Saturday, April 23, 2011

How do you say "Nouvelle Vague" in Cantonese?

(Image filched from Eigawatchlog)
Among the nice things about being really sick, besides the raw throatful of gluey phlegm and the sensation of having been beaten all over by hammers, is that you can sit around and watch a bunch of DVDs without feeling guilty about the other, practical stuff you ought to be doing or the people you ought to be out socializing with.  So this post comes to you courtesy of some sort of flu virus.  Thanks to said microorganism and its rapidly multiplying family, I was able recently to get through a few more of the Hong Kong movies in a stack I borrowed about a year ago from a friend, which remains embarrassingly unfinished (the stack, not the friend... although... well, anyway).

On a whim, I concentrated on rare, hard-to-find crime movies from the "Hong Kong New Wave" of the late '70s and early '80s, mostly in the form of DVD-Rs copied from crummy, full-screen VHS tapes, one of them without even subtitles.  Admirable dedication or masochism?  This question is left as an exercise for the reader.

If you don't know what I'm talking about when I mention the HK New Wave, you could do worse than peruse the brief Wikipedia entry mostly written by myself about six years ago.  The movies I viewed line up with critic/scholar David Bordwell's observation in his seminal 2000 book Planet Hong Kong that this was pretty conservative as far as so-called "New Wave" film movements go - nothing I saw was more than slightly out of what I would call mainstream standards of moviemaking.  

But context is everything, and in the quite hidebound (and studio-bound) world of HK film at the time, these filmmakers pushed back some boundaries, in terms of content and style.  Compared to, say, the kung fu movies being churned out at the same time in the backlots of the old juggernaut studio Shaw Brothers, they certainly look like the work of whipper-snapper upstarts - it's easy to imagine mogul-patriarch Sir Run Run Shaw standing on his front porch yelling "Stay off my lawn!" as these filmmakers tear noisily past in their long, scraggly hair and ripped jeans.

Some notes on three of them:

Cops and Robbers (1979) - Here's the above-mentioned dichotomy exemplified: You can practically smell the Hong Kong streets in Alex Cheung's scrappy, bad-mannered film, but the old-fashioned cop-flick story and characters might win your grandfather's approval.  I had expected more of a strain of anti-authoritarianism or social comment, but it's a straightforward Dirty Harry-esque action-thriller: the criminals are merciless subhumans; the band-of-brothers police heroes are justified in whatever means they use to catch them and suspects' rights are a bureaucratic roadblock; the mousey, by-the-book rookie has to achieve real manhood via a violent rite of passage; and the cops' women are petulant distractions who don't understand that a man's gotta do what a man's gotta do.  The strangest moment of ra-ra fist-pumping comes when singer/actor Teddy Robin Kwan cameos with a rock number about the selfless righteousness of crimefighters, to more than one declaration from the heroes about what a great song it is.  Teddy, it is little surprise to learn, was one of the movie's producers.  (Clip here - God, I love YouTube.)

"Shoot him in the hamstring! Then read him his rights!" (Image pilfered from Deliria Hungaria's Hong Kong Top 80)
But the authentic urban grit - one of the HK New Wave's hallmarks - is consistently compelling.  Crime and chase scenes in choked alleyways and backwater slum neighborhoods, often shot with a handheld immediacy, offer up images of a Hong Kong that is gone or vanishing (the oogy image quality on the Pearl City VCD arguably enhances the effect).  And the trademark willingness of HK crime movies to do things to their heroes that their Hollywood counterparts would shrink from is quite in evidence and quite effective.

That comes to a head in the climax, when Cops and Robbers practically turns into a horror movie - easily the strongest passage, and the most surprising one (OK, aside from the song).  *SPOILERISH BITS TO FOLLOW*  This sees the aforementioned mousey rookie confronted by the vengeful psycho criminal (played by marvelous typecast-creepo Hui Bing Sam) who has already killed or maimed some of his partners... and fleeing in gibbering terror as the villain pursues him laughing and shrieking like a banshee.  The sweaty, tear-streaked breakdown of the protagonist at the exact moment when convention would dictate he rise "manfully" to the occasion is genuinely shocking, and the transformation of the villain into an almost supernatural force via his performance, shooting and editing is truly frightening.  Cheung was probably just upping the ante as much as he could for the big finish, but for a few minutes, he stumbles into something almost subversive.

Love Massacre (1981) - With a title like that, how could you not want to watch it - even if it isn't subtitled?  (Oddly enough, the first scene actually is, which leads me to think this video was cobbled together, catch as catch can, from more than one print - until the establishment of the Hong Kong Film Archive about 10 years ago, there was little systematic film preservation in the territory, and its cinematic legacy is in sorry physical shape.)

Actually, more enticing than the title is the signature of Patrick Tam, one of the most admired and reputedly innovative of the New Wave directors.  Tam's visual skills and offbeat sensibility made it worth viewing this, even while fast-forwarding through most of the dialogue scenes.  The plot involves, for a refreshing change, HK expatriate yuppies in San Francisco - including the luminous Brigitte Lin, years before her unlikely late-career turn to playing androgynous martial arts warriors, the persona most Western fans recognize.  Here, as far as I can tell, she's a perfectly nice young woman in a perfectly normal-seeming relationship with a young man who goes stalker-psycho on her and her friends late in the game, for reasons that were mysterious to me until I googled them (something to do with his sister's suicide, apparently).

The buildup to this turn features a subtly eerie atmosphere achieved with surprising minimalism, especially in Tam's Michelangelo Antonioni-influenced visual design, marked by expressionistically bold colors and open spaces that unnervingly dwarf and cage in the characters.  Given this influence and the San Fran setting, I figure that the rootless anomie of modern HK young people is a major theme here - that was certainly the case in Tam's Nomad the following year, and to a lesser extent in his 2006 comeback After This Our Exile (one of the best HK films of the past decade, by the way).

A typical Love Massacre composition (Image snatched from Cinema of the World)

My finger permanently came off the fast-forward button for most of the showstopping final half-hour.  As the boyfriend stages a home invasion at the enormous, multi-floored apartment Lin shares with her pals, Tam stages a flashy, daringly extended suspense setpiece.  Much of the technique feels lifted from slamming-door farce as characters move back and forth between floors and in and out of rooms, often unaware of what's happening just a few feet away, but it's turned to gripping effect and wielded with only-in-Hong-Kong cruelty.  This is one movie worth seeking out in a fully subbed version for the full effect, but some things require no translation.

The Secret (1979) - Director Ann Hui made her feature debut with this mystery, establishing immediately the pattern of splitting the difference between socially conscious art cinema and genre film that has characterized her prolific career right up to the present day.  Supposedly inspired by a real-life case, it starts with the discovery of the tortured corpses of a young man and woman hung from a tree in the woods near a working-class neighborhood at the edge of the urban areas.  The Secret moves between the investigation - which quickly scapegoats a mentally impaired young man - and the family and friends of the murdered girl as they cope with their trauma.  The latter isn't helped by the fleeting appearances of a mysterious figure in her distinctive bright red coat, leading to increasing speculation that her unquiet ghost haunts the community.

At that last sentence, anyone familiar with Nicolas Roeg's utterly one-of-a-kind supernatural thriller Don't Look Now should be saying, "Hey, wait a second."  Inevitably, Hui uses the borrowed image to much lesser effect, especially since the story is ultimately a fairly conventional mystery-melodrama instead of Roeg's ambiguous metaphysical puzzle.  Hui does engage in some interesting, if confusing, flashback play (possibly also Roeg-inspired), but her ending is at once banal and bizarre, wrapping up the questions with neat explanations that nevertheless defy story and character plausibility (I'm very curious to know how closely Secret follows the true story).

Even more than in Cops and Robbers, the main interest here is the vivid, shot-on-location portrayal of the setting and subculture - the twisting alleys and cramped spaces of a community where people live right on top of each other, abutted by the woods that at night may as well be the Black Forest of the Brothers Grimm.

Watch this space for more digging through the Hong Kong New Wave toybox in the near future - maybe including Hui's The Spooky Bunch, Tam's The Sword and Kirk Wong's The Club.  At the very least, I promise a post devoted to Tsui Hark's legendary bit of insanity Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind.

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