Hong Kong film-starved Bay Area viewers will find their cinematic hunger satisfied this weekend with the San Francisco Film Society’s third edition of its Hong Kong Film Festival. For three days at the new venue of the Vogue Theater, film lovers interested in the region’s cinema can catch contemporary dramas, a Cantopop concert film, and Hong Kong action films old and new.
Johnnie To brings the contemporary Hong Kong action with his new film “The Blind Detective.” Blind ex-police detective Johnston (Andy Lau) supplements his crappy pension by becoming a bounty hunter specializing in cold cases. Rich police detective Ho (Sammi Cheng) hires Johnston to find her missing childhood friend Minnie and also teach her how to be a decent detective. Can Johnston’s brains and Ho’s muscle crack a 10-year-old mystery with no apparent clues?
“The Blind Detective” may appear more scattershot compared to To’s previous film “Drug War
.” In place of the prior film’s pressurized suspense, the Lau vehicle turns from romance to suspense thriller with an ease which would arouse a car manufacturer’s jealousy. While the film’s tone may evoke a 1980s-1990s Hong Kong commercial film’s something for everyone style, To skillfully makes such dramatic shifts feel like organic parts of the plot.
Key to the film’s success is Lau’s performance as Johnston. While the detective’s brilliance is unquestioned, his thinking remains enigmatic. Is he hustling Ho so he can mooch free expensive meals off her? Do his imagined reconstructions capture the truth of how a crime actually happened or is he seriously off-base? Lau does a great job of alternately irritating and amazing the viewer in the title role.
Cheng holds her own dramatic weight with Lau. She has several wonderful comic moments, particularly her pretending to be an obnoxious woman gambler and her takedown of Lam Suet’s fugitive murderer. When one case takes a turn for the deadly serious, her eventual fate grips the viewer.
A person’s perception of destiny provides a solid subtext for the film’s events. The missing Minnie wants to escape her family’s legacy of taking gruesome revenge against unfaithful men. Destiny does affect the man that an attractive tango instructor falls in love with, but not in a way Johnston predicts.
“The Blind Detective” may be mainly a goofball comedy mixed with frequently serious moments. That factor doesn’t detract from the entertainment it provides.
Johnnie To only served as executive producer for “A Complicated Story,” the other festival film hailing from the Milkyway studio. Carrying the creative heavy lifting on this contemporary Hong Kong drama are students from the Hong Kong Academy for Performing Arts. Kiwi Chow helms what’s essentially the students’ senior thesis project.
College student Yazi becomes a surrogate mother for an unnamed wealthy client to raise money for her brother’s desperately needed operation. Problems arise after attorney Kammy informs Yazi the client has cancelled the contract. When Yazi declines an abortion, a struggle over the babies’ fate and even Yazi’s heart eventually ropes in wealthy poet Yuk Cheung (Hong Kong film vet Jacky Cheung).
The reactionary sexual politics of Chow’s film will draw hissing from sex-positive San Franciscans. Even if one lauds Yazi’s rejection of the abortion, the film dodges answering the hard and reasonable question of what resources the student can marshal to care for the children post-birth. A third act revelation about Kammy seems little more than a trendy plot device.
Sexual politics aside, despite all the dramatic developments and visual tricks Chow and co-scripter Kei Shu toss into the film, none of it truly engages the viewer. None of the characters appear to suffer if they fail to get what they seek. Attempts at visual lyricism don’t convince the viewer of Yuk’s fascination with Yazi. Cheung’s performance as Yuk brings some life to the film, but not much.
First films can demonstrate a future filmmaker’s budding talent. “A Complicated Story” is not that film.
Yan Yan Mak’s “The Great War—Director’s Cut” is admittedly a bog standard rock documentary in several ways. The film focuses on the October 2012 Hong Kong Coliseum faux musical battle between legendary Cantopop bands Grasshopper (a five-man singing group led by tempermental perfectionist Remus Choy) and Softhard (the duo of Jan Lamb (Soft) and Eric Kot (Hard)). There are fan interviews, footage from the five months of preparation for this three hour show, and performances of several songs from the concert.
Yet any cynical suspicions that the concert would be an audience exploiting lark get dispelled by the sincere efforts of both musical acts to put on an incredible show. While six weeks is the usual preparation time for a rock concert, spending five months in meetings to get things right ensures a higher quality concert. Softhard is embarrassed by not having new material, yet are also flattered that audiences still like their old songs. Kot needed to get in shape for the concert by losing 40 pounds.
What a concert it turns out to be! The elaborate costumes worn by Grasshopper include one with a rhinoceros head dildo and outfits inspired by classical Chinese opera. The stage gets treated to a windfall of multi-colored confetti. The songs performed include a moving Grasshopper ballad about the power of hit songs to unite diverse people.
“The Great War” gives viewers a cinematic passport to Grasshopper and Softhard’s democracy of song. While some of this strange country’s mores will escape the casual visitor’s ken, surely “Make Fun Not War” is a sentiment that isn’t bound by cultural borders.
(“The Blind Detective” screens at 9:30 PM on October 4, 2013. “A Complicated Story” screens at 6:00 PM on October 6, 2013. “The Great War: Director’s Cut” screens at 9:00 PM on October 5, 2013. All screenings take place at the Vogue Theater (3290 Sacramento Street, S.F.) For further information about the films and information on buying advance tickets to a screening, go to www.sffs.org