jump to navigation

The Quiet Duel (1949) October 19, 2010

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Romance, 1940s films , add a comment

Director: Akira Kurosawa  Starring: Toshiro Mifune; Takashi Shimura; Noriko Sengoku; Miki Sanjo  Territory: Japan

During the Second World War, doctor Kyoji (Mifune) contracts syphilis from an irresponsible patient while performing an operation.  After the war, while working in his father’s (Shimura) clinic, he is forced to give up the love of his life to shield her from the disease.

The Quiet Duel (also known as The Silent Duel) is a heavy drama about self-sacrifice and Mifune’s first bona-fide top billing in a Kurosawa film (a note of pure trivia: I realised while I was watching this that both Mifune’s first and last lead roles in a Kurosawa film were as doctors).  The problem is that it’s sandwiched between two far better films (Drunken Angel and Stray Dog) in my opinion.  However, there is a lot to like in here.  The inclusion of Shimura as Kyoji’s father is perhaps an inevitable one following their teaming in Drunken Angel, but the pair do work incredibly well together.  One scene, in which they attempt to have a chat and a smoke together is particularly effective and touching.  The film does tend to rely on melodrama at times, but the characters are all well-drawn and compelling enough to make you wish for a happy ending, even if you sense that one isn’t terribly likely.


I have to admit that I thought that syphilis was pretty much beaten by the time this film was made, but a little research shows that the film’s premise is plausible if you assume that penicillin wasn’t as readily available in post-war Japan as it was in the west.  Although Kurosawa wasn’t quite the master he would become a little later in his career, there are some nice touches of atmosphere here, as well as his trademark weather shots.  The film even starts in the rain, but Kurosawa uses weather phenomenon throughout the film to good effect.

Thinking back on the film now a week after viewing it, I feel The Quiet Duel is definitely deeper than it first appears, and Mifune’s soul-searching speech towards the film’s climax is amazingly frank for the period.  I believe that if Kurosawa had attempted the project even twelve months later than he did, he would have nailed it.  As it is, it’s good, but he missed a timeless classic by that much.

My Sassy Girl (2001) July 22, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Comedy, Romance , 4 comments

Director: Kwak Jae-yong  Main cast: Jun Ji-hyun; Cha Tae-hyun  Territory: South Korea

Gyeun-woo (Cha Tae-hyun) saves the life of an inebriated girl (Jun Ji-hyun) in a subway station and subsequently finds himself looking after her for the night as she is incapable of any actions beyond vomiting and losing consciousness.  In the aftermath of a disastrous night that sees him wrongly arrested for taking advantage of the girl in a motel room, she arranges a meeting with Gyeun-woo.  He discovers that the girl is bossy, opinionated and dangerously unstable.  Nevertheless, the unlikely couple strike up a genuine relationship, braving parental disapproval, anti-social behaviour, the South Korean army and high-heel humiliation…

My Sassy Girl (the literal title of which is That Bizarre Girl – a title that suits the film much better) was a phenomenal hit all through Asia back in 2001, spawning a Japanese TV series, the inevitable and almost universally hated US remake and even a Bollywood version.  Typically, I’m probably the last person who will ever review it.  The genesis of the film is quite original – it’s based on a true story where the boy posted several articles online about the girl (who is never mentioned by name, but is understood to have had some input into the creative process), who then turned their experiences into a novel.  The rights for the novel were then bought and this event is even mentioned in the movie, which seems a little weird.

 My Sassy Girl

There is a lot to like in the movie, but it strikes me now that the film is probably funnier when looking back on it rather than when you’re watching it.  There are several comic setpieces, some of which are funnier and more believable than others, but watching Gyeun-woo squirm his way from one impossible situation to another surprisingly never wears thin.  The two leads pretty much have the film to themselves and both do a good job.  I’ve not seen Cha Tae-hyun in anything before, but Jun Ji-hyun will probably be familiar to most readers (and was in the romantic time-travel movie Il Mare).  She does put a lot into the film and it’s not surprising she received such praise for the role.

Although narrated by Gyeun-woo, the film is all about the girl.  Not to put too fine a point on it, she’s violent and extremely unpredictable.  In the real world, it’s hard to believe anyone would put up with such behaviour for so long, but Gyeun-woo takes it all with the grim good-naturedness of the truly besotted.  I’m not sure how true to life the girl’s character is, but she certainly crosses the line of acceptable behaviour and lost my sympathy a number of times.  Nevertheless, if you take it all on face value, it even becomes funny seeing her repeatedly slapping Gyeun-woo around the face, strange as it seems.

The film is split into two halves documenting the phases of their relationship.  This is all well and good, and if the film ended at the end of the second half, it would have made for quite a satisfying movie.  However, there follows a section called “overtime” and this is where I feel the film falls flat on its face.  Introducing a sci-fi element is one thing, but to then tack on an obviously fake and implausible ending is several steps too far.  It’s quite clear even if you don’t know the real story what will happen and how the story should end.  However, probably out of fear of acceptance with audiences, the film refuses to accept it.  It’s actually a great shame that they slapped such a ridiculous ending on what would have been a great movie, but I guess the box-office returns speak for themselves and I’m in a minority.

Il Mare (2000) May 9, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Fantasy, Romance, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Lee Hyun-seung  Main cast: Lee Jung-Jae; Jun Ji-hyun  Territory: South Korea

Architect Sung-hyun (Lee Jung-Jae) moves into a house on the beachfront and is surprised to receive post from the previous tenant, especially when he’s told that he’s the first person to live there.  It turns out that the mailbox at the bottom of the house’s path is a time-travel device and that he can exchange post with the house’s future tenant Eun-joo (Jun Ji-hyun), a pretty voice actor living two years in the future.  The two begin a romance by post, daydreaming about each other and hoping to meet when they can sort out the time difference problem.

I’m quite aware that there have been a lot of romantic films on Heroes of the East of late (something that will probably continue a little while longer at least) and I’ve no idea why.  Maybe I’m sickening for something.  Anyhow, Il Mare (which means The Sea, incidentally) is a light bit of fluff that nevertheless has a tendency to do your head in when you try to follow the film’s needfully convoluted logic.  It’s true of a lot of time travel movies, or movies that have a non-linear narrative – you can often find yourself concentrating so hard on “when” things are taking place that you miss important details.

Il Mare 

The would-be loving couple are your usual pretty young twenty-somethings, but are likeable enough.  It sounds to me that their romance (which generally consists of giving each other playful activities to do) is pretty much ideal.  They never meet, hence never quarrel, get bored or find themselves woefully incompatible with each other, which tends to happen when people actually have to see each other face to face on a regular basis.

The film’s structure is familiar in that there’s a last minute hurdle for the couple to overcome so that they can spend eternity in each other’s arms, although admittedly this one’s a doozy.  Telling you what it is would give the whole game away, but suffice to say the pair want to ruin their idyllic relationship by actually seeing each other in the flesh, and that turns out to be more difficult than they’d bargained for.

The light and fluffy tone of the film is enhanced considerably by a gorgeous jazzy soundtrack and great use of scenery and lighting.  Overall, the film is pleasant, entertaining and occasionally mildly touching, but I suspect it won’t leave you itching to watch it again and again.  I was surprised to discover this was later remade in the US as The Lake House with none other than Keanu Reeves and Sandra Bullock in the lead roles, which seemed unlikely to me given the relatively placid nature of the film. 

One thing that really did spoil the film for me was the Hong Kong “Edko” DVD.  The subtitles are great and are pretty much spot on, but unfortunately cut off the end of the screen if placed only on one line in a lengthy sentence.  This means some lines of dialogue can end up unseen, and this can happen in pivotal moments of the film.  I am unaware of the alternatives, but if you want to see this enjoyable time-passer, I would suggest looking elsewhere.

Bin-jip (3 Iron) (2004) May 1, 2009

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

Director: Kim Ki-duk  Main cast: Jae Hee; Lee Hyun-kyoon; Kwon Hyuk-ho  Territory: South Korea

A young man breaks into houses while their owners are away and uses their amenities, though he also takes the time to fix appliances or do their laundry while he’s there.  One day, while in a supposedly empty house, he finds that he has been secretly watched by one of the house’s occupants, the battered wife of a thuggish businessman.  Without exchanging a word, they escape together and continue the transient life the young man has made for himself. 

It’s probably been noticed by regular readers that Korean films are grossly under-represented at Heroes of the East, and one of the reasons for this has been bad timing with my viewing habits.  However, hopefully this trend will be somewhat reversed in coming months.  And if you’re going to kick off a Korean film binge, I think you could probably do a lot worse than Bin-jip.

Writing a review for this film is next to impossible.  It is an allegory for the Buddhist path to enlightenment, although the film never explicitly states this.  Unless you know this fact (luckily, I was briefed before watching the movie so I had some inside knowledge, for which I am deeply grateful), Bin-jip could be a bit of a head scratcher.  It is divided into three segments, mirroring the three stages on the path to enlightenment, and has almost no dialogue.  In fact, the film’s male protagonist is totally silent, while the female utters one short sentence in the whole film.

Instead of being “difficult”, Bin-jip (which means “empty house” – a much better and more appropriate English title than the one it was given, in my opinion) is surprisingly accessible given the subject matter.  Some of the finer points have gone over my head though.  The male character carries a golf club around with him (hence the English title of the film) and drills a hole in a golf ball so that he can thread a wire through the middle and wrap the wire around a tree, so he can do golfing practice at any time.  However, I’m not sure what is meant when the female character starts to stand in front of his shot, preventing him from playing.  I know I’m missing something fundamentally essential here (especially seeing what happens later) but I can’t put my finger on it. 


The film really comes into its own during the final third, where the young man and his lover achieve Nirvana, while continuing their mundane existence on Earth.   The film’s “punchline” is undeniably cute (in every sense of the word) and will leave a smile on the face of anyone who’s paid the slightest bit of attention during the film’s 80-odd minute running time. 

The philosophical journey is the foundation of the film, but that falls some way outside the scope of a usual review on here (Oily Maniac is normally more my speed), but with even a little Internet research, anyone born without a Buddhist upbringing can get something from this unique and stirring movie.  Another big thumbs-up from me.

One final note: I don’t normally mention home format versions of films if I can help it, but I’ll make an exception for this one.  The UK disc has a fantastic anamorphic transfer (which shows the film’s exquisite camerawork to great effect) but precisely bugger all in the way of extras.  I mention this because I learned during the writing of this review that the US disc has a director’s commentary – something that this film is screaming out for.  Although it will cost a lot more than the UK disc, I think it might be an idea looking further afield for this one.

My Blueberry Nights (2007) March 29, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Drama, Romance, 2000s films , add a comment

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Norah Jones; Jude Law; Natalie Portman; David Strathairn; Rachel Weisz  Territory: Hong Kong

Elizabeth (Norah Jones) is splitting up with her boyfriend and hands his house keys to New York cafe owner Jeremy (Jude Law), knowing her ex-lover to be a patron of the establishment and hoping to run into him to smooth things over.  When it becomes apparent that he’s not going to retrieve his keys, she forms a friendship with Jeremy over blueberry pie before taking a journey of discovery across the United States.

I had a lot of doubts about this one – could Wong Kar-Wai’s style travel to an English speaking world and still be noticeably his film?  The answer, whether you like the film or not, is undeniably yes.  I was really worried that the principal cast would end up producing something that would look like a parody of a Wong Kar-Wai film, but as soon as Jude Law produces his jar full of keys which have been left by lost loves, never to be picked up by their other halves, and can recall the story behind each key, I knew I was in safe hands.

My Blueberry Nights - Norah Jones 

My Blueberry Nights is apparently adapted from an excised chapter from In the Mood for Love (and that bloody theme tune pops up again in harmonica form) and transplanted into the USA.  The heartbroken Elizabeth decides to take a trip across to the other side of the street by the longest route possible – all across America – and along the way encounters a collection of emotional screw-ups including an alcoholic cop (David Strathairn) desperately trying to recapture his estranged wife (a surprisingly slutty-looking Rachel Weisz) and a broke poker hustler (Natalie Portman).  These encounters help Elizabeth deal with her own problems for her eventual return to the Big Apple.  Meanwhile, she writes to the increasingly infatuated Jeremy on a regular basis, who attempts to locate Elizabeth by contacting every Memphis Bar & Grill in the state.  In one sublime Wong Kar-Wai moment, he reaches an Elizabeth and starts spouting his happiness at tracking her down even though he knows it’s not the same Elizabeth he’s falling for. 

The tone for the film is usually very sombre, and the Officer Copeland sub story is particularly grim.  In that way, casual viewers are probably in for quite a surprise if they’re expecting light fluff.  After all, who would expect Norah Jones to start out in such a serious piece?  No matter what you think of Wong Kar-Wai or his films, I think it’s blindingly obvious that he can either spot acting talent a mile off or he knows how to get the best performance out of practically anybody, as Jones looks natural and is utterly convincing as Elizabeth.  Apparently, Jones turned up for a meeting with Wong assuming he wanted her to do some music for the film, only to be asked if she wanted to act.  Furthermore, knowing that she had never acted before, he instructed her not to take acting lessons.

Norah Jones and Natalie Portman in bed together - there IS a God!

For the first time since Wong Kar-Wai’s debut, cinematographer Christopher Doyle is not involved (he was unavailable), which another reason why I feared that this film may end up looking nothing like a Wong Kar-Wai film.  However, Darius Khondji does a fine job, even though it feels as if he’s deliberately mimicking Doyle’s style.  It perhaps doesn’t help that when asked about the difference between Doyle and Khondji, all Wong had to say on the matter was that while Doyle doesn’t care about food, but Khondji was always eating.

While My Blueberry Nights sometimes feels like retreading old ground, the film is far from the disaster I was dreading, and wherever Wong goes next should be interesting. 

Well, that’s all from me on Wong Kar-Wai for now.  Thanks to everyone who’s been reading all my thoughts on his films, and I hope I’ve encouraged one or two readers to check out his films.  

2046 (2004) March 25, 2009

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

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Zhang Zi-Yi; Faye Wong; Gong Li  Territory: Hong Kong

Following the events of In the Mood for Love, an emotionally bankrupt Chow Ho-Wan (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) flits from one casual relationship to another, always thinking of his lost love, Su Li-Zhen.  He now writes science fiction and steamy erotica for newspapers as well as the occasional martial arts epic, and is preoccupied with the future world of 2046 where one can recover lost memories.

I think you would have gotten superb odds if you’d approached a Chinese bookmaker in the nineties and said you wanted to bet that Wong Kar-Wai would one day do a sequel to Days of Being Wild incorporating androids and sci-fi elements.  So while we’re all kicking ourselves at that particular missed opportunity, let’s look at the film on it’s own merits.  2046 is without a doubt Wong Kar-Wai’s most ambitious and expensive looking Hong Kong production, and probably about as complex as he’s gotten, too.  It’s easy to forget that his films are generally no longer than about 95 minutes long as he tends to pack a lot into a relatively short running time, but this one runs at about two hours’ and seems positively titanic.

2046 - Leung and Zhang 

In the Mood for Love’s Chow is now a heartbroken man, and personally I found him a lot more interesting this time out.  He intends to take over apartment number 2046 in a local hotel (the room number he occupied in In the Mood for Love where he wrote his stories with Su Li-Zhen) but ends up moving in next door at 2047.  From there, he observes the female occupants of 2046 starting with Miss Wang (Faye Wong) who is learning Japanese for her boyfriend, despite her father’s disapproval of the match.  Next to occupy 2046 is Bai Ling (Zhang Zi-Yi), a party girl who falls for Chow after their casual relationship develops into something more emotional – if only from her point of view.

The plot meanders quite a bit, as you might expect, with various characters drifting in and out of the story.  But by and large, 2046 is not that difficult to follow if you’re paying attention (not unlike Ashes of Time, in fact) and the inclusion of other characters gives the film more space.  Leung Fung-Ying (aka Mimi/Lulu) (Carina Lau) returns from Days of Being Wild and talks to Chow about Yuddy.  Ping (Siu Ping-Lam) is still around and up to no good. 

But the new ladies in Chow’s life add the most colour.  Zhang Zi-Yi is the most surprising here, and she shows that she really can act.  But then Wong Kar-Wai always has been able to get great performances out of his cast.  Black Spider (Gong Li), on the other hand, feels like one lady too many, and for some reason I never really connect with her story, despite it being really quite important to Chow’s character (I’m not going to spoil it for those who haven’t seen the film, just take my word for it).  The women of 2046 are stunningly beautiful (again, apart from Gong Li, who looks uncharacteristically unglamorous) and shot amazingly.  Zhang Zi-Yi in particular is jaw-droppingly gorgeous, and the scene where Faye Wong is pacing her room repeating Japanese phrases to herself is (and I know I’m going to sound Tarantino-esque by saying this) erotically charged and the one scene that has always stayed in my memory.

2046 - Faye Wong 

The visual style of the film is also quite bold.  The sixties sets are not much different from those in In the Mood for Love, but the futuristic settings of the 2046 world are a great mixture of retro-futuristic kitsch and stark realism.  Wong has decided, wisely, to use more than one piece of music throughout the film, a decision that made me breathe a huge sigh of relief.  Even if In the Mood for Love was not a true sequel to Days of Being Wild, 2046 is undoubtedly connected to both films by theme, character and setting.  The “big clock” motif that permeated the other films is gone, but replaced with a multitude of mirrors which has probably provoked great debate amongst fans. 

Although I feel that 2046 is a solid film, there’s no escaping the feeling that it’s always going to play second fiddle to the film that preceded it.  Which is odd, as this is easily the more challenging, adventurous and arguably the more original of the two films.  It certainly delivers more the more you watch it, which is something I can’t honestly say about In the Mood for Love.  Furthermore, the return of the film-noir voiceover monologues is welcome despite the device seeming just a tad clichéd now.  Somehow, though, I suspect that Wong could have trimmed it a little and made the result more wieldy.

In the Mood for Love (2000) March 12, 2009

Posted by Cal in : Romance, 2000s films , 6 comments

Director: Wong Kar-Wai  Main Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai; Maggie Cheung  Territory: Hong Kong

Newspaper writer Chow (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) meets Secretary Su (Maggie Cheung).  Both are lonely as their spouses are frequently working abroad and supposedly having an affair, so they get together to be surrogate partners.  This sparks an inevitable feeling of kindred spirits and the first flashes of romance between them.  The question is: will they give in to their feelings for each other, or will they do the honourable thing?

I’m well aware of how utterly adored In the Mood for Love is, being probably the most well known of all of Wong Kar-Wai’s films, especially overseas (i.e. here).  But I didn’t like it on the first viewing and now, on third viewing, and in context with his other work, I’m finally convinced I’m never going to like it.  In fact, I’m quite sure I’ve liked it less and less with each subsequent viewing.

Before going into details, a little more about the plot.  Well, this being a Wong Kar-Wai film, there isn’t a plot as such, but the film focuses solely on the two would-be lovers.  There isn’t any great surprise there, but gone are the film-noir voice-overs to let us know what they are thinking.  This isn’t a bad thing, actually, in retrospect, as when they reappear in the sequel you realise it was becoming quite a clichéd device anyway.  However, what now happens is you get long periods of silence that feel quite uncomfortable.  According to Maggie Cheung, the plot of the movie was left on the cutting room floor while what remains is hints and insinuation.  Again, a nice idea in theory, but I don’t really think the remaining material stood on its own merits. 

In the Mood for Love 

So, it’s vague.  Very vague.  Which I can handle.  I can even handle the deliberate slow pacing (something that I’m appreciating as I get older).  That does not bother me.  What does is a multitude of things.  Firstly, I never really buy into the characters and I’m confused as to whether Chow and Su’s respective partners are having an affair with each other or whether it’s just a co-incidence that they’re both absent.  I’m not sure Mrs Chow even is having an affair, let alone Mr Chan.  I’m sure that’s part of the point, but the idea of infidelity just comes out of nowhere in the movie with Chow practicing with Su how to handle the confrontation when and if it happens.  Next up, Wong’s sense of using music seems to have deserted him completely.  The (presumably original) theme tune is good, but is used throughout the film whenever something happens (or, indeed, doesn’t happen) between the characters.  It gets old pretty quickly, especially when you’ve already watched the film a couple of times.  Finally, and most unforgivably, the end is blatantly recycled from his previous movie Happy Together.  Seriously, substitute a lighthouse at the end of the world with Angkor Wat and replace the friend with one of the central characters and it’s virtually identical.  I’m amazed more people haven’t actually noticed this, and can only assume they haven’t seen the earlier film.  I’m pretty sure the Cannes crowd wouldn’t have seen it anyway (which is their loss).

So griping over (for now), even I have admit there are a few highlights.  The scene where the couple are chatting with the pretence of buying presents for their spouses and then admitting to each other that their partners already own the discussed items and admitting that they knew each other’s spouse already has the item is great, as is the scene where Su is essentially trapped in Chow’s apartment overnight because she can’t get out without being spotted my their Mahjong playing neighbours.  Also of note is little scene where the tenants are cooing over a new rice cooker which is quite amusing, and the only obviously light touch to the movie.  On the photography side of things, Christopher Doyle’s style seems a little reigned in for this one.  By that, I mean he does a splendid job, naturally, but he isn’t as “obvious” or showy as he can be, and that does suit the piece well, I freely admit.

The whole Days of Being Wild connection is often talked about, and rightly so.  It appears to be a fact that Maggie Cheung was pestering Wong for more detail on her character and that Wong then told her it was Su Li-Zhen – the character she played in that film – perhaps just to shut her up.  Whether it was Wong’s intention to make a sequel is unclear, but the character does not seem to bear any resemblance from the one she played in the first film, and I’ve now seen them close enough together to be able to judge.  Of course, the setting is a couple of years after Days, so it’s possible she could have changed.  Of course, it does tidy up the ending where Tony Leung is getting ready to go out, so for that reason alone, it’s best to think of this as a true sequel.  And of course, the return of the now-infamous “really big clocks” helps!

So there we have it.  A lot of people’s favourite Wong Kar-Wai film.  Hell, a lot of people’s favourite film of all time.  And I’ve just gone and trashed it.  And what’s more, I’m supposed to be a fan of the man!  I hope what I’ve written hasn’t pissed too many people off, and I hope I’ve made a good case as to why I think it’s the most disappointing Hong Kong film he’s ever made (As Tears Go By can be forgiven under the circumstances).  But I figure I’m allowed the odd difference of opinion on classic films every once in a while.  I really wish it wasn’t so, but this is one Wong Kar-Wai film I can live without.

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!

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…

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.

Login     Film Journal Home     Support Forums           Journal Rating: 5/5 (10)