Posts tagged ‘hong kong’

Forever Waiting: SFFILM’s Hong Kong Cinema series

Full circle, Tracey, 2018

SFFILM’s annual Hong Kong cinema series happened this weekend and it’s a really interesting look at the state of the territory’s movie industry today. Included were the edgy neo-noir G-Affairs, the character-driven feel-good sports movie Men on the Dragon, and Pang Ho-Cheung’s irreverent Lunar New Year quickie Miss Behavior, among a selection of other films.

This year’s series was held at the Roxie Theater in the Mission and for me it was full circle since I saw my very first of many many Hong Kong movies, A Chinese Ghost Story, at the Roxie on the big screen back in the late 1980s. But the Hong Kong movie world has changed immeasurably from 1986 to 2019 and those changes are reflected in the programming at this year’s Hong Kong cinema series.

Although Hong Kong cinema has had its share of ups and downs since its heyday in the 1990s, ironically that may have led more opportunities for creative exploration. Though the high-powered star system might no longer exist there are still great films being made that go beyond Hong Kong’s iconic crime film, wuxia, and martial arts genres. This year’s showcase is perhaps indicative of a renaissance in Hong Kong’s filmmaking community that is less about glitzy commercial films and more about developing a healthy independent film scene. This is especially true since co-productions with China are so heavily controlled by the PRC’s censorship board. Though there may be less money for non-co-productions that focus on the local Hong Kong audience, in some ways these films are a truer reflection of Hong Kong’s distinctive cultural milieu and it’s good to see younger filmmakers leading the way.

Sensitive, Tracey, 2018

Jun Li’s Tracey follows the story of a middle-aged man who comes out to his friends and family about being transgender. The movie sensitively explores the topic and is driven by outstanding performances by veteran actors Philip Keung as Tai-hung/Tracey and Kara Wai as Anne, his stricken wife. Keung is excellent as the transperson who is finally realizing she can become who she really is. I’ve always liked Keung as one of Hong Kong’s stalwart character actors but he’s really next level in Tracey, with his sensitive and mobile face expressing a world of hurt and wonder. Wai likewise sketches a complex portrayal of a character that in lesser hands could have easily been one-dimensional and the two of these powerhouse actors are at their best when in their intense scenes together. Wai also has nice moments with Ng Siu Hin (Mad World; Ten Years) as Tai-hung and Anne’s son, a young man who ostensibly advocates for sexual freedom and understanding but who has to confront his own biases when the abstract becomes concrete in his own father’s situation.

The film is somewhat episodic and it sometimes feels like first-time feature film director Li is hoping to cram a lot of ideas into a two-hour film. But his ambitious debut speaks to a thoughtful and restless creativity that wants to say a lot, which in less sensitive and sympathetic hands might have been a simplified, dumbed down, or sensationalized film.

Agency, The Lady Improper, 2018

Jessey Tsang’s The Lady Improper looks at questions of female sexuality, agency, and control. Lead performer Charlene Choi got her start as one half of the mega-superstar singing duo The Twins but she’s since become one of Hong Kong’s most reliable leading ladies in her selection of challenging and complex roles. In The Lady Improper she again has chosen a film that pushes boundaries as Choi plays Siu Man, an unhappily married woman who takes control of her unsatisfying life

Throughout the film director Tsang emphasizes the importance of Siu Man taking charge of her life, as opposed to letting others control her. She stands up to family criticisms, changes her career path, addresses her insecurities about physical intimacy, and ultimately decides how her life should be. In this way Tsang’s perspective as a female filmmaker is clear, as she portrays the answers to her protagonist’s dilemmas as reliant on Siu Man, not on outside forces. The film’s depiction of Siu Man’s empowerment is deeply feminist in its insistence on the importance of women deciding for themselves the path their lives will take.

Elliptical, Long Day’s Journey Into Night, 2017

CODA: though not a Hong Kong film, I capped off my weekend by seeing Long Day’s Journey Into Night (Bi Gan, 2017). The film was in limited release here in the States a few months ago but I was in editing hell and missed it, so I was glad for the chance to see it on the big screen and in 3D at the venerable Castro Theater here in San Francisco. Suffice to say that the film didn’t disappoint in its surreal portrayal of a brooding man searching for a mysterious woman, which is of course a classic noir theme. Here director Bi puts a decidedly Chinese spin on it, locating the story in Kaili City, located in the landlocked and somewhat economically depressed southeastern province of Guizhou. Bi uses local dialect, a gorgeous lighting design, and an elliptical narrative structure to suggest the ennui and dislocation of his characters. The film concludes with an outstanding 59-minute-long single-take unedited shot, screened at the Castro in 3D, that may or may not be a dream sequence and that includes cow skulls, ping pong, spooked horses, characters flying, and fireworks among many other amazing images that combine to evoke an altered state. The sequence is totally rad and totally breathtaking. I’m so glad I got to see this in a proper cinema and not on my laptop or on the back of an airplane seat.

CODA2: Hong Kong stalwart Herman Yau’s latest action movie The White Storm 2: Drug Lords is also playing at my multiplex this weekend so I’m going to try to see it too. Way to round off a great weekend of movie-watching!

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July 15, 2019 at 9:40 pm Leave a comment

Marry The Night: 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival

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Stylized, A Dog Barking At The Moon, 2019

NOTE: Because of the crunch of completing Love Boat: Taiwan for the past six months or so I’m very behind on my postings here. Starting with this entry I’m going to try to catch up as best I can with the backlog, so apologies for the anachronistic timings.

This past March I took my first trip back to Hong Kong in nearly two years, after I spent last year dealing with a life-threatening illness, for the 43rd Hong Kong International Film Festival. Because this year there were no weekday matinee screenings, with programming most days beginning after 6pm, my screening schedule was somewhat less frenetic than in past years, but I still saw many great movies in just under a week of viewing. In no particular order here are some of the films I caught.

 

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Sharper, G-Affairs, 2019

G-Affairs (2019), Lee Cheuk-pan’s directorial debut, is an interesting amalgamation of styles and tropes from past and present Hong Kong cinema, but with a sharper edge than many recent commercial films from the territory. Sex, crime, violence, and corruption permeate the proceedings as this bleak and nihilistic view of Hong Kong society follows several characters including a corrupt cop (Chapman To), a world-weary prostitute (Huang Lu), and a troubled teenaged student (Hanna Chan) whose teacher sexually exploits her. The film implicates those with power and authority who continually fail the younger characters, suggesting the betrayal of Hong Kong’s youthful dreams in the decades following the 1997 handover.

 

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Backstage, First Night Nerves, 2019

A completely different sort of Hong Kong movie, Stanley Kwan’s First Night Nerves (2019) is an excellent example of what used to be called a women’s film, with a female-centric plot and strong women characters. Sleek and assured, Kwan’s backstage drama, his first feature film in nearly a decade, stars Cantopop divas Sammi Cheng and Gigi Lai as rival actresses. The film includes clever dialogue that references the tensions between Hong Kong and China and harkens back to the heyday of 1990s Hong Kong cinema.

 

EverybodyKnows

Complex, Everybody Knows, 2019

Everybody Knows (2019), Asghar Farhadi’s latest joint, is as usual full of moral ambiguity and complexity but a bit more plotty than his other films, including his Oscar-winners A Separation and The Salesman. A family reunion at a wedding in Spain dredges up past secrets and unresolved conflicts that come to a head when the daughter of one of the attendees is kidnapped. As usual Farhadi creates finely drawn, complex and ambiguous characters full of flaws and virtues, and draws out excellent performances from his cast, most notably the outstanding turn by Javier Bardim. His co-star and fellow international star Penelope Cruz is also good, although at times a bit too florid in her rendering of a mother desperately seeking her disappeared daughter. The screening I attended at HKIFF proved why seeing movies in a theater will always be superior to watching them online as the audience was totally into the film and gasped and laughed at the plot twists and reveals, thus enacting that ineffable cinema viewing experience.

 

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Iconic, Barber Takes a Wife, 1947

The festival also featured a clutch of four restored films starring the iconic Shanghainese actress Li Lihua. I was able to catch two of them including Barber Takes a Wife, a beautiful and charming screwball comedy from 1947. Full of snappy clothes and snappy dialog, led by the queen of the arched eyebrow Li Lihua, who is vivacious and charismatic, the film reflects the sheen and sophistication of pre-revolution Shanghai.  In contrast, Bright Day (dir. Cao Yu, 1948) is full of social realism. There’s a bit too much exposition at the start but the movie eventually resolves itself well. Li is not quite as radiant as in Barber Takes a Wife but she is nonetheless lively and engaging. Director Cao’s background was in theater and the film is somewhat less cinematic than it could be, though there are flashes that are more filmic in the use of camera, lighting, and editing.

 

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Pranking, Hidden Man, 2018

After my viewing of Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man (2018) at the film festival I thought it was a mess of a movie and I feel asleep despite (maybe because of) the film’s overblown action and hyperactive structure? Eddie Peng plays a similar role as Lee Byung-Hun in the Korean drama Mr. Sunshine, a returning expat who fled to the US as a child to escape violence and who is on a mission to avenge the deaths of those close to him. But I thought that Hidden Man never found its focus and jumped maniacally from person to place to topic, and that the characters were shallowly drawn. I also thought that the anachronistic cultural references and puns seemed forced and overly smirky.

But although I didn’t love this film the first time I saw it, on the recommendation of Ross Chen from lovehkfilm.com I watched it again on the plane ride back home from Hong Kong. Somehow it was better the second time around once I realized that Jiang Wen is a big joker who is pranking his audience throughout the movie. Some of the action choreography is quite good too and Eddie Peng looks good with his shirt off. And the way the film casually kills off major characters is very interesting, as if Jiang is making a mockery of the viewer’s suspension of disbelief.

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Vulnerable, Eight Taels of Gold, 1989

The festival also included a focus on the legendary Hong Kong actor, producer, director, and action choreographer Sammo Hung, who is probably most famous for his collaborations with his “brothers” Jackie Chan and Yuen Biao in classic martial arts films such as The Prodigal Son, Wheels On Meals, and Project A. I caught his starring turn in Mabel Cheung’s bittersweet drama Eight Taels of Gold (1989), which is really the best movie ever. Touching, vulnerable, and beautifully directed by Cheung, the film showcases Sammo’s acting chops as he plays a Chinese expat who’s spent many years in the US whose relationship with his cousin (Sylvia Chang) becomes complicated when he accompanies her to her wedding in their home village in China. Poignant, emotional, and humanistic, the film focuses on different side of Hung that contrasts with his more familiar comedic martial arts/action persona.

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Bold, A Dog Barking At The Moon, 2019

Xiang Zi’s debut feature, A Dog Barking At The Moon (2019) is a stylized film that also has strong characters and an interesting plotline about a Chinese woman returning home to her dysfunctional family. Zi makes some bold stylistic choices, including theatrical interludes and overly mannered camera placements, and for the most part they work as they are self-conscious without being distracting. However, the narrative is very full and includes repressed sexual longing, homophobia, and cult indoctrinations, among other angsty developments. But the mother’s attraction to the cult and her ultimate motivations are believable and the Zi’s risky directorial decisions work more often than they don’t.

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Conventional, A Long Goodbye, 2019

A Long Goodbye (2019), a family melodrama from Japan, is stylistically the opposite of A Dog Barking At The Moon. Director Nakano Ryota’s film, which follows a family as its patriarch gradually succumbs to Alzheimer’s disease, is conventionally presented and relies on strong acting and invisible direction for its impact. Leaning towards tearjerker, it skates close to melodrama without actually fully falling into the abyss.

vardabyagnes

Groundbreaking,Varda by Agnes, 2019

Fittingly, the last film I saw at this year’s festival was Varda by Agnes (2019), which was a brilliant and prescient elegy to the groundbreaking nouvelle vague filmmaker wherein Varda herself looks back on her long and storied career. As well as being a noted director Varda was also an accomplished photographer and visual artist—later in life she worked in multi-channel media installations. I saw this a day after Varda’s death and it was an outstanding self-tribute that provided a fascinating look into the director’s creative process.

Postscript: As I write this in June 2019 the people of Hong Kong have been protesting and demonstrating against a draconian extradition law that may be a turning point in the territory’s relationship with its overlords in Beijing. Will Hong Kong be able to maintain its “one country, two systems” existence, which has already been severely diminished, or will Beijing further erode the civil liberties of the restive region? As the hundreds of thousands of people who have taken to the streets in the past couple weeks have proven, Hong Kong isn’t going down without a fight.

June 15, 2019 at 5:29 am Leave a comment

Addicted To Chaos: Ringo Lam’s Wild City film review

Louis Koo and pistol, Wild City, 2015

Louis Koo and pistol, Wild City, 2015

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.

Running, Wild City, 2015

Running, Wild City, 2015

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.

Pile-up, WIld City, 2015

Pile-up, WIld City, 2015

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.

Wild City

directed by Ringo Lam

opens July 31, 2015

Century 20 Daly City

1901 Junipero Serra Blvd

Daly City, CA 94015

Four Star

2200 Clement St

San Francisco, CA 94121

and selected theaters in North America

July 31, 2015 at 6:21 am 1 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

Night and Day: More Hong Kong International Film Festival

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Teen nihilism, Himizu, Sion Sono, 2012

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.

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Starlets r us, Hong Kong Asian Film Financing Forum, 2012

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.

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It’s rainin’ today, Himizu, Sion Sono, 2012

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.

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Shu Qi, jungian, The Second Woman, 2012

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.

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Little Tony & Lau Ching-Wan, disappointing, The Great Magician, Derek Yee, 2012

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.

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Zhou Xun, decorative, The Great Magician, Derek Yee, 2012

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.

June 12, 2012 at 11:20 pm 3 comments

Between Love & Hate: Love In The Buff and Marrying Mr. Perfect film reviews

Cherie & Jimmy living it up, Love In The Buff, 2012

Two romantic comedies that I saw on my trip to Hong Kong radically demonstrate two different aspects of popular Hong Kong movies today, and are possible indicators of the fate of the local film scene. Although once upon a time loyal Hong Kong audiences ardently supported local film productions, in the past ten or fifteen years interlopers first from Hollywood and now mainland China have been chipping away at the once indomitable Hong Kong film industry.

Pang Ho-Cheung’s Love in the Buff, the sequel to his 2010 film Love in a Puff, is a funny, smart flick that picks up shortly after the first film ends. The first film perfectly captured the irreverent lifestyle and language of young adults in Hong Kong and the sequel continues in the same vein. Instead of locating itself smack dab in the middle of Hong Kong’s young urban professional milieu, the film is set both in Hong Kong and Beijing, probably due co-production regulations as well as an attempt to appeal to the massive mainland Chinese audience. Yet despite the change in locale, the movie retains the kicky, profane humor that was so fun in the original. This is due in part to strong performances throughout the film as well as Pang’s clever script and sharp eye for the sleek yet realistic urban landscapes of the two cities.

Luv 'n' hate, with watermelon, Love In The Buff, 2012

In the sequel, protagonists Jimmy and Cherie face more difficulties in their romantic relationship, as they split up at the beginning of the movie (no spoiler here as it happens pretty early on). Both individually end up in Beijing as they follow their jobs to China’s capital city, and both begin new relationships there, but despite their best efforts they can’t seem to keep away from each other. Pang’s script arranges for a few key supporting Hong Kong characters to travel there with them so that the salty vernacular and attitude of the first movie remains intact. Miriam Yeung as Cherie is particularly outstanding as the foul-mouthed city girl stuck on Shawn Yue’s childlike Jimmy. There are also some extremely funny cameos that cannot be revealed without spoiling the fun but suffice to say that they’re cleverly utilized. One in particular resolves the storyline of ugly duckling Brenda (June Lam Siu-Ha) from Love In A Puff in an especially hilarious yet surprisingly heartwarming way.

Pang does a great job capturing the passionate and illogical attraction between Jimmy and Cherie, and places his main characters in a groovy contemporary milieu, surrounding them with fun and interesting supporting characters. It’s no wonder the movie has been going like gangbusters at the local box office, as its portrayal of contemporary Hong Kongers is flattering and appealing. In its opening weekend in Hong Kong Love In The Buff has grossed more than HK$5 million, making it a bona fide hit, and it opened here in the U.S. this weekend to positive reviews across the board.

Awwwww! Ronald Cheng & Gigi Leung, Marrying Mr. Perfect, 2012

On the flipside, while I was in Hong Kong I saw Wong Jing’s latest comic effort, Marrying Mr. Perfect, which stars Ronald Cheng, Gigi Leung, Chapman To, Eric Tsang, and Sandra Ng. With a cast like that it seems like the movie couldn’t help but be pretty funny but alas it was a fairly tepid and formulaic affair, with mistaken identities, catty office politics, and other contrivances making up most of the dumb storyline. All of the above actors have comic chops to spare but here they have to strain for laughs against the idiotic and derivative script. Apparently Wong Jing has lined up some hefty mainland China co-production financing for his next film projects, but if this is the future of Hong Kong filmmaking then things are looking pretty bleak.

I saw Marrying Mr. Perfect at a Sunday afternoon show with a bunch of local Hong Kong movie fans including bloggers and podcasters Paul Fox, Sean Tierney and Glenn Griffith, Ross (Kozo) Chen and Kevin Ma from lovehkfilm.com, and film programmer and writer Tim Youngs, on one of their weekly jaunts to see the latest Hong Kong releases. Afterwards we all spent teatime at the downmarket food court in the otherwise ultra-posh Elements mall and commiserated about the sorry state of Hong Kong films that this picture represented. Besides the seven of us there were about five other people in the small theater and the posters and trailers in the cinema were all for Hollywood movies like The Avengers (except for a trailer for another HK product, Love Lifting, which features Elanne Kong as a heartbroken Olympic weightlifter. Despite its sappy-looking premise the film actually made some money at the HK box office last week).

Chapman To working it, Marrying Mr. Perfect, 2012

This group of HK film aficionados echoed what other friends told me while I was in the SAR; to wit, no one in Hong Kong goes to Hong Kong movies any more. My buddy Jay had never heard of either Love In A Puff or its sequel, although he’s a pretty media-savvy guy, and another friend confessed that he only goes to see Hollywood product. If cheesy goods like Marrying Mr. Perfect are all that the Hong Kong film industry had to offer then it’s not surprising that local films can’t draw a local audience. But Ann Hui’s A Simple Life has been selling out theaters since its release a few weeks ago, and Love In The Buff  is also making some bank, so maybe it’s just a case of Hong Kong moviegoers no longer tolerating crappy local products like they used to.

Pretty people, Love In The Buff, 2012

It’s sad that there’s little brand loyalty for the indigenous film scene, but Hong Kong audiences have probably gotten accustomed to the high-gloss commercial fare from around the world that makes its way to local theaters. Last year two of the biggest films in HK were Aamir Khan’s Bollywood hit 3 Idiots and Giddens Ko’s Taiwan youth flick You Are The Apple Of My Eye, and of course most Hollywood blockbusters show up in HK cinemas as well. Interestingly enough, the films with more local flavor, including A Simple Life, Clement Chang’s Gallants, and Alex Law’s Echoes of the Rainbow, have successfully struck a chord with local audiences, so maybe the local film industry isn’t completely dead. With the restrictive requirements of mainland China co-productions threatening to further choke off the Hong Kong movie scene it will be interesting to see in the next few years whether an unadulterated Hong Kong movie aesthetic can survive.

Love In  The Buff now playing:

 AMC Metreon 16

101 Fourth St. San Francisco, CA 94103

AMC Cupertino Square 16

10123 North Wolfe Road, Cupertino, California

March 31, 2012 at 6:34 am 5 comments

No Regrets In This Life: Hong Kong travels, 2012

Aaron Kwok decorates the MTR station

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

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

Weekend, Causeway Bay

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

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

Random food, Hong Kong 2012

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

Domestic workers picnicking, Victoria Park

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

Triad Simon on the hotel TV

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

POSTSCRIPT

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

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

Next up: the movies I saw, part one

March 25, 2012 at 8:04 am 4 comments

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