Posts filed under ‘hong kong movies’

Forever Waiting: SFFILM’s Hong Kong Cinema series

Full circle, Tracey, 2018

SFFILM’s annual Hong Kong cinema series happened this weekend and it’s a really interesting look at the state of the territory’s movie industry today. Included were the edgy neo-noir G-Affairs, the character-driven feel-good sports movie Men on the Dragon, and Pang Ho-Cheung’s irreverent Lunar New Year quickie Miss Behavior, among a selection of other films.

This year’s series was held at the Roxie Theater in the Mission and for me it was full circle since I saw my very first of many many Hong Kong movies, A Chinese Ghost Story, at the Roxie on the big screen back in the late 1980s. But the Hong Kong movie world has changed immeasurably from 1986 to 2019 and those changes are reflected in the programming at this year’s Hong Kong cinema series.

Although Hong Kong cinema has had its share of ups and downs since its heyday in the 1990s, ironically that may have led more opportunities for creative exploration. Though the high-powered star system might no longer exist there are still great films being made that go beyond Hong Kong’s iconic crime film, wuxia, and martial arts genres. This year’s showcase is perhaps indicative of a renaissance in Hong Kong’s filmmaking community that is less about glitzy commercial films and more about developing a healthy independent film scene. This is especially true since co-productions with China are so heavily controlled by the PRC’s censorship board. Though there may be less money for non-co-productions that focus on the local Hong Kong audience, in some ways these films are a truer reflection of Hong Kong’s distinctive cultural milieu and it’s good to see younger filmmakers leading the way.

Sensitive, Tracey, 2018

Jun Li’s Tracey follows the story of a middle-aged man who comes out to his friends and family about being transgender. The movie sensitively explores the topic and is driven by outstanding performances by veteran actors Philip Keung as Tai-hung/Tracey and Kara Wai as Anne, his stricken wife. Keung is excellent as the transperson who is finally realizing she can become who she really is. I’ve always liked Keung as one of Hong Kong’s stalwart character actors but he’s really next level in Tracey, with his sensitive and mobile face expressing a world of hurt and wonder. Wai likewise sketches a complex portrayal of a character that in lesser hands could have easily been one-dimensional and the two of these powerhouse actors are at their best when in their intense scenes together. Wai also has nice moments with Ng Siu Hin (Mad World; Ten Years) as Tai-hung and Anne’s son, a young man who ostensibly advocates for sexual freedom and understanding but who has to confront his own biases when the abstract becomes concrete in his own father’s situation.

The film is somewhat episodic and it sometimes feels like first-time feature film director Li is hoping to cram a lot of ideas into a two-hour film. But his ambitious debut speaks to a thoughtful and restless creativity that wants to say a lot, which in less sensitive and sympathetic hands might have been a simplified, dumbed down, or sensationalized film.

Agency, The Lady Improper, 2018

Jessey Tsang’s The Lady Improper looks at questions of female sexuality, agency, and control. Lead performer Charlene Choi got her start as one half of the mega-superstar singing duo The Twins but she’s since become one of Hong Kong’s most reliable leading ladies in her selection of challenging and complex roles. In The Lady Improper she again has chosen a film that pushes boundaries as Choi plays Siu Man, an unhappily married woman who takes control of her unsatisfying life

Throughout the film director Tsang emphasizes the importance of Siu Man taking charge of her life, as opposed to letting others control her. She stands up to family criticisms, changes her career path, addresses her insecurities about physical intimacy, and ultimately decides how her life should be. In this way Tsang’s perspective as a female filmmaker is clear, as she portrays the answers to her protagonist’s dilemmas as reliant on Siu Man, not on outside forces. The film’s depiction of Siu Man’s empowerment is deeply feminist in its insistence on the importance of women deciding for themselves the path their lives will take.

Elliptical, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2017

CODA: though not a Hong Kong film, I capped off my weekend by seeing Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2017). The film was in limited release here in the States a few months ago but I was in editing hell and missed it, so I was glad for the chance to see it on the big screen and in 3D at the venerable Castro Theater here in San Francisco. Suffice to say that the film didn’t disappoint in its surreal portrayal of a brooding man searching for a mysterious woman, which is of course a classic noir theme. Here director Bi puts a decidedly Chinese spin on it, locating the story in Kaili City, located in the landlocked and somewhat economically depressed southeastern province of Guizhou. Bi uses local dialect, a gorgeous lighting design, and an elliptical narrative structure to suggest the ennui and dislocation of his characters. The film concludes with an outstanding 59-minute-long single-take unedited shot, screened at the Castro in 3D, that may or may not be a dream sequence and that includes cow skulls, ping pong, spooked horses, characters flying, and fireworks among many other amazing images that combine to evoke an altered state. The sequence is totally rad and totally breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see this in a proper cinema and not on my laptop or on the back of an airplane seat.

CODA2: Hong Kong stalwart Herman Yau’s latest action movie The White Storm 2: Drug Lords is also playing at my multiplex this weekend so I’m going to try to see it too. Way to round off a great weekend of movie-watching!

July 15, 2019 at 9:40 pm Leave a comment

Marry The Night: 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival

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Stylized, A Dog Barking At The Moon, 2019

NOTE: Because of the crunch of completing Love Boat: Taiwan for the past six months or so I’m very behind on my postings here. Starting with this entry I’m going to try to catch up as best I can with the backlog, so apologies for the anachronistic timings.

This past March I took my first trip back to Hong Kong in nearly two years, after I spent last year dealing with a life-threatening illness, for the 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival. Because this year there were no weekday matinee screenings, with programming most days beginning after 6pm, my screening schedule was somewhat less frenetic than in past years, but I still saw many great movies in just under a week of viewing. In no particular order here are some of the films I caught.

 

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Sharper, G-Affairs, 2019

G-Affairs (2019), Lee Cheuk-pan’s directorial debut, is an interesting amalgamation of styles and tropes from past and present Hong Kong cinema, but with a sharper edge than many recent commercial films from the territory. Sex, crime, violence, and corruption permeate the proceedings as this bleak and nihilistic view of Hong Kong society follows several characters including a corrupt cop (Chapman To), a world-weary prostitute (Huang Lu), and a troubled teenaged student (Hanna Chan) whose teacher sexually exploits her. The film implicates those with power and authority who continually fail the younger characters, suggesting the betrayal of Hong Kong’s youthful dreams in the decades following the 1997 handover.

 

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Backstage, First Night Nerves, 2019

A completely different sort of Hong Kong movie, Stanley Kwan’s First Night Nerves (2019) is an excellent example of what used to be called a women’s film, with a female-centric plot and strong women characters. Sleek and assured, Kwan’s backstage drama, his first feature film in nearly a decade, stars Cantopop divas Sammi Cheng and Gigi Lai as rival actresses. The film includes clever dialogue that references the tensions between Hong Kong and China and harkens back to the heyday of 1990s Hong Kong cinema.

 

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Complex, Everybody Knows, 2019

Everybody Knows (2019), Asghar Farhadi’s latest joint, is as usual full of moral ambiguity and complexity but a bit more plotty than his other films, including his Oscar-winners A Separation and The Salesman. A family reunion at a wedding in Spain dredges up past secrets and unresolved conflicts that come to a head when the daughter of one of the attendees is kidnapped. As usual Farhadi creates finely drawn, complex and ambiguous characters full of flaws and virtues, and draws out excellent performances from his cast, most notably the outstanding turn by Javier Bardim. His co-star and fellow international star Penelope Cruz is also good, although at times a bit too florid in her rendering of a mother desperately seeking her disappeared daughter. The screening I attended at HKIFF proved why seeing movies in a theater will always be superior to watching them online as the audience was totally into the film and gasped and laughed at the plot twists and reveals, thus enacting that ineffable cinema viewing experience.

 

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Iconic, Barber Takes a Wife, 1947

The festival also featured a clutch of four restored films starring the iconic Shanghainese actress Li Lihua. I was able to catch two of them including Barber Takes a Wife, a beautiful and charming screwball comedy from 1947. Full of snappy clothes and snappy dialog, led by the queen of the arched eyebrow Li Lihua, who is vivacious and charismatic, the film reflects the sheen and sophistication of pre-revolution Shanghai.  In contrast, Bright Day (dir. Cao Yu, 1948) is full of social realism. There’s a bit too much exposition at the start but the movie eventually resolves itself well. Li is not quite as radiant as in Barber Takes a Wife but she is nonetheless lively and engaging. Director Cao’s background was in theater and the film is somewhat less cinematic than it could be, though there are flashes that are more filmic in the use of camera, lighting, and editing.

 

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Pranking, Hidden Man, 2018

After my viewing of Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man (2018) at the film festival I thought it was a mess of a movie and I feel asleep despite (maybe because of) the film’s overblown action and hyperactive structure? Eddie Peng plays a similar role as Lee Byung-Hun in the Korean drama Mr. Sunshine, a returning expat who fled to the US as a child to escape violence and who is on a mission to avenge the deaths of those close to him. But I thought that Hidden Man never found its focus and jumped maniacally from person to place to topic, and that the characters were shallowly drawn. I also thought that the anachronistic cultural references and puns seemed forced and overly smirky.

But although I didn’t love this film the first time I saw it, on the recommendation of Ross Chen from lovehkfilm.com I watched it again on the plane ride back home from Hong Kong. Somehow it was better the second time around once I realized that Jiang Wen is a big joker who is pranking his audience throughout the movie. Some of the action choreography is quite good too and Eddie Peng looks good with his shirt off. And the way the film casually kills off major characters is very interesting, as if Jiang is making a mockery of the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

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Vulnerable, Eight Taels of Gold, 1989

The festival also included a focus on the legendary Hong Kong actor, producer, director, and action choreographer Sammo Hung, who is probably most famous for his collaborations with his “brothers” Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao in classic martial arts films such as The Prodigal Son, Wheels On Meals, and Project A. I caught his starring turn in Mabel Cheung’s bittersweet drama Eight Taels of Gold (1989), which is really the best movie ever. Touching, vulnerable, and beautifully directed by Cheung, the film showcases Sammo’s acting chops as he plays a Chinese expat who’s spent many years in the US whose relationship with his cousin (Sylvia Chang) becomes complicated when he accompanies her to her wedding in their home village in China. Poignant, emotional, and humanistic, the film focuses on different side of Hung that contrasts with his more familiar comedic martial arts/action persona.

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Bold, A Dog Barking At The Moon, 2019

Xiang Zi’s debut feature, A Dog Barking At The Moon (2019) is a stylized film that also has strong characters and an interesting plotline about a Chinese woman returning home to her dysfunctional family. Zi makes some bold stylistic choices, including theatrical interludes and overly mannered camera placements, and for the most part they work as they are self-conscious without being distracting. However, the narrative is very full and includes repressed sexual longing, homophobia, and cult indoctrinations, among other angsty developments. But the mother’s attraction to the cult and her ultimate motivations are believable and the Zi’s risky directorial decisions work more often than they don’t.

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Conventional, A Long Goodbye, 2019

A Long Goodbye (2019), a family melodrama from Japan, is stylistically the opposite of A Dog Barking At The Moon. Director Nakano Ryota’s film, which follows a family as its patriarch gradually succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, is conventionally presented and relies on strong acting and invisible direction for its impact. Leaning towards tearjerker, it skates close to melodrama without actually fully falling into the abyss.

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Groundbreaking,Varda by Agnes, 2019

Fittingly, the last film I saw at this year’s festival was Varda by Agnes (2019), which was a brilliant and prescient elegy to the groundbreaking nouvelle vague filmmaker wherein Varda herself looks back on her long and storied career. As well as being a noted director Varda was also an accomplished photographer and visual artist—later in life she worked in multi-channel media installations. I saw this a day after Varda’s death and it was an outstanding self-tribute that provided a fascinating look into the director’s creative process.

Postscript: As I write this in June 2019 the people of Hong Kong have been protesting and demonstrating against a draconian extradition law that may be a turning point in the territory’s relationship with its overlords in Beijing. Will Hong Kong be able to maintain its “one country, two systems” existence, which has already been severely diminished, or will Beijing further erode the civil liberties of the restive region? As the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in the past couple weeks have proven, Hong Kong isn’t going down without a fight.

June 15, 2019 at 5:29 am Leave a comment

New Power Generation: Jia Zhangke and Lunar New Year films 2019

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Jiang hu, Ash Is Purest White, 2018

This has been an interesting few weeks in Chinese-language cinema screenings here in the Bay. This is due in part to the recent Lunar New Year/Spring Festival holiday in China and related territories, during which a whole slew of new movies were released to capitalize on the extended vacays of most people during that time. Because of the glut in product and the large Chinese-speaking population in the Bay Area, a select few of those releases made it across the Pacific to San Francisco movie houses. Coupled with an extended series of films by one of China’s premier arthouse directors, this meant that I managed to catch many Sinophone films in the month of February.

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Cameos, Missbehavior, 2019

I started my Lunar New Year viewings with Pang Ho-Cheung’s Missbehavior, one of two Hong Kong films that made it to San Francisco in February. (Sadly, I missed the other one, Felix Chong’s action thriller Integrity, due to scheduling conflicts). Pang is Hong Kong’s 21st century bad-boy auteur who’s racked up a number of well-received hits including Isabella, Vulgaria, Aberdeen, and his Love In A Puff series that stars Miriam Cheung and Shawn Yue. Miss Behavior is a low-budget quickie that carries on in the best tradition of New Year’s films, with a big cast with many famous people making cameos, a lighthearted comic tone, and a lowbrow sensibility including an extended sequence of the glamorous Dada Chen discussing her bowel movements. Though it’s not one of Pang’s deepest or most thoughtful films (the setup involves a group of friends frantically trying to locate a bottle of breast milk) the narrative  is actually very well-constructed and it moves along at a good clip, briskly shuffling its many characters in and out and climaxing with a free-for-all in a big ol’ shopping mall after hours.

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Spectacular, The Wandering Earth, 2019

On the other end of the production-values spectrum is China’s very first foray into the big-budget science fiction genre, The Wandering Earth (Frant Gwo). Based on a short story by well-known Chinese author Liu Cixin, the movie is a big, spectacular piece of moviemaking that rivals anything that Hollywood has put out lately. Although there are no aliens, the film does include huge vistas of spinning planets, individuals at peril in space and planetside, spaceships and other hardware exploding, random science-babble, and other markers of every sci-fi movie of recent vintage. The production design is also on point, portraying an Earth of the near future as dark, chaotic, and polluted (not unlike modern-day Beijing).

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Collectivism, The Wandering Earth, 2019

But at heart it’s a Chinese production, emphasizing collectivism over individuality and the importance of very long-range goals. Also of note is the absence of almost any US presence to speak of—in China’s futuristic vision everyone speaks Mandarin, Russian, French or Japanese, and most of the planetside action takes place in China or other Asian countries. A massive box office hit in China, the film grossed more than US$300 million in its first weekend of release and has gone on to an impressive haul of more than US$650 million worldwide in just under four weeks.

And on a different tip entirely was the Jia Zhangke series at SFMOMA and BAM/PFA that included Jia himself in person at two of the screenings (a delayed plane flight prevented him making a scheduled third appearance at a show earlier in the series). The series included every one of Jia’s feature films (documentaries and narratives both), as well as films by other directors that have had some direct influence on his work.

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Underbelly, Unknown Pleasures, 2002

Some of the pairings worked really well together such as the double-bill including Jia’s Unknown Pleasures (2002) and Hou Hsiao-hsien’s The Boys From Fengkuei (1983), both of which looked at aimless young people wandering through life. Jia’s film explores the seamy side of China, with Jia using the under-construction highway between Datong & Beijing as a visual metaphor for the rough underbelly of China’s economic miracle. A prequel of sorts to Jia’s latest film, Ash Is Purest White (2018), it follows an emo pretty boy in love triangle with the chanteuse Qiao Qiao (played by Jia’s wife and frequent collaborator Zhao Tao) and her boyfriend, a low-rent loan shark mobster.

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Ennui, The Boys From Fengkuei, 1983

In contrast, Hou’s film is quiet and still compared to the barely restrained chaos of Jia’s movie. As opposed to the undercurrent of grinding industrial cacophony in Unknown Pleasures, the sound of lapping waves is an aural backdrop to most of the action in a small seaside town where group of young dudes hang out and try to find meaning in their lives. They eventually end up in Kaohshiung, the closest city to their tiny coastal burg, where more ennui and confusion awaits.

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Rivers and lakes, Ash Is Purest White, 2018

Other film matchups at SFMOMA were more loosely connected—for instance, according to the programmers Tokyo Story (Yasujiro Ozu, 1953) was paired with 24 City (Jia Zhangke, 2009) for the sole reason that both films are about cities. Similarly, the programmers grouped I Wish I Knew (Jia Zhangke, 2010), Spring In A Small Town (Fei Mu, 1948), and Flowers of Shanghai (Hou Hsiao-hsien, 1998), three wildly disparate movies, because they are all set in Shanghai. But the smart pairing of Johnny To’s Election (2005) and Jia’s Ash Is Purest White cleverly focused on the jiang hu, the criminal underworld in both Hong Kong and China.

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Chinatown new wave, Chan Is Missing, 1982

The series also matched up Jia films with non-Asian movies, such as Robert Bresson’s Pickpocket with Jia’s Xiao Wu (a show that Jia introduced himself at SFMOMA). And props for including Chinese American director Wayne Wang’s Chan Is Missing (1982), which evokes the nouvelle vague by way of San Francisco’s Chinatown.

I’m happy that I was able to squeeze in a bunch of screenings in the mini-hiatus from editing my film, Love Boat: Taiwan, because the next four weeks or so will be solely dedicated to finishing up the movie for its world premiere in early May. More info soon on this, but please go here if you want to find out about Love Boat: Taiwan and how you can support it .

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Ash Is Purest White opens theatrically on March 15 at Landmark’s Embarcadero Center Cinema in San Francisco and Landmark’s Shattuck Cinema in Berkeley, and on March 22 at AMC Mercado in Santa Clara, CNMK Fremont 8 in East Bay, and CNMK Milpitas 20 in San Jose.

March 3, 2019 at 4:14 am Leave a comment

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–

February 19, 2017 at 1:54 am 7 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

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