New Dragon Gate Inn (Tsui Hark, 1992)/Balablok (Bretislav Pojar, 1972)
With my new loft digs considerably more accommodating than my last, I happily agreed to always-hustling Cinéclub head honcho Phil Spurrell’s request for the first of perhaps a series of 16mm private screening night at my slightly un-humble abode (with the understanding that I’m expecting some 16mm reciprocity in the form of a home screening of that greatest Christmas movie of all time, namely Frank Capra’s It’s a Wonderful Life come this winter holiday season in which I’ll likely be hosting my first family Xmas!)… and what a high-flying, fast-kicking start it was!
As usual with so many of these Hong Kong period martial arts action films (better known as a wuxia film to you, pal! But don’t feel bad… I didn’t know they were called that either until I looked up this film yesterday) I was more than a tad confused with exactly which of the warring factions were on whose side exactly, and what exactly was going on (Racist alert! Unable to tell Asians apart! Racist alert! Somebody hit the cancel button!). I tell ya, it’s always the same – modern Hong Kong action films? No problem; storytelling, character arcs, motivations… clear as day. But throw them in ancient garb, with ponytails, sharpened eyebrows and funny hats and all that (as well as adding in the usual byzantine history delivered rapid-style in the opening credits montage filled with a cavalcade of near-indecipherable names for an uninitiated Westerner like myself)? And I’m way confused.
In this case, however, there was enough markers to at least keep on top of some of the narrative — along with it being a time in China when apparently power-crazed eunuchs managed to do a lot of ruling — never quite equated castration with the granting of power, but whatever, different culture (did I mention racist alert?) — the story revolves around a rebel group sequestered away in the titular inn, determined to keep alive two small children who were part of some royal guard that betrayed the current evil eunuch ruler, who is now determined to kill the little ones.
Fortunately, even if I couldn’t quite follow the various intricacies of betrayals and changing allegiances, the level of hyper-kinetic sword-play and physics-defying martial arts action, with the additional impressive sense of scope achieved in the wide-scale cinematography (counterpointed with those sudden dutch-angle, oft-zooming-in close-ups I find so familiar to these Asian films that always causes a twinge of inspired excitement for an editor like myself), was breathtaking. I don’t watch a lot of these films, which might be a good thing — I have the sense that if I did, I might tire of the constant swirling-twirling human turvey-tops, which would be a shame as so much of these films manage to achieve something pretty, pretty spectacular, so better to check in once in awhile for me to keep it fresh.
When gorgeous superstar Maggie Cheung finally shows up about twenty minutes in to take center stage, her story (and arc) really click it all in, centering around her immensely enjoyable performance as the tough, salty and sultry opportunistic innkeeper Jade who finds herself slowly falling in love with the leader of the Rebels (though first only admitting it as sexual lust, with the amoral innkeeper blackmailing the chaste warrior Chow – betrothed to another, no less — to have sex with her before she’ll allow her place to act as a safeguard for the endangered kiddos), learning to care and redeeming her character by the end (if never requiring her to make amends for the fact her business practice consisted of seducing and murdering any number of her male guests, taking all their money, then using their corpses in her meat patties, like a female version of Anthony Wong’s meat bun man from the infamous Category III film, The Untold Story, only in this case presented as a mischievous character trait! – ah well, one of the amusing pleasures of the film is that, in its exuberant desire to throw lots of enjoyable craziness at you it doesn’t slow down very often to work out all the kinks).
The film is loaded with a good amount of neck-slicing bloodletting to boot (the scene of the main super- villain, played by Donnie Yen, realizing, one limb at a time, that he’s had both his leg and arm completely skinned to the bone by the suddenly super-powered kitchen cook Dao – who we also discover has the graboid-like ability to burrow through the Earth — is simply sublime in its mixture of hilarious absurdity and pleasing gore) with the usual amount of inspired fight sequences (the fight between Jade and Chow’s enraged fiancée, where they keep tearing off each other’s clothes, piece by piece, is another classic in a genre filled with too many to count).
What also struck me as I watched is just how the layout of all the period cinematic iconography is so reminiscent of the spaghetti western – that is, if those gritty cowpoke were able to spin and fly about as gravity-defying martial arts experts rather than just shoot each other.
As is his wont, along with the munchies from the popcorn-maker he brought over, Monsieur Spurrell presented a warm-up, a cinematic aperitif before the main feature, in this case, the National Film Board of Canada-funded animated short film Balablok. Running at only seven minutes, following a closed group of cubes (with stick figure arms and legs) as their harmonious community is suddenly thrown into unreasoning turmoil at the sudden intrusion of a… gulp… circle, the simple animated style of Balablok perfectly suits its undisguised (though trenchant) message on the human desire to stamp out and destroy anything that doesn’t entirely conform to the status quo. A perfect theme for today’s hysterically terrified times, that’s for sure, and a nice thoughtful morsel before losing our minds into the joyous Hong Kong lunacy that followed.