DRAGON BLADE (2015) review

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Daniel Lee’s Dragon Blade isn’t just another Chinese period epic. Its price tag of 65 million dollars makes it the most expensive Chinese film in history, while its opening numbers at the domestic box-office broke records and its final take of 120 million dollars ranks it as the 8th highest-grossing Chinese film. Its cast is truly international : gathered around Chinese A-listers Jackie Chan, William Feng and Karena Lam are Hollywood actors John Cusack and Adrien Brody, Korean actors/pop stars Choi Si Won and Steve Yoo, Australian dancer and scream queen Sharni Vinson, as well as French singer Lorie Pester. And its plot takes considerable licence with history to imagine a meeting of East and West, between the Roman armies and the tribes of Western China.

Jackie Chan is Huo An, who as a Hun orphan was raised by a Chinese general (William Feng) who passed on to him ideals of peace and racial harmony. Now grown up, Huo An is the head of the Silk Road Protection Squad, a group of soldiers mediating strife between the dozens of tribal groups who cohabit this border region, and policing the trade route without using violence, like the ancient equivalent of U.N. peacekeepers. But after being framed for smuggling gold through the border, Huo An and his squad are arrested and sent to Wild Geese Gate, a derelict outpost they are tasked with rebuilding. There, they meet a Roman army headed by General Lucius (John Cusack), who has fled with a few hundred men to protect the life of a noble child (Jozef Waite), whose power-hungry brother Tiberius (Adrien Brody) murdered their father, Consul Crassus (Gregory Allen). After a brief fight, Huo An and Lucius decide to make peace and the Roman fugitives are welcomed into Wild Geese Gate, which they help rebuild with their architectural expertise. But as Chinese and Roman soldiers start to fraternize, the threat of Tiberius taking over the Silk Road looms large, and a confrontation becomes inevitable.

Dragon Blade was written and directed by Daniel Lee, and bears many of the hallmarks of this extremely underrated filmmaker. If anything, it works almost as a spectacular summary (and thus, a simplification) of the themes he tackled in the past decade. The relation between heroism and memory – here embodied by William Feng’s General Huo who is seen in flashbacks and whose armor, set on top of a pillar at Wild Geese Gate, towers over most of the action – is carried over from 2008’s Three Kingdoms : Resurrection of the Dragon. The weight of fratricide, an act that recurs in different ways in Dragon Blade, and the figure of the renegade are spliced from 2010’s 14 Blades. And the concept of rewritten history, as carried out not only narratively but also visually through creative and purposely inaccurate costume design, pervaded both Three Kingdoms and 2011’s White Vengeance. But despite the presence of these Daniel Lee hallmarks along with some of his weaknesses, such as often muddled power play and exposition, Dragon Blade Jackie Chan’s own brand equally, with a big, simplistic message that is endearingly humanistic though sometimes thuddingly patriotic.

The endearingly humanistic part of the message concerns equality among ethnic groups and peace between nations. Nothing subtle, but a big heart doesn’t need subtlety, and for all the fighting and battling to be found in the film, some of the best scenes are actually scenes of peaceful friendship. As Roman and Chinese soldiers come together to rebuild the outpost, we are treated to a wonderfully uplifting, not to mention visually stunning, series of sequences where they exchange architectural techniques, training methods, fighting styles and, in an especially stirring moment, inspiring songs (composed by Henry Lai, whose score as a whole is rich and beautiful). The more thuddingly patriotic side, which had dragged down Chan’s CZ12 quite a bit and was the whole raison d’être of his previous film 1911, is thankfully muted but still present in some slightly cringe-inducing lines, like when Huo An tells Lucius “Roman soldiers are trained to kill, but Chinese soldiers are trained to save lives”. But of course they are.

Still, Dragon Blade is first and foremost a grand spectacle and a visual treat. As usual, Daniel Lee’s art direction (with Eddy Wong and Thomas Chung) is gorgeous, with a special challenge being set and gloriously met for the costumes by the presence of a dozen different ethnic groups on screen. The photography by Lee’s cinematographer of choice, Tony Cheung, is splendid, with the bronze luster of the daytime images being complemented by some stunning chiaroscuro in nighttime scenes. Unexpectedly and despite its sizable budget, the film only has one battle scene, a superb set piece which, in a wonderful flourish reminiscent of Three Kingdoms : Resurrection of the Dragon, is scored in the scene, as each army comes with its musicians and percussionists. The rest of the action is made up of duels, all choreographed with grace and brutality by Jackie Chan’s Stunt Team, as Romans and Chinese trade fighting skills, and Chan consecutively fights Lin Peng, John Cusack and Adrien Brody. Each duel has the same desert setting but a distinct identity (a testament to artful choreography), with the first one being an almost comical pas de deux, the second a dynamic dialogue of fighting skills where both fighters are almost more invested in impressing each other than hurting each other, and the third one a full-on agression. Jackie Chan is still remarkably dynamic and eschews most of his traditional methods in favor of straightforward sword-fighting, and it’s a joy to watch. It must also be said that John Cusack acquits himself superbly with the fighting, a fact that is not so surprising considering he has a black belt in Kickboxing and has been taught by world champion – and Chan’s adversary in Meals on Wheels and Dragons Forever – Benny Urquidez.

The international cast fares unequally. Anchoring everything is Jackie Chan in a warm and hearty performance that mixes his traditional squeaky-clean, happy-go-lucky persona, with the gravitas and emotional weight he’s been accumulating in the past decade with his more serious roles. At 60, he’s still a joy to watch. A lot of people have expressed concern over the casting of John Cusack as a Roman general ; and granted, it’s unexpected casting as Cusack usually carries a very contemporary dry wit and irony, and has rarely fought onscreen. But it works : not only as his world-weary persona is quite fitting for the role of a weathered, disillusioned general, but also because he’s a gifted actor with much more ability to stretch than given credit for (for proof see him as a chilling serial killer in The Frozen Ground, or as a sleazy convict in The Paperboy). He gives a soulful but steely performance and has good chemistry with Chan, and most of all with child actor Jozef Waite, as their characters share an affecting and sweet bond. Adrien Brody makes for a formidable, if completely caricatural villain : the kind of villain who licks his blade after killing an enemy. Still, he too shows good fighting form, and his charismatic overacting at least provides the film with a strong antagonist. It must also be noted that most of the Caucasian supporting roles and extras are much better than the horrid Gweilo actors usually employed in Chinese productions.

Elsewhere, Lin Peng is delightful as a lovestruck bow-wielding Hun warrior, while Sammy Hung cuts a striking figure as her comrade in arms. Korean star Choi Si Won however, gets almost nothing to do, and mere minutes of screen time, even though he’s on the poster. Karena Lam comes back from a five-year hiatus from films, in a sequence set in modern day where two archeologists (Lam and Vanness Wu sporting a laughable curly haircut) find the remains of an ancient city built from Wild Geese Gate, and use a virtual 3D simulator to visualize it. It’s a pointless, misguided sequence that has thankfully been excised from the international cut. Other blemishes that might still be fixed include a sometimes awkward use of fades to black (where a simple cut would be much more seamless) and the fact that, even though each Asian ethnic group is made to speak its own language (with Hun, Uyghur and a few others being heard), the Romans still speak English.

Long Story Short : Though sometimes clumsy, Dragon Blade is a rousing, heartfelt and visually stunning epic that successfully merges Jackie Chan and Daniel Lee’s styles. ****

I DO (2012) short review

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Sun Zhou’s I Do follows Tang Weiwei (Li Bingbing), a thirty-something business woman who’s given her all to her career, neglecting her love life after being left heartbroken a decade before by her boyfriend Wang Yang (Duan Yihong), a struggling graphic designer she had supported through difficult times. Now she’s finally ready to get in a relationship again, and in comes Yang Nianhua (Sun Honglei), a former publisher gone bankrupt, whose easy-going charm and selfless devotion make him a prime suitor. But things get complicated as Wang Yang suddenly reappears in Weiwei’s life : now a wealthy businessman, he plans to win her back. It’s the tried and true rom-com formula of the woman torn between two opposites: here, the rich old flame or the modest but charming new leaf. The dilemma unfolds in a thuddingly talky way, each of the usual stakes (does wealth matter more than devotion, can we forgive someone who’s broken our heart once, etc…) being discussed at length against the backdrop of fancy restaurants, sleek offices and luxury apartments, while several subplots involving under-developped supporting characters either fall flat or go nowhere. And if I Do remains watchable, it’s because it has in Li Bingbing a lead actress of tremendous class and subtlety, whose chemistry with Sun Honglei (in a full-on charm attack) and Duan Yihong (excellent in a more thankless role) is immaculate. Would that all romantic comedies had such appealing leads. **1/2

COLD STEEL (2011) review

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As an editor, David Wu Dai Wai has had an illustrious career, cutting together the films of John Woo, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To, Ann Hui and many others. As a director, his list of credits is more modest, comprised as it is of mainly American TV movies and a few fairly unsuccessful Hong-Kong films (with the exception of The Bride With White Hair 2 in 1994). Cold Steel is actually his first Mainland film as a director, and is adapted – by Wu himself – from a popular 2009 novel by Li Xiaomin. Set in central China in 1938 during the Sino-Japanese war, it follows a young hunter, Mu Liangfeng (Peter Ho), who falls in love with Liu Yan (Song Jia), a woman whose teahouse has been turned into a temporary infirmary. But soon, Mu is enrolled by force in a sniper unit after using his marksmanship skills to rescue a Nationalist Army convoy from a Japanese sniper attack. The unit is headed by the grizzled veteran Zhang Mengyi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), and its new assignment is to assassinate four Japanese generals in the city of Jingzhou, to slow down the Japanese army. After the mission goes awry, they manage to escape but a Japanese colonel (Wilson Guo) is tasked with hunting them down with his own sniper squad.

Cold Steel is that rare war film that dares to be brisk and concise, clocking in at roughly 95 minutes, when most war films adopt – understandably – a sprawling approach. This comes at the cost of depth, as the characters are mostly wartime stereotypes : the headstrong, talented young recruit, the kind and brave nurse, the gruff, non-nonsense platoon leader, the sophisticated, ruthless enemy officer, and so on. But for what Cold Steel aims to be – not a realistic, layered depiction of war but an energetic action melodrama – it works. All the more so as the casting is very solid : Peter Ho and Song Jia are likeable and heartfelt, while Tony Leung Ka Fai gets to eat the scenery alive in a gloriously charismatic turn (of the kind he could do in his sleep) ; it’s also good to see Yu Rongguang in cameo as a stern commander.

And David Wu’s pacing is immaculate : each character is introduced with skillful efficiency and the stakes escalate quickly, setting up a series of excellent action scenes that display Wu’s virtuosity in editing, and a sense of staging that he may have inherited from his frequent collaborator John Woo. The sniper’s squad failed assassination mission and subsequent escape from Jingzhou, in particular, is breathlessly exciting, making the most of a good but limited budget while injecting some humour and also a dose of emotional payback, as Tony Leung Ka Fai blows up the hand of a lecherous Japanese controller, after telling him “This is for groping Chinese women”. So subtlety isn’t the name of the game, gun porn is never far as firearms get repeatedly compared to women, and melodrama sometimes threatens to take over, like in a protracted patch when the film concentrates on Mu and Liu’s endearing but not so exciting love story. But nevertheless, Cold Steel succeeds as a dynamic, appealing wartime action film, and makes us wish David Wu would take command of a film more often.

Long Story Short : A brisk and heartfelt – if fairly unsubtle – wartime action melodrama supported by a massively charismatic turn from Tony Leung Ka Fai, Cold Steel is a joy to watch. ****

THE BOUNDARY (2014) short review

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Wang Tao’s The Boundary is a psychological thriller about a cop (Ye Liu) who’s become a shell of a man since his wife disappeared mysteriously ten years before. His prime suspect has always been a wealthy businessman (Vincent Zhao), whose wife he had to shoot dead a bit before, when she tried to murder a woman she suspected of having an affair with her husband. Now ten years later, the businessman’s attractive new partner is brutally killed in a parking lot by a woman whom the surveillance cameras reveal to be his dead wife… The victim’s daughter thus enlists Ye Liu’s help to seek the truth, and a lot of painful secrets are about to be revealed. For half of its runtime, The Boundary is simply too vague for its own good : the stakes are introduced in such a vague way that it’s difficult to care. Then the film starts boiling down to its more essential components and manages to gather some tension and a few genuine surprises, especially as it tickles Mainland China’s censorship rules about the supernatural, but the endlessly simmering atmosphere and deadening use of redundant flashbacks make it a slog. It’s nevertheless interesting to see a fine performance from Vincent Zhao in a rare non-martial arts role, all the more so as he’s much more interesting as an ambiguous villain (like in Jacob Cheung’s The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom), than as a squeaky-clean hero like in most of his films. **

WOLF WARRIOR (2015) review

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Wu Jing’s second film as a director after 2008’s Legendary Assassin, which he co-directed with his martial arts choreographer of choice Nicky Li Chung Chi, Wolf Warrior is also his first lead role in the seven years since that film’s release, and the first time he co-wrote a film. He plays Leng Feng, a sniper who is expelled from the army after he solved a hostage crisis by ignoring orders and shooting down the hostage-taker with a hazardous maneuver. While in confinement, he is approached by officer Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan) with an offer to join an elite tactical team known as the Wolf Warriors. He accepts, and soon he’s in the forest with his new team for a field exercise. But things take a tragic and dangerous turn when they run afoul of a team of foreign mercenaries headed by Tomcat (Scott Adkins) and hired by an international criminal (Ni Dahong) seeking revenge for the death of his brother, who is none other than the hostage-taker killed by Leng Feng. While supervised by Long Xiaoyun from a control room, Leng and two of his comrades must retaliate for the death of one of the Wolf Warriors, and prevent the team from crossing the Chinese border again.

The most striking thing about Wolf Warrior, is how patriotic it is. It follows the tropes of an eighties Chuck Norris film almost to the letter, coming off as literally the modern Chinese equivalent (how ironic is that) of a Delta Force or a Missing in Action. While Wu Jing’s lithe and smiling persona could not be further removed from the mighty Chuck’s granite beardedness, his character presents the same combination of intense patriotism and unique skill, in that special way that makes him too good for the regular army but perfect for an elite team, inside of which he will still need to occasionally go solo anyway. Beyond the lead character, the film makes a point of doubling as propaganda anytime it can. Lines like “Whoever dares to breach into Chinese territory will regret it dearly” are repeated an almost uncomfortable number of times, Yu Nan’s gorgeous and steely officer is mostly seen against the backdrop of a giant People’s Republic of China flag, a third of the film is taken up by impressive displays of military deployment and hardware, and there’s an almost surreal degree of levity in the troops, to the point that you’d be forgiven at times for thinking you’ve stumbled upon an army recruiting promo. And a “suiting-up” scene actually remakes a passage from Menahem Golan’s Delta Force by showing soldiers grafting on Chinese flag badges to their uniform for a good two minutes.

That exacerbated patriotism has led some to speculate that the film’s success was artificially bolstered by the government, which among other measures may have made it compulsory for members of its army (the People’s Liberation Army) to go see the film. That’s millions of active and reserve personnel. Whether or not this is true, it’s difficult to imagine Wolf Warrior becoming a hit in other parts of the world, for beyond the patriotism that may have struck a chord with audiences (especially in smaller cities and rural areas, according to tracking), it is far from a satisfying action film. For much of it running time, Wu Jing’s film is surprisingly low on the kind of fireworks that, considering its paper-thin and often puerile plot (a weird, under-developped subplot concerns the bad guy’s attempt at securing a genetic weapon that can specifically wipe out Chinese people), would have been its raison d’être, or at least its saving grace. A lot of time is spent on deployment of troops and vehicles, on weak banter among the men, and on heavy-handed flirting by radio between Wu Jing and Yu Nan’s characters. There’s also a slightly puzzling scuffle against a pack of actual (well, actual CGI) wolves that look good in close-up but not in movement. When the plot finally gathers some urgency, there are only 25 minutes left, and while they feature some reasonably exciting forest warfare and vehicular destruction (Nicky Li Chung Chi directs the action), it’s too little, too late. And even then, Wu Jing makes the puzzling decision to include thudding flashbacks to something that happened to Leng Feng’s father (flashbacks to something Leng Feng didn’t actually witness, by the way), to add poignancy to a scene of rescue.

Luckily, the acting is as good as can be expected in such a crudely-written film. Wu Jing has always been adept at imbuing even the most kick-ass of characters with a sense of sweetness. A scene where he’s hanging from a helicopter and just revels in the experience with boyish glee, and the constant sense of humor Leng Feng exhibits, make him a character worthy of a better film. Yu Nan is mostly stuck to a control room and disappointingly doesn’t get in on the action, but her steely charisma and solid chemistry with Wu Jing are some of the film’s pleasures. Ni Dahong has fun in a limited villainous role, lighting cigars whether everything is exploding around him or he’s pinned down under Wu Jing’s boot. The presence of Scott Adkins as the immediate bad guy is a nice change of pace from all the horrible Gweilo actors playing villains in Chinese/Hong Kong productions. Though Adkins’ character has no dimension at all beyond his skills, the British actor’s charisma and usual athleticism are welcome, as is his laudable restraint, compared to recent performances like the late Darren Shahlavi in Ip Man 2. His final fight against Wu Jing is passable, but a fairly short knife fight is not what one would expect of a match-up between two of the best martial arts actor working today.

Long Story Short : Disappointingly, Wolf Warrior features more propaganda than action. Crudely plotted and often repetitive, it gets by mostly on its appealing cast. ** 

THE GAMBLING GHOST (1991) review

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Mixing the ‘ghost comedy’ genre with which Sammo Hung had been quite successful in the eighties, with the gambling craze initiated by Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers in 1989, Clifton Ko’s The Gambling Ghost follows Fat Bo (Sammo Hung), a lowly valet who squanders what money he earns on misguided and startlingly unlucky gambling, much to the chagrin of his dour father (Sammo Hung again), whose own father (Sammo Hung, yet again) was a gambler himself and was killed by a mob boss. One day, the ghost of the grandfather appears and strikes a deal with his grandson : he’ll make him rich by helping him cheat at gambling and by using his ghostly powers to make him win the lottery, but in return Fat Bo must get revenge for him. The Gambling Ghost follows a familiar Hong Kong comedy pattern : a drawn-out, episodic start, which suddenly accelerates to an action-packed finale in the last third (here finely choreographed by Meng Hoi, who also plays Fat Bo’s gambling partner). And indeed, the idea of a ghost forcing a man into getting him revenge or closure is one that Sammo had already used in 1982’s The Dead and the Deadly and 1986’s Where’s Officer Tuba, and that he would again play out in 1992’s Ghost Punting.

And so The Gambling Ghost wouldn’t possess much originality or memorability, if it weren’t for Sammo Hung’s tour-de-force triple performance as three generations of the same family. The salty, charismatic grandfather, the dour, principled father and the restless, resentful son are three very distinct personalities that Sammo embodies with skill and immaculate comic timing. And it helps that the film’s technique in having them interacting with one another, while nothing new even at the time, is seamless. Beyond this triple-act, the film offers a few more common but no less welcome pleasures, like the obligatory but always fun cameos (the great Lam Ching Ying as an exorcist, and of course good old Richard Ng, among others), a few references to the big successes of the past year (here for instance, a dream sequence spoofing God of Gamblers quite hilariously, and a more random parody of A Chinese Ghost Story), a handful of middle fingers to political correctness, and some first-rate fighting, as Sammo Hung and Billy Chow go toe-to-toe for probably the hundredth time. Not that we’d ever complain about that.

Long Story Short : A serviceable, typical Hong Kong action comedy elevated by Sammo Hung’s memorable and skillful triple performance as a grandfather, a father and a son. ***

 

Where to buy it : On Amazon.co.uk

CROSS (2012) short review

cross-2012-2 It took 3 years and 4 different directors to complete Cross‘ sluggish 75 minutes about a man (Simon Yam) who is devastated by his wife’s suicide, which according to his beliefs condemns her to hell, and so decides to save as many souls as he can by killing suicidal people before they can actually do it themselves. He then surrenders himself to the police, only to realize that someone may have been pulling the strings all along. Though it’s often visually arresting, with evocative cinematography conjuring disquieting imagery that combines the mundane with the unnatural, Daniel Chan, Steve Woo, Lau King Ping and Hui Shu Ning’s Cross is too narratively inept to engage in the least. A thudding use of flashbacks and exposition often clashes with the ambiguity the filmmakers so clearly aim for. There’s no pacing to speak of, each scene fading listlessly into the next, with a major twist being so clumsily introduced that you’d be forgiven for not even realizing it’s a twist. Simon Yam is fine in the role of an unflappable killer reminiscent of his character in the infinitely superior The Man behind the Courtyard House (2011), but he simply has too little to work with. Randomly, Nick Cheung crops up in an amusing scene that may have been tacked on to capitalize on the success of Roy Chow’s Nightfall, which already cast him alongside Simon Yam earlier in 2012. *1/2

Where to buy it : On Amazon.com

SLICKERS VS KILLERS (1991) short review

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Success Hung (Sammo Hung) is an accomplished phone salesman whose world is turned upside down in a matter of days as his wife (Yu Li) starts cheating on him with a young policeman (Collin Chou), while a fierce rival (Carol ‘Dodo’ Cheng) is assigned by his company to work with him, and he witnesses the murder of a mobster (Tommy Wong Kwong Leung) by two deranged hitmen (Jacky Cheung and Lam Ching Ying). Despite a enticing cast (Joyce Godenzi also stars as Hung’s therapist, while Richard Ng cameos as one of his customers), and Sammo Hung’s impressive credentials as a director, Slickers vs. Killers is scattershot and unfunny, basing its comedy on shrill, interminable bickering and an uncomfortable amount of jokes about rape. There’s too little action to relieve the comedy’s shortcomings, and the subplot involving Jacky Cheung’s demented murderer is jarringly dark. But most damningly, it all revolves around a set of wholly unlikable characters that are either selfish, deluded, deranged or all of the above, with the exception of the therapist played by Joyce Godenzi, who proves what a well-rounded performer she was by showing a lighter, more offbeat side to her usually steely persona. *1/2

AN INSPECTOR CALLS (2015) review

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Considered a true classic of 20th-century English theatre, J.B. Priestley’s three-act play An Inspector Calls has been brought to the stage countless times since it was first performed in 1945, and it’s been a fixture of the BBC’s TV and radio programming (with yet another mini-series in preparation for 2015, starring David Thewlis) but it has comparatively been the object of few big screen adaptations. In fact, Raymond Wong and Herman Yau’s film is the first time the play is adapted for theatrical release since Guy Hamilton’s (of Goldfinger fame) 1954 adaptation. And surely it’s the most unexpected iteration of the story since the 1979 Soviet mini-series Inspector Gull. Screenwriter Edmond Wong transposes the setting from the North Midlands of Great Britain in 1912 to Hong Kong in 2015, but follows J.B. Priestley’s narrative pretty closely : the mysterious inspector Karl (Louis Koo) pays an unexpected visit to the rich Kau family’s estate. Mr. and Mrs. Kau (Eric Tsang and Teresa Mo) are in the final preparations for their daughter Sherry’s (Karena Ng) engagement party as she is soon to marry a handsome young businessman Johnny (Hans Zhang), while their son Tim (Gordon Lam) looks on in contemptuous bemusement, and clearly annoyed at his own girlfriend, socialite Yvonne (Ada Liu Yan). Inspector Karl informs them that a young woman (Chrissie Chau) from Mr. Kau’s factory has been found dead from what appears to be a painful, protracted suicide by disinfectant ingestion. As he starts to interrogate each member of the family in turn, it appears everyone of them was linked to the deceased woman, and everyone may have played a more or less active role in her eventual demise.

This is an interesting but talky premise, befitting the stage more than the big screen, and directors Raymond Wong and Herman Yau resort to a number of variably successful ploys to give the narrative a more spectacular feel. The most striking one, even before the obviously starry cast, is the art direction. The living room itself where the bulk of the film takes place, is a ridiculously flamboyant piece of set design complete with golden pillars, crystal ornaments and Zodiac heads, an effective but incredibly unsubtle rendition of J.B. Priestley’s indictment on capitalist excess. But it is when the film rewinds in flashbacks repicting each family member’s connection to the dead woman (in an instance of the film trying to transcend its stage origins) that the true visual madness commences. With the abundant help of CGI, every flashback is colourful to the extreme, filled with a wealth of weird and whimsical details (a la Tim Burton, some have noted), and above all outrageously phantasmagorical : the fact that the victim provided Johnny with emotional comfort, for instance, is shown by Chrissie Chau sprouting a pair of wings and flying around a gaudy dreamscape with Hans Zhang in her arms, while her humiliation and lay-off at the hands of Mr. Kau is portrayed by having a tiny Chrissie Chau shrunk to the size of an ant and fighting for her life against the gigantic objects on Eric Tsang’s desk. These crazy flashbacks are quite entertaining if a bit overbearing : and indeed how delightfully ironic that J.B. Priestley’s critique of capitalist excess is now brought to the screen thanks to – and for the purpose of – you guessed it, capitalist excess.

Raymond Wong and Herman Yau also pad out the film with a great number of stars, not only in the pivotal roles but also in a long list of cameos. Louis Koo is good fun as the titular inspector, though the directors never seem to choose between making him as a mysterious avenging angel (he even has a glowing red stare at some point) as he is often represented on stage, or as a bumbling and pompous avatar of The Pink Panther‘s Inspector Clouseau : witness Koo’s comically thunderous tone and his frantically clumsy attempts at retrieving a key piece of evidence from his coat pocket. The Kau (formerly Birling) family is well cast, with the highlight being Eric Tsang, who embodies perfectly – and with his usual immaculate comic timing – the “heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties” described by Priestley. The cameos range from aimless (Michael Tse as an agile club waiter) to delightful (Kelly Chen in a role we won’t reveal), but it’s Raymond Wong and Donnie Yen who really impress, the former in six different roles, and the latter as all four members of a band singing Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ famous song ‘Sherry Baby’ at the engagement party (the man can sing). In the end, much of the original play’s edge is dulled by the outrageous art direction, distractingly starry cast and eventual likability of characters we should end up disgusted with, but this iteration of An Inspector Calls is a charming oddity nevertheless.

Long Story Short : With its garish art direction, phantasmagorical sequences and starry cast, An Inspector Calls doesn’t so much dull the edge of its source material as it buries it under a pile of Lunar New Year entertainment staples. Still, it’s an entertaining oddity that gives a classic play an amusing makeover. ***

LICENCE TO STEAL (1990) short review

LicenseToSteal_DongFangXu_SC36 In Billy Chan’s Licence to Steal, a cat burglar (Joyce Godenzi) is betrayed by her partner (Agnes Aurelio) and sent to prison for three years. Upon her release, she aims to get revenge on the double-crosser, and teams up with a dogged cop (Richard Ng), his young partner (Collin Chou) and his idealistic, slightly unhinged nephew (Yuen Biao). Licence to Steal avoids the numbing effect of overabundant action, as well as the annoyance of crass humor. It is often, as so many films of that time and place, too scattershot in its progression to really engage, but the cast is uniformly appealing, from the always classy and charismatic Joyce Godenzi to Yuen Biao playing a variation on his irresistible Dragons Forever role, not to mention the always funny and reliable Richard Ng. The fights, as choreographed by Corey Yuen, are brisk and delightful, if often frustratingly short : there’s a one-minute, dizzying bout between Yuen and Chou, that should have gone on at least four more minutes. And the same year as their savage, thundering fight in She Shoots Straight, Godenzi and Aurelio get a re-match in a masterful, stealthy fight in a warehouse, where they go at each other while avoiding being seen or heard by patrolling guards. A very pleasant action comedy.  ***