Thursday, April 30, 2015

Another Brief Blog Update

I don’t usually step outside my comfort zone, preferring to keep my personal, online and professional lives compartmentalized into neat little boxes. But life is rarely neat. It has a habit of sneaking up on you, whether you think you’re prepared or not. After a long bout of illness, including heart disease, diabetes, cancer, dementia, and most recently, a broken hip, my father passed away Wednesday afternoon.

Right now, I’m still processing everything, grappling with the reality that someone I’ve known my entire life is now gone. I can find some solace with the knowledge that he’s no longer experiencing chronic physical and mental pain, but it does little to erase the reality of the situation, which seems oddly surreal. With little precedent, outside of some losses on my wife’s side, I’ve had few personal experiences with death, and exploring my feelings on the subject is frankly beyond the scope of this blog.

As of this writing, I have a couple of half-written blog posts, including the latest Quick Picks and Pans, which I hope to get back to soon, but the words aren’t gelling right now. Movies have always been a comfort for me in good times and bad, and provided a means of alternatively escaping and interpreting the world. Watching and writing about movies has been my joy and my therapy, and I can’t imagine I could ever be away for very long. For now, however, I’m taking a short break. Thanks to all the well-wishers on Twitter, and to those who visit this blog on a regular basis. Your comments and support mean more than you could ever know. I hope things will return to some semblance of normality as soon as possible, and look forward to happier times ahead.

Thursday, April 23, 2015

Dream Home (aka: Wai Dor Lei Ah Yut Ho)

(2010) Directed by Ho-Cheung Pang; Written by: Ho-Cheung Pang, Kwok Cheung Tsang and Chi-Man Wan; Story by: Ho-Cheung Pang; Starring: Josie Ho, Juno Mak, Eason Chan and Norman Chu; Available on DVD.

Rating: *** ½

“Do we need to kill certain kinds of people in order to possess our own property? That made me think of this story.” – Ho-Cheung Pang (from the documentary The Making of: Building Your Dream Home)

What would you do to own the perfect living space? Quite a lot, according to director/producer-co-writer Ho-Cheung Pang’s Dream Home. This satirical urban horror story employs Grand Guignol-style imagery and pitch black humor to chronicle the plight of its protagonist and her quest for a piece of the real estate pie. The film begins with a few statistics about rising home prices in Hong Kong relative to the average salary, setting the stage for the drastic measures the main character takes into her hands. A caption informs us this is based on a true story, although how much is true and how much fabrication is open for debate.

True story or not, Ho-Cheung Pang attributed the idea for Dream Home to his personal experience not being able to purchase a home. His film takes a dim view of the entitled class – men are philanderers and their women put up with it, choosing to look the other way in order to maintain their comfortable lifestyle. The other homeowners depicted in the film are drug-addled, over-pampered 20-something slackers. It’s not too difficult to imagine the cathartic thrill he experienced, as these individuals get their just desserts (at least by one character’s reckoning).  

Josie Ho is consistently engaging in her role as borderline psychopath Cheng Lai – Sheung, who commits terrible, unforgivable acts, yet is impossible to hate. She dreams of one day being able to afford a high-rise condominium with an ocean view, but it remains agonizingly out of reach. She works two jobs: as a telemarketer by day and a salesperson in a retail boutique by night. Meanwhile, her personal life is going nowhere. She doesn’t have the time or money to socialize with her co-workers, and is involved in a loveless relationship with a married man. After spending her formative years in a Hong Kong slum where her neighbors and family members were driven out of their homes to make way for upscale developments, she strives to save up enough money to put a down payment on her own home. Meanwhile, her father is dying from a form of lung disease – the result of decades of inhaling toxic materials from construction work. She’s pushed over the edge after she attempts to purchase her dream home, and the seller retracts his offer. When she finally snaps, it’s the cumulative effect of years of toiling away for little money and enduring continual disappointment.

Is it nature or nurture that creates a sociopath? Dream House seems to favor the latter, as we witness the seeds of resentment germinate during Cheng Lai – Sheung’s childhood. She grows up in an atmosphere where it’s impossible to get ahead. The privileged remain privileged, and the poor stay down, perpetuating a cycle of deprivation and animosity. The filmmakers suggest that Hong Kong’s changeover to Chinese rule hasn’t improved the living situation for many residents, but instead widened the chasm between the haves and have-nots. This divide only serves to enable a society where it’s impossible to rise up without stepping on whoever stands in your way. In the case of the protagonist, she commits a series of gruesome murders (brought to life with gory makeup effects by Andrew Lin) in order to secure her version of the future. The unflinching depictions of violence, particularly an assault on a pregnant woman, might be too much for some to take (a few times, I was tempted to check out), but co-writer/director Ho-Cheung Pang has a larger purpose. For many people, home ownership represents the pinnacle of success and prosperity – a goal that is steadily becoming out of reach. For a select few, nothing is out of bounds if it means the attainment of that goal.

With its dark humor and blood-spattered imagery, Dream Home isn’t tailored to everyone’s taste. But if you stick with it, and accept its over-the-top violence, you may come to appreciate the very human dilemma at its core. While most of us would hopefully never resort to the extreme behaviors perpetrated by Cheng Lai – Sheung, we can at least identify with her on some level, and her frustrations about life’s inequities. If you accept the film’s twisted premise, you might be horrified to find yourself rooting for her on some level, as a spontaneous mutation in the social-Darwinist scheme.

Wednesday, April 15, 2015

Infra-Man (aka: Zhong Guo Chao Ren)

(1975) Directed by Hua Shan; Written by: Ni Kuang; Starring: Danny Lee, Wang Hsia, Terry Liu; Available on DVD.

Rating: ***½

“Shaw Bros, at the time wanted to film a Kamen Rider type of film for the Hong Kong children. …Although I had watched a few episodes of Kamen Rider on TV and was aware of its popularity, I never expected them to ask me to direct Infra-man.” – Hua Shan (excerpted from interview by Linn Haynes)

When approached by the organizers of The Great VillainBlogathon 2015* to write about a favorite movie foe, my brain shuffled through 100 plus years of cinematic history. With such an enormous sandbox to play in, I was overwhelmed by the countless choices. At the end of the day, one individual stood triumphant: Princess Dragon Mom (aka: Elzebub). Who? Well, dear reader, allow me to elucidate on one of the most dastardly (and admittedly ridiculous) foes to appear on film.

* A hearty thanks to the organizers of this spectacular five-day blogging event, Kristina of Speakeasy, Ruth of Silver Screenings and Karen of Shadows & Satin.

At first glance, viewers might write off Infra-Man (aka: Super Inframan, or Zhong Guo Chao Ren) as a thinly disguised rip-off of Japanese TV shows such as Ultraman and Kamen Rider. The similarities were in fact a deliberate effort on the part of prolific Hong Kong-based filmmakers the Shaw Brothers to reproduce the same type of action show for Hong Kong audiences. While the film certainly owes much to those programs, director Hua Shan and team really make Infra-Man their own, transforming the DNA of its predecessors into an amazing mutant creation.

One of the refreshing things about Infra-Man is how quickly it throws the audience into the action, without wasting a lot of time on the titular’s character’s origins. There’s no time for brooding superheroes, or a Christopher Nolan-style deconstructionist meditation on the nature of revenge, examining how violence begets violence. Nope, the Shaw Brothers don’t have time for that jazz. The world of Infra-Man is divided into good and evil, with nothing in between.

The movie opens with a series of natural disasters, all which can be traced back to Mount Devil (a dragon-shaped mountain that looks suspiciously like Vaal from the old Star Trek episode, “The Apple”) and its nefarious inhabitants. The ringleader for these evildoings is none other than our villain of the hour, the 10-million-year-old demon Princess Dragon Mom (Terry Liu),* who’s consumed by thoughts of conquering the human world. There’s no mistaking her for some lesser villain, with her distinctive appearance. One hand is a dragon’s claw, while the other is a dragon’s head (what else?).** She struts about her lair, which wouldn’t be out of place in one of the Sid and Marty Krofft shows, cracking a dominatrix whip and ordering her skull-faced henchmen to do her bidding. For the heavy-duty skullduggery, however, she unleashes a horde of special creatures, including a plant monster, spider monster and other nasties.

* Technically, only the English dub refers to her as Princess Dragon Mom. In the original version, her name’s Elzebub, although I must admit I’m partial to her adopted English name.

** Of course, her distinctive appendages beg the question, how does she take care of (ahem) daily functions? (On second thought, the less time devoted to this subject, the better.)

But humanity, being a resilient lot, is not about to take this onslaught lying down. An enigmatic professor (Wang Hsia) and his crackerjack strike team are willing to go mano a mano with the bad guys, and they have an ace up their collective sleeve in the form of a top secret project. Our hero Rayma (Danny Lee) probably takes three seconds to ponder the painful, potentially life-threatening treatments he must endure to become Infra-Man. Through the miracle of cybernetic implants and vaguely explained science, he’s transformed into an ultimate fighting machine, endowed with super-strength and impervious to most weapons. It probably goes without saying he doesn’t stop to grapple with his newly acquired super powers, or endure a long-winded speech about “great power” going with “great responsibility.” Instead, he emerges from his transformation, fully realized, and ready to kick some monster butt.

Infra-Man isn’t the sort of movie that you nitpick. The filmmakers recycle Rayma’s transformation sequence multiple times. The effects, even by 1975 standards, are decidedly low-fi, mostly consisting of people in monster suits duking it out. It’s a simple, but winning formula that’s familiar, yet fresh. Some movies exist to entertain, and this flick does it in spades. Unlike many modern superhero movies that fumble for profundity, Infra-Man isn’t afraid to embrace its goofy side. Infra-Man doesn’t elevate the genre, it celebrates it. I was fortunate enough to watch this a few years back with the ideal audience, a theater packed with families, at one of the Kids Club Saturday matinees at Alamo Drafthouse in Austin. You don’t need to watch it with kids to have a good time, though. Just kick back with some good friends, shut your brain off, and soak in the nutty action sequences and sheer lunacy. Princess Dragon Mom aside, the fact this film never spawned a series of Infra-Man adventures is the only real evil.

Thursday, April 9, 2015

Kung Fu Hustle

(2004) Directed by Stephen Chow; Written by: Man Keung Chan, Stephen Chow, Xin Huo and Kan-Cheung Tsang; Starring: Stephen Chow, Chi Chung Lam, Wah Yuen, Qiu Yuen and Siu-Lung Leung, Danny Chan and  Eva Huang; Available on DVD.

Rating: ****

“…for me, kung fu means something more…the spirit of Chinese kung fu. You learn how to fight, then you don’t have to.” – Stephen Chow (from 2005 interview with Ric Meyers)

I decided to kick off Hong Kong Month (Get it? “Kick” off? …Oh, kill me now.) with one of my favorite films from recent years, star/director/co-writer Stephen Chow’s audacious Kung Fu Hustle. Okay, truth be told, Kung Fu Hustle isn’t a pure Hong Kong production, but a Hong Kong-Chinese co-production, filmed in Shanghai, but Chow hails from Hong Kong, and the film has all the trappings of a Hong Kong production, so that’s good enough for me.

In the opening scene, set in 1940s Canton, we’re introduced to the brutal members of the Axe Gang, clad in black suits, huge top hats, and brandishing their signature weapon. They’re led by the sadistic Brother Sum (Danny Chan), who kills a rival gang leader and his girlfriend in front of the ineffectual police department, establishing himself as the undisputed kingpin. Sum meets unexpected resistance, however, from the residents of a local slum known as Pig Sty Alley. He soon realizes he must resort to other methods if he wishes to retain his stranglehold on the city.  

Chow plays Sing, a regular schlub who wants to join the Axe Gang at any cost. He’s accompanied by his portly sidekick Bone (Chi Chung Lam), who gamely tries to support Sing and his pathetic attempts to convince others he’s a badass. Unfortunately for Sing, all of his schemes backfire miserably. In one scene, Sing and his companion are beaten up by an accountant on a trolley. In another scene, he tries to assassinate the troublesome landlady (Qiu Yuen) of Pig Sty Alley, but only ends up injuring himself.

Sing seems an unlikely candidate for a protagonist, but you just know at some point he’ll see the light. In a flashback, we witness young Sing being suckered by an ersatz wise man into spending his life savings on a cheap pamphlet that promises to teach him the secret of the legendary Buddhist Palm Technique. Armed with this “knowledge,” along with high-minded ideals of fighting for world peace and defending the innocent, he encounters his first real test, but is trounced by a bully. At that point, Sing figures nice guys finish last. Years later, he runs into the mute girl (Eva Huang) he once tried to protect, and responds to her kindness with cruelty. But despite Sing’s best efforts to convince the world he’s a criminal to be reckoned with, being a bad guy doesn’t really suit him. We soon learn that his destiny lies in a nobler path.

One of the recurrent themes in Kung Fu Hustle is that appearances are often deceptive. The gruff landlady and her lecherous husband are unlikable at first, but grow on you as the film progresses. We learn that she has valid reasons for disliking heroes and heroic deeds. When we first set eyes on the number one killer, known only as The Beast (Siu-Lung Leung), he’s an unassuming, balding, middle-aged man seemingly incapable of hurting a fly. But he quickly proves to a formidable adversary. Another key theme is that someone can transcend his or her station to become something greater. In a particularly prophetic moment, one character sagely observes, “You can’t escape your destiny.”

Kung Fu Hustle includes multiple references to Hong Kong and Hollywood movies. One of the residents of Pig Sty Alley, a tailor who’s also a kung fu master, wields steel rings on his arms, mimicking Gordon Liu in The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. Chow references his previous film, Shaolin Soccer, as his character unceremoniously stomps on a child’s soccer ball and proclaims “No more soccer” (A not-so-gentle reminder that this won’t simply be a follow up to his previous film). Even if you’re not a kung fu aficionado, you’ll find plenty of references to western flicks as well, including Reservoir Dogs, The Shining, Spider-Man, and perhaps most notable, the Warner Brothers Roadrunner cartoons (which figures in a spirited chase scene).

Among the many joys of the film is the magnificent production design by Oliver Wong. He masterfully evokes another time and place, from neon-drenched streets, to the garish abode of the Axe Gang, to the filthy slum of Pig Sty Alley. The characters come alive, thanks to inspired costumes by Shirley Chan, which alternately reflect the era and provide a fanciful touch. Composer Raymond Wong provides a stirring score to accompany the action and larger-than-life imagery.

Kung Fu Hustle is a love letter to Hong Kong cinema, told with panache and authority by Stephen Chow. Those looking for a straight martial arts film with gritty, realistic fight scenes amidst historically accurate settings will likely be disappointed by this fantastical approach. Filmgoers seeking an experience outside the norm will be rewarded by this exciting, surprisingly touching, and frequently hilarious movie.