A Preview Guide to San Francisco’s 3rd Annual Hong Kong Cinema Film Festival

36th_Chamber_of_Shaolin_01This year San Francisco’s Hong Kong Cinema Festival, now in its third year, is being held at The Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street) and consists of eight films being shown throughout three days (From Oct. 4 – Oct. 6). Follow the jump for showtimes and to see my brief takes on four of the eight; “A Complicated Story“, “Conspirators“, “The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter” and “The 36th Chamber of Shaolin“.

A Complicated Story

Complicated_Story_01one-star2Somewhere in Hong Kong there’s a thesaurus that has the word complicated listed as the first synonym given when looking up the word messy. I will find this thesaurus, and promptly burn it! 

Damn you film title, and the many expectations from which your name bares! Judging solely on this film’s title, one might get the idea they’re in for 108 minutes of grueling grey area drama. Maybe some kind of cinematically problematic moral puzzle will be waiting them, or something to rattle one’s ideology, perhaps. The truth of the matter is A Complicated Story‘s narrative never comes close to living up to its name. This movie may possess a lot of odd (and by odd I mean, what in the name of Hong Kong Phooey were these script writers thinking!?) thematic elements such as corny dialogue, contrived melodrama, blotchy plotting, misguided direction, and far-fetched character arcs, but to call itself complicated, I’d say that’s a bit of a stretch.

Watching this film is like watching a group of first year film students given the assignment of trying to weld together the lighted visual romanticized esthetics of a Johnnie To film with the telenovela multi-layered character arcs of a Pedro Almodovar film. Needless to say, they failed. A Complicated Story, you stand guilty of misleading all those who will inevitably be disappointed within an hour of shelling out their hard earned money in the hopes of seeing something at least worthy of Lifetime Channel quality.

Showtimes for A Complicated Story: Sunday, October 6th – 6:00pm @ Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street) Director Kiwi Chow in person

Conspirators

Conspirators_03two-stars1Director Oxide Pang Chun is mostly known to US audiences for his Bangkok Dangerous films, both the original 1999 Thailand version as well as the more recent 2008 Hollywood version which starred Nicolas Cage. Whether you like or dislike those movies (I lean slightly towards the latter) one thing that can’t be denied is Chun’s ability to adequately handle on-screen action. Now as for his ability to adequately helm a detective driven gangster drama that has more twists and turns than an elaborate plastic crazy straw, well, that’s where Conspirators tends do derail its self.

The general story, without its many convoluted subplots (which would easily take up 100,000 extra words), is essentially about one detective’s search for the truth about the death of his parents. Along the way he hires another detective who has a whole suitcase store’s worth of baggage of his own, gets into a few scuffles, all of which transpire amongst uninspired action set pieces, and finds a potential love interest. On paper it might sound like I’m describing a rather straight forward and simple thriller, yet the execution has way too many scenes in where subplots of already established subplots are being explored.

From my experience with Hong Kong gangster movies, especially within the last 10 years or so, there seems to be a trend of creating and resolving oodles of subplots within the short (in this case 102 min) running time. It’s like watching an entire season of HBO’s The Wire, complete with stairway shootings, jumping out of windows, car chases, and back alley martial arts throw downs all being condensed into under 2 hours. It’s mind boggling to the point of headache inducing. Conspirators snuggles into this overstuffing the story trend quite nicely, and if you are already a fan of this type of Hong Kong gangsterism than by all means check it out, I however, will not be running out to get my movie tickets to the next film from this region given a genre stamp of gangster.

Showtimes for Conspirators: Sunday, October 6th – 8:45pm @ Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street)

The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter

Eight_Diagram_Pole_Fighterfive-starsNo other film has ever made me want to stop everything and start playing with my pole. Get your mind out of the gutter. By pole, I’m not talking about my penis. Pervert.

Every genre has at least one special film that when shown to those unfamiliar, or even those unaccepting of that genre, will immediately make them a convert. If you happen to be that unaccepting or unfamiliar person, I challenge you to watch this captivating film (preferably, on the big screen) and not walk away impressed. If you happen to already be a fan of Shaw Brothers’ actioneers and have not seen this yet, by God man/woman, what on Earth are you waiting for?

Chia-Liang Liu‘s 1984 pole fighting extravaganza wastes little time in its bombardment of jaw-dropping choreographed fights, which appear frequently, ferociously, and best of all, clearly. Unlike the goto trend of how action is filmed nowadays, with rapid fire editing to make one feel as if they’re watching from inside a dryer set on turbulent toss, there’s no mistaking whose fists belong to whom, or better yet, whose teeth just got brutally dislodged from their mouth. As an action movie alone, 8 Diagrams is nothing less than impressive. The fact that it also contains a strong moral center, as well as a strong lead performance by Gordon Liu (AKA Chia-Hui Liu AKA Pai Mei from Kill Bill Vol.2), makes it absolutely astounding.

Regardless of how complicated the plot may first appear to be (within the first 5 minutes numerous characters are introduced as well as quite a few specifics of an ongoing feud taking place amongst families and Government) by the time the Kung Fu equivalent of an action-packed James Bond opening scene is completed all will make perfect sense. Trust me, it will. In fact I struggle to think of another story where themes such as honor, loyalty, and belonging have been presented with such straight forward simplicity and to such an effective degree.

Showtimes for The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter: Sunday, October 6th – 1:15pm @ Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street)

The 36th Chamber of Shaolin

36th_Chamber_of_Shaolin_02five-starsOh, hell yeah! Before I even toss in my two cents about this Kung Fu classic, I have to thank the SFFS programmer responsible for adding this to the schedule. As far as I’m concerned this should be played in theatres every month, for 12 months a year, for every year, until the end of days. It’s that good folks.

Every genre has that one film that stands above all others, it’s crème de la crème. Gangster films have The Godfather, westerns have The Good, the Bad and the Ugly, suspense has Psycho, etc., I think you get my point. Well, for kung fu films it’s The 36th Chamber of Shaolin. But enough rah, rah, rahing over my all time favorite kung fu film, let me get into some specifics as to what this film is really all about.

Within the Shaolin Temple there are 35 chambers, levels if you will, that one must pass in order to be the ultimate bad-ass kung fu fighting machine. This is the story, very loosely based on actual facts, of what happened when one exemplary disciple, San Te (played by Gordon Liu), came to train with the Shaolin monks at this famous Temple during the early 18th Century.

Before I go any further, a short – and somewhat spoilery – synopsis: San Te and his peers are accused by the Manchus of being traitors, which constitutes a punishment of death. To escape persecution San Te takes refuge inside the Shaolin Temple. Once inside the Temple, San Te rapidly ascends through the grueling 35 chambers and becomes a Martial Monk, the highest of honors. He is then told by the Abbot (head master) that he can stay at the school and be master of any chamber he wishes. San Te declines the Abbot’s offer, and in doing so voices his ambition to start a 36th chamber, which would entail taking the isolated learnings of Shaolin kung fu and teaching them to those living outside the Temple. At this the Abbot is offended and punishes San Te by kicking him out of the Temple. San Te accepts his punishment, like the humble master Monk that he has become, and leaves the temple. Then, in spite of the Abbot’s opposed position of the idea, he goes and creates his 36th chamber anyway. But before his chamber can be started there’s some unfinished business with the Manchus that must be taken care of, and now that he’s a supreme killing machine the Manchu General, along with his inferior fighting skills, is going to have one hell of a fight on his hands.

Where as most films with similar revenge story lines will only allot a minimal amount of time to their training sequences, this film revels in it – as did I. In fact the majority of this film is essentially a kung fu training procedural. It’s not until during the final fight scene that we see the practical applications of San Te’s extensive training scenes be put to good use.

I wish I could precisely articulate what it is I find so intriguing about watching scene after scene of nothing but someone learning kung fu, but frustratingly, I seem to be at a loss for words. Perhaps an unrealistic regret of having not been raised under the tutelage of kung fu masters since birth is the reason for my strong adoration I have towards this film, or maybe it’s just the sheer joy of watching a human transform (both physically and spiritually) into a cool-as-a-cucumber, super human, ass-whooping ,killing machine. Maybe it’s both these reasons combined, or it could be an entirely other reason known only to my subconscious. Whatever the driving force at the heart of this film is, one thing’s for sure, it’s pretty fucking strong. Now that’s what I call movie magic at its transcending best!

Showtimes for The 36th Chamber of Shaolin: Saturday, October 5th – 4:00pm @ Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street)

Additional Films playing at 3rd Annual Hong Kong Cinema:

Bends (Dir. Flora Lau) – Featured in Cannes’ Un Certain Regard. Cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Plays Friday, October 4th – 7:00pm and Saturday October 5th – 2:00pm @ Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street) For tickets and more info on this film click here.

Blind Detective (Dir. Johnnie To)Stars Andy Lau. Plays Friday, October 4th – 9:30pm @ Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street) For tickets and more info on this film click here.

The Last Tycoon (Dir. Wong Jing)Features Chow Yun-fat. Cinematographer Andrew Lau. Plays Saturday, October 5th – 6:30pm @ Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street) For tickets and more info on this film click here.

The Great War: Director’s Cut (Dir. Lau Kar-leung)Documentary on music pop group. Plays October Saturday, October 5th – 9:00pm @ Vogue Theatre (3290 Sacramento Street) For tickets and more info on this film click here.

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Categories: Festivals, Hong Kong Cinema Festival, Reviews

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