Friday, October 08, 2010

Back like a Bad Baht

Geez, has it really been that long since I last did a post for this Blog? How time flies when you are in a coma. Well, not a coma exactly but a period of such infinite lassitude that I may as well have been. I have been woken from my crusty-eyed slumber by the news of two Hong Kong films suddenly washing ashore here in Bangkok. It is almost like being in Hong Kong. But better. After cruising the Internet like a sneaky Peeping Tom, I got the impression that one of these films was being treated like raw sewage that had seeped out of a septic tank while the other was being judged with somewhat mixed reactions. Perhaps because it has just been so long since I last saw a Hong Kong film, I may be too easy on both of these – one of them clearly is as shallow as a quickly dug grave in the dead of night but it is somewhat saved by fine production values, an almost coherent story, a few solid action sequences and an actress who I have been infatuated with for over a decade. The other film may have a suspect political message that echoes the one in Hero, but it is otherwise a fine piece of work and worthy of giving the director a Comeback of the Year Award.

And as exciting as these films are, Reign of Assassins is coming soon – that is the John Woo/Michelle Yeoh wuxia. Once upon a time from the 1960’s through the 1980’s Hong Kong films were shown all over Asia on a regular basis, but with the decline of Hong Kong films and the muscle of Hollywood marketing those days are long gone. So it is a real thrill to see three of them coming to town in such a short space – and also a pleasure to see Michelle starring again in a big Hong Kong film. Besides this good news, the Thai film Red Eagle opened this week in theaters. Red Eagle is directed by the same fellow who made the greatest Thai film of all time, Tears of the Black Tiger, and has been on the radar of film fans for years now. It is a super hero film based on a character from Thai movies made decades ago.

So what is going on in Bangkok, you are probably not wondering – well basically rain for over four months now. But on the bright side, the Red Shirts are basically gone though they remind us of their presence from time to time by setting off bombs around the city – they blew up an apartment building the other day. On the other hand, Central World Mall which they partly burnt down in May has amazingly opened its doors to business.

I came across this fun exhibit that is at the Emporium Mall on the top floor – a very cool display of spirits all exhibited in these dark small rooms with creepy music invading your mind.

Someone put together this mural of depictions of Thai ghosts.

A mother with her beautiful baby.

And an image that should be familiar to all Hong Kong movie fans.

I went by Paragon Mall today and came across this long line that literally went out the mall and far down the street.  Were people lining up for Red Eagle?

Not quite – but instead the opening of this - which makes me wonder how many years it will take for Thai’s to become as fat as Americans.

I was very excited to discover that Maggie Q is starring in an American TV show called Nikita and with the magic of the Internet I was able to watch the first episode. It should be called Nikita: Just when you thought there would be no more remakes of La Femme Nikita. Nikita is out to bring down the organization that made her a killer. Not great but as long as Maggie Q wears a bikini every episode, I am in.

Oh, that’s right, the movies. I knew there was a reason for this post.

The Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen
Director: Andrew Lau
Year: 2010
Starring: Donnie Yen, Donnie Yen, Donnie Yen and some other people.

The Legend of the Fist begins with a slick conceit that it is never able to shed in a film that glistens much more than it glowers. The character of Chen Zhen who was portrayed by Bruce Lee in Fist of Fury and Jet Li in Fist of Legend was if you recall killed in both by the Japanese – but this film posits that Chen Zhen did not die but is alive, well and killing Germans in Europe during WWI. Wow. Who would have thought? Chen has joined some other 140,000 Chinese to assist the Allies in the trenches by carrying supplies and the wounded, an historical aspect of the war that is in fact based on reality. In the opening prologue to the film, Chen and his fellow Chinese are pinned down by a nest of machine guns and in easily the best scene of the film Chen parkours himself up buildings and one step ahead of the trailing bullets to wipe the Germans out. This sets you up badly for a much stodgier film to follow.

After the war (and after China has been screwed once more by the West in the Versailles Peace Treaty), Chen returns to Shanghai to find out that the Japanese have infiltrated all aspects of the city and are clearly intent on military conquest. He is part of an underground resistance and as his cover he mysteriously manages to become a partner in a nightclub with Anthony Wong - and a homage is quickly paid to the nightclub’s namesake, Casablanca, in a song salute. No Ingrid Bergman here though – just a slinky chanteuse named Kitty (Hsu Chi) who ingratiates herself with every man who crosses her scent. Soon the Japanese put together a death list of hundreds of Chinese and Chen takes to a masked disguise like a super hero to fight them. Not all that successfully as history bares witness to.

The production values of the film are top notch as tends to be Lau’s trademark - though for the most part Shanghai is kept to a street outside the nightclub – and the film’s narrative covers a painful and interesting aspect of history – even if greatly fabricated here. One senses that Lau wanted to tell a bigger story – one that encompassed more of the resistance to China but a narrative thread that concerned rival Chinese armies in the north is quickly aborted (and poor Shawn Yue given short shrift) in order it seems to make it an all Donnie show.

Where the film falters most lies basically in the performance of Donnie Yen who plays Chen like a mixture of the ghost of Bruce Lee, a 1930’s smiling matinee idol and a heroic Batman looking down on Gotham. It is a 90 minute exercise in preening. This of course isn’t unusual in Donnie Yen films but one might expect a director as heavy hitting as Andrew Lau to be able to reign him in a bit. Where Lau may have exercised his control unfortunately is in the action – which after the first sequence is generally nothing to shake in your pants about. There are a number of short quick jolts in which Chen demolishes his opponents but it isn’t until the final confrontation – that again goes back to the dojo thus mimicking the two previous films - that the audience gets a lengthy brawl. But one somehow lacking in tension or the wow factor.

But the major gripe aimed at this film by critics and fans is the negative depiction of the Japanese and the Westerners. And there can not be any doubt that the Japanese are all portrayed as nasty monsters and the British as racist idiots. In truth, this on its own terms didn’t really bother me all that much. I mean my guess is that most British officials in Shanghai at this time were racist and treated the Chinese quite badly – and the Japanese may not have all been evil but they were well on their way to murdering over ten million Chinese, 300,000 in Nanking alone. So no crocodile tears from me for the way these characters were portrayed in the film. What is a little more nefarious and worrisome though is the nationalistic anger at foreigners that seeps through the film at the present time when China is on the rise and pushing its weight around the globe – with Japan being a recent victim of their threats. Whether this is a co-incidence or another example of Hong Kong filmmakers placating and playing up to the Mainland is hard to say – but if so, one can begin to say goodbye to the independence of filmmaking in Hong Kong.

My rating for this film: 5.5

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Director: Tsui Hark
Year: 2010
Starring: Andy Lau, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Carina Lau, Li Bing Bing

Let’s just come out and say it – this is the best Tsui Hark film since The Blade in 1995. The seeming decline in Hark’s work over the past fifteen years has been the subject of many a fan and critics sad soliloquies. How could the director/producer who brought us Peking Opera Blues, Shanghai Blues, Chinese Ghost Story, Green Snake and Once Upon a Time in China suddenly be unable to grab us with his films anymore. Where did the magic go? Every new film brought out mass prayers that maybe this film would be the one to get him back on the right track. But films like Tristar, The Legend of Zu, Black Mask II and Seven Swords instead brought a tear to our eyes. Time and Tide has its fans but to me it was a cold convoluted film with a few superlative set pieces. It isn’t really surprising - he had a great run for fifteen years and how many artists last that long at the top of their game. Genius burns out faster than mediocrity.

Still his films were the reason that so many of us initially found our way into Hong Kong films and so we hoped. What made his films so wonderful is hard to pinpoint because they were all so different in most ways, but the one element that underlie all his classics was a heartfelt sentimentality that never felt cynical – whether it was the friendship of three women fighting for Chinese freedom or two strangers pining for one another over the years or a bookish scholar who finds the courage to follow his love straight into the bowels of hell to save her. It was this untarnished sentimentality that seemed to disappear from his films – whether it was a reflection of the hardening of this world or perhaps a hardening within himself, who can say – but without it his films seemed cold and distant - clinical exercises in filmmaking but without the passion.

I can’t say that Detective Dee entirely reclaims that sentimentality – I don’t even know if it would work for today’s audiences – but one does sense that Tsui has reclaimed his passion for filmmaking. This film is a craftsman at work creating a tense, fast moving narrative that never flags for a moment and constantly surprises with inventive scenes and characters. It is a fun wild ride like his films used to be. Perhaps darker, perhaps more serious but a carnival ride nevertheless. Tsui immediately throws his audience into the spectacle of the Tang Dynasty in 690 right after Empress Wu (Carina Lau) has deposed yet another son and claimed the throne for herself. A woman taking the throne doesn’t sit well with many in the palace as well as in the military and it seems only a matter of time before they strike at her. A giant Buddha is being built (with Tony Leung Ka-fai being the main architect) right outside the palace and when two of the planners apparently catch fire from their insides, the Empress calls for the return of Detective Dee (Andy Lau), who she had imprisoned years ago for being a traitor, to solve the mystery.

Don’t think of Detective Dee (a.k.a. Judge Dee) as he is generally presented in films or history (he really did live during this period) or even in the mystery novels of Robert Van Gulik as a scholar who works his way cerebrally though investigations. Tsui makes him an action hero as well – much perhaps not coincidentally in the same vein as Sherlock Holmes was portrayed by Robert Downey. This is a good thing as assassins are constantly trying to kill him and his agility saves him on numerous occasions. He is given two assistants to work with – The Empress’s able right hand woman (Li Bing Bing) and a cruel albino who seemingly takes pleasure in taking lives – but are they really trying to help or hinder Dee’s investigation. Who can be trusted? No one, is the answer.

Full of a myriad of slick action scenes, the standout is a lengthy set piece that occurs in claustrophobic caverns beneath the earth with killers popping out of everything and everywhere. It is exhilarating and fluid – like the old Tsui Hark could do with his hands tied behind his back. The performances are all topnotch – Andy Lau showing a vulnerability behind his nobility, Carina displays just a pinch of humanity within her cruel iron hand, Li Bing Bing is graceful, beautiful and ultimately touching, Tony bounces beautifully between humility and anger and it was just nice seeing small parts for two actors from back in the 1980’s – Teddy Robin Kwan and Richard Ng. Great sets, costumes, pacing and characters - it is almost like being back in the 1980's.

What seemed an unnecessary add-on though, was a last minute political message that echoes the one in Hero and caused so much controversy then – one that is imparted by Detective Dee to the Empress – yes you are cruel, yes you have killed many people who opposed you – but you are a strong ruler and keeping the country together is what counts - so keep on ruling. It felt like a commercial for the Communist government in China and seemed so out of place – so did Tsui have to throw it in there one might wonder to appease the Mainland?

My rating for this film: 8.0


Glenn, kenixfan said...

Wow, welcome back!

You and Sean Tierney both liked Detective Dee but YTSL rated it very low. I liked Seven Swords but don't remember a bit of it and don't want to watch it again.

And, of course, I'm one of the few people who likes Legend of Zu quite a bit but I'm not sure why anymore.

More importantly: Where's your review of Red Eagle? I take it it's playing there in multiple theaters? Very excited about that despite a trailer that looks like a dozen other trailers.

Kingwho? said...

Welcome back!!!

Glad to see you are in one piece!

I'm itching over detective Dee. I'm hoping it's the next best thing. By your review it sounds like it's worthy.

How do you like NIKITA? I have seen all of the episodes and it's pretty weak. I'm not a big fan of hour long dramas so my opinion might be bias. The most recent episode wasn't great but it hinted toward better things to come. And I agree about Maggie Q. Good lord! Please bring the bikini back!

YTSL said...

Welcome back... with a vengeance! Even if to learn that you love two movies I dislike! :D

More seriously though, can see your points re The Legend of the Fist.

Re Detective Dee: I think one problem for me comes from having treated it as a whodunnit (as the title implies it would be) -- this way, there's not much suspense in that one knows that OF COURSE Empress Wu will get "coronated" (as the English subtitles say). History already showed that it was the case!!!

Also, yeah, that final "lecture" by Detective Dee stuck in the craw. To go from the messages and ideas of such as "Peking Opera Blues" and "Swordsman II" to that... :S

Anonymous said...

Good to see you back online, Brian!
Don't disappear for so long next time. ;)

I'm also pretty psyched about Detective Dee. I have a feeling I'm going to like it just as much as you did, YTSL's review notwithstanding.

Love those Thai ghosts -- and the fact that the exhibit was on the top floor of a mall. Did you ever see this Thai TV ad for Sylvania?

Brian said...

Thanks everyone for remembering that this Blog exisits. I hope to get back in the mix of things and get some other posts up. And thanks to you guys for keeping up the hard blogging work on your sites - I just needed a long break.

GK - hope to see Red Eagle this coming week - I expect Wise Kwai will have a review up long before I do. Like you, the trailer doesn't thrill me and I fear that it will be very super hero generic. Grady liked Dee as well and I discovered has his own site up -

KW - have only seen the one episode of Nikita but have downloaded 3 others. The first one wasn't great by any means -I worry that the show will tone down the violence way too much and Nikita will never become the cold blooded killer I lust for.

YTSL - geez I was waiting for a good smackdown from you! Of course perhaps thanks to you I went in with low expectations and was especially surprised by how much I enjoyed Dee. Over time I may lower my rating but it was just so much better than I anticipated.

DD - very cool! Thx!

sbk said...

Yeah Brian,

Glad to see you're writing again!!!!

As always your movie reviews are very fun and informative. Please, please continue them.

The Thai ghosts exhibit looks so interesting.

Is Krispy Kreme trying to dominate the world. The one in Tokyo by Shinjuku Station always has a line. Krispy Kremes are so sweet and icky.

Brian said...

SBK - thanks for tuning back in - sorry for the summer of reruns. Not that I am particularly health conscious as my physique will attest to but have never had a KK - though they have one in Penn Station that I pass all the time. I am just perplexed that Thai's even have heard of KK.

Anonymous said...


The title is actually Hot Summer Days and its a HK flick produced by Fruit Chan and 20th Century Fox. It's got a large cast with somewhat big names like Jacky Cheung and Vivian Hsu starring in it. It was probably theatrically release in NYC because of 20th Century Fox's involvement in the movie.


Phantom of Pulp said...

The Thai ghost exhibition looks amazing. Right up my alley. The mother with the baby is my favorite.

Regarding 'Return of Chen Zhen', the film was ruined for me for the same reasons as you, especially the3 communist endorsement.

On top of that, I have been watched Yen in movies for twenty years and I still haven't warmed to him. It always feels like Ego First/Character First with every role he's done. I keep watching them, but there always comes a point where I'd like to slap him.

It was great to see Teddy Robin Kwan and Richard Ng.