This Week in Geek (20-26/08/18)

Buys

The timing of this will become clear on this Tuesday's podcast, but I got The Avengers: The Complete Emma Peel Megaset (her three seasons) on DVD. Not that I needed a reason.

"Accomplishments"

In theaters: I'm filled with ambivalence toward Crazy Rich Asians. First, I hated the title from the word go, but at the same time, I'm totally for better representation for minorities in movies. The fact that this was a hit book and now a hit film is great. But is it GOOD? After all, I don't care what ethnicity they are, the hardships of filthy rich people doesn't do much for me, especially in the context of melodrama, which is a genre that has difficulty reaching me. So the gorgeous locales, the opulence, that's somebody else's fantasy, not mine. (However, I would eat all of the foods shown, possibly even a couple of cushions.) The subplot about the top model's marriage, for example, was an artifact from the book. Really unnecessary to the thrust of the film, even if some elements echo the protagonist's situation. I most liked the comedy of Awkwafina and Ken Jeong (could have used another scene with him), but they seem to belong to an entirely different movie. But then you also have Michelle Yeoh, a real powerhouse in this film, as the mother who doesn't want her son to marry beneath her. The film smartly sets up the irony of this early on, and never hits us over the head with it. It makes Yeoh's character that much more complex. But while there is some good and efficient writing in CRA, it's also replete with the most hackneyed romcom clichés (a run to the airport, really?!). What saves it on that score is that it's all taking place in a non-American culture, which gives everything  a slightly different bent and keeps our interest. And it has heart. Constance Wu is an effecting presence, and both her and Yeoh, in very different ways, managed to wet my eyes. So yes, often cheesy, and it could have shed some of the book, but it also manages not to over-explain itself and finds, in at least the parental relationships, a truth that transcends culture, and yet feels specific to this one.

At home: One of the things I keep reading about Crazy Rich Asians is that we haven't had a full-Asian cast in forever, and I know they mean in AMERICAN cinema, because obviously, China, Japan, Thailand and South Korea all produce tons of movies. I've seen hundreds of Chinese films alone - probably the second most represented country after the U.S. in the list of movies I've seen - so while I'm quite happy to see Asian representation in Hollywood see an uptick, it doesn't really move the needle in the context of my own viewing habits. In fact, why don't I just show my work by watching only Asian films this week? Starting with a bunch of mostly-older Johnnie To films Netflix added this week...

Three is an intriguing, some might say enigmatic, film from Johnny To, that takes place in the neurology ward of a Hong Kong hospital. Like, I don't think I've ever seen this much brain surgery on film before. The "three" of the title each, in their own way, hold people's lives in their hands. There's the cop played by Louis Koo, who doesn't mind breaking the law to enforce the law. There's Zhao Wei (who I'll always remember as the Mulan stand-in in Red Cliff) as a neurosurgeon over-working herself. And there's Wallace Chung's mastermind criminal playing games with them all while refusing to let Wei take a bullet out of his head; people may well die at his command. But even if you think you can play God (and each of these characters does), you can't cheat Fate. Fate is an important force in many if not all of To's films and here it demands its karmic pound of flesh. In isolation, the slow-motion gun fight near the climax is a cool set piece, but I don't think I needed it. The first two acts, where you're just trying to figure things out, where everyone has an intense stare, is better, and the high-wire climax (a white line and a red line, that's gotta be something, right?) resolves the tension more than adequately. The characters must eventually yield to fortune or die.

Johnnie To is best known for his cop dramas, but he's shown an interest in other "first responders" - medical staff, journalists, and in Lifeline, firefighters. The movie follows the lives and rescue operations of a jinxed station in a pretty straight rhythm of soap-rescue. The personal dramas are variable and for the most part do not pay off, they are context so we can identify characters later. The bit with the little girl awkwardly dubbed in English by someone with a stuffed-up nose is particularly useless, as is the romance between the criminally underrated Lau Ching-Wan and a woman he rescues. The female firefighter afraid of getting pregnant, and the rookie just learning the ropes (or poles) are more of a piece. But it's in their professional endeavors we find the real core of the film. Lifeline seems determined to show us every possibly type of call these guys might have to respond to, and in every case, a Pyrrhic victory is in the offing (I guess that's a pun). Their doom is effectively touching, actually. You're primed for disaster, then, when the third act hits with a vengeance. The only extended action sequence, it lasts and lasts and gets more and more desperate, possibly the best firefighting sequence ever committed to film. Tense and exciting - and you just know the fire effects are more real than in American film - it's a sequence that lets the film off the hook re: its half-formed subplots. After that climax, you really don't WANT to go check in on any of them.

Loving You is an early cop drama by Johnnie To with actors who would become regulars of his, Lau Ching-Wan and Carman Lee (who reunited in Lifeline). As the movie synopsis tells it, it's about a hard-edged cop who gets shot in the head, survives, and gets a change of heart as a result. They make it sound like he suffers a personality change as a result of brain damage, but that's not at all what happens. The police inspector in question is a proficient cop, but a jerk and lousy husband. After the incident and through his recovery, he has a chance to re-assess, decide what's important, and tries to make changes, but it might be too late to save his broken marriage or his reputation. Even this early (1995), To's interest in karmic balance is on show, and good will might attract good will, but then there's the villain of the piece who just won't leave our hero alone and keeps making attempts on his life. So if you're worried by the second act that abandons the kinetic action of the first in favor of recovery and tragic romance, don't be. We're back in John Woo territory by the end. One thing I can't help you with however are the cheesy needle drops, but that seems to be a standard for artsy Chinese directors like To (I could also name Wong Kar-Wai).

Johnnie To remakes Chang Cheh's Disciples of Shaolin in The Bare-Footed Kid, keeping the comedic kung fu beggar and the war between weaving houses, though I didn't get a case of déjà vu or anything. A fresh-faced Aaron Kwok (Cold War) stars as the titular characters, and is much more sympathetic than Fu Sheng in the original, which perhaps makes the film's third act, Chang-style sadism a little harder to accept. It starts with silly comedy, a sweet romance, and for the supporting stars - Maggie Cheung and Ti Lung - something more grand and subtle. The turn is perhaps at too sharp an angle. Tonally disjointed, the film also suffers from being smothered in a sappy score, though the action is on par, in quality and style, with other martial arts films of the early 90s, which is to say, the standard set by Tsui Hark in Once Upon a Time in China. Despite its flaws, The Bare-Footed Kid is on solid ground when it comes to tracking its lead's loss of innocence, concerned as it is with learning to write one's name (and thus make one for oneself) and finding a sense of belonging through the symbolism of shoes. Just a little more to it than you'd expect, which is To's calling card, really.

I don't think most Western audiences have the cultural background to understand all of the humor or the philosophy that drives The Mad Monk, so this may be one for Johnnie To or Stephen Chow completists (I am at least one of these). From the start, you know you're not in Kansas anymore, spending time with the Chinese gods who send their resident troublemaker down to Earth to prove his worth by changing the fates of a beggar, a prostitute, and a villain who keep reincarnating in those roles (happily, Anthony Wong and Maggie Cheung play the first two). Though Chow isn't credited in any role but that of actor, this is very much his style - broad physical comedy, anachronistic references, and Cantonese wordplay that is lost on non-speakers. The stuff with the god reincarnated as an adult baby is particularly difficult to get through. For his part, To shows his interest in fortune by letting most of the comic elements go by the third act in favor of bold supernatural action, where the stakes are the transmigration of the soul and the so-called Monk goes from glib trickster to sincere hero. I've seen more impenetrable comedies and mystical action films than this, so I guess I appreciate it for how bizarre it can be.

SPL 2: A Time for Consequences actually might better deserve its American title of Kill Zone than the first SPL, with its plot about organ trafficking, but it is not a straight sequel to that first film. The Chinese are big on spiritual sequels, using a few of the same actors in different roles (Simon Yam, Wu Jing) and using the title as a brand. So like the first SPL, this is a slick crime thriller with martial arts, in a world where fate plays a hand, crafting both doom and miracles. This tangled web includes Tony Jaa, in his most dramatically demanding role to date, as the father of a touching little girl with leukemia; a junkie cop (Wu Jing) trying to kick the habit and his uncle (Yam); and a sick crime lord (an unrecognizable Louis Koo) who needs his brother's heart to survive. And it does everything it sets out to achieve, whether it's hard-hitting action, sentimental drama, or the blending of the two, which is not always easy to do, or everybody would be doing it. The first SPL is still the more iconic film - this one has perhaps too much going on at times - but the Thai locations certainly give it some added flair.

Bad Genius is a Thai con/heist picture about high school kids cheating the Asian SAT system and as a fan of the genre, I loved the unusual focus. Now, I'm dead against cheating in academia, but the film doesn't necessarily disagree with me. It manages to be at once slick and stylish AND offer a complex take on what it means to cheat, or rather to help others cheat. Chutimon Chuengcharoensukying is more than up to the task of playing Lynn, our brainy protagonist, a girl who may be too smart for her own good, and comes to know it. The rest of the cast includes lots of affable young actors, who we track across about three years of school. This isn't Ocean's Academy (damn, but now I want to see that), where it's "one last heist", but rather a build-up, from their first cheat to their last. Short of taking one yourself, this is the most nervous you'll be about exams. Very fun, as any con movie has a right to be, but also heartfelt and mature in its ethical subtext. FAVORITE OF THE WEEK!

Tunnel in a Korean survival movie about a man trapped for days in a tunnel collapse, and it really doesn't waste time getting us there. We follow him, of course, but also the crew working hard to get him out, as well as how the media is covering it (spoiler: horrendously). It's a movie, so there are things you have to willingly accept - batteries with a longer than normal life, and so on - but other than such situational "sustainers", the story is well handled, with logic applied, great reversals, and touching performances from the leads, including the man's wife played by Bae Doona (Cloud Atlas, The Host). There comes a point where you will want to shout at the screen out of frustration, which is a good thing, and later feel the characters' hopelessness. And that's the sign of a very effective thriller, isn't it?

Doubles Cause Troubles is a very silly comedy starring Maggie Cheung and Carol Cheng as cousins who hate each other, yet are so in sync they could be twins, forced to live together in their grandma's flat as part of the stipulations of her will. After that sitcom formula is established, they meet a number of gangster types, one of them dying in their living room, and set off after a MacGuffin, get into some action but not too much, in between often bizarre hijinks set to plonky comedy music. It's not unusual for Chinese comedies to be pretty broad, but usually, they're redeemed by some other element (action, strangeness, etc.). Not sure that happens here, though one might mention that it features a female thug and a female police inspector, which you rarely see. Still, the girls, obnoxious as they are, did grow on me by the end. So I did find it enjoyable, I just can't recommend it. Regardless, that final homophobic joke has to go.

Jet Li returned to one of his most celebrated franchises as Wong Fei-Hung in Once Upon a Time in China and America, along with co-stars Rosamund Kwan (Aunt 13) and Xiong Xin-Xin (Seven) after a two-movie break, and this time, they travel to the Far West! Sammo Hung directs, so the action is of a high level and often amusing, but plot-wise, it often feels more like a series of vignettes. I get it. China's most famous folk hero is only going to visit the American West once, so you want to touch on as many western tropes as you can. A stage coach ride, Wong Fei-Hung getting amnesia and temporarily becoming a Native Brave, the crooked mayor, the overwhelmed sheriff, gunfights, a bank robbery, a hanging, cartoonish black hats hitting the town... in addition to having our heroes be community leaders as per the Once Upon a Time format. It just doesn't all hang together very cohesively. There are still some very fun set pieces here, and the setting allows for things the franchise hadn't done yet. I don't know, maybe it was a missed opportunity not to borrow more from Leone's Once Upon a Time in the West, but then, that's a quirk of translation, isn't it?

Donnie Yen reprises the role of Bruce Lee's mentor in Ip Man 3, a very satisfying sequel that returns the franchise to its roots in more grounded martial arts choreography after the more wiry second film, and this despite making use of Yuen Woo-Ping who is best known for wired wuxia. In this one, Ip Man tries to defend a school besieged by thugs on behalf of a land developer played by Mike Tyson. Limited acting there, but he's used sparingly, and their fight is awesome. And then there seems to be a fourth act added to this three-act story, which bothered me at first, but given it leads to another great martial arts sequence and has very strong emotional content, I think it has its place. Because plot mechanics aside, this one's about what's important to Ip Man beyond the martial world, and how martial arts philosophy informs that. In the changing Hong Kong of 1959, he is an old-fashioned master in a world of would-be movie stars, moneyed street fighters, and media whores. Just don't go after his family, and therein lies the core of the film, with a pleasantly expanded role for Lynn Hung as his wife. So between its emotional resonance and the superlative fighting sequences, I have to say this was on par with the classic original. The DVD includes promotional behind the scenes material and interviews (some of them in English).

Kung Fu Killer, qu'est-ce que c'est? Papapapapa... Also known as a Kung Fu Jungle, it's a Donnie Yen vehicle where he plays a martial arts master who helps the police try to catch a serial killer whose murders are martial arts related. Half police procedural, half balls-to-the-wall fighting action, it's a marriage of genres that I wish had worked better. The whole thing with the killer's shorter leg, and thus his initial motivation, is under-developed which, like the finale's anti-climax, I tend to blame on the cop half of the film interfering with the martial arts half. On the other hand, its cinematic tone means the spell of realism is broken not just by elevated action, but movie contrivances (in the third act especially). Don't get me wrong. Yen is in Ip Man mode here, character-wise, and the action is strong. Director Teddy Chan sure knows how to create interesting environments for these battles, too. Nothing feels generic about them. An added layer, but deep cuts at best even for viewers relatively well-versed in Hong Kong cinema: cameos by older stars, stuntmen and others who work or have worked in the industry. Not distracting, because you probably won't recognize any or many. The DVD includes promotional behind the scenes material.

1978's Invincible Shaolin is a Venoms-era Chang Cheh production that worried me with its glacially-paced opening, but then headed into pure martial arts territory, albeit with Chang's trademark third act goreporn. Basically, it's the story of a Manchu general who wants to pit North and South Shaolin against ones another by pitting them against one another through trickery, hoping a Shaolin civil war would get rid of the problem for him. The Venoms are split into two, and it's interesting how each group become sympathetic heroes in your eyes, creating some tension as to whether or not you want them to actually square off. A huge portion of the film is devoted to the Southerners training to become the perfect matches for the more proficient Northerners, and then we're off to the fights. The odd structure bored you in its set-up, then features relentless action after that. Enjoyable and well-choreographed, though the usual freeze frame ending arrives way too early, and I also think it a sin to cast Kara Hui (My Young Auntie) in a movie and not have her pull some moves. Not surprising for Chang's bromances, but it still disappoints me.

Mamoru Hosoda's Wolf Children begs the question of whether raising wolves is any different from raising human kids. Because while the premise pushes the experience to a fantastical extreme, I'm quite sure parents will relate to the Hana's story. This is the story of motherhood, of the bond between mother and child, and how one must eventually let go, and find comfort in the letting go. Many of Hana's experiences echo things my own mother told me about hers as a single mom (though she called us cats rather than wolves). The wolf stuff is good for some humor, but also resonates in the two children finding their own "packs", taming their violence or giving in to their wildness, etc. One thing I've noticed about Hosoda's work is that the background, especially his cities and interiors, is incredibly detailed and has a sense of designed clutter, which makes it seem more real. The better to contrast with the fantasy and lyricism, I should hope. Could have used a bit more coda for one of the kids, but I don't resent the subtle emotional moment we actually end on.

Role-playing: We just couldn't make it happen this summer, but heading into September, yes, I think it's gonna work out. The bards-only campaign about a touring fantasy rock band in the Forgotten Realms, described back in THIS POST (now calling it BARD&D), has just gone through character generation! Three core players (with opening acts/guest players possible from the second episode on) will be The Tragically Imps, rockers from the North, including frontman, lute hero, and terrible manager Black Philip (Marty); the real brains behind the group, animal charmer and melodia player Josy (Josée); and head-banging viking drummer with the soul of a poet but the look of Animal from the Muppets, Orvald. Hardest thing was probably choosing the band name, honestly. I liked the runner-up Sex Ba-Bards best, probably. Anyway, we're trying to play most weeks for a short-ish 6-8 session engagement. Will report back after every chapter.

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