THE MYSTERY OF DRAGON SEAL (aka VIY 2, aka JOURNEY TO CHINA: THE MYSTERY OF IRON MASK) (2019) review

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Who could have imagined that two of the most iconic movie stars in the world, Jackie Chan and Arnold Schwarzenegger, would one day share the screen not in a Hollywood buddy movie, but in a Russian-Chinese fantasy swashbuckling adventure vaguely derived from Nikolai Gogol, in which Arnie would play a British warden, and the two would have a swordfight? Now we want to see Sylvester Stallone and Chow Yun Fat arm-wrestle in a Polish-Vietnamese western indirectly adapted from Victor Hugo. Anyway, Oleg Stepchenko’s The Mystery of Dragon Seal is the sequel to Viy, a Russian fantasy adventure – Gogol-derived, as aforementioned – starring Jason Flemyng and Charles Dance, that found healthy international ancillary success after becoming the third highest-grossing Russian film in Russia in 2014. Conceived to work as a stand-alone film – thanks to a recapitulation of the previous episode – and geared towards the China market, this sequel has been a flop both there and in Russia.

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BODIES AT REST (2019) short review

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Renny Harlin’s career second wind in China continues: after the success of the passable Jackie Chan vehicle Skiptrace, and the costly flow of the fantasy clunker Legend of the Ancient Sword, here comes Bodies at Rest, in which a Hong Kong public morgue is invaded on Christmas eve by three masked and armed criminals (Richie Jen, Carlos Chan and Feng Jiayi). They are trying to retrieve a incriminating bullet from the body of a woman (the striking Clara Lee, only glimpsed in flashbacks), but Nick Chan (Nick Cheung), the forensic pathologist on duty, and his Mainland intern Lynn Qiao (Yang Zi) are determined not to let them have their way. This is the kind of film that Hollywood churned out relentlessly in the nineties (Renny Harlin’s heyday, of course): a sub-Die Hard game of cat-and-mouse pitting a resourceful everyman against ruthless criminals in a closed location. There’s even reference to John McTiernan’s seminal actioner (of which Harlin directed the sequel, of course): bare body parts on broken glass, air duct escape… It’s a brisk and reasonably entertaining 90 minutes, bolstered by charismatic turns from Nick Cheung (not stretching in any way), Richie Jen (playing efficiently against type) and Yang Zi (more than holding her own next to the two veterans), some welcome flashes of dark humor, and brutal, gripping fight scenes. Yet the film runs of out steam in the final twenty minutes, weighted with too many twists, turns and reversals for such a thin plot and characters, as well as a rote ending. **1/2

THE CAPTAIN (2019) review

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In May 2018, on a Sichuan Airlines flight from Chongqing to Lhasa, the cockpit windshield shattered suddenly while the plane was 30,000 feet above the Tibetan Plateau. In the subsequent cabin depressurization, a co-pilot was half-sucked out of the plane and many passengers lost consciousness or succumbed to panic. Yet against all odds, the plane’s pilot (Zhang Hanyu) managed a miraculous emergency landing, with all aboard safe and sound, including the co-pilot. Less than four months later, Andrew Lau was already re-creating these events for the big screen, surely a record when it comes to rushing to cash in on true events.

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THE CLIMBERS (2019) review

p2569090715In 1960, Fang Wuzhou (Wu Jing) and Qu Songlin (Zhang Yi), members of the Chinese National Mountaineering Team, reached the summit of Mount Everest (known as Qomolangma in Tibetan) from the North Ridge, a perilous achievement that cost the life of their captain. Worse, it later went unrecognized by the international community: after losing their camera during the ascent, the Chinese climbers were unable to provide the necessary photographic proof of their exploit. Since then, Fang and Qu have lived in shame, considered frauds by most. So when an opportunity to renew the exploit arises fifteen years later, they set out to train a new team of climbers, including Li Guiliang (Jing Boran), Yang Guang (Hu Ge), and meteorologist Xu Ying (Zhang Ziyi), with whom Fang has long been in love.

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REMAIN SILENT (2019) short review

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When popular singer Wan Wenfang (Zhou Xun) is found stabbed to near death in her dressing room just before a performance in Hong Kong, the prime suspect is Jimmy Thomas (Roy Sun), who was the last person to be in her company, and who tried to run away when the police arrived. In the ensuing trial, prosecutor Wu Zhengwei (Francis Ng) finds himself pitted against old flame Duan Mulan (Zhou Xun), who’s chosen to defend Thomas, convinced that he’s innocent, and suspecting instead Tian Jingcheng (Zu Feng), Wan’s devoted agent. Shot in 2015, Zhou Ke’s Remain Silent was originally slated for release in 2016, but gathered dust on a shelf for more than three years, for unclear reasons given that it’s a solid film backed by a thriving studio, and with no content that Chinese censorship might consider subversive. Its routine courtroom scenes can’t hold a candle to the thrills of Fei Xing’s Silent Witness (in whose successful Chinese footsteps Remain Silent seems to want to follow), but the central mystery is a reasonably engaging one, full of red herrings (Zhou Xun plays dual yet seemingly unrelated roles, Zu Feng is superbly ambiguous) and devious flashbacks – as well as, sadly, one or two gaping plot holes. And while the ending revelation isn’t exactly as thunderous as it’s supposed to be, it’s nevertheless a pleasure to watch masters of acting Zhou Xun and Francis Ng spar in and out of the courthouse, sharing unexpected yet impeccable, bittersweet chemistry. **1/2

MIDNIGHT DINER (2019) review

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For his feature debut as a director, Tony Leung Ka Fai chose to adapt Yaro Abe’s celebrated manga series Shin’ya Shokudo, from which have already been derived a Japanese TV series in four seasons, two Japanese feature films, a Korean TV series, and a Chinese TV series. The concept here stays the same: a small restaurant, open from midnight to seven in the morning, whose enigmatic but kind chef can cook anything his clients ask for, bringing them solace sometimes without them realizing it. Though the chef (Tony Leung Ka Fai) is central, we follow his clients’ stories – he’s the only connection between them.

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THE INVINCIBLE DRAGON (2019) review

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After making a strong impression in 2015 with scene-stealing turns in Soi Cheang’s SPL2: A Time for Consequences and Wilson Yip’s Ip Man 3, Max Zhang seemed destined to be the next big thing in Chinese-Hong Kong action cinema, and was showered with lead roles in solid mid-range productions. Now, four years later, his career has sadly not gained much traction: the action thriller The Brink was a flop, and so was the drama Dealer/Healer, in which he displayed fine dramatic chops. The Ip Man spin-off Master Z did respectable business and is getting a sequel, but its critical and box-office impact is a mere fraction of that of the Donnie Yen franchise from which it’s derived. His supporting roles in Hollywood sequels Pacific Rim: Uprising and Escape Plan: The Extractors have gone by unnoticed, and now comes Fruit Chan’s The Invincible Dragon, which died a quick death upon its Chinese and Hong Kong release. In an unfortunate one-two punch, it may go towards putting an end both to Zhang’s shot at the big time (for the time being at least), and to Fruit Chan’s commercial ambitions, following the failure of his previous China-ready mainstream venture Kill Time.

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SHANGHAI FORTRESS (2019) review

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Based on a 2009 novel by Jiang Nan, Teng Hua Tao’s Shanghai Fortress had been in the works for more than five years, and seemed to arrive at the perfect moment for a resounding success, being the first big-budget Chinese science-fiction film since the triumph of Frant Gwo’s The Wandering Earth. Instead, Teng’s film was released to a derisive reception from critics and the public, and quickly crashed at the box-office, grossing less than 3% of what Gwo’s film did at the beginning of the year. It is set in the year 2035: the great cities of the world are now powered by Xianteng, an super-energy alien material brought back to Earth by a Chinese spaceship. However, this has made our planet a target for a powerful alien race, dubbed “Annihilators” by those who fight them. Unleashing legions of deadly drones from a titanic mothership onto the major cities of the world, the Annihilators have reduced New York, Moscow, Tokyo and more to a pile of ashes; now, the last metropolis standing is Shanghai, where the leaders of 97 nations have culled their last remaining resources for the final fight. Trained and led by commander Lin (Shu Qi), the elite Grey Eagle Squad is being assigned to the AV-38, a new type of fighting jet; among them, the most promising is Jiang Yang (Lu Han), who’s secretly in love with Lin.

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THE LONGEST SHOT (2019) review

A milestone Chinese-Australian coproduction and the debut feature of advertisement director Xu Shunli, The Longest Shot is set in 1930s Shanghai, and follows aging, solitary hitman Zhao (Wang Zhiwen), whose early onset of Parkinson’s disease spells the end of both his dangerous job and his hobby as a watchmaker. Still haunted by the death of his son and by a fatal mistake he made years ago, he decides to take a final job, brought to him by his friend and middleman Du (Li Lichun). This final job is actually two final jobs, two targets to be eliminated on the same day and the same place: Peter (Christopher Downs) and Libo (Xu Yajun), two Shanghai kingpins who’ve been at each other’s throats for a while, threatening the order of things in the French Concession. But nothing is what it seems, strings are being pulled left and right, and the aging hitman finds himself in the center of a tangled web of deceit.

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A CITY CALLED MACAU (2019) short review

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Based on a 2012 novel by Yan Geling – and co-adapted for the screen by Yan herself – Li Shaohong’s A City called Macau follows Xiao Ou (Bai Baihe), a casino broker in Macau: she guides wealthy clients around the city, introducing them to games and securing loans for them. Over more than a decade (the film takes place between 2002 and 2014), two of her clients will change the course of her life: property developer Duan (Wu Gang), sucked ever deeper in debt by his gambling addiction and forever making empty promises to come clean, and sculptor Shi (Huang Jue), who goes as far as leaving his wife and child to pursue Macau’s mirage of wealth. With its ploddingly episodic structure (every time the narrative starts building steam there’s a jump forward in time), relentless explanative voice-over from Bai Baihe, trite sense of romance (walks on the beach, floating lanterns…), florid music begging you to feel, and – most damningly – thudding, repetitive storytelling (two hours of tension-free gambling and people getting in and out of debt), A City called Macau is a chore to get through. The drama is hopelessly contrived, with every single man in Xiao Ou’s life becoming a gambler (even her slapworthy son), and not one character seems worth caring for, except perhaps Chin Siu Ho’s Cat, her loyal – perhaps lovestruck – colleague. Xiao Ou herself is a strange and unlikeable mix of catty rashness and hopeless gullibility, with Bai Baihe giving a weirdly tone-deaf performance, mouth agape, permanently looking like she’s just been eating week-old sushi. Wu Gang is much more compelling, Huang Jue is livelier than his usual, and Geng Le makes the most of his short screen-time (as Bai’s ex-husband, also a degenerate gambler, of course), but their characters are merely hand-puppets for the film’s on-the-nose message on the price of gambling. Carina Lau and Eris Tsang make classy cameos; there’s a feeling the film would have been so much more interesting if it had focused on them, a steely, worldly casino owner and a tough, honorable businessman respectively. *1/2