still in the mood for love (anthony bourdain edition)

I revisited In the Mood for Love after watching an episode of the late Anthony Bourdain's series, Parts Unknown. I watched Bourdain at the encouragement of a friend who had asked me to do so earlier this year when Bourdain died. He specifically suggested the Hong Kong episode, and I finally got around to it. I get recommendations from people all the time, and sometimes it takes me forever to get to them ... a couple of weeks ago I watched a DVD someone had given me a few years ago, for the first time. It takes forever ... but I keep track, and I do get to them eventually. (Hint: the comments section is always a good place to make requests.)

I know very little about Anthony Bourdain. I know he died. I know he was partners with Asia Argento. What I know of his work comes completely from when he wrote for Treme. I also knew nothing of the series Parts Unknown. Honestly, I thought it would be a food show and nothing more.

Well, it was great. And when it began, and I heard music that sounded a lot like In the Mood for Love, I was instantly happy. Then I found out Christopher Doyle, long-time collaborator with Wong Kar-Wai and the co-cinematographer for In the Mood for Love, is in the episode. Watching Doyle, I couldn't believe I'd never encountered him anywhere but behind the camera, so to speak. I love his work, and left it at that. To find out he is such a character fascinated me. Of course, I had to look him up, and found that he is famously rambunctious. I felt at times that I was watching a camera-toting Keith Richards, and liked finding out that he has called himself the Keith Richards of cinematographers. Like I say, I can't believe it took me this long to learn about him as a person.

There are things I don't think I quite get, given I am coming to Parts Unknown cold. It was a bit creepy knowing this was the last episode shown before he died. It was also creepy knowing Asia Argento directed it, given her own recent problems. I guess I'm lucky I found it, since apparently CNN removed her episodes from their streaming site.

I often think, when watching food or travel shows, that I wish I was adventurous. I don't like to travel to unfamiliar places, and my taste in food is notoriously narrow. Seeing Bourdain wandering around HK and eating any damn thing they put in front of him reminds me of how limited I am.

I admit, this didn't make me want to immediately watch more of the episodes of the show, but it did make me want to watch In the Mood for Love yet again. That film was #38 on my Fifty Favorites list of a few years ago. At the time, I wrote:
In the Mood for Love is a perfect title for this movie. The two main characters are most definitely in the mood; they also don't ever get beyond being in the mood. Repressed emotions have rarely been so charged as they are here. While on one level, "nothing really happens," Wong Kar-wai does a great job of making us anticipate what is about to happen. Of course, our expectations go unfulfilled.

This time around, I think I better appreciated why some people wouldn't love the film as much as I do. The haunting waltz that is played throughout the film might simply seem repetitious, and those unfulfilled expectations might just be irritating. Not for me, I must add. As beautiful as the film is to look at, it takes an extra leap because of its stars. As I once said, "The plot, whereby a man and woman discover that their respective spouses are having an affair, isn’t particularly far-fetched. But they are played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Maggie Cheung, two of the best-looking actors in the world, and you can’t help wondering why anyone lucky enough to be married to them would have a roving eye." Ultimately, I'm not sure In the Mood for Love felt different when seen partly through the filter of the Bourdain show. But the two make a perfect, if tragic, pairing.

Here is an interesting video essay on the movie from "Nerdwriter1":


tell me something new

Diamonds Are Forever (Guy Hamilton, 1971). This was the 7th film in the Bond canon, and the last with Sean Connery until his return in the non-canon Never Say Never Again. It followed the only George Lazenby Bond, On Her Majesty's Secret Service, which had everything except a good actor playing 007. Connery returns to the worst of his first six ... it's not up to From Russia with Love or Goldfinger ... heck, it's not up to You Only Live Twice. Jill St. John is a decent Bond Girl, there are a couple of goofy bad guy partnerships, and Jimmy Dean plays Howard Hughes. But it's nothing you haven't seen before, if you'd watched the ones that came before it. 

The Brink (Jonathan Li, 2017). We saw this at an HK festival ... it came out in Asia last year, but is only now showing up in the U.S.. It's Li's first turn as a director, and he is brutally efficient. The fight scenes are well-choreographed, and the two leads, Jin Zhang and Shawn Yue, were charismatic. But the plot existed mainly for the fight scenes ... there was none of the over-the-top "heroic bloodshed" of HK gangster movies in the past. It's a good movie that doesn't give you any real reason to watch it. Like Diamonds Are Forever, it's nothing you haven't seen before, if you watched the ones that came before it. 

 


what i watched last year

To copy what I said at this time in 2015: “A summary, sorted by my ratings. I tend to save the 10/10 ratings for older classics, so a more recent film that gets 9/10 is very good indeed. Movies that are just shy of greatness will get 8/10. I waste more time than is necessary trying to distinguish 7/10 from 6/10 … both ratings signify slightly better-than-average movies, where if I like them I’ll pop for a 7 and if I don’t, I’ll lay out a 6. I save 5/10 for movies I don’t like, and anything lower than 5 for crud. This explanation comes after the fact … I don’t really think it through when I give the ratings. They skew high because I try very hard to avoid movies I won’t like … if I saw every movie ever made, my average might be 5/10, but I skip the ones that would bring the average down. Anything I give at least a 9 rating is something I recommend ... might sound obvious, but if someone is actually looking to me for suggestions, that limits the list to 15.  So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.”

10:
The Killer
Jules and Jim
Mad Max: Fury Road: Black & Chrome Edition
The Maltese Falcon (1941)

9:
Don't Look Now
Get Out
I Am Not Your Negro
Le Samouraï
The Magnificent Ambersons
My Neighbor Totoro
O.J: Made in America
Stories We Tell
The Straight Story
Sunset Blvd.
The Thing from Another World

8:
13th
20th Century Women
Andrei Rublev
The Dreamers
Fat Girl
Girlfriends
Hail, Caesar!
The Handmaiden
Hell or High Water
The Host
I Walked with a Zombie
Journey to Italy
Klute
Lady Bird
Melancholia
Okja
Pat Garrett and Billy the Kid
Persepolis
Real Women Have Curves
The Southerner
Terminator 2
Them!
Three
To Walk Invisible
Train to Busan
Vengeance

7:
10 Cloverfield Lane
2 Days in Paris
The Amazing Mr. X
Bad Kids
The Bare-Footed Kid
Bedlam
The Black Cat
Blade Runner
Doctor Strange
Don't Breathe
Drug War
The Fly
The Happiness of the Katakuris
Gimme Shelter
High Noon
Ip Man 2
Jesse James
Johnny Guitar
Lifeline
The Lobster
Love Actually
Marshall
My Night at Maud's
The Panic in Needle Park
A Place in the Sun
Punch-Drunk Love
Road to Morocco
The Set-Up
Some Came Running
Spielberg
Stalag 17
Stalker
The Thing
To Catch a Thief
Uncle Boonmee Who Can Recall His Past Lives
The Unknown
Village of the Damned
Wanda
Wonder Woman

6:
The Best Offer
Biker Boyz
Colossal Youth
Cop Car
Genocide
Guardians of the Galaxy Vol. 2
Guess Who's Coming to Dinner
The Haunted Strangler
In the Heart of the Sea
The Intervention
Jesus' Son
The Mad Monk
The Maltese Falcon (1931)
The Mirror
Rudderless
Shoot 'Em Up
The Time Travelers
The Vampire Lovers

5:
Return of the Fly
A Woman, a Gun, and a Noodle Shop
Zabriskie Point

4:
Anything Goes
The Ghost Galleon
The Screaming Skull

3:
The Corpse Vanishes
Final Girl

2:
Godzilla's Revenge
Spies-a-Go-Go

1:
Electronic Lover

Totals over the years:

2010: 86 seen (7.2 average rating)
2011: 125 (7.3)
2012: 113 (7.1)
2013: 110 (7.5)
2014: 127 (7.4)
2015: 136 (7.1)
2016: 82 (7.4)
2017: 109 (7.0)


lifeline (johnnie to, 1997)

I finished my Johnnie To mini-festival with this one, which can be described in shorthand as Backdraft in HK. The thing is, I really hated Backdraft (2/10 ... don't even remember why, and it should get points for providing the soundtrack to the original Japanese Iron Chef).

The first hour of Lifeline presents us with the firefighters who will feature in the story. It's done well enough, I suppose ... some of the characters are interesting. And there are some brief firefighting scenes interspersed with the melodrama. But I was impatient ... this kind of character "development" usually bores me, since it is often shallow, and merely postpones the good stuff.

In fairness, the good stuff, when it finally arrived, was improved by our knowing the various characters, so I should probably leave well enough alone.

Because the good stuff is phenomenal. The last 40 minutes are gripping, like watching one of the better Mad Max movies, only with fire instead of cars. A large building is on fire, and it's one thing after another. The firefighters never get ahead of the game, and even when they stall the fire momentarily, another crisis arises. It's like an alien monster invasion movie, where everything the army tries against the aliens fails, and hope fades to nothingness. I don't know who deserves credit for the excellence here, so I'll just name some of the likely suspects: director Johnnie To, of course; cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung; editor Wong Wing-Ming; and action director Yuen Bun. The music by Raymond Wong adds a lot, as well. There's no point in breaking down the various segments of the fire scene. Just know that you likely will never see any similar scene that matches this one.

Lau Ching-Wan is excellent in the lead role, and everyone else is good enough. It takes a bit of patience to get through the first hour, but that patience is rewarded when the real action starts. 7/10.

 


the bare-footed kid (johnnie to, 1993)

As far as I can tell, this is Johnnie To's only period martial arts movie. It's a remake of Disciples of Shaolin, a mid-70s film. Not having seen the original, I have nothing to add to that.

On the face of it, there are a lot of appetizing elements to The Bare-Footed Kid, beyond it being a Johnnie To film. The cast includes the legendary Maggie Cheung, Kenneth Tsang (who has been in close to 200 movies), and Ti Lung, a star in many of those 70s martial arts movie (he had the skills) who had a career resurgence in A Better Tomorrow. The title character was played by Aaron Kwok, a huge star who I admit I'd never heard of. The cinematographer was Wing-Hang "Horace" Wong. And the stunts were directed by Liu Chia-Liang.

Yet during the early parts of the movie, I felt a bit unimpressed. The look of the film was gorgeous, especially the vivid colors, and I'm always ready to watch Maggie Cheung. But to my untrained eye, Wong had to work hard to make Aaron Kwok look like he was kicking ass ... lots of cutaway shots and wire-fu.

But The Bare-Footed Kid grew on me. As is usual for me, I had a hard time following the plot, but since everything looked good, I couldn't complain. And Cheung and Lung were acting at the highest level ... they gave the film class. A rather violent ending was a bit surprising, but overall, Maggie Cheung and Ti Lung made me forgive a lot. And did I mention the colors?

One final note. I found this streaming on Amazon, and the only option was dubbing. It was kind of appropriate, like I was watching something from the 70s. Except the dubbing was actually pretty well done. 7/10.

 


three (johnnie to, 2016)

This is Johnnie To's most recent film, and he certainly hasn't lost his touch. Three is an economical 88 minutes long, and despite the previews, it takes more than an hour for the special To violent scenes to really burst. Until then, Three is a medical drama that takes place in a hospital. There is some tense suspense, because one of the patients is a dangerous thug with information the police want, so even as the movie seems dedicated to sticking with the medical angle, you keep expecting something awful to happen.

Actually, something awful happens right away, as an overworked doctor (Zhao Wei) botches a brain surgery. The three main characters of the title are the doctor, a cop, and the thug, and they are all working their own agendas, with the doctor and the cop trying to save people and the thug just going for what he wants. Various other patients also have distinctive personalities ... it's amazing how many characters we get to know in such a short movie.

The simmering pot finally boils over in the last 20 minutes, including a remarkable shootout in the hospital that seems partly like an homage to Hard Boiled. After To spends most of the film seemingly hiding in the shadows, he cranks up the style (this has also been compared to The Wild Bunch, for the way it takes its time getting to the slaughter).

Zhao Wei (aka Vicky Zhao) is great as the obsessive doctor, but Wallace Chung has the showiest role as the thug, and he plays it just this side of over the top. This is one of To's better movies. 8/10.

 


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.

 


the killer (john woo, 1989)

I’ve been a bit sick the past few days, and so I sat down to watch an old favorite to pass the time. I wandered around the On Demand menus until I saw this, and cranked it up.

I wrote an essay back in 1994, “The Meaning of Chow (It’s in His Mouth)”. I spent a lot of time explaining why I thought I could never penetrate the essence of Chow (and HK films in general).

It is odd and charming ... yet I feel like my words have been spoken before, by other American dilettantes, taking pleasure in the 'exotic' Orient. Charming, because different. Odd, because different. Above all, different. However Hong Kong action movies are perceived in Hong Kong itself, in the U.S. they are first and foremost different, alien, even as they freely borrow from our own movie traditions. It is that difference, in part, that I am responding to when I watch Chow Yun-Fat. Perhaps I even make a fetish of that difference; I embrace the alien, make it, for a moment, mine.... I am confronted with the barriers between my experiences and Asian culture. For an American to watch a Chow Yun-Fat movie is to partake in an ultimate experiment in audience-response theory. We don't understand the culture that produced a Chow Yun-Fat, so we are left to the subjective experience we bring to the movie theatre.

Ironically, this “theory” of the unknowable “meaning of Chow” was proven wrong in a connecting essay by a friend, Jillian Sandell, whose writing on John Woo was so on target she heard from Woo, who said it was one of the best things he had read about his work (she managed to get an interview with Woo out of this exchange). My disconnect was personal, not universal.

In my own essay, I argued that without the cultural context of growing up Chinese, I ended up focusing on more surface tendencies, on things I could fetishize, like his mouth (“Blowing smoke, dangling his toothpick, eating chocolate, or just smiling ... ultimately, when trying to explain why Chow Yun-Fat is cool, it comes down to his mouth.”)

I’ve watched a lot of Chow Yun-Fat movies since then, and a lot of John Woo films, as well. And a lot of Hong Kong movies ... while my passions have dimmed somewhat, throughout most of the 90s, I obsessed about the movies, seeking them out wherever I could (I once went into a Chinese video store where no one spoke English, pointed at a picture of Chow, and said, “I want his movies!”). Gradually their popularity in the States grew ... one repertory theatre in Berkeley showed HK double-bills every Thursday night. But for me, The Killer is where it started.

I was at the video store, and I saw a life-size cardboard cutout advertising The Killer. I no longer remember the details, but it was so striking that I knew I had to rent it. Thus, The Killer stands as the movie that introduced me to Hong Kong films, especially of the urban action genre.

I once showed The Killer to my students in an introductory class at Cal. I had many Asian students in the class, and I remember one of them telling me that their parents were pissed off, that they didn’t pay all that money to send their kid to Cal only to have them watch trashy HK movies. I was surprised, since I thought of The Killer as an art film.

There are John Woo movies I like more than I like The Killer. Hard-Boiled is the standard, Bullet in the Head an over-the-top favorite (OK, all of these movies are over-the-top), A Better Tomorrow solidified the “Heroic Bloodshed” genre’s popularity. Not to mention Woo’s films in other genres, like Once a Thief and Red Cliff. But The Killer will always be first.

The Killer excels in the staging of action scenes, of course, but what marked this film, and many others in the genre, is the relationship between the male leads. Sandell wrote:

[T]his homoeroticism always occurs within moments of excessive violence, a violence that is invariably represented as beautiful, stylized and desirable. The very filmic techniques used — such as soft focus, slow-motion and subtle colors — characterize the violence as romantic. Moreover, in shoot-outs between the heroes and villains, the heroes seem to almost 'dance' and 'swoon' as they fire their weapons, and such scenes are inundated with discharge (bullets and blood) being expelled from male bodies and weapons.

And, describing the final shootout where cop and assassin join forces:

[T]hey do more than merely join forces; they fire their weapons in harmony, they gracefully leap away from flying bullets, they gaze lovingly into each others eyes, and they move in synchronized time and motions, employing a kind of mutuality not found elsewhere in the film. Thus, the relationship between the two men is characterized as being not merely homoerotic but also, in some senses, transcendent.

I was pleased to find that The Killer holds up well. I'm still astonished both by the violence and the emotionalism, but my reaction is much as it was in the past. The movie doesn’t seem sillier now. It is quite the same. #635 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 1000 films of all time. 10/10.