LEAGUE OF GODS (2016) review

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Sometimes lazily and erroneously branded as a “Chinese X-Men”, a franchise with which it has very little in common beyond CGI and powers, Koan Hui’s League of Gods is actually much closer – in concept, story and visuals – to Alex Proyas’ Gods of Egypt, not that the marketing team would want to play that particular angle, following the much-publicized flop of that film (which we actually liked, for all its faults). It’s set in a mythical ancient China ruled by the evil king Zhou (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and his consort Daji (Fan Bingbing), who’s actually a Nine-Tail Fox demon who pulls the strings on every one of his power-hungry moves. But Zhou is met with resistance from the kingdom of Xiqi, ruled by king Ji Chang (Zu Feng) and old strategist Jiang Ziya (Jet Li). The latter sends his protégé Lei Zhenzi (Jacky Heung), the last of a once-flourishing winged tribe, on a mission to retrieve the Sword of Light, which is the only weapon that can defeat the Black Dragon, the evil and powerful entity from which king Zhou draws his power. In his quest, Lei Zhenzi relies on the help of Ji Fa (Andy On), his childhood friend and the son of king Ji Chang, Nezha (Wen Zhang), a rambunctious warrior who alternatively appears as a baby and a grown man, and Erlangshen (Huang Xiaoming), a mysterious warrior with a truth-seeking third eye. Lei Zhenzi also meets Blue Butterfly (Angelababy) a whimsical young woman with whom he falls in love, but who’s actually a creation of Shengong Bao (Louis Koo), king Zhou’s chief general, who has orders to kill him and his companions.

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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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LOOKING FOR MR. PERFECT (2003) short review

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A rare light, glitzy and non-urban film in Ringo Lam’s distinguished filmography, Looking for Mr. Perfect tells of a young cop (Shu Qi) who’s been dreaming about the perfect boyfriend but is stuck with two awkward and clingy suitors (Raymond Wong Ho Yin and Godfrey Ngai). Things change when she follows her roommate (Isabel Chan) to Malaysia, where she meets her Hong Kong informer (Chapman To), a libidinous talent agent (Lam Suet), a flamboyant arms dealer (Simon Yam), a hapless mercenary (Hui Shiu Hung), as well as his hunky associate (Andy On), who may just be Mr. Perfect. Misunderstandings abound as the two young women get embroiled in the hunt for a prized missile guidance system. Sense and logic go out the window very early on in this overstuffed little action-comedy; Chapman To, Lam Suet and Hui Shiu Hung do their shtick pleasingly, Shu Qi, Isabel Chan and Andy On look very attractive, and Simon Yam steals the show as a tap-dancing, relentlessly finger-snapping villain. The film’s uneven and somewhat repetitive comedy gets compensated for by two very fun action set pieces choreographed by Nicky Li Chung Chi: one a spectacular jet-ski chase and the other a protracted finale starting with impressive motorbike stunts, powering on as Andy On and Simon Yam go at each other with a variety fruits (needless to say, durians come in contact with arses), and ending with a fun visual punchline involving a kite and a speedboat. Oh, and there’s giggling animated sunflowers, too. **1/2

THAT DEMON WITHIN (2014) review

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Reminiscent of a small wave of psychological thrillers that were released at the end of the nineties and beginning of the naughties (Ringo Lam’s Victim, Law Chi Leung’s Inner Senses and Double Tap come to mind), Dante Lam’s That Demon Within follows a troubled cop (Daniel Wu) who one night offers to give his O- type blood to save a severely wounded man (Nick Cheung), who turns out to be the leader of a vicious gang nicknamed the “Demons” because of their colourful demon masks and cruelty. Their paths are to cross again to disatrous consequences, as the cop start to struggle with deep-buried mental issues and violent urges while the robber locks horns with his double-crossing gang.

This is a tremendously confident film. Dante Lam, who has been on a critical and box-office roll for the past 6 years, makes superb use of every trick in the book to convey psychological torment and collapse : Patrick Tam’s editing is razor sharp, Kenny Tse’s photography is strikingly in-your-face (for instance, sudden red lighting signal Daniel Wu’s violent schizophrenic fits, a trick so obvious and literal it actually works perfectly), and Leon Ko’s masterful score is a bold and propulsive mix of tribal, electronic and orchestral influences, all geared towards maximum expressivity and drive.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN SHANGHAI (2014) review

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The sort-of real life story of Ma Wing Jing, a wholesome country boy with stunning fighting skills who comes to Shanghai to escape poverty, only to end up befriending a charismatic but shady mob boss and losing his soul in the process, has already been the subject of two high-profile films, Chang Cheh’s The Boxer from Shantung and Corey Yuen’s masterpiece, Hero. Though that kind of half-folk, half-historical tale is bound to reappear on film every two decades, one would not expect it to be, as Once Upon in Shanghai is, scripted and produced by gargantuan and insanely prolific money-grabber Wong Jing, while being directed by edgy, often pretentious arthouse darling Wong Ching Po. And yet here it is, starring young upstart Philip Ng in the Ma Wing Jing role and the underrated Andy On as the mob boss, with prestigious action directing by Yuen Woo Ping and Yuen Cheung Yan, and a sturdy supporting cast of legends : Sammo Hung as the benevolent master of the community Ma Wing Jing moves into, as well as Yuen Cheung Yan, Fung Hak On and Chen Kuan Tai as a trio of rival mobsters called the Axe Fraternity.

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ANGEL WARRIORS (2013) review

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A stunningly atrocious concoction from the brilliant mind who gave us Kung Fu Hip-hop, Angel Warriors is unfortunately less laugh-out-loud ridiculous than its plot synopsis might lead you to expect. Our heroes, as an ugly anime introduction makes it clear, are a group of five stunning women, all modern adventurers thirsting for new experiences : one is a company CEO (Yu Nan), one is an archeologist/polyglot, one is a wildlife protectionist, one is a dancer and a martial artist, and the last one is, we kid you not, the owner of an online shop for outdoors clothing. Real screenwriting gold right there. Their latest adventure is a trek inside the Kana Jungle, home of the Tiger tribe. Their guide is Sen (Shi Yanneng) a member of that tribe who doubles as the pidgin-English narrator of the film, bragging about how he’s going to marry soon and bringing the audience up to date anytime it is unclear what’s happening onscreen (that is, quite often). Also joining the girls are Wang (Collin Chou), a military friend of Yu Nan’s late brother, and a National Geographic team headed by Dennis (Andy On). But soon it transpires that it is not actually a National Geographic team, but a mercenary outfit on a search for the Tiger tribe’s precious jewels. All hell breaks loose as the girls and the mercenaries part ways and are both hunted down by the tribe.

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FATAL CONTACT (2006) review

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In 2005, after a few false starts, Wushu champion Jacky Wu Jing finally made a dent in Hong Kong cinema by playing Sammo Hung’s creepy, deadly henchman in the superlative S.P.L.. The following year he was given the second lead role of his young career by director Dennis Law, a former property developper who had produced Johnnie To’s Election diptych. Wu Jing plays Kong, a martial arts champion from China’s national Wushu team, who’s spotted by shady triad types led by Ma (Eddie Cheung Siu Fai) during a tour of performance in Hong Kong. As they offer him to fight for them in underground boxing matches, he initially refuses but ends up accepting when pushed by the lovely Siu Tin (Miki Yeung), who also offers to act as his agent. Assigned to assist them is Captain (Ronald Cheng), a down on his luck triad goon who’s also well-versed in martial arts and starts coaching the naïve Kong. The fact is that Kong is first and foremost a showman, and as he’s faced with opponents of escalading brutality, he must learn to tap into his beastly side, something that makes his rise in the underground boxing network akin to a descent into hell.

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MURAL (2011) review

After the huge success that was Painted Skin in 2008, Gordon Chan was back in 2011 with another fantasy film, which was financially almost as successful as his 2008 effort, though critically much less lauded. Deng Chao stars as Zhu, a scholar on his way to the capital with his servant Hou Xia (Bao Bei’er), to pass an exam. After an altercation with a robber, Meng Longtan (Collin Chou), they end up in a Taoist temple where they are welcomed by an affable monk (Eric Tsang). There, Zhu notices a mural depicting beautiful women in a heavenly landscape. When one of the beauties (Zheng Shuang) materializes in front of him, he follows her through a portal that leads to the heavenly landscape of the mural, which is peopled only with beautiful women, and ruled by a ruthless queen (Ni Yan), her trusted second-in-command Shaoyao (Betty Sun) and a mysterious golden warrior (Andy On). Soon, Hou Xia and Meng Longtan and dragged into this world as well, but Zhu has only one goal : to rescue Mudan, the woman who led him to this world and who has been cast to hell by the queen for it.

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STAR RUNNER (2003) review

  Bond (Vanness Wu) is a high-school student whose real passion is Muay Thai kickboxing, which he practices at a club headed by Lau (Gordon Liu). His ambition is to enter the prestigious Star Runner competition, and he devotes himself to that goal at the expense of his school work. Having to take Summer classes, he meets the young Korean teacher Mei Chiu (Kim Hyun-Joo), and soon enough they’re in love. But as his focus moves from training for the competition to romancing Mei Chiu, someone else is chosen by Lau to represent the club in the competition, and Bond is expelled for having resisted this decision. But not all is lost as Bill (Max Mok), a washed-out former martial arts champion, takes him under his wing and teaches him to incorporate elements from other martial arts into his muay Thai. Together they form a team and enter the Star Runner competition, with an eye on challenging Tank (Andy On), the reigning champion.

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THREE KINGDOMS: RESURRECTION OF THE DRAGON (2008) review

The Romance of the Three Kingdoms, the historical novel written by Luo Guanzhong in the 14th century and chronicling the years of constant warfare between kingdoms that marked the end of the Han Dinasty from 169 to 280, has always been the source of many films and TV series, most notably John Woo’s Red Cliff parts I & II, and a few months ago the Donnie Yen vehicle The Lost Bladesman. A sprawling epic, it provides a bonanza of characters, events and battles, which means filmmakers can always come back to the tried and tested Three Kingdoms source material, each time focusing on a different set of characters or a different chunk of the storyline.

Daniel Lee’s Three Kingdoms : Resurrection of the Dragon follows Zhao Zilong, one of the “Five Tiger Generals” of the Shu Kingdom. The film fashions itself as a biopic of sorts, but takes more than a few liberties with the source material, which itself is already semi-mythical. We follow Zhao Zilong (Andy Lau) from his enlisting in the Shu army, where he forms a long-standing friendship with Luo Ping An (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), to his becoming a general nicknamed “The Invincible”, to his heroic death during the Battle of the Phoenix Heights, where his outnumbered army was annihilated by Cao Ying’s (Maggie Q) Wei Army.

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