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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HORRIBLE MANSION IN WILD VILLAGE (2016) short review

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Horrible Mansion in Wild Village (with “Mansion” spelled as “Masion” in posters and credits), is a shockingly amateurish little horror film in which a reckless young biker (Cai Juntao) has an accident and ends up seeking help in a decrepit old mansion inhabited by a little girl (Jia Lin) and her stern grandmother (Kara Hui). And a terrifying and mysterious horned creature. And a mute girl locked up in the attic. From this familiar but decent premise, director Lu Shiyu makes his film an endless – though only 80 minutes long – series of shrieky nightmare sequences (the main character wakes up with a jolt roughly once every two minutes), ham-fisted flashbacks and trite stalking scenes. The mansion set is effective (though you can easily picture the director yelling “more cobwebs! I want more cobwebs!”) and Kara Hui, who has probably never phoned in a single performance in her career (more than 150 films), is suitably creepy, but the laughable and repetitive script keeps tension low, and resorts to the mother of all lame twists in order to make its overt supernatural elements palatable to Chinese censorship. Mainland Chinese horror has no high points yet, but it does have a new low point. 1/2*

DAUGHTER (2015) short review

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Chan Pang Chun’s Daughter is that rare Hong Kong horror film that features a Catholic – rather than Taoist – exorcism. It stars Kara Hui as Sharon, a successful psychologist who’s raising her teenage daughter Jenny (Yanny Chan) alone, but has been neglecting her for a while, all the while being a control freak when it comes to her future. But as the usually despondent Jenny starts acting increasingly defiant and strange, Sharon herself is plagued with horrific nightly visions, and she decides to call on the help of a priest (Kenny Wong). Daughter seems to have been helmed by two different directors: one who lets the dread sink in, favors creepy wide angle shots over close-up jump scares, and relies on Kara Hui’s intense and affecting performance rather than on CGI demon faces; and another who soon gets the upper hand, and who seems more concerned with regurgitating every single cliché linked to the subgenre of exorcism films, culling especially from William Friedkin’s seminal 1973 film. Beds will quake, innocent girls will talk in a demonic voice, pea soup will be vomited, priests will be flung across the room by unseen forces, and so on. You know the drill. There’s a half-decent twist at the end, but even at 80 minutes the film feels interminable. **

LEGEND OF THE DRUNKEN TIGER (1990) short review

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Legend of the Drunken Tiger was directed by Robert Tai, who at one point was Chang Cheh’s martial arts choreographer of choice, before going back to his native Taiwan to direct increasingly cheap and demented ninja movies. No ninjas here, but a straightforward kung fu comedy in which Chui Kei Wai plays a lovable drunk who uses his martial arts skills to fight his nemesis, a treacherous lord played by good old Ku Feng, and gets betrothed to a beautiful, equally skilled woman (Kara Hui). It’s entirely forgettable though mostly competent, until the halfway point. Then Robert Tai decides to get ambitious, and the plot switches to a much wider canvas involving the Boxer Rebellion of 1899. But with what seems to be a budget of about a hundred bucks, his reach comically exceeds his grasp. And so we’re treated to a “massive” battle scene involving a few dozen extras, and a string of fights involving evil foreign soldiers who know kung fu, played by glaringly Asian stuntmen wearing curly blonde wigs and decked in hilariously mismatched uniforms. All  this is in the service of a disjointed plot that does no favors to Chui Kei Wai, an evidently gifted performer who never made another film. Along with Kara Hui, who’s a sight for sore eyes, he shines in a serviceable action finale that is the one thing to salvage here. *1/2

BURNING AMBITION (1989) review

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Frankie Chan’s Burning Ambition transposes the plot of Kinji Kukasaku’s The Shogun’s Samurai (1978) to modern-day Hong Kong, with striking results. A Triad boss (Roy Chiao) is thinking about his succession : his elder son Wai (Michael Miu) is an irresponsible womanizer, and so he chooses his more level-headed and business-savvy younger son Hwa (Simon Yam). He’s killed the same evening in a drive-by shooting secretly organized by his brother Hsiong (Ko Chun Hsiung), who’s consumed by the titular burning ambition, and has made Wai his protégé. This triggers a fratricidal war as two camps are formed within the extended Triad family : on one side, the boss’s widow (a steely Seung Yee), the chosen heir Hwa and his trusted uncle Kau Chen (Eddy Ko) ; on the other side, Hsiong, his puppet Wai, his two loyal daughters Tao (Yukari Oshima) and Hong (Kara Hui), as well as his exiled son Chi-Shao (Frankie Chan), who comes back to Hong Kong to assist his father, not knowing, just like his sisters, what treacherous strings Hsiong has been pulling. It all escalates in a series of bloody acts of vengeance.

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JOURNEY OF THE DOOMED (1985) review

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Cha Chuen Yee’s Journey of the Doomed opens on the image of a setting sun, and ends in the complete destruction of desolate period sets. Fitting bookends to what is actually the last martial arts film produced by the Shaw Brothers Studio before it switched completely to TV production. Movie bootlegging and overwhelming competition from rival studio Golden Harvest had led to diminishing returns in the beginning of the eighties, and the legendary studio, after producing close to a thousand feature films,was cutting its losses and would not return to the big screen before 2009. These facts do not lend Journey of the Doomed any crepuscular dimension however, as it is more akin to the kind of cake your parents would make to empty the fridge before going on holidays. The plot is an unappealing combination of convoluted and unfocused : it follows Shui Erh (Fu Yin Yu), a young woman who leads a simple life as a maid in a whorehouse, unaware that she’s actually the love child of the current emperor. The only one who knows that fact is her guardian (Tam Wai-Mei), and at the behest of her lover, she reveals the truth to the crown prince (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who despatches a trio of warriors (Candice Yu, Max Mok and Goo Goon Chung) with the mission to bring Shui Erh to the Imperial Palace. But the prince’s brother hears of this through one of the warriors’ lover (Alex Man) and sends his own henchmen (well, henchwomen : Kara Hui and Margaret Lee) to kill the soon-to-be princess. This leads to the massacre of the entire whorehouse, from which Shui Erh narrowly escapes with the help of a fisherman (Tung Wei). On the run from two separate teams of warriors, the fisherman and the illegitimate princess fall in love.

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LOVERS & MOVIES (2015) short review

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Niu Chaoyang’s Lovers & Movies is one of those all-star Valentines Day cash-ins based on the blueprint of Gary Marshall’s Valentines Day : criss-crossing love stories across generations, played out by a few stars out for an easy paycheck. And so here we have a fifty-something woman (Kara Hui), who finds out her husband (Simon Yam) is having an affair, while her son is getting into bad ways and pushing away his girlfriend. Also, a cab driver (Francis Ng) is in love with a dance teacher (Yu Nan), whose five year-old son needs snow to win over a girl he likes at school. And a fangirl (Gulnazar) gets to meet her heartthrob idol (Kim Bum), after which they fall in love. It all unfolds in impossibly trite fashion, as platitudes about love are spoken in every scene over a treacly score, and grand romantic gestures are performed in ways that are often actually more creepy than endearing : witness Gulnazar barging in on a film scene being shot in a studio by the man she loves, by jumping off a wall, strapped on cables, with a red streamer that says ‘I love you’. Someone call the cops. The cast, which could have saved the film, is too uneven to manage that. Kara Hui and Yu Nan valiantly try to make unlikable characters worth sticking with, but Francis Ng expresses most emotions by smiling weirdly, and Simon Yam gives a performance so listless he probably took this film as a break from acting. And out of decency, let’s not mention the rest of the cast. *1/2

THEY CAME TO ROB HONG KONG (1989) short review

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Clarence Fok’s They Came to rob Hong Kong concerns a violent bank robber (Roy Cheung) who has to flee to the Mainland after being nearly caught by a tough cop (Kara Hui). There, he recruits a ragtag team of hapless morons (among which Eric Tsang, Stanley Fung, Sandra Ng, Dean Shek and Chin Siu Ho) to come back to Hong Kong and attempt a daring heist. Except they’re hapless morons, so nothing goes according to plan. This film is actually a complete rehash of any Lucky Stars film : even though only Fung and Tsang were actually members of the comedic team, other members of the cast fit the usual Lucky Stars profiles, as Chin Siu Ho brings the martial arts that would’ve been Sammo Hung’s turf, and Dean Shek has the same kind of paranormal pretensions that Richard Ng’s character would display. The structure is also the same : an action-packed opening sequence (in this case an impressive and savage fight and chase scene on cluttered rooftops, as the terrific Kara Hui hunts down Roy Cheung) gives way to a comedic middle-section where, among other subplots, the group is given a beautiful woman to lust after (in this case, Chingmy Yau), after which things are wrapped up in a big action finale. Except while the action bookends are fine, the comedic middle is painfully unfunny and interminable. While Eric Tsang is always hilarious, Sandra Ng’s shtick quickly gets wearisome, and the ensemble simply doesn’t have the Lucky Star’s chemistry. **

THE INSPECTOR WEARS SKIRTS 4 (1992) review

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This is the final film in an enjoyable but trashy film series that had used up its thin concept by the first installment, then rehashed it for a second film, before injecting a big dose of craziness for the third episode. And so it comes to The Inspector Wears Skirts 4, with the only returning cast members being Sandra Ng, Kara Hui and Billy Lau, as well as Wung Fu in the role of the superior officer. A botched operation has led to the disbanding of the female commando : Sandra Ng has become a widow and overbearing single mother, Kara Hui has entered a mental institution after a nasty fall left her nuttier than a Pecan log, and Billy Lau is now a school supervisor, and has married Sheila Chan after a short fling with Sandra that ended in near-castration. A new female commando has been formed, headed by Moon Lee, but is found to fall very short of its tactical objectives, which is why Sandra and Kara are called back, and a tough cop and instructor, played by Cynthia Khan, is brought in to whip them back into shape.

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CHOY LEE FUT KUNG FU (2011) review

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A few years before Donnie Yen gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his actual kung fu skills in The Iceman 3D and Kung Fu Jungle, Wang Baoqiang already demonstrated his martial arts proficiency in John Ching’s Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu (not to be confused with Choy Lee Fut, a film starring Sammo Hung and his son, that came out the same year). Wang plays Danny (Wang Baoqiang), a young martial arts enthusiast who arrives in Hong Kong to head a school of Choy Lee Fut (a combination of Northern and Southern Chinese kung-fu systems) owned by his wealthy father (Ng Man Tat). At the airport, he’s swindled out of his wallet and phone but is given help and shelter by a young woman (Michelle Ye), much to the chagrin of her jealous boyfriend (Miu Tse) and her kind but suspicious mother (Kara Hui). With an important boxing match coming up, Danny is trained by a master of Choy Lee Fut (Norman Tsui), while the school’s janitor (Wong Yat Fei) tries to locate the second half of an old martial arts manuscript, which contains a map to a treasure map.

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