RAILWAY HEROES (2021) short review

Yang Feng’s directing debut Railway Heroes follows the resistance fighters of the Shandong Rail Corps, who relentlessly fought the Japanese invaders during the Second Sino-Japanese War, from 1937 to 1945. A team of railroad workers led by Hong (Zhang Hanyu) conducts sabotage operations against Japanese trains headed for the battlefront in East China, with station operator Wang (Fan Wei) as their source of intel. It’s a much more somber take on that time in history than Ding Sheng’s Jackie Chan vehicle Railroad Tigers in 2016, but not necessarily a more realistic one. Therein lies the film’s problem: it never chooses between being a rip-roaring, over-the-top semi-patriotic spectacle like Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong and Red Sea for example, or being a realistic, reverent historical account like, Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly. There’s merit in choosing the middle ground, but what results in a long simmer of a film. It’s beautiful to look at with its almost monochrome snowbound cinematography (courtesy of the director himself), never less than entertaining thanks to the unimpeachable charisma of Zhang Hanyu and Fan Wei in roles they know like the back of their hand (the rugged leader of men and the jovial yet wily bear, respectively), and it’s capped off by a stunning and bloody action scene across train cars, yet there’s fire missing in the belly of this steel beast. The supporting cast is largely unmemorable and barely fleshed out (either selfless Chinese fighters or smirking Japanese devils), and there’s neither enough action scenes to get the pulse racing, nor enough historical detail to educate. Thankfully, wide-eyed patriotism is confined to a single scene of resistance fighters being sworn into the Communist Party – amusingly, it might be the film’s most bombastic moments, with composer He Min’s fine score thundering away like the Avengers are landing in East China. ***

DYNASTY WARRIORS (2021) review

An adaptation of the Japanese hack-and-slash video game of the same title that has spanned 24 years and 15 consoles, Roy Chow’s Dynasty Warriors was shot in 2017 but dragged its feet through post-production for 4 years due to financial issues, finally landing with a thud at the Chinese box-office, with an online release following less than a week later. Like the video game, it follows the epic events of Luo Guanzhong’s fundamental novel Romance of the Three Kingdoms while infusing it with fantasy tropes: no mythical creatures, but near-superhuman heroes wielding weapons infused with supernatural energy. And so the future lords and generals of the Three Kingdoms era: Liu Bei (Tony Yang), Guan Yu (Han Geng), Zhang Fei (Justin Cheung), and their future enemy Cao Cao (Wang Kai), as they lead the resistance against imperial usurper Dong Zhuo (Lam Suet) and his undefeated general, Lv Bu (Louis Koo).

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ALL U NEED IS LOVE (2021) short review

Ten Hong Kong production companies and two dozen Hong Kong celebrities unite forces, for free, in All U Need is Love, an ensemble comedy shepherded by old hand Vincent Kok, for the benefit of local film industry workers painfully impacted by the Covid crisis. From these best of intentions emerges a scattershot collection of mediocre vignettes as we follow Hongkongers quarantined in a hotel: Eric Tsang and Tony Leung Ka Fai reprise their horny characters from Pang Ho Cheung’s classic Men Suddenly in Black, looking for a sexcapade within the hotel’s limited roster of young females; hotel manager Michael Hui grandstands while trying desperately to escape quarantine (one of his attempts is foiled by a random Jackie Chan appearance, in his briefest fight ever against Ken Lo), Julian Cheung and Louis Cheung trade threats but warm to each other as rival gangsters forced to share a room… There’s more, but nothing much worth mentioning. In 75 minutes the film hurries clumsily to the conclusion that love conquers all, but keeps dropping cameos (Louis Koo, Francis Ng, Raymond Wong, Yuen Qiu as – you guessed it – the landlady from Kung Fu Hustle…) because who would keep watching anyway? But it’s a benefit film, hurried into production under strained circumstances, so it’s hard to pounce on it too hard. It’s like 1991’s The Banquet all over again, only with much fewer stars. (no rating under the circumstances)

A WRITER’S ODYSSEY (2021) review

The third most successful film of Chinese New Year 2021, albeit a wide margin behind the first two, Lu Yang’s A Writer’s Odyssey (also known as Assassins in Red) follows Guan Ning (Lei Jiayin) a shell of a man desperately looking for his daughter, who was kidnapped six years before. One day, he’s approached by Tu Ling (Yang Mi), the mysterious right-hand woman of tech magnate Li Mu (Yu Hewei). Tu knows everything about Guan: not only his life’s tragedy, but also his almost paranormal abilities – to throw very precisely at impossible angles, to not feel pain… She tells him she has found the trace of his now teenage daughter, and can help him be reunited with her, if and only if he assassinates Lu Kongwen (Dong Zijian), the author of Godslayer, a fantasy novel being serialized on the net, and whose plot turns seem to have a direct effect on Li Mu’s health. In parallel, we follow the adventures of Kongwen (also Dong Zijian), Godslayer’s lead character, as he journeys through the war-torn kingdom of Ranliang to avenge his sister (a too briefly-seen Tong Liya) by killing the land’s evil despot Lord Redmane, protected by an army of red-armored assassins.

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COUNTERATTACK (2021) short review

In his directing debut Counterattack, Vincent Zhao stars as Lu Ziming, an elite mercenary who goes on the run in the jungle after being framed for the murder of an oil tycoon in the fictional country of Kunlang; with him is a female reporter (Jiang Yiyi) holding the proof of his innocence. With its jungle action, drone fetish and armed gweilos, Counterattack is cut from the same cloth as Wolf Warrior, another martial arts actor’s directing debut. But while Wu’s film was a big screen hit that relaunched his career, Zhao’s film is a much cheaper affair (no ‘Yu Nan, Ni Dahong and Scott Adkins’-level supporting cast here, and smaller-scale action scenes), and went straight to VOD. It’s still very much a vanity project, with Zhao playing a one-man army repeatedly noted for his handsomeness, and estimated to be “in his thirties” (he was 48 at the time of shooting). The plot is amateurish, a simplistic frame-up followed by an even more simplistic, well, counter-attack. The action, choreographed by Ha Siu Lung (a frequent assistant to Lee Tat Chiu), is mundane, skimpy and awkwardly edited, often making it look like Vincent Zhao has no experience in martial arts (no easy feat). It’s a lot of jungle stalk-and-slash in the first half, followed by compound infiltrate-and-kill in the second half: clearly, Zhao is a Rambo fan, and he even sews himself up like Sly’s iconic Vietnam vet. The latter scene is actually the best of the film (damning with faint praise), a rare moment of intentional levity as Lu Ziming bites on a squeaky toy while removing a bullet from his shoulder – his repressed cries of pain morphing into plastic squeaks. A sequel is teased in a cartoonish epilogue, but Wolf Warrior II needn’t worry for its place in the record books. *1/2

SHOCK WAVE 2 (2020) review

Three years after the success of Shock Wave, Herman Yau is back with a thematic sequel that doubled the first film’s budget and has now tripled its box-office take. Andy Lau is back in the lead – inevitably, in a different role – as Poon Sing-fung, a heroic bomb disposal expert of the EOD (Explosive Ordinance Disposal Bureau) who loses part of his leg in an explosion. Fitted with a prosthetic leg and having gone through an extensive and triumphant reeducation, he fully expects to return to the job to which he devoted himself body and soul, but is instead offered desk jobs or PR positions, as his superiors don’t want to take the risk of returning a disabled officer to the field. Enraged at the rejection, and at a society which undervalues the disabled, he quits the force, severing his relationships to his girlfriend Pong Ling (Ni Ni), an officer of the counter-terrorism unit, as well as his best friend and colleague Tung Cheuk-man (Lau Ching Wan) and their team. Cut to five years later, Poon is seen planting a bomb at a fancy reception; dozens of people die in the ensuing explosion, and he’s found unconscious at the crime scene. When he awakes, he has amnesia and can’t even remember who he is; the police suspects him of being a part of the terrorist organization known as ‘Vendetta’, responsible for a slew of bombings in the past months in Hong Kong. With only fragmented memories coming back to him, but convinced he is innocent, Poon escapes and tries to uncover the truth.

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RISING SHAOLIN: THE PROTECTOR (2021) review

Out of seemingly nowhere, mere weeks before Chinese New Year 2021, was announced Stanley Tong’s Rising Shaolin: The Protector (henceforward Rising Shaolin), to be released straight to VOD despite its high-profile director and a cast full of stars – two of whom, Wang Baoqiang and Liu Haoran, are now filling theaters to unprecedented levels in Chen Sicheng’s Detective Chinatown 3. This is obviously a passion project for Wang: when he was 8, he was shown Chang Hsin Yen’s 1982 classic Shaolin Temple, both a debut and a breakout success for Jet Li, and still one of the highest-grossing Chinese films ever when adjusted for inflation. Determined to become a martial arts star, he joined an actual Shaolin monastery the same to be trained in martial arts. Later, his acting career took off with his acclaimed performance in Li Yang’s Blind Shaft, and has gone stratospheric since, in no small part due to the aforementioned Detective Chinatown franchise.

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THE WOLF WITCH (aka WHITE-HAIRED WITCH) (2020) short review

Whatever happened to Huang Yi? Not so long ago, she was well on her way to the A-list, with classy supporting roles in upscale productions like Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s Overheard 2 and 3, Derek Chiu’s The Road Less Traveled and Johnnie To’s Romancing in Thin Air and Drug War, not to mention a very promising lead in Herman Yau’s The Woman Knight of Mirror Lake. Now here she is, headlining one of the many straight-to-VOD fantasy cheapies that rehash the main Chinese legends. The Monkey King is by far the most represented in the hundreds of online Chinese fantasy movies last year, but this is at least the third loose adaptation of Liang Yusheng’s wuxia novel 白髮魔女傳 (literally, “The Story of the White Haired Demoness”) in 2020. Nevertheless, Huang is well cast and engaging in the role, though it’s been flattened into a straight heroine role, rather than the nuanced figure of selfless love and destructive fury she was written as, and portrayed by the great Brigitte Lin in Ronny Yu’s superb diptych The Bride with White Hair. Huang doesn’t have Lin’s smoldering bravado in the role, nor Li Bingbing’s mean charisma in Rob Minkoff’s The Forbidden Kingdom, but she easily outshines Fan Bingbing’s turn in Jacob Cheung’s The White Haired Witch of Lunar Kingdom. Director Wu Yingxiang keeps the plot coherent and the pace brisk, much like in his solid Taoist Master earlier in 2020. There’s none of the tragedy and scope of the original story and its best adaptation though, Wu going instead for a fairly routine adventure in which the Wolf Witch must find and expose an evil cult leader committing atrocities while posing as her. At least, action scenes are abundant and passable, their ornate stances and outlandish use of wires calling to mind Ching Siu Tung’s style. **

SOUTHERN SHAOLIN (2021) short review

The eternally underrated Fan Siu Wong keeps plugging away in Chinese straight-to-VOD films, not having appeared in a theatrically-released film since 2016’s Bounty Hunters. It’s a crying shame, but at least some of these online movies utilize him well, like the fight-heavy The Bravest Escort Group or last year’s solid fantasy adventure Taoist Master diptych. A riff on the well-trodden ‘Shaolin-assisted redemption’ subgenre of martial arts cinema, Dong Wei’s Southern Shaolin is a good notch below these passable films though. It follows pirate chief Cai Yan (Fan Siu Wong), who is betrayed and left for dead by his second in command (Xiong Xin Xin), himself in league with very evil white soldiers – but is there any other kind in Chinese films? Cai is found and nursed back to health by Shaolin monks; sensing a good place to lay low, he feigns amnesia to ingratiate himself, and becomes an apprentice. What started as a ploy slowly turns to true enlightenment, but soon his past catches up with him. At 75 minutes, Southern Shaolin is simply too short and perfunctory (not too mention, too cheap) to properly convey its redemption narrative, despite an amusing montage showing Cai recoiling at the discipline and frugality of a monk’s life. But it is also unforgivably skimpy on fights: Fan and Xiong, two superb screen fighters, are given only short flashes of action, and their final fight is a brief and disjointed affair. The film also features some of the very worst gweilo dialogue and acting ever put to film – well, to memory card. *1/2

HEROES RETURN (2021) review

Du Xiu Bin’s Heroes Return marks Yuen Biao’s first big-screen role in seven years (if one doesn’t count a blink-and-you’ll-miss-it cameo in Sammo Hung’s My Beloved Bodyguard), which makes for a frustrating observation: it’s not just that this once vital force of Hong Kong cinema has become a sporadic presence. It’s also that when he does re-appear, it’s in such a mediocre little actioner. The lead is Ray Lui (another legend of eighties and nineties Hong Kong cinema) as Wu Wei, a former soldier who heads into the Thai jungle to rescue the prisoners of a pharmaceutical company headed by Zuo Manqing (Kathy Chow), who intends to harvest their bone marrow for an experimental, life-extending drug. Accompanying Wu are his wife Zhilan (Raquel Xu) – a former employee of the company – and Jinzi (Chu Xu), a feisty local. Soon they’re joined by Gao Tianming (Yuen Biao), an undercover cop long held captive by Du Xie (Pavarit Mongkolpisit), a human trafficker who supplies the pharmaceutical company with its human stock.

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