Women (女人心, Stanley Kwan, 1985)

Women posterThings are changing in ‘80s Hong Kong, but when it comes right down to it are there really any more choices than there were in the past? Stanley Kwan would become known for his fiercely female led filmmaking and his debut, Women (女人心), is indeed a statement of intent if heeling close to the Shaw Brothers house style and possessed of a particularly mid-80s kind of cynicism. Marriage falls under the spotlight but for all of its minor oppressions and petty aggravations the net seems almost impossible to escape.

Kwan opens with a strangely cheerful family scene which quickly turns sour as housewife Bao-er (Cora Miao Chien-Jen) is excluded by her husband, Derek (Chow Yun-Fat), and son, Dang-dang (Leung Hoi-Leung), who close the bathroom door on her before declaring a pissing contest. Irked, Bao-er finds herself mildly enraged by the sight of her husband’s undies and decides to take this opportunity to tell him she wants a divorce. She’s found out all about Derek’s fancy woman Sha-niu (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) and has had enough. Decamping to her mother’s with Dang-dang in tow, Bao-er finds herself the latest member of her friends’ “forever happy single women’s club” but remains conflicted when it comes to considering the further direction of her life.

The “forever happy single women’s club” is itself somewhat confused in its outlook in that most of Bao-er’s friends are not really intending to remain single forever but are hoping to find a new partner, if perhaps also enjoying playing the field while they look. None of them are really very happy with the status quo and the various get-togethers at which they enjoy lavish buffets and copious amounts of alcohol are mostly filled with bawdy discussions about men and sex, much to the consternation of the rather uptight Bao-er. 

In fact, Bao-er’s “refinement” seems to be one of the chief issues in her marriage which is perhaps why Derek has found himself intwined with a clingy free spirit who quickly moves into the family home and does her best to stake a claim on little Dang-dang but is unwilling to keep house with the consequence that the apartment is quickly overrun with old newspapers and empty food cartons – a sight which fair breaks Bao-er’s heart when she’s forced to visit only to be presented with some of Sha-niu’s patented “spicy soup”. During a candid conversation with her mother, Bao-er reveals that throughout her married life she’d gone to great lengths to preserve her feminine mystique only for Derek to take off with a woman prepared to let it all hang out. Her mother, broadly supportive of her choices, advises her to think carefully about her future. If the marriage was unhappy then it’s best to call it quits, but if Sha-niu is just a passing fad then perhaps she’s one worth putting up with in the absence of other options.

Bao-er’s mother seems to think that ignorance is bliss when it comes to a healthy marriage, but as a “modern” woman, Bao-er expected more. Even so, despite not requesting alimony (she only wants money to cover Dang-dang’s expensive private school fees), we don’t see Bao-er looking for work though it’s also clear she isn’t looking to remarry in the immediate future. Like many of her friends, Bao-er seems to have her doubts about living as an “independent” woman and continues to be irritated by Derek’s relationship with Sha-niu even while attempting to firmly close the door on her marriage.

The end of the relationship does however give her an opportunity to consider what it is that she wants, even if middle-class conservatism ultimately wins out. This is particularly true of an unexpected attraction to a lesbian friend which she chooses not to pursue seemingly because of the social taboo. Despite being fully out and accepted by the group, Terry (Cheung Yin-Gwan) is also pitied by some of the other members who believe she is locked out of the conventional family life most of them are looking for because she is looking for a woman and not a man. Even if it’s true that Bao-er can only really be fully herself with her female friends, she and the others still hanker after male companionship and do not feel complete without it.   

The major theme which emerges is that marriage and family are essential, if imperfect, and must be maintained even if perhaps superficially as the closing text which conveniently condones Derek’s poor behaviour while allowing Bao-er her “revenge” implies. A slightly cynical point, to be sure but undercut by Kwan’s sense of empathetic irony which asks what other real choices Bao-er has while refusing to condemn her for the ones she eventually makes. Socially conservative as it may be, the fact remains that possibilities are bleak for women of a certain age in ‘80s Hong Kong which remains a playground for men like Derek while women like Bao-er and her friends are left with only complicit means of personal rebellion.


Women screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival on 5th May at King’s College London where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)

Project Gutenberg (無雙, Felix Chong, 2018)

Project Gutenburg poster“Sometimes a fake can be better than the real thing” intones mild mannered counterfeiter Lee Man in Felix Chong’s cineliterate thriller Project Gutenberg (無雙) . At first glance, Project Gutenberg would seem to have nothing at all in common with the archival programme from which it takes its name but perhaps there is something in its continual questioning of whether a facsimile can replace an original. Chong plays with perception, narrative, and a human need for authenticity but most of all with the legacy of heroic bloodshed as a melancholy young man attempts to rewrite his own history with himself in the lead.

In the late ‘90s, Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) is languishing in a Thai jail from which he manages to get himself rescued by scraping blue powder off the walls and creating an expert forgery of a postage stamp to send a letter of help. Soon after he gets himself picked up by the Hong Kong police who want his help tracking down a notorious counterfeit currency trafficker known only as “Painter” (Chow Yun-fat). Lee is scared witless because Painter has a habit of ruthlessly hunting down associates who talk – something which is well known to HK police inspector Ho (Catherine Chau) who is after him because he killed her Canadian policeman boyfriend. Painter also murdered the fiancé of Lee’s old flame Yuen (Zhang Jingchu) who is the woman he sent the letter to and who has come to his rescue. Which is to say, the situation is much more emotionally complicated than one might expect.

Through flashback, Lee elaborates on how he came to get mixed up with crime. He and Yuen were living on love in 80s Vancouver trying to make it in the art world. While Yuen’s work began to gain traction, Lee’s was going nowhere. Technically proficient, his paintings were thought soulless and derivative but his talent for mimicry soon brings him to the attention of master forgers and thence to Painter who needs someone with expert skills for his next project – forging the US $100 bill.

Lee tells his tale with melancholy relish, dwelling on his days of youthful abandon with Yuen to the extent that Ho interrupts to declare herself disinterested, advising he skip the prologue and get to the bit where Painter shows up. Painter, a suave yet unpredictable criminal type, determines to help Lee become “the leading man” he knows he can be, but to be fair all anyone is ever interested in is the intensely charismatic Painter. As it turns out, there are more reasons for that than it might at first seem, but in the end Lee’s internalised feelings of inadequacy are still the fuel to his fire. Unable to find artistic success, forgery offers Lee the life of a skilful craftsman and he feels himself to have found his niche but in betraying his artistic integrity he also risks forever losing the woman he loves.

Painter has a weird obsession with Lee’s love life, assuring him that once the deal is done he will help him win back Yuen. “A man who gives up on love is destined to fail at everything” Painter tells him. Lee, however, repeatedly gives up on love. He refuses to fight, embraces his own sense of inferiority, and resolves to live on in misery falling ever deeper into Painter’s world of surrealist crime. Leaving aside Painter’s strangely homoerotic relationship with his protege, Lee’s life gets still more complicated when he becomes involved with a woman, Sau-ching (Joyce Feng), who falls in love with him in Thailand and, for complicated reasons, ends up with Yuen’s face thanks to plastic surgery and name thanks to a fake passport. Painter taunts him with a facsimile of his love but berates him for settling for a substitute while Sau-ching resents getting the Vertigo treatment from a man who refuses to let a failed love fade.

Almost offended by her betrayal of true love, Inspector Ho probes Yuen about her fiancé, asking if he was merely a “substitute” for Lee. Yuen asks if the next man Ho will fall in love with will merely be a “substitute” for her fallen colleague to which Ho fires back that there will never be anyone else because her love is “irreplaceable”. Yuen scoffs at her strangely naive romanticism and Ho does indeed appear to meet an echo of her former love in someone new carried once again on noirish cigarette smoke. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with the old adage goes but it turns out that inauthentic romance is the hardest kind to bear.

Chong lets Lee’s retelling of his history play out like a heroic bloodshed movie in which Chow re-inhabits the classic characters of his youth. An unreliable narrator, the movie in Lee’s mind is one of honour and glory in which he still cannot allow himself to take the lead. Chong over eggs the pudding with a series of twists and reversals, undercutting all that’s gone before and muddying his message in the process but there’s no arguing with his high stakes style as he turns a simple crime story into an interrogation of authenticity and the power of personal myth making.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King (西游記之大鬧天宮, Cheang Pou-soi, 2014)

Monkey King (donnie yen) posterEverybody knows the story of The Monkey King. His “journey to the west” has been reimagined by everyone from Tsai Ming-liang to Akira Toriyama but, all power to them, no one has yet had the courage to stuff Donnie Yen into a monkey suit to fully recreate the legend. Cheang Pou-Soi’s The Monkey King (西游記之大鬧天宮) rectifies this problem but makes up for it by adding a lot more to the already overcrowded arena. Based on a few early chapters of the story, this first of three Monkey King films could best be classified as an origin story as it retells the events which eventually see Sun Wu-kong imprisoned underneath Five Finger Mountain for 500 years.

Basically, a long, long time ago there was a war between gods and demons after which a fragile truce was formed. The demons were defeated and exiled from Heaven which is repaired thanks to the sacrifice of Princess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) who transforms herself into crystal tears, one of which births a strange divine creature who has a long and arduous journey ahead of him. Emerging from his crystal egg, The Monkey King (Donnie Yen) returns to lead his people before being discovered by a monk who seeks to train him and make sure he remains on the path of the light. Now renamed Sun Wu-kong, The Monkey King finds himself summoned to the heavenly court where he causes a bunch of trouble and becomes swept up in the Demon King’s ongoing plot for revenge.

A super high budget production, The Monkey King is a live action/animation hybrid even beyond that of any recent Chinese fantasy blockbuster. Utilising green screen for the majority of backgrounds, Cheang also adds in a menagerie of strange creatures including supernatural dragons before the final fight develops into a complete CGI fest as a giant cow and super powered monkey duke it out for the rights to define their world. Rendered in 3D the battles are a whirl of brightly coloured mythic action but it’s often a confection too sweet to be to be truly satisfying, backed up only by a very variable quality of animation.

The film’s true standout element is in the surprisingly nuanced performance of Yen who completely becomes The Monkey King right down to his animalistic gestures. This being a family film he’s much more of a recalcitrant fun lover than someone who likes to cause trouble, but nevertheless trouble is usually what you get if The Monkey King pays you a visit. He is, however, hampered by the slightly incongruous obviousness of his monkey suit given the more abstract designs afforded to other characters. Despite the inherent strangeness of his appearance, Yen is afforded the opportunity to do some quality acting alongside killer fight sequences even if he’s often let down by the lacklustre script and production design.

The origin story of The Monkey King is a necessarily long and complicated one but even so, Cheang seems to have decided that coherence is unnecessary when his audience knows the story so well already. Consequently, the potential romance between Son Wu-kong and the fox spirit Ru-xue is inadequately backed up given its importance to the central narrative whereas other characters appear for such little screen time that they almost seem like excuses to add yet another famous name to the poster. Meandering from one episode to another, the film makes little attempt to maintain engagement between its large scale set pieces, becoming over reliant on its parade of well known personages.

Despite the gravitas offered by Chow Yun-fat and the intense villainy of Aaron Kwok’s poisonous antagonist, The Monkey King remains a fairly silly exercise, a visual sugar rush which seems primed to put viewers off their tea whilst leaving them with a slight headache to boot. Playing best to small children and family audiences, The Monkey King’s only selling point is in the surprising (and almost unrecognisable) performance of Yen as its titular hero whose good hearted japes are sure to be appreciated by the young of heart everywhere. The Monkey King will return, but hopefully with a little more maturity as his quest nears its iconic destination, or at least with a little more finesse.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cold War 2 (寒戰II, Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2016)

coldwar 2Cold War 2 (寒戰II) arrives a whole four years after the original Cold War rocked Hong Kong with police corruption scandals and fantastically convoluted internal plotting. Heroic policeman Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) may have won the day, even if he ultimately had to compromise himself to do it, but the police van is still missing and MB Lee (Tony Leung Ka-fei) is still lurking in the background. As is his son, Joe (Eddie Peng) – languishing in prison but apparently still with the resources to cause trouble whilst behind bars.

Joe Lee has Lau’s wife kidnapped, forcing Lau to compromise himself by giving in to his demands all of which culminates in an intense subway set piece in which Lau inadvertently ends up handcuffed to an exploding smoke bomb while Joe Lee escapes. Embarrassing is not the word. Lau now looks bad, and old rivals have their eyes on the police chief’s chair. An enquiry is currently underway into goings on at police HQ lead by top lawyer Oswald Kan (Chow Yun-fat) but his impartiality is severely damaged when one of his own is caught in the crossfire whilst investigating Joe Lee’s nefarious activities.

Like the first film, Cold War 2 is an intense interpersonal thriller though this time the enemies are even closer as the old boys network becomes the means by which commissioners are unseated and installed. Service records are everything – Lau is unpopular with his colleagues because he started out at ICAC and has never served as a rank and file policemen. From one point of view, this makes him an ideal candidate because he has no personal ties to the body of serving officers but his rivals despise him for this very reason. He isn’t one of them, does not have first hand understanding of front line policing, and most importantly is not a part of their interconnected layers of military style brother-in-arms loyalties.

Lau’s predictable miscalculation regarding Joe Lee creates an opportunity to get rid of him and take back the force. “Save the police” is a message which is repeated over and over as the plotters attempt to win others over to their cause, insisting that Lau has lost the media battle for the hearts and minds of a public now trained to be afraid of their police force. Lau is the continuity candidate – mistakes have been made, but his stately manner and apparently steady hands may yet win the day. Those same hands are getting dirtier by the second, but they’ve been brushing the morally grey, not (yet, at least) immersed in the red of innocent blood like those of the corrupt top brass at police HQ.

If the plotting is intricate and filled with double crosses and betrayals, directors Luk and Leung have ensured a steady stream of explosive action sequences to accompany the ongoing cerebral games. Cold War also had its share of action packed spectacular set pieces but Cold War 2 may surpass them with the surprise factor alone including one shocking multi-car pileup inside a tunnel in which cars, buses and bikes go flying before an all out fire fight ensues. Lau’s constant gazing at the “Asia’s Safest City” signs which adorn police headquarters (right next to the metal detectors you need to pass through to get in) has never looked so melancholic and drenched in irony.

It’s a battle for the soul of the police service, but it’s being fought as a dirty war. Lau is the decent and honest man forced to behave in a slightly less honest and decent way, even if for the best of reasons. His rivals are running on pure ambition and pettiness. Despite their claims they do not have the interests of the people of Hong Kong as their foremost concern. The corruption stems far further back than anyone might have previously guessed and is more or less coded into the system. The police van and equipment are still missing and the central plotters are still in place. This is a partial victory at best but then what kind of action fest wouldn’t leave a door open for a sequel. The cold war maybe about to turn hot, but you can rely on the steely eyed Police Commissioner Sean Lau to be there, ready and waiting, when the first shots are fired.


Original trailer (English Subtitles)