THE FOUNDING OF AN ARMY (2017) review

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After Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin’s The Founding of an Army and The Founding of a Party, what we like to call “the PRCCU” (People’s Republic of China cinematic universe) gets a third installment with Andrew Lau’s The Founding of an Army, which is backed by no less than forty-six credited producers, and more importantly, by the Chinese state. And so in solemn commemoration of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, ninety years ago, Chinese audiences have been treated to yet another round of episodic, star-studded, title card-ridden, speech-happy propaganda, again with Liu Ye as the charismatic, statuesque, handsome, saintly, selfless, farseeing, and most of all, deeply, deeply humanistic Mao Zedong (note that our use of irony here is about as heavy-handed as the film’s approach to history).

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SHOCK WAVE (2017) review

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For Shock Wave, Herman Yau was given the biggest budget of his directing career, and was rewarded with his biggest commercial success yet. Andy Lau plays JS Cheung, a superintendent of the EOD (Explosive Ordnance Disposal) Bureau finds himself in the crosshairs of a dangerous terrorist, Hung Kai Pang (Jiang Wu), in whose gang he had gone undercover years ago, and whose brother (Wang Ziyi) he put behind bars. Hung, a deranged bomb specialist, is hungry for revenge and wants his brother out of prison; after challenging Cheung with carefully crafted explosive devices left in public places, he takes hundreds of civilians hostage in Hong Kong’s Cross-Harbour Tunnel, which he has rigged with 1000kg of C-4 explosive.

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CALL FOR LOVE (2007) short review

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Zhang Jianya’s Call for Love is a masterclass in how to turn an amusing concept and a dazzling female ensemble into the most average comedy possible. It stars Xu Zheng as a bored salary man who cannot stomach the routine of his marriage anymore. And instead of trying to spice things up, he flat out asks his wife (Jiang Hongbo) for a divorce. She promptly kicks him out, and shortly after, he wanders into a phone-repair shop, whose eccentric owner (Liu Yiwei) lends him a magical phone: each of the ten buttons will allow him to date a different woman, one of whom may be his soulmate. Naturally he is eager to try out the magical phone, but though each of the women he meets is a stunning beauty, there’s always a catch. There’s a naïve party girl (a delightful Eva Huang), a policewoman who dislikes divorcees (a delightful Fan Bingbing), a real estate addict (a delightful Ning Jing), a overly bossy CEO (a delightful Annie Yi), a young debutante (a delightful Bai Bing) controlled by her mother, a dour and demanding career woman (a delightful Qin Hailu), a single mother-to-be (a delightful Song Jia), etc… As a playful showcase of some of China’s talented and promising actresses (though this was ten years ago and not all have seen their career take off), Call for Love is passably enjoyable, though its sitcom-worthy writing, direction and look border on laziness. It has nothing interesting to say about relationships or love, instead unfolding like a series of droll sketches dealing in unsubtle archetypes. Thankfully, mawkishness is scarce. **1/2

CHERRY RETURNS (2016) short review

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Twelve years after she was kidnapped and thought dead, Cherry Yuan (Cherry Ngan) is found in a basement after her kidnappers are killed in a police raid. She is reunited with her family but seems to be a shell of her former self, and seems to barely remember her close ones, who are all wracked with guilt: her father (a fine Chen Kuan Tai) called the cops – against the kidnappers’ indications – all those years ago, which led to her being thought dead; her mother (Josephine Koo), wasn’t watching over her on the fateful day when she was kidnapped; her sister (Song Jia) was always full of resentment against, for being more loved by the parents; and her uncle (Jason Pai Piao) clearly knows things. But as the family attempts to heal, a police detective (Gordon Lam) investigates the strange circumstances of her kidnapping and rescue, while a mysterious hooded figure (Hu Ge) appears to be stalking Cherry. Though visually bland and marred at key moments by ridiculous CGI (one character’s fall from a skyscraper is quite comical), Chris Chow’s Cherry Returns is a nicely convoluted thriller that teases the audience with seemingly supernatural details and peels away layers of deceit at an enjoyable pace, ending with a startlingly somber conclusion. The cast is mostly solid, with a fiercely sympathetic Song Jia and a deftly ambiguous Cherry Ngan at its center, but most of the characters are either very thinly-defined (Gordon Lam struggles to make his stock police detective interesting) or given motivations that defy human logic or emotion (Hu Ge’s character is almost a parody unto itself), and so while the plot is sometimes cleverly constructed, it is difficult to care about it. **1/2

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

HELP (2007) short review

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A young doctorate student in psychology (Song Jia) is angling for a prized position as assistant to a renowned expert in the field. Feeling that her classmate (Asiru) may be the one chosen for the job, she has sex with her teacher – who’s in charge of choosing the assistant – in exchange for the position. When her boyfriend (Zhu Hongjia) realizes what she’s done, they get into a heated argument, during which he slips and falls headfirst on the corner of a table. Thinking he’s dead and fearing she might be accused of having killed him, she calls her teacher and begs him to help her dispose of the body. Soon thereafter she’s starts being plagued by mysterious sleepwalking episodes and visions of her dead boyfriend. Originality, fear or surprise are not to be found in this languid little horror film, which laudably never resorts to jump scares, but nevertheless unfolds in an entirely predictable way, down to the exposition-heavy finale and debunking of what initially looked like paranormal instances. This is, after all, a Mainland Chinese horror film. One keeps hoping some Chinese director will one day find a clever way to get around the SARFT‘s censorship of supernatural elements, but Zhang Qi (who later helmed the equally contrived The Devil Inside Me) isn’t the chosen one. He does know how to conjure creeping dread, but that dread never goes anywhere compelling, wasting Song Jia’s subtle, affecting performance. *1/2

THE MASTER (aka THE FINAL MASTER) (2015) review

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The Master is the third film of Wu Xia author, martial artist, film critic, Taoist scholar and film director Xu Haofeng, after the intriguing but often willfully abstruse The Sword Identity (2011) and Judge Archer (2012). Adapted once again from one of his short stories, it takes place in 1932 and follows Chen Shi (Liao Fan), a Wing Chun master from Guangdong who arrives in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin with hopes of opening a martial arts school. While arranging a marriage of interest with a young waitress (Song Jia), he’s also initiated by aging grandmaster Zheng (Chin Shih Chieh) to the city’s rules on opening a new school: he who wishes to do so must first defeat eight of the nineteen established martial arts schools. However, if one were to manage such a feat, he would then have to be defeated and cast out of Tianjin, to preserve the city’s martial arts reputation. Thus Chen Shi is advised by old master Zheng to find himself a pupil that he will groom, and who will then fight on his behalf – and be cast out instead of him. Chen chooses an ambitious and gifted young coolie (Song Yang) to be his disciple and scapegoat, the first move in a protracted game of Go involving not only the outsider master and his pupil, but also old master Zheng, his former disciple (now a KMT Admiral’s aide), and the powerful head of Tianjin’s martial arts syndicate (Jiang Wenli).

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THE BODYGUARD (aka MY BELOVED BODYGUARD) (2016) review

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Sammo Hung’s first film as a director in nearly 20 years (since 1997’s Once Upon a Time in China and America), The Bodyguard came with a sense of expectation that was compounded by its starry cast of legendary old-timers (Karl Maka, Dean Shek, most of the Seven Little Fortunes) and A-listers both mature (Andy Lau, Tsui Hark, Hu Jun) and on the rise (Eddie Peng, William Feng), as well as a script (by Jiang Jun) that had earned some acclaim at the 3rd Beijing International Film Festival. Sammo Hung is Ding, a retired elite bodyguard who lives alone in his hometown near the Russian border, wracked with guilt after his granddaughter disappeared when he was supposed to watch over her. Dementia is creeping in on him, and despite the care of his lovestruck landlady (Li Qinqin), his only joy in this world is the friendship of his young neighbor Cherry (Chen Pei Yan), who often stays at his house to avoid her father Li (Andy Lau), a gambling addict. When Li goes on the run with a bag of jewels that he stole from the Russian mob to repay his debt to local gangster Choi (Jack Feng), Ding has to break out of his stupor to protect Cherry, who is about to become collateral damage as henchmen both Chinese and Russian hunt down her father.

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COLD STEEL (2011) review

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As an editor, David Wu Dai Wai has had an illustrious career, cutting together the films of John Woo, Tsui Hark, Johnnie To, Ann Hui and many others. As a director, his list of credits is more modest, comprised as it is of mainly American TV movies and a few fairly unsuccessful Hong-Kong films (with the exception of The Bride With White Hair 2 in 1994). Cold Steel is actually his first Mainland film as a director, and is adapted – by Wu himself – from a popular 2009 novel by Li Xiaomin. Set in central China in 1938 during the Sino-Japanese war, it follows a young hunter, Mu Liangfeng (Peter Ho), who falls in love with Liu Yan (Song Jia), a woman whose teahouse has been turned into a temporary infirmary. But soon, Mu is enrolled by force in a sniper unit after using his marksmanship skills to rescue a Nationalist Army convoy from a Japanese sniper attack. The unit is headed by the grizzled veteran Zhang Mengyi (Tony Leung Ka Fai), and its new assignment is to assassinate four Japanese generals in the city of Jingzhou, to slow down the Japanese army. After the mission goes awry, they manage to escape but a Japanese colonel (Wilson Guo) is tasked with hunting them down with his own sniper squad.

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