Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊, Sammo Hung, Ann Hui, Patrick Tam, Yuen Wo Ping, Johnnie To, the late Ringo Lam, Tsui Hark, 2022)

Seven of Hong Kong’s most prominent directors come together for a collection of personal tales of Hong Kong past and present in the seven-part anthology film, Septet: The Story of Hong Kong (七人樂隊). Produced by Johnnie To’s Milky Way, the film was first announced several years ago and originally titled Eight & a Half though director John Woo sadly had to leave the project due to his wife’s ill health which explains why there is no short set in the 1970s.

Each of the segments reflects the director’s personal nostalgia for a particular moment in time and there is certainly a divide between the 1950s and 60s sequences directed by Sammo Hung and Ann Hui respectively and those of the 80s and 90s which are imbued with a sense of Handover anxiety along with the closing meditation on the various ways the city has or has not changed. In any case, Sammo Hung’s opener Exercise is a slice of personal nostalgia which looks back to the heyday of Hong Kong kung fu as the young Sammo learns to buckle down and train with discipline under the guidance of his authoritarian teacher played by his own son, Timmy Hung. Similarly education-themed, Hui’s Headmaster echoes the documentary aesthetic seen in the later stages of Our Time Will Come in her naturalistic capture of a primary school reunion taking place in 2001 before flashing back to the early ‘60s as the headmaster and the children reminisce about a kind and idealistic young teacher who sadly passed away at 39 from a longterm illness exacerbated by misapplied traditional medicine. Essentially a tale of old-fashioned reserve in the unrealised desires of the headmaster and the teacher who elected not to marry because of her illness in the knowledge she would die young, Hui’s gentle melodrama harks back to a subtler age. 

Patrick Tam’s 80s segment, Tender is the Night, perhaps does the opposite in its incredibly theatrical tale of love thwarted by political realities as a lovelorn middle-aged man looks back on the failure of his first, and last, love for the teenage girlfriend who like so many of that time emigrated with her parents to escape Handover anxiety. Rich in period detail and imbued with the overwhelming quality of adolescent emotion, Tam’s maximalist romance is a tale of love in the age of excess but also of middle-aged nostalgia and personal myth making which nevertheless positions the looming Handover as a point of youthful transition. 

The 1997 sequence itself, Homecoming directed by Yuen Wo-ping, is in someways subversive in again presenting a young woman who firmly believes her future lies abroad rather than in post-Handover Hong Kong and placing her at playful odds with her traditionalist grandfather, a former martial arts champion who spends his days watching old Wong Fei-Hung movies. The eventual resolution that the girl, who insists on going by her Western name Samantha, returns to Hong Kong a few years later to care for the grandfather who has aged quite rapidly undercuts the sense of anxiety, yet there is something in the cultural and generational conflict that exists between them eased by mutual exchange as she teaches him basic English and he teaches her kungfu that hints less that the traditional is better than the modern than that there’s room for both hamburgers and rice rolls. 

Moving into the 2000s, Johnnie To’s Bonanza then takes aim at the increasingly consumerist mindset of the contemporary society in picking up a theme from Life Without Principle as three young Hong Konger’s become obsessed with getting rich quick through financial investment beginning with the dot-com bubble and shifting into property profiteering during the SARS epidemic. The trio fail every time before hitting the jackpot with some shares they bought by mistake during the 2008 financial crisis suggesting that it all just luck after all. One of the guys comically switches business opportunities in line with each of the crises/opportunities, firstly getting into mobile phones, then peddling healthcare products, and finally investing in self-storage in an echo of his society’s scrappy entrepreneurial spirit. 

The final film from Ringo Lam who completed his segment Astray shortly before passing away 2018 continues the theme in meditating on the modern city as its hero is literally killed by a sense of cultural dislocation after getting lost in a very changed Hong Kong having emigrated to the UK and returned with his family for a New Year holiday. While ironically remembering his own father complaining that times had changed, he finds himself bewildered by the absence of familiar landmarks and adrift in his home city. He dreams another life for himself in the countryside in which his son decides to emigrate to America while his wife would prefer he find a job in Hong Kong but his final message to him that it’s not difficult to live happily perhaps frees him of the sense of nostalgia which has led to his father’s death.

The best and final episode, however, Tsui Hark’s Conversation is set at no particular time and my in fact take place in the future as a mental patient, who might actually be a doctor pretending to be a mental patient, suddenly gives his name as Ann Hui followed by Maggie Cheung and a string of Hong Kong directors from Ringo Lan to Jonnie To and John Woo and challenges the doctor, who might be a mental patient, as he struggles to keep up with him. Tsui and Hui make reflective cameo’s at the segment’s conclusion perhaps hinting that this has been a deep conversation with the history not only of Hong Kong but its cinema through the eyes of those who helped to make it what it is.


Septet: The Story of Hong Kong screens in Chicago on Nov.6 as part of the 15th season of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Raid (財叔之橫掃千軍, Tsui Hark & Tony Ching Siu-Tung, 1991)

Comic book heroes often rise in resistance to a label others have placed on them, but Uncle Choy (Dean Shek Tin) may be the first to offer fierce opposition to societal ageism. Inspired by a series of comic books which ran from 1958 to the mid-1970s, Tsui Hark and Tony Ching Siu-Tung’s The Raid (財叔之橫掃千軍) is at great pains to make plain that you shouldn’t write people off because of a few numbers on an ID card as its admittedly geriatric hero proves that he’s the force for good the Resistance has been waiting for. 

That would be the Resistance towards the Japanese and the new puppet state of Manchuria in the confusing world of 1932. Tsui and Ching open with Pu Yi himself getting out of a limo in a sparkling white uniform adorned with meaningless medals glinting in the sun before he takes to the stage and bizarrely likens himself to Hitler while insisting that he’s here to unify China because his ancestors told him to in a dream. Meanwhile, the Resistance has already infiltrated his forces and installed dynamite in his microphone only for his right-hand man, Matsu (Tony Leung Ka-fai), to catch on right before it explodes. Pu Yi is saved, for now, while Matsu declares himself unfazed by the Resistance fighter’s dying words that he will be coming back to haunt him. 

In another part of the jungle, a team of mute locals is trying to bring a doctor to some soldiers hiding out in a remote shack. After narrowly escaping a plane attack by blowing a hole in a dam and drowning it with water, Uncle Choy arrives to discover that the men are victims of a new kind of poison gas. It’s too late to save the commander, but Choy manages to restore the others to health and even offers to join them in their new mission of destroying the poison gas factory, but Lieutenant Mong (Paul Chu) tells him to go home. He’s too old to be of help and would only get in the way. As expected, Choy finds that very upsetting. Unwrapping the giant sword he fought with in his youth, he leaves a note for his adopted daughter Nancy and heads off on his own towards the revolution, but she follows him with her giant spear and is then followed by a cheeky young guy armed with slingshot. 

There is something a little bit suggestive about this rag tag bag of patriots trying to stop the poisonous fumes of a new China wafting over towards the land they love. Pu Yi, the “last emperor” is something of a tragic figure, a bumbling fool with some weird ideas but also a noticeably progressive streak which sees him tell Matsu, in the middle of an otherwise silly and slightly homophobic joke, that he firmly believes love is love and he plans to make a law that says so. He is, however, just a puppet himself, caught between the villainous Matsu and beautiful actress/super spy Kim Pak-fai/Kawashima Yoshiko (Joyce Godenzi).

Matsu is fond of telling the heroes that they cannot win against a force with superior technology, that old Uncle Choy’s sword and fists are useless in a modern world of guns and chemical warfare. To perfect their poison gas, they’ve been working with a local gangster who cares only for money and has been willingly sending them test subjects. Big Nose (Corey Yuen Kwai) is currently engaged in a turf war with the equally greedy Bobo Bear (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau), testifying to the tendency of oppressed people to fight amongst themselves rather than unite against the true evil. Bobo Bear is also in love with the famous actress Kim Pak-fai and deeply regrets getting mixed up with the Resistance, but later falls for nerdy undercover spy Tina (Fennie Yuen), who is the real brains of the operation, and comes over to the side of right. As does Big Nose after getting a dressing down from Uncle Choy and being confronted with the consequences of his actions by an overconfident Matsu. 

According to Matsu whoever has the best weapon controls the world, but as in any good kung fu movie the best weapon is righteous solidarity. Uncle Choy’s sword turns out not to be so useless after all, while he also makes himself useful as a doctor to the revolutionaries, proving that old people still have a lot to offer and don’t deserve to be put out to pasture by patronising youngsters. Making plenty of space for cartoonish slapstick fun and a series of farcical episodes including the classic misdirected love letter and spy hiding under the bed, The Raid is pure pulp but never pretends to be anything more than it is even while leaving its earnest revolutionaries in media res as if to remind us that a battle still rages even in 1991.


Short clip (no subtitles)

Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠, Tsui Hark, 1983)

“I never imagined that the righteous would not only refuse to unite, but also be incapable of action” laments a reluctant soldier realising there are no heroes coming to the rescue in Tsui Hark’s SFX-laden fantasy wuxia, Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain (新蜀山劍俠). Inspired by the work of Huanzhulouzhu (Li Shoumin), Tsui’s feudal fable marked a departure from the more “realistic” swordplay movies which were popular at the time harking back to an earlier era of fantastic adventures which drew inspiration from traditional Chinese folklore. It was also, however, an attempt to prove that Hong Kong could rival Hollywood in the post-Star Wars world, blending what might now be viewed as fairly camp but then cutting-edge special effects with classic wuxia action. 

Accordingly, after a brief voice over, Tsui opens with a world in chaos in which several factions are currently vying for hegemony over the hotly contested, mystical and mountainous terrain of Shu. Lowly retainer Ti Ming-Chi (Yuen Biao) has been tasked with delivering a message regarding troop movements to his superiors, but there is a difference of opinion in the chain of command as to whether to attack by land or sea. Placed in an impossible position, Ming-Chi eventually sees himself pledge to obey both captains, only for infighting to emerge within the group forcing him to flee for his life which is how he encounters “Fatty” (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), a soldier from a rival faction and discovers, quite ironically, that they are from neighbouring villages which makes their rivalry all the more ridiculous. In the course of his attempt to escape, Ming-Chi falls into a mountain crevasse and finds himself entering a mysterious cave which takes him to another world in which he becomes similarly embroiled in a war against the evil Demon Cult which apparently practices child sacrifice and then uses the bones as a kind of magical armour. 

A reluctant soldier, Ming-Chi finds himself captivated by the “Great Hero” Ting Yin (Adam Cheng Siu-Chow) and determines to become his disciple while the pair form an uneasy alliance with a pair of similarly matched Buddhist monks, master Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau Chung-Yan) and his assistant I-Chen (Mang Hoi), also hot on the trail of the Demon Cult. Finding this world also confusing, he is nevertheless reassured by I-Chen’s simple explanation “they’re bad, we’re good” as the two masters face off against the Demon Lord, but comes to discover it’s not quite all as black and white as it seems and this world too is torn apart by chaos and disorder because “the hearts of men are so corrupt.” Ming-Chi begs Ting Yin to use his “peerless martial arts skills” to “save mankind”, but Ting Yin cynically tells him his best course of action is to retreat into the mountains and avoid human society because “neither you nor I have the ability to bring about change”. 

Yet Ming-Chi remains pure of heart, certain that “as long as everyone puts in the effort, peace can be restored under heaven”. “Teach me martial arts and once I’ve mastered it, I can fight oppression, help the weak, and save the masses” he pleads, but Ting Yin once again refuses him. In fact, in one of the later SFX sequences, Ting Yin will “transfer” his martial arts knowledge near instantly via a laying on of hands assisted by some elaborate prosthetics which see Ming-Chi’s body warp and bubble to accept it. Nevertheless, the lesson that Ming-Chi begins to learn, bonding with fellow assistant I-Chen who ignored his master’s petty parting words to bid him goodbye to hope they meet again along the way, is that the masters care only for themselves and are no better than the warring nobles from his own lands, obsessed with their rival sects and ideologies. If they want to save the world they’ll have to save themselves through mutual solidarity in pursuit of their goal, tracking down a pair of mystical swords which are the only way to end the demonic threat for good. 

There might of course be an added dimension to this allegory in the Hong Kong of 1983 which is perhaps also beginning to feel like disputed territory coveted by duplicitous elites who fight amongst themselves while ordinary people suffer, but Tsui is in any case more interested in zany action and excuses to employ zeitgeisty special effects making full use of the technology of the day from lasers to animation along with in-camera stunts to recreate his epic fantasy world in which old men can keep evil at bay for as long as 49 days using nothing but their powerfully hairy eyebrows and a fancy mirror. With small roles for Brigitte Lin and Moon Lee as an ice queen with a warm heart presiding over an all female palace and her spiky guard respectively, Tsui’s bonkers fairytale moves on at a glorious, confusing pace but is nevertheless filled with warmth and humanity as the goodhearted heroes attempt to head off the folly of war with human solidarity. 


Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain streams in the UK 9th to 15th February as part of Focus Hong Kong

Eureka release trailer (english subtitles)

Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings (狄仁杰之四大天王, Tsui Hark, 2018)

Detective Dee four heavenlu kings posterMaybe we could use a Detective Dee or two in this bold new age of fake news and powerful ideologies. Tsui Hark at least finds another case for the famed Tang Dynasty detective though this time one which sees him at the centre of a conspiracy, a bug in the system which must be squashed in order to pave the way for someone else’s revolution. The Four Heavenly Kings (狄仁杰之四大天王, Rénjié zhī Sìtiānwáng) of the title (no, sadly Andy Lau has not returned with a few of his friends in tow) refers to the four Buddhist deities which ought to tip us off to the kind of story this is as personal desires, of one sort or another, threaten to destabilise a state.

At the end of the previous film, Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon, Dee (Mark Chao) was “rewarded” with a place in the inspectorate and guardianship of the Dragon Taming Mace. However, scheming consort Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) is not particularly happy about her husband’s grand gesture and still has her doubts about Dee. Claiming that she fears such a powerful weapon/symbol being in the hands of someone who may betray the crown, Wu instructs Dee’s Sworn Brother and head of the Justice department Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng) to retrieve the Mace at any cost. Yuchi is reassured that Dee is not in danger and so agrees to work alongside Wu’s handpicked troop of “magical” crooks (who have actually been hired to take care of Dee to stop him messing up Wu’s grand plan). Needless to say all is not as it seems and Wu has fallen under the influence of nefarious forces who are merely using her lust for power as a convenient mechanism for facilitating their own agenda of revenge for a past era’s betrayal and oppression.

Dee’s methods are, more or less, inspired by Sherlock Holmes, granting him almost supernatural powers of foresight and observation though this time he is not occupied with one specific case so much as solving the mystery of the hidden insurrection within the Tang. The Mace may seem like a MacGuffin but its power is real and eventually holds the key to defeating the forces of chaos which threaten to bring down the state. Wu’s quartet of “Taoist” magical mercenaries are quickly exposed as expert wielders of tricks and trinkets rather than supernaturally charged avengers, but the state can’t help being captivated by the “magic” which finally puts paid to their ambition and is rocked by the power of the false images which continue to assault their senses.

Tellingly the big bad here is a foreign cult which makes extensive use of “hypnosis”, strange potions, and smokescreens in order to create the illusion of magic. Illusion, however, is as good as or perhaps better than the truth when it comes to political manipulation. The cult’s powers apparently aided the creation of the Tang state but once they were no longer needed, they found themselves cast out, tortured, and humiliated. Unsurprisingly they want their revenge and will settle for nothing less than the humiliating fall of the nation they helped to build.

Good old fashioned deduction and rationality are useless in the battle to free infected minds from the hypnotic power of fake news perfectly tailored to embrace one’s darker instincts. Wu, secretly or otherwise, lusts for power of her own and was easily manipulated by the promise of support in her campaign to seize the throne. Meanwhile, the leader of the Wind Warriors is infected with an intense desire for violence and killing to ease his deep seated rage over the misuse of his people. The answer is, of course, Buddhism. Life is too beautiful to be marred by hate while the act of forgiveness is the ultimate show of strength. Nevertheless, Tsui abandons Dee’s cool, analytical approach for a strangely spiritual final battle in which the fake news machines wielded by the Wind Warriors are pitted against the intense calm of a finely tuned mind (and the slightly moodier one of a giant white gorilla). Hell is full of suffering, Dee reminds the monk, enlightenment will have to wait. Perhaps “enlightenment” is merely another selfish desire won at the expense of blocking out the calls for help from those in need.

The Dragon Taming Mace is the ultimate symbol of justice, literally able to cut through the spell of illusion to expose the truth below. Wu had reason to fear it, even if she was not in the position to understand why. Dee is indeed a worthy guardian and unsullied soul, committed to the pursuit of compassionate justice wherever he goes even if he does so as a representative of the authority. Wu may have regained her senses, but that doesn’t mean she’s cured of the underlying causes of her possession as the large statue of Guan Yin which looks mysteriously like her seems to prove. Dee may have another mystery on his hands, but in any case his work is far from done in a land of intrigue and duplicity in which justice hangs by a slippery thread.


Detective Dee: The Four Heavenly Kings is currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia. Find out where it’s playing near you via the official website.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Mermaid (美人鱼, Stephen Chow, 2016)

MermaidStephen Chow unexpectedly became a mini phenomenon with that rarest of beasts – a foreign language comedy that proved a mainstream crossover hit, in the form of the double punch that was Kung Fu Hustle and Shaolin Soccer. However, his once ascendant star has been in retrograde ever since when it comes to screens outside of Asia. The surprise worldwide theatrical release of this latest film, The Mermaid (美人鱼, Mei Ren Yu), might be about to change all that.

Loosely inspired by The Little Mermaid, Chow paints a world of consumerism in overdrive as heartless capitalists fall over themselves to destroy the beauty of the natural world to buy even more flashy status symbols even though they only make them even more miserable. After opening with some newsreel footage of mass deforestation and a bloody dolphin massacre, Chow shows us the natural world exploited in a different way as a group of visitors visit an “exotic animal show” which includes such wonders as a live tiger (actually a pet dog with stripes pained on its fur), a “Batman” (with fried chicken for ears), and, crucially a “Mermaid” (a fried fish with a doll’s head on the top).

We’re then introduced to rich playboy businessman Liu Xuan (Deng Chao) who lives life large in a giant western style estate surrounded by gold digging dollybirds. He’s bought some “surprisingly well priced land” to use in a reclamation project, only the problem is it’s technically a nature reserve. His underlings have come up with a scheme to frighten away the wildlife with sonar devices so they can destroy the area of outstanding natural beauty in peace. However, they didn’t know about the colony of Merpeople hiding out there who have a serious problem with Liu and have dispatched one of their number, Shan (Jelly Lin), to assassinate him!

Predictably, the assassination plot does not all go to plan with often hilarious results. Like Chow’s other movies, the main spine of the narrative is a romantic comedy in which a foolish and arrogant man is made to realise his own weaknesses through finally noticing a woman he previously had no interest in. This time Shan turns up looking like a crazy lady with her bizarre makeup and fake mermaid outfit which gets her instantly thrown out of Liu’s place though she does succeed in giving him her phone number. Usually, Liu isn’t the type to call back but he gets goaded into it by mistake and then his henchman actually bring Shan to his office where she fails at assassinating him first with poison and then with sea urchins. By this time the course is set as the pair bond during their macabre meet-cute with Liu becoming attracted to Shan’s otherworldliness and she to the goodness that might be buried inside him.

Liu, it seems, experienced extreme poverty in his childhood and so now cares only about making money. Or says he does, his depressing solo karaoke dances to a hit pop song with the chorus “no one understands my loneliness” might tell a different story. Being super rich is actually kind of boring and everyone he meets only cares about his money so meeting Shan (who is predominantly interested in killing him) proves refreshing. Nevertheless, money also becomes an anchor dragging you down, even if Liu starts to come over to the Merpeople’s point of view (particularly after testing out those sonar devices on his own ears) his associates aren’t likely to agree.

It all goes a bit dark towards the end – wildlife massacres and kidnappings for “scientific research” which seems to include things like vivisection and live experimentation not to mention the intentional eradication of the entire living environment of these hitherto hidden creatures all the while preaching about scientific progress and a desire for understanding. Chow is many things but subtle has never been one of them so he lays his environmental message on with a trowel but the rest of the movie is so big anyway that he gets away with it (and in style).

Light and bright and colourful, The Mermaid is another characteristically madcap effort from Chow who packs in all the absurdist humour one could wish for plus a decent dose of sight gags and good old fashioned slapstick. It has to be said that the quality of the CGI (of which there is an awful lot in the film) is, on the whole, woeful, though somehow this just ends up adding to its charms as another facet of its self effacing wackiness. A hilarious return to form from Chow who has been away for far too long, The Mermaid looks set to continue its enormous box office success by becoming one of the director’s most fondly remembered efforts.


The Mermaid is currently in UK cinemas but the distributors have gone down the Bollywood route of chasing the diaspora audience only (as RogerEbert.com discovered during the US release) and not engaging with the regular film press in any way, shape, or form. Therefore there has been almost no coverage of the cinema screenings in the non-Chinese media. Here’s a list of the surprisingly high number of UK cinemas screening the film courtesy of my friends at Eastern Kicks so check it out because it very likely could be playing at a cinema near you!

 

The Good News or the Bad News? Stoker, the Grandmasters and Show Box Media

I’m an efficient sort of person generally (not that you could tell from this blog), so I like to start with good news – after all good news doesn’t usually require any further action than being pleased, does it?

With that in mind, it seems there’s a new UK specific poster for Park Chan-wook’s upcoming English language movie Stoker

Stoker UK poster

 

We’ve still got the pencil work from the earlier poster, which I loved, plus a strangely creepy headshot of Wasikowka. What is that reflected in her eyes? someone standing in front of window/doorway/unexplained bright lights? I’m really looking forward to seeing this film – I’d be looking forward to the new Park Chan-wook anyway but this seems very promising to me especially as it’s inspired by one of my favourite Hitchcock movies – Shadow of a Doubt.

If you’ve never seen Shadow of a Doubt I’d really recommend you check it out; it seems to fall into the lesser known Hitchcocks for some reason – well the middle group, it’s much better known than something like MR& Mrs Smith but it’s not quite up there with Vertigo and Psycho when people think of his films. Joseph Cotten is really fantastic in it and it’s kind of an early look and the evils lurking in suburbia. Here’s a trailer for those still unconvinced

 

Now, I warned you, there are some clouds on the horizon. I leave the bad news until last so that I can figure out what to do about it right away but all I can do now is feel sad, it’s a zero sum game this time round. As I speculated here Wong Kar-wai’s The Grandmasters is indeed delayed once more and will now move its opening date to 8th January from 18th December. Oh well, it wouldn’t be a Wong Kar-wai movie without several thousand delays – we all just have to prove how worthy we are by being willing to wait, yes?

and your final bit of bad news? It appears Showbox media, who own CineAsia – primary distributor for Asian action cinema in the UK, have gone into administration. The warning signs were there, they seemed to have stopped communicating and updating their websites and had yet to announce any future release plans for the next few months/next year; they’d also apparently dispensed with Bey Logan whose commentaries on CineAsia’s releases had been a big selling point for UK fans. This has happened before and a solution was found, so maybe it’s not quite over yet but it certainly doesn’t look good. From the above report it seems their strategy of throwing everything they had at the supermarket buyers, licensing films which were likely to appeal to that market at those prices, was not as sustainable as some people had believed. Here’s a trailer for one of my favourite CineAsia releases – Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame. Whatever happens let’s just hope films such as this can still find their way over to the UK market!