Tuesday, December 17, 2019

Recent work from Hong Kong greats: Manhunt & Invincible Dragon

For some reason on Saturday, I started looking to see if The Crossing was available somewhere, even though I was pretty sure that it hadn't mysteriously gotten a new Region A release since the last time I checked, but maybe some streaming service had picked it up; things had quietly shown up on Amazon for rental before. Not today, but it did remind me that I had John Woo's latest on disc, briefly feeling clever about ordering it before any word of it being picked up for American distribution had appeared, but not watching it before it showed up on Netflix, or for a year and a half after that. But, hey, some free time, and I'd just gotten another John Woo movie in the mail, so there was no need to let them pile up. Then Sunday night, I had some time to kill before Watchmen, and Invincible Dragon was the thing closest to the front of an unwatched movie shelf that wasn't a two and a half hours long.

It's not good, but it kicked me back nine months to this year's Hong-Kong-a-Thon where a couple of the movies were thrown into the schedule precisely because they were batshit insane, and this has the same sort of energy. Connecting with a story I read the other day about how the Danish entertainment industry is just not big enough to keep up with demand for moody detective series, I wondered if at some point the Hong Kong film industry was just not big enough to keep up with the crazy amount of movies they made - like, everyone was cranking out four movies a year so nobody had time to give the script one more pass or do reshoots before the next production had the stage or location, so not only was there a lot of crap, but it sometimes got downright weird. The Invincible Dragon wasn't made under those circumstances, as film production has slowed down and the big money is in co-productions with China. Instead, it's got strong "auteur doing something mainstream to raise money for his weird boat prostitute movie but not totally turning his back on being strange" vibes, which can get you to the same place.

Anway, it was kind of fun to actually watch some of the Blu-rays I ordered a while ago. In most weeks, I'd actually be breaking even there, except that this was also the week that things from various holiday sales came in, and now I'm even more behind in watching these things I bought.

Zhui bu (Manhunt '17)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14-15 December 2019 in Jay's Living Room (watching discs, Blu-ray)

Whatever happened to John Woo? He rose to prominence in Hong Kong, arguably becoming the best action filmmaker in the world, made some pretty darn good movies in Hollywood, returned to China to make Red Cliff and then, around some health problems, did a co-directing job, the two-part feature The Crossing (which has yet to make it to North America), and then this film, shot in Japan with a mostly Japanese cast and dumped on Netflix with almost no fanfare. Surprisingly, it seems to belong there, feeling like a VOD production inspired by the master's work as much as him getting back to basics after a high-profile bomb.

It follows Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu), a lawyer looking to return to China after several years representing an Osaka pharmaceutical company whose president Yoshihiro Sakai (Jun Kunimura) is beginning to cede more responsibility to his son Hiroshi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). He encounters two women at a company party - Mayumi Tohnami (Stephy Qi Wei), who has reason to blame him for the death of her financé three years ago, and Kiko Tanaka (Tao Okamoto), who will turn up dead in his bed. A corrupt cop's attempt to kill him during his detention as a suspect puts him on the run, Mayumi his only alibi, pursued not just by Detective Satoshi Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) and his cheerful new partner Rika Hyakuta (Nanami Sakuraba), but by assassins Rain (Ha Ji-Won) and Dawn (Angeles Woo).

A prologue in which Du Qiu meets the assassins undercover has him and Rain talking about old movies, and it's not hard to infer that Woo and the half-dozen writers adapting a novel by Juko Nishimura mean his old movies (the phrase "A Better Tomorrow" shows up in dialogue at the end in a way that doesn't feel like coincidence). The elaborate, melodramatic bullet ballets associated with Woo's name haven't entirely disappeared since he left for America after Hard Boiled, but the Hong Kong film industry has changed and they are less common as a result, and there's something off about this one. It is, notably, the first film to arrive in America that Woo has shot digitally rather than on film, and the switch in locations from crowded Hong Kong to Osaka takes a bit of edge off. It's slicker, not quite so hardscrabble as Woo's most famous Hong Kong films.

Full review on EFilmCritic

Jiu long bu bai (The Invincible Dragon)

* * (out of four)
Seen 15 December 2019 in Jay's Living Room (watching discs, Blu-ray)

Every once in a while, I'm reminded how many films were produced in Hong Kong before the handover, and the sheer volume (four or five new movies a week for a population of 7.5 million packed into 415 square miles, roughly the size of New York City) beggars belief. It resulted in a fair number that were kind of half-baked, like the industry literally did not have the time and manpower to make all of that good, but the messiness that resulted had its own kind of charm. The Invincible Dragon arrives at the same sort of place via a different route, and while that means it's not exactly good, it's weird and messy in the same ways as those other oddities.

It's the story of Kowloon (Max Zhang Jin) - family name Kow, given name Loon, not necessarily named after the city - a detective who starts the film undercover only to have that end in impressively messy fashion, ruining some poor couple's wedding. He's assigned to a tiny precinct on the outskirts of the territory where nothing ever happens and referred to Dr. Kay Wong (Annie Liu Xin-You), whose traditional Chinese medicine may help with his OCD. Of course, once he and fiancée Fong Ning (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) transfer there, a serial killer starts attacking policewomen, eventually resurfacing in Macau, where the latest victim was last seen in a yoga class Lady Lam Tik-Fong (JuJu Chan Yuk-Wan) runs in a casino resort where her Brazilian-American husband, MMA fighter Alexander Sinclair (Anderson Silva), is a major investor, meaning he must work with Macanese detective Tso Chi-Ta (Kevin Cheng Ka-Wing), who wisely wants nothing to do with this train wreck.

This compresses things a bit - a narrator has helpfully informed us that a few months have passed twice before the film is half-over - and glosses over how Kowloon's impressive dragon tattoo is inspired by a nine-headed dragon he claims to have seen while swimming when he was three. The narration is often a strange choice, waving the audience past what would often be the boring parts but still making Kowloon feel like a passive part of the story. Director Fruit Chan is best known for art-house films, and it would not be surprising if he and writer Lam Kee-To did this to pay the bills for Three Husbands; they spend a lot of time noodling around the edges of things. There's not really a whole lot of story here and the filmmakers aren't terribly interested in either going into details or using the genre framework as background for something else.

Full review on EFilmCritic

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