Saturday, February 11


Canis Luna

Happy Year of the Dog! The Lunar New Year began nearly two weeks ago, but as the SFPD clears the streets for tonight's parade it still seems apropos to make the greeting. And what better way to celebrate the season than to participate in that grand tradition of watching a movie from Hong Kong's film industry? There are currently two excellent options available in Frisco's Richmond District. Both come courtesy of the brightest light in Hong Kong film production currently going, Milkyway Image Productions. This company was founded in 1996 by The Heroic Trio's director Johnnie To and The Peace Hotel writer/director Wai Ka-Fai.

Of the two the prolific To has drawn the most auteurist attention through films like The Mission, and seen the profile of his films at international festivals meteorically rise, with an entry at Cannes both of the past two years. His 2005 Election played in competition but has failed to find a North American distributor as of yet. But his 2004 out-of-competition chair-gripper Breaking News was picked up by Palm Pictures and began a week-long run at the Balboa yesterday. Much has been made of the film's opening shot, which recalls Touch of Evil's opener in its virtuoso complexity. Interesting, then, that in a way Breaking News seems to self-consciously dissect the whole the Hong Kong action film genre the way that the Welles film, according to Robert Kolker, "recognize(s) the formal properties of noir in a way its earlier practitioners did not." In To's universe both the criminals and the police cannot exist as they do without the presence of cameras and recording equipment. (The film's inquiry into the nature of the relationship between police and media may make the film topical to Frisco residents in light of recent scandals, but I suspect To is less interested in depicting a fact-based relationship than making a point about the way the media constructs our images of cops and robbers.) One question is, does a film like Breaking News signify the decline of a genre at the same time that it exemplifies and comments on it, as Kolker argues Touch of Evil did? Perhaps so, according to the distributors who passed on bringing Election here while it plays throughout Europe and Asia.

Wai Ka-Fai may be the lesser known of the two Milkyway founders but Too Many Ways to Be #1, the first film he directed after the partnership began is my favorite of the studio's films. Filled with every low-budget camera trick conceivable, hilarious references to Triad films, a proto-Run, Lola, Run structure and even an undercurrent of anxiety about the Handover, its an extremely audacious film. Most of Wai's subsequent films have either been co-directing gigs with To (Fulltime Killer, Running on Karma) or breezy comedies made specifically for the Chinese New Year box office season (like last year's reportedly awful Himalaya Singh). His new film the Shopaholics definitely fits in the latter category (and though the imdb claims it fits in the former as well, I find no corroboration that this particular film was co-directed by Johnnie To or anyone else). But though the tone and themes of the film are incredibly light, fluffy and corporate-sanitized, it's still a treat to watch because of its incredibly fast-paced humor, charming performers and completely over-the-top (even for Hong Kong) exuberance. Lau Ching-Wan plays a "decide-o-phobic" doctor who, in the most absurd meet-cute I've witnessed, meets Cecilia Cheung's consumer-goods-addict when she helps him deliver a baby at a shopping mall. Her role in the birthing is to buy dozens of colorful umbrellas to place around the operation for privacy. The doctor's cure for for Cheung's case of big city affluenza is romance, but unfortunately his similarly afflicted ex-girlfriend (Ella Koon) shows up, and Cheung meets an equally eligible and wishy-washy bachelor (Jordan Chan). I wonder if this farcical symphony of pussyfooting and one-upmanship is a conscious attempt to capitalize on Fire Dog Year anxieties? The final reels of the film force the characters, dressed in sharp tuxes and bridal gowns, to shuttle across the city under orders of a centrally-commanding Jungian headshrinker. She seems to be a potential stand-in for Wai, directing people's lives according to a script she didn't write herself (as in this case Wai didn't). If Wai uses similar reverse-psychology techniques to combat pressures of the box office and corporate sponsers, it's no wonder that his films are often so hard to pin down, as enjoyable as they can be.

Other than Fulltime Killer, none of Wai's films have been properly distributed in this country. That's why it's such a unique treat to have the country's last holdout of the Chinese-language cinema circuit, the Four Star, where The Shopaholics enters its second and likely final week, playing only once a day (9:40 PM).

One last note, still Hong Kong related, before signing off: fans of classic kung fu films will be thrilled to learn that the Asian-American International Film Festival will be bringing four films from the Heroic Grace II series in March (and that the Balboa will be bringing the series again in May). Actually all of Jennifer Young's sneak peek look at the SFAAIFF just posted to the Mobius Home Video Forum looks pretty tantalizing. The full schedule is expected to be released on Tuesday.

CITIZEN DOG?, BE WITH ME?, CAFE LUMIERE?, plus second opportunities to see GRAIN IN EAR and LINDA, LINDA, LINDA?! I am already more than happy w/ this year's ASIAN-AM FILM FEST SCHED. YeeHAW!!!

Same here. "Cafe Lumiere" (which I actually saw in Paris in Taiwanese with French subtitles), "Citizen Dog" (the follow-up to the infamously- shelved "Tears of the Black Tiger"), "Earth" (Deepa Mehta's third installment of her trilogy
that included "Fire" and "Water"), and "Mountain Patrol", which has been included in so many festival reports: I'm jacked!!
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