OPERATION RED SEA (2018) review

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Just under a year and a half after the success of Operation Mekong, Dante Lam is back with Operation Red Sea, another bombastic extrapolation on real events. This time, the evacuation in 2015 of nearly six hundred Chinese citizens from Yemen’s southern port of Aden during the Yemeni Civil War is spun into a hybrid of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun, also closely resembling Wu Jing’s immensely successful Wolf Warrior II with its unbridled patriotism, tank battles and extraction of endangered Chinese citizens in Africa (though it doesn’t count as a rip-off, as it was already done shooting when Wu Jing’s film came out). And so we follow the Jiaolong Assault Team, headed by Captain Yang (Zhang Yi) and operating with the naval support of Captain Gao Yun (Zhang Hanyu, perhaps as the twin brother of his Operation Mekong character Gao Gang?), as it ventures into war-torn Yemen to rescue Chinese citizens – including fearless journalist Xia Nan (Christina Hai) – and foil a terrorist plot to obtain nuclear materials.

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OPERATION MEKONG (2016) review

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In 2011, two Chinese commercial boats were attacked by Burmese pirates on the Mekong river, while passing through the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s biggest hotbeds of drug production, situated at the intersection of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Thirteen Chinese sailors were summarily executed at gunpoint then dumped in the river, while 900,000 methamphetamine pills were found on the scene of the killings. The following investigation and hunt for the man responsible for the massacre, a ruthless drug lord called Naw Khar, is the main narrative thrust of Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong, which follows a team of elite narcotics officers led by Captain Gao (Zhang Hanyu), joined by Fang (Eddie Peng), an intelligence officer who’s been operating in the Golden Triangle for a few years. They soon discover that the drugs were planted by Naw Khar on the Chinese ships, and endeavor to bring him to justice, at the price of many lives.

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An Interview with Composer Leon Ko

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Leon Ko Sai Tseung’s lineage seemed to predestine him to writing music for stage and film: the son of legendary Hong Kong actress Lucilla You Min – who won ‘Best Leading Actress’ at the first ever Golden Horse Awards – and the grandson of Cantonese Opera artist (and occasional silent film actor) Bak Yuk Tong, his career as a composer of Cantonese musicals has been rich in awards and popular acclaim, with all of his four creations, The Good Person of SzechwanThe Legend of the White SnakeField of Dreams and The Passage Beyond, having won best score at the Hong Kong Drama Awards. This, in addition to being a driving force in the recent revival of Cantonese Opera and an occasional musical director for Jacky Cheung’s  world tours. Ko’s works have travelled as far out of Hong Kong as London’s London’s Stratford East Theatre and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

That’s not even mentioning his career in film scoring, which is the topic of the following interview, and equally successful as his other musical ventures. After only eight film scores – for major directors like Peter Chan, Derek Yee or Dante Lam – Leon Ko is already a Golden Horse Award winner and a two-time Hong Kong Film Award winner, with four additional nominations. You can sample his work for film and stage at his website. You might be struck by Leon Ko’s versatility: there’s a world of difference between the atonal thrills of That Demon Within and the epic whimsy of Monster Hunt, or between the lyrical anguish of Dearest and the old-school playfulness of The Great Magician. Now as busy and in-demand as ever, he nevertheless graciously agreed to answer my questions.

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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

An Interview with Composer Henry Lai

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In the twenty year since his film music debut in 1994, Henry Lai Wan Man has secured a firm spot on the short A-list of Chinese film composers, next to fixtures like Chan Kwong Wing or Peter Kam. A four-time Hong Kong Film Awards nominee, his talents have been sought by some of the most high-profile directors in China and Hong Kong, including Dante Lam, Daniel Lee, Mabel Cheung, Alex Law, Gordon Chan, Felix Chong and Alan Mak. And rightly so : his scores show a great versatility, an ability to adapt to different genres and to integrate illustrious musical influences (Ennio Morricone, John Barry, Hans Zimmer…) while never forsaking his own style.

For a primer of Henry Lai’s talents you can listen to his rousing, heroic theme for 14 Blades, the wistful and folkloric “Paddy Field Song” from The Lost Bladesmanthe heartbreaking lament for Nick Cheung’s character in The Beast Stalker, the driving investigation theme from The Four, the triumphant Russian-flavoured training music in Star Runner, the tense, pulsating action music from The Sniper, the touching, delicate score for Echoes of the Rainbow, the Morricone-inspired music in A Fighter’s Blues, the ominous main titles cue from Fire of Conscience, the gripping percussive music (one of Lai’s specialties) of White Vengeance, or the gloriously epic main theme of Three Kingdoms : Resurrection of the Dragon.

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HEAT TEAM (2004) short review

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Dante Lam’s Heat Team is an action-comedy based solely on the passable chemistry between Aaron Kwok and Eason Chan, with the plot a vaguely convoluted afterthought, and the runtime already overlong at 95 minutes. The film follows two Interpol agents – one righteous and earnest (Kwok), the other a smarmy womanizer (Chan) – as they track down a jewel thief. Well, that’s the through line at least. There are countless digressions as the two cops bicker and flirt with their attractive colleague (Yumiko Cheng), indulge in dick-measuring contests (like determining who’s the best shooter with a paintball match in the office, or who can eat the spiciest), try to ingratiate themselves with their chief (an amusingly self-deprecating Danny Lee), and at some point, come very close to french-kissing each other. Even the investigation is actually more of a random series of encounters, the most memorable being a hilarious Hui Shiu-Hung cameo. It’s a frustratingly unfocused film that’s rarely as cool or as funny as it seems to think, with a sprinkling of action scenes that are average at best. Truly not the excellent Dante Lam’s proudest hour. **

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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