Alongside several ostensibly historical retrospectives at Vienna are a few contemporary ones—that is, retrospectives of relatively newly active filmmakers, and in this specific case, of the Hong Kong genre master Cheang Soi, who has only been working for a decade but has already carved out a place for his uniquely tenacious, desperate cinema. With Cheang brought to my attention by a Film Comment column by Olaf Müller several years ago, fortuitously timed with one of the director's first US screenings at the New York Asian Film Festival, the relatively easy availability of his films on DVD, and his increased exposure due to an alliance with Johnnie To and Wai Ka-fai's Milkyway production company—which produced Cheang's last film, Accident, and where Cheang briefly served as AD to To and Wai—I hope the Vienna retro will only increase the exposure of a decidedly brilliant but "low art" talent.
While many of Cheang's films work on a structural principle based narratively on McTiernan's Die Hard conception of John McClane—the aggregation of increasingly implausible amounts of bloody injury and physical perseverance in the face of overwhelming odds—and aesthetically on a street-level, studio unbound re-interpretation of Seijun Suzuki's best films—the evolution of more and more extravagant, anti-realist expressions as a film comes to its conclusion—the director's second film, the 2002 horror entry New Blood, early on showcases Cheang's talent for conceptualizing small story elements to build unexpected, lightning paced set-pieces. The film is front-loaded with one of the best first acts put to film. Stuttering, obscured opening images of rings placed on fingers and wrists slashed get interrupted by an emergency police call for an attempted suicide jumper and we find our lead hero, a policeman, but when he arrives on that scene he discovers the other suicide, that of the lovers which opens the film, a synchronicity that characterizes the way Cheang throws quick wrenches into his storytelling only to gamely take up his own challenge and shift gears on the fly. Taking the couple to the hospital, the cop and two strangers, a woman and an architect, end up giving blood to try to save them but only the man survives. The dead woman lives on as a ghost to haunt the trio, who become united through their unpredictable urban gesture of generosity—giving blood—somehow becoming reverse-infected by its repercussion— separating two lovers. These first twenty minutes, which furiously connects these dots with hospital guiding lines crawled over by the camera, blood going out of and into people, strange places to meet city dwellers in the dead of night, love and romance and horror tangled in waiting room lobbies, unfortunately is never to be topped in the film that follows.
A meet cute in the hospital waiting room between the cop and a woman is a narrative dead-end as a plot lines and conventions are halted to plunge into the schizophrenic depression the haunting produces on trio who all happen to be at the hospital that night. Cheang's hotly pursued theme of physical perseverance (see the next two films discussed) is here unusually tweaked into an bodiless variation—the unceasing haunting of the ghost—but more importantly is transfered to a mental state of oppression which consumes the trio, but most especially the woman who gradually supplants the cop as the film's protagonist at the same time it's revealed that of the three she is also the most mentally damaged—literally having been pronounced insane even before the opening suicide—an evolution that truly plunges the film into the dark and leaves little hope in this world...it only seem that in the next, where the dead lovers are joined, there may be some peace.
Peace is something entirely missing from the core of Cheang’s cinema, and if his scrabbly, tenacious fighters of Dog Bite Dog (a hit man) and Shamo (a boxer) already live violent lives, it is 2004's masterpiece Love Battlefield that most surprises by bringing the director's relentlessly unstable world to a romantic melodrama, comedy, action film hybrid.
The struggle here is again, like the dead woman in New Blood, to survive—the key driving vigor of Cheang’s movies—but, uniquely and powerfully, not to survive alone but together, in love, as a couple. The ghost bond between the dead lovers of New Blood is tested in the real world in Love Battlefield where two couples, one fighting, one united, one from Hong Kong, one from the Mainland, one normal citizens and one criminals in flight, cross paths and fates and are tried to the extreme.
Rote romantic melodrama opens the film, staging the meet cute and subsequent relationship unhappiness in a flurry (the former in golden hues, the latter manic flashing frames as our hero nearly drowns), and at the peak of one couple’s devolvement, the man, an ER nurse, accidentally runs into the fleeing Chinese, halfway through a crime, and is strong-armed into repairing their injuries which only increase as they continue to gun down police in their flight to escape Hong Kong.
Meanwhile, the frivolous friends of the Hong Kong couple (who are similarly contrasted to the stoic gangster friendships of the criminals) encourage the girl to get back together with her man—sending the whole lot in a collision course of emotion and violence. Starting with such banality, Cheang effortlessly ratchets up his film world’s standards for human behavior, worldly coincidence, bodily damage and endurance and combinations of hysterics (Hong Kong) and stoicism (Mainland) in the face of certain death and loss. The ending, bruised, bloody, beaten and longing, is pure Duel in the Sun, just as sincere and just as overwrought. And in fact Cheang and Vidor have a certain commonality in their connection to earthiness and bodies, humans echting out happiness in bare, unfair or violent scenarios. But Cheang’s cinema, even in its supreme anguish and in often cases unhappiness, is unabashedly going for thrills.
A few more films of Cheang's into the retro, I was thinking of more filmmakers to connect to the director, and mostly draw from contemporary ones: the instinctive dramatic gestures and hell-black genre revision of Ferrara, the bodily sensations and occluded visuals of Grandrieux, but I also was thinking, after watching Dog Bit Dog (2006), of Nick Ray. This 2006 masterpiece is undoubtedly the purest manifestation of the anguished survivalist side of Cheang's cinema (his most recently released film, 2009's Accident, suggested perhaps a different direction, a move towards cooler, more steady sensations). Dog Bite Dog in contrast has an impoverished "dog"-like Cambodian hitman arrive in Hong Kong, emerging from the dank hold of a shipping boat to hurtle, tumble, limp and drag himself from his contract hit back to the wharf and escape the hellish urban island.
Dirt covered, ragged, nearly immediately injured but never incapacitated, the man who is nearly silent through the film's two-ish hours because he speaks no Cantonese, accidentally meets the police nearly immediately after the murder and leaves a trail of dead cops behind as he heads to the water. (This kind of unexpected, surreptitious small plot developments, surprisingly introduced but then thoroughly thought through, is common to Cheang's cinema; witness the ER nurse suddenly throwing the gangster's cocaine haul from the car in Love Battlefield and its aftermath.)
The hitman is predictably paired against a young renegade cop, but Cheang is understandably and thankfully less interested in the blurred line between one man's good and another's evil and instead crosses wires in terms of what circumstances drive a man to embody a kind of brute animism. Both cop and criminal are filled with driving energy, gut-twisted, anguished tenacity (Ray) to keep going (Cheang), a state of bodily and psychological existence that the director shows as both conditioned (in the hitman's orphaned, impoverished upbringing in Cambodia as a boy boxer) and learned or haunted (in the cop's realization that his policeman-hero father is a criminal, leading to the son's moral deterioration). It is this desperation that drives individuals in these films, and, in their most (and few) optimistic moments, drives couples united in a pure and common need and understanding. If Ray could be characterized as making a cinema about the struggle to exist, Cheang's cinema is the struggle to survive, and is a cinema so extravagant in its gestures of survival as to move past kitsch and reach the moving and beautiful.