Hot off their excellent New York Asian Film Festival program, the folks at Subway Cinema have announced the lineup for their Old School Kung Fu mini-festival playing at the Metrograph in August. The theme this time is “Wonder Women of the Martial Arts” with seven features, five of which will be playing on 35mm. Every one of the films is a bona fide classic, and I’ve written or podcasted about all of them at one time or another of the last few years. Here’s an index:
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.
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.
As we here in the Seattle area get a handful of Hong Kong films for Handover weekend, on the other side of the country the New York Asian Film Festival begins. Over the next couple of weeks I’ll be contributing a bit to InReview Online‘s festival coverage, and I’ll link to that here when it posts, but in the meantime here are some reviews I’ve written about some of the films that are playing in the festival over the next two weeks.
At InReview Online:
Extraordinary Mission (Alan Mak & Felix Chong, 2017)
Blood of Youth (Yang Shupeng, 2016)
The Gangster’s Daughter (Chen Mei-juin, 2017)
This Is Not What I Expected (Derek Hui, 2017)
Someone To Talk To (Liu Yulin, 2016)
Godspeed (Chung Mong-hong, 2016)
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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.)
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:
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
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.
I’ve been doing some cataloguing lately, trying to organize my books and movies and make some kind of plan for how I’m going to attack the Chinese Cinema over the next year or so. Three and a half years ago, I started a chronological Johnnie To project that, by design, immediately ballooned into a comprehensive exploration of Chinese-language film. In that time, I’ve made it seven films into To’s career and 327 films into China in general. It’s increasingly absurd to consider it To-specific, and I’d love to rename it (I never liked the name anyway) but the prospect of renaming and tagging all those old posts is daunting. Anyway, I’m hoping to spend this year taking a long look at Shanghai cinema of the 1920s-40s (at least as much as is available) and Hong Kong films of the 1950s. As well I’d like to catch up with the rest of the films I haven’t seen from Filipe Furtado’s letterboxd list of Favorite Hong Kong Films, which has served as an essential guide for me since the Summer of Sammo. And as I was thinking about where to go next, I thought it might be useful to sum up where I’ve been, and so here’s a list of 150 great Chinese films. The list is ordered chronologically.
“When we are young, we learn the myths. And we interpret them as we get older. After all, we see they are just myths.” – Lu Haodong
“Gods are useless. You must rely on yourself.” – Wong Fei-hung
“Vigorous when facing the beatings of ten thousand heavy waves
Ardent just like the rays of the red sun
Having courage like forged iron and bones as hard as refined steel
Having lofty aspirations and excellent foresight
I worked extremely hard, aspiring to be a strong and courageous man
In order to become a hero, One should strive to become stronger everyday
An ardent man shines brighter than the sun
Allowing the sky and sea to amass energy for me
To split heaven and part the earth, to fight for my aspirations
Watching the stature and grandure of jade-coloured waves
at the same time watching the vast jade-coloured sky, let our noble spirit soar
I am a man and I must strive to strengthen myself.
Walking in firm steps and standing upright let us all aspire to be a pillar of the society, and to be a hero
Using our hundredfold warmth, to bring forth a thousandfold brilliance
Be a hero
Being ardent and with strong courage
Shine brighter than the sun” – “A Man Should Strengthen Himself”
In some quarters seen as superior to the first film, perhaps because of its tighter focus (only a few main characters, including a recognizable to the West historical figure in Sun Yat-sen), specific historical moment (set in September 1895 at the beginning of the Boxer Rebellion, as opposed to the vague late 19th century of the first film), and the presence of Donnie Yen (his second attempt at stardom, after supporting roles in a handful of films in the late 80s). I appreciate the grander sprawl of the first film, however.
Tsui Hark is the John Ford of Chinese cinema, and Once Upon a Time in China is his Stagecoach. Not only does it redefine a genre on the cusp of its rebirth (in this case the period martial arts film, which had lain dormant through the late 80s much as the Western had been relegated to cheap serials through the 1930s), but it expresses a total historical vision entirely through archetypes, which are by turns deepened and confounded. Much has been made of the film’s nationalism, an apparent sharp turn from the more scathing works of Tsui’s New Wave films, but like Ford Tsui’s patriotism is more complex than it appears on the surface.
When Film4 published a list of their “100 Must-See Films of the 21st Century” and only bothered to include two Chinese films (Yi yi and In the Mood for Love, of course), I countered with this list on letterboxd of 100 Must-See Chinese Language Films of the 21st Century. Almost two years have passed since then, and I’ve been wanting to update that list, since honestly I was kind of stretching the limits of what I’d recommend when I got into the nineties. Well, yesterday came The Playlist’s list of The 50 Best Foreign Language Films of the 21st Century. Five of the films on their list are Chinese Language (the same obvious Edward Yang and Wong Kar-wai picks, along with Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Millennium Mambo, Tsai Ming-liang’s What Time is It There? and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. That’s right: no Johnnie To.), and while they’re somewhat hampered by their self-imposed one-film-per-director rules, that, to me, is still an unacceptably low number for what has been and continues to be the most vibrant and fascinating film culture in the world. And today, Richard Brody’s response in the New Yorker, while an improvement in making room for Jia Zhangke and Wang Bing (and Korean director Hong Sangsoo), still has only seven Chinese titles.
So here are my 50 Best Chinese Language Films of the 21st Century. I’m limited in making this list by the movies I’ve seen, and there are still many, many Chinese films I haven’t watched yet. I’m also sticking with The Playlist’s rule and limiting myself to one film per director (in the case of collaborations, I’m counting them as separate directors: Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai together is a different director from either Johnnie To or Wai Ka-fai individually. This is arbitrary of course). The movies are ranked in order of my current preference, with links to where I’ve written about or discussed them, along with, in some cases, no more than five other recommended films by the director.
A couple months ago I was asked to write this brief overview of the state of contemporary Chinese language cinema for the Estonian arts magazine Sirp. You can read this essay in Estonian on their website, and here, with their kind permission, is the original English language version.
Long one of the most vibrant and diverse film cultures in the world, the landscape of Chinese-language film has shifted dramatically over the last few years. Beginning with the handover of Hong Kong to Mainland China in 1997, the previously separate industries in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong have become increasingly enmeshed, and with the rapid expansion of theatrical exhibition on the mainland and an economic boom that has opened up a massive potential audience, China is set to overtake the United States as the largest movie market in the world. Chinese companies have begun investing heavily in Hollywood productions, while American companies are seeking closer ties with their Chinese counterparts. A Chinese company (Wanda) now owns the largest chain of exhibitors in the US (AMC Theatres), as well as an American production company (in January of 2016 they purchased Legendary Entertainment, producers or co-producers of Jurassic World, Blackhat, Pacific Rim and Christopher Nolan’s Batman films, among other blockbusters). Warner Brothers recently launched a new production house in cooperation with Chinese company CMC to remake Warners properties like Miss Congeniality, and release original films from veteran Hong Kong filmmakers Peter Chan and Stephen Fung along with Jackie Chan and Brett Ratner. CMC also has a joint venture with Dreamworks Animation, Oriental Dreamworks, which released Kung Fu Panda 3 this past January. Complicating this vast influx of cash into film production is China’s oft-arcane system of censorship and import quotas, which limit the kinds of films that can be shown in the nation’s theatres, as well as a tradition of gaming the system, if not outright corruption, in box office accounting. In the past few weeks, widespread fraud in the reporting of the grosses of Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 3 was discovered, leading to punitive action against the film’s local distributor and participating exhibitors.
With this dynamic and rapidly developing film culture, trying to predict what Chinese-language cinema is going to be like in five or ten years is a fool’s game. Instead, by taking a snapshot look at a few examples from the past year, we can get a sense of where the culture is at right now. From The Mermaid’s astounding box office success, to Go Away Mr. Tumor’s unique disregard for generic expectations; from Jia Zhangke’s idiosyncratic move toward the mainstream of the international art house with Mountains May Depart, to Bi Gan’s microbudgeted, experimental and defiantly local debut Kaili Blues, Chinese cinema is one of the most financially lucrative and aesthetically innovative cinemas in the world.