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As Tears Go By (1988) February 24, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Thriller, Romance, 1980s films , 2 comments

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Andy Lau; Jacky Cheung; Maggie Cheung  Territory: Hong Kong

As Tears Go BySmall-time gangster Wah (Andy Lau) finds himself bailing out his no-good Triad brother Fly (Jacky Cheung), who gets into increasingly serious trouble with a rival faction of his own gang.  When Wah falls for his cousin (Maggie Cheung), he finds himself spreading himself too thinly. 

Wong Kar-Wai’s directorial debut will probably always be the odd-one-out in his filmography even if he goes on to make another hundred films.  It doesn’t have film-noir voice-overs, there’s no Christopher Doyle behind the camera and it has awful canned music for a soundtrack. 

As Tears Go By is almost a routine Triad thriller.  I say “almost”, because even here, so early in his career, Wong has at least tried to add some depth to the characters’ emotions. 

The problem is, the characters are quite unlikeable.  In fact, Fly is downright annoying.  He never learns from past mistakes, and predictably just goes from one screwed-up situation to another, leaving a trail of destruction behind him.  Wah himself is reasonably likeable, but the fact that he always bails his little brother out of trouble without making a serious effort to get him to sort his life out made me lose patience and sympathy for him.  Out of the three main characters, Ah-Ngoh (Maggie Cheung) is the least irritating, although we are left scratching our heads as to why she falls in love with Wah – he doesn’t treat her that well and is not obviously attracted to his lifestyle.

Although there are a couple of shots that look typical Wong Kar-Wai in execution, it’s clear that his skills were less than fully developed.  There isn’t the normal flair and stark realism of Christopher Doyle’s photography, sadly.  Worse, the aforementioned canned synth music is tinny and to top it all off, the romantic scenes are played against a truly horrible Cantopop version of Berlin’s “Take My Breath Away”.  Someone should have told Wong that that particular piece of music had already been used in another film…

While the performances are quite strong, there isn’t enough meat on the bones in this particular gangster tale.  I found that there was always something, somewhere in the film that annoyed me.  Whether it was the characters, the music or the seemingly endless revenge attacks and counter-attacks the various gang factions indulge in.  I was surprised to learn that it remains Wong’s most commercially successful film in Hong Kong, as on the face of it, it’s just not that good.  But then, western audiences often disagree with eastern audiences on what makes a good film…

Ashes of Time (1994) & Ashes of Time Redux (1994/2008) February 18, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Wuxia, 1990s films, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Leslie Cheung; Tony Leung Ka-Fai; Jacky Cheung; Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Brigitte Lin; Charlie Yeung  Territory: Hong Kong/China

Ashes of Time ReduxAshes of Time seems to have gone through a fair bit of rehabilitation since it was made.  I remember the reviews at the time were quite negative to downright scathing.  However, it has always had its hard core of followers, and as this sort of thing is quite fashionable these days, it was perhaps inevitable that the film would be “rediscovered”.

It soon became apparent upon watching the redux that to write about this film properly, I had to see the original too.  Therefore, both versions are discussed here, having spent most of the weekend watching both versions, the extras on the new Artificial Eye Blu-ray and reading up on it.  This has resulted in a longer review than normal, so try to stay awake at the back, please!

The film is based on the characters from Jin Yong’s novel Legend of the Condor Heroes and focuses on cynical, self-centred assassin Ouyang Feng (Leslie Cheung) as he goes through a year of his life in a remote desert lair.  The other characters who weave in and out of his life include swordsman/woman with a gender-split personality (Brigitte Lin), old friend Huang Yaoshi (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), young, idealistic swordsman Hong Qi (Jacky Cheung), a fellow swordsman losing his sight (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and a love he lost to his elder brother (Maggie Cheung).  There are mistaken identities, love triangles and the usual Wong Kar-Wai themes of love and longing are all very much present and correct.

There is an overall plot involving horse thieves terrorising a small village, which Ouyang Feng is occasionally paid to protect.  However, this point is largely lost in the redux version.  It does, however, set the scene for the battles that do occur in the film.  But this is not an action film as such – one magazine reviewer I read back in the day described it as “an action film about inaction”, and that sums it up nicely, if a little too dismissively.  To be honest, you’d be better off forgetting it’s a wuxia movie altogether, as it really doesn’t play by the usual rules. 

There are several different threads in Ashes of Time, and some work better than others.  Despite the jumbled chronology at times, most of the threads tend to resolve themselves before moving to the next one, and for this reason the movie feels quite episodic, although all of the tales involve Ouyang Feng.  So while I enjoyed Jacky Cheung’s idealistic swordsman sub-story (complete with wife in tow) and the tragic story of Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s blind swordsman, I cared less for the Brigitte Lin section, which I thought was a bit melodramatic and Wong Kar-Wai handled it in a heavy-handed fashion.  Furthermore, I felt that she overacted quite badly in a couple of scenes, which I thought was most unlike her.

In the end, Ashes of Time is always going to split fans down the middle.  It has so little action (especially in the redux version) that it can’t be considered an action movie (despite Sammo Hung spending months on set choreographing the swordplay) and contains far too much action to be considered a typical Wong Kar-Wai film.  It is perhaps best to overlook the wuxia elements (which aren’t too impressive anyway, relying too much on camera effects and quick editing) and see the film as a tale of lost love and whether or not it’s best to remember or forget.

Even though I hate to say something so passé, the movie was well ahead of its time, and I get the distinct impression that if King Hu had lived to see it he would have loved it to bits, despite Ashes of Time only spending one paltry year in production!  Personally, although I admire the ambition and scope of the film, I find the overall effect is not as satisfactory as I’d like.  Having said that, the denouement has considerable impact and the film’s final message is worth the journey.  It’s just that the journey grinds to a halt a couple of times.

When discussing the differences in the available versions, I’ve decided not to do a comprehensive list of the changes in the redux (these can be found on the net without too much trouble) but simply give my opinions on them.  The most startling omissions occur early in the film, with the removal of some swordplay footage, including an entire fight scene.  Although only a short section, this removal has effectively changed the tone of the entire film, almost making the film shift away from the wuxia genre entirely.  Instead, we get a couple of new cutaway shots of some sphere-shaped object that frankly baffled me.  There are other cuts all over the place, but they’re all pretty minor.  The only new footage (apart from some better blood effects) is brief cutaway shots, which means the film’s running time is reduced by a couple of minutes.  Apart from the opening scene with Ouyang Feng fighting the bandits, I honestly didn’t miss any of the omissions.  The colour has been tweaked throughout, giving the film a bolder, more visually striking appearance, although sometimes the colour correction can be detected.

It’s more than just the visuals that have been tweaked though.  The soundtrack has been overhauled too, with Frankie Chan’s music being rerecorded, somewhat inevitably, with cellist Yo Yo Ma.  Blasphemous as it sounds, I don’t find the reworked soundtrack to be sacrilege, but if I was more familiar with the original soundtrack I may have had a different opinion.  Watching the original, the synth soundtrack does date the film right in the middle of the 90s, while the new recordings seem a little more timeless.

The one change in the redux that helps the viewer is the inclusion of titles indicating the change of seasons.  This separates the film into sections where different sub-stories end and start.  I found this change probably the one main improvement over the original, personally.  In any case, there’s nothing in the redux I found to be heresy, although again, if I knew the film as well as some fans, I may have had a different opinion.

The Artificial Eye BD has a great anamorphic transfer, although the film itself suffers from a high level of grain (see below).  One very noticeable difference between this disc and their release of Chungking Express is that this film has quite a lot of extras.  These are mostly interviews shot during the film’s showing at Cannes.  Here are a few notes on each (timings very approximate):

Interview with Wong Kar-Wai 1 (5 mins): Wong discusses the appalling state the film was in when he retrieved the negative [sadly a common occurrence in Hong Kong cinema] and claimed a full restoration would be impossible.  The redux was therefore an attempt to make a definitive version of the film with what was left.  Talked about shooting new cutaway shots to insert into the footage and confirmed that this was the only new footage shot.  Admitted it was his most complex film he’s ever made.

Interview with Wong Kar-Wai 2 (18 mins): Wong goes into more detail in this lengthier interview, discussing everything from the shooting schedule, the reasons behind shooting in the desert in China (he wanted to do a film on location after seeing so many studio-locked Shaw Brothers films from yesteryear) to the practicalities of shooting a film over an entire year through the changing seasons.  He discussed his reasons for wanting Sammo Hung on board, and claimed to defer to him when it came to the action scenes, which surprised me a little.  He also addressed the “grain” issue, and admitted it was not intentional but explained that they had to shoot in poor light sometimes and this had the result of creating a very grainy image at times.  He says that in the end, he thought it suited the desert setting quite well.  Finally, he talks about the remade music track and says the original was sounding quite dated.

Interview with Christopher Doyle (16 mins): Doyle gives a lot of insight in this interview.  Starting with how he met Wong, he talks about how the directors and crew he works with are primarily friends, so he can occasionally say “fuck you” without the fear of losing his job [I wish this was true with my job].  He talks about Wong’s way of pushing him to be better by saying “Chris, is that all you can do?”  He talks about Ashes of Time being an ecological film about climate change [can’t see much evidence of that, personally] and discussed the trials of shooting in the desert.  Claims not to understand how martial arts films are shot and so said Sammo had a lot of influence in that area.

Making of (14 mins): A clip-heavy featurette that reuses a lot of footage from the other interviews on the disc; this extra is a total let-down.  However, there are short (and I mean short) contributions by Sammo and Yo Yo Ma that you don’t get elsewhere. 

Interview with Leung Chiu-Wai (8 mins):  A very insightful Little Tony talks (in almost perfect English) about how he did all his own stunts for the film and how Wong wanted to make this a two-part film.  As it bombed at the box-office, Tony was disappointed that they never got to make Ashes of Time Part II.  Talked about listening to Dire Straits’ “Private Investigations” a lot during this time and the alienation of the song seemed to suit the film.  Tony discussed his working relationship with Wong and revealed that they don’t talk to each other all that much.  He then goes on to say that Wong asked him a lot of questions early on in their relationship and so Wong knows everything about him but he knows virtually nothing about Wong [which sounds downright weird to me, but Tony seemed to find the situation humorous].  He then talked about making this back-to-back with Chungking Express even though he could only spare ten days on the set due to commitments with his singing career.

Interview with Charlie Yeung (9 mins): not the most insightful interview on the disc, Yeung mainly talks about how she got the job, the fact that it was her first film and her hitherto undiscovered ability to burst into tears on demand.  Was surprised that she only had to do a few takes of her scenes.

Interview with Carina Lau (4 mins): This short interview gives a little more information on Wong’s working methods, saying he mainly just lets the actors play the scene the way they want [which doesn’t seem likely to me, but who am I to say?].  Interestingly, she talks about how many takes she had to do for each scene, as opposed to Charlie Yeung’s account [maybe playing the scene how she wanted wasn’t working out so well after all?]. 

The disc is rounded off with the obligatory trailer (which I didn’t bother with) and is refreshingly free of Tarantino, for which we should all give thanks.  On the whole, a rather good little disc.  Although it’ll probably be a while before I’ll want to watch it again.

Now if you’ll excuse me, my fingers are bleeding and I’ve lost quite a lot of sight in the one eye thanks to this review.  I think I’ll do a nice little Bruceploitation pic next.  Phew!

Chungking Express (1994) on Blu-ray February 11, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Romance, 1990s films , 4 comments

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Takeshi Kaneshiro; Brigitte Lin; Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Faye Wong  Territory: Hong Kong

I have to admit a particular fondness for Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express – it’s one of my absolute favourites.  Which makes the recent Blu-ray disc from Artificial Eye an essential purchase and a slight consolation for us not getting the Criterion disc over here.

The film concerns two lovelorn policemen who frequent the Midnight Express fast food shop in separate stories and how they cope with their situation.  The first involves He Qiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro) who has split from his girlfriend May and meets up with and “falls in love” with a double-crossed drug trafficker in a blond wig and sunglasses (a completely unrecognisable Brigitte Lin), while the second concerns Police Officer 663 (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) and his break-up with his flight attendant girlfriend.  He’s so cut up about his loss that he doesn’t even notice when Faye (Faye Wong), a worker at the Midnight Express who develops a serious crush on him, starts doing a makeover on his flat.

The women of Chungking Express cross paths 

Chungking Express was made out of a direct reaction to Wong Kar-Wai’s previous film Ashes of Time, which was so arduous to make and so time-consuming that he wanted to make a more spontaneous “quickie” piece.  Telling cinematographer Christopher Doyle that he was “too slow” in setting up shots, Wong wanted this film to look more “like CNN” and the result is a much grittier, more realistic feel that suits the urban setting perfectly.

There are a number of things that make Chungking Express great, but foremost among them is the central characters (with the possible exception of Brigitte Lin, whose character is deliberately laconic and virtually expressionless).  Firstly, we have He Qiwu who develops an unhealthy fascination with pineapples and has worse chat-up lines than I do.  His misguided notion of falling in love with the first woman he sees in a bar turns out rather well given the circumstances when he runs into a female drug runner.  And then there’s 663, a cop who is so much in denial about his heartbreak he seems to believe instead that the inanimate objects in his flat are unhappy, and proceeds to attempt to cheer them up.  But it’s the pixie-like Faye that wins the show.  She is seen eyeing up 663 in a series of shots and eventually hatches a plan to visit his flat while he’s not there.  While there, she changes his toiletries, waters his plants, changes his fish and buys him new stuffed toys – all of which goes over 663’s oblivious head.  Faye Wong plays the part of the smitten but kooky Faye to understated perfection, from her “measuring up” of 663’s ex-girlfriend to the delights of finding one of his hairs in his unmade bed.  In the cold light of day she is a devious, manipulative cow who shows probably every sign of being a psychotic stalker, even going as far as to drug 663’s water, but it’s impossible not to get swept up in her childlike joy and genuine good nature. 

As with most Wong Kar-Wai films, the soundtrack is as important as any other aspect, and Chungking Express has some great tunes.  The one that everyone always remembers is The Mamas & The Papas’ “California Dreamin’”, but also worth mentioning are Dennis Brown’s “Things in Life” all through the first story, Dinah Washington’s “What a Difference a Day Made” in the steamy scene with 663’s soon-to-be-ex-girlfriend and Faye Wong’s Cantonese language version of the Cranberries’ “Dreams”.

Faye finds a suspect hair

I’ve said it a million times, but it bears repeating: if you are any kind of fan of cinema and you haven’t seen Chungking Express, you really should make it a priority; and if you’re a fan of Hong Kong cinema and haven’t seen it, then there’s really no excuse.  It’s a joy to watch (and rewatch) and although it was meant to be a lesser film in Wong’s oeuvre, I’d choose this in preference to one of his more serious films any day.

The Blu-ray disc from Artificial Eye is a Godsend for fans in this country having had to put up with the crappy Tartan VHS-port for so long.  Although the film itself is deliberately a bit gritty and grainy, the upgrade is quite noticeable.  So while the visuals won’t blow you away, certain shots (like He Quwu’s birthday run in the rain) do look fantastic. 

There are only a couple of proper extras though. First of all we get the now-obligatory introduction from Hong Kong cinema expert Quentin Tarrantino, who thankfully graces yet another home cinema release with his necessary and important presence.  Personally, I was thinking of giving this release a miss until I saw his name on the box, and his endorsement of the product meant I was safe hands and ensured that I was not wasting my money.

Actually, I never bothered watching it, me being the kind of person who doesn’t give a damn what Tarrantino has to say on the movie.

Thankfully, the other two main extras are a little better.  The best one is the interview with Wong Kar-Wai, which is surprisingly enlightening given its all-too-brief running time.  He talks about Faye’s unpredictable style of acting and how it was throwing Tony Leung off his game, leading the latter to change his approch to acting forever (and I suppose Wong should know, having cast him a few times since).   We get some deleted scenes in this segment too, which are pretty fascinating for fans.  The real gem, though, is Wong claiming (probably truthfully) that they shot the whole film on location in Hong Kong without permission from the authorities.

Cinematographer Christopher Doyle also gets a short featurette, going through some of the locations used in the film.  I’m not entirely sure when this was filmed, but it’s quite depressing that almost all of the locations are now gone or changed forever.  The Midnight Express is still there, but I wouldn’t have recognised it f I’d walked past it.  Doyle takes us to the bar where Takeshi Kaneshiro meets Brigitte Lin, and this too has been changed beyond recognition.  He even disturbs a party of young ladies having a drink at a table, telling them it was where the jukebox used to be.  His passion for filmmaking is much in evidence, commenting on filming the ever-changing urban landscape: “do it now or you’ll never get the opportunity again”.  After watching this short piece, it’s easy to see what he means.

The rest of the extras is just filler: a couple of text-based biogs and a trailer.  But while the disc is nothing to write home about, the film itself is well worth the price.

Screenshots from standard definition source.

Mr Vampire III (1987) February 2, 2009

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

Director: Ricky Lau  Main cast: Lam Ching-Ying; Richard Ng; Billy Lau  Territory: Hong Kong

A charlatan Taoist priest (Richard Ng) uses a couple of “stooge” ghosts to con the locals with his ghostbusting ability.  Encountering a town where the population are living in fear of a gang of supernatural bandits, he encounters the real deal in Uncle Nine (Lam Ching-Ying – as if there could be another!) and gets embroiled in their struggle against the black magic foes.

Firstly, and this needs to be mentioned above everything else, there are precisely zero vampires in Mr Vampire III.  Not one.  If I’d known this at the start, I wouldn’t have been wondering when the hopping undead were going to show up.  Mr Vampire III is instead a ghost story/black magic comedy as separate from the second instalment as the disappointing Mr Vampire II was from the original.  Realising that the modern day setting of the first sequel didn’t really work, this film is in more familiar territory in the vague and unspecific period setting of the first film. 

I was struck by an uneasy sense of deja vu at the start of the movie that eventually clicked – the idea of a conman using friendly ghosts to hustle the general population is similar to the premise of Peter Jackson’s film The Frighteners.  It would be nice to think that Jackson took inspiration from this movie for his 1996 horror/comedy, but I strongly suspect all similarities are purely coincidental. 

Mr Vampire 3

The pace of Mr Vampire III can only be described as frantic to the point of chaos.  The film goes from action setpiece to farcical setpiece and back again without a pause for breath, and this works against the film quite a lot.  I’m not entirely sure the reason for the bandits’ presence or origin is ever even mentioned, let alone explained.  But why have exposition scenes when you can have lightly fried ghosts with dripping eyeballs and Richard Ng cavorting comically in the nude (again)?

Not that it doesn’t have some merit.  Some of the comedy takes you unawares sometimes and you can’t help but laugh, and some of the supernatural effects add some atmosphere.  The comedy is pretty lowbrow as expected (let’s face it, any film with Billy Lau in it is bound to be lowbrow) and includes a fair bit of invisible-entities-manipulating-the-real-world shenanigans a la Where’s Officer Tuba? and The Dead and the Deadly et al, but Richard Ng is generally pretty watchable.  Like other entries in the series, events have a predictable knack of going wrong, and the formula looks pretty tired by now.  You can pretty much foresee the exact moment a Taoist spell is going to fall off a spirit with disastrous consequences or that someone’s bright idea is going to end up in mayhem.

As with most films about Chinese myth and legend, some knowledge of the relevant folklore helps unfurrow the brow a little.  It’s pretty much fair to say that if you don’t know what makes Chinese ghosts visible or imprisoned or how to send real-world items into the land of the dead, you’re going to find it pretty tough going.  Mr Vampire III works on a purely popcorn level but is not comparable to the classic first film, and can’t really be called horror despite some frequent and surprisingly gory effects.  The only horror for me was the dawning realisation that I know Richard Ng’s arse better than I know my own.  Now that’s scary.

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