Thursday, September 19, 2013

Films at the Gate 2013: Mismatched Couples, Heroes of the East, and White Dragon

I mention it every year, but I love Films at the Gate. I'm not sure if I was there for the first one, but I try to go to at least a couple nights every year because the idea - watching classic kung fu movies outside in Chinatown - is an obvious good time and because it's a fun event without much pretense that isn't poking fun at itself. The idea is to build community, so even if this doesn't become a big deal, it's still a success if everyone has a good time, and it's not selling out just because it no longer takes place in a vacant lot.

The just-for-fun nature of it maybe makes my suggestion from last week that China Lion or Well Go should maybe get in contact with ACDC (or vice versa) to use this as a bit of a platform ill-informed; as much as I, as a guy whose main concern is getting to see movies on a big screen, think that this would be an awesome way to build some word-of-mouth for the Chinese films that play Boston and make it easier for that to happen, the event's not really about movies, and I can see both the distributors or the press and cinephiles who might not now pay close attention to the event freaking out over the little kids running through the audience, under the screen, etc. Then again, maybe they'd dig it and donate a few bucks, making it a win-win.

After all, who wouldn't want to have their movie screened after a pre-show that includes kids swordfighting:

Kids with swords

I forget exactly which group/school this was on Saturday, but every screening had a couple of martial arts or dance demonstrations beforehand, and while some seemed thrown together, others were pretty impressive, no matter what the age of the participants.

One thing I couldn't help but notice was that this year's event was held a week or two later than previous years, which was just long enough for it to not only start getting a bit chillier out, but for it to get dark early enough that there was actually a fair amount of dark-time between the last demonstration and the 8pm starting times, so they had to dig up a few things to fill some time. Fortunately, one was this:

Donnie Yen TV segment

That's toward the end of a segment produced by a local TV station back in 1985 on a local kid by the name of Donnie Yen who had gone to Hong Kong to try and make it as a movie star. It leaves a few things out - the portion of the story where Donnie's mother, Master Bow Sim Mark, is basically sending him off to a strict martial arts academy to keep him out of trouble, for instance - but it's an amusing time capsule.

Remembering that part of the story, I also think that there's a need for an action comedy US/China co-production to be made where Yen and Mark Wahlberg were buddies until Yen's mother sent him away and now either one or both are cops who meet again when they need to work together to bust a gang or stop a drug pipeline... But all the crap from twenty-five years ago keeps popping up. That you could probably find footage of both breakdancing and Forrest-Gump it together so that they were breakdancing rivals in Boston would just be icing on the cake.

Make it happen, Hollywood/Beijing/Hong Kong!

And to think, I had been considering skipping out on Mismatched Couples because I saw it at one of the old Weekly Wednesday Ass-Kicking shows - I think it was tied with Taoism Drunkard on how amused Garo Nagoshi was just talking about it - and accurately remembered it as being not very good. I would have missed not just this but a surprise guest:

That's Mandy Chan, who plays a character in Mismatched Couples credited just as "Colorful Punk" on IMDB, though he's a bit more noteworthy than that suggests. Both IMDB and HKMDB seem to have him almost vanishing from the film industry after 1997, with one credit as a gaffer/key grip on a 2011 short which seems to have been shot here in Boston (someone in its cast hasbit parts in movies that were shot locally), so I guess he's been here for a few years. When introducing him, the ACDC folks mentioned he was doing action choreography on what sounded like a small local crime film.

There wasn't a lot of time or energy for a Q&A, which is too bad - I would have dug hearing what he was up to now or maybe some stories about what the movies are like for the guys who don't become stars - and how a guy whom I presume was from Hong Kong wound up here. That his HK credits stopped in 1997 makes me wonder if he left around the handover.

At any rate: It was a fun weekend at the movies, and if you like this sort of thing, why not come next year? And if you like Chinese movies, it's a pretty good week - The Grandmaster is still going to be hanging around at Apple/Fresh Pond, and My Lucky Star starts at Boston Common.

Ching fung dik sau (Mismatched Couples)

* * (out of four)
Seen 13 September 2013 on the Rose Kennedy Greenway (Films at the Gate, digital)

Mismatched Couples is not very good. At all. And since I'm a person who doesn't really believe in "so bad it's good", I can't recommend it. However, this kung fu-breakdancing-teen-romantic comedy is from 1985 is so bizarre, such an exaggerated representation of its garish time, and such a strange contrast to what some of the people involved would do later, that it produces a sort of stunned awe at its very existence, and that feeling has enough in common with how one feels when a movie genuinely succeeds at what it's doing that I can see where the idea of "so bad it's good" comes from.

This one features a twenty-year-old Donnie Yen, in just his second movie, as Eddie, a teenager who lives to breakdance. He winds up befriending unemployed, starving Chinese Opera performer Mini (Yuen Woo-ping) and sneaking him into his apartment, where his cousin Stella (May Lo Mei-mei) agrees to help hide him from his sister Ah Ying (Wong Wan-si), an imposing woman who runs the family fast food business. Eddie's got a crush on Anna (Anna Kamiyama) but that means dealing with both her kind-of butch friend Sue Lynn (Shirley Tan) and Stella's jealousy. There's also a rival breakdancer (Kenny Perez) and a lunatic (Dick Wei) who thinks Eddie is some sort of kung fu master and wants to challenge him.

I'm not going to lie: Even though this is the second time I've seen this movie (with, admittedly, about ten years in between), I still didn't really get that Kenny and the crazy kung fu guy were separate characters. Even after looking at IMDB and another more specialized website, I still have a hard time believing it; you can stitch their scenes together into one character arc. Similarly, the whole "Stella is jealous of Eddie" thing makes me wonder if the English subtitles are tremendously misleading - are Eddie and Ah Ying only half-siblings, with Stella her cousin and thus not blood relations, is someone adopted, or was that just less of a taboo in eighties Hong Kong? I suppose they could just be using "cousin" in the same way "auntie" and "uncle" often are, but otherwise, ick.

Full review at EFC.

Zhong hua zhang fu (Heroes of the East)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2013 on the Rose Kennedy Greenway (Films at the Gate, digital)

Heroes of the East is an unapologetic (but effective) exercise in giving the audience what it wants, and what it wants is Gordon Liu Chia-hui fighting Japanese martial artists. It sets the situation up, makes things stay on that path, and then ends the moment that there aren't any more fights to be had. That there's other types of genuine fun in there as well is a nice bonus.

As things start, Ah To (Liu) is feigning illness to avoid the marriage to the daughter of one of his father's Japanese business associates that had been arranged when he was just a child. Things change when he actually gets a look at Yumiko "Kung Zi" Koda (Yuka Mizuno), who has grown into a great beauty. And while you'd think that both being martial arts enthusiasts would bring them closer together, she's not impressed by China's wussy kung fu while he finds her judo and karate crude and the clothes she wears to practice immodest. Soon, she's run back home to Japan and the letter he sends to get her back also brings back her grandmaster (Naozo kato) masters of kendo, karate, nunchuku spear, sai, judo, and ninjitsu - the latter, Takeno (Yasuaki Kurata), an old boyfriend.

That is, for those counting, seven fights for Ah To, not including all the spontaneous battles that break out with Kung Zi, an attempt to surreptitiously learn drunken boxing, and various other bits of sparring. There is a lot of kung fu in this movie, to the point where it might get wearying, but the variety that is baked into the premise is a big help. Even when the audience is facing three or for action sequence in a row, Ah To chooses a new technique or weapon to counter each one he faces, and the action crew (headed up by director Liu Chia-liang) does a fine job of giving each fight its own rhythm and personality distinct from the one that came before, with the ultimate multi-part battle between Ah To and Takeno a suitably big, enjoyable finale.

Full review at EFC.

Fei hap siu baak lung (The White Dragon)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 September 2013 on the Rose Kennedy Greenway (Films at the Gate, DVD)

I'm not sure I'd call The White Dragon a spoof of the wuxia genre, although there seems to be a bit of that going on. It's more a case of Wilson Yip and company mashing up anything that might entertain them and hoping audiences enjoy the goofy anachronisms as much as they do.

It's not unusual for a movie like this to have a blind assassin running around, murdering those whom he believes are wrongdoers, but when Chicken Feathers (Francis Ng) - so known for announcing his presence by strewing them about before and after a kill - attacks the headmaster of the local boarding school, he runs straight into the White Dragon, sworn protector of justice. Things don't go well for her, and she has to transfer her powers to student Phoenix Black (Cecilia Cheung). This is a total bummer for Phoenix - it turns out superpowers give you pimples which can only be dispersed by doing good deeds, and those really cut into any time she might have with cute Second Prince Tian Yang (Andy On), whom she's just managed to get to notice her! And that's before she gets injured fighting with an archnemesis she didn't even ask for and winds up stuck at his secret base!

There's a long history of reluctant heroes, super or otherwise, in every medium - "refusing the call" is one of the stages that the Joseph Campbell "Hero With Many Faces" passes through - but the one who is just annoyed by the whole thing rather than angst-ridden is a type that we don't get much in America. It seems more popular in Japan than anywhere else, but the same clash between a historic cultural emphasis on duty and modern individualism exists in China, and it lets Yip and co-writer Lo Yiu-fai make Phoenix a bit of a brat, which is a pretty good way to keep funny bits coming.

Full review at EFC.

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