Sunday, May 22, 2022

Hong Kong Saturdays: Revolution of Our Times, Angel, Blood Ritual, Hard Boiled, Nobody's Hero, The Magic Crane, Devil Hunters, and Man on the Edge

One doesn't really plan for things to wind up this way, but it's kind of cool when it does: Three Saturdays, three different sorts of Hong Kong movies, in different locations and with different perspectives.

First up, I was mildly surprised to see just how packed Revolution of Our Times was at the Capitol, seemingly with a lot of expats and otherwise interested parties, which is interesting because there aren't usually big crowds for HK movies when they play near Chinatown, compared to Mandarin-language ones, and it makes me curious just how the Chinese-American community is spread out in the area - is it a different group in the suburbs?

At any rate, it's a pretty strong doc - someone who has been following the story even a little closer than me probably won't learn a lot new, but it's got a focus on specific procedural elements that's nonetheless immersive. There's some irony to that as a Hong Kong film fan - apparently even independent young documentarians know how to shoot and present action better than anyone else in the world - but it's valuable. The protests in the SAR don't really need an explainer at this point, but something to bring the emotion of it home. The movie does that, right down to the unlikely manner in which many talked about the possibility of an independent Hong Kong. It seems unlikely to me - even if they could get recognized, the Mainland could easily dam up the supply of fresh water - but shoot big, right?

The next weekend was a road trip to New York City for a marathon that had originally been scheduled for January but got pushed out for Covid reasons (though I'm not sure April was any better or whether the perception had just changed). As is traditional, I cut things too close and the Red Line did not do me any favors getting to the bus terminal, but at least this time the bus I was meant to take was canceled and the lot of us were placed on the next one. There was some hustling involved in getting to the Anthology Film Archives on time , but I got a decent seat, said hello to Fantasia buddy Paul Kazee, and watched six Hong Kong flicks, some of which apparently never even made it to LaserDisc back in the day, although one (The Magic Crane) got a Hong Kong BD release right around the time they were booking this and sits on my shelf.

Sadly, there is apparently no 1:30am train or bus to get back home after these things any more (or maybe I've usually taken them Sunday night/Monday morning rather than 24 hours earlier), so there was a lot of trying to find a comfortable place to hang around Madison Square Garden before catching a bus home at 4:30am. There really aren't any such spots.

Then the next week, there was a Hong Kong movie playing Boston Common, and contrary to what I say is typical above, it wasn't a bad crowd at all. What did have me curious was how the HKMovie app still on my phone from a trip there a few years back didn't mention Man on the Edge at all, even though theaters were re-opening there after a long Covid-induced shutdown. It was easy to supposed that this was seen as a Mainland movie that HK wasn't particularly interested in, but the posters I saw on another site indicated it's an iQIYI original, though it doesn't seem to be on the American version of the service. It explains the line the film was trying to walk in terms of trying to be a Hong Kong film palatable to Mainland tastes/requirements, although it's kind of amusing that it would apparently get a theatrical release here, but not in its home territory.

The streak would break the next week, but will be picked back up soon enough, as there is a ton of HK material on my shelf, enough to rearrange the game board a little.

Si Doi Gaak Ming (Revolution of Our Times)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 2 April 2022 in the Arlington Capitol Theater #1 (special engagement, DCP)

As with a lot of current-affairs documentaries, I wonder a bit to what extent this is going to be watched by folks who need the primer versus those who know the broad strokes of the material and maybe want some more details, or just to make a statement of support (and maybe raise some money given that this appeared to be that sort of special event). Given how this is the sort of documentary that's broken into chapters, it's probably got a good future (in the near-term) as something that can be broken into three 50-minute chunks by a streaming service.

The filmmakers - some credited, some understandably anonymous - are necessarily bounded by time, from the point where the Hong Kong protests started in earnest in mind-2019 to when Covid-19 started to hit and street protest became even more fraught, if not impossible. It's not good for the activists, since even if they were never going to make progress, that gave Carrie Lam and the Mainland-dominated government another means to push the opposition out of sight. The bounds do help them solidify Revolution as a narrative, though; movements ebb and flow, and even by the end of this documentary you see people taking on new roles or even fleeing to Taiwan. The bounds keep the filmmakers from losing the plot.

And that they maintain it is a bit of a miracle, as so many of the subjects are committed to anonymity and thus either obscured or portrayed by actors, with details occasionally withheld so that participants are harder to identify that it takes a little extra effort to give the audience personal connections. They're canny in how they do it, digging deep where they can with less-anonymous subjects and keeping regular tabs on others so that they stay familiar even though they're not exactly recognizable. It's important, because it's a way to forge connections with the Hong Kongers even if you can't see their faces.

What's perhaps most fascinating, and which has been since the protests started, is the impressively organized way in which the protestors have gone about their business. Protesters have traditionally been at a disadvantage compared to their entrenched targets, but the folks here are impressively organized and specialized, treating the pro-democracy movement as a campaign rather than just an in-the-moment reaction, and putting together footage that feels like war photography, especially in later segments depicting the occupation and siege of two college campuses in the later segments.

As much as the filmmakers are clearly in the corner of the protestors to the extent where they're occasionally talking about independence for the region, which doesn't really seem practical - they are also mindful of what the locals are up against. It's interesting that both the police and Lam aren't portrayed as sadistically evil, but the bland front of a steamroller. There's talk about Xi in Beijing as having an "Emperor's mentality", but he's kind of far-off and abstract. This film doesn't exactly present and snatch hope away, but one does get the dynamic: Hong Kong's got spirit and righteousness but China is just big enough not to care.

Tian shi xing dong (Angel, or at least that's what the print said)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2022 in the Anthology Film Archives Courthouse Theater (Hong-Kong-a-Thon Part III, 35mm)

Angel is kind of a dopey girls-with-guns movie, but stick around for a marathon and you can see how this sort of thing could be much dopier. As with a lot of Hong Kong movies, it is almost all about the action, to the point where every piece of the story tying those sequences together is something they told the actors but didn't really write into the script much. So they hit that hard - the script really does nothing to establish a connection between Saijo and Moon, but that's what happens in these movies, so Moon Lee is going to make sure the audience gets it. That sort of "what the movie needs right now" also means that even the good guys will go from stealth to massacre in fifteen seconds, and the whiplash can be intense.

But with the right folks, bits can work out fairly well, and Moon Lee is a charming heroine who throws herself into action with abandon, while Yukari Oshima is ready to chew all the scenery as the villainess on her way to going toe-to-toe with Lee and the other "Angels". It's not exactly top-tier Hong Kong insanity - you can sort of see where the Golden Harvest films of the same period are just a little slicker and thus get all the jaw-dropping and less of the snickering - but it's good enough that you can see why Angel was repackaged under various names like "Iron Angels" and "Fighting Madam" to try and get it to hit.

Xie luo ji (Blood Ritual)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2022 in the Anthology Film Archives Courthouse Theater (Hong-Kong-a-Thon Part III, 35mm)

The makers of Blood Ritual sometimes don't seem to know how best to deploy their mean streak. There's a great giallo-esque opening that mines a bunch of atmosphere by mostly focusing on the cute red shoes of its fleeing cult victim versus the dark multiple pairs following her (making the nudity that the filmmakers eventually cut to a little more tackily exploitative), a genuine sense of unease when one of the investigating cops turns out to be compromised by "evil religion", and a darkly funny bit where the rich target of a PI's investigation sheds clothes as she walks upstairs the her jacuzzi, the maids quickly cleaning up after her, as good a depiction of the impunity of the powerful as anything a classier movie has done. At the other end, the final fight is punishingly violent: See it in a theater, and you can just sense the folks in the auditorium who came for some sleaze squirming in their seats.

And then, in between, there's a lot that wants to be a romantic comedy with Norman Tsui Siu-Keung as a good-natured ex-con who makes a bad first impression on Gina Lam Choh-Kei's nightclub singer but winds up renting her parents' spare room (those parents, by the way, are played by Ng Man-Tat and Susan Yum-Yum Shaw!), leading to a lot of next-level "he/she treats you like shit because he/she likes you!" stuff. It seems like something obligatory and awkwardly coexisting with all the murder, especially since the main pair are, until enough of the cast is killed off to dump things in their laps, on the periphery of the crime story.

It's a mess with a few folks in the cast who could do and/or have done better, to the extent that I wonder if Gina Lam was some sort of Cantopop star (she gets a showcase number and has the charisma to suggest bigger things, but had a very short film career). Mostly, there's some impressively gnarly violence to make it memorable. It eventually starts to feel like this is a script that could have used a few more drafts, but it was done for a studio trying to make more movies a year than is really wise. It could have been not just nasty little thriller but a genuinely creepy one with a little more polish, but Category III movies from minor studios don't get that.

Lat sau san taam (Hard Boiled)

* * * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2022 in the Anthology Film Archives Courthouse Theater (Hong-Kong-a-Thon Part III, 35mm)

See, this is why you don't privatize medicine - when you focus on profit, it attracts shady investors, and then the mob is using the new hospital they funded to store illegal goods like black-market weapons, and that eventually leads to Chow Yun-Fat, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, Phillip Kwok Chung-Fung, and Anthony Wong Chau-Sang shooting off millions of rounds of ammunition around people who are already sick and injured, and whose health improves in that situation? Nobody's, except whoever owns the competing hospitals with trauma centers.

Anyway - John Woo's last Hong Kong movie before coming to Hollywood is a bloody masterpiece of macho melodrama and over-the-top violence, a ringer in the middle of a day of less-known Hong Kong cinema. Which is pretty much what I thought fifteen years ago.

Qing yi wo xin zhi (Nobody's Hero)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2022 in the Anthology Film Archives Courthouse Theater (Hong-Kong-a-Thon Part III, 35mm)

It's oddly reassuring to know that it's not just Hollywood that has weird standards of personal attractiveness, as this film's Liu Wai-Hung is a generally decent-looking guy who nevertheless gets mocked for his appearance despite the fact that there's plenty of reason to avoid his character for being a weirdo. He wants to be a cop, to the extent that he'll act the vigilante while giving someone a ride in his cab or being an overzealous mall security guard, and also has no idea that the woman he's "seeing" is transparently exploiting him for what tiny amount he has, before finally winding up alongside a blind girl who he doesn't realize is the sister of one of the gangsters that basically run the shopping center. The man's oblivious but awfully self-righteous, and it makes this one of those movies that lives right in the peculiar spot between farce and a sort of psychological horror.

In part, that may be because the folks involved are just a bit off from where they might be best used. Director Kuk Kok-Leung would eventually do solid behind-the-scenes work as a line producer for Johnnie To and writer Tsang Kan-Cheong would become one of Stephen Chow's main collaborators, but they sometimes don't know what to do with their semi-delusional anti-hero here, twisting the story from him being kind of unnerving because he's pathetic to just acting as an everyday hero in over his head, which I guess is another sort of "wanting to say he's ugly and off-putting but not really making him that way". Kathy Chow is pretty and likable as Jane, despite this being the sort of movie where the male screenwriters don't leave a lot of gray area between her childlike innocence and the nasty bitch who uses Leung Gun, plus she plays the part more as someone who has just lost her sight as opposed to someone who has been blind all her life and knows how to live like that.

Leung's misadventures eventually grow stranger and more perilously misguided, but there is at least an odd sort of danger to them that's both self-inflicted and not entirely his fault. That sometimes means that there's an exploding car that comes across as impressively random, both in how that maybe should have been a small fire at most and the way everyone seems to shrug off that two people must have died like it was nothing. It's a weird little movie that never exactly makes sense, though it never exactly seems impossible, either.

Xin xian he shen zhen (The Magic Crane)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2022 in the Anthology Film Archives Courthouse Theater (Hong-Kong-a-Thon Part III, 35mm)

This movie feels like a three-season TV series crammed into one 100-minute movie, by turns transforming itself from a comedy about guys from a tiny martial-arts school finding themselves in the middle of a messy situation to a zany wuxia fantasy to a whole different kind of melodrama, and for as much as it can give a viewer whiplash, there's something fun to that. All these modes are different facets of the same genre, and you'll see bits of one in another, as comic relief or explanatory backstory, but writer-producer Tsui Hark and director Benny Chan instead opt to just twist the whole thing from one shape to another, bringing the same characters along. There is just So Damn Much in here that it's almost no big deal that the crew can't really create a version of Pak Wan-Fai's Crane that's good enough to show the audience all of at once.

It's a ton of fun, though, with a great cast - I'd already been looking to grab more ANita Mui movies on disc, so getting this sprung on me was a treat, with Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Rosamund Kwan to boot. It's the sort of absurd mythical-martial world where mountains float and people fight in mid-air, but the filmmakers are good at making one bit complex and another easy to hand-wave without the clash being a problem. Plus, it's got the best production values that a circa-1993 Hong Kong fantasy can give you - slick as heck in spots if straining in others, but the latter never feel inept as opposed to just not having the money they do in California.

it's weird and never slows down to let you stop and question whether any of this makes any damn sense at all - and, honestly, what more does one want from this sort of action fantasy?

Lie mo qun ying (Devil Hunters)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 9 April 2022 in the Anthology Film Archives Courthouse Theater (Hong-Kong-a-Thon Part III, 35mm)

Devil Hunters is infamous for damn near killing its stars in its big action finale, and I can't help but wonder if that's part of the reason why so much of the rest is so frantic in how it barrels forward and skips a fair amount of explanation: How much of the script did they have to do without because Moon Lee was in the hospital and couldn't shoot? Probably not that much - it's not like this sort of girls-with-guns movie necessarily made a whole lot of effort to be coherent in the first place - but the churn is sure something, especially considering that I saw this at the end of a marathon and am thus worn down enough to not be sure if Lee was just playing one sister or both, or if an actress showed up again after her character was killed.

it's entertainingly chaotic, though, pushing forward like crazy and having just enough tying things together to get to the next bit before the action goes way over the top (if these movies are to believed, the HKPD of the 1980s and 1990s used hand grenades way more than I can ever imagine is justified for police work). Moon Lee is someone I didn't really know before this event and now I'm trying to see how much of her kind of B-level career I can scrape up on disc; she energizes the movie on her first appearance tussling with Sibelle Hun in an amusement park and the movie never really slows down after that, You may be thrown a bit watching this one, but it's unlikely you'll be bored.

Bin yun haang ze (Man on the Edge)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 16 April 2022 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

Man on the Edge has all the markings of a classic Hong Kong gangster movie - it's in Cantonese, is loaded chock-a-block with brotherhood and betrayal, and can get impressively violent when writer-director Sam Wong Ming-Sing feels like it, plus a cast that features Richie Ren Xian-Qi, Simon Yam Tat-Wah, and cameos by the likes of Sammo Hung Kam-Bo and Karena Lam Ka-Yan. And yet, it never quite feels like one of those films. It's chaotic where it should be precise while Wong seems to be looking over his shoulder in all the places where he should let 'er rip.

The core of it is pretty good, though, with Ren as Lok Chi-Ming, a veteran of the street just released from prison because he took the fall for Yam's Boss Cheong. Cheong is looking to retire, and he's got three underlings who would like to take his place with the Triads, the sort who are brothers like Lok and Cheong on the surface but keenly aware there's only one space opening up. What few realize is that Lok has agreed to go undercover for Inspector Lam (Kevin Chu Kam-Yin), but soon finds he's in contact with Inspector Ching (Alex Fong Chung-Sun) instead, while Ching's investigation is being hampered by thact that HKPD Chief Superintendent Richard Harrison (Gregory Charles Rivers) is corrupt as hell and looking to continue controlling the colony's heroin trade even after the handover.

Like a lot of attempts to do old-school Hong Kong crime these days, this film is set in the years before the 1997 handover in part because it just wouldn't do to say that there is still crime and corruption in the Hong Kong Special Administrative Region now that Beijing is in charge, and one gets the impression that Wong, a former member of Jackie Chan's stunt team, is acutely aware of the lines that one doesn't cross if one doesn't just want to have this movie show in front of the billion-person audience to the north but maybe get a chance to direct one of the blockbusters they make up there. The film doesn't exactly stop dead and is kind of mild as far as tacked-on "crime does not pay" scenes go, but there's effort to pin crime and other issues on the British and Thai suppliers, and a fair amount of talk of not leaving HK or eventually coming back.

On the flip side, the action can sometimes feel surprisingly messy for being directed by someone with a stunt background, closer in and cut up more than a movie actually made in 1994 would be. It's not bad, compared to an American or Mainland flick, and Wong can get some good results when he's got some room to work; this movie has a nice example of one of my favorite hyper-specific types of action sequences, the chase across multiple boats in a marina. It certainly doesn't hurt that there are enough extra characters hanging around that an action beat will often end with a coup de grace that leaves at least one fewer, reshuffling things a bit.

If nothing else, the main cast is an enjoyable group to watch, different flavors of world-weariness, with Ren's Lok more resigned than the typical crook trapped between two loyalties while Simon Yam often seems just on the border of letting one forget that Cheong is a gangster through his charm but having something else just underneath. I confess to not necessarily getting the meaning behind Sammo Hung's Master Kam reciting divinations from some sort of Chinese tarot, but he and the other guest stars of a similar age give off the right vibe of being so powerful and entrenched that they seem almost like lovable institutions but also stuffy and in the way of the angry young guns.

All in all, Man on the Edge isn't really a bad movie, but by its nature it seems to highlight a style and genre of film that more genuinely can't be made again than many which are given that tag. You can get all the ingredients, but the environment is too different.

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