This Week in Rankings

Between buying one house, moving into it and selling another house, updates have been spotty around here lately. I made it to a few films at this year’s Seattle International Film Festival, with written reviews here of The Midnight After, Night Moves and Unforgiven, and the rest covered on our Festival Episode of The George Sanders Show. I also did an episode of They Shot Pictures on Lau Kar-leung (here’s a review of his Martial Club, and here’s a general Lau Index). I also wrote a bit about the Terminator movies and The Bride with White Hair and put together a whole bunch of lists of War Movies.

These are the movies I’ve watched at rewatched over the last several weeks and where they place on my year-by-year rankings. Short reviews for almost all of them, along with various lists and stuff, can be found over at letterboxd.

Symphonie diagonale (Viking Eggling) – 11, 1924
Foreign Correspondent (Alfred Hitchcock) – 21, 1940
Meshes of the Afternoon (Maya Deren & Alexander Hammid) – 5, 1943
Hatari! (Howard Hawks) – 7, 1962
The Love Eterne (Li Han-hsiang) – 7, 1963

Dead End (Chang Cheh) – 4, 1969
The Singing Thief (Chang Cheh) – 16, 1969
The Sword (Jimmy Wang Yu) – 29, 1971
The Spiritual Boxer (Lau Kar-leung) – 11, 1975
Challenge of the Masters (Lau Kar-leung) – 14, 1976

Dream of the Red Chamber (Li Han-hsiang) – 8, 1977
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung) – 2, 1978
Heroes of the East (Lau Kar-leung) – 9, 1978
Shaolin Mantis (Lau Kar-leung) – 14, 1978
Dirty Ho (Lau Kar-leung) – 3, 1979

The Shadow Boxing (Lau Kar-leung) – 21, 1979
My Young Auntie (Lau Kar-leung) – 7, 1981
Martial Club (Lau Kar-leung) – 10, 1981
One from the Heart (Francis Ford Coppola) – 6, 1982
Legendary Weapons of China (Lau Kar-leung) – 12, 1982

Legend of a Fighter (Yuen Wo-ping) – 19, 1982
Cat vs. Rat (Lau Kar-leung) – 36, 1982
The Lady is the Boss (Lau Kar-leung) – 18, 1983
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (Lau Kar-leung) – 3, 1984
The Terminator (James Cameron) – 11, 1984

Beverly Hills Cop (Martin Brest) – 32, 1984
Big Trouble in Little China (John Carpenter) – 14, 1986
Three Amigos (John Landis) – 31, 1986
Martial Arts of Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung) – 41, 1986
White Hunter, Black Heart (Clint Eastwood) – 12, 1990

Tiger on the Beat 2 (Lau Kar-leung) – 47, 1990
Terminator 2: Judgement Day (James Cameron) – 37, 1991
Last Action Hero (John McTiernan) – 15, 1993
The Bride with White Hair (Ronny Yu) – 16, 1993
Drunken Master III (Lau Kar-leung) – 63, 1994

Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors (Hong Sangsoo) – 7, 2000
Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Andrew Lau) – 14, 2010
Pitch Perfect (Jason Moore) – 15, 2012
The Immigrant (James Gray) – 7, 2013
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt) – 42, 2013

Unforgiven (Lee Sang-il) – 54, 2013
The Midnight After (Fruit Chan) – 2, 2014
Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan) – 6, 2014
Transformers: The Premake (Kevin B. Lee) – 7, 2014
Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (Wong Ching-po) – 8, 2014

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Lau Kar-leung

The latest episode of They Shot Pictures went up today, wherein I talk about Hong Kong kung fu director Lau Kar-leung with Matt Lynch and CJ Roy. You can listen to or download the show over at the podcast website or via iTunes.

Along with that, I decided to index the various reviews of Lau’s movies I’ve written over the last year and a half, most of which were part of the Summer of Sammo and Running Out of Karma series (I did a similar index earlier this year for Tsui Hark).

Long Reviews:

Executioners from Shaolin (Lau, 77) – Dec 21, 2012
Mad Monkey Kung Fu (Lau, 79) – Dec 27, 2012
Dirty Ho (Lau, 76) – Jun 30, 2013
The Spiritual Boxer (Lau, 75) – Jul 15, 2013
Martial Club (Lau, 81) – Jun 11, 2014

Capsules:

Drunken Master II (Lau, 94) – Jun 26, 2013
Challenge of the Masters (Lau, 76) – Jun 29, 2013
Tiger on the Beat (Lau, 88) – Jul 01, 2013
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (Lau, 84) – Jul 03, 2013
Drunken Monkey (Lau, 03) – Jul 08, 2013

The Spiritual Boxer (Lau Kar-leung, 75) – Jun 06, 1014
Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 14) – Jun 07, 2014
Challenge of the Masters (Lau Kar-leung, 76) – Jun 09, 2014
The Love Eterne (Li Han-hsiang, 63) – Jun 11, 2014

The Shadow Boxing (Lau Kar-leung, 79) – Jun 12, 2014
Cat vs. Rat (Lau Kar-leung, 82) – Jun 14, 2014
Heroes of the East (Lau Kar-leung, 78) – Jun 15, 2014
My Young Auntie (Lau Kar-leung, 81) – Jun 16, 2014
Shaolin Mantis (Lau Kar-leung, 78) – Jun 17, 2014

The Lady is the Boss (Lau Kar-leung, 83) – Jun 17, 2014
Martial Arts of Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung, 86) – Jun 18, 2014
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung, 78) – Jun 19, 2014
Drunken Master III (Lau Kar-leung, 94) – Jun 20, 2014
Tiger on the Beat 2 (Lau Kar-leung, 90) – Jun 20, 2014

The Dream of the Red Chamber (Li Han-hsiang, 77) – Jun 21, 2014
Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (Lau Kar-leung, 84) – Jun 21, 2014
Dirty Ho (Lau Kar-leung, 79) – Jun 22, 2014

Running Out of Karma: Ronny Yu’s The Bride with White Hair

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

All the same comic book mythology elements as so many other post-Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain wuxia films, A Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman II and Ashes of Time in particular, but director Ronny Yu slows the pace down, both in plot and editing, which allows more time to take in the phantasmagoric visuals (Hong Kong blues and reds dominate of course) and the pure melodrama of the doomed romance plot. Li Han-hsiang’s 1977 Dream of the Red Chamber (an early starring role for Brigitte Lin, seen here at the pinnacle of her career) similarly revels in tragedy, spending most of its final half on just a few scenes as the lovers lament the forces that have led to their destruction, teasing out the anguish to epic lengths. Something similar is at work here, mounting a different kind of sensory assault than the Tsui Hark-Ching Siu-tung whiplash school (as in Ching and Johnnie To’s Heroic Trio films, also released in 1993). Yu appears to have conceived this as less a wuxia film (though it takes place in the world of flying Wu Tang swordsmen and enchanted Siamese twin devils) and more a purely tragic romance, a Romeo and Juliet tale, but with demons and magic and stuff.

Set at the end of the Ming Dynasty, the invasion of the Manchurian Qing forms the background for the tale (though it could just as well have been set 1500 years earlier, at the dawn of the Qin Dynasty for how ancient its world seems). Leslie Cheung is the favored student of the head of the 8 Clans, a confederacy of martial arts organizations (he’s part of the, ahem, Wu Tang Clan). But, as he tells us in wistfully voice-overed flashbacks that were a Cheung trademark, he’s a more sensitive and romantic soul than the hardened warriors that surround him, barely interested in joining in the Clans’ various wars (versus the Qing as well as more supernatural enemies). When he meets Brigitte Lin, a Wolf Girl (literally she was raised by wolves), they fall in love, despite the fact that she’s the top assassin for the Evil Cult (a name which I assume sounds better in Chinese), which are bent on destroying the 8 Clans.

Lin and Cheung spend a lengthy idyll together in a cave under a waterfall, frolicking and sucking out poison and making grand pledges to the gods and the elements. But eventually they must return to their respective sides and ask to be set free so they can withdraw from worldly wars and just hang out together, possibly somewhere dry. This leads to the film’s greatest (only?) act of heroism, as Lin walks out of the Evil Cult, across hot coals and through a gauntlets of murderous savages beating her with sticks (she’s not allowed to use her kung fu, she has to leave like a normal common person). But, tragically of course, Cheung does not match her commitment. He returns home to find most of the rest of the Wu Tang slaughtered, including his master. Everyone assumes Lin did it (because she’s the assassin for the Evil Cult) and when Cheung asks her and she denies it, he doesn’t believe her. As is to be expected, this act of betrayal, of faithlessness on Cheung’s part, turns Lin into a witch with ghostly white hair which she then uses to kill all the rest of the Wu Tang.

Even still, she returns at the end to save Cheung from the Siamese twins. The film ends inclusively (there was a sequel, directed by David Wu, released later a few months later in 1993). Cheung had been telling us the story ten years in the future, where he’s apparently spent the intervening decade sitting on a melancholy rock waiting for a magic flower to bloom, quietly singing pop ballads to himself, and thinking about how terrible men are. The credits roll over highlights from the movie we’ve just seen, Cheung’s song on the soundtrack, a flashback of a flashback.

Running Out of Karma: Lau Kar-leung’s Martial Club

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

In the prologue to this 1981 film, Lau Kar-leung himself comes on stage to tell us about some of the unwritten rules of lion-dancing, the ways one dancer can offend another and thus incite a brawl (blinking your eyes, lifting a leg, sniffing the other lion’s butt). The next scene then involves just such a lion dance, where one club intentionally provokes another, nearly leading to an all-out brawl. Explanation followed by narrative demonstration.

The bulk of the movie though (in fact we never really return to lion-dancing) follows Gordon Liu as the young Wong fei-hung (reprising his role from Lau’s earlier Challenge of the Masters, though this doesn’t appear to be considered a direct sequel) as he and his buddy (Hsiao Hou) from a rival club engage in friendly competition and raise the ire of another, more evil school. At stake is the respect of a visiting Northern kung fu master (played by Wang Lung-wei, who played one of the primary villains in Chang Cheh’s Shaolin cycle), invited by the evil school to help give them an edge in prestige versus their Southern rivals, led by Wong’s father’s school. The plot then revolves around the intricacies of the social codes that the clubs have established for themselves, the esoteric ways in which they can be violated, and the clever means the up-standing heroes have of resolving the conflicts with minimal bloodshed.

Similarly, Lau explores the intricacies of Wong’s Hung Gar fighting style, notably in the film’s final fight, set in a narrow alleyway. Lau and Liu demonstrate how the different modes of the technique are designed for confined spaces (6 feet, 4 feet, and less), spaces endemic to the overcrowded cities of the South (Guangzhou and Hong Kong in particular) neatly conveying not merely the spectacle of actors doing cool stuff on screen, but the ideology behind why the actor is moving the way he is. No major director is better able to utilize the kung fu film as pedagogic tool than Lau Kar-leung, or more insistent about doing so.

Thus we get not merely and explication of the ideology governing the martial clubs, but an explanation of the ideology governing the specific martial art practiced by Wong Fei-hung (a real person, remember: his disciple Lam Sai-wing was the teacher of Lau Cham, who was the father and adopted father of Lau Kar-leung and Gordon Liu, respectively). Like Challenge of the Masters, it presents the heroic ideal version of Wong (far from Yuen Wo-ping and Jackie Chan’s irreverent Drunken Master), a young version of the Confucian patriarch played by Kwan Tak-hing in dozens of films from the 1940s through the 1960s. As such it is a conservative film, or at least a classicist one, attempting to preserve and record an ideology that was quickly on the way out. Codes in Hong Kong films are usually there to be subverted: their contradictions teased out in melodramas that inevitably lead to tragedy and death, heroic bloodshed. Here Lau gives us an alternative to the Chang Cheh/John Woo/Johnnie To tradition, one where it is possible to navigate the competing interests and loyalties and drives of the martial world without anyone having to die, heroically or otherwise. But it takes a Wong Fei-hung to do it.

SIFF 2014 Index

This is an index of my coverage of the 2014 Seattle International Film Festival:

Reviews:

The Midnight After (Fruit Chan, 14) – May 25, 2014
Night Moves (Kelly Reichardt, 13) – May 27, 2014
Unforgiven (Lee Sang-il, 13) – May 28, 2014

Capsules:

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (Wong Ching-po, 14) – May 28, 2014
Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 14) – Jun 07, 2014

Podcast:

The George Sanders Show #37: The 2014 Seattle International Film Festival

Ranking:

1. The Midnight After
2. Black Coal, Thin Ice
3. Once Upon a Time in Shanghai
4. Night Moves
5. Unforgiven