Monday, August 10, 2020

Two from Ann Hui: Zodiac Killers and The Story of Woo Viet

Did I go for Zodiac Killers on Saturday night because it was late and the movie at the end of the shelf was a tidy 99 minutes? Yes, absolutely. Was I more than happy to go back to that same shelf to get another Ann Hui movie the next day, especially if it starred Chow Yun-Fat? Oh, certainly.

The pair were odd experiences, though, in that my exposure to Ann Hui had been her acclaimed films from the 2010s - A Simple Life, The Golden Era, and Our Time Will Come - so I wasn't sure what to expect from these two. I kind of expected Zodiac Killers to be a more straightforward genre film and Woo Viet to be something of a low-key epic, and as a result spent a fair chunk of Zodiac wondering if I was giving it extra credit because I knew what she'd be capable of later. One does that; it's tough not to look at earlier movies without that perspective.

They've got a similar sort of interesting vibe, though, genre film back-ends attached to more exploratory first halves, but as much as each of them can feel like two things glued together, but when you look at them afterward, they're more entangled than they look. It's kind of the opposite of how this sort of genre hybrid often works these days - western filmmakers often seem more interested in creating a quick hook and then letting the audience wander once the viewer is committed - and given that genre film isn't held in the same sort of regard as the more interior drama these films have in the first act, it can feel like a kind of devolution.

And I don't know that it's an unfair way to look at it; for all that Hui doesn't abandon the more overtly complex indie-ness to get people shooting at each other, the endings, tragic and emotionally messy as they are, are still a little too definitive for the way the situations were set up.

Hui had 1.14 movies on the schedule for 2020 - a Mainland co-production and one of the segments in Septet - and I'm eager to be able to see both, somehow. They likely won't be this sort of thing - which certainly play as a female filmmaker with indie sensibilities carving her own place out of a film industry built to crank out violent action - but they'll absolutely be the result of movies like this. Then again, as the only woman directing a segment in Septet, surrounded by six men known for action, maybe she'll be back in this space for twenty minutes or so.

Ji dao zhui zong (Zodiac Killers)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 August 2020 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Zodiac Killers seems to be a product of a very precise time and place, even more than is typical for a film industry that cranks movies out relentlessly. Read a synopsis and it looks like a pretty standard crime flick, making the person who comes in for that frustrated as it wanders, but give it a little space and it becomes more intriguing: In 1991, lots of Hong Kongers are going abroad or looking for foreign passports, just in case the handover quickly goes south. And though the tendency to noodle around the crime story didn't need the sudden resurgence in independent film going on across the Pacific to show up in Hong Kong cinema, it certainly makes the time more specific for foreign audiences.

Ben Lee (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) might be aware of what's going on at Sundance; he and classmate Chang Chih (Tuo Tsung-Hua) are studying film in Tokyo, although Ben doesn't show up to class much, working multiple jobs to pay for class and rent. Meng Tieh-Lan (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) is in a similar situation, and they meet when Ben's friend Ming (Sun Peng) splurges to bring all the Chinese hostesses at a club to his table. Ben gets infatuated quickly, but it turns out Tieh-Lan already has a boyfriend, Hideyuki Asano (Jun'ichi Ishida), a gangster whose current situation is, generously, a mess.

Asano is not the guy who is holding onto Tieh-Lan's passport; that's a different guy with a similarly sketchy mustache who is also dealing with yakuza issues, and the way the script by Raymond To and Ng Lim-Jan suddenly drops one and brings in the other can certainly throw a viewer for a moment or two as she goes from ready to just walk out of everything and maybe interested in Ben to head over heels without anything else intervening. It's an odd transition, and one that signals a transition from Hui et al mosty poking around at these characters and their situation to something that's more of a straight-ahead crime story. They do well at both, but there's a pretty notable bump in between, and getting Ben involved in a righteous mission muddies how shifting to the story involving Asano involves Ben being a ridiculously entitled dick.

Which, itself, isn't a bad thing at all - there's a story in there somewhere about him going from the cynically materialistic but not exactly hard-working guy with all the useless crap in his tiny apartment at the start to the man who will selflessly sacrifice everything for a woman who doesn't love him the same way. It's one that Hui and stars Andy Lau & Cherie Chung more or less have to impose upon the script, but they know how to work the emotion over the plot, from an opening flash-forward that lays the melodrama on thick to Lau and Chung not exactly hamming it up but never allowing a scene to be overly subtle. The plot's not much, but Hui is zeroed in on the feel of the time and the emotion of the story is in broad strokes, and she's a good enough filmmaker to make a fairly impressive movie out of it.

Woo Yuet dik goo si (The Story of Woo Viet)

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

As with Zodiac Killers, which came out a decade later, The Story of Woo Viet has a weird split to it, like director Ann Hui spends the first half of the movie making the independent film that focuses on the themes and situations that she's most interested in, with the second half being the crime movie from which you can cut a genre-film trailer and sends the mainstream audience out satisfied. It's not a bad trick, although a little disappointing if one is interested in the place where the movie starts.

Woo Viet himself is a refugee from Vietnam, and while he's escaped to arrive in Thailand on the way to Hong Kong (from whence he intends to reach America), he's not out of danger; the boatload of refugees contains spies, and when he kills one, his contact in Hong Kong has to get him and a fellow escapee out on fake passports. That gets him to Manila, where he winds up part of a Chinatown gang.

That would later become a familiar place for star Chow Yun-Fat, and Chow is easily the best thing about this movie: He shows an easy charisma early on, easily connecting with Cora Miao Chien-Jen as the Hong Konger with the obvious crush, Lam Ying-Fat as a kid taken under his wing, and Chan To-Kit as the cynical old man who it turns out is properly paranoid, as well as Cherie Chung Cho-Hung as the girl he will travel with to Manila, enough so that when situations call for him to harden, it's a hard shift. He'll never be quite the same afterward, and the second half reflects this - there's a cynical not-quite-hollowness to Woo Viet, gangster that shows how the decency that originally attracted the audience has been abraded away.

It's not a shock, though - Hui and company have quickly built the sort of sort of environment where hope and fear can easily co-mingle, making Woo's own reaction feel logical. She and writer Alfred Cheung Kin-Ting are good at making everything before Manila quietly chaotic, like nobody is really sure what they should do because they're not by nature as ruthless as the people the refugees are trying to escape, and Woo Viet having to expose that part of him and not put it away is tragic without requiring a lot of self-reflection. The second half goes through gang-movie motions, kind of rote even if the action itself is solid, but it's got a little more heft to it. The audience has an understanding of Chow's brooding badass and Chung's damsel that they might not have in lesser movies.

It means The Story of Woo Viet isn't really two movies, even if it sometimes feels like it is - it just turns out to be a crime film with extra depth rather than a message drama that turns to crime.

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