Friday, 30 March 2018
Tuesday, 20 March 2018
A Better Tomorrow II is a film being pulled in two different directions. The sequel suffered through a notoriously difficult post-production process with producer Tsui Hark and director John Woo at loggerheads, battling over final cut. In the end the film was drastically reshaped by an indifferent editing team whose only objective was to get the running time down to the kind of length that would facilitate the maximum amount of screenings to be jammed into a business day. Thus this thwarted epic barrels along at an ungainly pace, shedding characters and plot points as quickly as it introduces them. This discombobulation is compounded by the scenes and sequences used to reintroduce Chow Yun-Fat to the series.
Given the cultural impact of Chow Yun-Fat's debonair gangster Mark - Hong Kong teens took to wearing duster coats in tribute to the character, even though the island enjoys a sub-tropical climate - his death at the climax of the first film presented a problem for the production. Hark and Woo's solution was a long-lost identical twin brother named Ken. Despite the conceptually cheekiness, a lot of screen time is dedicated to establishing Ken as something more than a gratuitous lap of honour for Chow. So much so that Ken's adventures in America play like a distinct, emotionally hysterical sub-film. When not admonishing Italian mafiosi for not appreciating Chinese cuisine, Ken functions as supernaturally violent therapist for Dean Shek's catatonic Lung Sei.
Lung has lost both his business and his beloved daughter. Forced to flee to America after being framed for multiple murders, Lung finds himself an albatross around the neck of everyone he comes into contact with. Naturally, Ken is able to shoulder this burden, drawing his old friend out of a drooling stupor by relentlessly placing him in incredible danger. Eventually Lung snaps to, snatching up a pistol to protect his injured friend. This sense of tonal separation extends to the film's magnificent finale too. While a grim-faced Shek and the criminally underused Ti Lung pace around a colonial mansion blasting goons, Chow floats about, mugging to the camera like Bugs Bunny and standing worryingly close to several absolutely tremendous explosions.
Director John Woo transitions away from a string of artistically anonymous comedies with A Better Tomorrow, a full-blooded fraternal drama set in and around a dollar counterfeiting ring. Ti Lung plays Sung Tse-Ho, the triad equivalent of a corporate criminal. Although widely respected and still clearly in full possession of his street-smarts, Ho functions in a safe, rarefied space. He wears expensive suits and schmoozes with white-collar clients, exchanging photostat bills for legitimate currency. His power - although apparent - is softly applied, grounded in his efficiency and serious, all-business, demeanour. Ho is a man out of time, behaving more like a chivalrous warrior monk than a stick-up man.
A Better Tomorrow is front-loaded with scenes of Ho and his best friend Mark, played by Chow Yun-Fat, operating with a casual air born from immunity. There's never a sense that Ho and Mark's obvious criminality is a disadvantage for them socially. When the duo visit sprawling office premises for hand-offs, they are welcomed like local celebrities. Ho and Mark are respected, rather than feared, appreciated as the living embodiment of the self-perpetuating wealth they peddle. The main tension in Ho's life instead comes from his little brother Kit, a trainee policeman played by pop star Leslie Cheung. Ho's life of crime is so well insulated against reality that Kit has no idea that his elder brother is even a triad.
Kit clowns around in his own pocket universe with a girlfriend, played by Emily Chu, who allows Woo to burn through a few bumbling orchestra gags left over from the director's previous film Plain Jane to the Rescue. This giddy, upbeat atmosphere hangs together long enough to establish how Ho and Kit's relationship works. As with Mark, Ho is stability and positive reinforcement. The role of big brother is something Ho takes seriously. It isn't just an empty honorific to him, it's a mode of conduct that informs his every move. It's why he takes the fall for Waise Lee's junior mobster Shing when the pair are betrayed in Taiwan. Ho giving himself up to the police to protect the younger mobster when a routine money trade sours.
The film shifts at this point; the high-life punctured by Ho's arrest and subsequent imprisonment. His little brothers cope in different ways. Kit blames Ho, not unreasonably, for the death of their father and his inability to land a promotion within the police force. Mark seeks revenge, winding up with a shattered leg and a clunking metal brace. Upon his release, Ho's attempts to go straight anger a now-prosperous Shing and fail to win him any favour with his blood brother. Kit's rejection goes deeper than simply refusing to meet Ho though. Not only does Kit not want to anything to do with the present, reformed man but he also seeks to undo his past criminality, making ill-advised moves against the counterfeiting ring. For the closing act John Woo explodes this familial tension with an apocalyptic dockside shoot-out, using Mark to heal the rift between Kit and Ho.
Kit's bubbling hatred is used to underline and comment upon the stakes in play. Kit has spent the latter half of the film at Ho's throat, pounding on his penitent brother for a betrayal that the younger man believes has undermined their entire relationship. Here, surrounded by assassins, they will make their peace. Woo's strengths as a filmmaker go beyond an ability to manufacture incredible, kinetic action sequences, his genius is that he can make these interludes a physical expression of his hero's emotional state. Action is something that his characters track towards, a release that allows them to make their peace with the world. Despite his profession, Ho is a sympathetic figure. He's always working to better the lives and positions of the people that he loves. It's heart-breaking then to see him shunned and attacked by someone he cares deeply for. Kit's spitefulness serves a purpose though: if he hadn't hated his brother it wouldn't mean anything when the two of them finally set aside their differences and work together.
Sunday, 4 March 2018
Saturday, 3 March 2018
Friday, 2 March 2018
Black Panther hinges on the promise of Wakanda, a geologically remote African country that has grown up around a mountain of all-powerful metal, becoming a self-reliant, hermetically sealed utopia. Wakanda's story, while not necessarily one of peace, is one of unity. The five warring tribes who shared the lands suffused with vibranium came together under the leadership of the first Black Panther, a man who had consumed the fruit of this mountain becoming superhuman, to share the country's treasures rather than pointlessly battle over them. It's a small detail, delivered in the kind of pre-action prologue usually used to burn a couple of minutes while latecomers shuffle into the cinema, but Black Panther has immediately skewered the cultural hegemony of white, western cinema.
Over the course of Ryan Coogler's film we see vibranium used in every conceivable context, always for the betterment of those who wield it. The indestructible element is used to power fantastical weapons; futuristic train networks run on it; even grievous spinal injuries are nothing when set against the might of this extra-terrestrial metal. Vibrainium is magic as a tangible, seemingly infinite resource. Rather than spill out into the world and bring weaker nations to heel, Wakanda has closed its borders and thrived. They have enough living space, they do not wish to conquer. This rugged isolationism briefly recalls a pre-Second World War America, the country as a modern, forward-thinking individual above the squabbles of the old European world, before the film assures you that no-one in Wakanda is exploiting their internal harmony to export ruin. Basically, Wakanda is far too evolved to harbour a General Motors or an IBM.
Set against other, modern big-budget fantasy films, Black Panther's approach to its MacGuffin is refreshingly classic - it's a boon with no obvious downside. Consider an archetypal, British fantasy series like The Lord of the Rings, those books - and their film adaptations - propose objects of power so intoxicating that even characters with transcendental, angelic aspects cannot resist the urge to seize and control them. At second one, the people of Black Panther have moved beyond these petty limitations, unifying under a flag and God that has allowed them to evolve to a technological level that is almost alien to the rest of mankind. Writer-director Ryan Coogler and screenwriter Joe Robert Cole propose a culturally nourished society in touch with their identity and refreshingly free of animus, ruled by compassionate, selfless Kings who believe in the dream of their nation.
It's an intoxicating idea, particularly at a point in time where every real world country is experiencing financial meltdown and/or some form of exclusionary nationalism. As far as the film describes, Wakanda works for its citizens. There is no poverty or need, no shameful imperialist legacy, and the country's women are not treated as subservient, second-class citizens. The film underlines this latter point with a sequence set in South Korea that explicitly recalls a similar stakeout in Skyfall. In that film white alpha male James Bond took centre-stage, quipping with female handlers who are bracketed off from the central action. Here the highest authority mucks in and frets about innocent bystanders. Chadwick Boseman's T'Challa is flanked by two expert women, both equally capable of fighting at the level dictated by their King. Another, his sister, is off-site offering fantastical tech-support. Black Panther, the film, consumes the language of explicit colonial fantasy then re-purposes it towards healthier, if less crudely exciting, ends.
Since T'Challa's kingdom is insular, the threat to her identity comes from the outside. Michael B Jordan's Erik Killmonger is an American with distant ties to the African country's crown, born to a father who engaged with black militancy and taught his son the gospel of a paradise called Wakanda. No mother is seen or mentioned. When recounting Killmonger's story, CIA agent Ross focuses on Erik's adulthood as a special forces solider who has toppled governments and killed hundreds, wilfully obscuring the dire emotional situation that drove Killmonger towards this kind of service. As an orphan, Erik fits the bill for your archetypal boyish operative looking for something, anything, bigger than himself to dedicate his soul to. Ross talks about Killmonger as a tool rather than a man, a weapon tempered by the American imperial machine who has subsequently had the audacity to think for himself.
Calling Killmonger a villain seems reductive. His grievances aren't so much understandable as inevitable. If an African superpower exists, why doesn't it help downtrodden black people around the world? Why shouldn't their technology be used to equalise, at least, the yawning disparity between America's black working class and an overwhelmingly white ruling class? This feeling of camaraderie is borne out by how Coogler and Cole use the character. Erik isn't simply a crisis point for Black Panther, he's an axis that shifts the film's structure and perspective. When Erik seizes Wakanda's throne he fills the void left by an apparently dead T'Challa. Killmonger infects and steers the film, both in terms of organic three-act flow and non-diegetic affectation - heroic characters are swayed by his hammering rhetoric while transitional music changes from Djembe clacks to a tsking electronic beat. Killmonger is instantly elevated to the position of a lead character, afforded the kind of interior landscape denied second-tier characters like Letitia Wright's Shuri or Danai Gurira's Okoye.
When Erik eats the vibranium fruit that transmits the powers of the Black Panther, we're transported not to the ancestral planes of T'Challa's visions but back in time, to a frozen moment in an Oakland apartment where Killmonger can talk with a father he has both unconsciously modelled himself on and consciously distanced himself from. Jordan's performance is the pulse that drives Black Panther, the actor delivering moments that blaze far hotter than the rote, murky action that surrounds them. When T'Challa and T'Chaka commune they do so as peers, one king to another. T'Challa challenges his father's decisions and retreats from the oblivion he offers. Erik enters his father's orbit then punishes him, pushing him away, telling him that his death meant nothing. Erik's avatar in these moments fluctuates between himself as an adult and Seth Carr playing him as a youngster. Crucially, a tear that the child denies appears instead on Michael B Jordan's face, wiped away by a king overwhelmed by feelings that do not track easily into either violence or subjugation.