GUILT BY DESIGN (2019) short review

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Paul Sze, Kenneth Lai and Lau Wing Tai’s debut feature (under the guiding hand of producer Derek Yee), Guilt by Design follows Xu Lisheng (Nick Cheung), a former master of hypnotherapy who is selected for jury duty with six other people (Kent Cheng, Elaine Jin, Jolane Koo, Cecilia So, Babyjohn Choi and Lee Sheung Ching) in the highly-publicized trial of the heir of a major corporation, accused of murdering her uncle for his inheritance. There’s ample evidence that the defendant is innocent, but minutes before jury deliberation is set to start, Xu is contacted by a dirty cop (Eddie Cheung), who has kidnapped his daughter: if he wants to get her back in one piece, he must hypnotize the jury into finding the defendant guilty. From this rather fresh concept, the three writers-directors extract an enjoyable little thriller, refreshingly streamlined and un-convoluted contrary to many Hong Kong film of its ilk,  bracingly concise at 90 minutes, and relentlessly preposterous: more than suspended, disbelief should be shredded, burnt and then its ashes scattered at sea. This is a film where a juror can have a covert conversation with another juror, under the very table where the jury is deliberating at the same time, with only one person in the whole room noticing it; and this is the rare courtroom drama that ends with a little girl dangling from a helicopter, itself dangling from the top of a skyscraper. Yet it all goes down a treat, thanks to the aforementioned brisk pace, some strikingly inventive visuals for the hypnosis scenes, and a fine cast bringing life to barely-sketched out roles: Nick Cheung coasts efficiently on his enigmatic charisma, while old pros Kent Cheng and Eddie Cheung, and token Mainland cast-member Han Zhang are all game for the ridiculousness at hand. ***

THE BIG CALL (2017) review

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Ding Xiaotian (Cheney Chen) is a young cop who just witnessed his former teacher commit suicide after losing all his money to a phone scam. The case is thus personal, and soon Ding is recruited by Tan Sirong (Eddie Cheung) of the ATFC (Anti-Telecommunication Fraud Centre) to help expose two master fraudsters, Lin Ahai (Joseph Chang) and Liu Lifang (Gwei Lun Mei), who operate a vast fraud network across Southeast Asia, with headquarters and call center in Thailand. ATFC agent Xu Xiaotu (Jiang Mengjie), who’s also Ding’s ex-girlfriend, has infiltrated these headquarters, and as the noose tightens around the fraudsters, suspicion from Liu falls on her.

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COLOUR OF THE GAME (2017) review

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A belated third installment in Wong Jing’s ‘Colour’ series of Triad thriller – after Colour of the Truth (2003) and Colour of the Loyalty (2005) – Wai Ka Fai’s Colour of the Game centers on Dahua (Simon Yam), a weary Triad enforcer who’s given one last mission before retirement: to find and kill the degenerate son of gangster Brother Nine (Waise Lee), Robert (Ye Xiangming), who raped and killed Triad boss Dragon (Lau Siu Ming). Dahua enlists the help of his old comrades in arms Chun (Jordan Chan), fresh out of prison, and BBQ, retired with a bad leg but willing to assist his brother one last time, as well as Gao (Philip Ng), his protégé, Liqiang (Sabrina Qiu), his tough daughter, and Superman (Oscar Leung), a newcomer eager to prove his worth. The team gets to work, but as they’re being repeatedly ambushed by Robert’s men and followed closely by the police, they soon realize there’s a mole among them.

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THE STRANGE HOUSE (2015) short review

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Danny Pang’s sixth film not to be co-directed by his brother Oxide (though only his third without any official involvement whatsoever from the latter), The Strange House slipped completely under the radar in its summer 2015 China release. The set-up is reasonably interesting: Ye Zi (Xu Jiao) is a young hairdresser with money problems. Just as she is threatened with eviction, she is approached by Le Zijun (Cheung Siu Fai), a psychologist who makes her a strange offer: his mother is in the throes of death, and all her family is with her except one, Le Rong, who died a year ago and to whom Ye Zi bears a striking resemblance. Everyone kept Le Rong’s death a secret from the matriarch, fearing the tragic news would precipitate her illness, but now in her final days she’s asking for her granddaughter. Thus for a generous sum of money, Ye Zi is to impersonate Le Rong and bring closure to the dying woman. She accepts, but once in the family house she’s faced with bizarre hostility from the rest of the family, and plagued with visions of a dead boy. After an interesting and fairly unsettling start, and despite nicely ambiguous performances from Xu Jiao and Cheung Siu Fai, The Strange House quickly devolves into the usual broth of jump scares, belabored exposition (has a person ever died mysteriously without leaving a detailed diary behind?) and censorship placating: the SARFT‘s “no supernatural elements” rule means the film ends with the same old twist generally used in Mainland Chinese horror to justify the apparent presence of ghosts. To its credit, the film does add a clever narrative and visual footnote to this twist, as if to compensate for how derivative and contrived it is. **