Running Out of Karma: Peter Chan’s He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father

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

Peter Chan Ho-sun’s 1993 comedy is a variation on Back to the Future, with Tony Leung (Chiu-wai) sent back 30 years to see what his father, Tony Leung (Ka-fai), was like when he was young, though it presents a very different take on the past and our relation to it than Robert Zemeckis’s classic. The plot device isn’t science-fiction, but rather one of those goofy folkloric premises like the Freaky Friday variations. In this case, Jupiter crossing the Moon’s path on Mid-Autumn night causes a manhole to turn into a wish-fulfillment portal. This grounding in magic rather than pseudo-science  mirrors the larger difference between the two films, that He Ain’t Heavy is steeped in local tradition and culture (however made-up for the purpose of the film the plot is, the Mid-Autumn Festival is surely a thing) while Future values the present above all else, about instant gratification.

In Back to the Future, Marty McFly is embarrassed by his father’s weakness. He travels back in time and his manipulation of past events transforms his dad from a shy, lower-middle class geek into a paragon of Reaganite manliness: confident, wealthy and draped in pastels. In the Hong Kong version of the fable, however, Tony Leung is embarrassed by his father’s charity, by his unwillingness to engage in the kind of cut-throat economic and social ruthlessness that marked the colony as exactly the laissez-faire ideal the Reaganites desired. Traveling back in time, he sees the roots of that community: the tenement slums where dozens of people live crammed together, part of the massive immigrant wave into Hong Kong in the wake of the post-World War II Civil War which overwhelmed the colony’s capacity to house and feed its population. The disparate crew barely eking out an existence only through the help and sacrifice of the others, his father towering as the strongest and most noble among them.

The reference is to The House of 72 Tenants, a film directed by Chor Yuen in 1973. It was the first in a wave of Cantonese language hits in the colony, leading the transition away from the Mandarin language films of the Shaw Brothers (who were themselves war-time transplants from Shanghai). Chor’s film, following the episodic adventures of just such a group of slum-dwellers (think a sit-comic version of The Lower Depths), was enormously popular and remains a bedrock film of Hong Kong cinema (you can see its influence as well in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, among other films). Tony Leung Chiu-wai’s character in He Ain’t Heavy is actually named “Chor Yuen” and Chor himself appears in a small role as an actor in the film (when the two are introduced, someone gasps “There’s another Chor Yuen!?”).

Anyway, rather than the young man reforming his father, He Ain’t Heavy is about the younger generation (greedy, promiscuous and nihilistic as seen in countless films from the Hong Kong New Wave) learning the values their parents’ found in the slums. It’s about a son learning to appreciate the father he has, and in turn the son is changed by his encounter with history, as opposed to the other way around in the more ego-centric Hollywood film. Where the world revolves around Marty McFly, he transforms it to serve his immediate desires (nicer house, bigger car); the younger Tony Leung learns to see himself as a part of a whole, and all the more valuable and happy for it. The lesson Marty learns from that past is to ‘stand up for yourself’, which in this context means asserting your desires with a willingness to resort to physical violence, which will in turn earn the respect and love of the pretty girl next door and send the bullies of the world into groveling submission, shock and awe followed by being greeted as a liberator. The lesson Tony learns is that personal success is worthless if it is individual, that the only real happiness comes from family and community.

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Running Out of Karma: Three Hong Kong Romantic Comedies

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

Sophie’s Revenge (Eva Jin, 2009)

Zhang Ziyi is the manic pixie at the center of a swirl of CGI whimsy in this romantic comedy, which is weird because while she’s no doubt a terrific actress, she’d previously shown no aptitude whatsoever for comedy. She fares OK all things considered, showing an admirable willingness to make a complete fool of herself, as her character is repeatedly subject to all manner of slapstick abuse (drunkenness, wall climbing sabotage, a gushing catheter), though she projects adorability more than charisma.

Zhang plays a comic book artist who is dumped by her boyfriend for a popular actress (Fan Bingbing). As she plots her revenge (win the guy back and then publicly dump him) she’s helped by another guy, who falls for her. The plot is a little sloppy, and while initially enlivened by Michel Gondry/Scott Pilgrim/Pushing Daisies-esque animations and dream sequences, it becomes exhausting after the first hour or so, at which point the film kicks the plot forward with a series of unnecessary and confusing twists (at one-time her conspirator doesn’t seem to know her plan, then does, and then doesn’t again) and a lame reveal. It’s a Skittles movie: looks tasty, but you don’t want to eat the whole bag.

Zhang starred in a prequel (My Lucky Star) released last year. That film was directed by Dennie Gordon, an American TV director who also directed Joe Dirt and What a Girl Wants. The writer-director of Sophie’s Revenge, Eva Jin, doesn’t appear to have been involved in the sequel.

Love in a Puff (Pang Ho-cheung, 2010)

Watching this immediately after Sophie’s Revenge was whiplash-inducing. That film is an international co-production set in a characterless, near invisible Beijing, a high concept, glossy stab at Hollywood style romantic comedy (with Zhang Ziyi channeling everything from Bridget Jones to Caroline in the City). Pang Ho-chuneg’s romantic comedy, on the other hand, is a indie (or “indie”) take on the genre, filmed seemingly on the fly in the alleys, cellphones and nightclubs of Hong Kong at the pace and rhythm of everyday life. Where Sophie’s Revenge was a big hit, Love in a Puff saw its box office take suffer when it was given a Category III rating. Hong Kong’s Category III is roughly a combination of America’s R and NC-17 ratings. It’s traditionally the home of porn and ultra-violence and horror. There’s no such thing in Love in a Puff, which as far as I can tell got the rating simply because of its profane language, or in other words ‘No other Hong Kong movies in recent memory give a more vivid sense of how Hong Kong people talk in real life.’ (Perry Lam in Muse Magazine).

The film follows the meeting and developing relationship of Cherie (Miriam Yeung) and Jimmy (Shawn Yue) over the course of a week. The two meet at a communal smoking area, Hong Kong having initiated an anti-indoor smoking ordinance, driving the tobacco addicts into the few remaining dark corners of the city. Pang intersperses short interviews with the various characters, in the style of TV mockumentary-style confessionals, but the bulk of the film is devoted to following the characters and the very small moments that lead them to fall in love. It’s shot in the peripatetic style that’s become international shorthand for Realism!, but with the off-hand kind of pictorial virtuosity that defines Hong Kong cinema. Where the images of Sophie’s Revenge are pretty but artificial, manufactured, Pang’s images are just as colorful, just as beautiful, but seem to arise, like the love story itself, spontaneously out of Hong Kong itself.

Love in the Buff (Pang Ho-cheung, 2012)

Pang Ho-cheung’s sequel to Love in a Puff, released two years later but following the previous film directly. Cherie and Jimmy, after dating for some time, breakup and move, separately, to Beijing. There they strike up new relationships (Jimmy with a flight attendant played by Mi Yang (who looks so much like someone but I can’t figure out who); Cherie with a very nice bald guy), but when they meet they’re inevitably drawn back together.

While not as ground-breaking as the first film, both in the language (toned down) and the characters (inevitable, since we already know these two people so well), it is a step forward in filmmaking for Pang. Gone are the funny but otherwise obtrusive interview segments and the camera is a little more grounded. We do get some meta-comic guest appearances from Ekin Cheng, Huang Xiaoming and Linda Wong that are reasonably successful, but it’s mostly the performances of Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue that make this one so compelling. Yeung won the Best Actress Hong Kong Film Award for her performance, and Yue is just as good, with an understated, cock-eyed charm reminiscent of a young Chow Yun-fat.

Before watching these films, I’d known Pang only as the author of the novel that Johnnie To’s Fulltime Killer was based on (he wrote it in his mid-20s). I’m putting him firmly in the Subject for Further Research column.

On Primary Colors

“Come back, Shane! Run for president!” 

Bill Clinton would have made a terrific Roman emperor. His personal shortcomings (gluttony and lust) would have been minor blemishes, expected really, and his intelligence and genuine desire to do good would have had the chance to flourish. As it is, the need to compromise for political reasons (the fury with which his opponents attacked him fueled in no small part by their disbelief that the American public simply didn’t care that he lied about sex) severely blunted any positive effect he may have had and the generational hope of his presidency ended up mired in half measures.

Of course, this only makes him a perfect avatar of the Baby Boom generation, colossally self-obsessed and self-mythologizing, with little of substance to back it up (the flip side is his successor, the only other Boomer president, driven by self-righteousness to countless national disasters).

Mike Nichols’s film is much funnier than it should be, considering its basis in a novel by a political reporter, thanks largely to Elaine May’s script (if she and Stanley Donen actually get that rumored film in motion, I hope Billy Bob Thornton and Kathy Bates are around to deliver her lines). Nichols direction is crisp and a bit blunt, the camera tracing circles around the actors in moments of moral entrapment, a long slow zoom into Edward Hopper’s Krispy Kreme, but for the most part the emphasis is on performance and dialogue. The film when received was largely criticized for sagging a bit towards the end, as it becomes less about the mechanics of a political campaign and more a rumination on a moral dilemma. On the contrary, this transformation might be its greatest strength, if it isn’t quite as fun as Billy Bob unleashing his python.

Just how far are we willing to compromise with our votes, how much are we willing to forgive? Audience avatar Henry Burton (played by Adrien Lester, the only no name in the cast (at least by Hollywood standards, he’s a British theatre and TV star), in a role that probably should have been Don Cheadle’s), a young operative notably a generation younger than the Clintons, says early in the film that he’d rather support a man who believes the same things he does but lies about it to get elected than a man who is honest and ineffectual. The second half of the film puts that cynical theory to the test.

By making candidate Jack Stanton’s crimes much worse than anything Bill Clinton has been accused of, the film is working out the logical conclusions of the beliefs that must have been uttered by Clinton’s staffers and supporters during his campaign and presidency. It’s a divergence from historical record only in fact, not in theory, a reducto ad absurdum of Clinton’s lusts and evasions. It complicates the film’s relation to history, so thinly veiled at times (Thornton’s James Carville, Emma Thompson’s Hillary Clinton stand out in particular, but also Kathy Bates’s conflation of Betsey Wright and Vincent Foster), but ultimately this is not a docudrama of historical recreation (like Oliver Stone’s W. or the Jay Roach/Danny Strong HBO movies Recount and Game Change, let alone a fantasy of a Hawksian White House as in its most direct descendant, Aaron Sorkin’s The West Wing). It turns instead into something far more ambitious: a meditation on generational compromise, on how the idealism of the 60s died in the 90s, pinning the blame not on a vast right wing conspiracy, but on the old hippies themselves.

It ends with Burton refusing to compromise any further. Deciding that large scale, national politics is too inevitably corrupt for him, he resolves to work small, to become a community organizer. Another generation’s ideal of hope.

The Best 2014 (and 2013) Movies of the Year (So Far)

As I did last year, this is going to be two lists. The first is the Best Films of 2014 (So Far), which is a pretty small list as I’ve only seen 10 movies that were first released this year. This is the Top Five, with links to where I’ve written and/or talked about them.

1. The Grand Budapest Hotel (Wes Anderson)

2. The Midnight After (Fruit Chan)

3. Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang)

4. Boyhood (Richard Linklater)

5. Pompeii (Paul WS Anderson)

The other list is the Best 2013 Films of 2014 (So Far), which includes all those movies that were first released last year but only made it to a general audience venue in the US in the past six months. These are all officially part of the 2013 section of my year-by-year rankings, but you may find them on the 2014 lists of the temporally confused or negligent.

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

2. The Missing Picture (Rithy Panh)

3. Only Lovers Left Alive (Jim Jarmusch)

4. Blind Detective (Johnnie To)

5. The Immigrant (James Gray)

6. Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow)

7. Stray Dogs (Tsai Ming-liang)

8. The Wind Rises (Hayao Miyazaki)

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

10. Under the Skin (Jonathan Glazer)