Monday, January 16, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 8: Project A, Project A II, and The Wicked City

When we last left these guys, two middling Hong Kong supernatural comedies had left Bruce's lead intact, but there are still some ways for Mookie to make up some ground
For instance, this 9 gets Mookie to Project A II, and because these films have very complicated continuity, it only made sense to re-watch the first one before that, right?

(Note Not only do they not have complicated continuity, and in fact the second was actually the one I had seen before, with the first a new viewing)
Next up, Bruce rolls a 10, which gets him almost but not quite out of the second "random Hong Kong/China" box and brings him to The Wicked City, which apparently doesn't go in the Tsui Hark section because he is only credited as writer and producer rather than director.

So how'd that go for them?
'A' gai wak (Project A)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 19 June 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I saw the sequel to this one first, so that set my expectations for this a little low, not so much because the later film is bad but because it's a Jackie Chan solo project, while this one teams him with frequent co-stars Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao, and three dragons are almost always better than one. Character-wise, they're all in somewhat familiar roles - Jackie is is earnest but loose, Sammo is the outsider who makes trouble for the others, Biao is initially stuffy but likably square by the end - and the film is of a sort that would become increasingly common in the 1980s and 1990s, historical period pieces where the scrappy Hong Kongers have this secondary mission to show themselves the equal of their British colleagues.

The story of it is simple on the one hand and a bit needlessly involved on the other - with the Coast Guard (or "Hong Kong Water Police") seen as a drain on the colony's finances and then seeing two of their boats blown up before a major operation, Chan's Dragon Ma Yue-Lung and others are assigned to work on land, where he is partnered with rival Tzu (Biao) and also crosses path with old friend Fei (Hung), now a thief. As with a lot of movies Jackie wrote and directed in this era, it's occasionally very much on the goofy side, very heavy on the wacky hijinks before the story goes in a non-hijink direction, and he can have trouble sharing the spotlight with both of his co-stars at the same time.

Of course, that's entirely secondary to the action, which is some of Chan's very best. I am, naturally, a particular mark for when a Modern Times homage seamlessly becomes Safety Last, and that's just the big flashy stunt, as opposed to the upscale and downscale bar fights and final attack on the pirates' lair. There's a terrific bicycle chase, something not seen enough despite the great balance of speed and human scale it offers. It's some of Jackie's most purely fun work, not overly skewed toward daredevil antics or high-concept slapstick (although there's some of each), with the main trio and their foes mostly playing up their skill and (presumably) friendly offscreen rivalry, to the point where they can't elevate one over another when fighting the final boss, despite it being Jackie's movie.

It is also fun to watch as a period action piece that clearly has some effort put into costumes, set decoration, and the like, but doesn't seem overly precious with it, the way a more modern, bigger-budget movie might extend everything a little bit more, make the costumes fancier, or add/erase things with CGI in pursuit of perfection rather than being comfortable and good enough. It's fun to look at and inhabit without being distracting, right down to how Sammo Hung can make a top hat work better than most people can.

'A' gai wak 2 (Project A 2)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 19 June 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

It's a testament to just how action-packed Project A 2 is that, despite a recap of the first movie that features both Sammo Hung and Yuen Biao playing at the start, one never really wonders where their characters are, even though Jackie Chan's Dragon Ma could probably use the help of a good-hearted thief or an honest cop at various points in the movie. It's Jackie's film, and it's kind of at its best when his honest fish out of water is facing off against David Lam Wai's slick and corrupt cop.

There's more, of course, including whole subplots about Chinese revolutionaries in Hong Kong to obtain weapons and funding, which 35 years later are mainly interesting for how the ladies involved (Maggie Cheung! Rosamund Kwan! Carina Lau!) were less established but big deals later, and also for how pointedly apolitical Chan and his character play things, compared to his later career. It's a little scattered story-wise, and maybe that's the natural way of movies built around fights: multiple opponents lead to shifting antagonists.

Still, this fights and stunts are pretty great, with big, creative stunts alienating with the close-up magic of a well-executed folks-handcuffed-together gag. After a certain point, the action is pretty much non-stop with even the silly bits kind of thrilling. The big stunt is a visual corker, with a finale that references Buster Keaton as surely as the first played with Chaplin and Lloyd, but with plenty of delightful chaos all around it.

In a way, this sequel feels like an acknowledgment that Jackie Chan had become a superstar; he's too big to be part of an ensemble as an actor now, but as a director, he's still learning how to tell stories as opposed to being a guy who knows what he's doing on a set. I don't know that he ever got there - we'll see what The Diary brings - but he could sure bring the action.

Yiu sau dou si (The Wicked City)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 June 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I'm mildly surprised to discover that The Wicked City was based on the first novel in a series, because it has a lot of the same issues as many films adapting long-running manga: Deep lore on the one hand, constant cliffhangers and switchbacks on the other, and fluid monsters who seem more suited for black-and-white line art than the three-dimensional world. This one winds up in the hands of writer/producer Tusi Hark, and it makes for a weird experience: Japanese sci-fi filtered through Hong Kong action and a filmmaker interested in pushing what special effects could do there forward.

(Is this unfair erasure of actual director Peter Mak Tai-Kit? Probably! This was Mak's last major job as a director and fits the narrative of Tsui's interest in making effects-driven movies, so it gets lumped in with that.)

The result of this weird mix of influences and personnel makes for a movie that expects the audience to just run with it from the start, introducing Taki (Leon Lai Ming) and Ken (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau) as agents of an international agency rooting out "rapters", although it's not exactly clear whether these superpowered shapeshifters are mutants, aliens, demons, or something else, just that they've been around a long time behind the scenes, preying on humans for whatever reason and amassing power. Their boss (Yuen Wo-Ping) doesn't trust Ken because of his "background", although Taki is the one who let Windy (Michelle Reis), the rapter agent he has a crush on, escape in an encounter years ago. She still works for Daishu (Tatsuya Nakadai), a kingpin in the rapter world, but one who seems content to coexist peacefully, leading ambitious son Shudo (Ray Cheung Yiu-Yeung) to mount a coup and attempt to conquer both human and rapter worlds with a drug called "happiness" and an attack on secret magnetic shields.

I wonder a bit when watching this how much it influenced later Japanese franchises like Parasyte and Tokyo Ghoul, although the secret monsters among us genre was having a boom at the time, with the original novel predating the likes of The X-Files and Vampire: The Masquerade, all great-grand-children of Illuminatus! and its influences, though those were less mainstream. It's a familiar enough sort of world that one can connect the dots that Hark an co-writer Roy Szeto Wai-Cheuk are racing past, and almost giggle when they decide that this is the point about which they need to repeatedly stop for a melodramatic flashback. There's whole hosts of "sure, why not?" twists and tech and repeated phrases like "rapter vacuum" that feel like they almost, but don't quite, make sense.

But that's because Mak et al are cramming a lot of action and weirdness into 87 minutes, in a sort of film we don't necessarily see that much from Hong Kong in this period, a slick present-day sci-fi world jam-packed with effects that were a notch or two beyond what one might expect from a similar film from Hollywood but which the filmmakers have no intention of hiding in the shadows. Instead of darkness, they tend to cloak any shortcomings in the weird - bodies get so distorted that you can't rule out that this is what something would look like, and if the living liquids and shadows don't have CGI to play with yet, the way they move is the right sort of uncanny.

Add to that the fact that the filmmakers are ready to turn everything up to 11: Everybody chewing so much scenery that it's kind of amazing that Japanese legend Tatsuya Nakadai is here and able to inject any gravitas at all, for instance, even though they are spewing nonsense with absolute conviction. It's also just downright weird at points, never more so when the villain is having sex with his shapeshifting robot henchwoman while she's in the form a of a pinball machine.

I don't do guilty pleasures, and I don't really do "bad movies I love", because if you love it, it is obviously succeeding at something This is the closest I come - it's a frequently cringe-worthy mess, the intersection of two sets of Asian genre films that don't really work that well together, but it's also not something were I was anything close to tempted to turn off.

Fate smiled upon Mookie this week, getting him a double feature and better movies than Bruce, so the new standings show a cap being closed:

Mookie: 29 ½ stars

Bruce: 36 ¼ stars

Still not quite in striking distance - barring double features and twenties, Moodie needs two masterpieces against two disasters to really catch up - but, again there's plenty of board to go before the finish.
The next bit has a big gap in the middle, but it won't look that way here!

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