Speed Freaks

Brightly shot and densely edited, Pie in the Sky is itself a manic meth rap. Berlin's current preoccupation with key lime pie may be less interesting than the scurvy gossip she retailed in her Factory days, but the movie manages to have its cake and eat it too—debunking the Berlin image even while reveling in it. Pie in the Sky inspires less surprise that Berlin lived to tell the tale of her dissolute youth than amazement that she lived at all.


Speaking of second chances, it's no wonder that the American success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon would revive interest in Tsui Hark, the great genre resuscitator of post-1980 Hong Kong cinema. Tsui's latest movie, Time and Tide, opens next month (his first north-of-Chinatown premiere), as does Subway Cinema's seven-film, two-venue Tsui retro (at Anthology Film Archives and the Plaza Twin in Brooklyn). This Friday, Film Forum premieres a new 35mm print of the uncut Once Upon a Time in China, to be followed next week by its first and best sequel.

The movie that revived the period kung fu film and recharged the career of action star Jet Li by casting him as the legendary 19th-century martial artist Master Wong Fei-Hong, Once Upon a Time in China (1991) features a big set (amply stocked with breakaway chairs, tables, and buildings), a large cast (including a sizable Western minority), numerous choreographed brawls, and plenty of slapstick (not to mention low comedy). New titles make the movie much easier to follow, up to a point. For all the complicated intrigue, Once Upon a Time in China is essentially spectacle—its escalating action is bathed in a nostalgic golden light, when there's no nocturnal monsoon.

Li, an athletic performer with more technique than personality, opens up by performing a one-man Dragon Dance on a ship's rigging. Master of the backward somersault and the corkscrew leap—stunts accentuated by Tsui's whirling camera—he holds off an entire army with an umbrella. As far as I can tell, the acrobatics are authentic. The movie's set piece—a miraculous balancing act involving a fight to the death in a warehouse filled with ladders—took two weeks to shoot. Now a leisurely 134 minutes, Once Upon a Time gets better as it goes along, building up to a prolonged shipboard finale. Throughout, Master Wong deploys his "shadowless kick" and "10-form fist" against gwei lo bullets; if he needs a gun, he can flick a musket ball with fatal results.

Set in the period following the Opium Wars, the movie has a new topical relevance in its expression of aggrieved nationalism and contempt for the invasive foreigners who employ "swords and daggers" to eat their gross food, annoy the marketplace with strident renditions of the "Hallelujah Chorus," and generally terrorize the Chinese population with unprovoked and indiscriminate attacks. Americans are particularly egregious in cheating Chinese immigrants and kidnapping women to serve as prostitutes.

Once Upon a Time in China II (1992), which opens at Film Forum next week, tones down the rhetoric. Set 20 years later (although the actors show no signs of aging), it triangulates a bit in pitting Master Wong and his new friend Dr. Sun Yat-Sen against a fanatic, as well as antic, antiforeign sect. More concentrated and svelte than its precursor, Once Upon a Time II also has the benefit of fights staged by Master Yuen Wo-Ping that show Jet Li—another camera-age hero—to even greater advantage.

A pure amphetamine glare straight into the camera: Berlin in Pie in the Sky
photo: Digne Meller Marcovicz
A pure amphetamine glare straight into the camera: Berlin in Pie in the Sky

Details

Pie in the Sky: The Brigid Berlin Story
Directed by Vincent Fremont and Shelly Dunn Fremont
Film Forum
Through May 8

Once Upon a Time in China
Directed by Tsui Hark
Written by Tsui, Yuen Kai-Chi, Edward Leung, and Elsa Tang
TriStar and Sony Pictures Repertory
Film Forum
April 27 through May 3

Once Upon a Time in China II
Directed by Tsui Hark
Written by Tsui, Hanson Chan, and Cheung Tan
TriStar and Sony Pictures Repertory
Film Forum
May 4 through 10

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Related article:

Chuck Stephens's profile of Tsui Hark.

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