Tuesday, July 12, 2016

This Week in China: Cold War, Cold War II, and Foolish Games

On the one hand, this proved to be some good Fantasia pre-gaming, with two Chinese movies in rapid succession, with one the night before so that it was being piled on. On the other hand, it's five days later and this is just going up. I will probably be able to work a little more writing time in while actually in Montreal, if only because I won't be working so much and will have immediate purpose, but I really had planned to get more done. There's a local festival and a half I wanted to write up before getting there, but that seems impossible, even with the seven-hour bus ride to use.

Ah, well. Still, a couple of interesting things to note about the latest Hong Kong thriller to get an American release right alongside its Chinese ones:

First, Hong Kong action is the best. We all know this, I hope, but I notice something in this one that had sort of been floating in my head without necessarily connecting to anything: When there's a police pursuit going on, everybody is calling out fairly specific locations, and it strikes me that the film's entire primary audience knows where all that stuff is and can probably figure out where a chase is heading by noting what freeway people are driving on.

Obviously, I don't know to what extent the filmmakers actually prize bust their hump in terms of that sort of continuity - perhaps not at all. But I wonder. A film or TV show about New York City can fudge geography and while the locals may snicker, there's a whole lot of America that will never know. That's not the case in Hong Kong, though, and you've got to figure that changes the psychology a little, and, as a result, calls for an even greater attention to detail. It also makes Hong Kong movies some of the most intensely local films there are, no matter the genre, and you can sometimes feel that in things like the Cold War pair, which at times can seem really confusing if you don't know the HKSAR's governmental structure. What's kind of interesting is that, in all the discussion of governance and administration, there's little talk of China as a whole country; it almost plays as pre-handover story (though the term "handover" itself is used to describe potential changes in administration within the movie). What to make, then, of the characters; discussing the importance of the rule of law and accountability, and would that be the case if the movie was set in Beijing.

Which raises an interesting question that I hadn't really thought about: I had assumed that the screening I was seeing was in Cantonese, since that's what they speak in Hong Kong and the language in which the film was shot. And yet, a Facebook ad that popped up to announce the movie's expansion mentioned "Mandarin in the United States, Cantonese in Canada". Which means I probably saw it in Mandarin, which would explain a few things, like why there seemed to be weird dubbing in a scene or two, including one with Chow Yun-fat, who IIRC is much better in Cantonese than Mandarin.

I'm curious about the rationale behind that decision, though - did Chinese immigration to Canada disproportionately come from Canton compared to the United States? Do the cities where it plays up there (Toronto, Vancouver, and Ottawa) not have a lot of Chinese-Canadian people, so it's playing for guys like me who like Hong Kong cinema while the American theaters are near Chinatowns where most people speak Mandarin? I'm legitimately curious.

I should have noticed that it didn't sound hugely different from Foolish Games, which I opted to see as part of a double feature rather than screw with Red Line shuttles on Saturday or Sunday. Fun, although not quite as frenetic as the trailer made it out to be, but what comedy is? A bear of one to find documentation on, though - my usual go-to sites for movie information - IMDB, HKMDB, ChineseMov.com had almost nothing on it, and very little on any of the cast. Which again fires my curiosity - are these sites too Western-skewing to have information on movies not featuring guys with high profiles outside of China, or is this a relatively independent movie made with and by up-and-coming/unknown talent that got released in the United States on the basis of "why not?" - I know getting something onto digitally-projected screens isn't quite as simple/cheap as emailing a trailer and UPSing a hard drive to the theater, but is it cheap enough to take a flier on getting onto a few screens, especially since the folks booking American theaters may not be able to tell the difference between a Chinese blockbuster and a Chinese indie.

Someday I'm going to have to actually send out emails and really learn about the distribution of Chinese (and to a lesser extent, Korean) films in the USA. But now I'm kind of sad, wondering if it might be easier to get an independent Chinese movie into AMC multiplexes than independent American ones.

Hon zin (Cold War)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 7 July 2016 in Jay's Living Room (sequel prep, Amazon HD streaming)

Several scenes in Cold War focus on a wall-sized declaration that Hong Kong is "The Safest City in Asia", which is not necessarily something that one would guess from its cinematic output: They are good at crime thrillers both because they've got some of the world's best at staging action and are not nearly as afraid of showing everybody as compromised as some of their neighbors. Leung Lok-man and Luk Kim-ching are a relatively new writing/directing team, and they made a movie that leans more on convoluted infighting than shootouts but still gets impressively tense.

As it starts, the city's police commissioner is at a conference in Copenhagen boasting about the city's crime record when a bomb explodes at a downtown cineplex and a drunk driver splits his car in half. It's the latter that may prove more dangerous - the police van sent to investigate disappears, and what looks like another bomb turns out to be a ransom demand. Deputy Commissioner of Operations M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka-fai) is acting as commissioner, but with his son Joe (Eddie Peng Yu-yan) among the missing, Lee's opposite number in Management, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok Fu-sing) pushes to take charge of the massive operation "Cold War" that Lee started.

The easy way to go with this movie would be a simple cat-and-mouse game between the cops and the kidnappers, maybe with some overlap if it turns out that they had an inside man. That's there, sure, but the greatest tensions are found in police headquarters; Lau and Lee are not only likely to be the top two choices as the next commissioner, but diametrically opposed in both temperament and methodology. Luk & Leung make things fairly dense from early on - the film opens with an (unsubtitled, at least on Amazon) organizational chart detailing how the HKPD is structured, and every time one of a dozen or two important characters are introduced, there's an on-screen indication of their name, rank, and specialty. Later in the movie, as it gets past the hostage situation and starts to look at the aftermath, the ICAC (more or less internal affairs) investigates Lau, bringing in another group of cops in suits. It's at around that point that the viewer might perhaps get a bit impatient; the main thrust seems both resolved and not at once. It holds together, and everything winds up connecting, but close attention needs to be paid.

Full review on EFC.

Hon zin II (Cold War 2)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2016 in AMC Boston Common #11 (first-run, DCP)

Hitting American screens the same time it premieres in Hong Kong, Cold War 2 might be a tough sell to even those looking for a different flavor of crime and action in the middle of a disappointing summer movie season: It's a Cantonese-language sequel that is fairly specific to its setting and picks up right where the first one left off, with the one actor with name recognition this side of the Pacific in something of a supporting role. But, while a little bit of catch-up viewing of the first film is advised (and not something one would likely regret), it's worth a look on its own, with a few terrific action sequence surrounded by an impressively twisty thriller.

(If you haven't seen the first, maybe skip the EFC link, as it's hard to describe what this one is about without referencing the other.)

When Cold War ended, the HKPD believed that they had the mastermind in custody with Deputy Commissioner (Management) Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok Fu-sing) set to become the new commissioner as both his superior and Deputy Commissioner (Operations) M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka-fai) take early retirement. However, not only was the stolen police van was still missing, but Lau had received a call threatening his wife (Ma Yili). Soon after the funeral of an officer who died during "Operation Cold War", she is kidnapped, with the ransom being the release of perpetrator Joe Lee (Eddie Peng Yu-yan), M.B.'s son who was, apparently, just part of a larger conspiracy. The exchange is a disaster, leading to an inquiry headed up by Representative Oswald Kan (Chow Yun-fat) - during which Lee, after meeting with former Commissioner Peter Choi (Chang Kuo-chu), accuses Lau of taking bribes.

Full review on EFC.

Foolish Plans

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 July 2016 in AMC Boston Common #6 (first-run, DCP)

"Screwball" is probably the hardest thing to pull off in the movies, and given that the phrase "foolish plans" is probably part of any definition of the genre, it's not surprising that filmmaker Jiang Tao is on the right track with his latest movie. Making the peculiar look effortless can be a tough gig, though, and it's often easy to see how Jiang and his movie are working - the film has a charm that can't be denied, even if it sometimes doesn't quite get the pacing right.

It's got three friends and roommates working as propmen on a movie - schemer Sung Da-hu (Wang Zijian), husky but good-natured Zheng Qiu (Xiu Rui), and charming but somewhat awkward Wu Chenfeng (Wang Ning). Even before producer "President" JIn is threatening to shut the production down, the three are fired for a number of screwups, and "Feng" is considering going back to his home village, where local girl Duoduo (Cya Liu Ya-se) would be willing to marry him. There's a hitch, though - Feng is already married, to Jin's last mistress Sheng Jiaoyang ("Angel" Wang Ou), a paper marriage to legitimize the baby she was carrying. Since Jin is a real heel - he sent out thugs when he noticed Zheng flirting with latest mistress Lisa (Crystal Chen Yang) - Da-hu suggests they shake him down for their back pay while Feng seeks a divorce. The trouble is, Feng is pretty taken when he meets Jiaoyang for a second time - oh, and Jin soon drops dead of a heart attack, so both the cops and his underworld partners are taking a good look at the people trying to pry what they consider their money loose from him.

There are bits of Foolish Plans that hint at a film trying a bit too hard, like the way that Feng, Zheng, and Da-hu apparently live in an apartment in the middle of a scrapyard that provides equipment they might need for building props or whatever other devices they might need later. There are also times when it struggles to find something for all three of the roommates to do - there are a few scenes toward the start about Da-hu dealing with a guy who makes restorations for museums that will only vaguely tie in with the rest of the stories, if that (this part has a fair number of on-screen graphics that don't receive even the sometimes-rough subtitling the rest of the film gets), and Zheng gets sidelined for a while with what seem like merely obligatory check-ins.

Full review on EFC.

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