Tag Archives: Hong Kong Film Festival

Journey to the West: A 400-Year-Old Tale

"Journey to the West"

Scene from “Journey to the West”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn recently interned in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at Freer|Sackler.

There will always be a special place in my heart for Journey to the West. It’s a magical tale that has captivated both children and adults for centuries. Growing up in a half-Thai, half-Chinese household, I couldn’t escape its spell. How could anyone resist the fantastic journey to India undertaken by a Buddhist monk, an invincible magic monkey, a gluttonous pig monster, a humble fish monster, and a quiet dragon-in-disguise horse? Oh, the good old Saturday mornings of sitting around the table watching the Monkey King defeat demons. It makes me nostalgic!

Journey to the West (aka Journey) is one of those stories that brings together East Asian people of all ages, especially when you’re partly Chinese. My grandmother and I are able to discuss the same story even though we were born fifty years apart. As one of the Four Great Classical Novels of Chinese literature, Journey was adapted into many forms, ranging from Beijing opera to animation spin-offs. My earliest memory of it is the 1988 film Doraemon: The Record of Nobita’s Parallel Visit to the West. As I was growing up, television series, cartoons, and movies telling this tale were released every few years to people who knew the story by heart. Regardless, we all rejoiced with every new version we could find.

The one element of the novel that appears most frequently in popular culture is the Monkey King, Sun Wukong. Many actors have tried their hand at portraying the character. Just this year, Donnie Yen starred in The Monkey King, a new adaptation made with a big budget and plenty of special effects. Although the entire story is loosely based on Journey, Akira Toriyama’s Dragon Ball protagonist Son Goku is heavily influenced by Wukong. Goku has the same name (but in Japanese), rides on a cloud, carries a magic staff, and had a monkey tail as a kid.

My favorite Wukong is the one and only Hong Kong comedy king, Stephen Chow, who created a bombastically funny version in Jeffrey Lau’s A Chinese Odyssey series. Focusing on how one may suffer with love and lust, the loose adaptation traces Wukong’s journey of self-redemption from an arrogant lying individual to a faithful follower of the Longevity Monk. Chow’s Wukong has set a high standard for any future adapters of the tale.

Catch Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons on Friday, August 15, at 7 pm, and A Chinese Odyssey Parts I and II at 1 and 3 pm on Sunday, August 17, at the Freer. These films conclude the 19th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office, Washington, DC.

Read Molly’s previous post on Hong Kong films.

Hong Kong Films: The Vampire Strikes Back

Twin ghosts from the movie "Rigor Mortis"

Twin ghosts from the movie “Rigor Mortis”

Molly Thanrongvoraporn is an intern in the Department of Public Affairs and Marketing at the Freer|Sackler.

They jump. They bite. They’re scary and hilarious at the same time. The Jiangshi, or hopping vampires, seen in Mr. Vampire are always up for some brutally comical blood-sucking. The success of this film, directed by Ricky Lau in 1985, made Jiangshi (Goeng-si in Cantonese) a popular sub-genre of horror films in the following decade.

Of all the qualities that go into making a Jiangshi movie, humor is number one. Jiangshi films employ slapstick physical comedy, especially when the vampires hop into kung fu moves. When I was younger, I played Jiangshi vampire with other kids back home in Bangkok, Thailand. The one who was “it” jumped around with his or her arms raised zombie style to catch the fleeing humans. In our children’s game, the humans tended to outrun the vampires, but not so in the Jiangshi movies. If onscreen characters aren’t speedy, they need one of the following: kung fu skills, a Taoist protective tag, or the ability to hold their breath for a long time—the Jiangshi vampire can’t see prey that’s not breathing. This contributed to many funny scenes in the films, and my friends and I would hold our own breath while we sat in the audience. Jiangshi took the scary out of horror films and replaced it with a physical comedy that younger audiences appreciated.

After the 1990s, Jiangshi movies disappeared from the cinema marquees in Asia. Finally, in 2013, Juno Mak decided to bring the hopping vampire back to the silver screen, this time darker and scarier than before. His film Rigor Mortis is a story of a bankrupted actor who moves into a rundown apartment, only to find himself in terrifying circumstances. A critical and commercial success, Rigor Mortis won Best Supporting Actress (Kara Hui) and Best Visual Effects at the 33rd Hong Kong Film Awards, while Juno Mak was nominated for Best New Director. Earning more than ten million Hong Kong dollars, Rigor Mortis is proof that the Jiangshi vampire never really fades away for East Asian audiences. Newer trends of horror films may come and go, but the Jiangshi vampire sleeps quietly, waiting to return and shake us all again with its hopping.

See Mr. Vampire and Rigor Mortis back to back on Sunday, July 27, as part of our Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, cosponsored by the Hong Kong Economic and Trade Office.

Remembering Leslie Cheung

Leslie Cheung in Days of Being Wild (photo courtesy of PhotoFest)

Leslie Cheung in “Days of Being Wild” (photo courtesy of PhotoFest)

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

On April 1, 2003, Leslie Cheung ended his life by leaping from the 24th floor of the Mandarin Oriental Hotel in central Hong Kong. He was forty-six years old. On the tenth anniversary of his death, fans from around the world made two million origami cranes in his honor—a Guinness World Record. A teen heartthrob Cantopop star before adding film acting to his repertoire, Cheung was a celebrity not only in Hong Kong, but also across East Asia and beyond. In a 2005 poll conducted in honor of the centenary of Chinese cinema, Hong Kongers named him their favorite all-time actor, beating out the likes of Bruce Lee and Jackie Chan. A 2010 CNN International poll ranked him as the world’s third most iconic musical artist, behind Michael Jackson and the Beatles. His legions of fans run the gamut from millennials to retirees.

Last summer, around the time of our annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival, I began receiving emails from near and far asking if we were planning a tribute to Cheung for our 2013 festival. In response to this unprecedented outpouring, I decided to include four classic Cheung performances in this year’s lineup, including three 35mm prints from the Hong Kong Film Archive that are otherwise unavailable in any form in the United States.

In keeping with the crowdsourced nature of this tribute, we left the selection of the final film up to our audience. A Facebook poll allowed fans to choose between three of Cheung’s films that were directed by the great Wong Kar-wai: Ashes of Time, Days of Being Wild, and Happy Together.

The winner, Days of Being Wild, couldn’t be a more appropriate choice. It was a pivotal film in both the actor’s and the director’s careers, garnering each his first Hong Kong Film Award. As film critic J. Hoberman put it in the Village Voice, “Days of Being Wild is the movie with which Wong Kar-wai became Wong Kar-wai—the most influential, passionate, and romantic of neo-new-wave directors.” The first of Wong’s many collaborations with master cinematographer Christopher Doyle, the film radiates the dreamlike atmosphere of lush romanticism and longing for lost time that would become his trademark in more famous films, such as In the Mood for Love and 2046. At a time when Hong Kong was known for action movies, broad comedies, and kung fu flicks, this luxuriously paced portrait of wounded hearts and lost souls looked like and felt like nothing else.

In a beautifully nostalgic version of 1960s Hong Kong, Cheung stars as Yuddy (York in English), a charming playboy (Hong Kong film critic Edmund Lee calls him “James Dean reincarnated”) who breaks hearts while seeking to leave his foster mother and solve the mystery surrounding his real one. That Yuddy compares himself to a “bird without legs” of Chinese legend, which can only land when it dies, is especially poignant considering the depression Cheung struggled with throughout his all-too-short life.

Days of Being Wild will be shown in the Freer’s Meyer Auditorium on Friday, August 2, at 7 pm, and Sunday, August 4, at 2 pm. Admission is free, with seats available on a first-come, first-served basis.

Pang Ho-Cheung Brings it All Back Home

Vulgaria

Vulgaria

Tom Vick is curator of film at Freer|Sackler.

The 1997 handover of Hong Kong from England to China opened up a huge new market—1.3 billion strong—for Hong Kong movies. But reaching Chinese audiences requires compromise. Politically controversial topics must be avoided, for instance, and the sex and violence have to be toned down. Often, films are made in Mandarin, which means losing the Cantonese wordplay that gives Hong Kong comedies their punch.

While many Hong Kong filmmakers have accepted these terms in return for more lucrative paydays, others, like Pang Ho-Cheung, are flipping the script. His latest film, Vulgaria (which is being screened on June 14 and 16 as part of the Freer’s 18th Annual Made in Hong Kong Film Festival), is a flagrantly raunchy comedy. Chapman To stars as To Wai-Cheung, a movie producer who sheds his artistic integrity and eventually his dignity to make a softcore porn that he hopes will revive his career. From its opening scene, in which To regales aghast film students with a lengthy, obscene monologue about his job, it’s clear that Pang has no designs on the mainland market.

In this and other ways, Vulgaria is a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong cinema. To’s project is a remake of the Shaw Brothers’ 1976 erotic film Confession of a Concubine. That film’s original star, Siu Yam-Yam (aka Yum Yum Shaw), gamely plays herself in Vulgaria, agreeing to appear in the new version (albeit with her head digitally attached to a younger actress’ body.) Shot on the fly without a complete script—as was done in the old days—Vulgaria bounces along with the anarchic energy of the Hui Brothers’ comedies of the ’70s and ’80s, flinging random subplots and absurd jokes in all directions.

Indulging in favorite Hong Kong pastimes such as making obscene puns and mocking mainlanders, Vulgaria is, like stinky tofu or fried chicken-feet, a local delicacy that will delight as many people as it disgusts. If, in recent years, people have complained that Hong Kong movies are becoming watered down, Pang’s filthy love letter to the city and its cinema may be an attempt to reclaim Hong Kong’s distinctiveness, one dirty joke at a time.