Monday, April 20, 2009

Reviews and Reviewers

Last month my friend Chick Young, proprietor of the blog Trash-Aesthetics a person who knows more about film, criticism and theory than I will if I live to be 100 and who really loves movies, posted a short and scathing discussion of movie reviewers based on the published reactions to “Watchman”. While six weeks ago is a century or so in blog time it is still well worth reading (as his entire blog) and can be found here.

There are many examples of sloppy thinking/writing/viewing among both the waning number of reviewers for newspapers and the explosive growth of online reviews there have been some excellent reviewers. Paul Fonoroff, when he wrote for the "South China Morning Post" was one of them. Like everyone else in daily or weekly film coverage he wrote under deadline pressure, wrote about whatever opened that week and had a specific amount of space allotted to him. His audience were the Anglophone residents of the then Crown Colony. His reviews were published in At the Hong Kong Movies: 600 Reviews from 1988 till the Handover.

While Fonoroff was very tough on screenwriters and directors it is the writers get the brunt of his scorn. Almost invariably when he doesn’t like a movie he faults the script. Fonoroff loves actors, none more than Chow Yun Fat and Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, and he is generally at least supportive of the efforts of those in front of the camera. He knows good action scenes when he sees them and describes them well. A civil libertarian, he was very critical of movies in which the police show "a sneering attitude toward human rights" (from a review of Organized Crime and Triad Bureau) and wrote that "human rights in Hong Kong would be all but extinct if life ever imitated the 'art' of Twist in his article on that movie. It must have been a long decade for him since it seemed that there was a new "Danny Lee will beat you into submission" movie every month on the Jade screen.

His reviews were full of short and wonderfully descriptive allusions. In writing about True Love, Fonoroff mentions Sandra Ng and her "special brand of inelegance", as good description of her look and style as any I have seen. He wrote that "Robotrix looks like a Chinese Robocop invested with the spirit of Russ Meyer" and that in Point of No Return Jacky Chueng and Patrick Tam "are so unconvincing that one feels like putting out a contract on them. And I don't mean a movie contract".
With undergraduate studies in Chinese and a Master’s degree in cinema, knowledge of both Mandarin and Cantonese and long residence in Hong Kong, Fonoroff has the local lore, theoretical background and linguistic ability to cover Hong Kong movies in great depth. Most importantly he really loves the cinematic output of the former Crown Colony. This shines through in many reviews, not least in the Jade Leung vehicle Fox Hunter where he writes: "The finale set in a Guangdong department store s deftly choreographed. It’s unlike anything seen outside the Cantonese screen, as realistic as a Fred Astaire dance number and nearly as much fun."

From Fox Hunter, as is the image at the top of this post:

Another movie that Foronoff really liked (as did I) was Green Snake. He wrote that "The story outline is familiar to Chinese audiences from Singapore to Shanghai. Green Snake (Maggie Cheung) and White Snake (Joey Wong) are reptilian sisters who assume human form to seduce any hapless mortals who catch their fancy. Looking as they do like Maggie Cheung and Joey Wong, these human snakes are pretty hard to resist".

"What distinguishes Green Snake from its predecessors is both its imagination and humor. This is no museum piece rendering of a Chinese classic. The sight of the elegantly gowned Green Snake sticking out her tongue to nab a tasty fly, or her efforts to engage in the most unsnakely activity of shedding tears lightens up the proceedings considerably."

Three images from Green Snake


  1. When I read Paul Fonoroff's collection of reviews, I was astonished by how many of the movies he didn't like -- what is it, something like 95 percent!

    Still, I found the book, which I read from start to finish in chronological order, to be a fascinating portrait of that period of Hong Kong cinema.

    It's funny, nowadays, as I delve deeper and deeper into the "ancient" past of Hong Kong movies, I find myself less and less interested in recent HK movies. I've dubbed my condition Fonoroff's Syndrome!

    Seriously though, it's largely because of Fonoroff's book Silver Light: A Pictorial History of Hong Kong Cinema, 1920-1970 that I became interested in HK's rich movie heritage.

    Finally, I forgot that Fonoroff like Green Snake, and am glad to hear that he -- and you -- like it as much as I do!

  2. Eduardo, brilliant post my friend. Allow me to comment more fully just as soon as this ridiculous semester draws to an end...

  3. I don't know how I have missed "Silver Light" but it is on its way to me now. Thanks for the reminder.

    "Green Snake" is a an incredibly erotic film with essentially no nudity. In one scene Green Snake (Maggie) watches White Snake (Joey) make love with the young monk she decided to seduce while White Snake watches Green Snake watching her, as if the real connection was between the Snake sisters, with Faat Hoi (Vincent Zhao) simply closing the link between them.

  4. Glad to hear you ordered Silver Light! It's a wonderful book.

    Yep, Green Snake is a super sexy film. One of my favorite scenes (2nd picture in your post) is when the monk is meditating and Green Snake tests his concentration!