Movie Review: Exiled/放‧逐

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Macau, 1998. The looming handover to China, two years after the handover of Hong Kong, has everyone on edge. Gangsters are fighting over money and turf. Macau’s casinos are a lucrative prize, and are worth killing for.

The runup to Macau’s handover saw a lot of violence, up to and including bombs being used and shootings in broad daylight.

Johnnie To’s Exiled/放‧逐 is set against this historical backdrop. A group of gangsters is brought together for a job. Anthony Wong, Simon Yam, Francis Ng, Lam Suet and Roy Cheung played similar roles in Johnnie To’s 1999 film The Mission, but Exiled shouldn’t be considered a sequel.

Still, there are obvious similarities.

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Nick Cheung plays Wo, a gangster trying to leave his past behind before it catches up with him.

Considering he just moved back to the place he did all his gangstering, his past doesn’t have to go far to find him.

I don’t want to talk about the story for two reasons. One, talking about it will tell you too much of the narrative, so I’d rather you saw it yourself. The second reason is that the story in Exiled/放‧逐 is pretty thin and, quite frankly, unnecessary.

I don’t mean that in a bad way. What I mean is that the story takes a distant second to the way the story is told. Johnnie To’s Exiled/放‧逐 is an exercise in style, and in case you’re wondering whose style, have you noticed I keep saying Johnnie To’s Exiled/放‧逐?

Again, I don’t mean this in a bad way. Johnnie To’s Exiled/放‧逐

Okay, I’ll stop. 

Exiled/放‧逐 is a beautiful movie to look at and a pleasure to watch. There’s nothing in it to distract you from looking at it. The cinematography, the composition, and the soundtrack all work together to make it one of the most watchable movies I can think of.

It’s the cinematic equivalent of a hot bath or a cool breeze. You don’t need to expend any effort doing anything but appreciating it.

There’s a lot of good acting in it too. The entire cast turn in entertaining performances, whether playing strictly dramatic roles or doing comic relief.

Benz Hui plays a policeman who will retire in a matter of hours and literally goes out of his way to avoid the gangsters and their actions.

Richie Ren (Jen?) is also entertaining as a cool, pragmatic cop.

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Gordon Lam Ka Tung is a lot of fun to watch as Keung, an up and coming gangster.

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Even more fun is Eddie Cheung Siu Fai as Jeff, a local fixer whose personality is almost as greasy as his hair.

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Josie Ho is especially good as Wo’s wife and mother of his baby.

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It’s even nice to see Ellen Chan back on the big screen. Even if she keeps her shirt on.

Dammit. But speaking of Category III…

Exiled/放‧逐 got slapped with the rating because of a handshake. A triad handshake. Which Johnnie To swears isn’t the case, but it doesn’t matter. 

So if you watch this movie expecting gonzo sex and violence, you’ll be disappointed.

But you will get to see a movie so stylish it verges on the pornographic.

Exiled/放‧逐 is also such a self-conscious display of Johnnie To’s stylistic signatures that you could reasonably call it cinematic onanism.

But when it’s this much fun to watch, who cares?

I really enjoyedExiled/放‧逐 . I saw it’s local premiere, and paid to see it again in the cinema.

I own the DVD and every time I watch it I like it more and more.

Movie Review: Jiang Hu/江湖

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In 2004 Wong Ching Po gave us Jiang Hu/江湖, his second film. It was a highly anticipated venture, featuring many of the same actors from the then-recent Infernal Affairs trilogy.

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Andy Lau plays Roberto Benigni.

I’m joking, of course.

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Andy Lau and Jackie Cheung play veteran gang leaders whose haircuts are so bad their ears carry knives.

Their characters are evocative of those they played in As Tears Go By; Andy is the cool-headed leader and Jackie plays the enforcer who uses violence to solve his problems.

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He needed a new jacket, so he killed his drapes.

Shawn Yue and Edison Chen play young gangsters looking to make a name for themselves.

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Not that Edison needs any help with the ladies…

Gia Lin plays a young woman who needs to make a lot of money and can’t do it legally. She’s a hooker.

The supporting cast turns in a variety of small but interesting roles; Jacqueline Wu plays Andy’s wife and mother to his newborn son. Kara Hui makes the most of her single scene as Shawn Yue’s mother. Lam Suet does similarly well as a hapless cop, Gordon Lam has a couple of great moments as Jackie’s second in command, and Tony Ho appears as a small-time hood in a very big jacket. Chapman To (over-)answers the directorial question “How stereotypically gay can one man (over-)act?”

But in a way, that makes sense. Jiang Hu/江湖 was the subject of a lot of hype before it came out. Which may explain why there’s so much hype in the film. There’s nothing subtle about this film. It’s garish in its aesthetic as well as its directorial ethos.

Jiang Hu/江湖 is an exercise in over-making a film. It’s stuffed with cinematic tropes and genre clichés we’re very familiar with. That may sound harsh.

Well, maybe it is.

Although the word ‘generic’ has come to mean something negative, it means ‘of a genre.’ The triad genre has lots of clichés that we love and expect. But at the same time, there’s a thin line between generic and derivative. There are absolutely no surprises in this movie, including the intended surprise at the end of the film. But by that point, we’ve already been presented a bunch of similar things.  Gee, two people holding hands running in slow motion.

Like we’ve never seen that one before.

We’ve seen everything in Jiang Hu/江湖 before. We just haven’t seein it with this much slow motion and backlit rain. In style terms, it’s like a big, long music video. But without the song. Speaking of songs, this movie opens with the same song used for one of my favorite scenes in Once Upon a Time in Shanghai. Recycling is environment friendly!

Never mind that. 

Style isn’t necessarily a bad thing in and of itself. It can enhance the substance and impact of a film.

Or it can try to make up for a lack of substance.

In this case, I think that’s what happened. Jiang Hu/江湖 is only 80 minutes long, and that’s including all that slow motion. But given the usual artistic hubris that makes self-important movies bloat to over two hours, I’ll gladly take this alternative (and the extra half-hour of my life). Don’t get me wrong, there’s still hubris and self-importance here, even at a reduced running time. I think also there’s more than a little… meretrition. Wong Ching Po wants us to watch his movie, but he also wants us to know he made this movie.

There’s a dolly zoom in Jiang Hu that’s notable only because it draws attention to itself by being so obvious. I got the impression it was meant to be that way, that Wong Ching Po wanted to make sure that we noticed.

Because people like Martin Scorsese used it or something.

A lack of realism in movies is to be expected.

Especially in a movie written by Christine To.

But some of the things in Jiang Hu/江湖 are impossible to ignore.

The story is supposed to take place over a single night, but so many things happen that the story would have to be set in northern Norway for it to have any shred of realism. But it’s nice to know so many fine dining places in Hong Kong are 24 hour.

So I got that going for me.

Of all the things you can do to make a girl fall in love with you in an hour, I’m gonna guess that ‘attempted rape’ isn’t really one of them.

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In this movie, no means no, unless you force yourself on her, in which case no means yes.

Wong Ching Po better hope he never has to bathe in prison.

Movie Review: I Sell Love/販賣•愛

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Kevin Chu, who directed, produced, edited and did the cinematography for I Sell Love/販賣•愛, didn’t write it. Judy Chu (no relation) wrote the screenplay from her best-selling novel and play she of the same name. She also appears in the film.

Because you gotta stay busy.

I Sell Love/販賣•愛 tells the story of a young woman named Tiffany who needs money but has no real marketable job skills. Luckily(?) for her, one of her friends knows a man who can help Tiffany make some real money.

Does this sound familiar? It ought to. So should virtually everything else in        I Sell Love/販賣•愛.

And I mean everything.

The filmmakers had applied for funding from the Hong Kong Film Development Fund, but got turned down.

It’s the first time I’ve supported a decision by the local government in ages.

Unfortunately for us, alternative funding was acquired. I say unfortunately because there’s no reason this film should have been made.

There is absolutely nothing original in I Sell Love/販賣•愛, and there’s no real energy or wit brought to these well-worn characters and situations.

Uncomfortable job ‘interview’? Check. Spending spree montage? Check.

‘Party’ that turns into a tearful self-analysis? Check.

Perhaps unsurprisingly, Judy Chu not only wrote this movie, she appears in it as Tiffany’s ‘manager.’

Which is another word for pimp.

What is (not?) surprising is that she ends up hijacking the crying scene for herself.

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But considering Barbara Wong gets a Special Thanks in the credits, I guess Judy Chu’s meretricious selfishness shouldn’t surprise me so much.

Barbara Wong also has a cameo in I Sell Love/販賣•愛 playing, of course, herself.

I can only wish she was a fictional character.

She plays one of Tiffany’s teachers, and lectures about career opportunities in show business. So in a way, it makes sense that Tiffany makes the choices she does. Because if anyone knows about making a lot of money doing something that there’s absolutely no reason to be proud of… it’s Barbara Wong.

Anybody that takes career advice from Barbara Wong deserves what they get.

But back to the checklist. A chance at real love? Check.

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A lot of times these movies feature a young idealistic man with a dream who tempts the woman away from her life of sin. Or sometimes it’s a rich young man who has a sparkling career ahead of him. In I Sell Love/販賣•愛, the guy is both.

He also seems to have a lot of free time on his hands.

I don’t know if this movie has any aspirations of playing in China, but a good start is making one of Tiffany’s worst experiences happen at the hands of a group of Japanese businessmen. The Japanese are made to look like evil savage beasts. For throwing money at these women and ‘making’ them do terrible things. Really? There was no indication that the women weren’t free to go or wouldn’t get paid. And Tiffany took the money.

That’s why they call it work, honey.

But I shouldn’t be so unfair. This movie does pose a lot of questions with no easy answers.

Why does everyone seem to have envelopes for their hooker money?

Who thought a teardrop landing on a letter wasn’t utterly silly and prohibitively embarrassing?

Why did they use a full moon being obscured by clouds as an allegory for sex?

Was there some hidden meaning as to the activity of the couple?

There is actually quite a bit of good acting in this movie.

Rose Chan does relatively well with her role. I think it’s a good thing that she’s not familiar with these kinds of people, so if she’s not always convincing, I don’t mind. Pakho Chau was very believable in his role, and was actually quite engaging. His scene in a 7-11 near the end of the film is probably the best part of the movie because it’s so funny and unexpected.

Too bad it’s also just about the only good part of the movie.

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Lui Kai Chi continues to be the great actor he always has been, and the only time I felt his performance slip, it seemed to be more an issue of the lines he had to read and the way the scene was directed.

Most of the cast does a very admirable job in the film, so it’s really a shame that the film itself is so underwhelming. The big climactic reveal is predictable and cliched and, well, sad. It’s the first time I Sell Love/販賣•愛 has a chance to go somewhere interesting, and it just doesn’t. Instead, it just meanders right down the road to a painfully typical ending complete (?) with an exhaustive (and exhausting) montage that’s the length of a music video.

Judy Chu’s next screenplay should be made into a movie called I Write Clichés.

Movie Review: Revenge of the Green Dragons/青龍

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I used to write movie reviews until I started the Silver Spleen. Nowadays, the written versions are essentially transcripts of the videos, though they often have stuff I end up editing out of the videos. There’s a reason for that. As much as I enjoy acting the fool (and as much as many people say I’m not acting), I do actually have a PhD in intercultural communication, and I’ve published academic research. That sort of thing is not really entertaining, however, in a spoken format, so my reviews tend to have little or none of it. Some things that read well don’t sound very good spoken. And some things need to be discussed seriously, and for me writing is the best way to do that.

I was lucky enough to go to the Hong Kong premiere of Revenge of the Green Dragons, the Andrew Lau/Andrew Loo co-directed, Martin Scorsese-produced movie about Chinese street gangs in 1980s New York.

I’m not going to offer a synopsis, or to really review the film itself. I want instead to talk about the movie within several contexts. Before watching the movie, I read some reviews. And very few of them had a kind word to say. Having watched the movie, I can partially understand why.

I struggled with trying to reconcile two very different aspects of the film. On the one hand, you have Scorcese-esque grittiness and cruelty. On the other, you have a very overt stylistic nod to Andrew Lau’s Young & Dangerous films. The problem for me is that these two things are antagonistic: the Y&D cartoonishness can induce a certain levity into the film.

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There’s nothing wrong with wink-wink-nudge-nudge in films, and I often enjoy it. But such aesthetic choices inherently celebrate their subjects, and that is problematic in Revenge of the Green Dragons.

It makes it much more difficult to reconcile the savage cruelty and violence that also happens, because we’re supposed to take that seriously without some prurient enjoyment of bad-boy naughtiness. The Belgian film Man Bites Dog handled this brilliantly, so it can be done, but I didn’t see it happening here. 

It could be argued that like many Hong Kong films, Revenge of the Green Dragons’ tonal roller-coaster is very normal to a local Hong Kong audience, who gleefully careen between things like romantic melodrama and toilet humor. Unfortunately, Revenge of the Green Dragons is intended for other audiences who may prefer a more singular tonality.

But that’s not really the major issue for me. A lot of reviewers panned the cast for their performances, some of which were worthy of the criticism. Even so, I think it’s unfair to put all the blame on them.

I’d rather place it into context. You could argue that the actors themselves aren’t convincing, but you could also argue that there’s not a whole lot of Hollywood tradition to call on for background. Audiences may struggle with seeing ABAs (American Born Asians) as either protagonists or badasses (as opposed to sidekicks or comic relief).

The actors themselves may struggle with having to create a trope that is still in its earliest infancy. Is it the fault of the actors that they don’t have much experience? Or can some of the responsibility be laid at the feet of the cyclical nature of Hollywood, wherein Asians are so brutally pigeonholed? 

The audience struggling with seeing them in new roles is not only a result of cinematic history but a rationalization for continuing the trope. Imagine if African Americans were still only playing domestic helpers. It may be that  the ‘oddity’ of seeing ABAs in new roles isn’t really the fault of the audience or the actors as much as the industry.  

I’m not saying the cast was stellar. I’m saying that just maybe we can cut them some slack because if you want to make an omelet you have to break a few stereotypes. As much as the audience is new to Asian gangsters, so too is the acting pool. 

Let’s take a moment to talk about one member of the cast and her experience with stereotypes. Eugenia Yuan plays Snake Head, or, let’s face it, the Dragon Lady. Which is Role #3 for Asian women, nos. 1 and 2 being prostitute and mail-order bride, respectively. Some of Eugenia’s other roles in Hollywood include Mail Order Wife and Memoirs of a Geisha. Imagine if Scarlett Johannsen had to constantly choose between playing only Meth Whore, Russian Stripper, or Ilsa, She-Wolf of the CIA.

The entire cast of The View would self-immolate in outraged protest.

I don’t blame the actors for taking the roles. It would be nice in some way if they refused on principle to be a part of the ongoing problem, but that means they wouldn’t get any roles. And someone would always take the role. 

So yes, the cast has to take responsibility for their acting. But so do we, the audience. Because we buy into and support an industry which created and continues to create these seemingly anomalous situations. One reason Hollywood behaves this way is because it’s easier and more lucrative to perpetuate certain ideas than to erase them.

Especially after you’ve conditioned an audience so heavily.

The use or function of difference in film is important not just because of its explicit use but its implicit effects on the audience as well as actors. Because characters must be distinct from one another for the sake of narrative clarity, markers of difference are amplified and, more troublingly, preserved. The basic principle has to do with setting things/ideas/people apart, and doing so through dissimilarities.

In order to delineate or make  people and/or things different from one another, it is useful (in film and/or other narrative structures) to display or otherwise communicate difference, if for no other reason than to tell things/people apart.

No one makes (successful) movies about a guy going to work every day and paying his bills, because we all do that and it’s boring.

So stories are about different, exciting circumstances. This explains why ‘different’ people must be DIFFERENT, and if someone is different their difference almost always has to mean something for the story or film. If there’s one Asian in a movie, the audience expects his Asian-ness to have some kind of function in the plot. Why is he Asian unless it means something?

Oddly, they don’t have the same Pavlovian expectations of whiteness, but that’s another story for another time. 

I think the simplest litmus test of ‘progress’ in Hollywood is if/when a person’s ethnicity has nothing to do with their role or the story. At the moment, that’s only a privilege for white people. A corollary, however, is the way that the glaring whiteness of many roles/stories/films genuinely is invisible to (my) people. One of the whitest films I’ve ever seen is Safe, starring Julianne Moore. That woman’s not sick or crazy, she’s just white.

Because film is a visual medium, and because people look differently depending on morphology (I try to avoid terms like race or ethnicity, but I assume you know what I mean), that difference is often manipulated. Asian beauty standards tend to parallel Western standards, thus rendering ‘difference’ in Western eyes as ‘ugly’ in Asian eyes. On a lighter, more localized note, this also explains why Hong Kongers constantly ask me why white people think Lucy Liu is pretty or why gweilo date/marry ‘ugly’ Chinese women.

I tell them to see it as a public service, leaving the pretty ones for local men.

The reason Lucy Liu gets work is because she looks so different from Westerners. If Hollywood uses Others who look like Westerners, difference becomes much more difficult not only to represent but to MAINTAIN. Compare Lucy Liu to  Koyuki, the woman in The Last Samurai. Pretty? Of course. But why haven’t we seen her in more movies? Maybe because she’s not ‘Japanese’ enough.

You’d think Hollywood would jump on the similarity, thus being able to crow about how White Beauty is the global norm. But doing so deprives them of a narrative/visual tool that they use. Hollywood needs Otherness as a tool. They can’t risk making the Other not so otherly. It also puts them at risk of ‘giving away’ the Most Beautiful title to… gasp… a non-white! If non-whites are shown to be not-different, they become boring, but more terrifyingly, they become equal.

Let’s not fool ourselves, difference never exists in a completely horizontal way. By constantly re-inscribing the ‘difference’ and ‘exoticism’ of the Other, Hollywood implicitly attempts to preserve the center for its white self. Not once but twice has Luc Besson made the ‘most advanced creature in the universe’ a white woman (5th Element, Lucy).

Va te faire foutre. 

Hollywood needs to make sure ‘We’ know who ‘They’ are, and that ‘They’ are clearly different from ‘Us.’ This is one way Hollywood essentially sublimates the Other to nothing more than a tool of White narrative. It explains remakes; there’s no Godd@mn reason for them. Subtitles are now a non-issue thanks to social media habits. But white viewers can’t relate to Them. So white people need to see themselves onscreen in order to buy into the emotion of the film.

That’s some sad sh*t, isn’t it? But so was the Oldboy remake.

What’s even sadder is the way that ‘They’ aren’t allowed to be like ‘Us’ even when they are. A good friend whose parents are from Hong Kong often gets asked where she’s from. “Denver,” she always says. Because that’s where she was born. She doesn’t even speak Chinese.

She just looks like she ‘should.’ 

I’ve heard that ABAs playing roles in Hollywood have had to speak in pronounced ‘Asian’ accents they don’t have. Well, Hollywood, which do you want? Asians with good English or Asians with bad English? Hollywood said that Chow Yun Fat and Jackie Chan and Jet Li couldn’t speak English well. But neither could Arnold Schwarzenegger or Jean-Claude Van Damme.

I guess there’s something different about those two. 

I wish Hollywood would make up its mind. Because it seems like there’s no way for Asians to win. That kind of linguistic nonsense is on display in Revenge of the Green Dragons; one of the main characters, having spent the whole film speaking very normal English, suddenly reverts to Chinglish, apparently because he’s telling a story of his youth in China.

Maybe it was in New Jersey, I don’t know. 

But it’s a good example of how difference gets operationalized through ethnicity, via exoticism. You could say that about the whole script, though.

Revenge of the Green Dragons was written by Andrew Loo and Michael Di Jiacomo. It’s important to know who wrote it because no one could have delivered some of the frankly awful dialogue in the film. It would have been nice to assume that people for whom this story was obviously important would have tried a little harder not to write dialogue that would make 1970s kung Fu Theater dubbers blush.

It would also have been nice not to have a twist at the end which was was not only unnecessary and cringe-inducingly self-referential but more dangerously perpetuated the Yellow Peril you-can’t-trust-those-people archetype. I’d expect such adolescent, reductionistic garbage from Quentin Tarantino. I was hoping for better here.

I sincerely don’t envy Asian actors in America. They’re unfortunately stuck at a certain point in the development of portrayals and narratives, and they’re unfairly tasked with re-training the American audience. But at least they’re getting the chance to make the change. Which, I admit, is scarce reward. Still, I appreciate their efforts and I look forward to more films.

I can’t say I enjoyed Revenge of the Green Dragons, but I can say I am glad it got made and I am very happy it exists. It’s not perfect, but it’s a good start to bringing a new facet to American cinema.

Movie Review: Kung Fu Angels/青春鬥

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Herman Yau is Hong Kong cinema’s equivalent to MacGyver. MacGyver could make a space shuttle out of three paper clips and a half a jelly donut. Herman Yau can make a watchable movie out of a mediocre script, a questionable cast and a piece of cow sh*t. Kung Fu Angels/青春鬥 is the proof of that. Because it’s got all three of those things, and it’s still surprisingly watchable.

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The trailer for Kung Fu Angels/青春鬥 is less than inspiring. But I’m not a teenager. This movie was rated IIa, or Unsuitable for Children. Quite honestly, I disagree. And I’m not being snarky. I think this movie is intended for young adults. I know it’s certainly suitable.

Karena Ng plays Nancy, a young woman whose businessman father, played by Raymond Wong, keeps moving around. Because of that, Nancy’s been to eight schools in eight years. Her father sends her to a Sports Institute where her cousin Ken, played by Alex Lam, is a student.

She meets the captain of the school’s wushu team, played by Jeremy Tsui.

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He’s dreamy…

She also meets the co-captain, played by Janelle Sing. 

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Nancy’s roommate, played by Zhang Chu Chu, has a birthmark on her face and spends the first half of the movie using a handheld mirror like an inverted periscope to get around while hiding behind her hair.

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Kung Fu Angels/青春鬥 isn’t a comedy, although it has a lot of funny moments. It is hard to take it seriously sometimes, but I get the impression that the younger you are, the easier it would be to take it seriously. I really don’t mean that in a bad way. If anyone on earth could make a movie aimed at teenagers that I could still sit through, it would be Herman Yau.

And the reason is that Herman Yau is one of the smartest and wittiest directors in Hong Kong. He managed to make a movie for China with Japanese villains that didn’t put me at risk of a stroke. He’s that good.

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Kung Fu Angels/青春鬥 plays like a Chinese version of Step Up or whatever teenage-centric movies Hollywood makes these days. I don’t know because I don’t have children.

And thank God for that, eh?

It would be hard for an adult to become emotionally wrapped up in this film. A lot of the pathos is designed for teenagers, and they’re the only humans young enough to overlook it’s inherent silliness. But I don’t think Herman Yau wants us to buy into it. I don’t think he minds if your kids are caught up in it but you’re not. And you shouldn’t be.

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But you can certainly be entertained. There are enough quirky, smart, and funny moments in this film that I never got bored with it or mad at it.The credit for that obviously goes to Herman Yau, who manages more than once to make you wonder how he got away with it. I don’t think any American movie for teenagers ever showed a girl copping a squat on the toilet. That happens twice in Kung Fu Angels/青春鬥.

And it’s two different women.

In one scene, Karena Ng is performing maintenance on a piece of wushu equipment, and there’s no way Herman didn’t mean it to be seen as potentially hilarious. If I say she was vigorously polishing a sword, that’s not a euphemism.

But it sure looked like one.

Speaking of visual accuracy, at one point a fight breaks out, and the preponderance of people in the room start filming it on their phones rather than participating in the fight. Alex Lam’s response to the situation is also very, very funny.

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Which is as good a segue as any to saying the whole cast also deserves credit for making Kung Fu Angels/青春鬥 so watchable.

Karena Ng is entertaining as Nancy, a petulant, bratty young woman who, no surprise, learns a few life lessons in the course of the movie. She’s not a very convincing martial artist, but she was a convincing young woman, and has a few genuinely funny moments. I just wish she would eat a little more. The reason it’s called a wristwatch is because you’re not supposed to be so skinny you could slide that puppy all the way to your armpit.

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 Eat something already.

Janelle Sing does a good job in her role as the co-captain of the wushu team.

Alex Lam is funny as cousin Ken, hamming it up so much that Kung Fu Angels/青春鬥 is banned in Israel and 90% of the Muslim world. He overacts enough to make Aarok Kwok weep with envy.

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But it’s funny so I didn’t care.

Tats Lau plays the headmaster of the school, and he plays his character’s inherent weirdness really well.

I thought Zhang Chu Chu did a really good job as Mei, the girl with the birthmark. She spend the first part of the movie acting with only half her face, but still manages to be convincing.

The martial arts in the movie aren’t convincing, but I don’t think they’re really supposed to be. What is supposed to be convincing are the lessons of the movie. I’d call Kung Fu Angels/青春鬥 socially didactic. It’s peddling a lot of life lessons for young people about friendship and teamwork and perseverance and being a good person.

Kung Fu Angels/青春鬥 isn’t perfect, but it’s heart is in the right place, and if you’re in the right mood for it, it would be a lot of fun. I’d recommend seeing it with your kids, because they’re probably going to get the most out of it. But thanks to Herman Yau, you’ll get something out of it too. 

Just try not to laugh too hard when one of the characters asks “You don’t like my sushi?”

Because then you’d have to explain why that’s so funny.

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Most of these people are visibly not 20. Not as much as I’m visibly not 20, so maybe I ought to shut up.

Movie Review: Whispers and Moans/性工作者十日談

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Whispers and Moans/性工作者十日談 is a 2007 film by Herman Yau. It’s based on a book of the same title by Yeeshan Yang, about the lives of sex workers in Hong Kong. Yang and Herman Yau co-wrote the screenplay, which is comprised of several stories that end up connecting at one point or another.

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Yan Ng plays Elsie, an idealistic young woman on a crusade to start a Sex Workers Union.

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She also wants to change the way Hong Kong society looks at the horizontal refreshment industry and its laborers. Unsurprisingly, the women who actually do the work – do the clients?- find her tedious, naive, and, well, stupid. This doesn’t stop her from trying, though, and the women at least respect her dedication.

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Athena Chu plays Coco, a former chicken who has worked her way up to management. She shares those duties with Jenny, played by Candice Yu. Both women are impressive in their roles, though I have to say Athena Chu was slightly more so if only because she was playing a character so different than many of her previous roles.

I’m not saying Candice Yu isn’t a lovely person, I’m just saying that she often plays these kinds of characters, so it’s not as much of a surprise.

These two women have their hands full with their employees.

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I guess it’s true; herding chickens is no easy task.

The women who seek this kind of work tend not to be employee of the month material to begin with, so when you add in drug abuse, emotional problems, and personal lives that would make Kim Kardashian seem like a soccer mom, they become even harder to handle.

Coco and Jenny have other problems to worry about too. The business model is changing. The hostess club they work in is facing hard times; like the rest of the clubs that once proliferated in Hong Kong, its days may be numbered.

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Also, like so many other jobs and industries, sex work in Hong Kong is facing stiff (!) competition from the mainland. Younger, cheaper, and harder working, girls from ‘up above’ are making life hard (!) for local chickens.

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But it’s not just women who are suffering. Gigolos, known colloquially as ducks, are also facing tough times. Patrick Tang plays Tony, a gigolo who’s starting to feel the pressure at work. He’s also feeling pressure from his other half, a male prostitute who’s saving up for a sex-change operation named Jo, played by Don Li. 

Herman Yau handles the role of Jo with remarkable skill. I say that because even in the 21st century, the portrayal of gay people in Hong Kong movies can sometimes seem outrageously atavistic. Don Li and Patrick Tang deserve a lot of credit for playing the characters so well. Their story, which could easily be overplayed, is one of the most affecting in the movie.

In fact, everyone in the film does an admirable, or at least interesting job in their roles. There’s little or no glossing over these character’s flaws, weaknesses, and ugliness. There’s empathy, but not a lot of sympathy. A lot of these people make their own problems, and a lot of them are too dumb, greedy, or high to see the way out of them.

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Or to see that their biggest problem is themselves. Herman Yau lets these characters be themselves and never really seems to take a side. As much as Elsie gets preachy, I never got the impression that we were supposed to buy into her argument any more than the prostitutes did. 

I didn’t buy into the prostitutes’ (!) arguments either. None of these characters are completely good or bad. But they are all eminently watchable.

It’s also nice to have a refreshing change to the Hollywood approach to movies about prostitutes. In Hong Kong, you’d be hard pressed to find an actress who hasn’t played the role. In Hollywood, prostitution somehow gets nestled in with terminal illness and developmental disabilities as a cheap shortcut to Oscar viability. In Hong Kong it’s just another role.

Movie Review: Rise of the Legend/黃飛鴻之英雄有夢

《黄飞鸿之英雄有梦》北京记者发布会-男主角彭于晏

How do you update an icon? How do you manage to bring one of the biggest and most important Cantonese folk heroes (and one of the biggest martial arts movie heroes) of all time into the 21st century?

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You modernize him, at least in terms of his personality and his physique. Eddie Peng plays Wong Fei Hung, an iconic character played by a whole lot of iconic Chinese actors.

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And one actress.

Unlike his predecessors, Eddie Peng is buff and has a lot of attitude. For older viewers, he’s much more likely to remind you of Fong Sai Yuk than the unshakably righteous Wong Fei Hung.

Also unlike his predecessors, Eddie Peng isn’t a martial artist. But he is in remarkable physical shape, and he’s no stranger to physically demanding roles. And they can make anybody look good with editing.

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Except me. I stink.

That hurts even more when I tell you that this movie even makes Wong Cho Lam look like a martial artist. He has a small role in the film, and luckily for me he wasn’t doing his usual TVB schtick, so I actually enjoyed his performance.

Corey Yuen did the action choreography for the movie, and a sign of his skill is how good Wong Cho Lam looks doing stuff that normally would just make you laugh at him.

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Sammo Hung is probably the best martial artist in the movie, and it is really amazing how well he can still move for his age. But even Sammo Hung looks a little tired of having to work so hard to carry the martial arts legitimacy of so many movies. He plays his character well, though, and like always he’s fun to watch.

I enjoyed a lot of the performances in Rise of the Legend/黃飛鴻之英雄有夢. Eddie Peng is a good actor, and he brings some depth and nuance to a character that isn’t always so well-defined. Jing Boran plays Fiery, Wong’s sidekick. He’s also good in the role, and does an equally good job with his action scenes. These two characters are childhood friends, and they share friendships with two women.

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Angelababy plays Orchid, a…

Look, if I have to tell you what any woman in a Chinese movie named Orchid does for a living… you haven’t watched many movies. 

A clue: When she comes home from work she probably says “Let me stand up, my back is killing me. I was on it all day!”

But I got to see her navel, so it was worth it to me.

No, I can’t explain it either, and you’re right, it is creepy. For a lot of reasons.

But never mind that.

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Wang Luodan was especially good as Ah Chun, a seamstress who may be more than just a woman with a needle. She has the eye for Wong Fei Hong, but Fiery has the eye for her, and Wong Fei Hung is a practitioner of the ancient code of Bros before Hos; even though he feels the same way about Ah Chun that she feels about him, he can’t c*ck-block his home slice.

So to speak.

Besides, he spends a remarkable amount of time with Orchid, which would raise anyone’s suspicions.

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That’s not a euphemism.

Ah Chun is convinced that Wong Fei Hung and Orchid have been playing ‘hide the umbrella.’

That is a euphemism.

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Tony Leung Kar Fai is his usual dependable self as Wong Fei Hung’s father, making a big impact in a small role.

I feel bad that these performances are often lost in the giant, lumbering movie that Rise of the Legend is. It’s being shown in 3D, though I eschewed the experience and expense. This means, of course, that there’s more than a few gratuitous “this looks amazing in 3D” slow motion shots.

I also have to say that some of the money that went to 3D would have been better off spent on CGI. Some of it just looked garishly cheap, and I don’t think there’s any good excuse for that.

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There was some really interesting cinematography, including what may be the first ever POV of a decapitation victim. But a couple of Go Pro shots were too visibly different from the rest of the film and felt (and looked) gimmicky and cheap.

There’s also not really much of a story here, or at least not a new one. All through the movie, I never felt any kind of tension or mystery. You can tell where this movie is going right away, and it moves along that path with no real surprises.

Well, there’s a few. It was nice to see that while foreigners are bad guys in the movie, they don’t have to carry all the blame. I was also surprised that the word ‘fourth’ was consistently misspelled in the subtitles. That’s a very minor niggle (!), but considering it’s part of someone’s name, I guess I just thought they’d have noticed it. I was surprised that one of the biggest heroes in Cantonese folk culture, and everyone else in 19th century Guangzhou was speaking Mandarin.

But hey, if I wanted realism I shouldn’t have watched a movie written by Christine To and directed by Roy Chow.

Besides, there are things you can’t reasonably expect decent people to know about.

Don’t ask me how I know this, but if you go into an opium den and yell “Everybody out now!”, they’re not going to jump right up and run out.

From what I’ve read.

But some things are their fault. When a fire is started by people, and we’ve been told they’re going to set a fire for a signal… do we really need a flashback to the people being told to set a fire for a signal?

It seemed like the story was too disjointed, bouncing back and forth (!) between the past and the present. I felt like it ruined the narrative rhythm.

But I didn’t really watch this movie for the story. I watched it for the action, and on that level Rise of the Legend delivers. There’s a lot of action, and a lot of it is really good. There’s some good performances, some interesting cameos (watch for Mike Leeder as well as JBS and Ah Fai of 24 Herbs), a yellow umbrella, and…

Angelababy’s navel. My needs are met.

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Look, look! She’s touching it!

Movie Review: Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 1&2/單身男女1&2

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2011’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart/單身男女 was Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai’s official entry (entree?) into the Mainland film market. Yes, the same people who brought us Election are now trying to suck up to the Big Red Box Office.

Ooooh, how exciting! 

It’s a breezy romantic comedy (without sex), so no violence, or political overtones, or anything else that might offend… you know… It’s about a young woman from Suzhou who comes to Hong Kong and gets dumped by Terence Yin.

She’s too stupid to realize this is a good thing.

But seriously (?), she is wooed by two men: Louis Koo, a habitual womanizer who lacks the moral fortitude to take responsibility for allowing his d*ck to lead him through life.

Daniel Wu plays an alcoholic who drinks 2 quarts of whiskey a day but doesn’t need rehab. All he needs is to go on a date with this woman, who is apparently the Chinese Betty Ford.

Because China solves all problems.

Or just makes them disappear, which Daniel’s alcoholism, dysfunction, malaise, and beard all do, seemingly overnight.

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China up, ho’s down!!!

Daniel starts the film off as a bearded, irresponsible artistic type, but that character disappears after he gains architectural recognition.

And $.

This film isn’t really bad. It’s no more vacuous, puerile and saccharine than most any other romantic comedy, including the ones that Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai used to make with Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng. Maybe its just my own prejudice that sees this one as especially dumbed-down for its intended audience. 

But why on earth is the female protagonist’s mother cackling hysterically at 2 Become One, the breast cancer movie, as she watches it on TV? There’s nothing that funny about that film.

And maybe the materialist subtext has always been there, but it struck me as especially apparent/transparent here; Daniel Wu only becomes attractive after he shaves and gets a job.

The film isn’t put together badly, and its acted pretty well. I just didn’t care about anyone in it. Then again, I’m not a young, professional, female from the Mainland.

Though I have rented a few.

So in fairness I’m not the demographic. Which is one of the reasons I had less than no interest in the sequel.

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Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 stars three of the same people from part one; Louis Koo, Daniel Wu, and Gao Yuanyuan. Added into the cast are Miriam Yeung and Vic Chou. I didn’t want to watch this movie because I knew that I didn’t care about the characters, the story, or the intended audience.

Because I had seen the trailer.

But for whatever reasons, I decided to subject myself to this movie. Hey, at the very least, I’m told that I’m very entertaining when I dislike something or someone. 

Speaking of Barbara Wong…

The product placement whoring in Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 makes her look like a paragon of anti-capitalist virtue. It has all the subtlety of a seizure-prone sperm whale. The watches and the yogurt drink show up enough that they could have been on the posters as cast members.

Then again, I should shut the f@#$ up because I wouldn’t doubt they tried it.

And if the yogurt and the watches were part of the cast, maybe there would have been someone in this movie I could have liked. I hated all these people. Not because they’re all filthy rich, as evidenced by the Ferraris and Maseratis and yachts. I hated them because they’re all too stupid to have achieved what their material wealth signifies. They’re smart enough to become millionaires, but apparently no one is smart enough to ask “Who’s that?” If they did that, half the movie would have been unnecessary.

Not that the whole godd@mn movie isn’t unnecessary, I’m just saying.

How am I supposed to have any sympathy for these shallow idiots and their 1% (never mind first world) problems? You can’t drive your Ferrari. I feel so bad for you. Especially when you say “I wish a cute guy would come to my rescue.”

Yeah, that’s what a powerful female executive would say.

She’d let a stranger drive her car, let him get her drunk, let him drive drunk, let him stay over, and leave him in the house the next day. I’m sick of Chinese movies insulting women so f@#$ing thoroughly.

I hope all of that character’s ancestors get ass-raped by the ghost of Jiang Qing 江青.

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Because that woman had a c*ck and she wasn’t afraid to use it.

I hated these characters for allowing a bunch of their business and personal decisions to be made by a sentient CGI octopus.

What a bunch of f@#$wits.

We’re apparently supposed to feel bad for people who are dumb enough to be victimized by other people whose shittiness is already known to them?

F@#$ you too.

I hated these people because they were selfish, ignorant, and completely unconcerned about anyone but themselves: “As long as I’m happy, f@#$ everyone else.” Which is par for the course for banker types.

What’s in the suitcase, fat boy?

These dullards’ utter lack of self-reflexivity would be hilarious if it wasn’t so full of hubris: “Somehow I ended up outside her apartment…”

It’s called stalking, you psycho f@#$.

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By the end of the movie, lives are destroyed because of these people’s selfish bullshit.

I’ve heard people say that the movie may be sending up materialism and making a sly commentary about Mainland consumption, but I doubt it.

The filmmaking is too witless, facile and pedestrian for that.

Besides, the audience for this movie subscribes to materialism as a religion. I’ve heard this movie, and Barbara Wong’s recent output described as ‘OL porn.’ 

Not the Japanese version, the Chinese version.

These movies are made to appeal to single women in China of a certain age, education, and class. What single Chinese woman in her 20s or early 30s wouldn’t want to have Louis Koo and Daniel Woo fighting over her in an environment full of luxury cars, clothes, and watches?

So maybe we can say that Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2 has a lot in common with the Tiny Times series. We know how popular those movies were.

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And how good.

After watching Don’t Go Breaking My Heart 2, all I can think is “Election 3 ought to be a hoot…”

Let me at least try to say something nice about this movie. It was nice to see Lo Hoi Pang as a desk clerk. And Connie Man Hoi Ling was the only air hostess in the movie who didn’t look like she fell out of the ugly tree and hit every godd@mned branch on the way down.

See? I said something nice.

Movie Review: Trivial Matters/破事兒

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Pang Ho Cheung is one of my favorite local directors. If you haven’t seen Exodus or Aberdeen or Vulgaria, you should.

Trivial Matters/破事兒 is a different sort of movie; it’s not one story, it’s a collection of stories, some longer than others. It was produced, written, and directed by Pang Ho Cheung, with much of the material adapted from his written fiction.

The stories are populated by a lot of familiar faces, and the situations and dialog are as varied and as interesting as the cast. For a Category IIB movie, there’s a surprising amount of profanity, sexual content, and nudity. There’s even drug use.

It don’t make you a bad person, I’m just saying.

What does make you a bad person is bringing little children to watch this movie in the cinema, which happened when I saw the movie the first time.

But it was the Dynasty, so what can you expect?

The first segment has Jan Lam as a psychotherapist refereeing couples therapy between Chan Fai-Hung and Crystal Tin Yui-Lei. 

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The thing that makes the segment so great, and so funny, has to be seen. I can’t explain it without ruining it.

Let’s just say the 4th wall has a window.

The shortest segment features Edison Chen and Stephanie Cheng.

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Who only shows her navel once. Dammit.

This segment gained some extra exposure (!) when the film was released to DVD. The release of Trivial Matters/破事兒 happened during the Edison Chen photo scandal.

Back in 2008, there were a ton of DVD shops in Hong Kong. They would put a big TV in the front window showing short loops of whatever movie they wanted to sell. Sometimes late at night they would show old Stephen Chow movies; more than once I saw a sidewalk full of people at 3:00AM in Mongkok watching the entire movie.

Don’t ask me what I was doing at 3:00AM in Mongkok. That’s my doctor’s job.

Good God, where were we? In Trivial Matters, there’s a scene where Edison Chen makes a typically humble self-appraisal:

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Well, after Edisongate happened, guess what scene was played over and over and over at almost every DVD shop in the city?

One of the longer segments features Eason Chan as a guy who’s been leaving a bad taste in his girlfriend’s mouth.

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His girlfriend is played by Isabel Chan, whom some of you may remember from the neglected masterpiece IQ Dudettes. What makes this segment work so well is the understated acting and pervasive realism; this is what people are really like, and this is how they really behave.

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The same could be said about the segment with Chapman To as an actor ‘calling chicken,’ which is a Cantonese euphemism for visiting a prostitute.

I’m sorry, a horizontal refreshment engineer.

The scene is understated, touching, and realistic.

From what I’ve read.

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The longest segment stars Gillian Cheung and Stephy Tang as classmates whose lives take unexpected turns. Both women are surprisingly good in their roles, and I liked that the story was set in the past.

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The final segment has Shawn Yue playing a hitman in training sent on a job to whack Conroy Chan. There are hits done, but not the kind you expect. The segment ends a little strangely, and since it’s the last segment, the movie ends strangely too. But it was a strange movie to begin with, so it seems fitting.

I really enjoyed Trivial Matters/破事兒 and I think you will too.

Movie Review: Kidnap/綁架

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A young woman’s brother is kidnapped. She listens to the police, and lets them handle the ransom payment. The operation goes awry, and the brother is killed. Cut to three years later, also known as the present, and we find out the woman’s husband has a terminal illness. There’s a treatment, but it’s expensive. Where, she wonders, can she get that kind of money? Hmmm. So she decides to kidnap a rich man’s son, and does so. In a couple of days.

That’s the first ten minutes of Kidnap/綁架.

Talk about economy of narrative…

While you could argue that this set of events lays out the character’s motivation, it does so only in the most cursory way. This is not a narrative, it’s the outline of one. There is no flesh on these bones. This story is in more a rush than two teenagers in the back seat of Daddy’s car.

Unlike the teenagers, the movie lasts more than two minutes.

Law Chi Leung directed some really great movies like Double Tap and Inner Senses. But he also directed Bug Me Not, an Emperor Group movie starring Isabella Leung and CGI bugs, and Curse of the Deserted, a mainland ghost film whose only real mystery was fingering out (!) how they would get around to debunking the existence of ghosts.  20070830_47c17d4286ad67e7edf33TlafLlD99S6 I saw Kidnap/綁架 in the cinema in 2007, because quite frankly I find Rene Liu very easy to look at.

But after Speed Angels, I got over it.

That movie was so bad that by the end of it I was literally hitting myself in the face to take the pain away.

It didn’t work.

Speaking of not working, by the halfway mark of the movie, it seems like the vast preponderance of direction Rene Liu got was “make the face from Ringu.” kidnap2007_3 That and “be as subtle as Aaron Kwok.”

I.e. not at all.

But she has lots of company in that boat. kidnap_b

Karena Lam overacts nearly as loudly as her awful dye job.

Guo Tao hams it up as an eminently unlikeable mainlander, but hey, it was 2007 once. 20070830_7cece1021e454ade2ff29ADYWb6QDvWl

It used to be that way.

20070830_99ef50301a4d9ddf37691oGcqh9fW3zb Julian Cheung hangs around the story like a vaguely noticeable smell, contributing nothing but taking up space. Eddie Cheung Siu Fai turns in a good performance, as usual, but I just felt bad for him being here. 20070830_17760303ad2387aafa1bPPZoOhR3GsSS

I guess that’s why they call it work.

There he was, being all solid and believable in the midst of this shrill, abrasive mess. There’s nothing subtle about this movie. Lots of nauseating close ups, an overly loud and intrusive soundtrack, a pile of patently ridiculous plot contrivances, outlandishly illogical behavior, and some of the worst physics you’ve ever seen used in an equally bad CGI shot. 

I don’t remember disliking this movie so much when I watched it in the cinema.

But I sure disliked it on DVD.