Posts tagged ‘ringo lam’

Oh well: Sky On Fire film review

daniel-wu

Daniel Wu, gun, Sky On Fire, 2016

Ringo Lam came off of a very extended hiatus in 2014 with Wild City, his first feature film in more than ten years. Although flawed, the film still show flashes of what made Lam’s movies great back in his heyday in the 1980s when he made classics such as City on Fire, Prison On Fire, Wild Search, and Full Contact with the inimitable Chow Yun-Fat. Lam’s second film in three years, Sky On Fire, just released in the U.S. and Hong Kong and like its predecessor it’s a mixed bag. But whereas Wild City retained some of the grit of Lam’s earlier classics, almost all of that texture has been sanded away in this new release.

Though not as dreadfully unmemorable as fellow Hong Kong director Dante Lam’s last flick, Operation Mekong (2016), which I forgot I’d even seen the moment after I left the theater, there’s a certain unnerving genericness to Sky On Fire that is discouraging. Lam used to be one of Hong Kong’s most distinctive directors, with a streetwise style that pulled no punches. Some remnants of that still remain in Sky On Fire but for the most part the film is unremarkable and anonymous. The film follows Tribo (Daniel Wu), the security chief of a medical research firm, as he uncovers corruption and malfeasance involving what the subtitles call “ex-stem cells,” a prized medical breakthrough that can cure cancer. Along the way Tribo tangles with a group of thieves led by a young dude named Ziwan (Zhang Ruo Yun) who have stolen the former stem cells, as well as various baddies out to get their hands on the coveted objects.

stop-thief

Stop, thief! Sky On Fire, 2016

In Sky On Fire there are some remnants of Lam’s former mastery. Some of the action sequences are crisp and effective, including two scenes involving hand-to-hand fighting in cramped interiors. The first, which takes place in a small kitchen, features rapid-fire fight choreography that escalates rapidly and convincingly and that displays a mastery of space, movement, and editing. The second, in a narrow hallway, includes painfully realistic-looking violence including an actor’s head shattering the ceramic tiles lining the hallway’s walls.

Similarly, a car chase through the confined streets of Central makes good use of that district’s narrow, winding roads. But besides that the film has very little Hong Kong flavor, which is probably exacerbated by the international cut being dubbed in Mandarin. At first I couldn’t even tell the movie was set in Hong Kong, which is definitely not a good sign.

Sky On Fire also suffers from a convoluted plot and a very uneven tone throughout its running time. Lam makes the unfortunate decision to include a sappy cancer-patient storyline that sucks all of the life out of the narrative. It’s not helped by the fact that Amber Kuo plays the cancer patient in question since she’s a mopey drip throughout the movie. The film alternates to ill effect between the attempted pathos of her situation and the slam-bang action of the rest of the story and neither aspect of the movie meshes with the other.

amber-cancer

Amber cancer, Sky On Fire, 2016

By the last third of the film the wheels have completely come off as the story swerves into absurdity. The good guys end up in a fight scene in a hospital room while an incapacitated Amber Kuo lies whimpering in the bed. Suffice to say that the weapon of choice in this scene is a pole-mounted plasma bag. Following this unlikely scenario everyone including the terminal cancer patient piles into a car and speeds off, guns blazing. Luckily Tribo thoughtfully reminds everyone to buckle their seatbelts as they veer toward more vehicular mayhem. Other scenes are similarly clichéd, including a character tensely hacking something important from a desktop computer as the screen displays the download status. Can’t they just go on the cloud these days and not have to spend time breaking into an office and using a terminal? Other missteps include some very questionable CGI including fake-looking explosions and fires and a poorly matted rendering of the Sky Tower, the skyscraper where much of the action takes place.

oh-shit

Oh shit, Sky On Fire, 2016

The film wastes a lot of talent, from venerable Hong Kong character actors Wayne Lai and Philip Keung to Daniel Wu, who is stern and scowly but not terribly compelling. Idol drama star Zhang Ruo Yun in his first film role is adequate but unmemorable. Joseph Chang, on the other hand, gets it done with another strong performance. He’s shaping up to be a fine actor and here he combines a notable physicality with a sensitive intensity.

The movie also benefits from advances in digital cinematography as it looks slick and beautifully photographed. But all the pretty photography in the world can’t give the film coherence or make it connect emotionally, which is unfortunate given Ringo Lam’s past work. Here’s hoping he gets the chance to redeem himself with another, better movie sometime soon.

Sky On Fire opens Dec. 2 across North America

 

 

 

 

November 29, 2016 at 7:04 am 2 comments

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

Kinda Like A Big Deal: The Beast Stalker, Full Alert and Greatness in Hong Kong Movies

Nick Cheung with wonky eye, The Beast Stalker, 2009

Nick Cheung and wonky eye, The Beast Stalker, 2008

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.

Lau Ching-Wan shoots straight, Full Alert, 1997

Lau Ching-Wan shoots straight, Full Alert, 1997

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.

Nick & Nic mix it up, The Beast Stalker, 2008

Nick & Nic mix it up, The Beast Stalker, 2008

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.

May 15, 2009 at 5:40 am 2 comments


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