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Running Out of Time (1999) September 24, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Thriller, 1990s films , 3 comments

Director: Johnnie To  Main cast: Lau Ching-Wan; Andy Lau; Hui Sing-Hung  Territory: Hong Kong

If readers of this blog have learned only one thing from their visits, it’s that I think Johnnie To is pretty much the saviour of Hong Kong cinema.  Time and time again he’s proved to come up with something offbeat and compelling.  Even his lesser films show a flair not present in so many of his contemporaries.

Running Out of Time is, on the face of it, a pretty routine cat-and-mouse thriller and occasionally threatens to descend into another of Milkyway’s dry police procedure movies.  However, this is not the case largely thanks to great casting and a taut, understated script.

I’m often criticising Andy Lau (well, we all need a hobby), but to be honest he’s excellent in this, and quite different from his usual light and fluffy, PR-friendly kind of character.  He plays Cheung, a man with just four weeks left to live and who decides to spend his remaining time robbing a finance company.  Lau Ching-Wan plays Ho, the man trying to bring him to justice, gives an equally strong performance.  More importantly, there is a tangible chemistry between the two performers.

Lau Ching Wan; Andy Lau Tak-Wah

Despite being primarily a thriller in the style of Melville, there are flashes of humour, but the sight of Andy Lau in drag might give some viewers nightmares.  There are trademark To touches all over the place, and it’s hard to imagine a fan not liking the film.  The only criticism, and it’s such a common criticism of Hong Kong films in general these days and not really the film’s fault, is a scene with some nastily blatant product placement for a certain brand of trendy eye apparel. 

Running Out of Time may surprise a lot of viewers not familiar with Johnnie To as it’s rather more subtle than your typical Hong Kong thriller.  A lot of the drama is derived from the thought processes of the two central characters (with Ho desperately trying to work out Cheung’s motives) rather than flashy explosions and action setpieces.  If for no other reason, this film is to be recommended, but for To fans it’s a must.

Lam Suet-o-meter: Low.  But he has a couple of scene-stealing moments as the rather inept henchman of Waise Lee’s gang and plays it pretty much for laughs.  Another winner for Mr Lam!

Lam Suet forgets the combination

Shanghai Knights (2003) September 21, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, Non-Asian, 2000s films , 3 comments

Director: David Dobkin  Main Cast: Jackie Chan; Owen Wilson; Fann Wong; Donnie Yen  Territory: USA

An assassin kills Chon Wang’s (Jackie Chan) father, stealing the Imperial seal.  When Chon learns of this, he heads directly to New York to collect his share of the loot he had acquired at the end of Shanghai Noon, only to find that Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson) has already squandered it and is now a waiter-cum-gigolo.  Together with Chon’s sister Lin (Fann Wong), they head off to London in search of the men responsible for the murder and stumble upon a plan of regicide that will affect both England and China.

Firstly, Shanghai Knights is a completely different animal from its predecessor.  There are surprisingly few references to the first film and the knowing nods to pop culture icons have become sledgehammer blows.  David Dobkin takes over directorial duties from Tom Dey for this outing, and this may be the reason the film’s whole attitude is so different while retaining the same principal stars and the same scriptwriting team.

'He did it' #2

The action is shifted from the Wild West to Victorian England, much to the film’s detriment, I feel.  The England depicted in Shanghai Knights is full of tired clichés – with street urchins, Jack the Ripper, bad teeth and an extremely forced reference to spotted dick that wouldn’t have passed the early stages of a Carry On script.  The main problems, though, is the film’s annoying tendency to make every character turn out to be a fictional rendition of a real person and the fact that the film is riddled with anachronisms, geographical anomalies and factual errors.  I’m not one for picking faults in films, but these anomalies are so glaringly obvious they can’t be ignored.  I’ve since learned, in doing a little research for this review, that these mistakes are all intentional and are intended to be “fun” - which I find a little doubtful.  Even so, this makes the film even more annoying in my opinion. 

The inclusion of Fann Wong as Chon Wang’s sister is tolerable – she’s very easy on the eye – but the fact that Lucy Liu’s character is dismissed with a single line also seems very strange.  Mind you, that’s more explanation than Chon’s wife gets (remember her?).  That’s really the problem with this film, I think – it just seems so slapdash and half-baked.  There are a couple of good gags in here (one of which is lifted directly from the prequel) and Owen Wilson’s delivery is, as usual, top-notch.

Fann Wong; Jackie Chan; Owen Wilson 

Jackie’s setpieces suffer from the same problem as Shanghai Noon – I feel there is too much here that we’ve seen before in his Hong Kong films.  There are a couple of standout moments, as there always are, and the Singing in the Rain reference is something Jackie’s probably been trying to crowbar into one of his films since the eighties.  There is, however, a surprising lack of actual fighting from the star.  Instead, the action mainly involves Jackie trying not to fight, settling for disarming and/or incapacitating his enemies. 

Donnie Yen appears in this film – a fact that surprised me even on second viewing.  While the match up of Yen vs Chan is many action fanboy’s wet dream, the result is literally forgettable.  However, Aidan Gillen’s comic-book villain Rathbone (in one the film’s countless and pointless references to Sherlock Holmes) is worse.

I don’t know why these US Jackie Chan film franchises insist on fish-out-of-water scenarios all the time.  I could have quite happily taken another film in a Wild West setting, and I think there would have been more than sufficient material to be gotten out of the characters.  Instead we have a film that feels strangely apart and disconnected from its predecessor.  That said, I’d have preferred a third instalment of this over a third Rush Hour film even before I’d seen the result.  It seems unlikely, but maybe one day Chan and Wilson will reprise their characters and return the Wild West where they belong.

Shanghai Noon (2000) September 17, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, Non-Asian, 2000s films , 7 comments

Director: Tom Dey  Main Cast: Jackie Chan; Owen Wilson; Lucy Liu  Territory: USA

Princess Pei Pei (Lucy Liu) is kidnapped and taken to America.  Three Imperial Guards are sent to bring her back.  Loyal subject Chon Wang (Jackie Chan) also goes along for the ride, but finds trouble in the shape of not-so-desperate outlaw Roy O’Bannon (Owen Wilson).  The two become unlikely partners, however, when O’Bannon learns of the fabulous fortune he can obtain if he helps rescue her.

The fan response to Shanghai Noon on its release in 2000 was a little muted.  There was disappointment over an obviously CGI stunt involving a jump between two separated carriages on a train, a couple of recycled gags from Jackie’s Hong Kong movies, and an apparently staged outtake with a locked door.  However, you can’t help but look upon the film now, out of context, and think of it as a highlight of his output from the noughties.

'He did it' #1 

Where Rush Hour had Chris Tucker, Shanghai Noon has Owen Wilson.  Wilson can be described as the anti-Tucker, with his laconic Texan drawl the antithesis of Tucker’s frenetic motormouth.  It’s all subjective, but I would take Wilson over Tucker any time; although people who like deliberately annoying characters may disagree.

Wait - I can explain... 

The plot will win no awards for originality, and the whole thing is just another fish-out-of-water cop-buddy comedy movie with the action taking place in the old West instead of modern urban America.  This isn’t necessarily a bad thing, though, and the script has enough gags to gloss over any deficiencies.  While I feel the action scenes in Shanghai Noon aren’t as good as those in Rush Hour, the film hangs together much better and is genuinely funnier (although, again, Tucker fans (if they do actually exist) may disagree).  When Chon tells O’Bannon his name, the latter scoffs: “John Wayne?  That’s a terrible cowboy name!” and the scenes involving Chan’s scene-stealing horse are a delight. 

The sense of fun generated by Shanghai Noon is infectious and the result is a thoroughly enjoyable film.

Dragon Fist (1978) September 6, 2008

Posted by Cal in : 1970s films, Kung Fu , 8 comments

Director: Lo Wei  Main Cast: Jackie Chan; Nora Miao; Yen Shi-Kwan; Hsu Hsia  Territory: Taiwan  Production Company: Lo Wei Motion Picture Co

Dragon Fist starts in an extremely dubious way and promises to be another revenge flick from Lo Wei studios and yet another Jackie Chan film before he found success.  Yawn.  The opening scene, in which a cartoon villain challenges the upstanding leader of Jackie’s clan to a dual bodes ill, as does the Fist-of-Fury-esque way the winner destroys the plaque of the honourable (are you getting the message yet?) Tang San Clan after killing the kindly Sam Tai.  I wanted to scythe my own leg off at the prospect of such tedium.

But, you know what?  Dragon Fist is actually a very unusual kung fu flick.  In fact, I’ll say it’s quite unique in that it is a revenge film, but completely unlike any I’ve seen before.  And I’ve seen a few - oh yes, I’ve seen a few…

Mrs Evil Master's kung fu skills were so good, she had even mastered levitation.

After the yawn-inducing opening, it turns out the head of the Champion’s Clan and thoroughly bad guy (Yen Shi-Kwan), has an ulterior motive for knocking off Sam Tai – he once had an affair with his wife.  Afterwards, the wife, wracked with remorse because her former lover’s dead by her husband’s spinning kicks, hangs herself.  So what does the evil bad guy do?  Seek further revenge?  Laugh evilly and then stroke his beard before wiping the Tang San Clan off the face of the earth?  Surprisingly, no.  He is so regretful of the whole incident that he goes into retreat and chops his leg off in penitence.  And this isn’t the I’m-feigning-remorse-to-lull-you-into-a-false-sense-of-security-then-hack-you-to-bits kind of remorse, this is the real deal.  He even changes the name of his school to the Patience Clan.

So when Jackie shows up at the Patience Clan’s school to take revenge at the death of his master, taking along Sam Tai’s mother and daughter (Nora Miao), he gets the wind completely knocked out of his sails when he finds out the man responsible is a cripple and desperately seeking atonement for his crimes.  All is not as it seems elsewhere though, when another Clan, the Ngais, start to headhunt Jackie for odd jobs and this clashes with the Patience Clan’s new policy of non-aggression.

Dragon Fist is a film I’m very familiar with but I’ve seen it with open eyes this time around.  While I was expecting the worst (I’ve never been what you would call a “fan” of the film) this was a very pleasant surprise.  I also don’t remember the fight scenes being quite as exciting as they are.  Jackie again directs the action in this and it’s clear that he was really getting the hang of the job at this point in his career.  He really lets rip here and every action scene featuring him are well choreographed, which can’t be said for many of his Lo Wei films. 

Jackie Chan Vs Evil Plant Pot

The only real fly in the ointment (apart from the ultra-lame opening) is the film’s need to explain everything, Scooby Do-style, right near the end – it kills the atmosphere and brings everything to a very embarrassing halt for a while.  To make up for it though, Jackie kicks serious arse in the finale, and that’s more important than clumsy exposition scenes in a 70s Kung Fu flick. 

The presentation on the recent Hong Kong Legends disc is distinctly better than any other version I’ve seen before (which is more than I care to admit for a film I’ve already admitted isn’t highly regard by me).  The sound and video mastering problems I noticed on their DVD of Snake and Crane Arts of Shaolin are not repeated here bar a few colour issues that inevitably pop up on the film. 

I know this is said by at least one person about every Chan/Lo Wei collaboration, but Dragon Fist really is one of the better Lo Wei films.  Honest.

Seven Samurai (1954) September 3, 2008

Posted by Cal in : War, 1950s films, Jidaigeki , 3 comments

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Main Cast: Takashi Shimura; Toshirô Mifune; Yoshio Inaba; Daisuke Katô; Seiji Miyaguchi; Minoru Chiaki; Isao Kimura  Territory: Japan

“This may be the one that kills us” -  Kambei

In the 16th Century, during the age of Japan’s bloody civil wars, a small village is in imminent danger of being over-run by bandits, until the village elder declares that they must hire Samurai to protect them.  Six Ronin are gathered, and due to hardships of their own, agree to work simply for food.  A seventh, pretending to be a Samurai but actually an orphan farmer, follows behind and is eventually accepted into the group.  Together with the villagers, the Samurai defend the village from the bandit horde.

Kyuzo's introduction

Seven Samurai is often cited as the first modern action movie, and it’s easy to see why – the film feels a lot more current than a film from 1954 should be.  A lot of this is down to techniques, both in scripting and direction, which were new then and are still in use today.  More importantly, it’s also a fantastic film, and one that has earned its status as an immortal classic. 

“A true Samurai never drinks enough to dull his wits” - Kambei

The characters of the Samurai themselves are captivating.  Kambei (Takashi Shimura) is approached by the villagers after they see him perform an act of heroism while on their travels looking for suitable recruits.  We first meet him in a town where he agrees to rescue a child from a thief holding him hostage in a barn.  Kambei shaves his head (removing his topknot – a shocking thing for a Samurai to do) and poses as a monk to rescue the child.  We then learn he is a veteran of many battles, all of which he fought on the losing side.  He is followed in town by a young idealistic Samurai called Katsushiro (Isao Kimura), who Kambei takes under his wing.  Kambei then assumes the lead and recruits the other Samurai, starting with the archer Gorobei (Yoshio Inaba) who joins simply because he likes Kambei’s character.  Then a chance meeting with an old war comrade and Shichiroji (Daisuke Katô) is brought on board followed by Kyuzo (Seiji Miyaguchi), an elder Samurai who’s an expert swordsman, and Heihachi, “an amusing man” and provider of moral support.  Armed with six Samurai, they are heading back to their village when they notice they are being followed by Kikuchiyo (Toshirô Mifune), a wannabe Samurai and a figure of fun for the group.

Kikuchiyo proves his worth

It is Mufune’s character who is the focus of most of the film.  He is both the unlikely hero and the comic relief.  He is illiterate and shows the other Samurai a stolen family tree, in the hope of proving himself to be a nobleman – except when he points to himself on paper, he chooses a thirteen-year-old’s identity, and the name – Kikuchiyo – is a girl’s.  It’s a gag that still works today (as well as him carrying a sword too big to compensate for his lack of ability) and further adds to the film’s timeless quality.  But Kikuchiyo is more than comic relief; he ends up as the real thing.

Stalker with oversized sword - Kikuchiyo dogs the Samurai 

Subtlety is the key to the characterisation, and the film itself most of the time.  Although it does dip into melodrama on a few occasions, given the strength of the remaining material it’s easy to overlook a couple of minutes’ worth of arms flailing about and uncontrollable wailing (by the villagers, not the Samurai, obviously).  The film does run for an extraordinarily long time (well over three hours in NTSC) but, like a true classic, never outstays its welcome.  The length is necessary for the viewer to bond with the characters (especially Kyuzo, I find, as he tends to be in the background a lot).

“Two more down” - Kyuzo

It’s difficult to begin to give any critical analysis of the film as so many quotes and images pop up in your head when thinking back to it.  A brief few snapshots: Kyuzo disappearing into the night to get one of the muskets from the bandits without fuss, ceremony or false modesty; Kikuchiyo showing up for his audition blind drunk and claiming to be a 13 year old girl; the defence of the village by trapping one or two bandits at a time within the village itself; Kambei shaving his topknot off to save the child; Shichiroji’s sinisterly happy smile when Kambei tells him that this job might be the one that kills them; the revenge attack on the bandit stronghold; Kikuchiyo finally proving his worth on the battlefield.  The highlights are literally too many to name.

“By protecting others, you save yourself” - Kambei 

 The reality of war

After a time, you grow intimate with the village and its inhabitants.  You don’t need to be told that, near the end of the movie, the place where all the villagers are waiting with their bamboo pikes is the north of the town because we already know the place like the back of our hand.  We know that the three buildings lying outside the protected area are doomed but a necessary loss to protect the rest of the village, and are annoyed at those who selfishly want to save them for their own purpose.  We identify with Yohei (Bokuzen Hidari), the elderly farmer, because he is the everyman, and ourselves.

Heihachi's legacy - the Six Samurai and 'Lord' Kikuchiyo protecting the village and the farmers within

All of this (and more) makes Seven Samurai one of the greatest films I’ve ever seen.  I know it’s on a lot of “top films” lists, but I generally don’t agree with such things.  This is definitely an exception, and if you haven’t seen it yet, prepare to be engrossed in these Samurai’s small but significant world.

I defended my post” - Yohei

For the second time in as many weeks, I feel compelled to mention the DVD release of the film.  I’ve seen this film on both the BFI and Criterion release (not on the same evening, though!).  Though the Criterion 3 Disc set is nothing short of beautiful, the less-expensive BFI disc is not inferior in terms of transfer.  Obviously, there are fewer extras on the latter, stretching only to an audio commentary (I guess there wasn’t much else they could fit on the disc).  The extras on the Criterion release are great – a cosy two-hour chat with Kurosawa in his own living room and a very interesting fifty-minute documentary on the film being the most noteworthy, as well as a lovely little booklet of essays and interviews to round off the package.  I do have an issue with them both though and it’s about the subtitles.  The BFI release is excellently subtitled but occasionally neglects to subtitle short responses or people just shouting out someone’s name, which I found a little annoying.  The Criterion disc addresses this but it does tend to use modern Americanised English quite a lot, which definitely feels out of place in a film about 16th Century Japan.  These minor gripes aside, you can’t really go wrong with either disc.  Another small piece of advice: the Criterion disc seems to run a lot longer than the BFI disc even taking the Pal speedup into consideration.  I’m reasonably certain there’s nothing missing in the BFI version, and note that the Criterion disc includes the intermission segment.

'Once more we survive'

“In the end, we lost this battle too” - Kambei

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