WHO AM I 2015 (2015) review

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What a strange idea to remake Jackie Chan’s Who Am I. While a success, the 1998 action film – which Chan co-directed with Benny Chan – wasn’t so popular that its title would become a brand name or rank among Chan’s greatest hits, and its premise of an elite agent who loses his memory in a botched operation then tries to piece back what happened while fending off a high-reaching conspiracy has been more than played out since, most notably and successfully in the Bourne films. What’s even more puzzling is that this Song Yinxi’s Who Am I 2015, which was produced by Chan himself and stars mostly and friends and protégés of his, actually has very little in common with the film of which it positions itself as a redo. The main character (here, Wang Haixiang) isn’t an elite agent anymore, he’s a bike courier with a penchant for extreme sports, and he’s not encroached in a vast conspiracy but simply chased by a shady boss’ henchmen (Ken Lo, Zhang Lanxin and director Song Yinxi himself) after witnessing the murder of a businessman. They frame him for the murder and he can only count on the help of a shrill hitchhiker (Yao Xingtong) and a mysterious ex-cop (Yu Rongguang), while suffering not from amnesia as in the original film, but from prosopagnosia (aka face blindness), a rare pathology that makes it difficult to recognize faces, even one’s own.

All in all, Who Am I 2015 isn’t really much of a remake or even reboot, as it retains only the chase aspect and cognitive impairment of the first film, two elements that were hardly new to Asian cinema even at the time. In that regard, the title isn’t just misleading, it’s also plain stupid : the main character does know who he is at all times, he simply has a hard time putting a face on people. On top of that, the face blindness angle barely plays into the story and is milked only for a few weak twists, some of which border on creepy, such as when Yao Xingtong puts on earrings that belonged to Wang Haixiang’s dead girlfriend, so that he  believed it’s actually her, back from the dead. That this is played for tears and not for spine-tingling psychological dread tells you everything you need to know about how misconceived this film is. Outside of that, the face blindness simply isn’t factored in, as if the writers were simply too lazy to follow through on what could’ve been an interesting plot device.

All that wouldn’t really matter (indeed, what’s in a title ?) if the film succeeded even as basic entertainment. Which it unfortunately doesn’t. The plot is a mess and worse, it’s incredibly mundane, a saggy chase through non-descript villages, centered around the unappealing duo of Wang Haixiang, who as a Jackie Chan protégé probably has talent but unfortunately has no charisma, and Yao Xingtong, who after annoying everyone in Chinese Zodiac takes on a new incredibly obnoxious character who inflicts tooth-rotting mawkishness and ear-splitting bickering at every turn. Humour is often subdued and tedious, and the fighting is incredibly sparse and utterly unremarkable when it happens, which makes us wonder whom this film was intended for, and again why it felt the need to place itself in the lineage of a Jackie Chan films which featured several impressive set pieces and fights. Zhang Lanxin, the promising screen fighter from Chinese Zodiac, shows good presence again, but her slinky charisma and superb kicks are of course woefully underutilized, while Ken Lo lets his mohawk-ponytail and his hideous jackets to all the acting. The ever-excellent Yu Rongguang pops up to provide exposition and incidentally remind us of infinitely better films with his assured presence.

Long Story Short : Not really a remake or a reboot of Jackie Chan’s Who Am I, not even really the same kind of film, Who Am I 2015 is limp, messy and cheap. *1/2

WEB OF DECEPTION (1989) short review

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Web of Deception looks appealing on the outside, a Tsui Hark production directed by talented cinematographer David Chung (of Royal Warriors), and starring an all-female cast (and good old Waise Lee) headed by the great Brigitte Lin. It’s a Hitchcockian cat-and-mouse thriller in which Lin plays Lin, a successful businesswoman who’s being pressured by an unseen blackmailer, who she suspects might be either her insecure assistant May (Pauline Wong) or her slightly fishy broker Chow (Elizabeth Lee). As Lin makes arrangements to pay the blackmail money, things are complicated by May’s roommate Queenie (Joey Wong), whose twin sister Cat (Joey Wong too) owes big money to the Triads, and who plans to steal the ransom money to pay up the debt. This leads to plenty of double-crosses and murder attempts, as events unfold almost exclusively in Lin’s big house. Unfortunately, Web of Deception is narratively too pedestrian to engage : outside of one or two moments of real tension and shock, the film focuses on the characters’ endlessly wobbly agendas, as they hesitate, give up or take action in incredibly half-assed ways. It all makes for a very tedious experience, with Chiu Man-Hoi’s cheap score ramming every point home with cheesy synth noodling. David Chung’s experience as a cinematographer means it’s a pretty film to look at (except in a baffling ‘day for night’ scene, where a blue filter is applied to make day look like night, but they forgot to avoid showing white clouds in the frame…), and Brigitte Lin is commanding as always alongside the underrated Pauline Wong, but Joey Wong doesn’t manage to make her two roles interesting or even different from each other, despite the supposedly very different personalities. **

 

THE DEVIL INSIDE ME (2011) short review

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Another entry in the “transplanted organ horror” sub-genre that was started by the Pang Brothers’ The Eye in 2002, Zhang Qi’s The Devil Inside Me follows Lin Yan (Kelly Lin), who gets a heart transplant but soon thereafter starts to get flashes of the final days of the heart donor. The latter turns out to have been a piano teacher (Anya) who died under strange circumstances, and together with her grieving boyfriend (Victor Huang), Lin Yan starts to investigate her savior’s final days, under the watchful eye of the surgeon who performed the transplant (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who obviously isn’t telling her everything. The Devil Inside Me is often visually pleasing thanks to good cinematography by Zhang Xuewen, and there’s an interesting concept at the center of it, but after an intriguing start it devolves into a mess of screechy, unimaginative nightmare sequences, tired jump scares, and dull, predictable twists. There’s a scene that beggars belief in such a serious, gloomy film, where Kelly Lin realizes in sheer terror that she cannot stand up from the toilet because an invisible force is compelling her. That such a moment is played for scares and not for laughs tells you everything you need to know about Zhang Qi’s command of horror filmmaking. Tony Leung Ka Fai elevates the film with an expertly ambiguous performance, while Kelly Lin does her best with a thankless role that was probably passed on by Angelica Lee. Lin hasn’t made a film since, let’s hope it’s a long hiatus and not retirement, she’s too talented an actress to stop so soon, and too talented also for this kind of film. **

THE SOONG SISTERS (1997) review

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Mabel Cheung’s The Soong Sisters, though a bit forgotten nowadays, was a momentous project and an awards magnet at the time of its making and release, coming out in the year of Hong Kong’s retrocession to China and raking in Hong Kong Film Awards (or nominations) for most of its key players. It cast three of the most high-profile Asian actresses at the time as the titular sisters : daughters of catholic missionary, printing magnate and political activist and revolutionary Charlie Soong (Jiang Wen), himself a figure worthy of a 4-hour film, they each married a major figure of that infinitely troubled and transformative time in China’s history. Elder sister Ai-Ling (Michelle Yeoh) married H. H. Kung (Niu Zhenhua), one of the biggest fortunes in China and the future minister of industry, commerce and finance in the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) government. Then her sister Ching-Ling (Maggie Cheung) wedded the revolutionary saint and first president and founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat Sen (Winston Chao), a union that estranged her from her outraged father, himself a close friend of Dr. Sun. And finally, youngest sister Mai-Ling got married to Sun Yat Sen’s ally and successor as head of the Kuomintang and as president of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-Shek (Wu Hsing-Kuo). Each of these marriages took a toll on the family’s unity, but more importantly, the Soong sisters were much more than simply wives of powerful men. They were powerful women whose choices and sacrifices helped shape China’s history. Think of them as 20th-century women general of the Yang family.

As we’ve tried, somewhat awkwardly, to convey with this heavy-handed plot synopsis, The Soong Sisters is a film that carries the combined weight of Chinese historiography and gender politics, a double burden which it doesn’t always assuredly carry. As aforementioned, its inception took place at the time when Hong Kong sovereignty was to be transferred back to China, and a desire to placate the new overlords (and be allowed to shoot in Mainland China) is apparent throughout. Indeed script approval was secured after five months of rewrites, and after the film was shot, 14 minutes had to be removed, a lot of it going towards softening the depiction of Chiang Kai-Shek (not a popular figure in Mainland China to say the least). Conversely, Sun Yat Sen is portrayed as a saint (a fixture of Chinese propaganda), while the communists are never personified beyond images of courageous students or toiling proletarians. Still, calling The Soong Sisters propaganda would be unfair : it thankfully never goes into caricature or into its polar opposite, hagiography : while Sun Yat Sen is portrayed as a saint, he is also shown in his moments of doubt and anger ; and while Chiang Kai-Shek is portrayed without sympathy, he is never made a villain either. Mao Zedong doesn’t appear once, even though he was a key figure in many of the events depicted in the film : perhaps Mabel Cheung knew she could never even begin to portray him realistically without being barred from shooting or releasing the film in China (that however is pure speculation on our part).

But there’s a sense throughout the film that the director didn’t intend The Soong Sisters to be a accurate historical depiction so much as she wanted it to be an act of feminism. Here again there are problems. While the film is laudable and important in its affirmation of the often pivotal, but sadly seldom celebrated, role of women in history, there are fallacies in her approach that are hard to ignore. The Soong sisters actually had three brothers, one of which played an equally important role in their country’s history. While the decision to focus on the sisters is a logical one considering the film’s feminist stance, the fact that the brothers are not once shown or even mentioned severely undermines the director’s vision by placing the film in some kind of alternate reality that belies the very real, historical and societal points she is trying to make. This becomes all the more jarring when Cheung depicts events in which said brother, T.V. Soong, took an integral part alongside his sisters. Giving the brother his due or at least paying him lip service wouldn’t have undercut Mabel Cheung’s aim one bit. Simply put, her noble agenda is not well served by such inaccuracies. Nevertheless, the film’s message is unadulterated in its conciliatory dimension : despite internal strife and the crushing weight of history, the Soong sisters remained united, the bonds of family proving stronger than the divisions of politics. It’s an uplifting message, and one needed more than ever today. At the end of the film, Ai-Ling leaves for Hong Kong, while Ching-Ling stays in China, and Mai-Ling is destined to go to Taiwan to retreat to Taiwan with the Nationalist Party. Three political entities but the same family : it’s a once an elegy and a message of hope.

On a purely artistic level,, The Soong Sisters is a gorgeous film. Mabel Cheung, art director Eddie Ma and peerless cinematographer Arthur Wong have crafted a truly stunning reconstitution, vivid, detailed, and evocative. There’s a truly epic sweep to it, even though as a sprawling biopic that clocks in under 150 minutes, it is too elliptical in nature to really earn its big emotional payoffs. That’s where the immensely talented cast comes in handy. Mabel Cheung picked an impressive trio of actresses : Maggie Cheung gets the most to do and go through (no doubt because her character was to become Honorary President of the People’s Republic of China, and thus to the censors, the most commendable of the sisters) and is as subtle and affecting as ever, while Michelle Yeoh is fine but unfortunately often sidelined and gets the least screen time (maybe as a consequence of her character’s less flashy achievements), and Vivian Wu actually impresses the most with a less clear-cut, more nuanced role. The three of them share a great chemistry that consistently elevates the film. As their parents, Jiang Wen and Elaine Kam provide strong support, the former chewing the scenery a bit too much at times as the father, but the latter particularly moving as the mother who never loses faith in her daughters. Winston Chao here plays Sun Yat Sen for the first of five times, and he’s already perfect for the government-approved, very clean and clear-cut version of the character, in addition to looking like the real Sun a lot ; last but not least, Wu Hsing Kuo brings great charisma and nuance to the role of Chiang Kai-Shek, it’s a shame he was ignored by the Hong Kong Film Awards. Look out for a young Wang Xuebing as a servant of the Soong family.

Long Story Short : Historically inaccurate and politically compromised, The Soong Sisters nevertheless carries a noble message, and is as visually stunning as it is vividly acted by a trio of magnificent actresses. ***

 

AMEERA (2014) short review

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Where to begin with a film like Xiao Xu’s Ameera. Or rather, how to end as quickly as possible. A deadening excuse for ogling would-be starlet Patricia Hu (whose only other notable film is the equally numbing Angel Warriors) as she essays an array of slinky “secret agent” outfits to fight a stock evil organization (headed by Andrew Lin and a cartoonish old cripple with hooks for hands) for which she finds out her boyfriend (Ambrose Hsu) is a double-agent. Along the way there’s talk of such things as “a micro laser device condensed from synthesized nanometers”, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the film didn’t take itself so very seriously, no mean feat considering it consists in eye-gouging CGI, fussy, weightless fights and endless moping sessions. Adding insult to injury, the film’s soundtrack is actually a collage of tracks from other, far more entertaining and satisfying films (music from the Bourne trilogy, The Expendables and Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu is heard repeatedly), and there are fleeting cameos by estimable martial arts actors Collin Chou and Leung Kar Yan, who could have alleviated the awfulness had they had more screen-time. 1/2*

 

FEED ME (2015) review

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Shot in 2012 but only released 3 years later, perhaps because of lead actress Yu Nan’s heightened profile after being in two of the biggest Chinese hits of the past months (Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain and Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior), Yang Yazhou’s Feed Me also bears the distinction of starring Lin Hao, a boy who had become a national hero after rescuing several of his classmates in his collapsing school building during the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008. The hero-turned-actor plays a country boy who lives with his grandfather (Tao Zeru) on a boat, making regular trips to Shanghai to sell rapeseed. It is on one of those trips that upon returning to the boat, they find a pregnant woman (Yu Nan) who seems to be running away from something or someone. Soon she gives birth, and the grandfather lets her stay onboard both for the sake of the baby and because he’s been diagnosed with early senile dementia and worries as to who will take care of his grandson when he no longer can. But in the nearby village there’s gossip and disapproval of this situation, especially from a doctor (Vivian Wu) he is trying to woo. As for the boy, he grows more and more fascinated by this woman he sees as a  potential surrogate mother.

Feed Me is a frustrating little film, squandering gorgeous cinematography and an obvious gift for evocative imagery by remaining stubbornly opaque throughout. Scenes are often interrupted gratuitously, abruptly, and are thus rarely allowed to gather any dramatic or emotional steam. No actual depiction of rural life in China is made, as the film mostly stays within the confines of the boat and the surrounding rapeseed field (admittedly a very cinegenic setting). And the film’s attempts at meaning are undermined by the fact that almost every character is annoyingly one-note : Tao Zeru is a shaky shell of a man, Lin Hao a yelly bumpkin, and Vivian Wu a nosy ice queen. It all quickly starts looking like one incredibly dull and static puppet show. Only Yu Nan gets to sink her teeth into an actual role, as she portrays a woman awakening to motherhood and re-awakening to life with her customary subtlety and vibrancy. Too bad her efforts are lost in the film’s general self-defeating pretentiousness.

Long Story Short : Sometimes visually gorgeous but always opaque and pretentious, Feed Me is a frustrating experience that squanders a typically strong performance by Yu Nan. *1/2

GOOD-FOR-NOTHING HEROS (2012) short review

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Fu Yong’s Good-For-Nothing Heros (a misspelling that doesn’t seem to be of the ironic “Inglourious Basterds” kind) tells of Peng (Kimi Qiao) and Long (Lam Suet), two amiable losers who find the lost will of a wealthy hotel owner (Kent Cheng), who just fell into a coma. They decide that Peng will pose as the owner’s son and leverage his new-found clout to save their neighborhood from relocation. But one big obstacle in the owner’s associate Danny (Francis Ng), who smells a rat and sends a private eye (Jack Kao) to check on Peng’s background. Beyond the crippling implausibility of the plot, what makes Good-For-Nothing Heros sink so far below average is its absence of pace, its muddled exposition, its often sappy tone and its incredibly tired gags. Seeing Lam Suet in a lead role is a real pleasure and gives the film what little sparks it possesses,  especially as he gets to share an underdeveloped but quietly offbeat romantic subplot with Christy Chung, in a rare turn as a plain (well, as plain as the stunning Chung can appear : make-up can only go so far), frumpy, big-hearted street food vendor. Unsurprisingly, Francis Ng knows what kind of film he’s in, and does some charismatic sleepwalking. *1/2

 

TWO THUMBS UP (2015) review

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With Two Thumbs Up, screenwriter Lau Ho Leung makes his directorial debut after writing quite a few prominent Chinese/Hong Kong films for people like Derek Yee, Daniel Lee, Gordon Chan and Dante Lam, among others. It’s a film that commands a lot of upfront goodwill by being part of a dying breed, an all-Hong Kong film not calibrated in any way to appeal to the Mainland, and also by casting a quartet of Hong Kong staples : Simon Yam, Francis Ng, Mark Cheng and Patrick Tam. They play four ex-criminals who decide to come back to their old ways when one of them hatches a plan he thinks is foolproof : steal a Police Emergency Unit van, dress as cops, then rob anyone that comes their way all the more easily, especially a shady funeral service that smuggles money through the border by hiding it in corpses. In the absence of an actual EU van, the plan is put into execution by painting a mini-bus, and soon the four friends are cruising Hong Kong as fake cops. But unexpectedly, they end up fighting for justice : after saving a girl from rape, they run afoul of another team of crooks (who have the same plan of disguising as cops but decidedly more ruthless methods) and decide to stop them. Meanwhile, a young cop (Leo Ku) is hot on their trail.

Two Thumbs Up possesses a feature shared by many a directorial debut : it tries a bit too hard. The film is a frenzy of quirky montages, quick-cut flashbacks, madcap chases and unhinged shouting matches, coated in offbeat voice-over and a slightly forced attention to detail : the number of recurring visual motifs verges on overbearing at times. There are also visual tricks, like on-screen penciled diagrams or asymmetrical split-screen, that overstay their welcome after a while. Other tidbits work better, like the fact that Leo Ku’s police number is the same as Francis Ng’s prison number, play nicely into the film’s message that a book should not be judged by its cover (though the French equivalent of that phrase is more fitting : “L’habit ne fait pas le moine”, meaning “Wearing a cassock doesn’t make you a monk.”), or Simon Yam’s brief but endearing friendship with a little girl, but overall it’s too much, too often. Still, these are flaws found mostly in big-hearted films, and big-hearted Two Thumbs Up is. It also obviously benefits from its quartet of actors, with the spotlight chiefly – and expectedly – set firmly on Simon Yam and Francis Ng, who make good use of their unmistakable personas, attention-grabbing haircuts and knack for chewing the scenery into an unctuous puree. If Tony Leung Ka-Fai and Anthony Wong Chau Sang had joined the cast, Hong Kong might have been obliterated in a deflagration of almighty unhinged charisma. Instead, we have Mark Cheng and Patrick Tam, who are quite fine in their own right, and actually help balance out Yam and Ng by bringing an equally effective but more low-key presence. And for all its faults, Two Thumbs Up makes us wish we’ll see this quartet again.

Long Story Short : Two Thumbs Up consistently tries too hard, but its big heart and great cast make it worthwhile. ***

SIFU VS VAMPIRE (2014) review

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Amazingly, Daniel Chan Yee Heng’s Sifu vs Vampire is Hong Kong legend Yuen Biao’s first lead role in a feature film since Corey Yuen’s Hero in 1997. We could imagine a better comeback vehicle than a crass Wong Jing-produced comedy, but we’ll take what we can get. Yuen plays Master Chiang, a Taoist priest and exorcist who together with his disciple Lingxin (Jiang Luxia) teams up with a pair of hapless gangsters (Ronald Cheng and Philip Ng) to fight – and sometimes fall in love with – vampires old and new. There’s a definite throwback quality to the film, as it harks back to the vampire comedies of the eighties and beginning of the nineties, most notably the Mr Vampire series which already featured Yuen Biao. Contrary to Juno Mak’s impressive Rigor MortisSifu vs Vampire is straightforward and unpretentious, a loosely calibrated mix of (very) broad laughs, (very) mild scares and (very) sparse fighting.

The humour comes in the form of a long string of dick jokes, peppered with boob jokes, with a side-serving of ass jokes for good measure. The horror is carried out through sometimes effective cinematography and endearingly sloppy special effects. And the action, credited to Yuen Cheung Yan and Philip Ng would be effective if it weren’t limited to very short bursts. And the only protracted fight scene, where Philip Ng and Jiang Luxia lay the smackdown on a corridor full of vampires, is shown through a distorting filter, surely the stupidest decision imaginable considering it could have been one of the film’s few real pleasures. In the end, if the film manages to be just about palatable, it’s because of its cast. Yuen Biao is the straight man here, a bit of a pity considering he’s such a gifted comedic actor, and he fights very little but still, with his gravitas and easy-going charisma he’s a sight for sore eyes. Ronald Cheng does his schtick and Philip Ng demonstrates an welcome sense for physical comedy and unhinged goofiness, while Jiang Luxia finally graduates from playing dour tomboys to playing a dour woman. The four of them actually work quite well together, and to say they deserve a better film is a truism.

Long Story Short : Sifu vs Vampire is a sloppy and crass vampire comedy that manages to entertain thanks to an entertaining quartet of actors. **

 

LOVERS & MOVIES (2015) short review

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Niu Chaoyang’s Lovers & Movies is one of those all-star Valentines Day cash-ins based on the blueprint of Gary Marshall’s Valentines Day : criss-crossing love stories across generations, played out by a few stars out for an easy paycheck. And so here we have a fifty-something woman (Kara Hui), who finds out her husband (Simon Yam) is having an affair, while her son is getting into bad ways and pushing away his girlfriend. Also, a cab driver (Francis Ng) is in love with a dance teacher (Yu Nan), whose five year-old son needs snow to win over a girl he likes at school. And a fangirl (Gulnazar) gets to meet her heartthrob idol (Kim Bum), after which they fall in love. It all unfolds in impossibly trite fashion, as platitudes about love are spoken in every scene over a treacly score, and grand romantic gestures are performed in ways that are often actually more creepy than endearing : witness Gulnazar barging in on a film scene being shot in a studio by the man she loves, by jumping off a wall, strapped on cables, with a red streamer that says ‘I love you’. Someone call the cops. The cast, which could have saved the film, is too uneven to manage that. Kara Hui and Yu Nan valiantly try to make unlikable characters worth sticking with, but Francis Ng expresses most emotions by smiling weirdly, and Simon Yam gives a performance so listless he probably took this film as a break from acting. And out of decency, let’s not mention the rest of the cast. *1/2