung in a starring role before. I’d seen him as a supporting actor and bit player, and as a director and fight choreographer, but never as the lead. At least not since his late-90s TV series with Arsenio Hall, Martial Law(believe me kids, this was a thing that happened). His reputation is that of a surprisingly agile fat man who helped revolutionize Hong Kong cinema in the late 70s/early 80s by blending comedy and special effects with kung fu (see also: Tsui Hark and Jackie Chan). Eastern Condors seems to therefore be atypical for Hung, as it’s a mostly realistic war movie with occasional comic relief, it appears to be going for a tonal mix along the lines of contemporary American films like 48 Hrs or Lethal Weapon, with the comedy being more physical than character-based.
Blending elements of The Dirty Dozen and Rambo, a group of ethnic Chinese convicts are sent by the US Army to blow up an arsenal they’d recently left behind (the film is set in 1976). On their way, they meet up with three women (Cambodian guerillas still fighting the Vietnamese), a fast-talking con man with a surprising knowledge of martial arts, and a lost Chinese officer. The cast very much feels like a family: Hung plays one of the lead convicts; his lifelong pal Yuen Biao plays the con man; his future wife Joyce Godenzi plays the guerilla leader (her first appearance in an action film and she very nearly steals the movie); Yuen Wah as the film’s final villain, a giggling Vietnamese general; and several Hong Kong directors in smaller roles, including Wu Ma, Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen. These Yuens are not related by the way: Biao, Corey and Wah adopted it as a stage name during their time at the China Drama Academy, the Peking Opera school where they were students with Hung and Jackie Chan, while Woo-ping is the son of Yuen Siu-tien, a longtime actor and stuntman who he directed in Chan’s smash hit Drunken Master. The strangest casting of all is Dr. Haing S. Ngor, the real-life Khmer Rouge refugee who won an Oscar for playing real-life Khmer Rouge refugee Dith Pran in Roland Joffe’s 1984 film The Killing Fields.
Ngor plays the officer lost behind enemy lines for years and apparently now insane. The film’s most complex set of allusions focuses on him, in a sequence set in a prison camp. As in The Deer Hunter, the soldiers are in partially submerged cages and selected at random to participate in a game of Russian Roulette. Unlike in that film, it isn’t the prisoners pulling the trigger, but Vietnamese children dressed as soldiers and playing with real weapons. When Ngor is selected, a gun is held to his head in close-up in a shot that recalls not only The Killing Fieldsbut the famous photograph of a Vietnamese man being shot in a street, recreated as well in John Woo’s Vietnam epic Bullet in the Head. It’s a profoundly disturbing sequence with reality (Ngor’s real life experience and the photograph) blending with fantasy (The Deer Hunter‘s made-up torture made more disturbing by the participation of children) far more densely than one would expect from a film that most of the time plays as a slapstick comedy.
Hung himself doesn’t say much. Most of the wackiness is provided by Yuen Biao or more the more comic of the soldiers (Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen in particular have a funny and touching final scene together, attempting to hold a bridge against the Vietnamese Army while they slowly die of their wounds). Sammo is mostly the silent hero, kicking ass and making ridiculous stunt leaps and killing people with cocoanut leaves. He lost 30 pounds for the role, so he’s more stocky than fat, but the contrast with Yuen Wah in the final battle is there: short and round versus tall and skinny, both actors remarkably fast. Hung’s speed is what is most remarkable. Many of the early action sequences utilize slow motion to emphasize the purity of the actor’s movements. But the final battle, a showdown between the convicts and the Army, almost exclusively is shot at normal speed, helping to ramp up the excitement. On one viewing, I can’t say how much Hung’s quickness is the result of under-cranking the camera or just his own ability, but either way, it’s impressive to see.
Definitely a subject for further research.

On Dr. Jekyll and Mr. Hyde

Somewhat surprisingly, director Rouben Mamoulian uses less Expressionism in this horror film than he did in the backstage musical Applause two years earlier, and he did so in the same year that Hollywood’s co-optation of German Expressionism became complete with Universal’s Frankenstein and Dracula.
That’s not to say that this film is any less experimental than its predecessor. Instead of shadows, Mamoulian builds his horror out of close ups and POV shots, mostly of Frederic March as the eponymous Victorian monster and his hirsute dark side. The film begins locked in Jekyll’s POV, a lengthy and slightly irised roving shot that firmly establishes both the obsessive tunnel vision that will destroy Jekyll and our complicity with him. We don’t see March himself until he looks in a mirror, and his reflected appearances will become a recurring motif, culminating in his arrival in the background behind Miriam Hopkins’s doomed showgirl, slinking out of the back of her head, a nightmare made tangible.
A repeated pattern of close-ups is even more disturbing. Mamoulian will begin a scene, say March and his virtuous fiancee Rose Hobart talking about how much they love each other, in a balanced two shot, both actors perpendicular to the camera. He then begins a shot/reverse shot exchange, but instead of the typical over-the-shoulder angle shots, the characters are framed dead-center, looking straight into the camera, like in Ozu, but closer, so that only their head is visible (Ozu frames them with neck and shoulders too). He then moves even closer, to extreme close-ups of the actors’ eyes. The dialogue (their engagement is being delayed by her father, a proper gentleman) provides the context: the two are very much in lust and, bound by society, cannot express it in any way more physical than burning hot eyeballs.
The critique of Victorian sexual repression is very much on display in this pre-Code film, much more than in the earlier adaptation with John Barrymore or the later one with Spencer Tracy. Hopkins is present first as a physical object, stripping in her first scene with Jekyll, tantalizing both him and the audience with ample displays of flesh. Upon transforming into Hyde, the first thing he does is track her down and entrap her, for months it seems, in a kind of sexual slavery. The repressed male id, once free, expresses itself with not only violence and rape but the need to subjugate, to control, to repress the sexually attractive woman. Jekyll’s need to repress his sexual desire is transmuted into Hyde’s need to oppress the object of that desire. Thus Jekyll creates Hyde: both are monsters. And thus the men of the British Empire, with their relentless need to control not only the far corners of the world but the depths of their own psyche are exposed: nasty, crude, brutish and above all lustful.