Hong Kong cinema! You need that exclamation point to capture the raw energy of the works produced in the last 15 years or so by the region's fertile film industry. Now in its fourth year, the San Francisco Film Society's annual Hong Kong Cinema series brings a selection of the region's latest and greatest (and sometimes tasteless) to town for your viewing pleasure. Check out Ann Hui's The Golden Era, Hong Kong's foreign submission to the Academy Awards and get a taste of various types of films coming out of Hong Kong, from high art to low comedy.
What follows is my assessment of the six films made available for preview.
Chung King Express
20th Anniversary Screening
(1994, Wong Kar Wai)
Legendary director Wong Kar-Wai captures the French New Wave spirit and injects it with Hong Kong kineticism. Made up of two separate stories, each about cops pining for a former romance, parallels, coincidences and missed connections abound. More interested in situation, mood and metaphysics than story, Wong tinkers with conventional film structure and grammar to deliver a lyrical work in which striking images are coupled with a loose camera style. You can see the seeds of In The Mood For Love, the director's masterpiece, in Chung King Express. Both films envision a universe in which true romance is forever dangled but always just out of reach. A fog of restrained longing hangs almost palpably over the proceedings, perfectly distilled in the almost preternatural resignation of the magnetically stoic Tony Leung. And don't minimize Wong's skill as a deployer of American music, equal to that of Tarantino, Scorsese and Wes Anderson, in figuring out what makes the film work. (Nov. 15, 3:45pm)
(2014, Wong Jing)
Chow Yun-Fat returns in another installment of Wong’s God of Gamblers series. He's Ken, the God of Gamblers, who can divine what cards are dealt by touch alone. Here he's on a secret government mission to foil his nefarious rival, the money-laundering kingpin Mr. Ko. Fixing sporting events by doping players without them knowing it, Mr. Ko has invited a group of international crime lords to join him in his endeavors. Unfortunately for Ko, Ken enjoys such badass dexterity he has the ability to inflict mortal wounds by impaling his victims with the fling of a single playing card. That's right, we’re not exactly talking Italian neo-realism here. But fun is fun, and the film has the virtue of two different sight gags involving men’s nipples. It’s all played for whacked-out laughs, though not every gag translates for an English-speaking audience. Americans can also expect some jokes at the expense of women that they are not going to find very funny. (Nov. 14, 7pm; Nov. 15 1:30pm)
(2014, Heiward Mak)
Set entirely in the world of 20-something, post-university, emotional and professional confusion, a group of friends, lovers, and in-betweens grapple with the complexities of close relationships and that thin, ineffable line dividing fondness and love. The film, very funny in parts, nicely captures the fraught feelings and urgent emotional pondering of a time in life when the only way to figure anything out is to make the same mistake repeatedly. Jumping back and forth between past and present, it takes a while to acclimate yourself to the film's structure and keep all the characters and their every-changing hairstyles straight. At two hours, a 20-minute trim to eliminate some of the redundant points wouldn't have hurt. But still, there is power in the image of fingers drumming on a table, extended almost furtively in hopes the person in the seat across will take up the offer. While the emotional life here skews young, has anyone of any age improved on this bit of wisdom, expressed by one of the characters toward the end?
“Do you know the differences between like and love? It’s the difference between how you feel toward me and how I feel toward you.” Ouch! (Nov. 15, 6pm)
The Golden Era
(2014, Ann Hui)
The Golden Era depicts the short life and hard times of Xiao Hong, an important female writer in 1930s China, when Japanese intervention kept her peripatetic and imperiled. The film runs three hours, and you may have to be a lover of modern Chinese literature or at least acquainted with it to derive any sort of visceral thrill from this dutiful retelling of her life. Suffering from the same problem as only the most clever biopics, this long movie of a short life is still insufficient to get underneath the surface of so many events. The film’s lavish and atmospheric production and careful cinematography deliver some striking moments, particularly in depicting the powerlessness inherent in poverty and the small moments of resilience and joy that can exist despite it. But it’s the depth of feeling that radiates from the actress Tang Wei, playing Xiao Hong, that occasionally elevates the film from docu-drama to something approaching what you might find in the works of Xiao Hong herself. Whether starving, sick, in love, or recovering from those things, Tang conveys a sensibility transcending all language barriers. The film is Hong Kong's foreign submission to the Academy Awards. (Nov. 16, 3pm)
(2014, Pang Ho-Cheung)
Cultural and psychological forces produce unhappiness in each member of an extended family living in one Hong Kong town. A Taoist priest receives a call on his cell phone in the middle of a reincarnation ritual. His daughter believes her mother is sending a message of disapproval from beyond the grave. Her husband, a doctor, carries on an affair with his nurse while trying to meet the obligations of family. Meanwhile, her brother, a sort of self-help entrepreneur who runs seminars for women called “How to Marry a Rich Man,” psychologically devastates his wife with overtly negative feelings about his daughter’s plain looks. The wife, a model-actress, must contend with the casting couch and other sexual pressures rampant in the industry. The past haunts the present, the characters are pulled between modernity and superstition, and old attitudes must be reassessed. A solid piece of middlebrow entertainment, culturally enlightening for a Western audience, though somewhat heavy-handed. The unearthing of a bomb from World War II, for instance, just screams “symbolism.” Also: The conflict between the father, his wife, and their daughter resolves in a way that Americans might find disturbing but the film doesn’t seem to. (Nov. 16, 6:45pm)
(2014, Fruit Chan)
The fact that The Midnight After is based on a web novel by someone named “Pizza” shouldn’t be the determining factor in whether you see it. But consider it an indication of how much of what we liked to call, back in my New York City schoolyard days, crazy f***-up s***, you are going to have to sit through. Being either under 25 or Quentin Tarantino will help. This is a -- let’s see -- comic/horror/sci-fi/post-apocalyptic/disaster-pic melange, involving 17 characters on a bus from Kowloon to Tai Po. Well, they start out on a bus, but while going through a tunnel they somehow cross over into a world where everyone has disappeared. Among the hazards and mysteries the group must contend with: ominous figures in gas masks, a flesh-eating virus, and something to do with David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” -- I kid you not. About an hour and 20 minutes in, a zombie appears, and my only thought was, “What took so long?” Some will find it all to be a a rollicking lark, a campy deconstructive pastiche. Others will attempt to pluck their eyes out. Features a late plot development concerning the Fukushima disaster.
Politically incorrect alert: Be on the lookout for a disturbing rape scene followed by an even more disturbing violating-the-female-corpse scene followed by a less-disturbing-but-still-nonetheless-disturbing everyone-takes-turns-stabbing-the-rapist scene. (Nov. 15, 9pm)