LEGALLY DECLARED DEAD (2020) short review

Yuen Kim Wai’s Legally Declared Dead is the third adaptation of Yusuke Kishi’s 1997 best-seller The Black House, after a 1999 Japanese film directed by Yoshimitsu Morita starring Seiyô Uchino, and a 2007 Korean take by Shin Tae-ra, with Hwang Jung-min. Here, Carlos Chan stars as Yip Wing Shun, an insurance broker still traumatized by his brother’s suicide when he was just a child. So when his client Chu Chung Tak (Anthony Wong) asks for compensation for the suicide of his stepson, Yip takes it upon himself to investigate matters further, as Chu is obviously mentally deranged, living is a squalid home with his limping and visually-impaired wife Shum Tsz Ling (Karena Lam). Legally Declared Dead starts out very promisingly, building an effective sense of dread on solid narrative bases: the minutiae of insurance payouts, Yip Wing Shun’s scarred psyche (illustrated through both haunting flashbacks and unnerving, recurring visions of mantid), the social squalor in which Chu Chung Tak and his wife live, and a creepy score by Yusuke Hatano. With just a dash of campy mystery coming from Liu Kai Chi as a pontificating criminologist, Yuen Kin Wai peels off layers of the plot with both restraint and a sure eye for chilling unease. Anthony Wong is remarkable as the deranged Chu, oscillating masterfully between frailty and threat, keeping the viewer guessing. His double-act with Karena Lam is the main attraction here: the latter is remarkable here, and sheds her natural beauty and charm with an ease that makes Charlize Theron’s performance in Patty Jenkins’ Monster look like it’s right from a L’Oréal commercial. Sympathetic yet ambiguous, pathetic yet charismatic, Karena Lam only drops subtlety in the film’s disappointing final act, a devolution into basic stalk-and-slash tropes that doesn’t deliver on the promise of the first hour. ***

VANGUARD (2020) review

Originally meant as a Chinese New Year 2020 film but pushed back eight months in the time of the Coronavirus, Stanley Tong’s Vanguard follows Tang (Jackie Chan), the head of an international security company named Vanguard, tasked with rescuing the kidnapped daughter (Xu Ruohan) of a businessman (Jackson Liu) whose past has caught up with him. From London to “Africa” (which in this film seems to be the name of a country) to Dubaï, flanked by his elite team that includes Mi Ya (Miya Muqi), Lei (Yang Yang) and Zhang (Allen Ai), Tang butts heads with a dangerous mercenary organization, the Arctic Wolves.

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JIANG ZIYA: LEGEND OF DEIFICATION (2020) review

A few years back, the Monkey King myth could not be escaped in the Chinese film industry, with countless adaptations expensive and cheap, live-action and animated, straightforward and oblique, flooding the big screen every year. This trend has since then subsided, with Monkey fatigue resulting in a few high-profile box-office disappointments (among which Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 3 and Derek Kwok’s Wu Kong), and the ape deity nowadays mostly confined to online movies, where he’s played by B-list (Collin Chou, Fan Siu Wong) or C-list (Peng Yusi) names, rather than the Donnie Yen’s, Aaron Kwok’s and Eddie Peng’s of his mid-2010s heyday. Chinese big screen fantasy is instead now becoming the dominion of Ming Dynasty epic Fengshen Yanyi (aka The Investiture of the Gods).

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IP MAN: CRISIS TIME (2020) short review

From director Li Liming, who last year brought us the surprisingly solid Ip Man: Kung Fu Master, now comes Ip Man: Crisis Time, focusing on Bruce Lee’s martial arts instructor (this time played by Chen Kaige protégé Zhao Wenhao) when he was a college student in Hong Kong. When a recently-escaped criminal (Mu Fengbin) right out of his past invades his college and takes its students as hostages, the young Ip Man is left to save the day from the inside. The premise is basically Die Hard in a university building, with Ip Man slapped onto it as a John McClane substitute (Ip McClane if you will); it’s like remaking Taken in China, with Wong Fei Hung as the father looking for his kidnapped child. It doesn’t make much sense, and Zhao Wenhao has neither the charisma nor the fighting ability to properly portray Ip Man, while villain Mu Fengbin was probably cast more for his passing ressemblance to Hiroshi Abe than anything else. Yet with its brisk 78-minute runtime and some fine action direction from Sun Fei (returning after Ip Man: Kung Fu Master), Crisis Time rarely bores. Let’s just pretend we didn’t notice the risibly unconvincing views of early 20th-century Hong Kong (complete with TV antennas!). **

ABYSSAL SPIDER (aka MAD SPIDER SEA) (2020) review

There’s a welcome sense of variety to Taiwanese director Joe Chien’s fifteen-year old filmography: horror is his genre of predilection, but within it he rarely repeats himself: there’s the quirky and oblique Buttonman, the grindhouse zombie flicks Zombie 108 and Zombie Fight Club, the classy haunted house mystery The House that never dies II, as well as the phantasmagorical, Silent Hill-like The Apostles, with its admirably bold final twist. And with Abyssal Spider (the more ridiculous title “Mad Spider Sea” appears in the film itself, but not on the posters) Chien tries his hand at a maritime creature feature.

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