Posts tagged ‘andy lau tak-wah’
Despite its cringeful pre-release marketing campaign I went into seeing The Great Wall with a semi-open mind. Zhang Yimou has directed some good films during his career and I was curious to see what he could do with US$150 million dollars. But right off the bat it was clear that despite being co-produced by one of the biggest production companies in China, Wanda Dalien (along with US-based Legendary Pictures), set in ancient China, and featuring a boatload of Chinese movie stars, this was going to be all about the white dude. Though I shouldn’t be surprised, I am a bit fatigued by the continuation of the white savior trope, wherein white guys rescue the benighted yellow people once again.
The film starts with a trio of European mercenaries fleeing across the Gobi desert, including Matt Damon as a character named William who speaks with a slight Irish accent, another guy who is Spanish, played by Chilean American actor Pedro Pascal, and a third guy who dies pretty quickly. Right away we know it’s going to focus on the surviving European dudes because Hollywood, and sure enough the story is told almost completely from their point of view.
The movie is seductive because it is so slick and beautifully packaged and is palatable and easy to watch. It’s seemingly respectful of Chinese culture—there are no evil Asiatic villains and several of the Chinese characters are noble and heroic, if incredibly clichéd. The film presents Chinese culture as refined and aesthetic, which is clearly meant to appeal to PRC audiences. But the narrative exists only to center the white heterosexual male perspective, so it’s no surprise that the screenplay is of course written by a white dude. Although it may seem like there are a whole lot of Chinese people in the movie they in fact are mostly window dressing who exist mainly as props for the white protags. The film actually posits that there are no archers in the entire elite Chinese regiment that’s been training for sixty years who are as good as the white dude. There’s also the highly questionable plot point that China didn’t have any magnets in their possession until white people brought them. This is especially insulting considering that the Chinese were the first to document the use of magnets and magnetism around 1088 AD. I mean, wtf?
The premise that a woman could be a general in ancient China is also a male fantasy of inclusion and equality that conveniently ignores the historic patriarchy and paternalism inside and outside of China that would have made this impossible. Mulan is a believable legend because it acknowledges that a woman could only be accepted in battle if she dressed like a man.The Great Wall presents females as accepted in the military hierarchy, even to the point of one of them becoming the supreme leader of the troops. While I’m all for strong female characters, the erasure of the historical oppression of women denies the suffering women have experienced in the patriarchy. Ultimately, General Lin, the female commander in The Great Wall, is a guilt sop that pretends a history of fairness and equality that didn’t exist. I suppose I should be grateful that the chaste and muted attraction between William and Lin is unconsummated or I would have run screaming from the theater.
Everything in the film is an excuse to get Matt Damon more screen time and it’s especially frustrating to see some of the biggest stars in China in what amounts to extended cameos. If you blink you would miss Lin Genxing, Lu Han, Eddie Peng, Zhang Hanyu, and more. In fact, seeing how ferocious Eddie Peng is in his three minutes onscreen made yearn for him, not Matt Damon, to be the protagonist of the film. Andy Lau and Jing Tian are the only Chinese actors with more than a handful of lines in the film and only the hot Asian babe in the shiny breastplate gets to have any notable character development.
Even the scary monsters that provide the main threat in the narrative are only partially baked, looking like a cross between orcs, dinosaurs, and the nasty creature from Alien. All in all, the movie is a confused mess of that fails to resolve in any satisfying way.The Great Wall is another fail from Hollywood (with an assist from Wanda Dalien, which has been trying to break into the US market for a while). Thank god CAAMfest is coming up next month to give us some movies about real Asian/Americans from our perspective, instead of the usual white-dude-centric nonsense perpetuated by this film.
UPDATE: Looks like THE GREAT WALL tanked at the box office in the US, and may also be taking down the entire US-China coproduction industry with it. Can’t say that I’m sorry. In fact I’m very not sorry at all.
It’s been a crazy past couple of months so I haven’t had time to update my posts recently, but I’ve finally got a bit of down time, so following are some highlights from some notable film festivals here in Cali.
Down the I-5 I stopped in for a couple screenings at the Los Angeles Asian Pacific Film Festival, which is one of my favorite jams of the year. I was only in the Southland for about 72 hours but I managed to see an outstanding double-bill of two recent Asian genre films at the CGV Cinema in Koreatown, one of the best movie-going venues in LA. CGV is part of a Seoul-based theater chain and its LA outpost usually screens a combination of South Korean movies with English subs and Hollywood movies with Korean subs in its three big state-of-the-art digital theaters. Add to that the cinema’s close proximity to the best of K-town’s nightlife, including dozens of noraebangs, soon dobu houses, Korean fried chicken joints, and soju bars and it all equals a great time in central LA.
First up was Once Upon A Time In Vietnam (2013), directed, written by, and starring Dustin Nguyen, most famously seen in the U.S. opposite a very young Johnny Depp in the classic late-80s cop show 21 Jump Street. A Western/martial arts/steampunk mashup, OUATIV looks pretty, but ultimately is pretty clichéd. Dustin Nguyen gives himself the leading role as Dao, a mystery man who rides into to town (on a souped-up motorbike instead of a palamino) and stirs up the village’s heretofore placid existence, unearthing a past romance with the kindly local baker’s pretty wife Anh (Thanh Van Ngo) and continuing his vendetta with the gang of toughs who are tailing him. Although Nguyen’s Dao is a cool dude, the most truly badass character is Long, the ostensible villain, who is Dao’s archnemesis and romantic rival, played by veteran stuntman Roger Yuan. Despite the film’s good-looking cinematography, the movie is still a bit choppy and rough, with inconsistent art direction that showed its flaws on CGV’s thirty-foot tall, crystal-clear digital screen. The movie’s many gratuitous ass shots and Thanh Van Ngo’s peek-a-booby fighting costume were also pretty silly, though I’m sure some of the film’s target demographic appreciated them.
The second half of the double-bill was the hit Hong Kong action flick Firestorm (2013), starring the evergreen Andy Lau as a conflicted cop hunting down bad guys in the streets of Central. The movie subscribes to the tenet of bigger, faster, and louder, with more explosions, more gunfire, and more bleeding head wounds, and harkens back to the fine old tradition of Hong Kong movie excess, where anything worth doing is worth doing ten times as much. As with any action blockbuster it’s probably better not to be too critical of the gaping plot holes and odd character motivations and just go along for the ride, which is pretty spectacular by the end of the movie. Interestingly, the film’s most harrowing moments are not during the high-powered CGI explosions at the story’s climax but during a quieter though no less tension-filled moment earlier on. The sight of a small child trembling with terror as she tries to silence her screams provides a much more visceral impact than the many later shots of breaking glass and rupturing concrete. Owing a debt to Dante Lam’s emotionally shattered characters and John Woo’s angsty adversaries, first-time director Alan Yuan works in a bit more psychological complexity than the genre demands, which adds to the overall impact of the film. But the movie is also about things blowing up, which it does splendidly, and which I completely enjoyed seeing on the big screen at CGV.
Back home in the Bay I caught a few shows at the San Francisco International Film Festival. Peter Chan’s latest Hong Kong/China co-production, American Dreams in China, was one of the biggest box office hits in the PRC in 2013. The comedy, which follows three friends across the span of several years and two continents, is a slick and engaging rags to riches tale that includes an underlying social commentary about the lives of Chinese immigrants to the U.S. and their tenuous relationship with the American Dream. Tong Dawei, Huang Xiaoming, and Deng Chao play school buddies whose lives and careers entwine as they struggle to make their fortune. All three pull off great performances, convincingly aging from their early twenties to mid-forties, and the interplay between them is authentic and believable, with coverboy Huang Xiaoming hiding his essential hotness behind several pairs of nerd-chic glasses. The movie also includes beautiful cinematography by Christopher Doyle, though it’s much more naturalistic and less self-consciously flashy than his renowned work with Wong Kar-wai, and the movie’s snappy editing keeps the story moving along briskly. Although the climax of the film is a strange paean to copyright infringement and intellectual property theft which perhaps reveals something about the state of China’s hypercompetitive market-based economy, director Chan overall makes astute observations about the characters’ relationship to each other and to the rapidly shifting state of Chinese culture in the PRC and the U.S. Especially revealing is a passage in which one of the characters, then a Chinese grad student in a U.S. college, is reduced to a humiliating, low-status job in a campus lab. The film thus belies the myth of the American dream that lures so many immigrants to the U.S.
Tamako In Moratorium, an extremely droll and low-key Japanese comedy, is anchored by lead actress Atsuko Maeda as the titular character, a recent college graduate who’s moved back in with her divorced dad somewhere in a sleepy city in Japan. Dad runs a modest sporting goods store. Tamako spends most of her time sleeping, eating, and procrastinating, although this description makes it seem like she engages in activity, which mostly she doesn’t. Instead she eats microwaved vegetables from a plastic tub, grunts nonverbally at her dad’s attempts at conversation, and sleeps into the afternoon on her disheveled futon in her cluttered childhood bedroom. The film’s freeze frame moments capture the three seasons that Tamako aimlessly passes in her dad’s small house. The movie’s very slight and subtle dramatic tension is a nice antidote to the bombast of much commercial narrative cinema and, as the brilliant Maggie Lee at Variety points out, the movie’s style owes a lot to the great Yasujiro Ozu in its gentle, non-judgmental look at family dynamics.
I also witnessed the four-hour Filipino opus Norte: The End of History, by long-form specialist Lav Diaz (his 2004 film Evolution of a Filipino Family was 10 hours long). Advance reviews called the film a masterpiece, which I think is a bit of an overstatement, but it held my attention for most of its running time. As I’ve noted in the past, most movies over 90 minutes long put me to sleep unless Hrithik Roshan is singing and dancing in them, but this once kept my interest, aided in no small part by its excellent wide-screen digital cinematography and an episodic structure that allows the narrative to unwind unhurriedly. This is not to say that the movie is slow, although much of it is shot in single master shots. But the action within the frame is always dynamic and, although the film opens with a ten-minute static shot of a group of armchair revolutionaries discussing morality, ethics, and politics, the movie becomes much more cinematic and less chatty as it goes along.
As Noel Vera notes in Film Comment, Norte is a continuation of director Diaz’s interest in themes and motifs from Dostoevsky, and the film has some of the epic feel of a Russian novel. The story revolves around several individuals involved in a murder case, including the actual killer, the man framed for the deed, the patsy’s wife, and their assorted friends and relatives. Like Dostoevsky’s work, the film touches on themes of fate and free will, the moral and ethical responsibilities of the individual, and injustice within a stratified social system. The performances are uniformly strong, including Sid Lucero as an unbalanced intellectual, Archie Alemania as the man wrongly accused of murder, and Angeli Bayani (who played the stoic maid in Ilo Ilo) as his longsuffering wife. Diaz’s use of long takes that incrementally zoom in or pan across the action allow the viewer to perceive the startlingly close relationship between cruelty and kindness. Although most of the film’s violence feels appropriate to the narrative, I was a bit bothered that the killing of a dog got at least twice as much screen time as a violent and disturbing rape.
Lastly, I saw Dragnet Girl, an early Yasujiro Ozu joint, at the San Francisco Silent Film Festival. I saw my very first Ozu film, Woman of Tokyo, (also a silent gangster movie) a couple years ago at the Port Townsend Film Festival. That movie set me off on an Ozu kick and I spent the better part of early 2013 watching every Ozu movie I could get my hands on, almost all on DVD. It was a treat for me, then, to see Dragnet Girl on the big screen with live accompaniment at the Silent Film Festival. Although the film’s title implies gats, dames, and rat-a-tat action, the movie is more of a character study in line with Ozu’s later and more famous oeuvre, with long stretches of the film devoted to character relationships rather than shootouts. Guns do make an appearance, however, as well as heists, boxing rings, and small-time gangsters, along with the titular character, a secretary/gangster’s moll played by legendary actress and film director (and Kenji Mizoguchi muse) Kinuyo Tanaka. It was great to see the movie as it was meant to be viewed, on the big screen at the Castro Theater, and once again the Silent Film Festival proved its status as one of the premiere film fests in the Bay Area.
Another round of international flights, this time on the much more updated Singapore Airlines. Not only does Singapore have a full 1000-plus slate of movies on demand but they have an entire Indian food menu to go with their Chinese and “Western” selections. Since they were out of the chicken mushroom rice noodles by the time they got to my seat, I ordered the chana daal, which came with lime pickle, some outstanding curried vegetables, a rather dry roti, and raita, which beats most U.S. airlines’ food service any day. Alas, they did not have the cup noodles featured on Cathay Pacific flights so my middle-of-the-flight hunger pangs had to be assuaged by a mediocre cold cheese sandwich. But lots of movies on tap!
This 2013 release was a sensation in China last year for all the wrong reasons as it was rated one of the worst movies ever on China’s online discussion forums, douban and baidu. The movie paradoxically was also one of the highest grossing films of the year in China, due to very bad word of mouth, and it indeed lives up to its negative hype. Truly unique and fascinatingly bad, it’s an astoundingly shoddy cinematic construction that plays like a bunch of fancy and expensive set pieces only tentatively linked together by a narrative structure. Genial superstar Andy Lau Tak-Wah portrays a super-spy assigned to crack the case of an arcane art heist involving two halves of a lengendary scroll painting. Along the way the film throws in a quartet of girl assassins on roller skates in clear plastic miniskirts, an obligatory psycho Japanese villain, and many gratuitous Andy-lounging-on-the-beach-in-Dubai shots, as well as fancy aerial shots of a car flying through the air dangling from a helicoptor attached to a magnetic grappler, a surfeit of swordfighting, explosives, and incendiaries, and many, many costume changes. The movie is full of technology fetishism at its best, and Andy Lau gets to be a combination of James Bond and a low-rent Tony Stark, complete with transparent floating holographic computer readouts and ridiculous gadgets. With its illogical leaps in time and space, the movie is great if you think of it either as one long dream sequence or as one long Andy Lau watch commercial.
Red 2 (Lee Byung-Hyun parts only)
Because I was fortunate enough to watch this on a plane I could skip over all but the scenes involving Lee Byung-Hyun, which absolutely elevated my viewing experience. In this one LBH demonstrates his much improved English diction and gets to play out a greatest-hits of Asian male action tropes. In his introductory scene he appears buffed out and naked, back and front, then goes on to assassinate someone with origami while wearing a kimono. Along the way he also brandishes two guns at time in a shootout, displays some high-kicking hung fu, and, in a pretty fun car-chase/shootout, practices a bit of Tokyo-drifting with a gun-toting Helen Mirren. As per usual LBH looks sharp in a tailored suit and holds his own as he grimaces and swaggers with John Malkovich and Bruce Willis. Somehow the audio on my seat-back monitor got switched to Japanese in the last five minutes of the movie so I missed out on all of the banter in the denouement, but I’m sure it was awesome and clever, and it was actually kinda fun seeing Helen Mirren dubbed in Japanese. In my fangirl dreams she and LBH have a thing for each other—spinoff sequel?
I LOVED THIS MOVIE. The best thing I’ve seen in a long time, English Vinglish is a lovely family dramedy anchored by Sridevi’s charming performance as a woman trying to balance between duty and self-worth. Sridevi is brilliant as a beleagured Mumbai mom and housewife who comes into her own on an overseas trip to New York City by herself. I probably also liked it since the main character is a mother on a long trip away from her family, which, seeing as I was on a long trip away from my family, made me feel all sympathetic and stuff. Also, Sridevi wears some of the most excellent floral-print saris I’ve ever seen.
Another winner and another example of the resurgence of commercial Hindi-language cinema (aka Bollywood), Fukrey (“slacker”) is a bit like The Hangover, B’wood-stylee. The plot involves a quartet of Dehli townies who long to attend the local college despite their apparent lack of intellectual gifts. Among those aspiring students are Coocha and Hunny, a pair of cheerful losers who earn their living as dancers in costumed street productions of religious Hindu mythologicals, and who apparently have a foolproof way of predicting winning lottery numbers that involves arcane dream interpretation. Their interplay in particular includes some extremely funny comic moments and the two riff off of each other as deftly as Martin and Lewis. Dreamy musician Zafar is stuck in a rut—three years after graduating college he’s still fruitlessly pursuing his musical aspirations, which causes his sensible and levelheaded girlfriend, who also teaches at said college, no end to angst. Lali works at his dad’s popular restaurant and sweet shop and also aspires to attend the local college, though he currently can only take correspondence courses. Somehow the four protagonists get caught up in an increasingly tangled morass of financial woe, eventually ending up in debt to the tune of 2.5 million rupees to the local drug boss, a toughie named Biphal (the excellent Richa Chadda from Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2) who has “Sinderella” tattooed on the back of her neck. The plot twists and turns ala its spiritual predeccesor, the equally clever and irreverent Delhi Belly, making great use of that city’s crowded, dusty locale to accentuate the characters’ sticky situation. The comedy is deft and skillful and, despite many chances for overdoing it, director Mrighdeep Singh Lamba directs with a fairly understated hand. The characters are somewhat broadly drawn at first but become complex and sympathetic and Lamba has excellent and economic visual storytelling skills—his narrative structure and editing cleverly tie together all of the loose ends of the wide-ranging story. This is the best kind of movie to watch on a long plane flight, with a nice long running time that eats up hours, a fun, lighthearted romp of a story, and amusing and likeable characters. Throw in a few quick episodes of song and dance and you have a winner. Great stuff—
An outstanding Tamil-language spy film written and directed by and starring the amazing Kamal Hasan. This is only the second Tamil film I’ve seen (the first having been Puddhupettai, starring the wonderful Danoush,) but it definitely won’t be my last. The film starts off in New York City as an upwardly mobile NRI woman (Pooja Kumar) describes her marital issues to her sympathetic psychologist. Somehow, through a series of complicated and indescribable narrative turns, the film ends up in the middle of an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where the plot takes a lengthy digression. The story then wends its way back to New York to further explicate links between Al-Quada terrorists, uranium, an oncology lab, and radioactive pigeons. A bomb scare and much frenetic action follows. Lead actor and director Hasan, who gets to show off his hand-to-hand martial arts chops as well as his classical Indian dancing skilz, among many other talents, anchors the film with his charismatic performance as the super-spy with a complicated personal life who wryly notes, “I have a lot of emotional baggage.” The movie’s production values are top-notch, the songs by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy are outstanding, and the war scenes pull no punches, with men, women and children blown up, shot, strafed, and otherwise becoming collateral damage in the vicious guerilla fighting. The only weak link is Kumar as the clueless wife—she’s not quite able to pull of her character with much conviction, though admittedly she’s not given a lot of to work with.
Ip Man: The Final Fight
I only got to watch the first five minutes of the latest installment in the ongoing Ip Man saga before the in-flight movie system on the plane was shut off. This chapter, directed by stalwart Hong Kong director Herman Lau, chronologically follows the unrelated Donnie Yen pair of Ip Man movies as well as the unrelated Wong Kar-Wai version, The Grandmaster. Yau did direct Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, the prequel starring Dennis To as baby Ip Man, so there might be some thematic continuity there but for the most part the Ips are all running in parallel universes. Since the flight attendants had already confiscated the headphones by the time I started watching the movie it was a silent viewing experience for me, but I did get to see a very nicely staged encounter in which Ip Man challenges an eager young disciple to a battle to knock the grandmaster off of a square of newspaper laid on a kitchen floor. I watched the rest of the movie a few weeks later after I got back home and it didn’t disappoint, as a fun little slice of bygone Hong Kong ala Echoes of the Rainbow. Anthony Wong is great as the middle-aged Ip Man, carrying himself with dignity, grace, and the inimitable Wong Chau-sang swagga. The movie also includes familiar Hong Kong cinema faces including Anita Yuen as Mrs. Ip, Eric Tsang as a rival martial arts master (who has an outstanding duel with Ip Man that’s a marvel of cinematic fight choreography in the way that it makes two non-martial artists look incredibly suave and skilled), and Jordan Chan and Gillian Chung (yes, that Gillian Chung) as a couple of Ip Man’s disciples. In the face of the continued encroachment of China’s commercial film industry on the Hong Kong moviemaking world, it’s nice to see a genuine HK film with actual Cantonese dialogue (albeit with Ip Man and Mrs. Ip feigning broad Foshan accents). Bonus points for Anthony Wong not being afraid to play an old, albeit very cool, dude.
This year’s edition of Hong Kong Cinema at the San Francisco Film Society is chock full of star power, with new movies from some of the biggest movie kings and queens in Hong Kong. The opening night film, Bends, starring the glorious Carina Lau as a wealthy woman and the beautiful Aloys Chen Kun as her driver, looks at class divisions in contemporary Hong Kong. Cantopop also shows up in the festival, with Sky King Jacky Cheung appearing in A Complicated Story, and singing groups Grasshopper and Softhard featured in the documentary The Great War: Director’s Cut.
The festival also features a mini-retrospective of work by the late Lau Kar-Leung, the legendary martial arts director who died earlier this year, with rare big-screen presentations of 36th Chamber of Shaolin (1977) and The Eight Diagram Pole Fighter (1984), both starring the great Gordon Liu.
Also on tap is Johnnie To’s Blind Detective, starring another Sky King, Andy Lau, and his rom-com soulmate Sammi Cheng, together on screen for the first time since 2004’s Yesterday Once More. The premise is similar to To’s earlier film Mad Detective, in which the main character, here with the added characteristic of vision impairment, re-enacts past crime scenes in order to glean clues about the crime. The sight-challenged detective, played by Andy Lau, teams up with Ho (Sammi Cheng), a cop searching for a missing childhood friend.
The movie will probably be a rude shock for anyone expecting a Johnnie To movie like, say, Drug War or Exiled, as it’s pretty much a slapstick comedy with a few action elements sprinkled in. The film definitely leans toward the comic as the cast performs at a fever pitch, mugging and shouting at each other at the top of their lungs—at one point you can actually see the spittle flying from Sammi’s mouth as she bellows away. It’s a crazy farce that probably isn’t for everyone, but I had a great time watching Andy and Sammi go at it in the best screwball comedy tradition. Everyone seems to be enjoying themselves and a wacky good time is had by all, with the genial Andy Lau not afraid to look like an idiot talking with his mouth full and director To framing his stars against huge adverts for tea cakes.
Quite a few of To’s most deadly serious gangster flicks still have little timeouts for a spot of off-kilter humor, such as Nick Cheung eating a porcelain spoon in Election, or badass bodyguards playing paper-ball football in The Mission, or Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Lam Suet, and Roy Cheung in Exiled fixing up Nick Cheung’s shot-up flat like the triad edition of This Old House, and some of To’s movies, like Too Many Ways to Be Number One or Mad Detective, are one big comic goof. It’s one of the little quirky things that make Milkyway Image films so fun and such a departure from your standard crime movie, since they ride the spectrum from brutal violence to comic relief so rapidly and unexpectedly. So it’s not surprising to find To indulging in his zany side in Blind Detective. It’s a pretty silly movie and there’s a lot of extraneous nonsense, but it’s great to see Andy and Sammi, co-stars of seminal Milkyway rom-coms like Needing You and Love On A Diet, together again and playing off of each other comfortably and naturally. Even if Blind Detective isn’t as brilliantly bleak as Drug War or Election, the movie is confidently executed since, not unlike the titular hero, To can make these movies with his eyes closed.
More Hong Kong movie royalty make an appearance in The Last Tycoon, starring the legendary trio of Chow Yun-Fat, Sammo Hung, and Francis Ng, along with mainland star Huang Xioaming. The movie is a remake of The Bund, the 1980s Hong Kong drama that made CYF a household name as a righteous gangster rising through the ranks in 1930s Shanghai. The series was remade a few years ago with HXM in the same role that CYF played back in the day and, in a bit a stunt casting, in The Last Tycoon they reprise that role, with HXM playing the younger version and CYF the older version. The two also swapped dubbing chores for each other, with HXM voicing the character in the Mandarin dub and CYF working the Cantonese dub.
The film also features CYF and Francis Ng on the big screen together for the first time, despite both having long and storied careers in the Hong Kong film industry. Both performers rely heavily on body language and facial expressions in their acting technique, with Chow the king of the sorrowful gaze who lets his evocative eyes tell the story. Chow’s held up remarkably well for a man in his late fifties and now possesses the regal bearing suitable for this role. He’s also still quite handsome so it was entirely plausible that he would be a babe magnet involved in a love triangle with Monica Mok and Yolanda Yuen.
Francis Ng’s character isn’t a stretch for him as it’s his typical sinister bad guy role, but through his gestures and mannerisms he imbues the character with menace and unctuousness, and the intensity of his posture and the threatening way he smokes a cigarette attest to his skill and talent in bringing to life even the most banal character. Sammo Hung swaggers through the film as a corrupt cop but alas doesn’t get to show off much of his martial arts chops, but the real gangsta role goes to Hu Gao as CYF’s no-nonsense, butterfly-knife wielding bodyguard. The movie has an expensive look and feel to it (producer Andrew Lau may have also had a hand in the gorgeous cinematography) but director Wong Jing doesn’t quite have enough of a handle on the pacing or action to make the movie really move. With all that on-screen talent the movie should’ve been a knockout, but it’s more of an expensive misfire.
The festival closes with two more big-time Hong Kong movie stars, Nick Cheung and the third out of four Sky Kings, Aaron Kwok (what, no Leon Lai?) in Conspirators, but I can’t really recommend this Oxide Pang-directed thriller. The movie follow Kwok as a traumatized detective searching for clues to his parent’s murder some thirty years prior who hires a private eye (Cheung) to assist him. Set in Malaysia, the movie feels like a cheap 1970s Asian action film, and not in a good way. Nick Cheung is solid as Zheng, the Malaysian private eye, but due to an extraneous twin brother plot device he’s burdened with a bad wig for most of the movie. Despite the fact that he proved he could act in After This Our Exile, Aaron Kwok doesn’t add a lot of life to his characterization of Tam, the detective with a past. Oxide Pang’s direction mixes cheesy, uncompelling fight scenes (Zheng knows kung fu!), implausible and opaque plot points, and filtered lighting that’s supposed to add grit and texture to the film but mostly makes it look like it was shot on the cheap in a back lot in Kuala Lumpur, which it probably was.
I’m out of town this weekend so I’ll sadly miss all that heavenly big screen Hong Kong movie glory. No one else has any excuse–
October 4–6, 2013
Two more Chinese-language films have their theatrical releases in San Francisco, and, although they are completely different in subject, tone, and treatment, both are testaments to the vitality of the new Chinese cinema.
City of Life & Death, dir. Lu Chuan, 2010
My head was spinning when I walked out of the screening for City of Life and Death, Lu Chuan’s devastating and uncompromising look at the Rape of Nanking (or Nanjing). City of Life and Death is an unflinching look at the infamous Japanese occupation and destruction of the Chinese capital in 1938–the film is a stellar example of the ways in which cinema can both explicate and elevate events from real life. Lu masterfully utilizes wide-screen, black and white, mostly hand-held cinematography, subtle and emotional performances, and a story structure that precludes simplistic nationalism.
At the very start in the first hour of the film Lu kills off one of the main characters, forcefully undermining any pretense of a conventionally told story and serving notice that the film will be merciless in the treatment of its characters. As in the real-life occupation of Nanjing, no one is safe and no one will be spared from the casual brutality of wartime and the mentality it fosters. The film also refuses to focus on acts of heroism, although though there are brave and unselfish acts throughout the film’s 2.5 hour running time. No single character is a savior, nor are there any simple answers to the inhuman violence that was perpetrated upon the citizens of Nanjing.
As a Chinese filmmaker Lu makes the unusual choice of presenting the well-known story, which has been used in China to demonize Japan, in part through the eyes of Kadokawa, a Japanese soldier. The opening shot of the film is a close-up of the wide-eyed and impressionable Kadokawa’s terrified face as he and his fellow Japanese soldiers prepare to storm the walls of Nanjing. Kadokawa’s horrified responses to the violence surrounding him as well as the pivotal choices he makes at the end of the film belie any condemnation of the Japanese as inherently bestial or subhuman, The film refuses to lay the blame for the events in Nanjing on inborn flaws in the Japanese national character, instead placing responsibility on the insanity of militarism itself.
Viewers shouldn’t be deterred by the grim subject matter as this is filmmaking of the finest order. The wide screen black and white cinematography underscores the huge scope of the atrocities, and director Lu Chuan understands the value of a long, long take in creating an almost unbearable tension. The performances are also uniformly outstanding. Liu Ye is excellent in his brief but significant role as a pragmatic Chinese officer, utilizing his sensitive, evocative face to great effect. Wei Fan is also very effective as a bureaucrat working for the Germans who realizes too late that his position does not grant him immunity from the horrors around him.
A scene near the end of the film where the Japanese soldiers perform a celebratory dance underscores the violent group psychosis of war. While taiko drummers beat out a mournful cadence, the crouched-over soldiers move through the rubble-filled streets with blankly fierce expressions on their youthful faces. After the screen carnage of the past two hours their procession seems like an exercise in group insanity as the men move in hypnotic lockstep, driven by a rhythm dictated to them and with little will of their own. The scene becomes a grim and surreal commentary on the collective madness of war and the indoctrination that makes young men such as Kadokawa into unfeeling, obedient machines of destruction. This image and many others in City of Life and Death make the film absolutely essential viewing, The film’s current theatrical release makes it possible to experience it on the big screen, where its vast and detailed rendering can completely engulf the viewer and magnify its cataclysmic impact.
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, dir. Tsui Hark, 2010
A film epic of a completely different sort than City of Life and Death, Tsui Hark’s extravagantly fun and fantastic movie is another example of the outstanding product coming out of China and Hong Kong. Like Benny Chan’s Shaolin, Detective Dee is a brilliant blending of traditional Hong Kong moviemaking with the super-high production values of recent mainland films.
Detective Dee is very loosely based on the exploits of real-life historical figure Di Ren-jie, also known as Judge Dee, who has been the subject of several Hong Kong and Chinese films, books, and television series. Here Dee is played by the ageless Andy Lau, as an implacable sleuth assigned to determine the cause of a spate of spontaneous human combustion.
Carina Lau plays another historical figure, Wu Zetian, who was the only woman to ascend to the Chinese imperial throne. Both Andy and Carina, who started their careers at TVB long ago in the 1980s, are excellent as the titular sleuth and the Empress who may or may not be his adversary. Carina Lau holds the distinction of being one of the only actresses of her generation (along with Maggie Cheung and Michelle Yeoh) who is still working, and she brings a presence and authority to her role. Andy Lau has turned into an excellent screen actor and his ability to convey thoughtfulness and depth (despite his incredible good looks) is a result of his experience in more than a hundred films. He’s not afraid to take roles that emphasize his maturity, as seen here and in Shaolin, which is a nice testament to his graceful aging.
As expected from a Hong Kong fantasy film, Detective Dee includes a surfeit of cleverly staged action set pieces, underscored by director Tsui’s fantasmagoric set designs and kinetic camerawork. But Detective Dee moves beyond earlier Hong Kong films’ visual realizations with its excellent use of extensive digital effects. The world of digital effects has finally caught up to Tsui’s gloriously saturated cinematic vision and in Detective Dee he makes the most of them. Whereas Tsui’s 1990s fantasy classics such as Green Snake featured charmingly unconvincing rubber prosthetics and matte paintings, Detective Dee has the advantage of a full slate of DFX, here outsourced to a well-known Korean effects house. Tsui utilizes this to full effect in realizing his lavishly imaginative vision, which includes transmogrifying faces, a herd of talking (and fighting) deer, characters convincingly immolating from the inside out, and a skyscraper-sized statue of a female bodhisattva.
At the same time Tsui doesn’t let the digital madness take precedence over plot or characterization. The film’s story is a clever and well-developed mystery, and Andy Lau, Carina Lau and Li Bing Bing portray intriguing and complex characters. Tony Leung Kar-Fei is excellent as a revolutionary with a long grudge against the empress. In fine Hong Kong movie tradition, Li and Andy Lau court and spark as conflicted would-be lovers separated by duty and circumstance. As is his wont, Tsui also throws a bit of political commentary into the mix in his critique of the corruption of power.
Detective Dee won Best Director and Best Actress statues at the most recent Hong Kong Film Awards and represents a comeback of sorts for longtime auteur Tsui. Although it was financed by mainland Chinese money and performed in Mandarin, Detective Dee is still a Hong Kong movie through and through, and is an outstanding example of what might come from the integration of mainland and Hong Kong commercial cinema.
City of Life & Death
opens Fri. Sept. 23, 2011
Landmark Opera Plaza Cinema
601 Van Ness Ave.
San Francisco, CA 94102
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame
Landmark Embarcadero Cinema
One Embarcadero Center, Promenade Level
San Francisco, CA 94111
Landmark Shattuck Cinema
2230 Shattuck Avenue
Berkeley, CA 94704
For those of us lucky enough to be in the Bay Area, San Francisco is going to be an epicenter of theatrical Chinese-language film screenings as in the next couple months we are about to get slammed by a profusion of movies from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. Two film festivals plus several open-run screenings will be taking place in the last part of 2011, giving us sinophile film otaku many chances to partake of our favorite addiction on the big screen. In fact, there are so many Chinese-language movies playing in the next couple months that this is the first of at least three posts on the subject, with upcoming entries on two more movies from Hong Kong and China next week, as well as two film festivals sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) respectively focusing on Hong Kong and Taiwan.
With China’s increasing financial clout and the subsequent meteoric rise in the Chinese film industry (64 percent growth last year, to US$1.6 billion; 526 films produced in 2010, up 15%; and 6,000 new cinemas planned for next year) we are witnessing a new era of Chinese-language films. For better or worse the Chinese film industry has grown exponentially in the past decade and with the inexorable integration of the finest talents from the Hong Kong film industry, Chinese cinema has evolved from the arthouse-oriented political allegories of the 20th century to highly accessible commercial fare like the three films releasing this week. Shaolin, My Kingdom and Love In Space, opening in the U.S. on Sept. 9, represent the new paradigm of Chinese filmmaking and their appearance in U.S. theaters, along with and other upcoming Hong Kong and Chinese releases, heralds a trend toward increased Chinese theatrical releases in this country. These three recent Chinese-language films, one from Hong Kong and two from mainland China, also reflect the trend toward Hong Kong-China co-productions, as all three are cross-pollinated projects with talent both from Hong Kong and “the North.”
Now playing at the Four-Star Theater (and also playing at the San Francisco Film Society’s New People theater on Sept. 28-29) is Shaolin, director Benny Chan’s historical martial arts film involving warlords, monks, and lots of kung fu. Shaolin is an exhilarating big-budget spectacle that captures a lot of the fun of classic 1990s HK moviemaking—although the producers claim the movie is a tribute to Jet Li’s debut film from 1986, the storyline doesn’t have a lot to do with that old-school kung fu classic, aside from having a cadre of righteous, kick-ass monks defending the honor of the legendary martial arts stomping ground. This Shaolin is set in the Republican era of the early 20th century when ruthless warlords duked it out for domination of their various fiefdoms. Superstar (and my favorite Heavenly King) Andy Lau ably anchors the film as an ambitious warlord who tragically learns the error of his ways. He’s aging beautifully, and that aquiline nose and perfect jawline look as photogenic now as they did twenty-five years ago. Nicholas Tse as Andy’s adversary is a bit less effective, overacting his way through his villainous role decked out in shiny black boots and an evil sneer. Wu Jing leads a group of crack martial artists as awesome Shaolin monks defending their sacred turf. Jackie Chan’s supporting role as the temple cook provides him a fun little fight scene, as Chan uses woks, cleavers, and other kitchen implements to showcase his trademark comic kung fu style.
Also outstanding is Cory Yuen’s fantastic action choreography, which includes a furious fight on wheels during a nighttime horse and carriage chase through the city as well as excellent hand-to-hand martial arts with bad-ass monks showing off their mad skilz, armed only with wooden staffs or their bare hands against rifle-carrying bad guys. As with many Chinese co-productions these days there are also the obligatory sadistic European actors maniacally giggling their way through senseless destruction. Fan Bing Bing (not to be confused with Li Bing Bing) is effective as Andy Lau’s wife, though she mostly just bats her eyes and weeps.
The film’s scenery, art direction, and cinematography are all top-notch–if this is the future of Hong Kong films then I’m all for it. Veteran HK director Benny Chan does a great job scaling up and the movie blends the big-budget production values of recent mainland films with the heart and emotion of Hong Kong movies.
Two other films from China also open up Stateside today from distributor China Lion, which has been putting out series of monthly day-and-date releases of Chinese commercial films. The lineup has been a somewhat random and diverse slate of pics including 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (officially banned in China but a massive hit in Hong Kong), the weepy Shu Qi/Liu Ye melodrama A Beautiful Life, and the Chinese Communist Party epic Beginning of the Great Revival.
Its release postponed a month due to the success of 3D Sex & Zen, My Kingdom is an action melodrama played out against the backdrop of classical Chinese opera. The film has the typically high production values of current commercial Chinese films and nicely recreates 1920s Shanghai, with great art direction and cinematography. But the 90-minute movie is very slight in comparison with the big kahuna of Chinese opera movies, Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. While Chen’s film was a vast, emotionally wrenching epic writ large across twentieth-century Chinese history, My Kingdom focuses on a much smaller story of love, revenge, and opera.
The movie also suffers from the callowness of its lead performers, with Sinopop idols Wu Chun and Han Geng cast as Yi-Long and Er-Kui, sworn brothers trained as “opera warriors.” Although Wu occasionally works up to a good smolder, the wide-eyed Han seems a bit overwhelmed by his role and never really seems like a man consumed by a desire for vengeance. Barbie Hsu is adequate as the opera troupe’s lead actress but she’s not convincing as a diva, much less one desired by most of the male cast. The three leads also are less than stellar in their opera performances, and the choreography in some of these scenes is also pretty uninspired. The exception is when the fabulous Yuen Biao, one of Jackie Chan’s “brothers,” shows up at the beginning of the movie in a brief role as the Yi-Long and Er-Kui’s sifu. Both his acting and his footwork demonstrate Yuen’s genuine Chinese opera training, and showcase “big brother” Sammo Hung and Chin Kar-lok’s fluid and efficient action choreography.
The film’s producers were clearly aiming for the youth market, but the singers cast here are not quite up to the task of driving the emotional, convoluted plotline. Especially miscast is the floppy-haired actor who plays a scheming policeman–the actor looks about 22 years old and his haircut seems to be channeling Justin Bieber. However, the movie is an interesting example of the ongoing integration of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese commercial film productions, with Hong Kong stalwarts such as Yuen and Hung teaming up with their younger mainland co-stars.
Also from China Lion is Love In Space, the only modern-day film of the three on the docket this week. Love In Space follows the romantic adventures of three sisters, an actress, an artist, and, yes, an astronaut, in Bejing, Sydney, and orbiting around the planet. This fun and fanciful little film reflects co-director Wing Shya’s whimsical fashion photography–it also stars a slew of pop stars (including three generations of male idols–Aaron Kwok, Eason Chan, and Jing Boran) who are put to better effect than their compatriots in My Kingdom.
Most effective are Cantopop king Eason Chan and Guey Lun-Mei (who kicked ass in Dante Lam’s crime thriller The Stool Pigeon) who play a garbageman and his germ-phobic love interest. Both Chan and Guey have mobile, expressive faces and excellent comic timing, and their story is the most fun and engaging to follow. Also good, though a bit more twee, are Angelbaby and Jing Boran as a movie-star-in-hiding and her spunky, watermelon-selling suitor. Oddly enough, the least compelling story features Rene Liu and Heavenly King Aaron Kwok as estranged lovers working together on a space station. The space-station set and the constantly revolving camerawork suggest a rom-com Solaris, and the soundtrack even features The Blue Danube waltz from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the storyline is predictable and Liu and Kwok’s performances are unconvincing. However, the movie as a whole is a delightful confection and a far cry from the dour political allegories of Chinese filmmakers from the 20th century.
Next week will find Indomina Pictures continued U.S. rollout of Tsui Hark’s blockbuster Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, as well as the World War II drama The City of Life and Death. Relativity Media also recently announced a deal with SAIF Partners and IDG China Media to produce and distribute Chinese films for the international market. With more product comes the need for more consumers and, although the billion-person Chinese market is a good start, the Chinese film industry sees more income ripe for the picking in the international market. As an Asian film aficionado I see no reason to complain–seeing movies on the big screen beats torrenting any day. It will also be interesting to see how the demands of the international market further affect the look and feel of Chinese cinema in the 21st century.
4 Star Theater
2200 Clement Street
NOTE: live perfomance by Shaolin monks, Friday, Sept. 9, 8p, free
Love in Space and My Kingdom
AMC Loews Metreon
16101 Fourth Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
AMC Cupertino Square 16
10123 North Wolfe Road
Cupertino, CA 95014
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Horace Slughorn: Eric Tsang. He’s got the smarmy gladhanding dialed in.
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!
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.
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?
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.
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.
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
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.
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–
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.