Friday, May 20, 2005

The films of Wong Kar-Wai

So, Wong Kar-Wai is good. Really good. Good enough that writing these reviews about a month later, I don't have much trouble having something to say about all of them.

Seeing them all in a week made his personal style pretty clear - the use of mirrors is a director trademark, and it becomes a little comical when exposed to them all in short order. By the time I saw In the Mood for Love, I got the impression that if a mirror could be in a room, it would, and then Wong and Doyle would shoot as much as possible as a reflection in that mirror.

I must admit that I can't wait to see 2046 when it finally gets a real US release this August. It's a beautiful film, and though the Brattle does okay when they have to work from a DVD, scope movies on DVD just don't look good blown up to that size. And, I suspect it will make a little more sense now that I've seen In the Mood for Love. I kind of regret that I didn't see ItMfL at one of the dozen or so opportunities I've had to see it at the Brattle or Harvard Film Archive over the past few years; then, it would have informed my viewing of 2046, rather than vice versa.


* * * * (out of four)
Seen 3 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Sunday Eye-Opener) (projected video)

Though 2046 is a sequel to In the Mood for Love, one needn't see the prior film in order to enjoy this one. Indeed, I wish I had written my review of this film immediately after seeing it, since I would not see In the Mood for Love for another week and a half, and could thus discuss why I feel it works on its own without the bits of that other masterpiece coloring it. But it's too late for that, and in a way that's fitting - my feelings for one must inevitably color what I feel for the other.

Chow Mo Wan (Tony Leung) is returning to Hong Kong after spending a few years in Singapore. He mores into a hotel, asking for room 2046. It's unavailable, so he takes 2047. 2046 is occupied by a showgirl he'd met in Singapore, Lulu (Carina Lau), who doesn't recognize him. She leaves after one of her boyfriends attacks her, and the next occupant of the room is Bai Ling (Zhang Ziyi), a beautiful call girl. They talk, hit it off, and soon she's keeping the money he insists on paying her separate. Between tenants, 2046 is occupied by the landlord's daughter, Jing Wen (Faye Wong), where she can secretly read her pulp novels, along with the letters from the Japanese boyfriend (Takuya Kimura) that her father forbids her to see.

Read the rest at HBS.

Days of Being Wild (A Fei Jing Juen)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

Yuddy's got a good line; he tells girls he'll remember the very moment they met. He's also got Leslie Cheung's good looks, along with a nice apartment and apparently enough money that he doesn't have to work. He's a charmer, to be sure, but like a lot of charmers, both in the movies and in life, there's something distinctly less appealing behind that charisma. Ladies beware.

You can see him working in the opening, as he buys a soda from Su Li Zhen (Maggie Cheung), a pretty girl working in a stall tucked away in a quiet corner of Hong Kong. She's kind of shy, and seems to know better. But Yuddy's persistent, and makes her feel special, especially since she doesn't seem to get too many customers on any given day. Of course, she doesn't initially know about Yuddy's other girlfriend Mimi (Carina Lau). He's oddly indifferent when the two discover each other, perhaps because he's more concerned about his contentious relationship with his adopted mother (Rebecca Pan), who talks about going to America with her current lover but still refuses to tell him anything about his biological parents. The ladies are still drawn to him, though Li Zhen generally doesn't get further than the policeman patrolling the neighborhood (Andy Lau), while Yuddy's friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung) winds up smitten with Mimi.

Read the rest at HBS.

Ashes of Time (Dung Che Sai Duk)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

Zhang Yimou and Ang Lee made their martial arts movies after they'd made a name for themselves as "serious" filmmakers. For them it was, in part, somewhat nostalgic, making the sort of films that they'd enjoyed as kids and teenagers. Wong Kar-Wai's martial arts picture, on the other hand, was made near the beginning of his career, and was the sort of thing he was trying to move away from.

A look at Wong's filmography will show that this isn't the first time he's worked in the genre; he got his start in the industry writing B-movies like the Haunted Cop Shop flicks, and even though he already had two features under his belt as a writer-director when he made Ashes of Time, he was still working on scripts like Savior of the Soul. And then this movie took forever to finish, especially dragging in the editing room, to the point where Wong set it aside and made Chunking Express, which would become his international breakout hit. It's worth remembering, the next time you feel like mocking the makers of a mediocre action movie, those movies can chew even a great director up and spit him out, without a whole lot to show for it.

Read the rest at HBS.

As Tears Go By (Wong Gok Ka Moon)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

Wong Kar-Wai's first feature as a writer-director is an unassuming thing, a solid little movie about a gangster with a decent heart being pulled in opposite directions by the two people he spends the most time with. It's a safe first movie, predictable in its way and commercial, but showing enough skill and craft that one isn't completely surprised by the leap forward that Days of Being Wild would represent.

Wah (Andy Lau) is in the Triads, and he does all right with it - he can scare someone or deliver a beating when necessary, and he's progressed far enough that some folks call him "big brother" - but he doesn't necessarily think of it as a career. Not that he has something else he'd rather be doing; he's just young and rather aimless. He's like a lot of twentysomethings that haven't mapped their life out that way; the state of his apartment would instill a desire to clean into the average male American college student. Most of his goodwill in the gang is spent on cleaning after Fly (Jacky Cheung), who does rather like being a gangster, but isn't much good at it.

Read the rest at HBS.

Fallen Angels (Duo Luo Tian Shi)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

Infatuation is a funny thing. It looks and feels a whole lot like love, and who's to say where the border between them is? And infatuation isn't wholly a bad thing, especially if you can see it for what it is and have reason to believe that genuine love isn't going to be reciprocated. Fallen Angels is about infatuations displayed by four people who might, let's face it, have trouble finding soulmates. It's a zippy movie populated by eccentrics who provide the material for dark comedy, staying well away from sentimentality and only occasionally stooping to cruelty.

Why don't these folks seem likely to meet someone nice and settle down? Well, Wong Chi-Ming (Leon Lai) is a hitman, but more than that, he doesn't have a lot of initiative. He figures life is easier when there's someone telling him what to do. His murders are detailed plans worked out beforehand by his nameless agent (Michelle Reis). She's sexy, but filled with the kind of amoral confidence her job requires, and, besides, she's infatuated with her partner, despite never having met him face to face. On the other side of town, there's He Zhiwu (Takeshi Kaneshiro), who has been mute since his father fed him a can of spoiled pineapple when he was five. He's a nocturnal sort, with a habit of breaking into street vendors' booths and then forcing people to do business with him. Charlie (Charlie Yeung) is about the only person who willingly spends time with him, but that mostly seems to be because he doesn't interrupt her own rantings about how the world has it in for her.

Read the rest at HBS.

Chungking Express (Chong Qing Sen Lin)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 12 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective) (projected video)

Chungking Express is a cop movie in that its two protagonists are police officers, but it doesn't deal with crime very much at all. Instead, writer/director Wong Kar-Wai's film is an eccentric, beautifully shot pair of stories about two men whose girlfriends have recently left them.

The first half is certainly set up to look like a procedural. We're introduced to a police officer, badge #223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), one of the youngest detectives on the force. His girlfriend broke up with him on April Fool's Day, and since then he's been buying tins of pineapple with a May first expiration date, marking time until, he believes, she either comes back or his love for her expires. We also meet a smuggler (Brigitte Lin) using Indian families to smuggle heroin into Hong Kong. The expected play, perhaps, is for the officer to be assigned to capture her, but for an attraction to build, until each are ultimately forced to choose between their duty and their heart...

Read the rest at HBS.

Happy Together (Cheun Gwong Tsa Sit)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 13 April 2005 at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

I've known people who shied away from a relationship because they worried about what would happen if they broke up. I've always argued that that's a foolish thing to worry about, but, then, what do I know; "what if they so no" has usually been enough to scare me away. You don't have to share this attitude, though, to agree that Happy Together presents a pretty effective nightmare scenario about getting oneself into a situation from which one cannot readily extract oneself.

As the film starts, things are good for Ho Po-wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yiu-fai (Tony Leung). They've started a new life together in Argentina, where they would presumably not be as ostracized for their homosexuality as they were in Hong Kong. Every day is exciting and new, the country is beautiful, and they love being with each other. But fairly soon, when their car breaks down on the way to see what they've been told is a beautiful waterfall, everything they don't like about each other comes into sharp relief. Ho is reckless and irresponsible, Lai is cranky and bitter, and damn it, they've had enough. They break up, and Lai takes a menial job as a tango-club doorman to try and save enough money to go back home. He'd be happy if he never saw Ho again. Not going to be the case, though, as Ho is beaten and the only contact number he has is Lai's, and what's Lai going to do, throw this broken-limbed guy who speaks very little Spanish out into the street? No, that wouldn't be right.

Readthe rest on HBS

In the Mood for Love (Fa Yeung Nin wa)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 April at the Brattle Theater (Wong Kar-Wai Retrospective)

We've all heard it said that love hurts. I think it's fair to say, though, that it has seldom hurt quite so exquisitely as it does in Wong Kar-Wai's In the Mood for Love.

Hong Kong, the early 1960s. Two young couples rent spare bedrooms in neighboring apartments, creating confusion when they move in on the same day. Well, when half of them move in. Chow Mo-wan (Tony Leung) is on his own, as his wife is staying with family; Su Li-zhen Chan (Maggie Cheung) must do without her husband, who is on a business trip. These circumstances will repeat often, and the two become friendly acquaintances as they pass in the halls. Eventually, they will individually come to suspect their spouses of being unfaithful. By the time they work out that Mrs. Chow and Mr. Chan are having an affair with each other, they have formed their own connection.

Read the rest at HBS.

Awright. Next on the reviewing list, silents & slapstick from Chaplin, Chow, and Maddin; but now, to catch some sleep before seeing Revenge of the Sith.

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