The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug by Peter Jackson

The dwarves, along with Bilbo Baggins and Gandalf the Grey, continue their quest to reclaim Erebor, their homeland, from Smaug the Dragon.

To start off, I am not a Lord of the Rings fan. I haven’t read any of Tolkien’s works and only have seen the Peter Jackson’s film trilogy once. I am, however, a Sherlock fan and originally elected not to see The Hobbit: An Unexpected Journey in silent protest of it delaying the third season of Sherlock for an entire year. A friend invited me to a free screening of The Hobbit: The Desolation of Smaug two days before its premiere, so I quickly caught up with the previous installment and read up on the film’s production online to prepare for its sequel. So this is going to be a review of the first film too. Let’s crack on…

My biggest problem with An Unexpected Journey is it launched its story retrospectively from Lord of the Ringsstarting with an older Bilbo Baggins telling the story to Frodo Baggins just before the events of The Fellowship of the RingThe Hobbit is not a prequel, it was written first before Lord of the Rings. It’s the true “part one” and yet it’s being framed as if it was a prequel to a great trilogy. This effectively echoes throughout the two Hobbit films as I am constantly being reminded about what’s to come. It’s distracting and by association makes The Hobbit seem less important.

Whether it’s Peter Jackson’s completist approach to expand the story or a corporate decision from the financiers to cash in on the success of the LOTR trilogy, The Hobbit is too long.  Often the story takes big steps backwards before being able to move forwards. It took forty minutes in the first film to start the journey and for someone who is not coming in sheer excited fandom, the slow pace is a lot of work on the audience’s part.

This is the typical pattern of one story movement in The Hobbit series thus far: 1) An imminent crisis or problem faces our heroes  2) Backstory is given in context to our heroes to the crisis. 3) The group tries to persevere and just as they fail or are about to give up, Bilbo does something that solves the problem  4) The group rejoice about the pure spirit of Hobbits and how impressive it is, cue flute music 5) A new problem comes along. Repeat.

Throughout both films, I had an internal monologue that kept screaming, “Let’s go! Hurry up!”, as if I was watching someone play a video game at snail’s pace. Die-hard LOTR fans will say that I am wrong about this but it’s why those DVD extended editions exist. Even though we’ll never know, Guillermo Del Toro’s original idea of directing the The Hobbit as two films sounds better. But this is just something I’ll have to accept. That’s the extent of my issues because when The Desolation of Smaug is good, it is very good.

Martin Freeman is a great Bilbo Baggins. The role requires exactly what Freeman plays best: acting quizzical from being one mental step ahead of everybody but always feels socially awkward about pointing out the obvious. Freeman’s reactions are entertaining and overall I find Bilbo a much more engaging protagonist than Frodo; he gets things done.

Smaug the dragon is frightening. Benedict Cumberbatch injects an immense sense of threat and power into Smaug’s voice, combined with its gigantic size, creates a memorable movie villain for the ages. It was bone-chilling watching the dragon slither around in the dark, with the imminent feeling he can squash Bilbo at any moment. Hands down, the Smaug scene is the best scene in all five films so far.

The beautiful Evangeline Lilly as Tauriel is a welcome addition to the series. Despite of being Jackson’s creation, she is a well-rounded strong female character that adds a love story. Orlando Bloom returning as Legolas is neither her or there for me. He isn’t an interesting character and seems to exist for his fighting abilities. Both elf characters are unnecessary filler material, but make entertaining filler no less. The dwarves are more fleshed out in this installment, which is an improvement because there was nothing to distinct them apart from each other in the first film.

Another minor quibble I had was the decision of using CGI in the action scenes. The orcs are computer-generated and the action sequences look digitally layered and video game-like. They’re well designed and are well-paced action scenes. But the LOTR trilogy previously established a real world look with its use of  New Zealand landscapes and creature make-up, and I wonder why Peter Jackson decided to go with more CGI as it doesn’t match with the previous films.

Peter Jackson’s deep love for the material is felt throughout both films and this perhaps is the film’s most winning quality. After all, Jackson’s completist approach isn’t self-indulgent or obnoxious, but out of a genuine love, awe and wonder for Middle Earth and its mythology. It’s infectious and is probably the primary reason I was able to sit through the long running time.

Overall, I enjoyed The Desolation of Smaug more than An Unexpected Journey. There is less setup to be done, hence the story moves along much faster. And for that reason alone, I think I will enjoy There and Back Again even more when things begin to wrap up.

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The White Storm by Benny Chan

The White Story by Benny Chan

An undercover narcotics operation against a Thai drug lord pits three childhood friends against each other.

The White Storm, the latest film from Hong Kong director Benny Chan is a undercover drug story, but it’s not interested in crime genre elements or in exploring the social issue of drug production in Thailand, but the onscreen chemistry between its three stars: Sean Lau, Louis Koo and Nick Cheung. The story reminded me most of John Woo’s Bullet in the Head in that it was about the disintegration of a brotherhood. The dramatic conflict between the three actors are the price of admission. It has a very interesting A story that could have made a great film, but The White Storm spends a lot of the 134-minute running time telling instead of showing its story. And also like Bullet in the Head, it executes it in the hammiest way possible under the guise of Hong Kong 80’s action nostalgia.

For example, in the story Koo, Lau and Cheung are lifelong friends. The film chooses to exposit this by having the trio reminisce about singing the theme song “Pledge to Join the War” by Adam Cheng from the classic TV show “Luk Siu Feng”, a classic song about brotherhood. And later on in the movie, Benny Chan plays the goddamn song. This is just about the oldest, hokiest joke in the book; they may as well have tied red headbands around their heads. People in my theater, including myself, laughed, not because it’s a funny clever reference but more in surrender of how shamelessly cheesy the writers were willing to go to highlight their bromance. Yes, they are very good friends, we get it!

Sean Lau is the subtle glue that holds all this cheese together. Something I observed about Lau was that he had all the best lines and was the only one out of the three protagonists who was not given a backstory. The lines of dialogue aren’t good in a cool quotable way, but it was exactly what the character would say in a given moment, no more no less. I suspect Lau rewrote a lot of his own lines. He gives a pronounced performance that’s as low volume and non-showy as this production will allow, but yet he comes out as the most engaging character. It’s really a testament to how underrated an actor Lau is.

Louis Koo and Nick Cheung, as good as they are and as much effort as they put in, overact compared to Lau. They are fine actors but are bogged down delivering a lot of expositional monologues stating how they feel. The romantic subplots Koo and Cheung are given almost dangerously dominate the A story. It’s not their fault though, Benny Chan directs with a heavy hand. It’s as if Chan and the writers constantly worry that the audience won’t be able to follow what’s going on, so they overcompensate.

Speaking of overcompensation, Lo Hoi-Peng shows up with crazy acting hair to chew up scenery, and boy, does he ever chew! It’s entertaining watching an old man act bananas but the hair does most of the acting. It’s hammy as hell. But despite of all the ham and cheese, Louis Koo, Sean Lau and Nick Cheung make very good company and are the price of admission. And at its core The White Storm is a good story about three friends, I just wished it wasn’t screamed at me.

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Days of Being Wild by Wong Kar Wai – A Tribute to 35mm film

Days of Being Wild by Wong Kar Wai

Days of Being Wild by Wong Kar Wai

My decision to catch Wong Kar Wai’s Days of Being Wild projected in 35mm film, as part of the latest “A Tribute to 35mm” programme from Broadway Cinemas, was a last-minute one. At first it seemed pointless to relive the nostalgia alone and two previous attempts at finding a partner-in-crime had fallen flat. Time was running out and most of the best seats were already purchased.

But then I caught myself. Was I really going to miss out on a Wong Kar Wai film starring every Hong Kong movie star in 35 mm projection? No, of course not. It would be like rejecting an invitation to a trip on a time machine. So to make a long story short, I bought a ticket.

As I lined up to enter the cinema at The One mall in Tsim Sha Tsui on the day of the screening, the cinema staff handed me a set of souvenirs: a “Tribute to 35mm” plastic folder, four Days of Being Wild still postcards and a piece of 35mm film print as a bookmark. I couldn’t be sure if the 35mm print was a still from Days of Being Wild or not, it doesn’t look like it. It was a delightful surprise nonetheless. (See the gallery below)

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The front row seat in which where I sat became a secret blessing in disguise. People that arrived late failed to obscure my view. It was the perfect distance to the screen, and that made it easier to view the film emulsion and the artistry of Christopher Doyle’s cinematography. Now, on with the review…

Days of Being Wild is a character study of Leslie Cheung’s character York, a rich rebellious playboy in 1960’s Hong Kong who learns that the ex-prostitute (played by Rebecca Pan) that raised him isn’t his birth mother. She refuses to tell York the identity of his real mother throughout his life, which shapes York’s bitter selfish flippant behavior. York’s actions affect the people around him, particularly two women, a reserved shop clerk named Su Li Zhen (played by Maggie Cheung), and an insecure club dancer Mimi (played by Carina Lau); and also two men, a dutiful police officer (played by Andy Lau) and York’s underachiever best friend (played by Jacky Cheung).

Days of Being Wild is more structured in terms of narrative compared to Wong Kar Wai’s later works. It’s an easy story to follow and a great introduction to viewers who haven’t seen a Wong Kar Wai film. Major themes in WKW’s works are all explored here: time and space, unrequited love, and rejection. Having seen all his feature films, it’s a very satisfying bookend to see where all these themes began. This time around I particularly noticed the thematic construct of how a selfish act from one person branches out into other people making selfish acts, hurting other people in the process.

The film’s star-studded cast oozes movie star charisma. Everybody fits the role they play and never does it feel like anybody is acting. Leslie Cheung commands the screen as the lead character. York is selfish, spoiled rich boy but what’s fascinating is the audience is given an inside look behind his devil-may-care attitude, exploring the reasons behind his violent outbursts and his playboy approach with women. Cheung sells it and makes York an interesting spectacle to behold.

I recall Andy Lau being a showy actor who preened a lot for the camera early in his career. It wasn’t till later in his career where he started to master how to use a close-up. But here he removes his “Andy Lau-isms” and plays the truth of the scene as the film’s most righteous character. Hence I stand corrected. Sorry, Andy Lau.

Carina Lau as Mimi is the unsung performance, giving a lot of depth to an otherwise bimbo character. Mimi loves York deeply and blindly, never wanting to entertain the reality that he is no good for her. On previous viewings, I found the Mimi character annoying but surprisingly this time around Lau’s performance spoke deeper to me than Maggie Cheung’s. Like the film’s themes, I’m sure which actor I notice will continue to change on future viewings as well.

Christopher Doyle’s cinematography puts sex in the air. No nudity is ever shown but the passion and heat is sensuously implied. Doyle’s photography tells the story with the subtropical humidity of a Hong Kong summer. Beads of sweat run down the actors’ faces, of whom all look thirsty constantly strutting around in their underwear in small Hong Kong apartments. There are a few rain sequences in the film where the 35mm projection particularly stood out that added to the film’s dream-like nostalgic look.

Watching the film again reminded me of the common Hong Kong criticism stating that Wong Kar Wai totally ignores the commercial aspect in his films, but here Wong clearly demonstrates he believes in the allure of movie stars. I thought about the many times Leslie Cheung combs his hair to a mirror in this movie and questioning why I had the patience to sit through it. The film’s last scene with Tony Leung’s gambler character getting dressed in his apartment, a new protagonist teased at the end of the film for a sequel that was never made, is another example. It’s too bad, for the very same financial reasons, we will never know where the story with the gambler was going to go. (Though one of my souvenir postcards suggests Tony Leung was meant to be a new love interest for the Maggie Cheung character.)

At the end credits played the theme song sung by Anita Mui, a Cantonese cover of Jungle Drums by Xavier Cugat. Mui belted out a deep sorrowful vocal like a 60’s nightclub singer. The song was both classy and eerie at the same time as the audience sat in silence, in sheer awe and profound respect of an era past. I thought about how Leslie Cheung and Anita Mui are no longer with us, how Wong Kar Wai and Christopher Doyle’s falling out and also the current diminishing state of Hong Kong cinema. The credits then reached its end, and in a flash, the film grain was gone and the digital projection returned.


It’s a shame that this event is only screening one Hong Kong film for 30 days only. I am sure more screenings would have filled up just the same. I also sincerely hope there are more 35mm prints of other Wong Kar Wai films or Hong Kong films that Broadway Cinemas can screen in the future. But for now,
Days of Being Wild in 35mm is a recommended experience for any Wong Kar Wai fans or cinemagoers nostalgic for reliving 35mm projection. Like I said, it was like going on a time machine. And as I’d imagine going on a time machine would be like, it was an exhilarating nostalgic ride that went by way too quickly.

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Gravity by Alfonso Cuaron

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

Gravity by Alfonso Cuarón

A medical engineer and an astronaut work together to survive after an accident leaves them adrift in space.

In my opinion, the key to making special effects convincing onscreen is designing the effect to look somewhere between real and unreal. When the audience can’t figure out what’s real and what’s not, they will believe it. This is what happened to me during Alfonso Cuarón’s Gravity.

Since Children of Men, Alfonso Cuarón takes his love of the long take and brings it to new levels. I couldn’t figure out how these long shots were accomplished.  The camera floats freely around the astronauts in space in long takes, occasionally shifting from third person perspective to first person. The camera loops, twirls, corkscrews around space, completely forgoing the human sense of up and down. It looked like the cameraman was really floating around with the actors. I knew that wasn’t possible. But eventually I tapped out and let the movie spectacle just wash over me.

As science fiction thematically explores the extreme potential of mankind, awe is an important component to every science fiction story. I was in sheer awe through the entirety of Gravity. Firstly, outer space and the beauty of Earth from a distance awed me. Then there was the solemn beauty of witnessing the space stations being decimated in space. I began to marvel at the destruction and momentarily thought deep thoughts. It was as if for a second I was watching waves wash ashore on a beach while reading J. Krishnamurti. Finally, I was awed by the fragility of human life. After all, all astronauts are just little fishes trying to survive out of their own habitat. The experience was otherworldly, self-reflective and dangerous all at the same time.

I walked into Gravity mistakenly thinking it was a George Clooney vehicle. To my surprise, it’s a Sandra Bullock movie. Sandra Bullock has always had a natural personable quality onscreen. Whether it was pining for her crush to awaken from a coma in While You Were Sleeping or driving a bus that’s primed to explode in Speed, she’s always able to draw the audience into her plight with vulnerability. Bullock’s characters never feel above the audience. Often this quality of hers get overlooked from having to play cheerful funny characters in romantic comedies.

In Gravity, that quality is used to its full extent. We watch as she struggles to survive a series of obstacles. Her performance is as immersive as the special effects. She draws you in completely into her plight. I wish more depth were given to her character. By the beginning of the third act, the film starts to run low on its spectacle and it came to the moment where more character was needed for a bigger statement. Gravity elected to stay with its spectacle and jetted for the finish line. It had a good ending, but it was missing that final thematic punch that answers, “What is this story ultimately about?” and “Why am I watching this?”

And for that, Gravity is a great gem and one exhilarating thrill ride. I am even happy that it was a great role for Sandra Bullock. I just do not know if the thrills will be as compelling on subsequent viewings. So in the end, it is not a masterpiece, but very awesome nonetheless.

About Time by Richard Curtis

About Time by Richard Curtis

About Time by Richard Curtis

At the age of 21, Tim (played by Domhall Glesson) discovers he can travel in time and change what happens and has happened in his own life. His decision to make his world a better place by getting a girlfriend turns out not to be as easy as you might think.

As a story that involves time travel, About Time doesn’t even follow it’s established time travel rules. The most impressive part of it is, the movie is so charming with human warmth, none of that even matters.

I found myself not even caring about the broken rules. In fact, to be honest, I was so charmed and immersed into the story and characters I did not notice the rules were broken long after the movie was over. Plot hole zealots will have a ball nitpicking this film to oblivion but those who do will completely miss the film’s point. Curtis’ interest doesn’t lie in science fiction spectacle; the time travel explanation itself is as unscientific as it gets.

Curtis’ priorities lie upon human matters, which brings me to the characters. The film is well casted. As a romantic lead, Domhall Gleeson has an everyman quality that believably would have struggles dating women. That’s a common complaint I have with a lot of romantic comedies generally. Glesson seems like a normal bloke whose charm needs time to grow on someone as opposed to being immediately charming with practiced swagger. Rachel McAdams is adorable and shows good comic timing. She’s played a similar role before in Morning Glory, which was one of my favorites that year. Again, unlike a lot of romance stories, McAdams’ allure doesn’t hang solely on her beauty. The Mary character is smart, funny and an interesting person. More importantly, she is the type of the girl one would marry and take home to your parents.

Bill Nighy is Curtis’s secret ingredient and is the heart of the film. It’s a subtle minimalist performance, as if Nighy played the scenes as honestly as he could without adding any character quirks or anything an actor would do to purposely chew up the scenery. Nighy is an amicable presence, is effortlessly hilarious with his deliveries and inflections of every piece of dialogue he’s given.

There’s also a great cast of supporting characters that cover a variety of character quirks that I don’t even want to spoil here. They all have their little arcs and I think it’s probably a better experience to discover them while you’re watching the film.

The main point is that Richard Curtis used time traveling as a metaphor to say something profound about life. He captures moments of life’s joy and sadness. In doing so, the film is more than the sum of its parts. I was warmed by Curtis’ optimistic view of life and the sincere message he conveyed in About Time. For a guy that doesn’t cry at movies, I can say that other people will by the film’s end. Heck, I probably would have enjoyed it more if I could roll a tear.

This is probably the one of the best movies I have seen this year. If it doesn’t stay on my top ten by the end of 2013, it would be very surprising.

Unbeatable by Dante Lam

Unbeatable by Dante Lam


Hong Kong taxi driver Ching Fai, aka “Scumbag Fai” (Nick Cheung), a former boxer and ex-convict with gambling debts of HK$200,000, flees to Macau and gets a menial job at the gym of old friend Tai-sui (Philip Keung). He rents a room in the flat of Wang Mingjun (Mei Ting), a Mainlander who has a 10-year-old daughter, Leung Pui-dan (Crystal Lee). Mingjun suffers from depression, after a nervous breakdown when her husband left them for another women four years ago, and Ching Fai slowly becomes attached to her and the mouthy Pui-dan. Siqi (Eddie Peng), penniless after a biking trip through the Mainland, meets with his father in Macau, who has lost the will to live after being bankrupted by a stock-market collapse. Siqi decides to enter the forthcoming Golden Rumble MMA Championship, which has a HK$2 million prize reward. To learn MMA, he enrols at the gym where Ching Fai happens to work. Ching Fai agrees to help Siqi with his MMA training, even though the championship is only 10 weeks away. Ching Fai, despite being 48, also harbours a secret desire to compete for the prize money .

See how long that setup was? Unbeatable sells itself as a mixed martial arts film, but it’s actually a drama that splits its story between three downtrodden characters: the old boxer seeking redemption from bad life choices, a suffering single mother with a plucky daughter and a rich kid trying to take care of his father. In a typical movie, the latter two story lines would be subplots that would feed into the main story, but instead director Dante Lam spreads them evenly throughout the story. This turns two supporting characters into two main characters, which unfortunately compromises the impact of the A story, namely Nick Cheung’s redemption story as the old boxer. The mother and daughter subplot, while well-acted, ends up hoging a lot of the screen time away from Nick Cheung. There were many scenes where Cheung’s character wasn’t developing because it was focused on the mother and daughter.

Eddie Peng is serviceable as the young rich kid-turned-boxer Siqi. I don’t find his character interesting, it’s like when Daniel Wu played the villain in New Police Story – a spoiled trust fund baby. Siqi is so naive it is head scratching. It’s hard to buy a novice thinking they can learn mixed martial arts within two-and-a-half months to enter a professional competition. Amateur boxing tournaments exist for a reason. To play devil’s advocate against myself, one can say that the film’s point is his character has an unbeatable spirit (pun intended), and that he’s competing to go the distance as a statement to his rich father. I see that’s what the film is telegraphing but it’s not interesting or compelling. It’s almost downright disrespectful to the integrity of the sport itself. On the contrary, I enjoyed watching this would-be trust fund baby being pummeled by truly unbeatable fighters that were level-headed and took the proper time to train. It’s depressing that Peng is playing Wong Fei Hong in an upcoming remake. Please keep shoving him down our throats, as he may win our hearts some day.

Nick Cheung is the heart of the film and gives a great performance. Fai is a character with a lot depth and emotional range, but the script keeps cutting him short by having Cheung do comedy. The comedy is funny, but the problem is it’s funny to the point of being detrimental to the drama.  An emotional scene is quickly followed by a funny scene. The audience is shifted to laughing and immediately relieved from contemplating Fai’s emotional struggle. I found it taxing to follow because the Fai character was the only character I cared about. Nick Cheung’s media-hyped muscled body is hidden for a huge majority of the film. I remember reading an interview with Christian Bale for American Psycho in which he indicated that the Patrick Bateman’s muscled body were intentionally sculpted to be ‘narcissistic muscles’, not functional muscles. There is a case of that going on here with Nick Cheung’s body, because most mixed martial artist aren’t sculpted like Greek statues. When Cheung fights, I was pumped. But there was too little of it.  

The fight choreography is tough and brutal but it’s ruined by odd camera placements and choppy editing. The glossy arena didn’t help either. If the actors really did train for the film, they should theoretically be able to do 1-3 moves before a editorial cut. Andy On shows up to play what he plays best, a cocky video game boss. When On arrived, the fights started to feel more choreographed. Overall I’ve seen MMA action done better in other films and ended up enjoying the training montages more.

Huang Bao Qiang shows up in a cameo role because he’s popular from the success of Lost in Thailand. How is his presence relevant to the story? Nothing, and here’s my point. There is a lot of box ticking going on in this film, like an investor trying to craft the perfect combination of an award-winning drama and a box-office hit. You have the award-winning body-transformation lead performance, the pretty boy to secure the young crowd and the single mother storyline to make sure everybody squeezes a tear. Unbeatable has already won 2 acting awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival, and good for it. For the rest of us who are not looking to win, I refer you to Gavin O’Connor’s Warrior, a MMA film that had a better story and bigger heart. Lastly, Unbeatable could have been a great film. But by a lack of balance of its multiple story strands, a great film was only telegraphed, not delivered. It could have used more punch.

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Blind Detective by Johnnie To

Blind Detective by Johnnie To

Forced to leave service after turning blind, former detective Johnston Chong See Tun (played by Andy Lau) makes his living by solving cold cases for police rewards. During a bank robbery case, he meets an attractive hit team inspector Goldie Ho Ka Tung (played by Sammi Cheng). When Ho notices Chong’s strong sense of hearing and smell, she enlists his help in a missing person case.

Blind Detective marks the sixth time Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng have played an onscreen couple. Three of them, Needing You, Love on a Diet and Yesterday Once More were all Milkyway productions. Their first collaboration in the office romantic comedy Needing You is the original blueprint of their coupling, establishing the lovable quirks of Sammi Cheng, the catchy pop theme song sung by Cheng and her charming chemistry with Andy Lau. When Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng are next to each other in a movie, it’s so dripping in charm you feel like anything can happen. They can be pigging out at a restaurant, do crazy borderline illegal things or scream at each other. No wrong can be done.

In a way, that is the guide to enjoying Blind Detective. Lau and Cheng completely drive the film, not the plot or the mystery. It’s a combination of Johnnie To’s 2007 Mad Detective and the fourth sequel-in-spirit of Lau and Cheng Milkyway romantic comedies. In fact, having that preexisting knowledge is a requirement to understanding the film’s meandering tone.

At 130 minutes, Wai Ka-Fai’s script takes on more subplots than necessary. The mystery plot had me most engaged, and I liked how the crime-solving plot sprouted in multiple cases. The final reveal seemed rushed and a bit far-fetched to be truly believable. And there were details that should have been caught. The subplot with Andy Lau trying to woo a dance instructor played by Gao Yuan Yuan is cute but extraneous. It’s like the filmmakers brainstormed every possible thing for Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng’s characters to do, filmed all of them, and couldn’t decide what to take out.

In the end, Blind Detective is a weird animal. It won’t translate to overseas audiences and probably shouldn’t have premiered at Cannes. It’s biggest achievement is it knows its stars are the main attraction and does everything it can with them. Andy Lau seems to be relishing in this role and it’s adorable how his character is a major foodie. I laughed throughout it’s entirety, never really questioning where the plot was going because I knew the context. And for that, people who are familiar with Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng’s coupling in Milkyway productions will have a better time.

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Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

Man of Tai Chi by Keanu Reeves

A young martial artist’s unparalleled Tai Chi skills land him in a highly lucrative underworld fight club.

Man of Tai Chi tells the age-old martial arts tale of a student devoting himself to an art, he gets too extreme, loses his way and has to find himself again.  It’s simple, well-paced, and communicates martial arts philosophy.

Tiger Chen holds his own as the breakout martial arts lead. His Tai Chi movements are beautiful. The core of his charisma is that he is a real human being with vulnerabilities. He is not preening for the camera in a showy or narcissistic manner (ahem Andy On, Wu Jing…) and plays his scenes earnestly.  Does Tiger Chen fit the description of a leading man? I don’t know, but it’d be nice to see more of him in future roles.

As for the supporting cast, Karen Mok fares better when she’s required to be loud and peppy. Silent performances aren’t her forte. Simon Yam is collecting a cheque and there’s nothing wrong with that. Qing Ye makes an adorable love interest. Iko Uwais from The Raid: Redemption (my review here) makes a nice cameo as a fighter. Yu Hai is charismatic as Tiger’s Tai Chi master, the dramatic scenes between Tiger and him were engaging and form the heart of the story.

The comedy gags in Cantonese spoken by the Hong Kong policemen actually do work. I laughed, though I worry how the gags will play as subtitles for English-speaking audiences. It’s like Reeves found a way to seep into the culture. That’s a thing that really impressed me with Man of Tai Chifor a film set in China that’s directed by a foreign director, it remains true to the culture. There’s no Orientalist gaze on Chinese culture, or a laundry-list showcase of the tourist hotspots. Mainlanders speak Mandarin, and people in Hong Kong speak Cantonese. There’s no misrepresentation here. I love how the film shows that many Chinese people are bilingual these days.

Tai Chi is a difficult martial art to capture on film. The idea of countering a hard energy with a soft energy is something you can only feel when you’re practicing the martial art, it’s a hard thing to see and be a part of as a bystander. It’s difficult to locate where the skill of the fight is. Previous cinematic attempts at Tai Chi, such as Jet Li’s The Tai Chi Master or Yuen Wah in Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, have solved this problem by exaggerating Tai Chi to a cartoonish degree. Yuen Woo Ping executes this wonderfully and finds the right assortment of other martial art styles to fully test the limits of Tai Chi. Tiger Chen fights his opponents in the air, rolls on the ground, uses objects and the surrounding environment. There are no quick cuts hiding pulled punches and I love that. The fights are covered in wide shots with real martial artists and anybody can follow whats going on.

Contrary to popular belief, I sincerely do not think Keanu Reeves is a bad actor. I’m a fan. There’s a great article online by Kate Ronnebolm called Keanu Reeves is a Queer Superhero that aptly analyzes his success as a movie star. It says the reason Reeves has lasted this long is because he possesses a pensive quality, like he’s constantly reflecting upon himself and his surroundings. This has served his roles in ConstantineA Scanner Darkly, and Neo from The Matrix. I agree with this point, Reeves owns pensive. I think his performances have varied depending on the director’s ability to capture that quality on camera.

That all said, unfortunately Reeves is the own worst part of his own movie. I take no issue with his performance in Man of Tai Chi, but casting himself as the main villain meant that he is the final boss of his own kung fu movie. After 90 minutes of seeing Tiger Chen beating numerous opponents of varying styles, there simply is no way I can believe that Keanu can beat Tiger Chen. The film doesn’t provide any assistance as there’s no establishing scene showcasing Keanu’s character’s fighting abilities early in the story. For example, the final henchman that fights Tony Jaa in Ong Bak is obviously physically inferior to Jaa in real life, but the story makes him the more superior fighter by stating it beforehand. I would have been fine with even that. The end climatic fight is stiff and awkward; it’s obvious that Keanu didn’t have time to train with his directing duties.

That said, there is still a lot to like. And perhaps I like Man of Tai Chi more for intellectual reasons rather than its final result. But I have seen too many recent Chinese martial arts films that don’t star martial artists in them, but rather pretty boy actors just dancing around trying to look good in their own money-making vehicles. That’s just boring to me. I would rather see a film that’s trying something ambitious and fall short than make something that’s vacuous and faceless. Even with a disappointing climatic fight, the heartbeat of Man of Tai Chi is what won me over. I don’t’ know if Keanu Reeves want to keep directing in the future, but this is a good debut film.

Nightfall by Roy Chow

Nightfall by Roy Chow

The setup: When the horrible disfigured corpse of popular classical singer Han Tsui (played by Michael Wong) is found washing on a shore, Inspector Lam (played by Simon Yam) is called to investigate. The investigation leads to Eugene Wong (played by Nick Cheung), a recently-released ex-con who was responsible for the death of Tsui’s daughter, Eva (played by Janice Man). And basically, Inspector Lam investigates and more things happen.

Nick Cheung, after a long journey through of supporting and comedic roles, is now  praised for his acting since he won Best Actor in the Hong Kong Film Awards for The Beast Stalker, where he played a one-eyed criminal. His best performance is actually On The Edge, where he played an undercover agent recovering back to a normal life, but is ostracized by both the police force and the triads. In Nightfall, he genuinely brings some creepy moments as Yeung, the muted criminal.

Simon Yam is very watchable in anything. Playing a disheveled drunk cop does not play to his strengths. He is always better placed in roles where he can underact using the context of the scene. He doesn’t get to chew as much as scenery as he just brought in for a very normal unchallenging role. Janice Man is a very pretty girl, she brings a fine graceful presence and does a competent job. I hope to see more of her and watch her improve.

Now comes to the finale of this post, I must talk about the black hole, charisma vacuum of this movie, Michael Wong (Russell Wong’s dumber less talented brother) He is, for the lack of a better word, atrocious. He switches between English and heavily-accented Cantonese and it is sad to watch. I do not know how he is been able to sustain this for his entire career.

A mentor of mine had a theory on why Caucasian actors always seem to overact in Chinese films (i.e. the police chief in Ip Man 2). Language is not only a way of speaking, it also embodies a world view and its own set of emotions. Why English-speaking Caucasian actors overact is because a Chinese-speaking director lacks the ability adjust the emotionality of their performances because they are not familiar with the emotions of the language itself. It’s just merely a theory, but I’m bringing it up because it allows me to say that Michael Wong has proved that one can be a horrible actor bilingually. He is completely devoid of any emotionality and in every scene he proceeds to chew up the scenery by shouting his lines.

The set piece at the Lantau Island feels forced and stagey. I don’t see why a policeman would take a suspect on a scenic cable car ride to interrogate him. It ends up being a commercial for the Ngong Ping 360 Cable Car ride. It’s a fun scenic ride and all. I do recommend it if you are visiting Hong Kong, but it took me out of the film.

Story wise, the film makes a choice of putting the finale sequence before the reveal and it loses it wad. Part of the craft of telling a story is determining the order in how the events are revealed. After the grand finale, there is no dramatic weight to what’s happened before once the conflict is already resolved. It takes the audience out because we do not know the significance of the climax while it is happening. Telling the audience afterwards is just flatulent. Yes, they “M. Night Shyamalan-ed” it. I’m going to use that as a verb from now on.

It’s a passable thriller but I can see how a few more script meetings and hiring Russell Wong instead of Michael Wong would have improved the movie immensely.