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With Hong Kong cinema slowly fading from the festival and art house scene in the West, it's nice that a film festival like Golden Horse can catch us up on 12 months of star vehicles, flying vehicles, and a stalled jalopy on the way to nowhere.
dir: Johnnie To
Johnnie To's briskest film to date is also one of his best. Sparrow isn't an underworld saga in the mold of the Election or Running Out of Time films, nor is it a comedy in the strict sense of a My Left Eye Sees Ghosts or Fat Choi Spirit. Instead, it's one of those shapeless marvels To delivers seemingly without lifting a finger. Like The Mission it's more about watching criminals at play, rather than at work; like Throw Down, it's about the whimsy of life rather than the crises. If Throw Down is To's Kurosawa tribute, then Sparrow is an homage to those 1950s Gene Kelly extravaganzas, or perhaps more accurately, the 1970s Jacques Demy musicals that nostalgically pay tribute to those older films, but with post-modern pizzazz. But don't expect characters to break into song in Sparrow. Here, the rhythmic, choreographed numbers are of pickpockets two-stepping their way to gold, pirouetting their way around unsuspecting passerbys. The opening title sequence of Simon Yam mending a blazer so he can look sharp is like a gangster's ballet, while the first scene of his crew at work is a masterwork of suggestion, a composition that only To can pull off. We see them shimmy down the Hong Kong streets, and we know it's showtime. Random men and women zip across the frame, and through some Johnnie To magic, we manage to figure out from flashes of facial expressions, or quiet gestures, or pieces of clothing that they're going to be the pickpockets' victims. It's all done in a flurry of edits and movements that tell us plenty without us ever noticing it. But the film's real dance isn't between criminal and victim -- it's between two "sparrows." One is a pickpocket played by Simon Yam; the other is Kelly Lin's character, a mysterious mainlander caged in Hong Kong but with a song or two to sing before she can be freed.
dir: Peter Chan
About as solid a costume action film as you can expect from Asia these days, The Warlords is gritty where it counts, and emotional when need be. Three men (played by Andy Lau, Jet Li, and Takeshi Kaneshiro) swear to be blood brothers in a time of war. Their bond is tested by the enemy, by morality, and of course, by a woman (Xu Jinglei). Their battles against attackers are drenched in blood, but never lacking in the "you-go-boy!" homoerotic visual ass-slapping that you'd expect from a remake of a Chang Cheh film. As a result, the early battle are quite inspiring; you definitely get a feel for how these men come to respect, then love, each other during combat. Unfortunately, as in the Chang Cheh original (aptly titled, Blood Brothers), the heterosexual relationships are for the most part bland, though Peter Chan does turn things passionate and Xu Jinglei does look more natural than the ever-useless Ching Li of the original. As for the men, Jet Li and Andy Lau turn in powerful performances as men conflicted by love and loyalty, although it's really Takeshi Kaneshiro's boyish smile that keeps the homoeroticism at full amp. The action is predictably large-scale and gory, although as far as gritty action is concerned, I prefer the anything-goes sloppiness of Tsui Hark's Seven Swords. And that pretty much sums up The Warlords, which won the Golden Horse Awards' Best Picture prize: it does everything right, from the action to the love rectangle, but leaves rather little to the imagination.
dir: Ivy Ho
The first 20 minutes of Claustrophobia are a cinematic marvel. Why? I'm not quite sure; I'd have to see it again. It might have something to do with Mark Lee Ping-bing's sparkling use of street lights and reflections, or Ivy Ho's simple but anxious dialogue, or the mesmerizing point-of-view shots of a car zipping through the Hong Kong streets a little too fast and a little too high up, or the total lack of music. All I know is that I didn't see it coming, and by the end of the 20 minute scene, when the first notes of a classical song come on, I was totally enraptured, ready to launch more deeply into these characters' lives. The 20 minutes comprise simply of an office carpool -- five tired workers on their way home. The young couple in the back reveals some of the miseries of an office romance, a silent young woman keeps her cool, and a senior staffer talks his head off. As the car snakes through the city, we start to wonder if something isn't right, or perhaps there's something we're kept in the dark about. The body language at the end of the scene suggests that there might be a relationship between the married boss (Ekin Cheng) and his employee (Karena Lam), but there's never any confirmation. The film then progresses in reverse order, each scene an extended drama full of dialogue and suggestion, but no answers. One week ago, one month ago, one year ago: the film takes us through the history of these characters but seems to skip all the juicy parts, leaving instead carefully crafted moments of intimacy between characters who spend all day and night in cramped offices and automobiles. Ivy Ho, who wrote Comrades, Almost a Love Story, demonstrates uncommon confidence in her directorial debut, and Karena Lam, whose plump smile brightens the screen like a strawberry, has just the right balance of expressiveness and mystery.
Run Papa Run
dir: Sylvia Chang
In Run Papa Run, Sylvia Chang spins the Hong Kong triad thriller into a domestic melodrama, bringing a much-needed female perspective to a genre that typically ignores any relationships other than brotherhood. The gangster film has always been about cause and effect: how greed becomes betrayal, how betrayal begets vengeance. Missing has been the effect of bad decisions on one's wife or kids, mostly because male characters in these films treat women as Snoop does -- servin' the hoes but never luvin' the hoes. But could it be that a gangster can fall smitten for a woman, as Louis Koo does for Rene Liu in Run Papa Run, that he's willing to marry her and (gasp!) play along as a good Christian, just to get to hug her warm body at night? The first half hour of the film has the candy color and ironic cheer of a Pushing Daisies episode mixed with hairstyles from Starsky and Hutch. It's love at first sight, and Sylvia Chang, in a move that shows her experience and directorial poise, literally animates the screen with dreamy superimpositions and cartoon effects. And then comes the baby, and the new dad loves her so much he spends the remainder of the movie trying to hide his profession from her, leading to much comedy, and later, much anguish. As the film winds down to an inspiring finish, we have no doubt that this is Sylvia Chang's best film in years. Though the melodrama weighs heavily and the Christian subplot grows a bit too optimistic, she handles the material with an ease that only a seasoned director has. Combining action, melodrama, romance, and comedy, packaged lovingly with strong performances by Koo, Liu, and a couple of cute child actors (though Koo's make-up artist could use some help), Run Papa Run is the kind of mature genre film that Hong Kong cinema's been needing for years.
dir: Liu Fendou
The version of Ocean Flame that premiered at Cannes was 136 minutes, the one that played at the Hong Kong Summer International Film Festival was 98, and the one I saw at Golden Horse was 102. I'm not convinced that any re-edit of the film could in any way save it from the stuffy pretention and lack of substance; the fact that the filmmakers have been struggling to find the right mix means even they know it's not working. In the film, Wang Yao plays a bad, bad man with a porn star body who likes to hit people and even get hit himself. He meets a pretty girl and wows her with his sadistic charms. "You know I'm not a good person," he tells her. That warning seems to be enough to justify his pimping her out in small-time scams, and then cheating on her and beating her silly whenever he pleases. Ah, but he loves her! Director Lin Fendou (Green Hat) needs to chill the fuck out and realize that nobody's impressed by this violent trash just because there are long takes, elliptical edits, and explicit sex thrown in to distract us. Ocean Flame is the kind of film where the bad boy is dressed in black and the innocent girl in a virginal white dress, and where criminals sometimes sermonize like Samuel L. Jackson in Pulp Fiction and then suddenly seem to forget what movie they're in. Liu Fendou: you're not fooling anybody.
dir: Benny Chan
Utterly unbelievable and perhaps even a bit stupid, Connected is nevertheless the best bang-for-your-buck thriller Hong Kong has produced since S.P.L. A remake of the Hollywood film Cellular (which I confess to have not seen), Connected feels remarkably like the kind of heart-stopping action film Hong Kong used to make: over-the-top, spontaneous, funny, and shamelessly entertaining. Barbie Hsu plays Grace Wong, a single mom who's been kidnapped for unknown reasons and then locked in a shoddy basement with strange wires sticking out of walls and cabinets. Unbeknownst to her kidnappers, Grace is an electrical engineer who can turn spare parts into a makeshift telephone. She makes a random call, and stranger Bob (Louis Koo) picks up. "Help me!" she pleads, thus setting into play the madness, complete with gunfights while tumbling down small mountains and cars flying through the air. And yes there is a scene where a car is hanging off the edge of a cliff and the driver needs to jump out. There's nothing here you haven't seen before (especially if you've seen the original, I guess), but it's all done with the relentlessness you'd expect from old Jackie Chan. It's not surprising that Benny Chan also made Who Am I? and New Police Story. What surprised me most -- and which I suspect is absent from the original -- is the sheer sincerity of the emotions: trust, love, persistence are at 110% just as the explosions are. Despite the excessiveness, none of the actors overstay their welcome. Nick Cheung (as a renegade cop) is loony but likeable, Barbie Hsu does a satisfactory job crying into a telephone, and Louis Koo has that "Who do you think I am, a superhero!?" look that only the star of La Brassiere could pull off.
Date Posted: 12/12/2008