Wednesday, September 30, 2009

Gardening At Night: Another Record Store Memory

I'm a bit of an Anglophile when it comes to music and I blame my parents for that.

My biological father had an amazing record collection when I was a kid but it should be noted that the collection consisted entirely of doo wop, soul, rhythm-and-blues, and blues records; I think the only white artists he listened to were Frankie Valli and Gary Puckett and the Union Gap (!).

So, yeah, I had a great education as a little kid, and I knew more about The Drifters than any white 8-year-old should know in 1975 but all the other stuff that I now enjoy I had to discover on my own.

My mom had similar tastes, and was not hostile to the current disco hits of the 1970s, but she, like my father, didn't really like The Beatles; she owned one Beatles single, "Help!", from her time working at WPCG (a D.C. Top 40 radio station) in the mid-1960s and that was only because of the magnificent flip-side of "I'm Down".

So, by the time I was 16, I was sick of most American music after having so much of it played in multiple households during my youth. It was time for me to explore all of the British acts that I saw on TV in clips as a little kid: The Beatles, The Who, The Kinks, and so on.

However, even in the midst of all that English stuff, it was impossible to ignore the magnificence of current American band, R.E.M..

Admittedly, I got into them in 1984 after reading about them in Trouser Press and Rolling Stone and seeing them perform "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)" on some cheesy TV show.

R.E.M. "So. Central Rain (I'm Sorry)"

I had been listening to The Byrds that summer but not many other American bands so I recognized that chime in Peter Buck's guitar line but the vocals, their delivery, and the whole presentation was quite a bit different from the Who and U2 anthems I had been playing on my boombox all spring.

For a kid who would sit down and transcribe Elvis Costello lyrics, this sort of thing was entirely foreign: "What was he saying? What was he singing?" And why was it as powerful as any witty Difford-and-Tilbrook line?

Apart from X and Devo, I had pretty much ignored most American bands at the time and now felt myself obsessing over R.E.M. for a summer.

The first thing I purchased was current Top 40 album, Reckoning, and then I got the year-old Murmur and recognized "Radio Free Europe" from local alternative station WHFS.

(It should be noted that this was the summer of 1984 when WHFS still mattered and driving up to the station in Annapolis for handfuls of bumper stickers -- to spread the gospel of alternative rock [?] -- was a rite of passage. Here's a bit of background on the once-proud station. And here's a link to some downloads from the station circa 1982 and 1983 [Thanks Satch!])

Sometime that fall, I special-ordered from a local Sam Goody mall record store, the band's first release on cassette (I was done with vinyl even in 1984): Chronic Town.

Side one, with opener "Wolves, Lower" (love the e.e. cummings-esque unnecessary comma!) and closer "Carnival of Sorts (Box Cars)" was the preferred side.

But the jewel of the E.P. was "Gardening at Night" with its opening Byrdsian guitar riff prefiguring just about every C-86 British band I would be into a mere 3 years later.

(I think my love of the first Aztec Camera album, received the Christmas before, had primed me for the sort of sound I was going to hear on these early R.E.M. releases.)

Additionally, I think you could probably trace a direct line from that guitar riff to Johnny Marr's work in The Smiths but I digress.

I moved on from R.E.M. to other Southern rock bands that fall, namely Let's Active (I got Cypress on cassette that Christmas) and The Swimming Pool Q's -- who don't even warrant a Wikipedia page!?! -- as the Q's were the opening act for Lou Reed in the fall of 1984 at my first real rock concert that didn't involve my father and his kind of music.

Flash-forward 20+ years and imagine my shock when the band kicked into the song during their Rock and Roll Hall of Fame induction ceremony performance!

R.E.M. "Gardening at Night" 2007 Rock and Roll Hall of Fame Induction Ceremony

The good news is that drummer Bill Berry has reunited with some members of the band after retiring for health reasons a few years ago.

I never saw R.E.M. live even though I think I had free tickets to see them in 1989 during their Green tour thanks to my Record Co-Op job but I didn't go because I got sick of the band after hearing "Stand" so many times at work and on the radio (this was before it was used as the theme song to the genius TV show, Get A Life).

And as soon as 1986, I was obsessing over other American bands (The Replacements, Husker Du, and Lone Justice), so R.E.M. seemed less mysterious with each subsequent release.

Still, I can't hear those first few seconds of "Gardening at Night" without thinking of the pleasure of waiting for my Chronic Town tape to arrive at the store.

Tuesday, September 22, 2009

How Could I Not Post This? (Cherie Chung Again!)

I'm in no way attempting to post this like it's "news" or anything -- dleedlee already posted it and it's on too -- but, given my interest as shown by this blog's postings in the past year, how could I *not* post about Cherie Chung shooting a new ad -- especially when the photos are this great?

She's ridiculously beautiful! She manages to exist on that line between sexy and regal every time she's photographed now; somehow as she's gotten older, she's gotten a depth that most people probably didn't think she had.

Peking Opera Blues is a great film but it made me focus on Brigitte Lin while dismissing Cherie Chung as just a pretty ingenue.

But, going back and watching Cherie's films -- stuff like the woefully underrated Hong Kong Hong Kong -- and I'm beginning to fully appreciate what a wonderful actress she really was.

I went through a similar spell where I became a bit obsessed with Grace Kelly and there is a similar quality in the Cherie we see returning to the public eye.

Pretty actresses -- especially those who started young -- probably have to work twice as hard to be considered "serious" actresses.

Cherie probably will never be considered the great actress that Maggie Cheung is but she shouldn't be dismissed either.

Her return to acting would be greatly welcomed by a legion of Hong Kong film fans!

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

How I Almost Got Quarantined In Hong Kong!

I'm running out of stories to post about my trip to Hong Kong!

Tomorrow will mark two weeks since I've been home and I guess it is time to stop looking backward and time to start looking forward to Christmas and another possible visit.

I was going to post all about the two magnificent and cheap Indonesian meals that duriandave and I had but, alas, I accidentally deleted the photos from the second meal.

Here's a shot of our lunch at the first place which was only about US$5 per person and better than the one Indonesian restaurant in the D.C. area!

But I'm guessing the story of how I almost didn't get into Hong Kong is probably worth recounting as well.

As the plane ride over was going to be the longest I had ever been on up to that moment in my life, I was worried that I was going spend most of it sweating. Sweating is a big worry for me!

My fears were unwarranted as the plane was freezing! It was like every air nozzle was wide open and I could feel my skin drying up under the cool, crisp air for 14 hours as I watched Hotel for Dogs and that Zac Effron movie.

So by the time the plane landed, I had the sniffles for real. And that meant that I, trying to be Mr. Honest, put down "runny nose" on the little Hong Kong Department of Health questionnaire that the flight staff had passed out to us prior to landing.

Hey, I didn't want to walk off the plane and stagger through Customs with a Kleenex up to my nose and get spotted by the officials and shuffled off to a doctor, right?

Well, I did get shuffled off to a doctor. Sort of.

I made it out of one section and the guard at the final section of this section -- it's all a blur now -- read my little questionnaire and said in broken English, "No. You need to go here." Mostly he just pointed that out to me but the meaning was clear.

Next thing I knew I was being led by another guy in a surgical mask down the same escalator I had just ridden up and pointed to a makeshift clinic set-up in the basement of the airport. By now, I had been given my own surgical mask which was making me sweat a bit more -- that and precious little sleep over the last 14 hours and my general fear that I wasn't going to be able to enter Hong Kong were not soothing my already frazzled nerves.

I was proceeded by one other Chinese woman and a stunning (!), blond Russian woman in a sweatsuit who explained to me in adorably Russian-accented English: "I just go out for drinks with friends, get cough. That is all."

So they took me back, took my temperature via the ear, and gave me the "all clear" pass/form which you see below, pinned next to my House of Fury poster; Anthony Wong seems to be giving me a Gandalf-like "None shall pass!" doesn't he?

Another guard directed me out of the clinic but first pointed to the Russian woman, still waiting for her turn in the clinic, to ask: "Is she with you?"

And I, eternally the idiot, said Costanza-like: "Her? No, we're not together" with a dismissive wave of the hand.

I could be counting my rubles in Hong Kong right about now if I had been a bit quicker on the draw, eh?

Saturday, September 12, 2009

What I Bought In Hong Kong *UPDATED*

Well, I am proud of myself that I didn't buy too many DVDs in Hong Kong. I didn't repeat my English buying sprees so that's a good thing.

And the things I really wanted -- more Shaw reissues -- I couldn't find easily (though a few people did direct me to some secondhand shops that I just ran out of time to explore).

I did find the VCD of Twinkle Twinkle Little Star (the DVD is way out-of-print) in a nice shop in Mongkok (the name escapes me now).

I should note that while I couldn't find this title on DVD, there were loads of Shaw VCDs on sale in many shops. One place in Langham mall had a big display and I think the VCDs were 3 for HK$50 -- 3 for about US$7!!! -- and the place in Mongkok had a lot of other titles on VCD; it's just that I'm spoiled and am only buying DVDs now!

And I did find another Lily Ho title I needed (The Casino) and two Grace Chang titles for only about US$6 each! And another edition of Peking Opera Blues (the newer reissue).

I'm proud of myself that I exerted some self-control in the land of my current film obsessions!

Wednesday, September 9, 2009

Being A Tourist in Hong Kong

I almost wasn't going to do this post because it seemed so obvious and boring, but why not? After all, this kind of adolescent star worship was the impetus of my wanting to go to Hong Kong for nearly 8 years.

I went to England largely because of rock bands and musical history, so it's okay if I went to Hong Kong because of film history, right?

So, I landed on a Tuesday evening and felt exhausted with a tiny bit of fear creeping into my soul that maybe I wasn't up to exploring Hong Kong in the August heat.

I decided to just go to bed -- the airline fed us about one hour before landing -- and after the excitement of the flight and my near-quarantine at the airport (another story for another time), I was sleepy and not too hungry.

I set out for the Avenue of Stars the next morning.

This was going to be exactly the sort of mini-adventure I needed to remind myself of why I was in Hong Kong in the first place. If I was feeling a tiny bit of culture shock, this would jolt me out of that.

I'm not going to bore everyone with all of my photos from this simple walk but I would like to highlight the ones that made me pause and which reminded me of why I love Hong Kong and its cinema.

First, Brigitte Lin. Yes, she's Taiwanese but she's a legend of Hong Kong cinema. I spent a few years early in my viewing career reading these reviews on Brian's site and a lot of those were written by the woman behind one of my current favorite blogs. Brigitte's Garbo-like grace combined with her martial prowess (at least on film) seemed to dominate my mind during my early forays into Hong Kong cinema.

Next, a Vietnamese/Chinese/American writer/producer/director who convinced me to give Hong Kong cinema another chance after first being bored with the films of John Woo and the silliness of 1990's era Jackie Chan.

Speaking of Jackie Chan, here's his gift shop on the Avenue of Stars. I bet this is one of the only places in the world where a poster of The Tuxedo is so prominently displayed (you can almost see it in my amateurish picture).

After catching up on the films of Tsui Hark and Brigitte Lin (among many others), one of the first current stars that I gravitated towards was Cecilia Cheung. I miss her presence on the screen and, even though I've only been heavily into Hong Kong cinema for a little under 9 years, I feel like that's been long enough to see the rise and fall -- though hopefully that's just temporary! -- of a major star. It feels like a lifetime ago that I was reading Kozo's reviews and excitedly buying import DVDs of stuff like Para Para Sakura!

(Yeah, yeah, it's no masterpiece but Ceci made it watchable for this smitten fan!)

And, finally, forget the film stars and look at this skyscape! Did I first venture out in Hong Kong on a beautiful morning or what?

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

How I Almost Lost A Leg In The MTR

You know, I was trying to keep this little event a secret, but I've already told so many people that I can't be bothered to be shy about it anymore.

Besides, a week or so later and it seems less horrifying and more humorous.

So, as I posted earlier, duriandave and I had enjoyed a just about perfect day in Macau.

Really, I recall contentedly thinking that I could die happy after such a day! Little did I know that I was about to have an opportunity to do just that!

The TurboJet ferry on the way home seemed nicer than the one on the way over -- maybe it was just the nighttime ride making it seem more relaxing?

I recall catching a few minutes of sleep on the thing as American TV show "Man vs. Beast" played out soundlessly with Chinese subtitles on the onboard TV monitors.

It took us longer to get through immigration to get back into Hong Kong that night than it did for me to get into Hong Kong in the first place on Tuesday afternoon.

So by the time we were done with that, we were both practically sleepwalking home.

Maybe it was an aftereffect of the egg pudding from Fernando's?

So, I vaguely recall Dave looking at me and saying something along the lines of, "You should get a cab." Or: "Are you sure you know where you're going to get home?"

"Yeah, yeah. I'm fine."

So I needed to get off the train as Dave continued to ride home -- I think this was the Tsim Sha Tsui stop or maybe the Central stop where I would switch to another line to catch the train to Tsim Sha Tsui.

There's a mad rush of people getting off the train at this exit with me in the middle of them. I felt myself trip exiting the train, felt myself catch my right foot and straighten it up, and then my right leg just dropped down between the train and the platform!

Before I could even process what was happening, I was down in that space up to slightly above my knee on my right leg, with my left leg forcibly bent at the knee on the platform.

Then, within seconds, I felt at least three pairs of hands lifting me up -- my whole body felt like I was floating -- and sitting me down on the platform itself. Mind you, I weigh about 270 pounds!

By this time, there had been some commotion and Dave had leapt off the train with eyes as big as saucers -- he was wide-awake now!

"Dude, what happened!?!"

So, despite my near death experience -- surely the train had some kind of motion sensor that would have prevented it from pulling out while my leg was trapped, right? -- my only reaction was the giggling of John Candy in Planes, Trains and Automobiles -- "Wow! I mean, that was close. We can laugh about it now. We're all right." -- that sort of thing flashed through my movie-addled mind.

We both stood there laughing a bit, still processing the near horror that had just been averted.

And you'd think that my time in the U.K. would have made me an old pro at "Mind[ing] the Gap", that mantra repeated everywhere -- even on t-shirts -- anywhere near London.

I did stumble back to the hotel, spent an hour in the business center trying to load the day's pictures online, spent another 15 minutes trying to figure out how to retrieve my phone messages from the in-room phone (as well as turn off the flashing message reminder on the television), and then flopped backwards on the bed.

I could feel the room spinning behind my closed eyelids.

I got a sudden burst of energy and hopped up, showered, and went out to a nearby bar (Sticky Fingers on Mody Road) and listened to a Filipino cover band crank through a version of U2's "With or Without You" with the lead guitarist doing some Robert Fripp-like runs on his instrument as the drummer noticeably yawned behind him.

I didn't drink any booze that night as I was still a bit dazed and exhausted from my adventure.

I put my pants in to the hotel's laundry and the bill when they were returned read something like "bad stain already on pants." Yeah, black tar and engine grease do certainly leave a bad stain on Docker's.

Additionally, the metal teeth of the platform and train tend to leave bruises the size of dinner plates on one's leg as well.

Whoever you people are that pulled up this sweating, tired gweilo late on that Friday night, "Thank you!"

(That top picture is not me pointing out the scene of my spill but rather the only picture I have from this trip in Hong Kong's MTR system.)

Monday, September 7, 2009

Two More Cherie Chung Gems

The Yuppie Fantasia

1988's The Yuppie Fantasia is an interesting film. Less shrill and silly than many of the HK films of this era, it presents a portrait of married life that is not too flattering but is realistic and a tiny bit optimistic.

Lawrence Cheng plays Leung Foon, a businessman who's been married to Dodo Cheng's Ann Hui (!) for 7 years. The marriage seems loveless, with Ann dictating the terms of the couple's life including their sporadic lovemaking.

Leung Foon works with Big Cunning (Anthony Chan), the office Lothario, and Q-Tai Fong (I think I got that character name right; played by Manfred Wong). Q-Tai thinks himself a ladies man but ends up getting stuck "like glue" to office girl Louise.

At this point, Cherie Chung enters the film as the company's new boss. I think her presence was simply to sell this film as her role is quite small and the plot points involving her character and Leung Foon are never fully developed. There's a bit of comedy business as Foon helps Cherie find her contact lens on the office carpet, with Cherie posed suggestively.

And another bit of business as the couple get themselves locked in a closet overnight.

Given the era, these bits of comedy business are handled in a somewhat restrained manner; I was surprised as a HK film fan, actually.

As Leung Foon and Ann get a divorce, they both find their new solo lives to be less than exciting. Ann takes up with a new beau, played by Shaw veteran Paul Chun, while Leung Foon runs into an old schoolmate and former girlfriend, Jenny (played by Elizabeth Lee).

The film isn't a masterpiece but it is a nice picture of Hong Kong working life, circa 1988, and it is certainly a wonderful example of how to make a semi-realistic film that avoids the usual HK cinema silliness. For the most part.

Credit must go to director Gordon Chan, who recently finished shooting the international blockbuster, King of Fighters, according to Francoise Yip.

Without revealing too much, I'd also add that the film ends on a nice note that mixes realism and optimism; the ending felt natural and not the least bit cloying.

One Husband Too Many

In this 1988 film, director Anthony Chan stars as Hsin, an actor trying to bring Shakespeare to the masses. As the films opens, we see Hsin and his wife (Anita Mui) undertaking a rough performance of Romeo and Juliet in the countryside -- the New Territories? -- with an unruly crowd not appreciating the Bard's tale. With one patron throwing a sugarcane stick at Hsin, a fight is sure to follow. Look for an appearance by HK stalwart Bolo Yeung and a host of other musclemen in this funny sequence that sets up Hsin's plight.

Soon, Hsin's wife has left him and he's seeking solace with his ex-wife, played by Pat Ha, who's now married to Hua (Kenny Bee). Hua's wife now leaves him because he's too committed to his career and soon Hsin and Hua are living like The Odd Couple. The fellows are sitting on the balcony recounting their woes with life and women when the balcony breaks and they end up on the ground.

In an almost cartoonish following sequence, Hsin and Hua both have both arms in casts and are arguing as they attempt to do the everyday household tasks that they previously relied on their spouses for.

Somehow, Kenny Bee's Hua "gets religion" and takes to dressing a bit looser, carrying prayer beads, and quoting Buddhist aphorisms.

Meanwhile, Hsin has started up another acting troupe and is mounting a new colloquial take on Shakespeare called East Tsim Sha Tsui Romeo and Mongkok Juliet.

Enter Cherie Chung. Cherie is Frances, an actress in the play, who immediately attracts the smitten Hsin. After a night together, he is in love.

Unfortunately, Frances is an old schoolmate of Kenny Bee's Hua and, sure enough, the two are soon a couple.

The rest of the film consists of Hsin trying to deal with this new circumstance or break up the romance.

When Hua and Frances go to Macau, Hsin follows secretly behind, disguising himself in a pig mask and calling himself Elephant. There's a funny bit where he greets the couple in his mask and then drops off the balcony to approach Frances, seriously and sans mask, in a black turtleneck on the street below.

Of course, given the couple's legendary on-screen chemistry, Kenny Bee and Cherie Chung are the ones who go off into the sunset together with Anthony Chan left to grin alone as the credits roll.

Look for a brief cameo by Michael Chan in the final Macau restaurant scene.

I'm not entirely familiar with Anthony Chan Yau's work as an actor or director -- I did love A Fishy Story which he also directed -- but I'm now a fan. He's an odd presence and there was enough real heart in this silliness to make me want to see his other films as star and director.

One Husband Too Many was written by Alfred Cheung and Alex Law. Law wrote City of Glass, which I liked a lot, among many other titles, and Cheung has had a long career in Hong Kong film as a comic actor, writer, and director with a recent "triumph" being Contract Lover which this blogger liked quite a bit despite its obvious shortcomings.

Both this film and The Yuppie Fantasia are the new Fortune Star/Legendary re-issues and both look quite good in their new anamorphic widescreen DVD presentations. Subtitles are good with only a few typos in each feature.

You can order The Yuppie Fantasia on DVD here.

You can order One Husband Too Many on DVD here.

Saturday, September 5, 2009

Two Films in Macau

Ever since Star Wars made film-going an event in my young mind, I've had this weird ability to recall where I've seen each film I've ever seen in a theater. I can't recall the exact date -- year, yes -- but if you asked me: "Where did you see Superman IV: The Quest for Peace in 1987?" My reply would be: "Beltway Plaza mall, the middle multiplex." Or: "Where did you see Airheads for the 2nd time in 1994?" I'd say: "Oh, that was that second-run $1 theater in Laurel, Maryland, near the McDonald's on the way back to Bowie."

Even if I didn't have this weird power, I think my visit to the Cinema Alegria in Macau to view two films would be quite memorable. duriandave did his homework and he gets the credit for finding the place.

It's a theater that was probably built 40 years ago but which looks clean and remains functional. There's no snack bar -- just some drink machines -- and in August the lobby is open to the street as you can see in the picture below. The ticket window is there on the left.

So, on a hot August Friday, we stumbled into the place to view one film -- we only decided on staying for two after the first lackluster feature.

This is the sort of place that rotates a set of films on one big screen. In other parts of the world, a theater of this size would have been carved up into a multiplex long ago but, thankfully, the Alegria remains intact.

The first film was Kungfu Cyborg: Metallic Attraction and I was dreading it. However, the first third of the film progressed at a nice languid pace as the cops of a future China's countryside dealt with robot cop Alex Fong and his affection for female cop Betty Li. I wasn't really sure where this sequence was going -- and apparently neither were the filmmakers -- but I liked how relatively mellow it was.

However, as the effects kicked in, the film became exactly the kind of Eastern riff on Transformers that I feared it would become. Add to that that the film's best action sequence is followed by another 20 minutes of exposition followed by more action and you get an idea of how tedious this thing was.

Kozo has a real review and I think he pretty much nails it.

Law Kar-Ying from kenixfan fave The Chinese Feast is wasted in a small role in the film.

So as the film ended and disappointments were expressed, we made the snap decision to avoid the heat and stay for the next film: On His Majesty's Secret Service.

It's worth noting that this film had a few more people in attendance in the theater; whether this was due to time of day or the quality of the offering, I'm not sure.

I do recall now the quartet of schoolgirls who seemed fascinated at the sight of two sweaty white guys watching a Chinese film in a Macau theater; maybe they were just shocked that we were paying for a Wong Jing film? Eventually the girls stopped turning around to watch us watch the film and they, like the others in the theater, settled in for this Louis Koo bit of silliness.

I think I liked this film more than Kozo did, judging from his real review but my expectations were quite low: I simply wanted something that felt like a real Hong Kong film -- even if I was watching it in Macau!

It's weird watching a modern Wong Jing film as the production values seem higher even if the style and tone remain as loose and sloppy as they were in his older films. Somehow the film felt tighter and Louis Koo seemed more confident than usual.

As I didn't much care for Connected, I was happy to give Barbie Hsu another chance and, while she's not as good as Cecilia Cheung was at this sort of thing in The Lion Roars, she's cute and eager in her performance.

Law Kar-Ying is in this somewhere as well as Lam Tze-Chung who I consider myself a fan of -- not because we're both fat! -- thanks to his directorial debut with I'll Call You, which I sort of liked despite its shortcomings.

A double feature that I'm sure to remember for quite some time.

I snapped this shot of the advance poster for Storm Riders 2 as we left.