Archive for the 'Directors: Woo' Category
The Iceman Cometh (aka Time Warriors, 1989).
Planet Hong Kong, in a second edition, is now available as a pdf file. It can be ordered on this page, which gives more information about the new version and reprints the 2000 Preface. I take this opportunity to thank Meg Hamel, who edited and designed the book and put it online.
As a sort of celebration, for a short while I’ll run a daily string of entries about Hong Kong cinema. These go beyond the book in dealing with things I didn’t have a chance to raise in the text. This is the third one. The first, a list of about 25 Hong Kong classics, is here. The second, an overview of the decline of the industry, is here. The fourth is a photo portfolio showing some stars; it’s here. Then comes an entry on western fandom, a photo gallery of director snapshots, and finally some reflections on the value of film festivals, capped by a list of some personal favorites. Thanks to Kristin for stepping aside and postponing her entry on 3D.
The longest chapter of Planet Hong Kong deals with action films. Here are some further thoughts on this fascinating genre.
Four aces of action
Tiger on Beat (1988).
Directing any action sequence poses several tasks. Once the stunts are decided upon, I can think of at least four such tasks.
1. The filmmakers need to present the physical actions clearly enough for the viewer to grasp them. Who hits whom, and how? What did X do to duck Y’s bullet? Which car is pursuing, which one is fleeing?
2. If the fight or chase is to be prolonged, one needs to come up with a series of phases that take the action into different areas of a locale, or into ever more dangerous situations. The classic arc is a fistfight that pushes the combatants to the edge of a cliff or roof, with the protagonist about to be shoved over. In other words, the action scene typically has a structure of buildup.
3. An action scene can express the emotions of the fighters—perhaps wrathful vengefulness on the part of one, versus cold calculation on the part of the other.
4. Finally, the filmmaker might want to try for a physical impact on the viewer. Just as sad scenes can make us cry and comic scenes can make us laugh, action scenes can get us pumped up. We can respond physically: we can tense up, blink, recoil, twist in our seat, and so on. How can the filmmaker achieve the level of engagement that Yuen Woo-ping emphasized in an interview with me: “to make the viewer feel the blow.”
I think that 1 and 2 are basic craft skills, with 3 and 4 being measures of higher ambitions on the part of filmmakers. Not everyone agrees. Philip Noyce says that incoherence (i.e., lack of clarity) is no problem:
I don’t necessarily think the audience member is looking for coherence; they are looking for a visceral experience. If they want coherence they can watch television.
Put aside the last comment, which begs for a bit more explanation. Noyce goes on to suggest a common rationale for lack of clarity: if the action’s confusing, it’s because the character is confused too. He praises Paul Greengrass’s framing and cutting in the Bourne films because
. . . The camera was used for its visceral possibilities rather than its literal ability. We felt the chase from the inside, where sometimes disorientation becomes an asset because it’s all about the velocity. Sometimes the pursuer and pursued don’t know where they are in relation to each other.
Greengrass’s fans have employed a similar argument, not so far from Stallone’s claims about The Expendables. It seems that many contemporary directors have concentrated on the fourth task, and to some extent the third, the expressive one (but only if the fighters’ emotion is disorientation). Job 1, basic and clear presentation, has become less important.
Yet it seems to me that the contemporary blur-o-vision technique doesn’t create a very sharp or nuanced impact. In effect, filmmakers try to amp up our response through jerky cutting, bumpy camerawork, and aggressive sound (which may be a major source of any arousal the movie yields). The result often doesn’t depend on what the actors do and instead reflects what can be fudged in shooting or postproduction. But we’re wired to react quite precisely to the movements made by living beings, human or not. If the film doesn’t make those movements at least minimally clear, we’re unlikely to sense anything more than a frantic muddle.
Further, Noyce doesn’t consider the possibility that a vigorous visceral effect can be created in and through coherent presentation of the action. The choice isn’t either/ or. The Asian action tradition, especially as practiced in Hong Kong, shows that we can have the whole package, often in quite elegant form.
OTT is OK
The Hong Kong tradition is probably most evident in its resourcefulness in fulfilling Task no. 2: creating an escalating pattern of mayhem and hairbreadth escapes. Filmmakers have been quite inventive in dreaming up outlandish twists in the action. The climax of Tiger on Beat (1988), from master Lau Kar-leung, indulges in what fans would call OTT (over-the-top) stuff. Above, outside a shop selling sailboats, Chow Yun-fat uses a clothesline to snap his shotgun out and blast the gang inside—becoming a literal gunslinger. Stepping up the intensity, Conan Lee Yuen-ba gets to work in a chainsaw duet.
The striking thing is that such flagrantly loopy combat is quite exciting, even exhilarating, while the realism that Noyce and Stallone promote can leave us fairly unmoved. Lesson: Artificially shaped grace can be tremendously arousing. Don’t forget how people get carried away watching dancing, acrobatics, or basketball.
I’ve speculated that the blur-o-vision action style is popular in Hollywood partly because it can suggest violence without showing it, so the sacred PG-13 rating isn’t at risk. No such qualms afflict Lau Kar-leung, who shows the main villain pinned to a table by Lee’s chainsaw. OTT again.
Note that each shot is from a different camera setup, typical of the Hong Kong “sequence-shooting” method. In addition, the whole scene integrates many elements of the setting into the fight. You get the impression that a Hong Kong action choreographer, stepping into a barber shop or a hotel lobby, instinctively thinks: What could be a weapon? What offers cover if someone rushes in with a gun? The Tiger shop yields barrels of paint, chainsaws, and worktables that can collapse under a man’s second-story fall. Even more exhaustive (and exhausting) is the classic fight at the end of Bodyguard from Beijing (1994). Here Corey Yuen Kwai, locking his antagonists in a modern kitchen, makes punitive use of not just knives and cutting boards but also the faucet and dish towels.
So part of what engages us in Hong Kong action is the filmmakers’ inventiveness in finding new ways to develop the basic premises of fights and chases. But this Tiger on Beat sequence also gives us the action in an utterly clear and cogent way. Every shot is brightly lit and crisply composed, with vivid colors in the sets, like those slashes of red. The cutting, while fast, makes everything totally intelligible through matches on action, obedience to the 180-degree rule, and a rock-steady camera. On top of all this, the thrusts and parries are given emotional force through the antagonists’ gestures and expressions (furious, startled, agonized). So conditions 1 through 3 are satisfied.
After this scene, we might ask Philip Noyce: Visceral enough for you?
Cutting to the chase
Matters of clarity, buildup, expressiveness, and impact on the viewer raise the perennial debate among Old China Hands, Martial Arts Division. To cut or not to cut?
For some aficionados, the less cutting the better. In classic kung-fu of the 1970s the full frame and longish take let actors show that they can do real kung-fu. No need to fake it through editing tricks. Actually, though, these films are quickly cut. Directors of the period realized that if the action is cogently composed, you can edit long shots as rapidly as you can close-ups.
No doubt, there are powerful effects you can achieve in the single shot. Admirers of full-frame action can point to an escalator gunfight in God of Gamblers, in which one passage is ingeniously staged in a single deep shot. Ko Chun’ s bodyguard Lung Ng fires at his pursuer in the upper floor.
His opponent falls down the opposite escalator, but another comes up behind, glimpsed in an aperture of the railing, and he fires at Lung.
Lung rises from the extreme foreground to return fire, and in the distance we see his attacker fall out of the slot at the railing.
On the big screen, you can feel your eye leaping from foreground to background, zigzagging across the frame. The dynamism of the action is mimicked in the rapid scanning we execute in taking it in. The eye gets some exercise.
Still, editing can serve my four purposes too. Some of the disjointedness of modern action scenes, we tend to say, comes from the speed of the cutting nowadays. Yet fast cutting can be quite coherent. There are about 490 shots in the twelve-minute climax of Tiger on Beat; nearly all are from different setups, and some are only a few frames long. Since the classic Hong Kong tradition builds upon a commitment to clear rendition of the action, it can use cutting to highlight information or repeat it. At one point, Chow whips his shotgun around a doorway and yanks his rope to pull the trigger on men he can’t see. We get five shots in three seconds.
The shots run, in order, 10 frames, 8 frames, 10 frames, 16 frames, and 38 frames. (I’m a frame-counter.) The lengthiest shot is about 1.5 seconds and the shortest is 1/3rd of a second. Yet each bit of action is so pointedly presented that it’s impossible to misunderstand, while the pace of the cutting forces us to keep up.
At an extreme, we have something like Sharp Guns (2001), a very low-budget, somewhat smarmy actioner that creates two spiky moments out of close-ups. Tricky On, the leader of our hit team, is pinned down alongside a mop-haired thug.
The kid recognizes him and raises his pistol in big close-up.
On, in even tighter close-up looks off, and the kid follows his glance.
A nearly abstract blade slices into the frame and the kid turns, his face going wan from the glare of the metal.
A hand thrusts. A neck bleeds.
Rack focus to On. Cut to Rain, the female assassin. The unfortunate thug’s head in the foreground of each shot specifies where each one is.
The fragmentation intensifies when soon afterward a blade whizzes leftward into the frame. In the next shot it glides past Tricky On.
On follows it with his eyes. Cut to another thuggish head, on his other side, with the blade embedded.
Rack focus again as the body slides down. Cut back to Rain, who has again saved her boss.
We haven’t had a single establishing shot in this sequence. The play of glances and turning heads, along with occasional foreground elements, lets us instantly understand that Rain has protected On from thugs on his left and right. Kuleshov would be happy.
Sharp Guns is surely no masterpiece, and you suspect that the close-up strategy pursued by director Billy Tang Hin-shing was a cheap way out. But give him credit for ingenuity, for well-timed cutting and movement, and for keeping the shots steady and legible. (Handheld shooting would dispel the force of the passage.)
Strongly marked cuts can also contribute a decorative punch. In A Better Tomorrow (1986), Chow is again pinned behind a door, and Woo cuts as he pokes his pistol around the edge.
The burst of that yellow slab in the new shot, counterbalancing the dark red of the earlier one, becomes the pictorial equivalent of a muzzle flash. Wouldn’t you like a bold cut like this in your film?
The pause that refreshes
Choreographer Yuen Bun during the filming of Throw Down (2004).
These are pretty flagrant examples. More commonly, Hong Kong cuts serve to sustain a line of motion or break one off abruptly. Later in the Better Tomorrow gunfight, Chow swivels from one adversary to another, who comes sailing in from above. (Remember: Artifice isn’t bad. And John Woo was an assistant director to Chang Cheh, one of the gurus of the 1970s martial arts cinema. In those movies people fly all the time.)
Woo is famous for using slow motion, but here what prolongs the movement are the cuts. They continue the movement of the thug as he’s hit and starts to fall, but oddly they suspend him in time a bit too.
When he finally descends, the camera pans down with him as he lands on the car. The next shot completes the movement, putting us in the car as his head smashes through the window.
Like the Tiger on Beat sequence, this passage exemplifies what Planet Hong Kong calls the pause/ burst/ pause pattern characteristic of Hong Kong action scenes. In the shots above, the soaring thug enters the first shot 7 frames before the cut. The next two shots run 13 frames and 18 frames. Most interesting is the last shot, the one from inside the car. It lasts 62 frames, making it the longest in the series. 30 of those frames show the thug’s head crashing through the window, but the remaining 32 frames have no movement except for his swaying tie. The sequence has paused for a little more than a second, sealing off this bit of action.
Another editor might have interrupted this last shot while the head was in motion, but the Hong Kong pause/ burst/ pause principle creates a distinct rhythm. A moment of stasis is followed by a stretch of sustained movement, smooth or staccato, building to a peak; then another instant of stasis. This pattern contrasts with the unorganized bustle typical of American films’ sequences.
I think that the Hong Kong tradition has shown what benefits arrive when directors strive to fulfill the first three of my four action tasks. I don’t have time here to go further, but PHK argues that the first three goals form a basis for the fourth—a strong, deeply physical engagement with the action. This need not conform to standards of realism if it galvanizes our eye and accelerates our pulse. What Eisenstein dreamed of, filmmakers in Japan and Hong Kong achieved: a fusillade of cinematic stimuli that pull us into the sheer kinetics of expressive human movement. Through precise staging and cutting and camerawork and sound, these directors offered us not an equivalent for a character’s confusion (we live in that state much of the time) but a galvanic sense of what pure physical mastery feels like.
After writing this blog, I was reading Alex Ross’s fine essay collection Listen to This and came across his essay on Verdi, which in an aside (pp. 198-199) notes the pleasures of OTT unrealism.
Most entertainment appears silly when it is viewed from a distance. Nothing in Verdi is any more implausible than the events of the average Shakespeare play, or, for that matter, of the average Hollywood action picture. The difference is that the conventions of the latter are widely accepted these days, so that if, say, Matt Damon rides a unicycle the wrong way down the Autobahn and kills a squad of Uzbek thugs with a package of Twizzlers, the audience cheers rather than guffaws. The loopier things get, the better. Opera is no different.
14 Amazons (1972).
Planet Hong Kong, in a second edition, is now available as a pdf file. It can be ordered on this page, which gives more information about the new version and reprints the 2000 Preface. I take this opportunity to thank Meg Hamel, who edited and designed the book and put it online.
As a sort of celebration, for a short while I’ll run a daily string of entries about Hong Kong cinema. These go beyond the book in dealing with things I didn’t have a chance to raise in the text. This is the first one. The second, a quick overview of the decline of the industry, is here. The third, on principles of HK action cinema, is here. The fourth, a photo portfolio of HK stars, is here. The following ones deal with western fandom, some Hong Kong directors, and final reflections on film festivals and a list of other intriguing movies. Thanks to Kristin for stepping aside and postponing her entry on 3D.
± 25 classics: A cheat sheet
I have an aversion to list-making (some day I’ll explain), but I’m often asked to recommend Hong Kong movies to people wanting a quick start. So I’m launching this suite of daily entries around Planet Hong Kong by charting some widely recognized high points in this effervescent cinema.
Some items are important for their historical influence, some for their intrinsic quality, some for both. I’m restricting myself to the years after 1960, although there are several influential and powerful films before that (e.g., In the Face of Demolition, 1953). Still, if you want a fair sample of this cinema’s output you must sample these more or less official classics. If the bug bites, you can supplement them with other items that I’ll mention in passing here and in the days to come. Several of these films are discussed in more detail in the book, and most are available on DVD.
The Wild, Wild Rose (1960): Cathay (to use its shortest name) was one of the two major companies of the 1960s and in this brassy show-business drama Grace Chang (Ge Lan) had her defining role as the Carmen of the nightclub scene. Another Grace Chang classic is Mambo Girl (1957), and you can get a sense of the gorgeous star culture of Cathay by seeing her and other top actresses in Sun, Moon, and Star (1961), sort of a Hong Kong Gone with the Wind.
The Love Eterne (1963, above): This adaptation of the “plum-blossom” opera was given lavish treatment by the Shaw Brothers studio, the major studio of the period. Li Han-hsiang’s spectacle of colorful costumes, big studio sets, and gender masquerade won several awards and helped establish Hong Kong films across Asian markets. Li went on to make many other sumptuous costume pictures, as I discuss briefly here and in subsequent entries. This web essay focuses on Shaws’ anamorphic output.
Come Drink with Me (1966): The first Shaw entry in its new martial arts cycle, pioneered by King Hu. In an inn various characters in disguise meet and bluff one another; eventually the woman warrior Golden Swallow takes on all comers. Strictly speaking, King Hu’s other films belong to Taiwanese cinema, but he is one of the greatest of all Chinese directors, so you will naturally want to see Dragon Gate Inn (1967), The Fate of Lee Khan (1973), The Valiant Ones (1975), and his official masterpiece, A Touch of Zen (1971). I give him a fair amount of space in Planet Hong Kong because of his historical importance and his innovations in the aesthetics of action. I talk a little about those innovations here.
Golden Swallow (1968): Shaws’ dominant director from the late 1960s onward, Chang Cheh specialized in films of “staunch masculinity,” martial arts pictures that replaced the female-centered romances and opera films. Golden Swallow shows the woman warrior, the nominal protagonist, muscled aside by a typical brooding Chang hero—Jimmy Wang Yu, acting as if he still nursed a grudge from being The One-Armed Swordsman (1967). Later Chang developed the masculine pairing of Ti Lung and David Chiang Da-wei (Blood Brothers, 1973) and the brawny teamwork of what came to be known in the West as the Five Venoms (as in Invincible Shaolin, 1978).
Fist of Fury (1972): Child star Bruce Lee came home from Hollywood, and his first kung-fu film, The Big Boss (1971), was a sensation. The most influential star in all Hong Kong cinema, Lee stands at the center of his classics; the plots, staging, and shooting simply set off his glowering charisma. Fist of Fury provides a string of archetypal scenes: he wipes the floor of a dojo with its students and master, he kicks to splinters a sign barring Chinese from a park, and he ends his life by hurling himself, shouting, into a hail of bullets. Remade as the no less enjoyable Fist of Legend (1994) with Jet Li.
The House of 72 Tenants (1973): The success of Shaw Brothers’ export-driven Mandarin-language product led to a decline in films made in Cantonese, the local language. (Hong Kong audiences heard Bruce Lee dubbed into Mandarin.) 72 Tenants, based on a popular play, brought back Cantonese cinema in a crowd-pleasing guise. Under the direction of veteran Chor Yuen, the crisscrossed stories of neighbors became an enduring reference point for local cinema—cited again last Lunar New Year in 72 Tenants of Prosperity.
The Private Eyes (1976): Another victory for Cantonese vernacular cinema. The Hui brothers, popular from television, brought their episodic sight-gag comedy to the big screen and were among the biggest stars of the 1970s. There are many classic scenes, including Michael and Sam’s sleight of hand with candies, a shark attack in a kitchen, and a bout of chicken aerobics—plus a weird contagion of neck braces. See also Security Unlimited (1981) and, for fairly daring mockery of Beijing, The Front Page (1990).
The 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1978). As his employer Shaw Studios was fading from the scene, Lau Kar-leung (aka Liu Chia-liang) created in nearly twenty films a virtual encyclopedia of the kung-fu tradition. Any choice among the films is arbitrary (I’ll mention more in a future entry), but let this exuberant display of color, movement, and emotion stand as an outstanding accomplishment. A young man burning with rebellion enters the Shaolin monastery. Through persistence and discipline he achieves the highest distinction and returns to his home town to fight the Manchu oppressors. Featuring the director’s brother Gordon Lau Kar-fai and Lo Lieh, both martial-arts icons.
Young Master (1980): Jackie Chan’s comic kung-fu caught fire in Snake in the Eagle’s Shadow (1978) and Drunken Master (1978). Young Master is a prime instance of his rubbery energy and bottomless masochism. It benefits from extended byplay with Yuen Biao, splendid jumper, and Shek Kin, patriarch of the Hong Kong martial arts movie. Soon Jackie would show both ambition and directorial prowess in Project A (1983), his leap into big budgets and pan-Asian superstardom.
Aces Go Places (1982): The most successful franchise in Hong Kong history was launched by this jaunty action comedy, stuffed with pratfalls and high-tech chases. The buffoonery was carried off by an unruffled Sam Hui Koon-kit and a sprightly Sylvia Chang Ai-chia, not to mention the robots. Any film is improved by robots.
Boat People (1982): Ann Hui On-wah, a practitioner of serious drama for over thirty years, established her reputation in world cinema with this poignant story about a photographer’s discovery of children cast out by war. Her earlier film about Vietnamese refugees, Story of Woo Viet (1981), gave TV actor Chow Yun-fat his first major film role. Another characteristic Hui work is Song of the Exile (1990).
Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983) Which early film by Tsui Hark to choose? The Butterfly Murders (1979) looks forward to his recent Detective Dee; the hectic We’re Going to Eat You (1980) suggests Romero turned loose in China; many critics pick Dangerous Encounter—First Kind (1980), a rough-edged Buñuelian indictment of class differences. With Zu, however, Tsui showed his resolve to update classic genres, in this case the Cantonese swordplay fantasy, using modern technique and special effects—a trend that has continued right up to the recent Storm Warriors (2010). Go here for more thoughts on Tsui.
Police Story (1985): Possibly Jackie Chan’s directorial masterpiece. A rip-roaring auto chase through a hillside shantytown, capped by a runaway bus, would be the climax of any other movie, but here it’s just for openers. The film ends with a fight in a shopping mall that, for precision and visceral impact, deserves to be ranked with the great sequences in film history. More on this scene here.
Peking Opera Blues (1986): The woman warrior’s shining hour, complete with the obligatory cross-dressing. Tsui Hark moves toward historical action/ adventure in a breathless movie that showcases three great beauties: Brigitte Lin Ching-hsia, Sally Yeh, and Cherie Chung Cho-hung.
A Better Tomorrow (1986): The film that defined a generation and cemented Chow Yun-fat’s star stature. John Woo came out of Taiwanese exile to make a film that revived the Chang Cheh spirit of brotherhood, made even more romantically doomed by the idea that Hong Kong was living on borrowed time.
Rouge (1988): A courtesan’s ghost revisits contemporary Hong Kong and finds that no one else is willing to die for love—not even the man who pledged to join her in death. Stanley Kwan Kam-pang’s delicate yet straightforward handling of the plot, refusing all special effects, gives an extra poignancy. Others would suggest Kwan’s Centre Stage (aka Actress, 1992), a biographical study of the great film star Ruan Lingyu.
The Killer (1989): The Chow/ Woo collaboration that brought them to the attention of the West. Often imitated, at home and abroad, the original retains its bold lyricism and outlandish emotion: crime and punishment as (mostly male) melodrama, accompanied by cadenzas of annihilation. To be supplemented by A Better Tomorrow II (1987), Bullet in the Head (1990), and Hard Boiled (1992), all of which brought awed fanboys to their knees.
God of Gamblers (1989): A financial triumph for bad-boy producer/director Wong Jing and the definitive gaming movie for a town that loves a bet. Shamelessly cheesy in its plot mechanisms, surprisingly elegant in its direction, the movie yanks us from laughter to pathos. Plus Chow Yun-fat in a tuxedo. To be seen alongside Stephen Chow Sing-chi’s parody All for the Winner (1990).
Days of Being Wild (1990). Wong Kar-wai’s breakthrough film about young people adrift in the early 1960s. A dazzling array of stars (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing, Maggie Cheung Man-yuk, Andy Lau Tak-wah, et al.) creates a languid movie about the magnetic pull of selfish passion. For many local critics, the most important film of the last thirty years. I discuss a rare alternate version of the film here.
Once Upon a Time in China (1991): Tsui Hark doing Movie Brat revisionism again, this time with the Southern Chinese folk hero Wong Fei-hong. This flamboyant exercise in fervent nationalism ushered Mainland wushu champion Jet Li onto the world stage. If Bruce Lee radiated a cocky sexual energy, this film helped establish Li’s star image as a shy and chaste warrior.
Chungking Express (1994)/ Ashes of Time (1994): A coin-flip. The first showed that Wong Kar-wai could make a movie fast, cheap, and charming. The second showed that a swordplay film could be drenched in romantic longing. Both bristled with audacious storytelling tactics. Chungking spliced two stories together (prefigured in the way characters bump into each other), while Ashes zigzagged and spiraled in time, refusing plot certainties but offering a hypnotic reverie instead. Western critics and fans, notably one Q. Tarantino, sat up and noticed. PHK devotes an entire section to Chungking; go here for more on Ashes of Time.
The Mission (1999): Johnnie To Kei-fung’s stealth classic. Made on a shoestring, shot in less than three weeks (without a developed script), filled with great character actors, this ascetic polar has some of the subtlest plot twists in Hong Kong film. If Kitano Takeshi in his prime had made a Hong Kong film, it might look like this. Of course the mall shootout has become a classic.
Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000): This US-Hong Kong-Taiwan project showed that the world was ready for the wuxia pian, or film of heroic chivalry. CTHD became the top-grossing foreign-language film in U. S. history. The versatile Ang Lee centered the drama on two couples, one young and one older, and their life in the jianghu–that virtual, larger-than-life world of forests and rivers that tests warriors’ righteousness. Lee’s film prodded Zhang Yimou to make the artier Hero (2003), first in a procession of historical dramas that helped revive the Mainland film industry.
In the Mood for Love (2000): Julia Roberts’ favorite movie, I’m told. Revisiting the period and perhaps some of the characters of Days of Being Wild, Wong Kar-wai evokes muffled yearning through averted glances, hidden faces, radiant costumes, and a typically spine-tingling soundtrack. This Cannes prizewinner was given a sequel, 2046 (2004), that is harsher but no less romantic in its commitment to cherishing the past.
Infernal Affairs trilogy (2002-2003): A deliberate effort to break away from the hell-for-leather action film, the IA trio showed that Hong Kong filmmakers could construct a taut, restrained crime plot. The first installment is a compact, efficient suspense exercise, the second a wide-ranging exploration of betrayal, and the third a fairly daring experiment in time-shifting and subjectivity. Many recent crime films have taken their cues from the trilogy’s huge box-office success. Portions were remade as The Departed, and for once it was the Hollywood movie that was overblown (not least the contribution of Mr. Nicholson). I set down some thoughts on the two versions here and here.
Kung Fu Hustle (2004): Stephen Chow purists may consider it a case of comedic elephantiasis, but this big-budget extravaganza is historically significant for winning worldwide distribution and big box-office. Kung Fu Hustle is also packed with engaging CGI-enhanced gags, on every scale from tenement demolition to cobra-smooching. One of the funniest scenes will encourage you not to use the phrase “hair on fire.” The even more inventive Shaolin Soccer (2001) was Chow’s previous step toward making movies at once China-friendly and globally marketable; not for nothing is his company called The Star Overseas.
Later this week I’ll offer a list of other Hong Kong films that I think are worth attention. (So wait until you’ve seen all my picks before writing me to point out titles I’ve omitted here!) And somewhere I’ll try to wedge in some outstanding sequences. This is nothing if not a cinema of rousing set-pieces.
Nearly all the films I mention are available on DVD, with European and American editions usually being of superior quality to Hong Kong editions. Many of the filmmakers mentioned are discussed in other entries on our site; check the Directors category on the right.
In 2005, Chinese critics assembled a list of the 103 best films from the PRC, Taiwan, and Hong Kong. That list can be found here.
PS 3 Feb: Another list of top Chinese films, tilted somewhat toward Taiwan, is here.
A Better Tomorrow (1986).
Perhaps you consider Music and Lyrics (2007) a bit of fluff. Bear with me. Apart from offering an ingratiating parody of 1980s music videos, which at the end gets replayed as a parody of 1990s Pop-Up Video, this movie provides a nice example of a technique that film viewers tend to enjoy.
Alex Fletcher, a has-been pop singer, gets a chance to revive his career by writing a love song for Cora Corman, current goddess of teenyboppers. Alex can dash off a melody but he needs a lyricist. His agent has advised him to try to collaborate with the “very hip, very edgy” Greg Antonsky. Their first meeting doesn’t go well. Greg’s lyrics, rhyming witch and bitch, don’t suit Alex’s more romantic style, and Sophie, Alex’s plant-tender, keeps interjecting sweeter lines. After first eyeing Sophie lecherously, Greg decides she’s a simpleton. He dashes out, condemning Sophie and Alex as sentimental fools: “You people disgust me!”
As written, the character of Greg the lyricist is only mildly funny, but the insert shots of actor Jason Antoon raise the comedy thermostat. With his lowered brow and glaring, slightly unfocused eyes, Greg tries to play the badass, but his aggressiveness comes off as egotistical pettiness.
The cutting relies on single shots of each character, in keeping with today’s style of intensified continuity editing. This ensures that we track every character’s facial expression. When Sophie first interrupts, Greg glares, then lolls his head backward; his time is too important to spend with these losers.
In all, Greg is onscreen for about three minutes, and the plot continues without him.
Eventually, Alex and Sophie break up because Alex is prepared to let Cora turn their song into a sleazy number. The climax comes at Cora’s concert, when Alex appears onstage and sings a tune he composed for Sophie: “Don’t Write Me Off.” At the song’s close, we get a shot of him at the piano followed by several reaction shots in the audience, with Sophie’s close-up favored.
After a backstage reconciliation between Alex and Sophie, the film’s second plotline is resolved. Cora performs the number she asked the team to compose, but it’s played the way Sophie had wanted. The up-tempo melody brings Alex and Cora onstage together and then, as the third verse begins, ties together the secondary characters in a series of reaction shots. We first see an African-American backstage handler, whose vigorous swipe of his arm launches a string of smiling responses.
We get shots of Alex’s agent and his daughter, then Sophie’s brother-in-law and his son, and Sophie’s sister and their kids.
Their responses celebrate both the romantic couple’s success and the sincere emotion that the song elicits. This aura of good feeling is confirmed negatively by one more reaction shot.
It is the sort of satisfying surprise that Hollywood often trades on. After being offscreen and out of mind for eighty minutes, arrogant Greg returns. We didn’t see him come to the concert; we didn’t know he was there; we had likely forgotten he existed.
This shot is agreeable because it keeps Greg’s sourness consistent. A more kindly film would show him smiling begrudgingly, won over by the authentic sweetness of the music. But instead he mimics blowing his brains out and lolls his head back as he did before.
Greg’s appalled reaction to the song confirms our initial judgment of his character and our sense of the song’s unpretentious sincerity.
If you’re like me, this unexpected four-second shot makes you laugh. The director, Marc Lawrence, has followed tradition by including humor in a scene of high sentiment, not diluting the happy tone but reinforcing it. Call it corn, hokum, or tosh; claim that it hits below the belt. I won’t disagree. But the mixture of laughter and sentiment works on us like a reflex. And Greg’s response inoculates the movie against seeming wholly naive or cloying. As so often, Hollywood lets us have things, emotionally speaking, both ways.
This response is accomplished through one of the most powerful weapons in the filmmaker’s arsenal. A director can disarm our emotions through a single reaction shot.
Recoil and reaction
The same sort of dynamic is at work in a less lightweight scene. Everybody remembers the moment in Jaws when Sheriff Brody, scooping chum over the side of the Orca, is taken unawares by the arrival of Bruce the shark, bursting out from the background.
But Spielberg, who understands audience response, follows this nifty shot with a topper. In a reverse-angle framing, Brody’s head snaps into the shot with the abruptness of Wile E. Coyote reacting to the Road Runner.
The sudden thrust and halt of Brody’s head sells his stunned facial expression. Our shock at Bruce’s entrance is joined by our uncontrollable urge to giggle at Brody’s cartoonish trajectory and the sheer stupefaction on his face—not fear yet, but rather a recognition of the sheer enormity of the adversary. From here on, his refrain, “We’re gonna need a bigger boat,” will remind us that unlike his shipmates, he has been very nearly head to head with the Great White.
The reaction shot seems like a simple technique. Doesn’t it just spell out or repeat what’s happening? Sometimes, but not always. As we’ve just noticed, it can let the director layer the effect of a scene. Once an action has gained a particular emotional coloring, the reaction shot can add a different tint. The romantic exhilaration of the song in Music and Lyrics is heightened by Greg’s bad-natured gaping. Bruce’s fearsome movement forward is balanced by Brody’s recoil and his comically fixed stare into space.
And sometimes the layering and balancing can take place within the reaction itself. In John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow, Mark Lee enters a restaurant and pretends to be playfully feeling up a woman in the corridor. But he’s actually planning to kill a gangland leader, who’s partying in a room off right. First shot: Mark looks winsomely off after the retreating woman. Cut to the leader celebrating.
We might expect that the return to Mark will show his fake expression fade into a sincere one. Instead, Woo simply shows a new expression on Mark’s face as he listens to the party offscreen right.
Eisenstein admired Asian theatre for its “acting without transitions”; here the brief shot of the gangster eliminates the emotional transition taking place on Chow Yun-fat’s face. Mark’s determination is all the more forceful for being so abruptly presented, as if a mask has simply fallen away.
Mirrors like big faces
Prototypically, the reaction shot shows a face expressing emotion. The technique trades on our ability to grasp expressions, often very quickly. We’ve perfected this skill since birth, and there’s evidence that newborns are pre-wired to detect and respond to certain expressions, especially from mom. Exposure to actual expressions in their daily lives allows children to refine and tune this proclivity. So one part of the reaction-shot technique is a very well-practiced skill that cinema has exploited.
Some recent findings in neuroscience suggest that reactions portrayed onscreen can arouse us deeply. Back in 1995, researchers observed that one sort of nerve cell was activated in a macaque monkey’s brain when the monkey reached for a peanut. No surprise there, since that cortical area is known to be a region involved in planning and initiating bodily movements. But researchers noticed that the same cells fired when the macaque watched another monkey reach for a peanut. Soon researchers were finding clusters of these “mirror neurons” in human beings, strongly suggesting that when we see someone do something, our brain responds as if we were doing it ourselves.
Since facial expressions involve stretching and relaxing facial muscles, it’s possible that mirror neurons play a role in arousing empathy. The mere sight of someone smiling or frowning can trigger some of the same neural events as when we smile or frown ourselves. We’ve all experienced a sort of “motor mimicry” when a radiant smile makes us involuntarily smile too. In one set of experiments, neuroscientists found that people’s mirror neurons responded the same way to film shots of disgusted faces as they did to disgusting smells in real life. Reaction shots may gain their strength from not merely our ability to understand facial expressions but the power of facial expressions to trigger in us an echo of the emotion displayed. With a string of shots of smiling faces, as in the Music and Lyrics concert, our own impulse to smile would have to be put down by force of will.
Of course, characters can display their reactions onscreen without being shown in reaction shots in the modern sense. Many films of the earliest years portray the actors in a long-shot framing of the entire action. Realizing that our eyes will turn to areas of high information content like hands and faces, directors often staged and lit the action for easier pickup of the faces. You can see examples of that in this and this earlier entry.
But the reaction shot as such implies cutting, either breaking down the scene through analytical editing or building up a scene from details (so-called constructive editing). In the 1910s, directors began systematically creating a scene from separate shots. (For more on this development, go here and here.) In this approach, particularly as practiced in Hollywood, a person’s facial expression could become part of an ongoing suite of shots, each concentrating on one item of information. Thanks to cutting, the facial reaction could be underscored, sharpened, and timed for best effect. The suddenness of the cuts to reactions in Music and Lyrics and Jaws is central to their effect.
A reaction shot need not be a close-up, and it need not show only one person. One of the funniest reaction shots in cinema, I think, occurs in The Producers, when Brooks cuts from the “Springtime for Hitler” number to the audience’s frozen, slack-jawed response. This long-shot framing suggests that we should think of the reaction shot as a functional category; it’s a role that various types of shots can fulfill.
Still, the development of the close-up as a technique is tied its function of showing responses. In silent cinema the people’s faces, reacting to the flow of story action, are providing a continual measure of the characters’ states of knowledge and feeling. Entire scenes could be played out as a string of intercut reaction shots, as Kuleshov proved in theory and the Americans showed in practice. In Dreyer’s La Passion de Jeanne d’Arc, as above, the reaction shot is virtually the dominant technique. And point-of-view cutting patterns integrated the isolated close-up reaction shot with images showing what the character was seeing.
With the emergence of sound cinema, you could argue, the reaction shot was briefly demoted. In early talkies, scenes were played in wider shots, and cut-in reactions could, in the hands of inept directors, seem brusque interruptions. But fairly quickly the reaction shot returned, usually as a stressed moment in a scene built out of more distant and neutral framings. Nowadays, with directors using fewer ensemble shots and disinclined to frame actors in prolonged, balanced two-shots, the reaction shot has retained its place in popular moviemaking.
Apart from registering a character’s response, the reaction shot also offers a broader take on the action. Noël Carroll has suggested that the reaction shot can steer us toward the proper way we should construe the whole fictional world we’re witnessing.
For instance, both fantasy fictions and horror stories feature monstrous beings. But in fantasy a troll or griffin might be benevolent. In large part, the way we construe the monster will depend on how the other characters respond. If the hero or heroine looks kindly upon the creature, as in The Golden Compass or Pan’s Labyrinth, then we know we’re not supposed to be horrified. Carroll explains:
A creature like Chewbacca in the space opera Star Wars is just one of the guys, though a creature gotten up in the same wolf outfit, in a film like The Howling, would be regarded with utter revulsion by the human characters. (1)
Reaction shots instruct us in how to respond to the fictional world as a whole.
So robust is the reaction shot that it can stand on its own, if it gets a bit of help from context. In The Third Man, Holly Martins has been trying to defend his old pal Harry Lime from accusations of crooked dealing. When Holly visits a hospital ward, however, he sees what Harry’s bogus penicillin has done to babies. But we don’t; director Carol Reed shows us only Holly’s dispirited reaction.
As Clive James puts it:
The movie’s whole moral structure pivots on that one point. Unless we are convinced that the two men are seeing horrors, there would be no justification for Holly Martins’ delivering the coup de grace to his erstwhile friend.
A chase through feral eyes
Reaction shots can modulate across a scene, as the characters’ feelings change. But I’m also impressed by the way a scene can build emotion by developing from flat, affectless reaction shots to more intense ones. A good example is the long climactic highway chase in Road Warrior.
The outlaw gang is pursuing a tanker truck they think is full of gasoline, while Max, the Feral Kid, and a few warriors ride the monster truck. The scene’s stunts, acrobatics, and vehicular mayhem are impressive, but these qualities have been replicated in a lot of movies. What gives the Road Warrior scene a special pungency are the many reaction shots of the characters mounted on the truck. For the most part we’re aligned with them both physically and emotionally, and we are allowed to share their moment-by-moment reactions to each turn of events.
Early in the sequence, when the tanker team knocks out some pursuers, we get unequivocal reactions of jubilation.
But as the marauding gang gains control of the tanker, the reactions of the team turn to glum, nervously comic dismay.
The scene’s emotional graph is traced most thoroughly in the reactions of the Feral Kid. Throughout most of the film he has two expressions—neutral and fierce. Clinging to the side of the truck, he watches the steady progress of the pursuers with mild apprehension. If he started to shriek with fear now, the scene would have nowhere to build to. I think that we’re inclined to read his expressions as signs of his characteristic stoicism.
But when Max starts to dispatch gang members with his shotgun, the Kid lets out a hoot of pleasure. At one point a thug sends an arrow into the cab. No emotional response from Max or the Kid.
Max blows the thug off the roof of the cab. The kid crows.
The Kid’s laugh licenses us to laugh too—at the businesslike crispness of Max’s response and at the sheer infectiousness of the Kid’s admiration. (Our mirror neurons are presumably working overtime.)
The next phase in the arc comes when Max orders the Kid to crawl out onto the truck hood to retrieve the shells. Now the boy’s expression becomes cautious and a little fearful.
He sprawls on the hood and grabs the shells. At that moment Wez pops up, clinging to the front grille, and we get two lunging reaction shots.
If the Feral Kid had shrieked earlier in the scene, these cuts would have less impact. The high point of the drama is matched by the fact that finally, something has happened to scare the bejesus out of this boy. Even Max has lost his cool, wrenching the wheel ferociously.
Soon, in another laugh-inducing reaction, Wez realizes that he is point man in the crash that is soon to come.
You couldn’t ask for a better example of how reaction shots can be more than a one-off tactic. In Music and Lyrics, the quick insert of Greg gave a little jab to the scene. In Road Warrior, the Feral Kid’s changing reactions add an emotional curve to the progression of the chase. Without him, the scene would lack a whole layer of feeling.
There’s much more to say about the reaction shot. We’d want as well to talk about films that withhold information about characters’ reactions—by using enigmatic or ambiguous reaction shots, or by eliminating reaction shots altogether. (Think Antonioni, Hou, Angelopoulos, Tarr, and others.) Maybe I’ll take those matters up in another entry. For now, let’s salute one of the most enjoyable and arousing dimensions of cinematic storytelling. It only seems simple.
(1) Noël Carroll, The Philosophy of Horror; or, Paradoxes of the Heart (New York: Routledge, 1990), 16.