A BETTER TOMORROW 2018 (2018) review

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There’s probably no Hong Kong film more seminal and iconic than John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow. Mixing his own richly melodramatic sensibility with his mentor Chang Cheh’s themes of heroic brotherhood, Sam Peckinpah’s throbbing, elegiac brutality and Jean-Pierre Melville’s urban Bushido, Woo brought to life the Heroic Bloodshed genre and its visual grammar of slow-motion, bullet-riddled valor and gut-wrenching montages. He also revitalized Shaw Brothers stalwart Ti Lung’s career, made Leslie Cheung a star, and turned Chow Yun Fat from an affable TV lead to a true film icon. A Better Tomorrow was then milked for an entertaining sequel, a solid prequel, a mediocre Wong Jing re-run (1994’s Return to a Better Tomorrow) and a more recent, passable Korean remake. Announced concurrently to a rival remake to be directed by Stephen Fung (of which nothing has been heard since), Ding Sheng’s A Better Tomorrow 2018 isn’t the first time he tries his hand at an iconic Hong Kong property, and the flawed but interesting Police Story 2013 has shown that the writer/director isn’t one to slavishly regurgitate a franchise’s formula.

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THE BRINK (2017) review

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Sai Gau (Max Zhang) is a violent police detective who narrowly avoided jail-time for the involuntary manslaughter of a corrupt colleague, whose daughter (Cecilia So) he now supports financially, out of a sense of duty rather than guilt. With an empty personal life, a single-minded approach to his job, a disapproving, pencil-pushing boss (Lam Ka Tung) and a debt-ridden partner on the cusp of an early retirement (Wu Yue), he is dead set on bringing Shing (Shawn Yue), a cruel gold smuggler, to justice. Shing has just gotten rid of his mentor (Tao Bo) and his rival (Derek Tsang) ; he’s now aiming to get to a $50 million stash of gold hidden in an underwater cache in the high seas (thus out of police jurisdiction), and belonging to Triad boss Blackie (Yasuaki Kurata). The violent cop and the brutal smuggler are on a collision course.

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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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GOD OF WAR (2017) review

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A genre that dominated the 00’s in China and culminated with the massive success of John Woo’s Red Cliff and Peter Chan’s The Warlords, the war epic has been much scarcer in the 10’s, and much less successful in general, as indicated by the high-profile underperformance of passable examples of the genre like Andrew Lau’s The Guillotines and Ronny Yu’s Saving General Yang, not to mention the downright flop of Frankie Chan’s Legendary Amazons. It remains to be seen if Gordon Chan’s God of War can re-ignite the Chinese war epic’s popularity (even the success of Daniel Lee’s Dragon Blade in 2015 didn’t manage that), but it is, on its own merits, one of the finest examples of the genre. Set in the 16th century and based on historical events, it follows the efforts of Ming general Qi Jiguang (Vincent Zhao) and commander Yu Dayou (Sammo Hung) to defeat an army of Japanese pirates and Ronins led by Kumasawa (Yasuaki Kurata), and that has been pillaging the Chinese coastline for the enrichment of a Shogun whose son Yamagawa (Keisuke Koide) is among the pirates but disapproves of their treatment of civilians. General Qi enlists local peasants and trains them into a new and better-equipped army.

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THE ADVENTURES OF WEIBAOBAO (2016) short review

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In Brand Tan’s The Adventures of Weibaobao (also known, head-scratchingly, as Provoking Laughter), timid tour guide Wei Baobao (Pan Yueming) is mistaken for a dangerous criminal as a result of a dinner reservation mix-up. Brought in the inner circle of a mob boss (Tan Kai), his lethal girlfriend/enforcer (Lin Peng) and his loyal second-in-command (Archie Kao), Baobao wants to run for his life, but a duo of cops (Chang Yuan and Tao Siyuan) urge him to stay under this unintentional cover and work with their other undercover (Wu Yue). This one of those films that try to be many genres at once but end up a bland amalgamation. There is some “wuss posing as a tough guy” comedy, but it’s undermined by a severe lack of conviction or creativity in the comedic situations. There are some David Mamet-style deadpan twists and turns on the canvas of a Hong Kong-type undercover crime thriller (suffice it to say, everyone is a potential undercover agent), but it’s all too muddled and sluggish to grip and surprise the way it is supposed to. There are also Tarantino-inspired postmodern winks (Ennio Morricone in the soundtrack, animated backstories…) and flashes of ultra-violence, but they appear tired and derivative, sometimes exceeding the production’s obviously limited budget grasp. The film does remain palatable thanks to a short runtime, a few inspired visual gags, one or two plot turns that are mildly surprising, and a solid cast: Pan Yueming might have been excellent with better writing to work with, Lin Peng is striking as a steely henchwoman, Archie Kao has fun acting as shady as possible, and Chin Shih Chieh brings a modicum of class to the whole thing, while Wu Yue would probably be a scene-stealer if there were actually good scenes to steal. **

MISSION MILANO (2016) short review

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This caper about an Interpol agent (Andy Lau) who joins forces with a gentleman-thief (Huang Xiaoming) to stop a terrorist organization from using a revolutionary invention known as the Seed of God (a seed that can grow even in the most barren places) for evil purposes could very well be a From Vegas to Macau film, as it sees Wong Jing follow the exact same recipe as in his successful Chinese New Year franchise: pair up a handsome legend with a handsome younger star, surround them with comedians (including here a very funny Shen Teng and a so-so Wong Cho Lam) and cameos (hello, Sammi Cheng) and one or two martial artists (good old Ken Lo and up-and-comer Wu Yue), offer spectacle that combines a five-year old boy’s sense of narrative logic, a ten year-old boy’s taste for absurd high-tech gadgets, and a fifteen year-old boy’s fixation on leather-clad beauties (hello, Michelle Hu and many others). Add a dash of gambling (but not too much, the Hong Kong market is second served), one or two exotic locations, a lot of derivative elements (including a Resident Evil death corridor, Wolverine claws, John Powell’s The Bourne Supremacy soundtrack tracked in the action scenes…) and one or two incongruously straight-faced dramatic moments. In the end, it is indeed a lowbrow but entertaining formula, and Mission Milano is actually more palatable than any of the From Vegas to Macau films. Andy Lau is a delight (Huang Xiaoming seems less comfortable), there are some moderately inspired pratfalls, sight gags and situations, and Dion Lam’s action is cartoony and amusing. All in all, this film deserves the following faint praise: a Mission Milano 2 sounds more tempting than a From Vegas to Macau 4**1/2