By Noel Vera
Directed by John Woo
•Sky on Fire
Directed by Ringo Lam
Directed by Johnnie To
Directed by Ringo Lam
PLAYING CATCHUP: In the ever-changing landscape of World Cinema, what happened to Hong Kong’s “heroic bloodshed” movement — those action filmmakers who featured slow motion, balletic action sequences, guns pointed at each others’ faces?
Eaten up by China, is the short answer. John Woo (whose A Better Tomorrow — the most conscientiously scripted of the early films — started the trend, or at least planted the trend firmly on the international map) went Hollywood and did interesting if not superior work there (Hard Target, the most stylish of the Mission Impossible flicks, Face/Off [my second favorite], and his epic and epically underrated take on World War 2, Windtalkers). Johnnie To has kept steadily working, straying into politics (the Election movies), fantasy noir (Mad Detective), and the odd blood-drenched character piece (Vengeance). Ringo Lam has had the oddest career curve: after doing a series of dark low-budget Van Damme ventures (Replicant, In Hell) he collaborates with Tsui Hark and To on a feature (Triangle) and then — silence for eight years.
Which is how matters lay far as I knew, until I happened to stumble upon four films (all found on Netflix) from these three different filmmakers, giving me some insight on how they’re faring nowadays.
Woo’s Manhunt is his unembarrassed remake of Andrew Davis’ The Fugitive with the speed limiter removed. Wrongly accused Attorney Du Qiu (Zhang Hanyu) is pursued by relentlessly cool Detective Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) through the teeming streets and choppy waterways of Tokyo, both portrayed by a pair of effortlessly charismatic physically eloquent actors (Harrison who? Tommy Lee what?). They’re surrounded by mostly disposable beautiful women (one of which is disposed at film’s start, hence Attorney Qiu’s predicament), but really, the relationship that matters (as in all Woo films) is the one between the two male leads — we even have the required fight sequence where the two men bond, staged with bruising intensity (a length of lumber and a strategically located rock are at one point involved).
The picture is a trip; can’t really call it a good film — there’s a line between faintly absurd and downright ridiculous that Woo likes to skip across and back (a meta form of suspense the filmmaker tossed in without charge) that unfortunately he stumbles over and faceplants on big time for his gleaming corporate laboratory finale — but even then you can’t help feeling a guilty sense of approval. Plot and logic may have been flung out a window but you can be sure Woo captures the gesture in a single balletic shot, in glorious slow motion.
Near the beginning Du Qiu helps out a young woman being harassed — actually an assassin named Rain (Ha Ji-won) waiting for him to walk away before she starts her deadly work — and they talk old movies. That’s the moment the director betrays his hand: Du and Rain — and Woo himself — are wanderers in an alien land, dreaming of a better world they once saw on the big screen. With sentiments like that presented without irony onscreen it’s hard to hold a grudge.
Manhunt’s plot revolves around the MacGuffin of a specially developed drug used to create supersoldiers (Shades of Captain America but with considerably more fun); Ringo Lam’s Sky on Fire — his first after eight years’ silence — is about a specially developed drug that can fight cancer. The plot is, if anything, every bit as complicated as Woo’s pharma thriller but Lam is, if anything, even more old-school than Woo: the car chases and fistfights are done with gritty CGI-free realism, sans slow motion and glamor; Lam of course was director of City on Fire — the great crime thriller ripped off by Quentin Tarantino to start his own more commercially successful if less artistically fruitful career.
A subplot involves a trucker (Joseph Chang) trying to obtain the drug for his dying sister (Amber Kuo) and in their scenes together you remember Lam is also skilled at understated human drama. That said, Chang is also involved in one of the film’s best action sequences, suddenly stealing the truck holding magical “ex-stem cells” (Former stem cells?) and slamming and smashing his way to freedom.
Towards the end, Lam is forced to up the ante, and finally the (poorly funded) CGI effects come into play. A dizzyingly tall superscraper named Sky One explodes (hence the title) and all loose plot ends are wrapped up in the required ball of fire (at least I assumed they were; not really keeping track). If I prefer this to Woo’s latest it’s partly because Woo may talk the talk about old-school filmmaking, but Lam for the most part walks the walk (till, say, that “explosive” climax), and does so more deftly.
Johnnie To’s Three, like the previous two, is set in the medical industry (What’s up in Asia anyway — is there some simmering health-care crisis we don’t know about?) in the ward of a large (fictional) hospital; unlike the previous two, this film has a crackerjack premise: gang boss Shun (Wallace Chung) is accidentally shot in the head; Dr. Tong Quian (Zhao Wei) wants to operate but Shun refuses — he knows the bullet buried in his head is evidence of Detective Ken’s (Louis Koo) wrongdoing.
Three is aptly named. The main characters — gang boss Shun, Detective Ken, Dr. Quian — are three oversized egos and masters of their particular domains. When their worlds collide the result is a three-way deadlock: Quian wants the bullet out, Shun doesn’t, Ken wants evidence of his misstep to somehow go away. When Shun’s gang arrives, the result is a jawdropping, eyepopping shootout where the camera swirls around the hospital ward in a single take, bullets flying, patients dropping, police officers and gangsters firing to the strain of a moody pop ballad (with bits of Mozart thrown in).
Quian’s character is the best-written of the three leads — actor Zhao seems genuinely concerned in her sleep-deprived way, and genuinely unsure when her professional standards end and her egotism begins. She’s so good, her performance so compelling, the climactic shootout actually feels like a letdown, dramatically if not visually: all that moral ambiguity swept aside like so many chess pieces; all that’s left is nabbing the bad guy.
Which I supposed was all — only I happened to chance upon Ringo Lam’s first film after his eight-year hiatus, the mysteriously forgotten Wild City. Ex-cop now bar-owner T-Man (Louis Koo) and his cab-driving, towtruck-racing half-brother Chung (Shawn Yue) stumble into heavy-drinking solicitor Yun (Tong Liya), who’s being hunted by a Taiwanese gang under orders of a ruthless businessman (Ma Yuke).
And here you see the mainland influence. The villains are a Taiwanese gang and a billionaire tycoon; in both Manhunt and Sky on Fire it’s Big Pharma operated by billionaire tycoons — all easy uncontroversial targets that even the Chinese government can hate. Law enforcement — the authoritarian face of government — is seen as relatively uncorrupt, if at times weak or ineffective (if weak they usually turn in their badges, as T-Man does at the start of Wild City). Interestingly Johnnie To’s Detective Ken stands out for using questionable tactics to cover up his mistakes — but then his character operates under the subtly subversive theme of Great Egos That Can Do No Wrong (In Circumstances Where Everything Does).
Right away Wild City stands out from the other films as being more leisurely paced, more willing to fill in its characters’ outlines. T-Man has a subdued presence, partly because (we learn later) of the reason he turns in his badge. Chung is something of a wild card, but likeable; the two share a father but T-Man was raised and learns to love Chung’s mother Mona (Yuen Qiu). Yun starts out as a trophy girlfriend, but when you learn her story (turns out she is a trophy girlfriend with all the advantages — and horrors — that status implies) you start warming to her.
What’s surprising is the time Lam also takes to fill in the blanks on the villains’ side. Blackie (Joseph Chang Hsiao-chuan) treats his members as family; when one member dies the gang — in a surprisingly moving funeral scene — mourns their own, vows not just revenge but to carry on the terms of their original assignment. Which complicates matters no end.
This feels more like the old Ringo Lam: character-driven dramas that just happen to be thrillers. And because the film takes care to develop its characters first (the way Blackie nurtures his fellow gang members) you care what happens to them when bad things happen — the first rule of thrillers, or should be; goodness knows it’s the first rule to be forgotten nowadays.
As for the action setpieces: the action is realistically enough staged to make even the most stolid viewer flinch, with at least one outrageously violent act to make jaws drop (you’ll know it when you see it). Of the classic Hong Kong action filmmakers I feel Lam does the best car chases, high-revved action setpieces with small cars hurtling down narrow streets a la John Frankenheimer’s Ronin (to be fair, Frankenheimer made his film at the tail end of Hong Kong’s “heroic bloodshed” period). There’s little digital enhancement that I can see, save for the final chase — and that’s done so swiftly and furiously it’s hard to notice if you aren’t looking.
What happened to three of Hong Kong’s best action filmmakers? They’re still doing good work out there — in the case of Lam, still working under the radar — and impressing us along the way.
By Noel Vera