FOR A FEW BULLETS (2016) review

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With For a Few Bullets, writer and director Pan Anzi (who now goes by Peter Pan, believe it or not) returns to the genre of the zany Inner Mongolia-set period caper which he had already essayed with 2012’s Scheme with Me, starring Richie Ren. This time Pan had a bigger budget and larger stylistic ambitions. For a Few Bullets is set in the 1940s and tells of Chinese government agent Ruoyun (Zhang Jingchu) who teams up with con man Xiao Zhuang to recover a priceless imperial stamp that was found in a lost tomb by the Japanese army, whose leaders (including Kenneth Tsang) plan to use it in their bid to subjugate China. As they learn to trust – and even love – each other, race through the Gobi desert and deal with countless double-crosses, a dastardly Russian generals and a inhuman Japanese executioner, Ruoyun and Xiao Zhuang are helped by legendary hustler Shi Fu (Tenggeer) and his fiery wife San Niang (Liu Xiaoqing).

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MURDER AT HONEYMOON HOTEL (2016) short review

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A former assistant-director to Kim Ki-duk, director Jang Cheol-soo makes his Chinese-speaking debut with Murder at Honeymoon Hotel, about a luxury hotel that is the site of a series of variably grisly incidents. There’s a movie star (Zhang Jingchu), here to pay off a mysterious blackmailer who threatens to reveal a secret from her past, there’s a smarmy plastic surgeon (Peter Ho, who’s been on a overacting spree recently) in heavy debt to loan sharks, there’s a beautiful woman (Ni Hongjie) planning revenge on a client of the hotel, and in the middle is stuck a penniless bellboy (Kim Young-min) who’s getting married and hopes his boss will let him use the presidential suite for his honeymoon. Black comedies can seldom afford to be clumsy: this is a genre that requires real confidence and assured legerdemain. Murder at Honeymoon Hotel possesses the former but not the latter, marred as it is by sitcom-worthy acting and a surfeit of plot holes and unconvincing narrative turns. Still, this entertaining little film does have a a few deliciously twisted moments, and benefits greatly from the starry presence of Zhang Jingchu, whose unhinged, blazingly sexy femme fatale act enlivens the proceedings considerably. **1/2

ONE NIGHT ONLY (2016) review

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The directorial debut of Taiwanese actor Matt Wu (seen in Reign of Assassins and Sweet Alibis, among others), One Night Only stars Aaron Kwok as Gao Ye, a hopelessly compulsive gambler in heavy debt with ruthless loan sharks who are threatening to dismember him if he doesn’t pay up. Just after being submitted to a violent shakedown with an assorted ultimatum, he’s visited in his dingy hotel room by Momo (Yang Zishan), a prostitute he didn’t call for, but who insists on staying with him for forty minutes, lest her pimps think she’s not working hard enough. Having noticed Momo has a bundle of banknotes in her handbag, Gao Ye ensnares her into a gambling spree with the promise of profitable returns. Initially reluctant, she soon starts going along with it, and over the course of one long night, the two underdogs get into ever deeper trouble as they cross paths with an unhinged gambling rival (Andy On). They also grow closer to each other, slowly unraveling their most painful secrets.

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ANGEL FORCE (1991) short review

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The final film of Hua Shan, whose largely unremarkable filmography nevertheless includes one of the Shaw Brothers’ best Wu Xia Pian (the superb Soul of the Sword) and one of its craziest sci-fi films (Infra-man), Angel Force is not to be confused with Li Chao’s Mission of Condor, which came out the same year under the same title in some countries, and also featured Moon Lee and Fujimi Nadeki. The generic plot involves two cops (Moon Lee and Wilson Lam) and an army veteran (Hugo Ng) who get recruited to rescue an American hostage held in the Burmese jungle by a renegade general (Johnny Wang Lung Wei). After an uninvolving start and a few excruciatingly cheesy family scenes, Angel Force gets going and delivers efficient, briskly-paced jungle action (scored to Basil Poledouris’ The Hunt for Red October soundtrack), from a short but thunderous throwdown between Moon Lee and Fujimi Nadeki, to a tense and fairly exciting exfiltration scene that ends with a fight with the fearsome Johnny Wang Lung Wei and an impressive helicopter stunt. Then the film keeps going to wrap up its loose ends, losing steam and dropping a thudding, predictable twist on the audience. Still, Yuen Bun’s action is brutal and unfussy, and amid all the bland characters, Hugo Ng cuts a charismatic contrasted figure as tough, reliable vet with dark impulses. **1/2

CLOSE ESCAPE (1989) short review

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Tung (Michael Miu) is a cop whose cancer gives him only a few months to live. Determined to leave his younger brother Leung (Max Mok) with enough money to go study medicine in the United States, and unable to do so on his meager cop salary, he robs diamonds from smuggler Chiu (Dick Wei), who has him killed and has Leung framed for murder. The latter can then only count on the help of his cop friend Ben (Aaron Kwok) and Miko (Yukari Oshima), a mysterious Japanese journalist. Chow Jan Wing’s Close Escape was Aaron Kwok’s big screen debut, shot at a time when he was just a jobbing actor in TVB shows, and was just about to break out as a singer. It’s a competent but wholly routine Hong Kong thriller that spends too much time on its efficient but bland plot and some clunky melodrama, while keeping the fine, Philip Kwok-choreographed fighting to the final ten minutes. Still, the housebound finale is a delight, especially when Yukari Oshima and Dick Wei trade kicks with immaculate precision and unmistakable power. **

An Interview with Composer Chan Kwong Wing

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In the twenty-two years since the beginning of his film music career, Chan Kwong Wing (also known as Comfort Chan) has scored more than seventy films and won two Hong Kong Film Awards, not to mention fourteen additional nominations. A true mainstay of the Hong Kong film industry, he’s also been shepherding aspiring and fledgling composers through his music studio Click Music Ltd, as well as being the record producer of Ekin Cheng, Pakho Chau and Fiona Fung, to name but a few. Simply put, if you love Hong Kong and Chinese cinema, whether or not you know his name, you know his music.

Where to begin when sampling the superb creativity and versatility of one of the most prolific and talented composers in film music? The iconic, mournful elegy to Anthony Wong’s character in Infernal Affairs? The thumping, single-minded call to duty and danger of Infernal Affairs 2? The insidious whirls that accompany Andy Lau’s psychological downfall in of Infernal Affairs 3? For indeed, the Infernal Affairs could be considered Chan Kwong Wing’s masterpiece. Equally iconic is “Store The Sun“, the brutal yet ethereal piece that accompanies Donnie Yen and Wu Jing’s duel to the death in SPL, or the edgy electro and middle-eastern tones of the Flashpoint soundtrack. Some of his best work also includes Confession of Pain with its quietly heart-wrenching piano theme, the irrepressible bombast of Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen, the tragic sprawl of A Man Called Hero, the tense, anguished strings of Overheard, the grand melodrama of its sequel, or another one of his masterworks, the quirky and brooding Wu Xia (co-composed with Peter Kam and Chatchai Pongrapaphan). And that’s only scratching the surface.

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COLD WAR 2 (2016) review

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Four years after their directing debut Cold War became the top film of the year at the Hong Kong box-office as well as an awards magnet (8 HK Film Awards and 3 additional nominations), Sunny Luk and Longman Leung finally deliver on its final cliffhanger: after implementing operation ‘Cold War’ to rescue five police officers that had been hijacked with their armored van, and arresting Joe Lee (Eddie Peng), the main suspect and the son of Deputy Police Commissioner M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka Fai), newly promoted Police Commissioner Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) is contacted by mysterious masked men who have just kidnapped his wife, and want to switch her for Joe Lee. Putting his career at stake, Lau agrees on the terms, but the exchange takes a disastrous turn when a bomb goes off in a subway station where he’s escorting the handcuffed suspect. The latter is freed by an accomplice, and while Lau’s wife is rescued mostly unscathed, the whole incident draws judiciary scrutiny on the beleaguered commissioner, who is believed to have abused power. Part of the jury in an impeachment proceeding against Lau is Oswald Kan (Chow Yun Fat), a retired high court judge and independent member of the judicial council, who is being courted by a consortium of high-ranking officials conspiring to control the whole system, and whose ranks the soon-to-be retired M.B. Lee seems to have joined…

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An Interview with Composer Xavier Jamaux

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A seminal figure of ‘French house’ music, Xavier Jamaux has been building an excitingly eclectic, quietly international and refreshingly unplanned career for twenty years. And he speaks of this career with a sparkle in his eye and unassuming enthusiasm more befitting a passionate music student than an artist of his stature. One of the strings to his bow is film music: in France, but more notably – at least for us – in Hong Kong, where he’s been a prized collaborator of Johnnie To’s production company Milkyway Image for almost a decade, also working with Soi Cheang and Wai Ka Fai in the process. From 2007’s Mad Detective to this year’s Three, his eight Hong Kong scores have brought an unmistakable yet versatile French touch to the poetic gunplay, psychological webs and/or romantic ballets of Milkyway Image’s films. Having just released an addictive compilation of his film music works – aptly titled Music for Films – the man who is also known as Bangbang graciously agreed to meet Asian Film Strike for an overview of his Hong Kong career.

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THREE (2016) review

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Sixteen years after Help!!!, Johnnie To is back within the confines of a hospital, this time to tell the story of a brain surgeon (Zhao Wei) who is reeling with guilt after committing two medical mistakes that cost one patient his mobility and another his consciousness. And things are not getting better, as a cop (Louis Koo) and his squad barge into her medical unit with a wounded criminal (Wallace Chung). There’s a bullet in his head but he’s still conscious and full of calculated sardonic playfulness. It soon appears that he was shot in the head while unarmed, during a violent interrogation where he was threatened and roughed up, until one the cops’ gun went off by accident. Thus the cop is walking on eggshells as he needs to both cover his squad and get information from the criminal in order to stop his accomplices, who are still on a robbery spree in Hong Kong. This puts him at odds with the brain surgeon, who is not ready to lose another patient, whether he be a ruthless gangster or not.

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NEW YORK NEW YORK (2016) short review

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The first film of cinematographer Luo Dong, New York New York was produced by Stanley Kwan and is set in the early-nineties; it tells of the on-again, off-again love between the ambitious head bellboy (Ethan Juan) of a luxury hotel in Shanghai and an equally ambitious young woman (Du Juan), as they cross paths with a shady businessman (Michael Miu) who has plans to start a luxury hotel in New York. It’s hard to be more specific about the film’s plot, because while it’s always quite clear, it’s also spectacularly vacuous and free of tension or emotion. The film always looks pretty, sometimes even quite stylish in its nightly, neon-lit scenes, but it is a relentlessly boring affair, following bland, unlikable characters as they struggle to take uninteresting decisions and carry around ill-defined and uninvolving emotional baggage. Countless forgettable subplots fill out the film, with an occasional voice-over narration laboring to give some sort of tragic sweep to what unfolds languidly onscreen. Ethan Juan and Du Juan make for a strikingly bland couple, their complete lack of charisma or chemistry as actors adding insult to the injury of their poorly-written characters: the former is only remarkable for the stupidity of his decisions (and lack thereof), while the latter is a dead-eyed combination of affected coldness and risible emotional brittleness – there’s an unwittingly hilarious scene where a shrewish rival throws her drink in her face, and she reacts by quaking like the shell-shocked victim of a terrorist attack. What little weight the film possesses is down to veterans Michael Miu and Cecilia Yip, whose strong presence is constantly wasted in favor of the tedious leads. *1/2