Friday, June 20, 2014

Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong presents Johnnie To: Blind Detective & Boundless

The Museum of Fine Arts is not actually a particularly dry or humorless institution, but even if they generally ran movies on Tuesday evening, I don't think they would have done a "To's Day" promotion for this part of the "Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong" program. Kind of a shame, but it's sitting right there, just waiting for the Brattle to take it the next time they go for a vertical calendar. Then again, they usually do that during the summer, so I'd miss a good chunk of it while I'm at Fantasia, so maybe just forget the whole idea.

I almost missed this one when I discovered I had made it to the T station without my wallet, and actually did miss the first couple minutes. I guess that counts as an excuse to see it again when it hits Blu-ray. Kind of a shame it didn't seem to hit the Asian/genre festival circuit. I guess Johnnie To's name is big enough that the likes of Cannes and Toronto want his latest, but since this one didn't seem to get picked up for distribution as a result, it seems to be falling through the cracks.

Man Tam (Blind Detective)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 June 2014 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong, DCP)

I know that I have made comments about how it's a shame that we'll likely only see a good sleuth in one movie a few times in the past, but it seems especially relevant here because the makers of Blind Detective seem to feel the same way. There are enough cases and subplots crammed into this movie to give a TV series a pretty good start, and a manic energy that makes it a terrific comedy as well as an intriguing mystery.

The blind detective of the title is Johnston Chong (Andy Lau Tak-wah), an ex-cop forced into retirement by retinal detachment who spends his time solving cold cases and hunting down fugitives for reward money. It's during one of these jobs - for which former partner Szeto Fatbo (Guo Tao) poaches the credit - that he meets Goldie Ho (Sammi Cheng Sau-man), a cop who is great at running suspects down but not so much the puzzle-solving aspect. She wants to hire Johnston to track down a friend who disappeared when they were teenagers in 1997, and he agrees - and starts using her as an assistant on some other cases he's got going.

Because director Johnnie To and and his collaborators at Milkyway Image are best known for their lean, intense crime movies, it would be easy to expect Blind Detective to fall into that category. There are certainly moments where it does - Johnston & Ho get involved in some gruesome murder cases - but more often, it's going for the big belly laugh, whether it be from slapstick built around Johnston's blindness to full-scale knockabout humor. The characters banter and bicker in roughly equal measure, and while they do take the occasional moment to earnestly describe what motivates them, they are not just serious people that ridiculous things happen to, but characters driven by their own inherent goofiness.

Full review at EFC


* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 15 June 2014 in the Museum of Fine Arts Remis Auditorium (Enchanting New Cinema from Hong Kong, digital)

Like many documentaries about films and filmmakers, Boundless will likely eventually end up as the extra disc in a box set (in this case of Johnnie To films), which is fine: That would get it to its audience and it's not necessarily worth paying for on its own. It is a decent enough look at where To is now and a fair attempt at using his career as a surrogate for the last twenty years of the Hong Kong film industry, although there is probably a better movie to be made asking those lines.

Director Ferris Lin Ze-Qiu starts out by showing where To was quite literally at one point, in China's Yunnan Province shooting Romancing in Thin Air, and not having a great time of it: It's much colder than the crew from Hong Kong are used to, and that group is augmented by a bunch of mainlanders who, in To's eyes, mainly get underfoot. He even seems a bit cranky when he's interviewed on that particular set, and it sets up a potentially interesting way for the film to proceed - how does a man whose personal and artistic identity is so tired into Hong Kong specifically handle how the vast but restrictive People's Republic of China is pulling at his industry like a gravitational force?

It's an issue Lin and company touch upon, though mostly indirectly - it's one thing for a world-renowned director to get frustrated by new staffing practices; it's quite another for him to make comments about language restrictions or censorship that might get a market of a billion people who seem to really like movies cut off from him (this goes double for Lin, a film student making this documentary as a thesis project). So this major influence on Hong Kong and its film industry is tiptoed around to an unfortunate extent; the most forceful words on the subject come from critic/scholar Yau Nai Hoi, who says that a city like Hong Kong losing its distinct voice in film and culture would make it "pathetic". It's also note that in 1997, a year in which To's fledgling Milkyway Image production company nearly collapsed, only about 70 films were made in Hong Kong - which sounds pretty impressive for a small city-state of five million people, but was well below what it did at its peak.

Full review at EFC

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