Movie Review: 12 Golden Ducks/12金鸭

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It’s Chinese New Year, and that means one thing.

Well, it means a lot of things, but one of those things is Chinese New Year movies. 12 Golden Ducks is the fourth movie in the Golden Chicken franchise.

Which is not a restaurant.

Last year’s Golden Chickensss was also a new year movie, and it was my favorite of the bunch. I liked it so much that it was one of my top five movies of 2014.

That movie, as well as 12 Golden Ducks, was directed by Matt Chow. He co-directed this year’s Triumph in the Skies, a film I called Failure in the Cinema. I’m more than willing to lay that off on his co-director, because 12 Golden Ducks, like its predecessor, is a really, really good movie. It’s not just a good Chinese New Year movie, though it is that.

It’s a really good movie any time of the year.

Sandra Ng plays Future Cheung, a gigolo.

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Yes, Sandra plays a man.

It’s a little hard to get used to at first, but she does such a good job with it that I started to see her character instead of her. She deserves a lot of credit for going through this kind of makeup, because that takes a lot more patience than I could ever have.

Like the previous movies, Sandra’s character is a sex worker facing a challenge, and she must find a way to rise to the occasion. In this movie, that’s just one of the challenges.

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Future’s not alone in this endeavor; his colleagues are an interesting bunch played by Philip Keung, Babyjohn Choi, Wilfred Lau and Lo Hoi Pang, who continues his nearly unbroken streak of appearing in every single Hong Kong movie made.

Ivana Wong and Wyman Wong (no relation) play a Thai couple whose restaurant is a front for a duck shop. I wasn’t really fond of the Thai impressions they were doing, but they weren’t as bad as some other things I’ve seen in local movies.

These tenacious professionals face adversity with courage, wit, and ingenuity. Along the way we get to see a lot of different stories and a huge variety of local stars. Pakho Chau and Michelle Wai appear in the beginning of the film. Fiona Sit’s cameo makes a nod to the city’s current political climate. Simon Yam’s cameo answers the question “how ugly can one man’s outfits be?”

A flashback featuring Nicolas Tse foreshadows the end of the film and also recalls the original Golden Chicken from 2002. Speaking of the original, Eason Chan returns for another cameo, split into two parts, both of which are hilarious.  Isabella Leung returns to the big screen with a small role. Unlike me, she’s aging really, really well. So is Chrissie Chau, who plays the headmistress of a school 90% of men and 10% of women wish they had attended. Anthony Wong plays another headmaster who probably would be just as popular, but for different reasons. 

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I was really happy to see Carmen Lee back on the big screen again in a very funny scene with Louis Koo. It was also nice to see him getting to play an informal, funny character. I can’t explain it well, but when you see it you’ll know what I mean.

Carmen Lee actually used to exercise at the same gym I go to. The first time I saw her, I asked if she was Carmen Lee, and she asked me why I knew who she was. Understandably, she was more than a little nervous.

The end of the movie features a cameo by Lu Han, who is apparently a member of some Korean boy band.

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Or girl band. 

The thing that makes 12 Golden Ducks so special is the same thing that made the Golden Chicken movies special. They somehow capture a very distinctive sense of the local. It’s almost a kind of nostalgia, but it’s more than that. These movies are almost like love letters to the city.

It also helps that 12 Golden Ducks is so well-written, acted, and directed. It’s a lot of fun to watch, and it still ends up affecting you more than it objectively should.

It’s easily my favorite Chinese New Year movie of 2015.

Movie Review: Seeding of a Ghost/种鬼

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Released in 1983, Seeding of a Ghost was infamous for its shocking content. The Shaw Brothers were trying desperately to get people in the seats,  and so they took the ideas of onscreen sex and violence to new highs.

Or lows.

A taxi driver’s wife cheats on him. But he loves her. When she gets raped and murdered, he is at first the prime suspect.

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What do you expect from cops dressed like this?

Frustrated, he enlists the help of a black magic practitioner to get revenge on his wife’s attackers, using his dead wife’s ghost as the instrument of vengeance.

They also use his dead wife’s naked, desiccated corpse. The way they use it is so weird and disturbing… that they don’t even want to watch.

Seeding of a Ghost isn’t Category III. But that’s only because in 1983, Category III hadn’t been invented yet. But believe me, this movie should be Category III. There’s a LOT of blood.

It’s that super-bright Shaw Brothers red, but there’s gallons of the stuff. And a lot of other gore. There’s nudity.

Of the full frontal variety. 

But mostly there’s magic.

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 Lots and lots of magic.

Rendering magic through special effects has always been a challenge. Add to that the time and budget constraints the Shaw Brothers were known for, and you know that Seeding of a Ghost didn’t make Rick Baker nervous.

Even so, there’s a lot to like here. It’s the sizzle that sells the steak, and the use of bright, vivid colors really does make up for the technical, budgetary, and, frankly, visual limitations of the effects. The lighting, and especially the camera work, keep the movie higher on the quality scale than it really ought to be. 

The colors, which look fantastic on these remastered DVDs, as well as the professional lighting, go a long way towards making the movie not just fun but acceptable. It’s hard to explain, but Seeding of a Ghost looks nice enough in some ways that it helps you overlook the things that look bad. In other words, the poor quality of the effects don’t take you out of the movie.

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I still would.

Seeding of a Ghost features old-school animation-type special effects like we see in Iceman Cometh or Magic Cop and others. They’re  aren’t convincing, though we have to admit we have no idea what these things would really look like. Maybe it’s nostalgia, but I really like the aesthetic of these effects. The remastered DVD makes them look even nicer, and it’s easy to realize now that even if they aren’t great effects, they’re better than you might expect or remember, at least aesthetically.

The effects are special if only because they deserve a lot more credit for their expedience and ingenuity than their ability to convince. Before CGI, bubbling potions used Alka Seltzer. And if the script called for you to vomit live worms, guess what you had to put in your mouth?

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More importantly, even though the effects aren’t convincing, they’re still very watchable. I wasn’t deceived, and I wasn’t frightened… but I was definitely entertained! At least one of the special effects actually made me rewind to see how it was done. Partially because it was such a surprise in the movie. Bonus points for seeing a Taoist priest biting his finger to write with his own blood.

That never gets old to me.

I really enjoyed Seeding of a Ghost, because it surprised me so often. Although the effects aren’t all that great visually, sometimes their content is enough to impress you. I was genuinely shocked a few times. My mouth literally fell open. This movie goes so far past inappropriate, shameless exploitation that even I felt wrong for watching it.

But in a good way. 

You know how some movies try to be transgressive and shocking? Seeding of a Ghost doesn’t have to try. The story, as I said, is about a man taking revenge on the men who raped and murdered his wife. But I guess his wife’s ghost has other plans. Because she then goes after her boyfriend. And his wife. And their houseguests.

The last fifteen minutes of Seeding of a Ghost is completely depraved, and you keep thinking it can’t get any weirder.

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 It does.

Not only does it mimic The Thing, the John Carpenter movie that was released the year before, it also features the most f@#$ed up homage to the original Alien I’ve ever seen. 

There are few movies you can really call unforgettable. Seeding of a Ghost is one of those movies.

Movie Review: From Vegas to Macau II/賭城風雲Ⅱ

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From Vegas to Macau was one of 2014’s bigger Chinese New Year movies, because it heralded the return of Chow Yun Fat to the Hong Kong gambling movie. He wasn’t reprising the God of Gamblers role, but the film certainly referenced, and played with, that iconic character. The sequel is also being released at Chinese New Year, and it has an even bigger budget than last year.

I think its important to state up front that From Vegas to Macau II is very much a Chinese New Year movie, because that has a very big influence on its content. Chinese New Year movies are a lot more about cameos, comedy, and silliness than about drama, narrative or pathos. From Vegas to Macau II adds in a lot of action, special effects, and interesting locations. The opening credits evoke the old James Bond films, and they make it clear right away that significant money was spent on the film.

The story moves from Hong Kong to Thailand to Macau, with filming in all three locations. The plot involves the continuing efforts of law enforcement to stop a criminal organization with the help of Chow Yun Fat’s character Ken, a mster gambler.

To be honest, he’s actually a master cheater. He always seems to have some gadget or trick that lets him win. But so what?

In the movie, the good guys pursue the bad guys. That’s not much of a synopsis to give you, but let’s be honest: the story is the least important thing in this movie. And I don’t mean that in a bad way. The story is simply a means for the film to move from set piece to set piece, setting up the different scenes that happen.

The film opens with a meeting on a luxury yacht, and features cameos from Wong Jing, Nat Chan and Eric Tsang playing mahjong. When the story moves to Thailand, the action kicks in with two different scenes featuring a lot of gunfire, explosions, and CGI blood squibs. 

Thailand is also the setting for a parody of (or homage to) 2013’s Unbeatable. But this time Nick Cheung plays the corner man and Chow Yun Fat puts on the gloves. Along the way, we also visit Ken’s super-high tech mansion, home not only to Ken and his daughter but a robot butler that speaks in the Chiu Chow dialect.

This is one of those times that I can full concede my lack of language skill means I don’t understand part of the movie. I know it’s supposed to be funny, because I heard the other people laughing, but I don’t know why. But I may have been the only person in the cinema to have picked up on the Woody Allen homage that Nick Cheung performs.

Speaking of Nick Cheung, his interactions with the robot were the source of one of my biggest laughs of the film. And there’s a lot to laugh at in the movie. I don’t know why there’s such a thing as a syringe marked ‘obtuse muscle injection,’ or why it would be found in an armory.

But I know it gets used.

One thing I really enjoyed about From Vegas to Macau II was seeing a lot of old and new faces onscreen. Connie Man Hoi Ling and Hazel Tong played Interpol agents, and for both of them this may be their most under cover roles yet; neither wears a bikini or anything else vaguely revealing. But in a cameo, Natalie Meng Yao makes the most of what God gave her to make a joke. Kenny Wong and Derek Tsang also play Interpol agents, and Philip Keung Ho Man plays a gambler. None of them reveals much either.

And thank God for that.

Shawn Yue takes over the Nicholas Tse spot, though Nick Cheung Kar Fai ends up with significantly more screen time. It was nice to see Carina Lau on the big screen again, and her scenes with Chow Yun Fat were a lot of fun to watch. My favorite cameo will remain a surprise, because I think you should see it. It’s probably my favorite part of the movie. 

From Vegas to Macau II is a great Chinese New Year movie, even if it’s not a great story. But it’s not really supposed to. It’s supposed to entertain people during the biggest holiday in Chinese culture, in ways that the Hong Kong audience has come to expect and even demand. So if you watch this movie, it would be wrong to expect it to be something that it’s not designed or intended to be. But if you like Chinese New Year movies, I think you’ll really enjoy From Vegas to Macau II.

Movie Review: Triumph in the Skies/衝上雲霄

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Chinese New Year is a special time of year for movies. In Hong Kong, people like to go to the cinema during the holiday. They like to see movies filled with stars, with heartwarming stories that promote family, hard work, and tradition. 

They also like silliness. Chinese New Year movies can get really silly sometimes, but I actually enjoy it. However, I only enjoy it during Chinese New Year. Sometimes they release a Chinese New Year movie outside the holiday. It’s awful. Because that silliness is not funny in May or October. I can be really forgiving during Chinese New Year.

Because it’s the holiday. 

Triumph in the Skies wasn’t supposed to be a New Year movie. But they decided to release it during the holiday. And that’s a good thing. Because if they didn’t, I might lose my mind with what an awful movie it would be otherwise.

But it’s Chinese New Year!

Triumph in the Skies is co-directed by Wilson Yip and Matt Chow. Wilson Yip directed the first two Ip Man movies. And Magic to Win. Matt Chow directed 2014’s Golden Chickensss as well as this year’s 12 Golden Ducks. He also directed PR Girls.

Recognize.

In theory, directors are responsible for the end result of a movie, good or bad. So if Triumph in the Skies was a plodding, leaden display of uninteresting garbage that could only appeal to an audience willing to tolerate the reverse-flow sewage pipe that is TVB, then these two would be responsible.

But it’s Chinese New Year!

The movie starts with a music video-style montage that does absolutely nothing to establish the characters, story, or setting. It just looks like something that should be on TV. At least that way, you could change the channel to something worth watching.

But it’s Chinese New Year!

Of the characters who work at the airline, all the men are pilots and all of the women are flight attendants. Because Chinese New Year movies like to be traditional. If it wasn’t Chinese New Year, it would seem atavistic, grossly sexist and downright insulting.

But it’s Chinese New Year!

Sammi Cheng plays a rocker woman whose (fake) tattoos and spikes mark her out as a dangerous rebel. She takes pills. She’s so edgy and scary. She sings a rock version of “Somewhere over the rainbow.” So edgy. So daring.

So what?

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At another time, I might say that having Sammi Cheng hold an Eddie Van Halen guitar is the same thing as having Uma Thurman wear the Game of Death tracksuit: Laughable at best and insulting at worst.

But hey, it’s Chinese New Year!

Which may be why it turns out that like all the other women in this movie, all she really wants is a man, and the lack of one is her real problem. 

Speaking of real problems, whoever was responsible for the color in this movie would be advised to seek out an optometrist. Because in addition to looking like they did the post production at Chernobyl studios, a lot of the movie is brutally soft focus. I thought I had a cataract. So that person needs to see a doctor immediately. Well, once the holiday is over.

You know, the Chinese New Year holiday.

If it wasn’t Chinese New Year, the plot contrivances in Triumph in the Skies would seem arrogantly lazy: “I’ll go where we used to go. And so will she. When I’m there. Even though neither of us live in this city.” Because… well, maybe because the script says so. Or because that’s how TV dramas work. Or how TV writers write. That kind of laziness isn’t pedestrian.

It’s paraplegic.

So is dialog like “Starting from today, let me be your seatbelt.” Or filmmaking so bad that I had no idea two people were supposed to be a subplot. Because they have about twelve lines together in the whole movie. But China financing doesn’t provide itself.

Even when it’s Chinese New Year!

I know that because the end credits feature the traditional Chinese New Year greetings from the cast. And that’s my favorite part of most Chinese New Year movies. I really, really like it. It’s easily my favorite part of Triumph in the Skies. Not because it signaled the end of a seemingly interminable film. No, because…. It’s Chinese New Year!

Triumph in the Skies isn’t a comedy. But it is a constant source of laughter. Chinese New Year movies are supposed to be silly and disposable and shallow. Triumph in the Skies is a great Chinese New Year movie.

If it was released any other time of the year, it would be a bottomless trench of mediocrity.

But it’s Chinese New Year!!!

Movie Review: Revenge: A Love Story/復仇者之死

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Revenge: A Love Story is a Category III film. I’m glad, because that means this review is too.

This movie f@#$ing stinks.

I really enjoyed Once Upon a Time in Shanghai, Wong Ching Po’s last film. He directed and co-wrote Revenge: A Love Story, and I skipped it in cinemas in 2010.

And now I know why.

Juno Mak, who stars in the film, is credited with the original story.

Which may explain the grossly meretricious use of slow motion in so many of his scenes.

If I’m fast-forwarding a scene, and the movie is still in slow motion… that’s pretentious.

Is that a dead baby or a plastic doll?

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No, really. 

Maybe I’m an @sshole.

Seriously.

Why am I so annoyed by outlandishly unrealistic stuff in movies? Why do I want logical explanations of things that happen in a movie?

Maybe it’s because I’m not a f@#$ing idiot.

Though I imagine Barbara Wong would disagree.

I am, after all, a man.

See? He hates women!

Hey, I’m not the one who made a movie about a love story between a developmentally disabled schoolgirl and a serial murderer, in which she gets raped and pregnant women get murdered. I just watched the fucking thing.

And while that kind of thing may sound daringly transgressive, I assure you it isn’t.

Revenge: A Love Story  is transgressive only in the most pedestrian ways. You may think it’s edgy to have a scene with unbelievably (and I mean that in the literal sense) sadistic, brutal cops set in an interrogation room that would give Josef Mengele a hard-on.

I just think it’s ridiculous.

But it fits with the rest of the story. When cops enter a house and find a room with blood literally covering the floor, do they really just walk through it? I grant you, without that, you can’t have the close-up of the shoe moving up as the blood clings to it.

And when you find, in the middle of all that congealing blood, a woman who’s been eviscerated, is as white as the paint on the ceiling, and has dead eyes, are you really gonna check her pulse? With your bare hand?

Are you? Really?

If a person is as developmentally disabled as Ai Sola’s character, she wouldn’t be in a regular school. But then you wouldn’t be able to have a Japanese AV star in a local school uniform, would you?

F@#$ you too.

As underfunded as Hong Kong’s social services are, I highly doubt that we have orphanages that make Lubyanka Prison look like the f@#$ing Ritz Carlton. Speaking of which, it would be nice to know how Juno’s character knows exactly which room to find Ai Sola in.

The same day she was put there.

Or how he manages to get into a locked facility and spring her so easily. Or why she’s awake so soon after being sedated with a syringe, or why they keep loaded syringes at arm’s reach when bringing new kids into the orphanage-

Oh, f@#$ it.

It would be nice to know why they didn’t just shoot the whole movie in black and white, since it’s so washed out it’s damn near the same thing. Of course, they do that so when there’s blood they can make it look really red. Because that’s shocking and artistic. Or cheap attention-whoring.

But we’re not talking about my taste in women.

We’re talking about self indulgent film-making. Like framing your story with chapter titles.

And descriptions.

Here’s some free advice: If you’re on Chapter 3 at 21 minutes, that’s the textbook definition of being full of yourself.

In other words, go take a sh*t.

And if you think that sounds harsh, remember: I’m not the one who framed my epilogue with this title card:

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Get the f@#$ out of here.

Movie Review: Love in the Buff/春嬌與志明

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I know what you’re thinking. But I assure you, it doesn’t say Love in the Butt.

Dammit.

Love in the Buff is the 2012 sequel to 2010’s Love in a Puff. The movie opens in a manner similar to Love in a Puff. But where Love in a Puff was funny, this new opening is very different. It’s priceless, because always fun when something works the way it’s supposed to. And usually they don’t. So I was really glad this time. Jimmie and Cherie, still played by Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung, have fallen into a rut in their relationship, and when Jimmie gets posted to Beijing, he leaves Hong Kong and Cherie behind. Does she follow? If she doesn’t, we don’t have a movie.

She also goes ‘up above’ for work, and like Jimmie tries to find a new person to replace her ex. In Jimmie’s case, he plays the white knight to a flight attendant played by Mini Yang, a Chinese actress who is obviously not named after her cleavage. Good heavens. Because this is a movie, she gives him her phone number and soon, pretty much everything else. There’s no onscreen sex in Love in the Buff, but there wasn’t really any in the first movie either, so I won’t blame China.

Cherie also meets a man, and their relationship is rather different. It was a lot of fun watching these relationships develop, and it was also fun watching Jimmie and Cherie talk to each other. Like the first movie, the story itself isn’t really the major reward for watching. To me, it’s much more about watching the actors inhabit the characters and the dialog. It’s nice to see actors being so real and so ordinary. But because it’s a movie, things can’t always be realistic.

If I spot my ex-girlfriend while I’m out with my current girlfriend, I’m not going to talk to my ex.

But then my life’s not a movie.

I don’t even have a girlfriend. Or an ex-girlfriend. But never mind.

Pang Ho Cheung makes an appearance, wearing a very interesting t-shirt. Isabel Chan also reprises her role from the first film, and gives another strong performance in a small role. There’s a cameo appearance form Ekin Cheng (and his hair) playing himself (and itself) that’s funny, interesting, and a nice bit of toying with the fourth wall, albeit thematically.

Speaking of thematically, there’s an argument to be made that this movie represents Hong Kong, or Hong Kong cinema, or Pang Ho Cheung’s career. But the film makes the geography pretty much a token. There’s nothing in the movie about the unavoidable cultural differences, at work, at home, or in relationships. It’s a little weird. Jimmie and Cherie both speak Mandarin, but we don’t know how or why. But these things really didn’t bother me. Like I said,

Love in the Buff is just fun to watch. It’s so rare to see such realistic characters that even when their situations and settings aren’t totally realistic.

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I assure you, my spleen is strong.

Movie Review: The Gigolo/鴨王

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In Chinese, the movie is ‘Duck King,’ which some people might think is a typo. Seriously, look at your keyboard.

But it’s not that. In Cantonese, female prostitutes are called chickens. Visiting a prostitute is ‘calling chicken.’

Chickens’ male heterosexual counterparts, men who sexually service women for money, are known as ducks.

The Gigolo tells the story of a young man named Fung, played by Dominic Ho, who gets a job in the horizontal refreshment industry.

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And sometimes the upright refreshment industry.

He services a pair of clients, played by Candy Yuen and Hazel Tong, who display varying amounts of themselves in the film.

Jeana Ho plays Chloe, an aspiring young movie director. An article I read said that Jeana gave up her sexy image for the role. The article explained that the character was based on Barbara Wong, and quotes Jeana as saying “I don’t have to show off my figure, it would be a pure acting challenge. This time I play a female director, my costumes don’t have to be sexy.”

Barbara Wong could not be reached for comment.

Tony Ho also has a role, and as is usually the case, he damn near steals the movie with his scenes.

But why talk about the people in this movie who don’t have breasts?

Movies like this are made to appeal to 90% of men and 10% of women.

Candy Yuen doesn’t go the full monty, so to speak, but we do get to see her topless. It’s commendable.

And not just because they’re lovely.

Candy’s not using a body double makes her performance more effective and affecting than that of her costars. When the camera pans up from her tuchus or her breasts to her face, you can see that it’s all her.

Or that those are hers.

Her willingness to show herself also, by comparison, highlights the editing cuts necessary for the other actresses to use body doubles.

I’ve said before, for a number of reasons topless talent tends to be imported most of the time. So it was nice to see Cantonese breasts onscreen. 

Especially because of the (unfortunate) risks Candy Yuen is taking by showing us. One of her topless scenes was ‘leaked,’ and she’s been all over the tabloids this week. Typically, the ‘journalists’ are asking relevant and incisive questions like “Now that you’ve been naked onscreen, how will you ever find a man willing to date you?”

[raises hand]

As a Westerner who obviously is genetically incapable of understanding the vicissitudes of local views about sex, I find it hypocritical and cheap that the tabloids, and the people who read them, clamor for salacious content beforehand, and then excoriate the people who do it afterwards:

“Oooh! She’s gonna be topless! I can’t wait to see it! Look! She’s topless! Look! Ohh! She’s a whore!”

No, you are. If you really disapprove of something or someone, don’t put it on the cover, cheese-d*ck.

But where were we? Oh yes, the educational merits of The Gigolo.

Women apparently call ducks for very different reasons than men call chicken. Whereas a man might want the feeling of Ice-Fire, women apparently want something else: 

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Well, turn over. 

That joke may sound crass and unnecessary, but I can tell you that according to The Gigolo, attaining the feeling of first love apparently necessitates being on all fours, at least for part of the time. So it’s not just me.

This movie is so devoid of basic decency that I felt like I was at my family reunion.

I also learned that sex is the best cure for a roophie hangover.

I disagree; the last time I did that, my ass hurt for a week.

A lot of the soundtrack of The Gigolo is pornographic.

It’s f@#$ing awful.

CGI has definitely been used in a movie for a coin toss before. But this is probably the first time it’s ever been used to show someone juggling coins… with his tongue.

Better movies through technology.

That’s as good an example as any of the way that The Gigolo cannot be called suggestive. It’s demanding and insistent and overbearing.

This film has less subtlety than a rhinoceros with eczema.

The moments in the movie that are intended to be dramatic are laughably hollow, because the whole film is so morally and narratively shallow that you just can’t care about anything or anyone in it except in the most prurient sense. Our protagonist Fung casually snorts K-jai and then tricks his girlfriend into snorting it too.

Then they watch 33D Invader.

A moment of sexual deviance that should come off as shocking and repugnant is instead funny because it gets the tone all wrong.

Who am I kidding? It’s not funny. It’s f@#$ing hilarious.

There are NO narrative surprises in this movie. It’s a slave to the genre, but that is also one of its strengths. There’s nothing new here, but everything is familiar in the best kind of way.

This movie made me laugh at things I knew I shouldn’t laugh at.

And that just made me laugh even more.

Movie Review: The Extreme Fox/非狐外傳

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My father always use to say that if you’re not having fun, lower your standards. That’s been valuable and useful advice. Especially when I sat down to watch The Extreme Fox.

I don’t remember this getting a theatrical release in Hong Kong, but it’s very likely I just missed it. I bought this on DVD the other day because it was 3 for HK$100 and I figured that good or bad it was bound to be a good movie to review. And I can honestly say that it is a good movie to review.

Even if it’s not a good movie.

The Extreme Fox is directed by Wellson Chin. He directed The Inspector Wears Skirts and some of the sequels as well as Street Kids Violence.

Hey, I liked it.

It’s a parody of the literary classic Strange Stories from a Chinese Studio, the source material for movies like Painted Skin, A Touch of Zen and A Chinese Ghost StoryIt’s a good-natured throwback to the 90s, with a fast pace, an irreverent tone, and a period setting juxtaposed with current slang. There’s a lot of energy and a spirit of fun in this movie; watching it, you get the impression the people who made this movie had a lot of fun doing it.

It’s likely that they had more fun than the people who actually watched the movie.

It’s obvious from the opening frame that this movie wasn’t intended to be a cinematic masterpiece.

The budget constraints on this film would make Bob Crane jealous.

It looks like it was made in 3 days.

On someone’s phone.

But there are moments that make me laugh. There’s a lot of dialog I don’t understand, but I know it’s funny. One of the gags I did understand has to do with unscrupulous tour guides, a problem that occurs in Hong Kong sometimes. It’s always funny to me to see modern issues addressed in a period film.

There are more than a few instances of sincerely shocking and surprising moments that somehow charmed me. I guess because they were so unexpected. You’d have to see them to know what I mean, but if you watch the movie, you’ll know them when they happen.

The effects in this movie cannot reasonably be called special. They’re… unique, but not special by any stretch of the imagination.

The subtitles were occasionally very interesting, and I got the feeling some of it was intentional. Why else would someone talk about the deleterious (!) effects of “sucking your whammy gas”?

The Extreme Fox isn’t the worst movie I’ve ever seen.

But it was the best movie I saw that day.

It has Chrissie Chau as a ninja.

And she’s not good at it.

What more could you ask for?

I seriously give the actors credit for being able to keep a straight face through some of the situations in the movie. The NG reel that plays during the credits is actually entertaining, if only because it lets you know that the actors realized they weren’t trying to win any Golden Horses. 

And how much they struggled to keep those straight faces.

I’m not suggesting you should buy this movie.

I’m not even suggesting you should watch it.

But I am suggesting that if you did watch it, because you’re on an airplane or at home sick with the flu and it’s on TV, you may find that it has enough redeeming qualities that you won’t feel like it stole 90 minutes of your life from you.

Movie Review: Love in a Puff/志明與春嬌

Love-in-a-Puff

Pang Ho Cheung has helped to change the language of Hong Kong cinema. People always ask me if I learned bad words in Cantonese from watching movies. In truth, I learned them from the bus, the MTR, the sidewalks, and pretty much everywhere except the movies.

Profanity usually means that a film gets a Category III rating, but that’s been changing for a while now. And some people say it’s because of Pang Ho Cheung’s movies. In 2007’s Exodus, Nick Cheung’s character spouted a constant stream of profanity.

Some people were offended, but others were happy to hear realistic dialog. And that was the most common reason I heard when people told me why Love in a Puff was such a good movie and so popular with locals. They enjoyed the language.

Exodus didn’t get a Category III rating, but Love in a Puff did. But that’s probably because everyone in this movie is swearing all the time. The dialog in the movie was refreshingly realistic, natural, and believable.

Love in a Puff opens strangely, before making perfect sense. The first scene is really weird, but Pang Ho Cheung is no stranger to weird openings in his movies.

Besides, he’s Pang Ho Cheung, so he can open his movies any damn way he wants to.

Miriam Yeung plays Cherie, a woman who works at a cosmetics shop and meets fellow smokers outside her workplace where they share cigarettes, stories, and snacks.

She meets Jimmy, an advertising executive played by Shawn Yue Man Lok, and begin the slow dance of people interested in one another.

Between the realistic dialog and the very commendable acting of the two leads, this romance is believable, and it’s easy to get interested in it and stay that way.

At one point in the film, Miriam Yeung smiles, and you realize why she’s a movie star.

There’s a lot of dialog in Love in a Puff, and I mean a lot. But like I said before, it’s so natural that I could still pay attention. It was just nice to hear characters speaking like real people in a very uncinematic way. It helps that the supporting cast are so believable, even as they’re so recognizable. Cheung Tat Ming, Isabel Chan, Kuk Cho Lam, Vincent Kok, Charmaine Fong and Matt Chow all appear at different points of the movie, but they embody their characters well.

Love in a Puff is a vaguely artsy film, and it has that whimsical classical music soundtrack, and a ton of dialog and no action. No one gets shot, or naked. These kind of movies are usually not the kind of thing I enjoy, or even like. But rather than be bored or offended, I really enjoyed Love in a Puff, because it’s entertaining as well as artistic. It’s engaging, and I could like these characters.

It certainly helped that the film was the standard 90 minutes, so it doesn’t try my patience, and it’s not self-indulgent hubristic crap. Even if it is a little smug (and I’m not saying it is at all), at least Love in a Puff earns Pang Ho Cheung the right to feel that way. This movie was so good I didn’t even mind the classical music soundtrack, which is almost always a big red flag with the word PRETENTIOUS on it in local films.

I wish all movies with these kinds of pretensions came out so watchable. 

Speaking of watchable, make sure you watch all the credits. Otherwise you’ll miss something you need to see.

Movie Review: The Big Boss/唐山大兄

TheBigBoss+1971-46-b

 

The martial arts film certainly didn’t start with Bruce Lee. But his impact on was so big that the genre became something totally different. The moment Bruce Lee became a part of Hong Kong martial arts cinema, everything changed. Luckily for us, that moment was captured on, or maybe in, film.

The Big Boss tells the story of a group of Chinese men working in an ice factory in Thailand in the early 70s.

Which may seem like ancient history to some of you, but at the time it was the present.

As you can easily imagine, selling ice isn’t very profitable.

Even in a country that’s hot 400 days a year. 

Turns out that there’s something in the ice that’s worth a lot more than frozen water. This is why the film was originally called The Chinese Connection in America; it meant to capitalize on the success of The French Connection, the true story of the breakup of a Corsican heroin smuggling ring in America. In fact, the demise of the French connection led to the Chinese underworld’s dominance of the heroin trade in the mid-to-late 1970s.

But never mind that.

Because weighty geopolitical issues are the last thing we should be talking about in reference to The Big BossThere’s (almost) nothing weighty or important about this movie other than its star. The Big Boss wasn’t an expensive movie to make, and I doubt they spent a lot of time making it, and in a lot of ways it really shows its age.

And I don’t mean the outfits.

I’m talking about the cinematography, the acting, the script, and most of the action choreography.

If it weren’t for Bruce Lee, we probably wouldn’t be talking about it at all.

The film was originally written for James Tien, who spends the first half of the movie kicking ass in the Shaw Brothers style. Which makes sense since that’s where he worked before shifting to Golden Harvest. But somewhere along the line people realized that this new Bruce guy was pretty good, and before you know it James Tien’s character disappears.

Enter the Bruce.

It’s like watching a community theatre production with Chow Yun Fat in one of the roles. Every time Bruce Lee is onscreen, you can’t look at anyone else. People often forget that Bruce Lee was already an accomplished film actor, and that he had an incredible amount of screen presence. Because he spends the first half of The Big Boss not fighting, we can watch him acting. His facial expressions, his smile, or his mannerisms are all very effective. 

Especially in the context of the frankly horrible surroundings.

That may sound harsh (and it may be), but it’s obvious from the beginning of the film that Bruce Lee was above and beyond the whole rest of the cast combined, in just about any way you look at it.

With one exception: A very young Lam Ching Ying appears in the movie, and was just as good a martial artist, and, it turned out, just as good an actor.

But I digress… What I mean is that Bruce Lee makes his mark on The Big Boss before he starts fighting. And once he starts fighting… it’s over.

What’s over? Everything.

Although the choreography is still very pre-Bruce, he makes it look a lot better by virtue of being so fast and precise you can barely see him. His counterparts aren’t nearly as good, but it’s still thrilling to see the genesis of a phenomenon in these fight scenes. 

Like I said, we get to witness the first moments of a man quite literally changing the world. Because after this, nothing was ever the same again. So the greatest value of The Big Boss is that it captures the moment when everything changed, and it shows in stark clarity the old and the new.

On a nostalgic level, The Big Boss is a lot of fun to watch. There really isn’t anything quite like the 1970s martial arts bad guy. It’s cheesy and it’s silly and it’s great fun. And it’s still, after 40 years, amazing to see just how much Bruce Lee lights up the screen.

Watching it again on DVD reminded me of my previous viewings. When I was in high school in the early 80s my father and I went to the Granby Cinema in Norfolk, Virginia to watch a double feature of The Big Boss and Fist of Fury. It wasn’t a good neighborhood, but I have to say my dad and I really enjoyed the commentary track the audience provided.

Then, when the movie was over, we got what they call the f@#$ out.

The next week at school a number of my friends pointed out how stupid and crazy I was to go to that neighborhood. 

I think they were just jealous.