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:


come drink with me (king hu, 1966)

Another movie for "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", "A 33 week long challenge where the goal each week is to watch a previously unseen feature length film from a specified category." Week 18 is called "Wuxia Week":

From Wikipedia:

"Wuxia, which literally means 'martial heroes', is a genre of Chinese fiction concerning the adventures of martial artists in ancient China. Although wuxia is traditionally a form of fantasy literature, its popularity has caused it to spread to diverse art forms such as Chinese opera, mànhuà, films, television series and video games. It forms part of popular culture in many Chinese-speaking communities around the world. The word "wǔxiá" is a compound composed of the elements wǔ (武, literally "martial", "military", or "armed") and xiá (俠, literally "chivalrous", "vigilante" or "hero"). A martial artist who follows the code of xia is often referred to as a xiákè (俠客, literally "follower of xia") or yóuxiá (遊俠, literally "wandering xia"). In some translations, the martial artist is referred to as a "swordsman" or "swordswoman" even though he or she may not necessarily wield a sword. The heroes in wuxia fiction typically do not serve a lord, wield military power, or belong to the aristocratic class. They often originate from the lower social classes of ancient Chinese society. A code of chivalry usually requires wuxia heroes to right and redress wrongs, fight for righteousness, remove oppressors, and bring retribution for past misdeeds. Chinese xia traditions can be compared to martial codes from other cultures such as the Japanese samurai bushidō."

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen Wuxia film.

This was a late substitute, after Tsui Hark's directorial debut, The Butterfly Murders, became unavailable. Come Drink with Me is an excellent replacement. It is one of the earliest wuxia movies, and stars Cheng Pei-Pei, who many years later played Jade Fox in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. I realized after watching the film that I had the mistaken notion that wuxia films were all "wire fu". The above Wikipedia description shows that wuxia is much broader than that, and in fact, Come Drink with Me seems to have very little wire work.

Cheng had a background in dance, which King Hu thought was more useful than training in martial arts. (Michelle Yeoh had a similar story prior to her work in action films.) Given how influential Come Drink with Me turned out to be, it's interesting that there is probably more plot than action in the film. To my eye, the action was not as impressive as in later films, but I'm not certain King Hu intended the action to be mind-blowing.

Cheng is good (and very young, only 20 at the time). The rest of the cast are more archetypal than "real", which fits the way the story is told. The version I watched was dubbed, not ideal, but better than nothing, and it added a retro feel ... it was a bit like watching dubbed kung fu movies on TV back in the day. My favorite wuxia movie is probably A Chinese Ghost Story.


top three of each year

I've been spending a little time at the Letterboxd website ... this is what happens when you're retired, I guess. A couple of fellows from Germany uploaded a list of their top three films of each year, and I got inspired enough to create my own list. It starts in 1924 and goes through 2018. Two years (1926 and 1929) only got two movies, so the entire list is comprised of 283 movies. The thing that interested me the most was the recent films, because when I make Top 50 lists or whatever, I always end up with lots of old movies and not enough new ones. By forcing myself to pick three from each year, I was able to give recent years some space. So, to take a couple of years at random, from 2018, Black Panther, Roma, and Springsteen on Broadway made the list, while 2005 offered A History of Violence, The Death of Mr. Lazarescu, and Dave Chappelle's Block Party. Top three from 1924? Sherlock, Jr., Greed, and The Navigator (lots of Buster Keaton in the silent years).

You can check out the list here:

Top 3 of each year, 1924-2018


g affairs (lee cheuk-pan, 2018)

We saw this at SFFILM's Hong Kong Cinema series. Director Lee Cheuk-pan and actors Hanna Chan and Kyle Li were in attendance for a short Q&A after the showing. This was the directorial debut for Lee. I'm unfamiliar with the work of the three artists who attended, and only recognized one other name in the cast, Chapman To (Infernal Affairs, Beautiful Country). All of the actors were excellent in G Affairs, with To and Huang Lu the standouts. The latter two played a corrupt cop and a whore-with-heart-of-gold, which is to say, the characters in the film are largely stereotypes. But the style of the film is quirky enough that you don't always notice those stereotypes, and To and Lu do wonders with the material. To say that To plays a corrupt cop is a bit repetitive ... in G Affairs, if you are a cop, you are corrupt. Basically, everyone and everything in the movie is corrupt. Hong Kong society is a mess, from the teenagers at the elite high school to the criminal scum. Chan's character seems sweet enough ... she also gives blow jobs to her teacher, eventually getting gonorrhea. It's that kind of movie. The letter "G" is a gimmick ... everything in the plot is connected in some way to words that begin with a G (gravity, guns, a dog named Gustav), and it was never clear why the English letter turned up in the lives of people speaking Chinese. (This was addressed in the Q&A, and I still didn't understand it.)

Honestly, there was a lot I didn't understand about G Affairs. Some of this can be attributed to the Hong Kong specificity of the film ... I was more certain than usual that I was missing a lot of cultural clues. But Lee also uses a fragmented style that further muddies the narrative. If you are the type who doesn't mind this kind of muddying (or even enjoys it), you will get more out of G Affairs than I did. Good acting and a style that always looked good, even when I had no idea what I was watching, meant I found G Affairs an interesting 105 minutes, and Lee, only 33 years old, seems to have a good future ahead for him. But I wasn't blown away.

And look out for that severed head.


what i watched

Catch-22 (Mike Nichols, 1970). Better than I remembered it being. It's still like a revue of the novel, with various highlights, doing better with the humor than with the existential angst. Features a ridiculous cast: Alan Arkin, Bob Balaban, Martin Balsam, Richard Benjamin, Marcel Dalio, Norman Fell, Art Garfunkel , Jack Gilford, Charles Grodin, Buck Henry, Bob Newhart, Anthony Perkins, Paula Prentiss, Martin Sheen, Jon Voight, Orson Welles. Better than reading the CliffsNotes, I suppose, at least more fun. I see I used the word "better" three times ... that may give the movie more credit than it deserves.

I didn't know this, but there was a TV pilot in 1973 with Richard Dreyfuss as Yossarian. It's pretty bad, with an incongruous laugh track. I'd link to a video, but it's been taken down from YouTube. I'd recommend you try to hunt it down, but it's awful enough that it's not worth your time unless you're a completist. Of course, there's also a new mini-series, which I'll get to once I finish it.

Ip Man 3 (Wilson Yip, 2015). Follows Ip Man and Ip Man 2 (duh). Donnie Yen is a little older with each outing, but unlike someone like Jackie Chan, who relies so heavily on stunts, Yen mostly sticks to martial arts, which I imagine aren't quite as hard on an old body as some of Jackie's crazier stunts. Lynn Hung returns one last time as Ip Man's wife ... she's not always given a lot to do, but at 5'10" she certainly stands out, and her acting is as good as she is tall. Max Zhang makes his first appearance in the series, and he's so good they gave him a spinoff, Master Z: Ip Man Legacy, which I haven't seen. Nor have I seen the recent Ip Man 4, with Yen returning once again. (In fairness to me, I don't think Ip Man 4 has been released yet.) A final fight between Yen and Zhang is the highlight, but there's also Ip Man going up against "Frank", played by Mike Tyson, that isn't as bad as it sounds. Ip Man 3 was the biggest success of the three at the box office. For reasons that escape me, I watched this in an English dub, which was not too bad. This outing takes place in 1959, and as with Ip Man 2, there is a notable anti-British bias. Ip Man remains the best of the series, but they are all worth seeing.

Here, Ip Man takes on Mike Tyson in a 3-minute round:

Not bad for a 52-year-old and a 49-year-old.


drunken master ii (chia-liang lu, 1994)

Or, as it's known in the U.S. and on Netflix, The Legend of Drunken Master.

It was Jackie Chan's 65th birthday on Sunday, so I took in one of his classics, the sequel to Drunken Master. Age is a funny thing in movies. Given the things Jackie has done to himself over his career, it's amazing that he's still alive. In Drunken Master II, Chan was already 40, although he plays a much younger character (and pulls it off ... when you are a physical marvel like Jackie, age seems less important, at least at 40). His co-stars include a few Hong Kong greats ... Ti Lung (A Better Tomorrow and many others) plays his father, although in real life, he's only 8 years older than Jackie. And the magnificent Anita Mui (The Heroic Trio) plays his step-mother, and she was actually 9 years younger than Chan.

And, since I'm listing cast members, Andy Lau has a cameo that points to the numerous alternate versions that we in the States get of HK movies. The copy I watched, on Netflix, was in Cantonese with English subtitles, but Lau's character was a counterintelligence officer, which was supposedly true only in the American dubbed version. Whatever ... it was a good print, and if the soundtrack was different from the original, I couldn't tell (not saying it was different, just that it didn't seem to matter). Here's a look at some of the changes made to the American version ... I like this because you get a brief chance to see what Anita Mui does in Drunken Master. The "Madonna of the East" really shines, stealing scenes left and right. She was a true superstar, and it shows here. She makes every scene better.

As for the movie itself, Chan relies less on crazy stunts than usual. "Drunken Master" refers to a style of martial arts, and this film, like its predecessor Drunken Master, is a martial arts film more than anything else. There are some eye-popping scenes in Drunken Master II, and I don't want to overstate the difference between this and, say, Armour of God II: Operation Condor.

The big finale features a sensational battle between Jackie's drunken master and an imposing villain who is played by Jackie's real-life bodyguard at the time, Ken Lo. Even by Chan standards, it's amazing ... Roger Ebert said,"It may not be possible to film a better fight scene."

If you're thinking of a double-bill, the obvious match is Drunken Master. If you're looking for another Jackie Chan movie to watch, I like to recommend Police Story 3: Supercop with Michelle Yeoh.


double bill: john woo meets jacques demy

(These were suggested as a double-bill at The Criterion Channel.)

Last Hurrah for Chivalry (John Woo, 1979). I don't entirely buy the pairing of these two movies. But Woo loves musicals, and while there are no songs in Last Hurrah for Chivalry, there is a balletic feel to some of the sword battles. In the end, I just watched it as a Woo fan who hadn't seen this one before. It came seven years before A Better Tomorrow changed everything, and while there is some novelty seeing sword play in place of shootouts, the film is more interesting as an early look at the friendships among men that is one of the themes Woo is most famous for. The film moves along briskly, the characters are detailed enough for us to care about them, and the exploration of male camaraderie, if low-key compared to Woo's heroic bloodshed classics, at least hints at Woo's future. The women in the film are largely irrelevant, despite the attempt in the trailer to make it seem like there is some important heterosexual love. Not up to Woo's classics, but enjoyable just the same. And the Sleeping Wizard is the best.

The Umbrellas of Cherbourg (Jacques Demy, 1964). Very much of a piece with The Young Girls of Rochefort, which Demy made three years later. The primary common thread is that both movies feature dialogue that is 100% sung. It sounds annoying, but you quickly get used to it. It matters that Cherbourg is such an honest portrait of romantic love ... it would be worth watching without the music (I might say it would be better, but the music is part of the charm, and there's a recognizable-to-this-day song in Michel Legrand's score). David Thomson, writing about this movie, noted, "So often, the realist's complaint about the musical is that awkward moment where the actors take a deep breath, the story goes on hold, and 'it' breaks into song. What better cure for that hesitation, or the nausea that attends it, than having every line of dialogue sung?" Makes sense to me, although I've found it easy to resist more recent attempts at this kind of "complete" musical. Meanwhile, in commenting on the music, we should not lose site of the look of the film, which is full of gorgeous, irresistible colors. It's hard to believe we're looking at a real city, which I mean in this case to be a compliment. #173 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time.


revisiting chungking express (wong kar-wai, 1994)

This was a bit of a test in a couple of ways. First, it's the latest Movie of the Week on the upcoming Criterion Channel, so I felt obliged to stream it, even though I own the Criterion Blu-ray. Second, I wanted to try out my new computer with its 4k graphics. This was also a stretch, since the Channel wasn't in 4k, so the movie probably looks better on the TV in Blu-ray. But I had to play with my new toy.

I wrote about Chungking Express before, and outside of liking it even more this time, I don't have much to add. Interesting to note how critical opinion changes ... when I wrote about the film in 2010, it was #320 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. Now it has moved up to #214. This reflects my own opinion, since, as I noted back then, I've liked Chungking Express more every time I've seen it. Brigitte Lin and Tony Leung are great, but I expect no less from those great actors. (Leung really is in my pantheon ... I've given my highest rating to In the Mood for Love, Hard Boiled, and Red Cliff, and have never given one of his movies a bad rating ... his average is 8.5/10.) Faye Wong is such a bright spot ... she was/is a singer, she had done some acting, mostly on TV, but Chungking Express was her breakout role in movies. (She has only acted in a few features since.) She commands the screen, and being able to do this when sharing a scene with Tony Leung isn't easy.

One of my favorite film-based videos is this one, created out of Faye Wong's hit version of "Dreams" by The Cranberries:

It's funny, in the movie, the song most identified with Faye is "California Dreaming", but it's her version of "Dreams" that has always stuck with me.

It amazes me that Chungking Express is now 25 years old. The actors are so young ... Tony Leung was 32, Faye Wong was 25, Takeshi Kaneshiro (unfairly getting less attention than the other stars) was 21, and Brigitte Lin, the veteran, was 40.

How did the test go? The Criterion Channel picked a good one for their second Movie of the Week, and the new 4k 27" screen looked great, even in a non-4k film.


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 14.  So I’ve included links to my comments on those movies.” (Movies in bold in the 9-10 range are ones I was seeing for the first time.)

10:
In the Mood for Love
Performance

9:
The Ascent
Black Panther
The Death of Mr. Lazarescu
Dunkirk
Faces Places
First They Killed My Father
Five Easy Pieces
Moonlight
Mudbound
My Neighbor Totoro
Pickpocket
Strong Island

8:
American Honey
The Babadook
Before Sunrise
Day for Night
Dressed to Kill
First Reformed
Gaslight
Gertrud
The Guilty
Gun Crazy
The Incredible Shrinking Man
India's Daughter
Listen to Me Marlon
Local Hero
Logan
The Look of Silence
A Matter of Life and Death
Memories of Underdevelopment
Private Life
Sorry to Bother You
The Spirit of the Beehive
Springsteen on Broadway
Supercop
The Thin Man
Three Billboards Outside Ebbing, Missouri
Widows
Yellow Submarine

7:
Avengers: Infinity War
The Big Sick
Black Mirror: Bandersnatch
Bombshell: The Hedy Lamarr Story
The Brink
Cat People
Crazy Rich Asians
Creed
Darkest Hour
Divines
El Topo
Flying Down to Rio
Grand Hotel
Hell Is for Heroes
Hereditary
Hidden Figures
Horror of Dracula
Icarus
If You're Not in the Obit, Eat Breakfast
Lost City of Z
The Magnificent Seven (1960)
Man on the Moon
The Man Who Fell to Earth
The Man Who Knew Infinity
The Man Who Knew Too Much
Morvern Callar
Ms .45
Nothing Sacred
On Body and Soul
Personal Shopper
Set It Off
Seven Days in May
The Square
Syndromes and a Century
Tarzan and His Mate
The Time Machine
Tropical Malady
Venom
Watchmen
Zombieland

6:
Atomic Blonde
Bo Burnham: what.
The Circle
Colossal
Diamonds Are Forever
Dogville
The Dressmaker
The Equalizer
The Equalizer 2
A Girl Like Her
Glastonbury Fayre
Holiday Inn
Hostiles
The Lion in Winter
Miami Vice
Murder on the Orient Express
Spring Breakers
The Spy Who Dumped Me
Star Wars: The Last Jedi
Welcome Home, Roxy Carmichael

5:
Behave Yourself!
The Black Scorpion
The Day of the Triffids
Dishonored Lady
Enemy
Margot at the Wedding

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)
2018: 109 (7.2)