Posts filed under ‘hong kong movies’

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

Together Again: Triumph In The Skies and the Rebranding of Francis Ng

smirking

Francis checks in, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

The day-and-date release in the U.S. of the movie version Triumph In The Skies (more popularly known as TITS) represents a renaissance of sorts for my boy Francis Ng, who’s enjoying a resurgence of popularity after a bunch of down years. Although probably best known for his straight-up thuggin’ in classic HK gangster movies like Young & Dangerous, The Mission, Exiled, and many many more, Francis has in the past year or so managed to reinvent himself and his public persona as a romantic lead, a family man, and an overall good guy. Ironically, although Francis is mostly a movie king, his rebranding has been based mostly on the popularity of a couple recent television series.

The sequel to the Hong Kong drama on which TITS is based started Francis on his road to recovery back in 2013 as TITS 2 racked up the ratings and online views in both HK and China. Francis reprised his role as Sam Gor, the serious and intense pilot for the fictional HK airline Skylette who moons over his dead wife and hooks up with the young hottie Holiday Ho. As with the original TITS back in 2004, HK audiences (as well as a sizable number of watchers in China) lapped it up and Francis’ popularity, which had mightily declined for a number of reasons (crappy film selection, aging, orneriness, and overall poor career choices) started to rise again.

feynman francis

Twee couple, Dad, Where Are We Going 2?, 2014

But what really got things going again for Francis was another television series, the Hunan TV reality show Dad, Where Are We Going 2? which aired in 2014 and in which Francis starred with his darling boy Feynman, then five years old. The show features six celebrity dads and their ultra-cute offspring wandering the hinterlands of China and interacting with their country cousins. Due in large part to the otherwordly twee charm of his kid and his strict but loving interactions with said child, Francis made a big impression as a warm-hearted patriarch and counteracted his past rep as both a movie villain and a pain-in-the-ass diva actor. Francis released a film while the show was airing, The House That Never Dies, which was a huge box-office success in China due in no small part to his popularity on DWAWG.

Because of the popularity of TITS2, TVB, in association with Shaw Brothers, MediaAsia and its China-based subgroup China Film Media Asia, and a couple other China-based entities, have thus teamed up to produce a film version of the iconic drama series about Hong Kong flight crews and their various romantic entanglements. But despite bringing back Francis as Sam Gor, as well as Julian Cheung Chilam as Jayden “Captain Cool” Ku, the film doesn’t manage to recreate the melodramatic success of the original 2004 series or its 2013 sequel.

Sammi rocks, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

Sammi rocks, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

To start with, the movie drops the viewer in medias res, which is fine if you know the backstories of the various characters, but is utterly frustrating for those unschooled in the minutiae of the characters or their past television lives. Weirdly enough, while relying on the audience’s assumed knowledge of the show, the movie also eliminates a lot of key narrative elements from the series, including the crucial love triangle between Sam, Jayden, and Holiday (who is gone completely missing in the movie), and in the film Sam and Jayden don’t even appear together. The film’s story consists of three vignettes featuring Sam, Jayden, and newcomer Branson (played by the inexpressive Louis Koo) which don’t interlock in any meaningful way. Aside from one scene, none of the male leads interact with each other, and Jayden seems to be on another continent for the entire film. Each of the vignettes lack any kind of dramatic tension, with almost nothing at stake for the characters, and they resolve in the most predictable ways possible. The film as a whole is missing self-awereness, irony, wit, or anything that might add a bit of an edge to the film, and the three narratives play out like long-form wristwatch adverts, with gratuitous product placements of bottled water, designer chocolates, and jd.com, the Chinese shopping site that miraculously ships within hours from Asia to London.

Amber & Chilam get wet, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

Amber & Chilam get wet, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

The lead actors don’t look too bad for their age (with Francis in his fifties and Chilam and Louis both mid-forties), and Charmaine Sheh and Sammi Cheng as the love interests are feasible and not too mismatched. Amber Kuo as Jayden’s girl-toy appears to be way too young for him, though, and their vignette in particular is pretty cringeful, relying on a remarkably tired plot twist and saddling poor Chilam with horribly clichéd romcom dialog about hearts living in other people’s bodies and the like. Sammi Cheng as a pop star (what?) is cool with her tattooed knuckles and hard-part eyebrow and she and Francis make a pretty pair, but the impetus for their hook-up is completely contrived. As a fangirl I did enjoy the sight of Sam Gor practicing his dance moves, but the question still remains: WHAT HAPPENED TO HIS FORMER GIRLFRIEND? There is also a gratuitous subplot involving a pair of mainland Chinese characters that concludes in the cheesiest way possible and which seems tacked on just so the PRC audience can hear a bit of Putonghua (inexplicably, the actor playing Louis Koo’s father also speaks Mandarin, though Louis Koo’s dialog is strictly in Hong Kong Cantonese).

As usual Francis does his thing, acting with his mouth full of food and with his eyebrows quirked, but honestly he doesn’t have a whole lot to do. There’s also a tiny bit of TITS fan service with Kenneth Ma and Elena Kong reprising their characters from the television drama and Kenneth Ma is anonymously humorous in the twenty seconds that he’s onscreen, but their appearances only underscore the calculated genesis of the film, in which the producers are trying to suck in as many customers as possible.

Pretty vacant, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

Pretty vacant, Triumph In The Skies, 2015

The entire viewing experience is like injesting an extra-large serving of Kraft Cheese Food Sticks, with lens flare, rainbows, designer clothes, and saturated color correction making for a pleasant but ultimately vacuous optical experience. Coming from a straight-up fanperson like myself who really wanted to like this movie, I think that, for all of its interminable schmaltziness, the TVB drama is actually a better product, since at least it had some interesting character conflicts and gave its performers space to emote a bit. The movie version is all hat and no cattle, with beautiful sunsets and ferris wheels and not much else. But the movie was number one at the box office in Hong Kong during the Lunar New Year holiday and made more than 100RMB during the same time period in China, which bodes well for Francis Ng and his rebooted career. He’s currently working on a film with Zhou Xun, he recently wrapped another Chinese romcom, Love Without Distance (directed by Hong Konger Aubrey Lam), and there’s already talk of another film sequel to TITS (noooooo!) Meanwhile, the Chinese film commerce machine rolls on, as TVB is planning to cash in with a movie version of another one of its recent dramas, Line Walker, with Nick Cheung and Lau Ching Wan rumored to star.

I guess I shouldn’t be surprised that a mainstream movie like TITS is so overtly commercial, but being an optimist I always hope that these undertakings might squeeze in a bit of craft and care and maybe even some genuine artistry. No such luck here, but kudos to Francis Ng for riding the wave and coming out on top once again.

February 27, 2015 at 9:58 pm Leave a comment

Love Hangover: Temporary Family and But Always movie reviews

Obligatory condom joke, Temporary Family, 2014

Obligatory condom joke, Temporary Family, 2014

A couple Chinese-language romantico films made their way into the U.S. market this week and one works while the other doesn’t. Hong Kong release Temporary Family uses the backdrop of the superheated HK real estate market to frame its romantic comedy, while PRC rom-dram But Always flails about in China and the U.S. as it attempts to tell its story of lovers pining for each other across years and continents.

Hong Kong renaissance woman Cheuk Wan Chi (aka Goo-Bi GC aka Vincci aka G) directs Temporary Family, an amusing romcom starring A-listers Nick Cheung and Sammi Cheng, along with mainland Chinese starlet Angelababy and rapper/singer Oho (who sings the title track). A broad, hyperlocal comedy that sends up the tight housing crunch in the former Crown Colony, the movie also includes cameos by Heavenly King Jacky Cheung, TVB stars Myolie Wu and Dayo Wong, and Chinese film star Jiang Wu (as an ultrarich PRC real estate speculator) and, not surprisingly, the movie has been a huge hit in its home territory. Although the film tilts towards the slapstick at times it still manages to sustain its narrative tension for most of its running time and is an agreeable timepass. Nick Cheung (Lung) started his career back in the day as a Stephen Chow wannabe so it’s not surprising to find him successfully tempering his usual dramatic intensity in a lighter comedic role. Sammi Cheng pulls out her neurotic jilted lover persona most famously seen in Johnnie To’s huge romcom hit Needing You, this time playing Charlotte, a recent divorcee unable to break from the past. Angelababy plays Lung’s adopted daughter, a slouchy millennial who bounces aimlessly from one low-paying job to another. Oho rounds out the main characters as the awesomely named Very Wong, Lung’s intern and the scion of an unnamed rich man in China. The plot contrives to throw together this unlikely crew as temporary roommates in a luxury condo in Hong Kong’s toniest neighborhood as they attempt to cash in on the real estate market’s volatility.

The wacky crew, Temporary Family, 2014

The wacky crew, Temporary Family, 2014

The movie is chock full of local references and in-jokes (why do all the real estate agents have bleached blonde hair?) and follows the time-honored Hong Kong movie tradition of good-natured vulgarity, including a running joke about a stray pubic hair. Structurally the film recalls the slackly constructed, improvisational comedies of Hong Kong Lunar New Year films and, maybe due to director G’s relative inexperience (this is her second feature), at times scenes abruptly and inexplicably fade to black. Though the movie’s energy flags a bit about two-thirds in, the amiable cast powers through the rough patches and manages to pull out a reasonably entertaining conclusion including the sardonic last scene, as Lung and Charlotte finally find their bliss. Nick Cheung as the desperate realtor Lung is as always quite watchable. Sammi Cheng is somewhat less so, as her neuroticness precludes much lovability, which in turn spoils any chemistry she and Nick might have had.

The movie has been a big hit both in Hong Kong and the PRC, and it’s great to be able to see it here in the U.S. on the big screen, if only to ogle the panoramic shots of Hong Kong harbor and its skyline at night. I had no luck tracking down the U.S. distributor so I was a bit surprised when it popped up here at the Metreon, but I’m glad that I ran across its screening schedule in a random facebook post. It looks like some Chinese distributors are following China Lion and Wellgo’s lead in targeting the Chinese-speaking audience here in the States, although their choice of films is somewhat random. But I’ll take what I can get, especially if it means releases of non-action films like Temporary Family and Pang Ho-Cheung’s Aberdeen, which showed up without fanfare down in Santa Clara a month or so ago.

As bad as it looks, But Always, 2014

As bad as it looks, But Always, 2014

Like those two films, the Nic Tse/Gao Yuan Yuan romantic vehicle But Always had a day-and-date release here in the Bay, but the movie is no great shakes and is in fact one of the worst, most hackneyed and clichéd films I’ve had the misfortune to witness in a long while. Granted, I don’t go see a lot of romantic films, since my preference is for movies with guns and gangsters, but I know a bad movie when I see one. Not only is the storyline derivative and the narrative conflict forced, but the characters are poorly drawn and the film’s direction is sloppy and amateurish.

The movie starts in 2001 in New York City, then flashes back to 1970s Beijing where Anran (Gao Yuan Yuan) and Yongyuan (Nic Tse), are young kids. This is the best part of the film as the movie renders mid-century China as comfortably shabby and not yet touched by modern global capitalism. The movie then laboriously follows Anran and Yongyuan’s relationship through the years in both China and the U.S. as they hook up, fall apart, and reconcile numerous times for no apparent reason except to generate dramatic angst. The film trowels on the melodrama as suicide attempts, love triangles, jilted lovers, and other tragedies mount. The only things missing from the hit parade of drama trauma are amnesia, long-lost twins, and a car crash, though the ending surely tops these in its maudlin, fatalistic conclusion. Hint: the date and place of the lovers’ last rendezvous gives away the fantastically tragic coincidence at the film’s climax.

Pretty Nic, But Always, 2014

Pretty Nic, But Always, 2014

Nic Tse and Gao Yuan Yuan are nicely lit and photographed throughout, though Nic seems a bit embarrassed to be in such a crappy flick. It’s also funny to note that, being a PRC production, we get to see his a lot of his beautiful torso and cut abs but almost none of her naked skin except a decorous peek at her bare shoulder.

There’s nothing wrong with the old-time narrative of star-crossed lovers patiently waiting for each other through endless adversity and I’m all for a well-told version of a classic story, but this movie is not that. Instead it’s a lazy, clumsy rehash of tired tropes without any freshness, originality, wit, or style. Yeah, I didn’t like it much.

September 10, 2014 at 8:49 pm 1 comment

Fade Away and Radiate: Tai Chi 0 film review

Angelababy, text, and explosions, Tai Chi 0, 2012

Tai Chi 0, actor-turned-director Stephen Fung’s new-school martial arts movie, opens this weekend in the U.S. after a pretty successful theatrical run in China. The first of a trilogy, Tai Chi 0  is chock full of what we in the nineties used to call self-reflexivity and is loaded with Brechtian bells and whistles, but ultimately the movie doesn’t have a lot of substance below it’s clever exterior. Although it was a lot of fun while I was watching it, the effects of Tai Chi 0 faded pretty quickly after I left the theater.

The movie’s premise is a nice homage to classic kung fu flicks: talented but naïve youngster attempts to hone his martial-arts chops by seeking out an elusive gong fu master, with many obstacles barring his way. Tai Chi 0’s main character, Yang Lu Chan, is born with a small fleshy horn on the side of his forehead that portends his inborn martial arts prowess. Unfortunately, whenever Yang starts an ass-kicking his life essence is dangerously depleted. In an attempt to counter the deleterious effects of using his powers, Yang journeys to Chen village in hopes of training with the master residing there, but tradition forbids any outsiders learning the village’s kung fu secrets. The movie has fun pitting Yang against villagers using mah jong tiles and tofu to defeat his attempts at learning their ways and Tai Chi 0 is best when it riffs on these familiar tropes. Sammo Hung’s classic action choreography carries the movie’s fight scenes, though it’s undercut a bit by Fung’s shaky-cam and too-quick editing.

Jayden Yuan Xiaochao, flexible newbie, Tai Chi 0, 2012

Showing some moxie in her role, Angelababy acquits herself pretty well as the spunky heroine, while Eddie Peng as her conflicted boyfriend torn between tradition and the lure of modernity epitomizes duBois’s double consciousness. Newcomer Jayden Yuan Xiaochao as Yang is good as the archetypal kung fu neophyte, though he doesn’t get to do much but fight sporadically and look innocently confused, and Tony Leung Ka-Fei is excellent as a laborer who secretly aids Yang’s quest to learn Chen village kung fu. Unlike some of his contemporaries, Big Tony’s been transitioning nicely to character roles, both here and in Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame.

Big Tony, Tai Chi 0, 2012

Where Tai Chi 0 departs from its martial arts movie predecessors is through its constant use of quirky onscreen titles, constantly traveling camerawork, and other gaming effects. Recalling an old kung fu movie tradition (more recently adopted by big-budget mainland China agitprop flicks like 1911 and Founding of a Republic), actors are introduced by brief onscreen titles that also declare their resume (ie, “that’s Andrew Lau as Yang’s father: he directed the Infernal Affairs trilogy.”) Other titles both informative and ironic constantly pop up throughout the movie, including those detailing the progress of Yang through his quest, as well as onscreen diagrams tracing the speed and vector of a flying kick and other gameboyesque techniques. The movie also features a steampunky locomotive that resembles a huge cast-iron teapot, with grinding gears and smoking cogs straight out of Modern Times. While this is all very adroit and adds interesting visual texture to the movie, the tricksiness still doesn’t make for a really memorable cinematic experience, unlike, say, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate, Tsui Hark’s recent foray into 3-D IMAX which successfully exploited the latest innovations in movie technology to full and insane effect.

But Tai Chi 0 is certainly as diverting as most Hollywood blockbusters and it’s definitely worth seeing on the big screen, if only to catch all of the rapid-fire DFX. It’s fun to see a lot of expensive postproduction imaginatively utilized in a Chinese-language film and I’m all for expanding the boundaries of cinematic expression, so I’ll go see the next two movies in the trilogy. Especially if they make it to the U.S. in 3-D IMAX.

Tai Chi 0 opens October 19, 2012. Go here for showtimes.

October 22, 2012 at 6:08 am Leave a comment

Lovesexy: Vulgaria film review

DaDa Chen gives it her all, Vulgaria, 2012

A couple days ago I had the good fortune to run across one of my favorite movies on youtube, Once Upon A Time In Triad Society, released in 1995 and starring the inimitable Francis Ng. An outstanding black comedy that savagely skewers any romanticized notions of triad honor among thieves, it’s also an excellent example of the kind of deliriously high-energy cinema that Hong Kong used to put out on a regular basis back in the day. After watching it again I lamented to myself the current shortage of truly insane and invigorating HK movies these days, most of which have been replaced by tame and decorous, high-tone product from Mainland China (see The Bullet Vanishes).

But my faith in Hong Kong cinema has been restored with Pang Ho-Cheung’s newest release, Vulgaria, which is a throwback to the glory days of Hong Kong movies, with its mostly improvised, who-gives-a-fuck attitude, and its willingness to be loud, tasteless, and offensive. But this is no dumb and dumber—the movie is a spot-on look at the ailing Hong Kong film industry and the depths that HK moviemakers need to go to in order make a living these days, including producing tacky Category III movies, sucking up to insane Mainland financers/gangsters, and running low-rent mahjong dens complete with childcare and takeout meals.

Ronald Cheng in sequins, Vulgaria, 2012

Candy-assisted blowjobs, bestiality, crazy cursing, deep-fried field mice—Vulgaria goes there and it works. The movie’s cast includes some of Hong Kong’s best comic actors,  some of whom appeared in the Wong Jing stinker Marrying Mr. Perfect. In that movie they floundered, but here they’re brilliant. Chapman To rocks as a hapless film producer trying to stay afloat by any means necessary, even if it includes the possibility of interspecies sex. There’s a line that he won’t cross, however, which adds a certain poignancy to the character’s plight and which leavens the unbridled cursing, sex talk, and casual coupling that makes up the bulk of the proceedings. DaDa Chen is also great as the good-natured, well-endowed Popping Candy, so named for the particular type of fellatio she blithely practices in order to get movie roles. Ronald Cheng in spangled clothes is outstanding as the metrosexual gang leader Tyrannosaurus, and the banquet scene with himself, Lam Suet, Chapman, and Simon Lui is one of the funniest things I’ve witnessed in many a movie.

Pang’s a whip-smart director and even in this quickie, low-budget flick he effectively manipulates the cinematic lexicon, with the film’s storyline effortlessly flashing back and forward in time. Another great thing about Pang’s films is their focus on the profane joys of the Cantonese language and Vulgaria is no exception. In this one the actors seems to be especially gleeful in utilizing as many creative obscenities as possible and there’s a particularly funny running gag involving the limited Cantonese-language skills of Chapman To’s Chinese American assistant.

Chapman To, Simon Lui and mules prepare to meet their fate, Vulgaria, 2012

All in all Vulgaria is one of the most enjoyable movies I’ve seen in a long time—-it’s got life, energy, and cojones to spare. Not only is it a smart commentary on the state of Hong Kong cinema today, it’s way more creative, vigorous and fun than most of the bloated, predictable product out there. Now if only more Hong Kong movies could follow suit, it would be like 1995 all over again.

UPDATE: Vulgaria has just scooped up a trio of nominations for the Golden Horse Awards-–Chapman To for Best Actor, Dada Chen for Best Supporting Actress, and Ronald Cheng for Best Supporting Actor. No nomination for screenplay, directing, or profanities this time. Awards announced November 24.

UPDATE 2: Ronald Cheng just won the Golden Horse for Best Supporting Actor–truly well deserved, IMHO. Not many people can convincingly play a man in love with a mule and Ronald did it with style and panache. Go Vulgaria!

Vulgaria

opens Sept. 28

AMC Metreon 16

101 Fourth Street

San Francisco, CA

September 28, 2012 at 6:24 am 3 comments

No Regrets In This Life: Hong Kong travels, 2012

Aaron Kwok decorates the MTR station

Just got back from a week in Hong Kong, where I experienced a full-on immersion in Asian films. Officially I was there to present a paper (A God And A King: Chow Yun-Fat and Shah Ruhk Khan) at the Asian Cinema Studies Conference at Hong Kong University, but I also attended the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum (HAF) and saw a slew of Asian movies. For seven days I talked about, watched, and pondered the state of Chinese-language films in the 21st century. It was pretty much a perfect vacation for an Asian movie otaku like me.

Prior to this trip I hadn’t been to Hong Kong in particular or Asia in general for at least twenty years, but as soon as I got off the plane I was hit with the familiar smell of equatorial humidity. After seeing countless Hong Kong films over the past couple decades it was quite exciting to set foot back in the motherland. Not literally, of course, since my family comes from Guangzhou and Toisan, but close enough as makes no difference. When I got to my hotel room the movie on the TV was An Autumn’s Tale (1987), director Mabel Cheung’s bittersweet story of two Hong Kong transplants living in New York City. It was curious to watch a movie while in Hong Kong about the Chinese diasporic experience–I felt like I’d reversed that journey in some way, going from the U.S. to Hong Kong.

Weekend, Causeway Bay

Interestingly enough, at the ACS conference I later met Stacilee Ford, the author of a monograph on An Autumn’s Tale. A historian by training, Ford also writes about Hong Kong film and she was kind enough to give a copy of her book along with a DVD of Cheung’s film. She was one of the many stellar Asian film scholars attending the conference–the legendary Gina Marchetti said nice things about my presentation; Stephen Teo politely listened to me fangirlishly blather at him; I chatted with Julia LeSage over tea and sandwiches. It was fun to wade knee-deep in Asian film studies with such an illustrious crew and to parse and analyze the movies that I spend so much of my time watching. I felt invigorated and inspired after attending the conference, as well as slightly starstruck by the company I got to keep.

I stayed in Causeway Bay, which was quite fun in an insanely busy and overcrowded way. The streets were packed until late into the night and the walls of the shopping malls were covered in massive adverts both still and moving. Although there have been tensions between mainlanders and Hongkongers in the past few months, that hasn’t prevented Huang Xiaoming’s gorgeous face from gracing huge billboards all over Causeway Bay. Other movie star faces plastered around town include Angelababy, Nicholas Tse, and Aaron Kwok (in various states of undress).

Random food, Hong Kong 2012

During my stay I ate several outstanding meals, from spicy lamb hot-pot with my buddy Jay (new discovery: fried fish skin), to street food dished into Styrofoam boxes on the corner of Jaffe and Fleming Street, to way too many egg custard tarts from the endless tiny bakeries lining Wan Chai Street. When I wasn’t at the conference or watching movies I walked for hours a day, up and down Hennessy Street and through Causeway Bay, taking the MTR to the insanity that is Mongkok on a weekend night, to Victoria Park on a Sunday morning with the picnicking Indonesian and Filipino domestic workers on their day off. By the fourth day the overwhelming bus fumes and secondhand cigarette smoke started to irritate my lower respiratory tract–now I understand why so many people in Asian cities sport surgical masks when they go outside.

Domestic workers picnicking, Victoria Park

I managed to navigate the city fairly easily, in part because English is still one of Hong Kong’s official languages, although I did spend one tedious hour wending my way through a particularly confusing set of overpasses and bridges near the Hong Kong Convention Center. Hong Kong’s public transit system is excellent and multifarious, with subway, trams, buses, and the Star Ferry all rapidly and efficiently moving its 7.1 million residents to and fro–even the escalators in the MTR stations run at a breakneck pace. While much of the city is pretty urban, its underlying natural beauty still shines through. The view from the top of the double-decker bus careening down the hill from Hong Kong University to Causeway Bay one evening was quite lovely, with the white neon lights amidst gracefully drooping banyan trees providing a enchanting contrast.

Triad Simon on the hotel TV

The last night I was in town, after another tasty meal, I was channel-surfing in my hotel room when I came across a random Simon Yam/Lau Ching-Wan/Roy Cheung triad movie on TV. Yam, Lau, and Cheung have of course starred in many classic Hong Kong crime films but this alas was not one of them. But the best part about watching the movie was that one of the film’s fight scenes takes place outside the President Theater, where I’d just seen Ann Hui’s new movie the day before. Those little pleasurable and surreal moments happened all week, where I came across movie locations in real life, thus heightening my fondness for Hong Kong cinema all the more. Now that I’ve been to Hong Kong after so long, I surely won’t wait another couple decades to go back again.

POSTSCRIPT

While waiting at the Hong Kong airport for my plane home I make a horrible discovery. I’m scamming on the free airport wi-fi and surfing the net when I randomly find out that Francis Ng is scheduled to be at the press conference for Ann Hui’s short film My Way at the Hong Kong Film Festival AND I CAN’T GO! I’m getting on a plane in 20 minutes to go back to San Francisco. I feel like a character in a TV melodrama–I should abandon my flight and run back to Hong Kong in slow motion. The plane has been delayed–maybe if I’m lucky it will be cancelled and I can stay another night. Alas for the inflexibilities of modern air travel. Wonder if there is a later flight–

(I did not take a later flight, in part because immigration wouldn’t have let me back into the airport that same day, and I did not get to see Francis Ng in person. Yet another reason to come back to Hong Kong sooner rather than later, in order to more efficiently plan my stalking of Hong Kong movie stars.)

Next up: the movies I saw, part one

March 25, 2012 at 8:04 am 4 comments

Today, Every Year: Francis Ng Turns 50

The birthday boy on his half-centennial

Just a quick fangirl shout-out to Francis Ng Chun-Yu, whose fiftieth birthday is this week. Francis has had a remarkably long and vigorous career that spans four decades (!), from his humble beginnings as a bit player at TVB back in the 1980s through various villainous and supporting roles in the early 90s to his current status as one of Hong Kong’s most popular and well-known actors. He’s part of an amazing generation of male Hong Kong acting talent that came of age in the 1990s, many of whom are also turning fifty this year or in the next few years. Andy Lau Tak-Wah and Anthony Wong Chau-Sang were also both born in 1961—soon to follow are Tony Leung Chiu-Wai (b. 1962), Stephen Chow Sing-Chi (b. 1962), Jet Li (b. 1963) and Lau Ching-Wan (b. 1964). Tony Leung Kar-Fai and Simon Yam each turned fifty a few years ago. All of these actors are still working today, although some of their output has decreased since the heyday of Hong Kong cinema back in the 1990s, and all of them are at the top of their game in terms of skill, talent, charisma, and screen presence.

Francis in naugahyde, Laughing Gor 2 premiere, Dec. 20, 2011

What’s perhaps less evident from this list is the dearth of similar talent in the generation of Hong Kong actors following them. The decline in Hong Kong film production in the past fifteen years since the 1997 handover has mightily impacted the development of stars of note, as indicated by the diminishing talent pool among younger actors. Of Hong Kong movie stars in their forties only Louis Koo Tin-Lok is a legitimate leading man, and his acting chops are nowhere near as masterful as the aforementioned group. Of actors in their thirties Daniel Wu and Nicholas Tse Ting-Fung ably fill the movie star niche, but their range and output have yet to reach the scale and impact of the class of 1961-64.

What’s also notable is that, although all of the abovementioned fiftyish movie kings are actively working today, only a handful of their female counterparts are likewise gainfully employed. Most female Hong Kong stars of the same generation have either retired (Brigitte Lin Ching-Hsia; Joey Wang; Chingmy Yau), or moved to television (Anita Yuen; Cheung Man). Anita Mui Yim-Fong died of cervical cancer in 2003. Of those female stars who came of age in the 1990s only Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk, Carina Lau Ka-Ling, Sandra Ng Kwan-Yu, and Michelle Yeoh are still working, although Maggie hasn’t really starred in a film since 2004.

Micheal Tse & Francis Ng meet the press, Laughing Gor 2 premiere, Dec. 20, 2011

So hats off to Francis on the anniversary of his solstice birth—show business is a cruel mistress and it’s a testament to his talent, determination, and savvy that he’s survived so long as a top star. Fingers crossed that he’s on the silver screen for at least four more decades to come.

UPDATE: Okay, I just realized that I accidentally left off Donnie Yen (b. 1963) in my above list. I’m not a huge Donnie fan but he is a big deal now so he’s gotta be included. But it also points out the glaring hole in the martial arts movie world–who will follow Donnie? Wu Jing? Andy On? Collin Chou, for god’s sake? Slim pickin’s–

December 22, 2011 at 8:47 am 6 comments

HK/HP: If Hong Kong Movie Actors Starred In Harry Potter Films

A double-dose of geekdom here–went to see the latest Harry Potter (Deathly Hallows, part 1) on opening day and had my fangirl jones satisfied. Dan, Rupert, & Emma have grown up and learned to act, the special effects were par excellence, and the stellar supporting cast has grown to include the lucky Bill Nighy (who said “For a while, I thought I would be the only English actor of a certain age who wasn’t in a ‘Harry Potter’ film.”)

After wallowing in the 2.5 hour HP movie my consciousness was full of all things Potter. The other movie of note that I’d seen that week was Francis Ng’s new Chinese Western, Wind Blast, so both were vying for space in my backbrain. Then when my buddy and fellow Hong Kong movie otaku Erika, aka Huckle, suggested that Francis would make a great Sirius Black, the game was on. So herewith follows my dream cast for the hypothetical Hong Kong remake of Harry Potter.

NOTE: It was easy to pick the adult actors. The teens were a bit more difficult, since I’m not as tuned into the Hong Kong idol scene as I could be. Any suggestions for the younger cast members, as well as any others, are more than welcome in the comments section.

Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, half-blood extraordinaire

Severus Snape: Anthony Wong. The Half-Blood Prince personified, Anthony has both the swagger and the sneer required to play Severus.

Voldemort: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Although Little Tony usually plays the good guy, he proved in Lust, Caution that he can do creepy and evil too.

Nick Cheung, half-man, half-beast

Remus Lupin: Nick Cheung. Moody, dark, and a little feral (see Election), Nick is totally believable as a werewolf.

Peter Pettigrew: Louis Koo. Probably a bit too square-jawed to play Wormtail, but he’s got the paranoid nervousness down pat. No one in Hong Kong sweats and twitches as well as Louis Koo.

Francis Ng with his hair up

Sirius Black: Francis Ng. Ah, the angst! The fancy frock coats! The insane gleam in his eye! Who else but Francis to play Sirius Black?

Albus Dumbledore: Lau Kar-Leung. The grandmaster of Hong Kong martial arts movies, he can also choreograph his own action scenes.

The glorious Simon Yam

Lucius Malfoy: Simon Yam. A slimy, smirky, ruthless & amoral bad guy? Paging Simon Yam!

Mad-Eye Moody: Lau Ching-Wan: LCW really deserves a bigger role but he’s got the chops to make this part his own. He was also plenty weird in Mad Detective and Himalaya Singh so we know he doesn’t shy away from the offbeat.

Carina Lau, red carpet queen

Narcisa Malfoy: Carina Lau. Because no one does haughty and high-class better than Carina.

Dolores Umbridge: Sandra Ng. The queen of Hong Kong comedy, she’d make a wackier Umbridge. However, she’s got some skilz so I have no doubt that she’d bring the sinister as well.

Eric Tsang & eyebrows

Horace Slughorn: Eric Tsang. He’s got the smarmy gladhanding dialed in.

Andy being Andy

Gilderoy Lockhart: Andy Lau. Handsome, flashy, ultrafamous, and a bit vacuous spells Andy to a T.

Rubeus Hagrid: Ng Man-Tat. Uncle Tat in elevator shoes and in a big furry beard? Hellz yeah!

Helena Law Lan in Troublesome Night 3,245

Minerva McGonagal: Helena Law Lan. The queen ofTroublesome Night, Law Lan has the supernatural down pat.

Vernon Dursley: Lam Suet. Blustery, blubbery, and a little bit malevolent is Lam Suet all over.

Petunia Dursley: Karen Mok. Maybe a bit too glam for Petunia, but she can certainly do the midcentury costumes.

Roy Cheung, wicked

Fenrir Greyback: Roy Cheung. Who’s more qualified than Roy Cheung to tear out people’s throats with his bare hands?

Rita Skeeter: Cecilia Cheung. Glamourous, self-centered & entitled, with a hint of sleaziness–Ceci anyone?

Zhou Xun in red

Nymphadora Tonks: Zhou Xun. The twinkly-eyed Xun is our token mainland star, if only because she’s the best actress of her generation. Plus she’s probably more than willing to do purple hair, as evidenced by her off-kilter turns in All About Women and Ming Ming.

Sybill Trelawny: Sammi Cheng. Especially since Sammi’s been having a bad hair day for about two years now.

Maggie Cheung with blowout

Bellatrix LeStrange: Maggie Cheung. Because Maggie’s been rocking the frizzy hair look lately and because she can do sexy and dangerous in her sleep.

Harry Potter: Lam Yiu-Sing, who played the angsty teen in Heiward Mak’s High Noon. Better him than Jing Boran any day.

Smart girl Evelyn Choi

Hermione Granger: Evelyn Choi Wing Yan. Played Aarif Lee’s geeky girl love interest in Echoes of the Rainbow. Not a lot of competition for this part.

Ron Weasley: If only Chapman To were twenty years younger this would be his role. Still searching for the right teen actor to play Harry’s wingman. NOTE: see update below

Aarif Lee brings it

Cedric Diggory: Aarif Lee. Now in theaters playing a young Bruce Lee, he’s certainly pretty enough to play the part that launched Robert Pattinson’s career.

Nic Tse broods

Draco Malfoy: Nicholas Tse (ten years younger). Have to put Nic in a time machine for this one since he’s perfect for the part of the privileged, conflicted scion of a shady family.

UPDATE: angryasianman.com has a link to an Asian Harry Potter lookalike who showed up on the Conan O’Brian show last week. Maybe this is an idea whose time has come–

Jing Boran does quirky, with Angelbaby

UPDATE 2: Okay, I take it back what I said about Jing Boran. After seeing Hot Summer Nights and Love In Space I realize that he would be perfect for the part of Ron Weasley. I humbly apologize for slandering the former M-Pop star.

November 22, 2010 at 9:44 pm 10 comments

Masculin/Feminin: Shinjuku Incident + Retro Drag Revue at Marlena’s

Jackie Chan & hing dai get their game face on, Shinjuku Incident, 2009

When we arrived at the multiplex, the ticket booth marquee listed Shinjuku Incident merely as “Jackie Chan.” But when is a Jackie Chan movie not a Jackie Chan movie? When it’s directed by Derek Yee, the veteran Hong Kong filmmaker who’s known for both his hard-edged crime thrillers (Protégé; One Nite In Mongkok) as well as his sensitive melodramas (C’est La Vie, Mon Cherie; Lost In Time).

Yee’s one of the best commercial filmmakers currently working in the former Crown Colony and his films are known for an attention to character development, an intensity of emotion, and an affinity for the lives of ordinary, downtrodden people. Shinjuku Incident, which Jackie Chan produced as well as starred in, is no exception, with extreme violence alternating with sympathetic and realistic glimpses into the quotidian existences of its various characters. Although nominally a Jackie Chan vehicle it’s really a Derek Yee movie that happens to star the martial arts superstar, and both Yee and Chan do a good job sublimating Chan’s matinee idol persona in favor of a more serious dramatic characterization.

Jackie Chan plays Steelhead, a Chinese illegal immigrant living in Tokyo’s heavily Chinese Shinjuku district. He’s there to search for an old flame but falls in with other down-on-their luck Chinese, eventually getting involved with petty crimes and tangling with the Tokyo underworld. Shinjuku Incident is definitely not your typical Jackie Chan movie—there are no outrageous stunts or choreographed fight scenes and the film hews pretty closely to a gritty and realistic mis en scene. Steelhead is a real character, not just a variation on the Jackie Chan persona, although occasionally he succumbs to movie star vanity. For instance, although Chan looks every bit his fiftysomething age, both of his love interests (including anime-girl come to life Fan Bing Bing) are women in their late twenties. Probably a perk of executive producing the film, I suppose.

Droogie Daniel, Shinjuku Incident, 2009

But for the most part Chan suppresses his star status and blends seamlessly into the narrative. He’s aided by a strong supporting cast, with veterans such as Chin Kar-Lok (Young and Dangerous; Full Alert), Lam Suet (from the Johnnie To stable), and Jack Gao (Taiwanese heavy extraordinaire) adding gravitas to the proceedings. The East Bay’s own Daniel Wu is also good as Steelhead’s ill-fated buddy Jie, although the poor schmuck gets his third severe beatdown in as many Derek Yee movies. Wu transforms effectively from a timid pretty boy into coke-sniffing clockwork orangey punk who channels Heath Ledger’s Joker, complete with facial scars and smeared lipstick, as well as a crazy silver fright wig.

Unlike most pre-1997 Hong Kong productions, Shinjuku Incident doesn’t focus narrowly on the city of Hong Kong and the provincial interests of its denizens. Instead, like Johnnie To’s Exiled and Fulltime Killer, the film looks beyond Hong Kong’s narrow confines and considers the lives and existence of the Chinese diaspora that Hong Kong residents have only started to realize they belong to.

In a departure from the typical Hong Kong film, the Chinese characters in Shinjaku Incident are not the top dogs but are relegated to second-class status. Although set in Japan and directed and financed by as well as starring mostly Hong Kong natives, the film’s main characters are from the PRC, not Hong Kong, and the dialog is primarily in Mandarin, with smatterings of, Cantonese, Taiwanese and yakuza-style guttural Japanese. Even native HK performers like Jackie Chan and Lam Suet play Mainlanders and speak in putonghua.

ShinjukuIncident3

Signifier, Shinjuku Incident, 2009

This might be indicative of the general angst that many HK residents have been feeling in the decade or so since 1997’s reunification with China, which is succinctly reflected in not one but two different scenes featuring a severed hand. Talk about castration anxiety—

Postscript: As an interesting contrast to the hypermasculinity on display in Shinjuku Incident, afterwards we stopped by Marlena’s to catch its fabulously retro drag show, The Hayes Valley Follies, hosted by Empress Galilea–the revue included awesome performances by drag queens including Chablis, Chenelle, and Anna Mae Cox. Old-school touches included lip-syncing to disco classics old and new (including Lady Gaga, Whitney Houston and, yes, Gloria Gaynor’s I Will Survive), impossibly arched eyebrows, lots of sequins and fringe, and expert tucking. It was as if the Popstitutes’ smart-ass postmodern punk rock drag never existed and we were time-warped straight back to 1975. Not that I’m complaining, of course—

UPDATE: Shinjuku Incident has just been nominated for Best Picture and Derek Yee for Best Director at this year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, to be announced on April 18.

Bonus beats: Empress Galilea tears it up at Marlena’s

February 10, 2010 at 5:15 am 4 comments

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