Posts tagged ‘lau ching-wan’
This weekend the Bay’s got another embarrassment of filmi riches from a pair of dueling Asian film festivals. This year’s editions of Hong Kong Cinema, and the 3rd I South Asian Film Festival both offer a ton of tasty movie treats.
The 3rd I festival, which starts Sept. 18, runs six days and features over 20 films from 9 different countries including India, Pakistan, Bangladesh, Sri Lanka, The Maldives, Canada, South Africa, UK and USA. Among the highlights is Jaagte Raho (Stay Awake), from 1956, starring my new favorite actor Raj Kapoor and co-directed by Amit Maitra and famous Bengali theater artist Sombhu Mitra. Jaagte Raho’s story follows Kapoor as a thirsty man from the country that arrives in the city longing for a drink of water. He ends up trapped in an apartment block where he’s mistaken for a thief, spending a long, sleepless night being relentlessly chased by the misguided tenants. As he hides out in various apartments he discovers the corruption and deceit amongst the residents, with adultery, gambling, drunkenness, counterfeiting, greed, and theft among their unsavory traits.
Although his earlier films featured him as an angsty young romantic lead, in Jaagte Raho Raj Kapoor iterates his naïf-in-the-big-city persona that he repeated many times in his later years. Here he’s all wide eyes and pleading gestures as the country bumpkin, a stark contrast to the duplicitous, licentious lot pursuing him.
This is great stuff, sly and satirical, that cleverly exposes the hypocrisy of the corrupt tenants. It’s shot in shimmering black and white with a crack soundtrack with lyrics by Shailendra and music by Salil Choudhary, including the rollicking drunken ramble Zindagi Khwaab Hai. The legendary Motilal is outstanding as an inebriated bourgeois who takes in the destitute Kapoor, in an homage of sorts to City Lights—however, Jaagte Raho’s booze-driven hospitality has a much more twisted outcome than does the Chaplin film. The film concludes with a lovely cameo by Nargis, once again representing the moral center of the movie. This was the final film to star Kapoor and Nargis and coincided with the breakup of their long-time offscreen affair as well, so it’s especially bittersweet to see the famous lovers together for the last time. Jaagte Raho was a box office flop when it was first released, but it’s since been recognized as a classic. Interestingly enough, along with Meer Nam Joker, which also bombed when it first came out, Kapoor cites this as his personal favorite film.
Also of note at the 3rd I festival: Decoding Deepak, a revealing look at the modern-day guru that’s directed by Chopra’s son Gotham; Runaway (Udhao), Amit Ashraf’s slick and stylish indictment of the link between politics and the underworld; Sket, which looks at a vengeful girl gang in an East London slum; the experimental documentaries Okul Nodi (Endless River) and I am Micro; this year’s Bollywood-at-the-Castro rom-com Cocktail; and the short film program Sikh I Am: Voices on Identity.
This year’s edition of Hong Kong Cinema, the San Francisco Film Society’s annual showcase of movies from the former Crown Colony, has a bunch of outstanding product. The program includes a three-film retrospective commemorating the 1997 handover: Peter Chan Ho-sun’s Comrades: Almost A Love Story, which stars Leon Lai and Maggie Cheung as friends almost with benefits from two different sides of the HK/China border; Made In Hong Kong, Fruit Chan’s debut that’s a redux of the venerable Hong Kong gangster movie and which stars the young and skinny Sam Lee in his first role; and The Longest Nite, one of Johnny To’s nastiest crime dramas, with impeccable performances by Lau Ching-Wan and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai as (of course) an immoral cop and a vicious criminal.
These three classics are hard acts to follow but several of the other films on the docket manage to hold their own. Both Pang Ho-Cheung’s Love In The Buff, an excellent romantic dramedy with Miriam Yeung and Shawn Yue as the make-up-to-break-up lovers (full review here) and Ann Hui’s most recent feature, A Simple Life, starring Andy Lau and Deanie Ip as a man and his amah, (full review here) had extended runs in San Francisco earlier this year so this may be the last chance to see then on the big screen in the Bay Area.
Also good is Johnny To’s new romantic comedy Romancing In Thin Air, which To co-wrote with longtime creative partner Wai Ka-Fai and the Milkyway Image team. Set mostly at a vacation lodge in an idyllic high-altitude locale in China, the story concerns two romantically wounded individuals grappling with the peculiarities of their damaged relationships. Sammi Cheng is her usual charming self as the female lead, but although he’s likeable enough, Louis Koo as a Hong Kong movie star (!) is a bit lacking in charisma and doesn’t bring a bigger-than-life sensibility or the self-effacing humor that Andy Lau or a more engaging performer might have done.
Although the plot is seems at first to be fairly straightforward, the film gradually reveals Milkyway’s trademark weirdness. The story of Sammi’s missing husband, lost in the dense high-country woods for seven years, is a bit creepy, though I do like that when the husband courts Sammi he turns into a clumsy doofus. The film also includes a very meta movie-within-a-movie conceit and makes several sly jabs at the Hong Kong film business.
Less good are Derek Yee’s The Great Magician, a rambling and messy movie that’s a criminal waste of Lau Ching-Wan, Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, and Zhou Xun (full review here), and Roy Chow’s Nightfall, a turgid and ridiculous film that similarly wastes good performances by Simon Yam and Nick Cheung. I really wanted to like this movie, a wannabee intense and serious thriller, not least for its slick and attractive cinematography. But despite a gripping and violent opening scene the movie has some great gaping holes in logic and alternates between chatty exposition and absurd set pieces. Still, Nick Cheung is very good as a haunted convict with anger management issues, though Simon Yam is somewhat less good as the cop unraveling the mystery. Yam doesn’t have quite the emotional depth of Francis Ng or Lau Ching-Wan and so the payoff at the end of the film is weaker than it might have been. Michael Wong is quite bad as an abusive father, with a shrill, one-note performance and his annoying habit of speaking English at the most illogical moments. I kept imagining what Anthony Wong might have done with this part. The violence is a notch more gruesome than most mainstream Hong Kong films, especially in the opening fight sequence—looks like someone’s been watching Korean movies for tips on emulating their gory tendencies.
All in all, San Francisco Asian film fans are going to have to make some hard choices this weekend—not that that’s a bad thing by any means.
September 19-23, 2012, Roxie and Castro Theaters, San Francisco
September 30, 2012, Camera12, San Jose
September 21–23, 2012
New People Cinema, San Francisco
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.
A double-dose of geekdom here–went to see the latest Harry Potter (Deathly Hallows, part 1) on opening day and had my fangirl jones satisfied. Dan, Rupert, & Emma have grown up and learned to act, the special effects were par excellence, and the stellar supporting cast has grown to include the lucky Bill Nighy (who said “For a while, I thought I would be the only English actor of a certain age who wasn’t in a ‘Harry Potter’ film.”)
After wallowing in the 2.5 hour HP movie my consciousness was full of all things Potter. The other movie of note that I’d seen that week was Francis Ng’s new Chinese Western, Wind Blast, so both were vying for space in my backbrain. Then when my buddy and fellow Hong Kong movie otaku Erika, aka Huckle, suggested that Francis would make a great Sirius Black, the game was on. So herewith follows my dream cast for the hypothetical Hong Kong remake of Harry Potter.
NOTE: It was easy to pick the adult actors. The teens were a bit more difficult, since I’m not as tuned into the Hong Kong idol scene as I could be. Any suggestions for the younger cast members, as well as any others, are more than welcome in the comments section.
Severus Snape: Anthony Wong. The Half-Blood Prince personified, Anthony has both the swagger and the sneer required to play Severus.
Voldemort: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. Although Little Tony usually plays the good guy, he proved in Lust, Caution that he can do creepy and evil too.
Remus Lupin: Nick Cheung. Moody, dark, and a little feral (see Election), Nick is totally believable as a werewolf.
Peter Pettigrew: Louis Koo. Probably a bit too square-jawed to play Wormtail, but he’s got the paranoid nervousness down pat. No one in Hong Kong sweats and twitches as well as Louis Koo.
Sirius Black: Francis Ng. Ah, the angst! The fancy frock coats! The insane gleam in his eye! Who else but Francis to play Sirius Black?
Albus Dumbledore: Lau Kar-Leung. The grandmaster of Hong Kong martial arts movies, he can also choreograph his own action scenes.
Lucius Malfoy: Simon Yam. A slimy, smirky, ruthless & amoral bad guy? Paging Simon Yam!
Mad-Eye Moody: Lau Ching-Wan: LCW really deserves a bigger role but he’s got the chops to make this part his own. He was also plenty weird in Mad Detective and Himalaya Singh so we know he doesn’t shy away from the offbeat.
Narcisa Malfoy: Carina Lau. Because no one does haughty and high-class better than Carina.
Dolores Umbridge: Sandra Ng. The queen of Hong Kong comedy, she’d make a wackier Umbridge. However, she’s got some skilz so I have no doubt that she’d bring the sinister as well.
Horace Slughorn: Eric Tsang. He’s got the smarmy gladhanding dialed in.
Gilderoy Lockhart: Andy Lau. Handsome, flashy, ultrafamous, and a bit vacuous spells Andy to a T.
Rubeus Hagrid: Ng Man-Tat. Uncle Tat in elevator shoes and in a big furry beard? Hellz yeah!
Minerva McGonagal: Helena Law Lan. The queen ofTroublesome Night, Law Lan has the supernatural down pat.
Vernon Dursley: Lam Suet. Blustery, blubbery, and a little bit malevolent is Lam Suet all over.
Petunia Dursley: Karen Mok. Maybe a bit too glam for Petunia, but she can certainly do the midcentury costumes.
Fenrir Greyback: Roy Cheung. Who’s more qualified than Roy Cheung to tear out people’s throats with his bare hands?
Rita Skeeter: Cecilia Cheung. Glamourous, self-centered & entitled, with a hint of sleaziness–Ceci anyone?
Nymphadora Tonks: Zhou Xun. The twinkly-eyed Xun is our token mainland star, if only because she’s the best actress of her generation. Plus she’s probably more than willing to do purple hair, as evidenced by her off-kilter turns in All About Women and Ming Ming.
Sybill Trelawny: Sammi Cheng. Especially since Sammi’s been having a bad hair day for about two years now.
Bellatrix LeStrange: Maggie Cheung. Because Maggie’s been rocking the frizzy hair look lately and because she can do sexy and dangerous in her sleep.
Harry Potter: Lam Yiu-Sing, who played the angsty teen in Heiward Mak’s High Noon. Better him than Jing Boran any day.
Hermione Granger: Evelyn Choi Wing Yan. Played Aarif Lee’s geeky girl love interest in Echoes of the Rainbow. Not a lot of competition for this part.
Ron Weasley: If only Chapman To were twenty years younger this would be his role. Still searching for the right teen actor to play Harry’s wingman. NOTE: see update below
Cedric Diggory: Aarif Lee. Now in theaters playing a young Bruce Lee, he’s certainly pretty enough to play the part that launched Robert Pattinson’s career.
Draco Malfoy: Nicholas Tse (ten years younger). Have to put Nic in a time machine for this one since he’s perfect for the part of the privileged, conflicted scion of a shady family.
UPDATE: angryasianman.com has a link to an Asian Harry Potter lookalike who showed up on the Conan O’Brian show last week. Maybe this is an idea whose time has come–
UPDATE 2: Okay, I take it back what I said about Jing Boran. After seeing Hot Summer Nights and Love In Space I realize that he would be perfect for the part of Ron Weasley. I humbly apologize for slandering the former M-Pop star.
This week I’ve been letting my geek flags fly, as I’ve been closely following the countdown of lovehkfilm.com’s Top 50 Hong Kong films of the decade. Webmaster Kozo, Hong Kong film aficionado extraordinaire, has been revealing ten films a day on his blog, Damn You, Kozo, with much commentary from the fanperson peanut gallery. Although Hong Kong films are not the ne plus ultra of film fandom that they were, say, fifteen years ago, more than 150 dedicated otaku responded to lovehkfilm’s poll, which was a completely unscientific open vote of anyone who wanted to send a ranked list of their favorite HK flicks of the past ten years. Being a dutiful HK cinema fangirl I compiled a draft of my top ten and, not surprisingly, the majority of the films on the list starred my personal favorite Francis Ng. Herein follows my list, with reviews of each film. Please note that the list is not a reflection on whether the films are cinematically or historically significant, but based purely on the amount of pleasure that I got while watching them. Which is really how it should be sometimes.
In reverse order:
10. Beauty and the Breast, dir. Raymond Yip, 2003
Wacky comedy starring Francis Ng as an office lothario who bets he can seduce bespectacled smart-girl Michelle Reis. Luckily her dad is an herbalist and kung-fu master who sees through the ruse, setting up Francis and his accomplice, the hapless Daniel Wu, with an appropriate punishment. Unlike most Hollywood actors, Francis Ng sees no need to safeguard his masculine image, which leads to an excellent use of prosthetic mammaries. Favorite scene: A conflicted Francis Ng manifests Good Francis (dressed in white with angel wings) and Bad Francis (in red with a tail and horns), who advise him on his quest to bed Michelle Reis.
9. A Gambler’s Story, dir. Marco Mak, 2000
A weird and loopy, stylized look at a down-on-his-luck gambler, played by Francis Ng, who tries to escape his miserable lot in life. Director Marco Mak mixes slapstick, violence, and pathos as only a Hong Kong director can do in this quirky and bizarre movie. Favorite scene: Francis and Suki Kwan win, then compulsively gamble away a fortune in a Macao casino.
8. Lost In Time, dir. Derek Yee, 2003
A tearjerker par excellence, by Derek Yee, who also directed the 1993 classic Hong Kong weepy C’est La Vie, Mon Cherie. Lau Ching-Wan and Cecilia Cheung put on an acting clinic as ordinary people coming to grips with personal tragedy. Really one of the best melodramas ever made. Favorite scene: Orphanage scene!
7. PTU: Into The Perilous Night, dir. Johnnie To, 2006
Johnnie To’s dreamlike, surreal travel through nocturnal Hong Kong, with Simon Yam, Lam Suet, and Maggie Siu in search of a lost gun. Possibly the closest To has come to directing an art film, with its poetic use of empty space and expressionistic framing. Favorite scene: Triad musical chairs in a late-night hot pot restaurant.
6. Shaolin Soccer, dir. Stephen Chow, 2001
Though not as brilliant as Stephen Chow’s 1990s mo le tau comedies, Shaolin Soccer still captures Sing Jai’s absurd and wacky persona, with the added bonus of crazy CGI that perfectly meshes with Chow’s insane worldview. Plus it’s a totally fun sports movie. One of the most pleasurable films on the planet, imho. Favorite scene: Stephen Chow demonstrates his kung fu parking skills.
5. A War Named Desire, dir. Alan Mak, 2000
An early film by Alan Mak, one half of the Infernal Affairs team, this intense thriller follows the fate of a pair of estranged brothers who find themselves on the run from triads in Thailand. Francis plays the older brother, a no-nonsense gangster who must choose between duty and honor. Gigi Leung is outstanding as a gun moll whose sharpshooting matches Francis’ shot-for-shot. Favorite scene: Gigi Leung methodically stalks her prey during a chaotic, cacophonous Thai New Year celebration.
4. The White Dragon, dir. Wilson Yip, 2003
Fun, frolic, and wuxia, with Francis Ng playing a blind swordsman who falls for bratty and spoiled, vain rich girl Cecilia Cheung. Although the action and comedy scenes are energetic and clever, the best part of the movie lies in the center section of the film, where erstwhile adversaries Francis and Cecilia court and spark. Favorite scene: Cecilia informs the blind, unaware Francis that girls would fall for him since he’s handsome and has straight teeth and a “tall” nose.
3. Infernal Affairs 2, dir. Andrew Lau & Alan Mak, 2003
The prequel to Infernal Affairs, which Martin Scorsese remade as The Departed, Infernal Affairs 2 is a magnificent gangster opus that operatically follows the fate of its many characters. Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Carina Lau, and Eric Tsang are among the stellar cast. Francis in particular is outstanding as the soft-spoken yet ruthless Triad boss bent on avenging his father’s murder. Favorite scene: Francis mournfully toasts his late father at an outdoor noodle stand, with a cadre of equally somber triads echoing his gesture.
2. Juliet In Love, dir. Wilson Yip, 2000
One of the saddest and most heartfelt genre films ever to reach the screen, with Francis Ng and Sandra Ng as star-crossed lovers who find unexpected solace with each other. Francis plays a low-level triad caught up in a net of fateful events. Sandra is a lonely restaurant hostess who befriends him. Favorite scene: Simon Yam as a mobster boss who indifferently slurps down hot pot while Francis stoically bleeds from a head wound in the corner of the restaurant.
1. Exiled, dir. Johnnie To, 2007
The ultimate fanperson heroic bloodshed film of the decade, featuring an ensemble cast of hard-guy triad film stars. Anthony Wong, Francis Ng, Lam Suet, Roy Cheung, and Nick Cheung shoot ‘em up on the eve of the 1998 return of Macao to China’s rule. An allegory for the ennui and anomie of Hong Kong and Macao residents during that time, with beautiful cinematography, a haunting soundtrack, and brilliant, tough-as-nails characterizations by the veteran cast, plus five, count ‘em, five amazing shootouts. Favorite scene: the prelude to the awesome opening shootout, in which Anthony Wong and Francis Ng remove ammo from their automatic pistols in order to have the same amount of bullets as Nick Cheung’s six-shooter.
Honorable mentions: Mad Detective; After This Our Exile; Election 1; The Warlords; Sparrow; Turning Point: Laughing Gor; Fantasia; Initial D; Wo Hu; On The Edge
Just saw The Beast Stalker (Dante Lam, 2008) at the San Francisco International Film Festival and, although it held up pretty well and wasn’t an embarrassment, it wasn’t quite all that. Introduced by the Film Festival as “perhaps the best Hong Kong action film since Johnnie To’s Election,” this gritty thriller demonstrates that the former Crown Colony can still crank out hard-ass crime dramas. But the field has been mighty thin in Hong Kong of late and in other, more fruitful years, The Beast Stalker might’ve been just one of the crowd.
Former teen heartthrob Nicolas Tse plays a tough cop (!) haunted by the death of a child hostage he accidentally kills in a chaotic shootout/car crash involving malevolent gangsters, innocent bystanders and much shattered glass. Nick Cheung plays a kidnapper-for-hire in charge of snatching the dead girl’s twin sister whose lawyer mother is involved in prosecuting the crime. Their meshing stories play out in a dizzying spiral of guilt, honor, fate and obligation.
The Beast Stalker has several full-on child-in-extreme-danger moments and the cast realistically sports facial scars and other mementos of mortal peril, but somehow the film falls short of greatness. Nic Tse, further distancing himself from his youthful idol years, shrieks angrily at his subordinates, but he still can’t nail the crying scenes. Likewise, Nick Cheung, who won Best Actor statues from both the Hong Kong Film Critics’ Association and the Hong Kong Film Awards for this role, glowers menacingly but doesn’t quite bring the extra layer of pathos and complexity that might have deepened his portrayal. As my pal Laura, aka redbean, aka longtime Hong Kong movie fanatic, noted, “Anthony Wong would’ve eaten this role alive.” Unfortunately Anthony wasn’t cast and in this case Nick Cheung only makes a so-so substitute.
I recently purchased a copy of Ringo Lam’s brilliant crime thriller Full Alert (1997), which bears some similarities to The Beast Stalker in its depiction of the complex relationship between a cop and a criminal. But Full Alert has the inestimable actors Lau Ching-Wan and Francis Ng in the lead roles and their sublime skills breathe life into their stock characters and make the film’s cat-and-mouse story vibrant and believable. Francis brilliantly creates a strangely sympathetic yet reprehensible character and Lau Ching-Wan’s finely tuned fits of anger and frustration show a cop dangerously on the edge of sanity. The final confrontation between these two driven characters beautifully brings their fraught relationship to a stunning conclusion. On the other hand, The Beast Stalker’s antagonistic pair never fully reach the heights suggested by their intertwined destinies and their anticipated showdown is merely a tease.
Full Alert and The Beast Stalker both have magnificent car chases as their centerpieces, the work of car-choreography specialist Bruce Law. The action direction in The Beast Stalker, however, unfortunately succumbs to the closeups and nausea-inducing jerky camerawork now in fashion, whereas Ringo Lam understood the need for distance and framing in an action sequence. Attesting to its greatness, Full Alert more than stands the test of repeated viewings, even more than a decade after its release. The Beast Stalker is a exciting, smartly-made movie but if, as several critics have suggested, this is one of the best of recent Hong Kong films, then the bar has been seriously lowered.
Dante Lam will soon have another chance to make a great Hong Kong movie. His next project, Most Wanted Terrorist, has just announced its cast, which includes the dream team of Lau Ching-Wan, Anthony Wong and Francis Ng, along with Nick Cheung. Hopefully Nick Cheung can keep pace with his illustrious co-stars, as they’re widely held to be among the best actors of their generation. He did just fine opposite Anthony and Francis in Exiled, and even in The Beast Stalker he showed glimmers of potential. but if he’s not careful the rest of the cast is going to blow him out of the water.
Interestingly, Dante Lam has indicated that he will forgo any Mainland Chinese financing for Most Wanted Terrorist in order to preserve a Hong Kong sensibility in the film. Several recent HK/China co-productions, including Sammi Cheng’s recent Lady Cop and Papa Crook, have suffered from the restrictions of Mainland film censors, so Lam’s decision to avoid PRC money is an interesting one. With Hong Kong film financing languishing due to the economic recession it’s a bold and risky move, but Lam is determined to retain his artistic freedom without having to answer to the Mainland government.
Let’s hope Most Wanted Terrorist gives everyone involved the chance to strut their stuff to their fullest capabilities. With its killer cast and seasoned director, if all goes well, we could once again see greatness in Hong Kong films next year.
The Beast Stalker opens Friday, May 15 at one of the last places in the Bay Area to see Hong Kong movies on the big screen, the 4-Star Theater, 23rd Avenue and Clement Street, San Francisco.