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.


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

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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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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A Simple Life by Ann Hui

A Simple Life

A Simple Life by Ann Hui

Life for a parent is a shitty deal. You raise someone for 20 years and then are abandoned by them to face death for the next 40 years. Strangely, it’s the only selfless thing we do as human beings. But it seems so unfair, someone takes care of you, you should take care of them as well right?

That is the central idea of A Simple Life. The story is about Toh Jie, transliterated as “Sister Peach”  (played by Deannie Yip), is a household maid who has worked for the Leung family for 60 years. She still currently takes care of the young master, Roger (played by Andy Lau). Her health deters and now she in need of Roger to take care of her.

Deannie Yip owns this role. She reminded me of my grandmother at times, who is currently in an old folk’s home. She has the physicality of an old person down, the little tics and the way you lean to take off weight when you walk. She deserved that Venice Film Festival award. Heck, give her more!

Andy Lau has come a long way since his younger days of “playing-a-heartthrob-who-dies-at-the-end-of-the-movie-to-his own-pop-soundtrack” thing. He has learned how to use the subtlety of his face and knows when to chew up a moment. There’s one noteworthy scene where Roger is hanging out with his childhood friends and they all decide to give Sister Peach a call and reminisce about the great food dishes she used to make for them. This aches Roger as he realizes this is basically how people will remember her. And I urge people to watch Andy Lau in that moment.

There is a little detail with the layout of the old folk’s home I wanted to address: it had an open door at the entrance. Many times the old people just opened and closed the door and exited freely. My mother and I debated the reality of this, usually these old folk’s home have a exit button that unlocks the door for safety purposes. There are scenes where Sister Peach and other elderly people are opening and closing this door without supervision. What’s worse is the old folk’s home is right across from a mechanic’s shop! Thinking more about this, it dawned on me: this is an aesthetic choice. It is probably unrealistic but what that aesthetic choice lead me to consider how dangerous the situation was for the elderly people.

As I realized this, there was many aesthetic choices in the story that were designed to raise a discussion about how we should treat and handle elderly people. I admired its subtlety. For example, there’s a scene where Roger and his sister discuss how Sister Peach’s expenses should be handled and it gets pretty dark as it starts to sound like a business transaction.

There are a lot of funny moments in the movie and thank goodness for it. It is very grim to watch old people suffering and deteriorating in an old folk’s home. The film knows that and shows that there is indeed laughter in their lives, and Sister Peach does not have it too bad. The story is not about how the whole world is against her. We never linger on her suffering. Things are never dialed up to eleven. It retains a lot of realism (a lot of the old people in the old folk’s home seem to belong there) and still manages to find drama within it. Good work, Ann Hui!

That’s one major thing I appreciated about this movie: it does not set out to make you cry. It could have easily done so using melodramatic sensibilities and it does not set that as it’s goal.

I did not cry at the end, but I felt the touching cleanse of a cry. I left the theater thinking about how I should treat my grandparents, my parents someday and even the elderly in general. Sometimes they need help walking down from a bus, someone to talk to or simply they just need to feel needed. The film’s heart is in the right place and  I ultimately agree with it’s sentiments: nobody that raised and took care of you deserves to die alone.