Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui Hark, 1992)

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“When we are young, we learn the myths. And we interpret them as we get older. After all, we see they are just myths.” – Lu Haodong

“Gods are useless. You must rely on yourself.” – Wong Fei-hung

“Vigorous when facing the beatings of ten thousand heavy waves
Ardent just like the rays of the red sun
Having courage like forged iron and bones as hard as refined steel
Having lofty aspirations and excellent foresight
I worked extremely hard, aspiring to be a strong and courageous man
In order to become a hero, One should strive to become stronger everyday
An ardent man shines brighter than the sun

Allowing the sky and sea to amass energy for me
To split heaven and part the earth, to fight for my aspirations
Watching the stature and grandure of jade-coloured waves
at the same time watching the vast jade-coloured sky, let our noble spirit soar

I am a man and I must strive to strengthen myself.
Walking in firm steps and standing upright let us all aspire to be a pillar of the society, and to be a hero
Using our hundredfold warmth, to bring forth a thousandfold brilliance
Be a hero
Being ardent and with strong courage
Shine brighter than the sun” – “A Man Should Strengthen Himself

In some quarters seen as superior to the first film, perhaps because of its tighter focus (only a few main characters, including a recognizable to the West historical figure in Sun Yat-sen), specific historical moment (set in September 1895 at the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion, as opposed to the vague late 19th century of the first film), and the presence of Donnie Yen (his second attempt at stardom, after supporting roles in a handful of films in the late 80s). I appreciate the grander sprawl of the first film, however.

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Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark, 1991)

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Tsui Hark is the John Ford of Chinese cinema, and Once Upon a Time in China is his Stagecoach. Not only does it redefine a genre on the cusp of its rebirth (in this case the period martial arts film, which had lain dormant through the late 80s much as the Western had been relegated to cheap serials through the 1930s), but it expresses a total historical vision entirely through archetypes, which are by turns deepened and confounded. Much has been made of the film’s nationalism, an apparent sharp turn from the more scathing works of Tsui’s New Wave films, but like Ford Tsui’s patriotism is more complex than it appears on the surface.

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Jiang Wen’s Gone with the Bullets

 

So Jiang Wen made a Wong Jing movie. . .

I saw the Thai DVD, which is the first version I’ve seen that has English subtitles. The running time is 119 minutes. Wikipedia and IMDB give it a running time of 140 minutes, with a 120 minute international cut, while Screen Daily‘s review from the Berlin Film Festival says it’s 134 minutes. I have no idea what’s been removed for this international cut, but I doubt the added footage would make the movie any more or less coherent.

Jiang plays a conman in 1920s Shanghai. In an opening parody of the first scene of The Godfather, he agrees to help the youngest son of the local warlord general launder his money. To do so, he spends it all on an extravagant pageant to crown the Best Hooker in Shanghai, complete with musical numbers (“a song so new Mr. Gershwin won’t even write it for ten years!”), fireworks, live radio coverage around the world and Shu Qi offering to sleep with 30 rich men in 30 nights and give all her proceeds to the poor. Shortly thereafter, she proposes to Jiang (they are old friends and lovers), he tries to talk her out of it in a melange of artificial sets and dizzying cutting (every line gets its own shot, the effect of which, given the screwball pace of the exchanges, is something like watching a Baz Luhrmann movie on amphetamines), culminating in an opium dreams of a wild musical car trip. The morning after, Shu Qi is dead and Jiang spends the rest of the movie on the run, accused of her murder.

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Running Out of Karma: A Moment of Romance III

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

For his final film before launching the Milkyway Image studio, Johnnie To took a super-generic script, applied a Steven Spielberg visual aesthetic, and almost made an FW Murnau movie out of it. A rarity for To, a period film, a romance set during the second World War, with Andy Lau as a pilot who crash lands in a remote village and is nursed back to health by Jacklyn Wu (these two stars are the only connection to the other A Moment of Romance films: in Hong Kong, spiritual sequels can be numbered as actual sequels, they need not be in any other way related). They fall in love and when he returns to the war effort, she follows him to the big city, splitting the film neatly into country/city halves like Crocodile Dundee.

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Running Out of Karma: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: Sword of Destiny

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

A straight-to-Netflix multinational English language collaboration that is the sequel to the highest-grossing foreign language film in American history, Sword of Destiny reunites star Michelle Yeoh with the action choreographer from the first film, Yuen Woo-ping. Belonging more rightly to the CGI-driven Chinese wuxias of the 2010s (and the cheaper ones at that: it’s more Reign of Assassins than than Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons) the digitally-aided filmic art house wuxias of the early 2000s, the new film is worlds apart from Ang Lee’s original, and that’s, as much as anything, the difference between Lee and Yuen. What made the first film truly great is the combination their two sensibilities: Lee’s character-based approach to personal drama, romantic relationships constricted by social rules reflected in carefully composed, controllingly symmetrical compositions added to Yuen’s gorgeous choreography, every movement of the actors and stunt performers motivated by an ideology of fighting, reflecting their personalities, their worldview (Chow’s patient precision, Cheng’s wild flailing, Zhang’s exuberant virtuosity, Yeoh’s passionate intellectuality).

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Running Out of Karma: All About Ah-Long

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).

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Running Out of Karma: John Woo’s The Crossing

Here are reviews of the two separately released parts of The Crossing. We talked about John Woo’s career in general on They Shot Pictures a few months ago.

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The Crossing – reviewed August 13, 2015

The first part of John Woo’s latest epic (the second part was recently released in China to little fanfare, but isn’t available here yet) is a romantic war movie in the style of The Big Parade or Doctor Zhivago, with a half dozen characters caught up in the Chinese civil war following the defeat of the Japanese in 1945. The most direct connection is probably Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli’s 1947 film The Spring River Flows East which follows the ups and downs of a family awash in the same history, and was also released separately in two parts.

Leaving the nautical disaster that’s led the project to be dubbed “John Woo’s Titanic” for the second half, this first part follows the three major stars and their satellite characters through the civil war: Zhang Ziyi as an illiterate nurse trying to get by while searching for the man she loves (a soldier), Takeshi Kaneshiro as a Taiwanese doctor who has lost the woman he loves (a Japanese girl), and Huang Xiaoming as a Nationalist general who falls in love with and marries a young woman before shipping her to safety in Taiwan (where she lives in Kaneshiro’s girlfriend’s old house). It’s lush and romantic (a quite pretty score by Taro Iwashiro, who also did the stirring and lovely music for Woo’s Red Cliff), with golden hues, wind blowing through grasslands, pointed freeze frames and slow motion (yes, and doves), balanced by the horrors of war: starving children, students and dancing girls beaten in the streets, freezing trenches and explosive heroism. Nobody mixes action and melodrama with more seriousness than John Woo.

One person’s old fashioned and sappy is another person’s classical and heartfelt. And I am nothing if not a sucker.

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The Crossing II – reviewed December 2, 2015

Such a strange movie, less a continuation of the story of Part One than a partial remake of it (pointedly perhaps its title is “The Crossing II” and not “The Crossing Part II“), as the first half hour not only recapitulates what went before, but completely replays whole scenes with slightly different editing and a few extra scenes added in. The next hour or so continues the rhythm of the first film, intercutting between the various leads as they all slowly make their way to the doomed boat (a title card at the opening gives us all the details of the impending disaster, with some of this information to be repeated verbatim at the end of the film). The emphasis is on Takeshi Kaneshiro’s doctor, first in his friendship with Song Hye-kyo (the wife of Nationalist general Huang Xiaoming), then with his family (ostensibly his younger brother who wants to run off from Taiwan to Shanghai to become a prostitute, but as it plays the relationship is more with his mother and sister-in-law (his older brother’s widow), who is played by Woo’s daughter Angeles), and finally, on the boat, with Zhang Ziyi, the idealistic young woman willing to do anything up to and including prostitution in her quest to survive long enough to find the army man she loves (“When I believe someone, I believe him whole-heartedly. Shouldn’t it be that way?” she says, in a line that does much to summarize Woo’s entire career).

Recentering the film in this manner makes it less an ensemble piece about love in a time of war, as the first one is, than a film about the endurance of women in the face of tragedy. Perhaps this is the influence of Tsui Hark, brought in at the last minute to help assemble the final cut of this film. The whole thing feels like it was hastily assembled in response to the box office failure of the first film. I’m very curious how the second half was to play out in its initial conception, as I quite liked Part One, it had the sweep and loveliness of a great historical melodrama, like Woo’s version of the great 1947 Shanghai film The Spring River Flows East. The second part though would probably play better, or at least just as well, as a single film, in isolation from the first. The jumbling repetitions of the first film irreparably break the rhythm, we’re left wondering why we’re seeing these scenes again, and why the new scenes were deleted from the first film, rather than being caught up in the emotions on-screen.

For all its billing, this is not “John Woo’s Titanic“. In its loveliness, deep anxiety about the past and the horrors of history (one of the many fascinating things about it’s look at the Civil War is that both sides are pretty much equally terrible, while good people populate the ranks of both armies), breathtaking romanticism and flights of digital expressionism, this is nothing less (and nothing more) than John Woo’s War Horse.