Life Without Principle (2011, Johnnie To)

I watched this a couple weeks after Office, not knowing they were Johnnie To’s companion pieces on the 2008 financial crisis. This one presents the corrupt business world more harshly – no lavish sets and musical numbers, just greed, theft, disappointment, ruin and murder.

Connie meets Teresa:

An intertwining-destinies movie following a few character threads. Inspector Cheung (Breaking News star Richie Ren) is on the sidelines of the other stories while his girlfriend Connie is buying an apartment. Teresa is a banker who sells high-risk investments to confused old ladies, ends up with a pile of undeposited money when her loanshark client Yuen is murdered in the parking deck. And Panther (Ching Wan Lau, the Mad Detective) works for broke gangsters, runs around collecting money to bail out a buddy until he finds stock trader Lung who has an idea for fast cash. The real estate thing held little drama, the banking part hinged on some mild deceit (the old lady heard the phrase “high risk” a hundred times so you can’t entirely blame the banker) and coincidence, but Panther was fun – I’d watch a sequel that just followed him around some more.

Office (2015, Johnnie To)

Oh man, what an idea – take a story of office politics during the 2008 banking crisis and turn it into a heightened musical on stylishly artificial sets, directed by master of spatial composition Johnnie To. I loved this.

Company IPO, new partnership and financial audit are all happening at once. Chairman Chow Yun Fat (first movie I’ve seen of his since Curse of the Golden Flower) and CEO Ms. Chang (film writer Sylvia Chang, also of Eat Drink Man Woman) run the company and are having a not-so-secret affair.

Cheatin’ David (HK McDonald’s spokeman Eason Chan) also has something going with Ms. Chang but starts warming up to Heartbroken Sophie (Tang Wei of Lust, Caution) in finance so she’ll help him hide a bad trade.

Energetic new guy Wang Ziyi (who introduces himself to people by mentioning Ang Lee, who has directed films starring half this movie’s lead actors) bounces around the office, falling for new girl Lang Yueting, who nobody realizes is the chairman’s daughter, covertly getting to know the company she’ll soon be running.

S. Kraicer:

Wong Kar-wai’s inspired art director William Chang has concocted a highly stylized vision of a postmodern office setting: a theatrical, open-concept, multi-storied abstraction of a contemporary financial firm, complete with lobby and adjoining metro station. As fundamentally structuralist as ever (though he hides it well), To stages the complex romantic and financial-scheme-devising interactions of his stellar cast with a fluency that dazzles.

Probably would’ve dazzled even more in 3D, which is how it was presented in theaters.

D. Kasman:

This abstract pleasure of dashing lines and depth-play is at the service of an ebullient imagining of the corporate world in unparalleled transparency, one which the contemporary architectural trend of glass-scape monuments and faux-communal interior layouts insincerely aim at evoking. But what Chang’s screenplay reveals through this radical transparency is that Office is very much another Johnnie To film about killing: the killing of the soul within the corporate workspace, the killing of romance within a culture of materialism, and the killing of brother- and sisterhood within the machine of corporate capitalism. Its deadly thrust is naked for all to see. It joins To’s triptych drama Life Without Principle and the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart skyscraper romcoms to make for a series of blistering, cynical, and ruthlessly analytic portraits of the luxury-slick surfaces and corrosive-sick structures of global urban capitalism.

Happy Together (1997, Wong Kar-Wai)

Responsible Lai Yiu-Fai (Wong fave Tony Leung) and impulsive, promiscuous Ho Po-Wing (Ashes of Time star Leslie Cheung) took a trip to Argentina, ran out of money and got stuck there. Now they’re trying to make money to get home, while the pressure of being together so long has destroyed their relationship. Ho disappears for long periods, returning dramatically without warning, while Lai persistently works menial jobs at a nightclub, a kitchen and a slaughterhouse. Lai meets Chang (young Chen Chang, lately The Razor in The Grandmaster) in the kitchen, but Chang isn’t sticking around Buenos Aires long, is on his way around the world (with ITMFL-like mention of a remote place people go to leave their troubles behind). Lai finally gets the money to leave, can’t find Ho so he returns to Hong Kong, where he can’t find Chang either (only finds his family’s restaurant).

Mostly great, eclectic music choices, including my favorite Caetano Veloso song from Talk To Her. But, well, my love for Frank Zappa is eternal, and I complain that his music isn’t played enough, and I appreciate the connection between him and the Turtles song of the film’s ironic title, but “I Have Been In You” did not fit the wistful mood of the city montage after Chang left.

Lai at the waterfall:

Chang at the end of the world:

A sustained mood piece, where nothing really happens and Christopher Doyle’s brilliant cinematography heighten the emotions of everyday life – just like In The Mood For Love. But ITMFL was about the possibility of an ultimately doomed romance, and this one’s about the lingering feelings after romance has ended. It’s a much more bitter movie, and though I enjoyed seeing it in HD for the first time, it doesn’t seem like one to revisit regularly.

M. D’Angelo:

Happy Together features all of the elements that have consistently impressed me in his other pictures: elegantly moody characters; stunning cinematography (courtesy Christopher Doyle, as ever); a loose-limbed narrative that careens from shot to shot without deliberation; a general air of cinema as possibility. All that’s missing is the powerful romantic yearning that suffused Chungking Express, Fallen Angels … and even parts of Ashes of Time and Days of Being Wild. In its place, to my irritation, is endless squabbling.

I Wish I Knew (2010, Jia Zhang-ke)

Interview film, Shanghai stories, people talking about their parents and their own childhoods. Many stories end in death or disappearance. Very stylish looking doc, with some non-doc segments, including a recurring ghost woman (Zhao Tao of Still Life, Platform, The World).

Clips from a 1959 film by a different Wang Bing (the Coal Money director was born in ’67), from Red Persimmon, Two Stage Sisters, Spring in a Small Town, Flowers of Shanghai, Days of Being Wild, Antonioni’s China, and interviews with filmmakers and participants.

Wei Wei, star of Spring in a Small Town:

Tony Rayns:

Jia was invited to make a film “about Shanghai” to mark the opening of the Shanghai World Expo … his idea was to focus mainly on émigrés from Shanghai – politicians, soldiers, artists, gangsters – and to follow some of those émigrés to their subsequent bolt-holes in Taiwan and Hong Kong. … No film made anywhere has previously attempted a pan-Chinese view of the fall-out from the conflicts in China’s civil war.

I don’t have the context Tony Rayns has, have missed a lot in Jia’s films, but at least this one was fully narrated (and quite beautiful).

S. Kraicer:

[The interviewees] are mostly famous, and predominantly from the arts world: this is a top-down historical chronicle, unlike the bottom-up small-town tales that made Jia’s name 10 years ago … Many of the stories come from Shanghai’s two brief “golden ages.” The swinging cosmopolitan (and colonially controlled, gangster-ridden, Japanese-threatened) jazz age of the 1930s is the first. The second revival followed the Second World War during the civil war that culminated in the Communist Party victory in 1949 and the dispersal of many of the film’s interviewees to Hong Kong and Taiwan.

36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978, Liu Chia-Liang)

A good rebellion story with some serious kung fu at the end, but most of the movie consists of training montages. Student Liu Yu-de escapes after his rebel-taught school is destroyed and family is killed by the occupying Tartars. None of the rebels were decent fighters, so wounded Yu-de flees to the Shaolin temple, rumored to have the best kung fu in town, gets sanctuary there, is renamed San Ta and starts training from the very bottom, working his way to total mastery in just a few years. The Shaolin monks’ official stance is that they ignore the politics of the outside world, but it’s San Ta’s drive to defeat the Tartars that fuels his rapid advancement. With no support or defined plan, he goes out and immediately challenges and slays the Tartar leadership, is then allowed to open his “36th chamber” to train civilians in martial arts.

Doomed Chia Yung Liu:

I find the kung fu sound effects to be distracting – a given weapon always uses the same effect at the same volume regardless of what it’s hitting. The audio in general was strangely echoey, as if a fake surround effect had been added to dialogue. And though this is supposed to be a mighty classic of the genre, I wasn’t too thrilled by the action either – maybe 1970’s kung fu films aren’t for me, because I prefer the floaty fantasy of House of Flying Daggers, the dreamy camera-play of Ashes of Time, and the inventive, flailing fights of Jackie Chan.

This movie was a huge influence on the Wu-Tang Clan, as seen below in a shot of San Ta’s head between two massive joints:

Chia-Liang Liu was a star director for Shaw Brothers studio, also made The 8 Diagram Pole Fighter and Drunken Master II, and worked on Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords. His brother Chia-Hui Liu stars as San Ta. Chia-Hui was later in Kill Bill and Man With The Iron Fists – of course, I’d be amazed if nobody from this film had been in Man With The Iron Fists. San Ta’s early inspiration, a rebel leader killed in a trap by the Tartars, is their other brother Chia Yung Liu (Legend of the Seven Golden Vampires). Lieh Lo, “the first kung fu superstar” played evil mustache general Tien Ta, defeated in the picturesque final fight by San Ta wielding the triple-staff he created. Before this, San Ta rounds up a few “hot-blooded youths” to help invade the Tartars: rebel leader Hung Hsi-kuan, suspicious and combative Lu Ah-cai (Norman Chu of Zu Warriors and We’re Going To Eat You), and social outcast Miller Six (Yue Wong, title star of Dirty Ho). One woman appears (Szu-Chia Chen of Rendezvous With Death and The Magic Blade) for about a minute. Two sequels would follow from the same director and star.

Mr. Vampire (1985, Ricky Lau)

Happy SHOCKtober! The ol’ blog is running months behind right now, and I’ve posting things out of order, but here’s a vampire flick to kick things off. More to come… eventually.

It’s something like this: rich guy asks mortuary master for help reburying his father. But father is a vampire, kills the rich guy and puts everyone else in danger. Master is arrested for the rich guy’s death and his two assistants try to save the day: attractive young Chor, haunted by a female ghost, and comic buffoon Man, bitten by a vampire and trying to keep from becoming one himself. At the end, no lessons are learned, but the movie is much fun, so it got sequels. Even Master stopped caring about the plot early on.

I spent most of the runtime piecing together Hong Kong’s rules about vampires. They hop, I knew that much from Seven Golden Vampires. You can freeze them and make them obey orders by taping yellow paper with a phrase written in chicken blood to their forehead. You create a barrier/trap or injure the vampire by snapping straight ink lines with a string. Sticky rice (only a certain kind!) draws out vampire poison from bitten people, and damages full vampires. They have long hard fingernails, and standard vampire teeth, but their bite marks come in threes. Fire and certain wooden swords can kill them. My favorite: if you hold your breath, vampires can’t find you.

L-R: Man (Ricky Hui), Master (Ching-Ying Lam), Chor (Siu-hou Chin, later in Fist of Legend)

There’s also a local government baddie, Wai, the nephew of the slain rich man, who is hot for his cousin Ting Ting, but Chor and Man keep making him look ridiculous (including a weird voodoo mind-control scene) so he’ll have no chance. I’m not sure whether the movie kills a baby goat and a chicken or if those are effects/editing, but I’m sure it kills a snake.

As Tears Go By (1988, Wong Kar-Wai)

Maggie Cheung has health problems, comes to stay with her older cousin Andy Lau, a loanshark enforcer who acts completely recklessly along with his fuckup buddy Jacky Cheung. This movie and Days of Being Wild could definitely have swapped titles.

Ronald Wong (sort of an HK Bud Cort) manages to get out of the gangster life, marries, is given a bunch of money. Jacky fails hard in every direction though, tries to quit and run a food stand but ends up where he came from: getting the shit beaten out of him until he’s rescued by Andy. These two have their moments of brilliance, but by refusing to play the gangster game by the rules, soon everyone is tired of their shit. Crazy Tony (Alex Man) is set up as the “bad guy” who wants our heroes dead, but that’s all our heroes deserve, and soon what they get. Meanwhile, a bit of a love story has developed between Maggie and Andy, set to a Chinese version of “Take My Breath Away” and a 1980’s synth score. But just when Andy thought he was out, the bastards pulled him back in, then shot him in the head.

Jackie on right:

Ang Wong only has two scenes, but makes an impression:

Boarding Gate (2007, Olivier Assayas)

Assayas’s idea of a good, fun b-movie, except he forgot the “good” and the “fun.”

Asia Argento used to do demeaning sex work for powerful businessman Michael Madsen in order to turn him on and steal business secrets, and now after years she is back. Long push-pull dialogue segments prep us for twisty psychological intrigue, but nothing is ever especially twisty. Oh wait, Madsen has a big-money disagreement with Alex Descas (scientist/vampire-boyfriend in Trouble Every Day) but that couldn’t possibly be important. Asia pulls a gun and kills Madsen, planned by her new boyfriend Carl Ng, whose wife Kelly Lin (Zu Warriors, ex-wife/cop in Mad Detective) is in on the plot.

Girls still faint in movies:
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But will Kelly really let Asia get away with the crime and leave with her husband? No, well, yes, sort of. Shocker: Alex Descas shows up at the end. It was his idea to kill Madsen! None of the surprises are surprising and none of the tension is tense… Demonlover had more twists in its last five minutes than this one can manage in ninety. If I’d seen this when it first came out I might have skipped Summer Hours, which would have been a mistake. Guess Assayas can be inconsistent but still makes great films.

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It might hurt Michael Madsen’s feelings to be cast in what the director calls a b-movie, but he’s not any good, nor is Sonic Youth’s Kim Gordon as a Hong Kong crime boss, and even Asia isn’t giving a knockout performance. I’d think Kelly Lin stole the show if there was much of a show to steal. Turns out most critics agreed with me – I didn’t re-check the reviews, probably got this confused with Go Go Tales in thinking it was well-loved.

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Truth 24FPS agrees:

The project must have seemed promising, at least on paper – a globe trotting thriller with kinky sex, drug deals gone awry, murder, double and triple crosses, gun fights. But the film comes across as tepid, warmed over trash, and strangely, contains none of the kinetic forcefulness of the Hong Kong films Assayas champions. Assayas’ view of the world can at least partially be gleaned from his casting choices – an Italian who speaks French and English, with American and Chinese lovers, who travels from Paris to Hong Kong and eventually encountering a crime boss played by an indie rock icon. … The first half of the film consists of [Argento & Madsen] squaring off in increasingly repetitive encounters, with a kind of will they or won’t they do it sexual tension (answer: who cares?).

Asia Argento only liked the movie thiiiis much:
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Dissent from G. Kenny:

His mastery of the camera and his always innovative approach to setting are constant, knotty pleasures; the Paris of the film’s first half is as alien to our recieved ideas of Paris as Godard’s Alphaville was, while his Hong Kong is a crumbling labyrinth where the only clues about which corner to turn are provided by cell phone rings.

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But my favorite comment is from a forum poster on Premiere: “It made me want to punch Asia Argento in the face, but that would probably turn her on.”

Fist of Legend (1994, Gordon Chan)

“Men don’t have to tell women everything.”

I love Jet Li but I think he’s been in about two good movies since the mid-90’s, so thought it was time to rent some of his early good stuff. Thought this was just okay though – an action flick given importance by tying in some historical drama. From the director of King of Beggars, Royal Tramp and The Medallion, but not as goofily comedic as those (and fortunately not as drab and dry as Jet Li’s Fearless either). This could still afford to be more fun, but I think it had a political point which I mostly missed.

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Jet is Chen Zhen, disciple of a respected Shanghai fighting school gone to Japan to study. This is the mid-30’s and China is occupied by Japan, so when Jet starts the film by kicking the asses of thirty Japanese dudes who belittled his country, you know what direction the movie is going. Turns out his master was killed at home by a new school of rude Japanese guys so Jet returns home (followed belatedly by his Japanese girlfriend; you see Jet is beyond racism and just wants everyone to get along).

So Jet teams up with the master’s son and new clan leader Ting’en (Siu-hou Chin of Twin Warriors and the Mr. Vampire series) and cool-headed elder guy Uncle Nong (Paul Chun of Peking Opera Blues, played a king in Royal Tramp II). They talk peace and strategy, challenge some guys to some fights, and so on.

Uncle Nong, Ting’en, Jet:
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Hmmmm, I’m thinking… okay, Jet kicks the ass of the guy who killed his master and figures out that the school’s chef poisoned the master to make him lose the match. A Japanese general kills the guy who Jet beat and takes control of the other school. Somehow involved is this guy Fumio Funakoshi (Yasuaki Kurata, also of Fist of Hero, Fist of Vengeance, Fists for Revenge and Fist of Unicorn) who challenges Jet to a blind match, which ends in a draw then Fumio respectfully bugs off. The general is not so graceful about losing, pulls a sword forcing Jet to fight back – with his belt! – and kill the guy.

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There was also some racism business, a thing about a brothel girl who Ting’en hangs out with, a court case, and Jet pulling boxing moves in the middle of his kung-fu fights. At the end, Jet is “executed” by the Japanese, but really he’s secretly shuttled out of town with his girl. Some extremely cheesy parts – if this is better than Fearless, it’s not an awful lot better. Filmmaking seemed pretty standard, with too much editing but some good fight choreography by Yuen Woo-ping, who himself directed a Brigitte Lin movie and a Michelle Yeoh movie the same year. After Black Mask (1996) he’d start bouncing back and forth to Hollywood to help with Matrix sequels and Tarantino flicks.

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Movie is apparently considered one of the greatest martial arts films ever (I preferred Royal Tramp) and contains references to Bruce Lee’s Fist of Fury.