WINE WAR (2017) review

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Leon Lai’s second film as a director, Wine War follows two friends who grew up together in an orphanage, Wei Li (Leon Lai) and Zhang Shui (Zhang Hanyu). While the former was adopted by a wealthy Frenchman and now lives an opulent and carefree life as a wine expert in France, the latter stayed in China where he’s now a cop. One day, out of the blue after they’ve lost contact for a while, Zhang Shui calls Wei Li and tells him he’s coming to France and needs his help bidding at the auction of a priceless bottle of wine from the 19th century, made from a secret recipe brought to Europe by a Chinese wine-maker of the Yuan dynasty. The auction is organized by LK (Nan Fulong) and his half-sister Li Fang (Du Juan), the last in a Mongol-Chinese lineage established in France, at their chateau in the Pays de la Loire. But as Zhang Shui arrives in France and is reunited with his childhood friend, it soon appears that there are hidden agendas, and that no one is who they say they are, especially not Fang Changfang (David Wang), one of the other potential buyers.

Wine War is one of those numbing capers that are so keen to revel in their classy locations and luxurious interiors, so eager to lay on the double-crosses and “clever” twists, and so oblivious to the need for chemistry between its main players, that even with a short runtime they feel unending. There’s an interesting core idea here: a glamorous wine auction that hides a dark revenge plot. But Lai (who also co-wrote) obviously wants every single plot point to be a twist in itself, and so he makes the narrative as convoluted as possible, with constant flashbacks and intermittent voice-over, creating instead a sense of confusion. Some subplots – like the divorce of Zhang Hanyu’s character – are so under-developed that it’s unclear whether they are weak red herrings or simply bad writing (which arguably boils down to the same). Double-crosses are constant and increasingly listless, all resolved in a final action scene at a train station and then aboard a moving train that’s an absolute drag, with no sense of pacing, overindulgent slow-motion and eye-gouging green-screen work.

The bromantic triangle between Leon Lai, Zhang Hanyu and David Wang is also a potentially fine central dynamic, all the more so as Du Juan is quickly sidelined and gives one of her customary cold and inert performances. But Leon Lai, who had been making progress as an actor recently, reverts back to his bland mode, playing an empty role with an added sheen of vanity (he’s introduced naked, in case you’ve been hoping to see his butt crack). He’s not believable one second as the childhood friend of Zhang Hanyu, who gives a more vivid performance, poking fun at his trademark stoic roles, and actually shares more chemistry with a solidly smarmy David Wang. Mark Lui’s music, in addition to very loud songs oddly tracked in seemingly at random, only helps make the film more stodgy.

Long Story Short: Despite an interesting central idea, Wine War is a vain, convoluted and chemistry-free caper. *

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