Sign up for our free newsletter
Free D.C. news, delivered to your inbox daily.
”Made in Hong Kong”
At Freer Gallery of Art to Aug. 29
The skies must have darkened over Avalon—wherever that is—the day Hollywood hypemeister Jerry Bruckheimer found a new plaything: facts. Once known principally for cartoon-character protagonists and objects that go real fast and/or blow up real good, Bruckheimer has lately dabbled in stories drawn from actual events. From Sudan to Pearl Harbor to Alexandria, the producer and his crew of mostly interchangeable directors have turned “true stories” into movies that are roughly as plausible as such older Bruckheimer fables as Flashdance and Bad Boys.
Because there’s no historical evidence for its namesake’s existence, King Arthur might seem a different sort of proposition. But this gory, moronic film opens with the claim that it will reveal the mythic hero’s “true identity,” and its press kit includes six pages of historical assertions, buttressed by a list of sources that mostly don’t support screenwriter David Franzoni’s thesis.
In fact, the script seems indebted primarily to just one of the cited books, C. Scott Littleton and Linda A. Malcor’s From Scythia to Camelot. Its authors make the tendentious argument that the Knights of the Round Table were in fact Sarmatians—Indo-Iranian warriors from the Crimean region—sent by Rome to defend Britain against rampaging invaders from the North. (The movie calls these “Woads,” which the press kit explains means Picts—both terms of dubious historicity.) Supposedly, Arthur was the 5th-century son of a Roman father and British mother. He served Rome but was a follower of British Christian heretic Pelagius, and was forced to ally with his fellow Britons when the Roman Empire abandoned its Westernmost holdings and the barbaric Saxons poured in.
Bruckheimer and Franzoni have insisted on the veracity of their vision, with the producer labeling it both “true” and “definitive.” That doesn’t seem to have inhibited director Antoine Fuqua, who made the overpraised Training Day and the justly disparaged Tears of the Sun. As in those movies, Fuqua is in it only for the brutality. The director’s principal template for King Arthur is Braveheart, although he’s enough of a classicist to appropriate one scene—a battle on treacherous ice—from Eisenstein’s Alexander Nevsky. At least two-thirds of the film consists of frenzied combat, shot from multiple viewpoints and then quick-cut together so the result looks like The Seven Samurai as reformulated in a crystal-meth lab. It’s unrelenting carnage—with occasional timeouts for pseudohistorical asides and testimonials to “freedom.”
The movie has Arthur (Clive Owen) command a squad of Sarmatians (who just happen to have such Celtic names as Gawain and Galahad) to the swells of Hans Zimmer’s bombastic score (with soprano trills by Clannad vocalist Moya Brennan, who’s a bit Celtic herself). The horsemen have been promised their freedom, and all look forward to returning to their homeland. But after completing their last mission, the knights are told they must undertake one more: rescuing a Roman family from their hilariously Tuscan-styled villa north of Hadrian’s Wall, in an area threatened by Saxons. Meanwhile, the Saxons advance, and the filmmakers are even more anxious to identify them as proto-Nazis than Eisenstein was with Nevsky’s Teutonic invaders: Saxon leader Cerdic (Stellan Skarsgård in laughable Viking drag) forbids his hordes of proto-goth-rockers from raping British women, lest they produce children that would “weaken the race.”
Upon arriving at the villa, the fair-minded Arthur is shocked to learn that the settlement’s pious Christian patriarch, Marius (Ken Stott), is running his own mini-inquisition against the locals. Arthur has Marius’ torture chamber emptied, thus rescuing a brutalized young woman who looks like a heroin-chic fashion model: Princess Guinevere (Keira Knightley), who conveniently speaks English rather than the phony guttural argot of her fellow Woads. As Guinevere bathes, the legendary affair between her and Lancelot (Ioan Gruffudd) is reduced to one set of meaningful glances. Remarkably refreshed by this erotic frisson, the princess dons a little buckskin number and adds her archery skills to the final battle against the Saxons, in which Arthur leads his barely distinguishable knights (Ray Winstone, Mads Mikkelson, Hugh Dancy, Ray Stevenson, and Joel Edgerton) into another round of skull-bashing and armor-piercing, this time enhanced with the fifth-century equivalent of napalm. Oh, and Merlin (Stephen Dillane) is in there somewhere, too.
Fuqua’s hyperactive botch isn’t the first neo-Arthurian flick to take a most uncourtly approach to blood and guts. Both John Boorman’s overblown Excalibur and Jerry Zucker’s shallow First Knight featured a fair amount of butchery. Those films, however, made fitful attempts at coherence. King Arthur is so heavy on mindless action that its revisionist history seems merely a rear-guard action against sheer insignificance. Perhaps that’s why the true identity of Arthur has been lost to history: He was no more consequential than the protagonists of The Rock or Bad Company.
Wong Kar-wai aside, Hong Kong cinema has never been an art project. Most HK films are unabashed genre pieces, often brazen in recycling motifs of previous homegrown or international hits. As Hollywood B-movies once demonstrated, however, a cinematic assembly line can yield idiosyncratic products. Working quickly and cheaply, without the second-guessing and test-marketing that homogenize Hollywood filmmaking, HK directors have produced dozens of gratifying surprises. Still, the typical HK movie is decidedly a mixed bag, and many of the former colony’s best directors have relocated to the United States or elsewhere. So it’s hardly shocking that the best film in the Freer Gallery’s ninth annual HK overview is a Wong classic, 1994’s Chungking Express (at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 27, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 29).
An exquisitely photographed romantic romp involving two cops on opposite sides of Hong Kong harbor, Chungking Express was booked as the last-minute replacement for Andrew Lau and Alan Mak’s Infernal Affairs, an acclaimed cop thriller that remains on ice in Miramax’s capacious cooler. Wong’s film will probably be familiar to most “Made in Hong Kong” attendees, but it’s worth seeing again—and it’s apt company for the series’ other entries, most of which are romantic tales of one sort or another. Indeed, there’s not a single gangster or kung-fu picture in the lot, although elements of those genres surface in Men Suddenly in Black (at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 20, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 22) and Running on Karma (at 7 p.m. Friday, July 9, and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 11).
The latter is the work of the versatile and prolific team of Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai, who made such exemplary gangster fare as the melancholy The Mission and the delirious Fulltime Killer, both seen in previous Freer surveys. Running on Karma seems intent on plumbing spiritual depths, although its gravitas is undercut by some fairly silly stuff. Andy Lau, who donned a fat suit for the duo’s Love on a Diet, here wears a muscle outfit to play a bodybuilder who abandoned his life as a monk after accidentally killing a sparrow. Capable of seeing a person’s karma, he intervenes to save a seemingly doomed police detective (Cecilia Cheung) who committed terrible crimes in a former life. The movie insouciantly intermingles the martial-arts-monk and serial-killer genres with some apparently earnest Buddhist musings, but the result is far from cohesive.
Edmond Pang’s Men Suddenly in Black initially looks like a gangster movie, but its four protagonists aren’t planning a heist. While their wives undertake a one-day religious pilgrimage to Bangkok, the men scheme with military precision to commit adultery. Deducing that something’s up, the women ditch their flight and track their husbands through hotels, brothels, and karaoke clubs. This battle of the sexes isn’t brutal, and both sides are fairly sympathetic. (The youngest of the men, for example, says his spouse is so averse to sex that he’s still a virgin.) The outcome is kind of sweet, and many of the gags target not the eight combatants but the conventions of the HK underworld flick.
Prettier yet darker is Red Rose, White Rose (at 7 p.m. Friday, July 30, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 1), a tale of early-20th-century Shanghai shot largely in shades of pink by Chungking Express cinematographer Christopher Doyle. Director Stanley Kwan, one of Hong Kong’s great film stylists, offers a low-key but ultimately withering account of Zhen-bao, a worldly young Chinese man who returns from Scotland to manage a factory. He soon begins a passionate affair with the wife of a friend but recoils in horror when she says she’s asked her husband for a divorce. Convinced that a respectable man should never wed a divorcée, Zhen-bao instead marries an innocent younger woman, sentencing her to a life of loveless seclusion. Adapted from a novel, the film’s deadpan ironies have a literary quality, but its images are both splendid and integral.
Running on Karma’s Cecilia Cheung also appears in Derek Yee’s charming Lost in Time (at 7 p.m. Friday, Aug. 13, and 2 p.m. Sunday, Aug. 15), playing a young woman who decides to take over her fiancé’s minibus route—and his young son—after the man is killed in a crash. Veteran character actor Lau Ching-Wan plays the driver who helps her, volunteering as husband and father. His motivations, when ultimately revealed, are a little pat, but this tale is not all that sentimental by HK standards and is grounded in genuine details of life.
The least successful of the films are Samson Liu’s Golden Chicken and Law Chi-leung and Derek Yee’s Inner Senses, although the latter has an eerie extracinematic aspect. While Golden Chicken (at 7 p.m. Friday, July 23, and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 25) is partially the tale of a hard-working but not especially pretty hooker (Sandra Ng), it’s also a social history of Hong Kong’s past 25 years. Bawdy humor is contrasted by real events, including the Tiananmen Square massacre, and the movie indulges lots of movie-biz inside jokes and disguised-star cameos.
Inner Senses (at 7 p.m. Friday, July 16, and 2 p.m. Sunday, July 18) gives an HK spin to The Sixth Sense, adding traditional Chinese-ghost-story elements and a romance. Yan (Karena Lam) is a haunted, suicidal young woman who picks precisely the wrong apartment: one inhabited by the shades of a woman and a child who died in a landslide. Yan is referred to Jim (Leslie Cheung), a psychiatrist whose speciality is ghostbusting. Thanks to credible special effects and appealing lead performers, the movie works for about 45 minutes—until it’s revealed that Jim, too, is bothered by ghosts. The spookiest thing about the film, however, isn’t in it: In one scene, ghost-crazed Jim nearly tumbles off the top of a building, in a disturbing reminder that this was Cheung’s final project. After it was finished, he committed suicide by throwing himself from the 24th floor of a Hong Kong hotel. Inner Senses is a serviceable pastiche, but it’s an unsatisfying farewell to Cheung, whose legacy is such Wong films as Days of Being Wild and Happy Together.CP