In 2002 Andrew Lau Wai Keung brought us Infernal Affairs/無間道, the story of a cop undercover in a gang and a gangster undercover in the police department.
Tony Leung Chiu Wai and Andy Lau play the respective cop and gangster.
Anthony Wong play’s Tony’s handler, the only man who knows who Tony really is.
The undercover-cop-about-to-crack has been a pretty common plot line in Hong Kong and elsewhere. The bestexample I know of is out of print, so I can’t tell you about it.
But Infernal Affairs/無間道 has, quite deservedly, become somewhat of a touchstone of the genre.
Featuring strong performances from the leading and support actors, an interesting and intricate plot, and enough twists to keep you guessing, Infernal Affairs/無間道 deserves its place in Hong Kong cinema history.
It’s not a perfect film; you can certainly find the holes in the plot if you look, and the female characters are little more than window dressing, but overall the film is still, more than a decade later, an impressive achievement.
It’s funny, or not, that back in 2003 when this movie first went to DVD, the mainland ending was an optional extra.
Nowadays, we just get the mainland ending to movies, and it’s rare that we get the chance to see what the Hong Kong ending might have been.
The only one I can think of is LADY COP & PAPA CROOK.
Times change, and so do movies.
The movie was successful enough that they made 2 sequels in rapid succession.
Infernal Affairs/無間道 2 is a prequel starring Edison ‘laptop’ Chen and Shawn Yue.
I actually enjoyed Infernal Affairs/無間道 3 as a character study.
I can easily recommend Infernal Affairs/無間道 (and the sequels), and if you’ve never seen it (them), I strongly encourage you to do so.
I’m not familiar with the Monkey King story, but I also harbored no illusions that The Monkey King/大鬧天宮 would make me any more familiar.
That’s not how high-context culture works.
I actually didn’t mind Donnie Yen as the Monkey King.
In fact, I think he did a very good job with the role, which is a lot more difficult than you might think.
I think he was dubbed, at least in the Cantonese version I saw, but he deserves a lot of credit for capturing the physicality of the character and for being able to still convey emotions effectively while having his face mostly covered in prosthetics.
I’d have lost my mind after the first day of wearing all that stuff and sitting in the makeup chair.
In fact, most of the cast does a good job with their roles, so I don’t want to sound like I’m blaming them.
Chow Yun Fat plays the Jade Emperor, who is so laid back you’d think he was the King of Chronic.
He always seems to make the right decision, and never uses his invincible power until the end of all the fights.
As opposed to right away, which would drastically curtail them or stop them from happening altogether.
Aaron Kwok plays the Bull Demon King, whose long-running rivalry has shaped his life and his personality.
This is not news to his wife, Princess Iron Fan, played by Joe (!) Chen.
She’s pregnant, and can’t seem to get behind the whole ‘destroy heaven for the demons’ thing.
She thinks he should stay at home (in Hell) and help out more with the pregnancy.
Xia Zitong plays the Nine-Tailed Vixen, the Monkey King’s love interest.
In the movie, she’s 120 years old and the Monkey King is 250.
In real life, I think the age difference is even larger.
But I have to say, I felt that she managed to be engaging, whereas a lot of the other characters seemed quite flat.
It’s much easier to see why the Monkey King would fall for her than the other way around.
Even with those ears.
It should be noted that all the men in The Monkey King/大鬧天宮 looked like animals, and all the womn looked like… women.
Usually under-dressed women.
Peter Ho is Erlang Shen, who is made a guard in heaven because he has a third eye on his forehead.
I guess if he was born with a third testicle he’d have gotten a much more interesting job.
There were a lot of cameos, including Kelly Chen, Eddie Cheung, and Gigi Leung.
They’re nice to see, but they just get swallowed up in the hugeness of the movie.
Besides, The Monkey King/大鬧天宮 wasn’t meant to be a great story.
It’s an excuse for a series of set-pieces featuring lots of CGI and fighting.
Which makes it sound like Irish Catholics in Space.
The 3-D looked okay, even on the dusty old Dynasty screen.
For the money they supposedly spent, it better.
My only problem with the 3D is that it made the subtitles hard to read.
And while they sometimes went by too quickly, I did appreciate the way they often appeared off-center so as not to cover up something important.
It was nice.
Much of the CGI looked good too, though at times it was a little flat.
The thing that confused me was the decision process whereby half of the time, creatures were CGI and the other half, they were people in very obvious suits.
Speaking of which, one of the worst is a real-life knockoff of Po from Kung Fu Panda.
It looked like the mascot for the Chengdu University basketball team.
But even that was better than the ‘homages’ to Avatar, King Kong, and Titanic in The Monkey King.
Not to mention See No Evil, Hear No Evil, Speak no Evil.
The Monkey King/大鬧天宮 ends up being just a big excuse for CGI and 3D and excess, and the characters, their emotions and their motivations get lost in the deluge.
Narratively, it comes off like a children’s movie or a cut scene from a video game.
At one point a minor character activates some sort of flaming wheels under his feet.
Another character says “Wow, those are very interesting, what are those called?”
And the first guy answers him, telling him the name.
It’s an incredibly pointless exchange about a completely superfluous detail.
If it is somehow important, they left the pertinent details out.
Because of things like that, The Monkey King ends up being an exercise in endurance.
I felt that there were opportunities to make the characters (and the story) much more well-rounded, but I get the impression that’s not what The Monkey King/大鬧天宮 was trying to do anyway.
I feel bad saying this was a bad movie. There are some things I really liked about it.
The story, however, wasn’t one of them.
It’s interesting to see Donnie Yen in what I am tempted to call his least recognizable role, but in general I can’t really recommend The Monkey King/大鬧天宮 .
Sadly, it takes fourth place (out of four) for Chinese New Year films of 2014.
But if I had watched Public Security Bureau 2013, The Monkey King/大鬧天宮 would probably stay at fourth.
It’s Chinese New Year, and that means Chinese New Year movies.
What does that mean? Silliness, cameos, and happy endings.
I mean in the movies, not…
Chinese new year movies tend to be very much in the holiday spirit.
They’re usually comedies, they’re usually pretty light weight, and they’re a whole lot of fun to watch in a cinema with an audience during the holiday.
It used to be that you could depend on two recurring franchises at Chinese New Year; I Love Hong Kong, featuring Eric Tsang (and seemingly everyone at TVB) and Raymond Wong’s All’s Well Ends Well series.
This year, they’ve teamed up to bring you Hello Babies/六福喜事.
And I get 90 minutes of my life back.
Don’t get me wrong. I love New Year movies.
But I only love them during Chinese New Year.
Every now and then, a movie made for the holiday gets held back for some reason and ends up being released outside the holiday.
And it’s just not the same.
I guess it’s like watching It’s a Wonderful Life outside of Christmas.
I don’t know, I’ve never seen it.
My favorite Christmas movie is a tie between The Lion in Winter and Friday After Next.
So what do I know?
Well, I know that New Year movies are really only funny during new year.
And luckily for me, it’s the new year holiday.
Hello Babies/六福喜事 is about a lazy, spoiled married couple who need to have a baby to ensure that they can continue to live off of their rich uncle.
But they have fertility issues stemming from their lifestyles, and they don’t really want to have a baby.
They’re too lazy.
Another couple have a baby, but it’s a girl.
The grandfather, played by Eric Tsang, wanted a boy.
So now we have conflicts centered around love and family and tradition.
Don’t worry, it’s a New Year movie. Everything will be fine in the end.
It’s basically contractual.
But there are surprises in the film, and it is entertaining.
There’s quite a lot of… genital humor, at least in the dialogue.
If you think Eric Tsang as Tony Leung Chiu Wai as Ip Man is funny,
Sandra Ng as Zhang Ziyi is even funnier.
And kind of unsettling.
A scene between Ronald Cheng and Fiona Sit involving whipped cream had me laughing in spite of myself.
It’s stupid, but it’s hilarious.
Which you could say about the movie itself.
It’s not a good movie, but it’s a good Chinese New Year movie.
If you’re in Hong Kong, or Malaysia, and you want to have a classic 90-minute brain recess, then watch Hello Babies/六福喜事.
It’s fluff, but it’s fluff season, and I have to admit that I really like New Year movies.
During new year.
I honestly love how much people enjoy the New Year and the festive spirit in Hong Kong, and new year movies are part of that.
I guess I appreciate the movies more for their role in the holiday than the narrative or cinematography.
I admit I was really looking forward to From Vegas To Macau/賭城風雲.
The trailer tends, except for its very end, to portray the film as much more serious than in fact it actually is.
It is serious. But it also isn’t.
During Chinese New Year, I give films a big amount of leeway in the silliness department.
It seems to be an expected part of the film, just like the shot at the end when most or all of the cast say “Kung Hey Fat Choi!”
From Vegas To Macau/賭城風雲 is definitely a New Year movie and definitely a Wong Jing movie.
Like the cities of Las Vegas and Macau, the film’s strong point isn’t subtlety.
The film is assaultive.
Thanks in no small part to Chapman To’s scene-chewing, much of From Vegas To Macau/賭城風雲 literally hits you.
More than once I found myself recoiling from the volume, the colors, and the dialog.
But again, it’s Chinese New Year, and that means movies are going to be more over the top than the British at the Battle of Verdun.
From Vegas To Macau/賭城風雲 isn’t designed or intended to win a Golden Horse award.
It’s designed to make Wong Jing money. On that level, it will no doubt succeed.
I enjoyed this movie more implicitly than explicitly; if I ever watch it again, it will be during Chinese New Year, because that really is the best time to see it.
I loved it for the way it upholds so many traditions; the Chinese New Year movie, Wong Jing’s commercial instincts, lowbrow humor, exploitation of the female figure, whiplash-inducing shifts between melodrama and nearly childish humor…
and Michael Wong.
Any film with Michael Wong in it is better than the film would be if he weren’t in it.
And speaking of traditions, he plays a cop.
Nicolas Tse plays a quiet young gambler who wants to become Chow Yun Fat’s protege.
But not his son-in-law.
Kimmy Tong plays the daughter in question, who does want him to be the son in law.
Can you blame her?
Chapman To play’s Nic’s cousin Karl, a loud-mouthed but good-hearted sidekick.
He wants to become the son-in-law. Kimmy doesn’t.
Can you blame her?
Philip Ng plays Chan, Nicolas’ half brother, in a role that I wish was longer, if only because he gets to do quite a lot of non-martial arts action, and he’s so good at it that it’s just fun to watch.
Gao Hu plays Ko, an egomaniacal criminal who naturally loves to gamble.
Jing Tian plays Luo Xin, a Mainland cop who is out to get Ko.
And someone else.
Chow Yun Fat has aged, but he has aged well.
That million-dollar smile can still light up a scene, and even the wildly incongruous romantic subplot seems unusually plausible, simply because he’s Chow Yun Fat.
And she’s a young woman with a fake chin.
It was fun to watch him roller-coaster his way through the film, one minute showing his considerable dramatic muscle and the next descending into insane, abrasive comic farce.
He’s surrounded by familiar faces; plentiful cameos are another Chinese New Year tradition.
I was (as always) glad to see Natalie Meng Yao.
She’s doing women’s health education in a new PSA.
Benz Hui, Michelle Hu Ran, Winnie Leung, Sammy Sum and Tony Ho all appear in roles of varying size.
Winnie Leung checks the size of Tony’s role.
From Vegas To Macau/賭城風雲 isn’t a great film, but it was a very enjoyable cinematic experience for me.
It’s an entertaining movie, which is, I am pretty sure, the goal. It certainly seemed to hit all the marks for the audience I saw it with.
If you have a chance to see this movie in the cinema, go do it.
Play my new Hong Kong movie game “Where in the Movie is Jane Wong?”
She’s in there, and she’s definitely noticeable.
I know quite a number of people who had small parts in this movie, and they all said Chow Yun Fat was incredibly gracious, generous, affable and polite to virtually everyone on set. It’s nice to know someone of his stature is so down-to-earth.
I doubt Robert DeNiro would ever be that generous.
Unless you’re a black woman…
Speaking of generosity, I was given tickets to the Hong Kong premiere of this film by a person who is so kind, generous (and pretty) that I often wonder why on earth she even speaks to someone like me, much less does such nice things for me.
A young woman lays in a hospital bed, wondering how she got there.
Not in any amnesia sort of way, just in terms of circumstances.
This is how A Complicated Story/一個複雜故事 opens, and naturally what follows is the filling in of most if not all of those details.
Newcomer Jacqueline Zhu plays Liu Yazi, a young woman who will do almost anything to get money for her brother’s kidney operation.
“I said almost, creepy old gweilo…”
While it doesn’t involve pink fluorescent lights and buying condoms in bulk, it does involve her uterus.
She agrees to be a surrogate mother for Tracy T, played by Cherrie Ying.
The answer is “None more bitchy.”
She plays an impressively negative role.
She doesn’t have any military training, but this character is definitely a Civilian Under Naval Training.
I mean that as a compliment, I really do; Cherrie Ying is unlikeable in this role, and I didn’t think I could ever not like her.
Loi Hoi Pang makes his by-now-seemingly requisite appearance; I think he’s been in almost every local film I’ve seen in the past year.
“I didn’t see you in any, stupid gweilo…”
This time he plays a gynecologist, by turns affable and slightly creepy. He does a good job with the role, and I hope he had fun doing it.
Zi Yi plays Law Chun Ming, the world’s most understanding boyfriend.
“Okay… but not more than three!”
He fawns over his pregnant-by-another’s-seed girlfriend and is seemingly incapable of being driven away by pride or mistreatment.
Jacky Cheung plays the heir to a massive fortune whose luck and acumen in the business world are seemingly not reflected in his relationships.
Stephanie Che plays Kammy, the lawyer who facilitates the introductions (and examinations) between these characters.
“That speculum looks cold…”
Director Kiwi Chow got a whole lot of support for this film from people like Edko and Milkyway, and the crew was mentored by industry veterans the whole way.
The film is deliberate, and sometimes drags, and sometimes it’s like watching a play, which I really don’t like.
But it’s a character study more than a drama, and all of the veteran cast were very good, I could forgive it.
As is so often the case, the film had laid out an intriguing premise.
And, as is most often the case… it then sh*ts the bed.
XXX – SPOILER WARNING – XXX
I don’t really want to tell you what happens, but I do want to talk about what happens.
It may spoil the film for you, so if that’s the case, go away now.
Let’s just say that the twist is completely unexpected and so weird and so badly presented that it’s off-putting.
“You… you’re an alien???”
So too is the seemingly cavalier attitude that Liu Yazi portrays by the end of the film.
“F@#$ those people! I’m doing me!”
I ended up thinking that she was just as selfish and unlikeable as Tracy T.
And that she’d probably be joining the navy any day now.
I’m all for independence and following your heart. But when you’ve left a trail of emotional casualties behind you as you blithely dodder down life’s path, your happiness has obviously come at a cost to others.
If that doesn’t seem to bother you, I don’t like you.
I actually enjoyed this film until the twist.
Then it just made me angry.
On the Hong Kong Movie app, one reviewer made a rather brusque yet trenchant appraisal of A Complicated Story/一個複雜故事:
That really sums it up.
Posted on January 22nd, 2014 by Dr. Sean Tierney
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An unnamed city, somewhere in the future. Technology (and advertising) abound.
Daniel Wu plays a lowly insurance agent whose most pressing conflict is finding the money to send his mother, played by Kara Hui, to a decent retirement home.
Her current one is a dump.
A seemingly random discovery leads to crossing a moral line for professional as well as financial reasons.
This sets in motion a nightmare of manipulation, surveillance, and violence.
The film opens really strongly. Through the use of visual effects, the setting is laid out during the opening credits; an unnamed city in the future. The CG is obvious, but you can’t really expect anything else, and I thought it looked really good.
The science fiction aspect of the setting provides a useful feeling of strangeness and separation that contributes to the story.
Over the course of the film, Daniel Wu is given a number of tasks to fulfill, each one worse than the last.
He meets an interesting cast of characters along the way, some new, some old, and some who are not what they seem.
Simon Yam is very entertaining as Tiger, a mob boss who thinks Daniel Wu’s character has ripped him off.
I don’t want to say anything else about the plot because it would possibly spoil the movie.
Speaking of spoilers… and spoiling, let’s talk about the ending.
SPOILER ALERT: STOP READING UNLESS YOU WANT TO KNOW THE ENDING
The reveal in this film was a big disappointment to me.
It wasn’t even unique.
A lot of movies, Chinese or otherwise, have a premise about an evil mastermind and his manipulation of innocent people to do his evil deeds.
And a good number of them also have a big ‘twist’ where actually, “Ha ha ha, you weren’t manipulating me, I was manipulating you, because I am so smart you can’t imagine, and even though I wouldn’t really be able to control you this way in real life, the script says I can, so you lose! Ha ha ha!”
Even worse, you’ll never guess who the hero was actually working for.
Or, if you know about the rules for movies to get into China, then you probably do know exactly who he was working for.
Hey, movies are expensive, and shutting yourself out of the China market doesn’t make financial sense.
So you just write a clumsy ending that sacrifices narrative sense on an altar with the SARFT logo on it.
In addition, it not only feels too long, it also re-tells the entire story.
It’s really a shame, because it pretty much pisses away all the good will and momentum the movie had built up with me.
I wanted to like this movie, and I really enjoyed the first two acts.
The third one just lost me.
Posted on January 20th, 2014 by Dr. Sean Tierney
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I’m not really a fan of Wong Ching Po; I enjoyed Jiang Hu/江湖, but after Ah Sou/阿嫂 I skipped his next few films. So I’m not familiar with his recent work.
But I am very impressed by his directing here. He makes a new movie that is suffused with antiquity but not suffocated by it. It is a celebration of older films but not a slavish reproduction.
I think Once Upon a Time in Shanghai/惡戰 really is what Quentin Tarantino thinks Kill Bill is.
The story of a country boy who comes to the big city, it’s an updated version of… well, a lot of movies.
The film is profoundly evocative of several eras and genres of film, and you can see the spirits of the Shaw Brothers, Bruce Lee, and old Hollywood.
I remember wishing my grandmother could see this film, because it seemed like something she would have enjoyed.
My grandmother wasn’t Chinese (not even by marriage), and wasn’t a martial arts fan, but I know she loved old movies, and Once Upon a Time in Shanghai/惡戰 feels like one in all the best ways.
If I say it is soundly generic, I mean it in the most flattering way. There are no surprises in this story, and it is in its own way completely predictable.
But hey, so is sex, and that seems pretty popular.
I found myself smiling at the way the film unfolded, because the story went exactly where I knew it had to go.
Early in the film, Andy On’s character violently consolidates his ownership of a nightclub. Having seemingly been snubbed when he flippantly instructs the singer to sing him a song, he turns to leave.
On generic cue, she begins singing… and the world stops.
I’ve seen that done before an awful lot of times, but when I watch this movie again it will still be one of my favorite moments.
What is new about Once Upon a Time in Shanghai/惡戰 is the look and feel. The cinematography is sleek and rich, as is the knowing, self-conscious air the film projects.
I really liked the way the film winked at itself (and at us) so often. It presented characters so classically stereotypical that it felt more like an homage.
But I think that was the intention.
By the time the film reverts to the seemingly obligatory anti-Japanese plot line, it has developed such a nostalgic air that it seems much more organic to the plot than most other recent films.
It also helps that the script manages to demonize Japan politically without falling into racism or essentialism.
Certainly, the depictions of the Japanese as villains are overstated and simplistic, but that can be said for all of the characters; it’s an intrinsic part of the production.
Philip Ng is not an actor from the 50s, 60s, or 70s.
But he managed to convincingly capture the classic depiction of the smiling, naive rural bumpkin of the films of yesteryear. His character is so earnest it’s unbelievable. Except that we’ve seen it so many times before.
Philip plays Ma Yongzhen, the archetypal country boy who comes to the big city to find his fortune.
His transformation is as predictable as it is entertaining. Ng takes his cues from classic cinema depictions, showing us a character whose naïveté is written all over his face.
Possessed of superhuman strength, an unshakeable sense of morality, and not much else, Ma comes to Shanghai looking for work.
Sammo Hung, Yuen Wo Ping, Fung Hak On and Chen Kuan Tai play the existing power structure of Shanghai’s underworld.
They are being displaced by Lung Chat, played by Andy On.
“波塞! I said bring me the 波塞!!!”
A young rising star of Shanghai’s underworld, he is brash, violent, and bordering on psychopathic, the devil who leads the innocent astray with entree into a dazzling world of money, power, and women.
He gets ALL the p*ssy.
Andy On plays the role with a remarkable dexterity, one minute dazzlingly charming and the next coldly ruthless.
“Is Andy On gonna have to choke a b*tch???”
Having once been just like Philip’s character, Lung Chat is now the crass, pragmatic realist who knows that you only get what you take.
But that doesn’t mean you can’t smile and look good while you’re doing it.
Andy was dubbed into Cantonese in the version I saw. He was still very impressive, and one reason I want to see the Mandarin version is so I can see his role in its original language.
These two real-life friends share more than a few Moments of Bromance as their friendship, literally forged in a fire, grows.
“Dude, don’t touch my leg.”
As Lung Chat re-discovers his humanity, Ma Yongzhen becomes more worldly.
“A Blowjob is a drink, you idiot. Zip your fly and get back to work.”
Michelle Hu is adorable as the petulant, aggressive young woman who scolds Philip’s character for everything he does and never seems to have a nice thing to say to him.
Because she likes him and that’s what girls do.
It’s enough to make you think she’s Irish Catholic.
Jiang Luxia plays her sister, in a role too small to allow her to display her considerable martial arts skill.
This photo was already like that.
But at least she’s there.
And she’s hitting someone other than me.
Let’s face it; Once Upon a Time in Shanghai/惡戰 is about martial arts. And it certainly delivers.
The majority of the cast are obviously trained martial artists, and it makes a very big difference in the fight scenes.
There is some digital undercranking employed, as well as CG, but it is obvious that these people know what they’re doing.
The crispness of their actions and the physicality they display can’t be faked; you can either do it or you can’t.
These people can.
It certainly helps to have Yuen Wo Ping do your action choreography, but what helps more is having people like Philip Ng and Andy On who can execute those scenes so impressively.
They look real because they are.
What’s nice is that the slightly obscured look used in some of the fight scenes is, in this instance, a stylistic choice rather than a means of camouflaging shortcomings.
The best thing I can say about Once Upon a Time in Shanghai/惡戰 is that I was very, very grateful to see a movie that obviously took a lot of effort in front of and behind the camera.
It exceeded my expectations, and they were already pretty high. This isn’t just a great martial arts movie, it’s a great movie.
I smiled the whole way through it, and after the movie I thought to myself, “This is why I moved to the other side of the world.”
Once Upon a Time in Shanghai/惡戰 kicks more ass than an epileptic in a Weight Watchers meeting.
Posted on January 10th, 2014 by Dr. Sean Tierney
Filed under: Tierney-isms | Comments Off