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Director: Ann Hui
By Marilyn Ferdinand
“‘Tis a gift to be simple, ’tis a gift to be free.” Is a simple life a free, uncomplicated life, as the song “Simple Gifts” suggests? Or is a simple life one whose complexities and nuances we are too busy or insensitive to notice? Veteran filmmaker Ann Hui is now approaching the age of the 70-year-old servant Ah Tao (Deannie Yip), the central character in her quietly observant film A Simple Life, and it appears that maturity has caused Hui to reflect on the many small details that make up a long life. Hui’s film offers us the radical idea that careful observation can make even the most simple-sounding life an incredible tale.
Busy Hong Kong filmmaker Roger Leung (Andy Lau) has never known life without Ah Tao. She entered the service of his family at the age of 10. Although her full name is Chung Chun Tao, she is now simply Ah Tao to everyone she meets, a reminder that servants the world over are a little less than full people to their employers and the outside world. Ah Tao has tended generations of Leungs, but most of the family has died or moved to the United States. Now it is only the frequently absent Roger who accepts the magnificent meals Ah Tao cooks without even looking up and walks out the door without a friendly good-bye. The taken-for-granted housekeeper doesn’t seem to mind—her job is her life, and the Leungs the only family she has.
Ah Tao worries about Roger’s health, reminding him when he asks her to cook him ox tongue that he only just recovered from heart surgery and that he must watch his diet. Nonetheless, we watch, tantalized, as Ah Tao tosses herbs and vegetables into a pot of water, places an ox tongue in it, and sets the lid on top for braising until Roger returns home that evening from a short trip. Roger rings the bell to his apartment and bangs on the door, asking Ah Tao to open it because he forgot his keys. The scene cuts to two EMTs moving Ah Tao on a gurney into an ambulance. The elderly lady has suffered a stroke. From this point on, Roger becomes aware of who Ah Tao is and what she means to him, as he attends to her in the nursing home she asks to be moved to and includes her in his life in a way he never imagined he would. He has finally noticed her.
A Simple Life could have turned into a sentimental story, reminiscent of Tuesdays with Morrie, about a sweet old lady and the master who loves her. That certainly is communicated clearly by Lau and the luminous Deannie Yip, and the film is based on real events in the life of Roger Lee, the film’s producer, who certainly would have had a say on the tone of the story. But the realities of growing old and dying take up a great deal of the film. Ah Tao is lucky to have a family devoted to her, particularly Roger, but she never quite forgets her place. When she is too infirm to work, she tells Roger to call his mother in San Francisco and say she’s retiring. Her next instruction is to find her an “old folks home.” She feels the divide between her job and her life, and Roger can’t shame her by offering to hire a private-duty nurse for her to live with them.
The reality of life in a nursing home isn’t glossed either, with Hui shooting with a handheld camera to get as in our face as possible. Ah Tao surveys the elderly men and women lined up in chairs around the periphery of the lobby to catch the sun and some air; when she is escorted to her private room, one of only a few available, she understands why. The room—actually more of a cubicle because its walls don’t reach the ceiling—is small and has a tiny window that barely relieves the darkness and the pervasive odors that go with failing bodies. When Ah Tao has to use the rest room, she stuffs toilet paper up her nose to dampen the smell. We see the distress on her face at the new surroundings that seem designed to remind her of death, but as she has been all her life, she is uncomplaining and sure about her decision.
We recoil in horror at the sight of the home and the people in it, instinctively wanting to avoid facing our own fate, but Hui’s sure hand about making this human warehouse a home and its residents people is really quite miraculous. The nurse administrator seems harsh, but we see her human side when she and Ah Tao share a lonely New Year’s night in the nursing home. We meet one young woman who is talking with her elderly mother; in a surprise to Ah Tao and us, the young woman is living at the home because she needs the kidney dialysis they offer several times a week. When she gets worse, her doctor advises her to go to a nursing home with better equipment; if she could have afforded it—she’s too young for full government disability—she would have gone to such a home in the first place, and we worry about how long her funds will last. We are also aware that her mother may be without someone to care for her, much as the never-married Ah Tao is, when her daughter dies.
One resident, “Uncle” Kin (Paul Chun), is the life of the party, always dancing and singing and arranging games for the other residents. He also always hits Ah Tao and Roger up for money, which they never refuse, that is, until Roger sees him sneaking out with the buxom receptionist (Suet-Ka Fong) to spend it. Roger feels used, but Ah Tao tells him to let Kin have his fun as long as he can—giving to those around her is what Ah Tao’s life was all about. I was quite reminded of my father, who once gave $20 to a beggar with a cock-and-bull story about needing to take his son to the hospital in a taxi; when I told my dad the man was lying, he said, yeah, but he had a good story.
A very telling scene occurs when the Leungs and extended family fly to Hong Kong and introduce their newest family addition to Roger and Ah Tao. Roger and his sister sit in his car and talk about how Ah Tao doted on Roger. The siblings genuinely care for Ah Tao, but Roger’s sister says that taking care of Roger when he was ill really paid off for Ah Tao in her time of need. This was a rather callous statement, I thought, but one that may have been true at the beginning of Ah Tao’s decline. Over time, Roger was able to do what his sister was not—spend time with Ah Tao, learn about his family history through her memories, talk about their respective love lives, give her some pleasure by taking her to the premiere of his new movie, where we get an amusing cameo by Hark Tsui being told by Ah Tao that he shouldn’t smoke. Even the fact that she speaks Cantonese when Hong Kong is welcoming more Mandarin-speaking Mainlanders marks her as a bit of a relic, as well as a dying treasure from a rich past.
Each character, no matter how small their part, is written, played, and shot with care. From the grocery clerks who play a mean trick on Ah Tao at the beginning of the film to the maneuvers Roger and his film partners use to wrest more money out of their stingy producer, this film seems to want to honor the dignity of all human life, from the “good” characters like Ah Tao to the somewhat sleazy, like the nursing home administrator (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) who is friends with Roger. Hui takes her time in chronicling the many small facets that make up a world. A Simple Life is simply wonderful.
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Directors: Ronnie Yu and David Wu
By Roderick Heath
Yusheng Liang, who died in 2009, is credited as one of the writers who modernised the wu xia novel, the imperishably popular Chinese mythological pulp genre. One of his most iconic works, The Bride with White Hair (1958), has been adapted several times for the big and small screens, but never more famously than with the two-part epic made by Ronnie Yu and David Wu, who split directorial duties but shared writing credits on both films. Both directors parlayed their success with this movie into disappointing Hollywood careers, but The Bride with White Hair diptych is one of the most eye-catching and dramatically inventive examples of the evolving modern Hong Kong genre cinema. It was made when the classic wire-fu style defined by directors like King Hu and Tsui Hark had not yet been corrupted by CGI, but it is vividly modern in other respects. The aesthetics of the Hong Kong genre school both recall Hollywood’s all-but-lost enthusiasm for raw storytelling and cinematic action panache, whilst retaining its own peculiarities, and The Bride with White Hair pushed the boundaries of the school. Its relatively unsheathed erotic edge and its modern thematic concerns pick at the surface the generic conceits and traditional assumptions, and present wild variations on its central issue of masculinity and femininity in fatal conflict.
The Bride with White Hair’s unusual structure offers a prologue that depicts a party of Imperial soldiers travelling to a distant, enchanted mountain where they’ve heard grows a rare flower with amazing healing properties that blooms only once every 10 years. They need the flowers to cure the Emperor’s health, but when they reach the peak, they’re astounded to find a man seated in the billowing snow, watching over the flowers. He slaughters them, declaring that there is only one person the flowers are for—Zhuo Yihang, whose life story is recounted in flashback.
Zhuo was an orphan adopted into and raised with the values and fighting techniques of the Wu-Tang clan, one of eight syndicated sects that form the Chung Yuan. Zhuo proved to be a problematic student because of his innate individualism and discomfort with a life lived according to strict hierarchies, but he was also clearly the most talented. In spite of the efforts of one of the teachers, Bai Yun (Law Lok-lam), to promote his daughter Ho Lu-Hua (Yammie Lam) as a potential chieftain for the Wu-Tang, Zhuo, after clearing himself of charges of assault and battery against some young men from rival clans, is nominated to lead a coalition of their forces against the forces of Ji Wushuang. The enemy, named for conjoined male and female twins (Francis Ng and Elaine Lui) who are evil sorcerers and who were once expelled from China by the Chung Yuan clans. Now the twins have returned at the head of a cult of followers who practice human sacrifice and erotic rituals.
Their chief warrior and strong right fist is the whip-wielding Devil Wolf Girl (Brigitte Lin), so dubbed because she was raised from infancy by wolves and retained a devilish relish for battle after being trained in the deadly arts by Ji. But Zhuo, seeing her at war, remembers her when she was still living with the wolves and playing her pipe under the moonlight. He tracks her down after a battle to a ruined city where she bathes in a sacred spring. In spite of her fury at his intransigence, she has to return to her overlord before she can kill him. Such a sequence has echoes through to Western mythology, and the myth of Artemis and Actaeon, with its coded relationship of voyeurism and the inviolable female space. Later, when the Chung Yuan army advances into Wushuang’s territory, Lian and the cultists ambush the coalition encampment, and she and Zhuo square off. Zhuo challenges her to a weaponless fight, but Lian is struck by an arrow shot by Lu-Hua, and Zhuo protectively rushes her away to the ancient city, where he helps her recover and becomes her lover. He gives her the name Lian Nichang, and during his absence, he’s written off as a traitor by the clans. The male Ji Wushuang desperately desires Nichang, and is stoked to heights of jealousy; when she returns to the cult to be ask to be released from it so she can live with Zhuo, the male insists she sleep with him first. When she fails to please him, she’s forced to undergo a punishing ritual humiliation.
The Bride with White Hair films share common traits with Hong Kong cinema, from the style of humour and character interaction that seem distinctly more naïve than what we’re used to in Western cinema, to the fluent, utterly confident sense of storytelling that seems at once beautifully simple and irreducibly sophisticated, moving at a pace that forces the viewer to keep up. Both episodes soar to rare heights of stoked emotion and drenched décor effects, but it’s the way their inflated set-pieces revolve around metaphorical versions of everyday travails that really drives them. It’s most marked in Nichang’s singular insistence that Zhuo trust her, a key component of any adult relationship, made here to hinge on an act of mass murder and magical shape-shifting. But likewise, Zhuo’s chafing against the authoritarianism and clannish narrowness of Chung Yuan life evokes any kind of discomfort in imposed social roles.
Yu was most interested in taking a Romeo and Juliet angle on Yusheng’s novel, emphasising its heroes as struggling with the deterministic forces that have created them. Throughout the two films also flows a richly transformative investigation into extreme visions of gender conflict and emotional violence. Nichang, in particular, lives on a balancing point between transcendent epiphany and infernal rage in the first film, linked to the natural world and primal forces, whereas fellow orphan Zhuo is associated with human, hierarchical society and its entrapping concepts. But both are characterised as exceptional rebels who cause terrible destruction because of their wayward personas. In the sequel, Nichang relentlessly pummels a young woman almost to death to save her the lesson never to trust a man. The bizarrely linked male and female villains of part one, who, with their magic powers, can pummel people without touching them, also embody the story’s twisted take on heterosexual relations, and add immeasurably to the perversity and drama of the action. The his/her arguments between the twins, sister perpetually mocking her brother for his agonised lust for Nichang, which proves to be their Achilles’ heel, builds to the amazingly pathological images of the brother stabbing his own arm in masochistic frustration, the sister screaming and begging him to stop, and later, when he’s trying to have sex with a willfully passionless Nichang, his sister, “lying” on his back mocking him, building to eruptive frustration that causes him to smash Nichang’s head repeatedly against the bed frame. It’s the sort of scene where you wonder why David Cronenberg or Paul Verhoeven didn’t come up with it first.
Dashes of Spielbergian ambition dot The Bride with White Hair’s visual texture, with the Indian styling of Ji’s infernal cult, massed in a chanting relish of evil, suggesting the influence of Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom (1984), as well as a hint of Bollywood flavouring. But with its colour-drenched frames, dramatically tilted camera angles, and the eerily beautiful, yet lightning-paced images of the warriors bounding through fog-shrouded forests, Yu, like Johnny To’s wild The Heroic Trio from the same year, effectively synthesises Hollywood high style with the traditional effects of wu xia cinema. Yu also employs a headlong rush of narrative clearly learnt from Tsui Hark, and he’s not terribly interested in developing with clarity a political subplot involving General Wu San-Kuei (Eddy Ko), an officer Zhuo had known since childhood who sets out to become Emperor, adding to a slightly diffuse quality to the narrative that is the film’s biggest fault. But the blend of fantasy imagery and a knowing yet unself-conscious use of that imagery’s protean possibilities for investigating complex aspects of the psyche help the film earn comparison with the classical mythology it evokes.
The blend of the utterly fantastic and the emotionally overwrought builds to two brilliant sequences. The gauntlet Nichang has to walk in leaving Ji’s cult sees her walking upon hot coals, and shards of jagged glass while being mercilessly beaten by the cultists. She emerges, bloodied and near collapse, but still manages enough pride and power to walk out. But when she returns to the ancient city, she finds Zhuo has left. Fellow members of the Wu-Tang, including Lu-Hua, have tracked him down and convinced him to return to explain himself to the head priest, but on arrival, they find the other Wu-Tang have all been massacred, the head priest’s severed head dangling from the ceiling, and one wounded man reporting that the Wolf Girl attacked them. When Nichang arrives looking for Zhuo, the remnants of the cult attack her, and even Zhuo believes she’s guilty thanks to the dying man’s testimony. Nichang is deeply offended and heartbroken at the distrust, especially after what she’s been through for Zhuo, and when Lu-Hua manages to stab her with a sword, rather than dying, she’s transmogrified into a white-haired demon. She skewers Lu-Hua with a sword, tears off her red wedding gown to reveal a white one, and slaughters the rest of the Wu-Tang in a supernatural fury. The first massacre proves to have been the work of Ji, having used their power to assume Nichang’s form, and she and Zhuo join forces long enough to slice the evil sorcerer in half, allowing the male to release a sigh of relief before dying: “Such a relief to sleep this way!”
Yu’s film concludes on a bravely unresolved note with the haunted Zhuo on his mountaintop vigil, transfixed by his failures, and Nichang having disappeared into the underworld, now a spirit of purified wrath. Wu’s follow-up takes the story well beyond the limits of Yusheng’s novel: it’s 10 years later, and Zhou continues his vigil as the time of the flower’s blooming comes near. The Wu-Tang is struggling to rebuild after the massacre, but Nichang has entirely embraced her dark side and is relentlessly killing off all the sects of the Chung Yuan. The Wu-Tang tradition has come down to its last heir, Fung Chun-Kit (Sunny Chan), who’s marrying Yu Qin or “Lyre” (Joey Mann), daughter of another clan, taking the risk of incurring Nichang’s wrathful efforts to destroy all marriages within the clan. The image of the severed Ji twins presages a theme developed here of gender war, as Nichang has become a declared misanthropist, saving wronged and dishonoured women and bringing them into her cult, including her chief henchwoman and crypto-lesbian lover Chen Yuanyuan (Ruth Winona Tao), inculcating them with powers to become ruthless killers whilst giving them each a taste of revenge on their specific male abusers. On Kit and Lyre’s wedding night, Nichang breaks into the temple and savagely beats the couple, but when one of Feng’s friends manages to help him escape, Nichang spirits Ling to her hidden fortress and brainwashes her into becoming a psychotic assassin of men. Feng is nursed back to health by tomboy Wu-Tang adherent Moon (Christy Chung), who’s in love with him and sad that he married Ling, but sets out with him and a band of other young Chung Yuan warriors to seek out and storm Nichang’s fortress.
Wu’s half of the story presents several mirroring images of both the first film’s characters and their travails: where Zhuo and Nichang’s schism was something they tried to resolve in spite of their disparate worlds, Kit and Ling’s split is artificially imposed. The original’s core love triangle is reconfigured into a proliferation of grazing, inchoate relationships. Moon pines for Kit and is admired in turn by his determined but less good-looking fellow warrior Liu Hang (Richard Suen), who proves nonetheless a determined and able helpmate. Moon, with her mannish affectations—she’s seen constantly chewing on a cigarette—but thoroughly heterosexual ambitions stand in contrast to the cult Nichang runs with her collective of female assassins and their hideout’s air of lush sensuality. The clan warriors are placed under the command of the aged “Granny” of the Au Mei clan (Lily Chung), whose own mane of white hair sees her momentarily mistaken for the witch when she comes to take command. Moon fires off arrows at her, but she’s so good, she catches the arrows between her teeth. She’s also a disarmingly unaffected, calm, and wise person who prefers acting in defence and delegates to Kit when the time to attack arrives. Nichang in her transmogrified witch state can throw out her long white hair in tentacle-like coils that pierce the skin and drip poison. Moon is riddled with strands of the hair, and she’s left on death’s door, forbidden from attempting any kung fu; but she still leaps into the fray to save her friends with tragic results.
A lot of credit for the heft of the films is owed to its terrific pairing of Cheung and Lin, two of the best actors in Hong Kong cinema (though Cheung’s contribution to the second film is disappointingly brief), and especially Lin, who commands the films like an empress. They both considerably overshadow the younger actors in the sequel. There’s a touch of tribute to John Carpenter as the languorous, suggestive sequences of Lyre being ritually subsumed into the cult by Chen Yuanyuan echo the similar scenes of heroines in Big Trouble in Little China (1986), whilst the scene in which Kit dances before his wedding, blindfolded and playing a lyre given as a wedding present, has a quality similar to the rapturous little touches with which Zhang Yimou would decorate his wu xia films. After one fight scene, Wu cuts to observe the glittering drops of a slain ma’s blood drip from the fronds of a silvery bush, a poetic flourish of a kind that dots both films, and it’s worth noting the intensity of the design element to the films, with the great costume design by Emi Wada and the set decoration, especially in the recurring contrast between the livid whiteness of Nichang and setting rendered either in red, the same as the red blood that spits out of so many bodies, or rich nocturnal blue. Wu, a long-time editor who also served in that capacity on the first episode, offers direction slightly more prosaic than Yu’s, and the initial Seven Samurai-like story set-up more familiar, failing to ruffle the settled rhythms and naïve humour of the genre as much.
But the story arc again echoes with fidelity a familiar mythic tale, and proceeds with wildly eccentric energy, building to even more floridly grandiose climaxes. When the Chung Yuan war party is all but wiped out infiltrating Nichang’s citadel, Kit and Liu are advised by Granny to seek out Zhuo Yuhang, as she’s one of the few who knows where’s he’s been hiding all these years. Wu obfuscates whether they find him in the chilly extremes of the sacred mountain, cutting from them stumbling away in a blizzard with Zhou watching them from his pinnacle, to the determined young duo deciding to attack the fortress again with planted explosives. It’s in the last few minutes that Wu’s installment goes for broke as his heroes give battle, Lei dying in combat with one of female cultists, dynamiting both himself and her after giving her a kiss to show her what a “real man” is like, and Zhuo turning up in time to forestall Nichang from killing Kit and Lyre. The confrontation of the two former lovers, long delayed, pays off in the delirious image of Zhuo, once again dropping his arms before Nichang, being skewered by her long tendrils of hair, proffering the magical flowers that get burnt to a crisp by a falling cinder. Zhuo’s proof of his still-smouldering ardour and contrition brings Nichang back from a homicidal rage, only to gain a sword in the back from the jealous Chen Yuanyuan, and all three die as the fortress falls flaming about their ears. It’s the sort of giddy, Wagnerian climax that one so often expects from fantasy-action tales, but so rarely gets.
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Director: Johnny To
By Roderick Heath
Johnny To has emerged in the past few years as a master of Hong Kong genre cinema, filling the void left by the departure and disgrace of John Woo and other industry notables in Hollywood adventures. To and Woo share characteristics, both concentrating on bristling macho dramatics, each analysing fundamental social, business, and personal bonds through the charged metaphors of the gangster film, and both channelling the influence of foreign masters like Ford, Peckinpah, Scorsese, and Leone into their localised aesthetic. They’re very different in other respects, however: where Woo is usually an operatic executor of movies that are fundamentally about movies, reverent of the given structures and precepts of the genre film, To is much more of an ironist, willing to play games with his audience’s expectations in laying out standard elements and then executing simple, but brilliantly effective twists. To’s as strong a stylist as any in modern cinema, but a purposeful, efficient one, saving pyrotechnics for the moment of maximum impact, and with his dancing camerawork, lightning editing, and keen mise-en-scène, he barely wastes a frame. Election proved something of a breakthrough for him in terms of overseas attention, and it’s not hard to see why.
The story is fairly simple, but To keeps his pieces moving on the board so fast it’s a challenge to stay focused. The Wo Sing triad, one of the most notable—but far from only—illegal organisations in Hong Kong is having an election for its chairman, who serves for two-year spells. The tradition of the election is over a hundred years old, and the codes that bind the triad members together go back even further, to the days of resistance against the Manchus and the rebellions of the Shaolin monks. The two candidates to replace outgoing boss Whistle (Chung Wang) are Lam Lok (Simon Yam) and Big D (Tony Leung Ka Fai), two temperamentally disparate kingpins. Lok is calm, disdainful of showy expressions of power, the kind of guy who walks around his neighbourhood and converses with shopkeepers without a weapon or bodyguards, a detail which speaks of his certainty of power. He keeps a fine apartment with his son Denny (Jonathan Lee). Big D is far less restrained: married to a potent kingmaker wife (Maggie Shiu), he’s a man who smiles and cajoles with excessive pleasantness and explodes in childish tantrums when he doesn’t get what he wants. And he doesn’t, when, in spite of his carefully administered bribes to some of the “uncles” who form the decisive circle of triad chiefs, Lok wins the election as the most honourable and respectable of the choices.
Big D decides to dispute the election, and kidnaps two of the uncles he blames for his loss, cranky old Long Gun (Yuen-Yin Yu) and dissolute Sam (Robert Hung), whom he’d bribed but who failed to vote for him because there wasn’t enough money to go around. He nails them inside wooden crates, and rolls them repeatedly down a mountainside until they’re bloodied, dazed messes. Calling up Whistle, he threatens their lives unless Whistle helps him in challenging the triad’s guardian of tradition, Teng Wai (Wong Tin Lam); Whistle responds by having a subordinate hide the carved dragon-motif baton that is the symbol of authority in the Wo Sing in mainland China. Big D senses he might still stake a claim to the governorship if he can get hold of the baton by proving that he has the muscle and guts to snatch the baton to those who would still deny his authority.
Getting wind of an impending clash between the quickly polarising sides, the police, commanded by stoic Chief Superintendent Hui (David Chiang), drag in all the uncles, including Lok and Big D, who, still raging at his fellow uncles who he thinks betrayed him, begins kicking Whistle in front of reporters whilst waiting to be taken into the police station. Whistle flees the violence, but is run over by a car and critically injured. The cops, desperate not to see a gang war start, only want to force the uncles to find a way to sort out their problems. But events threaten to spiral out of everyone’s control as rival bands of men loyal to Big D and the other uncles try to fetch the baton from its hiding place in Guangzhou, and an embittered Whistle tries to blab from his hospital bed.
To’s quick eye takes in a raft of small details that fill out the universe of the triad bosses with alternatively disarming and dismaying effect. Most of these gangsters aren’t actually very tough or especially good at their jobs—they’re mostly middle-age men whose days of roughneck street warfare and standover work are behind them. Amongst the younger ones, who include young punks with something to prove, and genuinely fierce warriors in need of a watchful eye, the slickest is the preternaturally cool Jimmy Lee (Louis Koo), who distributes bribes and collects debts whilst also attending seminars in finance. Small and large rituals—Teng Wai making tea for the uncles to seal their election decision; a later, full-on, religious-flavoured, blood-brother ceremony—define and seal their society. The power of ritual and tradition is simultaneously endangered, illusory, and still binding in subtle and supple ways. The governorship of the triad is established by totems and oaths, and but these are only emblems of real things, and the competition to command the emblems will finally express the reality of those symbols. As the film plays out, the meanings of those symbols become thoroughly apparent.
Election also hints at broader meanings through its title: the election, the illusion of democracy, is a sanctified ritual in the triad. But it’s only possible because of the mutual consent of powerful men, and To encompasses the history of Hong Kong and the relationship of Chinese society to centuries of hegemonic rulers both foreign and domestic. Simultaneously, what adherence to a creed means is taken seriously all the way through, even though the drama is driven by upstart Big D’s refusal to accept the rules, a breach of the creed. He threatens that if he doesn’t get his way, he will break away and form his own triad, a potent threat indeed as no one wants a war. The police know they can’t stamp out the triads, and are happy to act as something like referees in this game to reduce collateral damage; their attempts to corral the uncles before the situation combusts prove partly successful. In a moment that’s both ribald and telling, Long Gun, whilst berating Sam and Big D for failing to give a big enough bribe, orders a nubile young prostitute to jump up and down for him: those old farts are happy as long as their pockets are stuffed, their dicks are wet, and the world’s jumping to their regulated beat.
In the film’s sustained, exhilarating central movement, the battling factions and the police try to beat each other in ferrying the baton out of China, leading to the teeth-gnashing moment between two intermediate members. Kun (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung), functionary for a boss who’s signed on with Big D because he’ll sell their drugs at a higher rate, beats Lok loyalist Big Head (Suet Lam) with a log to get him to give up the baton, whilst Big Head recites the words of their triad oath, explicating the bizarre bond of corporeal grit and spiritual adherence that keeps the Triad bound together. But then Kun gets a call from his boss, telling him the plan’s changed: he’s now to make sure that the baton comes home to Lok, and he has to apologise to the bloodied, battered Big Head before immediately leaving with the baton, knocking over a policeman in his relentless drive back to Hong Kong. He then passes the baton on to motorcycle-riding, hard-as-nails kung-fu warrior Jet (Nick Cheung), who was first glimpsed in the film taking offence to Big D’s patronising jokes, which caused him to crush up and eat a ceramic spoon as a fuck-you to the wannabe overlord; we know then he’d rather die than let Big D get the baton. With Jimmy Lee, who manages to intercept him, they beat off a mob of his men, Jimmy stuffing one heavy into a barrel and stomping on the lid until he’s trapped like a Looney Tunes character and Jet finishing up with a machete jutting from his shoulder. But the pair’s grit sees them victorious and Lok gains the baton. It’s the most generically satisfying part of the film as a blindingly executed piece of action.
Terrific little details flitter by at high speed, like the “you’re full of shit!” look Jimmy wears in listening to Uncle Sam’s swearing he’s not going to gamble any more, or Teng recalling how the baton once had to be sprayed down with insecticide after the last election because the former holder was such a slob. There are points in Election where even fierce attention won’t really reward a first-time viewer. Many of the bosses and their henchmen are swiftly introduced and barely distinguishable, though that’s probably intentional. Lok’s supine calm and Big D’s hot-headed smarm are, on the other hand, very carefully contrasted to carefully manipulate initial impressions. Lok, with his calm demeanour and general reputation for honour and chivalry within the triad, seems by far the better man, yet one senses that Lok’s security in his sense of power gives him a great capacity for ruthlessness. This is proven when, to make sure Whistle doesn’t blab to the cops, he has Whistle’s son run down by a truck and threatens that his daughter will be next, causing Whistle to commit suicide by pulling out his own life support. Once the baton’s in Lok’s hands, he reaches out to Big D, bringing him into his plan to expand the Wo Sing’s turf by taking over another triad’s territory: Big D pretends then to make an alliance with that triad’s boss, Brother Dinosaur (Bo Yuen), only to team with Lok to kill him, Big D relishing stabbing and kicking the dying man. All suddenly seems right in the Wo Sing world again.
But To saves his most brutal and amazing flourish for the very end: when Lok, Denny, and Mr. and Mrs. Big D share a bucolic afternoon fishing, Big D, pleased by how things are going, suggests that he and Lok share the Wo Sing governorship as some other triad bosses have done. Lok says they’ll have to talk it over with the fellow bosses, and then, when Denny and Mrs. D are momentarily absent, he picks up a huge rock and bashes Big D’s head in with it. Mrs. D sees him and tries to run away, but Lok catches her, throttles her, and buries her with her husband in an unmarked grave, before calmly driving home with his son, who witnessed his violence, in glazed, silent trauma, into a blood-red sunset.
The ending is both a ruthlessly concise trash job on the veneer of gangland civility that brings to mind the climax of Scorsese’s Casino (1995)—indeed, the thought of Scorsese having remade this film rather than the far less inspired Infernal Affairs is a tantalising one—with its galvanising, surprisingly prolonged, and truthful violence, but it’s also a coldly logical culmination of all that has proceeded. Lok’s unremitting execution of his rival and his problematic wife is both power politics defined, and obedience to the creed of the triad. Big D has violated the society’s laws and defied the judgement of the uncles, and he pays the price for that violation in the same way that Big Head defended the laws: at the cost of having his body pummelled, but this time unto death. This hardly leavens the final disturbing vision of Lam Lok as a brutal psychopath, his son’s haunted look saying all that’s necessary about life in this world even as they slip back into their social roles. The savage excellence of this coda elevates Election far above the pack. l
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Director: Tsui Hark
By Roderick Heath
Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain made the reputation of director Tsui Hark, and in so doing, redefined the wu xia genre, the staple of Hong Kong cinema. Hark had shortly before gotten in trouble with the governing authorities with his politically minded Violent Encounters of the First Kind (1980), which was heavily cut by censors and flopped at the box office. Determined to conjure a blockbuster, Hark imported Hollywood technicians to beef up Zu’s special effects and production values. His efforts paid off: Zu made $15 million, a colossal sum for a Hong Kong film of the time, and became the kind of movie that still makes most Western efforts to do fantasy-adventure look limp, dull-witted, and wholly uncool. Watching Zu could be daunting to anyone without a feel for the genre and this specific style of filmmaking. Somewhat akin to watching the whole The Lord of the Rings trilogy compressed into a 90-minute film, Zu charges ahead at a breakneck pace and doesn’t particularly care whether you keep up. It’s also a hard film to approach because there are several extant versions, often with whole new plots inserted. So, I’ll just have to take it as I saw it.
The explanatory opening assures us that the title mountain, Zu, is the subject of many legends from Chinese mythology. And now here’s one we made up. In an era in which the nations of Wu are battling for supremacy, Ti Ming Chi (Yuen Biao), a messenger for the Blue Wu, falls in with a chubby warrior (Samo Hung) from the Red faction. They overcome their mutual antipathy when both are attacked by a third faction, and each disillusioned with their cause, end up trying to keep each other alive during a free-for-all-battle. Cornered on a cliff, Chi falls off, and Fatso is captured. And that’s just the first five minutes.
Unharmed in his fall, Chi wanders the countryside until he find himself in a forbidding realm of perpetual darkness, and is assailed by red-eyed, reanimated corpses. He is saved by the timely intervention of a warrior monk, Ting Yin (Adam Cheng). Yin has been called to aid a great old monk, Chang Mei, in battling an evil sect that has been sacrificing children to awaken the Blood Demon, a terrifying flying sheet with a sword in its mouth and cymbals in its hands. Also called in by Chang Mei are two other monks, Abbott Hsiao Yu (Damian Lau) and his student Yi Chen (Hoi Mang), and the trio, with Chi mostly trying to avoid being killed, do battle with the evil sect and vanquish their creepy head priest (Hark-on Fung).
Too late! The Blood Demon, being a sheet, doesn’t like being awakened, and he assaults our heroes, infecting Hsiao Yu with a poison that will transform him into the Demon’s avatar. Chang Mei (Hung again) arrives and manages to temporarily entrap the Demon with his incredible sticky eyebrow power, and a magic, star-powered mirror that can hold the beast for 43 days, until the alignment of the stars change. The heroes are given a mission: first, they must go to the Ice Countess (Brigitte Lin), who is priestess of a hillside fortress temple, to have Hsiao Yu cured, and then locate the cave of Lei Yikkei “The Wonder Girl,” a great mystic who is the current keeper of the twin swords of Sky and Earth, the only weapons that can truly defeat the Demon.
Hark’s a director who puts pace and vivid action ahead of story coherence – a tendency that had reached an apogee with the unwatchable Time and Tide (2000). Zu itself treads the edges of bedazzling incomprehensibility, but miraculously keeps it footing thanks to a solid sense of physical context. Hark’s rapid editing is as much about masking the ropy special effects (in a subgenre that’s often referred to by the less poetic name “wire fu”) in an era long before the balletic CGI of the likes of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and House of Flying Daggers, as it is to keep things rocking. He imbues the proceedings with a lysergic intensity, and his direction is as close to a perpetual motion machine as any in cinema. Hark, like a lot of other Hong Kong directors of the era, were taking up the challenge thrown down by Hollywood filmmakers like Spielberg and Lucas in supercharging the momentum and imagery of fantasy cinema, and riposted with their own manic energy. That Zu doesn’t take itself very seriously and is filled with self-satirising humour are big plusses. The plot and the approach to it is summed up when a confused Chi asks who the members of the sect are; Yi Chen replies sarcastically, “They’re the bad guys. We’re the good guys. Get it?” Later, when Chi asks Chang Mei if he’s a good guy, Chang testily snaps, “Of course I’m a good guy! Do bad guys wear white?”
When they reach the Countess’ temple, they find the warrior-priestesses there a mob of prickly, crypto-lesbian separatists who detest any male presence, provoking Yi Chen into decrying “It’s women like you made me become a monk!” The Countess won’t heal anyone if she doesn’t come out for her daily consultation before a sacred blue flame, relit each day, burns out. She gets so angry when Ting Yin saves her from fainting whilst healing, that she fights Ting Yin, duelling him whilst they each fly on carved elephants. They’re hot for each other, of course. But Ting Yin, in saving her again from a fall, accidentally ingests the poison she’s taken from Hsiao Yu, and he is soon transformed into the Demon’s avatar, forcing the Countess to try to hold him in by freezing the entire castle, herself, her fellow priestesses, and the visitors in a great block of ice. Only Chi, Yi, and Mu Sang (Moon Lee), one of the younger, more hot-headed priestesses, escape, and when the ice fails to keep the Demon Ting Yin trapped, they have to locate the cave where Lei Yikkei resides.
Hark uses that pretext to take the film any crazy place he damn well pleases. John Carpenter acknowledges Zu as a primary inspiration on his Big Trouble in Little China (1986), and the influence isn’t too hard to spot in the style of action, his employment of colour and set-décor effects, and the self-mocking humour. Zu has a joie de vivre and a loopy passion that barely, if ever, finds its way into Hollywood attempts to do the same thing. Most intriguing and delightful about the film is its cheekiness, a constant flow of invention and humour that takes digs at clichés of genre, gender, and generations. The narrative culmination involves the joining of Ti Ming Chi, Yi Chen, and Lei Yikkei into an attuned gestalt mind to battle the Demon, the complete annihilation of gender, generational, and psychic barriers necessary in completing a symbolic union of earth and sky that’s asexual. “Are we still men?” the two lads ask in panic after Lei Yikkei transforms them into super-warriors in cut-off blouses.
They are, yes, but it’s fascinating that here a level of ambiguity in identity, sexuality, and everything else has to be reached to achieve a heroic end. Compare it to, say, Mel Gibson’s The Passion of the Christ (2003), where the ultimate in evil, Satan, is defined by sexual ambiguity. Asian cinema’s long had a notably larger and more interesting roll-call of female heroes. Yu’s narrative is about tension, unity, and division as it manifests in all situations and concepts: the combat of good and evil, men and women, nation-states, and schools of philosophy and religion. The younger heroes learn the hard way that they, not their self-involved, fractious elders, have take up the baton and effect real change. Ti Ming Chi is a male virgin, and his purity is crucial to his triumph; the Buddhist ideal of annihilation of differentiation of form has to win the day. This doesn’t stop Chi, Yi, and Mu Sang flying off at the end presumably for some variety of magical threesome.
Zu is a glorious romp that tries a bit too hard, but better trying too hard than not trying at all. It doesn’t have quite the heady mix of erotic poeticism and high adventure of Ching Siu-Tung’s great A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and A Chinese Ghost Story II (1990), works probably influenced by Hark’s film; the tragic romance between the Countess and Ying Tin doesn’t get much time to register in Hark’s, unlike the crucial one in Ching’s — but it is wilder and more spectacular. The visuals are appropriately delirious, conjuring amazing sequences like when the young trio encounters Heaven’s Blade (Norman Chu), who has chained himself on guard at the gate of hell and does battle with the Demon Ting Yin, the heroes desperately dangling from the shattered chains. And there’s the breathless finale in which the Countess sacrifices herself to destroy the Demon Ting Yin, Mu Sang tries to unite the human armies, and the united Chi and Yi destroy the Blood Demon. It’s also worth noting the veritable who’s who of stars of the era: Lin, nominated for Best Actress at that year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, is strikingly charismatic; 17-year old Moon, in her first film, stakes her claim to being the star she was for years after; and the men are all slick and amusing physical presences.
Great fun. l