DUCKWEED (2017) review

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The second directorial effort of Han Han, a successful – and sometimes controversial – author, singer, prize-winning race car driver and China’s most followed blogger, Duckweed went from production to release in under four months, a rather impressive feat given that the result is as polished as the other Chinese New Year films of 2017, though with much less CGI and a modest small-town setting. Xu Tailang (Deng Chao) is a race car driver who just won a championship, and resentfully dedicates his victory to his father Xu Chengzheng (Eddie Peng), who raised him harshly and tried to stop him from pursuing his dream of racing. Tailang’s mother died giving birth to him, and Chengzheng spent the first six years of his son’s life in prison. Now, he has come to witness his Tailang’s victory, and the estranged father and son go on a car ride to sort out their issues. As they drive through a railroad crossing, their car is hit by a passing train, and they are rushed to the hospital, where Tailang’s life flashes in front of his eyes. But instead of dying, he finds himself transported to a small Chinese town in 1998, a year before he is supposed to be born. There, he meets none other than his father, an energetic young man full of dreams, who fancies himself a gang leader and plans to marry his childhood sweetheart Xiaohua (Zhao Liying). Tailang befriends his own father and joins his harmless gang, becoming the witness of the events that led to his own inauspicious birth.

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THE OLD CINDERELLA (2014) short review

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Co-written and produced by Lu Chuan, Wubai’s The Old Cinderella is a slightly above-average romantic comedy in which a thirty-something tour guide (Zhang Jingchu), divorces her husband of five years (Pan Yueming), after she finds out he cheated on her with a TV presenter. Keeping custody of their son, she moves back to her old flat and lets her best friend (Zhu Zhu) arrange blind dates for her, but the only man who catches her fancy is a young Taiwanese businessman (Kenji Wu). Meanwhile, her ex-husband tries to win her back. Romantic comedies tend to live or die on the appeal of their leads, and The Old Cinderella is certainly blessed by the presence of Zhang Jingchu in a performance that is in turns charming, affecting, sexy and funny, and sometimes, impressively, all at once. The film does tick off a checklist of romantic comedy tropes: funny blind dates, glitzy parties, an exotic, soul-searching location (here Jerusalem), and trying on dresses, to name just a few. But amidst these entertaining but often rote goings-on, there are hints of depth: the emotional toll of divorce is not glossed over, and the burden of failed expectations in initially promising relationships is addressed in some a few heartbreaking scenes where Pan Yueming shines as the ex-husband whose guilt leads to emotional self-destruction. Kenji Wu, who is the focus of the more light-hearted and romantic side of the film, is likable enough, but never matches Zhang’s sheer class. The Old Cinderella 2 came out a year later, but with completely different characters, cast, and crew. ***

ROMANTIC WARRIOR (2017) review

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In an age when amateurs have the tools to make professional-looking films, it beggars beliefs that professionals managed to produce something as amateur as Liu Xiatong’s Romantic Warrior. And we are not using the term “amateur” in the same childishly hyperbolic way as countless so-called film critics for whom competently-assembled films can be called “awful” or “shit”. No, Romantic Warrior truly boggles the mind with its utter lack of anything resembling filmmaking skill. The story unfolds in the thirties and concerns a cowardly Peking Opera actor (Chan Kwok Kwan) who meets a young woman (Xu Dongmei) claiming their marriage was arranged years ago by their now-defunct respective parents. He first tries to sell her to a brothel. Then, seeing she will not leave him in peace, and freshly humiliated by his nemesis (Wang Mei Ying) at an backflipping contest, he accepts her tutorship in martial arts and singing, to make him a better Opera performer. But she may have a hidden agenda.

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THE ROBBERS (2009) review

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Yang Shupeng’s The Robbers takes places during the Tang dynasty and follows two robbers (Hu Jun and Jiang Wu) who arrive to a small village and are about to rob one of the houses, when a group of soldiers burst into the village and start raping a young woman. The two robbers intervene and kill the soldiers, but they are not met with gratitude from the villagers who, led by a narrow-minded mayor, fear the army’s retaliation. They tie up the robbers to deliver them to the authorities, but when a larger contingent of soldiers arrives to the village and starts ransacking it, the robbers once again intervene and kill them. They then decide to stay for a while, as they are both falling in love with local girls. But the mayor is still intent on giving them up to the authorities.

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LOST MINDS (2016) short review

p2405533776Lynn Chen’s Lost Minds follows a couple (Jian RenZi and Andrew Lin) who has been unsuccessfully trying to have a child for a few years, and decides to resort to an old Chinese fertility ritual, that of the “primer”: to temporarily adopt a child, who will open the way for their own progeny. They adopt a quiet 7-year-old girl (Wang Yifei) at an orphanage whose supervisors (Hui Shiu Hung and Pat Ha) are obviously not telling them everything. The adopted child is silent, asocial and constantly draws disturbingly dark pictures of her previous family. It doesn’t help that her new mother is beset with strange visions that threaten her sanity. Like so many mediocre horror films, Lost Minds uses a lead character’s vacillating sanity as an excuse to bombard the audience with nightmare sequences and jump-scare visions that thus don’t need to be justified by the story (since, you know, the character’s sanity is vacillating). There are a few passable red herrings until the final twist – a demystifying one as always in China’s supernatural-free horror genre – brings the film to a thudding close, with belabored exposition and flashbacks, to make sure everyone understands the denouement. Very little tension and virtually no scares are mustered, though the unsettling white glow of the cinematography is rather effective and well-judged, and  Jian RenZi’s performance is fairly affecting, while Wang Yifei is an excellent child actress whose alternating creepiness and cuteness are never forced. Andrew Lin sleepwalks through the film, Hui Shiu Hung is wasted in a rare serious role, and the great Pat Ha valiantly makes the best of her poorly-written role. *1/2

BLOOD OF YOUTH (2016) review

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The fourth film of firefighter-turned-director Yang Shupeng, Blood of Youth follows a young hacker named Su Ang (Oho Ou), who anonymously tips off the police about the remains of a woman buried in the woods near the city of Hangzhou. Detective Zhang (Zhang Yi) discovers the victim was beaten to death almost two decades ago, and starts investigating the events that lead to her death. But at the same time Su Ang also warns the police about a bank robbery about to happen, but just as the robbers led by Shen (Zhou Ziwei) are about to enter the bank, he tips them off too about the presence of the police. His agenda is a mystery, but it may be linked to the fact that a brain injury he sustained during his years in an orphanage is slowly killing him according to his doctor, Han Yu (Yu Nan), especially as he’s not taking the medicine that might save him. And his endgame definitely includes Lin Qiao (Guo Shutong), a young cellist whose libidinous orchestra conductor Li (Guo Xiaodong) is none other than Han Yu’s husband.

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ON HIS MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (2009) short review

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Wong Jing’s On His Majesty’s Secret Service is as narratively unfocused and packed with non-sequitur scenes as any of the rotund Hong Kong film kingpin’s comedies, but here is the gist of its ‘plot’: an Imperial Guard (Louis Koo) with no martial arts skills but a gift for scientific innovation becomes embroiled both in his fiancée’s (Barbie Hsu) plot to make him love her more by pretending she’s in love with a handsome hitman who’s actually a beautiful hitwoman (Liu Yang), and in an evil eunuch’s (Fan Siu Wong) plot to overthrow the emperor (Liu Yiwei), who is organizing a competition to find a worthy husband for his daughter (Song Jia). Apart from lavish costumes and sets, the direction is lazy and uninspired, while the humor consists of constant and lazy pratfalls, obvious pop-culture references (some are even delivered while literally winking at the camera), some inscrutable (for non-Cantonese speakers) wordplay and a cornucopia of blissfully unhinged comedic acting: Louis Koo is a broad delight, Fan Siu Wong steals all his scenes with his ‘dainty evil’ act, Song Jia shows effortless comedic skills, and while Barbie Hsu’s silliness feels more forced and Sandra Ng seems on autopilot, Tong Dawei and Liu Yang provide fine serious support, the latter being particularly charismatic as a cross-dressing assassin. All in all, it’s a harmless and often amusing comedy which could have stood out more if its numerous action scenes had been choreographed and directed with more verve. **1/2

SPECIAL FEMALE FORCE (2016) review

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Wilson Chin’s Special Female Force is a loose remake of Wellson Chin’s (not the same guy) The Inspector Wears Skirts, following a dozen sexy young women who enter a stringent boot camp where they bond in the hardships of training and flirt with the male team, before being thrust into their first mission, to stop a terrorist – who twenty years ago decimated the previous iteration of the Special Female Force – from spreading a deadly virus. Tiny subplots from the original films (there were four of them) also crop up, like the male instructor’s crush on the female one (Ken Lo and Jade Leung step in for Stanley Fung and Sibelle Hu), but on the whole Wilson is largely rebooting Wellson’s concept, while adding an unfortunate layer of teary drama on top of it. The Inspector Wears Skirts were no masterpieces, but they knew their place and remained jokey displays of eye-candy with some hard-hitting action thrown in. Special Female Force is plagued by tragic subplots that lead to cringe-worthy moments of tone-deaf emotional acting from the main cast. Philip Ng has a few scenes and a few spin kicks as an ungrateful boyfriend, in another soap-worthy little nugget of plot.

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THE ADVENTURES OF WEIBAOBAO (2016) short review

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In Brand Tan’s The Adventures of Waibaobao (also known, head-scratchingly, as Provoking Laughter), timid tour guide Wei Baobao (Pan Yueming) is mistaken for a dangerous criminal as a result of a dinner reservation mix-up. Brought in the inner circle of a mob boss (Tan Kai), his lethal girlfriend/enforcer (Lin Peng) and his loyal second-in-command (Archie Kao), Baobao wants to run for his life, but a duo of cops (Chang Yuan and Tao Siyuan) urge him to stay under this unintentional cover and work with their other undercover (Wu Yue). This one of those films that try to be many genres at once but end up a bland amalgamation. There is some “wuss posing as a tough guy” comedy, but it’s undermined by a severe lack of conviction or creativity in the comedic situations. There are some David Mamet-style deadpan twists and turns on the canvas of a Hong Kong-type undercover crime thriller (suffice it to say, everyone is a potential undercover agent), but it’s all too muddled and sluggish to grip and surprise the way it is supposed to. There are also Tarantino-inspired postmodern winks (Ennio Morricone in the soundtrack, animated backstories…) and flashes of ultra-violence, but they appear tired and derivative, sometimes exceeding the production’s obviously limited budget grasp. The film does remain palatable thanks to a short runtime, a few inspired visual gags, one or two plot turns that are mildly surprising, and a solid cast: Pan Yueming might have been excellent with better writing to work with, Lin Peng is striking as a steely henchwoman, Archie Kao has fun acting as shady as possible, and Chin Shih Chieh brings a modicum of class to the whole thing, while Wu Yue would probably be a scene-stealer if there were really good scenes to steal. **

KUNG FU YOGA (2017) review

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A good one month after the delightful Railroad Tigers, Jackie Chan is back on the big screen, and a good 12 years after their flawed but enjoyable – and oddly heartfelt – adventure The Myth, he reunites with Stanley Tong for Kung Fu Yoga (though Tong was a producer on Chinese Zodiac). This Indian-Chinese co-production that follows illustrious archeology professor Jack (Jackie Chan), who goes looking for an ancient Indian treasure with the help of his assistants (Zhang Yixing and Miya Muqi), some old friends (Eric Tsang and Zhang Guoli), a thief  (Aarif Lee) and an Indian princess (Disha Patani). The quest takes them from China to Iceland to Dubai to India, but another, less benevolent search party is also looking for the treasure: Indian heir Randall (Sonu Sood) and his mercenaries.
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