VIFF 2022: Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (Various, 2020)


It’s hard to imagine how long I’ve been talking about the film that would eventually become Septet: The Story of Hong Kong. The first time I tweeted about it appears to have been August of 2017, although that tweet is phrased as a reminder, which means I must have retweeted something about it some time before that point. It’s possible the rumors go as far back as the summer of 2016, shortly after the release of Johnnie To’s feature Three. The story was that To was producing an omnibus film called 8 1/2, with contributions from a who’s who of Hong Kong film legends: Ann Hui, Tsui Hark, Patrick Tam, John Woo, Ringo Lam, Sammo Hung, Yuen Woo-ping, and To himself. Somewhere along the way, Woo dropped out (it’s unclear why, I think I heard there may have been health reasons, but Ringo Lam died in December of 2018 and still managed to finish his section, so I don’t know) and the title was changed to Septet. The film was finally set to premiere at Cannes in 2020, when COVID delayed those plans. It eventually did begin making the festival rounds in the fall of that year (Busan in 2020, then the Hong Kong and Fantasia Film Festivals in 2021). It received a theatrical release in China, Taiwan and Hong Kong earlier this summer, and is now set to play at the Vancouver Film Festival.

The setup is simple enough: each director is given a decade and the films are separated by title cards and arranged chronologically. Together they tell not just the “Story of Hong Kong” but a story of Hong Kong film and the story of themselves, an irreplaceable generation of filmmakers looking back on the place they’ve lived and worked and come to define as much and for as long as any group of filmmakers ever has anywhere in the world. Each of these directors was born between 1945 and 1955. Tsui, Hui, and Lam were key figures in the Hong Kong New Wave; Hung and Yuen revolutionized the period martial arts film, modernizing the tropes established by the Shaw Brothers studio and melding slapstick comedy and outrageous stunt-work into some of the greatest spectacles in movie history; and Lam and To (and of course the absent Woo) were leading exponents of the Heroic Bloodshed genre that did as much as anything to establish Hong Kong cinema as a force in world film culture. Together, these filmmakers have produced some of the most vital art works of the last fifty years.

Watching Septet, I decided to see if I could guess which director was responsible for which segment (the director credits don’t pop up until the end of their short). I’m happy to say that I was right on all seven, which means that perhaps this whole The Chinese Cinema project and the last decade of my film critic life have not been entirely in vain. Some of them were much easier to guess than others, starting with the first one, which begins with the line, “I’m Sammo Hung.” It also stars Hung’s son Timmy, who looks exactly like a skinny version of his father. The short starts us off in the 1950s, at the Peking Opera school where Sammo was a student (along with many other future stars). Timmy plays the teacher, Yu Jim-yuen, a role Sammo himself played in Alex Law and Mabel Cheung’s excellent 1988 film Painted Faces. The genial story of childhood disobedience (whenever their teacher’s back is turned, the kids slack off on their exercises), concludes with Sammo’s punishment (as the eldest student, he’s expected to set an example). Forced to do a handstand for a couple of hours, he finally collapses and cuts his head. Then we cut to the present and a close-up of the scar on Sammo’s head, as he directly addresses the camera to say, “Time flies like an arrow, it only moves forward. The past is but a memory.” Statements which will set the tone for the remainder of the film.

All but one of the shorts to come will feature some kind of a leap in time. The film is of course an exercise in nostalgia, but one which nonetheless unfolds in an eternal present (that’s what film necessarily is: we always experience it now) where past and past-past mingle freely in the memory. Film is a place where a director can make a film where he recreates a moment from his past in which he is scolded by his teacher, and have that teacher be played by his son, such that the son is scolding his own father, who is a child.

Ann Hui’s story begins in the 1960s, following a couple of teachers at a more traditional kind of school, a kind yet ascetic headmaster and a thoughtful and lovely young woman. Then it leaps thirty years into the future (though still thirty years in our past) where we see a class reunion (very Ozuvian this) with the students from the first half now all grown up (in the blink of an edit). The headmaster is still alive, and wistfully recalls the teacher, who has since died. Unrequited emotions surface and may be resolved with a visit to a memorial, where a photo of the teacher lives — she still looks the same as she did 30 years earlier, while everyone else has grown old.

After two tales of school and the relations between students and teachers, Patrick Tam takes us into the 80s (the 70s are skipped, possibly this was Woo’s assignment?), for the first of two stories about late adolescence and the Handover of Hong Kong from the UK to the PRC. Two young people are in love with each other and poetry, but she and her family are emigrating to England sometime after the Joint Declaration, while his is staying behind. Our temporal perspective comes from sometime in the future, in a narration by an older version of the young man (this narration, plus a shot of an airplane flying over the Hong Kong sky, clues us in that this is Tam’s film, being extremely reminiscent of the work of his most accomplished protegé, Wong Kar-wai). The young couple spend one last day together, fighting through their desperate feelings of loss and abandonment and young love, and in the end, our perspective shifts such that it’s the young woman who narrates the conclusion. A joint memory for the time of the Joint Declaration.

The 90s brings us Yuen Woo-ping and the story of an elderly man (played by Yuen Wah, Sammo’s old classmate, now grown old, but not as old as the kids in the first film would have been in the 90s, rather as old as they are now, in the 2020s) and his granddaughter. Her family is moving away too (to Canada), just before the Handover, but she has to stick around with gramps for a few weeks to finish her exams. It’s a sweet story of a generation finding common ground (she helps him learn English and appreciate hamburgers; he teaches her how to defend herself with kung fu). Then she leaves, but returns three years later. He’s become more older, but more Westernized; she’s grown older and more patient, and tells him their family is back to stay. The short’s title is Homecoming, presenting a rather idealized vision of the Handover: people were afraid everything about Hong Kong was going to end. But it didn’t, and many of those who left (including directors like Woo, Lam, Tsui, and Yuen who went to work in Hollywood) came back.

The short for the 2000s, I will admit, was initially the toughest for me to place. But I finally got it and it in retrospect seemed blindingly obvious that it was the work of Johnnie To (a reference to Chasing Dream late in the film didn’t hurt). It’s set almost entirely in a restaurant over the course of a few key moments in the decade. Three young people are debating whether or not to invest in a tech stock. The price keeps going up while they argue, and it seems they’ve missed their opportunity, when all of a sudden it begins to plummet: the beginnings of the dot-com crash. A couple of years later, they have the opportunity to buy an apartment at a discount price, thanks to it being located at one of the centers of the SARS epidemic. They’re ultimately scared off, which an image of a 2000s era Windows screen informs us cost them dearly given the rapid inflation of the value of Hong Kong real estate. Finally, they have a chance to invest in some stocks around the time of the US mortgage crisis. But they accidentally switch the numbers of the stocks they want with the ones for the dishes they want to order (a classic bit of Johnnie To restaurant table-related comic mayhem), only to make money anyway. It turns out that buying stocks at random is just as effective, or more, than researching and debating them. Once again, in a Johnnie To film, chance and fate work in mysterious ways.

Ringo Lam’s film brings us into the present, or at least the present as of when the film was conceived and finished. It’s also the most heart-breaking, made almost unbearably poignant by our knowledge (from the future, which is our present) of the director’s death, which happened almost three years ago now. Simon Yam plays an elderly man who has come back to Hong Kong to visit his son (played by Lam’s own son). He’s lost in contemporary Hong Kong: all the landmarks he remembers (pointedly a movie theatre is as vital as a major industrial pier) have been transformed by time into something more glassy, less real. He holds old pictures up to the present reality; they can’t compare. His past bleeds into his present, reimagining time spent in these spaces with his own father, when he was the younger man, or with his wife. Inevitably, rushing to his family, he encounters an unexpected bus and disappears. Only his phone remains. But we move a while into the future, to see his family giving him a goodbye, scattering his ashes in the sea. His advice — don’t work so much, focus instead on your family and the people you love — reminds us that Lam himself spent more than a decade away from his work in order to spend time with his family, only returning to directing in 2015, once his son was grown. We didn’t get as many great films from him as we might have, but it definitely wasn’t time wasted.

Finally we have Tsui Hark’s contribution, which might be set in our now (2022) which would be the future from the film’s 2020 premiere, or possibly some as yet undefined future of our own as well as the film’s. It’s the funniest and weirdest and boldest of the shorts, as it should be considering Tsui is all of those things and more. Two men are arguing in what appears to be some kind of mental institution. The doctor asks the patient who he is, and he replies “Ann Hui”. When pressed on this (the gender congruity alone seems to belie the factuality of his assertion) he resorts first to “Ringo Lam” and then “Johnnie To” and then back to Ann Hui. After a few minutes of this farce, we pullback behind a mirror to find two doctors observing (played by director Lawrence Ah Mon and icon Lam Suet). They suggest that who we think is who is exactly backwards, part of a kind of therapy for a man who believes he’s a doctor. Then another shift reveals a big crowd behind another window, this one including Tsui himself along with Ann Hui and several other film figures. The tangle of identity: who is watching who, who is the director, who the audience, who exactly is calling the shots here, becomes impossible to sort. It’s the plight of the Hongkonger under the watchful eye of the PRC, as well as of the Hong Kong filmmaker who, like Tsui, strives to work within the censorship codes and regulations of the Mainland government, ostensibly giving them the propaganda they require, while struggling to remain their own, independent (Hongkonger) self. The struggle is real, the silliness, the joy in the jumble of it all, is the wisdom of perspective, of age, of a life lived in a Hong Kong that has changed so much, so wildly, in the span of these seven single lifetimes.

VIFF 2022: King of Wuxia (Lin Jing-jie, 2022)

Joining the ever-expanding pantheon of great Chinese filmmakers given the full-length documentary treatment is King Hu, the man behind many of the most accomplished and influential action films of all-time. But while Johnnie To, Ann Hui, Hou Hsiao-hsien, and Jia Zhangke are still very much alive and working, and thus the films about them all feature extensive interviews with them and footage of them at work (and of course scenes of them drinking and/or singing karaoke), King Hu has been dead for 25 years. Director Lin Jing-jie thus takes an unusual approach: rather than using an interview as the spine of his story, having the director talk us through their life film by film, or big event by big event, he splits King of Wuxia into two parts. The first half, subtitled The Prophet Was Once Here, looks at the run of films Hu made from Come Drink with Me in 1966 through the pair of Legend of the Mountain and Raining in the Mountain in 1979. This is the core of Hu’s career, the masterpieces on which his reputation has been built. The second half, called The Heartbroken Man on the Horizon, takes a more biographical approach, covering Hu’s first days as a 17 year old refugee in Hong Kong in 1949 through his work as an actor in the mid-1950s, then skipping his successful years as a director ahead to the last 15 years or so of his life, marked by emigration to the United States and a series of professional disappointments.

The first section runs just over two hours and features a remarkable cast of talking heads: big directors like John Woo, Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung, and Ann Hui are to be expected, as are appearances from frequent Hu actors Shih Chun, Cheng Pei-pei, and Hsu Feng. But Lin gives just as much attention to less famous names who nonetheless provide some of the most interesting insights to Hu’s work. A pair of Peking Opera actors recreate certain stunts to demonstrate the connection between Hu’s approach to screen fighting and the stage tradition, while two traditional musicians explain the link between Hu’s editing and music. Production designer Huang Mei-ching explains Hu’s exacting and painstaking approach to set decoration and costume design and color and the ways he’d use framing and editing to discover all kind of new and unusual spaces within his sets. Renowned critics like Shu Kei and Peggy Chiao explain all kinds of interesting things about his work, who he was influenced by and what made his films so influential. Everyone talks about how much he loved to fill his shots with smoke. Extensive clips from the movies are studied and used as examples, and also intercut with present-day scenes set in the same locations Hu shot at, with actor Shih Chun wandering around the landscapes, pointing out where they filmed, why Hu chose the locations he did, and how they’ve changed over the past 50 years.

All through the first half of the film, we only ever see Hu himself in still images. But early on in the second there are clips of him speaking about his early life. He was from a wealthy family in Beijing, though as the son of a concubine, he had a lower status than his many half-siblings. Arriving in Hong Kong as the Civil War drew to a close, he worked a variety of odd jobs before finding himself acting in several dozen films from the mid-1950s through early 60s. Most of these are difficult if not impossible to find in the West, so getting to see him act is one of the many pleasures of King of Wuxia. Just before he transitions into directing, however, the film skips ahead to the 1980s, and finds Hu living in Los Angeles, again working odd jobs (writing a magazine column, lecturing at universities) while trying and failing to scrape together film projects. The talking heads include most of the big names from the first half, but the emphasis is more on his circle of friends, including Chung Ling, Hu’s wife at the time (she had written Legend of the Mountain). We get some new insights into how Hu came to leave and/or be fired from the production of Tsui Hark’s The Swordsman in 1990, which is basically the story of the second half of his career in microcosm: his painstaking approach led to extremely long shooting periods for Hong Kong cinema of the time, and he refused to compromise on that, to the displeasure of the money people in charge of the production (how much Tsui did or did not agree with said money people remains an open question).

The final stages of the documentary are heartbreaking, as Hu finally seems to be able to put his dream project, an epic about Chinese laborers in California, into production, with financiers on board, John Woo producing, Sammo Hung choreographing, and Chow Yun-fat starring, only for him to die due to complications during an angioplasty mere weeks before shooting was set to begin. It’s devastating, as are his friends’ and colleagues’ reminiscences of him, clearly still pained by their loss though it’s been 25 years. The most crushing scene, for me at least, comes somewhat earlier, as critic Shu Kei is discussing the commercial failure of Legend of the Mountain, a film that he now understands to be one of Hu’s greatest achievements. The money people pulled the three hour long Legend out of theatres and demanded Hu recut it to mangable length. Shu recalls Hu calling him in, helplessly asking how to do it. He can’t remember what he said (though he does say Tony Rayns cheerfully suggested “you need to cut here and here and here and you don’t need this or that, etc etc”), but he’s overcome with guilt over the fact that he even thought he should be cut at all, to the point that he breaks down in tears. They aren’t the only tears shed in King of Wuxia, but they are the only ones that aren’t necessarily about the person who’s life was cut short, but about the art that we all lost because we weren’t able, or willing, to support it in the way it could and should have been supported.

Inu-Oh (Yuasa Masaaki, 2021)

Yuasa Masaaki continues his winning streak: he’s probably been the best director in the world over the past five years, or at the very least the most productive great director. Since 2017, he has produced three acclaimed TV series (Devilman Crybaby, Japan Sinks 2020, Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken!) along with four feature films: the definitive One Crazy Night romance Night is Short, Walk on Girl, the off-beat Little Mermaid variation Lu Over the Wall, the heart-breaking post-romance Ride Your Wave and now Inu-oh, a medieval rock opera about the power of rock and roll to connect us to our past, find our true selves, and help us overcome our terrible fathers.

Inu-oh begins with the story of Tomo (they’ll be, at various times, “Tomona”, “Tomoichi”, and “Tomoari” throughout the story). As a child, Tomona works with his father diving for treasure lost at sea 600 years ago during the definitive battle between the Taira and Minamoto clans, passed down through history in the Tale of the Heike, a collection of stories about the war that plays a somewhat similar role in Japanese literary history as The Iliad or The Romance of the Three Kingdoms. The Tale of the Heike was compiled in 1371 by Kakuichi, part of a band of traveling blind monks that recited the various tales accompanied by music on the biwa, a lute-like stringed instrument, pretty much just as the Greek bards would have done (and, if he was an actual person, the blind poet Homer himself). What Yuasa’s film, written by Nogi Akiko, asserts is that there were other tales of the Heike, tales which were so powerful in their truth that they were able to magically transform their tellers into the greatest versions of their selves.

Tomona is blinded by buried treasure in an accident which also kills his father. Wandering the countryside, he takes up with the blind monks and over the next decade or so learns the biwa and all the various tales. One day he meets a malformed young masked man (legs too short, one arm way too long, scales for skin, and eyes in the wrong places) who loves music and dance. He’d grown up all but disowned by his father, a dancer of Heike tales in an early form of Noh theatre called sarugaku, made to live and eat with the family dogs. One day, overcome with the spirit of music, he dances and his legs are transformed into normal human limbs. Tomoichi (name changed to reflect his status as a member of the blind monk troupe) deduces that the spirits of the lost Heike soldiers are rewarding the as yet unnamed man for dancing and singing their story. The two then do what comes naturally: form a rhythm and blues band to spread the untold tales of the Heike (whispered to them by the spirits of the dead) far and wide.

The second half of the film is dominated by their music, as Tomoari (a third name, adopted to show their new-found indepence, along with a fluid expression of gender) incants lengthy rock introductions to three spectacular performances by the newly self-christened Inu-Oh, songs and dances which heal his limbs and skin and face. But they run afoul of the shogun, who doesn’t have time for new stories, and especially Inu-oh’s father, who turns out to have been a villain all along, like so many rock and roll dads. It all ends tragically, as a rock opera should. Rock star revolutionaries don’t tend to last long, at least not in that form. They shine bright and either burn out or become something less spectacular (think Ziggy Stardust morphing into the Thin White Duke, or the Wild Mercury Dylan turning into a Regular Dad). Music can keep stories alive, or bring them back from the dead, and it can change people’s lives for better and for worse, but is it enough to sustain them? For that, the maker of Keep Your Hands Off Eizouken! and Inu-oh would seem to suggest we need animated cinema. And I’m not sure he’s wrong.

The Killer (Choi Jaehoon, 2022)

Last night I picked up and started reading the first Jack Reacher book. I saw the first Tom Cruise movie years ago, and liked it well enough, and really enjoyed the Amazon series that premiered on Amazon earlier this year. My edition of the book includes an introduction by author Lee Child, where he describes how he came to be a writer in mid-life and how he designed his project deliberately to run counter to prevailing trends in suspense literature. Specifically, he wanted to make Reacher not a flawed protagonist, haunted by addiction or trauma or moral grayness, not a guy who loses over and over again until he somehow, barely, wins in the end, but rather the biggest, strongest, smartest, most capable person in every situation. He figured that audiences would grow tired of relatable heroes, that we’d much more enjoy seeing the forces of evil get what’s coming to them by a larger than life (literally), hero. I thought about that a lot while watching The Killer, the latest action thriller from Korean star Jang Hyuk.

Jang plays a retired professional assassin (the eponymous killer) who is tasked by his lovely wife with babysitting her friend’s teenage daughter while the two of them (wife and friend) go hang out at a beachside resort for three weeks. Because he’s a pushover, he accepts the job, only for the unfortunate teen to almost immediately fall into the hands of murderous sex traffickers. So he does what he does best: employ his fists, feet, knives, guns, automobiles, sticks, or whatever in tracking down the girl and killing all the bad guys in the way. Many many action scenes follow, a highly competent example of the dominant contemporary mode of action filmmaking outside the Hollywood blockbuster machine: flowing digital cameras in artificial sequence shots; bright colors (golds, neon pinks and greens) contrasting with deep blacks (the hero wears all-black, John Wick-style); reasonably creative choreography emphasizing physical impacts and speed but lacking the inspiration of the Hong Kong filmmakers at their best (no opera acrobatics or ingenious appropriations of found objects and natural environments) performed by competent stunt-people (with Jang apparently doing much of his own stunt-work). Above all the fights emphasize a forward momentum, paralleling Jang’s dogged pursuit of his quest. And, most interestingly, he never appears to get hurt.

For Jang’s killer is very much in the Reacher mold: he is quite obviously better (physically, intellectually, morally) than any of his opponents. This isn’t a crumbling kind of hero, like Mary Elizabeth Winstead in last year’s Kate, taking an unreal amount of abuse but staying the course until her enemy is defeated. Instead, we never believe Jang is in any real peril—our enjoyment of the action scenes comes not from suspense, but from the thrill of watching evil get punished. The only suspense there is in the film is the mystery of why the girl was kidnapped, but we can rest assured Jang will kill his way to a satisfactory answer. It’s not an enlightened approach to moral dilemmas to be sure, and the pacifist in me knows very well that it is not a good thing for individuals to run around murdering people, even if they are for an undoubted fact terrible human beings. But we’ve been living with gray areas in our action fiction for so long: anti-heroes and heroes who can’t win because the system is corrupt, and heroes who cling to a code of honor no longer relevant in our corrupted modern age, and heroes who sacrifice themselves for an infinitesimally small chance at a better tomorrow. Is it so bad to make believe ourselves into an excessively violent yet morally clear world for a little while? Yeah, probably. But it’s fun while it lasts.

New York Ninja (John Liu & Kurtis M. Spieler, 1984/2021)

In 1984, a B level martial arts actor from Taiwan named John Liu, who had starred in a handful of movies in the late 70s for Ng See-yuen, working with choreographers like Yuen Woo-ping and Corey Yuen, directed and starred in a no-budget action film called New York Ninja. The film was never finished: the production company went bankrupt and the film sat in storage for decades without a finished cut, script, or soundtrack. And then the video label Vinegar Syndrome, specialists in the misbegotten genre films of yesteryear, got their hands on the material and commissioned a reconstruction. Kurtis M. Spieler handled the “re-direction” along with the editing, while a cast of 80s luminaries (including Don “The Dragon” Wilson, Ginger Lynn, and Cynthia Rothrock) recorded all new dialogue. The result is a loving recreation of a bit of 1980s ephemera, though not a good movie by any means.

Liu plays the sound tech guy on the three person remote news team (a cameraman and a woman reporter round out the crew) who disguises himself as a ninja to beat up the masked gangs who terrorize New York after one of them murders his pregnant wife. The gangs (or gang, it’s unclear if they’re all connected or a bunch of different groups) kidnap women on behalf of a mysterious guy in dark glasses known as the Plutonium Killer, who for some reason tortures some of the women and sells the others to an English guy who may or may not be an undercover Interpol agent. The basic pattern is: gang wanders through the streets terrorizing people (often with the reporters looking on a filming while saying “why that’s just awful, someone should do something!”); Ninja shows up all dressed in white (the color of death); each gang member attacks him one at a time while he kicks them or stabs them or throws something at them; then the Ninja runs away.

None of this makes the least bit of sense, but in a more or less fun kind of way. I’m always wary of this kind of manufactured cult classic, there’s a tone of condescension to a lot of “so bad it’s good” discourse that I simply find distasteful. But New York Ninja avoids a lot of that simply by the sheer effort involved in its recreation. I can’t imagine anyone would put so much work into a project like this if there wasn’t a lot of sincere love for the genuine “putting on a show” indie spirit of making a DIY martial arts movie. At it’s best, the movie is a time capsule of a lost age: the shots of the pre-gentrified Broadway area (including the heart of the grindhouse movie district where so many movies like this (and many many significantly better ones) got their own theatrical releases in the US), as well as old fashions and hairstyles and cars (including the beautiful destruction of a what appears to be a 1970 Buick LeSabre, the first car I ever owned), all shot on film, which even in this debased form still has more life and character than most every digital production today. It’s not the avant-garde semi-masterpiece that is the just as no-budget 1984 karate film Furious, but it is still a genuinely weird movie.

I only wish the action was better. Liu was supposedly one of the great movie kickers of the late 70s, and you can see hints of that here. But the fight scenes are so deathly slow. None of the movements are connected: Liu kicks someone and they stand there, one beat, two beats, and then they punch him, pause pause, he kicks them again. I haven’t watched many American martial arts movies–I had an uncle who was into Chuck Norris so I watched some of his Vietnam POW movies, but I missed the whole 80s ninja craze–but I can’t imagine they were this slow. And I know for a fact action like this would never have seen the light of day in even in the cheapest Taiwanese or Hong Kong kung fu film of the era. So I wonder if this is a by-product of the (re-)editing process, that Liu had intended more cutting (to close-ups or different angles or just jump cuts within the same shots) to make the fights seem faster and more dynamic than they are, but either the materials weren’t available or they weren’t ever shot or the reconstruction team for some reason just didn’t use them. My fear is that they left them this way because they think it’s funnier, but I hope that’s not the case.

Belle (Hosoda Mamoru, 2021)

Hosoda Mamoru’s Belle is incredibly corny, and I kind of loved it. I think you could probably say that about any number of the slice-of-life animes I’ve adored in recent years, like the Kyoto Animation productions K-On!, Sound! Euphonium, Liz and the Blue Bird, and A Silent Voice, but while Belle shares with most of those works a focus on the emotional life of a musically-gifted teenage girl, it also reaches outward to make a statement about The Way Things Are Now in a way anathema to the KyoAni hyper-specific approach. Hosoda goes big: it’s not enough for his moment of epiphany to simply be one damaged person connecting with another, it has to be witnessed by the entire world.

The entire virtual world, that is. Belle is about a young woman, Suzu, played by singer Nakamura Kaho, painfully shy and still suffering from the loss of her mother years before, who joins U, some kind of futuristic virtual reality world that scans your mind and body and creates as your avatar an idealized version of yourself, amplifying your strengths and weaknesses. She, in her virtual form as “Belle”, quickly becomes a singing sensation, charming millions with plangent pop ballads about loneliness. Her (fake) world is disrupted by a rampaging monster known as “Dragon” to whom she becomes weirdly drawn. This becomes more and more obviously the Beauty and the Beast story, until even I picked up on the connection. Suzu tries to find out who Dragon is in real-life, and what’s pained him so much to cause his destructive acting out, before the VR police (led by a fascist blond named Justin) can dox him into nothingness.

It’s all ridiculous of course, and the rules of the virtual world make absolutely no sense. But I’m not sure that matters, and Hosoda plays it all so emotionally straight that when it builds to the big climactic song, for awhile you actually kind of believe that music can bring the world together, can make us all better people, and that bullies can actually be defeated with nothing but the power of innocent moral righteousness. Hosoda loves big climaxes like this, and while Wolf Children, his masterpiece, does this while still staying believably small (it’s about one mother’s love for her child), he seems more at home in big mind-exploding climactic sequences, real emotions collapsing or blowing up virtual or imaginary worlds (Mirai and Summer Wars take this approach, if I remember correctly).

One of my favorite bits in all of the Hosoda films I’ve seen though is the scene right before the big climax, when a couple of romantic plot threads involving side characters get resolved at a train station. He holds a long shot: Suzu and her friend Ruka on the right side of the screen, and Ruka’s crush Kamishin on the lower left corner. As her two friends realize the other has a crush on them, they turn red and awkward, Suzu silent in the middle. Ruka does not move, Kamishin runs back and forth out of the frame. Hosoda holds the shot for an extraordinarily long time, only cutting to a close-up of Suzu when one of them mentions her crush. It’s a very funny scene, the more so because Hosoda underplays it, never overplaying the cartoonish surreality (I shudder to think how such a scene would play out in Demon Slayer, for example) or even the standard shot-reverse shot formula one would get in a typical live-action film. The restraint takes a scene that could have been merely comic into something as beautiful as it is silly. It’s slice-of-life filmmaking at its best.

Hell Hath No Fury (Jesse V. Johnson, 2021) and Kate (Cedric Nicolas-Troyan, 2021)

Disney’s Marvel Cinematic Universe sucks up all the multiplex screens in America, leaving little space in theatres for movies where good-looking people find themselves in dangerously violent situations that don’t have budgets in the hundreds of millions of dollars, but interesting things are nonetheless afoot with the action film genre. There’s a real need for on-screen fisticuffs and gunfighting, among the oldest of film genres, and the Disney films (along with pretty much every other blockbuster) no longer satisfy it. Instead, driven by the destructive possibilities of computer generated imagery, they are disaster films: movies designed around the obliteration of space, of increasingly elaborate digital representations of our world. The model for the modern blockbuster is not the action film: the buddy cop and sci-fi adventure/horror movies of the 80s and early 90s, or even the epic adventures of early 2000s hits like the Lord of the Rings series or Gladiator. Rather they’re variations on the disaster films revived in the mid-90s by Jurassic Park and Independence Day. Even when a Disney film tries for a different sort of template, say Shang-Chi with the Hong Kong wuxia film, it devolves in the end into a movie in which pixels fly around, make a lot of noise, and cause a lot of ultimately meaningless damage.

And yet there are still action movies being made, but on the margins of the industry. Jesse V. Johnson has built a solid career for himself as a director of straight-to-video action films, movies in which beefy men punch and shoot each other. His films star guys like Robert Davi, Tom Berenger, Tony Jaa, Billy Zane, Eric Roberts, and, above all, Scott Adkins (whose One Shot is another fine recent antidote to Disney blockbuster bloat). A former stunt man, Johnson makes movies with actual action performed by actual stunt performers, not actors dancing with ping pong balls in front of a green screen. Hell Hath No Fury switches up Johnson’s formula, in that it stars a woman, Nina Bergman. She’s a French woman who has be imprisoned for collaboration with the Nazis in 1944. Four American soldiers have “rescued” her from the local mob, with the understanding that she will lead them to a bagful of Nazi gold, hidden somewhere in a cemetery. Most of the movie takes place in this one location, as the soldiers encounter Bergman’s erstwhile companions in the French Resistance (her true loyalties are a matter of question for most of the film) and a group of Nazis led by Bergman’s former lover, who are headed their way. The action is clean and focused, making effective use of its location, finding all kinds of nooks and crannies for traps and daring escapes, the kind of filmmaking that only really works out in the wild.

Largely a collection of classic WW2 movie tough guys, Johnson gives the generic character types a twist by making everyone just a little bit weirder, a little more demented, a little more savage than we’re used to seeing. The result is a film of admirable nastiness, more effectively conveying the brutality of war on both physical bodies and psyches than would be allowed in a more prestigious war film (say, 1917). In this Bergman’s physicality is central: head shaved by a mob, covered in mud, bruises, and a slip of a dress, she nonetheless never shrinks from the world of cruelly violent men she finds herself in. It’s a war movie that isn’t the least bit about heroism, but about the struggle, the will to survive. 

Johnson’s dusty images capture the dirtiness of this world, a rare case of modern gray-scale cinematography serving an expressive purpose. Another recent action film goes the opposite direction. While Kate shares with Hell Hath No Fury a brutal physical performance from its lead actress, director Cedric Nicolas-Troyan opts for a palette of deep blacks accented by neon blues and pinks, what might be called the John Wick style, after one of the few blockbuster franchises that does understand the primal joy of seeing stunt fighters at work (like Johnson, John Wick director Chad Stahelski was a former stunt man—I’ve said it before and it remains the case: stuntmen make the best movies). Nicolas-Troyan started in visual effects, working for years with Gore Verbinski (The Ring, The Weather Man, the Pirates of the Caribbean movies), so it’s no surprise that his images would pop more than Johnson’s, or that his action would be less convincing. Though that’s no fault of the film’s star, Mary Elizabeth Winstead, a fascinating actress who should have been a major star but never quite broke through.

Winstead plays a professional assassin who is poisoned by someone and has 24 hours to figure out who it was and exact her revenge before she drops dead. It’s the plot of the classic noir DOA of course, except with a sociopathic and unnervingly childlike killer as the hero rather than an accountant. Prowling the back streets of Tokyo, she sorts her way through the various factions of a yakuza group, before coming to the inevitable conclusion that she was betrayed by the two biggest names in the cast: Woody Harrelson, her handler/father figure, and Asano Tadonobu, an ambitious lieutenant in the gang. (Asano, one of the finest actors in the world, simply has to be admired for his determination to rack up cash being underutilized in American genre films. See, for example, the Thor series.) The action is solid but unspectacular gun and fist fights, with Winstead enduring even more punishment than Bergman: shot and stabbed and bruised on top of the debilitating effects of the poison she’s been given, it’s a wrenchingly tactile performance. Yet the film pulls its punches, so to speak, in a way that Hell Hath No Fury does not. Winstead is given a sassy teen sidekick, the granddaughter of the yakuza boss, and flashbacks creating a poignant backstory (she’s been killer since she was a kid, literalized by her obsession with a particular brand of lemon soda). It’s more conventional story-telling, and the film is all the less effective for it. In the end it doesn’t end up feeling any more real than any other franchise film, with their lab-tested and handbook-approved screenplays. But at least it’s got actual people in it.

West Side Story (Steven Spielberg, 2021)

Steven Spielberg and Tony Kushner’s updating of the classic musical is just an elgort away from greatness. They make a number of changes to the script and song order, all in the interest of bringing what was, in the Robert Wise/Jerome Robbins film version a hallucinatory vision of Romeo & Juliet set less in the decaying remains of a rapidly gentrifying neighborhood than in the midst of the color red. The 1961 film is musical above all else, Leonard Bernstein’s score and Stephen Sondheim’s lyrics more alive than almost any of the characters, given physical expression in Robbins’s balletic choreography and the bodies of ridiculously beautiful, yet generally ethnically inappropriate, actors. The ’61 film is about the fact that red is the color of blood as much as it is of romance. It’s as abstract and poetic as a mainstream Hollywood production would ever get.

But Spielberg and Kushner are less interested in poetry and, sadly, less interested in the color red. Their West Side Story takes pains to situate its melodrama in an actual time and place—the same time and place as the ’61 film, but more so. Which is one of the strange things about it: while the original was shot among the real ruins of the West Side, but felt imaginary; the remake is in a constructed space (how much is actual and how much computerized, I can’t tell), but feels real. The commitment to realism (such as it is) extends not just to casting (with white people thankfully only playing white people this time) but character as well, building backstories for each of the major characters, fleshing out what had been archetypal figures transmuted from Shakespeare into the present. Justin Peck’s choreography builds on Robbins’s work, but adds a more authentically Latin style to the gangland ballets. The “America” number in particular benefits from this, and its restaging: instead of a rooftop at night, the sequence now takes place in the bright daytime out in the open streets, passersby of all ethnicities joining in the joyous yet darkly comic celebration/indictment of the nation.

Several of the songs have been moved around. “I Feel Pretty” gains an unexpected poignance from its repositioning, while “Somewhere” takes on entirely new resonances. Instead of a duet between Tony and Maria, it’s now sung by Rita Moreno as Valentina (the Puerto Rican widow of Doc the druggist, the film’s only other example of an interracial couple). Moreno of course was in the original film, winning the Supporting Actress Oscar as Anita. “Somewhere” in the original is a romantic ballad, the two lovers imagining a world where they can be happy together, outside the prejudices of the real world. With Valentina/Moreno singing it, it’s a lament for society as a whole, its dream of unity not individualized in the two lovers, but a wistful hope for all of humanity. That metaphor of course was always there in the original, but the new film makes it the primary text, rather than the romance. And the fact that it’s Moreno singing it, a song of hope from 50 years ago that’s just as relevant today as it was then, makes it all the more tragic. Given the way Spielberg frames it, Valentina singing while looking at an old photo of her and Doc, one can imagine it being the lost dream of her youth as well, just as it now is for Tony and Maria. It’s now more than 50 years since the film was set, maybe another 50 since that photo was taken, and things don’t seem to have changed much at all.

And still, there’s a gaping hole in the film where Tony should be. Every other actor is tremendous—David Alvarez as Bernardo, Ariana DeBose as Anita, Mike Faist as Riff, and Rachel Zegler as Maria are tremendous, terrific singers and dancers who sell every big emotion the musical demands. Ansel Elgort, though, as Tony, is quite tall. Like so many young American movie stars, he looks soft, like he hasn’t worked a day in his life, let alone spent the last year in jail. He gives Tony a kind of naive innocence that’s incompatible with his backstory: he should be broken-down by guilt and depression over his violent past, only brought back to life and hope by Maria. He should also be believably charismatic and tough, the kind of guy the Jets, grungy violent men who’ve only known abuse and crime at home and from the world around them, would follow anywhere (except, of course, to peace). Elgort is. . . not. And, worst of all, his voice seems weak, easily overpowered by everyone else in the cast (note the “Tonight (Quintet)” when Elgort can’t hope to stay on equal footing with the other singers, turning it into more of a Quart-and-a -Half-tet), conveying none of the strength you want from a romantic or heroic lead.

But still, Tony has always been a bit of a blank (as so many male leads are in musicals), and his performance isn’t nearly enough to sink what is in every other respect a great film. Spielberg may not give us the reds I loved so much, restricting his palette for the most part to the various shades of gray that pass for color cinematography these days. The reds do show up in key places: Maria’s lipstick before the party, the lining of Anita’s dress during “America”. But this is a world defined not be an all-consuming, self-destructive passion, but by the brick and concrete ruins these desperate people are forced to fight over because they’re the only America they’ve ever known. 

Karnan (Mari Selvaraj, 2021)

After a brief, haunting prologue, Karnan begins with some on screen text, apparently designed to explain that the events it is about to relate happened once (the film is somewhat based on real events) are no longer possible in our enlightened present. I say “apparently” because the only words Amazon subtitled for the text are “before 1997”. This should, of course, be understood as a lie, something filmmakers sometimes have to slap on to their films to satisfy the demands of the kinds of governments their films attack (see Derek Tsang’s Better Days, for a recent example). Karnan is a film about injustice, about oppression, about revolution, about how all cops are bastards, and about how violence begets violence and doesn’t itself solve anything but sometimes might maybe help pave the way for solutions. It’s a thorny film about a complicated present, infused with as much revolutionary spirit as a great propaganda film like Mikhail Kalatazov’s I Am Cuba, but with an ambivalence about revolutionary violence that’s wholly anathema to propaganda.

Dhanush stars as Karnan, an angry young man in a Tamil village so small it doesn’t even have a bus stop. To get out into the world, the people have to travel to the neighboring town, where they are bullied, treated as bumpkins, and worse. As injustice after injustice piles up against his townspeople, Karnan begins to lead a kind of resistance: beating up the guys who bullied a girl’s father, sparking a fight at a rigged athletic match, helping trash a bus that had refused to stop for a pregnant woman and her family. The latter incident brings the whole village together, as even the elders, who have long cautioned against standing up to their neighbors and the local police that enable them, get involved in the protest. It all ends, as these things usually do, in horrible violence and self-sacrifice and the near-destruction of the village.

Director and writer Mari Selvaraj resists at every turn the opportunity to turn this scenario into a Bacurau-like story of pulpy blood-letting. Instead he emphasizes the mythic qualities of the struggle, framing Karnan and the symbol of his right to lead, the village sword he wins in an early challenge, against the sky, a hero in whose struggle we can find catharsis for our own frustrations with unjust systems. The film is infused with the spirits of the dead (literally, in the case of Karnan’s younger sister, whose death in the midst of indifferent highway traffic opens the story) and the past (the headless statues and paintings that invoke the community’s long past and predict its near future). The music, all drums and choral voices, fuse tradition with modern cinema, with a few diegetic dance sequences but otherwise used to score montages of village life and the preparations for war. Nor does it resemble a village defense film like Seven Samurai: there’s no planning or stratagems here, it’s instead about the pure, instinctive human desire to fight back against one’s oppressors. It’s a film about how primally good it feels to stand up for yourself and you family and friends, about how good it feels to punch a bad guy in the face. But it’s also about how that never actually solves anything, and in fact only tends to make things so much worse.

There’s an epilogue though, as there always is. Ten years later, we return to the village and find that all the problems have been solved. We’re told that people showed up and helped the villagers file claims for their complaints (a deus ex bureaucrat?) and now they have a bus stop and the kids can go to college and everything is lush and green and happy, despite, you know, all the deaths. It doesn’t seem the least bit true.

*It’s been explained to me that the historical context here is essential. In 1995, police attacked a village called Kodiyankulam, which was populated by people of the Dalit caste. It was the flash point of a series of conflicts between the villagers and more dominant members within that same caste. The conflict in the film is similar to the actual events, though fictionalized. My mistake was in not noting the centrality of caste to the conflict between the two villages in the film, a vitally important issue that I, in my ignorance, failed to pick up on. It’s also the case that in my desire to read the film through my own (limited, American) lens, by seeing it as a film about revolution in general, I delegitimized the specific concerns of the caste struggle itself, of which this film is certainly very much about. My apologies and thanks to those who took the time to explain what I’d missed.

One Shot (James Nunn, 2021)

I suppose it’s an inevitable consequence of Hollywood’s adoption of hyperactive action editing in the 2000s that we’d eventually be inundated by films zagging in the opposite direction. First it was long steadicam shots like the one in Tony Jaa’s The Protector, where the hero marches up a long circular ramp dispatching enemies left and right, handheld camera following close behind or swinging around to the front, as the action dictates. The sequence shots became somewhat of a norm in 2000s action cinema, at least outside of the big Hollywood productions. A counter-norm I suppose. Though the aesthetic is slowly establishing itself there too (for example a relatively delightful sequence in the third episode of Disney/Marvel’s Hawkeye TV series). 

It was only a matter of time before advancing digital technology, and the spirit of one-upmanship inherent in all great stunt performers and directors, that we’d get full features made up of single sequence shots. This year brought two of them: Crazy Samurai Musashi, in which Sakaguchi Tak sliced up an endless army of faceless samurai on a crisp autumn afternoon; and One Shot, in which Scott Adkins shoots and stabs and punches an endless army of international terrorists on a remote CIA black site. The difference between the two is that Sakauguchi’s shot abstracts the violence and destruction, emphasizing the mindless brutal waste that is war and murder, while Adkins’s tries to be an actual movie, with characters and plot and stuff, the sequence shot eliciting not the useless boredom of violence, but the exhausting chaos of it all.

It’s not much of a plot, of course. A team of SEALs escorts a CIA analyst to an island in Poland to pick up a detainee. While they’re there, terrorists attack, trying to either rescue the guy or kill him before he can reveal the secret location of the nuclear bomb they’re planning to detonate in DC during the Sate of the Union address. The Americans are quickly overwhelmed, despite shooting a whole bunch of bad guys. The terrorists arrive in one truck, but dozens of them get killed over the course of the film. Probably there was a second truck or something, but I like imagining hundreds of terrorists smooshed together in the back of one truck, like a clown car full of heavily-armed Eastern European extras. Anyway, Adkins is the leader of the four man SEAL team and he’s just a perfect bundle of action, all process and following orders. There’s nothing extraneous to him, he is only the job.

The good guys (such as they are) are quickly cornered, arguing amongst themselves about whether or not to kill and/or torture the detainee (the CIA says no, the head of the black site, played by no less than Ryan Phillippe himself, says yes) while a variation on Assault on Precinct 13 plays out around them. Only Adkins of course can break out of the trap, tracking down communication equipment and knifing bad guys in stealth mode and resorting to fisticuffs and wrestling holds when the weapons fail—the full array of the violence our greatest underground action hero is capable of performing. The sequence shot is seamless: director James Nunn, who made Tower Block and both The Marine 5: Battleground and The Marine 6: Close Quarters as well as something this year called Jetski, moves the camera around well. The action is always clear, the crew doing admirable work blowing up the set and applying bloody makeup as necessary in real-time. If nothing else, it’s both more sensical and much cooler than 1917, and in a better world would be earning all the awards plaudits that film received.