More Asian Cinema, a.k.a. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai is superhuman (minor spoilers)

So I’ve been watching lots of Asian cinema recently. Not sure why it’s been such a heavy concentration lately. But there you go.  Here’s a quick run down:

Hard Boiled. Always heard it was an action masterpiece, so I decided I better watch it. The film is directed by John Woo and stars Chow Yun-Fat and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Chow Yun-Fat’s character is a trigger happy cop nick-named Tequila whose parter gets killed during the investigation of Triad gun runners. In the course of the film he hooks up with Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s character, an undercover cop named Alan, who’s in deep with the gun-running underground. That’s the setup, and I don’t plan to give another single thing away, because if you like action films, you have to watch this movie. John Woo demonstrates how it’s done. But kick-butt action scenes aside, what really works about this movie is Alan. Undercover work hasn’t been kind to him. He’s a guy who’s had to compromise everything he stands for to sell his cover. And it isn’t pretty. Hard Boiled is an action extravaganza with a substantial body count. But it’s also the story of a guy who got in deeper than he would have liked, and the toll it takes on him.

Hey, it's Tony Leung Chiu-Wai again!

In the Mood for Love. Not an action film. Quite the reverse. Directed by Wong Kar-wai and starring Maggie Cheung and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (yes) this film is set in Hong Kong in the 1960’s. The movie follows a romance that blooms awkwardly and a bit painfully after the two main characters discover their spouses are having an affair. Together. They vow never to behave like their cheating spouses, and even as they fall in love with each other, keep their relationship chaste. What I loved most about this movie was how it’s shot. Kar-wai shoots the film so that we end up being voyeurs, peering at them from inside a closet, or through a door. I felt as if I was viewing something personal and private, and it connected me to the characters, while at the same time heightening my discomfort over their awkward situation. The actors contribute an achingly subtle and understated performance, which combined with a stunning soundtrack amount to a beautiful film that explores the often complicated and dissonant relationship between the emotion of love and the social institution of marriage.

Lust, Caution. I meant to see this film when it came out, because I heart Ang Lee. But I was, frankly, stupid, and I decided to wait to get the DVD because I got wind of some less than stellar reviews. Pish Posh. That usually does not stop me, and I don’t know why it did in this instance. At any rate, I watched it recently and was bowled over by how completely entranced I was watching this film. Set in China during the Japanese occupation, the larger plot of the film follows a resistance cell as they plot to assassinate a high-ranking official in the collaborationist government. We follow this story through Wong Chia Chi (Tang Wei), a young college student who becomes involved with the resistance. She is to lure the target, Mr. Yee (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, surprise!) to an unguarded location where the resistance can kill him. Easier said then done. In the course of infiltrating Mr. Yee’s home, we watch Chia Chi (now posing as “Mrs. Mak) descend deeper and deeper into a troubling relationship with Mr. Yee. And while Lust, Caution is, on the surface, a film about espionage and resistance, it is also about the transformation? destruction? liberation? of Chia Chi. Which is it? Is it all three? I will be adding this film to my DVD collection. I hardly noticed the long running time (although most negative reviews gripe about it) and highly recommend the film.

Grave of the Fireflies. This film is Japanese, and does not star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. But that’s okay! All I have to say about this film is: Just see this movie. Show it to your kids. It’s heartbreakingly sad, but its intensely personal portrayal of the horrors of war make it a film everyone should watch. Written and directed by Isao Takahata, adapted from the semi-autobiographical novel by Akiyuki Nosaka, Grave of the Fireflies is an animated tale about a young boy and his sister who are left to fend for themselves after their town is firebombed in a WWII air raid. The animation is not as stylized as most anime, favoring more realistic renditions of people and the environment. The animation adds a strange realism to depictions of bombers flying overhead, dropping incendiaries on various towns. Perhaps it’s because seeing that kind of thing for the first time must seem a bit unreal. So the animation capitalizes on that fact, and every time I saw a shot of the bombers flying over head, I felt fear, and even found myself wondering what it would feel like to see bombers flying over Salem. That’s not something a film has ever made me stop and think about. This film is kind of a kick in the chest. On the one hand you watch this young boy (Seita) looking after his little sister (Setsuko) and you get what love is. The film is a tear-jerker for sure, but there are a lot of moments where the film will make you feel genuine happiness and overwhelming joy. On the other hand it takes place during a war. A nasty one. And on a large scale, we all know why war sucks. But it’s the small scale consequences of war that are easy to forget, and sometimes, when faced with them, the hardest to bear. Because on a small scale war isn’t about the ideologies that that nations fight over. It’s about the people who are trying to survive. So add this film to your Netflix queue. You’ll blow through a lot of tissues watching the film, but in the end you’ll probably be glad you did.

And finally, we don’t talk about television on this blog as a rule, but since this is a post about all the Asian stuff I’ve been watching lately, I might as well give a short mention to Samurai Champloo (roughly meaning Samurai Mash-up). It’s a 26 episode anime series written and directed by Shinichiro Watanabe, who also directed the anime hit Cowboy Bebop. It follows a young woman who, after saving a reserved ronin (Jin) and a extroverted loose cannon (Mugen) from execution, presses them into helping her find a samurai who smells of sunflowers. So far it’s pretty hilarious and has had some great fight scenes. Although I usually recommend Cowboy Bebop or Wolf’s Rain to people who want to try a little anime, I think Samurai Champloo would be a good starting point as well. Like Cowboy Bebop, the characters are fun and the soundtrack is always great!

Coming up: 2046, a sequel to In the Mood for Love.  I hear it features time travel, which I would normally be into, but find strange since In the Mood for Love did not feature any such sci-fi mainstays. But Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, that stud of Chinese film, reprises his role. He is pretty dreamy. And a damn fine actor. So that’s a big plus. We’ll see how it goes. ;-) Until next time!

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2 Responses

  1. – In the mood for love is excellent! Though very different, I recommend, tale of two sisters: http://www.imdb.com/title/tt0365376/

  2. I should probably assume you’ve already seen them but just in case you haven’t, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai reunites with Maggie Cheung to great effect in Hero, where Tony manages to upstage Jet Li.

    And he plays another psychologically damaged undercover officer in Infernal Affairs, the film that formed the basis for the Departed. Ironically, his police superior and ally in that film is played by the great Anthony Wong, who played the gangster he’s working against in Hard-Boiled.

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