Johnnie To: Cops and Robbers

This week the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art begins an outstanding series of Johnnie To films, running through August 6. It focuses almost exclusively on his crime-related films and includes a number of movies which, even if they’re not outright inspirations for or films inspired by his work, certainly share a similar sensibility. I’ve written or podcasted about several of the films in the series over the last few years, here’s an index, listed in the order in which they’re showing.

Drug War (Johnnie To, 2012) (Podcast)
The Killing (Stanley Kubrick, 1956)
Three (Johnnie To, 2016)

Blind Detective (Johnnie To, 2013) (Further Notes)
Office (Johnnie To, 2015)
Exiled (Johnnie To, 2006)

That last entry, for Exiled, is the episode of the They Shot Pictures podcast we did on To way back in March of 2013. While the episode focuses primarily on that film alongside Throw Down and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, I believe we discuss most of the other films playing in the SFMOMA series at least a little bit. The idea behind that episode was to counter the all-too-frequent division in studies of To’s work between his crime films and his comedies, something which this series unfortunately perpetuates (and, to be fair, which To has frequently encouraged, at least in discussing his films from the early 2000s).

I have to say it’s also a bit odd that the only films being offered as contextualization for To’s work are European and American crime dramas (and one Seijun Suzuki film), rather than films by his contemporaries like John Woo, Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark, or even something like Infernal Affairs, which both shows the influence the early Milkway films and in turn influenced his later crime films like Breaking News and the Election series.

But this is of course the difficulty I have with Johnnie To: there’s simply too much to discuss, too much context. His filmography is too vast to cover with any kind of concision, his network of collaborators and his impact on Hong Kong cinema too broad, his set of precursors too wide-ranging, to summarize with a mere handful of films. My chronological Johnnie To project became bogged down in contextualization, branching out in all directions through cinema past and present, even though it was confined only to Chinese language film. The SFMOMA series is great, and I’m extremely jealous we’ll likely never see anything like it here in the Seattle area. But it’s only a fraction of an ever-expanding whole that is the cinema of Johnnie To.

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Duckweed (Han Han, 2016)

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Race car driver, essayist and film director Han Han had one of 2016’s biggest hits with Duckweed, a time travel comic drama about a son learning to respect his father. An update of Peter Chan’s 1993 classic He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father (Chan and his film are specifically thanked in the credits, along with the directors of Back to the Future, The Terminator and Somewhere in Time), Deng Chao plays an angry young racer who publicly spits venom at his aged father (Eddie Peng) during a victory speech. When the two are in a car accident on the way home, Feng falls into a coma, where he is transported (somehow, the film, thankfully, doesn’t care to explain how) back to 1998, where he befriends his father as a young man. Peng is the morally upright leader of a small gang, with one dim buddy, a loving girlfriend (Zhao Liying), and real-life future internet kajillionaire Pony Ma (Chan’s film similarly feature a future tycoon, with a character based on Li Ka-shing). Feng joins the gang and helps them try to navigate conflicts with a local gang leader who wants to criminalize the karaoke bar Peng runs (Peng doesn’t want the girls who work there to prostitute themselves) and ultimately a sleepy-eyed villain/real estate developer. At the same time he gets to know Zhao, whom he never met (his mother died shortly after he was born).

Much of the comedy is based in Peng’s inability to anticipate the future: he’s heavily invested in beepers and VHS tapes, linking his outdated ideas of technology to a moral code rapidly becoming obsolete in an increasingly capitalist China. Where in Chan’s film the younger man learned that his father was a community leader holding together a House of 72 Tenants like variety of refugees and the working poor, Deng’s reference point for his father’s life is something like the Young and Dangerous series, with Peng the stylish hero of a gang of good guys just trying to get by in an amoral world. That alone says something about our debased world, but Han Han doesn’t push it too far. Instead the films skims along neatly through deft action scenes (the vehicle stunts are pretty good, as you’d expect from a former driver) and nifty imagery. With an easy humanity and knack for underplaying comedy, Peng has established himself as one of the great stars of Chinese cinema today.

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

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Settling down for Village of No Return I was expecting another mediocre Chinese genre film, an effects driven action comedy along the lines of Vampire Cleanup Department or Mojin: The Lost Legend, amiable thanks to a star turn from Shu Qi and a supporting role by Eric Tang, but ultimately weightless. Instead, it’s one of the cleverest films of the year, a sly satire on the rapid transformations of 20th century Chinese society and the changes they require in collective memory. Some three years after the end of the Qing Dynasty, a huckster arrives in a small village toting a myserteous device which he claims can eliminate worries. He tries it out on a few people, eliminating memories and gradually has erased the entire town’s minds, installing himself as their beloved leader and ordering them to dig all over town for hidden treasure. Shu Qi is one of the townspeople, the daughter of the former chief who has been forced into a marriage so distasteful she has to be chained to the house when her husband leaves town. The huckster frees her (after she kinda of murdered her husband) but then washes her brain into marrying him. But as she starts to figure out his scheme, a gang of bandits which includes her long lost love shows up to destroy the village at the behest of Eric Tsang, who wants to level it to build a railroad. The movie takes a while to build up steam, but once everything is in place it unfolds with unexpected and fascinating twists, with an ending far more ambivalent than it appears.

The village is mostly a collection of grotesques, venal and stupid, with the exception of a kung fu master who can’t fight because of some past trauma (the action scene he eventually gets is a highlight, an expert transposition of comic book style posing within a fight sequence). The bandits are more interesting, led by a woman who moonlights as a mail-carrier (she wears the old Qing style uniform), they’re more of an a capella group than a gang of killers, and their singing magnifies the film’s oddball yet weirdly traditional charms. Everything about the design of the memory-stealing device is delightful, from its mechanical seahorses to the animated proscenium which appears framing the black and white silent movie images of a person’s memory. The seahorses are a callback to director Chen You-hsun’s 2012 short Hippocamp Hair Salon, which was about a salon that could wash away unpleasant memories (clearly the fungibility of memory is something about which Chen has strong feelings). I saw it as part of the 10+10 shorts program, which tasked ten young Taiwanese directors and ten veterans (Hou Hsiao-hsien, Sylvia Chang, etc) with each making a five minute film. Chen’s film was one of the highlights, and Village of No Return follows through on that project’s promise.

Some Alternatives to SIFF’s Hong Kong Handover Anniversary Miniseries

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This Saturday, July 1, marks 20 years since the Handover of the British colony of Hong Kong to the People’s Republic of China. To commemorate here in Seattle, SIFF has a five film miniseries of post-1997 film. Included are two established classics (Shaolin Soccer and Infernal Affairs) and three newer films (Cook Up a Storm, Mad World and Weeds on Fire), two of which are making their Seattle debut (Cook Up a Storm played here in February, and again at the Film Festival a few weeks ago). It’s a fine series, the older films are both great works and important milestones in 21st Century Hong Kong cinema, in box office, technological and artistic terms. And the new films are very much concerned with Hong Kong’s identity (versus globalist capitalism in Cook Up a Storm and looking backward at how a city of refugees built a sense of a new, unique Hong Kong) and social conditions (in Mad World the treatment of mental illness both in the community and in the family). They aren’t the films I would have picked, because the older ones are too familiar, and the newer ones just aren’t that great, but it’s definitely a worthy series and I’m very glad they’re doing it.

But since there are few things in life more fun than fantasizing about film programming, I thought I’d put together my own fake Handover Anniversary series. Well, a couple of them actually.

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Sticking to SIFF’s formula (two classics + three new films, two of which are local premieres) and all of which take Hong Kong as a key subject, more or less.

  1. The King of Comedy – Stephen Chow’s first great film as director and star, he plays a wanna-be actor trying to make it in the movie business. With Karen Mok in the best John Woo homage ever made.
  2. Election/Election 2 – Johnnie To’s Triad saga traces the ideological past of Hong Kong’s criminal societies through one bloody (yet firearm-free) succession struggle and looks toward a future of shadowy manipulation by the Mainland.
  3. Yellowing – Chan Tze-woon’s documentary about the Umbrella protests of 2014 is both intimate and immediate, capturing a generation fighting for what they know to be a lost cause.
  4. Trivisa – Three young directors combined for this crime saga set on the eve of the Handover, following three different career criminals who might get together for one last big score. Produced by the Milkyway Image studio, it played here at SIFF in 2016 but never got a theatrical release.
  5. Call of Heroes – We need a martial arts film, and this is the best I’ve seen since SPL 2. A variation on High Noon, with Lau Ching-wan locking up psychotic Louis Koo and awaiting the bad guys that are going to try to rescue him. With Eddie Peng and Wu Jing, and choreography by Sammo Hung, it’s an all-star kung fu fest harkening back to the early 90s golden age.

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Those are all films I’ve seen, but I’d at least be more excited if the series was packed with movies I haven’t had a chance to catch up with yet.

  1. Made in Hong Kong – The new restoration of Fruit Chan’s 1997 landmark of independent Hong Kong cinema has been making the rounds, but as yet it doens’t look like it’s coming to Seattle. My fingers remain crossed.
  2. Vulgaria – The ubiquitous Chapman To stars as a movie producer who gets hired to remake a classic porn film by a local gangster. Pang Ho-cheung is one of the best directors to emerge in Hong Kong in the post-Handover era, and if this is his Viva Erotica, it should be pretty great.
  3. Our Time Will Come – Ann Hui’s World War II film, about Hong Kong’s anti-Japanese resistance, opens here next week, but this minifestival would be an ideal place to premiere it.
  4. Shock Wave – I missed Herman Yau’s latest, starring Andy Lau as a bomb squad detective, when it played here for six days this spring. I’d like another shot at it.
  5. Duckweed – Han Han’s time travel comedy with Eddie Peng and Deng Chao looks like an update of Peter Chan’s He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father, itself a variation on Back to the Future, where a young man journeys back in time and comes to a better understanding of his father and his generation. Except the past here is 1998. (*Having seen Duckweed now, I realize its not a Hong Kong film at all, but Chinese. Thus are the perils of assuming things in post-Handover Chinese language cinema. Good movie though.)

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If all restrictions were off, and I just had to program five films that captured the spirit of Hong Kong over the past 20 years, this is what I’d pick:

  1. Time and Tide – Tsui Hark’s return to Hong Kong after some years in Hollywood produced arguably the best action sequences of the past 20 years, with Nicholas Tse as a bodyguard caught up in a gang war.
  2. Golden Chicken/Golden Chicken 2 – Samson Chiu’s 2002 film filters 30 years of Hong Kong history through the eyes of Sandra Ng, a loony prostitute who finds herself licked in an ATM vestibule with Eric Tsang. The sequel continues the story through the SARS epidemic and other recent events from the perspective of Ng in the year 2046, the year Hong Kong will fully come under PRC control.
  3. Love in a Puff – Pang Ho-cheung’s romantic comedy received the equivalent of an X rating for its authentically profane dialogue, and no film better captures the feeling of city life in the 21st Century.
  4. Blind Detective – I could pick any number of Johnnie To films for this, of course. But while films like Sparrow, The Mission, Throw Down, Fat Choi Spirit, Life Without Principle, etc etc are readily available, this 2013 comic crime film with Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng has never been released in the US.
  5. The Midnight After – Fruit Chan’s apocalyptic 2014 adaptation of an unfinished internet novel by an entity known only as PIZZA is as perfect an expression of our present moment as you’re likely to find. And it only grows more prescient with time.

The Contract (Michael Hui, 1978)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

Hero (Zhang Yimou, 2002)

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

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