THE BOUNDARY (2014) short review

The-Boundary-2014-1 Wang Tao’s The Boundary is a psychological thriller about a cop (Ye Liu) who’s become a shell of a man since his wife disappeared mysteriously ten years before. His prime suspect has always been a wealthy businessman (Vincent Zhao), whose wife he had to shoot dead a bit before, when she tried to murder a woman she suspected of having an affair with her husband. Now ten years later, the businessman’s attractive new partner is brutally killed in a parking lot by a woman whom the surveillance cameras reveal to be his dead wife… The victim’s daughter thus enlists Ye Liu’s help to seek the truth, and a lot of painful secrets are about to be revealed. For half of its runtime, The Boundary is simply too vague for its own good : the stakes are introduced in such a hazy way that it’s difficult to care. Then the film starts boiling down to its more essential components and manages to gather some tension and a few genuine surprises, especially as it tickles Mainland China’s censorship rules about the supernatural, but the endlessly simmering atmosphere and deadening use of redundant flashbacks make it a slog. It’s nevertheless interesting to see a fine performance from Vincent Zhao in a rare non-martial arts role, all the more so as he’s generally much more interesting as an ambiguous villain (like in Jacob Cheung’s The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom), than as the squeaky-clean hero he plays in most of his films. **

WOLF WARRIOR (2015) review

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Wu Jing’s second film as a director after 2008’s Legendary Assassin, which he co-directed with his martial arts choreographer of choice Nicky Li Chung Chi, Wolf Warrior is also his first lead role in the seven years since that film’s release, and the first time he co-wrote a film. He plays Leng Feng, a sniper who is expelled from the army after he solved a hostage crisis by ignoring orders and shooting down the hostage-taker with a hazardous maneuver. While in confinement, he is approached by officer Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan) with an offer to join an elite tactical team known as the Wolf Warriors. He accepts, and soon he’s in the forest with his new team for a field exercise. But things take a tragic and dangerous turn when they run afoul of a team of foreign mercenaries headed by Tomcat (Scott Adkins) and hired by an international criminal (Ni Dahong) seeking revenge for the death of his brother, who is none other than the hostage-taker killed by Leng Feng. While supervised by Long Xiaoyun from a control room, Leng and two of his comrades must retaliate for the death of one of the Wolf Warriors, and prevent the team from crossing the Chinese border again.

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THE GAMBLING GHOST (1991) review

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Mixing the ‘ghost comedy’ genre with which Sammo Hung had been quite successful in the eighties, with the gambling craze initiated by Wong Jing’s God of Gamblers in 1989, Clifton Ko’s The Gambling Ghost follows Fat Bo (Sammo Hung), a lowly valet who squanders what money he earns on misguided and startlingly unlucky gambling, much to the chagrin of his dour father (Sammo Hung again), whose own father (Sammo Hung, yet again) was a gambler himself and was killed by a mob boss. One day, the ghost of the grandfather appears and strikes a deal with his grandson : he’ll make him rich by helping him cheat at gambling and by using his ghostly powers to make him win the lottery, but in return Fat Bo must get revenge for him. The Gambling Ghost follows a familiar Hong Kong comedy pattern : a drawn-out, episodic start, which suddenly accelerates to an action-packed finale in the last third (here finely choreographed by Meng Hoi, who also plays Fat Bo’s gambling partner). And indeed, the idea of a ghost forcing a man into getting him revenge or closure is one that Sammo had already used in 1982’s The Dead and the Deadly and 1986’s Where’s Officer Tuba, and that he would again play out in 1992’s Ghost Punting.

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CROSS (2012) short review

cross-2012-2 It took 3 years and 4 different directors to complete Cross‘ sluggish 75 minutes about a man (Simon Yam) who is devastated by his wife’s suicide, which according to his beliefs condemns her to hell, and so decides to save as many souls as he can by killing suicidal people before they can actually do it themselves. He then surrenders himself to the police, only to realize that someone may have been pulling the strings all along. Though it’s often visually arresting, with evocative cinematography conjuring disquieting imagery that combines the mundane with the unnatural, Daniel Chan, Steve Woo, Lau King Ping and Hui Shu Ning’s Cross is too narratively inept to engage in the least. A thudding use of flashbacks and exposition often clashes with the ambiguity the filmmakers so clearly aim for. There’s no pacing to speak of, each scene fading listlessly into the next, with a major twist being so clumsily introduced that you’d be forgiven for not even realizing it’s a twist. Simon Yam is fine in the role of an unflappable killer reminiscent of his character in the infinitely superior The Man behind the Courtyard House (2011), but he simply has too little to work with. Randomly, Nick Cheung crops up in an amusing scene that may have been tacked on to capitalize on the success of Roy Chow’s Nightfall, which already cast him alongside Simon Yam earlier in 2012. *1/2

SLICKERS VS KILLERS (1991) short review

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Success Hung (Sammo Hung) is an accomplished phone salesman whose world is turned upside down in a matter of days as his wife (Yu Li) starts cheating on him with a young policeman (Collin Chou), while a fierce rival (Carol ‘Dodo’ Cheng) is assigned by his company to work with him, and he witnesses the murder of a mobster (Tommy Wong Kwong Leung) by two deranged hitmen (Jacky Cheung and Lam Ching Ying). Despite a enticing cast (Joyce Godenzi also stars as Hung’s therapist, while Richard Ng cameos as one of his customers), and Sammo Hung’s impressive credentials as a director, Slickers vs. Killers is scattershot and unfunny, basing its comedy on shrill, interminable bickering and an uncomfortable amount of jokes about rape. There’s too little action to relieve the comedy’s shortcomings, and the subplot involving Jacky Cheung’s demented murderer is jarringly dark. But most damningly, it all revolves around a set of wholly unlikable characters that are either selfish, deluded, deranged or all of the above, with the exception of the therapist played by Joyce Godenzi, who proves what a well-rounded performer she was by showing a lighter, more offbeat side to her usually steely persona. *1/2

AN INSPECTOR CALLS (2015) review

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Considered a true classic of 20th-century English theatre, J.B. Priestley’s three-act play An Inspector Calls has been brought to the stage countless times since it was first performed in 1945, and it’s been a fixture of the BBC’s TV and radio programming (with yet another mini-series in preparation for 2015, starring David Thewlis) but it has comparatively been the object of few big screen adaptations. In fact, Raymond Wong and Herman Yau’s film is the first time the play is adapted for theatrical release since Guy Hamilton’s (of Goldfinger fame) 1954 adaptation. And surely it’s the most unexpected iteration of the story since the 1979 Soviet mini-series Inspector Gull. Screenwriter Edmond Wong transposes the setting from the North Midlands of Great Britain in 1912 to Hong Kong in 2015, but follows J.B. Priestley’s narrative pretty closely : the mysterious inspector Karl (Louis Koo) pays an unexpected visit to the rich Kau family’s estate. Mr. and Mrs. Kau (Eric Tsang and Teresa Mo) are in the final preparations for their daughter Sherry’s (Karena Ng) engagement party as she is soon to marry a handsome young businessman Johnny (Hans Zhang), while their son Tim (Gordon Lam) looks on in contemptuous bemusement, and clearly annoyed at his own girlfriend, socialite Yvonne (Ada Liu Yan). Inspector Karl informs them that a young woman (Chrissie Chau) from Mr. Kau’s factory has been found dead from what appears to be a painful, protracted suicide by disinfectant ingestion. As he starts to interrogate each member of the family in turn, it appears everyone of them was linked to the deceased woman, and everyone may have played a more or less active role in her eventual demise.

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LICENCE TO STEAL (1990) short review

LicenseToSteal_DongFangXu_SC36 In Billy Chan’s Licence to Steal, a cat burglar (Joyce Godenzi) is betrayed by her partner (Agnes Aurelio) and sent to prison for three years. Upon her release, she aims to get revenge on the double-crosser, and teams up with a dogged cop (Richard Ng), his young partner (Collin Chou) and his idealistic, slightly unhinged nephew (Yuen Biao). Licence to Steal avoids the numbing effect of overabundant action, as well as the annoyance of crass humor. It is often, as so many films of that time and place, too scattershot in its progression to really engage, but the cast is uniformly appealing, from the always classy and charismatic Joyce Godenzi to Yuen Biao playing a variation on his irresistible Dragons Forever role, not to mention the always funny and reliable Richard Ng. The fights, as choreographed by Corey Yuen, are brisk and delightful, if often frustratingly short : there’s a one-minute, dizzying bout between Yuen and Chou, that should have gone on at least four more minutes. And the same year as their savage, thundering fight in She Shoots Straight, Godenzi and Aurelio get a re-match in a masterful, stealthy fight in a warehouse, where they go at each other while avoiding being seen or heard by patrolling guards. A very pleasant action comedy.  ***

ZHONG KUI : SNOW GIRL AND THE DARK CRYSTAL (2015) review

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A prominent figure of Chinese mythology, the rotund and ugly but very powerful demon hunter Zhong Kui has surprisingly not had many film incarnations in the past decades. There was a female version of the character (played by Cheng Pei Pei, and thus not exactly rotund and ugly) in Ho Meng Hua’s The Lady Hermit in 1971, and Wu Ma directed and starred in a version of the myth in 1994’s The Chinese Ghostbuster, which transplanted the character as a fish out of water in 20th century Hong Kong. There has also been a few TV series, but Zhong Kui : Snow Girl and the Dark Crystal is definitely the character’s first blockbuster incarnation, and given the film’s success during the 2015 Chinese New Year period, it’s unlikely to be the last. Directed by Peter Pau, who’s been more celebrated as a cinematographer – a position which he occupies on this film too – than as a director (his last directorial effort was the messy Michelle Yeoh vehicle The Touch in 2002), and Zhao Tianyu, who until now had been a director of much more low-key fare (like 2008’s culinary thriller Deadly Delicious), it incongruously yet somewhat inevitably casts a handsome – some would say pretty – star in the title role, where one would have logically yet somewhat unrealistically expected a more corpulent and rugged actor like Jiang Wu or Zhang Jinsheng.

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THE OUTLAW BROTHERS (1990) short review

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James and Bond (Frankie Chan and Max Mok) are professional luxury car thieves who get caught between a mobster (Kong Do) who wants to exploit their gift, and a cop (Yukari Oshima) who’s bent on arresting them, with the help of her lovestruck underling (Michael Miu in a fun turn). Though the title suggests a focus on Frankie Chan (who also directs) and Max Mok’s characters, they are very often sidelined in favor of Yukari Oshima’s character and her cat and mouse flirting with Chan. The plot, or lack thereof, wanders aimlessly, springing the great Michiko Nishiwaki as a kind of black widow in the last 30 minutes, and breaking its lull of tame comedy with an impressive action finale in, wait for it, a warehouse. But The Outlaw Brothers is mostly a showcase for Oshima, who displays not only charisma and lightning moves, but also a lighter side that her often brutal roles at the time didn’t show, and the same goes for Nishiwaki, who doesn’t fight much but is gleefully flamboyant. Frankie Chan and Max Mok may be the outlaw brothers, but Yukari Oshima and Michiko Nishiwaki are the reason to watch The Outlaw Brothers. **1/2