Wednesday, November 27, 2013

Running Out of Karma: Ringo Lam's Prison on Fire


Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index

A conventional yet effective prison drama from director Ringo Lam, who appears to have cornered the market on "on Fire" movies with this and City on Fire, also from 1987, along with the next year's School on Fire. All three were made at the Cinema City studio, where Lam was quickly distinguishing himself from his occasional collaborator, Johnnie To (the two more or less co-directed Happy Ghost III and twenty years later accounted for two of the three parts of Triangle, with the third being by Tsui Hark). The 'On Fire" films were big hits, capitalizing on Chow Yun-fat's superstardom, and Lam even attracted a following in the US (he spent some time making Jean-Claude Van Damme movies in the 90s, along with John Woo and Tsui Hark), most famously with City on Fire serving as an inspiration for Reservoir Dogs.


In Prison on Fire, The Other Tony Leung plays the new guy, sentenced to three years for accidentally getting a jerk who had skipped out on the check at his father's restaurant run over by a bus. Leung is great, tall and skinny with oversized glasses and a look of constant, terrified bewilderment, but his character is unrealistically naive, if not outright stupid. Chow Yun-fat, a veteran prisoner with a happy-go-lucky attitude attempts to show him the ropes (generally leading to Chow slowly shaking his head in resigned disgust as Leung ignores his wise advice). At one point, Chow explains that they're in the jungle: Chow's the monkey and Leung's the lamb, but Leung doesn't seem to get the point, he keeps trying to impose outside standards of honesty and forthrightness to the prison world. The two run afoul of the local tough guy as well as an evil prison guard (Ho Ka-kui and Roy Cheung, respectively, both of whom are fantastic and menacing, Cheung with teeth-gritting, bug-eyed intensity and Ho with glasses, a slight paunch and utterly conscienceless), leading to some intense and violent confrontations. Both stars get to flip out in slow motion, it's pretty great.


Prison movies generally function as microcosms of society, providing opportunities for critiques of capitalism or the state or both. Those elements are here in force as well, most explicitly when the prisoners go on a hunger strike because the prison has raised prices for things like cigarettes beyond what they can afford with their meager pay. The prison functions as a pre-union style corporation (workers can only buy from the company store) and as an instrument of state terror, enforcing its arcane rules with the threat of violence while the guards manipulate the prisoners against each other to save their bureaucratic faces. The system explodes for one brief shining moment that recalls an ultra-violent Z√©ro de conduite, doused in water and blood, but it will quickly reassert control. Leung's innocent never really wises up, nor does he effectively change anything. The best he can do is get out when his time is up.

Tuesday, November 26, 2013

Running Out of Karma: The Happy Ghost Series


Running Out of Karma is my on-going series on Johnnie To and Hong Kong cinema. Here is an index

After the failure of his debut film, The Enigmatic Case, Johnnie To went back to television for several years (where he directed an acclaimed adaptation of Louis Cha's Legend of the Condor Heroes), not returning to film until 1986, when Raymond Wong hired him to direct the third film in his Cinema City studio's successful Happy Ghost comedy series. In the west, even today, To is known primarily as a director of hard-hitting, violent gangster dramas starring taciturn men who find themselves trapped in the inexorable machinations of fate, the state or the ancient honor codes governing cops and crooks alike. But that description only comes close to describing about half the 50+ films he's directed to date. His filmography is vast and diverse and we do it a disservice when we privilege the darker part over the brighter. This is one of the main goals of Running Out of Karma: to reach a fuller understanding of the man's career by looking at all of his work, not just those that fit with our understanding of what counts as "serious" genre cinema. It's one of the fundamental tenets of auteurism that the critic must look at all of a filmmaker's work, or at least as much as they can. That it isn't merely in the prestige films that an auteur shows their artistry, that it can be found in the most humble of program pictures as well. And indeed, Happy Ghost III shows exactly that, especially when seen in comparison with the first two films in the series, helmed by Clifton Ko.



But first, a note about authorship. As with most, if not all, of Johnnie To's films in this period, it's impossible for an outsider like me to assert with any confidence who exactly was responsible for any given element in a film. Especially given the communal working conditions at a studio like Cinema City, where the star of the film, Raymond Wong, is also the writer and the studio co-founder and where Tsui Hark, as dominant a force as there was in 1980s Hong Kong film (exceeded perhaps only by Jackie Chan) is in charge of the visual effects. The imdb doesn't even credit Johnnie To as director on the film, giving Ringo Lam that title and relegating To to Assistant Director (which is just weird, To talks about it in an interview in Stephen Teo's indispensable book on To as if he directed it, though he does make a special point of saying how happy he was to just be the working director on the film, and not be responsible for writing the screenplay as well. Wikipedia and Hong Kong Cinemagic credit Lam and To as co-directors). The on-screen credit lists To as "Acting Director" which is somewhat ambiguous: did he just direct the actors while another person was in charge of camera placement, shot construction, etc, or was he merely filling in for the real director? But the simple fact is that none of that really matters. It's fascinating (at least to me) as historical background trivia, but when looking at the film through the auteurist lens, when trying to see glimpses of the Johnnie To to come in this early film, it doesn't so much matter who was responsible for what. If there are qualities of To-ness in Happy Ghost III, elements of the film that would become distinctive traits of his later work, then it doesn't really matter if the initial creation of those elements was the idea of Lam, Wong, Tsui, Maggie Cheung, a particularly skilled gaffer or anybody else. In fact, I assume that at this relatively early stage in his career, To was still soaking up influences wherever he found them. Throughout the next decade, a hallmark of To's career would be his willingness to collaborate, his ability to work with other, often dominant personalities (like Tsui Hark, Stephen Chow and Ching Siu-tung). Indeed, his collaborations with Wai Ka-fai continue to account for some of his best work. Auteurism isn't about assigning credit, it's an inductive process whereby looking at a vast number of films we can begin to tease out the particular elements that a certain artist brings to their work. We can't fully understand what makes a Johnnie To film just by watching the films for which he was the sole, or at least most dominant, creative force, because we'd have nothing with which to compare them. We would have no way of knowing which elements are peculiar to the genre he's working in, which are culturally specific to the nation he's from and which are uniquely his own contributions. And still we wouldn't be able to assign credit anyway because we have no way of knowing what actually goes on on his film sets (maybe Milkway Image is an elaborate conspiracy set up by To to steal credit for other directors' work, I don't know, I suppose it's possible). The best we can do is gather evidence, make comparisons and propose hypotheses.


The Happy Ghost was released in 1984 as a vehicle for studio head Raymond Wong, a comic actor and writer (note that Raymond Wong Bak-Ming is a different person from Raymond Wong Ho-yin, a much younger actor who appears in many later Johnnie To films beginning with 1997's Lifeline and also Raymond Wong Ying-wah, a composer who scored several To films as well as many of Stephen Chow's, including Kung Fu Hustle). It's part of a cycle of horror-comedy hybrids that swept Hong Kong in the early 1980s, influenced by Sammo Hung's Encounters of the Spooky Kind and Tsui Hark's films (his early genre hybrids as well as his pioneering importation of Hollywood-style effects with Zu: Warriors from the Magic Mountain). These films play off Western horror movie conventions, but place them within the Chinese religious tradition of Buddhist and/or Taoist folk tales (see for example the Mr. Vampire series, Ching Siu-Tung's A Chinese Ghost Story and even Tsui's Green Snake). Like Encounters, The Happy Ghost provides an intriguing blend of moods: not just horror and slapstick comedy, but also a surprisingly dark portrait of Hong Kong youth. Beginning with a prologue ripped straight out of any given Hollywood slasher film: a group of teenagers on a camping trip find themselves in a temple ruin, haunted by the eponymous specter. The film then becomes, for the most part, a teen drama as the Ghost is brought back by one of the girls to their boarding school, where he has a series of adventures (basically he makes things worse and then better and then is threatened and then saves the day). It's the unsettlingly realistic depiction of the girls' lives that is most memorable: one sleeps with her boyfriend for the first time, gets pregnant and is abandoned by him; another is severely stressed out by a test, gets caught cheating and tries to kill herself. These aren't sitcom kids along for a goofy ride, they're recognizably of the same cohort as the nihilistic youths of New Wave films like Yim Ho's The Happening or the hopeless rich kids of Patrick Tam's Nomad. It's like Scream but with the characters from Kids. The Ghost himself, despite his moniker and outward appearance, conceals a dark past: he killed himself after repeated failures both professional and marital. This mixing of moods, wild, unpredictable swings from farce to melodrama to action movie and back again, are one of the more intriguing features of Hong Kong cinema, the best of them deftly avoiding the feeling of calculated sentimentality that can plague similarly blended Hollywood films.


Following the success of the first film, Happy Ghost II was released in 1985, again with Clifton Ko directing and Raymond Wong serving as star and co-writer. Set at a different girls' school, Wong this time plays a dual role as the Ghost and his reincarnation, a clumsy teacher named Sam Hong. Sam has been plagued his whole life by an unwelcome super power bequeathed him by his ancestor, which tends to magnify his clumsiness (it's basically a telekinesis type thing). He arrives at the school after a cadre of mean girls has run off their latest victim (Sam is their eighth teacher, if I remember correctly). Leading the girls is Fennie Yuen, in her first role (she went on to play Blue Phoenix in the Swordsman movies, among other things), playing "the Chairman" with an air of disaffected maliciousness. The girls spend most of the film making life miserable for Sam, despite his using his powers to help them cheat at sports (which the Ghost did in the first film as well). Eventually he gets fired, gives up his powers and gets them back (a plotline not unlike that of Superman II) and everyone has a party on the beach. This sequel is much brighter than the original, with Wong playing up the slapstick (a scene where he destroys the classroom of his love interest teacher is particularly impressive) while any trace of the series' horror roots is lost.


The third Happy Ghost film was released in 1986 and though it still starred and was written and produced by Raymond Wong, it has a distinctly different look to it. Partially this is the result of the special effects, much more elaborate and modern than in the first two films, utilizing computer graphics and supervised by Tsui Hark (who also has a small role in the film as The Godfather, the gatekeeper of the afterlife). But also the film is simply more composed visually than the first two, which are rather perfunctory in style. Whether To or Lam is responsible for that I can't say, as both have shown keen eyes as directors. But there are a couple images or motifs that will recur in To's later work. The most obvious is the use of colored light, electric reds and blues that suffuse and dominate the screen, especially in night scenes (the blues) and interiors (the reds). This trope is by no means unique to To (Ching Siu-tung, who choreographed the action in Happy Ghost III, uses it in Swordsman II, to name one example) and I'd actually taken it as an 80s Hong Kong, or at least Cinema City, trademark. But then in watching A Better Tomorrow II I realized that John Woo's films are almost always realistically lit, so maybe it's a To-specific contribution? A subject for further research. To will continue to use this kind of color abstraction throughout his career, most especially in the late 90s with Milkway films like A Hero Never Dies (red), Where A Good Mans Goes (blue) or The Odd Ones Dies (orange). Less obvious, but perhaps no less indicative of an artist at work is a very simple, very brief shot, an establishing shot of the school. Shot from enough of a distance that the white, four-story building fills the frame, doors and windows fronted by open balconies running the breadth of the structure, we see the girls waking between classes. It's an elegant image, one that captures the unique architecture of the building (and perhaps implies something about the rigid, ant farm-like qualities of the school environment), the kind of throwaway transitional shot you don't think much of at all. Except we never saw it in the second film, though it uses the same building, the same walkways and classrooms. It may not be the shot of a great artist, but it is evidence that someone was paying attention. This kind of detail, of care in framing and composition is striking when watching the second and third films back-to-back: Ko and Wong are good at setting up gags and sustaining a variety of tonal moods, but Lam and/or To have a better sense of where to put the camera and what to put in front of it.


But the most striking thing about Happy Ghost III is the performance of Maggie Cheung. We know her now as one of the great stars of the last 30 years, with a string of brilliant performances in art house classics (In the Mood for Love, Irma Vep, Centre Stage, Hero, Comrades Almost a Love Story and so on). But in 1986 she was a former Miss Hong Kong runner-up most known for playing Jackie Chan's cute girlfriend in 1985's Police Story. But she gets the central role here, as the ghost of a failed singer in search of reincarnation who is continually stymied by Wong's clumsiness (here reprising his role as the teacher Sam, as well as the Happy Ghost). After two failed reincarnations, she vows revenge on Sam and begins making his life miserable, terrorizing his classroom and possessing his students. The students have undergone another change as well: from the barely getting by strivers of the first film, to the arrogant and entitled mean kids of the second to well-behaved and rather dull kids this time around. This is most evident in the transformation of Fennie Yuen's character, from a bad girl in dark glasses to a perfect class prefect, the only time she shows the spark the character had the the previous film is when she's possessed by Maggie Cheung (literally) and gives the famed Kubrick stare: chin down, eyes up, maniacal grin. The first half of the film is a series of tricks Maggie mischievously plays on Sam (the spirit is always playful here, no darkness to be found). In the second half they become friends (including a magical music video sequence as they frolic around the city at night) and eventually end up saving the prefect from a gang of pimps.


There is a tonal mixture to the film, but it's of a different flavor than that of the first film. Instead of horror and comedy, it's a blend of comedy and melodrama, and melodrama of a surprising depth and resonance. In this respect it fits in very well with Johnnie To's later romantic comedies, many of which blend an anarchic style of body humor (either with slapstick or makeup effects, for example the use of fat suits on Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng in Love on a Diet) with an almost tangible sadness and sense of loss (My Left Eye Sees Ghosts, Romancing in Thin Air). This film doesn't reach anything like those heights, and I'm inclined to give most of the credit for the film's emotional ambivalence to Maggie Cheung, who is of course adorably spunky yet also reveals her character's sadness (she too committed suicide, but also her heartbreak when Sam kicks her out as well as late in the film, when she's convinced she'll never be reincarnated (which is also a cool visual effect where Maggie fades to black and white)) and joy. The movie is better at the joy: the profound kind when Maggie hears that people have discovered her lovely pop song 20 years after her death for sure, but more importantly the sheer glee with which she toys with poor Sam. She's the first incarnation of a character that more than any other typifies and unifies Johnnie To's cinema: the game player. From crime epics to romantic comedies; in cops, gangsters, bankers, gamblers, thieves, musicians, actors, wrestlers, and pickpockets, what marks a Johnnie To character is the spirit of play, the complex interweaving of chance and fate and the pleasure they take in competition, in performance.

Next Up: Seven Years Itch