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Lust, Caution (2007) December 28, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Thriller, Romance, 2000s films , 2 comments

Director: Ang Lee  Main cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Tang Wei; Joan Chen; Wang Lee-Hom  Territory: Taiwan/USA

During the Japanese occupation of China of the 30s and 40s, a young idealistic acting troupe, spurred by their own patriotic plays, decide to take direct action and assassinate a Chinese traitor working for the Japanese government.  Over the course of four years, Wong Chia-Chi (newcomer Tang Wei) follows traitor Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and they become lovers, despite Yee’s notorious caution and the possibility that he suspects her true motive for sleeping with him.

Lust, Caution is a surprisingly taut romantic drama/thriller given its impressive running time.  Of course, it’s more renowned for its eye-boggling sex scenes, which often look far too realistic to be simulated. 

Ang Lee spent so much on the impressive sets, he couldn't afford a wardrobe department. 

Told through the eyes of Wong Chia-Chi, the film begins as the assassination attempt is about to take place and then flashes back four years earlier to her involvement with the acting school and their pledge to kill the traitors of China.  They mark Mr Yee through their contact Tsao (former stuntman and sometime lead actor Chin Kar-Lok), who eventually rumbles the plot and is killed by the gang.  This leads to their recruitment in the Resistance proper, who had been eying them up for some time, and Wong’s mission to find Yee’s weak spot so they can kill him, even following him to Shanghai from Hong Kong.

With Wong being a virgin, she takes “instruction” from another actor so that she can play the part of a married woman in her bedroom dealings with Yee.  However, the animalistic nature of their first coupling (in what can only be described as semi-rape) soon gives way to a more conventional and passionate affair as the two get to know each other.  You get the feeling (although it’s never expressly stated) that Yee has suspicions that “Mrs Mak” (as Wong is known to him) might be working for the Resistance, but finds it impossible to stay away from her despite his cautious nature.

The visual style of Lust, Caution is impressive, as is the portrayal of early 40s Shanghai (complete with dead bodies littering the streets and massive queues for food).  The central performances are strong, although I’m not 100% sold on Tang Wei.  Tony Leung is as great as usual, and even pop sensation Wang Lee-Hom gives a good performance.

Lust, Caution 

As mentioned earlier, this is really quite explicit stuff, sexually.  I’ve never seen anything quite as explicit in a mainstream film, to tell the truth, and it looks pretty damn convincing at times.  Be warned though that this is certainly not a porn film – the “action” doesn’t even start until about an hour and a half into the movie – so if you’re expecting a quick thrill you’ll probably be better of just sticking to the internet (or so I’m told).  I think sex scenes in films are all gratuitous to a certain degree, but I have to admit there’s a point to the ones in here, shocking as they are.  What is talked about less is the one very strong instance of violence.  It’s easily as shocking as the sex scenes and quite unpleasant to watch.  Again, it’s all quite necessary for the plot, but be warned…

I found Lust, Caution a surprisingly accessible and engaging film that easily justifies its lengthy running time.  It keeps the viewer guessing on the outcome and is never predictable or pretentious and packs quite a punch on an emotional level.  I’m not a huge Ang Lee fan, but even I have to admit this is impressive stuff.

My top ten characters from east Asian cinema December 24, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Articles , 6 comments

Apologies for the lack of updates in recent weeks – I’ve been ill and not really in the mood for reviewing films.   But for a bit of fun I thought I’d write a piece on some of my favourite characters I’ve encountered in my travels watching movies from the Far East.  As usual, there’s a heavy Hong Kong bias (it’s the territory I’ve seen the most films from) and is purely based on my own opinion.  Feel free to add your own in the comments!

My top ten in ascending order:

10.       Mark Lee (AKA Mark Gor)

Played by Chow Yun-Fat

Gangster Mark sports a duster, Alain Delon sunglasses and constantly chews a toothpick – and it’s a well known fact it doesn’t get any cooler than that (in fact, Quentin Tarantino reportedly copied the look and sported it for months after watching the movie).  Mark isn’t just the epitome of cool though – he is a hitman of considerable skill and flair, and you cross him at your peril.  Blotted his copy book slightly by having a Deus ex Machina identical twin brother in a sequel, but you can’t really hold that against him.

See him in: A Better Tomorrow

A Better Tomorrow

9.            Sadako Yamamura

Played by Rie Inou

Who can forget the first time they saw the Ring’s screwed-up villain/victim climb out of a TV set in Hideo Nakata’s universally popular movie?  Although in dire need of a haircut, she was the first character in an Asian horror film to completely flip me out, and I know I’m not alone.  The often imitated style has somewhat diminished the power of the character, but Jesus Christ, someone crawling out of a TV set!

See her in: Ring (aka Ringu)

Ring

8.         Wong Po

Played by Sammo Hung

Sammo Hung is many things, but I have to admit I didn’t rate him as an actor until I’d seen him in Wilson Yip’s SPL.  His character is both a thoroughly evil gang boss and a devoted family man capable of great kindness.  Sammo gives the performance of his life at playing the only fully rounded (d’oh!) character he’s ever been given.  Makes you wonder what else he’s got up his sleeve.

See him in: SPL (aka Sha Po Lang)

Sammo Hung as Wong Po

7.         Chen Zhen

Played by Bruce Lee, Jet Li and others

There are a few flavours of Chen Zhen available, but most prefer the smouldering, flag waving patriot of Fist of Fury or the new age, more diplomatic version seen in Fist of Legend.  Whatever one you prefer, you can bet he’s going to kick some serious invader arse and look good doing it.  What were the Japanese thinking by invading China?

See him in: Fist of Fury, Fist of Legend

Jet Li in Fist of Legend

6.         The Golden Swallow

Played by Cheng Pei-Pei

Let’s face it, her habit of dressing as a boy doesn’t really convince, but cross the Golden Swallow at your own risk.  Besides being deadly, she exhibits a low-key sexiness you wouldn’t be allowed to see on film these days.  One of King Hu’s many masterpieces, Come Drink With Me showcases perhaps the most enduring female warrior to come out of Hong Kong.  You can live without the tepid sequel that bears her name though.

See her in: Come Drink With Me

Cheng Pei-Pei catching some spare change in an iconic moment from Come Drink With Me.

5.            Detective Bun

Played by Lau Ching-Wan

Johnny To had to feature somewhere in this list as he can cook up some fascinating characters, and after much pondering I’ve gone for the titular Mad Detective.  A truly messed up guy who thinks nothing of slicing his own ear off to give as a gift (most people would prefer a gift token, I understand), he also has the quirk of being able to see facets of people’s personality as separate entities.  Which is confusing as hell until you twig what’s going on, and then you too can feel like you’ve been let in on one of Hong Kong’s greatest secrets.

See him in: Mad Detective

Look out, lady, it's loaded!

4.         Dae-su

Played by Choi Min-Sik

He might be slightly unbalanced after spending fifteen years in prison, but Dae Su is not a man to cross.  Played with brilliant flair by Choi Min-Sik, this character embarks on a rampage of vengeance, only pausing occasionally to eat live octopi and fall in love with young ladies.  Also has a sideline in creative dentistry.

See him in: Old Boy

Old Boy

3.         Wong Fei-Hung

Played by Kwan Tak-Hing, Jet Li, Jackie Chan and many, many others

With his no-shadow kick, Dr Wong (the only real-life character on this list) is a formidable martial arts master and owner of the Po Chi Lam clinic.  Featuring in literally hundreds of films, we have seen Wong as a small boy (Iron Monkey), a naughty adolescent (Drunken Master), a young adult (the Once Upon a Time in China series) and as an old man (the Skyhawk).  Whichever portrayal you prefer probably comes down to how old you are, but for many, Jet Li and Tsui Hark’s 1991 Once Upon a Time in China is the definitive.

See him in: just about every kung fu film you’ve ever heard of

2.            Kikuchiyo

Played by Toshirô Mifune

He’s illiterate, drinks to excess and accidentally gives himself a girl’s name – what’s not to like about Akira Kurosawa’s samurai-wannabe Kikuchiyo?  With his oversized sword (the most understated bit of over-compensation seen in movies) Kikuchiyo’s bleak, tragic past is belied by his oafishness and bravado.  Once seen, never forgotten, Toshirô Mifune’s character steals every scene he’s in in one of the greatest movies ever made.

See him in: Seven Samurai

Kikuchiyo

1.         Faye

Played by Faye Wong

Hong Kong has a better track record than the west of producing singers who can actually act, and Faye Wong plays the charmingly quirky character of Faye in Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express like a dream.  Back in the 90s, Wong was populating his movies with interesting characters, and Faye is the best of the lot.  She literally steals into the world of her prospective beau (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and rearranges his life without him even being faintly aware of her presence.  What might sound like creepy stalker-type behaviour is instead a joyous thing in the hands of the childlike innocence of Faye – think an even more loveable version of Amelie – and you simply cannot be infected by her charm. 

See her in: Chungking Express

Faye Wong in Chungking Express

And with that, I’ll wish you all Merry Christmas and I’ll speak to you soon - nasty viral infections permitting!

Fist of Legend (1994) December 13, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Kung Fu, 1990s films , 15 comments

Director: Gordon Chan  Main cast: Jet Li; Chin Siu-Ho; Billy Chow; Kurata Yasuaki  Territory: Hong Kong 

Chen Zhen (Jet Li), student of the Jin Woo school, hears that his master Huo Yuan-Jia has been killed in a challenge match.  Leaving his studies in Japan, he heads back to Shanghai to investigate the circumstances behind his master’s death.  Suspecting foul play, Chen Zhen’s suspicions fall on a Japanese rival school and their brutish students.  However, there’s also the matter of the Japanese military’s Chief Officer Fujita (Billy Chow), who also gets involved.

Directed by Gordon Chan (who would go on to direct the less than stellar Thunderbolt) and a remake of Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury, it is quite a surprise how well Fist of Legend turned out.   By no means the only remake of what many fans consider to be Lee’s best film, Fist of Legend is probably the best as there is no attempt made to emulate Lee and can be viewed with no prior knowledge of the original.  

Jet Li in Fist of Legend

Made in 1994, in more “enlightened” times, the first thing that hits the viewer is the more balanced view of the Japanese/Chinese conflict of the late 30s (incidentally, the real Huo Yuen-Jia had been dead several years by the time this war broke out).  Indeed it may go too far in this regard, as by all accounts the Japanese really did ravage China and its inhabitants during this period.  But historical inaccuracies aside, the portrayal of both sides as being flawed (the Chinese are occasionally shown to be ignorant and stupid – a far cry from the jingoistic tone of the original) does make for a more palatable experience.

The only truly black and white character is Fujita, a mad Officer for the Japanese military played by bad guy par excellence Billy Chow.  In another example of the film’s tightrope walking, though, he’s often just as psychotic to the Japanese as he is to the Chinese.  Chin Siu-Ho is Huo Ting-An, Chen Zhen’s brother and fellow martial artist, who provides the film’s subplot involving the leadership of the Jin Woo school and the uncertainties that follow when an established order falls.  Also of note is the inclusion of Hong Kong’s favourite Japanese martial artist, Kurata Yasuaki, who of course also featured in Legend of a Fighter, another take on the Fist of Fury story.  As ever, he improves the film just by being in it, but also provides one of the more memorable fight scenes in an honour match with Chen Zhen where both combatants end up fighting blindfolded.

Fist of Legend is a very enjoyable film that never tries to be deeper than it is.  It’s also quite well put together, and has a reasonably high budget to it.  Like Drunken Master 2, this is also a film that seems to have a reputation that has, in my opinion, been blown out of proportion a little.  But the fights are good, the story is more compelling than a lot of similar fare, and doesn’t require any great effort of concentration to keep up with.  It’s a fun, action packed entry in the filmography of Jet Li and definitely one of his better ones. 

Fist of Legend

This film has recently been released in the USA by Dragon Dynasty after being unavailable in its original language with English subtitles for far too long.  They’ve done a good job in remastering it, but they’ve included the opening titles sequence from the Dimension release and it just sucks.  Honestly, it looks like something out of a cheap made-for-TV movie, and I’m pretty sure the music that accompanies it is also a new addition as it sucks just as equally.  It’s been too long since I’ve seen this film in its original language, but the sound effects seem a little odd to me as well.  One problem in the audio (which is not the fault of this release) is the very obvious dubbing of Kurata by different voice actors whenever he switches from Japanese to Cantonese.  However, on the whole the release is a good one and it’s nice to finally see the film in its original format with remastered subs after so many years having to put up with a rickety old VHS tape.

One final word: I don’t know if anyone else has noticed this, but I just love the really squeamish western doctor that gets roped into performing an autopsy on Huo.  Maybe his doctorate is in something other than medicine, because he all but shouts: “Eww!  Icky!” at every stage of the process and provided some comic relief – for me if no one else!

Touch and Go (1991) December 6, 2008

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Action, 1990s films , 3 comments

Director: Ringo Lam  Main cast: Sammo Hung; Vincent Wan; Tommy Wong; Teresa Mo  Territory: Hong Kong  Also known as: Point of no Return

Everyman chef Fat Goose (Sammo Hung, as if you couldn’t guess) witnesses the murder of a police officer by a gang of extortionists running an illegal brothel.  Goose is persuaded by Officer Pitt (Vincent Wan) to testify against Hell (Tommy Wong), the perpetrator of the crime, but when Hell is released on bail and wants to silence the witness, Sammo’s Goose appears to be well and truly cooked…

Touch and Go is an odd film for many reasons.  First and foremost, it really doesn’t feel like a Ringo Lam film.  Secondly, it stars Sammo Hung, who was truly going off the boil, creatively-speaking.  Both men were suffering from poor social standing following insensitive comments or movie decisions at the time of this film.  I don’t know if this was enough to sink the film, but make no mistake, it was a bomb. 

Pitt (Vincent Wan) interrogates a suspect.

Sammo returns to playing the kind of everyday loser he played in so many of his 80s films.  He is the kind of man who pays prostitutes to pretend to be his girlfriend while he visits his over zealous mother in her retirement home, which is more endearing than creepy (but if you haven’t seen it, you’ll have to take my word for it).  When he points the finger at the murderer only to see him leave the police station virtually a free man, his cowardly self-preservation is also quite realistic and strangely likeable.  That’s one of this film’s main strengths, its likeable characters.  Pitt, the cop who takes responsibility for Fat Goose, is suffering the loss of a friend after the gang kills the officer that starts the movie.  He lives with his reporter sister Angel (Teresa Mo) in endearingly simple domestic chaos.  The characters evolve quite nicely, with Pitt losing some of his uptight nature when he meets one of the victims of the sex trade (and former “girlfriend” of the villainous Hell) and even starts stealing stuff with her from a hotel room they share when surveying the gangsters’ hideout. 

The film looks strangely rough for a Ringo Lam film, but there are plenty of nice touches and a fair amount of action.  In particular, there are a series of really dangerous looking fire stunts throughout the movie and it looks like the actors themselves were in the thick of it.  Although Billy Chow appears, he is sadly underused and only takes a few scant frames of film.  But it’s certainly a cut above most of Sammo’s output from the period, even if it wasn’t necessarily a cut above Lam’s.  As with most action flicks from the era, there is a fair amount of humour in here, and believe it or not, it’s all inoffensive stuff (except for a couple of toilet jokes) and some of it is pretty darn funny.  If you’ve never seen this and been put off by its reputation, my advice is to give it a try.  I think it’s greater than the sum of its parts, and I found myself thoroughly enjoying it. 

Sammo Hung preparing to go Old School

I had this film for years on some kind of mainland Chinese DVD with a Mandarin dub so lifeless and flat that it made watching the film a dull experience, so I welcomed the new Fortune Star disc with open arms.  However, ironically, the Mandarin dub on this disc is the sharper option as the Cantonese track is quite muffled for some reason.  The superior jazzy soundtrack is unharmed though, and the transfer’s the best I’ve seen for the film.

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