Movie Review: Temporary Family/失戀急讓

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Lung is a property agent in Hong Kong, and that’s a tough row to hoe. The competition is cutthroat, the pay is lousy, the hours are long and the clients are horrible people.

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“Just like you, Spleen!”

Like most Hong Kongers, Lung wants to be rich. But not just for his own sake. He wants to have enough money to buy a flat that meets his girlfriend’s requirements.

She’s flight attendant, played by Myolie Wu. Big flat or no marriage.

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In other words, she’s a size queen.

Sammi Cheng plays a recently divorced woman who has yet to accept her situation. 

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She wants to tread real estate water until she can win her husband back.

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Angelababy plays Hak, Lung’s stepdaughter. She has a flat, but she doesn’t like it. It’s in Sheung Shui, the northernmost part of Hong Kong and the last stop on the MTR before China.

As a result, it is pretty much China, considering how many new immigrants, smugglers and other Mandarin-speaking people are there.

Speaking of Mandarin speakers, Oho Ou plays Very Wong, Lung’s intern. He’s a rich kid whose father comes from that place north of Sheung Shui. He drives a McClaren his dad paid for but wants to make his own way in the world.

Without giving away too much of the plot, these four people end up living together and learning to live with each other.

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Temporary Family/失戀急讓 is a light romantic comedy with some localized references that offers no real surprises outside of the normal generic boundaries.

It’s weird and silly and flawed, but a lot of fun and pretty local. And even within generic boundaries it does have some things to recommend it. A number of the jokes were quite funny. At least two of them shocked me just by virtue of their being there. I didn’t think the movie, or the actors, would make those jokes.

The lampooning of local people and local culture are also entertaining.

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I really enjoyed seeing Angelababy made to play ugly for the whole film.

It really does let you see what a difference makeup can have on a person’s appearance.

I also really appreciated that she never has the swan moment; she remains the ugly duckling and never does the Cinderella.

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Nick Cheung delivers another strong performance, managing at times to transcend his stardom and become the character.

Sammi Cheng achieves an even more startling transformation.

She spends the first half of the film simply recycling her well-worn character of the jilted, whiny and slightly weird woman we’ve seen her play a dozen times before.

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And just about the time I’d gotten really tired of it, she suddenly delivers a monologue that shows the kind of acting she’s capable of. 

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Jacky Cheung shows how to make the most out of a cameo, making a very brief role very memorable.

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The same can’t really be said of Ivana Wong’s cameo, but there’s no real shame in not being able to play a two-faced, shallow b*tch convincingly.

But there are things about Temporary Family/失戀急讓 I didn’t like either.

Anyone with a brain knows that Nick Cheung and Sammi Cheng are going to end up together. But it seems like no one told them.

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They have no chemistry, and it really slows the film down.

But then again, that’s the director’s job, isn’t it?

Director Vincci Cheuk gave us 2013’s Kick Ass Girls, a story that is either a postmodern, self-aware farce or the most frightening cinematic delusion ever created. The director had a small role in that film, and makes not one but two cameos in Temporary Family/失戀急讓. Someday I hope I can be that important.

Or meretricious.

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Local politician Regina Ip has a cameo, and while it’s always nice to see politicians not taking themselves seriously,

these are pretty serious political times here in Hong Kong.

I didn’t enjoy seeing local leaders reduced to self-parody, much less one of them being a willing participant in it. My disappointment with that is compounded by a plot device that can best be described as Deus Ex PRC. Hey, we’ve all gotta make a living, right? And getting rich is glorious.

I’ll tell you what’s not glorious. The worst cover of  “A Whiter Shade of Pale” in human history. It was horrendous.

But luckily for me, and for us, Temporary Family/失戀急讓 isn’t. It’s a fun movie, and as a disposable comedy it’s a nice diversion.

And you get to play Where is Jane Wong!

Movie Review: Future X-Cops/未來警察

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Wong Jing is one of my favorite filmmakers. As a writer, director, producer and actor, he has made a whole bunch of movies that I thoroughly enjoy.

They may not be great cinema, but they entertain me, and that’s all I can really ask for.

In Future X-Cops/未來警察, Andy Lau plays Kidd Zhao, a police officer whose wife Meili, played by Fan Bing Bing, is also a cop. They have a daughter, played by Xu Jiao.

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Kidd and Meili must protect Dr. Masterson, played by Ma Jingwu. Dr. Masterson is a scientist.

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And appears to have been adopted.

They must protect him from a group of cyborgs led by Kalon, played by Fan Siu Wong.

They want to kill Dr. Masterson, but are foiled by Kidd, who not only loses his wife in the battle but destroys an entire museum exhibit.

I have only one question about Ian Powers’ character:

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How does he go to the bathroom with those arms?

The bad guys steal a time travel device that we never see but are told about.

It apparently allows you to travel back in time using the Universe Crevice, which at least partially explains why we call it the crack of dawn.

The bad guys want to travel back in time to kill Dr. Masterson. Kidd Zhao goes back in time to protect Dr. Masterson. His daughter accompanies him to the past.

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Probably because the police department refused to pay for 60 years of babysitting.

Future X-Cops/未來警察 takes place in a “A city” in two futures; 2020 and 2080. There are things that are familiar about it and things that are not.

It’s obvious that the city is Chinese, because the writing on the signs is Chinese and 99% of the people in the city (and the movie) are Chinese.

But I’m not sure we can say that it’s in China. First, because it never says it’s China.

Let’s look at some of the other reasons. In 2080, the people speak Cantonese and the sky over the city is blue.

Maybe it’s in Malaysia. Or it’s science fiction.

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I mean… feather pillows in 2080?

Considering Future X-Cops/未來警察 starts in 2080 and then goes to 2020… well, that’s time travel.

So it’s probably not China.

The police drive BMWs and use Apple computers.

So it might be China. But not 2020.

This is getting confusing.

At one point, a police officer grabs a bag out of his BMW. A stolen IKEA bag.

Chinese police do not steal. Must not be China.

Hmmm… Andy Lau finds it strange that the ‘ancient’ people of 2020… apologize. Maybe it is China.

But a few minutes later Andy Lau tells someone that if they have new ideas, they must speak out about them.

Nope. Not China.

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The best approach to watching Future X-Cops/未來警察 is to not allow yourself to ask too many questions. And never ask why. If you do, you’ll quickly find yourself trapped in the Universe Crevice.

Or some other uncomfortable place.

But that’s not to say that the movie isn’t entertaining. It certainly is, for good and bad reasons.

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It’s not the greatest movie ever made, but I enjoyed it in the cinema and I enjoyed it on DVD.

Maybe I have low standards, or maybe it’s just a fun movie. Who knows?

Say what you want about Wong Jing, he knows what his audience likes. Usually when I watch a Wong Jing movie, I can just shut my brain off and take in what it shows me.

Sometimes that’s a really good thing to be able to do.

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He’s also the only director in cinematic history to cut a child character in half but have it be okay.

Movie Review: Sleepwalker in 3D/夢遊

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Sleepwalker in 3D is actually the name of the movie. It’s on the title card. Look:

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And that, dear viewer, is a very telling sign of the movie.

As you may by now know, I am not a fan of 3D. I watched this in 2D on DVD.

2DVD?

I didn’t see it in the cinema, because someone told me it was ‘China-market friendly.’ 

In other words, whatever mystery is presented will be resolved in a logical and lawful manner.

And it’s not as though the Pang brothers haven’t abused us enough over the years with films like The Child’s EyeStorm Warriors… and The Detective 2. 

But I thought it would only be fair of me to give Sleepwalker in 3D/夢遊 a chance.

I was stupid.

This movie starts weird and clumsy with a shot that was obviously meant to be watchable (and interesting) only in 3D. I can’t find any other reason for its existence.

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The movie never gets any better.

Angelica Lee plays Yi, a woman who runs a garment factory in Hong Kong. She’s a little twitchy and has really lousy taste in hair color.

I know you know what I’m thinking… but I’m not gonna make that joke.

She keeps waking up with dirty hands and feet. She has these weird dreams, and when she wakes up, her apartment is a mess.

So far, it sounds frighteningly like my own life.

She bumps into her ex-husband and his girlfriend in a grocery store. Soon after, he disappears.

Not from the store. I mean from everywhere.

Sergeant Au, a police officer played by Huo Siyan, wants to ask Yi about his disappearance.

The fact that she speaks Mandarin is hopefully in no way relevant to the fact that she seems to know everything already.

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And always has the pertinent files right on her desk to show people.

And why she’s seen Yi wandering around the neighborhood in her nightgown.

Uh oh. It’s resembling my life again.

Yi wants to know why she’s doing it too.

Wouldn’t you?

So she starts putting flour around her bed at night and taping her bedroom door shut.

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It starts to make her more than slightly crazy, and more than just the police are taking notice. Her employees want to quit. Her friends take her to a shrink. And sergeant Au continues to watch her, because she wants to get to the bottom of it.

That’s not a euphemism.

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But Sergeant Au has problems of her own. Her mother, played by Bau Hei Jing, isn’t feeling well. Her cousin, played by Charlie Yeung, takes care of the mother. But she’s in a daze herself since her son has been kidnapped.

She paid the ransom but hasn’t gotten her son back. Now it’s three months later, and she blames Sergeant Au.

It felt like this movie lasted for three months.

The pace of the movie isn’t slow, but it still feels very slow.
This movie slogs. It’s not really the actors’ fault as much as it is the story.

I found myself struggling to pay attention because I really had no reason

to care about any of these characters. They’re not engaging.

It didn’t help that the resolution of the story is dull, pedestrian, and told through laborious exposition.

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Though I think I know how and why that happened.

I certainly won’t blame Kent Cheng, who shows up late in the film. He’s not given much to work with (like the rest of the cast), but he does his best.

I don’t think anyone could have saved this movie.

Sleepwalker in 3D made me feel like a sleepwatcher.

But it’s not to say that Sleepwalker in 3D isn’t realistic. In one scene, three people are physically fighting over a toddler in a park and all anyone else does is stand around and stare at them.

After I watched this movie, I realized why I didn’t watch it in the cinema.

And it wasn’t because of the goofy 3-D glasses.

If you wanna watch Sleepwalker in 3D/夢遊, be my guest.

Movie Review: Breakup 100/分手100次

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Lawrence Cheng is an actor, producer, and director.  He’s worked a lot with Barbara Wong in recent years,  but I went to see Breakup 100 anyway. And I’m very glad I did. 

Breakup 100 is the first film Lawrence Cheng has directed in 20 years, but to be honest I couldn’t find anything rusty about the direction.

In fact, it just made me feel bad that he hasn’t been directing more movies. 

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Breakup 100 is the story of a couple, played by Chrissie Chau and Ekin Cheng, who have broken up and reconciled 99 times.

In other words, they’ve had 99 problems… ahhh, forget it.

In the latest bid to make this relationship work, they open a coffee shop.

They hire four waiters played by C Allstar.

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I know how he feels, I wanted to hit them too.

A frequent visitor is Priscilla,  played by Ivana Wong. She has some relationship issues of her own, which I find hard to believe only because Ivana Wong is cuter than a box of puppies with a kitten on top.

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 Look at that punim!

 There are also a passel of cameos, from Eric Kot Man Fai and Chin Kar Lok to Lawrence Cheng and Miriam Yeung as a pair of beat cops.

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 Miriam’s quips are priceless.

Life at the coffee shop is always interesting.

Chrissie is the mature one of the pair and Ekin likes to dream and play. Chrissie worries about everything, and Ekin doesn’t worry about anything. But he’s introduced in the movie as a ‘kidult,’ so it’s not really a surprise.

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As you can imagine, this creates tension not just at work but at home. But as you may not imagine, the relationship, and the portrayal of it, are realistic, refreshing, and marvelously devoid of cringe-worthy nonsense.

The story gets to you precisely because it’s so lifelike. A lot of the credit for that goes to Lawrence Cheng, whose writing and direction keep things real and entertaining. The cinematography makes the film very nice to look at, and really adds to the storytelling.

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But for me, the biggest credit goes to the cast. The supporting cast is given more detail than usual, and it lets the actors really inhabit and flesh out the characters, and by extension the story.

The leads really carry the film. Ekin Cheng is a little flat, but that’s the way his character is supposed to be, so it works.

Chrissie Chau really impressed me with this performance. She’s becoming a very good actress. I noticed it first in Mr. & Mrs. Player, and it’s even more in evidence here. I believed in her character and stopped seeing her as Chrissie Chau, uber leng mo.

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Well, most of the time, anyway.

But as long as we’re in the neighborhood, she’s too skinny.

I know she has a ribcage. I don’t need to see it.

It was really refreshing to watch Chrissie Chau play her age, both visually and emotionally. She spends the vast majority of the movie wearing very little makeup and very sensible clothes.  It was nice to be able to focus on her acting and not have the movie constantly direct our attention to her chest.

It was also really nice to listen to a grown woman talk and act like a grown woman. Because some movies seem to think that 28 year old women act like teenagers.

All too often, it seems like female characters in movies are behaving way below their age. Sometimes, actresses seem to latch onto a certain age and resist giving it up.

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I’m not going to say any names, because that would be impolite.

But I really enjoyed and appreciated the maturity, rational attitude and realism that Chrissie Chau brought to her character.

It was almost as though she and Ekin had switched gender roles, at least in local cinema terms.

The only problem I had with Breakup 100 was a rather unnecessary and extremely racist scene with a person in brownface playing a South Asian. She spoke in Cantonese with a South Asian accent, and I found it completely tasteless. We all know you could find a real person to play that role.

And we all know that Chinese people get their panties in a twist when they feel like the victims of cinematic racism.

But that’s really the only thing I disliked about Breakup 100.

Everything else about it is really great, and I look forward to owning this on disc.

Movie Review: Ip Man/葉問 1 & 2

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There’s gonna be a lot of bifurcation in this review, but don’t worry; I’m a doctor.

Both of these films are directed by  Wilson Yip. Both movies star Donnie Yen. Sammo Hung did the action choreography for both films. Both movies feature outstanding martial arts, thanks to Sammo and Donnie and others.

I personally feel like the ‘machine gun fist’ gets a little overused, but the rest of it is pretty much beyond reproach.

As well it should be. Donnie Yen is a great martial artist. So is Sammo Hung. AndFan Siu Wong, and others. They’re all great in these movies.

For reasons that will become clear soon, I want to talk first about the narratives of both movies.

Ip Man tells the story of a young boy in rural China who dreams of becoming a marine biologist…

I’m just messing with you.

It obviously tells the story of Ip Man. In part 1 he’s rich, he has a pretty wife, and he’s a martial arts master. But he’s also humble, self-effacing, and generous.

Ip Man and his family live in Foshan, a city in southern China. The city is famous for martial arts, and the many schools all compete with one another. Ip Man tries to stay out of it, refusing to take students, but many people still seek him out to test their skill. 葉問 They all fail, because Ip Man is played by Donnie Yen.

His wife, played by Lynn Hung, hates it when this happens, because it cuts into Ip Man’s family time and tends to wreck the house. A local cop named Li, played by Gordon Lam Ka Tung, tries to keep the martial arts mayhem to a minimum, reminding Ip Man and the others that the city is not their boxing ring.

One day a northern martial artist, played with extravagant excess by Louis Fan Siu Wong, comes to town and proceeds to kick more ass than a karate tournament for epileptic donkeys. Soon enough, he makes his way to the Ip residence. 1245623898099 The instructions Ip Man gets from Li the cop , and from his wife, were probably two of my favorite moments in the movie.

Believe it or not, that’s just the first half hour of the film. And it’s a great half hour. There’s subtlety, nuance, and well-done drama. It’s funny, exciting, engaging, and very entertaining.

In part 2, Ip Man is poor, but he still has his wife. She’s pregnant, so they still get along. He’s still humble, self-effacing, and generous to a fault. He’s broke but refuses to make his students pay their full tuition. His wife doesn’t like this.

Obviously, she got pregnant before he opened his school. But never mind that. vlcsnap-2014-08-12-14h04m00s54 After figuratively schooling Huang Xiaoming, he begins to do so in a literal sense. Huang starts bringing his friends to the school, and slowly Ip Man gains more students. As soon as his school starts to gain momentum, though, he comes up against the local boss of all the martial clubs, played by Sammo Hung.

Turns out Ip Man needs to kick in to the hood.

In fact, if he even wants to teach, he has to accept challenges from any and all of the other sifu. ot0125b1

I won’t spoil the outcome, but Ip Man is played by Donnie Yen.

The duel is, obviously, a great martial arts spectacle, especially the fight between Donnie Yen and Sammo Hung. Sammo’s choreography is excellent, and even at his advanced age (and weight) he is still very capable of keeping up with Donnie.

Like part one, all of this takes place in the first half hour of the film. And like part one it’s funny, entertaining, nuanced and balanced.

So what about the other two hours in these films? In part one, the Japanese invade China at the start of the second act. In part two, Westerners oppress and insult Chinese people at the start of the second act. Both of these things are historical facts that I do not contest. lp04

Not that they happen in the second act, I mean the events.

But if historical fact is so important, why at the end of part one does the movie make it seem that Ip Man fled Foshan because of the Japanese? He fled to Hong Kong after the war because he was in the Kuomintang. He was fleeing the communists.

In part one, Ip Man is shown refusing to teach the Japanese wing chun. That is also a fact. But he didn’t fight ten Japanese soldiers, or a general. He also didn’t work in a coal refinery. He was a policeman. Like Gordon Lam’s character Li.  7307370774402019385

Except that Li is played as a bad person for collaborating with the Japanese.

Which, I assume, policemen in an occupied city had to do. The Japanese are portrayed with an incredible lack of subtlety, to the point of using visual cues that are literally as old as the war itself. vlcsnap-2014-08-08-21h35m34s193 It’s strange because the first 30 minutes of the film have subtleties and finesse. But as soon as the Japanese show up, it evaporates.

The same goes for part two; subtlety is apparently reserved for Chinese people. This is a poster I saw at Filmart advertising the film before its release. 71157_201005041458542.thumb

Ooooh, subtle.

The portrayals of the western bad guys are so overstated it’s nearly comic. I wonder if they went out of their way to find people who look… genetically disadvantaged.

They certainly weren’t looking for people who could act.

What’s especially silly is that most of the non-Chinese people interested in martial arts films are… westerners. Who, I assure you, don’t talk like this: They also no doubt laugh at these atavistic caricatures such that the message is wasted on them.

But these movies aren’t made for westerners. Or Japanese people.

They’re made for China.

Yeah, I know, Bruce Lee had the same message. bruceleesickmanofasia

But that was 1972.

The same year, in fact (as in historical fact), that Mao Zedong not only forgave but thanked Japan.

I just find it sad that China still needs to stoke xenophobia with these clumsy, ham-fisted and frankly laughable representations.

I also find it sad that Donnie Yen, an American citizen, has spent the last few years churning out Sinocentric, xenophobic movies that pander to the ‘China market.’

The message that these films try to project could be made implicitly just by showing what happens. People aren’t stupid; a boxing match between a westerner and a Chinese person inherently carries meaning.

There’s no need to slavishly state the obvious. vlcsnap-2014-08-12-14h28m46s66

Is there?

These things don’t offend me because I’m a westerner. Or because I’m Japanese. Because I’m not Japanese. They offend me because they’re used for political purposes; to distract the Chinese audience from things they might otherwise think about.

But mostly they offend me because they’re pedantic and boorish.

Bruce Lee let the message speak for itself. 40 years later, Wilson Yip can’t manage that kind of finesse. 20090424002

Neither can Donnie Yen.

Movie Review: Girls/闺蜜

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I know. I know. I swore on my mother’s parole I’d never watch another one of Barbara Wong’s movies.

Well, thanks to a rather unfortunate incident involving a grilled cheese sandwich, a bad temper, and 73 stitches, Grandma Spleen is now ineligible for parole until 2018. Which made me eligible to watch Girls/闺蜜.

Thanks a lot, Mom.

But never mind that tawdry business.

Girls/闺蜜 is the latest film from Barbara Wong, a local director who made a couple of really good films.

And a bunch of really bad ones.

Girls/闺蜜 tells the story of three women staring down the barrel of 30.

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Xiwen is apparently the child of rich parents, because she not only doesn’t work, she doesn’t even talk about working. If she indeed has a job, I couldn’t see any evidence of it.

Xiaomei is a production assistant to a director played by Barbara Wong. Yeah, surprise surprise, she’s in her own movie again.

Still.

Kimmy, played by Fiona Sit, has a high-paying job she never seems to have to go to except when it’s convenient for the story.

These three besties all live together in a palatial home that is as realistic as the rest of this movie.

Three friends find out that all they really need is each other, and men aren’t important.

Except as the drivers of every major plot point of the film.

But hey, women are 100 times more interesting than men. That’s what Barbara Wong said in an interview.

She also said that movies about women have to be realistic.

So I guess her movies are about men.

You know, those uninteresting creatures that these three women spend all their time weeping, obsessing, and talking about.

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If this is the emotional maturity level of 28 year olds, that’s friggin’ sad.

Boyfriend dumped you? Well, that apparently makes it okay to commit credit card fraud. He owes you.

And your two friends, who go shopping with you.

And you get to spend days slumped catatonically in a wheelchair, because you’ve had your feelings hurt. Stop the world!

Why don’t you call this movie Dingbats?

dingbatsIf this movie was called Boys, the dumped man’s (remember, he’s 28) friends would laugh at him, set him on fire, and piss on him to put it out.

Then they’d go drinking and whoring and get on with their lives.

But not the men in Girls/闺蜜. Oh, no. They’re so much better than that.

Even though they’re only 1% as interesting as women.

The deep, sensitive artist spends his time at a party listening to a recording of Hawaiian volcanoes and newborns crying. He’s so deep he lives by a creed that’s half Latin, half made up: Carpe diem con respicio.

Yes, seize the day… with respect.

If that’s not written by a woman, I don’t know what is.

I’ve seen deeper and more nuanced thoughts on t-shirts.

Any girl who falls for that garbage deserves whatever herpes she gets.

I have a slogan too: Deja me ver tu ropa interior.

The other guy makes a doormat of himself, beyond any reasonable limit. He’s so sweet.

The last guy is apparently an @sshole because he admits that he dumped his girlfriend because she was being shallow, materialistic, and selfish. What an awful man.

If a man wrote a movie about women like this, he’d be run out of town on a feminist rail.

But that’s just my penile, uninteresting-by-virtue-of-being-male opinion.

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It would be easy for me to beat this movie, and its director, like a rented stepchild. And it still wouldn’t make any difference.

Like her previous film, The Stolen Years, this movie is making money hand over fist in China. And it resonates with its intended audience.

I always figure there are two ways you can look at a movie:

1. Does it work for its audience?

2. Is it well-made by any objective standards?

Ang Lee makes really good movies. Except for HulkI don’t care for them, and I rarely watch them, but when I do I can easily concede that they are very well-made.

On the other hand, I love Wong Jing movies, but I will be the first to admit that they are not paragons of cinematic achievement. But they appeal to his audience and they make money.

Well, her name’s not Barbara Lee, is it?

Say what you will about Barbara Wong, she’s consistent. Her whorish product placement continues in Girls/闺蜜, with a thoroughness that is impressive. She pimps her movies so ruthlessly she may have to change her name to Wong Ma Fu.

If all else fails, you can console yourself with this: in addition to two hours of Barbara Wong goodness, Girls/闺蜜 gives you a Vanness Wu music video for free!

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Movie Review: The Prodigal Son/敗家仔

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Martial arts movies aren’t real. Yes, some of the people in them may be trained martial artists, but the fights you see are not real.

I say that because to me, the realism of a martial arts film is not only secondary but sometimes detrimental to a film.

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Lately Donnie Yen has tried to fashion his onscreen fights after MMA.

It may be realistic, but I find it dull.

Cue the Donnie fluffers asking me how long I would last in a fight with Donnie Yen.

But never mind that silliness.

I don’t want martial arts movies that are highly realistic. I want movies that are extremely entertaining.

Speed, strength, agility, and dexterity are visually entertaining.

What I love about certain kinds of action and/or martial arts is the undeniable physical ability of the people who do them. Nothing in a martial arts movie make me happier than seeing something that I know I can’t do and that 98% of the people on earth can’t do.

I want to watch human beings doing things that are impossible for the vast majority of human beings to do.

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By the early 1970s, the Beijing Opera had stopped being the attraction it was, in part because of the rise of cinema.

A whole generation of young men who had trained most of their lives to become opera performers suddenly found themselves out of a job and without prospects for the future.

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But they were trained martial artists and acrobats. They were incredibly fit, often astoundingly agile, and seemingly indestructible.

Bruce Lee wasn’t a Beijing Opera performer, but he sure got a lot of them jobs. After his untimely death, many of these young stuntmen were moved up to starring roles with varying degrees of success.

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In 1981, Sammo Hung write and directed The Prodigal Son/敗家仔, starring his friend and Beijing Opera schoolmate Yuen Biao.

It tells the story of Leung Chang, the coddled son of a wealthy family. He’s convinced he’s a kung fu master because he’s never been beaten.

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He’s never been beaten because his minder pays people to lose or just go away.

One day he comes up against an opera performer played by Lam Ching Ying, another real-life opera school graduate who is most commonly known for his performances in the Mr. Vampire series.

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Leung Chang learns the painful truth, both literally and figuratively; his kung fu stinks.

Naturally, this sets in motion the classic narrative arc of the kung fu movies of this era: introducing the bad guy, the extended training montage, and the climactic battle.

The Prodigal Son/敗家仔 isn’t so straightforward as that, though.

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There are some pretty interesting plot twists and turns, and some funny and impressive character turns by Yuen Biao, Sammo Hung, and Lam Ching Ying.

But by far the most impressive thing in this movie is the martial arts sequences.

The most obvious difference between then and now can be seen in the length of the shots during the fights. The better trained your actors are, the longer the sequences of movements and strikes they can perform.

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If you watch this movie, or movies like it, count how many actions take place before the camera changes. While you’re at it, look at the footwork, the physical skill, and the performance ability of these actors. Like professional wrestling, these fights aren’t real.

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But that doesn’t mean that they don’t require a phenomenal amount of skill to perform.

These actors make it look so effortless and natural that someone I was watching the DVD with though they were simply making it up as they went along, just reacting to one another.

It’s not just that they do it so well. They make it look easy.

And it isn’t.

The Prodigal Son/敗家仔, like other movies of its era, captures a very specific, and very special, time and place. When you watch it, you’ll realize how lucky we are to have movies like this to show us just why it was so special.

Movie Review: Breaking News/大事件

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A squad of police officers are staking out a building where a group of armed robbers are preparing for their next job.

When things go bad, a gigantic standoff ensues, involving six suspects, a few dozen citizens, and a hundred Hong Kong cops.

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Richie Jen plays Yuen, the leader of the armed robbers. He and his colleagues are from Mainland China, which helps remind us that 2004 was 10 years ago. If that doesn’t, there are two other criminals, who also speak Mandarin.

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Nick Cheung Kar Fai plays Inspector… Cheung.

I know.

He’s the leader of the police staking out the building.

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Kelly Chen plays Superintendent Rebecca Fong, who feels that this standoff requires an unusually open approach to the news media.

Responding officers are fitted with cameras, and Superintendent Fong’s command center looks like the production booth at a major network.

As the situation becomes more complex, it also turns into a media circus.

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The film opens with an extremely long and technically complicated shot that involves movement, gunfire, stunts and special effects. It’s not only technically impressive but dramatically as well.

It certainly ups the ante from the elevator shot in Hard Boiled.

The entire story takes place in less than a day, and I really liked the level of detail that such a brief narrative stretch allows for. Because the time of the story is so brief, the narrative can spend a lot of time letting characters breathe, grow, and develop.

That said, I don’t necessarily think that the relationships in the film quite work.

The culinary moment of bromance between Richie Jen and You Yong comes off more as a parody of John Woo than anything else.

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Even the brief exchange between Richie Jen and Kelly Chen seems flat.

The easy way out of that would be to blame Kelly Chen, who’s not exactly the most charismatic of actors.

But the lines she and Richie have to trade don’t help much either.

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Lam Suet was very entertaining and convincing as Yip, a taxi driver taken hostage with his children.

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In accordance with the Basic Law of Hong Kong, Maggie Shiu turns up as a police officer.

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Simon Yam Tat Wah and Eddie Cheung Siu Fai also play police officers, in small roles that are still very well-done.

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I enjoyed watching Nick Cheung in his role as a cop with a work ethic that would make John McClane seem lazy. His drive and single-mindedness are admirable. Of course, these qualities also make him something of an asshole, but that’s what makes him interesting.

His incessant pursuit of the criminals again borders on parody, but it’s still entertaining, and that’s all I ask.

Movie Review: Election 2/黑社會:以和爲貴

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2006’s Election 2/黑社會:以和爲貴 is the sequel to Johnnie To’s Election 2/黑社會.

Duhhh…

The titular (!) election takes place every two years. 

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Lok, played by Simon Yam, is nearing the end of his two-year stretch as Chairman of the society. Just like last time, the people who want the job start jockeying for power, lobbying the upper members and threatening (or killing) the lower ones.

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Dongguan Jai, played by Gordon Lam Ka Tung, wants to be chairman. While he’s not the raving psychopath that Dai D was in the first movie, he’s still more than capable of doing whatever it takes to get the job.

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But he should be more careful who he goes fishing with…

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Louis Koo Tin Lok plays Jimmy Jai, the likely front runner. He’s built up a big business, made his brothers rich, and seems to have his connections ‘up above’ all set for the future, a time in which he expects to do big things.

Problem is, Jimmy would rather be a businessman than a boss.

He made his fortune selling pirated discs in Hong Kong. He plans to open a production facility in Nanshan, China.

So if this was a true story he’d have lost his fortune thanks to the internet.

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Nick Cheung reprises his role as Fei Ge, or Jet, one of Lok’s enforcers who, like most of these kinds of people, harbors what might generously be called delusions of your own inherent value. He’d like to be the boss.

Because maybe then people who know who he is.

Like the first movie, I really enjoyed the way Nick Cheung played the character.

I hope he’s in Election 3.

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Andy On has a small role as one of Jimmy Jai’s assistants. He’s nearly unrecognizable in long hair and glasses.

It was nice to see Mark Cheng on the big screen again. He plays a paroled gangster who works for Jimmy Jai as the ‘last resort guy.’ When Jimmy makes use of him, it’s always messy.

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But he doesn’t care, as long as he gets paid.

I don’t want to talk too much about the plot; I’d rather you saw it for yourself.

I saw this movie in the cinema in 2006, and have seen it a few more times on DVD. Watching it for the review, I was struck by how well-crafted the visuals are.

There’s some real artistry here, and I realize I don’t usually say things like that. But so many of the shots are stunning. They look like art.

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There’s a scene where the characters are all wearing masks, and it’s silly and funny and scary and serious all at the same time. 

The whole movie has a style that’s really, really impressive. Whereas Exiled has an overabundance of style,  Election 2/黑社會:以和爲貴 just looks perfect.

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It helps that Louis Koo’s picture is what you see when you look up ‘movie star’ in the dictionary.

The tone of the movie is perfect too. The pace isn’t rushed at all, and the simmering tension of the film keeps it from dragging.

The political subplot is especially interesting, since it concerns the mainland, patriotism, corruption, and elections. It’s markedly different from Drug War. But 2006 was a long time ago.

Even so, Election 2/黑社會:以和爲貴 hasn’t aged a bit.

Movie Review: Seven Swords/七劍

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In 2005, Tsui Hark brought us Seven Swords/七劍, a movie intended to be the first episode in a six-film series.

The Qing government outlaws martial arts, which can mean only one thing: When martial arts are outlawed, then martial artists become outlaws.

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“You can take my fists… from my cold dead… wait…”

A warlord named Fire Wind (he eats a lot of spicy food) leads a roving gang of mercenaries across the land, killing everyone in their path: martial artists, children, women…

Hey, it’s 300 silver pieces a head; it doesn’t say the head has to be male or over 18 years old.

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His troops are frightening to behold, dressed as they are in outfits that recall The Road Warrior and wearing makeup that would frighten Phyllis Diller.

Though not all of them are scary…

 

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…to me, anyway.

In the path of these oncoming brutes lays a peaceful village ripe for the plundering. What are the villagers to do? Well, since the movie is an homage to Seven Samurai, they go find some sword-wielding heroes to help them.

Seven Swords/七劍 was one of the first movies I saw in the cinema after I moved here to Hong Kong in 2005. Unlike the US, in Hong Kong people don’t really make much of an effort to see a movie opening night.

They’d rather wait through the first weekend and let one of their friends take the risk of dropping the money for a ticket, then ask them about it on Monday.

But never mind that.

I really enjoyed Seven Swords/七劍 in the cinema, and I enjoyed re-watching it for the review.

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Like all Tsui Hark movies, it looks really beautiful. I’ve always admired his use of color, both visually and thematically.

I also found myself noticing his composition a lot in this film, occasionally pausing or rewinding to see something particularly interesting.

I also enjoyed his usually rather frenetic approach to characterization.

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Sun Honglei plays Fire Wind with a psychosis that boils over several times. He’s joyfully psychotic, and I really envied his leadership style.

It may not always be realistic, and it may sometimes take you out of the movie, but it’s always entertaining.

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So too is Chen JiaJia as a mohawked, made-up, predatory lesbian mercenary. She’s not just evil. She’s Eeeeeeevil. The character, and the portrayal, are gleefully perverse.

It’s great.

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Leon Lai is just the opposite. He’s so easygoing, and so good with kids, that you’d think he was medicated.

Not that there’s anything wrong with that.

And getting to sidle up to Charlie Yeung repeatedly would make even me easygoing.

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She was good in her role, if a little distant. But I think that was also her character.

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Zhang Jingchu played her role well and was convincing. That’s all I can ask for, really.

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It was nice to see Lau Kar Leung on the big screen, and even as old as he was then, he could still move really well. He plays the leader of the seven swords, in a role that shows off both his martial and his dramatic skills.

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Donnie Yen broods his way through his role, which is good because he does a lot more fighting than talking. Half of his lines are in Korean, because the Korean actor originally cast for the role bailed. But I don’t care, because Donnie Yen’s action scenes are a lot of fun to watch.

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I also don’t care because Kim So Yeon, the other Korean cast in the movie, didn’t bail. She doesn’t talk much either, but she’s nice to look at.

Besides, you can’t really blame her for not talking to Donnie too much when he’s fond of spouting gems like “Drink your enemy’s blood and you will not be afraid of him any more.”

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Or you’ll catch gonorrhea.

Donnie Yen may not be a great actor, but he is a great martial artist and his fans respond to him very strongly. But there’s an actor in Hong Kong who gets an even stronger response.

His appearance in Seven Swords/七劍 got the biggest reaction of the film from the cinema audience.

And I was in Broadway Cinematheque, which tends toward the whine [sic] and cheese crowd.

They sip lattes and nosh biscotte at the bookstore next to the cinema. It’s called Kubrick.

Ugh.

So there I am, sitting in this cinema, and all of a sudden who shows up on screen like some Chinese Dennis Hopper but Michael Wong.

And guess what?

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He got a moustache.

Michael Wong might not make a movie any better, but he does make it a hell of a lot of fun.

Speaking of fun, the end of Seven Swords/七劍 made me feel like a teenager again. The end of the film is an obvious setup for the next movie, but for the first time in much too long, I found myself responding to it positively.

I liked these characters, I liked the story, and I wanted to see it continue. Unfortunately, that was not to be.

But at least the movie is still here, and I can easily recommend watching it.