Posts tagged ‘hong kong movies’

Shall We Talk: Coming Home and Office movie reviews

Eason and a cast of thousands, Office, 2015

Eason and a cast of thousands, Office, 2015

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

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

Chen and Gong try to remember, Coming Home, 2015

Chen and Gong try to remember, Coming Home, 2015

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

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

Chen Daoming shabby chic, Coming Home, 2015

Chen Daoming shabby chic, Coming Home, 2015

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

Chow and Chang, Office, 2015

Chow and Chang, Office, 2015

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

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

Eason and Wei meet cute, Office, 2015

Eason and Wei meet cute, Office, 2015

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

Production design a go go, Office, 2015

Production design a go go, Office, 2015

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

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

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

Coming Home

dir. Zhang Yimou

opens Fri. Sept. 18

Office

dir. Johnnie To

opens Fri. Sept, 18, 2015

September 19, 2015 at 6:26 am 1 comment

Funeral Tango: International Film Noir at the Roxie Theater

Don't mess, Intimidation, 1960

Don’t mess, Intimidation, 1960

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

Guns, gams, and gals, Underworld Beauty, 1958

Guns, gams, and gals, Underworld Beauty, 1958

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

A friendly game of cards, Pale Flower, 1964

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

March 19-23, 2015

Roxie Theater

3117 16th Street

San Francisco CA 94110

415/863-1087

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

Nothing Compares 2 U: 2015 CAAMfest

Traces, Dot 2 Dot, 2014

Traces, Dot 2 Dot, 2014

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

Dot 2 Dot

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

Possessed, Hollow, 2014

Possessed, Hollow, 2014

Hollow

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

Water country, Nuoc 2030, 2014

Water country, Nuoc 2030, 2014

Nuoc 2030

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

Flowing Stories

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

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

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

My Voice, My Life

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

2015 CAAMfest

March 12-22, 2015

San Francisco, Oakland, Berkeley

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

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

Spread Your Wings: More airplane movie film festival

Kamal Hasan and ominous pigeons, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Kamal Hasan and bad pigeons, Vishwaroopam, 2013

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!

Andy Lau Tak-Wah beaching it, Switch, 2013

Watch advert or dream sequence? Switch, 2013

Switch

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.

lbh red

LBH does CYF, Red 2, 2013

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?

english-vinglish-4

Sridevi and flowers, English Vinglish, 2013

English Vinglish

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.

M_Id_374456_Fukrey

Fun and frolic, Fukrey, 2013

Fukrey

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—

Kamal Hasan does this too, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Kamal Hasan does this too, Vishwaroopam, 2013

Vishwaroopam

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.

Anthony Wong brings it, Ip Man, The Final Fight, 2013

Anthony Wong brings it, Ip Man, The Final Fight, 2013

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.

February 2, 2014 at 6:16 am 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

Finger On The Trigger: The Bullet Vanishes movie review

Lau Ching-Wan, supersleuth, The Bullet Vanishes

The Bullet Vanishes, which opens this week in San Francisco and other select North American cities, is China Lion’s latest almost-day-and-date release of new Chinese-language product. Part CSI, part Guy Madden Sherlock Holmes, and part Detective Dee, the movie is a classy production set in 1930s China with a lot of really nice vintage pistols. More importantly, it’s a chance to see the great Lau Ching-Wan in action, as he meticulously creates yet another intriguing character.

The story involves the investigation of a series of murders at a Shanghai bullet factory. After one of the factory workers kills herself under suspicious circumstances, several of her co-workers follow in like fashion, dying of gunshot wounds with seemingly spectral bullets. Police detectives Song (LCW) and Guo (Nicholas Tse) are assigned to figure out what’s going on, but as they delve deeper into the case they encounter more and more contradictions.

As a representative of the big-budget cinematic product currently coming out of China, the movie looks great, with its wool-and-tweed period wardrobe, thirties-throwback art direction, and expensive-looking sepia-toned cinematography. Director Lo Chi-leung keeps things moving along despite several abrupt U-turns in the plot, the action choreography includes several nice shootouts, and the movie has fun gently ribbing the primitive forensics of the 1930s detectives. The general air of respectability, however, means that the movie lacks the OTT insanity that drove so many great Hong Kong films—as a China/HK co-production the movie is more genteel than balls-to-the-wall. There’s also a very slight critique of capitalism in the film’s rendering of the evil boss who ruthlessly oppresses the workers, but Hong Kong director Lo doesn’t let it gets in the way of the real fun.

As noted extensively elsewhere, Lau Ching-Wan played a similar character in the much weirder Johnny To movie, The Mad Detective, and some of that movie’s tropes are repeated here, such as Lau’s detective character re-enacting crime scenes in order to deduce their mechanics (though without the psychic link that made the To film so kicky and fun). The Bullet Vanishes also recalls Peter Chan’s recent flick Wu Xia (or Dragon, depending on when and where you saw it), which featured Takeshi Kaneshiro as a hyper-observant detective who could suss out crimes just by brushing his hands over a tabletop. Here Nic Tse and Lau Ching-Wan split the super-detective duties, with Nic also being an expert shootist who wins several quick-draws with the bad guys.

Contemplating evidence, The Bullet Vanishes

Director Lo Chi-leung keeps the twisty plot moving along pretty briskly, as the storyline doubles back on itself to reveal more and more complexity, but the narrative manages to remain pretty clear despite the excessive mendacity of the various characters. Lau carries the movie with his sad beagle eyes and off-kilter physicality, while Nic Tse underplays a bit too much. Jing Boran is cute and winsome as the new kid on the block, and various villians snarl and twich appropriately.

The movie also includes an unlikely female doctor character who is anachronistic but fun and who is a good counterbalance to Mini Yang Mi’s insipid fortune-teller/love interest. Yang Mi is not very scintillating and the romantic subplot/detour is annoying and unconvincing. She’s a performer who continues to not impress me (though I haven’t yet seen Painted Skin 2 so I’ll cut her some slack).

The Bullet Vanishes isn’t the deepest movie in the world but all the money seems to be up on the screen and everything hangs together fairly well. All in all there are much worse ways to spend a couple hours than watching Lau Ching-Wan do his thing on screen in an expensive commercial production. If this is a result of the current Chinese film industry boom, then I’m all for it.

Opens Fri. Aug. 31

AMC Metreon 16

101 Fourth St. San Francisco, CA 94103

 AMC Cupertino 16

10123 N. Wolfe Road, Cupertino, CA 95014

August 31, 2012 at 5:10 pm 1 comment

No Regrets In This Life: Hong Kong travels, 2012

Aaron Kwok decorates the MTR station

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

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

Weekend, Causeway Bay

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

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

Random food, Hong Kong 2012

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

Domestic workers picnicking, Victoria Park

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

Triad Simon on the hotel TV

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

POSTSCRIPT

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

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

Next up: the movies I saw, part one

March 25, 2012 at 8:04 am 4 comments

Slippin’ Into Darkness: Agneepath and The Viral Factor film reviews

Hrithik Roshan, tattered, Agneepath, 2012

A funny thing happened on the way to the multiplex last week—both of the number one movies in China and in India were playing simultaneously at Bay Area theaters. The Viral Factor, director Dante Lam’s latest actioner, and Agneepath, a remake of a classic 1990s Bollywood revenge drama, both made their way to the U.S. with day-and-date releases in the U.S. and their respective countries of origin.

Agneepath, starring the remarkably hot and handsome Bollywood star Hrithik Roshan, set a record for highest opening day grosses in India and is on its was to joining the 100 crores club, along with blockbusters like Aamir Khan’s Three Idiots and Ghajini, Shahrukh Khan’s Ra.One and Don 2, and Salman Khan’s Bodyguard and Dabangg.

The flick is an old-school vengeance story with new-school stars, including the aforementioned Hrithik, pouty-lipped former Miss World Priyanka Chopra, and hulking villain Sanjay Dutt. It also features an item number with another rising star, Katrina Kaif, who shows off her amazing articulated torso in a fast-paced dance sequence.

The original Agneepath is a cult classic in India and stars OG bad boy Amitabh Bachchan. Both the original and the remake take their title from a well-known poem written by Bachchan’s father, Harivansh Rai Bachchan, and it’s featured prominently in both films. Agneepath roughly translates as “the path of fire,” referring to persevering in the face of great struggle.

Sanjay Dutt, evil, Agneepath, 2012

In the new Agneepath the intensity is turned to up eleven for the duration as first-time director Karan Malhotra brings the high melodrama on a grand scale, including child slavery, beatings and hangings, tattooed villains both bald and hairy, machete-wielding transvestites, and a bride who gets gunned down on her wedding day. Not to mention Hrithik Roshan’s smoldering green eyes simmering with rage throughout the movie. At the plex where I watched the show with a mixed crowd of both desi and non-desi audience members, the stoned teenager in the projection booth had jacked up the theater’s volume to “deafening,” but this only suited the movie’s thundering score and accentuated the general more-ness of the storyline.

In contrast to the theatrics of the plot, Hrithik turns in a subtle, intense performance as the tortured hero bent on avenging his father’s wrongful death. Despite being astoundingly hot, as always Hrithik’s on-screen persona is fairly low-key, downplaying his tousled hair and perfect profile. He’s the dreamboat with a heart of gold who is incredibly handsome, cut and toned, yet remarkably unassuming. At the show I attended, Roshan’s first appearance thirty minutes into the movie was greeted by an elated fan calling out, “I love you, baby!” Her sentiment was quickly echoed by a happy murmur from most of the female viewers in the audience.

Producer Karan Johar’s Sirkian aesthetic is all over this one, thought it’s nominally directed by Karan Malhotra. The film’s emotional palette is completely saturated, with every scene staged for maximum dramatic effect. Yet despite the overall fever pitch, some sequences manage to stand out, including a harrowing lynching that sets the dark and violent tone of the film, and a gorgeous orange-toned set piece that takes place during the Ganesh Chaturthi festival. Malhotra makes excellent use of the festival’s spectacle, skillfully intercutting the riotously colorful celebration with a cat-and-mouse assassination attempt. The film’s sleek production values, its gorgeous and charismatic leading man, and its bloody tale of violent retribution make it a good candidate for crossover success in the U.S. and worldwide.

Nic Tse, misunderstood, The Viral Factor, 2012

The Viral Factor, China’s number one movie last week, is a horse of a slightly different color. Part intense and violent actioner, part family melodrama, and part reunification allegory, the film boasts an amazing amount of property and vehicle destruction, and copious quantities of flying bullets, sheared-off limbs, and characters leaping from high ledges. In other words, it’s a typical Dante Lam movie.

The story concerns a pair of estranged brothers, one raised in Hong Kong by his father, and one raised in China by his mother, who of course end up on opposite sides of the law. Fai, the cop, stiffly played by Taiwanese pop superstar Jay Chou, and Yeung, the thief, more energetically rendered by Hong Kong pop superstar Nicholas Tse, meet cute after Yeung busts out of police custody in Malaysia. Intertwined with their nascent reunion is a plot involving a mutant smallpox virus, corrupt cops, and a sleek English-speaking gangster clumsily played by Andy On (here billed as Andy Tien).

Jay Chou, cornered, The Viral Factor, 2012

Director Lam keeps the pace cracking throughout, starting with a blistering car chase and shootout in the streets of Jordan—clearly someone’s been watching The Hurt Locker. Yet in true Hong Kong style the action sequences, smartly choreographed by Chin Kar-lok, are interspersed with a melodramatic family subplot. The hoary cop-criminal brothers theme has a long and venerable history in Hong Kong action movies, perhaps most notably essayed by Chow Yun-Fat and Leslie Cheung in A Better Tomorrow. Here the conflict is much less dramatically rendered, in part because neither Jay Chou nor Nic Tse possess the passion, chops, or sheer charisma of either Chow or Cheung, and as such the brotherly relationship is more friendly than fraught. Tse manages to be convincing as the hotheaded criminal, despite his slight and wiry stature, but Chou doesn’t bring a lot to his role as the cop. Without much fraternal tension the familial dynamics don’t possess a huge amount of urgency, so the storyline’s resolution ultimately lacks impact.

But the action sequences more than make up for this dramatic slackness, and veteran director Lam makes excellent use of enclosed spaces full of whizzing bullets, hand grenades, and sharp objects. As with his two previous films, The Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon (both of which also star Nic Tse), all of the lead characters suffer grievous bodily harm from car wrecks, gunfire, blunt force, and other physical trauma, with each eventually sporting the facial scars that have lately become Lam’s signature. Although he handles the fancier set pieces effectively, including a helicopter chase that weaves through a dense jungle of skyscrapers, Lam seems most at home down in the mean streets of Kuala Lumpur. It’s there that the film really gains some traction, with corrupt cops and scraggly gangsters populating neon-lit outdoor food stalls not unlike those found in Lam’s native Hong Kong. Along with Herman Yau, Lam is one of the few directors in the former Crown Colony still making streetwise commercial cinema, and the success of The Viral Factor both at home and abroad will hopefully enable him to find future financing for his gritty, kinetic Hong Kong-style movies.

Bonus beats: Here’s a clip of Chikni Chameli from Agneepath with Katrina Kaif and her amazingly flexible abs. Props for lighting a match on her forearm. Also includes nice cutaways of Hrithik brooding prettily and Sanjay Dutt getting his mean on.

February 3, 2012 at 8:39 am 4 comments

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

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

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

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

Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, half-blood extraordinaire

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

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

Nick Cheung, half-man, half-beast

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

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

Francis Ng with his hair up

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

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

The glorious Simon Yam

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

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

Carina Lau, red carpet queen

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

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

Eric Tsang & eyebrows

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

Andy being Andy

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

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

Helena Law Lan in Troublesome Night 3,245

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

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

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

Roy Cheung, wicked

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

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

Zhou Xun in red

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

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

Maggie Cheung with blowout

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

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

Smart girl Evelyn Choi

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

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

Aarif Lee brings it

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

Nic Tse broods

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

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

Jing Boran does quirky, with Angelbaby

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

November 22, 2010 at 9:44 pm 10 comments

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