Due to my extensive non-writing work schedule and too many concurring assignments, I was only able to attend four films at the year’s San Diego Asian Film Festival. Still, between Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s swoon-worthy Don’t Go Breaking My Heart and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s massively essential A City of Sadness, it was time well spent. I wrote up each screening over at The House Next Door.
If you’re a genre geek like me, a new Johnnie To film is an event. I was lucky enough to review To’s latest Vengeance for Slant Magazine.
Johnnie To’s Sparrow begins as seamlessly as it ends – with the arrival of a cagey bird in a lifeless apartment. This often unseen symbol whisks from scene to scene without a care in the world, playing a vibrant foil to the many cheeky characters attempting to control their shifting Hong Kong criminal landscape. These efforts are futile of course, and it’s beautiful to watch each character give in to the subliminal ease associated with the non-diagetic score and crisp widescreen framing.
To replaces blood and guns with whimsy and slapstick comedy, constructing a hazy world where criminals aren’t brutal, but pragmatic, charming rather than abrasive. To’s vision comes to a head in the dynamic silent finale amidst gushing rain and a sea of umbrellas, where the renowned master of violent conflict finds the harmony in the prank. Razor blades have never been uses so effortlessly and kindly.
There’s more cinematic virtuosity in this light-as-a-feather ode to romance, honor, and music than most modern Hollywood blockbusters. But To frames his daring kinetics within the genre trappings of a Musical, and Sparrow shows how song and dance springs from many diverse human conflicts. Be it the graceful art of picking pockets or the sublime drift of a female grifter playing friends off each other, To manages to reveal the beauty of cinematic movement and playfulness. If Sparrow comes across a bit silly in the end, it’s only because To takes a step back and re-thinks his own seriousness toward the crime film, finding an amiable alternate universe smiling between the genre cracks.
Vengeance (To, 2009) – Striking and exciting, besides the lame “Memento” plot twist late in the film. Nobody directs the movement of actors and guns better, and the scene between two factions of hit men in a dimly lit park perfectly captures To’s bullet-time grace and mystery, as smoke, gun powder, blood, and tree bark spray across the frame. The joys of each violent set-piece thankfully overwhelm To’s inability to create a convincing mythology, making the film a vibrantly hued and fractured vision on revenge even during it’s most ridiculously melodramatic moments.
Brothers (Sheridan, 2009) – Had me hooked for a while, especially with Tobey Maguire’s strangely enigmatic performance. His seamless fluctuations between kind Dad and brutal soldier masks the film’s many flaws during the opening act. But ultimately Sheridan can’t help himself with the sentiment, and his film remains too glossy, punctuated, and fleeting to be anything poignantly memorable.
Full Battle Rattle (Gerber, Moss, 2008) – A case of interesting subject matter lacking the proper cinematic execution. The conflict of this doc is spread thin between far too many subjects who never develop beyond the surface. The “simulation” scenes are especially anti-climactic through the lens of the camera, and provide little insight into the psychology of the soldier. However, by the end, as the soldiers are heading back to war, and the Middle Eastern actors return home, the film achieves a deep sense of fractured identity on both sides, asking who we are, and what are we fighting for?
The September Issue (Cutler, 2009) – Ironically, the fashion elements are the most interesting thing about this poorly constructed doc on Anna Wintour, inspiration for Streep’s character in The Devil Wears Prada. Instead of a calculating piece on the pitfalls and realities of magazine/journalism business, we get meandering fluff, simply conceived to highlight a few moments of bickering between uninterested subjects. No cinematic style to match the fashion world, and no heart to take the story through and through.
From its fragmented opening montage all the way to its deceivingly dark finale of broken mirrors and breaking psyches, Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai’s Mad Detective reveals a mistrust and deterioration of investigative instincts and the tragic ramifications of such doubt within Policiers, both in terms of genre and character. Inspector Bun (Lau Ching-Wan), the demented centerpiece of Mad Detective, is a brilliant but completely luny cop whose antics produce pinpoint results, often at the cost of plausibility. Bun claims to see a person’s inner personality(s), and To/Wai brilliantly visualize these scenarios by manipulating point of view and angle. Unlike traditional Hong Kong cop films, Mad Detective delves into an abyss of cowardice and weakness, leaving Bun outside the realm of modern rationale; alone, categorized, but completely justified. Yet the end result feels anything like a vindication. If anything, Mad Detective deconstructs a current trend in American television, the Wacky Detective genre where quirky cops solve cases in eccentric ways. To and Wai see the true genius in Bun, but they equally understand the brutal and reactionary fear in the eyes of the characters around him, adding a tragic context to an already dynamic story.
Exiled, a beautiful and bizarre slice of Western lore served up Hong Kong style by director Johnnie To, flutters with cowboy iconography and codes of honor worthy of both John Woo and John Ford. This might be To’s purest expression of action yet, since he relies almost entirely on the tension built by montage and violence. Even though it’s drenched in powdery blood splatter, the film goes out of it’s way to connect the five assassin protagonists as boyhood friends forced back together to defeat their gangster boss, a distinct and effective basis in character which makes the action even more exciting. My only gripe with the film lies in it’s disregard for plausibility (in terms of story) and dependance on a magical realism of sorts, a strange tonal compliment considering the clashing genres at work. This aesthetic gets tiresome by the end, a jarring approach thankfully soothed by the film’s brilliant Western score and memorable layered action scenes. Another solid effort by today’s most ambitious master of mise-en-scene.
While Throwdown and Running Out of Time relish in their own schizophrenic identities, Johnnie To’s The Mission functions wonderfully as a concise and brutal thriller concerning five bodybuards/killers protecting a powerful yakuza. Very reminiscent of Michael Mann’s best work, The Mission curtails traditional character setup (it’s done briefly in one, virtuoso montage before the opening credit sequence), instead allowing all five men to develop while working, and talking with one another on the job. To jumps back and forth between this evolving, convincing friendship and a series of attempts on the old gangster’s life, which grow in intensity as we feel more connected to the players. Not only is there a sense of immediacy for the character’s safety, but To frames these astounding shootouts with a quiet professionalism, a love for the job in a sense, that deafens the gunfire and chaos. One such scene in a large shopping mall becomes the apex of To’s approach, finding all five bodyguards and their boss moving down a long escalator, only to become attacked as the house lights dim around them. It’s the best action scene I’ve seen in a To film, not only because it transcends his typical use of darkness when showing mass violence, but because it’s action is seeped in character, story, and tension. The Mission ranks right up along side To’s Election films, but it will always have a special place in his canon for being a succinct, restrained and convincingly potent film about hierarchies and the harsh and bloody consequences they can bring to close friendships.