Rocks Off


The power-pop genre resuscitator and all-around mogul Tsui Hark used to be thought of as Hong Kong’s Steven Spielberg. As the man who discovered John Woo, introduced Chow Yun-fat, reinvented Jet Li, and fired King Hu, Tsui is certainly a formidable producer. As a filmmaker, however, he has less in common with Spielberg than with Brian De Palma—another mix-and-match magpie who is addicted to showy set pieces and always willing to sacrifice coherence on the altar of sensuous violence.

Like De Palma, Tsui can be provocatively tackball. Peking Opera Blues (1986), the infinitely superior precursor to Charlie’s Angels, if not Josie and the Pussycats, remains his masterpiece—in part because this blatantly two-dimensional girl-group action comedy is so single-minded that it might have been inspired by the Go-Go’s singing “We’ve Got the Beat.” Time and Tide—apparently the first of Tsui’s 35 features to have a north-of-Chinatown New York premiere—is more expansive. As the director’s HK comeback after two mediocre Van Damme vehicles, it seems like a bid to reclaim the mountaintop.

Alternately slapdash and sensational, Time and Tide begins as a parody of Wong Kar-wai, complete with garish night-town expressionism, philosophical voice-over, and Latin American fantasies. Enjoyably outrageous, the movie ends with a blatant attempt to trump the finale of Hard Boiled, the last HK feature made by Tsui’s onetime protégé Woo. In between, a nearly impossible-to-follow hit-man narrative percolates with simultaneous subplots and orchestrated shoot-outs that, for all their elaborate planning, are far more impressionist than analytical.

Tyler, the movie’s nominal hero (blandly played by current HK pop idol Nicholas Tse), is a 21-year-old bartender who manages to bring home Jo (model Cathy Chu), a lesbian undercover policewoman. Nine months later, they meet in a supermarket and he sees that she is pregnant—thus is born a sense of responsibility that she in no way encourages. Tyler gets a job as a bodyguard, bonding with an older toughie, Jack (Taiwan’s superstar rocker Wu Bai)—back from years working in Latin America as a mercenary—after they somehow foil a birthday party hit on triad boss Mr. Hong, who happens to be the estranged father of Jack’s pregnant wife, Hui (singer Candy Lo). Still with me?

Things become more complex once Jack’s former associates, an inexplicably Spanish-speaking, mainly Chinese mob from Brazil, come to the town they dismissively call “Cockroach City.” For some reason, they need to eliminate Mr. Hong. But by the time Time and Tide mutates into a gangster flick with rival hit teams, narrative logic has long since been trampled in the dust kicked up by several wild chases through huge shopping malls, bumper-car escapades in skyscraper parking garages, and—most spectacularly—a near-military assault on the huge, moldering apartment complex-cum-dovecote that Jack calls home.

Seems that Jack has grabbed the swag (although Tyler gets blamed) and the Brazilian guys want him “back on their team.” Snipers stake out the apartment even as Jack crashes through the window and zips down the side of the building, setting the scene for the sort of dangling aerial antics in airshafts and stairwells that the producers of the megabuck Spiderman should count themselves lucky to even approximate. Tsui amuses himself with this midair ballet for a good 20 minutes before destroying the building in a digital explosion.

The cheesy apocalypse seems crucial—Time and Tide is pure video game. “New target, new information” is a key bit of dialogue. Suddenly Tyler is chasing Hui to the Kowloon train station to recover the money, with a SWAT team in hot pursuit. Police snipers are diving and skidding through the cavernous waiting room even as pregnant Hui goes into labor. The suitably agonizing ending has everyone scrambling through the catacombs and up into the catwalks of a nearby stadium where a huge crowd has gathered for a rock concert—which does not, unfortunately, feature Nicholas Tse, Wu Bai, and Candy Lo. Suffice to say that Hui gives birth mid gunfight. Benicio Del Toro fans may remember a similar complication in the denouement of the Amerindie neo-noir The Way of the Gun, but Tsui, who cares even less, manages to keep the scene light.

Jagged and jokey, filled with glam young people, lyrical Canto-Pop, and narrative non sequiturs, Time and Tide is Tsui’s version of neo-new wave. The filmmaker has treated himself to an aesthetic face-lift—but it barely softens his hard-edged features. The old Tsui keeps glaring out. Time and Tide has no rationale beyond pure kinesis. Tsui’s mise-en-scène is fundamentally soulless, but he has always been a bang-bang editor. The barrage of short shots and disconnected close-ups has as much firepower as any of the film’s zippy shoot-outs.

Time and Tide is not nearly as lyrical, sustained, eccentric, or sincerely romantic as it would like to be, although there’s plenty to admire—be it the way that Tsui manages to slide his camera around a restaurant kitchen or the antic bodyguard who freaks out an obnoxious client by driving her to the airport in reverse gear.

Back in a new 35mm print, the vintage Mick Jagger vehicle Performance may be the ultimate pop-star crime film—or perhaps the ultimate pop-star crime. When Donald Cammell and Nicolas Roeg’s X-rated feature had its world premiere during the summer of 1970, delayed at least a year by squeamish Warner Bros., Richard Schickel characterized it in Time as “the most disgusting, the most completely worthless film I have seen since I began reviewing.”

Unlike Time and Tide, to cite another youth-pandering criminal spree, Performance lingers lovingly over its mayhem and boasts a psychedelic surplus of meaning as the androgynous hippie magus Turner (Jagger) casts his voodoo spell on the ultraviolent cockney enforcer Chas (James Fox). The movie is considered by some to be the definitive portrait of late-’60s London, but its most memorable landscapes are mainly flesh. Cammell and Roeg get the show on the road by putting the camera in bed with some mildly kinky naked young people thrashing about—in this case Chas and his compliant bird. This is scarcely the only exercise in rumpled sheets, but first the movie follows swaggering Chas through a day’s worth of brutal shakedowns. A sadist who enjoys his work all too well, Chas winds up getting whipped and beaten and, after dispatching his tormentor, is forced to take it on the lam. Against all logic, the tough guy seeks refuge in the run-down town house where the reclusive Turner, a onetime rock idol, lives in barbaric splendor with his concubines, Pherber (Anita Pallenberg) and Lucy (Michèle Breton).

This happy hippie hideaway is well stocked with period accoutrements and icons, both cinematic and literary. (Jorge Luis Borges comes in for special abuse.) Lolling like pashas beneath their mirrored ceiling, the Turner ménage is only too pleased to mindfuck the macho straight who has wandered into their lair. The movie’s polymorphously perverse premise seems to have been almost immediately travestied by the original stage production of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, but its style has rarely been revisited. New wave with a vengeance, Performance offers a nonstop farrago of strobe cuts, flash-forwards, percussive zooms, rack-focus shots, weird aural cues, and trippy interpolations—even before Chas goes native, blasted into inner space on a dinner of psilocybin mushrooms.

The movie is a facile enough pastiche of underground pyrotechnics and Euro-art pretensions, but far more evocative now is the fast, offhand repartee between the principals. (According to production accounts, the movie had strong aspects of psychodrama, with various participants playing versions of themselves.) Frequently naked, even as she keeps changing her outfit, the then 24-year-old Pallenberg is a stunning creature. Her sexual insolence and petulantly garbled line readings give a mocking edge, seldom encountered outside the Warhol factory, to her erotic scenes with Fox (who evidently had a Christian conversion as a result of the movie). Supremely self-conscious, Jagger makes do with a diffident, hooded stare. He’s less sacred monster than youthcult sage and, like the Wizard of Oz, seems overly dependent on reputation and technology for his effects. When Chas is first ushered into Turner’s presence, he’s assaulted by a blast of the Last Poets.

Seen today, it seems remarkable that Performance could have inspired so much acrimony—particularly as it appeared only weeks after the truly horrific Hollywood sacrilege that was Myra Breckinridge. Legend has it that the wife of one Warner executive became violently ill during a sneak preview, and John Simon (who reported on this “most loathsome film of all” in The New York Times) reported that the Manhattan theater where Performance held sway reeked of vomit. This tribute notwithstanding, Performance seems more like eye candy than castor oil in the brave new world of Freddy Got Fingered.