“I refuse to fever in the lousy ballroom of Mongkok!”
Hong Kong cinema is in clear disarray with the transfer to China, a star system in virtual collapse, talent dispersing throughout the world, and a general who-gives-a-damn attitude. At least the translators are still employed, and the fractured subtitles continue to thrill even as the plot lags. (These films all played first-run in San Francisco’s World Theatre in 1997.)
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Enjoy Yourself To-Night
Gwillo (evil honky) viewers for whom Hong Kong cinema means Jackie Chan, John Woo, Ringo Lam, et al. will no doubt be puzzled by a film like Ho Shing Pong’s Enjoy Yourself To-Night, which lacks in cast and crew any of the luminaries that have always made HK films stand out. This is a bread-and-butter programmer, typical of a kind of generic, disposable product that helps pay the bills without being the least bit memorable. Mom Susan (Francoise Yip) works in a nightclub as den mother to a group of out-of-control B-girls (aka whores) who are oppressed by their customers and boyfriends or strung out on drugs. An incompetent loan shark named Ming (Michael Chow) is in love with her but spends most of his time toadying to his pompous, abusive boss. Subplots include a kidnapping, a murder, and a spaced-out teenage girl with a gun. The pacing is slow, the mood trashy-sentimental with flashes of lowbrow humor. Bizarre subtitles abound, but two demand quotation: “I must declare: she’s goldfish!” and “I refuse to fever in the lousy ballroom of Mongkok!”
Apocalypse is understandably Hong Kong cinema’s stock in trade after the transfer, and titles like Derek Chiu’s Final Justice are common. But Chiu’s powerful vision of an immoral society approaching collapse is more subtle than some, centering not on Woo-style balletic gunplay or martial arts mayhem a la Tsui Hark, but on the destruction of a priest who succumbs to the frenzied sexual attentions of an unstable femme fatale. The film opens with what looks and sounds like a literal death knell for HK – somber stained-glass interiors and tolling church bells. From there it moves into territory many fans will find familiar – the parallel stories of childhood friends, one of whom becomes a criminal kingpin, the other a priest. Their lives continue to intersect because the vicious Kim (Eric Tsang) likes to confess to the devout Siu-ho (Lau Ching Wan) every time he kills someone, which is often. In the corrupt world of the film, Kim achieves enormous success while Siu-ho, who lives in a cramped room, loses his parish along with his self-respect when he goes to trial for rape. Hong Kong model Almen Wong registers strongly as Siu-ho’s beautiful betrayer, and Eric Tsang provides black-comic relief as Kim, but Final Justice, based on a true story, is ultimately an engrossing star vehicle for Lau Ching Wan, whose brooding presence and casual charisma have rightly made him one of Hong Kong’s most popular stars.
Writer-director Wilson Yip gives the Hong Kong treatment to a time-tested genre, the omnibus ghost movie a la Dead of Night or Tales from the Crypt, with mostly rather pathetic results. The first and weakest of the trio is “Headless Soul,” predictable spook stuff with TV star Jeffrey Lamb as a doltish policeman forced to guard a haunted warehouse. Redeeming fractured subtitle: “She turned left and right, thus she got rid of the insane guy!” In the second story, “Hit and Run,” Xu Jin Jiang (the hunk from Sex and Zen) and Liz Kong are haunted by the smiling ghost of a man they accidentally killed. The manic pacing and cartoonish acting make this more annoying than frightening. The third entry, “Midnight Dinner,” is by far the best, a genuinely affecting story of an aged matriarch who returns from the dead to terrorize – and cook for! – the family that mistreated her. Anthony Wong and especially Lo Lam as a woman whose suffering doesn’t end with death bring unexpected pathos to a story both sad and scary.
Once Upon a Time in China and America
Jet Li in buckskin, warpaint, and Indian braids should be enough to lure any self-respecting Hong Kong film fan to his latest effort, a bizarre kung-fu western shot entirely in Texas. Fans of the earlier entries in this durable series will be initially reassured by some of the elements here – Tsui Hark’s producer credit, Jet’s long-suffering fiancée Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan), his temporary loss of identity, and the ever-thwarted attempt to Establish a School. But the film is a near disaster. Inexplicably, none of the fight sequences rise to the top, much less go over it; and those we do see are woefully underlit, making it hard to connect with the moves. (Director Sammo Hung must have phoned this one in.) The villains are stock, snarling cowpokes who seem to have wandered off a 1930s B-western set. A potentially intriguing subplot, Jet’s adoption by a Native American tribe, goes nowhere. Jet Li fanatics will uncover a few pleasures here; others are warned.