and the Art of Entertainment
(2000), David Bordwell
in a Borderless World
(2001), Esther C.M. Yau, editor
When an American thinks of contemporary Hong Kong action cinema, the images that come to mind usually involve something with which producer/director Tsui Hark was involved. John Woo may be the more famous filmmaker on this side of the Pacific, but Woo’s breakthroughs, A Better Tomorrow and The Killer stem from Tsui’s Film Workshop Company. It also produced Hong Kong’s three most famous series of the late 80s-early 90s – Chinese Ghost Story, Swordsman, and Once Upon a Time in China films. Although in the Chinese Ghost Story and Swordsman series, Tsui’s name overshadowed Ching Siu-Tung’s (who actually directed them with much interference or collaboration from Tsui depending on how you want to look at it), Tsui has always been the weakest filmmaker among his colleagues, Woo and Ching. Tsui is the Brian DePalma or Tim Burton of Hong Kong cinema, great at creating bravura set pieces or camera moves, but very poor at reining in this thing called plot. That is why Tsui’s Peking Opera Blues–early enough in his career that he didn’t dispense with storytelling to get to the next action scene–will always be his best movie. With that lone exception, cohesion of narrative and tone is not something to look for in a Tsui Hark film.
Tsui’s influence on Hong Kong cinema has been so great that his progeny often mirror his flaws except to even greater degrees. Tsui’s latest film, Time and Tide, could have come from one of them but for the even-more-exceptional-than-usual execution of its action sequences, and really, that is all that makes the film worth seeing. Extraordinary editing, choreography, and use of space barrage the senses with hyperkinetic action or work to permeate suspense in the calm before the storm. Everything else in the movie is just window dressing. Tsui uses sped-up motion, split screen, jump cuts; he rams the camera’s POV down the barrel of a targeting scope to focus on the eye at the other end; he puts the camera inside a working dryer and shows what’s going on through the dryer window while laundry spins through the air. Two men play table tennis as a gun battle suddenly erupts and just as quickly ends leaving the sole sound of a lonely ping pong ball dribbling to a stop. Two men hanging from cables run down the side of a building firing machine guns at each other like Barishnikovs possessed by the spirit of Charlton Heston.
Tsui Hark’s photograph should be framed next to the definition of “over-the-top.” Even outside the action sequences, he makes everything extreme. An alcohol-imbibing contest turns into a vomiting competition. Before a car can pick up a man on the side of the road, Tsui has to make sure the car hits a puddle of water to completely soak him. He, of course, is too cool to take notice. Delivering a woman to the airport, a man drives in reverse at high speed against traffic for no good reason. After experiencing the Jean-Claude Van Damme rite-of-passage for Hong Kong directors who come to Hollywood, Tsui has returned home where he has total freedom to make his films as crazy as he likes.
The story, or what there is of it that makes any sense, concerns a 21-year old bartender, Tyler (Nicholas Tse) who one night accidentally impregnates an undercover lesbian cop. Tyler becomes a bodyguard to make extra money to help out the policewoman named Jo (Cathy Chui) even though she does not want anything from him. Working for a security firm run by the once-shady Mr. Ji (Anthony Wong), Tyler finds himself guarding the powerful triad boss, Hong, against an expected assassination attempt. During this assignment, Tyler encounters Hong’s estranged daughter Hui (Candy Lo) and her husband, Jack (Wu Bai), who Hong has dismissed as “riffraff” for being a butcher from Taiwan. But is that really Jack, or could he actually be a former member of an elite group of Brazilian professional killers that would make the best Navy SEAL look like a Muppet Baby? Tyler and Jack become friends, but both run into trouble when Jack’s former Brazilian colleagues turn up, threatening Jack’s wife and unborn child unless he helps them in some murky plot.
Columbia Pictures is releasing Time and Tide probably with some hopes of garnering a measure of the success its sister company Sony Picture Classics gained from fellow Hong Kong import Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. Crouching Tiger however benefited from its novelty to an U.S. audience despite being a fairly typical but moderately superior genre picture by Hong Kong standards. Tsui produced two better wuxia pictures, Swordsman II and Dragon Inn, that beat Crouching Tiger to the punch eight years earlier. They just didn’t get any exposure in the States. Time and Tide should do better than whatever Hong Kong film follows it in the certain groundswell of U.S. distributors looking for the next big Hong Kong movie post-Crouching Tiger. At the same time, Time and Tide is certain not to attain anything close to Tiger’s success.
Time and Tide is just too much an exercise in empty style to reach an audience beyond action fans. The only poignant moment in the movie comes when Hui introduces Jack to her father, who then mocks him. Everything else in the film barely reaches even the level of cartoon. A pretentious discussion on the Biblical Genesis, Jo’s lesbianism, and a police force commander’s support of Jack’s vigilantism are just the necktie, scarf, and socks that emphasize there being no clothes underneath. Still, can this naked man run, jump, and shoot!