Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and
Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index.
We’re now over two years into this project, intended as both a chronological journey through the work of Johnnie To and a highly digressive exploration of Chinese cinema. The digressions were in full effect in 2015, as I wrote and talked about the careers of Hou Hsiao-hsien and John Woo in detail. However, I’ve fallen farther behind than I would have liked on the filmography of To himself, with only two films covered over the past two years. I’m hoping to correct that this spring, with the goal of getting through To’s pre-Milkyway Image period by the end of 2016. We’ll see how that goes, but here’s the story so far:
After an auspicious, if commercially unsuccessful, debut with the New Wave wuxia The Enigmatic Case in 1980, To spent the early 80s working in Hong Kong television. In 1986 he returned to film working under Raymond Wong Bak-ming at the Cinema City studio, he he made the popular, if not especially distinguished comedies Happy Ghost 3 and Seven Years Itch. These were followed in 1988 by a pair of films, the smash hit farce The Eighth Happiness and the contemporary crime picture The Big Heat. He followed that up in 1989 with All About Ah-Long, a domestic melodrama that became the number one film of the year at the Hong Kong box office, the second year in a row a To film had accomplished that feat. The film reunited To with Eighth Happiness star Chow Yun-fat and Seven Years Itch star Sylvia Chang. Like all of To’s previous four films it was produced by Raymond Wong for Cinema City, but it is a much more dramatically ambitious work. Cinema City at their best was a freewheeling, anarchic studio where anything was possible. The loose atmosphere was responsible for some of the greatest films of the decade (in Hong Kong or otherwise), but also a whole lot of just bizarrely silly nonsense (the Yuen-Woo-ping directed Mismatched Couples, for example, in which Yuen tried to make Donnie Yen a star with a breakdancing comedy). The Eighth Happiness exemplified the lunatic side of the studio, an improvisational, tasteless and often hilarious comedy that helped establish the template for a certain type of all-star Lunar New Year comedy (a tradition that continues to this day).
All About Ah-Long, though, is a real movie. Written by stars Chow and Chang (an unusual credit for Chow (his only other story credit is on the 1995 Wai Ka-fai film Peace Hotel), while Chang had already begun the move from movie and pop star to accomplished writer/director), it takes Oscar winner Kramer vs. Kramer as a starting point. Chow plays a construction worker raising his ten year old son, Porky. A former motorcycle racer and drunk, Chow is loud and crude but cares deeply for his kid. When his friend Ng Man-tat (in one of his early dramatic roles, before he became Stephen Chow’s favorite comic foil) gets Porky an audition for a kids’ fashion commercial, they discover that the commercial’s director is Chang, the boy’s mother, returned from America for the first time in a decade. Brief flashbacks fill out the story (Chow was philandering and abusive and ended up briefly in jail after a motorcycle accident; Chang’s mother hated him and told Chang her son had died after she moved with her to the US), while Chang tries to build a relationship with her son and Chow tries to rekindle his romance with Chang.
It’s an against-type performance from Chow, as arguably the coolest man in cinema in the late-80s dresses down with patched-together clothes and a hideous mop of hair. He’s a deeply flawed man who is completely aware of his faults. Chang is the class opposite: intelligent and reserved, she is the wealth of America, trying to win Porky’s affection with all the things and opportunities she can muster. This is one of the things that distinguishes Ah-Long from its American progenitor: while Kramer vs. Kramer paints a complicated picture of 1970s feminism (the breakdown of the home as the wife seeks a life in the workforce), Ah-Long is more of a class allegory. There’s no expectation that Chang should abandoned her career to be Chow’s housewife, such a thing is unthinkable. However there’s a deep undercurrent of unease with Chang’s cosmopolitan wealth. Both parents want Porky to have all the advantages wealth can confer (education, nutrition, culture, adventure), but there’s an inauthenticity to her world. The film opens with shots of Hong Kong streets, notably not the skyscrapers and businessmen and other conspicuous symbols of the capitalist paradise that was the colony in the late 1980s, but rather of narrow, crowded alleys, packed with shops and debris. It isn’t the gangland slum of the Kowloon Walled City that Johnnie To grew up in, instead it’s a less hyperbolic, more imaginable kind of everyday poverty. Throughout, To will contrast realist images of working class Hong Kong with the glossier sheen of its upper class, mixing a class-conscious New Wave aesthetic with the pop song montages of commercial cinema. When Porky first visits his mother in her hotel (the “Oriental”) he gazes in wonder at the shiny white surfaces, and especially the glass elevator rising infinitely upward at the lobby’s core. Elevators will become a recurring image and location throughout To’s career, a symbol of fear, of entrapment, of the unknown. The image is built upon in a later section of Ah-Long, when Porky and Chang goes to an amusement park and she can’t handle the vertiginous ups and downs of the rides. Porky loves it of course, ping-ponging between highs and lows, but Chang needs to stay on one level: she can’t go back down.
In many ways, Johnnie To’s most recent film is a kind of spiritual sequel to All About Ah-Long. Reunited with Chow and Chang for the first time in over 20 years, and adapting a play written by Chang, Office is about a pair of young office workers who learn that life at the top of the corporate elevator is more corrupt than they could imagine. Chow and Chang play the oldest couple, the company’s CEO and Owner, long engaged in an amoral struggle for power over each other. A middle couple forms the heart of the film, played by Tang Wei and Eason Chan: Chan is already corrupted, Tang is on her way there. The two share a duet (the film is a musical, with songs by Lo Ta-yu, who also did the music for All About Ah-Long) where they sing of their hometowns, paradises where there was no ambition. All the corruption of the corporate world is the result of aspiration, of the drive to rise up, to bend and break the rules of conscience in the name of things. Chan is haunted by a recurring nightmare of an elevator: not of falling down an empty shaft, but pointedly being crushed on the ground floor. Porky in Ah-Long watches with hope as an elevator rises, Chan cowers in fear as one falls.
I can’t write about All About Ah-Long without addressing it’s ending, so here’s where you can check out if you haven’t seen the film and care about spoilers. Unless I can track down a copy of his two-part TV movie The Iron Butterfly, the next film in the series with be a New Years comedy reunion with Chow and Chang, The Fun, The Luck and the Tycoon, to be followed by To’s first collaboration with screenwriter Wai-Ka-fai, The Story of My Son.
Like many a Hong Kong film, All About Ah-Long has a double ending. David Bordwell writes about the end of the 1987 Chow Yun-fat melodrama An Autumn’s Tale (directed by Mabel Cheung), where the romantic couple separates at the end, with Chow’s deadbeat failing to win the more upwardly-mobile woman. This is followed by a brief epilogue, set sometime in the future, where the lovers meet again with Chow having miraculously cleaned up his act and become a financial success. Bordwell notes that the multiple, tonally opposite endings work to give the audience a range of ways to react to the film: they get both the happy and tragic endings and therefore a more total experience of melodrama. All About Ah-Long takes the experience to another, emotionally pummeling, level. After a long decline into sadness, where Porky leaves with Chang (with Chow delivering a heart-breaking Harry and the Hendersons driving-the-boy-away scene), and then changes his mind and returns to his dad. Chow then decides to race again and gets a haircut and a motorcycle. Father and son head to the Macao Grand Prix, where Chang shows up just as the race is about to start: the family at last will be reunited, with a newly cleaned-up Chow finally worthy of being a husband and father. He races, he’s about to win, and then he crashes. But he gets back on his bike (because that’s what we do), despite a significant head injury (a chance blow from another motorcycle). Summoning all his strength, with intercut shots of his wildly supportive family, Chow comes back and wins the race. Porky and Chang leap with joy as Chow, in excruciating slow motion, loses control of his bike and crashes into a wall. He watches his family rush toward him as the motorcycle explodes and he is engulfed in flames. The credits roll over documentary-style slo-mo footage of the wreckage, the horror in the crowd, the anguished faces of mother and son. It’s an astonishing, flabbergasting ending. Such a finale would be unthinkable in a Hollywood movie (can you imagine a film with equivalent-level stars, say Leonardo DiCaprio and Charlize Theron, where the family is just about to get back together but instead Leo dies right at the end? There would be riots in the streets.)
This ending is vital for To’s idea of the film, the sharp, unexpected swerve into tragedy is something he’ll return to again and again in his career. In his interview with Stephen Teo, he says that All About Ah-Long was “the first film in which I could line everything up in one go; as the film that was made really from my own thoughts. I am grateful to Chow Yun-fat, who gave me many of his own insights, and also to Sylvia Chang, who actually wrote the treatment and was involved in the production, She disagreed with my ending but I told her I was making the film because of the ending. It may be flawed but I insisted upon it.” The ending is crushing not so much because of its shockingness, although that is certainly a factor, but also because the happier ending that preceded it made so much sense: everything about the surface of the film tells us that this is the kind of movie that will end happily, the two beautiful stars will get back together and their family will be whole. But the ending brings out the darkness, the fear and paranoia that underlies so many of the preceding images, the class contrasts, the vertiginous heights and grimy lows of pre-Handover Hong Kong. The Big Heat too is motivated by an apocalyptic fear of the Handover, as Britain and China agreed that the colony would be handed back to the Mainland, the child’s fate determined by the whims of its parent nations. This strain of paranoia is so present in the Hong Kong cinema of the period that it’s become a critical cliche to remark upon it, like the Cold War dread of 1950s American sci-fi films. But there’s an even deeper, more universal fear in All About Ah-Long, where the paranoia is motivated by diaspora, the promise of wonder in life outside China, but is rooted in a more basic class anxiety: the fear that moving up means becoming inauthentic.
For To and Chow, who grew up relatively impoverished and were now at the pinnacle of their professions, that must have been a very real concern. Chang had a different childhood, born in Taiwan she also spent time in Hong Kong and New York growing up, before dropping out of school to pursue singing and acting at age 16. The film is thus a recreation of the real-life dynamics between the two male auteurs and the female one. It has been pointed out that contrary to expectations in this melodrama the male character is far more emotionally expressive than the female one, with Chow giving a loud, dynamic performance where Chang is cool and internalized (there is a lifelong relationship in a nutshell in a simple eyeroll Chang gives as she sits on the back of Chow’s moped). This is less a gender matter though than a class one I think: Chow’s manners are boorish where Chang is refined. The tension between the three artists is vital to the push-pull nature of the melodrama: neither parent is demonized or lionized as the film goes on, both characters are warm and loving to their son, both are full of regrets for their actions a decade earlier (though Chow has more to regret), both want to be forgiving to each other, both know that that is impossible. But ultimately it’s To’s vision that wins out, and it’s a deeply pessimistic one: Ah-Long, a poor but happy man for the first time in his life aspiring to greatness, seeing his dream within reach and then literally exploding. It isn’t a tragic ending, in the sense that it is totally unpredictable: Chow’s fate is determined as much by chance as by any action of his own. There’s always a sense of randomness in To’s tragedies, a kind of contingency that denies any simple moral reading. Just as in Office, aspiration ultimately leads to self-destruction, but that destruction can manifest itself in wildly unexpected ways. This black strain, the doom of a universe governed by fate that operates through chance, will surface again and again through To’s career, mixed as it is with farces and romances and stories of brotherhood, moments of liberation and freedom and darkest despair. All About Ah-Long, his first truly great film, is the first to fully express this multiplicity of moods.