THE ADVENTURERS (2017) review

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Initially rumored to be a remake of John Woo’s Once a Thief, Stephen Fung’s The Adventurers is actually simply a caper in the same spirit, with only European locations and a central duo of thieves in common with the 1991 film. Dan Zhang (Andy Lau), a highly-skilled thief, has just been released after serving a four-year prison sentence. Right upon becoming a free man again, and despite being closely watched by French detective Pierre Bissette (Jean Reno), he immediately goes back to his old ways, stealing a priceless necklace in Cannes, with the help of his trusted partner Bao (Tony Yang) and Red (Shu Qi), a talented aspiring thief. Next, Zhang sets his sight on another piece of invaluable jewelry that is in the possession of a Chinese billionaire (Sha Yi), safely kept in his castle in Czech Republic. But Bissette is still on his trail, and teams up with Amber Li (Zhang Jingchu), an art expert who’s none other than Zhang’s long-suffering girlfriend.
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THE OLD CINDERELLA (2014) short review

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Co-written and produced by Lu Chuan, Wubai’s The Old Cinderella is a slightly above-average romantic comedy in which a thirty-something tour guide (Zhang Jingchu), divorces her husband of five years (Pan Yueming), after she finds out he cheated on her with a TV presenter. Keeping custody of their son, she moves back to her old flat and lets her best friend (Zhu Zhu) arrange blind dates for her, but the only man who catches her fancy is a young Taiwanese businessman (Kenji Wu). Meanwhile, her ex-husband tries to win her back. Romantic comedies tend to live or die on the appeal of their leads, and The Old Cinderella is certainly blessed by the presence of Zhang Jingchu in a performance that is in turns charming, affecting, sexy and funny, and sometimes, impressively, all at once. The film does tick off a checklist of romantic comedy tropes: funny blind dates, glitzy parties, an exotic, soul-searching location (here Jerusalem), and trying on dresses, to name just a few. But amidst these entertaining but often rote goings-on, there are hints of depth: the emotional toll of divorce is not glossed over, and the burden of failed expectations in initially promising relationships is addressed in a few heartbreaking scenes where Pan Yueming shines as the ex-husband whose guilt leads to emotional self-destruction. Kenji Wu, who is the focus of the more light-hearted and romantic side of the film, is likable enough, but never matches Zhang’s sheer class. The Old Cinderella 2 came out a year later, but with completely different characters, cast, and crew. ***

SKY ON FIRE (2016) review

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2015’s Wild City, which marked the end of Ringo Lam’s twelve-year hiatus from directing feature films, was an unremarkable but solid and heartfelt crime thriller, which while nowhere near the artistic heights of the Hong Kong director’s career, was especially heartening when thought of as a lead up to more ambitious films. A bit over a year later (a half-second when compared to that twelve-year wait), Sky on Fire is indeed more ambitious in terms of themes and spectacle, but it’s also oddly underwhelming. Five years ago, Dr. Pan, a scientist who was making major advances in cancer research, died in a possibly criminal fire while he was working in his lab. Now, her protégé Dr. Gao (Zhang Jingchu) and her husband Dr. Tong (Fan Guangyao), under the banner of their pharmaceutical company Sky One, have used his notes to discover a revolutionary cancer-curing medicine, X-stem cells. But the truck carrying the first of these curative cells is hijacked both by the son of Dr. Pan, Ziwan (Zhang Ruoyun), and by Jia (Joseph Chang), a man desperate to save his cancer-stricken sister Jen (Amber Kuo). Caught in the crossfire is Chong (Daniel Wu), the head of security for Sky One, who must take sides as hidden agendas are revealed.

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FOR A FEW BULLETS (2016) review

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With For a Few Bullets, writer and director Pan Anzi (who now goes by Peter Pan, believe it or not) returns to the genre of the zany Inner Mongolia-set period caper which he had already essayed with 2012’s Scheme with Me, starring Richie Ren. This time Pan had a bigger budget and larger stylistic ambitions. For a Few Bullets is set in the 1940s and tells of Chinese government agent Ruoyun (Zhang Jingchu) who teams up with con man Xiao Zhuang to recover a priceless imperial stamp that was found in a lost tomb by the Japanese army, whose leaders (including Kenneth Tsang) plan to use it in their bid to subjugate China. As they learn to trust – and even love – each other, race through the Gobi desert and deal with countless double-crosses, a dastardly Russian generals and a inhuman Japanese executioner, Ruoyun and Xiao Zhuang are helped by legendary hustler Shi Fu (Tenggeer) and his fiery wife San Niang (Liu Xiaoqing).

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MURDER AT HONEYMOON HOTEL (2016) short review

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A former assistant-director to Kim Ki-duk, director Jang Cheol-soo makes his Chinese-speaking debut with Murder at Honeymoon Hotel, about a luxury hotel that is the site of a series of variably grisly incidents. There’s a movie star (Zhang Jingchu), here to pay off a mysterious blackmailer who threatens to reveal a secret from her past, there’s a smarmy plastic surgeon (Peter Ho, who’s been on a overacting spree recently) in heavy debt to loan sharks, there’s a beautiful woman (Ni Hongjie) planning revenge on a client of the hotel, and in the middle is stuck a penniless bellboy (Kim Young-min) who’s getting married and hopes his boss will let him use the presidential suite for his honeymoon. Black comedies can seldom afford to be clumsy: this is a genre that requires real confidence and assured legerdemain. Murder at Honeymoon Hotel possesses the former but not the latter, marred as it is by sitcom-worthy acting and a surfeit of plot holes and unconvincing narrative turns. Still, this entertaining little film does have a a few deliciously twisted moments, and benefits greatly from the starry presence of Zhang Jingchu, whose unhinged, blazingly sexy femme fatale act enlivens the proceedings considerably. **1/2

THE MAN BEHIND THE COURTYARD HOUSE (2011) review

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Before he found success with the excellent courtroom thriller Silent Witness, Fei Xing directed The Man behind the Courtyard House, which despite its high-profile cast went fairly unnoticed. Much like Silent Witness, it starts out with a fairly straightforward narrative, whose conclusion arrives a bit too soon to satisfy. Then it rewinds itself not once but twice, each time revealing a new layer that helps not only to make sense of what we saw, but also to see it in a new light. And so after a first segment in which we see a group of backpacking students (Eva Huang Shengyi, Yu Shaoqun, Zhang Kejia and Zhang Shuyu) find shelter in a old traditional house whose sole inhabitant is cold, mysterious Chen Zhihui (Simon Yam) who claims he’s a distant relative of the old couple that is supposed to live there. What follows is a rote slasher where Chen kills the backpackers one by one by banging a nail in their skull, with no apparent motive. But then the film backtracks twice, and we are introduced to his backstory, and people he met in the days before : the old couple who lived in the house, but also an affable state investigator (Chen Sicheng), a recently-widowed hotel owner (Zhang Jingchu) and a desperate but determined ex-con (Wei Zi), among others. Slowly, Chen’s story takes fascinating, poignant shape.

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