The Captain (中国机长, Andrew Lau, 2019)

The Captain poster 2Chinese cinema loves the miraculous, but it loves stories of ordinary heroism even more. Inspired by real events which occurred on 14th May 2018, not quite 18 months before the film’s release, The Captain (中国机长, Zhōngguó Jīzhǎng), is a classic story of everything going right after everything goes wrong. Implicitly praising the efficacy of a system which values military precision over individualistic handwringing, Lau’s dramatisation reserves its admiration for those who keep their cool and follow the rules in the midst of extremely difficult circumstances.

Beginning in true disaster movie fashion, Lau opens with a brief yet humanising sequence which sees the otherwise austere pilot Captain Liu (Zhang Hanyu) say goodbye to his little girl, promising he’ll be back in time for her birthday party that very evening. Thereafter, everything is super normal. The pilots and cabin crew arrive at the airport, get to know each other if they haven’t flown together before, and run through their drills. The cabin crew laugh through the “we’re professionally trained and are confident we can ensure your safety” mantra rehearsed in case of emergency hoping they’ll never actually have to say it, but disaster strikes a little way into the flight when the windscreen cracks, eventually shattering and sucking rookie co-pilot Liang Peng (Oho Ou) halfway out.

Of course, the story is already very well known so we can be sure that the plane will land safely with no one (seriously) hurt, but it’s still an incredibly tense time for all. As Liu explains to Liang Peng, everything in the cockpit must be done with the upmost precision. It’s when you get complacent that things will start to go wrong. A former air force pilot, Liu is not the most personable of captains with his permanently furrowed brow and serious demeanour, but he’s exactly the sort of person you need in a crisis, calmly and coolly making rational decisions under intense pressure. While he’s doing his best at the controls, the entirety of the Chinese air aviation authorities are springing into action to try and ensure the plane’s safe landing – airspace is cleared, the military monitor the situation, and the fire and ambulance services are already on standby in the hope that Liu can safely land at Chengdu airport.

Keeping the tension high, Lau resists the temptation to sink into melodrama, more or less abandoning a hinted at subplot about stoical cabin supervisor Nan’s (Quan Yuan) possibly unhappy home life while introducing a fairly random diversion in a group of aircraft enthusiasts furiously tracking the plane’s trajectory online and then heading out to the airport in the hope of witnessing a miracle. Before the potential catastrophe takes hold, the crew have to deal with unpleasant passengers intent on throwing their weight around, nervous flyers, and people travelling with small children, but do their best to provide service with a smile even in the most trying of circumstances. They are frightened too, but have to muster all of their professionalism in order to be strong for the passengers, keeping them calm and preventing them from creating additional problems while the guys in the cockpit try to find a solution that keeps everyone safe.

Released for National Day, The Captain’s brand of propagandistic patriotism is of the more subtle kind, only really rearing its head during the final moments during which awkward captain Liu suddenly starts singing a folksong in praise of the motherland while celebrating their lucky escape on its one year anniversary in the time honoured fashion of a group hot pot. Nevertheless, the point it’s making is in the virtues that Liu states after landing, valuing life and duty. Liu landed the plane because he followed procedure perfectly, kept his head, and made well-informed decisions. A master of understatement, his speech on landing is simply an apology to his passengers that he wasn’t able to take them safely to Lhasa. After waiting for the investigators, he thinks the passengers are hanging round outside the plane because they’re angry and want an explanation, little realising they are just overjoyed to be alive and wish to thank him for saving all their lives. A tense tale of selfless heroism aided by good training and immense professionalism, The Captain is a subtle endorsement of an authoritarian system but also of the importance of keeping cool in a crisis as the best weapon against catastrophe.

The Captain is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia, and in the US from Well Go USA.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kung Fu Killer (一個人的武林, AKA Kung Fu Jungle, Teddy Chan, 2014)

kung fu killerKung fu movies –  they don’t make ‘em like they used to, except when they do. Kung Fu Killer (一個人的武林, AKA Kung Fu Jungle) is equal parts homage and farewell as its ageing star, Donnie Yen, prepares to graduate to the role of master rather than rebellious pupil. What it also is, is a battle for the soul of kung fu. Just how “martial” should a martial art be? Is it, as our antagonist tells us, worthless with no death involved or will our hero prove the spiritual and mental benefits which come with its rigorous training and inner centring transcend its original purpose? Of course most of this is just posturing in the background of a lovingly old fashioned fight fest complete with a non-sensical plot structure motivated by increasingly elaborate set pieces.

Yen plays Hahou Mo, a martial arts master and instructor to the HK police who hands himself in one day covered in blood and confesses to having killed someone. Three years later Hahou is a man of peace, paying for the accidental death of an opponent by patiently waiting out his prison time. However, when he sees a news report about a serial killer with martial arts ability targeting fellow martial artists he goes on a violent rampage trying to get the attention of the police. If they’re going to solve this crime, they’re going to need someone who knows the martial arts world intimately and Hahou spies an opportunity to earn his freedom through helping someone not so unlike himself realise the error of their ways.

In keeping with the genre, its not so much of a whodunnit as a whydunnit and so the crazed murderer is unmasked fairly quickly. Fung Yusau (Wang Baoqiang) is determined to be number one in each and every discipline, taking on the accepted masters and besting them every time, even going to far as to leave a sarcastic trophy on every body. Hahou once shared his ambition, his reckless need to prove his skill is the reason his life has gone the way it has after all, but the two men share fundamentally different beliefs about the nature of their art. Fung Yusau believes martial arts exist for the reason of killing people – fights in which both challengers live are, to him, pointless and incomplete.

Even if Hahou once harboured the same desire to prove his skills superior to all others, his was a more internal quest. For him, at least now, kung fu is a sacred art of self improvement which can be used for self defence but is essentially about learning to live a harmonious life. Having learned from his own misfortune, he knows the folly of being no. 1 – in that it’s an essentially lonely and insecure place to be. Martial arts should be used to kick down walls and build bridges, his desire is to move forward in togetherness teaching people how to be happy rather than working against each other in an unnecessary and artificial kind of competition.

The police need Hahou’s help because the martial arts world is so essentially alien to them. Despite a shared culture, this insular universe is something which they know nothing about and is so dependent on interpersonal knowledge that no degree of wikipediaing is likely to help them understand it. Only by learning from those with direct knowledge and able to guide them through the particular thought processes of the killer will they stand any chance of being able to catch him. However, the strangely alternative nature of the martial arts universe also makes trusting Hahou and the veracity of his information a big ask for hardheaded cops.

Yen wisely cedes most of the action to Wang Baoqiang other than in the early prison riot sequence and final showdown. The fight scenes are innovatively choreographed and always exciting, except perhaps for going overboard with CGI especially during the motorway set finale during which the additional speeding cars become an unwelcome reminder of just how much less is at stake than during the heady Hong Kong heyday of death defying stunts. Still, the relative quality of the action goes a long way to covering for the otherwise under developed story elements.

A nice fusion of the classic and the modern, Kung Fu Killer wears its love on its sleeve with a final credits sequence celebrating the various Hong Kong greats who’ve all contributed to the film in some way even if in more of a spiritual capacity. Necessarily an exercise in genre, Kung Fu Killer makes no claims to breaking new ground or doing anything particularly interesting, but does provide ample scope for a celebration of Hong Kong action cinema as well as the handing of the baton from Yen to Wang as each showcases their respective martial arts prowess.

Original trailer (English Subtitles)

As Tears Go By (旺角卡門, Wong Kar-wai, 1988)

as tears go byThese days, Wong Kar-wai is an international auteur famous for his stories of lovelorn heroes trapped inside their memories, endlessly yearning in vain for the unattainable. In many ways his debut feature, As Tears Go By (旺角卡門, Mongkok Carmen) is little different save that it owes more to its vague heroic bloodshed, gangster inspiration and is less about memory than inevitability and a man abandoning his dreams of a better life with a woman he loves out of mistaken loyalty to his loose cannon friend.

The film opens with Wah (Andy Lau) still in bed despite it being late in the day only to be woken by a voice so piercing it can only belong to an aunty. It seems a mysterious cousin whom he’s never met before will be coming to stay with him as she has something wrong with her lungs and needs to see a specialist in town. Seconds after he puts the phone down the doorbell rings to reveal the cousin, Ngor (Maggie Cheung), standing outside. Slightly put out, Wah goes back to sleep despite the continuous phone calls from his friend, Fly, who is supposed to be collecting a bill but is not having much success. As he will do for the rest of the film, Wah will have to go down there himself and stop Fly making things even worse for everyone than they really needed to be.

For the early part of his career Wong had worked as a scriptwriter (a self confessed hack at times) and was finally given the opportunity to direct his own work as the Hong Kong film industry began to boom in the late ‘80s. This was of course largely due to the fantastically successful action flicks being made at the time including A Better Tomorrow, The Killer, City on Fire etc. so it’s not surprising that he chose the relatively safe arena of genre for his first foray into the director’s chair. His existing connections also enabled him to cast arguably the biggest young stars of the day including Andy Lau, Maggie Cheung and Jacky Cheung as his three leads meaning he had pretty much a safe bet on his hands whatever he decided to do. However, even if As Tears Go By is the most straight forward, even commercial, of his films that’s not to say it doesn’t bear many of the hallmarks of his later efforts.

Broadly speaking, As Tears Go By is a fairly standard gangster tragedy much indebted to Scorsese’s Mean Streets as its melancholic hero is caught between loyalty to his friend and the possibility of salvation through the love of a good woman. Fly is a one man disaster zone – a totally useless gangster who can’t take care of himself in a fight yet loves to buzz around irritating the hell out of everyone and starting gang wars over nothing every five seconds. Even the pair’s godfather warns Wah that sooner or later Fly is going to land him in big trouble and it would be better for everyone if they could find him something else to do. Wah seems to agree but is unable to guide his feckless friend away from the fleeting glory of the tough guy world. Wah is already tired of the gangster life, he feels old with it but knows somewhere deep down he’ll never be free. Either out of complete stupidity, mistaken loyalty and a desire for revenge, or just because he doesn’t think he deserves anything else Wah throws away his chance for something better in a pointless, though affecting, gesture of solidarity with Fly.

Shot by Andrew Lau (who would go on to direct his very own genre hit Infernal Affairs also starring Andy Lau only 15 years later), As Tears Go By sparks many of Wong’s consistent visual motifs including the use of slow motion and a persistent melancholic atmosphere which is also filled with tiny moments of contemporary life. Andy Lau makes for a super cool gangster hero in jeans, dark jacket and sun shades, cigarette hanging carelessly from his lips as he wanders about town in a perpetual statue of ennui. Like many of Wong’s subsequent lonely male heroes, he has an inner longing for something which he believes he can never have. Just as the best film noir tough guys do, he warns off his potential romantic salvation which comes in the pleasing form of Maggie Cheung by telling her that, being such as he is, he can promise her nothing because he’s learned never to bother thinking past tomorrow.

Taken on its own merits, As Tears Go By is an interesting addition to the canon of late ‘80s gangster movies which marries the classic tropes of heroic bloodshed with an arthouse aesthetic inspired by both “New Hollywood” classics and genre infused European cinema. Though he’d rarely return to such frenetic action scenes, here Wong shoots with energetic hand held camera and a kind of fury that might give Fukasaku a run for his money. Extraordinarily accomplished for a debut movie, As Tears Go By is very much a youthful feature which is stained with the same kind of unresolvable longing which would come to colour the rest of Wong’s work to date. A stylish genre effort, As Tears Go By is Wong finding his feet, but find them he does and leads us on a characteristically melancholy waltz as he does so.

Reviewed as part of HOME’s CRIME: Hong Kong Style touring season.

Such a pleasure seeing this again and in 35mm! Though there perhaps should have been a warning about how much of the film lacked subtitles (just as well I’d seen it before!).

As Tears Go By was previously released by Tartan in the UK but a word of warning as there was quite a big error involved with the UK edition in that Tartan were given the Mandarin dub of the film rather than the original Cantonese by mistake but opted to rush the film out in conjuction with the release of 2046 rather than fix the problem. Kino Lorber released the film in the US but maybe out of print. The good news is that the Hong Kong edition at least does have English subtitles.

Original trailer (no subs)

I’m not sure if the film’s title actually has anything to do with this song, but As Tears Go By is an appropriately melancholic ballad from The Rolling Stones, here’s a vintage version sung by Marianne Faithfull:

The original Cantonese title is Mongkok Carmen – Mongkok being an area of Hong Kong and Carmen referring to the opera by Bizet which certainly creates an interesting set of allusions!