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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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 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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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.