Saturday, September 29, 2007

The Art of "Mo Lei Tau"

In the last two days, I saw two comedies that strive to exercise the so-called Hong Kong comedic art of "Mo Lei Tau." It literally means "doesn't make any sense," which would pretty much describe both Wong Jing's latest producing effort Beauty and the 7 Beasts and the Japanese comedy Maiko Haaaan!!!

Directed by the anonymous Chong Qing (though sources said it was directed by Chung "Feel 100% 2003" Shu-Kai) and written by the similarly anonymous "Not a Woman," Beauty and the 7 Beasts takes place in the 70s, when a down-on-his-luck star (played by Eric Tsang) meets his daughter for the first time (Super Fans' Meng Yao, which puts her two-for-two with shitty movies) and takes on five eccentric pupils with hilarity ensuing. He also has to defeat his nemesis Rocky (played by longtime friend Nat Chan) with his loyal secretary Siu Wan (an amusing Jo Koo).

Produced by Wong Jing AND Eric Tsang, which I guess is supposed to be some kind of comedy event, the film is filled with random gags that go on and on - including recycled scenes with supposed hallucinogens, ugly men scoring with relatively cute girls, and even a parody of both Jaws AND Alien crammed into one scene. As hard as they try to keep the audience amused, the film often drags with its short 98-minute running time, causing me at one point to really want to start playing my PSP. No, really, I really wanted to play it.

Written by Kankuro Kudo (Yaji and Kita - Midnight Pilgrims, Go, Ping Pong), Maiko Haaaan!!! uses a similar style to show male competitiveness and obsession with the geisha culture of Japan. Almost defying description, Maiko Haaaan!!! can be simply described as a chronicle of the lengths a man will go to immerse himself in the geisha culture that he loved so much for years. There's also enough movie parodies, politics, baseball, and instant noodles to pack into a 2-hour running time. It's overlong, the character goes too far with their obsessions, and it definitely wraps up too conveniently to be convincing; but it's also hilariously dumb and has an undeniable comic energy that's more fit for Hong Kong than Japan. Maybe that's why it was a commercial success in its native land.

So why is Maiko Haaaan!!! so much better than Beauty and the Seven Beasts then? They are both quite idiotic after further thought (actually, in the case of "Beasts," that thought came up about 15 minutes in), and both films have somewhat shoddy scattershot filmmaking that felt like the teams were throwing random things at the wall and waiting to see what sticks. However, Maiko Haaaan!!! is willing to discard reality and elevate things to unbelievable proportion ("latent potential" is probably the most contrived excuse for a film's plot points since the "eye in the sky" excuse in the ending for Eye in the Sky), with the audience willing to follow along because while it's obviously no longer taking itself seriously, it's still trying its damnedest to find new ways to make people laugh.

It's not like Wong Jing and co. were taking anything seriously, either, but they just simply kept recycling things that might have made people laugh in the 70s (the movie's excuse for that is probably that it takes place in the 70s). In other words, it undermines the audience by giving them things they have seen before and expect them to welcome it back like an old friend. Instead, it's like finding that expired carton of milk in the refrigerator that you should've thrown away weeks ago. They even dare to have a musical number in the end that proclaims "a good movie is not easy to make." They're actually quite right - Beauty and the 7 Beasts was announced, produced, and released in the course of just over a month, and it's not very good.

With the originator of "mo lei tau" showing obvious signs of creativity failure, will Japan carry the torch to become the new master of "mo lei tau"? As long as screenwriters like Kankuro Kudo keep working, I wouldn't rule out that possibility.

Saturday, September 22, 2007

The making of The Circle - my first film in film school.

This week was a week of major decisions here as a film school student in Hong Kong - I made my first short film, and I decided that I would make a better screenwriter than a director. I might try to justify my second decision in a later post, but now I would like to write about the making of my first film in film school - The Circle.

The requirements are simple - in two weeks, make a "film" of just one scene. Only straight cuts - so no dissolve, no jump cuts, no editing tricks. 10-14 cuts is ideal, 3-5 lines per character, and at least 2 close-ups per character. According to our instructor, it should take no longer than 2 hours to shoot.

Of course, I follow these instructions, so I wrote a short film that's not really a film. The Circle is only a dialogue scene between three people - a Cantonese speaker, an English speaker, and a Mandarin speaker. They have some language clash trying to figure out how to put their language clash into a simple figure of speech, and we realize that they're literally walking in a circle. Not hard to film, right?

Before I headed out for the day, I wondered if I should've put up at incense on my Wong Tai Sin shrine at home. I was running late, so I decided not to. That would turn out to be a bit of a mistake.

Filming was to start at 4 sharp and end by hopefully 5:30-6. We got out of class at 3:15, and proceeded to check out equipment and test them (equipments used: a boom mic, a DV camera, and a mixer). But it was when we got the mixer that came the first of several disasters - the mixer needed batteries. Knowing my school neighborhood would tell you that a trip to the convenience store is a walk of at least 10 minutes, so one of my actors decided to trip at get one of school grounds with success. I have still yet to pay him back for the battery.

While my actor went outside, the second disaster happened - it started to rain. Why, of all the time over that Monday that was supposed to be sunny, did the sky decided to expel liquids onto the grounds of my school? I just needed an hour and a half to film one damn scene outdoors, and the gods decided to...

oh, wait, it stopped raining.

With the sky dried, we ran outside to set up, but I realized I had not rehearsed with my actors, and rehearsing with my actors is pretty damn essential in a dialogue scene. But wait, what's that noise? Turns out there were some major construction going on the slope next to where I wanted to film. Check with sound person - dialogue can be heard. Fine, let's film. It was already 4:30.

Filming seems ok so far. One of my actors kept changing her dialogue between takes, but that's ok - it was a long take anyway, and I can rescue it. But half an hour into filming, there was a peaceful silence. 5 pm...the construction workers decided to stop working. Since the sound needs to be consistent, that means we had to start all over again.

Then I have an actress who doesn't know how to push away someone else, and an actress who acts like she doesn't give a shit in between takes. Plus a shot where a boom mic is visibly in the camera (I selectively ignored it because of the rush) and the lights around me started coming on, I was feeling about how crappy the editing process was going to be. I couldn't get good sleep the whole week, and I came to find out that almost all of my classmates took at least three hours with their own films (one involved at least 6 takes of a platform dolly track shot. I pushed that dolly). I suddenly felt like a very efficient but shitty director.

But to my surprise, the image looked ok (except for that damn boom shot). I didn't do enough takes, and I didn't give enough time before yelling "cut," but at least it wasn't totally shit. I logged and capture all the good takes and just straight cut everything on Final Cut Pro (the first time I'm editing anything on a computer ever, if I may remind you), and I finished in a few hours. The end product is not perfect, but I think I am satisfied with what I got.

So the lesson of the day is that we may make fun of those movies with technical errors all the time, but we should know that getting all that shit filmed was a miracle in the first place. As a critic, some may criticize us for not treasuring the accomplishments of a film crew more, but beyond technical issues and what the crew does on screen, there's still no excuse for shitty writing and shitty acting. I had a shitty actress, and I managed to improvise to find her a more natural action to do. But I also realized one thing:

I think I would like to be a screenwriter instead.

Oh, I will eventually post the film somewhere, just not until I turn it in and get it exported to a .mov file.

Friday, September 7, 2007

Exercises in frustration

1) People in Hong Kong knows that after the disappointment of Jacky Cheung canceling his last two concerts, the next thing to look forward to is the Eason Chan concert. How many concerts do you see where its popularity it so huge that they had to add shows 3 times to accommodate everyone? However, 3 times don't seem to be enough.

I decided to go down the the nearest ticket outlet early, in hopes of scoring a couple of those hot tickets myself. However, it seems like I underestimated the demand, or the efficiency of ticket sale outlets, quite badly.

The outlets opened at 10, so I went down there at 9 am. However, there were already two lines - one right in front of the store, and an extension across from it. I entered the second line as about the 43rd person. 2 counters working, just under 70 people, each person take about 3 minutes, that's 105 minutes max I'd have to wait in line, right? Ticket counters open, the store only lets 10 people in at a time, but they only let 10 people in every 30 minutes. That means the second line I was in did not move until 11:00.

11:45. They finally let 20 people into the store in the second line, and a few people in my line has given up. I have a group meeting at school starting at 12, I thought I'd give myself a leeway and say I'd arrive at 1. But as I count the people in line, I realize I am the 21st person in the second line. That means I will have to wait another hour to get to the front, and another half hour to get into the store, and another half hour inside the store to get to the counter.

I like Eason Chan and all, but do I like him THAT much?

What really pissed me off was one women in front of me actually knows one of the ticket buyers in the first line. As he came out, she left the line to meet him and went back to her place in line holding two tickets.

So almost a 3-hour wait left me ticketless, food-less, and very late for my group meeting. URBTIX, I hate you.

2) Northwest Flight 1 is supposed to leave Tokyo at 6:35 pm and arrive in Hong Kong at around 10:20 pm. Tonight, the flight is expected to leave Tokyo at 9:40 pm and arrive in Hong Kong at 1:25 am due to an "inbound flight delay." In the past week, there has not been such delay, not even the night Typhoon Fitow hit Tokyo directly.

Northwest, I hate you, too.

Thursday, September 6, 2007

Exodus, or Pang Ho-Cheung's Most Dividing Work Yet

Went to check out director Pang Ho-Cheung's latest dark comedy Exodus. I'm trying not to give much of a plot description because the way Pang handles the film is not something one might expect from this plot. The basic pitch is that a cop (played by Simon Yam) begins to find that women are possibly involved in a secret organization that conspires to murder all men on earth. However, don't expect anything as manic as You Shoot I Shoot. Instead, Pang underplays everything, letting viewers find out everything that's happened after they happen. As a result, Exodus is very anti-climatic, with not a lot of payoffs if you don't try and connect all the dots together.

I say this is Pang's most dividing work because even the audiences that have been fans of Pang's work in the past might not like this film. Beyond Our Ken and Isabella might've been Pang's venture into art film territory, but those films had something beyond arthouse sensibility to entertain the audiences. However, Exodus goes all the way into the arthouse, frustrating viewers who are waiting for something surprising to happen. Honestly, even I sat there waiting for the big payoff that never really arrived. However, I was still amused at what's on screen, and the style is more deliberate than crappy directing. Just don't expect to be very entertained.

After the screening, there was a 20-minute Q&A (too short if you ask me) with Pang and his two co-screenwriters Wan Chi-Man and radio personality/part-time screenwriter GC Goobi. There, they explained the title (something about that particular story in the bible being about leading and being led. It was a lot to take in at once), the possible Stanley Kubrick influence, and even why Peter Kam isn't the main composer of the film's score. While I'm sure there were many other questions unanswered (this film is begging for a commentary), the talk added very good information about the film itself.

I'm sure the ultimate question is whether I liked the film or not. I admire Pang's attempt to try for something that might alienate audiences, and the dark comedy does work very well when it arrives (Although Nick Cheung's liberal use of Cantonese curse words only amuses due to the shock factor, especially since it surprisingly managed a IIB rating). But this is no doubt going to not have a lot of fans outside certain circles, with many people probably end up hating it. However, after giving it a lot of thought, I do quite like it for what it tries to do and the questions it asks. I think it probably deserved one of the three best picture awards given at the Golden Bauhinia, just because it accomplishes a lot artistically. At least it would be more deserving than the similarly alienating A Battle of Wits.

Hell, I might even go catch it again at a Tuesday discounted showing.

Saturday, September 1, 2007

Contract Lover, or Alfred Cheung, please come back to the 21st century

Contract Lover marks director/charm-less game show host Alfred Cheung Kin-Ting's first film for the Mainland China market. To me, it's the return of lazy filmmaking from the late-80s/early-90s. Then again, Cheung himself (with the box office word-of-mouth to prove it) said that the film actually tested quite well when he showed it in Beijing. What does that say about my taste and the taste of Mainland Chinese audiences then?

The plot descriptions are out there: successful financial....guy Richie Ren (I seriously have no idea what he does) has a rich life and a westernized girlfriend that he's ashamed to take home to traditional dad. Dad practices martial arts and - this is just according to the plot descriptions out there - resents the fact that son never took up martial arts. To get his parents to approve of the new girlfriend, he hires a contract girlfriend that acts so badly that the parents will take anyone else, i.e. westernized girlfriend.

The lazy part is that almost all of this is gone over in the first 5 minutes of the film via tons of voiceovers. During this section, the film also went over the girl they hired - Joe Lau (I think they meant Jo for Joanna, but ok) - and pretty much everything about her life. Usually, this is enough plot to stuff the first act, but Cheung amazingly stuffs all this information at once. This was going to be a long 95 minutes.

With bald Mandarin-speaking white homosexual best friend in tow, Joe Lau (played by the beautiful Fan Bing-Bing) goes to Richie Ren's house and attempts to cause chaos through all kinds of stupid things like giving sexy underwear to mother-in-law, teaching pole dancing, and in the stupidest one of all - break the wooden stick that's considered a family heirloom.

The film is filled with stupid ideas that sometimes actually do induce some kind of painful laughter, and a lot of them just feel contrived (one of the people at the screening I attended called this film "My Sassy Rent-a-girl"). I would be more tolerant to a film that actually makes me laugh, but Cheung has obviously so abandoned the Hong Kong market with this film. He's still attempting to cash in laughs with old tricks (honestly, who the hell still uses "The Moon Represents My Heart" and expected to be taken seriously?) that I honestly can't expect savvy Hong Kong audiences to buy into it. No, dubbing everyone into dense chaotic versions of Cantonese (Even the Hong Kong actors are forced to speak Mandarin here) dialogue doesn't make it any better.

Then again, there were a few young girls behind me that sounded like they really were having a good time until they walked out half way through. What does that say about the taste of Hong Kong audiences then?

By the way, I've reevaluated the film since watching it, and decided that Super Fans is still the worst mainstream Hong Kong film this year. At least I laughed at this one.

Monday, August 27, 2007

Report from the Jacky Cheung concert

Normally, this post would start with pictures, but they were so strict about people taking pictures at the concert that I'll just have to avoid posting any to avoid any possible legal action.

Because it's getting late, so I'll just write this post in the following format:

3 best things about the Jacky Cheung concert:

1) The singing - why else would you go to a Jacky Cheung concert? The dancing? Actually, that was pretty good too.

2) The hybrid musical of Snow Wolf Lake and Perhaps Love - Don't worry, it's not a spoiler, he tells you the first chance he gets that he's doing it, and it's been all over the Hong Kong papers. This is basically a 30-minute musical that blends songs from the stage and film musicals. It's a great idea to incorporate the Perhaps Love songs because he gives the film so much energy with his voice alone, so watching him do those songs live was quite amazing. Plus, the idea of a mini-musical within a concert just shows how much thought Jacky put into the this concert.

3) Stage design - the organizers decided to give away less seats (9000 instead of the usual 12,000) for a three-sided stage that makes the Hong Kong Coliseum look even smaller. The show felt very intimate, and this way, Jacky got to face all of his audiences. However....

3 worst things about the Jacky Cheung concert:

1) The audience - where to start? The average age of the audience was on the middle-age side: around 30-50, and apparently that generation has never heard of clapping. There were some very enthusiastic audience towards the second half, but the people around me just flat out didn't react. Some people even just spent their time watching the monitor, even when the man is within 50 feet of them, just to see how pretty his makeup is up close. Why don't they just save some cash for the DVD and give the tickets to those that really need it? Did someone point a gun at them and said "go watch Jacky Cheung sing or I'll shoot you?" And this audience was realistic as hell - as soon as Jacky gets to a song they don't know, they rush to the bathroom in droves. This was especially obvious during the transition to the mini-musical, when it seemed like at least a hundred people moving around the Coliseum. Then people started to file out before the 45-minute encore section started (the concert started at 8:20 and ended at 11:30, which might be bad for a weeknight), and half the place started emptying before Jacky even left the stage. He had this "oh, well, I'm used to this shit" expression on his face, but I couldn't help but feel sorry for him. Now I know why first shows and last shows sell out so quickly - first shows are for real devoted fans, and last show is to go overtime with songs everyone wants to hear, making everyone happy. My show was right in the middle of the tour, and I picked this date for personal reasons, not because I didn't care.

2) Audio volume level - maybe I'm getting old, but I was literally left with ringing ears after a section of fast songs. This can't be healthy, and I don't even think it's supposed to be normal.

3) Men in black and blue - the organizers were extremely strict about taking pictures and video recording. So strict that they had big men in black clothes and their better-dressed blue counterparts walk around the Coliseum at all times. When they catch someone, the men in black would approach the offender and shine the flashlight in his/her face. Sitting from above, this was incredibly distracting, and honestly a pretty bully-like thing to do. I can understand the no-videorecording rule; they have DVDs to sell. But the other show I've been to this year at the Coliseum (the Denise HOCC Ho show) was nowhere near this strict with picture-taking. It's not like spoilers here would destroy anyone's enjoyment - it ain't Harry Potter, people. Anyway, the real big complaint was how distracting they are, because their actions nad mannerisms just catch so much attention to themselves. What happened to giving free publicity?

Honorable mentions

Starting on time - Usually concerts at the Hong Kong Coliseum start at least 15 minutes late, and I mean that by starting all the warnings at least 15 minutes, which means the artist doesn't start singing until 25-30 minutes late. However, Jacky promised that this one would start on time because he wanted to pack as many songs as he can before getting penalized for over time. And he started promptly at 8:22 (the ticket says 8:15 and they started the warnings at 8:10) and ended at 11:32. I definitely got what I paid for (although those poor bastards that left didn't...).

My seat - I didn't change the seat because the seating chart on the ticket website indicates that I would be facing the stage head-on. Instead, I'm on the left side of the stage looking down, so Jacky's not even singing at me at least half the time. Worse yet, I paid the second-most expensive tickets just to not be able to look at the big screen behind him. And the real worst thing - I couldn't see Jun Kung live because he was drumming in the back of the stage. But still, I saw Jacky's face very clearly when he comes to our side of the Coliseum, so I'll let it go.

All in all, I had a very good time. This was a concert I've been waiting all my life to see (I've missed his America shows), and Jacky is an amazing performer in person. I would watch it again if he decides to end the tour in Hong Kong. This time, I'll pay for better seats, hoping for a better audience there.

Saturday, August 25, 2007

Lazy Songwriting, or More Songs for Your Buck?

I was listening to Hins Cheung's latest album (honestly a little disappointing, but more in a later review elsewhere), and I'm reminded of an annoying trend in pop music. I'm not a music student (playing the trumpet in middle and high schools doesn't count), so the best way I can explain it is the use of two separate melodies for one song. For example, let's say a song builds a certain atmosphere in the verse, but the chorus (really the most important part of a pop song) suddenly changes into a different melody that seems to be from a whole different song.

Some songs do manage to pull this off well (Bohemian Rhapsody is a prime example), but when it doesn't, it shows either the songwriter got stuck with a chorus and couldn't think of a proper verse, or vice versa. Either way, when it happens, it takes attentive listeners out of a song, and I'm personally quite sick of it. Today, I offer examples from the different pop worlds I listen where this happens.

Hong Kong:




Thursday, August 23, 2007

Blood Brothers, or How I Will Learn to Write a Fuller Screenplay

There are certain things you learn in film school, especially about writing screenplays - three-act structure, character arcs, good and bad guys, things like that. Some of these show up quite obviously in Alexi Tan highly-anticipated (in some circles) feature-length directorial debut Blood Brothers, and some of them are desperately missing.

Supposedly somewhat based on John Woo's Bullet in the Head (John Woo and his producer Terence Chang are producers on this), three country bumpkins go out to Shanghai to make it big working under notorious gangster Hung (quite well-played by Sun Honglei). Of course, something tears these lifelong friends apart, and a lot of blood will be shed.

When I review a movie, I think about expectations, as in what the film is trying to achieve. Rush Hour 3 is a crappy movie, but at least it doesn't even strive too much for any type of artistic quality, and it's entertaining enough. Not entertaining enough to earn any recommendation, but I digress. Blood Brothers strives to be a very serious and affecting drama about brotherhood and loyalty, but its pretensions is what kills it. The mood of Blood Brother is very gloomy, almost to the point of screaming "look at everyone emote! Get nervous, some important characters will be killed! That's right, feeeel the sadness from my elegant dark violin leitmotif!" But characters are underwritten and the film just simply breezes by some important plot points, undermining its storytelling.

Simply said, It was very easy to see when the screenplay was being written, it was written to get to the plot points that separates the three acts, along with fillers that comes between it. The film lacked fluid progression, and was even strangely episodic, considering it's only 95 minutes long.

Don't even get me started on the actors - No matter how you mess with the hair or what kind of clothes you put him in, Daniel Wu is miscast as the moral compass, and Liu Ye is now the young master of overacting. Unlike Wu, who's forced to be the boring central character who gets to lecture everyone about morals, at least Liu actually seems to have a bit of fun, as is Sun Honglei. Chang Chen plays the character that stands out the most, but his role, which is bigger than the trailer suggests, is again so underwritten that he simply seems to give up in the end until he gets to hold a gun and be a badass motherfucker. Some actors will manage to survive this, but I doubt anyone's status would be elevated by this film, including Woo and Chang.

I suppose the best way to summarize this is to imagine Woo trying to emulate Wong Kar-Wai. This is your run-of-the-mill John Woo brotherhood film without the action, and we know that Woo's worst directorial trait is doing drama. If Tan really wanted to live up to the Woo/Chang name, then lighten the hell up, man. I honestly wasn't expecting much, and my instincts was sadly way too right on. That lowered expectation itself is what prevented Blood Brothers from being the disappointment of the year.

Sunday, August 19, 2007

General observations of Hong Kong - part 1

Hong Kong people would've probably taken photos of it anyway, with or without that "Welcome to take photo" sign.

Relying on English to live in Hong Kong might not be a very good idea.

Taking a cross-harbor bus into the heart of Causeway Bay in the middle of the rain? Not even the traffic cops can help you.

Going to movie locations when the Typhoon warning no.8 signal is hoisted will get you nowhere. Really, everything except restaurants and movie theaters were closed.

There ARE ways to improve on durian. That's a durian crepe. It was delicious. My breath stunk for the rest of the night.

A spin-off, you say?

Welcome to this spin-off blog for The Golden Rock. I've thought about this idea for a while, and realizes that the daily entries for the original blog were getting way too long because of extra things that weren't news aggregation. Since this writer just made a pretty big move to one of the most active cities in Asian films, I figure it would be an opportunity to cover it more.

So The Golden Rock will stick to news aggregating, while the blog will cover more on reviews and observations of life in Hong Kong and possibly film school here as well. It won't be daily, but I hope it'll be worth reading.

Oh, and the title would explain where the name of The Golden Rock comes from as well.