Pop Life

Tuesday, November 13, 2001


bad hair day for everyone
en garde, I'll let you try my wu-tang style

I'm no expert in HK film even though I try to watch quite a bit of it since 1) as a Chinese American, it's a far better alternative than Hollywood cinema to find images of self despite the wide cultural gulf and 2) much of it's fun, duh. But while I'm not exactly a hardcore junkie, I've watched enough to know that both Tsui Hark's Time and Tide as well as Stephen Chow's Shaolin Soccer represent markedly different directions for both filmmakers. This is not a bad thing - in fact, I highly recommend both movies - but compared to the the bulk of their work in the 1990s, both films for Hark and Chow respectively represent a more sophisticated mainstreaming of their product, built on even flashier editing and special effects than both have dealt with before.

Time and Tide: I have to admit, whoever came up with the American marketing tagline "No tigers, no dragons, just a helluva lot of bullets" should get one to the skull. That aside, the movie rocks pretty f*cking hard, especially compared to Hark's pair of simply terrible Van Damme films, Double Team and Knock Off. This was his first HK action flick since those two Hollywood efforts and you can see a noticeable difference in the editing and choreography of Time compared even his most flamboyant wuxia films like 1995's homo-erotic ode to missing body parts and sharp, pointy things, The Blade. Timeis shot fast, furious and frenetic - the action sequences are a constant wash of motion and dramatic camera shots. The difference between this and Hark's previous films is that his epic wuxia tales were almost cartoonish in feel and this is far more slick and polished. That's neither an inherently good or bad thing - on one hand, it makes Time seem far more modern even compared to films only a few years older but sometimes, you kind of feel like he's pushing too hard, especially when he uses cheesy CGI effects that are so obvious you can see the digital "strings" in plain view.

On the other hand, the film pours on the visual adrenaline - which is good since the plot is undeniably Byzantine until about 2/3rds of the way in, involving a lesbian cop who gets pregnant while drunk with a baby-faced bartender who ends up joining a team of bodyguards but doesn't get a gun. And did I mention the butcher who's actually an ex-gang hotshot, now married, with a pregnant wife who's estranged father is a major business exec? And let's not forget his former band of brothers, led by a slick Chinese Brazilian thug with dreadlocks big enough to put Sway to shame. Like I said, don't even bother trying to figure the plot out, just enjoy how ridiculously animated the fight scenes are as Jack (the butcher) rappels down 20 stories of a HK tenement building with the camera following him at the way. In the words of my man, JD the Best Kept Secret - it's dumb hot.

The leads are great. Taiwanese singing star Wu Bai plays Jack and he's such a gruff-looking character, the fact that he's a huge pop sensation and not an action star is more surprising than the other way around. He's hardly what you'd call sexy but he sheds charisma like a halogen lamp sheds light. Pretty boy Nicholas Tse plays Tyler, the bodyguard who's managed to get a lesbian pregnant and he's likable but more for his naivete than anything else. Wu Bai owns the picture like he's got majority stock, even over Anthony Wong who, technically, is a bigger movie star than Wu, but his character in the film (as the leader of the bodyguards) is fairly weak and by 2/3rds into the film, he disappears entirely.

Shaolin Soccer: While understandable, it's insulting to hear Chow (also spelled Chiau) referred to as the Hong Kong Jim Carey when, in reality, it's probably the other way around. Chow's actually become HK's biggest comic star behind Jackie Chan and with this film, he actually trounced Chan's Rush Hour 2 at the box office, setting all kinds of records despite the fact that the film opened in the middle of a massive typhoon season. Personally, while I really enjoyed Shaolin Soccer I didn't think it was nearly as funny as his Forbidden City Cop and some of my other friends still swear that his God of Cookery is one of the best HK films ever made (I disagree but I'm seemingly in the minority).

That being said, Shaolin Soccer is probably the biggest budget Chow has had to work with - $6,000,000 which isn't much by Hollywood studio standards but that's fairly blockbuster in Hong Kong, especially since half of it was spent on special effects alone. This is what sets this film apart from Chow's previous works - it's obvious that he threw a ton of money on the CGI effects, most of which are done pretty well even though they're painfully obvious (but not as bad as they are in Time and Tide. They're used to enhance the simple but accessible plot - a bunch of down-and-out Shaolin monks in modern-day Hong Kong turn to soccer as a way to make their fortune as well as promote Shaolin kung fu in everyday life. It's a great premise and makes for incredibly entertaining sequences where the monks use forms like the Iron Hand, Mighty Steel Leg and Weight Vest to run roughshod over their opponents. Yeah, it's another Seven Samurai retread but you probably won't stop to notice when you're busting your gut.

As usual, Chow stars as the lead (Sing) and he does just fine - a master of visual humor made all the better by the special effects that enhances his power. Plus, he's howingly funny when he lampoons other pop culture references - check the Saving Private Ryan homage, complete with Spielberg's special camera work from the war epic. The rest of the cast is likable, especially Vicki Zhao as Mui, a tai chai-wielding baker and HK comedy veteran Yut Fei Wong as Iron Head, Sing's Big Brother Number One.

Other recommendations:

not your usual suspects
Johnnie To's The Mission may not have Time and Tide's ultra-slick, hyperbolic editing going for it, but for a gun fu movie, it's damn entertaining. The plot is actually fairly simplistic - a gang boss has an attempt made on his life so his brother helps gather a motley crew of specialized bodyguards to protect him. Hollywood aficionados will likely see traces of Ronin or Usual Suspects in the film's construction though if you boil it all down, it's yet another retread of Seven Samurai. No matter.

This isn't ridiculous action galore, especially not the stylized ballistic ballet of Woo, but To and his crew of actors are very good at constructing exceptionally tense scenes. The most brilliant sequence takes place in a shopping mall after-hours where the bodyguards are hemmed in by a squad of gunmen and suspense-laden stand-off ensues. Like much of the movie, the scene is very well executed and far superior to many suspense-thrillers coming out of Hollywood.

Coincidentally, like Time and Tide, The Mission also features Anthony Wong as the leader of the bodyguards for hire but in a far more flattering role. While his "day job" is as a hairdresser, among his men he's known as the Iceman for how coldly he can dispatch his work - or people. The rest of the cast is hardly marquee - some might recognize Simon Lam who plays the gang boss' brother - but like Time and Tide, To is going with a less internationally recognizable cast. The standouts - apart from Wong who seems to channel the laconic coolness of Jean Reno in this role - include Francis Ng as the hot-headed Roy and Suet Lam as James, a sour-faced, peanut-eating weapons expert. Don't worry about it - just rent the movie and enjoy.

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