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.

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Big Brother (Kam Ka-wai, 2018)

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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.

Goldbuster (Sandra Ng, 2017)

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In her directorial debut, veteran comic actress Sandra Ng gives us a goofy farce, a compendium of horror movie tropes and references, and a sappy tribute to the underdog spirit of Hong Kong’s working class in the days of hyper-capitalisim and real estate speculation. She plays a ghostbuster hired by a handful of families to protect themselves from the evil spirits haunting their dilapidated apartment building. The ghosts are a scam, a scheme by a developer to get the last remaining tenants of a property to sell so he can tear the building down and make something new (the pull-away shot revealing the location is striking: a lone run-down concrete block surrounding by a massive ditch separating it from the city itself all CGI skyscrapers and hazy lights, an island of the real in the middle of an urban fantasy). Ng, no stranger to con games herself, quickly deduces the scam and helps the residents out-scare their ghosts, a game of horror movie one-upsmanship that turns into a full-scale zombie invasion.

Ng has been one of Hong Kong’s brightest comics for over two decades now, equally at home in slapstick, grotesquerie and wordplay, and while her film doesn’t have the classical misanthropy of Michael Hui or the blinding verbal games of Stephen Chow, it does recall her own Golden Chicken films in the way it explores how the feeling and ideology of a place can be expressed through the stories it tells itself. In Golden Chicken and its sequel (from 2002 and 2003), she plays a gregarious prostitute who recalls her life story in parallel to the history of Hong Kong, political and pop cultural, from the late 70s through the immediate post-Handover era. Goldbuster isn’t as expansive, but rather explores how stories of the supernatural can paralyze us and how fear is manipulated by ruling elites to bend us to their whim, Scooby-Doo as Marxist allegory.

While, pointedly, Goldbuster‘s location is never specified, it could technically take place in any Chinese city, that seems more a concession of vagueness for the Mainland market than any real conviction. In tone and purpose this is a resolutely Hong Kong film, where stories about housing complexes and tenants’ wars with their landlords have a long tradition, a byproduct of the housing shortages which followed the influx of massive numbers of refugees in the post-World War II and Civil War years. Chor Yuen’s House of 72 Tenants almost single-handedly saved the Cantonese language film from extinction in the early 70s, and in recent years as speculation and real estate bubbles have made affordable housing increasingly hard to find, the subject has become ubiquitous. Comedies like Temporary Family, which played here at SIFF in 2015, and last year’s Sinking City: Capsule Odyssey address it head-on, while Goldbuster folds the crisis into the fabric of its gonzo vision of a city driven to apocalypse by decades of unease and overdevelopment.

Each of its characters, generic types all of course, are refugees in some way from the past twenty years of economics and pop culture: scientists scammed out of their patents; a webcam girl; over-the-hill Triads, one of whom (the great Francis Ng (no releation) thinks he’s a cop); a doctor who failed to save his wife from some illness. The latter is the most melodramatic character, afflicted as he is by an adorable son and a penchant for whininess, obsessed with finding his wife’s ghost and somehow atoning for her death. This is the paralytic state the tenants find themselves in: trapped by fear and overcome with superstition, surrounded on all sides by rapacious capital. Only with the wit and heart of a scoundrel like Sandra Ng can they hope to defeat the forces waged against them. Another victory for the indigenous scrappiness of Hong Kongers against the powers of vague superstition and vampiric elites.

SPL: Paradox (Wilson Yip, 2017)

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It’s unclear if this film is actually a continuation of the SPL series or if it just started as one and then mutated into its own thing. I thought I saw the characters for “Sha Po Lang” on the title card of the movie though, so I’m just gonna go with it. Regardless, like the second film in the series, SPL 2: A Time for ConsequencesParadox has only a tenuous thematic relation to its forbearers: all of the characters are new. Louis Koo plays a Hong Kong cop who travels to Pattaya, in Thailand, in search of his daughter, who has gone missing. He hooks up with a Thai cop (Wu Yue) as the two uncover an organ trafficking ring with connections all the way to the top of city government. Helping out in the investigation is another cop, a superstitious (possibly psychic) Tony Jaa, star of the last SPL and arguably the best martial arts star in the world today, in what amounts to little more than a guest-starring role. The final villain is played by Lam Ka-tung (Sparrow, Trivisa), which means that the two most important Thai characters in the film are played by Chinese actors. Such are the vagaries of international cinema.

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VIFF 2017: Paradox (Wilson Yip, 2017)

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You wouldn’t know it from the title or VIFF’s program notes, but Wilson Yip’s Paradox began life as the third entry in the SPL series before the film’s producers and programmers jettisoned any mention of its genealogy ahead of the official rollout. And to be clear, this doesn’t appear to be a quirk of North American unfamiliarity with the series: even in Hong Kong it played as a clandestine sequel, with nary a mention of Sha Po Lang in sight (in English, anyways). And to confuse things further, Soi Cheang, director of the superb second entry, was originally slated to direct Paradox, only to swap out for workman Wilson Yip, director of the not-entirely-superb original SPL, late in the game. Cheang retains a producing credit on Paradox and rumor has it that he will be back to direct the next SPL film, which may end up monikered ‘SPL 3’ if the pre-production reports are to be believed. In the world of Soi Cheang, things tend towards mutation.

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Meow (Benny Chan, 2017)

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From Mao to Meow: Revolution in Contemporary Chinese Cinema

Pop will eat itself.

Last summer veteran Hong Kong director Benny Chan brought us the year’s best martial arts film with the High Noon variation Call of Heroes. This year, he’s made the summer’s most improbable movie: a heart-warming comedy about a giant alien cat who befriends a mop-headed Louis Koo and his wacky family. Pudding is the greatest warrior on the distant planet Meow, a cat-world (literally: it’s shaped like a cat’s head) wracked by meteor collisions that has been hoping to colonize Earth for centuries. But none of the cat-agents sent to Earth have ever returned, though there are snippets of their successes: inspiring worship from the ancient Egyptians and modeling yoga in India. Pudding crashes on Earth and loses his MacGuffin, making him susceptible to the corrupting influences of Earth static. In a last ditch effort to save himself, he merges with the form of a fat orange house-cat, the resulting abomination being a obese, six foot tall ball of cuteness.

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Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui, 2017)

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The most anticipated, and almost assuredly the best, World War II film of the summer, by one of the greatest filmmakers of the past forty years, opens here tomorrow exclusively at the Pacific Place: director Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come. Based on true events in the resistance against the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the film is so effective at its generic thrills, the suspense and action sequences and quiet moments of melancholy patriotism and laments for lost comrades that form the core of the resistance/war film, everything from For Whom the Bell Tolls to Army of Shadows, that one almost doesn’t notice that she’s radically revised one of the most masculine of genres into a story about the unbreakability of women.

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Weeds on Fire (Stevefat, 2016)

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One of the three new films playing at SIFF this weekend as part of their miniseries commemorating the 20th anniversary of the Handover of Hong Kong from Britain to China, along with Mad World and Cook Up a StormWeeds on Fire was one of the surprise hits of 2016 in Hong Kong. The based on true events story follows the founding of the Shatin Martins baseball team, and plays as a more or less conventional, and conventionally uplifting sports story, albeit with a harder edge to its story of high school youth than we see here in America. Think of it as A League of Their Own, but for the kids from Dangerous Encounters – First Kind (the English title is consciously recalling such rebellious Ringo Lam films as City on Fire and School on Fire, the film’s Chinese title means “Half a Step”, which is more generically sports-centric.)

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Mad World (Wong Chun, 2016)

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For more than a hundred years, all of the world, what is taken to be serious cinema has been defined more often than not by content. Films for grown-ups are supposed to be sober examinations of the social and political issues of the day. These are the movies that win awards. They almost never last, because as society mutates through time, the films remain frozen into irrelevance. Of the social problem films that maintain their greatness, it is almost always because of their secondary characteristics: the craft of directors, actors, writers and others elevate films like The Best Years of Our Lives, I Was a Fugitive from a Chain Gang, On the Waterfront or Bigger than Life beyond the prisons of their own importance. But most fall by the wayside, only unearthed by future generations of box-checkers attempting to watch all the past award winners (for why else would anyone watch Gentleman’s Agreement today?) This dynamic is starkly present in histories of Hong Kong cinema, long haunted by the fact that what the colony/SAR has always been good at are genre films (musicals, martial arts and gangster films, low-brow comedies) featuring an embarrassing lack of social relevance. The narrative around the Hong Kong New Wave has largely been one of selling out: a group of young directors emerge tackling vital issues of the day then become corrupted by mainstream cinema into making impersonal works of goofy entertainment. Going back to the post-war 1950s, when musicals and kung fu serials were incubating a vast array of talent that would dominate the industry for the next 30 years, the films of import were considered to be the social problem films, especially a subgenre of family films revolving around relations between fathers and sons. A look at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Awards, given for more than 50 years to the best in Chinese language film reveals that only a handful of non-war action films have picked up the top prize, the first (as far as I can tell) being Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

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But I may be overstating this. The Hong Kong Film Awards, dating back to 1982, have been much more liberal in their tastes, and last year, confronted with the choice between Trivisa, a serio-comic crime saga from the Milkyway Image studio and Mad World, a Very Important Movie by first-time director Wong Chun about a father and his son and mental illness, they chose the gangsters. Mad World  kicks off a miniseries of Hong Kong films at SIFF this weekend, marking the anniversary of the 1997 Handover of the colony to Mainland China with a trio of new films and a pair of classics. Shawn Yue (an actor and former model last seen here a couple of months ago in Love Off the Cuff) plays a young man suffering from Bipolar Disorder who gets released after a year in a hospital into the custody of his father, an aging truck driver played by Eric Tsang. As Yue attempts to reenter society (and unadvisedly goes off his medication) flashbacks recount the events leading up to his breakdown: he quit his job to care for his elderly mother (Elaine Jin), who appears to have been afflicted with some form of dementia. This strains his relationship with his fiancée and ultimately leads to the mother’s accidental death, for which Yue is charged with manslaughter but found not guilty. The present tense structure of the film follows Yue in a number of attempts to recreate his former life, all of which fail miserably (a former coworker and friend flounders under a financial crisis, his fiancée ambushes him with recrimination at a prayer meeting, a friendship with the boy next door is undermined by the prejudice and gossip of his neighbors). It’s enough to drive anyone nuts.

Wong’s film argues that it isn’t so much that there’s anything wrong with Yue, chemically or psychologically, but rather that given the social, material and familial conditions of contemporary society (along with perhaps a genetic inheritance from his mother), depression is not only reasonable, but inevitable. His former friends are materialistic and self-obsessed (and extremely rude at weddings). Everyone he meets makes fun of him for being crazy, there’s even a video of him having a breakdown in a convenience store that goes viral, because apparently everyone in Hong Kong is a monster. His father lives in the tiniest of apartments, an 8×6 room with bunkbed, a TV and a fold-up able, sharing a kitchen and bathroom with half a dozen neighbors. A cramped corner for forgotten people barely serving. With rigid, confining compositions and a sickly melancholic piano score, the film is an unrelenting lecture about the pathology of modern life, illustrated by a melodramatic slideshow demonstrating its devastating effects on a matinée idol.

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However, Eric Tsang, one of the key figures in Hong Kong cinema for the past 40 years, where he has served as director (Aces Go Places), writer (Tsui Hark’s All the Wrong Clues (for the Right Solution), producer (Drunken Master II, Golden Chicken, After this Our Exile) and actor both comic (as part of Sammo Hung’s Lucky Stars crew) and dramatic (as Maggie Cheung’s husband in Comrades, Almost a Love Story), brings a lived-in reality to the film that compensates for much of its contrivance. Where Yue plays depression as blankness and tears and Jin pushes dementia over the top, Tsang keeps things simple. A good-natured, under-educated man, his attempts to do what’s best for his son are heartbreakingly inadequate (at one point saying what seems exactly the opposite of how one should talk to someone with a mental illness: “Stop being negative. It’s all in your head. Think of something more cheerful. Can’t you be normal?”) At the Hong Kong Film Awards, Tsang won the Best Supporting Actor for his work, while Jin won Supporting Actress and Wong Best New Director. I suspect that, years from now, Tsang’s performance will be the only reason to watch this movie. And it might even be worth it.

SIFF 2017: Vampire Cleanup Department (Yan Pak-wing & Chiu Sin-hang, 2017)

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In loving homage to classic 1980s Hong Kong vampire films like Sammo Hung’s Encounters of the Spooky Kind, The Dead and the Deadly and the Mr. Vampire series, first-time directors Yan and Chiu have built an effects heavy update of the old lore: the vampires still hop and are still immobilized by Taoist amulets (pieces of yellow paper with magic characters written on them) but they also vaporize when stabbed by wooden swords. Babyjohn Choi plays a young man who joins the eponymous department led by none other than comedy legend Richard Ng, Chin Siu-ho (one of the students in the original Mr. Vampire) and Yeun Cheung-yan (one of Yuen Woo-ping’s younger brothers). But rather than merely update the old formula with new effects, along the lines of last year’s Ghostbusters remake, the film instead becomes a cute romance, as Babyjohn accidentally turns a pretty vampire girl almost human. Lin Min-chen, a Malaysian actress whose previous credits amount to eleven episodes of the Taiwanese TV series Prince of Wolf and being a “Instagram sensation. . . known for her angelic face and killer body”, plays the vampire girl in a performance that owes at least a little bit to Bae Doona’s work in Kore-eda Hirokazu’s Air Doll. She can’t talk, or walk, or go out in the sunlight, but she’s got big eyes. The romance such as it is, is the nicest thing in the film, and there are some other funny moments, but despite the local pedigree in genre and in the veteran talent on-screen feels weirdly unrooted, like so many Hong Kong films trying to appeal to audiences outside the (former) colony. There’s a training montage joke, but rather than reference local films, it calls back to Rocky and The Karate Kid. There’s a subplot about a rival government organization, but it’s totally undeveloped, perhaps because of the political implications of a local group being forced to submit to the rigid amoral hierarchy of a bureaucratic power. So rather than make something specific, Yan and Chiu opt for the blandly general. Those 80s films, especially Sammo Hung’s, had a real misanthropic bleakness to them, a sense of horror as much existential as violent. There’s none of that here, only cuteness.