Three (Johnnie To, 2016)

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This guest review comes courtesy of critic Jaime Grijalba.

I’m not an expert on Johnnie To, nor do I pretend to be one. Not because I don’t find him interesting, and I will end up watching his entire filmography before too long. I’m wary of clogging the feed of the many people who are unaware of his talents with my half-assed thoughts, especially when there are so many critics and fans that have spent way more time than I’d ever spend examining and studying the style and everything that surrounds the films of To and his Milkyway Image studio. So, with all that I’ve said, what lead me to write about the latest film from one of the most well-regarded Asian directors of the past two decades?

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The Frances Farmer Show #10: Three and Shock Corridor

This week Mike and Sean, for the third time, trek out to downtown Seattle to catch the opening night of the new Johnnie To film, the hospital-set thriller Three, with Louis Koo, Zhao Wei and Wallace Chung. Paired with it is another thriller set in a hospital, Samuel Fuller’s 1963 Shock Corridor, about a journalist who goes undercover in a mental institution and comes unglued.

You can listen to the show by downloading it directly, or by subscribing on iTunes or the podcast player of your choice.

A Correction:

Philip Ahn, who played Dr. Hong in Shock Corridor, was Korean-American, not Chinese American.

SIFF 2016 Report #3: Disintegration (The Bitter Stems, Thithi, Trivisa, The Mobfathers, Tag)

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Proving once again that no film festival should ever last longer than an Olympic Games, the 2016 SIFF limped to its conclusion this weekend after a soul-crushing 25 days. While the festival had run impressively well over its first two weeks, organized and on time and with nothing in particular for a picky festival-goer like me to complain about, the last week saw an inexplicable series of outrages.

This began on Sunday night, when the programmer tasked with introducing the Johnnie To-produced film Trivisa managed to be both disrespectful, mildly offense and factually inaccurate when he claimed To was the “Roger Corman of Hong Kong”, a producer who would make any movie you had in mind as long as it had “guns or titties”. That same presenter ran the Q&A with actor/producer Chapman To the next night, which was largely unobjectionable (To was the one who mentioned “titties” at least), but the programmer did at one point refer to Mr. To as “Chapman Ho” and later, “Herman”.

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SIFF 2016 Preview Week Three and Beyond

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The Seattle International Film Festival races into it’s third week (has it really only been fifteen days? With only a mere ten to go?) and here we have some titles you won’t want to miss. We’ll link to our reviews of the titles listed here as we write them, as we’ve been doing with our Week One and Week Two Previews. We previewed the festival back on Frances Farmer Show #6 and discussed it at its midway point on Frances Farmer #7. We’ll have a complete wrap-up of the SIFF just as soon as it ends.

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Office (Johnnie To, 2015)

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The world of Office, the latest from director Johnnie To, is a world without walls. Or, rather, a world where walls do nothing to differentiate space. It’s hard to tell where one place begins and another ends. Each scene takes place in a largely artificial environment where geometric figures and shapes suggest the outline of a room; this strategy essentially means that at any given moment there’s tons of action happening on multiple planes of the frame. Whether it’s a hospital room, a character’s apartment, there is no personal space. There’s only a series of transparent chambers where only emotional/financial transactions can take place.

Chow Yun Fat plays Chairman Ho. While his wife is in a coma, he’s been having an affair with CEO Chang for the last 20 years (played by Sylvia Chang, the film is an adaptation of her 2009 play, Design for Living), and his daughter, Kat, is now working at an entry-level position to gain knowledge of the business. One of his underlings tries to get an accountant to cook the books. Meanwhile Lee Xiang, played by Wang Ziyi (Lee for Ang Lee, Xiang for Dream – aspirational!), also starting at the company, just wants to make a good impression, achieve his dreams and ride that direct elevator to the 71st floor. The film uses all of them to explore certain attitudes and ways of living in capitalist society by testing their bonds after the 2008 crash.

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The Heroic Trio (Johnnie To, 1993)

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Before becoming an renowned auteur, a favorite of critics and film festivals the world over, Johnnie To was known primarily in the West for the two films he made in 1993 in collaboration with director and action choreographer Ching Siu-tung. The Heroic Trio and Executioners star Michelle Yeoh, Maggie Cheung and Anita Mui as superheroes in a pre- and then post-apocalyptic Hong Kong, a wuxia Charlie’s Angels. Though he’d had a run of local hits, including back-to-back highest-grossing films of the years 1988 and 1989 (the ensemble farce The Eighth Happiness and the melodrama All About Ah-Long, respectively), none of his films managed to find much interest outside of Hong Kong, and his reputation, locally as well as abroad, was one of a competent professional filmmaker, subservient to the authorial personalities of his stars (Chow Yun-fat, Stephen Chow and Andy Lau) and producers (the gang at the Cinema City studio, where he worked alongside more accomplished peers such as Tsui Hark and Ringo Lam). But the prospect of beautiful women in sexy costumes flying around, doing weird shit and beating the hell out of people was enough to get the Heroic Trio films a home video release in the US, where more than 20 years later they remain among the most available of all of To’s films, standard content for streaming services. It was the first Johnnie To film I ever saw, I rented the old English-dubbed VHS from Scarecrow Video a long time ago. It plays tomorrow night in a definitely-better (hopefully subtitled) version in Scarecrow’s Screening Lounge.

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