SKIPTRACE (2016) review

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After going through director and cast changes (as Renny Harlin and Johnny Knoxville replaced Sam Fell and Seann William Scott, respectively), a tragic on-set death (cinematographer Chan Kwok Hung drowned when shooting boat stunts on Lantau Island) and months of delay (it was initially to be released in December 2015), Skiptrace finally arrived in theaters in July 2016 and gave the Chinese film summer one of its rare hits. Jackie Chan plays Bennie Chan, a dour Hong Kong detective on the trail of a mysterious crime boss known as ‘The Matador’, and who may or may not be businessman Victor Wong (Winston Chao). Nine years ago, after his partner Yung (Eric Tsang) was trapped and killed by The Matador, Chan swore to protect his daughter Samantha (Fan Bingbing). Now she’s in Victor Wong’s clutches and Chan’s only hope is to track down American conman Connor Watts (Johnny Knoxville), who has evidence that could incriminate the Matador. The problem is, Watts doesn’t want to follow Chan to Hong Kong, and he’s himself being hunted by the Russian mob, after knocking up the daughter of a kingpin…

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SUPER BODYGUARD (aka THE BODYGUARD) (2016) review

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Brazenly declaring itself “the best martial arts film in the past 20 years”, the very same claim made by the director’s previous film, The King of the Streets, Yue Song’s Super Bodyguard follows Wu (Yue), a mysterious rambler who, having just arrived in the city of Lengcheng, both saves the life of wealthy businessman Li and reunites with his long lost friend Jiang (Shi Yanneng), who was raised by the same master but left for the city years ago, jealous and angry at not being taught the same ‘Way of the 108 Kicks’ as Wu. Now Jiang is the owner of a bodyguard agency, and he assigns Wu to protect Feifei (Li Yufei), the daughter of businessman Li. A spoiled brat, she’s initially reluctant to be followed around by the uncouth Wu, who wears 25-pound steel boots and thinks a wine’s vintage is its expiration date. But after he saves her from a kidnapping attempt, she warms to him and as the two go in hiding, feelings develop. But Wu’s past haunts him, and Jiang’s anger is still alive…

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An Interview with Composer Wong Kin Wai

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Breaking into the film music business in China and Hong Kong isn’t easy. The A-list of Chinese film composers is a short and exclusive one that gets most of the high-profile assignments, with the rest often going to seasoned foreign composers. And yet in just a few years, Wong Kin Wai has managed to go from composing TV jingles to creating his own company, Fun Track Music ltd, and scoring one the biggest Chinese films of the 2016 summer: Benny Chan’s Call of Heroes. No wonder, he’s a versatile and ambitious new musical voice, one that will most probably be heard more and more in the coming years in the fast-expanding Chinese film industry.

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LEAGUE OF GODS (2016) review

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Sometimes lazily and erroneously branded as a “Chinese X-Men”, a franchise with which it has very little in common beyond CGI and powers, Koan Hui’s League of Gods is actually much closer – in concept, story and visuals – to Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, not that the marketing team would want to play that particular angle, following the much-publicized flop of that film (which we actually liked, for all its faults). It’s set in a mythical ancient China ruled by the evil king Zhou (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and his consort Daji (Fan Bingbing), who’s actually a Nine-Tail Fox demon who pulls the strings on every one of his power-hungry moves. But Zhou is met with resistance from the kingdom of Xiqi, ruled by king Ji Chang (Zu Feng) and old strategist Jiang Ziya (Jet Li). The latter sends his protégé Lei Zhenzi (Jacky Heung), the last of a once-flourishing winged tribe, on a mission to retrieve the Sword of Light, which is the only weapon that can defeat the Black Dragon, the evil and powerful entity from which king Zhou draws his power. In his quest, Lei Zhenzi relies on the help of Ji Fa (Andy On), his childhood friend and the son of king Ji Chang, Nezha (Wen Zhang), a rambunctious warrior who alternatively appears as a baby and a grown man, and Erlangshen (Huang Xiaoming), a mysterious warrior with a truth-seeking third eye. Lei Zhenzi also meets Blue Butterfly (Angelababy) a whimsical young woman with whom he falls in love, but who’s actually a creation of Shengong Bao (Louis Koo), king Zhou’s chief general, who has orders to kill him and his companions.

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THE PRECIPICE GAME (2016) review

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Mainland Chinese horror consists mainly of ghost stories that end with rational twists in order to avoid the SARFT‘s censorship of supernatural elements, which makes Wang Zao’s The Precipice Game an exception: it’s a straightforward slasher with Saw overtones, and no fake ghosts in sight. It stars Ruby Lin as Chen Chen, a surgeon whose wealthy mother (Wang Ji) is a control freak who disapproves of most of her relationships. One day her current boyfriend Chuan (Kingscar Jin) offers to take her on a treasure-hunt aboard a massive cruise ship, with only a select few other players (Peter Ho, Gai Yuexi, Li Lin and Li Shangyi). Things start off weird, with an oddly elaborate game of life-sized but harmless Russian roulette, before taking a turn for the horrific, as players are killed one by one in a series of inventively sadistic traps.

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FOR A FEW BULLETS (2016) review

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With For a Few Bullets, writer and director Pan Anzi (who now goes by Peter Pan, believe it or not) returns to the genre of the zany Inner Mongolia-set period caper which he had already essayed with 2012’s Scheme with Me, starring Richie Ren. This time Pan had a bigger budget and larger stylistic ambitions. For a Few Bullets is set in the 1940s and tells of Chinese government agent Ruoyun (Zhang Jingchu) who teams up with con man Xiao Zhuang to recover a priceless imperial stamp that was found in a lost tomb by the Japanese army, whose leaders (including Kenneth Tsang) plan to use it in their bid to subjugate China. As they learn to trust – and even love – each other, race through the Gobi desert and deal with countless double-crosses, a dastardly Russian generals and a inhuman Japanese executioner, Ruoyun and Xiao Zhuang are helped by legendary hustler Shi Fu (Tenggeer) and his fiery wife San Niang (Liu Xiaoqing).

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MURDER AT HONEYMOON HOTEL (2016) short review

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A former assistant-director to Kim Ki-duk, director Jang Cheol-soo makes his Chinese-speaking debut with Murder at Honeymoon Hotel, about a luxury hotel that is the site of a series of variably grisly incidents. There’s a movie star (Zhang Jingchu), here to pay off a mysterious blackmailer who threatens to reveal a secret from her past, there’s a smarmy plastic surgeon (Peter Ho, who’s been on a overacting spree recently) in heavy debt to loan sharks, there’s a beautiful woman (Ni Hongjie) planning revenge on a client of the hotel, and in the middle is stuck a penniless bellboy (Kim Young-min) who’s getting married and hopes his boss will let him use the presidential suite for his honeymoon. Black comedies can seldom afford to be clumsy: this is a genre that requires real confidence and assured legerdemain. Murder at Honeymoon Hotel possesses the former but not the latter, marred as it is by sitcom-worthy acting and a surfeit of plot holes and unconvincing narrative turns. Still, this entertaining little film does have a a few deliciously twisted moments, and benefits greatly from the starry presence of Zhang Jingchu, whose unhinged, blazingly sexy femme fatale act enlivens the proceedings considerably. **1/2

ONE NIGHT ONLY (2016) review

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The directorial debut of Taiwanese actor Matt Wu (seen in Reign of Assassins and Sweet Alibis, among others), One Night Only stars Aaron Kwok as Gao Ye, a hopelessly compulsive gambler in heavy debt with ruthless loan sharks who are threatening to dismember him if he doesn’t pay up. Just after being submitted to a violent shakedown with an assorted ultimatum, he’s visited in his dingy hotel room by Momo (Yang Zishan), a prostitute he didn’t call for, but who insists on staying with him for forty minutes, lest her pimps think she’s not working hard enough. Having noticed Momo has a bundle of banknotes in her handbag, Gao Ye ensnares her into a gambling spree with the promise of profitable returns. Initially reluctant, she soon starts going along with it, and over the course of one long night, the two underdogs get into ever deeper trouble as they cross paths with an unhinged gambling rival (Andy On). They also grow closer to each other, slowly unraveling their most painful secrets.

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ANGEL FORCE (1991) short review

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The final film of Hua Shan, whose largely unremarkable filmography nevertheless includes one of the Shaw Brothers’ best Wu Xia Pian (the superb Soul of the Sword) and one of its craziest sci-fi films (Infra-man), Angel Force is not to be confused with Li Chao’s Mission of Condor, which came out the same year under the same title in some countries, and also featured Moon Lee and Fujimi Nadeki. The generic plot involves two cops (Moon Lee and Wilson Lam) and an army veteran (Hugo Ng) who get recruited to rescue an American hostage held in the Burmese jungle by a renegade general (Johnny Wang Lung Wei). After an uninvolving start and a few excruciatingly cheesy family scenes, Angel Force gets going and delivers efficient, briskly-paced jungle action (scored to Basil Poledouris’ The Hunt for Red October soundtrack), from a short but thunderous throwdown between Moon Lee and Fujimi Nadeki, to a tense and fairly exciting exfiltration scene that ends with a fight with the fearsome Johnny Wang Lung Wei and an impressive helicopter stunt. Then the film keeps going to wrap up its loose ends, losing steam and dropping a thudding, predictable twist on the audience. Still, Yuen Bun’s action is brutal and unfussy, and amid all the bland characters, Hugo Ng cuts a charismatic contrasted figure as tough, reliable vet with dark impulses. **1/2

CLOSE ESCAPE (1989) short review

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Tung (Michael Miu) is a cop whose cancer gives him only a few months to live. Determined to leave his younger brother Leung (Max Mok) with enough money to go study medicine in the United States, and unable to do so on his meager cop salary, he robs diamonds from smuggler Chiu (Dick Wei), who has him killed and has Leung framed for murder. The latter can then only count on the help of his cop friend Ben (Aaron Kwok) and Miko (Yukari Oshima), a mysterious Japanese journalist. Chow Jan Wing’s Close Escape was Aaron Kwok’s big screen debut, shot at a time when he was just a jobbing actor in TVB shows, and was just about to break out as a singer. It’s a competent but wholly routine Hong Kong thriller that spends too much time on its efficient but bland plot and some clunky melodrama, while keeping the fine, Philip Kwok-choreographed fighting to the final ten minutes. Still, the housebound finale is a delight, especially when Yukari Oshima and Dick Wei trade kicks with immaculate precision and unmistakable power. **