LOST MINDS (2016) short review

p2405533776Lynn Chen’s Lost Minds follows a couple (Jian RenZi and Andrew Lin) who has been unsuccessfully trying to have a child for a few years, and decides to resort to an old Chinese fertility ritual, that of the “primer”: to temporarily adopt a child, who will open the way for their own progeny. They adopt a quiet 7-year-old girl (Wang Yifei) at an orphanage whose supervisors (Hui Shiu Hung and Pat Ha) are obviously not telling them everything. The adopted child is silent, asocial and constantly draws disturbingly dark pictures of her previous family. It doesn’t help that her new mother is beset with strange visions that threaten her sanity. Like so many mediocre horror films, Lost Minds uses a lead character’s vacillating sanity as an excuse to bombard the audience with nightmare sequences and jump-scare visions that thus don’t need to be justified by the story (since, you know, the character’s sanity is vacillating). There are a few passable red herrings until the final twist – a demystifying one as always in China’s supernatural-free horror genre – brings the film to a thudding close, with belabored exposition and flashbacks, to make sure everyone understands the denouement. Very little tension and virtually no scares are mustered, though the unsettling white glow of the cinematography is rather effective and well-judged, and  Jian RenZi’s performance is fairly affecting, while Wang Yifei is an excellent child actress whose alternating creepiness and cuteness are never forced. Andrew Lin sleepwalks through the film, Hui Shiu Hung is wasted in a rare serious role, and the great Pat Ha valiantly makes the best of her poorly-written role. *1/2

PHANTOM OF THE THEATRE (2016) review

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With Phantom of the Theatre, director Raymond Yip continues his recent streak of horror films that also includes Blood-Stained Shoes (2012), The House that Never Dies (2014) and Tales of Mystery (2015). Set in Shanghai during the 1930s, it unfolds in and around an abandoned theatre that is said to be haunted by the ghosts of an acrobatic troupe that was killed in a fire 13 years before. In comes Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) a young film director with plans to shoot a romantic ghost story in this very theatre; after a chance encounter with up-and-coming actress Meng Sifan (Ruby Lin), he offers her the lead role in his film and she accepts. But on the very first day of shooting in the theatre, the film’s lead actor dies horribly, mysteriously burnt from inside. Soon, one of the film’s investors meets the same fate, just as a strange cloaked figure is seen stalking the playhouse’s corridors. Despite all this, Gu Weibang – who has replaced the lead actor and is developing requited feelings for his co-star – keeps shooting his film, under the disapproving eye of his father, warlord Gu Mingshan (Simon Yam).

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FLAMING BROTHERS (1987) review

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Surfing on the Heroic Bloodshed wave initiated mostly by John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films, starring one of the genre’s biggest stars in the person of Chow Yun Fat, written by Hong Kong cinema luminaries Wong Kar Wai and Jeff Lau, Joe Cheung’s Flaming Brothers has a pedigree that’s hard to ignore. Chow Yun Fat and Alan Tang star as brothers (in the sense that they’re orphans who grew up in poverty looking after each other) who’ve made it big in the Triads. But while Tang looks to solidify his position and broaden the scope of his operations, Chow simply wants out, having rekindled a childhood love (Pat Ha), a catholic nurse who is averse to violence and the Triad lifestyle. When Tang’s feud with a mob boss (Patrick Tse) escalates irreparably, Chow must choose between love and brotherhood.

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ON THE RUN (1988) review

Heung Ming (Yuen Biao), is a down-on-his-luck cop who is looking to emigrate to Canada to start anew. But when his ex-wife is killed for digging too much into a case of corruption involving the head of Criminal Police, Lu (Charlie Chin), he finds himself accused of the murder and chased with his young daughter through night-time Hong Kong by Lu’s squad of corrupt cops (Lo Lieh, Yuen Wah and Phillip Ko). Through a bizarre but inevitable twist of fate, he finds that his only ally is Pai (Pat Ha), the very person who killed his ex-wife.

Casting against type can be a cheap way of bringing a sense of novelty to well-worn formulas, but when made right it can also be, as in the case of On The Run, a powerful way of taking the audience aback and hitting harder in the dramatic stakes. The director himself, Alfred Cheung, was and is still better-known for his comedies, and for him to direct such an unflinching noir thriller, is kind of like if Jon Turteltaub was the director of There Will Be Blood. But credit where it’s due : Cheung directs not only with a firm hand, but also with a great eye for dark humor and shocking turns of events. The pace is crisp, with taut, realistic action scenes that are made more hard-hitting not by trying to be too spectacular, but through striking details such as the hitwoman’s almost uncanny ability to kill anyone she fires at with a single, perfectly aimed headshot, even if that person is using a child as a human shield. The gripping pace of brief shootouts and blistering chases only ever lets up for strangely mesmeric interludes, as when Pai, the hitwoman, takes advantage of a moment of respite in a hideout to coyly try on a dress she’s bought before everything went to hell.

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