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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THE WHISTLEBLOWER (2019) review

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After finding success in intimate dramas (Ocean Heaven) and romantic comedies (Finding Mr Right, Book of Love), director Xue Xiaolu tries her hand at the thriller with The Whistleblower, a Chinese-Australian co-production. It follows Ma Ke (Lei Jiayin), a Chinese expatriate working for an energy company in Melbourne that is on the verge of closing a lucrative deal with a Chinese conglomerate. Working for that conglomerate, and married to its CEO, is Zhou Siliang, Ma’s old flame. During a luxurious celebration of the upcoming deal, they briefly rekindle their romance even though they are both married – he happily to Judy (Qi Xi) and her on the verge of divorce. Soon after, Zhou Siliang is declared dead in a plane crash with several members of her team, only to reappear days later, reaching out to him: she knows too much about her husband’s illegal dealings and is on the run from him: furthermore, a recent earthquake near the company’s mines in Africa may not be what what it seems…

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IP MAN AND FOUR KINGS (2019) short review

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Years after the Ip Man trend faded, and weeks before Wilson Yip and Donnie Yen’s hotly anticipated Ip Man 4 arrives on the big screen, here’s a straight-to-VOD cash-in starring Michael Tong in the titular role. Here, the grandmaster of Wing Chun is wrongly accused of murder and must both clear his name and break a human-trafficking ring; for this he needs to earn the respect in combat of the “Four Heavenly Kings”: the heads of the gambling, prostitution, alcohol and catering syndicates of the city. Fu Li Wei’s Ip Man and Four Kings is a cheap affair of course, unfolding in sets alternatively bare and slightly-anachronistic, borrowing music in distracting ways (Gabriel Yared and Stéphane Moucha’s score to the German classic The Lives of Others pops up at some point, so does Brad Fiedel’s famous Terminator rhythm), and with fights over-edited in a way that suggests shooting time-constraints. The film starts with a “same-same but different” rip-off of the famed ‘rainy nighttime street’ fight from Wong Kar Wai’s The Grandmasters, down to the slow-mo stepping into puddles and the collapsing steel gate, and indeed Michael Tong’s Ip Man has the same white hat as Tony Leung’s Chiu Wai. Yet from then on, it borrows much more from the Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen films’ grammar of evil gweilos and corrupt cops, even acknowledging the events of Ip Man 1 & 2. Tong makes for a passable Master Ip, and would probably have been a fine one with a better script and better production values. And while the fights are sometimes marred by silly wirework, conspicuous under-cranking and the aforementioned over-editing, they’re plentiful in the second half, and solidly entertaining once expectations have been lowered. But who wouldn’t lower expectations before watching a Chinese straight-to-VOD cash-in? **

THE MYSTERY OF DRAGON SEAL (aka THE 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 flop 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 references 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