Wednesday, January 18, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 9: The Dragon Chronicles: The Maidens of Heavenly Mountain and Mr. & Mrs. Gambler

I'm not sure whether the "Western" or "Chinese" section of the gameboard is larger, but I have to admit that the Western one feels a bit more diverse; the random impulse buys from Kino Lorber seem to cast a bigger net than when I'm loading up on familiar names from DDDHouse, if only time-wise. Not that I'm eager to get out of this section, just that, for as screwy as some of these choices are, I'm looking to find a way to inject even more chaos into the next go-round.

But first, what may be the longest round of the year!
First up, we have Mookie rolling a 12, which gets him close to the end of the "general Hong Kong/China" section and The Dragon Chronicles (which has no dragons), a bit of mid-1990s wuxia.

Then, it was off to Fantasia, which took me away from the board for the better part of a month and then being sort of heads-down writing after that, so the next roll came six-plus weeks later.
Bruce rolls a 19, which lets him jump all the way over the Ringo Lam section to almost the end of the Wong Jing section, and, honestly, I hadn't expected to have a Wong Jing section, but he's prolific enough and has been around long enough that it wound up making as much sense to pull out as other Hong Kong auteurs. The movie in question would be Mr. & Mrs. Gambler, which is fairly apropos.

So how'd they do?

San tin lung bat bo: Tin San Tung Lo (The Dragon Chronicles: The Maidens of Heavenly Mountains)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 27 June 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

As always, I don't know that this is the actual case, but Maidens of Heavenly Mountains feels like a movie that started with one set of expectations only to find that the good stuff was somewhere else. That's how you wind up with Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia and Gong Li first-billed and playing demigods while all the fun is being had by more Earth-bound characters played by the perhaps less-celebrated Sharla Cheung Man and Frankie Lam Man-Lung. The feud between Lin's Li Chau Shui and Gong's Mo Han Wan is what makes everything happen, but the most entertaining thing going on is the mismatched monk and henchwoman who wind up thrown together almost as comic relief.

Maybe that's the inevitable result of hiring Andy Chin Wing-Keung to direct the film; most of his career was in comedies, and he often seems most at home here when things are the goofiest, not just with the antics of Cheung's "Purple" and Lam's Hui Chok, who banter well without it ever becoming romantic, but in the nervous piece where the senior monk is fleeing the Shaolin Temple, or a moment when Gong Li gets to mug a bit as she wishes she were the one in charge. The "melting blow" that can basically disintegrate any opponent seems almost knowingly overpowerful. Much of the initial melodrama is dispensed with in an opening scroll, but he doesn't entirely dispense with it, and if he's winking hard about not making Mo Han Wan and Li Chau Shui's "good twin" Li Chong Hoi explicitly gay, he's not quite mocking the genre either, keeping up a good pace so that there's forward momentum.

The wire-fu he and martial arts director Poon Kin-Kwan put together is often pretty nifty as well, with the centerpiece a cloud-hopping fight between Lin and Gong where the camera smoothly follows them as they fly over impossible mountaintops with the occasional quick step to keep moving. These are martial artists who can project force blasts from their hands, but the best bits play more as Star Wars than static posing, with the camera banking and energy coming in rapid-fire like tracers. It's the sort of movie that takes place in monasteries, palaces, caves, and mystic mountaintops, but just enough care taken to make them a bit more detailed than usual for the period, and a finale that pulls everyone i with a lot of crazy magic stuff that doesn't cede the entire film to the visual effects team.

It is, like a lot of movies in this corner of the martial-arts genre, kind of weightless nonsense, but grounded by the supporting characters who steal the movie away and just funny enough to work.

Lan to fu dau lan to chai (Mr. & Mrs. Gambler)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 August 2022 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Wong Jing has made roughly 100 movies in 40 years and I suspect that a good solid 70 of them have involved mahjongg or gambling, and I wouldn't be surprised if that's how he spent a lot of time during those apparently rare periods when he is not making movies. He likes it so much that he seemingly has a hard time making a romantic comedy where the idea is that its pair of compulsive gamblers (Chapman To Man-Chat & Fiona Sit Hoi-Kei) have to become responsible adults who can be relied on. Like, I wonder if he quite believes it.

It helps that he's got Chapman To and Fiona Sit to work with; this is To squarely in amiable fourth-wall breaking mode, where he narrates the movie in a way that's clearly self-serving or full of false modesty but also just enough self-awareness to let the audience in on the joke, a nice balance of dorky and cool that gives Wong the chance to make things a bit more outlandish. Sit gets to use him as a straight man, confident enough in her sexiness and good luck keeping her out of trouble without becoming more abrasive than her partner deserves. They spark off each other even if one doesn't entirely believe that they're deeply in love.

And that's fine when Wong is doing goofy jokes that keep pushing a little bigger, starting with To's "Manfred" Wong opening by saying that his name is "Shu Qi", pronounced but not spelled like the actress, a gag based on how To is the on-screen version of a schlub while Shu Qi, well, isn't, and building into more pop culture strangeness and bigger gambling-related problems until Manfred has been cast as the new James Bond, after becoming an actor when discovered by a clear riff on Wong Kar-Wai. The rapid-fire gags don't all hit, but there's enough good ones to make it work.

The trouble comes when Wong tries to thread the needle between having these two become more mature and maybe knowingly defy the audience's expectations that they do that. To and Sit have comic but not necessarily romantic chemistry, so the movie has a hard time making the case that their marriage disintegrating would be a bad thing, and they're not built out enough to be Nick & Nora Charles, who had enough personality to make it work when the vices that made them unconventionally fun were stripped away. The film works well enough as an assembly of jokes and there's no rule that says a movie must feature positive character growth or a good moral message (or, well, there wasn't when this was made ten years ago), but it does feel kind of hollow when the film at least feints in that direction but the makers aren't really interested.

So there's two more from Hong Kong and Mookie getting the better end of the deal by a little bit, which brings the score to:

Mookie: 32 ½ stars
Bruce: 38 ¾ 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.

Getting a little tighter, but Bruce still has an impressive lead!

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