MIDNIGHT BEATING (2010) short review

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The marketing for Zhang Jiabei’s Midnight Beating called it the first real horror film made in Mainland China, no small feat in itself considering Chinese censorship’s ‘no ghosts, no gore’ directives. The film ultimately plays by these rules, but the fact that it’s so un-scary and indeed, boring, cannot be solely attributed to content restrictions. It is quite simply direly written and limply directed, its story – about a hospital that is haunted by a murdering ghost, and whose grieving doctor (Simon Yam) and philandering psychologist (Francis Ng) hold pivotal secrets – unfolding with little to no urgency or atmosphere. Simon Yam’s poignant performance and Yasuda Fumio’s classy score stick out in a swamp of TV-grade production values, tired jump scares, deadening exposition and shrill emotional displays, not to mention Francis Ng’s bored face and a staggeringly stupid scene involving a website that allows visitors to watch their own memories of departed loved ones as videos. *

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THE MAN BEHIND THE COURTYARD HOUSE (2011) review

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Before he found success with the excellent courtroom thriller Silent Witness, Fei Xing directed The Man behind the Courtyard House, which despite its high-profile cast went fairly unnoticed. Much like Silent Witness, it starts out with a fairly straightforward narrative, whose conclusion arrives a bit too soon to satisfy. Then it rewinds itself not once but twice, each time revealing a new layer that helps not only to make sense of what we saw, but also to see it in a new light. And so after a first segment in which we see a group of backpacking students (Eva Huang Shengyi, Yu Shaoqun, Zhang Kejia and Zhang Shuyu) find shelter in a old traditional house whose sole inhabitant is cold, mysterious Chen Zhihui (Simon Yam) who claims he’s a distant relative of the old couple that is supposed to live there. What follows is a rote slasher where Chen kills the backpackers one by one by banging a nail in their skull, with no apparent motive. But then the film backtracks twice, and we are introduced to his backstory, and people he met in the days before : the old couple who lived in the house, but also an affable state investigator (Chen Sicheng), a recently-widowed hotel owner (Zhang Jingchu) and a desperate but determined ex-con (Wei Zi), among others. Slowly, Chen’s story takes fascinating, poignant shape.

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CIRCUS KIDS (1994) short review

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Wu Ma’s last film as a director (though he kept on appearing in films for twenty more years), Circus Kids stands out simply by being the only time – so far – that martial arts greats Yuen Biao and Donnie Yen have been in the same film. Both were about to experience a unfortunate career wane in the second half of the nineties, and indeed Circus Kids is not up to their talent. It follows the various misfortunes of a circus troupe (led by Wu Ma himself and including Yuen Biao) during the Japanese occupation of Shanghai around 1910. Forced to move and take up jobs at a factory when their tent is destroyed in a Japanese bombing, they are thrust in the middle of political machinations and opium trafficking, but find an ally in a constable (Donnie Yen) who has feelings for the troupe’s trapeze artist (Irene Wan). Much of the goings-on in Circus Kids are tedious, thinly-written melodrama, which coupled with the film’s short running time and fairly low budget, don’t allow it to develop any kind of epic sweep or even dramatic poignancy. It is also fairly light on martial arts, with Donnie Yen and Yuen Biao only trading blows for a few seconds. Still the film’s stunning final fight, which sees Yuen take on fearful kicker Ken Lo (who the same year fought Jackie Chan in Drunken Master 2‘s unforgettable finale), is worth the wait, and a welcome relief from the mediocrity that precedes it. **

PAY BACK (2013) review

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A Mainland Chinese production starring mostly Hong Kong actors and with the kind of urban, contained storyline you might expect from a Milkyway Image production (which it isn’t), Fu Xi’s Pay Back – also known under the equally generic but much clumsier title Hunting Enemies- is an often puzzling film. Its plot is nothing new, but has a potential for grit and poignancy. It concerns Yang Yan (Francis Ng), a taxi driver bent on getting revenge for the rape of his daughter (Chen Yirong), that led to her suicide and his wife’s (Cynthia Khan) subsequent fatal seizure. His main target is Zhang Jin (Fan Siu-Wong) a triad henchman with father issues, who it turns out is innocent but took the fall for his boss Borther Hai (Chang Cheng). Zhang Jin aims to make amends and clean up his life, and out of guilt (he didn’t commit the rape but did witness it without doing anything to prevent it) he helps Yang Yan in his quest for revenge, all the while trying to dissuade him from taking the violent way out.

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NO MAN’S LAND (2013) short review

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Being shelved for four years over censorship issues sounds like a death knell for any film, and yet in the case of Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land, it may actually have been a considerable boon : indeed, the four-years delay meant that the film came out after the comedy Lost In Thailand, which starred two of the leads of No Man’s Land (Xu Zheng and Huang Bo), and thus became positioned as their follow-up to what is still the all-time highest-grossing Chinese film in China. It did however lose its potential status as China’s very first modern-day set western – with Gao Qunshu’s Wind Blast having been released in the meantime – though in truth it is closer to a film noir than a western, with moody voice-over and a cynical outlook on human nature. It tells of an arrogant big city lawyer (Xu Zheng) who travels to the far west of China to plead the case of a falcon trafficker (Togbye), then tries to rush back to the city to close a book deal on that very case. But he runs afoul of the trafficker’s scabby assistant (Huang Bo), as well as spiteful cops, angry truck drivers, and sordid petrol station owners, becoming the de facto protector of a desperate prostitute (Yu Nan) in the process. No Man’s Land often recalls Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, with which it shares an almost fantasmagorical level of bad luck and human scum thrust upon an almost unlikeable main character. And like that 1997 film, it starts out delightfully dark and funny, then loses steam with its thudding cynicism and an overdose of plot turns that are less fresh and witty than the director seems to think. Still, it’s a fun ride with great turns from Togbye as a monolithic bandit and Yu Nan as the only likeable character of the film and the incarnation of the softer side of Ning Hao’s pitch dark vision. ***1/2

THE GREAT HYPNOTIST (2014) review

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Dr. Xu Ruining (Xu Zheng) is a highly-regarded practitioner of hypnotherapy, a science that yields surprisingly effective results but also a bit of controversy due to its blurry ethical boundaries : indeed, matters of free will are made a bit blurry when one enters the alternative state of hypnosis. This doesn’t stop Xu from being a supremely confident, resolutely arrogant master of his craft, and he is quick to take up the challenge when a colleague asks for his help in curing a seemingly untreatable patient : a woman (Karen Mok) who’s been abandoned by her parents and by her foster parents, and now claims to see dead people. She shows up at his office one evening, and a psychological game of cat and mouse ensues as it becomes apparent she’s not the only one to have secrets. Initially dismissive of any supernatural explanation, Dr. Xu soon has the tables turned on himself, as the woman claims that two ghosts are present in the room, and starts telling him things about himself he thought no one else knew.

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HIGH KICKERS (2013) short review

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On the surface, High Kickers sounds like a fairly appealing proposition : the beautiful and talented Eva Huang Shengyi in a film highlighting the Korean martial art know as Tae Kwon Do, with a living legend in the person of Gordon Liu (in one of his last roles before a stroke left him tragically diminished) lending credence to the project and support from Hong Kong mainstays Waise Lee and Mark Cheng. The plot, which concerns a young woman (Huang) seeking, and slowly gaining, the mentorship of an ageing Tae Kwon Do instructor (Gordon Liu) with an aim to defeat the champion (Mark Cheng) who accidentally killed her brother in an illegal match, isn’t exactly original or even plausible, but it might have been at least serviceable, had the productions values not been so incredibly dismal, and the directing so direly aimless and vague. Every aspect of the production is handled with a dumbfounding amateurishness. The writing is limp and builds absolutely nothing over the course of the film’s 80-minute runtime. The actors are all professionals that are either horribly miscast (50 year-old Mark Cheng as the national Tae Kwon Do champion), or ridiculously underused (Waise Lee barely registers as Mark Cheng’s coach, Gordon Liu is the only accomplished martial artist in the cast, but doesn’t get to fight). But even more damningly, the fighting is little more than a neverending series of poorly-shot high kicks performed quite obviously by stunt doubles, and limited to short skirmishes in non-descript gymnasiums and dojos. At the center of this anemic whimper of a film is Eva Huang Shengyi, a talented, appealing actress who deserves so much more. *

SILENT WITNESS (2013) review

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Lin Mengmeng (Deng Jiajia), the daughter of famous, wealthy and arrogant entrepreneur Lin Tai (Sun Honglei), is accused of having killed her stepmother, a famous singer called Yang Dan, after confronting her over her infidelities to her father, made public in a paparazzi video showing her having a one-night stand with an actor. Lin Tai claims his daughter is innocent and hires China’s highest-paid lawyer, Zhou Li (Yu Nan), while public prosecution is handled by Tong Tao (Aaron Kwok), a brilliant lawyer with a spotless record, who’s been trying to nail Lin Tai for years over finally unproven charges of fraud. But after CCTV footage and a key testimony lead, on the first day of the highly-publicized trial, to the slightly too convenient conclusion that the father’s driver is the actual culprit, the truth starts to unravel as both defense and prosecution claw to the truth and receive clues from a mysterious source as to what lies beneath the clear-cut appearances.

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