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.
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)
This is an Index of my coverage of the 2017 Seattle International Film Festival. All the writing was at Seattle Screen Scene.
Dawson City: Frozen Time (Bill Morrison, 2016)
My Journey through French Cinema (Bertrand Tavernier, 2016)
Manifesto (Julian Rosefeldt, 2015)
God of War (Gordon Chan, 2017)
Landline (Gillian Robespierre, 2017)
Wind River (Taylor Sheridan, 2017)
The Little Hours (Jeff Baena, 2017)
Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian, 2017)
Columbus (Kogonada, 2017)
This is an index of my writing on the 2016 Vancouver International Film Festival.
Introduction and Proposed Schedule – Sept 20, 2016
Toni Erdmann – Oct 4, 2016
Never Eat Alone and The Last Poems Trilogy – Oct 4, 2016
Maudite Poutine and Pop Song – Oct 4, 2016
Crosscurrent – Oct 4, 2016
Yellowing – Oct 5, 2016
Things to Come – Oct 15, 2016
After the Storm – Oct 15, 2016
Hermia and Helena – Oct 15, 2016
I’ll be back at the Vancouver International Film Festival this year, and we’re planning extensive coverage over at Seattle Screen Scene. This year’s lineup looks like it might be the best since 2012, packed with promising European titles, the best selection of Asian films on the North American festival circuit and a renewed emphasis on cutting-edge Canadian cinema. All of my reviews this year are going to be over at SSS, but I’ll have an additional index of them over here, and I figured this would be a more appropriate home for my proposed schedule.
These are the films I’m hoping to see. Showings that conflict with each other are listed without a space in-between, with the film I’m leaning toward attending listed first.
This is an Index of my coverage of the 2016 Seattle International Film Festival. All the writing was at Seattle Screen Scene.
Report #1: Sunset Song, Concerto: A Beethoven Journey, A Scandal in Paris, A Bride for Rip Van Winkle, Love & Friendship
Report #2: The Big Road, The Island Funeral, Heaven Can Wait, The Final Master, My Beloved Bodyguard
Report #3: The Bitter Stems, Thithi, Trivisa, The Mobfathers, Tag
If you wanted to design to film perfectly and specifically for me, it would probably be something like The Assassin. A film by my favorite contemporary filmmaker, one from whom I spent months earlier this year studying and writing about in detail for a theatrical retrospective, working in one of my favorite film genres, the one I’ve spent the better part of the last three years exploring. There was simply no way this wasn’t going to be a movie I liked. But since whether a critic likes a film or not is easily the least interesting aspect of any decent review, thankfully that task is quickly disposed with and we can proceed to more interesting concerns, the what and why of the film. Hou Hsiao-hsien’s latest, his first film since 2007’s Flight of the Red Balloon, is set in the late Tang Dynasty period, starring Shu Qi as a young woman who returns home after ten years as a killer-in-training to wreak vengeance on the local ruler. The film follows a typical wuxia plot structure, with motivations gradually revealed and complicated, schemes exposed, punctuated by regularly occurring fight sequence set-pieces. But Hou has adapted that structure to his own unique rhythm, presenting a languid, patient narrative of long takes exploring lush sets and landscapes. It’s the stillest action movie there’s ever been.
In tone the closest analogue in Hou’s previous work might be Millennium Mambo, a hypnotic film that could seemingly spin on forever. Right up until the director’s credit came on screen, I kept expecting another hour of narrative. I had no idea how much time was passing, or what the shape of the story was, until it ended. This is one of the distinct pleasures of some of Hou’s best work, from The Time to Live, The Time to Die to Goodbye South Goodbye to Flight of the Red Balloon. Looked at in total, however, the plot could easily be that of a late 70s Chor Yuen film (but not at all a Chang Cheh film, for a number of reasons, the gender of the protagonist and the ultimate optimism of the work first among them). It’s just that Hou refuses to match the pace of the film to the complexity of the story. He teases out exposition in long dialogue scenes, but shoots those scenes with such intricate beauty that it’s hard to pay attention to the words being spoken when the pictures are so fascinating. An example: a long, central scene between Chang Chen’s governor (the target of the assassination plot) and his favorite concubine explains much of the Shu Qi character’s past and the volatile tangle of competing interests that lead to his family breaking off Chang’s engagement with Shu in favor of another woman, a humiliation which lead to Shu’s exile. It also demonstrates the bond between Chang and the concubine, which motivates a further complication in the plot, as Chang’s wife has a murderous scheme of her own. But rather than the actors, who form a loving triangle in the center middle distance of the frame and remain mostly still, our eye is drawn to the edges of the frame. The left is dominated by a line of three flames, reflections of candle lights that appear to have no on-screen referent; the right by a curtain that billows in and out throughout the scene, blown by a similarly unsourced wind, shrouding the actors in gauze when it blows in, revealing them in crystal clarity when it blows out. You get so lost in the image, it’s easy to miss the thread of the plot.
But plot there is (this is not, as my pal Neil so tweeted, a film “about a bunch of veils and curtains”). Hou’s films, from The Boys from Fengkuei on, have a distinctly languid place, regardless of how much actually occurs in the narrative. Flowers of Shanghai is an opium dream of a film, one in which there’s almost no dramatic action, a fair amount in dialogue and a torrent of emotional churning under the surface. A City of Sadness is a multi-layered, multi-character historical epic. Millennium Mambo and The Puppetmaster are narrated tales, one about the entropic life of a club girl in modern Taipei, the other a 50 year biopic about a man caught up in the sweep of history. In mood and pace the films are the same, with long single take scenes of apparently mundane and occasionally inexplicable behavior drawing us into the feel of the protagonists’ world, an effect amplified by the highly subjective nature of the narration. That subjectivity is the essential element in all of Hou’s films, as he is ever seeking to capture an individual’s experience of the world, and to inspire a deep empathy in the audience. His films eliminate any sense of moral judgment: whatever bad or dumb things his heroes may do, he doesn’t allow us any distance from them. We are inside them, left to understand their lives as they do. The Assassin is no different in this respect. Its dense plot of maneuvering factions in the present inspired by the secret schemes of the past is revealed slowly, like Flowers almost entirely in dialogue. Our identification with Shu Qi’s hero is established in a new way, however. Rather than linger over lengthy shots of Shu at work or in repose, as in Mambo, we instead observe things as she is observing them. Not strictly from her point of view, but often Hou will show us a long scene of character interaction only to cut at the end to Shu observing silently from some hiding spot (invisibly ninja-style in the rafters, for example). Her motivations remain opaque through the length of the film, right up until the very end we don’t really know what she wants or how she plans to go about achieving it. Of course, when that “Directed By” credit does appear on-screen, everything makes perfect sense.
What she ends up achieving is a bold rejection of the traditional wuxia narrative, the first major development in the genre in decades. This century’s art house wuxia films have all taken the form of homage, usually to King Hu. A mix of spectacular and (more importantly perhaps) spectacularly shot action with a bit of Buddhism and above all a devotion to a code of honor that demands personal unhappiness, films like Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, House of Flying Daggers and The Grandmaster follow the strictly established rules of the genre, which itself is as old as cinema and reaches back through centuries of Chinese literature. For all their technical facility, they remain merely highly polished variations on Hu’s work from the 1970s, while lacking the sense of experimentation that makes films like A Touch of Zen or Legend of the Mountain so unfathomable to this day. There hasn’t really been anything new in the genre since Hu’s titanic pair of of Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain in 1979. That is, until now (unless you count Tsui Hark’s various variations on the genre, which add to the traditional form outlandish special effects, breath-taking speed and an anarchic wit. At their core, though, they’re still traditional narratives). Obviously in adapting his highly idiosyncratic style to the genre, Hou was bound to come up with something interesting. But I’m surprised at how much he actually bent his career-long aesthetic. In The Assassin, Hou cuts within a scene, he uses different film stocks and aspect ratios (it’s all in the archaic 1.33 ratio (which emphasizes the verticality of traditional Chinese painting, the influence of which is felt strongly in the landscape scenes, aided immeasurably by the natural beauty of China’s landscapes and fortuitous fogs rolling in to mimic the vast negative spaces so distinctive in that art form), like last year’s Horse Money and Jauja, but for two flashback shots, on slightly grainier film stock, which are 1.85, possibly to accommodate the shape of a long musical instrument), he has insert shots, and the camera moves into the frame, all techniques he’d abandoned 30 years ago when he moved from mainstream romantic comedies into art house minimalism. But as the demands of wuxia changed Hou, so did Hou change wuxia. There are fight scenes in The Assassin, but they are quick. Elegant and brief, they are over before the heroes of a Lau Kar-leung film would be even a little bit warmed-up. The de-emphasis on action is vital: Shu Qi is an assassin who rejects assassination, a wuxia knight-errant who rejects the world of violence, the jianghu. She rejects everything that defines a wuxia hero: the whole Confucian edifice of blind obedience to ones master, of defining honor as the strict following of a code that has little to do with morality or even common sense, the reification of abstract concepts over basic human happiness (the film also enacts a recurring opposition in Hou’s work, that of the country and city, as Shu leaves the lushly ornate interiors of imperial life for the rough open skies of the country and an itinerant village existence). The fact that she’s a woman isn’t especially unusual, there have been female warriors in wuxia stories for centuries, and they’ve been consistently represented on-screen. But usually they behave exactly the same as the male characters, while occasionally falling victim to romantic desires as well. Shu avoids the tragic fate of a Zhang Ziyi character by doing something Zhang never could, despite the obvious evils or inhumanity of her various masters. Shu, in explicitly rejecting everything the wuxia ethos stands for, turns the wuxia hero from a tragic figure into a truly inspirational one. She’s the first one I’ve ever seen that actually succeeds in reinventing the world, in making it a more perfect place.
Things at the Vancouver International Film Festival have gotten off to a leg-numbing pace, as there’s been hardly a moment since I was freed from Customs on Friday afternoon when I’ve had enough time to write in combination with a working internet connection. Here it is Tuesday already and I’ve seen eighteen movies and I haven’t written more than a tweet about a single one of them. Mike’s been writing a bunch over at Seattle Screen Scene, you should definitely check out his stuff over there. We’ve also got a few reviews from local critic Neil Bahadur and Melissa will be adding some stuff sometime as well. We also managed to record an episode of The George Sanders Show last night wh
erein we discussed several of the films we’ve been watching, including Guy Maddin’s
The Forbidden Room, Miguel Gomes’s Arabian Nights, Thom Andersen’s The Thoughts That Once We Had, Luo Li’s Li Wen at East Lake, Lee Kwangkuk’s A Matter of Interpretation and Philip Yung’s Port of Call. I might write about some of those here as well, but for now I’m just going to attempt to cover some of the films we didn’t get to on the show.
Unbelievably, despite having just finished watching it a mere 90 minutes before we began recording, both of us neglected to talk about Hong Sangsoo’s latest release, one of our most-anticipated films of the festival. The Hong film is a perennial highlight of every VIFF (I’ve seen Like You Know it All, Oki’s Movie, Hahaha, In Another Country, Our Sunhi and Hill of Freedom here over the years) and Right Now, Wrong Then is no disappointment. It’s a very good film, while lacking the formal experimentation that distinguishes his best work (Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives) or the sheer giddy pleasure of his funniest movies (Hill of Freedom, In Another Country), it has a precision and focus that assures that, despite a certain conventionality, it will become one of his more popular features. Split evenly in two halves, it follows a film director, in town for a festival showing and Q & A, as he wanders about a tourist site where he meets a young woman. They talk, drink soju, make awkward approaches at romance and ultimately split when the director is proven to be a dishonest, womanizing lout. Then the film resets, complete with a new title card (the first half is “Right Then, Wrong Now”, the second “Right Now, Wrong Then”) and we replay the same day but with significant differences. The director in this version is honest and open (perhaps to a fault, as when a drunken overheating compels him to strip naked in front of his companions). Hong significantly varies his camera setups in the second section, creating more balanced compositions where in the first half the setups tended to privilege the director’s perspective (including a Hong rarity: an actual POV shot). It’s a mature film, relaxed and confident with a simple truth to tell. But underlying it all is a palpable loneliness. It’s played as sadness, as tragedy, in the first half, where the director’s faults lead to failure and angry isolation, and as wistful melancholy in the second, where people can find happiness in connecting with an other, with the full knowledge that any such connection is necessarily temporary. It’s a quiet and sweet film, a warm room on a cold night, and vice versa.
We talked a bit about Port of Call on the podcast, but I didn’t mention one idea I had about the film, which is that it’s a kind of update/companion to Peter Chan’s 1996 masterpiece Comrades, Almost a Love Story. In that film, Maggie Cheung plays a woman who immigrates from the Mainland to Hong Kong, works a number of jobs to survive (including at a local McDonald’s), has a deep connection with a character played by a major pop star (Leon Lai) with whom she bonds over a shared love of another pop star, Teresa Teng, and falls in with a big guy, a man of violence who loves her and takes care of her. In Port of Call, Jessie Li plays a woman who immigrates from the Mainland to Hong Kong, works a variety of jobs to survive (including at a local McDonald’s), has a deep connection with a character played by a major pop star (Aaron Kwok – though the two characters never meet, of course, their relationship, or rather, his with her, is the defining element of the film), and is obsessed with another pop star (Sammi Cheng). She too falls in with a bad crowd, and her relationship with a large man capable of violence leads to her doom. Chan’s film is one of nostalgia, with Hong Kong as an aspirational place of freedom and opportunity, where one can move, work hard and eventually make it big (and then, prior to the Handover, make it to America). Its characters look backwards to their home villages, with Teng’s music as the aching symbol of the world they left behind. Yung’s is a film of horror, based on true events that occurred in the 2008-2010 period, the Hong Kong it finds is no longer one of hope, but of desperation, with the poor set upon each other in twisted games of manipulation and violence, where even a glimmer of a true connection (facilitated by an internet chat) can lead to disaster. Cheng’s music is the aspiration, it’s what Li and her sister listened to when they were trying to learn Cantonese, it’s the music of hope amid failure. Yung set the film in the recent past, as much because that’s the time when the actual events occurred as because given the pace of change in China, the situation has already shifted dramatically. In his Q & A, he suggested that economic conditions have balanced so much between Hong Kong and the Mainland’s urban centers, that such aspirational immigration is far less common (in fact, he points out that even in 2008, the dream of moving to Hong Kong was Li’s mother’s dream, the younger generation doesn’t look at the former colony in the same way). But there’s nothing particularly unique about the idealization of Hong Kong. If the Mainland is catching up with or even surpassing it in the realm of fantasy-creation, there will always be a disconnection between that dream, say the candy-colored consumer paradise of Go Away Mr. Tumor, and the gruesome reality of the poor folks who fall into nightmare.
Emily Ting’s It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong is a different kind of fantasy, one of ex-patriates in Hong Kong and, more distressingly, of indie filmmakers weaned on Before Sunrise. Jamie Chung plays an American from Los Angeles (her grandparents emigrated from Hong Kong) lost in the city who runs into a fellow American named Josh. He’s the Joshiest Josh in film history, working in finance but really, an aspiring novelist. Actor Bryan Greenberg looks like the child of Michael Rappaport and John Krasczinski, but with even worse hair than that implies. He shows her around, lets slip way too late in the evening that he has a girlfriend and the couple splits. . . only to reunite a year later for another walk (once again hitting places best seen in Wong Kar-wai and Johnnie To films) and faux-naturalistic conversation (and a trip to a bar to see a Hong Kong knock-off of Arcade Fire, which is exactly as appalling as that sounds). After a century of Parisian dominance, it’s clear to me that Hong Kong is the most cinematic city in the world, and it certainly doesn’t let Ting down. The film is gorgeous, the bright lights of Hong Kong providing enough inherent pleasure that one is able to overlook the constructed obviousness of the script and the bland nothingness that is Greenberg’s performance. Chung fares better, her lines are just as generic but she sells them with big eyes and a world-saving smile. Pretty as the city is, it’s a problem when during the romantic climax of your film, the most interesting thing on screen is the multi-layered play of lights on a taxi cab window. Not even a cameo from the great Richard Ng can bring it to life.
A vastly more successful Hong Kong romance comes from the team of Mabel Cheung and Alex Law (she directs, he produces, they both write). Based on the life of Jackie Chan’s parents (though the story ends long before he was born) A Tale of Three Cities stars Tang Wei and Lau Ching-wan (weirdly billed as “Sean Lau”, which I haven’t seen him marketed as in years, a sign perhaps that the film is trying for a North American release) as a couple kept desperately apart by war (first against the Japanese, then against the Communists). In a Brady Bunch-like set-up, Tang has two young daughters and a husband she didn’t care for who gets killed by a clock during an air raid, while Lau has two sons and a wife dying of some unknown disease. They meet when, in the course of his duty as a Nationalist soldier, he catches her smuggling opium and lets her go. It turns out she’s his wife’s cousin and they meet up again when the war forces them from Shanghai to the smaller town of Anhui. He’s loud, illiterate and usually drunk, she’s quiet, refined and very smart. Of course they fall in love, but first the war (Lau is captured by the Japanese) and then family keep them apart (Tang’s mother doesn’t think he’s classy enough for her girl). The performances of the two leads are exceptional, Lau playing a typical role for him: a hard man with soft eyes. Tang though, is proving herself to simply be one of the best actors in the world right now. Last year at VIFF she carried Ann Hui’s biopic The Golden Era (set during the same period, but much more experimental in style and tone) with a finely modulating performance as a psychologically unstable writer. Already in 2015 she’s been brilliant in a nearly a wordless performance in Michael Mann’s Blackhat and as the emotionally explosive center of Johnnie To’s musical Office. Her performance here is halfway between those two, with simple eye movements and precise gestures, she is curiosity and determination in the interior scenes, and in the many scenes of disaster she is broad and heart-wrenching, an expressive anguish that goes beyond melodrama. The film is a series of brief unions and long separations, as the two find themselves apart from each other and their children for increasingly long periods of time, mirroring the coming together and tearing apart of the nation itself. Cheung expertly keeps things focused, despite the leaps in time and location, and the film is a masterpiece of classical storytelling, the kind of lush historical romantic epic that Hollywood hasn’t managed to make in almost 20 years (Titanic is the last good one I can think of). Along with another such epic, 2014’s The Crossing Part One, directed by John Woo, it’s clear that these veterans of the Hong Kong film industry have once again bested Hollywood at its own game.
This is an index of my coverage of the 2015 Vancouver International Film Festival. Also be sure to check out the coverage we did over at Seattle Screen Scene.
Introduction and Proposed Schedule – Sept. 04, 2015
Preview #1: Office, Police Adjective, The Soong Sisters and A Matter of Interpretation – Sept. 21, 2015
Preview #2: A Big List of VIFF Movies – Sept. 22, 2015
Preview #3: The Mirror and Weekend – Sept. 23, 2015
The George Sanders Show #70: VIFF Report #1 – Sept. 28, 2015
VIFF 2015: The First Four Days – Sept. 29, 2015
The George Sanders Show #71: VIFF Report #2 – Oct. 3, 2015
The Assassin (Hou, 15) – Oct. 9, 2015
VIFF 2015: The Last Five Days – Oct. 11, 2015
The George Sanders Show #72: VIFF Wrapup – Oct 19, 2015
A Ranked List:
1. The Assassin
2. The Forbidden Room
3. Mountains May Depart
4. Arabian Nights Part 2
5. The Thoughts That Once We Had
6. Li Wen at East Lake
7. Kaili Blues
8. A Matter of Interpretation
10. Murmur of the Hearts
11. Night Without Distance
12. Right Now, Wrong Then
13. Port of Call
14. A Tale of Three Cities
15. 45 Years
16. My Golden Days
17. The Pearl Button
19. Arabian Nights Part 3
20. The Treasure
21. Greed; Ghost Light
22. The Exquisite Corpus
23. Dead Slow Ahead
25. Wonderous Boccaccio
28. What Happened in Past Dragon Year
29. It’s Already Tomorrow in Hong Kong
30. The Dream of Shahrazad
31. Alice in Earnestland
34. Love is All