SKYFIRE (2019) review

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After Renny Harlin, it’s time for Simon West, another purveyor of 1990s and 2000s Hollywood blockbusters, to catch a second or third wind in China – after this, West directed The Legend Hunters, an upcoming Mojin adaptation. Skyfire is set on Tianhu, a volcanic island off the coast of China. Twenty years ago, vulcanologist Li Wentao (Wang Xueqi) lost his wife during a sudden eruption on Tianhuo; cut to present day, and the island, which is supposedly safe from any eruption for the next 150 years, has been turned into a theme park and resort by Australian businessman Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs). Much to Li’s chagrin, his daughter Xiaomeng (Hannah Quinlivan) is part of scientific team monitoring the volcano thanks to hundreds of sensors buried in the mountain. Certain that an eruption is imminent, Li travels to the island to get his daughter to safety – but it’s already too late: the volcano awakes, and all hell breaks loose.

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ANGEL MISSION (1990) short review

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Godfrey Ho’s Angel Mission is neither a hideous patchwork of old and new footage like so many of his films, nor one of his very rare moments of true filmic inspiration, like Princess Madam. It’s right in between: bland yet basically competent. Yukari Oshima plays a Japanese Interpol agent tasked with finding Japanese citizens who are trapped in a prostitution ring headed by Chen Kuan Tai and his cool perm. She’s assisted by a Hong Kong policewoman (Ha Chi Chun) and crosses paths with a man (Dick Wei) whose sister is a victim of the same ring. It’s a spectacularly limp plot that manages to induce sleep even as it drops massive, fateful coincidences at every reel (Yukari’s mother works for the same evil mob boss on whose trail she is! Said mob boss is a former blood brother of Dick Wei!). Action is plentiful yet forgettable – generally competent of course, but Yukari’s fights are full of beautiful yet entirely gratuitous gymnastics flourishes that clash with the supposedly realistic tone. **

A PUNCH TO REVENGE (1989) short review

APunchtoRevenge+1989-59-bIn Lee Chiu’s A Punch to Revenge (also known under the equally nonsensical but slightly less awkward title Dragon Angel), Eddy Ko plays Tsang, a crippled and unemployed man who’s so desperate for cash he lets his wife prostitute herself in their own home, and helps corrupt cop Man (Chan Ging) assemble a team of hungry Mainlanders to rob a jewelry store. But the heist goes awry, and the robbers are hunted by dogged cop Lee (Ben Lam). Caught in between is Fan (Yukari Oshima), a social worker assigned to help out Tsang, and who’s starting a relationship with Lee. Directed with understated flair by Lee Chiu and peppered with short, impactful fights, A Punch to Revenge also laudably takes time to flesh out its characters: apart from Ben Lam’s knight in shining white jacket and Chan Ging’s cackling dirty cop, most in the ensemble are unexpectedly three-dimensional characters, from the brutal resourceful Mainland thugs united by strong brotherhood and trying to carve out a better tomorrow for themselves (the wrong way of course), to Eddy Ko as a desperate coward clutching at straws of dignity, they almost justify the film’s slower central section, and make the strikingly brutal final fight – the police’s assault on a villa where the thugs are holing up – resonate more. And though both slightly lateral to the plot, and inconsistently defined (one moment she’s easily subdued, minutes later she’s wiping the floor with multiple adversaries), Yukari Oshima gives a fine performance; she excelled so much at playing brooding, smoldering fighting queens, that it’s easy to forget she could be just as believable in softer roles. Indeed, she didn’t even need fights to be a compelling presence. Too bad she never explored – or was never given the opportunity to explore – purely dramatic acting. **1/2

DRUG FIGHTERS (1995) short review

DrugsFighters+1995-1-bBy 1995, old-school, down-and-dirty Hong Kong action cinema was a dying trend, largely exiled to Taiwan and the Philippines, where most of its stars languished in cheap productions leagues below what they deserved – among them was the great Yukari Oshima. A Taiwanese production, Yiu Tin Hung’s Drug Fighters is far from the worst that dark age of action cinema yielded, but also a far cry from the heights of the genre. Oshima (in a truly hideous wardrobe of garish tracksuits) plays a cop assigned to a new drug-busting police unit (alongside Lam Wai and Chui Siu Kin), tasked with bringing down a drug trafficker (Yuen Wah) who smuggles drugs through shipments of antiques. The film starts with a jolt, a fairly exciting shootout aboard a train, as prisoner Ken Lo is extracted by his blood brother Alan Chui (also the action director). Then it becomes an incredibly limp affair, unfolding in drab industrial landscapes and juggling a variety of snooze-inducing subplots, most of which main attraction Oshima is absent from. Playing her husband, Collin Chou pops up from time to time for painful scenes of romantic banter, while Yuen Wah mostly glowers charismatically a few dozen seconds at a time. Martial arts action is served in the last ten minutes, and it’s too little, too late: Oshima and Yuen do have a short but over-the-top fight that’s quite exciting, but not worth eighty minutes of stabbing yourself with a toothpick to stay awake. *1/2

FINAL RUN (1989) short review

FinalRun+1989-4-bA mainstay of Hong Kong action cinema, Philip Ko directed fifty-four films in twenty-two years (including eight films in 1987 and nine films each for 1999 and 2001…). Of course, this prodigious output was in great part due to a resort to patchwork filmmaking – a method he shared with his regular collaborator Godfrey Ho – by which a film is made mostly with disparate bits of stock footage and recycled or unused scenes from other films. Thus a lot many of his fifty-four directorial efforts are near-unwatchable; a few (like Killer’s Romance) are quite solid, and a film like Final Run falls in between. The plot, about corrupt cops working with Golden Triangle drug traffickers and a customs officer getting stuck in the middle, is paradoxically so generic and plodding that it becomes hard to follow. Action is mostly absent for a whole hour, but if one survives that trial by boredom, one is rewarded with a good twenty-five minutes of blistering action. Par for the course, then, for this kind of second rate Hong Kong actioner. The cast is full of charismatic players, most of whom either have extended cameos (Francis Ng keeps a silly grimace at all times as a smug Golden Triangle warlord, Simon Yam is all lazy smarm as a mobster, Leung Kar Yan appears randomly near the end to dish out a few kicks), or supporting roles: Dick Wei gets a rare sympathetic role, and the magnificent Yukari Oshima disappears for fifty minutes, but when she reappears, it’s worth the wait, as she gets some of her most brutal and acrobatic fights – she had a hand in choreographing them, the only time she received an ‘action director credit’. The leads, Cheung Kwok Keung and Michael Miu, make much less of an impression. As was often the case at the time, Harold Faltermeyer’s score to The Running Man is heavily tracked-in. **

A SERIOUS SHOCK! YES MADAM! (aka DEATH TRIANGLE) (1993) review

54d9a35fa9797Albert Lai’s A Serious Shock! Yes Madam! (henceforward A Serious Shock!, though what a stupid title) stars Cynthia Khan as Wan Chin, a cop who’s about to get married, unaware of the fact that her husband Wilson (Lawrence Ng) is cheating on her with her best friend and police partner May (Moon Lee). Wilson is nevertheless wracked with guilt, and decides to end things with May. Psychologically unstable, and unhinged with anger and grief, she shoots him dead in front of Wan Chin, and tries to have her framed for the murder with the help of a lovestruck colleague. Now on the run, a desperate Wan Chin is helped by Coco (Yukari Oshima), a car thief who lives with a band of misfits.

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DREAMING THE REALITY (1991) review

img.phpSolid Hong Kong journeyman director Tony Liu united ‘Girls with Guns’ mainstays Moon Lee, Yukari Oshima and Sibelle Hu three times, in 1993 in the minor classic Angel Terminators II, the comedy The Big Deal in 1992, and before that, the rock solid actioner Dreaming the Reality. In it, Lee and Oshima play Silver Fox and Black Cat, two assassins trained to kill since childhood by ruthless mob boss Fok (Eddy Ko). Though Black Cat is unwavering in her missions, Silver Fox is starting to feel the weight of the deaths she’s caused on her conscience. One day on a mission gone wrong in Thailand, she loses her memory after taking a nasty fall while escaping the police. She wakes with no memory of who she is, and is helped by wry ex-cop Si Lan-Fa (Sibelle Hu) and her brother Rocky (Ben Lam), a boxer. But Black Cat is on her blood sister’s trail, tasked by Fok with bringing her back into the fold.

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BINDING SOULS (2019) short review

p2568663031After the middling exorcism film Daughter, director Chan Pang Chun returns to the horror genre and reunites with Kara Hui with Binding Souls, a mind-bogglingly laughable and cheap exercise in regurgitating the lamest, most overused horror tropes. Get a load of this plot: a group of college students (there’s the horny one, the bookish one, the sexy one, the scaredy one…) decide to spend a few days in an abandoned school that was once used by the Japanese army as a place to torture, rape and conduct experiments on Chinese prisoners. While the school has been closed for almost a decade, its old principal (Yuen Cheung Yan) still hangs around, as does a troubled janitor (Kara Hui), whose daughter disappeared years ago at the school, and who keeps hoping she’ll turn up. The youngsters plan to have some fun, but soon they’re plagued with visions of hostile ghosts. Over the course of the film’s skimpy yet overlong 88 minutes, there’s simply not a single fresh idea and not the least bit of suspense. The ghosts are standard-issue white-clad, black-hair-over-the-face, standing-at-the-back-of-a-corridor clichés. Ridiculousness – without any self-awareness of course – is omnipresent, from 33 years-old Carlos Chan cringingly playing a college student (one of the worst performances in a theatrically-released film this year, no doubt), to some very, very sad CGI. There’s no sense of atmosphere and the final twists arrive very late after any awake audience member saw them coming; only the first scene, a very nasty scene of wartime Japanese horror, raises the pulse somewhat, but it’s an ugly an exploitative sight. Kara Hui pops up from time to time, a sight for sore eyes made heavy by the blissful temptation of sleep. no stars

GUILT BY DESIGN (2019) short review

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Paul Sze, Kenneth Lai and Lau Wing Tai’s debut feature (under the guiding hand of producer Derek Yee), Guilt by Design follows Xu Lisheng (Nick Cheung), a former master of hypnotherapy who is selected for jury duty with six other people (Kent Cheng, Elaine Jin, Jolane Koo, Cecilia So, Babyjohn Choi and Lee Sheung Ching) in the highly-publicized trial of the heir of a major corporation, accused of murdering her uncle for his inheritance. There’s ample evidence that the defendant is innocent, but minutes before jury deliberation is set to start, Xu is contacted by a dirty cop (Eddie Cheung), who has kidnapped his daughter: if he wants to get her back in one piece, he must hypnotize the jury into finding the defendant guilty. From this rather fresh concept, the three writers-directors extract an enjoyable little thriller, refreshingly streamlined and un-convoluted contrary to many Hong Kong film of its ilk,  bracingly concise at 90 minutes, and relentlessly preposterous: more than suspended, disbelief should be shredded, burnt and then its ashes scattered at sea. This is a film where a juror can have a covert conversation with another juror, under the very table where the jury is deliberating at the same time, with only one person in the whole room noticing it; and this is the rare courtroom drama that ends with a little girl dangling from a helicopter, itself dangling from the top of a skyscraper. Yet it all goes down a treat, thanks to the aforementioned brisk pace, some strikingly inventive visuals for the hypnosis scenes, and a fine cast bringing life to barely-sketched out roles: Nick Cheung coasts efficiently on his enigmatic charisma, while old pros Kent Cheng and Eddie Cheung, and token Mainland cast-member Han Zhang are all game for the ridiculousness at hand. ***

LITTLE Q (2019) review

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Far from an exploration of Maggie Q’s childhood, Law Wing Cheong’s Little Q is an adaptation of the Japanese novel The Life of Quill, the Seeing-Eye Dog, by Ryohei Akimoto and Kengo Ishiguro, itself based on a true story and already brought to the small and big screens in Japan. Here, Simon Yam plays Lee Bo Ting, a renowned chef who after going blind has become perpetually angry and despondent. His sister (Gigi Leung) encourages him to get a guide dog, and a resourceful golden retriever by the name of Little Q is chosen for the task. Proud to a fault, Lee doesn’t want to rely on a dog, but soon Little Q starts melting his defenses, and a beautiful friendship is born.

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