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

American Dreams in China by Peter Chan

American Dreams in China by Peter Chan

During the economic reform period of the 80’s, three friends bind together by a common ambition – to live the American dream.

The three leads Huang Xiao Ming, Deng Chao and Tong Dawei create a very believable camaraderie. It is possible to be happy for your friend doing well and envy him at the same time, and that is the central story between these three friends. Huang Xiao Ming brings his best performance thus far. He’s not busy preening for the camera and posing a pretty boy as I have seen in his past works. It’s partly the role itself as it asks Huang to start by playing a vulnerable teenage boy who eventually that ages into a man.

There’s a trend of using very fast cuts in Mainland comedies right now. It originated with Ning Hao’s 2006 heist comedy Crazy Stone – which drew its visual style from Guy Ritchie – and now it has officially embedded itself genetically as filmic grammar for Chinese comedic dialogue. There’s a scene where two of the friends had a fight and complain about each other individually with the third friend over a ping pong game. The cutting is so fast between conversation A and conversation B that it’s impossible for the audience to really feel what these characters are going through. These montages will happen every now and then to speed the story ahead. It’s zany for sure, but at times I wish they would let the scenes breathe instead of zeroing in for laughs.

That said, it’s smart on Peter Chan’s part of picking up on this trend and using it here because American Dreams in China is a Mainland Chinese story made for the Mainland audience. The content may prove more difficult with English-speaking audiences whom aren’t aware of the cultural context or why the 3 friends carry the values they do about America and the American Dream to laugh at it whole-heartedly.

Suffice to say, Chan balances the film well and it is impressive to see a Hong Kong director tune to a Mainland frequency. Best thing I can say about Peter Chan’s direction is that he is worldly. He doesn’t portray Americans as white devils, which makes things more interesting and engaging. American Dreams in China will connect with its audience, namely Chinese people who were born in the 80’s, and those people will enjoy it. Everybody else I am not so sure but this is a nice gem of a film nonetheless.

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.

How I Would Have Written the Ending to Peter Chan’s Wu Xia

Wu Xia (film)

Peter Chan's Wu Xia

MASSIVE SPOILERS – DO NOT READ IF YOU HAVE NOT YET SEEN PETER CHAN’S WU XIA

I am a diehard loyal Donnie Yen fan. I was a fan before most people, since the Fist of Fury TV series days. It’s unfortunate because he peaked late to the love of mass audiences but the definite Donnie Yen works are all the films before he struck gold with Ip Man. Films such as Legend of the WolfSPL and Flashpoint will remain among my all-time personal favorite martial arts films. Flashpoint is the ultimate achievement in fight choreography. Yen always maintained his own style of choreography, stressing that it should be realistic and grounded in martial arts techniques. The speed and force of hits in Yen choreography are always the highlight of his fight scenes.

Speaking of which, I’m also a Takeshi Kaneshiro fan. He is a very smart actor that nobody ever gives him credit for because presumably he’s too good looking. He’s versatile (he can play drama, sing, and do comedy) and always brings up interesting characterizations to the table. In the beginning stages of shooting Wu Xia, he opted to perform his character in a Sichuan accent, which totally constructed a new layer to his detective character. With the snotty reaction of non-Mandarin actors speaking mandarin in Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon (which inadvertently lead to Cantonese actors being dubbed in the Mandarin releases)  has no Chinese actor since attempted an accent. The stresses, tones and built-in emotionality of a Sichuan accent made his character more comical and quirky and in my opinion helped us see the intense quirks of his character. This film must be watched in its mandarin version to fully enjoy Kaneshiro’s performance.

So you can understand the excitement I had for Wu Xia when it was said that these two actors were casted together in the same movie.

I rather enjoyed the film. It brought some new colors to the wuxia genre. It contains the best Donnie Yen acting performance. Jimmy Wang is genuinely scary as the villain. I think Takeshi Kaneshiro is snubbed at the Asian Film Awards and the Golden Horse Awards. As much as I enjoyed the film, the filmmaker in me, thinks the third act could have been much better polished to be something great.

So let’s begin with a PLOT SYNOPSIS (feel free to skip if you remember the story):

The film is set in 1917 in a post-Qing Dynasty era, at Liu Village on the border of Yunnan, China. Liu Jin Xi (played by Donnie Yen) lives with his wife Yu (played by Tang Wei) and two children, works as a paper maker in Liu Village. One day, two bandits rob a general store. Liu Jin Xi, who happens to be in the store, gets into a brawl in an attempt to protect the storeowner. He kills the bandits and is branded a hero in his village.

Detective Xu Baijiu (played by Takeshi Kaneshiro) is sent to investigate the case and discovers that one of the dead bandits was Yan Dongsheng, who is among the government’s ten most wanted fugitives. How can a simple commoner manage to take down the two most wanted fugitives? Through an accessment of the crime scene and an autopsy, all of the clues conclude that Liu Jin Xi is an expert martial artist. He’s able to induce brain hemorrhaging by hitting their Vague nerve and alter his weight with his Qi (a scientific explanation for ‘flying skills’ in the wu xia genre). Through many trials of investigation, Xu Baijiu finds out that Liu Jin Xi is really Tang Long – the second-in-command of the 72 Demons, a group of vicious and bloodthirsty warriors of Tangut minority descent trying to avenge the destruction of their people, who brutally murdered a butcher’s family (of Han descent) in Jingzhou ten years ago. Liu Jin Xi walks Xu out to the forest and instead of killing him, Liu spares him. Liu hopes Xu will let him go. Xu immediately returns to the county office to obtain an arrest warrant for Tang Long.

The magistrate delays issuing the warrant, citing lack of evidence while actually demanding a bribe from Xu. Xu eventually obtains the bribe money from his estranged wife (played by Li Xiaoran), who blames him for causing her father’s suicide. After issuing the warrant, the magistrate informs the Master of the 72 Demons (played by Jimmy Wang, the original One-Armed Swordsman) on Tang Long’s whereabouts, hoping to receive a reward. The Master is offended and reveals that Tang is actually his son, and he kills the magistrate by severing his Vagus nerve.

The Master sends his Demon henchmen to Liu Village to capture Tang and burn down the place. While Xu and the constables are on their way there, the two Demon henchmen reach the village first and kill a villager to force Tang to acknowledge his identity. Tang can no longer control himself and he fights and kills the two assailants, one of whom is the Master’s wife (played by Kara Hui), also Tang Long’s mother.

Xu decides to help Tang Long, using his knowledge of physiology, he induces a fake death with Tang Long’s body so the 72 Demons will no longer harass him. When the Demons arrive they lament over Tang’s death, crying over his body. Xu knows that Tang cannot remain in his “death” state for any longer so he revives Tang. Tang severs his left arm in front of the Demons, announcing that he has formally broken ties with them by giving them his murderous hand. The Demons tell him to approach The Master, who is waiting for him at his home.

Tang Long goes home on a rainy evening to find the Master with Yu and his two children. The Master declares that he will let Tang go but he must take Xiaotian’s life as a fair trade off. Tang is enraged and he attacks the Master with a broadsword but to no avail, since the Master uses qigong to protect himself from the blade. Xu Baijiu infiltrates the house through a hatch and  weakens the Master’s defense during the fight by piercing his heel with an acupuncture needle from underneath the floor. The Master is angered and incapacitates Xu. Tang continues fighting but is quickly overpowered by the Master. Just as the Master prepares to kill Tang, Xu notices the needle still stuck in his heel and takes him by surprise, planting another needle in the Master’s neck. The Master is unfazed and mortally wounds Xu by slamming him hard to the ground. The top needle acts as a lightning rod, and in combination with the bottom needle acting as an earthing wire, the Master is charred by a lightning strike, killing him. Xu, with his dying breath, declares the case closed.

The ending scene of the film shows a now one-armed Tang Long heading off to work again. He says farewell to Yu and trails off to work.

Okay, onto MY SCREENWRITING IDEAS ABOUT WU XIA

Last chance not to spoil it for yourself! 

MY CRITIQUE OF THE ORIGINAL ENDING

My problem with the movie starts in the third act. It all begins with Liu Jin Xi chopping his own arm in front of the Demon lackeys.

Many will argue the Liu Jin Xi’s arm chopping to be a convention of the wu xia genre (though I don’t know where that has occured), it seems to come out-of-left field and out-of-character. The fact that it’s convention doesn’t bother me. Frankly, you can cut both his arms off (Donnie Yen is a kicker anyways), but it’s not justified by the character. The Tang Long character wakes up from his faked death amongst the 72 Demons, his father The Master, isn’t there. He is among lackeys! Why would he chop off his arm in front of them to trade for his freedom? They ultimately do not have the power to decide whether Tang Long can be let go or not. He chops his arm off and then the lackeys tell him he should see The Master as he is the decider. Wouldn’t you feel stupid in that moment if that happened to you?

The film’s major problem in the third act is that it ends with a deux ex machina. Yes, a lighting bolt is what kills the villain. The villain is set up to be so powerful that he is simply unbeatable by either protagonists, neither brains or brawn. An act of god comes in and kills off the Jimmy Wang character. And that’s where they got it wrong! It should be brains and brawn working together that beats The Master at the end.

And even if they beat The Master of the 72 Demons, the story hasn’t ended yet. Tang hasn’t even taken out the lackeys (the ones that cried over his fake death). They’re still alive and presumably around!

MY VERSION OF THE ENDING

Xu decides to help Tang Long, using his knowledge of physiology, they fake Tang Long’s death so the 72 Demons will no longer harass him. When the Demons arrive they lament over Tang’s death, crying over his body. Time runs out and Xu revives Tang before he dies from being in his “death” state too long. Tang fights the Demon lackeys with both hands, finally finishing off the leader, who tells him The Master (Jimmy Wang) is at his house waiting for him. Tang takes the lackey’s broadsword and heads home with Xu.

Tang Long goes home on a rainy evening to find the Master with Yu and his two children. The Master declares that he will let Tang go but he must take Xiaotian’s life as a fair trade off. Tang is enraged and he attacks the Master with a broadsword but to no avail, since the Master uses qigong to protect himself from the blade. The Master breaks off Tang Long’s left arm and gives him a speech about being a traitor to his clan, that he should haven’t joined the Han people and that he should have avenged the death of his people.

While this is going on, Xu Baijiu infiltrates the house through a hatch and weakens the Master’s defense during the fight by piercing his heel with an acupuncture needle from underneath the floor. The Master pulls Xu from underneath the boards and incapacitates him.

Tang takes the blade, continues fighting with one-arm but is quickly overpowered by the Master. Just as the Master prepares to kill Tang with one final blow, Xu plants several needles in the Master’s neck. The Master’s qigong defenses are totally taken down. Tang chops off his head with his blade.

Xu, with his dying breath, declares the case closed. We see Xu die as Yu and the kids come to Tang’s aid. We fade to black.

Some time later, a now one-armed Tang Long heads off to work again. He says farewell to Yu and trails off to work. We see the Liu Village being rebuilt.

FINAL THOUGHTS

So those are my thoughts! That just makes more sense to me. Tell me what you think!

And not that this would matter, but Harvey Weinstein, please don’t call this movie Dragon for the U.S. distribution. That’s a horrid title.