geezer cinema: detective vs. sleuths (wai ka-fai, 2022)

I have a friend who lived and taught in Hong Kong for many years. I count on him to be my go-to expert on HK films. When he saw on Facebook that we had gone to see Detective vs. Sleuths, he wrote, "Good lord-—Wai Ka-Fai is back? Is it an enjoyable mess?"

"You called it," I replied, saying it was the stupidest good movie I'd seen in a long time. I added, "You know you married the right person when it's her turn to pick a movie and she comes up with Detective vs. Sleuths. Loony from start to finish, several hundred dead bodies, 8 trillion rounds fired, nonsensical plot."

With that, I feel like I've said all that needs to be said about Detective vs. Sleuths.

I had never seen a movie directed by Wai Ka-Fai, although I had seen a couple of Johnnie To movies that Wai had written, including a favorite of mine, Vengeance. I knew it had been 13 years since the last movie Wai directed ... I don't know the story on that. Well into the movie, we got non-stop action, until finally about halfway through everyone took a deep breath. The editing was excellent ... it was part of the reason no one in the audience could take a deep breath. The plot didn't really matter, although eventually it managed to make a little sense. There's an easy-to-spot Chekhov's Gun ... one of the characters is very pregnant, so you know there will come a moment in the middle of the action where she says "my water broke". There's some good acting amidst the carnage. Lau Ching-wan (Lifeline) is over the top as a crazed, hallucinatory ex-cop on the edge of becoming a psychopath, but the acting is appropriate for the part. Raymond Lam is new to me, and he was great as one of the cops. Watch the trailer, and you'll know whether you want to see it yourself.

what i watched

The Assassin (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 2015). This fine film deserves its own post, and originally, it had one, but my computer crashed, and now I'm just working from memory. Suffice to say that this was my first film by Hou Hsiao-hsien, and I'm ready to see more. The cinematography is gorgeous (by Ping Bin Lee), and while there are very few closeups and plenty of long takes, The Assassin is never static. I had seen this film called "Kubrickian", which isn't necessarily a point in its favor for me, but I can see why people make the comparison. Kubrick movies are always beautiful to look at, as well, and he's not afraid of a "slow" movie. The primary reason I found Hou's film superior to anything Kubrick gave us in his last 30 years is that Hou cared about actors. In the case of The Assassin, we are rewarded with many award-winning performances, especially from Shu Qi, who plays the title character with heartbreaking subtlety. She also conveys confidence in the fighting scenes, even though she came to the film untrained in fighting. #87 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of the 21st century.

Geezer Cinema: The Little Things (John Lee Hancock, 2021). Denzel Washington plays a cop with a past, and if you've seen any other films with that description, you've already seen The Little Things. There are a couple of reasons the movie is a bit better than the others. The cast is full of interesting actors (Rami Malek, Jared Leto, Chris Bauer, Terry Kinney, Natalie Morales, Glenn Morshower, Maya Kazan). And while The Little Things deals with a serial killer, Hancock does not turn the killings into something enjoyable for voyeurs. It's not enough to turn this into a great movie, but it helps. Here are the first ten minutes:

The Magnificent Ambersons (Orson Welles, 1942). Watched this again ... earlier review is linked in the title.

police story 2 (jackie chan, 1988)

The first Police Story was Jackie Chan's favorite of his movies, and it's a good one, to be sure. Police Story 3, which goes by Supercop, is my favorite of the series, mostly because of the awesome Michelle Yeoh. Police Story 2 falls in the middle, not just in the order they were made, but in the quality it offers. It's passable, with a couple of Chan's set pieces, as usual, but it falls far short of the other two.

First, to address some confusing matters, there are several different versions of Police Story 2 out there. (This is often the case with Hong Kong films when they are released to the American market.) For brevity, I'll stick to the two basic versions on the Criterion Blu-ray, the original Hong Kong version and the longer version ... not sure what to call it, to be honest. That version gets a 4K restoration from Criterion, while the original, which is presented as an extra on the Blu-ray, is "a new digital transfer of the Hong Kong-release version of Police Story 2 ... created in 2K resolution from a subtitled 35mm print supplied by the American Genre Film Archive. The transfer is presented with minimal restoration, leaving scratches and damaged and missing frames intact, to convey the character of the film element." I didn't want to watch a scratchy print with burned-in subtitles, so I opted for the longer one. Also, the people I was with wanted the English-dub, which didn't suck, but which resulted in things like Chan's character, Chan Ka Kui, being called "Jackie Chan".

Most of Police Story 2 is, well, kinda boring. Chan movies always revolve around the set pieces, but there are only two memorable ones in this two-hour version, so there are some dry spells. Those set pieces are classic, no problem there.

Also, the great Maggie Cheung is less annoying here than she was in PS1 and PS3. She also fell victim to something Chan goes through in virtually every movie: she got hurt in a stunt, bad enough that she couldn't finish the movie (her part was played by a different actress who didn't show her face).

Police Story 2 is not the place to start if you want to see what all the hubbub is about Jackie Chan. I'd go with either of the other Police Story movies, either of the Drunker Master movies, or maybe Armour of God 2: Operation Condor (which goes by many names). If you are an American, I'd go with Supercop.

happy together (wong kar-wai, 1997)

Happy Together is the 6th Wong Kar-wai feature I have seen (he has ten to his name, along with a segment in an anthology film). I think of him as one of my favorite directors, although in an erratically-updated Letterboxd Directors list (I last added to it last December), Wong is only ranked at #50. In the complicated system I came up with, Wong is punished perhaps too harshly for Fallen Angels, which I didn't care for (although I can't even remember seeing it, to be honest). Still, Wong has given us one all-time classic (In the Mood for Love, the first great film of the 21st century), and another that has rewarded multiple viewings (Chungking Express). Wong like to work with people he has been with before, and Happy Together shares with those other two films a star (Tony Leung), a cinematographer (Christopher Doyle), and an editor (William Chang). Leung has in fact been in seven Wong films, while the other main actors have also done repeated work for Wong (Leslie Cheung in three and Chang Chen in four). Wong must bring something special to the table for so many actors to want to work with him time and again, given that the productions for his films are rarely easy. For one thing, Wong isn't big on scripts, which I would imagine keeps the actors on their toes. (This was Chang's first film with Wong, and his part didn't even exist when filming started.)

Happy Together was made just before the Handover of Hong Kong. Wong filmed in Argentina, and the location gives the movie a different feel from other Wong films. There have been many attempts to interpret the film as directly commenting on the Handover; I don't feel knowledgeable enough to offer my own. Instead, I see the film as the story of a gay couple who fall into the "can't be with you, can't be without you" trap. It's easy to see why they are together. It's also easy to see why they continually break up. In fact, the repetitious nature of their relationship means eventually the film loses fire ... there's only so many times we can see them fight, split, and make up before it becomes a bit boring. Chang's insertion into the story (Leslie Cheung was unavailable due to a concert tour) helps by interrupting the repetition.

The film looks great, of course, with the shots of Iguazu Falls defying belief. #332 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.

I should note I watched the recent restoration, which is a bit different from the original. Wong described the restoration, which extended to several others of his films:

During the process of restoring the pictures that you are about to watch, we were caught in a dilemma between restoring these films to the form in which the audience had remembered them and how I had originally envisioned them. There was so much that we could change, and I decided to take the second path as it would represent my most vivid vision of these films. For that reason, the following changes were made....

During a fire accident in 2019, we lost some of the original negative of Happy Together. In the ensuing months, we tried to restore the negative as much as we could, but a portion of it had been permanently damaged. We lost not only some of the picture, but also the sound in those reels.

As a result, I had to shorten some of Tony’s monologues, but with the amazing work of L’Immagine Ritrovata, we managed to restore most of the scenes to better quality....

As the saying goes: “no man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man.”

Since the beginning of this process, these words have reminded me to treat this as an opportunity to present these restorations as a new work from a different vantage point in my career.

Having arrived at the end of this process, these words still hold true.

I invite the audience to join me on starting afresh, as these are not the same films, and we are no longer the same audience.

the seventh curse (lam nai-choi, 1986)

This is the twenty-fifth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." This is the 6th annual challenge, and my second time participating (last year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20"). Week 25 is called "Golden Harvest Week".

From Wikipedia:

"Orange Sky Golden Harvest, previously known as Golden Harvest from 1970 to 2009, is a film production, distribution, and exhibition company based in Hong Kong. It dominated Hong Kong box office sales from the 1970s to 1980s and played a major role in introducing Hong Kong films to the Western market, especially those by Bruce Lee (Concord Production Inc.), Jackie Chan, and Sammo Hung."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film produced and/or distributed by Golden Harvest.

The Seventh Curse is the kind of movie where the IMDB parents guide gives a sense of what you are in for:

  • A baby monster bites a man's neck and erupts from his abdomen, lots of blood everywhere (looks like red paint)
  • General martial arts fighting
  • Police and villains are shot and have little bullet holes with small amounts of blood dripping
  • Man tears flesh off his face and punches hole into his belly, where maggots pour out.
  • A curse causes small spurts of blood to occasionally "pop" out of his veins.
  • Small children are lowered into a stone device that crushes them and their blood pours out. You don't see their bodies being crushed, but the concept is disturbing.
  • A woman has a disfigured face (looks like burn scar)
  • Character is torn in half by a trap and his int stones [?] are seen, group of men are skewered on spikes. Not overly graphic, but aftermath shows some blood.
  • Monster attacks people and tears at their skin. 2 monsters fight, blood pouring out of wounds. monster is shot by bazooka and explodes into bits, not overly bloody.

Even the above doesn't really explain how loony this movie is. For that, I go to the Wikipedia description of the plot:

Dr. Yuen (Chin Siu-ho) in the jungle of Thailand attempts to rescue a beautiful girl from being sacrificed to the "Worm Tribe" she belongs to. As a result, Yuen is damned with seven "Blood Curses" which burst through his leg periodically. When the seventh bursts, he will die, but Betsy, the beauty he saved, stops the curse with an antidote that lasts only one year, so on the advice of Wisely (Chow Yun-fat) he heads back to Thailand to find a permanent cure. Action ensues as Yuen and cohorts battle the evil sorcerer of the Worm Tribe, a hideous bloodthirsty baby-like creature, and "Old Ancestor," a skeleton with glowing blue eyes that transforms into a monster that is a cross between Rodan and Alien.

I appreciate that I'm cheating here ... it's not much of a review when all I've done is quote other sources. But really, doesn't the above give you a feel for what The Seventh Curse might be up to?

I can add a little to the above. Apparently the basic plot and characters come from two series of novels by the prolific writer Ni Kuang. There are 150 or so stories in the "Wisely Series" and roughly 30+ Dr. Yuen stories. In The Seventh Curse, Wisely takes a back seat, which means Chow Yun-Fat isn't around nearly enough. His cool factor is seriously challenged by the fact that he smokes a pipe ... even Chow can't make pipe smoking cool. On the other hand, he's the one who turns up at the end with the bazooka. This film came out the same year as the icon-creating A Better Tomorrow, but I can't tell which came out first. Meantime, Maggie Cheung is involved, a year after Police Story ... she's adorable but annoying, kinda like she was in Police Story. (My invaluable source for HK culture, Steve Fore, noted in a comment to my post about Police Story, "Maggie Cheung was participating here in the standard rite of passage for ingenue female stars in HK movies, taking on roles as the whiny and/or ditzy girlfriend and arm candy.") She's only 22 in The Seventh Curse.

Finally, I should mention that director Ngai Choi Lam has quite a cult following. This is the first movie of his I have seen. Fans speak highly of his Riki-Oh: The Story of Ricky.

The Seventh Curse is pretty crappy, but also pretty fun. It's also short. You'd have to be in the right mood, but it's certainly possible that if you caught it on the right day, you might get a lot of goofy enjoyment.

underrated movies from the 21st century

Something to watch in 2021 while you wait for the lockdown to end. One a year:

2000: Ginger Snaps
2001: Time Out
2002: Real Women Have Curves
2003: The Dreamers
2004: Baadasssss!
2005: Dave Chappelle's Block Party
2006: The Host
2007: Chop Shop
2008: The Beaches of Agnès
2009: Vengeance
2010: Mysteries of Lisbon
2011: A Separation
2012: Stories We Tell
2013: Exhibition
2014: The Raid 2
2015: The Lure
2016: Midnight Special
2017: Detroit
2018: Blindspotting
2019: Furie
2020: The Vast of Night

royal warriors (david chung, 1986)

It was Michelle Yeoh's birthday Thursday, so I thought to watch one of her movies. She rarely disappoints, and Royal Warriors is a notch above average besides, so I made a good choice. But first, a few words about HK film series, understanding in advance that it all gets so confusing, I am certain to make some mistakes.

An example. In 1986, John Woo directed A Better Tomorrow, which made Chow Yun-Fat a big international star and started the "Heroic Bloodshed" genre. There was a sequel, A Better Tomorrow 2, but disagreements between Woo and Tsui Hark led to Tsui directing A Better Tomorrow 3, which was a quasi-prequel to the first two. Woo's script for that on, much changed, became his film Bullet in the Head. Chow had made such an impression in the first one that they wanted to fit him into the sequel, but his character died in the original. So they invented a twin brother, and I can remember how we all laughed with delight in the theater at this corny way to get Chow into the action. Since Tsui's movie was a prequel, he was able to use Chow as the same character as the one who died in the first movie, meaning Chow is in all three. (There was also a Korean remake of the first movie in 2010, and a Chinese remake in 2018.)

So, to Royal Warriors. This gets complicated. In 1985, Yes, Madam! was released, starring Yeoh and Cynthia Rothrock. Rothrock was an American newcomer and a champion martial artist ... Yeoh had a dance background but no martial arts training. She busted her ass because she wanted to do her own stunts, plus she saw martial arts scenes as just another form of choreography. Anyway, Yes, Madam! was a hit, and so, just as A Better Tomorrow had done for Heroic Bloodshed, Yes, Madam! inspired imitators. Royal Warriors was a (unofficial?) sequel to Yes, Madam!, with Yeoh (as Michelle Khan) returning, although she doesn't seem to be playing the same character, nor is the plot clearly connected to the first movie. That's when it gets confusing. There was a third film in the series ... not sure what exactly it was called at first, but today it is known as In the Line of Duty III. To make the connections clearer (yeah, right), Royal Warriors was renamed In the Line of Duty (I don't think Yes, Madam! was ever renamed). The series continued with In the Line of Duty 4, and on and on, finally leading to Yes Madam 5 (!).

This may not interest most people, but at the least, it will help you find Royal Warriors if you want to watch it, since as far as I can tell, it's called In the Line of Duty more often than it's called Royal Warriors.

Is it any good. Yep. Yeoh is terrific (and very young, still in her early-20s). The action is well done and often over-the-top in true HK style. Japanese actor Hiroyuki Sanada (a "hey, it's that guy" for American audiences) is excellent as one of the leads. The plot is goofy, but it hardly matters when Yeoh is doing her thing. If you like this, there are plenty more. Try Wing Chun, where she is the star, or Police Story 3 (known as Super Cop ... here we go again), where she shows herself to be the best partner Jackie Chan ever had.

mad world (chun wong, 2016)

This movie hits too close to home: a story about a bipolar man trying to retrieve his life. I mention this only as a caveat ... I'm not the most objective observer.

There are many things that Mad World does well. While we can probably assume that the main character, Tung, has some chemical imbalances, they do not explain everything about his life. Society doesn't know how to treat him or to help him, and the "mad world" creates bipolar people, chemistry or not. The film is sympathetic towards Tung without romanticizing his life. But Chun Wong does not spare us the effect Tung has on others. His father (Eric Tsang) takes him in after Tung is released from a mental institution, and he is ill-equipped for the job. He tries, though, and his life is more difficult because of Tung's presence. (The father was absent during much of Tung's life ... he must also take some blame.) For the most part, though, Tung gets the short end of the stick. He has a hard time getting a job (he was a financial analyst), people shun him and make assumptions about him.

The only person who meets Tung on an equal basis is "Fruit", played by Yvan Hok-Man Chan (I may have this wrong, I'm struggling to understand the credits). Fruit is a young boy with an overprotective mother, a nerd who connects with Tung as no one else can.

The film succeeds mainly because Shawn Yue is excellent as Tung. He plays all sides, the depressed Tung and the manic Tung, believably. He is the reason Mad World is at times hard to watch, but he also the main reason to check the film out.

fist of fury (wei lo, 1972)

A couple of days ago, W. Kamau Bell posted an interesting piece, "Me and Bruce Lee would like to have a word with you." Bell writes about growing up in Chicago and seeing Fist of Fury:

In the 1970’s many Black people adopted [Bruce Lee] as if he was one of us. Maybe it was because of the themes of racism that were often in his films. Maybe it was because he always played the underdog, which meant Black folks could watch and go, “Yup! I know that fight.” ... Maybe Black folks liked Bruce because of the way he moved on screen, bouncing on his toes like his hero Muhammad Ali. Who knows why. But Bruce Lee was certainly responsible for an explosion in interest in martial arts in Black America. Whatever it was that made Bruce feel like ours, I was there for it and still am.

On a basic level, Fist of Fury is an excuse for a series of set pieces that allow Lee to kick Japanese ass. And Lee is unmatched in such scenes. It's not just his command of martial arts ... it's the beauty of his style, "bouncing on his toes like Ali". He was beautiful to look at even when he wasn't moving, but movement made that beauty special. But it was more than beauty. Lee gave the impression of compressed violence. You could say he plays the title character in this movie, and there is immense power in the ways he uses his fists. He is lethal.

The plot is a fairly standard revenge tale. There's a romance that mostly serves to slow the movie down. But you don't watch Fist of Fury for plot or romance. You watch to see Bruce Lee kick ass.

Japanese ass. That matters ... the story takes place in Shanghai in the 1910s, when the Japanese have much power over the daily lives of the Chinese. Worse, they disrespect Chinese culture. After the death of the leader of the school Lee is a part of, the Japanese show up, make threats, and give a "gift", a poster with the message "Sick Men of Asia", referring to the Chinese. Lee is the one who stands against the Japanese, returning the poster with a message of his own.

Bell writes of this scene, "Apparently when Chinese movie audiences first saw this scene they would stand and cheer. And as a prepubescent kid in Chicago, I might have done the same thing. As a Black boy in America, I felt that line in my bones. I wasn’t Chinese, and my oppressors weren’t Japanese, but I was in my mom’s apartment on the South Side of Chicago going, 'I’M NOT A SICK MAN EITHER!'"

Lee had incredible charisma on the screen. I wish Fist of Fury was slicker ... it looks kinda cheap. But that's what Enter the Dragon is for.

police story (jackie chan, 1985)

This is Jackie Chan's favorite of his many movies, and it always turns up on lists of the greatest Jackie movies ... hell, the greatest HK action movies of all time. It is among my favorites, as well, although when I made my Top 50 list some years ago, it was Supercop (Police Story 3) that made the list. I also have a soft spot in my heart for Armour of God 2: Operation Condor, which is admittedly inconsistent and even occasionally awful, but which finishes with a colossal wind tunnel scene.

Police Story features two of Chan's best set pieces, a battle in a town that starts the film, and arguably his greatest scene, an extensive fight in a mall. There is enough between those two iconic scenes to keep your interest, but no more than that ... as great as Chan is (and he is one of the true GOATs), I don't know if he's ever made a perfect movie (his comedy works great in the action scenes, when he truly is the Buster Keaton of his day, but it is less effective outside of those scenes). There was an odd video store back in the day in Berkeley ... this was before DVDs, so everything was VHS, the owner was a wonderful snaggle-toothed guy, and every morning they put a life size replica of Robot Monster outside the front door ... they had this one tape that was nothing but 8 hours of Jackie Chan stunts.

On the plus side, Police Story features Brigitte Lin, who is not only supremely talented but who was, in the years when I watched a couple of HK films a week, my choice for most beautiful Hong Kong actor (her, or Tony Leung). On the minus side, it also has Maggie Cheung, whose character (Jackie's girlfriend) also turns up in the next two sequels. Cheung is usually marvelous ... she co-stars with Leung in In the Mood for Love, which still gets my vote as the best film of the 21st century ... but her character in the Police Story movies is a pain in the ass, unworthy of her (in fairness, in 1985 she was barely 21 and had been in only a few movies).

Still, if you start with a great action sequence, and you end with an even greater action sequence, you can forgive a lot of the rest.

Here is the mall scene. At the end, when Jackie slides down the pole, the lights were hot, resulting in second-degree burns for Chan (he also dislocated his back and injured his pelvis). Note that Brigitte Lin did some of her own stunts. And you can see why the stunt crew referred to this film as "Glass Story".

Here is Chan talking about the final stunt: