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Heroes of the East

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    Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 (1997: Wai Ka-fai)


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    Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 (1997: Wai Ka-fai) Empty Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 (1997: Wai Ka-fai)

    Post  Masterofoneinchpunch Thu Aug 07, 2014 11:13 am

    First Draft, though not much more to go on this except look through some more sources and fix grammatical errors and of course take comments from Brian.

    “A story should have a beginning, a middle and an end, but not necessarily in that order.” – Jean-Luc Godard

    Too Many Ways To Be No. 1 (1997: Wai Ka-fai: Hong Kong)

    This is Milkyway’s first official production.* For fans of Hong Kong movies this is an auspicious start. For Johnnie To’s co-production company has brought henceforth sagacious cinema that is one of the most unique and personal in cinema today. This movie still remains one of the most experimental and different in Milkyway’s oeuvre while still retaining personal tropes that are seen in the later films.

    A time-repeating narrative (forking path – though in this film it feels somewhat like a cinematic “choose your own adventure”) that predates Run Lola Run but is after Groundhog’s Day. It starts off with the ticking of a Tudor timepiece** – an expensive watch owned by Wong Ah Kau (Lau Ching-wan) that has three close-ups in the film each signifying a restart in the story. It was probably bought in a previous time of prosperity for this rascal as he is now relegated to selling funeral wreaths for money and he is seeing a fortune-teller as the film starts. You do not get to hear what the seer has to say until the end of the film. Wong is 32, the same age as Bruce Lee when he died, and has not made anything of himself. He is approached by Bo (Cheung Tat-ming) of the rather incompetent Hung Lok Gang to join him in a meeting to discuss a future job. His acceptance of this job will lead him to the Mainland in the first story. If he does not it will lead him to Taiwan in the second story.

    This is the type of film that so much is intertwined that I am not sure what would be considered a spoiler. With everything written below you might hesitate on reading further if you are sensitive to spoilers or want to watch the film with not too much information. But I also noticed that while writing about this it behooves to not do a straight recap of the film. It is too serpentine and too filled with clever allegories and references.

    Going over the third segment it seems that there will be a different result than the previous two (given the dialogue is different.) It is obvious that the handover metaphor deals with a potential future with either Mainland or Taiwan as a dead-end or crippling event. I do wonder what the third option would have been. The fortune teller states that it isn’t either Taiwan or the Mainland but “It is your heart” in how he makes his choice. Of course by the end of the second story he has both fame and money, but at a price I do not think he was willing to pay. Is his character in a cyclical hell? Or can he progressively improve his position? Can Hong Kong improve its position given these two choices?

    A negative aspect to this movie is the overuse of the hand-held wide-angle lens (9.8mm same size used in Fallen Angels (1995)) much to To’s chagrin. Sometimes it works well and gives the film an off-kilter otherworldly feel and is adaptive and playful. Sometimes it does not like when he does a whole fight scene upside down which was certainly discombobulating and not all the effective as aesthetics or allegory (its use is to demarcate the choice where Wong Ah Kau’s life can go in very different directions.) It is telling that Wai did not do another solo directorial effort until 2004’s Fantasia. To’s past criticism about the film is correct from a formal standpoint, but there is an anarchy here that works well.

    The more I go over this, the more I am impressed with the complexity of the plot, the sardonic and often dark humor and how much this does fit into the Milkway portfolio. The comedic lopping off of fingers reminds me of the similar use in The Odd One Dies. But it is not unique to see similarities between Milkyway films. Carmen Lee plays a redemptive female in both this and The Odd One Dies (Stephen Teo notes this and the film Loving You which I have not seen.) *** The use of duality is here with an exact Doppleganger with the Taiwan Triad bosses (since they are brothers) and is especially present as there are many similarities between the two paths: yet some subtle and important differences that are eked out on rewatches. Some characters cannot outrun their destiny (like Lee Fung Yee in Running on Empty): the boss, the drowning of the triad’s brother and the inability to drive. Some like Wong seem destined to improve among the Multiverse. Maybe Wai was reading upon String Theory before he wrote this.

    It is a shame that this is not easily available. I have waited for years to find an affordable copy of the DVD (20 dollars or under; I would pay more if Criterion released it) or some possible rerelease but to no avail. So I had to finally take the plunge to watch this on youtube. That is not something I particularly like doing, but I wanted to watch it for a few reasons including research into Milkyway’s films. I would easily buy this if it was released here in the United States. I have pretty much given up on Criterion releasing Hong Kong cinema (or even Taiwan or Mainland), but would Shout! possibly be interested in releasing a triad set? Kino?

    * While Beyond Hypothermia would have Milkyway’s logo on it To states in Stephen Teo’s monograph on To “That was shot before the company was set up. It was released after the company was established.”

    ** While the watch has three close-ups it shows two different times. In the second path it starts off as broken but at a later time with the tussle with Bo. It is telling that Bo is apologetic about it because Bo recognizes valuable items. But it is also important because Carmen Lee’s character buys him a cheaper watch which he tosses aside – possibly because it is a cheaper watch and also wanting to remain seen as a tough guy. The breaking of watch allegory (trying to stop time) in William Faulkner’s The Sound and the Fury – though Faulkner’s narrative approach is much more difficult than this one which may be hard to believe unless you have read Faulkner.

    *** Stephen Teo makes a crucial mistake in his book when he writes the film as Too Many Ways To Be Number 1. The English title is purposefully spelled to use the contraction “No.” (No 1 = no one) You might think of “Too” as two since there are two main life choices this individual has.

    Book: Director in Action: Johnnie To and the Hong Kong Action Films (2007) by Stephen Teo
    Book: Planet Hong Kong (Second Edition: 2011) by David Bordwell
    Youtube link
    You can finds positive reviews (one of the rare ones for Fonoroff) in: At the Hong Kong Movies: 600 Reviews from 1988 Till the Handover (1999) by Paul Fonoroff and The Hong Kong Filmography, 1977-1999: A Reference Guide to 1,100 Films Produced by British Hong Kong Studios (2009) by John Charles Both believe that this film was influenced by Pulp Fiction.

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