Posts tagged ‘hong kong’
Back in 1980s and 90s when Hong Kong cinema ruled the world, the undisputed god of acting was Chow Yun-Fat and his most renowned collaborator was the king of heroic bloodshed, John Woo. But close on Woo’s heels was his grittier, darker compatriot, Ringo Lam, who also made several classic HK crime movies starring Chow. Beginning with City on Fire and continuing through Prison On Fire 1 and 2, Wild Search, and Full Contact, Chow and Lam worked on a string of indispensible action movies that defined the crime film genre in the former Crown Colony.
But after directing eleven films from 1987-1995, many of them excellent and some of them masterpieces, Lam’s output declined—in 1997 he made a crappy Hollywood movie with Jean Claude Van Damme, then returned to Hong Kong to direct the brutal and amazing post-handover cop-and-criminal film Full Alert. But since 1997 Lam has only directed six films. So it was with much rejoicing that Hong Kong movie fanpeople reacted to the news last year that Lam was directing his first film since 2002 and was returning to Hong Kong to make it. That film, Wild City, opens this weekend in the US on a near day-and-date release with China and a month before its debut in Hong Kong.
The story concerns T-Man, a former cop who comes across a forlorn woman drinking in the bar he now owns. As with many dames in crime movies she’s nothing but trouble, and soon T-Man is embroiled in a mess, along with his hotheaded half-brother Chung, running across gangsters, thieves, crooks, and cheaters.
The movie is a throwback to Lam’s glory days and focuses on themes and situations from his classic films with Chow. Not only that but it’s set en la calle in Hong Kong and much of it is in very vernacular Cantonese. If you close your eyes you can almost imagine that it’s 1992 all over again, except that since this is the 21st century the movie stars the ubiquitous Louis Koo and half of the cast are from Taiwan or the PRC, with the dialogue littered with the unmistakable presence of Putonghua.
Like a lot of Lam’s ouevre, Wild City draws on several classic film noir tropes. Tong Liya plays the beautiful and mysterious woman with a dark past. Louis Koo is the disgraced former cop with the impulsive, loose cannon half-brother (Shawn Yue) whose nuts he repeatedly has to pull from the fire. The bad guys, led by the moody Joseph Chang (here playing against type as a Taiwanese gangster) are ruthless yet possess a strong sense of loyalty and brotherhood. The nighttime streets of Hong Kong are dark and slicked with rain and Lam’s camera roams restlessly with its characters through the city’s environs.
As with Lam’s past films, the characters are nuanced and shaded, with the good guys displaying flaws and the bad guys showing grief and remorse. Lam also includes his trademark social critique—the very first image of the film is of a Hong Kong 1000 dollar bill that dissolves into a nighttime skyline of the city. The film then cuts to a street-level view of crowds of people in the city at night, lingering on an image of a homeless woman living in a cardboard box, with Louis Koo’s voiceover stating, “We are all driven by one issue: money.” The plot turns on the rampant greed ruining the lives of the characters as well as destroying Hong Kong, and much of the narrative focuses on the looming presence of a shiny suitcase full of gold and currency, with its corrosive influence a metaphor for capitalism’s corrupt effects. The film also reflects Hong Kong’s current state of anxiety, with several characters expressing the difficulty in finding a place to call home.
No one directs an action sequence like Ringo Lam and Wild City includes a crackling car chase, violent murders, and hand-to-hand beatdowns in close quarters. There are also swaggering triads, corrupt lawyers and businessmen, and other denizens of Lam’s nocturnal Hong Kong universe that add a general sense of foreboding to the proceedings. Yet at the same time Lam allows for a glimmer of hope in the darkness, and the film’s conclusion is perhaps less dark and cynical than his past work. I wouldn’t go so far as to say that Lam has mellowed but SPOILER not everything completely goes south like it might have in his past films.
If you’ve never experienced a Ringo Lam Hong Kong movie before, now is the time. Wild City won’t stay in theaters long, so this is your chance to witness some of what made Hong Kong the center of the moviemaking universe back in the day. And if the film does well enough, Lam will be able to get financing to direct more movies and we won’t have to wait eight years for his next joint to drop.
directed by Ringo Lam
opens July 31, 2015
Century 20 Daly City
1901 Junipero Serra Blvd
Daly City, CA 94015
2200 Clement St
San Francisco, CA 94121
and selected theaters in North America
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.
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
101 Fourth St. San Francisco, CA 94103
AMC Cupertino 16
10123 N. Wolfe Road, Cupertino, CA 95014
Besides Love In The Buff and Beautiful/My Way, I also saw a few other films during my stay in Hong Kong, at both the Hong Kong International Film Festival and the Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Market (HAF). HAF is the biggest trade show in Asia for television and film distribution buying and selling, so I spent a couple days wandering the halls of the massive Hong Kong Convention Center checking out the latest product from all over Asia.
One day I caught the press conference for Painted Skin 2, where pretty male and female starlets Aloys Chen Kun and Yang Mi appeared along with director Wuershan. Wuershan’s last film, The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman, followed the psychedelic journey through time and space of a fateful meat cleaver, and which earned him the chance to direct PS2, which comes out this summer. The presser was all in Mandarin so I didn’t catch any of the fluff, but the trailer looks pretty fun and the costumes and art direction promise to be as fantastical as Wuershan’s last movie. I’m afraid that I didn’t recognize Yang Mi as one of the stars of Love In The Buff, which I’d just seen the day before, in part because she’s so generic looking. I didn’t stick around for the press conference for The Bullet Vanishes, even with the lure of the possible appearance of star Lau Ching-Wan, but apparently only Jaycee Chan, Yang Mi, and a couple other starlets were in attendance so I don’t think I missed much. On my way out I came across a random TVB press conference with yet more starlets, this time in period dress, promoting an indeterminate historical drama.
HAF and HKIFF both screened a slew of movies that have yet to see release in the U.S., so I tried to catch as many of those as I could. Himizu, Sion Sono’s new movie, is a hot mess, yet at times it’s also visionary in its extreme and unflinching critique of the human condition. The film uses post-tsunami Fukashima as a metaphor for the decline of humanity, as seen through the eyes of hapless teen Sumida and his admirer, fellow child-abuse survivor Chazawa. Sumida is the forlorn son of an abusive gambler and a neglectful mother who run a crappy boathouse on the outskirts of town. Enduring several beatdowns from his useless dad, the loan sharks chasing him, and various random gangsters, Sumida eventually takes matters into his own hands, with the help of Chazawa, the rich girl crushing on him who’s also got some weird family issues. Though overly long and in desperate need of a more disciplined narrative structure, the film is nonetheless engaging and in several scenes quite gripping. Shota Sometani and Fumi Nikaidou are very good as the oppressed teens, with Sometani in particular bringing a fierce intensity to his role as the beaten-down yet not defeated protagonist who struggles to find a moral center.
The Second Woman, Carol Lai’s thriller, stars Shawn Yue and Shu Qi as Nan and Bao, two lovers who perform together in Chinese theater troupe. Their relationship is complicated by the presence of Bao’s identical twin Hui Xiang, who is also a wannabe actress. When Hui Xiang secretly subs for Bao during a performance the hijinks ensue. The Second Woman clearly aims to replicate the backstage psychological drama of The Black Swan in its use of the theatrical milieu and its Freudian (or is it Jungian?) identity confusion. It’s a handsome and expensive-looking production but all too often relies on really loud and sharp blasts of music, dark objects suddenly falling from offscreen, and other hoary cinematic devices to provoke the viewer’s jumpiness factor, rather than truly creepy or frightening events. It doesn’t help that Shu Qi’s twin characters don’t have a lot of distinguishing features, with the exact same hairstyle, wardrobe, and facial expressions. As the fulcrum of the love triangle Shawn Yue doesn’t have much of the charm that he exhibited in Pang Ho-Cheung’s Love In A Puff/The Buff. The movie is a tepid attempt at psychodrama that the lacks narrative tension or engaging characters that would give the film some force.
I had high hopes for The Great Magician, since it was directed by Hong Kong stalwart Derek Yee (Lost In Time; C’est La Vie, Mon Cherie: One Nite In Mongkok) and stars the A-list cast of Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Lau Ching-Wan, and Zhou Xun. The film is set in the 1920s during the Republican Era in China and has high-tone production values and art design by Oscar-nominated Chung Man-yee. It’s a glossy picture with all kinds of talent and an interesting premise, but in the end it falls flat, suffering from an inability to maintain a consistent filmic tone (is is a comedy? a romance? a satire? an action movie?).
The movie also feels about thirty minutes too long, and here again I must lament the decline of the 90-minute Hong Kong action movie. When Hong Kong directors worked within an hour and a half running time they finely tuned their narrative structures to cram the story and action into that rapid-fire time length. Now that Chinese-language films have begun to creep toward the 2-hour mark it seems like many Hong Kong productions start to tread water around the 45-minute mark in order to fill up the screen time, to the detriment of pacing and action and without compensating by more advanced character development. Such is the unfortunate case in The Great Magician–if the movie had been tightened up by 25% the flaws in its execution might have been reduced by the sheer energy of its breakneck pace (which has many times been the case in even the most celebrated Hong Kong films). Here the unforgiving two-hour run time stretches the unfocused storyline and the movie’s mugging and sight gags start to repeat themselves, ending up in a flaccid, badly paced, expensive looking spectacle. There’s no excuse for an action comedy starring Little Tony, Lau Ching-Wan, and Zhou Xun putting me to sleep, which this film did, which is a criminal waste of underused talent.
If I’d been able to I could have easily seen many more films than these at HAF and the film festival, but since my visit was limited to a week I felt like I should spend some time outside in the sunshine instead of lingering in darkened rooms all day. Clearly I underestimated by not booking many more days (or weeks!) in Hong Kong, but alas, my responsibilities in the U.S. called me back home. Here’s hoping for another, longer trip some time in the near future.
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.
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).
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.
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.
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.
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
This weekend the San Francisco Film Society presents Hong Kong Cinema, the first of two Chinese-language film festivals, which runs for three days with seven films from the former Crown Colony. Although it doesn’t include any blockbusters, the brief festival runs the gamut from romantic comedies to crime films to melodramas and is a good look at the range of films coming out of Hong Kong these days. Herewith are a few of the films included in the series.
A sleek, economical crime film that’s actually a family drama in disguise, Punished is produced by Johnnie To and directed by Law Wing Cheong, To’s editor and frequent second unit director. The story moves along at a brisk and efficient pace, emphasizing the dysfunctional family relationships behind the kidnapping drama.
Anthony Wong is outstanding as Wong Ho-chiu, a ruthless and powerful businessman seeking vengeance for his errant daughter’s kidnapping and death–his performance is subtle and explosive and as usual he can do no wrong. Richie Jen is also excellent as Anthony Wong’s bodyguard and hatchet man with his own family issues to deal with. Supporting performances are uniformly strong and the mood is mostly realistic throughout–the bad guys aren’t too bad and the good guys aren’t too good, so the film possesses a great deal of moral complexity. Each person has a motivation for his or her actions, justified or not, and no one is completely evil or completely good.
In the end, it’s a mother-daughter relationship that’s the catalyst for the resolution of Wong’s moral crisis. As with the best Hong Kong films the movie is also unafraid to tap into the characters’ deep emotional responses–men cry, women swoon, and children weep unashamedly. Director Law keeps things pretty straightforward, with none of the annoying quirks of fellow Milkywayer Wai Ka-Fei. The film makes intelligent connections between the corruption of big business, damaged family dynamics, and immoral criminal activity.
Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart
An adequate rom-com that attempts to capture the uber-success of early 2000s Johnnie To flicks Needing You and Love on A Diet, Don’t Go Breakin’ My Heart stars Louis Koo, Gao Yuan Yuan, and Daniel Wu in a love story set in Hong Kong and China. The three play young urban professionals, with Gao unable to decide between playboy Koo and nice guy Wu.
Gao’s dilemma becomes tedious pretty quickly since Louis Koo’s character is so clearly a womanizing asshole. It’s hard to understand what she sees in him, especially with the charming and sensitive Daniel Wu also courting her. But the plot demands a love triangle so the audience must suffer through her indecision for nearly two hours (whatever happened to the excellent concept of the 90-minute Hong Kong movie?) while she dithers between her two beaus. Director To even cribs from his own most successful romantic comedy, Needing You, by using the device of would-be lovers communicating the movie’s catchphrase by signage. There’s some clever usage of messages pasted on office building windows but even that seems awfully contrived by the end of the movie. Though both are cute and dimply, Gao and Koo never seem to really spark–Gao and Wu’s chemistry is better, with Wu nicely conveying a sense of romantic longing. Gao lacks the manic goofiness and exquisite comic timing of To’s usual rom-com muse Sammi Cheng and Louis Koo just isn’t charming enough to warrant Gao’s long-term fascination. Daniel Wu is very sweet as the long-suffering third party but he doesn’t have much character development except his ongoing dedication to a neon green frog. But as rom-coms go, this one is serviceable, with three good-looking and well-dressed lead actors amidst the glamorous backdrop of Hong Kong’s skyscrapers.
Though it looks great, with beautiful, rich cinematography and art direction, Merry-Go-Round, (dirs. Yan Yan Mak and Clement Cheng) is just a bit too long and a bit too dependent on coincidence to be completely effective. Ella Koon and Nora Miao play two Hong Kong ex-pats living in San Francisco who return to the former Crown Colony after long absences. Koon’s character is a young bohemian with a hidden past, and Miao’s is a master herbalist who left Hong Kong to follow her bliss in the United States. Their lives converge in somewhat forced circumstances– the film’s narrative links its many characters with overly convenient plot twists.
Merry-Go-Round takes a light but serious look at death, loss, and separation. The film uses the idea of returning home as a metaphor for going back, not forward, in life, with several characters attempting to make amends for past misjudgments or dealing with the results of long-gone choices. It also makes some nice points about the advantages of moving on with life instead of dwelling on past traumas, with one character wistfully telling another, “I would have forgotten long ago but you keep reminding me.”
Teddy Robin, who won Best Actor for Gallants (also directed by Clement Chang) at last year’s Hong Kong Film Awards, is very effective as the lovelorn manager of the coffin home/mortuary where Koon ends up working. Also excellent is Nora Miao as the imperious herbalist who so long ago followed her fate to the U.S. But the time structure of the film seems a little skewed–if some of the characters were young adults in 1938, that means that they would be in their nineties now, and the actors playing them in the modern-day sequences seem much too young to be nonegenarians.
Despite its handsomely mounted production design, Merry-Go-Round’s storyline is a bit too unfocused to be completely convincing. But it’s nice to see a Hong Kong film that’s a serious drama instead of the martial arts/triad/comedy flicks that the city’s film industry usually puts out.
Echoes of the Rainbow
A charming family drama set in 1960s Hong Kong, this melodrama by Hong Kong New Wave director Alex Law stars Buzz Chung Shiu-Tiu as Big Ears, a young boy whose shoemaker father, his mother and his older brother strive to make an honest living making and selling shoes in their working-class neighborhood. Though a bit soft around the edges, the film is best when it illustrates the community neighborliness found amongst the residents of the street. One pleasant moment occurs when Big Ear’s family takes its nightly meal out to the street behind their house to eat on a homemade dinner table built on top of a tree stump. They’re joined by the rest of their neighbors who are also dining al fresco, presumably to escape the heat of their small, non-airconditioned houses. This small but engaging scene underscores the sense of belonging, safety, and comfort found in an earlier, less hectic time and place.
The film also makes cogent point in its examination of class differences between Desmond (Aarif Lee) and his girlfriend Flora (Evelyn Choi). In one scene Desmond walks for a very long time from his humble street to visit Flora, eventually arriving at the toniest neighborhood in town. The length of his journey and his awkwardness and discomfort in such rarefied surroundings contrasts nicely with the sense of ease and belonging he feels in his own neighborhood and underscores the great gulf in social status between himself and his wealthier sweetheart.
Simon Yam and Sandra Ng are excellent as the cobbler and his wife, and Buzz Chung is endearing without being saccharine. Aarif Lee is suitably modest despite his blazing hotness and Evelyn Choi is sweet and charming as his love interest. Eventually the film succumbs to extreme melodrama but it still remains a lovely rendering of a more innocent time in Hong Kong history.
Mr. and Mrs. Incredible
A period piece directed by Vincent Kok, the sometime collaborator of king of comedy Stephen Chiao, this superhero comedy feels a lot like a Lunar New Year film, with its wacky concept, broad humor, slapdash production design, and lead performances by popular stars Louis Koo and Sandra Ng. Koo and Ng play a married couple who are also the retired superheroes formerly known as Gazer Warrior and Aroma Woman (both excellent superhero names). The two erstwhile heroes have renounced adventuring and have settled down incognito in a quiet village where they run a pork bun shop. Their attempt to start a family and to live anonymously in peace is interrupted by a martial arts contest, a life-force sucking villain, and other outlandish circumstances.
Goofy and mild, with humorous banter between its amiable co-stars, the film is a bit talkier than you’d expect from a movie about costumed heroes. It’s carried by the charming performances of Koo and Ng, who are unafraid of looking ridiculous and whose good-natured interplay makes the film an innocuous and pleasant timepass.
Also screening: Redoubtable auteur Ann Hui’s All About Love, a lesbian love story starring Sandra Ng and Vivian Chow, and Benny Chan’s City Under Siege, an action film that involves toxic waste, mutants, circus performers, and other everyday Hong Kong denizens, starring Aaron Kwok and Shu Qi, with production design by the legendary William Chang Suk-Ping (In the Mood for Love, Rouge, 2046).
Hong Kong Cinema
Sept. 23-25, 2011
San Francisco Film Society New People Cinema
1746 Post Street, San Francisco
For those of us lucky enough to be in the Bay Area, San Francisco is going to be an epicenter of theatrical Chinese-language film screenings as in the next couple months we are about to get slammed by a profusion of movies from Hong Kong, China, and Taiwan. Two film festivals plus several open-run screenings will be taking place in the last part of 2011, giving us sinophile film otaku many chances to partake of our favorite addiction on the big screen. In fact, there are so many Chinese-language movies playing in the next couple months that this is the first of at least three posts on the subject, with upcoming entries on two more movies from Hong Kong and China next week, as well as two film festivals sponsored by the San Francisco Film Society (SFFS) respectively focusing on Hong Kong and Taiwan.
With China’s increasing financial clout and the subsequent meteoric rise in the Chinese film industry (64 percent growth last year, to US$1.6 billion; 526 films produced in 2010, up 15%; and 6,000 new cinemas planned for next year) we are witnessing a new era of Chinese-language films. For better or worse the Chinese film industry has grown exponentially in the past decade and with the inexorable integration of the finest talents from the Hong Kong film industry, Chinese cinema has evolved from the arthouse-oriented political allegories of the 20th century to highly accessible commercial fare like the three films releasing this week. Shaolin, My Kingdom and Love In Space, opening in the U.S. on Sept. 9, represent the new paradigm of Chinese filmmaking and their appearance in U.S. theaters, along with and other upcoming Hong Kong and Chinese releases, heralds a trend toward increased Chinese theatrical releases in this country. These three recent Chinese-language films, one from Hong Kong and two from mainland China, also reflect the trend toward Hong Kong-China co-productions, as all three are cross-pollinated projects with talent both from Hong Kong and “the North.”
Now playing at the Four-Star Theater (and also playing at the San Francisco Film Society’s New People theater on Sept. 28-29) is Shaolin, director Benny Chan’s historical martial arts film involving warlords, monks, and lots of kung fu. Shaolin is an exhilarating big-budget spectacle that captures a lot of the fun of classic 1990s HK moviemaking—although the producers claim the movie is a tribute to Jet Li’s debut film from 1986, the storyline doesn’t have a lot to do with that old-school kung fu classic, aside from having a cadre of righteous, kick-ass monks defending the honor of the legendary martial arts stomping ground. This Shaolin is set in the Republican era of the early 20th century when ruthless warlords duked it out for domination of their various fiefdoms. Superstar (and my favorite Heavenly King) Andy Lau ably anchors the film as an ambitious warlord who tragically learns the error of his ways. He’s aging beautifully, and that aquiline nose and perfect jawline look as photogenic now as they did twenty-five years ago. Nicholas Tse as Andy’s adversary is a bit less effective, overacting his way through his villainous role decked out in shiny black boots and an evil sneer. Wu Jing leads a group of crack martial artists as awesome Shaolin monks defending their sacred turf. Jackie Chan’s supporting role as the temple cook provides him a fun little fight scene, as Chan uses woks, cleavers, and other kitchen implements to showcase his trademark comic kung fu style.
Also outstanding is Cory Yuen’s fantastic action choreography, which includes a furious fight on wheels during a nighttime horse and carriage chase through the city as well as excellent hand-to-hand martial arts with bad-ass monks showing off their mad skilz, armed only with wooden staffs or their bare hands against rifle-carrying bad guys. As with many Chinese co-productions these days there are also the obligatory sadistic European actors maniacally giggling their way through senseless destruction. Fan Bing Bing (not to be confused with Li Bing Bing) is effective as Andy Lau’s wife, though she mostly just bats her eyes and weeps.
The film’s scenery, art direction, and cinematography are all top-notch–if this is the future of Hong Kong films then I’m all for it. Veteran HK director Benny Chan does a great job scaling up and the movie blends the big-budget production values of recent mainland films with the heart and emotion of Hong Kong movies.
Two other films from China also open up Stateside today from distributor China Lion, which has been putting out series of monthly day-and-date releases of Chinese commercial films. The lineup has been a somewhat random and diverse slate of pics including 3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy (officially banned in China but a massive hit in Hong Kong), the weepy Shu Qi/Liu Ye melodrama A Beautiful Life, and the Chinese Communist Party epic Beginning of the Great Revival.
Its release postponed a month due to the success of 3D Sex & Zen, My Kingdom is an action melodrama played out against the backdrop of classical Chinese opera. The film has the typically high production values of current commercial Chinese films and nicely recreates 1920s Shanghai, with great art direction and cinematography. But the 90-minute movie is very slight in comparison with the big kahuna of Chinese opera movies, Chen Kaige’s Farewell My Concubine. While Chen’s film was a vast, emotionally wrenching epic writ large across twentieth-century Chinese history, My Kingdom focuses on a much smaller story of love, revenge, and opera.
The movie also suffers from the callowness of its lead performers, with Sinopop idols Wu Chun and Han Geng cast as Yi-Long and Er-Kui, sworn brothers trained as “opera warriors.” Although Wu occasionally works up to a good smolder, the wide-eyed Han seems a bit overwhelmed by his role and never really seems like a man consumed by a desire for vengeance. Barbie Hsu is adequate as the opera troupe’s lead actress but she’s not convincing as a diva, much less one desired by most of the male cast. The three leads also are less than stellar in their opera performances, and the choreography in some of these scenes is also pretty uninspired. The exception is when the fabulous Yuen Biao, one of Jackie Chan’s “brothers,” shows up at the beginning of the movie in a brief role as the Yi-Long and Er-Kui’s sifu. Both his acting and his footwork demonstrate Yuen’s genuine Chinese opera training, and showcase “big brother” Sammo Hung and Chin Kar-lok’s fluid and efficient action choreography.
The film’s producers were clearly aiming for the youth market, but the singers cast here are not quite up to the task of driving the emotional, convoluted plotline. Especially miscast is the floppy-haired actor who plays a scheming policeman–the actor looks about 22 years old and his haircut seems to be channeling Justin Bieber. However, the movie is an interesting example of the ongoing integration of Hong Kong and mainland Chinese commercial film productions, with Hong Kong stalwarts such as Yuen and Hung teaming up with their younger mainland co-stars.
Also from China Lion is Love In Space, the only modern-day film of the three on the docket this week. Love In Space follows the romantic adventures of three sisters, an actress, an artist, and, yes, an astronaut, in Bejing, Sydney, and orbiting around the planet. This fun and fanciful little film reflects co-director Wing Shya’s whimsical fashion photography–it also stars a slew of pop stars (including three generations of male idols–Aaron Kwok, Eason Chan, and Jing Boran) who are put to better effect than their compatriots in My Kingdom.
Most effective are Cantopop king Eason Chan and Guey Lun-Mei (who kicked ass in Dante Lam’s crime thriller The Stool Pigeon) who play a garbageman and his germ-phobic love interest. Both Chan and Guey have mobile, expressive faces and excellent comic timing, and their story is the most fun and engaging to follow. Also good, though a bit more twee, are Angelbaby and Jing Boran as a movie-star-in-hiding and her spunky, watermelon-selling suitor. Oddly enough, the least compelling story features Rene Liu and Heavenly King Aaron Kwok as estranged lovers working together on a space station. The space-station set and the constantly revolving camerawork suggest a rom-com Solaris, and the soundtrack even features The Blue Danube waltz from Stanley Kubrick’s 2001: A Space Odyssey, but the storyline is predictable and Liu and Kwok’s performances are unconvincing. However, the movie as a whole is a delightful confection and a far cry from the dour political allegories of Chinese filmmakers from the 20th century.
Next week will find Indomina Pictures continued U.S. rollout of Tsui Hark’s blockbuster Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, as well as the World War II drama The City of Life and Death. Relativity Media also recently announced a deal with SAIF Partners and IDG China Media to produce and distribute Chinese films for the international market. With more product comes the need for more consumers and, although the billion-person Chinese market is a good start, the Chinese film industry sees more income ripe for the picking in the international market. As an Asian film aficionado I see no reason to complain–seeing movies on the big screen beats torrenting any day. It will also be interesting to see how the demands of the international market further affect the look and feel of Chinese cinema in the 21st century.
4 Star Theater
2200 Clement Street
NOTE: live perfomance by Shaolin monks, Friday, Sept. 9, 8p, free
Love in Space and My Kingdom
AMC Loews Metreon
16101 Fourth Street
San Francisco, CA 94103
AMC Cupertino Square 16
10123 North Wolfe Road
Cupertino, CA 95014