Saturday, October 01, 2022

Wayne Wang’s Life is Cheap … But Toilet Paper is Expensive

Yat Boon jai (a.k.a. “The Man with No Name”) is right about one thing when he accepts this dodgy courier gig. It would indeed be a last chance to see the real Hong Kong as it truly was before the 1997 handover, which turned out to be a national tragedy for Hongkongers. Unfortunately, the naïve Asian American with a taste for flashy cowboy apparel will be in over his head navigating the HK underworld in Wayne Wang’s Life is Cheap … But Toilet Paper is Expensive, which also had a rocky reception when it was originally released in 1989. Ripe for reappraisal, a new, slightly revised and freshly restored print of Wang’s film is now screening at the BAM cinema.

The unnamed courier, who actually seems to have a name on imdb and other online sources, has no idea what is in the briefcase he carries for his boss’s colleague. He doesn’t want to know, as long as it is not drugs. He is supposed to give it only to “Big Boss,” but apparently it is not important enough for the senior Triad to make time to see the Courier. As a result, he is left with too much time on his hands. His boredom leads to danger when the Courier starts hanging with Big Boss’s femme fatale mistress, Money.

Life is Cheap
generated controversy when it was originally refused an “X” rating, eventually becoming one of the first films to carry an NC-17. It is hard to fathom why. Admittedly, there is a hand-chopping motifs that often recurs, but it looks cheesy compared to modern gore. Wang also captures some duck butchery that might disturb some viewers, plus it all builds towards a truly scatological punch line, but it still seems tamed compared to its reputation.

Frankly, Wang’s pseudo-documentary style, often incorporating long monologues resembling interview segments, might have been ahead of its time in 1989. Fifteen years ago,
Life is Cheap might have suffered in comparison to other Jia Zhangke docu-hybrids and the like. However, in post HK “National Security” Law 2022, it feels like a sad elegy to a ruckus Hong Kong and a vibrant local culture that no longer exists. Gone are the days when the son of American immigrants from Hong Kong can return to their homeland, to film a gritty, experimental gangster movie, guerrilla-style on the city’s streets.

In fact, the film reaches true heights of elegiac lyricism when martial arts legend Lo Lieh appears in one of the docu-interludes, portraying a former pianist, who cut off his own arm rather than compromise his integrity during the Cultural Revolution.
Life is Cheap might be getting a new lease on life here in America, but there is no way you could screen it in Hong Kong today.

Wang’s fractured perspective and waring-blender puree of styles do not always work in total concert. Arguably, the film would have held together a little better if it had been a little more conventional. However, some of those ragged ends have a lot of value, especially Lo’s short scene, which is worth the price of admission. Cora Miao also transcends the films shifting tones and narrative gamesmanship, portraying Money with keen sensitivity and subtlety.

The resulting film is a real time capsule record of a bygone Hong Kong, which is now a very different space, visually and emotionally. As an added bonus, the score even features some loosely free, but accessible jazz, featuring trombonist Ray Anderson, bassist Mark Dresser, and guitarist Eugene Pao, which adds further character to the film. Recommended as an intriguing film that has appreciated with time,
Life is Cheap … But Toilet Paper is Expensive is now playing at BAM.