Too Much Heaven: Shaolin, My Kingdom, and Love In Space movie reviews
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.”
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.
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.
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.
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.
4 Star Theater
2200 Clement Street
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
AMC Cupertino Square 16
10123 North Wolfe Road
Cupertino, CA 95014