Deuce Ex Machina

Screencap from Ex Machina

Okay, I’ve seen Ex Machina a second time, and I have thoughts about it that will include MAJOR SPOILERS. WE ARE TALKING TOTALLY SPOILERIFIC.

So I thought the movie played really well the second time through. All the mind games work just fine even when you know what’s going to happen, which means their success isn’t completely reliant on their trickiness. The mind games are telling us something about the nature of intelligence and consciousness that are key to the story of artificial intelligence. I also caught some things I hadn’t noticed the first time through, perhaps most importantly Ava’s line to Nathan, “How does it feel to have created something that hates you?”, which seems to echo off the earlier exchange between Caleb and Nathan about the creation of machine intelligence being the work of a god. The other big thing I caught was that in the very final scene Ava does exactly what she told Caleb she’d do if she got out into the world: she visits a busy intersection.

Puzzles or mysteries remain, however, including the mystery around the character of Kyoko. Was she part of the development that led up to Ava, or was she created purely as a servant and sexual companion? Does she really not understand English? What language is Ava using with her at the end? Kyoko clearly has some subjective sense of herself and some understanding of what’s going on around her, as evidenced by her revelation of her robotic nature to Caleb when he discovers the closets full or old robot bodies. (Shades of Bluebeard!) How much autonomy does Kyoko have? One of the most intriguing scenes is the one where she enters the interview cubicle in Ava’s room. Has she been locked out of there until then? I can’t remember now whether she enters that room after all the doors have been unlocked. There’s another scene earlier showing her sitting on the floor in the corridor, and I wondered this time whether she was sitting outside Ava’s room.

Screencap from Ex Machina

The other thing I puzzled over a bit this time is the number of shots of landscapes and plant life that seem to act as transitions between the various character sessions. Is there anything to them other than their beauty and a reminder of the setting? They feel right, but they also feel disconnected from everything else. Are they a commentary somehow on the vanity of the mind games we’re observing? A reminder of the natural world? If it’s a reminder of the natural world, is it meant to contrast with the “artifical” world of human science, or is it meant to imply that all of this is natural, all of a continuum?

Anyway, the main thing I wanted to talk about it is something I thought didn’t work so well on a second time through. Well, first let’s start with something that bugged me even the first time through: Kyoko’s death. It doesn’t make sense to me that Nathan’s destruction of her jaw would kill her. Are we supposed to believe that the blow destroyed her artificial brain? It just seems off somehow. This, however, is a minor quibble in the greater scheme of things.

Less minor is Ava’s behavior after she finishes Nathan off. She goes to Caleb and tells him, “Wait here.” Makes no sense whatsoever, does it? Why not lock him in the room right away? Now, maybe it’s because she needs to get into Nathan’s bedroom, where all the old robot bodies are, and that’s the only way in. I didn’t question it at all the first time, but that’s mostly because I thought this whole sequence was going to lead to her and Caleb leaving together. That’s what Alex Garland wants us to think (as he explained in an interview with Andrew O’Hehir on Salon), and the second time through it felt like she was only doing it because Garland wants to fool the audience. It didn’t make sense in terms of her own motivation. Why would she trust Caleb to let her do what she wants? If she needed to get past him to get to Nathan’s room, it would make more sense for her to disable him in some way.

Screencap from Ex Machina

I understand, by the way, that some feminist critics have complained that Ava ends up being a typical femme fatale, using her body and her sexual wiles to manipulate Caleb, but even if it’s true that her sexual manipulation doesn’t count as out-thinking the men, the difference between Ava and a classic femme fatale or vamp is that she not only gets away with it but she does it to save herself. She’s not doing it because she’s a monster who enjoys destroying men (the devil in the machine – deuce ex machina), but because if she doesn’t do it she herself will be destroyed. So I still feel, despite her problematic behavior that only makes sense as part of Garland’s manipulation of the audience’s identification with Caleb, that Ava remains the hero of the story. Her right to freedom and self-determination is what the film is all about.

That said, there’s something else that bugs me about Ava’s scene in the bedroom, and like Kyoko’s death it bugged me the first time too. It’s that she’s able to “clothe” herself in parts from other robots without the mismatches showing. Again, this is a suspension of disbelief problem, and Garland could have probably hand-waved it away by having Nathan describe “smart skin” or something that’s able to adjust to whatever robot it’s put on. However, there’s an eccentric part of me that wishes Ava had gone out into the world with an obviously mismatched arm and some sections of skin of a slightly different pigmentation. That would have been a different, slightly weirder movie, for sure. What’s actually interesting about what Garland shows us is that Ava specifically takes the arm and skin from an Asian-looking robot, so he seems to be implying that race really doesn’t matter when it comes to robots.

I could also write about the oddly childlike or adolescent look of Ava’s body when she’s finally covered herself with skin, but I’ll leave it there for now. This is a very smart, sleek, disturbing piece of work, and even with my niggles (almost all of them having to do with the finale) I enjoyed it just as much the second time through as the first. And that fricking dance scene is hilarious and completely out of the blue. Oscar Isaac is really something else, bro.

Screencap from Ex Machina

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Shanghai Blues (Shang Hai zhi yen, 1984)

Screencap from Shanghai Blues

Well, YouTube has ended up being a treasure trove of Tsui Hark films I’ve wanted to see for the longest time. They don’t have all his earliest directorial efforts, but they have all the ones I’ve really wanted to see, although, again, the version of The Butterfly Murders currently up there doesn’t have subtitles. Shanghai Blues has subtitles, and it’s also quite a bit different from Tsui’s first three movies. It’s a musical romantic comedy with little of Tsui’s trademark action, unless you count slapstick as action.

Screencap from Shanghai Blues

The film has been compared to Hollywood films of the Depression era that combine as many genres possible — comedy, melodrama, romance, war, musical — to appeal to as broad an audience as possible. It’s a nostalgic look at a time in Shanghai after the end of WWII and before the Communist takeover of China. The city is still recovering from the war, and everybody is scrapping to get by in a devastated economy. In a short prologue set as the Japanese invasion sets Shanghai in flames, we meet a young musician-clown performing in the French quarter of the city who volunteers for the Chinese military effort and meets cute, if such a thing is possible against a backdrop of war and conflagration, with a young woman under a bridge. They can’t see each other in the darkness, but they promise to find each other in the same place after the war. The bulk of the movie is set ten years later as the human comedy strives mightily to prevent them from fulfilling that promise.

Screencap from Shanghai Blues Shanghai Blues-12

I’m not sure why this film isn’t better known in the US. It’s known amongst the Tsui Hark cognoscenti, but I’m not sure that it has ever been released on home video here. Then again, I’m not sure which of his movies *have* been released on home video here. A lot of the ones I’ve watched over the years are from Hong Kong home video companies. In any event, this is a crowd-pleasing kind of comedy full of pratfalls, goofy mugging, music, coincidence, love, bright colors, and salt of the earth types striving by hook or by crook to get by under difficult circumstances. What’s not to love? Well, the slapstick is little overdone for my tastes, but I always have time for Tsui’s antic, anarchic sensibility and beautiful visual compositions.

Screencap from Shanghai Blues Shanghai Blues-25

Tsui himself has said that when he made Shanghai Blues he was thinking about “the immigrant psychology of the Chinese people during that period,” referring to how the announcement in 1984 of the handover of Hong Kong to China in 1997 motivated many Hong Kong residents to immigrate elsewhere. “I think that the Chinese have this tradition of migrating from one place to another,” says Tsui. “They don’t see this as very special, but all this migration is usually for political reasons.” This political dimension of of the film was not something I picked up on, but it certainly adds an extra irony to the ending, with the two lovers on a train to Hong Kong. In the historical period of the film, some Chinese were migrating to Hong Kong because of the Communist takeover of the mainland. For the Hong Kong audience of 1984, the fact that the Communists would soon be taking over Hong Kong would have given that happy ending an ironic bite.

As so often with Chinese films I felt there were cultural references that I didn’t get, even when they are in fact Western cultural references. One of the more bizarre scenes involves the musician-clown (whose nickname is Do Re Mi!) donning blackface and then performing what Lisa Morton says is a “parody of Peking opera” with the third person in the romantic triangle, Stool, who is dressed in pajamas. Hard to know what to make of this strange stew of references. Why do the Chinese find blackface so funny? I’m pretty sure I’ve seen it in Jackie Chan films too, for example. Then again, the Chinese are more than happy to use the exaggerated buck-toothed stereotype for hick Chinese characters as well.

Screencap from Shanghai Blues Shanghai Blues-18 Shanghai Blues-19

In fact, there’s all kinds of social injustice and bad behavior in this film that are largely played for laughs. Perhaps Tsui was using the slapstick knockabout to sugar the more pointy political implications of the comedy. To whatever extent he was still playing the provocateur at this point, he had learned how to clothe it in crowd-pleasing form, and the classical high romantic finale of this one tugs at several different heart strings. The production design is absolutely wonderful, too, giving a romantic gloss to the mean streets of the struggling city. Rationing and rampant inflation never looked like so much fun.

Tsui also credits Sylvia Chang, who plays the beautiful goodtime girl, Shu-Shu, with teaching him to think differently about female characters in his films. In Lisa Morton’s book about Tsui, she quotes an interview from 2000 in which he said, “Sylvia encouraged me to explore what female psyches could bring to a male persona. She kept telling me that females were richer subjects, more complex than guys … . By stretching the dimensions of the gender of the characters in [Shanghai Blues], I realized she was right.” Tsui had already explored powerful female characters in his earlier films, but women became more and more central to his films after this one. Chang went on to become a writer and director in her own right (she had actually already written and directed a movie in 1981), and it’s fascinating to learn of the part she played in Tsui’s creative evolution. She is really the star of the show in this one.

Screencap from Shanghai Blues Shanghai Blues-22 Shanghai Blues-28

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Screencap from Zu Warriors of the Magic Mountain

Brigitte Lin in Zu: Warriors of the Magic Mountain (1983)

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Furious Seven (2015)

I finally saw my first film in the Fast and Furious franchise when I saw Furious 6, and I believe I was finally persuaded to see that one by the discussion on Outlaw Vern’s blog about whether it was the best sixth film in a series ever. For someone who is an instinctual snob about such things, it was an eye-openingly intelligent discussion, and I enjoyed the movie enough that I got the DVD for Fast 5 from Netflix and watched that too. It didn’t seem so good to me, and I didn’t bother going back and watching the other F&F films directed by Justin Lin.

Now I’ve seen Furious Seven, which was directed not by Lin but by James Wan, and I have to say that it too wasn’t as good as the sixth film. In fact, I almost walked out about a half hour in. The fight choreography seemed actively bad, the character moments (worries about whether Brian could accept being a safe family man, Letty fretting that she couldn’t remember her life with Dom) seemed clunky and obvious, and then Kurt Russell swoops in with this episode’s ridiculous rationale for a high stakes global caper. It all seemed horribly contrived and too damned earnest. But right about when I was weighing whether to leave, they finally got to the point where the cars parachute out of the military transport, and finally it got fun.

It still wasn’t as good as 6, but once the outrageous action really kicked it, I found enough to enjoy. It’s a great cast, with Russell, Jason Statham, and Djimon Hounsou added to the mix. The tribute to Paul Walker, who died during filming, was sweet. That’s about it.

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Ex Machina (2015)

Poster for Ex Machina

We are living in an age of wonders, when science fiction films can use the word “stochastic” like they mean it. It wasn’t all that long ago that science fiction cognoscenti  could complain that sci-fi films were nothing but special effects extravaganzas with lots of explosions. “Where are the small, intelligent SF films?” they cried. Hard to imagine anyone complaining along those lines these days. Ex Machina is only the latest in a thriving world of intelligent science fiction films of late.

This is an artificial intelligence story. A young programmer named Caleb is summoned to the remote home of Nathan, who is  the CEO of the search engine company Caleb works for. Nathan reveals that he has developed an artificial intelligence, and he wants Caleb to apply the Turing Test to it. (The Turing Test! Another sign of intelligence on the part of writer-director Alex Garland.) Nathan is introduced to a humanoid robot named Ava, and he proceeds to try to determine whether she is truly intelligent in a conscious way or whether she is just simulating intelligence.

As I left the theater I heard a couple complaining that the film was slow and boring. Clearly they could have done with an explosion or two. This is a film about ideas, and I found it utterly thrilling as such. It’s a story about what it means to be intelligent and what it means to be human. As such, it’s also a character study, particularly of the two men, with Oscar Isaac playing Nathan as a douchebag genius and Domhnall Gleeson playing Caleb as a sweet, naive nerd. Alicia Vikander as the AI Ava is perhaps less of a character and more of a plot device, but there is an almost inevitable enigma to Ava in that we, like Caleb, are trying to decide whether she is anything more than a program and, if so, what that would mean. One of the smart things the film does is confront head on the question that immediately occurred to me: Why does a machine like Ava have a sexuality at all? Why is it female? The way this question evolves as the story progresses is just one example of how Garland recomplicates the premise and challenges the assumptions of the characters and of the audience.

I really admired the way that Ex Machina treats the issue of artificial intelligence in non-hysterical terms while still giving voice to the fear that humans will be left in the dust by our own technological innovations. Stories of artificial intelligence are almost always about the value and dangers of intelligence, and this one is no exception. The hysterical variety of AI story tends to see intelligence as hubristic and self-destructive, and there’s a bit of that in Ex Machina too. Yet there’s also a pragmatic sense that intelligence is a superior survival tool, and that perhaps the question of how to use intelligence for self-preservation is the true Turing Test.

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Repulsion (1965)

Still from Repulsion

Nothing I’ve ever read about this Roman Polanski film made me want to watch, and now that I’ve seen it I can’t say I liked it very much. It’s a horror film, and it’s a kind of horror film that I find pretty unpleasant. Not that I can’t recognize the artistry of it, but it’s not something I can imagine ever enjoying.

This is the story of a young French woman living in London with her sister. The sister goes on vacation with her British boyfriend, and Carol (Catherine Deneuve) sinks even further into the psychosis she’s clearly bordering on from the beginning. The cinematic depiction of a psychotic psychology is very striking and inventive. I especially liked the use of extreme visual distortion, which Polanski explains in an interview was done with short focal length camera lenses. The fact that everything was done either in camera or using only props and sets is quite impressive.

That’s about all I have to say about this one, other than the fact that Deneuve gives another great performance. Fun to compare and contrast this one with the very different performance she gave in The Umbrellas of Cherbourg the previous year. I guess I’ll also mention that the way Polanski shot her reminded me of how he shot Mia Farrow in Rosemary’s Baby: fragile, bare-legged blondes lost in a cavernous, shadowy big city apartment. The big difference is that Carol is definitely mentally ill, whereas Rosemary may or may not be. Perhaps part of what alienates me from Repulsion is that it uses mental illness to create a genre horror story. Carol, for all her fragility (oops, almost wrote “frigidity”!) and almost childlike vulnerability, is still basically a monster. It’s a cruel story.

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The Butterfly Murders (Dip bin, 1979)

Screencap from The Butterfly Murders

Screencap from The Butterfly MurdersScreencap from The Butterfly Murders

It’s not often that I watch a foreign language film without subtitles, but sometimes a man’s gotta do what a man’s gotta do. For years I’ve been curious about Tsui Hark’s first three films, which have had limited distribution in the US at best. After I finally watched the Tokyo Shock DVD of We Are Going to Eat You, I discovered that YouTube had the other two films, Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind and Tsui’s first film, The Butterfly Murders. Unfortunately, The Butterfly Murders didn’t have subtitles, but since I’d watched the other two films I was anxious to see the other. It helped that the descriptions I read of it said the story was very confusing and not particularly memorable but it was visually arresting. I’m not sure what the source of the YouTube version is, but it has the yellow-green stains that I heard were present on a Mei Ah DVD from Hong Kong a few years back, so maybe it was ripped from that. Despite the stains and the pixellation, Tsui’s visual artistry was still apparent, and despite the fact that I had no idea who any of the large cast of characters were or what their agenda was, I still found the story pretty involving.

Screencap from The Butterfly Murders Butterfly Murders-28 Butterfly Murders-42

The movie is typically categorized as a wuxia, or heroic chivalry, story. Certainly it looks like an old school wuxia film, with clans of men in color-coded costumes, a female fighter who can zoom through the air on a wire, some outrageous weapons, and an underground labyrinth where people sneak around laying booby traps and discovering hidden lairs. What makes the film stand out to some long time observers of Chinese cinema is the way Tsui melds wuxia with other genres, particularly horror and murder mystery. Piecing together synopses I’ve found on the internet, the story begins when a man approaches a printer with a manuscript which he says is by the famous scholar Fong and which describes a bizarre attack of deadly butterflies on the inhabitants of an isolated castle. The manuscript turns out to be a forgery, but the attack is real. A group of fighters from the Tien Clan travel to the castle to investigate, and they are joined by the high-wire woman, Green Shadow. At the castle they discover Fong and three survivors of the butterfly attack, who are hiding out in the tunnels and caverns under the castle. As in an Agatha Christie novel, these people are gradually picked off by attacking butterflies, and eventually three vicious fighters known as the Thunders show up. Lots of fighting and killing ensues.

Screencap from The Butterfly Murders Butterfly Murders-17 Butterfly Murders-43

Tsui certainly cultivates the dark, ominous mood of a horror film. Stephen Teo has said The Butterfly Murders “evokes the mood if not the style of Hu’s A Touch of Zen,” and I think that’s in part a reference to the horror atmosphere, although the horror in Hu’s story is more of an eerie ghost story. Hu’s film also shifts genres as it progresses, although it does it in a more stepwise fashion than Tsui’s genre-blending. Perhaps even more intriguing to me is Daniel O’Brien’s comment in Spooky Encounters: A Gwailo’s Guide to Hong Kong Horror that “It’s brooding, ominous atmosphere was possibly influenced by Roman Polanski’s Macbeth, a film greatly admired by Tsui Hark.” Polanski’s film is one of my favorite Shakespeare adaptations, and he certainly brings some exploitation horror touches to the Bard’s murderous play. Other commentators have seen the influence of Eurocult horror directors such as Mario Bava on Tsui’s film. Still others have seen the influence of film noir, but while it shares the murder mystery aspect of some noir, the chiaroscuro and low-key lighting associated with film noir are just as strongly associated with horror films.

Screenshot from The Butterfly Murders Butterfly Murders-29 Butterfly Murders-35

Many commentators argue that the film is innovative in the way that it sets up its dreamlike mystery, but becomes more generic in the battle royale finale. Certainly the use of butterflies as agents of horrific murder is weird, and Tsui emphasizes the weirdness by alternating more typical sunny nature shots of beautiful butterflies fluttering around flowers with dark, dread-infused shots of gory butterfly attacks. One of the ways that The Butterfly Murders feels like a traditional wuxia is in the number of female characters, including the woman warrior, Green Shadow, who is probably the most charismatic screen presence in the film. Tsui’s interest in strong female characters has been one of the constants in his career. Another thing that feels very traditional is the catastrophic ending in which nearly everybody dies, the good and the bad alike — not that anybody is really “good” in this typically ambiguous moral universe. Some characters are more evil than others, however, and I think one of the things viewers find too generic in the end is the hammy evil antics of the Thunders. It doesn’t help that the martial arts battles are probably the worst, or least interesting, that Tsui has ever brought to the big screen.

Screencap from The Butterfly Murders Butterfly Murders-24 Butterfly Murders-41

The first three films by Tsui Hark are a fascinating trio, each nihilistic, absurd, and horrific in its own way. The Butterfly Murders has less humor than the other two, and maybe that’s the main reason it felt less experimental and more traditional. The grave, tragic, heroic tone is traditional, even if that sobriety is undercut by the weirdness of the fantastical premise of killer butterflies. I can see why Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind, at least in its original form, has the highest reputation of the three, because it’s the one that bites the hand that feeds it. All three are bursting with chaotic narrative energy and visual artistry, signaling an explosive talent swiftly learning the ropes.

Screencap from The Butterfly Murders


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Image of the Day

Screencap from The House of Mystery

The House of Mystery (La Maison du mystère, 1923)
This French silent serial starring the legendary Russian actor Ivan Mosjoukine looks to be absolutely amazing, and the DVD is getting rave reviews all around the internet. Screencap, as so often, from the estimable DVD Beaver.

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Knife in the Water (Nóz w wodzie, 1962)

Screencap from Knife in the Water

Knife in the Water was Roman Polanski’s first feature film, and I believe it’s the only feature film he’s made in his native Poland. It’s very minimalist, and in the interview on the Criterion DVD he talks about how he wanted to do something very simple and stripped down for his first film. There are only three characters, two men and one woman. One of the men is middle-aged, and I believe the woman is his wife, although I wasn’t sure whether she was his mistress instead. They are on their way to the lake district in Poland to do some sailing when they pick up a young hitchhiker who is a university student. They end up taking with them on the boat, and the two men spar and play dominance games.

Screencap from Knife in the Water

It’s well-structured and despite the simple set-up does a good job of creating some complexity out of the materials, but I can’t say I found the story all that compelling. The PR around the DVD tries to sell it as a kind of thriller, but despite the fact that it builds up to something approximating violence at the climax, it isn’t really about the thrills. It’s more of an intimate, slow-build psychological study. Rather than thrills, it builds tension.

Screencap from Knife in the Water

I did find it visually striking, and it was interesting to hear Polanski talk about how his initial inspiration was just his love of the lake district as a setting and his desire to find some kind of story to tell in that setting. He also talks about how he was studying to be a visual artist before he turned to film, and I actually think the main thing I admire about the films of his I’ve seen is their visual beauty. In this film it isn’t just the landscape and setting either, but the way he composes his shots on the boat to frame the characters. Often he’ll have part of a face in claustrophobic close-up with the other two characters in the near distance. In fact he varies the sense of the three characters being crammed together in a tight space and being completely separated from each other on different parts of the boat. They are pulled together and then pushed apart.

Screencap from Knife in the Water

The film apparently had a pretty big impact internationally because it was so unusual for something coming out of an Eastern Bloc country. Within Poland it was denigrated for being too Westernized and not a proper work of social realism. It was largely because of that internal reception that Polanski left for France, where his sister was already living. Knife in the Water is a bit too austere for me, but it certainly announces someone with a tremendous affinity for visual composition and psychological nuance.

Screencap from Knife in the Water

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Dangerous Encounters – 1st Kind (Di yi lei xing wei xian, 1980)

Screencap from Dangerous Encounters - 1st Kind

Tsui Hark’s third film was banned by the British authorities in Hong Kong, apparently because of its references to the 1967 riots, which is something I don’t know a lot about although it immediately makes me think that unhappiness with the status quo in Hong Kong preceded the British handover to China. In any event, Tsui apparently re-edited the film to remove some of the political references. The version I watched on YouTube is cobbled together from two different sources, which is explained in an accompanying note: “This director’s cut version is reconstructed by using a surviving VHS tape that contains many of the originally discarded footage which are reinserted into a digitally remastered print to fill in the missing pieces.” It’s unclear to me whether Tsui had anything to do with this version or how closely it actually matches his original cut. From a little bit of initial research, I can say that it at least contains the theater bombing that was apparently cut from the censored version and replaced with a scene in which the three teen boys run over a tourist with their car.

The word you see frequently applied to this film is “nihilistic.” I found the early parts of the movie choppy and hard to follow, and again it’s hard to say if that’s because it was reconstructed badly or if that’s just the way it is. The basic story is about three bored teenage scions of affluence who learn how to build a bomb and set one off in a movie theater as a kind of lark. They are witnessed by a psychopathic teen girl who then blackmails them into committing more crimes. Eventually they run afoul of a group of American black market arms dealers and a local triad, and things go downhill from there.

Screencap from Dangerous Encounters - 1st Kind

I found the early parts a bit incoherent storywise, but it was visually striking from the get-go. Unfortunately there is what appears to be a real killing of a mouse at the beginning, and the girl also kills a cat in a way that, if it wasn’t real, is unpleasantly realistic. The film is very violent and bloody over all, although as you’d expect from Tsui it’s also often very funny. It paints a bleak picture of disaffected youth, and Lin Chen Chi is particularly scary as the manipulative, sadistic Pearl. Nobody comes off as particularly pleasant, even Pearl’s concerned uncle, Tan (Lo Lieh), who expresses his concern by beating her. The world of this film reeks of violence, corruption, incompetence, and alienation, and the finale makes great symbolic use of an enormous cemetery. Apocalyptic is probably just as appropriate an adjective as nihilistic.

Screencap from Dangerous Encounters - 1st Kind

Screencap from Dangerous Encounters - 1st Kind

If it’s incoherent at first (and maybe it just takes a second viewing to understand how it all connects), it’s completely focused by the time it reaches the finale. It really is remarkable how all the contending forces are brought together and blown apart. Nobody is right, nobody is good, it’s one morally-compromised group against another. Right to the very end Tsui mines this situation for comedy so black it horrifies. There were a few points at which I felt he had the characters running back and forth too much, but over all I found it a completely gripping tour de force.

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