The Heroic Trio (Johnnie To, 1993). (Siu-tung Ching must also be mentioned from the start for his work as “martial arts director”, i.e. wire fu.) I don’t remember exactly when I saw John Woo’s The Killer for the first time. I know we rented the VHS video from Palmer’s Cameras, so that might narrow the time frame. I knew nothing about it, but the in-store advertisement looked interesting. About halfway through the movie, I said something like “holy shit”, and became an instant convert to Hong Kong movies. It was a good time for such movies, and one of the pleasures of finding something new-to-you is that there is already an established batch of things to watch. (Binge-watching TV series carries some of the same feeling, or reading the first book in a series.) First I watched Woo’s classics, then Jackie Chan, then anything I could find. The UC Theatre showed HK double-bills on Thursday nights, which meant there was always something new. Michelle Yeoh was a particular favorite, thanks to her great beauty and terrific ability in action scenes (she had no martial arts training, but used her past as a ballet dancer to good effect). There was Yes, Madam! with Cynthia Rothrock, Police Story 3: Super Cop with Jackie Chan, and Wing Chun, which she carried largely on her own, although Donnie Yen was along for the ride. The Heroic Trio came between Super Cop and Wing Chun, and it’s a truly loony piece of work. The plot makes no sense, but it doesn’t try anyway so that doesn’t matter. The laws of gravity are broken with regularity, as is always the case with wire fu, so there is no reason the laws of narrative would fare any better. There is a surprising amount of real grossness to some of the violence, which needs to be mentioned for folks who are squeamish. But the hook for Heroic Trio is the actors who play the titular characters. There’s Yeoh as “Invisible Woman”, Anita Mui as “Wonder Woman”, and Maggie Cheung as “Thief Catcher”. I don’t know if I can translate this cast to an American production … maybe if they made Charlie’s Angels with Sigourney Weaver, Madonna, and Michelle Williams. Yeoh would become famous in the West as a Bond Girl, and later for her part in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon … Cheung is loved worldwide for movies like In the Mood for Love and Clean (for which she won a Best Actress award at Cannes). In Asia, Mui was the biggest star of the three, often called the “Madonna of Asia” for her music, which placed her atop the charts for many years. But Mui was like Madonna, if Madonna could act … Mui won awards for acting as well as singing. In short, these are three of Asia’s most honored and respected actors, and they show up in a bizarre wire fu movie. It’s quite fun, if you’re in the right mood. You can tell Yeoh is handling most of her own action work, but To makes Cheung and Mui look good, too. Yeoh also has the most showy role as far as acting goes, and she makes the most of it. (Cheung is often comic relief, as she was in the Police Story movies with Chan.) Perhaps Charlie’s Angels is a good comparison: three absolutely beautiful actresses kicking ass. But Charlie’s Angels didn’t have Siu-tung Ching. 7/10. For a follow-up, you could catch the sequel, Executioners, which I haven’t seen but which isn’t highly regarded. For Yeoh, try Wing Chun. I never miss a chance to tout In the Mood for Love with Maggie Cheung, although it is nothing like this movie. Finally, Mui won awards for her work in Rouge.
Once Upon a Time in Anatolia (Nuri Bilge Ceylan, 2011). The viewing experience isn’t always relevant, but in this case, I need to state upfront how I watched this movie. I watched the first half on Blu-ray, but the disc kept screwing up, so I finally gave up and returned it to Netflix. They sent me a replacement, and I watched the second half a couple of days later. (Creepy sidenote: when I put the replacement disc in the Blu-ray player, the movie started up where I’d left it with the other disc.) I mention this because Once Upon a Time in Anatolia is a long movie (a little more than 2 1/2 hours), and it is built to be watched in one sitting, so that it will draw out a cumulative response. Since I took a break in the middle, I was able to put off some of the possible boredom that might have ensued otherwise. (Mick LaSalle called it “colossally, memorably and audaciously boring”.) I could certainly see why some people would be bored … “nothing happens” for long stretches of the film, and the first two hours offer multiple renditions of the same events: police are driving a murderer around, looking for where he buried the body, but he was drunk at the time, can’t really remember where the grave is, and many places in that part of Anatolia look the same, so they drive to a spot, get out of the car, look around, murderer says that isn’t the place, they get in the car, drive to a spot, etc. As they drive around, we listen to their conversations, which seem extremely mundane (click here for a discussion of yogurt). It all reminded me a bit of L’Avventura, where the characters wandered around, seeming aimless, while Antonioni turned their lives into something bigger. Anatolia is designed to frustrate your expectations … it’s a police procedural, it’s noir, it is, in Andrew O’Hehir’s words, “like an episode of ‘CSI,’ scripted by Anton Chekhov, stretched to two and a half hours, and photographed against the bleak, impressive scenery of Turkey’s central steppes.” There are no clear solutions to anything, and what we learn about the characters lacks clarity as well … what you think you know could slip through your fingers. It’s not a movie for everyone. #116 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don’t They list of the top 250 films of the 21st century. I give it 9/10. I haven’t seen them, but Ceylan’s earlier movies Distant and Climates are also highly regarded. Or you could watch my 17th-favorite movie of all time, L’Avventura.
Spider Baby, or, The Maddest Story Ever Told (Jack Hill, 1964?). Another one of those movies where it’s as much fun talk about the extraneous stuff as to discuss what’s on the screen. Let me get the latter out of the way. Spider Baby is a low-budget Inbreeding Meets Lolita story that is part horror film, part comedy, and overall better than you would expect. One poster read “Seductive Innocence of Lolita, Savage Hunger of a Black Widow!” It will never rise above cult status, but within that context, you could do worse. Now to the fun stuff. It’s the first film directed by Jack Hill, who gave us such classic 70s exploitation movies as Coffy and Foxy Brown. It stars Lon Chaney, Jr. who actually does a decent job. (The above-mentioned poster says, “Starring Spider Baby and Lon Chaney”.) The cast includes cult faves like Sid Haig, Carol Ohmart, even Mantan Moreland. It was filmed in 1964 for around $60,000 … the title at the time was Cannibal Orgy. The money men behind the production went bankrupt, so the film wasn’t released until 1968. The song that plays under the opening credits is performed by Chaney. One of the actors, Quinn Redeker, went on to some success as a soap opera actor, and also was nominated for an Oscar for co-writing the screenplay to The Deer Hunter. Jill Banner, who plays Spider Baby, died in a car accident at the age of 35 … at the time, she was working with Marlon Brando. A lot of cheapo movies are incompetently made. Credit to Jack Hill for making a movie where the camera is where it belongs, where the performances are reasonably OK, where you’ll see something a little bit different. Doesn’t mean it’s a good movie, but relatively speaking, it’s fine. 6/10. For a companion, you could watch one of Hill’s Pam Grier movies. There’s also Chaney in The Wolf Man, which is very good, or Abbott and Costello Meet Frankenstein, which also features Chaney (and Bela Lugosi as Dracula!) and which is very very good.
The Music Room (Satyajit Ray, 1958). I originally intended to give this movie its own post in the Blu-ray series, but I don’t think I can do it justice, so I’ll just attach it here. It’s almost universally admired as one of the greatest films of one of the greatest directors, but it mostly left me cold. I’m willing to accept that I just wasn’t in the right place to appreciate it. It’s an hour shorter than Once Upon a Time in Anatolia, but I found it much harder to get through. Again, the might be my own fault … I didn’t realize half the film is a flashback until I read it in reviews after the fact. I get the comparisons to King Lear, but this movie is far too quiet for the comparison to work … the main character never explodes against the world the way Lear does, and in fairness, emulating Lear is not likely to have been Ray’s intention. I can’t blame him for what others said about his film. Perhaps because I was bamboozled by the time frame, I never found the main character to change. It could have been a 20-minute short and worked just as well for me. For now, I’ll file it under “watch it again in a few years”. #218 on the TSPDT list. 6/10. I obviously don’t have any recommendations for similar movies to watch. Perhaps Charulata, another Ray film that I saw 40+ years ago and remember liking.