Friday, November 29, 2013

2013 Hong Kong Cinema

The San Francisco Film Society kicked off their Fall Season with the 2013 Hong Kong Cinema series.  There would be five additional series in their Fall Season focusing on films from Taiwan, Zurich, France, Italy and the Bay Area.  All told, I would see 32 films between the six series.

The HK series ran from October 4 to 6 at the Vogue Theater.

I saw six films in the series:

Bends starring Carina Lau & Chen Kun; directed by Flora Lau; Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)
Blind Detective starring Andy Lau & Sammi Cheng; directed by Johnnie To; Cantonese with subtitles; (2013)
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin starring Gordon Liu; directed by Liu Chia-liang; Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles; (1977)
The Last Tycoon starring Chow Yun-fat, Monica Mok & Sammo Hung; directed by Wong Jing; Mandarin with subtitles; (2012)
The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter starring Gordon Liu; directed by Liu Chia-liang; Mandarin with subtitles; (1984)
Conspirators starring Aaron Kwok & Nick Cheung; directed by Oxide Pang; Cantonese and Mandarin with subtitles; (2013)


The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter were screened in tribute to Liu Chia-liang who died earlier this year.  Actor, stuntman, screenwriter, director, fight choreographer, Liu was a HK/Shaw Brothers/kung fu film legend.  Both films starred Gordon Liu (Kill Bill) and I couldn't help but wonder if that was also a tribute to him.  Acquainted but unrelated to Liu Chia-liang, Gordon Liu (real name Liu Chia-Hui) had a stroke last year and has been partially paralyzed since then.

I've been trying to see and appreciate more martial arts films lately.  The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter are acknowledged classics in the genre.  I didn't really get into either film.  Of the two, I preferred The 36th Chamber of Shaolin which focused on a young man (Gordon Liu) who hides from an invading army at a Shaolin monastery.  Initially wanting to learn enough kung fu to take revenge against the men who killed his teacher, Liu is forced (sometimes unwittingly) to train just like the other monks.  He shows a natural talent for kung fu, eventually inventing the titular 36th chamber (each chamber corresponds to a level of instruction).

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter involves the two surviving sons (7 to start) of a honorable general.  The general was the victim of royal court intrigue and accused treason.  He and five of his sons were killed while resisting efforts to arrest them.  I think Liu is #6 son.  #5 son survives but has gone mad a result.  Liu is on the lam and again he take refuge in a Shaolin Temple.  This time, he cannot have a sword in the temple so he practices with a pole (hence the title).  The most memorable fight scene involves wooden wolves.

Two months after seeing the films, I am conflating the events of the films because of their similar plotlines.


Blind Detective looked like a big budget film.  Starring Andy Lau (one of the biggest HK movie stars) and directed by Johnnie To (one of the biggest HK movie directors), the plot to Blind Detective was reminiscent of the plot to Mad Detective (co-directed by To).

Lau plays Johnston, the eponymous, visually handicapped private detective.  He makes his living by solving crimes and claiming the reward money.  His "frenemy" is Szeto (Guo Tao), his former police partner before he was blinded.  Aware of his sleuthing prowess, Szeto follows Johnston around and swoops in at the last minute to "solve" the case and save the police department money by not having to pay Johnston.

Sammi Cheng is Ho, a detective on Szeto's detail who is mightily impressed by Johnston's detective skills.  She takes a leave of absences and hires Johnston to find a classmate who disappeared when she was in grade school.  Johnston seems more interested in milking Ho (who is independently wealthy) for as much food and money as he can.

Blind Detective is a romantic comedy with a lot of slapstick added for good measure.  Lau and Cheng have made several popular films together including Love on a Diet.  Ho is shrill and irritating.  Cheng seems to be yelling all the time.  I quickly lost any sympathy for Johnston.  Since it is Lau and Cheng, there is some chemistry between Johnston & Ho but I lost all interest between the 130 minute film ended.

Similarly The Last Tycoon looked like a pretty big budget film.  Chow plays Cheng Daqi, a Shanghai gangster from the 1920s and 1930s.  We watch his rise and fall played out against the backdrop of Imperial Japanese aggression in China.  Sammo Hung plays Cheng's gangster mentor.  There is a love triangle between Cheng and a singer and childhood sweetheart who is now married to a prominent anti-Japanese political figure.  I saw homage to Casablanca and some too-much-by-a-half CGI effects of the bombing of Shanghai.

The Last Tycoon had some interesting scenes and scenery but it lost my interest well before it ended.


That leaves my two favorite films of the Hong Kong series.

Bends was the opening night film of HK series and also screened at the 2013 Mill Valley Film Festival.  Carina Lau plays Anna, the wife of a wealthy HK businessman.  Chen Kun is Fai, her chauffeur.  They both have problems although they go to lengths to avoid discussing them directly with each other.  Anna's husband is missing, she can't get in contact with him, his business offices are abandoned and her credit cards have been cancelled.  Fai is a HK citizen but he, his wife and their daughter live across the border in Shenzhen (mainland China).  That's because his wife doesn't have a HK passport.  To add to his troubles, she is pregnant with their second child and they don't want to pay the fine.  He is trying to get false paper so she can deliver the child in HK.

The film focuses on these two increasingly desperate people as they struggle to maintain their lifestyles.  Fai is dependent on Anna.  Early on in the film, he asks for an advance on his salary so he can grease the skids to get his wife over.  Anna struggles to maintain the appearance that everything is alright as she sells her belongings.  Fai is not innocent either as he takes Anna's luxury sedan to a chopshop and swaps out the expensive ABS brakes with a cheaper model.  Although ambiguous, Anna's home is broken into and Fai or the departed Filipina maid are the main suspects.

Sparse in dialogue, we see the desperation in both actor's facial expressions and behaviors.  There is a surprise ending which puts a fine point of the issues of class divide which pervade the film.  Bends is a quiet and contemplative film which can be interpreted as a critique of modern day China or taken at face value as a film about two lives which are upended.

Bends has an enviable pedigree.  Noted cinematographer Christopher Doyle (In the Mood for Love and just about every other Kaw Wai Wong film) was the director of photography for Bends.  Carina Lau (no relation to director Flora Lau) is the wife and long-time girlfriend of Tony Leung Chiu Wai who has appeared in several Kar Wai Wong films.

Conspirators is anything but quiet and contemplative.  It's a taut action thriller.  Malaysian born, ethnic Chinese Chan Tam (Aaron Kwok) returns to Malaysia to find out who killed his parents 30 years ago.  Tam is a private detective in China but he needs a local contact so he hires local PI Zheng (Nick Cheung).  Zheng has his own issues - his brother is in prison, he is trying to get him out, he is a little shady and has strained relations with the local cops and gangsters.

I didn't find this out until after watching the film but Conspirators is the third and final film in a trilogy directed by Oxide Pang and starring Aaron Kwok as Tam.  The first two films, The Detective (2007) and The Detective 2 (2011) set up some of Tam's backstory which involves his parents' dealing with smugglers or drug dealers.  Conspirators works as a stand alone film although Tam's motivations may had more resonance if I knew more of his history.

Conspirators is an entertaining and well made action thriller with appealing lead actors.  I've become something of a Nick Cheung fan since seeing him in The Beaststalker a few years ago.

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