Some movies watched before, during, and soon after the China trip:


The Illinois Parables (2016 Deborah Stratman)

I know I watched it late at night, in Alpharetta, and somehow took no notes, and enjoyed it. Landscapes and history lessons. Sure sounds interesting from the letterboxd writeups! Maybe kinda if General Orders No. 9 was much better, and had been highly influenced by Profit Motive.


Widows (2018 Steve McQueen)

After all the hype – the follow-up to his best-picture winner with an outstanding cast – somehow I lost interest in this by the time it came out, and caught up months later on the seat-back of a plane. It’s overwrought and overstuffed, but undeniably pleasurable in its performances and genre plotting.

I wonder if the male actors were sabotaged in an attempt to draw attention to the heist-gone-bad widows Viola Davis, Elizabeth Debicki and Michelle Rodriguez – or if they just misjudged the tone of the movie. Colin Farrell overacts as a cartoon-villain politician, Daniel Kaluuya plays a basic enforcer of a crime boss/politician stalking Viola Davis, and Liam Neeson goes from sympathetic victim to archvillain when he’s discovered by wife Viola (in the movie’s best scene) to be shacking up with the fourth widow after arranging the deaths of his buddies to get away with all the money. Does Viola throw aside spousal emotion for the sake of sweet revenge, killing Liams herself at the end? She does!


Transit (2018 Christian Petzold)

Watched at the Tara, huge, alone. Sicinski’s review says it all.


High Life (2018 Claire Denis)

I took no notes about this, mostly remember the ending of Robert Pattinson and daughter alone on the ship hurtling towards a black hole, and the haunting Pattinson-sung Tindersticks song. These two most recent Claire Denis features have helped offset the brutal unpleasantness of her previous two, and even though this one has its share of rape and murder, it also has beauty and wonder and general strangeness… and that song…


Us (2019 Jordan Peele)

Watched with Pro at Atlantic Station – on the secret screen with its own bar, not that this mattered. I don’t have a firm handle on the symbolism, but it’s a hell of a thriller regardless. See smart articles by Kyle, Monica, Mike, and Carol.


In Fabric (2018 Peter Strickland)

Watched at the glorious Plaza as part of the Atlanta Film Festival.

Marianne Jean-Baptiste (Secrets & Lies) visits a creepy clothing store during sales week, is talked into buying a cursed red dress by a cheerfully coercive saleswoman (Fatma Mohamed, speaking in retail-poetry). Marianne dates Barry Adamson (a Bad Seed!), gets chastised by boss Julian Barratt, and keeps getting injured until she’s finally killed in a car crash. It’s a strange tone overall, kind of a creeping dread mixed with splashes of comedy – but Marianne is a sympathetic character stuck in a crappy job, being intimidated in her own house by her son’s new girl (Gwendoline Christie of Top of the Lake season 2), so the campy horror-comedy gets overwhelmed by sadness. The dress survives, and gets shared by another guy with a crappy job (Leo Bill) and his girlfriend Hayley Squires (of the latest Wheatley and second-latest Loach), misfortune and death follow, but this time the department store burns down during a consumer brawl.

Strickland:

A lot of us filmmakers have had to do the kinds of jobs these characters do: temping, retail. The challenge is to usher those experiences into one’s films without it feeling like a vendetta, because a lot of those experiences are quite ball breaking. It’s more desirable to find humor there, to take characters like [Sheila’s employers] Stash and Clive and make them funny.


Election 1 & 2 (2005/06 Johnnie To)

Watched a couple of HK double-features on the long flight back from HK – on the iPad, tragically, so no screenshots. These are Hong Kong underworld power struggle movies – Lok (Simon Yam, star of at least six other To films) wins the election that Big D (Tony Leung 2: Evil East) thought he’d bought, so Big D revolts and threatens to start a war. Lok placates the dude, offering him the chairman position after Lok’s two years are up, and the two become friends – until the moment Big D lets his guard down and gets murdered.

Part two is more complicated, starring Jimmy (Louis Koo, the movie star in Romancing in Thin Air) as a businessman using his gangster ties to get ahead, but with plans to go straight – until he’s arrested and forced by the mainland government to run as their puppet chairman. Lok attempts to run a second time, which is against the rules, Kun (Ka Tung Lam, a cop in some of the Infernal Affairs movies) kidnaps some of the elders to get ahead, and Jet (Nick Cheung of Exiled) attempts to eliminate the competition. In both movies, the baton signaling the chairman’s power is hidden as a strategic move, then the baton is recovered through scheming and brutality.


A Better Tomorrow 1 & 2 (1986/87 John Woo)

I alternated these with the Election movies, and they’re either good indicators that John Woo is no Johnnie To, or that the 1980’s were a horrible decade for filmmaking. Gangster Ho (Ti Lung of a ton of Shaw Brothers movies) is protective of his cop little brother Kit (Leslie Cheung). He tries to get out, but they pull him back in! A few years later, Kit and Ho and his best friend Mark (Chow Yun-fat) sort-of team up to take down the gangster boss. The movie’s main attractions are guessing where the shifting loyalties will land, and watching Chow Yun-fat overplay his part as the super-cool guy, a schtik that nobody would fall for (jk, he became a massive star from this role and won the best actor award). At least he definitively dies at the end of the movie, so he won’t be in the sequel.

Part two is pretty much the same movie, Ho and Kit versus new gangster Lung (Dean Shek of Drunken Master), but it turns out Lung is being set up, so they all team up against the new superboss. Kit is killed as his baby is being born across town (by Emily Chu, also Cheung’s costar in Rouge the following year). The movie suffers from the lack of Chow Yun-fat’s stupid energy… ahhhh kidding, he appears as Mark’s identical twin brother, a non-gangster who transforms into a Mark-like badass after about twenty minutes.

Alternate prequels were filmed – producer Tsui Hark made the official A Better Tomorrow III, and Woo adapted his own prequel script into Bullet in the Head (in which Simon Yam played a character named Lok, an unexpectin’ Election connection).


Lu Over The Wall (2017 Masaaki Yuasa)

Schoolkid meets a manic pixie dream mermaid – sort of a Walk On Girl-distorted version of Ponyo. Not as thrillingly nuts as Walk On Girl – surprising, since that’s a teen drinking drama and this one’s about a rock music-loving mermaid. She gets discovered, captured, rescued, etc., less interesting for the story than the wavy-jumbly animation style.


Diamantino (2018 Gabriel Abrantes & Daniel Schmidt)

Loopy, extremely fun cult flick about a massive soccer star manipulated by his scheming sisters, a mad scientist, and a cop who masquerades as his adoptive daughter. Everyone spends the movie trying to catch him out, but Diamantino is too simply sweet to be scheming.

Lead actor Carloto Cotta also starred in Tabu, and appears in Mysteries of Lisbon and all three of the Arabian Nights. I’ve been rooting for Abrantes since his Brief History of Princess X, so glad this was wonderful. I haven’t watched many movies at the Plaza since getting back, but between this and In Fabric, they’ve been extremely Plaza-appropriate.

Katy hated this, and sure it’s not one of the better or even more memorable movies we’ve watched this summer, but when I heard that Johnnie To made a movie starring Andy Lau as a monk/stripper/strongman in a rubber muscle suit, I knew I had to watch it right away, and I regret nothing. Guess I’m on my own for Johnnie To’s comedy Love on a Diet starring Andy Lau in a fat suit…

This movie starts out crazy enough, with bodybuilder Lau making a nude getaway while a more serious crime is being committed, running into a cop and seeing a vision of her future. They team up and fight crime… but then Andy retreats to a mountain for years, battles his past self, and captures a reclusive killer… and we sense that they either filmed a three-hour epic then cut it to ninety minutes, or everyone was making it up as they went along. The staging of even simple scenes is better than it needs to be, the movie’s never boring, it features some villains straight out of the comics, and it follows through on its promise to kill Andy’s romantic interest (the cop, Cecilia Cheung of The Promise and Zu Warriors), so I admire it despite the parts that never really work (the editing, the muscle suit).

A different kind of love triangle movie – only one of the two guys is alive and present at any part of the story, but each one’s spirit affects possible relationships with the other. Heartbroken, drunken movie star Louis Koo (lead cop in Three, paperman in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart) hides out at a country lodge run by Sammi Cheng (Blind Detective, Infernal Affairs) and he makes a mess of things, then gradually cleans up and starts helping out. This goes on for a very long time, until he discovers that Sammi, who has always acted indifferently towards him, used to be a huge fan and has posters and props from all his films.

Sammi with movie star on motorcycle:

Finally we get the backstory of her husband, who first got her attention by imitating Louis’s movies, and later disappeared in the woods looking for a lost child. Louis loses her when he goes back to the city and she becomes refocused on her husband after his body is finally recovered, so Louis reaches out the only way he knows how: by making a movie about this entire story starring himself as himself and bringing her husband back to life in his version.

Sammi with husband-as-movie-star on motorcycle:

I should’ve watched an actual Johnnie To movie, but instead I watched this generic cops & robbers flick from his production company. A super-hot getaway driver breaks a jewel thief out of prison in time for their big heist… meanwhile, fiery young cop learns a special automotive technique from his about-to-retire partner, who is killed by the baddies post-heist, provoking a cathartic faceoff finale. It couldn’t sound more generic, but fortunately the movie is full of delicate character details which really… haha no I’m kidding, it is totally generic. I bought Heat last week on blu-ray, and should’ve rewatched that instead.

I guess I’m not enough of a gearhead to be excited about the film’s magic getaway technique (which I’m calling the Hong Kong Drift), in which the driver makes the wheels spin awfully fast, squealing without the car driving forward, then turns the wheel in order to rotate in place. So, in a week when I’m watching trailers for this summer’s fast-driving heist movies, Baby Driver and Logan Lucky, this movie’s showcase is… making the cars barely move.

Noble Cops:

Cheang went on to make The Monkey King and Kill Zone 2. Our hotheaded hero is Shawn Yue (Young Tony Leung in Infernal Affairs and its prequel), his mentor is Anthony Wong (also Infernal Affairs, and star of Exiled), and enemy driver is Xiaodong Guo (Tsui Hark’s Missing). In true Johnnie To fashion, there is a minor character named Fatso, but distressingly he is not played by Suet Lam. Oh and hey, there’s even a lady in the film: a doctor whose name I didn’t catch, but was probably Barbie Hsu of Future X-Cops and Croczilla.

They record their chases on in-car VCRs. I’m watching a bunch of 2012 movies this week – this one has VHS tapes, and both Ape and Jack & Diane have audio cassettes – what’s the deal?

Bad Dude in Killer Car:

“Cheang’s background as an horror director serves him very well as every chase becomes a slasher film cat and mouse game full of menace and the white Nissan that serves as the film real villain and one true memorable character gains an almost serial killer status.” Of course Furtado loved it – he likes Alien vs. Predator.

A fairly minor Johnnie To movie compared to the last two I saw, building up suspense in a hospital between a doctor (Wei Zhao of Shaolin Soccer and Red Cliff), a cop (Louis Koo, the Paperman of Don’t Go Breaking My Heart) and a criminal (Wallace Chung of Drug War). Adding some Life Without Principle flair, each of our leads is compromised in some way: Dr. Tong keeps botching surgeries and is tricked into helping the criminals, Chief Inspector Ken plants evidence, and jewel thief Shun, well, he’s an overconfident supervillain full of nasty tricks and secret plans, with no qualms about gunning down all the civilians in the emergency room in a climactic shootout. Shun has also memorized quotes from literature and the entire Hippocratic Oath, dispersing his knowledge to make doctors and cops feel bad about themselves. Oh, and there’s policeman Fatty, Suet Lam (Fatso in Mad Detective, Fat in Exiled). Anyway, the actors are fun and the camerawork is on point.

The Three:

Either I didn’t pay enough attention to story or my subtitles were funky, because the plot description on letterboxd is confusing. “A thug shoots himself to force the cops to cease fire,” that scene’s not in the movie and I thought one of Inspector Ken’s men shot the thug – there’s even a subplot about Shun putting out a hit on the shooter. “The detective in charge sees through his scheme but decides to play along so as to capture his whole gang,” I’m not so sure about that one either, but it’s possible. Anyway, lots of people die then Dr. Tong goes back to killing and crippling patients and Inspector Ken resigns.

Fatty in climactic super-slow-mo shootout:

Typical To composition of people dramatically standing around:

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.

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.

Love triangle movie, where Yuanyuan Gao (Beijing Bicycle, dunno who she played in Blind Detective) is torn between two rich suitors: the playful Paperman in the building across the street (Louis Koo of Drug War, Romancing in Thin Air, Zu Warriors) and a patient, washed-up architect who she runs into on the street (Daniel Wu of Overheard, The Banquet, Man with the Iron Fists). All three of the leads were new to me, though I recognized Gao’s heavyset coworker Suet Lam from Mad Detective and/or Exiled.

Each guy has personality and problems, and the choice between them could go either way until the two men finally meet and there’s a Frog Incident. After that, Koo claims his womanizing days are over and stages a Big Romantic Gesture while Gao and Wu are out together, but it’s too little, too late, since he’s standing upon Wu’s even bigger romantic gesture: a skyscraper modeled after her silhouette, lit in the shape of a proposal.

Cute movie, keeping us off-guard with its unusual plotting and our unfamiliarity with Hong Kong movie traditions (the joke that Koo gets a nosebleed whenever he’s turned-on didn’t work for me). Think it’s my most-successful-ever group movie pick, charming Katy and Maria, and keeping my cinephile-self occupied with all the wonderful staging To does using windows, reflections and shadows.

M. D’Angelo:

Hardly surprising that a Johnnie To romcom is light years more formally sophisticated than Hollywood’s efforts, making expert use of spatial relationships and insisting that every shot please the eye rather than be merely functional … I can’t even remember the last time I saw a version of this story in which the outcome was genuinely in doubt, much less one in which I was unsure what I wanted to happen.

The same writer/director/producer/cinematographer team made Mad Detective, but this is not on the same level. Two big stars (Sammi Cheng of Infernal Affairs and My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, and Andy Lau) cruising on charisma in a mystery plot ending in romance and full of idiotic humor – not even J-To’s expert filmmaking chops can save this one.

An Exiled reference?

Lau is a freelance blind detective, but inspector Szeto Fatbo (not knowing the language, I can’t tell if that name is supposed be a joke) keeps stealing his cases (simply by following Lau out of earshot), depriving him of reward money.

Sammi has a missing friend named Minnie whom Lau promises to help find. Lau solves crimes by re-enacting them at the scene, which seems like the usual TV cop schtik but is actually kind of wonderful here. Fortunately, all criminals in this movie are fat and stupid and always use the same technique, so he catches up to most of them.

The love of Lau’s life married Fatbo after Lau went blind, but this is unimportant. Really, whatever happened to Minnie is unimportant too – after some false leads (one involves a cannibal), Sammi is injured and some people die and Sammi and Lau end up together, yay.