CHERRY RETURNS (2016) short review

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Twelve years after she was kidnapped and thought dead, Cherry Yuan (Cherry Ngan) is found in a basement after her kidnappers are killed in a police raid. She is reunited with her family but seems to be a shell of her former self, and seems to barely remember her close ones, who are all wracked with guilt: her father (a fine Chen Kuan Tai) called the cops – against the kidnappers’ indications – all those years ago, which led to her being thought dead; her mother (Josephine Koo), wasn’t watching over her on the fateful day when she was kidnapped; her sister (Song Jia) was always full of resentment against, for being more loved by the parents; and her uncle (Jason Pai Piao) clearly knows things. But as the family attempts to heal, a police detective (Gordon Lam) investigates the strange circumstances of her kidnapping and rescue, while a mysterious hooded figure (Hu Ge) appears to be stalking Cherry. Though visually bland and marred at key moments by ridiculous CGI ( one character’s fall from a skyscraper is quite comical), Chris Chow’s Cherry Returns is a nicely convoluted thriller that teases the audience with seemingly supernatural details and peels away layers of deceit at an enjoyable pace, ending with a startlingly somber conclusion. The cast is mostly solid, with a fiercely sympathetic Song Jia and a deftly ambiguous Cherry Ngan at its center, but most of the characters are either very thinly-defined (Gordon Lam struggles to make his stock police detective interesting) or given motivations that defy human logic or emotion (Hu Ge’s character is almost a parody unto itself), and so while the plot is sometimes cleverly constructed, it is difficult to care about it. **1/2

THE VILLAGE OF NO RETURN (2017) review

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During the first months after the fall of the Qing dynasty and the rise of the Republic of China, Shi Baopi (Eric Tsang), a rich man, is colluding with bandits known as the Cloud Clan to take control of Desire Village, an isolated hamlet which may hide a treasure. But Big Pie, his mole in the village, drops dead after eating a poisoned bun. His widow, Autumn (Shu Qi), is suspected to have killed him, as their marriage was not a happy one : she had been promised to her childhood love, the mayor’s son Ding (Tony Yang), but he vanished after going to the city to pass an exam. Now, just as Autumn is about to be subjected to the wrath of the townsfolk, despite the efforts in her defense of a newcomer to the village and self-professed martial arts master (Joseph Chang), a mysterious man named Fortune Tien (Wang Qianyuan) arrives on a luminous chariot, and presents to the bewildered villagers a strange contraption, the “Worry Rider”. It is a kind of metal helmet that allows for the removal of bad memories from anyone’s mind. Soon, Fortune Tien turns the whole village into happy idiots obeying his every command, and has them digging around for treasure, having made Autumn his wife. But the Cloud clan is still preparing to attack the village, and to complicate matters, Ding finally returns…
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KILLER’S ROMANCE (1990) review

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1990 saw the release of two competing – and loose – adaptations of Kazuo Koike’s manga Crying Freeman, which had ended its serialized run two years earlier in Japan. Clarence Fok’s Dragon from Russia, a cartoonish mess with a terribly miscast Sam Hui in the title-role, came out three months after Philip Ko’s Killer’s Romance but nevertheless won the box-office battle, grossing more than three times as much as Ko’s film. But Killer’s Romance is the superior film. In it, Simon Yam plays Nidaime, the son of a Japanese mobster who’s just been murdered by Chinese rivals (including Philip Ko, Lau Siu Ming and Jason Pai Piao). He rushes to London to get his revenge, but as he dispatching one of his targets, a young Chinese expatriate (Joey Wong) out to take photos witnesses him in the act. Now Nidaime must get rid of this loose end, but instead the killer and the witness fall in love. But soon it appears the killer has been double-crossed by his own side.

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BURY ME HIGH (1991) short review

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Tsui Siu Ming’s Bury Me High is an interesting mix of action and fantasy, along unusual lines, using feng shui as not just a plot point, but a full-blown narrative stake. It concerns a burial ground in a mountainous region of a Asian banana republic, whose unique feng shui location guarantees immense wealth to those interred there. A corporate executive (Moon Lee), a feng shui scholar (Tsui Siu Ming) and a hacker (Chin Kar Lok, stretching belief as popular hero Wisely, who is said to have an IQ of 200) go in search of this location, but they have to contend with the republic’s cruel new dictator (Yuen Wah, quite superb), who covets the burial ground to strengthen his power and wealth; his sister (Sibelle Hu) is more conflicted. There’s a very enjoyable sweep and ambition to the film, unfolding against majestic Vietnamese locations, and lavishing special care on its action scenes, which are scarce for the first two thirds, but plentiful in the final 30 minutes. A night fight on a rickety bridge unfolds in the middle of a vast torch-bearing circle of soldiers, there’s a full-blown battle scene involving tanks, and Yuen Wah and Chin Kar Lok’s amazing agility makes their final fight a thing of beauty, especially when the great Moon Lee cuts in. It is a lopsided film that doesn’t engage until its final tier, and the feng shui stakes are often a bit abstruse, but the finale is worth the wait. **1/2

ANGEL OF VENGEANCE (1993) short review

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Liu Sung Pai’s Angel of Vengeance is two films rolled into one: a revenge thriller where Yukari Oshima looks for her sister with the help of Alex Fong and Alexander Lo Rei, only to find she’s been sold to a brothel by a mob boss played by an unhinged Chung Fat; and a rapesploitation drama in which a student writing a thesis on “love and lust” decides to research life in a brothel (operated by her mother) by dressing up (unconvincingly, of course) as a man. The two subplots are connected by the fact that Yukari’s sister has been sold to the same brothel that the student is trying to infiltrate. Unfortunately, the revenge subplot, which opens the film with two excellent fights where the Japanese action queen fights off a dozen henchmen, and closes it with a ridiculous but entertaining action finale where Chung Fat and his formidable blind henchwoman (played by Tu Kei Hua) start flying and moving at the speed of light and Alex Fong pulls a bow and arrow out of nowhere (in what has been, so far, a grounded and realistic film) only gets a third of the film’s runtime, with the rest spent on the implausible and exploitative ‘brothel research’ subplot. And there it’s a series of gratuitous rape scenes, scored sometimes with jaunty music, other times with melodramatic music, and other times yet with horror music. What an ugly little film. *

DEVIL HUNTERS (aka ULTRA FORCE 2) (1989) review

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Released just a few months after Killer Angels, Devil Hunters was also directed by Tony Liu and was in some places released as a sequel to that film (under the risible title Ultra Force). Of course, there are no narrative connections between the two films, as Devil Hunters follows a vicious gangster (Francis Ng) who will stop at nothing to find his boss’s stash of diamonds. But on his way are policemen (Alex Man and Sibelle Hu), as well as his boss’s daughter (Moon Lee) and former second-in-command (Michael Chan Wai Man), now gone good. It’s a slightly uninvolving plot, that valiantly tries to create surprises in a genre that rarely contained any, narratively speaking. But it ends up feeling muddled, despite Tony Liu’s usual above-average attention to characters and drama: Michael Chan is touching as a reformed gangster inevitably drawn back to violence, while Sibelle Hu and Alex Man have an interesting – if under-developped – tough love relationship.

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KILLER ANGELS (aka ULTRA FORCE 1) (1989) short review

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In Tony Liu’s Killer Angels, Moon Lee plays an agent from a crime unit known as the “Blue Angels” (how original), who goes undercover at a night club whose owner (Leung Kar Yan) may be a human trafficker. We won’t delve much more into the plot, which is a half-hearted excuse for a series of full-blooded action scenes. Indeed, this is a rock-solid Girls with Guns actioner, with good pacing and excellent action directing from Chui Fat, and a few interesting touches. For instance, an unexpectedly touching romantic subplot in which Gordon Liu’s cold and efficient hitman falls in love with Moon Lee, much to the chagrin his colleague played by Fujimi Nadeki, an underrated and often underused action actress who here gets to shine as a spiteful and deadly mob enforcer. There’s also a terrific scene where Moon Lee sings and dances to Chai Li’s song “Betray”, in a fetching leather outfit. More than mere fan service, it’s a reminder of what a well-rounded performer she was (well, is, but her last film was almost ten years ago). And there’s Yuen King Tan in only her second film, in a rare action role before being typecast as comic relief ; though a delightful scene where she beats up a sleaze-bag who’s called her “sex kitten” one time too many shows that her comedic chops are already there. And Leung Kar Yan has fun posturing as a charismatic mob boss, before revealing “unsuspected” martial arts proficiency during the spectacular finale. All in all, a real pleasure. ***

IRON ANGELS 3 (aka ANGEL 3) (1989) review

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In this third installment of Teresa Woo’s seminal Girls with Guns franchise, only Moon Lee, Alex Fong and Kharina Sa return from the previous film (with only the former two having starred in all three films) as the titular ‘Angels’, an elite task force that rids the world of assassins, dictators and terrorists. This time, Moon has to infiltrate a terrorist organization bent on starting a war between Thailand and Vietnam. She succeeds but has to leave her tracking device behind, so that Alex & Kharina, assisted by Thai agent Kwai (Ralph Chen) and a bony gweilo nicknamed Computer, are left running across Bangkok trying to locate her. It isn’t much of a plot, but that was never what the Iron Angels films were about. They were obviously about action, and in this respect this final film is easily the best of the bunch. The former two installments had stunning action, but lopsided structures by which they noodled around for an hour before exploding into non-stop action.

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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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