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.

SIFF 2018: The Bold, The Corrupt, and the Beautiful (Yang Ya-che, 2017)

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The winner of this past year’s Golden Horse Awards Best Picture is shockingly bad. Generally considered the top awards body for Chinese language film, The Golden Horse has a sterling reputation, though perhaps that is unearned. Looking back over recent winners reveals more than one questionable decision (2013’s win for Ilo Ilo over A Touch of Sin, Drug WarStray Dogs and The Grandmaster in particular stands out). The Awards are based in Taiwan, and tend to favor Taiwanese film, but considering that two of The Bold, the Corrupt, and the Beautiful‘s top rivals for the 2017 award, Sylvia Chang’s Love Education (also playing here at SIFF, along with another Best Picture nominee, Angels Wear White) and the grimy indie The Great Buddha+ (which has inexplicably yet to appear on Seattle Screens) are also Taiwanese, that can’t be the reason for it’s win. Honestly, I’m baffled.

A convoluted story of political corruption and its parallels in the corruption of a family, the film almost exclusively focuses on women, led by Kara Hui, who began her career as a martial arts star in a series of films directed by Lau Kar-leung in the late 70s and early 80s (Dirty Ho, My Young Auntie, The Lady is the Boss) and has in recent years become one of the more respected actresses in Chinese film (The Midnight AfterMrs. K). She picked up the Golden Horse Best Actress Award, which unlike the Best Picture win was well-deserved, playing an antique dealer with ties to local officials who are engaged in some kind of land speculation deal. All the corruption is opaque, taking place in coded exchanges at parties and meals, with the trading of a statue of the goddess Guanyin meaning. . . something. The details of the scam, and its undoing after a betrayal and the slaughter of one of the involved families, aren’t particularly important, but neither do they make the least bit of sense. The film instead focuses on the corruption in Hui’s family, as her daughter (Wu Ke-xi) and (spoiler I guess but like every supposed twist in the film it’s blindingly obvious from the beginning) grand-daughter (Vicky Chen) become involved to various degrees in Hui’s scheming, leading one to drug addiction and promiscuity and the other to a general kind of psychosis.

Director Yang Ya-che throws a lot of bells and whistles at his basic scenario: cutting indiscriminately around in time, deliberating excising exposition in favor of dreamy montages of people looking pensive, adding a goofy narration by an elderly couple who play stringed instruments and sing the story as it unfolds maybe in a TV studio, but none of it really works. All the officials are corrupt in the same ways, and the extent of Hui’s involvement is treated as a major reveal but isn’t the least bit surprising. The youngest girl for the most part is our window into the world, which might explain the inexplicability of many of the crimes, as we wouldn’t expect her to know it all. But then it turns out she actually does know everything her elders are up to, and anyway, we get also a bunch of scenes that she couldn’t possibly have witnessed that don’t really explain anything but instead just further cloud the plot.

The film is bright and colorful, with deep yellows and reds that are a welcome respite from the orange and teal and gray that infests so much contemporary cinema. And there’s a kernel of an interesting idea here, in that the film focuses its admirably nasty crime family/political corruption saga entirely on the women, not just Hui and her family but the wives of all the officials involved are the real drivers of the schemes, negotiations and power plays, their husbands blank slates receding into the background. But with no likable women or heroic figures (the only stand-up person in the movie is a man, a cop who fruitless investigates), the story we ultimately get is of a gang of greedy, amoral harpy women who have too much power in the workplace and have therefore ruined both society and their families with their independence.