Tuesday, July 04, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 18: Coffin Homes and Husband Killers

As mentioned in the last update, we're getting into the last of the general Hong Kong/China sections here, and it's a bit rickety - no more to pull in at the end, but not quite to the point where I can put a spacer in to keep it steady.

Which is sort of the point of the whole exercise - creating empty space by watching a bunch of movies without agonizing over choices- but it's kind of inconvenient in some short-term situations!

Mookie starts this round off with a 9, meaning he heads almost all the way to the end of Hong Kong #3 and lands on Coffin Homes, one of the most recent arrivals/releases! I was kind of excited to see the new Fruit Chan picture and the latest Hong Kong horror about real estate prices.

Bruce gets a 4, so he rolls a little behind, landing on Husband Killers, which may have been purchased in the same DDDHouse order, though it's recent enough that I may have gotten it as a new release as opposed to a "sure, I'll add a disc that's basically the price of a movie ticket if I'm already having stuff shipped from Hong Kong" purchase. After all, I do like Chrissy Chau and Stephy Tang.

So, how'd it go?

Gwai tung nei jyu (Coffin Homes)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

It's odd that my first encounter with Fruit Chan was the sleek, star-packed "Dumplings" short in Three… Extreme, a genuinely unnerving bit of horror, because he seems most at home when he's not just indie but nearly underground, and he doesn't quite get close enough to that vibe here. It's mainstream-oriented even if there's an intended sharp bite, and even that is softened by Chan poking at too many related things at once.

The film at least opens with a banger of an opening sequence, as a 98-year-old woman ("Susan Shaw" Siu Yam-Yam) is propped up at a family dinner but, just as she seemingly expires, she goes out with a bang, apparently demon-possessed and attacking most of the family planning how to profit from the house sitting on prime Hong Kong real estate. A step or two down the economic ladder, broker Jimmy Lam (Wong Yau-Nam) and his colleague Lily (Chelffy Yau Mei-Mei) use an apartment that hasn't sold for the price they want because a tenant died there for trysts, which suits the place's ghost (Paul Che Biu-Law) just fine. Further down the list, Jimmy's father Cheung (Tai Bo) continues to subdivide his apartment into smaller and smaller units, barely large enough to hold a bed, which means everybody gets to be haunted by the four-year-old ghost who still resides there.

The high price of real estate and the way it and other economic factors but the squeeze on Hong Kongers has long been a motivating force in local films from comedy to crime to horror (I am honestly kind of shocked that nobody has tried to relocate Pang Ho-Cheung's Dream Home to San Francisco or London but also wonder if westerners are willing to confront its themes), and at its best, Coffin Homes has the ability to target certain absurdities precisely, especially when Jimmy's boss (Cheung Tat-Ming) proposes paying the poor people crammed into apartments like Cheung's to stay overnight in empty luxury units so that the buildings will look lit and occupied, as long as they're out by morning. When he has the chance to focus on this aspect of the project, Coffin Homes is kind of brilliant, reminiscent of his grimy, funny, and observant indies.

He seems to have a harder time finding the vibe where satire is absurd and the horror is also unsettling, let alone where these things can reinforce each other. Ghosts and fear of haunting just don't seem like the right metaphor for the way modern economics make it hard to own a home, and the end result is often that, aside from how he's got these three types of properties sharing Jimmy's presence, each of them seems to have supernatural and satirical situations happening in parallel, not particularly tying themselves together.It may work better for locals, but from the outside it feels like a lot of ideas struggling to connect.

If the big picture is often fuzzy, the details are often cannily done: Chan seems to observe the working class and the poor as well as any filmmaker, for example, and he's able to use the supernatural both for blood and guts that reaches absurd levels of excess and unnerving, unexplained situations. Little bits like how people are left hanging in their lives because nobody is really working to identify a body, or the way Fourth Sister Wai Shan (Rachel Lee Lai-Chun) is shaken by a paranormal situation she can't understand while Cheung's kids often find "L'il Keung" to be just another playmate.

Coffin Homes may not necessarily be among Fruit Chan's best, but it's paradoxically one that I might have an easier time recommending to people unfamiliar with his work than some of his other films - it's imperfect but accessible, a good jumping-on spot if nothing else.

Lui si fuk sau (Husband Killers)

* ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 January 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I feel like I've seen and liked Stephy Tang and Chrissie Chau in more movies than I actually have, and it appears that I rather liked Fire Lee's previous film Robbery, but I'm.not enough of a fan of any of them to readily describe Husband Killers as "disappointing" in any sort of context rather than just "bad". It's just a mess of an action movie that seems like it shouldn't be that hard to mess up.

David Chow, it would appear, has a type: Wife Chanel Tsui (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) and girlfriend Dior Mok (Chrissie Chau Sau-Na) are both freelance assassins, good enough at the sort of research their job entails that when he leaves each alone on his birthday, they are each able to quickly discover the other through images on social media, and arrange to meet with the intention of putting a rifle bullet through the other's head when she arrives at the meeting first. That's when they realize that if David wasn't with either of them, he must have been with someone else - and, in fact, has an appointment with Hermes Tong (Gaile Lok Kei-Yi) at the out-of-the-way Lung Wah Hotel coming up, and decide to head there to take out the one he's cheating on both with. Hermes, of course, is a SWAT team captain and no pushover herself, although none of them really seem the type for trysts at a seedy place run by Ling (Pauline Suen Kai-Kwan) and her two adult sons, one skeevy (Kevin Li Kin-Wang) and one apparently developmentally disabled (Lai Man-Wang).

Writer/director Fire Lee has two good ideas for enjoyable genre movies here in "three lady killers in love with the same man decide to eliminate the competition and/or real problem" and "three women who would like to see each other dead can only survive if they work together", and they're not necessarily even at cross-purposes if handled well. Unfortunately, Lee stumbles the execution of it pretty badly - the movie is more than half-over before David's three lovers really start to go at it with each other, much less get themselves into the other tight spot, and he doesn't do close to enough to square the fact that these women who have been dropped into a fairly standard slasher situation are really good at violence. It's not insurmountable - you could say that Hermes is much better with guns than knives, that Dior mostly works undercover, or that Chanel plans better than she improvises, for instance, and have them fill each other's blind spots, or even state that being drugged had them sluggish - but Lee doesn't do much of any of that. He also doesn't do so great in terms of differentiating Chanel and Dior personality-wise even when the movie is just the two of them sparring verbally.

He seems to have a fairly tight budget, which explains a fair chunk of running in place and somewhat bland action set-ups, but he's able to lean into a knowingly tacky 80s/90s exploitation aesthetic to blunt the feelings that it looks cheap, and the bits that feel like live-action cartoons often work even when combined with awful dialog. I'm not quite sure where I land on blocking most of David's face so the audience only sees his smirk - the audience doesn't really need to see what the women saw in him or feel like they might feel a single iota of sympathy, but it's so obvious that Lee is Doing A Thing that one expects it to lead to a payoff of some sort, but it doesn't.

The cast could maybe do a little more with what Lee gives them, even if the script is actively making it more difficult to give a good performance. They do a bit more than fill their tight costumes nicely, and sell what jokes are worth selling. Some of that may be Cantonese wordplay not translating well; I certainly got a better individual read on the personality of Hermes, who mostly speaks English (with the others finding that annoying), than I got from Chrissy Chau and Stephy Tang.

It's the sort of Girl Power! movie that was clearly written and directed by a man (although that's maybe it's own kind of stereotype), from how there's really not a whole lot of difference between how the camera ogles its stars and how the characters who get shot for it do to the cast full of Strong Women primarily concerned about their relationship to a man. I wonder what this same plot and cast would look like with, say, Jody Luk Yi-Sam writing and directing rather than Lee, who makes it exceptionally clear that his heart is in the right place, but may not necessarily have a great ear for women's voices.

Giving both of these a quick re-watch because I was behind shifted the ratings a bit so things tighten up:

Mookie: 63 ½ stars
Bruce: 64 ½ stars

Next up: John Woo!

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