Most Wanted–Movie Marathon

A little change of pace here.  I was recently asked by Most Wanted, the blog of VoucherCodes.co.uk to contribute on a piece they were doing to advertise their new LoveFilm voucher.  The idea is that various film bloggers put together a small movie marathon to be enjoyed while tucked up in bed hiding from the seasonal inclement weather.  The brief was very open – just chose three films.  Obviously I wanted to talk about three Asian films, but the possibilities were endless.  What I decided to do in the end was use this as an opportunity for me to promote a Director who is not very well known in the West, by revisiting three of his films that I have looked at in the past.  For the uninitiated, I am going to look at some fabulous films from Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung, a ridiculously talented Hong Kong film maker.  He also has the advantage of not being restricted by genre – here we get a Drama about a very modern phenomenon, a Love Story with subtle social commentary and a clever take on the Slasher movie.  I find his style of film-making very intimate, he gently prods as social issues without lecturing, and brings out amazing performances from not only Actors you would expect them from, but also those that may be more limited in capabilities.

[And yes, this is pretty much content long term readers will have seen before slightly edited].

I will start with the interesting drama, Beyond Our Ken. It is a small story about the friendship between the titular Ken’s (Daniel Wu) ex-girlfriend, Chan (Gillian Chung), and his present paramour, Shirley (Höng Tao).  Ken does not appear to be a terribly nice chap, and has apparently posted naked pictures of Chan on the internet.  The girls get together to help Chan exact some kind of revenge, and form a strong bond whilst doing so.  If that was all the movie was about it would be great – but there is a final twist in the tale that raises it to fantastic.

Ho-Cheung Pang creates an almost voyeuristic view on proceedings.  For good portions of the movie you feel you are eavesdropping on private conversations.  He also shows huge range, able to display moments of drama, emotion and high comedy.

The real highlight of the movie is the realistic portrayal of the growing friendship between the two girls.  Even when the final act twist occurs, you still feel, despite it all, they are going to remain firm friends.  Both girls are fantastic, and C-Pop star Chung is far from overshadowed by her co-star.  In fact, this is easily the best performance I have seen by her.

It would be remiss of me not to mention the irony of Gillian Chung’s character being exposed in compromising positions online.  I guess sometimes life really DOES imitate art.  But the movie was made well before the scandal, so I guess we have to mark it down as one of life’s little ironies.

Please don’t get the idea that the film is seedy – far from it.  But is is honest, cynical, subtle and wonderful.

After that bit of drama, let us have a look at a delightful Romance.  “Love in a Puff” sets itself firmly in modern day Hong Kong. Modern anti-smoking legislation has driven the smoking workers to designated areas and alleyways, creating small areas where people enjoy a smoke, while exchanging stories and chit chat. Shopgirl Cherie (Miriam Yeung) stumbles upon a group of such people, including recently dumped advertising executive Jimmy (Shawn Yue). The pair hit it off immediately, and the film follows the next 7 days of their lives, as they begin a romantic relationship.

Much has been made of this film’s language, which got it the dreaded Cat III rating in Hong Kong, which affected the attendances initially before word of mouth (and the internet) bought people into the cinema. Now sadly, I do not speak Cantonese, and the subtitles that I have are quite possibly not as strong as the words being spoken. However, the wordplay still feels modern and natural to me. The jokes seem genuinely funny, and unlike a lot of Hong Kong comedies, the subject matter seems universal, rather than relying on HK-specific pop-culture.
To be fair, not a lot happens in the film. The two characters meet, walk around a bit, smoke a lot, go to a birthday party, girl leaves her boyfriend, they fall out, etc. etc. However, as all Edmond Pang films that I have seen, the gritty, voyeuristic style leaves me gripped and engrossed. Remember, this is the man who got an amazing performance out of Gillian Cheung! Think of it as a cross between Wong Kar Wai and Woody Allen, and if that appeals, I promise you that you will enjoy this. The use of a pseudo-documentary to look inside the various participants minds is not a distraction (if not entirely original), it just adds layers to various characters, especially those whore are not directly important to the story.

Shawn Yue gets a lot of love on this blog, and rightfully so. Here he plays a man who is obviously in love with his job – his friends and ex-girlfriend all seem to be based at his company. He seems to be hurting from his girlfriends infidelity, and is naturally worried about the sudden intensity of his new relationship with Cherie. This is maybe not his most powerful role, but it is actually rather nicely underplayed, and most importantly realistic. Miriam Yeung is however fantastic. She is funny, flirty, a good friend, obviously stuck in a dead relationship. Her character seems so well fleshed out, and whilst she is not unattractive, she is not an unobtainable beauty, yet she just glows on the screen – a person you would love to hang around with. For me, this is HER movie.

You do have to let a few things go. Everything moves REALLY quickly – within four days of meeting Jimmy, Cherie is leaving her boyfriend of 5 years, and getting Jimmy to pick her up. I’ll take this both as a cinematic short-cut, and maybe a meta-commentary on the speed of modern life. It certainly is an interesting variation on the years that love affairs can take to be requited in say a Korean film.

It is also a film that may be cursed by some of it’s contemporary elements – txt messaging and Facebook are major devices used to move the plot forward – I do wonder how kindly these elements will be thought of in 10 years time.  The smoking subject matter may well concern a few people. For these people, smoking is a huge part of their social lives, and other than reflecting on the effect it has on Cherie’s Asthma, the film never once delves into the health aspects. I found this rather refreshing to be honest – smoking is part of these peoples lives, we maybe do not need a public health announcement in EVERY film. This is a film about modern life in Hong Kong for a certain type of 20-something – it is NOT a lecture in the perils of the cancer stick.  In short – this is a funny, charming and utterly beguiling movie.

It always feels right to end any Movie Marathon with a horror film.  “Dream Home” is the story of telemarketer Cheng Li-sheung (Josie Ho).  She does not have a great life – she is from a poor background, suffered a lot of family pressure, has a dead end telemarketing job and is having an affair with one of Hong Kong’s sleaziest married men (Eason Chan).  The only thing that seems to keep her going in life is the desire to own a specific apartment – one far outside of her price range, and frankly even her friends call her obsessed about it.  Even when she has the opportunity to fulfil that dream, it is taken away from her, and she snaps, embarking on a night of escalating murder.

I am not sure if the above synopsis actually clues you in to what this film is.  It is part dark and gritty social satire about the housing situation in Hong Kong, and part Slasher movie.  I don’t know of many Hong Kong slasher films, the Asian horror genre seems to have other preoccupations (Ghosts, Long Haired Girls and currently in Japan, wild and crazy splatter with girls in Bikinis).  The implementation of this one is pretty good.

The film eschews the normal conventions of the Slasher film.  Firstly, it places the perpetrator front and centre.  Cheng Li-sheung is the lead character, and this is her story.  The story is structured in a somewhat unusual way for this type of film – instead of starting slow and building up to the night of terror, we alternate between Cheng Li-sheung’s past and the gory details of the night of terror.  It’s an interesting way of structuring the film, as it means that the horror sections are a constant throughout the film.  It does also mean that the horror is always visceral, we don’t get an awful lot of in-scene tension and build up.

And the gore is graphic.  Whilst it is usually done with a tongue in the directors cheek, this is not a film for the faint-hearted – eyeballs get stabbed out, entrails are spilled.  But the director does take pains to coat the graphic scenes with a little humour – I enjoyed one dying man’s attempt at a final cigarette.  Cheng Li-sheung is not a superhuman – her victims fight back and she gets hurt in the process.  Killing someone is a messy business.  Another delightful touch was to turn the convention of the killer’s sudden late return from the dead to one of the victims.

Josie Ho is utterly superb.  She is focused when she needs to be, but there are scenes where she really gets to show her acting chops – I defy you not to feel her pain at her Mother’s funeral, or when she takes the hard decision to aid in her sick father’s death.

Style-wise this is classic Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung – the camerawork is accomplished, but still voyeuristic.  I love watching his films for this reason, you are becoming a spy in the lives of others.  There are loads of clever touches – often we see Ho via a series of mirrors, displaying her fracturing psyche.  At other times we see her revulsion to smoke (which we find out later was part of the cause of her Fathers illness).  We even get a disturbingly cute scene where the childhood Ho is encouraged to swear.  You could strip away the gore elements, and still get a moving and accomplished movie.

Even the end makes for something special, where it does not end how you expect, but even those who do get out alive are going to be punished because of the world’s economy meltdown.

Now, reading around on the Internet, I see a lot of somewhat mixed reviews.  It is not entirely the case, but I see a lot of drama fans disturbed by the gore aspects, and splatter fans unhappy about the drama aspects.  I can see these criticism, but for me it all worked together to generate a fantastic experience.  All I worry about is if this is going to be a DVD that I will come back to again and again?  It is not flawless, as it is possibly a little too depressing (I can’t think of any really likeable characters, and there is a sense that all the victims are the complete innocents here).

The only problem with my film choices is that outside of Asia, they are not all readily available.  Happily, the final film, Dream Home can be found at Lovefilm.  Maybe give that a try, and then explore further afield!

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