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. ***

IP MAN 4: THE FINALE (2019) review

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Eleven years after his career was both boosted and defined by the resounding success of Wilson Yip’s Ip Man, Donnie Yen is back for a final time as the grandmaster of Wing Chun. Following the death of his wife, Ip Man is diagnosed with head and neck cancer; his son Jing wants to become a martial arts master himself, but Man wants him to attend university instead, and sensing his end approaching fast, he travels to San Francisco to get him enrolled in a university, hoping the expatriation will teach him independence. There, he meets his former student Bruce Lee, now a revered teacher himself, but frowned upon by the more traditional kung fu masters of Chinatown for daring to instruct non-Chinese in the ways of Chinese martial arts. Chief among these traditionalists is Tai Chi Master Wan (Wu Yue), the head of the Chinese Benevolent Association, whose recommendation is crucial in getting Ip Jing accepted into university. Masters Ip and Wan butt heads over the issue of spreading Chinese martial arts to the West, but a common enemy soon emerges: racist Marine instructor Barton Geddes (Scott Adkins) who deeply resents the attempts by American-born Chinese soldier Hartmann (Vanness Wu) to have Wing Chun included to Marine training, and sends Karate master Collin (Chris Collins) to Chinatown in an attempt to humiliate Chinese martial arts.

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THE WHITE STORM 2: DRUG LORDS (2019) review

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Louis Koo’s third sequel of 2019, after P Storm and Chasing the Dragon II, and before Line Walker 2, Herman Yau’s The White Storm 2: Drug Lords (hereafter Drug Lords) is an in-name-only follow up (for obvious heroic bloodshed reasons) to Benny Chan’s hugely enjoyable 2013 actioner The White Storm. Koo plays Dizang, a triad member who gets severely punished by his boss (Kent Cheng) for peddling drugs in one of his night clubs. Reluctantly dishing out the punishment is his longtime friend Yu (Andy Lau), who cuts three of his fingers. Fifteen years later, Dizang has risen through the triad ranks and become a feared drug lord, while Yu has left the triads and become a billionaire financial expert, married to a successful lawyer (Karena Lam), and founder of an anti-drug charity. But when his illegitimate son Danny falls to his death while high on cocaine, Yu takes his fight against drugs to the next level, promising a 100-million $ bounty to whoever kills Dizang.

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THE LEAKER (aka THE LEAKERS) (2018) review

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2018 will have been a quiet kind of year for Herman Yau; The Leaker is one of only two films he’ll have had in theaters (the other being comedy A Home with a View, starring Louis Koo and Francis Ng, and out in December). Still, he’s already got two films in the can for 2019, with two more already planned, so no cause for alarm. The Leaker starts with the outbreak in Malaysia of a new and deadly disease carried by mosquitoes. The only available cure is an experimental drug manufactured by Amanah, a powerful pharmaceutical company. But when the elder son of Amanah’s CEO Teo Jit Sin (Kent Cheng) is found murdered, and his second son is kidnapped by a shady organisation claiming to have incriminating information to leak about Teo Jit Sin, Malaysian detective Lee Weng-kan (Julian Cheung) must team up with journalist Carly Yuen (Charmaine Sheh) and Hong Kong cop Wong Dai Wai (Francis Ng) to uncover the truth.

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WONDER SEVEN (1994) review

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A gang of seven martial artists/bikers (whose more recognizable members are Kent Cheng and Xiong Xin Xin) working for the law who butt heads with a rogue agent working for an international crime organization. That’s about all I remember of the plot, and I saw the film last week. What I do remember : when this film was made, in 1994, director/choreographer Ching Siu-Tung’s action style was being overused in Hong Kong cinema, and overextended by its instigator ; Wonder Seven is a prime example of that. Never mind the lack of a discernible dramatic structure (outside of the fact it all ends in climactic overkill), the non-existent characterization that means that the titular “Wonder Seven” are even less subtly delineated than the Seven Dwarves, or even the puzzling attempts at humor : while these faults aren’t a fixture of Hong Kong cinema, they are at least recurring defects in the more commercial section of that industry, that can often be ignored through sheer sensory elation. But here Ching’s style has reached a point where it was not only feeling very redundant at the time, but still today out of the context of its release looks and feels tired and over-indulgent.

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EASY MONEY (1987) review

Easy Money was Michelle Yeoh’s final film before she went into early retirement to dedicate herself to her marriage with Dickson Poon (who had been her producer via D&B Films on most of her films up to then). That didn’t quite work out and five years later she was back in business, new and improved, making quite the splash by upstaging Jackie Chan in Police Story 3. So this is the last film featuring that former incarnation of Yeoh : a more round-faced, girly-looking actress, already very beautiful and stunt-ready, but not quite as well-rounded a performer, especially in the dramatic department.

Easy Money is actually a thinly-veiled remake of The Thomas Crown Affair, with the spin of a gender-switch : Michelle Yeoh is the gentleman-thief figure formerly played by Steve McQueen and Pierce Brosnan ; former crooner George Lam takes the Faye Dunaway/Rene Russo role of the insurance investigator who gets drawn into a web of deceit and seduction that is half of his making. Kent Cheng is the dogged cop in charge of investigating a multi-million-dollar heist, thus taking the Paul Burke/Dennis Leary role : no gender-switching for this character, merely a waist-enhancing.

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