Chasing the Dragon II: Wild Wild Bunch (Wong Jing & Jason Kwan, 2019)

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Don’t let the title fool you: in fine Hong Kong tradition Chasing the Dragon II has no relation whatsoever to Chasing the Dragon, a 1970s-set crime epic starring Donnie Yen and Andy Lau that came out a couple of years ago. The only thing the two movies have in common is that they’re crime films and that Wong Jing and Jason Kwan (as cinematographer and co-director) are to blame for them. Wild Wild Bunch is set on the eve of the Handover, in 1996, as Louis Koo is sent undercover as a bomb-maker to ensnare kidnapping kingpin The Other Tony Leung. He’s a Hong Kong cop, working in cooperation with the Mainland police, to catch badguys in Macao. Wong Jing has for forty years now made a career out of pandering to the basest pleasures of the genre film fan. He’s the most prolific bottom-feeder in Hong Kong, incorrigible master of cheap, tasteless sensationalist cinema. His comedies are silly and crude, his action films bloody and bombastic. Now finding himself in a new socio-political environment, he seems to be doing his best (such as that is) to appeal to a whole new audience: the Chinese security state.

In broad outlines, the plot of Wild Wild Bunch makes sense: undercover cop keeps getting trapped in suspenseful situations, including bomb diffusing and car chases. And certain moments do stand out: Wong and Kwan have a knack for the hyperbolic image (one of a bad guy dying in a car, metal rod jammed though his head, futilely grasping at a $1,000 bill on the other side of the windshield, is something I haven’t seen before), but almost every scene in the film if looked at with even minimal scrutiny reveals itself to be utter nonsense. My favorite: PRC cops set up a roadblock for escaping bad guys on the wrong side of an intersection, allowing the crooks to simply make a left turn to avoid them. This is the kind of joyous laziness we’ve all come to expect and, if not exactly love, then at least tolerate out of Wong Jing.

In the film’s final moments, spoilers ahead here, though God knows how anyone could spoil a Wong Jing movie, Koo leads Leung across the border, into the arms of the Mainland military, which, despite their ineffectuality at blocking roads, is otherwise vast, powerful and ruthless. This could easily be read as a paean to the PRC’s no-nonsense efficiency (as well as their habit of extraditing people from supposedly autonomous jurisdictions), but there might be something else going on. Because, for all his loucheness, Wong has always been just a bit more clever than he appears. It’s not hard to project Wong himself (and thus the old, weird Hong Kong) onto Tony Leung’s character, a loud, cruel man of greed and familial loyalty, dressed in white, throwing tattered bills in the air in a gesture of joyous release as he raises his arms in surrender to the Mainland cops. The film fades to black and then returns, and instead of the final credits we get a brief series of images scored to what passes these days for Chinese rock music. Leung is escorted out of his prison cell, while we see images of his past, open skies and roller coaster rides, he is taken to the side of a dusty road and executed. And then the credits roll.

Missbehavior (Pang Ho-cheung, 2019)

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This week’s snow has certainly thrown a wrench into my Lunar New year movie-watching plans, but fortunately my kids’ school actually started on time today so I was able to make the long drive to the Pacific Place to catch an early morning show of Pang Ho-cheung’s latest before it disappeared forever. Famous as the director of the Love in a. . . series of films, the first of which, Love in a Puff, was a vibrant breath of fresh air into the mostly moribund Hong Kong romantic comedy genre. Notoriously given a Category III rating (the equivalent of our NC-17) because of its use of foul language, it captured life among the disaffected professionals of an urban metropolis, at once highly culturally specific in its language and references while universal in that its story could take place in any highly developed center of global capitalism. The sequels continued in this vein, along with the fine but unrelated 2014 rom-com Women Who Know How to Flirt are the LuckiestMissbehavior does as well, though it is not a romance but rather an ensemble farce. And while it’s a great deal of fun, it’s Pang’s least interesting, and least essential film to date.

Reportedly put together in just two weeks, Missbehavior is about a group of old friends, all young urban professionals who have grown estranged from each other for various reasons, who band together to help out a friend who is in trouble at work. She managed to misplace her boss’s bottle of breast milk, and every works together to find a replacement by the end of the day so she doesn’t get fired. The plot alternates madcap schemes for milk retrieval with flashbacks that explain how various pairs of the friends became alienated from each other. It’s little more than an excuse for Pang (and us) to hang out with a bunch of fun actors goofing off, and on that level the film is a delight. Occasionally it gets bogged down in lesson-learning and hugging, which feels extremely heavy-handed in a film so packed with ridiculous gags (from wordplay which is pretty funny even in translation to the basest body humor).

Gigi Leung heads the cast and seems the most like a real actor. But the best performance, no surprise, comes from Lam Suet, as the world’s worst waiter. Other familiar faces abound: Isabella Leong, Miriam Yeung, Derek Tsang, June Lam, Roy Szeto, Susan Shaw, and many more.

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.

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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