Archive for September, 2011

Too Much Heaven, Part Three: Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society

Buzz Chung, astronaut, Echoes of the Rainbow, 2010

This weekend the San Francisco Film Society presents Hong Kong Cinema, the first of two Chinese-language film festivals, which runs for three days with seven films from the former Crown Colony. Although it doesn’t include any blockbusters, the brief festival runs the gamut from romantic comedies to crime films to melodramas and is a good look at the range of films coming out of Hong Kong these days.  Herewith are a few of the films included in the series.

Punished

A sleek, economical crime film that’s actually a family drama in disguise, Punished is produced by Johnnie To and directed by Law Wing Cheong, To’s editor and frequent second unit director. The story moves along at a brisk and efficient pace, emphasizing the dysfunctional family relationships behind the kidnapping drama.

Moral choices, Anthony Wong and Richie Jen, Punished, 2010

Anthony Wong is outstanding as Wong Ho-chiu, a ruthless and powerful businessman seeking vengeance for his errant daughter’s kidnapping and death–his performance is subtle and explosive and as usual he can do no wrong. Richie Jen is also excellent as Anthony Wong’s bodyguard and hatchet man with his own family issues to deal with. Supporting performances are uniformly strong and the mood is mostly realistic throughout–the bad guys aren’t too bad and the good guys aren’t too good, so the film possesses a great deal of moral complexity. Each person has a motivation for his or her actions, justified or not, and no one is completely evil or completely good.

In the end, it’s a mother-daughter relationship that’s the catalyst for the resolution of Wong’s moral crisis. As with the best Hong Kong films the movie is also unafraid to tap into the characters’ deep emotional responses–men cry, women swoon, and children weep unashamedly. Director Law keeps things pretty straightforward, with none of the annoying quirks of fellow Milkywayer Wai Ka-Fei. The film makes intelligent connections between the corruption of big business, damaged family dynamics, and immoral criminal activity.

Meeting cute, Gao Yuan Yuan and Daniel Wu, Don't Go Breaking My Heart, 2011

Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart

An adequate rom-com that attempts to capture the uber-success of early 2000s Johnnie To flicks Needing You and Love on A Diet, Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart stars Louis Koo, Gao Yuan Yuan, and Daniel Wu in a love story set in Hong Kong and China. The three play young urban professionals, with Gao unable to decide between playboy Koo and nice guy Wu.

Gao’s dilemma becomes tedious pretty quickly since Louis Koo’s character is so clearly a womanizing asshole. It’s hard to understand what she sees in him, especially with the charming and sensitive Daniel Wu also courting her. But the plot demands a love triangle so the audience must suffer through her indecision for nearly two hours (whatever happened to the excellent concept of the 90-minute Hong Kong movie?) while she dithers between her two beaus. Director To even cribs from his own most successful romantic comedy, Needing You, by using the device of would-be lovers communicating the movie’s catchphrase by signage. There’s some clever usage of messages pasted on office building windows but even that seems awfully contrived by the end of the movie. Though both are cute and dimply, Gao and Koo never seem to really spark–Gao and Wu’s chemistry is better, with Wu nicely conveying a sense of romantic longing. Gao lacks the manic goofiness and exquisite comic timing of To’s usual rom-com muse Sammi Cheng and Louis Koo just isn’t charming enough to warrant Gao’s long-term fascination. Daniel Wu is very sweet as the long-suffering third party but he doesn’t have much character development except his ongoing dedication to a neon green frog. But as rom-coms go, this one is serviceable, with three good-looking and well-dressed lead actors amidst the glamorous backdrop of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers.

Choices, Teddy Robin and Ella Koon, Merry-Go-Round, 2010

Merry-Go-Round

Though it looks great, with beautiful, rich cinematography and art direction, Merry-Go-Round, (dirs. Yan Yan Mak and Clement Cheng) is just a bit too long and a bit too dependent on coincidence to be completely effective. Ella Koon and Nora Miao play two Hong Kong ex-pats living in San Francisco who return to the former Crown Colony after long absences. Koon’s character is a young bohemian with a hidden past, and Miao’s is a master herbalist who left Hong Kong to follow her bliss in the United States. Their lives converge in somewhat forced circumstances– the film’s narrative links its many characters with overly convenient plot twists.

Merry-Go-Round takes a light but serious look at death, loss, and separation. The film uses the idea of returning home as a metaphor for going back, not forward, in life, with several characters attempting to make amends for past misjudgments or dealing with the results of long-gone choices. It also makes some nice points about the advantages of moving on with life instead of dwelling on past traumas, with one character wistfully telling another, “I would have forgotten long ago but you keep reminding me.”

Teddy Robin, who won Best Actor for Gallants (also directed by Clement Chang) at last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, is very effective as the lovelorn manager of the coffin home/mortuary where Koon ends up working. Also excellent is Nora Miao as the imperious herbalist who so long ago followed her fate to the U.S. But the time structure of the film seems a little skewed–if some of the characters were young adults in 1938, that means that they would be in their nineties now, and the actors playing them in the modern-day sequences seem much too young to be nonegenarians.

Despite its handsomely mounted production design, Merry-Go-Round’s storyline is a bit too unfocused to be completely convincing. But it’s nice to see a Hong Kong film that’s a serious drama instead of the martial arts/triad/comedy flicks that the city’s film industry usually puts out.

Shoemaking, Simon Yam and Sandra Ng, Echoes of the Rainbow, 2010

Echoes of the Rainbow

A charming family drama set in 1960s Hong Kong, this melodrama by Hong Kong New Wave director Alex Law stars Buzz Chung Shiu-Tiu as Big Ears, a young boy whose shoemaker father, his mother and his older brother strive to make an honest living making and selling shoes in their working-class neighborhood. Though a bit soft around the edges, the film is best when it illustrates the community neighborliness found amongst the residents of the street. One pleasant moment occurs when Big Ear’s family takes its nightly meal out to the street behind their house to eat on a homemade dinner table built on top of a tree stump. They’re joined by the rest of their neighbors who are also dining al fresco, presumably to escape the heat of their small, non-airconditioned houses. This small but engaging scene underscores the sense of belonging, safety, and comfort found in an earlier, less hectic time and place.

The film also makes cogent point in its examination of class differences between Desmond (Aarif Lee) and his girlfriend Flora (Evelyn Choi). In one scene Desmond walks for a very long time from his humble street to visit Flora, eventually arriving at the toniest neighborhood in town. The length of his journey and his awkwardness and discomfort in such rarefied surroundings contrasts nicely with the sense of ease and belonging he feels in his own neighborhood and underscores the great gulf in social status between himself and his wealthier sweetheart.

Simon Yam and Sandra Ng are excellent as the cobbler and his wife, and Buzz Chung is endearing without being saccharine. Aarif Lee is suitably modest despite his blazing hotness and Evelyn Choi is sweet and charming as his love interest. Eventually the film succumbs to extreme melodrama but it still remains a lovely rendering of a more innocent time in Hong Kong history.

Ass-kicking, Sandra Ng, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible, 2011

Mr. and Mrs. Incredible

A period piece directed by Vincent Kok, the sometime collaborator of king of comedy Stephen Chiao, this superhero comedy feels a lot like a Lunar New Year film, with its wacky concept, broad humor, slapdash production design, and lead performances by popular stars Louis Koo and Sandra Ng. Koo and Ng play a married couple who are also the retired superheroes formerly known as Gazer Warrior and Aroma Woman (both excellent superhero names). The two erstwhile heroes have renounced adventuring and have settled down incognito in a quiet village where they run a pork bun shop. Their attempt to start a family and to live anonymously in peace is interrupted by a martial arts contest, a life-force sucking villain, and other outlandish circumstances.

Goofy and mild, with humorous banter between its amiable co-stars, the film is a bit talkier than you’d expect from a movie about costumed heroes. It’s carried by the charming performances of Koo and Ng, who are unafraid of looking ridiculous and whose good-natured interplay makes the film an innocuous and pleasant timepass.

Also screening: Redoubtable auteur Ann Hui’s All About Love, a lesbian love story starring Sandra Ng and Vivian Chow, and Benny Chan’s City Under Siege, an action film that involves toxic waste, mutants, circus performers, and other everyday Hong Kong denizens, starring Aaron Kwok and Shu Qi, with production design by the legendary William Chang Suk-Ping (In the Mood for Love, Rouge, 2046).

Hong Kong Cinema

Sept. 23-25, 2011

San Francisco Film Society New People Cinema

1746 Post Street, San Francisco

San Francisco

full schedule and film descriptions here

September 22, 2011 at 4:38 pm 1 comment

Too Much Heaven, Part Two: City of Life and Death and Detective Dee reviews

Andy Lau, sleuthing, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010

Two more Chinese-language films have their theatrical releases in San Francisco, and, although they are completely different in subject, tone, and treatment, both are testaments to the vitality of the new Chinese cinema.

City of Life & Death, dir. Lu Chuan, 2010

My head was spinning when I walked out of the screening for City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan’s devastating and uncompromising look at the Rape of Nanking (or Nanjing).  City of Life and Death is an unflinching look at the infamous Japanese occupation and destruction of the Chinese capital in 1938–the film is a stellar example of the ways in which cinema can both explicate and elevate events from real life. Lu masterfully utilizes wide-screen, black and white, mostly hand-held cinematography, subtle and emotional performances, and a story structure that precludes simplistic nationalism.

Civilians, City of Life and Death, 2010

At the very start in the first hour of the film Lu kills off one of the main characters, forcefully undermining any pretense of a conventionally told story and serving notice that the film will be merciless in the treatment of its characters. As in the real-life occupation of Nanjing, no one is safe and no one will be spared from the casual brutality of wartime and the mentality it fosters. The film also refuses to focus on acts of heroism, although though there are brave and unselfish acts throughout the film’s 2.5 hour running time. No single character is a savior, nor are there any simple answers to the inhuman violence that was perpetrated upon the citizens of Nanjing.

As a Chinese filmmaker Lu makes the unusual choice of presenting the well-known story, which has been used in China to demonize Japan, in part through the eyes of Kadokawa, a Japanese soldier. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the wide-eyed and impressionable Kadokawa’s terrified face as he and his fellow Japanese soldiers prepare to storm the walls of Nanjing. Kadokawa’s horrified responses to the violence surrounding him as well as the pivotal choices he makes at the end of the film belie any condemnation of the Japanese as inherently bestial or subhuman, The film refuses to lay the blame for the events in Nanjing on inborn flaws in the Japanese national character, instead placing responsibility on the insanity of militarism itself.

Atrocities, City of Life and Death, 2010

Viewers shouldn’t be deterred by the grim subject matter as this is filmmaking of the finest order. The wide screen black and white cinematography underscores the huge scope of the atrocities, and director Lu Chuan understands the value of a long, long take in creating an almost unbearable tension. The performances are also uniformly outstanding. Liu Ye is excellent in his brief but significant role as a pragmatic Chinese officer, utilizing his sensitive, evocative face to great effect. Wei Fan is also very effective as a bureaucrat working for the Germans who realizes too late that his position does not grant him immunity from the horrors around him.

A scene near the end of the film where the Japanese soldiers perform a celebratory dance underscores the violent group psychosis of war. While taiko drummers beat out a mournful cadence, the crouched-over soldiers move through the rubble-filled streets with blankly fierce expressions on their youthful faces. After the screen carnage of the past two hours their procession seems like an exercise in group insanity as the men move in hypnotic lockstep, driven by a rhythm dictated to them and with little will of their own. The scene becomes a grim and surreal commentary on the collective madness of war and the indoctrination that makes young men such as Kadokawa into unfeeling, obedient machines of destruction. This image and many others in City of Life and Death make the film absolutely essential viewing, The film’s current theatrical release makes it possible to experience it on the big screen, where its vast and detailed rendering can completely engulf the viewer and magnify its cataclysmic impact.

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, dir. Tsui Hark, 2010

Andy Lau investigates, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010

A film epic of a completely different sort than City of Life and Death, Tsui Hark’s extravagantly fun and fantastic movie is another example of the outstanding product coming out of China and Hong Kong. Like Benny Chan’s Shaolin, Detective Dee is a brilliant blending of traditional Hong Kong moviemaking with the super-high production values of recent mainland films.

Detective Dee is very loosely based on the exploits of real-life historical figure Di Ren-jie, also known as Judge Dee, who has been the subject of several Hong Kong and Chinese films, books, and television series. Here Dee is played by the ageless Andy Lau, as an implacable sleuth assigned to determine the cause of a spate of spontaneous human combustion.

Carina Lau plays another historical figure, Wu Zetian, who was the only woman to ascend to the Chinese imperial throne. Both Andy and Carina, who started their careers at TVB long ago in the 1980s, are excellent as the titular sleuth and the Empress who may or may not be his adversary. Carina Lau holds the distinction of being one of the only actresses of her generation (along with Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh) who is still working, and she brings a presence and authority to her role. Andy Lau has turned into an excellent screen actor and his ability to convey thoughtfulness and depth (despite his incredible good looks) is a result of his experience in more than a hundred films. He’s not afraid to take roles that emphasize his maturity, as seen here and in Shaolin, which is a nice testament to his graceful aging.

Phatasmagoria, Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, 2010

As expected from a Hong Kong fantasy film, Detective Dee includes a surfeit of cleverly staged action set pieces, underscored by director Tsui’s fantasmagoric set designs and kinetic camerawork. But Detective Dee moves beyond earlier Hong Kong films’ visual realizations with its excellent use of extensive digital effects. The world of digital effects has finally caught up to Tsui’s gloriously saturated cinematic vision and in Detective Dee he makes the most of them. Whereas Tsui’s 1990s fantasy classics such as Green Snake featured charmingly unconvincing rubber prosthetics and matte paintings, Detective Dee has the advantage of a full slate of DFX, here outsourced to a well-known Korean effects house. Tsui utilizes this to full effect in realizing his lavishly imaginative vision, which includes transmogrifying faces, a herd of talking (and fighting) deer, characters convincingly immolating from the inside out, and a skyscraper-sized statue of a female bodhisattva.

At the same time Tsui doesn’t let the digital madness take precedence over plot or characterization. The film’s story is a clever and well-developed mystery, and Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Li Bing Bing portray intriguing and complex characters. Tony Leung Kar-Fei is excellent as a revolutionary with a long grudge against the empress. In fine Hong Kong movie tradition, Li and Andy Lau court and spark as conflicted would-be lovers separated by duty and circumstance. As is his wont, Tsui also throws a bit of political commentary into the mix in his critique of the corruption of power.

Detective Dee won Best Director and Best Actress statues at the most recent Hong Kong Film Awards and represents a comeback of sorts for longtime auteur Tsui. Although it was financed by mainland Chinese money and performed in Mandarin, Detective Dee is still a Hong Kong movie through and through, and is an outstanding example of what might come from the integration of mainland and Hong Kong commercial cinema.

City of Life & Death

opens Fri. Sept. 23, 2011

Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema

601 Van Ness Ave.

San Francisco, CA 94102

(415) 267-4893

Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame

now showing

Landmark Embarcadero Cinema

One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level
San Francisco, CA 94111
(415) 267-4893

Landmark Shattuck Cinema

2230 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
(510) 464-5980

September 19, 2011 at 9:59 pm 3 comments

I’ll Take You There: Carlos Villa: Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates

Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates, installation view, Carlos Villa, 2011, Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art

Carlos Villa’s beautiful new show, Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates, at the Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art (MCCLA) is a selective survey of his work, and the show is a great introduction to Villa’s formal, thematic, and stylistic range. The show’s title is indicative of the diversity of the work from Villa’s long career, which has spanned more than seven decades.

As Filipino American cultural critic Theo Gonsalves notes, some art historians as well as some Asian American Studies scholars have had a hard time placing Villa’s wide-ranging body of work. As a Filipino American, Villa has never shied from referencing his cultural heritage in his work, most notably in his striking, large-scale cloaks of feathers, bone, shells, hair, and other evocative organic materials. But Villa also has a large body of non-representational pieces that don’t easily fit into culturally specific pigeonholes, which puzzles the more literally minded multiculturalists among us. However, his ability to move easily between culturally rooted work and work that less directly references his cultural background is perhaps what best defines Villa as an Asian American artist. As Stuart Hall famously notes in his essay, Cultural Identity and Diaspora, “Cultural identity is a matter of ‘becoming’ as well as of ‘being,” and the variety of approaches in Villa’s work speaks to that constantly evolving state of becoming. The current show at MCCLA is an excellent example of the broad scope of Villa’s ongoing concerns.

Where My Uncles Went West, 2002-2004, Carlos Villa

Upon entering the gallery at MCCLA the viewer hears a recording of “I Can’t Give You Anything But Love,” sung by manong Freddy, one of the tenants of the original International Hotel who was involved in the long and bitter struggle to save that Manilatown landmark. The audio track immediately locates Villa’s work in Filipino America and reinforces the deep cultural connection that informs all of his work. Other suggestions of Pinoy culture are found in Where My Uncles Went West, a tall, shallow rectangular box with geometric white lines painted on a black background–both the box and the lines resemble doorframes, suggesting the entrances and exits of the immigrant experience. The side panels of the piece also pay tribute to the various journeys of the manong in their travels from the Philippines and throughout the U.S., with inscriptions including “Cebu to Fresno” and “Watsonville from Honolulu” suggesting the travels of first-generation Filipino Americans in their search for itinerant labor. Centered between the door-shaped geometric lines is a porkpie hat, another significant element of manong culture. Here Villa evokes the transitions and translocations faced by those Filipino immigrants from the early 20th century, suggesting both their origins as well as their destinations.

The show also includes a sampling of Villa’s earlier work, including some beautiful geometric studies on paper as well as photographs of several plywood sculptures that presage some of the work that makes up the bulk of the MCCLA show. A series of large-scale, hand-built wooden boxes marked with carefully drawn lines on colored backgrounds, this body of work is a good example of the way that Villa’s non-representational pieces echo the concerns found in his more culturally specific work.

Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates, detail, 2011, Carlos Villa, Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art

The boxes at the MCCLA show are hinged panels that are displayed in the gallery’s center. The viewer is able to circumnavigate the boxes, seeing both their painted and etched “front” as well as the structural supports of the “back,” thus evoking packing crates, suitcases, and other forms associated with transiency and migration. Beautifully hand-etched with precise, closely spaced parallel lines, these pieces are displayed ajar, both opening and closing, echoing the transitional mindset of many immigrants.

Like Ruth Asawa, another great Asian American artist of the same generation whose carefully crafted non-representational work defies easy categorization, Villa is biliterate and bicultural, belonging in many worlds and utilizing a multitude of frames of reference. By refusing to fit neatly into a single, simple classification, Villa’s work redefines what it means to be an artist, a Filipino American, and an American.

Carlos Villa: Manongs, Some Doors, and a Bouquet of Crates

August 13- October 5, 2011

Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art

2868 Mission Street, San Francisco CA 94110 (map)

An Evening with Carlos Villa
September 17, 6:30-9:30p / FREE Admission

Mission Cultural Center for Latino Art
Join Carlos Villa and distinguished guests for a night of storytelling and dialogue, as we celebrate the release of Villa’s new monograph, Carlos Villa and the Integrity of Spaces, edited by Theodore S. Gonzalves.

September 16, 2011 at 11:51 pm Leave a comment

Too Much Heaven: Shaolin, My Kingdom, and Love In Space movie reviews

Aaron Kwok and Rene Liu in zero-gee, with chocolate, Love In Space

For those of us lucky enough to be in the Bay Area, San Francisco is going to be an epicenter of theatrical Chinese-language film screenings as in the next couple months we are about to get slammed by a profusion of movies from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. Two film festivals plus several open-run screenings will be taking place in the last part of 2011, giving us sinophile film otaku many chances to partake of our favorite addiction on the big screen. In fact, there are so many Chinese-language movies playing in the next couple months that this is the first of at least three posts on the subject, with upcoming entries on two more movies from Hong Kong and China next week, as well as two film festivals sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) respectively focusing on Hong Kong and Taiwan.

With China’s increasing financial clout and the subsequent meteoric rise in the Chinese film industry (64 percent growth last year, to US$1.6 billion; 526 films produced in 2010, up 15%; and 6,000 new cinemas planned for next year) we are witnessing a new era of Chinese-language films.  For better or worse the Chinese film industry has grown exponentially in the past decade and with the inexorable integration of the finest talents from the Hong Kong film industry, Chinese cinema has evolved from the arthouse-oriented political allegories of the 20th century to highly accessible commercial fare like the three films releasing this week. Shaolin, My Kingdom and Love In Space, opening in the U.S. on Sept. 9, represent the new paradigm of Chinese filmmaking and their appearance in U.S. theaters, along with and other upcoming Hong Kong and Chinese releases, heralds a trend toward increased Chinese theatrical releases in this country. These three recent Chinese-language films, one from Hong Kong and two from mainland China, also reflect the trend toward Hong Kong-China co-productions, as all three are cross-pollinated projects with talent both from Hong Kong and “the North.”

Andy Lau and Wu Jing, monks, Shaolin

Now playing at the Four-Star Theater (and also playing at the San Francisco Film Society’s New People theater on Sept. 28-29) is Shaolin, director Benny Chan’s historical martial arts film involving warlords, monks, and lots of kung fu. Shaolin is an exhilarating big-budget spectacle that captures a lot of the fun of classic 1990s HK moviemaking—although the producers claim the movie is a tribute to Jet Li’s debut film from 1986, the storyline doesn’t have a lot to do with that old-school kung fu classic, aside from having a cadre of righteous, kick-ass monks defending the honor of the legendary martial arts stomping ground. This Shaolin is set in the Republican era of the early 20th century when ruthless warlords duked it out for domination of their various fiefdoms. Superstar (and my favorite Heavenly King) Andy Lau ably anchors the film as an ambitious warlord who tragically learns the error of his ways. He’s aging beautifully, and that aquiline nose and perfect jawline look as photogenic now as they did twenty-five years ago. Nicholas Tse as Andy’s adversary is a bit less effective, overacting his way through his villainous role decked out in shiny black boots and an evil sneer. Wu Jing leads a group of crack martial artists as awesome Shaolin monks defending their sacred turf. Jackie Chan’s supporting role as the temple cook provides him a fun little fight scene, as Chan uses woks, cleavers, and other kitchen implements to showcase his trademark comic kung fu style.  

Also outstanding is Cory Yuen’s fantastic action choreography, which includes a furious fight on wheels during a nighttime horse and carriage chase through the city as well as excellent hand-to-hand martial arts with bad-ass monks showing off their mad skilz, armed only with wooden staffs or their bare hands against rifle-carrying bad guys. As with many Chinese co-productions these days there are also the obligatory sadistic European actors maniacally giggling their way through senseless destruction. Fan Bing Bing (not to be confused with Li Bing Bing) is effective as Andy Lau’s wife, though she mostly just bats her eyes and weeps.

The film’s scenery, art direction, and cinematography are all top-notch–if this is the future of Hong Kong films then I’m all for it. Veteran HK director Benny Chan does a great job scaling up and the movie blends the big-budget production values of recent mainland films with the heart and emotion of Hong Kong movies.

Han Geng, popstar, with porkpie, My Kingdom

Two other films from China also open up Stateside today from distributor China Lion, which has been putting out series of monthly day-and-date releases of Chinese commercial films. The lineup has been a somewhat random and diverse slate of pics including 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (officially banned in China but a massive hit in Hong Kong), the weepy Shu Qi/Liu Ye melodrama A Beautiful Life, and the Chinese Communist Party epic Beginning of the Great Revival.

Its release postponed a month due to the success of 3D Sex & Zen, My Kingdom is an action melodrama played out against the backdrop of classical Chinese opera. The film has the typically high production values of current commercial Chinese films and nicely recreates 1920s Shanghai, with great art direction and cinematography. But the 90-minute movie is very slight in comparison with the big kahuna of Chinese opera movies, Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. While Chen’s film was a vast, emotionally wrenching epic writ large across twentieth-century Chinese history, My Kingdom focuses on a much smaller story of love, revenge, and opera.

Yuen Biao and staff, My Kingdom

The movie also suffers from the callowness of its lead performers, with Sinopop idols Wu Chun and Han Geng cast as Yi-Long and Er-Kui, sworn brothers trained as “opera warriors.” Although Wu occasionally works up to a good smolder, the wide-eyed Han seems a bit overwhelmed by his role and never really seems like a man consumed by a desire for vengeance. Barbie Hsu is adequate as the opera troupe’s lead actress but she’s not convincing as a diva, much less one desired by most of the male cast. The three leads also are less than stellar in their opera performances, and the choreography in some of these scenes is also pretty uninspired. The exception is when the fabulous Yuen Biao, one of Jackie Chan’s “brothers,” shows up at the beginning of the movie in a brief role as the Yi-Long and Er-Kui’s sifu. Both his acting and his footwork demonstrate Yuen’s genuine Chinese opera training, and showcase “big brother” Sammo Hung and Chin Kar-lok’s fluid and efficient action choreography.

The film’s producers were clearly aiming for the youth market, but the singers cast here are not quite up to the task of driving the emotional, convoluted plotline. Especially miscast is the floppy-haired actor who plays a scheming policeman–the actor looks about 22 years old and his haircut seems to be channeling Justin Bieber. However, the movie is an interesting example of the ongoing integration of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese commercial film productions, with Hong Kong stalwarts such as Yuen and Hung teaming up with their younger mainland co-stars.

Also from China Lion is Love In Space, the only modern-day film of the three on the docket this week. Love In Space follows the romantic adventures of three sisters, an actress, an artist, and, yes, an astronaut, in Bejing, Sydney, and orbiting around the planet. This fun and fanciful little film reflects co-director Wing Shya’s whimsical fashion photography–it also stars a slew of pop stars (including three generations of male idols–Aaron Kwok, Eason Chan, and Jing Boran) who are put to better effect than their compatriots in My Kingdom.

Guey Lun-Mei and Eason Chan get wacky, Love In Space

Most effective are Cantopop king Eason Chan and Guey Lun-Mei (who kicked ass in Dante Lam’s crime thriller The Stool Pigeon) who play a garbageman and his germ-phobic love interest. Both Chan and Guey have mobile, expressive faces and excellent comic timing, and their story is the most fun and engaging to follow. Also good, though a bit more twee, are Angelbaby and Jing Boran as a movie-star-in-hiding and her spunky, watermelon-selling suitor. Oddly enough, the least compelling story features Rene Liu and Heavenly King Aaron Kwok as estranged lovers working together on a space station. The space-station set and the constantly revolving camerawork suggest a rom-com Solaris, and the soundtrack even features The Blue Danube waltz from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the storyline is predictable and Liu and Kwok’s performances are unconvincing. However, the movie as a whole is a delightful confection and a far cry from the dour political allegories of Chinese filmmakers from the 20th century.

Next week will find Indomina Pictures continued U.S. rollout of Tsui Hark’s blockbuster Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, as well as the World War II drama The City of Life and Death. Relativity Media also recently announced a deal with SAIF Partners and IDG China Media to produce and distribute Chinese films for the international market. With more product comes the need for more consumers and, although the billion-person Chinese market is a good start, the Chinese film industry sees more income ripe for the picking in the international market. As an Asian film aficionado I see no reason to complain–seeing movies on the big screen beats torrenting any day. It will also be interesting to see how the demands of the international market further affect the look and feel of Chinese cinema in the 21st century.

Shaolin

Four-Star Theater

4 Star Theater

2200 Clement Street

San Francisco

(415) 519-8716

NOTE: live perfomance by Shaolin monks, Friday, Sept. 9, 8p, free

 Love in Space and My Kingdom

AMC Loews Metreon

16101 Fourth Street

San Francisco, CA 94103

(888) 262-4386

AMC Cupertino Square 16

10123 North Wolfe Road

Cupertino, CA 95014

(888) 262-4386

September 9, 2011 at 11:38 pm 7 comments


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