Tom Yum Goong 2 by Prachya Pinkaew

Tom Yum Goong by Prachya Pinkaew

 

Tom Yum Goong 2 marks Tony Jaa’s return since his announced retirement after the failed Ong Bak 3 and living life as a Buddhist monk. The sequel to 2005’s Tom Yum Goong has Kham’s elephant Khon is kidnapped once again by an evil organization that plans to blackmail Kham into assassinating the President of Katana to kickstart a coup. As flimsy as that plot sounds, it is the least of its problems.

By incorporating special effects and stereoscopic 3D into the film’s action scenes, Pinkaew forgets its major visual effect, namely Tony Jaa himself. The action is haphazardly cut with an embarrassingly huge amount of spatial jumps and tight close-ups that do not match, as if there was not enough usable footage. Many times the viewer enters the action after the first hit has been made. Apparently there were five editors on the project, what happened?

Tony Jaa is at not in his peak physical form, and the film seems to be hiding it from the audience. He is not as fast or hard-hitting as he once was. Jaa’s choreography is restrained, for most of the group fights he just seems to be dispatching people aside as quickly as possible. And the whole time, I was waiting for Jaa to show off. Everytime Ja whips out the elephant boxing style, a style that he and fight choreographer Panna invented for the previous film, are some of the film’s most exciting moments. Sadly, there is very little of it.

Jeeja Yanin from Chocolate is unfortunately sidelined, she occasionally shows up to help Tony Jaa and vice versa, but otherwise there is little interaction between them. Clumsy cop comic sidekick Petchtai Wongkamlao gets some nice lines in but as seen in the first Ong Bak his strengths seem to lie in physical comedy, which he does not get to do here. The stunning Rhatha Phongam from Only God Forgives also makes a decent femme fatale, but the overabundance of supporting characters and a political assassination plot weighs everything down as the film takes on more than it can handle. Why does it have to be so complicated? Man loses elephant. Man goes and retrieves it, end of story!

RZA, together with his film The Man with the Iron Fist and self-proclaimed love of martial arts films, is forging a reputation to being a kung fu film staple. His casting as the villain is cashing in on that particular geek sheik. Atrocious acting aside, watching RZA sharing an onscreen fight with Tony Jaa had me rolling my eyes. RZA movie fights just fine, but does anyone buy him gaining the upper hand on Ja?

Speaking of which, Marresse Crump, who plays the lead henchman, is a great onscreen fighter who can go toe-to-toe with Tony Jaa. The first fight between Crump and Jaa had me pumped, and their last fight on a train track was the type of creative set piece I was expecting to see. Both fighters are capable of more complicated choreography but the choreographers held back with their fight. The fights always seem to be over before the audience can properly enjoy them. The first Tom Yum Goong had a video game boss level-like approach with its action sequences that kept topping each other in terms of scale and insanity, which was made it entertaining and hilarious. There is nothing to that equivalent here.

The best Prachya Pinkaew film is still Chocolate, as it had a neat creative angle and managed to incorporate its action in telling an emotional story coherently. Tom Yum Goong 2 just seems oddly distracted and unconfident about what it wants to be. 

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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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Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding Refn

Only God Forgives by Nicolas Winding
Refn

Julian, a drug-smuggler thriving in Bangkok’s criminal underworld, sees his life get complicated when his mother
compels him to find and kill whoever is responsible for his brother’s recent death. Chang, a Thai police lieutenant, is exacting his own brand of vigilante justice and punishing everybody involved.

Only God Forgives is the classic case of a director doing a continuation of his authorial style. An aesthetic that was recognized in a previously successful film is further explored in a more extreme fashion in a follow-up piece. Very often it’s focused on using the established cinematic style to carry the entire movie. Wong Kar Wai made Fallen Angels after the success of Chungking Express. David Lynch made Inland Empire after the success of Muholland Drive. Terrence Malick made To the Wonder after Tree of Life.

Only God Forgives is Nicolas Winding Refn’s stylistic continuation of Drive. What’s stripped away is the frequent plot turns, traditional character development and character likability. These are probably the most quiet cinematic gangsters I’ve ever seen in my life. Characters are posed like empty vessels. They don’t talk much. Sometimes when they do, the director mutes their dialogue. Ryan Gosling plays a still taciturn character in a similar way he did in Drive. Kristin Scott Thomas is an effective threatening presence as Julian’s stern mother Crystal. There’s very little to draw from Gosling’s Julian, but it is there. Even within it’s morally ambiguous world, there is a clear character arc. Julian is an active character trying to find redemption but also wants to please his mother. Which leads to me to the Chang character…

Nicolas Winding Refn has said the Lieutenant Chang character represents the Old Testament God, exacting judgment and punishment on all the sinners in the story. I am not sure how clear that is in the film unless the audience read the press notes beforehand. Does the God theme really matter? In a way, yes. The film is so stoic with its characters posed like figurines, you cannot help but inject symbolism into the film’s empty canvas to derive meaning out of it. Trying to watch this film as a genre crime thriller, which is what it is on the surface, would be relatively more frustrating. Luckily I caught on to it.

The Chang character, in a perpetual black shirt with a white collar, is dressed like a priest. He is a violent enforcer of poetic justice, and all his actions are ritual-like. In a more traditional movie, Chang would have been the protagonist. Here, he’s the antagonist. From the story’s perspective, where all the characters are varyingly degrees of bad, it’s as if Chang is the Grim Reaper coming to collect souls even though he in fact is a force for good. That’s a really interesting left-field story choice and I dug that. Lieutenant Chang is the most fascinating character and a great antagonist.

There is an indulgent aspect to Only God Forgives, any director taking on big questions will naturally come off that way. Refn could have easily written a theology thesis but he’s chosen to express his thoughts with narrative film. I have no problem with that but it automatically sets up qualifiers for audiences to enjoy the film. While it is not necessary, I think having viewed Drive first will help one familiarize with Refn’s film language before seeing this movie. As for the God themes, it can go either which way. Some may find it pretentious, but I found images from the film stuck with me long after and I am still pondering the film’s themes. I found the Julian and Chang characters compelling. So for that, Only God Forgives is neither the masterpiece nor disaster that all the Cannes hype is suggesting, but more of a hyper-stylized personal statement. It will surely divide audiences, and your enjoyment will depend on how you deal with abstractions.

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.

The Lady by Luc Besson

The Lady by Luc Besson movie poster

My first memories of Michelle Yeoh date back to Police Story 3: Supercop. To me, she will always be the Mainland Chinese undercover agent who drove a motorcycle up a ramp and landed onto a speeding train. And now that has completely been changed in my head, or perhaps another new image of Michelle Yeoh has now been spawned in my head.

Mark my words: this is the definitive Michelle Yeoh performance. Don’t get me wrong, she still plays a badass, but a totally different kind of badass. Yeoh physicalizes Aung San Suu Kyi, she has lost the weight and embodies her gentle grace and is believable as a mother. Yes, I bought this onscreen family. That’s something noteworthy.

There is an art to crying on film. It must be done with precision (so the audience stays rooting for the actor), a certain beauty (you are doing it on camera after all) and grace to it (so that it’s watchable). The Lady contains some of the best crying on film I have seen for a while. I was reminded of how David Mamet’s thoughts against Stanislavski’s school of method acting because the emotion drawn from the actor should come from the scene itself, not a side experience from the actor. I written that off as I doubted if that is even possible for an actor to do (and also because David Mamet wears a beret). The film have proven me wrong. I watched Aung San Suu Kyi cry from being away from her family, not Michelle Yeoh cry from a personal experience.

In screenwriting, they teach that it’s important to make your main character likable, so that the viewer can invest and root for their success. That alone can enhance (i.e. Rocky) and diminish (i.e. The Green Hornet) one’s experience of a story. The portrayal of Aung San Suu Kyi (played by Michelle Yeoh, if it’s not obvious to you already) in The Lady is universally likeable and that alone had me on the edge of my seat.  I don’t recall ever rooting for two people to be together (On that level, this makes for a great date movie) more than Aung San Suu Kyi and her husband Michael Aris (played by David Thewlis). Fuck, the stakes are high: a woman has to choose between helping her country or being with her family. There’s a heroine, she’s in love but can’t be with her lover,  she has supporters, there’s a villian, he has henchmen and set out to destroy her cause. The story structure is practically that of a superhero movie, but I digress. Like in Senna, the situation seems so dramatic I couldn’t believe that this all really happened. The film titters between working as a documentary and a dramatic fiction movie and it becomes an immersive experience.

I quite liked that touch with Michael Aris’ smoking habit. It’s how the character deals with his stress. Often smoking is used as a character trait in movies, and they really take that to it’s end in this one.

Lastly, the U2 song tonally doesn’t fit with the aftertaste of the film in the end credits sequence. I know U2 is a major supporter of Aung San Suu Kyi’s freedom, but that particular song tonally doesn’t belong there, period. I would have preferred the score.

Welcome back, Luc Besson! Please continue to direct movies.