Hong Kong cinema has not been very visible for me during lockdown so I was delighted to discover ‘Focus Hong Kong’ – part of the Chinese Visual Festival in the UK offering five features with some extras and a series of short films at the bargain price of £8.99 or £2.99 for a single feature. The festival started last night and films are available to stream until 15th February.
I started with this title which promised genre pleasures in the form of an absurdist crime fiction film, a mash-up of gangster film, police investigation, melodrama and romance all laced with violence and humour. My immediate point of reference seemed to be Johnnie To, the legendary director of crime films with a twist, something prompted by the presence of Louis Koo as one of the two leads, Sean Wong, a cool and ruthless gang leader. He’s up against Louis Cheung as ‘Larry Lam’, a police detective down on his luck. The film begins with the introduction of these two central characters. Wong is fleeing from a killing where the only witness appears to be a parrot and Lam is trying to avoid a loan shark from whom he has borrowed money to set up a cat sanctuary. But just in case this might suggest a whimsical tale, writer director Fung Chi-Keung soon flashes back to a jewellery robbery in which, because of police informants, the cops arrive en masse and the robbery turns violent as Wong and his gang escape with the loot. The murder suggests that the loot has gone missing and Wong is looking for it.
The police investigation is led by hard-faced Inspector Yip and Lam is joined by Charmaine a young female officer who we learn only joined the force because she was inspired by Lam’s bravery on a case a few years ago. Wong has gone into hiding and become the tenant of a landlady named Joy whose other guests are a trio of elderly folk. Lam decides that the parrot knows who the killer is, but it seems to discount Wong. It’s a clever script which I don’t intend to spoil any further. I’ll only point out that with crooks, loot, crime victims, police and informers – and a brief appearance of ‘internal affairs’ – there is every possibility of double-crossing and misrecognitions.
The parrot doesn’t appear that often but its role is important. In the Q&A the director explains that he was inspired by his own experience of living with a parrot when he was a schoolboy and the parrot inadvertently (or not!) got him into trouble. The cats don’t contribute anything that I remember and that’s a shame. Overall, however, the excitement of the shootouts and the humour of the situations work very well. There is a hint of romance and some beautiful aerial shots of the city (it’s a Scope picture). I thought the characters were well drawn within the confines of the genre and the performances were all good. If you are a Louis Koo fan you’ll certainly enjoy his performance. I’m not sure it adds up to anything more than a genre exercise but I found it very enjoyable and just the thing for a lockdown pick-me-up. I’ll certainly look out for more films by Fung Chi-Keung.
Dragon Gate Inn (a.k.a. Dragon Inn) is one of the best known and most influential wuxia films by the Chinese director known as King Hu. Both this film and the equally celebrated A Touch of Zen (1971) are currently streaming on MUBI. Dragon Gate Inn is also available on separate Blu-ray editions (Masters of Cinema in the UK and Criterion in the US) of the 2013 restoration of the film. I remember these films from the 1970s in the UK in cinemas and later on prints broadcast by Channel 4 and I think I must have seen at least extracts from then but it wasn’t until I bought a DVD of the 1992 remake that I really began to explore wuxia – more of that later.
King Hu was born in Peking in 1932 and attended art school before joining the flow of exiles to Hong Kong in 1949. He joined the Shaw Brothers Studio in 1958 a nd worked in various capacities on the studio’s Mandarin films and came under the influence of the Taiwanese director Li Han-hsiang. Hu directed his own films starting in 1965 and it was his second film, Come Drink With Me (1966) which introduced his update to the wuxia. Soon after this he left Shaw Brothers, moving to Taiwan where Dragon Inn was produced for the Union Film Company – a local producer giving Hu the chance to try out his own ideas.
Wuxia is an ancient Chinese form of fantasy literature that in the 20th century developed in new forms such as newspapers and magazines and, soon after, cinema. The term refers loosely to the idea of ‘martial chivalry’ and the idea that highly trained warriors would roam the country righting wrongs. After 1949 the nationalised Chinese film industry reduced its reliance on these kinds of action genre films and the development of the genre fell to the exilic directors in Hong Kong and Taiwan. There is a suggestion that wuxia began to be influenced by Japanese chanbara (swordplay) and Japanese cinema was accessible in HK and Taiwan. King Hu developed a particularly elegant and ‘open’ style of traditional wuxia in which he maintained roles for female martial artists and staged swordplay in spectacular natural environments, presented in CinemaScope formats and with traditional music scores.
The plot of the film is relatively straightforward. In 1457 AD, during the Ming Dynasty period, the Empire is being controlled by a group of eunuchs in the Imperial Palace who have already framed the Defence Minister Yu as a traitor and executed him. His two surviving children are to be sent to a remote destination in the desert but the Dong Chang ‘Eastern Agency’, in effect a military group controlled by the eunuch Ciao (Ying Bai), has been ordered to ambush and kill the children and their guards. Their first attempt to do so is thwarted by two sibling warriors (Polly Ling-Feng Shang-Kuan and her brother played by Han Hsieh) and the eunuch’s men decide to descend on the Dragon Gate Inn which is the children’s ultimate destination. The Eastern Agency announce themselves as working for the Ministry of Justice, expecting to find some Imperial Guards at the Inn, but they are not expecting the presence of other independent warriors including master swordsman Xiao (Chun Shih) and the innkeeper Wu (Chien Tsao) who turns out to be one of Yu’s warriors. At the inn a series of encounters between the Eastern Agency troops and the four warriors loyal to Yu’s memory escalates and Ciao himself arrives to try to finish the job. The ending may be predictable in that ‘good’ triumphs over evil, but each contest is different and the narrative is gripping throughout.
There are several reasons why Dragon Gate Inn became a massive hit in Taiwan and later Hong Kong (where Shaw Brothers delayed the film’s release to help one of their own films. Whatever you might think of action films and ‘martial arts’ films in particular, watching this film for ten or twenty minutes will convince you that Hu was a master filmmaker. Hu was originally an actor and an art designer before becoming a writer-director. In wuxia the characters are individuated through action and the visual qualities of their performances, including facial gestures and body postures as well as their martial arts skills and athleticism. Hu handles his actors well and he makes excellent use of his resources. There is just one studio set in the film as far as I can see – the inn itself which offers many opportunities for imaginatively-staged action set pieces – overturned tables, staircases, roofs, balconies, balustrades, windows/doors etc. This is then contrasted with the vast open spaces of deserts, mountains and river-beds. The Taiwanese interior offered so much more than the limited spaces of Hong Kong and Hu presents them on screen using CinemaScope ratio (2.35:1) and often extreme long shot framing by Hua Hui-Ying. But what makes him a special director is the ease with which he shifts from extreme long shot to close-up and a whole range of framings. His staging in depth is equally impressive.
Hu’s knowledge of Peking Opera informs the staging of his swordfight sequences and these are presented without the later wire work. Much is achieved by the editing which suggests movement rather than presenting it directly. The final ingredient is the music score by Chow Lan-Ping which is evocative of Japanese as well as Chinese cinema. Put all these ingredients and Hu’s skills together and stand back. You can recognise now that Hu’s masterpieces comes at a particular time in the late 1960s and early 1970s when American, Japanese and European cinema are converging around the Japanese chanbara and Sergio Leone and Sam Peckinpah’s Westerns (these latter two directors equally drawing on Kurosawa’s work). We might look even further back to John Ford Westerns (which influenced Kurosawa). The isolated inn in the desert is in many ways similar to the Edwards homestead in The Searchers or the inn in Stagecoach, both set in the landscapes of Monument Valley.
Dragon Gate Inn was more than a major hit film, it raised expectations of what a wuxia film could be and without it the later global blockbusters by Ang Lee with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) and Zhang Yimou with Hero (2002) and House of Flying Daggers (2004) would not have had quite the impact they eventually achieved. But before that, Hu’s success encouraged the filmmakers of the Hong Kong New Waves with Wong Kar-wai’s Ashes of Time (1994) and Ann Hui’s Romance of Book and Sword and Princess Fragrance (both 1987). I haven’t seen these last three titles but my own introduction to appreciation of wuxia came through films produced by Tsui Hark in Hong Kong and starring action heroes such as Brigitte Lin and Michelle Yeoh. In particular, I enjoyed the remake of Dragon Gate Inn (New Dragon Gate Inn, 1992) with Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Ka-fai and Maggie Cheung (as the inn-keeper) and Donnie Yen as the evil eunuch. The remake uses standard modern widescreen (1.85:1) and the exteriors are limited by comparison, but the performances and dialogue as well as action choreography make for an entertaining film.
In Taiwan, King Hu is still an important figure in Taiwanese film history and his status was confirmed by Goodbye Dragon Inn (Taiwan 2003) in which the auteurist direct Tsai Ming-liang constructs a narrative around the final screening at a major classic single screen cinema. Only a few fans are present and various encounters take place between them during a screening of Dragon Inn. I do struggle with Tsai’s films but I saw this one in Bradford with a small audience in Pictureville cinema if my memory serves. I wish I’d seen the whole of Dragon Inn at that point. I would have perhaps made even more sense of Tsai’s tribute.
I recommend the Blu-ray by Masters of Cinema (which also includes a DVD version of the film). The extras include a David Cairns visual essay and a newsreel of the films opening in Taipei plus a booklet with pieces by Tsui Hark, Tony Rayns and Edmond Wong. The Criterion release has similar material by different scholars/industry personnel/actors.
(My apologies about names for actors and crew in this posting. The various sources I’ve consulted don’t use either the Wade-Giles romanisation of Mandarin names (as in Taiwan at the time) or the Hanyu Pinyin which replaced it in the PRC in the 1950s consistently and I may have unintentionally mixed them up.
Trailer for the Criterion Blu-ray release:
This unusual documentary played at HOME in Manchester with a Q&A featuring the director Angie Chen. It was part of a mini-season of Ms Chen’s work and another contribution to HOME’s year-long programme presenting women working in global cinema. Angie Chen, born in Shanghai, raised in Hong Kong and Taiwan, trained in the US and returned to work in Hong Kong Cinema in the 1980s as part of the Hong Kong New Wave.
I’ve Got the Blues is a very entertaining and thought-provoking work that ‘presents’ the artist Wong Yan-kwai, popularly known as ‘Yank’, and in doing so explores questions about how we might approach documentary films and film narratives more generally. What it doesn’t do is try to ‘explain’ or analyse Yank’s work as a painter. Partly that’s because he expressly forbids anyone filming him painting and also because he refuses to discuss what his paintings ‘mean’ or what they ‘represent’. He’s the one who says he simply ‘presents’ his work. The other aspect of his story which struck me forcibly is that he is clearly a very accomplished musician, photographer and writer with a deeply felt sense what it means to be an ‘artist’ (though he refuses that title!).
Yank went to Paris to study to be a painter and lived there for some time before returning to Hong Kong. He and Angie Chen have known each other since the 1990s. Angie said that although she knew Yank, she didn’t actually know that much about his life. She set out to make a documentary without knowing exactly what kind of film it might turn out to be. In turn Yank clearly didn’t want to be in a conventional film and he persistently thwarted the filmmaker. As well as refusing to be filmed during his work as a painter, he also challenged the filmmaker saying that she had an agenda and he would not go along with it. Angie Chen’s solution to this was quite neat. She organised a shoot of a meeting she had with Yank during which they both seemed to get angry, shouting at each other about what they would and wouldn’t do. She uses this scene close to the beginning of the film and close to its ending. She also persuaded Yank to film himself at work.
Once ‘in’ the film, Angie goes on to appear in it regularly, joining Yank for a trip to a Macau exhibition, joining a musical evening in which she sings the blues of the title with Yank on guitar and meeting his two grown-up daughters (at separate times). Yank is cantankerous but also playful and witty. Most of his interactions with friends are accompanied by what I can only describe as ‘heroic smoking and drinking’. Angie told us that sometimes shoots at his home or a local bar might go on until the early hours.
Reflecting with Rona on the experience of watching the film and enjoying the lively Q&A chaired by Prof. Sarah Perks (who met Angie Chen many years ago on one of her regular trips to HK), we agreed on a couple of points. First, this is a fascinating film about documentary practice. I was surprised that Angie Chen suggested it was an unusual strategy for a documentary filmmaker to appear in her film. Perhaps I misunderstood what she said, but it is now quite a common practice to use what Stella Bruzzi calls the ‘performative’ mode of documentary (in New Documentary, Routledge 2006). Angie Chen is certainly a ‘player’ in her film, often acting as a form of provocateur – causing Yank to react in different ways. Second, although the doc. is well-structured and entertaining, there is a distinct tension between the playfulness of the Angie-Yank relationship and two narrative questions which are not resolved or ‘explained’. The first of these refers to Yank’s relationship with his daughters, seemingly with different mothers, both with French backgrounds. The mothers seem to be completely marginalised in the narrative without any comment whatsoever. The second intriguing question is about Yank’s politics, a topic explored very interestingly in a couple of scenes but then somehow left dangling. I would need another viewing to be clear about what was actually said. There is a Region 3 DVD from Hong Kong and there may be others available (that question came up in the Q&A).
I realise that I haven’t said anything about Wong Yan-kwai’s paintings but then that’s not really what the film is about. I do want to know more about his time in Paris and about his relationships and his politics. I also want to see more of the films by Angie Chen. Unfortunately I wasn’t able to get to Manchester to see the other films Angie had brought with her from Hong Kong. I want to thank Angie Chen for bringing her film and entertaining us in the Q&A, Rachel Hayward and Andy Willis for organising the mini-season and Sarah Perks for chairing the Q&A. And I must not forget the cat, who tolerates Yank and often appears on screen with him.
Here’s a trailer for the film. It’s a good trailer that gives a sense of the film and intrigues the viewer:
(This posting has been edited to correct details of the event.)
Following Crystal Swan, my second LFF choice turned out to be almost the opposite kind of film. A Family Tour is a much more serious and thoughtful film but is perhaps too low-key to catch the attention it deserves as a commentary on the lot of independent filmmakers in China. The narrative is based on events in the life of the film’s director Ying Liang. It concerns an independent filmmaker from North East China whose film has been banned in the PRC because it discusses a local criminal trial viewed as having political implications. Director Yang Shu (Gong Zhe) has been forced to leave China and join her husband Cheung Ka-Ming (Pete Teo) and small son in Hong Kong where father and son have the protection of birth in the SAR (‘Special Administrative Region’) whereas Shu herself must keep seeking the right to remain. She can’t go back to the mainland in case she is detained. However, Shu’s mother Chen Xiaolin (Nai An) is now ill with heart disease and Shu feels she must see her again.
The opportunity to meet comes when Yang Shu is invited to present her film at the Formosa Film Festival in Taiwan. Her elderly mother can join a tour party in Taipei (one of the few ways in which trips to Taiwan from China are allowed) and Yang Shu and her family can book into the same hotel. They can’t however meet Mrs Chen directly. Instead they must pretend she is simply a family friend and meet her ‘accidentally’ as the tour bus visits various tourist destinations. The tour party is led by a small but ferocious woman briefed by the PRC authorities and she is keen to enforce the rules (and to receive ‘sweeteners’ from Cheung Ka-Ming). As this strange family reunion trundles around Taiwan, several different discourses about home, family, loyalty, exile and identity emerge. There is an emotional desire to see her grandson in the flesh from Mrs Chen (she has kept in touch via Skype) but for Yang Shu there is pain and anger as she learns more about what happened to her father and also a different kind of loss when Mrs Chen tells her about the changes in her home town. Cheung Ka-Ming wants to support his wife and mother-in-law, but in some ways his capacity to move between the mainland and Hong Kong makes his wife feel more isolated.
Meanwhile, the film festival occasionally intrudes and more importantly, Yang Shu’s next film, a Hong Kong production which features the Umbrella Protests in 2014, runs into problems which might be caused by the mainland authorities. I found the Variety Review of the film by Jay Weissberg to be informative and insightful. I can see that there are many interesting aspects of the narrative and that it conveys the anguish of exile and separation and the impact of learning about the past in subtle and affecting ways. It is a well-made and attractive film to watch but somehow it just felt too restrained. The problem is no doubt with me. Yang Shu is reserved and her anger is often internal, Cheung Ka-Ming is more outgoing, kind and considerate – but then he is not under pressure in the same way. I haven’t seen the previous films from Ying Liang. Reviewers suggest he has introduced some more intimate shots into his usual long shot style. The consensus seems to be that this film is a welcome development in the handling of what is quite an austere aesthetic approach and that it should have a successful run on the festival circuit.
‘Creative Visions’ is the title of the latest celebration of Hong Kong Cinema at HOME in Manchester (continuing a series of celebrations that started during the cinema’s previous incarnation as Cornerhouse). This latest short season of films presents work from 1997-2017, twenty years since the handover of Hong Kong back to China.
HOME’s seasons come thick and fast these days and this was the only screening I could attend. Ordinary Heroes is an Ann Hui film and the ‘heroes’ of the title are five people engaged in political campaigns in the 1970s and 1980s, mainly concerned with the Yau Ma Tei boat people. Ann Hui is one of a handful of global auteur Hong Kong filmmakers. She first came to attention in the late 1970s when working in Hong Kong television after training at the London Film School. She has always been interested in displaced and marginal peoples – Hui herself was born in Northern China in 1947 and moved first to Macau and then Hong Kong as a child. Her so-called ‘Vietnam Trilogy’ concerns the aftermath of the Vietnam War and the people who left the country in the late 1970s. These were commercial films and Hui has worked with the major stars of HK cinema. She has tried to straddle the ‘personal’/’commercial’ divide, often with films based on social issues, historical themes and real life stories.
The central character of Ordinary Heroes is based directly on a real political figure – an Italian priest named Franco Mella who arrived in Hong Kong in 1974 as part of PIME (Pontifical Institute for Foreign Missions). Fr Mella becomes Fr Peter Kam (Anthony Wong) in Ordinary Heroes, depicted as a dedicated worker with street people and professing a form of Maoism as part of his liberation theology. He works in a garment factory by day and follows his mission by night, eventually committing himself to the needs of the ‘boat people’ – poor fishermen who live on their boots on the Kowloon waterfront. When they attempt to move onto land and seek housing, the colonial authorities decide to deport any wives from the mainland who are not accepted as HK residents. Kam begins a hunger strike in an attempt to shame the authorities. Hui also shows us a more conventional politician/organiser Yau (Tse Kwan-ho) and two young helpers Sow (Loletta Lee) and Tung (Lee Kang-sheng). The whole story is presented as two parallel narratives, one the dedication of Fr Lam and the other the complicated love story between Sow and Tung.
I’m still not quite sure why Ann Hui wanted to present the story in a non-linear fashion so that we see first the aftermath of an accident in which Sow has lost her memory and then through flashbacks (including the use of younger actors to see Sow and Tung as young teenagers) we learn all about the stages of their involvement in the political campaigns. One argument might be that this way we see just how much work goes in to developing the campaigns and how they are rooted in the community. The romance keeps us engaged during what is quite a challenging presentation of political struggle. One final element in the narrative is a ‘street theatre performer’, who also appears to be a ‘real character’ performing a variety of sketches which offer a Marxist and then Maoist history of China in the 20th century.
It’s difficult to source decent quality prints of films from Hong Kong – even when films are less than 20 years old – and HOME had to use what appeared to be a DVD or a digital source derived from a DVD master. It was a little washed out and the subtitles were not the best. Given the non-linear structure, I struggled to follow the first sections of the narrative, but gradually I sorted out the story and the performances of Anthony Wong, Loletta Lee and Lee Kang-sheng began to assert themselves. By the end of the film I was fully aware of the political struggle – another reminder of the suppression meted out by colonial forces as late as the 1980s. We too easily forget that British authorities were acting in this way at the time of Chinese suppression of protestors in Tiananmen Square. If you can find a DVD, it’s well worth the effort.
Ann Hui is one of the Chinese filmmakers profiled in Chapter 11 of The Global Film Book.
MilkyWay Image Productions, the imprint set up by Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, has been responsible for both the crime films by Johnnie To that have circulated in the West and a series of romcoms that haven’t circulated widely outside East Asia. Don’t Go Breaking My Heart marked a ‘return’ to directing for the prolific Johnnie To after a couple of years as solely a producer. Some reviewers credit both partners as co-directors, but on the print I watched, only Johnnie To has a directorial credit. Wai Ka-Fai is joined by three others as co-writers. Cinematography is by the usual MilkyWay DoP, Cheng Siu-Keung.
There are several features of this film that are seemingly ‘different’ and they all relate to a move by MilkyWay towards the mainland market. So this film features Gao YuanYuan, the beautiful mainland star who first appeared in the independent films of Sixth Generation directors such as Wang Xiaoshuai (e.g. in Beijing Bicycle 2001 and Shanghai Dreams 2005). She plays Zixin a young woman from Suzhou (close to Shanghai) who is working in Hong Kong bank as an investment analyst. This means that as well as trips to Suzhou/Shanghai, the film features a language track that mixes Cantonese, Mandarin and English instead of a dubbed Cantonese track throughout.
At the beginning of the narrative, Zixin is still extricating herself from a long relationship when she is spotted by Shen-ran (Louis Koo), the CEO from a neighbouring bank. But before he can move in, Zixin is rescued from a difficult situation by the dishevelled but charming drunk Qihong (Daniel Wu). Wooed by Shen-ran, Zixin misses a date with Qihong and then eventually gives up on Shen-ran as unreliable. The plot moves forward a few years. Shen-ran hasn’t given up his pursuit and after the financial crash of 2008-9 he re-emerges as the new CEO of the company which employs Zixin. In the meantime Qihong has sobered up and, re-vitalised, has become a successful architect with a new office in a building opposite that housing Shen-ran’s bank. The tri-angular love affair can now develop via displays through the plate-glass windows of the two office blocks and the extensive use of camera-phones.
The original Chinese title of the film translates as ‘Single Men and Women’ and since the three leads are all in their 30s I do wonder if there is some kind of commentary here about the new wealthy young elite, giving up their youth to make money and then conducting affairs in the alienated landscape of Hong Kong’s and Shanghai’s skyscrapers and using (for me at least) the alienating technology of mobile phones? Perhaps I’m just an old romantic? Having said that, I still found the film engaging. It’s interesting to see a narrative in which it is definitely the woman’s story. It begins with her and she chooses between the men. (But then I guess that is what usually happens in a romcom?) I very much enjoyed Gao YuanYuan’s performance and I’m intrigued that in Derek Elley’s Film Business Asia review he suggests that she has a very different ‘Mainland style’ of acting compared to the two male Hong Kong performers (who he describes as ‘slick’) and that she comes across “in a fresh way”. I think I know what he means but this notion of different acting styles needs investigation. Since many major Chinese productions now include both HK and mainland stars it should be evident on a wide scale.
Two or three aspects of the film confirm that this is a MilkyWay production. As several reviewers point out, the film moves along as effortlessly as we might hope for with a very experienced director and crew. The script has enough unusual ideas to be constantly engaging and at times it moves into fantasy levels that suggest some kind of screwball comedy narrative. And yet it is pretty shallow stuff and I felt irritated by the gloss and the constant references to conspicuous consumption. I longed for some of the characters who populate the MilkyWay crime films. Regular player Suet Lam is here, but as a buffoonish office manager. Perhaps the consumption angle (exotic cars, expensive meals) is a deliberate ploy to attract mainland audiences? Looking back to a film like Go, LaLa Go (China 2010), the central character seems to start at a lower level and work her way up – and in that film she has female friends/colleagues. Zixin seems very much on her own.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart (is it an Elton John/Kiki Dee reference) was successful enough at the HK and mainland box office ($16 million) to warrant a sequel which appeared in 2014. From the reviews it sounds as technically efficient and blandly enjoyable as the first outing. I’m intrigued now to find examples of earlier MilkyWay romcoms which fans seem to prefer.
Trailer with English Subs: