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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THE HUNTED HUNTER (1997) short review

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Yuen Biao’s last lead role on the big screen before he retreated to supporting parts and TV, Ricky Lau’s The Hunted Hunter is a cheap, limp semi-remake of The Fugitive, set in the Philippines with Yuen as the titular wrongly accused man on the run (here a chief of security accused of murdering a woman in the building he supervises), Zhang Fenyi as the dogged cop on his trail (along with Filipino help from Roi Vinzon and Karen Timbol), and Jessica Hsuan Hester as his wife who has the key to proving his innocence. Jerry Lamb, Chung Fat and a ponytailed Wu Ma also feature. The plot, in which it should be noted the hunted is not a hunter at all, is a toxic mix of convoluted and vague, and while Zhang Fenyi at least tries to look like he’s invested, Yuen Biao gives a lifeless performance, a very unusual sight indeed. Worse : in a numbingly stupid artistic choice, some action scenes which could have been fairly exciting are shot in a blurry semi-slow motion that annihilates any excitement or impact. When shot normally the action is serviceable, with a watchable fighting finale the only competent moment in a slightly depressing film. *1/2

SIFU VS VAMPIRE (2014) review

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Amazingly, Daniel Chan Yee Heng’s Sifu vs Vampire is Hong Kong legend Yuen Biao’s first lead role in a feature film since Ricky Lau’s Hunted Hunter in 1997. We could imagine a better comeback vehicle than a crass Wong Jing-produced comedy, but we’ll take what we can get. Yuen plays Master Chiang, a Taoist priest and exorcist who together with his disciple Lingxin (Jiang Luxia) teams up with a pair of hapless gangsters (Ronald Cheng and Philip Ng) to fight – and sometimes fall in love with – vampires old and new. There’s a definite throwback quality to the film, as it harks back to the vampire comedies of the eighties and beginning of the nineties, most notably the Mr Vampire series which already featured Yuen Biao. Contrary to Juno Mak’s impressive Rigor MortisSifu vs Vampire is straightforward and unpretentious, a loosely calibrated mix of (very) broad laughs, (very) mild scares and (very) sparse fighting.

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LICENCE TO STEAL (1990) short review

LicenseToSteal_DongFangXu_SC36 In Billy Chan’s Licence to Steal, a cat burglar (Joyce Godenzi) is betrayed by her partner (Agnes Aurelio) and sent to prison for three years. Upon her release, she aims to get revenge on the double-crosser, and teams up with a dogged cop (Richard Ng), his young partner (Collin Chou) and his idealistic, slightly unhinged nephew (Yuen Biao). Licence to Steal avoids the numbing effect of overabundant action, as well as the annoyance of crass humor. It is often, as so many films of that time and place, too scattershot in its progression to really engage, but the cast is uniformly appealing, from the always classy and charismatic Joyce Godenzi to Yuen Biao playing a variation on his irresistible Dragons Forever role, not to mention the always funny and reliable Richard Ng. The fights, as choreographed by Corey Yuen, are brisk and delightful, if often frustratingly short : there’s a one-minute, dizzying bout between Yuen and Chou, that should have gone on at least four more minutes. And the same year as their savage, thundering fight in She Shoots Straight, Godenzi and Aurelio get a re-match in a masterful, stealthy fight in a warehouse, where they go at each other while avoiding being seen or heard by patrolling guards. A very pleasant action comedy.  ***

ROSA (1986) review

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Joe Cheung’s Rosa is a buddy movie produced by Sammo Hung, that pairs the perennially underrated Yuen Biao (who also directs the action) with singer-actor Lowell Lo, with a script (though as often for Hong Kong films of the eighties, ‘outline’ would be a better word) by Wong Kar Wai. But despite that interesting pedigree, it doesn’t truly stick out from the mass of Hong Kong comedies of the decade. Yuen and Lo play cops who get on their superior officer’s (Paul Chun) wrong side but get a chance to redeem themselves by locating a police informant who has critical evidence against a local gangster (James Tien, not exactly cast against type). Their main help in finding him is his girlfriend Rosa (Luk Siu Fan), a model with whom Lo falls in love, while Yuen himself becomes romantically involved with Lo’s sister (Kara Hui). All those feelings, plus the two cops’ constant bickering, slows down the investigation to a crawl, until the gangster decides to take action.

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TOUGH BEAUTY AND THE SLOPPY SLOP (1995) short review

5132J64CRFL._SS500_ With its pairing of a stern Mainland police woman and an affable Hong Kong cop, who stage a prison break to infiltrate a drug trafficker’s gang, Yuen Bun’s Tough Beauty and the Sloppy Slop (its original title refers to a kind of speedboat) is a not-too-subtle rehash of Police Story 3, with cheaper alternatives to Jackie Chan and Michelle Yeoh in the lead roles. In step Yuen Biao, a hugely underrated actor who was at the nadir of his career at the time, and Cynthia Khan, who had already stood in for Yeoh in the In The Line Of Duty series, and whose career was waning quickly by 1994. Indeed this is a cheap film, and while it flashes a lot of familiar, welcome faces besides its leads (Waise Lee, Yuen Wah, Alan Chui who directed the action, and Billy Chow all appear), it is so derivative, loosely narrated and – more damningly for this kind of production – light on action, that it’s hard not to be sorry for Yuen and Khan, who turn in game performances despite having little chemistry together, but deserved so much better. Their short final fight against Billy Chow (scored with Elliot Goldenthal’s Demolition Man score) is the only worthwhile scene in an otherwise flabby little actioner. *

CIRCUS KIDS (1994) short review

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Wu Ma’s last film as a director (though he kept on appearing in films for twenty more years), Circus Kids stands out simply by being the only time – so far – that martial arts greats Yuen Biao and Donnie Yen have been in the same film. Both were about to experience a unfortunate career wane in the second half of the nineties, and indeed Circus Kids is not up to their talent. It follows the various misfortunes of a circus troupe (led by Wu Ma himself and including Yuen Biao) during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai around 1910. Forced to move and take up jobs at a factory when their tent is destroyed in a Japanese bombing, they are thrust in the middle of political machinations and opium trafficking, but find an ally in a constable (Donnie Yen) who has feelings for the troupe’s trapeze artist (Irene Wan). Much of the goings-on in Circus Kids are tedious, thinly-written melodrama, which coupled with the film’s short running time and fairly low budget, don’t allow it to develop any kind of epic sweep or even dramatic poignancy. It is also fairly light on martial arts, with Donnie Yen and Yuen Biao only trading blows for a few seconds. Still the film’s stunning final fight, which sees Yuen take on fearful kicker Ken Lo (who the same year fought Jackie Chan in Drunken Master 2‘s unforgettable finale), is worth the wait, and a welcome relief from the mediocrity that precedes it. **

KICKBOXER (1993) short review

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Directed by Wu Ma and sometimes billed as Once Upon A Time In China 6, which it is definitely not, Kickboxer instead focuses on a disciple of Wong Fei Hung (who is absent from the whole film), Yuen Biao’s Lau Zhai, who after being wrongly accused of smuggling opium into China, has to infiltrate a Opium gang led by Chairman Wah (Yuen Wah), with the help of his friend Bucktooth (Wu Ma) and constable Panther (Yen Shi Kwan). Produced not only to cash in on the success of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China series, but also to provide Yuen Biao with a starring role worthy of his talents following his sidelining in the first film of Tsui Hark’s series, Kickboxer was unfortunately made with much less money, resulting in a far cheaper look. More disappointingly, despite its ambition to better showcase Yuen Biao, the film relies too much on comedy and not enough on fights. It has crazy moments, like what can only be described as a kung fu chess game between Yuen and Yen Shi Kwan, but overall has the feel of a TV knockoff. Things do get a bit more memorable in final fight between Yuen Biao and Yuen Wah (always an exciting match-up), but in the end, Kickboxer isn’t that much less a waste of Yuen’s massive talents than Once Upon A Time In China was. **

 

SHANGHAI SHANGHAI (1990) short review

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In the 1930’s, Small Tiger (Yuen Biao) comes to Shanghai hoping to make it big. There he finds himself torn between his brother Big Tiger (George Lam), who’s an army colonel, and a charismatic mob boss (Sammo Hung Kam Bo), for whom he starts working. But a case of stolen funds forces him to choose sides and butt heads with a high-ranking revolutionary (Anita Mui), who’s also in love with his brother. With its 80 minutes running time, and sometimes subpar production values (mostly in scenes that involve flight in machines designed by Big Tiger), Shanghai Shanghai often feels more like an extended TV series pilot, but the sheer charisma and class of its cast, whether it be a flawless Yuen Biao who proves again what a fine leading man he can be, the classy Anita Mui singing, dancing and fighting the film away, or a towering Sammo Hung Kam Bo in a mob boss role that foreshadows his impressive S.P.L. character fifteen years later. Ultimately it’s a fun little adventure film, and one that speaks to any martial arts fan’s heart by ending with a Sammo Hung/Yuen Biao fight. ***

 

MY KINGDOM (2011) review

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Some films just don’t know what their best assets are. Take Gao Xiaosong’s My Kingdom : it benefits from the considerable talent and gravitas of two great martial arts actors, Yuen Biao and Yu Rongguang, and as long as it is concerned with them, it’s a riveting film. But as soon as the plot calls for their exit, we are left with something far more plodding and average. They play rival Chinese opera stars, master Yu (Yuen Biao) and master Yue (Yu Rongguang). Yu has two pupils, Yilong and Erkui, the latter being the last surviving member of a clan that was executed by the prince regent of the Qing dynasty. One day, as master Yu is being awarded a golden plaque honoring him as the greatest opera performer of his time, master Yue challenges him in a spear duel, and wins. Yu’s defeat means he is not allowed to perform on a stage anymore, and he spends the rest of his life away from the world, teaching his two students the art of opera fighting. When they are ready (and have grown into Wu Chun and Han Geng), they leave for Shanghai with the intent to reclaim the plaque from master Yue and carve out a career in Chinese opera for themselves. They quickly defeat Yue and take over his troupe, among which Mulang (Barbie Hsu), his former mistress. But Yilong and Erkui have different ways of dealing with their newfound stardom…

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