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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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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ICEMAN: THE TIME TRAVELER (2018) review

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Law Wing Cheong’s Iceman 3D was, at the time, the most ambitious project of Donnie Yen’s rejuvenated career as a leading man; a remake of Clarence Fok’s cult classic The Iceman Cometh, with a hefty – for the Chinese film industry in 2014 – budget of 33 million dollars, it was conceived as a one-off, until a spiraling budget (Hong Kong’s Tsing Ma bridge had to be rebuilt as a set for a quarter of the film’s budget when permission to shoot on the actual one was refused) and the necessity for ever more reshoots led to the decision to release the film as a two-parter. But Iceman 3D had more scatological jokes than fights, and a shoddy grasp of its time-traveling concepts, puzzlingly eschewing the simple, pulpy pleasures of Clarence Fok’s original for something both more ambitious and less thrilling. It underperformed on release, and now four years later comes Iceman; The Time Traveler, with solid journeyman Raymond Yip taking over the helm from Law Wing Cheong.

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ENDLESS LOOP (2018) short review

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In Wen He’s Endless Loop, a woman whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere hitches a ride with a man who turns out to be a violent psychopath. Not long after, seven people riding a minibus in the same part of the Chinese countryside find themselves in a tunnel that doesn’t seem to end. Worse: when they try to go back the way they came in, they realize the tunnel has apparently become a loop, and what looks like an exit door actually leads then to another looped tunnel, strikingly similar yet with key differences. The seven strangers must work together to find a way out, but the ugliness of human nature in extreme circumstances quickly derails their efforts at survival. With an opening scene not unlike that of Kim Jee-woon’s I saw the Devil, a set-up and some episodes that call to mind Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After, and (SPOILER ALERT) a second-reel twist that turns the film into a near-remake of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (END SPOILERS), Endless Loop is rather low on originality. Yet it’s briskly-paced, well-acted by a solid ensemble (with the ever-reliable and low-key Nie Yuan at its center), and ends in a flurry of off-the-wall dreamlike sequences that artfully get around budgetary constraints and are tightly connected to the narrative, so that they never feel gratuitous. A step in the right direction for Mainland horror. **1/2

MOJIN: THE WORM VALLEY (2018) review

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A new term should be coined for films like Mojin: The Worm Valley. Based on Tianxia Bachang’s 2006 best-selling series of eight novels, Ghost Blows Out the Light, it thus exists in the same universe and follows the same characters as Lu Chuan’s Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe and Wuershan’s Mojin: The Lost Legend. Yet, being from the same studio as the latter film, it is not a rival adaptation per se. And it’s neither a sequel nor a prequel, as its events and depictions of characters do not fit with The Lost Legend‘s narrative. And it doesn’t seem to be a reboot, as there was word not so long ago of a Mojin Returns, with Chen Kun set to return to the lead. And while Wuershan’s film was a sizable hit – still the 12th highest-grossing Chinese film of all-time – The Worm Valley inexplicably scales things down both in terms of scope and in terms of cast, with Cheng Taishen the only recognizable face in the cast, let alone anyone of the A-list stature of Chen Kun, Shu Qi or Huang Bo. And as Fei Xing’s film looks set, after a few days on Chinese screen, to gross but a tiny fraction of The Lost Legend‘s box-office take, the whole thing appears quite a head-scratching way of managing a successful IP on the part of backers Enlight and Huayi.

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LOST, FOUND (2018) review

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Lv Yue’s Lost, Found is a Chinese take on Hong Eun-mi’s script to the 2016 thriller Missing Woman, directed by Lee Eon-hie. As explained in Derek Elley’s review of the film, the rights to the script were bought before the South-Korean version was even shot – and thus it is not a remake per se. It follows Li Jie (Yao Chen), a ruthless lawyer who has little time for her two-year-old daughter Duo Duo, but is nevertheless fighting for her custody in the aftermath of a divorce from Tian Ning (Yuan Wenkuang). But one day, Duo Duo goes missing, and Li Jie is convinced that she’s been kidnapped by her nanny Sun Fang (Ma Yili), a self-effacing country girl. Increasingly desperate as the police’s chances to find her daughter dwindle by the hour, Li Jie goes on a frantic search for clues as to Sun Fang’s whereabouts, discovering her painful, storied past in the process.

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