Duckweed (Han Han, 2016)

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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is based in Peng’s inability to anticipate the future: he’s heavily invested in beepers and VHS tapes, linking his outdated ideas of technology to a moral code rapidly becoming obsolete in an increasingly capitalist China.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.

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The Village of No Return (Chen Yu-hsun, 2017)

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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.

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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