KILLER ANGELS (aka ULTRA FORCE 1) (1989) short review

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In Tony Liu’s Killer Angels, Moon Lee plays an agent from a crime unit known as the “Blue Angels” (how original), who goes undercover at a night club whose owner (Leung Kar Yan) may be a human trafficker. We won’t delve much more into the plot, which is a half-hearted excuse for a series of full-blooded action scenes. Indeed, this is a rock-solid Girls with Guns actioner, with good pacing and excellent action directing from Chui Fat, and a few interesting touches. For instance, an unexpectedly touching romantic subplot in which Gordon Liu’s cold and efficient hitman falls in love with Moon Lee, much to the chagrin his colleague played by Fujimi Nadeki, an underrated and often underused action actress who here gets to shine as a spiteful and deadly mob enforcer. There’s also a terrific scene where Moon Lee sings and dances to Chai Li’s song “Betray”, in a fetching leather outfit. More than mere fan service, it’s a reminder of what a well-rounded performer she was (well, is, but her last film was almost ten years ago). And there’s Yuen King Tan in only her second film, in a rare action role before being typecast as comic relief ; though a delightful scene where she beats up a sleaze-bag who’s called her “sex kitten” one time too many shows that her comedic chops are already there. And Leung Kar Yan has fun posturing as a charismatic mob boss, before revealing “unsuspected” martial arts proficiency during the spectacular finale. All in all, a real pleasure. ***

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

HIGH KICKERS (2013) short review

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On the surface, High Kickers sounds like a fairly appealing proposition : the beautiful and talented Eva Huang Shengyi in a film highlighting the Korean martial art know as Tae Kwon Do, with a living legend in the person of Gordon Liu (in one of his last roles before a stroke left him tragically diminished) lending credence to the project and support from Hong Kong mainstays Waise Lee and Mark Cheng. The plot, which concerns a young woman (Huang) seeking, and slowly gaining, the mentorship of an ageing Tae Kwon Do instructor (Gordon Liu) with an aim to defeat the champion (Mark Cheng) who accidentally killed her brother in an illegal match, isn’t exactly original or even plausible, but it might have been at least serviceable, had the productions values not been so incredibly dismal, and the directing so direly aimless and vague. Every aspect of the production is handled with a dumbfounding amateurishness. The writing is limp and builds absolutely nothing over the course of the film’s 80-minute runtime. The actors are all professionals that are either horribly miscast (50 year-old Mark Cheng as the national Tae Kwon Do champion), or ridiculously underused (Waise Lee barely registers as Mark Cheng’s coach, Gordon Liu is the only accomplished martial artist in the cast, but doesn’t get to fight). But even more damningly, the fighting is little more than a neverending series of poorly-shot high kicks performed quite obviously by stunt doubles, and limited to short skirmishes in non-descript gymnasiums and dojos. At the center of this anemic whimper of a film is Eva Huang Shengyi, a talented, appealing actress who deserves so much more. *

DRUNKEN MONKEY (2004) review

When Liu Chia-Liang, the legendary director/actor of the Shaw Brothers’ heyday, directed Drunken Monkey in 2003, he was coming off a nearly ten-year hiatus from movies, having last directed (and butted heads with) Jackie Chan in the indisputable classic Drunken Master II. He was 67 years-old and the kind of costumed martial arts movie he had been famous for (like My Young Auntie, Mad Monkey Kung Fu or The 36th Chamber of Shaolin, to name only a few) had been out of fashion for a long time. Indeed, thrillers about undercover cops or cgi-heavy action extravaganzas were all the rage, and Jackie Chan, Jet Li, Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo were working mostly overseas. Sure, Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon and Zhang Yimou’s Hero had triumphed domestically as well as internationally, but they represented painterly wire-fu rather than the more down-to-earth, blistering brand of kung fu that Liu had been famous for.

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MY YOUNG AUNTIE (1981) review

My Young Auntie was the breakout film for Kara Hui, a young actress with a background in ballet, who was legendary director Liu Chia Liang’s protégé and, some say, his mistress. Gossip aside, she was indeed quite a sensation, earning the Hong Kong Film Award for best actress in this award show’s first ever edition in 1981. And you can see why: cute and graceful, sprightly and playful, she was – and is – also a fine actress capable of immediately earning the public’s sympathies. In a way, she was superseded shortly after by Michelle Yeoh, a more striking performer in every way ; still, Hui remains a unique presence to this day, having made a bit of a comeback after a string of obscure films in the nineties. Directed by Liu Chia Liang, My Young Auntie has Kara Hui play a young woman of modest origins, who is married by a kind and wealthy old man who fears his fortune could go to his cruel brother after his impending death. After he dies, Hui meets his nephew (played by the director himself) and his son (Hsiao Hao), a hyperactive student. She then has to impose herself as the family’s dean (although she’s younger than everyone), while fending off the cruel brother’s attempts to reclaim the inheritance.

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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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LAST HERO IN CHINA (1993) review

In 1993, near the end of production on Tsui Hark and Jet Li’s third installment in the insanely successful Once Upon A Time In China series, there seemingly was some kind of dispute between director and star, which led to the two not working together for more than a decade, despite their working relationship being as legendary as, say, John Woo and Chow Yun Fat. It also led to Jet Li leaving the Once Upon A Time In China franchise (and being replaced with Vincent Zhao). But less than a year later, Li took the role of Wong Fei-Hung again, in a non-official installment : Last Hero in China.

In a way, Last Hero in China (also called Claws of Steel in some places), is to Jet Li what Never Say Never Again is to Sean Connery: both a loving hommage and a cheeky send-up of the character that made him a superstar. A cheeky send-up, in part because the director is none other than Wong Jing, the ‘master’ of heavy and greasy Hong Kong comedy, but a loving homage, because beneath the comedy, there is still Master Wong’s impeccable mastery of Wushu, choreographed by the great Yuen Woo-Ping (just like the first two Once Upon A Time In China films).

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