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Happy Together (1997) January 24, 2009

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

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Leslie Cheung; Chang Chen  Territory: Hong Kong

Happy TogetherHappy Together shows, in gory detail, the final dregs of love between Lai Yiu-Fai (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung).  Both have come to Buenos Aires to “start over”; a familiar lament of Ho’s.  But the relationship is all but over and they end up bickering as soon as they get there.  Lai is increasingly jealous of Ho’s lovers, and in an effort to control, he steals Ho’s passport, virtually making him a prisoner in Argentina.

Happy Together has surely got to be the most inappropriate title for this Wong Kar-Wai film about the ending of a relationship.  Basically the flipside of Chungking Express, the film is pretty much a catalogue of misery.  The couple are clearly doomed from the start, and their “starting over” idea by going to Argentina goes to hell. 

Voyeuristic and basically plotless, Happy Together is not an easy film to watch (unless you enjoy watching two soon-to-be former lovers bicker, argue and throw punches at each other), but it’s also an undoubtedly accomplished piece.  This time, Christopher Doyle’s approach really puts you in Lai’s dingy bedsit while he looks after/ignores/beats up Ho.  Never before has he been as uneasy to watch as here, and you’re reminded of the fact nearly every minute of the 92 minute running time (in its uncut PAL form).  Secondly, as usual, Wong uses music to great effect – from the Latin jazz in fitting with the setting to the psychedelic jazz of Frank Zappa.

The narrative is supplied by Lai, and we basically see the film through his eyes.  He is not shown as totally blameless in the destruction of the relationship, but the hot-and-cold nature of Ho leaves little room for viewer sympathy.  He takes to parading new lovers in front of Lai after arguments, whether to win him back through jealousy or just out of nastiness we are never told.  Things have a habit of going wrong for the reckless, impulsive Ho, though, and he always has to rely on Lai to sort him out, thereby starting the cycle all over again.  They seem doomed to saying their last goodbyes and then “starting over” forever unless one of them can break that cycle, and that’s where Chang comes in.  Chang is the platonic friend and co-worker of Lai, and essentially the only other character in the movie. 

I’ve watched Happy Together three times now since it came out in 1997 and I can’t see me ever wanting to watch it again, despite its obvious artistic flare and doubtless merits.  It’s just too dark and depressing and I think I’ve got all I’m going to get out of it.  However, don’t for one minute think it’s a bad film – it definitely needs to be seen at least once – probably twice.  Personally, it has a special place in my heart for introducing me to the work of Frank Zappa, whose music is used so well in the movie.  I’ve been a fan ever since and am coincidentally listening to him right now as I write this review.

This is the only occasion I’ve ever seen a Hong Kong film that is cut in its own territory but was released uncut over here.  This is due to a couple of sex scenes that probably couldn’t hope to see the light of day in Hong Kong even nowadays.  Seek it out (it might take some effort though, especially on DVD) but don’t expect any laughs.   

In Bruges (2008) January 21, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Thriller, Non-Asian, 2000s films , 2 comments

Director: Martin McDonagh  Main cast: Colin Farrell; Brendan Gleeson; Ralph Fiennes  Territory: United Kingdom

After accidentally shooting a child dead on his first mission as a professional hitman, Ray (Farrell) and his more experienced partner Ken (Gleeson) are told by their foul-mouthed boss Harry (Fiennes) to flee the country and go to Bruges (it’s in Belgium).  The pair are told to act as tourists, do a bit of sightseeing and await further instructions.  Ken laps up the culture of the picturesque town, but the prospect of spending up to two weeks in the “shithole” is more than Ray can stand.  Seeking diversion elsewhere, Ray meets lovely local girl Chloe (Clémence Poésy), a doped up racist dwarf and a “poofey” skinhead.  But when Harry’s order comes through, the sightseeing is definitely over, and both men must make a very difficult decision.

In Bruges is a superb black comedy thriller with some of the sharpest dialogue and some of the most believable and likeable central characters I’ve seen in a long time.  The expletive-riddled script is full of great lines, whether they be withering comments on Belgium, pondering killing someone if they are armed with a bottle and defending their family, or simply giving advice to overweight Americans.  It manages to be funny, touching and thought provoking at the same time, and probably would not have come off as successfully as it did if not for the fantastic cast.

I’m slowly realising that I’m becoming a great fan of Brendan Gleeson.  I first enjoyed him in the much maligned (unjustly, in my opinion) Lake Placid (where I thought he was an American), thought he was great in 28 Days Later (where, not recognising him, I thought he was a Cockney) and he’s nothing short of superb in this (where he uses his natural accent). 

Colin Farrell is excellent too as the troubled hitman who is so devastated at accidentally killing a child he contemplates suicide.  That we don’t want him to do this is a credit to the way his character is scripted and Farrell’s performance.  His immediate distaste and apathy at the setting provides much of the comedy of the film which is in stark contrast to his partner’s view.  However, there is a genuine feeling of camaraderie and friendship between the two men and this eventually develops over the course of the film into something akin to a father/son relationship. 

'if someone comes at you with a bottle...he's got to take the consequences'

Their boss - the often talked about Harry - is saved for later.  Ralph Fiennes plays him rather manically (which, under the circumstances is understandable), but even then he is given a character of certain depth, being a family man who adores his kids while being a man who can kill without a moment’s thought.

It’s the supporting characters that add the finishing touches in such style though.  Chloe is a perfect foil for Ray, and their frank discussion over a civilised dinner in a fancy restaurant is a highlight of the film.  She’s a filmmaker and her associate - an arrogant American thrill-seeking acting dwarf (Jordan Prentice) - is a source of innocent wonder for Ray.  Whilst high, we learn from him which side Vietnamese midgets will fight on in the inevitable race war between black and white while he laments that “you don’t know how much shit I’ve had to take off black midgets”.  Along with Yuri, the alcove-obsessed gun seller and Chloe’s not so bright friend, you have some of the most colourful supporting characters you could ever want.

Make no mistake, though, In Bruges is not some screwball comedy filled with kooky characters and crazy situations.  It has a very dark and thought-provoking vein running though it which is only highlighted by the fairytale, almost otherworldly, setting.  This is director Martin McDonagh’s first feature film, and if it’s anything to go by we could be looking at the start of something really special.

Mr Vampire II (1986) January 18, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Horror, Comedy, Supernatural, 1980s films , add a comment

Director: Ricky Lau  Main cast: Lam Ching-Ying; Yuen Biao; Chung Faat; Billy Lau  Territory: Hong Kong

A team of explorers lead by Professor Kwok (Chung Faat) discover a cave containing the perfectly preserved antique corpses of a family – father, mother and child.  The corpses all have Taoist spells attached to their foreheads, and upon removal the hapless adventurers discover that the corpses are hopping undead creatures intent on causing mayhem upon the living.  Medicine man Lam Ching-Ying (Lam Ching-Ying, in a masterstroke of casting) may hold the key to eradicating the menace before it spreads further with each infected bite.

Have you ever had the movie experience where, before you see a film, everybody says it’s such a complete piece of crap that when you finally get around to watching it you’re left thinking it wasn’t so bad after all?  That was the kind of reaction I had when I first saw Mr Vampire II about ten years ago when it was shown on Channel 4 over here.  However, watching it now for a second time, I can kind of see what everyone was talking about.

The problem mainly lies in the inescapable fact that nearly every scene goes on too long, and yet the whole film is well under 90 minutes in length.  In particular a scene where Yuen Biao fights the parent vampires while under the effect of a sedative seems to go on forever.  Similarly, the section where the child vampire is befriended by a regular family is overlong and the children end up being more annoying than cute, even though the inclusion of a pair of overweight children who aren’t simply there for comedy value is a bit of an innovation.

Mr Vampire 2

It is also a bit of a head-scratcher why Yuen Biao and Lam Ching-Ying aren’t introduced earlier, as they are undoubtedly the main attraction for the film.  They both appear at about the 35 minute mark, which is way too long to wait when the rest of the material isn’t too strong.  Actually, no one really ends up with a lot of screen time on this one for some reason, and it’s possible for completely forget that some people are in it at all (I’m thinking Moon Lee here, who is particularly underused).  The shifting of the setting to modern day Hong Kong in this instalment isn’t as disastrous to the film as you might think, but it has to be said that the ties to the undisputed classic that is Mr Vampire are quite tenuous. 

It is perhaps to be applauded that producer Sammo Hung didn’t simply trot out a carbon copy of the original and instead tried to experiment with the formula.  There are positives: there are a few great gags (and call me sick, but I really enjoyed seeing Moon Lee get hit in the face with a hammer), a couple of decent setpieces and a little bit of atmosphere.  But is any of it scary?  I’d say a bit fat no on this.  Mind you, I didn’t find any of the first one scary, but when it was as entertaining as it was you can overlook things like that.  I also didn’t like the obvious “gross out” moments at the start of the film such as the gutting of a real snake – I thought they were really cheap shocks with no entertainment value.

One aspect of the film which I found quite surprising is that the movie ends up being quite critical of human society.  We are eventually left empathising with the monsters and the shift from human as protagonist to antagonist is handled with a subtlety wasted on such a project as this, but it’s nice to know someone was at least thinking outside the box a little.

Mr Vampire II has a bad reputation, and that reputation is sadly quite justified, even taking into account that the original was such a tough act to follow.  Nevertheless, it is not a complete waste of time and there are a couple of entertaining moments.  My recommendation: see it once and then stick a yellow strip of paper on it with a Taoist spell written on the front to stop it from hopping into your DVD player again.

Fallen Angels (1995) January 1, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Drama, Romance, 1990s films , 2 comments

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Kaneshiro Takeshi; Leon Lai; Michelle Reis; Charlie Yeung; Karen Mok  Territory: Hong Kong

Fallen AngelsFallen Angels is the third tale in the Chungking Express set of stories, and has no plot as such other than that of hitman Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai) wanting to give up his profession.  The rest is just an assortment of characters that are bruised, broken, lovelorn or just plain crazy.  And that, as everyone knows, is just what makes Wong Kar-Wai’s films from this period so damn great.

Wong populates the film with the denizens of the night in this strictly nocturnal film.  We get the aforementioned hitman, his desperately lonely partner (Michelle Reis), a mute shop worker (Kaneshiro Takeshi – in a different role from the one he played in Chungking Express) who takes over and runs other people’s businesses while they sleep, a kooky blonde (Karen Mok) who used to date Wong Chi-Ming but was so unspectacular as to be completely forgotten by him and a serial small-change thief (Charlie Yeung) who makes constant phone calls trying desperately to rekindle her love affair with the never-seen Johnny.

The characters cross at various points with different degrees of success, and watching them is a delight.  It’s hard to convey to someone who hasn’t seen the film just how brilliant it is to see a hitman coming off his last job, taking the bus home and running into an old school friend who tries to sell him insurance.  Or when the blonde Karen Mok sits next to Chi-Ming in McDonalds and asks if it’s OK to sit there, when the huge restaurant is entirely empty.  Or when He Qiwu starts giving people shampoos against their will.  It’s the mute He Qiwu (he lost his voice after eating a can of out-of-date pineapples – further deepening the canned pineapple conspiracy in Wong Kar-Wai’s films) who says it best in one of his voice-overs: “The night’s full of weirdos”.  Elsewhere, we see the futility of trying to dry clothes by flashlight, extreme violence to a blow-up sex doll, the massaging of a dead pig and other weird and wonderful things you’d never expect to see in a movie – including the much talked about (at the time) fully-clothed masturbation sequences of Michelle Reis’s hyper-sexed but unfulfilled femme fatale.

It’s a bittersweet pop-art film noir with chunks of whimsy set against some fantastically placed pieces of music and filmed to perfection, as ever, by Christopher Doyle.  The Teresa Teng song “Mong-kei Ta” (“Forget Him”) by Shirley Kwan must get special mention as the mood-setter on the soundtrack, but the use of the faux a cappella hit “Only You” by British group The Flying Pickets also gets the little hairs rising on the back of your neck.

The only real criticism you can make about Fallen Angels is that it’s not quite as good as Chungking Express, and as it is so close stylistically and thematically (He Qiwu’s “proper” job is working in the Midnight Express, just like the characters from the previous film) it is hard not to compare the two.  The resolution of the Karen Mok character seemed a little anti-climactic and the voice over by Chi-Ming in this scene seemed a bit contrived and corny to me, but that’s the only thing that didn’t seem right in the film.

Like everything pre-In the Mood for Love, this film seems to be completely forgotten in this country, and I don’t even own this on DVD.  It has never been released in the UK on the format, which is an absolute tragedy as it really deserves to be seen by a wider audience.  I hear that there’s a Region B Blu-ray of Chungking Express coming out soon (fingers crossed!) so hopefully this might spark some interest in Wong Kar-Wai’s earlier (and dare I say it: better?) work.  For while it may not be as good as Chungking Express, the fact is that very little is.  And I’d take ten Fallen Angels over one In the Mood for Love any day and I strongly suspect I’m not the only one.

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