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.

Running Out of Karma: Index

Update: All this now lives at a site dedicated to the project: The Chinese Cinema.

This is an index to Running Out of Karma, my writing on Johnnie To and his contemporaries, predecessors and influences in Hong Kong and Chinese-language cinema.

Chronological Johnnie To:

Introduction – Nov 13, 2013
The Enigmatic Case (Johnnie To, 1980) – Nov 14, 2013
The Happy Ghost Series (Clifton Ko, Johnnie To & Ringo Lam, 84-86) – Nov 26, 2013
Seven Years Itch (Johnnie To, 87) – Dec 02, 2013
The Eighth Happiness (Johnnie To, 88) – Nov 21, 2014

The Big Heat (Johnnie To, 88) – Jan 09, 2015
All About Ah-Long (Johnnie To, 89) – Feb 01, 2016
The Fun, the Luck and the Tycoon (Johnnie To, 90) – Feb 08, 2016
The Heroic Trio (Johnnie To, 93) – Aug 01, 2015
A Moment of Romance III (Johnnie To, 96) – Mar 30, 2016
Drug War (Johnnie To, 12) – Dec 11, 2013

Blind Detective (Johnnie To, 13) – Oct 11, 2014
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (Johnnie To, 14) – Nov 15, 2014
Three (Johnnie To, 16) – June 23, 2016

Previously produced works:

The Big Heat (Johnnie To, 88) – Mar 07, 2013
The Johnnie To Whimsicality Index – Mar 17, 2013
Infernal Affairs, The Departed and Johnnie To – Mar 19, 2013
They Shot Pictures #13: Johnnie To – Mar 26, 2013

The George Sanders Show Episode One: The Big Heat and Drug War – Jun 29, 2013
The Summer of Sammo Index – July 01, 2013
Blind Detective (Johnnie To, 13) – Sep 26, 2013
Green Snake (Tsui Hark, 93) – Oct 25, 2013

Running Out of Karma:

Introduction – Nov 13, 2013
The Enigmatic Case (Johnnie To, 1980) – Nov 14, 2013
Cinema City and A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo, 1987) – Nov 21, 2013
Peking Opera Blues (Tsui Hark, 86) – Nov 22, 2013
The Happy Ghost Series (Clifton Ko, Johnnie To & Ringo Lam, 84-86) – Nov 26, 2013

Prison on Fire (Ringo Lam, 87) – Nov 27, 2013
Seven Years Itch (Johnnie To, 87) – Dec 02, 2013
Working Class (Tsui Hark, 85) – Dec 07, 2013
Drug War (Johnnie To, 12) – Dec 11, 2013
Royal Warriors (David Chung, 86) – Dec 19, 2013

She Shoots Straight (Corey Yuen, 90) – Dec 22, 2013
Comrades, Almost a Love Story (Peter Chan, 96) – Jan 01, 2014
Young Detective Dee and the Rise of the Sea Dragon (Tsui Hark, 13) – Feb 27, 2014
Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark, 84) – Mar 03, 2014
Seven Swords (Tsui Hark, 05) – Mar 11, 2014

The Blade (Tsui Hark, 95) – Mar 19, 2014
Heroes Shed No Tears (John Woo, 86) – Mar 28, 2014
Once a Thief (John Woo, 91) – Mar 28, 2014
Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons (Stephen Chow & Derek Kwok, 13) – Apr 03, 2014
Love in the Time of Twilight (Tsui Hark, 95) – Apr 04, 2014

The Lovers (Tsui Hark, 95) – Apr 04, 2014
Red Cliff (John Woo, 08) – Apr 04, 2014
Zodiac Killers (Ann Hui, 91) – Apr 09, 2014
SPL: Sha Po Lang (Wilson Yip, 05) –  Apr 23, 2014
New Dragon Gate Inn (Raymond Lee, 92) –  Apr 24, 2014

Wuxia (Peter Chan, 11) – Apr 25, 2014
The Legend is Born: Ip Man (Herman Yau, 10) – Apr 27, 2014
The Duel (Chang Cheh, 71) – Apr 28, 2014
Ten Tigers of Kwangtung (Chang Cheh, 80) – Apr 29, 2014
Ip Man: The Final Fight (Herman Yau, 13) – Apr 29, 2014

Tai Chi Zero/Tai Chi Hero (Stephen Fung, 12-13) – May 01, 2014
The Way of the Dragon (Bruce Lee, 71) – May 02, 2014
The Assassin (Chang Cheh, 67) – May 12, 2014
The Midnight After (Fruit Chan, 14) – May 25, 2014
Martial Club (Lau Kar-leung, 81) – Jun 11, 2014

The Bride with White Hair (Ronny Yu, 93) – Jun 25, 2014
Three Hong Kong Romantic Comedies – Jul 29, 2014
He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father (Peter Chan, 93) – Jul 29, 2014
Isabella (Edmund Pang Ho-cheung, 06) – Aug 01, 2014
Painted Faces (Alex Law, 88) – Aug 02, 2014

Golden Chicken 2 (Samson Chiu, 03) – Aug 03, 2014
Painted Skin (King Hu, 93) – Aug 03, 2014
Oxhide (Liu Jiayin, 05) – Aug 04, 2014
Legend of the Mountain (King Hu, 79) – Aug 07, 2014
Shanghai Blues (Tsui Hark, 84) – Aug 27, 2014

Accident (Soi Cheang, 09) – Sep 23, 2014
Blind Detective (Johnnie To, 13) – Oct 11, 2014
A Better Tomorrow III: Love and Death in Saigon (Tsui Hark, 89) – Oct 21, 2014
Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Tsui Hark, 11) – Oct 29, 2014
My Lucky Star (Dennie Gordon, 13) – Nov 07, 2014

Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (Johnnie To, 14) – Nov 15, 2014
The Eighth Happiness (Johnnie To, 88) – Nov 21, 2014
Aberdeen (Pang Ho-cheung, 14) – Dec 04, 2014
The Taking of Tiger Mountain (Tsui Hark, 14) – Jan 05, 2015
The True Story of Wong Fei-hung: Whiplash Snuffs the Candle Flame (Wu Peng, 49) – Jan 07, 2015

The Big Heat (Johnnie To, 88) – Jan 09, 2015
The Boys from Fengkuei (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 83) – Mar 20, 2015
The Time to Live, The Time to Die (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 85) – Mar 21, 2015
Dust in the Wind (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 86) – Mar 22, 2015
Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 98) – Mar 24, 2015

Millennium Mambo (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 01) – Mar 27, 2015
Masked Avengers (Chang Cheh, 81) – Apr 11, 2015
Kung Fu Jungle (Teddy Chan, 14) – Apr 27, 2015
Temporary Family (Cheuk Wan-chi, 14) – May 14, 2015
A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 86) – Jun 26, 2015

Yes, Madam (Corey Yuen, 85) – Jul 02, 2015
Wild City (Ringo Lam, 15) – Jul 30, 2015
The Heroic Trio (Johnnie To, 93) – Aug 01, 2015
Project A and Project A 2 (Jackie Chan, 83 & 87) – Aug 02, 2015
Princess Chang Ping (John Woo, 76) – Aug 20, 2015

Go Away Mr. Tumor (Han Yan, 15) – Sep 3, 2015
Port of Call (Philip Yung, 15) – Sep 29, 2015
A Tale of Three Cities (Mabel Cheung, 15) – Sep 29, 2015
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 15) – Oct 09, 2015
Mountains May Depart (Jia Zhangke, 15) – Oct 12, 2015

The Crossing Parts 1 & 2 (John Woo, 14-15) – Dec 02, 2015
Mojin: The Lost Legend (Wu Ershan, 15) – Dec 18, 2015
Mr. Six (Guan Yu, 15) – Jan 4, 2016
Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 15) – Jan 21, 2016
Monster Hunt (Raman Hui, 15) – Jan 21, 2016

The Mermaid (Stephen Chow, 16) – Feb 25, 2016
Sword of Destiny
(Yuen Woo-ping, 16) – Feb 27, 2016
Rise of the Legend (Roy Chow, 14) – Mar 10, 2016
Chongqing Hot Pot (Yang Qing, 16) – Apr 03, 2016
My Beloved Bodyguard (Sammo Hung, 16) – May 30, 2016

Gone with the Bullets (Jiang Wen, 14) – June 15, 2016
Cold War 2 (Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 16) – July 6, 2016
One Night Only  (Matt Wu, 16) – July 18, 2016
For a Few Bullets (Pan Anzi, 16) – July 23, 2016
A Brighter Summer Day (Edward Yang, 91) – July 27, 2016

Soulmate (Derek Tsang, 16) – Sep 22, 2016
Operation Mekong (Dante Lam, 16) – Oct 1, 2016
Crosscurrent (Yang Chao, 16) – Oct 4, 2016
Yellowing (Chan Tze-woon, 16) – Oct 5, 2016
I am Not Madame Bovary (Feng Xiaogang, 16) – Nov 17, 2016

Sky on Fire (Ringo Lam, 16) – Dec 2, 2016
Old Stone (Johnny Ma, 16) – Dec 3, 2016
Sword Master (Derek Yee, 16) – Dec 9, 2016
The Wasted Times (Cheng Er, 16) – Dec 17, 2016
Railroad Tigers (Ding Sheng, 16) – Jan 5, 2017

Once Upon a Time in China (Tsui Hark, 91) – Jan 16, 2017
Once Upon a Time in China II (Tsui Hark, 92) – Jan 17, 2017
Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (Tsui Hark, 17) – Feb 7, 2017
The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, 16) – Feb 16, 2017

Capsule Reviews:

Aces Go Places (Eric Tsang, 82) – Nov 21, 2013
The Contract (Michael Hui, 78) – Nov 27, 2013
All the Wrong Clues (…For the Right Solution) (Tsui Hark, 81) – Nov 27, 2013
Aces Go Places II (Eric Tsang, 83) – Nov 28, 2013
Love in a Fallen City (Ann Hui, 84) – Dec 01, 2013

The Killer (John Woo, 89) – Dec 01, 2013

An Autumn’s Tale (Mabel Cheung, 87) – Dec 03, 2013
Aces Go Places III: Our Man from Bond Street (Tsui Hark, 84) – Dec 04, 2013
The Private Eyes (Michael Hui, 76) – Dec 05, 2013
All’s Well, Ends Well (Clifton Ko, 92) – Dec 09, 2013

Aces Go Places IV: You Never Die Twice (Ringo Lam, 86) – Dec 11, 2013
Security Unlimited (Michael Hui, 81) – Dec 13, 2013
The Banquet (Tsui Hark et al, 91) – Dec 16, 2013
Aces Go Places V: The Terracotta Hit (Lau Kar-leung, 89) – Dec 19, 2013
Final Justice (Parkman Wong, 88) – Dec 19, 2013

In the Line of Duty 3 (Arthur Wong & Brandy Yuen, 88) – Dec 20, 2013
In the Line of Duty 4 (Yuen Woo-ping, 89) – Dec 20, 2013
Magnificent Warriors (David Chung, 87) – Dec 20, 2013
God of Gamblers (Wong Jing, 89) – Dec 23, 2013
All for the Winner (Jeffrey Lau & Corey Yuen, 90) – Dec 25, 2013

Casino Raiders (Wong Jing, Jimmy Heung & Corey Yuen, 89) – Dec 26, 2013
Tricky Brains (Wong Jing, 91) – Dec 26, 2013
God of Gamblers II (Wong Jing, 90) – Dec 27, 2013
The Romancing Star (Wong Jing, 87) – Dec 28, 2013
Boys are Easy (Wong Jing, 93) – Dec 30, 2013

Ninja in the Dragon’s Den (Corey Yuen, 82) – Dec 30, 2013
Tiger Cage (Yuen Woo-ping, 88) – Jan 02, 2014
The Magic Crystal (Wong Jing, 86) – Jan 02, 2014
No Retreat, No Surrender (Corey Yuen, 86) – Jan 03, 2014
Rich and Famous (Taylor Wong, 88) – Jan 06, 2014

Games Gamblers Play (Michael Hui, 74) – Jan 07, 2014
Time and Tide (Tsui Hark, 00) – Mar 25, 2014
Tri Star (Tsui Hark, 96) – Apr 01, 2014
Chungking Express (Wong Kar-wai, 94) – Apr 01, 2014
Mission: Impossible II (John Woo, 00) – Apr 04, 2014

Double Team (Tsui Hark, 97) – Apr 04, 2014
Knock Off (Tsui Hark, 98) – Apr 07, 2014
A Moment of Romance (Benny Chan, 90) – Apr 15, 2014
Running on Karma (Johnnie To, 03) – Apr 22, 2014
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (Tsui Hark, 10) – Apr 25, 2014

Chinese Odyssey 2002 (Jeffrey Lau, 02) – Apr 25, 2014
Motorway (Cheang Pou-soi, 12) – Apr 25, 2014
Fist of Fury (Lo Wei, 71) – May 02, 2014
The Dead and the Deadly (Wu Ma, 82) – May 02, 2014
The Sun Also Rises (Jiang Wen, 07) – May 05, 2014

Perhaps Love (Peter Chan, 05) – May 06, 2014
The Chinese Boxer (Jimmy Wang Yu, 70) – May 07, 2014
The Boxer from Shantung (Chang Cheh, 72) – May 09, 2014
The Sword (Jimmy Wang Yu, 71) – May 13, 2014

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen (Andrew Lau, 10) – May 13, 2014
Legend of a Fighter (Yuen Woo-ping, 82) – May 13, 2014
Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (Wong Ching-po, 14) – May 28, 2014
The Singing Thief (Chang Cheh, 69) – Jun 01, 2014
Dead End (Chang Cheh, 69) – Jun 03, 2014

The Spiritual Boxer (Lau Kar-leung, 75) – Jun 06, 1014
Black Coal, Thin Ice (Diao Yinan, 14) – Jun 07, 2014
Challenge of the Masters (Lau Kar-leung, 76) – Jun 09, 2014
The Love Eterne (Li Han-hsiang, 63) – Jun 11, 2014
The Shadow Boxing (Lau Kar-leung, 79) – Jun 12, 2014

Cat vs. Rat (Lau Kar-leung, 82) – Jun 14, 2014
Heroes of the East (Lau Kar-leung, 78) – Jun 15, 2014
My Young Auntie (Lau Kar-leung, 81) – Jun 16, 2014
Shaolin Mantis (Lau Kar-leung, 78) – Jun 17, 2014
The Lady is the Boss (Lau Kar-leung, 83) – Jun 17, 2014

Martial Arts of Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung, 86) – Jun 18, 2014
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (Lau Kar-leung, 78) – Jun 19, 2014
Drunken Master III (Lau Kar-leung, 94) – Jun 20, 2014
Tiger on the Beat 2 (Lau Kar-leung, 90) – Jun 20, 2014
The Dream of the Red Chamber (Li Han-hsiang, 77) – Jun 21, 2014

Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (Lau Kar-leung, 84) – Jun 21, 2014
Dirty Ho (Lau Kar-leung, 79) – Jun 22, 2014
Full Alert (Ringo Lam, 97) – Jul 24, 2014
Golden Chicken (Samson Chiu, 02) – Jul 25, 2014
Devils on the Doorstep (Jiang Wen, 00) – Jul 29, 2014

Summer Palace (Lou Ye, 06) – Jul 29, 2014
Empress Wu Zetian (Fang Peilin, 39) – Jul 29, 2014
The Enchanting Shadow (Li Han-hsiang, 60) – Jul 31, 2014
The Dream of the Red Chamber (Bu Wancang, 44) – Jul 31, 2014
The Story of Sue San (King Hu, 64) – Aug 04, 2014

Sons of the Good Earth (King Hu, 65) – Aug 05, 2014
House of Flying Daggers (Zhang Yimou, 04) – Aug 06, 2014
The Fate of Lee Khan (King Hu, 73) – Aug 07, 2014
The Post-Modern Life of My Aunt (Ann Hui, 06) – Aug 12, 2014
Jade Goddess of Mercy (Ann Hui, 03) – Aug 13, 2014

Kung Fu Hustle (Stephen Chow, 04) – Aug 13, 2014
20 30 40 (Sylvia Chang, 04) – Aug 14, 2014
Tempting Heart (Sylvia Chang, 99) – Aug 14, 2014
The Golden Era (Ann Hui, 14) – Sep 27, 2014
Uncertain Relationships Society (Heiward Mak, 14) – Sep 29, 2014

The Midnight After (Fruit Chan, 14) – Oct 04, 2014
Love Battlefield (Soi Cheang, 04) – Oct 19, 2014
The Shopaholics (Wai Ka-fai, 06) – Oct 20, 2014
So Young (Zhou Wei, 13) – Oct 22, 2014
Beyond the Great Wall (Li Han-hsiang, 64) – Oct 23, 2014

The Death Curse (Soi Cheang, 04) – Oct 24, 2014
King of Comedy (Stephen Chow & Lee Lik-chi, 99) – Oct 25, 2014
Cocktail (Herman Yau & Long Ching, 06) – Oct 26, 2014
Fantasia (Wai Ka-fai, 04) – Oct 27, 2014
High Noon (Heiward Mak, 08) – Oct 27, 2014

Young and Dangerous (Andrew Lau, 96) – Nov 05, 2014
Exodus (Pang Ho-cheung, 07) – Nov 10, 2014
Anna Magdalena (Yee Chung-man, 98) – Nov 10, 2014
Project A (Jackie Chan, 1983) – Nov 11, 2014
Diva (Heiward Mak, 12) – Nov 15, 2014

The Monkey King (Soi Cheang, 14) – Nov 18, 2014
Flash Point (Wilson Yip, 07) – Nov 18, 2014
Unbeatable (Dante Lam, 13) – Nov 21, 2014
Golden Chickensss (Matt Chow, 14) – Dec 11, 2014
Uncertain Relationships Society (Heiward Mak, 14) – Dec 31, 2014

The Spring River Flows East (Cai Chusheng and Zheng Junli, 47) – Jan 13, 2015
From Vegas to Macau (Wong Jing, 14) – Jan 17, 2015
Black Comedy (Wilson Chin, 14) – Feb 15, 2015
Three Times (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 05) – Mar 08, 2015
HHH: A Portrait of Hou Hsiao-hsien (Olivier Assayas, 97) – Mar 12, 2015

The Sandwich Man (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 83) – Mar 13, 2015
Taipei Story (Edward Yang, 85) – Mar 15, 2015
The Terrorizers (Edward Yang, 86) – Mar 15, 2015
A Borrowed Life (Wu Nien-jen, 94) – Mar 16, 2015
Cute Girl (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 80) – Mar 18, 2015

Yes, Madam (Corey Yuen, 85) – Mar 24, 2015
Twin Dragons (Tsui Hark & Ringo Lam, 92) – Apr 14, 2015
Ballistic Kiss (Donnie Yen, 98) – Apr 27, 2015
Overheard (Alan Mak & Felix Chong, 09) – May 06, 2015
Overheard 2 (Alan Mak & Felix Chong, 11) – May 08, 2015

Let the Bullets Fly (Jiang Wen, 10) – May 14, 1015
The Coffin in the Mountain (Xin Yukun, 14) – May 22, 2015
Overheard 3 (Alan Mak & Felix Chong, 14) – May 29, 2015
Dearest (Peter Chan, 14) – May 29, 2015
Cave of the Spider Women (Dan Duyu, 27) – Jun 03, 2015

Cave of the Silken Web (Ho Meng-hua, 67) – Jun 03, 2015
The Chinese Mayor (Zhou Hao, 15) – Jun 07, 2015
Love in a Puff (Pang Ho-cheung, 10) – Jun 22, 2015
The East is Red (Ching Siu-ting & Raymond Lee, 93) – Jun 22, 2015
Temple of the Red Lotus (Hsu Tsung-hung, 65) – Jun 23, 2015

The Story of a Discharged Prisoner (Patrick Lung-kong, 67) – Jul 04, 2015
Broken Arrow (John Woo, 96) – Aug 7, 2015
Hard Target (John Woo, 93) – Aug 9, 2015
Reign of Assassins (Su Chao-pin, 10) – Aug 12, 2015
The Young Dragons (John Woo, 75) – Aug 14, 2015

Laughing Times (John Woo, 80) – Aug 15, 2015
Just Heroes (John Woo & Wu Ma, 89) – Aug 16, 2015
Face/Off (John Woo, 97) – Aug 17, 2015
The Dragon Tamers (John Woo, 75) – Aug 18, 2015
Paycheck (John Woo, 03) – Aug 18, 2015

Windtalkers (John Woo, 02) – Aug 19, 2015
Bullet in the Head (John Woo, 90) – Aug 20, 2015
Last Hurrah for Chivalry (John Woo, 79) – Aug 22, 2015
The Transporter (Corey Yuen, 02) – Aug 31, 2015
The Transporter 2 (Louis Leterrier, 05) – Sep 01, 2015

Dragon Blade (Daniel Lee, 15) – Sep 17, 2015
Office (Johnnie To, 15) – Sep 18, 2015
The Soong Sisters (Mabel Cheung, 97) – Sep 19, 2015
Murmur of the Hearts (Sylvia Chang, 15) – Oct 12, 2015
Kaili Blues (Bi Gan, 15) – Oct 12, 2015

SPL2: A Time for Consequences (Soi Cheang, 15) – Oct 14, 2015
The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 15) – Nov 01, 2015
No No Sleep (Tsai Ming-liang, 15) – Jan 11, 2016
Iron Monkey (Yuen Woo-ping, 93) – Jan 20, 2016
Mismatched Couples (Yuen Woo-ping, 85) – Jan 22, 2016

The Monkey King 2 (Soi Cheang, 16) – Feb 04, 2016
From Vegas to Macau II (Wong Jing, 15) – Feb 05, 2016
Office (Johnnie To, 15) – Feb 15, 2016
The God of Cookery (Stephen Chow, 96) – Feb 20, 2016
A Moment of Romance (Benny Chan, 90) – Feb 22, 2016

Ashes of Time (Wong Kar-wai, 94) – Feb 25, 2016
Ashes of Times Redux (Wong Kar-wai, 08) – Feb 26, 2016
Yes, Madam 5 (Lau Shing, 96) – Mar 19, 2016
Shanghai Grand (Poon Man-kit, 96) – Mar 20, 2016
Big Bullet (Benny Chan, 96) – Mar 20, 2016

Dr. Wai in ‘The Scripture with No Words’ (Ching Siu-tung, 96) – Mar 21, 2016
Black Mask (Daniel Lee, 96) – Mar 22, 2016
Beyond Hypothermia (Patrick Leung, 96) – Mar 22, 2016
Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star (Wong Jing, 96) – Mar 23, 2016
Viva Erotica (Derek Yee & Lo Chi-leung, 96) – Mar 23, 2016

Ebola Syndrome (Herman Yau, 96) – Mar 24, 2016
Mahjong (Edward Yang, 96) – Mar 26, 2016
The Stunt Woman (Ann  Hui, 96) – Mar 26, 2016
Stage Door (Shu Kei, 96) – Mar 27, 2016
The Final Master (Xu Haofeng, 16) – May 25, 2016

The Big Road (Sun Yu, 35) – May 31, 2016
Trivisa (Jevons Au, Vicky Wong & Frank Hui, 16) – Jun 5, 2016
The Mobfathers (Herman Yau, 16) – Jun 6, 2016
Dragon Gate Inn (King Hu, 1967) – Jun 8, 2016
Ten Years (Various, 15) – Jun 10, 2016

Cold War (Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 12) – Jul 4, 2016
Young and Dangerous (Andrew Lau, 96) – Aug 1, 2016
Young and Dangerous 2 (Andrew Lau, 96) – Aug 4, 2016
Shaolin Soccer (Stephen Chow, 01) – Sep 4, 2016
Time and Tide (Tsui Hark, 00) – Sep 5, 2016

Young and Dangerous 3 (Andrew Lau, 96) – Sep 6, 2016
Finding Mr. Right (Xue Xiaolu, 13) – Sep 16, 2016
From Vegas to Macau III (Wong Jing, 16) – Sep 17, 2016
Burning Paradise in Hell (Ringo Lam, 94) – Nov 22, 2016
Looking for Mr. Perfect (Ringo Lam, 03) – Nov 23, 2016

City on Fire (Ringo Lam, 87) – Nov 24, 2016
Wild Search (Ringo Lam, 89) – Nov 25, 2016
School on Fire (Ringo Lam, 88) – Nov 26, 2016
Touch and Go (Ringo Lam, 91) – Nov 26, 2016
The Victim (Ringo Lam, 99) – Nov 27, 2016

The Suspect (Ringo Lam, 98) – Nov 28, 2016
The Adventurers (Ringo Lam, 95) – Nov 29, 2016
Prison on Fire II (Ringo Lam, 91) – Nov 29, 2016
Call of Heroes (Benny Chan, 16) – Dec 3, 2016

Once Upon a Time in China III (Tsui Hark, 93) – Jan 18, 2017
Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (Tsui Hark, 80) – Jan 20, 2017
Missing (Tsui Hark, 08) – Jan 25, 2017
Once Upon a Time in China IV (Yuen Bun, 1993) – Feb 12, 2017
Once Upon a Time in China V (Tsui Hark, 1994) – Feb 14, 2017

A Fishy Story
(Anthony Chan, 89) – Feb 15, 2017
Romance of a Fruit Peddler (Zheng Shichuan, 22) – Feb 17, 2017

Podcasts:

The George Sanders Show Episode Twenty-Four: Crank and The Victim – Dec 15, 2013
They Shot Pictures #32: Lau Kar-leung – Jun 25, 2014
The George Sanders Show Episode 48: Renaldo & Clara, Masked & Anonymous and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 – Nov 15, 2014
They Shot Pictures #34: King Hu – Nov 17, 2014

The George Sanders Show Episode 50: Coffy, Golden Chicken and 2014 Discoveries – Dec 13, 2014
The George Sanders Show Episode 59: The Clouds of Sils Maria and Centre Stage – May 2, 2015
The George Sanders Show Episode 63: Blackhat and A Better Tomorrow – Jun 29, 2015
They Shot Pictures #38: John Woo – Aug 24, 2015
The George Sanders Show Episode 69: Office and Police, Adjective – Sep 19, 2015

The George Sanders Show Episode 80: Iron Monkey and Mismatched Couples – Jan 23, 2016
Filmspotting #576: Sword of Destiny/Top 5 Wuxia Films – Mar 04, 2016
The Frances Farmer Show #5: A Brighter Summer Day and SPL 2: A Time for Consequences – Apr 30, 2016
The Frances Farmer Show #10: Three and Shock Corridor – June 25, 2016

Lists, etc:

Summer of Sammo: Days of Being Wild

I’ve declared this the summer of 2013 to be the Summer of Sammo. Throughout these months I’ve been writing about films starring or directed by Sammo Hung, as well as other Hong Kong genre films of the Sammo Hung era. Here’s an index.

It’s my belief that the effects of World War II have been vastly underrated, that the war was a great collective trauma felt the world over, and that while its political consequences are well-chronicled, the psychological damage it inflicted both on the people who fought it, the civilians who suffered through it and the children born during it or in its wake are as varied and vast as they are unexplored. I see the war not just in the dark crime melodramas of Hollywood’s film noir phase, but in the quiet family sagas of Yasujiro Ozu and in the warriors desperately trying to live by a code while professing apathy in film worlds as diverse as Anthony Mann’s West, Akira Kurosawa’s Tokugawa period and the Shaw Brothers’ jianghu. I see it in the kill your idols disillusionment of cinematic New Waves all over the world, and in the radical idealism of the next generation’s belief in the power of mass social protest. The war is the key that unlocks and explains the latter half of the 20th Century.
Wong Kar-wai’s second feature is, I think, one of the great films about the post-war generation and the lingering effects the war had on their psyches, their visions of the world. Set in 1960, the main characters would have all been born in the mid to late 30s, during China’s war with Japan, and likely brought to Hong Kong sometime during the war or the immediate post-war period, during the civil war between Communists and Nationalists. (During the war, the colony’s population shrank from 1.6 million in 1941, to 600,000 in 1945, then rapidly ballooned well past its prior size with an influx of refugees fleeing the Communists on the mainland in the late 40s and early 50s.) This history is inferred, we’re only given sketchy details of two character’s backgrounds: Maggie Cheung appears to be the most recent arrival, coming from Macao, another cosmopolitan European colony a few miles down the coast while Leslie Cheung’s birth mother now lives in The Philippines, though it’s unclear if he was adopted from there and brought to Hong Kong, or if she fled Hong Kong for there, or if there were other cities in-between. The details aren’t really relevant: it’s the sense of massive social upheaval, both geographical and political and personal that gives the film its rootless, restless quality. The characters are all haunted by this unexpressed past, their obsessions born out of a gap in their lives they can’t quite seem to fill. For most of them this takes the form of an unrequited romantic longing: Maggie wants Leslie, Andy Lau wants Maggie, Jacky Cheung wants Carina Lau, Carina wants Leslie. None of them end up together, but by the end of the film, they all (but one) seem better off for the experience of having loved and lost, ready to take on new adventures.
Leslie Cheung is the tragic case, for he remains trapped in the present, unable to imagine a future without filling that hole in his past, which for him means confronting the mother that abandoned him. Without a past, he can have no future. Without imagination, without hope, without a home or a family, his myopic nihilism can only end in self-destruction. Time dominates the film: clocks are everywhere, yet everyone is always asking what time it is. Moments out of time stand as memories, as correlatives for love itself (as in the single minute that Maggie and Leslie share that will haunt her to distraction while he can’t quite manage to forget it). It’s the ability to experience memory as memory, rather than a constant happening sadness that enables the other characters come of age, move on and take action to reinvent themselves, but Cheung is incapable of this kind of self-creation. Trauma leads to stasis, and stasis leads to death. The young are like sharks, they have to be perpetually in motion. But Leslie simply can’t move forward, the hole in his past is too big to lock away, to cope with, to turn into a thing he once experienced and felt and, via the peculiar alchemy of nostalgia, learn to miss, to make bittersweet. He can only linger on the periphery of the present until he simply fades away, to exist only in the memories of the few people he knew for awhile during a green and rainy year when they were young.
And then he is gloriously reborn as Tony Leung, a dapper young man prepping for a night on the town, his movements smooth and musical, a tiny man in an even tinier apartment, stacked to its ridiculously low ceiling with style and panache. We will pick up his story a few years later, as he meets Maggie Cheung and learns that being a middle-aged man stuck in the past is far more profoundly sad than being a young man stuck in the present, but nonetheless a whole lot better, for even in sadness one can imagine a future, even if it’s a future populated only by people and robots who find themselves locked in their own memories.