The Contract (Michael Hui, 1978)

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I guess the BBC asked a bunch of people for their top ten comedy lists. They didn’t ask me, but as I’m completely incapable of resisting the siren call of list-making, I made one anyway and put this film in at the bottom, ahead of favorites like Trouble in Paradise, Annie Hall, The Princess Bride, The Awful Truth, City Lights, The Philadelphia Story, Wheels on Meals, Kung Fu Hustle, Ishtar, most of which I eliminated for generic purity reasons (romantic comedy vs comedy), and Airplane!, which I forgot and therefore invalidates the whole list. I wanted to include a Michael Hui movie purely for propagandistic reasons: he simply isn’t as well known in the West as he should be, and this is, I think, his best film. For about a decade from the mid-70s to the mid-80s, Michael Hui almost single-handedly resurrected Cantonese cinema as it was about to be swamped by the Shaw Brothers’ Mandarin language productions, while at the same time adapting the vaudevillian traditions of American comedy to modern Hong Kong, paving the way on the one hand for the Hong Kong New Wave, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung and Yuen Woo-ping and on the other for Stephen Chow and Wong Jing.

Michael stars with his brothers Ricky and Sam (himself a major Cantonese pop star). He works at a TV studio (MTV – the M is for “mouse”), trying to find a breakthrough role that will make him a star, but his clumsiness and general idiocy tend to make a mess of things whenever he gets to perform (as a background dancer, as an archery target). When a rival studio (TVC – the C is for “cat”) offers him a job as a game show host, he finds that he’s signed an awful eight-year contract with MTV which he then attempts to steal, eliciting Ricky’s help to crack the safe where it’s stored. The last half of the film is mostly an extended chase sequence, as Michael flees from the Bond-villain-esque henchmen of the studio head while also trying to free Ricky from inside the safe (it’s complicated). Sam gets involved as a magician aspiring to a TV contract whose assistant/sister is in love with Ricky and who is being tormented by an already-established TV magician.

The film is essentially a series of set-piece gags inspired by the classics: Harold Lloyd climbing a building, Charlie Chaplin trapped in an out-of-control machine, Buster Keaton having a wall fall on him, alongside Network-level satire on the nature of corporate television, biting, absurd and completely unpretentious. Before moving into films, Michael had worked on TV as both a game show host and the Hui Brothers’ extremely successful sketch comedy/variety show (imagine a Cantonese Laugh-In), and there’s a pure love of performance that leavens the film’s harder edges (the Let’s Make a Deal-inspired game show Michael hosts is Verhoevean in its cruelty, but Michael’s joy in finally being on center stage is irresistible nonetheless). His other films (Games Gamblers Play, The Private Eyes, Security Unlimited) are more anarchic, more misanthropic (while Chicken and Duck Talk on the other hand is much more conventional, with a warm mainstream heart), but The Contract captures best that lunatic balance the performer must maintain: the desperate desire to please an audience for which they have utter contempt.

Once Upon a Time in China and America (Sammo Hung, 1997)

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I will never not think it’s hilarious that Sammo Hung and Tsui Hark stole Jackie Chan’s dream project idea for a kung fu Western and used it to make a sixth Once Upon a Time in China movie. I bet he’s still mad about it. I haven’t seen Shanghai Noon, but I have no doubt it’s glossier, better acted, and much, much worse than this. That this was the last project for both Sammo and Tsui before they too arrived in America is surely no accident, and I suppose Jackie got his revenge by both inspiring the producers of Sammo’s TV series Martial Law to add Arsenio Hall to the cast in order to recreate the Rush Hour dynamic, and also by making a ton of money. But on the other hand: Sammo never had to work with Brett Ratner, so he’s probably still ahead.

Totally abandoning any kind of logical chronology, Wong Fei-hung (with Jet Li returning in the role), 13th Aunt and Clubfoot (now named “Seven”) are in America to visit Buck-Toothed So, who has opened an American branch of Po Chi Lam for Chinese workers in Fort Stockton, which might be a made up place, though there is a Fort Stockton in West Texas, I suspect it would take more than ten days to get there by stagecoach from San Francisco by OUATIC travel time (where it takes three days to get from Hong Kong to Guangzhou (it takes two hours today). The last film ended after the Boxer Rebellion failed, which would mean this one would take place more than a year after that (So was still in China in that film), so at least 1903. But the Fort Stockton we find is a relic from 30 to 40 years earlier, if for no other reason than that the Chinese Exclusion Act, barring immigration from China, was passed in 1882.

It’s clear that Wong hasn’t so much journeyed to America, as he’s journeyed into a Western. The characters and setting aren’t historical, they’re versions of cinematic history. It’s not real Indians he finds, but movie Indians: first attacking a stagecoach for no reason, then adopting the amnesiac Wong into their peace-loving tribe, Pocahontas-style. Throwing Wong Fei-hung into a Western completely destabilizes it, his moral vision reforming Billy the Kid into an upright pillar of the community, an immigrant-friendly mayor while his speeches do little for his own community, putting the laborers, led by Richard Ng and Patrick Lung Kong, to sleep. The villains in the film are the racist white establishment, led by the corrupt mayor, local law enforcement (the kindly sheriff) is sympathetic yet powerless in the face of greed and anti-Chinese sentiment. That the film’s final villain (a bank robber hired by the mayor) is ethnically ambiguous, sporting Fu Manchu eyebrows and beard and deadly ninja star spurs, is surely no accident: what Wong conquers is not so much racism as a version of Hollywood racism, the Yellow Peril monster of America’s id.

The final fight is striking: seven Chinese men set up to be legally lynched, incidentally rescued by the betrayed criminal gang in their quest for revenge on the mayor. Wong and his men defeat the villains of course. But after the fight is over: 13th Aunt arrives with the friendly Indians who had adopted Wong: a cavalry appearance too late to save anyone, but a nice gesture nonetheless. Wong though, refuses to recognize them: even Wong Fei-hung forgets the Indians.

Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)

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There’s a little making-of featurette on the Miramax DVD of Hero[1] that has some decent interviews with the cast and crew along with some breathless Hollywood narration. Maggie Cheung, Tony Leung and Donnie Yen speak impeccable English, which makes one wonder what might have been if Hollywood wasn’t so racist and dumb, while Ching Siu-tung sports some questionably-dyed hair and Christopher Doyle complains about the lack of bars in the remote deserts of Western China. After the usual rigamarole about shooting challenges and directorial perfectionism, someone asked Zhang Yimou what he thought the film was about, which he either answered honestly or deftly dodged by asserting that what he wanted people to take from the film, long after they’ve forgotten the plot, are the memories of certain images: two women in red fighting among swirling yellow leaves, two sorrowful men flying and dueling on a lake as still as a mirror, a sky of black arrows, a desert moonscape haunted by lonely figures in white. Taken at his word, he undoubtedly succeeded: Hero builds upon the aestheticization of wuxia begun with Ashes of Time and made popular by Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon: it’s undeniably beautiful. His two follow-up films, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower are as well, but where the former luxuriates in the irrational melodrama of tragic romance and the latter is consumed by the emptiness at the heart of its own baroque decadence, there’s a reticence to Hero, a by-product of its episodic structure, narrative instability and potentially repellent politics.

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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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