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.

A Brief Impression of The Age of Innocence (Martin Scorsese, 1993)

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Rewatch confirms what I’ve suspected for awhile: this is Martin Scorsese’s very best movie . . . poor Newland Archer, always thinking he’s the smartest person in the room when in fact he’s the dumbest . . . and what rooms, those sweeping tracking shots, rooms cluttered with objects, the conspicuous wealth of the 1870s, generated on the backs of the wholly absent poor . . . a world of unimaginable riches and power, so seductive, its occupants entirely unaware of its exceptionality: a simple matter of fact that their universe is the way it is because they are destined to lead it, their system of unexpressed rules governing their every motion . . . Archer thinks he understands it, and looks down upon those he doesn’t understand, those poor simple women who lack his self-awareness, his understanding of the ritual . . . his late realizations that not only is he caught in a web of conspiracy, that his darkest secrets are public knowledge and, ultimately, that his apparently vacant wife his a far more deft manipulator of the levers of power than he could ever hope to be . . . Archer ultimately refuses freedom, he’s old-fashioned, preferring to live in his constructed reality (ala Shutter Island or Solaris), lacking the imagination to step outside the social order imposed upon him . . . Day-Lewis and Ryder are brilliant of course: he taking a character that should be insufferable and making him a tragic hero, a foolish, arrogant prig who fails in every pathetic scheme, yet is ultimately almost admirable in his refusal to be anything other than what he is; she hiding May’s depths behind bright eyes and a sunny smile, never cracking but always twisting the knife, bending the world with a will far stronger than Archer can imagine . . . Pfeiffer might be a weak link, saying her lines as if she’s always out of breath, but perhaps that’s just the way Archer sees the Countess, her eyes betray a steeliness and wry arrogance that belies Archer’s view of her as the embodiment of his desires for sex and freedom . . . in a film so much about the unspoken rules and systems that underlie an excess of conversation, actors that play on multiple levels are essential, and no actors contains more multitudes than Daniel Day-Lewis . . . Scorsese captures it all of course, the beauty (that shot of the light house on the shore!), the isolation (that cube mansion in the middle of an undeveloped Manhattan) and the seductive power of the objects that surround them, the food, the cutlery, the hands of stone, such a luscious prison . . . and the dissolves, oh wow, the dissolves . . .

VIFF 2015: Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Assassin


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.

Running Out of Karma: The Big Heat

Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To, Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema. Here is an index. An earlier version of this review appeared here almost two years ago.

So here we come to the first film in the genre that Johnnie To would become best known for: the urban crime thriller. Released a mere seven months after his first big hit, The Eighth Happiness, The Big Heat finds To working with Tsui Hark for the first and only time. In 1986, Tsui (he claims) had convinced the comedians that ran Cinema City to make A Better Tomorrow, even though it wasn’t a comedy (“Why would anyone want to see a depressing movie?” they protested according to Tsui in Lisa Morton’s The Cinema of Tsui Hark). That film’s runaway success launched a whole genre’s worth of imitators, radically transforming the Hong Kong movie scene, the effects of which are still felt today. Films like Ringo Lam’s City on Fire and Prison on Fire, Parkman Wong’s Final Justice, Wong Jing and Corey Yuen’s Casino Raiders (which To would direct the sequel to in a few years), Taylor Wong’s Rich and Famous, Yuen Wo-ping’s Tiger Cage, Patrick Tam’s My Heart is that Eternal Rose, Wong Kar-wai’s As Tears Go By, Corey Yuen’s She Shoots Straight, Lau Kar-leung’s Tiger on the Beat films (and on a parallel track, kung fu films descending from Jackie Chan’s Police Story, the Yes, Madam and In the Line of Duty movies featuring Michelle Yeoh, Cynthia Rothrock and Donnie Yen, along with Yuen Biao’s Righting Wrongs, most of which were directed by Corey Yuen or Yuen Woo-ping), and more all quickly followed before the end of the decade. Into this genre stepped Johnnie To, maker of wuxia television and slapstick romantic farces.

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The film was apparently a very troubled production (see this interview with its screenwriter, Gordon Chan, who would go on to write and direct one of Jet Li’s greatest films, Fist of Legend, in 1994) and Tsui, producing the film with Cinema City and his own production house Film Workshop, was in the midst of a half-decade of problematic working relationships with directors like John Woo (on the two A Better Tomorrow sequels) and King Hu (on Swordsman), relationships that seem to presage To’s own difficulties in the late 90s in trying to produce other directors’ films in the early days of Milkyway Image. The Big Heat went through a variety of directors, and while To is the primary name, the mishmash nature of the film makes it hard to credit any one thing to a particular authorial voice. It’s a cops vs. gangsters story, with Waise Lee as the about-to-retire veteran who learns his ex-partner (injured in the line of duty, a bad leg ala Mark in A Better Tomorrow) has been brutally murdered in Malaysia. He takes the case and assembles a team which includes a callow rookie, a Malaysian cop who always wears sunglasses, and his regular partner, Philip Kwok, one of the Five Deadly Venoms, to take down the criminals. The plot moves briskly, with a minimum of melodrama or characterization (Joey Wang is sadly underused as the rookie’s love interest), rarely taking the time to explain something in words that can be inferred from images, like the fact that Lee suffers from nerve damage in his left hand, which is why he wants to retire. Whether a byproduct of a chaotic writing and editing process, or an intentional storytelling choice, the result is a brisk and exciting cop movie, a step above the Taylor Wongs of the period.

There are other echoes of later To films, the most obvious example being a shootout between two groups of cops, one side suffused in fire engine-red light, with the other in deep blue (much like the blue in the opening of To’s 1999 film Where a Good Man Goes), a ne plus ultra of late-80s Hong Kong neon. In its visual stylization and willingness to pause the action for several beats as the gunmen plan their actions, it presages many of To’s later gun battles. The violence in the film is nauseatingly realistic, from the opening images of a hand punctured by a drill: bodies are beheaded, set aflame, run over by cars again and again, limbs shattered by bullets. It’s more graphic than anything To would later depict (though the early Milkyway films certainly don’t shy away from violence), more like the grotesque horror-comedy of something like Tsui’s We’re Going to Eat You or Ringo Lam’s 1992 Full Contact than the restrained cool of Drug War or the Election films. Most To-like though is a magical bit of release near the middle of the film as the cops, rejecting a bribe from the film’s villain, throw piles of cash into the air, watching it blow in the breeze, that recalls moments of childlike freedom snatched from bleaker realities in Throw Down (as when the plot is temporarily suspended so the three main characters can collaborate to free a red balloon from a tree) or Sparrow or the Running Out of Time films, which take what are ostensibly dark and violent gangster movie settings and turn them into spaces for play and possibility.

Waise Lee, the heel from A Better Tomorrow and Bullet in the Head, is excellent playing against type as the hero (as is Chu Kong, Chow Yun-fat’s friend in The Killer) playing equally against type as the bad guy. Lee is yet another To hero with a disability, see also: Throw Down, Mad Detective, Running on Karma, Running Out of Time, Vengeance, Yesterday Once More, Love on a Diet, Wu Yen, Blind Detective and, if being dead counts as a handicap, A Hero Never Dies and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts. But where most of those other films use the disability as a launching point for the character’s transcendence of physical limitations, either spiritually or through an existential stand in the name of honor, loyalty, friendship, and/or love, The Big Heat remains thoroughly materialist, grounded in the world of Hong Kong’s cops and gangsters before the fall. The sense of vague dread, of millennial fatalism that hangs over much of To’s later work is present here, but it’s given a more explicit and specific, and (therefore) rather less interesting, name: the gangsters openly discuss their plans to cash in while they can before the ’97 handover of Hong Kong to China. The end is a plot motivation, rather than a mood. The result of these compromises is a very solid action movie that at times seems like it’s going to burst free of its genre, but is missing that last little twist that would become the hallmark of To’s Milkway Image films beginning a decade later.

The stand-out performance might be that of Philip Kwok. Kwok has done just about everything you can do in movies: direct, star, write (he was one of the writers on Once Upon a Time in China and America, the sixth(!) in the series started by Jet Li (who took the fourth and fifth films off) and Tsui Hark and the one which was ripped off by Jackie Chan for the big international hit Shanghai Noon (aka, the kung fu movie that my mom likes), although I’ve heard that Tsui and Sammo Hung may have ripped the idea off from Chan before he was able to make his version of the story), choreograph, produce, he even has an art direction credit (for Wilson Yip’s 2004 film Leaving Me, Loving You, starring Leon Lai and Faye Wong). He was of course the Lizard in Chang Cheh’s Five Deadly Venoms, but is probably most recognizable as Mad Dog, the bad guy with the eye patch in John Woo’s Hard-Boiled.

Four Romantic Comedies From VIFF 2014

Amid the Very Important Films tackling Very Important Subjects in Very Important Styles at this year’s festival, there is, as there always is here in Vancouver, a place as well for more generically-oriented fare. I’m not speaking of the always-fecund indie-horror/thriller genre, which too is well-represented and well-attended, despite my almost total absence, but rather that most-reviled of all contemporary genres: the romantic comedy. Burdened by 15, 20, 40, 70? years of spunky professional heroines cursed with the twin scourges of awkwardness and beauty-concealing eyewear; bland, square-jawed leading men with suspiciously nice hair; meets cute, stirring declarations and string-swelling finales; the romantic comedy remains among the most formulaic, irritating, disreputable and wildly popular of all film genres. But as these things always go, along with the successful trash there are every year great gems to be found, too special for the mainstream, their denominators not low enough for wide release in America’s multiplexes. Films that persist despite all the odds in exploring the promise of this ancient and enduring form.
At the top of the list of the best modern romantic comedies are the films of Hong Sangsoo, an annual denizen of the VIFF schedule (this is the 7th of his films I’ve seen here in Vancouver) and his latest, Hill of Freedom continues his winning streak with no end in sight (he’s managed an unbroken string of masterpieces with nine films since 2008’s Night and Day). Hill of Freedom returns, after a three film sojourn in the point of view of female protagonists, to the male perspective, in the person of Mori, a Japanese man in Korea to look for a woman, Kwon, whom he has decided he is in love with because she is the best person he has ever known (he respects her so much! A sentiment interchangeable with love in the recent films). The bulk of the story is relayed in a series of letters (memento mori?) Mori wrote to Kwon after he was unable to find her, his voiceover narration guiding us through the requisite drinking bouts, awkward social encounters and questionable life choices. One of Hong’s funniest films, my notes are mostly just pages and pages of dialogue as I furiously transcribed at least half the script. Formally there is at least one development in Hong’s repertoire: for the first time that I can recall, Hong uses a dissolve. It’s a quick one, eliding a moment within a scene (early on, when Kwon accidentally drops the letters on a stairwell and scurries to pick them up, with disastrous consequences for the temporal continuity of the rest of the film). And of the three big drinking scenes, only one is in the standard Hong shot, parallel to the table with the actors arranged perpendicularly, facing each other. The other two table scenes are angled off to the side, privileging one of the drinkers over the others (this is a return for Hong rather than a new approach, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors uses the same setup, among other earlier films). Unusually, none of the characters are specifically stated to be in the film or film teaching business, although Mori is told that he “has the fine mustache of an artist”. As sweet and warm as anything Hong has yet made, but with a dark cloud of instability under its fragile reality. The dreams and fantasies of Night and Day and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon and the scripts of In Another Country, along with the temporal loops of The Day He Arrives and Oki’s Movie (to say nothing of the manifold points of view in Hahaha and Our Sunhi), give the recent films a slippery, kaleidoscopic quality. I experienced Hill of Freedom as ending happily, but looking back on it, I’m not so sure that’s what really happened.
Moving from one of our most-established auteurs to one of our newest, the most-underrated film of the festival thus far has got to be Heiward Mak’s Uncertain Relationships Society. This is the fourth feature by the Hong Kong director (in addition to writing her own films, she also co-wrote Love in a Puff, itself one of the great romantic comedies of the last decade, with its director Edmund Pang Ho-cheung), though she remains largely unknown outside of Hong Kong as far as I can tell (she doesn’t even have a wikipedia entry). In preparation for this festival, I sought out her earlier film Ex, from 2010, which my wife and I both really enjoyed (“I like her. She’s honest.” pronouces the wife). Ex followed a pair of couples from a chance encounter at the airport. One woman breaks up with her boyfriend and goes off with the other couple, the man being her own ex-boyfriend. She stays with them for awhile, while remembering her previous relationship with the man, her boyfriends after the original break up, and her meeting and falling in love with this latest boyfriend. We experience it all in a series of non-linear flashbacks, usually from the woman’s point of view but not exclusively. In the end, the film becomes less a love story than a coming of age tale, as the woman begins to assert her independence from romantic influence and sets out into the world anew.

Uncertain Relationships Society works almost exactly the same way, except with approximately three times as many characters and an even more densely-packed flashback structure. We follow the characters from their last year of high school (2008) through the present, as the cast of mostly unknown actors grows up, at least a little bit. Each character is in love with someone who doesn’t quite love them back, while each is also loved by someone they don’t quite love in the same way. It’s a dizzying concept that Mak handles so naturally that the transitions and leaps in time and space and relationship always remain emotionally clear. In its leap from the particular to the expansively general, it reminded me of no less than the jump from Lola to Young Girls of Rochefort, to make a hyperbolic comparison. Looking at Mak’s credits, I’m curious just how involved she was in Love in a Puff, which strikes me as significantly better than its sequel, Love in the Buff, which is credited to Pang and Luk Yee-sum. Mak gives us all the required elements of the romantic comedy, the declarations, the panic, the heartbreak and triumph, but with an intelligence and, yes dear, honesty that’s hard to find in America these days. In many ways it feels more like a TV series than a movie, and I don’t mean that as a negative. It’s beautifully shot, the colors of Hong Kong as vibrant as ever (I’m still stunned she found a way to make the very familiar Hong Kong airport seem completely fresh in Ex), with the off-hand virtuosity which that most-photogenic city inspires apparent in every frame. She keeps her spaces stable and coherent, knowing just when to move in for a closer, more intimate effect (an early scene in a recording studio, a man and woman singing a terrible jingle for lemon juice, his voice in her ears as she stands at the microphone is as charged as anything I’ve seen this year). Rather, her story has the depth and resonance of a full season of very good TV, with at least eight fully-realized individual characters and enough story to fill 20 hours with ease. That she packs it all into a mere 118 minutes (there are two other versions, this length is her preferred “director’s cut”) is nothing short of remarkable.

French director Axelle Ropert’s second feature, the hideously named Miss and the Doctors (everyone agrees the original title, Tirez la langue, mademoiselle (or, Stick Out Your Tongue, Miss) is vastly superior), tackles the equally complicated subject of the love lives of the middle-aged. The doctors are brothers, general practitioners in Paris. They each fall in love with a younger woman, the mother of one of their child patients. The woman, a beautiful bartendress (Louise Bourgoin), is estranged from the girl’s father, and at first resists the advances of both brothers. The older, taller brother, gruff and blunt, is played by Cédric Kahn, the younger, a blond recovering alcoholic who looks a bit like a Gallic Michael J. Fox, is played by Laurent Stocker (billed as being “from the Comédie-Française”). It’s a sweetly patient, funny and melancholy story. One of those movies where everyone has their reasons.

Alex Ross Perry’s Listen Up Philip, on the other hand, is as self-lacerating a tale of artistic ego and male self-importance as I’ve seen in quite awhile. Trapped for the first third in the insufferable mind of young author Jason Schwartzman, the eponymous Philip, as his hilarious misanthropy turns increasingly cruel, we’re given a reprieve in the film’s middle section, as Philip’s now ex-girlfriend Ashley (Elizabeth Moss) reconstructs her life in fits and starts after their breakup. The last section of the film finds us back with Philip and his mentor, legendary author Ike, played with gruff arrogance by Jonathan Pryce. Like his previous feature, The Color Wheel, Perry delights in the us-against-the-world egotism of his protagonists, drawing pleasure in the absurdity of the difference between how they see themselves and how the world sees them. It would be unbearable if he didn’t care just enough about these terrible people to laugh a little bit with them, and give them an ever-so-slight chance of happiness, however perverted the manifestation of that happiness might be. Unlike The Color Wheel‘s gorgeously grainy black and white, the new film is in color, vibrant and warm. However, also unlike the previous film, it’s shot in a nauseatingly close-up hand-held style. The choice makes more sense here than in something like, say, Humpday, thanks to a voice-over narration (delivered by no less than Eric Bogosian) that frames the film as a quasi-documentary. I’ll readily admit my distaste for this style has as much to do with my own middle-age and tendency toward motion sickness. Suffice it to say I’d prefer it if Perry and his accomplished cinematographer Sean Price Williams would take a step or two back from the characters. But whatever, there’s lots of ways to make movies.

Running Out of Karma: Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons


I see a lot of complaints that this, the latest from Stephen Chow, is “no Kung Fu Hustle (or Shaolin Soccer)” which, yeah sure, it’s a different kind of movie than those. Those were the culmination of 15 years of Chow’s comedy style, which burst on the scene in the early 90s with a string of smash comedies, built around lowest common denominator wordplay and slapstick parodies of popular genres (gambling movies with All for the Winner, cop movies with Fight Back to School, wuxia films with the Royal Tramp and Chinese Odyssey films, among many others (including a couple contentious collaborations with Johnnie To). Chow was arguably the biggest Hong Kong star of the 1990s, and Kung Fu Hustle in particular is a masterpiece, the pinnacle of the kung fu parody, driven by CGI to fully realize the live-action Looney Tunes-quality this era of Hong Kong comedy always strived for.

Journey to the West though has entirely different ambitions. It’s still quite funny of course, and like most contemporary Hong Kong (or Hong Kong/Chinese, the various industries are increasingly intertwined) it is driven by special effects, most of which look quite good, and action. But building on the somewhat rote spiritualism of Kung Fu Hustle, Chow, along with his co-director Derek Kwok and a host of co-writers, appears to be exploring Buddhism with some allegorical seriousness. Freely adapting one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese Literature, a work that has inspired numerous film adaptations, including the Chow-starring two-part 1995 film A Chinese Odyssey (written and directed by Jeffrey Lau) and the latest film from Taiwanese auteur Tsai Ming-liang, the film follows the growth of a young monk in training to be a demon-hunter. Played by Wen Zhang with an open earnestness very different from the cocky fools played by Chow in his prime, the young monk attempts not to destroy the demons, but rather rehabilitate them by freeing the good that he’s convinced still lies within them (Skywalker-style). Demon-hunting being something of a growth industry in troubled Tang Dynasty (circa 600s AD) China, he quickly finds himself with a rival, played by frequent Hou Hsiao-hsien star Shu Qi. She takes the opposite approach, using some magic rings and nifty combat moves to ensnare the demons, a task she proves much more adept at than Wen.

Shu Qi takes a liking to Wen, not because of his charm or handsomeness, but rather because she’s attracted to the purity of his motives. And, having taking a vow of celibacy, his refusal of her advances only convinces her further of his righteousness, turning her on even more. As they encounter a series of demons (a giant fish monster, then a serial-killing pig, finally the Monkey King himself), Shu Qi keeps trying to trick the monk into falling in love with her (or at least having sex with her), going so far as to set up an elaborate and bloody ruse (leading to one of the film’s best recurring gags as one of her henchman’s special effects goes awry). This episodic quest narrative, leavened with liberal amounts of outsized action and comedy and some truly inspired images (a demon-hunter with a notable foot, for one), is pleasant enough, but by the end of the film it becomes apparent that every episode has its role in the allegory Chow is building.

Each of the demons is a human who’s soul has been poisoned by tragedy, their perversions the direct result of desire and attachment. They are markers for the things the Buddhist must renounce in order to achieve enlightenment. The fish demon is after revenge on a village that wronged him in a horrible way. The pig demon was consumed by jealousy after his wife cheated on him. The Monkey King, greatest demon of them all, dared to defy Buddha himself in declaring war on heaven in a psychotic expression of personal freedom. They represent impulses the monk must rid himself of, negative desires that lead people to their own destruction. At the same time, Shu’s demon-hunter, who the monk has (chastely of course) come to love, comes to embody all that he must leave behind. Because enlightenment isn’t just about renouncing life’s negative impulses, it’s also about understanding loss and suffering, and you can’t understand loss if you don’t have something you love that you have to let go.

So, rather than building to the kind of anarchic extravaganza that culminated Chow’s best-known efforts, Journey to the West becomes increasingly serious has it goes along (not that there isn’t darkness throughout the film, as each of the demon episodes features some shocking horrors). It doesn’t follow the escalating structure of classic screwball and slapstick comedies, instead it follows the spiritual journey of its hero (similar to the path trod by King Hu’s A Touch of Zen) tracing an epic arc from grounded realism through increasing abstraction to a kind of transcendence. Kung Fu Hustle is a feint in this direction, as Chow’s hero ultimately masters kung fu and attains a kind of enlightenment, in a parody of traditional martial arts films like The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. But Journey to the West takes the ideology behind the generic form seriously and infuses it into its very structure. Chow plays it straight and the result is something I never expected: Stephen Chow’s Au hazard Balthazar.

On Oklahoma!

Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein II are generally credited with ushering in a Golden Age of musical theatre, this 1943 play marking the first truly integrated show, with music, lyrics and story seamlessly interwoven. Of course it wasn’t the first (Show Boat did much the same thing 15 years earlier, to say nothing of the operettas from the 19th century onward that did as well, but whatever), but it was a huge hit, inspiring many imitators, some of which are actually good. Similarly, the 1955 film adaptation was followed by a new form of musical film: more or less direct translations of stage musicals, often excruciatingly long, presented as roadshow extravaganzas (more expensive tickets, super widescreen formats, elaborate sets and locations). These films, increasingly bloated and dull, eventually killed the musical as a viable American film genre and played no small role in bankrupting the studio system that had been in place in Hollywood since the 1920s.

The film is incompetently directed by Fred Zinnemann, because if you’re going to make a film of the most successful musical of all-time, why hire someone who knows anything about directing a musical? No Vincente Minnelli or Stanley Donen or even George Sidney for these producers, not even the director of the original stage version, Rouben Mamoulien. Nope, instead they hired the guy who did High Noon and From Here to Eternity, a Less Than Meets the Eye Oscar-generating machine who had never directed a musical before and never would again. Zinnemann shoots the film as if he’s entirely uninterested in the dance sequences, the choreography of which, by Agnes DeMille, is reportedly as influential as the play’s form. But I can’t tell because half the time, when Zinnemann hasn’t framed the shot so the dancers are piled on top of each other is indistinguishable clumps, you can’t even see the dancers’ legs (at least in the Cinemascope version, maybe the Todd-AO version is framed better (the film was shot in two different formats simultaneously, with different takes for each version. Todd-AO was a 70 mm widescreen format developed by the film’s producer, Mike Todd)). Instead of using long shots with the head-to-toe framing that Fred Astaire famously insisted upon, framing that emphasizes the formal beauty of dancers in motion (the fundamental pleasure of the art form: what’s the point of dancing, after all, if you can’t see the body move?), Zinnemann repeatedly moves his camera in on the actors, framing them from the waist up or in 3/4 shots, apparently to heighten the dramatic emotions of the scenario, the way you would film a straight melodrama or comedy (think of Howard Hawks and standard Classical Hollywood film style). Of course, most of the people dancing were chosen for their dancing skills, not their dramatic abilities (especially the background dancers, who often find themselves cut out, not just at the knees of waist, but out of the sides of the frame as Zinnemann is too close to shoot all the choreography).

The film and play’s centerpiece sequence is a long dream ballet sequence that closes the first act. I am positive that this would have been amazing on stage in 1943, and the set design in the film is pretty cool, with blazing orange skies and floating frames of buildings (a church, a stairway to nowhere, the outline of a doorway). But by 1955, filmmakers, certainly inspired by the stage Oklahoma!, had been engaged in a decade-long battle of one-upmanship, from the ballet in The Red Shoes to the finale of An American in Paris to the “Broadway Melody” sequence in Singin’ in the Rain and beyond, they had been pushing the expressive limits of ballet in cinema. Compared to the Barn Dance sequence in 1954’s Seven Brides for Seven Brothers (which, like Oklahoma! features a scene of a group of girls dancing in their underwear, except in that film you can see their feet), with Stanley Donen’s expert shooting of Michael Kidd’s ridiculously athletic choreography, nonetheless grounded in popular 19th century dance forms, or even some of the stranger bits of Bob Fosse’s choreography in 1953 films like Kiss Me Kate or The Affairs of Dobie Gillis or his dream sequence dance in Donen’s Give a Girl a Break (I think it was a dream, it’s been awhile since I’ve seen it), or 1955’s My Sister Eileen, the ballet here, as a girl inhales a mysterious Eastern narcotic and imagines herself and her lover replaced by ballet dancing doppelgangers, is dull, cramped, and unimaginative.

Not only that, but the story itself is kind of appalling. Set around the turn of the century (just before Oklahoma achieved statehood, not long after the Oklahoma Territory had been carved out of Indian Territory, not that we’ll see or reference any Cherokee here), the plot centers on the parallel love stories of two cowboys. The first, played by Gordon MacRae (think Howard Keel without the charm or self-consciously boisterous pomposity), is in love with Shirley Jones (cute, spunky), who is in love with him, but because of plot they don’t just say it and get on with their lives. Instead, Jones agrees to go to the evening’s box social with Rod Steiger, who of course is a psychotic weirdo. Steiger works as Jones’s “hired help” and is marked in multiple ways as an outsider in the community (one lyric mentions that he has darker skin, if I heard correctly, either a racial reference or an acknowledgement of the fact that because he works all day, his skin is tanned by the sun, in contrasting to the pure white blondness of Jones), a transient laborer, he’s the object of all kinds of xenophobic and racist conjecture. (Of course, if he’s so horrifying, which everyone seems to agree on, why would Jones ever conceive of going to the dance with him? Ugh.) Repeatedly mocked and insulted (MacRae even goes into his home, apparently threatens to lynch him (playing with a rope Steiger has lying about), and then the two sing a duet about Steiger killing himself (Steiger’s singing is a highlight)), Steiger then indeed turns murderous, confirming everyone’s suspicions of the menace he represents. He’s ultimately vanquished, accidentally of course, absolving MacRae of any guilt, confirmed in a quick trial in which the local federal marshal is threatened and blackmailed into perverting the proper legal process, because why not.

The other story serves as a comical counterweight to the more dramatic central plot. Gloria Grahame plays a girl beloved by cowboy Gene Nelson, just home from Kansas City where he has earned enough money to marry her, per the standard set by her father, James Whitmore. Grahame is also hanging around with Eddie Albert, the local promiscuous Persian peddler (pronounced “Purr-is-ian” in the film’s unrelenting Okie idiom), Ali Hakeem. It seems Grahame has a problem with sluttiness, and her singing of this to Jones (“I Can’t Say No”) is easily the best part of the film. Grahame sings in a thin, high-pitched voice and fills out the number with some hilarious eye and facial expressions, not even Fred Zinnemann could dampen her incandescent lunacy. Almost as great are a pair of girls who float around the margins of the film, showing up in most every dance sequence to add a little ballet and interact, usually wordlessly, with the main characters. When they popped up out of nowhere during a duet between Grahame and Nelson in the middle of the film, I decided they were spectral apparitions, haunting this small town like the twins of the Overlook Hotel.

The succes of Oklahoma! the movie was followed by increasingly long and expensive musicals, as Hollywood kept chasing the next high, but for every My Fair Lady or The Sound of Music there were a half dozen Doctor Doolittle‘s and the whole thing eventually collapsed. While there were still occasional great musical movies being made in this era (I really like My Fair Lady, for example), after Fosse’s Cabaret in 1972, there have been almost zero successful, popular musical films made in Hollywood. The form survives on the margins (Pennies from Heaven, Sita Sings the Blues, Guy and Madeline on a Park Bench among other indie films, or experiments like Coppola’s One From the Heart) and in Disney cartoons (and even that only barely, having been supplanted by the non-musical Pixar model). And, of course, there was the execrable film version of Fosse’s Chicago, which somehow won a Best Picture Oscar when it is, in fact, among the Worst Pictures. I know that for me at least, as a kid, constant exposure to the films of Rodgers and Hammerstein positioned me as decidedly anti- the musical as a genre of film I was at all interested in. It wasn’t until my late teens and early twenties when I tentatively moved from Singin’ in the Rain to other films starring Gene Kelly and Fred Astaire that I began to realize that here was a film form as vital, as dynamic, as cinematic as has ever existed. It’s just that Rodgers and Hammerstein killed it.

Lupin III and The Castle of Cagliostro (Hayao Miyazaki, 1979)

The first Lupin III TV series, based on the manga series by the oddly pseudonymed Monkey Punch, ran in 23 episodes from the fall of 1971 to the spring of 1972, when it was abruptly cancelled. About half the episodes were directed by Masaaki Osumi, the rest by the team of Hayao Miyazaki and Isao Takahata, who would go on to form Studio Ghibli 15 or so years later. The series follows the adventures of master thief Lupin III, the grandson of French literary icon Arsene Lupin (he’s contemporary with and holds about the same cultural status as Sherlock Holmes). Alternating between sophisticated cool and wild bursts of gleeful anarchy, the animated version of Lupin III brings to mind the Monkey King as played by Alain Delon. Each episode follows a particular caper as he and his colleagues, Jigen Daisuke, a ice cool sharpshooter, and Goemon Ishikawa, an anachronistic samurai armed with a sword that can cut through anything, pursue a heist or mystery of some type, usually pitting them against an even worse gang of criminals. They occupy the gray area between the law and the truly villainous, what distinguishes them from evil is not just their sense of honor, but their sense of humor. Floating through the series is a mysterious woman named Fujiko Mine, always teasing and manipulating Lupin with her seductive red hair and mountainous bosom (her name literally means “mountain peaks of Fuji”) as she competes with him for whatever loot serves as the episode’s MacGuffin.

It’s all a great deal of fun, and the early episodes in particular seem shockingly contemporary, with relatively shocking acts of violence and sexual suggestiveness. About halfway through the series though, things become a bit tamer. Rather than seducing the ladies, Lupin begins rescuing damsels in distress. Rather than a dark woman leading Lupin toward destruction, Fujiko becomes a side element, a nice girl who just wants to help out the team. Early in the series she is a Hawksian woman, independent-minded and as ruthlessly capable in every way, if not more so, than the men she uses. But later she becomes just another sidekick, the marginalized love interest. What had been radical gets domesticated as Lupin becomes a goofy scamp rather than the kind of cold-blooded thief who would sit in a jail cell for a year as part of a plan to punish the Inspector who caught him (and himself for allowing himself to be caught). Wikipedia, unsourced naturally, claims that Osumi was fired by the studio “for refusing to adapt the sophisticated series for a children’s audience” which seems about right. It seems like Miyazaki and Takahata were called on to make the series more conventional, and while their version is still a highly entertaining adventure show, it lacks that cutting edge that made the early run of episodes so exciting.

After the show was cancelled, Miyazaki continued odd jobs in television throughout the 1970s. Lupin III was brought back for another, more successful series in 1977, which ran 155 episodes through 1980. A Lupin III feature film was made, followed by another. This second film was Miyazaki’s first as a feature film director (he left Isao Takahata’s production of an Anne of Green Gables TV series, which I very much want to see, to make the movie). I haven’t seen any of this second Lupin III series, but Miyazaki’s film, The Castle of Cagliostro, is consistent with the tamer, lighter tone of the latter half of the first series.

Lupin and Jigen find themselves on the trail of master counterfeiters in the small European country of Cagliostro, where they quite literally must rescue a princess who has been locked in a tower by an evil Count. Packed with intricate suspense sequences as Lupin breaks into the eponymous castle and uncovers its mysteries, the film is Miyazaki’s most generic in construction, with only a few of his signature peaceful moments (as the master thief charms the childlike princess, the reveal of the Castle’s final mystery) and a distinct lack of abstract philosophizing. Note though that as with pretty much every other Miyazaki feature, it is the overwhelming force of nature that powers the film’s conclusion. Much to the film’s detriment, Jigen and eventually Goemon get almost nothing to do. Fujiko shows up for awhile too, now a short haired blonde with no apparent skills or appeal aside from a large arsenal of weaponry and a hideous camouflage jumpsuit, and has very little role in the story, though she does take control of a TV camera in homage to one of the better episodes from late in the show’s run, though she ends up looking dangerously like April O’Neil, girl reporter, from the Teenage Mutant Ninja Turtles series.

Distinguishing Cagliostro from a mere extended TV episode though is the attention to detail in the depiction of the setting, inspired by old Arsene Lupin stories as well as an unfinished feature from 1952: beautiful moss-covered ruins, a vast dungeon filled with the remains of 400 years worth of curious adventurers, ancient aqueducts, trap doors and steeply-pitched roofs for our hero to improbably traverse. Compared with the lackluster animation in efforts put forth in the late 1960s and 70s by the Walt Disney company (the mud grey of The Rescuers or the sketchy, half-finished look of The Aristocats, for example), the film is a revelation. One of my favorite things about Japanese animation (I don’t recall seeing it in earlier forms, but it was probably there) is the way character details change with their distance from the “camera”, with figures becoming more and less abstract. With Lupin, his features become less cartoony as we get a closer look at him (in the TV show we repeatedly get to see how hairy the backs of his hands are as his sideburned face turns more monkey than man). Compare this to, say, the hero in Disney’s Robin Hood: a cartoon fox who remains a cartoon fox regardless of angle or depth. The Japanese style had a subtle way of creating the illusion of depth in a two dimensional world (beyond the simple dedication Miyazaki would show to developing a truly detailed and realistic background setting) while Disney was locked in the flat, planar style they pioneered 40 years earlier, made cheap with xerography.

After the success of The Castle of Cagliostro, Miyazaki worked on another TV series, the phenomenal-sounding Sherlock Hound. He also wrote a manga, which became the foundation of his next feature film, 1984’s Nausicaä of the Valley of the Wind. That second film, it seems to me, is the more foundational one to his later work. While occasionally he-ll return to the purer adventure style of Cagliostro (most notably in Porco Rosso), Nausicaä‘s fusion of adventure with myth, fairy tale and contemplative eco-philosophy will recur in almost all his films.

Nobody’s Daughter Haewon (Hong Sangsoo, 2013)

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I saw my first Hong Sangsoo movie at the 2009 Vancouver Film Festival. It was Like You Know It All and it was my second favorite of the 18 movies I saw there that year. Shortly after I sought out a couple earlier Hong films (The Woman on the Beach and Woman is the Future of Man) and was underwhelmed. The familiar tropes were there (blocked director on vacation, crimes of the heart, drinking, bifurcated narrative structures reflecting in on themselves) but the moves just didn’t seem as much fun. I chalked it up to the particular circumstances of that first viewing: seeing a film at a film festival that pokes fun at the insular and more than a little absurd festival experience. Perhaps he just wasn’t as great as I thought he was.

But Hong redeemed himself in my eyes at the 2010 festival, where his Oki’s Movie and Hahaha were again two of my favorites, each film taking his formal playfulness in bold new directions while retaining the self-effacing comic spirit that initially won me over. Since then I’ve managed to see almost all of Hong’s films (including In Another Country, the most charming film of VIFF 2012 and Romance Joe, another VIFF 2012 favorite by Hong’s longtime assistant director Lee Kwangkuk). These films, along with 2008’s comparatively epic Night and Day and 2011’s Marienbad-esque The Day He Arrives amount to as remarkable an on-going streak of greatness as any director working today (Oki’s Movie remains my favorite of the dozen I’ve seen so far). Since he took 2007 off after Woman on the Beach, Hong’s made eight features in six years, counting 2013’s Our Sunhi (one of my most anticipated films of VIFF 2013) and Nobody’s Daughter Haewon, which premiered at festivals earlier this year. Hong has yet to see his festival popularity translate into proper theatrical distribution in the US. Oki’s Movie, The Day He Arrives and In Another Country all played in New York in 2012, but only the last one saw a wider release, most likely due to the art house popularity of its (French) star, Isabelle Huppert. Several of his films are available on the various streaming platforms, but he doesn’t even have his own Director’s Section at Scarecrow Video. Maybe this will be the year he finally breaks through to attain arthouse star status. My fingers remain crossed.

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Continuing a recent trend, one that denotes a sharp break with his pre-2008 work, the film focuses on a female protagonist, though one who isn’t any more heroic than Hong’s usual cast of drunken, lecherous filmmaker/professors. Haewon is a pretty girl who is constantly told how pretty she is and seems to have become dependent on that flattery, no matter how poisonous it ultimately becomes to herself and the people around her. In each of the film’s sections, she conjures a man that adores her, and the film’s mysterious final line (“Waking up, I realized he was the nice old man from before”) recalls the profound final rumination from Oki’s Movie (“Things repeat themselves with differences I can’t understand”) a line that has come to epitomize so much of Hong’s work for me. One of the great pleasures of diving into the Hong universe is that each movie gains in relation to the others. No other director I know of more obsessively explores the same basic elements in film after film: a film director/student/professor who has an affair he shouldn’t have (with a friend’s wife/girlfriend, with a student, or both) while wandering cold, unglamorous Korean cities and/or vacation spots; studies of venal, hypocritical drunks that critique without judgement, the foibles of Hong’s people being ours and his rather than cruelly displayed objects for scorn, scolding and ridicule. With these basic characters and settings, and his deadpan minimalist visual style (marked most distinctively by the utterly atypical use of zooms), Hong conjures seemingly endless variations.

Haewon finds its closest companion in Oki’s Movie, which focuses on a student who had an affair with her professor and takes a couple of hikes up a mountain. Haewon’s affair occurred at some point in the past, though she considers rekindling it. She also takes two trips up a mountain, the location of an old fort-turned-tourist spot. Like In Another Country, Haewon features a lackadaisical to the point of abstraction framing device: three days that begin with Haewon describing them in her journal (public table, cup of coffee, handwriting in a notebook, voiceover narration) where the earlier film had the narrator writing three versions of a film she wanted to make about a French woman on vacation in Korea. On each day, the narrative is abruptly interrupted as she wakes from a dream, erasing and resetting the story as we’d known it (this also happens in the middle section of In Another Country, as well as in Night and Day). With these films, along with the four-short film structure of Oki’s Movie, the endless repetitions of The Day He Arrives, the self-delusions of Hong’s heroes have taken a metaphysical turn: not only are they not honest with themselves and each other in their romantic lives, but the very nature of their world has become unstable, liable to be rearranged or erased with the stroke of a pen or a sharp cut in the film. Where the earlier films (and also Hahaha) were built around coincidence and repetition, the later films have become Duck Amuck with horny, drunken film school denizens.

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I find myself pondering the title as much as anything else. Hong usually favors straightforward titles, ones whose meaning is immediately apparent (at least lately, his early titles are beguiling in their lingering prose: The Day a Pig Fell Into the Well, On the Occasion of Remembering the Turning Gate, Woman is the Future of Man, Virgin Stripped Bare By Her Bachelors). The first section explains quite clearly that Haewon is somebody’s daughter, as it involves her spending a day with her mother on the eve of the latter’s move to Canada (Vancouver, I assume, for the film festival). The film itself begins with Haewon meeting Jane Birkin (unnamed in the film) and telling her how much she admires her daughter (actress Charlotte Gainsbourg, also unnamed). The title then has, at least, two possible meanings: given the relative fame of Birkin, Haewon’s mother is a “nobody” and perhaps this is what is keeping Haewon from becoming the successful actress she wants to be (she says she’d give her soul to have Gainsbourg’s career). Or, being sad and abandoned by her mother’s move, Haewon is forced to become an adult: she is no longer simply somebody’s daughter and must take care of herself, become an individual in her own right. She then spends the next two thirds of the film pursuing relationships with a couple of older men (both professors and therefore father-type figures) while brushing off men her own age in some kind of Freudian irony. Parent-child relationships have largely been absent in Hong’s work thus far (most of the kids have been little and mostly off-screen, as the director’s child is in Haewon). Though a mother-daughter conversation does open In Another Country. Perhaps these are the first-steps in the integration of another trope into the Hong universe, another fraught relationship with which to play and poke and have fun.