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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COLD WAR 2 (2016) review

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Four years after their directing debut Cold War became the top film of the year at the Hong Kong box-office as well as an awards magnet (8 HK Film Awards and 3 additional nominations), Sunny Luk and Longman Leung finally deliver on its final cliffhanger: after implementing operation ‘Cold War’ to rescue five police officers that had been hijacked with their armored van, and arresting Joe Lee (Eddie Peng), the main suspect and the son of Deputy Police Commissioner M.B. Lee (Tony Leung Ka Fai), newly promoted Police Commissioner Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) is contacted by mysterious masked men who have just kidnapped his wife, and want to switch her for Joe Lee. Putting his career at stake, Lau agrees on the terms, but the exchange takes a disastrous turn when a bomb goes off in a subway station where he’s escorting the handcuffed suspect. The latter is freed by an accomplice, and while Lau’s wife is rescued mostly unscathed, the whole incident draws judiciary scrutiny on the beleaguered commissioner, who is believed to have abused power. Part of the jury in an impeachment proceeding against Lau is Oswald Kan (Chow Yun Fat), a retired high court judge and independent member of the judicial council, who is being courted by a consortium of high-ranking officials conspiring to control the whole system, and whose ranks the soon-to-be retired M.B. Lee seems to have joined…

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LOST IN WHITE (2016) review

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The directorial debut of cinematographer Xu Wei (who most notably lensed Cheng Er’s Lethal Hostage), Lost in White takes places in the north-east of China, where two bodies have been found under the ice of a frozen lake, their remains made unidentifiable by carnivorous fish, but still bearing the mark of having been dragged with an ice hook. In charge of the investigation is Captain Zhou (Tony Leung Ka Fai), a dedicated cop who’s dragging along his teenage daughter Xinyi (Zhou Dongyu), with whom he should be spending quality time instead, since she’s only with him for a few days. Soon he’s joined by Wang Hao (Tong Dawei) a young Shanghai detective who’s on a missing person case that has led him to the same village where the murders happened. The two cases prove to be connected: the missing person and the two victims were part of a quartet of businessmen who ten years ago opened a refinery in the region, and disposed of chemical waste in an unethical way that has poisoned the waters and led to malformed babies in the following decade. Is the missing businessman the killer, the next victim or a red herring?

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A-1 HEADLINE (2004) short review

 

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A fashion reporter (Angelica Lee) investigates the suspicious death of her ex-boyfriend with the help of her lovestruck assistant (Edison Chen) and an ex-cop turned debt collector (Anthony Wong) who’s equally lovestruck, though less obviously so. Hours before his death from apparent drunk-driving, the ex-boyfriend said he had a major scoop (an ‘A-1 headline’), and the scene of the crash suggests anything but an accident. Various suspects include the reporter’s editor-in-chief (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and a cop in charge of the case (Gordon Lam). A thriller that does its best not to thrill, Gordon Chan and Chung Kai-Cheong’s A-1 Headline doesn’t even simmer; its bid at a more naturalistic approach devoid of artificial thrills is a laudable approach, but the problem is that most of its characters are thoroughly listless and uninvolving, most of all an inert Angelica Lee. A gaunt Anthony Wong is the main attraction here, in a world-weary and oddly poignant performance that probably has stopped many a viewer from giving up on the film. Tony Leung Ka Fai is also his usual reliable self here, even when the film makes him spell out its message on the responsibility of the press thuddingly loud and clear. **

LOST AND LOVE (2015) review

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About 20,000 babies are abducted each year in China. That gut-wrenching statistic was recently the inspiration for two complementary high-profile films released within a few months of each other. Both starred A-list stars having shed all glamor to portray simple people in the pangs of abject grief, in a bid both humanistic (bringing visibility to a gaping social wound) and artistic (showing their mettle as actors). One, Peter Chan’s Dearest, starred Zhao Wei and was concerned chiefly with the agonizing emotional and social complexities resulting from child abduction, but the other, Peng Sanyuan’s debut feature Lost and Love, is a more streamlined film that strives to find beauty and hope amid all the heartbreak. Andy Lau plays Lei Zekuan, a father who has been looking for his abducted son for the past 15 years, criss-crossing a country of 1,3 billion inhabitants on his motorbike decked with flags displaying photos of his child and other abducted children, restlessly handing out leaflets, and doggedly following every single tip from online volunteers. One day, after getting into an accident on a winding mountain road, he meets Zeng Shuai (Jing Boran), a young man who repairs his motorbike, before confiding in him that he was abducted when he was four, and still doesn’t know who his biological parents are. He does not resent his adoptive parents and even loves them, but he will not be a registered citizen with an ID card and a normal life for as long as he won’t be able to prove he’s an abducted child. Thus Zekuan and Shuai decide to travel together and assist each other, forming a powerful bond along the way.

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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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THE DEVIL INSIDE ME (2011) short review

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Another entry in the “transplanted organ horror” sub-genre that was started by the Pang Brothers’ The Eye in 2002, Zhang Qi’s The Devil Inside Me follows Lin Yan (Kelly Lin), who gets a heart transplant but soon thereafter starts to get flashes of the final days of the heart donor. The latter turns out to have been a piano teacher (Anya) who died under strange circumstances, and together with her grieving boyfriend (Victor Huang), Lin Yan starts to investigate her savior’s final days, under the watchful eye of the surgeon who performed the transplant (Tony Leung Ka Fai), who obviously isn’t telling her everything. The Devil Inside Me is often visually pleasing thanks to good cinematography by Zhang Xuewen, and there’s an interesting concept at the center of it, but after an intriguing start it devolves into a mess of screechy, unimaginative nightmare sequences, tired jump scares, and dull, predictable twists. There’s a scene that beggars belief in such a serious, gloomy film, where Kelly Lin realizes in sheer terror that she cannot stand up from the toilet because an invisible force is compelling her. That such a moment is played for scares and not for laughs tells you everything you need to know about Zhang Qi’s command of horror filmmaking. Tony Leung Ka Fai elevates the film with an expertly ambiguous performance, while Kelly Lin does her best with a thankless role that was probably passed on by Angelica Lee. Lin hasn’t made a film since, let’s hope it’s a long hiatus and not retirement, she’s too talented an actress to stop so soon, and too talented also for this kind of film. **

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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WHO IS UNDERCOVER (2015) review

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Fan Jianhui’s Who is Undercover cashes in on the success of classy and starry Chinese spy thrillers like Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s The Silent War or Gao Qunshu and Chen Kuo Fu’s superb The Message, with a story that borrows heavily from the latter film (though set slightly earlier in Chinese history).  In 1934, the secret services of the Kuomintang government round up suspects (including Lin Chi Ling and Gillian Chung) in a military base and torture them in an attempt to identify the undercover communist agent among them while on the outside, the head of the underground communist party (Tony Leung Ka Fai) tries to control the damage and free his agent, known under the codename “The Joker”. Beyond a shared premise, Who is Undercover is often so strikingly similar to The Message that there’s more than a whiff of plagiarism about it. The way the story unravels (with a mix of tragedy and mystery, regular torture scenes, an emphasis on coding and constant twists and scenes replayed in flashbacks to reveal their true meaning), the arc and hidden identity of some of the main characters, and key plot points (which we won’t reveal not to spoil either film) are exactly the same. A few scenes are basically transpositions of ones found in The Message, striking the same dramatic beats with the same narrative or visual tricks. At some point there’s even a key line of dialogue that is a verbatim repetition of one heard in the 2009 film, carrying the same implications. In the end, there’s enough differences that it doesn’t constitute a remake, but enough similarities that it feels redundant and borders on shameless copying.

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RISE OF THE LEGEND (2014) review

ROTL-FINAL REGULAR-A3-poster_S It’s been 17 years since the folk hero Wong Fei Hung last graced the big screen, in Sammo Hung’s Once Upon a Time in China and America in 1997. Now, as most hits of the nineties are given the reboot treatment, from the ancient legends of The Monkey King to the edgy streets of Young and Dangerous, it seemed obvious that the Chinese martial artist, physician and revolutionary, as well as hero of over 100 films, would make a comeback. Surprisingly, this comeback wasn’t handled by Tsui Hark, who with Flying Swords of Dragon Gate showed a willingness to revisit his earlier films, but by Roy Chow, director of two interesting but sometimes misguided films, Murderer (2009) and Nightfall (2012). This is, as the impressively bland title suggests, an origins story, and it follows Wong Fei Hung (Eddie Peng) both as a kid learning valuable life lessons from his father Wong Kei Ying (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and being scarred forever by his death in a criminal fire, and as a young man infiltrating a ruthless gang led by the formidable Lei (Sammo Hung, who also produces), who controls the docks of Canton, owns opium dens and sells slaves to the usual evil Gweilos. Wong is helped by his childhood friends (Jing Boran, May Wang and Angelababy), but many sacrifices await him.

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