Sunday, May 22, 2011

Kung Fu Fighting, Hippies, The Last Generation of Soviets and Faye Dunaway

In a one week period earlier in May, I went to four independent movie theaters - the Red Vic, Balboa, 4 Star and Castro.

The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen starring Donnie Yen and Shu Qi; directed by Andrew Lau; Cantonese with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Hair starring Treat Williams & John Savage; directed by MiloŇ° Forman; (1979)
My Perestroika; directed by Robin Hessman; documentary; Russian with subtitles; (2010) - Official Website
Puzzle Of A Downfall Child starring Faye Dunaway; directed by Jerry Schatzberg; (1970)
Eyes Of Laura Mars starring Faye Dunaway and Tommy Lee Jones; directed by Irvin Kershner; (1978)
Deaf Mute Heroine starring Helen Ma; Mandarin with subtitles; (1971)
Pursuit starring Chow Yun-Fat; Cantonese with subtitles; (1980)

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Let me get all the seven degrees facts out of the way. The Legend of the Fist, Deaf Mute Heroine and Pursuit are part of the 4 Star's Asian Movie Madness series which runs every Thursday through July. The co-star of Pursuit was Deborah Dik who is Nicholas Tse's mother. Nicholas Tse was the star of The Stool Pigeon, my favorite film of the 2011 San Francisco International Film Festival. Nicholas Tse is married to actress Cecilia Cheung who was previously involved with Edison Chen and subsequently involved in his sex photo scandal. I most recently saw Edison Chen in Almost Perfect at the 2011 San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival. The first film that I can recall Chen from is Initial D which was co-directed by Andrew Lau who also directed The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. If that isn't enough for you, Chen's co-star in Initial D was Shawn Yue who starred in Love in a Puff which I saw at the 2011 SFIFF. I can't stop myself from pointing out the coincidences...the theme song to Eyes Of Laura Mars was "Prisoner" by Barbra Streisand which I distinctly recognized from a scene in Pursuit. The coincidence is all the amazing because I saw Eyes Of Laura Mars one night before Pursuit.

In most of the cases, I had discount passes to the theater that I wanted to use up before they (the pass or the theater) expired. I saw Hair at the Red Vic, My Perestroika at the Balboa and Puzzle Of A Downfall Child & Eyes Of Laura Mars at the Castro.

There is a lot of history behind The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen. Donnie Yen starred in a Hong Kong television series called Fist of Fury in 1995. Yen played Chen Zhen, the same character as he does in The Legend of the Fist. If Fist of Fury sounds familiar, it's because it was also the title of a 1972 Bruce Lee film. Bruce Lee played Chen Zhen also. A stuntman on Lee's Fist of Fury was Jackie Chan who would go on to make a film called New Fist of Fury (1976). Chan's film is set in the same time period and locales but is not Chen Zhen. In 1994, Jet Li made film called Fist of Legend where he took his turn as Chen Zhen.

Chen Zhen is a fictitious character but probably based on composite of a real people. As portrayed by Yen, Chen Zhen is WWI veteran who lives in Shanghai during the 1930s. He is a hell of a kung fu fighter but he keeps a low profile as the manager of a nightclub and casino owned by gangster Anthony Wong. The main attraction at the nightclub is the beautiful singer Kiki (Shu Qi from The Transporter and Hou Hsiao-Hsien's Three Times). However it is the 1930's in China which means the Japanese are causing problems. Has anyone noticed a lot of Chinese films recently which are set in the 1930s with the Japanese as villains? In this film, Colonel Chikaraishi Takeshi (Kohata Ryu) of the Imperial Japanese Army is the villain. Fans of Yen's television series know that Chen Zhen killed Chikaraishi's evil father in the television series. Ryu played the evil Japanese Army officer in City of Life and Death which impressed me at last year's San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival.

Donnie Yen, 1930s, Chinese kung fu master, evil Japanese army officers...sounds like Ip Man. There were a lot of similarities. The lovely Shu Qi elevated Legend of the Fist somewhat (for her beauty not necessarily her acting) but ultimately the film was fluff. There is a time and place for fluff but I like my action films more gritty. Full disclosure - I'm very smitten with Shu Qi.

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A week after seeing Legend of the Fist, I returned to 4 Star to catch a double feature of Deaf Mute Heroine and Pursuit.

Deaf Mute Heroine looks like a standard HK chop socky film from the 1970s. One Armed Swordsman, Blind Swordsman and now a Deaf Mute Swordswoman - so they doubled the handicaps and changed the gender but the film is still the same. In this particular instance, the heroine's motivation was not completely pristine as she seemed most interested in some stolen jewels. That is until she shacks up with a poor laborer. Then the fearsome warrioress puts down her sword and reflective bracelets (so she can see people coming up behind her) and embarks on journey of domestic bliss. Of course, we all know that can't last.

Helen Ma, as the eponymous heroine, acquits herself admirably in a film which is a small notch above the rest. Ma had such expressive eyes which I guess is only natural for a deaf mute character. The fight choreographers threw a couple good fight sequences and the "villain" is also a woman (Shirley Huang).

Called by many a classic, I'm more stingy in my praise. I thought it was above average but the fight sequences became tiresome after awhile.

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Although Chow Yun-Fat is billed as the star of Pursuit, it's really a vehicle for Deborah Dik. The film was trying to balance humor with suspense but it didn't do a very good job. Dik is a off key lounge singer who is pimped by her manager to the snaggle-toothed club owner with secret S&M peccadilloes. Escaping his advances, Dik witnesses a murder committed by a sunglass wearing hitman (Chow Yun-Fat). The rest of the film has Chow (or his henchmen) pursuing Dik with her always escaping through luck or timely bouts of resourcefulness.

The problem with Pursuit is not its premise but rather its execution. The humor is too silly and the violence too extreme. I was whipsawed by the film as it veered from one to the other and back.

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Hair was not a film that was on my list of films I had to see. I went because I have a Red Vic Discount Card that I'm worried will be worthless if they go out of business. The film was mildly entertaining. The hippie era has never fascinated me so seeing a musical about it is not an integral part of my film viewing list.

I can't fault the film's three principals (Beverly D'Angelo, Treat Williams and John Savage) but the film felt flat to me. I got a kick out of seeing Treat Williams with long hair. I can't criticize her performance but I couldn't get over the fact that just 4 years after Hair, D'Angelo was playing opposite Chevy Chase in National Lampoon's Vacation.

The songs were not quite a toe-tapping as I expected. The finale where Williams goes off to war in place of Savage was particularly well done.

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My Perestroika is a documentary about half a dozen people who were adolescents when the Soviet Union dissolved. They are unique because their childhoods were traditionally Soviet but they had to adjust in early adulthood to very different political and economic systems from their youths. There are a married couple who are school teachers, a musician, an entrepreneur and a woman who services coin-operated pool tables in bars and pubs. Though they all went to the same school as children, they have very different memories and opinions. These difference make for an interesting film. Director Robin Hessman can't quite tie all the strands together to find commonality but the individuals and their contrasts are sufficient to carry the film along.

My Perestroika will open at the Camera Cinemas in San Jose on June 3.

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Eyes Of Laura Mars was a pretty good thriller featuring Faye Dunaway as Laura Mars, fashion photographer who specializes in stylized photos with an erotic and violent twist to them. The photos in the film were taken by actual photographer Helmut Newton.

Unfortunately, Mars has visions where she sees her colleagues brutally murdered. Tommy Lee Jones plays the copy who is investigating the murders but also warms up to Mars. I won't give away the ending. I will say that Mars' visions are never explained except through some implied psychic connection between Mars and the killer.

Rene Auberjonois gives a strong performance as Mars' homosexual business manager.

Puzzle Of A Downfall Child is a fragmented psychological portrait of a fashion model (Dunaway) who is recovering from a nervous breakdown. Recounting her life in flashback, we see that Dunaway's character had several less-than-positive life experiences including an exploitive relationship with an older man as a schoolgirl which shaped her future dealings with men.

41 years old, the film plays like coffee table psychobabble but it has a few things going for it - Dunaway's youthful beauty, Dunaway's considerable acting skills and a disjointed narrative which is open to multiple interpretations. I can't say I liked Puzzle Of A Downfall Child but I can't say I disliked it either.

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The Asian Movie Madness double feature scheduled for May 26 has been cancelled. Originally Ong Bak and Golden Sand Sword were scheduled. That's too bad as I was looking forward to both films.

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