Tuesday, May 8, 2007

Iceberg Arena: Fighting To to To

One thing that I have yet to gush about on The Film Walrus, despite it being long overdue, is Hong Kong action cinema. While I like action films in general, Hong Kong has always branded its product with a mark of excellence and a level of excessiveness not usually matched by Hollywood blockbusters. While it's one thing for an American director to blow several million dollars on having some pretty-boy actor gasp at the green-screened explosion behind him, Hong Kong delivers brilliant stunts, impressive fight choreography, implausibly awesome plots all on a budget so low that directors have to be creative.

A bullet’s-eye view of an assassination? Pitting a one-armed boxer against a blind kung-fu master who wields a “flying guillotine?” Leaving guns in flowerpots as an exit plan? The entire concepts of drunken boxing, rope fighting and all-comers tournaments? No wonder Hong Kong is great.

Why is Hong Kong so much better than us at action? The best answer can be found in David Bordwell’s brilliant essay, “Aesthetics in Action: Kungfu, Gunplay and Cinematic Expressivity.” To summarize his words: It’s because the action is made so real and the narrative so unabashed not. It isn’t just the general notion of movement created by cutting frantically, shaking the camera and green-screening explosions. Sometimes to really sell visceral action you need a long take, a clear view of what’s going on and the impression that someone could actually get injured. Bordwell also adds that the action is excessive and expressive, two key factors in many of my favorite movies. The overwhelming sense of style, mood and commitment simply isn’t found in many American actioners.

Meanwhile the narrative never holds itself back from being as ironic, fateful, fatalistic or action-packed as it wants, a trait that it shares with my beloved film noirs.

As a celebration of Hong Kong action cinema, it’s time for a director-themed Iceberg Arena. A double feature of John Woo’s “The Killer” (1989) and “Hard-Boiled” (1992) would certainly be a good match (though perhaps a little obvious). Perhaps Wong Kar-wai 's "Chungking Express" (1994) versus "Fallen Angels" (1995)? Still too easy. The Film Walrus chooses to spotlight a recent favorite: Johnny To Kei-fung. The competitors will be “Running Out of Time” (1999) and “Breaking News” (2004).

[Image: Either the architecture is sagging or To’s got his wide-angle lens out, again.]

Running Out of Time

“Running Out of Time” stars Lau Ching-wan as Ho, your typical renegade ultracop who outshines the rest of his department while continually angering the chief by shooting through the red tape. The variation is that Ho is a negotiator for dangerous hostage situations and his guts and gunplay are matched by his impeccable mastery of psychology and intuition.

Starring opposite him as the handsomest “villain” your likely to get, is Cheung (pop icon Andy Lau), a man who finds out that cancer will claim his life in a matter of weeks. What to do with his last time on Earth? Spend it with his family? Take a vacation around the world? Nope. Plan the ultimate bank robbery purely as the first step in an elaborate vengeance plan orchestrated against the crime lord who killed his father.

I wonder if the two leads will run into each other.

The opening perfectly sets the stage by having Inspector Ho walk in on a live hostage situation with the perps wearing Noh masks. The showdown plays like the ending of a minor heist film, complete with a clever twist. But this is just the beginning.

Once Cheung begins unleashing his multi-stage plan, the pace really gets moving. The ensuing game of cat-and-mouse is absolutely mesmerizing, with nearly every scene dripping with style, tension and intelligence. The premise alone is worth any five Michael Bay movies. The sum total of fight scenes is surprisingly low, but its something the viewer hardly realizes since the pacing is so tight and the mind games so intense.

A large part of the film’s streamlined flow belongs to the editing. To trims his film down in every way possible: even the dialogue is delivered fast. The cost is that “Running Out of Time” demands your full attention and can actually be difficult to follow at times. Not everything is fully spelled out and there are few repetitions of information. Not that there aren’t breaks in continuity and plotting, but many story cues are buried in the mise-en-scene.

The characters and acting in the film are right on target for an action movie (with more development and personality than “Breaking News.”) and remain irresistible despite being short on originality. Ho is charismatic in a way that transcends the mere fact that he is awesome at everything. His charm and confidence make him an excellent duo with Cheung and, as usual, the relationship between cop and criminal ends up being the primary relationship.

Cheung does have a romantic interest, but it is so brilliantly handled as a secondary subplot that I was really impressed. To takes the clichéd kiss-random-stranger-to-mislead-pursuers and turns it into a touching romance (a la Wong Kar-wai) that doesn’t involve any actual kissing. By allocating only tiny scraps of screen time to the couple, it keeps the pace pummeling forward and makes the relationship that much more precious. Meanwhile, Ho is so focused on his job (capturing Cheung) and so determined to get it done that he misleads his attractive female Interpol contact into thinking he’s gay to get out of a dinner arrangement and the chief into thinking that he (Ho) is dying of cancer to get out of being reprimanded.

Pretending to be gay or dying of cancer is exactly the type of irreverent humor that is often used to carry entire comedies, but To wisely keeps the comedic element as an undertone that races past beneath the film’s real current. The police chief (played by character actor Shiu Hung Hui) even serves as regular comic relief without drawing ire, dragging the story or draining the tension.

[Image: Shiu Hung Hui as both the worst bowler and worst undercover cop of all time. Why is the police chief undercover? Your guess is as good as mine.]

Cheung, who really is dying of cancer, spews blood with a balletic melodrama every bit as operatic as the gun battles, drawing more attention to the excess than the emotions. Given the choice between a director milking a painful illness for stylistic posturing or unearned tears (no attempt has been made to establish medical realism or character identification), sometimes I’d rather have the former. Overall, the single-minded attention to deliver a solid action film foremost, gives the film a clean and consistent tone while still making it funny and entertaining.

The only action scene that didn’t seem to fit and severed some of the suspension cables on my disbelief, involved pushing a car trailing burning gasoline towards an enemy barricade. The setup is redeemed by a moment of ironic comedy when the car runs over a cup a soda, splashing out the fire just before it can explode in the enemy’s midst.

Finally, the music by Raymond Wong fits snuggly and compliments the action and atmosphere in equal shares. It doesn’t win any point for originality, but provides a level of implied depth and meaning that makes many a moment feel dramatically important without resorting to bombastics or music cues.

Breaking News (sorry, no pictures)

“Breaking News” (2004) has a premise that exceeds even “Running Out of Time,” if not in terms of narrative, than in terms of contemporary relevance. After a police action on a crashed getaway vehicle goes terribly wrong, footage by traffic reporters airs on TV. The film shows a cop cowering and pleading for his life, an image that damages the reputation of the entire Hong Kong police force and stirs public outrage. Commissioner Rebecca Fong suggests a solution: wage a media war to gain back public support, outfitting her troopers with video cameras and editing the footage into cinematic nuggets of red-blooded patriotism.

The media battle for public approval makes this the best film engaged with the theories of Jean Baudrillard since “The Matrix” (1999), but without getting bogged down in the heady philosophizing and talky academics that plagued that other series. Instead, To delivers one of the most trenchant and effective critiques of mass media in recent history, all within the framework of a suspenseful action thriller.

The bulk of the plot takes place in a single apartment complex where a criminal cell (vaguely identified as bank robbers) has taken refuge after a failed police raid. The team that bungled the original job is led by Yuen (Richie Ren) and Hoi (Shiu Hung Hui again, but sadly less funny) and they’re the first to find the secret hideout. After being spotted by one of the baddies only five minutes before Fong’s special unit is deployed, they begin an early raid. The villains divide into pairs and hole up with hostages in an upper floor apartment.

Commissioner Fong sets up base camp on the ground floor and heads an operation that is as much about public image as police procedure. She feeds the press reports every half an hour, hires photographers, directors and editors to tailor the footage and personally scripts all announcements to the public. The first film she releases shows the triumphant arrival of her forces set to music that would make you think a world champion boxer just stepped into an arena. Later she has a failed shootout edited into a police victory, but the crooks fight back by having a hostage upload cell-phone photos of the real thing. Soon the media war has replaced physical fighting: when the criminals post online pictures of them happily sharing a home-cooked meal with the hostages, Fong orders the best caterer in town to bring food for the whole onsite police force and all the reporters. Perhaps the most gutsy move on To’s part is showing the callous manipulation with which Fong airs interviews with the victims’ families; tear-jerking scenes that hit painfully close to the truth.

The acting is not quite as good as in “Running Out of Time,” likely because the film has much broader focus. Yuen is doggedly determined, repeatedly seen agreeing to orders and then immediately doing the opposite. His simple-minded inability to step down is actually quite humorous and makes up for his lack of depth or development. Fong is also defined by only a handful of characteristics, but her intelligence and media savvy make her a commanding presence, a woman whose abilities define a whole new class of badass. The criminals seem to get the most screen-time and while not well-equipped or quick-witted enough to be a fair match, they still show resourcefulness and tenacity.

To’s camerawork is as great as ever, with the usual Hong Kong love of the wide-angle lens. A couple of long takes are the real masterpieces of the film, drawing attention to To’s adroit skill at composition and movement. The six minute opening shot harkens back to “Touch of Evil” (1958), but ups the ante. As the camera dollies, cranes, twists and dips, we see Yuen and Hoi sitting on a stakeout, a pair of street cops who accidentally interfere, a distraction, a moment of hanging tension and an all out gunfight that rages up the street, ending with the gangsters escaping in a hijacked ambulance and firing a rocket-launcher at the remaining cops. The whole thing is done with great finesse, never missing a beat in the action while reframing the shot almost a dozen times.

In the film’s final chase, a less impressive (but still wickedly fun) long take runs. It reminded me of the in-car long take from the recent "Children of Men" (2006) and it wouldn't surprise me if there was a direct influence. The lack of cuts really emphasizes the stunt-work, choreography and authenticity (Bordwell would be proud). The rest of the editing is similar to “Running Out of Time,” with the emphasis on efficiency and the audience expected to pay close attention.

The ending is note-perfect (but then too, “Running Out of Time” finishes with a three-course meal of delicious irony) and manages to be tragic, ironic, touching and funny all at the same time. A great combination.

The Decision

It’s an extremely tough call to make, since I love both movies and rated them the same. I think that “Running Out of Time” has the superior script and action, but “Breaking News” woos me with its virtuoso long takes and biting media satire.

Winner: Breaking News

4 comments:

Mad Dog said...

Is there a Hong Kong movie that Andy Lau DOESN'T star in?

The most ludicrous (and first) movie that I ever saw him in was Running on Karma where he was a bodybuilding ex-monk that went toe-to-toe with a Rasputin-like contortionist. Completely fucking off the wall.

Also, my uncle who taught in Hong Kong actually was asked to be in one or two movies as a generic sleazy American. :p

Walrus said...

Actually, no. Andy Lau, though reasonably young, has already starred in 100+ films and it is actually difficult to find modern ones without him. However, with 300+ music awards to his credit, the real question becomes: Is there a Hong Kong album that Andy Lau doesn't star in?

Also, I don't know if you did it intentionally, but "Running on Karma" is yet another Johnny To film. I haven't seen it yet because I was worried about the fake muscle suit, but I should give it a chance.

Mad Dog said...

Even if the fake muscle suit doesn't always behave like real muscles, it's weird enough to give a try. I dare you to make sense out of the ending, though.

Kathryn said...

The opening shot of Running Out of Time was totally great.

I sort of half-searched online to find a video of it, but ultimately people should just rent the movie.

Both films were great to watch, I look forward to seeing more of his stuff.