24 December 2014

On Tsui Hark's The Taking of Tiger Mountain

Tsui Hark's latest film, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, opens today in China. It premieres in major U.S. cities on January 2.

The Taking of Tiger Mountain begins in the future at a karaoke bar in New York City. I was not expecting that. It is 2015 and a young man is being fêted on his last night in town before heading west for a lucrative job in Silicon Valley. In between karaoke performances, the television plays a clip of the Peking Opera performing a version of the famous Tiger Mountain battle. This fleeting vision fills the young professional with homesickness. As he sits in the backseat of a cab on the way to the airport, the film flashes back to 1946 where a country is trying to regain order in the wake of war.

What we see over the next two hours is not really history. It's more like folklore that's been filtered, inflated and bastardized across generations like a childhood game of telephone. The source material for Tsui's film is not a textbook but a novel, Tracks Through the Snowy Forest, which winnows messy history into a hero's journey. This is first and foremost an action film and a cleverly crafted one at that. All of this unreality is made explicit by a fascinating coda that manages to both strain the limits of credulity while also deepening the underlying humanity of everything that came before it.

Long before the conclusion, however, we know that we're inhabiting a fictional world. After the introduction, the film judiciously cuts back to the future just once more before settling down in 1946 for good. This temporary temporal break helps detach us just enough from the text to observe it on explicit storytelling terms. Meanwhile, in the fictional heart of the film lies an outsized villain calling himself Lord Hawk. Hawk is the most fearsome bandit in the region, whose dominance of the land is almost assured once he possesses three Advanced Maps that will unveil the locations of riches and weapons. Hawk is played in a larger-than-life performance by Tony Leung Ka-fai. The first several scenes with Hawk have him obscured by shadows and underlings, showing just glimpses of his hulking mass and yes, pet hawk. Once his visage is unveiled he recalls nothing more than classic Spider-Man villain, The Vulture.

Hawk's stronghold on the region is so decisive that the Liberation Army has no choice but to conduct a potentially suicidal mission to overthrow him, by sending one of their own, Yang (cooly played by Zhang Hanyu) to infiltrate Hawk's compound and set himself up as a spy. He sells himself as a man exiled from another fearsome bandit and he presents Hawk with one of the coveted maps as proof. The film then divides itself up between scenes of Yang nimbly working his way up the chain of command and scenes back at the camp of the PLA, where among other things a young orphan is taken in and an opium-smoking thief is captured. Oh yeah, and there's a lot of action.

The film is clearly building to the climactic siege that gives the film its title. And while that battle is exhilarating and bombastic, with lots of explosions, slow-motion, and bedlam, it's the preceding attack by Hawk's men on the army's camp that is the greatest sequence in the film, action or otherwise. This preceding scene is less dependent on computer-generated whimsy and succeeds thanks to smaller scale ambushes and resonating on a deeper emotional level. This is the scene that reminds us war is hell, not some game of cops and robbers.

For the most part the CGI is solid and well integrated within the film. Perhaps the worst offender comes during a fight between Yang and a Siberian tiger as they chase one another through snowy trees. But who's going to complain about having to watch a fight between a gun-toting badass and a tiger? The aforementioned coda also breaks the bank with its preposterousness but as described above that sequence is intentionally insane and is what gives the film its purpose.

This is a film celebrating history by populating its narrative with bullet time, pulp villains, and characters named Tank. If that's not a true sign of patriotism, I don't know what is.

15 November 2014

On Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2

Johnnie To's latest film, Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 opened in many major U.S. markets yesterday. It was a surprise. So is the film. 

I can't think of a sequel that interrogates and deconstructs the fundamental elements that made its predecessor so successful like Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 does. It's as if Johnnie To, Wai Ka-Fai, et al. felt like charlatans after the first film's success. I can picture the reviews and box office forcing them into asking why the first film works, deciding that it shouldn't, then showing us why it doesn't. This sequel goes to absurd lengths to examine the particulars of the first film and it is not reflected well. This makes the prospect of revisiting the first film even more tantalizing as we can use the tools given to us by the filmmakers to view the original in a wholly different light. 

The first film began with a generic love triangle template and over the course of two hours piled on reversals and complications until it reached a climax of dizzying proportions. Despite that film's commitment to teasing every last ounce of suspense out of which suitor Gao Yuanyuan's character Cheng Zixin would choose, the film resolved itself with the safer conclusion. This makes sense for a narrative that is beholden to its romantic comedy traditions. The sequel on the other hand begins with more absurdity than the first ended with and ratchets up the looniness and the loneliness in equal measure and ends up in truly uncharted territory.

Like the Astaire and Rogers films released during the Great Depression, the successful capitalistic society depicted onscreen in the Don't Go Breaking My Heart films is an illusion. It's a fantasy world for film audiences where we can live vicariously in mansions and on yachts, freely laughing along at the difficulties of parallel parking a Ferrari. These are pretty people living lavish lives and yet none of them are the slightest bit happy. The basic fundamental human desire to be offered a choice not only cripples the protagonists but shows them all to be, for lack of a better term, idiots. (As usual, DEVO said it best.) That these indecisive people are in charge of huge financial institutions, despite the fact that when forced to actually call the shots they fail spectacularly is one of the new film's sickest jokes.

While the first film falls well within the genre of romantic comedies and its traditions, this bitter sequel does not. It's certainly funny, in fact more hilarious than the original, but the film ends on a sour note that haunts the memory of the preceding laughs. And this is not even close to being romantic. (My colleague Sean pointed out that this is much more of a screwball comedy, with its conceit of mistaken identity, than a romantic comedy.) All of the cutesy gestures that Shen-ren does in the first film are recreated here but instead of being clever and charming they are routinely exposed as hollow, shameless, and desperate. Even his scaling of the building (built in Zixin's image!) at the film's end is pathetic. Although the film resolves itself by working out in Shen-ren's favor there is no feeling of triumph or joy. It's a bitter pill to swallow.

It is revealed at one point that Shen-ren's playboy lifestyle only masks his continued infatuation with Zixin. The only way he can sleep at night is by climbing through the window of her old apartment, which he has since rented, where he watches a loop of her dance routine that he filmed in the first movie. Is that not the most profoundly depressing thing you've ever heard? It's even more sad if one sees it as an analog for us filmgoers, who retreat to our darkened rooms and projected images, finding solace in the past which we can only rewrite in our dreams. Romantic comedies like the original Don't Go Breaking My Heart can be a crutch that keeps us from finding tangible, tactical happiness in the real world.

The idea of reverse thinking is explicitly part of the text of the sequel, literalized in the form of an octopus who is smart enough to pick one of two outcomes but is always wrong. The star of the new film, Yang Yang-Yang (played by Miriam Yeung, another sign of the boundary pushing of this film, the hero is a character not in the first movie at all!) embraces the octopus with almost religious zeal. This championing of contradiction serves as a clever way of handwaving the reason that Yang decides to stay with Louis Koo's Shen-ren despite overwhelming evidence that this is quite literally, the worst idea in the world. And if anyone thinks that a movie that explicitly tells us that everything is a mistake will give us a happy ending, they're dead wrong. The conclusion of this film is as committed as everything that went before it. It is unambiguous on where it lands.

This ending is problematic only insofar as giving us what we want. For a film this bold to pivot in its final moments to a place of satisfaction would be a cop-out. The argument has been made that this sequel almost begs for a third film in the saga and I won't lie, I would love to see how To approaches that hypothetical feature. Does he expose this film's indictments as their own kind of lie? Does he painstakingly piece back together the breezy joys of the first film, showing us why the old tropes still work? I'd love to see that but I would also be happy if Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2 is the final chapter. In its way it brings the narrative -- at least of one almost abandoned character -- full circle.

And it breaks your heart.

20 August 2014

Episode 41 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

Sean and I spend two hours trying to find the right key on this jam-packed episode of The George Sanders Show. First off, we pogo our way through a discussion of the B-movie magic of Rock 'n' Roll High School starring P. J. Soles and the Ramones. Later we argue about the merits of the recent film Pitch Perfect. In between some people die and a beloved Seattle institution is reborn.

Sweet Adeline!

Feedback on the show can be directed to thegeorgesandersshow[at]gmail[dot]com or @GeoSandersShow.

Next time: Strike! & Matewan

28 July 2014

Episode 40 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

On this special edition of The George Sanders Show Sean and I unveil the first round of our book club, which is basically us complaining about Thomas Schatz's seminal work on classical Hollywood, The Genius of the System. Speaking of the system, we then take time to discuss two films about the mysteries and myths of moviemaking, Hellzapoppin' and The Barefoot Contessa.

Next time: Rock 'n' Roll High School & Pitch Perfect!

14 July 2014

Episode 39 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

Instead of learning a language before heading off for a summer in France and Germany, I just watched movies instead. On this episode of The George Sanders Show Sean and I see double as we discuss Jacques Demy's Lola from 1961 and Rainer Werner Fassbinder's film of the same name, released twenty years later. Demy is also our Person of the Week and we select our Cinemassential Vacation Films. Also, special guest appearance by Weird Al!

Next time: Hellzapoppin' & The Barefoot Contessa!

30 June 2014

Episode 38 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

On this edition of The George Sanders Show, Sean and I hop the freight train that is Bong Joon-ho's latest film Snowpiercer. I also get a chance to ask Bong stupid questions in a fancy hotel for the first ever George Sanders Show interview. Sean and I also talk about Virgin Stripped Bare by her Bachelors from a very different Korean auteur, Hong Sang-soo.

Next time: Lola & Lola

13 June 2014

Episode 37 of The George Sanders Show Now Available!

On this supersonic installment of The George Sanders Show, Sean and I recap the nine films we actually managed to see at the 40th Annual Seattle International Film Festival. Also music from the best Seattle band named after a Russ Meyer film and a rap artist with a predilection for large derrières.

Complaints about my microphone cutting out can be directed to thegeorgesandersshow[at]gmail[dot]com or @GeoSandersShow.

Next time: Snowpiercer & Virgin Stripped Bare by Her Bachelors