Last Friday night the NY Asian Film Festival (NYAFF) opened in New York. This is the thirteenth year for the annual event, one that I have been covering from its inception. After some general comments on Asian film, I will conclude with a review of “The White Storm”, a festival film showing at Walter Reade Theater tonight.
Unlike the Indian Film Festival that I covered a month ago, this one features movies that are geared to local audiences rather than Western film festivals and theaters specializing in indie and foreign films. So the typical NYAFF film will be about samurais or gangsters while one from the Indian film festival will be about the plight of Dalits. I would have preferred that the NYAFF curators include more political films but I confess that I am not even aware that they are being made. From what I have gleaned from the Japanese film industry over the past five years or so, there are very few—if any—directors or screenwriters in the Akira Kurosawa or Yoji Yamada tradition nowadays. Perhaps if there were a stronger left in Japan or Hong Kong for that matter, we’d see films being made with a social and political message.
That being said, I am totally devoted to Hong Kong and Japanese gangster and samurai films. In an age when Hollywood “entertainment” means the latest Michael Bay movie, we are better off with a lobotomy. I thought that Atlantic Magazine’s Christopher Orr got the latest installment of “Transformers” just right: “If it truly takes this long to save the world from the depredations of robots that turn into muscle cars, it may be that the world is no longer worth saving.”
It would appear that my first article on Asian action films dates back to July 3, 2003, just two years after the launch of the NYAFF:
Hit Men Movies
posted to http://www.marxmail.org on July 3, 2003
I had selected Jean-Pierre Melville’s 1967 “Le Samouraï” and Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai’s 2001 “Fulltime Killer” pretty much at random from the local video store. But comparisons between these two ‘noirs’ involving hit men and the cops who pursue them began to suggest themselves immediately. Especially after ‘fulltime killer’ Tok (Andy Lau), whose main interest outside of killing people on contract is movies, berates a thug for never having seen “Le Samouraï”.
Melville’s Parisian hit man is improbably named Jef Costello. Played by Alain Delon, this character has the same laconic charisma as the just as improbably named master burglar Corey he played in Melville’s 1970 “Le Cercle Rouge”, a film I reviewed a while back (http://www.columbia.edu/~lnp3/mydocs/culture/Le_Cercle_Rouge.htm). With their American names and their wardrobe lifted from a Bogart film, these quintessentially Melvillian characters live outside of society and eschew intimacy of any sort, except camaraderie with fellow outlaws.
“Le Samouraï” begins with bogus quote from the East: “There’s no greater solitude that the Samurai’s, unless perhaps it be that of the tiger in the jungle.” Written by Melville himself, but attributed to the Japanese “Book of Bushido”, this is the same gimmick that he used in “Le Cercle Rouge.” The film opens with a saying attributed to the Buddha, but written by Melville himself, that men who are destined to meet will eventually meet in the red circle of fate, no matter what.
Of course, the affinity between bowdlerized Japanese culture and American b-movies is more than skin-deep. When Kurosawa’s “The Seven Samurai” inspired the western “Magnificent Seven”, one might be led to take into account the influence of classic western films on Kurosawa himself early on in his career. Such is the nature of the film ‘lingua franca’ that fertilized and cross-fertilized the work of so many directors and screenwriters in the post-WWII period.
Speaking of cross-fertilization, even if you have never seen an Asian action flick, you can probably detect its influence here in many different ways. Quentin Tarantino’s films reflect the Hong Kong influence even before “Kill Bill” came out. His first film “Reservoir Dogs” was deeply influenced by “City on Fire”, a 1987 Ringo Lam film whose title also adorned a scholarly study of Hong Kong cinema by a couple of Marxists and old friends, Michael Hoover and Lisa Stokes. The book can be read in its entirety here. You can get a flavor of their approach from the first paragraph of chapter three, “Whose Better Tomorrow?”
What better contemporary vision to describe early capitalism than the imprimatur of John Woo’s martial-arts-with-automatic-weapons movies, where competition rages among petty capitalists in the guise of Triads? From “A Better Tomorrow (1986) to “Hard-Boiled” (1992), Woo has tackled ethical questions by pitting his hero against a corrupt world built on the value of a dollar, where ‘necessity knows no law.’ In these movies, gunplay abounds and high body counts result. In the history of capitalism, ‘weapons were the means of expansion for commerce and conquest.1 From multi-round 9 mm pistols to pump-action double-barrel shotguns, Woo’s films unleash the destructive power of an arsenal as internecine feuds erupt between Triads over money and turf, and cops battle the underworld.
Internecine feuds erupting between Triads over money and turf…cops battling the underworld. This pretty much describes “The White Storm”, the 134 minute film whose original title was much better: “The Cartel War”.
The three main characters are Hong Kong cops in the anti-drug department who are trying to track down the elusive Eight-Faced Buddha. With a villain so named, you know that you are entering the rarefied realm of Hong Kong policiers.
One cop is Chow, who is working undercover. The other two are Tin and Tsz-wai, childhood pals of Chow. Recently relations between the three men have become strained as Chow’s wife has threatened a divorce over his growing distance from her, now in her late pregnancy. As frequently occurs in this genre, cops are torn between loyalty to their mission and family ties.
Undercover cops figure in many Hong Kong gangster movies. They are a natural for dramatic tension since they are always in danger of being identified and for their uphill battle to maintain a life outside their job. Martin Scorsese’s “The Departed” starred Leonardo DiCaprio as a Boston cop trying to penetrate a gang led by Jack Nicholson, obviously influenced by Whitey Bulger’s South Boston crew. It is nowhere near as good as the Hong Kong movie it was based on, “Infernal Affairs”, directed by Andrew Lau and Alan Mak.
Eventually the three cops end up in Thailand trying to capture Eight-Faced Buddha in his lair inside The Golden Triangle. Without divulging too much, Chow reveals the plan of the impending assault to the gang in order to avoid a battle that might cost him his life. His wife has just given birth and is suffering major complications that might cost her life.
Expecting Eight-Faced Buddha’s gang to avoid running into the cops, Chow is shocked to discover that he has set a trap for them. In a wild fifteen-minute scene, gangster helicopters annihilate the cops until only a handful remain, including the three cops. Tin, Chow and Tsz-wai’s superior, is given a choice. Either Chow or Tsz-wai will be spared. Which one will it be? After agonizing for several minutes, Tin decides to sacrifice Tsz-wai who is shot in the chest and falls into a crocodile pit. Don’t forget—we are dealing with Hong Kong action films, not Sundance Festival mumblecore.
After returning to Hong Kong, Tin is blamed for not anticipating the ambush and demoted to running the police department’s IT. (Gosh, what a blow to my self-esteem.) Chow, of course, is stricken with remorse and even fails to save his marriage. And what about Tsz-wai, who was likely eaten by crocodiles? My recommendation is to go see “The White Storm” tonight and to catch as many of the NYAFF movies as you can. They will entertain you beyond your greatest expectations as well as give you an idea of where the future of filmmaking lies.
Look for more reviews of NYAFF films in the coming period.