Lasting impressions

Updated: 2013-01-05 08:30

By Elizabeth Kerr (HK Edition)

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A veteran populist and an emerging auteur kick-off the new movie year by looking back. Elizabeth Kerr reports.

Veteran hyphenate Wong Jing and relative newcomer Lu Chuan make for a fascinating study of the current state of Chinese language filmmaking, with only the contemporary Taiwanese blockbuster left out of the mix. What makes Lu and Wong so notable is the opposite ends of the spectrum from which they come: Wong has enjoyed a long and glorious career in exploitation cinema (Raped by an Angel, Sex and Zen, Young and Dangerous) peppered with the occasional cult and/or popular hit. God of Gamblers could be the ultimate in froth filmmaking, with Chow Yun-fat and Andy Lau at their freshest and most charming. And if there's a top 10 gonzo Hong Kong movie list out there that aficionados overseas refer to, his Naked Killer is on it. But Wong's output of late has been lazy - almost as if he'd lost his love of the form and was going through the motions in order to maintain his position as one of Hong Kong's most prolific, sometime inflammatory, filmmakers.

On the other side of the coin is the mainland's Lu Chuan, an aggressively artistic director that works at a positively Malick-ian pace: Lu's made four films in 10 years; writer-producer-director Wong has a credit list that numbers in the hundreds. Lu proved he had an ear for understatement with his debut, the laid-back thriller The Missing Gun, later showing off an incredible eye for visuals in Kekexili. In both instances, characterization was done through carefully composed images that said as much about the people as the dialogue did. And in both instances Lu managed to draw compelling performances from leads Jiang Wen and Duobuji that shone, yet never overwhelmed the low-key narratives. He followed those up with a riveting, almost totally visual City of Life and Death, and created one of them most brutal and moving films about the Rape of Nanking ever made. It also cemented his position in discussions alongside critical darlings Jia Zhangke and Gu Changwei.

Yet here they are this week, each with new films that tread in what each filmmaker does best. Lu's The Last Supper sees a dying Liu Bang (Liu Ye) recalling the trials, tribulations and double-crosses that won him the throne and made him the first emperor of the Han Dynasty. Wong's The Last Tycoon plots the rise, quasi-reformation and thorny love life of 1930s Shanghai gangster Cheng Daqi (Chow Yun-fat). Lu's film is as modern as they get, while Wong falls back on comfortable, well-worn conventions and imagery. Strangely enough, it's the old-fashioned film that works best.

The Last Supper begins as Liu Bang is dying, his devoted wife Lu (Qin Lan) by his side as they accept the head of Liu's former right hand, the traitorous Han Xin (Chang Chen). From there, he recalls the initial friendship with nobleman Xiang Yu (Daniel Wu) that arose from a combination of hero worship and much needed aid in liberating his town and captive wife. Together they destroy the Qin, but it is former peasant Liu, not Xiang, that takes the Qin Palace. Xiang takes the high road and forgives the slight, but his dignity eventually costs him his life.

The Last Tycoon's Cheng Daqi comes from humble beginnings, similar to Liu's, and his rise to gangland power in pre-war Shanghai is every bit as fraught and twisted. Starting in Jiangsu, with Daqi (played by Huang Xiaoming as a young man) dreaming of "making it big" in Shanghai and his girlfriend Zhiqiu (initially Joyce Feng) dreaming of becoming an opera singer. They're separated briefly just as their respective careers are taking off, but upon seeing how Daqi responds to threats, she washes her hands of him. They reconnect in 1937 when Zhiqiu (now Yolanda Yuan) is targeted for assassination for her husband's resistance efforts. Along the way, Daqi and his mentor Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung) run afoul of a corrupt army officer, Mao Zai (Francis Ng), who winds up collaborating with the Japanese occupiers. Naturally, Daqi's better, more patriotic nature is stoked by the war, and he puts his resources into helping the resistance.

The Last Supper is positively Shakespearean in execution (Lu is intensely Lady Macbeth-ish) and is bursting with breathtaking images. As is typical of Lu, he toys with what we think we might now about history and challenges popular notions. The Liu and Xiang of this version aren't the more commonly recognized righteous, heroic types. These two are far more human. And two of the film's more interesting plot points involve the brazen manipulation of historical record by the so-called winners and the notion that there is indeed room to move from the unwashed mass to the ruling elite. But those feel like secondary themes to Lu's grand history lesson (though the banquet of the title gets short shrift), one that has less engaging characters than any of his other films. Daniel Lee told this same story in 2011's White Vengeance and, flawed as it was, that film said more about the characters, about Liu's peasant fury and Xiang's feeling of betrayal. Lu's ambition (and talent) makes his failure to humanize his characters on an intimate rather than just a symbolic level is The Last Supper's downfall. Watching the film is like looking at a lovely piece of art and knowing nothing about it after spending all that time with it.

Conversely, Wong has no aspirations to making a grand statement. He's in it to entertain, and The Last Tycoon's old-school tropes, familiar (often pilfered) images and set pieces and the trump card trio of Chow, Hung and Ng do just that. Despite being too many things at once - a romance, a spy thriller, a historical epic, a gangster drama - and never fully realizing any single one, Wong has managed to juggle the pieces in such a way that it doesn't matter. Tycoon clips along at a breezy pace and looks gorgeous as it does. All those glaring references to The Killer, A Better Tomorrow, God of Gamblers, The Godfather and even Bonnie and Clyde? They're neither distraction nor boon. Wong still knows how to crank out an engrossing diversion with panache and abject glee, and he was clearly feeling inspired this time around. Even without the cheap exploitation.

The Last Supper and The Last Tycoon opened in Hong Kong on Thursday.

Lasting impressions

Lasting impressions

(HK Edition 01/05/2013 page4)