Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '85 - Sean Gilman ""

Saturday, April 11, 2015

Underrated '85 - Sean Gilman

Late in 2013, I discovered a little movie podcast called The George Sanders Show. I became immediately obsessed with it and listened to every episode. I found myself quite intrigued with both Mike and Sean (the show's co-hosts) and really got into their offbeat choices for double features of films to talk about on the podcast (ISHTAR & SONS OF THE DESERT or GUN CRAZY & POINT BREAK are two great examples). I especially liked their show dedicated to their own Sight & Sound Top Tens and was even inspired enough to do one myself because of it:
So anyway, it should go without saying that I am a big fan of The George Sanders Show (which you should check out if you haven't). I am always pleased to have a new list from Sean for sure.


Of the approximately 56 movies I’ve seen from 1985, most were movies I saw that year or thereabouts, when I was nine years old. I recall Back to the Future seemingly playing for over a year, desperately trying to see all three endings of Clue and being fascinated by the strangeness in the heart of Ladyhawke, Silverado and Return to Oz (which scared me then as much as any movie ever has). I haven’t added much to my 1985 knowledge, I’m sure there are dozens of dark corners where unexpected and marvelous films lie (thanks to this series I hope to make some discoveries). But in recent years I have uncovered a handful of Chinese-language films, none of which I had the slightest inkling of in 1985, or 1995, or even, for the most part, 2005. So here are five underappreciated films from Hong Kong and Taiwan in 1985.

1. The Time to Live, The Time to Die (HouHsiao-hsien)
And right from the start I’m cheating because this film is hardly underappreciated, I mean, the Golden Horse Film Festival, when it compiled a list of the 100 Greatest Chinese-Language Films of All-Time, rated this one #3. But yet, as is so often the case with non-Japanese Asian film, it remains almost totally unknown in the West, thanks to DVD unavailability and arthouse programming tastes that were codified in the 1950s and early 60s, when it was determined that France, Japan, Italy and sometimes Germany were all that really mattered. But that’s a digression. The film itself is autobiographical, based on Hou’s own experiences growing up in a family of Mainlanders in small town Taiwan. In delicate, carefully composed long takes Hou tells the story of his family: his sickly father, his aged grandmother (who has a tendency to wander off in search of the route back to the family’s home in Guangzhou), his sister and brothers. The story is split in half, the first when Hou is about 10 years old, the second when he’s in his late teens. Tidbits of Taiwanese history come in sideways, locating the story in its historical context and gently commenting on a generation grown up in exile, too neglectful and disconnected from their past.

2. Police Story (Jackie Chan)
Similarly well-known outside of mainstream American circles, is this, Jackie Chan’s greatest achievement as a director. The Hong Kong action film had already begun its move away from the period films of the 1970s produced by Shaw Brothers and Golden Harvest into the contemporary world of cops and gangsters thanks to the popularity of theAces Go Places series and Sammo Hung’s Lucky Stars trilogy (the latter two parts of which, Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars and My Lucky Stars just missed my list here), as well as Hung’s Chan-starringWheels on Meals, which might have been the best film of 1984. But Police Story raised the genre to another level. The stunts of course, are ridiculous, from the glass-shattering final battle in the mall to something as small as the slight motion with which Chan accidentally pulls Maggie Cheung off her moped. Chan’s most impressive work might be in an answering multiple telephones gag that wouldn’t look out of place in a Stan Laurel or Harold Lloyd film. It’s the closest he ever really came to not just being as dexterous and athletic as his silent film idols, but as funny too. And it stars Brigitte Lin. And did I mention Maggie Cheung (playing the best ever version of the cute girlfriend sidekick role which she would very quickly outgrow as an actress, by the time of Police Story 3(aka Supercop) it’s a running-joke how over-qualified Cheung is to be playing this role in a Chan film).

3. Taipei Story (Edward Yang)
Here we find more truly unfamiliar territory with a film that has never been released on video in the US and is apparently only available (outside of the print circulating the globe as we speak) in a dreadfully poor VCD transfer of a shoddy VHS print. One of Edward Yang’s first features, it stars Hou Hsiao-hsien himself as an ex-baseballer with an unstable marriage: a past infidelity divides him from his wife, a business woman in search of a new job after her boss is let go in a corporate restructuring. As near as I can tell, the film is a gorgeous study of contemporary Taipei, with Hou’s hero, trying to do the right thing for his family and friends but haunted by past mistakes, easily read as a grown-up version of the kid from The Time to Live, The Time to Die.

4. Yes, Madam (Corey Yuen)
And then there’s Corey Yuen, who truly does not care one bit about anything other than stringing together a bunch of crazy fights and weird comedy in films that look like they were even more fun to make than they are to watch. One of if not the first of the Girl with a Gun series of films cranked out in Hong Kong in the late 80s, many of which carried some version of Yes, Madam or In the Line of Duty in the title and starred Michelle Yeoh (known as Michelle Khan at the time) and/or Cynthia Rothrock. As I understand the story, 1986’s Royal Warriors was released internationally asIn the Line of Duty, with Yes, Madam then released as In the Line of Duty 2. Both films were followed by a sequel, which was known as both In the Line of Duty 3 and Yes, Madam 2. That film andIn the Line of Duty 4 starred Cynthia Khan, a totally made-up name combining the names of the first films two stars (her real name is Yang Li-Tsing). And then there’s Yes, Madam 3 (aka Magnificent Warriors aka Dynamite Fighters), which starred Yeoh and isn’t a cop movie at all, but rather a period adventure film in the Indian Jones vein. Anyway, this one has Yeoh and Rothrock teaming up to find a MacGuffin that has been stolen by most of the Lucky Stars, along with Tsui Hark as a comical forger who lives in an apartment that was apparently designed by the architect who built the house in Buster Keaton’s The ‘High’ Sign. This is the kind of movie where the villain is introduced spinning in a swivel chair while laughing maniacally and smoking a pipe. Where the cops hand in their badges and guns before going on an extra-legal rampage. Where Sammo Hung, Richard Ng and David Chiang try to steal chicken from a busty nurse at their nursing home. It’s glorious.

5. Working Class (Tsui Hark)
One of Tsui Hark’s least-known films is this quite fun comedy about workers in an instant noodle factory, played by the improbable trio of Sam Hui, Teddy Robin Kwan and Tsui himself. It’s his most successful stab at merging the punk politics of his early New Wave films with the farcical lunacy of the Cinema City studio, which dominated Hong Kong cinema throughout the early 1980s. The love interest (the rich daughter of the factory owner) is Joey Wang, who would shoot to superstardom a few years later in the Tsui-produced A Chinese Ghost Story and the villain is a middle manager, constantly pranked by our heroic trio and played by none other than Ng Man-tat, Stephen Chow’s greatest foil. Rather than grafting a Socially Important Message onto an essentially silly comedy, Tsui comes at it from the other direction. He takes what could be, in less interesting hands, a serious scenario about worker exploitation and the lives of the poor in a booming economy where the rich keep getting richer and makes a farce of it. The humor comes organically out of the heroes' anarchic rejection of the social codes that enforce fealty to the bosses, no matter how treacherous they are. Every prank becomes an act of protest. Even the love story plays backwards: it is Wang's superfluous wealth that is shameful, not the tiny apartment Hui shares with his mother. The politics isn't the least bit profound, but it is a little revolutionary. Working Class gets close to the heart of what makes Tsui a great filmmaker: the mixing of New Wave politics with popular genre filmmaking. It's not the commodification or assimilation of leftist ideals into a corporate mainstream, but the repackaging of them as a shiny, goofy treat, a cookie full of arsenic for the exploitative middle managers of the world.

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