WILD SWORDS (2020) short review

Directed by Li Yunbo under the illustrious guidance of Feng Xiaogang and with regular Jia Zhangke collaborator Matthieu Laclau editing, Wild Swords follows Wang Yidao (Zhao Jian) and his team of bodyguards, tasked by a mysterious employer with escorting prisoner Guo Changsheng (Zhang Xiaochen) to a temple. The defiant Guo is said to know the whereabouts of Zhang Weiran (Shangbai), a member of the powerful Nameless Sect who years ago murdered the heir of the rival Tangmen Sect. Along the dangerous way, Wang and his men are followed both by Bai Xiaotian (Sui Yongliang), a former member of the Nameless Sect with a bone to pick with Zhang Weiran, and by Tang Wuque (Eric Hsiao), a representative of the Tangmen Sect. This is a film that delights and frustrates in equal measure. The former because is a visually stunning affair, with earthy yet ornate photography – a difficult paradox to master – regaling the eyes, and elaborate yet abrupt fight choreography: yet another paradox. And the latter because narratively it tries to make a silk purse out of a sow’s ear, with plot intricacies teased but never developed upon, and promising characters proving one-dimensional when all is said and done. **/12

CONCUBINE OF SHANGHAI (aka LORD OF SHANGHAI II) (2020) review

p2618059405In 2017, Sherwood Hu released part one of a diptych based on a 2003 novel by Hong Ying: Lord of Shanghai. The concurrently-shot second part, Concubine of Shanghai, was to be released a few weeks later, but Lord‘s box office flop led to a delay of more than three years, with Concubine debuting straight on VOD in late 2020. Lord of Shanghai was a clumsy, occasionally shoddy gangster epic, kept afloat by the charisma of esteemed actors like Hu Jun and Yu Nan, but hurtling through event, as if existing just to set up its epic conclusion. Concubine of Shanghai, sadly, only compounds the flaws of its opener. It picks up ten years later: Xiao Yuegui (Yu Nan), is now the powerful concubine of powerful Shanghai mobster Yu Qiyang (Rhydian Vaughan) after having loved two previous generation of Shanghai lords, Chang Lixiong (Hu Jun) and Huang Peiyu (Qin Hao). Now, she welcomes her estranged daughter Lili (Amber Kuo) back to Shanghai, but the young woman, dreaming of movie stardom, gets involved with a director (Duan Bowen) who may not be what he seems.

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ALMOST HUMAN (2020) short review

p2608816173In Zhang Nan’s Almost Human, an advanced female pleasure robot (Ma Yujie), having achieved self-awareness, breaks free from her creator and captor; to cover her sleek and otherworldly appearance, she murders a young woman and wears her skin. Curious about the meaning of human love, she randomly sets her sights on Wang Sheng (Duan Bowen), whose relationship to his girlfriend Su Xin (Hayden Kuo) is hitting a rocky patch.   Having kidnapped and sequestered Su Xin, she duplicates her appearance thanks to her creator’s latest invention, and takes her place within the couple. Almost Human‘s premise is interesting, basically a sci-fi twist on a Pu Songling horror romance like Painted Skin (the film’s Chinese title translates as “Mechanical Painted Skin” and replaces a fox spirit with a pleasure robot), and with a dash of Philip K. Dick rumination on artificial intelligence. Yet Zhang Nan does very little with the horrific, philosophical or even erotic potential of the story, going instead for tedious procedural (Liu Yiwei as an inspector leads the least urgent murder investigation ever), flat comedy (mostly sitcom-level bickering), and listless romance (Hayden Kuo and Duan Bowen have all the chemistry of diet coke and a veggie smoothie). Only of note are Ma Yujie, striking as the robot, and a nice Cliff Martinez-inspired score.  *1/2

MONSTER RUN (2020) review

p2617622226After co-directing Full Strike with Derek Kwok, and being visual effects supervisor on most of his other films, Henry Wong graduates to solo director (with Kwok still present as a producer) for Monster Run, the latest high-profile Chinese film to bypass theaters altogether in these times of pandemic. It follows Ji Mo (Jessie Li), a young woman who spent the past few years in a mental hospital to treat her diagnosed paranoid personality disorder: as a child, she would have visions of monsters. Having found a job in a convenience store, she’s hoping for an ordinary life and copes with the visions of monster, which haven’t subsided. Until one day, Meng (Shawn Yue) barges in the store with his partner Paper (a living piece of paper voiced by Qiao Shan) and hunts down a monster right in front of her. It turns out the monsters are real: they’re from an alternate dimension, and Meng’s mission is to stop them from coming into this world. Soon, a bond forms between the monter hunter and the young clairvoyant, but the sinister Lotus (Kara Hui), powerful guardian of the frontier between the two dimensions, has nefarious plans for Ji Mo…

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DOUBLE WORLD (2020) short review

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One of the higher-profile Chinese productions to take the decision to skip theaters in the time of COVID-19 in favor of an online release (in this case, Iqiyi in the east and Netflix in the west), Teddy Chan’s Double World is an adaptation of the popular MMORPG Zhengtu. In a fantasy China divided in two warring states, Southern Zhao and Northern Yan, all Southern Zhao clans are called upon to send three of their best fighters to a massive martial contest whose winner will become General-in-Chief of the state. Among the contestants are an orphan with a mysterious past (Henry Lau), and a deserter (Peter Ho) with a mysterious past AND a vengeful agenda. This wildly uneven fantasy epic is narratively so shallow and mechanical it’s hard to care about anything that unfolds onscreen, despite the charismatic presence of people like Peter Ho (why this man isn’t an international star yet, we don’t know) and Jiang Luxia (making the most of yet another semi-feral short-haired woman-fighter role). Visually, there’s an interestingly elaborate set for the arena where the contest unfolds, beautiful traps and weaponry and rather well-animated dragons and scorpions, but also some eye-gouging green-screen work, the kind in which actors’ faces are still bathed in a sickly greenish hue even long after post-production work has been completed. The film’s main redeeming quality, outside of Ho’s intense, brooding presence, is some brutal, bloody and inventive action directing by the great Tung Wei. **1/2

IRON MONKEY 2 (2020) short review

p2612185825It is not unusual to see four or five-hour long epics being shot in one go and split in two films, but a lean two-hour actioner being split in two barely feature-length films? That’s a novel idea indeed. And so two weeks after the VOD release of Yue Song’s 62-minute long Iron Monkey, came the 63-minute long Iron Monkey 2. It obviously picks up exactly where the first film abruptly left off: post-apocalyptic warrior Thunder (Yue Song) has rebelled against the leader (Chen Zhihui) of the cult-like warrior clan that adopted him at a young age, and fled with captive women who were destined for a grisly fate. The rest of the clan has been in hot pursuit, and Thunder already dispatched quite a few of them in the first film. Now, the rest of his former comrades are still hellbent on killing him for his treason, and a confrontation with the leader is inevitable. After the action-packed first film, this is a slightly more introspective affair, though whatever introspection happens, isn’t exactly profound. There’s a wealth of melodramatic flashbacks to Thunder’s upbringing, and quite a bit of speechifying about things like honor and loyalty. The fighting is still abundant, but less hard-hitting than in the first film: the two climactic fights are hampered by a montage-like editing that goes for emotional power rather than kinetic entertainment – unwise, as emotion is absent anyway. And Yue Song’s dead-serious sense of vanity grows wearisome: when he’s not doing push-ups, brooding, or beating up dozens of opponents, he’s in the rain screaming at the heavens (exactly like in Super Bodyguard). The release of Iron Monkey 2 was even accompanied a documentary about him and his life philosophy, directed by a member of his family and humbly titled Warrior. **

IRON MONKEY (2020) review

p2607367095Yue Song is a unique performer in China’s – and indeed the world’s – filmic landscape. A one-man army who writes, produces, directs, choreographs, plays the lead role and does his own stunts in his films, never taking a single role in anybody else’s project. As a result, his output has been sparse, with each of his films a passion project to which he devotes his mind and sacrifices his body with Jackie Chan-like abandon. After the relatively little-seen King of the Streets in 2012, his following film, Super Bodyguard (released as Iron Protector in the US), caused a bit more of a stir four years later with its entertaining mix of unironic, vanity-filled silliness and excellent, bone-crunching fights. Now it’s been another four years and Yue is back with Iron Monkey (no relation to the Yuen Woo Ping classic), released straight to VOD at a time when Chinese theaters haven’t re-opened yet.

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THE VICTIMS’ GAME (2020) TV review

p2593495547The second Mandarin-speaking original Netflix series (after Nowhere Man, already starring Joseph Chang), Chuang Hsuan Wei and Allen Chen’s The Victims’ Game is based on the 2015 novel The Fourth Victim, written by Liang Shuting and Xu Ruilang. Unfolding in eight episodes, it follows Fang Yi Jen (Joseph Chang), a forensic detective with Asperger’s syndrome, who’s brilliant yet shunned by his colleague for his antisocial behavior. His dour life is turned upside down when he discovers that his long-estranged daughter may be behind a series of murders, all looking like suicide. Fang teams up with driven journalist Hsu Hai Yin (Tiffany Hsu), and soon finds out that none of these murders are what they seem.

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TAOIST MASTER (aka MASTER ZHANG) (2020) short review

p2605809645In Wu Yingxiang’s Taoist Master, the ever-underrated Fan Siu Wong plays Zhang Taoling, the founder of Taoism (or at least its first organized form), as he goes up against Gu Ma (Su Mao), an evil cult leader who’s kidnapping young men (including Zhang’s disciple) to perform a ritual that could extend his life by centuries. Helping Zhang are huntswoman Hong Ying ( Zhang Dong) and Wu Xian (Yue Dongfeng), a former member of Gu Ma’s cult. This is a very enjoyable little fantasy adventure that manages, despite a modest budget, to avoid most of the pitfalls big-budget Chinese fantasy films often succumb to. It is crisply-paced, with a plot that doesn’t hold many surprises, nor much depth, but is focused and never falls into abstruse randomness. The solid production design uses ornate costumes and shadow to its advantage to evoke a lot without showing much. Fan Siu Wong is excellent as ever, bringing gravitas and understated badassness to his role, and ably flanked by the promising Zhang Dong who shines especially in action scenes. The latter are intricately-choreographed, making very measured use of CGI and wires, and captured in quick successions of wild camera moves (though never devolving into shaky cam or jumble-cutting) that make them frantic and impactful without forsaking legibility. Where so many Chinese fantasy films’ reach still exceed their grasp (big-budget though they may be), Taoist Master succeeds by knowing its strengths and limitations and confidently toeing the line between them. ***

THE DEAD END (2015) review

p2262236348Seven years ago, Xin Xiaofeng (Deng Chao), Yang Zidao (Guo Tao) and Chen Bijue (Gao Hu) broke and entered in a house near Xilong City, looking to collect a debt on behalf of a local loan shark. Things went from uglier to much uglier as they ended up not only killing the old couple in debt, but also raping and killing their granddaughter. They were never caught and now live new lives in Xiamen: Xin as a policeman, Yang as a cab driver, and mentally-challenged Chen as a fisherman. Gnawed by remorse and certain they will be caught sooner or later, they jointly care for their adopted daughter Weiba, who may be the daughter of the woman they raped. The expected yet much-feared reckoning draws closer as Xin’s new boss, Yi Guchun (Duan Yihong), comes from Xilong City, and is still obsessed with solving the seven-year old rape and murder case, not yet knowing that the subordinate he’s growing to like and respect, is one of the perpetrators. And things get more complicated when Yi’s younger sister Guxia (Wang Luodan) falls in love with Yang after he rescues her from a purse-snatcher.

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