Monday, January 15, 2024

Film Rolls, Round 21: Bullet in the Head and The Foul King

One thing I was kind of afraid of in terms of setting this up last years was potentially weird runs where one "player" rolled much higher numbers than the other, but, luckily, it hasn't happened that often.

Still, mildly concerned as Mookie rolls a 1 and therefore just barely sticks around John Woo territory for Bullet in the Head. Truth be told, I didn't really think we had enough films in some of these sections for us to wind up sticking around, rather than having things change up every round.

Bruce also rolls a fairly low number, with his 2 just getting him into the Korean film section, which is kind of fun because I got a fair chunk from a Korean merchant and after a few days I may have no idea what the disc actually is. Honestly, there are not nearly as many Korean Blu-Rays with English subtitles as I would expect on offer, considering they're Region A and Hong Kong seems to do well by presuming that a certain amount will be exported. Anyway, this landed Bruce on The Foul King, and, wow, I'd forgotten that I had a movie directed by Kim Jee-Woon starring Song Kang-Ho that I'd never seen on the shelf!

So, how'd that go?

Dip huet gai tau (Bullet in the Head '91)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)
Seen 13 January 2024 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

It's been nearly a full year since I first watched this, in that time learning that the Golden Princess logo at the front means that the odds of seeing this on the big screen are fairly long, unless I get lucky at a Hong-Kong-a-Thon or something. That's a real shame, because it must be a heck of a film to see big as life, surrounded by other people taking in a story of brotherhood and betrayal - like, aside from just feeling the emotional reactions to the movie,, how you feel about having other people that close must vary by the minute.

It follows three friends in 1960s Hong Kong - Ben (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), who wants nothing more than to marry his beloved Jane (Fennie Yuen Kit-Ying); Paul (Waise Lee Chi-Hung) the smart son of a street cleaner who wants a job that will let him rise above his roots; and Frank (Jacky Cheung Hok-Yau), their earnest but not-so-bright buddy. Frank is badly beaten after borrowing the money for the wedding banquet, and when Ben goes to teach his assailant a lesson, he winds up beating him to death. Paul arranges their flight to Vietnam, but the material they were supposed to smuggle is destroyed in a terrorist bombing, and they fall in with local fixer Luke (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) and nightclub singer Sally (Yolinda Yan Choh-Sin), being kept in Saigon by a gangster who has locked up her passport.

The thing that's clear from early on, of course, is that Vietnam doesn't so much change this trio of young men from Hong Kong fleeing the law so much as exposing it and distilling them down to the purest version of those traits: Waise Lee's Paul is clearly the pragmatic one with a desire to raise his station from the start, but being in a watching with a box of gold kicks it into overdrive; Jacky Cheung's Frank the poor, well-meaning guy who who will take any amount of abuse for and from those he cares for, needing to be protected from himself; Tony Leung plays Ben as the romantic, which isn't always as great as it sounds: While director John Woo will often let the camera longer on Leung's beautiful, concerned face, and one does not exactly fault him for his outpouring of affection to a new woman just days after his wedding, as "knight rescuing damsel" is his default mindset - but it also means he cannot let things go, especially where those who have wronged poor Frank are concerned. That romanticism, the desire to be an avenger or rescuer, is his fatal flaw, as big as the Vietnam War itself.

(Outside the core trio, I ask this question - is this the coolest that Simon Yam has ever been in a film? For someone so ubiquitous in Hong Kong cinema, this is somehow his only collaboration with John Woo, and while Johnnie To gave him terrific roles, it's hard to compete with Franco-Chinese ex-CIA killer with constant five o'clock shadow who carries dynamite disguised as cigars and hides weapons in a nightclub's piano for when he needs to rescue his torch singer lover. It's an overload of cool, really, for anything but a John Woo movie.)

It's a lot of movie, as well; dropping these characters into the middle of the Vietnam War lets Woo start stripping them down to their essences quickly; they're under fire from the moment they arrive in Saigon and the rest of the film can't really be set over much more than a few days, with Woo and his co-writers escalating the action and retaining just enough of the politics to make it clear that the violence has taken on a life of its own. There's so much that it's no wonder that it breaks these guys even more than they were broken before, and nobody stages action on this scale like Woo.. He and four cinematographers shoot the hell out of Thailand, and when he slows down, it's often to make something more grandiose and tragic.

I do wonder a bit what he was thinking with the bookends. The opening is downright weird, cutting between the trio being poor but fun-loving folks and their being street goons, with an especially odd disconnect that comes from the tune of the Monkees' "I'm a Believer" being a big part of Sherman Chow's score - one's brain says it really can't be that, right? But no, it is, made clear when a cover band is playing the song in Saigon, and it's maybe a bit too much "this is kind of subversive, no?" There's also a big action sequence at the end that feels like Woo just having a couple characters come untethered from reality - there's just no reason for one to do this or be so sloppy - and I kind of wonder if the studio demanded a big finale from how the alternate ending on the disc cuts it out, but it's Woo, and the romanticism-versus-pragmatism theme must be resolved with blood, rather than "I showed you!"

Part of me thinks this may be Woo's masterwork, even without Chow Yun-fat in it. It's maybe a bit too frantic and overheated in some places, but turning up the heat like that is what lets Woo soar when it's working.

Banchikwang (The Foul King)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 11 February 2023 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Korean Blu-ray)

Sometime during 2023, I wrote a review or two where I talked about how you can see a certain filmmaker was destined for bigger things in his early work, at least in retrospect, but I don't know that it's the case here. It feels like a case where Kim Jee-Woon got a script that was kind of a mess but did everything he could to make every scene as good as it could be, and put them together into something coherent - although, of course, Kim is also one of the writers, so he clearly had room to grow in some areas, even if one could certainly see a bunch of talent in others.

He introduces Im Dae-ho (Song Kang-ho), a loser bank clerk who is not just harangued but beat up by his boss, street punks, you name it. He eventually finds himself at a run-down professional wrestling school, hoping to just learn how to get out of a headlock, because he's too big a fan to imagine himself as an actual wrestler, with the run down old man who runs the place (Jang Gwan-jang) agreeing. But when a promoter needs a nobody who specializes in cheating, they wind up running Dae-ho out there, and he winds up surprisingly good, especially once the owner's daughter (Jang Jin-yong) starts training him. Can his newfound confidence mean anything outside the ring?

Maybe, maybe not - what matters is that things get very weird, very quickly, even beyond how the world of professional (if you're able to get paid for it) wrestling is seemingly very weird in every country where the activity is popular, with performers encouraged to blur the distinction between themselves and the characters, the broad strokes of the matches and storylines pre-planned but with a lot of room for improv, and a lot of people climbing the ladder who are roughly as skilled as Dae-ho, and in many cases kind of the same sort of screw-up. It's entertainment that can be astounding at its best, but moving between incredibly dangerous and hilariously chincy more often than not. When the film is at its weakest, Kim will seemingly be standing back, asking if you can believe this shit, or seeing how far he can push it into weird territory even if he's not also pushing forward.

Fortunately, while this was only Kim's second film as a director, he would soon become one of South Korea's very best genre directors, and he's constantly trying to find ways to make a shot interesting, even if he doesn't necessarily have the chance for elaborate set-ups that would come later. Indeed, the trick here is often capturing how the whole business is low-rent and disreputable, making the fighting look kind of silly but also having the sort of energy and danger that attracts not just losers like Dae-ho, but fans in general

And, in the middle, Song Kang-ho in one of his first leading roles, maybe one that would wind up setting the tone for his entire career: His charisma and talent are there for all to see, but there's something about him that makes people cast him as guys who are sort of weird, even in leads. He embraces that fully here, never seeming to push back against the idea that Dae-ho is a genuine screw-up rather than someone who has had some lousy breaks, but also catching something earnest there. If one likes Dae-ho, it's kind of in spite of who he is, and what confidence he gains is often horribly misplaced, but he's strangely watchable. Song's an odd sort of movie star, but he is a movie star.

I do still kind of wish I liked this one a bit better, considering the talent involved. Part of it may just be the professional wrestling of it all - I liked it as a kid, but it was kind of strange seeing folks I knew as movie people really get into wrestling during the pandemic, and I never managed to get interesting enough to want to see what goes on below the top-level promotions. Something about the material just puts me off, even when what's around it is good.

Once again, we have solid works by favorite filmmakers, which leads us to…

Mookie: 73 stars
Bruce: 72 ¾ stars

Mookie takes the lead for the first time since the first round! What a comeback - how will the next, Korean-centric round build on this?

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