VANGUARD (2020) review

Originally meant as a Chinese New Year 2020 film but pushed back eight months in the time of the Coronavirus, Stanley Tong’s Vanguard follows Tang (Jackie Chan), the head of an international security company named Vanguard, tasked with rescuing the kidnapped daughter (Xu Ruohan) of a businessman (Jackson Liu) whose past has caught up with him. From London to “Africa” (which in this film seems to be the name of a country) to Dubaï, flanked by his elite team that includes Mi Ya (Miya Muqi), Lei (Yang Yang) and Zhang (Allen Ai), Tang butts heads with a dangerous mercenary organization, the Arctic Wolves.

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LEGALLY DECLARED DEAD (2020) short review

Yuen Kim Wai’s Legally Declared Dead is the third adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s 1997 best-seller The Black House, after a 1999 Japanese film directed by Yoshimitsu Morita starring Seiyô Uchino, and a 2007 Korean take by Shin Tae-ra, with Hwang Jung-min. Here, Carlos Chan stars as Yip Wing Shun, an insurance broker still traumatized by his brother’s suicide when he was just a child. So when his client Chu Chung Tak (Anthony Wong) asks for compensation for the suicide of his stepson, Yip takes it upon himself to investigate matters further, as Chu is obviously mentally deranged, living is a squalid home with his limping and visually-impaired wife Shum Tsz Ling (Karena Lam). Legally Declared Dead starts out very promisingly, building an effective sense of dread on solid narrative bases: the minutiae of insurance payouts, Yip Wing Shun’s scarred psyche (illustrated through both haunting flashbacks and unnerving, recurring visions of mantid), the social squalor in which Chu Chung Tak and his wife live, and a creepy score by Yusuke Hatano. With just a dash of campy mystery coming from Liu Kai Chi as a pontificating criminologist, Yuen Kin Wai peels off layers of the plot with both restraint and a sure eye for chilling unease. Anthony Wong is remarkable as the deranged Chu, oscillating masterfully between frailty and threat, keeping the viewer guessing. His double-act with Karena Lam is the main attraction here: the latter is remarkable here, and sheds her natural beauty and charm with an ease that makes Charlize Theron’s performance in Patty Jenkins’ Monster look like it’s right from a L’Oréal commercial. Sympathetic yet ambiguous, pathetic yet charismatic, Karena Lam only drops subtlety in the film’s disappointing final act, a devolution into basic stalk-and-slash tropes that doesn’t deliver on the promise of the first hour. ***

JIANG ZIYA: LEGEND OF DEIFICATION (2020) review

A few years back, the Monkey King myth could not be escaped in the Chinese film industry, with countless adaptations expensive and cheap, live-action and animated, straightforward and oblique, flooding the big screen every year. This trend has since then subsided, with Monkey fatigue resulting in a few high-profile box-office disappointments (among which Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 3 and Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong), and the ape deity nowadays mostly confined to online movies, where he’s played by B-list (Collin Chou, Fan Siu Wong) or C-list (Peng Yusi) names, rather than the Donnie Yen’s, Aaron Kwok’s and Eddie Peng’s of his mid-2010s heyday. Chinese big screen fantasy is instead now becoming the dominion of Ming Dynasty epic Fengshen Yanyi (aka The Investiture of the Gods).

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IP MAN: CRISIS TIME (2020) short review

From director Li Liming, who last year brought us the surprisingly solid Ip Man: Kung Fu Master, now comes Ip Man: Crisis Time, focusing on Bruce Lee’s martial arts instructor (this time played by Chen Kaige protégé Zhao Wenhao) when he was a college student in Hong Kong. When a recently-escaped criminal (Mu Fengbin) right out of his past invades his college and takes its students as hostages, the young Ip Man is left to save the day from the inside. The premise is basically Die Hard in a university building, with Ip Man slapped onto it as a John McClane substitute (Ip McClane if you will); it’s like remaking Taken in China, with Wong Fei Hung as the father looking for his kidnapped child. It doesn’t make much sense, and Zhao Wenhao has neither the charisma nor the fighting ability to properly portray Ip Man, while villain Mu Fengbin was probably cast more for his passing ressemblance to Hiroshi Abe than anything else. Yet with its brisk 78-minute runtime and some fine action direction from Sun Fei (returning after Ip Man: Kung Fu Master), Crisis Time rarely bores. Let’s just pretend we didn’t notice the risibly unconvincing views of early 20th-century Hong Kong (complete with TV antennas!). **

ABYSSAL SPIDER (aka MAD SPIDER SEA) (2020) review

There’s a welcome sense of variety to Taiwanese director Joe Chien’s fifteen-year old filmography: horror is his genre of predilection, but within it he rarely repeats himself: there’s the quirky and oblique Buttonman, the grindhouse zombie flicks Zombie 108 and Zombie Fight Club, the classy haunted house mystery The House that never dies II, as well as the phantasmagorical, Silent Hill-like The Apostles, with its admirably bold final twist. And with Abyssal Spider (the more ridiculous title “Mad Spider Sea” appears in the film itself, but not on the posters) Chien tries his hand at a maritime creature feature.

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FATAL VISIT (2020) short review

Directed by Calvin Poon, based on Candace Chong’s acclaimed play Murder in San Jose and adapted for the big screen by Philip Yung, the long-delayed Fatal Visit (it was shot in 2017) follows Ling (Sammi Cheng), a Hong Kong expatriate in the quiet outskirts of San Jose, California. Living in a villa by a sun-drenched lake, doted upon by her husband, businessman Tang (Tong Dawei) and with a baby on the way, her life, at a quick glance, seems idyllic. But there is much turmoil under the surface, as her childhood friend Yanny (Charlene Choi, with a normal-length neck despite what the above poster suggests), a broke dancer visiting from Hong Kong after a painful breakup, soon discovers. Tang’s business venture is failing to get off the ground, and he is prone to angry outbursts, while Ling seems haunted by her past, specifically her relationship to her abusive ex-husband (Dominic Lam). It would have taken a bit more narrative and visual dexterity than what journeyman Calvin Poon can manage, to make Fatal Visit‘s surfeit of dark secrets, hand-wringing and dramatic reveals shocking and affecting instead of passably pulpy and painfully pedestrian. It doesn’t help that Charlene Choi’s ingenue act (now in its 20th year of existence, no less) and Tong Dawei’s non-threatening presence (he needs strong direction for his baby face to be well used against type) severely unbalance the dark central triangle they form with a superb Sammi Cheng, both poignant and unsettling, achieving in her performance the very balance the film fails to reach. **

THE EIGHT HUNDRED (2020) review

By far the highest-profile of the Chinese films set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (which included Li Shaohong’s Liberation and Oxide Pang’s Towards the River Glorious, both flops), Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred was initially set to open the 2019 Shanghai Film Festival, followed by a domestic theatrical release in early July 2019. Both were abruptly cancelled, officially for “technical reasons” – the real reason allegedly having more to do with the positive portrayal of the Nationalist army, which in PRC propaganda are normally to be portrayed as a band of traitors to their homeland. It’s not clear what changes were brought to the film to make it palatable to the Communist overlords, but when it finally got a domestic release more than a year later, it heralded the promising recovery of its industry in the Covid-19 aftermath, with a thunderous 450 million dollars (and counting) at the Chinese box-office, not far at all from the lofty expectations surrounding its original 2019 release.

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WILD SWORDS (2020) short review

Directed by Li Yunbo under the illustrious guidance of Feng Xiaogang and with regular Jia Zhangke collaborator Matthieu Laclau editing, Wild Swords follows Wang Yidao (Zhao Jian) and his team of bodyguards, tasked by a mysterious employer with escorting prisoner Guo Changsheng (Zhang Xiaochen) to a temple. The defiant Guo is said to know the whereabouts of Zhang Weiran (Shangbai), a member of the powerful Nameless Sect who years ago murdered the heir of the rival Tangmen Sect. Along the dangerous way, Wang and his men are followed both by Bai Xiaotian (Sui Yongliang), a former member of the Nameless Sect with a bone to pick with Zhang Weiran, and by Tang Wuque (Eric Hsiao), a representative of the Tangmen Sect. This is a film that delights and frustrates in equal measure. The former because is a visually stunning affair, with earthy yet ornate photography – a difficult paradox to master – regaling the eyes, and elaborate yet abrupt fight choreography: yet another paradox. And the latter because narratively it tries to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, with plot intricacies teased but never developed upon, and promising characters proving one-dimensional when all is said and done. **/12

CONCUBINE OF SHANGHAI (aka LORD OF SHANGHAI II) (2020) review

p2618059405In 2017, Sherwood Hu released part one of a diptych based on a 2003 novel by Hong Ying: Lord of Shanghai. The concurrently-shot second part, Concubine of Shanghai, was to be released a few weeks later, but Lord‘s box office flop led to a delay of more than three years, with Concubine debuting straight on VOD in late 2020. Lord of Shanghai was a clumsy, occasionally shoddy gangster epic, kept afloat by the charisma of esteemed actors like Hu Jun and Yu Nan, but hurtling through event, as if existing just to set up its epic conclusion. Concubine of Shanghai, sadly, only compounds the flaws of its opener. It picks up ten years later: Xiao Yuegui (Yu Nan), is now the powerful concubine of powerful Shanghai mobster Yu Qiyang (Rhydian Vaughan) after having loved two previous generation of Shanghai lords, Chang Lixiong (Hu Jun) and Huang Peiyu (Qin Hao). Now, she welcomes her estranged daughter Lili (Amber Kuo) back to Shanghai, but the young woman, dreaming of movie stardom, gets involved with a director (Duan Bowen) who may not be what he seems.

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ALMOST HUMAN (2020) short review

p2608816173In Zhang Nan’s Almost Human, an advanced female pleasure robot (Ma Yujie), having achieved self-awareness, breaks free from her creator and captor; to cover her sleek and otherworldly appearance, she murders a young woman and wears her skin. Curious about the meaning of human love, she randomly sets her sights on Wang Sheng (Duan Bowen), whose relationship to his girlfriend Su Xin (Hayden Kuo) is hitting a rocky patch.   Having kidnapped and sequestered Su Xin, she duplicates her appearance thanks to her creator’s latest invention, and takes her place within the couple. Almost Human‘s premise is interesting, basically a sci-fi twist on a Pu Songling horror romance like Painted Skin (the film’s Chinese title translates as “Mechanical Painted Skin” and replaces a fox spirit with a pleasure robot), and with a dash of Philip K. Dick rumination on artificial intelligence. Yet Zhang Nan does very little with the horrific, philosophical or even erotic potential of the story, going instead for tedious procedural (Liu Yiwei as an inspector leads the least urgent murder investigation ever), flat comedy (mostly sitcom-level bickering), and listless romance (Hayden Kuo and Duan Bowen have all the chemistry of diet coke and a veggie smoothie). Only of note are Ma Yujie, striking as the robot, and a nice Cliff Martinez-inspired score.  *1/2