Movie Review: Kung Fu Mahjong/雀聖 I, II, & III

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Mahjong is a Chinese game normally involving 4 people and 144 tiles.

The object is to create winning combinations of tiles.

And to fleece as much money as possible from your opponents.

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People play mahjong for money, prestige, and money. If I say that breathing is more popular than gambling for Chinese people, it’s only because you can’t gamble without breathing. One thing I love about living in Hong Kong is how often you hear people ‘washing tiles,’ mixing them up after a game.

One thing I don’t love is when my neighbors do it at 3:00AM, but that’s not my point.

Because Hong Kong people love mahjong, many of them also enjoy mahjong movies. 

Filmmakers like Wong Jing enjoy making mahjong movies because they’re inexpensive, easy to make, and popular.

In 2004, Stephen Chow released the hugely successful Kung Fu Hustle. Wong Jing, never one to miss an opportunity, released Kung Fu Mahjong/雀聖 the next year.

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It stars Yuen Wah and Yuen Qiu, who appeared in Kung Fu Hustle.

It also stars Roger Kwok as Ah Wong, in a role parodying a character he played on TVB.

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He’s kind of like Dustin Hoffman’s character from Rain Man; a savant whose math skill makes him a gambler’s best friend. But he’s also a lot like Simple Jack from Tropic Thunder; Roger Kwok goes double full retard.

Yuen Wah plays Chi Mo Sai, a degenerate gambler who wants to teach Ah Wong to become a professional gambler.

And make him a lot of money along the way.

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Standing in his way is Auntie Fei, played by Yuen Qiu. She refuses to let Ah Wong follow that path.

Besides, he’s half distracted by Cheryl, played by Theresa Fu.

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He likes her so he attempts to deceive her. She likes him, so she lets him think he succeeded. A relationship doesn’t have to be built on honesty, trust, and mutual respect.

Don’t ask me how I know that. Just believe me.

Since Kung Fu Mahjong/雀聖 is wholly derivative, I won’t waste time with a plot synopsis. There’s mahjong, good guys and bad guys, romance, trickery, and jokes. Every one of which you’ve seen before, but at least it’s presented in an entertaining-enough fashion.

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There’s an option on the menu for Vernacular subtitles. 

There are even a few surprises along the way, one of which honestly shocked me. It’s a scene that plays differently than the rest of the movie, and it’s quite literally dead serious.

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On a happier note, it was a pleasant surprise to see Jade Leung on the big screen again, because she seems to get better-looking with age.

Unlike yours truly.

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Wong Jing plays a small role as the top gambler Tin Kau Gor. He’s good in the role, displaying some decent dramatic chops.

There are a number of non-surprises in the movie too; Yuen Qiu does yet another Kill Bill parody complete with yellow tracksuit.

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And unsurprisingly, she’s still a much more convincing martial artist than Uma Thurman. Not because she’s Chinese.

It’s because Uma Thurman sucked.

Maybe I’m biased; one of the biggest laughs of the movie for me is seeing how obviously Yuen Qiu is doubled by a man for some of the stunts. I don’t think Wong Jing was even trying to hide it.

Kung Fu Mahjong was a surprise hit, so in true Wong Jing fashion, he released a sequel.

In 2005.

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Kung Fu Mahjong 2/雀圣2自摸天后 tells the story of a heartbroken woman whose marital problems cause her mahjong luck to evaporate.

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Cherrie Ying Choi Yee plays Fanny…

Let me stop for a moment. Considering Hong Kong was a British colony, and that fanny is a British slang term for a woman’s private parts, I refuse to believe that the popularity of the English name Fanny in Hong Kong is a coincidence.

But never mind that.

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Terence Yin plays Johnny, her husband.

He doesn’t seem happy to be married to her. He doesn’t seem unhappy either.

I’m not sure if that’s how the character is written of if that’s just how Terence Yin does.

Fanny’s brother Ronaldinho is played by Sammy Leung.

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And four pounds of makeup.

But remember, stereotypical depictions of Chinese people are unacceptable. If you don’t believe me, ask Mohindepaul Singh, who appears in the movie.

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He plays mahjong with his feet and makes the tiles smell like curry.

Philip Keung Ho Man plays Demon, the bad guy. Wong Jing returns as Tin Kau Gor, and everyone treats him as if that shocking scene in the first movie never happened.

His father, Wong Tin Lam, also appears, as a mahjong master who instructs Fanny.

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That’s not a euphemism. He teaches Cherrie Ying’s character.

Yuen Wah and Yuen Qiu also return, lending their talents to a wide-ranging lampoon of Asian pop culture; Korea, Japan, and even Thailand get clowned with all the subtlety, finesse, and restraint we’ve come to expect from Wong Jing.

I.e. none.

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Maybe I’m too American, but how can anyone really be afraid of a chainsaw that’s not running?

Kung Fu Mahjong 2/雀圣2自摸天后  is a quick, cheap, and shoddy sequel meant to cash in n the success of the first movie.

But it’s not without it’s charms. Cherrie Ying Choi Yi is a lot of fun to watch as she chews up scene after scene.

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She manages to convince at times, and she does have one of those smiles that lights up a room. You can’t fault her effort, because she’s obviously giving it her all.

Kung Fu Mahjong 2/雀圣2自摸天后 isn’t a very good movie.

But I don’t think it was trying to be. It was trying to make money, and it really wasn’t made for people who have high cinematic expectations.

That said, it’s not the worst 90 minutes I’ve ever spent watching a movie.

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Neither, it turns out, was watching Kung Fu Mahjong 3: The Final Duel/雀圣3:自摸三百番.

And since it’s now almost 8 years later, I guess we can be sure that it really was the final movie.

Yuen Wah and Yuen Qiu return once again to reprise their roles.

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Roger Kwok also returns, but he plays a different character.

Thank God.

I saw this movie in the cinema, but it was during one of my usual winter chest infections. I was high as giraffe p*ssy長頸鹿陰道 on cough syrup, and early in the film when I went to top up, I dropped the cap. So there I was, holding a mostly full bottle of cough syrup with no way to close it. I didn’t know what to do.

So I drank it.

All of it. To be honest, I’m not sure if it made the movie any better.

Because I really don’t remember much of what happened after that.

So it’s a good thing I re-watched this on DVD. It seemed like a new movie.

Not a good movie, just a new one.

Roger Kwok plays Ken, a mahjong hotshot whose father, a widower, runs a successful mahjong business. He also just got remarried. To a woman probably younger than Ken named Sophie.

Last name Ho. Even if it’s Leung.

Ken’s dad wants to appoint a successor. Guess who the two choices are? Guess how they’ll decide?

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Guess who’s back for the third time? 

Ken’s got an extra problem. His new girlfriend is apparently cursing his luck, making all of it bad. I think she cursed this movie too.

Because almost all of Kung Fu Mahjong 3: The Final Duel/雀圣3:自摸三百番 is bad. There are a few scattered moments that are chuckle worthy: an elderly woman grabbing a man’s crotch. A young child gets hit in the face for laughs. A parody of an anti-gambling PSA that was on TV when the film was released. A surprising number of subtitles that showed only the first half of the sentences.

One of the most illogical kidnappings in cinematic history. Yeah, no one will notice you chloroforming two women in the middle of a social gathering.

If that was the case, I wouldn’t be on parole.

But never mind that.

Movie Review: SPL/殺破狼

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A ruthless criminal has something stolen from him. He wants it back and will stop at nothing to get it. A team of police officers want to bust him, and will do almost anything to do it.

Wilson Yip directed SPL/殺破狼, a movie that helped make Donnie Yen a leading action star.

Not that Twins Effect II didn’t help, I’m just saying.

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Sammo Hung plays Wong Po, a gang boss who is also a loving husband and caring father.

He may beat someone about the face and head with a golf club, but he’ll let his wife know he’ll be home late first.

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Simon Yam plays Inspector Chan, the leader of the team. He’s got some health issues, but his drive and determination remain strong.

Donnie Yen plays Inspector Ma, who will take over Inspector Chan’s team in the near future.

If they live long enough.

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It’s kind of funny that when I slag off Donnie Yen, people leave me very angry comments, including the fervent hope that Donnie Yen breaks my face.

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My favorite actor can beat up your favorite actor.

Yeah. Okay.

Well, I actually like SPL/殺破狼. I saw it in the cinemas way back when, and I of course re-watched the DVD for the review.

I wouldn’t call it a fun movie, because it doesn’t have much humor in it. 

But it also doesn’t have bad, overstated, mainland-friendly humor in it either.

The story is dark and the characters are morally ambiguous. The ending is bleak and cold, and the story violates some of the normal tropes of action cinema.

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In parts of the film, the police are shown to be, uh, overzealous in their interrogation methods as well as their investigative techniques.

But that’s to be expected, because the film actually takes place from 1994 to 1997, i.e. before the handover.

Because since then the police in Hong Kong have been shining beacons of purity and light.

And if you don’t believe me, just ask SARFT.

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Then again, I’d rather ask Wilson Yip how in the hell he got away with time travel, another verboten topic, bringing the IFC tower back in time.

There are quite a few of those little details that maybe only I noticed.

If you’re a cop, and your recently un-estranged daughter calls you to wish you a happy Father’s day…

Well, it’s like saying you’re going to retire.

If you volunteer to go with someone to keep them safe, why would you leave them alone five minutes later?

And why would you be surprised when the inevitable happens to them?

Why does Donnie Yen throw away so many leather jackets?

Because Donnie Yen kicks ass and Donnie Yen does what he wants!

One of the things I really enjoyed about this movie is that Donnie Yen didn’t have to carry the movie; he could just steal it.

The other actors could carry the emotional weight of the narrative and leave Donnie to be the terminator  bunny.

Donnie Yen is a great movie martial artist.

He’s not a great actor.

But in SPL/殺破狼 he doesn’t have to be.

He just has to beat people up.

And he’s really, really good at it. One reason he looks so good is because of the people working with him.

Sammo Hung may be fat and old, but he’s still faster than you can believe. The fights between he and Donnie are cinematically impressive and very entertaining. But that’s because the two of them are so highly skilled that they can keep up with each other.

The same should be said of Wu Jing. His fight with Donnie Yen includes exchanges that are literally faster than the eye can see.

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He’s just got to stop stealing clothes out of Michael Jackson’s closet.

Watching Wu Jing and Donnie Yen, you have to respect their pure physical ability. I don’t mean their fighting prowess, I mean the ability to perform physical tasks with the speed and precision they do.

It should also be said that the fights here are very entertaining but may lack realism.

And for that, I am grateful.

Flash Point and Special ID supposedly had realistic fighting, but frankly I find it boring. I’d rather watch something unrealistic but cinematically entertaining.

SPL/殺破狼 is definitely an entertaining movie. It has an interesting story, good acting, solid direction, and really fantastic action scenes. 

I wish there were more movies like this.

Movie Review: The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom/白髮魔女傳之明月天國

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Let’s get the obvious out of the way first. This is a version of the same story used for The Bride with White Hair.

You know, that movie with Brigitte Lin and Leslie Cheung.

I did this movie a favor and didn’t do a Flashback Friday review of that movie as a preview of this new one. It’s easy to say that the new movie doesn’t compare to the old, but it’s also not really a fair comparison to make.

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The Bride with White Hair is an iconic movie starring two iconic people.

The ghost of Akira Kurosawa could direct Christian Bale and Dame Judy Dench in a remake and people would still say it was garbage. But it would be an interesting movie, I bet.

The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom/白髮魔女傳之明月天國 is an interesting movie.

The version I saw was in 2D, which is fine with me. If you watch the trailer, you’ll see that there are ‘3D shots’, which are things that make no narrative contribution whatsoever, but are supposed to look good or exciting or interesting in 3D.

The story in this new version differs from the original story (and from the earlier film). The plot isn’t so much convoluted as illogical. Well, maybe the plot isn’t convoluted, but people’s behavior sure is. The story doesn’t really hold up to any kind of logical scrutiny.

But neither do a lot of my life choices, so who am I to talk?

The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom/白髮魔女傳之明月天國 is another in a growing list of recent films that suffer from the same problem: This movie has a lot of good ingredients, but a lousy recipe.

Jacob Cheung has directed some good movies; 1992’s Cageman and 1997’s Intimates. But he also directed Battle of Wits.

It’s obvious that money was spent on this film. A lot of it is beautiful.

When you have Tsui Hark onboard as an artistic consultant, these things happen.

But it’s also obvious that money wasn’t spent on this movie. Some parts of the film are very obviously sporting cut corners. Some of the sets look really nice.

Others… don’t.

The execution of the story (both technically and narratively) is often pretty good, but there are times when it falls flat.

Huang Xiaoming and Fan Bingbing don’t really have any chemistry.

I admit, it may be hard to feel romantic in a scene with a woman who looks like this:

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Elijah Muhammad warned us about the blue-eyed devils…

It’s also difficult when you’re obviously not doing what you want the audience to think you’re doing.

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Dude… that’s her navel. 

Most of the time Fan Bingbing was very good. It’s a tough role to play, given the nature of it, but more often than not she was convincing. Her action scenes were obviously doubled, but I felt like a lot of the dramatic work she did with just her facial expressions was pretty admirable.

Strangely, I noticed at least two shots of her during scenes that were very unflattering. Not only did she not look good, she looked… weird.

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The overall look of the White Haired Witch gets an update, thanks in part to the magic of computers. We see her hair turn white, though to be honest it’s pretty obviously CGI.

And her eyebrows stayed black. So I guess it’s not a total transformation…

Her outfits also get an update, and at times I think it was a little too modern. She ended up looking like some kind of over-styled goth from a Japanese anime. Then again, maybe that was part of what made her a witch.

Because Japan is evil!

Speaking of politics, this version of the story apparently uses a lot of elements that are in the original, but were but left out of The Bride with White Hair.

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Many of these elements are political, and reflect the time in which the story was set. They also can be seen as reflecting the present too, and I’m not sure if they’re supposed to. There are things in there about sacrificing yourself for the good of the country, and about forgiving soldiers who killed a lot of people.

As many faults as I might find with this movie, there were things I liked about it.

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Right before the big romantic interlude, Huang Xiaoming drops a torch so he can take hold of Fan Bingbing. The torch hits the floor out of frame and makes a LOUD noise.

It seems weird, but only because it is realistic. It was a disruption, though.

That’s kind of emblematic of my impression of The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom/白髮魔女傳之明月天國; too many contradictions, distractions, and missed opportunities.

I didn’t dislike the movie, but I wish I could like it more than I did.

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.