FATHER AND SON (2017) review

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Fan Xiaobing (Da Peng) is a thirty-something aspiring entrepreneur who idolizes Bill Gates and Steve Jobs but never manages to convince investors to back his ideas, and keeps borrowing money from his close ones. He’s a big disappointment to his father Fan Yingxiong (Fan Wei), a retired army commander, and to his longtime friend Liu Wen (Crystal Zhang), who obviously fancies him, but towards whom he has not yet made a single step. Now Xiaobing is in deep trouble, as he has borrowed a hefty sum from a particularly cruel loan shark (Simon Yam), who is sending his goons to collect, including the bumbling Fang Jian (Qiao Shan). Left with little time to gather a hefty sum, Xiaobing decides to send his father on a trip, to then pretend he is dead, organize a fake funeral and collect donations from the family and friends who attend. But the father returns earlier than expected…

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THE HOUSE THAT NEVER DIES II (2017) review

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Three years after Raymond Yip’s The House that never dies became the highest-grossing Chinese horror film, comes this Gordon Chan-produced sequel, featuring a different cast and a new set of characters, but still taking place at N°81 Chanoei in Beijing, a famous mansion believed to be haunted. This time, engineer Song Teng (Julian Cheung) is working on restoring the old mansion, while neglecting his wife He (Mei Ting), a doctor. The couple has grown estranged following the stillbirth of their child five years before, and Song’s apparent reciprocal fondness for his assistant (Gillian Chung) isn’t helping matters. In an attempt to solidify their marriage, He moves in with her husband in the old house, but soon she is plagued by visions and nightmares, that appear to be memories of a past life: at the beginning of the 20th century, a general (Julian Cheung) who lived in this mansion had to marry the daughter (Gillian Chung) of a warlord, to solidify an alliance and to ensure he would have an heir, after his first wife (Mei Ting) failed to beget him one. But the general’s affections were still for his first wife, and his new bride proved barren as well. And deadly jealous.

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EVERYBODY’S FINE (2016) review

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Giuseppe Tornatore’s Stanno Tutti Bene, released to a mostly rapturous reception in 1990 but a bit forgotten nowadays, had already been remade and transposed from Italy to the United States in Kirk Jones’s Everybody’s Fine (2009), and now comes the Chinese remake. But rather than denote a lack of originality, this new version speaks to the universality and strength of the concept: take a revered older actor (here Zhang Guoli taking over from Marcello Mastroianni and Robert De Niro) as a former absentee father who’s now a widower leaving alone in the family house, his four children having scattered across the country and all supposedly thriving in their professional and private lives. When they all cancel their visit for a planned family reunion, the father decides to pack up and go visit each one of them.

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THE SOONG SISTERS (1997) review

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Mabel Cheung’s The Soong Sisters, though a bit forgotten nowadays, was a momentous project and an awards magnet at the time of its making and release, coming out in the year of Hong Kong’s retrocession to China and raking in Hong Kong Film Awards (or nominations) for most of its key players. It cast three of the most high-profile Asian actresses at the time as the titular sisters : daughters of catholic missionary, printing magnate and political activist and revolutionary Charlie Soong (Jiang Wen), himself a figure worthy of a 4-hour film, they each married a major figure of that infinitely troubled and transformative time in China’s history. Elder sister Ai-Ling (Michelle Yeoh) married H. H. Kung (Niu Zhenhua), one of the biggest fortunes in China and the future minister of industry, commerce and finance in the Kuomintang (Nationalist Party) government. Then her sister Ching-Ling (Maggie Cheung) wedded the revolutionary saint and first president and founding father of the Republic of China, Sun Yat Sen (Winston Chao), a union that estranged her from her outraged father, himself a close friend of Dr. Sun. And finally, youngest sister Mai-Ling got married to Sun Yat Sen’s ally and successor as head of the Kuomintang and as president of the Republic of China, Chiang Kai-Shek (Wu Hsing-Kuo). Each of these marriages took a toll on the family’s unity, but more importantly, the Soong sisters were much more than simply wives of powerful men. They were powerful women whose choices and sacrifices helped shape China’s history. Think of them as 20th-century women general of the Yang family.

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FEED ME (2015) review

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Shot in 2012 but only released 3 years later, perhaps because of lead actress Yu Nan’s heightened profile after being in two of the biggest Chinese hits of the past months (Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain and Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior), Yang Yazhou’s Feed Me also bears the distinction of starring Lin Hao, a boy who had become a national hero after rescuing several of his classmates in his collapsing school building during the devastating Sichuan earthquake of 2008. The hero-turned-actor plays a country boy who lives with his grandfather (Tao Zeru) on a boat, making regular trips to Shanghai to sell rapeseed. It is on one of those trips that upon returning to the boat, they find a pregnant woman (Yu Nan) who seems to be running away from something or someone. Soon she gives birth, and the grandfather lets her stay onboard both for the sake of the baby and because he’s been diagnosed with early senile dementia and worries as to who will take care of his grandson when he no longer can. But in the nearby village there’s gossip and disapproval of this situation, especially from a doctor (Vivian Wu) he is trying to woo. As for the boy, he grows more and more fascinated by this woman he sees as a  potential surrogate mother.

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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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