Tuesday, October 03, 2017

China/Hong Kong double feature: Never Say Die & Chasing the Dragon

I swear I saw a clip of Andy Lau doing a cameo in the preview for Sky Hunter, and, man, did that make it seem like he banked a whole lot of work before his January injury. Part of that is that The Great Wall hit the US a couple of months after China, but even without counting that one, Shockwave, The Adventurers, and Chasing the Dragon all came out in 2017 while Lau has been recuperating. I don't think it's actually him in Sky Hunter, but, still, the man was busy enough that folks might not know he was gone.

Anyway, after a couple of weeks of quiet on the Chinese movies playing America front, things got pretty busy with both Never Say Die and Chasing the Dragon playing Boston Common, and what looked like an even bigger weekend on tap before Feng Shaofeng's Youth was pulled from the release schedule in China (and, incidentally, the U.S.). It was going to be my third choice for Chinese movies anyway - it's got that propaganda look even if part of the reason it was delayed was that it presents history in too sad a light during a time period where the the PRC wants a lot of patriotism on display.

Looks like another busy weekend coming up, with Sky Hunter and City of Rock, with the second looking particularly interesting - it sure as heck looks like a Mainland-Chinese comedy with prominent gay characters, which I don't think I've seen yet, but it also looks like a trailer that's been cut deceptively (it really looks like a sentence that ends with "coming out" in the trailer was cut off there). It could wind up something else, but it's at least curious.

Aside from that, I was maybe a little extra disappointed with Never Say Die because, in addition to trying to catch a lot of Chinese films in general and having really enjoyed Goodbye Mr. Loser, I've got a particular fondness for gender-bender stories like this - aside from the fun slapstick possibilities, I kind of love the potential to tell the story about how someone who has had everything that he considers a basic part of his identity taken from him redefines himself/herself. I could, honestly, probably write at least a crappy first draft of an anthology film around the subject given a week or two (but probably shouldn't).

I wonder, though, if we're not rapidly passing the point where it's a viable thing to do well for a mainstream audience -at least, as something other than the theme of "some time as a woman makes you a better man". That's been the theme of most of these movies, because it's kind of universal and promises a return to the natural order at the end, but it kind of has them running on rails. Still, the very fact that the audience might be able to accept something other than gay panic jokes and having the whole film be about how to turn back now also means that they might be more conscious of how it's basically a movie about someone being assigned the wrong sex and why should they accept it any more if it happened because of a lightning-strike body swap than it happening at birth?

Doesn't have much to do with Never Say Die, which just outright avoids a lot of things, but there's a kind of funny irony to the idea that just as many possibilities as are added from loosening up might be closed by wising up.

Xiu Xiu De Tie Quan (Never Say Die)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2017 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

Mahua, the comedy troupe behind Never Say Die, is not terribly well known outside of China - you'll forgive me if I mess up names because it is frustratingly difficult to find an English-language site that matches actors to characters - but they're a funny group whose last movie (Goodbye Mr. Loser) may have made me laugh more than any other comedy from Mainland China. Their follow-up is only that funny in fits and starts, but it's got enough hilarious moments to recommend, especially since it seldom truly flops.

It opens with MMA fighter Edison (Allen Ai Lun) telling his opponent's manager that he's decided not to throw the fight unless she doubles his payoff, only to find out from his manager Dong (Song Yang) that he's overweight for a weigh-in for a real fight. One of the reporters, Ma Xiao (Mary Ma Li), has some tough questions about what happened in a match three years ago, and it looks like he might go after her except that her fiance, "Fighting King" Wu Liang (Tian Yu), steps in. He actually does chase after her when she accidentally reveals herself after recording Eidson and Dong making plans to throw a fight, and that's when they fall into the swimming pool and lightening strikes and, the next morning, they wake up not just in the hospital, but in each other's bodies.

As gender-bending body-swap comedies go, Never Say Die probably has to be graded on a scale that involves taking Chinese censorship into account; for all that the group goes for big, broad jokes throughout, they're only really racy for one short stretch toward the beginning, and though months pass with Eidson and Xiao swapped, it never seems like either something that weighs on them or a status quo they come to accept as permanent. It's probably worth a little examination that while Xiao learns to be a fighter and carry herself in a more masculine way in Edison's body, there's not really a complementary storyline where Edison finds some value in femininity; his story is basically stubbornness.

That's fine, though - though the traditional theme of this sort of movie is "some time as a woman might make you a better man", there's a sort of gleeful comedic recklessness in Xiao deciding that the reason the universe decided to switch their bodies was so that she'd have the opportunity to beat the crap out of her unfaithful boyfriend. The filmmakers (working from their own stage play) do a pretty fair job of setting up plenty of good connections between the four main characters and then playing out goofy situations, seldom worrying about going through them too quickly and generally stopping short of beating something into the ground. From an early scene where Edison and Xiao try to reverse things with really poorly considered use of tasers, they're able to use the body-swap as a means to let everybody in on knockabout slapstick, and there's just enough winking at the genre tropes being played with that Dong crying "to the mountaintop" to get Xiao/Edison some martial arts training is funny even before that starts a whole new round of physical comedy.

It's a set-up that gives Allen Ai, in particular, a lot of funny stuff to do, from being ready to fly off the handle as Edison to exaggerated femininity as Xiao, and a lot of material that is amusing no matter who the character he's playing is. Mary Ma Li certainly seems to be having a blast in her early scenes as Edison but, as mentioned, doesn't have nearly as strong a part as the film goes on; she and Ai do have a pretty nice chemistry that goes from warfare to friendship as the film goes on. Song Yang and Shen Tang get amusing secondary characters to play, and Tian Yu does nice work as Wu Liang, who has to be both a comic foil and a straight-out villain at various points.

Chinese comedies tend to be pretty hit-and-miss for me, both because they can only go so far in some areas and because some of the jokes are going to be pop-culture gags that I'm not going to get because only so much of the referenced material makes it near my eyeballs (there were a couple of bits that got the Mandarin-speaking crowd roaring that went over my head in the loud, obvious manner of a fighter-jet flyover). Even with that being the case, I got three or four belly-laughs out of "Never Say Die" and enjoyed most of it, despite all the spots I wished they'd pushed harder.

(Apparently-dead link to the original review on EFC)

Chui Lung (Chasing the Dragon)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 30 September 2017 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

A large part of the buzz I saw on Chasing the Dragon was that it featured Donnie Yen in a role that was more "acting" than "action", but even though we know he's playing a character called "Crippled Ho", rest assured, he does a fair amount of punching and kicking in the first act. The rest of the film has a similar sort of stated ambition that ultimately delivers more conventional results, but given that the expected result is a Hong Kong crime movie with plenty of fistfighting and gunplay, that's not a bad fallback.

It starts in 1960, when Ng Sai Ho (Yen) is an illegal immigrant from Chaozhou living in a Hong Kong flophouse with a bunch of buddies whom he tells not to go to their construction job that night, because that pays $2 while helping fill out the crowd and maybe getting into a brawl as a couple of triad bosses face off pays $30. The trouble is, this showdown takes place outside the birthday party for Tong Ngan (Kent Tong Chun-yip), a rising star in the HKPD, and the British head of the riot police, Ernest Hunter (Bryan Larkin), is kind of looking for an excuse to beat up some Chinese after having a potential fight broken up by Inspector Lee Rock (Andy Lau Tin-lok). Rock is ambitious enough to develop into a rival - he's managed to climb socially by getting engaged to the daughter of a rich man - smart enough to see how much money there is to be made by streamlining and centralizing the corruption in the HKPD. The scrappy Ho, he sees, could be a useful ally - although both are perceptive enough to see that their partnership will inevitably be uneasy.

Seeing Andy Lau actually awake and engaged in a movie is well worth seeing Donnie Yen spending that same film in a goofy wig and a mustache that seems to take ten years to really fill in. Lau has had about a half-dozen movies make their way to release this year (impressive, considering he's spent much of it recovering from a broken back), but he's seemed to be running on autopilot in the likes of Shock Wave and The Adventurers; I'd been starting to forget why Lau is such a superstar in China. His Inspector Lee never really becomes a truly fascinating character, but there's something delightful about watching a face made for comedic affability demonstrate low cunning, or smile just a little too tightly and widely to communicate how he really despises Ngan. It's just the right sort of dubious decency over thoroughgoing amorality.

Lau's performance as the nominal hero of the piece allows Donnie Yen go a little bigger as Ho, going from simple man of the people to godfather and playing up the more operatic notes that implies. He's not quite actor enough to give Ho the gravitas that would make for a truly epic story, but he's able to pump a certain ferocity into a scene when it's needed. As one might expect from the character's full name, he's only got a couple of fight scenes, but it's neat to watch him go from reluctant to fierce, and then harness the impotence he feels after being crippled. Lau and Yen make a strong enough pair to keep a true-crime story that's more history lesson than thriller moving.

Part of that is that it looks great, spending most of its time in the seedy sections of a Hong Kong that was not yet a skyscraper-filled, neon-lit world city and dressing everybody up in garish 1960s/1970s fashions. The writing & directing team of Wong Jing teams and Jason Kwan (who also serves cinematographer), who between them have a terrific collective eye and come up with some fantastic visuals without being overly flashy for more than a second or two. It is, nevertheless, a movie packed full of visually impressive pieces: Take a big action scene in the Kowloon walled city; on it's own, the sort of fine shootout piece that one almost forgets that Hong Kong does better than anyone else, with great attention to geography, ruthless playing for high stakes, impressive work keeping track of three or four factions. Then Kwan lights the couple minutes of it with fireworks, creating a surreal glow on the faces of the characters for several minutes, a quiet way of showing that this moment is a fulcrum point without the characters underlining it with words, and a way to smoothly transition into a brief but pointed dream sequence that shows just how things will have changed when Ho wakes up from surgery. It's surprisingly deft management of tone, with Wong and Kwan knowing how and when to switch between the violence of an operatic mob picture and a fun genre programmer.

On top of that, while the film may not be nearly as "serious" as the initial buzz may have made it sound, it develops a few interesting subtexts, especially in terms of how the Hong Kong people of the time act as residents of a colony. Lau's Rock seems ambitious and sophisticated, but his deference to the British sometimes seems to go beyond what is strictly good politics, and while Yen's Crippled Ho is a local thug, he's arguably got a grander, less-subservient vision. It's something which simmers underneath as the nature of the criminal inevitably brings them into conflict, though maybe not enough to make Chasing the Dragon more than a nicely-mounted period crime movie; Wong and Kwan will often move from interesting material to whatever happened next without quite connecting them thematically, and the sudden introduction of ICAC (the colony's anti-corruption task force) makes for a somewhat anticlimactic ending.

True crime stories (or even exaggerated ones that have to exist within a historical record) can't help but be vulnerable to that; real life isn't obligated to follow a satisfying story arc. That said, it's still a bit of a return to form for Wong Jing and Andy Lau, an impressive directorial debut for Jason Kwan, and a movie that can hold some interest even when it drifts from either the criminal history or bloody action that a particular viewer came for.

(Apparently-dead link to the original review on EFC)

No comments: