Archive for the Hong Kong Cinema Category

Lover of the Last Empress

Posted in Hong Kong Cinema on July 29, 2008 by michaelaworrall

(1994, 2:35, Andrew Lau)
* = Moments of Interest

The oft-filmed story of Tzu Hsi’s beginnings as a concubine in the Manchu court to her becoming the infamous Empress Dowager is given the sexploitation treatment in this glossy but empty version. Staying with the basic historic outline of Hsi’s rise, many liberties are taken in illustrating the literal lust for power and revenge that fuels the characters. The brother of Emperor Hsien Feng, Prince Kung (played by Tony Leung who, unlike in “The Lover”, does his sex scenes visibly clothed from the waist down) saves Hsi (Yau Shuk Ching) and her nanny from roadside bandits in a preposterous scene that would belong better in a wuxia/swordsman film.Emperor Feng (Yu Rong Gaug) and Hsi make whoopee in a Buddhist temple, while Hsi’s climb to power is likened to her premonitions of sexually riding a large dragon and her vengeful nature is explained as due to a spiteful concubine that, who in the first act, boils her cat.

This reductive but inflamed version of history is given a high-production look that sets it apart from a lot of softcore, but director Andrew Lau (who not only has shot films for Wong Kar-Wai and Tsui Hark, but who directed the “Young and Dangerous” series and served as co-director on the “Infernal Affairs” series) seems very bored by the material. There is a professionalism to the execution, but it belies a mechanical approach that just moves from one scene to another with a detached eye. The filmmaking is serviceable, but the film’s lurid elements need to be pushed more for it to become the scandalous exposé it purports to be, or even just an enjoyable romp. The lack of verve or resonance results in a film that plays like a tepid schoolboy fantasy told by a wise but dry history teacher.


Vampire Hunters

Posted in Hong Kong Cinema on July 22, 2008 by michaelaworrall

(2002, 1:85, Wellson Chin)
*- Moments of interest

Tsui Hark, serving as screenwriter and producer, tries for another cross-genre hit, but the assigned director for what appears to be an attempt at a new supernatural series, Wellson Chin, is no Ching Siu-tung. Some debate the contributions of Ching Siu-tung to the “Chinese Ghost Story” series –though I consider his 1983 film, “Duel to the Death”, a major entry in the swordsman films from that period– but his careful compositions, rapturous lighting designs and dynamic cutting, evident in all his features with or without Tsui, are sorely missing.

Though Tsui embellishes a story of Taoist monks who hunt down a vampire with a plethora of horror film references–“Dawn of the Dead”, “The Evil Dead”, “Predator”, “Lifeforce”, “John Carpenter’s Vampires” and even Tsui’s own “Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain” get quoted–the mix doesn’t congeal into a new dish, but rather sits in the pot like overcooked leftovers. The main problems are Chin’s lackluster direction –his pictorial sense and pacing are barely adequate, giving the film a sluggish feel– along with the cursory and calculated participation by Tsui himself. Not a totally dispiriting experience –some images and sequences grab one’s attention and imagination –but a big disappointment from a dynamic and vital genre-revisionist.

Golden Swallow / Gam yin ji

Posted in Hong Kong Cinema on July 7, 2008 by michaelaworrall

(1988, 1:85, O Sing-Pui)
* – Moments of Interest

To complain that “Golden Swallow” (a 1988 production not to be confused with the 1968 film directed by Zang Che) borrows heavily from Tsui Hark’s and Ching-Siu Tung’s “A Chinese Ghost Story” is not an entirely accurate criticism. The makers of “Golden Swallow” lift direct passages from Thomas Dolby’s score for Ken Russell’s “Gothic”, mimic images from John Boorman’s “Exclaibur”, and end the film with a climactic sequence straight out of Tsui’s “Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain”. While Hong Kong films may work off of each other and borrow from popular Hollywood films, the makers of “Golden Swallow” move outside the realm of artistic inspirations and into the land of plagiarism.

The plot is almost identical to “A Chinese Ghost Story” (to be fair, both plots may derive from the same traditional Chinese fable) in which a young scholar (Anthony Wong Yiu -Ming) falls in love with a ghost (Cherie Chung) who serves as a siren to lure men to their death at the hands of a forest demon. There are a few changes: this time the scholar is a lampshade-maker, the lovers do come together and live in the mortal world, and instead of one spirit-fighting swordsman there are three, though only one has the true power to defeat the forest demon. Beyond that, however, the film looks and plays like a copy of Tsui’s and Ching’s film.

This is not to say that the film doesn’t have any redeeming qualities;the cinematography by Arthur Wong is quite rich, the use of reds and blues in the art direction works in unison with the costume and lighting design to create a strong atmosphere of otherworldliness, and the graceful flying sequences and wire work help add to the sense of phantasmic beauty. Perhaps the technical quality of the production shouldn’t come across as a surprise, as the art director, Yee Chung-man, served the same duties on “A Chinese Ghost Story”, and the director, O Sing-Pu, worked as an assistant director on the early works of Tsui Hark (this may also explain the tendency to replicate Tsui’s “Zu” and “Ghost Story”)

The film’s flights of fancy come crashing down during the dramatic sequences, for Sing shoots them with little regard to tempo, space, or framing, letting the camera remain in static long shots and cutting to close-ups indifferent to dramatic emphases. The changes in style are jarring, and the indifferent attitude towards the drama severely impairs the crux of the film, the love affair between a mortal and a spirit. The photogenic but emotionally weak leads don’t help either, lacking both the charisma and passion of Leslie Cheung and Joey Wong in “Ghost Story” — Sing is content to have them stare at each other and unconvincingly declare their mutual love.

The shifts between the static, impoverished images and the dynamic, lush ones indicate that while Sing may know how to create a pretty image, he doesn’t know how to put a series of sequences together to create a smooth whole. As the case with a number of Hong Kong films, the action director may have a stronger grasp on film language than the main director. Unfortunately, the strengths of the action sequences are marred by a rushed third act, where the editing is so fragmented as to render events incomprehensible and gives the sequences a choppy and clumsy rhythm. The final result ends up being like a number of Hong Kong films, displaying a conflict and/or discrepancy between the style and skill of the assigned directors as well as a frenzied rush to a climax that undermines the film’s accomplishments and coherence, ultimately tarnishing the film as a whole. While there are many films that can overcome the patchwork, derivative quality typical of many Hong Kong productions, the makers of “Golden Swallow” seem to be working with different aptitudes and their differences, approaching with accelerated speed in the editing room, ultimately collide on the screen.

The Accidental Spy

Posted in Hong Kong Cinema on June 19, 2008 by michaelaworrall

(2001, 2:35, Teddy Chen)
** = Worth Seeing

Continuing the mix of international casts and locations found in Police Story Four: First Strike, Jackie Chan and company set their sights further to the west, read American audiences, with mixed results. As the title suggests, Chan plays an ordinary man who in thwarting a bank robbery at a mall he works in, becomes involved in finding a bio-terrorist virus called Anthrax II. His search takes him from Hong Kong to Seoul and Istanbul, meeting Koreans, Turks, and Americans on the way.

Though a Hong Kong production, the look and shape of the film is for the most part modern Hollywood; glossy photography, shallow focus, close-up heavy and character driven. The filmmakers also adapts the Hollywood practice of multiple camera set ups and heavy editing for action sequences, thus further diluting the key elements of a Jackie Chan picture. Almost gone is the exhilaration of long takes and camera movements capturing the action choreography, though a comic fight scene in an outdoor market in Istanbul, with Chan in the buff, still retains the dynamism of Chan’s best work. (The credited director here is Teddy Chen, but I have a feeling that Chan had a major hand in calling the shots.) The film is also taken down a peg by a cloying “mickey mouse” soundtrack that makes sure the western audiences don’t miss the humorous bits of business during the action scenes. The irony of Chan and his company making the film more accessible to a western market is that the US distributor, the infamous Dimension Films, still cut 20 minutes and released it straight to video.

Even with all these weaknesses, The Accidental Spy doesn’t have the almost faceless characteristics of Chan’s Hollywood productions, where he farms out the dialogue scenes to an American director and has little control over the editing of his own action sequences. The film overall is fluid in its execution with decent use of the ‘Scope frame and, despite the fast cutting, there is none of the spatial disorientation and violations found in most current American action films. There is a certain amount of sadness rustling through the film in regards to Chan’s character being an orphan –his main motive in becoming wrapped up in espionage is to quell his curiosity that the man supposedly responsible for creating the Anthrax II virus may be his father– and Chan’s inability to save a orphaned young woman who has fallen victim to heroin addiction through her relation with an international smuggler. These melancholic moments give the film a bit more weight and allow Chan to demonstrate his range as an actor.

Yet the film’s strengths are weakened as it mechanically moves to deliver a show-stopping set piece in the third act, and switches gears from a spy story to vigilante wish fulfillment when Chan decides to personally take down the smuggler. As the sequence moves from an airfield to a freeway, complete with an overheated tanker that will explode if it does keep moving, ala 1994’s Speed, the editing jumps from one attraction to the next with little build or tempo. In this rush to add one set piece after another, there’s a lot of longwinded exposition between characters explaining what needs to be done to stop the truck, catch the villain, save the hostages, etc.. (When a Hong Kong action film has to rely on narration to illustrate action, you know it is in trouble.) Along with this manufactured feel, there’s the vigilante bent that leaves a slightly bad taste in the mouth. Any nuances or complexities in the film or Chan’s character get erased in the move to such simple mindedness, and ends up compromising and tainting the material. The film further stumbles near at the end, where Chan learns that his involvement in the bio-terrorist plot was not so accidental, along with a sequence playing over the end credits hinting at Chan’s character continuing his espionage adventures. Were Chan and his production company keeping things open for a new franchise? Box office receipts may prohibit that.

With all the bases –and markets– the film tries to touch, the end result becomes so top heavy as to be lopsided, and the cumulative flaws of The Accidental Spy renders the film below most of Chan’s Hong Kong work. Yet with all this, the film still retains fragments of what makes Chan and his films so dynamic and appealing, fragments that get totally lost when added to the Hollywood mix of his Disney and DreamWorks productions. Perhaps the dilution of Chan in America makes this viewer starved for a real fix of Chan, and while this Hong Kong entry does not contain all the proper ingredients there’s a sprinkling of enough as to keep one mildly content, though the lost opportunity or reluctance of delivering a genuine item lingers on.