Monday, July 19, 2010

La Comedie Humaine (film review)


An image (taken on a 2008 Lantau hike) that
has nothing to do with the movie but
somehow
gets me thinking fits the phrase "human(e) comedy"


La Comedie Humaine (Hong Kong, 2010)
- Starring Chapman To, Wong Cho Lam, Fiona Sit, Hui Siu Hung, Kama Lo, Lee Lik Chi, etc.
- Chan Hing Ka and Janet Chun, directors

The proverbial "they" say that you wait a long time for a bus, then several will come along one after the other. That's how I sometimes feel about good, entertaining movies: cf. my having viewed three movies that I rate at 8.5 on the brns.com scale since last Wednesday (i.e., less than a week ago)!

But while He Ain't Heavy He's My Father (1993) and Project A II (1987) are older movies that I had seen before (the former of which I appreciate so much more on a big screen and some years on), that refreshingly is not the case with La Comedie Humaine, the latest offering from director-producer Chan Hing Ka (whom I had the pleasure of meeting and interviewing couple of years back), co-producer Amy Chin (ditto re the meeting and pleasure of doing so!) and co-director Janet Chun, that obviously was made by people who are film fans as well as professionals.

Fundamentally a buddy comedy about a Mainland hitman (essayed by Chapman To) who circumstances cause to end up in the Hong Kong home and care of a geeky scriptwriter (portrayed by current Hong Kong comedy favorite Wong Cho Lam), the movie -- which takes its name from 19th century French writer Honore de Balzac's stories (and yes, I think this is a measure of Chan Hing Ka and Co.'s cultural knowledge and sophistication) -- also ends up having enough existentialist elements to get one thinking and also being emotionally moved. (In particular, I found myself blinking away tears over certain scenes involving a pregnant teenager who hires Chapman To's character to kill the father of her child, then -- after the schoolboy is revealed to be too pathetic to truly deserve death -- to end her life.)

Lest it be thought otherwise though, La Comedie Humaine never really completely take itself seriously as well as also most definitely does boast guffaw- -- heck, even hysterical laughter -- inducing moments. Furthermore, one can quibble that certain scenes and set-ups go on for longer than necessary but the extra moments and minutes generously allow the film's two main stars and other thespians (including Fiona Sit as the object of Wong Cho Lam's character's affection and Hui Siu Hung as Chapman To's partner-in-crime) to show what they can do when given the limelight and ample time as well as cinematic space.

Additionally, while the movie obviously benefits from having the stars that it does, it also does not depend solely on their hi-jinks and charisma to win film fans' affections. More specifically, I think the script is a real winner -- not least because of it making the offering one that really rewards the film fans among its viewers yet also being enjoyable even if one doesn't pick up the copious film references scattered throughout the work (including in a scene parodying A Better Tomorrow which is made even funnier upon realizing that Chan Hing Ka was that John Woo film's scriptwriter and another in which Chapman To pronounces that his Infernal Affairs co-star Andy Lau's style is forever!) -- and/or recognize the many cameo-making filmmakers (including Lee Lik Chi as a film director in search of a script and Derek Kwok as a TV weatherman!)!

Also, Hong Kong movie fans who are English subtitle-reliant should take note that La Comedie Humaine is one of the Hong Kong rare movies that not only shows out- and NG ("No Good") takes a la Jackie Chan's offerings at the end of the movie but also provides English subtitles for them. And while it doesn't directly translate an exchange between Chapman To and Wong Cho Lam that is one of its comedic high points, it does an amazingly good job indeed finding relevant equivalents to allow the conversation to flow both in the English subtitles as well as in Cantonese between its two stars who have -- time and again now -- shown that they may excel at comedy but also actually are able to perform very respectably indeed in moments that call for them to convey pathos and emotionally move.

My rating for this film (as previously stated): 8.5

12 comments:

mister bijou said...

Thanks for the review! Will seek out and view when circumstances permit.

[pedant mode] La Comedie Humaine is more often than not left in French, but if it is translated it is usually rendered into English as The Human Comedy. (Not "humane")

The French novelist Balsac probably chose "La Comedie Humaine" as the title for his tales as an allusion to the 14th century Dante Alighieri's La Divina Commedia (Italian), La Divine Comedie (French), The Divine Comedy (English). [/pedant mode].

Anyway, please keeps those posts/film reviews coming. Regards, etc

sbk said...

hi ytsl,

Enjoyed your review. I'm glad you liked the movie. I'm a Chapman To fan and look forward to watching the film on DVD.

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YTSL said...

Hi mister bijou --

Thanks for the pedant note: very interesting -- and have amended my photo caption accordingly... sorta! ;b

And yes, do hope you'll seek out and enjoy La Comedie Humaine. Movies like this are worth supporting, I reckon. :)

Hi sbk --

Am glad you enjoyed the movie -- and if you are a fan of Chapman To, reckon that there's no question that you'll love this movie! :)

Hi George --

Thanks for the compliments and offer. I'm actually about to go travelling some more -- so don't have time to look too closely at your blog just yet. But maybe after I do so... :)

ElPeevio said...

Lovely review. I have just come across your blog when looking for some inspiration for my own review (http://elpeevio.blogspot.com/2010/09/missing-cut-la-comedie-humaine.html). I am mostly shocked that we have the same blogger template!!

Seriously though, I found it interesting how much more you enjoyed the film than I - I found the film both amusing and affecting, but I really struggled with the pacing, both of the overall film, and the way the big jokes were played out. I am wondering if there is just a difference in Western and Eastern humour, that I am never going to be able to understand. I still await a Hong Kong comedy that gives me the belly laughs I require.

But again, nice blog, you have yourself another follower!

YTSL said...

Hi ElPeevio --

Yikes indeed re our the same blogger template.

As for our different reactions to the film: From reading bits of your blog, get the sense that you are still fairly new to Hong Kong cinema. Maybe it would help if, to paraphrase David Bordwell (of Planet Hong Kong, etc. fame), you think of Hong Kong movies like "La Comedie Humaine" as having a reel-by-reel rather than conventional Western three-act-play structure. Put another way: it might not just be the pacing that got you struggling but also the unfamiliarity with a different structure.

ElPeevio said...

Hi YTSL

Thanks first for taking the time for having a look at my blog. You are quite right - I am a returning Asian film fan after a few years away. Frankly my original interest was in Japanese cinema, and then I was turned into a fan of Korean Cinema. My attempts at Hong Kong cinema have only really started in earnest this past year. I think your analysis of why I am struggling definatley has some merit. I am still at the point where I am finding comfort in familiar faces and directorial styles, but I am struggling to "feel" truely affected by many modern Hong Kong films. And yes, this is quite possibly at least partially down to structure. Still - be patient, I am learning :)

YTSL said...

Hi again ElPeevio --

The products of the cinemas of Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong are quite different... especially, I reckon, in terms of pacing and rhythm. Still, of course, it's possible to like them all. (Personally, my favorite cinema is Hong Kong's, with Japan's coming second.)

Re "modern Hong Kong films": Do you mean those made in the past 10 years?

In any event and FWIW, "La Comedie Humaine" harks back for me to the older films in many ways -- no doubt because its co-director, Chan Hing Ka, is one of those people with a filmography that stretches back to the 1980s. (Don't know if you know but he was the scriptwriter of "A Better Tomorrow" -- something which adds to my enjoyment of the John Woo parodies in the movie!). :)

ElPeevio said...

Greetings again :)

I'll try not and hog your comments section!

I would totally agree - Japanese, Korean and Hong Kong movies (plus the mainland films I have seen) all differ in terms of pacing and rhythm, as well as quite often in tone. I actually think I enjoy Korean films the most as a rule (maybe I just yearn for melodrama ;) ) but there are films I love and adore from all regions.

Yes, I think the last 10 years would be a reasonable assesment of what I mean by modern - I feel much more comfortable in the wuxia and wuxia influenced films of the 1960s-1990s than I do with most more recent (and to be fair totally different genres). I have only found a handful of HK directors that I consider "must sees". But as I say, I am learning :)

One thing I do love about HK cinema is the interconnectedness (if that isn't a word it is now) of it all - your comment about Chan Hing Ka just sums it up - everyone in the indutry seems to have been connected with everyone else. I guess I should expect that in an island industry like HK (and would probably have parallels if the UK had a film industry of any size).

And one final confession, which will stop this conversation dead - I have never deliberatly watched a John Woo film nor a film where Jackie Chan was the sole headliner. I have my reasons :)

YTSL said...

Hi once again ElPeevio --

No worries -- am glad this older post is attracting interest and comments! :)

"I feel much more comfortable in the wuxia and wuxia influenced films of the 1960s-1990s than I do with most more recent (and to be fair totally different genres)."

Well... I have to admit that I'm one of those film fans for whom the golden years of Hong Kong cinema were around 1986-1994. Still, contrary to reports that Hong Kong cinema is dead/dying, I actually feel that hope springs eternal for me -- in fact, I think this year has already yielded more enjoyable Hong Kong films for me than the whole of 2009.

"I have only found a handful of HK directors that I consider "must sees"."

Even then, considering how some of them are so very prolific, that should mean you have plenty of movies to check out! Also, FWIW, I think that Hong Kong isn't necessarily all that auteur driven and, instead, certain star actors and actresses as well as film companies can end up being the main/driving attractions for a Hong Kong film fan.

"One thing I do love about HK cinema is the interconnectedness (if that isn't a word it is now) of it all - your comment about Chan Hing Ka just sums it up - everyone in the indutry seems to have been connected with everyone else."

Yes, I like that too -- and it also helps to grow my interest in Hong Kong cinema. E.g., an interest in one person's films might lead one to appreciate the films that that favorite person worked with and so on and so forth.

"And one final confession, which will stop this conversation dead - I have never deliberatly watched a John Woo film nor a film where Jackie Chan was the sole headliner. I have my reasons."

If it's because you don't like their Hollywood output, then please do give their Hong Kong work a try. At the same time, those two weren't my favorites for a long time too -- and I'll be upfront with my reason: i.e., I tend to prefer films that are not so male-centric as theirs often are!

ElPeevio said...

Greetings YTSL

"I think this year has already yielded more enjoyable Hong Kong films for me than the whole of 2009"

I would be interested in what films have impressed you this year. I have actually taken more than a few to my heart, and HK will provide a good proportion of my planned end of year top 10. "Gallants" and most especially "Love in a Puff" have certainly recieved multiple thumbs up from me.

"that should mean you have plenty of movies to check out"

Don't even joke about it.. I have a 'to watch' pile that is pretty terrifying....

"If it's because you don't like their Hollywood output, then please do give their Hong Kong work a try."

Yes, the Hollywood output is certainly a factor - plus my own bullheadishness about not being told to "like" something ;) Woo I am am still uncertain about (Two of those DVDs are Red Cliff), but I will get to him when I feel ready. Chan I feel worse about, as actually find him to be a very personable character - so I have a short list of HK films that I am going to delve into, maybe in a movie marathon one quiet day.

YTSL said...

Hi again ElPeevio --

"I would be interested in what films have impressed you this year."

Wait a few months and I'll have my top ten list for 2010 up! In the meantime, will say that "Gallants" does rank up there for me -- but not "Love in a Puff" (whose main characters' romance I found most unconvincing).

Re John Woo: I really like his "Red Cliff" films -- part two, especially (but to really "get" it, you have to watch part one first). Re Jackie Chan: He's actually a very disliked person these days in Hong Kong (cf. my Jackie Chan's Waterloo blog entry) but he made a lot of films between 1985 and 1994 that I've been happy to watch again and again and again (and therefore *really* justifying the purchase of their DVDs as far as I'm concerned).