EUROPE RAIDERS (2018) review

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13 years isn’t such a long time for a sequel to arrive, considering Rambo came back after 19 years, Blade Runner after 25 years, and Mad Max after 29. Yet 13 years feels like eons for the sequel to such fluff as Tokyo Raiders and Seoul Raiders to turn up. Not in terms of anticipation, mind you. Tokyo and Seoul were mildly entertaining but quite unmemorable, and haven’t really aged well. Still, they benefitted from attractive casts gathered around the considerable charm of Tony Leung Chiu Wai. Surprisingly, Leung returns for Europe Raiders, despite having become more rare in recent years – perhaps Wong Kar Wai’s role as a producer helped a bit, or perhaps he just wants to have fun: after all, he also appeared in Monster Hunt 2 this year.

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LAST LETTER (2018) review

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23 years after Love Letter, Shunji Iwai makes his Chinese-language debut, produced by Peter Chan, with Last Letter, a variation on the same themes of ill-fated romance, missed opportunities and epistolary bonding and healing – and he’s actually already at work on a Japanese remake. Zhihua (Zhou Xun) just lost her sister Zhinan, and is taking care of her niece Mumu (Deng Enxi) and nephew Chenchen. When she attends a high school reunion instead of her sister, to announce her death to her former classmates, she doesn’t find the right moment to do so, and is at a loss when Yin Chuan (Qin Hao) reconnects with her: she used to be in love with him, but he was in love with Zhinan, and now he is mistaking her for her sister. Yet rather than clarifying the situation, she starts sending him letters, thus reviving countless memories of the past, while her own daughter Saran (Zhang Zifeng) and Mumu get in on the correspondence, by a twist of fate. Soon there are revelations, some arriving too late.

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THE BIG CALL (2017) review

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Ding Xiaotian (Cheney Chen) is a young cop who just witnessed his former teacher commit suicide after losing all his money to a phone scam. The case is thus personal, and soon Ding is recruited by Tan Sirong (Eddie Cheung) of the ATFC (Anti-Telecommunication Fraud Centre) to help expose two master fraudsters, Lin Ahai (Joseph Chang) and Liu Lifang (Gwei Lun Mei), who operate a vast fraud network across Southeast Asia, with headquarters and call center in Thailand. ATFC agent Xu Xiaotu (Jiang Mengjie), who’s also Ding’s ex-girlfriend, has infiltrated these headquarters, and as the noose tightens around the fraudsters, suspicion from Liu falls on her.

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FLY BY NIGHT (2018) review

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In Zahir Omar’s directing debut Fly By Night, which premiered in Busan last month, Sunny Pang plays Tailo, a taxi driver who runs an extortion operation, targeting well-off people for blackmail out of a Kuala Lumpur airport. He’s helped by dour right-hand man Ah Soon (Eric Chen), as well as his ambitious but rash younger brother Sailo (Fabian Loo) and his dim-witted friend Gwailo (Jack Tan). It’s a well-oiled but cautious and modest operation, and Sailo is chomping at the bit to get to higher-paying jobs. Soon, all threatens to go to hell: ruthless inspector Kamal (Bront Palarae) is set off on the four extortionists’ trail, Sailo and Gwailo bite off more than they can chew when they try to blackmail the mistress (Joyce Harn) of a rich businessman, all the while ratcheting up a sizeable debt with demented mobster Jared (Frederick Lee) after killing a man by mistake at his underground casino. With an ailing mother, a wife and a kid to protect, Tailo is left scrambling to avoid the worst.

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KUNG FU LEAGUE (2018) review

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Bringing together four martial arts folk heroes in a time-travel adventure: it’s an idea both far-fetched and obvious – an oxymoron that Jeff Lau embodies film after film. And so Kung Fu League unites Wong Fei Hung (no introduction needed), Huo Yuan Jia (most notably portrayed by Jet Li in Ronny Yu’s Fearless), his most famous student Chen Zhen (who really existed but was given a fictional heroic fate in Lo Wei’s Fist of Fury) and Ip Man (no introduction needed either, not even a discreet wikipedia link). It doesn’t matter that these grandmasters are played by their respective ‘Plan B’ actors (Vincent Zhao instead of Jet Li, Dennis To instead of Donnie Yen, Chan Kwok Kwan instead of Bruce Lee…): the curiosity remains strong.

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FAT BUDDIES (2018) review

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After starring in Wen Zhang’s directing debut, the passable romantic comedy When Larry met Mary, Bao Bei’er co-stars with Wen in his own directing debut, Fat Buddies, which – much like the former film – did solid but unremarkable business at the Chinese box-office. Coincidentally, it is one of two Japan-set fatsuit action comedies produced the same year in China, the other being Donnie Yen and Wong Jing’s Enter the Fat Dragon. Bao plays Hao Jingyun (an amusing game on words that sounds like he’s saying “Hello, handsome” every time he states his name to someone), a security guard at a Tokyo hospital who, having been obese most of his life, has learned to roll with the constant jokes about his weight, and at least has the love of his unfathomably attractive wife (Clara Lee). One day, Hao meets someone even fatter: J (Wen Zhang), a 150 kg reluctant patient of the hospital who says he’s on a mission to stop a drug kingpin masquerading as a philanthropist (Guo Jingfei). Sensing a kinship, Hao decides to follow J on his mission, despite the latter’s insistence on going it alone.

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LEGEND OF THE ANCIENT SWORD (2018) review

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It’s been a brutal year for Chinese fantasy on the big screen. Soi Cheang’s The Monkey King 3 underperformed compared to the previous installments in the franchise, Hasi Chaolu’s fantasy take on Genghis Khan went unnoticed despite a starry cast and Jean-Jacques Annaud’s artistic input, Zhang Peng’s Asura was retrieved from theaters a mere three days after opening to dismal box-office numbers, and now Renny Harlin’s Legend of the Ancient Sword has failed to even reach the 2 million-dollar mark, despite a prime launching date during Chinese national holidays. This puts extra pressure on Wuershan’s now-shooting fantasy trilogy Gods, a massive undertaking whose commercial potential isn’t being solidified at the moment.

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THE BOMBING (aka UNBREAKABLE SPIRIT, aka AIR STRIKE) (2018) review

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Xiao Feng’s The Bombing was reportedly the most expensive Chinese film at the time it was produced. But after extensive reshoots and accusations of financial fraud (part of a wider tax evasion scandal in China that has had Fan Bingbing as its official face), the film is now being released a full three years after production, without much fanfare despite a massive cast and the participation of Mel Gibson – a man who knows a thing or two about making a fine war film – as an artistic consultant. Set in 1939 during the second Sino-Japanese war, it weaves together three main storylines: U.S Air Force commander Jack Johnson (Bruce Willis), who trains Chinese pilots Lei Tao (Nicholas Tse), An Minxun (Song Seung-heon), Cheng Ting (William Chan) and many others to fend off Japanese air raids (of which there were 268 between 1938 and 1943); civilians in Chongqing trying to live a semblance of a life despite the repeated bombings, with a Mahjong competition being organized in a teahouse owned by Uncle Cui (Fan Wei); and former pilot Xue Gangtou (Liu Ye), tasked with taking a truck carrying precious and mysterious crates to a military base, and who on the way picks up a scientist (Wu Gang) carrying two pigs of a leaner, faster-reproducing breed that may be key in fighting the famine, a nurse (Ma Su) bringing orphans to a school, as well as a shady stranger (Geng Le).

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ATTRITION (2018) review

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Axe (Steven Seagal) is an ex-special forces who has renounced his violent ways, found the light of Buddha and is now a healer at the border between Thailand and Laos, near a town where everybody speaks Mandarin and, supposedly, the scum of the earth can find safe haven – ‘supposedly’, because this is never really shown. But when a violent crime lord named Qmom (Yu Kang) kidnaps a girl with healing powers with the hope she will cure him of his strange disease (he’s allergic to sunlight), her father begs Axe to rescue her. He reluctantly agrees, and gets his old team back together: Chen Man (Fan Siu Wong), Infidel (Rudy Youngblood), Ying Ying (Kat Ingkarat) and a few others.

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THE BLIZZARD (2018) short review

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Jiang Kaiyang’s The Blizzard follows Song Chao (Nie Yuan) and Liu Haiyang (Tan Kai), best friends turned enemies: after being kicked out of the police academy where they were both being trained in Harbin, Song murdered Liu’s father for mysterious reasons, and Liu – now a police detective – has had only revenge on his mind ever since. One day, Song reappears, lured out of hiding to rescue a friend who was kidnapped by a local mobster; Liu is ready to bring him to justice, but he doesn’t realize that the murder of his father is part of a deep conspiracy, and Song may not be the real culprit… Add a thick layer of snow to it, and a solid yet unremarkable thriller can take on an atmospheric, unforgiving edge. Such is the case with The Blizzard, which starts promisingly enough with several intriguing plot strands, but then fails to combine them in a compelling way, with plot turns either thuddingly predictable, or simply ludicrous, and a surfeit of thinly-written characters that enter the story without proper introductions and exit it as loose ends (which works for ‘slice of life’ drama but not for action thrillers). Yet thanks to the aforementioned snow draping stark Harbin cityscapes and classily captured by Korean cinematographer Kim Gitae (2012’s Confession of Murder), strong performances by Nie Yuan (impressively intense) and Tan Kai (engagingly rugged), and a few raw, Korean-style brawls choreographed by Kim Shin Woong (2015’s The Throne), The Blizzard remains an efficient little thriller. **1/2