Wang Tao’s The Boundary is a psychological thriller about a cop (Ye Liu) who’s become a shell of a man since his wife disappeared mysteriously ten years before. His prime suspect has always been a wealthy businessman (Vincent Zhao), whose wife he had to shoot dead a bit before, when she tried to murder a woman she suspected of having an affair with her husband. Now ten years later, the businessman’s attractive new partner is brutally killed in a parking lot by a woman whom the surveillance cameras reveal to be his dead wife… The victim’s daughter thus enlists Ye Liu’s help to seek the truth, and a lot of painful secrets are about to be revealed. For half of its runtime, The Boundary is simply too vague for its own good : the stakes are introduced in such a vague way that it’s difficult to care. Then the film starts boiling down to its more essential components and manages to gather some tension and a few genuine surprises, especially as it tickles Mainland China’s censorship rules about the supernatural, but the endlessly simmering atmosphere and deadening use of redundant flashbacks make it a slog. It’s nevertheless interesting to see a fine performance from Vincent Zhao in a rare non-martial arts role, all the more so as he’s much more interesting as an ambiguous villain (like in Jacob Cheung’s The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom), than as a squeaky-clean hero like in most of his films. **
Posted by LP Hugo on April 26, 2015
Wu Jing’s second film as a director after 2008’s Legendary Assassin, which he co-directed with his martial arts choreographer of choice Nicky Li Chung Chi, Wolf Warrior is also his first lead role in the seven years since that film’s release, and the first time he co-wrote a film. He plays Leng Feng, a sniper who is expelled from the army after he solved a hostage crisis by ignoring orders and shooting down the hostage-taker with a hazardous maneuver. While in confinement, he is approached by officer Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan) with an offer to join an elite tactical team known as the Wolf Warriors. He accepts, and soon he’s in the forest with his new team for a field exercise. But things take a tragic and dangerous turn when they run afoul of a team of foreign mercenaries headed by Tomcat (Scott Adkins) and hired by an international criminal (Ni Dahong) seeking revenge for the death of his brother, who is none other than the hostage-taker killed by Leng Feng. While supervised by Long Xiaoyun from a control room, Leng and two of his comrades must retaliate for the death of one of the Wolf Warriors, and prevent the team from crossing the Chinese border again.
The most striking thing about Wolf Warrior, is how patriotic it is. It follows the tropes of an eighties Chuck Norris film almost to the letter, coming off as literally the modern Chinese equivalent (how ironic is that) of a Delta Force or a Missing in Action. While Wu Jing’s lithe and smiling persona could not be further removed from the mighty Chuck’s granite beardedness, his character presents the same combination of intense patriotism and unique skill, in that special way that makes him too good for the regular army but perfect for an elite team, inside of which he will still need to occasionally go solo anyway. Beyond the lead character, the film makes a point of doubling as propaganda anytime it can. Lines like “Whoever dares to breach into Chinese territory will regret it dearly” are repeated an almost uncomfortable number of times, Yu Nan’s gorgeous and steely officer is mostly seen against the backdrop of a giant People’s Republic of China flag, a third of the film is taken up by impressive displays of military deployment and hardware, and there’s an almost surreal degree of levity in the troops, to the point that you’d be forgiven at times for thinking you’ve stumbled upon an army recruiting promo. And a “suiting-up” scene actually remakes a passage from Menahem Golan’s Delta Force by showing soldiers grafting on Chinese flag badges to their uniform for a good two minutes.
That exacerbated patriotism has led some to speculate that the film’s success was artificially bolstered by the government, which among other measures may have made it compulsory for members of its army (the People’s Liberation Army) to go see the film. That’s millions of active and reserve personnel. Whether or not this is true, it’s difficult to imagine Wolf Warrior becoming a hit in other parts of the world, for beyond the patriotism that may have struck a chord with audiences (especially in smaller cities and rural areas, according to tracking), it is far from a satisfying action film. For much of it running time, Wu Jing’s film is surprisingly low on the kind of fireworks that, considering its paper-thin and often puerile plot (a weird, under-developped subplot concerns the bad guy’s attempt at securing a genetic weapon that can specifically wipe out Chinese people), would have been its raison d’être, or at least its saving grace. A lot of time is spent on deployment of troops and vehicles, on weak banter among the men, and on heavy-handed flirting by radio between Wu Jing and Yu Nan’s characters. There’s also a slightly puzzling scuffle against a pack of actual (well, actual CGI) wolves that look good in close-up but not in movement. When the plot finally gathers some urgency, there are only 25 minutes left, and while they feature some reasonably exciting forest warfare and vehicular destruction (Nicky Li Chung Chi directs the action), it’s too little, too late. And even then, Wu Jing makes the puzzling decision to include thudding flashbacks to something that happened to Leng Feng’s father (flashbacks to something Leng Feng didn’t actually witness, by the way), to add poignancy to a scene of rescue.
Luckily, the acting is as good as can be expected in such a crudely-written film. Wu Jing has always been adept at imbuing even the most kick-ass of characters with a sense of sweetness. A scene where he’s hanging from a helicopter and just revels in the experience with boyish glee, and the constant sense of humor Leng Feng exhibits, make him a character worthy of a better film. Yu Nan is mostly stuck to a control room and disappointingly doesn’t get in on the action, but her steely charisma and solid chemistry with Wu Jing are some of the film’s pleasures. Ni Dahong has fun in a limited villainous role, lighting cigars whether everything is exploding around him or he’s pinned down under Wu Jing’s boot. The presence of Scott Adkins as the immediate bad guy is a nice change of pace from all the horrible Gweilo actors playing villains in Chinese/Hong Kong productions. Though Adkins’ character has no dimension at all beyond his skills, the British actor’s charisma and usual athleticism are welcome, as is his laudable restraint, compared to recent performances like the late Darren Shahlavi in Ip Man 2. His final fight against Wu Jing is passable, but a fairly short knife fight is not what one would expect of a match-up between two of the best martial arts actor working today.
Long Story Short : Disappointingly, Wolf Warrior features more propaganda than action. Crudely plotted and often repetitive, it gets by mostly on its appealing cast. **
Posted by LP Hugo on April 24, 2015
It took 3 years and 4 different directors to complete Cross‘ sluggish 75 minutes about a man (Simon Yam) who is devastated by his wife’s suicide, which according to his beliefs condemns her to hell, and so decides to save as many souls as he can by killing suicidal people before they can actually do it themselves. He then surrenders himself to the police, only to realize that someone may have been pulling the strings all along. Though it’s often visually arresting, with evocative cinematography conjuring disquieting imagery that combines the mundane with the unnatural, Daniel Chan, Steve Woo, Lau King Ping and Hui Shu Ning’s Cross is too narratively inept to engage in the least. A thudding use of flashbacks and exposition often clashes with the ambiguity the filmmakers so clearly aim for. There’s no pacing to speak of, each scene fading listlessly into the next, with a major twist being so clumsily introduces that you’d be forgiven for not even realizing it’s a twist. Simon Yam is fine in the role of an unflappable killer reminiscent of his character in the infinitely superior The Man behind the Courtyard House (2011), but he simply has too little to work with. Randomly, Nick Cheung crops up in an amusing scene that may have been tacked on to capitalize on the success of Roy Chow’s Nightfall, which already paired him with Simon Yam earlier in 2012. *1/2
Where to buy it : On Amazon.com
Posted by LP Hugo on April 13, 2015
Considered a true classic of 20th-century English theatre, J.B. Priestley’s three-act play An Inspector Calls has been brought to the stage countless times since it was first performed in 1945, and it’s been a fixture of the BBC’s TV and radio programming (with yet another mini-series in preparation for 2015, starring David Thewlis) but it has comparatively been the object of few big screen adaptations. In fact, Raymond Wong and Herman Yau’s film is the first time the play is adapted for theatrical release since Guy Hamilton’s (of Goldfinger fame) 1954 adaptation. And surely it’s the most unexpected iteration of the story since the 1979 Soviet mini-series Inspector Gull. Screenwriter Edmond Wong transposes the setting from the North Midlands of Great Britain in 1912 to Hong Kong in 2015, but follows J.B. Priestley’s narrative pretty closely : the mysterious inspector Karl (Louis Koo) pays an unexpected visit to the rich Kau family’s estate. Mr. and Mrs. Kau (Eric Tsang and Teresa Mo) are in the final preparations for their daughter Sherry’s (Karena Ng) engagement party as she is soon to marry a handsome young businessman Johnny (Hans Zhang), while their son Tim (Gordon Lam) looks on in contemptuous bemusement, and clearly annoyed at his own girlfriend, socialite Yvonne (Ada Liu Yan). Inspector Karl informs them that a young woman (Chrissie Chau) from Mr. Kau’s factory has been found dead from what appears to be a painful, protracted suicide by disinfectant ingestion. As he starts to interrogate each member of the family in turn, it appears everyone of them was linked to the deceased woman, and everyone may have played a more or less active role in her eventual demise.
This is an interesting but talky premise, befitting the stage more than the big screen, and directors Raymond Wong and Herman Yau resort to a number of variably successful ploys to give the narrative a more spectacular feel. The most striking one, even before the obviously starry cast, is the art direction. The living room itself where the bulk of the film takes place, is a ridiculously flamboyant piece of set design complete with golden pillars, crystal ornaments and Zodiac heads, an effective but incredibly unsubtle rendition of J.B. Priestley’s indictment on capitalist excess. But it is when the film rewinds in flashbacks repicting each family member’s connection to the dead woman (in an instance of the film trying to transcend its stage origins) that the true visual madness commences. With the abundant help of CGI, every flashback is colourful to the extreme, filled with a wealth of weird and whimsical details (a la Tim Burton, some have noted), and above all outrageously phantasmagorical : the fact that the victim provided Johnny with emotional comfort, for instance, is shown by Chrissie Chau sprouting a pair of wings and flying around a gaudy dreamscape with Hans Zhang in her arms, while her humiliation and lay-off at the hands of Mr. Kau is portrayed by having a tiny Chrissie Chau shrunk to the size of an ant and fighting for her life against the gigantic objects on Eric Tsang’s desk. These crazy flashbacks are quite entertaining if a bit overbearing : and indeed how delightfully ironic that J.B. Priestley’s critique of capitalist excess is now brought to the screen thanks to – and for the purpose of – you guessed it, capitalist excess.
Raymond Wong and Herman Yau also pad out the film with a great number of stars, not only in the pivotal roles but also in a long list of cameos. Louis Koo is good fun as the titular inspector, though the directors never seem to choose between making him as a mysterious avenging angel (he even has a glowing red stare at some point) as he is often represented on stage, or as a bumbling and pompous avatar of The Pink Panther‘s Inspector Clouseau : witness Koo’s comically thunderous tone and his frantically clumsy attempts at retrieving a key piece of evidence from his coat pocket. The Kau (formerly Birling) family is well cast, with the highlight being Eric Tsang, who embodies perfectly – and with his usual immaculate comic timing – the “heavy-looking, rather portentous man in his middle fifties” described by Priestley. The cameos range from aimless (Michael Tse as an agile club waiter) to delightful (Kelly Chen in a role we won’t reveal), but it’s Raymond Wong and Donnie Yen who really impress, the former in six different roles, and the latter as all four members of a band singing Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons’ famous song ‘Sherry Baby’ at the engagement party (the man can sing). In the end, much of the original play’s edge is dulled by the outrageous art direction, distractingly starry cast and eventual likability of characters we should end up disgusted with, but this iteration of An Inspector Calls is a charming oddity nevertheless.
Long Story Short : With its garish art direction, phantasmagorical sequences and starry cast, An Inspector Calls doesn’t so much dull the edge of its source material as it buries it under a pile of Lunar New Year entertainment staples. Still, it’s an entertaining oddity that gives a classic play an amusing makeover. ***
Posted by LP Hugo on April 11, 2015
In Billy Chan’s Licence to Steal, a cat burglar (Joyce Godenzi) is betrayed by her partner (Agnes Aurelio) and sent to prison for three years. Upon her release, she aims to get revenge on the double-crosser, and teams up with a dogged cop (Richard Ng), his young partner (Collin Chou) and his idealistic, slightly unhinged nephew (Yuen Biao). Licence to Steal avoids the numbing effect of overabundant action, as well as the annoyance of crass humor. It is often, as so many films of that time and place, too scattershot in its progression to really engage, but the cast is uniformly appealing, from the always classy and charismatic Joyce Godenzi to Yuen Biao playing a variation on his irresistible Dragons Forever role, not to mention the always funny and reliable Richard Ng. The fights, as choreographed by Corey Yuen, are brisk and delightful, if often frustratingly short : there’s a one-minute, dizzying bout between Yuen and Chou, that should have gone on at least four more minutes. And the same year as their savage, thundering fight in She Shoots Straight, Godenzi and Aurelio get a re-match in a masterful, stealthy fight in a warehouse, where they go at each other while avoiding being seen or heard by patrolling guards. A very pleasant action comedy. ***
Posted by LP Hugo on April 5, 2015
A prominent figure of Chinese mythology, the rotund and ugly but very powerful demon hunter Zhong Kui has surprisingly not had many film incarnations in the past decades. There was a female version of the character (played by Cheng Pei Pei, and thus not exactly rotund and ugly) in Ho Meng Hua’s The Lady Hermit in 1971, and Wu Ma directed and starred in a version of the myth in 1994’s The Chinese Ghostbuster, which transplanted the character as a fish out of water in 20th century Hong Kong. There has also been a few TV series, but Zhong Kui : Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal is definitely the character’s first blockbuster incarnation, and given the film’s success during the 2015 Chinese New Year period, it’s unlikely to be the last. Directed by Peter Pau, who’s been more celebrated as a cinematographer – a post which he occupies on this film too – than as a director (his last directorial effort was the messy Michelle Yeoh vehicle The Touch in 2002),and Zhao Tianyu, who until now had been a director of much more low-key fare (like 2008’s culinary thriller Deadly Delicious), it incongruously yet somewhat inevitably casts a handsome (some would say pretty) star in the title role, where one would have logically yet somewhat unrealistically expected a more corpulent and rugged actor like Jiang Wu or Zhang Jinsheng.
Once every millenium, on the 15th day of the 7th lunar month, it becomes possible for beings from the three Realms of Heaven, Earth and Hell to cross from one to another. This short period of time is an opportunity for change as much as it is a risk of chaos. The Jade Emperor (a Peter Pau cameo) thus allows master Zhang (Winston Chao), a lesser god, to go to Earth and protect the city of Hu, whose proximity to the gates of Hell puts it in danger at such a juncture. Master Zhang sends his disciple Zhong Kui (Chen Kun), a former scholar turned demon hunter, to Hell in order to steal the Dark Crystal, a powerful force that acts as a safeguard for the three Realms’ integrity. Zhong Kui succeeds, and the enraged Demon King sends Snow Girl (Li Bingbing) to Earth to get it back with the help of a group of other demons masquerading as an enthralling female entertainment troupe visiting the city of Hu. But when they arrive, Zhong Kui recognizes Snow Girl as Little Snow, a mysterious woman with whom he had a short but intense love story three years ago and who disappeared one day without a word, leaving him a heartbroken man. The following days will reveal true identities, hidden agendas and misunderstood gestures, while demons, men and gods battle for the Dark Crystal.
Like most, if not all, Chinese fantasy films in the past decade, Zhong Kui : Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal (henceforward Zhong Kui) is a massive display of CGI work, limiting its ‘real’ components to actors, natural props and immediate surroundings. All the rest is made of variably convincing visual effects : the backgrounds are superb – especially in Hell – and the creature design is inspired, but the animation leaves a lot to be desired : the jerky and weightless movements of the various CGI creatures calls to mind a nineties video game. It’s too bad then, that the film relies so much of CGI combat, with demons and gods fighting in muddled, protracted battles that make up their own rules as they go, much in the way of 2014’s bloated The Monkey King. It doesn’t help that the mythology on display is frustratingly vague, perhaps in an attempt to make the film easily digestible for non-Chinese audiences, but with the side effect that the stakes are not always clear : even the big threat that powers the final third of the film is conveyed through wordy but vague exposition, and the actual powers of the supernatural characters are never well defined.
Luckily, Zhong Kui relies not only on CGI, but also on a talented cast. Chen Kun is a strange choice to play a portly, ugly demon hunter, and indeed his version of the character is actually slender and handsome despite sporting a craggy beard, but while the decision to cast him can obviously be chalked up the producers’ cold feet at the idea of a non-attractive lead, it must be said that Chen carries the film convincingly. His spirited, charismatic performance conveys the character’s playfulness as well as his inner struggles with aplomb and a few beastly flourishes that are unexpected and delightful. Not only is it a dual role in essence, as Chen Kun must portray Zhong Kui both a a young idealistic scholar and as the salty demon hunter he then becomes, but the actor also plays another pivotal role, which we won’t reveal. The actor is clearly turning into one of the most versatile and entertaining stars in China right now. He also shares fine chemistry with Li Bingbing, who’s not only achingly beautiful as the titular Snow Girl (Peter Pau is clearly in love with her) in Shirley Chan and Connie Auyeung’s exquisite costumes, but also magnetic and affecting in the same kind of dangerous but lovestruck demon role that Zhou Xun essayed in the Painted Skin films. Chen and Li make the love story the most compelling part of the film. Elsewhere, Winston Chao gets to subvert his often squeaky-clean image (he’s played revolutionary Chinese saint Sun Yat Sen more than a few times) and Jike Junyi cuts a fleeting but striking figure as a fellow demon. As icing on the CGI cake, Javier Navarrete’s score is massive and stunning, propelling every scene either with furious orchestral power or with impressive lyrical grace. Close your eyes and you might imagine a perfect film ; open them and it’s an uneven but enjoyable and lavish ride.
Long Story Short : Despite uneven and overbearing visual effects and muddled mythology, Zhong Kui : Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal is anchored in compelling performances from Chen Kun and Li Bingbing, who along with Javier Navarrete’s stunning score, provide the film with enough power for it to pull through as an engaging origin story. ***
Posted by LP Hugo on April 4, 2015
James and Bond (Frankie Chan and Max Mok) are professional luxury car thieves who get caught between a mobster (Kong Do) who wants to exploit their gift, and a cop (Yukari Oshima) who’s bent on arresting them, with the help of her lovestruck underling (Michael Miu in a fun turn). Though the title suggests a focus on Frankie Chan (who also directs) and Max Mok’s characters, the latter is very often sidelined in favor of Yukari Oshima’s character and her cat and mouse flirting with Chan. The plot, or lack thereof, wanders aimlessly, springing the great Michiko Nishiwaki as a kind of black widow in the last 30 minutes, and breaking its lull of tame comedy with an impressive action finale in, wait for it, a warehouse. But The Outlaw Brothers is mostly a showcase for Oshima, who displays not only charisma and lightning moves, but also a lighter side that her often brutal roles at the time didn’t show, and the same goes for Nishiwaki, who doesn’t fight much but is gleefully flamboyant. Frankie Chan and Max Mok may be the outlaw brothers, but Yukari Oshima and Michiko Nishiwaki are the reasons to watch The Outlaw Brothers. **1/2
Posted by LP Hugo on April 4, 2015
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
Where to buy it : On Amazon.com
Posted by LP Hugo on March 23, 2015