The Mighty Peking Man/Goliathon/Colossus of Congo (1977) 猩猩王

Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Director: Ho Meng-hua
Running Time: 86 minutes
Starring: Li Hsiu-hsien, Evelyn Kraft, Hsiao Yao, Ku Feng, Lin Wei-tu

Theme: Monsters (B-Grade)

Ratings: IMDb.com: 5.1/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 55%

Film Festivals:
2009 Perspectives Film Festival (Singapore)
1999 Sundance Film Festival
1999 Toronto International Film Festival

Awards: N/A

Nominations: N/A

The Mighty Peking Man (1977) is directed by Shanghai-native Ho Meng-Hwa (1929-2009), who arrived in Hong Kong in 1948 and began a career as a screenwriter. He soon ventured into directing with his debut film Wild Girl (1957) for Cathay. Impressed, Shaw Brothers hired him as a director, and it is worth watching the film to gain a glimpse of how movies produced by the two rival studios in their heyday were like, before their unfortunate respective downfall. Ho has worked in a wide spectrum of genres ranging from martial arts to science fiction and erotica. But The Mighty Peking Man takes the cake for blending all three elements at the same time in a film that was filmed to milk the cash cow that was the 1976 American remake of King Kong that breathed life into the ailing monster genre. The film is cheesy and not as horrifying as it is hilarious, but the list of names that has endorsed the film certainly lends it credence. In spite of the fact it is blatantly obvious here that there is a guy masquerading in the monster suit.

This film does not even attempt to buck the trend of the archetypal B-grade films.  The footage is grainy, the colors of the set are too vivid to be real, and the studio sets look extremely fake. The dialogue is cheesy, as the monster gets melancholically involved in a triangulation among a blonde jungle babe, an adventurer and itself. When left to his own devices to deal with the homo erectus invasion, and to deal with the betrayal of the woman it had adopted and raised into a buxom curvaceous young lady who fell in love with the outsider, the eponymous monster reacts terribly in a chain of events that could only be described as tragic.

I found it worthy to include at least one campy B-grade film within the Fifty Films list, given the massive cultural significance and popularity that the subgenre possesses. This major cult following is not only restricted to Hong Kong alone, but even worldwide. The acclaimed director Quentin Tarantino, who certainly has an eye for quirky films given how he has named Filipino film director Bobby A. Suarez’s They Call Her… Cleopatra Wong (1978) one of his major influences, re-released the film in North America in 1999 so as to bring the classic to contemporary audiences, especially for its eccentric genius. In his Sun Times review, Roger Ebert (1999) also wrote, “I am awarding the film three stars [out of four], for general goofiness and a certain level of insane genius.”

 

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Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan (1972) 愛奴


Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Director: Chor Yuen
Running Time: 86 minutes
Starring: Lily Ho, Hua Yueh, Betty Pei Ti, Lin Tung, Chung Shan Man, Mei Sheng Fan

Theme: Women (Suppression & Empowerment)

Ratings: IMDB.com: 7.4/10

Film Festivals:

Awards: N/A

Nominations: N/A

 

As a landmark in Hong Kong cinema, the story of Chor Yuen’s Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan revolves around homosexual prostitutes set within an old world setting.  As a young girl, Ai Nu was kidnapped and sold to a brothel run Chun Yi, a beautiful kung-fu wielding lesbian. Fascinated by the plucky Ai Nu, Chun Yi tries to seduce her on multiple attempts. They eventually become lovers, with the latter imparting her kung fu skills to her protégé. However, this was all part of Ai Nu’s ploy to exact revenge against four wealthy and influential men who raped her previously, and ultimately Chun Yi and the entire establishment.

Despite its suggestive name and theme, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan turns out to be an artistic blend of kung fu with carefully woven elements of mystery, sensuality, grotesque horror and romantic melodrama. While erotic in certain scenes, director Chor Yuen does them tastefully through the use of elegant music and multi-layered colors. Before directing Intimate Confessions, Chor Yuen specialized in melodramas and social realist romances. He had his roots entrenched in the Cantonese language cinema of Hong Kong and these were small scale films that focused on character building and relationships rather than action. Color and lighting were important tools that such movies used to convey or create mood and Chor Yuen brought these ideas and techniques along with him when he directed Intimate Confessions. Furthermore, as opposed to other film makers who tend to make use of grassy hills or mountains to film their fight sequences, Chor Yuen’s films are staged in detailed and lavishly constructed sets, making his scenes highly artistic and visually impressive, overall playing down on any crude connotations or distaste in the nudity or eroticism in several scenes (Keith, 2004). An example of this is the rape scene of Ai Nu – instead of painting the scene with a series of graphically stimulating shots, Chor Yuen puts the scene across rather tastefully by juxtaposing the expressions on Ai Nu’s face with the colors of the silk curtains in the room. The transposition of colors and shots conveyed her thoughts of fear, helplessness and anger.

In terms of the movie’s kung fu choreography, moderation is a good word to describe Chor Yuen’s approach towards the film. Unlike typical kung fu films that tend to overplay or exaggerate their fight sequences, Chor Yuen keeps his scenes realistic by limiting the use of wirework and trampoline stunts. The use of ground level camera work also keeps the melee scenes very real and to the audience perspective.

All in all, Intimate Confessions of a Chinese Courtesan was a successful visual blend of action, gore and sexuality, all packaged within the controversial topic of lesbianism. This success factor was further redefined when the film was remade in 1984 – Lust for Love of a Chinese Courtesan.

References

Keith. (2004, November 18). Clans of intrigue. Retrieved November 14, 2010 from http://teleport-city.com/wordpress/?p=715

 

The Way We Are (2008) / 天水圍的日與夜

Country: Hong Kong
Language: Cantonese
Theme: Family/Aging
Runtime: 90 minutes
Director: Ann Hui
Starring: Paw Hee-Ching, Leung Chun-lung, Idy Chan, Chan Lai-wun, Vincent Chui, Clifton Ko

Ratings: IMDB: 7.1/10

Film Festivals:
NIL

Awards:
2009 Hong Kong Film Awards: Best Director, Best Actress, Best Screenplay, Best Supporting Actress
2009 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards: Best Film, Best Director, Best Actress

The Way We Are (2008) is a docu-drama that is unglamorous but is ultimately reality. It offers a respectful and charmingly tranquil portrait of everyday people set in Tin Tsui Wai, a Northwestern New Territories town that has a notoriously bad reputation, being plagued with widespread unemployment, domestic violence, suicide and triad activites ever since its emergence in the 1990s. In October 2007, a mother and her two children leapt from a high-rise housing apartment block, which sparked off negative attention in both the media and general public. The district was branded the “City of Sadness”, and has been a subject in many films such as Lawrence Lau’s Besieged City (2007). But the latter has also been chided for sensationalizing the city’s woes. As a result, Ann Hui made this film so as to bring out the more humane side of Tin Tsui Wai, focusing instead on the everyday residents who contribute to community. As Kozo (2008) writes, The Way We Are “gives voice to these less sensational residents of Tin Shui Wai, and manages to give their lives weight and depth, while not glorifying their working-class honesty … It is not didactic or moralizing. It’s just real, in all its sense, mundane everyday glory.”

This film revolves around the lives of Mrs Cheung, her son Ka-On and their elderly neighbor. A simple story about regular people, the director breathes credibility and affection into the lives of the characters by not overdoing things. Even the most mundane of everyday activities such as sitting at the table and having a meal is documented to great detail. There are no obvious attempts to overhype or dramatize the film unnecessarily through deliberately crafted music or scenes. Instead, we get the characters themselves reacting naturally, in what we ourselves will do when we are placed in situations like these, i.e. having a conversation at the dinner table, buying food at the market. The bulk of the film consists of eating and food scenes. But why? What does eating symbolize? The dining table might be a good place to convey certain messages, while most of the crucial conversations among family members also happen around a dining table as people catch up with one another’s lives.

In the film, there is no tragedy, no emotional outbursts, no violence nor dramatic confrontations. Furthermore, diagetic noise, for instance background noises of the market or restaurant, was incorporated in several scenes to enhance the realism of them. You feel like you are actually there, you sense yourself being brought into the lives of the characters. It is jarring. It is in your face. But it is real. Even the colours used are muted, realistic and desaturated. This reflects the mundane but realistic scene of everyday life.

The use of close-up shots add to the realism of the scenes, it almost feels as though we are in the house and at the table with the characters themselves, and this bridges the distance between viewers and the characters. But a lack of a distinct story arc and climactic plot means that “this is a movie in which, by the standards of traditional dramaturgy, nothing happens” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2008).

Thompson and Bordwell (2008) goes further to suggest that “Ann Hui has created perhaps Hong Kong’s closest equivalent to Ozu” in this film that pragmatically presents life in its most down-to-earth form. It engages our sympathies fully. To each his own, each of the directors has his/her own distinct aesthetic. While The Way We Are lacks Ozu’s practice of mirroring situations with an unrivalled attention in color design and auditory motifs, Ann Hui’s straightforward, long takes normalizes the goings-on on camera, as if it is really unfolding before one’es eyes in a “delicate search for human kindness in the commonplace” (Thompson & Bordwell, 2008) that goes back to basics.

References

Kozo (2008). The Way We Are – Love HK Film.com. Retrieved November 4, 2010, from http://www.lovehkfilm.com/reviews_2/way_we_are.html.

Thompson, K., and Bordwell, D. (2008, March 30). Observations on film art. Retrieved November 4, 2010, from http://www.davidbordwell.net/blog/?p=2144

Lan Yu (2001) 蓝宇

Country: Hong Kong
Language: Mandarin
Director: Stanley Kwan
Runtime: 86 minutes
Starring: Hu Jun, Liu Ye, Su Jin, Li Huatong, Luo Fang, Zhang Yongning

Theme: LGBT Issues

Ratings: IMDB: 7.0/10 | Rotten Tomatoes: 65%

Film Festivals:
2001 Cannes Film Festival
2001 Golden Horse Film Festival
2001 Sundance Film Festival

Awards:
2001 Golden Horse Awards for Best Actor (Liu Ye) / Best Director / Best Editing
2001 Glitter Awards for Best International Gay Film
2002 Hong Kong Film Critics Society Awards: Film of Merit
2002 Vesoul Asian Film Festival: Golden Wheel

Nominations:
2002 Hong Kong Film Awards for Best Actor (Liu Ye, Hu Jun) / Best Art Direction / Best Cinematography / Best Director / Best Picture / Best Screenplay / Best Supporting Actress

It was difficult to determine whether Lan Yu (2001) should be attributed as a Hong Kong or China production. While the movie is made by Stanley Kwan, a Hong Kong director, it was filmed in Beijing albeit without government permission. Such a distinction still remains pertinent in spite of the 1997 merger is proof of the stark difference in aesthetic and cinematic treatment of the films from Hong Kong and China. With very different cinematographic techniques and very different topics broached due to a distinction in acceptability levels of society, we see that Hong Kong films tend to be more aesthetically vivid and packaged, whilst dealing with more contemporary themes and not shying away from controversy scenes that are frequently passed uncut. Thus, primarily for the homosexual themes of Lan Yu, I opted to classify it as a Hong Kong film.

Critics have been quick to compare Lan Yu (2001) with another Hong Kong gay release, Wong Kar-wai’s Happy Together (1997) starring heavyweights Leslie Cheung and Tony Leung. But there is a huge disparity in the genre, with the latter being more comedic and the former more brooding and morose. The film confines itself to the two men, Handong (Hu Jun) and the titular character Lan Yu (Liu Ye) almost exclusively, and the introduction of any other character is deemed to be an intrusion to the private sphere the two characters share more than anything else. Handong, being older and more traditional, insists that his relationship with Lan Yu is nothing more than a fling. He insists on the virtues of the traditional marriage, on the needs to follow social conventions of marriage and having a baby. But his love for Lan Yu inevitably runs deeper than shallow water. When he first wanted a clean break from Lan Yu, he found himself constantly pining for him, culminating in the 1989 Tiananmen Square march that Lan Yu was a part of. Handong worries for Lan Yu, especially given the massacre that occurred during the protest. The marriage eventually fell through as well. But in a bittersweet tragedy, it is Lan Yu who abruptly passed on at a time when Handong was finally accepting of his sexuality — the moral impetus being the fact that one should always cherish his/her loved ones. The energy stops, the silence disquieting, and the film meanders into a crevasse as Handong’s mindnumbing despair is captured on screen. Tears flow uninhibitedly, and the camera hovers over his loss. Such profound emotional complexity is easily the highlight of the film.

A lot of hype always follows the release of a gay film, and the more artistically-inclined and recognized it is, the heavier the burden as more awards and accolades are washed upon it. Furthermore, a lot of attention is placed with the release of this film given how Stanley Kwan is one of the few openly gay directors in Hong Kong, having come out of the closet with the seminal Yang±Yin: Gender in Chinese Cinema a few years earlier. How would the treatment of a homosexual story by an openly gay director be like? Will he over-indulge in sensitivities against homosexuality in mainstream society, thereby painting a sob story that plays back to stereotypes? Or will he over-indulge in personal pleasures, having the chance to embrace an issue that is close to heart via a medium that is personally favored?

Stanley Kwan does neither of these in Lan Yu, a brilliant understated film without any lurid cinematic techniques, opting instead for a “language of long melancholy stares, murmurous voiceovers, and unarticulated sorrows” (Chan, 2007). While the title takes on the name of the pivotal protagonist in the story, it is also phonetically similar to 藍雨, the Chinese term for “blue rain”, and this adds another sullen veil to the morose nature of the movie. Lan Yu plainly centers upon a fairly ordinary love story that probably would have worked as well should it be a vanilla heterosexual romance. The sex, raw and unfiltered without any sensationalization. The movie in fact normalizes the sex sequence – that sex is something part and parcel of any love relationship, gender regardless. A rich closeted businessman pays for the services of a younger, more open student in a one night stand, but what ensued was a whirlwind 9-year romance that ends tragically. Kwan does not flinch from portraying visceral sex scenes, as well as subtle innuendoes. Thus there are many scenes of the couple in tight embrace, lying naked in bed, French kissing, or engaging in coitus with full-frontal nudity as well. Adapted from the anonymous 1996 e-novel Beijing Story, one cannot help but wonder whether the story struck a resonance with Kwan given his sexuality. The visually stunning film embraces color with rich texture, while remaining subtle and playing with shadows in dark interiors. The timeline is confusing, however, as there is no demarcation of a time lapse, though mostly the story meanders on at a slow albeit measured pace that helps in the audience identifying with the psychological needs and emotions of the characters – both of whom are very much straight unlike the protagonists of Li Yu’s Fish and Elephant (2001) of the same year.

The pop song used is Huang Pinyuan’s 你怎麼捨得我難過 (Loosely translated as: How Could You Bear To Make Se Sad?). While I frown upon the use of pop ditties and familiar tunes within a movie soundtrack, this track surprisingly works. The movie being pared-down realism, makes the popularity of the song pertinent given how it is something a typical person would probably listen to.