Apr 2, 2021

Vanguard [15]

Dir: Stanley Tong
Vanguard is a personal protection agency run by Tang Huating (Jackie Chan). Their client Qin Guoli (Jackson Lou) and his daughter Fareeda (Ruohan Xu) have been kidnapped by Omar (Eyad Hourani), the son of an arms dealer that Qin had previously worked with. Tang and his young team of mercenaries must rescue Qin and Fareeda.

Jackie Chan is a workhorse. This year, as he turns 67, it will be 60 years since he entered Yu Jim Yuen’s chinese opera school, where much of the greatest generation of martial arts actors and directors was forged. For the last 50 years Chan has been making film after film, and since the release of Drunken Master in 1978 he has been essentially uncontested as the biggest star in Asian action cinema. In that time he’s broken just about every bone in his body doing stunts. He has a permanent hole in his head from one that very nearly killed him. In short, you can forgive him for appearing tired.

The last twenty years or so haven’t been the greatest time to be a Jackie Chan fan. There might be the occasional flash of inspiration (among them the rollerskate suit in Chinese Zodiac; creditable dramatic performances in the remake of The Karate Kid and The Foreigner, and the overall surprisingly solid Railroad Tigers) but even the films that have a couple of great moments can be a chore to plod through. It’s also been clear for a while that he’s been using doubles more and had greater CGI assists. Combine all that with the fact that plot, acting and character have never been his strong suits as a filmmaker, and you get the recipe for garbage like Kung Fu Yoga and Bleeding Steel.

There is some promise to Vanguard. Firstly, it reunites Jackie with Stanley Tong, who directed Police Story 3 and First Strike, as well as Rumble in the Bronx (and, ahem, Kung Fu Yoga). Secondly, it appears that Chan has begun to recognise some of his limitations. He’s billed first here of course, but largely takes a supporting role and cedes the spotlight to a younger team of Yang Yang, Lun Ai and Miya Muqi as some of Vanguard’s best protection officers. Initially, this seems like a decent idea, but whether it’s the perfunctory writing (the bromance between Yang Yang and Lun Ai is very forced) or Tong’s direction, none of the younger leads makes much of an impact. The screenplay here doesn't give them much to work with, but the essential thing they lack is anything unique about any of their screen presence, something Jackie always had in spades. None of them establish much personality, neither do they particularly stand out in the action sequences. Unfortunately, Chan can’t save the film on this score, never the most gifted actor, he’s got a poorly defined character and gives little expression to any of his dialogue, while also spending most of his time in the action sequences very much in the background, firing a gun. We probably see less than a minute of actual martial arts technique from him, perhaps half of that in the foreground of the frame.

In their first three collaborations, Stanley Tong brought out the best in Jackie. It may have been that, having directed many of his own films between the late 70s and early 90s, Chan was taking a stronger hand behind the camera, but Tong’s style both in shooting and editing seemed a perfect match for his star. Whether it’s because he remains in thrall to what is becoming an outdated action style or because he is trying to hide limitations in his cast, Tong opts for a choppier style of action here; not full Bourne perhaps, but certainly much shakier and faster cut than his work used to be. This is the worst possible decision because Jackie’s action is uniquely his own style, and in Vanguard it looks like it could come out of any other action film. There’s not even a signature stunt, though a gag excusing that is one of the film’s only proper laughs. Add woeful CGI (the lion) and green screen work, and you’ve got a film that fails on a lot of technical levels.

Vanguard isn’t Jackie Chan’s worst film, but it’s another sign that his place in the future is probably behind the camera. I would love to see him bring his old style and rhythm to films starring a new generation of action actors, but if that’s what Vanguard was going for, it’s a dismal failure.

Mar 25, 2021

24FPS @ BFI Flare 2021: No Ordinary Man

Dir: Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt

I knew a little about Billy Tipton going into this film, which is to say that I basically knew the prĂ©cis of what we discover is a rather controversial biography of him. It goes like this: Tipton was a trans man who was a fairly successful jazz musician in the 1940s and ’50s, and it was only with his death in 1989 that either the wider public or his wife and adopted children discovered the so-called ‘real’ identity he had been ‘hiding’. To be a hundred percent clear, there I am using the language of coverage at the time and that biography, trans men are men, trans women are women.

This documentary is, on its surface, a deeper telling of the story of Billy Tipton—a telling that acknowledges and celebrates his identity—but it is also much more than that. Aisling Chin-Yee, Chase Joynt and co-writer Amos Mac scrutinise and criticise the way Tipton’s life was framed in coverage after his death as, essentially, a long-running deception of the people around him. One clip, from a news show on E!, has sinister music behind the story, as if it’s something from a horror film. It’s worth noting that this characterisation of Tipton is rejected by his wife and son in archive footage, and by his son in new interviews for the film. They also relate that to the way trans identity is seen and talked about today “If I tell you who I am, I’m not lying” says one interviewee. More than that even, No Ordinary Man explores the issue of the erasure of trans history, and how that plays into the need for trans visibility and representation.

One of the way the film digs into these subjects is through auditioning trans actors to play Billy. The conceit reminds me of the documentary Casting Jon Benet, but it has much deeper resonance here because the directors talk with their auditionees about Tipton, what they already knew of his story, and how it relates to their own experiences. There are several great virtues to this idea, first, it completely gives the lie to the idea that cis people keep getting cast in trans roles because of some lack of talented trans actors, but much more important is the insight into how things are both different and the same for trans people now as when Tipton was alive.

The audition sequences are some of the film’s most riveting material, never more so than when the actors are playing out a sequence that seems mysterious to begin with. In it, Tipton indicates that he recognises something about a DJ he had never met before. It turns out that this is an imagined version of the only time that we know of that Tipton met another trans man. When the actors know this it entirely reframes the performances and leads to some deeply moving moments in which one in particular is overcome with the emotion of knowing that, just for a moment, Tipton knew he wasn’t the only person like himself. This, as much as any moment, show us the value of representation because that empathy just can’t be acted, and it’s a moment that must provoke empathy in its audience as well.

No Ordinary Man is a fascinating film about identity. I’m sure it will be a film that trans audiences identify with, and for cis audiences, it lays out so many nuanced issues of trans identity in such a directly emotional way, while also telling an interesting biographical story, that you can’t help but have a lot to reflect on long after the credits roll. 

Mar 24, 2021

24FPS @ BFI Flare 2021: Firebird

Dir: Peeter Rebane
At the height of the cold war, Private Sergey (Tom Prior) and Lieutenant Roman (Oleg Zagorodnii) meet and fall in love on base. When they are suspected, Sergey leaves the army for his long held dream of going to drama school and Roman marries Luisa (Diana Pozharskaya), Sergey’s best friend. Still, Sergey and Roman continue to be drawn to each other.

Every film whether, like this one, it is based on a true story or it is the most fantastical and surreal tale ever told, sets out to create a world that is, in itself, credible. In some ways, Firebird does this: the historical detail—sets, props, hairstyles, costumes—appears to be on point, but right from the start, something is off. The film is spoken almost entirely in English (background dialogue that doesn’t need to be subtitled is in Russian, as is signage and other incidental writing). The commercial imperatives of this choice are clear and easy to understand, but the fact remains that Firebird is telling a fundamentally Russian story. The story takes place entirely within the USSR, the characters are all Russian, and two of the three lead actors are Ukrainian. From the first moment they start talking to each other in accented English (often dubiously so in Tom Prior’s case), a vital part of the world-building is broken however good the rest of the film may be.

Unfortunately, even apart from this glaring issue, Firebird isn’t a particularly good film. The performances are a mixed bag; the actors are clearly capable, with the films quieter moments coming off well. The longing looks between Sergei and Roman, the silent build of chemistry, and Sergei’s terror, which he has to hide from the other soldiers when Roman’s plane gets into trouble, are all effective. The best moment in the film comes from Tom Prior. When Sergei hears that Roman is marrying Luisa we can see the deep, under the surface, hurt coming to the fore for just a moment. However, probably thanks to the language issue, dialogue is often stiff and stilted, never more so than in a dinner table scene between Roman and Luisa. This means the film always feels uneven. While it looks handsome enough and Rebane puts some of his influences on display (a beach scene late on has a definite air of Francois Ozon), the direction isn’t especially inspired and, on a couple of occasions, notably clunky. This is never more true than when we find out that Luisa is pregnant with Roman’s child, there is a hard cut to Sergei standing in the pouring rain—a cheap, corny, and cliche emotional shortcut.

Taken purely at an emotional level as a story of forbidden love, Firebird has its affecting moments. We do believe in the relationship at its heart, and it’s hard not to feel for the characters, especially knowing that the story is at least broadly true. On the other hand, every detail is clunky. The language issue means everything feels artificial and Peeter Rebane doesn’t find much visual inventiveness with which to tell his story. There’s the kernel of a great movie here, but it’s not the one that ended up on the screen.