This year, the Hong Kong International Film Festival started off relatively slowly for me -- in that I "only" viewed four films on the first five days of the fest. Over the weekend, however, the screenings came pretty quick and thick. And today, I did something that non film fanatics would consider weird: i.e., I took the day off from work to watch a couple more HKIFF offerings.
Still, lest people think that all I've been watching movies, rest assured that I've also been doing my fair share of socialising. Put another way, this really is a festive time of the year for me -- and in addition to having viewed some good films, fest highlights thus far include reunions with old friends, some of them who have traveled thousands of miles to partake in the joys of the HKIFF.
But now on with the HKIFF film reviewing -- this time of the following four films I viewed in the space of a little more than 40 hours...
Gallants (Hong Kong, 2010)
- From the Hong Kong Panorama 2009-2010 programme
- Derek Kwok and Clement Cheung, co-directors
- Starring Leung Siu Lung, Chen Kuan Tai, Teddy Robin Kwan, Wong Yue Nam, Shaw Yin Yin, Chan Wai Man, MC Jin, JJ Jia, etc.
It's not often that the stars of a movie are decades older than its directors. But this is the way with this veritable homage to old kungfu movies and stars who first had a taste of fame back in the latter part of the 20th century co-helmed by the youthful Derek Kwok and first-time director Clement Cheung.
Starring a couple of old time action stars, a multi-talented individual with a known flair for comedy as well as music composing and a former sex bomb who has proved that she has formidable acting chops, this film -- which, for some reason, reportedly will only get a general release a few months down the road -- also includes younger talent in the mix by way of weaving a tale in which an asthmatic young employee is sent by his bullying boss to a New Territories village to help settle a property dispute, only to get involved in the affairs of -- and seek to learn kungfu from -- an old martial artist who only recently awoke from a multi-year coma (and while in it, had been cared for by two loyal disciples and a doctor who had nursed her love for him all those years).
As its plot description shows, Gallants is also a throwback to a previous era of Hong Kong cinema in being utterly happy to mix genres -- notably action and comedy but also romance and drama. In terms of the first element: although Chen Kuan Tai was the more well known name in their heyday, Leung Siu Lung turns out to be one whose moves are truly eye-catching in this film that benefits enormously from wonderful choreography courtesy of action director Yuen Tak. And while there's little doubt that Teddy Robin Kwan is tops in this category, such as the two laap ngaps (genuine and fake) also contribute to making the film possessing a enjoyably high humor quotient.
As can be seen from the very enthusiastic reaction to the film (and its stars and helmers at the post-screening Q&A, during which a member of the audience shouted to Teddy Robin that he was "ho cool!" and was rewarded with a big smile and thumbs up from the veteran Renaissance man), this movie really has the makings of a wonderful crowd-pleaser. For my part, I really want to applaud not just the old stars but also Derek Kwok -- one of those Hong Kong movie personalities I had the privilege of interviewing a couple of years back and emerged from the encounter wanting to wish all the best to because I reckon that he has good ideas, great intentions and is one of the film industry's genuinely good guys.
My rating for this film: 8
The Orphan (Hong Kong, 1960)
- From the Bruce Lee 7010 programme
- Lee Sun Fung, director
- Starring Ng Cho Fan, Bruce Lee, Pak Yin, Fung Fung
For many people, Bruce Lee and kungfu films are synonymous -- and so much so that they don't realize that he actually acted as a child actor in movies with no kungfu in them such as this 1960 effort which was the last film that the American born (to Hong Konger parents) individual appeared in before he moved back to the USA to attend university, among other things, is a super preachy melodrama whose protagonist (played by Ng Cho Fan) is the do-gooder headmaster of a school for orphans and (other) troubled youth.
Viewed half a century after it was originally released, this movie comes across as out-dated -- and in a way that makes it beyond quaint. And matters are not helped by its characters being drawn too broadly -- and being played very broadly too; with the young Bruce over-acting like crazy in some scenes even while showing his charisma in others. (By far the most affecting scene for me -- and one which actually brought tears to my eyes -- is the nicely understated as well as quiet one that he shares with a veteran actress playing a maidservant who also acts as his foster mother.)
Still, the sheer historical value of the film makes it worth watching -- and, in the process, some amusement will be had as well in seeing how the movie inadvertently anticipates Bruce Lee's later development (notably in scenes which has the young Bruce shouting that he wants revenge and menacingly brandishing a weapon). Additionally, fans of the Tai Hang fire dragon will enjoy its appearance in this film --perhaps the first ever on celluloid for this eye-catching festive creature that also makes an appearance in this year's Fire of Conscience.
My rating for the film: 6.5
A Wedding in the Dream (Mainland China, 1948)
- From the Fei Mu, Film Poet programme
- Fei Mu, director
- Starring Mei Lanfang, Jiang Miaoxiang
Old is not necessarily gold -- alas! This is what I found myself thinking after watching this 1948 film from a Chinese director with an exalted reputation and starring a Peking opera luminary from that performing art's golden era and feeling like it would have sent me to Dreamland if not for the fact that it is only 60 minutes long.
The first color film in Chinese history is not so much a conventional feature film as a film version of a Peking opera adapted from a Ming Dynasty story and refined by Mei Lanfang himself. No surprise then that he plays its main character: a woman taken prisoner after her country is invaded and then made to marry a fellow prisoner.
Although she was wed against her will and her husband has his weaknesses, she somehow falls in love with him -- and he of course returns her affection. But rather than be able to live happily together, they soon get separated.
Years pass and he's become an important man while she has been adopted by an older woman who lost her family in the same upheavals. Then one day, he reveals his continued love for his wife to a general who then sets about looking for her on his behalf and... I'm sure you can guess the outcome!
In fairness, I'm sure a lot was lost in making this work as short as it is (since Chinese operas tend to be longer than Bollywood movies!). Also, the version of the film I saw was in far less than optimal condition -- with the visuals being on the scratchy side and the sound being on the muted side. But until I get to see a better condition version of it...
My generous rating of the film: 5
Spring in a Small Town (Mainland China, 1948)
- From the Fei Mu, Film Poet programme
- Fei Mu, director
- Starring Wei Wei, Shi Yu, Li Wei
This Fei Mu film (that was remade by Tian Zhuangzhuang as Springtime in a Small Town in 2002) is regularly included in lists of such as the 100 greatest Chinese films of the 20th century, and often even tops them. However, my two previous bad experiences of viewing Fei Mu's movies (I also had seen and been disappointed by his Confucius at last year's HKIFF) allowed me to go in to a screening of it with less than sky high expectations for it being able to live up to its hype -- and so much so that I was thinking that if this psychological drama revolving around a woman, her invalid husband and his doctor friend who turns out to be her childhood sweetheart didn't impress, I was going to give up on checking out any more Fei Mu works.
Well, for starters, let's say that I am definitely more open post viewing this film to checking out more Fei Mu works in the future! For even though I already knew its story (not least because I had seen Tian Zhuangzhuang's color remake of the film), this effort really does have so much to offer in comparison as well as in and of itself.
In some ways, knowing the plot prior to viewing the film allowed to me to pay attention to other aspects of the work and really appreciate such as the masterful framing of many of its shots, the interesting design of its main set (the partially destroyed -- by Japanese bombs -- home of a previously prosperous family), the allure of a walk along the old city walls (which got me thinking of those of Suwon's restored Hwaseong Fortress) and the impressively naturalistic acting style and charisma of its thespians. And while Tian Zhuangzhuang's film benefited from being in color, Fei Mu shows in this beautifully nuanced work that he is very adept at working in and with black and white and the various gray shades in between.
And lest it be thought otherwise, here's explicitly asserting that this perfectly pitched work is not just to be admired for its style alone. Indeed, when watching it, I got to thinking how much and ably it emotionally draws the viewer into the story -- and more so than Tian's more distanced work (which notably dispenses with the female protagonist's voice-over narration which the Fei Mu film uses to good effect to share her view of proceedings and other characters).
My rating for this film: 9
(Addendum: At the end of the screening, actress Wei Wei appeared to share her thoughts about the film. Unfortunately, this whole affair was conducted sans English interpretation -- as, alas, is the norm at the Hong Kong Film Archive. And while my Cantonese is good enough to understand moderator Sam Ho's story of how she opted to take the MTR over, it is not good enough to thoroughly comprehend technical film talk or detailed historical reminiscences. Otherwise, I would have stayed to listen for sure. In any event though, it was amazing to catch sight of the 1948 film's leading lady and looking quite healthy, even if somewhat on the understandably frail side.)