Wednesday, July 12, 2023

Film Rolls, Round 20: Once a Thief and Romancing in Thin Air

The legitimacy of both these rolls is kind of stretched. I'll admit that. Sometimes you've got to make weird calls on the gameboard.

Like, right here, Mookie rolls a 2, which lands him on Once a Thief. I have seen Once a Thief, although at various points I tell myself that maybe I fell asleep while it played at the Brattle, or I saw the American series pilot that Woo also directed, but, c'mon, I just put it in with all the unwatched Woos I imported and now Mookie's kind of got a ringer.

Then Bruce rolls an 8, and how far should that get him into the Johnnie To section? I ordered all the PTU: Police Tactical Unit movies during one spree, but it would be weird to not watch them in order, and if someone lands in the middle, do I just watch up to that one? I'm opting to treat them as a box set, which means that 8 is more like a 13 or something and gets Bruce to Romancing in Thin Air.

My game, my rules. Where's it get us?

Chung hang sei hoi (Once a Thief '91)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 1 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Go long enough between viewings for Once a Thief and you may suspect that you've never watched it before, because there are almost guaranteed to be moments when it is, quite simply, nothing like the movie you think you remember. And yet, while it's not unusual for a Hong Kong movie to have stylistic shifts, especially coming from John Woo, it seldom works quite as well as here. By the end of the movie, Woo has made this into a completely different sort of movie, but it doesn't really seem screwy until the very end.

It starts as a light caper, with Joe (Chow Yun-Fat), Jim (Leslie Cheung Kwok-Wing), and Cherie (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) a crew of art thieves in Europe, pulling impressive heists ever since they were found as orphans in the streets of Hong Kong. Joe and Cherie are a couple, though Jim obviously carries a torch for the lovely Cherie. But when a heist goes wrong, Jim and Cherie return to Asia and draw closer, with things taking a turn for the melodramatic when a wheelchair-using Jim reappears, and it becomes clear that the fun "gentleman thieves" portion of their lives may soon come to an end, and not in the retirement Cherie desires.

Dang, but Leslie Cheung was a movie star, wasn't he? Chow Yun-Fat is billed first, and at this point in their careers Woo and Chow know that that they'll be mentioned together in the history of Hong Kong cinema, so they kind of play how the audience knows that up; Woo sets Chow up to shine in a way that's almost blinding, such that when he gets taken off the board for a while, the audience can feel his absence. But never fear, Cheung is an A-list romantic lead himself, and he charms the audience just as much as his Jim does Cherie. In hindsight (or even at-the-time-sight), his character is just about as believably straight as the actor is, but it doesn't particularly matter, because you still believe his leading lady has this pure romantic love for him and vice versa.

It holds the movie in place for a bit in the middle, between the joyful adventure of the European beginning - which features a mobile heist that reminds one that Woo and his team, including action choreographer Philip Kwok Chung-Fung and stunt driver Remy Julienne, are just as adroit with sleek staging as with bullet-ballet overkill - and a finale where enough bullets are flying to make it clear that this crew is not to be betrayed. The action is fantastic, of course, but there were a lot of people in Hong Kong who could work with the world's top technicians and use a lot of squibs; what makes this film great is that the exceptionally-staged violence tracks the emotion and mood so well. It's all fun, but by the end, it's a lot to the point where one maybe looks a bit askance.

Which isn't to say John Woo is making a film about how, eventually, the underworld consumes and corrupts even this sort of noble criminal; even in the last act, the film is often too goofy and the filmmakers to fond of their familiar tropes to become more than relatively lightweight entertainment. But there's something there, even if Woo decides not to bring all of it to the foreground, and the central core of Chow, Cheung, and Chung are folks who know how to keep a film like this floating.

Gao hai ba zhi lian II (Romancing in Thin Air)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 4 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

There's a "II" in the Chinese title for Romancing in Thin Air, and the film opens with what feels like a quick recap of a previous film about the movie stars played by Louis Koo and Gao Yuan-Yuan, but I'll be damned if I can find any sign of such a thing existing. Are Johnny To, Wai Ka-Fai, and company doing something meta here, maybe as a tie-in with the film-within-a-film stuff? Did it cause folks in Hong Kong some confusion during its initial release? I should look that up, but I kind of don't want to know until I'm finished here.

Not that it really matters, I suppose, aside from serving as a signal that there's a lot of "wait, what?" to a movie that otherwise plays as a nice, low-key romance. That's kind of how Johnnie To & Wai Ka-Fai collaborations work sometimes, I guess: To is as good at turning a script into a movie as anybody, while Wai comes up with bold stories, and they seldom work against each other but don't always achieve synergy, either.

So here, Louis Koo Tin-Lok is Michael Liu Baiqian, a much beloved actor about to tie the knot with frequent co-star Ding Yuanyuan (Gao), right up until her first love resurfaces on the day of their wedding. Michael seems to vanish into, as they say, thin air, somewhat literally: He surfaces, drunk, at a mountain hotel run by Sue (Sammi Cheng Sau-Man) in the absence of her missing husband Tian (Li Guangjie). It should be closed for the season, if not completely, but Sue is certain her husband will return and will need everything in place when he does, despite it being almost certain that he has died of exposure years ago.

I have mentioned before that it's kind of intimidating just how good To, someone best known in the West for his gangster pictures and action, is at romance. Romancing in Thin Air is kind of standard fare in its way - Sue is going to help Michael dry out, he will prove more than just some callow celebrity, and odds are good that Michael's management will track him down and Tian's fate will be revealed just at the moment when it will most test the bond that the pair have found. This may be formulaic, but that's fine; it's a formula that folks can relate to despite the heightened circumstances, and To's got Louis Koo and Sammi Cheng. Koo being cast as a movie star is obvious but works due in part to its obviousness; Louis Koo with two day's growth of beard and shaggy hair still looks like a "disheveled" movie star. Cheng, even before we see flashbacks, does nice work making sure that the audience has some idea of how Sue has adopted this place, as opposed to being a local to be either awed or unimpressed by Michael.

The thing about Michael being a movie star is not just that there are higher stakes, though - fame and art has a specific way of twisting the story, and it makes the last stretch of the film kind of fascinating in how it connects to the start: Being with someone like Michael means that Sue's story is no longer her own - not just because there are now fans who are going to be all up in their business, but because, for an artist, everything is fodder for their art. Michael may intend to respect that, but, inevitably, not only will the world at large have an investment in Sue and Michael, but Sue and Tian's love story will become something else as well. Indeed, though the film seems to reference another film from the viewer's world that does not exist, it is also, in a way, a sequel to its own film within a film, an ouroborus of narrative that, while it never finishes devouring itself, perhaps hints at the danger of the arts always looking inward.

Or, perhaps, it's just a charming romantic drama from playful filmmakers. Either way, it's a reminder that To is more than crime and simple stories can be satisfying and have room for ornamentation.

A strong pairing of favorite filmmakers, leading to things getting a little tighter:

Mookie: 69 ½ stars
Bruce: 70 stars

Ah, looking at my camera roll, I see this was the night the building's pipes burst. Good times! (Not actually good times)

1 comment:

Vincent Stalba said...

Hey Jason! You reviewed a film I was in and produced at the Boston Underground Film Festival. I love your reviews! How can I reach out to send another "Midnight Madness" type of short film for a review?