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People’s Hero (1987) April 25, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Drama, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Derek Yee  Cast: Ti Lung; Tony Leung (Chiu-Wai); Ronald Wong; Tony Leung (Ka-Fai)  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Long Shong Pictures Ltd

A pair of youths (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Ronald Wong) plan to hold up a bank but lose their nerve at the last moment – only to have their hand forced by circumstance and have to carry their plan through after all.  Their botched effort to steal the money begins a siege that career criminal Koo (Ti Lung) cannot afford.  Koo intervenes and juggles the hostages, the would-be robbers, the police and his former girlfriend - who is imprisoned for a crime he himself is responsible for.

Right from the start, you know this is a little different from the usual Hong Kong action movie with its stark titles and dark, foreboding music.  The reason only becomes clear quite late in the movie – this is not an action movie at all; rather People’s Hero is a taut dramatic piece that survives without ever having to throw in a few kung fu moves (even though, of course, Ti Lung is more than capable of such antics).  It also avoids many pitfalls of Hong Kong movie plotting and pacing, and the story genuinely moves along at an excellent pace by introducing new elements and problems at precisely the right moment.  By that, I mean that the story actually evolves in a remarkably realistic way (some logistical anomalies aside) and what you expect to happen invariably doesn’t happen.

Ti Lung 

The characters, aside from Ti Lung’s Koo, are introduced at the start, and they do seem horribly clichéd.  Basically, the bank’s staff and customers are given a minute or two’s spotlight to give a slight insight to their character – there’s a bankrupt shopkeeper, a spoilt schoolgirl and her vacant mother, an obnoxious, arrogant young man, a rich businessman, etc.  These tired old stereotypes (hardly a likeable one in the whole bunch) threaten to drag the film down a level or two but are not given the opportunity because the focus stays quite solidly on the two young robbers and Koo.

The theme of the film is that everyone is a victim, and this is nowhere more evident than in the two youths who are forced to steal to live.  Ah Sai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is the older, more responsible of the two, while Boney (Ronald Wong – Hong Kong’s Peter Lorre!) is a hopeless liability prone to fits of epilepsy.  Both are sympathetic characters, but pale when compared to Koo, who was hoping to skip the country before the robbers decided to rob the bank.  Koo is plagued by demons from his cop-killing past and is heartbroken over his girlfriend’s imprisonment (we learn she was jailed for carrying his gun).  His interaction with the hostages sets up the character as a practical, reasonable man to whom the hostages quickly like and cooperate with. 

Ronald Wong; Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 

Obviously, the police are aware of what’s going on inside the bank, and Captain Chan (Tony Leung Ka-Fai – that’s right, both Tony Leungs for the price of one!) tries to foil the robbery.  He has a personal grudge against Koo, and will stop at nothing to get him – dead or alive.  This does make the moral message of the film (cops bad, robbers good) a little obvious, but things get more complicated when Koo is forced (once more, through practical necessity) to show why he’s such a wanted criminal, and, without going into too much detail as to spoil the film, the line becomes blurred again.

There’s a lot of talk about this being the Hong Kong Dog Day Afternoon (the IMDB has just one plot keyword for this film – “remake”), but let me tell you right now the similarities are superficial.  People’s Hero stands quite nicely on its own merits, thank you very much.  I’ve always like the kind of dramatic film that takes place over a relatively short space of time or has one location, and this is a little of both.  The characters are memorable, the plot taut and lean (the film runs like a panther for its 82 minutes’ running time) and the whole thing bristles with freshness – even 21 years after it was made.

Unfortunately, the recent DVD edition from Mei-Ah ports the original subtitles – and they are pretty bad.  I remember some of them from the first time I watched the movie over ten years ago, and it’s a terrible shame that someone couldn’t have cleaned them up for this release.  Unintentionally funny subtitles are usually great, but in a dramatic piece like this, they are glaringly out of place and hampers the tension.

It’s unlikely we’ll see a proper release in the West, as there’s no real action to speak of and it probably isn’t “serious” enough to be classed as World Cinema (whatever that is) and that’s quite a loss.  People’s Hero is a great little film with a fantastic performance by Ti Lung, who was really hitting his stride at this point in his career, and an early standout performance by “Little Tony”.

See it.

Masked Avengers (1981) April 19, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Kung Fu, 1980s films , 3 comments

Director: Chang Cheh  Cast: Phillip Kwok; Chiang Sheng; Lu Feng  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Shaw Brothers

A band of masked bandits are causing trouble until a small group of heroes decide to stop them for reasons that seem to have passed me by.

I realised quite early on in this film a startling fact – I’ve seen more films by this director than any other.  Forty-four films, to be exact.  By now, I’m very familiar with his style and have drawn a couple of conclusions.  One: by the late 70’s, he really didn’t give a rat’s backside about plot, consistency or plausibility.  Two: Chang Cheh seems really uncomfortable with women.

Phillip Kwok as Gao Yao 

It isn’t really necessary for the viewer to be aware of these facts, and it will certainly not affect the viewing experience, but it’s a shame that the carefully plotted historical epic went out of the window so completely, and a little odd that his world consists entirely of men.  Sure, there are a couple of little girls, but as soon as they hit puberty they seem to disappear out of existence.  An adult woman does appear in this film and hogs the screen for about 7 seconds - she does a little swoony, fainty dance, opens her mouth to deliver a line of dialogue and is promptly killed before speaking.  There is no explanation of why she’s there (other than being a sister of one of the characters) or why she acts in such a peculiar manner.  Unlike most, I don’t take Chang Cheh’s evident discomfort of the feminine form as “proof” of his homosexuality – just the opposite, in fact.  However, it is quite hard not to notice certain “tendencies” in his films that can be construed as homoerotic, and Masked Avengers has more than its fair share of these tendencies, with bare-chested, muscle-bound men in nearly every frame.

Speaking of Masked Avengers, I think it’s probably about time I got around to reviewing it, rather than musing on whether or not Chang Cheh was gay.  My expectations were high – same director as Crippled Avengers, some of the same Venom cast return (sadly, Sun Chien and Lo Meng, my favourite Venoms, do not appear) and the word “Avengers” in the title.  Sounds like a sure-fire hit. 

It’s evident early on that this is not quite as good as earlier Venom movies.  The plot really is non-existent and it doesn’t have the kooky charm of Crippled Avengers.  Worse still, there’s a pretty despicable and gratuitous case of animal cruelty near the start that nearly made me switch off.  Oh, and the title is somewhat misleading – the Avengers are actually unmasked, it’s the bandits who wear them.

However, animal snuff and minor gripes aside, Masked Avengers has its moments of greatness.  It suffers from the exact same problem as the earlier Venom movie Daredevils in that it tries to add intrigue where it’s not wanted or needed, but at least it does not try to be too many things – a major downfall of the latter film.  This time, it’s Phillip Kwok who takes centre stage as the cook-with-a-dark-past Gao Yao, and he’s the only character who has more than one dimension.  Actually, his story, when he eventually tells it, is quite interesting. 

Be honest with me.  Is it...bad?

And naturally, the action scenes are outstanding.  The bad guys use tridents, which is pretty original.  I don’t usually find weapon-work as interesting as unarmed combat, but I have to admit that the displays here are quite exciting.  I won’t go and spoil the surprise by revealing who the culprit(s) are, but the showdown is well worth watching and recalls Chang’s glory days.  It’s also apparent that some money went into the set design, although it’s possible that they were re-using some sets from earlier films.

So while there’s much to be indifferent or appalled about in Masked Avengers, it can’t be ignored that it’s a pretty impressive action movie.  If only there had been some thought given to the plot and characters, it might very well have become a genre classic.  My favourite part, though, was when on of our heroes gets slain after buying a glove puppet for a little girl after she fell over on the street (a complete sequence of events that takes as much time to transpire as it takes to read that sentence!).  He is killed by a Masked Avenger and the camera zooms in on the forlorn glove puppet on his hand to show the inhumanity of the bandits, which I thought was really funny.  It loses something in the telling though, so go and see it for yourself.

Mad Detective (2007) April 14, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, 2000s films , 3 comments

Director: Johnnie To; Wai Ka-Fai  Cast: Lau Ching-Wan; Andy On; Gordon Lam; Karen Lee  Territory: Hong Kong  Production Company: Milky Way Image Ltd

Eccentric but brilliant police detective Bun (Lau Ching-Wan) is expelled from the force when, upon his chief’s retirement, he impassively cuts off his own ear as a leaving present.  But when a series of murders and robberies involving a stolen police handgun becomes too difficult to solve, Inspector Ho (Andy On) persuades Bun to return and give his insight into the case.  What Bun finds is that the crimes are related, and that the killer has seven personalities that Bun can see as separate individuals.

The English language title hints at a madcap comedy, especially given the track record of Lau Ching-Wan.  I haven’t really seen any of the Johnnie To/Wai Ka-Fai collaborations (I switched off the awful My Left Eye Sees Ghosts after about twenty minutes of “comic” screaming) but Mad Detective is definitely not a comedy and Lau Ching Wan is definitely not comic in this role.  Indeed, at times, he looks like he’s never done comedy in his life.

Look out, lady, it's loaded!

Mad Detective is at the outset another detective story, albeit one that feels less noir-ish than has become fashionable.  We see Bun solve a case by being thrown down a series of staircases while locked in a suitcase, then his apparent breakdown at his superior’s retirement party.  Then we see two police officers trying to capture a thief.  After that, it starts to get a little difficult.  Well, to be honest, things simply stop making sense.

I don’t want to give too much away and spoil the “gimmick” of the film too much, but Bun has a couple of really remarkable and original abilities.  The foremost is the ability to see facets of people’s personalities as separate entities, all with their own appearance (and not necessarily the same sex as the host).  This is extremely confusing at first, but when the penny drops, it’s quite an exciting idea.  Bun comes into contact with Chi-Wai, who has no less than seven different “facets” of his personality, and watching some of them interact with the host is interesting – for example his decision making is a bossy, confident woman, while his cowardice is a fat, nervous man (Lam Suet – Hong Kong’s Mr Prolific!).  The avatar Bun sees depends on what the host is feeling.  Bun also seems to be able to gain supernatural insights into the case through near-death experiences, which further clarifies what’s going on. 

'Erm, have you ever seen Enter the Dragon?' 

I’ve written before about mystery thrillers sometimes being a one-shot deal (see The Detective), but Mad Detective has so much more going for it, as well as a thought-provoking ending, that I’m sure this will stand the test of time.  Indeed, it’s one of those films you want to watch again straight away so you can watch out for things you might have missed first time and with the benefit of knowledge you didn’t have on the first viewing. 

Mad Detective is accessible and unpretentious, exciting and fresh.  The roles are all very well acted, but Lau in particular is outstanding as the titular detective.  I have to say I’ve not seen him in anything other than comedy (and usually pretty broad comedy at that), and so was a little surprised at how well he pulled it off.  The direction is great and Johnny To in particular seems to be on fire at the moment.  If you’re after something unusual and a little challenging, this is a must-see – and a great example, along with To’s last (complete) film, Exiled, of what Hong Kong is capable of.  I’m pretty excited right now…

Lam Suet-o-meter: Low.  “What, you want me to play someone’s cowardice?  Hmm, OK”.  Probably not one for his Hollywood resumé when he can take five minutes away from being in every Hong Kong film to write it.

Dark Water (2002) April 8, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Horror, Supernatural, 2000s films , 4 comments

Director: Hideo Nakata  Cast: Hitomi Kuroki; Rio Kanno; Shigemitsu Ogi  Territory: Japan  Production Company: Honogurai mizu no soko kara

A bitter custody battle is being fought by Yoshimi (Hitomi Kuroki) against her husband for their six year old daughter Ikuko (Rio Kanno).  Her ex-husband is playing dirty, using tales of Yoshimi’s previous psychological problems to discredit her.  Rattled, Yoshimi rents a new apartment for herself and Ikuko and tries to get her life back on track with a new job.  But the apartment is old and the ceiling leaks – not to mention noisy, as a child’s footsteps can often be heard from the room above.  Yoshimi starts to feel uneasy when a girl’s red bag is found and can’t seem to be thrown away, and then she starts seeing a small child upstairs matching the description of a missing girl…

From the director of Ring, which was probably most casual viewers’ first exposure to Asian horror films, Dark Water continues in a similar spooky style which seems to be everywhere nowadays.

Don't feel bad, love, we all have accidents... 

Shunning special effects and gore, the film instead relies on making the mundane seem menacing through implication, music and reaction shots.  Which, let’s face it, could easily fall flat on its arse.   Dark Water doesn’t quite fall on its arse, but after seeing it I’m not entirely sure why.  The imagery seems a little over-used – creepy silent kids and things seen out of the corner of the eye being the order of the day.  The red bag that continually turns up to alarm Yoshimi could seem laughable if not handled properly, as can the mounting menace of a water stain on the ceiling.  But, to give the film its due, it never does, and a decent sense of quiet menace continues nicely throughout the film.

Right, that's it!  Straight to bed without supper!

It’s just that the whole mystery of the film is rather easy to figure out, and by about the halfway mark, you’re well ahead of the game.  This is the film’s most disappointing quality, as it is a very watchable experience.  The film is very ably acted, and particular mention must go to the performance of Rio Kanno as the six year old Ikuko who spent the majority of the film soaking wet, which couldn’t have been too pleasant.

Although Dark Water is a pleasantly creepy way to pass the time, I really don’t think it has the legs to stand up to repeated viewings.  But if you’ve never seen it, it’s well worth the price of the rental.

Bruce Lee Vs Elvis: more “Game of Death” footage found April 1, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Uncategorized, Articles, Humour , comments closed

A recently discovered film can containing a mere 10 minutes’ worth of material has already been hailed as the Holy Grail for both action film fans and music fans.  The contents show the King of Kung Fu fighting the King of Rock ‘n’ Roll in a life and death struggle set inside a Pagoda. 

The footage is believed to be yet more material from Lee’s unfinished film Game of Death, shot in 1972.  The project was only in its infancy when Lee was called upon to film Enter The Dragon for Warner Brothers, and Lee died before he could go back and complete the film.  However, it has always been claimed that more material was shot than was ever seen, even taking into consideration the newly restored material that surfaced in recent documentaries on the subject.

The idea of Bruce Lee starring alongside Elvis Presley is not as far fetched as it sounds.  Presley was a huge fan of Lee, and was himself a Karate practitioner under the tutelage of Lee’s friend Ed Parker.  Presley expressed a wish to work with the Kung Fu star on a film project, but it had always been assumed that the two legends never met.  However, the footage comes as no surprise to the Presley estate.  “We know Elvis went to Hong Kong in 1972 to meet Bruce,” says a spokeman for the singing star, who died in 1977.  “He wanted the visit to be very low-key as he was mindful of the hysteria that would follow if the Hong Kong people knew the two were meeting.”

Travelling under the name of Vince Everett, Presley spent a total of two weeks in Hong Kong filming with Lee.  Full details of the found footage are being kept secret, but it is believed that the scene starts with Presley singing a musical number while Lee and co-star Nora Miao dance the Cha Cha – Lee was a spledind dancer in his youth and was even crowned the Hong Kong Cha Cha Champion of 1958.  Unfortunately, the film was shot without sound, so the song Elvis is singing remains a mystery – for now.  “There is dialogue, and it’s in English,” says another spokesman.  “We’re working with lip-readers to discover what is being said and sung.”

After the song ends, it appears Lee and Presley have an argument, and the two start fighting, with Presley using Karate against Lee’s Jeet Kune Do.  In all, the footage lasts just under ten minutes and contains fight choreography that one privileged viewer has said “will stun fans.  It’s simply outstanding stuff, and Elvis is on fine form.  When he breaks his guitar over Bruce’s head, it all goes nuclear.  I’ve never seen anything like it.” 

So why has the world not seen this amazing footage, and why did neither Lee or Elvis mention it?  No one knows for sure, but one theory is that Lee was unhappy with the dancing element of the scene and wanted to reshoot it before presenting it to the world.  As for why the footage was lost, there appears to be a simple explantion.  “We have a large vault in which we store all our films,” explains an employee at the archive vault of Golden Harvest studios, where Lee made all his Hong Kong movies.  “This particular reel was in a can where the writing on the label was completely obscured by a substance that looks like hamburger mustard.  It was simply left in the vault until we were doing a cleanout and we decided to have a look at what was on it.  Imagine our surprise when we found what it contained.” 

And what will happen to the film now?  Columbia Pictures distributed the Golden Harvest film Game of Death in 1978, five years after Lee’s death using stand-ins and archive footage to seemlessly build a new movie around the footage Lee had shot before leaving for the States to make Enter The Dragon.  The result was so astonishingly successful that hardly anyone noticed that Lee was being played by a series of other actors and stuntmen.  Columbia Pictures now wants to buy the film outright and insert the found footage – and shoot new scenes to explain the Presley character.

“We have found that we could not simply add the Elvis scene to the Pagoda section of the movie Game of Death,” said one high-ranking Columbia official.  “His character needs explaining.  We are therefore going to shoot new footage to help the flow of the revised film.”  One problem is that many of the cast, and director Robert Clouse, have passed away since making the film, and the aging process makes it impossible to use the services of the surviving cast.  “We have already aquired the services of an Asian-American actor who bears an uncanny resemblance to Tai Chung Kim [Lee’s stand in for the 1978 shoot] to play Billy Lo, and we will use archive footage and outtakes to fill in the gaps with the other actors.”

Columbia have gone even further by hiring an unknown actor to direct the new material.  Matt Conroy was given the job as he looked eerily similar to Robert Clouse in the late 70’s.  Conroy has not directed a single frame of film, and after studying Clouse’s back catalogue, which includes such genre classics as Gymkata and China O’Brien 2, was initially worried he may have been over-qualified.  However, he has now embraced the challenge: “There’s no getting around the fact that I look like the guy,” says Conroy, “and the producers are insisting that they want someone as close, physically, to Bob Clouse.  I will do my best and try not to let anyone down.”

It is not known at this point who will play Elvis in the re-shoot, but with an estimated 85,000 professional impersonators in the world there shouldn’t be too much trouble finding someone for the role.  As for the outcome of the duel, executives are keeping their lips firmy sealed.  “You’ll have to wait and see,” says an excited official.  “But this is going to be huge!”

The revised version of Game of Death is scheduled to hit cinemas worldwide exactly one year from today – on April 1, 2009.

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