Archive for February, 2017

Pulling Mussels From A Shell: Cook Up A Storm movie review

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Testing the edge, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

Hong Kong star Nicholas Tse’s latest vehicle, Cook Up A Storm (CUAS) opens in North America in very very limited release this weekend. As both an Asian film scholar and a CNBLUE fanperson (the film co-stars CNBLUE leader Jung Yonghwa) I had a keen interest in this movie so I made a special effort to see it while it was still playing theatrically near me, thought that involved a 45-minute drive to Cupertino.

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Mano a mano, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

The plot is simple: Developers sponsor Paul Ahn (Jung Yonghwa), a French-trained Michelin-starred chef, in opening Stellar, a fancy-ass restaurant directly opposite Seven, a local joint run by Sky Ko (Nicholas Tse) that features down-home Chinese dishes. Of course conflict ensues between the Western-trained Paul and the self-taught traditionalist Sky. Adding to the mix is Sky’s angst over his messed-up relationship with his dad Mountain (the majestic Anthony Wong Chau-sang) and some behind-the-scenes maneuvering by Paul’s girlfriend/assistant (Michelle Bai Bing).

CUAS is paced like a Hong Kong movie, which means in and out in ninety minutes, and in this case this feels really fast. I used to really love the fevered pace of Hong Kong cinema but now that I’ve gotten used to the more leisurely running times of two-hour Korean and Chinese films, or the epic three-hour slogs from Bollywood, this seems almost too rapid.

Because of the bang-bang pace of the film things feel like they’re being told in shorthand, with character development and relationships rapidly sketched out. You almost have to be psychic to realize that Paul is dating Mayo, which is indicated in a few incredibly brief shots of them holding hands and some lingering glances (apparently the steamier scenes between them ended up on the cutting room floor). The relationship between Sky and his dad fares slightly better, but only because as one of the film’s main conflicts it gets a fair amount of screen time.

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Staredown, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

The showdowns between Sky and Paul are likewise quite rapid, with the most effective one taking place in Paul’s gorgeously appointed high-tech restaurant kitchen. Here the characters are allowed to play off of each other a bit more and the scenario has a chance to breathe a bit, unlike some of the rapid-fire sequences that take place elsewhere in the film. It helps that Nic Tse and Yonghwa have a good onscreen rapport, with Yonghwa in particular doing a great job fleshing out his character with a minimum of dialog.

In some ways the film seems to struggle between wanting to be an out-and-out Hong Kong movie and needing to court the huge PRC market. Aspects of the film that hearken back to Hong Kong films of yore include the wacky costuming of some of the supporting characters, including a pair of dudes with dyed yellow fringes and the oversized glasses and frizzy hair on Tiffany Tang, as well as a subtext about gentrication and the loss of local culture to Western capital. But some key characters are underdeveloped, including Bai Bing’s Mayo, who needs to be more overtly sinister than she actually ends up being. Here a bit more of Hong Kong cinema’s over-the-top aesthetic might have served better, as Mayo is flat and one-dimensional instead of truly venal or vicious.

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Ge You, chops, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

Anthony Wong’s Mountain Ko is similarly underwritten but King Anthony makes it work by sheer dint of his monumental acting skilz. Likewise veteran Chinese actor Ge You makes a good impression, though his part is also only briefly defined. The two old hands have a great throwaway moment in a pool hall where they clearly delineate their competitive brotherhood through just a few subtle gestures, which goes to show how acting chops can elevate a movie beyond superficiality. Alas, these moments are hard to find in the rest of the movie.

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Yonghwa cooking with gas, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

Still, as a food-porn movie the film does a good job. The food photography is quite beautiful and in particular the scenes where we follow both Paul and Sky creating their signature dishes are a lot of fun to watch. This may be due to the fact that Nic Tse is a foodie chef in real life and he prepped most of the food himself, so he seems to have a true appreciation for the way that cooking actually works. Yonghwa also acquits himself well in the cooking sequences since he looks like he knows his way around all of the high-tech gear that Paul uses. I especially enjoyed watching Paul create a fancy foie gras dish that illuminated the process as well as the product. At one point Paul adds a bit of sorbet onto the top of a dish and we see him warming the spoon slightly in order to get the frozen scoop to release cleanly, a small detail that nonetheless adds an interesting touch of realism to the proceedings.

Nic Tse wears the same grimy plaid shirt and greasy bandana through most of the film, telegraphing Sky’s realness and street cred. In contrast, Yonghwa’s flawless face and impeccable chef’s uniform add to the impression of the all-around slickness of Stellar. Yonghwa is confident and believable as a high-end chef in a fancy upscale restaurant–he knows he’s good and he’s not afraid to show it. As the leader of CNBLUE Yonghwa has a lot of swagger and he brings that swag to his portrayal of Paul, though not so much that he becomes obnoxious or overbearing. More significantly, as Paul gradually comes to appreciate the joys of Sky’s simpler cooking aesthetic, Yonghwa communicates this transformation through subtle facial expressions and physical gestures. Even though Yonghwa speaks no Chinese he succeeds in imparting Paul’s intentions non-verbally, effectively playing off of his co-stars despite the language barrier.

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Nic knife, Cook Up A Storm, 2017

The whole thing is very beautiful and fun to experience but ultimately a bit superficial. I wonder if a slightly less frenetic pace might have aided the film’s exposition, but director Raymond Yip, a Hong Kong movie stalwart, seems to want to breeze through as many plot points as possible in the film’s ninety-minute running time. The result is a fun romp that could have benefitted from slowing down and adding a few more details and more character development to the proceedings. Still, it’s a good-natured and pleasant timepass. To use a sports metaphor for a food movie, the film didn’t knock it out of the park, but it didn’t strike out either.

NOTE: Originally meant for release in China during the Spring Festival/Lunar New Year holiday, CUAS was pushed back a couple weeks to avoid direct competition with Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (JTTW2), Kung Fu Yoga, and a slew of other films that came out during that time. This was smart in some ways because JTTW2 has become one of the highest grossing films of all time in China, but it also means that CUAS didn’t have the no-Hollywood movies ban protecting it, in which China keeps Western films out of theaters during Spring Festival in order make room for local productions. As a result CUAS directly faced the release of the slick Hollywood production xXx: The Return of Xander Cage, which features popular Chinese stars Kris Wu and Donnie Yen. Because of this, as well as so-so word of mouth and the fact that most Chinese were back at work and not going to movies once the film came out, box office for CUAS in China was thus reduced somewhat. Nonetheless CUAS managed to break the RMB100 million mark and its gross in China now stands at around RMB114 million, or around USD16 million. But unfortunately the production costs of the film were around USD34 million, so unless it does phenomenally well in other territories the film won’t make back its original budget.

February 19, 2017 at 1:54 am 4 comments

It’s All About Me: The Great Wall and White Savior Complex

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Hello, it’s me, The Great Wall, 2017

Despite its cringeful pre-release marketing campaign I went into seeing The Great Wall with a semi-open mind. Zhang Yimou has directed some good films during his career and I was curious to see what he could do with US$150 million dollars. But right off the bat it was clear that despite being co-produced by one of the biggest production companies in China, Wanda Dalien (along with US-based Legendary Pictures), set in ancient China, and featuring a boatload of Chinese movie stars, this was going to be all about the white dude. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, I am a bit fatigued by the continuation of the white savior trope, wherein white guys rescue the benighted yellow people once again.

The film starts with a trio of European mercenaries fleeing across the Gobi desert, including Matt Damon as a character named William who speaks with a slight Irish accent, another guy who is Spanish, played by Chilean American actor Pedro Pascal, and a third guy who dies pretty quickly. Right away we know it’s going to focus on the surviving European dudes because Hollywood, and sure enough the story is told almost completely from their point of view.

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Please give us more lines and a character arc, The Great Wall, 2017

The movie is seductive because it is so slick and beautifully packaged and is palatable and easy to watch. It’s seemingly respectful of Chinese culture—there are no evil Asiatic villains and several of the Chinese characters are noble and heroic, if incredibly clichéd. The film presents Chinese culture as refined and aesthetic, which is clearly meant to appeal to PRC audiences. But the narrative exists only to center the white heterosexual male perspective, so it’s no surprise that the screenplay is of course written by a white dude. Although it may seem like there are a whole lot of Chinese people in the movie they in fact are mostly window dressing who exist mainly as props for the white protags. The film actually posits that there are no archers in the entire elite Chinese regiment that’s been training for sixty years who are as good as the white dude. There’s also the highly questionable plot point that China didn’t have any magnets in their possession until white people brought them. This is especially insulting considering that the Chinese were the first to document the use of magnets and magnetism around 1088 AD. I mean, wtf?

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Guilt sop, The Great Wall, 2017

The premise that a woman could be a general in ancient China is also a male fantasy of inclusion and equality that conveniently ignores the historic patriarchy and paternalism inside and outside of China that would have made this impossible. Mulan is a believable legend because it acknowledges that a woman could only be accepted in battle if she dressed like a man.The Great Wall presents females as accepted in the military hierarchy, even to the point of one of them becoming the supreme leader of the troops. While I’m all for strong female characters, the erasure of the historical oppression of women denies the suffering women have experienced in the patriarchy. Ultimately, General Lin, the female commander in The Great Wall, is a guilt sop that pretends a history of fairness and equality that didn’t exist. I suppose I should be grateful that the chaste and muted attraction between William and Lin is unconsummated or I would have run screaming from the theater.

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Savioring, The Great Wall, 2017

Everything in the film is an excuse to get Matt Damon more screen time and it’s especially frustrating to see some of the biggest stars in China in what amounts to extended cameos. If you blink you would miss Lin Genxing, Lu Han, Eddie Peng, Zhang Hanyu, and more. In fact, seeing how ferocious Eddie Peng is in his three minutes onscreen made yearn for him, not Matt Damon, to be the protagonist of the film. Andy Lau and Jing Tian are the only Chinese actors with more than a handful of lines in the film and only the hot Asian babe in the shiny breastplate gets to have any notable character development.

Even the scary monsters that provide the main threat in the narrative are only partially baked, looking like a cross between orcs, dinosaurs, and the nasty creature from Alien. All in all, the movie is a confused mess of that fails to resolve in any satisfying way.The Great Wall is another fail from Hollywood (with an assist from Wanda Dalien, which has been trying to break into the US market for a while). Thank god CAAMfest is coming up next month to give us some movies about real Asian/Americans from our perspective, instead of the usual white-dude-centric nonsense perpetuated by this film.

UPDATE: Looks like THE GREAT WALL tanked at the box office in the US, and may also be taking down the entire US-China coproduction industry with it. Can’t say that I’m sorry. In fact I’m very not sorry at all.

February 16, 2017 at 8:44 am 1 comment

Moonage Daydream: Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back movie review

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Gangsta Sun Wukong, Journey To The West; The Demons Strike Back, 2017

The Spring Festival (aka Lunar New Year) holiday just passed in China and as a result some of the biggest films of the year have been released in the past two weeks. Jackie Chan’s newest, Kung Fu Yoga, which reteams him with director Stanley Tong (Rumble In The Bronx; Police Story 3 & 4) for the first time in many years, opened during Spring Festival, as did comedian Wang Baoqiang’s directorial debut, Buddies in India, and the two films earned US$44 million and US$38.5 respectively in the opening weekend of the holiday. But the box office champ from that period, Journey to the West: The Demons Strike Back (aka JTTW2) dwarfed those figures, bringing in $85 million and setting a record in China for a local film’s first day grosses by earning $52.5 million. Directed by Tsui Hark from a script by Stephen Chow, JTTW2 also opened with a day-and-date release in North America.

Although its take in the US was much smaller, grossing only $605,049 in it first week of release, JTTW2 averaged a respectable $9,000 per screen, which put it in the top five in that ranking (I Am Not Your Negro was number one). So Stephen Chow and Tsui Hark still have some pull in the Chinese American market, a niche that is still being mined by distributors such as China Lion, Wellgo, and Magnum Films, which handled JTTW2.

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Man-fish, Journey To The West: The Demons Strike Back, 2017

Some reviewers have panned the film but as evidenced by its record-breaking box office the Chinese filmgoing populace disagreed, and I also quite enjoyed its funhouse ride. The sequel to Stephen Chow’s 2013 blockbuster Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, this one follows the further adventures of Monk Tang as he travels with Sun Wukong, aka the Monkey King, and his bestial buddies Pigsy and Sandy. A crazed romp through the CGI-enhanced mind of Tsui Hark, JTTW2 works just fine if you free yourself of any expectations and let the film’s madness sweep over you.

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Art direction a go go, Journey To The West: The Demons Strike Back, 2017

For example, Director Tsui throws in a dash of Indiaphilia in the film’s brief intro set in a tiny city on the subcontinent as well as snippets of what sounds like a remix of the soundtrack to his 1993 classic Green Snake on the audio track. He also confounds expectations by including several white people as extras in the imaginary Indian city as well as in the kingdom of Biqiu, a clever mindtwister that exemplifies Tsui’s sideways-thinking moviemaking.

 

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Hair and makeup, Journey To The West: The Demons Strike Back, 2017

Whereas the last installment in the rival Journey To The West franchise, The Monkey King, was cheaply designed and instantly forgettable, in JTTW2 the art direction by Yoshihito Akatsuka is gorgeous and goes on for miles. Among the jaw-dropping images cramming the film frame are huge floating paper-mache creatures, a man-fish shapeshifter who spends a large part of the film in his pescatorean manifestation, and elaborate, multi-textured set designs that recall the best of Hieronymus Bosch. Female characters take on a particularly hallucinogenic appearance, with elaborate coifs, fancy eyebrows, and visages that morph from the beautiful to the grotesque in a flash as when several femme fatales suddenly become huge arachnid demons.

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Miss Kris, Journey To The West: The Demons Strike Back, 2017

I really liked Lin Gengxin’s take on the Monkey King, who he plays with a gangsta swagger instead of the customary simian tics. Ex-EXO member Kris Wu is fine as Monk Tang but his characterization is missing the guileless sweetness that Wen Zhang brought to the role in the previous film. The ne plus ultra evil female villain (played by Yao Chen) harkens back to Carina Lau’s formidable take as the Empress in Hark’s Detective Dee series but without Lau’s majestic imperiousness. Jelly Lin (who debuted in Stephen Chow’s 2016 blockbuster The Mermaid) as Monk Tang’s love interest Felicity is pretty and charming, but when juxtaposed with Shu Qi’s much more feisty character from the last film she seems as filmy and slight as her gauzy costume.

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Depth of field, Journey To The West: The Demons Strike Back, 2017

Tsui does a great job using IMAX 3D to immerse the viewer in the film’s universe. I’m the kind of person who went to see Inception twice just to see the stereoscopic teardrops floating through space, so I’m a sucker for the overloaded visual experience that JTTW2 delivers in spades. But if you’re hoping for character development, a coherent narrative, or emotionally connected interpersonal relationships you’re probably shopping at the wrong store. Still, it’s a lot more fun that most Hollywood CGI fests due to Tsui Hark’s unique and vivid cinematic imagination. If you’re looking for a couple hours of maniacal visual stimulation leavened with Stephen Chow’s twisted sense of humor then JTTW2 is your movie.

February 10, 2017 at 11:57 pm 1 comment


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