Tuesday, September 30, 2014

Films at the Gate (and Brattle): Fearless Hyena, Come Drink with Me, and The Boxer's Omen

Have I mentioned before that I love Films at the Gate? I do, unreservedly. I missed Saturday's screening, but I think it was raining that day anyway.

Films at the Gate

I don't know if the lanterns are there year-round, or if that was part of the decoration, but it's a nifty look. I didn't get any pictures of the opening presentations, alas, which is a shame because while I didn't make it for the lion dancing, there was some nifty things. Including an videotaped greeting from Donnie Yen, who stopped by an ACDC event early this year. But did Iceman open in the Boston area the next week? No. It did not. This continuing to happen boggles my mind.

I was also glad to see that Come Drink with Me was one of the selections; I think it was the only one from the Harvard Film Archive's King Hu series from last year that I missed, and while the Blu-ray (or even DVD) wasn't exactly up to the level's of the HFA's 35mm prints, it's still a pretty great movie.

Speaking of great 35mm prints, I got to the second leg of the Brattle's "Reel Weird Brattle" program this week; all of the movies are on 35mm from the American Genre Film Archive, and if they all look as nice as this one, it's a pretty good reason to stay up late. They'll be handing out pins with each one, and I'd say "collect them all", but it's a bit late for that (hey, I can't either; I'm missing at least two by being out of town). I think this is the only Chinese one, but if they're all this nuts...

Xiao quan guai zhao (The Fearless Hyena)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 12 September 2014 in Chinatown Park on the Greenway (Films at the Gate, video)

The Fearless Hyena is noteworthy in large part because it is Jackie Chan's first credited movie as writer and director as well as star, and given that "screenplay by Jackie Chan" never exactly became something that drew people to movies, it's not surprising that the story is fairly perfunctory. On the other hand, Chan's greatest skill as a director - getting out of the way of his own fight choreography - is visible from the start.

In this one, he plays Shing Lung, a lazy young man who would rather gamble that practice the kung fu of his grandfather Peng-fei (James Tien Jun), especially since said grandfather has said not to use it in public. He doesn't quite think he's doing that by running a scam with Ti Cha (Lee Kwan), head of a bogus kung fu school. Still, it attracts the attention of both Yen Chuen-wong (Yen Shi-kwan), the warlord determined to eradicate all practitioners of this style, and beggar "Unicorn" (Chan Wai-lau), secretly a master himself.

There are a lot of movies with the basic template of The Fearless Hyena - establish the villain, establish the student, make it personal, train under an unyielding master, and then build up a big fight for the finale. A lot of kung fu movies from the 1970s look like this - not studio-bound like Shaw Brothers films, but often taking place in big empty spaces, or likely-reused town sets - and have the same rhythms. Jackie Chan being in charge means that this is done with slapstick bits, even when things take the inevitably more serious turn.

Full review at EFC

Da zui xia (Come Drink with Me)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 14 September 2014 in Chinatown Park on the Greenway (Films at the Gate, video)

Cheng Pei-pei was cast in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon because Ang Lee remembered her fondly from the films she made as a young woman, with several articles specifically mentioning this one, also a signature film of King Hu. It would be Hu's last for Shaw Brothers before moving to Taiwan, regarded as both a pivotal moment in the wuxia genre and a great film in its own right. It is not an undeserved reputation.

It starts out with a caravan being ambushed, with government official Zhang Buqing (Wong Chung) taken prisoner by rebels including "Smiling Tiger" Tsu Kan (Lee Wan-chung). In response the their demands, his father sends his other child, the Golden Swallow (Cheng Pei-pei), to negotiate his release - that is to say, rescue him. She takes up residence in the local inn, although the other non-bandit guest - "Drunken Cat" Fan Tai-pei (Yueh Hua) - may prove ally or hindrance.

Hu made a number of films set in inns - most notably, Dragon Inn - and sometimes entirely constrained to them, although Come Drink with Me is rather open. It still has some of the moments that Hu (and others) would return to off and on, generally playing more as straight-up action with relatively little intrigue, including not making a big deal out of folks initially thinking Golden Swallow is a man. In some ways, Hu is doing what the greats often do in influential movies, presenting things with a casual confidence that later imitators don't quite have.

Full review at EFC

Mo (The Boxer's Omen)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 September 2014 in the Brattle Theatre (Reel Weird Brattle, 35mm)

The Boxer's Omen seems like two extremely different movies made into one, much as one character is... No, that metaphor is not quite right, and I am not going to spoil one of the more jaw-dropping moments of complete insanity that this movie offers up, even though that would likely still leave several dozen for the viewer to discover. It is a downright strange movie wrapped in something conventional and almost unrelated, a fine midnight movie if there ever was one.

The boxer is Chan Hung (Phillip Ko Fei), who challenges Thai kickboxer Bu Bo (Bolo Yeung Sze) after the latter's dirty and illegal moves seriously injure Chan's brother. That will be in three months, which is good: Both before and after coming to Thailand to issue the challenge, Chan Hung has had visions which lead him to a Buddhist temple where the monks tell him that their abbot was his twin in a former life, which means that he must become a monk and fight the black magician who cast a killing spell on the abbot for slaying the magician's student...

To say this makes no sense is more than a bit unfair; there is actually a pretty simple "you killed someone close to me and I shall have retribution!" logic going on with all the back and forth, so all the motivations are easy enough to buy into. As to all the reincarnation, transformation, and the evil wizard who seems to be hanging out in the same room as his arch-nemesis... Hey, I don't know that much about Buddhism; this could make at least as much sense as the exorcisms in western horror movies! In all seriousness, On Szeto's screenplay seems to run on completely arbitrary rules, seeming less the result of one or two writers than something handed off between four or five each instructed to the nuttiest thing he or she could come up with. Somehow, he and director Kuei Chih-hung make this flow better than it has any right to.

Full review at EFC

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