TOWARDS THE RIVER GLORIOUS (2019) short review

100729.77428655_1000X1000One of several propaganda war films released in 2019 to commemorate the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949, Oxide Pang’s Towards the River Glorious was, like all of them, a flop – though probably a less pricey flop than Li Shaohong’s Liberation. While it may be surprising to see Hong Kong genre filmmaker Pang at the helm, it’s actually his second offering to his PRC overlords, after 2016’s My War – which was already, you guessed it, a flop (despite a much bigger budget and starrier cast than the present film). It’s still a strange assignment for the more talented half of the Pang Brothers, and one to which he brings little else than his trademark showiness: heavy filters (one battle scene is so damn orange it would give even the late, great Tony Scott a seizure), extreme slow-motion, a few first-person-shooter angles, and that’s about it. The plot follows two brothers (bland Zhang Tong and much more interesting Yang Yi), each on one side of the fratricide war, as their paths cross repeatedly in the lead up to the momentous final battle of the Yangtze River Crossing Campaign. Of course, the brother who’s on the Nationalist side is very wrong, but will get redemption by switching his allegiance and fighting for the Communists. The Nationalist flag will fall in slow motion, the Communist flag will be waved rapturously, and it will all end in one big parade – much like in Liberation, fratricide slaughter is quickly forgotten once you can parade in your uniform. A fixture of such low-budget propaganda, Nie Yuan pops up for a very small cameo, while Sammy Hung broods in the background for much of the film. Corners are constantly being cut (scenes on a British warship make hilariously shoddy use of CGI): Towards the River Thrifty would have been a more accurate title. *1/2

GUILTY OF MIND (2017) review

p24577387562017 saw the release of two competing adaptations of best-sellers by Lei Mi, a teacher of criminal law whose popular character, the gifted criminal profiler Fang Mu, had already been brought to the small in screen in 2015 and 2016. Xie Dongshen’s Guilty of Mind was released first and would go on to win the box-office battle (though not by much) over Xu Jizhou’s The Liquidator. However, with both films adapted from different books in the series, they’re not so much competing as completing each other: Guilty of Mind features a young Fang Mu, still in Police School, while The Liquidator has him weathered and semi-retired; and Lei Mi’s pulpy, lurid brand of thriller is faithfully rendered onscreen in both films. Here, dogged, bitter cop Tai Wei (Liao Fan) is on the trail of a vampiric serial killer, who drains his victims of their blood and then drinks it. In an investigative dead end, Tai turns to his mentor Qiao (Chang Kuo Chu), who recommends one his best students to him: Fang Mu (Li Yifeng), a young aspiring police officer, socially awkward but gifted with an uncanny ability to instinctively profile murderers and get in their shoes. Tai is sceptical, but soon the investigation is making strides.

(more…)

LIBERATION (2019) review

143259.52732712_1000X1000Liberation was directed by Li Shaohong and Chang Xiaoyang – the former in charge of the drama and the latter handling the spectacle – to commemorate the end of the Chinese Civil War in 1949. Like most recent Chinese propaganda films, it is packed with action – seemingly gone are the days of stately, talky epics like The Founding of a Republic or Beginning of the Great Revival – yet like most recent historical Mainland propaganda, it was met with general indifference from Chinese audiences, even after its being pulled at the last minute from the opening night of the Pingyao Film Festival drummed up a bit of media drama about it (‘technical issues’ were cited, though our money is the hypothesis that it didn’t placate censors well enough).

(more…)

JADE DYNASTY (2019) review

111924.35607290_1000X1000

After an eight-year hiatus from directing – an interval in which he only choreographed one film (Bollywood superhero film Krrish 3) and contributed to Jack Ma’s all-star ego-stroking short film On that Night… While we Dream – Ching Siu Tung is back with an adaptation of Mainland author Xiao Ding’s popular fantasy novel Zhu Xian. Already adapted into a TV series (The Legend of Chusen, starring Li Yifeng and Zhao Liying), it’s an eight-part saga and Jade Dynasty has both a cliffhanger ending and an original Mandarin title, 诛仙I, that confidently bears the number one; the film’s solid success (close to 60 million dollars) means said confidence may not have been misplaced.

(more…)

GIANT FISH (2020) short review

p2590614329In the fishing town of Guigang (not the real-life Guigang then), Gao (Ti Lung) has become rich by continuously catching highly-prized, very big fish, yet many of his fishing expeditions suffer mysterious human losses. And when a mysterious young woman (Fu Mengni) is found unconscious near the sea shore, dark secrets are about to be uncovered. It’s an intriguing premise, but one that director Yin Yue does very little with. There’s a few shades of Guillermo Del Toro, from the emotional approach to lovecraftian themes to the score aping composer’s Javier Navarrete work for the Mexican visionary. Unfortunately, apart from some beautiful maritime cinematography and a poignant, compelling performance by the great Ti Lung, whose venerable stature deserves so much better, there’s not much here that isn’t either bland (a central love story is so devoid of warmth, chemistry or tension that the young star-crossed lovers look more like distant neighbours) or ridiculous (the finale includes a man tearfully kissing a big fish). *1/2

ANGEL MISSION (1990) short review

mbVZS5x2t1HzFH1N9UNCckm2J7p

Godfrey Ho’s Angel Mission is neither a hideous patchwork of old and new footage like so many of his films, nor one of his very rare moments of true filmic inspiration, like Princess Madam. It’s right in between: bland yet basically competent. Yukari Oshima plays a Japanese Interpol agent tasked with finding Japanese citizens who are trapped in a prostitution ring headed by Chen Kuan Tai and his cool perm. She’s assisted by a Hong Kong policewoman (Ha Chi Chun) and crosses paths with a man (Dick Wei) whose sister is a victim of the same ring. It’s a spectacularly limp plot that manages to induce sleep even as it drops massive, fateful coincidences at every reel (Yukari’s mother works for the same evil mob boss on whose trail she is! Said mob boss is a former blood brother of Dick Wei!). Action is plentiful yet forgettable – generally competent of course, but Yukari’s fights are full of beautiful yet entirely gratuitous gymnastics flourishes that clash with the supposedly realistic tone. **

A PUNCH TO REVENGE (1989) short review

APunchtoRevenge+1989-59-bIn Lee Chiu’s A Punch to Revenge (also known under the equally nonsensical but slightly less awkward title Dragon Angel), Eddy Ko plays Tsang, a crippled and unemployed man who’s so desperate for cash he lets his wife prostitute herself in their own home, and helps corrupt cop Man (Chan Ging) assemble a team of hungry Mainlanders to rob a jewelry store. But the heist goes awry, and the robbers are hunted by dogged cop Lee (Ben Lam). Caught in between is Fan (Yukari Oshima), a social worker assigned to help out Tsang, and who’s starting a relationship with Lee. Directed with understated flair by Lee Chiu and peppered with short, impactful fights, A Punch to Revenge also laudably takes time to flesh out its characters: apart from Ben Lam’s knight in shining white jacket and Chan Ging’s cackling dirty cop, most in the ensemble are unexpectedly three-dimensional characters, from the brutal resourceful Mainland thugs united by strong brotherhood and trying to carve out a better tomorrow for themselves (the wrong way of course), to Eddy Ko as a desperate coward clutching at straws of dignity, they almost justify the film’s slower central section, and make the strikingly brutal final fight – the police’s assault on a villa where the thugs are holing up – resonate more. And though both slightly lateral to the plot, and inconsistently defined (one moment she’s easily subdued, minutes later she’s wiping the floor with multiple adversaries), Yukari Oshima gives a fine performance; she excelled so much at playing brooding, smoldering fighting queens, that it’s easy to forget she could be just as believable in softer roles. Indeed, she didn’t even need fights to be a compelling presence. Too bad she never explored – or was never given the opportunity to explore – purely dramatic acting. **1/2

SKYFIRE (2019) review

153023.51668377_1000X1000

After Renny Harlin, it’s time for Simon West, another purveyor of 1990s and 2000s Hollywood blockbusters, to catch a second or third wind in China – after this, West directed The Legend Hunters, an upcoming Mojin adaptation. Skyfire is set on Tianhu, a volcanic island off the coast of China. Twenty years ago, vulcanologist Li Wentao (Wang Xueqi) lost his wife during a sudden eruption on Tianhuo; cut to present day, and the island, which is supposedly safe from any eruption for the next 150 years, has been turned into a theme park and resort by Australian businessman Jack Harris (Jason Isaacs). Much to Li’s chagrin, his daughter Xiaomeng (Hannah Quinlivan) is part of scientific team monitoring the volcano thanks to hundreds of sensors buried in the mountain. Certain that an eruption is imminent, Li travels to the island to get his daughter to safety – but it’s already too late: the volcano awakes, and all hell breaks loose.

(more…)

DRUG FIGHTERS (1995) short review

DrugsFighters+1995-1-bBy 1995, old-school, down-and-dirty Hong Kong action cinema was a dying trend, largely exiled to Taiwan and the Philippines, where most of its stars languished in cheap productions leagues below what they deserved – among them was the great Yukari Oshima. A Taiwanese production, Yiu Tin Hung’s Drug Fighters is far from the worst that dark age of action cinema yielded, but also a far cry from the heights of the genre. Oshima (in a truly hideous wardrobe of garish tracksuits) plays a cop assigned to a new drug-busting police unit (alongside Lam Wai and Chui Siu Kin), tasked with bringing down a drug trafficker (Yuen Wah) who smuggles drugs through shipments of antiques. The film starts with a jolt, a fairly exciting shootout aboard a train, as prisoner Ken Lo is extracted by his blood brother Alan Chui (also the action director). Then it becomes an incredibly limp affair, unfolding in drab industrial landscapes and juggling a variety of snooze-inducing subplots, most of which main attraction Oshima is absent from. Playing her husband, Collin Chou pops up from time to time for painful scenes of romantic banter, while Yuen Wah mostly glowers charismatically a few dozen seconds at a time. Martial arts action is served in the last ten minutes, and it’s too little, too late: Oshima and Yuen do have a short but over-the-top fight that’s quite exciting, but not worth eighty minutes of stabbing yourself with a toothpick to stay awake. *1/2

FINAL RUN (1989) short review

FinalRun+1989-4-bA mainstay of Hong Kong action cinema, Philip Ko directed fifty-four films in twenty-two years (including eight films in 1987 and nine films each for 1999 and 2001…). Of course, this prodigious output was in great part due to a resort to patchwork filmmaking – a method he shared with his regular collaborator Godfrey Ho – by which a film is made mostly with disparate bits of stock footage and recycled or unused scenes from other films. Thus a lot many of his fifty-four directorial efforts are near-unwatchable; a few (like Killer’s Romance) are quite solid, and a film like Final Run falls in between. The plot, about corrupt cops working with Golden Triangle drug traffickers and a customs officer getting stuck in the middle, is paradoxically so generic and plodding that it becomes hard to follow. Action is mostly absent for a whole hour, but if one survives that trial by boredom, one is rewarded with a good twenty-five minutes of blistering action. Par for the course, then, for this kind of second rate Hong Kong actioner. The cast is full of charismatic players, most of whom either have extended cameos (Francis Ng keeps a silly grimace at all times as a smug Golden Triangle warlord, Simon Yam is all lazy smarm as a mobster, Leung Kar Yan appears randomly near the end to dish out a few kicks), or supporting roles: Dick Wei gets a rare sympathetic role, and the magnificent Yukari Oshima disappears for fifty minutes, but when she reappears, it’s worth the wait, as she gets some of her most brutal and acrobatic fights – she had a hand in choreographing them, the only time she received an ‘action director credit’. The leads, Cheung Kwok Keung and Michael Miu, make much less of an impression. As was often the case at the time, Harold Faltermeyer’s score to The Running Man is heavily tracked-in. **