“Hardcore fans display innocent mania, but aesthetes are the dandies of fandom. They relish not merely chases and fights; they treasure peculiar spectacle and piquant ruptures of tone. Steeped in Camp and other alternative pleasures, they often subscribe to J. Hoberman’s notion of “vulgar modernism,” the possibility that mass cinema’s off-center products parallel the avant-garde in the high arts. The good things in popular art, according to this postsurrealist view, are the moments of radical dépaysement, absurdly farfetched plot twists, violations of taste and logic. The fan’s spontaneous “Whoa, where did this come from?” becomes a self-conscious principle, a connoisseurship of radical weirdness.”
— David Bordwell, Planet Hong Kong
An early supporting role for Sammo Hung as he and Angela Mao (the film’s alternate title is the somewhat awesome Lady Kung Fu) travel from Japanese-occupied Korea to China in 1934 to establish a martial arts school, teaching the newly invented style of “Hap Ki Do” which looks like a melding of kung fu punching and kicking with judo flipping. Of course, once in China, they immediately run afoul of the local Japanese-run martial arts school, leading to many bloody encounters with Japanese students and the Chinese and Korean turncoats who have joined the enemy. Eventually the metaphor becomes even more blatant as the evil Japanese Master (who sports a Hitler mustache, naturally) decides he’s going to annex the Hap Ki Do school and make it a part of his own school. Once they’re all under the Japanese umbrella, there would be no reason for fighting; they’ll be one happy family.
Sammo plays the youngest, most hotheaded Hap Ki Do brother, brave but always getting into trouble by defending the weak against the Japanese bullies. The one word their master gave them, the one warning, was “Forbearance”. Not to strike out against the enemy but to endure and outlast it. His students, but most especially Sammo, repeatedly fail to follow this advice (despite Sammo going so far as to write the character on his hand as a reminder), and the film, more than it is about the peculiarities of early 30s Japanese aggression, is about the conflict that lies at the heart of many a kung fu movie: that between the Confucian ideal of filial piety, respect for one’s elders and the Buddhist/Taoist ideal of withdrawal from the material concerns of the world on the one side and the demands of social and political justice on the other. This is often expressed in anti-colonial terms, whether against the Manchurians (The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, Fong Sai Yuk), Europeans (Once Upon a Time in China, Drunken Master II) or Japanese (Fist of Legend and this film).
Director Huang Feng keeps the plot moving briskly, if occasionally at the expense of cutting out some, probably tedious, connective scenes. He films the fights with an eclectic mix of POV shots, shaky handheld camera, overhead shots and standard Shaw Brothers-style head-to-toe framing, with fairly long takes that show off Mao’s impressive kicking abilities and the manic intricacies of the stunt choreography. I haven’t seen any of Huang’s other work, though he did co-write Sammo’s directorial debut The Iron-Fisted Monk. The only thing I’d seen Angela Mao in before this was Enter the Dragon (she has a brief but memorable appearance as Bruce Lee’s doomed sister). She’s terrific, easily holding her own against the ridiculously good stunt team Huang and the Golden Harvest studio had assembled: Sammo (who also served as stunt coordinator), Yuen Biao, Corey Yuen, Billy Chan, Lam Ching-wing and Jackie Chan. Mao has a palpable look of desperation when she fights, rather than the placidity of a Gordon Liu or the cool intensity of Bruce Lee, she really looks like she’s scared but determined to keep fighting regardless. Michelle Yeoh and Cheng Pei-pei sometimes seem afraid to show too much emotion when they’re fighting, as if people will take them less seriously because they’re women. Mao apparently has no such qualms, and her emotionality adds depth to her action sequences. Sammo, on the other hand, plays his fights straighter than he would in his own later films, with less acrobatics (a casualty of the film’s chosen fighting style) and less humor. He does give a fantastic double take after being hit in the head with a metal pole, a brief blank look at the camera that doesn’t oversell the comedy (like he and Jackie Chan would become prone to do later on). As an actor, this might actually be one of his best performances.
The end of the film has a nifty twist on the compromised ending of King Hu’s Come Drink With Me. In that film, Cheng Pei-pei, who’d played the hero throughout, is unable to defeat the final villain and must be rescued by a man (this is reportedly not how Hu wanted things to end, but rather a Shaw Brothers imposition). In Hapkido, Mao brings in a ringer for her final fight, the male head student of the Korean school. Tall and powerful, we think he’ll be the one to defeat the Japanese Master, but he fails. In the end, the woman gets to come to his rescue.
I inadvertently became a source for the biggest story of the week, as my tweet about the imminent closing of Landmark’s Egyptian Theatre in Seattle was the first to break the news. It’s weird being cited as a source in a newspaper, even an online version of one, especially since I don’t really know anything about the story. I was at the Neptune Theatre when Landmark failed to keep it open, and left the Metro Cinemas (where I had spent 11 years, not counting my brief tenure at the Neptune) just months before Landmark lost it as well. When lamenting the state of the arts on Capital Hill, or speculating on what exciting things can be done with this new space, try to keep in mind the dozen or so people who genuinely love the movie theatre business who just lost their jobs with less than two weeks notice.
I was back on They Shot Pictures this week, with the first of two episodes we’ll be doing on Akira Kurosawa. This one focuses on No Regrets for Our Youth, The Idiot and Red Beard. I’ve got two more They Shot Pictures coming up this week, one on Sammo Hung and the other on Jane Campion. I may have some other podcasts in the works as well.
I only managed to finished one Summer of Sammo review this week, on his directorial debut The Iron-Fisted Monk. But I did post two more VIFF reviews, on Amour and Emperor Visits the Hell. That leaves only one more (on The Unlikely Girl) and I’ll be done with the film festival that ended nine months ago. Surely there’s plenty of time to finish that before VIFF 2013 comes around.
Here are the movies I watched and rewtached over the past week, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to comments at letterboxd, where applicable.
Diary of a Chambermaid (Jean Renoir) – 12, 1946
Ruby Gentry (King Vidor) – 9, 1952
Drunken Master (Yuen Woo-ping) – 6, 1978
Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Yuen Woo-ping) – 10, 1978
Enter the Fat Dragon (Sammo Hung) – 15, 1978
We’re Going to Eat You (Tsui Hark) – 10, 1980
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark) – 6, 1983
Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars (Sammo Hung) – 15, 1985
My Lucky Stars (Sammo Hung) – 19, 1985
Dragons Forever (Sammo Hung) – 22, 1988
Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark) – 5, 1991
Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui Hark) – 19, 1992
Wing Chun (Yuen Woo-ping) – 15, 1994
The Mummy (Stephen Sommers) – 49, 1999
Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach) – 8, 2012
After a two month baby-related hiatus, I’m back on They Shot Pictures this week to talk about Akira Kurosawa. This is the first of two episodes we have planned for him, focusing this time on his non-samurai films: the more obscure, perhaps for good reason, No Regrets for Our Youth, The Idiot and Red Beard. I liked all of these movies, though each are flawed in different ways. Hopefully discussing those flaws brings us closer to an understanding of Kurosawa’s work and his somewhat lesser critical standing than his rough contemporaries Yasujiro Ozu, Mikio Naruse, Nagisa Oshima and Kenji Mizoguchi, the Kinks to Kurosawa’s Beatles. We’ll be back again to talk about his samurai films in August.
You can listen to or download the show at the They Shot Pictures website, or on iTunes (where you can also give us a rating or a review). There you can find links to all our past shows. You can also follow us on twitter @TSP_Podcast. Over at letterboxd I’ve made a list of all 46 movies that have been discussed on the first 15 episodes. There you can also check out my ranked list of the 23 Kurosawa movies I’ve seen.
Coming up in the next week or so I’ll be talking Sammo Hung movies (Magnificent Butcher, Wheels on Meals, Pedicab Driver) with Jhon from Cinema on the Road and Seema and I will be talking Jane Campion movies (An Angel at My Table, Portrait of a Lady, Top of the Lake) with Melissa from A Journal of Film. Check out our Upcoming Episodes page to see what we else have planned for the rest of the summer.
Sammo Hung’s debut film as a director, while heavily steeped in the 1970s Shaw Brothers style, already shows evidence of his distinct personality as a filmmaker. Based, like so many kung fu films, on a bit of folklore involving the struggle of the Southern Chinese to resist their new Northern rulers during the early days of the Qing Dynasty, the plot somewhat resembles that of Lau Kar-leung’s Return to the 36th Chamber, released in 1980. Both films involve a dye factory in conflict with Manchu gangsters and who are aided in their struggle by a former resident of the Shaolin Temple. That film stars Gordon Liu as a man impersonating San Te, the legendary figure Liu played in the first film in Lau’s Shaolin Trilogy, 1978’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. In this film, however, Sammo doesn’t play a real monk either, he’s just a guy who was sent to the Temple to learn to defend himself by an actual monk (the one with iron fists, apparently, though not much is made of these appendages) who hoped he’d return someday to help people.
Like in Hung’s next film as a director, Warriors Two, the moral contradiction that is a revenge-seeking monk is not really explored, instead the film adopts a more Western ideal of justice: an eye for an eye, a fist for a fist. Unlike the more mystically-inclined Lau, Hung really appears to believe that violence can be a productive solution to social problems. His world is darker than the world of the Shaw Brothers, more graphically violent, with more nudity, more depravity. Given the situations that Hung’s characters find themselves in, with the sheer evil of their enemies (in this case, a gang that wanders around town raping and murdering women whenever they feel the urge), this mindset seems perfectly justified. But the cracks in this ideology begin to show in the 1980s, in the endings of Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind, Jackie Chan’s Police Story and Corey Yuen’s Yes, Madam.
Similarly distinguishing Hung from his peers is his apparent reluctance to dominate the center stage, even in his own movies. Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Gordon Liu and the like are the unquestioned stars of their films: not just physically in that they’re clearly the most talented fighters on-screen, but they’re the most charismatic, the most fully-realized characters, the funniest and the most active protagonists. They drive their films, the plot and the rest of the cast merely revolving around them. Not so with Sammo Hung. He appears distinctly uncomfortable in the foreground, preferring to stock his films with ensembles, decentering the narrative into a story about a group rather than a single star persona. The Sammo character in this film has his revenge motive (Manchus killed his father and trashed their noodle shop), but the prime mover of the action is a dye-worker named Liang, whose sister is raped by the Manchus and whose quest for revenge happens to intersect with Sammo. Similarly, the film ends not with Sammo standing alone against his enemies, but with he and the Iron-Fisted Monk (played by Chen Sing) joining forces to battle the villains. This fluidity of protagonism extends as well to Hung’s directorial style, integrating match cuts into otherwise typical Shaw-style fight sequences (deft mixes of long shots and close-ups with occasional handheld rushes-in for effect, the emphasis always on clarity of action and movement within a coherent space). He will occasionally (too frequently would ruin the effect) cut from Sammo throwing a punch to Chen’s enemy receiving it, and back again, linking the two heroes in our minds as we mentally connect the two shots and mimicking the fight choreography that sees the quartet acrobatically switch partners in a two-on-two stand-off. I don’t recall seeing these kinds of match-cuts in any other 70s kung fu films, but they will recur in later Sammo Hung films.
As will the diffusion of the solitary hero into a pair or team. Pairs can be found in Warriors Two (Sammo and Cassanova Wong, who makes a brief appearance near the beginning of The Iron-Fosted Monk as Sammo’s sparring partner, compare to the Gordon Liu solo kung fu demonstrations that open many a Lau Kar-leung film) and Knockabout (created by Hung to provide a showy debut for his childhood friend Yuen Biao) in which Hung gives himself third-billing, as he also will in Wheels on Meals (behind Yuen and Jackie Chan). The Lucky Stars films (starting with Winners & Sinners) revolve around an ensemble, as does the film that kicked off this Summer of Sammo, Eastern Condors, in which Sammo hangs around the background for most of the movie while providing showcases to highlight Yuen Biao, Haing S. Ngor, Yuen Woo-Ping and Corey Yuen, among others. Pedicab Driver, the darkest Hung film I’ve seen to date, begins as a dual protagonist movie, shifts to an ensemble and ends with Sammo standing alone, most of his friends having been killed. Even Encounters of the Spooky Kind, which features Sammo as the sole protagonist throughout, shifts him to a supporting role in the final battle in which he becomes literally the puppet of a more powerful hero-figure (the friendly Taoist monk). I don’t know of any other major star so willing to subordinate himself to the group.
This past week I finally finished the series on Paul WS Anderson and Modern Auteurism I started back in April, Army of Milla (Part One: On Vulgar Auteurism, Part Two: On the Resident Evil Movies, Part Three: Resident Evil and Classical Auteurism). The controversy around Vulgar Auteurism gained in volume as the week wore on as other essays on the subject popped up across the internet. I particularly recommend this piece by Peter Labuza and this post by Girish Shambu. Late yesterday, John Lehtonen and Ignatiy Vishnevetsky posted this revision of the original Vulgar Auteurism post at Mubi, in the hopes of deflating some of the criticisms the movement has received by clarifying its intent and canon. I remain unconvinced that Paul WS Anderson is significantly more than the George Sidney of our time, but I also really like George Sidney.
My Summer of Sammo continued this week with reviews of Encounters of the Spooky Kind, Winners & Sinners and Pedicab Driver (and more to come). Someone at letterboxd is trying to create a site-wide survey to compete with the imdb Top 250, this list was my submission. It’s the Top Ten I made last year, due to be revised late this summer, around Labor Day weekend.
This weekend I hope to accomplish two things I’ve been talking about for a long time: finally record the Akira Kurosawa episode of They Shot Pictures (talking about No Regrets for Our Youth, The Idiot and Red Beard) and make it out to a theatre to see Frances Ha. We’re leaving for the movie in a matter of hours, my fingers remain crossed for the podcast.
Yes, Madam (Corey Yuen) – 9, 1985
Pedicab Driver (Sammo Hung) – 5, 1989
The Chinese Feast (Tsui Hark) – 22, 1995
The Talented Mr. Ripley (Anthony Minghella) – 40, 1999
Sleepy Hollow (Tim Burton) – 52, 1999
This 1989 film once again finds Sammo Hung mixing tones in a highly unusual way, as what appears to be a light-hearted farce about human taxis turns into a very dark indeed exploration of human trafficking and prostitution in the lower class Macao underworld. Sammo plays the garrulous leader of the town’s pedicab union, and the film begins with a tense negotiation with the rival rickshaw drivers union in a warehouse like restaurant. Spooked by a cameo of Eric Tsang with a cleaver (chasing an unrelated cat), the two sides begin brawling, showing off some impressive group kung fu choreography (and a clever Star Wars parody). After this prologue, the first half of the film follows Sammo and his best friend Malted Candy’s attempts to woo a pair of pretty girls. Sammo’s girl is named Ping and she works at the bakery where he’s also a lodger. Ping is lusted after by the master baker, and he and Sammo get in several fights over her (she prefers Sammo, of course). Ping is quite casually treated as an object by both men (Sammo has no compunction about embarrassing her to prove his superiority to the baker), the only difference being the gross lasciviousness of the baker’s lust and the generally good-hearted nature of Sammo’s character. Malted Candy’s girl, Hsiao-Tsui, however, turns out to be a prostitute, and her pimp, Master 5, brings the first bit of horror into the film in an early scene that initially doesn’t appear to have much bearing on the plot. His men have tracked down a runaway prostitute and her new husband as she’s about to give birth at a midwifery. Master 5 has his men to kill the husband and, as for the baby, “If it’s a boy, throw it in the river. If it’s a girl, send it to the brothel.”
Sammo first encounters Master 5 on the street, where he’s propositioning Ping. Sammo steps in to help her and the two run away in a fun chase sequence. They end up crashing into a gambling house, where Sammo is set upon by a new, unrelated group of gangsters. Eventually he challenges the gambling house’s boss to a duel and it turns out to be none other than the great Shaw Brothers director Lau Kar-leung. What follows is completely superfluous to the narrative, but is nonetheless the best scene in the film. Lau is a terrific fighter, and seeing him face off against Sammo is a treat (be sure to see Lau’s starring role in his own Mad Monkey Kung Fu). Following this welcome digression, the film becomes a light romantic comedy for a half hour or so as the two couples fall in love. Then it becomes a dark tragedy as Malted Candy first learns Hsiao-Tsui’s true occupation from a friend, the man who helped him out when he first arrived in Macao, buying him his first pedicab. As Sammo, Malted Candy and their friends gather around a small table in their open-air tenement to discuss what to do about this revelation, Hung effectively puts across the terrible living conditions, the reliance on improvised families and communal networks and desperate hope for the future that drives these men without being preachy or melodramatic. That desperation, along with an effective bit of yelling by one of the driver’s wives, allows Malted Candy to set aside his patriarchal outrage at the way Hsiao-Tsui has “cheated” him and see the trauma and hopelessness that must have led her to the brothel in the first place. Able to see her as an equal, he reconciles with her and the two happily get married. Of course, that night Master 5’s men track them down and kill everyone in sight. All that’s left is for Sammo to take his revenge on the pimp and all his gang, including kickboxing badass Billy Chow, in a spectacular finale.