SKY ON FIRE (2016) review

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2015’s Wild City, which marked the end of Ringo Lam’s twelve-year hiatus from directing feature films, was an unremarkable but solid and heartfelt crime thriller, which while nowhere near the artistic heights of the Hong Kong director’s career, was especially heartening when thought of as a lead up to more ambitious films. A bit over a year later (a half-second when compared to that twelve-year wait), Sky on Fire is indeed more ambitious in terms of themes and spectacle, but it’s also oddly underwhelming. Five years ago, Dr. Pan, a scientist who was making major advances in cancer research, died in a possibly criminal fire while he was working in his lab. Now, her protégé Dr. Gao (Zhang Jingchu) and her husband Dr. Tong (Fan Guangyao), under the banner of their pharmaceutical company Sky One, have used his notes to discover a revolutionary cancer-curing medicine, X-stem cells. But the truck carrying the first of these curative cells is hijacked both by the son of Dr. Pan, Ziwan (Zhang Ruoyun), and by Jia (Joseph Chang), a man desperate to save his cancer-stricken sister Jen (Amber Kuo). Caught in the crossfire is Chong (Daniel Wu), the head of security for Sky One, who must take sides as hidden agendas are revealed.

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An Interview with Composer Dave Klotz

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Gemini-nominated composer Dave Klotz is one of the prized “guests from the West” in the Hong Kong film industry. Much like Xavier Jamaux, he’s an international composer whose talents Johnnie To and his Milkyway Image partners have called upon repeatedly, often alongside Guy Zerafa (before his untimely death). Among other achievements, it could be said their score to Exiled is an integral part of that film’s artistic success, and one of the most memorable of its decade in Hong Kong. A performer, an arranger and a music producer in addition to being a composer (for film but also for TV and for dance choreography), Klotz also struck up a lasting professional relationship with the great Ringo Lam, right up to his latest film, Sky on Fire, now out in China and the US. He graciously agreed to answer our questions.

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FINAL RECIPE (2013) review

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Having premiered in various festivals in 2013 and 2014, Gina Kim’s Final Recipe had to wait two years to get released anywhere, and has still only come out in Mainland China. A South Korean-Thai production shot in English and Mandarin, it tells of Mark (Henry Lau), a student who was raised by his grandfather Hao (Chang Tseng), after his mother died and his father left on a business trip and never came back. Hao owns a restaurant but his exacting standards and bad temper have chased customers and employees away, and foreclosure is impending. Thus Mark decides to join a TV cooking competition called Final Recipe, hosted and run by Julia Lee (Michelle Yeoh) and her husband David Chan (Chin Han), who lost a son years ago before meeting her. In order to enter the show, Mark has to pose as a Russian contestant who didn’t show up, and soon rises through the ranks under the name Dimitri Bekmambetov. But one day as Julia Lee tastes a pork dish the young man just made, she is instantly reminded of the first time she met her husband, fifteen years before…

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HORRIBLE MANSION IN WILD VILLAGE (2016) short review

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Horrible Mansion in Wild Village (with “Mansion” spelled as “Masion” in posters and credits), is a shockingly amateurish little horror film in which a reckless young biker (Cai Juntao) has an accident and ends up seeking help in a decrepit old mansion inhabited by a little girl (Jia Lin) and her stern grandmother (Kara Hui). And a terrifying and mysterious horned creature. And a mute girl locked up in the attic. From this familiar but decent premise, director Lu Shiyu makes his film an endless – though only 80 minutes long – series of shrieky nightmare sequences (the main character wakes up with a jolt roughly once every two minutes), ham-fisted flashbacks and trite stalking scenes. The mansion set is effective (though you can easily picture the director yelling “more cobwebs! I want more cobwebs!”) and Kara Hui, who has probably never phoned in a single performance in her career (more than 150 films), is suitably creepy, but the laughable and repetitive script keeps tension low, and resorts to the mother of all lame twists in order to make its overt supernatural elements palatable to Chinese censorship. Mainland Chinese horror has no high points yet, but it does have a new low point. 1/2*

MY WAR (2016) review

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A war film directed by Oxide Pang –  a Hong Kong director whose career, whether solo or with his brother Danny, has consisted mostly of visually elaborate horror films and quirky detective stories, with the odd detour into CGI-heavy fantasy or disaster film – was an intriguing prospect. My War chronicles the trials and tribulations of a battalion of the Chinese People’s Volunteer Army (CPVA) fighting the Americans during the Korean war in the early 1950’s. Front and center are commander Sun Beichuan (Liu Ye), his friend and subordinate Zhang Luodong (Tony Yang), and Meng Sanxia (Wang Luodan), an army musician they both pine for.

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BOUNTY HUNTERS (2016) short review

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An action film so airy, glitzy and inconsequential it makes its director Shinterra look like the long-lost twin of Jingle Ma (Tokyo Raiders, Seoul Raiders…), Bounty Hunters stars the impossibly smarmy duo of Wallace Chung and Lee Min-ho as ex-Interpol agents now working as bodyguards-for-hire, who get framed for the bombing of a hotel and join forces with a trio of bounty hunters (Tiffany Tang, Karena Ng and Fan Siu Wong) to clear their names and find the real perpetrator. What follows is a half-hearted series of passable chase scenes, amusing fight scenes where Lee Min-ho and Tiffany Tang just flail around while stuntmen take exaggerated back-flip falls, cringe-worthy comic relief by Wallace Chung, valiant attempts at quirky cuteness by Karena Ng, and a whole lot of luxury porn. Lee and Chung have next to no chemistry and often look like the result of a half-assed cloning experiment, while Tiffany Tang makes a bid for the title of “Chinese Megan Fox” (make of that what you will). The bad guy, as played by Jeremy Jones (aka Izz Xu, aka Jeremy Xu, aka Xu Zheng Xi, aka Jones Xu, aka A Xi), is a hilariously non-threatening, preening man-child with an orange hairdo and a shorts suit. Fan Siu Wong, the only actual martial artist in the cast, is given no fighting whatsoever, but is a breath of fresh air, providing unforced comic relief that makes good use of his self-deprecating charm. He’s like a fresh pebble in a sea of sticky glitter. *1/2

OPERATION MEKONG (2016) review

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In 2011, two Chinese commercial boats were attacked by Burmese pirates on the Mekong river, while passing through the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s biggest hotbeds of drug production, situated at the intersection of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Thirteen Chinese sailors were summarily executed at gunpoint then dumped in the river, while 900,000 methamphetamine pills were found on the scene of the killings. The following investigation and hunt for the man responsible for the massacre, a ruthless drug lord called Naw Khar, is the main narrative thrust of Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong, which follows a team of elite narcotics officers led by Captain Gao (Zhang Hanyu), joined by Fang (Eddie Peng), an intelligence officer who’s been operating in the Golden Triangle for a few years. They soon discover that the drugs were planted by Naw Khar on the Chinese ships, and endeavor to bring him to justice, at the price of many lives.

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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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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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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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