Posts filed under ‘andy lau tak-wah’

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.

The Great Wall

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.

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February 16, 2017 at 8:44 am 1 comment

Spread Your Wings: More airplane movie film festival

Kamal Hasan and ominous pigeons, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Kamal Hasan and bad pigeons, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Another round of international flights, this time on the much more updated Singapore Airlines. Not only does Singapore have a full 1000-plus slate of movies on demand but they have an entire Indian food menu to go with their Chinese and “Western” selections. Since they were out of the chicken mushroom rice noodles by the time they got to my seat, I ordered the chana daal, which came with lime pickle, some outstanding curried vegetables, a rather dry roti, and raita, which beats most U.S. airlines’ food service any day. Alas, they did not have the cup noodles featured on Cathay Pacific flights so my middle-of-the-flight hunger pangs had to be assuaged by a mediocre cold cheese sandwich. But lots of movies on tap!

Andy Lau Tak-Wah beaching it, Switch, 2013

Watch advert or dream sequence? Switch, 2013

Switch

This 2013 release was a sensation in China last year for all the wrong reasons as it was rated one of the worst movies ever on China’s online discussion forums, douban and baidu. The movie paradoxically was also one of the highest grossing films of the year in China, due to very bad word of mouth, and it indeed lives up to its negative hype. Truly unique and fascinatingly bad, it’s an astoundingly shoddy cinematic construction that plays like a bunch of fancy and expensive set pieces only tentatively linked together by a narrative structure. Genial superstar Andy Lau Tak-Wah portrays a super-spy assigned to crack the case of an arcane art heist involving two halves of a lengendary scroll painting. Along the way the film throws in a quartet of girl assassins on roller skates in clear plastic miniskirts, an obligatory psycho Japanese villain, and many gratuitous Andy-lounging-on-the-beach-in-Dubai shots, as well as fancy aerial shots of a car flying through the air dangling from a helicoptor attached to a magnetic grappler, a surfeit of swordfighting, explosives, and incendiaries, and many, many costume changes. The movie is full of technology fetishism at its best, and Andy Lau gets to be a combination of James Bond and a low-rent Tony Stark, complete with transparent floating holographic computer readouts and ridiculous gadgets. With its illogical leaps in time and space, the movie is great if you think of it either as one long dream sequence or as one long Andy Lau watch commercial.

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LBH does CYF, Red 2, 2013

Red 2 (Lee Byung-Hyun parts only)

Because I was fortunate enough to watch this on a plane I could skip over all but the scenes involving Lee Byung-Hyun, which absolutely elevated my viewing experience. In this one LBH demonstrates his much improved English diction and gets to play out a greatest-hits of Asian male action tropes. In his introductory scene he appears buffed out and naked, back and front, then goes on to assassinate someone with origami while wearing a kimono. Along the way he also brandishes two guns at time in a shootout, displays some high-kicking hung fu, and, in a pretty fun car-chase/shootout, practices a bit of Tokyo-drifting with a gun-toting Helen Mirren. As per usual LBH looks sharp in a tailored suit and holds his own as he grimaces and swaggers with John Malkovich and Bruce Willis. Somehow the audio on my seat-back monitor got switched to Japanese in the last five minutes of the movie so I missed out on all of the banter in the denouement, but I’m sure it was awesome and clever, and it was actually kinda fun seeing Helen Mirren dubbed in Japanese. In my fangirl dreams she and LBH have a thing for each other—spinoff sequel?

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Sridevi and flowers, English Vinglish, 2013

English Vinglish

I LOVED THIS MOVIE. The best thing I’ve seen in a long time, English Vinglish is a lovely family dramedy anchored by Sridevi’s charming performance as a woman trying to balance between duty and self-worth. Sridevi is brilliant as a beleagured Mumbai mom and housewife who comes into her own on an overseas trip to New York City by herself. I probably also liked it since the main character is a mother on a long trip away from her family, which, seeing as I was on a long trip away from my family, made me feel all sympathetic and stuff. Also, Sridevi wears some of the most excellent floral-print saris I’ve ever seen.

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Fun and frolic, Fukrey, 2013

Fukrey

Another winner and another example of the resurgence of commercial Hindi-language cinema (aka Bollywood), Fukrey (“slacker”) is a bit like The Hangover, B’wood-stylee. The plot involves a quartet of Dehli townies who long to attend the local college despite their apparent lack of intellectual gifts. Among those aspiring students are Coocha and Hunny, a pair of cheerful losers who earn their living as dancers in costumed street productions of religious Hindu mythologicals, and who apparently have a foolproof way of predicting winning lottery numbers that involves arcane dream interpretation. Their interplay in particular includes some extremely funny comic moments and the two riff off of each other as deftly as Martin and Lewis. Dreamy musician Zafar is stuck in a rut—three years after graduating college he’s still fruitlessly pursuing his musical aspirations, which causes his sensible and levelheaded girlfriend, who also teaches at said college, no end to angst. Lali works at his dad’s popular restaurant and sweet shop and also aspires to attend the local college, though he currently can only take correspondence courses. Somehow the four protagonists get caught up in an increasingly tangled morass of financial woe, eventually ending up in debt to the tune of 2.5 million rupees to the local drug boss, a toughie named Biphal (the excellent Richa Chadda from Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2) who has “Sinderella” tattooed on the back of her neck. The plot twists and turns ala its spiritual predeccesor, the equally clever and irreverent Delhi Belly, making great use of that city’s crowded, dusty locale to accentuate the characters’ sticky situation. The comedy is deft and skillful and, despite many chances for overdoing it, director Mrighdeep Singh Lamba directs with a fairly understated hand. The characters are somewhat broadly drawn at first but become complex and sympathetic and Lamba has excellent and economic visual storytelling skills—his narrative structure and editing cleverly tie together all of the loose ends of the wide-ranging story. This is the best kind of movie to watch on a long plane flight, with a nice long running time that eats up hours, a fun, lighthearted romp of a story, and amusing and likeable characters. Throw in a few quick episodes of song and dance and you have a winner. Great stuff—

Kamal Hasan does this too, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Kamal Hasan does this too, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Vishwaroopam

An outstanding Tamil-language spy film written and directed by and starring the amazing Kamal Hasan. This is only the second Tamil film I’ve seen (the first having been Puddhupettai, starring the wonderful Danoush,) but it definitely won’t be my last. The film starts off in New York City as an upwardly mobile NRI woman (Pooja Kumar) describes her marital issues to her sympathetic psychologist. Somehow, through a series of complicated and indescribable narrative turns, the film ends up in the middle of an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where the plot takes a lengthy digression. The story then wends its way back to New York to further explicate links between Al-Quada terrorists, uranium, an oncology lab, and radioactive pigeons. A bomb scare and much frenetic action follows. Lead actor and director Hasan, who gets to show off his hand-to-hand martial arts chops as well as his classical Indian dancing skilz, among many other talents, anchors the film with his charismatic performance as the super-spy with a complicated personal life who wryly notes, “I have a lot of emotional baggage.” The movie’s production values are top-notch, the songs by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy are outstanding, and the war scenes pull no punches, with men, women and children blown up, shot, strafed, and otherwise becoming collateral damage in the vicious guerilla fighting. The only weak link is Kumar as the clueless wife—she’s not quite able to pull of her character with much conviction, though admittedly she’s not given a lot of to work with.

Anthony Wong brings it, Ip Man, The Final Fight, 2013

Anthony Wong brings it, Ip Man, The Final Fight, 2013

Ip Man: The Final Fight

I only got to watch the first five minutes of the latest installment in the ongoing Ip Man saga before the in-flight movie system on the plane was shut off. This chapter, directed by stalwart Hong Kong director Herman Lau, chronologically follows the unrelated Donnie Yen pair of Ip Man movies as well as the unrelated Wong Kar-Wai version, The Grandmaster. Yau did direct Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, the prequel starring Dennis To as baby Ip Man, so there might be some thematic continuity there but for the most part the Ips are all running in parallel universes. Since the flight attendants had already confiscated the headphones by the time I started watching the movie it was a silent viewing experience for me, but I did get to see a very nicely staged encounter in which Ip Man challenges an eager young disciple to a battle to knock the grandmaster off of a square of newspaper laid on a kitchen floor. I watched the rest of the movie a few weeks later after I got back home and it didn’t disappoint, as a fun little slice of bygone Hong Kong ala Echoes of the Rainbow. Anthony Wong is great as the middle-aged Ip Man, carrying himself with dignity, grace, and the inimitable Wong Chau-sang swagga. The movie also includes familiar Hong Kong cinema faces including Anita Yuen as Mrs. Ip, Eric Tsang as a rival martial arts master (who has an outstanding duel with Ip Man that’s a marvel of cinematic fight choreography in the way that it makes two non-martial artists look incredibly suave and skilled), and Jordan Chan and Gillian Chung (yes, that Gillian Chung) as a couple of Ip Man’s disciples. In the face of the continued encroachment of China’s commercial film industry on the Hong Kong moviemaking world, it’s nice to see a genuine HK film with actual Cantonese dialogue (albeit with Ip Man and Mrs. Ip feigning broad Foshan accents). Bonus points for Anthony Wong not being afraid to play an old, albeit very cool, dude.

February 2, 2014 at 6:16 am Leave a comment

Glorious Days: Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society

Andy Lau shoots without seeing, Blind Detective, 2012

Andy Lau shoots without seeing, Blind Detective, 2012

This year’s edition of Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society is chock full of star power, with new movies from some of the biggest movie kings and queens in Hong Kong. The opening night film, Bends, starring the glorious Carina Lau as a wealthy woman and the beautiful Aloys Chen Kun as her driver, looks at class divisions in contemporary Hong Kong. Cantopop also shows up in the festival, with Sky King Jacky Cheung appearing in A Complicated Story, and singing groups Grasshopper and Softhard featured in the documentary The Great War: Director’s Cut.

Gordon Liu works it, 36th Chamber of Shaolin, 1977

Gordon Liu works it, 36th Chamber of Shaolin, 1977

The festival also features a mini-retrospective of work by the late Lau Kar-Leung, the legendary martial arts director who died earlier this year, with rare big-screen presentations of 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977) and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), both starring the great Gordon Liu.

Also on tap is Johnnie To’s Blind Detective, starring another Sky King, Andy Lau, and his rom-com soulmate Sammi Cheng, together on screen for the first time since 2004’s Yesterday Once More. The premise is similar to To’s earlier film Mad Detective, in which the main character, here with the added characteristic of vision impairment, re-enacts past crime scenes in order to glean clues about the crime. The sight-challenged detective, played by Andy Lau, teams up with Ho (Sammi Cheng), a cop searching for a missing childhood friend.

The movie will probably be a rude shock for anyone expecting a Johnnie To movie like, say, Drug War or Exiled, as it’s pretty much a slapstick comedy with a few action elements sprinkled in. The film definitely leans toward the comic as the cast performs at a fever pitch, mugging and shouting at each other at the top of their lungs—at one point you can actually see the spittle flying from Sammi’s mouth as she bellows away. It’s a crazy farce that probably isn’t for everyone, but I had a great time watching Andy and Sammi go at it in the best screwball comedy tradition. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and a wacky good time is had by all, with the genial Andy Lau not afraid to look like an idiot talking with his mouth full and director To framing his stars against huge adverts for tea cakes.

Andy-Sammi, Blind Detective, 2012

Andy-Sammi, Blind Detective, 2012

Quite a few of To’s most deadly serious gangster flicks still have little timeouts for a spot of off-kilter humor, such as Nick Cheung eating a porcelain spoon in Election, or badass bodyguards playing paper-ball football in The Mission, or Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Lam Suet, and Roy Cheung in Exiled fixing up Nick Cheung’s shot-up flat like the triad edition of This Old House, and some of To’s movies, like Too Many Ways to Be Number One or Mad Detective, are one big comic goof. It’s one of the little quirky things that make Milkyway Image films so fun and such a departure from your standard crime movie, since they ride the spectrum from brutal violence to comic relief so rapidly and unexpectedly. So it’s not surprising to find To indulging in his zany side in Blind Detective. It’s a pretty silly movie and there’s a lot of extraneous nonsense, but it’s great to see Andy and Sammi, co-stars of seminal Milkyway rom-coms like Needing You and Love On A Diet, together again and playing off of each other comfortably and naturally. Even if Blind Detective isn’t as brilliantly bleak as Drug War or Election, the movie is confidently executed since, not unlike the titular hero, To can make these movies with his eyes closed.

More Hong Kong movie royalty make an appearance in The Last Tycoon, starring the legendary trio of Chow Yun-Fat, Sammo Hung, and Francis Ng, along with mainland star Huang Xioaming. The movie is a remake of The Bund, the 1980s Hong Kong drama that made CYF a household name as a righteous gangster rising through the ranks in 1930s Shanghai. The series was remade a few years ago with HXM in the same role that CYF played back in the day and, in a bit a stunt casting, in The Last Tycoon they reprise that role, with HXM playing the younger version and CYF the older version. The two also swapped dubbing chores for each other, with HXM voicing the character in the Mandarin dub and CYF working the Cantonese dub.

Francis-CYF, The Last Tycoon, 2012

Francis-CYF, The Last Tycoon, 2012

The film also features CYF and Francis Ng on the big screen together for the first time, despite both having long and storied careers in the Hong Kong film industry. Both performers rely heavily on body language and facial expressions in their acting technique, with Chow the king of the sorrowful gaze who lets his evocative eyes tell the story. Chow’s held up remarkably well for a man in his late fifties and now possesses the regal bearing suitable for this role. He’s also still quite handsome so it was entirely plausible that he would be a babe magnet involved in a love triangle with Monica Mok and Yolanda Yuen.

Francis Ng’s character isn’t a stretch for him as it’s his typical sinister bad guy role, but through his gestures and mannerisms he imbues the character with menace and unctuousness, and the intensity of his posture and the threatening way he smokes a cigarette attest to his skill and talent in bringing to life even the most banal character. Sammo Hung swaggers through the film as a corrupt cop but alas doesn’t get to show off much of his martial arts chops, but the real gangsta role goes to Hu Gao as CYF’s no-nonsense, butterfly-knife wielding bodyguard. The movie has an expensive look and feel to it (producer Andrew Lau may have also had a hand in the gorgeous cinematography) but director Wong Jing doesn’t quite have enough of a handle on the pacing or action to make the movie really move. With all that on-screen talent the movie should’ve been a knockout, but it’s more of an expensive misfire.

Nick-wig-Aaron, Conspirators, 2012

Nick-wig-Aaron, Conspirators, 2012

The festival closes with two more big-time Hong Kong movie stars, Nick Cheung and the third out of four Sky Kings, Aaron Kwok (what, no Leon Lai?) in Conspirators, but I can’t really recommend this Oxide Pang-directed thriller. The movie follow Kwok as a traumatized detective searching for clues to his parent’s murder some thirty years prior who hires a private eye (Cheung) to assist him. Set in Malaysia, the movie feels like a cheap 1970s Asian action film, and not in a good way. Nick Cheung is solid as Zheng, the Malaysian private eye, but due to an extraneous twin brother plot device he’s burdened with a bad wig for most of the movie. Despite the fact that he proved he could act in After This Our Exile, Aaron Kwok doesn’t add a lot of life to his characterization of Tam, the detective with a past. Oxide Pang’s direction mixes cheesy, uncompelling fight scenes (Zheng knows kung fu!), implausible and opaque plot points, and filtered lighting that’s supposed to add grit and texture to the film but mostly makes it look like it was shot on the cheap in a back lot in Kuala Lumpur, which it probably was.

I’m out of town this weekend so I’ll sadly miss all that heavenly big screen Hong Kong movie glory. No one else has any excuse–

Hong Kong Cinema

October 4–6, 2013
Vogue Theatre

San Francisco

October 4, 2013 at 10:14 pm Leave a comment

I Want Candy: Hong Kong Cinema & the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival

Lau Ching-Wan, badass, The Longest Nite, 1997

This weekend the Bay’s got another embarrassment of filmi riches from a pair of dueling Asian film festivals. This year’s editions of Hong Kong Cinema, and the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival both offer a ton of tasty movie treats.

The 3rd I festival, which starts Sept. 18, runs six days and features over 20 films from 9 different countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, The Maldives, Canada, South Africa, UK and USA. Among the highlights is Jaagte Raho (Stay Awake), from 1956, starring my new favorite actor Raj Kapoor and co-directed by Amit Maitra and famous Bengali theater artist Sombhu Mitra. Jaagte Raho’s story follows Kapoor as a thirsty man from the country that arrives in the city longing for a drink of water. He ends up trapped in an apartment block where he’s mistaken for a thief, spending a long, sleepless night being relentlessly chased by the misguided tenants. As he hides out in various apartments he discovers the corruption and deceit amongst the residents, with adultery, gambling, drunkenness, counterfeiting, greed, and theft among their unsavory traits.

Raj Kapoor, sacrificial lamb, Jaagte Raho, 1956

Although his earlier films featured him as an angsty young romantic lead, in Jaagte Raho Raj Kapoor iterates his naïf-in-the-big-city persona that he repeated many times in his later years. Here he’s all wide eyes and pleading gestures as the country bumpkin, a stark contrast to the duplicitous, licentious lot pursuing him.

Raj and Motilal, tippling, Jaagte Raho, 1956

This is great stuff, sly and satirical, that cleverly exposes the hypocrisy of the corrupt tenants. It’s shot in shimmering black and white with a crack soundtrack with lyrics by Shailendra and music by Salil Choudhary, including the rollicking drunken ramble Zindagi Khwaab Hai. The legendary Motilal is outstanding as an inebriated bourgeois who takes in the destitute Kapoor, in an homage of sorts to City Lights—however, Jaagte Raho’s booze-driven hospitality has a much more twisted outcome than does the Chaplin film. The film concludes with a lovely cameo by Nargis, once again representing the moral center of the movie. This was the final film to star Kapoor and Nargis and coincided with the breakup of their long-time offscreen affair as well, so it’s especially bittersweet to see the famous lovers together for the last time. Jaagte Raho was a box office flop when it was first released, but it’s since been recognized as a classic. Interestingly enough, along with Meer Nam Joker, which also bombed when it first came out, Kapoor cites this as his personal favorite film.

Also of note at the 3rd I festival: Decoding Deepak, a revealing look at the modern-day guru that’s directed by Chopra’s son Gotham; Runaway (Udhao), Amit Ashraf’s slick and stylish indictment of the link between politics and the underworld; Sket, which looks at a vengeful girl gang in an East London slum; the experimental documentaries Okul Nodi (Endless River) and I am Micro; this year’s Bollywood-at-the-Castro rom-com Cocktail; and the short film program Sikh I Am: Voices on Identity.

This year’s edition of Hong Kong Cinema, the San Francisco Film Society’s annual showcase of movies from the former Crown Colony, has a bunch of outstanding product. The program includes a three-film retrospective commemorating the 1997 handover: Peter Chan Ho-sun’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story, which stars Leon Lai and Maggie Cheung as friends almost with benefits from two different sides of the HK/China border; Made In Hong Kong, Fruit Chan’s debut that’s a redux of the venerable Hong Kong gangster movie and which stars the young and skinny Sam Lee in his first role; and The Longest Nite, one of Johnny To’s nastiest crime dramas, with impeccable performances by Lau Ching-Wan and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as (of course) an immoral cop and a vicious criminal.

These three classics are hard acts to follow but several of the other films on the docket manage to hold their own. Both Pang Ho-Cheung’s Love In The Buff, an excellent romantic dramedy with Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue as the make-up-to-break-up lovers (full review here) and Ann Hui’s most recent feature, A Simple Life, starring Andy Lau and Deanie Ip as a man and his amah, (full review here) had extended runs in San Francisco earlier this year so this may be the last chance to see then on the big screen in the Bay Area.

Sammi & Louis, bantering, Romancing In This Air, 2012

Also good is Johnny To’s new romantic comedy Romancing In Thin Air, which To co-wrote with longtime creative partner Wai Ka-Fai and the Milkyway Image team. Set mostly at a vacation lodge in an idyllic high-altitude locale in China, the story concerns two romantically wounded individuals grappling with the peculiarities of their damaged relationships. Sammi Cheng is her usual charming self as the female lead, but although he’s likeable enough, Louis Koo as a Hong Kong movie star (!) is a bit lacking in charisma and doesn’t bring a bigger-than-life sensibility or the self-effacing humor that Andy Lau or a more engaging performer might have done.

Although the plot is seems at first to be fairly straightforward, the film gradually reveals Milkyway’s trademark weirdness. The story of Sammi’s missing husband, lost in the dense high-country woods for seven years, is a bit creepy, though I do like that when the husband courts Sammi he turns into a clumsy doofus. The film also includes a very meta movie-within-a-movie conceit and makes several sly jabs at the Hong Kong film business.

Utterly illogical, Nightfall, 2012

Less good are Derek Yee’s The Great Magician, a rambling and messy movie that’s a criminal waste of Lau Ching-Wan, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and Zhou Xun (full review here), and Roy Chow’s Nightfall, a turgid and ridiculous film that similarly wastes good performances by Simon Yam and Nick Cheung. I really wanted to like this movie, a wannabee intense and serious thriller, not least for its slick and attractive cinematography. But despite a gripping and violent opening scene the movie has some great gaping holes in logic and alternates between chatty exposition and absurd set pieces. Still, Nick Cheung is very good as a haunted convict with anger management issues, though Simon Yam is somewhat less good as the cop unraveling the mystery. Yam doesn’t have quite the emotional depth of Francis Ng or Lau Ching-Wan and so the payoff at the end of the film is weaker than it might have been. Michael Wong is quite bad as an abusive father, with a shrill, one-note performance and his annoying habit of speaking English at the most illogical moments. I kept imagining what Anthony Wong might have done with this part. The violence is a notch more gruesome than most mainstream Hong Kong films, especially in the opening fight sequence—looks like someone’s been watching Korean movies for tips on emulating their gory tendencies.

All in all, San Francisco Asian film fans are going to have to make some hard choices this weekend—not that that’s a bad thing by any means.

3rd i’s South Asian Film Festival

September 19-23, 2012, Roxie and Castro Theaters, San Francisco
September 30, 2012, Camera12, San Jose

Hong Kong Cinema

September 21–23, 2012
New People Cinema, San Francisco

September 19, 2012 at 6:14 am 2 comments

Miles Ahead: Ann Hui’s A Simple Life and My Way

Deanie & Andy, A Simple Life, 2012

Now playing in San Francisco is Ann Hui’s A Simple Life, which was the number one film at the local box office when I was in Hong Kong last month. The film’s popularity was just rewarded at the Hong Kong Film Awards, where it won Best Picture Best Actor, Best Actress, Best Director, and Best Screenplay statues, adding to a slew of other accolades from the Golden Horse Awards, the Hong Kong Film Society, the Venice Film Festival, and many more. It’s an outstanding film that deserves all of the attention it’s been getting, and it represents director Hui at her best.

The film follows the relationship between domestic servant Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) and Roger (Andy Lau), her long-time employer. Ah Tao has worked for Roger’s family for three generations over several decades, caring for the children, cooking, and cleaning. Roger, a successful screenwriter, lives with Ah Tao in his family’s flat in Hong Kong after the rest of his family has migrated to the U.S. After Ah Tao suffers a stroke she decides to retire and Roger helps her to move to an old folks’ home in a former bank, with the elderly residents living in the former cubicles.

Hui’s sure directorial hand crafts what might have been an overwrought tearjerker into a film with emotionally honest core. Shooting digitally in modest locations Hui simply captures the quotidian life of her protagonists, which allows the complexities of their relationship to shine through.  Without lapsing into sentimentality or melodrama she manages to evoke a deeply emotional response, demonstrating the value of directorial restraint over bombast.

Chemistry, Deanie & Andy, A Simple Life, 2012

Andy Lau is quite good, although the movie takes pains to downplay his movie-star gorgeousness. At one point he’s mistaken for a repairman and another time a cabbie, but his perfect jawline and aquiline nose belie those conceits. As evidenced by her collection of Best Actress awards, Deanie Ip as Ah Tao is also outstanding. She also dresses down, with a plain-Jane haircut and dowdy cotton shirt and trousers disguising her glamour. Lau and Ip’s chemistry is excellent and believable and results in several truly affecting moments.

Anthony Wong, in red nail polish and a dramatically fluffy scarf, is amusing as the landlord of the rest home and Chapman To makes a brief cameo as a dentist. The denizens of the old-folks home are played by a who’s who of senior Hong Kong actors including Paul Chun, Helena Law Lan and many others.

The movie comments on the formation of families outside of traditional family structures. Both Roger and Ah Tao’s relationship and the bonds Ah Tao forms with the senior home residents replicate family and stress that kinship is not the exclusive domain of blood ties. This is emphasized by the neglectful relationship between one of the residents and her absent son, as well as another woman whose family abandoned her to assisted living in the senior home.

Andy & Deanie, Best Actor & Actress, 2012 Hong Kong Film Awards

The film also makes some interesting points about class divisions. Although Roger and Ah Tao are clearly very fond of each other they remain distanced as master and servant. Ah Tao continually insists on staying in her place as a servant, refusing money from her former employer and only reluctantly joining a family picture. Her room in the family flat apparently doubles as the laundry room.

Hui’s naturalistic filmmaking style is in full force, with the film’s mis-en-scene seamlessly meshing with my real-life afternoon walk through Wanchai. Seeing it in Hong Kong the film also took on more meaning for me, since in many middle and upper class families there domestic servants are the norm. Hui’s film does an excellent job dissecting the complexities of the master-servant relationship and filtering them through the realities of human emotion.

Masculin/Feminin, Francis Ng in My Way, 2012

At the Hong Kong International Film Festival I saw another Ann Hui movie, My Way, which is a 20-minute piece in Beautiful, a four-part omnibus sponsored by the HKIFF, and which just went live on youku.com today (it’s already had more than 1 million hits and has spawned a great debate about transgendered people in the comments section). Like A Simple Life, My Way focuses on ordinary people going through dramatic changes. In a case of extreme anti-typecasting, Francis Ng plays a transgendered woman on the eve of sex-reassignment surgery. His past roles in hypermasculine crime flicks like The Mission and Exiled dramatically underscore the intertwined nature of gender identity and confounds expectations of clear-cut gender roles—if  Francis Ng can convincingly portray a man who wants to become a woman, then that kernal of femaleness must lie within every male.

Since Ng’s character is a man dressed as a woman, it’s fine that his sleek black silk dress, stockings and pumps don’t quite disguise his muscular arms and broad shoulders. Francis more than compensates for his still-male physicality by his female gestures and expressions, embodying the duality of his pre-op transsexual character–he’s completely convincing in his gender-switching role.

The short film captures an impressive range of emotions in its brief running time, in no small part due to Francis’ intense and vulnerable rendition of a person trying to cope with difficult decisions. Jade Leung is also excellent as his bitter and estranged wife coming to grips with her husband’s transformation. A small but significant character, Ng and Leung’s adolescent son, has a particularly poignant and moving moment. After his father’s surgery, the son receives a text message announcing the operation’s success. Hui shows both the wife and son’s reactions—the wife weeps, while the son quietly accepts the news.

Like A Simple Life, the film also looks at the formation of familial ties outside of the bonds of blood kin, with Ng’s character supported by a circle of other transgendered women who are more caring than her supposed family members. As with many Hui films, there are no clear villains or heroes, just regular people dealing with stressful circumstances as best they can. Sweet and moving, this film captures the pain and joy of a difficult situation. Francis Ng is fearless in his vulnerable rendering of a fragile yet strong character who must make the difficult decision to break from societal expectations in order to find personal happiness.

Here’s the link to My Way in its entirety on youku.com.

A Simple Life now playing:

San Francisco

AMC Metreon 16

Cupertino

AMC Cupertino Square 16

April 16, 2012 at 5:50 pm 5 comments

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

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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