Rupert Pupkin Speaks: Underrated '96 - Sean Gilman ""

Thursday, April 14, 2016

Underrated '96 - Sean Gilman

Sean is co-host of a movie podcast called THE FRANCES FARMER SHOW. I am always pleased to have a new list from Sean, he's good movie people.

I could have easily cobbled together a handful of underrated films from 1996. It’s one of the years I’ve seen more movies from than any other, as I spent most of the mid-90s skipping classes to watch movies and working at a video store and then a movie theatre. But most of the movies I saw back then were pretty mediocre, and some of my favorite films fro that year are movies I’ve come to later in life. No, I decided to make this task more difficult, and spent the past couple of weeks watching movies from 1996 that I hadn’t yet seen, in search of new underrated films. What’s more, I decided to limit my search to Chinese language films. Not that I hadn’t already seen a bunch: I could have easily made a respectable Underrated ’96 Chinese Language Movies list out of Peter Chan’s Comrades, Almost a Love Story (my pick as the best movie of the year), Hou Hsiao-hsien’s Goodbye South, Goodbye, Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery, Tsui hark’s Tri-Starand Ching Siu-tung’s Dr. Wai in “The Scripture with No Words”. But nope, too easy. So here are ten new-to-me Underrated Chinese Language Films from 1996.
1. Shanghai Grand (Poon Man-kit)
Like Once Upon a Time in America mixed up with Casino Raiders, that is to say, a mediocre heroic bloodshed story (too much plot) played out in a lush period aesthetic (Shanghai in the 1930s, 1935 it would appear, but for the fact that Gone With the Wind is playing at the local movie palace). It's based on a 1980 TV Series ("The Bund") that was also adapted into a completely different film this same year (Once Upon a Time in Shanghai). Perhaps there was something in the air in Hong Kong in 1996 that reminded folks of the last days of chaos before all out war with Japan?

Anyway, Leslie Cheung plays an anti-Japanese freedom fighter from Taiwan, he washes up in Shanghai where he meets Andy Lau, a low-level gangster with big dreams. The two of them unite to take down a local gang leader, but, on the cusp of glory, find out that they're in love with the same woman. Everything falls apart. Stephen Tung does the gleefully violent action: one scene prominently features a board studded with nails that finds many a head, another features a giant snake that tries to eat Andy Lau. Tsui Hark produced, the screenplay was co-written by Matt Chow (who wrote both Golden Chicken and Bio Zombie), and the film was directed by Poon Man-kit, who has spent the last 20 years working in television.
2. Big Bullet (Benny Chan)
Highly entertaining cop film that feels like a dry run for the formula Johnnie To and Milkyway Image would perfect over the next decade. Expect the Unexpected, Breaking News and PTU take place in the same world, Lifeline borrows the essential plot structure. Lau Ching-wan plays a great cop who doesn't play by the rules, tending toward violence and insubordination. He's busted down to the Emergency Unit, sharing a first-responding police van with a cross-section of uniformed cops. But he and his new team continue to hunt down the gang of gangsters (heroin?) who first liberate a prisoner and then try to sneak a bunch of money out of the country. The gang is lead by long-haired Anthony Wong, a grimy riff on his Hard-Boiled villain, and Yu Rongguang (Iron Monkey himself).
The subtext isn't overplayed, but is nonetheless unmistakable: everyone in the film is constantly asking the same question: "who's your superior?" It's a world in which order is completely breaking down. Almost as bad as the criminals are the men who abuse power, who enforce their hierarchical superiority to constrict our heroes in their investigation. The criminals too have a strictly enforced hierarchy (their boss, a mysterious white man, has threatened them with death if they don't steal the money). A vision of things to come: against arbitrary exercises of power, only the innate character of Hong Kong (free-thinking, independent, street smart, a little crude) can prevent the wealth of the colony from being stolen by the fleeing white people and/or the authoritarian Chinese.
3. Beyond Hypothermia (Patrick Leung)
Only fitting that the first film produced by MilkywayImage should be a slick genre hybrid of blood-spattering violence and romantic tragedy. JacklynWu plays an assassin with no name and no past, robotic and literally the coldest person around, who forms a tentative, yet deep, bond with Lau Ching-wan's gregarious noodle seller just as her entire world, such as it is, collapses in a cascade of revenge. More focused than the haphazardly plotted A Moment of Romance, Wu’s 1990 film produced by Johnnie To, and more grounded in the blue-black night of Hong Kong. In that film, freedom is Andy Lau on a motorcycle, racing through the sunset. In this one, it's Wu and the other, more earthy Lau on a raft, sliding down a rain-drenched street in the middle of the night, landing happily in a pool of mud. Both films end in tragedy: in the former one lover wanders the streets looking desperately for her man; in the latter, both are trapped, the agents of nihilistic violence literally trapping them in a hail of bullets and crushed metal. But at least they're together.
4. Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Star (Wong Jing)
Natalis Chan plays the Windfall God. Hanging out in Heaven (with Kenny Bee and Superman, as one does) he falls in love with the Angel of Nine Heavens, Christy Chung, as she rides around on Michael Wong's motorcycle-cloud (St. Michael, on loan from Jesus). They all get sent to Earth, and Chan has to get one of his most fervent believers (Anita Yuen as a gambling addict/massage therapist) to help him find Christy and win her love (while winning some gambling contests and fending off vicious Triad Ugly Kwan (Francis Ng, parodying his character from the hugely popular Young & Dangerous series, which launched in 1996 and essential kept the Hong Kong film industry afloat for the next few years)). It's Wong Jing at his most delightfully nutty.
5. Viva Erotica (Derek Yee & Lo Chi-leung)
Leslie Cheung plays an artistically ambitious young director who, after a series of box office failures, is convinced to take a gig directing a Category III film, Hong Kong's rating for graphically violent movies and/or soft-core pornography. Shu Qi in one of her earliest roles is the Triad girlfriend tasked to star in the film. It's a remarkable performance, beginning as a shrill ditzy cliché and gradually turning not just into a real person, but a real actress (she gives a monologue late in the film that contains the seeds for all her future work with Hou Hsiao-hsien). Directed by Derek Yee and Lo Chi-leung, the film features a brief appearance by Lau Ching-wan as a director named Derek Yee. When his latest film, an arty melodrama, flops, Lau runs off a pier and commits suicide. That Leslie Cheung would do much the same thing less than a decade later makes his depiction of a depressed artist here almost unbearably poignant.
6. Ebola Syndrome (Herman Yau)
The cinema is Anthony Wong, engulfed in flames, running through the streets of Hong Kong yelling "Ebola! Ebola!"
7. Mahjong (Edward Yang)
There are tens of thousands of Angelas in Hong Kong, but only one Virginie Ledoyen in Taipei.Probably what should be Edward Yang’s most popular film, a distillation of the disaffected youth of A Brighter Summer Day, the punishing romanticism of Taipei Story and The Terrorizers and the panoptic warmth of Yi Yi. Ledoyen plays a young French girl who falls in with a gang of scam artist would-be gangsters. One boy (Chang Chen) seduces women,another pretends to be a prophetic geomancer while his buddies arrange destructive stunts to prove his skills in the hopes of bilking gullible rich people out of home improvement cash. The leader of the gang hopes to impress his father by outwitting one of his father’s rivals, but the dad isn’t interested: hiding from creditors he retreats from the world into a kind of suicidal happiness. Alone among the boys is a quiet, skinny translator, he falls for Ledoyen(although really, who doesn’t) and fights everyone (his friends, her boyfriend, a pair of confused assassins) for her affection. The final moments are the most romantic images every to come out of the New Taiwanese Cinema.
8. The Stunt Woman (Ann Hui)
For the first two-thirds of its running time, this is a very cool semi-biographical film (a spiritual sequel to Mabel Cheung's terrific Painted Faces) with Michelle Yeoh as a Hong Kong stuntwoman who first gains acceptance in Sammo Hung's crew, then leaves it behind for a businessman she falls in love with. Full of loving looks at the mechanics of shooting wire stunts (Ching Siu-tung was the action choreographer) and the familial camaraderie of a stunt troop, with Sammo as the avuncular leader, negotiating with producers, directors and the gangsters that put up the money for production. The third section reunites Yeoh with the crew, only for everything to fall apart in a bizarre jolt of Triad violence, sending Yeoh on the run to the Mainland with Sammo's precocious tough guy son. There's a schematic idea at work here (Yeoh plays three roles: professional, girlfriend, mother), but the transition is really sloppy, like the last third comes out of an entirely different movie (it's even introduced by a title card where the first two sections are not). This was apparently because production had to be rushed following a serious back injury Yeoh suffered doing one of the stunts (which we see over the end credits), which adds a weird meta-twist to the whole endeavor, as the film itself mirrors the hasty reliance on generic conventions and editing shorthand that its characters rely on. The effect is disconcerting, but not entirely unpleasant.
9. Stage Door (Shu Kei)
A backstage domestic drama with Josephine Siao as a Cantonese Opera star who is about to emigrate to Australia with her husband and her step-daughter. She meets an aspiring actress (Antia Yuen) who has an abusive father and a nice boyfriend. Her husband's upset that his daughter appears to be in a lesbian relationship with a short-haired girl. And her co-performers are giving the innovative young director she's hired a tough time. Siao negotiates it all with the kind of intelligence and charm that demonstrates why she was possibly the best actress in the world in the late 20th Century who remained almost totally unknown in the United States. (If you know her at all, it's probably because she played Jet Li's mom in The Legend of Fong Sai-yuk).

Somewhat weird trivia: Fruit Chan was the assistant director on this film, one year before his indie breakthrough Made in Hong Kong, while director Shu Kei served as assistant director on Yim Ho's 1980 New Wave touchstone The Happenings (which Shu also co-wrote).
10. A Moment of Romance III (Johnnie To)
A rarity for Johnnie To, a period film, a romance set during the Second World War, with Andy Lau as a pilot who crash lands in a remote village and is nursed back to health by Jacklyn Wu (these two stars are the only connection to the other A Moment of Romance films: in Hong Kong, spiritual sequels can be numbered as actual sequels, they need not be in any other way related). They fall in love and when he returns to the war effort, she follows him to the big city, splitting the film neatly into country/city halves like Crocodile Dundee.

Shot by Poon Hang-sang (Centre Stage, Peking Opera Blues, The Heroic Trio), with lush golds and blues, greens and reds, low shots of the horizon, the rising and setting sun backlighting archetypal silhouettes (farmers, soldiers) like Spielberg at his most Fordian, the dark interiors slashed by overexposed whites bursting through open windows (anticipating Lincoln and Bridge of Spies). With Spielberg, these choices carry a thematic weight, the light of truth obscured by the maneuverings of politics (or whatever), but with To the light is elemental: the distance of history and the blur of romance simply makes the world more vibrant.

The best sections of the film are almost entirely dialogue free: Andy and Jacklyn awkwardly dancing on the wing of plane, Andy’s desperate efforts to drive Jacklyn away to save her having to mourn him after a doomed mission, Jacklyndesperately clearing a runway when everyone else has given up hope. The film falters when it tries to relate plot, cheap obstacles to love in the form of an arranged marriage and a snobby mother have no weight and are easily dispatched, as if To and his team had no faith a little interest in conventional dramatics. Instead, long sections of the film are carried by the images and the music. At it’s best, the movie approaches the swooning style of the late silent era.

1 comment:

Dennis said...

Superb and charming list! Thanks.