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.

Read the full post »

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). Read the full post »

ETERNAL WAVE (2017) review

p2498391614

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).

Read the full post »

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

FOX HUNTING (aka THE FOX) (2020) review

65274e84e5ca770369252b6186c192a21341564.png@464w_644h_1e_1cAdapted from a series of novels by Wang Jianxing, and originally set to be Vincent Zhao’s directing debut – he would have played the lead as well – with Yu Nan as the female co-lead and Sammo Hung in charge of the action, Fox Hunting was then somewhat downgraded, amid rumors of shady practices by its financiers: TV veteran Sun Shupei (of Zhao Wei’s immensely popular nineties TV series Princess Pearl) stepped in as both director and action director, Huang Shengyi replaced Yu Nan (who retreated to a small cameo), and TV mainstay Xu Jia took the lead. Much ado about nothing: Fox Hunting is a mediocre little actioner; shot in Thailand and unfolding mostly in an embassy office, a police station, a warehouse, and some nondescript patches of countryside and industrial zones, it is the equivalent of a lower-tier Philip Ko film of the early nineties, with a bit more budget but much less reckless action.

Read the full post »

SUPER ME (2020) review

p2559199061The first film produced under Anthony and Joe Russo’s China-centric new venture Anthem Pictures (after some consulting on Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior II), Zhang Chong’s Super Me follows Sang Yu (Darren Wang) is a struggling, penniless screenwriter on the verge of becoming homeless, and direly sleep-deprived for months: every time he falls asleep he is attacked by a demon and wakes up in terror. He spends his days evading Sange (Cao Bingkun), to whom he owes money for a script he didn’t write, and pining for Hua (Song Jia), his crush since college, now the owner of a coffee shop. One day, Sang Yu realizes that he can bring back treasures from his dreams, simply by grabbing them in the dream, and saying “I’m dreaming” at the moment when the demon attacks him. He becomes rich beyond his wildest dreams in a matter of days, but there’s a price to pay: his health deteriorates quickly, and a dangerous gangster (good old Wu Gang) sets his sights on him.

Read the full post »

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.

Read the full post »

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).

Read the full post »

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.

Read the full post »