Monday, March 11, 2019

Hong-Kong-a-Thon 2: Project S, Hot War, Eastern Condors, Beast Cops, Bloody Friday, and Full Contact

There was a brief moment when I looked at the announcement of the second annual Hong-Kong-a-Thon, thought that it took place the same weekend as the Boston Sci-Fi Marathon, and thought "you know what, I could probably do that!" This would probably have been tremendously stupid and I'm darn lucky that it didn't work out that way, even if I hadn't been under the weather the first weekend.

My travel didn't get screwed up as badly this time, at least, and to the extent to which it did it was my fault. Last year, I tried to take the overnight Greyhound to New York, waited around South Station for hours for a bus that didn't come until I finally got onto a bus that only went to the George Washington Bridge and had the subway take forever. This year, I planned to take a 7am Peter Pan bus, dutifully set my alarm for five, woke up, fell back to sleep, and by the time I was awake again, there was no way I was getting to South Station in time. Fortunately, there was one leaving Alewife at 7:30am, and I could just make it if the buses co-operated and I didn't shower. Not ideal, and somewhere along the line I basically ate $30, but I got there, even in time to get a decent seat.

I still don't think I got through any movies without zonking out - I think I got all the fatigue of waking up early even if I did wind up waking up at the usual time - but I had fun. It seemed to be an official Subway Cinema production rather than just Grady Hendrix's thing this year, and they settled on a neat pattern: Crime drama with action, mind-bogglingly insane thing, stone cold classic, dinner break, and repeat with different movies. Even with them being mostly quick films, that's a lot to cram into about twelve hours. But they managed it, with plenty of time for a 3am bus back to Boston.

So, once again, I'm thinking I want to do it again next year but I should probably be smarter about it - take the day before off, get an AirBNB, and just generally be refreshed and alert while I'm there. In the meantime, I started writing this on a plane to Hong Kong and finished on the flight back, though I can't say I got many tourism ideas from these movies!

Chao ji ji hua (Project S, aka Supercop 2, aka Once a Cop)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2019 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

Police Story 3 was known as "Supercop" in the U.S. because the first two hadn't been released here, but this wasn't exactly Police Story 4 because Jackie Chan is only in it for a few minutes, in a rather screwy little cameo. Instead, it spins off Michelle Yeoh's Yang Jian Wa, having her come to Hong Kong to consult on a case without knowing that the boyfriend who went to Hong Kong to make money (Yu Rong-guang) is doing so via crime.

Michelle Yeoh is reliably awesome, of course, doing all sorts of great Stanley Tong-directed action but also seeming like a better actor than most folks who get their start in action right off. She's not exactly playing a complicated role here, perhaps, but she sells it, naturally funny and resigned even when everything around her is kind of ridiculous. She also jumps into action and takes on guys twice her size, of course, and that's terrific too.

Truth be told, this may be better than the movie that spawned it, even though that one is considered a pretty big deal.

Waan ying dak gung (Hot War)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2019 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

Hot War is as genuinely ridiculous as Grady's introduction advertised, a mess of a mind-control story that has a quite frankly absurd "subliminals" plot device and is just tremendously frustrating in every way that it can be, at least as far as getting any sort of conventional connection from the audience - characters are fridged when the movie would be much better off going for banter than revenge, then people go mad, then it gets kind of grim. For a movie that seems like it is completely aware of how absurd it is, Hot War is never as much fun as it could be.

Which isn't to suggest it's incompetent or anything. The cast is capable all around - aside from having to get out large chunks of English-language gobbledegook, Ekin Cheng and Kelly Chan do a nice-enough job of playing the long-time friends/colleagues who actually dig each other without signalling it in every look to make it work, while Terence Yin and Yeung Chang are enjoyable villains (even if they are arguably just muscle). There's fun ideas sprinkled throughout even if the writers don't seem to know enough about anything to make the plot not ridiculous. The action is solid. It doesn't quite add up to a good movie, but it doesn't add up to a drag, either.

(Although I do wonder at how many Hong Kong movies center on people who were orphans together - was this a common thing in the former crown colony, or did one movie do it and inspire a bunch of others?)

Dung fong tuk ying (Eastern Condors)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2019 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

Didn't think I'd be seeing that again so soon, after just stitching together a 35mm-but-English and a DVD-in-Cantonese viewing a month earlier to try and get this 35mm-and-Cantonese experience. It's still kind of filled with too many characters and just more stuff than necessary - the Dirty Dozen aspect never really gets its proper due, for instance, and it often feels like it should be a sequel to some other movie that ended with Sammo Hung's character in prison.

Still, when everyone is on the ground and the mission is not longer being hidden, there's no problem with seeing this again in relatively short order; the action is Sammo at his best both as a choreographer and as a performer, and bringing in Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah as the film goes on certainly keeps things jumping. It is, at the very least, action-packed enough to get one significantly less concerned about any of the set-up that may have been shaky at the start.

What I wrote in January

Ye shou xing jing (Beast Cops)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2019 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

Between the time I watched this movie in New York and the time I finished this review, I spent a week in Hong Kong for the first time, and while that certainly doesn't make me an expert on the place, seeing it up close does give me a little more appreciation for the city it presents: It's crowded, everybody's hustling but also not necessarily in any hurry, and having everything filed away and tidy isn't necessarily that big a deal. There's tradition and turnover, and outsiders are tolerated if not quite welcomed. A lot of that is true everywhere, sure, but seeing the place helps adjust my view of where some of the folks in this movie are coming from.

And, no matter what, Anthony Wong Chau-sang is kind of terrific as mildly corrupt cop Tung, fully aware of his own vices, generally trying to be decent and accommodating but always feeling his pride as well. He carries himself like a man full of pride and mixes that with a sort of meekness when the ways he is weak are exposed, identify with him but also view him from outside. It's an interesting contrast to Michael Wong Man-tak's Michael Cheung, who seems more explicitly like a representative of colonial authorities in retrospect, capable and well-meaning but not really of the place he's been assigned, technically Tung's superior officer even if Tung will have to lead in a practical sense. That he's not as strong an actor as Anthony Wong kind of plays into this; he doesn't feel as complete as Tung yet, even if there are ways Tung is going to eventually learn from him.

The story is kind of less than it could be at times; Roy Cheung Yiu-yeung's Brother Fai is pushed out of the picture fast enough that the void his absence creates - both in how Michael and henchman "Pushy-pin" (Patrick Tam Yiu-man) try to fill it with girlfriend Yo-yo (Kathy Chow Hoi-mei) and in the triad and how Tung loses a bit of his foundation - never feels defined enough to drive the story as much as it does. Maybe there could have been more done with the third member of the cops' squad/living arrangement, especially as a mirror to Pushy-pin, as junior partners who are kind of reckless. Maybe another view will clarify things.

On the other hand, I feel the triad boss's love of having one of those custard tarts in the morning, and just how taking them away at the end signals that, from now on, the cops mean business. That is highly relatable.

Xie xing Friday (Bloody Friday)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2019 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

(Checks, is saddened that there doesn't seem to be an easy way for me to buy this movie)

There are probably a lot of trashy American B-movies that do something like this in the vaguest possible sense, but filmmaker Danny Go Lam-paau does something pretty cool here, finding the very center of the piece of the Venn diagram where "serial killer hunting" and "slasher movie" intersect, which doesn't sound like it should be hard - they don't sound like different genres, but I suspect you won't find that many where there's enough of a bond and balance between the cops and the [potential] victims to feel like both. Bloody Friday does that, and does so well enough that you wonder why more movies don't at least try.

Then again, part of the reason why it works is because Go is not bothering with the utter gritty seriousness of the movies that slot into "serial killer" better than "slasher". The conflict between arrogant cop Cheuk Hung (Simon Yam Tat-wah) and his justifiably angry teammate Ken (Stephen Au Kam-tong) unapologetically melodramatic, and the motorcycle-riding killer of prostitutes is utterly ridiculous. It's the sort of thing that's so outrageous that one wonders just how it got past a pitch meeting and to the point where people wound up actually shooting it. It's often jaw-droppingly silly even as it splatters blood all over the place. It's pulpy as heck without a whole lot of shame, and everybody is pushing their part hard - Simon Yam as the cocky detective, Rachel Lee Lai-chung as the survivor who just doesn't take this seriously enough unless someone is actively trying to kill her at the moment, Stephen Au as the furious cop being driven to go rogue. It's not really good acting, any more than the script is good, but it's committed as heck.

Most importantly, the action is kind of great - it's a ton of crazy motorcycle duels, but Go and action director Lee Chi-git are smashing things all over, it sure looks like stunt performers are laying themselves out (helmets mean there's less need to shoot odd angles), and when there's a scene like Cheuk Hung trying to grab his gun off the floor of an empty warehouse while trying to evade the villain, it's actually pretty clear where everything is. They're dumb in other ways - a lot of these bits appear to take place in warehouses where empty boxes are stacked up like inventory - but they're exciting.

This is a dumb movie, make no mistake. But it's one that knows the reactions it's going for, goes about getting them directly, and pulls off some impressive action on its way.

Xia dao Gao Fei (Full Contact)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 23 February 2019 in Anthology Film Archives (Hong-Kong-a-Thon, 35mm)

I probably shouldn't give this a grade, because I was really dragging by the end, but, good gravy, when Ringo Lam and his crew kick things into high gear, this movie is downright exhilarating, a ballet-of-bullets that never does anything half-way. That refers to the action choreography, the way Lam and company paint both Thailand and Hong Kong as simultaneously glamorous and disreputable, and getting the most out of his stars: Chow Yun-fat is effortlessly cool, as always, and Simon Yam is the kind of bug-nuts villain that works best against that, his Judge malicious chaos in contrast to Gou Fei's criminal with a code

And that, folks, is how you end a 35mm Hong-Kong-a-thon.

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