Monday, November 10, 2014

The Love Parade

Double Team (1997)
directed by Tsui Hark
rating: 2 out of 5 cravats
on DVD from Netflix

Green Snake (1993)
directed by Tsui Hark
rating: 4 out of 5 cravats
watched on YouTube

Shanghai Blues (1984)
directed by Tsui Hark
rating: 3 out of 5 cravats
watched on YouTube

"How much can you actually change a film in five days?"

"We can actually recut the film entirely."

Tsui Hark has spoken of his editing style as a response to pre-release midnight screenings of his movies in Hong Kong, suggesting that nervous anticipation of a negative audience reaction ("They would yell, scream, throw chairs, stuff like that") results in frenetic films. Whether or not that's true, and as much as I love imagining A-list Hollywood talent editing pictures in fear of physical retaliation, I respect a director who plays fast and loose with final cuts. For one reason, it underscores the collaborative, sometimes absurdist nature of telling the story of, say, an anti-terrorist agent forced to fight a shirtless Mickey Rourke and an angry tiger in a mined Roman amphitheater.

In 1986, Hark funded A Better Tomorrow, the film that brought John Woo international acclaim, resulting in his eventual emigration to the United States to direct Jean-Claude Van Damme in Hard Target. Double Team was Hark's American directorial debut and also stars Van Damme, although of course any movie with Mickey Rourke is Mickey Rourke's movie to lose. Van Damme is not my favorite action star but he can move with a physical grace that he is not asked to demonstrate here (as when working out in his room with a claw-foot bathtub overflowing with water). He is confined to that room when Double Team detours for half an hour into the plot of No Escape.

All of that sounds like fun, and generally is, but without any of the lightness that characterizes either Green Snake or Shanghai Blues. Every door frame or floor or swimming pool is booby-trapped in Double Team and everyone is always armed to the teeth with automatic pistols and laser sights. Poor Rourke is barely ever allowed to crack that gentle smile. There is only one woman in Double Team with anything to do, and once she gives birth, her son replaces her at the center of the antagonist's fruitless plot.

Shanghai Blues and Green Snake both excel in the portrayal of friendship between female characters; the first is a romantic comedy and the second a subversive fantasy film. The prominent male characters in Green Snake--monks and scholars--see only themselves at the centers of their respective worlds and, being men, call down destruction and embarrassment before admitting the many ways they are wrong. They are funny characters, full of life, but ultimately buffoons, wholly undeserving of the two sisters who take it upon themselves to experience human love after centuries of living as spirits.

As in Double Team, editing choices come out of nowhere but feel exuberant in the context of a romantic mood. Shanghai Blues is nearly slapstick, as in one scene where the male protagonist interrupts a pickpocket while playing the tuba before being robbed in turn. There is color and fog machine effects to spare in Green Snake and Shanghai Blues, as if that and not a tiger, not guns, were all you needed. Van Damme practiced ballet for five years and surely, in another universe, there's a midnight Hong Kong screening where Double Team looks a little like Barfly and the audience leaves the theater in happy tears.