Monday, May 18, 2009

John Woo's To Hell With The Devil (1981)

Upon first glimpse, John Woo's cinema became a Pandora's box of wonder for me. Around '89 or '90, as a teenager, in a fanzine or magazine, I read an article on Woo's The Killer (1989) that described the film as hyper-violent, kinetic, and unlike any action movie that had come before it. Hunting down a copy of the video was a nightmare: from searching video stores in New Orleans (nearest cosmopolitan area) to attempting to obtain laser disc copies direct from Hong Kong, the search was fruitless. The Killer later appeared domestically on VHS in a cut, dubbed version, and I snagged a copy and was hooked on Woo cinema. Chow Yun-Fat, with guns firmly in both fists firing at a rapid rate, killed his victims with the most operatic precision, as blood flew everywhere and upon everyone. Woo's HK cinema would be fittingly titled "operatic bloodshed." The article that I had previously read was amazingly accurate and I greedily gathered every Woo film that I could get: A Better Tomorrow (1986), A Better Tomorrow 2 (1987), Bullet in the Head (1990), Once a Thief (1991), and Hard Boiled (1992). The body count of these films is astronomical, but the one thing I remember was how cool these films looked. Miles of dolly tracks must have been laid, as Woo's camera was seemingly never stationary. The camera circled around or followed the characters, either in a gun battle or sitting still smoking a cigarette. Woo's cinema also has a fondness for slow-motion and sometimes an overuse, but more often than not, its use is perfect, as if Woo knew exactly when to slow down the intense action for dramatic effect. Woo's films, finally, were often subconscious love stories between two men, and each often reached the heights of sentimentality. After Hard Boiled, Woo would make the transition to Hollywood with mixed success but has since made his welcome return to China for his epic film Red Cliff (2008). I never sought viewing the back catalog of Woo's earlier cinema. He's been directing since the late '60s, and I recently viewed one from 1981: To Hell With The Devil.

Ricky Hui plays Bruce Lee ("I don't know kung-fu, though"), who's a talented but unknown musician. His love interest is Peggy (Jade Hsu), but Bruce doesn't feel as if he's capable to provide for her. A self-absorbed and arrogant actor/singer named Rocky is Bruce's rival for Peggy's affection. While this triangle plays out on Earth, a disheartened priest, Reverend Ma (Paul Chun), gets a shot at redemption by God, a big white head who looks like Mark Twain: Satan looks like a freaky-deaky version Schreck's or Kinski's Nosferatu: Both God and Satan are battling for souls: Satan wants a collection of corrupted ones, provided by servant Flit (Shui-Fan Fung), and God wants Reverend Ma to save them. Flit and Reverend Ma are desperate to please their masters, and both unfortunately concern themselves with the soul of poor hapless Bruce. Bruce initially rejects Reverend Ma's attempts at salvation; he doesn't want anything to do with the Bible. Flit charms Bruce by giving him whatever he wants in whatever scenario that Bruce desires. Peggy holds Bruce's heart, but Flit can't give Peggy's heart to Bruce. The scenes with Flit and Bruce are the highlight of the first hour of To Hell With the Devil. The slapstick humor of Flit, as he tries to convince Bruce to sign his soul over to him, is sometimes very funny. More often, though, the comedic scenes are tired. Bruce initially becomes a superstar musician, but Peggy shrugs him off as shallow. In the second scenario, Peggy becomes an automaton, who does whatever Bruce says upon command. In the final scenario, Bruce desires a simple life with just Peggy, but she can't take living a poor life. Stanley Donen's Bedazzled (1967) is the better take on this familiar comedy. To Hell With the Devil is also unable to channel the wonderfully awful sublime vibe of Carl Reiner's Oh, God! (1977), Steven Hilliard Stern's The Devil and Max Devlin (1981), and John Herzfeld's Two of a Kind (1983). However, the final third really redeems the film and is worth waiting for, as Reverend Ma and Flit literally battle for the soul of Bruce. Woo's camera flies into motion and the film shifts oddly in tone and design. God bless him for it. The action is relentless, and the battle between Flit and Reverend Ma takes on an old school arcade flavor with the awesome accompanying arcade sounds. Hui's terrific as Bruce. Two of his more notable roles are in Ricky Lau's Mr. Vampire (1985) and Jeff Lau's wonderful The Haunted Cop Shop (1987). Shui-Fan Fung's performance as Flit also deserves praise. Fung is a familiar face in 80s HK cinema, and I loved his performance in Simon Nam's Ghost Snatchers (1986). To Hell With The Devil is a fun flick from early John Woo.


Mr.LargePackage said...

I am also in a love triangle, but unfortunately I am the self-absorbed and arrogant guy, and that makes me large and in charge.

Hans A. said...

But you're beautiful, baby.