Posts filed under ‘hong kong movies’

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 Mayo (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 harken 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 gentrification 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.

UPDATE: More than a year after its initial theatrical release, COOK UP A STORM has become a bit of a viral sensation on various social media platforms. On several facebook posts alone the film has many thousands of views and shares. So although the film only did middling business when played in cinemas in China it’s gotten a new lease on life online. The best things in life are free–

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February 19, 2017 at 1:54 am 5 comments

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

Hot, Cool & Vicious: Favorite movies, 2016

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Learning to breathe, Moonlight, 2016

Before we get too deep into 2017 here’s a baker’s dozen of some of my most memorable cinematic viewing experiences from last year. My only requirement for this list is that the film had to be seen on the big screen, whether in a regular theatrical run or in a film festival. Though I spent a lot of time last year consuming media online and on DVD those viewings don’t count for this list. There is in no particular order except MOONLIGHT is number one.

1. Moonlight: Barry Jenkins’ masterful, virtuoso film has so many strong points that I could (and probably will) write an entire essay about it, but here I’ll just mention one thing. Jenkins knows exactly when to have his characters speak and when to keep them silent, enacting a complex choreography between dialog and subtext that emphasizes the film’s theme of the performativity of gender, identity, and masculinity.

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Posse, The Mermaid, 2016

2. The Mermaid: Stephen Chow Sing-Chi returns to slay the Asia box office with this incredibly loopy cinematic manifestation from the inside of his one-of-a-kind brain. In Hong Kong in the 1990s no one made comedies like Stephen Chow and it’s good to see he’s successfully crossed over to the greater Chinese film industry. Chow continues to combine a uniquely twisted worldview, a highly refined cinematic eye, lowbrow humor, a beautiful visual sense, cynicism and romanticism, maniacal wordplay, slapstick, random violence, and gross-out humor in a way that no other filmmaker can match.

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Fleeing, Train To Busan, 2016

3. Train To Busan: Although ostensibly a zombie apocolypse flick, Yeon Sang-Ho’s film is also a melodrama, teen romance, road movie, and critique of capitalism all rolled into one thrilling ride. Gong Yoo anchors the film with his sensitive and vulnerable performance as a man caught up in a madness far beyond his imagining and control

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Meta, Three, 2016

4. Three: Johnnie To’s yearly masterpiece, which dissects the Hong Kong crime film vis a vis the hospital movie. Every shot and every scene is a meta commentary on its genre forerunners.

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Despairing, Old Stone, 2016

5. Old Stone: Johnny Ma’s indie film is a scathing attack on the hypocrisy and idiocy of China’s Kafka-esque judicial system as it depicts one man’s attempt to escape a spiraling set of circumstances that threaten to ruin his life.
Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Real, The Lockpicker, 2016

6. The Lockpicker: Randall Okita’s bleak & angsty drama looks at a teenager dealing with loss, alienation, and anomie in snowy Toronto. The film is a very slow burn that pays off in the end. The casual cruelty of high school students rings very true and as a parent of a teen I found this movie to be terrifying. Led by a very strong performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang, despite some confusing narrative moments the film sustains its tone of dread and anxiety throughout. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Yellow, Anti-Porno, 2016

7. Anti-Porno: Sion Sono’s playful and sexy pranking of Nikkatsu Studios’ Roman Porno films is made especially meaningful since it was produced by Nikkatsu itself. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival

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Doppelganger, Fan ,2016

8. Fan: Shah Rukh Khan, the Badshaah of Bollywood himself, leads this twisted, meta examination of stardom and fandom, playing a dual role as both the adored and the adorer in a dysfunctional symbiotic relationship between a movie actor and his biggest fan. SRK is fearless in this film, exposing more warts than many other superstars might be willing to reveal. Director Maneesh Sharma delves into the darker side of fame, with the full support of his willing star.

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Masculinities, The Magnificent Seven, 2016

9. The Magnificent Seven: Antoine Fuqua directs a deeply subversive and radical film disguised as a Hollywood action movie. This joint shows that the subaltern can speak as well as shoot a gun. Bonus points for looking at alternate expressions of masculinity, male bonding, and homosocial love.

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Histories, United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1), 2016

10. United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1): Naeem Mohaiemen’s experimental documentary deconstructs the audio recordings of the conversations between members of Japan’s militant revolutionary Red Army and Bangladeshi government negotiators after the group landed a hijacked plane at Dhaka in 1977, adding in Mohaiemen’s own wry recollections of the event that he witnessed as a child via television broadcasts. Viewed at the 2016 Third Eye South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco.

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Writing, Mele Murals, 2016

11. Mele Murals: In this documentary about Native Hawai’ian mural artists Tadashi Nakamura creates a thoughtful rumination on giving up selfhood in order to serve community, art, and culture. Viewed at the 2016 CAAMfest in San Francisco

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Charming, At Cafe 6, 2016

12. At Café 6: In yet another highly satisfying entry in Taiwan’s teen melodrama genre, director Neal Wu draws out excellent performances from his young cast. Though it doesn’t stray far from its genre conventions it hits all the right notes with subtlety and emotion, effectively looking at friendship, fate, love, and loss. After spending way too much time looking at the surgically enhanced beauty of so many K-drama stars it’s nice to see Cherry Ngan’s snaggle-toothed smile and Dong Zijian’s imperfect boy-next-door charms.

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Off-balance, The Wailing, 2016

13. The Wailing: Na Hong-Jin’s creepy thriller had me off-balance throughout its running time, with its constantly changing POV and its refusal to adhere to genre conventions. Also in the mix is a strutting, scene-stealing performance from the ever-awesome Hwang Jung Min as a badass shaman, some incredibly disturbing man/dog violence, and boils and pustules galore. I was shuddering for days after seeing this one.

Honorable mentions: Line Walker; Spa Night; Equinox Flower; In A Lonely Place; We Are X

NOTE: An earlier version of this list appeared on sensesofcinema.com

January 27, 2017 at 4:43 am 3 comments

Shall We Talk: Coming Home and Office movie reviews

Eason and a cast of thousands, Office, 2015

Eason and a cast of thousands, Office, 2015

In an interesting coincidence, two famous Chinese-language film directors have films opening in the U.S. this weekend, but their respective movies might puzzle the casual viewer expecting a certain type of cinematic output from each director. But on closer inspection both movies are in some ways throwbacks to early periods of each director’s filmmaking careers.

Starting with Hero (2002) and continuing through House of Flying Daggers (2002), Curse of the Golden Flower (2006), and The Flowers Of War (2011), Zhang Yimou for the most part in the 21st century made a series of glossy commercial films that have been successful marketed in the West, and he capped off this run of box-office hits by overseeing the much-lauded opening ceremony for the 2008 Beijing Olympics. So viewers who only started following Zhang’s career in the 21st century might think that his oeuvre is all about wire-fu, movie stars, a hypersaturated color palette, and an affinity for spectacle. But Zhang started out in the 1980s as one of the so-called Fifth Generation of Chinese directors who were noted for their realistic styles and politically astute commentary. Often depicting the ordinary lives of peasants in China’s rural countryside and usually starring Gong Li, Zhang’s first several features were poetic ruminations on the effects on everyday people of various types of systematic repression. These movies, including Ju Dou, Red Sorghum, Raise the Red Lantern, and The Story of Qiu Ju, made Zhang the darling of the arthouse film festival set, so it was a bit of a surprise when he busted out with a string of martial-arts fantasies at the turn of the 21st century. But those later films were pretty big at the box office and thus many folks only know Zhang as a director of big-budget spectacles, so it might seem like a surprise that Zhang’s latest film, Coming Home, includes neither martial arts nor brightly colored costumes and sets. Astute observers, however, will realize that the movie actually harkens back to Zhang’s earlier Fifth Generation output from the 1980s and 90s.

Chen and Gong try to remember, Coming Home, 2015

Chen and Gong try to remember, Coming Home, 2015

Coming Home is a family drama set during and just after the Cultural Revolution in China and is based on the novel The Criminal Lu Yanshi by popular Chinese author Yan Geling (whose novella 13 Flowers of Nanjing was the basis of Zhang’s recent film The Flowers of War). The movie opens as former professor Lu Yanshi (Chen Daoming) surreptitiously arrives back at his town after escaping from a re-education camp. His devoted wife Feng Wanyu (Gong Li) attempts to meet him but is thwarted by the Chinese secret police and Lu is sent back to prison. Lu and Feng’s teenage daughter Dandan (Zhang Huiwen), an aspiring ballerina, resents her dad’s outlaw status since it’s messing with her career plans to play the lead soldier/dancer in the school play, which Zhang drolly depicts as leftist musical featuring dancers en pointe who are wielding rifles in the service of the revolution. Cut to several years later, after the end of the Cultural Revolution in the mid-70s. Lu again returns home but Feng has become addled from either a blow to the head, PTSD, early-onset Alzheimer’s, or a combination of all three, and thus doesn’t recognize him. The film then follows Lu’s attempts to reconcile with the amnesiac Feng.

Coming Home’s muted mis en scene at first seems a million miles away from the brightly colored, glossy sheen of Zhang’s martial arts movies but the film’s meticulous art direction, featuring scuffed walls, dull brick and wooden buildings, and threadbare wool coats and trousers, reflects Zhang’s careful attention to period detail and authenticity. The usually glamorous Gong Li tones down her customary high-wattage gorgeousness to play the dowdy teacher Feng, but in her performance she seems to have acting awards in mind, as she weeps piteously over Lu’s absence, then affects a glassy-eyed dolor to simulate mental confusion. (In fact, Gong was nominated for the first time for Best Actress for Taiwan’s 2014 Golden Horse award but lost out to Chen Shiang-chyi. In glorious diva fashion Gong subsequently pitched a fit, calling the Golden Horse unprofessional and vowing never to attend again.)

Chen Daoming shabby chic, Coming Home, 2015

Chen Daoming shabby chic, Coming Home, 2015

Although Gong is a bit off, Chen Daoming right on the money as the long-suffering Lu. His world-weary eyes and sorrowful demeanor speak volumes about Lu’s personal traumas and his experience becomes a metaphor for the human cost of China’s various social and political upheavals. Through Chen’s sensitive and understated performance the film becomes an allegory about the erasure of memory and the amnesia of the Cultural Revolution. In this way the movie hearkens back to director Zhang’s earlier films that focused on political and cultural critique, which preceded his more recent, more commercial output. Zhang also recently released another film set during the Cultural Revolution, Under The Hawthorne Tree, but his next project is the blockbuster Andy Lau-Matt Damon China/US-coproduction action fantasy The Great Wall. So he’s nothing if not versatile—

Chow and Chang, Office, 2015

Chow and Chang, Office, 2015

Also releasing in North America this weekend is the latest from Johnnie To, Office. Like Zhang’s movie, Office at first may seem like an anomaly in its director’s catalog but in fact the film, which is a musical comedy, has a lot in common with To’s past work. Though To is best known in the West for hardboiled crime movies like The Mission, Election, Exiled, and his last film, Drug War, he’s got a much more varied back-catalog than that. To got his start directing at Hong Kong’s television studio TVB and there he directed everything from romances to comedies to martial arts historicals, including the famous period drama The Yang Family Saga. His prolific filmmaking output includes the fantasy action films The Heroic Trio and The Executioners, the comedy farces The Eighth Happiness and The Fun, The Luck, The Tycoon, and Stephen Chow vehicles Justice, My Foot and The Mad Monk. Although his crime films have won him much love among Asian film fanpeople, To’s most commercially successful movies have been romcoms such as Needing You and Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart 1 & 2.

So it’s not as far-fetched as it might initially seem to be that Office is a musical, with all of its leads (except Chow Yun-Fat) singing at least one song in the film. The movie is a typical workplace drama infused with cogent commentary about the crisis of capitalism, The storyline follows two young acolytes at their first days on the job at Jones & Sun, a seemingly innocuous Hong Kong cosmetics company that’s actually in the throes of backstabbing and backroom deals. President Ho (Chow Yun-Fat) has a wife in a coma and Chinese investors knocking at his company’s door, while CEO Cheung Wai (Sylvia Chang) struggles to keep the company’s profits up and its products relevant. Salesman Wong Dawai (Eason Chan) is climbing the corporate ladder and is not averse to using personal relationships, including ones with CEO Cheung as well as fellow office drone Sophie (Tang Wei), in order to advance. Youngsters Kat (Tien Hsin) and Lee Xiang (Wang Ziyi) round out the ensemble.

Eason and Wei meet cute, Office, 2015

Eason and Wei meet cute, Office, 2015

But despite a stellar cast who admirably perform both acting and singing duties (with Cantopop superstar Eason Chan being the best and Tang Wei the worst among the vocalists), the real star of the show is the astounding art direction and set design by acclaimed veteran William Chang Suk Ping, who has won renown as the production and/or costume designer for innumerable classic Hong Kong films including In The Mood For Love, The Grandmaster, and Dragon Inn. Office was shot completely on a soundstage, with some outdoor scenes simulated via green screen, and Chang’s beautiful, stylized set dictates the mood of the film. Comprised mostly of brightly colored bars and rails, the set resembles a massive, skeletal architectural cage that encloses the action and the characters and lends a hermetically sealed, slightly claustrophobic feel to the film. The artificial staginess of the movie, with its simulated spaces and multiple levels of activity, recalls a Broadway musical more than a movie musical, with the set dominated by a huge, slowly revolving clockface. No pretense of realism is made in the film’s use of space, color, and structural elements, which adds to the knowing fakery of the movie’s design.

Production design a go go, Office, 2015

Production design a go go, Office, 2015

Despite To being the titular director, the film displays the strong influence of Sylvia Chang, who wrote and produced the film as well as playing the lead as CEO Cheung Wai, and who has an impressive resume as the director of films such as Tempting Heart (1999), 20 30 40 (2004), and Murmurs of the Heart (2014). Chang’s hand is clearly evident in the narrative’s complex personal relationships and its focus on the collateral damage of corporate machinations. To’s romcom background also comes the fore as the movie’s love hexangle recalls the similarly structured romantic entanglement in his 2014 movie Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart 2.

The weakest element of the movie’s musical conceit is its curious lack of interesting choreography. Despite taking place on a boldly designed stage set that cries out for equally bold movement through and across it, the movement during the musical numbers is surprisingly limited. The action during the songs in Office consists of mostly of synchronized head nods and a few characters walking in rhythm together. Office could stand to take a few lessons from Bollywood musicals, whose song and dance numbers fill every inch of the frame with dynamic, kinetic movement.

But all in all, the movie is a fascinating beast that promises to be brilliant up on the big screen. After first seeing in via online screener with tiny white subtitles I’m looking forward to watching it again in a movie theater where it belongs, and so should everyone, in my humble opinion.

Coming Home

dir. Zhang Yimou

opens Fri. Sept. 18

Office

dir. Johnnie To

opens Fri. Sept, 18, 2015

September 19, 2015 at 6:26 am 1 comment

Addicted To Chaos: Ringo Lam’s Wild City film review

Louis Koo and pistol, Wild City, 2015

Louis Koo and pistol, Wild City, 2015

Back in 1980s and 90s when Hong Kong cinema ruled the world, the undisputed god of acting was Chow Yun-Fat and his most renowned collaborator was the king of heroic bloodshed, John Woo. But close on Woo’s heels was his grittier, darker compatriot, Ringo Lam, who also made several classic HK crime movies starring Chow. Beginning with City on Fire and continuing through Prison On Fire 1 and 2, Wild Search, and Full Contact, Chow and Lam worked on a string of indispensible action movies that defined the crime film genre in the former Crown Colony.

But after directing eleven films from 1987-1995, many of them excellent and some of them masterpieces, Lam’s output declined—in 1997 he made a crappy Hollywood movie with Jean Claude Van Damme, then returned to Hong Kong to direct the brutal and amazing post-handover cop-and-criminal film Full Alert. But since 1997 Lam has only directed six films. So it was with much rejoicing that Hong Kong movie fanpeople reacted to the news last year that Lam was directing his first film since 2002 and was returning to Hong Kong to make it. That film, Wild City, opens this weekend in the US on a near day-and-date release with China and a month before its debut in Hong Kong.

The story concerns T-Man, a former cop who comes across a forlorn woman drinking in the bar he now owns. As with many dames in crime movies she’s nothing but trouble, and soon T-Man is embroiled in a mess, along with his hotheaded half-brother Chung, running across gangsters, thieves, crooks, and cheaters.

The movie is a throwback to Lam’s glory days and focuses on themes and situations from his classic films with Chow. Not only that but it’s set en la calle in Hong Kong and much of it is in very vernacular Cantonese. If you close your eyes you can almost imagine that it’s 1992 all over again, except that since this is the 21st century the movie stars the ubiquitous Louis Koo and half of the cast are from Taiwan or the PRC, with the dialogue littered with the unmistakable presence of Putonghua.

Running, Wild City, 2015

Running, Wild City, 2015

Like a lot of Lam’s ouevre, Wild City draws on several classic film noir tropes. Tong Liya plays the beautiful and mysterious woman with a dark past. Louis Koo is the disgraced former cop with the impulsive, loose cannon half-brother (Shawn Yue) whose nuts he repeatedly has to pull from the fire. The bad guys, led by the moody Joseph Chang (here playing against type as a Taiwanese gangster) are ruthless yet possess a strong sense of loyalty and brotherhood. The nighttime streets of Hong Kong are dark and slicked with rain and Lam’s camera roams restlessly with its characters through the city’s environs.

As with Lam’s past films, the characters are nuanced and shaded, with the good guys displaying flaws and the bad guys showing grief and remorse. Lam also includes his trademark social critique—the very first image of the film is of a Hong Kong 1000 dollar bill that dissolves into a nighttime skyline of the city. The film then cuts to a street-level view of crowds of people in the city at night, lingering on an image of a homeless woman living in a cardboard box, with Louis Koo’s voiceover stating, “We are all driven by one issue: money.” The plot turns on the rampant greed ruining the lives of the characters as well as destroying Hong Kong, and much of the narrative focuses on the looming presence of a shiny suitcase full of gold and currency, with its corrosive influence a metaphor for capitalism’s corrupt effects. The film also reflects Hong Kong’s current state of anxiety, with several characters expressing the difficulty in finding a place to call home.

Pile-up, WIld City, 2015

Pile-up, WIld City, 2015

No one directs an action sequence like Ringo Lam and Wild City includes a crackling car chase, violent murders, and hand-to-hand beatdowns in close quarters. There are also swaggering triads, corrupt lawyers and businessmen, and other denizens of Lam’s nocturnal Hong Kong universe that add a general sense of foreboding to the proceedings. Yet at the same time Lam allows for a glimmer of hope in the darkness, and the film’s conclusion is perhaps less dark and cynical than his past work. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Lam has mellowed but SPOILER not everything completely goes south like it might have in his past films.

If you’ve never experienced a Ringo Lam Hong Kong movie before, now is the time. Wild City won’t stay in theaters long, so this is your chance to witness some of what made Hong Kong the center of the moviemaking universe back in the day. And if the film does well enough, Lam will be able to get financing to direct more movies and we won’t have to wait eight years for his next joint to drop.

Wild City

directed by Ringo Lam

opens July 31, 2015

Century 20 Daly City

1901 Junipero Serra Blvd

Daly City, CA 94015

Four Star

2200 Clement St

San Francisco, CA 94121

and selected theaters in North America

July 31, 2015 at 6:21 am 1 comment

Funeral Tango: International Film Noir at the Roxie Theater

Don't mess, Intimidation, 1960

Don’t mess, Intimidation, 1960

Starting this Thursday, the Roxie plays host to A Rare Noir Is Good To Find: International Film Noir 1949-74, the followup series to last fall’s wildly popular noir showcase, The French Had A Name For It, which sold out most of its shows in its week-long run of classic French crime movies. The team behind that blockbuster event, former Roxie programmer Elliot Lavine and Midcentury Productions’ Don Malcolm, have put together another great calendar of notable noir, this time from around the world. Included in the program are fifteen films from ten different countries including France, Japan, Finland, Hong Kong, Denmark, Mexico, Greece, South Korea, Brazil, and Poland.

Guns, gams, and gals, Underworld Beauty, 1958

Guns, gams, and gals, Underworld Beauty, 1958

Screening in a triple-bill matinee on Saturday are three films from Japan that exemplify Japanese cinema’s effortless mastery of noir. Underworld Beauty (1958), by legendary director Seijin Suzuki, involves a bunch of guns, a fistful of stolen diamonds, a feisty gal named Akiko and an honorable ex-con, yakuza, double-crossing, shivs, and wild lindy hops, all presented in Suzuki’s garish and exhilarating style.

A friendly game of cards, Pale Flower, 1964

The second film of the trio, Pale Flower (1964, dir. Masahiro Shinoda), is a bleak little tale of gangsters, gambling, drugs, and a mysterious woman named Saeko who hangs out at a flower-card den and gets involved with the recently released prisoner Muraki, who’s just finished serving time for a gangland hit. Shot mostly at night and populated by junkies, yakuza, and gamblers, the film is a classic noir tale of desperation, addition, and fatalistic longing.

Rounding out the threesome is Intimidation (1960, dir. Koreyoshi Kurahara), a low-budget psychological thriller about a bank executive who gets caught with his hand in the cookie jar and who is blackmailed into larceny and crime. Clocking in at just over an hour, the film almost feels like an extended episode of Perry Mason, economically telling a tightly wound story of human corruption and greed.

The inimitable Grace Chang, The Wild, Wild Rose, 1960

The inimitable Grace Chang, The Wild, Wild Rose, 1960

The Wild Wild Rose (1960, dir. Tian-Ling Wang) features Hong Kong superstar Grace Chang, who ignites the screen as a flirty chanteuse involved in an ill-fated romance. Chang is a five-tool player, as she can sing, dance, act, and emote, and also looks like a million bucks. Chang applies her multi-octave vocal range to Mandarin-language adaptations of several songs from Carmen including a jazzy version of Habanero, as well as the aria from Madame Butterfly. She’s also surprisingly sympathetic as a bar girl who claims she can steal the heart of any man she chooses and who finds that her own heart is also at risk. The movie mixes melodrama, romance, a gangster named Cyclops, young lovers on the lam, and killer song-and-dance numbers into a heady brew.

I love American film noir but I love the idea of global noir even more, and I’m totally amped that the Roxie is presenting this brilliant series. Don’t miss it—

A Rare Noir Is Good To Find: International Film Noir 1949-74,

March 19-23, 2015

Roxie Theater

3117 16th Street

San Francisco CA 94110

415/863-1087

March 17, 2015 at 5:01 am Leave a comment

Nothing Compares 2 U: 2015 CAAMfest

Traces, Dot 2 Dot, 2014

Traces, Dot 2 Dot, 2014

CAAMfest, everyone’s favorite San Francisco-based Asian American arts festival, starts up this week and as usual it’s stuffed with films from Asian and Asian American directors, musical happenings, and food events. The festival spotlights veteran documentary filmmaker Arthur Dong, including a premiere of his new feature-length documentary The Killing Fields of Dr. Haing S. Ngor, which is about the Cambodian doctor perhaps best known for his Oscar-winning turn in The Killing Fields in 1984 and whose mysterious murder tragically ended his life some years later. Former CAAMfest/San Francisco International Asian American Film Festival director Chi-Hui Yang curates a program of shorts, Playtime, that includes Trails, Cyrus Tabar’s hallucinogenic microportrait of Tokyo, as well as a revival of the rarity Snipers In The Trees (1985), an early experimental short by Curtis Choy (The Fall of the I-Hotel). Below are a few other highlights of the upcoming cinematic onslaught.

Dot 2 Dot

Amos Why’s debut feature is the real deal, an intriguing look at Hong Kong’s past and present that uses the city’s unique history and geography as a backdrop for a thoughtful commentary on the transience of culture, place, and identity. The film follows Chung, a Chinese Canadian expat returning to HK who leaves dot-to-dot puzzles inscribed on the walls of the stations of the MTR, Hong Kong’s ubiquitous subway system. A recent mainland China emigre (Meng Ting-yi) begins to decipher Chung’s cryptograms and the two begin a virtual courtship, linked by Chung’s mysterious symbology. Director Why captures a street-level view of contemporary Hong Kong that’s filled with ordinary people who represent the multifaceted denizens of the city in the 21st century. The movie includes lots of non-touristy Hong Kong locations and has a great feel for the everyday sights and rhythms of the city. Hong Kong movie fans can also spot Susan Shaw as a language-school headmistress, and Tze-chung Lam, aka the chubby guy from Stephen Chow’s Shaolin Soccer, as a teacher, as well as TVB star Moses Chan (hiding his celebrity good-looks behind black-framed eyeglasses) as Chung. Though it fondly recalls the Hong Kong of the past, the movie isn’t overly sentimental or nostalgic. It’s a nice look at what’s vanished in Hong Kong over the past few decades and the rapidly accelerating changes in the city.

Possessed, Hollow, 2014

Possessed, Hollow, 2014

Hollow

This US/Vietnam co-production is a slick and creepy horror movie by Ham Tran, the director of Journey From the Fall (2006), which looked at the experiences of Vietnamese immigrants in the US, as well as last year’s glam-slam How To Fight in Six-Inch Heels. Hollow is a quite a departure from Tran’s debut film and demonstrates both the uptick in genre films directed by Asian Americans in the past few years as well as the trend toward US/Asia co-productions. The story centers on Chi, whose younger half-sister Ai apparently drowns in a nearby river, causing Chi much guilt and anguish. But when Ai later turns up a few kilometers down the river seemingly alive and well, things take a turn for the supernatural as the young girl develops a greenish pallor, scratches at mysterious wounds, and otherwise exhibits signs of demonic possession. The movie does an good job blending Viet ghost stories with modern-day horror film tropes and for the most part keeps the source of the mysterious child-possession hidden until the end. I would like to have seen a bit more agency on the part of Chi’s character but the film draws interesting parallels between sex traffickers and malevolent spirits, trying together past and present evils in Viet society. The movie is nicely shot, although the soundtrack relies a bit too heavily on sudden loud and jarring violin sounds to emphasize the scary bits in the story, but there are some nice visceral touches—it’s always rewarding to see pimps and child abductors vomiting gallons of river water.

Water country, Nuoc 2030, 2014

Water country, Nuoc 2030, 2014

Nuoc 2030

Nuoc 2030 is another US/Viet genre film coproduction, this one a science-fictional look at Vietnam in 2030, which is by then mostly flooded by global warming. The film’s title plays on the dual translation of “nuoc,” which means both “water” and “country” in Vietnamese. Despite a modest budget, director Nghiem-Minh Nguyen-Vo does an excellent job of world-building with his imaginative use of existing locations and evocative imagery to suggest a drowned world. The poetic narrative centers on Sao, a fisherman’s widow searching for clues to her husband’s murder in a watery Vietnam of the not-too-distant mid-21st century. For the most part the film delicately renders its futuristic storyline with imagination and vision, mixing in environmentalism, genetic engineering, and a fatalistic romance.

Flowing Stories

Jessey Tsang Tsui-Shan’s outstanding documentary looks Ho Chung village, a small settlement in Hong Kong’s New Territories, an area which is currently undergoing a construction boom due to its location near the Hong Kong/China border. Due to the harshness of farming in the region many NT residents immigrate to Europe to find work, including the two generations of the Lau Family featured in Tsang’s film. Tsuan shot much of the film during the village’s ten-year festival that occurs every decade, using that event as a means of examining the ongoing village diaspora and its effects on the residents. The Laus dispersed primarily to France and the UK and the film also includes footage of their lives overseas, with the resulting French/English-speaking children, intermarriages, and mixed-heritage offspring. Only the family’s world-weary matriarch remains in the village, where she bitterly reminisces about the poverty and hardship of farm life and her still-raging anger at her late husband, who emigrated to the UK decades before and who was only able to return a handful of times to visit his wife and children. The film is an excellent testament to the effects of globalization and the costs of modernization on ordinary people but it’s by no means downbeat or depressing, as it also celebrates the endurance of and connections to the villagers’ cultural roots as they return every decade to celebrate the festival.

I'm gonna live forever, My Voice, My Life, 2014

I’m gonna live forever, My Voice, My Life, 2014

My Voice, My Life

Oscar-winner (and former San Franciscan) Ruby Lam’s latest film follows several at-risk Hong Kong high school students as they prepare for a large-scale musical production. This verite-style doc celebrates the struggles and accomplishments of those who have been left out of Hong Kong’s fast-lane, including students from a school for the blind, recent mainland China immigrants, and those whose academics keep them from top-ranked educations. Part Fame, part Frederick Wiseman’s High School, the movie subtly reveals a lot about the social strata of contemporary Hong Kong and its constantly changing cultural milieu.

2015 CAAMfest

March 12-22, 2015

San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley

March 10, 2015 at 4:00 am Leave a comment

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