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Triple Cross (1992) August 30, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Action, Thriller, 1990s films , add a comment

Director: Kinji Fukasaku  Starring: Kenichi Hagiwara; Kazuya Kimura; Keiko Oginome; Sonny Chiba  Territory: Japan

Not to be confused with the Cynthia Rothrock movie of the same name (incidentally one of the worst films I’ve ever had the misfortune to watch), this tale of a heist gone wrong comes from Kinji Fukasaku (who would go on to direct Battle Royale). 

After robbing the takings from a top hotel, a trio of older crooks and their young upstart protégé are disappointed that their take is quite a lot less than they expected.  While Kanzaki (Kenichi Hagiwara), Imura (Renji Ishibashi) and Shiba (Sonny Chiba) take the loss philosophically, Kadomachi (Kazuya Kimura) is furious and attempts to steal the money for himself.  Thus begins a lethal chase between Kanzaki and the young metal-obsessed hothead.

Triple Cross
Triple Cross plays slightly like a Japanese version of a Ringo Lam movie.  The movie’s anti-heroes are equally treated with no clear-cut protagonist, and the generation gap between the criminals is played up by using different musical styles in the soundtrack.  The cast is solid, with Chiba excellent as aging playboy Shiba with his much younger lover.  The fame-hungry Mai (Keiko Oginome) two-times Shiba with Kadomachi and adds a valuable wildcard to the mix.

For all its competency (and a brilliantly lethal looking car chase), Triple Cross is never more than adequate.  It has all the action, twists and gunplay you could care for in films of this type, and the decision to eschew the normal central or sympathetic character is a noble one.  But there are better examples of its kind around, particularly in the films of the aforementioned Ringo Lam.  But if you’re hankering for an action thriller with plenty of twists and turns, you can do far worse.

Operation Condor: Armour of God 2 (1991) June 7, 2010

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

Director: Jackie Chan  Starring: Jackie Chan; Carol “Do Do” Cheng; Eva Cobo De Garcia; Ikeda Shoko  Territory: Hong Kong

Despite failing miserably to retrieve the Armour of God from those wacky European monks in Armour of God, the Baron employs Condor (Jackie Chan) again – this time to liberate a cache of Nazi gold hidden in the Sahara desert since the end of World War 2.  However, various parties (including one of the original Nazis from the site and his henchmen) want it for themselves.  This time around, Condor is accompanied by three lovely ladies (Carol Cheng, Eva Cobo De Garcia and Ikeda Shoko), but instead of helping our intrepid adventurer, they often end up complicating matters…

Operation Condor was the sequel to 1987’s hugely successful Armour of God, although it the time-honoured tradition of western stupidity, it is often nowadays marketed the other way around.  After a decade of being able to take as much time and money as he liked to make his movies, Chan tops his directing career with what was, at the time, the most expensive Hong Kong movie ever made.  You probably wouldn’t be able to guess that fact now, as the effects and budget seem merely competent rather than outstanding, but it looked pretty darn spiffy at the time, I can tell you.  Sadly, after this film someone at Golden Harvest must have realised that they could make several times as much money if they made a Jackie Chan picture with a fraction of the budget and with more stringent time limits, and things were never quite the same again. 

So Operation Condor is the last of those Jackie Chan films that are just a complete joy to watch from start to finish (with one small exception that I’ll come to later).  It’s funny, exciting, and Chan puts on a hell of a show with his unique physical ability.  It’s been said before (mainly by myself) but it seems amazing that someone actually pulled off some of the feats Chan attempts, and in today’s CGI world it seems unlikely we will ever see the like of what’s put up on the screen here.

Operation Condor

The excellently choreographed action comedy sequences are fantastically intricate – from the adversary that keeps accidentally switching the lights on and off in Elsa’s house when attacked by Jackie all the way to the now-infamous Keaton-esque wind tunnel sequence that ends the movie.  The last fifteen minutes or so of Operation Condor really need to be seen to be believed, and the knockabout sight gags are definitely among the best ever put on the screen.

The supporting cast pretty much consists of Cheng, De Garcia and Shoko running around making things difficult for Jackie.  Their obvious dim-wittedness was a contentious issue with some at the time, but taken at face value, some of their skits are still pretty funny.  I think it was Bey Logan who described their antics as “three beauties in search of a brain”, and I think he pretty much hit the nail on the head with that one.  No, the only thing I have trouble with now in this movie is the inclusion of a “cute baby in peril” sequence tacked on to the motorbike chase section.  It’s corny, contrived and cringeworthy, but only lasts for about a minute.

Operation Condor isn’t a terribly sophisticated movie by today’s standards – one feels you can pick rather large holes in the plot without too much effort – but for sheer fun, there are few movies that can hold a candle to it.  And if I can chuckle away at it again now, nearly two decades after it was released, then that can’t be all bad, can it?  One curious thing I did notice: the Baron hired Jackie to collect the gems at the start of the movie and also hired Jackie to collect the pieces of the Armour of God from the first movie.  Jackie failed both times to bring back the goods.  Why the hell does he keep hiring him?  And what do you think his reaction would have been at what happened at the end of this film?  I guess we’ll never know.  Unless of course Chan finally decides to make Armour of God 3: Chinese Zodiac like he’s been promising for years.  Now, wouldn’t that be something?

One final word on the DVD releases of this film.  Obviously, the western release is to be avoided at all costs (no Cantonese track, and some versions are edited down).  The Hong Kong Mega Star release is awful (non anamorphic, grotty, lousy subs – just horrible).  I picked up the Korean Fortune Star release a year or so ago, and I’ve just got around to watching it.  It’s fabulous!  Properly remastered, anamorphic and with near-perfect subs.  It makes all the difference.  If you don’t own this slice of Hong Kong brilliance, you really should do. 

Operation Scorpio (1992) April 19, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Action, 1990s films , 2 comments

Director: David Lai  Main cast: Chin Kar-Lok; Kim Won-Jin; Lau Kar-Leung Frankie Chan Chi-Leung  Territory: Hong Kong

Fai Yuk-Su (Chin Kar-Lok) dreams of being a hero while wasting his education drawing comic books.  When he runs into Jade (May Lo), an enslaved maid for the evil Wong, he gets his opportunity.  However, Wong has a son with extraordinary abilities (Kim Won-Jin) and so Fai must find a master or two to save the girl and be the hero he always dreamed of…

I’ve only seen a couple of movies with Chin Kar-Lok as the lead, and none of them are bad films.  But for whatever reason, he never really made it as a leading man, and with this one, it’s easy to see why: he’s upstaged by two of his co-stars.  Kim Won-Jin plays the Scorpion-like son of Wong with the Flock of Seagulls hairstyle and blows the competition away…almost.  And although Lau Kar-Leung was advancing in years, he has the presence and moves he always had.  Really, how could Chin Kar-Lok contend with such competition?

Operation Scorpio is one of those films from the nineties that’s often talked about fondly by fans.  It’s close enough to the eighties to have that distinctive hyperkinetic feel to the action scenes that is so well loved.  However, the story is quite unengaging and flies too close to Pedicab Driver to be coincidental and has a similar period setting.  There also seems a lot of fluff to the film, and especially annoying is the inclusion of not one but two musical montages.  Another staple of kung fu cinema is the training element – where an inexperienced but enthusiastic pupil is honed into a killing machine.  Operation Scorpio resurrects this practice and the results are somewhat predictable, despite Fai training under two masters. 

Operation Scorpio

It’s lucky then that the action scenes are so good, although there is quite a lot of wirework mixed in with the more realistic style of fighting.  Don’t get me wrong, wire-fu has its place when done well, but personally I like to have a film that fits either in one camp or the other and this is occasionally too exaggerated and unrealistic for its own good.  But Kim Won-Jin is truly a spectacle, and Lau Kar-Leung is also fantastic.  When they face off at the end it’s all terribly exciting, but unfortunately Lau has to step aside to let Chin save the day, and I can’t be the only one who wanted to see the Shaw Brothers star go all the way with Kim.

Although it falls short of its potential, Operation Scorpio is still an enjoyable romp and shows that scene-stealing bad guys wasn’t invented by SPL.  If you’re a fan of Hong Kong action films from this era you’ve probably already seen this, but if not, it’s certainly worth a viewing.

This movie was released in the UK under the title The Scorpion King, which of course meant it often got confused with that Mummy spin-off thing.  I have a suspicion this was a (bad) decision of the late, lamented Hong Kong Legends label as I can’t for the life of me remember it going by that name before then, but it’s a moot point now I suppose. 

Days of Being Wild (1990) March 7, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Romance, 1990s films , add a comment

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

Days of Being WildI don’t know what Wong Kar-Wai was up to in the years between 1988’s As Tears Go By and this, his second film, but Days of Being Wild is certainly a much more accomplished piece of work than his debut.

Following the life of Yuddy (Leslie Cheung), a hedonistic, chauvinistic young man searching for his mother, the film is fully stocked with intriguing characters.  On the face of it, Yuddy is about as unsympathetic as it goes – he has a succession of women and comes from the “treat ‘em mean, keep ‘em keen” school of thought, but he has the odd redeeming quality despite his self-absorption and pretension.  Yuddy likes to think of himself as a bird who only lands once – to die – and so has to keep moving, presumably another reason why he has to keep “loving” as many women as possible.

Days of Being Wild is one of those rare films that pretty much demands a second viewing immediately to gain a better understanding of the themes, relationships and symbolism of the film.  And upon repeat viewings, you really do begin to appreciate what an achievement it really is.  The performances are excellent, and definitely the best I’d seen in a Hong Kong performance up to that time.  Even Jacky Cheung, whose performances vary wildly from downright embarrassing to pretty good, is almost flawless in his delivery.  He plays Yuddy’s best friend, a gawky kid who takes as much light from the charismatic Yuddy as he can, but who is always in his shadow.  He falls for Leung Fung-Ying (Carina Lau), one of Yuddy’s girlfriends, but is too awkward to make a play for her.

Maggie Cheung plays Su Li-Zhen, another of Yuddy’s conquests.  Up to this time, I had only seen her in light comedic roles (such as Jackie Chan’s girlfriend in the Police Story movies) and it was quite a shock to see her in such a weighty role.  Of course, she had already worked on Wong’s previous film (as did a couple of other cast members), but she gives a stellar performance as a woman hooked on Yuddy.  Alongside her is the first of Wong’s anonymous cops, played by Andy Lau.  Lau is well suited to this type of role, and his character is easily the most likeable of the lot, and we want him to end up with the girl.  He dreams of being a sailor, but is tied to his ailing mother and has to put his dream on hold.  After apparently failing to woo Su Li-Zhen, he meets up with Yuddy in the Philippines for the film’s conclusion.

There are three other things that raise Days of Being Wild above its predecessor.  The first is the script.  Believable and unsentimental and short on melodrama, the film moves along at quite a pace, never feeling it necessary to lapse into silent brooding shots of the stars which can sometimes happen on Wong Kar-Wai films.  Secondly, this film marks the start of Christopher Doyle’s tenure as Director of Photography on Wong’s films, and his unique stamp is all over it.  The obvious example is the “big clock” motif that crops up from time to time all the way through the film, which is pretty hard to forget.  Lastly, and I realise I say this about most Wong Kar-Wai films, his use of music the film is superb.  I cannot think of this film without “Always in My Heart” by Los Indios Tabajaras going through my mind, accompanied by those shots of the forest in the Philippines going by from the train.

Days of Being Wild was the first Hong Kong film I saw that struck me as cerebral, and I was surprised that such a film could have been made there.  Of course, these days the territory has “grown up” nicely, and I thought that the film may have aged quite badly in comparison to the latest wave of Hong Kong directors.  In the end, I was very surprised at how much I enjoyed it and found it still relevant.  With all the accusations of Wong Kar-Wai’s supposed pretension, it’s worth noting that the Andy Lau character bursts Yuddy’s bubble when he feeds him the whole “bird without legs” story by telling him “that shit only works on girls”.  The themes of captivity and freedom, choice and rejection are still as sharp as they were when the film was made.  That, along with the truly fantastic performances by the central cast ensure this film should have a place in Hong Kong cinema history.

I find it odd that even now, some people are utterly perplexed at the final scene with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai getting ready to go out from his low-ceilinged bedsit (along with another fantastic piece of music that I’m utterly unable to identify).  Days of Being Wild was to have a sequel, but the relatively low box-office return ruled that out (not unlike what would happen on his next film Ashes of Time).  This sequel was to focus on Leung’s character, so this tacked-on ending does tend to be redundant now.  Unless, of course, you believe this character is Chow Wo-Man, and that Wong made his sequel under the title In The Mood For Love, but that’s a discussion for another time!

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.

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.   

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.

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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