Sunday, April 15, 2012

A Hong Kong kung fu comedy and a German dramedy viewed at the 2012 HKIFF

Large posters, including for the 2012 HKIFF, hang on 
the outside of City Hall -- one of the film fest's screening venues
Dreadnaught (Hong Kong, 1981)
- From the Once Upon a Hero: The Wong Fei Hung Saga program
- Yuen Woo Ping, director
- Starring Yuen Biao, Kwan Tak Hing, Leung Kar Yan, Yuen Shun Yi, Fan Mei Sheng, etc.

In what was another lifetime, one in which I was an anthropology graduate student living in Philadelphia, I rented a Hong Kong movie called Wing Chun so often from my local video store that I got to realizing that it'd make more economic sense for me to buy myself a copy of it. And that is how it came to be that that 1994 Yuen Woo Ping-helmed martial arts actioner starring Michelle Yeoh became only the second ever movie I owned a home video copy of!

But while Yuen Woo Ping has directed 23 other films to date, I have to confess to not having found the others of the movies he's helmed (as opposed to been action choreographer of) that I've viewed to be all that much to my taste.  And this includes cinematic efforts that have been deemed seminal Hong Kong movies by others -- such as Snake in the Eagle's Shadow (the film that made Jackie Chan a star in the Chinese-speaking world) and Drunken Master (the latter of which had Jackie Chan playing a young, mischievous version of legendary kung fu master Wong Fei Hung) -- as well as undoubted duds like his most recent True Legend.

Based on its reputation as well as its two lead actors, however, I figured it wouldn't hurt to give Dreadnaught, Yuen Woo Ping's 1981 martial arts comedy about a cowardly young man (played by the super agile Yuen Biao) who seeks to learn kung fu from Wong Fei Hung (essayed by the venerable Kwan Tak Hing), a try -- and especially when it got shown on a big screen courtesy of this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival. At the same time, however, the screening schedule really wasn't in its favor as it happened to be the third movie I watched one Sunday -- and worse, the earlier two films I viewed happened to be the really affecting A Letter to Momo and the sublime He's a Woman, She's a Man (complete with a fantastic post-screening Q&A with its director).

If truth be told, I felt emotionally spent hours before the beginning of the Dreadnaught screening. Even so, I believe that I would have emotionally connected with, and otherwise responded, to a better film. As it was though, I was left cold by the way too broad humor on show in the movie (though it's also true that it was able to tickle the funny bone of a viewer sitting behind me who laughed appreciatively at it all), unsatisfied with the idea that anger and strong sense of justice would suddenly help the film's young protagonist to come to possess the fighting ability he exhibits in the movie's climactic scenes, and jolted out of the picture whenever the admittedly already elderly Kwan Tak Hing was too obviously "doubled" by a younger, more athletic man.

At the same time, I must admit to having got a thrill out of seeing Kwan Tak Hing as Wong Fei Hung in a color movie that did have higher production values than the scores of black and white films he appeared in earlier in his career.  Additionally, even though his character in Dreadnaught was not a particularly great one, Yuen Biao still had opportunity to show how agile and acrobatic he was back when he was in his physical prime (particularly in a chase sequence that had him doing such as literally climbing walls).

Also, as it turned out, I found myself being pretty impressed by the lion dancing on view in Dreadnaught, be they ones in which individual "lions" showed their acrobatic abilities or those that involved deadly serious duels between a battling pair of these showy creatures. (I'm not sure if Leung Kar Yan performed his own stunts in the lion dancing scenes; if he did, still more credit is due this under-rated actor who had third billing in this work playing Wong Fei Hung's chief disciple, Leung Foon.) If only there had been more stand out scenes like those, then this movie would have hit the heights that I was hoping -- and, in truth, also expecting -- that it would do.      

My rating for this film: 5.5

Almanya: Welcome to Germany (Germany, 2011)
- From the Gala Presentation program
- Yasemin Samdereli, director
- Starring Vedat Erincin, Fahri Yardim, Aylin Tezel, etc.

Two evenings after I viewed Dreadnaught, I took in a film whose humorous notes struck much more of a chord with me. Almanya: Welcome to Germany is a feel-good dramedy revolving around an ethnic Turkish family whose patriarch went to Germany in the 1960s to make money but ended up settling with his family in -- and even becoming a citizen of -- a country with a majority population whose religion and certain cultural mores he does not share.

Directed by Yasemin Samdereli (who also co-wrote the script with her sister Nesrin), Almanya: Welcome to Germany was conceived as a tribute to their forebears.  But rather than opt for a strictly dramatic treatment of the story of Turkish "guest workers" who answered Germany's call in the 1960s to help alleviate their labor shortage, they've opted for -- and managed to pull off -- a light-hearted and warm take on the topic by focusing on one three-generational ethnic Turkish family, the older members of whom were born in Turkey but the younger ones in Germany.

There is some humor in the depiction of the younger members of the family who include: an ethnic Turkish -- but German-born -- man who has less of a tolerance for spicy food than his ethnic German wife; a pre-adolescent boy who insists that ethnicity is like football, in that you can only be part of one team, not two or more; and a young ethnic Turkish woman who shocks her family by having a boyfriend who is not only not Turkish but also not German (instead, he's -- gasp -- British!).

But it's the depictions of the early part of the older members of the family's lives that bring on the most laughs. In particular, the film shows how funny-haha as well as funny-strange the ideas one ethnic group can have of another can be -- especially when the other ethnic group does not share the same religion.  Even more admirably, Almanya: Welcome to Germany also does not neglect to show that "reverse culture shock" can occur when the Turkish people who have gotten used to living in Germany go back to Turkey to visit, and that that "reverse culture shock" also does have its humorous side. 

With a message in favor of tolerance -- for those of a different culture from you but also individual differences to be found within a single family -- that is made easy to swallow by way of its coming with a dose of easy, playful humor, Almanya: Welcome to Germany is a film that's hard to not like.  Something (else) that I love about the movie is how it reaches out to all audiences by way of its emphasizing our common humanity and everyone having their own quirks, some of which are indeed funnier than others.

As a cultural aside: I find it interesting that I saw three films with German individuals at the helm at this year's Hong Kong International Film Festival -- and, as it turned out, one of these was a documentary about a Catalan restaurant (El Bulli: Cooking in Progress), another was a documentary about an English actress who has starred in French as well as English language films (The Look) and now there's also Almanya: Welcome to Germany which also doesn't have ethnic Germans as its focus!  So maybe to be German these days is to be more international-minded than many other nationalities -- and if so, all the more power to them for being so! :)

My rating for this film: 8


Kung Fu said...

Thanks for this useful information.

YTSL said...

Hi "Kung Fu" --

You're welcome and I'm glad you found the reviews -- particularly of "Dreadnaught"? -- useful. :)