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Best of the Year: Film Reissues

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Best Reissues of 2018

10. Shampoo (Criterion)
This is one of a great run of 1970s movies directed by the great Hal Ashby, who was the subject of a enlightening documentary Hal, that I saw at the Edinburgh Film Festival this year. Shampoo starred Warren Beatty, Julie Christie and Goldie Hawn but it was Lee Grant who picked up an Oscar for Best Actress in a Supporting Role for her portrayal of Felicia Karpf.

Here’s some more on this re-release from Criterion.

9. The Serpent’s Egg (Arrow)
Legendary Swedish filmmaker Ingmar Bergman’s sole Hollywood excursion. It might also be his darkest ever work.

8. Early Hou Hsiao-Hsien: Three Films 1980-1983 (Eureka)
The pick of these three early works by Taiwanese master Hou Hsiao-Hsien has to be The Boys from Fengkuei, which I reviewed here.

7. Iron Monkey (Eureka)
The first of two appearances on this list from Hong Kong action superstar Donnie Yen – and the first of two big screen depictions on the list of real-life character, the legendary martial artist Wong Fei-hung, although Yen doesn’t play Wong in either movie.

Here’s my review for Louder Than War.

6. Midnight Cowboy (Criterion)
I love this. I love this. I love this, and that final scene on the bus from New York to Florida never fails to bring a lump the throat. Controversial on its release, it was given an X-rating and went on to become the only X ever to win Best Picture at the Academy Awards (albeit that classification no longer exists).

Today it might just be best remembered for Harry Nilsson’s take on the Fred Neil song Everybody’s Talkin, although the main theme by John Barry is my musical highlight.

5. Smithereens (Criterion)
A blast from the punk era set in a grimy NYC. Which I reviewed here.

4. Gas Food Lodging (Arrow)
A film that deserves to be better remembered. This release comes with some neat extras including Reel Women (Chris Rodley, 1995), a documentary looking at the challenges women face in the movie industry in the 1990s – and it would be interesting to hear what these directors think of the same situation today. I’ll take a closer look at Allison Ander’s finest film in my American Indie series at some point in 2019.

Seeing this again even let me forgive her for helming the ill conceived Four Rooms segment that starred Madonna, and becoming involved in Sex and The City.

3. Daisies (Second Run)
A true cinematic one-off. Even if you don’t like it, you’ll always remember it. This new digital transfer, with restored image and sound approved by the director, makes the colours dazzle and the release comes with some fantastic extras including two separate audio commentaries, one by Peter Hames and Daniel Bird, the other by Kat Ellinger and Samm Deighan. Reviewed here.

2. Once Upon a Time in China (Eureka)
Jet Li at the peak of his powers stars here as the aforementioned. The first in the series is fantastic. The second – where Donnie Yen co-stars – arguably belongs in that rare category of sequels that actually improve on a classic original. Okay, things tail off as the series moves into a franchise but as a whole this might just be the best martial arts box-set ever released.

1. Woodfall: A Revolution in British Cinema (BFI)
Released this summer to mark the sixtieth anniversary of influential British independent production company Woodfall, this nine disc collection includes eight films from the Angry Young Man/Kitchen Sink/British New Wave era.

These are – Look Back in Anger (Tony Richardson, 1959); The Entertainer (Tony Richardson, 1960); Saturday Night and Sunday Morning (Karel Reisz, 1960); A Taste of Honey (Tony Richardson, 1961); The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner (Tony Richardson, 1962); Tom Jones (Tony Richardson, 1963); Girl with Green Eyes (Desmond Davis, 1964) and The Knack… and How to Get It (Richard Lester, 1965).

Richard Burton was miscast as original Angry Young Man Jimmy Porter in Nigel Kneale’s adaptation of John Osborne’s celebrated play Look Back in Anger. Once seen as a radical leftist figure, Jimmy now comes across as a boorish dick but Mary Ure is excellent as his downtrodden wife Alison. Oh and that sentimental ending!

Things soon pick up, especially with the trio of Kitchen Sink classics Saturday Night and Sunday Morning; A Taste of Honey and The Loneliness of the Long Distance Runner, a trio of films that can truly be said to live up to that revolution in British cinema claim.

There are also some fascinating extras here that include experimental shorts made around the same time that the features were made, and new cast & crew interviews from those involved in the main films.

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The Boys from Fengkuei (New Waves #2)

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The Boys from Fengkuei

Around the time of the release of this film, I was following a similar route to the boys depicted. An ordinary teenager migrating hundreds of miles south with some pals to find work in my case. And personal independence.

Immediately on seeing The Boys from Fengkuei many years later for the first time, I was reminded of how universal great cinema can be. It might have been set on the other side of the world where everyone speaks a language I don’t understand a word of but the characters could have been me and my friends, acting daft, getting drunk, showing off in front of girls.

Hou Hsiao-hsien directed only four full-length works that are usually considered Taiwanese New Wave (or New Cinema as it is also known as). These are The Boys from Fengkuei (1983); A Summer at Grandpa’s (1984); The Time to Live, the Time to Die (1985) and Dust in the Wind (1986).

As James Udden put it in No Man an Island: The Cinema of Hou Hsiao-hsien: ‘Collectively these films can be seen as the definitive works of the Taiwanese New Cinema before its semi-official end in early 1987, the year of his next film, Daughter of the Nile.’

As you can tell by the dates, Taiwan was later than most with its cinematic New Wave, a reaction in part to the slightly earlier Hong Kong New Wave, that by the beginning of the 1980s was meeting with much critical and commercial success, as well as generally outperforming home-grown efforts at the box office in Taiwan.

The 1982 Taiwanese anthology film In Our Time – with one segment helmed by Edward Yang – proved groundbreaking, departing radically from those home-grown martial arts flicks and sentimental dramas that young audiences in particularly were finding increasingly stale.

New and younger directors began pushing their way to the fore, and, as with previous New Waves, collaborations flourished. Hou, for instance, co-scripted Wan Ren’s Ah Fei in 1983 and played the lead role in Edward Yang’s excellent Taipei Story a year later, by which time he’d filmed The Boys from Fengkuei.

The_Boys_From_Fengkuei_-_still_2

Three of Hou’s earliest films were released earlier this year by Eureka, two of which I’d never seen before. These were like discovering that your favourite indie act had once been boy band wannabes. Indeed, Kenny B, a lightweight Hong Kong pop star starred in both Cute Girl (1980) and The Green, Green Grass of Home (1982). They’re both reasonably entertaining albeit fluffy. By the time of the latter film though, Hou is already demonstrating an amazing capacity for technically imaginative camerawork, and displaying a striking ability to coax some very fine performances from the (first time) child actors who play such a crucial part in the film.

His method for directing these youngsters was soon adopted for directing adults too. Rather than insisting on blocking scenes precisely and demanding lines be delivered exactly as written, he instead favoured the possibilities offered by improvisation, suggesting moods and atmospheres that scenes should be inspired by.

As plots go, The Boys from Fengkuei is slim. A group of teenagers from a small fishing village hang around shooting pool, scooting around on mopeds; they drink and stray into trouble with other local young men. Bored, they decide to try their luck elsewhere, moving to the bustling port city of Kaohsiung where one of their sister’s lives and works.

Once installed there and sharing an apartment, one of the boys develops a crush for a neighbour, although he doesn’t let on as she is living with – and presumably in love with – her nonchalant and reckless boyfriend, who’s employed together with her and the Fengkuei boys at a nearby electronics factory.

These characters are flawed although Hou has no interest in flagging up to an audience how they should be judged. They resort to violence too easily. They all struggle to express their emotions. They are naive. Moving to a thriving big city certainly doesn’t shield them from the harsh realities of life. In many ways it only adds an element of alienation into the emotional mix.

The Boys from Fengkuei still

At a time when Taiwan was transforming itself rapidly, with industrialization on the rise, movies like this were a big deal and far more realistic than what had gone before. As a comparison, think how fresh kitchen sink dramas in the late 1950s and early 1960s like A Taste of Honey and A Kind of Loving must have struck audiences when they first hit British cinemas.

Cinephiles soon took note too and considering the size of the island (its population at the time was only around 17,000,000), it managed to make a real impact globally with films by Hou, Edward Yang, Chen Kunhou and others and then with what became known as the Second Wave, when new directors like future Oscar winner Ang Lee emerged.

Hou Hsiao-hsien’s career has continued to flourish since his breakthrough film, inspiring many aspiring filmmakers along the way, Jim Jarmusch, for example, called Hou his ‘teacher’. Hou scooped the highly prestigious Golden Lion prize for best picture at the 1989 Venice Festival for A City of Sadness and is recognised today as one of the world’s greatest auteurs.

The BFI suggest the ideal introduction to Hou is 1985’s The Time to Live and the Time to Die but I would go for The Boys from Fengkuei.

Hou hsiao hsien - The Assassin

If you like The Boys from Fengkuei, you might also enjoy The Assassin, Hou Hsiao-hsien’s masterful wuxia drama that premiered at Cannes in 2015. Described as ‘heart-stoppingly beautiful’ by The Telegraph and voted best film of the year by Sight & Sound, The Assassin is a dazzling spectacle that lingers long in the memory. I’d guess that even Stanley Kubrick might be impressed by Hou’s attention to detail here. Just about every shot looks to be as carefully composed as a painting by an old master.

What else can I say? Well, I could admit that I also found it difficult to follow at times and if I’m being completely honest, I would have liked to have seen some more spectacular swordplay along the way but I would still absolutely recommend The Assassin.