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

GOLDEN JOB (2018) review

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After a cameo in Da Peng’s Jianbing Man (2015) and a successful concert tour seemed to indicate the audience was ready for more of the Young and Dangerous quartet of Ekin Cheng, Jordan Chan, Jerry Lamb, Michael Tse, here they are reunited for a whole film, for the first time in 20 years, since 1998’s Young and Dangerous 5. Their co-star in the latter film, Chin Ka Lok, here directs, choreographs the action and co-stars again. While Jason Chu, an original member of the Young and Dangerous gang, is nowhere to be seen, he will indeed star with Jordan Chan, Jerry Lamb and Michael Tse – but without Ekin Cheng – in Wilson Chin action thriller The Lonely War, while Ekin Cheng, Michael Tse and Jerry Lamb will appear together – without Jordan Chan and Jason Chu – in Lv Kejing’s fantasy thriller Love Illusion in late 2018. Do keep up, our point is that Golden Job is a rare alignment of stars.

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REBORN (2018) short review

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Li Hailong’s cyber caper Reborn follows Li Haoming (Han Geng), a hopelessly awkward gamer who used to be a brilliant hacker, but now spends his life playing VR games. Until one day, he’s approached by mercenary Fei Qiao (Rhydian Vaughan) and his partner and lover Su Yi (Li Yuan), who require his unique hacking skills to complete a lucrative mission for shady businessman Takeshi Mori (Tomohisa Yamashita). Soon after, Li is contacted by Hong Kong detective Chow (Liu Kai Chi) who’s on a mission to arrest Fai Qiao, and needs the young hacker to be his informant. The script is low on originality and tension but full of shortcuts (there’s no problem that can’t be solved by hacking into this or that from a phone, at any moment), ludicrous twists (a whole segment of the film is revealed to actually have been an elaborate virtual reality simulation) and loose ends (Liu Kai Chi’s character disappears halfway through, with no resolution of his subplot whatsoever). The action is mediocre, a series of fights where over-editing masks the actor’s lack of fighting ability, and flatly-shot chases. And the cast is either cringe-worthy (Han Geng and Li Yuan play their respective characters like idiotic school kids) or criminally bland (Rhydian Vaughan smirks mysteriously and boringly, Tomohisa Yamashita is an ectoplasm). And with its sensory overload of technology, Reborn already feels dated, the year of its release. *

BIG BROTHER (2018) review

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The production partnership of Wong Jing and Donnie Yen cannot be accused of a lack of variety: after the gangster epic Chasing the Dragon, and before the fatsuit comedy Enter the Fat Dragon, here comes the inspirational school drama Big Brother, directed by recent Wong favorite Kam Ka Wai (iGirl, Colour of the Game, Queen of Triads). Yen is Henry Chen, an ex-military who after a traumatic war experience and a period of soul-searching and traveling, turns up at his old secondary school of Tak Chi, now struggling amid funding cuts and real estate scheming, and asks to be a teacher of liberal arts, despite a lack of credentials in the field. The school is direly understaffed and so the principal (Dominic Lam) quickly accepts. But Henry Chen’s students are an unruly bunch, the rejects of the flawed Hong Kong school system, and unwilling to listen to him. The new teacher will have to get their attention, inspire them, and in some cases, rescue them from dangerous situations.

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THE BRAVEST ESCORT GROUP (2018) review

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Released concurrently on streaming services and in a handfuls of theaters in Mainland China, Tao Mengxi’s The Bravest Escort Group isn’t about a group of resourceful call-girls, contrary to what its clumsy title might lead you to believe. Rather, it follows a band of courageous bodyguards headed by Yang Liu An (Fan Siu Wong), and tasked by General Ma Bao (Ray Lui) with escorting his daughter Chen Yuanyuan (Lanni Li), concubine to the recently deceased Ming emperor Wu Sangui, and her son, the last hope of the Ming Dynasty, to safety. En route, they must fend off the attacks of enemy general Hala (Chen Zhi Hui), as well as Ma Bao’s treacherous second-in-command Ma Biao (Shi Yanneng), all the while being closely watched by the mysterious Zhu You (Andrew Lin). Though Wu Sangui and Chen Yuanyuan are real historical figures, the film plays fast, furious and loose with history, and presents itself like a late little brother to Teddy Chen’s Bodyguards and Assassins, on a wider geographical scale but – obviously – smaller spectacular scale.

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