Posts tagged ‘francis ng’

This Is How We Do It: Two Thumbs Up at the Hong Kong International Film Festival

Mullet and perm, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Mullet and perm, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Premiering at this year’s Hong Kong International Film Festival and now in the midst of a successful theatrical run in Hong Kong, Two Thumbs Up (dir. Lau Ho-leung ) is a pleasurable timepass with a slapdash absurdist energy that carries it past its shortcomings. It’s also notable for being the second Hong Kong theatrical release this year starring Francis Ng (after Triumph In The Skies), who has mostly been AWOL in the former Crown Colony as he’s been trolling the more lucrative waters of the mainland China film industry for the past few years.

Two Thumbs Up is a caper film about a bunch of low-end crooks who devise the brilliant plan of rehabbing one of Hong Kong’s ubiquitous red-top mini-buses into a police van and then using it for various larcenous purposes. In particular they aim to intercept a shipment of corpses on the way to the PRC that have illicitly been stuffed with smuggled cash. All goes well until they encounter a second group of crooks with the exact same plan.

Pook gai, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Pook gai, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

This one comes favorably handicapped since it has a number of points that make me predisposed to like it:

  • Stars Francis Ng, which to anyone reading this blog should be patently obvious
  • Also stars Simon Yam, another fan favorite around here
  • Dialog in very vulgar Cantonese
  • Cheap, low-budget digital effects that in no way attempt to represent reality
  • Shot in remote, deserted rural nighttime Hong Kong locations to save money and to avoid the local constabulary
  • Includes hyperlocal references like a Softie ice cream truck
  • Slyly refers to the mainlander infestation of Hong Kong, substituting “cockroaches” for “locusts.” NOTE: This bit has apparently been trimmed from the PRC release in order not to offend mainland audiences and thus cut into any potential profit.
  • Garish and ugly, brightly colored polyester costumes
  • The awesome mullet and perm respectively sported by the usually dapper Francis Ng and Simon Yam
  • Rambling and illogical script that hearkens back to improvised Hong Kong comedies of old
  • Sentimental affection for losers, ex-cons, lowlifes and “scum” (the film’s polite translation for pook gai) who are secretly heroic
  • Cynical sneer of gangster gal, played by Christie Chen, who resembles a low-rent Guey Lun-Mei

The movie is a fairly lightweight bit of entertainment that hits its main thematic point pretty hard and pretty often (hoodlums can be heroes too!) but the delight comes in the sheer fun that the cast seems to be having as they run through their familiar paces. The veteran foursome playing the crooks, including Francis, Simon, Mark Cheng, and Patrick Tam, have great chemistry and almost every early scene with them merrily devolves into very loudly shouted Cantonese expletives. Like The Avengers (except not) they each rock individual and distinctly tacky outfits, highlighted by Francis Ng’s amazing extra-long mullet, green fringed jacket, and cowboy boots. Leo Ku as the serious and dedicated cop who uncovers their scheme is a good foil for the cursing and hamboning of the main cast, as is Philip Keung as the leader of the rival gang of crooks.

Some knowledge of Hong Kong film history also helps grease the viewing experience as the movie is rife with self-referential in-jokes and fan service moments. At one point early on in the film Francis Ng’s character (alternately known as Big F or Lucifer, depending on your translation) shows off his mad bowling skilz the local alley where he and his posse are killing time and plotting their big heist. Francis affects his patented swagga not after offing a rival triad but after successfully bowling a strike, which references his many years of gangsta leans throughout the past 20-odd years of Hong Kong movie history. Likewise it’s fun to see Simon Yam playing against his usual suave and debonair type as a frumpy loser with a bad perm living in a subway tunnel.

Macking, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

Macking, Two Thumbs Up, 2015

The main foursome are also particularly amusing the first time they stroll out of the van in their policeman drag, with their non-compliant hairstyles and mack-daddy posture, their hats low over their eyes and thumbs slung into their belt loops belying their attempts to pass as respectable coppers. The veteran actors also make their characters likeable enough that once the crew is separated and in jeopardy the audience is actually invested in the fates of the four of them. These little touches make the movie work and goose up an otherwise pretty silly premise.

Although the movie isn’t without many plot holes, directorial obviousness, and failures in narrative logic, the engaging performances of the cast, supplemented by very silly CGI, editing, and art direction, make for a pleasant and entertaining day at the races. It’s certainly no Infernal Affairs or Hard Boiled but it’s not as horrible as a lot of Hong Kong product these days either, and at this point in time I’ll take what I can get.

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April 20, 2015 at 4:45 am 2 comments

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

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

Andy Lau shoots without seeing, Blind Detective, 2012

Andy Lau shoots without seeing, Blind Detective, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Andy-Sammi, Blind Detective, 2012

Andy-Sammi, Blind Detective, 2012

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

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

Francis-CYF, The Last Tycoon, 2012

Francis-CYF, The Last Tycoon, 2012

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

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

Nick-wig-Aaron, Conspirators, 2012

Nick-wig-Aaron, Conspirators, 2012

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

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

Hong Kong Cinema

October 4–6, 2013
Vogue Theatre

San Francisco

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

Life Like A Song: Triumph In The Skies 2 drama review

triumph F&F

Fala and Francis, reclining, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

I almost never watch American television, though I occasionally look at reality shows like Project Runway or Chopped when my daughters are streaming it on my computer, but I really can’t remember the last time I watched a U.S. drama on a regular basis. I have a hard time paying attention to anything more than 90 minutes long unless it includes singing and dancing in Hindi, so investing weeks and weeks in a TV show, no matter how good, is just too much commitment for me. Also, as an unreconstructed experimental film geek I’m very visually oriented, so I prefer my media to be less dialog and character-driven than is most television.

I’m not one for Asian dramas, either—again, the weeks and weeks of watching are just too much for me to do, and I find plastic surgery and eyeliner on boys a little distracting. That said, this past year I’ve watched two Asian dramas, but only because they starred two of my favorite actors, Lee Byung-Hun and Francis Ng. Last spring I watched IRIS (아이리스, 2009), the South Korean espionage thriller that stars the insanely hot Lee Byung-Hun as a special ops agent involved in various crazy political plots. Although much of the story strains credulity, LBH is quite good in it and the ample explosions, gunfights, assassinations, betrayals, and love triangles keep the show movie along briskly. I felt like I’d eaten too much deep-fried food after sitting through its 40+ episodes but it was fun to spend all that time watching LBH do his thing.

Francis Ng, Ron Ng, Myolie Wu, aligned, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Ron Ng, Francis Ng, Myolie Wu, aligned, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

More recently, I’ve been wallowing in Triumph In The Skies 2, the sequel to the hit Hong Kong drama that aired in 2003 on TVB that followed the lives and romances of a clutch of HK airline pilots. I watched TITS 1 on DVD long after it first came out, but with the advent of online streaming I’ve been able to see episodes of TITS 2 with English subtitles on a day-and-date schedule with its airing in Hong Kong. Like its prequel, the series has been quite a sensation since its premiere at the beginning of August, drawing high ratings and inspiring a wave of pilot-mania among Hong Kong’s citizenry. It was great to be able to watch Francis Ng as the lead character, Sam Tong, an upstanding and heroic airline pilot who is a much beloved character in Hong Kong. The show is nowhere near as hyperkinetic as IRIS, depending on romantic entanglements and other interpersonal relationships for its dramatic tension, but Francis, along with co-star Julian Cheng Chilam, made the show watchable. A bonus to watching it online is that I could fast-forward through the extraneous side-stories and go straight to the Francis plotlines. The drama is no great shakes and in fact is pretty mundane, with vast swaths of filler focusing on minor characters, flagrant product placement, and way too many subplots that are transparently designed to showcase TVB’s up-and-coming starlets. But TITS is one of TVB’s premium franchises and the station threw a lot of money at it, by Hong Kong television standards. There are many cute young guys looking suave in cadet pilot uniforms, including the sweet and dreamy Him Law, nice scenery in London, Taiwan, and Paris, and upscale Hong Kong characters with huge fantasy apartments and luxury cars.

Ingenues, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Ingenues, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

However, although it was a high-end, much-hyped TVB series, the drama exhibited sloppy plotting and dialog, pacing and editing problems, sketchy and uneven acting, and way too many extraneous characters and storylines. There were huge, illogical jumps in the timeline (to accommodate a pregnant character) and one of the main characters, Captain Jayden Koo (Julian Cheung Chilam) inexplicably disappeared from the narrative for many episodes. Of course television dramas are built around people behaving stupidly and making poor life decisions and this show is no different, with characters displaying irritating obstinacy, irrational stubbornness, and poor communication skills, and making bad, impulsive decisions. I suppose their dramatic idiocy is meant to make the viewer feel better about their own lives, but there’s a limit to how much illogical behavior is plausible. TITS 2 also suffered by comparison to TITS 1. If a love triangle or two worked in TITS 1, why not three or four in TITS 2? How about a weirdly obsessive, terminally ill ingénue chasing after a reluctant mate? TITS 1 had the deliciously agonizing dilemma of Francis Ng’s character, Sam Tong, in love with his best friend’s wife, so that the love triangle was truly triangular, with the relationship between all three characters holding significance. In TITS 2, the Sam/Jayden/Holiday triangle had much less piquancy because there was no deep relationship between Sam and Jayden, unlike Sam and Vincent’s friendship in the original series. It didn’t help that Fala Chen’s acting as Holiday, the fulcrum of the love triangle, was wildly inconsistent, though by the end of the series she had settled down a bit.

Francis emotes, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Francis emotes, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

For me, the main draw of course was Francis Ng, and he didn’t disappoint. Although TITS 2 was by no means high art (or even competent storytelling), as an opportunity to watch hours of Francis Ng every night for six weeks it was a quite a lovely indulgence and despite the drama’s general silliness, Francis absolutely killed in this show. Francis is an outstanding big-screen actor but he’s also an excellent small-screen actor, due to his mobile and subtly expressive face and his huge repertoire of physical expressions. The way he stands, the position of his arms, and his confident rolling swagger when he’s walking around the airport in his pilot drag like he owns the place all add up to a very satisfying viewing experience. His character was by turns depressed, repressed, anal retentive, or controlling, but Francis managed to make him sympathetic with just a well-placed flick of his eyebrows or a meaningful sigh, and he is the king of the single tear sliding down the cheek. In one scene, where he recalls his remorse at disappointing Zoe, his late wife, the range of emotions crossing his face was pretty amazing, demonstrating his impeccable mastery of non-verbal acting. Francis also gets bonus points for flaunting an array of beautifully cut Vivianne Westwood menswear (including a $250 hoodie with hand-painted stars on the sleeves and a gorgeous black velvet tux with a satin shawl collar) and looking ridiculously fit and charming for a man in his early fifties. Depending on the lighting and the skill of the makeup artists, Francis alternately looked pretty good for his age or like a star somewhat past his sell date. Some netizens were less than kind about Francis’ fifty-plus years, and it didn’t help that his main love interest was a woman in her early thirties, which often accentuated Francis’ age to his detriment. But the man can wear a tailored suit like nobody’s business and his signature “airplane head” pompadour was impeccably groomed throughout the entire series—there was literally not a hair out of place and the sculpted fade of his sideburns was immaculately trimmed to the exact same length for the entire show. Way to go, continuity department!

Julian Cheung Chilam, windblown, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Julian Cheung Chilam, windblown, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Julian Cheung’s new character, Jayden Koo, instantly became a fan favorite in the sequel, though to me the character was a narcissistic bore who thought he was the schiznit. In the first few eps Jayden’s popularity far outstripped that of Sam Tong, making the proposed Sam/Jayden/Holiday love triangle a non-starter. In order to appease the disgruntled Sam/Zoe shippers and to level the playing field for Sam vs. Jayden, Julian Cheung’s part was ruthlessly trimmed down in the middle episodes of the series and Francis and Fala’s budding romance instead took center stage. When Jayden finally reappeared some weeks down the line, after the show’s editing had tilted the audience in F&F’s favor, he seemed more like an obsessive stalker than a viable love interest. My conspiracy theory is that the producers realized that the audience wasn’t down with Francis + Fala and had to fatten up their relationship in order to make the love triangle plausible, at the expense of Julian Cheung’s screentime. That and the fact that the show’s ending had been spoiled even before the series aired took a lot of the dramatic tension out of the storyline. Through the magic of google chrome’s instantaneous (if garbled) web translations, it was also fun to follow the media frenzy in Hong Kong as the show aired. Apparently Sam/Zoe is one of the most revered pairings in TVB history and the way that Zoe was ruthlessly killed off between TITS 1 and TITS 2 (appearing only in flashbacks in TITS 2) really rankled the viewership. After the Sam/Zoe storyline was resolved in episode 23 some viewers swore off the show, though their defections didn’t seem to affect the ratings as TITS 2 ended up the highest rated show of the year as well as racking up many hundreds of millions of online views in Hong Kong and China.

Perfect fade, Francis Ng, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

Perfect fade, Francis Ng, Triumph In The Skies 2, 2013

It was also pretty humorous to observe the stars’ various spats with each other via the media. Early press reports stated that Francis Ng and Fala Chen didn’t get along, but as the series progressed the purported tensions were denied, with Fala Chen at one point claiming “(Francis) just looks really fierce because when he furrows his brow, he looks very serious.” It was also funny to note is that many online commentators had very little sense of Francis Ng’s work outside of Hong Kong television, apparently not realizing the fact that he’s won several Best Actor awards for his film work, or that he’s known outside of Hong Kong primarily for playing badass gangsters, not lovelorn pilots, or that, as he says, “the majority of my fans have tattoos.” Despite all of its shortcomings the drama was a huge hit, with excellent broadcast ratings in Hong Kong. There’s talk of a feature film version of the show and all involved are scrambling to capitalize on its popularity. Julian Cheung has taken advantage of his increased profile by changing agents, recording a cover of the theme song from the original series, and buying a new Mercedes. Francis Ng has inexplicably signed an agreement to produce a cooking show for TVB. And Fala Chen is being touted by Eric Tsang as “the new Maggie Cheung,” although she has none of Cheung Man-yuk acting skills, charisma, or talent. Considering how meteorically fortunes can rise and fall in Hong Kong show biz, it will be interesting to see the lasting effects, if any, of the recent success of TITS 2. Related Francis Ng news: It was just announced that Francis Ng is attached to Sha Po Lang 2, the sequel to the 2005 Wilson Yip-directed Donnie Yen action/MMA film revered by many Hong Kong movie fanboys. Yip had wanted Francis to star in the original SPL (the part eventually went to Simon Yam) but scheduling conflicts prevented this happening, so it’s great that Francis will be joining the cast for this one. This installment will be directed by Soi Cheang (Motorway; Accident), who most recently worked with Francis on the film adaptation of the the ultraviolent Japanese manga Shamo (2007).  It will be nice to see Francis in a real Hong Kong crime film once again, as opposed to the soapy melodrama of TITS or the dreadful mainland shlock he’s been putting out lately. Can’t wait–

UPDATE: Although google is mangling the translation of this article, I think that it says that Francis Ng, Chilam Cheung, and Louis Koo are now confirmed for the movie version of the drama and that, due to her clashes with Francis and other cast members as well as her Marilyn Monroe-esque behavior on set (i.e., being late and not knowing her lines), Fala Chen has been dumped from said movie and replaced by Taiwanese star Lin Chi-Ling. What’s more interesting is that Benny Chan is now attached to direct and that the film supposedly will be an “action” movie. Chan is fresh from one of the top-grossing Hong Kong films of last year, The White Storm, which was a manly crime film starring Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Nick Cheung. Having just watched Big Bullet again recently, I can only hope that news of Chan’s involvement is true and that the brave and handsome flight crew will face terrorists, bombs, and mayhem on the streets and in the skies of Hong Kong. I’d pay to see that–

UPDATE 2: After many casting and directing changes the movie version of Triumph In The Skies is about to be released, just in time for the Chinese New Year’s holiday on Feb. 20, 2015 with a day-and-date release in North America. The publicity machine has been in full force and the film is one of the favorites in the New Year’s slate, although it’s going up against a new Sandra Ng sex comedy, 12 Golden Ducks, and Chow Yun-Fat’s latest gambling movie, From Vegas To Macau 2, which also stars A-listers Nick Cheung, Carina Lau, and Shawn Yue. The new TITS movie, directed by Matt Chow and Wilson Yip, focuses on romance and relationships, as well as nice scenery and tailored clothes, with Francis Ng paired with Sammi Cheng, Louis Koo paired with Charmaine Sheh, and Chilam Cheung paired with Amber Kuo. Could be great, could be sucky, but I’m watching it either way.

September 14, 2013 at 5:47 am 3 comments

U Got The Look: CAAMfest 2013

Teen dream, 15, 2003

Teen dream, 15, dir. Royston Tan, 2003

Another year, another San Francisco Asian American International Film Festival, except now it’s been rebranded as CAAMfest, which certainly rolls off the tongue more easily than the previous moniker. The festival has added a tagline (film, music, food) that’s a nod to the increased presence of the audio and gustatory arts, but it doesn’t mean that movies are taking a backseat. As per usual there are more than a hundred new Asian and Asian American flicks in this year’s festival—below are a few preview picks.

Jeremy being Jeremy, Linsanity, 2013

Jeremy being Jeremy, Linsanity, dir. Evan Jackson Leong, 2013

Linsanity

I don’t need to tell you that this is a great Cinderella story, but filmmaker Evan Jackson Leong has taken the familiar material and shaped a charming and inspiring documentary about everyone’s favorite Asian American underdog. Jeremy Lin turns out to be funny, self-aware, and loquacious and Leong uses his longstanding access to his subject (he started shooting the film when Lin was at Harvard) to great effect. Interviews with Lin’s friends and family members, home videos of the budding basketball prodigy, and great coverage of the actual Linsanity phenomenon makes this a super-fun, captivating movie. The movie also touches on the racism and discrimination faced by Lin, the NBA’s first Asian American superstar, as well as Lin’s devout Christianity, but Lin is such a self-effacing guy and Leong so skillfully handles these elements that they work seamlessly into the whole picture.

Graceland

A solid film noir set in Manila and directed by Filipino American Ron Morales (Santa Mesa, 2008), Graceland looks at the repercussions of the kidnapping of a pair of young girls. Dark and moody, the film questions the morality of its various characters and, like the best noirs, no one is above scrutiny, everyone is guilty, and everyone has something to hide. The cast is lead by a nervous, sweaty performance by Arnold Reyes as the desperate father trying to save his daughter and who has many hard choices to make. The film also indicts the sex trade, corrupt policemen, and shady politicians—this is classic hardboiled stuff and well worth a look.

Hard times, When The Bough Breaks, 2012

Hard times, When The Bough Breaks, dir. Ji Dan, 2012

When The Bough Breaks

Ji Dan’s verite documentary about a poor Chinese family living in a hovel on the outskirts of Beijing examines the effects of China’s rapidly expanding economy, which has ironically left many in dire economic and social straits. The father is a laborer, the daughters are adolescents trying to find money for themselves and/or their preteen brother to go to a decent school (one “sponsor,” a sick elderly man, offers to fund their education if they’ll sleep with him), and upward mobility is nowhere to be found. As if that wasn’t enough, Dad is a tyrannical drunk who verbally abuses his family at any opportunity, Mom is angry and fed up, and the teenagers are already learning to psychologically torment each other. Plus, the family’s eldest daughter has gone missing for some years after being lured into prostitution by the false promise of a factory job folding cardboard boxes. Overlong, somewhat shapeless, and leaning toward poverty porn, the film is interesting nonetheless due to the tenacity of the two younger daughters who grimly soldier on in the face of a bleak existence.

When Night Falls

Another film set in China, this narrative examines the notorious case of a young man who is driven to commit murder by that country’s oppressive police force. Ai Wei Wei made a documentary about the same case, but this film focuses on travails of the man’s mother as she tries to unravel her son’s unfortunate fate. The movie is composed primarily of long, stationary shots that emphasize the delicate action within the frame, lending a sense of oppression, immediacy, and intimacy to the film.

Walker, Beautiful 2012, Tsai Ming Liang, 2012

Walker, Beautiful 2012, dir. Tsai Ming-Liang, 2012

Also of note in the fest: Debbie Lum’s sharp and observant documentary, Seeking Asian Female, which is all about white dudes with yellow fever (full review here); The Land of Hope, Sion Sono’s second feature set in the Fukashima tsunami zone (full review here); the omnibus film Beautiful 2012, which includes Hong Kong director Ann Hui’s short narrative My Way, starring Francis Ng as a transgendered woman (!) (full review here), and Apichatpong Weerasethakul’s latest dreamwork, The Mekong Hotel. The festival is also presenting a brief retrospective of director Royston Tan, including Old Romances, his documentary elegy to old-time Singapore, the maniacal musical 881, and his debut feature 15, which looks at teenage angst, Singaporean-style. I’ll be interviewing the director onstage live at the Pacific Film Archive following the screening of 15, so be there!

CAAMfest

March 14-24, 2013

San Francisco and Berkeley, CA

full schedule and ticket information here.

March 14, 2013 at 4:45 am Leave a comment

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

Deanie & Andy, A Simple Life, 2012

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

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

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

Chemistry, Deanie & Andy, A Simple Life, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

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

Masculin/Feminin, Francis Ng in My Way, 2012

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

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

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

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

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

A Simple Life now playing:

San Francisco

AMC Metreon 16

Cupertino

AMC Cupertino Square 16

April 16, 2012 at 5:50 pm 5 comments

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

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