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

MEET THE IN-LAWS (2012) short review

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Despite its title, Li Hai Shu’s Meet The In-Laws isn’t a remake of the successful 2011 Korean comedy, but rather a loose remake of Jay Roach’s 2000 hit comedy Meet the Parents. Xu Zheng (just months before Lost in Thailand dramatically raised his profile) fills in for Ben Stiller as the well-meaning but bumbling future son-in-law, here a psychologist who just started his own clinic and is in blissful love with a teacher played by Lin Peng. Good old Hui Shiu Hung steps in Robert De Niro’s shoes as her overprotective father who’s immediately suspicious of his daughter’s boyfriend, though the similarities end there, and save for a few minor plot points, Meet The In-Laws doesn’t follow Meet the Parents beyond that basic set-up. Here the initial distrust is compounded by the fact that the father realizes that his future son-in-law is none other than the shrink to whom he’s been opening up for months about everything from his erectile dysfunction to his adultery impulses. Add to that two hapless criminals who’ve mistakenly hidden a bag of cash in the trunk of Xu Zheng’s car, and Hui Shiu Hung’s attempt to get sentimental closure with a old college flame – a subplot borrowed three years later in Xu Zheng’s Lost in Hong Kong. It’s a fairly uninspired though fitfully amusing comedy, not a patch on its American model as it’s more preoccupied with wacky situations and repeated pratfalls than making any sort of observations on mariage and family in China. Xu Zheng and Hui Shiu Hung, in roles they know like the back of their hand, don’t have much chemistry and only really click when balanced with the classier touch of Lin Peng and Li Fengxu (as the mother). **

NO MAN’S LAND (2013) short review

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Being shelved for four years over censorship issues sounds like a death knell for any film, and yet in the case of Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land, it may actually have been a considerable boon : indeed, the four-years delay meant that the film came out after the comedy Lost In Thailand, which starred two of the leads of No Man’s Land (Xu Zheng and Huang Bo), and thus became positioned as their follow-up to what is still the all-time highest-grossing Chinese film in China. It did however lose its potential status as China’s very first modern-day set western – with Gao Qunshu’s Wind Blast having been released in the meantime – though in truth it is closer to a film noir than a western, with moody voice-over and a cynical outlook on human nature. It tells of an arrogant big city lawyer (Xu Zheng) who travels to the far west of China to plead the case of a falcon trafficker (Togbye), then tries to rush back to the city to close a book deal on that very case. But he runs afoul of the trafficker’s scabby assistant (Huang Bo), as well as spiteful cops, angry truck drivers, and sordid petrol station owners, becoming the de facto protector of a desperate prostitute (Yu Nan) in the process. No Man’s Land often recalls Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, with which it shares an almost fantasmagorical level of bad luck and human scum thrust upon an almost unlikeable main character. And like that 1997 film, it starts out delightfully dark and funny, then loses steam with its thudding cynicism and an overdose of plot turns that are less fresh and witty than the director seems to think. Still, it’s a fun ride with great turns from Togbye as a monolithic bandit and Yu Nan as the only likeable character of the film and the incarnation of the softer side of Ning Hao’s pitch dark vision. ***1/2

THE GREAT HYPNOTIST (2014) review

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Dr. Xu Ruining (Xu Zheng) is a highly-regarded practitioner of hypnotherapy, a science that yields surprisingly effective results but also a bit of controversy due to its blurry ethical boundaries : indeed, matters of free will are made a bit blurry when one enters the alternative state of hypnosis. This doesn’t stop Xu from being a supremely confident, resolutely arrogant master of his craft, and he is quick to take up the challenge when a colleague asks for his help in curing a seemingly untreatable patient : a woman (Karen Mok) who’s been abandoned by her parents and by her foster parents, and now claims to see dead people. She shows up at his office one evening, and a psychological game of cat and mouse ensues as it becomes apparent she’s not the only one to have secrets. Initially dismissive of any supernatural explanation, Dr. Xu soon has the tables turned on himself, as the woman claims that two ghosts are present in the room, and starts telling him things about himself he thought no one else knew.

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