Thursday, July 10, 2008

Jing Wong's Naked Genres

A screenwriter with titles like Fight Back to School, Death Mask of the Ninja, Evil Cat, I'm Your Birthday Cake! has little to answer for, come judgment day.

I don't mean films, necessarily, but film titles. What sort of a Hong Kong film workhorse has a career that spans such variety of titles over three decades?

Jing Wong is your workhorse.

Granted, a lot of funny titles come from rough translations. The variety of output they convey is simply delicious though: action-comedies with HK talent like Stephen "Kung Fu Hustle" Chow (Fight Back to School), Jet Li (The Enforcer) and Jackie Chan (City Hunter) that occasionally become series (God of Gamblers), vintage Ghostbusters knockoffs of the 80s (Ghost Fever, Ghost Snatchers), sex comedies (Sex and the Beauties, Boys Are Easy,) yakuza flicks (Cheap Killers, A True Mob Story, etc) and even goofy family stuff with titles like Spy Dad and Dating a Vampire.

He acts, he writes, he directs. Anything. Some HK filmmakers apparently get to live filmmaker's life like one-man-band auteurs while working their asses off on whatever the next assignment's genre may be....

Being a hired gun for any and all types of movie has gotta warp your perception a little. Thinking about Quentin Tarantino this past week for the podcast, it occurred to me that the whimsical relationship his first three films had with their audiences is partially born of a schizo viewpoint into a movie world where anything can happen at any time as long as ACTION AND DRAMA result. Guns must be fired, banana peels must be slipped on, good is righteous and evil is horrific. There are extremes at play. This is why we go to the movies.

The variety of moods that are created by skillful variety of extremes take great precision to juggle. Hence the classic ad line from when Hollywood used to give a damn about the potential of the medium: You'll LAUGH! You'll CRY!

There's something about the number of endearing classic-status films which can do the mood juggle that is quite sobering: Wizard of Oz, Citizen Kane, Lawrence of Arabia, Jaws, Blue Velvet...even non-respectable genre fare like Dawn of the Dead...they don't just do many things well, they practically make up their own rules by being funny or scary or sad as the story requires. There's no one category for any of them, unless it's horror, but at this point most people expect horror movies to make them laugh a little too.

It's easy to remember the praise lavished upon Pulp Fiction for the fact you laughed with the hitmen before they became intimidating and scary in the very next scene. The engaged relationship to the audience that film possessed has been replaced by a more snarky and contemptuous self-awareness with Kill Bill.

At some point after the mid-80s, Troma's Lloyd Kaufman coined the monkier "Movies of the Future" for his company based largely on the fact Troma embraced genre-mixing chaos with The Toxic Avenger and Class of Nuke'em High.

Watching more Korean films as of late it occurs to me that the Asian film industries have for the most part excelled at creating pure entertainment devoid of filler and formula. The juggling occurs in different ways. Korean studio films sometimes embrace the juggling head-on, as in the popular Mr Vengeance trilogy of Chan-Wook Park. Like Kill Bill there is all manner of outrageousness, and not at the jokey expense of the story and characters' integrity.

Mostly, however, the shifts in tone come during the last act, as in the college sex comedy Sex is Zero which eventually, naturally turns dramatic and bittersweet. Usually such a shift is the result of bad screenwriting. When done right, it's all the more compelling.

Japanese auteur Takashi Miike's films have baffled and delighted audiences in Asia and America by seemingly embracing the cognitive dissonance of Asian 'sploitation...from the shocking conclusion of Audition to the assertively irreverent conclusion of Dead or Alive to the schizo superhero/gore oscillations of Ichi the Killer to the fantastical extremes of dysfunctional family behavior in Visitor Q and Happiness of the Katakuris.

Jing Wong's Naked Killer sounds on paper like a knockoff of Basic Instinct from the same year, but only a couple scenes are expended on any kind of imitation. The film's framework is textbook "Erotic Thriller," the type becoming more prevalent on Skinemax late night cable and starring classy ladies like Shannon Tweed...Stuff like this...

Naked Killer didn't directly influence the subgenre, instead it morphs the story of a cop in love with a bisexual femme fatale into a kung-fu comedy while retaining the erotically charged psychodrama. And Jing Wong isn't done making the most of the premise yet - what's better than ONE bisexual femme fatale assassin? A whole cadre of them, natch, overseen by a benevolent mistress Queen Bee assassin.

(fan made trailer, hence the Kill Bill theme)

Being an HK film, the deadly ladies aren't just axe murderesses or crack shots with firearms, they're freakin' backflipping ninjas!

The most striking aesthetic are the COLORS applied to the women of the film, straight out of the late 80s / early 90s fashion for bright primaries, and gaudy neons. Combined with the slanted angles you've got an immediately more exciting look and feel than the drab, serious monotonousness of any American "erotic thriller."

Wong's approach to the erotic thrills of titular naked killings and action makes the material kinetic, which feels far more congruous to the idea of a guilty pleasure escapist fantasy. Again, the Troma aesthetic. Be classy or don't.

Okay, the skillfulness of the filmmakers can't help but add some class. Trashy class, like, um, Sharon Stone in Basic Instinct. Except not taking the femme fatale idea so drearily deadly seriously...

Take for example a scene in which our heroine, now being trained by the aforementioned Queen Bee to become a deadly seductive assassin, locks the Queen Bee into a basement with two slobbering sex-starved men in chains. This is in revenge for the harsh training she's been going through. So what does Queen Bee do? Seduces the men into submission by showing some leg and then dispatching them.

Another scene that summarizes the film's logic concisely comes earlier, when the film's hero - a cop in love with our assassin girl - encounters her for the first time stabbing a guy's nuts out on the set of a soap opera because her boyfriend just kicked her to the ground for becoming pregnant.

So he chases her outside onto some steps, but with memories of the stabbed nuts fresh in his mind he has to stop and vomit. The girl stops running and strikes up a conversation with him, since he's incapacitated.

All within the template of a renagade-cop-pursuing-a-femme-fatale story! There's so much you can do with any concept if you only try.

But most American trash, and mainstream American entertainment that cribs from trash, does it half-assed because the crew and cast would rather be doing something classier.

Content does not dictate form. What I'm saying is you should see this one for yourself.

Next post: The pseudo-sequel, and it's direct sequel, some more on Jing Wong and LOTS of RAPE. Be warned.

No comments: