Action Reigns at the Berlinale

Article excerpt

This year's Berlin International Film Festival was well-rounded and richly varied, but a common denominator in nearly all the offerings was pumped-up action and violence.

Action, action, and more action seemed the leitmotif of the Berlin International Film Festival (or Berlinale) this year, with Chinese filmmakers very much at the forefront of this obsession.

A riot nearly broke out when an early press screening of Zhang Yimou's new martial arts film, Hero, was quickly filled; fortunately, Competition section programmers managed to arrange an additional screening in another auditorium starting half an hour later for the overflow. Critics and reporters were eager to see how the masterful Zhang, previously known for lush period melodramas such as Red Sorghum (which won him the Golden Bear in the 1988 Berlinale) and Shanghai Triad, would try his hand at the martial arts genre, with no less than action superstar Jet Li as the hero of the title. The director had also enlisted two popular Hong Kong actors, Tony Leung and Maggie Cheung, and China's rising young star, Zhang Ziyi, the young heroine of Ang Lee's astonishing hit Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. While action and special effects abound in Hero--an epic about an assassin's attempt to bring down the Ch'in emperor, the first emperor of China--there is also deliberate delicacy and little bloodshed. [A future article for The World & I will focus on this film.]

In the International Forum section of the Berlinale, two of the most popular films in the festival were also action films made by Chinese directors, both from Hong Kong, a city that has come to be associated with a kind of action film that is highly kinetic--often unrelentingly so. Johnny To's PTU and Andrew Law/Alan Mak's Infernal Affairs are both superior police thrillers that tell the nitty gritty of Hong Kong law enforcement with unexpected twists and turns. Their Berlinale screenings were mobbed by journalists as well as local audiences who have acquired a taste for the genre.

PTU (meaning "Police Tactical Unit") is a tautly paced tale about a hapless police sergeant, Lo, who loses his gun in a scuffle, and a punk, Ponytail, who gets stabbed in a restaurant. Lo's police colleagues agree to help him recover his revolver, as its loss endangers his upcoming promotion, and Ponytail's father, a gangland boss, pledges revenge.

Ultimately, these strands of the story converge in a ludicrously violent shoot-out by the waterfront. Nevertheless, this police story has more characterization than usual, and director To calls the film "one of my personal films, one I really wanted to make." Indeed, it took To, one of Hong Kong's most successful filmmakers, two years to complete, since he had to work on it between more commercial ventures.

Far more depth of both character and plotting is evident in Infernal Affairs, which interweaves a complex story of "moles" on both sides of the law enforcement business. Ming (Andy Lau) is a gangland infiltrator in the government's Criminal Intelligence Bureau, while Yan (Tony Leung) is an undercover cop in a triad (Chinese criminal group)--and both want out. Each day brings them possible exposure and even death, but an exit from this kind of life must be handled with finesse. Can they do it?

This suspenseful cat-and-mouse tale was one of the top box office hits in Hong Kong last year, showing that even people living in one of the fastest-paced cities in the world love a good story with well-developed characters. While the movie has violence, it gives more weight to how it affects us poor mortals. The vivid portrayal of the two protagonists--through tight acting and skillful writing--helps us to care what happens to them.

Musicals Return

Rob Marshall's Chicago, a very kinetic musical with a violent subtext, brought another kind of action to the Competition section. Set in the roaring twenties, the film's two heroines, Roxie Hart (Renee Zellweger) and Velma Kelly (Catherine Zeta-Jones), retell their stories in song and dance while in the slammer for killing men who jilted them. …