When credits roll on Raging Fire they are accompanied by behind-the-scenes footage of Benny Chan at work directing the film. It’s a warm tribute to the late director, who died of cancer shortly after filming this, his last movie. That he was gone before post-production began means we’ll never know if the edit is representative of his vision, but it at least appears that no attempts were made to posthumously turn the film into a leaden swan song in a misguided attempt to celebrate the filmmaker. Instead, Raging Fire is just a Benny Chan action movie: a mixed bag of police tropes and martial arts action starring Donnie Yen and Nicholas Tse, less a capstone to a career than a continuation of what Chan did for thirty years.
Veteran cop Bong Cheung (Yen) sets out on a revenge mission after many of his colleagues are slaughtered walking into a trap set by Ngo (Tse), Bong’s former protégé, who was sent to prison for manslaughter on account of his mentor’s testimony and the backstabbing of department brass. There are a few twists thrown in along the way and a few proficient suspenseful sequences scattered about all the action, but most of the movie is concerned with unraveling the relationship between Bong and Ngo, using flashbacks to their days as partners to not just set up their collision course but also lightly comment on police bureaucracy and institutional corruption. It’s reasonably compelling stuff, with good performances from both its leads and its bench of recognizable Hong Kong actors, like Simon Yam. But it’s nothing you haven’t seen before in Hong Kong cinema or the West and, at two hours, it can’t help but drag from time to time.
With its warmed-over plot and familiar cop movie themes, Raging Fire is mostly an excuse to watch Donnie Yen do his thing, a promise on which it delivers decently if unexceptionally. Over a career spanning the last forty years, Yen has built up a catalogue of great fight scenes, and though it’s filled with action, no scene in this film is destined to shake up the canon of the best. A few genuinely inspired moments, like Yen wrapping a Kevlar vest around his arm to fend off a horde armed with machetes, or a car chase that finds him driving a minivan while fist fighting a motorcyclist out the window, lend their spark to sequences that are otherwise routine — cleanly directed but mixed and sometimes drab in their staging. A late-film shootout, for instance, dully lifts from Heat’s famous heist and only briefly comes to life when Yen makes clever use of the bumper to bumper traffic. Worst of all Chan sometimes leans too far into the ridiculous, as in the two CGI-assisted stunts he stages in the minivan chase, which would not be out of place in a Fast & Furious sequel and distract from this film’s more grounded, serious tone. The final one-on-one is good all-around though, and a nice reminder that its star, slower now that he’s nearly 60, can still deliver.
Writer: Chris Mello
Hand Rolled Cigarette
Despite the fact that Hand Rolled Cigarette (no hyphen) is the directorial debut of Chan Kin-long, it’s a film steeped in the golden age of Hong Kong crime cinema. It was produced by Lawrence Lau, also known as Lawrence Ah Mon, the director of late-‘80s/early-‘90s classics like Gangs, The Queen of Temple Street, and the Lee Rock films starring Andy Lau. Its editing was supervised by William Chang, a longtime collaborator of Wong Kar-wai, while production designer Cheung Siu-hong has worked extensively with director Heiward Mak, as well as on Johnnie To’s Three and John Woo’s The Crossing. The supporting cast includes Chin Siu-ho, co-star with Jet Li in Tai Chi Master and Fist of Legend, Tai-Bo, veteran of many ‘80s Sammo Hung and Jackie Chan films, and Tony Ho, from Fruit Chan’s The Longest Summer and Little Cheung. Chan Kin-long himself has had a solid acting career, with featured roles in The Midnight After, No. 1 Chung Ying Street, and Port of Call, three of the best Hong Kong films of the past decade. That’s to say, the film is fairly dripping in Hong Kong cred, and is itself primarily located in and around the Chungking Mansions, the maze-like apartment complex (more or less) made famous by Chungking Express.
The film starts where The Longest Summer did, with members of the colonial British army dismissed and set adrift at the time of the Handover. Gordon Lam Ka-ting (Sparrow, Infernal Affairs, Ip Man) is one of those soldiers, and we join him some time in the present, living in the Mansions and eyeing out a living on the edges of criminality. Why he’s no longer friends with his army buddies will become clear later, but for now he’s a loner, trying to make some cash to pay off a debt by selling turtles to a local gang boss. He gets mixed up with a young South Asian man (played by Bipin Karma), who has stolen a whole bunch of cocaine from that same boss, and coincidentally finds himself hiding out in Lam’s apartment, pursued by the boss’s menacing crew, led by Michael Ning (who was much more disturbing as the killer in Port of Call). What follows is a waiting game, as Lam and Karma slowly become friends and try to find a way out of their dilemmas — which quickly become intertwined, the fate of immigrant and native Hong Konger alike subject to the whims of forces beyond their control — without getting one or both of them killed. It ends, of course, in bloody violence, filmed, as these things must be by all young directors, in one single take, though one that’s admirably free of expressive movement or flashy choreography.
The film leans in hard on the sense of nostalgia for a past world. That has, to an extent, always been a part of Hong Kong crime cinema: old codes aren’t respected anymore and that’s why things have fallen apart, and so on. But beginning around the time of the last financial crisis, and Johnnie To’s Life Without Principle, Triad sagas ceased to be about anything remotely related to the state of criminality in Hong Kong (if they ever were that) and more and more explicitly about the Triad genre itself, specifically how they just don’t make ‘em like they used to anymore, and how sad we all are about that. Chan shoots a chase sequence in an open-air market off Temple Street that might be the same location as the opening chase in Ringo Lam’s City on Fire. Or it might not be, but instead just look kind of like it. The difference is that Lam shot his scene there because it looked cool: the billowing white sheets of the stalls splattered with blood, the crowded streets shoved aside by gangsters and movie cameras. But Chan’s scene is there because Lam was there first, and we all wish we could see City on Fire again for the first time.
For a variety of reasons (market dictates, pressure to conform to Mainland censorship policies, the collapse of the studio systems, competition from Korean, Taiwanese, Japanese, and Southeast Asian cinema, as well as Hollywood imports, the failure of new generations of on-screen and behind-the-scenes talent to replicate the success and originality of previous generations) the Hong Kong cinema is not what it used to be, and it likely never will be again. This is the implicit subject of even the best recent crime films. And as Hong Kong’s cinema goes, so goes the state of the colony-turned-Special Administrative Region. It’s hard to be optimistic about either.
Writer: Sean Gilman
Escape from Mogadishu
Action movie maestro Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest film, Escape from Mogadishu, is set in 1991 during Somalia’s civil war, and the first signs of trouble for this movie come right from the top, where on the soundtrack we can actually hear drums and chanting, like some racist Hollywood film from the 1930s. Alas, instead of being an unfortunate aberration, this is fairly indicative of how Somalians, and by extension Africans, and by further extension, Black people, are portrayed in the film.
In 1991, South Korea was vigorously lobbying for UN membership, and the votes of member states were crucial to this effort. Apparently, if this film can be believed, Somalia’s single vote was of paramount importance to South Korea’s government. North Korea was jockeying for a place in the UN as well, which is why the film initially details some fairly tedious business concerning the battle between North and South to curry favor with Somalia’s government and win that prized vote. To that end, Han Shin-sung (Kim Yoon-seok), the South Korean ambassador to Somalia, along with intelligence agent Kang Dae-jin (Zo In-sung), are in the Somali capital of Mogadishu to meet with Somalia’s president, and their plan is to basically bribe the president with gifts to win him over to their side. Simple enough. Their North Korean counterparts, diplomat Rim Yong-soo (Huh Joon-ho) and his assistant Tae Joon-ki (Koo Kyo-hwan), are also in the capital, determined to block the South Koreans’ efforts and gain the upper hand.
Eventually, we get to the “escape” part of the plot. While the Korean diplomats are playing their games of one-upmanship, a popular uprising emerges against Somalia’s corrupt government, which soon devolves into outright civil war. Suddenly, the Somalians aren’t so hospitable to their Korean guests, and soon the North Korean embassy is destroyed by rebels. The North Koreans make the dangerous trek to the South Korean embassy, pleading to be let in. Reluctantly, the South Koreans do so, and while both sides are wary and distrusting of one another, they quickly realize that they must work together to make their way out of the country.
Spoiler alert — although the film’s title is already kind of a spoiler — the Koreans make it out mostly intact, and there’s some softening of the barriers between North and South, and just the hint of hope for eventual reconciliation. This is all very nice and uplifting, except for one huge problem: the extremely distasteful reality that a bloody and tragic African civil war is used as the backdrop for some kind of plea for Korean unification. This allows the film to indulge in an infuriatingly distorted, stereotypical view of Africa, and not a single Somalian registers as an actual character; they’re mostly portrayed as mindless, bloodthirsty savages. That is, when they’re not depicted as greedy, corrupt government officials. In its reductive, ill-considered presentation, Escape from Mogadishu becomes just the latest in a long, ignoble line of movies that present Africa as nothing more than a nightmarish, hellish landscape.
All this is a real bummer for obvious reasons, but even more so because Ryoo Seung-wan is a sometimes great director who’s made no small number of genuinely pleasurable, action-oriented films, including No Blood No Tears, Crying Fist, The City of Violence, The Berlin File, and Veteran. That Escape from Mogadishu comes courtesy of him and not some nobody hack makes the disappointment all that much more severe, and to say that he dropped the proverbial ball with this one would be a wild understatement. Sure, there’s filmmaking skill on display, the best example of which comes in the climactic vehicular escape from the besieged South Korean embassy. But honestly, who fucking cares? The pertinent question is: who really needs this type of regressive, tone-deaf bullshit in 2021, or in any other year for that matter?
Writer: Christopher Bourne
Hong Kong director Ann Hui joins several of her most illustrious peers as the subject of a biographical documentary, Keep Rolling. Unlike Hou Hsiao-hsien, Jia Zhangke, and Johnnie To, however, she does not sing karaoke in the film. But she does tell Sylvia Chang that she wishes she had spent more of her life “drinking, singing, and dancing.” Why she didn’t is perhaps revealed in an earlier comment, when she tells an interviewer that once she was out with her fellow Hong Kong New Wave director Tsui Hark and his then-wife, the accomplished producer Nansun Shi, and couldn’t help, after a few drinks, but recite Shakespeare for them. They never wanted to go out with her again after that, Hui asserts.
Man Lim-chung’s film excels at revealing these quirks of Hui’s personality. For example, her patient caring for her nonagenarian mother on a trip somewhere (a doctor?) is deflated by the fact that Hui has absent-mindedly gotten the date wrong and the office is closed. The short scene ends with Hui and her mother (billed in the credits only as “Ann Hui’s mother”) sitting silently in a coffee shop. In another interview we see that Hui’s shirt is absolutely covered in cat hair, the fault of the clearly beloved yet imperious Figaro. Another segment chronicles Hui’s penchant for accidents: walking into walls, getting hit by cars and buses, and, in one clip, tripping and nearly crushing actress Tang Wei on the set of The Golden Era.
All this charming bumbling belies the fact that Hui is the most intellectual of her peers. She earned a Master’s Degree in English and Comparative Literature from the University of Hong Kong before going to the London Film School, where her thesis was on Alain Robbe-Grillet. She’s also the most decorated: She has won the Best Director prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards a record six times and was the first female director to win a Lifetime Achievement Award at the Venice Film Festival. Man is less effective at exploring just what it is that makes Hui’s films so good — admittedly a difficult task as Hui is not an expressive stylist in the mode of her more famous peers like Tsui or John Woo. Nor has she confined herself to a particular genre or subject matter. Instead, Hui has built a consistently excellent body of well-crafted, thoughtful, humane films that more often than she would like are greeted with popular indifference.
Keep Rolling is structured around Hui’s life and films, using scenes from her semi-autobiographical Song of the Exile and Starry is the Night to illustrate passages of her early life, but otherwise tracing her career film by film, explicated by several interviews with Hui as well as with her siblings, members of her crews, and many of her directorial peers. We’re treated to footage that’s been hard to find in the US, including a couple of episodes Hui did in the 1970s for the anthology TV series Beneath the Lion Rock (one starring Nansun Shi!) and clips of The Spooky Bunch, Romance of Book and Sword, and Song of the Exile that look much better than the circulating copies of those films online. Most of Hui’s mid-’80s to mid-’90s career is dismissed as a series of failures, by both Hui and the documentary, though those films, for me at least, include some of her best work: the ground-breaking wuxia Book and Sword, thorny romantic melodramas Starry is the Night and the Eileen Chang adaptation Love in a Fallen City, and maybe her best film, Song of the Exile. All of which goes to show not just that, for better or worse, what plays abroad doesn’t always play well at home, but also that the greatest films of a great director often go unrecognized in their own time, sometimes even by the director herself.
Hui tells us she’d like to be more successful, financially: how much of a struggle it is to secure financing (unlike To and Tsui, she never had the backing of her own production company, nor was she part of a studio like Golden Harvest or Cinema City), and how disappointing and frustrating it is when her films don’t work. Andy Lau, who got his start in her 1982 film Boat People, tells us how she once approached him with the goal of making a commercial film and how excited he was at the prospect. But as she rattled off movie ideas, he realized that all she wanted to make were “Ann Hui films.” Ultimately Keep Rolling gives us a portrait of a director unable to be anything but what she is.
Writer: Sean Gilman
One Second Champion
After a mediocre attempt at reviving the jiangshi hopping vampire movie as one half of the directing team behind Vampire Cleanup Department, Hong Kong actor Chiu Sin-Hang has made his solo directorial debut with an infectiously energetic boxing movie. One Second Champion stars Cantopop artist Endy Chow as Chow Tin-yan, a down-on-his-luck single father with a peculiar talent: he can see exactly one second into the future. Outside of the gambling he does to finance surgery for his son’s hearing loss, Chow’s foresight is a totally useless party trick until a bar fight catches the attention of asthmatic boxer Shun (played by the director) who seeks to make a name for his gym in honor of his late father, a great fighter. Soon, Chow is in the ring to make money for his son and discovers that here his power really is super: punches are easy to dodge when you can see them all coming.
Chow wins fight after fight, motivated by his son’s love and love of his son, and is eventually put on a collision course with Hong Kong’s best boxer, Instant Killer Joe, who killed his last opponent and whose team is looking for a gimmick match to rake in profits. It’s all standard stuff, even with the supernatural gimmick, and from here the movie abides mostly predictable formula, with some melodramatic twists and plenty of sentimental touches that some will undoubtedly find hard to take. But Chiu approaches the material with a snappy rhythm that is generous to the dramatic material without letting it stew long enough to become maudlin, and he deftly balances tone throughout to the extent that not a moment rings false, even those that would seem dreadfully corny if explicated here. Take, for example, the waterfront scene between Chow and Shun’s cousin (Min Chen Lin) who runs a Smiling Yoga studio out of Shun’s gym; when she tells him that she dreams of a parallel universe, one where her father never left and she was never cheated on, Chow replies that his one second foresight might create such universes, one where he gets punched and the one where he dodges, that every choice can create a new universe, presenting a malleable future full of hopeful possibility. On paper, this is sappy, power of positivity stuff, but the moment is so quietly observed and the chemistry between Min and Chow so casually electric — the actors create a romantic feeling the screenplay barely even implies — that when the scene is called back to in the finale’s fight scene, it’s rendered more rousing than sentimental.
It’s a good boxing movie, too. Chow looks convincing in the ring — in lieu of a Jackie Chan-style bloopers real, a montage of the singer training plays alongside the credits — and Chiu’s action direction is greatly improved from Vampire Cleanup Department. While many of the fights are shot with fluid long takes, a few doing great effects work to visualize Chow’s superpower, Chiu smartly varies his approach to suit the dramatic needs of each bout. Chow’s ascent as a boxer is shot in those long takes emphasizing motion, making them seem like relatively effortless fights, all the better when Chiu intercuts them with a training montage to reveal the work it took to throw the punch shown in the next shot. A more arduous fight, like the finale against Joe that finds Chow’s circumstances changed, calls for a different style, this one shot through the ring’s out-of-focus ropes and fragmented by cuts, the synecdoche of close-ups on bloody hands and shuffling feet emphasizing every piece of Chow’s physical feat until it all comes together with a close-up of a punch to the jaw. When One Second Champion ends, it leaves many of its threads unresolved, the possibilities of the future uninterrupted by finality, intelligently locating that the joy of the film is not in winning, but in watching its cast of misfits move forward.
Writer: Chris Mello