PHANTOM: THE SUBMARINE (1999) review

Submarine films don’t come often: the last significant one was David Twohy’s superb Below in 2003 (and, the same year, Kathryn Bigelow’s underrated K-19: The Widowmaker). Asian submarine films are even more scarce. In fact, I can’t think of one on the top of my head. Phantom: The Submarine thus has some measure of novelty to it. Directed by Min Byung-Chun and written by the great Bong Joon-Ho (of The Host and Memories of Murder fame, among others), it stars Jun Woo-Sung and Choi Min-Soo. The plot is kind of a cross between The Hunt for Red October and Crimson Tide: a nuclear submarine commander (Choi Min-Soo) decides to go rogue and threatens to bomb a nearby country (here Japan), like Sean Connery in Red October. But not everyone agrees with him aboard the ship, which leads to a face-off between the commander and one of the officers (Jun Woo-Sung), like Gene Hackman and Denzel Washington in Crimson Tide. But Phantom: The Submarine has a tone all of its own, sometimes verging on the supernatural. The submarine in the film is called Phantom for one good reason: it’s not supposed to exist, and everybody in its crew is supposed to be dead. For instance Jun Woo-Sung’s character was supposed to be executed, but instead got assigned to the submarine as a weapons officer, under the number (names and personal items are forbidden) 431. So it’s basically the contemporary, realistic equivalent of a ghost ship.

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SILVER HAWK (2004) review

Following her rise to international fame thanks to Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon, Michelle Yeoh founded Mythical Films with her then-companion Thomas Chung, with an eye towards giving herself tailor-made roles in films with an international ambition. The venture led to Peter Pau’s The Touch, a sporadically enjoyable Indiana Jones-wannabe that was successful in China but not anywhere else, and to Silver Hawk, which replicated The Touch’s pattern of success. Both films are vanity projects of sorts for Yeoh, as she cast herself first as a fearless adventurer then as a fearless super-heroine, in films that glorified the grace of her moves and the flawlessness of her skin. Not that there’s anything wrong with the idea of a film glorifying Michelle Yeoh. One of the most beautiful actresses in the world, a skillfull martial artists of unparalleled grace in action, but also a powerful dramatic actress (as evidenced in films like the aforementioned Ang Lee film and Far North, among many others), Yeoh is the very definition of a true movie star. But the cold, hard truth is that Silver Hawk is as misguided a star vehicle as it gets.

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ISLAND OF FIRE (1990) review

The most obvious thing Island of Fire has going for it, is its cast : Jackie Chan, Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, Andy Lau, Jimmy Wang Yu, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai. This is, absolutely speaking, one hell of a line-up, but of course at the time Andy Lau, though having been in countless films already, was still more successful as a singer than an actor, Sammo Hung was on the decline after his break-up with the almighty Golden Harvest Studio, Jimmy Wang Yu was nearing his self-imposed exile from films, and Tony Leung Ka-Fai had never had a leading role before. All in all, Jackie Chan was the only member of the cast to truly be at the height of his popularity (a height he has barely left ever since). However, Chan is not the lead here : Leung is, and even he is sidelined for entire chunks of the film. Actually, if there was to be a real leading role here, it would be the island itself, or rather the prison that is on this island.

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DIVERGENCE (2005) review

Benny Chan’s Divergence proceeds directly from the overwhelming and international success of the Infernal Affairs trilogy. It is not a cash-in, mind you : the kinship here is mainly to be seen in the tight storytelling refusing to be overly explanatory, the cold urban aesthetics and the stellar cast. The Hong-Kong superstar Aaron Kwok plays Suen, a cop whose girlfriend disappeared 10 years ago, and who’s never stopped looking for her, including at the morgue. He has been assigned to the protection of a key witness in the high-stakes trial of a corrupt businessman. The businessman’s lawyer (portrayed by Ekin Cheng) happens to be married to a woman looking remarkably like his long-lost girlfriend. That, coupled with the fact that the witness gets killed by a hitman called Coke (played by Daniel Wu), triggers a chain of events that put Suen’s mental and physical health to the test.

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