1984: Wheels on Meals (Kuai can che)

This post is part of Forgotten Films’ 1984 Blogathon. So much 1984. So little time.

The year 1984 was not awesome in a lot of ways. But it was a great year for films – check out the other 1984 Blogathon entries – and it was a big deal specifically for Hong Kong: The Sino-British Joint Declaration (the agreement to hand HK back to China in 1997) was signed. Combine 1984, movies, and Hong Kong, and you get films like Wheels on Meals, directed by Sammo Hung, produced by Raymond Chow, and starring Jackie Chan, Sammo, and Yuen Biao, a year after their collaboration in Project A. Not too shabby.

While Wheels on Meals (more on that especially silly name below) didn’t win any Hong Kong Film Awards that year, it has hung around pretty well as a result of some fine martial artistry brought to you by Jackie, Sammo, and the less well known, but demonstrably wonderful Yuen Biao.

The story is predictably and blissfully ludicrous. Thomas (Jackie Chan) and David (Yuen Biao) are cousins running a food truck in Barcelona. Perhaps this is because David’s father (Paul Chang) is in a Barcelona loony bin. Perhaps not. Don’t ask questions—according to Wheels on Meals, there was a large HK ex-pat community in Barcelona in the 80s. There is also a fair amount of discussion about characters’ nationalities, specifically as an explanation for their various proclivities and behaviors. Hiding in their apartment after a tryst, Thomas and David’s randy neighbor insists, “Italians can’t live without love,” while his wife waits outside the door with a shotgun. The Italian also points out that “All you Chinese know is work.” When Thomas and David exit by the window to avoid the continuing fracas (and get to work), the Spaniard downstairs opening his shop exclaims, “Don’t you Chinese use stairs?!” (Well, no, you don’t take the stairs, not if you started training in the Peking Opera School at the age of six, as Jackie, Sammo, and Biao did, together.) They excuse their acrobatics by explaining that “the Italians are fighting on there.” Best of all, not five minutes later, Sammo is describing himself, out loud, to another person, as “an inscrutable Chinese.”

This weird obsessiveness with nationalities becomes relevant (insofar as anything here is) when we learn that David’s father has fallen in love with a fellow loony, the Spanish Gloria. This is how the Thomas and David meet Gloria’s daughter, the lovely Sylvia (Lola Forner), or “Princess” as the boys call her.

son-of-man-1964(1)Meanwhile, in what a viewer might be forgiven for thinking is another film altogether, Moby (Sammo), a fledgling private eye, is asked by Magritte’s “The Son of Man” (Miguel Palenzuela) to find the daughter of a woman named Gloria. Before we can go any further, you must know that something awful has happened to Sammo’s hair. Perhaps as the result of some freak Spanish weather event, he appears to have been subjected to a bad perm. Sammo’s characters are usually pretty goofy, and let me tell you, the perm does nothing for Moby’s professionalism.

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It turns out that Thomas and David’s Sylvia is the woman Moby’s client has been looking for, and, thankfully, hijinks ensue. Moby’s client is dressed like Magritte’s Son of Man at least partly because he is (or used to be) the butler for the family Gloria used to work for. At this point, the narrative is revealed to be a crazy riff on an 18th-century novel: Gloria, once a maid in the house of a rich family, was raped by the head of the household. She fell pregnant (as one did under such circumstances, narratively speaking) and was kicked out—ending up in the loony bin. The male heir of the family now wants to hunt down Gloria and Sylvia and eliminate them so they cannot make any claims on the family fortune. This turns out to be pretty stupid, since neither of them has any idea there is a fortune which they might claim…until someone kidnaps them.

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There is a lot of enjoyable silliness between Thomas and David visiting the loony bin and Moby trying to act like a professional private detective, given that he appears to believe private eyes dress like a flashier Marlon Brando in Guys and Dolls (1955).

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There are a few teaser fights here and there—a training session between Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao, the boys defending Sylvia from Mondale’s henchmen—but the real fighting starts when everyone ends up at the villain’s castle.

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The centerpiece is Jackie’s fight with Benny “the Jet” Urquidez, but this isn’t to slight Yuen Biao’s fight with Keith Vitali–an altogether more goofily choreographed and acrobatic encounter. Meanwhile, Sammo is left to face the villain alone. Once the villain dons his fencing mask, however, what you’re really watching is Yuen Biao and Sammo Hung fighting. You can see why, of the three, all of them charismatic and gifted fighters, Jackie Chan is the one pitted against Urquidez, the main event. Jackie is a ham–but not such a ham that we’re allowed to think he’s a clown like Sammo. Yuen Biao gets a lot of the sort of stunts here that Jackie made a career of–moving through furniture and riding walls to physically outwit his opponents.

Stay tuned below for some clips of the fighting. I know that’s why you’re here.

 

So, just how 80s is all this silliness?

1) Legwarmers and sweater vests

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2) Headbands

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…and a matching jacket.

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

2) This:

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3) Did I mention Sammo’s Jeri-curl?

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4) Traditional Spanish music as played on a synthesizer

6) The Knight-Rider-esque screen in the cousins’ food truck

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7) Skateboards

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8) Assholes on dirt bikes ruining everybody’s good, clean fun

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Apparently, this what Hell’s Angels ride in Barcelona.

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9) A random shot of people who may or may not be the main characters riding horses on a beach at sunset

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I mean, that’s what you’d guess this guy’s name is, right? Mondale?

10) The villain’s name is Mondale, played by a guy named José Sancho. Honestly, I’m not making this up.

 

So what’s with that crazy title?

According to a post on IMDb: The film is titled “Wheels on Meals” instead of “Meals on Wheels” because of superstition. Golden Harvest had produced two flops beginning with “M,” Megaforce (1982) and a film titled Menage a Trois. The company’s executives changed the title hoping this film would avoid the same problems.

 

 

I couldn’t find a good clip of Yuen Biao from Wheels on Meals, so instead, here’s an amazing sequence from the slightly more old-school Magnificent Butcher (1979). Yuen Biao is the guy in the white shirt fighting a dude with a knife (or two) inside (rather than outside). It’s all pretty amazing, but you can appreciate YB’s acrobatics here. Magnificent Butcher stars Sammo, who co-directed with fight choreographer Yuen Wo Ping.

Peeping Tom (1960) – The British Invasion Blogathon

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Take Me to Your Cinema!

I first saw this peculiar film about ten years ago, sometime when I was still in grad school. I can’t remember why; I must have stumbled across it at the very fine Four Star Video Heaven, which is—somewhat miraculously—still in business. Neither am I sure why I liked it so much so immediately. It’s certainly unlike anything I had seen before. It might even have been the first of British director Michael Powell’s films I ever saw. Plenty has been said about how Peeping Tom ruined Michael Powell’s career, which is essentially true. Martin Scorsese was instrumental in rehabilitating him starting in the 1970s, and Powell did make a few more pictures before he died in 1990. Thankfully, it’s not the most interesting thing about the film, so let’s skip over that. I’ve watched the film so many times now, that it’s hard to narrow down what to talk about. So I’m warning you now, this may end up being another two-parter. Or just long-winded.

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Can you guess what sort of reaction the film got when it was originally released?

Michael Powell, with his long-time partner Emeric Pressburger, made some of the finest British films you can rest your peepers on: The Life and Death of Colonel Blimp (1943), Black Narcissus (1947), The Red Shoes (1948), and The Tales of Hoffmann (1951). Powell made Peeping Tom after they went their separate ways, but it shares with those classic films a devotion to fabulous color (here, Eastmancolor) and an off-kilter British eccentricity. Much of the eccentricity manifests in the characters. For example, Helen (Anna Massey), the love interest—maybe the first Last Girl in horror films—is writing a children’s book about a magic camera that sees adults as the children they were. One of the cops investigating the murders that take place starts snapping his fingers and bopping around in time to the music on a victim’s tape recorder discovered at a crime scene.

The main character, the Peeping Tom of the title, is Mark Lewis (Karlheinz Böhm), a focus-puller (assistant camerman) at a British film studio. In his spare time, Mark takes unnecessarily artistic nudie photographs for the owner of a newsagents shop who peddles what his customers coyly refer to as “views.” But all of this is merely a cover for Mark’s real calling—documentarian, for he is the artistic child of a scientist. He documents the murders of women he commits using a dagger hidden in his camera’s tripod. Like all good serial killers and superheroes, Mark has an origin story. Mark’s father, a scientist who studied fear in children, recorded as much of Mark’s childhood as he could—both on film and on tape. The scientist would dream up ways of terrifying his son in order to film his fear, record his screams and cries. Dad filmed the boy’s budding interest in sex—one of the movies we watch Mark and Helen, watching is of Mark as a boy watching a couple (Powell’s neighbors) necking on a park bench. The cherry on top of this Freudian sundae might be the film of Mark “saying goodbye” to his dead mother. Later in the film, as we see Mark’s father give Mark his first camera, the adult Mark refers to his mother’s death as “the previous sequence.” After all this, even Mark refers to himself as “mad.” (Also competing for cherry-on-top is the fact that Powell plays Mark’s father, and his son Columba plays the young Mark.) Don’t worry—a short, crazy-haired psychiatrist shows up on the set of the film Mark is working on, called The Walls Are Closing In, naturally, and after being introduced to Mark, muses that “he has his father’s eyes.”

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Moira Shearer as stand-in Vivian filming Mark film her. Things go downhill from there.

The general plot—a serial killer who was traumatized as a child and now murders women using his camera—is reminiscent of some typically American horror movies about voyeurism and cameras: Brian De Palma’s Body Double (1984) and David Cronenberg’s Videodrome (1983) come to mind. But the American versions are crasser, more vulgar—and I actually don’t mean that in a bad way. Cronenberg’s earlier work is known, of course, for gooey action in which the boundaries of a character’s body are violated and merged with or taken over by what is often some sinister technology, as in the aforementioned Videodrome, The Fly (1986), Naked Lunch (1991), or Existenz (1999).

Peeping Tom has nothing so unseemly. It is an incredibly decorous film given that it’s about a serial killer. Tidy. The climactic violence at the end produces almost no blood. Some of this is due to when it was made, surely. But it’s also an indication of where the film’s real interests lie. It is a film in which the boundaries crossed are almost entirely psychological. The physical violence is almost beside the point. What Mark wants, as a result of his particular trauma, hero_EB19990502REVIEWS08905020301ARis to record the terror, the fear the women experience on the threshold of death. Part of what is unique about Mark’s method is that he wants his victims to share his own experience of their death by watching themselves die. To this end, Mark has attached a distorting mirror to his camera, in which the women are forced to watch their own murders. Interestingly, almost no write-ups of the film mention this detail, though it seems essential to Mark’s story.

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Karlheinz Böhm as documentarian Mark Lewis

The film would have been a disaster without the right person playing Mark, and Karlheinz Böhm (also known as Carl Boem) is the Right Person. Powell initially wanted Laurence Harvey, and watching Peeping Tom, you can see why. The part requires the same sort of quiet woundedness Harvey did so well two years later in The Manchurian Candidate. Harvey also has a malicious edge, however, and I think this is at least partly why Böhm is the better choice. He does shy and damaged, but there is simply no aggression to him at all. Böhm’s Austrian accent, which ought to not to work, since his character allegedly grew up in the London house he still occupies, is instead an asset. It softens the edges of his words, making them more tentative and fragile than they would otherwise be. Two of the women we see him murder know him well, and, unlike so many later horror/slasher films, it is utterly believable that neither of them sees Mark as a threat. Even as he murders, Böhm’s Mark is more determined—focused—than aggressive.

Another character, like Mark, whom we might be tempted to see as weak is Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens (Maxine Audley)—she is not only blind, but an alcoholic (Johnny Walker Red, thanks). But Mrs. Stevens is a more overtly aggressive character than Mark. She is a cranky drunk and immediately suspicious of him. She says to Helen:

I don’t trust a man who walks quietly.

Helen: He’s shy!

His footsteps aren’t. They’re stealthy.

One of the many interesting aspects of the film is the way Powell links Mark to the blind Mrs. Stevens. Both she and Mark are sharp, both have been wounded by someone who should have taken care of them. (Mrs. Stevens, we learn, has been blinded by an incompetent doctor.) And they both love Helen.

Maxine Audley as Helen's mother, Mrs. Stevens

Maxine Audley as Helen’s mother, Mrs. Stevens

At the end of a scene of one of Mark’s nudie photo shoots, we see a model’s hand pouring tea. This cuts to Mrs. Steven’s hand pouring herself what is clearly another glass of scotch. Later, we cut from another closeup of Mrs. Stevens pouring herself another scotch, to Mark, pouring developing chemicals upstairs. During Helen and Mark’s only date, Mrs. Stevens sneaks up to Mark’s apartment. While Mrs. Stevens cannot secretly watch others, she does listen. She has heard Mark in his darkroom, watching his films on a projector. And she has recognized in Mark a fellow addict. She confronts him there, after his date with Helen.

What are these films you can’t wait to see? Take me to your cinema!

Mrs. Stevens uses a cane to maneuver in the crowded space, and we see at the end of her cane a short blade. She holds the cane out in front of herself, defensively, mirroring Mark’s movement when he unsheathes his own knife from the tripod.

As an addict, Mrs. Stevens—also a damaged but functional mother figure—understands Mark better than Helen can. As she leaves his room, she tells him, “All this filming isn’t healthy. Get help—while you still can.” Of course, Mark knows only too well how unhealthy it is.

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No one in the film respects the boundaries of others. Mark’s father uses him as a science experiment, invading every private moment Mark should have had as a child. Even Helen invites herself in to Mark’s apartment, and Mrs. Stevens breaks in. As a child Mark was never allowed to lock a door, and he says he can’t get used to keys. This invasion is represented as much by all the doorways and curtains through which characters enter and exit—and sometimes linger in or block—as it is by the various cameras in the film. (One of them, a Bell and Howell, is Powell’s first camera. Of course it is.)

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Like his earlier collaborations with Pressburger, Powell’s Peeping Tom is more of a fantasia than a “realistic” portrait of a serial killer. The worlds of The Red Shoes, Black Narcissus, and, especially, The Tales of Hoffmann are passionately intensified, lurid versions of the real one. The characters in them, however, seem very real because they touch us, and I think this is really what upset everybody so much about Peeping Tom the first time around.

Midway through the film, Helen wants Mark to help her illustrate her magic-camera book, which has just been accepted for publication. Mark is genuinely thrilled for her and wants to “find [her] faces” for her, as he puts it. He tells her, “Everyone’s face looks like child’s if you catch them at the right moment.”

 

Check out all the other awesome British Invasion posts at A Shroud of Thoughts!

 

Don’t miss:

“Peeping Tom” is screening on TCM Saturday, October 4 @ 03:00 PM (ET). It’s available for rent, streaming, from Amazon Prime, and available on disc via Netflix.

 TCM’s article on Peeping Tom

Roger Ebert’s “Great Movie” review