MASTER Z: THE IP MAN LEGACY (2018) review

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One of the most memorable characters in the Ip Man franchise, ambitious Wing Chun master Cheung Tin Chi (Max Zhang), gets his own well-deserved spin-off in Yuen Woo Ping’s Master Z: The Ip Man Legacy. After being defeated – behind closed doors – by Ip man at the end of the third installment, the humbled Cheung is now leaving peacefully with his son in Hong Kong, where he owns a small grocery store. His days as a martial arts teacher are over, and so is his side-job as a thug, which doesn’t sit well with his former employer (Yuen Wah). Cheung can’t stay out of trouble for long: after he defends bar hostesses Julia (Liu Yan) and Nana (Chrissie Chau) against a local mobster Tso Sai Kit (Kevin Cheng) and his henchmen, his store is burnt down as retribution. Now homeless and tracked down by a mysterious assassin (Tony Jaa) working for his former employer, Cheung is helped by Fu (Shi Yanneng), the owner of a local bar, for whom he starts working as a waiter. And two dangerous figures loom large over him: mobster Tso Ngan Kwan (Michelle Yeoh), the sister of Tso Sai Kit, and Owen Davidson (Dave Bautista), a restaurant owner and philanthropist who’s also a drug trafficker on the side.

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WARRIORS OF THE NATION (aka THE UNITY OF HEROES 2) (2018) review

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After Lin Zhenzhao’s The Unity of Heroes proved an online hit earlier this year, a sequel was fast-tracked then released – straight to VOD again – a mere seven months later, marking the third time Vincent Zhao has reprised the role of Wong Fei Hung in 2018 (Jeff Lau’s starrier and big screen-released Kung Fu League was a flop, however). Taking over directing duties from Lin, is journeyman Hong Kong filmmaker Marco Mak, no stranger to Wong Fei Hung films, having edited all six films in the Once Upon a Time in China series. The plot for The Unity of Heroes 2 moves away from the first instalment’s pulpy vibe, trading evil gweilos for Japanese devils (Kenya Sawada is on villain duties again after Jiang Wen’s Hidden Man), and enhanced fighters for mild political intrigue involving corrupt officials and the White Lotus Sect (with the opening ritual scene a direct borrow from Tsui Hark’s Once Upon a Time in China II).

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KUNG FU MONSTER (2018) review

 When a foreign kingdom gifts a rare monster to the Ming Emperor, Ocean (Louis Koo) is put in charge of taming it, but evil eunuch Crane (Alex Fong) has nefarious plans for it. Having grown attached to the beast, and having named it Lucky, Ocean decides to free it, thus becoming a hunted outlaw in the process. When he’s captured by Crane’s second-in-command (Wu Yue), his lover Bingbing (Hayden Kuo) hatches a plan to rescue him, enlisting under false pretenses a couple of hapless swordsmen (Zhou Dongyu and Cheney Chen), two even more hapless bandits (Pan Binlong and Kong Liangshun), a mysterious vagrant (Bao Bei’er), and more.

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CRAZY ALIEN (2019) short review

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Ning Hao’s Crazy Alien caps off his ‘Crazy’ trilogy of Huang Bo-led dark comedies (after Crazy Stone and Crazy Racer) with a box-office bang. After The Wandering Earth, it was the second most successful release of Chinese New Year 2019, and like that blockbuster, it is based – albeit loosely – on a novella by Liu Cixin, A Village Teacher (Ning Hao also cameos in The Wandering Earth, while Lei Jiayin cameos in both). It follows down-on-his-luck monkey trainer Geng Hao (Huang Bo), whose small circus will soon have to close if he doesn’t prove its commercial viability to the manager of the amusement park that houses it. One day, after an aborted inter-species exchange in outer-space, an alien comes crashing into Geng’s circus. Believing him to be a rare monkey, Geng decides to train it, while his friend Da Fei (Shen Teng) tries to convince him to sell it. Meanwhile, the American government (re-named Amanikan government) is sending its special forces to track down the alien. Beyond the A-list but oddly chemistry-free pairing of Huang Bo and Shen Teng, and the passable CGI rendering of the alien creature, it’s difficult to understand the success of Crazy Alien. It’s consistently mean-spirited, but never in a good way: the darkness of its comedy entails mostly caricaturing Americans and their government – as if their perceived arrogance wasn’t mirrored in China – and more uncomfortably, the ill-treatment of animals. It’s not just the alien that’s mistreated by the leads, but also the trained monkey: while it never gets too grievous, it’s still impressively unfunny, and coupled with a video that surfaced of a dog being abused on set, it leaves a bitter aftertaste. There’s also amusing but tired references to Steven Spielberg’s E.T, and to the Monkey King. But with no trace of humanity, no perceivable depth, and a dull stop-and-go pace, Crazy Alien is an oddly inert film. **

HIDDEN MAN (2018) review

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After 2010’s Sichuan-set Let the Bullets Fly and 2014’s Shanghai-set Gone with the Bullets, Jiang Wen closes his amoral trilogy of Republican China epics with the Beijing-set Hidden Man, where bullets are much scarcer than blades and fists. In 1922, Li Tianran’s (Eddie Peng) adoptive father, a land owner in Northern China, was murdered by Zhu Qianlong (Liao Fan) and Nemoto Ichiro (Sawada Kenya), after refusing to sign over his land to the Japanese for opium cultivation. Tianran nearly escaped and was rescued by American expatriate doctor Wallace Handler (Andy Friend), who sent him to San Francisco to study medicine. Now, 15 years later, he goes by Bruce, is a licensed obstetrician, and more importantly a highly-trained special agent working for a shadowy businessman (Steven Schwankert, in a role initially played by Kevin Spacey but later entirely re-shot for obvious reasons). Tianran still has vengeance on his mind, and so he welcomes the mission to go fight the Japanese in occupied Beijing (renamed Beiping), as it also provides him with an opportunity to exact revenge on Zhu and Nemoto. In Beiping, he’s welcomed and initiated to the city’s volatile political dynamics by Wallace Handler, and must navigate a dangerous web of hidden agendas involving not only Zhu and Nemoto, but also the former’s femme fatale girlfriend Tang Fengyi (Xu Qing), as well as a mysterious – and beautiful – crippled tailor (Zhou Yun), and most of all Lan Qingfeng (Jiang Wen), a powerful businessman seemingly playing all sides.

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THE SCOUNDRELS (2018) short review

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Rui (JC Lin) was once a rising star in the world of basketball, but a scuffle with a heckler ended his career prematurely. Now broke from having to pay the gravely injured heckler’s hospital bills, the disgraced star is reduced to working for a local mobster (Frederick Lee), putting tracking devices on cars targeted for theft. One day, he crosses paths with the infamous ‘raincoat thief’ (Wu Kang Ren), a man responsible for robbing several armored trucks in the previous months, using brutal but non-lethal methods. At first recruited by force by the thief to help him, Rui soon starts to enjoy the freedom and sense of retribution he gets from abetting him. But is he an accomplice set to share the spoils, or a tool to be tossed away after use? Hung Tzu Hsuan’s The Scoundrels is a promising debut feature, a pacey little thriller centered on the well-matched JC Lin and Wu Kang Ren’s love/hate bromance, the former coarsely juvenile yet admirably scrappy, the latter smoothly confident yet an amoral cypher. Undeterred by the visibly limited budget, Hung (who also co-wrote the film) infuses his film with a playful energy: minor surprises keep coming, and fight scenes are plentiful and choreographed – by rising Taiwanese fight coordinator Hong Shi Hao – with a distinctly Korean flair, all brutal slapstick and controlled chaos, highlighting the poetry of missed punches and kicks; it is reminiscent in particular of Jung Doo-hong’s work on Ryoo Seung-wan’s Veteran. A streak of unforced dark humor runs through the film, right to a conclusion that makes the prospect of a sequel a welcome one. It won’t happen: the film’s freshness in the current Taiwanese filmscape wasn’t rewarded by local audiences. ***1/2

THE BIG SHOT (2019) review

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After headlining the 2017 Chinese remake of the 2014 Korean thriller A Hard Day, and before headlining the 2019 Chinese remake of the 2013 Korean thriller Montage, Wang Qianyuan headlines the 2019 Chinese remake of the 2015 Korean thriller Veteran. And so we follow Sun Dasheng (Wang), a headstrong cop who despite – or because of – unconventional methods and a loose relationship to hierarchy, gets the job done and has acquired a reputation as a star detective, along with his team (including Wang Yanhui and Qu Jingjing). Under pressure from his wife (Mei Ting) to enter a lottery for housing in a school-friendly area for their son, Sun is introduced by a friend to Zhao Tai (Bao Bei’er), a property developer, heir to the powerful Zhao Shi conglomerate. Brutal, arrogant and entitled to the point of psychosis, Zhao thinks himself above the law, objectifying and humiliating everyone around him with no fear of repercussion. But when a friend of Sun’s, who went to Zhao to complain about having his home destroyed by his company with no compensation, is is left in a coma by an apparent suicide attempt, Sun Dasheng decides to get to the bottom of things, in the process starting a war with Zhao Tai.

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FURIE (aka HAI PHƯỢNG) (2019) review

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After roles unworthy of her talents in two major Hollywood blockbusters, David Ayer’s Bright and Rian Johnson The Last Jedi, Veronica Ngo is back to leading woman status in Le Van Kiet’s Furie. She plays Hai Phuong, a former gangster who left Saigon after she became a single mother, and now lives in the countryside where she works as a debt collector, an occupation that marginalises her within the community and makes her daughter Mai (Mai Cat Vi) the target of bullying. One day, Mai is kidnapped by members of a powerful, tentacular organ-trafficking organization. Desperate and unstoppable, Hai Phuong sets off on her trail, which leads her back to Saigon and brings back the ghosts of her former life as a gangster, with only a lone cop (Phan Thanh Nhiên) to help her.

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PEGASUS (2019) review

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Pegasus is the third directorial effort of Han Han, an artist with a great many strings to his bow: best-selling author, influential blogger, prize-winning rally racer, singer-songwriter and of course, hit-making film director. It follows Zhang Chi (Shen Teng), a former glory of the Chinese rally racing world who after taking part in a dangerous and illegal parking lot race against his then-nemesis (William Feng), was stripped of his driver’s license and racing rights. Now, after five years away from racing, spent as a street cook and taking care of his adoptive son Fei (Li Qingyu), Zhang is staging a comeback. But he’s got no driving license, no car, no money, no sponsor, and only the bumbling poet Yuqiang (Yin Zheng) as his teammate. All he’s got is a deep love of car racing, and will to show the newer generation of drivers, including wunderkind Lin Yidong (Johnny Huang Jingyu), that’s he’s still the best.

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THE GREAT DETECTIVE (2019) review

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Roy Chow’s long delayed (it was originally set for a Summer 2017 release) The Great Detective is based on the popular detective stories of Chen Xiaoqing, an author considered the “Conan Doyle of the East”. It follows Huo Sang (Han Geng), a brilliant private detective who, flanked by his trusty sidekick Bao Lang (Yin Zheng), accepts a fortune in gold from a powerful businesswoman (Carina Lau) to solve the murder of her  aide-de-camp. The apparent culprit is Jiang Nan Yan, a gentleman thief known as the “face-shifter”: an ability to change his face has made him impossible to identify, let alone catch. Eager to help Huo and Bao is Bai Mudan (Zhang Huiwen), a bank teller and wannabe sleuth who is a great admirer of the detective. But soon the trio of investigators find themselves stalked by a mysterious blonde woman, while new murders signed by Jiang Nan Yan make the news.

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