Special ID by Clarence Fok

Special ID by Clarence Fok Yiu Leung

Special ID by Clarence Fok

Zilong Chen (played by Donnie Yen), an undercover police officer deep within the ranks of one of China’s most ruthless underworld gangs. The leader of the gang, Xiong (Collin Chou), has made it his priority to weed out the government infiltrators in his midst. Struggling to keep his family together and his identity concealed, Chen is torn between two worlds.

The last time Donnie Yen officially put mixed martial arts onscreen was Flashpoint (Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen does not count, that was a superhero movie), which arguably in my opinion was his artistic peak as an action choreographer and onscreen fighter. He successfully made real martial arts combat cinematic. The choreography was shot in a way that allowed the viewer to visually break down why move A was countering move B. So with that said, my expectations of the MMA fights coming into Special ID were high.

To be fair, my high expectations aren’t out of place. Donnie Yen has said he wanted to go further with displaying MMA on film. In Special ID, Yen does this by integrating the urban environment into the choreography. The fights are set in tight spaces and narrow hallways, showcasing the physical precision it required from all the stunt performers. The group fights are convincingly realistic. Everything looks less staged and the moves don’t land as cleanly, giving a gritty sense of realism. On pure cinematic terms, Yen succeeds. The choreography is another story.

The only wee complaint I had about the mixed martial arts choreography in Flashpoint was that Donnie Yen was the only one who fought with MMA techniques. Everybody else was essentially a kickboxer fighting the main character that had groundwork and wrestling skills up his sleeve. I let that go for Flashpoint, but in Special ID it has now officially become problematic.

This makes me think that Yen was solely concerned with making himself look good onscreen. Yen has been guilty of this in the past but this is too blatant. Yen’s fight with Ken Lo, a stuntman popular for being the villain from Jackie Chan’s Drunken Master 2, is one such example. There were moments designed in their fight that purposely made Ken Lo look clumsy and stupid. Anybody who has seen Ken Lo in an onscreen fight will know that he is anything but clumsy. Don’t get me wrong, these are good fights. They are are tense and grueling, but it’s too dramatically convenient if only the hero knows Brazilian Jujitsu and all the villains have no knowledge of countering it.

Much of the story problems -and there are many- with Special ID are the common problems I have with current Mainland-Hong Kong co-productions. There’s a penchant for shooting dialogue scenes in a perfectly decorated restaurant or apartment. No matter what happened in the scene before, the actors are always seated perfectly still reflecting upon what just happened. The dialogue is often on-the-nose, stating things that the filmmakers are supposed to be showing. It is television-like and I don’t know why it is the trend. The dialogue scenes in Special ID are plodding and murder every sense of dramatic tension. It’s a narrative mess.

The female police officer character played newcomer Jing Tian was a severe plot contrivance and another example of a bad Mainland film trope. Her character Fang Jing was constantly spewing preachy dialogue about how police work should be ideally done, and acted too naïve to be a convincing policewoman. It’s like her character was written to secure an approval from the Chinese Film Bureau. She had too much screen time and it was like watching Hello Kitty fight crime.

I particularly hated the manipulative choppy musical score. It was in the vibes of “Hey, it’s time to feel this emotion now!” One minute there’s the metal music for the fights, and then the next minute it’s pensive piano music when Jing Tian yaps on about following rules is the key to a good life.

Collin Chou shows up for what ends up being a disappointing role. It’s actually a cheap marketing ploy to tease the martial arts film fans that there is going to be a fight at some point in the story. Collin Chou and Donnie Yen have fought before, so as fans we expect there will be something that will at least try to top the Flashpoint fight. But sadly, that didn’t happen. After that, I was only half awake for the final showdown with Andy On.

I’d recommend people see Flashpoint again. Sure, the plot wasn’t anything new, but Wilson Yip told a proper story. He gave little dramatic touches to the heroes and villains, which created proper stakes and made me care about the characters. Special ID has no developed characters, plot or any sense of flow or consistency. This was a perfectly marketed soulless product designed to take our money. And it was just plain mean-spirited.

I will probably watch Special ID again, but probably only the fight scenes in the form of online Youtube clips. I like these fights, but wished they belonged in a better movie. Special ID was just all flash, but without the “point”.

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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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The Viral Factor by Dante Lam

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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.