Septet: The Story of Hong Kong
The subtitle for Septet: The Story of Hong Kong isn’t an all that accurate reflection of the omnibus’s breadth: These seven short films do span a robust 70 years, from the 1950s (Sammo Hung’s Exercise) to the 2020s (Tsui Hark’s Conversation in Depth), but since nearly all of them play with flashbacks and nonlinear structures, there’s license to dwell in certain time periods rather than others, and it’s clear where this particular group of Hong Kong auteurs’ hearts lie. Every director attached to the project was born between 1945 (martial arts choreographer Yuen Woo-ping) and 1955 (both Johnnie To and Ringo Lam), so they’re roughly of the same generation, and they all treat Septet unabashedly as a nostalgia object — their contributions, taken together, don’t so much render a historical narrative of Hong Kong as they do a very particular cinematographic image of it, one heavily reliant on familiarity with their oeuvres.
To be fair, the Chinese title of Septet translates to “Band of Seven,” a much more appropriate (read: less universalizing) way of branding this anthology. And it’s frequently easy to enjoy and appreciate Septet on these terms — as a love-letter to a golden age of Hong Kong cinema that this group of filmmakers basically architected. Never is this more the case than during Patrick Tam’s contribution, Tender Is the Night, his first directorial credit in 16 years. Refreshingly straightforward and impeccably directed, Tam’s short is the story of two bookish lovers who meet in the Hong Kong of the “late 1980s” and not long after have to cope with parting when the girl’s parents decide to move to the U.K. (one of several allusions/references throughout Septet to the migration of many elites in Hong Kong in the decade prior to the handover). So what if certain passages feel like lesser recreations of moments from Tam’s New Wave classics, like Nomad (1982) and Love Massacre (1981), complete with bright, solid-colored apartment walls and David Bowie posters adorning them? Just as those ‘80s films used their romantic melodramas as representational of a complicated national mood, Tender Is the Night lends itself to a reading of Hong Kong that — like the two lovers’ fleeting relationship — is an ideal forever out of reach, a place and time supplanted by competing influences from China and the West.
A number of the other shorts here scan as more conservative capitulations to an idea of Hong Kong that mainland Chinese censorship can comfortably condone, which is a big problem facing HK cinema more broadly right now. (If you’re wondering why we never got Johnnie To’s Election 3…) At the end of Ringo Lam’s Astray, a father’s ashes are sprinkled into the water by his widow and his adult son. The son asks his mother, “Wouldn’t it be better to bring him back to the U.K.?” to which mom responds, tearfully, “He loved Hong Kong.” It’s far from the only time here that the Septet auteurs’ more eccentric and distinctive directorial voices (the first part of Astray does contain some interesting commentary about changes to the Hong Kong cityscape) ultimately get sublimated into the same type of maudlin nationalist messaging familiar from recent mainland omnibuses like My People, My Country (2019) and My Country, My Parents (2021). That said, a weirder short like Tsui Hark’s Conversation in Depth doesn’t really fare much better, using a tired “mental hospital” set-up for a punchline about the reversed roles of a patient and his psychiatrist, and then trying for a bit of comical self-awareness by pulling back to reveal Tsui himself engaged in a debate with another one of Septet’s filmmakers, Ann Hui, about how “deep” what they just watched was (“It’s trying to be stylish,” Hui quips disapprovingly).
Hui, for her part, contributes one of the weakest of the seven shorts here, furthering a dispiriting trend for one of Hong Kong’s most important and accomplished filmmakers after her recent, fatally inert Eileen Chang adaptation, Love After Love (2020). Headmaster as well relies on a romantic relationship lacking in any real chemistry; in fact, it’s barely perceptible in the short’s first half, set in a primary school in the 1960s. This unrequited love becomes the fulcrum of Headmaster’s drama when the narrative jumps ahead 40 years, to find the titular headmaster now a feeble old man, who discovers that the younger teacher he once quietly pined for has passed away from some bogus Chinese medicine. The headmaster’s adult students help locate the teacher’s grave, culminating in a sweet but ultimately unearned emotional send-off. Likewise, Johnnie To’s Bonanza feels like work that’s way beneath him — an unnecessary retread of his much superior Life Without Principle (2011), paring down that film’s trifold plot to just the stock speculation stuff in the form of a handful of scenes of young people, over the course of about a decade, mulling buying into the market, with intertitles providing exposition about the Tom.com crisis and other notable, extreme vacillations in Hong Kong’s economy since the 1997 handover.
That just leaves Sammo Hung’s Exercise, which opens Septet on a buoyant note, and Yuen Woo-ping’s Homecoming, one of the more narratively dynamic shorts among the seven. Hung’s film functions as a brief autobiographical vignette, with a slightly fudged timeline (it ostensibly follows his training as a youth in the China Drama Academy, which Hung enrolled at in 1961 when he was 9 years old, but the short is actually set in the 1950s). Exercise is a loving ode to the grace and hard work of great choreography and the athleticism of Beijing Opera in particular; most of it is made up of scenes of the talented children’s cast showing off their impressive moves. There’s an added bit of resonance in having Hung’s son, Timmy Hung, play the sifu for most of the short, until a final shot of the elder sifu swaps Sammo himself into the role. Homecoming, whose first section is set in 1997, is a two-hander between legendary Hong Kong action star Yuen Wah (also a member of the same Beijing Opera youth troupe as Hung and Jackie Chan, so in a sense he’s in Septet twice), playing an aging martial arts expert and lifelong fan of Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hung, and a granddaughter who has to live with him for a short time in order to take her college entrance exams, before she can join her parents and immigrate to Canada. It’s a typical odd-couple pairing, but with some nice grace notes (the recurring role of a McDonald’s hamburger) and a fun scene of Yuen beating up mouthy kids.
At its best, Setpet summons the romantic and oddball aura of one of the most beloved eras in international cinema, Hong Kong or otherwise, by allowing itself to be a compendium of unabashed audio-visual fetishes: Planes constantly flying much too low over Kowloon City (before the new Chek Lap Kok airport was built in 1998), Cantopop songs emanating from bedroom cassette decks, and cameras that move with such agency it’s like they’re a character unto themselves. What you won’t get from Septet, despite a handful of the generation-spanning storylines bleeding into near-present-day periods, is an engagement with the urgent political realities that face today’s Hong Kong. Neither should you expect work that approaches anything like the best that these seven auteurs have made in the past — though whether that’s primarily due to the daunting oversight of Hong Kong’s film industry right now or a general waning of the talents of the Hong Kong New Wave’s great filmmakers is harder to say.
Writer: Sam C. Mac
Banned from filmmaking for 20 years back in 2010 for making what the Iranian government deemed “propaganda against the system,” Jafar Panahi has nevertheless remained a pretty dependable presence on the international festival circuit, managing five features and a few shorts over the last decade despite a house arrest order and threats of jail time. This run of projects, kicking off with 2011’s This is Not a Film, forced the longtime director out of the realm of traditional narrative cinema and into something more diaristic and experimental, though with each passing film Panahi has been able to broaden his scope — in direct correlation to a continued laxening of the terms of his home imprisonment — while craftily working in fiction elements that undermine both his sentencing and the notion of a cinematic reality. These post-arrest non-films have varied in effectiveness — 2013’s Closed Curtain a brilliant early rendition, 2018’s 3 Faces far dicier and confused — but remain irresistible, even essential, in the current cinematic landscape where the political is primarily addressed hypothetically and formal ingenuity is a non-priority.
Panahi’s latest (and perhaps last for a time following a second, politically motivated arrest this past July), the previously alluded to fifth post-arrest feature No Bears is absolutely of the same mold as the last few, but a decided improvement on (and refinement of) what he was up to in 3 Faces. Like that film, No Bears sees Panahi thrust into the middle of a grave conflict between Iranian tradition and progress, forced into the role of reluctant, ill-equipped arbiter of justice. Set on the northwestern Iranian border shared with Turkey, the onscreen Panahi is introduced deep in production on a new film set in the latter country, a film he directs remotely from a small village just close enough to keep in contact with his crew via video call. Panahi’s movie within a movie — an immigration drama detailing a couple’s struggles to discreetly flee Iran — stays on track despite the geographical distance between the director and his cast and crew, but it’s not long before the parallel dynamics of his host town begin to overtake his attention.
Invited to a riverside wedding ceremony with the intent of having him film and document its related practices, Panahi captures the proceedings not understanding that they are being carried out discreetly in defiance of an antiquated marriage law, the bride having been promised to the son of another family at birth. Thus, this celebratory footage becomes much sought-after evidence to be used in the condemnation of this young couple, who in turn mean to escape across the border and elope, not unlike the protagonists of Panahi’s film within a film. This inevitably places the filmmaker in a dramatic, moral bind, sympathetic to the would-be newlyweds and skeptical of the esoteric, sexist laws wielded against them, but also still in his own legally precarious position, and very much alone and unfamiliar in this village.
It’s an enticing premise that No Bears mostly lives up to (losing its way for a bit in the second half, before coming back for a strong finish), balancing legitimate thriller set pieces with the restrained self-interrogation that’s defined Panahi’s recent, more confined work in order to ask provocative questions about the artist’s ability to enforce genuine social change. There aren’t any definitive answers, nor does Panahi allow for straightforward emotional resolution in any direction, his ending bitter and shocking, his film’s title forceful and empowering (borrowed from a conversation where it’s contextually used in the same sense as the phrase “Paper Tiger”). A welcome, honest approach that picks apart author and production apparatus as much as it does its immediate subject, No Bears is a lively work that shows a way forward not many are yet ready to take.
Writer: M.G. Mailloux
Detectives vs. Sleuths
Writer/director Wai Ka-fai is likely best known in the West for his collaborations with Johnnie To and their Milkyway Image production house (which the duo co-founded). To has enjoyed significantly more distribution in America than Wai, probably something to do with that old chestnut about comedy from different cultures not traveling well. Indeed, while To is celebrated as an action auteur, his films written by Wai are delightfully eccentric, frequently straddling the line between serious drama, crime procedural, and slapstick-inspired antics. Wai’s new solo project, Detective vs. Sleuths, is something of a companion piece to these earlier films with To, namely Mad Detective (2007) and Blind Detective (2013). It’s a loose, thematically linked pseudo-trilogy, involving police officers with unique abilities that are as absurd as they are psychologically debilitating. Mad Detective involves an officer who can see suspects’ true inner selves; when he begins tracking a killer with multiple personalities, the film visualizes it by surrounding the criminal with other actors. Blind Detective finds, you guessed it, a blind officer who can recreate crime scenes in his mind. Detective vs. Sleuths follows this lineage with an incredibly convoluted plot and a complicated visual schema that literalizes on screen what our intrepid — but possibly insane — detective senses while investigating a series of linked crimes.
To/Wai mainstay Lau Ching-wan plays Jun Lee, a former detective who was kicked off the force after claiming that the police botched two important cases, shown via flashbacks during a brief prologue. One, dubbed “The Butcher,” involved police finding a field full of corpses and then shooting the prime suspect in front of his young daughter. The other, dubbed “The Devil Cop” case, is shown in more elaborate detail; a masked man guns down two beat cops while using a third as a human shield. He then arranges all three bodies to make it look like one of the cops killed the other two. Lee doesn’t buy the official story in either of the cases, and bursts into a press conference shouting wild theories while waving a gun around. He’s shot and wounded, and the film jumps ahead 17 years.
Now, the lone survivor of The Butcher case, Chan (Charlene Choi), has grown up to become a policewoman. She’s married to Fong Lai Shun (Raymond Lam), the cop who rescued her all those years ago. They begin investigating a murder scene that has police file numbers spray painted on the ground, recognizing them as old cases belonging to Jun Lee. Reluctantly deciding to enlist his help, they find him living on the streets in a makeshift hovel surrounded by his old case files, strewn about like one of those interlocked conspiracy theory vision boards. Soon enough, a group of killers calling themselves “The Chosen Sleuths” begin killing more people.
The catch is that they all worship Jun Lee, believing his theories as to the real identities of various murderers, and blaming the police for either pinning the crimes on the wrong people or not solving them at all. Further complicating matters is Jun Lee’s abilities to see the victims of the Chosen Sleuths, both before and after they’ve been killed. It’s as bizarre as it sounds — a vigilante group hunting down killers using a former cop’s files, while that same former cop speaks to the victims (all murderers themselves) in an effort to apprehend their killers. Confused? It’s a lot of information at first, but Wai keeps things moving swiftly yet clearly. Eventually, the true identity of the Chosen Sleuth’s leader is revealed, and both The Butcher and The Devil Cop cases become important parts of this vast, winding narrative. No one is who they seem, and the grand mastermind behind it all has everyone hoodwinked.
It’s thrilling to watch Wai put all these puzzle pieces together, juggling various narrative threads and weaving together an intricate web of deceit and obfuscation. Working with another longtime Milkyway collaborator, cinematographer Cheng Siu-Keung, Wai paints Hong Kong as a decrepit, neon-lit hell hole. Fittingly, Cheng also shot Soi Cheang’s Limbo, and while that film is in black and white, it shares with Detective vs. Sleuths a visual density and emphasis on texture that links the two in interesting ways. Every dark alley is a potential crime scene, and behind the glistening steel and glass high-rises lies nothing but the debris and detritus of a collapsing society. The increasingly chaotic action set pieces show just how far Wai is willing to go to elicit some shocks from audiences, as both cops and criminals are gunned down by the dozens, while a pregnant woman (and later her newborn child) are constantly put in harm’s way.
The film’s finale, set in a hollowed-out, rusted ship graveyard, lasts forever and involves a ludicrous amount of pyrotechnics. It would all be funny if it wasn’t so deadly serious, an apocalyptic bout of frenzied violence that rivals the end of To’s Drug War for unbridled, everyone-dies nihilism. The film’s seeming contradictions are encapsulated nicely by Lau’s dedicated, unhinged lead performance. His banter with the “ghosts” that only he can see teeters on the absurd, and his frequent outbursts are tilted toward the broadly comedic, but he’s surrounded by so much death and destruction that it all becomes tragic rather than funny. Even the film’s final shot, ostensibly a moment of triumph, likewise suggests an ongoing madness that cannot end. Wai is a magician and has here crafted one of the year’s best, most kinetic action movies, one that leaves you absolutely miserable once it’s over.
Writer: Daniel Gorman
In light of an unprecedented global vaccine effort, the widespread availability of annual booster shots, and a new political party in the White House, it can be understandably difficult to look back on the uncertainty of the pandemic’s early weeks and months. Who wants to dwell on the dark days, when hand sanitizer was scarce, streets were silent, and we were limited to one government-sanctioned mental health walk per day? But Bad Axe, David Siev’s feature-length documentary debut, avoids contrived melodrama by focusing on his family’s struggles in real-time, leading to a deeply intimate and heartfelt portrait of resilience and principled struggle.
In a town of less than 4,000, with “two stoplights and a Walmart,” the Sievs run the restaurant and bar Rachel’s, named after the family matriarch. Their large and tight-knit but occasionally sparring family includes father Chun, a Cambodian refugee and former martial arts instructor; his wife Rachel, who’s Mexican-American; Jaclyn, who exudes Eldest Daughter energy and is the backbone of the family; college senior Raquel, finishing the school year over Zoom and struggling to decide if her future lies at the restaurant; David, a filmmaker who returned home from New York City when the pandemic hit; and another sister named Michelle. Ever present is the spirit of their grandmother, known as Ma, who single-handedly led Chun and his five siblings out of the killing fields so that they could start over in America.
Like every other restaurant during the early days of the pandemic, Rachel’s struggled to stay in business, with limited delivery capacity and no indoor dining. Not only that, the family had to contend with the heightened political climate at the time, when Covid precautions took on an ugly partisan edge and choosing sides in the ensuing culture wars included what restaurants to patronize. Much of Siev’s footage will be familiar to anyone who found themselves back in their childhood bedroom during those early, chaotic months: there are teary arguments and competitive game nights, as well as the constant struggle of figuring out how to stay afloat while keeping the most vulnerable family members safe. Underneath these tensions lurks the legacy of the brutal Khmer Rouge regime that Chun escaped as a child. Outspoken and occasionally hilarious, he’s clearly still suffering from PTSD, though he obviously loves his family and is proud of all they’ve achieved in their adopted homeland. It’s a common tension among immigrant families, this writer’s included: a parent’s unwillingness to admit when they’re wrong (much less apologize) because any suffering they’ve inflicted doesn’t compare to what they’ve had to endure. It’s a measure of the film’s compassion that in these moments, Chun’s humanity shines through. Like all of us, he’s a flawed person who’s doing the best he can with what he has.
As the film progresses into spring and summer, and the Black Lives Matter movement roils the nation, this complex family history becomes interwoven with the Sievs’ vulnerability as a multi-racial, outspokenly anti-racist family in rural Trump country. Raquel’s boyfriend Austin, who also works at the restaurant, is Black but grew up with a white family; his own ambivalence about his Blackness adds another layer to the younger generation’s decision to participate in the town’s only BLM march. These scenes can be heart-pounding in their immediacy, with the march drawing a handful of racist counter-protesters who cover their faces with Punisher bandanas and at one point throw a neo-Nazi salute. It’s easy to cheer for the younger generation as Jaclyn chews out the racists, but what about her parents, who are pointedly afraid to undermine their hard-won success by following suit? Chun and Rachel’s struggle is of assimilation, not liberation, and they’re understandably reluctant to do anything that could jeopardize their livelihood.
The second half of the documentary dips into movie-about-a-movie territory after Siev releases a trailer, which leads to more backlash from the community. As his siblings point out, it’s hard to believe Bad Axe is a “love letter” to the town when it unflinchingly shows numerous citizens at their worst. But what Jaclyn says is true: home is wherever there’s family. Ultimately, Bad Axe is less a love letter than a tender and heartfelt portrait of a family, town, and nation in crisis. The complicated beauty of America, which Siev captures so candidly, is that there will always be room for vastly different people and politics, each striving toward their own version of the American Dream.
Writer: Selina Lee
At the risk of seeming belligerent or unfair, Ravi Kapoor’s sophomore outing inspires, incontrovertibly, an aversive response. Four Samosas clings to a straining aesthetic emulation — an ideologically regressive derivative of Wes Anderson — yet derisively so (and oblivious to it): its formal aspirations falter at the hands of more conventional characterization. In a very lackadaisical narrative that follows Vinny (Venk Potula), we watch, from a distance, the hijinks of a small band of misfits whose aimless intentions (manifested in the form of a poorly conceived heist) are an extrapolation of their own positionalities: lives stuck, wandering the Artesian landscape in search not of purpose, but of agency. It’s a well-meaning enough allegory, but reveals, in its writhing aestheticism, the sneering comedy it projects onto every soul on camera. Characters are reduced to amateur-night-stand-up parodies, and there’s a contradictory cruelty in such passive handling. Kapoor’s script incessantly reminds us of these characters’ desires, their want for a semblance of self-control and self-esteem, and yet the director seems only to want to depict them as bumbling caricatures, concerned ultimately with immediate vanity as placed before them by contrived screenwriting. In attempting to make audiences laugh, the film throws its own humanity under the bus, making a spectacle of its characters’ insecurities without a single gesture toward reckoning — in fact, its mid-credits scene further enshrines its mean-spirited desire to reduce and categorize.
Something that consistently intrigues, however, is how in the creation of a purposeful derivation, a filmmaker will almost always show their failure to understand the initial stylings they’re lifting from. Anisha Acharya’s edit here is what shows Kapoor’s hand. Anderson’s edits are incisive and pre-planned; they are a part of a cartographic inclination that he bakes into the very narrative of his work. Space is always being rediscovered and redefined by how or who becomes repositioned. In short, there is no superfluous cut between wide and medium close-ups so as to engender pace because pace in an Anderson title is constructed in-camera and organized with the cut. Acharya’s edits flail back and forth between disparate coverages. Certainly such haphazardness can be sympathized with, as Kapoor’s own aesthetic intentions are utterly unclear and arrogantly unfocused, and the editor is left scrambling to assemble disparate ideas and thematic sequences together. Look no further than Four Samosas’ final scene, wherein we find Vinny in a muddled attempt at defining the themes of the film via narration. But he seems quite unsure about them even here, and such a seemingly purposeful reflexivity is indicative of the work’s lack of cogency.
Writer: Zachary Goldkind