CHOY LEE FUT (2011) review

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In 2001, two films focused on the widely practiced (in China at any rate) martial arts known as Choy Lee Fut ; two films films which taken together say less about their subject that 10 minutes of Ip Man conveyed about Wing Chun. Of the two, John Ching’s Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu (which we reviewed recently) is the superior film, simply by dint of being funny on purpose. Tommy Law and Sam Wong’s Choy Lee Fut on the other hand, doesn’t seem to realize it’s laughable. Its unbelievably standard storyline concerns a young man (Sammy ‘son of Sammo’ Hung) who moves from London to China with his friend (Kane ‘son of Sho’ Kosugi) in order to learn Choy Lee Fut in a school owned by his father (Sammo Hung) and headed by his uncle (Yuen Wah). But just as they arrive, they are told that the school is about to be bought by a mega-conglomerate, and that the only way to keep ownership of it is to win a martial arts tournament a month later.

From the opening scenes that hilariously try to pass England-style Chinese city Thames Town for London (about as good a stand-in for the British capital city as Toronto would be for Rome), to a facepalm-inducing fight between martial arts greats Sammo Hung and Yuen Wah that is set against an orange CGI background and edited like a Puma commercial, Choy Lee Fut manages to annoy and amuse in equal measures. It is narratively trite, with a contrived romantic subplot involving Sammy Hung and Wang Jia-Yin (as a representative of the conglomerate), who have a soul-crushing lack of chemistry, as well as clumsy training montages and a skimpy, unimpressive finale that holds no suspense, tension or surprise. The fights are short and awkwardly edited, with a quantity of cuts and angles that would have you believe that the actors have no martial arts proficiency at all. But they actually do, even if they often have little charisma: Sammy Hung is fairly lovable but an absolute lightweight compared to his father (who appears only a few minutes here), and the same goes for Kane Kosugi (though daddy Sho doesn’t appear). At least the great Yuen Wah is having fun, which is more than can be said of us when we sat through Choy Lee Fut‘s 90 minutes.

Long Story Short : Choy Lee Fut sets expectations with the presence of action greats Sammo Hung and Yuen Wah, then crushes those expectations with trite storytelling, cheap directing, and awkward fights. *1/2

WHO IS UNDERCOVER (2015) review

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Fian Jianhui’s Who is Undercover cashes in on the success of classy and starry Chinese spy thrillers like Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s The Silent War or Gao Qunshu and Chen Kuo Fu’s superb The Message, with a story that borrows heavily from the latter film (though set slightly earlier in Chinese history).  In 1934, the secret services of the Kuomintang government round up suspects (including Lin Chi Ling and Gillian Chung) in a military base and torture them in an attempt to identify the undercover communist agent among them while on the outside, the head of the underground communist party (Tony Leung Ka Fai) tries to control the damage and free his agent, known under the codename “The Joker”. Beyond a shared premise, Who is Undercover is often so strikingly similar to The Message that there’s more than a whiff of plagiarism about it. The way the story unravels (with a mix of tragedy and mystery, regular torture scenes, an emphasis on coding and constant twists and scenes replayed in flashbacks to reveal their true meaning), the arc and hidden identity of some of the main characters, and key plot points (which we won’t reveal not to spoil either film) are exactly the same. A few scenes are basically transpositions of ones found in The Message, striking the same dramatic beats with the same narrative or visual tricks. At some point there’s even a key line of dialogue that is a verbatim repetition of one heard in the 2009 film, carrying the same implications. In the end, there’s enough differences that it doesn’t constitute a remake, but enough similarities that it feels redundant and borders on shameless copying.

But beyond its questionable degree of inspiration, Who is Undercover has a few other, more crippling problems. The stakes and main characters are introduced in such a vague and rushed way that it becomes hard to care about what happens next. The film’s short runtime (85 minutes have elapsed when the credits roll) doesn’t allow for the kind of development or sprawl that the director is clearly aiming for. What’s worse, the film’s complexity feels incredibly forced, with a sheer quantity of twists that borders on parody : seemingly every single moment in the first 50 minutes carries a hidden meaning that is revealed in the film’s incredibly plodding and thuddingly explanatory final 30 minutes. Because of the muddled storytelling and underdeveloped characters, there is a number of tear-jerking scenes and big emotional payoffs that feel unearned and fall miserably flat. And while The Message managed show the torture as little as possible but still convey its visceral and dramatic impact, Who is Undercover pummels the spectator with protracted, cringe-inducing scenes of torment. In the end, despite fine production values and a good cast (though only Vivian Wu and Tony Leung Ka Fai leave a mark), this is a derivative story told poorly.

Long Story Short : A good cast and fine productions values can’t hide the fact that Who is Undercover is half-baked and muddled, in addition to being an uncomfortably close rehash of the excellent 2009 film The Message. *1/2

THEY CAME TO ROB HONG KONG (1989) short review

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Clarence Fok’s They Came to rob Hong Kong concerns a violent bank robber (Roy Cheung) who has to flee to the Mainland after being nearly caught by a tough cop (Kara Hui). There, he recruits a ragtag team of hapless morons (among which Eric Tsang, Stanley Fung, Sandra Ng, Dean Shek and Chin Siu Ho) to come back to Hong Kong and attempt a daring heist. Except they’re hapless morons, so nothing goes according to plan. This film is actually a complete rehash of any Lucky Stars film : even though only Fung and Tsang were actually members of the comedic team, other members of the cast fit the usual Lucky Stars profiles, as Chin Siu Ho brings the martial arts that would’ve been Sammo Hung’s turf, and Dean Shek has the same kind of paranormal pretensions that Richard Ng’s character would display. The structure is also the same : an action-packed opening sequence (in this case an impressive and savage fight and chase scene on cluttered rooftops, as the terrific Kara Hui hunts down Roy Cheung) gives way to a comedic middle-section where, among other subplots, the group is given a beautiful woman to lust after (in this case, Chingmy Yau), after which things are wrapped up in a big action finale. Except while the action bookends are fine, the comedic middle is painfully unfunny and interminable. While Eric Tsang is always hilarious, Sandra Ng’s shtick quickly gets wearisome, and the ensemble simply doesn’t have the Lucky Star’s chemistry. **

THIS GIRL IS BADASS (aka JUKKALAN) (2011) review

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The budding Thai martial arts star Jeeja Yanin’s third and latest film as a lead, This Girl is Badass was directed and co-stars Petchtai Wongkamlao, a popular Thai comedian best known worldwide as Tony Jaa’s comic relief in the Ong Bak and Tom Yum Goong films. JJ plays Jukkalan, a bike delivery girl who runs afoul of rival mobsters who hired her and whose dirty money she kept for herself. But this short plotline accounts only for a small fraction of the film’s scenes (mostly the action scenes). The bulk of the film actually focuses on Jukkalan’s world : her uncle Sawang (Petchtai Wongkamlao), who secretly pines for a pretty widow (Siriporn Eiamsuk) whose late husband he actually assassinated in his violent and unspoken past (this sounds somber but is treated in a very matter-of-fact way in the film, and never addressed when the two get closer) ; her boss Samureng (Akom Preedakul), a good-natured weirdo with a knack for outrageous outfits ; Duan (Chalerm Yamchamang), a lovesick and awkward boy who loves her but can’t seem to catch a break ; and, among a few others, Pong (Athit Amonwet) the boy she loves, but who she finds out is actually more interested in ‘elephant fights’ (we’ll let you guess or discover what that means).

Thai comedy generally doesn’t travel well outside of its country of origin ; the only ones to have had some kind of international release were Petchtai Wongkamlao’s Bodyguard 1 & 2, and even then it was mostly because they featured a healthy dose of action and cameos by Tony Jaa. Again, action and the presence of a martial arts star are the main reasons for the American video release of This Girl is Badass. The late Panna Rittikrai choreographs the three action scenes in the film with his usual flair, and Jeeja Yanin is always joy to watch when fighting. Creative use is made of bikes, bike parts and bike racks, and while the action pales a bit in comparison to the actress’ previous films Chocolate and Raging Phoenix, it’s still pleasant, inventive and of course, brutal. Of course, three action scenes, two of which are rather short, isn’t much for a film starring Jeeja Yanin and entitled This Girl is Badass. But that’s only the baiting international title : the film’s original title, Jukkalan, is honest enough in that it doesn’t promise action per se. Adjusted expectations, not in terms of quality but in terms of genre content, are key to enjoying the film.

And what makes this film delightful is actually the comedy. Even with a percentage of its humor flying over our head due to its referential or very local nature, This Girl is Badass remains an often hilarious film when viewed in the right state of mind and provided one can appreciate highly offbeat comedy. It goes from situational comedy (misunderstandings abound) to sharply blunt dialogue (“Are you sure your mother didn’t raise the placenta ?”) ; from random, zany details (Jukkalan’s boss wears an outfit that includes a thong, eyebrow extensions and the world’s tiniest cowboy hat, and goes around on some kind of fluffy and very slow mechanical horse) to straight-up parody (the final action scenes spoofs a lot of gunfight clichés). The supporting cast is actually a laundry list of famous Thai comedians, all of whom get to shine (or make a lot of noise), sometimes in non-sequitur ways that recall classic Hong Kong comedies of the eighties : witness this villain who provides his own soundtrack to his actions, or the mob boss with a helium voice and authority issues.

The film also has a weird way of derailing tragic subplots into comic punchlines, such as when Sawang recounts to Jukkalan her parents’ tragic fate, noting in the end that they were actually pretty stupid. Petchtai Wongkamlao is refreshingly deadpan as the aforementioned uncle, and his relationship with Jeeja Yanin is quite sweet but never saccharine thanks to the film’s constant offbeat footnotes. And yes, in the end what ties the disparate sides of This Girl is Badass together, is the sweetness that lies in Jukkalan’s relationship with her uncle, friends and lovelorn suitor. As played with irresistible effortlessness by Jeeja Yanin, it’s a character we could see returning in similar sweetly crazy sequels. To be fair, a lot of what we liked in This Girl is Badass could be held against it : it is unfocused, oddly paced, and often nonsensical, but it is so with a real heart, a good sense of fun, and a slew of lovable performers.

Long Story Short : Provided one gives in to its odd charms and doesn’t expect an orgy of fights, This Girl is Badass is  an enjoyably offbeat, unexpectedly sweet comedy with bursts of enjoyable action and lovable performances by Jeeja Yanin and Petchtai Wongkamlao, among others. ***1/2

IRON ANGELS 2 (aka ANGELS 2) (1988) short review

Angel-II-1988 The very first directorial effort of Stanley Tong, who went on to become one of Jackie Chan’s directors of choice with films like Police Story 3 : Supercop and Rumble in the BronxIron Angels 2 sees the the return of the titular “angels”, elite mercenaries played by Moon Lee, Elaine Lui and Alex Fong, with the notable absence of David Chiang who played their boss in the first film but with the notable addition of Kharina Sa, a strikingly stunning panther of a woman with no backstory and little dialogue. This time they’re vacationing in Malaysia, where they meet Alex’s lifelong friend Peter, who’s become a wealthy businessman. But just as Elaine starts to fall for him, the Angels realize that he’s actually a wannabe-dictator with a small army of his own, and that they have to stop him. Similar to the first film, Iron Angels 2 features surprisingly little action for much of its runtime, a fact that is disappointing considering this is a film so crudely plotted that the villain’s evil ambitions are revealed with a scene of him watching archive footage of Hitler. But again like the first film, it all ends with almost half an hour of intense action, in this case a relentless Rambo-inspired jungle-set action scene, with Alex Fong carrying out a one-man ambush on dozens of soldiers, Moon Lee taking on Yuen Tak (who also choreographs the action) in a furious fight, and Elaine Lui gunning down henchmen while hanging from a zip line. It’s a superbly bombastic and exciting piece of action directing and fearless stuntwork (witness Moon Lee’s un-doubled narrow escape from an exploding watchtower, the lady has guts), a reward to the audience for sticking through one hour of fairly uninvolving drama. **1/2

THE INSPECTOR WEARS SKIRTS 4 (1992) review

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This is the final film in an enjoyable but trashy film series that had used up its thin concept by the first installment, then rehashed it for a second film, before injecting a big dose of craziness for the third episode. And so it comes to The Inspector Wears Skirts 4, with the only returning cast members being Sandra Ng, Kara Hui and Billy Lau, as well as Wung Fu in the role of the superior officer. A botched operation has led to the disbanding of the female commando : Sandra Ng has become a widow and overbearing single mother, Kara Hui has entered a mental institution after a nasty fall left her nuttier than a Pecan log, and Billy Lau is now a school supervisor, and has married Sheila Chan after a short fling with Sandra that ended in near-castration. A new female commando has been formed, headed by Moon Lee, but is found to fall very short of its tactical objectives, which is why Sandra and Kara are called back, and a tough cop and instructor, played by Cynthia Khan, is brought in to whip them back into shape.

Similar to the previous three films, The Inspector Wears Skirts 4 consists first and foremost in a lot of unhinged Sandra Ng antics, with a sprinkling of action in the beginning and at the end (here we get a fairly exciting final fight where Cynthia Khan and Moon Lee take on Chui Jing Yat), a few droll training sequences (though this film spends much less time on training than the others), and some pop culture references, some forgotten, some still obvious : Sheila Chan is in a film of her own as Billy Lau’s psychopath wife, more specifically a Police Story spoof that sees her runs after a bus or fight in a mall, all to the famous theme song of the Jackie Chan classic. New elements added to the formula include an emphasis on gadgets (Cynthia Khan’s character is a super cop with “state of the art” accessories like jet shoes), a more cutesy tone (the girls are far less violent and sociopathic than in previous installments, and there’s a cringe-inducing dance number headed by Moon Lee), and, in one of the film’s few actual positives : an enhanced comical presence for Kara Hui, who is hilarious throughout. Witness her fight a henchman with a “green dragon” crescent blade, or getting so caught up in her kung fu stances that she actually gets sidelined in the fight she was starting.

Long Story Short : The Inspector Wears Skirts 4 is a stale last run, made watchable by Kara Hui’s hilarious performance and the welcome addition of Cynthia Khan. **

THE AVENGING QUARTET (1992) short review

51DKD1ZDVKL There are few films in the genre of Hong Kong action films more misguided than Stanley Siu Wing’s The Avenging Quartet. Its plot, about a Mainland cop (Cynthia Khan) who comes to Hong Kong to look for her boyfriend (Waise Lee) with the help of a kind but ass-kicking Hong Konger (Moon Lee) and a overeager cop (Chin Kar Lok), only to find out he is involved in the theft of a priceless painting that he’s about to sell to Japanese gangsters (among whom Yukari Oshima and Michiko Nishiwaki), is neither better nor worse than the average screenplay in the Girls With Guns sub-genre. Its title is misleading because the four actresses never join forces, but misleading or over the top titles were commonplace at the time. No, the film’s hugely grating shortcomings are the following : it sets itself up as a tough action film, but is content to just noodle around for more than an hour, as Cynthia Khan and Moon Lee plays video-games, go shopping and look for Waise Lee ; it casts Yukari Oshima and Michiko Nishiwaki, two smouldering, statuesque and charismatic actresses, only to give them about 15 minutes of combined screen time ; and most jarringly, it suddenly breaks up its fairly light tone to feature an ugly rape and torture episode that is completely out of place. The final 10 minutes finally deliver on the film’s promise by having the four actresses fighting each other in a house on fire, and it’s a suitably intense and brutal finale, but it’s simply too little, too late. *1/2

HOW TO MEET THE LUCKY STARS (1996) review

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The seventh and final film in the Lucky Stars film series, Frankie Chan’s How to Meet the Lucky Stars was meant as a benefit film to help legendary producer Lo Wei (the man who made Bruce Lee a star and almost stopped Jackie Chan from becoming one) who at this point was close to bankruptcy. All the leads worked for free, but sadly not only was the film a box-office flop, but Lo Wei passed away during the shoot. Richard Ng, Stanley Fung and Eric Tsang return, with Michael Miu once again filling in for Charlie Chin after Twinkle Twinkle Lucky Stars, and Sammo Hung being absent from much of the film despite playing two different roles (his usual Lucky Star character Eric Kidstuff who’s stuck in a hospital, and a policeman). This time the Lucky Stars are recruited to help expose a gambling femme fatale (Gung Suet Fa), whose shady methods have led to the death and dishonor of a gambling star (Chen Kuan Tai). They are joined by a Shaolin monk (don’t ask why) and of course, a gorgeous woman (the stunning Francoise Yip) to drool over, as per the Lucky Stars formula. There’s also a laundry list of cameos, from Cheng Pei Pei as a gambling teacher to Lowell Lo as, erm, some guy.

While the team displays its usual chemistry, the film suffers from a criminally long runtime : 1 hour and 50 minutes is stretching it for any comedy, but for something as madcap and episodic as a Lucky Stars film, it’s almost criminal. It doesn’t help that much of the film consists of protracted gambling scenes meant to cash in on the nineties gambling trend in Hong Kong cinema, launched by Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers ; such scenes are of little interest if one is not well-versed in the card games represented here. But outside of a brisk but unmemorable action finale, there’s a tired feel to the proceedings, each staple of the franchise (like Richard Ng essaying his non-existent supernatural powers, Stanley Fung being stingy, the gang trying desperately to get laid…) being ticked off mechanically, with always the underlying feeling that this was a dying breed of comedy, one year before Hong Kong’s retrocession to China.

Long Story Short : With its overlong runtime and tired feel, How to Meet the Lucky Stars is a tepid end to the Lucky Stars film series. *1/2

ONCE A GANGSTER (2010) review

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When triad boss Kerosene (Alex Fong) decides to retire due to crippling debts, he names Roast Pork (Jordan Chan) his successor, but the latter doesn’t want the job : though a fearless henchman, his true calling is as a chef and restaurant owner alongside his wife (Michelle Ye) and kids. Another contender is Swallow (Eking Cheng) who just got out of jail after a 20-year sentence for killing a snitch to cover his comrades, and who’s being actively championed by his drug addict mother (Candice Yu). But Swallow doesn’t want the job either : while in prison he’s become passionate about economics and plans to earn a master’s degree. The final contender is Scissors (Conroy Chan), a triad goon so incompetent that he’s the only one not to realize that his right-hand man Chen (Wilfred Lau) is blatantly an equally incompetent undercover cop. Reluctant contenders and overeager challengers are now set on a collision course.

Once a Gangster is Felix Chong’s loving send-up of the often overlapping triad and undercover cop genres. Famously, Chong helped those genres peak both locally and internationally with the Infernal Affairs trilogy which he co-wrote with his longtime creative partner Alan Mak (who only acts as a producer on Once a Gangster). Outside of Infernal Affairs, which is spoofed directly and hilariously through Wilfred Lau’s character who is a bafflingly retarded version of Tony Leung Chiu Wai’s character (he makes calls to his superior officer within earshot of his triad colleagues for instance), the film also refers to the successful Young and Dangerous franchise of the nineties by casting its two leads Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan, and to Johnnie To’s Election diptych by being set during a triad election. Those are only the most obvious references, as there are some that are either lost in translation or too obscure for this reviewer to grasp them. A Hong-konger or a more knowledgeable Hong Kong film fan will probably find more to chew on.

Still, with knowledge of these three main references, Once a Gangster is a very amusing and spirited little film that is full of love for the tropes it sends up, and transcends an apparently low budget with a very entertaining cast. Though Ekin Cheng is absent from the film’s first half, his performance as a mellowed triad thug has a warmth and soulfulness that is welcome from this often wooden actor. Age becomes Ekin Cheng. Jordan Chan is excellent in the kind of whiny but courageous character in which he often excels, and his chemistry with Ekin Cheng is saved for a handful of nice moments the final reel, as a kind of pay-off. Conroy Chan and Wilfred Lau are a great comedic double-act, while Alex Fong bring both pathetic poignancy and sly irresponsibility to his mob boss role. The film is often tonally muddled, which means it can be strangely sanitized in certain ways (no one smokes in the triads, apparently), and surprisingly vicious in others (one characters gets hacked to pieces for a few uncomfortable minutes), and its low budget means it often look quite flat, but in the end it remains a likeable, entertaining little footnote to Hong Kong’s beloved sub-genres.

Long Story Short : Despite low production values and tonal inconsistencies,  Once a Gangster is a clever, often funny but more importantly, loving send-up of typical sub-genres of Hong Kong cinema. ***  

CHOY LEE FUT KUNG FU (2011) review

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A few years before Donnie Yen gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his actual kung fu skills in The Iceman 3D and Kung Fu Jungle, Wang Baoqiang already demonstrated his martial arts proficiency in John Ching’s Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu (not to be confused with Choy Lee Fut, a film starring Sammo Hung and his son, that came out the same year). Wang plays Danny (Wang Baoqiang), a young martial arts enthusiast who arrives in Hong Kong to head a school of Choy Lee Fut (a combination of Northern and Southern Chinese kung-fu systems) owned by his wealthy father (Ng Man Tat). At the airport, he’s swindled out of his wallet and phone but is given help and shelter by a young woman (Michelle Ye), much to the chagrin of her jealous boyfriend (Miu Tse) and her kind but suspicious mother (Kara Hui). With an important boxing match coming up, Danny is trained by a master of Choy Lee Fut (Norman Tsui), while the school’s janitor (Wong Yat Fei) tries to locate the second half of an old martial arts manuscript, which contains a map to a treasure map.

On the surface, it’s easy to dismiss Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu as a low-rent romantic martial arts comedy : the production values are passable but TV-grade, the fights are short and awkwardly edited, the plot is unfocused and too perfunctory whether it be on the romantic, martial arts  or comedic side, and nothing much is learnt about the art of Choy Lee Fut, outside of a short montage that may have been the wikipedia article copied and pasted into the screenplay. But it’s still a sweetly entertaining little film that saunters from subplot to subplot with a sunny, unpretentious and harmless disposition and a welcome lack of crass humor. It’s fairly episodic in structure, never building up into anything notable on the whole, but simply adding little touches here and there, playing out each scene almost as a skit. Expectations are often side-stepped, such as in the climactic fight, which is fairly unremarkable and short for a final fight, but actually quite funny thanks to Gabriel Wong as the oddest referee in boxing history ; or in the treasure hunt subplot, which ends in a weird and rather hilarious way.

With such a featherweight film it helps tremendously that the cast is uniformly charming, starting with Wang Baoqiang, who displays a mix of his naive, happy-go-lucky characters from films like Lost in Thailand or A World without Thieves, and the martial arts proficience of his recent performances in Donnie Yen films. Michelle Ye is so likeable and funny that one wishes she’d appear in more romantic comedies, Ng Man Tat brings his comic timing and warmth, and it’s good to see a very fit-looking Norman Tsui as a charismatic fight trainer, but the most delightful supporting role might be Kara Hui  : there’s a sly (if a bit insistent) wink to her famous role in Liu Chia Liang’s My Young Auntie, and the actress is simply irresistible here as Michelle Ye’s youthful-looking, high-energy, and bluntly straightforward mother.

Long Story Short : While technically mediocre, Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu manages to be charming and whimsical without being forced or crass, thanks to a game cast and a good sense of fun. ***