Monday, March 08, 2021

Johnnie To/Chow Yun-fat/Sylvia Chang: Eighth Happiness; All About Ah-Long; The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon; and Office

I don't know whether The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon was released on Hong Kong Blu-ray with an eye on the then-forthcoming release of Coming 2 America, or if Panorama was just grabbing what had decent elements from their catalog and getting some Johnnie To or Chow Yun-Fat material out. That's why I bought it, not seeing that it was a remake until later, at which point I was, as you might imagine, like "whaaaaaaat?" Combine that with wanting to see what my 3D copy of Office looked like and a couple other Chow/To collaborations. I thought all involved Sylvia Chang, but that's not the case; Eighth Happiness gives Chow other leading ladies. I was kind of surprised to see that all three of the earlier movies had the same kid actor, Huang Kun-Hsuen, who improved pretty quickly for All About Ah-Long and The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon after being kind of rough in Eight Happiness. He got good enough that I'm a bit surprised to see him kind of vanish into obscurity in both Hong Kong and Taiwan when he became an adult, and I kind of wonder what his story is. Not that I'm going to go looking, because I feel that for every "went to college, found other interests" there are half a dozen "destroyed by substance abuse" stories.

Anyway! I'm buying a bunch of these with familiar names like To & Chow and kind of wishing I could justify more, because the late-1980s stuff here is kind of a blast. I've watched some previous batches of thirty-plus-year-old Hong Kong stuff where the take-away was that they were just cranking stuff out like crazy and didn't necessarily have the time to make it great, but if you look how much some of these people were working back then, you can also see a studio system that knows what its audience likes and gives it to them without getting too fancy. To and Chow (and Chang and Huang) did the first three of these movies along with many others over the course of a couple of years, and while they're not glossy, they're assured and capable at what they're aiming for.

I'm glad that publishers in Hong Kong are working through their 80/90s catalog, putting English subtitles on them so that they are easy for those of us in North America to import and watch, and pricing them at around $20 a pop. I love you, Hong Kong movie industry, for not being Japan (who seemingly doesn't want to make it easy for Americans to discover and love your films) or Korea (better but still making it harder than it has to be). I wonder to what extent it is so much easier to get cheap, English-subtitled Blu-rays from Hong Kong than the other Asian Region A countries because studios and viewers can look over their shoulder and see China ready to cut off decades of film history if they go all-streaming. If you like movies in HK, you're probably going to buy yourself some physical media just in case some CCP-backed company owns the most popular local streaming service next year, or so I imagine.

It's funny that when I first saw Office five years ago, it was unexpected to me that the first time I saw Johnnie To and Chow Yun-Fat working together, it seemed like something out of their wheelhouses. A little more time to dig into their work and it's pretty clear that they can do everything and the stuff that made it over here in the nineties and twenty-first century doesn't always show that. On the other hand, watching Office right after the other three was whiplash, stylistically. It's sometimes easy to overlook just how quickly digital tools from shooting to editing to distribution have allowed more places to aspire to the sort of slickness that only Hollywood (with its large and relatively affluent native audience) managed for decades, whether local indies or places like Hong Kong and China. There are still some folks in Hong Kong cranking out two or three movies that make a little money a year (you go, Herman Yau), but a potential audience of a billion people with more spending money than they used to have - and theaters to spend it - means that China, including those in Hong Kong with an eye on Mainland success, can do this sort of elaborate movie now, and folks like To have adapted to that new reality well, with a lot of room to experiment compared to the need to just get the movie from script to print in a couple of months.

Bat sing bou hei (Eighth Happiness)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Eighth Happiness starts with a gag that may just be too tacky to make the cut in an American comedy today, if anyone were still making broad 90-minute farces, but which is executed beautifully and works because there are pros involved who know how to handle its insanity. Screwball requires both meticulous timing and commitment to total anarchy, and this movie has a fair bit of both.

It follows the three brothers of the family Fang. Chien-Sheng (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau) wound up raising his younger siblings, and now hosts a morning cooking show on Hong Kong TV aimed at housewives. Chien-Lang (Chow Yun-Fat) is a would-be actor who has probably only kept girlfriend "Do-Do" Hung (Carol "Do-Do" Cheng Yu-Ling) so long because the flight attendant is often out of town and won't see his attempt to bed a woman from each of Hong Kong's districts. Chien-Hui (Raymond Wong Pak-Ming) is a shy artist looking to become a cartoonist. Over the course of a night, a number of misdialed and mis-connected telephone calls will connect them with potential dream girls: Chien-Hui believes he overhears a suicide attempt but winds up bursting in on Ying-Ying (Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying) instead; Chien-Lang gets a lead on shopgirl "Beautiful" (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung), as horny and reckless as he is; and Chien-Sheng starts a feud with Wu Fen-Fang (Petrina Fung Bo-Bo), not that he knows her name when he meets the Chinese Opera singer at the pastry shop the next morning before she is the guest on his show.

Those who mostly know Chow Yun-Fat from his work with John Woo and other bullet-filled action spectacles will likely drop their jaws at his character here, who despite the womanizing never seems less than flamboyantly gay even before you get to the posters of shirtless men in his bedroom, although his explanation is that at some point in his youth his brothers dressed him in girls' clothing and "now I'm campy!" It's a downright weird but never less than energetic performance, and the movie is at its most manic when he and Cherie Chung are competing to see who can top what the other is up to. It's a movie so full of broad, strange performances that Jacky Cheung's Chien-Sheng seems just as off in his grounded responsibility, while co-writer Raymond Wong and Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying almost fall into the background as a couple of nice kids you'd like to see wind up together even if they do get some of the movie's funniest scenes.

That includes the opener, which starts with Ying-Ying getting (sort of) flashed by a guy short enough that she initially thinks he's a kid and ends with her mother's martial-arts class running at Chien-Hui with swords. Director Johnnie To would spend much of the 1990s building a body of crime and action work that ranks among the greats, and he applies the same skills to the various slapstick set pieces here. They are over-the-top and the result of ridiculous misunderstandings, but To is great at keeping things hidden so that the audience isn't necessarily looking down on those jumping to the wrong conclusions, and even when some in the cast may not have perfect comic timing, he does. This isn't a fancy movie at all - it kind of looks cheap at times - but it's surprisingly rare that a comic beat gets missed.

(It doesn't hurt that the Hong Kong studio system meant that when you want to bash some cars together or have people stumbling to evade a madwoman with a sword for a joke, you can call the folks who built the action for the likes of John Woo and Ringo Lam in for a couple days' work).

To and a mostly game cast are still having to work overtime to get the most out of a messy script that feels like the result of people pitching gags and then having a hard time tying it together into an actual story. It doesn't help that, thirty years later, the telephone-related stuff seems like it comes from an even earlier century and some of the characterizations are questionable, but there's a number of moments where one might be more invested in the brothers getting their comeuppance rather than working their way out of a situation and others where a gag just doesn't work and the bits that build on it can't either. Farce needn't be deep, but this one gets very random at times.

The bits that don't work aren't nearly as frequent or intense as those that do, thankfully, and though Eighth Happiness is a ridiculous, dated trifle, it's the sort that makes one think that the world could use more trifles. 90 minutes of making an audience laugh with no strings attached can be a lot of fun.

Also at eFilmCritic

Ah Long dik goo si (All About Ah-Long)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

All About Ah-Long is one of only two movies where Chow Yun-Fat has a story credit, and it's maybe not coincidentally some of his best work as an actor, winning him his third Hong Kong Film Award and holding up well thirty-odd years later. He's far from the only reason to see it, but the movie is in his orbit and he makes that a good place to be.

His Ah-Long used to be a top motorcycle racer - old friend and coach "Dragon" Ng (Ng Man-Tat) thinks he could still be better than a lot of the kids he's training despite the three screws in his leg - but now works construction to provide a stable, if not fancy, life for son Porky (Huang Kun-Hsuen). Dragon thinks of Porky when an advertising agency contacts him looking for a charismatic kid who can do some BMX riding for a campaign, and the executive in charge, Sylvia Poon Por-Por (Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia), is taken with Porky immediately. It turns out that the three adults know each other from before Por left for America ten years ago - just long enough for her to be the mother Ah-Long told Porky was dead, although if that's the case, why is she so surprised to see Ah-Long has a son?

It's a situation that seems peculiar at first but which the film explains without a whole lot of fuss, using just enough in the way of flashbacks to establish just what sort of rebellious messes the pair were in the late 1970s. Screenwriters Ng Man-Fai & Philip Cheng Chung-Tai and director Johnnie To Kei-Fung do a neat job of referencing the sins of the past just enough for there to be some irony to what Ah-Long will do to assure a better life for his son without making him too self-aware of how he'd be doing something similar to what Por's mother did. There's also an impressive sort of restraint in how this never becomes a romance in the way Porky clearly wants it to. The kid may have a fairy tale of long-separated parents coming back together in his head, but the filmmakers let the adults be smart enough to realize that even though they've matured, they're in many ways even more star-crossed than they were ten years earlier, even if a lot of the attraction is still there.

The cast does nimble work with that, with Chow playing the shaggy working-class Ah-Long as a little more mature but not particularly refined, a fuzzy line between the often-callous young man we see in the past and the ex-con dad of the present. There are some "son's best friend and in many ways still a big kid himself" vibes to Ah-Long, but Chow and the filmmakers get that Ah-Long in many ways being the means there's an occasional meanness to him. Sylvia Chang makes an impressive complement to him; Por's well-collected professionalism never seems like a put-on but it's still easy to connect her with the more volatile version in the past, and she does a nice job of allowing the euphoria of discovering Porky exist side-by-side with the knowledge that this situation will not be easy going forward (she also has a story credit here and unlike Chow would do a great deal as a writer and director in addition to acting). There's a joke in the film about how Porky doesn't really look like either parent, but it's worth it to have Huang Kun-Hsuen in the part. A busy child actor in the late 1980s and early 1990s, he's good at making Porky a reflection of Ah-Long with a hint of Por while never being precious or broad as kid actors often can be (heck, as he himself was in Eighth Happiness a year earlier), despite the fact that his big emotions aren't ever hidden. Ng Man-Tat is solid character-actor bonus.

Doing a small marathon of four movies To, Chow, Chang, and Huang made together (in one combination or other), it was striking what a different feel this had from Eighth Happiness and The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon. Between those garish farces, To and cinematographer Horace Wong Wing-Hang give this one a grainier, less colorful style that often evokes home movies without seeming drained, always in close enough to see emotions but never zoomed in so much that one loses the context of Ah-Long's world. Without scenes of him doing so, one can see that Ah-Long has tidied up his apartment to look better for Por, and the scene when Porky first goes to Por's hotel for breakfast drives home that he clearly couldn't imagine places like that existing in Hong Kong.

It's good enough to make it's finale something of a head-scratcher: Ah-Long enters a big motorcycle race in Macau after getting a haircut so that he looks a little more like the Chow that's a big movie star than the down-on-his-luck ex-con he's often vanished into. It's so oddly disconnected from the rest of the movie that one wonders if the producers demanded a big set piece that could be used in ads or if there's a thread of Ah-Long returning to racing and developing some sort of antagonism with one of the other riders that got cut. To handles the action well, of course, right up until the operatic end, but it feels tacked on from another movie with the same cast.

I'd see that movie, even if it's something of an odd match with this one, forcing a resolution that the film otherwise wasn't headed toward. With or without that last part, All About Ah-Long is still an impressive bit of work from some of Hong Kong's best.

Also at eFilmCritic

Gat seng gung ziu (The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I ordered the Blu-ray of The Fun, the Luck & the Tycoon from Hong Kong on the strength of the cast (Chow Yun-Fat and Sylvia Chang!) and director (Johnnie To!) doing what looked like a fun light comedy, and then found myself kind of gobsmacked to look it up and see it described as a remake of Coming to America, as if I should just know about things I like intersecting like that. The combination is a lot to live up to, but it manages to be zany fun even if a lot of people in it are coasting.

Tycoon La Bo-Sun (Chow Yun-Fat) is the scion of one of the richest families in Hong Kong, and though something of a spoiled brat, not a bad person at all. His mother and aunt have long planned to marry him and cousin Cindy Chan (Nina Li Chi) to make sure that all the money stays in the family, but Bo has no interest in that. Having borrowed his butler's jacket, he wanders into a charity function where he is mistaken for one of the caterers and plays along. Impressed with the female half of the sibling team running the catering, he answers the help-wanted sign at East East Wonton incognito, happy for the lousy pay and dormitory housing with hard-drinking 12-year-old Rocky Ma (Huang Kun-Hsuen) and four other immigrants with musical dreams if it means he gets to know Hung Leung-Yuk (Sylvia Chang Ai-Chia) better. She's already got a boyfriend, Jimmy Hsu (Lawrence Cheng Tan-Shui), who has a Canadian passport as well as enough money to impress Yuk's brother Hung East (Ha Yue), while the butler (Wong San) is trying to keep Bo out of trouble while coaxing him to come back.

Director Johnnie To Kei-Fung and screenwriter Hoi Dik open the movie with a great little bit of physical comedy, brings a little more with Cindy's arrival, and has progressed all the way up to an actual pie fight (well, cake fight) before Bo has actually arrived at East East Wonton. To and company seem to be having a great time making the film as a live action cartoon, and while the "Production Design" credit To is given alongside the one for directing appears to mean something a bit different in Hong Kong than it does in Hollywood, the team has had a ball building both Bo-Sun's lives as colorful fantasies with plenty of silly bits in the corners.

It's not exactly a set-up built to have Bo do much soul-searching about how much he has versus others or discover that he's not good enough at anything practical to be worth Yuk's interest, so it's probably good that Chow doesn't play Bo as too deep a character. Instead, he's more or less Bugs Bunny, floating above situations with a silly grin because he knows he can't actually conceive of being in real trouble, at least until the last minute when he realizes Yuk may not in fact be that impressed. There are bits of Eddie Murphy in the performance as Chow laughs at his own jokes and the chaos around him, with Chow also playing a second role, although it's far from an imitation (it's kind of odd that Murphy was apparently well-enough known in Hong Kong for the dialogue to name-drop him twice in a remake of his movies, even if fame isn't necessarily fandom).

There's an enjoyable group around him, even if Sylvia Chang gets stuck in nice-girl territory as Yuk. Which isn't to say Nina Li Chi's Cindy is more appealing; she's just ridiculous in a way that's much easier to build jokes off of. Huang Kun-Hsuen gets the most entertainingly goofy role as Rocky, selling the heck out of this half-pint with an abrasive adult's soul, while Wong San's earnestly devoted butler may be half the reason why the audience cheers for Bo more than finding him obnoxious, because that loyalty had to come from somewhere. That Bo's singing co-workers are played by Beyond, apparently one of the hottest groups in Hong Kong at the time, is a pop-culture joke that probably worked a little better at the time but which doesn't thud here.

Thirty years can make a lot of comedies that a studio churned out to make sure the theaters they owned had something new every month with whatever was hot at the time into weird curiosities, and this movie is no different; I'd probably never have paid it any attention if later films hadn't made Chow Yun-Fat and Johnnie To into favorites and it might have stayed on the shelf longer if Coming 2 America hadn't made it momentarily a bit more relevant. It is, nevertheless, still fairly enjoyable: Everybody involved seems to be having a good time while still being the sort of pros who know how to make studio product into quality entertainment.

Also at eFilmCritic

Hua li shang ban zu (Office '15)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 6 March 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong 3D Blu-ray)

I'd been planning on giving this one a rewatch for a while before the prompt came up; the 3D disc I ordered from Hong Kong has been sitting on my shelf for a couple of years and as such things grew less common, my original belief that this would be neat but not transformative had become "it's a whole different movie this way". My original instinct on that turned out to be correct - the 3D version lets you add "shooting in 3D" to the list of things Johnnie To is good at (which includes roughly everything that has to do with making movies), but it's not exactly a revelation. I'm still kicking myself for not finding an excuse to go to New York when the 3D version was playing at the Metrograph, though.

Otherwise, it's still a pretty great movie. One oddity was that the DLP file I saw at Boston Common five years ago was likely in Mandarin/Putonghua, the "official" language of the movie, but the disc from HK only included Cantonese soundtracks, despite usually including both, and I wondered if the subtitling was slightly different, because it seemed slightly sharper and more satiric than I remembered the movie as being, although that may just be five more years of finding more to dislike about the systems it skewers. To a certain extent, I think both director Johnnie To and writers Sylvia Chang & Wai Ka-Fai found themselves stretching to include a bit too much in the film, especially if Chang's original play was more a star vehicle centered around her veteran executive. What seems like a story about corporate capitalism inevitably chewing up, corrupting, and discarding those who don't work their way to the absolute top becomes a bit of a cautionary tale for the two youngest characters whose souls may still be salvageable by the end.

One thing did click better this time, in that while I was kind of disappointed that Chow Yun-Fat was the only person who didn't get to sing in the movie, I see there's a certain logic behind it now. Characters in musicals have songs so that their feelings can be amplified, and Chow's Ho Chung-Ping is just too calculating for that, just not motivated enough by strong emotions to have a song. He's not even petty, jealous, or vindictive, still finding Winnie and Lee Xiang good enough at what they do to want to keep them around even if a more emotional person wouldn't want to. In that way, he's kind of the embodiment of the corporation as a legal person, just thoroughly amoral and focused on the goal of making money even when not actively corrupt.

Original eFilmCritic review from 2015

(Some of those prices are about twice what I paid at DDD House, and has Office seriously not gotten a physical release in the US until now - and that only on DVD?)

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