Wednesday, June 24, 2009

John Woo and Dynasty Warriors

A Better Tomorrow; Hard Boiled; Red Cliff

One of the things I've been attempting to do over the last year or so particularly is fill in the gaps in my movie knowledge. I've started trying to build my knowledge of Hong Kong cinema, and have been doing so by checking out two of its most well-known directors, Wong Kar-Wai and John Woo - ironically, near-total opposites in style. Where Wong's films are languid and beautiful, Woo is well-known for being the king of the action genre, the inventor of "gun fu." Woo recently returned to Hong Kong and Chinese cinema with an epic based on the Three Kingdoms, Red Cliff (or Dynasty Warriors, for the gamers out there).

Woo's breakthrough film was A Better Tomorrow, released in the mid-80's in Hong Kong. It was not only Woo's breakthrough, but also a very young Chow Yun-Fat. In a single scene (which the internet, unfortunately, cannot seem to provide a clip for), both demonstrate why they'd become huge stars later. Chow Yun-Fat, playing a Triad hitman, prepares for an assassination by dressing like a badass, then hiding a series of guns in several potted plants along the way to the back room where his target awaits. As he starts the hits, he fires all his bullets, moving back and pulling out the hidden guns so that he doesn't need to reload. Although the scene ends with a direct warning that crime doesn't pay - he gets shot through the shin and is crippled for the remainder of the movie - the badassness of both the director and the star are firmly established.

Unfortunately, the rest of the film is a regrettable melodrama, apart from that scene. The story concerns an older brother who works for the Triads and his younger brother who becomes a cop. There are several scenes of the former trying to reconcile with the latter, but he just keeps getting caught up in his sordid past in horribly uninteresting ways, at least until the hyper-violent yet surprisingly dull shootout finale.

Woo's last Hong Kong film before he left for Hollywood was 1992's Hard Boiled, which also stars Chow, alongside a new breakout star, Tony Leung. Hard Boiled is a much more accomplished action flick, with just enough character development to make the massive action sequences interesting. Chow plays a cop investigating a gun-running operation, which is also being infiltrated by Leung, an undercover policeman. Chow's police skills are rather questionable, as his only talent seems to be shooting the hell out of everything, but logic isn't really what you look for in an action movie.

Hard Boiled has three major action sequences, which include a few iconic moments: In the first scene, a shootout in a restaurant ends with Chow Yun-Fat sliding down a staircase with two pistols blazing setting the standard for the action. A second bit, in which he breaks up a gang war, alone, by rappelling into the middle of the action with a shotgun, seems rather ludicrous, but it does introduce him to Leung's character.

Chow and Leung eventually form something of a team, turning the second half of the film into more of a buddy movie. The final third of the movie is a massive shootout, illogically located in a hospital, which the characters destroy with gleeful abandon and seemingly endless ammunition. I'm not an action movie connoisseur, so take this with a grain of salt, but this may be the most exquisitely choreographed gunfight filmed. The most famous part of it is a 2 minute, forty-two second long shot which sees Chow and Leung fighting off thugs while moving down a corridor. Leung accidentally shoots a fellow policeman, after which he and Chow argue about it in an elevator, and as soon as the elevator arrives, the two jump back into action.

This is quickly followed by a duel between Leung and the chief enemy henchmen, whose breathless chase involves the two scampering down a hallway almost on their knees, firing at each other through overhead windows.

My final foray into Woo's filmography was his latest film, Red Cliff. When I found out this movie existed, I simply had to see it. I've been a fan of the Three Kingdoms saga ever since I was first introduced to Dynasty Warriors. I've read the novel as well as played many of the games. The battle of Red Cliff, or Chi Bi, is one of the major turning points of the Three Kingdoms story. This version is a no-expense-spared epic, filled with big stars, telling a story so big it was split into two different movies. To think of it as a Chinese Lord of the Rings would not be terribly far off the mark.

*Note: Red Cliff is supposed to be released as a single film for American audiences at some point soon. The Chinese version, with English subtitles, can still be acquired without looking too hard....)

One of the main things which separates the Three Kingdoms from many Western stories, such as Lord of the Rings, is that in the novels (and surprisingly, many of the games), the lines between good and evil are blurred. Cao Cao, the antagonist, is brilliant and ruthless, but he is also arguably the only man who can prevent China from totally collapsing with the end of the Han Dynasty. Most of his crimes are also committed by the ostensible "good guys" in their rise to power. The film removes these grey areas, and instead treats Cao Cao as merely ruthless, a horny old bully. The protagonists - in the film, Tony Leung's Zhao Yu and Takeshi Kaneshiro's Zhuge Liang - are treated as almost entirely good, even though their warmongering and rivalry in the novel are far less heroic. (Ironically, Leung and Kaneshiro were the two male leads in Wong Kar-Wai's Chungking Express, playing characters almost opposite of Zhuge and Zhao's near-superheroes.)

In addition to a somewhat generic villain, Red Cliff also falls apart somewhat in the second part, as the multitude of characters start to change in importance. Like Lord of the Rings, Red Cliff diverges most from its source material by giving its female characters significantly more to do than the original medieval, or medievalist, authors had them doing. In this case, the tomboy Sun Shang Xiang (one of the best Dynasty Warriors!) is practically the star of the second half of the film, as she infiltrates the enemy camp and provides information to the strategists across the river. Zhao Yun's wife, Xiao Qiao (arguably the lamest Dynasty Warrior), is much less interesting, but ends up being the focus of the film's climax, as she takes it upon herself, thoroughly uninterestingly, to cross the river and distract Cao Cao so the final attack can succeed. Which she does. With tea, and obvious metaphors.

All that said, these disappointments are relatively minor for an extremely competent, occasionally gorgeous historical epic. Red Cliff's high point occurs towards the end of the first film, when master strategist Zhuge Liang lures Cao Cao's cavalry into the "yin yang" formation, a beautiful troop setup seemingly designed to allow historical superheroes to be their badass selves. One by one, Gan Ning, Zhao Yun, Guan Yu, Zhang Fei, and Zhao Yun come out to take on Cao Cao's cavalry. The fight choreography is top-notch, and any Three Kingdoms or action fan should come out grinning. Happily, the yin yang scenes are on Youtube, in three parts (25 minutes - the main action starts at about 8:20 in the first part with Gan Ning.

part one
part two
part three

Tuesday, June 02, 2009

Burn After Reading; Army of Shadows; Irma Vep

Having finished Battlestar Galactica (and I may post about the ending, presuming I can control my laughter) the Renaissance Poet and I have moved onto movies.

First up was last year's Burn After Reading, which I had desperately wanted to see ever since catching the trailer, which made it look like a new Big Lebowski: "Hey, it's a wacky Coen brothers comedy about people doing dumb shit for money!" I was somewhat disappointed in watching it, as it wasn't a genial comedy about blundering losers like The Big Lebowski, but rather more of a tragi-comic farce along the lines of Fargo - a film I admire, perhaps, instead of really enjoying. Still, Burn After Reading isn't without significant charms. George Clooney's charisma manages to turn a serially philandering sex-and-sex-toy addict into a likeable character, and Brad Pitt appears to enjoy himself immensely as an idiotic sidekick, well outside the normal confines of his usual Big Time Movie Star roles.

I'm a sucker for resistance stories, and who better to resist than the Nazis? So I was excited to check out the unearthed classic French Resistance film Army of Shadows. The Renaissance Poet's francophobia kept us from watching it for a while, but I finally convinced her in a moment of weakness/procrastination.

Army of Shadows
is a stark character study of what would make a successful resistance fighter, and the end result is rather unpleasant. The hero of the film looks like a middling bureaucrat, but he is posessed with an opportunistic survivalism. Whenever he, or any other character in the film, displays anything other than survivalism, such as loyalty, heroism, love of family, or any kind of hesistance, they are punished. And perhaps most tellingly, the Resistance of the film spends far more time attempting to weed out traitors than it actually does successfully fighting the Nazis.

Ironically, the film was critically panned in France for its apparent Resistance sympathies (the director, Melville, was in the Resistance) at a time when Gaullism was at a low point in popularity. I'm not sure how people who actually saw this rather depressing movie came to that conclusion. Army of Shadows was perhaps not as excellent as I had hoped, but it is an intellectual success, if not an entertainment success.

One of the sources from which I'm picking out movies to watch is The New Cult Canon series at the Onion A.V. Club. Many of the films on the list are ones which I consider favorites (The Big Lebowski, Kiss Kiss Bang Bang), and several other were interesting and well-worth seeing (Donnie Darko, Pi, ...uh, Manos: The Hands of Fate). So I was interested to check out Irma Vep, which appeared to promise some fun postmodern excitement.

It didn't deliver. Going back and rereading the writeup from The New Cult Canon, it appears to be about the film I saw. But it just never grabbed my interest. It appears to be more of a playful intellectual film for movie critics and movie makers. It has some assorted charms: Maggie Cheung plays a marvelous blank slate that every other character projects their desires onto; the wardrobe lady who befriends is a charming, charismatic, possible junkie; and the ending is so audacious and bizarre that it's almost impossible not to laugh. But those moments never really seem to cohere into a strong story.

The writeup indicated that Irma Vep is in many ways a spiritual successor to French New Wave cinema, which may help explain what I don't understand about it. I know little-to-nothing about New Wave, which is something I should probably rectify if I want to write about movies.

Next up, a far more entertaining set of films: Primer; Battle Royale; Chungking Express; and maybe A Better Tomorrow.