SIFF 2014: Unforgiven

I don’t know that the world particularly needed a remake of Unforgiven set in Japan, but here is one and it’s fine I guess. It follows Clint Eastwood’s 1992 masterpiece almost scene for scene, with a few variations. An old retired killer is brought back by a friend to help collect the ransom on two ranchers who sliced up a whore. They’re joined on the quest by a young man who talks a big game but maybe isn’t so experienced as he sounds. They’re opposed by the local magistrate (not sure his exact title, everyone calls him “Chief”) an old fighter himself gone legitimate but no less sadistic.

Eastwood’s film is dark and brutal, leavened by some deadpan comedy, a tour de force performance from Gene Hackman, and a sly encapsulation of the history of the Western genre, as seen through the eyes of a pulp writer played by Saul Rubinek. We see the stories of gunfighters on the range with increasing “realism” as first the classical myth (promulgated by Richard Harris’s English Bob) is deflated by Hackman’s revisionism, and then by Eastwood’s nihilism. Violence in Harris’s world is a matter of honor, in Hackman’s it is low comedy and psychological horror and in Eastwood’s it is simply a matter of drunken chance. Eastwood deconstructs the genre to its core, laying bare the senseless heart of America’s conquest of the West.

None of that really translates to director Lee Sang-il’s remake, however. He sets the film 13 years into the Meiji period, in the late 19th century, a period of rapid modernization in Japan when the last vestiges of the Tokugawa Shogunate were swept away in favor of industry and railroads following the forcible opening up of Japan to the West in the 1850s and 60s. The film begins slightly before that, with Meiji troops hunting down former samurai and executing them, the samurai being the ruling class of the Tokugawa era and symbolic of the kind of feudalism the new government was attempting to erase. Our hero, Jubei, played by a stolid Ken Watanbe, is one of these fleeing samurai. Set on the far northern island of Hokkaido, among the indigenous Ainu people, Lee finds neat equivalents to the industrialization of the American West and the extermination of its own indigenous peoples.

But none of that really translates into a generic critique. There are nods to previous samurai films, most notably in the young man (an Ainu himself) who joins Jubei and his old friend Kingo on the mission, who does a reasonable impression of Toshiro Mifune in Seven Samurai. His bluster, his beard scratching, his drunken wobbling and more are lifted straight from Kurosawa’s film, rather than sourced in the Eastwood movie. Mifune plays a farmer who joins the samurai in their defense of a village and after constantly butting up against their rigid social codes ends up distinguishing himself as perhaps the bravest of them all. In equating the young Ainu with this character, Lee sets up an implicit genre statement, but fails to fully explore it. In Eastwood’s original, the young man has grown up enamored with the romance of the Western gunfighter. He poses as a badass killer, but when faced with the actual reality of such a life decides that it is not for him, it’s simply too horrible. The Ainu follows a similar arc, but it’s unclear if Lee means this as a specific refutation of Kurosawa’s hero. If so, it’s a poor analogy (a man serving in defense of a helpless village and an extra-legal bounty killing hardly amount to the same thing).

More underdeveloped though is the writer character. Not that there wasn’t opportunity here, as samurai literature and the ethos it promulgated is as essential to Japanese history as Western literature is to America, especially considering the ways in which the samurai code was twisted in the run-up to Japan’s imperialist wars of the 1930s and 40s. But while Lee includes the writer character, there’s no clear sense of the generic or philosophic distinctions between the three swordsmen he follows. The initial one, traditionally dressed, speaking of clan wars, is a good analogue to English Bob, and the Chief effectively captures the thin veneer of institutional authority the Hackman character uses to legitimize his sadism (if never becoming as unhinged as Hackman does), But Watanabe’s character doesn’t come across as a new generic type in the way Eastwood’s does. A lot of the dialogue is missing (the “He shoulda armed himself” joke and Eastwood’s explanation that he didn’t have a plan for who to shoot first, he was just lucky) and the film gives us a different ending. Rather than a world ruled by randomness, Lee’s ending gives us a brutal world, one in which a killer is let loose, marching angrily throughout he snow in extreme close up, finally cut off from his civilizing family. A man to be feared. Eastwood gave us a killer of women and children who runs a profitable dry goods store in San Francisco.

The result then is less than satisfactory. The multiple levels that Eastwood’s film operates on justify its deliberate pace and gnarled story structure. The time we spend in the world pays off in the genre-shattering climax, notable not for its violence, but for its break with both tradition and the long quiet moments and mournful landscapes that preceded it. Lee’s film, though, without that extra layer of subversion, ends up being just a long slow build to a very gory conclusion, the spare guitar of Eastwood’s score replaced by a melodramatic orchestra.

SIFF 2014: Night Moves

I was unprepared for Kelly Reichardt to take a left turn into conventionality after the greatness that was Meek’s Cutoff. Jesse Eisenberg sulks his way through the movie as the least charismatic radical environmentalist in history. The first half of the movie or so, as Eisenberg, Peter Sarsgard and Dakota Fanning plan and execute their operation, is a pretty solid minimalist suspense movie. The aftermath however locks us into Eisenberg’s POV and it becomes apparent just how much more interesting those other characters were. As a case study of a certain kind of sociopathic weirdo (the kind with extremely leftist politics I guess) it’s fine, but doesn’t really go anywhere all that interesting. “Hippies are creeps too” isn’t particularly enlightening (another reading: “all men are creeps, even the guys that are totally into sustainable agriculture”, even less so). Sarsgard has the least amount of screen time yet leaves the most lasting impression, with Fanning and Eisenberg lost in their polar opposite approaches to overacting (she’s all motion and tics and nervousness, he’s all mopey eyes, clenched jaw and evil brow). The supporting cast (headed by Alia Shawkat and James LeGros) brings the much needed humor and humanity, but not enough of it.

The Best War Movies of All-Time

One of the first in-depth things I ever wrote here at The End was this look at Saving Private Ryan, shortly before Memorial Day way back in 2007. That was a couple lifetimes ago in internet terms, but I stand by most if not all of what I wrote then (there was a glaring error in character identification pointed out to me in a comment, for example), which basically amounted to “Saving Private Ryan is not a good movie and there are a lot of war movies that are a lot better”. At the end of the essay, I appended a list of 53 war movies from the previous 50 years I had seen that I thought were “better” than Saving Private Ryan: some acknowledged classics (Apocalypse Now, Lawrence of Arabia), some relative obscurities (Hell in the Pacific, Zulu), some controversial picks (Pearl Harbor). A year later I updated the list, this time including all of film history and splitting up the group by conflict (World War I Movies, American Civil War movies, etc). I didn’t do a full ranking of all of them together, but I estimated at that time Saving Private Ryan was about the 100th best war movie of all-time.

Well, this Memorial Day Weekend I feel it’s time for an update. I’m going to break down all the war movies I’ve seen by general category here, with a combined ranked Top 150 list posted over at Letterboxd. I don’t have a strict generic definition of “war movie”, as with every other ranking, I’m just playing it by ear. I’m probably omitting some obvious ones, but as best I can tell, these are the war movies I’ve seen.

World War I:

1. Lawrence of Arabia (David Lean, 1962)
2. The Grand Illusion (Jean Renoir, 1937)
3. The Big Parade (King Vidor, 1925)
5. The Dawn Patrol (Howard Hawks, 1930)
4. 7th Heaven (Frank Borzage, 1927)
6. Pilgrimage (John Ford, 1933)
7. All Quiet on the Western Front (Lewis Milestone, 1930)
8. The African Queen (John Huston, 1951)
9. Gallipoli (Peter Weir, 1981)
10. Lucky Star (Frank Borzage, 1929)
11. War Horse (Steven Spielberg, 2011)
12. Wings (William Wellman, 1927)
13. The Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse (Rex Ingram, 1921)
14. Paths of Glory (Stanley Kubrick, 1957)
15. What Price Glory? (Raoul Walsh, 1926)
16. Sergeant York (Howard Hawks, 1941)
17. A Farewell to Arms (Frank Borzage, 1932)
18. The Lost Patrol (John Ford, 1934)
19. Dark Journey (Victor Saville, 1937)
20. A Very Long Engagement (Jean-Pierre Jeunet, 2004)

The Middle Ages (More or Less):

1. Chimes at Midnight (Orson Welles, 1965)
2. Robin and Marian (Richard Lester, 1976)
3. Die Nibelungen (Fritz Lang, 1924)
4. Alexander Nevsky (Sergei Eisenstein, 1938)
5. Culloden (Peter Watkins, 1964)
6. Henry V (Kenneth Branagh, 1989)
7. Excalibur (John Boorman, 1981)
8. Henry V (Laurence Olivier, 1944)
9. Centurion (Neil Marshall, 2010)
10. The Messenger (Luc Besson, 1999)
11. Braveheart (Mel Gibson, 1995)
12. Saint Joan (Otto Preminger, 1957)
13. Kingdom of Heaven (Ridley Scott, 2005)
14. Robin Hood: Prince of Thieves (Kevin Reynolds, 1991)

The American Civil War:

1. The General (Buster Keaton & Clyde Bruckman, 1926)
2. The Good, the Bad & the Ugly (Sergio Leone, 1966)
3. Gone with the Wind (Victor Fleming, 1939)
4. The Tall Target (Anthony Mann, 1951)
5. Band of Angels (Raoul Walsh, 1957)
6. Glory (Edward Zwick, 1989)
7. Ride with the Devil (Ang Lee, 1999)
8. Springfield Rifle (André de Toth, 1952)
9. The Horse Soldiers (John Ford, 1959)
10. Gettysburg (Ronald F. Maxwell, 1993)
11. Shenandoah (Andrew V. McLaglen, 1965)
12. Birth of a Nation (DW Griffith, 1915)
13. Gods and Generals (Ronald F. Maxwell, 2003)
14. Virginia City (Michael Curtiz, 1940)
15. Santa Fe Trail (Michael Curtiz, 1940)

American Colonial Wars:

1. Fort Apache (John Ford, 1948)
2. The Last of the Mohicans (Michael Mann, 1992)
3. Heaven’s Gate (Michael Cimino, 1980)
4. She Wore a Yellow Ribbon (John Ford, 1949)
5. Run of the Arrow (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
6. Devil’s Doorway (Anthony Mann, 1950)
7. Sergeant Rutledge (John Ford, 1960)
8. Northwest Passage (King Vidor, 1940)
9. They Died with Their Boots On (Raoul Walsh, 1941)
10. Drums Along the Mohawk (John Ford, 1939)
11. Rio Grande (John Ford, 1950)
12. The Last of the Mohicans (George B. Seitz, 1936)
13. Cheyenne Autumn (John Ford, 1964)

British Colonial Wars:

1. Zulu (Cy Endfield, 1964)
2. The Chess Players (Satyajit Ray, 1977)
3. Wee Willie Winkie (John Ford, 1937)
4. Gunga Din (George Stevens, 1939)
5. The Man Who Would Be King (John Huston, 1975)
6. The Four Feathers (Zoltan Korda, 1939)
7. Breaker Morant (Bruce Beresford, 1980)
8. Khartoum (Basil Dearden, 1966)

French Revolution(s) and Napoleonic Wars:

1. La Commune (Paris, 1871) (Peter Watkins, 2000)
2. The Black Book (Anthony Mann, 1949)
3. Master and Commander (Peter Weir, 2003)
4. Orphans of the Storm (DW Griffith, 1921)
5. War and Peace (King Vidor, 1956)

Russian Revolution(s):

1. The Red and the White (Miklos Jancso, 1967)
2. Battleship Potemkin (Sergei Eisenstein, 1925)
3. Archangel (Guy Maddin, 1990)
4. Reds (Warren Beatty, 1981)
5. The Last Command (Josef von Sternberg, 1928)
6. October (Sergei Eisenstein, 1928)
7. Dr. Zhivago (David Lean, 1965)
8. Prisoner of the Mountains (Sergei Bodrov, 1996)

Irish Revolution(s):

1. The Wind that Shakes the Barley (Ken Loach, 2006)
2. Odd Man Out (Carol Reed, 1947)
3. Michael Collins (Neil Jordan, 1996)
4. The Informer (John Ford, 1935)
5. The Plough and the Stars (John Ford, 1936)

World War II in Europe:

1. Casablanca (Michael Curtiz, 1942)
2. The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (Powell & Pressburger, 1943)
3. The Big Red One (Samuel Fuller, 1980)
4. Inglourious Basterds (Quentin Tarantino, 2009)
5. To Have and Have Not (Howard Hawks, 1944)
6. Rome, Open City (Roberto Rossellini, 1945)
7. Paisan (Roberto Rossellini, 1946)
8. Army of Shadows (Jean-Pierre Melville, 1969)
9. Cranes are Flying (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1957)
10. The English Patient (Anthony Minghella, 1996)
11. The Train (John Frankenheimer, 1964)
12. Bitter Victory (Nicholas Ray, 1957)
13. To Be or Not To Be (Ernst Lubitsch, 1942)
14. Patton (Franklin J. Schaffner, 1970)
15. The Mortal Storm (Frank Borzage, 1940)
16. Hangmen Also Die! (Fritz Lang, 1943)
17. A Bridge Too Far (Richard Attenborough, 1977)
18. Das Boot (Wolfgang Petersen, 1981)
19. Ashes and Diamonds (Andrzej Wadja, 1958)
20. Kanal (Andrzej Wadja, 1957)
21. Hell is for Heroes (Don Siegel, 1962)
22. The Long Voyage Home (John Ford, 1940)
23. Once Upon a Honeymoon (Leo McCarey, 1942)
24. Lifeboat (Alfred Hitchcock, 1944)
25. The Sorrow and the Pity (Marcel Ophuls, 1969)
26. Come and See (Elem Klimov, 1985)
27. The Dirty Dozen (Robert Aldrich, 1967)
28. A Time to Love and a Time to Die (Douglas Sirk, 1958)
29. The Great Dictator (Charles Chaplin, 1940)
30. Passage to Marseille (Michael Curtiz, 1944)
31. Man Hunt (Fritz Lang, 1941)
32. Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock, 1940)
33. The Story of GI Joe (William Wellman, 1945)
34. The Small Back Room (Powell & Pressburger, 1949)
35. Five Graves to Cairo (Billy Wilder, 1943)
36. This Land is Mine (Jean Renoir, 1943)
37. Battleground (William Wellman, 1949)
38. Fixed Bayonets! (Samuel Fuller, 1951)
39. The Longest Day (Various, 1962)
40. Schindler’s List (Steven Spielberg, 1993)
41. Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970)
42. Ill Met By Moonlight (Powell & Pressburger, 1957)
43. Night Train to Munich (Carol Reed, 1940)
44. Sundown (Henry Hathaway, 1941)
45. Judgement at Nuremburg (Stanley Kramer, 1961)
46. A Walk in the Sun (Lewis Milestone, 1945)

47. Closely Watched Trains (Jiri Menzel, 1966)
48. Ministry of Fear (Fritz Lang, 1944)
49. The Guns of Navarone (J. Lee Thompson, 1961)
50. Stalag 17 (Billy Wilder, 1953)

51. Europa Europa (Agnieszka Holland, 1990)
52. Saving Private Ryan (Steven Spielberg, 1998)
53. A Midnight Clear (Keith Gordon, 1992)
54. Victory (John Huston, 1981)
55. Captain America (Joe Johnston, 2011)
56. Where Eagles Dare (Brian G. Hutton, 1968)
57. The Heroes of Telemark (Anthony Mann, 1965)
58. Atonement (Joe Wright, 2007)
59. The Enemy Below (Dick Powell, 1957)
60. Mission to Moscow (Michael Curtiz, 1943)
61. The Hill (Sidney Lumet, 1965)
62. Watch on the Rhine (Herman Shumlin, 1943)

World War II in the Pacific:

1. The Thin Red Line (Terrence Malick, 1998)
2. They Were Expendable (John Ford, 1945)
3. Merry Christmas, Mr. Lawrence (Nagisa Oshima, 1983)
4. Hell in the Pacific (John Boorman, 1968)
5. Air Force (Howard Hawks, 1943)
6. The Saga of Anatahan (Josef von Sternberg, 1953)
7. Empire of the Sun (Steven Spielberg, 1987)
8. No Regrets for Our Youth (Akira Kurosawa, 1946)
9. The Battle of Midway (John Ford, 1942)
10. Flags of Our Fathers (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
11. Sands of Iwo Jima (Allan Dwan, 1949)

12. Objective: Burma! (Raoul Walsh, 1945)

13. Flying Leathernecks (Nicholas Ray, 1951)

14. Letters from Iwo Jima (Clint Eastwood, 2006)
15. China Girl (Henry Hathaway, 1942)
16. Wake Island (John Farrow, 1942)
17. Bridge on the River Kwai (David Lean, 1957)
18. Beach Red (Cornel Wilde, 1967)
19. Back to Bataan (Edward Dmytryk, 1945)
20. Too Late the Hero (Robert Aldrich, 1970)
21. From Here to Eternity (Fred Zinnemann, 1953)
22. Never So Few (John Sturges, 1959)
23. Pearl Harbor (Michael Bay, 2001)

World War II at Home:

1. A Canterbury Tale (Powell & Pressburger, 1944)
2. Hiroshima mon amour (Alain Resnais, 1959)
3. The Best Years of Our Lives (William Wyler, 1946)
4. 49th Parallel (Powell & Pressburger, 1941)
5. Grave of the Fireflies (Isao Takahata, 1988)
6. Mrs. Miniver (William Wyler, 1942)
7. Northern Pursuit (Raoul Walsh, 1943)
8. The House on 92nd Street (Henry Hathaway, 1945)
9. Saboteur (Alfred Hitchcock, 1942)

10. In Harm’s Way (Otto Preminger, 1965)

11. Until They Sail (Robert Wise, 1957)

The Korean War:

1. The Steel Helmet (Samuel Fuller, 1951)
2. Men in War (Anthony Mann, 1957)
3. MASH (Robert Altman, 1970)


1. Apocalypse Now (Francis Ford Coppola, 1979)
2. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh, 2013)
3. Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 1990)
4. Platoon (Oliver Stone, 1986)
5. Eastern Condors (Sammo Hung, 1987)
6. Full Metal Jacket (Stanley Kubrick, 1987)
7. Boat People (Ann Hui, 1982)
8. China Gate (Samuel Fuller, 1957)
9. Hearts and Minds (Peter Davis, 1974)
10. Rescue Dawn (Werner Herzog, 2006)
11. The Deer Hunter (Michael Cimino, 1978)
12. The Killing Fields (Roland Joffe, 1984)
13. The Quiet American (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1958)
14. Rambo: First Blood Part II (George P. Cosmatos, 1985)
15. Coming Home (Hal Ashby, 1978)
16. Good Morning, Vietnam (Barry Levinson, 1987)
17. Air America (Roger Spottiswoode, 1990)

Latin America:

1. I am Cuba (Mikhail Kalatozov, 1964)
2. The Mission (Roland Joffe, 1986)

3. Predator (John McTeirnan, 1987)
4. Salvador (Oliver Stone, 1986)
5. Che (Steven Soderberg, 2008)

6. Major Dundee (Sam Peckinpah, 1965)

7. Havana (Sydney Pollack, 1990)
8. The Alamo (John Wayne, 1960)

American Gulf Wars (and Somalia too):

1. Zero Dark Thirty (Kathryn Bigelow, 2012)
2. The Hurt Locker (Kathryn Bigelow, 2008)
3. Black Hawk Down (Ridley Scott, 2001)
4. Three Kings (David O. Russell, 1999)
5. Courage Under Fire (Edward Zwick, 1996)

French Foreign Legion:

1. Morocco (Josef von Sternberg, 1930)
2. Beau travail (Claire Denis, 1999)
3. Beau Geste (William Wellman, 1939)

Chinese Wars:

1. Good Men, Good Women (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1995)
2. A Touch of Zen (King Hu, 1971)
3. Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark, 1986)
4. Shanghai Express (Josef von Sternberg, 1932)
5. Dragon Gate Inn (King Hu, 1967)
6. 7 Women (John Ford, 1966)
7. The Heroic Ones (Chang Cheh, 1970)
8. Red Cliff (John Woo, 2008)
9. The Fate of Lee Khan (King Hu, 1973)
10. Magnificent Warriors (David Chung, 1987)
11. Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Andrew Lau, 2010)
12. Boxer Rebellion (Chang Cheh, 1976)
13. The Good, the Bad, the Weird (Kim Jee-woon, 2008)
14. The Bitter Tea of General Yen (Frank Capra, 1933)
15. Bodyguards & Assassins (Teddy Chan, 2009)
16. Sons of the Good Earth (King Hu, 1965)
17. 55 Days at Peking (Nicholas Ray, 1963)

Japanese Wars:

1. Seven Samurai (Akira Kurosawa, 1954)
2. Ran (Akira Kurosawa, 1985)
3. The Men Who Tread on the Tiger’s Tail (Akira Kurosawa, 1945)
4. The Hidden Fortress (Akira Kurosawa, 1958)
5. The Loyal 47 Ronin (Kenji Mizoguchi, 1941)
6. Kagemusha (Akira Kurosawa, 1980)

Mediterranean/Middle Eastern Wars:

1. The Battle of Algiers (Gillo Pontecorvo, 1966)
2. The Leopard (Luchino Visconti, 1963)
3. Ishtar (Elaine May, 1987)
4. Munich (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
5. The Spanish Earth (Joris Ivens, 1937)
6. Spirit of the Beehive (Victor Erice, 1973)
7. Senso (Luchino Visconti, 1954)
8. Spartacus (Stanley Kubrick, 1960)
9. Waltz with Bashir (Ari Folman, 2008)
10. Le petit soldat (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
11. Pan’s Labyrinth (Guillermo del Toro, 2006)
12. Exodus (Otto Preminger, 1960)
13. Cleopatra (Cecil B. DeMille, 1934)
14. 300 (Zack Snyder, 2007)
15. Cleopatra (Joseph L. Mankiewicz, 1963)

Fictional Wars:

1. Duck Soup (Leo McCarey, 1933)
2. The Adventures of Robin Hood (Michael Curtiz, 1938)
3. The Empire Strikes Back (Irvin Kershner, 1980)
4. Dr. Strangelove (Stanley Kubrick, 1964)
5. They Live (John Carpenter, 1988)
6. Star Wars (George Lucas, 1977)
7. Aliens (James Cameron, 1986)
8. The Road Warrior (George Miller, 1981)
9. The War Game (Peter Watkins, 1965)
10. No Greater Glory (Frank Borzage, 1934)
11. Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (Tsui Hark, 1983)
12. Mars Attacks! (Tim Burton, 1996)
13. Starship Troopers (Paul Verhoeven, 1997)
14. Top Gun (Tony Scott, 1986)
15. The Warriors (Walter Hill, 1979)
16. Princess Mononoke (Hayao MIyazaki, 1998)
17. Return of the Jedi (Richard Marquand, 1983)
18. Stripes (Ivan Reitman, 1981)
19. Army of Darkness (Sam Raimi, 1993)
20. Red Dawn (John Milius, 1984)
21. Castle in the Sky (Hayao Miyazaki, 1986)
22. Things to Come (William Cameron Menzies, 1935)
23. Les carabiniers (Jean-Luc Godard, 1963)
24. War of the Worlds (Steven Spielberg, 2005)
25. Children of Men (Alfonso Cuaron, 2006)
26. The Siege (Edward Zwick, 1998)
27. Avatar (James Cameron, 2009)
28. Independence Day (Roland Emmerich, 1996)
29. Dune (David Lynch, 1984)
30. The Last Starfighter (Nick Castle, 1984)

SIFF 2014: Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After

The end of the world, maybe. A late night minibus seems to drive into the Twilight Zone: everyone else in Hong Kong disappears, and then passengers begin dying in unusual ways. Lam Suet drives the bus, Simon Yam (sporting perhaps his most incredible haircut yet) grabs a leadership role, Kara Hui spouts metaphysical mumbo jumbo about the Photon Belt and their impeding transportation (over 1000 years) to their new home near Sirius, while the younger generation (soccer fans, a junkie, punk kids, college students) have no theories as to what’s going on and no direction (the girl Yuki and boy Chi withhold possibly relevant information at every turn, a married couple apparently sees the world through soccer metaphors, a computer programmer has some tools but no idea what to do with them).

As it becomes clear that director Fruit Chan won’t gives us, or them, a clear explanation of what has happened, he offers a handful of possibilities, based on the insecurities and anxieties of contemporary Hong Kongers both primal and political: is it a Fukushima-type disaster, from a plant on the Mainland? A plot by the North Koreans (who claim to be the source of all Chinese culture)? A SARS-style epidemic? Is it somehow related to the fact that Hong Kongers are soon to be allowed to vote for their own President? Is it ghosts? Aliens? Are they ghosts? What does David Bowie have to do with it all?

Based on a serialized web novel called Lost on a Red Minibus to Taipo by PIZZA, the film is as hilarious as it is horrifying. It’s full of beautiful grotesqueries, shocking imagery (a man in a gas mask, a woman with unnaturally flowing hair, a red red rain) but the eeriest of all are the empty streets of Hong Kong. One of the most densely populated places on Earth (even at 2:30 in the morning, when the film begins) suddenly emptied of people and vehicles and noise. But what it isn’t is a concise and coherent narrative. On-screen titles give us the exact time and location of every event (like in Psycho) but that information only gives us a false sense of security, of order. Knowing the time and place is nice, but that doesn’t free you from the random whims of the universe (like in Psycho). Images and events are left unexplained: mysterious phone calls, vanished memories, flashbacks to pasts both sad and happy. Members decline to share possibly important (and bizarre) facts with the other members of the group. An impromptu justice system is established and an execution agonizingly botched. A prime mover of the first half of the story mostly disappears from the back half, his mysteries left unresolved. All of this dangling and inexplicability and incongruence is not a failure, of course, it is The Point. The film is the horror of death as Unanswered Question, and as the end of the possibility of Answering Questions.

Notes on James Cameron’s Terminator Movies

Some notes on the first two films in the series, movies I’ve seen more times than I can remember. The first a surpass hit, a relatively low-budget genre film that exploded both James Cameron and Arnold Schwarzenegger’s career, a staple of my VHS-renting days. The second, released the summer I was 15 years old, I recall as the biggest movie event in the history of cinema.

The Terminator


The plot isn’t as tight as it should be, with both Reese (the parking garage) and Sarah (calling mom) giving away their position far too easily/stupidly. But that can be forgiven as narrative shorthand: The Terminator (The Beast, Death, The End) is inexorable, he will find you.

I remain heartened by the boldness with which the film accepts the impossible paradox at its heart with no explanation, no timey-wimey mumbo jumbo. Sarah simply accepts the factness of what she has seen, and so gets to work.

The shot, cribbed from Alien, of the robot arm grasping at Sarah’s face might be the most famous, but the early one, of big naked Arnold looking out over the vastness of nighttime Los Angeles, a giant on the eve of conquest, is the most prophetic.

Terminator 2: Judgement Day

At once more juvenile and more pretentious than the first film.

Everything involving Linda Hamilton’s Sarah Conner is exceptional, a normal woman pushed beyond sanity by knowledge of a future she might be able to prevent. Robert Patrick’s villain too is great, though I’m not sure it entirely makes sense (the liquid metal can reform from a thousand shattered pieces into a complex terminating machine, but it can’t make a gun because it has moving parts?) The special effects make up for a lot, with a lunatic vehicle chase, lots of big explosions and a trend-setting orange vs. teal final showdown.

I never thought I’d say this, but Schwarzenegger simply isn’t robotic enough. He’s great in the first film, the embodiment of implacable destruction. But his Frankenstein’s Monster turned Pinocchio here is far too charming, too human, too winkily comic (right from the start too, with the cringe-worthy “Bad to the Bone” needle drop).

In shifting the hero role from the adults to a 10 year old boy, the film is one of the last steps in the transformation of the action blockbuster that began with ET, one that sought to bring its main characters, and, not necessarily but usually, its level of emotional and intellectual insight, to the level of their target audience, namely 10 year old boys. There had always been films about kids, of course, but it was rare in the studio era to have such a high profile action picture with pre-pubescent leads (in fact, there was a whole separate genre for them, the boys adventures (Moonfleet, Captains Courageous and the like) being separate from the grown-up adventures Gunga Din or Stagecoach and so on). The first Terminator, all grown up, was released in the year Indiana Jones added Short Round, the first step in the dumbing down process of that series, which eventually led to Shia LeBouf-Tarzan jokes. (See also the wholly superfluous children of Jurassic Park). Even Michael Bay eventually succumbed to this trend (though his films were always keyed to the young boy mentality, it wasn’t until Transformers that they actually starred one). These films always existed side-by-side with more traditional grown-up films (the Lethal Weapon series, or the Predator movies), but it was the ones with kids that most dominated from the mid 80s to the mid 90s.

Anyway, pretty much everything involving the monster and the boy is awful.

“I know now why you cry.”

This Week in Rankings

Since the last rankings update, I’ve been watching a lot of Running Out of Karma movies, shifting focus a bit from the 80s and 90s films I had been watching, first to more recent Hong Kong films and then further back, to the late 60s and early 70s. I’ve got a couple of Hong Kong They Shot Pictures episodes lined up for this summer, one on Lau Kar-leung and one on King Hu, so I’ll be looking at Johnnie To’s antecedents for awhile, rather than his contemporaries. Eventually I will get back to To himself though, having made it only three films into his career in six months so far. Meanwhile, in the last month or so I have reviews up of: SPL, New Dragon Gate Inn, Wuxia, The Legend is Born: Ip Man, Ip Man: The Final Fight, The Duel, Ten Tigers of Kwangtung, Tai Chi Zero & Tai Chi Hero, Fist of Fury & The Way of the Dragon, and The Assassin.

Also coming up is some coverage of the Seattle International Film Festival. Mike and I will be devoting a couple episodes of The George Sanders Show to the festival, starting the first weekend of June. Our most recent episode covers Under the Skin and Starman (and Only Lovers Left Alive), and coming up next week will be a discussion of Hatari! and White Hunter, Black Heart.

As always, you can check out my letterboxd page for short reviews and list updates.

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

Born to Dance (Roy Del Ruth) – 22, 1936
Dumbo (Ben Sharpsteen, et al) – 19, 1941
The Assassin (Chang Cheh) – 22, 1967
The Chinese Boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu) – 11, 1970
The Duel (Chang Cheh) – 17, 1971

Way of the Dragon (Bruce Lee) – 9, 1972
The Boxer from Shantung (Chang Cheh) – 12, 1972
Fist of Fury (Lo Wei) – 14, 1972
Ten Tigers of Kwangtung (Chang Cheh) – 23, 1979
The Dead and the Deadly (Wu Ma) – 30, 1982

Starman (John Carpenter) – 12, 1984
Dirty Dancing (Emile Ardolino) – 40, 1987
Song of the Exile (Ann Hui) – 15, 1990
New Dragon Gate Inn (Raymond Lee) – 35, 1992
The Crow (Alex Proyas) – 62, 1994

Chinese Odyssey 2002 (Jeffrey Lau) – 9, 2002
Running on Karma (Johnnie To & Wai Ka-fai) – 3, 2003
Perhaps Love (Peter Chan) – 5, 2005
SPL (Sha Po Lang) (Wilson Yip) – 16, 2005
The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen) – 9, 2007

The Legend is Born: Ip Man (Herman Yau) – 21, 2010
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark) – 24, 2010
Wuxia (Peter Chan) – 6, 2011
Tai Chi Zero (Stephen Fung) – 27, 2012
Motorway (Cheang Pou-soi) – 31, 2012
Tai Chi Hero (Stephen Fung) – 45, 2012

La última película (Raya Martin & Mark Peranson) – 1, 2013
Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch) – 3, 2013
Ip Man: The Final Fight (Herman Yau) – 16, 2013
Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer) – 23, 2013
Boyhood (Richard Linklater) – 3, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Chang Cheh’s The Assassin

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

Jimmy Wang Yu starred in five films in 1967, three directed by Chang Cheh. The One-Armed Swordsman, of course is a masterpiece, and while this one doesn’t have that film’s wild emotional heights or studio-wrought beauty, it does represent a foundation for a couple of major areas Chang would explore over the next decade.

Set in the Warring States period (the era just before the unification of China under the Qin Dynasty, from around the 400s to 200s BC, the triumph of the Qin occurring just before Hannibal began the Second Punic War by invading Rome through the Alps), the film begins with Wang as a student learning to use the latest in weapons technology, iron (as opposed to bronze) swords. This era is earlier than is typical for Chang, who would spend much of the 70s creating a multi-film history of the Southern Shaolin Temple and its resistance to the Qing Dynasty, almost 2000 years in the future. But student rivalries apparently didn’t change much over that time, and as happens, a bad egg, sexually and professionally jealous, manages to kill Wang’s master and most of his fellow disciples, sending Wang into hiding (after first fulfilling his duty by taking revenge).

Sometime later, a similar betrayal occurs at the highest level of the Han court (Han being one of the warring states). The King’s uncle wants to make a treaty with Qin, while Tien Feng, playing another, smarter advisor, warns him that the Qin are evil. The uncle sends assassins to wipe out Tien’s household, sending Tien into hiding. Tien seeks out Wang (having been lead to him by Wang’s only surviving fellow student) and the two become “brothers”, bonded by the chivalric code.

At this point, 45 minutes in, the film slows down dramatically. We know Tien wants Wang to assassinate the evil Han minister, Tien knows it, and Wang knows it, but he can’t yet because he has other responsibilities. (Tien is now Wang’s brother, so Tien’s vengeance becomes Wang’s: he owes it to him not just because Tien has showered him with wealth, but because the family bond (whether blood or “blood”) is the strongest, most basic unit of society. The master-student relationship takes its power from its pseudo-familial quality. Filial piety is the foundation of all these epic revenge sagas). Rather than just skip around to all the bloody high points, Chang lingers on the details of Wang’s new life, and the nature of the code which he and Tien follow. Wang, in addition to being a great warrior, is an exemplar of xia the concept of chivalry that lies at the core of wuxia, both in literature and film (wu meaning war, so wuxia is more or less “martial chivalry”). As such, he cannot just head off to die a glorious death, he first must protect his family (who will be killed if he is captured or recognized). Only years later, after his mother has died and his sister is married, is Wang free to act. But even then, Chang doesn’t let him. Instead he lingers on the lavish lifestyle of the rich (Wang having made his living as a butcher, Tien’s upper class lifestyle (maintained despite his being in hiding, apparently) is exotic and new: fancy wines and concubines. And finally, Wang reconnects with his old sweetheart, still unmarried and pining away for him. The two spend some happy days together lying in the grass and staring at the studio backdrop stars, but inevitably Wang must go. The Code requires that he leave all this behind: family, wealth, love, to take revenge on behalf of his “brother”.

We know it will end bloodily for Wang, as he marches off, clad all in white, the color of death, bestride a white horse, made only slightly ridiculous by wearing what appears to be a crystal duck on his head. As Chang progressed over the next 15 years or so, he would explore endless variations of this chivalric code and how it affected the men that followed it, continually posing and refusing to answer the question of if the glory they achieved was worth the cost. Across time, fashions change but the Code remains the same: Warring States, Ming and Yuan Dynasties, Qing resistance, right up to the gang wars of 1930s Shanghai or among the triads of the present day. All of Chang’s films end in death, usually a lot of deaths. But what deaths!

Running Out of Karma: Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury and The Way of the Dragon

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

Fist of Fury

Amazing how simple the plot is in comparison with Gordon Chan’s Jet Li-starring remake Fist of Legend. Bruce Lee’s Chenzhen is nothing more or less than a force of nature, bursting on screen in agonized grief, progressing from there through an agonized murderous rampage (in 1930s Shanghai he returns to find his master has been killed. He learns it was by the Japanese, he kills them). Only occasionally is he allowed to express anything other than agony: when he adopts disguises to spy on the Japanese; in his one romantic scene with Nora Miao. Otherwise he may as well be The Hulk. No depth, no complexity (compare Li’s Chenzhen, torn between two cultures and two families, genuinely mixed in his sympathies), simply the pure muscular expression of violent revolution, of the (racial) underclass rising up against their (apparently motiveless?) oppressors. There are hints at self-awareness, of nuance: the fact that so many of Lee’s fellow Chinese feel the effects of his violence, the collateral damage of his rampage, is felt. And the tortured expressions, often in slow motion, that take over Lee’s face when he administers a killing blow convey not the orgasmic release of violence, but the corruption of the mind and soul that each act of destruction takes on him (compare to the puns and wisecracks that accompany such displays in the 80s films of Schwarzenegger and Stallone). Still, it’s not hard at all to see why it was a hit, despite the acting, screenplay, sets, direction, characters, sound design, etc, all cheap and chintzy relative to the films Shaw Brothers was putting out at the same time. Even another Golden Harvest production like Hapkido, with a very similar Chinese vs. Japanese premise, released six months later in 1972, looks better and had more thought put into it.

The Way of the Dragon

Much more satisfying than Lee’s previous two films, The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. The plot is still deathly simple: Lee is sent by his uncle to Rome to defend a Chinese restaurant against a gang of thugs trying to force a sale. But Lee, this time serving as writer and director in addition to star and choreographer, gets a lot more of interest to do in-between the fights. It may be strange to say, but the opening airport sequence, with Lee’s Tang Lung starred at by an old white lady then attempting to order in a Western restaurant (capped by his showdown with The Five Soups) is one of my favorite sequences in any Bruce Lee film, above and beyond most of his fights. He’s aided immeasurably by Nora Miao as the straight woman in these scenes, exasperatedly showing him around, visibly annoyed to be afflicted with this bumpkin (but watch how the way she looks at Lee changes after she sees him fight: there’s no romance in the film, but plenty of sex in that gaze).

The fights in Bruce Lee’s films are different than what came before and after in good and bad ways. To the good is their realism: much shorter, more violent and more wrenching than the opera-influenced balletic displays or effects driven sword fights of the late 60s wuxia films. But the downside of that is that they never really feel like contests, more like a bunch of guys standing around waiting for Lee to inflict violence upon them (the climactic fight with Chuck Norris here is a rare exception, acknowledged by Lee with a touching grace note of respect). The choreography in a King Hu or Chang Cheh movie is less realistic, but more exciting. The charge you get in a Bruce Lee action scene is different, it comes not from the “bodies in motion” thrill you also find in a great dance sequence, but emanates instead from Lee himself, first from his status as an icon (of Chinese nationalism, of masculinity, of badassery) and only secondarily from the character he’s ostensibly playing. His tragic early death has only heightened this effect: it’s impossible to watch one of his films now outside the context of his star status, separate from the deep and widespread influence he had, not just in Hong Kong, but worldwide.

Lee’s work as a director is a significant step-up from Lo Wei’s work in the previous two films. Lee is less choppy in his editing, adding to the realism of the fights by allowing them to play out in longer, more distanced takes. He does make occasional use of the point of view shots that Lo used as well, with Lee kicking or punching directly at the camera, an effect that would be more terrifying if it didn’t feel slightly silly. The comedy in the first half of the film is charming, Lee’s fish out of water much more interesting in Rome than he was in The Big Boss‘s Thailand. I can’t help but wonder where he would have gone from here. He died in 1973, two years before Lau Kar-leung’s directorial debut and five years before Sammo Hung’s. How would he have fared with those guys? Would Lee’s idiosyncratic street fights have meshed with Lau’s traditionalist Southern Shaolin styles or Hung’s acrobatics? Would he have pushed the comedy in his films along the lines Jackie Chan and Yuen Woo-ping would explore? How would he have fared in a showdown with equally skilled and accomplished martial artists like the Five Venoms, rather than an endless succession of ugly white guys? Would he have found a second life in the heroic bloodshed cop/Triad films of the 80s and 90s (like Ti Lung in A Better Tomorrow), or been reduced to smaller cameo roles (like Ti Lung in Tiger on Beat or David Chiang in Election)? Or would he have simply crossed over to Hollywood, leaving the nationalism of his Hong Kong films a faint memory, a blip on the road to riches playing Conans, Predators and Rockys?

Running Out of Karma: Stephen Fung’s Tai Chi Zero and Tai Chi Hero

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

It hooked me from the prologue, flashing back in time to the birth of the main character (not yet the “hero”) Lu Chen. Told silent-movie style, it rushes through the early stages of his life with a mix of narration and captions and title cards at breakneck pace, which only slightly slows down when we’re thrown back into the present. The best captions breathlessly reinvent an old Shaw Brothers convention, where an actor’s first appearance on screen is accompanied by a caption with their name (“Ti Lung as Shi Jingsi” and the like). Director Stephen Fung does the same thing, introducing each actor, but with the excitement of a true movie fan. The cards are exclaimed: “It’s Shu Qi as The Freak’s mother!” and sometimes accompanied by parenthetical bits of trivia “It’s Leung Siu-lung (70s kung fu star)” or “It’s Jayden Yuan as The Freak! (2008 Wushu National Champion)!”. Then the title sequences comes along and it’s an animated comic book. Swoon.

Lu Chen is born with a freakish growth on his forehead. When hit, it turns him into a scary kung fu demon that can defeat anyone in his path, but drains his life force away. To counter this, he’s sent to Chen village to learn their kung fu style, which can reverse the damage. Unfortunately, Chen village doesn’t share their kung fu with outsiders, so Lu hangs around and gets beaten up a lot. Eventually he’s helped by The Other Tony Leung, a mysterious tinkerer and joins Angelababy (weird name, cute girl, solid actress) as she tries to save the town from a demonic railroad-machine operated by her ex-boyfriend. Because this all takes place in a steampunk 19th century, as the Qing Dynasty is desperately trying to hold out against the modernizing forces of Western Imperialism. This is just the first half of the story. In part two, we see how Lu Chen goes from zero to hero.

Picking up right where Tai Chi Zero left off, we find the railroad company defeated (for now) and Lu Chen and Angelababy married so that he can learn the Chen-style kung fu and reverse the dangerous effects of the weird growth on his forehead. A mysterious stranger arrives in town who turns out to be The Other Tony Leung’s eldest son, Angelababy’s brother. He, like the ex-boyfriend in the first film, is more interested in technology than kung fu, building elaborate steampunk devices packed with neat gears and levers to mimic fighting techniques, and even a stylized airplane contraption.

The central emotional conflict of this film thus mirrors that of the first one. In both movies, the villain is turned villainous after being ostracized by the Chens: the community as a whole in the first one (the ex-boyfriend is an outsider and thus not allowed to learn the kung fu, and Angelababy is the only one that actually likes the poor guy anyway, though she really does like him); the (nuclear) family in the second (The Other Tony Leung never approved of his son’s scientific interests, shaming him for his failures to learn kung fu and appalled when the boy used machines to make up for his athletic deficiencies).

Similarly, the plots structures are inverted. The first film follows a conventional structure: hastily explained backstory leading to a long development section that slowly builds to an explosive climax followed by a brief epilogue. The second starts with the development and builds to the big battle scene (Qing troops invade the village). But this climax comes less than two-thirds into the film. The remaining forty minutes is a slow dissipation of the action, as Leung reaches one kind of epiphany and Lu Chen another. That’s not to say there are no further fight scenes. There is one big one, but where you’d expect bombs and machines, building upon the expectations set by the battle halfway through, instead we get a one-on-one showdown. And it isn’t even a particularly violent one at that.

In order to enlist the Qing governor’s help, Angelababy and Lu Chen have to defeat the reigning Ba Gua kung fu champion (the reason why isn’t really important). So Lu Chen fights him, in the governor’s kitchen, as his meal is being prepared. The kitchen is subdivided by a bunch of iron railings forming cubicles, so naturally the two men fight on top of them, in time-honored kung fu movie tradition (see Fong Sai Yuk or Iron Monkey). Oh, and the Ba Gua champion is none other than Yuen Biao, the only person in either film seemingly who doesn’t get a caption (if he did, I missed it). Of course, Yuen Biao doesn’t need an introduction.

The fight is a thoroughly friendly affair (choreographed as all the action in the two films is, by Sammo Hung), and ends with the governor giving Chen-style kung fu a new name (“Tai Chi”). And with that, the movie comes to an end. Most kung fu films follow a normal, linear structure, quest or training narratives that slowly build to a big finale. But every once in a while, one takes a different path. The A Touch of Zen-model, where the action becomes increasingly abstract, with a corresponding change in story structure, mimicking the character’s increasing enlightenment. Tai Chi Hero loses much of the fun of the first film, the captions aren’t as crazy, the action not as ridiculous, the emotional beats played more seriously. It becomes more grown up, deeper, more profound. The two films, twin halves of a single work, start with a breathless exclamation mark and end with a deep exhalation.