A WRITER’S ODYSSEY (2021) review

The third most successful film of Chinese New Year 2021, albeit a wide margin behind the first two, Lu Yang’s A Writer’s Odyssey (also known as Assassins in Red) follows Guan Ning (Lei Jiayin) a shell of a man desperately looking for his daughter, who was kidnapped six years before. One day, he’s approached by Tu Ling (Yang Mi), the mysterious right-hand woman of tech magnate Li Mu (Yu Hewei). Tu knows everything about Guan: not only his life’s tragedy, but also his almost paranormal abilities – to throw very precisely at impossible angles, to not feel pain… She tells him she has found the trace of his now teenage daughter, and can help him be reunited with her, if and only if he assassinates Lu Kongwen (Dong Zijian), the author of Godslayer, a fantasy novel being serialized on the net, and whose plot turns seem to have a direct effect on Li Mu’s health. In parallel, we follow the adventures of Kongwen (also Dong Zijian), Godslayer’s lead character, as he journeys through the war-torn kingdom of Ranliang to avenge his sister (a too briefly-seen Tong Liya) by killing the land’s evil despot Lord Redmane, protected by an army of red-armored assassins.

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COUNTERATTACK (2021) short review

In his directing debut Counterattack, Vincent Zhao stars as Lu Ziming, an elite mercenary who goes on the run in the jungle after being framed for the murder of an oil tycoon in the fictional country of Kunlang; with him is a female reporter (Jiang Yiyi) holding the proof of his innocence. With its jungle action, drone fetish and armed gweilos, Counterattack is cut from the same cloth as Wolf Warrior, another martial arts actor’s directing debut. But while Wu’s film was a big screen hit that relaunched his career, Zhao’s film is a much cheaper affair (no ‘Yu Nan, Ni Dahong and Scott Adkins’-level supporting cast here, and smaller-scale action scenes), and went straight to VOD. It’s still very much a vanity project, with Zhao playing a one-man army repeatedly noted for his handsomeness, and estimated to be “in his thirties” (he was 48 at the time of shooting). The plot is amateurish, a simplistic frame-up followed by an even more simplistic, well, counter-attack. The action, choreographed by Ha Siu Lung (a frequent assistant to Lee Tat Chiu), is mundane, skimpy and awkwardly edited, often making it look like Vincent Zhao has no experience in martial arts (no easy feat). It’s a lot of jungle stalk-and-slash in the first half, followed by compound infiltrate-and-kill in the second half: clearly, Zhao is a Rambo fan, and he even sews himself up like Sly’s iconic Vietnam vet. The latter scene is actually the best of the film (damning with faint praise), a rare moment of intentional levity as Lu Ziming bites on a squeaky toy while removing a bullet from his shoulder – his repressed cries of pain morphing into plastic squeaks. A sequel is teased in a cartoonish epilogue, but Wolf Warrior II needn’t worry for its place in the record books. *1/2

SHOCK WAVE 2 (2020) review

Three years after the success of Shock Wave, Herman Yau is back with a thematic sequel that doubled the first film’s budget and has now tripled its box-office take. Andy Lau is back in the lead – inevitably, in a different role – as Poon Sing-fung, a heroic bomb disposal expert of the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal Bureau) who loses part of his leg in an explosion. Fitted with a prosthetic leg and having gone through an extensive and triumphant reeducation, he fully expects to return to the job to which he devoted himself body and soul, but is instead offered desk jobs or PR positions, as his superiors don’t want to take the risk of returning a disabled officer to the field. Enraged at the rejection, and at a society which undervalues the disabled, he quits the force, severing his relationships to his girlfriend Pong Ling (Ni Ni), an officer of the counter-terrorism unit, as well as his best friend and colleague Tung Cheuk-man (Lau Ching Wan) and their team. Cut to five years later, Poon is seen planting a bomb at a fancy reception; dozens of people die in the ensuing explosion, and he’s found unconscious at the crime scene. When he awakes, he has amnesia and can’t even remember who he is; the police suspects him of being a part of the terrorist organization known as ‘Vendetta’, responsible for a slew of bombings in the past months in Hong Kong. With only fragmented memories coming back to him, but convinced he is innocent, Poon escapes and tries to uncover the truth.

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RISING SHAOLIN: THE PROTECTOR (2021) review

Out of seemingly nowhere, mere weeks before Chinese New Year 2021, was announced Stanley Tong’s Rising Shaolin: The Protector (henceforward Rising Shaolin), to be released straight to VOD despite its high-profile director and a cast full of stars – two of whom, Wang Baoqiang and Liu Haoran, are now filling theaters to unprecedented levels in Chen Sicheng’s Detective Chinatown 3. This is obviously a passion project for Wang: when he was 8, he was shown Chang Hsin Yen’s 1982 classic Shaolin Temple, both a debut and a breakout success for Jet Li, and still one of the highest-grossing Chinese films ever when adjusted for inflation. Determined to become a martial arts star, he joined an actual Shaolin monastery the same to be trained in martial arts. Later, his acting career took off with his acclaimed performance in Li Yang’s Blind Shaft, and has gone stratospheric since, in no small part due to the aforementioned Detective Chinatown franchise.

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THE WOLF WITCH (aka WHITE-HAIRED WITCH) (2020) short review

Whatever happened to Huang Yi? Not so long ago, she was well on her way to the A-list, with classy supporting roles in upscale productions like Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s Overheard 2 and 3, Derek Chiu’s The Road Less Traveled and Johnnie To’s Romancing in Thin Air and Drug War, not to mention a very promising lead in Herman Yau’s The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake. Now here she is, headlining one of the many straight-to-VOD fantasy cheapies that rehash the main Chinese legends. The Monkey King is by far the most represented in the hundreds of online Chinese fantasy movies last year, but this is at least the third loose adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel 白髮魔女傳 (literally, “The Story of the White Haired Demoness”) in 2020. Nevertheless, Huang is well cast and engaging in the role, though it’s been flattened into a straight heroine role, rather than the nuanced figure of selfless love and destructive fury she was written as, and portrayed by the great Brigitte Lin in Ronny Yu’s superb diptych The Bride with White Hair. Huang doesn’t have Lin’s smoldering bravado in the role, nor Li Bingbing’s mean charisma in Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, but she easily outshines Fan Bingbing’s turn in Jacob Cheung’s The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom. Director Wu Yingxiang keeps the plot coherent and the pace brisk, much like in his solid Taoist Master earlier in 2020. There’s none of the tragedy and scope of the original story and its best adaptation though, Wu going instead for a fairly routine adventure in which the Wolf Witch must find and expose an evil cult leader committing atrocities while posing as her. At least, action scenes are abundant and passable, their ornate stances and outlandish use of wires calling to mind Ching Siu Tung’s style. **

SOUTHERN SHAOLIN (2021) short review

The eternally underrated Fan Siu Wong keeps plugging away in Chinese straight-to-VOD films, not having appeared in a theatrically-released film since 2016’s Bounty Hunters. It’s a crying shame, but at least some of these online movies utilize him well, like the fight-heavy The Bravest Escort Group or last year’s solid fantasy adventure Taoist Master diptych. A riff on the well-trodden ‘Shaolin-assisted redemption’ subgenre of martial arts cinema, Dong Wei’s Southern Shaolin is a good notch below these passable films though. It follows pirate chief Cai Yan (Fan Siu Wong), who is betrayed and left for dead by his second in command (Xiong Xin Xin), himself in league with very evil white soldiers – but is there any other kind in Chinese films? Cai is found and nursed back to health by Shaolin monks; sensing a good place to lay low, he feigns amnesia to ingratiate himself, and becomes an apprentice. What started as a ploy slowly turns to true enlightenment, but soon his past catches up with him. At 75 minutes, Southern Shaolin is simply too short and perfunctory (not too mention, too cheap) to properly convey its redemption narrative, despite an amusing montage showing Cai recoiling at the discipline and frugality of a monk’s life. But it is also unforgivably skimpy on fights: Fan and Xiong, two superb screen fighters, are given only short flashes of action, and their final fight is a brief and disjointed affair. The film also features some of the very worst gweilo dialogue and acting ever put to film – well, to memory card. *1/2

HEROES RETURN (2021) review

Du Xiu Bin’s Heroes Return marks Yuen Biao’s first big-screen role in seven years (if one doesn’t count a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Sammo Hung’s My Beloved Bodyguard), which makes for a frustrating observation: it’s not just that this once vital force of Hong Kong cinema has become a sporadic presence. It’s also that when he does re-appear, it’s in such a mediocre little actioner. The lead is Ray Lui (another legend of eighties and nineties Hong Kong cinema) as Wu Wei, a former soldier who heads into the Thai jungle to rescue the prisoners of a pharmaceutical company headed by Zuo Manqing (Kathy Chow), who intends to harvest their bone marrow for an experimental, life-extending drug. Accompanying Wu are his wife Zhilan (Raquel Xu) – a former employee of the company – and Jinzi (Chu Xu), a feisty local. Soon they’re joined by Gao Tianming (Yuen Biao), an undercover cop long held captive by Du Xie (Pavarit Mongkolpisit), a human trafficker who supplies the pharmaceutical company with its human stock.

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TAOIST MASTER: KYLIN (aka MASTER ZHANG 2) (2020) short review

Chen Cheng’s Taoist Master: Kylin is the quick fire sequel to Wu Yingxiang’s Taoist Master (released just a few months ago, already online), with Fan Siu Wong returning in the role of Zhang Taoling, the founder of the first organized form of Taoism, flanked by his disciple (Li Lubing, also returning). This time, Master Zhang arrives in a village near Mount Yun Jing, where Kylin, the legendary God of the Mountain, is rumored to prey on hunters and those foolhardy enough to venture into the mountain. While Taoist Master was on the higher end of Chinese direct-to-VOD films, this sequel is disappointingly average: it lacks the refreshing presence of Zhang Dong (who played a feisty huntress in the first film), it’s criminally low on fight scenes (one of the original’s strong suits), and the plot is the usual thudding supernatural set-up resolved with the censorship-placating hallucination card. Yet it’s nevertheless a brisk and entertaining affair, anchored again in the charismatic presence of the ever-underrated Fan Siu Wong. **

THE SACRIFICE (2020) review

The Sacrifice was reportedly shot in three weeks (an impressively short timeframe for a war epic) with three high profile directors at the helm: Guan Hu hot off another war epic, The Eight Hundred (but not that hot off it, as the latter film was long-delayed), Lu Yang (mostly known for his outstanding Brotherhood of Blades diptych), and Frant Gwo (of the sci-fi mega-success The Wandering Earth). It is set during the Korean war, as the Chinese PVA (People’s Volunteer Army) prepares for the battle of Kumsong, in which it is to back the Korean People’s Army against the US forces. For that to happen, the PVA must cross the Kumsong bridge on time, and thus constantly defend it and rebuild it as the US air force bombs it mercilessly. Across four chapters, we follow the soldiers crossing the bridge, the US pilots attacking it, the anti-aircraft artillery defending it, and in the end the sacrifice of hundreds of Chinese men forming a human bridge to allow the troops to arrive on time to the battlefield.

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THE FALLEN (2019) short review

A powerful crime syndicate, responsible for most of the crystal meth production in Southeast Asia, is in danger of being torn apart between Vulcan (Eddie Chen) and Tempest (Kenny Kwan), both potential heirs to megalomaniac current leader “The Don” (Melvin Wong), until a wild card is introduced: Rain Fuyu (Irene Wan), The Don’s adoptive daughter, trained by him to one day succeed him, until she disappeared 20 years ago. Now she’s back, and she meets the much younger Snow Fuyu (Hanna Chan), herself The Don’s illegitimate daughter. Lee Cheuk Pan’s The Fallen feels a little bit like the kind of film you would get if, say, Wong Kar Wai and Godfrey Ho ever co-directed a Category III film: it’s got the shallow grasp of logic and sleazy, exploitative tendencies of the latter, but the visual flair and elliptic storytelling of the former. All of this under a thick coat of pretentious – yet often inspired – oneiric imagery. Its non-linear narrative allows for a surprise or two, but most of its characters are either cackling grotesques (Kenny Kwan makes our ears bleed with his wild-eyed, language-hopping performance, while Eddie Chen thinks he’s playing Satan himself) or boring cyphers (Hanna Chan has all the mystery of a low-energy teenager). It’s nice to see good old Melvin Wong, in his first film in 17 years and still excelling in charismatic scumbag roles, and the evergreen Irene Wan could have had here a fine comeback role. But Lee Cheuk Pan is more interested in incestuous sex, filial cruelty and endless meth trips to let the heart of the story (the portrait of a survivor, Rain Fuyu) beat properly. **