Retrospective Review: Double Team by Tsui Hark

Double Team by Tsui Hark

There comes a time for every filmgoer when you like a bad movie that nobody likes. You can’t really pinpoint why you like them and it’s a bit embarrassing. Nobody really cares why you liked it because nobody wants to talk about a bad movie. You cannot exactly defend the movie because you see why it’s bad but you feel obligated to point out what’s fun about it. I’ve been wanting to write about films that aren’t new releases. This seems like a good opportunity to write about a film that I enjoy and really want to have a discussion about. So here are my thoughts on the 1997 Tsui Hark action film film Double Team

Let me set it up the historical context. It was 1997. There was a rising trend of Hong Kong action cinema in the West that came in the form of VHS, thanks to the long gone Blockbuster video store. A mutual interest begun to develop; Hollywood producers wanted to inject a new style into American action movies and Hong Kong directors were curious and excited about working with Hollywood resources. John Woo was the first Hong Kong director to be hired for a Hollywood project, and later Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark followed. Coincidentally, all three worked with Jean Claude Van Damme in their Hollywood debuts. This trend eventually died when the Hong Kong directors weren’t that curious anymore and felt that they were being treated to the equivalent of low-cost B-movie directors and the Hollywood resources did not seem worth it by comparison.

John Woo was the only director to rise up the ranks working with other A-listers. Tsui Hark eventually returned to working on Hong Kong productions and Ringo Lam collaborated with Van Damme on a few more straight-to-video productions before retiring from directing.

Tsui Hark has always been a hit-and-miss director for me. He always wants to do too much and ends up overstuffing his films at the expense of the primary idea he started with. But here, perhaps because it was hi American debut, that problem is not here. Working with an American studio and an English language script forced Tsui Hark to reign himself in.

So the setup… Counter-terrorist agent Jack Quinn misses his target, Stavros, on his final mission. He is sent to the Colony, an organization for presumed-dead assassins. He breaks free and seeks aid from Yaz, a weapons dealer for his final battle with Stavros.

Just a few small thoughts to get out of the way. The film is shot like a cartoon with its pastel-like color palette. The art direction is noteworthy as well, it gives a futuristic sense to everything here without being too far into the future or going too over-the-top. It looks like a future that can exist one day.

The idea of the Colony, a secret organization that helps police the world behind-the-scenes via surveillance and advice, is a pretty fun quasi-Utopian concept (the members of the organization live in a sea view resort but are not allowed to leave the place ever) and it is where the film picks up in its second act. The sequences where Van Damme rebuilds himself in a training montage and his escape from the Colony were both interesting and fun visual set pieces. They keep the movie interesting without relying on acting or fight choreography and are specifically designed around things Van Damme can do. Where John Woo dressed Van Damme with gunplay and Ringo Lam with drama, Tsui Hark dressed him up with visual crazy concepts and just let him shine throwing his signature kicks. Tsui Hark recognized that acting was not Van Damme’s forte (at least not until 2008’s JCVD) and decided to let him be the straight man and created chaos around him for contrast. This brings us to the casting of Dennis Rodman…

Dennis Rodman is funny in an absolute hammy way as Yaz the arms dealer. He is so blatantly obnoxious having so much fun playing himself and making basketball puns I can’t help it but laugh along with it. I’m not saying Rodman should be in every movie but he’s likable here. There’s an appeal in movies where the audience witnesses two characters that would never meet under normal circumstances. Van Damme and Rodman make such an odd pairing that it’s just interesting to watch. Heck, seeing Dennis Rodman fist bump a computer-hacking monk is mind bogglingly entertaining.

From a fight choreography standpoint, having to showcase Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks sacrifices a lot of smaller beats within a fight. Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks are beautiful but cinematically speaking, they look slow because of the 360° windup. It’s a powerful kick but also very one-note and requires a certain amount of distance, which means there is not a lot room for upper body parrying. You’ll notice Van Damme never does too much with his hands in his films but rather holding back so he can throw a kick. The roundhouse kick is also a definitive finisher; nobody who receives a kick like that can continue that particular round.

Double Team showcases Van Damme’s kicking ability by cinematically creating a sense of speed and power. Peter Pau, the cinematographer for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Sammo Hung, the action choreographer, both solve that problem by injecting a crackling frenetic energy into the action scenes that makes the audience flinch and jump as if they were in the fight.

As an example, I’m going to describe an action sequence in the film:

Van Damme kicks a henchman, who is firing at him with a machine-gun-in-a-suitcase, through a hotel room door. The henchman falls into the hotel room and is kicked back into the opposite direction by another Chinese henchman. The henchman flies toward Van Damme like a sad ping pong ball. Van Damme roundhouse kicks him off to the side. He drags along the floor, barely alive, almost smashing his head to the wall. The camera then swish-pans to a white marble statue of a thinking man and lingers there for 2 seconds. Van Damme then fights the Chinese henchman (played by Hung Yan Yan, Club Foot from the Once Upon a Time in China series) in the living room, who then crazily takes off his shoes, revealing a switchblade held between his toes and proceeds to cut Van Damme with a series of kicks.

The short ping pong game between Hung Yan Yan and Van Damme speeds up the entire feeling of the fight because we’re only seeing Van Damme for half the time. The focus is brilliantly on the poor henchman who is being knocked back and forth. By the time we cut back to Van Damme, he’s already winding up to kick him to the side.

So how do they maintain the speed of the scene for the next part? Admittedly, Van Damme is passively dodging Hung’s kicks before retaliating but the idea of a henchman who is using a knife clenched between his toes to cut the hero is so insane that we’re just completely distracted. Yes, it’s a game of shifting the audience’s focus. Plus, Hung Yan Yan is a fantastic kicker.

Lastly, why that swish-pan to the statue? It’s such a tiny odd detail but it adds a lot to that moment. I always find myself laughing at that moment. Why? 1) It’s a moment of relief. It’s a short recess for the audience to rest their eyes. 2) We see that the henchman wishing he were dead. 3) Marble statues are beautiful. It’s an odd hilarious short tonal shift.

Here’s a clip of that action sequence here:

A lot of action gets better and better as the films goes on with shots like this. The end sequence with Mickey Rourke at the Coliseum made for a nice finale. They share a good fight. Even though it doesn’t seem well-planned on the villain’s part to place a whole field of marked mines and fistfight over it with a live tiger roaming around.

As for Mickey Rourke, he’s a decent villain but I don’t know why he had to buff up like that. It just makes him move more sluggishly. Perhaps that’s the filmmakers were busy thinking how to make Van Damme look good, they forgot about Mickey Rourke. It’s a shame because there’s nothing that exhibits his boxing training here. It’s still a great finale sequence nonetheless. The final explosion builds to a hilarious ending involving a hallway full of Coca Cola vending machines and the end credits end on a techno song featuring Dennis Rodman on vocals.

There is a lot of craft in this movie, but it’s buried under its blatant obnoxious surface because it’s so insane. The insanity is what’s mesmerizingly fun about it. And maybe that’s why audiences failed to connect with Double Team when it was released. I genuinely like this movie a lot.

With that all said, I will officially say it publicly. 3, 2, 1… I liked Double Team!

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Ip Man: The Final Fight by Herman Yau

Ip Man: The Final Fight by Herman Yau

Ip Man: The Final Fight chronicles the later life of Wing Chun Grandmaster Ip Man.

The most interesting aspect between Herman Yau-Anthony Wong collaborations is that their partnership had its roots in Hong Kong Category III horror. Ebola Syndrome is still one of the most disgusting movies I have ever seen and been guiltily entertained by. Forget Outbreak or Contagion, Ebola Syndrome was a far more disturbing movie about a viral outbreak. Forget Hannibal Lecter, Anthony Wong truly played a disturbing sociopath in that movie. The point is: they’re not afraid to delve into the gritty, the ugly and the disgusting.

Set against the big commercial movie cog machine and the Ip Man franchise, the majority of Yau-Wong penchant for grittiness is diluted and only some of it remains in Ip Man: The Final Fight. It is that essence of the grittier and the uglier sides of Ip Man that makes out for the more interesting parts in Ip Man: The Final Fight, but it’s also the film’s major weakness because it never treads far enough from familiar territory.

What the film ends up being more like tonally is a combination of the Wilson Yip-Donnie Yen Ip Man films and Bruce Lee My Brother, where it is loosely glossing over the details of the grandmaster’s life and dramatically punching up the action so it can allow for fight scenes, but also providing a retro-gaze of Hong Kong accompanied with a celebrity guest-list cameos.

For example, it’s been said that Ip Man sported an opium habit. The concept is telegraphed but never truly explored. Another example is Hong Kong actor Liu Kai Chi gives a cameo as Ip Man’s friend who is suffering from poverty. They start what might be a potentially interesting storyline but it never finishes itself. Much of the film is like that.

There are about several subplots running through the story and they all end up as separate vignettes that do not rise above the sum of it’s parts. For a biopic drama, that’s a problem because it does not provide an unified narrative goal. This is not an editing issue. The story was based on Ip Chun’s stories of his father and it is as if seemed like the screenwriter noted them down as told and the director literally shot them that way. So I attribute this issue to lazy writing. The retroactive voice-over device ends up killing a lot of the drama. The scene will be happening and the voice-over will cut in summing up the rest of the scene in past tense. It keeps glossing over by stating what happened instead of letting the audience experience what’s happening in the now.

Anthony Wong is very natural as Ip Man. He looks most like the real-life version of Ip Man and actually adopts a Foshan accent. He breathes many colors into the role and the scenes with Ip Man and his students is the heart of the film. Anthony Wong is pretty much the best thing about this movie and his performance alone is the price of admission.

Eric Tsang has a great supporting role as a Crane style master who befriends Ip Man. There is a self-referential joke where Tsang says being a ‘clan master’ (獎門人) is difficult, a reference to his famous television gameshow, that was self-serving and unnecessary. Tsang and Wong share an awesome fight together. Not a lot of people remember that Eric Tsang started out as a stuntman; the fight looks very authentic. They were really smashing their forearms together. Eric Tsang is a badass.

Something I noticed about the cinematography was there were way too many crane shots in this film. There’s a scene that ends on a connective moment between two characters and then it cuts to a crane shot backing away presenting a view of the entire rooftop set. I have a theory about this. In Hong Kong, booking a crane from a production house is a planned expense and usually you would require more crew members or more time to set up a crane shot. Production houses in the Mainland will give crews an entire film equipment package in their deals, which includes cranes and jibs. With the cheap labor and higher amount of crew members, a crane shot can be set up much faster in the Mainland. As a recent occurrence, a lot of Chinese productions lead by Hong Kong directors have recently been very crane shot-heavy. Hong Kong directors, this needs to stop. You have to remember to pull back every once and a while.

Just as a small footnote, I really hated the Bruce Lee cameo. Playing Bruce Lee in a film is by no means an easy feat but the actor they chose was abysmally awful. He made Bruce Lee look like a rich asshole sellout. It was not fun, nor did it work as a pop culture reference.

Overall, I enjoyed this film, but I do not think it works completely as a standalone piece. It seems to fit as the final piece to this whole line of Ip Man films. In a way, I can’t help it because they’ve made so many movies about Ip Man in such a short time.

With every film, I see a little more of who this man was, what his legacy was and it had me thinking about even what being a good teacher means. I still think The Grandmaster is the best Ip Man film. They really don’t need to make any more Ip Man movies. And if they do (and I think they are because I saw a poster for an Ip Man 3 with Donnie Yen), please do the story with Bruce Lee and get him right.

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A Simple Life by Ann Hui

A Simple Life

A Simple Life by Ann Hui

Life for a parent is a shitty deal. You raise someone for 20 years and then are abandoned by them to face death for the next 40 years. Strangely, it’s the only selfless thing we do as human beings. But it seems so unfair, someone takes care of you, you should take care of them as well right?

That is the central idea of A Simple Life. The story is about Toh Jie, transliterated as “Sister Peach”  (played by Deannie Yip), is a household maid who has worked for the Leung family for 60 years. She still currently takes care of the young master, Roger (played by Andy Lau). Her health deters and now she in need of Roger to take care of her.

Deannie Yip owns this role. She reminded me of my grandmother at times, who is currently in an old folk’s home. She has the physicality of an old person down, the little tics and the way you lean to take off weight when you walk. She deserved that Venice Film Festival award. Heck, give her more!

Andy Lau has come a long way since his younger days of “playing-a-heartthrob-who-dies-at-the-end-of-the-movie-to-his own-pop-soundtrack” thing. He has learned how to use the subtlety of his face and knows when to chew up a moment. There’s one noteworthy scene where Roger is hanging out with his childhood friends and they all decide to give Sister Peach a call and reminisce about the great food dishes she used to make for them. This aches Roger as he realizes this is basically how people will remember her. And I urge people to watch Andy Lau in that moment.

There is a little detail with the layout of the old folk’s home I wanted to address: it had an open door at the entrance. Many times the old people just opened and closed the door and exited freely. My mother and I debated the reality of this, usually these old folk’s home have a exit button that unlocks the door for safety purposes. There are scenes where Sister Peach and other elderly people are opening and closing this door without supervision. What’s worse is the old folk’s home is right across from a mechanic’s shop! Thinking more about this, it dawned on me: this is an aesthetic choice. It is probably unrealistic but what that aesthetic choice lead me to consider how dangerous the situation was for the elderly people.

As I realized this, there was many aesthetic choices in the story that were designed to raise a discussion about how we should treat and handle elderly people. I admired its subtlety. For example, there’s a scene where Roger and his sister discuss how Sister Peach’s expenses should be handled and it gets pretty dark as it starts to sound like a business transaction.

There are a lot of funny moments in the movie and thank goodness for it. It is very grim to watch old people suffering and deteriorating in an old folk’s home. The film knows that and shows that there is indeed laughter in their lives, and Sister Peach does not have it too bad. The story is not about how the whole world is against her. We never linger on her suffering. Things are never dialed up to eleven. It retains a lot of realism (a lot of the old people in the old folk’s home seem to belong there) and still manages to find drama within it. Good work, Ann Hui!

That’s one major thing I appreciated about this movie: it does not set out to make you cry. It could have easily done so using melodramatic sensibilities and it does not set that as it’s goal.

I did not cry at the end, but I felt the touching cleanse of a cry. I left the theater thinking about how I should treat my grandparents, my parents someday and even the elderly in general. Sometimes they need help walking down from a bus, someone to talk to or simply they just need to feel needed. The film’s heart is in the right place and  I ultimately agree with it’s sentiments: nobody that raised and took care of you deserves to die alone.