April 23, 2013

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“Nobody can beat Bruce Lee, everybody can beat me” -Jackie Chan

Failing as a stoic Bruce Lee clone early in his career, Jackie Chan discovered that audiences preferred him as a cheery masochist, enduring abuse for fun and profit. His kung-fu clowning in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow and Drunken Master (both 1978) established a persona he would tinker with the rest of his career. When he shifted from martial arts period pieces to modern day action thrillers in the 1980s, his drifting fool becomes professionalized, an innocent goofball in uniform. His masterpiece of this period is Police Story (1985), which was recently issued on Blu-ray by Shout! Factory, along with its initial 1988 sequel, Police Story 2 (1988). Chan has made five Police Storys to date, with a sixth in production set for release later this year, but the original remains his (and my) favorite.

Before starting work on Police Story, Chan suffered through an ill-conceived Hollywood project, The Protector. Although shot in Hong Kong, Director James Glickenhaus (The Exterminator) refused to work in the local style. Glickenhaus recalled, “They never shoot masters, they shoot very short sections and they do a lot of under-cranking to speed up the movement, which I refuse to do. I told him I wanted to shoot the fights in masters and then, if they didn’t work, go back and cover them.”   Chan preferred to shoot stunts in segments, allowing time to perfect each gesture. He went along with Glickenhaus’ plan, but re-shot sequences behind his back and inserted them into the version released in Asia. It was a box office failure, and Chan wouldn’t have stateside success until the 1990s.

Following that disheartening experience, Chan exerted complete control over Police Story, as actor-director-fight choreographer. The script was written by long time collaborator Edward Tang, who Golden Harvest assigned to work with Chan on Dragon Strike (1982, aka Dragon Lord), and who has become the caretaker of the Chan persona. While Chan’s bricolage fighting style, in which everyday objects are transformed into weapon, had been developed with Yuen Woo-ping in Drunken Master, his screen personality was still in flux.

While he was in Hollywood for his first busted project, The Big Brawl, Chan spent time watching a lot of silent films: “Buster Keaton, Harold Lloyd. And what they did was amazing. Buster Keaton gave me a lot of ideas, new things I could do that were physical or funny, but wasn’t fighting.” Like Keaton in vaudeville, Chan was raised in the entertainment business, his destitute parents dropping him off at the Chinese Opera Research Institute in Hong Kong when he was six to learn the art of Peking Opera tumbling. There are many silent film homages in his blockbuster Project A (1983), including a dangling clock face gag straight out of Lloyd’s Safety Last! (1923).  In Police Story, the influence becomes more internalized, the gags less referential and more tailored for Chan’s particular skills.

In Police Story he plays Chan Ka-kui, an impetuous cop protecting a reluctant witness (Brigitte Lin) against reprisal from crime lord Chu Tao (Yuen Chor). Chan naively believes in outdated concepts of heroism, eager to risk life and limb and acres of private property in order to catch his man. He is like a child living out a heroic fantasy, ignorant of the pragmatic compromises his colleagues and superiors agree to in order to protect their asses. There is a bit of Douglas Fairbanks Sr. in this, as his characters were also men out of time, as seen in A Modern Musketeer, in which his chivalric code nets him a slap to the face. Chan’s triumphant capture of Chu in Police Story gets him a demotion to traffic cop in the sequel, due to his spectacular destruction of a shanty town as well as an entire shopping mall.

These are sequences of manic energy released into death-defying punchlines. Chan deflects violence with his body and turns it into humor, a flesh and blood Wile E. Coyote. The opening is a close-quarters shoot-out in an HK slum that escalates into a car chase/destruction derby that reduces the hovels to rubble. His car a wreck, he chases down the escaping bus by latching on to the bumper with the crook of an umbrella, feet dragging on the asphalt (the way he snaps himself onto the back of the bus recalls Yakima Canutt’s famous stagecoach stunt). In the shopping mall finale, he crashes through every available glass surface, some with the help of a motorcycle in a bit of conspicuous destruction.

These are all shot in segmented close-ups, the style so despised by Glickenhaus, but it gives Chan’s stunts a gestural clarity and immediacy absent from the usual master shot/close-up routine. This way his moves are linked, unfurling as if in one ribbon of movement, while the alternating focal lengths of Glickenhaus necessarily breaks up that rhythm. Chan’s style allows the impossible to occur with speed and fluidity, an ethos exhibited even in offhand moments. At the start of an extended telephone answering gag (he gets tongue-and-wire tied), Chan flips up a pencil with his foot and catches it with his hand. It takes a split-second of screen time but a lifetime to master, making the impossible look like a flick of the wrist.

The image quality on the Shout! Factory Blu-Ray is poor, as the prints they transferred are faded and worn. The Hong Kong release also received negative reviews, but the Shout! disc doesn’t exhibit any of the transfer artifacts mentioned there. I doubt there is better material to work with, so unless someone unearths a pristine negative, this new disc is likely the best the film can look right now.


September 4, 2012

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Car chase movies are necessarily clamorous things, as they orchestrate squealing rubber, huffing pistons and the screams of crumpling steel. Which is why Motorway (2012), the new film from Hong Kong director Soi Cheang now out on HK Blu-Ray, is so unusual. It’s a particularly quiet automobile action movie, focused on the finesse of driving. The defining technique of the film is a 90 degree hairpin turn executed at 8,000 RPMs but only 2 Kilometers/hr. It requires great power exerted with careful, slow consideration, which holds true for the film as a whole. Pared down to a sleek 89 minutes during a prolonged two-year post-production process, back-stories and subplots were removed in favor of a film with narrative lines as clean as the ’89 Nissan 240 SX S13 that the traffic cops are unable to stop.

Motorway is the second film that Soi Cheang has made for Johnnie To’s Milkyway Studios, after the elaborately entertaining assassin drama Accident (2009). Where that is a clever expansion of the hitman movie, with its complicated Rube Goldberg made-to-look-like-accidents killings, Motorway is a reduction. Each of its characters is reduced to genre archetypes, with the audience using its knowledge of previous car chase films to fill in their background. The main driver is Chan Cheung (Shawn Yue), a speed freak gearhead who also works for the traffic cops in Kowloon. His partner is Lo Fung (the ever stone-faced Anthony Wong), who is near-retirement but is still haunted by the  getaway driver Jiang (Guo Xiaodong) who escaped him decades previously. So of course that wheelman returns to Kowloon in order to spring his imprisoned pal  Huang (Li Haitao), in order to set up the heist of a large diamond.

They are defined by their jobs and the roles as established by previous films. The enigmatic Jiang is descended straight from Ryan O’Neal in The Driver, whose every press of the accelerator seems to assuage some deep existential dread, while Chan, with his souped up vehicle and late night drag races, is a fugitive from the hyperactive Fast and Furious series – a hot-headed punk over his head. But while the characters are familiar, the chase scenes are not. They are uncannily intimate affairs, always at night under flickering neon lights, and they are paced and fought like duels. Cheang makes much out of dramatic pauses and rests. Jiang is constantly finding holes in the city to rest in, from the back of a truck to the obscured spot in a parking garage. There is a sense of vehicles as an extension of their bodies, no more so when Lo Fung rolls down his window in an effort to hear his adversary more than see him, as the darkening night corrodes his vision. The repeated close-ups of the engine block throbs with the energy of a heartbeat.

It is a thrillingly organic film, in which the lines of a map which Jiang is tracing morphs into the lines of the road, of the car, and of the street. And all of this rather quietly rendered structure  does not diminish the impact of the chases. Using a camera attached  low to the ground,  Cheang and his cameraman capture the stunt-drivers locking horns through the streets of Hong Kong. I only detected CG in one shot, in which a car nearly tips over a cliff. Everything else was, at least in the movie-verse, authentic. Cheang told Edmund Lee at Time Out HK what he was going for:

I’m not exactly a fan of racing movies, but I have fond memories for the racing scenes in several crime thrillers, such as [William Friedkin’s] The French Connection (1971) and To Live and Die in L.A. (1985), as well as the likes of Ringo Lam’s Full Alert (1997). When you watch the old movies, you can actually feel that someone is driving the car; when you see The Fast and the Furious movies nowadays, you can’t help but feel that part of their beautiful [action sequences] have been animated. I really want to go back to the human dimension of driving. I want to find out who these drivers are as human beings.

You can sense the characters’ human qualities through their driving styles. Jiang is elusive and fond of trickery in his ancient S13, while Chan favors a more barreling forward damn-the-torpedoes style in the police sedan. Lo Fung is harder to pin down, as he is only given one opportunity to show his driving chops, called back to the wheel after decades of refusal. He prefers a more sensorial style, as indicated when he turns off the AC and lowers the window. But everything can fail, especially when one depends on machines.

For in Motorway crashes have devastating impact, the steel frames of cars as permeable as skin. The more the vehicles are mastered and become extensions of drivers’ bodies, the more vulnerable they become. Every protagonist is either bruised, battered or dead by the end, with Jiang’s rabbit-punches keeping Chan off-guard until a final showdown on a pier, in which both woozy fighters circle each other in a screeching pas de deux. Motorway is a brooding original which turns the manic breathlessness of a car chase into a subtle duel of personalities.


December 29, 2009


After a lengthy hold-out, I’ve galloped into the loving arms of Blu-Ray. It’s the right time to jump in, as the studios are (rather desperately) pushing the format hard, cutting prices across the board. You can pick up a player for around $150, with many library titles on sale for $10 (most new releases are set at $25). Starting in 2010, Warner Brothers will release every new theatrical release exclusively in “Blu-Ray combo packs”, which will contain the high-def disc along with the standard-def DVD (forcing consumers to buy the Blu-Ray and push them to upgrade). With HDTV prices finally starting to come down as well, Blu-Ray is finally a financially feasible option for cash-strapped cinephiles like myself.

I ended up purchasing a PS3 to pair with my Panasonic plasma in order to sate my long-suppressed video-gaming urges, as well as for its stellar Blu-Ray playback and new Netflix streaming capability. I flirted with the idea of an all-region player, as recommended by the folks at DVD Beaver, but wasn’t convinced there were enough region-locked releases to justify it, especially considering that the excellent Masters of Cinema series is region-free, as are all of the Hong Kong releases.  So while I’m missing out on gems like ITV’s The Red Shoes, I console myself with games like Metal Gear Solid, Netflix, and the rush of new domestic releases (Criterion’s forthcoming Days of Heaven and Bigger Than Life Blu-rays are especially tempting).

After dipping into some of the sales (I picked up The Searchers and Robocop on the cheap), I decided to check in on my favorite production company, Milkyway Image. Johnnie To’s stalwart outfit has been churning out inventive genre pieces since 1996, the kind of work Hollywood has forgotten how to make (aside from flukes like Armored). I sampled two of their recent releases on Blu (available at HK retailers like YesAsia).

Soi Cheang’s Accident premiered at this year’s Venice Film Festival, and it’s a sleek paranoid thriller in the vein of Coppola’s The Conversation. The central gimmick has the obsessive-compulsive Brain (Louis Koo) lead a group of assassins (including Milkyway axiom Lam Suet) on murders that are staged to look like accidents. They build elaborate traps for their marks to waltz into, and their hands are clean. It’s the perfect setup for producer Johnnie To’s penchant for displaying process, the small details that build up to a murder, as he also shows off in Vengeance. I’m not familiar with Cheang’s work (he’s known most for his gangster film Dog Bite Dog), but he is adept with the Milkyway house style, which favors underplayed acting, minimal exposition, and a smooth delineation of space.

After Cheang sets up the group’s unerring precision in a bravura Rube Goldberg murder, he starts to expose the paranoia that drives Brain. His first action is to pick up a cigarette butt that “Uncle” (Fung Shui-Fan) leaves at the scene of their crime. He’s determined to erase any trace of their presence. When their next job goes tragically wrong, he becomes convinced it was the result of a conspiracy led by an insurance agent (Richie Ren). He then embarks upon an elaborate wire tapping scheme, moving into a unit underneath Ren’s apartment and listening to his every waking (and napping) moment. He even sketches the floor plan of his nemesis’ apartment on his ceiling.

Cheung , along with screenwriters Szeto Kam-Yuen and Tang Lik-Kei, withhold enough information to keep the truth of the matter ambiguous. Brain is either a canny chess-player – seeing many moves ahead – or an untreated paranoid schizophrenic – creating antagonistic worlds in his strained noggin. Louis Koo is perfect for the role, a blank slate of wiry tension and a football-field sized forehead that could contain multitudes of tortured grey matter. Cheung uses the motif of a solar eclipse to express the obfuscation of his mind’s eye, working multiple variations on the idea until the literally gut-wrenching climax.

Johnnie To’s latest film, Vengeancewas released last week on DVD and Blu-Ray by MegaStar (IFC has the film’s U.S. rights, with no release date as of yet), and it feels like a stand-in for the Le Cercle Rouge remake he never got off the ground. To’s love of Jean-Pierre Melville has never been so close to the surface. His protagonist, the mummified cool of Johnny Hallyday, is named Costello, just like Alain Delon in Le Samourai, and maintains his near-silent devotion to revenge, this time after the slaughter of his daughter’s family. But Johnnie To is also adept at wonderful scenes of hanging around, the interstitial moments between battles that To veins with humor and pathos. He surrounds Hallyday with his stellar repertory crew (Suet, Anthony Wong, Lam Ka-tung are the killers Hallyday hires to help him, while Simon Yam is the flamboyant villain), and has them enact their usual honor-among-thieves routine, which I could watch until the end of time. Anthony Wong has perfected a resigned weariness that plays beautifully off of Suet’s overeager child and Lam Ka-tung’s suave clotheshorse.

Set in Macau and starring a French rock star, it continues To’s interest in cross-cultural exchange, and is perhaps a nod to his increased visibility in the Western world. The film mixes English, French, and Cantonese, and the issue of (mis)communication becomes a major theme. This is established early on, when his daughter (Sylvie Testud), unable to speak, uses a French newspaper to get her thoughts across (later there is a bravura shootout set among composted newspapers). Then he has to bridge the language gap with Anthony Wong’s gang, in which he switches to English. The final act of the film charts his communication with himself, as he loses his memory and tries to trigger it again with a series of note-covered Polaroids. The final shoot-out is a brilliant encapsulation of the evolution of this theme, as he chases a target whose facial features he repeatedly forgets. It is a scene of constant self-communication and negotiation, as he checks and re-checks the bodies of the assailants in his way. There is also a minor motif of eye-holes and eclipses, similar to those in Accident, images related to the opening-up and closing-off of sight – just another few layers of meaning to To’s incredibly dense revenge drama. The image on both releases is phenomenal, the shimmering pastel blues of Accident and the deep blacks of Vengeance rendered with depth and incredible sharpness. They have my strongest recommendation.