Summer of Sammo: Boat People

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.

Revolution is war is hell.

Something in the air with the Hong Kong New Wave and Japanese leftists in 1982. Patrick Tam’s Nomad envisions the United Red Army as psychotic dead-enders while Ann Hui here depicts an idealistic photojournalist who sees past the Potemkin images provided for him by the newly victorious government of Vietnam to the nasty reality of post-revolutionary entrenchment. It’s hard not to read Hui’s Vietnam as a stand-in for China during the Cultural Revolution, but that just may be because I know a bit more about China in this period than I do Vietnam: the forced labor camps, the elevation of bureaucratic illusionism to a political doctrine, the cannibalization of the previous generation’s revolutionaries by a new generation of amoral ideologues (coming of age in a period of war, they lack any kind of rational moral sense, or rather, “the revolution doesn’t allow for petit-bourgeois notions of ethics” as they put it).

George Lam plays the Japanese journalist Akutagawa, a World War II orphan whose parents were killed by American bombing when he was only a year old, and who documented the triumphant liberation of Danang. He returns to Vietnam three years later to report on the country’s progress. What he finds once he manages to break away from the direction of the Culture Bureau horrifies him. Starving children stripping bodies of freshly executed men, kids selling themselves into prostitution, political prisoners forced to clear fields of landmines all while the older generation of revolutionaries drink themselves to oblivion in nostalgia for their early post-colonial ideals. In a blunt but potent metaphor, Akutagawa is so moved by what he sees that he takes action, trading his camera for the cash to finance the escape of a couple of kids.

The film was attacked as pro-Chinese (and/or anti-Communist) propaganda on its release in 1982. It was the first Hong Kong film shot on the mainland since the revolution (technically on the island of Hainan, under PRC control) and was made in the wake of the brief Chinese border war with Vietnam in 1979. The role played by Andy Lau (one of his very first performances) was meant for Chow Yun-fat (who had starred in Hui’s previous film about Vietnamese refugees, The Story of Woo Viet) but, the story goes, he turned it down because by shooting a movie in China, Chow would have been blacklisted by the Taiwanese film industry. The film was pulled from competition at Cannes apparently because of its political content (the French government was anxious to maintain good relations with Vietnam) and it was apparently panned in the Village Voice by J. Hoberman and Andrew Sarris, though I can’t find any record of this online.

But the politics of revolutionary art in the late 70s and early 80s were more fraught than they are today. Far removed as we are from the cauldron of the Vietnam War, we can look at Hui’s film on its own terms, and see that it was what she maintained it was all along: a deeply humane anti-war film. It doesn’t take a position on politics, or on Vietnam itself. What it depicts is a society gone off the rails, utterly destroyed by 50 years of war and poverty. It’s not the ideology of the victors that’s at fault, it’s war itself. My working theory on the Hong Kong New Wave is that it was attempting to document as clearly as possible within certain industrial generic confines the reality of a generation of kids raised in the abject backwash of decades of war. Boat People is the most direct expression of that idea I’ve seen yet.

Summer of Sammo: My Heart is that Eternal Rose

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.
A triad love story movie that stars Kenny Bee, Joey Wang, Tony Leung, Gordon Liu and Ng Man-tat (Stephen Chow’s frequent sidekick). Directed by Patrick Tam and (partially) shot by Christopher Doyle and produced by John Sham (one of the Lucky Stars).
If only one of Chang Cheh’s stars like David Chiang or Ti Lung, or even Sammo himself had somehow been involved, this would represent the ultimate expression of Hong Kong cinema. It would be to the Summer of Sammo what Dressed to Kill is to the Caine-Hackman Theory.
Anyway, great movie, though Tony and Gordon appear to have lost bets and were thus forced to wear John Stamos’s hair. This leads to one of the more unforgettable images in film history: Gordon Liu wearing red pants and a gold jacket, sitting cross-legged and sleazy and eating a banana, fanning himself with his own toupee.
The plot itself is an interesting variation on the heroic bloodshed genre. Those films are usually built around a conflict between morality and the dictates of a Code. This film is structured as a series of moral dilemmas as well, but the Code itself plays very little part, rather it’s conflicts are based in love, filial and romantic, and its incompatibility with the triad world. The characters find themselves increasingly boxed into scenarios from which there is no real possibility of escape. Joey Wang’s only currency is her body, every time she wants something, the only way she’s allowed to bargain for it is by selling herself, either into prostitution for Michael Chan’s Godfather Shan, or by allowing his psychotic henchman Gordon Liu to sleep with her. Everyone but our three heroes is either depraved, dishonest and cruel or weak and pathetic. Chan’s honorary Godfather title becomes twisted and evil: he is the inversion of Wang’s compromised and impotent father and he declares himself to be God himself: the final arbiter of this Hell. The heroes inability to escape this degraded world doesn’t feel heroic or sacrificial, in the way that similar scenarios play out in John Woo’s films (think of the redemption and hope in Tony Leung’s final boat ride at the end of Hard-Boiled), but rather it simply depicts the inevitability of tragedy and loss in such a center-less moral universe. There’s no alternative, no moments of grace. Merely Tony Leung’s sadness as he floats away.
Young Tony Leung is a revelation, the same year of his breakthrough in Hou Hsiao-hsien’s A City of Sadness finds him playing a totally different kind of role, a callow youth whose innocence and naiveté mask hidden reserves of determination and depth of feeling. Leung is my pick as the greatest actor in film today, and this early work, he’d spent the previous five years or so working in television and light comedies, finds him already performing on multiple levels within a single scene or shot. He won a well-deserved Best Supporting Actor Hong Kong Film Award, his second. He’d won two years earlier for People’s Hero, a film I’d not heard of, but it costars the other Tony Leung and Ti Lung, and was directed by Derek Yee, David Chiang’s younger brother and an ex-boyfriend of Maggie Cheung. The Summer of Sammo is a vast and tangled web.