CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON: SWORD OF DESTINY (2016) review

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Making a sequel to Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon always seemed both natural and foolish, audacious and misguided. The 2001 film was adapted from one in a series of novels by Wang Du Lu, thus lending itself naturally to follow-ups; but it was so acclaimed that it made for a tough act to follow. There was then a interesting challenge to shooting a second film, but at the same time the absence of Ang Lee or someone with a similarly strong vision at the helm did not bode well, Yuen Woo Ping having always been hit-and-miss as a director. The film’s production was troubled, its release pattern controversial (it premiered on Netflix in the West, prompting many IMAX chains to refuse to screen it in the US), and its English soundtrack head-scratching. But those factors weren’t in and of themselves indicative of failure, especially with so much talent behind and in front of the camera.

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CRYSTAL HUNT (1991) short review

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Shot in Thailand and probably back-to-back with 1992’s Cheetah on Fire which has the same cast and crew, Hsu Hsia’s Crystal Hunt opens on a short and brisk action scene featuring Leung Kar Yan and Gordon Liu (who do not appear again afterwards) that has nothing to do with the plot and serves only to pad out the film’s short runtime. Which tells you everything you need to know about its ambitions. Carrie Ng is the daughter of a terminally ill businessman, whose last hope is a legendary healing crystal hidden deep in the Thai jungle. With her boyfriend (Ken Lo), she tasks a scientist (director Hsu Hsia) with finding the crystal. But the scientist is apprehended by a team of mercenaries (headed by Donnie Yen’s gweilo collaborators John Salvitti and Michael Woods), and soon his daughter (Fujimi Nadeki) goes looking for him with the help of two cops (Donnie Yen and Sibelle Hu). Despite an impressive lack of narrative competency, Crystal Hunt is never boring thanks to a healthy serving of action choreographed with budget-defying skill by Donnie Yen’s team. And everybody in the cast is playing within their comfort zone : Carrie Ng is domineering and slightly insidious, Donnie is badass and a bit puerile, Sibelle Hu is a cute woman of action, Ken Lo is a tool who kicks high… It’s all quite familiar and comforting, if mediocre and unchallenging. **1/2

AN INSPECTOR CALLS (2015) review

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Considered a true classic of 20th-century English theatre, J.B. Priestley’s three-act play An Inspector Calls has been brought to the stage countless times since it was first performed in 1945, and it’s been a fixture of the BBC’s TV and radio programming (with yet another mini-series in preparation for 2015, starring David Thewlis) but it has comparatively been the object of few big screen adaptations. In fact, Raymond Wong and Herman Yau’s film is the first time the play is adapted for theatrical release since Guy Hamilton’s (of Goldfinger fame) 1954 adaptation. And surely it’s the most unexpected iteration of the story since the 1979 Soviet mini-series Inspector Gull. Screenwriter Edmond Wong transposes the setting from the North Midlands of Great Britain in 1912 to Hong Kong in 2015, but follows J.B. Priestley’s narrative pretty closely : the mysterious inspector Karl (Louis Koo) pays an unexpected visit to the rich Kau family’s estate. Mr. and Mrs. Kau (Eric Tsang and Teresa Mo) are in the final preparations for their daughter Sherry’s (Karena Ng) engagement party as she is soon to marry a handsome young businessman Johnny (Hans Zhang), while their son Tim (Gordon Lam) looks on in contemptuous bemusement, and clearly annoyed at his own girlfriend, socialite Yvonne (Ada Liu Yan). Inspector Karl informs them that a young woman (Chrissie Chau) from Mr. Kau’s factory has been found dead from what appears to be a painful, protracted suicide by disinfectant ingestion. As he starts to interrogate each member of the family in turn, it appears everyone of them was linked to the deceased woman, and everyone may have played a more or less active role in her eventual demise.

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CIRCUS KIDS (1994) short review

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Wu Ma’s last film as a director (though he kept on appearing in films for twenty more years), Circus Kids stands out simply by being the only time – so far – that martial arts greats Yuen Biao and Donnie Yen have been in the same film. Both were about to experience a unfortunate career wane in the second half of the nineties, and indeed Circus Kids is not up to their talent. It follows the various misfortunes of a circus troupe (led by Wu Ma himself and including Yuen Biao) during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai around 1910. Forced to move and take up jobs at a factory when their tent is destroyed in a Japanese bombing, they are thrust in the middle of political machinations and opium trafficking, but find an ally in a constable (Donnie Yen) who has feelings for the troupe’s trapeze artist (Irene Wan). Much of the goings-on in Circus Kids are tedious, thinly-written melodrama, which coupled with the film’s short running time and fairly low budget, don’t allow it to develop any kind of epic sweep or even dramatic poignancy. It is also fairly light on martial arts, with Donnie Yen and Yuen Biao only trading blows for a few seconds. Still the film’s stunning final fight, which sees Yuen take on fearful kicker Ken Lo (who the same year fought Jackie Chan in Drunken Master 2‘s unforgettable finale), is worth the wait, and a welcome relief from the mediocrity that precedes it. **

KUNG FU JUNGLE (aka KUNG FU KILLER) (2014) review

Kungfu Jungle Official Poster Ever since his excellent turn in Peter Chan’s superb Wu Xia in 2011, martial arts spearhead Donnie Yen’s career had been a bit underwhelming, with films either overdosing on special effects (The Monkey King), lacking in any kind of script to tie the amazing fight scenes together (Special ID), getting lost in juvenile comedy (The Iceman 3D) or worse, casting him as a romantic leading man named ‘Cool Sir’ (Together). Kung Fu Jungle, as I’m happy to report, is a definite step up in quality. Donnie is Hahou Mo, a martial arts master who is first seen surrendering himself to the police after killing another master (a barely glimpsed Bey Logan). Three years later he’s peacefully nearing the end of his sentence but a TV report of the murder of a Kung Fu master sends him in a frenzy to contract the inspector in charge of the investigation (Charlie Yeung). He understands the motives of the killer, a demented fighter (Wang Baoqiang) who overcame a leg defect and is challenging all the greatest masters, to the death. But when Hahou Mo is allowed to get out of prison and assist the inspector, it becomes obvious that he has a hidden agenda, part of which involves his girlfriend (Michelle Bai Bing).

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ASIAN COP : HIGH VOLTAGE (1995) review

The second half of the nineties can in a way be considered Donnie Yen’s “dark period”; Yen had earned a reputation as a difficult actor to work with, and alienated himself from the Yuen clan, mainly his mentor Yuen Woo-Ping. Thus, he turned to TV (where he found success with the Fist Of Fury TV series), and to alternate Asian film industries, such as Taiwan or the Philippines. It is in the latter country that he shot Asian Cop : High Voltage (henceforward High Voltage), under the direction of Andrew Kam. In the film, Yen plays Chiang, a headstrong cop (just like he does in most of his contemporary-set films) who gets sent to the Philippines to ensure the safety of an important witness who is the only one who can testify against bla bla bla… There he is partnered with Edu (Edu Manzano), a by-the-book Filipino cop who doesn’t approve of his methods bla bla bla… But Chiang discovers that crazed gangster Dick (Roy Cheung) is involved in the whole affair, and you see, Dick killed Chiang’s wife. So Chiang, who was already a bit of loose cannon, in now an even looser cannon.

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BUTTERFLY & SWORD (1993) review

The synopsis for Butterfly & Sword says that the film is about “a loyalist (Michelle Yeoh) who attempts to keep the King’s empire from being overthrown by a revolutionary group.” It’s good to know, especially since you’d never guess that’s what it is about, even after watching the film itself. Still, circa 1993, a Hong Kong film with no discernable plot was not an unusual thing to say the least, and the idea of a film starring not only the magnificent Michelle Yeoh, but also martial arts god Donnie Yen and the actor’s actor that is known as Tony Leung Chiu Wai, should be enough to be lenient with the film’s narrative shortcomings. Well not really after all : Butterfly & Sword is simply too infuriating in its scattershot storytelling and slapdash action scenes.

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IN THE LINE OF DUTY 4 (1989) review

  The second of three urban action thrillers Yuen Woo-Ping and Donnie Yen collaborated on as director and star, In The Line Of Duty 4 is also, you guessed it, the fourth installment in a franchise that only has vague thematic continuity between its installments. The first two In The Line Of Duty films starred Michelle Yeoh and are also known as Yes Madam! and Royal Warriors. For the third film, Yeoh pulled out and was replaced with Cynthia Khan, who introduced the character of Rachel Yeung, which she reprises in this fourth film.

Cynthia Khan emerged as a replacement for Michelle Yeoh in the series and in Hong Kong cinema in general, after Yeoh went on an early and temporary retirement at the end of the eighties. She is just as beautiful and has the same tomboyish style as eighties Michelle Yeoh, but the difference is she is often replaced with an obvious stunt double in the trickier action scenes. Still, she is a charismatic and charming presence, and it’s a pity she vanished from the mainstream in the mid-nineties. Here she is paired with Donnie Yen (then at the beginning of his career and still a protégé of director Yuen Woo-Ping) and they play two cops investigating a drug-trafficking network with possibles international ties. They wind up having to take care of an innocent dock worker (Yuen Yat Chor) who witnessed a murder that is pivotal to the case, and questioning the loyalty of colleague Wong (Michael Wong), who might be playing both side.

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PAINTED SKIN (2008) review

Wang Sheng (Chen Kun) is a general who rescues a young woman named Xiao Wei (Zhou Xun) during a raid against desert bandits. Hearing that she is alone in the world he takes her as one of his household’s servants back home. But quickly after her arrival, people are found dead in the city, their hearts ripped off. Wang’s wife Peirong (Zhao Wei) suspects Xiao Wei, but the latter has won everyone over with a kindness. When Wang’s brother Pang Yong (Donnie Yen) comes back from a two-year absence, Peirong begs him to investigate the matter, which he does, with the help of Xia Bin (Sun Li), a young woman pretending to be a “demon-buster”. Adapted from Pu Songling’s short stories in Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, Gordon Chan’s Painted Skin was a big hit in Asia, as well as Hong Kong’s submission for the Foreign Language Film Oscar in 2008. But this latter bidd for worlwide recognition fell flat, and understandably so : Gordon Chan’s film is a ghost story, but one that follows conventions quite alien to western ones.

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TIGER CAGE 2 (1990) review

In the eighties, director and martial arts choreographing god Yuen Woo Ping was trying to push forward in the limelight one of his most gifted disciples : one Zhen Zidan, best known as Donnie Yen. First Donnie Yen worked for Yuen as a stuntman, then the pair collaborated on three urban action films under the banner of the ill-fated D&B Films Company : Tiger Cage, In The Line Of Duty 4 and Tiger Cage 2. The latter only has a vague thematic kinship to Tiger Cage : it is not properly speaking a sequel, as Donnie Yen doesn’t even play the same character. Or does he ? The truth is in those late-eighties thrillers Yen always played more or less the same character : a tough, almost naively macho cop, with an almost childish incapability to properly communicate with women. Here he is surrounded with a fairly interesting cast including Shaw Brothers legend Lo Lieh, future Once Upon A Time In China star Rosamund Kwan, the highest-paid actress in Hong Kong (at the time) Carol “Do-Do” Cheung, as well as the Michelle Yeoh-wannabe Cynthia Khan and Robin Shou of Mortal Kombat fame.

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