Philly’s Lightbox Film Center gives movies a ‘second life’
The centre’s first restoration project was the little-known 1989 film, “Life is Cheap… But Toilet Paper is Expensive”, by Hong Kong American filmmaker Wayne Wang. The freshly created and re-released 4K digital master will be screened at the Lightbox Center on Friday evening.
Wang is best known for directing high-profile Hollywood films like 1993’s “Joy Luck Club” and Jennifer Lopez’s 2002 comedy “Maid in Manhattan.” “Life is Cheap” is decidedly rougher than those.
The film is a breathless race through the underbelly of Hong Kong, as a mob courier with a briefcase filled with unknown material and handcuffed to his wrist, misses his connection. So, wearing an American cowboy hat and silver-tipped boots, he wanders the streets “where everything goes and everything happens”, including disturbing scenes of violence, depravity and sex. The film was originally rated X.
“I know Wayne’s work pretty well, but this one slipped my radar,” Pires said. “I finally got to see it and I thought, this is such a unique and interesting film in terms of Wayne’s career, but it also blew me away as an important part of independent cinema that hasn’t never really aired.”
“Life is Cheap” came out at a time when American cinema was arguing over how movies were rated. Like other films of the era with artistic aspirations – “The cook, the thief, his wife and his lover” by Peter Greenaway and “Tie me up! by Pedro Almodóvar! Tie me up! – “Life is Cheap” originally received an X rating from the Motion Picture Association of America, a rating that in the minds of many puts it in the pornography category.
Studios have sued to avoid the X and put their own ratings on movies, and prominent film critic Roger Ebert has attacked the MPAA for its inability to distinguish adult films from pornography. “Life is Cheap” was eventually released with an exclusive “A” rating, for adults only.
He won the KNF award at the 1990 Rotterdam Film Festivalbut it was not well received by critics, who said it had “the narrative logic of an inclined pinball machine”, and “Most of the time you can’t tell what it is.”
“By today’s standards, I don’t see it as something worth an X rating,” Pires said. “There are some shocking things for sure, but when you see the Tarantinos and all the people who came right after, it fits that perfectly. It was maybe a year or two ahead of its time.
Even Wang thinks he may have exaggerated. Over the years, he recut the film several times to lessen his shock, which he now admits was done in part to test audiences. He says the edit of the new digital remaster is the definitive version.
“I could stray a little bit more from that and I could take things that were too rebellious, or just challenge the so-called cinematic system, and not really serve the purpose of the film itself,” he said. from his home in San Francisco.
Wang points to an extremely long chase scene in the film, which takes up about 10 minutes of screen time. He and his collaborators did it for as long as a kind of joke on the public.
“We three – the [director of photography] and the writer and myself – all decided that if we didn’t know what to shoot on a certain day, we would go out and run and do a chase scene. We kept going with this chase scene every time we weren’t sure what to shoot,” Wang said. “It was kind of long and kind of drawn out. Over the years, when I watch it, I’m like, ‘Enough. I don’t need to keep putting people in a very difficult position.