About a year ago I wrote a few essays for the Tisch Film Review, the brain child of a New York based filmmaker and critic. Various factors have conspired to render the site defunct; in the interest of keeping these pieces available, I'm re posting a couple of them here. I've tweaked a few typos here and there, and the pieces are missing illustrations that originally accompanied them. Otherwise, they remain unchanged. Unfortunately, I was unable to save a piece on Jia Zhangke's 24 City, which remains my favorite among anything else I've ever written. It's now lost somewhere out there in cyber-space.
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Three men plan a heist in a shady backroom – loot will be stolen, no one will trust each other, and a cheating wife will be thrown in for good measure (her lover? A cop!). What could go wrong? Or more importantly, how long until something goes wrong? Usually, either the planning of the heist or its inevitable unraveling are the most common narrative conceits on which to hang such a thriller – the cosmic certainty of disaster. But here we have a unique gimmick – the hook is not the plot, nor the various machinations that propel the plot, but the way in which the film itself was made. Three directors perform a large scale exquisite corpse, with Tsui Hark writing/directing the first thirty minutes or so of the film before passing it along to Ringo Lam, who in turn sends it to Johnnie To for the grand finale. If the heist gone horribly awry genre is middling and far too familiar, the opportunity to see three distinctive visual styles juxtaposed together in such a fashion is, as far as I know, entirely unique – most omnibus films function as discrete units, or if there are recurring characters/motifs, will still stop to identify who is doing what at any given moment. Interestingly enough, despite no identification of “chapter stops,” even the untrained eye will have no difficulty distinguishing almost exactly where each director transitions to the next. This is a master class in the practical applications of wildly different, and ultimately wildly opposed, film technique.
Hark’s madman, anything-goes aesthetic has, in recent years, began to show its seams. What was once a wild, razors edge approach to narrative and visual story telling has become simply incomprehensible. Canted angles, unmotivated zooms, frantic rack focuses and bizarre whip pans have worn out their welcome, and revealed a filmmaker and the end of his tether. David Bordwell’s recent post on the legacy of Hark reveals the limits of his tenuous (and now tedious) tight rope act – what was once fresh, unpredictable and dangerous has turned into one Ghost Story too many, with a few Once Upon a Time’s thrown in for good measure. Hark franchised himself too willingly, and the wild inconsistencies of his last great film, Time and Tide, have come to predominate. Perhaps one would be more forgiving without the context of two superior directors – one good, one great – and an interval of increasingly diminishing returns (I’m sorry, for you and myself, for having sat through Seven Swords and Zu Warriors).
Lam comes off slightly better, his slick, horizontally based compositions gliding the action smoothly across the 2:35 frame (he ensconces where Hark fragments). Tarantino’s appropriation of City on Fire notwithstanding, Lam never reached the heights of a Hark (or Woo, for that matter). His success with low budget, low expectation Van Damme fodder seems both a blessing and curse – Lam sidestepped the downfall of more epically minded directors ala Ronny Yu (who went from Bride With White Hair to Bride of Chucky, alas), but never strived for grandeur in the same way as a Woo or Yuen (again, for better or for worse). Here, Lam is allowed a bit more atmosphere, and his penchant for enclosing the frame in geometric compositions is almost Sternbergian. Sleek architecture creates an atmosphere of constant forward propulsion, as various characters move from point A to point B with acute precision, enveloped in chiaroscuro lighting. His episode culminates in a beautiful dance amidst stoic pillars in an amphitheatre-like parking garage – drama is displayed as if one is on a Grecian stage.
Leave it to Johnnie To to integrate wild abandon and cold architecture into something resembling filmmaking. From his first epic composition, with various characters stacked in depth and filling the widescreen frame, we realize instantly the auteur of Exiled, Sparrow and Breaking News (to name just a few). As our good friend Ignatius has pointed out over at The Auteurs, To is left with the task of synergizing these disparate threads, and he comes through with flying colors. After so much spatial fragmentation, To’s sense of space unifies plot, character and theme into a thrilling conclusion, with a late night shoot-out that rivals the finale of Exiled in aesthetic bliss, plumes of muzzle smoke drifting like clouds over stalks of tall grass. It’s a mesmerizing choice, the confusion and discontinuity of the plot evoked in purely visual terms, while To’s camera reveals a larger pattern of spatial configuration that never disorients the viewer – this is geometry as catharsis.
Perhaps unwittingly, To’s segment serves as a final nail in what was considered the Hong Kong New Wave. The second generation of HK action gods turned their eyes towards Hollywood over a decade ago, choosing Van Damme as their conduit to Hollywood fame and fortune. Fittingly, Hark and Lam (along with Woo) eventually made their way back to HK, but the game was up (I hasten to add that Woo’s Windtalkers might be one of his finest achievements, followed closely by Hark’s Double Team, an absurdist action amalgamation of twenty different movies, disintegrated into one ludicrous master stroke – sublime stupidity. Lam never fared so well, and Woo’s triumphant HK return is the laughable, wannabe-pseudo epic Red Cliff). Regardless, a few minor successes were far outweighed by embarrassment after embarrassment. One-too-many Better Tomorrows later, current HK action has disintegrated into self parody, the visceral action of yesterday replaced by slipshod FX (Yuen Wo-Ping gone digital) and increasingly uninteresting pop stars-turned actor (see, for instance Storm Riders). Wing Chun becomes Her Name is Cat, Fist of Legend turns into Black Mask 2; Corey Yuen has gone to work for Luc Besson while Ching Siu Tung choreographs for Uwe Boll and the recently nationalized Zhang Yimou. Perhaps, like most New Waves, the initial burst of youthful energy and vigor where what mattered most – a sense of daring and anything-goes-not-giving-a-fuck aggressiveness. Such smoke and mirrors can only last for so long before one demands something more – and, as if in a face-off in one of his own films, To is the last man standing.