Apologies, again, for the long delay between posts. I’m still struggling with finding my writing mojo. For the past week, I have been working on a post about CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER but it isn’t ready yet for publication. I’m unhappy with the tone of a section in it about Zhang Yimou because it reads like I have a grudge against him. It feels like I could have easily started off the section with: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”
I certainly don’t have a grudge against Zhang and I definitely don’t want to come off like I do so the post is parked in my Blogger draft folder awaiting further work. I hope to have it ready to go before the Chrysanthemum Festival.
In the meantime, here are some thoughts on a couple of movies I watched this past holiday long weekend here in Canada: THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT and SPL.
THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT
Official Website: http://www.postmodernlifeofmyaunt.com/
Director: Ann Hui On-Wah
Cast: Siqin Gaowa (Ye Rutang), Chow Yun-Fat (Pan Zhichang), Lisa Lu (Mrs. Shui), Vicki Zhao Wei (Liu Daifan)
PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: None. Apart from some early reports in 2005 that Chow Yun-Fat was “coming back” to star in an Ann Hui On-Wah movie, I missed all the media coverage about this film. I picked up this title mostly to see Fat-Gor in something other than a Hollywood film or a “Chinese epic made for the international market” and because, at eight dollars, the Mainland DVD was conveniently priced for the Leung treasury.
I only developed a pre-conceived notion when I got the DVD. Looking at its cover (right) and reading the little blurb on the back, I came away with the impression that I was in store for a light comedy-drama. The movie description suggests a “late-in-life romance” between a quirky, divorced senior and a “mysterious stranger” who meet in a park. The romance is then jeopardized because the “stranger” may or may not be a con-man. Coupled with the cover image featuring a comically-harried Siqin Gaowa, a charming-looking Chow Yun-Fat, Vicki Zhao Wei [still known mostly for playing the bubbly Little Swallow in (MY FAIR PRINCESS a.k.a. PRINCESS RETURNING PEARL, 還珠格格)] and a collection of background characters who look like they are the Shanghai equivalents of the townies from GILMORE GIRLS, most people would be inclined to expect something like AS GOOD AS IT GETS but from Chinese and female perspectives.
AFTER THE MOVIE: Numbed by the unyielding melancholy of the final third of the film, the only thing I was thinking when I pressed the stop button on my remote was that the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” can easily be extended to DVDs. Instead of a quirky, heart-warming comedy-drama, viewers are treated to the sad tale of a vibrant, independent woman transformed by circumstance into a lifeless, defeated automaton.
The “bait-and-switch” type trick that the DVD cover perpetrates will undoubtedly gall unsuspecting viewers who were conned into watching the movie. However, I suspect that those who come into the film with eyes wide open will also be disappointed.
There are many movies out there where, going in, you know that things are not going to end well. LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, the German film DOWNFALL (about the last days of Adolph Hitler) and the HBO movie WIT (starring Emma Thompson as a professor who learns that she has terminal cancer) come to mind. There’s a poignancy to those films where, even though the subject matter is depressing, you walk away feeling re-assured about the human condition. This is not the case with THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT. From about the halfway point on, the movie is unrelenting in its sadness as its protagonist, Ye Rutang, has her emotional, financial and physical well-being stripped away. In films of this ilk, there is usually some point, some nuance to the downward sprial that gives the film some insight but in THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT, the point appears to be missing.
There are elements that suggest that there is a method in the sadness. The two “harvest moon” scenes and the relationship between Ye Rutang and her young nephew Kuan Kuan (the only time Ye Rutang perks up in the last half of the movie is in her scenes with Kuan Kuan) hint at something. However, the hints are too faint and make no impact. Ultimately, the only message the viewer gets is “life sucks sometimes” — a message that most people likely already understand without having to pay for and sit through an 111 minute movie.
Other things that don’t really work in the film:
- The plot point that Ye Rutang abandoned her young family to start her life in Shanghai is touched upon but never explored. You would think that a revelation of that magnitude would lead somewhere but it doesn’t.
- Similarly, Vicki Zhao Wei’s character has a scene or two that seems to be conveying something but, again, the resonance is too faint and there is no pay off. In fact, the scene where she is taking a smoke break during work feels like a tacked on “let’s get Vicki Zhao a Golden Horse nomination” moment. Actually, that whole “Vicki Zhao at work” sequence seems to me to be entirely superfluous to the movie.
- Chow Yun-Fat’s character, Pan Zhichang, is somewhat inconsistent. Alternately charming and buffoonish, the character screams “fictional creation” rather than “credibly-rendered human being”. There are moments where Chow’s broad acting would elicit chuckles or contemptuous eye-rolling were it not for the fact that it was the legendary Chow Yun-Fat hamming it up on the screen.
Leaving aside room for the possibility that those immersed in Mainland culture may pick up on meaningful nuances that those of us outside of the Mainland cannot, I am hesitant to condemn THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT with “not recommended” status. However, I can safely say that it is probably for devoted arthouse fans and Chow Yun-Fat, Vicki Zhao Wei or Ann Hui On-Wah completists only. Casual fans aren’t missing anything by passing up on this movie.
- Another sign of the inexorable nature of time: Chow Yun-Fat is now old enough to play an “old man”. The first time I saw him, he was playing an idealistic Beijing University student forced into the Shanghai criminal underworld. Now, he’s playing an 阿伯 (”Ah Bak”, “old man”). Hard to believe that the thirtieth anniversary of SHANGHAI BEACH (上海灘) is only two years and change away.
- There’s a “FACE Audio and Video” logo that pops up intermittently on the top left-hand corner of the screen throughout the movie. What’s up with that? Did I somehow end up with a well-made pirated DVD or does this sort of thing happen often with Mainland DVDs? This is the first Mainland DVD that I’ve watched. I usually get the Hong Kong versions.
SPL (SHA PO LANG)
North American title: KILL ZONE
Official Website: http://www.shapolangthemovie.com/
Director: Wilson Yip Wai-Shun
Cast: Simon Yam Tat-Wah (Inspector Chan Kwok-Chung), Sammo Hung Kam-Bo (Wong Po), Donnie Yen Chi-Tan (Inspector Ma Kwan), Wu Jing (Jack), Liu Kai-Chi (Wah), Danny Summer (Sum), Ken Chang (Lok)
PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: SPL was released before I was diagnosed so I was around for all the media hype surrounding the film. The publicity machine made it sound like it was a return to the mid-1980s/early-1990s Hong Kong action movie heyday (no CGI, no cameo appearances by EEG pop idols, no mercy sir!). Todd over at Twitch called the film: “… one of the finest films to emerge from Hong Kong ever. Period.”
On the other hand, I remember the film getting killed by some posters at its Mov3.com discussion board. I also remember that SPL didn’t break the benchmark HK$10 million mark at the HK box office so the ol’ Sanney-sense started tingling and I suspected that the film would likely fall somewhere in between the high praise and the pessimistic murmurs from the crowd over at Mov3.
Despite the tempered expectations, I held high hopes for the film due to the fact that I’ve been a longtime fan of both Simon Yam Tat-Wah (even during his GIGOLO AND WHORE, DON’T STOP MY CRAZY LOVE FOR YOU period) and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo. Also, I’ve had a soft spot for Wilson Yip ever since he had that great streak of BIO-ZOMBIE, BULLETS OVER SUMMER and JULIET IN LOVE from 1998 to 2000. Sadly, Leon Lai Ming and an orangutan stopped the run cold with SKYLINE CRUISERS (official site). If you haven’t seen them yet, BIO-ZOMBIE, BULLETS OVER SUMMER and JULIET IN LOVE are three of the better “diamond in the rough” type films from the post-Handover era. Of the three, I liked BULLETS OVER THE SUMMER most but BIO-ZOMBIE is a whole lot of goofy fun.
AFTER THE MOVIE: Sad to say but I think I fall more on the side of the fickle folks over at Mov3 than I do with Todd from Twitch. I would rate SPL somewhere in between mediocre and good rather than good or great — a C+, maybe a B- but definitely not an A and certainly not “… one of the finest films to emerge from Hong Kong ever. Period.”
SPL is an amalgam of three Hong Kong movie sub-genres: the one fateful day/night genre (think ONE NITE IN MONGKOK or THE LONGEST NITE), the heroic bloodshed/honour among men genre (think John Woo movies from the mid-1980s/early-1990s) and the well-tread cops-and-robbers genre. Movies from those genres like ONE NITE IN MONGKOK, A BETTER TOMORROW, HARD-BOILED, EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED and THE LONGEST NITE are the “Rolexes” of Hong Kong cinema. SPL is a “Lolex”, a finely-crafted imitation but one that doesn’t stand up to closer inspection.
The critical difference between the “Rolexes” and SPL is pacing. The credibility of the story-telling in SPL is reminiscent of the credibility issues and plot holes found in HARD-BOILED and THE LONGEST NITE. However, those films had the energy and pacing to keep you engrossed and exhilarated until the end. It was only after the movie that you begin to think: “hmmm, wasn’t it a little ridiculous that Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s character survived that shotgun blast to the chest?”. SPL, by contrast, has energy-sapping sections that plod along giving you the opportunity to wonder about things like:
- The unit headed by Simon Yam’s Inspector Chan have footage of Wong Po (Sammo Hung) beating the undercover cop before someone else shoots him. Isn’t that sufficient evidence to show that, even though Wong Po didn’t pull the trigger, he was complicit in the crime? I’m not exactly sure about the details of the criminal justice system in Hong Kong but it seems to me that Wong Po would have been eligible for some jail time on the basis of the tape even before Chan and his boys decided to doctor it. Who cares what charge you get him on just as long as you do get him — right? Isn’t this a clear-cut “Eliot Ness nails Al Capone for tax evasion” situation?
- At least twice in the movie, Wong Po is shown to have a legion of henchmen just hanging around on the street in front of his high-rise crime headquarters. Yet, when Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen) arrives after phoning and telling Wong Po that he is coming only ONE guy, Jet (Wu Jing), is there to stop him. Was there no time for a sequence where Donnie Yen effortlessly dispatches anonymous low-level associates before moving on to the sub-boss and then, ultimately, the boss? Wasn’t that how the narrative arc went in the classic Bruce Lee action movies? Didn’t anyone involved with SPL remember the scene in THE BIG BOSS where Bruce Lee says: “Just keep away. Go on. It’s not your fight. Beat it or I’ll kill ya’ …”? How hard would it have been to shoot a brief sequence like that? Seems to me that a film that purports to be “an action classic” should have a detail like that covered.
- Don’t get me started on the whole “Inspector Chan has brain cancer” sub-plot. We’d be here for days.
The pacing flaw in SPL reminds me of a great boxer whose skills have been diminished by age. No longer able to dominate and dictate the action for the entire fight, he lays back and relies on occasional flurries of punches to try to “steal” rounds by impressing the judges with furious, flashy spurts of action. Similarly, SPL is punctuated by some great action sequences but, for the most part, plods along flat-footed. Like the great boxer who has devolved into just a good boxer, SPL is not “great” just merely OK. It is a decent time at the movies and certainly worth a watch but it does not deserve to be placed in the pantheon of great Hong Kong action films.
- (Spoiler warning, skip this point if you haven’t seen the film.) Was anyone surprised that Wong Po (Sammo Hung) wasn’t dead after Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen) suplexed him onto the table? As soon as the camera moved in for a tight shot of Donnie Yen and stayed there, I’m sure 90% of viewers realized that Wong Po was going to sit up like The Undertaker and start fighting again.
- To get a sense of where I fell on the SPL opinion spectrum, I read a bunch of reviews and, to my surprise, discovered that Donnie Yen has a bit of a reputation for being a “preening schmoe”. More than one of my fellows web writers mocked Yen’s “pretty boy” acting abilities. Where does this reputation come from? I’ve seen Yen in a bunch of films from ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II and DRAGON INN through to HERO and SEVEN SWORDS and, while he’s never going to give you Tony Leung Chiu-Wai level acting, he’s not the worst offender when it comes to on screen preening. Heck, back when I had a thing for Kitty Lai Mei-Han and Margie Tsang Wah-Sin (two of Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s ex-girlfriends) I even watched Yen’s TVB series A NEW LIFE (命運迷宮). He ain’t that bad. At least he’s a “legitimate bad ass” when it comes to fight scenes and action sequences — unlike some other “pretty boys” I could mention.
- I don’t buy the argument that a CAT-III rating prevented SPL from breaking the HK$10 million mark at the Hong Kong box office (it ended up with a HK$7.5 million take). A CAT-III rating certainly wasn’t an impediment for ELECTION (HK$15.5 million). In spite of the problems with piracy, illegal downloads, the regrettable prejudice amongst HKers against Hong Kong films and plain ol’ general indifference, good movies tend to find a paying audience. SPL just wasn’t that good.
- Should I give Wilson Yip’s DRAGON TIGER GATE a go? The promotional pictures over at Mov3 scream “stupid and over-produced” but it’s another Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen collaboration. It also has the always entertaining Yuen Wah in it. I’m on the fence. Anyone care to tip me over to one side or the other?
Image credits: Beijing Poly-bona Film Publishing Co. Ltd. (THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT), Golden Harvest (SKYLINE CRUISERS, THE BIG BOSS), Abba Movies Co. Ltd. (SPL)