GOD OF WAR (2017) review

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A genre that dominated the 00’s in China and culminated with the massive success of John Woo’s Red Cliff and Peter Chan’s The Warlords, the war epic has been much more scarce in the 10’s, and much less successful in general, as indicated by the high-profile underperformance of solid examples of the genre like Andrew Lau’s The Guillotines and Ronny Yu’s Saving General Yang, not to mention the downright flop of Frankie Chan’s Legendary Amazons. It remains to be seen if Gordon Chan’s God of War can re-ignite the Chinese war epic’s popularity (even the success of Daniel Lee’s Dragon Blade in 2015 didn’t manage that), but it is, on its own merits, one of the finest examples of the genre. Set in the 16th century and based on historical events, it follows the efforts of Ming general Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) and commander Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) to defeat an army of Japanese pirates and Ronins led by Kumasawa (Yasuaki Kurata), and that has been pillaging the Chinese coastline for the enrichment of a Shogun whose son Yamagawa (Keisuke Koide) is among the pirates but disapproves of their treatment of civilians. General Qi enlists local peasants and trains them into a new and better-equipped army.

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EXTRAORDINARY MISSION (2017) review

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Felix Chong and Alan Mak, the writers of the classic Infernal Affairs trilogy, are back to the undercover thriller (the former as screenwriter and the latter as co-director with cinematographer Anthony Pun), and they’ve made the anti-Infernal Affairs. Extraordinary Mission follows Lin Kai (Huang Xuan) a cop sent to infiltrate a drug cartel by his superior Li Jianguo (Zu Feng), a former undercover himself. Fiercely motivated by the death of his mother from a drug overdose when he was a child, Lin quickly penetrates the cartel, until he finds an occasion to meet its ruthless, possibly deranged leader Eagle (Duan Yihong), and earn his trust to then dismantle the whole network.

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THE WARRIORS (2016) short review

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Another in a long line of slickly-packaged Chinese propaganda war films, The Warriors was directed by Ning Haiqiang (whose oeuvre includes 2015’s The Hundred Regiments Offensive), is set in 1935 and follows a regiment of the People’s Liberation Army – then known simply as the Red Army – led by commander Huang Kaixiang (Ethan Li), as it races towards a key bridge that has to be taken in order to stop the Kuomintang troups’ progress in the region. It’s an incredibly thinly-written film, with sparse historical detail, entirely interchangeable characters (all stalwart, selfless, heroic, saintly would-be martyrs) given the faintest of backstories, and a constantly solemn, clenched-jaw, single-tear tone that borders on unintentional comedy. This makes the film’s episodic structure – it simply hurtles from skirmish to skirmish – all the more laborious and plodding; the copious action scenes are competently staged (action maestro Bruce Law is to thank for that) but devoid of any emotional pull, narrative momentum or epic sweep. For all the explosions and machine gun fire on display, The Warriors feels like listening to a particularly heavy-handed recruiting sergeant drone on for 100 minutes. *

THE MISSING (2017) review

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For her seventh film as a director, Xu Jinglei left her comfort zone of romantic comedies and relationship dramas to tackle a ticking clock thriller in which Bai Baihe plays Lin Wei, a detective whose five-year-old daughter Dian Dian has been kidnapped, and who receives a mysterious phone calls from the kidnapper (Stanley Huang), who is about to tell her where her daughter is, when his car is hit by a truck. His name is Yang Nian, and when he wakes up in a hospital room, he has no memory of his past. After being attacked  by a mysterious assassin who murdered the two cops standing guard in front of his room, the obviously highly-trained Yang escapes, with Lin Wei in hot pursuit. Now while he tries to piece back together his past, the amnesiac must escape not only the police, but also assassins sent by a mobster he seems to have been close to in his past, as well as Lin Wei, who though suspended from the case, has decided to keep looking for her daughter. Soon, she must reluctantly team up with Yang.

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THIS IS NOT WHAT I EXPECTED (2017) review

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The directing debut of editor Derek Hui, who in his relatively young career has already cut films for Derek Yee, Chen Kaige, Teddy Chan and Peter Chan (who is a producer here) among others, This Is Not What I Expected stars Takeshi Kaneshiro as Lu Jin, a filthy-rich hotel acquisition consultant with exacting expectations when it comes to accommodation, service and food in the establishments he visits. As he appraises the luxurious Rosebud Hotel, he finds much with which to be dissatisfied, until he tastes a dish prepared by young sous-chef Gu Shengnan (Zhou Dongyu). It’s a revelation for Jin, and though he keeps butting heads with Shengnan outside of the hotel, he finds himself enthralled by her culinary skill, as she keeps surpassing herself in the hopes to save the hotel from a buyout. Slowly, unexpected feelings start burgeoning between the germaphobe perfectionist and the quirky, hyperactive chef.

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LORD OF SHANGHAI (2017) review

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After Law Wing Cheong’s Iceman and John Woo’s The Crossing, the ambitious diptych format took another hit with Sherwood Hu’s Lord of Shanghai, whose box office flop has led to the release date of its second installment (known as Lord of Shanghai II or The Concubine of Shanghai) being pushed back indefinitely. Based on a 2003 novel by Hong Ying, Lord of Shanghai starts in 1905, with the city controlled by western powers and dangerous triads. Chang Lixiong (Hu Jun), charismatic head of the Hong triad, is butting heads with Commander Song (Liu Peiqi) over the arrival of revolutionary agent Huang Peiyu (Qin Hao): in the last years of the Qing dynasty, Chang has chosen the side of the revolution. Chang and Song are also adversaries in the whorehouse of Madam Xin (Bai Ling), as they both covet the same newly-arrived peasant girl, Xiao Yuegui (Li Meng, then Yu Nan after years have passed). As their feud escalates, Yuegui becomes much more important than a mere prize.

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THE GAME CHANGER (2017) review

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In 2007, director Gao Xixi had remade the classic 1980 TVB show The Bund (which made Chow Yun Fat a star in Hong Kong) into Shanghai Bund (in which Huang Xiaoming stepped in for Chow, five years before pairing up with him in another old Shanghai tale, Wong Jing’s The Last Tycoon), retaining many plot points but also changing quite a few (in the meantime, Adam Cheng had starred in a 1996 retelling, and the same year Leslie Cheung in a feature film by Poon Man Kit). Now, Gao has brought the story to the big screen, but has kept only the narrative beats from his 2007 remake, so that the similarities between the original 1980 TV show and this 2017 feature are entirely superficial, in what has been like a creative game of telephone. We hope you’ve been following.

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COOK UP A STORM (2017) review

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After three seasons of his successful cooking show “Chef Nic”, Nicholas Tse takes his passion for culinary arts to the big screen with Raymond Yip’s Cook up a Storm, in which he plays Sky Ko, an Cantonese street cook whose well-loved restaurant in a picturesque alley of Hong Kong is threatened by property developers. Now, Michelin-starred chef Paul Ahn (Jung Yong Hwa) is opening a high-end restaurant right opposite Sky’s modest but welcoming diner. The two start butting heads, and soon they find themselves pitted against each other in a TV culinary competition. Whoever wins will get to go head to head with the “God of Cookery” Mountain Ko (Anthony Wong), who’s none other than Sky’s selfish and driven father, having left him at a young age in the hands of his friend Seven (Ge You), a wise and kind chef. Sky loses to Paul, who in turn is betrayed by his girlfriend and sous-chef Mayo (Michelle Bai), and thus the two initially hostile chefs but join forces to claim the title of “God of Cookery”.

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BUDDIES IN INDIA (2017) review

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With the flood of Monkey King film adaptations in recent and coming years, it is refreshing to see one attempting a radical spin: Wang Baoqiang’s directorial debut Buddies in India transposes the myth to nowadays, following an agile and mischievous monkey trainer called, of course, Wu Kong (Wang Baoqiang) who refuses to sell his house to make way for a vast urban construction project. As Tang Zong, the chairman of the group in charge of the project, feels his end is near after a serious heart attack, he instructs his son Tang Sen (Bai Ke), a lonely geek, to go get his will in Nandu Gaun, India. At the same time, he asks Wu Kong to accompany Sen as a bodyguard, in exchange for which his house will remain untouched. Wu agrees, and the two set off for India, where they are helped by Zhu Tianpeng (Yue Yunpeng), cross paths with Wu Jing (Ada Liu), a woman once scorned by Sen, and are hunted by two Chinese assassins hired by Tang Sen’s devious uncle Chasu (Huang Bo), who wants to inherit the group instead of his nephew.

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CHERRY RETURNS (2016) short review

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Twelve years after she was kidnapped and thought dead, Cherry Yuan (Cherry Ngan) is found in a basement after her kidnappers are killed in a police raid. She is reunited with her family but seems to be a shell of her former self, and seems to barely remember her close ones, who are all wracked with guilt: her father (a fine Chen Kuan Tai) called the cops – against the kidnappers’ indications – all those years ago, which led to her being thought dead; her mother (Josephine Koo), wasn’t watching over her on the fateful day when she was kidnapped; her sister (Song Jia) was always full of resentment against, for being more loved by the parents; and her uncle (Jason Pai Piao) clearly knows things. But as the family attempts to heal, a police detective (Gordon Lam) investigates the strange circumstances of her kidnapping and rescue, while a mysterious hooded figure (Hu Ge) appears to be stalking Cherry. Though visually bland and marred at key moments by ridiculous CGI (one character’s fall from a skyscraper is quite comical), Chris Chow’s Cherry Returns is a nicely convoluted thriller that teases the audience with seemingly supernatural details and peels away layers of deceit at an enjoyable pace, ending with a startlingly somber conclusion. The cast is mostly solid, with a fiercely sympathetic Song Jia and a deftly ambiguous Cherry Ngan at its center, but most of the characters are either very thinly-defined (Gordon Lam struggles to make his stock police detective interesting) or given motivations that defy human logic or emotion (Hu Ge’s character is almost a parody unto itself), and so while the plot is sometimes cleverly constructed, it is difficult to care about it. **1/2