ANGEL WHISPERS (2015) short review

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Carrie Ng is now the third Hong Kong cinema stalwart to debut as director with a horror film, after Nick Cheung and Simon Yam. But her start is the least auspicious of the three: Angel Whispers is an often painfully clumsy little horror film, taking place in a decrepit building in Hong Kong where a small whorehouse led by Auntie Lai (Carrie Ng) lives in fear of a prostitute killer that’s making the news. When one of the girls disappears mysteriously, suspicion falls on the building’s janitor Lung (Sammy Hung), who’s been having an unrequited crush on one of them, the melancholic Ching Ching (Kabby Hui). Angel Whispers makes some feeble attempts at fleshing out its ensemble of prostitutes, but they’re too few and drowned in rote horror film proceedings, from the usual ‘splitting in teams to look for the killer in dark corridors’, to bouts of leaky basement torture porn. Carrie Ng and Sammy Hung are fine, but Kabby Hui doesn’t convince in a key role that should have tied the film together. And there’s a half-decent twist in the end that falls flat on its face, because what precedes it has been so underdeveloped and routine. *1/2

EVERYBODY’S FINE (2016) review

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Giuseppe Tornatore’s Stanno Tutti Bene, released to a mostly rapturous reception in 1990 but a bit forgotten nowadays, had already been remade and transposed from Italy to the United States in Kirk Jones’s Everybody’s Fine (2009), and now comes the Chinese remake. But rather than denote a lack of originality, this new version speaks to the universality and strength of the concept: take a revered older actor (here Zhang Guoli taking over from Marcello Mastroianni and Robert De Niro) as a former absentee father who’s now a widower leaving alone in the family house, his four children having scattered across the country and all supposedly thriving in their professional and private lives. When they all cancel their visit for a planned family reunion, the father decides to pack up and go visit each one of them.

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PARIS HOLIDAY (2015) review

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A film for people who think there’s nothing more romantic than cycling in front of the Eiffel Tower, James Yuen’s Paris Holiday (which briefly shot not 100 meters from where yours truly lives) stars Louis Koo as Chun-Kit, a late professional bloomer who arrives in Paris to manage a wine label for a wealthy Hong Kong businessman (Anthony Chan). There, fellow expatriate Michael (Alex Fong) sets him up in a flat share with Xiao-Min (Amber Kuo) an art students who’s still a human wreck from being dumped by the man she thought was her soulmate. In order not too have her feel threatened by a man’s presence, Michael asks Chun-Kit to pretend he’s gay. The cohabitation gets off to a disastrous start, as Chun-Kit has to deal with Xiao-Min’s erratic hygiene and behavior; but after nearly leaving, he decides to stay and help her get back on her feet. A tall order, but he’s just rebounded from a painful break-up himself, and the two soon find themselves in a strange place between love and friendship.

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A-1 HEADLINE (2004) short review

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A fashion reporter (Angelica Lee) investigates the suspicious death of her ex-boyfriend with the help of her lovestruck assistant (Edison Chen) and an ex-cop turned debt collector (Anthony Wong) who’s equally lovestruck, though less obviously so. Hours before his death from apparent drunk-driving, the ex-boyfriend said he had a major scoop (an ‘A-1 headline’), and the scene of the crash suggests anything but an accident. Various suspects include the reporter’s editor-in-chief (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and a cop in charge of the case (Gordon Lam). A thriller that does its best not to thrill, Gordon Chan and Chung Kai-Cheong’s A-1 Headline doesn’t even simmer; its bid at a more naturalistic approach devoid of artificial thrills is a laudable approach, but the problem is that most of its characters are thoroughly listless and uninvolving, most of all an inert Angelica Lee. A gaunt Anthony Wong is the main attraction here, in a world-weary and oddly poignant performance that probably has stopped many a viewer from giving up on the film. Tony Leung Ka Fai is also his usual reliable self here, even when the film makes him spell out its message on the responsibility of the press thuddingly loud and clear. **

MY DNA SAYS I LOVE YOU (2007) short review

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An unfathomably odd little romantic comedy from Taiwan, Lee Yun Chan’s My DNA Says I Love You follows to twenty-something roommates who both work at a bio-tech company that develops medication meant to suppress certain genes, such as the “fat gene” or the “clean freak gene” (yes, a lot of thought and research went into this film’s science). One of them (Terri Kwan) meets and falls in love with a charming but sloppy prosthetic engineer (Peter Ho), and starts taking a pill that represses her “clean freak gene”, while the other (Yu Nan) is wooed by her charming landlord (Eddie Peng) but rejects her because she’s afraid he’ll discover she’s obesity-prone and needs to take pills that repress her “fat gene”. My DNA Says I Love You is every bit as head-scratchingly bizarre as that plot synopsis might lead you to believe. At its core it’s nothing more than a trite romantic comedy with attractive people that alternatively pursue and reject one another until they finally get on the same page. But it’s dressed with the aforementioned shoddy scientific premise, some incredibly weird plot turns (one subplot features yellow slimy mold literally coming to life and overrunning an apartment) and a sitcom-grade aesthetic with matching cheap soundtrack. The cast is appealing, especially a fun and likable Eddie Peng in only his second film: a scene where he tries to get in a Tango show by mumbling fake Spanish to the ushers is one of the film’s only genuine laughs. Terri Kwan indulges in tooth-rotting cuteness, while Peter Ho does what he can with a character named Anteater. Yu Nan however seems a bit out of place, giving an affecting performance that clashes with the silliness that surrounds it. *1/2

SAVING MR. WU (2015) review

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In 2004, popular TV actor Wu Ruofu was kidnapped and held for ransom for 21 hours, before being rescued by the police, psychologically traumatized but physically unscathed. Now more than a decade later here he is, co-starring in the story of his ordeal, in the role of one of the cops whose tireless investigation led to his rescue, and with superstar Andy Lau in playing him. Wu was offered his own role, but refused to relive the events so directly ; shooting – and watching – the film must have been quite the cathartic experience for him, though he has remained tight-lipped about the whole thing. And so in a tight time-frame of 21 hours, Ding Sheng’s Saving Mr. Wu recounts the kidnapping of movie star Wu (Andy Lau) and everyman Dou (Lu Cai) by cunning and ruthless criminal Zhang (Wang Qianyuan), and the subsequent race against time as the police (headed by Liu Ye and the laterally titular Wu Ruofu) catches the latter and tries to have him give out the whereabouts of his victims before it’s too late: they know the abductees are to be killed whether or not the ransom is paid.

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TASTE OF LOVE (2015) review

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The enormous success of Stephen Chow’s Journey To The West: Conquering the Demons, Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King and Tian Xiaopeng’s animated Monkey King: Hero is Back has sparked a literal avalanche of  films based on Wu Cheng’en’s seminal 16th century novel. Expected in the coming years are Tsui Hark’s Journey To The West 2, Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 2, Derek Kwok’s Biography of Wukong, Ching Siu Tung’s Journey To The West: Spider’s Cave, Jeff Lau’s A Chinese Odyssey 3, Tian Xiaopeng’s Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven, and probably a few more that haven’t yet been announced. They’ll leverage medium to massive budgets and feature some of the most popular actors of today, including Kris Wu, Yao Chen, Aaron Kwok, Gong Li, William Feng, Eddie Peng, Shawn Yue, Ni Ni, Wu Jing, Karen Mok, Sandra Ng, Li Yifeng and a lot of others we won’t mention for brevity’s sake. And kind of like the Asylum productions that pick up the crumbs left by big Hollywood Summer tentpoles (think Transmorphers, Atlantic Rim or The Almighty Thor), Miao Shu’s Taste of Love got a head start on all the aforementioned A-list productions with a December release where it didn’t register in the least at the box office.

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ALL YOU NEED IS LOVE (2015) short review

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Richie Jen and Andy Luo’s All You Need Is Love was the first – and better – of the two Taiwanese romances starring Shu Qi that were released in 2015, the other being the thudding The Last Women Standing. Here she plays Fen, a haughty travel writer visiting Penghu, a sun-drenched archipelago in which she’s booked a Bed & Breakfast owned by Bu (Richie Jen) and his stern father (Ti Lung). Things get off to a bad start as the B&B is much more rustic than what she expected, and her snobbish behavior clashes with Bu’s simple ways. But when her luggage and passport get lost at sea, she has no choice but to bide her time at the B&B, where she slowly gets won over by Bu and the goofy villagers of Penghu. All You Need Is Love basically ticks off all the most common romantic comedy tropes, opposing money and love, city and country, commitment and selfishness, living in the past and seizing the day, all of it against a dreamy touristic backdrop adorned with cute kids and goofy supporting characters. That it all entertains charmingly rather than annoy is down to Shu Qi and Richie Jen’s winning chemistry, the former having a blast as a screechy snob who slowly gets thawed, and the latter to old to be a goofy romantic lead but unassumingly appealing nevertheless. There’s also a touching supporting turn from the great Ti Lung as a steely father who’s also a loving widower; though underdeveloped, it’s a nice subplot that balances out more unfortunate plot turns, like a stupid reality show Bu takes part in. All in all a warm, fuzzy and forgettable little romance. **1/2

THE LAST WOMEN STANDING (2015) review

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Shu Qi has had an interesting 2015: in between a critical triumph (Hou Hsiao Hsien’s The Assassin) and a box office high (Wuershan’s Mojin: The Lost Legend) were two romances, both fairly unsuccessful. Richie Jen’s All You Need Is Love was more on the goofy side, while writer Luo Luo’s directorial debut – and adaptation of her own book – The Last Women Standing is a more dramatic affair. It follows Ruxi (Shu Qi), a driven businesswoman who’s great at her job but unlucky in love. Now well past thirty and still single, she’s among what Chinese society labels as “leftover women”. Her concerned parents (Pan Hong and Chin Shih-chieh) set her up with an upright but somewhat dull doctor (Xing Jiadong), but her heart has already chosen Ma Sai (Eddie Peng), a kind, handsome co-worker she just met. Her feelings for him are reciprocal and soon they’re in a dreamy relationship but the trouble is, he’s afraid of commitment.

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IMPOSSIBLE (2015) short review

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A mind-bogglingly ill-conceived and misguided film, Sun Zhou’s Impossible tells of a truck driver (Wang Baoqiang), who encounters a powerful alien entity named Muah Muah that’s the shape of a tennis ball but very powerful, and has come to earth to study its inhabitants. The entity provokes the curiosity and greed of various people including the truck driver’s boss (Xiao Shenyang) who’s bankrupt and owes money to loan sharks, his long-time customer (Xin Zhi-Lei) who’s in the dilemmas of unplanned pregnancy, and a scummy rival (Da Peng) who seeks to further expand his successful business and wants to control Muah Muah’s powers. Impossible never chooses what it wants to be: its humor is resolutely lowbrow, essentially a combination of relentlessly mugging actors (Xiao Shenyang and Da Peng are on a constant mug-off) and cutesy pratfalls (Muah Muah was clearly conceived to catch on in a Minion sort of way), yet the film revolves around the traumatic loss of a child, and milks it relentlessly for tears in its second half. The ‘studying earthlings’ subplot is merely a footnote and yields not one single clever observation, while the film occasionally switches to jarring violence: this is a film that has a cute, chipmunk-voiced alien AND a scene of dental torture. In the final stretch the weirdness goes off the charts, as it borrows from District 9 (a man mutates horribly into a tentacular alien) and, even more risibly, from 2001, A Space Odyssey (let’s just say there’s a foetal space trip). And despite being an unhinged oddity, the film still manages to be preachy, telling us how parents should care for their children and sometimes we must be able to let go of the past. A teaching we’ll gladly apply to this film. *