Was a time when Hong Kong cinema was considered exotica by the mainstream, as wowas the most spaced-out sci-fi and as nowas the most indie cinema. But with the co-opting of John Woo, who traded bullets for boredom; and Jackie Chan, the Harold Lloyd of HK who's quickly become the Zeppo Marx of Hollywood; and Jet Li, whose American films are all but unwatchable, the zip has been zapped. The conventions--slow-mo shootouts, two-fisted gunfights, melodrama exaggerated till it drips cornpone--are clichés, till even Ma and Pa Flyover can no longer be shocked by the sight of another hard-boiled, bullet-ridden, blood-soaked thriller in which men fondle their shiny guns as though they were pants pistols. The exaggerated kicks have been stretched to their breaking point; the thrill is gone.
Whether directors Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai's Fulltime Killer, the 2001 Hong Kong hit debuting at the Asian Film Festival of Dallas on May 22, is meant to ape or parody the genre's excesses is up for debate--if, that is, you can maintain any interest in a film you will swear you've already seen a dozen times. The film, written by Wai and former Dallasite and one-time Dallas Observercontributor Joey O'Bryan, wants badly to play like film crit-as-film commentary--it contains copious allusions to, among others, Robert Rodriguez's El Mariachiand Desperado, Michael Winner's The Mechanic, Luc Besson's The Professional, the Wachowski brothers-penned Assassins, Bryan Singer's The Usual Suspectsand, of all things, Point Break--but can't wriggle out from beneath its smothering blanket of reference points.
O (Takashi Sorimachi) and Tok (Andy Lau, playing against normal nice-guy type) are rival assassins vying for two things: the hit man gold medal and the affections of Chin (Kelly Lin), a video-store owner (a-ha!) who has no trouble with the fact her two suitors kill for a living. Tok, sporting a lascivious grin beneath his masks of U.S. presidents, is the crazier of the tandem; it's clear he has as much a thing for O as he does a crush on Chin. O's more ambivalent about his career path, never more so than after he guns down an old high school friend who gets in his way early on in the film; you get the sense he'd be happy to let Tok take his title if it means a peaceful early retirement. Unfortunately for O, he's not being pursued only by a rival but also by cops out to nab both hit men; Simon Yam as one detective is a man obsessed, till finally he's unraveled altogether.
Fulltime Killerisn't without its fizzy charms--it's frenetic enough to engage at times and derivative enough to delight the HK fanboy who prefers to play hide-and-seek than merely watch--but so fuzzy about its intentions you're never clear about its point. Is it parody, or merely a carbon of a carbon? It's not quite over-the-top enough to merit its being labeled the former, but so blatant about its forebears the filmmakers had to know the audience would cry foul lest they make the joke readily apparent, and since it isn't, who's to know? Or care? That's what happens when movies are co-scripted by people who see movies for a living: Critics so often feel the need to show what they know. O'Bryan will attend the opening-night screening, 7:15 at the Magnolia, so you can ask him during the Q&A just what they meant.
The Asian Film Festival will also feature a retrospective honoring Japanese filmmaker Takashi Miike, maker of such extreme films as Audition(as gripping as it is gruesome), City of Lost Soulsand the Dead or Alivetrilogy (Final, set 300 years in the future, will be shown at the fest). Bollywood Hollywood, a Canadianized version of the stylized Indian musical-comedy genre, will also screen, as will several Korean films, as part of the "Cinema for the Seoul" portion of the fest, and 120 shorts from around the world. In all, fest director Mye Hoang has skedded an eclectic lineup--and offers estimable proof that sooner or later, everything you ever wanted to see winds up screening in Dallas at some film festival programmed, yup, just for you.