Sunday, July 09, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 19: Plain Jane to the Rescue and Heroes Shed No Tears

Do I take notice when some older John Woo movie has been reissued in Hong Kong (or elsewhere) and pick up a copy? Yes, obviously, enough that I carved out a small section for him on the game board.

Mookie gets in there by rolling a three and lands on Plain Jane to the Rescue, which feels like a genuine oddity when looked at from the other end of John Woo's career but was not particularly unusual for the start.

Bruce rolls a ten, which would also have landed him on Plane Jane, except that you have to pull the case off of the shelf in order to watch the movie inside, so that puts him on the next John Woo film, Heroes Shed No Tears, which sounds like a much more typically John Woo title, doesn't it?

So, that gets them at the same spot on the board for the first time since they started - how close will their scores get?

Ba cai Lin Ya Zhen (Plain Jane to the Rescue)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 24-25 January 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

I had no idea what to expect going into this, and was semi-shocked to see that the first chunk was broad slapstick, and I chuckled to myself that even though it's pretty logical that a guy as good at action as Woo would also do that sort of thing, this must be the closest thing Woo has done to silent comedy. Then, while opening IMDB to write this, I would discover Laughing Times. Now I'm really curious about Woo's wacky slapstick comedy period!

"Plain Jane", in this case, is Jenny Lam Ah-Chun (Josephine Siao Fong-Gong), who bounces through jobs in highway repair, film sets, and factories before somehow landing one teaching the uncouth father of corporate raider type Mr. Sha (Charlie Cho Cha-Lee) how to behave properly in public. She enlists the help of her boyfriend Tseng Fei Fang (Ricky Hui Koon-Ying), although they sort of like the disreputable old man a lot more. It also allows them to discover that Sha is looking to trick his father (Michael Lee Ming-Yeung) into signing over some property he needs for the sort of mass-displacing real estate development that sort of guy is always working on.

It's an odd duck of a film, the third "Plain Jane"/"Lin Ya Zhen"/"Lam Ah Chun" (depending what language you're speaking) film that star Josephine Siao Fong-Fong did, all with different writers and directors, and I'm genuinely curious just how much the tone varies between them. It's funny stuff that lands right between Hong Kong-specific and something that applies more broadly. It occasionally feels like Siao had a notebook full of Plain Jane gags and Woo's job was to build a movie around them,which is fine. It's what the silent comics did, after all, and Woo and co-writer Lau Chun-wah manage to build it from a collection of random-seeming gags to a finale that is no less chaotic but does sort of seem like the finish of a thing.

Hong Kong comedy - particularly from this period - can be tremendously broad even when not riffing on silent slapstick, but Josephine Siao finds the right note to make Jenny both a likable everywoman and a chaos magnet, the glue that keeps the episodic movie going and grounds it through the weirdness. She's got fun chemistry with Ricky Hui despite the fact that Woo sets them up as decidedly not lovey-dovey or bantering; they're a comfortable pair who work as a good team. Michael Lee Ming-Yeung and Charlie Cho Cha-Lee are both bigger-than-life as father-and-son Sha while still able to fit into a story, while a bunch of others nail their smaller rolls, with, Roman Tam, Maggie Li Lin-Lin, and Chan Sing doing the nifty trick of playing themselves and having it work even if you'd never heard of them.

Siao, by the way, seems pretty fascinating, a child star who worked at an insane clip until she was 23 (though many were two-or-three-part movies), went to college in America, came back to have a more reasonably-paced career until she was about 50, then retired to work as a child psychologist, though she is apparently still well-respected and liked within the entertainment industry. For all that this is something of a signature role, it's likely not representative of her career, but I hope more of her work winds up on my shelf - and the same goes for more John Woo slapstick comedies.

Ying xiong wu lei (Heroes Shed No Tears)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 29 January 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

This is the next film John Woo made after Plain Jane to the Rescue, and it sure feels a lot more like a John Woo movie than that - operatic action punctuating a story built to move to the next bit with a relative minimum of fuss. It's also raw and such a frequently nasty mess that it stayed on one of Golden Harvest's shelves for a number of years until Woo's star had ascended to the point where having an extra film of his to release was an asset.

It follows a pack of mercenaries led by Chan Chung (Eddy Ko Hung), operating out of Thailand with their eyes on drug dealers and others operating out of the golden triangle, and they're but one mission away from obtaining American green cards. But, of course, everything goes completely sideways, as they wind up on the wrong side of a corrupt colonel in the Vietnamese army (Lam Ching-Ying) and saddled with both a European journalist (Cecile Le Bailly), while Chan's family is fleeing with them.

Woo had been directing movies for ten years by the time he made this, but this was the first that was full of the kind of gunplay and grandiose violence he would become known for, and as such it still feels like something of a learning experience. The action is staged well and comes at a rapid pace, with a wildness to it that keeps the movie exciting - anything can happen and small things will frequently explode into something enormous. Woo brings the staging chops he'd developed over a decade of martial-arts movies and slapstick comedy, and even if he's not quite marrying the action to emotional beats yet, he knows how to build an action scene.

That's fun for a while, but soon he's thrown so much at the audience that, even with the film only being about an hour and a half long, he's got nowhere to go. There's some flab in the center as the crew stops in a village to rest and get into mischief and fights, and a point where the edgy excitement of nobody being safe tips into sadism because, once you've started killing characters off but aren't going to stop to react to that, you've got to kill them in crueler, gorier ways, and more at a time.

And on top of that, the film has a kid who winds up kind of obnoxious in two equal and opposite ways, and when a film has one wondering with some frustration how, with all those bullets flying, one hasn't caught the pre-teen, it can quickly cease being entertaining or exciting violence.

Mookie makes up a little ground, and I almost want to fiddle with the ratings a bit to have him close a little more:

Mookie: 66 ¼ stars
Bruce: 67 stars

So tied in terms of distance from the end that I temporarily had to move the Funko thing separating the John Woo and Jonnie To sections so that they could both stand in the same place!

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