Tuesday, March 31, 2009

Movie gold

Two film fans on their way to today's
HKIFF screening of Once Upon a Time in China

Three cool customers (complete with sunglasses
in tribute to Wong Fei Hung's --
and Wong Kar Wai's? --
penchant for them)

In a couple of hours or so, I'll be hunkering down to watch one more movie. Although it's from a respected Hong Kong filmmaker, I'm going to go into that screening not expecting it to be in the same league as the two Hong Kong films I've viewed in the past 24 hours that were from the truly glorious Hong Kong movie half decade that was the early 1990s -- that period of time when Hong Kong was the font of movies that made film fan(atic)s of many of us throughout the world.

Last night, I viewed one of the movies that I'd rank not only among my top 5 favorite Hong Kong movies but also top 10 films from anywhere: no, not Ashes of Time (nor its Redux version); but, instead -- and showing outside of the Hong Kong International Film Festival as part of Red Mission's commemorative Leslie Cheung film programme -- He's a Woman, She's a Man.

From such as the applause that greeted Leslie's first appearance in Peter Chan's sublime romantic comedy, it was obvious that a lot of the audience members had gone to the screening to pay tribute to the late super-talented -- but still, sadly, psychologically tormented -- actor-singer. Slowly but surely, however, the movie as a whole and also the rest of its able cast (notably Anita Yuen and Carina Lau) also worked their charm on people and soon the mood turned from sorrowful -- even slightly morbid -- to one that was far cheerier and people were able to enjoy, laugh and be entertained by a tale of a fan girl who resorted to impersonating a man in order to meet her favorite singer and songwriter duo.

Since last night's was at least my 20th viewing of the 1994 movie, I really couldn't care less that it was shown without subtitles. Rather, what mattered so much more was the enormous charisma and sheer lovableness of many in its cast (not only Leslie, Anita and Carina -- yeah, one feels like one can be on first name terms with them after witnessing such open, warm performances -- but also the likes Eric Tsang and Jordan Chan) and the wonderful songs that help keep the film being a perfect 10 to me so many viewings and years on.

While still on Cloud 9, I went to an afternoon screening today of Once Upon a Time in China -- the only screening which I've taken a day off from work in order to attend at this year's HKIFF (in large part because it's the one "must see" film in the Tsui Hark/Film Workshop programme that I had yet to see on a big screen)! Among the sadly hardly large-sized audience: old HKIFF friends Peter Rist, King-wei Chu (who also had attended at last night's HAWSAM screening) and David Bordwell (AKA the three cool customers pictured above!).

Suffice to say that watching Once Upon a Time in China was like meeting up with an old friend for all four of us. At the same time, because it's been a while since I watched the movie (and there are so many different cuts of it), some parts of the film felt like new even while others were utterly familiar. Additionally, colored by the experience of watching so many other not so good Hong Kong movies since -- including quite a few by Once Upon a Time in China's director (Tsui Hark), there came a genuine realization of how truly great and extraordinary this film really is.

Filled with so many wonderful quiet moments as well as eye-catching action and star power, it's no wonder that this 1991 Wong Fei Hung movie went on to spawn so many sequels and imitators -- and propel its director and star into the cinematic stratosphere (only, alas, to end up in the purgatory that is Hollywood and, in the case of Tsui Hark, the hell that comes from working with -- and seemingly being drained of inspired creativity by -- Jean-Claude van Damme not once but twice).

I honestly wish that Tsui Hark would watch his old movies and re-discover his magic by doing so. And although Peter Chan remains big and successful, I have to say too that I don't think there's nothing for him to learn from looking back at his older movies. Works with so much heart as well as life that more than a decade on, they truly are wonderful to view.

Still, at the risk of seeming ungrateful, at the very least, I will thank them -- and those people who worked with them on these and other great films -- for having at least helmed these incredible works that truly have stood the test of time. And, I hope, won themselves new fans at these two recent screenings.


Anonymous said...

Although the first Hong Kong films I ever saw (if my memory serves me) were a double-bill of Hardboiled and Tiger on the Beat, it was really the films that are the topic of your post which made me a fan of HK cinema and eager to seek out similar fare.

No viewing of Leslie's films now will be without a tinge of sadness at his passing, but it must have been a special thing to be with an audience of fellow fans and experience that movement from grief to feelings of joy about his lasting legacy. Wish I was there!

Glenn, kenixfan said...

For me too the first Hong Kong film that I saw (not counting 36th Chamber of Shaolin dubbed on TV) was A Chinese Ghost Story.

Thanks to this episode of the Incredibly Strange Film show, I asked a friend about the film and he showed me and a friend most of it on VCD.

Now while I didn't get into Hong Kong film after that in 1992, when I did dive in, in early 2000, the first two films that I rented were A Chinese Ghost Story and Peking Opera Blues.

Is it any wonder that I prefer Tsui Hark to John Woo? Could anything hold a candle to *those* films with those performers?

Seeing Leslie and Brigitte for the first time is like seeing Gable and Lombard for the first time. It's the first step into another Hollywood on the other side of the world.

Great post, Yvonne. Really great.

sbk said...


Wonderful post with a great title "Movie gold". Amen.

Bengbeng said...

Yes, Leslie's death is remembered today. We all watched him grow from a young man to a middle aged man. To me, his death was so unnecessary. If he had waited for just one more day, he might not have done it. Suicide is never a good option. He still had a healthy bank balance. I am not a romantic. He could have survived that episode. What a waste of a talented life.

YTSL said...

Hi duriandave --

Hadn't realized that "He's a Woman, She's a Man" and "Once Upon a Time in China" -- such different yet both great films -- had been the ones that sent you on the road to Hong Kong film fanaticism!

Re Leslie: can't help but realize that today's his death anniversary... :S

Hi Glenn --

Once upon a time, I preferred Tsui to Woo. However, if I were to compare their most recent output, Woo actually wins out. Have you seen "Red Cliff 2" yet? Shocking but true: it's actually got a feisty female of the sort you'd might have expected to appear in a Tsui than Woo movie!

OTOH, definitely agree with you that Leslie and Brigitte really are/were like old-style superstars.

Hi sbk --

Thanks! Worried that my post might not make too much sense as it was written in a hurry and while I was hyper adrenaline charged. So am glad that you and others have responded positively to it. :)

Hi Bengbeng --

A film fan visiting Hong Kong remarked a few days ago that it seemed as though Leslie's a bigger star in Hong Konger's eyes than Bruce Lee. Well, I pointed out, Leslie (may he RIP) did make a whole lot more movies as an adult than Bruce... for which I am eterntally grateful.

eliza bennet said...

Reading your post reminded me of the time when I watched "A Chinese Ghost Story" in HKIFF and everyone cheered when Leslie appeared first time on screen. And I was not the only one who was laughing with tears of sadness in her eyes.

And I'm so glad that you enjoyed Once Upon a Time in China (this may actually be my favorite Tsui Hark film).

Did you know that Jet Li had a serious foot injury during filming and had to shoot some scenes with his foot in a cast?

Brian said...

"Re Leslie: can't help but realize that today's his death anniversary... :S'

Remember how many of us hoped that it was some morbid April Fool's joke only to realize with the passing hours and news reports that it was tragically true. Watching either Leslie or Anita Mui is tough for me now. Nice gush of emotion!

YTSL said...

Hi "eliza bennet" --

FYI, "A Chinese Ghost Story" showed again at the HKIFF this year. Didn't manage to make the screening, however, as it was yet another Film Workshop production shown on a week day afternoon. Thank goodness for Subway Cinema giving me the chance to watch that magical movie in new York some years back!

And wow re OUATIC being your favorite Tsui Hark movie since, for me, there are quite a few others I love better -- including, of course, a certain "Peking Opera Blues".

As for Jet Li's serious injury: Don't know about his having filmed some scenes with his foot in a cast but, watching the film on a big screen, have to say that sometimes it's very noticeable when he's been doubled. :S

Hi Brian --

I know what you mean about it being difficult to watch Leslie or Anita post their deaths. Personally, I find it easier to watch them in comedies rather than tragedies. At the same time, have managed to do such as watch them together in "Rouge".

"Days of Being Wild", however, is one film that I have been able to watch all the way to the end since Leslie's death. I already found that film depressing enough previously but now it's become way too painful to watch -- not least because I often feel that there's so much of the real Leslie in Yuddy. :S

eliza bennet said...

"but, watching the film on a big screen, have to say that sometimes it's very noticeable when he's been doubled. :S"

Hahahaaa, I think HK is best for that sort of thing, watching Indian films nowadays and I can tell you, no one does action/stunt better than HK :)
Once Upon a China is one of those films one enjoys equally in both big and small screen (and many times over)

I don't know if you have read Kozo's Ashes of Time Redux review but if you haven't please do since it pretty much sums up what I think of it.

YTSL said...

Hi again "eliza bennet" --

Yeah, have read Kozo's "Ashes of Time Redux". His review -- and a couple of comments of friends I've met at the HKIFF -- have cooled my desperation to watch that film to some extent but I still would like to watch the movie when it finally makes its way into regular Hong Kong theatres (this June!).