DOUBLE WORLD (2020) short review

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One of the higher-profile Chinese productions to take the decision to skip theaters in the time of COVID-19 in favor of an online release (in this case, Iqiyi in the east and Netflix in the west), Teddy Chan’s Double World is an adaptation of the popular MMORPG Zhengtu. In a fantasy China divided in two warring states, Southern Zhao and Northern Yan, all Southern Zhao clans are called upon to send three of their best fighters to a massive martial contest whose winner will become General-in-Chief of the state. Among the contestants are an orphan with a mysterious past (Henry Lau), and a deserter (Peter Ho) with a mysterious past AND a vengeful agenda. This wildly uneven fantasy epic is narratively so shallow and mechanical it’s hard to care about anything that unfolds onscreen, despite the charismatic presence of people like Peter Ho (why this man isn’t an international star yet, we don’t know) and Jiang Luxia (making the most of yet another semi-feral short-haired woman-fighter role). Visually, there’s an interestingly elaborate set for the arena where the contest unfolds, beautiful traps and weaponry and rather well-animated dragons and scorpions, but also some eye-gouging green-screen work, the kind in which actors’ faces are still bathed in a sickly greenish hue even long after post-production work has been completed. The film’s main redeeming quality, outside of Ho’s intense, brooding presence, is some brutal, bloody and inventive action directing by the great Tung Wei. **1/2

IRON MONKEY 2 (2020) short review

p2612185825It is not unusual to see four or five-hour long epics being shot in one go and split in two films, but a lean two-hour actioner being split in two barely feature-length films? That’s a novel idea indeed. And so two weeks after the VOD release of Yue Song’s 62-minute long Iron Monkey, came the 63-minute long Iron Monkey 2. It obviously picks up exactly where the first film abruptly left off: post-apocalyptic warrior Thunder (Yue Song) has rebelled against the leader (Chen Zhihui) of the cult-like warrior clan that adopted him at a young age, and fled with captive women who were destined for a grisly fate. The rest of the clan has been in hot pursuit, and Thunder already dispatched quite a few of them in the first film. Now, the rest of his former comrades are still hellbent on killing him for his treason, and a confrontation with the leader is inevitable. After the action-packed first film, this is a slightly more introspective affair, though whatever introspection happens, isn’t exactly profound. There’s a wealth of melodramatic flashbacks to Thunder’s upbringing, and quite a bit of speechifying about things like honor and loyalty. The fighting is still abundant, but less hard-hitting than in the first film: the two climactic fights are hampered by a montage-like editing that goes for emotional power rather than kinetic entertainment – unwise, as emotion is absent anyway. And Yue Song’s dead-serious sense of vanity grows wearisome: when he’s not doing push-ups, brooding, or beating up dozens of opponents, he’s in the rain screaming at the heavens (exactly like in Super Bodyguard). The release of Iron Monkey 2 was even accompanied a documentary about him and his life philosophy, directed by a member of his family and humbly titled Warrior. **

IRON MONKEY (2020) review

p2607367095Yue Song is a unique performer in China’s – and indeed the world’s – filmic landscape. A one-man army who writes, produces, directs, choreographs, plays the lead role and does his own stunts in his films, never taking a single role in anybody else’s project. As a result, his output has been sparse, with each of his films a passion project to which he devotes his mind and sacrifices his body with Jackie Chan-like abandon. After the relatively little-seen King of the Streets in 2012, his following film, Super Bodyguard (released as Iron Protector in the US), caused a bit more of a stir four years later with its entertaining mix of unironic, vanity-filled silliness and excellent, bone-crunching fights. Now it’s been another four years and Yue is back with Iron Monkey (no relation to the Yuen Woo Ping classic), released straight to VOD at a time when Chinese theaters haven’t re-opened yet.

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TAOIST MASTER (aka MASTER ZHANG) (2020) short review

p2605809645In Wu Yingxiang’s Taoist Master, the ever-underrated Fan Siu Wong plays Zhang Taoling, the founder of Taoism (or at least its first organized form), as he goes up against Gu Ma (Su Mao), an evil cult leader who’s kidnapping young men (including Zhang’s disciple) to perform a ritual that could extend his life by centuries. Helping Zhang are huntswoman Hong Ying ( Zhang Dong) and Wu Xian (Yue Dongfeng), a former member of Gu Ma’s cult. This is a very enjoyable little fantasy adventure that manages, despite a modest budget, to avoid most of the pitfalls big-budget Chinese fantasy films often succumb to. It is crisply-paced, with a plot that doesn’t hold many surprises, nor much depth, but is focused and never falls into abstruse randomness. The solid production design uses ornate costumes and shadow to its advantage to evoke a lot without showing much. Fan Siu Wong is excellent as ever, bringing gravitas and understated badassness to his role, and ably flanked by the promising Zhang Dong who shines especially in action scenes. The latter are intricately-choreographed, making very measured use of CGI and wires, and captured in quick successions of wild camera moves (though never devolving into shaky cam or jumble-cutting) that make them frantic and impactful without forsaking legibility. Where so many Chinese fantasy films’ reach still exceed their grasp (big-budget though they may be), Taoist Master succeeds by knowing its strengths and limitations and confidently toeing the line between them. ***

THE DEAD END (2015) review

p2262236348Seven years ago, Xin Xiaofeng (Deng Chao), Yang Zidao (Guo Tao) and Chen Bijue (Gao Hu) broke and entered in a house near Xilong City, looking to collect a debt on behalf of a local loan shark. Things went from uglier to much uglier as they ended up not only killing the old couple in debt, but also raping and killing their granddaughter. They were never caught and now live new lives in Xiamen: Xin as a policeman, Yang as a cab driver, and mentally-challenged Chen as a fisherman. Gnawed by remorse and certain they will be caught sooner or later, they jointly care for their adopted daughter Weiba, who may be the daughter of the woman they raped. The expected yet much-feared reckoning draws closer as Xin’s new boss, Yi Guchun (Duan Yihong), comes from Xilong City, and is still obsessed with solving the seven-year old rape and murder case, not yet knowing that the subordinate he’s growing to like and respect, is one of the perpetrators. And things get more complicated when Yi’s younger sister Guxia (Wang Luodan) falls in love with Yang after he rescues her from a purse-snatcher.

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RUN AMUCK (2019) short review

153871c3b2bb4bb552007a5f3625c97a342031In Liu Xiao and Qin Pengfei’s highly amusing straight-to-VOD actioner Run Amuck, a successful Virtual Reality shooting game called ‘Run for your Life’ gathers dozens of contestants for a highly-publicized final game with a winning prize of 10-million RMB, under the purview of the game’s instuctor, the ‘AK Queen’ (Clara Lee). Among the competing players are Baolong (Fang Yan), the cocky number one player, known for his ‘sultry’ victory dances, but also Shen Yue, aka “The Sniper Queen” (Zhang Haoyue), his usual runner-up. Run Amuck was probably shot concurrently to Wen Zhang’s Fat Buddies, as it shares its action director (Qin Pengfei), three cast members (Clara Lee, Zhang Menglu and Jackie Li), and a key desert shooting location with the aforementioned fat-suit comedy. Regardless of this truly fascinating filmmaking tidbit, it’s a fine slice of menatally-challenged, unassuming fun, full of amusing lapses in logic (it takes places in a virtual reality but once in the game the players still need a plane to get to the location of the competition, with one character fearing the parachute drop, even though it’s unreal), effective comic relief (Jackie Li and Zhao Yan are quite fun as a pair of bickering presenters who come to blows on a regular basis), and surprisingly solid – though budget-constrained – action scenes. Overtly comical music often sullies scenes, as do misguided attempts at actual emotion, but there’s enough dimensions to each of the generously-cleavaged characters (each one having a different, real life-based reason to join the game), that there’s the minimum requirement in dramatic tension on top of the desert-set tank-and-snipers action. Living-Goddess statue Clara Lee merely bookends the film, but it’s Zhang Menglu, who after her formidable turn in Fat Buddies steals the show here as a coke-sipping clutz. A sequel is generously set up, a low-stakes yet not unwelcome prospect. **1/2

KNOCKOUT (2020) review

p2597063926The fourth high-profile film in the time of Covid-19 to forgo a delayed theatrical release in favor of a much-advertised VOD release, Roy Chow’s Knockout follows Zhou Shi (Han Geng), an undefeated boxing champion who spends six years in prison after sending a few men to the hospital during a barroom brawl. But as he gets his freedom back, he learns that his girlfriend, pregnant at the time of his incarceration, has died and left him sole custodian of their daughter Blithe (Elena Cai). For her sake, he decides to give up on boxing for a low-paid but safer job as a delivery man; father and daughter bond quickly, but soon their happiness is compromised: his late girlfriend’s mother (Vivian Wu), a wealthy businesswoman, wants custody of Blithe and is ready to sue her father for it. Though his heart breaks at the idea of being separated from his daughter, Shi is soon given no choice: Blithe is diagnosed with leukemia, and he’s unable to afford the best treatment for her. Having surrendered her to her grandmother, he endeavors to regain his champion title, as a symbol for her daughter to keep fighting no matter what.

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THE ENCHANTING PHANTOM (aka A CHINESE GHOST STORY: HUMAN LOVE) (2020) review

p2597931214After bringing back Vincent Zhao’s incarnation of Wong Fei Hung – albeit on the small screens – with The Unity of Heroes, and scripting Detective Dee: Ghost Soldiers (starring Kristy Yang as Empress Wu Zetian), one of the more high-profile and better-rated of the countless straight-to-VOD Detective Dee films, director Lin Zhenzhao tackles another beloved Hong Kong franchise with The Enchanting Phantom, a remake of Tsui Hark and Ching Siu Tung’s classic A Chinese Ghost Story (itself based on a Pu Songling story). Apparently at first destined for at least a modest theatrical release, the Covid-19 pandemic in the end sent it straight to VOD. And so we once again follow naïve scholar Ning Caichen (Chen Xingxu), who falls in love with beautiful demon Nie Xiaoqian (Eleanor Lee), and attempts to free her from the clutches of her dark master, hermaphroditic tree demon Lao Lao (Norman Tsui), with the help of Taoist demon hunter Yan Chixia (Yuen Wah). (more…)

ETERNAL WAVE (2017) review

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A loose remake of Wang Ping’s 1958 spy film The Eternal Wave, Billy Chung’s Eternal Wave follows Communist resistance fighter and political commissar Lin Xiang (Aaron Kwok) who in 1937 is sent to Japanese-occupied Shanghai to rebuild the resistance network in the city, after it was near-dismantled by a Japanese raid on its secret headquarters. There, his cover is that of a businessman, and He Lanfang (Zhao Liying) a comrade from the Communist underground is to pose as his wife. Using radio telegraphy to circulate information, Lin slowly solidifies the network again, but he soon comes  under suspicion from Japanese Intelligence officer Masako (Zhang Lanxin) and Chinese traitor Qin Fengwu (Simon Yam).

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MISSING (2019) short review

p2572668775Ronnie Chau’s Missing is the filmic equivalent of a low-energy cub-scouts leader improvising a stale little scary story by the campfire, culling faintly from Japanese or Hong Kong horror films he’s watched years ago, managing to spook only those of the children who are sleeping out of their home for the very first time. It follows a social worker (Gillian Chung) whose father disappeared seven years ago, and who hears that the hills of Sai Kung may hold a portal to an alternate dimension, a limbo full of unhappy souls endlessly reliving the circumstances of their death. From that vaguest of urban legends, director Ronnie Chau has made a film that laudably eschews jump scares and amusingly needle-drops a few references to Stanley Kubrick’s The Shining (including a overhead shot of a car in the countryside, to an eerie rendition of the Dies Irae), but substitute muted colors for atmosphere and is populated by a small ensemble of the dullest characters imaginable: a self-serious social worker, a burnt-out salaryman, a dour cop, a nagging mother… The cast, led by Gillian Chung who alternates between blank stares and ‘gasping fish’ overacting, doesn’t do much to elevate the material. And so it’s impossible to care for anything that happens onscreen for the film’s skimpy yet overlong eighty minutes; and with the already scant beans spilled very early on, mystery is absent. And like most shallow horror films that want to appear deep, there’s a final resort to the old “the real ghosts are inside us” platitude. As far as recent Hong Kong horror goes, it’s at least a notch or two over the atrocious Binding Souls, but that’s damning with faint praise. *1/2