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:



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.

what i watched last week

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.

what i watched last week

Premium Rush (David Koepp, 2012). The title tells you pretty much everything you need to know. A balls-out Manhattan bike messenger needs to get an important message across town. Someone else wants the envelope, too. It’s like Run Lola Run, only stupid. The half of the movie devoted to speeding bicycles is a premium rush indeed. The other half, where lame attempts at character development are supposed to make us care about the people involved, just slows things up. The result is half a good movie. 6/10.

Green Snake (Tsui Hark, 1993). Fantasy based on a Chinese folk tale about two snakes who want to take human form in order to experience love. A top director and cast (headed by Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong) make the most of it, although as is usually the case with Tsui, it’s best not to worry about the plot unless you are steeping in Chinese history and legend (which I am not). Cheung plays the title character, and is much more impish than usual, which is fun, and there are some hot erotic fireworks throughout. If I was going to check out my first HK fantasy, I wouldn’t start here … Chinese Ghost Story is probably the best. If you’re looking for something by Tsui Hark, Peking Opera Blues is wonderful. But if you stumbled upon Green Snake in the right mood, you’d be glad you did. 7/10.

#29: a better tomorrow (john woo, 1986)

(This is the 22nd of 50 pieces that originally appeared in a Facebook group devoted to three of us choosing our 50 favorite movies. I’ll present them un-edited except for typos or egregious errors. I’ll also add a post-script to each.)

A Better Tomorrow is not John Woo’s greatest film, nor is it my favorite. But it belongs here nonetheless, because it came first. There are many stories about the cultural impact of A Better Tomorrow. It is said that Hong Kong youth were so attracted to Chow Yun-Fat’s character that they all started wearing dusters, and that the kind of sunglasses Chow wore in the movie sold out all over HK. What I found interesting on my latest viewing is that Chow is really only the third-lead in this one … Ti Lung and Leslie Cheung as brothers on opposite sides of the law are the key characters. And they are both very good, plus the late, lamented Cheung was one of the greatest stars ever in HK pop culture, as an actor and a singer. Chow, at the time, was a TV star on the downhill slide in his career. But he steals the movie with his remarkable blend of charisma and good looks; he was the Chinese Cary Grant, and this film is where his movie career exploded. His character, Mark, was so appealing that even though he dies in the end, when A Better Tomorrow II arrived, Chow played the heretofore unmentioned twin brother of Mark, just to get him back in the picture. Mark personifies cool, yet he spends most of the movie as a marginal lackey with a bum knee. It doesn’t matter; it’s Chow Yun-Fat.

The HK triad films are often variants on the standard buddy movie, but the emotions are pumped up and on the surface; the subtext in the American versions is right in your face here. Yes, it’s overblown, but it was amazing when these films arrived and the heroes and anti-heroes were not strong silent types, but rather men given to excessive displays of love and respect amongst brothers (brothers extending beyond mere family).

And, of course, John Woo has a way with violence. The plots of his movies often argue against the violent way of life, but the operatic aesthetics of his action scenes overwhelm the plot machinations. A Better Tomorrow started a new trend in Hong Kong action that made its way to America, in particular in American hip-hop culture, and the rise in popularity of these movies wasn’t rooted in moralistic stands about the violent life. No, the movies were Cool with a capital C, not just in the way Chow held a matchstick in his mouth, but also in the way he used a gun in each hand to blow away his enemies.

I had another 200 words listing all of my fave HK movies, but I’ll limit myself to this: if I had chosen my true favorite instead of the film that kicked off the HK explosion, it would have been Woo’s Hard Boiled.


One person expressed confusion, as others did throughout this series, about why I chose a movie that I declared was neither “favorite” nor “best”. I admit to my own confusion, since I often went back and forth and back between favorite, best, and “important”.