Last week fellow WhySoBlu.com critic and a movie man I admire Aaron Neuwirth suggested that my inclusion of the iconic film Apocalypse Now might not be an outing that’s all that forgotten. (In fairness I was basing the pick on that fact that my older son had never heard of the film and we had recently watched it together – gotta school the next generation!) So this week I’m doing my colleague proud by digging deep and doubling down with a scarce savory cinematic selection that I’m willing to bet he and my fellow cohorts have not only not seen, but may never have even heard of – welcome to Forgotten Friday Flick! Today we’re dissecting a past picture that even the director of the film doesn’t want you to see. A quirky and controversial little gem that not only got the ire of the MPAA ratings board at the time of its 1990 release, but is a movie that the filmmaker has tried to make disappear. An English speaking Asian courier, a soothsaying street urchin, a mysterious dark dame and a briefcase with questionable contents are just a few of the odd elements used to prove that…Life Is Cheap…But Toilet Paper Is Expensive!
A half-Chinese/half-American Asian gentleman with no name and sports a cowboy hat decides to take a shady job. His task – take a briefcase that’s been handcuffed to him by an organized crime syndicate and escort it to Hong Kong where he is to deliver it to the guy known as “The Big Boss”. Along the way he runs into a nefarious group of misfits from different walks of life, all in the hopes of finding the man whom he must present the case to.
The above may sound simple enough, but it’s almost easier to describe Life Is Cheap…But Toilet Paper Is Expensive as a performance art piece than a film. Director Wayne Wang (pre-Smoke, post-Slam Dance – another hidden gem!), along with credited co-director Spencer Nakasako, creates a visual gusto of colors, sounds and snappy cuts that makes his film utterly experimental in nature. An injected mix of disturbing documentary style footage, salacious materials and poignant symbolism, the film immerses you in its confusing world and makes the viewer a fully fledged participant. (The uber-long handheld chase through the streets of Hong Kong gives Kathryn Bigelow’s similar sequence in Point Break a serious run for its money!) Of course Wang provides a sane story base following his nameless normal lead as he tries to deliver a briefcase with unknown contents, but it’s all a wonderful set up to introduce some of the wildest and wackiest characters ever. (Think Slacker for the Hong Kong crowd!) There’s Big Trouble in Little China alum Victor Wong as a blind street wacko pushing fake Rolex’s, a creepy song and dance teacher with a crooked smile (he claims to be the “Elvis of the Orient!’), a call girl with tall tales to tell (and has insane erotic instruments to boot!), a taxi-driver who can’t keep his eyes on the road and even a gangster moll who goes by the name of Money. All bring a unique flavor to their interesting oddballs and give Wang’s film Lynch like surreal feel complete with black humor and drama elements that have to be seen to be believed.
The story of how I even know about hidden gem Life Is Cheap…But Toilet Paper Is Expensive goes right back to an article via one of my late critic heroes, Time Magazine’s Richard Corliss. He had written a poignant piece about films of the 90’s that were having trouble with the MPAA and given an X-rating. (Thanks Jack Valenti!) Films like Hardware by Richard Stanley, Frankenhooker by Frank Henenlotter, Tie Me Up! Tie Me Down! by Pedro Almodovar were all given the harsh eye, along of course with Wayne Wang’s askew opus, but in my book such a list of films were must sees. The main problem with Wang’s film was not only did it get scattered distribution at the time by Silverlight Entertainment, but the director himself made finding the film almost impossible. It could have been the audience reaction to the film or perhaps that Wang himself went mainstream afterwards making super-safe fluff film fare like The Joy Luck Club, Anywhere But Here and, gulp, Made In Manhattan (The Center of the World not withstanding!) and did not want to be associated with it, but the film virtually vanished. (There was a festival years later touting the film in its official selection for fans to see – until Wang stepped in and stopped the screening!) Luckily those with movie geek determination can find anything and after I tried to get my hands on this sucker for almost a decade, I finally found a VHS tape – let me tell you, it was well worth the wait. Life Is Cheap…But Toilet Paper Is Expensive may be a film that dutiful father Wayne Wang doesn’t want you to see – but your Uncle Jason says it’s a movie must! (aka Happy hunting!)