Category: Chinese Cinema

Old Stone (Lao shi, China-Canada 2016)

Gang Shen as Lao Shi, the unfortunate taxi driver.

Gang Chen as Lao Shi, the unfortunate taxi driver.

The title ‘Old Stone’ is a play on the English translation of the Mandarin name Shi Lao, a taxi driver in a ‘third tier’ city in Eastern China. Impressively played by Gang Chen, Shi is the unfortunate man caught up in the scandal of road accidents in contemporary China. When a drunk passenger pulls his arm and causes him to knock over a motor-cyclist, Shi foolishly forgets about the ‘proper procedures’ and takes the injured man to hospital where he undergoes emergency surgery and then falls into a coma. Shi then finds himself liable for all the hospital bills. The taxi company’s insurers won’t pay out because Shi moved the injured man (and therefore what caused his subsequent condition cannot be determined). The police won’t release Shi’s taxi or an accident report.

The sensible course for Shi would be to tell the man’s family that he has no money. As soon as Shi’s wife realises that he is paying hospital bills ever day, she closes their joint account and distances herself from him (she runs a children’s nursery). I won’t spoil the narrative further but clearly this situation can’t go on. Gradually Shi is moved to take drastic action. In reality, those who cause motor accidents in China are sometimes driven to running over the victims again and fleeing. The financial penalty for causing death on the road is less than the cost of paying insurance bills. Old Stone will eventually become a form of film noir in which Shi is the doomed man. As his name implies, Shi is stubborn and obstinate in maintaining his responsibility – he remains true to a collectivist spirit which has been lost in China’s headlong rush into ‘modernity’. Eventually however he is going to be forced into desperate measures.

Writer-director Johnny Ma left Shanghai for Canada aged 10 and returned to work in New York and Shanghai after graduating in 2010 from Columbia. Old Stone was made by a mixed Chinese-Canadian crew and lensed by Leung Ming-Kai from Hong Kong on location in China. At a concise 80 minutes this is a tightly edited and very effective slice of social realism morphing into a film noir crime story. It is remarkable as a first feature. I was reminded of both a Fifth Generation film like The Story of Qui Ju (Zhang Yimou, 1992) and a Sixth Generation film like Beijing Bicycle (Wang Xiaoshuai, 2001). Both these films take a simple premise in which a working-class character seeks some form of justice in the face of bureaucracy and a changing society and, as the title of the second implies, they draw inspiration (directly or indirectly) from neo-realism and films like Bicycle Thieves (Italy 1948). Neo-realism also offers the possibility of melodrama and the noirish ending of Old Stone reminded me of a tragic sequence in Rocco and His Brothers (Italy-France 1960). In North America, the legal problems around car accidents might lead to the arrival of ambulance-chasing unscrupulous lawyers and in Carancho (Argentina 2010) Pablo Trapero explores similar forms of criminality around car crashes in Argentina. This is a universal issue effectively used in this new form of independent cinema in China (i.e. ‘new’ in the sense of the mixed crew and the tighter edit).

I feel I must also say something about the look of Old Stone. When the film began I struggled for a moment when plunged into the middle of a street scene. It struck me that some films seem made for a smaller screen. At times the image looked very grainy when seen close on the large Vue screen. I wondered if it had been shot on 16mm, or perhaps post-produced to give that effect. Either way it enhanced the sense of the neo-realist approach. By contrast Ma also offered us lush shots of treetops blowing in the wind, seemingly as abstract images but later revealed as associated with the film’s finale. Again these images struck me as reminders, first of the start of Wong Kar-wai’s Days of Being Wild (no connection I could spot, except that they are both enigmatic) and, more directly, Bong Joon-ho’s Memories of Murder (South Korea 2003) – a film mixing social and political commentary with a crime investigation by a disorganised and corrupt police team.

Old Stone has impressed at various festivals with Nominations and Prizes. It will definitely be released in North America and I recommend it. Here’s a good trailer.

Hong Kong Crime Cinema #4: Vengeance (HK-France 2009)

Costello (Johnny Hallyday) has to use Polaroids to remember the faces of his team in the aftermath of a shoot-out in the rain.

Costello (Johnny Hallyday) has to use Polaroids to remember the faces of his team in the aftermath of a shoot-out in the rain.

The prolific Johnnie To was ‘discovered’ by the international film festival circuit around 1999 (more than ten years into his career) but it was not until 2005’s Election that his films began to appear regularly at festivals. I’ve seen To quoted as being interested primarily in the Hong Kong market and not wanting to draw on global films for inspiration. However, on the Criterion website he gives his own Top Ten Films which include three by Kurosawa Akira and two by Jean-Pierre Melville – and his films do seem to refer to well-known films from Hollywood, Bollywood, Europe and Japan. Or perhaps he and his co-writers just happen to come up with similar ideas? IMDB carries a ‘Trivia’ item claiming that “Alain Delon is his favourite actor”. In 2007/8 rumours began to circulate that To would direct a remake of Jean-Pierre Melville’s classic polarLe cercle rouge (France 1970), with Alain Delon in a lead role. Delon turned down the opportunity for whatever reason (he was then in his early 70s) but To was still sought by a French production company to direct a France-HK co-production – in English.

The significance of this background is that Delon was a major influence on at least one aspect of John Woo’s ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ films – namely the modelling of Chow Yun-Fat’s characters in films like The Killer (HK 1989) and A Better Tomorrow (HK 1986). Johnnie To is one of the main inheritors of Woo’s position as a creator of Hong Kong crime films and so a potential replacement for Delon was found in the form of the French pop/rock singer and actor Johnny Hallyday. The resulting film Vengeance achieved a cinema release in both France and the US but went straight to DVD in the UK (where To films like Exiled (2006) have had cinema releases). More surprising, perhaps, is that Vengeance was shown in competition at Cannes.

Vengeance features three or four of To’s regular ensemble in lead roles and its setting is in Macau, suggesting to some fans/critics that it is part of a loose trilogy of Macau-set crime films alongside Exiled and The Mission (1999). The plot is simple. Three hit-men arrive at a house and kill a family of four – apart from the wife/mother who survives but is rendered quadriplegic. She is the daughter of a French chef/restaurant-owner and he arrives in Macau bent on revenge. Using a clue he steals from the police investigation, he finds another trio of hit-men and offers them all his wealth to find and kill his daughter’s attackers. The chef turns out to have once been an assassin himself and he still has some ‘professional’ competence but is hampered by loss of short-term memory caused by a bullet lodged in his head. In the ensuing slaughter he needs Polaroids of his own men and his family to avoid mistakes and to remember why he now kills again.

Vengeance received mainly positive reviews but some crime film fans dismissed it and Joe Queenan in the Guardian described it as ‘insane’. Partly, its reception depends on familiarity with the Hong Kong crime film. Certainly the script by To’s production partner and writer Wai Ka Fai relies more on interesting set-ups for action and our familiarity with the bonds of friendship and loyalty among the gang members than on a carefully worked out narrative. To professes not to work with detailed scripts. The set-ups for shoot-outs here are indeed creative – one in a picnic spot at night with moonlight revealing and obscuring the action, another on a waste tip with highly choreographed moves behind bales of waste materials. The familiar actors are Anthony Wong and Suet Lam on the ‘home team’ and Simon Yam as the chief villain – who ordered the original hit. As usual with To, cinematography is the preserve of Cheng Siu Keung and the film looks good, making the most of the locations.

What is odd is to see Johnny Hallyday as the ‘last man standing’ and by the time the dénouement arrives the narrative does seem to have morphed into something more spiritual and philosophical. Apart from the amnesia narrative, the dialogue in English also lends the proceedings an air of strangeness. Hallyday presumably speaks English well enough but some of the other leads are dubbed. I’m not sure about To’s facility with English as a working language (he sometimes has a translator) and shooting some of the scenes in the film must have been slightly surreal. I presume the English dialogue helped sell the film on the international market. It also serves to push the film towards the more ‘personal’ and idiosyncratic end of To’s output.

Hong Kong Crime Cinema #3: Once a Gangster (Hong Kong 2010)

'Swallow' (Ekin Cheng) with the chair faces his mother and her thugs who seek to persuade him to stand for election as Triad Chairman

‘Swallow’ (Ekin Cheng) with the chair faces his mother and her thugs who seek to persuade him to stand for election as Triad Chairman

This screening in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season at HOME featured a Q&A with director Felix Chong chaired by season curator Andy Willis. The director’s responses made for an entertaining post-screening discussion but it was the film itself that made the most impression. Interest in the screening meant that we were in HOME’s biggest cinema auditorium and the film was projected from a 35mm print in good condition for its UK première appearance.

Once a Gangster is a comedy crime film with the same mix of slapstick and violence as The Pilferer’s Progress earlier in the season, but it is much more concerned with what used to be term ‘intertextuality’ in the high period of postmodernism. In other words, many of the laughs in the film are based on recognition of the comic targets drawn from other films. The basic premise of the narrative mirrors that of Johnnie To’s Election (2005) (showing later in the season at HOME). The election of a new triad chairman is being organised and three candidates are being promoted by their supporters, two of them very reluctantly. The film’s climax will involve a search for the authentic Dragon Bone – the symbol of the chair’s authority (here neatly stamped with the legend ‘Made in Hong Kong’). The innovation here is a prologue set several years earlier in which we see a young chef joining the triad in order to be successful in the restaurant business. This is ‘Roast Pork’ who will become one of the contenders for Chairman in the main narrative. Meanwhile ‘Swallow’ (or ‘Sparrow’) has been in prison and is nominated by his mother as another candidate. The joke here for HK crime film fans is that these two contenders are played by Jordan Chan and Ekin Cheng, stars of the 1990s series Young and Dangerous.

Felix Chong takes a pot-shot at his own work as well. He was one of the main scriptwriters on the Infernal Affairs trilogy in the early 2000s and here he introduces an undercover cop played by Wilfred Lau as a ‘look-alike’ Tony Leung. This hapless character is the personal assistant of the third contender for Triad Chairman, the equally gormless ‘Scissors’ (Conroy Chan). There are probably several more references like this but they escaped me during the screening. I did react to the music which from the opening credits announced the nature of the fictional world about to be presented to us. I recognised the reference to Italian popular films and later Felix Chong confirmed that he had chosen “spaghetti western music” simply because he thought it was funny. The film also delivers several very funny sight gags, some with an almost cartoonish quality (including a nod to the ‘One-Armed Swordsman’).

The film overall has a strange ‘out of time’ feel. A series of flashbacks are presented in grainy, scratched and colour degraded stock but the prologue and the ‘present’ both feel like they could be the 1980s. ‘Swallow’ emerges from prison proclaiming the ‘wise words’ of Milton Friedman, the economist responsible for the spread of monetarism in the 1980s. Friedman did visit Hong Kong and promoted its economy as a good example of the ‘free market’. I guess his ideas do fit a gangster’s conception of the world but I thought the appearance of Friedman’s book was the most terrifying thing in the film. The book appears in a scene featuring a bookshop and several audience members responded to this with recognition of the current censorship by the mainland government and the ‘disappearance’ of booksellers. There may well be references to the 2010 political situation in the film, but I didn’t notice them.

In the Q&A Felix Chong admitted that the film had not been a big hit. He told us the budget was small and that he had only 20 days to shoot the film so in the circumstances he did rather well! Most interesting, he told us that when he screened the film, both police officers and gangsters asked him how he knew so much about what happened in these kinds of situations. We take this with a sackful of salt perhaps but I take much more notice of his comments that the ‘godfathers’ of crime are now sending their sons (and daughters?) to university to get MBAs. In the film, Swallow is a reluctant contender for triad chair because he wants to go to Hong Kong University to study economics (again a trope recognisable from Election in 2005).

Felix Chong also wrote and co-directed three Overheard films (2009/11/14). Two of these have already been screened in the CRIME: Hong Kong Style season and the third is tonight with Felix Chong again present for a Q&A. I wish I could be there – I’m sure it will be another treat.

Hong Kong Crime Cinema #2: The Pilferer’s Progress (Money Crazy, HK 1977)

Richard Ng as Dragon attempts to retrieve the diamonds from 'Rich Chan' (Ying Cheung) in a familiar move.

Richard Ng as Dragon attempts to retrieve the diamonds from ‘Rich Chan’ (Ying Cheung) in a familiar move.

This was one of the more unusual screenings in CRIME: Hong Kong Style at HOME, Manchester. Fraser Elliott from the University of Manchester introduced the film and gave us some interesting context. This was the fifth film from John Woo and a box office smash in Hong Kong. At this point Woo was working for Golden Harvest the local company taking over from Shaw Brothers as the leader of the HK industry. For those (most of us?) who only know John Woo from his ‘Heroic Bloodshed’ period and his later flirtation with Hollywood before the return to China, this broad Cantonese comedy might be something of a shock.

The simple plot sees conman, ‘Dragon’ in an uneasy alliance with would-be body-guard ‘Poison’, played by local stars Richard Ng and Ricky Hui, brought together in adversity and forced into a game of punch and counter-punch with a wealthy but crooked businessman ‘Rich Chan’. Chan has stolen some diamonds and our two heroes end up trying to get them back on behalf of the film’s romantic interest, ‘Mary’, whose uncle is the real owner. Our two heroes also hope to make some money on the side.

Fraser argued that the film appeared at a time when Hong Kong’s economy was in turmoil and many workers in traditional industries had lost their jobs. Stories about making money were popular – and the new wealthy types were unpopular. In terms of the film industry there was a move away from the Mandarin language wuxia and melodramas and the rise of Cantonese cinema and kung fu. The Pilferer’s Progress can be seen as a then new form of hybrid genre. Clearly modelled on the ‘buddy movie’ (John Woo seems to have been a fan of Butch Cassidy and The Sundance Kid amongst other films) popular in 1970s Hollywood, there are plenty of other filmic references as well as direct imports from the Bruce Lee films of the early 1970s also from Golden Harvest. As well as martial arts sequences there are traditional slapstick routines, references to spy movies (Dragon is a gadget freak with a new gadget for each task) and an hommage to Jules Dassin’s Topkapi (1964), later to appear in Mission Impossible (see the still above) and thus referencing the ‘caper’ movie.

Omar Ahmed’s post on the screening draws parallels between Hong Kong cinema in the 1970s and what was happening in popular Hindi cinema (not yet generally known as ‘Bollywood’, more often as masala films) in the same period. Omar suggests that it was a one-way traffic between the two with India importing martial arts display from Hong Kong, but both cinemas were also absorbing popular traits from international hits. Dragon’s use of technology perhaps refers to The Conversation from 1974. At the same time, both Cantonese and Hindi films drew on long-standing comic types in offering fun to popular audiences and The Pilferer’s Progress refers to local cultural figures – such as “the Golden Shaolin Warriors” as one IMDB user calls them. I think this is a reference to the final fight sequence in which the bad guy gets dipped in paint.

The ‘comic business’ in the film was familiar to me from slightly more recent New Year films and I confess that at the start of the film I did wonder whether I could cope with this for 90 minutes. I was pleasantly surprised to find that the sheer athleticism of the performers and their comic timing won me over and I laughed/groaned out loud on several occasions. It was good to see some gags that had survived since the 1920s or even earlier. Before CGI performers really did have to ‘perform’ in these kinds of films.

From what I could glean from the credits, the print came via Star TV and carried a 1993 logo. The programme notes suggested that we were watching a DigiBeta copy of the film on HOME’s second largest screen. The ‘Scope print did indeed show it’s age and was in places distorted and degraded but again it’s to the credit of Woo and his team that the entertainment level was maintained. It’s great that the HOME programmers and their sponsors could get a print at all but it does show the dire state of archiving from the period – a problem that goes way beyond Hong Kong and in the new digital age will continue to grow without more international co-operation.