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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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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