Director: Wong Kar-Wai
This is, specifically, the “redux” version we’re dealing with, cos that seems to be the only one easily available; the original international version, to say nothing of the original original version from the Venice Film Festival, may still be out there in dodgy form, but this seems to be the one Wong himself wants out there. Apparently it came about because he got a call from the film lab storing the film materials, advising they were shutting down the very next day, so if he wanted his stuff, he’d better get it right there and then… and the materials were apparently in such a mess that a complete overhaul was the only way to go. Which involved recutting, making the seasonal structure clearer, new music, and a completely different colour grade (which, apparently cinematographer Christopher Doyle isn’t thrilled by). Bordwell has a whole piece on it, and on the connections between the film’s various characters. The film was notorious for baffling its original audiences, and I can see why; you actually can piece the relationships together, but Wong doesn’t make it terribly easy, and the loose, semi-episodic structure makes everything just that little bit more remote. It’s kind of an anti-wu xia film in some ways, determined to take the usual sword-slinging characters and make them more recognisably human than mythic… although the extent to which it succeeds at doing so is, I think, arguable, and the film’s general approach is a highly aesthetic and artificial one that kind of further undercuts that. It’s so self-conscious in its “artisticness”—a tendency I’ve always gathered was kind of frowned upon by the Hong Kong film industry at large in those days; Wong might’ve been playing with big stars but he was never really accepted at home as one himself the way foreign critics fawned over him—that it becomes quite teeth-grinding. I may find more in it on a second watch, but that might be a while in coming.
Director: Ho Meng Hua
Well, I wanted something different from the last thing I watched, and damn me if I didn’t get precisely that. I’m not really au fait with the early Hong Kong horror film, other than that I know Shaws made a number of them, and this was one, probably one of the first in fact… The plot is simple enough; there’s a rich widow and two men, she has her eye on one (but he hates her) and the other has his eye on her (but she hates him). In order to win her over, the latter does the logical thing and resorts to black magic, as you do; hiring the services of the magician Sha Jianmai, his plan doesn’t exactly go to order, but the widow decides to try this black magic thing herself to see if Sha’s skills can win over her beloved architect Xu Nuo. Unfortunately for her, Sha has his own ideas about due recompense for his spells… will his nemesis Master Furong be able to save the day? Black Magic is a remarkably silly film, and what really lifts it to its own level of strangeness is that the above plot doesn’t take place in some remote past where it would make sense, but in contemporary Kuala Lumpur (this film just SCREAMS “1975” in so many ways it’s not funny); the icing on the cake is that the climactic duel between Sha and Furong takes place atop one of Xu’s building sites. And the BLOOD! It’s not as gory as I gather some of Shaws’ other horrors (including the sequel to this which came out a year later) would be, but the blood is so ridiculously bright red it just tips the film over the edge whenever it appears. Look, it’s got sex magic, potions involving breast milk, corpses being disinterred and dismembered, astounding mid-70s fashions, music ripped off from what I presume would’ve been European thrillers of the day (and a few bits of Tangerine Dream’s Rubycon), centipede eating… no one would ever mistake it for a masterpiece of the genre, let alone the art, but sometimes 95 minutes of ludicrousness is exactly what you need at stupid hours of the night when most people would be in their beds…
Director: Sammo Hung
I pulled this one off the shelf cos one of my Twitter friends mentioned this afternoon that they were watching it, which struck me as an entirely good idea so I copied it. A bit of Sammo Hung never goes too far wrong, of course, and this is a particularly good example of his work; maybe less heavy on the actual martial artistry than usual—we’re nearly halfway through the film before we get the first real fight—but the action stuff is good nonetheless (I mean, really, just watch the guy move; he is quite incredible). However, this film had different things on its mind, setting out to do something Hong Kong cinema hadn’t really done before in quite this way, which was to mash up the kung fu film with horror and comedy; the end result was one of the big hits of the early 80s at home, though apparently the few Western audiences who saw it at the time (it actually played Cannes in 1981) were mostly perplexed by it. To me, of course, it’s just a stellar example of the horror comedy, given an additional flavour by the particular Chinese folkloric and religious elements that underpin it; the Taoist magical warfare on show is obviously markedly different to the business in Universal and Hammer. Anyway, the setting is circa 1900, Sammo is “Bold” Cheung, a carriage driver whose wife is fooling around with his employer, the magistrate Tam; when the latter is nearly caught in flagrante delicto, he decides Cheung has to be disposed of, and what better way to do so than by black magic? So enter Master Chin to do the deed… but enter also his fellow priest Master Tsui to look out for Cheung’s interests. All of this is terrific, of course; Chung Fat is a lot of fun as Tsui, but Sammo obviously wins as the everyman Cheung, blessed with some martial arts ability but really out of his depth. Plus he just makes the film work so well as both horror and comedy, pulling off some amazing moments of comic suspense; the scene where he’s on the run from the authorities and inadvertently reanimates a corpse that mimics his actions (including when he goes to take a piss) is especially marvellous. Delighted to see this again.
I have to admit I often have problems determining the period in which most martial arts films are supposed to take place—Chinese history is not one of my specialties—so it was genuinely startling when, as the baddies return home in the last part of this film for the last battle, they find the light bulbs have gone out. HOLY SHIT IT’S NOT AS FAR BACK IN THE PAST AS I THOUGHT… As for the film itself, the first and only time I saw this was probably about 15 years ago, one of the horrible old Warner pan/scan dub jobs we had to make do with When I Were A Lad, back in the analogue age; watching the Dragon Dynasty DVD this evening was like watching it for the first time, not least because pretty much all I remembered of it anyway was someone getting their eyes ripped out… I don’t know much about director Jeong Chang-Hwa, but he seems to have had some skill at compressing an awful lot of business into a comparatively small runtime (his fight scenes are clearly highly edited, and he seems to have liked trimming his shots very tightly); the simplest way to sum the story up would be something like this, there’s a big martial arts tournament coming up and two main schools are competing, one of which is basically lording it over the town where they’re based, so they must be defeated for the good of one and all. But there’s lots of stuff going on around this broad plot, with betrayal being a significant theme; our hero (Lo Lieh; if he didn’t have Bruce Lee’s repertoire of noises he clearly gave good scowl) is dumped on by one of his supposed brothers in arms, who eventually finds himself shafted by the villains. Jeong packs so much in, with a fairly large secondary cast, it’s remarkable how easy it is to actually keep track of; historically interesting, of course, as the first Hong Kong actioner released in the West, it’s probably not the best of its kind, really, but still a pretty damn solid piece of what is still fairly brutal entertainment.
Yeah, I’m kind of reaching for the comfort food with this one, and why the hell shouldn’t I? It’s great. I’ve seen it written that certain film genres could only really flourish when sound film took off, and the martial arts film is one of those, surely; the fights are so much fun when you can hear them as well as see them (and given that a surprising amount of the action in this film, particularly some of the really deadly force, actually takes place just out of camera range, sound really is necessary for their effectiveness). And Bruce Lee, too, would never have been quite the same in silent films; obviously he looked great on film, but it’s the sounds he makes, the whooping, the barking, the shrieking, the gibbering, whatever the hell it is, they’re such a vital part of his fighting performance as much as anything he does with his fists and feet. And the face, too; he does some great face in this (I just watched a month of horror films and none of them were as scary as the look on his face when he stomps Bob Wall’s chest).
It’s a film that feels quite curious in some ways, a US/Hong Kong co-production with an American director but mostly HK talent (I’ll defer to Bey Logan’s judgement that Lee was the film’s main creative force rather than director Robert Clouse), shot entirely in HK and yet somehow it doesn’t quite feel like a Hong Kong film, it feels more “American” somehow… I did notice this time how long it actually takes for Bruce to seriously get underway with his mission (i.e. about halfway into the film), and the whole thing did strike me this time as perhaps being more interested, to at least some extent, in its thriller plot than its fights. I could be wrong, but I did get that feeling. Anyway, it’s great, like I said; there is the school of thought that says Fist of Fury is the better film (I’ll need to watch it again to see if I concur or not), but Dragon still holds up as an excellent “gateway drug” for anyone starting out in martial arts cinema, and a great example of early to mid 70s (and how early to mid 70s!) action cinema in general…
After Harakiri I was in the mood for something a bit less heavy. Solution: dive back into the DVD library for some Hong Kong action, and a particularly wild example of same (also one not to be confused with Tsui Hark’s own remake from 2001). Ropey though some of the effects might… well, do look in this day and age, they were state of the art in 1983 and groundbreaking for a film industry not used to them. Tsui imported American technicians to show the Hong Kong crowd what to do, and the result was an extravaganza that’s still kind of staggering, especially in its self-evident and unswerving commitment to Doing All The Things. So determined is it to be a mind-melting explosion of sheer Stuff Happening that it almost succeeds in making you realise the actual plot doesn’t really kick in until over half an hour in; up to that point it’s a long introduction to our main characters, a pair of somewhat odd couples (a Buddhist monk and his disciple; a travelling scholar and a soldier escaping a battle who becomes his disciple). That plot is kind of a thin one; they have to destroy the Blood Demon before it reincarnates, said mission involving a quest to recover two magic swords. Complications ensue when the scholar becomes the embodiment of evil along the way. The simplicity of the good-vs-evil conflict is nice, and the “Chineseness” of some of the details (cf. Sammo Hung’s monstrous holy eyebrows) gives it an obvious flavour, but really it’s about pure spectacle; it’s a film that shouts at you to look at it, see the tricks it can do, marvel at the amount of business it crams into just over 90 minutes, and try not to worry too much about the abruptness of some of the storytelling. At times like this, that sort of thing is just about perfect.
The plan to spend January doing rewatches of old stuff hasn’t really worked out, has it? Other project getting in the way and all that. Still, couldn’t let the month go without this one… alas, my delight at finding it on DVD (I got the recent Dragon Dynasty edition) has been tempered somewhat by the rather mediocre quality of the visuals, interlaced to buggery (apparently a PAL>NTSC conversion to boot) and looking worst of all during the big action scenes (after all these years, Weinstein still fucks up Asian cinema). And the big action really is what this is all about, even if it’s not quite as hyperactive as I recall it being. Indeed, it’s about 15 years now since I first saw (almost to the very day, I think), and what struck me most about it was how, well, “80s” it is. Something about it shouts “1989!” a little more loudly than it did when I first saw it, but then again 1997 was a lot closer to when the film was made than it is to 2012, it wouldn’t have looked so of its time back then perhaps… Still great, of course, still mighty stuff that I’m sure continues to define John Woo; though a comparative flop at home, it exploded him into the attention of western filmgoers and indeed into the Hollywood film industry, where he’s never really succeeded in matching his HK output, probably because for the most part (Face/Off being the notable exception) he hasn’t been able to go over the top as he does here. The gunfire is big, but the emotions are bigger; nobility, honour, all of that stuff, men on either side of the law forming friendship as they both find themselves adrift in a world that no longer respects the old values like they do. (On which note, isn’t it great to watch this knowing there’s not a frame of CGI in it?) I don’t know if I’d still call it the best action movie ever made, I’m no longer keen on such absolute statements, but any competitor would have to go really fucking hard to beat it for the title.
I couldn’t not watch the second film after that, though it was nearly 2.30am when it finished so far too late to start writing about it then. Anyway, this was the film that opened up the wonderful world of Hong Kong cinema to me 15 years ago… prior to which I’d just assumed films like this were needlessly violent southeast Asian trash; I can’t recall for the life of me why I finally decided to give this a go when SBS were showing it one night, but I did, and it demonstrated that, well, needlessly violent southeast Asian trash could be awfully entertaining. Here, Jackie is promoted to superintendent of a police station; this time he’s not only up against pirates (the handful of bedraggled survivors from the first film), but mainland revolutionaries, Chinese government spies, and corruption within the police force, particularly embodied by his own superior officer. The 1001 Movies You Must See Before You Die book includes this rather than the original on the grounds that it’s much the same as the first only there’s more of it (cf. also the first two Coffin Joe films for another illustration of this principle); I can see what they’re driving at though I don’t think I agree with the wisdom that this is the better film, I think both of them are pretty much equal. Watching this right after the original, I did kind of feel Sammo’s absence (he’s only here in the pre-credits recap of the action scenes from the first film), but then again there’s enough narrative elements and characters for Jackie to be getting on with as it is without him being in there too. But, obviously, what we look for here is the action, and the film surely delivers there, particularly the lengthy climactic showdown (this time Chan has the audacity to rip off Keaton). As an easy entry into Hong Kong action films, these are hard to beat.
Every now and then I find myself at a loose end, with literally hundreds of DVDs I could watch, but no idea what to watch. When such a mood hits me, as it did tonight, the answer is usually something both familiar and unthreatening, something I know is good that won’t tax me unduly… and while going through a box of stuff, I chanced upon the two Project A films. Jackie Chan classic? Why the hell not. I can’t remember when I last watched either of these, indeed I’m not sure I’ve actually watched either on DVD though I’ve had the discs for a number of years (bought them as library titles)… Anyway, this was a delightful rediscovery, one of the few Hong Kong period action films actually set in Hong Kong itself; it’s about 1900 or so, Chan is the coast guard sergeant co-opted with the rest of his squad into the hated police force, and pirates are running rampant. Chan quits the force after a bust that doesn’t quite go as it should, and finds himself teaming up with “good thief” Sammo Hung against the pirates and their associates on land. I hold to the theory that people are a mix of higher and lower aesthetic needs, and accordingly it’s hard to survive just on a diet of high art and seriousness; some times you need that, but other times your baser desires call louder than your higher ones and you just want to see shit getting broken in the course of three clearly defined acts. A film like this is perfect for that, riding on the winning charisma of Messrs Hung and Chan (the latter with enough balls to not only rip off Harold Lloyd’s clock-face bit but to include three different takes of it in the film), not to mention the vigour and athleticism of the rest of the cast too, and casually redefining the Hong Kong action comedy as it goes. On nights like this it’s exactly the sort of thing I need, even if I don’t realise it until I’ve looked over all my shelves and stuff…
It’s an atypical Hong Kong action film that puts you in mind of Dario Argento’s Inferno more than anything else, if only in terms of its use of lighting and colour (something about the blues and yellows), but then this really isn’t quite a typical HK actioner. Bey Logan’s book characterises it as an “arthouse kung fu movie”, which is one way of looking at it, I suppose. Our “hero” is a young man whose primary talent is drawing what I presume passed for manga in the 1920s, when the film is set; he gets kicked out of school for basically not doing anything else, and also for bringing trouble upon himself when he rescues a young girl—sold into slavery when she was little—from being swallowed up by a prostitution ring being run by the local police chief. They take refuge at a noodle restaurant run by Lau Kar-Leung’s kung fu master in seclusion Master Yat, who gives them a place to live as long as Yuk-Su works in the kitchen. Which he agrees to do, but he’s also prone to buggering off and learning kung fu elsewhere; when the time comes, though, he’s going to need the old man’s help to fend off even more trouble. Logan’s commentary notes that it was a notorious flop upon its eventual release nearly a year after shooting wrapped, and I can kind of understand why; I can see that director David Lai was trying to do something a bit different, particularly with the extraordinary look of the thing (if I didn’t know it was meant to be that dark, I’d have thought the DVD transfer had been severely fucked up), but I’m not sure how successful it actually is, and I fear part of that is down to Chin Kar Lok in the lead role; Yuk Su isn’t actually that interesting a character and he doesn’t seem that interesting a lead actor. A nice experiment, but I’m not sure it’s much more…