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. **

CAUGHT IN TIME (2020) review

Lau Ho Leung’s second feature film after the amusing caper Two Thumbs Up – which itself capped off a decade of writing films for the likes of Johnnie To, Gordon Chan, Daniel Lee, Derek Yee, Herman Yau or Teddy Chen – Caught in Time is loosely based on real events: the crime spree of cunning, ruthless bank robber Zhang Jun (Daniel Wu) throughout the nineties in several provinces of Mainland China. Wang Qianyuan plays dogged cop Zhong Cheng, an amalgamation of the police detectives that relentlessly chased Zhang, until his arrest in 2000.

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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. ***

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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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. **