[Fantasia 2013] “THE LAST TYCOON”
I want to start out this review by saying I generally hate writing reviews, or maybe it’s just I hate reading reviews. This may seem like an odd way to begin, but stick around and I promise I’ll tell you all about THE LAST TYCOON in a moment.
I love reading criticism and analysis of movies… after I see a movie. But most people want to use a movie review to determine whether they will see a movie or not. Back before the interwebs, newspapers usually had a couple of movie reviewers that over time readers would get to know and trust. But today you can go to Rotten Tomatoes or other such sites and see a dozen or a hundred reviews written by bloggers you’ve probably never heard of nor have any inkling what their taste is in movies. And typically these reviewers are all over the spectrum of whether they loved or hated a movie. Point being, I can’t see how that helps anyone make a decision.
So after watching THE LAST TYCOON, and knowing I had to write this, I decided to read what other reviewers (I shall not call them “critics”) thought of the film. The first thing is that a majority of these reviewers spent most of the time simply retelling the movie’s storyline. They then proceeded to critique the plot like some frustrated community college English teacher grading yet another semester of first year undergraduates.
Look, the one thing I have found in my experience that is very typical about movies from Asia, especially those from Hong Kong, is that you often don’t want to spend too much time concerned about the storyline. Accept going in that there will be moments where you may be utterly confused about what’s going on and/or be unsure of the relationships between characters. I have found it best to take a Zen-like approach to these films. You should just let the movie wash over you. If afterwards you feel good, then it was a good movie. If you feel it left you itchy and unsatisfied, then it wasn’t.
I started watching movies from Hong Kong around 1986 when I lived in Los Angeles. Before that, all I knew about Asian movies for the most part was Kurasawa, Godzilla, and Bruce Lee. But then I came upon a wonderful article in Film Comment which I began to use as a checklist to seek out. There were names like Chow Yun Fat, Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung, and John Woo. I then ventured into this weird little store in Chinatown (think the store in GREMLINS) and would go through their rows of films looking for those names. Often there was no English on the boxes, so some days I’d just grab five random titles and take them home. Eventually, I braved going to one of the little theaters in Chinatown and watching whatever was there.
In those days the English subtitles were typically beyond pitiful (nowadays, they still can be laughingly sub par, but we’ve come a long way, baby). I’d try to force friends to watch some videos with me, but they quickly lost interest because of the poor subtitling. But not I. It made me use my brain to fill in the blanks. It was a great creative exercise. But then again, a lot of what I was digging on was the action, the staging, the acting, and the mysterious otherness of it all. It’s a lot like visiting a country where you don’t speak nor read the language and you can sit in a cafe or ride a metro and try to figure out what people are saying to each other. And when someone asks you a question or you have to engage with them, you have to depend on other cues – like their body language, the context, and the intonation of their voice to figure out what they’re trying to say to you. And if you practice this enough, you’ll be surprised by how much you’ll understand, rather than just switch your brain off and stare back at them like an idiot.
So now with that all said, let’s get to THE LAST TYCOON.
If this is going to be your first Asian movie, it’s probably not the one to start with. Find a friend who is somewhat versed in such things who knows what you like and don’t like and let them pick one that will be your entree into this world. Because if you are at least nominally familiar with Hong Kong movies, then there’s only one thing really to know here. It stars Chow Yun Fat. End of story.
Chow Yun Fat is the Robert de Niro/Al Pacino of Hong Kong movies. So it would be good to have some cinematic history with him before diving into this film. And like those two, he has aged beautifully, but often picks god awful or just mediocre movies to sleep-walk through – and like those American actors, it often doesn’t matter. You’ll gladly pay just to see them on screen.
But this is no take-the-money-and-run role. Fat is like this beautiful male peacock in a white who moves through the film taking possession of every frame with a grace and style that recalls Cary Grant in his latter years – think NORTH BY NORTHWEST and CHARADE. The film bounces between time periods – beginning both in 1937, as the Japanese are moving to take over Shanghai, and 1913 when Fat’s character, Cheng Daqi, leaves his village to come to the big city to seek his fortune. The only sad note is that Fat is now too old to play both the young and elder Daqi. But rising Chinese actor Huang Xiaoming does a really fine job in embodying the young Daqi, and I never once felt they were not playing the same person.
If this sounds like a set-up for a movie you’ve already seen, of course you have. The young man comes to the city to do well, but before you know it, he’s part of an underworld gang. And of course, by 1937, he’s basically the man who rules with a firm, but judicious hand. Why other reviewers spent so much time detailing the plot is baffling, it’s not original, nor meant to be, and that’s not why you are going to see it. So yes, it’s one part THE GODFATHER, one part GANGS OF NEW YORK, one part ONCE UPON A TIME IN AMERICA, and a dozen other films.
The film’s director Wong Jing, was often noted in the other reviews I read of being a bit of a “shlockmeister,” who hasn’t really done anything of true merit in some time. (Jing and Fat worked together on the 1989 classic GOD OF GAMBLERS, which led to a series of sequels, spin-offs, and rip-offs.) But forget about that. Here, he displays a love of cinema with an assured reverence like a matured Quentin Tarantino, giving us set pieces visually reminiscent of the best of Coppola, Scorsese, Leone, and Woo. There’s even a stunningly shot sequence involving umbrellas, guns and rain that harkens back to Alfred Hitchcock’s FOREIGN CORRESPONDENT. (My only real complaint is that the music in the film gets a bit too wannabe Morricone-esque.)
Honestly, it’s a shame Martin Scorsese or Brian de Palma can’t make a movie this sumptuous anymore. Because it really is a lovely film to watch. Who wouldn’t want to visit 1937 Shanghai after seeing this movie? (And by that I mean before the Japanese invasion, duh.)
And if all that weren’t enough, there are also elements of CASABLANCA herein. Fat’s Daqi owns a nightclub. There’s an old girlfriend from before he came to the city who’s now married to a guy with some papers the Japanese bad guys want. And before you can say, “Play it again, Sam,” there’s a plane with only two seats and Daqi has to choose who gets seated.
Gao Hu as Fat’s loyal knife-wielding lieutenant is a real stand out, but Frances Ng is basically stuck playing one note as the ruthless Mao Zai.
And that’s that. You get some great Chow Yun Fat on screen, along with some great action, great scenery, and that warm good feeling should hopefully wash over you by the time it’s done.
THE LAST TYCOON plays Fantasia on July 25th at 5:00pm. More details on the Fantasia website HERE.