Sunday, February 18, 2007

Kung Hei Fat Choi

Today is the Chinese New Year, welcoming the year of the Fire Pig, 4705. A Jewish producer friend tells me 2007 is year 5768 in the Jewish calendar, adding that this means that for 1063 years Jews had nowhere to eat on Sunday nights.

New Year is the biggest holiday in the Asian world, so more than half the planet is out lighting firecrackers and exchanging gifts. Therefore, I thought I'd offer a small Chinese gift of my own to mark the occasion.

A few years ago, a director from Hong Kong called to ask for my help in dramatizing the story of a gruesome torso murder that had occurred in the Chinese Canadian community. I get calls like this all the time. Some work out. Some don't. And a few add something special to your life.

The director's name was Ho Yim. I'd never heard of him, but I was familiar with the case he was describing and didn't think it offered much more than the chance to do a quickie splatter film. But he insisted he was a serious filmmaker and would send an example of his work to further persuade me. A few days later, a videotape arrived.

To that point in my life, my exposure to Chinese cinema amounted to Bruce Lee, a couple of epic martial arts films and a passing awareness of the cheap historical soaps and modern comedies I surfed past on my local multicultural station.

The film I was sent was "Tiengo Niezi" later released in English as "The Traitorous Prince" and "The Day The Sun Turned Cold".

It's the story of a young man whose father is murdered and ten years later begins to suspect that the killer was his mother. This leads to an agonizing study of the nature of justice, revenge and whether "doing the right thing" is ever the right thing to do.

It was nothing short of a masterpiece and I decided that if this guy wanted me to personally hack off body parts for his torso movie, I was in.

Ho flew to Toronto and we spent a couple of weeks working out the story and planning how it could be shot in Hong Kong and Toronto. During that time, he dragged me to a half dozen Chinatown video stores to introduce me to actors, technicians, film styles and storytelling forms literally foreign to me. Like most occidentals on their first visit to a Chinese restaurant buffet, I was overwhelmed with the exotic delicacies that were available.

Ultimately, the film fell through. But a couple of years later, Ho and I ended up in LA at the same time, both "under consideration" for major studio projects. Mine was a Sci-Fi series featuring biker babes in black leather. Totally brainless but based on a popular comic book and at least the casting sessions were fun.

Meanwhile, Ho's agent was breaking him into American features. I'll never forget an afternoon we spent poolside at the Oakwood Apartments as I tried (and failed) to help him make sense of the latest draft of "Alien: Resurrection". Both of us, more familiar with working on shoestring budgets and stories with a point, could not fathom how such vast fortunes had been spent to get material to a final and still unshootable stage, nor why a franchise we both loved was allowed to be so devalued in the hope of wringing a few extra bucks from its audience. Watching Ho struggle with the material was like seeing Michaelangelo try to make art with an Etch-a-sketch.

That "Nobody Knows Anything" Hollywood adage applies on so many levels.

But as we both waited for people far more astute and connected than ourselves to determine our career paths, he took me to out of the way theatres and continued my education in Asian film.

This year's favorite to win the Academy Award, "The Departed", is based on the 2002 Chinese film "Infernal Affairs" as well as its prequel "Infernal Affairs 2" and sequel "Infernal Affairs 3". Both the offspring are as good or better than the original and equally imaginative in their realization. To be fair, Martin Scorcese's version is less a remake than a brilliant cultural rethinking of the original.

But I still get a giggle reading the Hollywood Insiders who can't imagine how a "Departed 2" can be in the works with all the stars of the original...uh... departed. That kind of analysis reminds you of how overburdened Hollywood is by the rules of Syd Field and Robert McKee as well as the standard studio marketing models.

In much the same way good art triumphs over commerce, Chinese film overcomes the system that governs its people. There is no better way to celebrate the arrival of the Year of the Pig than to buy a ticket to see or to rent a Chinese film. If I may recommend some of my recent favorites...

Currently in theatres:

"The Curse of the Golden Flower" -- featuring a final battle scene that makes "Return of the King" look low-budget.

"A Battle of Wills" -- just drop dead inspired from start to finish.

Recently on DVD:

"Hero" -- which will remind you why films are in color.

"Myth" -- Jackie Chan as you've never imagined him.

As well as modern classics like "Days of Living Wild", "Kung Fu Hustle", "Shaolin Soccer" and "Exiled".

If you want to sample Ho Yim, please see "Pavilion of Women" with Willem Dafoe or his latest feature starring his son "A West Lake Moment".


Bill Cunningham said...

I take a Metro ride down to Little Tokyo occasionally to check out the Japanese flicks that are there. They have an incredible backlog of "Original Video" films featuring video series of gambler , gangster, biker and samurai "epics".

It's always an education...

Juniper said...

Thanks Jim, I like Chinese films and loved the Departed... now I'll try tracking down copies of Infernal.... wish me luck.

And thanks for the list of other films to see. Always good to go shopping with a list!