Jet Li and Stephen Chow : this is a pairing that throughout the nineties, the noughties and up to this day would spell box-office gold. But in 1989 it was just a few years too early. Jet Li had not yet settled into superstardom with Once Upon A Time In China, and Stephen Chow had not yet established his insanely successful brand of comedy, and was actually still more of a dramatic supporting actor. Whatever the stage of their career they were in, they certainly deserved something better than Billy Tang’s Dragon Fight, a thoroughly mundane action film, in which Jet Li and Dick Wei are part of a Wushu troupe touring the United States, the former left stranded in San Francisco when he misses his flight home for trying to find the latter, who’s decided to stay in America and work his way up the local mafia. Stephen Chow comes in as a Chinese immigrant who helps Jet Li out, but gets himself into trouble with the very same mafia Dick Wei now works for. After a vaguely comedic, uninteresting first part, things get unexepectedly dark and action kicks in thanks to silly plot turns (one of those turns involves someone confusing washing powder and cocaine). Choreographed by Dick Wei himself, it’s fierce and enjoyably realistic, a style Jet Li would only scarcely revisit, though most of the time with scintillating results. Still, here it’s too little too late, and the film also suffers from some of the worst ‘gweilo’ acting (and dubbing) you’ll ever see.
Posted by bozpictures on December 5, 2013
Some films just don’t know what their best assets are. Take Gao Xiaosong’s My Kingdom : it benefits from the considerable talent and gravitas of two great martial arts actors, Yuen Biao and Yu Rongguang, and as long as it is concerned with them, it’s a riveting film. But as soon as the plot calls for their exit, we are left with something far more plodding and average. They play rival Chinese opera stars, master Yu (Yuen Biao) and master Yue (Yu Rongguang). Yu has two pupils, Yilong and Erkui, the latter being the last surviving member of a clan that was executed by the prince regent of the Qing dynasty. One day, as master Yu is being awarded a golden plaque honoring him as the greatest opera performer of his time, master Yue challenges him in a spear duel, and wins. Yu’s defeat means he is not allowed to perform on a stage anymore, and he spends the rest of his life away from the world, teaching his two students the art of opera fighting. When they are ready (and have grown into Wu Chun and Han Geng), they leave for Shanghai with the intent to reclaim the plaque from master Yue and carve out a career in Chinese opera for themselves. They quickly defeat Yue and take over his troupe, among which Mulang (Barbie Hsu), his former mistress. But Yilong and Erkui have different ways of dealing with their newfound stardom…
For roughly half an hour, MY KINGDOM is a powerful story of rivalry. Yuen Biao and Yu Rongguang bring considerable weight to the proceedings while the story focuses on them. Both excellent actors and still quick and agile past their fifties, they elevate the film both in immaculately choreographed spear duels (Sammo Hung is the action director here) and poignant dramatic scenes as one deals with forced retirement and the other with burning pride. Then, as the two pupils take on master Yue and his entire troupe in an exquisite action scene, the films peaks. Yue takes his own life (a moving moment deftly and beautifully acted by Yu Rongguang), and we are left with a fairly by-the-numbers story of love, vengeance and betrayal.This is not to say what follows is bad, far from it, but no film should reach its dramatic and visual apex in the first third. When it comes to action, we do get Barbie Hsu fighting in a nightie, a very welcome sight indeed, but the three young stars are often obviously doubled and their fighting generates no real excitement. And whoever had the idea of casting effeminate magician Louis Liu as a general ? The guy has all the authority and mystery of a toothless comb.
The plot takes a few interesting turns, but another disappointment comes from the fact that beyond the first few scenes (those involving Yuen Biao and Yu Rongguang), Gao Xiaosong doesn’t seem to care to delve deeper into the fascinating world of Chinese Opera. He uses the art form more as a fancy wallpaper than a well-documented setting. As a result, we’re left with a handsome but superficial film, one that is passable where it could have been memorable.
Long Story Short : My Kingdom underuses its fascinating setting and distinguished supporting cast in favor of serviceable drama and charisma-challenged leads. Still, Yuen Biao and Yu Rongguang, as well as Sammo Hung’s stunning choreography, elevate the proceedings. 1/2
Posted by bozpictures on December 5, 2013
Chiu Man Cheuk’s unremarkable comeback continues with this barely lukewarm adventure in which he plays a professor/adventurer in the Indiana Jones mould. He is seeking seven mythical treasures, and a vital clue leads him to Mount Wu Dang, where a martial arts tournament is taking place in the famous monastery of the same name. There’s a good cast, with martial arts actors Fan Siu Wong and Dennis To as Wu Dang disciples, Xu Jiao as Chiu’s daughter, the ubiquitous Yang Mi as a rival adventurer, and Shaun ‘son of Ti Lung’ Tam as a gangster. Corey Yuen provides the action, which is sometimes palatable (a balletic martial arts duet with Chiu and Yang taking on Tam’s men is particularly nice) but often forgettable and tame : who wants to see pretty Yang Mi fight kiddy Xu Jiao is one of the lamest film tournaments ever ? There’s no sense of adventure (the bad CGI doesn’t help matters), and the romantic subplots are either massively creepy (40-years-old Fan and 14-years-old Xu aren’t exactly a match made in heaven) or simply cold (Chiu Man Cheuk and Yang Mi have no chemistry whatsoever). A failure, but in an amiable kind of way.
Posted by bozpictures on October 28, 2013
The poster boy for the game-changing phenomenon that was John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow in 1986 may have been Chow Yun Fat, a moderately famous actor catapulted to icon status, but the real heart of the film was not Chow, it was the friendship between his character and Ti Lung’s. Indeed the pairing of Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung was so brilliant, their chemistry so complete, it’s no wonder they were reunited just one year after their A Better Tomorrow characters went out in a blaze of glory. Directed by Shaw Brothers veteran Sun Chung (a lesser-known director from that stable but also one of the most interesting), City War is obviously a riff on Lethal Weapon which had come out the year before, and whose pairing of two cops, one by-the-book, one a mad dog, is replicated here, though with an interesting twist. In Lethal Weapon the mad dog cop is a loner, and the by-the-book one is a family man ; here it’s the reverse. Another interesting reversal of expectations is that Chow Yun Fat, whom based on his A Better Tomorrow persona you’d expect to play the loose cannon, here plays Chiu, a cop who likes to play it safe, while Ti Lung is the hot-headed, authority-averse one.
That’s about it as far as originality is concerned. The plot is nothing to write home about : ten years ago, mobster Yiu (Norman Tsui) was sent to jail after being arrested by cop Ken (Ti Lung). During the arrest, his brother was killed and he was rendered impotent by a nasty family jewels injury. Now his sentence is over, vengeance is on his mind, and the fact that Ken’s negotiator friend Chiu (Chow Yun Fat) is having an affair with his girlfriend Penny (Tien Niu), is not making things better, at all. The film takes its time to set up this simple set of stakes, but never gets boring because while the pacing isn’t exactly on the breathless side and there are a few unwelcome comical scenes, three plotlines converges slowly but inexorably : Yiu’s return to life as a free man, faced with his pride-mangling impotence and thirst for vengeance (especially interesting thanks to a typically intense and charismatic performance by Norman Tsui), Chiu’s courtship of nightclub singer Penny (complete with a Carmen-inspired song performed by Anita Mui), and Ken’s frustration at the death of his old pal Ho, who took part in the fateful arrest ten years ago.
Around the one hour mark however, Sun Chung (who even in his Shaw Brothers years liked to shake it up a bit), decides that hell should break loose and a shocking turn of events, well, makes all hell break loose. Yiu sends assassins (among which a young Robin Shou) to Ken’s house, and the resulting action scene, in which Ken tries to fend off the assassins and protect his family, is a shockingly tense, brutal and unforgiving piece of filmmaking. From there things go really fast to a simply stunning, bronze-hued shootout in a bus warehouse, where Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung battle it out against Norman Tsui and his goons. It’s an amazing final action scene that should be much more famous than it is as it stands as one of the very best ‘heroic bloodshed’ finales in the history of eighties Hong Kong cinema.
Long Story Short : After a watchable but slow and derivative build-up, City War erupts in some of the most brutal, unforgiving and exhilarating action of 80′s Hong Kong cinema. Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung’s chemistry is a joy to watch, again.
Posted by bozpictures on October 23, 2013
Sometimes marketed as the 7th installment in the In The Line Of Duty franchise (and indeed, 90% of Cynthia Khan’s filmography could be from that franchise), Sea Wolves actually puts an emphasis on Gary Chau (a D&B Films protégé whose career never took off) and Simon Yam, as two Vietnamese friends separated by fate after emigrating to Hong Kong : Yam joins a gang of modern-day pirates who prey on Vietnamese boat people (how is that a logical step for a former Vietnamese immigrant ?), while Chau loses his sister in a pirate raid by that very same gang, subsequently finding himself stranded in Hong Kong, deprived of his memory by a nasty fall on his head. Cynthia Khan comes into play as a tough female cop on the trail of the pirate gang, and Norman Tsui adds another fine bad guy to his scintillating repertoire of villainy. For one hour the film noodles around pleasantly but unfortunately not thrillingly, with some tame comedy and slightly overwrought drama, but also thankfully the welcome grit and efficiency that can be expected from those late eighties, early nineties action films churned out by the D&B film company. Ultimately though, only the ever-reliable Simon Yam, the beautiful Cynthia Khan and a brutal, thrilling final action scene on a boat elevate Sea Wolves slightly above mediocrity. 1/2
Posted by bozpictures on October 22, 2013
With Jackie Chan celebrating his filmography’s milestones by adding new installments to his most successful franchises, and Donnie Yen getting busier than ever on a variety of action-heavy projects, it’s puzzling to see the wildly different turn Jet Li’s career has taken. Choosing, admirably, to focus on his charity (The One Foundation) and his Tai Chi promotion (Taiji Zen), he has been content for a few years now to appear as a benevolent supporting actor (though always top billed) in films that woefully underuse him both as an actor and as a martial artist. Badges of Fury unfortunately continues that disappointing trend. The real lead here is Wen Zhang, as a cocky young cop who, paired with veteran Jet Li and under the supervision of superior officer Michelle Chen, investigates on a series of murders in which the victims all die with a smile on their face. They cross paths with a stuttering insurance agent (Wu Jing), a whimiscal mob boss (Leung Kar Yan), a Men In Black type supercop (Huang Xiaoming), and many other cameoing stars, but the murders all trace back to an actress who has dated all of the victims (Liu Yan), and her sister (Liu Shi-Shi) who has made a habit out of stealing her boyfriends.
That plot description almost might lead you to believe there is a fun investigation at the heart of Badges of Fury. Not so. Plot-wise the film is an unholy mess, and not in a whimsical, anything-goes way, but rather in a ‘we had money and a list of cameos, product placements and fights to fit in, but no clue how to do it’ kind of way. Mirroring the screen-time ratio between funny guy Wen Zhang and action star Jet Li, the emphasis is put firmly on comedy of the broadest kind, from borderline retarded pratfalls and slapstick (often aided by horrendous CGI), to painfully obvious, in-your-face references (Jet Li’s in the film, so his character his called Wong Fei Hong and the theme music plays when he first appears). At least the film isn’t boring : Wen Zhang is actually a likeable, gifted actor with great comic timing, even if the lack of direction here leaves him completely adrift, and provided you’re well-versed in Chinese cinema you can play ‘spot the Chinese star here to return the producer a favor by appearing 30 seconds in a non-sequitur role’. Jet Li himself probably doesn’t appear more than 20 minutes throughout the whole film, but at least he’s clearly having good fun, turning in a light-hearted performance which, after his sleepwalking through Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, comes as a relief.
But his very presence, and that of other martial arts luminaries like Collin Chou, Wu Jing, Bruce Leung Siu Lung and Leung Kar Yan, as well as the involvement of Corey Yuen as an action director, is bound to create very high expectations as far as action is concerned. The film doesn’t merely fail to meet those expectations, it quite simply doesn’t seem to realize these expectations are here at all. How else can it be explained that such momentous match-ups as Jet Li fighting Wu Jing (for the first time after a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it skirmish in The Mummy 3), Collin Chou and Bruce Leung Siu Lung could turn out so short, awkward and/or CGI-heavy ?
Long Story Short : Badges of Fury is not a Jet Li-starring action film, but a Wen Zhang-unleashing comedy. Machine-gun cameos and likeable leads make it watchable, but the action is infrequent and botched and the comedy broad as can be.
Posted by bozpictures on October 22, 2013
A gang of seven martial artists/bikers (whose more recognizable members are Kent Cheng and Xiong Xin Xin) working for the law who butt heads with a rogue agent working for an international crime organization. That’s about all I remember of the plot, and I saw the film last week. What I do remember : when this film was made, in 1994, director/choreographer Ching Siu-Tung’s action style was being overused in Hong Kong cinema, and overextended by its instigator ; WONDER SEVEN is a prime example of that. Never mind the lack of a discernible dramatic structure (outside of the fact it all ends in climactic overkill), the non-existent characterization that means that the titular “Wonder Seven” are even less subtly delineated than the Seven Dwarves, or even the puzzling attempts at humor : while these faults aren’t a fixture of Hong Kong cinema, they are at least recurring defects in the more commercial section of that industry, that can often be ignored through sheer sensory elation. But here Ching’s style has reached a point where it was not only feeling very redundant at the time, but still today out of the context of its release looks and feels tired and over-indulgent.
Fighters barely set foot when fighting, the laws of gravity are not just put on hold (a respectable convention) : they’re clobbered, killed and then Ching Siu Tung wears their skin as a coat. And the obviously fairly low budget means all that is achieved not through elaborate wire-work, but through quick cuts often amateurish in their ineffective succession. Bland heroes and maniacal villains come and go (hello, Elvis Tsui), and WONDER SEVEN only rarely escapes anonymous mediocrity : that’s whenever Michelle Yeoh is onscreen. Her flirting/love story with the criminally bland Li Ning (as one of the Wonder Seven) amounts to not much, and her fight scenes are not any less compromised than the rest, but at least she’s a sight to behold (the director of photography is clearly in love with her), and her natural class and charisma shine through. Of course they do.
Posted by bozpictures on August 8, 2013
Unfortunately more notable for the tragic death of its star Bai Jing than for anything to be found in it, this martial arts comedy by Tung Cho Joe Cheung features more inane comedy than interesting fighting, a shame given its title. Just like Yuen Woo-Ping’s 1994 film Wing Chun (starring the soon-to-be-reunited triumvirate of Yuen, Michelle Yeoh and Donnie Yen), it plays fast and loose with the already fast and loose origins of Wing Chun kung fu, a fighting style recently kicked into a full-blown trend by Yen’s Ip Man films. The historically baseless story of Wing Chun is that it was taught by buddhist nun Ng Mui to a young girl called Wing Chun, whose only way out of a loveless wedding to a rich kid was defeating him in a fight. Kung Fu Wing Chun more or less sticks to the legend, coating it in some uninspired comedy and akwardly choreographed fights, all very fake looking due to a stuffy studio aesthetic and cheap-looking green-screen work. The late Bai Jing is endearing but no Michelle Yeoh, being a bit short in the charisma department and quite often obviously doubled. Brief relief from mediocrity comes in the form of some illustrious supporting actors, among which Kara Hui as Ng Mui, Collin Chou as the villain of the piece, and the Yuen Wah/Yuen Qiu couple from Kung Fu Hustle. 1/2
Posted by bozpictures on July 3, 2013
Billed as a sequel of sorts to the great Tai Chi Master, Tai Chi II is actually not only narratively unrelated to the illustrious JetLi/Michelle Yeoh pair-up (also directed by Yuen Woo-Ping), but also spiritually disconnected from it : there’s not much Tai Chi in it. It tells of Jackie, a young Tai Chi disciple (ok, that’s the main Tai Chi connection) who spends his time pissing off his parents (a likeable pairing of Yu Hai and Sibelle Hu in her last film role), a beautiful girl’s (gorgeous Christy Chung) current boyfriend (Mark Cheng), and more dangerously, an gang of opium smugglers led by an angry Gweilo (Darren Shahlavi) who spouts such penetratingly written lines as “Damn you devil Chinaman”. It is notable for being Yuen Woo-Ping last feature film as a director before a 14-year hiatus that ended with 2010′s True Legend. But it is also the feature film debut of Jacky Wu Jing, a national Wushu champion who once seemed destined to be the next Jet Li, but through some bad career management has for now ended up a very reliable and likeable martial arts supporting actor instead (he was recently superb in Benny Chan’s Shaolin).
Tai Chi II doesn’t do much as a showcase for his considerable talents, however. It’s a disjointed half-comedy that spends too much time on its central character’s very moderately funny hijinks, and with rather lacklustre fights (at least by its legendary’s fight choreographer’s very high standards), that never really settle for either graceful realism or inflated wire-fu. The use Jackie makes of his unusually strong braid is actually the only original touch to be gleaned here. The film itself never crosses into awfulness territory : the comedy is never too crass, the fighting always at least adequate, Christy Chung is unparalleled eye-candy, and though Wu Jing would go on to showcase greater charisma in his later roles after maturing a bit, he is already a likeable presence here. In the end though, it was another 5 years before he appeared again on the big screen, in Tsui Hark’s Zu… Talk about not being able to catch a break.
Posted by bozpictures on June 29, 2013
A year before Infernal Affairs rejuvenated Hong Kong cinema, Eric Tsang was already playing an affable yet brutal mob boss in an ‘undercover cop drama’, COP ON A MISSION, which didn’t get much attention but deserved its fair share of it. It tells of Mike (Daniel Wu), a driven cop who is assigned to an undercover mission in triad boss Yum’s (Eric Tsang) circle. But he is soon seduced not only by the glitzy world he has infiltrated, but also by Yum’s beautiful wife Pauline (Suki Kwan). As he grows more and more estranged from his real life, including his kind girlfriend (Anya), and is given more and more power by the trusting Yum, Mike’s moral compass threatens to go awol.
It’s not difficult to see why such a film would get overshadowed and somewhat forgotten in the wake of the Infernal Affairs trilogy’s enormous success. COP ON A MISSION has an altogether much less polished package, though it is directed with maximum efficiency by hard-working editor Marco Mak (who edited virtually every Hong Kong classic of the nineties) ; the cast is less glamorous (Wu and Tsang being the only big names), and the script is less tortuous. But contrary to many of its kind, Marco Mak’s film doesn’t desperately try to be mind-blowing, it shoots for “fun and engrossing” and hits its target.
The “fun” part are the b-movie stylings, with rapid-fire shootouts (though not many) expertly choreographed by Ma Yuk-Sing and Daniel Wu’s growingly unhinged performance. Wu was only starting out at the time, and wasn’t yet the accomplished actor he is becoming these days. His performance is a simple and enjoyable one, transitioning from the puppy eyes and agape mouth of the undercover cop getting to grips with the triad world and falling in love with his boss’ wife in the beginning, to a collection of smirks and slightly wild eyes as his character’s soul starts to rot.
As for the “engrossing” flipside, it is carried out through a tight script that ably toys with the frontier between right and wrong, locating it in unexpected places, as the audience discovers that underneath boss Yum’s creepy eyebrows and sometimes startlingly brutal ways (he kills one of his men in the middle of a friendly dinner, much like Al Capone in The Untouchables) is a loving man who despite being on the wrong side of the law has a deceptively moral core. Eric Tsang is of course terrific, using his rotund features and hollow voice expertly, in what is indeed a convincing test run for his better-known role as Hon Sam in Infernal Affairs. And COP ON A MISSION, familiar though it may seem, does manage to sneak in a few suprises for the audience, including an oddly satisfying ending that is a welcome change from the usually bitter codas this kind of undercover cop thriller usually dishes out.
Long Story Short : A familiar and almost second-rate undercover cop thriller on the surface, COP ON A MISSION is nevertheless enjoyable and tight, featuring a great Eric Tsang performance and managing to introduce a few interesting twists to the formula. 1/2
Posted by bozpictures on January 7, 2013