Tuesday, March 29, 2011

Reconciling The Captain America Trailer With My Love Of Jack Kirby

I'm never as patriotic as I am when I'm reading a Captain America comic book, preferably one written and drawn by Jack Kirby.

That's not so surprising considering that one of the seminal moments in my comics reading life was devouring Jack Kirby's Captain America's Bicentennial Battles as a 9-year-old in the American bicentennial year of 1976.

(And yes, I do appreciate the irony of me being super patriotic about my country even as I look for a job outside of my country!)

I've always been fairly liberal thanks to my mother, her father -- think a F.D.R.-loving, Jimmy Carter-voting Archie Bunker -- and my biological father, but that liberalism always came with an understanding that pointing out my country's mistakes was not the product of some kind of hatred of America but, rather, the necessary reminder that our leaders were not following our own American ideals.

Now I'm not going to get all political on you guys but it's important to note that I have no problem waving the flag with Cap but I do have a problem blindly waving the flag every time one of our leaders makes an empty speech.

Or lands on the deck of an aircraft carrier dressed up as a pilot.

My first concern with the new Captain America film was that it was going to be set in World War 2. After watching the masterful theatrical trailer about a dozen times, I can say that my worries are gone.

Setting the film in World War 2, with Cap fighting both Nazis and the hordes of HYDRA, will allow things to be suitably patriotic without being silly or too jingoistic.

I'm assuming that the film will end with some kind of transition from Cap's "death" in World War 2 to Cap being unfrozen from a block of ice in the modern era, setting the stage for The Avengers (2012) film.

(This post from Superhero Hype answered that for me!)

The 1970s Captain America was always a man out-of-time, with Kirby portraying the guy as a sort of overgrown Boy Scout. And that's okay. I liked that wide-eyed quality of the character in those comics.

Not every superhero gets to brood, or even needs to.

So will the film be sufficiently light in tone to bring that quality to the screen, or will the makers try to make Captain America and Steve Rogers mysterious and complex?

Rewatching parts of Joe Johnston's The Rocketeer (1991) on cable this weekend, I was reassured that the director knows how to be serious and silly in the same film.

As others have noted, the thing should have a sort of Indiana Jones vibe to it without sacrificing a real sense of outrage and horror about the Nazi menace.

Now my only problem is the gun Cap's firing off in the trailer.

I am a liberal but I'm also sort of a supporter of limited gun rights in this country. But there are just some characters -- Batman and Captain America, obviously -- who don't need to use guns.

I understand that some recent issues of his comic book feature the guy with a gun, and I realize that Cap is leading a bunch of commandos here, but it still vaguely bothers me.

Apart from that, I was more than pleasantly reassured with the tone and look of the film as seen in the trailer.

I may not ever get a Captain America film with The Falcon -- set in 1976, 'natch! -- but I think I'm going to be a happy Marvel fan at the movies this summer.

Come July 22 -- probably at midnight the night before -- I'll be in line to see Captain America: The First Avenger (2011).

Sunday, March 27, 2011

Cherie Chung Week (Bonus): The Story of Woo Viet (1981)

I know I said in the introduction to my second Cherie Chung week that The Story of Woo Viet (1981) had to be removed from the list of titles as the DVD I got in Hong Kong was sans English subtitles.

Well, guess what? I got a copy with English subs!

An enormous THANK YOU to Kenneth from the wonderful So Good Reviews. Seriously, this Cherie Chung junkie thanks you.

Now, on to the film!

From what little research I've done on the web, Hong Kong had a high number of refugees from Vietnam in the 1970s and 1980s. In 1989, the Comprehensive Plan of Action was adopted. Hong Kong had seen a lot of these refugees and the plan was clearly meant by many countries as a way to stop the tide of asylum seekers since the war had been over for quite a few years at this point.

Chow Yun-Fat stars at Wu Yuet (the subtitles identify him this way). Wu Yuet is a refugee from Vietnam who arrives at a refugee camp in Hong Kong. Wu Yuet is a haunted guy due to his service against the Vietcong during the Vietnam War.

In Hong Kong, Wu Yuet looks up his penpal, Lap Quan (Cora Miao), who wants to help him out, as well as possibly look after the young kid who seems to have latched onto the guy.

Soon, Wu Yuet meets Shum Ching (Cherie Chung), another Vietnamese refugee. The pretty girl seems to have settled in Hong Kong faster than Chow Yun-Fat has and the two bond during a Japanese language lesson, the plan being to get to America by posing as Japanese refugees.

It's worth noting some context: in the late 1970s to early 1980s, Hong Kong, like parts of the West, was trying to figure out a way to stem the tide of Vietnamese refugees, then termed "boat people" by some.

Hong Kong adopted various laws to stop the refugees from entering -- methods to refuse any more political refugees -- and so on.

This link provides some background.

Okay, those looking for a realistic sort of film from director Ann Hui will be disappointed with The Story of Woo Viet (1981).

While the film is grim and somewhat naturalistic, it is also full of melodrama -- well-done melodrama, though -- and it's not nearly the sort of thing I expected going into this.

It's also worth noting that while the set-up is among the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong, the majority of the film takes place in the Philippines.

In the midst of a scheme to get to America with phony passports via the Philippines, the lovely Cherie Chung gets kidnapped and sold into a life as a hooker in a bar in Manila.

In the course of searching for the girl, Chow Yun-Fat hooks up with Lo Lieh, a grizzled hitman for another mobster.

I don't want to diminish Ann Hui's considerable talents as a director but, let's be honest: the film is an action film dressed up as a realistic drama. I mean, The Story of Woo Viet (1981), despite the presentation, is simply another Chow Yun-Fat action film where the lead actor manages to somehow outwit hardened criminals and retain his honor and all that.

It's worth noting that the film, for all its realism, has Ching Siu-Tung on-hand as action choreographer.

The film is quite good and Chow Yun-Fat's lack of expressions -- normally a problem for the actor -- is here a plus; he appears stoic and it fits the story and the character of Wu Yuet.

As for Cherie, it's her job to suffer here. She doesn't have much to do beyond look pretty and she is, clearly. Still, I would rather have had the story told from her perspective.

I think that that film would be a bit more interesting. As it is, The Story of Woo Viet (1981) is thrilling and enjoyable in a way but it's also frustrating in how much it feels like another guys-with-guns melodrama.

This is just the story of two pretty people caught in a horrible situation.

And the viewer is left to just wonder who will make it out alive in the pursuit of freedom in America?

There's a very cynical part of me that thinks perhaps Ann Hui was just using the backdrop of the Vietnamese refugees in Hong Kong as a device and nothing more. She sheds little light on the real plight of those people and the film's plot could be about anyone, in a way.

Still, for the era, the film took chances and it's worth seeking out.

Saturday, March 26, 2011

Cherie Chung Week: Peking Opera Blues (1986)

I haven't watched Peking Opera Blues (1986) in about 7 years. And that means I haven't watched it since my current Cherie Chung jones kicked into high gear.

I've seen the film probably 4 or 5 times and, for what it's worth, it was my official gateway into Hong Kong cinema.

It goes like this:

At some point in the early 1990s, an American cable channel ran the unctuous Jonathan Ross' UK TV series, "The Incredibly Strange Film Show", one episode of which featured Tsui Hark.

Around that time, a college classmate -- we met in the one film class I took in the English department -- showed me bits and pieces of A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and some other Hong Kong cinema classics -- on VCD, no less!

And I recall that that guy in 1992 mentioned Peking Opera Blues (1986).

Flash-forward to Christmas of 2000. I had been watching a lot of Gong Li flicks and then I got my first DVD player that Christmas. A few days later I saw Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000) in the theater and realized that I should probably go back and watch all the HK cinema classics that influenced the makers of that film; I wasn't an expert on HK cinema but I knew enough to know that that wuxia stuff wasn't the invention of Ang Lee.

Okay, that Monday after Christmas, the first two DVDs I rented at Video Vault (R.I.P.) in Alexandria, Virginia were A Chinese Ghost Story (1987) and Peking Opera Blues (1986).

And the rest is history.

I'm not qualified to write about this film in a serious manner. Besides, DOZENS of others have already done that so if you want to read a real review of Peking Opera Blues (1986), check out the reviews here.

If, however, you want to read a review of this flick as a Cherie Chung film, read on.

Peking Opera Blues (1986) opens with Cherie as a traveling musician entertaining a general. The guy's palace gets raided and Cherie and her fellow performers split up but not before Cherie snags a bunch of jewels and hauls herself out of the confusion.

I don't know why Cherie didn't make more of an impression on me when I first saw this film; maybe I was on too much of a Brigitte Lin kick at the time?

And I'm sure that the first time I watched this I was also unaware of Shaw Brothers legends Wu Ma and Ku Feng who both have prominent roles in this picture.

In this film, Cherie Chung brings a good deal of the humor to the proceedings. Of the three leading actresses, Sally Yeh gets a viewer's sympathy, and Brigitte Lin our respect and admiration. So Cherie, as the other member of that main trio of women, gets to be the cute and funny one.

And, without giving away anything for those of you who have still not seen this masterpiece, Cherie's character is integral to the plot in a few key comedic scenes.

But still, even more than 10 years after I first watched this film, I was not that impressed by Cherie Chung's performance. It's not the actress' fault; like I said, she's got the thankless job here.

I mean, with Brigitte Lin as the star, how could a viewer be too impressed with Cherie?

Still, given the limited range of material provided to her character, she does a pretty good job of being cute and silly without being a total ditz.

Peking Opera Blues (1986) is a hard film to write about, frankly; every time I watch it, I feel like I'm still missing some subtext or historical bits.

And I clearly am, but that's okay because if you watch Peking Opera Blues just for the drama, action, or comedy -- or just for Brigitte Lin -- it's still a rousing good time and a clear classic of world cinema.

As for Cherie? Yes, she's cute but don't expect a performance from her here as nuanced as the ones in An Autumn's Tale (1987) or Hong Kong Hong Kong (1983).

Friday, March 25, 2011

Cherie Chung Week: Zodiac Killers (1991)

As of now, 1991's Zodiac Killers is Cherie Chung's last movie.

Andy Lau is Ben Li, a tour guide for Chinese tourists in Japan. When he's not doing that, he's hanging out at sex clubs in Shinjuku, ogling strippers.

He meets depressed-looking bar-girl Cherie Chung and then gets accosted by guys on motorcycles. It's a stylish, early 1990s, MV-inspired mess here, despite this being an Ann Hui film.

Cherie's roommate's boyfriend owes money to the Yakuza, or something, and there's a threat of violence there.

Andy Lau attends classes at university with his friend who is looking for his Mainland girlfriend.

There's not much point in reviewing this as it's largely a colossal waste of talent. If Ann Hui intended to make Tokyo look drab in an attempt to mirror the miserable lives of the Chinese expats in this film, she did a good job. And the use of current hit songs in the film may have made the film feel current in 1991 but now those songs only serve to remind a viewer how much styles have changed in 20 years.

Andy's boyish exuberance is misused and Cherie looks so depressed throughout much of this film that I wonder if that's her playing this character or simply her weariness as an actress after doing 25 films in the previous 4 years.

Cherie's character is involved with some Yakuza guy who seems decent to her. The problem is that her character's Japanese dialogue is clearly dubbed which grows to be a distraction.

There's some unintentional comedy in this flick when Cherie's boyfriend goes to see his long-lost friend. The guy tries to stab the boyfriend and there's a big fight scene.

Later, the boyfriend shows up to meet Cherie in a coffee shop as if everything is okay -- like he didn't just get stabbed a few hours earlier! -- and says something to the effect that his friend has changed.

Then he's giving Cherie orders to get out of Japan and deliver some tape to someone.

Yet the scene is shot without a trace of real drama and, instead, the sequence devolves into a one of those sappy music-laced flashback moments you see so often in romantic films from Hong Kong in this era. As Cherie races off, she recalls the guy's kindness and the cheesy synthesizer riff kicks in.

At that moment, a viewer is forgiven for asking: "Why is Ann Hui directing this shit?"

Near the end of this flick, Andy Lau and his buddy stumble upon an outdoor porno shoot near the train station. The whole sequence is so sub-Cinemax that it just left me gasping in amazement.

Was Ann Hui so desperate for respect in 1991 that she felt the need to add sex, violence, and nudity into this in an attempt to be taken seriously? Or was it the fault of the producers trying to to make this mess into something that would at least sell tickets at the box office?

And here's a spoiler which I'm glad to deliver: Andy's dipshit friend finds that Mainland girlfriend on the porno set out there on the train tracks. Luckily, there's a helpful flashback to the guy looking for the girl in the nightclub from the beginning of the film to remind us, Oliver Stone-like, in case we were too stupid to get what was going on.

A total and absolute failure, Zodiac Killers (1991) is not worth watching for any reason. I consider myself a hardcore Cherie Chung fan and even I want my money back now.

Check out Kozo's review of this flick here and Brian's here.

You can buy Zodiac Killers (1991) on DVD here.

But I'd urge you not to.