Bright Lights Film Journal

The New-Style Comedy: Wai Ka-Fai and the Hong Kong International Film Festival (2011)

“This wonderfully flexible approach to movie-making explains why Wai and To’s films seem so alive to every implication — unlike most current U.S. comedies, where directors carefully steer around obstacles and pretend not to notice flaws in the set-up.”

The 35th Hong Kong International Film Festival showed its strength in retrospectives, with tributes to Abbas Kiarostami, puppet animator Kawamoto Kihachiro, and the great comic director Wai Ka-Fai. In addition to screening current international films, the festival worked on developing the Hong Kong film community, presenting forums in Cantonese with Wai Ka-Fai and a multilingual master class with Jia Zhangke. Local audiences are given an extra treat: after HKIFF officially ends, it segues into a kind of “part two” that focuses almost solely on retrospectives, including a season on Shibuya Minoru, whose postwar dramas are seldom seen outside Japan.

The Kiarostami retrospective provided a rare opportunity to watch his sly 2008 comedy Shirin. In this film, over 100 Iranian actresses view a film adaptation of a famous 12th-century Persian saga. Instead of facing the screen, the camera turns on the audience for the entire film: we watch the “same old story” being reflected in the faces of these women.

I don’t know about you, but I rarely watch films with an alert look of intelligence, or with a wry smile of amusement playing across my lips. In Shirin, everybody does: each of these women regards the screen with a noble expression of gravitas, or a look of intense curiosity. In an unexpected coup, the camera suddenly discovers Juliette Binoche in the audience — one of the finest available “instruments” a director might play on — and she creates a restrained portrait of sensitivity in three close-ups.

What kind of extraordinary object could elicit such a range of emotions from its viewers? Apparently Kiarostami expects us to deduce a film’s plot, rhythms, and tone purely from the expressions of its audience — as if we could reconstruct the precise pattern of light from the shading of the women’s faces. Shirin recalls the work of the Japanese photographer Yoko Asakai, who records her subjects’ expressions as they sit in front of the TV. People who watch films generally look dumb and lax, unless they know they’re being watched — in which case, they might try and put on a “revealing” look of animation. Asakai tantalizes us by giving us the names of the viewed films — can we tell they’re watching Wim Wenders, as opposed to Otar Iosseliani or Spielberg?

By composing a whole film out of mocked-up reaction shots — each of which is a tiny, condensed cell, in which an actress gives it her all — Kiarostami shows us a world that is mirrored in women’s faces. The film of the Persian saga may or may not exist, but it is a vision upheld by the gazes of its actresses. Kiarostami lays bare the construction of the epic, in which heroic acts depend on women’s reactions for their prestige and reality.

The festival had its share of predictably harrowing U.S. indies, such as Frozen River and Winter’s Bone. The latter was notable mainly for its fairy-tale structure, in which a child heroine must negotiate with powerful male allies — each of whom has a female gatekeeper who sends her off with a stern word or a morsel of food. However, there were also a surprising number of erotically charged cartoons, from the John Waters-influenced Kaboom, to the Indonesian burlesque Madame X, to François Ozon’s Potiche.

Potiche has a look that is currently everywhere in advertising: the style of ’70s middle-class French cinema, dominated by blonde actresses, nude tones, and luxe interiors. The film is deliberately thin and rarefied; Ozon sets up a false epiphany by casting Catherine Deneuve as an underdog who discovers her inner worth. It’s a test of how two-dimensional a film can get, as well as an experiment to see whether a new emotion can be wrung from singing the same old song. Since there is nothing at stake and the actors are all coasting in this perfect environment, the film feels vaguely pornographic and alluring. There are several detours into queer fantasias when Deneuve’s character recalls the dalliances of her youth. Still, it does seem that with his recent run of small-scale works — Angel (2007), Ricky (2009), The Refuge (2009) — Ozon is making offhand sketches while we wait for a work as fully realized on all levels as Huit Femmes (2002).

Gregg Araki’s Kaboom also starts off in a mood of deliberate triteness, with teenagers reciting faux-jaded remarks in dorms and cafés. It’s like a druggy 90210, although the young and limp performances create a pseudo-porn aesthetic. As in Potiche, the director seems to expect the mystical to emerge from a banal reality — in this case, via Donnie Darko-like visions of a feral suburbia. However, by its second half, any adolescent tension has melted off: the film settles into a comfortably polysexual haze, with a free flow of partners and subplots about cults floating by. It’s no surprise that Kaboom was inspired by a conversation with John Waters: the film is about finding one’s way into a soft-core utopia.

My personal highlight was the season devoted to Wai Ka-Fai, one of cinema’s great comic auteurs. In films such as Needing You… (2000) and Fat Choi Spirit (2002), Wai has created screwball universes that appear to be whirling out of control, but are as impeccably stylized as those of Howard Hawks. Yet Wai is seriously underrated outside Hong Kong, overshadowed by his frequent collaborator Johnnie To. Perhaps this has to do with how intimately his scripts are tied to the Cantonese dialect: much more so than, say, Wong Kar-wai, whose films seem deaf to local nuance and intonation, and are thus perceived as “marked for export.” Although it was released in 2002, Fat Choi Spirit contains a sequence in which the characters speak nothing but late ’90s slang — a tribute to the impossibly fast-moving and faddish language that is Cantonese.

However, one doesn’t need to understand Cantonese to marvel at the visual wit and gestural observation that goes into the presentation of the actors. Wai is a superb writer of comic women, and as distinctive as Jules Furthman. His signature heroine is a forlorn girl with sudden bursts of energy that accelerate as a film progresses. This girl tends to be unashamedly avaricious and desirous of pleasure; when excited, she has a look of unconcealed selfish glee. These traits are communicated through a range of idiosyncratic gestures. In Needing You . . . , every time the camera discovers Sammi Cheng, she is doing something odd with her mouth, hobbling around, or yammering in an infectious manner. Johnnie To makes the following comment about working with Cheng:

When I’m shooting a movie with her, after each scene, we go back to Wai Ka-Fai. He sees from day to day what is interesting about Sammi, and then changes the script. We change it every day. Whatever works well, we take advantage of, and work into the script. This is my method for making a commercial movie.1

For Wai and To, “interesting” seems to refer to any gesture that is vividly incongruous. Watching Sammi day after day, Wai has taken note of her uninflected voice and hangdog mouth and built a comic style around it. And from the looks of it, Wai wants to know “what is interesting” about anybody at any time. In Fat Choi Spirit, the normally ingratiating Gigi Leung is an icon of drippy humor, with her shuffling gait and wobbly head. As for Andy Lau, he’s allowed to run free with crazy stunts — in Needing You . . . , he stands inappropriately close to another actor during a realistic scene, and spends an entire sequence muttering near a woman’s shoe. Most of these actors have never been better.

This wonderfully flexible approach to movie-making explains why Wai and To’s films seem so alive to every implication — unlike most current U.S. comedies, where directors carefully steer around obstacles and pretend not to notice flaws in the set-up. In Wai and To, there is never a change in tone that is not acknowledged by the script, or that the narrative formula tries to ride over. The lack of chemistry between two characters is a sudden drop, rather than a forced match-up of styles. If a subplot isn’t working, the directors don’t persist with it; they either ditch it or make exhaustion part of the theme.

My one quibble is that the retrospective did not feature Wai’s masterpiece, and his best film without To, the glorious Himalaya Singh (2005). Critically reviled at the time, this epic is a true fusion film that marries the styles of Hong Kong and Bollywood cinema; it is a frenzied comedy that happens to be rooted in Buddhist and Hindu spirituality. Each of the characters is captivated by a very specific delusion that can be triggered by something as common as a moustache. These delusions result in hallucinatory love affairs with women who appear to be half-bird or half-male: there are so many gender switches and body swaps that it’s difficult to keep track of who is in what guise at any given moment. Ultimately, the characters seem to be no more than a jumble of identities wriggling through different bodies. It is a film full of exhilarating buildups and unaccountable slow-downs, which merits comparison with Blake Edwards’ The Great Race(1965)and has a similar collapse of the film’s structures at the end.

The amazing Needing You . . . (2000) is the most puzzling of all — a somber study of relationships at the start, agreeably revved-up in the middle, and finally, a series of uproarious chases that spin us right through to the end. The protagonist is Kinki (Sammi Cheng), a sad-sack office worker who wallows in failed affairs. Most people see her as an irritant, but she is an underdog with an unusual amount of power. She carries herself with the authority of a self-obsessed depressive; she is a force that others must swerve around. Even the office’s suave negotiator Andy (Andy Lau) caves in to her antics. The film takes its tone from Kinki: the camera seems to look at the world through her tired eyes.

It’s this kind of languor that causes the viewer to almost lose it. Kinki is essentially a charmless depressive, a female Boudu. She refuses to meet tolerance halfway: her tone is affectless rather than deadpan, and strangers can make nothing of her downcast eyes and slack mouth. But then the mood of Needing You . . . somehow lifts — and before we know it, the pace picks up until it reaches the level of screwball, with verbal and visual patterns that whirl on and on. In retrospect, nothing changes dramatically; the film builds its tone from repetitions and accretions of meaning.

Wai uses repeated phrases as counters, naturalizing them at first so that we don’t see what’s happening until the payoff. Several of the film’s women quote the same list of ideal male qualities, apparently learned from birth. This doesn’t seem that unusual, but the third time the subject comes up, we realize that some kind of perverse patterning is taking place. As the intervals between quotes get closer and closer, the film seems to be accelerating toward the finish. In My Left Eye Sees Ghosts (2002), we don’t particularly register a news clipping of a missing child, but when we flash to the third vanishing, we see that children are being zapped left and right! A symmetry springs out of “objective” reality, as an event we barely noticed turns into another counter.

Wai’s patterns of buildup are best represented by a scene in Fat Choi Spirit, in which a woman cleans up her ex-lover’s apartment. It looks immaculate. However, when he returns, he points out all the things she’s missed. We don’t see anything, but the camera goes to take a look — and it’s true, a heap of litter does sit there. She brushes it away; everything seems fine. Again the camera leaps ahead and shows us more litter. She tosses it out, and they seem to be rid of it; still, on second glance, there it is again. In Wai’s films, throwaway material keeps popping up in a consistent pattern, despite being discarded again and again.

Even product placement finds its way into the mix, with Wai’s creative and conspiratorial use of advertising. During a key moment in Needing You . . . , Kinki and Andy stride into a KFC, and their intense discussion is interrupted by having to choose between different specials and meal options. The product is then ponderously chewed over and referenced in no less than three scenes. It becomes a prop they have to drag around, to the point where Andy has to invent an elaborate style of steering to maneuver around sticky fingers.

The camera reacts to all these events without surprise, just as the characters do. I would say the secret of Wai’s comic style is that he rationalizes the inexplicable, while denaturalizing the reasonable. Things that he finds unnatural include spontaneous sex, or behaving in a modest and appropriate manner. His comedies are filled with people who see “universal” human qualities as outdated, yet manage to view their own bizarre traits as normal. Wai’s scripts have an almost hypnotic effect, in the way that odd behavior imposes itself upon us as logical — for instance, in My Left Eye, one character asks someone to accompany him to the bathroom, to which the other agrees joyously.

In Needing You . . . , we race to a climax as more and more counters come into play, and the characters come running after one another in waves of attraction. In Hong Kong comedies, the deus ex machina is always a surreal and unwieldy apparatus, but in this case, the way to a happy ending is more like an accumulation of ticks: what I’d call the “yes-yes-yes” cycle. All of a sudden, every sign points in one direction: no impulse can be denied. Within a short space of time, a good luck charm flies back in the window; hand-drawn smiley faces appear on a series of turned pages; a finger automatically dials the right numbers on the telephone. Toward the end, there’s a sudden whip-up of momentum when a mysterious group of bikers circles around Andy (“just to say hi”) and then dissipates, leaving him as the stranded center of activity. This creates an invisible but precise structure that allows Kinki to slide in — straight into the heart of the “whirlpool.”

The last section of this film was pure paradise for me: full of fast, mentally replayable sequences and characters speeding into and away from the cut. There’s Kinki, leaping and running full tilt towards Roger, the millionaire motorcyclist; Andy’s girlfriend hightailing it at the mention of another man; Andy engaging a fictional version of himself to chase a runaway boat. The gradation from slowness to speed is particularly remarkable given that Needing You . . . starts off as a static, almost ghostly film, with a sense of heaviness and fatigue. It seems miraculous that one could enter a film with no energy, before building to a cycle that draws us in, moves us up, spins us out.

  1. Shelly Kraicer, “Interview: Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai,” Senses of Cinema, 18 (2002). []