From Vegas to Macau by Wong Jing

From Vegas to Macau by Wong Jing

 

The God of Gamblers series were the films of my childhood and were amongst the first films I binge-watched on television. Chow Yun Fat in a pompadour and tuxedo with unexplainable gambling powers walking in slow-motion was just the epitome of cinematic cool. The success of the first GOG spawned three spinoff series, a sequel and a prequel. The gambling movies peaked with the Stephen Chow series when he took it to new heights with his brand of nonsensical humor. The trend started to die out in the late 90’s and eventually in the 2000’s became embarrassing rehashes starring Nick Cheung. The only interesting addition was 1999’s The Conman starring Andy Lau, a reboot of The Knight of Gamblers series, which interestingly rooted the gambling into reality. Sadly it was ruined by its lackluster sequel The Conmen in Vegas, which was a string of unfunny lewd gags.

Now here we are with From Vegas to Macau, the story starts with small-time conman Cool (Nicholas Tse), whose undercover policeman half-brother (Phillip Ng) is murdered by Ko (Gao Hu), the head of an illegal gambling syndicate. Cool seeks the help of “Magic Hands” Ken (Chow Yun Fat), a legendary gambler turned casino security consultant, to battle Ko.

As you may have figured, Chow is unfortunately not playing the Ko Chun character. The Ken character is more akin to Chow’s silly comedic roles in The Diary of a Big Man or The Eighth Happiness, which is overall less serious. However much of Chow’s cinematic allure is still there. I can watch Chow Yun Fat in a tuxedo walking into lobbies greeting people all day. When Chow sits at a gambling table, you just want him to win so much you don’t even care how he is doing it. He is the warm bright sun shining onto this film, and every time he is not onscreen, it starts to feel cold and stale.

Nicholas Tse looks bored playing the stone-faced romantic lead Cool. Tse plays it so straight it looks like he belongs in another movie. Jing Tian, having previously starring together with Donnie Yen and Jackie Chan, is getting on my nerves from overexposure. Her policewoman is bland. I would kindly suggest that she go fire a real gun and wear the police gear before the day of the shoot, because she always looks like she’s playing dress up. As the comic relief, Chapman To does the most with he’s given with delivering the cheesiest jokes in rapid-fire delivery. To does it with such earnestness that he just about gets away with it.

Even after 20 years, Wong Jing is still giving the same gags. I started guessing the punchlines to all of the gags. Even worse, I knew where they were all done before. To name a few tropes: the international water plot twist, staging a fake football broadcast, and the fat women being undesirable gag are all here. The most unforgivable thing is that there isn’t a final gambling match at the end,

The biggest con man is perhaps Wong Jing himself, who in the final shot of the film, teases the audience with a surprise cameo appearance and plays a hip hop cover of Lowell Lo’s original God of Gamblers theme song in the end credits, which insinuates the good film that he could have made, the film that everybody came to see. And that is just mean-spirited.

Wong Jing, having seen him speak in interviews, has a very ‘ends justify the means’ approach to everything he does. As long as he makes money, everything he does is justified. That is the accountant-like approach to Jing’s directing. What’s most infuriating is the gambling film series feel stuck in time is not because of its nineties pastiche, but because Wong Jing has no interest of taking it anywhere by updating or adding a new modern angle to it. From Vegas to Macau just feels like reheated overnight food.


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Firestorm by Alan Yuen

Firestorm by Alan Yuen

Firestorm, the latest action thriller starring Andy Lau, is a character study trying to burst out of its commercial contraptions. The commercial aspects is a cops and robbers film with the volume turned up to eleven. Every moment is crucial. One can almost take the last frame of every shot, matte it and make a comic book out of the whole movie. The hidden arthouse aspects are the character study of its two leads and the morality play of right and wrong, which emanates later in the story. Director Alan Yuen keeps things moving along, artfully combining these two components in such a way that there’s never time for the audience to stop and think. For most of it, Firestorm is a fun ride.

Andy Lau leads the film sufficiently as the film’s righteous hero, but the heavy lifting comes with a cost. Senior Inspector Lui is mostly an action-oriented role. And he only gets interesting till the later portion when the Infernal Affairs-like morality play begins. It’s only then Lau holsters his gun and gets to chew some scenery.

It is great to see Gordon Lam, Hong Kong’s most versatile working character actor, finally play a lead role in a feature film. Out of the two leads, Lam has the more complex character. Andy Lau is billed as the lead on the poster, but the story is arguably more about Gordon Lam. He’s never given a bad performance and here he is the heart of the story. Yao Chen, who I thought would be a love interest for Andy Lau’s character (as it usually would), is the romantic love interest for Gordon Lam. I doubt a modern working woman in this day and age will tolerate a convict boyfriend to the level that she does, but Yao Chen brings a much-needed believability to the situation by reacting.

For what the film does for Gordon Lam, it falls short with veteran actors Hu Jun and Ray Lui, who are oddly undeveloped villains. This is not the way to use actors of their calibre; they deserve better. Michael Wong also has a cameo as Andy Lau’s boss. Does Wong treat Chinese film producers to dinner every week or has comprising photos of them? He tries to be subtle, which for him means trying to whisper his lines in a high-pitched voice as if he breathed vials of helium before each take. He is god awful as usual, but fortunately there is very little of him.

The action sequences are all entertaining and it is impressive how they are all set in in busy Hong Kong locales. There’s a sufficient amount of design going into the 3D for its action scenes; everybody uses tracer ammunition (which highlights the bullet trajectory) and there’s a noteworthy portion with birds. One particular high wire action set piece got too ridiculous. Let’s just say if I was dangling at a high altitude, I wouldn’t purposely slam the scaffolding that’s hoisting me. The finale shootout in Central’s Queen Street is the price of admission. Suffice to say, mayhem ensues. For any Airsoft fans out there, with all the Hong Kong police uniforms, SWAT gear, guns and muzzle flash that appears onscreen, this will be Disneyland for you.

To match its drama with an epic operatic grandeur, Firestorm‘s story is built around the metaphor of an oncoming typhoon blowing towards Hong Kong. As my creative writing teacher once said about one of my short stories, “Your pathetic fallacy is pathetic.” Sorry, it is too over-the-top at times. For example, Peter Kam’s bombastic operatic score is akin to a Final Fantasy game. It sounded like a choir of angels was chanting for Andy Lau’s survival through the gunfire. The work Peter Kam done on Isabella and Throwdown has shown subtlety and used music as a way to bring the audience into its world. I noticed that the quiet contemplative score sounded one octave away from the Infernal Affairs score. This is not Kam’s fault. I imagine this is the product of financiers citing references based on past box office success. Let’s face it, current Chinese and Hong Kong cinema is becoming a producer’s medium.

I was aware of how much commercial box ticking was going on throughout the film, but they were never overtly blatant enough to bother my enjoyment. Whenever Firestorm was being too loud and bashing my head, it was the hidden artsy choices, like Gordon Lam in a lead role, the undercover story arc with its morality play, which lifted it back up for me. It’s a fun time at the movies and if you’re going to see it, the 3D version will not disappoint.

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A Simple Life by Ann Hui

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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Drug War by Johnnie To

Drug War by Johnnie To

Drug War by Johnnie To

Police captain Zhang (played by Sun Honglei) partners with a drug lord named Timmy Choi (played by Louis Koo) after he is arrested. To avoid the death penalty, Choi agrees to reveal information about his partners who operate a cocaine ring. Zhang grows suspicious of Choi’s honesty as several police officers began a raid on the drug ring.

Drug War is a crime film made and released in Mainland China by a Hong Kong film company. Naturally there is going to be an element of political compromise. All the policemen are Mainland Chinese and all the drug dealers are from Hong Kong (Take a guess which side wins in the end). Nationalism in movies has never really bothered me unless it’s oozing with disgustingness (i.e. Michael Bay’s Armageddon). That is not the case here and I don’t have a problem with that. My interest is not the politics, but rather what Johnnie To will bring to drug film set in Mainland China. The answer? Not too much.

What’s missing from Drug War are the Johnnie To quirks. The zany off-the-wall characters who have speech impediments and odd ticks are gone. The dramatic noir lighting, minimalistic stage-like blocking or themes of brotherhood are gone. Even the gunplay is less stylized and presented in a realistic fashion. I don’t miss any of these specific quirks or tropes, but without the idiosyncratic Johnnie To stamp, what’s left is a very straightforward police procedural.

The characters are servicing the plot, which is odd for a Johnnie To film because usually it’s the other way round. We don’t get insight into the distinct personalities of the drug dealers or police officers and their relationships (like in Election, an ensemble piece where it manages to characterize the supporting characters). We don’t know if they have family members or girlfriends waiting for them at home or any backstory. The story is simply moving beat-by-beat linearly on the central question of how trustworthy Louis Koo’s drug lord character is. There’s nobody you’re supposed to be rooting for, but things are continually changing and you simply watch awaiting the final outcome.

To, a director and producer with his own production company, has always been best when he has free reign. The limits of To’s free reign authorship is that he is very culturally rooted to Hong Kong and possesses a firm voice regarding to its politics (Election), economic condition (Life Without Principle), daily life in Hong Kong (the office politics in Needing You), or even local nostalgia (Throwdown, Sparrow). As exemplified in 2008’s Vengeance, a project which was co-financed by French financiers and starred French rock singer Johnny Halliday, To’s directorial voice is weaker when he steps outside of his comfort zone. The three Hong Kong actors casted alongside Johnny Halliday to couch the star for two thirds of Vengeance mirrors the Milkyway regulars who show up as the seven Hong Kong drug bosses in Drug War’s denouement. It’s like he is trying to recalibrate the film by filling it with things he’s familiar with. However, there is no sense of To’s personal perspective on the topic of drug running, drug addiction, crime or how the police work in China through the film’s story, themes or characters. That makes a bit tame because To has fared much better in the past.

In context to Johnnie To’s back catalogue, Drug War will be remembered for pushing the boundaries with the Chinese Film Bureau. The Mainland police are shown working undercover and solving crimes, having gun battles with criminals and some even dying in the line of duty; these are all images that were previously not allowed to be shown in a Mainland theatrical release. Yet now we are seeing them onscreen. So that is a proper achievement that’s worth celebrating. The final product is probably more telling of Chinese film censorship than of To’s directorial sensibilities. But I can’t help but think that there is a grittier, nuttier version of Drug War lying in the corner of Johnnie To’s desk that is stamped “rejected”, namely the version of the story that he didn’t get to make.

The Viral Factor by Dante Lam

The Viral Factor by Dante Lam

I had plans to see this in January when it came out in Hong Kong. Due to being busy with my work, I did not get around to it till now. So hence this late review.

The direction of Chinese cinema is uncertain right now. Many Hong Kong directors and talent have been making movies in the mainland and there is a conundrum of how to balance the content of these co-productions. It has gotten quite experimental in trying to find a genre that can meet both Mainland and Hong Kong expectations. Comedy and romantic comedy so far rather difficult to cater to audiences as humor is vastly different between Hong Kong and Mainland China Mainland romantic comedies like If You Are The One or Love is Not Blind proves successful in Mainland but not Hong Kong. Making a comedy that balances both tastes such as Derek Yee’s The Great Magician have been attempted as well and failed. So far, only action movie and historical or wuxia epics have proven successful. So now about The Viral Factor

Okay, a plot summary… On a mission to protect a scientist who has stolen a copy of the smallpox virus in Jordan on an International Defence Commission escort mission, Sean (played by Andy On) betrays his IDC team in order to get the virus so he can mutate it into a biological weapon, develop a vaccine and sell it to a corrupt pharmaceutical company via an arms dealer. The failed mission leaves IDC member Jon Man (played by Jay Chou) injured with a headshot wound and his girlfriend Ice (played by Bai Bing) dead. With two weeks left to live, Jon Man decides to spend his remaining days with his mother (played by Elaine Jin) who reveals that he has a long lost brother, Man Yeung (played by Nicholas Tse) whom she left behind with his father, Man Tin (played by Liu Kai Chi). Jon decides to track Yeung down in Malaysia but upon arrival, he discovers that Yeung has become a wanted felon and is part of the plot orchestrated by Sean. Jon is drawn into the conflict, not only to protect his family but to ensure his brother does not go further down the road of unrighteousness and to take down Sean’s operation for good.

The story at times seem a little too coincidental and convenient for the sake of story (The bad guy Sean, who betrayed Jon Man, happens to employ Man Yeung, who is Jon Man’s long lost criminal brother?). It does work though because the plot moves quickly enough where you do not notice these flaws. This is the first time I saw Jay Chou in a more serious light. He has dropped a lot of his “pop star-isms” as Jon Man and brings something more human to his role of which the audience can root for. I’m pretty sure it’s not just the acting beard he is sporting. Ask me again later and I may give you another answer. That or it’s the fact that I cannot grow an acting beard. I do not know what to say about Nicholas Tse because it seems like he’s played this character before. Suffice to say, Tse delivers. It’s always great to see Liu Kai Chi employed. He looks ridiculous but adds a lot of the dramatic tension between the Jay Chou and Nicholas Tse characters.

With it’s foreign locales and big action set pieces,  The Viral Factor is almost reminiscent of Hong Kong productions in the mid-90s like Downtown Torpedoes (starring Jordan Chan and Takeshi Kaneshiro) or Enter The Eagles (starring Shannon Lee and the bilingual atrocity Michael Wong). What makes the movie vastly different from those previous movies is with an investment of $200 million Hong Kong dollars, The Viral Factor has Hollywood-level production values. And yes, the money is all on the screen: there are foot chases, car chases, a helicopter sequence in the sky and boat sequences in the ocean. They do not chicken out with lame shaky camera and there is no struggle to track what’s going on. They use tracking crane shots to cover the action appropriately. The opening action sequence in Jordan felt like a Hollywood war movie. I was both impressed and pondering how the film’s action was going to top itself with such a big opening battle. And boy, they do manage to top it.

The action set pieces do go on a bit long by the finale. Nicholas Tse’s character Man Yeung has this clumsy chaotic way of fighting and ends up brawling and rolling around with each and every henchmen and it drags the pacing a bit. That is a nitpick. I’m glad there was no pop song from either of the stars playing at any point during the movie which seems more refreshing. That’s the thing, it’s still a very fun action movie.

Dante Lam is a filmmaker that has dabbled in different genres through his career. Some have worked better than others. I liked Jiang Hu: The Triad Zone (a film not without it’s flaws but ultimately saved by good performances by Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Beast Cops. He’s found his place with the urban crime genre with films like The Beast Stalker and The Stool Pigeon. Now it seems like he’s found his niche. The Viral Factor felt fresh even though it shouldn’t have. I would like to see more action movies made with this level of budget using international locations. After all, we have seen enough of Hong Kong.