A Top 25 Films of 2013 List, More or Less

It’s the end of the year, so I’m going to go ahead and make a Best Films of the Year list, even though I haven’t seen any of the big recently released films yet (Wolf of Wall Street, Inside Llewyn Davis, Her, 12 Years a Slave, American Hustle and so on). I’ll have a more official list come Oscar time, to go along with my award nominees and winners. That list will follow the strict imdb definition of all the other lists here at The End, but for this one, I’m going to use the flawed, but more generally accepted US theatrical release “standard”, by which I mean I’m going to include a bunch of 2012 movies and exclude a bunch that have only played festivals so far. Here’s the list, with links to my reviews or podcasts.

1. Like Someone in Love (Abbas Kiarostami)

2. Drug War (Johnnie To)

3. Night Across the Street (Raúl Ruiz)

4. A Touch of Sin (Jia Zhangke)

5. Wolf Children (Mamoru Hosada)

6. Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel)

7. Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo)
8. The Grandmaster (Wong Kar-wai)
9. At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman)

10. To the Wonder (Terrence Malick)

11. Frances Ha (Noah Baumbach)

12. Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski)
13. Much Ado About Nothing (Joss Whedon)

14. The World’s End (Edgar Wright)
15. Before Midnight (Richard Linklater)
16. When Night Falls (Ying Liang)

17. The Last Time I Saw Macao (João Pedro Rodrigues & João Rui Guerra da Mata)

18. Something in the Air (Olivier Assayas)

19. Memories Look at Me (Song Fang)

20. You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Alain Resnais)

21. Three Sisters (Wang Bing)

22. People’s Park (JP Sniadecki & Libbie Cohn)

23. Neighboring Sounds (Kleber Mendonça Filho)

24. Blancanieves (Pablo Berger)

25. Emperor Visits the Hell (Li Luo)

And because I can’t let it go, these are 10 films I saw in 2013 that I had to cut out because they haven’t had a US theatrical release as far as I can tell. Call them the Best 2013 Films of 2014 (if they get released in New York next year):

1. La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson)

2. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)

3. Blind Detective (Johnnie To)

4. Our Sunhi (Hong Sangsoo)

5. A Spell to Ward Off the Darkness (Ben Rivers & Ben Russell)

6. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)

7. Four Ways to Die in My Hometown (Chai Chunya)

8. Yumen (JP Sniadecki)

9. The Great Passage (Yuya Ishii)

10. Trap Street (Vivian Qu)

The Best Older Movies I Saw in 2013

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). We also did a George Sanders Show on this subject. 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 for the ones I’ve written and/or podcasted about. Shorter comments for most of these, along with more lists and such can be found on my Letterboxd page.

1. Throw Down (Johnnie To, 2004)
2. Comrades: Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan, 1996)
3. Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark, 1986)
4. The Red and the White (Miklos Jancso, 1967)
5. Pedicab Driver (Sammo Hung, 1989)
6. Yearning (Mikio Naruse, 1964)
7. Wheels on Meals (Sammo Hung, 1984)
8. Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo, 1995)
9. Flowing (Mikio Naruse, 1956)
10. Nomad (Patrick Tam, 1982)

11. Dirty Ho (Lau Kar-leung, 1976)
12. My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2002)
13. Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (Tsui Hark, 1980)
14. Applause (Rouben Mamoulian, 1929)
15. A New Leaf (Elaine May, 1971)
16. Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 1990)
17. The Contract (Michael Hui, 1978)
18. Robin and Marian (Richard Lester, 1976)
19. Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata, 1991)
20. Window Water Baby Moving (Stan Brakhage, 1962)

21. Rouge (Stanley Kwan, 1988)
22. The Sound of the Mountain (Mikio Naruse, 1954)
23. Obsession (Brian DePalma, 1976)
24. The Victim (Sammo Hung, 1980)
25. Pom Poko (Isao Takahata, 1994)
26. An Angel At My Table (Jane Campion, 1990)
27. Lonesome (Paul Fejos, 1928)
28. Dark Star (John Carpenter, 1974)
29. Porco Rosso (Hayao Miyazaki, 1992)
30. Fat Choi Spirit (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2002)

31. Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung, 1987)
32. Righting Wrongs (Corey Yuen, 1986)
33. The Miracle Fighters (Yuen Woo-ping, 1982)
34. Le pont du Nord (Jacques Rivette, 1981)
35. Breaking News (Johnnie To, 2004)
36. Pilgrimage (John Ford, 1933)
37. Yes, Madam (Corey Yuen, 1985)
38. The Wold Shadow (Stan Brakhage, 1972)
39. Déjà vu (Tony Scott, 2006)
40. Repast (Mikio Naruse, 1951)

41. Running on Karma (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2003)
42. Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (Chor Yuen, 1972)
43. Too Many Ways to Be No. 1 (Wai Ka-fai, 1997)
44. No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa, 1946)
45. The Chess Players (Satyajit Ray, 1977)
46. Modern Romance (Albert Brooks, 1981)
47. The Black Cat (Edgar G. Ulmer, 1934)
48. Thief (Michael Mann, 1981)
49. The Muppet Movie (James Frawley, 1979)
50. Running Out of Time 2 (Johnnie To, 2001)

51. Crank (Neveldine/Taylor, 2006)
52. Red Beard (Akira Kurosawa, 1965)
53. Dr. Jekyll & Mr. Hyde (Rouben Mamoulian, 1931)
54. Hapkido (Huang Feng, 1972)
55. Turn Left, Turn Right (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2003)
56. Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford, 1960)
57. On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate (Hong Sangsoo, 2002)
58. Boat People (Ann Hui, 1982)
59. Iron Monkey (Yuen Woo-ping, 1993)
60. Running Out of Time (Johnnie To, 1999)

61. The Heroic Ones (Chang Cheh, 1970)
62. The Three Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1973)
63. Expect the Unexpected (Patrick Yau, 1998)
64. My Heart is that Eternal Rose (Patrick Tam, 1989)
65. Body Double (Brian De Palma, 1984)
66. In the Mouth of Madness (John Carpenter, 1993)
67. Sons of the Desert (William A. Seiter, 1933)
68. Yesterday Once More (Johnnie To, 2004)
69. The Crowd (King Vidor, 1928)
70. The Holy Mountain (Alejandro Jodorowsky, 1973)

71. Green Snake (Tsui Hark, 1993)
72. Man on Fire (Tony Scott, 2004)
73. Fantomas (Feuillade, 1913)
74. Chocolat (Claire Denis, 1988)
75. Encounters of the Spooky Kind (Sammo Hung, 1980)
76. Raining in the Mountain (King Hu, 1979)
77. Casino Raiders (Wong Jing & Jimmy Heung, 1989)
78. Le Doulos (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1962)
79. Magnificent Butcher (Sammo Hung & Yuen Woo-ping, 1979)
80. Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929)

81. Prince of Darkness (John Carpenter, 1987)
82. Northwest Passage (King Vidor, 1940)
83. The House of 72 Tenants (Chor Yuen, 1973)
84. He’s a Woman, She’s a Man (Peter Chan, 1994)
85. Full Contact (Ringo Lam, 1992)
86. Lady for a Day (Frank Capra, 1933)
87. Butterfly Murders (Tsui Hark, 1979)
88. The Moderns (Alan Rudolph, 1988)
89. Belle toujours (Manoel de Oliveira, 2006)
90. The Fate of Lee Khan (King Hu, 1973)

91. Royal Warriors (David Chung, 1986)
92. A Chinese Ghost Story (Ching Siu-tung, 1987)
93. In the Line of Duty 4 (Yuen Woo-ping, 1989)
94. Mother (Mikio Naruse, 1952)
95. Tricky Brains (Wong Jing, 1991)
96. Ninja in the Dragon’s Den (Corey Yuen, 1982)
97. Tale of Cinema (Hong Sangsoo, 2005)
98. The Four Musketeers (Richard Lester, 1974)
99. The Sentimental Swordsman (Chor Yuen, 1977)
100. Wind Across the Everglades (Nicholas Ray, 1958)

101. Magnificent Warriors (David Chung, 1987)
102. Me and My Gal (Raoul Walsh, 1932)
103. The Happening (Yim Ho, 1980)
104. Two English Girls (François Truffaut, 1971)
105. The Odd One Dies (Patrick Yau, 1987)
106. Love in a Fallen City (Ann Hui, 1984)
107. Help!!! (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2000)
108. Something Wild (Jonathan Demme, 1986)
109. Dressed to Kill (Brian DePalma, 1980)
110. Knockabout (Sammo Hung, 1979)

111. Floating Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1955)
112. The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well (Hong Sangsoo, 1996)
113. All About Ah-Long (Johnnie To, 1989)
114. The Pawnshop (Charles Chaplin, 1916)
115. Whirlpool (Otto Preminger, 1949)
116. Dreadnaught (Dreadnaught, Yuen Woo-ping, 1981)
117. Boys Are Easy (Wong King, 1993)
118. No Blood Relation (Mikio Naruse, 1932)
119. The Garden of Earthly Delights (Stan Brakhage, 1981)
120. Domino (Tony Scott, 2005)

121. The Sword (Patrick Tam, 1980)
122. Dragnet Girl (Yasujiro Ozu, 1933)
123. Drunken Monkey (Lau Kar-leung, 2003)
124. Boxer Rebellion (Chang Cheh, 1976)
125. Shaolin Temple (Chang Cheh, 1976)
126. Scattered Clouds (Mikio Naruse, 1967)
127. One AM (Charles Chaplin, 1916)
128. The Portrait of a Lady (Jane Campion, 1996)
129. Point Break (Kathryn Bigelow, 1991)
130. Vengeance! (Chang Cheh, 1970)

131. Alls Well, Ends Well (Clifton Ko, 1992)
132. Mothlight (Stan Brakhage, 1963)
133. I Can’t Sleep (Claire Denis, 1994)
134. Winners & Sinners (Sammo Hung, 1983)
135. Ingeborg Holm (Victor Sjostrom, 1913)
136. We’re Going to Eat You (Tsui Hark, 1981)
137. Universal Soldier: Regeneration (John Hyams, 2009)
138. Wife! Be Like a Rose! (Mikio Naruse, 1935)
139. The Diary of a Chambermaid (Jean Renoir, 1946)
140. Ruby Gentry (King Vidor, 1952)

141. Trouble Every Day (Claire Denis, 2001)
142. She Shoots Straight (Corey Yuen, 1990)
143. The Longest Nite (Patrick Yau, 1998)
144. Prison on Fire (Ringo Lam, 1987)
145. The Idiot (Akira Kurosawa, 1951)
146. The Spiritual Boxer (Lau Kar-leung, 1975)
147. Just Pals (John Ford, 1920)
148. Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (Yuen Woo-ping, 1978)
149. Security Unlimited (Michael Hui, 1982)
150. Apart from You (Mikio Naruse, 1933)

151. The Big Trail (Raoul Walsh, 1930)
152. Resident Evil: Afterlife (Paul WS Anderson, 2010)
153. Working Class (Tsui Hark, 1985)
154. Two Weeks in Another Town (Vincente Minnelli, 1962)
155. Sweetie (Jane Campion, 1988)
156. Heaven Sword & Dragon Sabre I & II (Chor Yuen, 1978)
157. Duel (Steven Spielberg, 1971)
158. The Fog (John Carpenter, 1980)
159. The Idle Class (Charles Chaplin, 1921)
160. Love for All Seasons (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai, 2003)

161. The Prodigal Son (Sammo Hung, 1981)
162. Warriors Two (Sammo Hung, 1978)
163. Eye in the Sky (Yau Nai-hoi, 2007)
164. L’Intrus (Claire Denis, 2004)
165. Enter the Fat Dragon (Sammo Hung, 1978)
166. Mr. Vampire (Ricky Lau, 1985)
167. Poltergeist (Tobe Hooper, 1982)
168. The Private Eyes (Michael Hui, 1976)
169. Millionaire’s Express (Sammo Hung, 1987)
170. Heroes Shed No Tears (Chor Yuen, 1980)

171. Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars (Sammo Hung, 1985)
172. The Iron-Fisted Monk (Sammo Hung, 1977)
173. The Big Boss (Lo Wei, 1971)
174. Mama (Zhang Yuan, 1990)
175. The Magic Blade (Chor Yuen, 1976)
176. Heroes Two (Chang Cheh, 1974)
177. After This, Our Exile (Patrick Tam, 2006)
178. An Exercise In Discipline – Peel (Jane Campion, 1982)
179. Blood Brothers (Chang Cheh, 1973)
180. Challenge of the Masters (Lau Kar-leung, 1976)
181. Zu Warriors (Tsui Hark, 2001)
182. Late Chrysanthemums (Mikio Naruse, 1954)
183. Dragons Forever (Sammo Hung & Corey Yuen, 1988)

1933 Endy Awards

In conjunction with the year-end episode of The George Sanders Show, looking back 80 years at the best films of 1933, here are my choices for award winners in the various Oscar-type categories for that year. I haven’t done any of these for awhile, but in the Endy Awards Index you can find entries for 20111932, 193919641957 and 1994, along with a bunch of much older, less good award posts. Eligibility is determined by imdb date and by whether or not I’ve seen the movie in question. Nominees are listed in alphabetical order and the winners are bolded. And the Endy goes to. . .
Best Picture:

1. Design for Living
2. Duck Soup
3. Gold Diggers of 1933
4. Hallelujah, I’m a Bum
5. Japanese Girls at the Harbor

Best Director:

1. Ernst Lubitsch, Design for Living
2. Leo McCarey, Duck Soup
3. Hiroshi Shimizu, Japanese Girls at the Harbor
4. Fritz Lang, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
5. William Wellman, Wild Boys of the Road

Best Actor:

1. Groucho Marx, Duck Soup
2. James Cagney, Footlight Parade
3. Al Jolson, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum
4. Claude Rains, The Invisible Man
5. Spencer Tracy, Man’s Castle

Best Actress:

1. Barbara Stanwyck, Baby Face
2. Miriam Hopkins, Design for Living
3. Loretta Young, Man’s Castle
4. Henrietta Crosman, Pilgrimage
5. Greta Garbo, Queen Christina
Supporting Actor:

1. Franchot Tone, Bombshell
2. Harpo Marx, Duck Soup
4. Harry Langdon, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum
3. Frank Morgan, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum
5. Ned Sparks, Lady for a Day

Supporting Actress:

1. Sumiko Mizukubo, Apart from You
2. Margaret Dumont, Duck Soup
3. Ginger Rogers, Gold Diggers of 1933
4. Glenda Farrell, Mystery of the Wax Museum
5. Elsa Lanchester, The Private Life of Henry VIII

Original Screenplay:

1. Gene Markey & Katheryn Scola, Baby Face
2. Burt Kalmar & Harry Ruby, Duck Soup
3. Ben Hecht & S. N. Behrman, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum
4. Tôma Kitabayashi & Mitsu Suyama, Japanese Girls at the Harbor
5. Frank Craven, Sons of the Desert

Adapted Screenplay:

1. Rian James & James Seymour, 42nd Street
2. Ben Hecht, Design for Living
3. Jo Swerling, Man’s Castle
4. Barry Connors & Philip Klein, Pilgrimage
5. Sonya Levien & Paul Green, State Fair

Non-English Language Film:

1. Apart From You (Mikio Naruse)
2. Japanese Girls at the Harbor (Hiroshi Shimizu)
3. Passing Fancy (Yasujiro Ozu)
4. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse (Fritz Lang)
5. Zéro de conduite (Jean Vigo)

Short Film:

1. The Three Little Pigs (Walt Disney)
2. Zéro de conduite (Jean Vigo)

Unseen Film:

1. Alice in Wonderland (Norman Z. McLoud)
2. The Emperor Jones (Dudley Murphy)
3. Liebelei (Max Ophuls)
4. Morning Glory (Lowell Sherman)
5. The Power & the Glory (William K. Howard)
Film Editing:

1. 42nd Street
2. Dragnet Girl
3. Japanese Girls at the Harbor
4. King Kong
5. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse


1. Sol Polito, Gold Diggers of 1933
2. Taro Sasaki, Japanese Girls at the Harbor
3. Edward Linden, J. O. Taylor & Vernon L. Walker, King Kong
4. Karl Vash & Fritz Arno Wagner, The Testament of Dr. Mabuse
5. Boris Kaufman, Zéro de conduite

Original Score:

1. 42nd Street
2. Duck Soup
3. Gold Diggers of 1933
4. Hallelujah, I’m a Bum
5. King Kong

Original Song:

1. “42nd Street”, 42nd Street
2. “The Gold Diggers’ Song (We’re in the Money)”, Gold Diggers of 1933
3. “Shadow Waltz”, Gold Diggers of 1933
4. “You Are Too Beautiful”, Hallelujah, I’m a Bum
5. “Who’s Afraid of the Big Bad Wolf?”, The Three Little Pigs

Art Direction:

1. 42nd Street
2. Duck Soup
3. Footlight Parade
4. King Kong
5. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

Costume Design:

1. 42nd Street
2. Design for Living
3. Footlight Parade
4. Gold Diggers of 1933
5. King Kong


1. 42nd Street
2. Design for Living
3. Gold Diggers of 1933
4. King Kong
5. Mystery of the Wax Museum

Sound Mixing:

1. 42nd Street
2. Footlight Parade
3. Gold Diggers of 1933
4. King Kong
5. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

Sound Editing:

1. 42nd Street
2. Footlight Parade
3. Gold Diggers of 1933
4. King Kong
5. The Testament of Dr. Mabuse

Visual Effects:

1. The Invisible Man
2. King Kong
3. Mystery of the Wax Museum

This Week in Rankings

I’ve been rolling along with my Johnnie To and Hong Kong Cinema series Running Out of Karma over the last few weeks, taking some fun detours into the work of the Hui Brothers and late 80s Girls with Guns movies. This month I’ve reviewed Tsui Hark’s Working Class, Michelle Yeoh in Royal Warriors and Corey Yuen’s She Shoots Straight in addition to Johnnie To’s third feature Seven Years Itch and a revisit of his great 2012 film Drug War.

I’ve also recorded a bunch of podcasts since the last update. The second of our John Ford episodes on They Shot Pictures, covering his War Movies, along with a extensive twopart year-in-review episode. On The George Sanders Show, we’ve done episodes on The Hudsucker Proxy and Lady for a Day, Crank and The Victim and Meet Me in St. Louis and A Christmas Tale.

Over at letterboxd, all my lists are updated, with a running account of the Running Out of Karma films (32 as of right now) and a new one for Michelle Yeoh.

I’ll have some year-end lists and stuff up here over the next week, covering the best of 2013 movies and also my favorite non-2013 movies I saw for the first time this year. I still have a full week of movie-watching to go.

These are the movies I’ve watched and re-watched over the last couple of weeks, and where they place in my year-by-year rankings:

Pilgrimage (John Ford) – 18, 1933
Lady for a Day (Frank Capra) – 24, 1933
Meet Me in St. Louis (Vincente Minnelli) – 1, 1944
They Were Expendable (John Ford) – 2, 1945
7 Women (John Ford) – 6, 1966

The Private Eyes (Michael Hui) – 14, 1976
The Victim (Sammo Hung) – 6, 1980
Security Unlimited (Michael Hui) – 18, 1981
Love in a Fallen City (Ann Hui) – 19, 1984
Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street (Tsui Hark) – 32, 1984

Working Class (Tsui Hark) – 16, 1985
Royal Warriors (David Chung) – 15, 1986
Aces Go Places IV: You Never Die Twice (Ringo Lam) – 20, 1986
Magnificent Warriors (David Chung) – 17, 1987
An Autumn’s Tale (Mabel Cheung) – 22, 1987

Final Justice (Parkman Wong) – 25, 1988
In the Line of Duty 3 (Arthur Wong & Brandy Yuen) – 32, 1988
The Killer (John Woo) – 3, 1989
In the Line of Duty 4 (Yuen Woo-ping) – 11, 1989
All About Ah-long (Johnnie To) – 19, 1989

Aces Go Places V: The Terracotta Hit (Lau Kar-leung) – 38, 1989
She Shoots Straight (Corey Yuen) – 29, 1990
The Banquet (Various) – 49, 1991
The Hudsucker Proxy (The Coen Bros) – 9, 1994
Crank (Neveldine/Taylor) – 11, 2006

A Christmas Tale (Arnaud Desplechin) – 7, 2008
Drug War (Johnnie To) – 3, 2012
Leviathan (Lucien Castaing-Taylor & Verena Paravel) – 8, 2012
You Ain’t Seen Nothin’ Yet (Alain Resnais) – 23, 2012
Blancanieves (Pablo Berger) – 30, 2012

It’s a Disaster (Todd Berger) – 45, 2012
At Berkeley (Frederick Wiseman) – 11, 2013
The World’s End (Edgar Wright) – 13, 2013
Before Midnight (Richard Linklater) – 14, 2013
Drinking Buddies (Joe Swanberg) – 27, 2013
Pain & Gain (Michael Bay) – 29, 2013

Running Out of Karma: She Shoots Straight

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

Neither this nor the alternate title (Lethal Lady) capture the film very well. It’s a film about family, specifically the kind of family where everyone is a cop. This family just happens to have a lot of daughters and only one son. Joyce Godenzi stars as the new addition as she marries the lone boy, the pride and joy of the family, The Other Tony Leung. Leung’s sisters all hate Godenzi, out of jealousy for her crime-fighting skills and the fact that she “stole” their brother. The most vocally disapproving of the sisters is Carina Lau (still recognizable despite some terrible hair, which gets better as the film goes along, and then goes wrong again) and she’s also the most aggressively reckless of them as a cop. The family conflict plays itself out as they all fight a gang of Vietnamese gun smugglers led by Yuen Wah (it’s unclear exactly what their political motivation is, I think they’re still fighting the Communists 15 years after the war ended). Yuen is pretty terrific as a single-minded, bespectacled warrior, though he never really gets to show off his fighting skills (check out Sammo Hung’s Eastern Condors for that, he again plays a Vietnamese guy, the final villain in that one, in which Godenzi also makes a memorable appearance).

Director Corey Yuen doesn’t stint on the action set-pieces, including a spectacular kidnapping at a fashion show, but the most remarkable scene in the film comes midway through, a birthday party for the mother of the clan, herself a police widow, as we and a couple of the guests know there’s been a death in the family, but everyone else does not. The mother, played magnificently by Tang Pik-wan (a Cantonese opera, movie and TV star since before the war, in her penultimate performance), alone knows something is wrong, and as she, and eventually the rest of the family, realize it, the effect is heartbreaking. Yuen doesn’t linger on the tragedy to grotesque effect, in the manner of heightened emotional scenes in many other HK action films, but allows it to play out naturally and on a human scale. I do not know, but can only suspect that this is the only girls with guns movie that’ll bring a tear to the eye.

Hanging over the film like Chekov’s fat man is Sammo Hung, a fellow cop and godbrother to the family who we keep waiting to get involved in the action. He doesn’t, letting Godenzi and Lau take the spotlight. He does get the funniest scene in the film, when he approaches a crying Godenzi and pulls out his handkerchief and makes a big deal of wiping and rewiping his nose before offering it to her. (He does get a couple brief action moments at the end, after the ladies have won the day.) Joyce Godenzi appeared in only a few more films, including Tsui Hark and Ching Siu-tung’s The Raid and Sammo Hung’s Slickers vs. Killers in 1991 before retiring from film. She and Sammo have been married since 1995.

Running Out of Karma: Royal Warriors

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

I’m a little unclear on whether or not this 1986 film is In the Line of Duty or In the Line of Duty 2. Wikipedia says it’s the second one, after 1985’s Yes, Madam!, imdb says it’s the first and uses “In the Line of Duty” as its official title. As I understand it, the earlier film was released abroad only after this one, and they were retitled to match, with Yes, Madam! becoming the “sequel” In the Line of Duty 2 (or Ultra Force 2 or Police Assassins 2, depending on territory). Why it would be called “Royal Warriors“, which is apparently its original Cantonese title, is beyond me, as the film has nothing to do with royalty and “warriors” implies a more ancient setting. Setting right the universe, I guess, is the next film in the series, alternately known as In the Line of Duty 3 and Yes, Madam 2, which stars Cynthia Khan, whose name is a totally synthetic combination of the names of the stars of the first two films, Cynthia Rothrock and Michelle Khan (as Michelle Yeoh was known at the time).

Anyway, Michelle Yeoh plays a cop (named Michelle of course, one of my favorite little things about Hong Kong cinema is how often character names are simply the actors’ names: it helps establish stars and no one has to waste precious screenwriting minutes coming up with fake names for the characters) who with the help of an air marshal (Michael Wong) and a retiring Japanese cop (Hiroyuki Sanada, who has been in a lot of things, including Lost, Sunshine, Speed Racer and the latest Wolverine movie) foil an airplane hijacking. The three then become the revenge targets for the surviving members of the gang that perpetrated the hijacking. A gang of unspecified criminal activity but which comes with a vague Vietnam War backstory about brotherhood and honor. The film is absolutely brutal, as the gang goes full Big Heat on Sanada and a guy with a mustache and an Uzi kills a massive amount of bystanders while shooting up a bar called California (apparently the did a big remodel before reopening for Chungking Express), a scene which features almost as much shattered glass as the famed climax of Jackie Chan’s Police Story, but with giant neon Tic-Tac-Toe signs thrown in.

The plot is only barely coherent (easy to follow, but makes less sense the more you think about it), and unlike Yes, Madam! or Righting Wrongs or Police Story, the film is lacking that extra layer of thematic depth, that something beyond the visceral thrill of the action sequences. (I wouldn’t say depth is necessary for a film to be good, but it certainly doesn’t hurt). The film nods to Dirty Harry-style vigilantism and the ways women are underestimated and demeaned in the workforce, but only barely. We do get a great “hand in your badge and gun, you’re off the case!” scene. Small character touches help, like Yeoh’s barely contained annoyance at Wong’s constant flirting, or how Sanada is always getting half-buried by things. But the real draw is the action, of course, and the hand-to-hand fight scenes and car chases are incredible, fast and powerful, mixing Yeoh’s elegant ballet dancer form with bone-crunching kung fu (seriously: she appears to take a Jackie Chan-level beating in several scenes). And she drives a homemade tank.

The film was directed by David Chung, a follow-up to his magnificently titled 1985 film It’s a Drink, It’s a Bomb!, an early Maggie Cheung film produced by Sammo Hung which I now have to see. Chung worked more as a cinematographer than director, with as impressive a list of credits as anyone in the 1980s-early 90s: Dangerous Encounters – First Kind, Boat People, Nomad, An Autumn’s Tale, My Heart is that Eternal Rose, God of Gamblers, Once Upon a Time in China). His next film as a director was Magnificent Warriors aka Dynamite Fighters aka Yes, Madam 3, starring Michelle Yeoh and which apparently, like Royal Warriors, had second unit direction by Johnnie To.

Running Out of Karma: Drug War

Taking a big leap out of chronological order, I want to write a bit about Drug War, Johnnie To’s second most-recent film, one that should be showing up on a lot of end of the year Best Of lists right around now. Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index.

From the beginning, it explains that this is not your typical heroic bloodshed Triad film, concerned more with codes of honor and brotherhood and the mirroring of good and evil than anything else. No, instead this is going to be a straight police procedural, with no metaphysical mumbo jumbo: “You’re a drug dealer, I’m a cop. I didn’t betray you, I busted you,” explains Sun Honglei’s Captain Zhang, and with that 25 years (at least) of Hong Kong genre convention, from John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow and The Killer to To’s own cop/Triad movies (Breaking News, PTU, Mad Detective, etc) is summarily dismissed.

What follows are the details of Zhang’s investigation of captured drug manufacturer Timmy and his gang, with Timmy as an apparently cooperating turncoat. He arranges a series of meetings between Zhang and his connections (the port-controlling Haha and the nephew of a drug lord), providing Sun with the opportunity to first play the spaced-out, taciturn junkie nephew in the meeting with Haha followed quickly by a Haha impersonation with the real nephew. Sun’s performance, as well as To’s coordination of a near miss in the lobby between the real and fake Hahas, is impeccable.

This sequence ends in the first, and least successful, of a series of climaxes. The film has a pulsating rhythm, slowly building tension through dialogue scenes, involving one character attempting to convince another that he is being genuine. This is the film’s Tarantinian inheritance: like Inglourious Basterds, Reservoir Dogs or Django Unchained it is structured as a series of conversations wherein one person attempts to convince another that he is who he says he is (even though we know he’s not). That tension builds to the point of eruption: first as Zhang has a bad reaction to some drugs he’s forced to take (in the film’s least plausible scene, but then I’m not an expert in heroin overdoses), then a tense yet comical roadside confrontation between Timmy and his subordinate truck drivers, then a shootout at a drug warehouse and then finally the film’s final sequence. To sticks doggedly to this structure, leaving no time for backstory or character development. This extends even to the visual style of the film: it flows and it’s lovely, but there are few self-consciously stunning or flashy shots. To has pared down his visual aesthetic in the same way he’s cut down the screenplay: only the essential. We learn about Zhang and his team through their actions: their relentless commitment to their jobs despite the almost total lack of sleep over several days (the cops who follow a suspect truck for 24 hours at the spur of the moment, the way no one wants to sleep when Zhang orders them to get some rest). There are no romances, no past traumas in need of working out, no wondering “if it’s all worth it”, just professionals doing a job.

The moral implications of that job are left to the viewer to tease out. Filming in China, under the restrictions of government censorship, prevents To from being straightforwardly political. Not that he would if he could, as he’s always been more interested in tension and contradiction than polemic or advocacy. But the power of the cops on display here, both in determination and technological prowess (manpower, firepower, tiny cameras and bugs and computers and more: they manage to take over an entire port in a matter of hours!) is impressive, surely enough to satisfy any authoritarian. Perhaps too much: it seems designed to unnerve rather than valorize. As with the 2007 Milkway Image film Eye in the Sky, the film often mixes in images captured from surveillance cameras. This visual trope seems to be growing in popularity as a conventional shorthand for the Big Brother-ness of the PRC government: it’s always watching. (Vivian Qu’s recent film Trap Street explores this metaphor more explicitly.)

In To’s 2011 Life Without Principle, the Triads are beginning to look a bit desperate in the wake of the latest global financial crisis. While they come off slightly more organized here, their grasp on power has certainly been shaken since the late-90s Handover days of The Mission or Exiled. It’s no coincidence that all the cops are played by Mainland actors while all the crooks are Hong Kongers. It’s not just the censor-passifying implication that the criminal element are “outsiders” but also a complication of audience sympathies, especially for those who recognize Lam Suet and Lam Ka-tung and Lo Hoi-pang from previous To films. Beyond that is the performance of Louis Koo, hero of many of To’s films, usually as a romantic lead, the Election films being notable as the only other time he’s played a crook for To. Like those two films, Koo, despite his criminality, plays a sympathetic figure. He’s the only character in Drug War who hints at a past, the only one to ever show any kind of emotion (a very moving scene where his gang mourns the death of Koo’s wife and her brothers, where they are so desperate to show their respect for the departed that they burn real money (the burning of fake money being a traditional mourning activity: it gives the dead some cash for the afterlife)). Even at the end, we can’t help but admire Timmy’s desperate gasps at self-preservation. He orchestrates the finale, bringing cops and crooks together on a city street for a bloody shootout, and does all he can to intensify the chaos, killing cop and criminal alike. It’s only in confusion that he can hope to escape. He has no loyalty to either side: his will to live supersedes any sense of order. Face to face with human desperation, both structures: the seemingly omnipotent power of the state and the criminal gang from capitalist Hong Kong, crumble.

But of course, Timmy doesn’t get away. Zhang, the agent of the state, handcuffs himself to him in his final moments and Timmy, frantically clawing against him like a rat in a cage, dragging Zhang’s body around as he’s surrounded by the military units of the Chinese police, stands as a potent symbol of both the useless, inevitably self-destroying violence of the criminal life and the helplessness of the single individual against the power of the state. The film’s coda, Timmy’s execution as he babbles everything he knows about China’s criminal underworld in a final attempt at freedom, is terrifying in its clinical matter-of-factness. In the end, there’s no escape for him, but even in those last moments, he’s not allowed a kind of human or even spiritual understanding. All he is is a repository of criminal knowledge. All he is is a job.

Running Out of Karma: Tsui Hark’s Working Class

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index

A Cinema City film in all but name, as Tsui Hark directs for his own production company, Film Workshop, this comedy with pop star Sam Hui (of the Hui Brothers and Aces Go Places) and rock star Teddy Robin (of Tsui’s own All the Wrong Clues. Tsui himself rounds out the trio of workers trying to get by in the world of benevolent old owners and evil middle managers (none other than Ng Man Tat – it’s going to be weird seeing him as Stephen Chow’s sidekick again after he’s so great in these 80s villain roles (A Better Tomorrow II, My Heart is that Eternal Rose)). The three work in an instant noodle factory (is there a Cantonese word for ‘ramen’?) and play a variety of pranks to undermine the bosses. Much to the irritation of Tsui’s wife (Leung Wan-yui), Tsui brings the homeless Teddy home to live with them. Tsui and Teddy make a great comic pair: tall and thin with, as Bordwell puts it “an intimidating goatee” and short and squat and almost always wearing sunglasses. Sam falls in love with the boss’s daughter, Joey Wang, but she hides the fact that she’s rich from him (Sam wonders why a fancy Rolls Royce is always following them everywhere they go on their neon-lit dates through the city at night). Then everyone plays soccer and everyone cheats.

Rather than grafting a Socially Important Message onto an essentially silly comedy (the example that comes to mind is Eddie Murphy’s The Distinguished Gentleman, one of the worst movies I’ve ever seen), Tsui comes at it from the other direction. He takes what could be, in less interesting hands, a serious scenario about worker exploitation and the lives of the poor in a booming economy where the rich keep getting richer and makes a farce of it. The humor comes organically out of the heroes’ anarchic rejection of the social codes that enforce fealty to the bosses, no matter how treacherous they are. Every prank becomes an act of protest. Even the love story plays backwards: it is Joey’s superfluous wealthiness that is shameful, not the tiny apartment Sam shares with his mother. The politics isn’t the least bit profound, but it is a little revolutionary.

I was disappointed that Tsui’s breakthrough hit All the Wrong Clues (…For the Right Solution), lacked the oppositional elements that made his first three films so exciting, opting instead for pure farce and parody. His entry in the Aces Go Places series followed in that vein, privileging goofy special effects over not only politics but quality stunt construction (I much preferred the second film in that series, directed by Eric Tsang). Working Class I think gets closer to the heart of what makes Tsui a great filmmaker: the mixing of New Wave politics with popular genre filmmaking. It’s not the commodification or assimilation of leftist ideals into a corporate mainstream, but the repackaging of them as a shiny, goofy treat, a cookie full of arsenic for the exploitative middle managers of the world.

Running Out of Karma: Seven Years Itch

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index

After finding success in his return to filmmaking with 1986’s Happy Ghost III, Johnnie To re-teamed with actor-writer-producer-Cinema City studio head Raymond Wong for a more conventional romantic comedy, loosely inspired by Billy Wilder’s popular 1955 Marilyn Monroe vehicle The Seven-Year Itch. Wilder’s film is an adaptation of the play by George Axelrod, who worked as a screenwriter and director as well as playwright. It’s one of my least favorite of Wilder’s films, and also my least favorite of Axelrod’s works (he wrote The Manchurian Candidate, Will Success Spoil Rock Hunter and Breakfast at Tiffany’s, and also directed the sublimely weird Lord Love a Duck). By reputation this remake might also be the least of all Johnnie To’s 50-plus films but, while it certainly isn’t great, it’s not without interest. That’s one of the nice side benefits of being an auteurist: even an artist’s worst films can be interesting and enjoyable because of what hints or insights they might provide about the greater works. As a sidenote: this is actually one of Pauline Kael’s more interesting objections to the Theory in her essay Circles and Squares: why is the mere act of recognizing an earlier, usually worse, use of a certain technique or trope interesting? Why should that be a critical value? I don’t really have a good answer for that, but I think it might simply be an attraction for a certain kind of person, one who enjoys putting puzzles together. Finding an earlier example of a later line of dialogue or character type or whatever is like discovering a new piece, perhaps revealing not only more about the whole, but a fresh way of seeing the already-assembled pieces. It may not make the movie better, but it might make watching it more fun. But anyway, even Seven Years Itch isn’t a particularly bad film, it’s just not all that funny.

Raymond Wong, tall and skinny, bespectacled and awkward, cursed with a giant head (I say this with affection as a tall, skinny, bespectacled, awkward, giant-headed man myself) plays a mediocre salaryman living with but not technically married to Sylvia Chang (who sparkled as a tough as nails cop in the first half of the first Aces Go Places movie). His mother-in-law constantly berates him for not throwing the expensive wedding party that would make their union official, while his brother-in-law, the omni-present Eric Tsang, is constantly trying to borrow money and/or tempt him with prostitutes. Bored with his life and irritated at the way Chang always sings Chinese Opera with her gay cousin (this is literally how he’s referred to throughout the film, if the subtitles are too be believed: either “Gay Cousin” or “Cousin Gay”) and makes him the same boring breakfast, Wong begins daydreaming about infidelity. On a business trip to Singapore, he carries on a lengthy, montage-filled flirtation with a pretty girl in red stockings, who of course turns out to be a jewelry smuggler using him as an unwitting mule. Then things start getting weird.


Back home, Wong tries to reignite things with Chang. So he takes her to Singapore and tries to get her to dress and act exactly like the other girl. There are shades of Vertigo in these scenes, which are the best in the film. To playfully repeats the same camera set-ups and movements from the earlier sequence, but to comic effect as Chang plays the scenes all wrong, falls asleep out of boredom and Wong becomes increasingly frustrated. The role-play fails and Chang strikes up a flirtation with an older Chinese-American businessman (apparently named “Mr. Money”). Eventually Chang catches Wong with the other girl (she’s come back to retrieve a smuggled ring she’d misplaced in Wong’s bag which he’d then accidentally given to Chang as an apparent engagement ring, naturally) and leaves him for Mr. Money once they return to Hong Kong. A car chase ensues (with Wong getting sidetracked at a “couples only” hotel, where Chang catches him paying a prostitute so he can enter, as happens). Eventually Wong makes a big scene at the airport, which apparently fails to work and then it all ends happily.

It’s that ending that’s most relevant to To’s later work, as the concept of the Grand Gesture will become a fundamental part of his romantic comedies. Needing You, in fact, follows much the same trajectory in its final third, with Andy Lau chasing after Sammi Cheng and trying to prove his love as she tries to leave Hong Kong with another, much richer, man (via boat this time rather than airplane, boats being both more cinematic and more final). Don’t Go Breaking My Heart consists almost entirely of Grand Gestures, as Louis Koo and Daniel Wu compete for the love of Gao Yuanyuan with a series of increasingly elaborate creations, from Post-Its on office windows to massive skyscrapers. Most of the other romantic comedies feature them as well (the movie Koo makes in Romancing in Thin Air, the ghost’s actions in My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, the final theft in Yesterday Once More). In To’s films, the lover, almost always the man, has to prove himself worthy of the woman’s affection. He has made some mistake that has kept them apart, and he must atone in as elaborate and as public a way as possible. In the later films, the heroine is unconventional, a prankster sort who doesn’t fit in well with straight society. By making his grand gesture, the hero proves that he is willing to play the game with her, that he too cares little for the rules of social decorum.


The romantic comedies are told from the perspective of the woman, or at least it’s her with whom we most identify. But that’s not the case with Seven Years Itch. But for a few scenes of Sylvia Chang in cooking class (where she hears gossip from her married friends), almost every scene is built around Raymond Wong’s character, and he’s not a particularly likable one. Despite a few attempts at critiquing the kind of patriarchal ethos that attempts to justify infidelity (articulated by Tsang and Wong’s male co-workers), the script wants us to root for him, to see his lying and conniving lustfulness as quaint and charming, or at best benignly ridiculous. To gives us a montage of lady parts, close-ups of breasts and legs and asses walking the streets of Hong Kong as they’re ogled by men at every turn (including a recreation of the famous Marilyn Monroe subway grate upskirt-shot from Wilder’s film, one that lingers for quite awhile on the unfortunate woman’s improbably complex lingerie) that is somewhat reminiscent of a similar scene in Orson Welles’s F for Fake, but it doesn’t seem like that’s nearly enough to defuse the boorishness of every male character in the film (Gay Cousin excepted). At times it seems like Wong and To very much want us to dislike the main character (while Chang plays the most emotionally coherent and likable person in the film), but the generic demands of Cinema City-style goofy slapstick prevent them from going all the way with it. Given a darker turn, they might have produced a cogent critique of Wilder and Axelrod’s source material. Instead the film just gets lost in its ambivalence, while giving us a glimpse of better things to come.

Next Up: The Eighth Happiness

This Week in Rankings

Since the last rankings update, I launched a new review series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong Cinema that I’m calling Running Out of Karma because I couldn’t come up with a snappier title. So far I’ve covered his debut film The Enigmatic Case, John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow II, Tsui Hark’s Peking Opera Blues, Ringo Lam’s Prison on Fire as well as the Happy Ghost series, of which To directed the third installment. Those reviews and more can all be found in the Index.

I’ve also recorded some more podcasts, four episodes of The George Sanders Show (The Big Parade and The Red & The WhiteBill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure and Three Ages; Monsieur Verdoux and Bonfire of the Vanities; and Computer Chess and The Chess Players) and a new episode of They Shot Pictures on Claire Denis, focusing on Beau travail, L’intrus and 35 Shots of Rum.

These are the movies I’ve watched and rewatched over the last few weeks, and where they place on my year-by-year rankings.

Three Ages (Buster Keaton) – 3, 1923
Monsieur Verdoux (Charles Chaplin) – 4, 1947
The Red and The White (Miklós Jancsó) – 2, 1967
The Chess Players (Satyajit Ray) – 4, 1977
The Contract (Michael Hui) – 7, 1978

All the Wrong Clues (…For the Right Solution) (Tsui Hark) – 29, 1981
Aces Go Places (Eric Tsang) – 25, 1982
Aces Go Places II (Eric Tsang) – 15, 1983
The Happy Ghost (Clifton Ko) – 21, 1984
Happy Ghost II (Clifton Ko) – 35, 1985

Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark) – 4, 1986
Happy Ghost III (Johnnie To) – 23, 1986
Prison on Fire (Ringo Lam) – 25, 1987
A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo) – 35, 1987
Seven Years Itch (Johnnie To) – 40, 1987
The Eighth Happiness (Johnnie To) – 29, 1988

Bill & Ted’s Excellent Adventure (Stephen Herek) – 16, 1989
The Bonfire of the Vanities (Brian DePalma) – 41, 1990
Only Yesterday (Isao Takahata) – 8, 1991
Whisper of the Heart (Yoshifumi Kondo) – 5, 1995
Computer Chess (Andrew Bujalski) – 7, 2013