Thursday, February 11, 2021

I Wasn't Really Seeing This as a Double Feature, But...: 76 Days and Monk Comes Down the Mountain

"Stuff from China" is a nebulous-enough theme weekend, but I figured (based upon my previous experience with works of these filmmakers that I'd seen at Fantasia) they might be a little closer. 76 Days was sort of locked in for the Saturday I saw it - after delaying too long on streaming it via the Coolidge, I noted that there was a free one-day thing to commemorate the one-year anniversary of Wuhan locking down, and then I figured that I might as well finally pull Monk Comes Down the Mountain from the shelf because the people involved had made somewhat stately, almost too-serious martial arts stories, and I'd left it there because that hadn't been what I was looking for when in the mood for some action.

This wasn't that; it was big and broad and so full of slapstick that I'm still not sure what to do with how the oft-child-like protagonist murders a couple of people for revenge and then kind of feels bad about it but still runs the shop he inherited as a result. The movie mostly just needs him to be in the right place at the right time, but, still, it's weird.

Also weird: I got this disc from Hong Kong but you'd never know it.

It's not the only disc I've ever received from there that doesn't have any Chinese on it, but even the copy of Drunken Master II from Warner Brothers that I ordered from the same place said "licensed for sale in Hong Kong and Macau" on in, while this says "authorized for use in the place where it's sold, for example, the U.S. or Canada". There's no UPC on the package, and I think the special features are all in English as well. I honestly wonder if Sony intended to release this disc in the US, and then just opted not to for some reason, dropping it in HK. It makes no sense, but it feels like madness trying to figure out why certain things get released in one place in one format but not others these days.

76 Days

* * * (out of four)
Seen 23 January 2021 in Jay's Living Room (special presentation, Eventive via Roku)

There is, I'm sure, a lot left out of 76 Days that documentaries with a little more time for reflection and focus on a larger picture will eventually cover, and it's probably wise to look at it as something that presents something close to a best-case scenario, or one where the situation was managed to look good for cameras. Even if that's the case, though, it's useful to watch as an example of how things can or could be handled that is not entirely hypothetical. It's a process-oriented doc about heroes doing their thing selflessly, and is reassuring for it.

Not that it's entirely serving up soothing competence, although I suspect that it may not necessarily hit that way for some viewers - there's a stern stoicism to the people going about their work here that I imagine some viewers might find cold and uncomfortable, especially considering its Chinese source, and the filmmakers will sometimes play into it by cutting to a shot of a terrified patient that seems too close in, maybe highlighting how the older man's mind is starting to and he maybe can't comprehend the pandemic despite being near the epicenter. The level of lockdown when the camera leaves the hospital late is also unnerving, with barricades and signage up everywhere. You cannot help but wonder about a community that has what's needed to do this on-hand even as it seems prudent.

Mostly, though, you just feel the stress on the Wuhan hospital's staff, as intended. The fact that the camera seldom leaves the hospital or even shows one person replacing another in shift changes underlines what a marathon it is, hinting at no downtime whatsoever, and there's a weight on everybody even as they pull together. It's likely not the whole story, but it's an important part of it presented in focused, but not quite detached, fashion.

(Monk Comes Down the Mountain)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24 January 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong (?) Blu-Ray)

It's kind of weird getting to Monk Comes Down the Mountain by way of writer Xu Haofeng, whose own movies (and, I presume, novels) are so rigorous and serious about martial arts that they almost come all the way back around to self-parody, while this movie - for which it turns out he merely has a story credit - is broad and over-the-top from the start, when a Shaolin monastery facing lean times has a battle royale over who will be expelled, and the slapstick orphan is sent packing because he cleaned everyone else's clock.

It doesn't just get sillier from there, but it takes a while to find any sort of equilibrium. Director Chen Kaige and action director Ku Huen-Chieu go for the big lightweight wire-fu in a heightened early-twentieth century China, and it's often a lot of fun as that, but there's a dark and mean heart to some of the adventures "He Anxia" gets into, and the tones don't line up until almost the end. It all looks great and the action is high-quality, though it feels a bit end-of-cycle - I'm not sure that this is the last of the big-budget prestige wuxia films that came into vogue after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, but it seems to be around the right time and seems a bit confused, like it's trying to evolve into something else.

It has a hard time, though, in large part because the script is a mess. He Anxia could be an interesting character, and Wang Baoqiang gives Chen his best stab at whatever's being asked for in a given scene, but the writers never really figure out how to make this his story. He's at the edges of a few family conflicts, but they never coalesce into what he needs to learn about life outside the monastery, and the film doesn't do close to enough work to deal with the murders that end the first segment. I wondered if this was like CTHD in that it was based on parts of a longer saga only zoomed-out rather than in, the parts that made it into a whole lost.

Also: It's more than a little weird that most of the movie is shot on big, impressive period sets (or at least given a decent virtual environment) but a pivotal scene is literally on a contemporary playground basketball court. What's up with that?

No comments: