Golden Job (Chin Ka-lok, 2018)

They discover the car is loaded with gold

In the wake of the 1997 Handover, when Hong Kong turned from a relatively independent British colony to a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, the Hong Kong film industry, which had been for most of the previous 30 years or so one of the glories of the world, almost completely collapsed. Uncertainty was the primary cause, both in economic and political freedom, which led many of the industry’s brightest talents to seek employment in the United States and beyond (Jackie Chan, John Woo, Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Ringo Lam, Michelle Yeoh, Corey Yuen, Ronny Yu, etc), while the excesses of production in the 80s and early 90s, plus infiltration of unsavory, criminal elements into the filmmaking business, led to the dissolution of most of the major production houses that had led Hong Kong’s last Golden Age. But still, the Hong Kong cinema didn’t collapse entirely: Herman Yau kept churning out low-budget horror and gangster films (as he continues to do to this day); Johnnie To founded his own studio, which found a way to produce anywhere from two to six high quality films a year, both popular entertainments and idiosyncratic personal explorations of genre; Stephen Chow, who for much of the mid-90s was the only star who mattered, single-handedly keeping the industry afloat, began directing and produced increasingly ambitious and accomplished work. But above all, the Young & Dangerous series struck a chord with the youth audience, leading to something in the neighborhood of a dozen sequels, prequels and spin-offs between 1996 and 2001.

The Young & Dangerous films, shepherded by director Andrew Lau (an accomplished cinematographer (he shot Wong Kar-wai’s debut As Tears Go By and parts of Chungking Express, he also co-directed the Infernal Affairs films, the first of which came out in 2002), were a cheap, glossy, teen idol-driven, comic book variations on the heroic bloodshed sagas of the late 1980s. Stars Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan had fancy hair and stylish clothes and a propensity for finding themselves in musical montages depicting the anguish and joy of violent brotherhood. They are wholly absurd and a great deal of fun. Now, more than 20 years after the first installment, director Chin Ka-lok reunites the stars of the series for Golden Job, a maudlin action film about brotherhood among formerly stylish middle-aged men.

Five “brothers”, friends since they were orphans together, work as vaguely immoral mercenaries for hire, kind of like the A-Team, but with more hugging. One of them goes bad and betrays the group, and the others have to, well, not really seek revenge, but do something to fix his errors. The film skirts topics familiar from recent Chinese action films (the pharmaceutical foul play of Woo’s Manhunt and Lam’s Sky on Fire, the paternalism of China’s relationship with East Africa from Wolf Warrior II), but in most ways it is a throwback to those older movies, albeit with much more expensive and impressive action sequences. Director Chin is a former member of Sammo Hung’s stunt team with a long career as an actor and fighter, though this is only his third film as a director in his own right (he did Aces Go Places ’97 with Tony Leung and Alan Tam, and the 2002 Yuen Biao film No Problem 2). His action scenes are solid, if not original. Capable facsimiles of the military maneuverings of Operation Red Sea and vehicle stunts that honestly aren’t all that much worse than what you’d see in a Mission: Impossible movie. It’s just hard to take them seriously because the rest of the film is so generically earnest, its aged heroes so out of step with the times that their posed male laughter and tears play even more absurdly than they did twenty years ago.

The difference isn’t with the film’s earnestness. That was always there in the Young & Dangerous movies: their sentimentality is entirely believed. But what those earlier films also had were brilliant supporting performances, like Anthony Wong chewing up scenery and picking his nose, or Simon Yam at his oiliest, or which served to cut the sap with a bit of irony or acidic cruelty. Golden Job has Eric Tsang being wise and noble as the gang’s father figure, which is a complete waste. In fact, the only actor who seems to be having any fun at all is Yasuaki Kurata, who continues his late career rebirth with a far too brief appearance. His short fight scene is the best one in the film, though it’s also the smallest and probably the cheapest. Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok’s Gallants similarly revived stars of the past now well into middle-age into a genre film, one with its share of sentimentality but also one that updated the genre stylistically and ideologically for a new era. Golden Job plays everything straight, all as it would have been done twenty years ago, and as a result there’s nothing to leaven the soapiness, leaving a bunch of nice action sequences surrounding a sickeningly schmaltzy core.

Advertisements

The Great Battle (Kim Kwangsik, 2018)

fullsizephoto994975

One of the more peculiar and underexamined genres of the 21st century is an outgrowth of the two films at the heart of the Oscar race in 2000, Ridley Scott’s Gladiator and Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. The former revived the sword and sandals craze of the 1950s: epic war movies set in the distant past, with handsome men and headstrong women wielding spears and arrows as they face oncoming hoards of villains; while the later breathed new life into the wuxia film, updating King Hu and Chang Cheh classics to a contemporary art house setting. As Gladiator spawned Troy, Alexander, Kingdom of Heaven and a handful of Arthurian, Viking and assorted other medieval adventures, Crouching Tiger led to Zhang Yimou’s trilogy of ornate epics Hero, House of Flying Daggers and Curse of the Golden Flower, along with countless lesser adventures produced across Asia (Mongol with Tadonobu Asano, Musa with Zhang Ziyi, God of War with Sammo Hung and The Great Wall with Matt Damon, and Korea’s own The Admiral: Roaring Currents with Choi Minsik). The decisive factor the revival of these spectacles was the easy availability of computer generated imagery, drastically reducing the time and cost of producing a “cast of thousands”, while also amplifying the action sequences with slow motion (“bullet time”), erasure of wires, cartoonish gore, and the stitching together of disparate takes to create an illusion of seamless, continuous action. What the technology has thus far been unable to do, unfortunately, is raise the quality of the films’ scripts.

Into this heady tradition steps Kim Kwangsik’s The Great Battle, the story of the siege of Ansi fortress in northern Korea (at the time, AD 645, the kingdom of Goguryeo) by the massive army of Taizong, the Tang Dynasty ruler generally considered among the greatest of all Chinese Emperors. Outnumbered 40 to 1 (that is, 200,000 to 5,000), the Koreans are led by Yang Manchun, a mysterious historical figure embodied on-screen as a brilliant, brave, passionate, wise, honest, charming, generous, and handsome leader by Jo Insung. At his side are a pair of bickering captains (a tall, elegant leader of swordsmen and a hairy, gruff leader of axemen, the Legolas and Gimli of the story), a pair of young lovers (the leader of the cavalry and Yang’s sister, who leads a fearless band of crossbowwomen) and a callow youth, who has been sent to assassinate Yang by the leader of the Goguryeo army (who had killed the king and precipitated the war with the Tang), but who is instead so impressed by Yang’s moral and martial courage that he becomes his flag-bearer instead.

The cookie-cutter characterization and rote emoting of the generic plot can be tough to take, but fortunately the film’s real interest lies in its action scenes, which are of uniformly high quality. A siege movie, we are treated to a variety of infernal machines developed for the sole purpose of killing men on top of walls. Many of them we’ve seen before, but the film builds neatly from trebuchets, ladders and battering rams to massive towers and ultimately a gigantic earthen mound that takes months to build. Only the scrappy heroism and purity of Yang and his men (and women) are able to overcome the overwhelming numerical and technological superiority of the Tang. The combat itself is well-done, with a steady camera tracking though the bloody chaos, limbs and CGI reds flying as soldiers more or less follow the laws of physics. It’s all easy to read and delivers the essential violence that is the genre’s reason for being.

But that’s all it does. The better films in the genre have higher ambitions: Alexander‘s vision of a world-conquering madness; Hero‘s meditation on power and national unity;  Baahubali‘s genre-blending, intricate story-telling and wildly imaginative special effects; even The Great Wall‘s melding of medieval warfare with 50s style science-fiction; or Red Cliff, to date the finest example of the genre, deftly blending unique characters and relationships on a grand scale of schemes, tactics and action. The Great Battle plays it safe, content with the cliché, lacking even enough ideology to be a propaganda film.

Let the Corpses Tan (2017, Hélène Cattet & Bruno Forzani)

gun

There are few aspects of film more alternated praised and criticized than so-called “excessive” style. Whether manifested in languor or in freneticism, rapid bursts of images or gorgeously exacting frames, the excesses of the styles of one director or the other has been dissected, castigated, fawned over, and put back together again in mountains of words written in the past decade alone. And yet, despite all of this sometimes heated and passionate discourse, such overt manifestations of filmmaking still seem even more subjective, even less explainable than most other determining factors of a film.

One of the most overt examples of this in recent years comes in the form of Let the Corpses Tan, a neo-Western crime film directed by Hélène Catte and Bruno Forzani, best known for their prior giallo efforts Amer and The Strange Colour of Your Body’s Tears. Though this time the gloriously pulpy title is taken from the source material, a novel by Jean-Patrick Manchette and Jean-Pierre Bastid, the sensibility and eye for relentless stylization is unmistakeable. For better and for worse, this is an unfiltered vision, throwing in so many techniques and formal devices that it somehow becomes a unified aesthetic.

Continue reading

In the Intense Now (João Moreira Salles, 2017)

In-the-Intense-Now-featured-image

One of the better documentaries of the year plays this weekend only at the Northwest Film Forum. In the Intense Now is built out of archival images, some shot by director João Moreira Salles’s mother, when she visited China in 1966, but mostly from amateur and independent film footage of France and Czechoslovakia and Brazil in the revolutionary summer of 1968. It’s one of the centerpiece presentations of the Film Forum’s fall series 1968: Expressions of a Flame, which is presenting a wide variety of films, fiction and non-, well-known and obscure, from that year. It would also have been a fine addition to their Home Movies series, which began this spring and continues this weekend with Andy Warhol’s Mrs. Warhol, with its focus on filmmakers documenting and exploring their own families (which we highlighted here when they played Liu Jiayin’s Oxhide II and Chantal Akerman’s News from Home). In the Intense Now is built around this tension, between the personal and the political, as much as it is about the disconnect between the hopes of the past and the failures of the present.

Reminiscent of the films of Chris Marker, the film is entirely composed of archival images, over which the director narrates his thoughts in a soft, unassuming voice. His mother’s trip to China, where she appears not to notice the Cultural Revolution going on around her in favor of the sheer beauty of the country and its landscape, forms the apolitical counterpoint to the footage of the May protests in France two years later, where students march in the streets in support of striking workers (who seem generally bemused by the students, whom the refer to as “their future bosses”). Moreira Salles focuses less on the ideology of the protestors or their opponents, exemplified by young firebrand Daniel Cohn-Bendit on the one side and aged General DeGaulle on the other, than on the small moments captured almost accidentally by the filmmakers: minute gestures; expressions of unself-conscious joy and happiness; the fact that there are hardly any black people in the movement, and that they always are wearing suits; and so on. This fine eye for detail gives us a new way of looking at old footage, and a new angle on well-worn territory.

As does the film’s second half, the aftermath of the events of May, not just in Czechoslovakia, where Soviet tanks bring an end to the flowering Prague Spring, but in France, where the youth movement fizzles out and is co-opted by commercial interests. In fact, those interests were there from the start, fueling some of the most enduring memories of ’68, the slogans, bite-sized sentiments more surreal than Marxist that were not the organic output of youth rebellion they seemed to be at the time. For all the expressions of optimism and joy captured in the early days of the movement, In the Intense Now is ultimately a tragedy, a story of how movements fade away, how people, left and right, become grist for the content mills. In the face of all this inevitability, the film becomes a call to focus instead on experience, the individualized moment, the textures of existence, as a break from systemic thought or dreams of collective action. That it was made by the heir of one of Brazil’s most powerful banking families, a man worth close to 4 billion dollars, is probably important.

Cielo (Alison McAlpine, 2017)

lnginnewbannr

The images in Alison McAlpine’s Cielo are the primary draw and are probably themselves worth the price of admission. Not just the starscapes, captured in the pristine thin air of the Atacama desert, gorgeous sweeping vistas of galaxies and nebulae, planets and stars, shot in crisp digital images, time-lapsed over sunsets and dawns, but the images of the land as well: a slo-motion cloud of dust, a man descending into a hole in the earth, his sky several tons of rock, his only light a single bulb worn loosely around his neck. McAlpine breathlessly muses upon the meaning of the sky, the stars, and she interviews many of the denizens of the desert, all of whom have their unique relationship to the world above. Planet hunters, astronomers who use machines and high-tech imaging to scour the universe for other worlds, are contrasted with more ancient occupations: shepherds and storytellers, and the aforementioned miner, who writes poetry in his spare time.

The transitions are deftly made, and slowly the film’s main idea comes into focus: that of the interconnection between sky and land, mirroring the fluidity of past and future. The night sky is both. Light from stars that traveled through the void for hundreds, thousands, millions of years only to become visible to us in the present, representing our hopes for a future, which are then reflected back into the sky. The machines of the scientists, overwhelming, massive constructions that distort the space around them, McAlpine films in the style of the Sensory Ethnography Lab, or something like Mauro Herce’s Dead Slow Ahead, imposing impositions upon the natural world. The locals though are filmed in the desert itself, in run-down shacks, rickety tents, or the open air itself. The film comes dangerously close to ethnographic condescension in some of these scenes, with a poor couple and a UFO hunter. But the miner/poet is charming and the film’s ultimate star is the folklorist who recites old stories, examines petroglyphs, and comes closest to unifying the film’s disparate elements.

One thing McApline does not cover is what became the ultimate subject of Patricio Guzmán’s 2010 film Nostalgia for the Light: the fact that the Atacama, while an ideal site for star-gazing, is also home to countless bodies of people disappeared and murdered under Chile’s military dictatorship. It was probably wise to avoid repeating Guzmán, of course, but the total absence of the subject from Cielo is unusual. In focusing so much on the people who actually live and work in the desert, she seems to be prioritizing the specificity of this single place. But in cutting it off from one of the most tragic and telling passages in its history, she leaves a black hole. The desert becomes a no-place, a mere place-holder for a general concept of “land” and its subjects in turn merely “people”, relevant only for their relation to an impassive, distant, omnivorous sky.

Big Brother (Kam Ka-wai, 2018)

05b7de90-a12f-11e8-90bf-ccc49f9b020a_1280x720_185857

Into the hallowed tradition of high school movies wherein juvenile delinquents are straightened out by an unconventional teacher steps none other than Donnie Yen, his furious fists solemnly taking up the mantle of Blackboard Jungle, Stand and Deliver, and Dangerous Minds. It’s clearly a project that means something to Donnie, built around his persona as a deeply felt act of giving back to his community, which is why it hurts so much to say that it is the corniest movie I’ve seen in a very, very long time.

Donnie drops into a high school teetering on the edge of closure. Its graduates haven’t been going to college and local developers are eager to seize the land, both of which would be interesting social problems were they to be explored at all, in particular the complicity between developers, local gangsters and the local school board. Instead we’re introduced to five kids, four boys and a girl, each of whom is failing at school. Donnie, with his bright smile and wacky methods (he truly does break all the rules) spends the first half of the movie getting to know each kid in turn and solving their problem for them. One boy, whose family emigrated to Hong Kong three generations ago, wants to be a singer but suffers from stage fright caused by years of discrimination. Donnie helps him by just having him sing in public, which solves racism. The girl wants to be a race car driver but her dad thinks she’s worthless, because she’s a girl. And so Donnie reunites them by having them race minicars through the streets of Hong Kong (Donnie alone does not wear a helmet). This solves sexism. And so on to cure alcoholism, poverty, gangsterism and study-drug addiction.

In the second half of the film comes Donnie’s inevitable downfall, with first a brawl in a locker room before a big MMA match, and then when a student falls victim to a tragic plotline from Dead Poets Society. There’s a showdown with a gang and a last-minute race to take a standardized test. It’s all well-meaning and extremely shallow, with no understanding of or interest in either the institutional problems of the education system, the social environment of underprivilleged students, or any idea of what real reform would look like. Donnie’s solution is basically that everyone just needs to communicate better and try harder.

Coming on the heels of Weeds on Fire, which was similarly plagued with cliché but at least had a strong sense of place, or Bad Genius, which managed to both seriously explore the real class conflicts at work in contemporary high schools while also being a first-rate thriller, let alone an incendiary masterpiece like Ringo Lam’s now 30 year old School on FireBig Brother is at best a hollow gesture, of interest mostly for its star’s performance, and what it tells us about how he regards himself. In the middle of the film is a flashback montage showing how Donnie ended up at this school, taking him from his delinquent days through moving to America, joining the Marines and seeing combat in the Middle East. The horrors of war lead him on a further montage of world travel, discovering humanity to the plaintive sounds of a James Blunt tune. The result of his enlightening journey is his commitment to giving back to his community, which is surely a noble impulse. But it’s one that requires more than this movie to fulfill. But at least it makes me want to see Donnie remake of The Razor’s Edge.

The Island (Huang Bo, 2018)

1340x754-2

Opening this week at the Oak Tree (which in itself is interesting, as recent Chinese releases have almost exclusively played downtown at the Pacific Place or the Meridian), is the directorial debut of Huang Bo, a comic actor probably best known for playing the Monkey King in Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. In The Island, he’s reunited with one of his co-stars from that film, Shu Qi, for a fascinating film that’s half adventure/rom-com and half allegory about the different stages of socio-economic evolution.

Huang and his co-workers, thirty of them in all, counting their boss, go off on a team-building trip in one of those buses that go on the water (you know, the ones with a duck face on the front), out of the local harbor and into the ocean. Unfortunately for them, a massive meteor is headed for that very same ocean, which creates a tidal wave that deposits them all on a deserted island, at the very same moment that Huang learns he has won the lottery.

What follows are the usual escapades, familiar from Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies, but structuring it all are the different phases of leadership and economy the survivors follow. Initially, it is sheer physical strength and dexterity that determines power, with the bus driver (played by Detective Chinatown‘s Wang Baoqiang) assuming tyrannical powers because he’s the only one of them able to climb the trees necessary to retrieve fruit. Soon though the society is split, with the (former) boss promising more freedom for his followers, only to essentially enslave them in a wage-labor and currency system, which he manipulates for his own benefit.

The boss is able to get his start because he discovers an old shipwreck full of essential supplies, basically he lucks into an enormous stockpile of capital. The same thing eventually happens to Huang, which he uses to assert his own control, with even more fanciful promises of freedom, this time based on a kind of communitarianism. This too, though will be corrupted by lies and greed, leaving the workers desperate.

What happens next, after feudalism, capitalism, and socialism, is up in the air, and Huang’s vision of a future outside of these systems is slippery at best, essentially fanciful and inevitably tied up with his character’s obsession with Shu Qi, the co-worker he’s had a crush on for years. Over time, she begins to warm up to him, and her faith in his decency forces him ultimately to confront his own corruption.

But despite Shu Qi’s ever-present charm, she isn’t much of a person, serving instead only as a foil or object of desire for the hero. None of the islanders are any more than types, really, which I suppose is the danger of making a film that is driven more by theory than relationships or individuality. Despite that, The Island is fascinating, defying analogy (maybe a materialist Lost? . . .) while being both funny and surprising in its narrative twists and in its ultimate ambivalence towards, well, everything. People, society, economics, religion, fate, politics and so on. A singular work, one not to be missed.

Wanda (1970, Barbara Loden)

wanda

What does it mean to say that a film is, in whole or in part, about America or, indeed, “America”? Perhaps more than most mediums, cinema has provided a whole range of examples and styles from which to draw from and examine; to name just a few wildly disparate examples: The Searchers, Dogville, Paris, Texas. This tendency, of course, should be distinguished from films that are about a specific aspect of American life, culture, or society: films like Rio Bravo or Trust, while expansive in their own way, don’t appear to attempt to dissect the idea of America.

What does distinguish a film about America is a certain sense of scope, or a focus upon a part of America that is at once universal within the land and (usually) concentrated to a certain milieu. The film in question doesn’t need to announce itself as attempting this task; rather, it (by necessity) almost always emerges organically out of the visual and thematic fabric of the film.

One such example of this phenomenon is Wanda, the sole feature film written and directed by Barbara Loden, otherwise known as a theatrical and movie actress, frequently for Elia Kazan. In narrative terms, it is a deceptively simple film: Wanda (played by Loden herself) is a woman living in impoverished circumstances in the coal mining regions of eastern Pennsylvania. Near the beginning of the film, she divorces her husband, acquiescing with a startling lack of resistance – one of her key traits throughout the film – to her now ex-husband’s wishes, willingly relinquishing her two young children. She then meets the tempestuous, tetchy petty criminal Mr. Dennis (Michael Higgins), who takes her away from the bar that he has just robbed. The rest of the film follows this odd, often abusive relationship, as they meander through the state until Mr. Dennis attempts to enact a half-baked bank robbery.

Continue reading

Mission: Impossible – Fallout (2018, Christopher McQuarrie)

paris

Discussing the evolution of a blockbuster franchise series can sometimes be a difficult venture (that is, when it is worth dissecting). With some, it seems patently obvious: for example, Paul W.S. Anderson’s Resident Evil series developed over the course of its thirteen-year existence from straightforward, video-game inflected horror to totally artificial, digital constructions. Others are tied explicitly to commercial interests: the Marvel Cinematic Universe has remained resolutely within its narrative and formal wheelhouse even while it aims to present the veneer of change.

In this context, the Mission: Impossible films present a fairly unusual case. On the surface, it would seem to lack a single unifying creative voice, having switched out directors every single installment until the most recent two, with the motley crew of helmers counting in its club Brian De Palma, John Woo, J.J. Abrams, and Brad Bird. One could then turn to the man at its center: Tom Cruise, whose continual acceleration of his tendencies towards potential self-destruction in order to achieve maximum visceral thrills is unparalleled in the modern Hollywood cinema. But that still doesn’t account for the overall series, which has rarely (if ever) veered outside of excellence, a continuity of quality. Furthermore, the specific manifestation of this quality varies from film to film, and up to this point from director to director.

Continue reading

Eighth Grade (2018, Bo Burnham)

high school

In the course of writing evaluative pieces on film, a reviewer must always contend with their own biases related to form and content. This is by necessity, for if a critic tasks themselves with writing on movies that are “outside” their preferred aesthetic wheelhouse, then they will inevitably come across films that, try as they might, they cannot help but feel repulsed by. Of course, no film is made for everyone, and some films, even and especially those in the consciousness of mainstream culture, are hyper-specific in their catering to a specific audience. But there is a feeling of churlishness that can arise, one that exists on a level that exceeds a reaction that merely runs counter to a critical and cultural consensus.

I say all of this to give some context for my personal reaction to Eighth Grade, the directorial debut of YouTube personality Bo Burnham. As the title suggests, it covers the last week of the middle school tenure of Kayla (Elsie Fisher), an outwardly shy and quiet student who posts daily YouTube vlogs covering topics almost exclusively related to self-betterment. Through the course of these few days, she deals with a variety of awkward and sometimes intensely embarrassing social situations, all while contending with the various pressures and possibilities of modern social media.

Continue reading