Wednesday, December 3, 2014

2014 Hong Kong Cinema

The San Francisco Film Society presented the 2014 Hong Kong Cinema series from November 14 to 16 at the Vogue Theater.  There were 8 films in the series and I saw 5.  I had already seen one of the films (The Golden Era) and another film did not appeal to me (The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom).  The film which I would like to have seen but my schedule did not permit was Uncertain Relationships Society and even that seemed aimed at younger demographic than me.

From Vegas to Macau starring Chow Yun-fat, Nicholas Tse & Chapman To; directed by Wong Jing; Mandarin & Cantonese with subtitles; (2014)
Chungking Express starring Takeshi Kaneshiro, Brigitte Lin, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai  & Faye Wong; directed by Wong Kar-wai; Cantonese with subtitles; (1994)
The Midnight After starring Simon Yam & Suet Lam; directed by Fruit Chan; Cantonese with subtitles; (2014) - Official Facebook
Aberdeen starring Louis Koo, Gigi Leung, Miriam Yeung & Eric Tsang; directed by Pang Ho-cheung; Cantonese with subtitles; (2014)
Overheard 3 starring Sean Lau, Louis Koo & Daniel Wu; directed by Alan Mak & Felix Chong; Mandarin & Cantonese with subtitles; (2014)

The series was mixed bag for me.  I greatly enjoyed two films while the other three left me in various states of boredom.


SFFS programmed a 20th anniversary screening of Chungking Express which I had not previously seen.  With Chungking Express, I have now seen 8 of Wong's 10 feature directorial efforts.  The two missing links are My Blueberry Nights (Wong's only English language film from 2007) and As Tears Go By (Wong's 1988 directorial debut).

It's not very original for me to say I greatly enjoyed one of the most celebrated films of the past two decades but that is the fact.  Chungking Express is an unabashed romantic comedy or at least 90%.  Regardless, it has more quirky humor than his other films.

The film is divided into two parts which (upon first viewing) have nothing to do with each other.

The film starts with Takeshi Kaneshiro as a HK cop who is despondent over breaking up with his girlfriend.  He gives the separation 30 days; if at the end of that time, they have not reconciled, he will move on.  He marks the days off by purchasing canned pineapples (one per day) with an expiration date identical to the 30 day deadline (May 1 if I recall correctly).  Meanwhile, Brigitte Lin plays a drug smuggler who constantly wears sunglasses and a blonde wig.  When the Indian immigrants she hires to mule her smack rip her off, she is in deep trouble.  The two of them crisscross HK and each other until a fateful meeting in a bar leads to a one night stand.  As a postscript, Lin's character shoots a man (a white guy to boot) to apparently take care of her problem.

Although the 1st half of the film has its moments, it was the 2nd half of the film which burnished Chungking Express' reputation.  Another HK cop (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) is also depressed about breaking up with his girlfriend.  He stops in at a all-night restaurant to get coffee and meets the owner's niece and new employee Faye (Faye Wong).  With her pixie cut, insouciant manner & expressive face, Wong is the breakout star in what was her first lead acting role.

I don't think they ever mentioned names on screen although IMDB lists character names.  In the film, I recall that Kaneshiro & Leung were referred to by their characters' badge numbers.  I don't recall Lin's character ever being addressed by name.  Faye Wong's character is called Faye.

Anyway, Tony Leung's ex-girlfriend (an airline stewardess) stops by the restaurant to leave a note for him.  Everyone in the restaurant steams open the note to read it.  More importantly, she leaves his apartment keys with the note.  Leung is not anxious to read the note so he keeps putting off picking it up.  Leung is also transferred to the dayshift.  When Faye sees Leung on duty, she rushes to his apartment with the keys and cleans, explores, buys new goldfish, fantasizes and generally acts in an outrageous manner which would be called stalking today but was oddly endearing in 1994 HK.  All the while, Leung senses something is off at home.  It isn't until he comes home early that he literally bumps in Faye coming out his apartment.

The second half of Chungking Express was delightful and as enjoyable as any movie experience I've had in a long time.  Faye Wong even sings a memorable Cantonese cover version of the Cranberries' Dream.  Unlike many films, I thought Chungking Express lived up to its reputation and is still fresh after 20 years.


I was also impressed with Pang Ho-cheung's Aberdeen.  I have to admit that my working knowledge of HK geography is embarrassing.  I couldn't identify Kowloon, the New Territories, Aberdeen, Repulse Bay, etc. on a map.  Aberdeen (aka Little Hong Kong) is a town on the south side of Hong Kong Island.  The film is set in Aberdeen although the setting is only relevant in one scene which I can remember.

Aberdeen is a slice of life film about three generations of the Cheng family.  Pang regular Miriam Yeung plays elder sister Wai Ching, a tour guide for old British fortifications.  Her husband Yau (Eric Tsang) is a doctor.  Louis Koo is Tao, her younger brother is a motivational speaker.  His wife, Ceci (Gigi Leung) is a fashion model & actress.  Their daughter Chloe is a precocious girl.  Wai Ching & Tao's father  (Ng Man Tat) is a widower and Taoist priest who has taken up with bar hostess (Carrie Ng).

Each family member faces their own challenges.  Wai Ching has unresolved issues with her late mother that she cannot get past.  Her husband Yau is having an affair with a nurse in his office.  Ceci is struggling with her age, lack of work and the pressures of the casting couch.  Tao is growing increasingly concerned about his daughter; worried that her weight & appearance will work against her in the future and also feeling guilt about a young girl he bullied for those very reasons during his youth.  Dong (the patriarch) mourns not just the loss of his wife but the loss of fishing which has been his family's way of life for generations.

Pang successfully juggles these disparate threads.  Whereas there was an element of the juvenile in his previous films, Aberdeen deals with universal issues that adults face.  It's not about guys making porn movies, people coping with a cigarette sales ban in HK or the self-detracting behavior of 20something women in China.  Instead, people get old, people have to deal with dead loved ones, people have to confront their own transgressions, etc.  These issues elevate Aberdeen to something memorable.  I won't say Aberdeen has gravitas but it is Pang's most more mature work to date.  It shows a leap in ambition from his previous films.  By ratcheting down the humor and focusing on the bittersweet lives on the Cheng family, Pang has made the best movie of his career so far or at least of the half dozen or so films I have seen.


From Vegas to Macau boasted an all-star cast and was described in the program guide as "genre-twisting."  I thought it was an action-comedy.  As I was leaving the theater, a couple was walking directly in front of me.  The man said to the woman, "I don't get Chinese humor."  Me neither.  From Vegas to Macau (aka The Man from Macau) relied on too many plot twists and broad humor.  It's one of those films where you see a car drive through a wall & explode.  Then the action rewinds and you see the real reason the car through the wall & exploded.  Another thing I notice about HK films I don't like is that they overly rely on technology to advance the plot.  In this case, Chow Yun-fat had an X-ray sensor attached to his fingernail which then sent the image to his brain via some cybernetics.  This was so he could cheat at cards.  He also had a deck of gold playing cards that he could toss with lethal accuracy.

Fruit Chan's The Midnight After was genre-twisting.  A bus full of people drive through a tunnel and when they come out, everyone else in HK has disappeared.  I don't recall the reason ever being explained.  There are hallucination of guys in Hazmat suits.  Some people turn into sand or dirt.  By the end, it rains blood.  To be honest, I don't know what I saw.  At times the film bored, at other times it was frustratingly vague and on the occasions it caught my attention, the film quickly lost it.

Overheard 3 is the third in a popular series of films.  I have not seen Overheard or Overheard 2.  Overheard 3 had something to do with the New Territories & how residents could inherit the right to build homes.  There are gangsters that want to build there.  The meat of the 131 minute film is that Louis Koo has just gotten out of prison (I presume this was covered in Overheard 2) after taking the rap for murder.  The four Luk brothers are gangsters & owe Koo a debt of gratitude.  Koo, with the help of hacker (Daniel Wu), is out to take the Luk brothers down.  The slips them a Mickey Finn, installs spyware on their cellphones and then manipulates them into turning on each other.  Perhaps something was lost in the translation but the complex criminal & interpersonal relationships, deceptions & betrayals & high tech surveillance just couldn't generate interest from me.  Frankly, these Chinese action films seem to be stuck in a rut.  It seems like I've seen a bushel full of these types of films which leave me mild at best.  They almost all have some memorable scenes or character but very few of them keep my attention throughout the film.

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