Picture of the Week #41: Happy Birthday, Michelle Yeoh (and a bunch of other people)

It’s a birthday fest this week, but special mention goes to Michelle Yeoh, who hits 48 today. As I’ve said before, the golden age of Hong Kong cinema (approx 1985 – 1995) was my gateway drug to the wonders of films outside my insulated, narrow viewing habits to date. Police Story III was one of my favourites, and Yeoh one its greatest assets, a rare occasion when Jackie Chan allowed his lead actress to upstage him. Elegant and poised, she was never above risking her neck in a fight or an ill-advised vehicular stunt. See her  jumping a motorcycle onto the top of a moving train. Yes, really:

Her first time on a motorbike, apparently, in the film that relaunched her career in fine style after she had retired for the duration of her marriage to spoilsport businessman Dickson Poon (when they met, Yeoh was Miss Malaysia, representing her country at the 1983 Miss World where Maggie Cheung was a semi-finalist – it’s a small (miss) world). The following year, she starred alongside Maggie Cheung and her friend, the late, much-missed Anita Mui in Heroic Trio, directed by Johnnie To (currently riding the crest of a wave of critical praise akin to that granted Jerry Lewis by the French), the last word on that increasingly exploitative sub-genre of women in tight clothing kicking stuff.

Michelle shares her birthday with plenty of illustrious movie people, some no longer with us, including: M. Night Shyamalan, Danny Lee (star of John Woo’s The Killer), Andy Warhol (d.1987), Robert Mitchum (d.1997), Lucille Ball (d.1989), the great Ealing director Charles Crichton (d.1999), and Harry O. Hoyt (director of the 1925 version of The Lost World, d.1961).


Magnificent Bodyguards: Jackie Chan in 3D, 1978

Jackie Chan in Magnificent Bodyguards

Apparently, we’re in the midst of a 3D revolution. What do you mean you hadn’t noticed? It’s mostly confined to cartoons and kids stuff, being a gimmicky plaything: at the far end of my cynicism scale, 3D is the most expensive game of peek-a-boo in history. I’ll sit this one out until the novelty wears off and we can see if it’ll have any staying power in the long run. Many attempts have been made to revive it as a crowd-pulling tactic, often to refresh a stale franchise or genre, sometimes to reassert the primacy of a big-screen cinema experience in response to competition from television or digital piracy. Louis Lumière even showed a stereoscopic remake of L’Arrivee d’un Train to the French Academy of Science in 1935 showcasing the “new technology” (stereoscopy itself predates cinema) by referring back to the first moments when films amazed audience with a purported illusion of depth and presence. It might be interesting if 3D could get over the hurdle of novelty and become just another part of the filmic furniture (I have a lazy eye and wear glasses, so the effect is sometimes wasted on me anyway, so I won’t mind if it disappears altogether again); 3D films so far have mostly been “fun” or spectacular. Who will dare to use it for a harrowing drama or discomfiting, miserabilist horror?

Magnificent Bodyguards 3D

I didn’t come here to bury or to praise 3D. Actually, I came with the humble intention of a quick post about Jackie Chan’s 1978 vehicle Magnificent Bodyguards. Jackie Chan starred in five films in 1978, one of which was Drunken Master, a film which would show the successful formula of mixing martial arts and physical comedy and end forever the attempts to turn him into the new Bruce Lee, but you can tell that this early effort, dates from a time when his handlers were shopping around for a consistent persona for their gifted young star. I hadn’t previously been aware that it had been shot in 3D, but the evidence was unmistakable. Objects are thrust towards the camera during combat scenes, suddenly popping into sharp focus a couple of inches from the camera. If 3D is supposed to be used to spatialise an environment, Magnificent Bodyguards uses it for jolting effect. The close-up shots are never held for more than a second, making for a rhythmically impactful use of the technology, as if you’re supposed to forget about the 3D until it pokes you in the retina. Of course, I was watching this on a 2D DVD, and inferring most of these effects from the ways in which the apparent 3D shots are incorporated into the action.

Magnificent Bodyguards 3D

Magnificent Bodyguards

As objects lunge out towards you, usually in a shot where the combatant looks directly into the camera, they come into privileged focus – they take on a singular objectness for a fleeting instant. It might be overused to the point where that specialness is depleted, though. The problem with 3D is that it makes literal or hyperbolic some of the effects which action films are trying to achieve anyway – they want you to feel closely involved in the action, physically engaged as you flinch in your seat. That usually has to be achieved with expert performance and rhymthic editing. Look at these two sequential shots from the film, in which Jackie Chan ends one shot by punching towards the camera, before the reverse shot shows the punchee falling away from the camera:

Jackie Chan in Magnificent Bodyguards Punched monk in Magnificent Bodyguards

The shot/reverse shot technique normally suggests a spectatorial space around which the action can occur: you might seem to be sat around a table with a group of people, without actuallg being the table, if you get what I mean. IMagnificent Bodyguards US postern this case, the “gap” between the two shots is compressed so that the spectator’s position is crunched between them. Are you expected to become both the head being punched and the fist punching it? Maybe the martial arts film is one of the few genres where 3D makes sense, since it aims to reduce the distance between viewer and drama, to make you react bodily to the performers on screen (even if it’s to note the contrast between their activity and your passivity), so it’s only a matter of time before somebody gives it a try in a non-Panda-based film.

Kung Fu Hustle Randomised

Stephen Chow in Kung Fu Hustle

The rules of Randomisation:

1. Select a film on DVD. Eclectic choices are encouraged.

2. Using a random number generator, select three frames from the film. So, if the film is 100 minutes long, enter the numbers 1 and 100 into the randomiser and it will select three figures. Capture the frames which occur on the DVD on the minute mark. You might want to cut out the titles and end credits if they’re just text.

3. Use the three frames as a starting point for discussing the film. Focus on the composition of the image, the content of the frame and, if you’re familiar with it, how it might fit into the rest of the film’s narrative or visual style. The random selection of frames will hopefully force you out of habitual preoccupations and selective analysis and make you focus on points of the film you might otherwise have ignored. Sometimes the frames will be very revealing and illustrative of the film’s central themes, and sometimes they will seem inconsequential, but you will always find something to say about them, even if it wasn’t what you instinctively wanted to say about the film in the first place.

[For more Randomised reviews on this site, go here. See also the 10/40/70 posts at Digital Poetics, the origin this idea.]

Today’s film is Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, and the randomly generated numbers are 35, 49 and 87. That should give a good sample of the movie, but let’s wait and see what happens…

Kung Fu Hustle

Kung Fu Hustle (2004) is the story of Sing (played by writer-director Stephen Chow), who wants to be a gangster in 1930s Shanghai. His petty-crook extortion methods are pretty pathetic, but when he tries to con the residents of the Pig Sty Alley (a reference to D.W. Griffith’s early gangster drama The Musketeers of Pig Alley (1912), perhaps?) slum, he reveals it to be the hiding place for a cluster of legendary kung fu masters, and triggers a turf war with the notorious Axe Gang. Sing will ultimately be revealed as an all-powerful martial arts legend in his own right, but at this point, the 35-minute mark, he is still a clumsy con artist. Attempting to throw a knife into the slum’s imposing matriarch, known as the Landlady (Qiu Yuen), he succeeds only in rebounding it back into his shoulder. Twice. His sidekick Bone (Chi Chung Lam) has a go, and accidentally stabs him again. One last attempt, after this frame, will see Bone oafishly tipping a basket of snakes over his companion.

Bone’s concern for his boss seems less than urgent. Sing’s face is one of pain, but also of resignation to his own failure. One accidental injury is conceivable, but three in a row hints at a booby-trapped world conspiring against him. Kung Fu Hustle is all about flying objects: bodies, axes, fireballs, weapons, eagles, rings all glide through the air with digitally-directed precision. Where once a martial arts film might have required painstakingly practised dexterity (or cunning editing), computer-generated special effects allow a director to control exactly the trajectory of objects. For Chow, this permits a hyperbolic slapstick style – those are CG knives stuck in his shoulders. While most slapstick involves blunt things bouncing off hard hollow heads, in this case the sudden, unexpected penetration of flesh by blades is a hilarious shock. The film repeatedly remixes the rules of physical endurance: sometimes bodies are featherlight and destructible, and then impenetrably powerful. Chow plays with discrepancies of scale and grandiosity; he loves moving rapidly from scenes of graceful, superhuman combat and crude, trivial idiocy.

Kung Fu Hustle 49th minute

At the 49th minute, we arrive right in the midst of a fight scene. The Axe gang have hired the two zither players, legendary warriors whose weapon is the guzheng, a traditional Chinese stringed instrument. When plucked just right, it fires bolts of ernergy. Having brought the slum’s guardians to the brink of defeat, they suddenly attract the attention of a new opponent. In a shot containing only their feet, they leap into the air, but upon landing, a third pair of feet lands between them. This is the subtle unveiling of the Landlord’s extraordinary abilities, the first of which is the ability to appear on the scene undetected: conveying his appearance with a shot of feet is a nice touch – the shot begins as it ends, with feet on the ground, with that simple addition of an extra pair between them. The purple silk pajama suit is not usually an indicator of deadly skills, but then this is a film that makes great play with the appearance of its superpowered combatants and the capabilities they conceal behind a facade of ordinariness.

Kung Fu Hustle 87th minute

A Google Earth shot near the end of the film and its climactic battle between Sing and a fearsome, froggy fighter known as the Beast. Hurled upwards into the air, Sing spins towards the clouds, where he will step on an Eagle for the extra height needed to reach the Buddha and acquire the knowledge of the Buddhist Palm, a match-winning move that he has long wished to master, ever since buying a martial arts manual from an old beggar when he was a child. This moment will bring his character arc to its culmination, consolidating his status as a true warrior, and its significance is marked by this soaring shot of literalised transcendence – his distance from the ground (another hyperbolic extension of the usual rules of martial arts film) gives him heightened awareness, a more global context and a broader overview of the scene below. He is far away from knives in the shoulder, loosed from gravity, inertia and troublesome objects. His suspension between the two eagles makes him one of them, even as his superimposition over the tenement blocks below reminds us of where he has come from and where he must fall to once again.

She Shoots Straight

On the rare occasions when I get chance to revisit some old Hong Kong action movies, I’m transported back to my late teenage years, when I was freer to indulge in the guilty pleasures of this stuff. Watching Cory Yuen’s She Shoots Straight (1990), I was reminded of the times when Hong Kong provided me with a route into a range of cinemas from around the world. I had been a pretty conservative film viewer, preferring my movies to be fast, slick and immediate, but I did make an effort to check out some films which I was always told were classics: I seem to remember Bergman, Tati, Hitchcock, Godard and Kurosawa being a few of my starting points. Once I discovered Hong Kong action films, I found their frenetic eclecticism startling enough to set off a domino cascade of explorations in international film, leading into more interesting, challenging and esoteric quarters. But even if I don’t get chance to bathe in its craziness very often, I’ve never lost a residual affection for Hong Kong action cinema’s golden age and the way it shook me out of a complacent viewing position. We often think that “world cinema” (a phrase I’m far from being keen on – it evokes an ethnographic fascination with foreign things and, when used in the UK, ignores the fact that Hollywood movies are also “world cinema”) gives us a window into faraway lands and cultures. That may be partly true, but it is a view that is obscured by the cultural specificities of the industry from whence it came, and the audiences for whom it was designed. So, while She Shoots Straight is a formulaic addition to the action movie genre, it goes about its business in a manner that may be disorientating for viewers unfamiliar with the way they used to do things in Hong Kong (of course, you’d never guess it from the packaging and marketing that tends to elide these differences wherever possible).

Joyce Godenzi, a former Miss Hong Kong winner (1984) and wife of Sammo Hung, stars as Mina, a police officer who works alongside her new husband (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), much to the annoyance of his sisters, who are also jostling for position and recognition in the same force. Beginning with the wedding, followed immediately by a dramatic intervention in the attempted kidnapping of a princess, the film bolts together inseparably the twin imperatives of family drama and action adventure. There are plenty of sequences of bodies stretched to their acrobatic limits, and just as muscle and sinew are at full-stretch, so are the emotions.

At the core of the film is a twenty-five minute section in which Mina’s husband is viciously slaughtered by a criminal gang, followed by an excruciating birthday party for his mother, throughout which Mina tries desperately to put on a brave face and keep his mother from finding out the true reason for his absence. Next comes the funeral, which the gang attacks by placing a bomb in the coffin, leaving Mina requiring surgery, which she has to endure without anaesthetic because, as she learns for the first time, she is pregnant with her late husband’s child. Finally, her insensitive boss arrives to crack jokes and shrug off the tragedy. This cavalcade of torment clearly serves to set up the final section of righteous vengeance, as Mina hunts down and crushes the gang. But if the husband’s death is just a narrative device to provide a motivation for some combat scenes, does it have to be laid on so thick, with screaming and crying and wallowing, synthesised music?

Well, this film, along with many others like it, offers a synthesis of body and emotion. Bodies are put to the test, held taut and poised, faces fixed in grimaces or ferocious determination, while an outpouring of emotion accompanies the physical release of punishing combat. This intertwining of physical and emotional tensions is most starkly expressed in the actual pains endured by stunt performers (usually the stars themselves for added authenticity), lingered over with slow motion or repeated shots. Fighting here is a cathartic explosion of rage, but it is firmly established as a powerfully felt spectacle rather than one that can be observed with awed detachment. There is always a danger, I suppose, that the emotionalism is too stark or forced, that it is distancing rather than engaging. It took me a while to acclimatise to the histrionics of this kind of emotional action cinema.

The final showdown is between Joyce Godenzi and Agnes Aurelio. Just prior to their confrontation, Mina’s bereaved mother-in-law is callously wounded, refuelling the drive for vengeance, but putting the emphasis on conflicts between women for the protection of the family (Mina is pregnant, remember). Each fighter is out for revenge for the other’s killing of a loved one. They kick at each others breasts, legs, bellies and groins, singling out each other’s womanly attributes for especially violent attention, perpetuating the fetishistic aspects of the female-focused martial arts film, but re-articulating the central themes – by protecting her unborn child, Mina will honour the wishes of her mother-in-law and the memory of her husband (who wanted a child far more urgently than she ever had: we saw him earlier making holes in a condom!). But this is not an unproblematic restoration of order. Everyone ends bereaved. The film ends abruptly when Mina beats Agnes into unconsciousness and tosses her onto the back of a motorcycle. The end credits roll over a montage of the happy couple, the husband’s death and funeral. If you’re accustomed to Hollywood action movies, you’ll find this unnerving. Where is the nod-and-wink, gift-wrapped happy ending of vanquished foes and nursed bruises, shrugging off the preceding mayhem and getting back to normality? How did this silliest of genres come to be taking things so seriously? It’s all part of the intensity, the heightened emotions that filled the films from this period, produced at a breakneck pace that fostered this kind of immediate headrush of bodily and emotional display.

(If you must see it out of context and in poor quality, you can see the fight between Joyce Godenzi and Agnes Aurelio on YouTube here.)

Jackie and Woolly: Was it Worth it?

This is not a personal blog. If it was, I’d be telling you about the shoes I bought the other day, or what I ate for dinner last night (in case you’re interested, the shoes don’t fit properly, and I had seafood pasta). Or something like that. I’m not going to write about that stuff here, but you’ll probably be able to tell quite a lot about me from the fact that one of the most distressing sights I’ve seen in the last fortnight is Jackie Chan’s appearance in the latest Woolworths ad.

Now, don’t get me wrong. I’m not naïve enough to be surprised that movie stars take the corporate quid and lower themselves to some publicity whoredom, but this one hurts a bit. Jackie Chan was a hero of mine in my younger years, and was probably as instrumental in getting me interested in international cinema as Godard or Ozu ever were (Police Story and Tokyo Story hit me with equal force around the same time). For a couple of years I’ve had a plan for a book-length study of Chan’s films, incorporating a close formal analysis of some key fight scenes. It’s long overdue, and might remain nothing more than a back-burning pet project for some years to come, partly because writing about Drunken Master doesn’t seem like a short cut to credibility for an early career academic. Whatever else I became fascinated by cinematically, Chan’s career was always worth following, either for a window into the workings of a foreign star system, or for a steady stream of astonishing action sequences. At its best, his fight choreography delivers a kinetic thrill that is hard to find in other action films. Even his lesser films (I have serious issues with almost everything he’s made since Drunken Master II) contained moments of inspired and inventive physical agility or a severely risky stunt or tightly-rehearsed bit of business. In the resolutely lightweight Around the World in 80 Days (2004), a fight in an artist’s studio descends into a mess of coloured paint that coheres when a series of misplaced blows leave a vibrant impressionist painting on a bystanding canvas. It’s a lovely moment of clarity in an otherwise shaky film, and a neat summary of Chan’s persistent amusement at the way screen violence is only ever one derealised step away from slapstick comedy.

It was exciting to watch him falling from a clock tower in Project A (1983) or re-creating Buster Keaton’s falling house stunt in, er … Project A II, but that frenetic eagerness to please, sometimes reinforced by rubber-faced gurning, was occasionally discomfiting – I was, after all, watching a man risk a serious maiming for my entertainment. Chan’s fearless/reckless willingness to take a high fall, heavy blow or near miss for the team is precisely what has been used to market him abroad and differentiate him from American action stars. Consider, for example, the US release poster for his Western breakthrough film Rumble in the Bronx (1995), with its tagline “No Fear. No Stuntman. No Equal.”

It’s certainly true that, along with the remarkable rhythmic structure of his action scenes (maybe I’ll blog more about that at a later date), this element of physical danger is what has made Chan’s films distinctive, so it’s saddening to see that extraordinary physicality, which so succinctly visualises questions of filmic authenticity and embodiment, appropriated to sell some dirt-cheap kids’ clothes.

Now, I shouldn’t have been surprised that Chan has appeared in an advert. He’s no stranger to it, having sold a lot of Pepsi, Hanes T-shirts, Kirin Beer, Visa Cards, Ultra Flex Garbage Bags, and maintained a 30-plus year association with Mitsubishi that has required him to incorporate their wonderful, wonderful automobiles into his films at every opportunity. And this is not subtle product placement. In Wheels on Meals, a car chase is halted to allow a woman to berate the other drivers. With the Mitsubishi logo in the foreground, she complains that she’d be dead if she wasn’t driving such a great sportscar, then gets in and drives off.

I suppose the Jackie Chan Woolworths ad just took me aback because of the incongruous pairing of one of the world’s most bankable film stars with one of Britain’s ailing high street chains, so it was a bit like seeing Gregory Peck schilling for Happy Shopper, or Catherine Deneuve pretending she uses Head and Shoulders. The ad also features a tired old parody of badly-dubbed “chop-socky” movies and an even stupider Karate Kid gag. To watch Chan play into a creaky cultural stereotype for the benefit of an audience whose interest in martial arts cinema begins and ends with “wax on, wax off” is surely something to sigh about.

Having said all this, I’d still rather see Jackie do a couple more appearances with Woolly and Worth than make another movie with Chris Tucker…