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’.
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.
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.)
HOME in Manchester is on a roll. With the last weekend of its excellent Jim Allen-scripted film season still to come, we now have the announcement of an extensive Hong Kong Crime Fiction season running during February, March and April. CRIME: Hong Kong Style is also a touring programme showing at various venues around the UK. It’s supported by the BFI and Lottery Funding as well as the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office. The programme is produced by Rachel Hayward and Jessie Gibbs and curated by Andy Willis. If it is as good as their recent programmes for ¡Viva! this should be a must see. As well as the films there are several events, including film introductions, illustrated talks and Q&As presented by Andy Willis, HOME Visual Art Director Sarah Perks, HOME’s local Chinese cinema scholar Felicia Chan and Wong Kar-Wai scholar Gary Bettinson.
The films are organised into different groups, sometimes by director, sometimes focusing on stars or writers, sometimes by production period or around more specific themes such as Hong Kong’s influence on Hollywood directors. The earliest film is The Swallow Thief from 1961 and the programme includes the UK Premiere of Ringo Lam’s Wild City (2015). The stars include Jackie Chan, Sandra Ng, both Tony Leungs, Andy Lau and many more. Each film appears to be showing only once (but I need to check that) at HOME. Check with your nearest venue for the films in the touring programme (see the HOME website for a list of venues).
The first Manchester screening (on 35mm, celluloid fans) is Wong Kar-Wai’s As Tears Go By (1988) with Introduction by Gary Bettinson at 18.15 on Thurs February 4th. Wong Kar-Wai’s début film is a gangster flick with a romance element. Still in the early parts of their careers, Andy Lau and Maggie Cheung are the cool guy and his beautiful cousin, while Jacky Cheung plays the hot-headed junior partner who keeps needing to be kept out of trouble. IMDB suggests Maggie Cheung had 11 (!) films released in 1988, including Police Story 2 with Jackie Chan. The original Police Story (1985) screens on February 25th at HOME. These films need to be seen on a big screen.
I hope to catch some of the screenings and events at HOME and to write about them here.
This was an entertaining way to finish my visit to LFF 2015. That is if some perfunctory murders can be counted as entertainment. But in the context of the rest of the film perhaps they can. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya is a locally-trained Lebanese filmmaker who seems to have taken inspiration from a story about the Lebanese film industry in the 1950s. ‘Very Big Shot’ refers, I think, to the lead character Ziad (Alain Saadeh) a local Beirut criminal whose career up to now has involved a small scale drugs business run out of a pizzeria alongside acting as courier for a bigger operation. Ziad has plans to set up his own restaurant with his second brother Jad. Youngest brother Joe (the pizza chef) is against this idea if it means selling the family house. Here’s a family social issue that might be the background to a typical crime film – especially since we know that Zaid and Jad have already attempted to involve Joe in their criminal activities.
The film takes off in another direction when Ziad needs to ship a large consignment of drugs abroad. Visiting a customer who isn’t paying his drugs tab, a nerdy aspiring filmmaker, Ziad watches a documentary featuring an interview with veteran Lebanese film director Georges Nasr (the director’s film school mentor) in which he refers to an Italian film production in Lebanon that included drugs smuggled out in sealed cans of undeveloped film stock. To do this involves a customs certificate awarded to genuine film producers. Ziad decides to be come a real film producer and sets up a shoot for the hapless wannabe director. The filming process pushes the film into a comedy of ineptitude and then into a satire on media and celebrity. Ziad moves quickly to become director as well as producer and when his ideas create incidents on the street he is interviewed on local television, finally emerging as an astute political operator.
The central plot idea is, I now realise, similar to Argo (US 2012), bit this never occurred to me as I watched the film, perhaps because I found it funnier and more interesting than Argo. Or perhaps it was just more ‘exotic’ as a Lebanese film using popular genre elements? There are some gentle digs about the state of the Lebanese film industry as well as some sharp social commentary and the film ends in an open manner which hints at a satire about politics and the media in the context of organised criminal activities. Mir-Jean Bou Chaaya was present for a Q & A and his film was warmly received at the Vue West End. This revealed that both the director and his co-writer and lead Alain Saadeh come from families with several brothers so they felt comfortable creating the relationships in the film. The director’s brothers were the producers of the film. The very impressive Saadeh trained as a method actor and the director encouraged this by suggesting that the actors’ interpretations would lead the filming process. The final question asked whether the film had a chance of being shown in other ‘Arab speaking’ (sic) countries and the answer got a round of laughter when the director suggested that it would depend on whether governments would accept the film’s open ending (i.e. the criminal who becomes a politician). Several reviewers have suggested that local audiences would actually get a lot more from the film but I think it could also work well in international distribution.