Criterion Corner: Mona Lisa, Love & Basketball, Throw Down
Neil Jordan's Mona Lisa, Johnnie To's judo drama, and Gina Prince-Bythewood's ode to Black love pepper Criterion's September releases.
October 8, 2021

Welcome to the Criterion Corner, where we break down some of the month’s new releases from the Criterion Collection.

#107: Mona Lisa (1986), dir. Neil Jordan

Mona Lisa (Criterion)

Some directors, even after moving on to much more acclaimed, prolific careers, never come close to topping their earlier stuff. Strangely, that’s also true of novelist turned filmmaker Neil Jordan, whose sumptuous films like The Crying Game, Interview with the Vampire, and even Greta blend that kind of lyrical tragedy with a deep understanding of character. Even so, they don’t hold a candle to his second feature, 1986’s Mona Lisa, an incredible romantic tragedy about a recently-freed ex-con and bruiser (an Oscar-nominated Bob Hoskins) who’s tasked by a crime boss (Michael Caine, imperious) to chauffeur a Black escort (Cathy Tyson, mesmerizing in her first film role) back and forth across the moody darkness of London Town.

What’s tragic about their romance isn’t that it doesn’t dare work out, or that external forces get in the way; it’s that Tyson’s Simone doesn’t reciprocate the feelings Hoskins’ George clearly holds for her. Theirs is a sweet, oddly charming, yet ultimately manipulative relationship in which Simone plays on his adoration to secure the safety of her real lover. And yet, despite this eventual betrayal, Mona Lisa still plays as something dreamlike and elegant, a dark fairy tale mixed with the rhythms of the British gangster film genre that arose in this period (Hoskins, as the lead in The Long Good Friday, would play a literally heavy part in its popularity). That such a tale of sex workers and spurned enforcers would make room for heart-to-hearts along a lonely pier, ironically wearing goofy novelty sunglasses, is a testament to Jordan’s playfulness with the material, and the inexplicable charms that make the film one of his best.

Naturally, this is the prerequisite Blu-ray upgrade of an old title, so Mona Lisa mostly carries with it the old features of its previous Criterion DVD release. Still, it’s home to a lovely 2K restoration that offers the same grit and dirt that befits Jordan’s fire-and-brimstone version of London. The old ’97 commentary, split between Jordan’s soft Irish brogue and Hoskins’ Cockney crassness, remains a lovely study in contrasts. Still, one thing that’s new is a Zoom conversation recorded between Jordan and Tyson, moderated by critic Ryan Gilbey (who writes the essay), and it’s a remarkably gentle revisiting of the film and where it fell in both artists’ careers.

You can purchase the Blu-ray of Mona Lisa on The Criterion Collection’s website here.

#1092: Throw Down (2004), dir. Johnnie To

Throw Down (Criterion)

I’ll freely confess that I’d never seen a Johnnie To film before Throw Down; I’d heard his praises sung all over Film Twitter, but never quite found the time, or the proper entry point, to visit his works. By all estimates, 2004’s Throw Down is an unconventional work in his oeuvre, which is mostly populated with pitch-perfect action flicks and charming romantic comedies. It makes sense, then, that this feels like the middle-ground between those modes, an arthouse melding of genre that feels, with every pore, like a meticulous, passionate filmmaker taking a respite from populism to make something a little more fantastical.

Ostensibly, Throw Down is a martial arts movie, a loose remake of Akira Kurosawa’s Sanshiro Sugata in which a brash judo student builds himself up through the martial art he chooses to pursue. But Throw Down modernizes it through the eyes of three misfits: Headstrong judo champion Tony (Aaron Kwok), starry-eyed aspiring actress Mona (Cherrie Ying), and the drunken fallen master Szeto Bo (Louis Koo). The three’s lives intersect one fateful night at Bo’s karaoke lounge, and they quickly realize they need each other — to settle old scores, to prove themselves in the art of judo, to chase dreams of stardom and wealth.

To’s approach is unlike anything I’ve seen in a martial arts film outside of maybe Jackie Chan: judo, after all, is a defensive martial art, more focused on throwing and pinning and rolling than the beating of your opponent. As such, the few moments when fights break out feel intensely balletic, hypnotic in the spinning of bodies and To’s decision to juxtapose such action with opera or Peter Kam’s intensely playful score. It’s an actioner with the soul of a romantic comedy, and in that respect To seems to be melding his two most frequently-used genres to see what can come of it. The results are downright enchanting, from the sprightly performances of its leads to the surrealism of moments like a team effort to rescue a red balloon caught in a tree — a task that requires all three of them to stand on each other’s shoulders. It’s these moments that make Throw Down sing much more than even the already-exciting judo fights, and it’s what makes me want to check out more of To’s filmography.

This is To’s first film in the Collection, and fittingly the extras and presentation seem custom-fit to intro newbies to To’s style. Interviews with To, co-writer Yau Nai-hoi, and composer Peter Kam give us some behind the scenes insight into their idiosyncratic approaches to Throw Down, and scholars like David Bordwell and (especially) Caroline Guo provide much needed cultural context for Western audiences who wouldn’t have the same relationship with the cultural markers as native Chinese. Plus, the 4K digital restoration seeps every red and blue neon light into your pores; it’s a gorgeous transfer.

You can purchase the Blu-ray of Throw Down on The Criterion Collection’s website here.

#1097: Love & Basketball (2000), dir. Gina Prince-Bythewood

Love & Basketball (Criterion)

Now onto another tale of affection and competition: Gina Prince-Bythewood’s seminal 2000 film Love & Basketball. Charting the years-long off and on romance between neighbors and basketball hopefuls Monica (Sanaa Lathan) and Quincy (Omar Epps) — the stages of their lives and the film are marked as quarters, like a basketball game — Love & Basketball is one of the most universally-celebrated Black romances on film and for good reason. Far from the treacly, syrupy mess that often typifies the romantic comedy genre, Prince-Bythewood takes the concerns of her two leads seriously and explores the intersection of love, sports, and Blackness along the way.

While the two live in adjacent houses, their paths to achieving their dreams couldn’t be more different. Both bristle against the expectations of their parents: Quincy’s father (Dennis Haysbert) wants him to play basketball for a school that will give him a good education; he just wants to play ball. Meanwhile, Monica’s dreams of sports stardom are tampered by her conservative mother (Alfre Woodard), who, like the other players and male referees, want her to behave more ladylike. But through those difficulties, basketball keeps them motivated, and most importantly, in each other’s orbit. As a director of actors, Prince-Bythewood excels; there’s hardly a false note in the cast, especially Lathan (who deserves a much bigger career than the still-respectable one she enjoys today). But the R&B soundtrack, starting with Al Green’s “Love & Happiness” and moving through Maxwell’s “This Woman’s Work” and beyond, chart the smooth charms and rocky shores of Monica and Quincy’s path through ambition and heartbreak.

Criterion knows the value of bringing Prince-Bythewood’s most well-known film into the Collection (especially given the dearth of films directed by Black women in the so-called canon), so it tracks that their release would be suitably robust. On top of the crisp 4K digital restoration comes two audio commentaries, one of them featuring Terence Blanchard and isolated tracks from the score (hey, that’s our thing!). New making-of docs and conversations with Prince-Bythewood and Lena Waithe and Sheryl Swoopes place the film in greater context of Black women in athletics, and two earlier short films from Prince-Bythewood — including 1991 UCLA thesis film Stitches — make this a more comprehensive view of her early works.

You can purchase the Blu-ray of Love & Basketball on The Criterion Collection’s website here.