Movie Reviews - 2015 postsThursday August 23, 2018
Movie Review: Ip Man 3 (2015)
In the first two “Ip Man” movies, our hero (Donnie Yen) fights Chinese martial arts rivals for the first half, then a foreign devil (a Japanese general, a British boxer) for the second.
“3” seems like it’ll be more of the same. It’s 1959, Chinese gangsters are trying to take over the school where Ip Man’s son, X, goes, and the gang leader is played by Mike Tyson.
Ip Man also has a Wing Chun rival, Cheung (Zhang Jin), the father of a boy X fights then befriends. Cheung pulls a rickshaw but he’s training to be a martial arts master, and he’s got a massive chip on his shoulder. He wants what Ip Man has. At one point, the two talk about Wing Chun teachers and grandmasters. Ip Man is gracious. He says strengths and weaknesses in anyone are normal. Then Cheung ratchets it up:
Cheung [sharply]: How about you, Master Ip?
Ip [smiles]: I’m just a dabbler.
Cheung: If we have the chance, let’s have a friendly match.
Ip [nods]: Sure.
Actually he doesn’t just nod. First he shakes his head, then he nods. It’s like, “This again?” It’s a good, weary moment.
My assumption: Ip Man will fight Cheung in the first half, then they’ll team up to take on Mike Tyson and his gang in the second.
Scratch that. Reverse it.
Do they reverse it because Mike Tyson is more beloved in China than I realized? Here’s an excerpt from “Oracle Bones: A Journey Through Time in China” by Peter Hessler (much recommended). Hessler and his cab driver, Yang, are talking sports in the spring of 2001, as China is vying for the 2008 Olympics:
He told me that Mike Tyson was his favorite American athlete, because the boxer has Chairman Mao’s face tattooed on his arm.
“Why do the Chinese people like Tai Sen?” Driver Yang asked rhetorically. “Because he likes China. If he likes China, China likes him. And he understands China.”
“Does Tyson really understand China?” I asked.
Driver Yang said, “If he doesn’t understand China, why would he put a tattoo like that on his arm?” That was an excellent question and I had no response. Driver Yang smiled. “Tai Sen read four of Chairman Mao’s books while he was in prison,” he said. “I saw it on television.”
Sadly, the temporal switch makes for a worse movie.
Gangster Tyson demands that his lieutenant, Sang (Patrick Tam), take the school. Why do they need it? It’s never said. But Sang has two weeks to get it done.
(BTW: I used to think gangsterish eminent domain was just a facile plot device in Chinese movies but apparently it happens. The Chinese legal system is still in its infancy, and relationships (guanxi) generally trump rule of law—particularly if wheels are greased. People get tossed off their land all the time. Back then, too, Hong Kong was notoriously corrupt.)
Sang is kind of the comic-relief gangster—all red shirt and swagger and not much else. To get the school, he:
- tries to force the principal to sign over the property—but Ip Man intervenes
- chains up the school—but the chains are broken
- sets the school on fire and tries to kidnap the principal—but Ip Man and Cheung intervene
Finally, he and his gang actually kidnap the children and put them in cages (shades of Trump!), forcing Ip Man to arrive at their shipyard hideout and kowtow to save his son’s life. By this point, Cheung has been coopted—he’s taken money to beat up Sang’s former teacher, Master Tin (Hong Kong mainstay Leung Ka-Yan)—but Sang, stupidly, has also kidnapped Cheung’s son. Cheung arrives to free him, glances with apparent shame at Ip Man kowtowing, but is ready to leave. A look from his son forces him to return to help Ip Man battle dozens of gangsters in a battle royale, choreographed by Yuen Woo Ping, that almost makes the movie worth it. When it’s all done, the hapless Hong Kong police, personified by Inspector “Fatso” Po (Kent Cheung), finally arrive, as well as the Hong Kong press, personified by Editor Lee (Babyjohn Choi). The latter makes a hero out of Ip Man, exacerbating Cheung’s resentment. The former articulates the movie’s underlying theme: It’s all the foreigners’ fault.
Even as Sang has his corrupt foreign boss, Inspector Po has his. In fact Po’s boss is in league with Sang’s. The Chinese are just pawns in the game. “You know the foreign devils run Hong Kong,” he tells Ip Man. Ip Man does. But he provides the silver lining for China circa 2015: “All these things we do aren’t for today but for tomorrow.”
Anyway, Tyson now dismisses the incompetent Sang, brings in a Muay Thai fighter (Sarut Khanwilai), and we have a good elevator fight scene reminiscent of (or ripped off from) “Drive.” From there, Ip Man finally confronts Tyson, who, sporting man that he is, makes a deal: If Ip Man lasts three minutes with him, he’ll stop bothering him. He does. And that’s that. The school is now safe.
What’s the rest of the movie about? The rise of Cheung (aided by Editor Lee), and the fall of Ip Man’s wife, Wing-sing (Lynn Hung), who is usually an annoyance in these films—forever urging Ip Man away from the story we came to see. Here, too. She actually slaps him after he rescues their son—because he’s not putting family first. Well, also because she’s dying from cancer. Once he knows this, he takes care of her. As Cheung rises, and calls out Ip Man, Ip Man ignores it all to look after his wife.
Indeed, as “Ip Man 2” recalled “Rocky IV” (hero battles foreign giant after the giant kills colleague/friend), “Ip Man 3” recalls “Rocky II.” Wife doesn’t want husband to fight, she gets sick, he cares for her/sits by her bedside, then she says, in essence, “Hey, why don’t you fight?” Adrian says that All-American phrase: “Win!” Wing-sing is less succinct and sweeter:
Wing-sing: You spend every day with me. It makes me so happy. But I could be happier. ... If it weren’t for my sickness, would you have taken his challenge?
Ip Man [pause]: Yes.
Wing-sing: That’s the Ip Man I love. I’ve taken the liberty of setting a date with him. I haven’t heard you practice in ages. Can I hear that sound again? Just you and me?
So the final battle. How does Ip Man win? With a three-inch punch, which his disciple, Bruce Lee, will make famous throughout the world. Then his wife dies—as she did in real life.
Enter/exit the Dragon
You know who really gets short shrift in this movie? Bruce Lee. And they have the perfect actor to play him. Yes, Chan Kwok-Kwan (“Shaolin Soccer,” “Kung Fu Hustle”) was 40 at the time of filming, rather than 19, as Lee would’ve been in 1959, but just look. 你看：
Pretty amazing, right? And he was all but promised at the end of “2.” But we only see him twice: In the beginning, trying to join Ip Man’s Wing Chun school but seemingly rejected; and later, when Ip Man needs to learn the cha-cha so he can dance with his wife. (Lee, of course, was also the cha-cha king of Hong Kong.) That’s when we learn that Ip Man, holding the door for Lee, wasn’t ushering him out by letting him in. Lee misunderstood. But then so did I; so did everybody. To be honest, in the opening scene, Ip Man comes off as a bit of a dick. It starts the movie off on the wrong foot.
China TV did create a 50-part miniseries starring Chan as Lee—available for streaming, like the “Ip Man’ series, on Netflix—but it’s cheap by American standards, and often dull. What a shame. I can’t imagine another actor this good, whose kung fu is this good, and looking this much like Bruce Lee, coming down the pike anytime soon.
Movie Review: Lost in Hong Kong (2015)
Thought: If you’re going to make a movie that’s also an homage to the great Hong Kong flicks of your youth, make a better one.
“Lost in Hong Kong” was China’s fifth-biggest film of 2015, grossing $234 million, but I struggled to get through it. It’s a comedy and I hardly laughed. It’s an adventure but I wasn’t intrigued until the last half hour—when the goal switched from trying to reunite with an impossible long-lost first love (emphasis on impossible) to fleeing dirty cops whose latest misdeed your dingbat brother-in-law has unknowingly filmed.
I didn’t buy it from the get-go.
In the mood for 成 龙
In 1994, a college student, Xu Lai (director Xu Zheng), wearing flannel and long hair, but looking like a pudgy 40-something wearing flannel and long hair, lectures on Van Gogh to his classmates:
This painting, The Sower, is why I want to be a painter. Of course, one day I hope that me and my loved one can go to the place in the painting, Arles in the Provence, open a studio, and create art together, and bear testimony to love.
The class erupts in applause—real or derisive, I can’t tell—while two girls immediately try to chat him up. One is tall, thin, gorgeous and sure of herself (right after his talk, she presents on Andy Warhol), and the other is shorter and mousier, wearing big glasses and bangs. He winds up going out with the tall one, Yang Yi (supermodel Du Juan), but every time they try to kiss disaster strikes: library stacks fall like dominoes, etc. Then she’s leaves for an arts program in Hong Kong and he’s bereft. That’s when the second one, Cai Bo (Zhao Wei of “Mulan,” “Red Cliff” and “Shaolin Soccer,” among others), makes her move. Her father runs a brassiere shop, Xu winds up designing bras for him, he and Cai Bo get married, life goes on. But in his heart he holds onto the dream of the artist’s life in Arles. With Yang Yi.
Twenty years later he’s on a trip to Hong Kong, where his in-laws pester him about why he and Bo haven’t been able to conceive yet, while his wife’s idiot younger brother, Lala (Bao Bei’er), in the midst of making a documentary about the family, pesters him about filming the real him. Xu relents to the request, but his real goal for the day is attending the art exhibition across town of Yang Yinow an internationally acclaimed artist.
Of course, everything gets in the way of a reunion. It's as if fate, or the filmmakers, are against him. But it's mostly Lala. He pursues Xu with a ferocity that would put Javert to shame. Then two cops investigating a murder also get on his tail; it turns out they’re the murderers and they need Lala’s videocam, which contains evidence of the crime.
Throughout, we get nice homages to classic Hong Kong cinema. Richard Ng shows up in an elevator. Yang Yi’s hotel room is 2046, as in the Wong Kar-wai film, whose “Chungking Express” Xu and Yang Yi watched as college students. My favorite reference is when Xu and Lala go over a bridge and onto a double-decker bus, and the cops say, “Who do they think they are—Jackie Chan?” A minute later, Xu winds up hanging off the bus by an umbrella—as Jackie did in “Police Story.”
A longer list of the homages can be found here.
Over the top
Wasn’t enough. I found the film painful. And not in a Ricky Gervais, “Well, at least we’re learning something about humanity” kind of pain. No, just pain. Xu is way too put-upon but we don’t even sympathize with him because his goal is so absurd. He didn’t really have a shot with Yang Yi back in college. And now? Now that she’s internationally acclaimed? And looks like this? Good god, man, your wife is out of your league. Count your blessings. Which is, of course, the long-delayed lesson in the end.
Then there's Lala, whom you just want to slug. Why in these very successful Chinese buddy capers (Cf., the “Detective Chinatown” series) must one character be uber-calm and the other obnoxiously over-the-top? Isn't there another way to do opposites?
We get a good ending sequence on top of a high-rise Hong Kong construction project, but it doesn’t make up for the pain.
Movie Review: Detective Chinatown (2015)
It goes on too long, one of the leads is way, way over-the-top, and the solution to the crime is a bit icky for a comedy; but “Detective Chinatown” isn’t bad for a foreign comedy. I laughed a lot. It helps to know Chinese culture a little.
Or does it? At the beginning, when Qin Feng (Liu Haoran) is disconsolate after failing the police entrance exam, his mom consoles him by suggesting a week’s vacation in Thailand, where he can stay with a relative: “He is your great-aunt’s husband’s cousin’s wife’s nephew!” she says. Sure, if you know the Chinese concept of relationships, guanxi, (关 系)—basically using any connection, particularly familial ones, to get ahead—that gets a laugh. But every culture has something similar, right?
On the other hand, knowing Chinese wouldn’t hurt. Example: Qin’s third cousin once removed, whom his mom claims is the “No. 1 detective in Chinatown,” is named Tang Ren, which seems to be a play off of tang ren jie (唐 人 街), the Chinese for “Chinatown.” How it plays? I have no idea.
Is it also an in-joke that the movie is set in Thailand and Tang Ren is played by Wang Baoqiang, one of the leads in “Lost in Thailand,” China’s No. 1 box-office hit of 2012? You’d have to be in the culture to know that, and I’m over here in Seattle. And using that whole “No. 1” thing: Are they playing off the Chinese stereotype embodied in Charlie Chan, et al., or is this the language/cultural distinction that led to that stereotype? I’m guessing the latter. But again: 我 不 知 道。
中 国 夏 洛 克
The distant relative turns out to be no detective—officially or otherwise. He just scams old ladies who want their missing dogs returned and acts as informant for a sloppily dressed police sergeant, Kon Tai (Xiao Yang). Otherwise, he drinks, plays mahjong, and spies on his pretty landlady, Xiang (Tong Liya). He gets facials and permanents and lies about his age—saying he was born in the’90s when his craggy face indicates ’70s. (Wang was born in ’84 but they make him look older.)
Qin is the opposite: fresh-faced, Beatle-banged, tie-wearing, and so quiet Tang asks him if he’s mute. But it turns out he’s super-smart in that almost-ADD way of Benedict Cumberbatch’s Sherlock Holmes: the smoking with the right hand but tobacco stains on the left, plus dirt under the fingernails, indicating ... whatever. He’d be derivative if his character wasn’t the opposite of Cumberbatch’s Holmes: young rather than middle-aged; innocent rather than cynical; polite rather than impolite. He’s the nice Chinese boy with the super brain. He’s the new smart China to Tang’s crass older version.
The case they get involved in is Hitchcockian: an innocent man accused of a horrific crime. The innocent man is actually Tang himself, and the mystery isn’t bad:
- A man named Sompat is murdered in his apartment/studio
- There’s only one way in
- Street cameras indicate that the last to go in and out was Tang, who went in empty-handed and came out with a package
- No one else ever came out
Tang claims/insists he left the package in a garage next to a van. He never saw anyone in the van. He never saw his client.
The murdered man, it turns out, was also involved in a gold heist, and his partners, working for local crimelord Mr. Yan (King Shih-Chieh), assume he double-crossed them with Tang ... and then Tang double-crossed him. So, along with the hapless police, the gang, in the person of three hapless toughs, are also pursuing our heroes for most of the movie. But thanks to Qin’s brain and Tang’s survival instincts, they elude both and figure it all out.
Ready? The crimes are unrelated. (I like that.) The gold is still hiding in plain sight in the studio—within a Buddhist statue. As for the murder? That’s more convoluted.
Sompat’s son, it turns out, went missing a year ago, so Sompat parked himself at a coffee shop near his son’s former high school to spy on the kids to figure out what he could figure out. He thought one girl, Snow (Zhang Zifeng), was responsible—I forget why—and he winds up raping her. She writes about it in her journal, which her step-father finds; so the step-father plots to murder Sompat. He hidin his studio, killed him, then pretended to be Sompat when Teng arrived for the delivery job. Then, unseen, he got into the delivery box, and via silhouette and prerecorded directive, ordered Teng to pick it up.
In essence, he delivered himself to safety. That’s pretty smart.
He didn’t just do it for revenge for the rape, by the way. He was also in love with his stepdaughter in more than a fatherly way. But why set up Tang for the crime? Not sure. Except he was a perfect foil.
There’s a subplot about a rivalry within the police between the sloppy, incompetent Kon Tai and the handsome Huang Landeng (Chen He), who knows what he’s doing, but is too ready for his Hollywood close-up and keeps falling on his nose—literally. That’s a good bit. But too much time is spent on this rivalry.
Who gets short shrift? The pretty landlady. She’s barely in it.
Plus, just when we think it’s over, it’s not. Qin is on the way to the airport when he has an epiphany. Sompat, he realizes, was gay; so why would he rape Snow? (Why would he rape her anyway?) And he didn’t. Snow invented the rape, and put it in her diary, to set up her stepfather, whom she knew would read it and take action.
But does that mean ... Snow was responsible for the disappearance of Sompat’s kid? Or is she just awful? That’s some nasty shit to end a comedy on: not just murder but incest and rape; but, oh, not rape, just a girl crying rape.
Half an hour shorter would’ve been better, with the lead taking it down a notch. Or two. Or 12. But I love the concept. Two mismatched detectives, repping old and new China, visiting Chinatowns around the world. Does any other culture have this? Pocket representations of the home country in almost every port? Next stop: New York.
Movie Review: Goodbye Mr. Loser (2015)
It’s fascinating watching a time-travel comedy that relies on cultural knowledge without having real knowledge of that culture.
At one point in “Goodbye Mr. Loser,” for example, Xia Luo (Shen Teng), the titular loser, who’s been transported from his sad life in 2016 back to his senior year of high school in 1997 where he can rectify things, is standing in his old room skimming VHS tapes and looking for a singer named Pu Shu. Then he has an epiphany. Pu Shu isn’t famous yet! Neither are his songs. But he knows them. He can sing Pu Shu’s songs, and anyone else’s, and become famous himself!
My thought: Who’s Pu Shu?
But yeah, you still get it. More: I found myself laughing at “Goodbye Mr. Loser.” A lot. Once Luo shows songwriting talent/theft, his principal demands he perform in the school talent show. Cut to: Luo, dressed in Bruce Lee Game-of-Death yellows, leaping around the stage and singing Jay Chou’s 2006 death-metal rap about nunchucks. Cut to: Perky moderator awarding first prize to ... a primary school boy for his song “I Offered Petroleum to My Motherland.”
And how cool that the Chinese movie industry can make this joke now. Does that mean those days are gone? Where kids win awards for idiot (and super dull) propaganda? I’m curious.
The main point is that, despite the cultural dislocation, the comedy travels well. It's other parts that don’t.
Without the Beatles
I never liked the main character. Ever.
During the cold open, sure, when he’s being chased at a wedding by his crazed wife, he seems hapless enough. Then you get the backstory. He’s at the wedding of Qui Ya (Wang Zhi) because 20 years after high school he still has a crush on her. So he shows up, pretends to be rich, is revealed to be a fraud, gets drunk, reads bad poetry to her on bended knee, and—the topper—when his wife, Ma Dong Mei (Ma Li, a standout), shows up and pleads with him to leave with her, we find out she holds down two jobs and he has none.
Dude. Man up.
And what does he do back in ’97? Starts out by making a pass at Qui Ya, mortifying her. Then he demands the seat next to her and stares, while she squirms uncomfortably. He’s like a stalker here. And that’s the least of it. Once he becomes famous (and marries Qui Ya), he turns into a major asshole: yachts, bikini babes, affairs, tantrums, outlandish clothes and hairstyle. At the 2016 wedding, he’d worn a feather in his lapel and been mocked for it, so in his superstar incarnation he wears bigger and bigger feathers. It’s a good gag. But him? He’s just awful.
Not to mention...
OK, so fans in China have noticed similarities between “Finding Mr. Right” and Francis Coppola’s “Peggy Sue Got Married” from 1986. I actually had to familiarize myself with “Peggy Sue”’s plot again, since I hadn’t seen it since 1986, but there are similarities—including the whole “stealing the song” idea. In Coppola’s movie, in 1960, Peggy Sue (Kathleen Turner) gives her then-boyfriend, the hapless Charlie (Nicolas Cage), who’s pining to be a rock ‘n’ roll star, a song with which he can achieve his dream. It’s called “She Loves You.” I remember watching that scene back in 1986 and suddenly getting pissed off. Wait, she’s stealing the Beatles’ song? For this schmuck? So he can become a star? What happens to them? What the hell, Peggy Sue? Who wants to live in a world where the Beatles are usurped by Nicolas effin' Cage?
This movie takes that and times it by 100. Xiao Luo keeps stealing songs. He keeps stealing Jay Chou’s songs. He creates a version of “The Voice,” where, on one episode, a young Taiwanese contestant sings one of his songs, which throws Luo into a rage. Who is it? Jay Chou, of course, unknown in this world, and perplexed by the odd shadow Xia Luo has cast over his life. It’s supposed to be funny but it’s kind of creepy.
Is there comeuppance Xia Luo? Of course, but it’s a little stupid. He comes to realize that he loves (yawn) his old wife, Ma Dong Mei, whom he’d already palmed off on his dopey friend Chun. So he visits their small apartment. He tastes her food again. Most of this bit is so ennervating I could barely watch. But finally he leaves. Back to his riches and fame, which aren’t enough anymore.
Oh yeah, then he’s diagnosed with AIDS. Then he dies. Lesson for everybody.
No place like home
The death, though, releases him from that particular timeline, and, like in a dream, he winds up back in the bathroom of the 2016 grand wedding ballroom where it all began. He’s so grateful to have his old life back—to being Mr. Loser again—that he clings to Dong Mei wherever she goes. But even here, lesson learned, he’s pathetic.
I’d still recommend it for Americans curious about Chinese movies. “Goodbye Mr. Loser” was a huge sleeper hit in China in 2015. Made without stars, it grossed $226 million—the seventh-highest-grossing film of the year, just behind “Jurassic World”—and it’s already spawned a Malaysian knockoff. The Hollywood one, I’m sure, isn’t far behind. Question: Does Coppola get a cut?
Movie Review: Son of Saul (2015)
“Son of Saul” is a relentless, exhausting film that never strays five feet from its protagonist for most of its 107-minute runtime. The camera stays on the back of the head or on the intense, vacant face of Saul Auslander (Géza Röhrig), a Hungarian Jew and member of the Sonderkommando at Auschwitz. It’s his job to get the arrivals ready for the showers. We see this happening, often blurred, in his peripheral vision. It’s business as usual for the Sonderkommando, who know the end game, yet horror upon horror for the new arrivals, who don’t; who become further dehumanized with every step. They’re herded, stripped, packed in, gassed; their dead bodies dragged and burned, their ashes shoveled into a nearby pond.
One assumes the tight camera shots, the inability to see no further than five feet around us, is a kind of protective device for Saul: how he survives and stays sane. One also expects the camera to open up as his worldview expands; as he finds something to live for.
It does and doesn’t. Because he does and doesn’t.
What he finds is his son, the title character, who is still breathing after being gassed in the showers, making him of interest to Nazi doctors, who then suffocate the boy and order an autopsy. Saul watches all of this, transfixed. His face becomes less vacant, more intense. Then he takes over the task of transporting the body. For a moment, one wonders if the boy is still alive and Saul is trying to save him. The boy isn’t but Saul is still trying to save him. Amid the dehumanization, Saul wants a human moment. He wants a Jewish burial: a rabbi, the kaddish, and a grave. In a world where life has no meaning, he wants one death to have meaning, so he keeps risking everything—stepping outside the rigid procedures of the Sonderkommando—to make it so, even as his fellows, their time short-lived, plot an escape. He lets burial get in the way of escape.
The longer this goes on, the more insane—even selfish—it seems. “You failed the living for the dead,” he's told afterwards.
It also feels like the purest form of sanity. And he almost makes it happen. He finds a rabbi amid the arrivals and hides him. He cuts his beard—the way leering Nazis did in posed photographs in the ’30s and ’40s. He actually makes it outside the camp with the body and the rabbi, and he’s pawing at the dirt, and the rabbi begins the kaddish: “Blessed and sanctified be God’s...” he says, but can’t go on. The kaddish is a prayer that acknowledges God’s sovereignty, which the rabbi can no longer do. It’s a prayer in times of mourning but not in times of insanity. This world is insane. As is Saul.
Because the boy isn’t his son. Saul doesn’t have a son. So what is he doing? What is the meaning of his machinations throughout the film?
I think we get a glimpse of it in the end. After Saul loses the body in the rapids and follows the others to a farmhouse to rest before continuing on, he spies, in the doorway, a small boy. Not Jewish. A fat, blonde, Polish kid. The enemy, really. And Saul smiles at him. Beatifically. The camera holds on Saul’s face, with something like glory shining in his eyes. Because the kid is the future in a world that seems to have none? Because all kids are sons of Saul now? Or is it because his appearance signifies Saul’s impending death, which he welcomes? It’s the last shot we see of him before German troops surround the farmhouse and begin the offscreen slaughter.
Directed by László Nemes, written by Nemes and Clara Royer, “Son of Saul” is a unique Holocaust film for raising questions rather than answering them. It's also exhausting. Everyone should see it but I doubt I'll see it again.