ON HIS MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (2009) short review

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Wong Jing’s On His Majesty’s Secret Service is as narratively unfocused and packed with non-sequitur scenes as any of the rotund Hong Kong film kingpin’s comedies, but here is the gist of its ‘plot’: an Imperial Guard (Louis Koo) with no martial arts skills but a gift for scientific innovation becomes embroiled both in his fiancée’s (Barbie Hsu) plot to make him love her more by pretending she’s in love with a handsome hitman who’s actually a beautiful hitwoman (Liu Yang), and in an evil eunuch’s (Fan Siu Wong) plot to overthrow the emperor (Liu Yiwei), who is organizing a competition to find a worthy husband for his daughter (Song Jia). Apart from lavish costumes and sets, the direction is lazy and uninspired, while the humor consists of constant and lazy pratfalls, obvious pop-culture references (some are even delivered while literally winking at the camera), some inscrutable (for non-Cantonese speakers) wordplay and a cornucopia of blissfully unhinged comedic acting: Louis Koo is a broad delight, Fan Siu Wong steals all his scenes with his ‘dainty evil’ act, Song Jia shows effortless comedic skills, and while Barbie Hsu’s silliness feels more forced and Sandra Ng seems on autopilot, Tong Dawei and Liu Yang provide fine serious support, the latter being particularly charismatic as a cross-dressing assassin. All in all, it’s a harmless and often amusing comedy which could have stood out more if its numerous action scenes had been choreographed and directed with more verve. **1/2

BOUNTY HUNTERS (2016) short review

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An action film so airy, glitzy and inconsequential it makes its director Shinterra look like the long-lost twin of Jingle Ma (Tokyo Raiders, Seoul Raiders…), Bounty Hunters stars the impossibly smarmy duo of Wallace Chung and Lee Min-ho as ex-Interpol agents now working as bodyguards-for-hire, who get framed for the bombing of a hotel and join forces with a trio of bounty hunters (Tiffany Tang, Karena Ng and Fan Siu Wong) to clear their names and find the real perpetrator. What follows is a half-hearted series of passable chase scenes, amusing fight scenes where Lee Min-ho and Tiffany Tang just flail around while stuntmen take exaggerated back-flip falls, cringe-worthy comic relief by Wallace Chung, valiant attempts at quirky cuteness by Karena Ng, and a whole lot of luxury porn. Lee and Chung have next to no chemistry and often look like the result of a half-assed cloning experiment, while Tiffany Tang makes a bid for the title of “Chinese Megan Fox” (make of that what you will). The bad guy, as played by Jeremy Jones (aka Izz Xu, aka Jeremy Xu, aka Xu Zheng Xi, aka Jones Xu, aka A Xi), is a hilariously non-threatening, preening man-child with an orange hairdo and a shorts suit. Fan Siu Wong, the only actual martial artist in the cast, is given no fighting whatsoever, but is a breath of fresh air, providing unforced comic relief that makes good use of his self-deprecating charm. He’s like a fresh pebble in a sea of sticky glitter. *1/2

KUNG FU FIGHTER (2007) short review

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Featuring the same sets, costumes and many of the same cast-members as Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, but only a quarter of its budget and a tenth of its creativeness, Yip Wing-Kin’s Kung Fu Fighter also borrows heavily from the Ma Wing Jing story, as told in the Shaw Brothers film Boxer from Shantung (1972) and Corey Yuen’s Hero (1997). Thus we follow a young country bumpkin (a vacant-eyed Vanness Wu) who comes to Shanghai in search of his father and ends up falling for a beautiful cabaret singer (Emme Wong), getting entangled in a turf war between mob bosses (Chan Kwok Kwan and Tin Kai Man), getting himself a portly sidekick (Lam Chi Chung) and meeting a kind master (an endearing Bruce Leung) who may know a thing or two about his father. It’s a puzzlingly half-baked film, in which some interesting visual flourishes and good choreography (by Fan Siu Wong) get undermined by a complete lack of focus and dramatic momentum and an excess of cartoonish visual trickery, again aping Stephen Chow’s film. The final fight scene is actually quite enjoyable, as Fan Siu Wong injects some charisma into the film by popping up as a dangerous grandmaster, and up-and-comer Max Zhang gets a good staff fight. But it’s not enough to prevent cartoonish surfeit and half-baked drama from dooming the film to mediocrity. *1/2

THE MASTER STRIKES BACK (1985) review

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Part of the Shaw Brothers’ last batch of films before it ceased big screen productions at the end of 1985, The Master Strikes Back was directed by Sun Chung, who gave the legendary studio some of its most memorable and/or masterful films, like The Drug Connection (1976) and its transposition of Blaxploitation tropes to Hong Kong cinema, The Kung Fu Instructor (1979) and its then-unprecedented use of steadycam to film fights, the unhinged cult horror film Human Lanterns (1982) and more importantly The Avenging Eagle (1978), one of the jewels in the Shaw Brothers crown. Here Ti Lung plays Tong Tie-Cheng, a military instructor (closely resembling his Kung Fu Instructor character) who arrives in a town with his son (Fan Siu Wong) to help an old friend (Ku Feng) whip the soldiers of his garrison back into shape. The town’s main source of business is its brothel, where the soldiers have taken the habit of spending their nights. Tong starts submitting them to a harsh training and forbids them to indulge in whoring. But while it earns him their respect, at first begrudging then undivided, it also threatens to put the brothel out of business, and thus makes him a nightmare for the town’s corrupt chief constable (Michael Chan Wai Man), who co-owns it. Soon Tong becomes the target of increasingly brutal machinations, including a insidious plot to have his son castrated to become a eunuch. At first reluctant to start a fight, the master is inexorably pushed to the edge.

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STONE AGE WARRIORS (1991) short review

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Stone Age Warriors was Stanley Tong’s first solo directing effort after co-directing Iron Angels 2 and 3, and before becoming one of Jackie Chan’s most frequent collaborators. It doesn’t feature one single warrior from the Stone Age, but rather tribesmen from the New Guinea Jungle. Admittedly, New Guinea Jungle Tribesmen just can’t compete with Stone Age Warriors when it comes to catchy titles. Elaine Lui plays a Japanese movie star whose father, a wealthy businessman, has gone missing in said jungle. With the help of her father’s insurance representative who also happens to be his girlfriend (Nina Li Chi) and an indigenous guide (Fan Siu Wong) she ventures deep into the jungle, where the only thing more dangerous than the wildlife are the drug smugglers. For an hour or so, Stone Age Warriors is a brisk, harmless and uninspired jungle adventure, as Elaine Lui and Nina Li Chi (who have good chemistry) run afoul of spiders, snakes, Komodo dragons and cannibals, a subplot that doesn’t actually veer into gore. After which, similar to Iron Angels 2, Stone Age Warriors explodes into a big jungle action scene that makes great use of Fan Siu Wong’s remarkable fighting abilities. **1/2

PAY BACK (2013) review

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A Mainland Chinese production starring mostly Hong Kong actors and with the kind of urban, contained storyline you might expect from a Milkyway Image production (which it isn’t), Fu Xi’s Pay Back – also known under the equally generic but much clumsier title Hunting Enemies- is an often puzzling film. Its plot is nothing new, but has a potential for grit and poignancy. It concerns Yang Yan (Francis Ng), a taxi driver bent on getting revenge for the rape of his daughter (Chen Yirong), that led to her suicide and his wife’s (Cynthia Khan) subsequent fatal seizure. His main target is Zhang Jin (Fan Siu-Wong) a triad henchman with father issues, who it turns out is innocent but took the fall for his boss Borther Hai (Chang Cheng). Zhang Jin aims to make amends and clean up his life, and out of guilt (he didn’t commit the rape but did witness it without doing anything to prevent it) he helps Yang Yan in his quest for revenge, all the while trying to dissuade him from taking the violent way out.

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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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WU DANG (2012) short review

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Vincent Zhao’s unremarkable comeback continues with this barely lukewarm adventure in which he plays a professor/adventurer in the Indiana Jones mould. He is seeking seven mythical treasures, and a vital clue leads him to Mount Wu Dang, where a martial arts tournament is taking place in the famous monastery of the same name. There’s a good cast, with martial arts actors Fan Siu Wong and Dennis To as Wu Dang disciples, Xu Jiao as Zhao’s daughter, the ubiquitous Yang Mi as a rival adventurer, and Shaun ‘son of Ti Lung’ Tam as a gangster. Corey Yuen provides the action, which is sometimes palatable (a balletic martial arts duet with Zhao and Yang taking on Tam’s men is particularly nice) but often forgettable and tame : who wants to see pretty Yang Mi fight kiddy Xu Jiao is one of the lamest film tournaments ever ? There’s no sense of adventure (the bad CGI doesn’t help matters), and the romantic subplots are either massively creepy (40-years-old Fan and 14-years-old Xu aren’t exactly a match made in heaven) or simply cold (Vincent Zhao and Yang Mi have no chemistry whatsoever). A failure, but in an amiable kind of way. **

 

BUTTERFLY LOVERS (2008) short review

This featherweight retelling of a classic, Romeo and Juliet-like legend (already filmed in Tsui Hark’s The Lovers) is directed by the master of glitz, Jingle Ma, with a sure commercial hand but little in the way of a vision or even basic originality. Wu Chun and Charlene Choi are star-crossed lovers while Hu Ge is the bitter third wheel whose scheming precipitates a strikingly artificial tragic end. Charlene Choi is exceedingly cute, and estimable people like Ti Lung, Xiong Xin Xin or Fan Siu-Wong add a dash of gravitas and martial arts in supporting roles, but Butterfly Lovers remains as bland as its male lead, charisma-challenged Wu Chun. Falsely advertised under the title Assassin’s Blade and with an action-packed cover in some places, it is a corny affair that only really succeeds as eye-candy (and ear-candy, thanks to Chiu Tsang Hei’s score). **

A CHINESE FAIRY TALE (aka A CHINESE GHOST STORY) (2011) review

Remaking Ching Siu Tung’s 1987 fantasy love story A Chinese Ghost Story was a bold move. The original is still a reverred classic, featuring a legendary screen couple in the person of the late Leslie Cheung and the now-retired Joey Wong, some of Ching Siu Tung’s most inventive choreography, and an effectibe blend of romanticism, tragedy and comedy, with crappy but well meaning special effects and a very popular soundtrack. It gave way to two sequels and a whole wave of fantasy love stories. A remake was always going to face a very tough challenge, especially since the legendary Leslie Cheung committed suicide in the early 2000’s, which adds a sheen of intensely emotional nostalgia to all his greatest successes.

Demon hunter Yan (Louis Koo in the role made famous by Wu Ma) fell in love years ago with demon Siu Sin (Liu Yifei replacing Joey Wong), but due to the forbidden nature of their union, had to leave her after suppressing her memories. Years later, naïve scholar Ning (Yu Shaoqun trying to fill the shoes of Leslie Cheung) is searching the forest trying to find a water source for a small village suffering from a drought, when he comes across a temple where he encounters life-sucking demons, one of whom is none other than Siu Sin. They fall in love with each other as she spares his life, thus finding herself hunted by her fellow demons. Things get more complicated when Yan re-emerges, setting demons, demon hunters, villagers and lovers on a collision course.

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