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

THE HOUSE THAT NEVER DIES II (2017) review

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Three years after Raymond Yip’s The House that never dies became the highest-grossing Chinese horror film, comes this Gordon Chan-produced sequel, featuring a different cast and a new set of characters, but still taking place at N°81 Chanoei in Beijing, a famous mansion believed to be haunted. This time, engineer Song Teng (Julian Cheung) is working on restoring the old mansion, while neglecting his wife He (Mei Ting), a doctor. The couple has grown estranged following the stillbirth of their child five years before, and Song’s apparent reciprocal fondness for his assistant (Gillian Chung) isn’t helping matters. In an attempt to solidify their marriage, He moves in with her husband in the old house, but soon she is plagued by visions and nightmares, that appear to be memories of a past life: at the beginning of the 20th century, a general (Julian Cheung) who lived in this mansion had to marry the daughter (Gillian Chung) of a warlord, to solidify an alliance and to ensure he would have an heir, after his first wife (Mei Ting) failed to beget him one. But the general’s affections were still for his first wife, and his new bride proved barren as well. And deadly jealous.

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THE WASTED TIMES (2016) review

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Delayed for more than a year for reasons unclear (censorship issues or belabored editing?), Cheng Er’s third film takes place in Shanghai in the thirties and forties -before, during and after the battle and subsequent capture of the city by the Japanese. It follows various characters all connected to Mister Lu (Ge You), a crime boss: there’s his housekeeper (Ni Yan), his superior (Ni Dahong), the prostitute he occasionally visits (Gillian Chung), an actress he admires and helps (Yuan Quan), another actress (Zhang Ziyi) unfaithfully married to his superior, her lover (Wallace Chung), her other lover (Hang Geng), and more importantly Watabe (Tadanobu Asano), a Japanese man who got married and made his life in Shanghai, and claims he will fight for his city rather than side with his countrymen. When Japanese businessmen approach Mister Lu with plans for a lucrative partnership, he refuses ; death ensues.

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WHO IS UNDERCOVER (2015) review

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Fan Jianhui’s Who is Undercover cashes in on the success of classy and starry Chinese spy thrillers like Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s The Silent War or Gao Qunshu and Chen Kuo Fu’s superb The Message, with a story that borrows heavily from the latter film (though set slightly earlier in Chinese history).  In 1934, the secret services of the Kuomintang government round up suspects (including Lin Chi Ling and Gillian Chung) in a military base and torture them in an attempt to identify the undercover communist agent among them while on the outside, the head of the underground communist party (Tony Leung Ka Fai) tries to control the damage and free his agent, known under the codename “The Joker”. Beyond a shared premise, Who is Undercover is often so strikingly similar to The Message that there’s more than a whiff of plagiarism about it. The way the story unravels (with a mix of tragedy and mystery, regular torture scenes, an emphasis on coding and constant twists and scenes replayed in flashbacks to reveal their true meaning), the arc and hidden identity of some of the main characters, and key plot points (which we won’t reveal not to spoil either film) are exactly the same. A few scenes are basically transpositions of ones found in The Message, striking the same dramatic beats with the same narrative or visual tricks. At some point there’s even a key line of dialogue that is a verbatim repetition of one heard in the 2009 film, carrying the same implications. In the end, there’s enough differences that it doesn’t constitute a remake, but enough similarities that it feels redundant and borders on shameless copying.

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