Kaiju Shakedown: Patrick Lung Kong
His name isn’t really Patrick Lung Kong. He’s not sure exactly how old he is because his mother isn’t confident she remembers his birthday. He says he was born in Hong Kong, but we have to take that on faith because he doesn’t have a birth certificate. His career lasted only 14 years, and he made only 14 films, but those movies are the seed from which the Cantonese film industry was reborn in the Seventies and Eighties.
Last weekend, the Museum of the Moving Image gave Lung Kong a Lifetime Achievement Award and began a Lung Kong retrospective (which continues through this weekend) and the big question is: why should we care about a bunch of 50-year-old Cantonese films? The easy answer is to look at who does care. Tsui Hark walked away from postproduction on his latest movie, The Taking of Tiger Mountain, leaving his crew at loose ends while he flew to New York to present Lung Kong with his award. John Woo planned to drop everything on his production of The Crossing and come too, but at the last minute had to cancel because his shoot was falling behind schedule (he sent a personal video message for the public screenings). Sam Ho, former programmer at the Hong Kong Film Archive, and a man who has dedicated his life to preserving the history of Hong Kong film, flew in for the occasion.
What is it about Lung Kong that elicits this respect?
Starting his career as an actor, often holding down a day job as a stockbroker throughout his career, Lung Kong was a shot of adrenaline to the heart of Cantonese cinema. Hong Kong cinema has always cycled between periods of Cantonese (local dialect) dominance, and Mandarin (Mainland China) dominance. Cantonese is the language of Hong Kong, also spoken in parts of Southern China, but Mandarin is the language, not just of Mainland China, but also of the vast Chinese diaspora. Make your movie in Cantonese, and its reach is limited. Make it in Mandarin and you can reach almost any Chinese community in the world.
In the Fities and Sixties the Cantonese industry was dominant in Hong Kong, turning out mostly comedies and melodramas, and its biggest stars were women like Connie Chan and Josephine Siao Fong-fong. Shaw Brothers came along with more expensive Mandarin movies and by 1967 it was beating Canto-cinema like a redheaded stepchild with its wuxia films. In the early Eighties, Cantonese cinema took the lead again with comedians like the Hui Brothers and (later) Stephen Chow, and action stars like Jackie Chan and Chow Yun-fat. Today, with buttloads of money to be made in Mainland co-productions, Cantonese-language movies are stuck once more with lower budgets and smaller stars, while Mandarin-language co-productions are lavish films stuffed with the likes of Gong Li, Tang Wei, Zhang Ziyi, and slick special effects.
Cantonese cinema of the Sixties was a cinema in decline. The budgets were low—Lung Kong’s Story of a Discharged Prisoner cost about $12,000—and the schedules were fast, with Cantonese films often having a theater date already booked before shooting even began. Mandarin movies, on the other hand, generally took about 35 days to shoot and cost around $38,000. Once Shaw built its studio in 1961, Mandarin filmmakers had access to vast soundstages, film processing labs, and enormous prop and costume shops. Cantonese filmmakers couldn’t compete. It didn’t help that the head of one Canto-studio, Mr. Chun Kim, made dry statements about the duty of Cantonese cinema like, “Only films that are both entertaining and educational will be well received by the audience, and only those films that are well received by the audience can fulfill educational purposes.”
It’s no surprise that Cantonese cinema was held in low regard, called “Cantonese moldies” instead of “Cantonese movies” with their directors called “wonton noodle” directors for their reputed habit of calling action then going out to get a bowl of noodles while the camera ran. But Lung Kong had a chip on his shoulder: he wanted to win respect for Cantonese movies, which he felt were the very heart of Hong Kong’s identity. His first film was Prince of Broadcasters (66), a typical “moldy” love story that he did his best to inject with life. It did well enough to earn him more freedom and another film. This would be Story of a Discharged Prisoner (67).
Story of a Discharged Prisoner is mostly remembered today as the movie that Tsui Hark and John Woo remade as A Better Tomorrow (86) but future influence aside, it’s a hell of a flick. Patrick Tse (father of star Nic Tse) plays a thief released from prison after a 15-year sentence who winds up crushed between the cops and the crooks. On one side are his old gang, led by Sek Kin (of Enter the Dragon fame, overacting wildly in a performance that Lung Kong only half-succeeded in reigning in) who want him to pull a robbery. On the other side are the cops, led by Lung Kong himself, who believe that Tse can’t reform and it’s only a matter of time before he becomes a criminal again (in A Better Tomorrow, John Woo plays this role). As Sam Ho says of the cop: “He’s not a bad guy, he’s actually a man of deep conviction. Only in this case, he’s wrong.”
Hiding the fact he was in prison from his brother (the family says he was in Singapore doing business) Patrick Tse gets backed further and further into a corner until he finally takes the rap for a crime committed by his brother. He’s sent back to the slammer as Lung Kong’s cop gives a smug “I knew he was no good.” Tsui Hark first saw the movie on television when he was a teenager and it instantly caught his attention. “It didn’t look like any other Cantonese films,” he remembers. And it doesn’t. Lung Kong was using handheld shots when other directors believed you couldn’t keep a shot in focus if it wasn’t on a tripod. He took his camera out into the streets, shooting in Kwun Tong squatter slums to show what Hong Kong really looked like and it’s full of surprising details, like Patrick Tse’s release from prison filmed as if he was a man leaving the comforts of home.
Story hit Hong Kong just as the city was struggling to find its own identity. Caught between right-wing colonial rule by the British and dissension from left-wing factions sometimes secretly allied with Communist China, Hong Kong was tearing itself apart in a series of riots, bombings, demonstrations, strikes, and police actions that left 51 people dead (15 of them in bombings) and saw 5,000 arrests in one year. Not to put too fine a point on it, but Hong Kong was Patrick Tse. At a charity screening for the Hong Kong Discharged Prisoners Aid Society, Lung Kong was photographed sitting next to Paul Tsui, Secretary for Chinese Affairs, who was one of the highest-ranked Chinese in the colonial government. Based on the photo, the left denounced Lung Kong as a traitor, the head of the studio was advised to burn the film, and a bomb was planted in the theater on opening night. Unwilling to write off the budget, but unable to promote the movie, the studio buried its release, and yet it became a word-of-mouth hit and one of the most influential Cantonese films of all time.
Patrick Tse was one of the biggest male stars in Cantonese cinema, commanding up to 25 percent of a film’s budget as his salary, and he knew a good thing when he saw it, commissioning Lung Kong to shoot his next movie for Tse Brothers Motion Picture Company. Lung Kong paired him with Canto-cinema’s biggest female star, Josephine Siao Fong-fong, in The Window (68), a color film about a loser street thug (Tse) who accidentally kills a man during a mugging. Learning that the man’s daughter (Siao) is blind and will now be sent to live in a home, he tries to atone for his crime by becoming her caretaker. As anyone who’s ever seen a movie knows, these two will fall in love, and everything will end terribly.
A star vehicle as much for Siao as it was for Tse, her performance avoids the easy motion-picture cliches about the blind, and is even more impressive when you realize that she was required to wear milky contact lenses so painful she had to be hospitalized at the end of the shoot. Before Lung Kong, Cantonese movies were happily by-the-numbers with plots based on other movies, jokes and character types recycled from film to film, and music often just needle drops from commercially available albums. Lung Kong based his movies on situations and people he observed in real life, he shot on location, he commissioned original scores, and did everything possible to break free of convention. Although his movies have been so frequently imitated today that their innovations can be hard to appreciate, they are delivered with such strong conviction that it doesn’t take too much squinting to see that they were blasts of fresh air in a moribund industry.
Working with Siao again, Lung Kong’s next film was the incomparable Teddy Girls (69). The studio told him they’d accept any script he turned in, so Lung Kong gave them a rip-roaring teen-girls-gone-wild story that caused some of his actresses to sweat over the content. Launching itself at the viewer’s face from the first scene, Teddy Girls starts at a go-go party where a (presumably drunk) Siao dances with wild abandon as the camera frugs right along beside her. When her girlfriend is accosted, she barely hesitates before smashing a bottle and taking on the molester. Arrested, she chooses juvie over going home, but breaks out when she learns her mother has committed suicide after her boytoy loses all her money on bad investments. Teddy Girls bursts with creative energies: flashbacks are staged as soap operas on TV; funerals unfold on stark soundstages; luxury homes are vast wastelands scattered with mod furniture; and Siao’s gang of teddy girls are ready to brawl, stab a punk, or wrap a chain around their fists and start thrashing at the drop of a hat.
Lung Kong’s movies are often accused of preaching, and they do take jarring periodic breaks for a social worker, psychiatrist, or reporter to deliver a sermon on some social injustice. To us these may seem like creaky conventions, but to Lung Kong they’re the point, in the same spirit of Brecht breaking the fourth wall to have actors directly address the audience. Lung Kong could not have made the movies he made if he thought they were “mere” entertainment. He wanted to teach audiences, to lift them up, to reach even the most blue collar, unemployed illiterate and have them think about different ways of seeing the Hong Kong around them. These aren’t flaws in his technique, these are the point of his technique.
Lung Kong would go on to make 11 more movies—from science fiction comedies to an adaptation of Albert Camus’s The Plague which was destroyed when unidentified leftist groups cut 40 minutes from the print without his permission before the release—but it’s these three films (Story of a Discharged Prisoner, The Window, Teddy Girls) on which his reputation largely rests. In the early Eighties, due to health concerns, he retired from filmmaking and moved to New York, where he’s lived ever since.
So what? It’s not wrong to ask what a bunch of old Cantonese movies have to offer a modern audience, and the only response I have is to offer the end of Teddy Girls, a classic Lung Kong “sermon scene.” After the girl gang has broken out of prison, committed some bloody crimes, and been re-arrested, the head of the reform school (played by Kenneth Tsang) watches the police and press circus depart with his former charges in chains, leaving him standing all alone on a darkened city street. From out of the shadows, Lydia Shum, one of the girls who had been released and actually managed to go straight, approaches, lunch bucket in her hand. She’s on her way to her night job in a factory, and confesses that she should have been arrested for keeping watch during the gang’s crime spree, but Tsang is exhausted. “Next time,” he admonishes her, “don’t do it again.”
He starts the long walk back to his car, Shum keeping pace next to him. “Is it far?” she asks. “It’s a long way ahead,” he warns her. “Can I walk with you?” she asks. Surprised, he turns to her, then nods, and the two of them walk into the darkness together. It’s a scene that’s echoed by the end of Wong Kar-wai’s Fallen Angels (95) as Michelle Reis asks Takeshi Kaneshiro for a ride home on the back of his motorcycle after a long, cold night of pointless violence. “The road isn’t very long,” she thinks, “and I know I’ll be getting off soon, but I’m feeling such warmth at this moment.”
Two people keeping each other company on a long journey through the night, unsure if anything they do makes the slightest bit of difference in the world, but grateful that, even if only for a little while, they don’t have to make the journey alone. There are 26 years between the endings of these two movies, and the singers are different, but in Hong Kong, the song remains the same.
Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow: The Cinema of Patrick Lung Kong continues through August 24 at the Museum of the Moving Image.
Story of a Discharged Prisoner (67) You can also watch this on YouTube with subtitles.
The Window (68) One of the three great Lung Kong films, this remains one of the most stylish tragic romances ever to come out of Hong Kong.
Teddy Girls (69) You can watch it subtitled on YouTube.
Yesterday, Today, Tomorrow (70) Lung Kong’s adaptation of The Plague was butchered by forces unknown, but remains one of the first science-fiction movies from Hong Kong to imagine the city wiped out by a disease.
Pei Shih (72) One of Lung Kong’s few Mandarin-language movies. Lung Kong tweaked the typical Mandarin romance formula by incorporating mental illness into his movie. Written by Pansy Mang (he named the movie after her), it was a huge box-office event at the time.
Mitra (77) While attending the Tehran International Film Festival, Lung Kong decided to shoot this romance with an all-star cast including Sylvia Chang and Alan Tang. One of his most beautiful movies, it’s also written by Pansy Mang
LINKS! LINKS! LINKS!
Toronto Preview Edition
The Toronto Film Festival has announced its lineup, a mixture of the good, the bad, and the befuddling. But any way you slice it, there are a lot of Asian movies here, so let’s dive into the pile.
Toronto’s focus on another city, this eight-film sidebar of movies set in or around Seoul has some of the most interesting films in the line-up. There’s Cart, a sort of retail Silkwood by Boo Ji-Young, one of Korea’s few female directors. A Hard Day, about a cop who tries to cover up a hit-and-run accident, became a word-of-mouth hit at Cannes, where FILM COMMENT called it a “rollicking thriller . . . carefully orchestrated, beat for beat” and Variety called it “…taut…elaborate…near-faultless…” You can see the trailer and make up your own mind.
Another of Korea’s few female directors delivers A Girl at My Door in which Bae Doo-Na returns to the screen to play a big city cop, exiled in disgrace to a hick town, where she gets involved with an abused girl looking for help. Variety says it’s a “wrenching drama” and Screen says it “…starts off as a seemingly familiar domestic drama before spiralling off into something more unnerving and vaguely disturbing.” And if you need a Bae Doo-Na fix, here’s the trailer. A dark horse is Confession, a film from a first-time director about some friends who pull off an insurance scam robbery only to have things take a bad turn. But the trailer looks slick and tense. And, finally, make sure to smoke a big fat joint before watching A Dream of Iron, a documentary about shipbuilding that swings between hip-hop-inflected found footage remixing, genuine emotion, and stoner hypnosis as giant sheets of steel are bent into the hulls of huge ships for looong minutes at a time.
THE BIG NAMES
These are the big-ticket movies with name brand directors.
Haemoo (aka Sea Fog; Shim Sung-Bo, South Korea) A Gala presentation for the Bong Joon-ho-produced directorial debut of Memories of Murder screenwriter. It’s about a disaster at sea in which a crew smuggling illegal immigrants winds up suffocating most of them. An uplifting evening for Toronto’s glitterati is assured!
The Golden Era (Ann Hui, Hong Kong) Fresh from closing the Venice Film Festival, Ann Hui’s biopic about famous Chinese novelist Xiao Hong will appear like stately, slow-paced magic.
Tokyo Tribe (Sion Sono, Japan) The director continues to validate his existence by making some of the world’s most exciting movies. The only Asian movie in the Midnight Madness line-up—just look at the trailer and try to resist its anarchic pull.
Over Your Dead Body (Takashi Miike, Japan) It’s Miike, making a play-within-a-play horror movie. ’Nuff said.
The World of Kanako (Tetsuya Nakashima, Japan) The first film in four years from Tetsuya Nakashima, probably Japan’s smartest director (Kamikaze Girls, Memories of Matsuko, Confessions). Who cares what it’s about? Just go see it.
The Tale of Princess Kaguya (Isao Takahata, Japan) A charmer from Studio Ghibli partner Isao Takahata, it’s one of two Ghibli films in the line-up, sending the studio out on a high note. The other Ghibli movie is a documentary, The Kingdom of Dreams and Madness, directed by Mami Sunada and all about the inner life of Ghibli.
Breakup Buddies (Ning Hao, China) After finally passing the kidney stone that was No Man’s Land through the urethra of Chinese censorship, it looks like Ning Hao is happy and carefree once more in this break-up comedy about two dudes disappointed in love and going on a road trip.
Coming Home (Zhang Yimou, China) China’s master filmmaker has delivered a movie about the Cultural Revolution! One way this sensitive topic might be broached to pass muster with Chinese censors? Lead character (Gong Li) has amnesia and can’t remember the darn thing.
Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 (Johnnie To, Hong Kong) There’s no such thing as a bad Johnnie To film, so it’s nice to see the sequel to his hit romantic comedy in the lineup, but let’s face it, this is a consolation prize for the fact that apparently his Chow Yun-fat / Sylvia Chang musical, Design for Living, isn’t ready yet.
Dearest (Peter Chan, China) Peter Chan weighs in with his sure-to-be-harrowing movie about a father looking for his abducted child. Out of the entire festival, this has the performance I’m most excited to see: comedian Huang Bo delivering a dramatic performance as the dad.
Revenge of the Green Dragons (Andrew Lau & Andrew Loo, U.S.) Sporting a new, straight-to-video-worthy title, this film co-directed and produced by Andrew “Infernal Affairs” Lau delivers what might be a great Chinese-American saga, or exploitation crap. You be the judge!
Kabukicho Love Hotel (Ryuichi Hiroki, Japan) The one-time master of the pink film turned out four films in 2013 (plus a TV miniseries) but he hasn’t been prominent on the film festival circuit in a while. Now he’s back with a film about a love hotel and, to be honest, anything by the man who made Vibrator is worth watching.
Fires on the Plain (Shinya Tsukamoto, Japan) Let’s face it, Shinya Tsukamoto is in a class all by himself, and his remake of Kon Ichikawa’s 1959 antiwar classic has a typically Tsukamoto credits list. Producer: Shinya Tsukamoto, Director: Shinya Tsukamoto, Writer: Shinya Tsukamoto, Editor: Shinya Tsukamoto, Cinematographer: Shinya Tsukamoto, Production Designer: Shinya Tsukamoto, Starring: Shinya Tsukamoto. I’ve heard that the entire audience will be made up of Shinya Tsukamoto clones, too.
Hill of Freedom (Hong Sang-oo, South Korea) Hong, a director who seens to exist solely within film festivals like some kind of artsy hologram, delivers yet another movie to stroke your goatee to. It also represents a new trend in Korean moviemaking: short films! It’s only 66 minutes long.
Reverie (Im Kwon-taek, South Korea) Korea’s elder statesman delivers an 89-minute movie about cinematic icon Ahn Sung-Ki who has cancer and wants to have sex with a younger woman. Serious themes are sure to be broached, but ultimately why do so many old men spend their time making movies about wanting to have sex with young women? Oh. Right.
THE DARK HORSES
These have some promise but aren’t as well-known. But any of these films could turn out to be the must-see of the festival.
Mary Kom (Omung Kumar, India) Priyanka Chopra stars in this biopic about a female boxer. It could be horrible and trite, or it could be the next Rocky.
The Crow’s Egg (M. Manikandan, India) This Tamil film about two young boys from the slums on a quest for pizza continues the troubling trend of India as a purveyor of cinematic poverty porn for Western audiences, but it still might be an amazing movie (after all Slumdog Millionaire was poverty porn, but it also managed to be an amazing movie). The first-time director showed promise in his short films, and it contains two elements that prove irresistable to audiences: children and pizza.
Where I Am King (Carlos Siguion-Reyna, Philippines) This Filipino movie about a wealthy man on the verge of bankruptcy who returns to the slum where he was born already has reviews out and it actually sounds like it might be pretty great.
Justice (Joel Lamangan, Philippines) The legendary Filipino actress, Nora Aunor, plays a middle-aged domestic worker who tries to remain loyal to her employer, who happens to be a human trafficker. The reviews aren’t good, but Nora Aunor is a force of nature who should not be underestimated.
Men Who Save the World (Malaysia, Liew Seng Tat) Is it a train wreck or a good time at the movies? Variety is decrying it as “neo-colonialist” and “loaded with racially problematic scenes and homophobic gags,” but this Malaysian comedy about a haunted house seems to be getting booked into lots of film festivals and has the support of a whole slew of big name international arthouse production outfits like the Hubert Bals Fund and the Sundance Institute.
I Am Here (Lixin Fan, China) The director of Chinese film Last Train Home turns in a documentary about reality show contestants in the mega-popular reality talent show, Super Boys. You can read all about it here, but it sounds like the kind of documentary that could break into the Western mainstream.
THE REST OF THE FEST
All probably worthwhile movies, but they don’t have the obvious potential of the other movies listed here.
Red Amnesia (Wang Xiaoshuai, China) The director of Beijing Bicycle delivers a movie about an old woman getting threatening phone calls.
In Her Place (Albert Shin, South Korea) The Korean-Canadian filmmaker delivers a movie about rich people trying to adopt a baby from a “troubled rural teenager.”
Dukhtar (Afia Nathaniel, Pakistan) A woman takes her 10-year-old daughter and flees so that the kid can avoid an arranged marriage. Mean men chase her. I’ll probably cry before the end.
Flapping in the Middle of Nowhere (Diep Hoang Nguyen, Vietnam) A debut feature from a Vietnamese filmmaker about a couple who need to raise money for an abortion. He gets involved in illegal cockfighting. She becomes a hooker. Much sad, very depress.
Sway (Rooth Tang, USA/France/Thailand) According to the blurb it’s a “globe-spanning narrative latticework that places private experience on the same scale as broadcast news.” I have no idea what that means, except that it’s about three couples in Paris, Bangkok, and Los Angeles.
Unlucky Plaza (Ken Kwek, Singapore) A Singaporean film from first-time director, Ken Kwek, about three disparate characters: an arrogant young motivational speaker, his girlfriend, and a single father.
Partners in Crime (Chang Jung-chi, Taiwan) From the director of festival hit Touch the Light comes this Taiwanese movie about a schoolgirl who kills herself.
From What Is Before (Lav Diaz, Philippines) A five-and-a-half-hour movie about a village in the Philippines during the Marcos regime. Winner of the Golden Lion at Locarno.
Still the Water (Naomi Kawase, Japan) Naomi Kawase continues to bore the balls off audiences around the world with this movie that the critics are calling “chunky,” “underdeveloped,” and full of “pompous philosophizing.”
Journey to the West (Tsai Ming-liang, Taiwan) Tsai Ming-liang continues to explore the drying of paint in his fourth (his third? his fifth?) movie about a monk walking very slowly.
Songs From the North (Yoo Soon-Mi, South Korea) It’s a movie about North Korea and it’s only 72 minutes long, so it’s got two things working in its favor. A documentary essay, the film has received meditative reviews, and the trailer is kind of entrancing.