Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons by Stephen Chow

The story of Xuanzang (also known as Tripitaka, played by Wen Zhang) and his beginnings as a demon hunter and develops a romance with a female demon hunter (played by Shu Qi).

Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons marks the very first Stephen Chow directed movie without him acting in it. So, what can I properly expect from this movie? The idea of a Stephen Chow movie is always exciting. However, I was concerned that it might be the start of an new era in which Stephen Chow will only direct movies and not act in them anymore. For that, I was both excited and scared to see this film. But finally, I decided there probably wasn’t anything to expect and just walked in without expectations.

Fortunately, that ended up being the best way to seeing this movie. I ended up being really surprised and taken away by it.

It’s clear that Stephen Chow’s passions are now set into directing. He has improved a lot as a director; his films have become more cinematic experiences. There’s less reliance on comedic dialogue, more emphasis on telling a story with stronger imagery, and has an improved sense of setup and payoff. He’s much more interested in storytelling mechanics and more invested in where he can take an audience emotionally besides just laughs. With the way he structures some of his story, there’s a symbiotic relationship between comedy and tragedy that he’s very interested in exploring.

Wen Zhang delivers that exact balance between tragedy and comedy in his performance as Xuanzang. He is a charismatic leading man and he shoulders the film with both its funny and heartbreaking moments. When he was playing for humor, I laughed. When he was crying, I found it moving. I am buying him at every moment and he was playing me like a squeeze toy. The story gives a genuine pathos as he becomes the Xuanzang we know from the story.

Shu Qi is very affable in this role and it’s nice to see her play a character with more cartoonish sensibilities. I especially liked her psychotic expressions when she was killing off demons. And yes, I can see how hard it is to reject Shu Qi if she threw herself at you like she did in this movie.

Huang Bo is a fun Monkey King and makes a very engaging antagonist. This version of Monkey King is richly complex. It’s an interesting take on the character because it highlights a key point about Sun Wukong that’s often glossed over: He never had a choice to join Xuanzang on his journey to the west. The Monkey King goes only because he is tamed by the magical torture crown that’s he is forced to wear on his head. In this interpretation, he’s not completely good or evil. Huang Bo does not play it too over-the-top by enhancing the animalistic sensibilities. Instead, what really stuck with me was how he convincingly played the desperate pain of being trapped under a mountain for five centuries.

The film’s gags are executed with much discipline. The gags are zany but not random. They are all building character and moving the story forward each step of the way to it’s final conclusion. It’s masterful how Chow is able to use comedic moments to build towards moments of sadness and loss.

The film rehashes the theme song “Love of a Lifetime” by Lowell Lo in A Chinese Odyssey. The updated version is sung by Shu Qi. Not to hark on Shu Qi’s singing, but her cover of the song only echoes the power of Lowell Lo’s original version. It’s an eerie song that carries a tremendous sense of loss and feeling of love unreturned. If I had to describe it for non-Chinese speakers, it sounds like a lost soul calling out searching for his lover across a timeless netherworld. It fit very well with the theme of loving someone for 10,000 years in A Chinese Odyssey. Shu Qi’s version works for the goals of this film, but all it does is it plays the original version in my head.

Take a listen (Spoiler free to those who haven’t seen A Chinese Odyssey):

The good news is that’s about as much as Stephen Chow draws from A Chinese Odyssey. It would help to know the basic premise of Journey to the West but there’s absolutely no need to see A Chinese Odyssey to understand this film.

The cult popularity of A Chinese Odyssey in Mainland China, while rightfully earned, is appreciated out of it’s own context. Two key things that Mainland audiences love about A Chinese Odyssey is wrongfully credited to Stephen Chow. Firstly, the famous “10,000 years” monologue delivered by Stephen Chow in the film was originally written by Jeff Lau as a parody of the same line spoken by Takeshi Kaneshiro in Wong Kar Wai’s Chungking Express (director Jeff Lau was Wong Kar Wai’s producer at Jet Tone Films). A fact that nobody remembers.

Second, a portion of the Stephen Chow’s funny dialogue in A Chinese Odyssey was modified for Mandarin and voiced by Mainland voice actor Shi Ban Yu. For example, the line “你真係無得頂呀你!” in Cantonese became the frequently quoted “哇靠!I服了You” in Mandarin. In the scene Stephen Chow’s character’s hometown is under a demon attack, and he’s betrayed by his own group of bandits. They play dead and escape, leaving Stephen Chow to be eaten by a spider demon. In Cantonese, the feeling of the line translates to “that was damn genius of you!”, the irony being that he admires their savvy, despite of being left to die by his own mates. In Mandarin, while the line is accurately translated in meaning, it becomes a gag about mixing English and Chinese together in the same sentence. You’re laughing only partly that Stephen Chow is being betrayed but more so surprised the fact that he has knowledge of the English language, something that you did not expect. The beloved classic witty lines that Mainlanders love from A Chinese Odyssey, while technically a translation, is a creative credit Stephen Chow didn’t earn.

These two things have been put to an end for Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. The film is shot completely in Mandarin with a Mandarin speaking cast and the “10,000 years” monologue is not directly referenced. It would have been easy for Chow to milk the nostalgia and heavily reference A Chinese Odyssey to no end. But Chow cuts no corners. This is the work of someone who really loves the source material and has managed to find something personal in it enough for legitimate reinterpretation. It’s a sincere effort by a filmmaker who wants to earn the love of his audience through playing by the rules by telling a real story. He does it tightly, refreshes an age-old tale that everybody knows (there were parts that I didn’t see coming that I should have) and wraps it up in 100 minutes.

The thought of no more Stephen Chow roles anymore aches me a bit but his presence is felt here. He has delivered a well-made film. Fortunately the film is done well  enough to help me get over my aching and  accept him now as only a film director.  I look forward to seeing him continually improve as a storyteller and I look forward to the next installment in this series.

Stephen Chow fans, the coast is clear! For anybody else, check it out! It’s a good solid movie to start off the new year.

Chinese Zodiac 12 by Jackie Chan

Chinese Zodiac 12 by Jackie Chan

Chinese Zodiac 12 by Jackie Chan

A team of thieves lead by JC (played by Jackie Chan) searches the world for a set of mystic artifacts – 12 bronze heads of the animals from the Chinese zodiac.

This is a tricky movie to critique. First of all, Jackie Chan has stated that this is his last time performing his own stunts in a movie. So do I measure CZ12 as a standalone film  or do I position it as a final act in the long line of Jackie Chan’s filmography over the last 30 years?

Secondly, what can I expect from Jackie Chan? As a final bow, what can he do to surprise me? He is long past his physical peak (in my opinion, his top physical peak was Police Story 2). After 20 years of growing up on his films, The “Jackie Chan Action Scene Formula” is forever embedded into my brain; I almost always know how his fight scenes end. In case you do not know what I’m talking about, here it is:

  1. There’s a situation where Jackie Chan is being beaten by a group of people.
  2. The fight leads to an environment/a prop.
  3.  Jackie Chan using the environment/prop, creatively defeats the entire group of people.
  4.  There’s a joke at the end that comes from the environment/prop. End scene.

So, did Chinese Zodiac 12 surprise me? I would say 40% yes, 60% no.

I watched a recent interview that Jackie Chan gave to a mainland show where he said that he did not like casting TV actors in his movies because they take way too much time to get through a scene of dialogue. It seems he went the other extreme, because the dramatic scenes are played out and edited way too quickly. It’s like every dramatic scene was played out on fast-forward and often there is not a lot of time to digest what’s going on. Even comedic moments are neutered from the lack of time to digest them. I found this to be problematic.

Narrative wise, the story takes shortcuts. Characters act out of character at times for story convenience. And seriously, can anyone really buy Jackie Chan being a heartless money-grubbing thief? I’d have an easier time buying Tom Hanks playing a bad guy than Jackie Chan.

So about the set pieces. For what he can’t bring physically, Chan makes it up with scale and locales. The action set pieces are fun, some stand out more than others. My favorite was the bodyblading sequence at the beginning. That was a very tense sequence watching Jackie Chan go head first speeding down a highway. The story and action scenes in CZ12 ask the audience to recall Jackie Chan’s past filmography, notably the two Armour of God movies (You can call this Armour of God 3, if you like). It even drew a few gags from it and there was one set that recalled the drug factory from Dragons Forever. This makes it impossible for me to critique it as a standalone film.

Part of the film’s story is a piece of issue-tainment addressing the issue of museums withholding historical artifacts from their home countries. It’s an issue that Jackie Chan seems to care a lot about and he presents it as an international issue. Although the film treats this issue rather lightly and it does ultimately get buried under the trappings of a Jackie Chan movie, it’s nice to see Chan raising an issue like this in a film.

There are many personal touches like that here, it’s very possible that Jackie Chan can just be a director in the future. There was one noteworthy part of the movie where Jackie Chan actually officially apologizes to his real-life wife for the time they’ve missed together all these years. They reportedly see each other once a year. This moved me by the end. It was not from the story of the film or from a well-earned dramatic catharsis, but because it felt like Jackie Chan was saying goodbye to me.

For anybody who’s unfamiliar with Chan, it’s not a great movie by conventional rules nor would it gain him any new fans. For these people, I refer you to his earlier films, check out The Drunken Master and the Police Story films.

For people who grew up on Jackie Chan movies like I did, I don’t think I can ever stomach the idea of Jackie Chan saying goodbye. My earlier memories of films were of Jackie Chan movies. Watching this movie, I was moved, laughed and exhilirated, all the time thinking maybe this was the last time. If Jackie Chan really chose to retire performing action, CZ12 is a good way to go out.

Looper by Rian Johnson

Looper by Rian Johnson

Time travel is invented by the year 2074 and, though immediately outlawed, is used by criminal organizations to send those they want killed 30 years into the past where they are killed by “loopers”, assassins paid with silver bars strapped to their targets. Joe (played by Joseph Gordon-Levitt), a looper, encounters himself when his older self (Bruce Willis) is sent back in time to be killed.

First, to get this out of the way… the Bruce Willis make-up on Joseph Gordon-Levitt did not bother me. I stared at it for a while and eventually my eyes tuned to it. I can understand people being distracted by this but it ultimately works as a story device.

In short, Looper is a well-made science fiction actioner that asks its big questions while retaining its fun factor. The best thing it has going for it is that the film is hyper aware of movie genre conventions and chooses to play with them.

Ten minutes into the film, I was suddenly becoming very aware of the film’s influences, including Blade Runner, Terminator, and a Twilight Zone episode called It’s a Good Life. (There probably are more I haven’t named. I invite you to name more.) By the second shift, I was aware that this is part of the film’s design. Most movie-going audiences are pretty familiar with film genres at this point. Looper is aware that your mind is thinking back to another film you have seen, and the film uses that thought train to surprise you. Every time I had an idea of where the story was going, the film would mutate it’s genome, tonally shifting into a completely new territory of genre.

I have read that the genre shifting has been the major reason why a lot of people dislike the movie. It didn’t bother me because what really won me over ultimately was the film’s energy. Yes, the film a crackling independent film feel to it that was visceral and fresh in how the story was told and paced. Every time the story made its tonal shifts, I was renewed with excitement and found myself going along with it again and again. I even found myself excited by the camera movements during an action scene, particularly what they choose to show on and off camera.

The common time paradox issue in time travel stories is addressed by literally having a scene where its two leads sit down, discuss the science of it and arrive to the agreement that it does not make a lot of sense, but ask the audience to go along with it anyways. And that’s the key point to whether audiences will enjoy Looper: whether you choose to go along with it.

In the end, the pacing never lets its big existential questions settle in to ever let you really ponder deep thoughts about them, but that’s the point. It’s delivering a fun ride. And it’s plenty fun!

Oh, and by the way, Jeff Daniels was a great villain.

Design Of Death by Hu Guan

Design of Death by Hu Guan

The violent death of an unpopular village miscreant Niu Jie Shi is initially blamed on an infectious disease, but an investigation shows that everybody in the village had a reason to murder him. A doctor who is assigned to the village begins an murder investigation.

Following the trend of the success of Let the Bullets Fly and Crazy Stone, has set a new trend of these Chinese absurdist satirical “anything goes” comedies. The tropes include quick dialogue banter, quick cuts, anachronistic music, a “life is meaningless” theme and surreal absurdity. For anybody who may be familiar with the satirical writings of Lu Xun, it is exactly like that satirical acidic literary voice and transported it to a cinematic experience. Derek Yee’s The Great Magician attempted a version of this earlier this year and failed. And now comes Design of Death, based on a novel by Chen Tie Jun and directed by Hu Guan.

Just a sidenote, my mentioning of the film’s influences is not a critique. Being aware of (I will be adding this to my “Common Film Review Cliches to be Avoided” page ) a film’s influences is not direct to it’s own quality. I only bring it up to set up my review. On with the actual review now…

The mystery and the plot of Design of Death was what I was mostly invested in throughout the 109 minute running time. I wanted to know the story of what happened in this village. It wasn’t that it was really that mysterious or that kept me guessing with its twists and turns. With its surreal setting where anything can happen (i.e. there’s an X-ray machine in a village in the 1940s.), the lack of a consistent world rules seemed pointless to guess the mystery at all.

Huang Bo as Niu Jie Shi finds the proper balance of annoying and likable and carries the movie with a lot of charm. It’s tricky because he has to be annoying enough for you to see how the villagers grow annoyed of him but innocent enough for the audience to feel bad for it when he gets his comeuppance. He manages to build a character through the first half of the movie which mainly comprise of comedic gags and hijinks. Taiwanese actor Alec Su understands the kitsch of the film enough to have fun with his role as Dr. Niu. He plays it completely straight like he’s some evil scientist from a Saturday morning cartoon. Even his white costume is reminiscent of a lab coat. Yu Nan is not good looking in a traditional movie star way but has a unique presence as Niu Jie shi’s taciturn wife. I do not know how she managed to land a role in The Expendables 2 but I look forward to seeing her kick ass in that. Simon Yam is always a welcome presence in any movie but the fact that he’s being dubbed took it away for me.

It’s a bit superfluous talking about acting in the movie because it’s not a story that hangs on performance. The actors are not playing characters. Design of Death is not functioning on any sense of pathos with developed characters. Every character is a stereotype representing different ideas solely functioning to serve the film’s message.

Ultimately I do not find Niu’s actions reprehensible or deserving of his fate. He is an annoying little hemorrhoid of a human being I’ll give you that, but the way Huang Bo plays Niu Jie Shi suggests that he is not evil in his own nature or has no intention to harm others. He’s just annoying simply because it’s fun to annoy everybody in the village and there’s nothing else to do.

By the end, I saw where the film was going with it’s message and it asks that you go with it and attacks it with it a very “anything goes” satirical tone. I laughed more than I did in Let the Bullets Fly but it’s just simply an emotional place I did not want to go. I sat back and let the film lead me to it’s conclusion and finally it was a hollow experience.

There is a current rise of these comedies in China. With it’s harsh censorship and restrictions, these absurd satirical comedies makes sense because it is a way to laugh at things but still able to contain a strong unsubtle moral message. I understand its existence but I really hope these trend of films will go away. It’s run out of steam.

After all, why I would pay to watch a film to laugh my way to finally feel hollow?

Love in the Buff by Edmond Pang Ho Cheung

Love in the Buff by Edmond Pang Ho Cheung

Love in the Buff by Edmond Pang Ho Cheung

The sequel to 2010’s Love in a Puff continues the story of Jimmy and Cherie (played by Shawn Yue and Miriam Yeung), who met and fell in love through their outdoor office smoking breaks (after the 2007 Hong Kong government indoor smoking ban). Five months after the events in the first film, Jimmy and Cherie face more difficulties in their romantic relationship as they split up and both individually end up in Beijing as they follow their jobs to China’s capital city, and both begin new relationships there. But despite their best efforts they can’t seem to keep away from each other.

Edmond Pang Ho Cheung is a promising writer/director that always puts out off-kilter interesting work. Isabella and Exodus still remain my favourite Pang Ho Cheung films. The only Pang film I did not like was the Category III  horror film Dream Home for it’s over-excessive satirical violence that ran out of steam. Love in the Buff was released in its original Cantonese language dub in Mainland theatres (which is a first! Something I’ve wanted to see for my entire teenage life), and that’s how I saw it. Part of the sell of the movie is watching celebrities swear onscreen, so it was important that I saw it in Cantonese. I laughed more than six times and was glad to see the mandarin-speaking locals next to me laughing as well in its sharply-written dialogue set pieces. For this reason, the film will be lost on English-speaking audiences.

In a way, the film was made specific to me. It was about Hong Kong people living in Beijing. The locations were all the restaurants and places where Cantonese people congregate. In fact, there was an establishing shot of the mall I was watching the movie in. So the film briefly gave me a non-acid mind trip. Beijing is presented in a non-touristy gaze and the film addresses the cultural interaction between Hong Kongers and Mainlanders. Together with the swearing, the film felt real and life-like. So this all added an extra layer for me.

By the middle, the film was bringing up hints of that romantic comedy trope in which the conflict would be easily resolved if the protagonists told each other how they felt, instead of dragging the movie for another 20 minutes. That usually annoys me as it always seems to exist only to prolong the film to the 90-minute mark. I would have been annoyed but Pang does something interesting with it. The non-communication is exactly the problem between Jimmy and Cherie. They are a couple who never knows the right time to say the right things to each other and it keeps creating rifts between them. Hence the need for the many supporting characters who serve as their confidants, who talk to them while they’re around each other. There are two tongue-in-cheek celebrity gags with Huang Xiaoming and Ekin Cheng. I preferred the latter gag, the former was a bit too cheeky “wink wink” in-jokey for me. Pang makes all these conversations fun with witty lines, innuendoes and profanity. I could see it all being shorter, but it was fun.

Love in the Buff really does test the likability of its two leads with the audience. Jimmy and Cherie are pretty real in the sense that they aren’t likeable all the time. In fact, they’re even downright shitty at times the way they treat their present lovers Sam and Youyou (played by Zheng Xu and Mini Yang). Sometimes you want to go up to slap both of them. I was worried that the film will lose me and drag along. It did not. The film makes these characters sympathetic by showing how well Jimmy and Cherie fit together as a couple. To quote John Cusack from High Fidelity, “Some people just feel like home.” And with that, the film ultimately won me over by the end.

Even though, if it were me, I’d totally choose Mini Yang as my movie girlfriend. An air hostess who takes Polaroids? Seriously? Sign me up! Man, I have a new crush.

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.

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.

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.

Flying Swords of Dragon Gate by Tsui Hark

Tsui Hark is always hit-and-miss with me. My favorite Tsui Hark films are Once Upon a Time in China 2 (the epic face off between Jet Li and Donnie Yen), Time and Tide (some insane action scenes) and Double Team. Yes, I said it. I love Double Team. It’s insane, crazy kitschy fun. Seriously, who could have thought the idea of casting Jean-Claude Van Damme, Dennis Rodman and Mickey Rourke in a coloful action movie?

I saw this film back in December. I haven’t seen any incarnations of the Dragon Gate Inn films. I was aware it was a remake or re-imagining of the story and that it was going to be in 3D. I viewed in this interest of seeing where Chinese special effects have gone and what Tsui Hark would do with such a huge production.

Tsui Hark is an imaginative filmmaker but often is undisciplined. He’ll imagine fascinating places and sets up great set pieces but he often wants to do too much. It all ends up creating thrilling sensations in parts than telling a story from beginning to finish as a whole. The worst example being The Legend of Zu, where the visuals and the world was interesting, there was nothing remotely emotional for me to hold on to. Eventually, it goes so long, I just tired out and tap out. As a side note, I thought it was very smart to have him helm the first third of Triangle (the three’s collaboration between him, Ringo Lam and Johnnie To).

I’m sad to say, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate is Tsui Hark going way too far with his imagination again. There is no story or much character to speak of. Jet Li is here to fight, he does not get a full character at all. Zhou Xun is a charming solid actress but she does not have much to do here. She breathes humanity into the story every time she’s present but there’s not enough of her or humanity. There’s a gag with Aloys Chen Kun playing two roles (as both the villain and a lovable oaf) that goes on way too long. Shake this film and half an hour would have fallen off. I am not a punitive or bitter person, but let’s call a spade a spade.

The 3D looked awful. The CG was very fake at times. I’m never one to niptick special effects but I would have forgiven it if there was something else there to distract me. It was very forgettable. I honestly cannot recall a particular scene or sequence worth mentioning.

The Mainland Chinese film market is on the rise. There’s a lot of money being thrown around to played with. I just think it should be executed with some discipline, like in Bodyguards and Assassins in where the epic scale of production was used to enhance a story.

Seriously, I would have wanted to see Double Team re-released in 3D. Or heck, give me Time and Tide 2 in 3D. Now that would be something!

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Double Team by Tsui Hark