THE GUILTY ONES (2019) review

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A remake of Jeong Keun-seob’s 2013 Korean thriller Montage, Wang Yu’s The Guilty Ones stars Wang Qianyuan (now leading his third Chinese remake of a Korean film, after Peace Breaker and The Big Shot) as Chen Hao, a cop who ten years ago failed to catch the kidnapper and murderer of single mother Bai Lan’s (Song Jia) daughter. Ten years later, he’s not closer to finding the culprit, and has resigned from the police, while Bai Lan is now in the terminal phase of lung cancer. Yet both are still determined to find the killer, so when the daughter of a lawyer is kidnapped and held for ransom in the exact same modus operandi as ten years ago, both the cop and the grieving mother make a last attempt at solving the case.

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IP MAN: KUNG FU MASTER (2019) review

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Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 4: The Finale has come sandwiched in between two straight-to-VOD cash-ins. The first one was Fu Li Wei’s Ip Man and Four Kings, and now comes, from the same production company (Kai Pictures), Li Li Ming’s Ip Man: Kung Fu Master, starring Dennis To as the grandmaster. Of course, this is far from former Wushu champion To’s first go at the iconic martial artist: after playing bit parts in Wilson Yip’s Ip Man and Ip Man 2, he had gone one to star as a young Master Ip in Herman Yau’s modestly successful Ip Man: The Legend is born, before quite amusingly spoofing the character in Jeff Lau’s Kung Fu League. Interestingly, Kung Fu Master is the first Ip Man film to mention his career as a policeman, a veracious detail of his life that’s also full of dramatic potential. Indeed, Ip was a police captain in Foshan for a few years, before and after the Sino-Japanese war. That, however, is where the film’s commitment to reality ends: this time, Captain Ip is framed for the murder of ruthless but honorable mobster Third Father (Michael Wong), and targeted for vengeance by his dangerous daughter (Wanliruo Xin). Forced to quit the force, he must soon also contend with the arrival of the Japanese army in Guangzhou.

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HUNT DOWN (2019) short review

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From director Li Jun, a respected TV director (2018’s Peace Hotel) who had his big screen debut three years ago with the slightly wobbly Chinese-Korean thriller Tik Tok, Hunt Down follows Zhao Hongyu (Jiao Junyan), a narcotics cop reassigned to the ‘art and relics’ division (which fights tomb-raiding and relics-trafficking) because her estranged Wan Zhenggang (Fan Wei) is closely linked to a suspected trafficker of relics. Posing as a delinquent, she is to reunite with her father – whom she hasn’t seen in years – to better investigate the case. While the unsuspecting Wan does all he can to mend bridges with his daughter, his new wife Lin Baiyu (Chen Shu), an influential TV personality, is both angry and suspicious at the new arrival in the family. Shaking up its thriller formula in a few interesting ways – a non-linear structure peeling the plot like an onion, the unusual ‘tomb-raiding’ angle – Hunt Down also benefits from an excellent lead trio: Fan Wei is superb as a conflicted scholar, a role with too many shades of grey to count, Jiao Junyan matches him as the spunky cop trying to navigate both an investigation and her own family turmoil, and Chen Shu is a delight as a powerful, seductive, dangerous stepmother right out of a fairy tale (Song Yang, as the cop in charge of the investigation, makes much less of an impression). Yet the aforementioned non-linear structure and unusual setting can’t hide the fact that, once unfolded, this is a rather rote and ordinary plot peppered with faintly ridiculous elements (a phone application that can authentify ancient artifacts…), and Li Jun’s direction is painfully workmanlike, especially in one or two limp action scenes. **1/2

A WITNESS OUT OF THE BLUE (2019) review

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In Fung Chih Chiang’s A Witness out of the Blue, Louis Koo (now in his sixth film released this year) plays Sean Wong, a career criminal on the run after a jewellery store robbery that left several people dead. Inspector Yip (Philip Keung), whose undercover agent was killed on that day, is especially dogged in his pursuit of Wong, but the case becomes more complicated when the latter’s accomplices start being killed one by one. The only witness of the first murder is a parrot, a clever animal which inspector Lam (Louis Cheung) believes can help him find the killer. Quickly, it becomes doubtful that Wong is the one killing his accomplices; instead, suspicion falls on some of the customers present on the day of the robbery, whose life was forever altered by it: a butcher whose mother died on that day (Patrick Tam), and a security guard (Andy On) whose girlfriend (Fiona Sit) was crippled. But Lam also suspects Yip himself, believing his thirst for vengeance to have gotten the better of him.

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IP MAN 4: THE FINALE (2019) review

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Eleven years after his career was both boosted and defined by the resounding success of Wilson Yip’s Ip Man, Donnie Yen is back for a final time as the grandmaster of Wing Chun. Following the death of his wife, Ip Man is diagnosed with head and neck cancer; his son Jing wants to become a martial arts master himself, but Man wants him to attend university instead, and sensing his end approaching fast, he travels to San Francisco to get him enrolled in a university, hoping the expatriation will teach him independence. There, he meets his former student Bruce Lee, now a revered teacher himself, but frowned upon by the more traditional kung fu masters of Chinatown for daring to instruct non-Chinese in the ways of Chinese martial arts. Chief among these traditionalists is Tai Chi Master Wan (Wu Yue), the head of the Chinese Benevolent Association, whose recommendation is crucial in getting Ip Jing accepted into university. Masters Ip and Wan butt heads over the issue of spreading Chinese martial arts to the West, but a common enemy soon emerges: racist Marine instructor Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins) who deeply resents the attempts by American-born Chinese soldier Hartmann (Vanness Wu) to have Wing Chun included to Marine training, and sends Karate master Collin (Chris Collins) to Chinatown in an attempt to humiliate Chinese martial arts.

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THE WHISTLEBLOWER (2019) review

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After finding success in intimate dramas (Ocean Heaven) and romantic comedies (Finding Mr Right, Book of Love), director Xue Xiaolu tries her hand at the thriller with The Whistleblower, a Chinese-Australian co-production. It follows Ma Ke (Lei Jiayin), a Chinese expatriate working for an energy company in Melbourne that is on the verge of closing a lucrative deal with a Chinese conglomerate. Working for that conglomerate, and married to its CEO, is Zhou Siliang, Ma’s old flame. During a luxurious celebration of the upcoming deal, they briefly rekindle their romance even though they are both married – he happily to Judy (Qi Xi) and her on the verge of divorce. Soon after, Zhou Siliang is declared dead in a plane crash with several members of her team, only to reappear days later, reaching out to him: she knows too much about her husband’s illegal dealings and is on the run from him: furthermore, a recent earthquake near the company’s mines in Africa may not be what what it seems…

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IP MAN AND FOUR KINGS (2019) short review

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Years after the Ip Man trend faded, and weeks before Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s hotly anticipated Ip Man 4 arrives on the big screen, here’s a straight-to-VOD cash-in starring Michael Tong in the titular role. Here, the grandmaster of Wing Chun is wrongly accused of murder and must both clear his name and break a human-trafficking ring; for this he needs to earn the respect in combat of the “Four Heavenly Kings”: the heads of the gambling, prostitution, alcohol and catering syndicates of the city. Fu Li Wei’s Ip Man and Four Kings is a cheap affair of course, unfolding in sets alternatively bare and slightly-anachronistic, borrowing music in distracting ways (Gabriel Yared and Stéphane Moucha’s score to the German classic The Lives of Others pops up at some point, so does Brad Fiedel’s famous Terminator rhythm), and with fights over-edited in a way that suggests shooting time-constraints. The film starts with a “same-same but different” rip-off of the famed ‘rainy nighttime street’ fight from Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmasters, down to the slow-mo stepping into puddles and the collapsing steel gate, and indeed Michael Tong’s Ip Man has the same white hat as Tony Leung’s Chiu Wai. Yet from then on, it borrows much more from the Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen films’ grammar of evil gweilos and corrupt cops, even acknowledging the events of Ip Man 1 & 2. Tong makes for a passable Master Ip, and would probably have been a fine one with a better script and better production values. And while the fights are sometimes marred by silly wirework, conspicuous under-cranking and the aforementioned over-editing, they’re plentiful in the second half, and solidly entertaining once expectations have been lowered. But who wouldn’t lower expectations before watching a Chinese straight-to-VOD cash-in? **