China Town Recommended
Directed by Shakti Samanta
1962 | India

CHINA TOWN opens like any number of "Yellow Peril" Hollywood B-movies from the 30's: The classic "Oriental Riff" kicks off while the opening credits appear like chopsticks. Sometimes I wonder if movies are set in Chinatown just to enable a perverse desire on the part of the director to sink into these tired cliches. But CHINATOWN almost immediately steps ahead, as the opening song transforms into a delightful Ravi song picturized on everyone's favorite item-number dancer, Helen, playing the bar girl Suzie (Wong?). And then: two Shammi Kapoors, one good, one bad, prefiguring the classic DON.

Bad Shammi is a gangster named Mike who has an opium addiction, treats Suzie like trash even though she loves him, and has a number of annoying mannerisms, especially a dismissive whistle and hand gesture that I am greatly relieved never caught on in the real world. He also makes dramatic pronouncements about himself in the third person, like "Time moves along with Mike, not the other way around."

But he gets caught by the police, who then haul in good Shammi, a singer named Shekhar, who was trying to woo Rita (Shakila), the daughter of a rich man who despises idle crooners. When Shekhar takes over for Mike in the gang, his girlfriend thinks he is a criminal after all, but meanwhile Shekhar's mom reveals that he had a twin, and that they were separated at birth. Could the criminal be his long lost brother? Sweet lord, it's a Bollywood film, of course he is!!!

Shammi Kapoor films are usually bright and fun films filled with songs and romance. China Town has its share of both but puts a dark noir on top. The stakes keep rising, until finally Mike's shoemaker -- its hard to explain, but the gang seems to have its own shoemaker -- finally puts it all together, leading to a melodramatic, action filled climax.

Opium dens and Chinese gangsters seem a strange fit in an Indian film, but the picture takes place in Calcutta, which is in fact the only Indian city to have its own Chinatown, one with a long and rich history. The Chinese filled jobs that the locals were unwilling to take (just as they did everywhere), in this case, work in the "unclean, low caste" leather industry, among others. There were also plenty of Chinese gangsters and opium dens.

On top of everything, the movie was released in 1962, the same year as the Sino-Indian war. During this time, many Chinese left India, and those that stayed were suspected of aiding the enemy and some even sent to internment camps. That this film, depicting thuggish, suspicious Chinese, was released in this year was just one more way that the enemy was dehumanized. Comparing how poorly Pakistani soldiers come off in today's Bollywood films, though, the Chinese get an exceedingly fair shake here (and Helen is meant to play the sympathetic Chinese girl Suzie, which mines a whole different stereotype, but nevermind).

But: I love the movie anyway, from the wonderful performances of Shammi Kapoor and Helen, to the Chinese-inspired soundtrack, to the terrible "yellowface" makeup worn by some of the supporting cast. It's got enough Shammi for fans of his usual antics, and enough serious to not turn off viewers unused to Bollywood conventions.

An Empress and the Warriors Not Recommended
Directed by Ching Siu-Tung
2008 | China
| Hong Kong

For a little while, there, Chinese movies once again had international audiences, the size of which they hadn't seen since Bruce Lee. For that, they had to thank Ang Lee's Croutching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), and Zhang Yimou's Hero (2002). In addition the mainland market was for the first time wide open, provided that films were made as "co-productions" including mainland cast members, and did not concern themselves with banned politically charged topics like, say, letting the bad guy get away at the end of a movie, or showing supposedly real supernatural events, or, I don't know, mentioning Tibet. So what better way to rake in cash in both the international and mainland markets than to create a big, slick, epic, historical action picture? But the boom years are over. Chinese cinema forgot to diversify their portfolio, and the epic market has crashed. And burned. Or, if not the market as a whole, certainly, AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIOR did. And considering the next big upcoming epic film is directed by John Woo, I can only assume the slide to mediocrity is all but complete.

That's not to say there may still be some good epic movies to be made. Battle of Wits (2006), for example, was superb. It is simply that no one will care.

Look at the attention paid here to bring to life ancient China, with each character's armor individually crafted, and each main character with their own specially distinct sword. The image is lovingly color-graded in post production, to give it that glossy "expensive-movie" glow. Almost the entire cast plays their roles as if they were making something as profound as Shakespeare, and as visually exciting as Lord of the Rings.

Ah, but it just isn't so. The direction, by the legendary action choreographer and Director Ching Siu-Tung, is perfunctory. I waited through the entire film hoping to see an interesting angle, a new way to stage an entrance or develop a dramatic scene, but it never came. I believe that a person could actually assemble this film, shot for shot, out of movies already made. Let's see -- slow motion horse's hooves, galloping through water -- found it! And what have we here: oh! Applying medicine to a woman who is very shy about the violation -- yes, yes, here! And so on, and so on.

Though the direction is disappointing, the story, such that it is, must out of all elements be the one that wears the dunce cap. Kingdoms at war, King dies, wants to pass Kingdom on to orphan general Muyong Xuehu (played by Donnie Yen) instead of his blood relative, not realizing that will lead to civil war (apparently a bit of an idiot King), so princess (Kelly Chen) assumes the throne instead. She gets attacked, then is mended by peaceful man Duan Lanquan (Leon Lai) living on the outskirts of civilization. They fall in love, she advocates peace instead of war, complications ensue.

The trouble here is in the moral conception of the world. War = bad? Peace = good? Maybe. But this isn't explored in any detail, it is just assumed. Compared to the political complexity of Battle of Wits, this movie is simply moronic.

It looks good, though even this strength turns against the film when we are taken to Duan Lanquan's peaceful home, which overspending by the Production Design department has made it look like it was built by the Swiss Family Robinson, or maybe the set from the Spielburg misfire Hook (1991). It is utterly ridiculous, and yes, while the princess is there, he also invents a backscratcher and a hot air balloon.

There are some good moments to be had. The cast is entirely competent, and though as expected Kelly Chen never quite convinces, she isn't completely horrible, either. And in the end, Donnie gets an action scene that would have made Chang Cheh proud (when reassembling this film out of previously made films, look for some Chang Cheh/Ti Lung films for this part). And it may be more enjoyable the second time around, once the expectations game has been played out. Then again, I can't really envision watching the movie a second time, considering there are no additional layers or subtext to the film. You'd be better off going back to watch a more complex historical love story, like House of Flying Daggers (2004). All style and no substance leaves AN EMPRESS AND THE WARRIORS feeling old, tired, and spent, like the Chinese historical epic genre as a whole.

Pyaasi Nagin Not Recommended
Directed by Kishan Shah
2004 | India

A complete rip off of the classic 1976 film Nagin. While it isn't quite scene-for-scene, a la Gus Van Sant's PSYCHO, it is pretty damn close. As if pretending otherwise, the movie opens with a disclaimer that "All the characters in this film are fictitious and bear no resemblance to any communities, person living or dead." I half expected the disclaimer to also state, "And the film is nothing like NAGIN. Really, we're being totally serious." The director even puts his name above the title, so it reads, "Kishan Shah's PYAASI NAGIN," as if putting his name in front somehow helps him own the material.

The story, familiar to viewers of NAGIN, is this: a writer saves a snake man in the woods, who tells him about when he's about to meet his mate. The writer gathers up a group of his friends to peep on them, but when the snake man turns into a cobra, one of the guys shoots it, thinking he is saving the girl from being bit. Not quite, though, since she's a snake woman, and they've just murdered her boyfriend. So, she hunts them down, one by one, and murders them.

The story is told in a completely perfunctory way, this time out, since I suppose the director assumes everyone knows the story already. He skips rationalizing any of it, making sense of any of it, and providing any kind of character for any of the victims to be, again I suppose assuming the previous movie had already done that. Which makes this remake completely pointless, and much, much, worse.

How much does this movie follow NAGIN? Well, lets take a look at a couple scenes.

First, the novelist saves the snake man, and asks, "How do you survive out here?" From the 1976 movie:

From this one:

Not even the songs are original, with several of the tracks lifted directly from NAGIN. The only difference between the two movies during those points, is that in this new one, there is a quick shot of a boom box sitting nearby. I guess this is meant to suggest that the characters in this movie aren't singing, the songs from NAGIN just happened to be playing on the radio nearby.

[IMAGE: "Hey, let's listen to the soundtrack of NAGIN while a snake woman dances outside, OK?"]

PYAASI NAGIN has the feel of a home movie copy of a classic that some dudes put together for a laugh and uploaded onto Youtube. The cast is uncharismatic, goofy looking, and a bit on the hefty side, even for Bollywood. And the dancing is seriously bad. How bad? How about one more comparison.

The snake people cavorting, circa 1976:

And in 2004:

[Shudder.] Theoretically, PYAASI NAGIN could be good for a laugh, but it really isn't. It is so tirelessly derivative that it offers nothing new of any interest.

Happenings, The Highly Recommended
Directed by Yim Ho
1980 | Hong Kong

Viewers of Hong Kong Cinema in 1980 could be forgiven for thinking the world was coming to an end. The old societal customs no longer held, and the new was open to endless possibility in the imagination, but narrowed by poverty and circumstance into a futile struggle to find some purpose, any purpose, worth having. In Patrick Tam's Nomad, teens hung out and tuned out of a society in which they couldn't find a place, but which wouldn't let them go except in death. In Tsui Hark's Dangerous Encounter - 1st Kind, the bored kids turn to a darker place, and get their kicks killing cats and making bombs, with however similarly disasterous consequences. Somewhere in the middle, then, sits THE HAPPENINGS, its teen protagonists neither dropping out of society nor willfully destroying it. Instead, they just carouse through life, drinking, dancing, partying, stealing, for no other reason than listless boredom. And very quickly, things start getting out of control.

The kids steal a car, because it is a fancy buggy that some idiot left the keys in. A crime of opportunity, taken on a whim. They cruise the city streets, and stop at a remote gas station to fill the tank, but without any money, they need to come up with some kind of scam to get away, one which the grownups don't take too kindly to. The gas station attendants would rather fight it out than let the kids get away with a lousy tank of gas.

Accidents happen, people die, lives turn to shit. They never really knew how to fit in to society at large, how it really worked, so of course they have no idea how to handle a situation when it goes wrong.

What's worse, and what makes THE HAPPENINGS such a powerful film, is that the adults aren't particularly mature, either. No real father figures, elder brothers, wise men, sympathetic elders -- nothing. When the kids try to get away with not paying for their gas, the gas attendants go ballistic, and one (Wong Yut Fei in an early role) starts swinging a crowbar with no regard for how lethal it is. The adults lose control as quickly as the teens. When Cheung Kwok Keung takes the stolen car to show his brother, his brother admonishes him not to steal -- "unless you are going to rob a bank," he adds, while removing the car stereo and leaving with it. When one of the boys seeks shelter with a prostitute to avoid the cops, she simply tries to extort him for all he's worth. No one has much control. Everyone is self-obsessed. And as a consequence, no one can possibly help these kids.

But it doesn't matter, anyway, because it becomes clear the kids wouldn't know what help looked like anyway and wouldn't take it if offered, except to get out of today's jam and into tomorrow's. They, too, have no loyalty to others, no perspective, no plans. When a detective stumbles across them, one of the girls quickly starts shouting "I didn't kill! It was him! It was him!" and even though she travels with the gang, taunts that they will be punished for what they did, not even seeing that her very presence makes her an accomplice. There is no solidarity between friends, only scared bundles of raw energy that fly apart at the slightest touch.

Yim Ho's first two films, THE EXTRAS and THE HAPPENINGS, are two of the most frenetically exciting, out-of-control Hong Kong films ever made. Each feature protagonists who are unable to control their destiny, and are swept along by events without a pause to reflect or time to act. Or worse, when they finally are able to act, their actions only make matters worse. Nothing is simple in these films, every action has its consequences, and most of all, there is a feeling that no one is fully in control, nobody understands what is safe and what is dangerous, nobody can clearly explain right and wrong. The viewer experiences the utter helplessness of the protagonist's situation. The filmmaker best known for frenetically paced films has to be Tsui Hark, but in his films, the flurry of action makes the viewer giddy with excitement and eager to see what will happen next, compared to the experience in Yim Ho's films, of nervousness and alarm.

In an interview published by the Hong Kong Film Festival ("Hong Kong New Wave: 20 Years After"), Yim Ho states that his first films were "experiments" and that he didn't understand how to make a film until he made HOMECOMING, his fourth picture, in 1984. I suppose this is an understandable view for him to take, given that this film was not very successful, while HOMECOMING won armloads of awards and prestige. But I respectfully disagree. Although many of his films are unfortunately not easily available, those that I have seen suggest that these first films were among the best he ever made, and deserve a place on every Hong Kong cinema enthusiast's shelves -- provided a decent home video release ever materializes for them. For now, Joy Sales has released THE HAPPENINGS on VCD, so it will have to do.

Call-Girls, The Not Recommended
Directed by Cheng Kang
1977 | Hong Kong

Who knew that 2008 would be the year that Hong Kong learned, in great detail, Edison Chen's sexual proclivities? Oral sex, thankfully off of the front pages of newspapers ever since Bill Clinton left the White House, shot up and spattered all over the headlines for no less than 21 days, an event now known as "Sexy Photos Gate". Because Edison took his oral fixation one further and took pictures and video of the act, and saved the overcompensating artifacts to his cute little pink Mac Book, then took it in to some computer shop for repairs, like the empty headed moron he is, everyone with an Internet connection can now enjoy the fruits of his labors. What are the actresses to do? How will the Hong Kong film industry recover? Perhaps they should take a page from the Shaw Brothers playbook and do as they did, when in 1977, there was a starlet sex scandal: make a movie out of it.

The scandal in 1977 was a bit different: the actresses were allegedly getting rented out as call-girls and making a tidy sum as a side-business out of it. Much worse than today's scandal, I suppose, but still: at least the girls back in 1977 had an angle and were earning some money. Gillian Chung, Cecilia Cheung, and the other actresses and singers involved in Sexy Photos Gate, on the other hand, were just being stupid, letting their boyfriend snap compromising pictures of them because -- what, they were in love? Wanted to please him? There's always the chance they were into it, too, but at this time, thousands of erotic photographs of various lovers have NOT turned up on anyone elses computers, so we'll have to assume this is Edison's freak show and no one elses.

THE CALL-GIRLS starts out in a faux-documentary style, with actors and directors in the Hong Kong film industry being asked about the scandal by a reporter, and echoing similar interviews from the recent scandal, they all have sympathy, and generally refuse to criticize or even comment. The movie explores the girls lives, each one harder than the last. Though it was interesting to see the movie suggest that several starlets actually started out as prostitutes before becoming famous actresses, and simply continued to turn tricks on the side as part of their contract with their agent. Others are drawn in unwittingly and become trapped under threat of blackmail. Danny Li plays the cop investigating the case, the story told as different women (Shaw "starlets" Shirley Yu and Chen Ping, among others) are brought before him at the station and he considers charging them and setting bail.

In the end, the movie asks, "Who is to blame? Who should be punished?" Let me nominate director Cheng Kang for the punishment queue, for making such a terrible film on such a salacious topic. The directors comedic vs. dramatic sensibility must be called into question, to begin with. The disturbing scene of a japanese man who prefers to use large gourds on his call girl is apparently comedy, while the hilarious scene of the call girls stripping at the funeral of one of their own and becoming nude pallbearers is apparently drama. Like many Shaw Brothers sex films, it is chock full of sex and nudity, but slathered with condemnation and disgust for the whole enterprise. The director maximizes his disgust by making sure most of the nasty men taking advantage of and abusing the women are English or Japanese.

[IMAGE: Shirley Yu from THE CALL-GIRLS, and Gillian Chung from Sexy Photos Gate. The more things change, the more they stay the same.]

In the absence of easily demonized ethnic outsiders, who then should be punished for "Sexy Photos Gate"? No one broke any laws, except a petty theft in the case of the repair shop employee who snagged a copy of the snaps off of Edisons Mac. Nevertheless, the police acted overzealously and sought to criminalize everyone who came into contact with the pictures, the immediate result being that posting the pictures became less about ruining careers, which it still did, and more about Freedom of Speech against an oppressive government. In the punishment category for this scandal, then, I nominate the Chief of Police, if no one else. The actresses involved have ruined their careers, punishment enough, surely, though I have to wonder if EEG can sue Gillian for breach of contract due to the affair -- surely there's a clause in there somewhere that says you can't ruin your reputation while they are trying to keep you as a bankable star? If there isn't, somehow I think the next batch of starlet contracts will include this clause. As for Edison Chen, his life is not just an episode of BIG BROTHER, but of SURVIVOR, and I think he's just been voted off the island.

There are a lot of ways "Sexy Photos Gate" could be made into a movie: a tragedy of hubris, pride coming before a fall. Or a cat-and-mouse game between the cops, the triads, and everyone else trying to stop the person who continued to post images online, under the nickname "Kira" (a nod to the movie DEATH NOTE), until he suddenly stopped. Did someone catch up to him? Did he blackmail the actors and actresses involved? Was he murdered? Who knows? Could be a good story. I'm thinking Francis Ng or Nic Tse as "Kira" and, I don't know, Stephen Fung as Edison Chen. Paging Wong Jing, Hong Kong needs you right now. Because nothing puts a scandal to rest better than immortalizing it as a trashy movie.