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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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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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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The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai


NOTE: I’m going to try something different this time. I’m going to approach this as both a film review and a guide on how to enjoy this film. And by that, I mean the original cut of the film. Not the Weinstein version.

The Grandmaster chronicles the life story of Ip Man, Bruce Lee’s master. Set in 1940s Fushan, Canton province, the martial arts community, lead by northern stylist Gong Yutian (played by Wang Qingxiang), is retiring and holds a challenge to select an heir to bring southern martial arts to the north. The southern community elects Ip Man (played by Tony Leung), the shining newcomer, up for the challenge. Ip Man develops a friendship with Gong’s daughter, Gong Er (played by Zhang Ziyi). The story crosses two decades as Ip Man and Gong Er stand the tests of life. The Japanese Army invasion of Fushan forces Ip Man into poverty and he resettles in Hong Kong. A mutiny within the Gong family sets Gong Er on a quest for revenge. In a time where age-old tradition is being replaced with modernity, how much can one uphold their principles? Who will live to pass on their lineage?

Who takes 14 years to make a movie? Wong Kar Wai is truly one-of-a-kind. He’s the only filmmaker who can take unlimited time with financial support and a team that is willing to plunge to the depths with him to explore every little detail in his stories. Watching a Wong Kar Wai film is the cinematic equivalent of taking a warm bath loaded with multi-colored bath salts in a room full of lush oil paintings. Everything is a visualized metaphor. Feelings matter more than character, and you’re invited to indulge and feel your way through what’s happening. And boy, nobody can visualize a metaphor like Wong Kar Wai.

Phillipe Desourde’s photography and William Cheung Suk Ping’s art direction is top notch. People often attribute the credit to the cinematographer and overlook the fact that something has to be made beautiful in the first place to look beautiful on screen. The Golden Brothel and the train station sets are works of art.

Tony Leung’s Ip Man is portrayed akin to a normal gentleman. I’m the biggest Donnie Yen fan in the world and as good as he was playing a dramatized version of Ip Man, Tony Leung’s scholar-like image is closer to who Ip Man is in real life. On the kung fu side, Leung is not Donnie Yen but achieves the necessary physicality and fights more convincingly than the quick editing suggests. The subtle interplay between Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi that teeters between a could-be romance and a genuine soul mate was played well too.

Speaking of which, this may be the best Zhang Ziyi role yet. She’s never been more likable in any other role I have ever seen her in. Gong Er is the film’s most relatable character, carries the most pathos and energizes the film by providing the audience someone to root for. When she fights, the stakes are high. There is a somewhat of a battle between fact and fiction within the film’s construct. It’s almost as if Gong Er, a fictional character representing tradition, brings the traditional tropes of what one may expect from a martial arts film. While Ip Man, on the other hand, is married to historical fact and delivering the film’s message. More on that later…

The fights are filmed tightly, but for a reason. Wong Kar Wai is interested in the details of the movements: the little twists, nudges and arcs where one gathers power that are all specific to each style of Chinese martial art. For people who are familiar with the basic concepts of Wing Chun, Baqua, Xingyi and Baijquan, it’s quite the rare visual treat as bigger movements usually bode better for onscreen fight choreography. For those who are not familiar, fear not! There is a Game of Death-like sequence where the film presents these different styles. Unfortunately, the oversaturation of Ip Man films (this is the fourth and there is a fifth coming soon starring Anthony Wong as an older Ip Man) really has limited the creativity in presenting Wing Chun as a martial art. It’s safe to say most audiences know what Wing Chun looks like now.

It sounds as though there are a lot of qualifiers for one to understand the film. The world of the film exists within the martial arts community of an older time, when people lived with their own set of rules and traditions. Wong Kar Wai is very interested in presenting these traditions, and watching how he’s filming the action, it’s like he’s trying to keep a record of it. Characters speak in idioms with multiple meanings underneath as martial artists spoke in that time period. There were some instances when I had an itch to rewrite some of the subtitles because they would translate the entire idiom literally to keep the subtext of the Chinese dialogue. That’s a noble effort, but it may prove difficult for English speaking audiences.

A detail I noticed between the early promotional posters to the actual movie poster was that the early ones listed the film’s title as The Grandmasters and the actual movie poster’s title is named The Grandmaster. It makes me speculate that there probably was a story decision amongst the creative team whether the story should be focused on Ip Man or all three masters. That was precisely what the narrative needed to decide on. Whether if I’m right or not, this is a case of a film that clearly has shot too much footage and was forced to be cut down upon its due date. The first cut was reportedly 4 hours and this really came apparent to me upon reflecting about the film. There seems to be a lot lost on the editing floor and this unwillingly creates gaps in the narrative.

If you’ll indulge me, here are some facts about Ip Man’s life that will help you with the film:

  •     Ip Man was born rich, collected rent from owning property and never worked a day in his life until later when the Japanese invaded and took his home in Fushan.
  •    He was offered a job to train the Japanese army and turned it down.
  •    He later escaped to Hong Kong because he was a member of the Guomingdang. His wife stayed in Fushan and it remained that way for the rest of their lives.

There is much to love about The Grandmaster. It is not a martial arts movie in the traditional sense in where its conflicts are solved by fighting. No, this is a story about legacy. It’s about the deeply embedded Chinese Confucian value of improving the quality of life for future generations by passing on our culture and heritage responsibly. Every character in the film is driven by this single motivation and each take it to different places. To quote a line from the film, (I’m paraphrasing) “A martial artist’s biggest enemy is life itself.” Ip Man is a grandmaster not because of his physical prowess, but because he stood up to life (which ended up being quite tragic) and kept to his grand vision of spreading Wing Chun. This eventually lead Bruce Lee creating Jeet Kune Do, spreading Chinese martial arts across the world. I really love the fact that someone made a film about this.

To be frank, all of the big budget revisionist history films and wuxia films in current Chinese cinema bore me. The big budget action films are getting louder and more repetitive. As for the historical epics, I value the importance of reminding the next generation of the past but it ultimately culminates an overwhelming sense of gloom across the nation and it affects how China is perceived internationally because of its hate-mongering nature. It’s emotionally tiring as a moviegoer annually sitting through films in which Chinese people suffer as filmmakers and producers check off every historical tragedy we’ve been through in the last century.

Wong Kar Wai manages to present an age-old Chinese value without a blatant sense of nationalism or bitter finger pointing. It made me proud as a Chinese. This is a higher level of artistic achievement than simply revising history. After all, as filmmakers and artists, what are we leaving behind to the next generation? Are we making films to remind people of the past so we can carry the anger? Is that the extent of our cultural capital? Or can we bring them to another place with emotional breadth and positivity?

That’s what ultimately won me over about The Grandmaster. It was made with a lot of heart with its microscopic attention to detail and delivers a sincere message. It maybe esoteric, and even downright alienating to some viewers, but the rewards are worth the effort!

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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.