Chungking Express

Woman in Blonde Wig with Cop 223

Written on the hoof while shooting on his previous film, Ashes of Time, was paused, Wong Kar-Wai’s Chungking Express is one of the defining films of the 1990s and, thanks to Wong’s remarkable approach to storytelling, one of the great films of all time.

It’s two stories in one, or one story told two ways, if you like, as if Wong had assembled all his elements, used them to tell his first story and then given the kaleidoscope a tiny twist. Hey presto, here are the same bits and pieces arranged in an entirely different way.

Both are romantic fever dreams and take place in a world that’s not really our own, where love strikes and people are entirely undone by it, gripped, obsessed, zombies of infatuation, prisoners of their own… they don’t even know what. All they do know is that they are lost.

Story one is about a policeman, Cop 223 (Takeshi Kaneshiro), pining for an ex-lover called May and living in a betwixt and between world doing his job out on the streets of Hong Kong, eventually bringing all his homeless emotions to fixate on a mystery blonde (Brigitte Lin). When he’s not pursuing Woman in Blonde Wig (as she’s billed), who turns out to be at the centre of a drug-mule operation, Cop 223 is gorging on tinned pineapple, specifically tinned pineapple whose best before date expires on his birthday. His birthday is 1st May, the ex-lover’s name was May, there’s also another May at the fast food joint, Midnight Express, where he also eats most nights. As if in a dream, a song, Dennis Brown’s song Things in Life, keeps recurring.

Story two is about another cop, Cop 663 (Tony Leung), another forlorn loser in love. He eats at the same Midnight Express as Cop 223, but this time there’s no May, instead a pretty young woman called Faye (Faye Wong), who falls instantly and insanely in love with him, though he’s barely aware of her, and sets off on her own pursuit of the unattainable. The tinned food this time is sardines; the recurring song is The Mamas and the Papas’ California Dreamin’.

Cop 663 and Faye
Cop 663 and Faye



Though he’s shooting using the familiar bright colours of the mid 90s, Wong uses two different DPs to light his different stories – the same but different is the watchword throughout. Story one moves at speed, with DP Andrew Lau emphasising the energy and movement of a city that never sleeps with cameras that blur movement and skitter through scenes alive with people. Story two slows down a bit, with Christopher Doyle drenching everything in that familiar Wong atmosphere – see In the Mood for Love if this Wong/Doyle approach leaves you hungry for more. Story one tends towards the frenzied; story two really wants to swoon but both come at the odd equation of distance versus love from opposite ends of the telescope. In story one the camera emphasises isolation in a multitude, in story two it’s connection while separated.

There was a story three, which Wong eventually turned into another film – 1995’s Fallen Angels (makes mental note to see that) – but perhaps the most remarkable thing about Chungking Express is that Wong shot the whole thing in 23 days, all those exquisitely composed images, the technically bravura moments that come and go in a shimmer. Look out for the shot where Cop 663 bumps into his old love, whose body language is confusingly of the “take me right here” variety, and she then disappears off on the back of a motorbike with some other guy. As she goes, she swivels around in the pillion and waves at him. Wong catches all of it in the reflection of a shop window, almost as if it had all happened in Cop 663’s imagination.

Maybe it did. There are enough moments in this film that make no sense, if we’re assuming it’s all set in the real world rather than some amalgam of the real and the fantastic. It’s film-making done at a level of technical accomplishment that’s breathtaking, with an imaginative impulse that’s also remarkable. It’s spectacularly good. This was the film that prompted Quentin Tarantino to found his Rolling Thunder Pictures distribution company so it could get a US release. It works as well now (writing this in 2022) as it did in 1994. By isolating it away from its origins, time might even have improved it.

Chungking Express – Watch it/buy it at Amazon



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© Steve Morrissey 2022









Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings

Xialing, Shang-Chi and Katy

Self-important, windy, drowning in lore, full of flat characters and just plain old dull, Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings is everything it shouldn’t be, a spectacular own goal from Marvel.

It looked like an open goal, too. Moving the Marvel Cinematic Universe to China is a great idea – a civilisation with millenia of history, superheroes aplenty and enough dragons and lion-headed creatures to stock a whole other pantheon of characters and an entire alternative bestiary. Plus, not to be forgotten, a massive population waiting to be sold stuff.

The film is based on Marvel’s 1973 creation Shang-Chi, who was originally the virtuous son of the villainous Fu Manchu (Marvel later back-pedalled on that when they lost the comic-book rights) and was modelled – shirt off, ripped physique – on Bruce Lee, the hottest thing in martial arts at that or any other time.

As part of the back-pedalling Fu Manchu became Xu Wenwu. Here he’s played by Tony Leung as a superhero from the mists of legend who has gained great power in his immortal trek through the ages, aided by his ten magical rings. In poorly told backstory – the first of many, many visits back to the past – we learn that the power-hungry Xu Wenwu had been transformed by the love of his life, who gave him two children, Shang-Chi (Simu Liu) and Xialing (Meng’er Zhang), before she was captured and taken prisoner.

Driven back to the dark side, the father trains his son to be the greatest of warriors, the daughter also learning martial arts skills on the sly (sexism being part of the Xu Wenwu package), before the grown children fly the coop to hide from their increasingly insane father out in the world of mortals.

Giant breath. The film starts here – Shang-Chi, using the alias Shaun, being discovered in San Francisco and then heading back to China for an Oedipal showdown with dad, having picked his sister up en route, and with best pal Katy (Awkwafina) along for the ride as the human equivalent of one of those cutely comical Disney sidekick animals (never forget that this is a Disney movie).

But never mind all that, are the fights any good? They are, Marvel/Disney having borrowed the wire work and wuxia tricks familiar from films like Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (Michelle Yeoh also borrowed, as Shang-Chi and Xialing’s aunt). While this film keeps moving, it keeps alive. It’s in between that is sags badly, as yet another bit of the past is re-introduced in airless dialogue delivered by actors whose faces telegraph discomfort.

Xu Wenwu with the ten rings
Have rings, will travel: Xu Wenwu



Characters are introduced only to be dropped again, when even the main characters – Xu Wenwu, Shang-Chi, Xialing – are not adequately sketched. Ben Kingsley arrives at one point, playing an actorly actor called Trevor Slattery, Liverpool accent aiming at Scouse poet Roger McGough’s and getting most of the way there. Suddenly, things spark back to life as everyone involved remembers that this is a Marvel movie and Marvel movies are as much about sass and fun as about action. But Tony is soon forgotten, lost in the plot debris as yet more arcana is (sigh) unearthed and (bigger sigh) explained.

Barely any battle can be joined, or new character introduced, without a reverting back into the mists of time, where someone did something to somebody else and a thing of great import was set in train which blah blah blah…

I didn’t like it much. I’m not sure Disney did either. The CG was second rate, which at this point in the MCU game really is letting the side down. And Joel P West’s soundtrack seemed to have flicked one of the Rentascore generic settings and then sat back. At points it aped the orientalist ching-chang-pling-plong of the Charley Chan and, yes, Fu Manchu Hollywood films of yore.

There were dragons. I liked the dragons. I liked the brief appearance of Chen Fala as Shang-Chi’s mother – a graceful presence who looked like she was going to bring more to the martial arts table than the Marvel Power Stance. I liked the big finale, when things did eventually take off in “more powerful than you can possibly imagine” style

The great indie director Destin Daniel Cretton does not disgrace himself in his attempts at broad brush energy but does find himself outflanked by the marketing machinery of both Disney and Marvel. After Black Widow and before Eternals, this is the second of a planned 11-film run in Phase Four of the MCU. Will there be a Phase Five? Will Phase Four even make it to completion?



Shang-Chi and the Legend of the Ten Rings – Watch it/buy it at Amazon





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© Steve Morrissey 2021









The Grandmaster

Zhang Ziyi and brothel women in The Grandmaster

 

There are misgivings even during the opening scene of this decade-straddling epic about Ip Man, generally described as “the man who trained Bruce Lee”. There’s legendary martial artist Ip Man (the impassive Tony Leung) in a stylish straw hat taking on a phalanx of uglies in a torrential nighttime downpour. Slo-mo rain. It’s the sort of visual cliché you might expect from Uwe Boll rather than one of the most gifted film-makers in the world.

But, a bit of plot. The film kicks off in the 1930s when, Leung’s voiceover tells us, Ip Man is about 40, a content, wealthy resident of Foshen with a lovely wife and a rich cultural life. This is all kicked into the air after a bake-off between competing branches of kung fu called by the retiring Master Gong, who has in tow his beautiful, skilled and icy daughter Gong Er (Zhang Ziyi, of Crouching Tiger fame) and wayward disciple Ma San (Zhang Jin). Over the intervening years the Japanese invade, the nationalists come and go, and the era of Mao begins, with Gong Er and Ma San both re-appearing in Ip Man’s life like punctuation marks.

Why is Wong Kar Wai making a biopic about Ip Man, whose story has already been told many times before (notably by Donnie Yen in two films)? I suspect it’s his attempt to outdo Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And maybe in the original four hour edit it does. But in this incomprehensible two hour ten minute edit (Wong says he will “never” release the original version) little makes sense, and Wong’s choices always tend towards the visual rather than the dramatic. In short, half the time it’s difficult to know who everyone is.

There are two distinct ways of shooting physical action in movies. When it’s people who know their stuff, say Donnie Yen or Fred Astaire, the camera stays back, letting the viewer take in the spectacle – real bodies doing really amazing things in real space and time. When the actors don’t know their stuff, say Bruce Willis or the cast of Chicago, then the smoke and mirrors of the edit suite takes over.

Leung trained for 18 months to do this movie, but even so is no grand master. Wong reciprocates with an ingenious shooting style that is a little bit Astaire, a little bit Willis. And he comes up with something that does actually work: impressionistic blurs of movement, fast edits and swivel pans pausing periodically to focus on a decisive tactical moment – often a “push” move of the hands or feet. It’s very effective and, now and again, breathtaking.

Wong stages these fights in locations that are chocolate boxy in the extreme – a lush high end brothel, a station wreathed with locomotive smoke, a snowy landscape.

But never mind all that, the martial arts fans will be saying, who did the fight choreography? The answer is Yuen Woo-Ping, of Kill Bill and The Matrix fame, and Yuen does put on some mighty fine shows, though I was often not sure who Ip Man, or Gong Er, was fighting, and why – except when the two leads fought each other and all was abundantly clear. This was chop-socky courtship.

With this romantic Ip Man/Gong Er strand Wong is aiming specifically for the withheld love vibe of In the Mood for Love, his most famous film, which he also tried to re-bottle in his Blueberry Nights. And it doesn’t work here either, this time because Wong has introduced Ip Man’s wife early on and then not clearly explained the nature of their relationship. Or maybe all was explained in the four hour version. And who is this guy Razor who pops up here and there, spoiling for a fight? Again the four hour edit might have the answer.

But never mind all that, Wong appears to be saying in his editing decisions, look at all the pretty pictures. In this he’s directly in the tradition of David Lean after his work jumped the shark (about halfway through Lawrence of Arabia) when his visual eye started to get the better of his storytelling brain.

This is a heroically beautiful film but a godawful mess in all other respects. I followed it up with Lav Diaz’s epic Filipino masterpiece Norte, the End of History – a four hour epic I sat through with my eyes glued to the screen. Did Wong Kar Wai not trust audiences with the full banquet? Perhaps he should think again.

 

The Grandmaster – Watch it now at Amazon

 

 

 

© Steve Morrissey 2014

 

 

In the Mood for Love

 

 

Escape the tyranny of the huge flatscreen TV for an evening and surrender to a slow-moving visual feast best seen on the big screen in a darkened room with lots of people barely breathing. They’re holding their breath for a variety of reasons. The gorgeousness of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography for one, depicting 1960s Hong Kong as a kaleidoscope of butterfly blues, resinous ambers and neon reds. The unusual focus of the plot for another – on the man and woman realising that their other halves are having an affair with each other. On the losers not the winners in the game of love, in other words. And on the awful, stomach-clenching feeling of a love – yes, they fall for each other – that dares not express itself. Why not? After all, they have every right. The answer is because it is 1962 and they’re in Hong Kong and because they are moral people to the core. Or possibly they’re just cowards. Though the more Wong Kar Wai takes us into their world, the more we lose track of our own. Little by little we too are living crowded lives in tiny back-to-back rooming-houses, lives that remain genial, decent, tolerable because everyone obeys the rules. And little by little, we start to accept the unrequited lovers’ explanations for their actions, or lack thereof. Wong Kar Wai has made films as beautiful since, but never as immersive or painfully romantic.
© Steve Morrissey 2007

 

In the Mood for Love – at Amazon