THE HOUSE THAT NEVER DIES II (2017) review

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Three years after Raymond Yip’s The House that never dies became the highest-grossing Chinese horror film, comes this Gordon Chan-produced sequel, featuring a different cast and a new set of characters, but still taking place at N°81 Chanoei in Beijing, a famous mansion believed to be haunted. This time, engineer Song Teng (Julian Cheung) is working on restoring the old mansion, while neglecting his wife He (Mei Ting), a doctor. The couple has grown estranged following the stillbirth of their child five years before, and Song’s apparent reciprocal fondness for his assistant (Gillian Chung) isn’t helping matters. In an attempt to solidify their marriage, He moves in with her husband in the old house, but soon she is plagued by visions and nightmares, that appear to be memories of a past life: at the beginning of the 20th century, a general (Julian Cheung) who lived in this mansion had to marry the daughter (Gillian Chung) of a warlord, to solidify an alliance and to ensure he would have an heir, after his first wife (Mei Ting) failed to beget him one. But the general’s affections were still for his first wife, and his new bride proved barren as well. And deadly jealous.

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LOST MINDS (2016) short review

p2405533776Lynn Chen’s Lost Minds follows a couple (Jian RenZi and Andrew Lin) who has been unsuccessfully trying to have a child for a few years, and decides to resort to an old Chinese fertility ritual, that of the “primer”: to temporarily adopt a child, who will open the way for their own progeny. They adopt a quiet 7-year-old girl (Wang Yifei) at an orphanage whose supervisors (Hui Shiu Hung and Pat Ha) are obviously not telling them everything. The adopted child is silent, asocial and constantly draws disturbingly dark pictures of her previous family. It doesn’t help that her new mother is beset with strange visions that threaten her sanity. Like so many mediocre horror films, Lost Minds uses a lead character’s vacillating sanity as an excuse to bombard the audience with nightmare sequences and jump-scare visions that thus don’t need to be justified by the story (since, you know, the character’s sanity is vacillating). There are a few passable red herrings until the final twist – a demystifying one as always in China’s supernatural-free horror genre – brings the film to a thudding close, with belabored exposition and flashbacks, to make sure everyone understands the denouement. Very little tension and virtually no scares are mustered, though the unsettling white glow of the cinematography is rather effective and well-judged, and Jian RenZi’s performance is fairly affecting, while Wang Yifei is an excellent child actress whose alternating creepiness and cuteness are never forced. Andrew Lin sleepwalks through the film, Hui Shiu Hung is wasted in a rare serious role, and the great Pat Ha valiantly makes the best of her poorly-written role. *1/2

TO THE FORE (2015) short review

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Hong Kong’s puzzling submission to the 88th Academy Awards, Dante Lam To The Fore is no less puzzling as part of Dante Lam’s filmography. Sure, one can imagine the director wanting to recapture the success of his other sports film, 2013’s Unbeatable which already starred Eddie Peng, but that film had a cinegenic discipline, MMA, as well as emotion and compelling characters. To The Fore – previously rather hilariously known as Breaking Wind – has biking which is beautiful in tracking shots but quickly boring in close-up, empty melodrama consisting of a routine love-triangle and a checklist of sports-related woes like doping, a superiority complex, or a crippling handicap to overcome, and stock characters. Interesting nuggets, like Eddie Peng’s love-hate  relationship with his mother who abandoned him, and enjoyably bombastic cycling montages (given considerable momentum by ambitious camera-work, seamless stunt-work and Henry Lai’s grand score) are what keep this somewhat rote saga of competing cyclists afloat. It also helps that Eddie Peng (gifted but prideful), Choi Si-won (charismatic rival), Shawn Dou (always overshadowed), Wang Luodan (resilient, love-triangle fodder) and Andrew Lin (reliable coach) all inhabit their formatted characters with conviction. **1/2

INSIDE OR OUTSIDE (2016) review

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Directed by Gary Mak Wing Lun, whose filmography as an assistant-director is much more illustrious than his filmography as a director, Inside or Outside follows a pair of private detectives: Fei Xin (Simon Yam) is a cool, collected retired police sergeant and Qiu Le (Wallace Huo) is a hothead who got expelled from the police. One day, successful writer Nanfang (Rayza) calls on their services to follow her husband Ou Jian (Jang Hyuk), whom she suspects of having an affair. She’s just given birth, and Ou’s coldness to her and the baby makes her think he doesn’t love her and married her for her father’s money and business connections. It turns out Ou is infertile but hasn’t told his wife, and thus believes she cheated on him and the baby is from another man. To complicate matters, a man from his past resurfaces: Xie Tianyou, his former business partner, against whom he testified in a trial and who subsequently went to jail. Xie is actually a dead-ringer for Qiu Le (and thus also played by Wallace Huo), which complicates matters even furtherer.

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AMEERA (2014) short review

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Where to begin with a film like Xiao Xu’s Ameera. Or rather, how to end as quickly as possible. A deadening excuse for ogling would-be starlet Patricia Hu (whose only other notable film is the equally numbing Angel Warriors) as she essays an array of slinky “secret agent” outfits to fight a stock evil organization (headed by Andrew Lin and a cartoonish old cripple with hooks for hands) for which she finds out her boyfriend (Ambrose Hsu) is a double-agent. Along the way there’s talk of such things as “a micro laser device condensed from synthesized nanometers”, which wouldn’t be such a bad thing if the film didn’t take itself so very seriously, no mean feat considering it consists in eye-gouging CGI, fussy, weightless fights and endless moping sessions. Adding insult to injury, the film’s soundtrack is actually a collage of tracks from other, far more entertaining and satisfying films (music from the Bourne trilogy, The Expendables and Tony Scott’s Déjà Vu is heard repeatedly), and there are fleeting cameos by estimable martial arts actors Collin Chou and Leung Kar Yan, who could have alleviated the awfulness had they had more screen-time. 1/2*