Thursday, July 23, 2009

"Angel's, I want you to go undercover..."

"Once upon a time, there were three little girls who went to the police academy. And they were each assigned very hazardous duty. But I took them away from all that, and now they work for me."

"My name is Bond. Just Bond"

And these are Bond's Angels.

Chung Wing, Annabelle Lee Hiu-tung, Wong Kit-ying confront a bad man in CRIMINALS

While many fans of the glory days of Hong Kong cinema were, by 1999, bemoaning its dwindling post-handover output and all but writing it off in favour of the latest fads from Korea or Mainland China, someone was making sure the gap between the golden age and the modest resurgence we've been enjoying these past few years was being filled.

Mind you, he filled it with shit, but he still filled it.

His name was Jacky Wong (or as he was more popularly known in the credits of his movies, Jacky Wong), and it was no doubt due in large part to his money, as well as his company, Winners' Workshop, that the HKMDB lists over 40 productions (including plenty of Category III goodies) on which he served as presenter. ALL OF THEM IN 1999! And the HKMDB is still missing several titles from his resume. I know. I see scores of them whilst fumbling through the dump bins.

I suppose this is where I come in. An inveterate and unrepentant bottom feeder when it comes to Hong Kong cinema (or any cinema for that matter, as this blog has likely proven to the three people who read it), I'm all too content to rifle through boxes of two dollar VCDs in Toronto's many Chinese media shops while most normal online Hong Kong cinema buffs are heartily debating the aspect ratios and audio restorations done on the 32nd DVD release of Jackie Chan's POLICE STORY.

Well, I found a different kind of police story. Eight of them, in fact. Which brings us to Jacky Wong's BOND'S ANGELS series. A series most people probably never knew was an actual series, if they even knew about it at all.

Simon Loui, one of the most reliable character actors in Hong Kong cinema for many years, proves himself ever the trooper when flanked by his inexperienced co-stars in WHO'S THE ASSASSIN. It's thanks in large part to the then-ongoing efforts of Loui and his hard-working compatriots that the Hong Kong industry survived the lean years from 1999 to 2004, wherein bottom-of-the-barrel productions like these kept a lot of people gainfully employed. These movies are generally dreadful, it's true, but their importance should not be overlooked.

I've had the first entry, SWORD OF DAMOCLES since its VCD debut back in late '99 (from whence springs the first review below). It's not a very good film, and was hardly worth the eight bucks I paid for it. In the years 'twixt then and now, I'd seen the same cast on a handful of very similarly-designed VCD sleeves, but the thought of spending another $56 to complete this possible series was a handy deterrent. But thanks to the good folks at the Wa Yi Trading Co. stores (one downtown, two up north), and their continuing divestiture of old VCD's at rock bottom prices, I've managed to complete the set for the grand total of about $16.

Anyone who's seen even one of these pictures would probably tell me that I paid about $15 too much. I don't know; the series kinda grew on me after awhile, I actually started to care about these girls—especially when spunky Kaka got her leg caught in a bear trap, poor thing—and while I'd rate none of 'em higher than a 3 out of 10 (see below) there's a certain wistful feeling that were it not for the heroic efforts of people like Jacky Wong and his brethren who pumped out shot-on-video product like there was no tomorrow for a good three or four years while Hong Kong cinema was on the verge of extinction, we might not have Hong Kong cinema at all today.

Alright, perhaps that's a bit too wistful—and deluded—but since no website I can find (including the venerable HKMDB or the Hong Kong Film Archive!) has bothered to attach a chronology to all the pieces of the Jacky Wong filmography, I decided to do at least some of the dirty work myself.

And while this series may not have generated a best-selling Farrah Fawcett style nipple poster, or changed the way girls feather their hair, it's not without some merit. Some, I said.

Let's start with...

A SWORD OF DAMOCLES (1999) First of far too many Bond’s Angels video features, a largely interminable collection of straight detective stories from Winners’ Workshop, a prolific outfit better known for an seemingly endless stream of shamelessly padded Category III sex flicks that appear to exist for few reasons beyond providing employment to washed-up 80’s directors and uninhibited starlets of dubious talent, and steady product for a recently-re-opened chain of former porn houses in Hong Kong. In shifting gears for an audience that doesn’t wear trenchcoats, however, the company has divested itself of the only thing worth watching in most of its movies to date: gratuitous female skin, thus making their trademark padding all the more unbearable, even as the production methods have taken a turn for the (slightly) better. When the prized Holy Spirit Sword is nicked from a Hong Kong auction house by thieves working for power-hungry businessman Wong Tin-dok, the security chief assigns its retrieval to Simon Loui’s newly opened private detection agency, consisting of himself and three “Angels,” sporty and sassy Kei-kei (Chung Wing), brainy and sensible Ley-kwan (Annabelle Lee) and bouncy and ditzy Yuk-yee (Wong Kit-ying), who soon uncover a plot—through a laughable amount of intuition and following people around—by the businessman’s aide (Ng Shui-ting) to copy the sword for fun and profit. But the sword has a habit of empowering the worst in those who possess it, causing the audience to view them through green and red filters as they thrust their arms skyward, mad with power. The real saving grace here, (as in the myriad sequels) is the sense of immediacy (not to mention history unaffected by artifice) afforded by shooting virtually without a budget on the real-time streets of Hong Kong in plain view of hundreds of passers-by! Written by the director. Followed by BLOODY LIE. 2.

BLOODY LIE (1999) When his cousin is charged with the murder of a PR girl, Bond (Simon Loui) entrusts his detective Angels (Chung Wing, Annabelle Lee and Wong Kit-ying) to hound a pair of likely suspects—a wealthy playboy (Raymond Cho) and a dirty cop—using their uncanny powers of conjecture, post-hoc reasoning and following suspects around in a conspicuous manner for very long stretches of time. To justify the title, there’s a lie detector scene in this film that runs over twenty-two minutes and extablishes virtually nothing, broken only by a brief sequence of the girls eating lunch and frolicking. By the time the girls are allowed to administer yet another lie detector test to a suspect, and Kiki (Chung Wing) whips out a gun to extract the truth—in a police station!—you’ll be hoping this might be the last Bond’s Angel’s film. But you’d be wrong. Followed by BEWARE OF THE STRIPTEASE. 1.

BEWARE OF THE STRIPTEASE (1999) Evidentally sensing that we needed them after trudging through BLOODY LIE, the Bond’s Angels are back! Resigning from the agency after boss Bond (Simon Loui) notes her gullability in a performance appraisal, private dickette Kiki (Chung Wing) takes a freelance gig searching for the runaway daughter of a successful clothier who bears an uncanny resemblance to the ex-boyfriend who ate a slug from then-rookie-cop Kiki’s pistol after he kicked her around and caused her to miscarry their baby when the then she wouldn’t hush-hush his daddy’s weapons dealing. Surprisingly, it turns out he’s not the same guy—not by a long shot—but it takes the diligent efforts of old pals Ley-kwan (Annabelle Liu) and Yuk-yee (Wong Kit-ying) to convince her that this case goes far beyond a missing teenager. OK entry in the series is typically high on needless exposition and scenes of people walking around, and low on action until the kung-fu finale, but maintains just enough momentum to sustain interest for fans of this kind of video junk. Climactic character twist involving one of the villains is a silly surprise. Incidentally, the “striptease” of the title is largely justified by an unconvincing mash-up of footage with which the director tries to convince us that Kiki is getting loaded in a striptease joing while a caucasian peeler works it onstage. Followed by CRIMINALS. 2.

CRIMINALS (1999) Tasked with finding a politician’s stolen car, Bond’s Angels face a dramatic conflict of interest when boychaser Yuk-yee (Wong Kit-ying) unknowingly falls in love with a key player in the auto theft ring, a suave hood (Teddy Lin) with Ekin Cheng hair on a desperate, murderous climb to the top. Perhaps sensing a dwindling interest in this generally plodding series, production company Winners’ Workshop have paid more attention to the details in this passably suspenseful installment (though they still skimp on the action). The screenplay, for once, holds up reasonably well to scrutiny and thankfully doesn’t require two thirds of the movie to be needless padding, while Wong’s flaky Yuk-yee gets the most shading of any character in the series to date. The cliffhanger ending is also an inspired touch. Followed by WHO’S THE ASSASSIN. 3.

In this scene from WHO'S THE ASSASSIN, the new Bond's Angels extract information from really-super-nice-guy Mr. Ting, played by one of Hong Kong's most venerable players of hissable villainy Karel Wong, whose very presence playing a nice guy in any film should qualify as a spoiler. Notice the deft handling of Wong's lengthy, complicated expository dialogue in this scene.

WHO’S THE ASSASSIN (1999) With one of Bond’s Angels shockingly blown to pieces at the end of CRIMINALS, and Lei-kwan (Annabelle Lee) packed off to the U.S. for cervical cancer treatment in the first few minutes of this followup, ace detective Bond (Simon Loui) pairs insolent, hot-headed Yuk-yee (Wong Kit-ying) with Lei-kwan’s newly-arrived sister Tse-kwan (Miu Yin-wai) to solve the murder that climaxed the previous episode, while new hire Kaka (Cheng Chi-hung), Bond’s niece, gets tangled up with adulterous college flame Marco (Karel Wong), who may very well be the playboy psycho behind the recent murders of two women. Think these two plots will cross? Replacing two main characters in any series is no easy feat, even in no-budget dreck like the Bond’s Angels franchise, but if nothing else, the producers took pains to equalize the range of acting talent across the lead roles—they all suck about the same now, but each deserves at least a few points for trying their best under such catchpenny circumstances. Modest creative gains made in the previous film, and the potential for clever twists, are squandered: in the end, the killer is exactly who you figure it will be despite hoping that the filmmakers have been toying with red herrings along the way. Followed by CRUEL ZONE. 1.

CRUEL ZONE (1999) After countless entries, the Bond’s Angels series finally puts its heroines through the wringer in this followup to WHO’S THE ASSASSIN, the next entry after NUCLEAR WEAPON. Mind you, it’s still a dull slog, but it’s a marginal improvement over many previous installments. Ace detective Bond (Simon Loui), who’s done virtually no detecting of any kind in the series so far, sends the new Angels (Wong Kit-ying, Miu Yin-wai, Cheng Chi-hung) to look after a buddy’s flat on Lantau Island by convincing them it’s a resort vacation (!). Right around the time that Kaka (Cheng) gets her leg caught in a bear trap, it becomes apparent that not only are the locals a wee bit strange, but a psychopath has targeted the Angels because a) Tse-kwan’s sister Lei-kwan put his sister behind bars in BLOODY LIE and b) his wife ran off with a private detective, so he’s just got this thing against private detectives, and he’s selected Tse-kwan as the subject of several days’ torture around the island! Like all of its predecessors, CRUEL ZONE is half-baked with four parts padding to one part plot, and the villain’s plan relies almost entirely on dumb luck, though considering the sleuthing abilities of these gals, that arguably makes it a very clever plan. Followed by CYBER WAR. 2.

In their seventh film, CYBER WAR, Bond's Angels are finally given the opportunity to kick around a few bad guys. With choreography even!

CYBER WAR (1999) Still dazed from her experience in CRUEL ZONE, Angel detective Tse-kwan (Miu Yin-wai) decides its time to head back to the states for some rest. With little work and one less friend in her dayplanner, man-bait Yuk-yee (Wong Kit-ying), suddenly cognizant of how coddled she was by her former colleagues, decides to get involved with computers, ultimately joining a handsome techie (Edward Mok) on a visit to a Beijing computer expo, where the momentary loss of her passport puts her on the FBI’s most-wanted list back in Hong Kong! Now Kaka (Cheng Chi-hung), and Tse-kwan, who just couldn’t stay away for long, must help clear Yuk-yee’s name, which, since the Bond’s Angels series is as cheap in its seventh installment as it was in its first, means plenty of soundless scenes of the girls asking actual strangers for directions (or the time!) in the hopes we’ll be convinced this is anything like an actual investigation! Ranks with CRIMINALS and CRUEL ZONE as one of the better entries in this generally ridiculous series, but that’s not saying much. 2.

NUCLEAR WEAPON (1999) Somebody’s blowin’ up stuff all over the city, and that puts Bond’s Angels on the trail—to love! In this followup to CYBER WAR, Yuk-yee (Wong Kit-ying) swoons for the bumpkin-ish pal of her mainland cousin, while Ka-ka (Cheng Chi-hung) romances an athletic stranger who bumps into her on the street, and Tse-kwan (Miu Yin-wai), ever the sensitive one since her misadventure in CRUEL ZONE, becomes infatuated with . . . the bomber! But it’s cool; he’s a repentent type who’s really being menaced by the man who taught him bomb-making to take revenge on the police for jailing his father years earlier on a trumped-up explosives charge. The Bond’s Angels series goes out on a comparitive high note in this modestly suspenseful (if typically contrived) installment, and finds an ideal Special Guest Star in Chan Kwok-bong as the bomber with a conscious (and a few surprises for the girls). He’s easily the most fully-realized character the series has ever produced, and his presence has a noticeable effect on all three leading ladies. Still, this is probably best enjoyed if you’ve somehow managed to survive the first seven features. 3.

Sunday, July 19, 2009

DANCE DANCE (Korea; 1999)

D: Moon Seong-wook

Korea's film industry was by the autumn of 1999 taking toddler steps toward the Great Renaissance, but domestic audiences still had to contend with the kind of bland, clich├ęd, low-calorie snack films that Chungmuro had been cranking out for years, movies which all but dared viewers to spend their entertainment money on flashier import fare. DANCE DANCE is just such a film, a warmly-photographed, "feel-good" underdog dance musical fronted by two attractive leads (Whang In-yeong, Yang Dong-kun) who unfortunately don't dance very well, or act very well. Whang's an almost-pro dancer uncertain of her desire to attend school overseas; Yang's a hunky med student who simply must dance after witnessing one of her solo workouts. Her motley crew of dance schoolmates want to make a name for themselves. And, uhh, that's about it. There's no tension here because there's virtually no spark between these two pretty people from different worlds, and neither of them does anything--alone or together--that helps or hinders the fortunes of the collective, except for Whang's brief run-in with a lecherous out-of-town concert promoter that costs them a gig, a subplot which lasts all of 25 seconds. By Korean standards, this is remarkably free of melodrama, which is not a good thing in any film about people with a burning passion.

There is plenty of dancing in the film—14 sequences by my count (training, rehearsals and performances), with at least six of those blended into maudlin montage sequences. Whang's a beautiful woman, a weak actress and a game, if ungraceful, dancer; in the larger group dance sequences, she's often positioned off to one side in the foreground, shot from the chest up, or stationed rather obviously in the back row, the better to disguise her shortcomings. The climactic, multi-group dance performance is primo stuff because the supporting players and extras get to strut their very real stuff, but it's capped with a spectacular and well-choreographed full-group hip-hop roof-raiser for which gruelling rehearsal is implied by its intricate and effortless nature but never seen throughout the film. At the same time, the sequence is gestational evidence of the Korean B-Boy movement that would erupt only a few years later. Worth seeing for this sequence alone, but otherwise, an utterly forgettable film from the year that Korean cinema issued its primal cinematic shout-out to the world.