Posts tagged ‘lee byung-hun’
Before we get too deep into 2017 here’s a baker’s dozen of some of my most memorable cinematic viewing experiences from last year. My only requirement for this list is that the film had to be seen on the big screen, whether in a regular theatrical run or in a film festival. Though I spent a lot of time last year consuming media online and on DVD those viewings don’t count for this list. There is in no particular order except MOONLIGHT is number one.
1. Moonlight: Barry Jenkins’ masterful, virtuoso film has so many strong points that I could (and probably will) write an entire essay about it, but here I’ll just mention one thing. Jenkins knows exactly when to have his characters speak and when to keep them silent, enacting a complex choreography between dialog and subtext that emphasizes the film’s theme of the performativity of gender, identity, and masculinity.
2. The Mermaid: Stephen Chow Sing-Chi returns to slay the Asia box office with this incredibly loopy cinematic manifestation from the inside of his one-of-a-kind brain. In Hong Kong in the 1990s no one made comedies like Stephen Chow and it’s good to see he’s successfully crossed over to the greater Chinese film industry. Chow continues to combine a uniquely twisted worldview, a highly refined cinematic eye, lowbrow humor, a beautiful visual sense, cynicism and romanticism, maniacal wordplay, slapstick, random violence, and gross-out humor in a way that no other filmmaker can match.
3. Train To Busan: Although ostensibly a zombie apocolypse flick, Yeon Sang-Ho’s film is also a melodrama, teen romance, road movie, and critique of capitalism all rolled into one thrilling ride. Gong Yoo anchors the film with his sensitive and vulnerable performance as a man caught up in a madness far beyond his imagining and control
4. Three: Johnnie To’s yearly masterpiece, which dissects the Hong Kong crime film vis a vis the hospital movie. Every shot and every scene is a meta commentary on its genre forerunners.
5. Old Stone: Johnny Ma’s indie film is a scathing attack on the hypocrisy and idiocy of China’s Kafka-esque judicial system as it depicts one man’s attempt to escape a spiraling set of circumstances that threaten to ruin his life.
Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival
6. The Lockpicker: Randall Okita’s bleak & angsty drama looks at a teenager dealing with loss, alienation, and anomie in snowy Toronto. The film is a very slow burn that pays off in the end. The casual cruelty of high school students rings very true and as a parent of a teen I found this movie to be terrifying. Led by a very strong performance by first-time actor Keigian Umi Tang, despite some confusing narrative moments the film sustains its tone of dread and anxiety throughout. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival
7. Anti-Porno: Sion Sono’s playful and sexy pranking of Nikkatsu Studios’ Roman Porno films is made especially meaningful since it was produced by Nikkatsu itself. Viewed at the 2016 San Diego Asian Film Festival
8. Fan: Shah Rukh Khan, the Badshaah of Bollywood himself, leads this twisted, meta examination of stardom and fandom, playing a dual role as both the adored and the adorer in a dysfunctional symbiotic relationship between a movie actor and his biggest fan. SRK is fearless in this film, exposing more warts than many other superstars might be willing to reveal. Director Maneesh Sharma delves into the darker side of fame, with the full support of his willing star.
9. The Magnificent Seven: Antoine Fuqua directs a deeply subversive and radical film disguised as a Hollywood action movie. This joint shows that the subaltern can speak as well as shoot a gun. Bonus points for looking at alternate expressions of masculinity, male bonding, and homosocial love.
10. United Red Army (The Young Man Was, Part 1): Naeem Mohaiemen’s experimental documentary deconstructs the audio recordings of the conversations between members of Japan’s militant revolutionary Red Army and Bangladeshi government negotiators after the group landed a hijacked plane at Dhaka in 1977, adding in Mohaiemen’s own wry recollections of the event that he witnessed as a child via television broadcasts. Viewed at the 2016 Third Eye South Asian Film Festival in San Francisco.
11. Mele Murals: In this documentary about Native Hawai’ian mural artists Tadashi Nakamura creates a thoughtful rumination on giving up selfhood in order to serve community, art, and culture. Viewed at the 2016 CAAMfest in San Francisco
12. At Café 6: In yet another highly satisfying entry in Taiwan’s teen melodrama genre, director Neal Wu draws out excellent performances from his young cast. Though it doesn’t stray far from its genre conventions it hits all the right notes with subtlety and emotion, effectively looking at friendship, fate, love, and loss. After spending way too much time looking at the surgically enhanced beauty of so many K-drama stars it’s nice to see Cherry Ngan’s snaggle-toothed smile and Dong Zijian’s imperfect boy-next-door charms.
13. The Wailing: Na Hong-Jin’s creepy thriller had me off-balance throughout its running time, with its constantly changing POV and its refusal to adhere to genre conventions. Also in the mix is a strutting, scene-stealing performance from the ever-awesome Hwang Jung Min as a badass shaman, some incredibly disturbing man/dog violence, and boils and pustules galore. I was shuddering for days after seeing this one.
NOTE: An earlier version of this list appeared on sensesofcinema.com
Have A Good Night: South Korean movie roundup: Train To Busan; Tunnel; The Age of Shadows; Asura; The Handmaiden
Park Chan-wook’s new joint, The Handmaiden, dropped this week in US theaters (although it was released in Asia this spring) and it’s the latest in a long string of South Korean genre films released in the US this fall. One thing I wasn’t able to do this summer was to see any South Korean films in theaters. For the most part foreign films screened in Taiwan are only subbed in Chinese, not English (unlike foreign films in Hong Kong, which thanks to British colonialism are subbed in both English and Chinese). So with the exception of some films screened at film festivals, Korean-language films in Taiwan were linguistically inaccessible to me. Because of that, I saw no South Korean films for almost three months.
Luckily, since my return to the States there’ve been plenty of South Korean movies released in US movie theaters. I was happy to find that Train To Busan was still playing theatrically when I got back to the US in August. Although ostensibly a zombie apocolypse flick, it’s also a melodrama, teen romance, road movie, and critique of capitalism all rolled into one thrilling ride. Gong Yoo (Coffee Prince; The Suspect) is excellent as Seok-Woo, a divorced hedge fund manager who finds himself and his young daughter on a high-speed train full of the undead on a harrowing ride from Seoul to the southern city of Busan. He conveys an appealing sense of vulnerability and self-doubt through his rangy frame and expressive face. The narrative builds swiftly and efficiently, setting up the basic premise (South Korea is being overrun by zombies created by corporate malfeasance), defining the main characters (including Seok-Woo and his daughter, a tough Busan man and his pregnant wife, two elderly sisters, a young couple in love, and a greedy CEO), and establishing the film’s framework (a group of survivors trapped on a speeding train full of voracious undead). Though the film doesn’t stray far from its genre conventions, the depth of emotions between the characters, the intense and effective bursts of violent action, and the film’s overwhelming sense of dread as the train hurtles toward its unknown fate all add up to a deeply satisfying cinematic experience.
Following Train To Busan was the disaster movie Tunnel, starring the redoubtable Ha Jung-Woo, one of the best actors working in South Korea right now. Ha plays Jung-Soo, a regular guy whose life is changed forever when he’s trapped in a collapsed tunnel on the road home to his wife and young daughter. Based on a true story, the movie follows Jung-Soo’s ordeal as he struggles to survive while buried beneath tons of wreckage and along the way incriminates the corruption and incompetence responsible for the tunnel’s collapse. Good thing I watched this one at home on a press screener rather than in a theater since I probably would’ve died from fright and claustrophobia if I’d seen it on the big screen.
Kim Jee-Woon’s outstanding 1930s spy thriller The Age of Shadows also released in the US this fall. Shadows is set during the Japanese occupation of Korea and follows two men, Kim Woo-jin (Gong Yoo), a member of the underground resistance to the occupation, and Lee Jeong-chool (Song Kang-Ho), a Korean policeman who supports the Japanese. Lee Byung-Hun makes an extended cameo as the leader of the resistance but it’s Gong and Song who carry the film through their excellent performances. The film, a high-budget co-production with Warner Brothers as well as South Korea’s Academy Award entry, is a slick and well-made production that breaks little ground conceptually or aesthetically but which demonstrates Kim’s continued mastery of a variety of genres including the Western (The Good, the Bad, the Weird), the gangster film (A Bittersweet Life), the revenge film (I Saw The Devil) and the horror film (A Tale of Two Sisters). The action scenes are fast, effective, and economical, and the narrative, though dense and somewhat confusing at first, resolves clearly at its conclusion. One extended sequence on a train full of spies and police, with the betrayals, lies, and mendacity layered on thick and fast, builds expertly to its explosive resolution.
Kim brings out the best in his actors and in Shadows Kim draws out an impeccable and nuanced performance from Song as the Korea policeman collaborating with the Japanese occupiers (represented by Om Tae-Goo as the archetypal evil Japanese villain). Song effectively conveys the state of mind of a man slowly experiencing a moral epiphany and his character arc is compelling and convincing. Following his turn in Train To Busan Gong Yoo is also outstanding here in a similar role as man tested far beyond his normal bounds, expressing a notable vulnerability and empathy.
Following The Age of Shadows was the release of Asura: The City of Madness, a bleak little movie that exposes the very worst of human nature. The film is an intense and brutal examination of top to bottom corruption in the fictional city of Anman, with all concerned trapped in an existential prison of despair, greed, and violence. Relentless and unflinchingly brutal, the film is a blood-soaked extravaganza of violence and betrayal.
Jung Woo-Sun stars as Kan, a cop who serves as the hatchet man for Anman’s corrupt mayor, Park Sung-Bae. Park is played by South Korean superstar Hwang Jung-Min, who in recent years has successfully played a range of roles including family men, hoodlums, cops, and criminals. Here he takes the Francis Ng role as Park, the flashy psychopathic mayor. Ju Jihoon plays Kan’s best friend and partner who goes to the dark side. Kan himself is a conflicted character caught between the corrupt mayor and a ruthless prosecutor who is trying to bring down the venal politician. Jung Woo-Sun scuffs up his handsome face with cuts, scars, bruises and stitches in an effort to conceal his leading-man good looks. He’s compellingly intense in this film, unlike in his past films as a romantic lead. I’ve found him somewhat stiff in many of his past performances and didn’t think he had it in him to be so fierce but in Asura he nails it. Here he makes good use of his 6-foot-plus frame and uses his imposing physicality to loom over and threaten his adversaries. At the same time he conveys the frustration and impotence of a man unable to escape an endless web of deceit, treachery, and backstabbing.
South Korean movies are known for pulling no punches when it comes to gore and violence and Asura is no exception. The film includes scenes of people pushed out of and run over by cars, death by multiple stab wounds, blood pulsing out of gunshot wounds, severed fingers, slashings, beatings, knifings, choppings, and the shooting of injured or helpless people—the list is endless. While A Bittersweet Life had many of the same types of violence the story and characterization was much richer and the film’s main character gradual revealed a moral center. In Asura everything has gone to hell and the characters exist in a universe devoid of morals, ethics, or empathy. Only the main character has any redeeming qualities, as demonstrated by his devotion to his dying wife, but even that is relationship is full of despair and hopelessness. Cynical and bleak, Asura ups the ante as an extreme entry into the already intense pantheon of South Korean gangster movies.
Which brings us to The Handmaiden, Park Chan-Wook’s adaptation of Sarah Waters’s 2002 novel Fingersmith, which was set in Victorian England. Park transfers the story to 1930s Korea during the Japanese occupation (incidentally, the same period as The Age Of Shadows). The story follows the exploits of Sook-Hee (Kim Tae-Ri), a young grifter who is planted in the household of Lady Hideko (Kim Min-Hee) in order to facilitate Count Fujiwara (Ha Jung-Woo), another con artist who is intent on swindling Lady Hideko out of her inheritance. But as with all best-laid plans, things go awry.
Ha Jung-Woo is excellent as usual, exuding an unctuous intelligence that makes his slick and sneaky character almost sympathetic. Kim Min-Hee as the Lady Hideko is also particularly good in her role as the duplicitous noblewomen with the wads of cash that everyone wants. Kim Tae-Ri as the titular handmaiden is also fine, although her screechy laughter will win no awards. But there’s a severe dissonance in the film’s execution that keeps it from being completely successful.
So much of this movie is outstanding—the clever narrative structure, the acting, the high-gloss production—but director Park can’t help using a bludgeon when a scalpel will do. Perhaps as expected from the director of Oldboy, when given the choice between delicacy and bombast Park’s direction veers towards sensationalism and heavyhandedness. There’s an odd and jarring dissonance between the subtlety, wit, and precision of much of the film and its overwrought and clumsy scenes of sex and violence.
This is particularly evident in several gratuitous lesbian sex scenes that overdo it to the point of parody. In other parts of the film Park makes several scenes very sexy, including a teasing interlude revolving around a bathtub and a thimble, and another involving corsets and long rows of satin buttons. But just in case we don’t get it, the actual sex scenes, which are supposed to be hot and seductive, are reduced to extended sessions of naked chicks panting and moaning, including gratuitous softcore tittie shots and faked squeals and giggles. Although it gestures toward feminism, in some ways the film doesn’t feel very feminist at all. There’s a liberatory joy in several of the scenes where Hideko and Sook-Hee defy the patriarchal conventions of their situation, but other parts of the film just feel like a dirty old man leering at the girls’ boobs and crotch. You know it’s a male filmmaker when there’s a vag-cam shot. Park Chan Wook, why you gotta go there? Feminist filmmaker Lizzie Borden (Born In Flames; Working Girls) once famously stated that she tried to never film a woman’s body in a sex scene that the woman herself couldn’t see, in order to counteract the objectification inherent in the male gaze. Park goes to the other extreme here, framing the women for maximum ogling and visibility to the viewer.
I’m wondering how this reads to queer viewers—is it empowering to see explicit queer sex portrayed this way on the screen or are these scenes made for the benefit of the scopophiliac Asiaphile male viewer? In other words, do queer women find these scenes hot or do these scenes just pander to orientalism and Western male fantasies of Asian girl-on-girl sex? Given the clumsiness and unoriginality of their execution, I’m leaning toward the latter.
True to form, Park also turns up the torture porn, including shots of severed fingers and pickled body parts in jars, but then subtlety has never been Park’s strong suit. Why show one instance of dismemberment when you can make it three, including loud, crunching sound effects? Then please show us the body parts being swept into a trash can for good measure. These scenes leave very little to the imagination, which is very jarring compared to the clever exposition present in the rest of the film. As with the sex scenes, the sudden lurch from subtlety and precision to bad slasher film aesthetics took me out of the viewing experience, and not in a good way.
So that’s a bumper crop of South Korean films released here in the US in 2016, and that’s even not counting The Wailing, the creepy, off the chain black comedy/supernatural thriller from Na Hong-jin (The Yellow Sea; The Chaser) that came out last spring. I’m happy to have been able to see them all, despite my SK movie hiatus this summer. It’s been a good year–here’s to more to come in 2017.
Special shoutout to Anthony Yooshin Kim for helping me formulate my thoughts on this post.
A new South Korean action movie is usually a cause for celebration in my house and after the trifecta of ass-kicking historicals last year (The Pirates; Kundo: Age of the Rampant, and The Admiral: Roaring Currents) I was looking forward to seeing Memories of the Sword, which opens this weekend in North America. As a big Lee Byung-hun fangirl, I mean, scholar, I’m also happy to see one of my favorite actors in a genuine starring role after suffering through his supporting roles in a string of mediocre Hollywood movies (GI Joe 1 & 2; Red 2, and Terminator: Genysis). And since LBH’s last historical film, Masquerade, was outstanding, I had high hopes for this new one. Alas, Memories of the Sword is no Masquerade, and doesn’t stand up to the big three historicals from last year either.
I should’ve known that things were amiss when Memories took forever to be released. Although it began production in 2013 and was completed in 2014, the film has languished for many months due to a salacious blackmailing scandal involving LBH (who’s married) and a couple of younger women. That tawdry episode concluded earlier this year with prison sentences for the two women.
So despite a big-name cast that also includes Jeon Do-yeon (The Housemaid) and Lee Junho from boy band 2PM, the bloom is off the rose as audience buzz for this one has died down to a murmur. But the film has other flaws that make this one more of a miss than a hit.
Right off the bat the film throws down the wire-fu gauntlet as young swordswoman Hong-Yi (Kim Go-eun) leaps many feet over a tall sunflower, then bounds high in the air across a grassy field. Following a swordfighting competition that she enters in drag, Hong-Yi encounters Yu-Baek (LBH) who is intrigued by her martial arts skills. The film then follows a convoluted narrative of betrayal, ambition, revenge, and concealed identity involving Hong-Yi, Yu-Baek, and Hong-Yi’s foster mother Sul Rang (Jeon Do-Yeon).
Although the movie possesses the usual sheen and polish of South Korean commercial movies, the film is burdened by a vastly overcomplicated plot and a dour overall demeanor. Everyone has something to hide and the angst is laid on pretty thick as characters weep regretfully while slashing and stabbing one another. The interlocking interpersonal relationships recall the intricacies of Ang Lee’s Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon minus Lee’s poeticism and his strong sense of narrative rhythm, and in fact the film resembles CTHD in its costuming, its scenes of fights in bamboo forests, and its complicated court intrigue.
Yet Memories is missing Ang Lee’s masterful touch, as the film’s characters repeatedly explain their motivations and relationships to one another through long, anguished speeches or angry outbursts. Not much is left to subtlety or suggestion, yet the film still manages to bog down in confusing plot details. It’s not helpful either that most of the characters have two names and identities, which is not a spoiler in any way.
Lee Byung-Hun as usual cuts a commanding figure as the ambitious Yoo-Baek, and Jeon Do-Yeon is her expressive and emotive self. The younger actors, Kim Go-eun and Lee Junho, are also fine, though Lee doesn’t have a lot to do. Kim is convincing as the young swordswoman driven to vengeance by forces outside of her control and it’s nice to have a female protagonist in a martial arts movie. But the film feels murky and overly serious, with a leaden sense of import that drags down the story. Some of the images are quite lovely, including a beautiful swordfighting scene in a field of pale, feathery grasses, but too often the movie falls back on clichés like the metallic ringing of a sword drawn from its sheath that’s repeated a few too many times. In addition, when their demise would be inconvenient to the plot, several of the main characters have the death-defying ability to survive seemingly fatal sword wounds.
It’s always fun to see the lavishness of a South Korean movie on the big screen but with Memories as well as last month’s Assassination, both films feel a bit overstuffed. In both cases the over-the-top aesthetic of South Korean commercial cinema works to each film’s detriment, smothering any sense of artistry or nuance under a blanket of glossy emptiness.
Memories of the Sword, dir. Park Heung-sik
opens Fri. Aug. 28, 2015
AMC Metreon 16
135 4th St Suite 3000, San Francisco, CA 94103
Another round of international flights, this time on the much more updated Singapore Airlines. Not only does Singapore have a full 1000-plus slate of movies on demand but they have an entire Indian food menu to go with their Chinese and “Western” selections. Since they were out of the chicken mushroom rice noodles by the time they got to my seat, I ordered the chana daal, which came with lime pickle, some outstanding curried vegetables, a rather dry roti, and raita, which beats most U.S. airlines’ food service any day. Alas, they did not have the cup noodles featured on Cathay Pacific flights so my middle-of-the-flight hunger pangs had to be assuaged by a mediocre cold cheese sandwich. But lots of movies on tap!
This 2013 release was a sensation in China last year for all the wrong reasons as it was rated one of the worst movies ever on China’s online discussion forums, douban and baidu. The movie paradoxically was also one of the highest grossing films of the year in China, due to very bad word of mouth, and it indeed lives up to its negative hype. Truly unique and fascinatingly bad, it’s an astoundingly shoddy cinematic construction that plays like a bunch of fancy and expensive set pieces only tentatively linked together by a narrative structure. Genial superstar Andy Lau Tak-Wah portrays a super-spy assigned to crack the case of an arcane art heist involving two halves of a lengendary scroll painting. Along the way the film throws in a quartet of girl assassins on roller skates in clear plastic miniskirts, an obligatory psycho Japanese villain, and many gratuitous Andy-lounging-on-the-beach-in-Dubai shots, as well as fancy aerial shots of a car flying through the air dangling from a helicoptor attached to a magnetic grappler, a surfeit of swordfighting, explosives, and incendiaries, and many, many costume changes. The movie is full of technology fetishism at its best, and Andy Lau gets to be a combination of James Bond and a low-rent Tony Stark, complete with transparent floating holographic computer readouts and ridiculous gadgets. With its illogical leaps in time and space, the movie is great if you think of it either as one long dream sequence or as one long Andy Lau watch commercial.
Red 2 (Lee Byung-Hyun parts only)
Because I was fortunate enough to watch this on a plane I could skip over all but the scenes involving Lee Byung-Hyun, which absolutely elevated my viewing experience. In this one LBH demonstrates his much improved English diction and gets to play out a greatest-hits of Asian male action tropes. In his introductory scene he appears buffed out and naked, back and front, then goes on to assassinate someone with origami while wearing a kimono. Along the way he also brandishes two guns at time in a shootout, displays some high-kicking hung fu, and, in a pretty fun car-chase/shootout, practices a bit of Tokyo-drifting with a gun-toting Helen Mirren. As per usual LBH looks sharp in a tailored suit and holds his own as he grimaces and swaggers with John Malkovich and Bruce Willis. Somehow the audio on my seat-back monitor got switched to Japanese in the last five minutes of the movie so I missed out on all of the banter in the denouement, but I’m sure it was awesome and clever, and it was actually kinda fun seeing Helen Mirren dubbed in Japanese. In my fangirl dreams she and LBH have a thing for each other—spinoff sequel?
I LOVED THIS MOVIE. The best thing I’ve seen in a long time, English Vinglish is a lovely family dramedy anchored by Sridevi’s charming performance as a woman trying to balance between duty and self-worth. Sridevi is brilliant as a beleagured Mumbai mom and housewife who comes into her own on an overseas trip to New York City by herself. I probably also liked it since the main character is a mother on a long trip away from her family, which, seeing as I was on a long trip away from my family, made me feel all sympathetic and stuff. Also, Sridevi wears some of the most excellent floral-print saris I’ve ever seen.
Another winner and another example of the resurgence of commercial Hindi-language cinema (aka Bollywood), Fukrey (“slacker”) is a bit like The Hangover, B’wood-stylee. The plot involves a quartet of Dehli townies who long to attend the local college despite their apparent lack of intellectual gifts. Among those aspiring students are Coocha and Hunny, a pair of cheerful losers who earn their living as dancers in costumed street productions of religious Hindu mythologicals, and who apparently have a foolproof way of predicting winning lottery numbers that involves arcane dream interpretation. Their interplay in particular includes some extremely funny comic moments and the two riff off of each other as deftly as Martin and Lewis. Dreamy musician Zafar is stuck in a rut—three years after graduating college he’s still fruitlessly pursuing his musical aspirations, which causes his sensible and levelheaded girlfriend, who also teaches at said college, no end to angst. Lali works at his dad’s popular restaurant and sweet shop and also aspires to attend the local college, though he currently can only take correspondence courses. Somehow the four protagonists get caught up in an increasingly tangled morass of financial woe, eventually ending up in debt to the tune of 2.5 million rupees to the local drug boss, a toughie named Biphal (the excellent Richa Chadda from Gangs of Wasseypur 1 & 2) who has “Sinderella” tattooed on the back of her neck. The plot twists and turns ala its spiritual predeccesor, the equally clever and irreverent Delhi Belly, making great use of that city’s crowded, dusty locale to accentuate the characters’ sticky situation. The comedy is deft and skillful and, despite many chances for overdoing it, director Mrighdeep Singh Lamba directs with a fairly understated hand. The characters are somewhat broadly drawn at first but become complex and sympathetic and Lamba has excellent and economic visual storytelling skills—his narrative structure and editing cleverly tie together all of the loose ends of the wide-ranging story. This is the best kind of movie to watch on a long plane flight, with a nice long running time that eats up hours, a fun, lighthearted romp of a story, and amusing and likeable characters. Throw in a few quick episodes of song and dance and you have a winner. Great stuff—
An outstanding Tamil-language spy film written and directed by and starring the amazing Kamal Hasan. This is only the second Tamil film I’ve seen (the first having been Puddhupettai, starring the wonderful Danoush,) but it definitely won’t be my last. The film starts off in New York City as an upwardly mobile NRI woman (Pooja Kumar) describes her marital issues to her sympathetic psychologist. Somehow, through a series of complicated and indescribable narrative turns, the film ends up in the middle of an Al-Qaeda training camp in Afghanistan, where the plot takes a lengthy digression. The story then wends its way back to New York to further explicate links between Al-Quada terrorists, uranium, an oncology lab, and radioactive pigeons. A bomb scare and much frenetic action follows. Lead actor and director Hasan, who gets to show off his hand-to-hand martial arts chops as well as his classical Indian dancing skilz, among many other talents, anchors the film with his charismatic performance as the super-spy with a complicated personal life who wryly notes, “I have a lot of emotional baggage.” The movie’s production values are top-notch, the songs by Shankar, Ehsaan and Loy are outstanding, and the war scenes pull no punches, with men, women and children blown up, shot, strafed, and otherwise becoming collateral damage in the vicious guerilla fighting. The only weak link is Kumar as the clueless wife—she’s not quite able to pull of her character with much conviction, though admittedly she’s not given a lot of to work with.
Ip Man: The Final Fight
I only got to watch the first five minutes of the latest installment in the ongoing Ip Man saga before the in-flight movie system on the plane was shut off. This chapter, directed by stalwart Hong Kong director Herman Lau, chronologically follows the unrelated Donnie Yen pair of Ip Man movies as well as the unrelated Wong Kar-Wai version, The Grandmaster. Yau did direct Ip Man: The Legend Is Born, the prequel starring Dennis To as baby Ip Man, so there might be some thematic continuity there but for the most part the Ips are all running in parallel universes. Since the flight attendants had already confiscated the headphones by the time I started watching the movie it was a silent viewing experience for me, but I did get to see a very nicely staged encounter in which Ip Man challenges an eager young disciple to a battle to knock the grandmaster off of a square of newspaper laid on a kitchen floor. I watched the rest of the movie a few weeks later after I got back home and it didn’t disappoint, as a fun little slice of bygone Hong Kong ala Echoes of the Rainbow. Anthony Wong is great as the middle-aged Ip Man, carrying himself with dignity, grace, and the inimitable Wong Chau-sang swagga. The movie also includes familiar Hong Kong cinema faces including Anita Yuen as Mrs. Ip, Eric Tsang as a rival martial arts master (who has an outstanding duel with Ip Man that’s a marvel of cinematic fight choreography in the way that it makes two non-martial artists look incredibly suave and skilled), and Jordan Chan and Gillian Chung (yes, that Gillian Chung) as a couple of Ip Man’s disciples. In the face of the continued encroachment of China’s commercial film industry on the Hong Kong moviemaking world, it’s nice to see a genuine HK film with actual Cantonese dialogue (albeit with Ip Man and Mrs. Ip feigning broad Foshan accents). Bonus points for Anthony Wong not being afraid to play an old, albeit very cool, dude.
I almost never watch American television, though I occasionally look at reality shows like Project Runway or Chopped when my daughters are streaming it on my computer, but I really can’t remember the last time I watched a U.S. drama on a regular basis. I have a hard time paying attention to anything more than 90 minutes long unless it includes singing and dancing in Hindi, so investing weeks and weeks in a TV show, no matter how good, is just too much commitment for me. Also, as an unreconstructed experimental film geek I’m very visually oriented, so I prefer my media to be less dialog and character-driven than is most television.
I’m not one for Asian dramas, either—again, the weeks and weeks of watching are just too much for me to do, and I find plastic surgery and eyeliner on boys a little distracting. That said, this past year I’ve watched two Asian dramas, but only because they starred two of my favorite actors, Lee Byung-Hun and Francis Ng. Last spring I watched IRIS (아이리스, 2009), the South Korean espionage thriller that stars the insanely hot Lee Byung-Hun as a special ops agent involved in various crazy political plots. Although much of the story strains credulity, LBH is quite good in it and the ample explosions, gunfights, assassinations, betrayals, and love triangles keep the show movie along briskly. I felt like I’d eaten too much deep-fried food after sitting through its 40+ episodes but it was fun to spend all that time watching LBH do his thing.
More recently, I’ve been wallowing in Triumph In The Skies 2, the sequel to the hit Hong Kong drama that aired in 2003 on TVB that followed the lives and romances of a clutch of HK airline pilots. I watched TITS 1 on DVD long after it first came out, but with the advent of online streaming I’ve been able to see episodes of TITS 2 with English subtitles on a day-and-date schedule with its airing in Hong Kong. Like its prequel, the series has been quite a sensation since its premiere at the beginning of August, drawing high ratings and inspiring a wave of pilot-mania among Hong Kong’s citizenry. It was great to be able to watch Francis Ng as the lead character, Sam Tong, an upstanding and heroic airline pilot who is a much beloved character in Hong Kong. The show is nowhere near as hyperkinetic as IRIS, depending on romantic entanglements and other interpersonal relationships for its dramatic tension, but Francis, along with co-star Julian Cheng Chilam, made the show watchable. A bonus to watching it online is that I could fast-forward through the extraneous side-stories and go straight to the Francis plotlines. The drama is no great shakes and in fact is pretty mundane, with vast swaths of filler focusing on minor characters, flagrant product placement, and way too many subplots that are transparently designed to showcase TVB’s up-and-coming starlets. But TITS is one of TVB’s premium franchises and the station threw a lot of money at it, by Hong Kong television standards. There are many cute young guys looking suave in cadet pilot uniforms, including the sweet and dreamy Him Law, nice scenery in London, Taiwan, and Paris, and upscale Hong Kong characters with huge fantasy apartments and luxury cars.
However, although it was a high-end, much-hyped TVB series, the drama exhibited sloppy plotting and dialog, pacing and editing problems, sketchy and uneven acting, and way too many extraneous characters and storylines. There were huge, illogical jumps in the timeline (to accommodate a pregnant character) and one of the main characters, Captain Jayden Koo (Julian Cheung Chilam) inexplicably disappeared from the narrative for many episodes. Of course television dramas are built around people behaving stupidly and making poor life decisions and this show is no different, with characters displaying irritating obstinacy, irrational stubbornness, and poor communication skills, and making bad, impulsive decisions. I suppose their dramatic idiocy is meant to make the viewer feel better about their own lives, but there’s a limit to how much illogical behavior is plausible. TITS 2 also suffered by comparison to TITS 1. If a love triangle or two worked in TITS 1, why not three or four in TITS 2? How about a weirdly obsessive, terminally ill ingénue chasing after a reluctant mate? TITS 1 had the deliciously agonizing dilemma of Francis Ng’s character, Sam Tong, in love with his best friend’s wife, so that the love triangle was truly triangular, with the relationship between all three characters holding significance. In TITS 2, the Sam/Jayden/Holiday triangle had much less piquancy because there was no deep relationship between Sam and Jayden, unlike Sam and Vincent’s friendship in the original series. It didn’t help that Fala Chen’s acting as Holiday, the fulcrum of the love triangle, was wildly inconsistent, though by the end of the series she had settled down a bit.
For me, the main draw of course was Francis Ng, and he didn’t disappoint. Although TITS 2 was by no means high art (or even competent storytelling), as an opportunity to watch hours of Francis Ng every night for six weeks it was a quite a lovely indulgence and despite the drama’s general silliness, Francis absolutely killed in this show. Francis is an outstanding big-screen actor but he’s also an excellent small-screen actor, due to his mobile and subtly expressive face and his huge repertoire of physical expressions. The way he stands, the position of his arms, and his confident rolling swagger when he’s walking around the airport in his pilot drag like he owns the place all add up to a very satisfying viewing experience. His character was by turns depressed, repressed, anal retentive, or controlling, but Francis managed to make him sympathetic with just a well-placed flick of his eyebrows or a meaningful sigh, and he is the king of the single tear sliding down the cheek. In one scene, where he recalls his remorse at disappointing Zoe, his late wife, the range of emotions crossing his face was pretty amazing, demonstrating his impeccable mastery of non-verbal acting. Francis also gets bonus points for flaunting an array of beautifully cut Vivianne Westwood menswear (including a $250 hoodie with hand-painted stars on the sleeves and a gorgeous black velvet tux with a satin shawl collar) and looking ridiculously fit and charming for a man in his early fifties. Depending on the lighting and the skill of the makeup artists, Francis alternately looked pretty good for his age or like a star somewhat past his sell date. Some netizens were less than kind about Francis’ fifty-plus years, and it didn’t help that his main love interest was a woman in her early thirties, which often accentuated Francis’ age to his detriment. But the man can wear a tailored suit like nobody’s business and his signature “airplane head” pompadour was impeccably groomed throughout the entire series—there was literally not a hair out of place and the sculpted fade of his sideburns was immaculately trimmed to the exact same length for the entire show. Way to go, continuity department!
Julian Cheung’s new character, Jayden Koo, instantly became a fan favorite in the sequel, though to me the character was a narcissistic bore who thought he was the schiznit. In the first few eps Jayden’s popularity far outstripped that of Sam Tong, making the proposed Sam/Jayden/Holiday love triangle a non-starter. In order to appease the disgruntled Sam/Zoe shippers and to level the playing field for Sam vs. Jayden, Julian Cheung’s part was ruthlessly trimmed down in the middle episodes of the series and Francis and Fala’s budding romance instead took center stage. When Jayden finally reappeared some weeks down the line, after the show’s editing had tilted the audience in F&F’s favor, he seemed more like an obsessive stalker than a viable love interest. My conspiracy theory is that the producers realized that the audience wasn’t down with Francis + Fala and had to fatten up their relationship in order to make the love triangle plausible, at the expense of Julian Cheung’s screentime. That and the fact that the show’s ending had been spoiled even before the series aired took a lot of the dramatic tension out of the storyline. Through the magic of google chrome’s instantaneous (if garbled) web translations, it was also fun to follow the media frenzy in Hong Kong as the show aired. Apparently Sam/Zoe is one of the most revered pairings in TVB history and the way that Zoe was ruthlessly killed off between TITS 1 and TITS 2 (appearing only in flashbacks in TITS 2) really rankled the viewership. After the Sam/Zoe storyline was resolved in episode 23 some viewers swore off the show, though their defections didn’t seem to affect the ratings as TITS 2 ended up the highest rated show of the year as well as racking up many hundreds of millions of online views in Hong Kong and China.
It was also pretty humorous to observe the stars’ various spats with each other via the media. Early press reports stated that Francis Ng and Fala Chen didn’t get along, but as the series progressed the purported tensions were denied, with Fala Chen at one point claiming “(Francis) just looks really fierce because when he furrows his brow, he looks very serious.” It was also funny to note is that many online commentators had very little sense of Francis Ng’s work outside of Hong Kong television, apparently not realizing the fact that he’s won several Best Actor awards for his film work, or that he’s known outside of Hong Kong primarily for playing badass gangsters, not lovelorn pilots, or that, as he says, “the majority of my fans have tattoos.” Despite all of its shortcomings the drama was a huge hit, with excellent broadcast ratings in Hong Kong. There’s talk of a feature film version of the show and all involved are scrambling to capitalize on its popularity. Julian Cheung has taken advantage of his increased profile by changing agents, recording a cover of the theme song from the original series, and buying a new Mercedes. Francis Ng has inexplicably signed an agreement to produce a cooking show for TVB. And Fala Chen is being touted by Eric Tsang as “the new Maggie Cheung,” although she has none of Cheung Man-yuk acting skills, charisma, or talent. Considering how meteorically fortunes can rise and fall in Hong Kong show biz, it will be interesting to see the lasting effects, if any, of the recent success of TITS 2. Related Francis Ng news: It was just announced that Francis Ng is attached to Sha Po Lang 2, the sequel to the 2005 Wilson Yip-directed Donnie Yen action/MMA film revered by many Hong Kong movie fanboys. Yip had wanted Francis to star in the original SPL (the part eventually went to Simon Yam) but scheduling conflicts prevented this happening, so it’s great that Francis will be joining the cast for this one. This installment will be directed by Soi Cheang (Motorway; Accident), who most recently worked with Francis on the film adaptation of the the ultraviolent Japanese manga Shamo (2007). It will be nice to see Francis in a real Hong Kong crime film once again, as opposed to the soapy melodrama of TITS or the dreadful mainland shlock he’s been putting out lately. Can’t wait–
UPDATE: Although google is mangling the translation of this article, I think that it says that Francis Ng, Chilam Cheung, and Louis Koo are now confirmed for the movie version of the drama and that, due to her clashes with Francis and other cast members as well as her Marilyn Monroe-esque behavior on set (i.e., being late and not knowing her lines), Fala Chen has been dumped from said movie and replaced by Taiwanese star Lin Chi-Ling. What’s more interesting is that Benny Chan is now attached to direct and that the film supposedly will be an “action” movie. Chan is fresh from one of the top-grossing Hong Kong films of last year, The White Storm, which was a manly crime film starring Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Nick Cheung. Having just watched Big Bullet again recently, I can only hope that news of Chan’s involvement is true and that the brave and handsome flight crew will face terrorists, bombs, and mayhem on the streets and in the skies of Hong Kong. I’d pay to see that–
UPDATE 2: After many casting and directing changes the movie version of Triumph In The Skies is about to be released, just in time for the Chinese New Year’s holiday on Feb. 20, 2015 with a day-and-date release in North America. The publicity machine has been in full force and the film is one of the favorites in the New Year’s slate, although it’s going up against a new Sandra Ng sex comedy, 12 Golden Ducks, and Chow Yun-Fat’s latest gambling movie, From Vegas To Macau 2, which also stars A-listers Nick Cheung, Carina Lau, and Shawn Yue. The new TITS movie, directed by Matt Chow and Wilson Yip, focuses on romance and relationships, as well as nice scenery and tailored clothes, with Francis Ng paired with Sammi Cheng, Louis Koo paired with Charmaine Sheh, and Chilam Cheung paired with Amber Kuo. Could be great, could be sucky, but I’m watching it either way.