Episode 1 – Good Cops, Bad Cops
Once again, I’m going to break my festival report into sections, because I saw 26-odd films (and some were very odd indeed), and I’d dissolve into a wee melty thing if I tried to talk about all of them in one go. Consider it a cunning ploy to keep your attention on me, some sort of Scheherezade’s Game, if you wish.
So this week is all about cops, and I’ll start by bravely decrying my title: in Hong Kong it seems there are no good cops or bad cops, merely cops. The idealistic, moralistic, simplistic cop-as-poster-child is no more. The cop who’s bad to the bone has gone the same way. These days, cops are all just people, with complex motivations and behaviours. Pretty much as it is in real life, in fact, and that’s a laudable change: the heroic policeman with the shiny boots, crisp salute, and spanking short haircut of the 80’s was never really credible, and the evil cop laughing the give-away villain’s laugh (don’t know why they never twigged to that. Was perfectly obvious to moi) was even more ludicrous.
PTU: Into The Perilous Night , started the whole confuse-a-cop vibe at this year’s festival: it was one of the opening night screenings, and the first screening of this latest and long-awaited work from Johnnie To Kei Fung.
Now you all know that I admire To’s work, as do many others, and since PTU has been underway for about 2 years, we’ve all been psyching ourselves up for this for ages, a fact that undoubtedly unnerved To.
To’s cops are complex characters, ordinary people given a dangerous job and a degree of power which can drive them in unexpected directions. Since I’ve written a full review of PTU , lauding its virtues in detail, I shan’t repeat myself here, save to say that To’s cops are just the sort I’d like patrolling the streets on nights when I’m safe at home. Probably safe, but it’s best to be careful all the same.
Andrew Lau’s cops in Infernal Affairs, on t’other hand, are the ultimate in line-blurring. Are they triad gangsters? Are they cops? What separates them, when it comes down to it?
Lau does a fairly jaw-clenching job of conveying just how difficult it really is being an undercover, of whatever stamp, and the sort of stresses that would reduce a weaker character (eg me) to the mental level of broccoli puree.Whether cops or triads, Lau’s characters deal with issues of secret long-term loyalty, and the routine everyday betrayal, that goes with being undercover. If any one of the characters were two-dimensional, if there were even a hint of good-guys-versus-bad-guys about this, the whole film would suffer, but Lau manages to present an ensemble of credible characters all fighting their own battles.
The same cannot be said of Jeff Lau’s old classic, Haunted Cop Shop II. For starters, I have no idea whether there was ever a Haunted Cop Shop I. Characters sketched in broad strokes display all manner of inadequacies, presenting a vision of not so much Hong Kong’s Finest as Hong Kong’s Most Embarrassing. It should give you an idea of the tenor of the film if I mention that Ricky Hui features prominently. He even gets some nookie in the opening scenes, albeit with a vampire: more believable, perhaps, since I imagine that only the undead could find Hui attractive.
Given the random assemblage of certainly-not-good-but-too-inept-to-be-bad cops, we’d expect some hijinks, and Lau certainly doesn’t disappoint: the team are beset by just about every variety of ghoulie, ghostie, and long-legged beastie in the Asia-Pacific region. Oddly enough, they don’t all perish immediately, although I’m still unsure why not. Lau has some strange ideas about time-travel, so perhaps he’s constantly renewing his cast from parallel universes.
This bizarre comedy/cops/ghost movie succeeds, however, despite the one-dimensional characters and The Appalling Ricky Hui, and this is probably due to Lau’s peculiar talents. My favourite scene featured a young and exceedingly cute Jacky Cheung, attempting to rescue a female colleague from rampaging zombies by ripping open his shirt, pointing to his exposed chest, and shouting “Look! Tasty! Eat this! Eat this, not her!” Ohhh, Jacky.
The final entrant in the Cop of the Week contest is a new Herman Yau film called Shark Busters. The title refers to loan sharks, who are portrayed as the scourge of most of Hong Kong, including the police. A police team, headed by the inimitable Danny Lee, reprising his “good cop with personal worries” character from so many movies, decides to crack down on a particular loan shark using any means possible. Said loan shark, grateful to the crumbling economy for providing money for his “industry”, sets up a finance company which uses a combination of modern shonky business methods and tried and true triad intimidation.
One aspect that lifts this film into the ranks of the extraordinary is the loan shark. Lam Suet, adorned by a plethora of jewelry and with his shaven head shaved gleaming, jumps all over his role with an almost operatic fervour. He gloats like a champion gloater, orders his minions around with vigour, and just generally breathes new life into what could have been a rather tired character type. All he needs to become the fifth heavenly king is to launch a singing career, and why not, since this film may have provided him with the costumes.
The pernicious debt angle also works well, and saves it from being perhaps just another cops-get-triads semi-revenge flick. All the cops, including the upright Danny Lee, are up to the bottom lip in debt, whether to legitimate finance companies or triads. And although this film has a strong focus on wish-fulfillment, it somehow escapes the saccharine fantasy that we’re wont to get from lesser film-makers: the sort of Disney “magic wand” effect, where all the worries miraculously disappear. Yau’s cops, and all the other debtors, aren’t carried into a nicer world at the end of the film, however triumphant they may be. Yes, their debts disappear, and that’s a huge relief, but they’re still stuck paying off property at pre-meltdown rates with post-meltdown incomes.
Now that we’ve dealt with the law, we’ll have some fun next week with a bunch of girly pictures. Not porn, I hasten to add: no, these girly pictures are so named because the main character is female. (I’ve left Tamala out of this because, although she’s female, that film is so unrelentingly and deeply weird that it deserves prime position in Episode 4…)
Episode 2 – Girly pictures
“What, no Andy no moaning?” Yep, I’m afraid that’s about the size of it. And that single fact would have killed any chance of me becoming a gum gai, or golden chicken (Canto slang for prostitute): if I don’t get Andy Lau, or a respectable substitute, there’ll be no moaning from me.
The same could not be said of Sandra Ng, the star of Golden Chicken. No, she leaps the fence at which I would have balked, and manages some champion moaning, thanks perhaps to Andy’s inspired coaching. And what a fine way to start this week’s episode, dealing with films featuring prominent female characters: moaning along with Andy. Warm, surprising, funny, educational: this film’s got it all. I liked it so much I, errr, wrote a review about it.
The extremely talented Sandra Ng shows up again, this time in a serious role. Thunder Cops II, screened as part of the Jeff Lau retrospective, follows devoted cop Ng as she trails the criminal who killed her father. What sets this film apart from so many other cop movies of the eighties are the performances.
Ng’s character is quite unlike the ditzy comedienne roles she was given so often, and she eats it up: she plays a cop driven to extremes, and dealing harshly with anyone who crosses her path. Similarly, Stephen Chiau Sing Chi, as the lame brother of minor gangster Shing Fui On, sheds his own comic persona to present a sidelined player who refuses to aid Ng in her quest. Supporting these two are Ann Bridgewater, stunning as a junkie informer, Lam Siu Lau, as Ng’s never-say-die partner, and Jeff Lau, utterly repugnant as the commanding officer who frames Ng for drug-dealing.
The whole cast must have dined daily on gravel, so gritty are the performances. Not an easy film to watch, but compelling, and with a smashing scene which allowed Ng to get her hands on Chiau’s undergarments. Alas that she was kept busy removing a bullet from his thigh, and so couldn’t properly enjoy the moment.
From moaning for money or cutting out bullets, we go to a collection of films that represent what could be called one of women’s traditional roles, albeit treated in a very non-traditional way. For most of the history of film-making, women have often been portrayed as either sex objects or part of a romantic couple.The four remaining films explore the emotional/sexual aspect of the cinematic image of women in wildly different ways, with highly varied results.
First up to bat will be Snake Of June, a Japanese film. Perhaps that simple phrase, “a Japanese film”, is all that’s necessary for you to make some guess about this film, and you’d be right. Perhaps you might need more clues, such as the blurb in the festival programme, that murmurs, “It’s the rainy season, and the clammy air oozes with sticky vibes of lust. Rinko, 30, silk skin glistening with sweat, is hot for love, but can’t get it from her fat, bald, cleanness-freak husband”, and claims that the director “slithers into that quivering space between art and erotica to revive animal instincts stifled by the concrete jungle.”
Astonishingly, to me at least, this film won the Grand Jury Prize at Venice in 2002, which might just indicate that the Venitians need to get out more. But whatever critics think of this film, I found it to be fairly typical weird Japanese stuff: sex, odd segues that go nowhere, and more sex. Odd sex. I’m not sure how the director managed to find an actor to play Rinko’s husband who looked so frighteningly like Henry Kissinger. I’m not sure how the lovely Rinko managed to get herself married to such a ghastly man at all. I’m not sure why he shuddered into such paroxysms of horrified delight while cleaning the hair out of the drain in the tub, although if anyone out there can empathise, I’m happy to provide a drain that could delight you for hours.
Above all, I’m not sure why, for ten-odd minutes in the middle, the film suddenly came over all Jeunet-et-Caro (the guys who made Delicatessen and City Of Lost Children). I mean honestly, there we were, happily watching Mr Clean Kissinger get a kicking in a deserted alley, and suddenly there’s conical facemasks, a big fish tank, and all sorts of odd goings-on. I’m tempted to pronounce Snake Of June this year’s winner of the Tokyo X Erotica medal, for most ridiculous sex film at the fest.
It would have been simpler, and much nicer for all concerned, if the lovely Rinko could have managed to emulate the star of the Thai film One Night Husband, and just lose the non-kissing Kissinger. It might have made the Japanese film as intriguing as its Thai counterpart. The story begins with the wedding night of Sipang, a confident career woman, whose husband Napat receives a phone call during the night and disappears. The rest of the film follows Sipang in her quest to find the errant husband.
Careless, you might think, to just lose a husband so easily, and a brand new one at that. You might be right, but you’d also, like me, be slowly wound into the mystery of where the naughty man went. Along the way, Sipang meets Napat’s brother, and becomes friendly with the brother’s wife, a quiet, almost housebound girl. This blossoming of female friendship is one of the finer points of this film. The fact that the friendship mostly survives the final revelations makes for a superb addition to the female friendship genre. This was director Pimpaka Towira’s first feature film, and it’s a remarkably strong debut.
The lovely Rinko would even have been better off copying her Korean counterpart from the Byun Young Joo film, Ardor. The heroine and her husband move to a sleepy Korean village after the husband’s mistress clocks the heroine over the head, causing an injury that provokes constant headaches. The shock of discovering that her perfect marriage wasn’t so perfect, and the slow recovery from the head injury, combine with the headaches to turn our heroine into a woman cut off from the world: she refuses to talk, she can’t smile, and finds the simplest tasks unmanageable. Enter the hero, a handsome doctor, who proposes a game in which they indulge each other sexually for three months but don’t engage emotionally.
Not a bad offer, you might think, and clearly it persuaded our heroine. And although the Reader’s Digest might try to convince you that laughter is the best medicine, what works for our girl is sex. Lashings of it. As a result, she comes back to life, interacting normally with others, even making some friends. You might want to give it a try next time you’re feeling under the weather. It’s not all roses and bonking, though, as they inevitably fall heavily and painfully in love. And in that case, it’s bound to end in tragedy, although our Korean Madame Bovary survives, learns, and goes out into the world, older and wiser.
The ultimate winner in the love-lost-now-what’s-left competition is Ryu, the central character in the Japanese film Woman Of Water. Ryu, played by UA (yes, I know, but it’s her name apparently), is a rain woman, and so every time something important happens in her life, it rains. Buckets down. And when her father dies, Ryu takes over the family bathhouse, and in time hires the arsonist Yusaku, played deliciously by Asano Tadanobu (of Ichi The Killer infamy). To tend the boiler, no less, and no snickering from the back.
The imagery throughout was beautiful: rural Japan outside, rain-wet forests and fields, and traditional wooden housing inside, calm and simple. The bathhouse, old and ordinary though it was, provided a lovely setting for the interactions of the various characters, while the wall mural of Mount Fuji, renewed annually, gave both a backdrop for scenes and an excuse for a short scene of its own. And throughout the film, all the subordinate characters treated Ryu as a member of the community, tied to all of them in some way. This in turn probably foreshadowed the ending, and painted a picture of a strong woman with her own place in the world, who takes what she wants and remains undamaged. I was quite pleased with most of these films, showing as they did the abilities of various women to deal with ordinary and extraordinary situations. From moaning to kicking and back to moaning, our girls tackled their crises and survived, demonstrating the falseness of the cinematic, and social, assumption that women aren’t strong, capable, or even interesting enough to be main characters. In these films, it’s the men who are marginalised: from the powerless and cowardly Chiau character in Thunder Cops II to the missing husband in One Night Husband, these men don’t control the action, and are not as fully drawn as their female counterparts.
Next up, we love ’em and lose ’em. Stock up on tissues.
Episode 3: Love and Loss
This week I’ll deal with all the tragic films, the films that have you sniffling and claiming to have hayfever (yes, I know what you’re like, you duplicitous people you). These are the films that balance on a sharp point: if they get it right, they make tragedy, but if they get it wrong, it’s saccharine melodrama, and you all know that’s one of my pet hates. So let’s bring out our first contender…
A Chinese Odyssey Parts 1 (Pandora’s Box) and 2 (Cinderella) masquerades as anything but a tragedy of love lost. We first meet our hero in a dream sequence of the Monkey King of Chinese Legend, being trapped by the Goddess for attempting to eat the Longevity Monk. No-one has ever accused either Jeff Lau, the director, or Stephen Chiau Sing Chi, the star, of being ordinary. And just as we settle in to Chiau as Monkey King, the simian monarch is snatched from us and replaced with a bandit leader, blessed with crossed eyes and some interesting facial hair. Throw in Ng Man Tat, Yammie Nam, Karen Mok, Athena Chu, and Lau Kar Yeung, add a peculiar assortment of bandits, a passel of demons, truly funky costumes and a reincarnation plot, and you’ve got a film best described as historical/action/comedy/drama/fantasy/wuxia/other-stuff-that-we-can’t-think-of-at-the-moment. Love doesn’t seem to enter into it, although fire and skirts made of pagic charms seem to play a significant part.
I think it’s Lau’s genius, combined with Chiau’s, that renders this film sublime. The theme of Chiau as the bandit leader troubled by memories of a past life as the Monkey King is touching enough, although still susceptible to some comedy. But this confused soul then falling in love with two women three hundred years apart (oh, did I forget to mention time travel? Silly me), and ending with neither, is unbearably sad. His relinquishing of the mortal world and resumption of Monkey Kingness hurts more keenly every time I see it (and I watch it a lot). The only flaw in the screening of this gem of a genre all its own was that it happened in the Cine-Art House, a frigidarium of breath-frosting cold: the cruel projectionist exerted his power by running the films back to back without a break. My fingers are still creaking as I type this.
Jeff Lau and Stephen Chiau also combined to give us the second film in this episode: Out Of The Dark. This one was cunningly disguised as a ghost/comedy/action/thriller, but we’re hip to Mr Lau’s tricks by now, and can cut through all the crazed hijinks and moments of suspense to find that this too contains elements of love and loss. This time it’s Karen Mok, in her guise as resident of a haunted apartment building, who has the love and the loss. Chiau, the object of both, excels as an asylum inmate who thinks he’s Leon The Professional Ghostbuster, complete with spirit-spotting potted plant. As with A Chinese Odyssey, the loss occurs as a result of a decision, and both films give some idea of how difficult and heart-wrenching such a decision might be.
Road Movie, stridently billed as “Korea’s first gay movie”, offered some lovely Korean countryside, and a few lessons on life and relationships, but didn’t really grab me by the viscera. Perhaps my viscera had been grabbed earlier in the day, or perhaps they were taking time out to recover from the awful chill of the Cine-Art House, but whatever, I didn’t feel the necessary connection to the characters that would have made me sniffle. For one thing, the three female characters were one-dimensional and unlovable, apparently there only to underline the warmth and humanity of the gay, or soon-to-be-gay, lead males. Or perhaps the genre of road movie, offering as it does a guarantee of some life lessons and at least one tragic ending, has been over-used in the past. Whichever it was, this film struck me as reasonable but not special.
Fu Bo, a late entry to a festival season beset by visitors and films withdrawing (or, as I’d put it, “wimping out”), proved an unexpected gift. A simple story, following the daily lives of three workers who brush with death, it conveyed some basic facts about life, death, and the interaction of the two in a smooth and understated way unembellished by flashy cinematography or weighty dramatics. No histrionics here, and definitely no time travel: we’re treated to vignettes of ordinary life as people just deal with it. Particularly interesting were the autopsy room scenes: you won’t catch any of our characters doing a “Gottle of Geer” routine. You will, however, catch some superb performances, especially by Liu Kai Chi as the morgue assistant: you may have seen him in supporting roles in such as Funeral March. Overall, a gentle and understated film that hints at greater things to come from its directors, Wong Ching Po and Lee Kung Lok.
The two final films this week both deal with loss through love, but as I’ve written full reviews for both, I’ll offer just a teaser here. The first, Peter Chan Ho Sun’s Dolls gives us loss of a different kind, through human action. Patience, tragedy, and remorse, all show up in these two damn fine films.
Next week, you get the oddballs of the bunch, and I get to go wild, with Episode 4: Just Plain Weird.
Episode 4 – Just Plain Weird
This week, we’ll cover all the strange films, the barking mads, the ones that make you wonder “What were they on when they made that?!?” So put your underpants on your head and come along with me…
Jeff Lau gets the opening honours here, for his 1992 work, 92 Legendary La Rose Noire. This hard-to-find film will just knock your socks off, and probably your underpants, unless you’ve pulled them down tight to your chin. For starters, it’s got Tony Leung Kar Fai, and you know that anything starring Big Tony has a fair to good chance of being silly. Then there’s Fung Bo Bo sending herself up as the eponymous heroine, an amnesiac ex-Robin Hood character living in a mansion full of cunning traps. There’s singing, there’s dancing, there’s brylcream, and if you don’t know what that is, or why it’s funny, then chances are you’ve never seen a sixties secret agent satire. Whoo-ee.
Jeff Lau scores again, this time with a time-travel, cross-gender, doomed romance called, appropriately enough, Timeless Romance. Not content with the confusion of the story, which would twist your brain into knots (lucky you’ve got your knickers keeping them in place, eh?), Lau threw an extra surprise into his screenplay: Tats Lau. I know, Tony Leung Chiu Wai is the star, and there are other cast members, but for me, any film with Tats Lau in it means a license to let Mr Brain take a holiday. And I must confess, dear friends, that the sight of Tats Lau wearing an orange suit, of such vivid hue as to make me squint, did indeed let all the kangaroos loose in the top paddock. Lordy lordy, the man can keep a straight face while wearing the oddest things, and also doing the oddest things. Odd odd man.
But Tats Lau wasn’t the only actor in the fleet: Little Tony, Teresa Lee, and a bunch of others romp cheerfully through a confusing time travel kind of plot, with more twists and turns than your knickers by this time. I’d tell you some of the plot, only you wouldn’t believe me.
Alas, Lau (Jeff) missed his chance to get the trifecta in this race, as his mighty semi-epic Eagle Shooting Heroes was cancelled at the last minute due to print quality. Pity, because the chance to catch this fine example of utterly absurd cinema on the big screen should not be missed. Think of Ashes Of Time, but in satin 1960s-style costumes, with singing, dancing, and some gender confusion. If for no other reason, you should see this one for the chance to see Leslie Cheung Kwok Wing booting around Big Tony’s head, to the tune of “Match of the Day”. Pure spectacle. Try explaining that to someone not familiar with Hong Kong movies and they’ll be complementing your underpants with assorted restraining straps in no time.
While you’re all bedazzled at the thought of the foregoing Lau madness, let me sneak in a ringer here. Bubba Ho Tep, starring the legendary Bruce Campbell of Evil Dead fame, is not actually Asian at all, but it’s certainly weird. Oh, lordy yes. for starters, the mighty Bruce portrays an aging Elvis in a retirement home, with sunglasses, walking frame, and a growth on his willie. If that’s not enough, his best mate, played admirably by Ossie Davis, is actually (no, really!) JFK. “They dyed me this colour, man! What better way to hide the truth?” The combination of grumbling King and plotting President are tackling a fearsome evil (or should that be A Fearsommme Eeeevillllllllllll) which threatens the nursing home. No, it’s not the old lady who steals other people’s biscuits: it’s Bubba Ho Tep, a soul-sucking mummy who’s dining out on the residents. I’m mentioning it here because it’s bound to be a cult favourite, so you-all will want advance notice.
Also on the mummy express, but on the Hong Kong route, is Wilson Yip’s recent mummy offering, The Mummy, Aged 19. This one reverses the trend to show the mummy as the good guy. Ish. At least our mummy here is younger, having caught the disease, as it were, from an unfortunate accident involving a girl, a mummy, a night-watchman, and so on. The Shine boys do their stuff as if they’re on stage, with exuberance and a complete lack of self-consciousness. I may have mentioned that I very nearly tripped up the lead Shiney actor, on the opening night of the festival. What can I say, it was opening night, we were all jostling expectantly towards PTU, Liz and I have the size advantage so we were winning, and young Mr Mummy very nearly ended up underfoot. It’s a tough business.
The anime entrant for the Barking-Mad award is Japanese:Tamala 2010: A Punk Cat In Space. I’d probably be more inclined to call it “Tamala 2010: a scriptwriter on drugs”, because it was more weird than a hatful of weird things all cycling past playing the bassoon. I will make no attempt to describe the plot, because I don’t think it has one, and if it does, it’s one of those don’t-look-at-it-or-it-will-suck-out-your-brain jobs. What I will say is that the soundtrack is beyond excellent, although don’t make the mistake my workmate made and think it’s punk music. It’s not. It’s crazy Japanese stuff that is one of the finest soundtracks I’ve ever heard. I rushed out immediately and bought the CD, and still float around my kitchen singing along with Tamala (in a sense).
In terms of venues, three of these films were at the dreaded Cine-Art House, so perhaps I was half-crazed by the fact that I was freezing my tits off at the time. Which, given the films, would have made me at least one-and-three-quarters crazed on most days. Ah well, the sacrifices I make for my public. Tamala, though, was in the very plush, very comfortable Kwai Tsing Auditorium, which is way out on the Tsuen Wan line. The sight of the mall next door had me rather scared, until we discovered the Chiu Chow restaurant therein, and dined upon some superb steamed fish. I recommend going to Hong Kong just for that steamed fish. But leave your underpants off, or you’ll scare the staff (off your head, I meant. Honestly, some people).
The last entrant is one that, along with the mighty Bubba Ho Tep, screened as part of the Midnight Heat section of the festival. Night Corridor, directed by Julian Lee, is a dark thriller inspired by a Goya painting (The Nightmare, I believe). And so very Goya it is indeed, treasures, but that’s not its only virtue. This film stars the wonderful Daniel Wu, who’s apparently always ready to get his gear off and get controversial. He debuted I think in Bishonen, and ever since then he’s given it his all, in the get-down-and-get-moaning stakes. According to the programme, he “ends up grappling with the beast within”, although only after he’s finished grappling with the beast without, if you follow me squire. Then there’s murderous monkeys, a hirsute stepfather, a library night porter who may be Satan, Satan’s lust-ridden daughter, and an old schoolmate that our Daniel has a secret crush on. Alas, Dear Daniel doesn’t take it very kindly when the bloke doesn’t want to fulfil his end of the bargain (gosh, there’s more double entendres here than in Golden Chicken). In short, this is late night sex and suspense with knobs on.
Well, that’ll do me for tonight, kittens. Get those knickers off your head, because next up we’ll be talking serious talk about serious movies, then after that I’ll be waxing lyrical about Johnnie To and Simon Loui. Bless their little cotton socks, and perhaps their…No, we shan’t go there.
Episode 5 – Odds And Sods
Now I’ll wrap up the leftovers of the fest, the films that, for whatever reason, didn’t fit into my arbitrary categories. I’ll start with Asakusa Kid, the autobiographical tale of Japanese director, comedian, and omnipresent celebrity person Kitano Takeshi. It’s a rather idiosyncratic little flick, as you’d expect, but is overall reasonably entertaining, and shows a side of Kitano that most people have probably never seen.
The Best Of Times is a Taiwanese film, and anyone who knows me knows that I’m not about wax lyrical. I don’t much care for most Taiwanese films. I’m too acculturated by now to the zap and flash of Hong Kong and Korean movies, I’m too addicted to surprise (or shock, in some cases), to have much patience with the treacle-slow pace of most Taiwanese offerings. Nonetheless, it’s a good film in many respects, although it failed to thrill me as much as was promised.
The latest entry in the Jeff Lau retrospective, A Chinese Odyssey 2002, is a good comedy with the usual Lau flourishes. The heavyweight cast work well together, and it’s great to see Wong Faye on screen again, and doing a marvellous rendition of Chinese opera to boot. I find it hard to believe that, although Hong Kong people love her singing, many of them think she’s rather old and not at all pretty. I can’t imagine what they’d think of me.
Since I’m not allowed to talk about non-Asian films here, I’ll move on forthwith to the next exciting installment, and give you a taste of the real thrill of my festival…
Epilogue part 1: Dinner And A Shoot
It’s no surprise to anyone within this galaxy that I think highly of Johnnie To. And so it should come as no surprise that I fairly leapt at the offer to join Mr To, his wife, and his highly capable right hand man Shan, for a dinner. Those present included a writer from the mainland, Tim Youngs of Another Hong Kong Movie page, Stefan Borsos from Germany, and a couple of Finnish guys (makers of Pyongyang Robogirl), and of course myself and the aforementioned luminaries.
All I’m willing to say is that the food was excellent, as was the discussion, and my respect for To has if anything increased.It’s hard not to be impressed by such a passionate proponent of the art, and JT cares about every aspect of film-making. He’s also got plans for the future, some of which I may manage to winkle out of him on future visits. Mrs To, too, struck me as a fairly smart woman, as she’d have to be to deal with such a husband.
About a week after the dinner, we were invited to a shoot, and there we were, somewhere in Central at about 9 pm on a Saturday, watching the crew try to keep passers-by from impeding the camera or mobbing Wah-jai. Yep, that’s right, they were shooting the body-builder film that features Andy Lau and a prosthetic muscle suit. At one stage, To-tai (that’s Cantonese for Mrs To) asked “Have you touched it yet?”, and I damn near hyperventilated myself into unconsciousness. “Touched it” indeed, I wish I’d had the chance. I had visions of brazenly waltzing up to Wah-jai and fondling his suit, with the offhand justification of “To-tai told me to”. Apparently, though, it feels rather odd, and was hugely expensive. It was designed to be able to emulate normal muscle movements, and look quite natural, and we all know how expensive it can be to look ‘natural’. I’m told that at the end of a long shoot, you (or anyone who can get their hands on the thing) can squeeze it and it’ll release all the sweat it’s absorbed, which is a lot, ‘cos the thing’s damned hot. Poor Andy. The way he suffers for his art.
Epilogue part 2: Don’t Mention Ghosts
Some of you may still be puzzling as to why I didn’t throw myself at Andy and damn the gaol time: well, there’s a very good reason for that. You see, I had another assignation in Hong Kong, and it’s one that I’d been trying to line up for about a year. Simon Loui Yu Yeung, modern renaissance man, found time in his incredibly hectic schedule to chat with me and my co-conspirator Liz on a variety of topics.
You may still be wondering what sort of man could be so intriguing that I’d pass up the chance to chase Andy Lau around Hong Kong, in order to track him down. Well, scofflaws, I can on occasion be more cerebral than glandular, and if there’s one thing I like better than a man with fine bone structure, it’s a man with brains. And Loui’s got plenty. You probably know about the acting, but he also writes scripts, screenplays and novels. He produces films. He composes music, including two films and some songs for Kelly Chen. He hosts a radio show.
The radio show is about ghosts, as it happens, and when you put that together with the number of ghost flicks he’s appeared in, such as the Troublesome Night series, and the novels and scripts he’s written, it gives people the impression that he’s rather fond of ghosts. Not so, apparently. According to him, ‘it’s just a job”. So take my hint and avoid joining the legion of taxi drivers and such who buttonhole him with their ghost stories. Pity, because I could have told him that my mother speaks to dead people (not dead people like Elvis, just ordinary dead people).
His main intention, he says, is to “make movies that make you laugh, make you cry, make you scared, sometimes make you very angry. I want to make movies that touch people”. If you’ve seen Paramount Motel, you’ll probably agree that he’s quite capable of that: the film is not so much a thriller as a character study of one man going down the tubes at speed. And he has a movie planned for later this year starring Deannie Yip, about a mother and three daughters, which will be his first directing effort, but more of that in the interview proper.
As he talked about different people in the biz, he kept saying “yes, I’ve learned a lot from him”, or “he taught me a lot about acting”. He seems dead keen on learning and developing, which is entirely not a bad thing, in my never-‘umble opinion. He’s a little nervous about the responsibility inherent in directing for the first time, but is confident about the story itself.
One thing that nearly made me swallow my tongue was when he claimed to be lazy. The man who holds the record for most film appearances in one year (27, in 1999), lazy. I could teach this man something about being lazy, I really could. He also claims to be getting old (he’s just turned 39). Given that my definition of ‘old’ includes an inability to learn and change, he’s about as old as a kitten. When it comes to talking about making films, he’s as enthusiastic as a kitten, too, although I’ll stop the analogy right there, since he probably doesn’t climb the curtains or wee on the rug.
I’ll write up the interview in full and gory detail, so you can read more there, but for now, rest assured that I’ve met one of Hong Kong’s most fascinating film-makers, and greatly enjoyed the experience. I’ll try to catch up with him again next year, to see what he’s up to, purely for your benefit, of course, gentle reader. I’m not one to take advantage for tawdry personal satisfaction, lordy lordy no. This is business, and any enjoyment I gain is entirely beside the point.
The fact that the man has a very sexy voice has nothing at all to do with it…
Liz Kerr, photographer and film critic from Toronto to Pusan
Rita Sze, Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Sydney