Running Out of Karma: Herman Yau’s Ip Man: The Final Fight

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

If Herman Yau’s first Ip Man film distinguished itself from the other recent movies about the man by focusing intensely on the intricacies of the Wing Chun style, this one does so in the detail historical backdrop it creates for its main character. The opening shot, a long digital zoom from high over Hong Kong down to a CGI-scrubbed period street as Ip arrives in town, a refugee from the Civil War, and asks for directions to what will be his first residence/school, hints at Yau’s approach throughout the film. 15 years or so of post-war Hong Kong is chronicled: vicious labor wars, the corruption of the police force, a vast influx of immigrants, dire poverty, gang wars, economic recovery and expansion, the hellish lawlessness of the Kowloon Walled City, a place beyond the jurisdiction of government, police and garbage collectors. Through it all stands Ip, quietly going about his business, not looking to pick a fight, or even have students (they come to him, he doesn’t have to advertise, in fact, he refuses to advertise). He doesn’t preach, he’s not a guru, he never tells people what to do. But they follow him nonetheless.

This Ip seems older than the other ones, though Anthony Wong is actually a couple of months younger than Tony Leung and only a few months older than Donnie Yen. Racked by bouts of stomach pain, he seems more frail. Maybe its just the awkward way Wong rolls and smokes his little cigarettes. I don’t know: acting. Ip is surrounded by a surrogate family of students, his first disciples There’s a hint of an early Christian vibe to their meal scenes together, which might be creepy in less sympathetic hands, or with a more demonstrative and forceful leader at the center. The story is narrated by two characters: Ip’s first student and sponsor in Hong Kong, a restaurant worker named Leung Sheung, and Ip’s oldest son, Ip Chun. Chun himself played a role in the first Yau film, and he returns in a much smaller, but much more poignant part. He plays the shopkeeper who tells Man he has a phone call, which turns out to be from Ip Chun. We see Man talk to the character Chun on the phone while the real Chun watches in the background. The phone call is the one where Chun tells his father that his wife, Chun’s mother, has died.

Like Yau’s first film, this one ends in an obligatory action-movie climax, albeit Yau seems to resist this genre tendency as much as he can. There’s less fighting in this one that in any of the other Ip Man films. Which is probably a good thing because unlike Dennis To, Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung in the first film (to say nothing of Donnie Yen in his films) Anthony Wong isn’t really much of a fighter (he told the Singapore New Paper that he was drunk when he accepted the part). As such, Yau makes more use of camera trickery here than he had to in the first film, most noticeably in a friendly sparring match between Wong and Eric Tsang, a rival grandmaster (you can very clearly see the image digitally sped up). The final showdown doesn’t have the absurd premise of the spy activities in the first film, but it’s fairly ridiculous nonetheless. Ip and his disciples, one of them pregnant, walk into the Walled City, beat up a bunch of dudes and bring a notorious gangster to justice. All of this happens in the midst of a typhoon, as these thing do.

But what sticks with this film is Wong’s Ip, in the quiet scenes watering his plants, racked with stomach pains, or visiting with his young girlfriend, an illiterate singer he off-handedly rescues from a couple of toughs, and his underplayed heartbreak at his students’ inability to accept her as part of their “family”. The true climax of the film comes, as is usual, with Bruce Lee’s appearance. This is played as triumphant in the other Ip stories, with Lee the reason we are supposed to care about Ip in the first place (“Yeah, this guy is neat and all but so what? Oh, he taught Bruce Lee, well now I’m interested”). But the Lee we see here, rich, sunglassed, Hollywoodized, is opposite our understanding of Ip and what he stands for. He’s much too loud. But Ip doesn’t express any disgust or disapproval of Lee. He doesn’t correct him, or instruct him in the virtues of simplicity. He simply wanders off to do his own thing and lets Lee decide for himself if he wants to follow.

Running Out of Karma: Chang Cheh’s Ten Tigers of Kwangtung

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

Well, there’s actually 15, if you count the five descendants of the Ten Tigers. Which could make this a bit confusing, but Chang Cheh gives us some friendly faces and nicely spaced exposition to emphasize that this is actually a very simple story. In the present, a guy and his uncle kill a man in a gambling hall out of revenge for the guy’s dead father. The dead guy’s four friends gather together to try to figure out why. This triggers a series of flashbacks as first one friend then another recount the story of the Ten Tigers of Kwangtung (or Guangdong, or Canton). During a rebellion against the Qing, various martial artists, descendants of the survivors of the destruction of the Shaolin Temple, come together to protect an anti-Qing activist from the authorities. We meet each of the men in turn, and patiently wait for them to join together (four of them are tricked, for awhile, into supporting the Manchu side. These more foolish heroes include Beggar So, better known as Wong fei-hung’s instructor in Drunken Master. Wong’s father, Wong Kei-ying is one of the Tigers, but he doesn’t have much to do here. You can see more of his adventures in Yuen Woo-ping’s Iron Monkey. So is played by Philip Kwok, best known today for his performance as Mad Dog in John Woo’s Hard-Boiled.

The final third of the flashback is recounted by one of the villains, in a neat little narrative shift that unfortunately doesn’t follow through with a change in perspective (how cool would it be for this section to depict the heroes as villains, the way the Manchus would have seen them? Alas, such experimentation seems beyond the purview of the classy Shaw Brothers period-epic.). Then we come back to the present for some gruesome fighting, led by a guy I thought looked a lot like, but was pretty sure couldn’t be, Yuen Biao. Turns out he is Chin Siu-ho, who played Jet Li’s brother/enemy in The Tai Chi Master.

This is one of the later (1980) films in Chang Cheh’s Shaolin Temple saga, chronicling the resistance against the Manchurians by various pro-Ming martial arts sects (Shaolin Temple, Five Shaolin Masters, Heroes Two, Shaolin Avengers etc). They’re all kind of the same: stoic warriors being tricked by craftier opponents, dying glorious deaths but ultimately losing the war, with flat Shaw studio lighting, percussive and lengthy hand to hand combat, and many repeated actors and sets. This one distinguishes itself with the breadth of its cast, which includes Ti Lung, Alexander Fu Sheng and perennial Chang villain Wang Lung-wei along with the Venom Mob and its various associates. But that’s about it. There are too many characters for any of them to really stand out, and the scenario’s too rote and simplistic to be of much interest. A minor piece of the panoply that is Chang’s vast reconstruction of Chinese history through the lens of its warrior-heroes. But it is the only movie in which I’ve seen a big golden mermaid statue/figurehead used as a weapon, so it’s got that going for it.

Running Out of Karma: Chang Cheh’s The Duel

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

Every time someone talks about David Chiang in The Duel (aka The Duel of the Iron Fist), they use (at least the subtitles do), his full name: Jiang Nan, “The Rambler”. The film’s other star, Ti Lung (paired with Chiang again and again through the early 1970s) finds himself caught up in an overly complicated series of triad betrayals. Honestly I had no idea what the particulars of the plot were, the exposition in the first few scenes flew by so quickly I simply contented myself with knowing that there were bad guys and Ti was going to kill a lot of them. He does.

Halfway through the film he learns he’s been betrayed and returns home to kill a bunch more people. But first he finds his girlfriend, the woman who inspired him to get a giant butterfly tattooed across his chest. She’s spent the intervening years forced into prostitution (the villains apparently run some kind of scheme where they force-sell factory-working women into sexual slavery). At first, Ti is outraged by her sluttiness and slaps her. Then he quickly comes to his senses. The two embrace and as she tells him of all the horrible things that happened to her, he calmly tells her how much he loves her and calls her his wife. This generosity of spirit proves too much for her to take and at the first opportunity she kills herself. Tough world.

The duel of the title isn’t between Ti and the army of betrayers he must kill (and, spoiler alert: he kills them), but rather between him and Chiang, as Jiang Nan, “The Rambler”. Always preceded by a tubercular cough, Jiang Nan, “The Rambler” is every bit the accomplished killer Ti Lung’s character is. Tricked by the villains into murdering Ti’s godfather, the two find themselves on the same side for awhile, but their shared Code demands that Ti eventually seek revenge. The cough gives away the secret: underneath all the kung fu trappings this is actually a version of The Gunfight at the OK Corral, with the added twist that after the famous showdown, Wyatt Earp and Doc Holliday must face off against each other.

Released in 1971, the film was made in the midst of a remarkably productive stretch for star Shaw Brothers director Chang Cheh. Following 1968’s Golden Swallow, he directed six films in 1969, four in 1970, six in 1971, eight in 1972, six in 1973, eight in 1974, five in 1975 and five in 1976. That’s 48 films in eight years. Such a ridiculous pace would only be sustainable under the factory-like studio conditions of Shaws at the time, and as is usually the case, quality suffers during such a prodigious output. Mistakes will be made. In this case, it comes down to the screenplay, needlessly convoluted while at the same time wholly unoriginal. Particularly egregious is the desperate way in which the writer(s) contrive(s) reasons for the head gangster to let Ti go after they’ve captured and tortured him.

Similarly a symptom of mass production is the soundtrack, like many Hong Kong films of the period cobbled together from the scores of other films, either directly or in slightly altered form (Ennio Morricone usually being the favored source). Perhaps the most memorable thing about this for 21st Century viewers will be the film’s several uses of Richard Strauss’s “Thus Spake Zarathustra” fanfare, made famous by 2001: A Space Odyssey. It’s tempting to treat this as some kind of intertextual reference, as though Chang wants us to draw some parallel between his proto-heroic bloodshed saga and The Dawn of Man, but that would almost certainly be ahistorical. The much more likely explanation is that someone in the Shaw music department thought the theme sounded badass and so stuck it into the film as a character motif.

This poses an interesting dilemma for critics. The musical choice was almost certainly not intended to “mean” something in the sense movie homages and references are used to create meaning in post-modern cinema. Yet when watching the film, we can’t help but interpret the musical cue as an invitation to draw a connection between the two works (or between the Strauss original or even the Nietzsche work the Strauss is inspired by). Such a train of thought might lead us to see the bloody triad struggle in terms of human evolution, as the kind of violence that is the first result of humanity’s mastering of tools (too we might see a visual connection between the long bones used in 2001 and the long daggers used by Ti Lung). We might then interpret the friendship between Ti Lung and David Chiang’s Jiang Nan, “The Rambler” as the next stage in human evolution, where abstract ideals like friendship and honor serve to pull us out of the bloody muck to some higher plane of existence, while at the same time the just-as-abstract ideal of duty and loyalty drags us back down in a never-ending cycle of revenge-killing. This we might frame in the wider context of Chang Cheh’s career, referencing other films like Blood Brothers, Duels of Fists, The Heroic Ones or Vengeance! to see the pattern of Chang’s thoughts on violence, honor and friendship between men and the push-pull contradictions of the Chinese Confucian and Buddhist/Taoist traditions. The evolution angle gives us a new way of reading a recurring theme, with the potential for new and revealing insights about Chang as an artist. At that point, the question of who put the musical cue in the movie and for what intended reason doesn’t matter for the work of criticism. If we were ever able to find out who did it and why, it would certainly be an interesting point of history, a matter of trivia, and possibly an entraining and revealing anecdote, but it would nonetheless be irrelevant to the value of the criticism as criticism. This is, I think, an overlooked matter in Kent Jones’s call for more historicity in auteurism (to close “the gap between artistic practice and criticism”). At a certain point, the details of artistic practice are simply irrelevant to the reception of the finished film. The job of the critic and the job of the historian are often overlapping, but they are not the same.

Running Out of Karma: Herman Yau’s The Legend is Born: Ip Man

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

Oh yeah, another movie about Ip Man. This one covers his early years, growing up in a kung fu school, his first romance, years in college and such. The emphasis, more than in any of the others, is on the specifics of the Wing Chun technique itself, with a whole plot line built around the issue of whether or not a high kick is authentic enough. To this end, the film is aided immeasurably by the presence of Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao. The two old pros play the young Ip’s teachers, and the film begins with a beautiful blindfolded sparring sequence between the two. The early scenes in the school are reminiscent of some scenes from Painted Faces, the Hung-starring 1988 film that chronicles his own youth in a Peking Opera school, growing up with Yuen Biao, Jackie Chan, Corey Yeun etc.

Even more delightful is a quest-starring turn by Ip Chun, Ip Man’s oldest son. Still teaching his father’s style, Ip served as a consultant for most of this cycle of Ip Man films. Here he plays a Leung Bik, a breakaway disciple who has added controversial innovations to the form and thus been ostracized from his family and the broader Wing Chun community. But he has a deep influence on Ip Man, opening him up to innovation in his martial art just as his time at an English college in Hong Kong is opening him up to the possibilities of the wider world (one of the primary themes of Wong Kar-wai’s film). All of these early scenes stick pretty closely to the historical record and are much more interested in the specifics of the Wing Chun art than they are any kind of personal or historical drama. This is what distinguishes this from the other Ip Man films. The Wilson Yip films, starring Donnie Yen, follow a more conventional historical biopic structure with the great man caught in the sweep of historic events leading to triumph and tragedy; while Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmaster uses Ip as a conduit to explore the passing of one age of China’s history into another, with martial arts serving a metaphorical purpose. All of the Ip Man films explore the uniqueness of the Wing Chun style, but none with the dedication of this one.

However, the film’s factuality falls apart in the final third. In this story, Ip has an adopted brother, Ip Tin-chi and a friend from school, a woman named Mei-wai. She loves Man, and Tin-chi loves her, but Man is oblivious (he pursues instead his future wife, the daughter of the wealthy deputy mayor played by Lam Suet). None of this love triangle stuff works, mostly because Rose Chan, playing Mei-wai, plays every emotion so broadly. Dennis To’s Ip is what we come to expect from the character: reserved, calm, steely. Chan’s highly emotional melodramatic performance contrasts poorly with To’s underplaying. Louis Fan, as Tin-chi, doesn’t fare much better, but as his plot line becomes increasingly ridiculous (to lead us to the inevitable all-out battle extravaganza) there’s not much he can do to make it work. To’s performance is actually pretty good, the first starring role for the wushu champion. He actually reminded me a lot of the young Donnie Yen.

As the film’s plot reaches its absurd conclusion, the fight scenes become the only really interesting thing (although I guess the idea of an army Japanese sleeper agent children at work in 1920s Foshan is interesting). Fortunately, the fights are pretty great, beautifully shot by Yau (who worked as a cinematographer on Tsui Hark’s Time and Tide and Seven Swords, with an emphasis on realism in the movements and actions. There are a few leaps aided by digital wires, but otherwise the action is clean and crisp and highly legible, with a judicious uses of overhead shots, slow motion and close-ups used to highlight particularly unusual or innovative actions. With this approach, the deliberateness with which Yau explores the intricacies of the Wing Chun style and demonstrates those nuances on-screen, this is the closest I’ve seen a 21st Century kung fu film follow in the Lau Kar-leung tradition.

Running Out of Karma: Peter Chan’s Wuxia

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

Known in the US as Dragon, the actual title of Peter Chan’s 2011 film is Wuxia, the name of a genre of both film and literature, a word that, if I understand correctly, is a compound of “wu” (military) and “xia” (chivalry, more or less). Wuxia stories are stories of warrior heroes, knights-errant, and wandering swordsman who walk the earth behaving nobly, following their code of honor above all else. They tend to inhabit a world outside the normal bounds of society called “jianghu” (literally “rivers and lakes”), filled with martial artists of various clans and sects that are perpetually at war.

Chan, director of the great 1996 romance Comrades, Almost a Love Story sets his film in 1917, the early Republican era in China, one of intense modernization between the demise of the Empire and the war with Japan. Takeshi Kaneshiro is a rationalist detective who, investigating the clearly-in-self-defense killing of a couple of thugs, begins to suspect that the hero, Donnie Yen, is more than a mere paper-maker. Yen, Kaneshiro believes, is a highly developed martial artist, and someone like that, with those skills, can only be an outlaw, an escaped killer (the setup is somewhat akin to David Cronenberg’s A History of Violence, but what follows is (mostly) its own thing).

Kaneshiro’s investigation is fascinating. The fight sequence that kicks the plot into motion comes shortly after the film begins. We see it play out as Yen fights with apparent desperation and lack of skill, a normal guy flailing about, lucking into defeating two more powerful adversaries. But as Kaneshiro looks into it, we get the scene replayed, Chan shifting camera angles to reveal the subtleties of Yen’s technique, digitally freezing and zooming the frame for a closer look, even using CGI to follow nerve points through the body, showing the scientific, physiological basis for the apparently magical fighting techniques.

The film repeatedly questions the utility of Kaneshiro’s pursuit. Yen, regardless of his past, is clearly now a good man. A husband (married to Tang Wei, most known here as the star of Ang Lee’s Lust, Caution) and father and pillar of his community (his paper mill has even led to an economic revival of his village). He is liked and respected by everyone in town. But Kaneshiro’s sense of duty has led him to repress his sense of empathy (literally, with acupuncture). He has made himself into a coldly rational detective, black and white only, consequences be damned. It’s no surprise that Kaneshiro is right that Yen is concealing a dark past, the question is how can he atone for it?

One answer is by going to jail for his crimes. That is society’s answer, and it is Kaneshiro’s as he breaks a promise to Yen and reports his suspicions to the proper authorities. But that way leads to disaster, as corrupt officials tip off Yen’s former gang as to his whereabouts, leading to bloody chaos in the formerly peaceful village and a striking homage to Chang Cheh’s The One-Armed Swordsman (hint: someone loses an arm). Yen directs some tremendous fight sequences here, featuring older stars like Kara Hui and Jimmy Wang Yu (the One-Armed Swordsman himself).

The question remains of who is the more chivalrous: the detective who follows the code of law despite all opposition and consequence, humane or otherwise; or the crook who searches for personal reformation outside the designated legal channels? Kaneshiro’s ostensibly normal and respectable world, the world of law and government and society is corrupt, passionless and unfeeling, for all its scientific advancement and insight. Can Yen’s jianghu, for all its superstition, backwardness and ruthless, bloody horror somehow be the more humane world, in that it also allows the space and freedom necessary for redemption? There’s no easy answer and Chan doesn’t give us one. He leaves us, like Cronenberg did, with the family at the breakfast table, a replay of the film’s opening sequence. Same motions, same family, irrevocably changed.

Running Out of Karma: New Dragon Gate Inn

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

Nominally directed by Raymond Lee, who I don’t think I’ve ever heard of before. His only imdb credits on films I recognize are for Film Workshop products that show the heavy if not exactly named influence of Tsui Hark and/or Ching Siu-tung (namely the Swordsman series). Tsui was pumping out movies like a madman in the early 90s, with 18 producer credits between 1990’s Swordsman and 1993’s Once Upon a Time in China IV, so it’s likely that, after working out the screenplay with his co-writers (Charcoal Tan and Hiu Wing), he farmed off the actual direction of this to Lee, either alone or in combination with Ching (who had a mere ten solo or co-director credits over that same period, including his Johnnie To collaborations The Heroic Trio, Executioners and The Mad Monk). If anyone is the “auteur” of the film, it’s probably Tsui.

The movie is a direct remake of King Hu’s 1967 classic Dragon Inn (Tsui, Ching and Hu worked together on the first Swordsman film, a contentious collaboration that began as a comeback attempt for Hu and ended in his quitting, or getting fired). A powerful intelligence service called the East Chamber, run by an evil eunuch, has seized power and begun executing anyone that opposes them. They kill a general, then use his children as bait in a ploy to draw out his allies, who will attempt to rescue the kids as they are marched to the frontier.  Near the border, the Dragon Gate, there is an inn where all the principals will gather and the fighting will ensue. Hu’s version is a masterpiece, slowly establishing the several factions in the first half then devoting the second to two days and a night of warfare. His characters are classical types (the woman warrior, the wandering swordsman) from wuxia film and literature, underplayed to bring out subtle nuances in their various relationships to each other and the martial virtues of chivalry, loyalty and duty that form the core beliefs of the genre.

Tsui and his team follow the setup of Hu’s film exactly, going so far as to imitate the music of the original (the eunuch’s arrival is always accompanied by a memorable fanfare of atonal horns). The characters are significantly different, though, modernized to add a dash of black comedy and sex. The inn is run by Maggie Cheung, leader of a gang of thieves who falls in love with the swordsman, played by The Other Tony Leung, who himself is in love with Brigitte Lin, the woman warrior who disguises herself as a man (because she’s Brigitte Lin and that’s what she does). The machinations of this love triangle run parallel to the attempts by the heroes to escape the inn out from under the noses of the eunuch’s forces, with a little cannibalism and some action thrown in here and there. Cheung is fantastic in the many (and there are many) comic seduction scenes, funny and sexy and charming (the scene where she and Lin acrobatically rip each others clothes off is, well, you know). Her character isn’t in the original, though you can find an precedent for her in Hu’s later The Fate of Lee Khan (also set in an inn by a border). The Other Tony Leung though seems a bit lost and Lin spends most of the movie moping around the margins of the screen, looking longingly at Lin and sighing quietly. The scenes in the inn just aren’t all that great, which is a problem when so much of the film is set there (whereas at least half of the original was fight scenes, almost none of this remake is). The film lacks the complications and twists of Tsui’s best work (the not entirely dissimilar Peking Opera Blues for one), which it really needed to succeed after sacrificing the classical clarity of Hu’s original. Still, as with pretty much any Tsui-related film, there are moments of great beauty (various interactions between Lin and her flute) and moments of great weirdness (the cannibalism, the fate of Donnie Yen’s limbs).

Things improve when the final action finally begins. It is in the hectic Ching Siu-tung style: bodies flying everywhere, the rapid cutting and quick camera movements disjointing the geography of the frame while abstracting the various crazy poses of the combat. The guiding principle for Ching’s action scenes is always speed: speed in the actors, speed in the cutting, speed in the camera’s movement. When he gets all three going, the result is an overwhelming sense of chaos, a very different feeling than the Chang Cheh/Lau Kar-leung approach to action, with its emphasis on clarity of movement designed to foster an appreciation of the athletic skill of the actors. Ching’s style is, I think, the more traditional one: editing used as a special effect, to hide the fact that the actors in wuxia films can’t actually fly (in the digital 21st Century, that’s no longer impossible, and we get the leisurely cutting of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Hero). But I don’t think it’s used, as it is in Hollywood, to cover up the fact that the actors can’t fight, or to use the sensation of speed as a substitute for the visceral thrill of on-screen action. I think if you break a Ching action sequence down shot by shot, you’ll find that all the necessary acrobatic movements are there, just as if you took out the photographic smeariness of Ashes of Time, you’d see some spectacular Sammo Hung choreography. The rapidity isn’t design to cover up the action (as in Hollywood) so much as it gives you more action than you can possibly process, while simultaneously serving as a special effect. Lau doesn’t need it because his films are “realistic” while cutting-as-effect is a device of fantasy.

Running Out of Karma: Wilson Yip’s SPL: Sha Po Lang

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

A rote cop-triad story somewhat elevated by a serious commitment to operatic melodrama on the part of director Wilson Yip and composer Chan Kwong-wing. Sammo Hung is the gangster, Simon Yam the veteran cop willing to break all the rules to capture him. Donnie Yen is the new guy on the force, plagued with a still-functioning conscience. Rather than explore the intricacies of this scenario, territory which has been covered again and again in Hong Kong cinema post-A Better Tomorrow, Yip simplifies it to the extreme, and then throws us a curveball: it’s not really a movie about cops and triads, it’s a meditation on fatherhood, and namely what terrible parents all these guys are. The Hong Kong world SPL takes place is almost entirely devoid of women. The steel-blue streets at night are populated only by gangs of young men. At the slightest provocation they appear out of seemingly nowhere, spontaneously generated by discos and dive bars and video arcades, sporting black t-shirts, empty beer bottles and complicated haircuts. A fatherless generation, they follow Sammo’s every command apparently because he’s the biggest and the strongest.

As we come to know the cops, we learn basically nothing about them but their relationship to fatherhood. Yam, as the leader of a small task force (afflicted with a ticking clock brain tumor no less) has adopted a young girl, the child of a former witness, executed by Sammo’s men. One of the cops is attempting to reestablish a relationship with his estranged daughter; one has a strained relationship with his own father (Donnie tells him his father is dead and he replies “I pretend mine is too”); Donnie himself is the son of a cop who was murdered by gangsters in the line of duty. (Sammo too is a father, his wife bringing home (after a couple of miscarriages) a newborn daughter as the film nears its conclusion). As the cops relentlessly pursue Sammo, manipulating evidence, bullying witnesses, killing suspects, these backstories take on a metaphysical power: the older generation, the fathers, failing so utterly at being decent people that it’s no wonder the youth turn into nihilistic zombies.

But the kids have their revenge, in the form of Wu Jing, Sammo’s top assassin. Clad all in white, the color of death, Wu systematically slices through the cops, a blinding flurry of remorseless, ruthless, soulless butchery. I don’t think he actually has any lines in the entire film: he exists solely to kill. Most of the fight scenes, directed by Donnie Yen, involve Wu, and most of them are over before they start, so much does he outclass his opponents. There are two extended sequences though. One with Donnie and Wu in an alley (at night, tinged blue and shot through with shafts of sickly neon yellows and greens) and the final showdown with Donnie and Sammo. The Donnie/Wu fight is ridiculous and amazing, worth the price of admission by itself, as they say. Blindingly fast and intricate, shot mostly with medium shots and classically edited. As for the other fight, well Sammo was 53 years old when this was released in 2005, a streak of silver in his still-terrible hair, and he certainly had gained some weight in the 15 years since his last masterpiece, Pedicab Driver, trading his usual speed and acrobatics for a dare-I-say lumbering power. He mostly holds his own with Donnie, ten years his junior, but as I recall he fared better in Donnie and Yip’s Ip Man films. The fight is more of a wrestling match than a proper kung fu duel, Sammo putting his added weight to use with a number of throws and much destroyed furniture.

In the end, as the fatherhood motif reaches its inevitably unfortunate conclusion, with a plot mechanic straight out of Greek tragedy and music swelling with melodramatic strings, we’re left with a film more emotionally powerful than its basic scenario and imprecise narrative logic gives it any right to be. It doesn’t so much make a coherent argument about fatherhood as it weaves a bunch of backstories into a basic, almost silly plot and then quite earnestly dares you to take it seriously. Yip’s cinematography (shot by Lam Wah-chuen, who shot Fruit Chan’s Made in Hong Kong and Jeffrey Lau’s East Meets West) is in the ultra-crisp digital style of post-Infernal Affairs Hong Kong that cools the burry hotness of the red and blue tinged-nightlife of the 80s and 90s classics, making it seem at once more dangerous and more phony. It’s flashy and stylish and all those words, but I longed for the controlled theatricality of Johnnie To’s deep black shadows. The film’s final image, though, is something special. It’s as haunting and heart-breaking a moment as I’ve seen in any film this century.

This Week in Rankings

Since the last time I updated this, I sold one house and bought another. We’ll be moving a few miles south to Tacoma at the end of May, a nicer house in a nicer neighborhood that’s nonetheless within reasonable driving distance to Scarecrow Video. In between house showings and viewings, I managed to write about some musicals (Bye Bye Birdie and I Doot It and In the Good Old Summertime) and a bunch of Hong Kong movies: John Woo’s Heroes Shed No Tears and Once a Thief and his epic Red Cliff, Tsui Hark’s Love in the Time of Twilight and The Lovers, Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, and Ann Hui’s Zodiac Killers.

On The George Sanders Show, we discussed Orson Welles’s The Magnificent Ambersons and Jia Zhangke’s Platform. The next episode, on Raya Martin and Mark Peranson’s La última película and WC Fields’s Never Give a Sucker an Even Break, will be up in a few days. As well, the first Vincente Minnelli episode of the They Shot Pictures podcast, covering his musicals, specifically The Pirate, The Band Wagon and Gigi, has been posted. My next They Shot Pictures will be on Lau Kar-leung, to come sometime in June, after we move. I’m very much looking forward to that one.

Over at letterboxd I have a number of lists, some of them new, some newly updated (such as my on-going Running Out of Karma tally, now up to 63 movies). I’ve also got short reviews of pretty much everything I don’t cover at length over here at The End.

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

Never Give a Sucker an Even Break (Edward Cline) – 11, 1941
The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles) – 4, 1942
I Dood It (Vincente Minnelli) – 19, 1943
Yolanda and the Thief (Vincente Minnelli) – 24, 1945
The Pirate (Vincente Minnelli) – 3, 1948

In the Good Old Summertime (Robert Z. Leonard) – 32, 1949
An American in Paris (Vincente Minnelli) – 2, 1951
The Band Wagon (Vincente Minnelli) – 1, 1953
Brigadoon (Vincente Minnelli) – 6, 1954
Kismet (Vincente Minnelli) – 34, 1955

Gigi (Vincente Minnelli) – 16, 1958
Bye Bye Birdie (George Sidney) – 12, 1963
The Last Movie (Dennis Hopper) – 7, 1971
The American Dreamer (Kit Carson & Lawrence Schiller) – 10, 1971
Heroes Shed No Tears (John Woo) – 30, 1986

A Moment of Romance (Benny Chan) – 28, 1990
Zodiac Killers (Ann Hui) – 22, 1991
Once a Thief (John Woo) – 35, 1991
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai) – 1, 1994
The Lovers (Tsui Hark) – 27, 1994

Love in the Time of Twilight (Tsui Hark) – 6, 1995
Tri-Star (Tsui Hark) – 27, 1996
Xiao Wu (Jia Zhangke) – 6, 1997
Double Team (Tsui Kark) – 23, 1997
Knock Off (Tsui Hark) – 26, 1998

Platform (Jia Zhangke) – 3, 2000
Mission: Impossible II (John Woo) – 15, 2000
Time and Tide (Tsui Hark) – 16, 2000
Red Cliff (John Woo) – 9, 2008
Journey to the West (Stephen Chow) – 10, 2013

On Two (Lesser) MGM Musicals

I Dood It (Vincente Minnelli, 1943)

Vincente Minnelli’s second film is pretty much a straight remake of Buster Keaton’s last silent picture, Spite Marriage. Red Skelton plays the Keaton role, a sap obsessed with an actress who finds himself married to her when she wants to get back at her lover. The actress is played by tap-dancing dynamo Eleanor Powell, and the film’s primary flaw is how little she’s allowed to be herself.

Throughout her late 30s films, Powell proved herself a remarkable film presence, athletic and fast and graceful, her performances exploded the otherwise disastrously generic films she found herself in. (She arguably out-danced Fred Astaire in Broadway Melody of 1940, not even Gene Kelly could claim that accomplishment). When she wasn’t dancing though, she was mostly harmless, charming, cute, but unmemorable. She gets a lot more to do acting-wise her and she manages to pull out off splendidly. Not just as the comic prop in the famous “putting the passed-out wife to bed sequence”, the best sequence in Keaton’s film and passably recreated here, but in the film’s less spectacular spaces she manages to create a whole, realistic person, no easy feat in a Red Skelton movie.

The problem though is that there simply aren’t enough musical numbers. MGM seemed to realize this, as there are a couple wholly superfluous number right in the center of the film, with Hazel Scott doing “Taking a Chance on Love” (the best song from Minnelli’s debut, Cabin in the Sky) and Lena Horne singing “Jericho”. These are terrific, but their only relation to the movie we’re watching is that Skelton happens to be in the theatre at the same time as them.

Even worse is that Powell only gets three dance numbers. The first comes near the beginning, a fantastic Western number with rope tricks. The second is an all-too-brief Hawaiian dream sequence. The third is outright stolen from the climax of Powell’s 1936 film Born to Dance, with Skelton simply cut into the footage where James Stewart was in the original. Try as TCM’s Robert Osborne did to convince me that wartime necessity made such a recycling an understandable necessity, I remain unconvinced. It just smacks of corporate laziness. And Osborne didn’t mention it, but as I suspected, that second number is ripped off too, from Powell’s 1939 film Honolulu. Lame. Eleanor Powell had such a short film career, with only about ten films over eight years before she retired (there were a couple of minor roles to follow, along with a nightclub act, but mostly she focused on raising her son (she was married to Glenn Ford)). I’ve been trying to think of a kung fu movie equivalent for Powell. In terms of career brevity and performing skill, and subpar quality of the pictures she found herself in, the best match I could think of is Bruce Lee. She’s obviously not the multi-national icon Lee was and remains to this day, but in terms of on-screen output, I think it’s a fair comparison. If so, then this might reasonably be considered something like one of those Bruceploitation films that recycled old footage of him into a cheap formula product.

In the Good Old Summertime (Robert Z. Leonard, 1949)

It’s tempting to say that the difference between The Shop Around the Corner and this its musical remake is the difference between the work of an auteur like Ernst Lubitsch and the work of a studio machinist like Robert Z. Leonard. Tempting, but that doesn’t really capture just how much is wrong with this film.

There’s the sitcomization of the plot, with the central conflict between the shop owner and his best employee reduced from the suspicion of sexual betrayal leading to attempted suicide to a simple misunderstanding revolving around a leaden prop-based running joke.

There’s the total inadequacy of Van Johnson as the romantic lead. I mean, it’s no easy task being compared to James Stewart, the greatest motion picture actor of all-time, but apparently Van Johnson was a thing with great popular appeal and I have no idea why. He’s tall I guess. He’s fine as Gene Kelly’s morose, cynical, drunk sidekick in Brigadoon, but as the prime mover of this film he’s inert.

There’s the ghost of Buster Keaton, in the last of his MGM roles. At least in this one his character isn’t named “Elmer”. He’d be a waxwork in the next year’s Sunset Blvd.

The best thing about the film, as usual, is Judy Garland. But the part wasn’t written for her; she was a last-minute replacement for June Allyson. Rather than rewire the script to accommodate more music, instead they just awkwardly shoehorn in some songs for her to sing (because apparently when you buy a song score at a music shop, you want the clerk to sing you the tune (though if you can’t read music, why buy the score?). The songs aren’t very good, even the best one, the title song, sounds like a cheap rehash of “Meet Me in St. Louis” (not unlike the film’s turn of the century Chicago setting and that earlier Garland film, actually). Of course, the film takes place almost entirely at Christmastime, so maybe naming the movie after that song wasn’t the best idea?