BINDING SOULS (2019) short review

p2568663031After the middling exorcism film Daughter, director Chan Pang Chun returns to the horror genre and reunites with Kara Hui with Binding Souls, a mind-bogglingly laughable and cheap exercise in regurgitating the lamest, most overused horror tropes. Get a load of this plot: a group of college students (there’s the horny one, the bookish one, the sexy one, the scaredy one…) decide to spend a few days in an abandoned school that was once used by the Japanese army as a place to torture, rape and conduct experiments on Chinese prisoners. While the school has been closed for almost a decade, its old principal (Yuen Cheung Yan) still hangs around, as does a troubled janitor (Kara Hui), whose daughter disappeared years ago at the school, and who keeps hoping she’ll turn up. The youngsters plan to have some fun, but soon they’re plagued with visions of hostile ghosts. Over the course of the film’s skimpy yet overlong 88 minutes, there’s simply not a single fresh idea and not the least bit of suspense. The ghosts are standard-issue white-clad, black-hair-over-the-face, standing-at-the-back-of-a-corridor clichés. Ridiculousness – without any self-awareness of course – is omnipresent, from 33 years-old Carlos Chan cringingly playing a college student (one of the worst performances in a theatrically-released film this year, no doubt), to some very, very sad CGI. There’s no sense of atmosphere and the final twists arrive very late after any awake audience member saw them coming; only the first scene, a very nasty scene of wartime Japanese horror, raises the pulse somewhat, but it’s an ugly an exploitative sight. Kara Hui pops up from time to time, a sight for sore eyes made heavy by the blissful temptation of sleep. no stars

THE MYSTERIOUS FAMILY (2017) review

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Very loosely – and somewhat tastelessly – based on real-life events (the massacre of a whole family in Fujian province in 2014), Park Yu-hwan’s The Mysterious Family follows Miao Miao (Ariel Lin) a young student who one night is beaten and raped by a mysterious stranger (Blue Lan). This leaves her traumatized, dependent on medication and uncommunicative to her parents (Jiang Wu and Kara Hui) and brother (Xiao Chen). One Christmas Eve, upon returning home after training for a marathon, she witnesses her family being murdered by the same man who assaulted her months ago; yet she suddenly wakes up, as if from a vivid nightmare, on the running track where she had been practicing in the afternoon. But as she goes home, her family is again murdered by the same man, with subtle changes to the situation. And again Miao Miao wakes up on the running track. Stuck in a nightmarish loop, she must figure out how to save her family.

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MRS K (2016) review

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Mrs K (Kara Hui) is wife to a meek gynecologist (Wu Bai) and mother to a pouty fifteen year-old (Siow Li Xuan), living a peaceful life in a quiet suburban neighborhood. But, as her lightning-fast reflexes might indicate when two hapless burglars get into her house, her past is not as benign as her present. It soon emerges that more than a decade ago she took part in a brutal heist – and her partners in crime (played by directors Fruit Chan, Kirk Wong and Dain Said) are now getting killed one after the other by Scarface (Simon Yam), a dirty cop who played both sides during the heist, and ended up with a bullet in the head from Mrs K. Driven mad by the migraines and sleep-deprivation that resulted from this injury, Sarface kidnaps Mrs K’s daughter and demands a hefty ransom.

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THE BOLD, THE CORRUPT, AND THE BEAUTIFUL (2017) review

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Madame Tang (Kara Hui) is the head of a shady syndicate colluding with the government and private interests to speculate on real estate. She is also the matron of a family of three women, which also includes her daughter Tang Ning (Wu Ke Xi), damaged from being instrumentalized in her mother’s dealings and attempting faint rebellion against her while drowning her sorrow in sex and drugs; and Tang Chen (Vicky Chen), still a teenager, observing quietly the corruption around her, pining for Marco (Wu Shu Wei), the lover of her friend Pian-Pian (Wen Chen Ling), while being groomed by Madame Tang as her new accessory of charm. But when the family of one of Madame Tang’s government associates is massacred (with the daughter, Pian-Pian, the only survivor, though in a coma), the matriarch comes under scrutiny of a police investigation and must claw, threaten and back-stab her way out of trouble, while Marco becomes a scapegoat, Tang Ning starts a fling with the policeman in charge of the investigation, and Tang Chen gets thrust even more deeply into her mother’s immoral world.

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THE WARRIORS GATE (aka ENTER THE WARRIORS GATE) (2016) review

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A major co-production between China and France, The Warriors Gate is the brainchild of Luc Besson, who in addition to producing it, co-wrote it with his The Fifth Element/Kiss of the Dragon/Taken/The Transporter partner Robert Mark Kamen. It follows Jack (Uriah Shelton), a stereotypical American geek who shares his time between video games, biking and being bullied by the jocks in his class. His father is out of the picture and his sweet mother (Sienna Guillory) can’t quite make ends meet, so they might have to move out of their house if she can’t make a payment soon. His only friends are an obese fellow geek who calls himself the “octoman” and Chang, a Chinese shopkeeper who employs him from time to time. One day, the latter gives an ancient Chinese box to Jack, who starts using it as a container for his dirty laundry. But one night, a princess named Su Lin (Ni Ni) and her bodyguard Zhao (Mark Chao) emerge from that box, right into his bedroom. They come from Ancient China and are looking for the Black Knight, a fearless hero who is none other than Jack’s video game avatar. Despite the mix-up, Zhao leaves Su Lin in the custody of this scrawny teenager, until a few days later barbarians barge into the house through the same box and kidnap Su Lin. Jack is transported into Ancient China, where he’s welcomed by a zany wizard (Francis Ng) and reluctantly embarks on a quest with Zhao to rescue the princess from the hands of the barbarian king Arun (Dave Bautista).

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HORRIBLE MANSION IN WILD VILLAGE (2016) short review

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Horrible Mansion in Wild Village (with “Mansion” spelled as “Masion” in posters and credits), is a shockingly amateurish little horror film in which a reckless young biker (Cai Juntao) has an accident and ends up seeking help in a decrepit old mansion inhabited by a little girl (Jia Lin) and her stern grandmother (Kara Hui). And a terrifying and mysterious horned creature. And a mute girl locked up in the attic. From this familiar but decent premise, director Lu Shiyu makes his film an endless – though only 80 minutes long – series of shrieky nightmare sequences (the main character wakes up with a jolt roughly once every two minutes), ham-fisted flashbacks and trite stalking scenes. The mansion set is effective (though you can easily picture the director yelling “more cobwebs! I want more cobwebs!”) and Kara Hui, who has probably never phoned in a single performance in her career (more than 150 films), is suitably creepy, but the laughable and repetitive script keeps tension low, and resorts to the mother of all lame twists in order to make its overt supernatural elements palatable to Chinese censorship. Mainland Chinese horror has no high points yet, but it does have a new low point. 1/2*

DAUGHTER (2015) short review

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Chan Pang Chun’s Daughter is that rare Hong Kong horror film that features a Catholic – rather than Taoist – exorcism. It stars Kara Hui as Sharon, a successful psychologist who’s raising her teenage daughter Jenny (Yanny Chan) alone, but has been neglecting her for a while, all the while being a control freak when it comes to her future. But as the usually despondent Jenny starts acting increasingly defiant and strange, Sharon herself is plagued with horrific nightly visions, and she decides to call on the help of a priest (Kenny Wong). Daughter seems to have been helmed by two different directors: one who lets the dread sink in, favors creepy wide angle shots over close-up jump scares, and relies on Kara Hui’s intense and affecting performance rather than on CGI demon faces; and another who soon gets the upper hand, and who seems more concerned with regurgitating every single cliché linked to the subgenre of exorcism films, culling especially from William Friedkin’s seminal 1973 film. Beds will quake, innocent girls will talk in a demonic voice, pea soup will be vomited, priests will be flung across the room by unseen forces, and so on. You know the drill. There’s a half-decent twist at the end, but even at 80 minutes the film feels interminable. **

LEGEND OF THE DRUNKEN TIGER (1990) short review

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Legend of the Drunken Tiger was directed by Robert Tai, who at one point was Chang Cheh’s martial arts choreographer of choice, before going back to his native Taiwan to direct increasingly cheap and demented ninja movies. No ninjas here, but a straightforward kung fu comedy in which Chui Kei Wai plays a lovable drunk who uses his martial arts skills to fight his nemesis, a treacherous lord played by good old Ku Feng, and gets betrothed to a beautiful, equally skilled woman (Kara Hui). It’s entirely forgettable though mostly competent, until the halfway point. Then Robert Tai decides to get ambitious, and the plot switches to a much wider canvas involving the Boxer Rebellion of 1899. But with what seems to be a budget of about a hundred bucks, his reach comically exceeds his grasp. And so we’re treated to a “massive” battle scene involving a few dozen extras, and a string of fights involving evil foreign soldiers who know kung fu, played by glaringly Asian stuntmen wearing curly blonde wigs and decked in hilariously mismatched uniforms. All  this is in the service of a disjointed plot that does no favors to Chui Kei Wai, an evidently gifted performer who never made another film. Along with Kara Hui, who’s a sight for sore eyes, he shines in a serviceable action finale that is the one thing to salvage here. *1/2

BURNING AMBITION (1989) review

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Frankie Chan’s Burning Ambition transposes the plot of Kinji Kukasaku’s The Shogun’s Samurai (1978) to modern-day Hong Kong, with striking results. A Triad boss (Roy Chiao) is thinking about his succession: his elder son Wai (Michael Miu) is an irresponsible womanizer, and so he chooses his more level-headed and business-savvy younger son Hwa (Simon Yam). He’s killed the same evening in a drive-by shooting secretly organized by his brother Hsiong (Ko Chun Hsiung), who’s consumed by the titular burning ambition, and has made Wai his protégé. This triggers a fratricidal war as two camps are formed within the extended Triad family: on one side, the boss’s widow (a steely Seung Yee), the chosen heir Hwa and his trusted uncle Kau Chen (Eddy Ko); on the other side, Hsiong, his puppet Wai, his two loyal daughters Tao (Yukari Oshima) and Hong (Kara Hui), as well as his exiled son Chi-Shao (Frankie Chan), who comes back to Hong Kong to assist his father, not knowing, just like his sisters, what treacherous strings Hsiong has been pulling. It all escalates in a series of bloody acts of vengeance.

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JOURNEY OF THE DOOMED (1985) review

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Cha Chuen Yee’s Journey of the Doomed opens on the image of a setting sun, and ends in the complete destruction of desolate period sets. Fitting bookends to what is actually the last martial arts film produced by the Shaw Brothers Studio before it switched completely to TV production. Movie bootlegging and overwhelming competition from rival studio Golden Harvest had led to diminishing returns in the beginning of the eighties, and the legendary studio, after producing close to a thousand feature films, was cutting its losses and would not return to the big screen before 2009. These facts do not lend Journey of the Doomed any crepuscular dimension however, as it is more akin to the kind of cake your mother would make to empty the fridge before leaving on holidays.

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