the mad monk (johnnie to and siu-tung ching, 1993)

The Johnnie To marathon continues with this one, which came between The Heroic Trio and Executioners. (Ching worked on all of these, as well ... he's the stunt guy, i.e. the martial arts director, i.e. wire fu). Probably the key collaborator here is star Stephen Chow (Kung Fu Hustle), a massive star in Hong Kong who later crossed over into U.S. popularity. Rumor is that Chow and To did not get along, although I can't see evidence of this one the screen. But it feels more like a Chow movie than a To movie, which doesn't help me, since Chow's specialty is comedy that doesn't always translate well across cultures. (There is a term for this, Mo lei tau, which refers to the kind of humor, often verbal, that involves nonsense and puns, just the kind of things that don't travel.)

There were a few things I liked. Maggie Cheung is always welcome at my house. The same goes for her Heroic Trio co-star Anita Mui, whose two appearances amount to an extended cameo. Anthony Wong is different than I usually see him (he plays "Nine Lives Beggar"). The less said about the loony plot, the better. If you like these movies, you'll like The Mad Monk OK, I suppose. But I'm giving it 6/10.

 


revisiting vengeance (johnnie to, 2009)

Continuing my mini-festival of Johnnie To's movies, prior to attending an interview with him in a couple of weeks.

I am surprised when I read what I wrote about Vengeance the first time I saw it. I liked it more than any other Johnnie To film I'd seen (that is still true, I suppose), gave it 8/10, but I seemed most interested in noting that it was the first movie I watched on my Kindle Fire.

My opinion hasn't changed over the last six years. Then, I said, "The action scenes (i.e. violence with lots of shooting) are top-notch, and a couple of HK veterans, Anthony Wong and Simon Tam, are good as ever. But it’s French pop star Johnny Hallyday who steals the movie as an aging Frenchman seeking revenge for the murder of his daughter’s family." Hallyday is the key. Without him, Vengeance is just another fine Johnnie To movie. He takes the movie to another level. Hallyday is often called "The French Elvis", which is accurate and a complement, except being the French Elvis is a bit like being the MVP of the 1962 Mets. Still, Hallyday's work here (and in The Man on the Train, which I also liked), makes me wonder once again about something I wrote years ago about The Man on the Train: "Watching this movie, you can't help but wonder, what if the real Elvis had made it through the 70s, what if he'd been rediscovered later in life as a character actor, what if he'd shown up in something like Jackie Brown?"

Vengeance will remind many of Memento, but there is also one scene that recalls Macbeth's birnam wood:

8/10.

 


drug war (johnnie to, 2012)

I'm going to see Johnnie To interviewed in a couple of weeks, so I thought I'd binge through some of his movies I haven't seen yet. Among the ones I have seen: 

I don't think I realized how many of his films I've seen. My general impression of To is that I like him enough to check out one of his movies when I can't decide what to watch (6 or 7/10 for everything except Vengeance, which gets 8/10). I'll be browsing, and based on my past viewing, a Johnnie To movie will be recommended, and as often as not, I'll watch it.

Drug War is noteworthy as the first action film To shot entirely in Mainland China. There is some disagreement about how much this affected To ... the settings are more expansive, while some of the adjustments are small to an outsider. For example, To has noted he used Hong Kong actors for the bad guys (the reverse of how it often is in HK films). And the original ending was changed, although whether this was to avoid the censors or simply because they ran out of money is unclear.

Drug War is non-stop, but in a different way than the average action picture. A drug lord is arrested, and to avoid the death penalty, he agrees to work with the police. What follows is a step-by-step presentation of the case, if not as detailed as something like High and Low, at least more detailed than usual. The trick, though, is that To doesn't achieve this forward progression by piling on action scenes, one after another. Yes, there are action scenes, but most of what propels Drug War involves the various deceptions taken by the police to ensnare the drug lords.

And then, with about twenty minutes to go, it all explodes, and all the interested parties converge on the same space. What follows should best be experienced fresh, so I'll offer no spoilers. But To pulls of this colossal finish without resorting to much CGI. It is just a lot of people shooting at each other.

And the ending brings together the cop and the criminal in a perfect, unique way.

I wouldn't call Drug War subtle, but To definitely resists the urge to go all Hard Boiled on us. #765 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century. 7/10.

 


what i watched last week

These actually cover more than a week … for some reason last week’s got posted too soon, leaving me with a couple of leftovers.

Slacker. It’s interesting to watch this movie after seeing 20 years of Linklater’s work. All of these voices jabbering away about whatever is on their minds … we get similar people doing similar things in Before Sunrise and Before Sunset, in Waking Life and A Scanner Darkly. Something that seemed new and unique in 1991 now seems like What Richard Linklater Does. I’ve liked every one of his movies I’ve seen (with the exception of Tape, which I hated), and if Slacker isn’t the best of them (I’m partial to Dazed and Confused), it’s innovative and worth a return visit every couple of decades. 7/10.

Green Zone. This movie works, but I’m not sure why. Matt Damon makes a good soldier with a brain, the feeling of dread would seem to match life in Iraq at the time the film takes place, and Paul Greengrass doesn’t overdo his usual frenetic camera work until the final action sequence, which is exciting but confusing. And the movie calls the U.S. on the lies we told ourselves to get the war started. Good movie, but far from great. 7/10.

Ginger Snaps 2: Unleashed. Remarkably, it doesn’t suck. It’s not Evil Dead II good, but it’s good enough to watch if you were a fan of the first one. Still, the first one is a classic, while the second doesn’t suck. 6/10.

Chungking Express. Watching this the same week I watched Slacker made for interesting comparisons … not that they are similar films, but because both directors offer unique, uncompromising visions. Wong Kar-Wai may be his generation’s Godard, but as is appropriate, that is both a positive and a negative. When I first saw this movie, I wasn’t impressed, but once In the Mood for Love made me a Wong fan forever, I’ve been willing to reassess his movies, and I’ve enjoyed Chungking Express every time I’ve seen it since. This time, I realized how much I prefer the second part. I also notice how young Tony Leung is (I guess I need to watch Hard-Boiled again, since he’s even younger in that one, or Bullet in the Head, which is before all of them). Faye Wong makes you wish she made more movies … Brigitte Lin is one of the most beautiful actresses ever, and there are hints of this if you look closely past the blonde wig and large sunglasses. #320 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 7/10.

City Hunter. A very stupid movie, redeemed a bit by a great fight at the finale between Jackie Chan and Richard Norton. There are a lot of very weird things here, which, if you are fan of the original anime, might seem appropriate. I don’t know the original, and most of what’s on the screen flops. A fight scene where the two combatants become characters from Street Fighter II is better than the fight scene in a movie theatre playing Game of Death, with Jackie fighting two tall black guys while Bruce Lee takes on Kareem Abdul-Jabbar on the screen. There are a lot of beautiful babes running around … the unstoppable Chingmy Yau comes off the best, but really, they’re as much eye candy as anything else … this ain’t exactly The Heroic Trio. 5/10.

Mother. A genre film, I suppose, although it encompasses multiple genres and defies our expectations along the way. It isn’t a slapdash approach by any means … it isn’t there just to show us how many movies director Joon-Ho Bong has seen. Bong is quite precise. The Host took the monster movie to a different place, and was more loony than Mother. Mother may be the better film, though. It probably says more about me than about the relative merits of the two films that I gave The Host 7/10, while I’ll give Mother 8/10.