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Hong Kong Movie in Retrospectives (in English)

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 19, 2016 2:54 am    Post subject: Hong Kong Movie in Retrospectives (in English) Reply with quote

The Heroic Tradition - Chinese Martial Arts Costume Epics
Written by James Mudge

Although since they first opened their doors, Chinese cinemas have been ringing with the clash of swords, the righteous battle cries of noble, exquisitely garbed heroes and the evil laughter of beard stroking, cape swirling villains, of late the clamor has been particularly loud. Indeed, audiences at home and abroad would be forgiven for thinking that China's cinematic output consists for the most part of martial arts historical costume epics. Certainly, almost all of the country's big name and internationally lauded directors have tried their hand at the genre, even those perhaps better known for arthouse and humanistic cinema. The budgets for these films have grown ever bigger, packing in more and more stars, extras, flamboyant costumes and lavish sets, affording the form a glamour and prestige that has seen its ranks swell alarmingly.

All this of course leads to the question as to why such films have become so unassailably popular and why the genre, despite the obvious risk of over familiarity, only seems to go from strength to strength at the box office?

Perhaps the most obvious reason for the continuing success of the genre is cultural, with films drawing upon long standing classic tales and history. Chinese cinema to an extent grew from an operatic and literary tradition, based mainly around martial arts and the heroic wuxia form, and as such costume epics are a natural extension of this. Directors have an incredible wealth of popular stories and texts to make use of, with novels such as Romance of the Three Kingdoms and The Water Margin having endured since way back in the fourteenth century. It also helps that these books tend to span vast volumes, and so although they have been adapted for the screen countless times through the years, there always remains plenty of scope for reinvention. Of course, modern literature has also been adapted, with the works of martial arts novelist Jin Yong such as The Legend of the Condor Heroes and Sword Stained with Royal Blood having provided the inspiration for many films and television series.

As a result, the epic form has been popular throughout the years as part of Chinese culture, and is by no means a modern phenomenon. This can be seen through the library of Shaw Brothers productions, typified by the likes of The Water Margin and All Men are Brothers, along with many other adaptations. Although the genre to an extent disappeared through the 1980s and 90s, replaced with often bizarre and comical wuxia films in the scatological Hong Kong style of the time, interestingly, many Chinese directors are now remaking these earlier films or offering new versions of the original sources, with Come Drink With Me having inspired Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Blood Brothers having been reinvented by Peter Chan as The Warlords. As budgets climb towards the stratosphere and advances are made in filmmaking techniques and special effects, it is only natural that more and more stories and indeed films will be revisited with the tools now available to fulfil their grand visions.

Another reason for the proliferation of martial arts epics that should not be overlooked is the fact that politically they are safe bet for the Mainland Chinese market, generally espousing traditional values and not tackling any controversial themes or sensitive issues. This has been especially true of late, with Chinese censors being notoriously zealous at cutting films and with numerous directors and performers receiving censures even bans. Recent examples have seen contemporary drama Lost in Beijing being pulled from cinemas despite having already being shorn of its sexual content, director Lou Ye being banned from filmmaking in China for five years for his politically themed Summer Palace, and actress Tang Wei, star of Ang Lee's acclaimed Lust, Caution having been blacklisted as a result of her role apparently "glorifying traitors." With such threats hanging over their heads, it is little wonder that many Chinese directors and indeed financiers choose to stick with costume epics.

All this aside, as with any cinematic form, the main reason why costume epics continue to proliferate is simple - they are commercially successful. Often defying the critics, these films have almost unfailingly proved to be box office smashes domestically, with recent releases such as The Warlords, An Empress and the Warriors, and Three Kingdoms all having repeated the success of the likes of Hero, The Banquet, and many others. It is particularly important to consider that this comes at a time when Hollywood films are being increasingly aggressively marketed in Asian countries, and as such this level of continuing home-grown success is only likely to generate more productions hoping to ride the wave. International interest has waned since 2000 when the multiple-award winning Crouching Tiger became the first Asian film to truly conquer the Western box office, wracking up an incredible US$214 million worldwide, and fewer and fewer costume epics are being picked up for international release, but a few do still manage the money-spinning feat of overseas distribution.

With all of this in mind, it is easy to see why the popularity of the genre exploded following the miraculous success of Crouching Tiger. The film provided an attractive model, not only through its financial and critical achievements, but also for its prestigious production values and top drawer cast which included Chow Yun Fat, Michelle Yeoh, Zhang Ziyi, and Chang Chen alongside old genre favorites such as Cheng Pei Pei. Rescuing the form from the silliness of the preceding two decades, the film brought back a certain dignity, with themes of heroism, righteousness, and sacrifice coming firmly to the fore. What is perhaps less obvious, though more interesting, is that although to the casual viewer the films which followed in its wake may look like a homogenous lot, the genre itself has developed in the following years, going through several different phases.

Initially, martial arts costume epics post-2000 followed the Crouching Tiger formula closely, being filled with graceful, balletic visuals, exquisite costumes, and with touches of fantasy and myth. The genre's second key release came a couple of years later with Hero, from acclaimed mainland director Zhang Yimou, who at that point was best known for character dramas such as Red Sorghum and Raise the Red Lantern. The film boasted an even more sweeping historical scope, and big name stars in the form of Jet Li, Tony Leung, Maggie Cheung, Donnie Yen, and Zhang Ziyi, with gorgeous cinematography by Christopher Doyle. It was a massive domestic success, and won multiple awards around the world, as well as notching up an impressive US$53 million in the US, marking it as the third most successful foreign language film to date.

With this, the die was cast and the genre's popularity exploded, with filmmakers desperate to get in on the act. Established as a top box office draw, more and more funding appeared, with productions becoming increasingly grandiose and prestigious. As with Hollywood blockbusters in the West, martial arts costume epics became event films, and unsurprisingly, their focus shifted to capitalizing on aspects that would hopefully bring in even wider audience, such as expensive sets, costumes and special effects.

The next few years saw a rush of genre films by respected directors hitting screens, including Zhang Yimou's Hero follow-up The House of Flying Daggers, Seven Swords from Tsui Hark, (who has during his long career been responsible for his fair share of costume epics, including Once Upon a Time in China, Green Snake, and The Blade to name but a few), The Promise from Farewell My Concubine director Chen Kaige and The Banquet from Feng Xiaogang, who had previously been associated mainly with biting social satires such as Cell Phone. Although there was a great wealth of talent involved, the genre saw a definite dip in quality, with films being criticized for their hollow obsession with visual splendor, and for being designed with international audiences in mind. Despite this, and although all failed to find the same kind of success overseas as Crouching Tiger, with Western critics being equally scathing, all were massive box office hits at home, pulling in previously unseen amounts of money and setting in stone the genre's appeal.

The martial arts costume epic arguably reached a pinnacle of sorts in 2006 with Zhang Yimou's Curse of the Golden Flower, an almost impossibly gorgeous production overflowing with bright colors and gaudy period detail (not to mention the cleavage of the female cast). Although well received critically and another highly profitable money-spinner, the film, was a definite a ne plus ultra of the form, and clearly something fresh was needed.

The same year, a different proposition did appear in the shape of Jacob Cheung's A Battle of Wits, starring Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau along with acclaimed Korean actor Ahn Sung Ki and then upcoming starlet Fan Bing Bing. While still very much a costume epic, the film, which was set during China's Warring States period and was actually based upon a manga comic, did feature a notably different look, being much rougher, dustier and less colorful. Similarly, although it still worked in plenty of battle scenes and martial arts, it had a more thoughtful and philosophical anti-war theme, which Cheung just about managed to balance with the usual righteous heroism.

The genre was effectively transformed in 2007 with the release of Peter Chan's blockbuster Warlords, a remake of the Shaw Brothers production Blood Brothers. A gritty anti-war epic, the film was a contemplative affair, and was in many ways the anti-thesis of Curse of the Golden Flower. Of course, at the same time Chan was careful not to neglect the need for audience-pleasing heroics, battle scenes, and star power, bringing together Andy Lau, Jet Li, and Takeshi Kaneshiro. Bloody, intelligent, and above all, dusty, the film scored big at the box office and went down well with critics, proving that the genre need not only produce empty visual feasts. Interestingly, it also demonstrated that the costume epic genre could still offer directors the chance to work in social commentary and even some historical revisionism, through a more realistic and morally complex approach rather than employing the usual larger-than-life heroes and villains.

The film certainly proved that audiences were receptive to more grounded costume epics, and genre excitement reached fever pitch with the announcement that John Woo would be returning from Hollywood to direct his own Three Kingdoms set piece of historical revisionism, Red Cliff. A massively budgeted, all star production which is to be split into two parts for release in Asia, the film focuses upon the battle at the titular location which proved to be a major turning point in Chinese history. With the trailer and footage screened at Cannes having raised anticipation levels even further, there is not doubt that the film represents not only the genre's biggest outing to date, but also perhaps potentially the first Asian release likely to challenge for the international crown of Crouching Tiger.

Inevitably, with the film undergoing a lengthy and apparently troubled production, it has already been beaten to the screen by a couple of imitations, firstly the awkwardly titled Three Kingdoms: Resurrection of the Dragon. Directed by Dragon Squad helmer Daniel Lee, the film sees Andy Lau donning historical costume yet again as the legendary general Zhao Yun, backed up by international beauty Maggie Q and the one and only Sammo Hung. Although not displaying the same level of realism as Warlords, or allowing the cast to get quite so down and dirty, the film is still a step away from the glamorous epics of a few years back. However, the focus is very much on the entertaining battle scenes, attempting to pack in glorious spectacle and perhaps hoping to steal, or at least borrow a little of Red Cliff's coming fire.

The same is true of An Empress and the Warriors, which was directed by Ching Siu Tung. Given that the director actually worked on the action scenes of Warlords, Curse of the Golden Flower, Hero, and others, and that current martial arts favorite Donnie Yen is present, it comes as no surprise that the film is filled with action and adventure. Unfortunately, it is also a rather silly affair, not least thanks to the casting of pop princess Kelly Chen in the titular role, and suffers from an uneven tone. As such, although entertaining in its own way, the film is unlikely to even be mentioned in the same breath as Red Cliff, not that this in itself is necessarily a criticism.

More than anything, what Three Kingdoms and An Empress and the Warriors clearly show is that with Red Cliff and its likely all-conquering success just around the corner, viewers can expect to see much, much more of the same, and that the costume epic is certain to be the predominant form of Chinese cinema for some years to come.

Last edited by Sandy on Tue Jan 19, 2016 4:22 am; edited 2 times in total
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PostPosted: Tue Jan 19, 2016 3:17 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Hong Kong Cinema and The Moment
Written by Sean M. Tierney

Someone once asked me what I liked so much about Hong Kong cinema. What, they wondered, could possibly be so great about it that I bought them by the hundreds? I thought about it for a moment, and then I told them: There's always The Moment.

In just about every Hong Kong movie I've ever seen, there is at least one moment that propels me out of my seat, sometimes literally. It can often be as subtle as a remark made by an actor (any Stephen Chow Sing Chi movie), an unexpected camera movement (Big Bullet), an especially visceral stunt (Full Alert's motorcycle "landing"), or a blown stunt that looks so good (read: painful) that it is left in the film, occasionally shown more than once (Tiger on Beat, Prince of Temple Street, Tragic Fantasy).

Sometimes it is something so out of the ordinary for my American orientation that I react instinctively. In Hollywood, children are never in harm's way. But in Hong Kong films like All of a Sudden, The Untold Story, Run and Kill and others (even non-Category III), children are not safe at all. In one of the Conman movies, a small child in leg braces is pushed down an escalator. I have seen children in Hong Kong movies be threatened, injured, tortured, killed, and, in Run and Kill, worse (trust me).

Hong Kong cinema's portrayal of people of African descent is equally hit or miss. In some of the most jarring moments of Hong Kong cinema, seemingly random incidences of blatantly stereotypical portrayals rear their ugly head and are gone in an instant. Love Generation Hong Kong's final romantic plot twist involves Leon Lai rushing to the airport to stop a woman whose love he (unknowingly) refused from going to America, to marry "a Negro." When he is told about this plan by the girl's brother, Leon asks how the brother can allow this and whether he is sick. Then he punches him. I don't enjoy these moments, but I certainly do notice them. They happen just often enough, and without any warning, that you may want to think twice about who you see them with. On the bright side, the global spread of hip-hop has helped change attitudes somewhat; in My Loving Trouble 7, Sandra Ng Kwun Yu is surprised to find that she is attractive even to Black men. I'm not saying that I find these things entertaining (though sometimes I do). I'm saying that they leave an impression on me by virtue of their portrayal, content, and delivery. They are Moments.

The moments are not always negative; often they are romantic. In A Chinese Ghost Story 3, Joey Wang watches a frightened Tony Leung Chiu Wai run through a dark forest, in fear for his life. She smiles, and the first time I saw it (and every time since), I felt as though it would be a wonderful thing to be the subject of that smile. If a woman ever smiled that way about me, my life would be a significant bit more complete. And I'd be immeasurably happy. In The Truth About Jane and Sam, the ending is the perfect close to a touching, yet admittedly saccharine film. The same can be said of Metade Fumaca; what ought to be a truly sad moment for Eric Tsang Chi Wai is instead a source of wistful happiness for both his character and the audience. Elvis Tsui Kam Kong's performance in Viva Erotica as a Category III actor struggling to support his family is a wonderfully subtle yet powerful portrayal; that it reflects perhaps too closely the actor's life only adds to the weight of it.

Wong Kar Wai's Fallen Angels features a moment both romantic and salacious enough to truly earn the label erotic; a lovelorn Michele Reis silently yet movingly expresses her unrequited love for Leon Lai through an unabashed display of physical yearning on his bed. It is both poignant and dirty, yet never less than equally so. A less libidinous, though equally transfixing moment comes in the final seconds of They Came to Rob Hong Kong; Kara Hui Ying Hung walks towards the camera, relaxed, lithe, and composed in the midst of chaos. Her expression, half beckoning and half contemptuous smirk, is virtually hypnotic. That the film ends by freezing this image only makes its impact that much more significant. Admittedly, as a man I am perhaps more prone to the female side of such portrayals; the image of Christy Chung in The Bride with White Hair 2, her first role, is indelibly fixed in my mind: she is sitting by a fire, a rough-hewn cigar dangling from those lips. That such a feat is possible in this film is extraordinary, because it stars Brigitte Lin Ching Hsia, the uncontested master of The Look. Her gaze, when it is fixed upon whatever object is lucky (or unlucky) enough to be its recipient, probably stops traffic outside the theatre. Even without any zoom or freeze, her gaze transfixes the screen. Many are those Moments, and all are divine.

I imagine a woman might say the same thing about any number of iconic moments of Hong Kong's male actors; I have been told, and can see, that Tony Leung Chiu Wai has an effect on women that is devastating. Many are the moments that his gaze, or even his visage, has reduced women to near hysteria. Which is all well and good, except that he didn't buy the dinner and the movie tickets; I did! But to follow (albeit at a safe distance) this line of reasoning, there are innumerable moments in Hong Kong films where even I can acknowledge that the hyperreality of cinema creates a universe where I shall never live (but I hope someone does). The entrance of Ekin Cheng and Louis Koo early on in For Bad Boys Only is trite, overblown, and brimming with hubris. At the same time, it forces me to acknowledge that I will never, ever be that handsome or cool. No one ever really will. But these guys come darn close. And that's before Shu Qi falls for one of them! I have compulsively chewed toothpicks all of my adult life; I will never look as cool as Chow Yun Fat does in Hard Boiled when, with the raise of an eyebrow and casual wave of a pistol, he tells his partner to leave it to him to finish the bad guy.

Cinema allows us a glimpse into a world where things are not real, and hence are often different, and better, than they are. In movies, conflict can be resolved directly, quickly, and without moral or legal repercussions. In Fruit Chan's The Longest Summer, Sam Lee Chan Sam makes short work of an obnoxious young girl in a novel and uniquely Hong Kong manner. It made me cheer out loud. In my own living room. And she deserved it. A popular theme in Hong Kong movies is friendship. The responsibilities engendered by being someone's heng dai (buddy) lead to some of the most violent, touching, and rewarding moments in Hong Kong cinema. In The Blood Rules, the final meeting between Lam Suet and Wong Tin Lam, driven as it is by vengeance, is one of the most satisfying (non-) surprises I've seen in a long time. The climax of A War Named Desire features a sacrifice made for friendship that is bloody, violent, and deeply touching. In Johnny Mak's Long Arm of the Law, a gang member is remembered by his friends not with the traditional Chinese offerings of fruit and incense, but with McDonald's food and cigarettes; such a simple statement, coming as it does from very simple characters, speaks volumes about the Hong Kong of the 1980s and how it affected those outside (and inside) it.

Other moments in Hong Kong film illustrate the often bittersweet nature of the consequences of friendship. In Full Throttle, Chin Kar Lok appears to have escaped a harrowing crash unscathed. That this is not the case is brought home to us through a moment both visually interesting and emotionally piercing. Similar to this is Chapman To Man Chat's fate in Infernal Affairs. But here, it is both leavened and made more poignant by yet another display of his character's good-natured simplicity. Occasionally, the intersection of love and violence result in moments that are as emotionally romantic as they are visually repugnant. In Bullets of Love, Asata Seko's climactic act of contrition is equal parts devotion and destruction; we are left with a highly conflicting set of motivations, actions, and consequences.

Some of Hong Kong's cinema's moments get their power from evoking or showing us a Hong Kong that is no more. Sandra Ng Kwun Yu's Golden Chicken gained much of its appeal for the local audience by reminding them (and the rest of us)of Hong Kong of the 70s, 80s and 90s. Some of the best moments are when we see a very young television actor named Chow Yun Fat; it is like watching Mean Streets and remembering how young Robert Deniro once was. The landscape of Hong Kong changes so fast that movies often capture things that are no longer there; the Yun Lai Teahouse of Hard Boiled fame is long gone; so too is Kai Tak airport. This airport, nestled none too comfortably in the middle of Kowloon, provided one of the most exciting landings in peacetime aviation. Just how close did Kowloon City encroach on the runway? Watch Running on Empty, The Iceman Cometh, or Love Generation Hong Kong and you will see.

Hong Kong cinema was, and still is, an expression of a people and a place that is like no other on earth. The depiction and delivery of those expressions is likewise unique. Like any cinema, Hong Kong has produced its share of films that, if missed, are no great loss. But even these films have, somewhere in them, a bright shining Moment that makes the other one hundred and twenty nine and a half minutes bearable. Hong Kong's better films are rife with Moments; their cumulative effect is to transport us to a place where magic is commonplace, love is perfect and justice is always done. In a city of incomprehensible complexity, movement and stimuli, Hong Kong's best films exceed the explosive profusion of their home city and take us into another universe where great Moments are just the way it is.

Published September 2, 2005

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 19, 2016 3:18 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

In the Mood for Wong Kar Wai: Why His Films Are as Difficult to Explain as Love
Written by Kathy Leung

After watching a Wong Kar Wai film, you get the feeling you don't quite know what you've watched but you do know it's something you haven't seen before. Love him or hate him, his style is definitely his own and as a result, he has and continues to influence and impress the international film community much to the delight of both his loyal fans and those new to his films.

Wong graduated from the Hong Kong Polytechnic school in 1980 and his directorial debut came in 1988 with As Tears Go By which screened at Cannes the following year. He continued to make his mark in the festival with his films Happy Together (1997), winning him a Best Director Award, and In the Mood for Love (2000) for which leading man Tony Leung Chui Wai won Best Actor. This year, his most recent film 2046, (a follow-up to In the Mood for Love) was initially a favourite to win the prestigious Palme d'Or (think Best Picture in Oscar terms) but he failed to have it edited in time for his originally scheduled screening.

A chaotic yet organic approach to filmmaking is demonstrative of just one of Wong's characteristics that identifies him as an auteur. Western and European audiences have embraced his films partly because they differ from the ones they usually see. Isolation is a major theme in his films and many times they don't take action to help themselves (unlike a typical Hollywood hero). We then also feel that unease and loneliness. Also, rather than relying on cultural stereotypes, Wong allows for strikingly natural interaction between cultures through his use of music and geographic placement of characters.

No Happy Endings

It's been said that Hollywood films reassure while independent ones unsettle. Following Wong's main characters' through their self-alienated journey until the very end does this. Wong sets up his consistent themes of alienation and isolation with Days of Being Wild (1991). Self-absorbed York (Leslie Cheung) can't find love or redemption even when they're right in front of his nose. The feisty Leong Tong Yong (Carina Lau) and Lai Chun (Maggie Cheung) both are compelled to love him, but his choice doesn't allow either of them to win and he is the sole cause of his self-destruction.

In In the Mood for Love Mrs. Chan (Maggie Cheung) and Mr. Chow (Tony Leung), deny their love for each other as they go through their mundane lives. They are all about self-denial. They know they've been betrayed by their spouses early on in the film and form a friendship centred on all those good things a relationship is supposed to be based on yet deny their love for each other. Mr. Chow doesn't 'get' the girl in the end. Instead, in another act of self-denial, he tells his desire secretly into a hole in Angkor Wat hoping that his secret stays safe.

Mrs. Chan and Mr. Chow act self-destructively but earnestly much like the characters in Happy Together. Ho Po-Wing (Leslie Cheung) and Lai Yui Fai (Tony Leung) travel to Buenos Ares to see the Iguazu Falls. After reaching a breaking point, they go their separate ways but find themselves together again in a painful, yet familiar co-dependent relationship. Lai Yui Fai, the more responsible of the two, understands that he's better off without Ho Po-Wing but is consistently drawn to him and caters to him even though it is at the cost of his own self-respect. Happy Together doesn't allow for a happy ending for the couple but Lai Yui Fai, alone, sees the falls fulfilling a certain destiny he has made for himself.

In Chungking Express, two police officers are scorned by their lovers and are obsessed with them, refusing to move on until it is too painful not to. Love, in life and in Wong's films isn't easy to attain despite desperate and sincere need. Even though these films don't have a familiar happy ending, Wong instills a sense of hope, albeit a heartbreaking hope, not unlike the last of the world's evil that fled from Pandora's Box. We don't have to be told that everything will be all right because we know that sometimes things don't always work out, but we, along with his characters, can hope that they just might despite our human flaws.


Music plays a large role in setting the tone of Wong's films, and it varies in style and culture. He will use an American song in a South American setting while the characters are Chinese. The soundtrack for In the Mood for Love includes Mike Galasso, Nat King Cole, Chinese music and the Umebayashi Sheger string motif constantly repeated through the film to enhance the mundane routine of Mrs. Chan's life. The juxtaposition of Western music in a Chinese setting as with the title track of Happy Together and California Dreamin' in Chungking Express at first is an oddity as we are attuned to expecting the music to fit the setting.

He also places his characters in situations where they deal with other cultures. Lai Yui Fai and Ho Po-Wing live and interact with Argentinians. The 'Woman in the Blonde Wig' conspires with Indians. He doesn't limit himself to cultural classification of music. He uses a variety of music from diverse backgrounds and allows for a natural and refreshing portrayal of culture, unlike Hollywood films which play upon the familiarity of stereotypes.

Unclassified Information

Wong's work is not only unclassified in musical type but also in genre; his films don't easily fall into categories found in your local video store. Unlike other Hong Kong police dramas, the cops in Chungking Express don't exert much bravado or machismo, in fact, they do quite the opposite. Also, there is an absurdity to the film that makes it a comedy as well. In the Mood for Love might be classified as a tragic love story but lacks the physical and sexual presence found in many Western romantic comedies. As Tears Go By, with its violence and typical gangster storyline, is unlike the many Hong Kong triad films. Invariably, when the end credits roll on a Wong Kar Wai film, we are often left with the question, "What is it that we just watched?"

We'll Never Know

There's no easy answer. Not for us and not for his characters as we witness their flawed existence and obsessive patterns. If you are looking for a linear storyline and predictable objectives for your characters, look somewhere else. But if you want real moments that satisfy in a stylishly different way, Wong's films will win you over. There's no simple conclusion that wraps up everything into a simple answer. But that is reminiscent of our lives and that is why his films are able to transcend cultures and rightfully succeed in the international marketplace.

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 19, 2016 3:19 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Zhang Yimou - From Arthouse To Full House
Written by Alison Jobling

Zhang Yimou makes exceptional films in genres to suit almost any taste. Like historical tragedy? There's not much better than Zhang's lush film Raise The Red Lantern. Enjoy a gentle romance from a rural Chinese village? Zhang's The Road Home is guaranteed to make even the hardest heart melt. Like martial arts and wuxia? Then you must see Hero and House Of Flying Daggers. You can't escape Zhang's films, not if you like watching the best.

Zhang Yimou is one of mainland China's most highly-esteemed directors. He has a reputation for producing work of the highest quality, whether the film is historical arthouse, such as the lush Raise The Red Lantern, modern rural drama, such as the touching Not One Less, or wuxia (martial arts) fantasy, as in the hugely popular Hero. He has also been very astute in casting, and discovered both the sensual and talented Gong Li and the recent favourite Zhang Ziyi.

Zhang graduated from the Beijing Film Academy in 1982. His class formed the core of what would be called the "Fifth Generation" of film-makers, whose work was to bring Chinese cinema world renown. He worked as cameraman on fellow Fifth Generation director Chen Kaige's drama Yellow Earth (1984), and took the lead role in The Terracotta Warrior (1987), shortly before directing his first film, Red Sorghum (1987), which won the Golden Bear at the prestigious Berlin Film Festival. This was the first of several of Zhang's films to star the sumptuously beautiful, and highly talented, Gong Li.

Zhang followed this success with another, Ju Dou (1990), again starring Gong Li. This tragic story of desperate illicit love is set in a world of rich colour and sensual texture, of rippling silk, raging fire, and velvet skin. Zhangs work was already showing the gift for visual beauty and powerful emotion that make his films compelling.

His historical arthouse film Raise The Red Lantern (1991) won the Silver Lion at the Venice Film Festival. This film also stars Gong Li, who portrays the new Fourth Wife Song Lian with icy disdain covering insecurity and unhappiness. The film is beautifully shot, with rich colours and costumes, while the story traces a Byzantine existence of wives and servants conniving for position within the household.

Both Ju Dou and Raise The Red Lantern were initially banned in China, for reasons of sex or politics. Zhang then changed direction, making a contemporary drama called The Story Of Qiu Ju, again starring Gong Li. It became clear that his talent was not restricted to historical tragedy when his drama To Live (1994), won the coveted Grand Prix at the Cannes Film Festival. His film noir, Shanghai Triad (1995), shows triad life through the eyes of a child, a perspective not often seen in this genre.

Zhang had already won the respect of the arthouse crowd with these films, but now he began to win over a new, more mainstream audience in the West. He began to make a number of films set in contemporary rural China, once again demonstrating his deft touch.

The Road Home is a lovely, gentle film about a city man who returns to the village of his birth when his father dies. There he learns about his parents' early lives, and the story of their innocent romance is deeply touching. The role of his mother as a young girl is played by Zhang Ziyi, who invests her character with a shy charm that is irresistable.

This film won the Silver Bear at Berlin Film Festival, and the Golden Lion at the Venice Film Festival, and also achieved screen time in some mainstream cinemas in the West. Western viewers were astonished that such a simple story could be so moving. It also brought the young Zhang Ziyi to the attention of other film-makers, which resulted in her gaining international renown as the headstrong heroine of Ang Lee's Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon.

Zhang continued his run with Not One Less, a similarly moving film about a young girl sent as a teacher to a small village. When one of her charges runs away to the big city, she has no choice but to follow him and try to bring him back. Zhang cast this film completely with non-professional actors, and they perform astonishingly well. The raw emotion is heartfelt and searing, and the simple story brought the lives of rural Chinese to the hearts of audiences worldwide.

But it is in the wuxia/martial arts arena that Zhang has made his biggest splash so far. His film Hero, a historical epic full of brilliant colour and packed with stars, was nominated for an Oscar for best foreign film, and was the biggest foreign film opening in the US.

The cinematography is breathtaking, since Zhang secured the services of the highly sought-after Christopher Doyle, whose work with acclaimed Hong Kong director Wong Kar Wai includes such classics as Fallen Angels, Happy Together, and In The Mood For Love. The martial action is graceful and soaring, owing much to the talents of two cast members. Jet Li, a martial artist turned actor most famous for his roles in Tsui Hark's definitive Once Upon A Time In China series, has the grace of a cat and the speed of a tiger, while Donnie Yen, martial artist, action choreographer, and actor, star of films such as Iron Monkey, uses his smaller role to provide an unforgettable duel scene with Li.

But the stars don't stop there: this martial epic also stars Maggie Cheung Man Yuk and Tony Leung Chiu Wai, who starred together in Wong Kar Wai's In The Mood For Love, winner of the Grand Prix at Cannes. Both are highly respected actors, and their performances add a tragic gravity to this imposing film, which also features Zhang Ziyi.

Although appearing after Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Hero was conceived some years before. Zhang had spent some time writing and re-writing the script, and the resulting film is a tribute to both the art and the craft of Zhang. Soaring martial arts, brilliant colours and breathtaking scenery, costumes evoking all the mystery of the exotic Orient, all support a classic film made by some of the world's finest film-makers.

Zhang has continued in the wuxia tradition with his latest release, the eagerly-awaited House of Flying Daggers. For months, Asian film afficionados have been scouring the internet for tidbits about this lavish work, and it was released in 2004 to great acclaim, screening at major film festivals Cannes and Toronto.

Once again, Zhang has used his eye for colour and detail to craft a film that combines visual splendour with a tale of epic drama, containing all the elements that have seduced viewers of both wuxia films and Zhang Yimou. And once again, Zhang has secured the services of a stellar cast, to aid him in his portrayal of Chinese history and legend.

Andy Lau Tak Wah must have been hard to catch, being one of the hardest working men in a hard-working industry. Lau's most recent work includes Andrew Lau's superb cops and triads drama Infernal Affairs, and Johnnie To's masterful thriller Running Out Of Time, which earned Lau the Best Actor award from the Hong Kong Film Awards. Lau is no stranger to wuxia films, having performed in such films as Moon Warriors, Handsome Siblings, and The Duel.

The film also stars Japanese heart-throb Takeshi Kaneshiro, whose work in the Wong Kar Wai films Fallen Angels and Chungking Express brought him to the attention of arthouse cinema-goers. And once again, Zhang makes use of the acting talents of Zhang Ziyi, whose imperious air and flashing eyes in Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon were worlds removed from the gentle village girl in The Road Home.

It is clear that Zhang is a director who is not content to rest on his laurels. He has successfully attempted most of the major film genres, with spectacular results, and is constantly striving to achieve. One of his non-cinematic achievements was the staging of Turandot at the Forbidden City in 1998. A forbidding task, to stage a major operatic work in the most famous of China's ancient marvels, but Zhang was equal to it. The resulting production, involving over 1000 people and eight performances, was flawless and impressive, making one wonder what he would turn his hand to next.

In fact, the next non-cinematic spectacle has recently been decided. A preview at the closing of the Athens 2004 Olympic Games revealed that Zhang has been selected to stage the Opening and Closing Ceremonies for the Beijing Olympic Games in 2008. There is no doubt that Zhang will devote to that effort all the care, attention, and talent that he has already displayed in his many films, making a spectacle that will be hard to beat.

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 19, 2016 3:20 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

A Better Tomorrow - The Godfather of Hong Kong Action Movies
Written by Florence Li

Battles, Brotherhood, Betrayal, Bloodbaths, Bullets, and Bad-Boy Look - these six images undoubtedly bring to mind the masterpiece A Better Tomorrow, the film that launched the career of Chow Yun Fat and catapulted John Woo into international spotlight. One of the top Hong Kong cross-breed movies that forged the specific triad based action film generation, A Better Tomorrow was named film of the year at the Hong Kong Film Awards in 1986. A hit at the box office as well as the critics, it has brought honor and esteem to the triad and martial arts genres by paving a totally new and successful artistic style.

While Ti Lung was crowned as Actor King at the Golden Horse Awards for his performance, it was Chow Yun Fat's portrayal of Mark that helped create a new and unconventional concept of the hero in Chinese film. His popularity soared after A Better Tomorrow and thus began a Scorsese-DeNiro type of partnership between John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. Woo would bring him back in the sequel about redemption, as Mark's long lost twin brother.

The A Better Tomorrow series created the era of heroic bloodshed, which wove action, melodrama, and strong storylines together into a uniquely Woo-style film. Following are examples of how John Woo uses his distinct techniques to create the film that is often considered the godfather of action movies.

Battles - Inside and Out

Conflicts in Woo films are not only physically apparent, but inner battles are just as intense and heart-wrenching. In A Better Tomorrow, Ho, a triad leader who lives in a constant battle between righteousness and corruption, is further bombarded by his sense of duty to his brother Kit, played be Leslie Cheung, who as a cop despises everything Ho stands for.

Previously, action movies stood for action only, where acting skills were meant only for sappy romance films. A Better Tomorrow allowed actors to flex some acting muscle while interspersing dramatics with ballistic shootouts and death-defying car chases, raising the bar for all action films that would follow. Following the lead of A Better Tomorrow is the Infernal Affairs series, which also deals with the peril of triad life, complete with undercover cops and double-crossing schemes.

Brotherhood and the Code of Honor

One of the styles of Woo is to give the protagonists steel-clad devotion and honor, characteristics deemed critical for any budding triad members. (According to legend, the first triads formed by seventeenth-century monks.) In today's world, loyalty is one of those things we often wish we had but conveniently can do without. Especially apparently in the dog-eat-dog market in Hong Kong during the 1980s, the unwavering sense of brotherhood gives Mark, Ho's stanch sidekick, the status of an awe-inspiring role model to anyone watching the film.

That is of course, unless you are a back-stabbing bastard. Various films of brotherhood among criminals followed Woo's steps, including Quentin Tarantino's Reservoir Dogs and Ringo Lam's City on Fire, also starring Chow Yun Fat.


Just like you don't know what is good without evil, you can't have loyalty without betrayal. It has been said that great hate only happens when there was great love, which is especially true when he is the one you took a bullet and went to prison for him. But heck, if there's no need for revenge, where's the excuse for all the bloodbaths?

Unlike other movies, A Better Tomorrow incorporates betrayals as a buildup to the climax rather than the actual clincher as often seen in other films. Another film that tests the strength of friendships after an occasion of betrayal is Young and Dangerous, a story of five young men who work their way up the triad ladder, only to be torn apart by a new leader.

Bloodbaths and Body Counts

John Woo's films never leaves the audience without oodles of blood and body counts, and the shootings are further enhanced by his cinematographic slow-motion techniques. Who could ever forget the scene where Mark takes on everyone at the restaurant single-handedly, or the collective gasps when his kneecap gets blown off? Followers of slow-motion battle scenes are The Matrix, Tomorrow Never Dies and every Tarantino film you can recall.

Fans of Woo's bloody shootouts should also check out The Killer, also featuring Chow Yun Fat. With the telling of an unlikely friendship brought together by triad activities, Woo delivers a combination of high impact action spliced in with dramatic slow motion shots.

Bullets and Roses

Besides the fact that guns never seem to run out of bullets except during convenient chat-with-your-enemy times, one of Woo's unmistakable trademarks is double-action handguns. However, the double-guns were born out of necessity rather than for pure looks. John Woo explains, "I needed the character to kill all ten people in the room so I made him hold two guns." Inspiring others movies such as Antonio Banderas' Desperado and Bruce Willis in Last Man Standing, his influences extend even to PC games such as Counterstrike to have double-guns as a weapon of choice. Woo makes use of his trademark again with leading man Chow Yun Fat in the 1990 hit, Hard Boiled as well as Bullet in the Head starring Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Jacky Cheung.

Bad Boy Look

Sunglasses, black trench coat, and oh, don't forget the matchstick in your mouth. These three items are critical in enabling Mark to become the definition of ultra-cool, so much to the fact that director Quentin Tarantino wore a trench coat (and matchstick) during his youth to "dress like your hero and be like him". Besides all of the characters in The Matrix have seemed to follow suit, as well as Wesley Snipes in Blade and Van Helsing's Hugh Jackman.

Countless numbers of films and directors have been influenced and inspired by A Better Tomorrow. Woo has said "We truly believe that even though we live in an evil world, if you can stand up with a stronger will, then you can't be beaten down." Check out his masterpieces and find out how his own beliefs and inspirations transfer onto film, in true Woo-style.

Published June 1, 2004

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 19, 2016 3:21 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

Milkyway: The Star of Hong Kong Cinema
Written by James Mudge

Although the Hong Kong film industry has according to many critics been suffering from a crisis of creativity and quality for at least a decade, through these wilderness years one production house has remained a beacon of distinction, namely Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai's Milkyway Image. From humble origins, the company has gone from strength to strength and has now become a recognized brand name which for many guarantees superior entertainment. This critical and commercial success has not only been at home but also abroad, and recent years have seen a number of Milkyway films enjoying praise at prestigious festivals such as Cannes and Venice. Whilst Milkyway made its name through dark, character-driven thrillers and crime stories, and indeed continues to rule the genre roost with recent hits such as the Election series, it is sometimes overlooked that it has in fact produced successful films of almost every type, from comedy through to romance. Certainly, one of its most recent releases, Mad Detective, directed by To himself is a decidedly eclectic and eccentric affair, being an off kilter psychological mystery featuring a protagonist with apparent psychic powers.

The Seeds of Innovation

Director Johnnie To and his frequent cinematic partner Wai Ka Fai formed Milkyway Image (HK) Ltd. in 1996 as a production company. At this time, To was known as a commercially successful director who had been working his way up through the ranks, having had hits with the likes of The Heroic Trio and All About Ah Long, for which he was nominated as Best Director at the 1989 Hong Kong Film Awards. Wai had then mostly been working on and writing television productions, as well as on a few cinematic outings such as the Chow Yun Fat vehicle Peace Hotel, which he also directed. The two, who had previously collaborated on the 1990 melodrama Story of My Son, decided to form the company as a means of efficiently producing good quality films and for fostering young cinematic talent. Perhaps more importantly, it was also seen as an opportunity for the two to win more control over their films and to be able to have more personal input into productions, something which they had both apparently suffered a lack of in the past.

Dark and Difficult Beginnings

The early years for Milkyway were undeniably rocky. Its first wave of productions, including Beyond Hypothermia, Final Justice, Too Many Ways To Be No. 1, and The Odd One Dies, all proved unpopular at the Hong Kong box office. This was likely due to their grim and pessimistic tone and the fact that instead of offering up crazed and senseless action, they were thoughtful works, well crafted and featuring genuine attempts to add a layer of depth to their characters and predicaments, combining a certain amount of soul searching and a marked distrust for authority along with the usual bullet battles and explosions.

Whilst most domestic audiences were not accustomed to such a mixture, genre fans were impressed, and the films did find themselves a certain following. The same was true of the 1998 films Expect the Unexpected and The Longest Nite, neither of which made much money, though the latter has since come to be hailed by many as one of the best Hong Kong crime dramas of all time. Interestingly, both of these films, along with The Odd One Dies, have long been the subject of speculation as to who actually helmed them. Although Patrick Yau is officially credited as their director, rumours have long persisted that it was To in the director's chair, something To has alluded to himself in interviews. The truth of this can perhaps also be seen in the fact that Yau received an odd "associate director" credit on the later jailbird drama Where a Good Man Goes, which featured Lau Ching Wan as a convict trying to find his way in Macau. Whatever the case, To finally stepped up to direct in a more official capacity with A Hero Never Dies, a Sergio Leone-influenced triad drama starring Leon Lai, which did manage to attract a little more attention, though true commercial success remained elusive.

The following year saw Milkyway lighten the tone of its productions somewhat with To's ensemble piece The Mission, which boasted the unbeatable cast of Francis Ng, Anthony Wong, Roy Cheung, Lam Suet, and Jackie Lui as triad hitmen. The film was decidedly more upbeat than previous films from the company, whilst still retaining the same level of stylishness and gritty underworld poetry. It proved a critical success, winning To and Milkyway their first Best Director prizes at both the Hong Kong Film Awards and the Golden Horse Film Festival. Interestingly, despite this acclaim The Mission managed to attract more attention overseas than it did back in Hong Kong, having since found its niche as a popular cult favourite in the West. The company also attempted to diversify somewhat with the modern love story Sealed with a Kiss by director Derek Chiu (who recently helmed the Five Tigers reunion piece Brothers) and starring Louis Koo, though this failed to make much of an impact.

Success and Andy Lau

Thankfully, the company finally had its first proper blockbuster hit with Running Out of Time in 1999. Directed by To, the film pitted frequent Milkyway performer Lau Ching Wan as a hostage negotiator against dying criminal Andy Lau in a deadly psychological game of cat and mouse. Although the film itself was a bit of a departure in that it featured very little in the way of action, relying mainly on tightly woven suspense, it was almost certainly the presence of superstar Lau that drove it to box office success. As such, it is unsurprising that the film proved to be a definite turning point for Milkyway, as the production house branched out and away from the crime genre into other areas. Many of the resulting efforts saw Lau reteam with To, such as the 2000 hit romantic comedy Needing You, which also featured actress and singer Sammi Cheng. The two stars proved to be a popular pairing, and they collaborated again in 2001 for the wacky fat suit comedy Love on a Diet, another profitable hit. Cheng and To also worked together on more comedies in the form of Lunar New Year offering Wu Yen, the supernaturally themed My Left Eye Sees Ghosts in 2002, and romantic comedy Love For All Seasons in 2003.

Given their irresistible commercial viability, the company understandably during this period tended to focus more on similarly light productions, usually featuring at least one popular star, such as the hospital set farce Help!!!, which starred Ekin Cheng and Cecilia Cheung, and the New Year gambling comedy Fat Choi Spirit, which brought together Andy Lau, Lau Ching Wan, Gigi Leung, and Louis Koo. These aside, there were also a few excursions into fare with a little more substance, such as the oddly titled teen drama Spacked Out and the slice-of-life youth film Gimme Gimme. Thankfully for fans of the studio's original line in innovative crime drama, Fulltime Killer came in 2001, teaming Andy Lau this time with Simon Yam and Japanese actor Takashi Sorimachi in an eccentric and wistful though grandiose slice of hitman action.

Still, many were unconvinced by Milkyway's new direction, disappointed that it now seemed to be placing box office success ahead of its previous dedication to pushing the envelope, bringing about the age old criticism of To and Wai having sold out. Whilst to an extent this may well have been the case, as To, whose career has always seen him display the ability to strike a balance between directing artistic and intellectual films with those intended more for mass audience consumption, once stated in an interview with Asia Pacific Arts, "It's probably too hard to survive in this field if we [directors] only make films that we like. I like to help my company make profits too, and create movies that are geared towards audience members. But when time allows it, I explore my own creativity."

A Return to Roots and a Coming of Age

2003 proved to be another milestone for the company, with To and Wai by this time feeling that it was established enough and had enjoyed enough financial success to branch out once more into more personal and challenging films, whilst at the same time still producing more accessible money earners. The first of these was To's tense thriller PTU, which featured Simon Yam, Lam Suet, and Maggie Siu in a complex and fractured tale of a special police unit revolving around a missing gun and the usual triad trouble. It was followed in the same year by his rather bizarre Running on Karma, a difficult to categorize thriller which saw Andy Lau don a muscle suit as a body building monk who becomes involved with a police investigation.

Both films saw Milkyway garnering considerable critical praise and a number of awards around the world, with To being in the interesting position of winning Best Director at the Hong Kong Film Awards for PTU, whilst also being nominated for the same award for Running on Karma. Interestingly, whilst the two films did to an extent hark back to the earlier Milkyway crime dramas in that they saw a focus on character and complex, tense storytelling, they were individualistic pieces which were arguably more ambitious, particularly in the case of the abstract Karma. These, and indeed many of To's later films, were also seen by many critics as sneaking in social commentary and political allegory. At the same time, the studio also produced the more commercially friendly comedy thriller Looking for Mister Perfect from director Ringo Lam, with Shu Qi and Simon Yam, and To's own offbeat romance Turn Left, Turn Right, which starred Takeshi Kaneshiro and Gigi Leung.

By now To was becoming admired as one of Hong Kong's leading filmmakers and was enjoying considerable international acclaim. 2004 was a great, not to mention busy, year for the director, with his media-savvy thriller Breaking News playing out of competition at Cannes and winning him Best Director at the Golden Horse Festival, and his highly personal Akira Kurosawa tribute, the judo film Throw Down, screening at Venice. In tune with the company's new ethos, he also directed the more lightweight Yesterday Once More, which reunited Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng for another popcorn-style romantic comedy caper.

From Election and Exiled to Mad Detective

2005 saw Milkyway continue to thrive critically and commercially with To's impressive and original triad drama Election, headlined by Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka Fai as two gang leaders vying for power, backed up by a rich supporting cast which included Louis Koo, Nick Cheung, Eddie Cheung, Lam Suet, and Gordon Lam. Praised for its complex plot and political subtext, the film screened in competition at Cannes as well as enjoying a worldwide release, and saw a slew of awards, including another win at the Hong Kong Film Awards for To. It was quickly followed by a sequel in 2006, which was equally well received both at home and at festivals.

The year proved to be a red letter one with the release of To's long-awaited Exiled, his follow-up to The Mission, which brought back Simon Yam, Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Roy Cheung, and Lam Suet as the same band of disparate yet personable killers. The film proved to be everything fans had come to expect from the new generation of Milkyway productions, being thoughtful and even philosophical whilst still managing to thrill, and it went down well both domestically and internationally, even managing a rare theatrical release in the West. The company kept up its policy of dividing its output between genres, producing the comedy 2 Become 1 from frequent To collaborator Law Wing Cheong. Although undeniably slight, the film, which starred Miriam Yeung and Richie Jen, did attempt something a little different and more substantial by tackling the uncomfortable subject of breast cancer, showing that Milkyway had lost none of its desire to challenge at the same time as entertain.

The company's seemingly never ending run of form continued unabated in 2007 with a series of excellent films including the police surveillance drama Eye in the Sky, which marked the directorial debut of Milkyway screenwriter Yau Nai Hoi and featured the familiar team of Simon Yam and Tony Leung Ka Fai, and Hooked on You from Law Wing Cheong, a socially minded comedy starring regular screen partners Miriam Yeung and Eason Chan. The year also saw the release of the much-touted Triangle, a fascinating thriller project that was directed jointly by To, Tsui Hark, and Ringo Lam, with each of the three taking on one segment of a continuing story. After Triangle came yet another sterling effort from the ever busy To in the form of Mad Detective, which follows Lau Ching Wan as the titular character, an investigator with weird psychic powers who the police call out of retirement to help them with a series of killings linked to a missing gun. The film sees the director doing what he and Milkyway do best, offering fans a unique twist on the usual crime formula, which succeeds in being both entertaining and confusing - albeit in the best possible fashion.

The company's latest release was To's romantic drama Linger, which stars Vic Chou and Li Bingbing and revolves around a troubled woman whose late boyfriend suddenly seems to reappear. A departure from his usual fare, the film did not fare so well either with critics or fans, mainly due to an overly familiar plot and little in the way of real or engaging drama. Of course, like almost anything from To, the film is not without value, and still manages a few effective tugs at the heartstrings.

The Future

So where now for the ever-versatile Milkyway Image? Needless to say, fans still have plenty to look forward to, first of all with To's pickpocket drama Sparrow, headlined again by Simon Yam. Apparently similar in tone to Throw Down rather than being an action piece, the film has already been enjoying success at European festivals, managing a Golden Bear nomination at Berlin, clearly signaling that it will be adding yet another feather to Milkyway's already dangerously over-burdened hat. From here, whatever Milkyway and To choose to try their hand at next, one thing viewers can be sure of is that given the calibre of both the production house and the director himself, it is a safe bet that it will be anything but ordinary.

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PostPosted: Tue Jan 19, 2016 3:23 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Lure of Old Shanghai
Written by James Mudge

The Chinese film industry has always been best known internationally for wuxia and martial arts productions, from the films of the famous Shaw Brothers studio during the 1960s and 1970s through to recent hits such as Ang Lee's Oscar-winning Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon or Zhang Yimou's luscious epics Hero and Curse of the Golden Flower. Over the last couple of decades, however, another genre has been rising in prominence to rival its popularity, namely that of the Shanghai nostalgia piece. This form sees filmmakers attempting to evoke memories of the glory years of the 1930s through to the founding of the People's Republic of China in 1949, a time during which Shanghai flourished as the country's most important city, a vibrant den for the bourgeois and a hive of political intrigue.

Although all such films can basically be characterized by their visual preponderance for opulent glamour, they tend to fall into one of two camps, either being straightforward though extravagant tales of languorous decadence, often revolving around drugs, prostitution, or well-heeled gangsters and their molls, or being serious productions which focus on the city as a symbol of turmoil, tragedy, and lost dreams. The genre has gone from strength to strength over the years, boasting two recent high-profile releases in Blood Brothers, Alexi Tan's all-star remake of John Woo's Bullet in the Head, and Ang Lee's Lust, Caution, a controversial, sexually charged adaptation of Eileen Chang's short story.

An Eye on the Past

The appeal of the Shanghai nostalgia genre can be explained in part simply by looking at the modern face of the city itself, which has over the last few decades undergone a radical process of urban renewal at an incredible rate, with aging buildings and neighborhoods being demolished en masse in favor of high-rise apartment blocks and skyscrapers. As a result, the old city with its unique and picturesque architecture that had grown through hundreds of years of fascinating and turbulent history is now all but gone, replaced with glass, steel, and neon. Given this, it is unsurprising that the Shanghai of the past has taken on an almost mythic status, representing not only the disappeared city itself, but bygone times, their imagined lazy indulgence a far cry from either the tough days of the Cultural Revolution or the chic hustle and bustle of the economic dynamo that now rules. The transformation of the country as a whole has been immensely traumatic, and the city is a fitting symbol of this, having undergone massive political upheaval through a process which has certainly left its scars. Film has always been a medium for exploring these themes, and as such old Shanghai is a natural cinematic beacon, both psychologically and visually.

On a somewhat more cynical level, the Shanghai nostalgia film also makes great commercial sense, as the city in its 1930s prime stood and indeed still stands as an archetypal symbol of the exotic Orient likely to catch the imagination of audiences around the world. This glamorous image of the city has certainly proved a viable international cinematic export, not only for Chinese filmmakers, but also for those from the West, as seen with the recent films The White Countess and The Painted Veil, both of which attempted to recreate the mystique of the period. The trend looks set to continue, with a number of other high-profile old Shanghai-set films about to go into production in Hollywood, boosted by the opening up of China as a location and resource for Western filmmakers.

Of course, nostalgia films for different periods in history have always been common in the cinema of all countries, with filmmakers having been keen to revisit the past and present it to viewers through rose0tinted camera lenses since the dawn of the silver screen. Certainly, the recreation of pre-revolution Shanghai has been achieved through the same tried and tested techniques which have seen Hollywood bring the 1930s of the USA back to alluring life on so many occasions, utilising stylised set design, historically accurate costumes, and period music, all of which provide the level of background detail necessary to bewitch viewers with an escapist image of the past.

A Rose by any Other Name

The lure of old Shanghai has proved so powerful that not only directors from mainland China have been drawn to the genre, and indeed many films not set in pre-revolution Shanghai are haunted by its ghost, often as the result of idealized childhood memories or stories passed down by parents who fled the country during the Revolution. Nowhere is this more obvious than in the films of internationally acclaimed director Wong Kar Wai, who was born in Shanghai and moved to Hong Kong at the age of five. His films, most notably In the Mood for Love and 2046, have been heavily imbued with the old Shanghai charm, trying to recapture his childhood recollections through an idealized aesthetic which works in various aspects of the city through a melancholic attention to nostalgic details such as old pop songs, references to film and literature, and fashion - famously, the old fashioned qipao outfits worn by Maggie Cheung in his In the Mood for Love caused a revival of the garment in Shanghai itself on the film's release.

Certainly, Wong has long desired to film in Shanghai itself, though has so far only been able to shoot part of 2046 there, having run into trouble with The Hand, his segment of the Eros anthology due to SARS. His long-mooted The Lady from Shanghai may finally see him get his chance to fully realize his vision of the old city, though of course whether or not the remake will actually turn out to be a period piece is still very much up in the air.

Glamour with an Edge

Films which focus on gangsters, drugs, and other seedy subjects are a natural fit for the Shanghai nostalgia genre as they sit perfectly with pre-conceptions of the pre-revolution city being a lawless, decadent place overflowing with danger and forbidden pleasures. Such narratives allow for directors to indulge in edgy escapism and antiheroes, at times with a vague hint of social commentary through inferred comparisons with present day politics, though usually these films tend to exist mainly as visual attempts to capture the legendary lavishness of the time.

Possibly the quintessential 1930s Shanghai gangster film has to be Zhang Yimou's 1995 Shanghai Triad, which depicted the dangerous temptations of the city as seen through the eyes of a young country bumpkin. With the lovely Gong Li in the lead role, although somewhat weakly plotted, the film succeeds through an extravagant recreation of the city at its most splendid and sensuous, mainly thanks to some amazing work by cinematographer Lu Yue, who was nominated for an Oscar for his efforts. Significantly, the film caused a sensation at Cannes, with Zhang winning the Technical Grand Prize and being nominated for the Golden Palm, a fact which surely underlined the hunger of international critics and audiences for Old Shanghai glamour.

Aside from high-profile productions such as this, there have been a whole slew of old Shanghai gangster and action films, such as Shanghai Grand in 1996, an adaptation of the popular 1980s television drama The Bund (which gave Chow Yun Fat an early hit role) starring Andy Lau and Leslie Cheung, Donnie Yen's 1998 thriller Shanghai Affairs, and even Stephen Chow's 2004 international hit Kung Fu Hustle, which saw the comedy superstar battling hordes of nicely suited mobsters in the 1940s.

Alexi Tan's Blood Brothers is the latest big budget Shanghai nostalgia gangster piece, which attracted a lot of attention and consternation for its being a loose remake of John Woo's Bullet in the Head, who himself actually served as co-producer. With an impressive pan-Asian cast including Daniel Wu, Liu Ye, and Tony Yang in the lead male roles and with support from the ever popular Shu Qi, the film certainly pays a great deal of attention to detail in bringing the old city back to life through lush production values and recreations of the finest fashions of the time. Unfortunately, much as was the case with Shanghai Triad, the story gets lost somewhere along the way although Tan's high visual style ensures that it remains an entertaining and gorgeous looking film.

Smoky Seductions

Drugs and prostitution have also proved to be popular subject matter for the Shanghai nostalgia drama, again harking back to the idea of the period being one where unchecked and often self-destructive hedonism held sway. A good example of this can be seen in Farewell my Concubine director Chen Kaige's 1996 film Temptress Moon, which is partly set in 1920s Shanghai. The city is portrayed as a hive of opium dens populated by gigolos, prostitutes, and their rich clients, all of whom seem to spend their lives scheming against each other. Thanks to some gorgeous cinematography by the legendary Christopher Doyle, Chen paints an alluring picture of self-destructive excess and lost souls, helped by the presence of Gong Li and Leslie Cheung. As with Shanghai Triad, Blood Brothers, and indeed so many others of the genre, the film is another clear example of mood and style over dramatic substance, perhaps suggesting in trying to capture the essence of the period, Shanghai nostalgia genre directors have a tendency to fall under its spell themselves.

A little more depth can be found in Flowers of Shanghai, a 1998 outing from renowned director Hou Hsiao Hsien set in the city's brothels in the 1880s. Here, he uses the decadence and the immaculately constructed set design for a point, employing them as an idyllic and deliberately idealized shut off world where the rich and powerful congregate to smoke opium and visit prostitutes, while masking a growing sense of emotional turmoil and pain.

Intrigue and Unrest

Given its tumultuous history, which has seen it grow from a small fishing town to a port of international importance, and now China's economic heart, it is unsurprising that Shanghai has offered filmmakers a fitting symbol not only for national transformation, but also for more personal tales. Certainly, the city during the 1930s through until the 1950s underwent incredible change, from pre-revolution wildness to the brutal Japanese occupation, and finally to the coming of the People's Republic of China.

Many films have emerged in recent years set during this period and using the conflict and metamorphosis of the city to reflect the emotional confusion of their characters, such as Lou Ye's 2003 Purple Butterfly, which starred Zhang Ziyi as an anti-Japanese resistance fighter in the 1930s, who unfortunately happens to have a romantic past with a man who is now her enemy. The city is depicted as a beautiful, moody metropolis filled with impossible love and broken dreams, painted in murky blue and grey and constantly being drenched with rain. The overall feeling is one of regret rather than nostalgia, though there is still a distinct air of melancholic glamour. Interestingly, Lou's Suzhou River, though set in the modern times depicts the city in a similarly enigmatic light, with the Shanghai-born director seeming to find the same air now and so many years ago.

Another example of Old Shanghai being used as a cipher for personal trauma and change can be found in Stanley Kwan's 2005 film Everlasting Regret, which follows popstar Sammi Cheng as Wang Qiyao from 1947 until 1981, during which both she and the city experience changing fortunes. Whilst the singer came under much criticism for her failure to engage with the role, there can be no doubt that Shanghai is itself a major character in the film, lovingly recreated as an idealized wonderland in the style of Wong Kar Wai.

The most exciting release in the Shanghai nostalgia genre came in 2007 with Ang Lee's Lust, Caution. Set in 1940s Shanghai during the Japanese occupation, the film follows a young student called Wang Jiazhi (debut actress Tang Wei) who agrees to go undercover for the resistance by seducing the head of the Japanese puppet government's secret police (played by Tony Leung Chiu Wai), and to set him up for an assassination attempt. The film is the latest to adapt from the works of renowned writer Eileen Chang, whose popular tales of love and decadence, including Rouge of the North, Red Rose, White Rose, and Eighteen Springs, have greatly shaped literary and cinematic conceptions of Old Shanghai.

Having already won praise around the world as well as causing controversy for its graphic sex scenes, Lust, Caution is a great example of the form as an arena for internal struggles, using the conflict in the city itself as a telling backdrop for the emotional battles and identity crisis of the lead character. As with other films of the genre, Lust, Caution also delivers on a purely visual level, as Lee brings the past back to life through an incredible eye for historic detail, as indeed other directors will no doubt continue to do for years to come.

Last edited by Sandy on Tue Jan 19, 2016 4:28 am; edited 1 time in total
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PostPosted: Tue Jan 19, 2016 3:24 am    Post subject: Reply with quote

The Melancholic Charm of Tony Leung Chiu Wai
Written by James Mudge

Tony Leung Chiu Wai is not only one of the best known, but also most respected Asian actors of modern times. He has won awards at film festivals around the world and gained the admiration and respect of his peers, including cinematic legends such as Robert DeNiro (who referred to the actor as the Asian equivalent of Clark Gable) and director Martin Scorsese (who has since gone on to remake one of the actor's most famous films). Usually known in the West simply as Tony Leung, he is not to be confused with fellow thespian Tony Leung Ka Fai, a popular actor in his own right who recently starred in Johnnie To's 2005 triad drama Election. To distinguish the two, Leung has been given the nickname in Hong Kong of "Wai Jai", or "Little Tony", due to his younger age.

The actor has come to be known not only for his mournful matinee-idol looks and laid-back charm, but also for the complex and intense performances he has delivered while working with such acclaimed directors as John Woo, Wong Kar Wai, and Hou Hsiao Hsien. All have praised the actor for his meticulous, dedicated approach, and for truly throwing himself into roles. At the same time, he has continued to work in less high-brow fare, proving himself to be a highly versatile performer who is equally at home in action, comedy, and arthouse films. Interestingly, although he speaks fluent English, he has yet to appear in a Western film, although this may well change in the near future now that he has signed with an American agency.

In addition to his acting career, Leung is also a successful singer, having recorded songs in both Cantonese and Mandarin. Since the early 90s, he has released several fairly well-received albums, including Hard to Forget You and Wind and Sand. In recent years, however, he has withdrawn from the music industry, save for the occasional soundtrack contribution to several of his own films, including a duet with Andy Lau for the film Infernal Affairs in 2002.

Leung was born in Guangdong Province on June 27, 1962, and raised in Hong Kong along with his younger sister by their mother after their father abandoned them. As with many other Hong Kong stars, he began his career on television by enrolling in the acting training course at Hong Kong's leading television studio TVB, apparently at the advice of his friend Stephen Chow. After making his debut hosting a popular children's program, he became known for his comedy roles, with his first big success being Police Cadet in 1984, in which he worked for the first time with frequent co-star Maggie Cheung. In the same year, Leung also starred with a young Andy Lau in the classic TV drama The Duke of Mount Deer, and met his future sweetheart Carina Lau whilst working on Replica.

His film career took longer to reach its stride, and Leung carried on working in television for most of the decade, including roles in two more Police Cadet series entries and Jin Yong adaptation The New Heaven Sword & The Dragon Sabre in 1986. At the same time, he began appearing in low-budget films, gradually working his way up to supporting roles. His efforts finally paid off with accolades at the Hong Kong Film Awards for Derek Yee's People's Hero (1987) and Patrick Tam's My Heart Is That Eternal Rose (1989). His profile was also raised thanks to his performance in Taiwanese director Hou Hsiao Hsien's A City of Sadness, which took the Golden Bear award at the 1989 Venice Film Festival, as well as films with popular directors such as Stanley Kwan on Love Unto Waste (1986) and Sammo Hung on Seven Warriors (1989). In 1991 he featured in the overwhelmingly all-star cast of The Banquet, alongside Gong Li, Leslie Cheung, Andy Lau, and long-time friend Stephen Chow to name but a few.

This led to bigger parts in the likes of Tsui Hark's A Chinese Ghost Story III (1991) and John Woo's classic Vietnam War drama Bullet in the Head (1990). Woo later gave Leung what many still consider to be his career-defining role opposite the legendary Chow Yun Fat in Hard Boiled (1992), for which he was nominated as Best Supporting Actor at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Although he technically played the role of a sidekick, Leung's performance was one of such melancholic, sad-eyed charm that it more than matched the super-cool charisma of the leading star, a fact which announced the actor's arrival as a genuine star and pointed the way to the on-screen persona for which he would soon become famous.

Perhaps more importantly, it was during this period that the actor caught the eye of auteur director Wong Kar Wai, who gave him a brief appearance in his 1991 film Days of Being Wild, which starred Leslie Cheung and Maggie Cheung. The two would go on to collaborate on a number of other films, including the wuxia themed Ashes of Time and Chungking Express in 1994, with Leung finally winning the Best Actor prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards for his work on the latter. The next film for the duo was the controversial Happy Together (1997), in which the actor featured in daring sex scenes with co-star Leslie Cheung. For his portrayal of a depressed homosexual exile living in Argentina, Leung again won the top Hong Kong acting award. This was followed by In The Mood for Love, an atmospheric and sumptuous tale of frustrated love which elevated both star and director to internationally recognized status after both won awards at the Cannes Film Festival in 2000. Leung and Wong have consistently worked well together, possibly due to the actor being one of the few who approves of the director's notoriously meandering approach, having stated in interviews that he finds the lack of scripts challenging and creatively liberating.

The actor also gathered plaudits for his work with a number of other acclaimed directors, including his role in Cyclo (1995) by Vietnamese director Anh Hung Tran, who had won an Oscar nomination in 1993 for his film The Scent of Green Papaya. In 1998 he re-teamed with Hou Hsiao Hsien for Flowers of Shanghai, a drama about brothels in the 1880s which was nominated for the Golden Palm award at the Cannes Film Festival.

At the same time as furthering his reputation as a serious actor, Leung starred in a diverse range of films, including both big-budget productions and low-brow slapstick. On one end of the scale, he appeared in films like Jingle Ma's slick heist comedy Tokyo Raiders (2000), alongside Ekin Cheng and Cecilia Cheung, and the typically glossy Jackie Chan vehicle Gorgeous (1999). On the other, he continued to feature in lower budget films such as broad, wisecracking comedy Dr. Mack (1995) and '97 Aces Go Places (1997), a new addition to the popular 1980s series. Further defying easy categorization, Leung also carved out a niche for himself in the gritty thriller genre, starring in the likes of Mikyway release The Longest Nite (1998), Herman Yau's War of the Underworld (1996), and notorious Category III director Billy Tang's prison drama Chinese Midnight Express (1998).

The latest phase of Leung's career has seen him mixing critical and commercial success with his role in the Hong Kong blockbuster Infernal Affairs (2002) in which he starred opposite the ever popular Andy Lau. Directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak, the film offered a humanistic antidote to the usual explosions and slow motion bullet ballet of most Asian police thrillers, and was a massive success worldwide, even being picked up for a Hollywood remake by Martin Scorsese. Leung's tragic role as a tortured undercover cop nicely sets the tone for the film and won him another Best Actor accolade at the Hong Kong Film Awards, marking a record fourth win in the Best Actor category and his sixth statuette overall. Although he did not feature in the second film in the series, which took the form of a prequel (with actor Shawn Yue playing a younger version of his character), he returned for the final installment, giving a suitably harrowing performance.

In the same year Leung starred with Jet Li, Maggie Cheung, and Donnie Yen in Hero for renowned director Zhang Yimou, which proved to be yet another international award winner and box office smash for the actor. His role in the multi-layered wuxia epic as the tragic Broken Sword marked his first appearance in a mainland Chinese production, and he took a great personal interest in the film, getting involved in his own costume design as well as undergoing martial arts training.

Since then, his career has continued to flourish, with the actor taking on his usual mixture of serious and fun film roles. He worked again with Wong Kar Wai on the rather impenetrable but visually enchanting science fiction film 2046 (2004), joining an all-star cast which also featured Gong Li, Maggie Cheung, Faye Wong, and Leung's long-time love, Carina Lau, who he has been dating since 1989. Although the film was not as well received as its spiritual predecessor, In the Mood for Love, mainly due to the fact that nobody seems to be able to work out what it is actually about, it still won a good number of awards both domestically and internationally. Leung also returned to work with Jingle Ma on Seoul Raiders in 2005, which saw the actor reprising his role as a suave, wisecracking private eye alongside rejuvenated starlet Shu Qi. The film was basically a rerun of Tokyo Raiders in a different locale, offering the same kind of unpretentious entertainment and lightweight thrills.

In 2006, Leung collaborated once again with Infernal Affairs directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak in the glossy crime thriller Confession of Pain. Starring as a calculating police officer opposite heartthrob Takeshi Kaneshiro's drunken detective, Leung once again stretched his acting prowess to portray a subtle, emotionally wrought character. Though the film failed to meet its sky-high expectations, it proved to be a slick and entertaining commercial work.

Leung's success looks set to continue with roles in a number of upcoming high-profile films including John Woo's historical epic Red Cliff, which will reunite him with Andy Lau and Chow Yun Fat. Adding another notch to the belt of acclaimed Asian directors he has worked with, he also stars in Oscar-winning director Ang Lee's upcoming spy thriller Lust, Caution, an adaptation of Eileen Chang's short story. In the film, Leung plays a government official caught up in an assassination plot in 1930s Shanghai. Of course, it is quite likely that he will manage to work in a few less serious roles alongside such prestigious fare, though whatever the case may be, it is certain that Tony Leung's place as one of Asia's top and most interesting actors is already secure.
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