SKY ON FIRE (2016) review

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2015’s Wild City, which marked the end of Ringo Lam’s twelve-year hiatus from directing feature films, was an unremarkable but solid and heartfelt crime thriller, which while nowhere near the artistic heights of the Hong Kong director’s career, was especially heartening when thought of as a lead up to more ambitious films. A bit over a year later (a half-second when compared to that twelve-year wait), Sky on Fire is indeed more ambitious in terms of themes and spectacle, but it’s also oddly underwhelming. Five years ago, Dr. Pan, a scientist who was making major advances in cancer research, died in a possibly criminal fire while he was working in his lab. Now, her protégé Dr. Gao (Zhang Jingchu) and her husband Dr. Tong (Fan Guangyao), under the banner of their pharmaceutical company Sky One, have used his notes to discover a revolutionary cancer-curing medicine, X-stem cells. But the truck carrying the first of these curative cells is hijacked both by the son of Dr. Pan, Ziwan (Zhang Ruoyun), and by Jia (Joseph Chang), a man desperate to save his cancer-stricken sister Jen (Amber Kuo). Caught in the crossfire is Chong (Daniel Wu), the head of security for Sky One, who must take sides as hidden agendas are revealed.

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CONTROL (2013) short review

control-2013.19916 In an unnamed metropolis of the future, Mark (Daniel Wu) is a modest insurance broker who toils away to save enough money to put his mentally ill mother (Kara Hui) in a luxury retirement home. One day, in exchange for a promotion, he agrees to lie in court to cover his superiors. Soon afterwards, he finds out his bank account has been emptied, and a mysterious caller with proof of his court perjury blackmails him into a escalating of robberies and risky transactions, during which he meets an old flame (Yao Chen) and a thug (Shao Bing), who are both being blackmailed by the same caller, and finds himself on the wrong side of two mobsters (Simon Yam and Leon Dai). Elements of various infinitely more successful films find their way into Kenneth Bi’s Control : shades of The Matrix, Cellular, Die Hard With a Vengeance and a few others are hard to ignore. Equally distracting is the fact that the film is set in the future for no discernible reason : it doesn’t carry a message about surveillance as the marketing might lead you to believe, and its vision of forthcoming times is muddled and half-baked, serving no dramatic purpose. Still, Control is serviceable as a straightforward, undemanding thriller, and while Yao Chen is once again underused, Simon Yam and Leon Dai make an enjoyable double-act of slimy criminals, while Kara Hui seems to be acting in a different, much more affecting film. **1/2

THAT DEMON WITHIN (2014) review

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Reminiscent of a small wave of psychological thrillers that were released at the end of the nineties and beginning of the naughties (Ringo Lam’s Victim, Law Chi Leung’s Inner Senses and Double Tap come to mind), Dante Lam’s That Demon Within follows a troubled cop (Daniel Wu) who one night offers to give his O- type blood to save a severely wounded man (Nick Cheung), who turns out to be the leader of a vicious gang nicknamed the “Demons” because of their colourful demon masks and cruelty. Their paths are to cross again to disatrous consequences, as the cop start to struggle with deep-buried mental issues and violent urges while the robber locks horns with his double-crossing gang.

This is a tremendously confident film. Dante Lam, who has been on a critical and box-office roll for the past 6 years, makes superb use of every trick in the book to convey psychological torment and collapse : Patrick Tam’s editing is razor sharp, Kenny Tse’s photography is strikingly in-your-face (for instance, sudden red lighting signal Daniel Wu’s violent schizophrenic fits, a trick so obvious and literal it actually works perfectly), and Leon Ko’s masterful score is a bold and propulsive mix of tribal, electronic and orchestral influences, all geared towards maximum expressivity and drive.

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THE GREAT MAGICIAN (2011) short review

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In the Warlord era after the Chinese Revolution, a revolutionary group aims to kill a powerful warlord (Lau Ching Wan) to take a step towards reinstating the republic. Said warlord has imprisoned a woman (Zhou Xun) whom he wants to make his new wife, but can’t bring himself to force into mariage. The arrival of a skilled magician (Tony Leung Chiu Wai) with ties to the revolutionary group and a shared past with the imprisoned woman, marks the start of a game of deceit and illusions. Visually, this is an absolutely stunning movie, gorgeously lit, awash in lush production design, and elegantly directed by Derek Yee in a diversion from his more serious contemporary fare. The magician’s scenic tricks are wonderfully executed with seamless CGI and are a joy to behold. Leung, Lau and Zhou are firmly in their comfort zone and their interaction is one of the film’s pleasures, while fun cameos by Tsui Hark and Daniel Wu (among others) spice up the proceedings. Too bad then that the film is so narratively muddled and rhythmically challenged ; the plot proves too meandering for such a playful concoction, which results in an overlong runtime. Still, an enjoyable piece of classy fluff. ***

 

CZ12 (aka CHINESE ZODIAC) (2012) review

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Meant to be the third installment in Jackie Chan’s ‘Asian Hawk’ series (following 1986′ Armour of God and 1991’s Operation Condor), touted for an international day-and-date release (which didn’t happen), and heralded as Jackie Chan’s final big action movie (which he later clarified meant “his last movie to feature him performing dangerous stunts”), CZ12 manages to disappoint on all three of these fronts. It is neither a franchise finale, nor an international blockbuster, nor even a worthy bookend to Chan’s “death-defying” career phase. Jackie Chan plays JC, a treasure hunter who leads his team of tech experts (plus a Chinese student and a French heiress) on a search for 12 Zodiac bronze heads, artifacts that were stolen from China in the 19th century looting of the Old Summer Palace by foreigners.

As a producer, writer, director and star (not to mention a host of other credits that earned him a Guinness Book record for ‘most credits on a single film’), Jackie Chan pulled all the stops to make CZ12 a resounding finale to his daredevil years. Filmed in China, Australia, France, Vanuatu, Taiwan and Latvia, featuring a cast that is international (Oliver Platt from the United States, Laura Weissbecker from France, Kwon Sang Woo from South Korea, Vincent Sze from Hong Kong, to name a few), cameo-rich (Shu Qi, Daniel Wu, Chan’s wife Joan Lin), and full of martial arts guest stars (martial arts world champions Caitlin Dechelle, Alaa Safi and Zhang Lanxin), and costing a hefty 30m$ (a big deal in China), it’s a major enterprise. And taken in light of the key assets we’ve just enumerated, a major failure.

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COP ON A MISSION (2001) review

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A year before Infernal Affairs rejuvenated Hong Kong cinema, Eric Tsang was already playing an affable yet brutal mob boss in an ‘undercover cop drama’, Cop on a Mission, which didn’t get much attention but deserved its fair share of it. It tells of Mike (Daniel Wu), a driven cop who is assigned to an undercover mission in triad boss Yum’s (Eric Tsang) circle. But he is soon seduced not only by the glitzy world he has infiltrated, but also by Yum’s beautiful wife Pauline (Suki Kwan). As he grows more and more estranged from his real life, including his kind girlfriend (Anya), and is given more and more power by the trusting Yum, Mike’s moral compass threatens to go awol. It’s not difficult to see why such a film would get overshadowed and somewhat forgotten in the wake of the Infernal Affairs trilogy’s enormous success. Cop on a Mission has an altogether much less polished package, though it is directed with maximum efficiency by hard-working editor Marco Mak (who edited virtually every Hong Kong classic of the nineties) ; the cast is less glamorous (Wu and Tsang being the only big names), and the script is less tortuous. But contrary to many of its kind, Marco Mak’s film doesn’t desperately try to be mind-blowing, it shoots for “fun and engrossing” and hits its target.

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BLOOD BROTHERS (2007) review

Alexi Tan’s Blood Brothers has been called a remake of John Woo’s Bullet in the Head, but it is really more of a “partquel” if you will, in that it only reworks a segment of the original, and even then, it reworks it pretty loosely. The plot points that remain are mainly the three friends (here, Daniel Wu, Liu Ye and Tony Yang) leaving their hometown to try their luck in the world (here, in Shanghai), and getting violently estranged by fate, one of them going bad and working for the mob. Carried over from John Woo’s film are also the beautiful singer (here, Shu Qi) and the mysterious killer (here, Chang Chen). The similarities stop there, as Alexi Tan’s film goes in a different direction entirely with this set of characters. So the three friends (actually two brothers and a friend) come to Shanghai where they get work in a fancy nightclub held by a charismatic but cruel mob boss (Sun Honglei). Things go bad when one of the friends (Liu Ye) starts going to seed and showing a proclivity for killing, and another (Daniel Wu) falls in love with the mob boss’ trophy girlfriend (Shu Qi), who is herself having an affair with one of his enforcers (Chang Chen).

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DIVERGENCE (2005) review

Benny Chan’s Divergence proceeds directly from the overwhelming and international success of the Infernal Affairs trilogy. It is not a cash-in, mind you : the kinship here is mainly to be seen in the tight storytelling refusing to be overly explanatory, the cold urban aesthetics and the stellar cast. The Hong-Kong superstar Aaron Kwok plays Suen, a cop whose girlfriend disappeared 10 years ago, and who’s never stopped looking for her, including at the morgue. He has been assigned to the protection of a key witness in the high-stakes trial of a corrupt businessman. The businessman’s lawyer (portrayed by Ekin Cheng) happens to be married to a woman looking remarkably like his long-lost girlfriend. That, coupled with the fact that the witness gets killed by a hitman called Coke (played by Daniel Wu), triggers a chain of events that put Suen’s mental and physical health to the test.

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