Tuesday, January 30, 2018

Grady Hendrix's Hong-Kong-a-Thon: Organized Crime Triad Bureau, Fong Kai Yuk, Expect the Unexpected, Cheap Killers, Kickboxer's Tears, and On the Run

Man, did I envy the people who were able to do this on a reasonable night's sleep and no travel issues. I zonked out quite a bit during every one of these movies, so I can't say a whole lot about them, but I can at least tell myself that I may have achieved what programmer Grady Hendrix was going for here: Eleven hours marinating in the energetic, violent world of Hong Kong genre cinema, mind coming out fried but happy, kind of flabbergasted at what I've seen and my head messed up. Sorry all you guys who did this sensibly missed out on the experience!

See, my plan was to take the 2:15am bus out of South Station, arrive at 9am, meet my brother Matt (visiting from Chicago) for brunch, and then mosey on over to the Anthology Film Archive and get there early enough to find myself a good seat. And it looked like things might go even easier, as I got there just after midnight, and there was a 1am bus. They actually let me on before it turned out the bus was sold out and I had to get off. But, hey, easy come, easy go. At least, until 2:15 comes and there's no driver. We're told the driver won't be there until four. That's our 10am brunch gone. Soon, it's five, I'm eying other lines (Megabus had a 6am departure but I couldn't find it on the site), they're saying any moment now, but I'm adding the 6.75 hours that the local takes thinking that would cut it close. I can't get them to switch me to the 6:30 local, which is sold out, but can get on the 6:45. It's a local that gets into George Washington Bridge terminal at 11 (instead of the usual Port Authority), which only has an A-line subways stop. I just miss it, it's fifteen minutes until the next one (less learned - you don't necessarily really need to pee), and then the train is slow, the stations are confusing, and the upshot is, I get to the AFA at 12:45 for a 12:30 show.

It's an unassuming building, a former courthouse without a concession stand and two screens, with the second presumably hidden somewhere behind the box office on the first floor. It reminds me of the Harvard Film Archive, not just because of the name and rules against snacks, but because it's got a fairly academic bent even though there's room for fun. The room is also pretty basic - it seats 208 because the rows are close together and the seats are not as wide as they could be, and a few quick glances up to the booth showed paired 35mm projectors and what looks like a presentation projector rather than a full theatrical model for digital. It's not church - especially with this rowdy group - but it's a place where you're going to see movies without a lot of bells & whistles, and I'm okay with that.

That's host Grady Hendrix, one of the founders of the New York Asian Film Festival whose Kaiju Shakedown column in Variety and Film Comment taught me a bunch about current Asian film and the context needed to understand it, and his column on Sammo Hung is an essential read, even if the links the the clips have been taken down since publishing it a year and a half ago. These days, he's also a horror writer pretty popular within his poppy niche. He also has a variety of very snazzy suits which makes him easy to spot if you've got questions about the event, or if you're just in a nearby pizza place, having a couple of slices and want to feel reassured that you haven't overstayed the dinner break.

I wound up zonking out a lot - I didn't make it through any of the movies without multiple instances of momentary passing out and then suddenly jerking back to consciousness - but this was one of those cases where the experience is just as important as the films, and not only was it fun, but it was neat to see a few of the folks I meet at Fantasia every summer midway between fests - not just Paul who co-founded NYAFF with Grady, but Kurt who came down from Toronto for a birthday weekend. He, by the way, flew into Newark without issue (heck, a 90-minute flight took 55) and had easy going getting in via the subway. So much envy.

Then it was off to the Port Authority to wait three hours to catch the bus back to Boston. Definitely something I'll be doing again next January if Grady makes this an annual thing, though I'm going to do it much smarter.

Chung ngon sat luk: O gei (Organized Crime & Triad Bureau)

* * ¾-ish (out of four)
Seen on 27 January 2018 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

Soon after this movie, director Che-Kirk Wong would come to Hollywood, make The Big Hit, and apparently just drop off the map for a decade and a half. Not surprising, if that film and this one are both bonkers, careening over the top and out of control, filled with bad taste and violence. Soon, neither Hollywood nor Hong Kong would be looking for that kind of mania, and Wong apparently didn't have it in him to settle down and make stuff that could easily play mainland China or an America shifting more toward PG-13 blockbusters.

The movie itself leans into its crazy pretty quickly - Danny Lee Sau-yin plays the most renegade of renegade cops with the whole unit going along for the ride, like Wong and writer Lu Bing know the audience is down with this trope already and kind of just want to give them what they want without making too big a thing out of it. Wong's got a great knack for doing the reverse of what a lot of other directors would do in that while it's normal to skirt right on the edge of self-parody but always jump back, he's staying right over the line but able to jump back to "normal" in order to give the movie just a little bit of sanity. And, more than anything else, it's got Cecilia Yip Tung as Cindy, the villain's mistress, although it would be easy to assume she's his wife for much of the film despite a few lines of dialogue. She's a cheerfully competent villain but also a wonderfully loyal one, not Lady Macbeth but the terrific partner every gangster would want. It is, in fact, hard not to cheer for her; she easily outshines Anthony Wong Chau-sang as the nominal gangster in charge, and when all is said and done, it's her devotion and commitment that make this movie memorable, because we don't get characters like her in the average gangster movie.

Fong Sai Yuk (aka The Legend)

* * *-ish (out of four)
Seen on 27 January 2018 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

I don't think Grady introduced Fong Sai Yuk with any sort of variation on "it will ____ your face off", which is just as well, because it actually happens and it's gross and not really indicative of what sort of movie this is. That it's not is kind of impressive, because this thing is already two movies mashed together in a kind of haphazard manner and neither of them are really face-ripping-off movies.

This one's at its best when it's a sort of kung fu bedroom farce with Jet Li a youth getting on the bad side of the rich new guy in town (Chen Sung-young) but falling for his daughter Ting-ting (Michelle Reis), whose hand in marriage has been promised to whoever can defeat her mother (Sibelle Hu) in a martial-arts challenge, which for some reason Sai-yuk's mother (Josephine Siao) enters as his brother, capturing the affection of her son's potential future mother-in-law… It's a goofy as heck story with kung fu that impresses in large part because it's slapstick fun and not lethal in the way it often is in Jet Li movies, and I suspect that only the spiritually dead don't want the two middle-aged women whose husbands don't really appreciate their eccentricity to wind up together. The thing is, it's connected to a story about an evil emperor and the secret society opposing him, and while director Corey Yuen and the writers do a pretty decent job sliding from one to the other, the best parts of the movie are the ones where nobody actually seems likely to get hurt. Even if it's more of a case of this starting out as a serious action movie that had enough comic relief injected to take over rather than an action-comedy given higher stakes than it needs, the funny stuff is the best and freshest material.

Fai seung dat yin (Expect the Unexpected)

* * ½-ish (out of four)
Seen on 27 January 2018 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

I was half-in and half-out during bits of this movie, so maybe I missed something but… The big crime story with the plans to rob the Hong Kong Jockey Clubs, with nasty rapes and murders just to stake it out, never actually gets resolved, right? That's the whole wacky irony of the movie, that this really horrific thing is going on and the cops get too tied up in their own subplots and B-story to actually put a stop to it? If so, I can see why Expect the Unexpected supposedly received little love when it came out; it's the sort of satire that doesn't announce itself as parody and is close enough to the thing it's mocking - in this case, stylish Japanese ensemble dramas that were popular in Hong Kong at the time - that it can just seem like doing one badly.

On the other hand, looked at through that lens, there's something enjoyably skewed about it. Simon Yam and Lau Ching-wan have probably played these roles straight (both in hard-boiled cop dramas and lighter relationship-focused fare) that they can find the absurd border of the love triangle their cops share with a witness ("YoYo" Mung Ka-wai) and make each side convincing while highlighting what a goofy genre thing it being the focus is. Director Patrick Yau and his cast and crew do really impressive work sliding between tones and making each scene work as part of the side it's working, and when it does come time for the action to kick in, director Patrick Yau and action director Yuen Bun, working with producers Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai, deliver some genuinely terrific over-the-top violence.

Does it work as a whole? I'm not sure, for more reasons than because I'm probably missing critical information on the plot. But as someone who has been known to snicker at movies who put relationship issues at the center of stories with life-and-death stakes, I kind of love the way this movie seems to both deliver and sneer at that convention at the same time.

(Huh, it's on Prime. May as well check it out un-fatigued!)

Yue doh laai yue ying hung (Cheap Killers)

* * ¼-ish (out of four)
Seen on 27 January 2018 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

I swear, sometimes Hong Kong filmmakers just seem to be flipping coins a to whether a character survives an over-the-top action sequence or not, and Cheap Killers is the epitome of this; there were something like half a dozen times when something was set up as a potentially tragic moment and a character wound up with enough bullet/puncture wounds to ensure that, yeah, even in a crazy Hong Kong action movie, that guy's dead, and instead he's alive in the next scene (or several scenes later), maybe hobbling or wearing a cast, but still around. It is utter seeming randomness.

It's not necessarily random, but it's still messy enough that it's tough to figure out where writer/producer Wong Jing is trying to go with this movie other than trying to make it different from the several hundred other movies he's worked on. That, admittedly, is how you get hitman Sam Cool (Alex Fong Chung-sun) having a crush on his womanizing partner (Sunny Chan Kam-hung) only to have him fall for Ling (Kathy Chow Hoi-mei), the wife of a client (Ku Feng), who makes her way to the top of the crime world through some awfully impressive black widowing. That's a noir story, really, especially once you figure in the likable young would-be cop (Stephen Fung Tak-lun) who falls for Ling's teenage sister (Lillian Ha Ga-lee). There's ways to make it a serviceable big-time action movie, especially with what seems like a clear Miami Vice influence, but neither Wong nor director Clarence Ford really seems to be interested in that sort of nuance, leaving it all up to Alex Fong and Kathy Chow.

That lack of subtlety makes it work as a dumb/cheap grindhouse thing, though; it's unrelenting in its bloody violence and scenery-chewing villainy once the filmmakers have thrown their lot in with pulp, right down to the baddie trying to make an exit via helicopter at the end. High-minded, this movie is not, but it kind of works when concentrated on the lurid stuff.

Xin long zhong hu dou (Kickboxer's Tears)

* * ½-ish (out of four)
Seen on 27 January 2018 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

I think I may have seen this one at a Coolidge Corner Midnight Ass-Kicking show but missed different parts of it; the opening pickpocketing scene seemed very familiar even though other parts seemed new. Maybe that opening bit was just lifted by another martial arts film that I did see (or vice versa).

Whatever the case, this was a pretty fun bait & switch on Grady's part in that he calls it a "girls with guns" movie and I don't think either Moon Lee Choi-fung's sweet nurse-practitioner Li Feng nor the surprisingly capable wife of the villain ever actually picks up a gun. Expecting the movie to go that way made it even more of a surprise when Feng suddenly breaks out the martial arts skills to rival her late brother's and just absolutely shreds a group of hooligans trying to mug her. She's a pixie who can get a surprising amount of leverage and do crazy things in mid-air, causing the audience's jaw to drop as a lot of big, musclebound guys struggle to keep up.

The fights choreographed by Siu Tak-foo are where most of the effort in the movie gets made, and even then, some of it can get dry - there's a long kickboxing match between Ken Lo Wai-kwong and Billy Chow Bei-lei that just starts getting good when Chow's trainers cheat so that Li Lung can die and Feng can have something to avenge. The script by writer/director Sam Daat-wai is just about entirely the standard outline, and the only moment that really stands out - Wilson Lam Jun-yin's abashed pickpocket admitting that the restaurant where they're eating is shabby because he didn't actually have a plan for when Feng said yes - tends to highlight the movie's cheapness. But the action is good enough to stand on its own, so it delivers the important stuff.

Mong ming yuen yeung (On the Run)

* * *-ish (out of four)
Seen on 27 January 2018 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

Out of all the movies I saw this Saturday, this is the one I'm keenest to see again. It's got a plot that is just convoluted enough to be worth paying attention to, a bleak word-view that is very much informed by how, in the late 1980s, anybody with the means to establish residency outside of Hong Kong before the handover to China was looking to do so, and a trio of charismatic stars. There's Yuen Biao, not doing any martial arts but proving fairly capable as a cop looking at being left behind even before he's framed for the murder of his ex-wife. There's Charlie Chin Chiang-lin as the sneering, corrupt lover of said ex-wife who knows that the party is about to be over and just doesn't understand why anybody is bothering with attempted honesty. And there's Pat Ha Man-jik as the assassin in the middle.

Ms. Ha, we were told between the film, isn't someone most of the audience would be familiar with because she wasn't really an action star; she spent her time doing dramas (and television?), and you can sort of see how maybe she's out of place; Chui is a young woman who dresses in cute, stylish outfits and is friendly without it seeming like some kind of put-on mask. She's the themed killer who gets added to an action movie for color and doesn't seem to belong at the center where the contradictions that make her fun in small doses cause the whole structure to break down unless it's about examining her. On the Run isn't really that sort of movie, but Ha makes it work anyway, taking good care of the humanity that the screenplay by director Alfred Cheung Kin-ting and Keith Wong Wang-gei allows her but never letting the professionalism slip; she works in both the darker places and the lighter ones without making a joke of it.

The movie spends a lot of time in those dark places, doling out some awfully cruel ends and giving its shootouts a dangerous recklessness that seldom gets silly even as the violence escalates. Like Cheap Killers, it's the sort of movie where survival seems to be as much the result of caprice as logic or what works thematically, with the last act going all-in on that randomness without really leveraging it to get the maximum emotional impact from how people react to all those bullets flying around. The finale still packs a punch, especially as the end of the event: Though it's actually one of the older movies on the six-film schedule, its embrace of people fleeing the handover and the scorched-earth policy on the way out certainly works as a reminder that Hong Kong isn't the same place with the same hyper-productive movie industry that it used to be, which is why we don't really see the likes of these films any more.

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