geezer cinema: magnificent warriors (david chung, 1987)

This is the nineteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2023-24", "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 9th annual challenge, and my fifth time participating (previous years can be found at "2019-20", "2020-21", "2021-22", and "2022-23"). Week 19 is called "Contemporary Performers: Michelle Yeoh Week":

Malaysian actress Michelle Yeoh began her career in Hong Kong action films. She became an international star after appearing in the James Bond film Tomorrow Never Dies and Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. She has continued to appear in action, sci-fi, and comedy films, combining all three with her performance in Everything Everywhere All at Once, for which she became the first Asian woman to win the Oscar for Best Actress.

This week's challenge is to watch a film starring Michelle Yeoh.

It isn't a very big challenge to get me to watch a Michelle Yeoh movie. I'm a big fan ...Magnificent Warriors (also known as Dynamite Fighters) marks the 17th Michelle Yeoh movie I've seen. A biographical summary of Yeoh's career is complicated. She was only 22 when she made her first movie, going under the name "Michelle Khan", a name change suggested by the studio D&B Films. She broke out with her second film, Yes Madam, which was followed by Royal Warriors, and then Magnificent Warriors ... the latter two had the same director (In the credits for the version we saw, on the Criterion Channel, she was listed as "Michelle Kheng"... her name at birth was "Yeoh Choo Kheng"). She made one more movie, then married Dickson Poon (the D of D&B) and retired from acting. She was 25.

Five years later, she got a divorce and returned to movies. She made some of her best movies then, including Police Story 3: Super Cop, The Heroic Trio, and Wing Chun. All that was left was to conquer Hollywood, which she did in 1997 with the James Bond movie, Tomorrow Never Dies (finally listed in the credits as Michelle Yeoh). Her role in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon solidified her place on the world stage. Finally came Everything Everywhere All at Once in 2022, for which she won a Best Actress Oscar.

Magnificent Warriors, with its Indiana Jones feel, is about even with Royal Warriors in terms of quality. Those two, and Yes Madam, are all fun to watch, and Yeoh/Khan/Kheng has clear screen charisma. If you are going to start your Michelle Yeoh marathon, though, start with the post-retirement films, enjoy the "famous " ones next, and then you're on your own. Even a bad movie is made better by her presence.

revisiting the 9s: red cliff (john woo, 2008)

[This is the nineteenth in a series that will probably be VERY intermittent, if I remember to post at all. I've long known that while I have given my share of 10-out-of-10 ratings for movies over the years, in almost every case, those movies are fairly old. So I got this idea to go back and revisit movies of relatively recent vintage that I gave a rating of 9, to see if time and perspective convinced me to bump that rating up to 10.]

In 2008, I wrote about Red Cliff, "John Woo returns to China, makes two-part historical epic, regains his Mojo. I haven't had time to really think about this movie yet ... what it 'means.' But it's a marvelous thing to watch, with some fascinating battle scenes." More to the point, I wrote the following about Red Cliff II the next year:

There are two essential items going on here, the strategy preparing for battle, and the battle itself (as I recall, it was much the same in Part One). I’m not a fan of “war strategy” movies, but this stuff is fascinating. It takes place in the early 3rd century, so the weapons aren’t very advanced. But they are put to ingenious uses, and the overall strategies on both sides are interesting mostly because of the point/counterpoint feel. The leaders on both sides know how war is “supposed” to be fought, and there’s a bit of game theory going on, as first one side and then another attempts to figure out how the other will vary from the norm, so that they can themselves vary in a useful manner. The result would please the A-Team’s Hannibal … as you watch in admiration, you think “I love it when a plan comes together.” The final battle sequence is as good as any you’ve seen. The only problem is that we’re getting aesthetic pleasure from the deaths of tens of thousands of people, and while there are brief moments when we’re reminded of the deceased, for the most part our reaction is more “Wow!” than “poor fellow.” This was true in Woo’s HK action films, of course, but the scale here is far beyond that of a movie like Hard Boiled. Still, watching Woo put all the pieces together in such a way that the audience can clearly follow the action mirrors the way the warlords put the pieces of their plans together.

I did indeed rate Red Cliff 9/10, which is why it's in this series. I gave the second film a 10/10, and I'm not sure why I thought it was the better of the two films ... they are equals. In fact, in some ways they are exactly equals: in America, the films were combined into a shorter version (also called Red Cliff), and I'm pretty sure Woo thought of them as two parts of the same movie. I have never seen the shorter version. This time around, I was taken by the acting. I've seen Tony Leung in 12 movies ... I've never given one of his pictures less than 7/10, and I've given my top 10/10 rating to four of them. Chow Yun-Fat was the HK actor who first got my attention, but over the years, I think Tony Leung Chiu-wai may have overtaken him. Heck, he might be my favorite actor of all time from any country. (I re-watched both movies back-to-back over the past two days.)

platform (jia shangke, 2000)

This is my first film from director Jia Shangke, another entry in the It's About Time department. Platform was Jia's second feature, made when he was 30 ... he is considered a leading light in the Chinese "Sixth Generation" school of films.

While there was much to appreciate in Platform, I felt like I was only scratching the surface. Clearly, Jia is commenting both on the 1980s, when the film mostly takes place, and 2000, when the film was released, but I don't have enough context to pick up on subtleties. What is left is a good, if long, look at 20-somethings as they interact with each other and experience the changes in Chinese society. The focus is on a theater troupe whose repertoire seems to focus on things The Party would approve of. As time progresses, the troupe becomes more pop, but again, my lack of context means I noticed this without being able to know the implications of much of the situation.

The main characters are played by Wang Hongwei and Zhao Tao, both of whom have worked frequently with Jia. (Zhao is married to Jia.) Jia often uses stationary camerawork, but the compositions are effective, and there is enough movement to prevent a static look.

I liked Platform; I just wanted to get it enough to love it. #376 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time, #36 on the 21st-century list.

Here is the opening scene:

a touch of zen (king hu, 1970)

This is the thirteenth film I have watched in "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2022-23", "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 8th annual challenge, and my fourth time participating (my first year can be found at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2019-20", the second year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2020-21", and last year at "My Letterboxd Season Challenge 2021-22"). Week 13 is called "Long Time Running Week":

This week's challenge is to watch a previously unseen film with a runtime equal to or greater than 180 minutes.

I was introduced to King Hu three years ago, during my first Letterboxd challenge, with Come Drink with Me for Wuxia Week ... it was an early example of that genre. A Touch of Zen is probably Hu's most acclaimed work ... it's #346 on the They Shoot Pictures, Don't They list of the top 1000 films of all time. It's an epic that sneaks up on you.

I admit my mind was drifting during the first of the film's three hours. It presented a 14th century isolated mountain village ... we meet various characters, some potential subplots are introduced, but the entire movie at this point is leisurely, with none of the over-the-top "wire fu" I expect from the genre. But Hu knows what he's up to, including disrupting the norms of the genre. Once the action begins, our appreciation is increased because we know some of the characters in depth thanks to that leisurely beginning. Admittedly, I much preferred the latter 2/3 of the film, and my mind quit drifting. I've seen a dozen or so wuxia films over the years, but I am far from an expert, and am mostly impressed by action, since I lack the historical knowledge that would provide some context.

This was the first time I've seen Hsu Feng, who was very good as a beautiful ass-kicker. Her character, Yang, has many levels. We first see her as a potential marriage partner for Gu, a scholar and painter. We learn that she is a fugitive, and over time, we see that she has supreme martial arts skills. She also has a magical ability to instill skills into others ... after she sleeps with Gu, the formerly awkward bumbler becomes a master strategist and something of a martial arts champion himself. I loved her character, and I loved what Feng brought to that character.

Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan are also in the cast in minor roles. Jackie's role was so minor, I never actually spotted him, but Sammo takes part in a couple of battles late in the film. Mostly, their names in the credits are interesting, but this is not a Sammo film, it's a King Hu film starring Hsu Feng, and if you make it past that first hour, you will be rewarded. And it looks gorgeous, besides.

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