Saturday, July 04, 2020

Two from Laurence Lau: City Without Baseball and Dealer/Healer

This is not, perhaps, the most clever double feature I've come up with as I pulled stuff down off the shelf, but it's one that felt that way at the time, as I noted that two of the movies I'd ordered from Hong Kong as relative cheapies to bulk up an order had Laurence Lau listed as director, so why not pair them? I'd purchased them both out of curiosity - City Without Baseball intrigued me as a fan of the sport while Dealer/Healer was one I recalled seeing in a festival lineup on top of starring Lau Ching-Wan - so why not.

Well, it turns out that Lau is not exactly the director you make a themed night of (and if I wanted to, I have three other discs with things he directed on it, one of which is a horror anthology and two of which are direct-to-video sequels to a Johnnie To film). He's a journeyman, a guy who's done some programmers and, for City Without Baseball, appears to have been brought in to be a steady hand for a movie with a first-time filmmaker and a mostly-amateur cast who all probably needed to be shown the ropes. That's not to say that the films have nothing in common - they're both based on real-life figures and examine unseen bits of Hong Kong - but it's not exactly an auteur double feature.

On the other hand, having done this double feature Tuesday, I can say I slipped City Without Baseball in under the wire before baseball got restarted, which is maybe worth 1 clever point on a 100-point scale.

Mou ye chi sing (City Without Baseball)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

There's a part of me that wishes the posters, packaging, and other art for City Without Baseball played up the sports angle, entirely so that some of the people who watch it on that basis get a genuine shock over just how much it is something else, even if it's not necessarily quite so queer as it appears from the other angle. It's a genuinely odd film in a number of ways and one which often highlights its own eccentricity so that it can have an easier time noodling around the edges of various stories.

Hong Kong is not, as the title may imply, entirely lacking in baseball, but there's no professional league, and the national team, such as it is, is a group of amateurs, led by starting pitcher Chung (Leung Yu-Chung), catcher Jason (Jason Tsang Kin-Chung), and captain Jose (Jose Au Wing-Leung); 19-year-old Ron (Ron Heung Tze-Chun) has just recently joined. The team has recently hired Taiwanese coach John Tai (John Tai Yu-Ching) to help them prepare for the Asian Baseball Cup. Tai is lucky enough to meet a nice girl (Yan Wei-Suo) at a seaside bar, and while Ron has recently broken up with his girlfriend, he's met someone new in Meizi (Lin Yuan). Like a lot of girls, she soon develops a crush on Chung, although he's drawn to a suicidal girl (Monie Tung Man-Lee) whose phone he discovers when he nearly hits her while driving drunk.

The film opens with "they are not actors... they are ballplayers" with the usual disclaimer at the end of the credits is reconfigured to say that the characters in the film "are not necessarily fictional", and while one would not mistake City Without Baseball for a documentary, writer/producer/co-director "Scud" Cheng Wan-Cheung does have the 2004 Hong Kong baseball team playing themselves in a film based on stories they told him. There's a certain shagginess to the film that might not work if Scud and co-director Lawrence Lau Kwok-Cheong weren't so brashly up-front about the way the film was made - the footage from the ABC is clearly a repurposed sportscast and the scenes around it are a mess, continuity-wise, and there's an early joke about someone making a movie about the team that winks at the audience so hard it might cause actual eye damage. The subplots are cliched as heck and mashed together in fairly haphazard manner.

And yet, the very simplicity and messiness of it may explain why so much of it rings true; it plays like a collection of jumbled remembrances that are not shaped too perfectly around any specific theme. The cast of (mostly) non-actors similarly seldom seem to be trying to steer a scene but just doing a fairly good job of getting across genuine personalities, if not overly-complex ones, rather than forcing out lines or looking like they're the only dozen people in the city who can fake baseball convincingly. It's especially useful as Ron has his story move toward the film's center; a student and would-be musician on top of being a ballplayer, and the film often reflects his combination of big dreams (that likely outstrip his talent) and slightly-panicked uncertainty over everything. Knowing how the film was made means that the real-life Ron Heung is laying all that out there in the same way the fictionalized version is - as is Leung Yu-Chung, to a lesser extent - and between their openness and natural charisma, it's not hard to feel that connection.

It's one that is inevitably of its time and place, as well, with Scud and Lau often noting that the musical acts on the soundtrack, folks like Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui, had recently passed on, while the songs Ron writes are in English and his roommate is on the ethnically ambiguous side. It's a set of circumstances and signals that notes how the old Hong Kong is disappearing and that moving forward that the things these kids have been devoted to are not necessarily going to be useful, or that they are chasing something that is ultimately small potatoes. By the same token, though, there's something beautiful in the very smallness of their ambitions once one reaches the tournament; Scud and Lau don't do much to sell the audience on the game, or present the footage in a way that tells a story even for fans. It is all about the delight Chung, ron, Jose, and the rest take in playing even though there are no fans in the stands.

In the years following City Without Baseball, Scud would go on to write and direct a number of films that were more overtly LGBT-themed, almost as if in making this broadly-themed film would have him discover where his storytelling passions lie, even if they're of niche appeal. For a film so invested in its meta-appeal, what could be a better result?

Duk gai (Dealer/Healer)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 July 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

There's a compelling, worthy story lurking somewhere inside Dealer/Healer, albeit the sort of generically inspiring one that can often have a film derisively tagged as "awards bait". You can still get something out of that sort of movie; an earnest passion if nothing else, even if it's miscalculated and the result of filmmakers wanting to be seen as more than they have been. This just feels like the work of journeymen whose skills aren't a match for the material - functional, but little more.

It's the story of Chen "Cheater" Hua, who started out as a teen hoodlum in the Tsz Wan Shan Estates back in 1964 before rising to middle-management in the gang that controlled the drugs in the Kowloon Walled City's "Canteen". During that time, he's developed a nasty drug habit of his own, eventually pushing girlfriend Carol to work as a taxi dancer to support them. He winds up in jail, naturally, and gets clean, working tirelessly for drug rehabilitation when he gets out, awarded recognition as an "outstanding young person" and speaking out about his mission throughout Asia, though he's never able to do all he wants or get back all he's lost.

The filmmakers hang a bit of a lantern on his award early on - the film takes place in three separate time periods from 1964 to 1987, which means Hua is forty-ish when awarded, and Lau Ching-Wan never looks "young" when playing him in 1974 or 1987 (both he and co-star Louis Koo Tin-Lok are well-preserved, which isn't quite the same as youthful). It's the sort of gesture that can't help but highlight the artifice in how the film is put together, as the filmmakers often shoot the movie like a sleek period traid thriller, with set and costume design that seems more intent on evoking nostalgia rather than creating a world that feels coherent, and it's sometimes almost comical, like when a door in the small but homey apartment Cheater and Carol share opens into a bathroom that looks like it belongs in a shooting gallery, two familiar movie sets awkwardly fused together.

That's potentially fine - nothing wrong with using heightened or familiar imagery as a shortcut, especially since director Laurence Lau Kwok-Cheong and his team do it consistently - but somewhere between the screenplay by Chan Man-Keung and Sana Lam Wai-Kuk and the end product, there's never any serious attempt to get into Cheater's head or that of anyone else in his orbit. The narration tosses out facts and describes other characters as close friends or inspirations, but aside from a brief moment of Hua in withdrawal, Lau seldom shows Hua as being particularly pushed in one direction or another by things or otherwise affected. Things happen, and Hua does what a hoodlum, junkie, or humble-and-reformed man would do in reaction. It's a sort of bland earnestness - addiction is bad and helping others is good - that could use a little more of Hua being caught in between.

There's a bit about Hua meeting up with Carol again in 1987 that's not exactly framed like he might be able to win her back but still gives the impression that her potentially forgiving him is more important than the ways he hurt her in the first place, which feels kind of misguided. There are slick and clever moments that work on their own but sometimes make one wonder whether this sort of movie should be slick and clever, like when a confrontation suddenly turns into a nicely staged action scene (action director Paco Yick Tin-Hung has been one of Johnnie To's go-tos for such material recently, and attacks those sequences with gusto). There's a couple nifty bits of effects work that shows Kowloon Walled City closing in and opening up at either end of the film, and one can admire its clear meaning even if wondering if it's right for this particular movie.

A lot of Dealer/Healer is like that, a movie made by people who are by and large very good at what they do but none of whom really do this. It never exactly feels misguided or like the filmmakers are out of their depth, but just like a bad match between subject and personnel.

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