NIGHT PEACOCK (aka LE PAON DE NUIT) (2016) review

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The sixth film of Chinese-French author and director Dai Sijie, Night Peacock tells of Elsa (Crystal Liu Yifei), a musician who spends her time between France and China. In the western city of Chengdu, she meets Ma Rong (Leon Lai) an expert player of the Shakuhachi flute who owns a silkworm factory. Elsa soon becomes both fascinated by silkworms – living beings that have to be sacrificed so that precious silk may be extracted – and infatuated with Ma Rong. But she also meet Lin (Yu Shaoqun), a young opera singer who’s in love with her to the point of following her around, breaking into her room and trying on her high-heels. But the film unfolds in non-linear fashion, with the other half of the scenes taking place later in Paris, where Elsa learns she’s pregnant (we don’t know whom from yet), and meets Ma Rong’s younger brother Ma Jianmin (Liu Ye), an undocumented tattoo artist who marvels at her skin and offers to adorn her back with a tattoo of a night peacock, a beautiful but rare and short-lived butterfly. Soon, Elsa and Jianmin are in love.

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HELP (2007) short review

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A young doctorate student in psychology (Song Jia) is angling for a prized position as assistant to a renowned expert in the field. Feeling that her classmate (Asiru) may be the one chosen for the job, she has sex with her teacher – who’s in charge of choosing the assistant – in exchange for the position. When her boyfriend (Zhu Hongjia) realizes what she’s done, they get into a heated argument, during which he slips and falls headfirst on the corner of a table. Thinking he’s dead and fearing she might be accused of having killed him, she calls her teacher and begs him to help her dispose of the body. Soon thereafter she’s starts being plagued by mysterious sleepwalking episodes and visions of her dead boyfriend. Originality, fear or surprise are not to be found in this languid little horror film, which laudably never resorts to jump scares, but nevertheless unfolds in an entirely predictable way, down to the exposition-heavy finale and debunking of what initially looked like paranormal instances. This is, after all, a Mainland Chinese horror film. One keeps hoping some Chinese director will one day find a clever way to get around the SARFT‘s censorship of supernatural elements, but Zhang Qi (who later helmed the equally contrived The Devil Inside Me) isn’t the chosen one. He does know how to conjure creeping dread, but that dread never goes anywhere compelling, wasting Song Jia’s subtle, affecting performance. *1/2

THE FINAL MASTER (aka THE MASTER) (2015) review

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The Master is the third film of Wu Xia author, martial artist, film critic, Taoist scholar and film director Xu Haofeng, after the intriguing but often willfully abstruse The Sword Identity (2011) and Judge Archer (2012). Adapted once again from one of his short stories, it takes place in 1932 and follows Chen Shi (Liao Fan), a Wing Chun master from Guangdong who arrives in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin with hopes of opening a martial arts school. While arranging a marriage of interest with a young waitress (Song Jia), he’s also initiated by aging grandmaster Zheng (Chin Shih Chieh) to the city’s rules on opening a new school: he who wishes to do so must first defeat eight of the nineteen established martial arts schools. However, if one were to manage such a feat, he would then have to be defeated and cast out of Tianjin, to preserve the city’s martial arts reputation. Thus Chen Shi is advised by old master Zheng to find himself a pupil that he will groom, and who will then fight on his behalf – and be cast out instead of him. Chen chooses an ambitious and gifted young coolie (Song Yang) to be his disciple and scapegoat, the first move in a protracted game of Go involving not only the outsider master and his pupil, but also old master Zheng, his former disciple (now a KMT Admiral’s aide), and the powerful head of Tianjin’s martial arts syndicate (Jiang Wenli).

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An Interview with Composer Leon Ko

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Leon Ko Sai Tseung’s lineage seemed to predestine him to writing music for stage and film: the son of legendary Hong Kong actress Lucilla You Min – who won ‘Best Leading Actress’ at the first ever Golden Horse Awards – and the grandson of Cantonese Opera artist (and occasional silent film actor) Bak Yuk Tong, his career as a composer of Cantonese musicals has been rich in awards and popular acclaim, with all of his four creations, The Good Person of SzechwanThe Legend of the White SnakeField of Dreams and The Passage Beyond, having won best score at the Hong Kong Drama Awards. This, in addition to being a driving force in the recent revival of Cantonese Opera and an occasional musical director for Jacky Cheung’s  world tours. Ko’s works have travelled as far out of Hong Kong as London’s London’s Stratford East Theatre and New York’s Carnegie Hall.

That’s not even mentioning his career in film scoring, which is the topic of the following interview, and equally successful as his other musical ventures. After only eight film scores – for major directors like Peter Chan, Derek Yee or Dante Lam – Leon Ko is already a Golden Horse Award winner and a two-time Hong Kong Film Award winner, with four additional nominations. You can sample his work for film and stage at his website. You might be struck by Leon Ko’s versatility: there’s a world of difference between the atonal thrills of That Demon Within and the epic whimsy of Monster Hunt, or between the lyrical anguish of Dearest and the old-school playfulness of The Great Magician. Now as busy and in-demand as ever, he nevertheless graciously agreed to answer my questions.

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LOOKING FOR MR. PERFECT (2003) short review

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A rare light, glitzy and non-urban film in Ringo Lam’s distinguished filmography, Looking for Mr. Perfect tells of a young cop (Shu Qi) who’s been dreaming about the perfect boyfriend but is stuck with two awkward and clingy suitors (Raymond Wong Ho Yin and Godfrey Ngai). Things change when she follows her roommate (Isabel Chan) to Malaysia, where she meets her Hong Kong informer (Chapman To), a libidinous talent agent (Lam Suet), a flamboyant arms dealer (Simon Yam), a hapless mercenary (Hui Shiu Hung), as well as his hunky associate (Andy On), who may just be Mr. Perfect. Misunderstandings abound as the two young women get embroiled in the hunt for a prized missile guidance system. Sense and logic go out the window very early on in this overstuffed little action-comedy; Chapman To, Lam Suet and Hui Shiu Hung do their shtick pleasingly, Shu Qi, Isabel Chan and Andy On look very attractive, and Simon Yam steals the show as a tap-dancing, relentlessly finger-snapping villain. The film’s uneven and somewhat repetitive comedy gets compensated for by two very fun action set pieces choreographed by Nicky Li Chung Chi: one a spectacular jet-ski chase and the other a protracted finale starting with impressive motorbike stunts, powering on as Andy On and Simon Yam go at each other with a variety fruits (needless to say, durians come in contact with arses), and ending with a fun visual punchline involving a kite and a speedboat. Oh, and there’s giggling animated sunflowers, too. **1/2

LOST IN THE PACIFIC (2016) review

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In 2014, Vincent Zhou directed the Chinese thriller Last Flight, starring Ed Westwick and Zhu Zhu, about a red-eye flight under attack from mutant cats. Made on a budget of $10 millions, the film garnered only $5.9 millions at the box-office and yet less than two years later, here comes Lost in the Pacific, made on roughly the same budget but this time a US-China coproduction, with a – very slightly – starrier cast, but mostly the same plot adorned with a few futuristic enhancements: it takes place in 2020 on the inaugural flight of a luxury aircraft, for which all the passengers are celebrities here to create buzz, with a journalist (Jiang Mengjie) in tow to publicize the whole thing. When a freak storm forces the captain (Zhang Yuqi) to make an emergency landing on a deserted island in the Pacific, the plane is attacked by a pack of mutant red-eyed cats, as well as two shady paramilitaries (Bernice Liu and Kaiwi Lyman) who quickly take command and redirect the flight towards a mysterious aircraft carrier. It’s left to the captain and the ex-special forces cook (Brandon Routh looking like an overgrown Jason Schwartzman playing Casey Ryback) to save the day.

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PHANTOM OF THE THEATRE (2016) review

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With Phantom of the Theatre, director Raymond Yip continues his recent streak of horror films that also includes Blood-Stained Shoes (2012), The House that Never Dies (2014) and Tales of Mystery (2015). Set in Shanghai during the 1930s, it unfolds in and around an abandoned theatre that is said to be haunted by the ghosts of an acrobatic troupe that was killed in a fire 13 years before. In comes Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) a young film director with plans to shoot a romantic ghost story in this very theatre; after a chance encounter with up-and-coming actress Meng Sifan (Ruby Lin), he offers her the lead role in his film and she accepts. But on the very first day of shooting in the theatre, the film’s lead actor dies horribly, mysteriously burnt from inside. Soon, one of the film’s investors meets the same fate, just as a strange cloaked figure is seen stalking the playhouse’s corridors. Despite all this, Gu Weibang – who has replaced the lead actor and is developing requited feelings for his co-star – keeps shooting his film, under the disapproving eye of his father, warlord Gu Mingshan (Simon Yam).

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