ALMOST HUMAN (2020) short review

p2608816173In Zhang Nan’s Almost Human, an advanced female pleasure robot (Ma Yujie), having achieved self-awareness, breaks free from her creator and captor; to cover her sleek and otherworldly appearance, she murders a young woman and wears her skin. Curious about the meaning of human love, she randomly sets her sights on Wang Sheng (Duan Bowen), whose relationship to his girlfriend Su Xin (Hayden Kuo) is hitting a rocky patch.   Having kidnapped and sequestered Su Xin, she duplicates her appearance thanks to her creator’s latest invention, and takes her place within the couple. Almost Human‘s premise is interesting, basically a sci-fi twist on a Pu Songling horror romance like Painted Skin (the film’s Chinese title translates as “Mechanical Painted Skin” and replaces a fox spirit with a pleasure robot), and with a dash of Philip K. Dick rumination on artificial intelligence. Yet Zhang Nan does very little with the horrific, philosophical or even erotic potential of the story, going instead for tedious procedural (Liu Yiwei as an inspector leads the least urgent murder investigation ever), flat comedy (mostly sitcom-level bickering), and listless romance (Hayden Kuo and Duan Bowen have all the chemistry of diet coke and a veggie smoothie). Only of note are Ma Yujie, striking as the robot, and a nice Cliff Martinez-inspired score.  *1/2

MONSTER RUN (2020) review

p2617622226After co-directing Full Strike with Derek Kwok, and being visual effects supervisor on most of his other films, Henry Wong graduates to solo director (with Kwok still present as a producer) for Monster Run, the latest high-profile Chinese film to bypass theaters altogether in these times of pandemic. It follows Ji Mo (Jessie Li), a young woman who spent the past few years in a mental hospital to treat her diagnosed paranoid personality disorder: as a child, she would have visions of monsters. Having found a job in a convenience store, she’s hoping for an ordinary life and copes with the visions of monster, which haven’t subsided. Until one day, Meng (Shawn Yue) barges in the store with his partner Paper (a living piece of paper voiced by Qiao Shan) and hunts down a monster right in front of her. It turns out the monsters are real: they’re from an alternate dimension, and Meng’s mission is to stop them from coming into this world. Soon, a bond forms between the monter hunter and the young clairvoyant, but the sinister Lotus (Kara Hui), powerful guardian of the frontier between the two dimensions, has nefarious plans for Ji Mo…

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DOUBLE WORLD (2020) short review

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One of the higher-profile Chinese productions to take the decision to skip theaters in the time of COVID-19 in favor of an online release (in this case, Iqiyi in the east and Netflix in the west), Teddy Chan’s Double World is an adaptation of the popular MMORPG Zhengtu. In a fantasy China divided in two warring states, Southern Zhao and Northern Yan, all Southern Zhao clans are called upon to send three of their best fighters to a massive martial contest whose winner will become General-in-Chief of the state. Among the contestants are an orphan with a mysterious past (Henry Lau), and a deserter (Peter Ho) with a mysterious past AND a vengeful agenda. This wildly uneven fantasy epic is narratively so shallow and mechanical it’s hard to care about anything that unfolds onscreen, despite the charismatic presence of people like Peter Ho (why this man isn’t an international star yet, we don’t know) and Jiang Luxia (making the most of yet another semi-feral short-haired woman-fighter role). Visually, there’s an interestingly elaborate set for the arena where the contest unfolds, beautiful traps and weaponry and rather well-animated dragons and scorpions, but also some eye-gouging green-screen work, the kind in which actors’ faces are still bathed in a sickly greenish hue even long after post-production work has been completed. The film’s main redeeming quality, outside of Ho’s intense, brooding presence, is some brutal, bloody and inventive action directing by the great Tung Wei. **1/2