Movie Review: Exodus/出埃及記

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Pang Ho Cheung is one of my favorite local directors.

His sense of black humor is so dark that light cannot escape it.

2007’s Exodus/出埃及記 is a masterpiece of black humor, a film that is visually compelling and narratively obscure.

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Simon Yam plays Tsim, a sergeant in the Hong Kong police. He’s married to Annie, played by Annie Liu.

I know.

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One day at the station, sergeant Tsim takes a statement from a man arrested for peeping at women in the women’s room. Nick Cheung plays Kwan, a squirrely little weirdo whose penchant for profanity makes me feel better about myself.

I swear all the f@#$ing time. 

But never mind that.

Because Kwan tries to tell Tsim that he’s not a pervert. He says he’s doing surveillance on a group of women who plan to murder men.

All of them.

Is it true? Is he crazy?

I’m not sure. Because the story in Exodus/出埃及記 is kind of hard to follow.

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Actually, it’s not hard to follow. It just doesn’t seem to have a resolution.

Exodus/出埃及記 is a cerebral, thematic film that shows so much self-assurance in the direction and so much narrative opacity that you might easily think Pang Ho Cheung is just showing off and indulging his own auteur-eroticism. [sic]

The pace of the film is very deliberate, which is a word I use when I like a movie. If I dislike it, I call it slow. But to me, it works here.

Exodus/出埃及記 is more about observation than destination. And there’s a lot to look at.

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The reveal of the film comes off as a little weird, and maybe even stilted, but that may be the director’s intention. I just can’t tell.

Besides, the best part of this movie isn’t the story.

And if I say it’s the worst part, I don’t even mean it’s bad. It’s just that so many other parts of this movie really are fantastic.

The opening shot of the film is one of my favorite openings of any film. It’s beautiful, technically interesting, and profoundly twisted.

I’m allergic to precious little film-studies phrases like mise-en scene, but the framing in Exodus is so good that more than once I stopped the DVD just to admire the way the shot looks. 

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The use of lines and angles reminds me of MC Escher.

Who is not, by the way, a rapper fronting a klezmer band.

The acting in Exodus/出埃及記 is also very, very good.

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Simon Yam plays Tsim with a sense of realism I found both refreshing and kind of bothersome. He’s so realistic that I found myself bored with watching the daily life of a civil servant.

But then his life gets a lot less boring.

Nick Cheung is great as the fidgety fruitcake who may be right or may be insane. I know what that feels like.

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Annie Liu is convincing as… Annie. She does a good job in the role, especially within the structure of the story.

Candice Yu is entertaining as ever playing Annie’s mother and Simon’s mother-in-law.

It’s especially funny because in real life, he’s older than she is.

Gordon Lam Ka Tung has an appearance, and as usual makes the most of it.

He really deserves to have a starring role in a movie. He really does.

But I digress.

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Irene Wan is commendable as Pun, Kwan’s ex-wife. In a lot of her recent roles, she’s been pretty flat, so it’s nice to see her really inhabit a character.

Exodus/出埃及記 is a very interesting, very engaging movie. It’s a little weird, and perhaps not a completely satisfying story, but the execution is really fantastic and it also provides a lot of food for thought.

You’ll be thinking about this movie for a long time after you watch it, for one reason or another.

That’s a rare thing, and I’m grateful.

Movie Review: Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 I, II, & III

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In 1984, Britain signed the Joint Declaration with the People’s Republic of China, promising to leave Hong Kong on July 1, 1997.

Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 was released in 1984, and while it doesn’t explicitly deal with the Handover, it implicitly addresses some of the issues surrounding it.

Big Circle Gangs were made up of former PLA soldiers and other social and political refugees from mainland China. They often came to Hong Kong to carry out robberies in banks and jewelry stores with military precision and shocking violence.

Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 tells the story of one such gang, who come from Guangdong province to Hong Kong. They intend to rob a jewelry store and return to China with enough money to last them for the rest of their lives. But things don’t go as planned. When they arrive at their target, someone else is already robbing it.

Badly.

The police at the scene notice them.

And everything just gets worse from then on.

Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 is one of those very rare movies for me; it’s entertaining as a story, it’s a very well-made film, and it serves as an excellent snapshot of a place and time.

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David Lam Wai plays Tung, the leader of the gang. He’s the most well-known actor of the group. The others aren’t so familiar, and it makes it easier to see the characters and not the actors.

The cinematography is inventive and effective, showing us the story in ways that capture and amplify the settings and characters. A lot of the credit for that goes to Philip Chan, a former police officer who wrote this movie and appears in it only on a television screen.

See if you can spot him!

All of the scenes in Long Arm of the Law take place in real settings, like jewelry stores, the Kowloon City mall, as well as the now-demolished Kowloon Walled City.

In the opening of the film, as the gang tries to sneak into Hong Kong, they are chased by police dogs. I assume that in 1984 the Hong Kong film industry didn’t have trained movie animals.

Because as far as I know, they don’t have them now!

It certainly looks like the filmmakers got some help from police dogs.

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And the dogs are very convincing.

Later in the film, David Lam ends up nearly getting run over by a car, whether intentionally or as the result of a misstep during the scene. Either way, it looks real because it is real. Near the end of the film, a car full of people is set on fire.

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In order to film this, they set fire to a car full of people.

The sense of realism isn’t just in what we see on the screen. It’s also present in what the film wants us to think and feel. There’s a very profound sense of moral ambiguity at work here.

The portrayal of the protagonists changes over the course of the film. It turns out the good guys aren’t necessarily so good.

But then again, the bad guys aren’t so bad either.

By the end of the movie, no one can claim the moral high ground.

One of the most valuable things about Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 is the way it captures Hong Kong of 1984 both visually and emotionally. The clothing, the taxis, and the stores give us a glimpse of what the city was like, since it has changed so much since then.

I learned a lot from this movie. I had no idea there was a Chuck E Cheese in the Kowloon City Mall. Or an ice rink!

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I don’t care if it was fashionable then, anyone in a tight pink sweatsuit deserves whatever happens to them.

Early in the film, the gang makes offerings to a fallen comrade. The choice of offerings says a lot about what life was like in China at the time, as well as the nature of life on Hong Kong.

We also get to see what may be the first appearance in Hong Kong film of the double-pistol and the so-called Mexican standoff.

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So when Tarantino says he didn’t steal them from Ringo Lam, he’s not lying. Sort of.

Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 is a classic film. While it shows its age, it also ages really, really well, which not many films can.

It’s an entertaining film, but it’s also very affecting; I don’t think anyone can watch this film all the way to the end and not be emotionally affected.

All the good things people say about this movie are justified.

It was commercially and critically popular enough that a sequel was released in 1987.

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Whereas Johnny Mak directed the first film, his brother Michael directed the second. Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 II, written by Tsui Hark, tells the story of three illegal immigrants forced to work undercover as Big Circle Gang members.

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The gangs have become a big problem for the police, and we know this because Part 2 opens with two officers watching a montage of footage from the first movie!

Elvis Tsui plays Li, a former police officer who fled to Hong Kong for political reasons.

A number of people from the first film appear in Part II, but as different characters. Ben Lam, who had a bit part in the first film as a police officer, plays his friend Chik. The undercovers are led by Biggy, played by Alex Man.

The segment of the film where he helps these new immigrants adjust to life in Hong Kong, as well as life in the underworld as undercovers, is one of the best things about the film. It really adds depth to the characters.

Pauline Wong plays a woman who, uh, makes her living with her feet in the air.

While this movie isn’t in the same league as the first one, it still has a lot going for it.

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Elvis Tsui turns in a very commendable performance, carrying the movie. The action is intense, well-done, and has an almost visceral impact.

Especially a torture scene that makes me uncomfortable just thinking about it.

It’s brutal and ugly and horrifying, but I am sure that was Tsui Hark’s intent.

A scene set in the old airport at Kai Tak lets us see what it looked like, and the action in the scene is worth watching too.

Like the first film, part 2 is essentially bleak, but also very emotionally affecting.

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The end of the film is a classic, from the gunplay to the camerawork to the ideas that motivate the characters and their actions.

Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 II isn’t the landmark film that its predecessor was, but it’s still an interesting and entertaining film. It did well enough that two years later, in 1989, a third installment was made.

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Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 III was written by Johnny Mak and directed by his brother Michael. It stars Andy Lau as Li Cheung Kong and Max Mok as ‘gai saam,’ or Chicken Heart, illegal immigrants who end up working for a local gangster.

Andy’s only doing it to buy the freedom of Ah Mun, a woman he met on the way to Hong Kong and fell deeply in love with.

Hey, it’s a movie. I don’t write ‘em, I just watch ’em.

Returning to the series is Elvis Tsui, again playing a mainland cop, but this time he’s the bad guy. He’s pursuing Andy Lau, and he doesn’t care who or what gets in his way.

He comes off like a communist Robocop with a few crossed wires, but he’s got a big knife, and a Norinco knock-off Desert Eagle, so he’s at least fun to watch.

There are several scenes in which he plays the catalyst for Hong Kong people’s feelings about 1997, so Long Arm of the Law/省港旗兵 III at least touches on politics, though none too subtly.

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Speaking of which, any movie with a photo doctored to put Elvis Tsui next to Deng Xiaoping gets 50,000 bonus points.

The pacing is often frantic, the action is loud, and all the classic details are there; a pouty young Andy Lau, synthesizer soundtrack, overstated bad guys, guns with bottomless magazines, and more fun than you should be allowed to have with the kind of budget this movie was probably working with.

I should also point out that the young Andy Lau was pretty good at doing physical stuff; his stunts and fights here are not always doubled.

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Besides, once you’ve seen the New Territories used as a substitute for Panama, what else is there?

Part IV, more commonly known as Underground Express, was also released in 1989 and also stars Elvis Tsui.

My review of that movie can be found here.

Movie Review: Election/黑社會

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2005’s Election/黑社會 tells the story of a triad society choosing its next leader.

The film was generating attention even before its release. The original poster, used at the film’s premiere at Cannes, was banned in Hong Kong because it shows triad hand signs.

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Displaying or possessing triad insignia or products is prohibited in Hong Kong. Mentioning the name of a triad society in a film is enough to get a Category III rating.

In the old days the even bleeped the name out.

Election/黑社會 is an ensemble film, featuring a large cast of Johnnie To regulars and others.

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Simon Yam plays Lok, one of the candidates for leadership. Quiet and intense, he is the favorite among the members.

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His opponent is Dai D, played with glorious abandon by Tony Leung Kar Fai.

He’s the boss of Tsuen Wan, which, if you know anything about local geography, is like saying you’re the biggest gangster in Rochester.

Yeah, it’s New York, but… it’s f@#$in’ Rochester.

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Heading up the election council is Uncle Teng, played by Wong Tin-Lam, also known as Wong Jing’s dad.

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Louis Koo plays Jimmy jai, one of the lower ranking triads.

I realize I’ve been in Hong Kong almost a decade when I look at Louis Koo in this movie and think he looks young.

Maggie Shiu plays Dai D’s wife in a small but important role. Eddie Cheung Siu Fai also has a small role as a foot soldier with a speech impediment.

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David Chiang and Ng Ting-Yip play two cops from the OCTB (Organized Crime and Triad Bureau) who are trying, it seems, not so much to bust these guys as to keep the peace on the streets as the power struggle in the gang threatens to boil over into violence.

These characters interact, clash, and realign themselves throughout the course of the film.

The scheming, fighting, and maneuvering that go on in Election/黑社會 are too complicated to explain, and it would spoil the movie anyway, so I’m not gonna do it.

Let me just say that the plot is complex enough that you probably need to watch the movie more than once to really understand just exactly what’s going on and who’s working for whom.

But Election/黑社會 is so much fun to watch that you’re gonna do it anyway.

Johnnie To allows a broad selection of the cast to have memorable scenes and characters.

One of Johnnie To’s apparent goals in this film was to tear down the illusion that triads are noble outlaws who live by a code of honor.

Guess what? They’re not.

They’re animals who have no problem turning on each other like syphilitic ferrets if it means they can get ahead.

The gangsters in the movie are the same way too.

There is a good amount of really black humor in the film that is grounded in this perspective; a scene between Gordon Lam Ka Tung
and Lam Suet ends up being funny precisely because it starts off being so serious.

Speaking of serious, my biggest impression in this movie comes from Nick Cheung’s performance as Jet, an enforcer.

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The second scene of the film sets him up as a psychopath, but not the wild, thrashing kind. Instead, Jet sends off a constant hum of intensity that never flags, and Nick Cheung plays it perfectly.

Tony Leung played his part so well it seemed to take him about 3 years to shake it off; for a while he was Dai D in every movie he did.

But I enjoyed the acting of everyone in Election/黑社會, just like I enjoyed the directing and the editing.

I also want to mention the music, because I think it really helped make the movie even better than it already was.

There was a sequel made in 2007, but that’s another review.

Supposedly Johnnie To will be making Election 3 in 2015, but we’ll have to wait and see, won’t we?

Movie Review: Hungry Ghost Ritual/盂蘭神功

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Nick Cheung Kar Fai was a police officer before becoming an actor.

And now, he’s a director.

Hungry Ghost Ritual/盂蘭神功  tells the story of a man returning to his fractured family and the traditional Cantonese Opera troupe his father runs.

Zong Hua spent 10 years in China chasing his fortune.

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He didn’t catch it.

So he returns to Malaysia, where the opera troupe is preparing for the Hungry Ghost Festival, a traditional Chinese observance that takes place during the summer months.

But all is not well at home. His father is happy to see him, but his half sister Jing Jing isn’t.

But she’s no prize; she doesn’t go to school or have a job. She spends most of her time hanging out with her friends getting wasted.

Don’t make her a bad person…

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Annie Liu plays Xiu Yin, a performer in the troupe who tries to help Zong Hua adjust to life in traditional opera.

During the Hungry Ghost Festival, the gates of the underworld open and the spirits of the dead walk among us. People make offerings, perform rituals and otherwise interact with the dead. Part of these rituals include performances by traditional opera troupes, who leave the front row of seats empty for the ghosts.

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That may seem like a lot of background for a movie, but I felt like it was necessary. Because frankly, that context is the only one in which Hungry Ghost Ritual/盂蘭神功  has any real merit.

It’s not a terrible movie, but it’s not really a very good one either. It’s slow, opaque, and doesn’t really make much sense any way you look at it.

To be fair, it’s Nick Cheung’s first attempt at directing, and he’s starring in the movie as well. So he set the bar really high for himself.

And he missed it.

But at the same time, I still enjoyed Hungry Ghost Ritual/盂蘭神功 .

And so did the audience I saw it with. It was mostly young people, and they responded well to the movie.

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The humor got laughs, the shock moments got gasps, and the squeamish moments got responses too.

The scary parts didn’t get such a good response.

Hey Sam, here comes a jump scare.

There’s a few of those in Hungry Ghost Ritual/盂蘭神功 .

They might surprise you, but they’re not scary.

Neither is the now seemingly requisite integration of technology into the story.

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Zong Hua knows something weird is going on, so he installs CCTV. Some of what it shows him is wince-inducing.

But it’s not scary.

Some of the acting is wince-inducing, though.

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Cathryn Lee, who plays Jing Jing, has all the presence of a grey sweatshirt on a rainy day.

But to be fair to her, the part as it’s written and the story itself are no help; if a person suddenly starts speaking in monotone like a zombie, you’d think people would notice.

Well, they don’t.

But some of the acting is good. Nick Cheung was effective and convincing, and Annie Liu also did a good job with her role.

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She was believable and likeable, and some of the physical acting she does had to have been very difficult.

Carrie Ng also deserves special mention for her performance.

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It’s always good to see her on the big screen, but it’s even better when she has a part she can really shine with.

Hungry Ghost Ritual/盂蘭神功  isn’t a great movie. It’s not scary, it doesn’t make sense, and the acting is very uneven.

But I enjoyed it for the cultural context and for some of the acting.

I can also say that for the efforts of a first-time director, it beats some other movies I can think of like a red-headed mule.

Movie Review: Lady Cop & Papa Crook/大搜查之女

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Alan Mak and Felix Chong wrote this movie. They’ve written a lot of movies. They wrote Infernal Affairs.

On that DVD, the China ending is an extra you had to choose, since it was different from the theatrical cut.

Eight years later, you had to buy the DVD of Lady Cop & Papa Crook/大搜查之女 to see the Hong Kong ending. Because it’s different from the theatrical cut.

I saw the theatrical cut in the cinema here in 2009. It was obvious that it had been cut pretty drastically. 

I don’t mean running time, I mean the cuts were very obvious.

There are a number of issues here that make for an interesting film but also make for a film that can’t show in China.

Less-than-stellar policemen, criminals who are less than vile and open cooperation between these two parties are probably the biggest.

I’m sure there are more, but I watched the Director’s Cut on the DVD and frankly, I don’t want to waste too much time or energy on all the details.

You can buy the DVD and see both versions.

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Let’s just say the different endings are very different.

And to be fair, while the China censors may have damaged this film, to be honest it was pretty messed up already.

The plot is trotted out and followed, but not with much detail or attention.

Or style.

Eventually we learn what happened because someone in the movie tells someone else.

I guess it’s better than not knowing.

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Eason Chan plays John Fok, leader of a diesel smuggling ring. When one of his deals goes bad, his world starts to fall apart around him. 

His gang is getting restless. His suppliers want cash up front. And then someone kidnaps his son.

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Sammi Cheng plays Maureen Szeto, a police officer with a strong personality and a weak boyfriend. Her character seemed to be presented comically. Maureen is a good police officer, but all she really wants is to be married.

You know, like all good women do.

She spends most of her time over-reacting and generally being out of control.

That’s funny and entertaining, but it made it hard for me to take her seriously as a police officer, and I wondered how any of the other characters could either.

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Besides, while she’s busy whining, mugging, and pouting, in the rest of the movie there’s gangsters, murder, kidnapping and violence, and I couldn’t quite reconcile the two.

This movie confused me.

I couldn’t really care about the serious parts because they kept getting interrupted by the funny parts.

Not to mention that Eason Chan is not a convincing gangster.

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Loving father? Caring husband? Totally believable. Gang boss? No.

It’s nothing against him, I just didn’t buy it.

The other part of his role didn’t always work either. 

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There isn’t much chemistry between Sammi Chang and Eason Chan’s characters, but then again John Fok is married, so it’s probably better that way.

Between the lack of chemistry, the anorexic plot and the tonal schizophrenia, Lady Cop & Papa Crook/大搜查之女 came off feeling like a movie stitched together from unused footage of three or four very different movies.

I think the film would have been better if it was directed by Pang Ho Cheung, whose penchant for black humour could have really helped reconcile the two halves of the movie.

I can’t really recommend watching this movie as entertainment, but I think there’s a lot to be learned from seeing it.

Compare the two versions to see how they differ.

Watch either one to see how not to write a movie.

Watch it to see two very famous and charismatic people have absolutely no spark together.

I’m not being sarcastic. You really can learn things from this movie.

That’s the best reason to watch it.

Movie Review: Flash Point/導火綫

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Flash Point/導火綫 is directed by Wilson Yip and stars Donnie Yen and Louis Koo.

It’s supposedly a kind of prequel to 2005’s SPL, with Donnie Yen reprising his role as Inspector Ma.

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It tells the story of a ruthless cop trying to bring down a drug ring and save the life of his partner, an undercover in the ring.

The bad guys are played by Colin Chou, Ray Lui and Xing Yu. And they’re really bad.

They might be as bad as they are because they’re Vietnamese.

You know how those people are.

But don’t worry. As bad as the bad guys are, the good guys are just as good.

Or even better. Because they’re the good guys.

I realize that sounds overly simplistic and clumsy. But that’s just the way it is in Flash Point/導火綫.

Everything in this movie is presented in a style so overblown that it’s nearly comic.

I don’t mean funny, I mean comic book.

In the opening credits, we see Donnie Yen driving a 2007 BMW SUV.

Then we see a title card telling us that it’s 1997.

Because after 1997, the police in Hong Kong have been perfect.

In the first five minutes of the movie, a man has a fight with a toilet.

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And the toilet loses.

But hey, at least his expressions are subtle.

They’re as subtle as Donnie’s…

Fan Bing Bing does an okay job with her role as Louis Koo’s girlfriend.

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I don’t know many women who would struggle with that job.

She’s not given much to work with, and the script doesn’t make her much more than window dressing and a clichéd plot point.

And she’s dubbed, but she makes the best of it.

Louis Koo also does okay with his role. He sweats at least as much as he did in Protege, but he also does some of his own stunts here and I was impressed with them, and with him.

Kent Cheng plays Donnie and Louis’ boss.

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But let’s face it; no one bosses Donnie Yen around.

He’s also a walking archetype, but he’s Kent Cheng.

This movie is totally lacking in subtlety.

A weird prologue that makes a mockery of the fourth wall? Check.

Foreign bad guys? Check.

A vomiting grandmother? Check.

Donnie’s contractually stipulated Face of Rage? Check.

Louis Koo looking altogether too tan for someone who works third shift? Check.

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“Find your own Godd@mn sun! I need all of this one!”

But let’s face it; no one watches movies like this for the plot.

Unless you’re a friggin’ idiot.

We watch Donnie Yen movies for the fights.

We sure don’t watch ‘em for the acting.

The fights in Flash Point/導火綫 are good. But they’re not as good as Donnie Yen probably wants us to think.

He did the action for the film, and produced it, and as a result…

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He really makes himself look good in the movie.

In fact, too good.

But even so, Flash Point/導火綫 is entertaining, because Donnie’s excessive visual onanism is pretty amusing.

I felt bad for Colin Chou during the big fight scene at the end, because no one with two brain cells to rub together is ever going to doubt who’s gonna win in a fight between Colin Chou and The Yencredible Hulk.

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But someone has to be Donnie’s punching bag, and Colin Chou is more than good enough to keep up with him.

It’s a really good fight. But that begs the question: How long would you wait for a really good fight?

How about an hour and fifteen minutes?

That’s how far into the movie the final fight starts, but it really feels like the beginning of the movie.

Because everything leading up to it was really just setting up the fight.

And we already know how it’s going to end.

I didn’t really care for this movie, but then I’m not really a big Donnie Yen fan.

If you are, you’ll probably enjoy it.

Because Flash Point/導火綫 is all about The Donnie.

Movie Review: Fearless/霍元甲

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Ronny Yu directed Fearless/霍元甲, and it was his return to Chinese film after spending time in Hollywood.

This was also Jet Li’s first ‘last’ martial arts movie.

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Fearless/霍元甲 tells a fictionalized story based on the real-life character Huo Yuanjia, a renowned martial artist at the turn of the 20th century.

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In the beginning of Fist of Fury, Bruce Lee’s character returns to Shanghai to find that his sifu is dead. His sifu is Ho Yuanjia.

Jet Li plays Huo, the son of a martial artist who wants his son to make his way in life with his head instead of his hands.

If that happened, we’d have no movie.

Huo’s father is played by Collin Chou, and he makes the most of the small role.

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Huo Yuanjia learns martial arts and becomes famous for it, even as it does nothing for his personal, or emotional growth.

The film opens with a rather clumsy prologue set in the modern day, with Michelle Yeoh delivering a presentation in favor of adopting wushu as an Olympic sport.

Cue the ultra-stiff white guy asking a question, and pretty soon we’re racing back through time to the start of the actual narrative.

The movie meanders a bit, and the Director’s Cut can sometimes feel a little bit long-winded.

This is partially due to the addition of a number of scenes to the theatrical cut.

These scenes are both long and short, including the Michelle Yeoh prologue and a scene involving a trip to a neighboring village where Jet Li gets into a duel with a character played by Thai kickboxer Somrak Kamsing.

I think there’s a good reason why a lot of these extra scenes were left out of the theatrical cut, but some of them do contribute to the story.

Fearless/霍元甲 is essentially a morality tale about redemption, but it’s a very well-acted story, and that makes all the difference.

The other thing that makes the difference is Jet Li. He really impresses in this film, as both a martial artist and an actor.

Unlike other aging (not Asian), action stars, Jet Li has become a good actor.

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It helps that he gets to speak Mandarin and isn’t dubbed into Cantonese.

His portrayal of Ho Yuanjia is nuanced, complex, and convincing. His ability to convey emotion and meaning with his facial expression make the impact of the character, and the story, that much more impressive.

Jet Li is surrounded by people who also turn in very notable performances.

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Dong Yong plays Ho’s lifelong friend, and makes the most of a small role. He can almost be called the moral center of the film, being a kind of polar opposite to Huo Yuanjia, yet always the best kind of friend.

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Betty Sun plays a blind woman who takes care of Huo at one point in the film.

It’s always risky to portray people with physical challenges, because the temptation is to overplay them, and it can get ugly.

But Betty Sun turns in a really great performance by doing just the opposite. Like Jet Li, her facial expressions say more than her dialogue.

It had to have been extra hard for her because when you play a blind person, you have to maintain a very neutral gaze. Most of our emotional affect is shown with our eyes.

So again, I think she did a great job with the role.

I also liked the way the film showed exactly how she coped with being blind, and neither valorized her nor made her out to be a victim.

Speaking of valor and victims, one thing I really appreciate about Fearless/霍元甲 is the way that it makes the very reasonable point about the Chinese, and China, not being inferior to foreigners or foreign countries.”

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Like Fist of Fury, it makes this point implicitly, showing Huo Yuanjia defeating his opponents, but without dehumanizing them or making them caricatures, as was done in True Legend.

It takes a nuanced, even approach to a very real and very thorny time in China’s history, and does it in a way that is both entertaining and thought provoking.

I don’t mind national pride. I do mind simplistic, cartoonish portrayals used to advance national pride.

Thankfully, there is little to none of that here.

These are nuanced, complex characterizations that advance both the story and the principles that hold the story together.

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There is certainly some overstatement, but it’s balanced by a much more human depiction than we often see in movies like this.

One of the Japanese characters is a bad, evil person. But another one of them is shown to be honest, kind, and admirable.

It was nice to see characterizations of Japanese people that wouldn’t embarrass the ghost of Mickey Rooney.

It’s the kind of thing that gets some directors in hot water up above Lo Wu.

But I was really, really glad to see such an even-handed treatment of the issue.

Movie Review: Shaolin Soccer/少林足球

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By 2001, Stephen Chow wanted to become famous outside of Asia, and so he consciously changed his comic style.

His earlier films relied heavily on verbal wordplay called mo lei tau, and the jokes are only funny in Cantonese, and if you’re from Hong Kong.

I don’t understand anywhere near enough Cantonese to get the jokes.

I could get the parodies and homages to other movies, but I know there’s a lot that I’m missing.

Comedies are actually the hardest kinds of films to sell to a foreign audience.

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In an effort to broaden his appeal, Stephen Chow decided to use more physical humor, since it’s easily understood by pretty much everyone.

Shaolin Soccer/少林足球 has verbal humor in it, but the larger part of the comedy is visual and/or physical.

It’s the story of a half dozen former Shaolin monks who end up living in the regular world and not doing very well.

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Their leader, played by Stephen Chow, is searching for a way to bring the teachings of Shaolin to the world.

He has to convince his fellow monks to join him on this quest.

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Helping him is a disgraced soccer player, played by Ng Man Tat, who often appeared in Stephen Chow movies.

Well, not after this one.

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There is also a romantic subplot involving a girl who makes steamed buns using Tai Chi, played by mainland actress Vicki Zhao.

I’m not going to tell you much about the plot, because either you’ve seen it, or you need to see it and I don’t want to spoil it.

It’s hard sometimes to look back at a movie from almost 15 years ago and not see the shortcomings of the visual FX, but these hold up really well.

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The film itself has a kind of grainy appearance, so when the CGI does the same thing it’s not as jarring.

The acting is a lot of un to watch. Everyone gets a moment, or a scene, in which to shine, and it’s very entertaining.

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Patrick Tse has a small role as the antagonist, and there are cameos from people like Karen Mok and Cecilia Cheung, who had starred in King of Comedy, Stephen Chow’s previous film.

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The directing and editing are also very well done, and the balancing act between comedy and drama, between the serious and the silly, makes Shaolin Soccer/少林足球 better than it would otherwise be.

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Shaolin Soccer/少林足球 was the first Hong Kong movie I ever saw in Hong Kong.

I first came here to visit in July of 2001. I spent my time buying DVDs and taking pictures.

And sweating like a hooker in church.

I saw it in the Broadway Cinema in Mongkok, and I always felt lucky that I got to see it in its natural environment, so to speak.

Shaolin Soccer/少林足球 is a classic, and no matter how many times I watch it, I’m always glad I did.

I’ve been lucky enough to meet a couple of the people who were in Shaolin Soccer/少林足球.

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I met Danny Chan last new year’s eve. He was really… in the festive spirit, and right after we took this picture he punched me in the stomach.

Hard.

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I got to interview Patrick Tse once, and I can promise you that he is exactly the same in real life as he appears onscreen.

He’s also a very funny, very nice man, and I am very grateful that I got to meet him and speak to him.

Movie Review: Conspirators/同謀

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Conspirators/同謀 is the third and final movie that began with 2007’s The Detective, starring Aaron Kwok as a Chinese detective from Thailand.

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In Conspirators/同謀, Aaron tries to finally solve the 30 year old mystery of his parents’ murder.

His investigation takes him from Thailand to Malaysia and China.

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He’s aided by Nick Cheung, who plays a Chinese detective from Malaysia.

I watched this on DVD recently. I had skipped it in cinemas because the second movie had annoyed me so much that I refused to take the risk.

Well, I can say that I made a mistake.

Conspirators/同謀 isn’t going to make cinematic history, but it’s a solidly entertaining movie.

If you watch many of these reviews, you know that I have one very basic rule about movies:

Does it entertain me?

I don’t want or need to be educated by a movie, I want to be entertained. If I want to be educated, I’ll read a book.

The movie entertained me. I enjoyed the characters, and the acting, and the story.

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It was nice to see Chen Kuan Tai in a movie, and he does a good job with his role.

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Aaron Kwok certainly overacts, but that’s just what Aaron Kwok does.

The thing I really liked about the first Detective movie was that Aaron didn’t overact. He either reined it in or was reined in.

I’m so used to his overacting that I can just about ignore it, but I do notice it.

Especially the last shot of the movie. He couldn’t be trying any harder for an award than he is in that scene.

Just stop it…

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Nick Cheung stole the movie for me with his role.

He’s wearing a pretty weird wig, but his character, an asthmatic detective with martial arts prowess and an eye for earning money kept me laughing the whole time.

But among the laughs, you can see a lot of acting skill, and Nick Cheung really makes the role more than it should be.

Jiang Yiyan plays Chen Kuan Tai’s daughter.

No matter what happens to her, she never smiles. I don’t know why.

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She just always looks like this.

Well, I mean during the movie. Otherwise, she seems to be happy.

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See?

One minor miracle in the film is that Siufay’s acting didn’t annoy me.

He can actually act, but I guess he’s usually just asked to chew up scenery.

Luckily for me, that doesn’t happen here.

Oxide Pang’s direction is okay; there were things I liked about the film and things I didn’t.

There were title cards to tell you what country the scene was in, and I appreciated it. That may seem like a small thing, but I found it helpful.

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Then again, it was easy to know when the story was in Malaysia because for some reason Oxide Pang decided to make Malaysia look really orange and dusty.

The climax of the film is totally predictable, but like the rest of the movie I found it entertaining enough that I didn’t really care.

And don’t get me wrong, I have no problem telling you that the plot is, according to my audio notes, “a cheeseburger that gets drowned in extra dingbat sauce.”

I don’t even know what that means, and I said it.

Actually, it means that the plot didn’t surprise me at all.

The Conspirators veers between dramatic and comic aspects, but for me it never stopped the movie from being entertaining, and that’s all I can ask.

Well, that and the fact that even though it had China money, it didn’t end up being obtrusively ‘China market’ friendly.

Movie Review: The Detective 1 & 2/C+侦探 & B+侦探

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The Detective/C+侦探 has a great opening scene featuring Aaron Kwok, Shing Fui On and… noodles. 

Shing Fui On hires Aaron to help him find out who this woman is… who’s following him… and wants to kill him.

Aaron gets help from his childhood friend, played magnificently by Liu Kai Chi.

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He’s a police officer, since his eyesight is better than Aaron’s. 

Stevie Wonder’s eyesight is better than Aaron’s character’s eyesight.

As Aaron tries to piece together the identity of the mystery woman, he seems to have a knack for finding dead people. Or for being there when they die. 

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Naturally this doesn’t endear him to Liu Kai Chi.

Speaking of endearing, Jo Koo’s cameo made me understand why its soooo hot in Thailand.

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And in my pants. But I digress.

The other mystery he starts to unravel is the disappearance of his parents more than 30 years ago.

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The film features a lot of small roles for people like Wayne Lai and Kenny Wong. 

Aaron Kwok did a really good job of acting, and not overacting, as he is so often prone to.

There are two scenes where he gets to act… severely, but I found both of them to actually be appropriate.

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If you see the movie, you’ll know what I mean.

Just imagine either of those things happening to you.

The Detective/C+侦探  isn’t perfect; there are some logical lapses, but these are sacrifices on the altar of cinematic spectacle.

If you’re getting chased by a big truck, don’t run between parked cars, or down any of those narrow alleys.

Just run down the middle of the street. It looks much more interesting onscreen.

But that’s really the only thing I can think of that took me out of the viewing experience. The rest of the movie was a lot of fun and very interesting.

I really enjoyed the Thai pop music soundtrack. It was interesting, and made a nice change from the usual Cantopop.

The Detective was, and still is, surprisingly good, featuring convincing acting, strong direction, and a number of really great cameos.

It was Shing Fui On’s final movie, and I will always regret that I never got to meet him.

I watched The Detective/C+侦探  twice in the cinema, so when they announced a sequel, I was looking forward to it.

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I watched this movie at the Dynasty, and I was in the right place. It was not going to surpass its predecessor, B+ in the title be damned.

Frankly, D+ is more like it.

A murderer is killing people in weird and terrible ways. The police are desperate to catch him.

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So desperate that they enlist the help of the worst detective in Bangkok.

No, it makes no sense to me either. But apparently everyone in Bangkok speaks Cantonese.

All makes sense now, huh?

Flashback: A young man loses his parents. And his mind.

This is one of those movies where they tell you everything about the murderer’s background but keep his present-day identity a mystery.

They throw in lots of red herrings to try and distract you. Is it a cop? Is it a lunatic?

The problem is, the film is such a shoddy mess that I didn’t really care.

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There was nothing engaging about this film. I had no interest in the plot or the characters.

I found myself just waiting for it to end, and the wait seemed interminable.

I was very disappointed, because I really liked the previous film.

It was funny, well-made, entertaining and  really drew me in.

The Detective 2/B+侦探 really didn’t.

When the wittiest part of a film is an actor’s p*ss-take on the mind-bending abortion that was another one of his films, then you’ve got problems.

I watch movies so you don’t have to.

And no one should watch this movie.

The epilogue is a leaden, obtrusive 2AM-last-call-you’re-fat-but-you-have-a-vagina-so-I-gotta-try pitch to get you interested in a sequel.

It didn’t work.