Kaiju Shakedown: Chinese New Year
Kung Hei Fat Choy
Kung Hei Fat Choi! Sometime between late January and early February, the Chinese New Year holiday lands like an atom bomb. Work is canceled, relatives are visited, married couples distribute red envelopes full of cash to any unmarried people who wish them “Kung Hei Fat Choi!” and some of the year’s biggest movies get released. But unlike Christmas or summer release dates, Chinese New Year movies are their own genre. Not for export, aimed at the hometown Hong Kong audience, they’re fun for the whole family, full of hyper-local humor, sloppy but high-spirited filmmaking, mah-jongg games, big stars acting like idiots, musical sequences, blackface, cross-dressing, and the occasional rape joke.
Before the Chinese New Year movie became its own genre, the holiday was already a big release date for films. For Shaw Brothers, New Year mostly meant kung fu movies. They premiered The New One-Armed Swordsman on Chinese New Year 1971, starring Ti Lung and David Chiang and debuted Chen Kuan-tai’s Boxer From Shantung (72) on New Year’s, as well as Heroes Two (74), before they basically ceded the slot to Lau Kar-leung in 1977 starting with Executioners from Shaolin, followed by The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (78), Spiritual Boxer, Part 2 (79), My Young Auntie (81), Legendary Weapons of China (82), The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (84), and Martial Arts of Shaolin (86), which was basically the last movie Shaw ever produced.
Their biggest rival, Golden Harvest, was nipping at their heels, dropping their big Angela Mao movies into the same slot (The Skyhawk, 74; The Himalayan, 76), as well as filmed Chinese operas like John Woo’s Princess Chang Ping (76). Independently produced disco comedies had a brief heyday between 1979 and 1980 with Disco Fever (79), Disco Sex Fever (80), and Disco Bumpkins (80; a Shaw Brothers joint). And sex comedies were always popular, like Naked Love (70), Cheating in Panorama (72), and The Gigolo (74).
Aces Go Places
Then Raymond Wong happened. Wong and his partners, Dean Shek and Karl Maka, founded their production company, Cinema City, in 1980, and two years later, they brought together every single strand of New Year’s releases to make one volcanic Voltron of holiday films: Aces Go Places. An action comedy full of romance, music, local jokes, and special effects, it tells the story of two friends, a thief, and a cop, who alternately plan and foil jewel heists while dealing with their wives and girlfriends. Starring baldheaded Karl Maka and Cantopop star Sam Hui (brother of hot comedians Ricky and Michael), it spawned five sequels with its formula featuring car chases, special effects, local comedy, Michael Hui whistling the theme song, robots, foreign locations (New Zealand!), and foreign guest stars (Peter Graves!). These big-budget, lighthearted spectacles weren’t just hit movies, they were the biggest hits of the decade.
The light ’n’ bouncy Aces series went into hibernation for three years after part four in 1986, then returned with the fifth installment in 1989, directed by Lau Kar-leung. Film critic Sek Kei writes of it:
“A sense of crisis and tragedy pervades what is supposed to be a happy holiday picture. Its two heroes . . . are no longer portrayed as good buddies. They are unemployed, disappointed and unloved characters. The film climaxes with scenes of the heroes taken prisoner in a Peking jail and undergoing various forms of torture and coercion by the military.”
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World
Needless to say, that was the last of Aces Go Places for a while. But by 1989, audiences had been trained like Pavlov’s dogs to drool in anticipation of new Aces-esque pictures each New Year, like Sammo Hung’s Lucky Stars series or a new Hui Brothers comedy. Sammo would release his gritty and intense Vietnam movie, Eastern Condors (87), in July, but his ensemble Wild West comedy kung fu flick, Millionaire’s Express (86), was 100 percent a Chinese New Year flick. Jackie Chan made a point of releasing his more lighthearted movies on Chinese New Year (17 times between 1980 and 2001), but the next step in the evolution of the CNY movie came from zillionaire Dickson Poon’s D&B Films: It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World (87).
Some of the most cynical comedies ever made, It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World and its sequels It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World II (88), and It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World III (89), were Aces Go Places-sized hits starring middle-aged horse-racing commentator “Uncle” Bill Tung and portly TV comedian Lydia Shum as a married couple who keep getting rich then losing it all. In Part One, they win the lottery but lose it in a bank crash. In Part Two, they move to Canada and win the Canadian lottery but lose it when they miss the deadline to pick up the prize money. In Part Three, they finally get their Canadian winnings, then lose it all in a bank robbery.
Everyone in these movies is obsessed with money: winning it, gambling it, playing mah-jongg for it, borrowing it, collecting it, and waving big thick wads of it at the camera. They’re also raging greedheads, constantly trying to get one over. MMMW II starts at a New Year’s party where Uncle Bill has different denominations of red envelopes stashed in different pockets so he can give the cheapest ones to maids and children, while saving the ones containing the most cash for his boss. When he needs to raise money for a plane ticket back to Vancouver to collect his lottery winnings, Uncle Bill scams it out of his Hong Kong friends in a poignant speech full of quotations from Chairman Mao, telling them that his daughters have been maimed in a house fire and he needs to go be with them as they die.
It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad World 2
The lowbrow Canto comedy showcased by the MMMW movies doesn’t shy away from racial humor, and the screen is jammed with geeky Taiwanese tourists, loud Filipino maids, violent Vietnamese immigrants, smelly Indians, and hillbilly Mainlanders who spit on the floor. Things reach maximum xenophobia when the family moves to Vancouver and encounters Canadians who all speak with hick accents, Native Americans walking around in full headdress, and punks named Punkie, not to mention—horror of horrors—watching their daughter make friends with a black man at school. It’s rare to find a CNY movie without at least one instant of blackface, and the trend reaches its nadir with the 2005 New Year film, Himalaya Singh, that reduces India to an extended gallery of vulgar stereotypes.
Raymond Wong kept the freak flag flying for Chinese New Year films in the Eighties with the on-the-nose Kung Hei Fat Choy (85), the Chow Yun-fat vehicle Eighth Happiness (88) and The Fun, the Luck and the Tycoon (90), aka Coming to America starring Chow Yun-fat. But 1991 saw his dark star become ascendant. Shek Kin and Karl Maka retired from Cinema City and their absence gave Wong the courage to double down on Chinese New Year with All’s Well End’s Well (92), the ultimate Chinese New Year movie.
It stars Sandra Ng as a put-upon housewife, Leslie Cheung as her effeminate brother-in-law, Stephen Chow as her lady-chasing brother-in-law, Maggie Cheung as the object of Chow’s desire, and (unfortunately) Raymond Wong as the philandering husband. Wong casts himself in almost every one of his movies, which is unfortunate because he looks like a shaved chipmunk.
All’s Well End’s Well
When Wong’s not on screen, this movie explodes with manic energy. Maggie is obsessed with Hollywood, prompting parodies of everything from Madonna’s Truth or Dare to a spot-on send-up of Ghost. Leslie is a gay man, while his cousin, Teresa Mo, is a butch lesbian and they hate each other (at one point she threatens to rape and murder his father, prompting Leslie’s mother to softly demur, “Please, your cousin is too old to stand raping.”). Audiences are taught the pressure point for “smooth shitting,” Stephen Chow falls in love with his bedpan, Sandra Ng sings the entire Cantopop playbook (badly), there’s a long mah-jongg sequence, red envelopes are exchanged, Maggie is seduced with the amazing Eiffel Tower Double Inversion Kissing Technique, the actors are barely able to deliver their lines without cracking up, Leslie and Teresa get turned straight thanks to drunk sex, and the movie ends with four weddings, after which the cast turns to the camera and sings a song before wishing everyone in the cinema a happy new year.
Wong got the band back together for All’s Well End’s Well, Too (93), only this time it’s set in the Song Dynasty, allowing for anachronistic gags like villagers who carry frogs instead of pagers (and debate the merits of screaming frogs versus silent, trembling frogs who are slimmer and only have to be fed once per day), hot dogs that are actual dogs served hot, gamblers dreaming of ancient Chinese credit cards, and a whole lot more cross-dressing. Stephen Chow and Maggie Cheung are absent, replaced by Aces star Sam Hui, his brother Ricky Hui, Once Upon a Time in China star Rosamund Kwan (who, at one point, pulls out a joint and tokes up in a temple), and Stephen Chow’s on-screen comedy partner, Ng Man-tat.
Gender politics are downright Twelfth Night-esque, with Ricky Hui playing an old woman, while Ng Man-tat dresses as a woman and falls in love with Leslie Cheung, who’s also dressed as a woman in order to pursue Rosamund whom he met while she was disguised as a man. (The cross-dressing tradition in CNY movies reaches its pinnacle with 2001’s Wu Yen, a retelling of a classic Chinese tale of a warrior in love with the emperor in which all the main roles are played by women.) The pop-culture references flow fast and furious (Leslie plays a magician named David Copper Feel, and occasionally dresses as Batman), and the movie is full of jokes about the Joint Declaration with China, and Basic Law (which is invoked as a magic spell to fix anything that’s broken). Again, the movie ends with all the characters getting married and singing to the audience.
All’s Well End’s Well 2009
Wong’s entry into the Mainland market came with action movies like Tsui Hark’s Seven Swords, and then the blockbuster Ip Man kung fu series, but Mainland distributors told him that his ultra-local New Year movies would never be hits. In 2009, Wong decided he was rich enough to know best and released All’s Well End’s Well 2009 in Mainland China, which made a mint, prompting All’s Well End’s Well Too 2010, All’s Well End’s Well 2011, and All’s Well End’s Well 2012.
But no one embodies the best and worst of CNY movies more than Tsui Hark. His Tri-Star (96) is a low point for the genre, embodying its worst tendencies. Three major stars (hence the title) each play against image: Leslie Cheung is a Catholic priest, Lau Ching-wan has a beard, and cutie Anita Yuen trades her pixie bob for long hair and plays a hard-bitten club girl. The movie features car chases, several musical numbers, mah-jongg games, a cameo by producer Raymond Wong, and ends with a wedding. But while CNY movies always feel like slapdash star parties, this one feels too slapdash. The drama is too good-natured to elicit any tension, entire scenes seem to have been chopped out at the last minute, and by the time Leslie Cheung is putting on an Elvis costume for no good reason, the “anything goes” CNY shtick feels like a punishment.
But Tsui’s previous film, The Chinese Feast (95), is easily the best CNY movie of them all. Leslie Cheung and Anita Yuen are an odd couple united to save her failing family restaurant after her dad suffers a stroke while competing against a corporate super-chef who wants to take over their tiny hole-in-the-wall. The cooking is inspired by kung fu movies, and it’s stuffed with guest stars and cameos, even featuring a brief musical number by Anita Yuen. But Tsui keeps the on-screen shenanigans on a short leash, resulting in a movie that’s practically Kubrickian by CNY standards. At the end, as the united family has dinner in their tiny restaurant, they raise their glasses to wish each other Happy New Year. Then they turn to toast the other actors, including the bad guys, who then join them in turning to the screen and raising a glass to the audience. As the camera pulls out, we see the film crew drop their equipment and pick up glasses, and the movie ends in a sweet meta-moment, actors and filmmakers in a tiny city that’s about to face one of the biggest economic and political crises of its life, all taking a moment to stop what they’re doing and wish each other the best.
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
… Chinese New Year starts on February 19 this year, ushering in the Year of the Goat. Movies being released include the Jackie Chan/John Cusack/Adrien Brody IMAX 3-D vehicle Dragon Blade, the officially sanctioned Mainland Chinese production Wolf Totem based on a novel about a student sent down to the countryside during the Cultural Revolution (and directed by Jean-Jacques Annaud, whose Seven Years in Tibet previously got him blacklisted in China), Wong Jing’s From Vegas to Macau II starring Chow Yun-fat, Nick Cheung, and Carina Lau, and the sure-to-be-a-blockbuster aviation comedy Triumph in the Skies directed by hitmaker Wilson Yip, starring Louis Koo and Sammi Cheng, and based on a popular TV series.
… Speaking of weddings, in an event that was not in any way, shape, or form staged, Zhang Ziyi’s boyfriend, rock star Wang Feng, threw her a million-dollar birthday bash complete with giant portraits of the actress, flying drones, and a not-at-all choreographed moment when he dropped to one knee and asked her to marry him. Even thought the two of them had never ever rehearsed this romantic moment, and it came as a complete and total surprise to Zhang Ziyi, she accepted. Wow! Stars! They’re just like us!
… Don’t piss off Joko Anwar. The Indonesian filmmaker has 710,000 Twitter followers thanks to his penchant for pulling off stunts like visiting the local Circle K naked. Anwar also doesn’t tolerate fools. Recently he took to Twitter to denounce the Indonesian government for spending money to fly 10 cronies and bureaucrats to the Berlin Film Festival while denying travel funds to many filmmakers, some of whom are actually participating in this year’s festival. It’s a well-known fact that government money often goes to line patron’s pockets with perks like hotel accommodations and airfare on the international festival circuit, but a country with such a small international profile as Indonesia can’t afford to be trading their cinematic future for cronyism.
… The Hong Kong Film Awards have been announced with real-estate drama Overheard 3 receiving 13 nominations (possibly because its two directors each got separate nominations for Best Director and Best Screenplay, making four total). The dark horse is Pang Ho-cheung’s Aberdeen, a flop that took in six nominations, which may result in it getting another look from audiences. Sentimental favorites are Ivana Wong with two nominations (Best Supporting Actress, Best Newcomer) for her hilarious and heartbreaking performance in Sandra Ng’s Golden Chickensss, and three screen vets are nominated who definitely deserve a trophy: Shaw Brothers star Kara Hui for Best Supporting Actress in The Midnight After, Johnnie To regular Lam Suet for The Midnight After, and Stephen Chow’s on-screen partner, Ng Man-tat, for Best Supporting Actor in Aberdeen.
… Oh, drugs. Kai Ko, the irrepressible male lead in Taiwanese romantic hit You Are the Apple of My Eye, and Jackie Chan’s son, Jaycee Chan, got arrested in China a few months ago for toking up together at Chan’s house. Chan got six months in prison, while Ko only got two weeks but it’s still killing his career. He had already wrapped production on Hong Kong’s Edko-produced, US$30 million adaptation of the hit property Monster Hunter, and the movie was set for a release this Chinese New Year, right around the time Jaycee is getting out of jail. But, worried about controversy, the movie, which was already screening its trailer, has now been pulled and is being reshot with Kai Ko replaced by actor Jing Boran.
… Japan is home to lots of enormous pop groups featuring many shiny, happy children. One of these groups is 3B Junior, made up of 27 singers between the ages of 10 and 16. One of these 12-year-old bright-eyed young scamps was participating in a stunt on TV Asahi that involved inhaling helium, but instead of making her voice sound silly it gave her a brain embolism and she was rushed to the hospital. The network tried to hush up the news, but eventually issued a formal apology to her family. I’m sure that made everything much better for everyone, except for the 12-year-old who is still in a coma over one week later.
… Y/Our Music, a documentary about Thai musicians, has been chosen to play SXSW. The trailer alone rocks harder than pretty much every other film they’re showing this year (judging from… other trailers).