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The thoughts of an American expat in Hong Kong living on an "underlying island"

So during my first trip to Hong Kong not so many moons ago, I browsed through the video shops of Causeway Bay and picked up 3 fairly current movies that had received good reviews. Shaolin Soccer, Infernal Affairs and The Eye.

Shaolin Soccer, one of Stephen Chiau's goofball comedies, went through a torturous path to reach American screens. Unfortunately, a path that is all too common for Hong Kong films, including massive cuts and redubbings to accomodate attention-deficit Americans.

Infernal Affairs was recently nominated for Best Picture and Best Director at the Academy Awards. Oh wait, no it wasn't. Martin Scorsese's The Departed was nominated for these awards, even though it's clearly an inferior product to the original.

This interview with Christopher Doyle, renowned Hong Kong cinematographer and visual consultant for Infernal Affairs, talks about Hong Kong cinema and Hollywood.

If you have something to say, then people will listen. If you have nothing to say, then you make or remake Shrek 3. [laughs his hyena laugh] Or, as in America, you buy the rights to all these wonderful Asian films because we've run out of ideas. Hello! Ha-hah! We've run out of ideas so, "Fucking hell, how come they have all these very interesting stories? Let's buy them!" And then you put it on a shelf and you don't know what to do with it and then you don't realize until the Beijing Olympics in 2008 how far Asia has gone, and then you say, [whispering] "Fucking hell."

...

Tarantino is the perfect metaphor for the West: Appropriation, references. It's articulate in its own way but it's chop suey. [laughs]

That's a jerk-off. As well as it works, it's still a jerk-off. It's still an intellectual conceit, as pedestrian as he tries to pretend it is, as working class as he tries to pretend he is.

Which brings me to news about the third of the three films I bought not so many moons ago, The Eye. It just came across my rss reader that Tom Cruise has hired Jessica Alba to star in his remake of The Eye. I've got nothing against Jessica Alba, but Tom Cruise remaking this movie scares me.

The Eye is a horror/supernatural movie from the Pang Brothers. A blind girl receives eye transplants and can see again. Unfortunately for her, the eyes come along with the ability to see ghosts. Having been blind, she doesn't realise that everybody else can't see the ghosts as well. The rest of the story deals with the very Chinese concept of ghosts and their restlessness due to the manner of their deaths or burial and how to satisfy them in order for them to find peace (and hopefully de-supernatural the eyes).

I doubt Tom Cruise's ability to understand the underlying theme of bringing peace to the unresting dead. Though even scarier is having a man who sees invisible aliens as an important part of his life handling a movie about a woman gaining the ability to see invisible ghosts. This could go from being a remake of a decent, visually slick, supernatural film to being a chicken real fast (and no, I don't mean a Golden Chicken.).

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There seems to be some movie back in the States making a big stir. Hasn't opened here, but a movie did open here with its own brand of social commentary. McDull, Prince de la Bun (Mak Dau, BoloYao WongZi)

13 years ago Alice Mak and Brian Tse created comics featuring McMug and friends, cartoon animals living and roaming Hong Kong. Despite McMug being the center character of the comics, eventually the favourite character became McDull. Last week in SCMP there was an interview with Alice Mak, where she described McDull this way.

"With McDull," says Mak. "He doesn't look too far ahead, and he doesn't seem to remember much. He may not be smart or bright ... but he thinks things are beautiful."

This is the second McDull movie. The first My Life As McDull was released in 2001 to a lot of acclaim. This movie like the original is a series of vignettes tied together in a sometimes disjointed fashion. Importantly you don't need to see the first movie to understand the second (and a rumoured third). The primary focus of this movie is explaining the story of Mr. McBing, McDull's father (voice by Andy Lau), who is completely absent from the first movie. While McDull wants his mom to read Harry Potter to him, Mrs. McBing (voiced by Sandra Ng) explains that as a poor single mother, she should be able to write her own grand children's story. It's a story of a moronic little boy who grows up to be a moronic bloke.

Again you get vignettes about the fantasies of little boys that make a gritty Hong Kong seem like a kingdom for little princes (container terminal as amusement park, background TV commentary about Figo and Zidane). There are vignettes about how a past Hong Kong gets a golden veneer from the characters while illustrated with the honest dirtiness and unreclaimed harbour. There are vignettes that poke fun at education policies and educational theories with Anthony Wong returning as the voice of the headmaster for McDull's primary school. Another theme that comes and goes in the movie is urban renewal. (hint: Alice Mak's offices are located in Wan Chai.) Alice Mak in the SCMP article though denied the movie was political.

Mak says the actors who give voice to the characters in McDull, Prince de la Bun - including Sandra Ng Kwun-yu (McDull's mum, Mrs McBing) and Anthony Wong Chau-sang (his teacher) - alerted her to the possibility that people would read political messages into the script, which is again written by co-creator Brian Tse Lap-man. They also said people might see messages in other aspects of the film, right down to the love songs chosen to accompany the story.

"With `change', I suppose people can say we're saying `this was better than that'," says Mak. "But we're not saying the past is better, or that we're better now, or anything like that. It's like the love songs we chose, too. Anyone who wants to can say a love song has a political stance, because it's about losing things - lost love, looking at past boyfriends and saying the new one is better."

Mak flushes again. "But the story from my perspective is how to deal with past, future and present," she says. "It's about finding what's good and beautiful, and embracing the love you have, the little things you enjoy."

No matter the creator's intent, the movie definitely carries with it social commentary, that becomes comedy of an absurdist sort. Yes, this is the comedy about a husband running away from his wife and baby boy to go searching for something he thinks he lost from his past. The comedy about the mother always thinking of the future, both in terms of education for her son and burial plots for herself on a hillside overlooking the ocean. The comedy about an education system teaching kids to operate in the restaurant service business and how to say "live with it".

There is a lot more 3D animation in this movie, though the team definitely kept the feel of experimentation throughout. There is the amusing use of Mrs. McBing's face superimposed on stock film footage of Hong Kong manufacturing from the 60s. There is the voice of Hong Kong's English exams as renowned cellist, Jo Jo Ma (the name has been changed to protect the innocent).

Despite the wonderful animation the movie is targetted to secondary school age and up Cantonese-speaking Hong Kongers. The english subtitles were direct and accurate, though sometimes the verbatim translation loses a lot of information leaving the Cantonese-limited non-native Hong Konger mildly confused. But even so, the movie should still make non-native subtitle-readers laugh and at times even "tug on the heart strings". A bit of Maurice Sendak. A bit of Antoine de Saint-Exupery. A bit of Monty Python. A bit of Edward Gorey. If you're looking for Disney or Pixar animation or story line, don't buy a ticket. If on the other hand, you've lived in Hong Kong or have an interest in Hong Kong or adults' ability to veneer the past and "the lost innocence of childhood" or the absurdities of modern society, then this might be your movie.
Previews and Desktop Images from the film

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