The White Storm by Benny Chan

The White Story by Benny Chan

An undercover narcotics operation against a Thai drug lord pits three childhood friends against each other.

The White Storm, the latest film from Hong Kong director Benny Chan is a undercover drug story, but it’s not interested in crime genre elements or in exploring the social issue of drug production in Thailand, but the onscreen chemistry between its three stars: Sean Lau, Louis Koo and Nick Cheung. The story reminded me most of John Woo’s Bullet in the Head in that it was about the disintegration of a brotherhood. The dramatic conflict between the three actors are the price of admission. It has a very interesting A story that could have made a great film, but The White Storm spends a lot of the 134-minute running time telling instead of showing its story. And also like Bullet in the Head, it executes it in the hammiest way possible under the guise of Hong Kong 80’s action nostalgia.

For example, in the story Koo, Lau and Cheung are lifelong friends. The film chooses to exposit this by having the trio reminisce about singing the theme song “Pledge to Join the War” by Adam Cheng from the classic TV show “Luk Siu Feng”, a classic song about brotherhood. And later on in the movie, Benny Chan plays the goddamn song. This is just about the oldest, hokiest joke in the book; they may as well have tied red headbands around their heads. People in my theater, including myself, laughed, not because it’s a funny clever reference but more in surrender of how shamelessly cheesy the writers were willing to go to highlight their bromance. Yes, they are very good friends, we get it!

Sean Lau is the subtle glue that holds all this cheese together. Something I observed about Lau was that he had all the best lines and was the only one out of the three protagonists who was not given a backstory. The lines of dialogue aren’t good in a cool quotable way, but it was exactly what the character would say in a given moment, no more no less. I suspect Lau rewrote a lot of his own lines. He gives a pronounced performance that’s as low volume and non-showy as this production will allow, but yet he comes out as the most engaging character. It’s really a testament to how underrated an actor Lau is.

Louis Koo and Nick Cheung, as good as they are and as much effort as they put in, overact compared to Lau. They are fine actors but are bogged down delivering a lot of expositional monologues stating how they feel. The romantic subplots Koo and Cheung are given almost dangerously dominate the A story. It’s not their fault though, Benny Chan directs with a heavy hand. It’s as if Chan and the writers constantly worry that the audience won’t be able to follow what’s going on, so they overcompensate.

Speaking of overcompensation, Lo Hoi-Peng shows up with crazy acting hair to chew up scenery, and boy, does he ever chew! It’s entertaining watching an old man act bananas but the hair does most of the acting. It’s hammy as hell. But despite of all the ham and cheese, Louis Koo, Sean Lau and Nick Cheung make very good company and are the price of admission. And at its core The White Storm is a good story about three friends, I just wished it wasn’t screamed at me.

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Retrospective Review: Double Team by Tsui Hark

Double Team by Tsui Hark

There comes a time for every filmgoer when you like a bad movie that nobody likes. You can’t really pinpoint why you like them and it’s a bit embarrassing. Nobody really cares why you liked it because nobody wants to talk about a bad movie. You cannot exactly defend the movie because you see why it’s bad but you feel obligated to point out what’s fun about it. I’ve been wanting to write about films that aren’t new releases. This seems like a good opportunity to write about a film that I enjoy and really want to have a discussion about. So here are my thoughts on the 1997 Tsui Hark action film film Double Team

Let me set it up the historical context. It was 1997. There was a rising trend of Hong Kong action cinema in the West that came in the form of VHS, thanks to the long gone Blockbuster video store. A mutual interest begun to develop; Hollywood producers wanted to inject a new style into American action movies and Hong Kong directors were curious and excited about working with Hollywood resources. John Woo was the first Hong Kong director to be hired for a Hollywood project, and later Ringo Lam and Tsui Hark followed. Coincidentally, all three worked with Jean Claude Van Damme in their Hollywood debuts. This trend eventually died when the Hong Kong directors weren’t that curious anymore and felt that they were being treated to the equivalent of low-cost B-movie directors and the Hollywood resources did not seem worth it by comparison.

John Woo was the only director to rise up the ranks working with other A-listers. Tsui Hark eventually returned to working on Hong Kong productions and Ringo Lam collaborated with Van Damme on a few more straight-to-video productions before retiring from directing.

Tsui Hark has always been a hit-and-miss director for me. He always wants to do too much and ends up overstuffing his films at the expense of the primary idea he started with. But here, perhaps because it was hi American debut, that problem is not here. Working with an American studio and an English language script forced Tsui Hark to reign himself in.

So the setup… Counter-terrorist agent Jack Quinn misses his target, Stavros, on his final mission. He is sent to the Colony, an organization for presumed-dead assassins. He breaks free and seeks aid from Yaz, a weapons dealer for his final battle with Stavros.

Just a few small thoughts to get out of the way. The film is shot like a cartoon with its pastel-like color palette. The art direction is noteworthy as well, it gives a futuristic sense to everything here without being too far into the future or going too over-the-top. It looks like a future that can exist one day.

The idea of the Colony, a secret organization that helps police the world behind-the-scenes via surveillance and advice, is a pretty fun quasi-Utopian concept (the members of the organization live in a sea view resort but are not allowed to leave the place ever) and it is where the film picks up in its second act. The sequences where Van Damme rebuilds himself in a training montage and his escape from the Colony were both interesting and fun visual set pieces. They keep the movie interesting without relying on acting or fight choreography and are specifically designed around things Van Damme can do. Where John Woo dressed Van Damme with gunplay and Ringo Lam with drama, Tsui Hark dressed him up with visual crazy concepts and just let him shine throwing his signature kicks. Tsui Hark recognized that acting was not Van Damme’s forte (at least not until 2008’s JCVD) and decided to let him be the straight man and created chaos around him for contrast. This brings us to the casting of Dennis Rodman…

Dennis Rodman is funny in an absolute hammy way as Yaz the arms dealer. He is so blatantly obnoxious having so much fun playing himself and making basketball puns I can’t help it but laugh along with it. I’m not saying Rodman should be in every movie but he’s likable here. There’s an appeal in movies where the audience witnesses two characters that would never meet under normal circumstances. Van Damme and Rodman make such an odd pairing that it’s just interesting to watch. Heck, seeing Dennis Rodman fist bump a computer-hacking monk is mind bogglingly entertaining.

From a fight choreography standpoint, having to showcase Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks sacrifices a lot of smaller beats within a fight. Van Damme’s roundhouse kicks are beautiful but cinematically speaking, they look slow because of the 360° windup. It’s a powerful kick but also very one-note and requires a certain amount of distance, which means there is not a lot room for upper body parrying. You’ll notice Van Damme never does too much with his hands in his films but rather holding back so he can throw a kick. The roundhouse kick is also a definitive finisher; nobody who receives a kick like that can continue that particular round.

Double Team showcases Van Damme’s kicking ability by cinematically creating a sense of speed and power. Peter Pau, the cinematographer for Crouching Tiger Hidden Dragon, and Sammo Hung, the action choreographer, both solve that problem by injecting a crackling frenetic energy into the action scenes that makes the audience flinch and jump as if they were in the fight.

As an example, I’m going to describe an action sequence in the film:

Van Damme kicks a henchman, who is firing at him with a machine-gun-in-a-suitcase, through a hotel room door. The henchman falls into the hotel room and is kicked back into the opposite direction by another Chinese henchman. The henchman flies toward Van Damme like a sad ping pong ball. Van Damme roundhouse kicks him off to the side. He drags along the floor, barely alive, almost smashing his head to the wall. The camera then swish-pans to a white marble statue of a thinking man and lingers there for 2 seconds. Van Damme then fights the Chinese henchman (played by Hung Yan Yan, Club Foot from the Once Upon a Time in China series) in the living room, who then crazily takes off his shoes, revealing a switchblade held between his toes and proceeds to cut Van Damme with a series of kicks.

The short ping pong game between Hung Yan Yan and Van Damme speeds up the entire feeling of the fight because we’re only seeing Van Damme for half the time. The focus is brilliantly on the poor henchman who is being knocked back and forth. By the time we cut back to Van Damme, he’s already winding up to kick him to the side.

So how do they maintain the speed of the scene for the next part? Admittedly, Van Damme is passively dodging Hung’s kicks before retaliating but the idea of a henchman who is using a knife clenched between his toes to cut the hero is so insane that we’re just completely distracted. Yes, it’s a game of shifting the audience’s focus. Plus, Hung Yan Yan is a fantastic kicker.

Lastly, why that swish-pan to the statue? It’s such a tiny odd detail but it adds a lot to that moment. I always find myself laughing at that moment. Why? 1) It’s a moment of relief. It’s a short recess for the audience to rest their eyes. 2) We see that the henchman wishing he were dead. 3) Marble statues are beautiful. It’s an odd hilarious short tonal shift.

Here’s a clip of that action sequence here:

A lot of action gets better and better as the films goes on with shots like this. The end sequence with Mickey Rourke at the Coliseum made for a nice finale. They share a good fight. Even though it doesn’t seem well-planned on the villain’s part to place a whole field of marked mines and fistfight over it with a live tiger roaming around.

As for Mickey Rourke, he’s a decent villain but I don’t know why he had to buff up like that. It just makes him move more sluggishly. Perhaps that’s the filmmakers were busy thinking how to make Van Damme look good, they forgot about Mickey Rourke. It’s a shame because there’s nothing that exhibits his boxing training here. It’s still a great finale sequence nonetheless. The final explosion builds to a hilarious ending involving a hallway full of Coca Cola vending machines and the end credits end on a techno song featuring Dennis Rodman on vocals.

There is a lot of craft in this movie, but it’s buried under its blatant obnoxious surface because it’s so insane. The insanity is what’s mesmerizingly fun about it. And maybe that’s why audiences failed to connect with Double Team when it was released. I genuinely like this movie a lot.

With that all said, I will officially say it publicly. 3, 2, 1… I liked Double Team!

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Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale by Wei Te Sheng

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale

Warriors of the Rainbow: Seediq Bale by Wei Te-Sheng

I watched both Warriors of the Rainbow Seediq Bale Part 1: The Flag of Sun and Warriors of the Rainbow Seediq Bale Part 2: Rainbow Bridge. I am aware that it has been cut short and released as one film in the United States. Nonetheless, I’m going to write about it as one feature film.

This is a historical story based on true events. The film Seediq Bale depicts the Wushe Incident, which occurred in central Taiwan during the Japanese rule. When the Seediq Bale (Taiwanese Aborigines), believing in the Rainbow, and the Japanese, believing in the Sun, met one another, they fought. The leader of Seediq Bale, Mona Rudao, led 300 warriors fighting against 3000 Japanese troopers.

How much do you love your homeland? What would you do to preserve the sanctity of your own culture?

This film is cruel and brutal on two levels – it’s setup and payoff. First, let’s discuss the setup. It’s disheartening to see the Japanese enslave these Aborigines and use them as workers on their own land. Women work as maids in Japanese homes or make clothes. The men works as hard laborers and are forbidden to tattoo their faces, which is a rite of passage ritual for boys to become real men (a real man is a “seediq bale”). The Japanese think they are helping them and improving their lives with technology, but the Seediq do not see it that way. They are humiliated from the lost of their own land and cannot bear to see the death of their own culture. Every tree they cut down from their own land is a step closer to total ethnocide.

Part One spends a lot of time covering an entire cast of 15-20 characters in this land. The story does not even cover the story of one tribe, it covers and develops multiple characters from 3-4 tribes. It’s quite an achievement how much story they manage to put in without seeming overstuffed. And this is why I strongly urge people to go out and view the two-part version.

There are many little stories that set up for the grand finale: there’s a Seediq who works as a police officer for the Japanese, a Seediq who married a Japanese woman, a Seediq child who’s been taught by a Japanese teacher who ostracizes him from the other Japanese children and general mistreatment of the Seediq men at work. All these little side stories fuel the central story of the tribe leader Mona Rudao (played by Lin Ching-Tai, who gives a great performance as a leader who can’t help watching their people suffer no longer and must take a stand), this all builds to his final decision to revolt and take their land back from the Japanese.

And man, do they fight! When the Seediq fight, they do not anything hold back.They have to be fast and effective as they are fighting against an enemy with better technology. They throw spears, slice throats and are lopping off heads left and right. Yes, there are many scenes of people losing their heads.

Wei Te-Sheng is a competent director who is disciplined in telling his story on a big scale. My favorite scene is the cliffhanger in the first film where the Seediqs have taken an armory. Mona Rudao the tribe leader, withholding all the rifles, carries them over to a square and takes a sit-down break by a Japanese flagpole, contemplating what’s to come. The camera pans up and we see the entire place full of corpses and you feel the foreboding of what’s to come. Another noteworthy powerfully disturbing scene is where a group of non-fighters voluntarily commit ritual suicide to save food rations for the warriors. It’s emotionally powerful as you see the lengths the Aborigines go to to fight for their land.

The scale of this film is epic in the highest order. They seemingly built every Japanese village, Seediq settlement and a working suspension bridge. There are shots of the Seediq workers looking over to the mountains and we literally see every single settlement (the CGI render of the land are more obvious in this movie, and that shot looked real). It works on the level of Seven Samurai as we learn the geography of this land in early scenes, which all plays in and pays off later in the battle scenes, particularly because the Seediq are utilizing guerilla tactics against the Japanese.

I know what you’re thinking, this sounds awfully similar to Avatar. They even sold it as the Asian Avatar on the movie posters. Warriors of the Rainbow gripped me on a much more emotional level and took me places, some of them are thrilling and some of them I plain did not want to go to, but respected it nonetheless. The native Aborgine soundtrack was moving and powerful.

The film is mostly in Seediq with some Japanese. There are at most 15 lines of Mandarin being spoken during the movie by one Taiwanese merchant living in the village. If you’re going to be snotty about reading subtitles, then you’re really going to miss out. Please just learn to enjoy a movie with subtitles! I doubt the Americans can remake this one.

This was one of the best movies I have seen in 2011. It towers in its epic scale and emotionality. It’s … it’s… it’s decapatastic!