LEGEND OF THE DEMON CAT (2017) review

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Based on a best-seller by Japanese author Baku Yumemakura, this massive, 200-million dollars production – whose enormous sets are soon to become an amusement park – is a uniquely ambitious co-production between Mainland China, Japan and Hong Kong. It takes place in the year 805, as a mysterious black cat stalks the imperial palace in Chang’an, just as the gravely ill emperor Dezong dies from a violent fit ; the same cat appears to Chen Yunqiao (Qin Hao), captain of the imperial guard, and to his wife Chunqin (Zhang Yuqi), revealing to them a cache of money, but asking in return to be fed eyes – the eyes of any creature, including humans. Buddhist monk Kukai (Shota Sometani), who had arrived from Japan to meet the emperor and senses the presence of the black cat, joins forces with scholar, poet and newly-fired imperial scribe Bai Letian (Huang Xuan) to unravel the mystery: they soon realize it takes its root thirty years before, when Tang emperor Xuanzong (Zhang Luyi) had his consort – and legendary beauty – Yang Yuhuan (Sandrine Pinna) killed. A known historical fact, about which Bai Letian has been writing a poem for the past few years: and yet it may be a lie, as the personal account of Abe no Nakamaro (Hiroshi Abe), a scholar who knew the emperor and his consort, seems to reveal.

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HANSON AND THE BEAST (2017) review

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Xiao Yang’s Hanson and the Beast follows Yuan Shuai, aka Hanson (William Feng), a failed actor who is now neck deep in debt after taking a hefty loan to direct his own film and getting scammed. Now he’s trying to find himself a rich wife through a matchmaking service, while literally shoveling at a zoo that his now clinically insane father used to own. During a matchmaking date, he meets Bai Xianchu (Liu Yifei), who immediately reveals to him that she’s a fox demon, part of a tribe of animal demons that assume human form to dwell in our world. Hanson saved her life as a kid, when she was a little fox trapped in his father’s zoo and bullied by other kids. Now, she has found him again by chance and is in love with him, despite the warnings of her childhood friend – and cat demon – Hong Sicong (Guo Jingfei). For such a love is strictly forbidden by the commissioner of their tribe, Yun Zhonghe (Li Guangjie), who offers Hanson mountains of cash, provided that he inject her with poison and deliver her to him.

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THE MONKEY KING 3 (2018) review

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Though Monkey King films – and fantasy films in general – have been produced with remarkable regularity in China in the past six years, few have managed to spawn a franchise, let alone a trilogy. And if we don’t count Jeff Lau’s belated – and dire – A Chinese Odyssey Part III, then Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 3 bears the distinction of completing the first artistically unified (Soi directed all three films) big screen Chinese fantasy trilogy based on Wu Cheng’en’s Journey to the West. After a dodgy franchise starter in 2014 that benefited from Donnie Yen’s impressively athletic dedication to portraying a young monkey but sank under the weight of its interminable and poorly-rendered power battles, and a sequel in 2016 that was a marked improvement and was made memorable by Gong Li’s powerhouse White Bone Demon, here comes the third installment, with all the key cast members returning, except for Kelly Chen, who has been replaced in her customary cameo as Guanyin the Goddess of Mercy by Liu Tao – not that too many people will notice.

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THE GOLDEN MONK (2017) short review

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The eponymous golden monk of this Wong Jing quickie is the same folk hero played by Stephen Chow in Johnnie To’s The Mad Monk (1993), Buddhist monk Ji Gong. Here played by Zheng Kai as a superpowered monk who when crossing paths with demon hunter Jade (Zhang Yuqi), realizes they have been lovers lifetimes ago in Heaven, while trying to fend off the evil dragon Beihai Dulong’s plot to overthrow the emperor. Co-directed by Billy Chung, The Golden Monk is a painful bore and an eyesore from start to finish. Its humour is the usual stodgy Wong Jing cocktail of tired Mo Lei Tau, tiresome pratfalls and cringe-worthy references to recent hits (here, the Marvel universe), while the action is plagued by truly embarrassing CGI, with poorly-rendered monsters jerking around endlessly against flat backgrounds. With its formula of demon-hunting, origin story, unhinged humour and a romantic tragedy involving a monk and a feisty hunter, the film desperately apes Stephen Chow’s infinitely superior Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, a sorry sight indeed. While Zheng Kai has solid presence and comic timing, a vast supporting cast of Hong Kong, Mainland and Taiwanese comedians gesticulate hopelessly around him, while Zhang Yuqi seems to have mentally checked out very early into the film. And so should the audience. 1/2*

THE THOUSAND FACES OF DUNJIA (2017) review

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A (very) loose remake by Yuen Woo Ping of his 1982 classic Miracle Fighters, The Thousand Faces of Dunjia (henceforward Dunjia) completes a trilogy of sorts, with which writer-producer Tsui Hark has been attempting to revitalize the Wu Xia Pian by going back to classics of the seventies, eighties and nineties and enhancing them with ambitious set pieces full of CGI and 3D enhancements, while leaving the core components and tropes of the genre largely untouched. After 2011’s mediocre but successful Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (in which a sleepy Jet Li let Chen Kun act circles around him while Tsui kept throwing 3D wood splinters at the audience), and 2016’s passable but unsuccessful Sword Master (in which a bland Kenny Lin let Peter Ho act circles around him while Derek Yee kept throwing 3D stone splinters at the audience), comes Dunjia, the better film of the three, and based on its first days of box-office, set to land in between in terms of box-office.

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WU KONG (2017) review

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Based on a successful internet novel by Jin Hezai, Wu Kong is Derek Kwok’s second stab at the Monkey King myth (after co-directing Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons with Stephen Chow), on which it is supposed to offer a new take – a rather hollow claim given that the countless Monkey King adaptations of recent years have all had completely different narratives from one another. An origin story of sorts, it follows Sun Wukong (Eddie Peng), hungry for revenge after goddess Hua Ji (Faye Yu) had his beloved Mount Huaguo ravaged to punish a revolting demon. The Monkey enters the heavenly kingdom with plans to destroy the destiny astrolabe, a giant machine which preordains the fate of everyone on earth. There, he meets Azi (Ni Ni), daughter of his enemy Hua Ji, and is confronted by two immortals, Erlangshen (Shawn Yue) and Tianpeng (Oho Ou). After their fight takes them to earth, where their powers are ineffective, Wukong, Erlangshen and Tianpeng end up joining forces to help a small village on Mount Huaguo defeat a cloud demon. In the process, Wukong and Azi fall in love, Erlangshen finds a surrogate mother, and Tianpeng is reunited with Yue (Zheng Shuang), a long lost love. But soon, Hua Ji restores discipline with a bloodbath.

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LEGEND OF THE NAGA PEARLS (2017) review

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Once upon a time in the mythical city of Uranopolis, an apocalyptic battle opposed humans to the the Winged Tribe; the latter was defeated and gradually went almost extinct. Now Xue Lie (Simon Yam), a royal descendant of the Winged Tribe, wants to avenge his his race and restore its glory: he is searching for the Naga Pearls, magical entities that can open a cataclysmic “eye in the sky” that would eradicate the human race. But Ni Kongkong (Darren Wang), a thief, has chanced upon the Naga Pearls and thus becomes the only one who can stop Xue Lie, with the help of Hei Yu (Crystal Zhang), a constable and descendant of the Winged Tribe, and Ge Li (Sheng Guan Sen), the son of the king of Uranopolis, eager to prove himself to his father.

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THE WARRIORS GATE (aka ENTER THE WARRIORS GATE) (2016) review

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A major co-production between China and France, The Warriors Gate is the brainchild of Luc Besson, who in addition to producing it, co-wrote it with his The Fifth Element/Kiss of the Dragon/Taken/The Transporter partner Robert Mark Kamen. It follows Jack (Uriah Shelton), a stereotypical American geek who shares his time between video games, biking and being bullied by the jocks in his class. His father is out of the picture and his sweet mother (Sienna Guillory) can’t quite make ends meet, so they might have to move out of their house if she can’t make a payment soon. His only friends are an obese fellow geek who calls himself the “octoman” and Chang, a Chinese shopkeeper who employs him from time to time. One day, the latter gives an ancient Chinese box to Jack, who starts using it as a container for his dirty laundry. But one night, a princess named Su Lin (Ni Ni) and her bodyguard Zhao (Mark Chao) emerge from that box, right into his bedroom. They come from Ancient China and are looking for the Black Knight, a fearless hero who is none other than Jack’s video game avatar. Despite the mix-up, Zhao leaves Su Lin in the custody of this scrawny teenager, until a few days later barbarians barge into the house through the same box and kidnap Su Lin. Jack is transported into Ancient China, where he’s welcomed by a zany wizard (Francis Ng) and reluctantly embarks on a quest with Zhao to rescue the princess from the hands of the barbarian king Arun (Dave Bautista).

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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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TASTE OF LOVE (2015) review

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The enormous success of Stephen Chow’s Journey To The West: Conquering the Demons, Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King and Tian Xiaopeng’s animated Monkey King: Hero is Back has sparked a literal avalanche of  films based on Wu Cheng’en’s seminal 16th century novel. Expected in the coming years are Tsui Hark’s Journey To The West 2, Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 3, Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong, Wang Baoqiang’s contemporary transposition Buddies in India, Jeff Lau’s A Chinese Odyssey 3, Tian Xiaopeng’s Monkey King: Havoc in Heaven, and probably a few more that haven’t yet been announced. They’ll leverage medium to massive budgets and feature some of the most popular actors of today, including Kris Wu, Yao Chen, Aaron Kwok, Gong Li, William Feng, Eddie Peng, Shawn Yue, Ni Ni, Wu Jing, Karen Mok, and a lot of others we won’t mention for brevity’s sake. And kind of like the Asylum productions that pick up the crumbs left by big Hollywood Summer tentpoles (think Transmorphers, Atlantic Rim or The Almighty Thor), Miao Shu’s Taste of Love got a head start on all the aforementioned A-list productions with a December release where it didn’t register in the least at the box office.

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