SOUTHERN SHAOLIN (2021) short review

The eternally underrated Fan Siu Wong keeps plugging away in Chinese straight-to-VOD films, not having appeared in a theatrically-released film since 2016’s Bounty Hunters. It’s a crying shame, but at least some of these online movies utilize him well, like the fight-heavy The Bravest Escort Group or last year’s solid fantasy adventure Taoist Master diptych. A riff on the well-trodden ‘Shaolin-assisted redemption’ subgenre of martial arts cinema, Dong Wei’s Southern Shaolin is a good notch below these passable films though. It follows pirate chief Cai Yan (Fan Siu Wong), who is betrayed and left for dead by his second in command (Xiong Xin Xin), himself in league with very evil white soldiers – but is there any other kind in Chinese films? Cai is found and nursed back to health by Shaolin monks; sensing a good place to lay low, he feigns amnesia to ingratiate himself, and becomes an apprentice. What started as a ploy slowly turns to true enlightenment, but soon his past catches up with him. At 75 minutes, Southern Shaolin is simply too short and perfunctory (not too mention, too cheap) to properly convey its redemption narrative, despite an amusing montage showing Cai recoiling at the discipline and frugality of a monk’s life. But it is also unforgivably skimpy on fights: Fan and Xiong, two superb screen fighters, are given only short flashes of action, and their final fight is a brief and disjointed affair. The film also features some of the very worst gweilo dialogue and acting ever put to film – well, to memory card. *1/2

TAOIST MASTER: KYLIN (aka MASTER ZHANG 2) (2020) short review

Chen Cheng’s Taoist Master: Kylin is the quick fire sequel to Wu Yingxiang’s Taoist Master (released just a few months ago, already online), with Fan Siu Wong returning in the role of Zhang Taoling, the founder of the first organized form of Taoism, flanked by his disciple (Li Lubing, also returning). This time, Master Zhang arrives in a village near Mount Yun Jing, where Kylin, the legendary God of the Mountain, is rumored to prey on hunters and those foolhardy enough to venture into the mountain. While Taoist Master was on the higher end of Chinese direct-to-VOD films, this sequel is disappointingly average: it lacks the refreshing presence of Zhang Dong (who played a feisty huntress in the first film), it’s criminally low on fight scenes (one of the original’s strong suits), and the plot is the usual thudding supernatural set-up resolved with the censorship-placating hallucination card. Yet it’s nevertheless a brisk and entertaining affair, anchored again in the charismatic presence of the ever-underrated Fan Siu Wong. **

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. ***

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 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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SPECIAL MISSION (2018) review

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Yin Chenyang’s Special Mission follows an elite mercenary (Fan Siu Wong) who joins forces with a detective (Augusta Xu-Holland) to find and rescue a Middle-Eastern princess who’s been kidnapped in Bangkok by a shady criminal known as ‘Black Star’ (Si Ligeng). As bland and generic as its title, the film clocks in at barely 70 minutes and isn’t much more than a string of perfunctory scenes trying hard to resemble recent Chinese hits. There’s tanks and a unit called “The Wolves” (Wolf Warrior 1 & 2: check), there’s naval officer determinedly pacing on a military vessel’s deck (Operation Red Sea: check), and more importantly there’s a duo of operatives investigating in Thailand (Operation Mekong: check). Of course, while it’s all shot and edited with a basic amount of technical competence, everything looks puny in comparison to the aforementioned blockbusters. So instead of a drawn-out speedboat chase on the Mekong, you’ll have to make do with a short jet ski chase on the Chao Phraya.

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ON HIS MAJESTY’S SECRET SERVICE (2009) short review

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Wong Jing’s On His Majesty’s Secret Service is as narratively unfocused and packed with non-sequitur scenes as any of the rotund Hong Kong film kingpin’s comedies, but here is the gist of its ‘plot’: an Imperial Guard (Louis Koo) with no martial arts skills but a gift for scientific innovation becomes embroiled both in his fiancée’s (Barbie Hsu) plot to make him love her more by pretending she’s in love with a handsome hitman who’s actually a beautiful hitwoman (Liu Yang), and in an evil eunuch’s (Fan Siu Wong) plot to overthrow the emperor (Liu Yiwei), who is organizing a competition to find a worthy husband for his daughter (Song Jia). Apart from lavish costumes and sets, the direction is lazy and uninspired, while the humor consists of constant and lazy pratfalls, obvious pop-culture references (some are even delivered while literally winking at the camera), some inscrutable (for non-Cantonese speakers) wordplay and a cornucopia of blissfully unhinged comedic acting: Louis Koo is a broad delight, Fan Siu Wong steals all his scenes with his ‘dainty evil’ act, Song Jia shows effortless comedic skills, and while Barbie Hsu’s silliness feels more forced and Sandra Ng seems on autopilot, Tong Dawei and Liu Yang provide fine serious support, the latter being particularly charismatic as a cross-dressing assassin. All in all, it’s a harmless and often amusing comedy which could have stood out more if its numerous action scenes had been choreographed and directed with more verve. **1/2

BOUNTY HUNTERS (2016) short review

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An action film so airy, glitzy and inconsequential it makes its director Shinterra look like the long-lost twin of Jingle Ma (Tokyo Raiders, Seoul Raiders…), Bounty Hunters stars the impossibly smarmy duo of Wallace Chung and Lee Min-ho as ex-Interpol agents now working as bodyguards-for-hire, who get framed for the bombing of a hotel and join forces with a trio of bounty hunters (Tiffany Tang, Karena Ng and Fan Siu Wong) to clear their names and find the real perpetrator. What follows is a half-hearted series of passable chase scenes, amusing fight scenes where Lee Min-ho and Tiffany Tang just flail around while stuntmen take exaggerated back-flip falls, cringe-worthy comic relief by Wallace Chung, valiant attempts at quirky cuteness by Karena Ng, and a whole lot of luxury porn. Lee and Chung have next to no chemistry and often look like the result of a half-assed cloning experiment, while Tiffany Tang makes a bid for the title of “Chinese Megan Fox” (make of that what you will). The bad guy, as played by Jeremy Jones (aka Izz Xu, aka Jeremy Xu, aka Xu Zheng Xi, aka Jones Xu, aka A Xi), is a hilariously non-threatening, preening man-child with an orange hairdo and a shorts suit. Fan Siu Wong, the only actual martial artist in the cast, is given no fighting whatsoever, but is a breath of fresh air, providing unforced comic relief that makes good use of his self-deprecating charm. He’s like a fresh pebble in a sea of sticky glitter. *1/2

KUNG FU FIGHTER (2007) short review

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Featuring the same sets, costumes and many of the same cast-members as Stephen Chow’s Kung Fu Hustle, but only a quarter of its budget and a tenth of its creativeness, Yip Wing-Kin’s Kung Fu Fighter also borrows heavily from the Ma Wing Jing story, as told in the Shaw Brothers film Boxer from Shantung (1972) and Corey Yuen’s Hero (1997). Thus we follow a young country bumpkin (a vacant-eyed Vanness Wu) who comes to Shanghai in search of his father and ends up falling for a beautiful cabaret singer (Emme Wong), getting entangled in a turf war between mob bosses (Chan Kwok Kwan and Tin Kai Man), getting himself a portly sidekick (Lam Chi Chung) and meeting a kind master (an endearing Bruce Leung) who may know a thing or two about his father. It’s a puzzlingly half-baked film, in which some interesting visual flourishes and good choreography (by Fan Siu Wong) get undermined by a complete lack of focus and dramatic momentum and an excess of cartoonish visual trickery, again aping Stephen Chow’s film. The final fight scene is actually quite enjoyable, as Fan Siu Wong injects some charisma into the film by popping up as a dangerous grandmaster, and up-and-comer Max Zhang gets a good staff fight. But it’s not enough to prevent cartoonish surfeit and half-baked drama from dooming the film to mediocrity. *1/2

THE MASTER STRIKES BACK (1985) review

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Part of the Shaw Brothers’ last batch of films before it ceased big screen productions at the end of 1985, The Master Strikes Back was directed by Sun Chung, who gave the legendary studio some of its most memorable and/or masterful films, like The Drug Connection (1976) and its transposition of Blaxploitation tropes to Hong Kong cinema, The Kung Fu Instructor (1979) and its then-unprecedented use of steadycam to film fights, the unhinged cult horror film Human Lanterns (1982) and more importantly The Avenging Eagle (1978), one of the jewels in the Shaw Brothers crown. Here Ti Lung plays Tong Tie-Cheng, a military instructor (closely resembling his Kung Fu Instructor character) who arrives in a town with his son (Fan Siu Wong) to help an old friend (Ku Feng) whip the soldiers of his garrison back into shape. The town’s main source of business is its brothel, where the soldiers have taken the habit of spending their nights. Tong starts submitting them to a harsh training and forbids them to indulge in whoring. But while it earns him their respect, at first begrudging then undivided, it also threatens to put the brothel out of business, and thus makes him a nightmare for the town’s corrupt chief constable (Michael Chan Wai Man), who co-owns it. Soon Tong becomes the target of increasingly brutal machinations, including a insidious plot to have his son castrated to become a eunuch. At first reluctant to start a fight, the master is inexorably pushed to the edge.

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