Summer of Sammo: A Brief Thought on the Ending of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

I still think this is a pretty great movie, almost 15 years after it proved to be a surprise hit, thanks in no small part to Sony Pictures releasing it uncut in its intended form (ahem, Harvey Weinstein). That it lost Best Picture to Gladiator is one of the underrated travesties of recent Oscar history (and there’s a tough competition). Especially fantastic are the fight scenes, where Ang Lee’s classical restraint in framing and editing gives weight to Yuen Woo-ping’s spectacular wire stunts. Where the dominant 90s standard had been the Ching Siu-tung/Tsui Hark school of rapid-cutting to hide the strings, Lee and Yuen, working with a bigger budget and fancier technology were able to digitally remove them, giving them much more room to relax the visual style and allow the excitement to come from the actors moving through space (my favorite shot might be one from the fight at the inn, where the camera glides down three stories following Zhang Ziyi’s jump, a POV version of the old trampoline stunt rendered smooth and lovely by computers and Steadicam). The movie’s full of great fight sequences, great performances and is a touching tribute to the wuxia classics of the 60s and 70s, particularly those King Hu made in Taiwan and that Ang Lee was familiar with from childhood.

But. . .

The epilogue still doesn’t sit right with me. A bunch of people seem to think the movie ends with Zhang Ziyi killing herself, maybe because she’s sad that she basically caused Chow Yun-fat’s death. But in no way do I think that’s what Ang Lee intended to convey. She leaps off the cliff to fulfill Chang Chen’s wish, and flies away knowing it has come true (like the boy in the folk tale he had previously told her). The contradiction is that his wish is for them to be together, and thus the ending is a paradox: she’s alone but free and together and in love. She can’t be both, and so the film ends in a kind of zen state. That’s fine, except Lee hasn’t really prepared the audience for that kind of ending (in the way that King Hu slowly builds to the ending of A Touch of Zen), it being for the most part a straight-ahead action movie with asides about the contradictions of love and honor.

The whole film is about what people want from Zhang: everyone wants her to be something in relation to them rather than allow her to develop as her own person: daughter, disciple, sister, wife, lover. The love/honor conflict is the story of the interrupted romance between Chow Yun-fat and Michelle Yeoh. But they’re on the verge of resolving the contradiction, by setting aside out-dated notions of loyalty (to her dead fiancee) and getting on with their romantic lives. Their resolution doesn’t require some kind of supernatural wish-fulfillment (it’s just chance circumstance that gets in the way), and neither do we think Zhang’s should. At the end of the film, she and Chang are together at Wudan Mountain, she’s freed from her evil master (the always great Cheng Pei-pei) and her familial obligations. There is literally nothing stopping them from living happily ever after. And yet, she jumps. Why? Devotion to a code of honor she’s seen ruin the lives of Yeoh and Chow, has had no respect for or belief in in the past? Or sadness and guilt leading to suicide? Realization that Chang only wants something from her as well, that with him she’ll never really be free?

I think what Lee is after is that her leap is an expression of her conflicting desires: she wants freedom and she wants Chang: domestic happiness along with a fulfilling career as a martial arts professional. That’s not too complex a concept (it’s a challenge being a working wife and mother), but the vagueness with which Lee depicts it lends itself too easily to misinterpretation (the suicide theory) or dismissal (he’s just being obscure so as to make the movie seem more “arty”.) But I’m curious as to what other people think. I love so much else about the film.

Summer of Sammo: Ashes of Time Redux

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.
As with My Blueberry Nights and 2046, a person trying to escape their own past romantic disappointments becomes witness to the stories of other people, and thus is able to cope with their own issues. Like Chow Mo-wan in In the Mood for Love, Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) has lost the love of his life, Maggie Cheung in both cases, because he failed to take action. She marries his brother and he sets himself up in a remote desert outpost where he acts as a middleman for people looking to hire swordsmen.
The setting recalls Dragon Gate Inn, King Hu’s iconic locale on the edge of civilization, while the plight of the local villagers (who we never meet) recalls Seven Samurai (plagued by bandits, they keep hiring fighters to defend them). The structure is that of a series of interconnected short stories about the swordsmen Ouyang meets and all of the stories are Wongian tales of love, rejection and memory. The characters are based on Louis Cha’s novel Legend of the Condor Heroesand the stories are Wong’s imagined background for the novel. (This was the first book in a trilogy, and episodes from it have been filmed often. Shot at the same time with the same cast as Ashes of Time, in an effort to recoup some its legendary cost-overruns, Jeff Lau’s The Eagle-Shooting Heroes is a parody of the book, most memorable for Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s performance as a man who thinks he’s a duck. Chor Yuen directed two straight adaptations of the third book in the trilogy, Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, which I’ve written about this Summer of Sammo.)
The first story stars Brigitte Lin as a person with a split personality. The heir to the Murong clan, named either Murong Yin or Murong Yang depending on if the female or male personality is dominant, respectively. Yang is in love with Yin and wants Ouyang to kill the man Yin loves. Yin in turn wants Ouyang to kill Yang. The story plays off Lin’s androgynous star persona, memorable from Ching Siu-tung’s Swordsman II, in which her gaining advanced kung fu powers turns her from a man into a woman, while also establishing that the romantic problems of Wong’s heroes are entirely self-contained. His lovers are not separated by circumstance or society or the crossing of stars, though they might describe it as fate, their problems are really of their own creation. It also establishes that the kind of obsessive romanticism his characters express is also solipsistic, it’s more about creating an image of their self than it is about connecting with another human being. Wong’s selfish characters find such connection impossible, all they can do is strike a dashing pose. Their lives are mediated through their romantically tragic ideals, or through the adoption of certain genre-based identities (see: As Tears Go By, Days of Being Wild, Chungking Express, Fallen Angels) the paradox is that that mediation, through the hearing and telling of stories, is the way his characters ultimately find some measure of solace or even, rarely (Chungking Express, My Blueberry Nights) a measure of happiness. (This is why Faye and Cop 663 in Chungking Express are Wong’s most remarkable heroes: they are the only ones able to transform the very nature of reality itself, and thus their story becomes romantic comedy rather than tragedy).
The second story follows Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s swordsman, nearly 30 years old and almost blind (growing up is a kind of death, of course). Sad that his wife has left him for his best friend, he wants to go home and see the peach blossoms one last time. The best friend is played by Tony Leung Ka-fai (again the self-focus: the Tony Leungs divided against themselves), who we had met somewhat earlier. TLKF, playing Huang Yaoshi, threads his way through all the stories as a kind of counter to Ouyang Feng. Huang is an annual visitor to Ouyang’s outpost, and this time he’s brought a bottle of magic wine that erases your memory (see also: 2046). Huang drinks the wine and promptly forgets that he’s the desire object not just of TLCW’s wife, but also the first story’s Murong Yin. But more on that in a bit. The blind swordsman hires himself out to the villagers, before leaving, he grabs a young girl (she’s waiting by the outpost to hire a swordsman, but can only pay with a handful of eggs), sweeps her into his arms and kisses her. “I don’t know why I did that” he says in voiceover, as we see her annoyed reaction at being used as a prop in his romantic hero pose. As he marches off to face the enemy, his story provides the ideal opportunity for Wong and cinematographer Christopher Doyle to indulge themselves with some of the wildest images of their legendary partnership.
Ashes of Time, at least in the Redux version that is the only one currently available (I saw the old crappy DVD of the original cut years ago, but really don’t remember it all that well) is a remarkably beautiful film. Now, to some extent these things are subjective: one person’s gorgeous is another person’s indulgent (see also: the wuixa epics of Zhang Yimou), but I’ve never seen anything like this film’s hallucinogenic desert landscapes, overexposed colors threatening to burn themselves right out of the frame, step-printed slow-motion reducing Sammo Hung’s fight choreography to swirls of dirt and blood and death. Look carefully and you’ll see this is some of Sammo’s best work: the fluidity of his choreography is fully expressed in the blurs of Wong’s imagery. It’s exactly the opposite approach of Sammo’s own visual style, and that of the Shaw Brothers masters before him, with their emphasis on clarity and precision of movement. Nor is it like the montage-heavy wire-fu style of Ching Siu-tung, which uses editing to connect formal poses with impossible movements in an onslaught of high-speed action. Wong’s fights don’t just convey the visceral, emotional chaos of combat, as in the even more extreme montage approach of Paul Greengrass (to take one example out of many in contemporary Hollywood). The blur itself is a thing of beauty, with Sammo’s team’s highly skilled and organized movements still visible within the impressionistic images. In this way, it combines the emphasis on displaying real-life stunt man skill of the old Shaw style with a more expressive visual approach. Rather than hide the kung fu choreography behind a swirl of editing and cinematography, Ashes of Timerenders it more radically beautiful than had ever been done before.
The third and fourth stories are mirror-images. Jacky Cheung, playing Hong Qigong, arrives at the outpost as a shoeless swordsman and defeats the bandits, but loses a finger. His wife shows up and Ouyang persuades him to take her with him on his various quests, they had been estranged as he journeyed away from the home. Hong also helps the egg-girl. We then learn about Ouyang’s backstory through voiceover by Maggie Cheung as she tells it to Huang Yaoshi, the other Tony Leung. Ouyang left her behind, never telling her he loved her, so out of spite she married his brother and now they’re all miserable, Maggie living on Peach Blossom Island, with Huang visiting her every year the same way he visits Ouyang at his outpost on the opposite end of the country. The Blind Swordsman, too, was sad because his wife (Carina Lau, her character named “Peach Blossom”) was in love with the other Tony Leung, his “brother”. Hong is able to resolve the conflict between love and jianghu by bringing his wife along on his travels, something Ouyang and the Blind Swordsman failed to do, with the result that they lost their lovers to other men while Hong keeps his. The only other way to resolve the romantic sadness that torments the characters is the magic memory-erasing wine, given by Maggie to Huang in the hopes that he’ll give it to Ouyang. Huang drinks it himself first, erasing his memory of Peach Blossom, of Murong Yin/Yang, and of Maggie, the women he’s loved, been loved by and from whom he’s heard a tragic love story, respectively. He then retreats to the East while Ouyang reenters the world. Their stories continue from there in Louis Cha’s books as the Lords of the East and West, respectively (while Hong Qigong becomes the Nine-Fingered Swordsman, the King of Beggars).
So Ashes of Time presents a few recurring Wongian themes: loss of love, the torments of memory, paralysis in the face of desire, but places them firmly in a wuxia generic context. But it doesn’t really explore these martial codes as the source of personal or romantic unhappiness, in the way that, say Chang Cheh or Johnnie To examine the contradictions inherent in the martial codes that lie at the heart of martial fiction (whether supernatural wuxia, realist kung fu or modern triad/cop stories). Wong seems simply unable to make a straight genre film, it always digresses, mutates, twists into a purely Wong Kar-wai movie in the “final” editing (which is always temporary, with Wong not even final cuts are permanent). This is what makes The Odd One Dies is To’s most Wongian film: it wants desperately to be the assassin/triad film the plot and setting demands, but a lushly tragic romance bursts forth instead. For Wong, the sources of anguish are as much personal as external. Indeed, the heroes of Ashes of Time, if you can even call them that, don’t follow much in the way of codes of honor anyway, as in the repeated betrayals of one’s own brother (in the stories of the Blind Swordsman and Ouyang Feng, and sort of in the story of Murong Yin/Yang). The only hero who manages a level of romantic happiness is Hong Qigong, who violates the martial code by bringing his wife along on his journeys, resolving the demanded split between the martial and the marital, actively choosing to behave as a unified whole with his wife. Action is always painfully difficult for Wong’s heroes. Andy Lau in As Tears Go By is unable to pursue Maggie Cheung because of his loyalty to his “brother”, Jacky Cheung and the triad code he follows. Tony Leung in In the Mood for Love is unable to pursue Maggie Cheung because of his loyalty to his wife and the marriage code he follows, despite the fact that his wife has betrayed him. Wong seems more interested in how we cope after love has gone wrong than in how it went wrong in the first place. In Chungking Express, the two cops slowly move on from failed relationships after magical encounters with other women. In 2046, Tony Leung turns the events and characters of all of the previous Wong Kar-wai movies into characters in a novel, set far in the future, where time and memory stand still. In My Blueberry Nights, Norah Jones travels across America, watching other people’s disappointments and gathering the strength to move on from her own. And in Ashes of Time, the failed lovers obliterate themselves, while Ouyang Feng listens to their stories, tells them to us, and moves on.

This Week in Rankings

Since the last rankings update, I’ve recorded a new episode of They Shot Pictures on John Ford, as well as a couple episodes of The George Sanders Show (Logan’s Run and WALL-E and Gun Crazy and Point Break). The Ford show should be posted any day now, while you can find the Sanders show at our website.

As part of my preparation for the Ford discussion, I wrote here about his My Darling Clementine and Sergeant Rutledge. I’m also continuing with the Summer of Sammo, but moving away from the Shaw Brothers films of the 1960s and 70s into the New Wave films of the 80s and 90s. So far I’ve written about Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild and Patrick Tam’s Nomad. I’ll need to think of a new name for this series of reviews in a few weeks, as summer is coming to an end and I don’t think I’ll be able to wait until December rolls around and it’s time for Christmas with the Shaw Brothers to rent more of these films. Any suggestions?

I’ve added and updated some lists over at letterboxd for Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, John Ford, Wong Kar-wai and George Sidney. On that same page you can also find updated lists for many other directors and actors.

These are the movies I’ve watched and re-watched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Links are to my short letterboxd reviews/comments, where applicable.

Straight Shooting (John Ford) – 3, 1917
Just Pals (John Ford) – 4, 1920
The Iron Horse (John Ford) – 5, 1924
Stagecoach (John Ford) – 3, 1939
My Darling Clementine (John Ford) – 8, 1946
She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford) – 4, 1949

Wagon Master (John Ford) – 2, 1950
Gun Crazy (Joseph H. Lewis) – 5, 1950
Rio Grande (John Ford) – 14, 1950
Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford) – 7, 1960
Two Rode Together (John Ford) – 6, 1961
Hatari! (Howard Hawks) – 10, 1962

Logan’s Run (Michael Anderson) – 22, 1976
Raining in the Mountain (King Hu) – 9, 1979
Return of the Sentimental Swordsman (Chor Yuen) – 27, 1981
Nomad (Patrick Tam) – 2, 1982
Ishtar (Elaine May) – 6, 1987
As Tears Go By (Wong Kar-wai) – 7, 1988

Days of Being Wild (Wong Kar-wai) – 1, 1990
Full Moon in New York (Stanley Kwan) – 16, 1990
Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow) – 19, 1991
Full Contact (Ringo Lam) – 20, 1992
WALL-E (Andrew Stanton) – 3, 2008
The Avengers (Joss Whedon) – 44, 2012

Summer of Sammo: Nomad


I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

Taking the Summer of Sammo in a new direction, I’m trying to catch up with the Hong Kong New Wave, of which Sammo Hung, Tsui Hark and such are tangentially related, but with which I’m pretty unfamiliar outside of the action genres. This Patrick Tam film defies easy genre labeling. For much of its run, its feels like a slice of life teenage film, not unlike American Graffiti or Dazed and Confused or Metropolitan, but more in the style of later Taiwanese directors like Edward Yang or Hou Hsiao-hsien (though without their rigorously distanced visual style). It follows the romantic lives of four young Hong Kongers: Louis (Leslie Cheung) and his friend (cousin?) Kathy (Pat Ha) are rich and Tomato (Cecilia Yip) and Pong (Ken Tong) are poor, but after some very funny meet cutes (Pong and Kathy at a pool, Pong and Louis fighting outside a record store (they all love David Bowie), Louis watching Tomato juggle boyfriends over a pair of telephones) they all become friends and lovers. The first hour or so of the film follows their budding romances and friendships, pitted against the peculiar environments of the city (an empty double decker bus provides a better make-out space than a tiny apartment cramped with relatives and mah jong tables).

Hints are given of the political context of the time, first in the haunting recordings Louis listens to of his mother, a classical music DJ, saying farewell to her family on air, presumably just before she’s carried off by the Cultural Revolution, and later in the character of Shinsuke, an old boyfriend of Kathy’s who shows up having deserted from the Japanese Red Army, a communist terrorist group (to put it simply) that is now hunting him. The film’s deeply unsettling conclusion arrives as a clash between these two worlds. The kids’ romantic getaway, lushly and stylishly photographed, self-concsiouly arty in contrast to the more immediate realistic style of the earlier sections of the film, is interrupted by a spasm of violence, both ultra-modern and ancient in its form and politics. Youth a romantic dream shattered by ugly reality.

It’s easy to see the influence this must have had on Wong Kar-wai, the early sections evoking the mood and style of the romantic interludes of As Tears Go By and Days of Being Wild (which shares a star, Leslie Cheung, already as sad as he is lovely) while the disruptions of violence prefigure the war between genre conventions and art romance that dominate Wong’s early films. Like Days, the past in Nomad is largely an unspoken thing, a gap in history that undergirds the seeming aimlessness of its characters. I can’t wait to see where Tam went from here, though he doesn’t seem to have a prolific career, he did work as an editor on Days of Being Wild, Ashes of Time and Johnnie To’s Election.

 

The George Sanders Show Episode Eight: Gun Crazy and Point Break

This week, we dive into the seedy noir world of Joseph H. Lewis’s 1950 film Gun Crazy, take a stroll along the beach with Keanu Reeves and Patrick Swayze in Kathryn Bigelow’s Point Break and talk about our Essential Adrenalizing films. We also take a closer look at the career of Keanu and debate the proper usage of the phrase “Vaya con Dios”.

You can subscribe to the show in iTunes, or download or listen to it directly from our website.

Summer of Sammo: Days of Being Wild

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

It’s my belief that the effects of World War II have been vastly underrated, that the war was a great collective trauma felt the world over, and that while its political consequences are well-chronicled, the psychological damage it inflicted both on the people who fought it, the civilians who suffered through it and the children born during it or in its wake are as varied and vast as they are unexplored. I see the war not just in the dark crime melodramas of Hollywood’s film noir phase, but in the quiet family sagas of Yasujiro Ozu and in the warriors desperately trying to live by a code while professing apathy in film worlds as diverse as Anthony Mann’s West, Akira Kurosawa’s Tokugawa period and the Shaw Brothers’ jianghu. I see it in the kill your idols disillusionment of cinematic New Waves all over the world, and in the radical idealism of the next generation’s belief in the power of mass social protest. The war is the key that unlocks and explains the latter half of the 20th Century.
Wong Kar-wai’s second feature is, I think, one of the great films about the post-war generation and the lingering effects the war had on their psyches, their visions of the world. Set in 1960, the main characters would have all been born in the mid to late 30s, during China’s war with Japan, and likely brought to Hong Kong sometime during the war or the immediate post-war period, during the civil war between Communists and Nationalists. (During the war, the colony’s population shrank from 1.6 million in 1941, to 600,000 in 1945, then rapidly ballooned well past its prior size with an influx of refugees fleeing the Communists on the mainland in the late 40s and early 50s.) This history is inferred, we’re only given sketchy details of two character’s backgrounds: Maggie Cheung appears to be the most recent arrival, coming from Macao, another cosmopolitan European colony a few miles down the coast while Leslie Cheung’s birth mother now lives in The Philippines, though it’s unclear if he was adopted from there and brought to Hong Kong, or if she fled Hong Kong for there, or if there were other cities in-between. The details aren’t really relevant: it’s the sense of massive social upheaval, both geographical and political and personal that gives the film its rootless, restless quality. The characters are all haunted by this unexpressed past, their obsessions born out of a gap in their lives they can’t quite seem to fill. For most of them this takes the form of an unrequited romantic longing: Maggie wants Leslie, Andy Lau wants Maggie, Jacky Cheung wants Carina Lau, Carina wants Leslie. None of them end up together, but by the end of the film, they all (but one) seem better off for the experience of having loved and lost, ready to take on new adventures.
Leslie Cheung is the tragic case, for he remains trapped in the present, unable to imagine a future without filling that hole in his past, which for him means confronting the mother that abandoned him. Without a past, he can have no future. Without imagination, without hope, without a home or a family, his myopic nihilism can only end in self-destruction. Time dominates the film: clocks are everywhere, yet everyone is always asking what time it is. Moments out of time stand as memories, as correlatives for love itself (as in the single minute that Maggie and Leslie share that will haunt her to distraction while he can’t quite manage to forget it). It’s the ability to experience memory as memory, rather than a constant happening sadness that enables the other characters come of age, move on and take action to reinvent themselves, but Cheung is incapable of this kind of self-creation. Trauma leads to stasis, and stasis leads to death. The young are like sharks, they have to be perpetually in motion. But Leslie simply can’t move forward, the hole in his past is too big to lock away, to cope with, to turn into a thing he once experienced and felt and, via the peculiar alchemy of nostalgia, learn to miss, to make bittersweet. He can only linger on the periphery of the present until he simply fades away, to exist only in the memories of the few people he knew for awhile during a green and rainy year when they were young.
And then he is gloriously reborn as Tony Leung, a dapper young man prepping for a night on the town, his movements smooth and musical, a tiny man in an even tinier apartment, stacked to its ridiculously low ceiling with style and panache. We will pick up his story a few years later, as he meets Maggie Cheung and learns that being a middle-aged man stuck in the past is far more profoundly sad than being a young man stuck in the present, but nonetheless a whole lot better, for even in sadness one can imagine a future, even if it’s a future populated only by people and robots who find themselves locked in their own memories.