Wednesday, December 21, 2016

December Movies from China: The Sword Master and The Wasted Times

Farewell, The Wasted Times trailer. I may have made a lot of jokes about you over the past year or so, but as ubiquitous trailers go, you were all right. You at least always looked intriguing, which is more than can be said about the Assassin's Creed preview that frequently played right next to you.

It winds up saying something interesting about ambition to see these two a week apart and write about them the same day - Sword Master isn’t exactly small-time - there’s clearly been some money spent on it, and the filmmakers are clearly trying to consciously evoke the same sort of artificiality that set-bound Shaw Brothers films had - but it’s a familiar narrative told in a fairly familiar way. The Wasted Times went for self-deprecating irony, jumped back and forth in time, and used its big budget in sometimes off-putting ways, and ultimately was found wanting. I suspect that a lot of this can be put at the feet of severe cuts; the IMDB lists the “original cut” as 210 minutes long compared to the 125-minute version that played theaters, and while I suspect that original cut was never what was actually going to play theaters, that’s a good chunk of movie taken out of it. It left an unusually solid skeleton - most movies cut that severely wind up incomprehensible - but no heart.

I’d actually be kind of intrigued to see a longer version of The Wasted Times; when the movie focuses on Tadanobu Asano’s Japanese immigrant, for instance, there’s clearly something fascinating going on (and I have a hard time believing Zhang Ziyi signed on just for what we wound up seeing). On the other hand, I’ll definitely check out Death Duel sometime, just to see where Derek Yee, writer/director, decided to do things differently than a movie in which he starred.

San shao ye de jian (2016) (Sword Master)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2016 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

A good chunk of what makes Sword Master such a fun throwback to the Hong Kong wuxia movies of earlier decades is that filmmakers Derek Yee and Tsui Hark remember that people used to do them all the time. WIth the Hong Kong film industry shrunken, respectable folks like Ang Lee and Zhang Yimou making movies meant to elevate the genre, and visual effects offering an alternate sort of spectacle, it can sometimes seem like the art of a good martial-arts programmer is gone. That Yee manages to capture what seems to have once been commonplace (through an admittedly nostalgic lens) thus becomes rather remarkable.

Not that these guys opt to go without modern luxuries in making this film - it opens with a slick swordfight on an icy bridge as assassin Yen Shih-san (Peter Ho Yun-tung) cuts through another warrior on his way to confront Hsieh Shao-feng, the Third Master at Supreme Sword Manor, and claim his place as the greatest swordsman in the martial world. It’s a matter of principle for him, as he refuses the money of Hsieh’s spurned lover Mu-yung Chu-ti (Jiang Yiyan) to do it as a job. But when he arrives at the manor, he finds that he has missed his chance for a fight to the death. Meanwhile, in Bitter Sea Town, a nameless vagrant (Kenny Lin Geng-xin) has a night at the Blue Moon House brothel that he can’t pay for, winding up having to work it off , often finding himself landing in the middle of the antics of “Princess” Hsiao Li (Jiang Meng-ji), simultaneously one of the klutzier and more scheming girls there.

Once upon a time, director and co-writer Derek Yee Tung-sing starred in another adaptation of the source novel (1977’s Shaw Brothers production Death Duel), and it would certainly be a fun exercise to watch them back to back. As much as Sword Master often feels like a legitimate successor to the classic martial arts movies, it also fits in very well with the recent films of producer and co-writer Tsui Hark, who genuinely loves special effects and 3D; Hark is a “throw stuff at the audience” guy. Yee maintains a fluid camera that, even in the 2D version playing most American theaters, is clearly looking to present depth and a spatial arena for the fighters to play in, often filling the screen with bright colors and elaborate costuming and production values.

Full review on EFC.

Luomandike xiaowang shi (The Wasted Times)

* * (out of four)
Seen 17 December 2016 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Even if it hadn’t played in basically unaltered form in front of every Chinese movie released in North America for about a year and a half, the preview for Cheng Er’s The Wasted Times would have been a perfect parody of Chinese art-house movies, or at least their trailers: Beautifully composed images cut together to suggest mystery and mood rather than a specific story, a meticulously recreated historical setting, self-referential meta-commentary, and a conscious effort to include the only two English-language lines in the film, despite one being an ethnic slur. Whether intended ironically or not, those two minutes were kind of perfect in a way that the actual two-hour film can’t match.

The film opens with text describing a Japanese man who assimilated to life in occupied Shanghai completely, coming across as more “Shanghainese” than some of the natives. That description fits Watabe (Tadanobu Asano) to a T; though he runs a sushi restaurant, he dresses in Chinese clothing, speaks the local dialect, is married to a Chinese woman, has two Chinese children, and professes more loyalty to his adopted city than his native land. He’s good friends with his brother-in-law Mister Lu (Ge You), himself the sort of gangster who sees his job as making sure that everything moves smoothly in the community as much as making money for himself. Part of that, historically, has been getting the boss’s new, younger, wife (Zhang Ziyi) a role in an upcoming movie, even if that displaces more talented actress Xiao Wu (Yuan Quan). But while 1937’s Battle of Shanghai is still some months in the future, Japan’s desire to have Lu and his partners front a Japanese bank presents a test for everyone.

Much of that action takes place in the first segment or two of a film that jumps around in time, with the English subtitles, at least, taking the curious route of mentioning the proximity of the action to events in the Sino-Japanese War even though Cheng seldom shows those landmarks directly. The Wasted Times covers roughly thirteen years or so in total, though it jumps back and forth, and the fractured narrative hurts it: The climactic moment comes early, and the switching time period and perspective is seldom done in a way that creates a particularly intriguing contrast, and dramatically taking a character off the board for an equally dramatic later return means little if they’re present in an intervening sequence set years earlier. Cheng’s decisions on what to include often seem haphazard, built around the necessity of getting the whole plot in but leaving out emotional moments and in one case sticking around a time and place barely long enough for the subtitled establishing shot.

Full review on EFC.

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