May 1, 2012

The Odd One Dies


For my money, the strongest work to come out of Milkyway Image, if not Hong Kong cinema as a whole, was the initial burst of nigh-forgotten classics released before the company's break-out hit Running Out of Time in 1999. Among these were a trio of films "directed by Patrick Yau" (Expect of the Unexpected, The Longest Nite, and The Odd One Dies) which have since been proven to be almost solely the work of Milkyway head honchos Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai. And while these fellas have provided us with some very consistent, effortlessly cool cinema over the years, none of it compares to the liberated burst of fuck-all experimentation that sparked it all.

So from what I understand, Patrick Yau was an assistant director to Johnnie To, and To either decided to cut the kid a break and Yau wasn't able to pull his weight, or to direct a few flicks for him to get him on the path to career, or something, but the whole house of cards came tumbling down about the time Expect the Unexpected came out and was nominated for some HK Film awards. At this point, To and Wai owned up to the fact they directed all but about three scenes of the film, and whether any of this has anything to do with these films sliding into obscurity I don't know (more likely than not it's the blink-and-you've missed it accelerated culture of HK than anything else), but if you can hunt down copies of any of these flicks (also Wai Ka-Fai's absurdly inventive Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 and To's heroic bloodshed send-up A Hero Never Dies), you'll be duly rewarded.

Of all the above-mentioned films, The Odd One Dies is in many ways the strangest of the bunch, a surprisingly tender inversion of the familiar tropes of Wong Kar-wai's mid-nineties work that manages to both stand on it's own as a winning alternate reality romantic comedy for fucked up weirdos and in a lot of ways comments on exactly what WKW's flicks are lacking. As a formative filmgoer, Wong Kar-wai was among the first non-exploitation directors to really grab me. The lyricism of Chungking Express' lonely urbanites and the unbridled cool of Fallen Angels, with Chris Doyle's everything-but-the-kitchen-sink camera ejaculation, spoke directly to a teenager for whom Godard was not yet a four-letter word. As time has dragged on, I can still appreciate Wong's work, but mostly on technical or nostalgic terms. There is a certain shallow center to all of the hip posturing, cool tunes, and picture-perfect casting (I mean, are we really supposed to believe that Leon Lai's existential hitman in Fallen Angels wouldn't drop everything to run away with Michelle Reis? And that she would pine for THAT guy? Look at her! What does she have to be all sad and lonely about? She's the fucking hottest babe of all fucking time) that doesn't quite hit the spot like it once did. Perhaps it has something to do with the aging process? As a teen I wanted my adult life to consist of blurry montages with a catchy pop soundtrack, a revolving cast of angsty babes secretly cleaning my apartment, excellent clothes and perfect hair and endearing monologues to myself about how my bar of soap is sad and shit. The reality of life has proven to be anything but a live-action WKW flick, though. Body fat, bad haircuts galore, some attractive women, granted, but not sadly pining for me, just beating me with umbrellas and bemoaning my fashion blunders. When I try to look off into the distance and smoke a cigarette and smoke gets in my eyes and instead of looking like some existential superhero for the Pitchfork Media set I'm just a smelly-fingered advertisement for quitting, while my interior monologues aren't quirky and metaphor-laden but pathetic and disturbing.

Fortunately, Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai took it upon themselves to make what is essentially a Wong Kar-Wai film for strange schlubs like us. Instead of populating The Odd One Dies with model-types bemoaning their inability to feel emotions or get over one unattainable hottie for another one, The Odd One Dies is the story of two imperfect, inherently flawed individuals who are briefly brought together, and within the rough edges of the story, some truly uplifting and real emotions are mined. Takeshi Kaneshiro (one of the stars of Chungking Express and Fallen Angels) is cast as a wannabe gangster who, wanting to prove himself after a humiliating beating and in need of cash, agrees to kill a Thai man for some actual gangsters in what is obviously a suicide mission. After a card game in which his bad fortunes are temporarily reversed (a great scene showcasing the understated, off-centre black humor of the film), he is flush with cash and decides to contract out the killing to someone else. That someone else happens to be a fresh out-of-jail, thoroughly pitiful Carman Lee, who agrees to the suicide mission either for the money and a chance to escape her past or because she is genuinely suicidal. The antithesis of the runway model WKW heroine, an early scene reminiscent of a similar section of Chungking Express, also featuring Kaneshiro, has him lovingly removing and washing her socks as she sleeps (much as he removes Brigitte Lin's shoes in that film) in a hotel bed opposite his, but undercuts the romance of the situation with the fact he does so because her feet fucking REEK. Furthermore, Lee's character knows REAL tragedy- she wasn't simply rejected by some pin-up pop idol taking a celluloid vacation, but tricked into killing her own cousin as a teenager by a conniving husband who hardly remembers her. As the todd pair share hotel rooms and plan the killing, the only expected element is that they are brought together romantically, though where it goes from there is completely unpredictable.

Further ribbing of Wong's flicks comes when Lee tries to give herself a hip, short haircut a la Faye Wong in Chungking Express and with Kaneshiro's help manages to shore her long locks into a horrifying mullet. When he respectfully acquiesces to a similar mane butchering, we know we are not in quite the same suave universe as Wong's flicks, but one strikingly similar to our own. Kaneshiro does a magnificent job of playing a conflicted, thoroughly confused young slacker, in some ways a reflection of his endearing mute slapstick performance in Fallen Angels (the sole pathos earned in that film comes via his mugging silent comedy, though it is almost robbed by going full-tilt sentimental towards the end), but instead of making the character saccharine sweet to the point of a toothache, in this flick he is merely severely stupid and in over his head, but given to moments of betraying his tough guy posturing with moments of compassion, typically in the form of beating those who dare offend the put-upon Carman Lee. One last mention of Wong Kar-Wai to be made before getting into what really makes this film an unheralded classic - Raymond Wong's synth-tango score is in some ways reminiscent of the similar musical direction of WKW's Days of Being Wild, but the main theme is far more infectious, and the casiotone kitschiness make it all the more shaggy dog endearing.

What really sends The Odd One Dies into another level altogether is how deftly it plays with our expectations. There is a scene where Lee manages to confront her scumbag scam artist husband, and with his snide dismissal, pulls out a gun and shoots him. The emotion rings true, but doesn't seem to fit the altogether more reality-based pull of the script. Then she snaps out of it and we realize it was but a daydream and, as in real life, she is forced to confront the situation without catharsis. One blackly comic recurring gag involved a gangster who, first by Kaneshiro, then Lee, is shorn of his fingers. Both scenes involve his henchman running like madmen looking for ice, while we the audience are blown away by the fact that this movie's idea of side-splitting humor is a dude getting his fingers lopped off. YES! But at a certain point, this character, after catching Kaneshiro and deigning to cut off his hand, looks like he will again be shorn his re-attached digits and the most unexpected thing of all happens. Forgiveness. This scene of redemption all but makes the film, subverting both the expected outcome and the comedic thrust of the finger-loppings by taking it into unexpectedly touching territory (mirroring an earlier scene in which a snobbish hotel clerk reveals himself to be far less one-note than anticipated). As the film nears it's end, things are wrapped up in a similarly low-key and road-less-travelled manner. From the word go, To and Wai (er, Patrick Yau), prove themselves to be sly genre revisionists of the finest caliber. While the recent work of Milkyway is continually inventive, classy, and often, like this film, the ultimate rarity- meta without devolving into film-geek condescension or mere homage - I can't help but wish they could still work in the occasional lower-budgeted, understated piece like The Odd One Dies or Expect the Unexpected. Genre cinema as a whole would benefit from more of this kind of expert capsizing of conventions.



Anonymous said...

More proof that Steven Spielberg directed Poltergeist, NOT Tobe Hooper.

Anonymous said...

I want to perform every sex-act in the known universe on Elina Lowensohn (as the bird was in 1984 when the bird was 18, not as the bird is now obviously).