Hong Kong Crime Cinema: PTU (HK 2003)

Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) leads his PTU squad – here waiting for a final shoot-out

Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) leads his PTU squad – here waiting for a final shoot-out

The Hong Kong Crime Season, currently underway at HOME Manchester and then on tour in the UK, is showing a range of HK films, including the classic Election (2005) by Johnnie To (on March 21st in Manchester). I’m reviewing some Johnnie To titles not in the season as my offering in support of a really worthwhile venture.

Johnnie To is one of the most prolific  – and most successful – filmmakers in Hong Kong with a filmography dating back to 1978 in film and TV. He is primarily focused on making films for a local Hong Kong audience and it wasn’t until the early 2000s that his films began to feature on the awards lists of major international film festivals. Although he has made all kinds of films, it is his crime films from the early 2000s that have generated international interest and comparisons with crime film specialists such as Jean-Pierre Melville. To works through his own production outfit Milkyway Image Company and works with a small stock company of actors and creative personnel (writers, cinematographer etc.). His partner in Milkyway has been the writer/producer and occasional co-director Wai Ka-fai.  The festival awards that some films have won has led to UK distribution for several of the recent Milkyway films.

PTU (Police Tactical Unit) is a good starting point for anyone new to To’s work – a short and ‘contained’ film set over one night on the streets of Central Hong Kong. The PTU puts two small groups of uniformed police on patrol in the nighttime streets. The night begins with news of a fellow officer killed on duty during a raid on an armoured car and then the PTUs come across a wounded plain-clothes officer from the Anti-Crime Unit. Sergeant Lo (Suet Lam) has been beaten up by four thugs from a local crime gang and in the process has lost his gun (a serious incident that should be reported). PTU Sergeant Mike Ho (Simon Yam) agrees to help Lo find the gun and not to report the incident until morning. In the meantime however a crime boss has been assassinated and Lo becomes involved in the battle between two gangs. The assassination also comes to the attention of a CID squad who don’t trust Lo. Ho also finds his authority challenged by Kat (Maggie Shiu), the other Sergeant leading the second PTU squad. She wants to ‘play by the book’.

Suet Lam as the desperate Sergeant Lo

Suet Lam as the desperate Sergeant Lo

The remainder of the narrative develops into a tense drama in which the two crime bosses both try to use the desperate Lo to set up an ambush while the PTU and CID attempt to follow events and to pursue slightly different agendas. In true crime genre style, all the main characters end up in a shoot-out and To ties up all the narrative strands very neatly. It’s clear from the outset that Johnnie To knows exactly what he is doing. The film succeeds because the script is tight (with some nice humorous touches), the performances by the leads are strong and the cinematography by Cheng Siu Keung is excellent throughout with a good balance between long shots and close-ups.

The Region 2 DVD carries interviews with both Johnnie To and Simon Yam. To explicitly addresses the behaviour of Ho as a police officer prepared to bend rules and coerce suspects. He seems to support this kind of action, arguing that it certainly happens. The moral question here – the end justifies the means – is complicated by the strong performance by Simon Yam, the most convincing ‘heroic’ police character. To’s position is further complicated by his decision to make both of the two female police characters ‘weak’. He attempts to justify this in his interview, arguing that the two weak characters are important and that they stand out because they are women – i.e. I think he is saying they are not weak because they are women! This is to say the least dubious, especially since there are no other significant female characters. All the interviews I’ve seen with To have been translated so perhaps I have misunderstood this?

To’s films are clearly first for Hong Kong (and mainland Chinese) audiences. The HK audience will no doubt recognise many of the locations and the actors but even they may be a little taken aback at the shift from full-on crime genre to more ‘personal’/arthouse approaches to genre. PTU has action sequences at the start and the end of the film but also long periods of stalking through the streets and in particular up the staircase of a warehouse for several minutes with minimal dialogue. Often the PTU members seemed to be choreographed moving in formation and standing in tableaux (see the image at the head of this posting). IMDB reveals what happened when PTU was released in North America and the lack of action was noted – but also the music comprising guitar riffs and synths. I found this fine but it really upset IMDB’s ‘Users’. Clearly scoring of crime films in Hong Kong does not match US conventions as far as US fans are concerned.

The fact that the narrative is completed within 24 hours is a distinct bonus, I think and I was reminded of Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After (HK 2014) which Cornerhouse/HOME screened as part of the Asia Triennial Festival in December 2014. ‘One Night In . . .’ is a concept in several important films such as La haine (France 1995) (also with a lost police gun) and The Warriors (US 1979) and it works just as well in PTU. I’m impressed with Johnnie To – more to follow.

The Revenant (US/Canada 2015)

One of Emmanuel Luzbezki's 'atmospheric' compositions

One of Emmanuel Lubezki’s ‘atmospheric’ compositions in THE REVENANT

The Revenant is a $135 million film that runs for 156 minutes, has taken box offices worldwide by storm and gathered armfuls of awards nominations. In virtually every sense it is a ‘big picture’ that can’t fail to impress the viewer. But I wonder what it all adds up to? I found the film to be visually stunning and I recognise the extraordinary lengths to which the cast and crew must have gone in the most difficult filming conditions. It’s a film to watch and think, yes it’s all on the screen and it’s a great technical achievement. Unfortunately though, as a film narrative it seems to me to fall short.

I should confess that I’m not familiar with the films of Alejandro González Iñárittu. The subjects of his previous films haven’t attracted me apart from Biutiful (Mexico/Spain 2010) which I hope to see at some point. I’m not, therefore, interested in any kind of auteurist study. I came to The Revenant because I thought it must be a Western and I read the film in that context. My interest in the Western is in terms of both its relationship with American history and its universal themes which have been taken up by filmmakers around the world. In my conception there is a narrow definition of the Western repertoire that locates narratives in the uncharted territory of the western United States between the end of the Civil War (1865) and the ‘closing of the frontier’ in the late 1890s. A much broader definition of the Western covers the whole period of ‘American’ history from the first contacts between settlers and indigenous peoples right up to the present day and ranges north into Canada and south into Mexico. Contemporary Westerns do, however, have some kind of geographical and/or cultural connection to the 19th century ‘frontier’. Within these broad definitions, various sub-genres or fluid repertoires can be discerned. The Revenant is a ‘survivalist Western’ – man versus the natural environment – and a ‘frontier Western’ focusing on the upper Missouri River in the 1820s when the huge territories of the Louisiana Purchase (1803) were still being ‘absorbed’ by the US. The new territories represented a third of the total land area of the US in the 19th century and the two big issues were the resistance of the various indigenous groups and the commercial interests of British and French trappers and fur traders. The story of The Revenant is based on what happened to a real character, Hugh Glass in 1823. This was in turn used for a fictionalised account by Michael Punke published in 2002 and it was this that prompted the adaptation by Iñárittu and Mark L. Smith.

A fundamental aspect of Iñárittu’s approach appears to be to ‘tell’ his audience as little as possible. We aren’t told the date of the story nor where it takes place. Instead we are required to think through what we see. We note first that the ‘Americans’ have flintlock muskets and pistols – placing the story earlier than the 1840s. The names of some of the Native American peoples are mentioned fairly early – as is the presence of French fur traders. The Americans are slaughtering animals for pelts and they have to get them back to a fort. The leader of the group is a quasi-military figure. Is he employed by one of the trading companies? Later we will hear mention of the Missouri but at first we have no real idea where we are. (The film was mostly shot in Canada, but some scenes were shot in Argentina when the snows left the Canadian mountains.) Does it matter where and when the action takes place? Possibly not, but Iñárittu goes to such lengths to ensure ‘authenticity’ that there seems to be a contradiction here. It would have been simple enough to include a title saying simply “Upper Missouri River: 1823” and perhaps “American and French fur traders compete for pelts” or something like that. On the other hand, with no context, the film narrative could have been solely about survival.

Glass remembers his wife who he lost in a raid on their village by US soldiers.

Glass remembers his wife who he lost in a raid on their village by US soldiers.

As it is, the story becomes incomprehensible. Glass (Leonardo DiCaprio) survives through miraculous escapes, severely wounded but able to withstand immersion in freezing waters. He leaps over cliffs etc. and is able to jump onto a horse despite being barely able to walk and to fire his flintlock pistol twice in quick succession with remarkable accuracy (and no reloading). None of this would matter in a Western ‘adventure’, but cumulatively such feats undermine the seriousness of the existential struggle for survival. If it is going to be a ‘man against the wilderness’ narrative, we need something else – a sense of what Glass is feeling and thinking. I’m not sure we get this – instead we are asked to focus on the idea of revenge. Glass is motivated by what one man in particular (the Tom Hardy character) did in leaving him to die (and much more). This is the plot line that prompts the film’s title. Glass is not just the man who ‘comes back’ in the literal meaning of the title, but also the mythical avenger who returns from the dead (also an established meaning of ‘revenant’). There are in fact a couple of fantasy sequences when Glass dreams about his Pawnee wife but otherwise the potential of ‘revenant’ in its more mythological sense is not exploited. Caught between survivalist and revenge narratives, I felt that the film was incoherent and the final section of the revenge narrative was tedious. This is a very violent film and by the end of 150 minutes I’d already had too much. The ending does, however, have one saving grace in  the re-appearance of a group of Arikara ‘Indians’. For me, the various indigenous groups and individuals represented in the film are its major bonus and I was struck by what one unnamed reviewer suggested was a nod to John Ford’s The Searchers, reversing the structure of that film’s search with a tribal chief leading a group of braves on a mission to find his daughter who has been abducted by French trappers.

Glass with his amazing flintlock pistol Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation. All rights reserved. THE REVENANT Motion Picture Copyright © 2015 Regency Entertainment (USA), Inc. and Monarchy Enterprises S.a.r.l. All rights reserved.Not for sale or duplication.

Glass with his amazing flintlock pistol
Copyright © 2015 Twentieth Century Fox Film Corporation.

Despite all the potential, The Revenant fails as a Western narrative. I recently watched a TV showing of Jeremiah Johnson (1972), the Sidney Pollack-Robert Redford ‘survivalist Western’ which is equally ‘epic’ in its vision but more coherent in execution. I’m also intrigued to have been reminded of the Richard C. Sarifian version of the Glass story, Man in the Wilderness (1971) with Richard Harris. Harris had already appeared in A Man Called Horse (1970), a film in which an Englishman is captured by the Sioux and becomes a warrior and leader. With two remakes for this film, the early 1970s saw a cycle of films with similar elements to The Revenant. Iñárittu tried to place Glass’s story in a wider context with the ‘opening up’ of the frontier to trapping and trading. I did at some point think of films as different as McCabe and Mrs Miller and Heaven’s Gate – films about the much later influence of American capitalism. Again, there was a film to be made about the early period of capitalism on the frontier (and racist exploitation) but The Revenant can’t fully accommodate it.

I mustn’t give the impression that I disliked the film completely. Most of the time I was engaged by the story, even when I wanted to critique it, and the cinematography by Emmanuel Lubezki is astounding. The opening action sequence matches his celebrated sequences from Alfonso Cuarón’s Children of Men (2006) and his mountain vistas and long shot compositions are indeed ‘breathtaking’. I don’t think I was able to fully appreciate the music score written and arranged by Alva Noto and Ryûichi Sakamoto, but I was impressed by the range of pieces selected. I must also say something about the performances. I’ve never been a fan of Leonardo DiCaprio and I don’t really understand his appeal. Here he is asked to do a great deal without dialogue and to express himself from inside a mountain of skins and coats and a large beard. By all accounts it was a tough shoot and he put himself through it to perform the role, but is that enough to win all those awards? Tom Hardy (who does seem very versatile as an actor) is as effective as DiCaprio but I was equally impressed by Domhnall Gleeson who has been excellent in films as different as Ex Machina and Brooklyn in 2015 and manages here to be convincing as the trappers’ leader.

Alejandro González Iñárittu’s early films used scripts written by Guillermo Arriaga who in 2005 wrote one of the best contemporary Westerns – The Three Burials of Melquiades Estrada directed by and starring Tommy Lee Jones. Perhaps with Arriaga and Jones he could have made a great Western from The Revenant?

Pleasure Island (UK 2015)

Jess and Dean on the beach in one of the reflective moments

On the beach

Pleasure Island is an interesting example of a film from an almost invisible sector of British filmmaking, producing films that don’t often get a theatrical profile. IMDB suggests that Pleasure Island had a budget of around £800,000 – which is in line with the bulk of British films that now often cost less to produce than high-end TV drama (defined as costing over £1 million per hour). Many UK films are actually micro-budget productions below £500,000. It’s only the Hollywood co-productions and those films backed by BBC/BFI/Channel 4 that manage a higher budget and a significant UK cinema release. Pleasure Island, independently produced by Achilles Entertainment (the company set up by the lead actor and his producer-partner), achieved a screening slot at the East End Film Festival in London in July 2015. It had already been picked up for distribution by Metrodome, one of the leading independent UK distributors, and it showed for a couple of weeks on a single cinema screen in August. The first week included a ‘local premiere’ at the Parkway Cinema in the seaside town of Cleethorpes where the story is set and the film was shot. Out on DVD and VOD at more or less the same time, the film did generate reviews in the UK press and online. Whether this will have helped the video sales is a moot point, but it shows that the current distribution model can just about accommodate films of this kind.

The film’s title refers to a local amusement park in Cleethorpes on the Lincolnshire coast. Dean (Ian Sharp) returns to his home town after serving in Iraq and Afghanistan (though the details of his service are kept sketchy). He gets a less than enthusiastic reception from his singleton father (mother isn’t mentioned) and an initial brush-off from the young woman he seeks out – Jess (Gina Bramhill). Later we realise that Dean’s best mate Adam has been killed in Afghanistan and that Dean needs to tell Jess and her small son what happened to him. Dean’s only support appears to be another old mate, Nathan, who runs an amusement arcade. Both Dean’s father and Jess seem to be involved in some way with a local crime operation involving drugs and the sex trade. It seems inevitable that Dean is going to have to attempt to extricate them in some way.

The mainstream critics such as Leslie Felperin in the Guardian and Hannah McGill in Sight & Sound were negative in their responses but the online reviewers were more positive – which perhaps says more about the tastes and interests of the two sets of reviewers than it does about the film itself. I found the film quite difficult to place. It starts as an almost social realist drama, strives at times for an expressive use of landscape and eventually morphs into a more generic crime fiction story. I don’t mean to suggest that it is incoherent. In fact it’s well put together, technically accomplished and the performances are strong. It could be tightened up in the editing and the female roles are limited – which is especially sad since Gina Bramhill obviously has the potential to offer much more.

The strength of the film is the setting and this comes across in the DVD extras which are unusually useful in explaining the background. Many of the creative team and the lead actors are from the region. They found shooting in Grimsby and Cleethorpes, towns not often used in UK film and TV, very straightforward and there is a genuine sense of this being a ‘local film’ despite director Mike Doxford having come up from London. The last film I remember that shot in Grimsby was Shane Meadows’ This Is England (2006) with its debutant young star Thomas Turgoose as Grimsby’s new celebrity. The Shane Meadows connection prompts two observations. This Is England‘s story was set in the outskirts of Nottingham but scenes were shot in Grimsby to qualify for funding from Screen Yorkshire. I wonder why Achilles Entertainment didn’t seek regional public funding? Perhaps they did but didn’t get it for some reason? Pleasure Island also has some similarities with another Meadows film, Dead Man’s Shoes (2004) with Paddy Considine as an ex-serviceman returning and dispensing ‘justice’. I think the seaside setting makes enough ‘difference’ in relation to the generic tropes of returning soldier etc. and it’s remarkable how similar some of the elements of Pleasure Island are to Pawel Pawlikowski’s Last Resort (UK 2000). Cleethorpes and ‘Pleasure Island’ instead of Margate and ‘Dreamland’, young mother and son, involvement with the sex trade, the amusement arcade as a focus etc. The two films are actually very different but Doxford does capture something of the sadness of seaside towns in modern Britain. The director is himself a cinematographer and one of the production decisions was to use a number of helicopter shots to show the coastline. This reminded me of Peter Chelsom’s Funny Bones (1995) with its aerial views of Blackpool. On relatively low-budget films these occasional aerial shots can literally ‘lift’ the visual style and bring vitality to the narrative.

There has been an interest in crime narratives and seaside settings in British films since at least Brighton Rock (1949) and they were revived considerably by scenes from Mona Lisa (1986). Seaside settings also turn up in several horror and mystery films. I think that perhaps the problem with Pleasure Island is that the settings aren’t used enough and that the narrative possibilities offered by the coastal community and its characters are similarly not exploited enough. For instance Grimsby Docks features at one point, offering a location with great potential and while the East European connections to the sex trade are mentioned, again the potential for intrigue is not followed up. The final action sequence could really have taken place anywhere. The distribution company emphasises the violence in the film (see the trailer below) but the narrative is much more than that. It’s a difficult task to create a British independent genre feature. Everyone involved in Pleasure Island has put the effort in to make this feature but in the end I think the story needed another element. (The rather eccentric mode of smuggling drugs into the country is apparently based on a real incident – it is a nice touch but overall the film still falls just short.)

Trumbo and a critic!

Trumbo-poster-2015

If there is one thing that depresses me as much as some of the programming by exhibitors it is some of the published criticisms of the films themselves. Trumbo (USA 2015) is essentially a biopic of one of the Hollywood Ten, the victims of the House Un-American Activities Committee of the US Congress, the heads of the major Hollywood Studios, cranky right-wingers who presumably would now be members of the Tea Party, and quite a few members of the film industry who owed their careers and their profits to this group, predominately writers of scripts.

The Guardian review (05-02-16), by Peter Bradshaw, opens on this

“heartfelt, stolid picture about an important period in American history”

and adds this peculiar comment,

“the petty Maoism of 1950s Hollywood…”

In fact, the target of this hysteria was the Communist Party USA who, by the late 1940s, were not even Leninist, let alone Maoist. Presumably Bradshaw or his editor thought the epithet would make a change from their regular target, Uncle Joe.

At least there is a greater sense of history and politics in the interview of the star Bryan Cranston by John Patterson. They do add the point made in the end titles of the film, that the victims of this witch-hunt came from all professions and all walks of life. I was a little surprised to find out recently that our own Richard Attenborough was honoured by inclusion in what was known as ‘the blacklist’. The latter term is slightly unfortunate given this is the period of a rising Civil Rights movement.

To be honest the production team, and certainly quite a few of the critics, should read the excellent

The Inquisition in Hollywood Politics in the Film Community, 1930 – 1960 by Larry Ceplair and Steven Englund, University of California Press 1979.

I also recommend it to our readers interested in the topic or indeed who just see the film.

Whatever its limitations Trumbo is a worthy addition to the films dealing with what became popularly known as ‘McCarthyism’. Intriguingly it offers a rather different slant on Woody Allen’s The Front (1976). And for a parallel story watch, [if you can], BBC Screen 2’s Fellow Traveller (1991).