MISSION MILANO (2016) short review

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This caper about an Interpol agent (Andy Lau) who joins forces with a gentleman-thief (Huang Xiaoming) to stop a terrorist organization from using a revolutionary invention known as the Seed of God (a seed that can grow even in the most barren places) for evil purposes could very well be a From Vegas to Macau film, as it sees Wong Jing follow the exact same recipe as in his successful Chinese New Year franchise: pair up a handsome legend with a handsome younger star, surround them with comedians (including here a very funny Shen Teng and a so-so Wong Cho Lam) and cameos (hello, Sammi Cheng) and one or two martial artists (good old Ken Lo and up-and-comer Wu Yue), offer spectacle that combines a five-year old boy’s sense of narrative logic, a ten year-old boy’s taste for absurd high-tech gadgets, and a fifteen year-old boy’s fixation on leather-clad beauties (hello, Michelle Hu and many others). Add a dash of gambling (but not too much, the Hong Kong market is second served), one or two exotic locations, a lot of derivative elements (including a Resident Evil death corridor, Wolverine claws, John Powell’s The Bourne Supremacy soundtrack tracked in the action scenes…) and one or two incongruously straight-faced dramatic moments. In the end, it is indeed a lowbrow but entertaining formula, and Mission Milano is actually more palatable than any of the From Vegas to Macau films. Andy Lau is a delight (Huang Xiaoming seems less comfortable), there are some moderately inspired pratfalls, sight gags and situations, and Dion Lam’s action is cartoony and amusing. All in all, this film deserves the following faint praise: a Mission Milano 2 sounds more tempting than a From Vegas to Macau 4**1/2

COCK AND BULL (2016) review

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After three films that oscillated between the tragic and the bittersweet (The Equation of Love and DeathEinstein and Einstein and The Dead End), writer-director Cao Baoping returns to his first love, rural dark comedy. In Cock and Bull, a mechanic named Song (Liu Ye) has to deal with two exigent issues. First, he is under pressure from a big mining company to move his ancestors’ graves so that a big mining operation may proceed on his land, which he steadfastly refuses to do, out of a deep-rooted sense of filial duty. But equally pressingly, he must clear his name after a fellow villager is murdered and suspicion falls on him, because he had a fight with him weeks before. Song thus sets out to find the real killer, who may be either a local delinquent (Duan Bowen) who somehow is in possession of the victim’s motorcycle, or a shaky nightclub owner (Zhang Yi) hard up for cash who moonlights as a hitman for local mobsters.

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HIDE AND SEEK (2016) review

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A very close remake of Huh Jung’s 2013 Korean sleeper hit of the same title, Liu Jie’s Hide and Seek tells of Zhang Jiawei (Wallace Huo), who enjoys a comfortable life in Qingdao City, running a high-end coffee shop and living in a luxury building with his wife Pingzhi (Wan Qian) and their daughter. This idyllic picture is only marred by his struggle with mysophobia and visions of his older brother, with whom he severed all ties after he went to prison for a rape he may not have committed. Now the brother is out and lives in a rundown, soon-to-be-demolished block of flats. One day, Jiawei is contacted by his brother’s landlord, who claims he has not been paid rent for a while. After visiting the old building, talking to the landlord and meeting a terrorized single mother (Qin Hailu), he realizes his brother may have become a stalker and worse, may be the murderer of a young woman (Jessie Li) who lived next door to him.

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SUPER EXPRESS (2016) short review

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A loose remake of Hervé Renoh’s French comedy Coursier (2010), Xiao Song’s Super Express follows Ma Li (Chen He), a former motorbike champion turned motorcycle courier who crosses paths with a French thief (David Belle) who stole a priceless ancient Egyptian Bastet statue from a museum in Marseilles and had it smuggled to China in the luggage of an unsuspecting tourist (Xiao Yang). The chief of security of that museum (Song Ji-hyo) is on his trail and must enlist the help of Ma Li to find and reclaim the artifact. This hyperactive – and thus thankfully short – action comedy is powered by Chen He’s relentless and sometimes overbearing comic energy (Chen tends to be much more palatable as a supporting actor, like in Detective Chinatown where he was a lot of fun) and has a few delightful set pieces, including a hilarious scene where the courier makes his way through a narrow alleyway while dodging the various projectiles its irate inhabitants throw at him. Song Ji-hyo is a delightfully spunky and sexy foil to Chen, while Parkour founder David Belle works some of his magic: though the film doesn’t give anything too spectacular to do, he can still work his way through the heights of a building complex or a busy street with feline ease. The film becomes a bit of a chore past the one hour mark, however, as shenanigans keep piling up to tiring effect, and the film’s spectacle reach exceeds its budget grasp: a speedboat’s jump over a bridge is rendered in CGI so rudimentary one wonders why they didn’t just delete that scene. **1/2

THE APOSTLES (2014) short review

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Joe Chien’s The Apostles tells of Lu Yun (Josie Ho), a novelist who after a car accident has been suffering from nightmares and short-term memory loss. After her husband dies in plane crash, she is contacted by Hab Bin (Xia Fan), a man whose girlfriend also died in that crash, and who found a cellphone belonging to Lu Yun’s husband in her remains. Realizing their respective partners were having an affair and were planning to go to a mysterious desolate town called X, Lu Yun and Hab Bin decide to head for that town in search of answers. Mixing elements from the Silent Hill games and films (a haunting phantom town), Christopher Nolan’s Memento (investigating a spouse’s death while coping with memory loss) and Sidney Pollack’s Random Hearts (a man and a woman brought together by the infidelity and tragic death of their respective spouses), The Apostles starts out in fairly derivative fashion, but nevertheless manages to gather tension and atmosphere, especially thanks to effective and haunting nightmare sequences, unsettling situations and the excellent Josie Ho’s affecting performance. Then just as it seems the film is fading out into the usual cognitive shortcuts (show mysterious images then explain them away as figments of the lead character’s imagination), it starts unraveling a final revelation so narratively and visually bold that it deserves quite a bit of admiration. For in daring to so strikingly and assuredly jump the shark, The Apostles rises well above most of Chinese horror. ***

CALL OF HEROES (2016) review

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One of our most anticipated films of 2016, Call of Heroes is a neo-western set in China during the Warlords era (beginning of the 20th century). Blood-thirsty, demented Commander Cao (Louis Koo), son of Warlord Cao (Sammo Hung) rides into the village of Pucheng, where he kills three people at random. He’s arrested by sheriff Yang (Lau Chin Wan) and sentenced to death, but his second-in-command Zhang (Wu Jing) soon arrives, issuing an ultimatum to the people of Pucheng: to release Cao or to be massacred. But Sheriff Yang stands by his verdict, helped in the face of growing adversity by a wandering swordsman (Eddie Peng), who once was Zhang’s comrade-in-arms.

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THE WARRIORS GATE (2016) review

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A major co-production between China and France, The Warriors Gate is the brainchild of Luc Besson, who in addition to producing it, co-wrote it with his The Fifth Element/Kiss of the Dragon/Taken/The Transporter partner Robert Mark Kamen. It follows Jack (Uriah Shelton), a stereotypical American geek who shares his time between video games, biking and being bullied by the jocks in his class. His father is out of the picture and his sweet mother (Sienna Guillory) can’t quite make ends meet, so they might have to move out of their house if she can’t make a payment soon. His only friends are an obese fellow geek who calls himself the “octoman” and Chang, a Chinese shopkeeper who employs him from time to time. One day, the latter gives an ancient Chinese box to Jack, who starts using it as a container for his dirty laundry. But one night, a princess named Su Lin (Ni Ni) and her bodyguard Zhao (Mark Chao) emerge from that box, right into his bedroom. They come from Ancient China and are looking for the Black Knight, a fearless hero who is none other than Jack’s video game avatar. Despite the mix-up, Zhao leaves Su Lin in the custody of this scrawny teenager, until a few days later barbarians barge into the house through the same box and kidnap Su Lin. Jack is transported into Ancient China, where he’s welcomed by a zany wizard (Francis Ng) and reluctantly embarks on a quest with Zhao to rescue the princess from the hands of the barbarian king Arun (Dave Bautista).

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RAILROAD TIGERS (2016) review

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After the superb tragicomic elegy Little Big Soldier and the flawed but interesting single-setting thriller Police Story 2013, Ding Sheng has proven to be one of Jackie Chan’s most interesting collaborators, respectful of the myth but not a yes-man, and able to bring ambitious ideas to star vehicles. Now the two have reunited for a wartime adventure set in the winter of 1941, as Japan takes control of Southeast Asia, using the railways for military transportation and supply. Ma Yuan (Jackie Chan) is a railroad worker who doubles as a Robin Hood figure, using his knowledge of the railroad network to ambush, sabotage and steal supplies from the Japanese convoys to feed the Chinese people, assisted by a team of freedom fighters called the “Railroad Tigers” (including Huang Zitao and Jaycee Chan). One day they offer shelter to a wounded Chinese soldier (Darren Wang), who tells them of a bridge that has to be blown up to cut the Japanese army’s supply route and cripple its war effort. The Railroad Tigers, helped by a former sharp-shoother (Wang Kai) thus set out on their biggest and most dangerous mission yet, while Japanese officers Yamaguchi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi) and Yuko (Zhang Lanxin) try to stop them.

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HEARTFALL ARISES (2016) review

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A film as grandiose and nonsensical as its title, Ken Wu’s Heartfall Arises follows John Ma (Nicholas Tse), a police detective who killed a serial killer known as The General (Gao Weiguang), but got fatally wounded in the exchange of gunfire, and thus had to be transplanted with the heart of the very man he killed. Months later, it seems a copycat of The General is at work, and John Ma himself feels his new heart is affecting his behavior: he even has memories of a woman (a woefully underused Tong Liya) he never met. Now stop the copycat he must join forces with criminal psychologist Calvin Che (Lau Ching Wan), who himself happens to have been transplanted with The General’s liver! But then why isn’t the film called Liverfall Arising?

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S STORM (aka Z STORM 2) short review

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Two years after the modestly entertaining and modestly successful Z Storm, the valiant knights in tailored suits of the ICAC (Independent Commission Against Corruption) are back for a sequel, again directed by David Lam and headed by Louis Koo as William Luk, a character whose sole defining features – even after two films – are righteousness and handsomeness. This time, he has to collaborate with an (almost) equally handsome albeit more conflicted police inspector (Julian Cheung), as well as welcome a new team member (Ada Choi), to investigate the murder of a Jockey Club trader by a mysterious assassin (Vic Chou) and uncover a network of illegal bookmaking. S Storm has the pacing, tension and depth of an episode from a 90’s TV procedural (with much better production values, of course). And with only a forgettable gweilo, an underused Lo Hoi Pang and a barely glimpsed Sek Sau as its bad guys, it comes in a notch below the adequate Z Storm, which at least benefitted from delightfully scummy turns by Michael Wong and Lam Ka Tung. Here, Louis Koo appears bored out of his mind, occasionally emerging from his torpor to share a minor but pleasantly unforced chemistry with Julian Cheung, quite good as by far the most vivid character in the film. Ada Choi is there as a purely decorative device, while Vic Chou is the world’s least threatening hitman. And just like Z StormS Storm is peppered with dialogues that are actually slogans : hear Bowie Lam tell us “ICAC is not a job, it’s faith.” **