Thursday, June 05, 2008

Nine that Rip

So, a couple of weeks ago, I picked up the recent Image disc for the Shaw Brothers film, The Magic Blade. Like most recent Shaw reissues from the Celestial catalog, this one was festooned with trailers. In addition to trailers for the other Shaw Brothers films in Image's Eastern Masters line, it also included a bunch of trailers for Hong Kong action films from the eighties and nineties. Most of the films in question are crap, though some of them have their highlights. What this mainly did was instill in me a jones for Hong Kong action films. I used to eat, breath, and dream HK action films when I was running a video store in the 1990s. They were part of our specialty, and our selection of movies landed us in one of the appendices of one of the earliest guides to HK action films, Sex and Zen and A Bullet In the Head by Steffan Hammond and Mike Wilkins. Sadly, the store has been defunct for years now, and this book is out of print, and the bloom is off the lily for HK action films, their style having been co-opted by other cinemas across the globe. But I still had that jones. Rather than waste it on some of the crappy films advertised on The Magic Blade--I'll get to some of those in the next few weeks--I thought I'd go straight to uncut shit and mainline it. The first part of S&Z&ABitH is a chapter called "Ten That Rip," which gives an outline of the best of the Hong Kong new wave. It's not a "best 10," which the authors freely acknowledge, but rather a jumping-off point. So what the hell, I thought. Why not go back to first principles?

The "Ten that Rip" are the following:

The Bride With White Hair (1993, directed by Ronny Yu)
A Chinese Ghost Story (1987, directed by Ching Tsui-Tung)
193. Full Contact (1993, directed by Ringo Lam)
194. Hard Boiled (1992, directed by John Woo)
It's Now Or Never (1992, directed by Kwok-Hei Chan)
195. Mr. Vampire (1985, directed by Ricky Lau)
196. Naked Killer (1992, directed by Clarence Fok)
197. Pedicab Driver (1989, directed by Sammo Hung)
198. Police Story III (1992, directed by Stanley Tong and Jackie Chan)
199. Sex and Zen (1992, directed by Michael Mak)

I own 9 of these films. The tenth, It's Now or Never, is a film I've never been able to track down. And believe me, I've tried.

Two things are immediately apparent from this listing. First: even though I say that I've fallen out with Hong Kong cinema over time, that's a lie. I've seen both The Bride With White Hair and A Chinese Ghost Story very recently. I've also been working my way through several Shaw releases. Second: 1992 and 1993 were VERY good years for Hong Kong cinema, perhaps the culmination of the Hong Kong New Wave. Certainly, pop cinema in Hong Kong has not reached such delirious heights ever since. The HK New Wave burned brightly, but it burned for a relatively short period of time.

One can quibble with some of these selections. I've never been particularly fond of Sammo Hung's Pedicab Driver, and I would happily replace it with his Eastern Condors, but that's just nitpicking.

Of the films I watched last week, I found Full Contact to be the most interesting. Maybe it's because I've been watching Shaw Brothers films recently, but the way Full Contact takes the sublimated homoerotic sadomasochism of Chang Cheh's films and makes it overt--Simon Yam's character fairly flames--makes this one jump out. And while it's as thoroughly aestheticized in its depiction of violence, this one makes it hurt a little bit more. The fight in the ice house is a good example of this, particularly when Chow Yun-Fat pins a man's hand to a block of ice with a butterfly knife. It's also possible that I noticed this one more because it has a meaty role for the ubiquitous Anthony Wong, who remains one of my favorite Chinese actors.

Hard Boiled, on the other hand, takes the aesthetic of the Hong Kong gun movie, established in John Woo's own A Better Tomorrow six year's earlier, and pushes it to its ultimate extremity. Woo films everything as if it's a set-piece, and eliminating anything that doesn't get the blood pumping. The long single shot in the running gun battle in the hospital is bravura filmmaking that even the director himself has been unable to match in the years since.

The anything goes attitude that characterizes these films reaches a kind of apotheosis in Police Story III (Supercop in America), which hangs on a couple of stunts that one-up almost all of the stunt films ever made. Watching Jackie Chan dangle in front of a train while suspended from a helicopter is crazy enough, but watching Michelle Yeoh drive a motorcycle onto the back of a moving train is beyond the pale. These people were just crazy.

Mr. Vampire is an example of a different kind of kitchen sink filmmaking, in which the film shifts moods at a whim from horror to romance to knockabout slapstick comedy. If you can get into these shifts, the movie is a lot of fun. Some viewers won't be able to make the leap. I quite like it.

Naked Killer is a remake of sorts of the Shaws' Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan. It adds a LOT of castration imagery and twists the motivations of the cop on the case. But it's all about a lesbian kung fu pas de deux in the end.

And then there's Sex and Zen, which defies easy description. It's a porno movie. It's a kung fu movie. It's a slapstick comedy. It certainly has striking production values. My own personal favorite scene shows Amy Yip practicing her caligraphy while holding her brush in her hoohah. It's that kind of movie, but it certainly makes a strong impression.

200. Away from Hong Kong, I took in Alfred Hitchcock's Shadow of a Doubt (1943), in which the director famously transposes the blank face of evil against a serene small town but less famously begins to transform from his early, Fritz Lang-inspired style into the mature "Hitchcockian" style. The early parts of this film show the director exploring the same kind of cinematic "twinning" that he would later use in Strangers on a Train, both with character names (Teresa Wright and Joseph Cotten both play characters named Charlie) and with how they are introduced (both are introduced lying on their backs on a bed, apparently afflicted with melancholia). One wonders if Hitchcock mightn't have embarked on his mature style a decade earlier had he not been reigned in by David O. Selznick, but that's useless speculation, given that he brought to Selznick more or less the same style he was using in England in the late 30s. In any event, as we were watching this, my long-suffering SO turned to me and said: "Hitch is sure making things creepy, isn't he?" To which I could only nod.


DeAnna said...

hi there.

As you are aware, I'm in the middle of SIFF and am doing an abbreviated festival this time. Part of the deal I made with Nate is that to save money we would just attend midnight adrenaline screenings and a handful of other movies. At the first of those midnight shows, the organizer responded to attendees questions, specifically why there aren't more Asian films in the line up.

He stated point blank that asian horror has gotten huge and probably as a result, the movies are not at good as in years past. The more interesting and exciting things he is finding elsewhere. He did point out that they are showing a Miike film this year to keep the hungry, asian horror fans happy, but otherwise, he didn't find any for this year.

I'm sure the same goes for Hong Kong action, although as mentioned elsewhere, Johnny To is still making some rockin stuff. :)

dr.morbius said...

I think the case of the Hong Kong action film is slightly different than the Asian Horror boom, if only because you have a clear demarcation between the films made before the Chinese take-over in 1997. There is a subtle difference in the content of the HK action films since then, as they struggle to conform to new censorship constraints. There's also a change in the filmmaking itself--slicker, more polished, perhaps, but certainly a result of the genre's successes (and excesses) in the 1980s and 1990s. There's also the influence of Johhnie To (whose fingerprints have not been erased from, say, the Infernal Affairs films) and Wong Kar Wai, whose separate takes on Hong Kong noir seem to inform just about every recent HK actioner.