Movie Review: Undercover Duet/猛龍特囧

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I’d been looking forward to seeing this movie for quite a while. Not just because of the movie, but because its release had been delayed for a long time.

Mark Wu wrote, directed, and co-starts in Undercover Duet. He wrote and directed Due West: Our Sex Journey. He wrote Lan Kwai Fong 1 and 2. And Iceman 3D. And Lives in Flames.

But I watched Undercover Duet anyway.

It tells the story of James, an aspiring actor who lives with is sister, played by Ava Yu. She’s as blind as two bats, which should be clear from the way she’s dressed. James witnesses and videos a crime. A lot of people want the evidence, Or they want James dead.

The local police want James to testify. So they enlist the aid of D Dragon, played by Ronald Cheng Chung Kei. He’s a local undercover cop who was raised in Harlem.

No, really.

I was pleasantly surprised by how much the movie avoids the abundant minefield of potential racism that so often appears in local films. Luckily for us we’re not expected to take it seriously, and we’re expected to laugh at the character as well as the things he says.

I know I did. I laughed my ass off. The credit for that goes to Ronald Cheng, whose performance is funny, engaging, and, in a strange way, convincing. He switches effortlessly between Cantonese and English, though the English tends to be profanity 90% of the time.

It don’t make you a bad person, I’m just f@#$in’ saying.

I think it helped the movie avoid a Category III rating, because in Hong Kong, English foul language isn’t considered nearly as offensive as Cantonese ‘cho hau.’ So that means Undercover Duet is rated IIB. Which explains why there was a family of four sitting behind me in the cinema. It doesn’t explain why one of the two young boys parroted every single English swear word Ronald Cheng uttered.

Undercover Duet is funny, and entertaining, but I wouldn’t want to say it’s a good movie. I will say that I sincerely doubt it was ever intended to be. It’s a (very) lowbrow local comedy, and the audience I watched it with seemed to enjoy themselves thoroughly.  There’s a lot of verbal humor, some slapstick, and at least one sequence that is gleefully juvenile but at the same time nauseatingly squirm-inducing.

I was sincerely impressed by Mark Wu’s willingness to self-deprecate; he makes himself the butt of a lot of jokes and seems willing to do virtually anything to get a laugh. And I mean anything.

So like a lot of local movies, Undercover Duet is basically cinematic fast food. Cheap, greasy, and just the thing when you’re in the right mood.

If you go to McDonalds, you have no one to blame for the quality of the food except the moron who placed your order.

All that said, there is still a lot to enjoy in Undercover Duet. As I said, the verbal comedy is funny, even to someone like me whose Cantonese is rudimentary at best. There’s also some pretty impressive stunt work from Ronald Cheng. I was watching him closely, and he does a lot of his own work. 

Tony Ho delivers his usual solid performance as a… well, I’m not sure what he is, but he’s good in the role, and that’s what matters. 

Peter So Man Fung, aka Master So, self-deprecatingly plays a cop whose knowledge of feng shui and other associated nonsense plays too large a role in the investigation.

Wen Chao appears, and thankfully doesn’t resort to his near-chronic Stephen Chow imitation. 

There’s a huge number of cameos in the film. They vary in length, from the literally momentary appearance of Gregory Wong to a scene-length appearance from Chrissie Chau.

Also appearing are Sammy Sum, Phat Chan, Dominic Ho, Jessica C, and Miki Yeung, among others.

You’ve probably never heard of Zhang Chuanqi/张传奇 (I know I haven’t), but he bears a striking resemblance to a very famous local movie star. From certain angles, anyway. There are some very local and very topical jokes, including a new report from ‘April Dairy’ in the unique style for which a similarly named news organization is famous.

The South American psychotropic Ayahuasca makes an appearance, which I found nearly as surreal as the drug itself. From what I’ve read.

Speaking of surreal, the occasional serious parts of this film often come off as more convincing than a lot of serious scenes in other movies.

Also speaking of surreal, why was that guy pissing blood?

And why did I have to see it???

Movie Review: Wild City/迷城

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Ringo Lam has made some iconic Hong Kong films.

School/City/Prison on Fire, Full Alert, Full Contact, Victim, and a segment in 2007’s Triangle, his last film before this one. It’s been a long time since Ringo Lam made a movie, so I was really looking forward to Wild City

In some ways, it’s very reminiscent of his earlier films. There are large action set pieces interspersed with dialog between characters who are much more human than heroic. Louis Koo stars as a former police officer who now runs a bar.

But he’s not Irish.

His stepbrother, played by Shawn Yue Man Lok, drives a taxi. One of the things I love about movies is that they show us things that can never happen to real people in real life.

Without resulting in a restraining order, anyway.

One night a very drunk woman, played by Tong Liya, refuses Louis’ offer of a ride home.

So she’s either blind, stupid, or a lesbian.

Speaking of plausibility, Louis brings this inebriated woman to his mother’s house. His mother, played by Yuen Qiu, seems used to it. I really enjoyed her performance, but that can be said about a lot of people. It was nice to see Philip Ng in a non-action role that still required him to do some stunts, one of which sincerely frightened me.

It was good to see Joman Chiang as a policewoman, even though she’s played that role quite a few times lately. Philip Keung, Simon Yam and Sam Lee also turn in memorable performances. Joseph Chang, Jack Kao, and Marc Ma played Mandarin-speaking antagonists, which added to the 80s throwback feeling of the film. They were all entertaining as well as effective. Michael Tse plays the slimiest boyfriend since The Incredible Melting Man.

I don’t want to talk about too much of the plot, because I don’t want to give too much of it away and as usual I’d rather you watched it yourself. I’d rather talk about Wild City as a movie, because that’s the most interesting part of it for me.

I’m not saying the story’s bad, just that I won’t be focusing on it.

Having lived in Hong Kong for a decade now, one thing I really enjoyed about this movie is the settings. I recognized a lot of the places, and I think they really added to the film, both visually and narratively.

I used to wonder why so many local films had laborious flashbacks that for me unnecessarily reiterate a plot point or illustrate something we’ve seen.

But to be fair, the idiot couple sitting next to me spent so much time blabbing to each other and messing with their phones that I can now understand why flashbacks are necessary; because some of the audience are shit. Thanks a lot.

One of the flashbacks in Wild City was actually good, and made a contribution to character development. The second one wasn’t anywhere near as interesting. If we see someone in one place, and then later see someone else in that place, do we really need to be shown the first person leaving that place and the second person going there?

Do we?

A few days after watching it, I’m still not really sure what to think about Wild City.  On one level, it seems like a throwback movie, except that it looks a lot more modern. The themes, the tone, the dialog and the story all seemed very reminiscent of Ringo Lam’s 1980s films. 

But on a technical level the film is very up to date. Some people have criticized the CGI, but I don’t. The simple reality is that you can’t go setting off explosions in the middle of one of the most crowded places in the world. So in that sense, I understand why you need CGI sometimes. And to be fair, there was some other stuff that was surprisingly real. If you watch the movie you’ll know what I mean.

You’ll also see a bit of CGI that was totally unnecessary, both thematically and visually. It was the low point of my viewing.

A lot of recent productions have aspired to be blockbusters for any number of reasons, most of which I admit I don’t know. While Wild City doesn’t necessarily succeed on that level, I will easily say that it comes the closest to fulfilling that aspiration than any number of recent local films. Wild City isn’t perfect, but it’s a pretty entertaining way to spend 90 minutes.

Provided you’re not unlucky enough to be sat next to two mouth-breathers.

I can recommend watching this movie, if only because that way you can make up your own mind.

Besides, if you don’t watch the movie, you won’t be able to play the official Silver Spleen game “Where is Jane Wong?”

Movie Review: To The Fore/破風

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Dante Lam is one of Hong Kong’s best known directors. He’s made films like Unbeatable and The Stool Pigeon.

Then again, he made The Viral Factor and Sniper.

So any new Dante Lam film is always exciting, because you never know what it’s going to be like.

To the Fore is the story of a Taiwanese bicycle racing team trying to win races.

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And respect.

Eddie Peng stars as the talented but egotistical young hotshot. 

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Choi Si Won is his teammate and rival.

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 It’s hard to tell how he feels at any given time, because plastic surgery has rendered his face a frozen mask.

Or he can’t act his way out of a wet paper bag, I’m not sure.

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Shawn Dou plays the dutiful teammate who always helps ensure victory but never gets to win the race. Still, his hair is always… perfect.

So he’s got that going for him.

Wang Luodan plays a female cyclist (that’s not a euphemism) with a heart problem. And I don’t mean romantical [sic].

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Though she has those problems too. 

Andrew Lin plays the team’s coach and mentor.

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Will Eddie learn to be a team player?

Will the girl get the guys she wants, and will it be the guy who wants the girl more than the other guy?

Will a wayward team member learn the error of his ways?

Will the team reunite after learning their respective (and trite) life lessons?

Will this film play in China?

Since the answer to that one is yes, the answers to all the others are too. I’m not spoiling anything.

Anyone with an IQ above that of a rhododendron bush can see every bit of this movie coming from a mile away.

To the Fore was originally going to have the English title Breaking Wind.

Luckily for us, that tile was changed. Unluckily, the content remained the same. I don’t know what word goes past ‘pedestrian,’ but I wish I did. Everything about this movie is leaden, obvious, and embarrassingly derivative.

The only thing I enjoyed was Carl Ng in a small role as a manager so twisted he puts his pants on with a corkscrew.

Practically everyone else in this movie is so clean-cut it made me sick. Not to mention they’re cleanly cut with a cookie-cutter.

Okay, that went too far.

Considering how derivative virtually everything in this movie is, you’d think that at least Dante Lam might have had the intelligence to recycle Breaking Away, an iconic and Oscar-winning story about bike racing.

Then again, it’s a good thing he didn’t recycle Breaking the Waves either.

But To the Fore does recycle movies you may have seen before.

Sadly, and weirdly, it’s a Taiwanese version of Talladega Nights.

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Intentionally or not, when you have three plot points in your movie that are the same as a Will Farrell comedy about NASCAR, you got problems.

Speaking of problems… I have some questions of my own.

The movie takes place in Taiwan. So everyone speaks Mandarin. Well, almost everybody. Why do the newscasters in the voiceovers always speak Cantonese? It doesn’t matter where the races are; Taiwan, China, Korea… they speak Cantonese.

Who was that photographer woman who got a couple of close-ups but no dialog?

Why do the bad guy racers all bleach their hair blond?

Maybe they couldn’t afford foreigners to play the bad guys.

Everybody’s favorite home wrecker Mandy Lieu plays the designated Anglophone tramp.

Why do sluts always speak English in these movies?

A wayward teammate, a the ruthless winner, an alcoholic mother, a pining girlfriend, a slutty foreigner… this movie has everything!

Why are the male racers all about their sport but female racers are all about the boys?

Why does so much of the movie look like it was shot on a phone?

An old phone.

I know you can’t film a realistic bike pile-up (or you can’t afford the CGI), but why did they just show a bunch of people laying down while some PA tossed water bottles randomly into frame?

Why does that guy stick himself with a needle so huge it would make an elephant faint?

If someone you despise literally and intentionally pisses on you, why don’t you hit him?

Do people really gamble on bicycle racing in Korea, and is racing there to pay your debts really the moral and social equivalent of being a hooker?

If the racer’s ankle was ‘shattered” and the Achilles tendon was severed, how did they manage to get right back up and finish the race?

The answer to that question, and probably most if not all of thee others, is that it’s a movie.

That does not answer the question of whether or not that was a Curt Schilling homage I saw. 

But to be honest, I don’t really care. Ten minutes into this movie, I was counting the 115 more minutes until it ended.

As soon as I saw the first credit, I bolted for the door. But then someone tried to stop me from leaving. Apparently, there was an Easter Egg. “There’s still more to see,” she said. As I brushed past her, all I could say was “No there isn’t.”

I don’t necessarily want to call this a bad movie, because it might not be. I think that for the right audience it might actually work. The film was apparently made for teenagers, and on that level I can understand it. They’re the only ones for whom the pedantic storytelling and moralizing might actually inspire anything other than confusion and pity.

As I Tweeted after the screening: 

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Movie Review: Wonder Mama/媽咪俠

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Local films have been experiencing a kind of bifurcation (!) the last few years. On the one hand, we’ve got local versions of blockbusters, where the scope of the film keeps getting bigger and bigger. On the other hand, there have been a number of local films that are much smaller, much more localized, and in a lot of ways, better. Films like Bends, Doomsday Party, The Way We Dance, Dot 2 Dot, and Gangster Payday tend to be more character driven and have few if any gun fights, car chases

Or Andy Lau.

Wonder Mama, directed by Clifton Ko, falls squarely and comfortably into this growing body of small, local films.

Ah-Oi, played by Petrina Fung Bobo, is turning 50. She’s a shy, timid widower who tries to maintain peace in her home and at work. The film opens with her being offered a promotion, which she doesn’t want. She lives with her 30-year old unemployed son, a reclusive, shy type played skillfully by Babyjohn Choi (please change your name), as well as her father and her mother-in-law, played by Kenneth Tsang and Siu Yam Yam respectively.

But certainly not respectfully.

These two old people despise each other, and we learn that the first time we see them. Their arguments are epic and loud, and while they may seem overly dramatic and unrealistic, all I can say is I used to be married and this film reminded me why I’m glad I’m not. But never mind that tawdry nonsense. This weird, loud family isn’t very popular in their housing estate, as sleepless neighbors point out with hilarious frequency.

The film’s plot unfolds with a series of funny, touching, and entertaining plot lines that I’d rather let you learn about by watching the film. There is some overstatement and overacting. But I still found it very entertaining, and the audience I watched it with, in the cinema in Hong Kong, found it even more entertaining.

The acting is very commendable all the way around. Fung Bobo and Kenneth Tsang turn in remarkably complex performances, while Siu Yam Yam and Babyjohn Choi also do well. Their characters and the script don’t give them the same kinds of things to work with, but they are still impressive and very entertaining in their roles. 

That can also be said for the supporting cast. It was nice to see Tommy Wong Kwong Leung make an appearance playing a very funny character in a sub-plot involving Ah Oi’s dead husband. Wen Chao plays a cousin from ‘Up Above’ whose constant Stephen Chow impressions get on people’s nerves. Which, if you know about Wen Chao, makes it a case of art reflecting life.

Wonder Mama is a lot of fun to watch, and as it veers between over-the-top silliness and heart-wrenching seriousness, you’re treated to a number of very memorable moments. Sometimes they are the center of attention and sometimes you have to watch the background of the scene to catch them. Siu Yam Yam has one particular moment that I found really, really funny, even as it’s really no laughing matter.

I really enjoyed Wonder Mama, for a lot of reasons, and I hope you would too. It’s a very localized film, but it’s not opaque. You have to be a little generous in places, but the rewards are well worth it. As I said before, it’s the kind of movie that’s been appearing more often in Hong Kong, and I really, really appreciate that.

I also appreciate Wonder Mama for being the first film in a long time that got Film Development funding and didn’t make me want to pull my teeth out.

Movie Review: SPL II/殺破狼2

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This movie has everything: action, comedy, drama, an idiot savant and a phone that’s actually a submarine.

SPL 2 is the latest film from director Soi Cheang. It stars Louis Koo as a man with a life threatening-illness.

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If he doesn’t get a new hairdo, I’m gonna die.

He’s a criminal with a plan, and Simon Yam plays a cop out to stop him. Wu Jing plays an undercover cop who ends up in the wrong place at the wrong time several times.

If you see the movie, it’ll make sense. 

Donnie Yen isn’t in SPL 2. I have no idea why.

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But this is as good a time as any to say that Tony Jaa acts really well in the movie in addition to being a fantastic movie martial artist.

He plays a man who will do almost anything to save his terminally ill daughter. There are quite a few very noteworthy performances in SPL2 at all levels. Both Tony Jaa and Wu Jing are known primarily for being action stars, but they both display admirable dramatic chops in this movie. One of the best things about Hong Kong cinema is the very strong talent pool of supporting actors. Jun Kung plays Louis Koo’s brother. It’s a small but important role, and Jun plays it well.

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The same goes for Candy Yuen, who plays his wife.

Philip Keung and Ken Lo also turn in notable performances. Most importantly, as familiar as they are, they still managed to make me believe in their characters. That’s especially admirable given the rather, uh, minimal character development in SPL 2. It’s a big, sprawling movie that is ambitious in its scope. In many ways it realizes those ambitions, but in other ways it doesn’t. Big movies need big characters.

But big characters need backgrounds.

It’s hard to know who any of these people are beyond what scant information we’re given about them. SPL 2 is very much a local blockbuster. It’s gigantic in scope, and often the spectacle is expected to be its own justification. There’s no narrative need for a gigantic prison riot.

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But it sure looks good, and it gives three of the main characters a chance to showcase their phenomenal action skills.

There’s also another really robust phone.

Still, SPL 2 is a very entertaining movie simply to look at. The action is, of course, impeccable. Zhang Jin is a very capable foil for Tony Jaa and Wu Jing.

My only critiques of him are things beyond his control; for some reason his ‘wire assistance’ is quite obvious some of the time.

That’s not about him at all, it’s about the people in charge. The problem is that it stands in stark contrast to the others, who do have wires sometimes, but it’s not as obvious. Speaking of obvious, I also found it hard to take the idea of a man wearing a suit in an un-air-conditioned prison and fighting off all and sundry without breaking a sweat. He did look flawless, I just found it hard to believe. It probably sounds like I’m being picayune (!), but again, everything else is much more natural and realistic, so it seems very fake in context. 

But when has realism ever really mattered in a summer blockbuster?

As I noted in the opening, this film also features a piece of technology that is nothing short of miraculous. Without spoiling anything, I can say that this mobile phone not only survives being tossed unceremoniously into Hong Kong harbor, it then apparently migrates out to the fishing grounds (not that there’s much commercial fishing in Hong Kong these days, but I digress) where it is (pun intended) fished out of the water by someone who proceeds to use it to call someone.

Look, at the very least, anything you drop into the harbor is likely to melt from the pollution. They had to change the script of The Dark Knight because stuntmen wouldn’t swim in it. 

The reason I say all of that is because, for me, plausibility is important. Not just because I would like to believe things could happen. It’s also important because it can affect the mood of the whole film. I’ve talked before about what I call the Mood Roller Coaster in local film; the tone can shift dramatically (!) from dead serious to outright silly several times over the course of any given film.

But remember; SPL 2 is a big, loud summer blockbuster and as such it has no obligation to be any smarter or more believable than San Andreas.

Trust me, if it weren’t for a couple of good friends in L.A, I would totally root for the earthquake. But never mind that.

There’s a lot to like about SPL2, including the acting, cinematography, and especially the action choreography. I enjoyed looking at this movie, and I did get a little caught up in it, especially because of the sub-plot involving Tony Jaa and his daughter.

It’s just not a story you should think about too much.

Unfortunately, the emotional climax of the movie is so shamelessly contrived that it struck me not just as hopelessly implausible but manipulative and cheap.

I didn’t know Barbara Wong wrote for Soi Cheang.

Movie Review: Imprisoned: Survival Guide for Rich and Prodigal/高登闊少踎監日記

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Imprisoned: Survival Guide for Rich and Prodigal tells the story of a young man named Nelson, played by Gregory Wong. Nelson’s filthy rich. He sleeps around, parties every night, and his cure for drunkenness is to get behind the wheel of his Maserati and drive it off. One night, while driving too fast, and too drunk, while his new best friend has her head in his lap (but she’s not sleeping), Nelson runs over an old lady.

Which is why he ends up in prison.

His cloying, overprotective mother, played by Candice Yu, promises to get him out as soon as she can. Her condescension and utter lack of concern for anyone other than her son make it very easy to dislike her, which is what we’re supposed to do. It’s also made easy by Candice Yu’s performance.

There’s a lot of that in Imprisoned Survival Guide, and it’s part of what makes it such a wonderfully schizophrenic film. On one hand, you’ve got a Category III movie about prison. Foul language, brutal violence, and sexual situations and humor abound. I’ve never seen digital FX used to show something onscreen that you normally would be prohibited from seeing. But it happens here, and it’s funny as well as visually impressive. As is the non-digital ‘prosthetic humor,’ which also shows us something we’ve never otherwise see.

And I hope I never see again. Ever.

As young Nelson adjusts to his new environment, he learns a lot of lessons. He makes some new friends and meets an old enemy. And these people are what make Imprisoned Survival Guide such a fun, and good, movie. The supporting cast all turn in very watchable performances. Babyjohn Choi plays Roach, the archetypal squirrely sidekick. Young Mr. Choi is becoming a very good actor.

He just needs a new English name. Really.

The antagonist in the film is played by Justin Cheung, star of Due West: Our Sex Journey. He may be hard to recognize in the film because he was doing a Vegas-era Elvis Presley imitation. His constant glare is impressive because he never, ever, breaks out of it.

There are a ton of cameos and small roles, all of which add to the film. Lam Suet, Yuen Qiu, Philip Keung, Ken Lo and Tony Ho, among others, all make their presence felt. Speaking of presences, here is the literal and figurative presence of local cinema history.

Prison on Fire gets name checked in Imprisoned Survival Guide more than once. But it’s more than that. Quite a few people who appeared in those two movies also appear in this one as well. Tommy Wong and Ho Ka Kui reprise their roles as inmate leaders, and Vincent Wan, who appeared in Prison on Fire II, returns as well. Ng Chi Hung, who was in both movies, makes an appearance as well, though not as an inmate. Elvis Tsui once again plays one of the jailers. It was nice to see him back onscreen in a Category III movie, though he didn’t do anything prurient. In fact, he shows off his considerable acting skills without dropping any F bombs.

Or his pants.

So while Imprisoned Survival Guide has everything you think it would, it’s also got a lot of surprises. The film’s schizophrenia also results in the ‘mood roller coaster’ so common in local films. One minute you’re laughing at an actor so obviously doubled that you know it must be intentional, and the next someone’s acting their ass off and making you believe in the character. I don’t want to give away any details, but I will say that as usual, Lui Kai Chi makes Aaron Kwok look (even more) foolish. If you see the movie, you’ll know exactly which scene I’m talking about.

In a similar vein, for every pointless appearance of some over-breasted bimbo whose English name should be Random Ho, there’s very topical and very knowing references to Hong Kong’s political situation.

And yes, I realize I shouldn’t say such terrible things about he women in the movie. One of them is named Coffee Lam, and I only know that because of priceless headlines like this one:

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Lovely.

Two of my personally favorite aspects of the movie are likely to be of particular value to non-locals. For one, the English subtitles provide a good amount of contextual information that helps explain some of the humor and situations in the film. The other thing is the musical cue that brings to mind a recent Hollywood film based on a local blockbuster from 2002.

I know I’ve said before that I’ve gotten kind of blasé about premieres. Well, I shouldn’t be. I got to go to the premiere of Imprisoned Survival Guide, and I’m extremely glad (and grateful) that I did. I got to take photos with quite a few of the cast members, including 

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Gregory Wong

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Vincent Wan

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Tommy Wong

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Ken Lo

and…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

wait for it…

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

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Elvis Tsui!!!

Movie Review: Prison on Fire I&II /監獄風雲 I&II

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Ringo Lam is one of Hong Kong’s most well-known directors, especially to non-local fans. His films are often tense, unflinching glimpses at people and situations most of us never have to see.

1987’s Prison on Fire tells the story of a group of inmates imprisoned in Hong Kong. Tony Leung Kar Fai (aka Big Tony) plays Yiu, a young man who works in advertising. In helping his father defend himself against a gang of hoodlums, Yiu commits involuntary manslaughter.

The film opens with him processing in with all the other new arrivals. He’s very much a fish out of water, and has good reason to be terrified. 

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And not just because of the cavity search.

Right from the start, prison proves to be an emotionally, psychologically, and physically uncomfortable place. He soon makes the acquaintance of Ching, a seasoned inmate who tries, with varying degrees of success, to teach the ‘new fish’ how to act right.

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Ching is of course played by Chow Yun Fat in what I think is one of his best roles. But maybe that’s because I think Prison on Fire is such a great movie. As part of Ringo Lam’s series of ‘Fire’ movies, the others being City on Fire and School on Fire, Prison on Fire is a realist look at life and the people you find in it.

I’ve never been inside a Hong Kong prison, but films like this one can at least give us a glimpse. I’m sure there are corners cut on accuracy, and the film opens with a disclaimer, but just seeing the day-to-day realities of Hong Kong prison life are interesting.

Like when it kicks off in the yard and no one gets shanked. I was shocked.

There is of course a story taking place amid all this, and if I say it’s generic, I only mean that it’s a prison movie, and as such prison movies (the good ones, anyway) tend to have some similarities.

That’s why they call it a genre, the noun from which generic comes.

Yiu and Ching are trying to stay out of the way of the guards, led by Roy Cheung, and the gangsters, led by Tommy Wong Kwong Leung on one side and William Ho Ka Kui on the other. 

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Oh, and Shing Fui On in the middle, taking swipes at any and everyone. 

One thing I notice about this movie is how young everyone looks. And I mean everybodyTony Leung, Chow Yun Fat, Ng Chi Hung, Victor Hon Kwan.

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Even Lo Hoi Pang! 

I also notice how nice Prison on Fire looks. The DVD I watched was remastered, which certainly helped, but I want to also mention the cinematography and shot construction.  It adds a lot to an already powerful film.

In Prison on Fire, Ringo Lam creates an intense, downright brutal film that contains extremely graphic violence, but never becomes exploitative. It stands as a testament to his skill and to the kind of movies Hong Kong cinema once made. But it also stands as an impressive, entertaining movie no matter where or when it was made. One of the nicest (and truest) things I can say about Prison on Fire is that it ages really, really well.

Unlike me.

The story, the acting, and the direction have lost nothing to the passage of almost 30 years.

Unlike me.

Pof2

Prison on Fire was popular enough that they made a sequel. But it took them four years. And they are kind of an important four years, because halfway between 1987 and 1991 is… 1989. Halfway though any year is the month of June.

And June 1989 was a very important year for Chinese people.

It’s also important for Prison on Fire II. Tony Leung isn’t in Prison on Fire II, but Chow Yun Fat is.
He’s still up to his usual tricks, keeping everyone entertained or annoyed, depending on how they feel about him. 

There’s a new officer in the prison, played by Elvis Tsui, who rather unusually has both hair and pants in this movie. He’s much more of a disciplinarian than Roy Cheung, and has a penchant for braking arms and legs as a means of maintaining order.

And order is being threatened.

In the 1980s, groups of daring robbers from China committed a series of brazen armed robberies of jewelry stores in Hong Kong. If you’ve seen the original Long Arm of the Law, you know what I’m talking about. Naturally, not all of these robberies succeeded, and so the presence of mainland convicts in the Hong Kong prison system became more pronounced.

The rivalry, and friction between Hong Kong and mainland inmates is the backdrop for the story in Prison on Fire II

Naturally it is also an allegory for the way Hong Kong felt about its looming return to the PRC in 1997.

Early in the film, Chow Yun Fat attempts to speak with the mainlanders in Mandarin. But apparently his Mandarin is terrible. Undaunted, he launches into a Mandarin song, “Bloodstained Glory.”
Originally about the men lost during China’s abortive 1979 invasion of Vietnam, the song became an unofficial anthem, and memorial, of the Tienanmen students.

But enough about context.

In Prison on Fire II, Chow Yun Fat is trying to juggle his psychotic new jailer, a bubbling conflict with the mainlanders, and the growing alienation of his son, who wants nothing to do with him. Like the first film, Prison on Fire II veers between solemn and silly, but also like the first film it’s always engaging, entertaining, and builds towards an ending both vicious and unforgettable.
Like the first film, it ages really well. even as it also captures a snapshot of the city’s social and political past. The cast, some of whom return from the first film, again turn in very, very strong performances. Tommy Wong Kwong Leung, Ng Chi Hung, and Victor Hon Kwan return, and a (typically young looking) Vincent Wan Yeung Ming also makes an impact. 

Prison on Fire II is the rare sequel that not only doesn’t disappoint but actually holds its own. I’ve said very little about the plot because I think it’s a movie that you need to see for yourself. There are a lot of genuine laughs, shocks, and entertaining scenes. There are a bunch of impressive performances, and the direction and execution of the film are also highly commendable. 

I strongly encourage people to see these movies if they never have. And if you have seen them, watch them again.