Tuesday, November 18, 2008

Scandal (1974)

Scandal (1974)

Scandal (1974)

November 20th, 6:30PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Set in the early twentieth century during the chaotic age of Warlords and the early Nationalists struggling against them, the film tells the story of two ne’er-do-wells Chen Ming (Michael Hui) and Chia Liang (Wang Sheng) who witness the rampant corruption going on at every level of government. They eventually decide to attempt to liberate some of the county officials ill gotten gains for themselves but in the midst of doing so they fall into the situation of acquiring information that gives them power over those around them. Now suddenly they are in positions of power and influence and even though everything seems to be spiraling out of control business seem to be going on as usual.

Scandal is the fourth and last collaboration between actor Michael Hui and director Li Han-Hsiang made at the Shaw Brothers studio. The other three being 1972's The Warlord, The Happiest Moment (1973) and Sinful Confession (1974). Before making these four films Hui had become famous with his television comedy/variety program The Hui Brothers Show along with his two brothers Sam and Ricky. American viewers can think of the program as a cross between Laugh-In and The Smothers Brothers and soon became incredibly popular. At this point Michael was offered the opportunity to try his hand at film at the then completely dominant Shaw Brothers Studio.

The four films he eventually made there were written and directed by one of the Shaw Brothers greatest in-house directors Li Han-Hsiang who had previously been known for his lavish period films and Huangmei Operas such as Diau Charn (1958) and Beyond the Great Wall (1964) but had later, after leaving the Shaw Studio for a time, branched out into erotic drama and comedy that frequently intermixed social satire and the four Hui collaborations are examples of this at its very best. The first of the four The Warlord cast Hui as a sometimes bumbling but always bombastic warlord who is morally ambagious to say the least. They follow his character through the glory days of the warlords in the 1920's through to the bitter end. Along with The House of 72 Tenants (1973) the film was instrumental in reviving Cantonese dialect cinema that had previously been outmoded by Mandarin beginning more then a decade before.

The next two films were anthologies that feature Hui in three separate roles each. The Happiest Moment being again set in the early part of the century and Sinful Confession which takes place in modern day Hong Kong. Both films take a comedic bent on the issues of greed, corruption and sexuality in society.

The forth film Scandal deals with corruption and government in the vein of the more things change the more they stay the same. In this sense out of the four Scandal is the most accomplished. When the two miscreants start to work their way into county government they soon discover they are probably the least overtly criminal officials around. Annotating this story there is one completely honest official, the county medical inspector who is completely oblivious to all shady goings on despite interacting with those perpetrating these acts on a daily basis.

After Scandal Li Han-Hsiang went on to make many similar films for Shaw Brothers throughout the 1970's. Michael Hui on the other hand ended his collaboration at Shaw’s owing to the limitations of the ridged studio system. He then joined the Golden Harvest studio which was becoming the Shaw Brothers chief rival at the time. There he was given complete creative freedom and control of his work which lead to a string of now legendary films that changed the face of Hong Kong comedy that he wrote, directed and starred in with his brothers such as Games Gamblers Play (1974) and The Private Eyes (1976). Ironically it was these films which significantly helped Golden Harvest win its fight against Shaw Brothers for dominance in the early to mid 1980's so to an extent in this case they played a major role in their own downfall.
Along with the other four Shaw Hui films Scandal is required viewing for those interested in the evolution of Hong Kong comedy and cinema in general and must be viewed to gain a balanced view of the Hui Brothers and their legacy.

Hong Kong, Director Li Han Hsiang. Starring Michael Hui Koon-Man, Tanny Tien Ni, Lily Li, Zhu Mu, Wong Sam, Ku Feng and Cheng Miu. In Mandarin with English subtitles, 94 minutes.

Wednesday, November 12, 2008

Fire (1996)

Fire (1996)

November 13th, 6:30PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Fire (1996)

The first of a trilogy of films by the same director. They are unconnected in story but each exploring a different tone of storytelling marked by the tittles Fire, Earth and Water. The story is a contemporary tale of a young woman who marries into a family only to find neglect and hopelessness.

She befriends another married woman who has similar feelings and they begin to develop a romantic relationship. Billed as the first Indian film dealing with lesbians, it was protested during its initial release and later banned.

India/Canada, Director Deepa Mehta. Starring Nandita Das, Shabana Azmi, Kulbhushan Kharbanda and Alice Poon. In English, 108 minutes.

Sunday, November 2, 2008

Princess Iron Fan (1941)
Romance of the Western Chamber (1927)

November 6th, 6:30PM in Garland 104 (2441 E. Hartford)

Enjoy two early Chinese films, each with a fairly short viewing time that together is under two hours.

Princess Iron Fan (1941)

Animation began in China in the early 1920's, less then a decade after the birth of Japanese animation. Like the early animation of almost any nation it began with silent shorts, then longer more developed talkies finally leading to features. China’s first feature was largely the result of the efforts of the Wan Brothers who also created early shorts and the first Chinese animated talkie. They used a rhotoscope process for much of the film, which gives it a fairly unique look compared to many other early animated features.

The films story was adapted from a popular chapter of The Journey to the West, a novel regarded along with Romance of the Three Kingdoms, Dream of the Red Chamber and The Water Margin as one of the four great classical novels of Chinese literature. The plot revolves around a Monk who is traveling to India to find and bring back the original Buddhist scriptures to China. He is accompanied by the impish Monkey King who is forced to become his protector and guide as well as sever other magical helpers. During there journey they encounter all manor of magical creatures that attempt to halt their journey.

The continued popularity of this story has continued since it was written in the 16th century. There have been many media adaptations of the story including animated and live action films, TV series and video games. In the United States the story is most well known through two Japanese animated series, the first being Dragonball which uses a loose adaptation of the story and the short lived series Monkey Magic from the 1990's. Even with this limited exposure, its story is arguably the most well known of the four novels in the United States.

The circumstances surrounding the film are also somewhat unusual. It was made in 1940-41 during a time when China was being invaded by the Japanese. It was actually exported to Japan where it helped spur the creation of the first Japanese animated feature Warriors of the Wind a anti Western propaganda film promoting the goal of a Japan centered Greater East Asian Prosperity Sphere.

China, Director Wan Guchan, Wan Laiming, Mandarin with English subtitles, 72 mins.

Romance of the Western Chamber (1927)

During the 1920's Shanghai developed a vibrant film industry. Much of this history is completely unknown to many Chinese much less western viewers. Aside from a few super stars like actress Ruan Lingyu, most of figures behind the films are equally as forgotten. Romance of the Western Chamber was made by important figures engaging in an early struggle to shape the direction of Chinese cinema.

Lai Man-Wai was one of the films co-directors and at the time of the films making he was on a self proclaimed mission to improve the quality of Chinese cinema. Lai had become deeply interested in film from the time he encountered it. Early on in his film making career he developed close ties to Sun Yat-Sen and the Nationalists, even accompanying the army on its Norther Expatiations against the warlords, making a documenting the events on film.
Later after some difficulties he relocated to Hong Kong where he attempted to set up his studio Minxin. After many difficulties and the unhelpful attitude of the British administration governing the region, he returned to the mainland and was able to establish his studio.

The stated goal was to make films of superior quality which included lavish historical epics. He was able to use his Nationalist connections to engage thousands of government troops as extras on some of his films. Despite this support he frequently lost out to his rivals which typically made much cheaper films at a faster pace, giving much less thought goals of fine cinema. This meant that while one of his epics was filming, another studio might knock off a film copying its story, only made in less then half the time and using a small fraction of its budget, thus saturating the market before the Lai film finishes its production.

Romance of the Western Chamber is a film of a much smaller scale then the greatest of Lai’s epics. Its short, only forty-three minutes, it really is a medium level production for its time. The chief claim to fame of the film is an early dream sequence which uses sever in camera effects shots that were rare for the period. The dedication to quality is also still present and it shines through even more then eighty years later.

China, Director Lai Man-Wai, Cast Ge Cijiang, Hu Chinchang, Lam Cho-Cho, Li Dandan, 43 mins.