TWO TIGERS (2019) review

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In Li Fei’s Two Tigers, Ge You plays Zhang Chenggong, a rich, lonely businessman who gets kidnapped by hapless loser Yu Kaixuan (Qiao Shan): acting alone, Yu asks for a one million RMB ransom, under threat of death. But Zhang quickly realizes that his abductor is rather harmless and out of his depth, and he strikes a deal with him: if Yu completes three tasks for him, he will give him double the expected ransom. The first task is to deliver a message to his ex-girlfriend Zhou Yuan (Zhao Wei), an actress whose career is declining. The second one is to help him make amends to Master Fan (Fan Wei), an old comrade from his army days, who went blind when he refused to lend him money for eye surgery. And the final task is to deliver a letter to his father, with the help of an old flame, Caixia (Yan Ni). Along the way, the prisoner and his abductor form an unlikely bond.

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THE CHINESE SOLDIERS (2019) short review

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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 knock-offs of Operation Mekong and Operation Red Sea, that have been flooding Chinese streaming services for a few years. Xu Mingwen’s The Chinese Soldiers follows Shengnan (Huang Yi), an officer of the Border Defense Corps, who loses part of her leg in an explosion during a hostage situation. Now fitted with a prosthetic leg and back to civilian life, she starts working as a head of security for a Taiwanese contractor (Wong Yat Fei) in Thailand, and soon runs afoul of gun traffickers. The Chinese Soldiers bounces around genres: a drama about disabled soldiers, a silly Wong Yat Fei comedy, a piece of clenched-jaw propaganda (the sentence “Mao Zedong and Xi Jinping, they’re the nicest people in the world” is uttered in all seriousness), and an action thriller (a la Mekong, which a final infiltration and eradication scene that’s of course a very pale copy of that film’s finale). It does none of these genres well, and it’s a sad sight seeing Huang Yi stranded in such mediocrity. Gweilo actor Karl Eiselen, however, amuses to no end with one of the most head-scratching and tone-deaf portrayals of a white devil in a while. *

SHEEP WITHOUT A SHEPHERD (2019) review

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A Chen Sicheng-produced remake of the successful 2015 Hindi thriller Drishyam (itself a remake of a Malayalam film from two years earlier), Sam Quah’s Sheep without a Shepherd follows Li Weijie (Xiao Yang), a Chinese immigrant in Thailand and owner of a modest IT company, living a peaceful life with his wife Ayu (Tan Zhuo) and two daughters Ping Ping (Audrey Hui) and An An (Zhang Xiran). But it all goes to hell when Ping Ping is drugged and raped by Suchat (Bian Tianyang), the wayward son of a local power couple, chief of police Laoorn (Joan Chen) and mayoral candidate Dutpon (Philip Keung). Suchat has filmed his deed and is planning to use the footage to coerce Ping Ping into sexual favors; Ayu, whom she confided to, tries to intervene, but as he assaults her in a fit of blind rage, the distraught daughter kills him by accident. With his mother being the chief of police, and corruption running rampant in the town’s police force, Weijie knows his wife and daughter will be sent to jail regardless of having acted in self-defense. Drawing on his love of classic thrillers, he hatches a plan which he hopes will clear them of suspicion, but Laoorn is a formidable investigator.

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WINGS OVER EVEREST (2019) review

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When a plane transporting highly-sensitive CIA files crashes in the “death zone” of Mount Everest, above 8,000 meters of altitude and with temperatures that can go down to -60°C, a moutain rescue team headed by Jiang Yuesheng (Koji Yakusho) is tasked by shady operatives Victor and Marcus Hawk (Victor Webster and Graham Shiels) with locating it and retrieving the documents. After the tragic death of Jiang’s daughter months earlier, the team is one member short, so he must reluctantly hire gifted but reckless climber Xiao Daizi (Zhang Jingchu). She herself lost her boyfriend during an ill-fated expedition to the summit, and is hoping to locate and bring back his body. But when it appears that the plane’s contents – and Hawk’s intent – are not what they seem, the climb turns deadly.

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VORTEX (2019) review

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In Jacky Gan’s debut feature, Da Peng plays Liu Xiaojun, a washed-up car mechanic and a degenerate gambler, deep in debt and relying on the support of his deceased father’s partner in the police, Wang Yong (Cao Weiyu). To try and get out of a 100,000 RMB debt, a desperate Liu accepts work from shady car dealer Lao Wan (Cao Bingkun); the job is simple: steal unregistered cars and bring them to him, so that he can re-paint and re-sell them. But things go south very soon: as Liu is stealing the first car, he is chased and shot at by two criminals, Xia Tao (Sha Baoliang) and his brother Xia Xi (Oho Ou). And having just managed to escape them, he realizes there’s a little girl, Qi Qi (Wulantuoya Duo) tied up in the trunk of the car. Yet this vortex of misfortune seems like it might lead to riches: it turns out she was kidnapped for ransom by the two criminals, and when answering a call from her mother on a phone that was in the car, Liu realizes he might well be able to collect the 2-million RMB ransom instead of them…

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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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