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.

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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.

Movie Review: Lost in Thailand/人再囧途之泰囧

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I didn’t see 2012’s Lost in Thailand in the cinema when it played here. The promotional material that I saw didn’t make me think I would like it. I’m not a fan of certain types of mainland comedy, which I sometimes find overstated and oversimplified.

And yes, I admit that I am a diehard Wong Jing fan and as such ought not make any pretensions to comedic refinement.

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But images like this made me think I wouldn’t enjoy the movie.

So I didn’t watch it. Even as it became a huge hit. But I recently picked it up on DVD at 3 for 100 HK$, and that’s what Ross Perot used to call a Sore Peter deal; you can’t beat it.

Xu Zheng co-wrote, directed, and stars in Lost in Thailand. So does Huang Baoxiang. They had starred in 2010’s Lost on Journey, a movie about two guys trying to travel in China during the annual Spring Festival. Which is a lot like playing golf at night. Under water.

You can do it. but it ain’t gonna be easy. 

Lost in Thailand isn’t a sequel, but I suppose it’s vaguely related. Xu Zheng plays an engineer who has to find someone last reported to be staying in a Buddhist temple in Chiang Mai. Huang Bo plays his rival colleague, who wants to find the same person, because whoever gets to him first will be very well rewarded. Wang Baoqiang plays a young man with a bucket list and not a lot of brains. #1 on his Thailand itinerary is a visit to the Taj Mahal.

Yeah.

Hey, it’s not high art. It’s not even high comedy. But it is funny. All of the verbal humor in the movie is lost on me, since I don’t speak Mandarin. But a lot of the humor is very easily understood, as is the vast majority of the movie itself. The structure of the film is a classic mismatched pair on a road trip comedy, with a healthy dose of fish out of water shenanigans (i.e. people from one place being in another). So a lot of the cues, beats, and moments will be familiar to anyone with any film literacy whatsoever. There are lots of the typical jokes about Thailand, including some very funny and yet inoffensive jokes about ladyboys. There’s even an evil white guy.

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Something for everyone!

There’s no nudity and very little profanity, but I have to admit I didn’t miss it. Lost in Thailand is’nt really missing anything without it. You’re also not missing anything by reading the subtitles.

Or so my native-Mandarin-speaking assistant Ivana Killyu tells me.

There’s nothing exclusively Chinese about the story or the characters. Naturally, some of the references and language require context, but whatever you miss is frankly inconsequential. There are lots of other rewards in the movie. There’s a cameo from Wu Jing’s wife. Even better is a cameo from Fan Bingbing as herself. It’s funny and, within the frame of the story, downright nice. Speaking of which… Movies in China have  no rating system, so in theory every movie must be viewable by kids. I

f you like comedies like The Hangover, you might be disappointed. But even I have to admit that while the movie ends up happily, with a triple-scoop of niceness, I actually enjoyed it. It was saccharine, and a little naive, but it was also a refreshing change from detached hipstperrific irony. Sometimes that Lost in Thailand became a huge box-office success, well beyond expectations. It remains the highest-grossing domestic film ever in China, slightly ahead of Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West

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It’s not a great movie, but it’s a fun watch, and it has a few really good laughs and surprises along the way. There’s no new comedic ground broken, but I don’t think there was supposed to be. This film is generic, but it’s very solidly made and hits all the right points for movies of its type.

Movie (P)review: Dream Home/維多利亞壹號

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[Editor’s note: this post originally appeared in May of 2010 on another platform]

A while back, Conroy Chan had invited me to the premiere of Dream Home/維多利亞壹號. It was in passing, no doubt at an AnD event. I know he’s a busy man, and he’s got a lot on his mind, so I wouldn’t have minded if he forgot.

But at the same time I wasn’t really surprised Tuesday night when I got a call from his assistant confirming my invitation.

It’s nice to be remembered by people who quite understandably have other, more important things to think about than making sure their friends get on a guest list. So I want to thank Conroy publicly for remembering and including me.

I was pretty excited about it, because I have heard a lot about this movie from people and was looking forward to seeing it. In the spirit of optimism, I asked for two tickets, since I figured it would be easy to find someone to go with me.

It might even be a woman.

It was not as easy as I thought, since, as we all know, Dream Home/維多利亞壹號 ‘s reputation precedes it. Friends of both genders (meaning men and  women, not hermaphrodites…) begged off, citing weak stomachs or prior engagements (dinner, gender reassignment surgery, etc.).

But eventually I found someone to go with me: my good friend Maggie, a graduate of my school and one of the biggest Daniel Wu fans in the world (at least until he got married).

We met at the Convention Center at 8:00 and proceeded into the reception, a rather dimly lit affair that nonetheless made for an ideal  social setting, lubricated as it was by free San Miguel beer and popcorn. Apparently they wouldn’t let you bring beer into the movie, though, which was a bummer.

They should have the next premiere at the Dynasty, where they’re not so uptight.

It was a chance for me to socialize, and I got to see lots of people before the movie, including Conroy, whom I thanked effusively, and Andrew Lin, whose work I was looking forward to seeing.

I got to see lots of people from the local film and music scene, and it made me realize how lucky I am to live in a place where I can be a part of something that matters to me and to have contemporaries whose work I enjoy and admire.

I’ve said this before, but the only thing better than knowing people in LMF is having them know you.

I got to spend a lot of time with Grace Huang and Desmond So, discussing all manner of things, including my movie reviews. I consider them two extremely nice people, so their enjoyment of my vituperation is a bit baffling.

Or maybe not.

Remember in school when the teacher would tell the class “Don’t laugh, it only encourages” the class clown?

Yeah, well which one of us got a PhD, Mr. Boneswallow?

When people tell me they enjoy my reviews, especially because I, unlike themselves, am at liberty to degrade, insult, and verbally pummel bad movies and the bad people who make them, it makes me realize that I’m basically an overgrown class clown.

Who is performing an apparently necessary public service, so its okay.

As long as people laugh, I will keep doing it. Not just because of them; I’ll keep doing it because I am sure that there is no shortage of sh*tty movies in the pipeline.

People also asked me how I would review a movie made by people I consider my friends. Before I even saw Dream Home/維多利亞壹號, I had said that it would be hard for me to dislike it on several points.

  1. Pang Ho Cheung. For me personally, he has surpassed Johnnie To in terms of local film quality, because his films are stylish and substantive.
  2. I knew that Dream Home/維多利亞壹號 was trying to break new ground, and that the people involved were confident without being arrogant. Which cannot be said of all the people (or movies) claiming to do something “never before seen” in local film.

I’d much rather see a sincere effort that may not succeed [I don’t mean Dream Home ] than a blunder whose failure goes unacknowledged by people too full of themselves to see the “unbearable truth” that their movie sucks putrid fruit salad out of the eye socket of a dead rhesus monkey.

  1. Following on that bit of florid imagery, I knew that Dream Home/維多利亞壹號 was going to be Category 3.9 in terms of gore. And from what I’d heard, it was not playful, excessive gore. I think that when people make movies about murder, war, etc., that it ought to be as realistic as possible so that people don’t get the wrong ideas about basic human brutality.

When we filed into the theatre, there was a promotional ‘barf bag’ on every other seat, with a big Cat III triangle on it.

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With instructions. Priceless.

I was quite surprised to see Ekin Cheng in attendance, and very nearly bum-rushed him for a photo op, but decided it was not the best idea.

I just wanted to see the movie!

I really liked Dream Home/維多利亞壹號. It was nasty, profane, crass, bitter, and touching.

I don’t mean inappropriate touching, I mean emotionally.

It starts with a scene that is more psychologically violent than physically (though other people may disagree).

The film does a great job of juggling hope and misery, and alternates resolve and psychosis, showing us how thin that line can be ground. The people in this film are very human, and in being that way, are un-glamorous, un-appealing, and verybelievable.

All too often in Hong Kong movies (and society in general) people studiously ignore the warts on the face of our city/culture.

I’m going to bring that barf bag to the next Alex Fong/Stephy/Patrick Kong movie I see, because I’ll need it.

As Maggie said several times during the film, “It’s so real!”

It’s nice to watch people on screen who could be real-life humans.

It’s nice to watch them get dispatched by methods so foul, cruel, and bad-tempered (name that reference and win dinner with a former film professor) that you start to wonder about the people who wrote the film.

I am a product of the 80s, the glory gory years of the slasher genre, when advances in technology allowed for violence of an as-yet-unseen graphic nature.

I’ve (almost) always been able to observe screen violence with an eye that sees it as a technical process rather than actual violence. Dream Home/維多利亞壹號 gave me a lot to think about. I guess because I know it isn’t real, I can really enjoy black humor of a violent nature.

As a result, during the squeamish bits, amidst the shrieks and groans, my laughter could be heard.

So could Desmond’s, just another reason I like him.Let me say something that will make me look bad, at least by implication. As I often said to my students, don’t ask how I know this, but the gore in Dream Home/維多利亞壹號 is actually very understated. It is not, shall we say, anatomically correct. If it were, it would be not only grossly (!) more horrific, it would make it difficult to film.

The human body contains 5-6 litres of blood under 2-3 foot pounds of pressure. Rupture the containment mechanisms (organs, veins, etc.), and you get blood everywhere.

More than a gallon if you do it right.

Dream Home/維多利亞壹號 is not, shall we say, anatomically correct. It’s still pretty frigging nasty, though.In a sense, the juxtaposition of humdrum persons just like you or me being murdered in such awful fashions helps amplify the sense of dread and horror.

Even knowing some of the actors as real people didn’t alleviate the sense of creeping dread.

As I said to Andrew Lin after the film, the stuff that always gets me isn’t the outlandish things like birthing an alien through the chest. It’s people trying to ward off a knife attack with their bare hands.

Because I have bare hands and knives in my house. So that sh*t could happen to me.

There was plenty of that in the movie, so I squirmed a lot.

And loved it.

One image that made me very uncomfortable was based on prior knowledge. For a reaction shot, Phat Chan took a shot in the baby hangars to get the proper expression of shock and agony.

It had to happen one of two ways:

  1. He wasn’t expecting it, and still didn’t kill Conroy (the offender).
  2. He knewit would happen and took one for the movie.

Either way, give that man an award. And a bag of ice.

I’d also like to uncharacteristically give thanks to China. Not because there’s no way in hell this film could be shown there, but because without China, there’d be no nudity in Dream Home/維多利亞壹號 (or any other local movie). Two women get naked in the film, and they both speak Mandarin.

More importantly, neither of them wax. God bless Cat III.

What I think I like most about Dream Home/維多利亞壹號 is the titties that it succeeds as a film in multiple ways; it is topical, thought provoking, prurient, entertaining and unsettling. It refuses to reconcile its contradictions and leaves that up to the viewer. It’s anti-didactic nature is refreshing. 

Dream Home/維多利亞壹號 will spark a reaction in Hong Kong, and hopefully a lot of discussion. It’s a truism that if nothing changes, nothing changes. Dream Home/維多利亞壹號 is trying to change things, and in so doing bring some of the vitality, daring, and moral ambiguity back to Hong Kong cinema, because that’s what made it so f@#$ing exciting to begin with.

Go see Dream Home/維多利亞壹號. You may not enjoy it completely, but it will make an impression on you, and it will give you something to think about.

It’s also a very good film, and it deserves our support, if for no other reason than it takes chances and goes places local filmmakers have been to timid (or China $-minded) to go in far too long. 

Movie Review: Full Strike/全力扣殺

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Full Strike is the latest movie from 852 films, the people who brought us Dream Home and Naked Ambition 3D, among others.

Derek Kwok and Henri Wong co-directed Full Strike. I’ve enjoyed some of their work. I really loved Gallants, and Henri Wong’s segment of Hardcore Comedy was my favorite.

Full Strike tells the story of a group of misfits who come together to participate in a badminton tournament in Macau.

Badminton isn’t a very popular sport in America.

Probably because we can’t say shuttlecock without giggling.

But so what? Badminton is popular elsewhere. Especially in Asia. It’s the second most popular sport in the world after football.

The European kind. You know, soccer.

Never mind.

In Full Strike, Josie Ho plays a disgraced former badminton champion. She works at her brother’s restaurant, enduring a constant stream of abuse from seemingly everyone around her. Eking Cheng plays the leader of a small group of former robbers who have purportedly turned over a new leaf and have opened a badminton school in Yuen Long.

Ronald Cheng plays “Suck Nipple Cheung”, the owner of the building the school is located in. He doesn’t trust his new tenants.

And that’s all I’m going to tell you about the story.

Because like so many other good movies, Full Strike must be seen to be full understood and appreciated. 

Full Strike is thoroughly funny. The characters, the dialog,

and the situations all contribute to the laughs. A lot of the verbal humor comes from people’s accents or use of dialect. Full Strike is a movie I easily admit I can’t appreciate fully because I don’t understand the language anywhere near enough. I know there are jokes, and I know it’s funny, but I wouldn’t attempt to say that I get those jokes. I don’t mind admitting that.

But trust me, my lousy Cantonese is not the reason I thought Enthralled sucked.

Even if you don’t speak Cantonese (or the Hakka dialect), some of the verbal humor is easily inferred. I know the subtitle is wrong when it says “Fornicate your mammaries!” But it’s funny anyway.

And there’s plenty of non-language humor to enjoy. The situations engendered by the story are very funny. I don’t want to tell you any of them, you’ll just have to believe me. For me, the funniest character is probably Champion Chik, the alcoholic badminton master played by Andrew Lam. His resemblance to Ng Man Tat is not only remarkable, it’s probably intentional. Sports movie? Humorous sidekick?

Bueller?

His dialog is often hilarious, especially in the movie’s epilogue. But it’s his physical humor that had me literally rolling. The humor in the movie is often surreal, and in the midst of a weird montage, there’s a moment where Chik appears to be doing something. The nature of the montage is such that you can’t be sure, but the moment itself was just really funny to me. My biggest laugh of the film, and so far the year, is a scene involving Chik and the most unlikely live-action homage to Team America World Police I hope I ever see.

It was so funny I couldn’t breathe. It may not be funny to you, or as funny.

But so what? I paid for my ticket, I’ll laugh at whatever I want.

Ronald Cheng is not far behind in the funniest man race, but then he’s never really had a problem making us laugh. His use of dialect, as well as his character and wardrobe, are chronically entertaining.

As funny as the movie is, it’s kind of touching too. Hong Kong movies are known for their often violent mood shifts. Ng’s brother is played by Kau-chun Tse Kwan-ho. He’s known as a stage actor, so to see him portraying a foul-mouthed New Territories restaurant owner is a big change. But his acting chops come in handy, because when Full Strike makes the occasional shift into seriousness, he really pulls it off.

There’s a lot of good performances in Full Strike, and not just from the main actors.  Philip Keung turns in a typically great performance. The other 2/3 of the robbery trio is played by Edmond Leung and Wilfred Lau. They’re funny, believable, and very entertaining. Siu Yam-yam is as funny and engaging as ever, but she’s also believable, and I’m just happy to see her onscreen. There’s also a ton of cameos from people like Michael Tse, Grace Yip, Kabby Hui, Matt Chow, and Vincent Kok to name just a few. It was a typically pleasant surprise to see JBS, Ah Fai and Kit from 24 Herbs make appearances.

There’s even a Jo Koo cameo!

This movie was so funny and so entertaining that I didn’t mind getting up God-awfully early on a Sunday morning to see it. It was worth it. I can easily recommend this movie. It’s wildly entertaining, a lot of laughs, and the kind of movie that I wish I got to see more often.

Movie Review: Helios/赤道

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In an effort to compete with Hollywood and Korea, Hong Kong has recently tried to create bigger, louder movies that incorporate a lot of the hallmarks of big budget blockbusters. Foreign locations, larger plot points and bigger special effects have become more common, as budgets and shooting schedules have increased.

Helios is the latest entry in the Hong Kong blockbuster genre. A stolen nuclear device is being sold in Hong Kong. The police, with help from intelligence agents from Korea and China are doing everything they can to stop the sale and catch the people involved.

Car chases, gunfire, fistfights, and a battle of wits ensue.

Helios boasts an international cast of stars. Nick Cheung plays chief inspector Lee, head of the Counter Terrorism Response Unit. Shawn Yue plays inspector Fan, Lee’s subordinate. Jacky Cheung plays Dr. Siu, a Physics professor.   He makes dire predictions of what would happen to Hong Kong if the device is damaged, much less detonated.  They’re assisted by three Korean weapons experts, because the stolen nuclear device was apparently created from parts  originating in both Koreas.

No, really, that’s what the movie said.

All the documentation, stencils, and interfaces in and on the device are in written in English. And it’s named the DC-8. 

The DC stands for Davy Crockett.

But let’s face it, blockbusters from any country aren’t supposed to withstand any kind of logical scrutiny. Think about it: there’s really no logical narrative reason to have a big action set-piece in the first half hour of any movie. If the lead characters get arrested or killed, that’s the end of your movie.

But big action set pieces entertain people. You’re not supposed to think about them. You’re just supposed to watch them.  And in that sense, Helios is a blockbuster on par with anything Hollywood produces, though with a much smaller budget.

Helios does look really nice. It’s obvious money was spent on the production, and it was fun to recognize so many places in the movie. Local films have done a very good job in the last few years improving their overall look, and Helios looks especially nice. It looks like it cost a lot more than it probably did. 

But it’s an unfortunate truism that things that look nice often aren’t necessarily intellectually well-developed. I sincerely wish I didn’t notice lapses in logic in movies. I’d probably enjoy movies a lot more. I think it has to do with movies that want me to buy into the story, or are trying to convince me they’re smart. All I ask is a modicum of plausibility.

Which is not a condition which should be treated at the free clinic. Don’t ask me how I know that. Just believe me.

If you want me to buy into your movie, if you want me to get caught up in the story, please don’t do things that keep making me say “Yeah. That would happen.” Like a nuclear device made from parts from North and South Korea. With an American name.

 It would have been more believable if it said Property of Kerplakistan.

 Speaking of nebulous, fictional countries in a region known for conflict…  I can’t be sure if the Sikhs in Helios were supposed to be working for the ‘Middle Easterners’ in the story or were supposed to be the Middle Easterners.

I’d like to hope it was the former, but we’re talking about a movie industry that still stoops to Blackface with frightening ease.

Because I can’t just sit back and take a movie in, I had a lot of questions about Helios. Why would you let a violent criminal you worked really hard to capture drive alone in a car with a nuclear device you’re supposed to safeguard in the back of the car?  

Don’t worry. The criminal is handcuffed to the wheel, so what’s the worst that could happen?

Why is it that there can be DNA testing on-site at a plane crash in an apparently remote area, but Hong Kong police need 8 hrs to do the same thing? Why does it annoy me so much that the CGI slow-motion bullet didn’t spin like all rifle bullets do?

There’s a reason it’s called a rifle

Because some of the good guys are Korean and the others are from Hong Kong, rhey use in-ear universal translators set for Korean and Cantonese. I know that because the screen in the carrying case said so.

In English. 

Which the actors sometimes use. I wonder how the translators dealt with that.

Or the mainland characters speaking Mandarin.

Actually, the subtitles were very good. But some of the actors’ English was bad enough that it should have been fixed. If you got bad information, you were misinformedSo don’t let the actor say “I was misformed.”

Ewwwww.

But some of the English dialog was very good. When Chang Chen says rule #1 is “No money, no box,” I knew exactly what he meant.

 He was, after all, in Tsim Sha Tsui.

To be fair, there were some things I enjoyed about HeliosIn her action scenes, Janice man looks beautiful but not necessarily believable. It’s obvious she trained really hard for the role, but she’s a tiny woman and might weigh 100 pounds soaking wet.Her fight with Nick Cheung is shot well, and she looks competent, but my favorite part is still what happens right after it gets broken up.

It was fun to see Paul Fonoroff and Mike Leeder in small roles.

I wanted to like Helios. And overall, I can say there’s a lot of things to like about it. But I felt like it got sloppy, I was enjoying the way Helios was developing until the third act. That’s when it all fell apart. I could say maybe they wanted to be like Korean movies, which sometimes have the same tendency. Maybe they ran out of ideas. While I can’t say at what point I realized who the unknown person was, I knew who it was.

I couldn’t tell if my inability to follow the story was because the script was written well enough to confuse me or if it was written badly enough to confuse me.

But I do know this. The end of the movie features something so irritating that it used up an awful lot of whatever sympathy I had left.

Not just because the setting is based on what can only be called a political wet dream.

You’ll know what I’m talking about if you watch the movie. Let me just say this about the message we’re given: I don’t care.

Movie Review: The Message/风声

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There’s a lot of ways to evaluate a movie. My bottom line is this: Does the movie entertain me? Is there something I can enjoy about it? Is the story good? Is it well-acted? Is it well-made? Does it make me laugh? Does it make some kind of emotional or intellectual impact?

2009’s The Message tells the story of a group of people brought together to discover which one of them is a spy. The star-studded cast includes some of the biggest names in mainland Chinese cinema. Huang Xiaoming plays Taketa, a Japanese officer tasked with unmasking the traitor.

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Do you find me repulsive?

He’s dubbed, and not just because he can’t speak Japanese. It’s also apparently because he can’t speak Mandarin with a Japanese accent.

Or so I’ve been told.

He’s as impressive as he usually is, and that statement can be interpreted a lot of ways. 

I leave it up to you to finger (!) out exactly what I mean by it. 

Li Bingbing, Zhang Hanyu, and Zhou Xun, among others, play the unusual suspects. And they play their roles very, very well. As Taketa pushes them, they push back.

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Stop staring at her ass! I saw you!

The best thing I can say about The Message is that the acting is highly commendable. The characters come to life in vivid detail and it’s easy to know and care about them. The credit for that obviously goes to the actors. They bring a depth and subtlety to their characters that’s unfortunately not very common these days, so watching them do it is a very rewarding experience.

The suspects are constantly interrogated, often with unusual methods. They face mounting pressure, and some of them start behaving strangely.

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I wish.

It helps that the sets are so nice too. There’s some interesting exterior locations, and a lot of the interiors are convincing as well as entertaining.

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There’s even a bar mitzvah!

The movie opens very strongly with a nice, brutal surprise. I guess I’m easy to please that way.

Don’t make me a bad person.

The story is engaging, because it’s difficult to outguess the narrative. Though a lot of the tension is pretty obvious.

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Grrrrrrr.

The plot and its details are engrossing, especially as the film gets closer to the reveal. As the search becomes more desperate, it also becomes more vicious. A lot more vicious. One scene in particular made me very uncomfortable.

And I’m not even a woman.

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It was so nasty that I couldn’t even enjoy Zho Xun looking like this. 

Now that’s vicious. So you’ve got a well-made movie that’s well-acted, entertaining, and looks nice. What’s not to like?

Well, the story, for one thing.

Or, to be more specific, the ending. I don’t want to spoil the ending, but it’s one of those things that’s probably the result of laziness as much as anything else. I see it happen a lot, and it’s annoying. You’ve seen it too:

“Hah ha ha! You thought I would fall your inane trap. But in fact, I have known all along that you would do this, which is why I did that, and what you thought was this was that, and he is not who you thought, and I always knew what you were thinking, and I fooled you like the fool you are. And this is the song of my people.”  

No, really.

I was disappointed, because until the ending, The Message was a very good movie and I enjoyed it a lot. I felt as though the writers just got stuck trying to find an ending and took the simplest (laziest), easiest way out.

Ugh.

It was frustrating because everything else about the movie had gone so right, at least up to that point. I enjoyed this movie much more than I expected to (at least until the twist), so it was especially irritating.

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Movie Review: The Taking of Tiger Mountain/智取威虎山

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During China’s Cultural Revolution in the 1960s and 70s, there were only eight plays that were deemed acceptable by Mao Zedong’s charming and attractive wife Jiang Qing. Think about that. 800 million people had eight entertainment choices.

Don’t complain about basic cable ever again.

One of the ‘Eight Model Plays’ was Taking Tiger Mountain by Strategy, based on the 1957 novel Tracks in the Snowy Forest. It tells the true story of a group of PLA soldiers who captured a base from bandits near the end of the civil war.

That might sound spoilerish, but a China film in which the PLA fights anyone is inherently Highlander-esque:

Besides, the word Taking in the title should tip you off.

The play was made into a movie in 1970, and it’s an interesting glimpse into the weird, dark past of the Cultural Revolution.

The soldiers are virtuous, the bandits are evil, and if you have any questions you’re obviously a counter-revolutionary scumbag. Simple, huh?

At the same time, it does have a certain representative aesthetic, and that’s important. Because Tsui Hark’s version of the story draws on that aesthetic while at the same time using updated technology like 3D.

The film was made with the cooperation of August 1st Film Studios, which is the PLA’s media production section. You may have seen their ‘slug’ at the beginning of movies like Founding of a Republic. In fact, The Taking of Tiger Mountain opens with a very old version of the studio slug. It set the tone of the movie right away, because there’s a definite nostalgic air to it.

But since it’s a Tsui Hark movie, it can’t be that simple.

I was really impressed with the use of 3D and CGI in the opening battle sequence. It offered something new and innovative, in that I finally felt like the 3D was contributing to the impact of the film rather than just using up screen time. To be honest, it was the best use of 3D in the movie, and I wish more of it had been so memorable.

Zhang Hanyu plays Yang Zirong, the reconnaissance specialist who bravely and selflessly goes undercover in the bandit’s lair. He’s so unflappable he fights off a tiger with nothing but a pistol and a steely gaze. I have to say that the tiger, which is obviously CG, is still really impressive on a technical level. 

You know it’s not real, but it looks damn good.

And speaking of impressive, Zhang Hanyu is such a badass that he can play this role wearing very obvious eye shadow and he still wins Player of the Year. I assume it’s a nod to the original film, or it may just be Tsui Hark being… Tsui Hark.

Because he’s always been more interested in art than accuracy. Which you can say about a lot of the things in this movie. There’s a tank in the fortress. Which is on top of a mountain. I don’t know why it’s there. But it drives back and forth a lot.

Because tank!

I think that’s the same reason that Lord Hawk, played by Big Tony Leung Kar Fai (and five pounds of latex prosthetics) not only has a throne, but the throne spins. On two axes! He also may have a cuckold and S&M fetish, too. It’s creepy. His girlfriend may be a woman in distress, or just a dirty, filthy, woman.

I mean that in a good way, believe me.

Tsui Hark seems to be having a lot of fun with the movie. I couldn’t help but wonder if he was being sincere in his characterizations. The soldiers are all so virtuous. And the bandits are so evil. How evil? They all look funny.

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And there’s a cameo by Celine Dion.

Tsui Hark has always had a thing for subtexts. Green Snake wasn’t just about a battle between monks and demons. It was also about authoritarian governments.

You know, the kind that would let almost a billion citizens only watch eight plays for a few years.

So when I was watching the movie, I couldn’t help smiling. Tsui Hark’s penchant for overstatement and spectacular excess serves not only to create a typically dazzling film, but one in which he may be giving us the biggest wink-wink-nudge-nudge since Paul Lynn set the center square on fire. Imagine if Michael Bay turned the American revolution story of Washington crossing the Delaware into a superhero movie. 

Who signed off on The Taking of Tiger Mountain? I sat in the cinema with my mouth open more than once wondering how on earth Tsui Hark got permission to turn one of modern China’s foundational epics into… well, a Tsui Hark movie.

I wondered if there was anything that was too much for the bosses, and apparently there was. Without spoiling anything, I can tell you that the epilogue, which is presented in a very light tone, was part of the original ending. It was, however, too far. But rather than abandon it, Tsui Hark turned it into yet another instance of mythologizing and mayhem.

I’ve waited to release the review until closer to the Hong Kong theatrical release. I’ve heard that the movie isn’t going to be pushed heavily in Hong Kong, because locals aren’t likely to want to see a movie that makes the PLA superheroes, Tsui Hark or not. That’s really a shame, because Tsui Hark may well have created the most incredibly subversive film of his career.

Or he’s finally gone batsh*t crazy.

Either way, you really have to see this movie for yourself to decide.