Hot off their excellent New York Asian Film Festival program, the folks at Subway Cinema have announced the lineup for their Old School Kung Fu mini-festival playing at the Metrograph in August. The theme this time is “Wonder Women of the Martial Arts” with seven features, five of which will be playing on 35mm. Every one of the films is a bona fide classic, and I’ve written or podcasted about all of them at one time or another of the last few years. Here’s an index:
This week the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art begins an outstanding series of Johnnie To films, running through August 6. It focuses almost exclusively on his crime-related films and includes a number of movies which, even if they’re not outright inspirations for or films inspired by his work, certainly share a similar sensibility. I’ve written or podcasted about several of the films in the series over the last few years, here’s an index, listed in the order in which they’re showing.
That last entry, for Exiled, is the episode of the They Shot Pictures podcast we did on To way back in March of 2013. While the episode focuses primarily on that film alongside Throw Down and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, I believe we discuss most of the other films playing in the SFMOMA series at least a little bit. The idea behind that episode was to counter the all-too-frequent division in studies of To’s work between his crime films and his comedies, something which this series unfortunately perpetuates (and, to be fair, which To has frequently encouraged, at least in discussing his films from the early 2000s).
I have to say it’s also a bit odd that the only films being offered as contextualization for To’s work are European and American crime dramas (and one Seijun Suzuki film), rather than films by his contemporaries like John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, or even something like Infernal Affairs, which both shows the influence the early Milkway films and in turn influenced his later crime films like Breaking News and the Election series.
But this is of course the difficulty I have with Johnnie To: there’s simply too much to discuss, too much context. His filmography is too vast to cover with any kind of concision, his network of collaborators and his impact on Hong Kong cinema too broad, his set of precursors too wide-ranging, to summarize with a mere handful of films. My chronological Johnnie To project became bogged down in contextualization, branching out in all directions through cinema past and present, even though it was confined only to Chinese language film. The SFMOMA series is great, and I’m extremely jealous we’ll likely never see anything like it here in the Seattle area. But it’s only a fraction of an ever-expanding whole that is the cinema of Johnnie To.
Race car driver, essayist and film director Han Han had one of 2016’s biggest hits with Duckweed, a time travel comic drama about a son learning to respect his father. An update of Peter Chan’s 1993 classic He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father (Chan and his film are specifically thanked in the credits, along with the directors of Back to the Future, The Terminator and Somewhere in Time), Deng Chao plays an angry young racer who publicly spits venom at his aged father (Eddie Peng) during a victory speech. When the two are in a car accident on the way home, Feng falls into a coma, where he is transported (somehow, the film, thankfully, doesn’t care to explain how) back to 1998, where he befriends his father as a young man. Peng is the morally upright leader of a small gang, with one dim buddy, a loving girlfriend (Zhao Liying), and real-life future internet kajillionaire Pony Ma (Chan’s film similarly feature a future tycoon, with a character based on Li Ka-shing). Feng joins the gang and helps them try to navigate conflicts with a local gang leader who wants to criminalize the karaoke bar Peng runs (Peng doesn’t want the girls who work there to prostitute themselves) and ultimately a sleepy-eyed villain/real estate developer. At the same time he gets to know Zhao, whom he never met (his mother died shortly after he was born).
Much of the comedy is based in Peng’s inability to anticipate the future: he’s heavily invested in beepers and VHS tapes, linking his outdated ideas of technology to a moral code rapidly becoming obsolete in an increasingly capitalist China. Where in Chan’s film the younger man learned that his father was a community leader holding together a House of 72 Tenants like variety of refugees and the working poor, Deng’s reference point for his father’s life is something like the Young and Dangerous series, with Peng the stylish hero of a gang of good guys just trying to get by in an amoral world. That alone says something about our debased world, but Han Han doesn’t push it too far. Instead the films skims along neatly through deft action scenes (the vehicle stunts are pretty good, as you’d expect from a former driver) and nifty imagery. With an easy humanity and knack for underplaying comedy, Peng has established himself as one of the great stars of Chinese cinema today.
Settling down for Village of No Return I was expecting another mediocre Chinese genre film, an effects driven action comedy along the lines of Vampire Cleanup Department or Mojin: The Lost Legend, amiable thanks to a star turn from Shu Qi and a supporting role by Eric Tang, but ultimately weightless. Instead, it’s one of the cleverest films of the year, a sly satire on the rapid transformations of 20th century Chinese society and the changes they require in collective memory. Some three years after the end of the Qing Dynasty, a huckster arrives in a small village toting a myserteous device which he claims can eliminate worries. He tries it out on a few people, eliminating memories and gradually has erased the entire town’s minds, installing himself as their beloved leader and ordering them to dig all over town for hidden treasure. Shu Qi is one of the townspeople, the daughter of the former chief who has been forced into a marriage so distasteful she has to be chained to the house when her husband leaves town. The huckster frees her (after she kinda of murdered her husband) but then washes her brain into marrying him. But as she starts to figure out his scheme, a gang of bandits which includes her long lost love shows up to destroy the village at the behest of Eric Tsang, who wants to level it to build a railroad. The movie takes a while to build up steam, but once everything is in place it unfolds with unexpected and fascinating twists, with an ending far more ambivalent than it appears.
The village is mostly a collection of grotesques, venal and stupid, with the exception of a kung fu master who can’t fight because of some past trauma (the action scene he eventually gets is a highlight, an expert transposition of comic book style posing within a fight sequence). The bandits are more interesting, led by a woman who moonlights as a mail-carrier (she wears the old Qing style uniform), they’re more of an a capella group than a gang of killers, and their singing magnifies the film’s oddball yet weirdly traditional charms. Everything about the design of the memory-stealing device is delightful, from its mechanical seahorses to the animated proscenium which appears framing the black and white silent movie images of a person’s memory. The seahorses are a callback to director Chen You-hsun’s 2012 short Hippocamp Hair Salon, which was about a salon that could wash away unpleasant memories (clearly the fungibility of memory is something about which Chen has strong feelings). I saw it as part of the 10+10 shorts program, which tasked ten young Taiwanese directors and ten veterans (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Sylvia Chang, etc) with each making a five minute film. Chen’s film was one of the highlights, and Village of No Return follows through on that project’s promise.
As we here in the Seattle area get a handful of Hong Kong films for Handover weekend, on the other side of the country the New York Asian Film Festival begins. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be contributing a bit to InReview Online‘s festival coverage, and I’ll link to that here when it posts, but in the meantime here are some reviews I’ve written about some of the films that are playing in the festival over the next two weeks.
At InReview Online:
Extraordinary Mission (Alan Mak & Felix Chong, 2017)
Blood of Youth (Yang Shupeng, 2016)
The Gangster’s Daughter (Chen Mei-juin, 2017)
This Is Not What I Expected (Derek Hui, 2017)
Someone To Talk To (Liu Yulin, 2016)
Godspeed (Chung Mong-hong, 2016)