Archive for August, 2012

Finger On The Trigger: The Bullet Vanishes movie review

Lau Ching-Wan, supersleuth, The Bullet Vanishes

The Bullet Vanishes, which opens this week in San Francisco and other select North American cities, is China Lion’s latest almost-day-and-date release of new Chinese-language product. Part CSI, part Guy Madden Sherlock Holmes, and part Detective Dee, the movie is a classy production set in 1930s China with a lot of really nice vintage pistols. More importantly, it’s a chance to see the great Lau Ching-Wan in action, as he meticulously creates yet another intriguing character.

The story involves the investigation of a series of murders at a Shanghai bullet factory. After one of the factory workers kills herself under suspicious circumstances, several of her co-workers follow in like fashion, dying of gunshot wounds with seemingly spectral bullets. Police detectives Song (LCW) and Guo (Nicholas Tse) are assigned to figure out what’s going on, but as they delve deeper into the case they encounter more and more contradictions.

As a representative of the big-budget cinematic product currently coming out of China, the movie looks great, with its wool-and-tweed period wardrobe, thirties-throwback art direction, and expensive-looking sepia-toned cinematography. Director Lo Chi-leung keeps things moving along despite several abrupt U-turns in the plot, the action choreography includes several nice shootouts, and the movie has fun gently ribbing the primitive forensics of the 1930s detectives. The general air of respectability, however, means that the movie lacks the OTT insanity that drove so many great Hong Kong films—as a China/HK co-production the movie is more genteel than balls-to-the-wall. There’s also a very slight critique of capitalism in the film’s rendering of the evil boss who ruthlessly oppresses the workers, but Hong Kong director Lo doesn’t let it gets in the way of the real fun.

As noted extensively elsewhere, Lau Ching-Wan played a similar character in the much weirder Johnny To movie, The Mad Detective, and some of that movie’s tropes are repeated here, such as Lau’s detective character re-enacting crime scenes in order to deduce their mechanics (though without the psychic link that made the To film so kicky and fun). The Bullet Vanishes also recalls Peter Chan’s recent flick Wu Xia (or Dragon, depending on when and where you saw it), which featured Takeshi Kaneshiro as a hyper-observant detective who could suss out crimes just by brushing his hands over a tabletop. Here Nic Tse and Lau Ching-Wan split the super-detective duties, with Nic also being an expert shootist who wins several quick-draws with the bad guys.

Contemplating evidence, The Bullet Vanishes

Director Lo Chi-leung keeps the twisty plot moving along pretty briskly, as the storyline doubles back on itself to reveal more and more complexity, but the narrative manages to remain pretty clear despite the excessive mendacity of the various characters. Lau carries the movie with his sad beagle eyes and off-kilter physicality, while Nic Tse underplays a bit too much. Jing Boran is cute and winsome as the new kid on the block, and various villians snarl and twich appropriately.

The movie also includes an unlikely female doctor character who is anachronistic but fun and who is a good counterbalance to Mini Yang Mi’s insipid fortune-teller/love interest. Yang Mi is not very scintillating and the romantic subplot/detour is annoying and unconvincing. She’s a performer who continues to not impress me (though I haven’t yet seen Painted Skin 2 so I’ll cut her some slack).

The Bullet Vanishes isn’t the deepest movie in the world but all the money seems to be up on the screen and everything hangs together fairly well. All in all there are much worse ways to spend a couple hours than watching Lau Ching-Wan do his thing on screen in an expensive commercial production. If this is a result of the current Chinese film industry boom, then I’m all for it.

Opens Fri. Aug. 31

AMC Metreon 16

101 Fourth St. San Francisco, CA 94103

 AMC Cupertino 16

10123 N. Wolfe Road, Cupertino, CA 95014

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August 31, 2012 at 5:10 pm 1 comment

Teenage kicks: Battle Royale and Girlfriend Boyfriend film reviews

Don’t make me, Battle Royale, 2001

Two very different movies about adolescent angst are now playing in the Bay Area. Kinji Fukasaku’s legendary Battle Royale (2001) has its long-delayed U.S. theatrical premiere at the San Francisco Film Society and the Taiwanese flick Girlfriend Boyfriend is rolling out in selected theaters around the country, including here in San Francisco.

My older kid was born around the time Battle Royale was first came out so I missed it back in 2001—this is the first time I’ve seen Fukasaku’s brilliant and infamous swan song. Aside from scattered festival and one-night screenings BR’s never had a theatrical release in the U.S. until now, but with the popularity of The Hunger Games (much inferior, by the way), it’s now getting a limited release. After more than a decade, Battle Royale doesn’t disappoint—it’s everything it’s cracked up to be and more. The concept may be sensationalist (a game where 15-year-old kids fight to the death) but the movie itself is much more than exploitation. This is economical storytelling at its best.

Director Fukusaku draws out great performances from his teenage cast, quickly and effectively sketching out their complicated relationships in a few rapid strokes. The fact that the students aren’t strangers but classmates with prior emotional relationships only adds to the frisson, and their adolescent dilemmas—who’s crushing on who, which girls are the top clique, how the popular and the excluded kids get on—are magnified to a fatal pitch by the movie’s premise. Most of us can totally relate to the situation, which adds another layer to the vicarious experience—who among us didn’t fantasize about taking an Uzi to a particular mean girl or mindless bully?

Emotional frisson, Battle Royale, 2001

Fukasaku is masterful in executing (sorry) each vignette and the pacing and plot are spot on. The scene where the five happy schoolgirls suddenly turn their machine-guns on each other is amazing moviemaking at its best, particularly since it’s perfectly set up. The story arc of cold-hearted beyotch Mitsuko is also particularly brilliant as her backstory slowly reveals a much deeper motivation than plain self-interest or villainy. Not just simple exploitation, this is smart, smart stuff.

Although there have been a ton of extreme movies since its first release that go far beyond BR’s violence, Battle Royale’s slaughter always has an impact because the characters are more than simple cannon fodder. What Park Chan-Wook understands and Takashi Miike still doesn’t get is that an audience’s attachment to a character heightens the effect of the gore. Which is why the fact that the plight of (mostly) unwilling killers in BR has such a great effect—their backstories add meaning and that meaning adds a punch that goes beyond the visceral to the emotional.

Three in one, Girlfriend Boyfriend, 2012

Youthful angst takes a totally different turn in Girlfriend Boyfriend (GF BF), China Lion’s latest China/U.S. day-and-date release. GF BF is a slick drama with an unusual love triangle about Taiwanese youth coming of age in the last couple decades of the 20th century. The movie is nicely restrained and avoids veering toward excess even when the narrative steers over melodramatic waters.

The opening sequence, a present-day boxer rebellion of sorts at a Taiwanese girls school, frames the main story, which takes place mostly in 1980s & 90s Taiwan. Mabel (Guey Lun-Mei ), Aaron (Rhydian Vaughn), and Liam (Joseph Chang) are best friends in high school during the waning days of KMT martial law. The movie follows them as they come of age during the Wild Lily student movement of the early 90s and through their lives as young adults. The film touches lightly on youth uprisings of the 1990s but those events are really only a backdrop to the love story and mostly serve as a metaphor for the youthful rebellion of the protagonists.

All three leads are quite good—Joseph Chang resembles a young Simon Yam (i.e., ridiculously good-looking) and is effective as the conflicted Liam. Guey Lun-Mei has been one of my favorite young actors lately and she holds her own as the pivot of the triangle. British-Taiwanese actor Rhydian Vaughn, last seen rocking a mullet as one of the gangsta boys in the ‘hood in Monga, is charming and goofy with his million-dollar smile.

Joseph Chang and Rhydian Vaugh, pretty boys, Girlfriend Boyfriend, 2012

The movie makes some interesting points about sexuality, although the story arc of one of the main characters grappling with his desire is a bit mopey for my tastes. His angsty. quasi-closeted behavior, however, is offset by the out-and-proud queerness of one of the supporting characters.

As noted by my buddy Anita, the movie was shot on film (though digitally projected) and the cinematography is aces, with some gorgeous, incandescent shots. The look of the film transmutes smoothly from the dull green utilitarianism of the 1980s Taiwanese high school to the glowing sheen of millennial Taipei. The three leads age convincingly, with the aid of various wigs and hairstyles, with Guey in particular conveying the brashness of late teenhood through a more sober early adulthood.

August 11, 2012 at 3:29 pm 2 comments


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