Tuesday, October 10, 2023

Weird Weekend Part II: Chang An, Road to Boston, and Limbo

I spent the last few days chuckling to myself at Boston Common booking Chang An, because even for Chinese movies, a nearly-three-hour animated feature about two Tang dynasty poets seemed, well, kind of niche. Then, on Saturday night, I looked to reserve a seat for the next afternoon's show and pretty much the whole upper section was sold out. Chinatown, at least, was down for this, with a fair number of kids who didn't seem to get particularly squirmy. Go figure; I would have figured this was as hard a sell as you'd find this weekend, even to the local Chinese audience, but this is just more confirmation that I am not a Chinese-American person with a family that may want to learn more about the culture and thus have no idea what will be appealing to that group.

Next up after that was Road to Boston, which did not have nearly the same crowd, which surprised me a little bit, although I'd be curious to see how it would do closer to Patriot's Day, when the marathon is foremost in people's minds, as opposed to "as far from mid-April as the calendar will let you get". But, then, I suppose last weekend was a good time for it to come out in South Korea; it didn't have a million tickets sold like Dr. Cheon, but 870,000 in two weeks seems pretty good for a Korean film.

Most of the audience behind me was Korean-American, I think, and there were a lot of us staying through the end credits, with at least one camera flash as people presumably spotted their names and friends' names in the Korean text. Nobody local, I don't think, because the parts of the film meant to be set in Boston were actually shot in Melbourne. I'd be annoyed, but I seem to recall a lot of parts of that area that could pass for mid-Twentieth-Century New England, maybe part of why I enjoyed my trip there so much a few years back. They seem to have gotten a lot of the marathon details right, at least from what I've absorbed from 50 years living in New England.

(I like to sit up front, so I was unable to see the whole theater giving a knowing nod at a scene where the coaches look at the young running dashing up to a mountaintop shrine and say "boy, look at that kid go up that hill." "Yep, really good at going up hills, that one." "I hear there's a sort of heartbreaking story as to why…")

After that, dinner break, and over to the Somerville for its last show of Limbo, and I feel kind of weirdly guilty about waiting around after being so excited to see it not just playing the area but a theater that doesn't really book a lot of Asian films. I see they've got a Canto-Pop show scheduled for the main stage in late November, so I'm half-wondering if there may be more Cantonese-speaking Chinese-Americans in Somerville than there are in Chinatown, going by how well Mainland films are often attended compared to Hong Kong ones. Not that this was an "I'm the only guy in the theater who needs subtitles" situation; it might just be that the Somerville Theatre attracts a good crowd for people who like this sort of dark crime movie. Or it was a theater rental to get its VOD/UHD release a little extra notice and nothing to do with the local audience at all.

Kind of crazy to see it as a bookend on the day with Chang An, though - just the most noir-ish, scuzzy Hong Kong film possible after starting the day with a smoothed-out, moralistic CGI feature.

Chang'an san wan li (Chang An)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2023 in AMC Boston Common #16 (first-run, DCP)

There was a recent flap where certain American politicians grumbled about what soldiers shouldn't be doing which included mocking the idea of military people writing poetry, while this film may still have been kicking around theaters on the other side of the world before arriving in North America along with the mid-autumn festival hits; it celebrates a rich history or Chinese warrior-poets going back centuries in an epic-sized animated feature at least partially meant for children. It doesn't really do a whole lot to make the idea particularly interesting, unfortunately; it's the sort of history lesson that compacts a lot of big, messy facts about a turbulent period into a polished, easily-swallowed capsule.

It opens during the reign of Emperor Daizong, with aged regional governor Gao Shi (voice of Wu Junquan) facing an uphill battle trying to hold Fort Yushang from the forces of the An Lushan rebellion. Forced to fall back, he soon finds himself visited by a military inspector, Cheng Jianjun (voice of Lu Lifeng); surprisingly, Cheng's questions do not concern Gao's recent failures in battle, but poet Li Taibai - "Li Bai" for short - who was one of few to side with the rebels. Despite a second attack being imminent, Gao settles in to describe their entire intersecting histories to Cheng, going back 40 years: That's when Gao (voiced in flashback by Tang Tianxiang), a skilled spear-fighter from a heroic but impoverished house, mets Bai (voice of Ling Zhenhe), whose material comfort can net him no official status, coming as it does from mercantile sources. They become fast friends, although their lives only occasionally intersect, as Gao is by nature a military man and Li a libertine, but both become renowned poets even as the prosperous Tang Dynasty is beset by attacks and rebellions.

One should not necessarily expect too much of a film like Chang An (whose title refers to China's capital and seat of culture at the time, a place where both poets strive to belong); if it's a historical movie, it's grade-school history, where the aim is to use exciting battle action and impressive visuals to help cement what happened in what order. Why all this is going on is handwaved away to a certain extent; Gao is a loyal subject looking to match his grandfather's service, and is witness to various noteworthy incidents and people, but not particularly connected to the causes and effects of those events, beyond noting ambition and opposition to the stability provided by the Emperor. Indeed, as the flashbacks catch up to Old Gao, the film does not have Gao and Li debate how they have found themselves on opposite side, but shows Li being lectured by the boy who runs Gao's errands; he has learned his lesson well and is passing his exams.

Perhaps more frustrating, though, is that for a film that often links Gao and Li as poets and attaches great importance to the art, it seemingly has very little to say about poetry. It seldom if ever shows Gao or Li doing the work of composing a poem, never discussing how finding the right word and meter or cutting what isn't essential heightens the impact of what often comes off, as subtitled, as simply stating what the poet has seen (though English subtitles are likely the worst way to encounter the poetry of a tonal language like Middle Chinese); the craft and work of it is almost wholly absent. Indeed, the filmmakers note but somewhat avoid facets of this which could make Gao's journey as a poet more interesting: He's portrayed as having both a stutter and dyslexia, but is apparently able to simply grow out of them, and there's a pointed section early on where Gao, Li, and some of Li's friends, notably swordswoman Pei Shi'er (voice of Li ShiMeng) talk about talent and the privilege to hone or display it, but this is something that is raised as a concert but not much explored. Like battles, poetry is apparently just something that happens, without a lot of curiosity as to how and why.

(And, yes, there is something worth noting about this conversation happening in a movie that flashes the approval of the nation's film board at the start, along with the later lines that it is regrettable that various pets have fallen out of favor and find themselves starving, as if that is just some neutral rule of the world. There's also a conversation to be had about how this is the story of two men who are never shown to marry for love and whose first and last encounters involve ditching their shirts and wrestling, although it may be about how the filmmakers got that in rather than how they don't go any farther.)

It may not have much to say about the craft of poetry, but its filmmaking craft is fairly impressive. The natural and man-made environments are both impressively rendered, and the studios do a nice job of depicting how Chang'An or a landmark like the Yellow Crane Tower can seem grand and aspirational to the likes of Gao and Lee without overdoing the gleaming precious metals or extreme detail (though people are often rendered in a way that lands between whimsical hand-drawn caricature and stiff photorealism, more often blandly than grotesquely). Whether historically accurate or not, I like the way rooms full of "poetry boards" evoke bulletin boards more than galleries or libraries; it evokes modern social media in how missives are mixed and interacting, or how a poem's popularity can spread without the author knowing, like a post going viral. The grand action is well staged, possibly by the same visual effects houses that render flights of arrows for live-action epics, and the martial arts seems to use good reference or motion capture to evoke the same sort of thrill as an old-fashioned Shaw Brothers sword-versus-spear fight.

And, for a grandly-sized movie - at 168 minutes, I can't immediately recall a longer mainstream animated feature meant to be seen in one intermission-free sitting - it moves pretty well. There's maybe one joke about sticking to the point, but this did nice work of communicating the size of Gao's life without making the audience, kids included, particularly fidgety. It does roughly what I imagine it was set out to do - introduce a general audience, mostly young and Chinese, to a number of noteworthy figures - in capable fashion, even if the length belies that it's not much more ambitious than that.

1947 Boston (Road to Boston)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2023 in AMC Boston Common #1 (first-run, DCP)

I'm curious how many North American cities Road to Boston opened in other than Boston itself; it's the sort of rousing sports movie that comes out often enough that you don't necessarily have to import more. After all, it's the sort that is pretty clearly less about sports than pride, but it's a fine example of the genre, one which knows how to let that drive the movie but let the characters, and ultimately the competition, be what the audience connects with.

In 1936, Son Kee-chung (Ha Jung-woo) won the gold medal for the marathon at the Berlin Olympics, but because Korea was occupied by Japan at the time, it was under the name "Son Kitei", and he was forced to leave track & field by the government for covering the Japanese flag with his laurel. Ten years later, Japan has been liberated (though still a "refugee country" under a United States military government), and his old teammate Nam Sung-yong (Bae Sung-woo), now a coach, wants to bring a team to the 1948 London Olympics, but there's a catch: Korea technically has no Olympic history, so will need to qualify in some other international event, such as the 1947 Boston Marathon. It's easier said than done: Government support is conditional on the disillusioned Son coaching, and the best potential recruit, Suh Yun-bok (Im Si-wan), is dirt-poor with an ailing mother, so feels running is frivolous. And that's before getting to the issues of raising the money to send the team to America, which includes a large deposit and the need for a local guarantor (Kim Sang-ho) to prevent such events from bringing in a flood of refugees, even if this trio are insistent that they want to represent Korea rather than become Americans.

This marathon is described as Korea's first chance to prove itself on the world stage as an independent nation, and for much of the film, director Kang Je-kyu and his co-writers are as focused on the moment as the competition: The "Republic of Korea", they note, is technically a new country, which makes it cash-poor but which doesn't mean it doesn't have history, and the filmmakers are wise to point out the burden that places on these athletes and the public at large: Son has never been able to properly take pride in his accomplishment, Suh may be too constrained by his present circumstances to become what Son should have been, and everybody knows that asking a bunch of poor people for money to compete in a marathon is tacky at best. Indeed, one of the things that's fascinating about the film, and which can seem like a plotting weakness at first, is that both filmmakers and characters seem to recognize that what they're getting at is something instinctual and only rational in hindsight, so instead of having a big speech about why a community, even a poor one, needs to support this kind of project, but sort of maneuver things into a position where people know they instinctively need this and that nobody else will make it happen but them. You talk up the benefits after they're revealed.

That works, in large part, because Ha Jung-woo's Son is not the sort of national hero who seems natural fit for the position, although Ha's crusty screen presence is fit for the job: Son's always got a chip on his shoulder, and Ha hits the line between where it's helpful and a problem, embodying how being that great at one thing kind of ripples through every other piece of your personality. Im Si-wan's Yun-bok is angrier, and he does a nifty thing where one maybe doesn't initially recognize he's laying it on a bit thick because he does, in fact, like running so much that he has to work at suppressing it. It thus falls on Bae Sung-woo to be the glue of the movie as Nam; he's got an easy way of bantering with Ha to sell the idea that these two are old friends and shows the sort of enthusiasm for the sport that otherwise might need to be unearthed. Kim Sang-ho is useful comic relief in the last act so that it's not entirely isolating, fish-out-of-water material.

(There are some highly entertaining Boston accents, although this may be the rare time that the "they talk like JFK there, right?" gambit works!)

The race almost functions as an encore, after the issues leading up to it are resolved - Suh and Nam actually doing well kind of feels like a bonus - but it's a heck of an encore. Kang has had the characters talk about running and shown the degree to which a half-marathon can reduce a person to nothing but full-body pain so that the audience has some idea of what to expect but still has plenty to discover, and while he filmed little or nothing in Massachusetts, they put together something that feels like this particular marathon, taking the story they were given and wringing everything he could out of it. The race, as sports often does, winds up distilling just who Son, Suh, and Nam are to their essences, and the cast and crew know that this is what the audience wants to see just as much as how well Suh does.

I readily admit, I like this movie a little more because the idea that this thing that feels super-local actually wound up being tremendously important to people on the other side of the world tickles me, with the movie going a little further to flatter Boston besides. Mostly, though, it's just a well-made sports movie, the sort that reminds us just why we love these silly-seeming activities.

Zhi chi (Limbo)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 October 2023 in Somerville Theatre #3 (first-run, DCP)

You've got to fudge the dates a bit to say that this is a return to form for director Soi Cheang after a detour into Monkey King fantasy - he actually made SPL 2 between his first and second Monkey King movies, and some more mainstream action flicks just before that trilogy - but the point is nonetheless compelling: After that detour into family-friendly action, he's got a hell of a lot of darkness stored up, and Limbo shows that he's got a real talent for it.

As the film opens in 2017, the Hong Kong Police Department finds themselves investigating a serial killer, or at least they think that must be the case: So far, they've only found the left hands of two women. Though up-and-comer Will Ren (Mason C. Lee Sun) is technically in charge of the investigation, he'll be leaning on veteran detective Cham Lau (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung) and his knowledge of the city and its seamier sides, as the killer seems to be preying upon those whose disappearance won't be noticed. The second victim was recently released from prison, which is when he discovers that car thief Wong To (Cya Liu Yase) is also back on the streets, sending him into a near-murderous rage. But with relatively little to work on, Wong To may be their best path through the underworld to whoever is doing this.

Cya Liu's Wong To may set some sort of record for taking abuse in this movie, and it's more horrific in its way than the serial killer elements. Those are random and monstrous, but at least unambiguously treated as such. Wong To may be a criminal, but she's a thief, and that she caused a deadly accident horrifies her. For all that Cham and Ren are hunting down a serial killer, much of the tension comes from the question of whether her need to atone can outlast Cham's desire for revenge. Liu is terrific, establishing Wong's street smarts quickly and letting Cheang do a quick turnaround as her guilt drives her, and they get that street smarts also means knowing when you are well and truly screwed. Gordon Lam, meanwhile, pivots Cham from an eccentric detective who nevertheless seems reliable to a man whose anger lets him tap into a vein of cruelty.

They are reflections of the world that they live in, a Hong Kong that looks slick when you are pulled way back but which is nothing but grimy slums in close-up, photographed in a harsh black and white, high-contrast digital sharpness that denies the audience shadows to hide the worst of the setting or letting grain soften it. Even when the camera pulls back, hovering to follow a tricky route or just providing an overhead view, it's phenomenal work, gasp-worthy imagery to make this a truly striking bit of noir.

And a nihilistic one; there's barely any motive to its crimes - the suspects played by both Fish LIew and Hiroyuki Ikeuchi are often pathetic as opposed to any sorts of masterminds - with Cham looking for revenge with impunity while the seemingly upright Ren is still looking to cover up when it looks like he might slip. Wong To doesn't so much become a heroine as revert to fight-or-flight, her noble intentions and capability as a crook who can mostly avoid violence to repeating "I don't want to die" like a mantra.

It's a cruel chase, but certainly a memorable one. The film has actually made its way to general North American release after Cheang's follow-up, Mad Fate, which is also a visually striking tour of Hong Kong's underbelly on the trail of a serial killer. This is Soi Cheang's wheelhouse and a hell of a ride.

1 comment:

Jim O said...

I saw ROAD TO BOSTON as well this weekend and thoroughly enjoyed the biography mixed with sports movie combo. Running + Triumph of the little guy = "Chariots of Rocky", but in Korean!

I found it very emotional in a Spielberg vein. Beautiful cinematography throughout.