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

Cinematography:

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

Make-up:

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.