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Chow Chow Chow!

Being an afficionado of both the IFC and the International Channel, I have been able of late to feed my lifelong attraction to Asian cinema. Many years ago, I was limited to whatever PBS was willing to broadcast and later to the sprinkling of martial arts and Kurosawa films that came in the wake of Bruce Lee’s fame. Now I’m in hog heaven. The trouble with watching stuff on TV is that, while the films are subtitled (and only occasionally dubbed - thank heaven!), the credits and titles aren’t. So I have a bunch of faves that I can only describe.

On our trips to the local Asian import video store, we find ourselves digging through the older material, squinting at faces in the hopes of recognition. But every now and then, one breaks through the ranks and that happened with Shaolin Soccer so I could at last put a name to that funny guy with the sly, lazy smile. We had seen Stephen Chow shine in a few otherwise so-so films but it came as quite the surprise to recognize him on the big screen.

Last week, we rented Tricky Brains in which he plays a professional practical joker and Andy Lau (the very serious police chief in House of Flying Daggers) plays a nerdy target. Both were wonderful in this madcap and very funny movie. It makes me terribly aware of how little cross-over American actors are permitted these days and how little movement training they get. This would be ripe for an American remake, if we only had actors up to the material.

This week we rented Kung Fu Hustle, Chow’s directorial follow up to Soccer. Yeah, I know it’s not going to be released theatrically in the U.S. for a few more weeks! Hustle is rather a change-up from previous ventures. It is partly a tribute to Asian action film stars of the past who get to show off their skills in age (Yuen Qui is spectacularly funny as the chainsmoking landlady), part an homage to famous fight sequences, notably from The Matrix and Lord of the Rings, part Looney Toons and part morality play. The sets and CGI are astonishing and the fight sequences visually stunning, not to mention frightening, as one has come to expect from Yuen Wo Ping and Sammo Hung. Camera work is Wellesian, complete with an opening tip of the hat to Magnificent Ambersons. But Chow is most arresting in being almost unrecognizable: he has pulled his aura in so tight, plays it so low key, deferring the limelight to others, and smiles only by proxy. The film is sui generis, veering from extreme comedy to Scorsesian darkness, but is quite daring and very much worth seeing again on the big screen.

On an unrelated but equally wacky-spelled-sideways kinda vibe, the Saturday LA Times reports that the Nixon Presidential Library, having been the only presidential library outside the National Archives system, is finally having to capitulate to professional authority. Its years of resistance to the release of records and almost comical airbrushing of reality may soon be over. Reminds me of David Frye's bit: Walter Winchell reporting 7 men arrested and one escaped (sounds of running footsteps and a door slamming), a breathless yet recognizable growl: "Pat, lock the door!"

Doubtless the dearly departed Hunter Thompson would be having a chuckle over this slice of afterlife imitating life. Yeah, things sucked back then, too. But they sucked in a funnier sort of way.

Oh, and happy new year, y'all! Cheers, Skal, Prost, Na Zdrowie, and pass the fucking butter while we're at it.

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