FATAL VISIT (2020) short review

Directed by Calvin Poon, based on Candace Chong’s acclaimed play Murder in San Jose and adapted for the big screen by Philip Yung, the long-delayed Fatal Visit (it was shot in 2017) follows Ling (Sammi Cheng), a Hong Kong expatriate in the quiet outskirts of San Jose, California. Living in a villa by a sun-drenched lake, doted upon by her husband, businessman Tang (Tong Dawei) and with a baby on the way, her life, at a quick glance, seems idyllic. But there is much turmoil under the surface, as her childhood friend Yanny (Charlene Choi, with a normal-length neck despite what the above poster suggests), a broke dancer visiting from Hong Kong after a painful breakup, soon discovers. Tang’s business venture is failing to get off the ground, and he is prone to angry outbursts, while Ling seems haunted by her past, specifically her relationship to her abusive ex-husband (Dominic Lam). It would have taken a bit more narrative and visual dexterity than what journeyman Calvin Poon can manage, to make Fatal Visit‘s surfeit of dark secrets, hand-wringing and dramatic reveals shocking and affecting instead of passably pulpy and painfully pedestrian. It doesn’t help that Charlene Choi’s ingenue act (now in its 20th year of existence, no less) and Tong Dawei’s non-threatening presence (he needs strong direction for his baby face to be well used against type) severely unbalance the dark central triangle they form with a superb Sammi Cheng, both poignant and unsettling, achieving in her performance the very balance the film fails to reach. **

THE EIGHT HUNDRED (2020) review

By far the highest-profile of the Chinese films set to celebrate the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic of China (which included Li Shaohong’s Liberation and Oxide Pang’s Towards the River Glorious, both flops), Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred was initially set to open the 2019 Shanghai Film Festival, followed by a domestic theatrical release in early July 2019. Both were abruptly cancelled, officially for “technical reasons” – the real reason allegedly having more to do with the positive portrayal of the Nationalist army, which in PRC propaganda are normally to be portrayed as a band of traitors to their homeland. It’s not clear what changes were brought to the film to make it palatable to the Communist overlords, but when it finally got a domestic release more than a year later, it heralded the promising recovery of its industry in the Covid-19 aftermath, with a thunderous 450 million dollars (and counting) at the Chinese box-office, not far at all from the lofty expectations surrounding its original 2019 release.

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WILD SWORDS (2020) short review

Directed by Li Yunbo under the illustrious guidance of Feng Xiaogang and with regular Jia Zhangke collaborator Matthieu Laclau editing, Wild Swords follows Wang Yidao (Zhao Jian) and his team of bodyguards, tasked by a mysterious employer with escorting prisoner Guo Changsheng (Zhang Xiaochen) to a temple. The defiant Guo is said to know the whereabouts of Zhang Weiran (Shangbai), a member of the powerful Nameless Sect who years ago murdered the heir of the rival Tangmen Sect. Along the dangerous way, Wang and his men are followed both by Bai Xiaotian (Sui Yongliang), a former member of the Nameless Sect with a bone to pick with Zhang Weiran, and by Tang Wuque (Eric Hsiao), a representative of the Tangmen Sect. This is a film that delights and frustrates in equal measure. The former because is a visually stunning affair, with earthy yet ornate photography – a difficult paradox to master – regaling the eyes, and elaborate yet abrupt fight choreography: yet another paradox. And the latter because narratively it tries to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, with plot intricacies teased but never developed upon, and promising characters proving one-dimensional when all is said and done. **/12