ENDLESS LOOP (2018) short review

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In Wen He’s Endless Loop, a woman whose car breaks down in the middle of nowhere hitches a ride with a man who turns out to be a violent psychopath. Not long after, seven people riding a minibus in the same part of the Chinese countryside find themselves in a tunnel that doesn’t seem to end. Worse: when they try to go back the way they came in, they realize the tunnel has apparently become a loop, and what looks like an exit door actually leads then to another looped tunnel, strikingly similar yet with key differences. The seven strangers must work together to find a way out, but the ugliness of human nature in extreme circumstances quickly derails their efforts at survival. With an opening scene not unlike that of Kim Jee-woon’s I saw the Devil, a set-up and some episodes that call to mind Fruit Chan’s The Midnight After, and (SPOILER ALERT) a second-reel twist that turns the film into a near-remake of Tarsem Singh’s The Cell (END SPOILERS), Endless Loop is rather low on originality. Yet it’s briskly-paced, well-acted by a solid ensemble (with the ever-reliable and low-key Nie Yuan at its center), and ends in a flurry of off-the-wall dreamlike sequences that artfully get around budgetary constraints and are tightly connected to the narrative, so that they never feel gratuitous. A step in the right direction for Mainland horror. **1/2

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THE BLIZZARD (2018) short review

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Jiang Kaiyang’s The Blizzard follows Song Chao (Nie Yuan) and Liu Haiyang (Tan Kai), best friends turned enemies: after being kicked out of the police academy where they were both being trained in Harbin, Song murdered Liu’s father for mysterious reasons, and Liu – now a police detective – has had only revenge on his mind ever since. One day, Song reappears, lured out of hiding to rescue a friend who was kidnapped by a local mobster; Liu is ready to bring him to justice, but he doesn’t realize that the murder of his father is part of a deep conspiracy, and Song may not be the real culprit… Add a thick layer of snow to it, and a solid yet unremarkable thriller can take on an atmospheric, unforgiving edge. Such is the case with The Blizzard, which starts promisingly enough with several intriguing plot strands, but then fails to combine them in a compelling way, with plot turns either thuddingly predictable, or simply ludicrous, and a surfeit of thinly-written characters that enter the story without proper introductions and exit it as loose ends (which works for ‘slice of life’ drama but not for action thrillers). Yet thanks to the aforementioned snow draping stark Harbin cityscapes and classily captured by Korean cinematographer Kim Gitae (2012’s Confession of Murder), strong performances by Nie Yuan (impressively intense) and Tan Kai (engagingly rugged), and a few raw, Korean-style brawls choreographed by Kim Shin Woong (2015’s The Throne), The Blizzard remains an efficient little thriller. **1/2

ASH (2017) review

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In Chongqing, police detective Chen Weikun (Nie Yuan) investigates the murder of one Ma Xudong (Yang Yiwei), whose throat was cut with surgical precision in a theater. His suspicions land squarely on the victim’s stepson Xu Feng (Xin Peng), a young factory worker who visibly loathed his violent, abusive stepfather, and would have wanted to protect his mother – but both have a strong alibi. Then there’s a mysterious figure stalking the crime scene, wearing a surgical mask, but detective Chen cannot prove anything, and the case goes cold, until ten years later he spots a prominent surgeon, Wang Dong (Luo Jin) wearing the same mask – a coincidence which rekindles his will to solve the case. Yet it turns out that this is not a coincidence, as a series of flashbacks show that Wang Dong once knew Xu Feng.

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THE WARRIORS (2016) short review

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Another in a long line of slickly-packaged Chinese propaganda war films, The Warriors was directed by Ning Haiqiang (whose oeuvre includes 2015’s The Hundred Regiments Offensive), is set in 1935 and follows a regiment of the People’s Liberation Army – then known simply as the Red Army – led by Commander Huang Kaixiang (Ethan Li) and including Sergeant Yang Zhengwei (Nie Yuan), as it races towards a key bridge that has to be taken in order to stop the Kuomintang troups’ progress in the region. It’s an incredibly thinly-written film, with sparse historical detail, entirely interchangeable characters (all stalwart, selfless, heroic, saintly would-be martyrs) given the faintest of backstories, and a constantly solemn, clenched-jaw, single-tear tone that borders on unintentional comedy. This makes the film’s episodic structure – it simply hurtles from skirmish to skirmish – all the more laborious and plodding; the copious action scenes are competently staged (action maestro Bruce Law is to thank for that) but devoid of any emotional pull, narrative momentum or epic sweep. For all the explosions and machine gun fire on display, The Warriors feels like listening to a particularly heavy-handed recruiting sergeant drone on for 100 minutes. *

BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES (2014) review

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In the year 1627, the Ming dynasty is in its final years as emperor Chongzhen takes over the throne, and in the process expels powerful Chief Eunuch Wei (Chin Shih Chieh) from his position of power. But a large number of court officials are still secretly in the service of the Eunuch, forming the so-called “Clique” that the emperor decides to dismantle. His prime resource in doing that is the “Jinyiwei”, his imperial assassins who are tasked with arresting, getting a confession out of, and/or killing, all presumed members of the Clique. Three Jinyiwei are chosen for the critical mission of finding and killing the Eunuch himself: Shen Lian (Chang Chen), who is in unrequited love with a courtesan (Cecilia Liu) and is saving up to buy her freedom, Lu Jianxing (Wang Qianyuan) who is desperate to meet his father’s standards by getting a promotion and is ready to bribe his way to it, and Jin Yichuan (Ethan Li), who is being blackmailed by a former friend (Zhou Yiwei) who threatens to reveal their criminal past and the fact he stoile a man’s identity to become a Jinyiwei. The fact that their new superior (Nie Yuan) is a pawn of the Eunuch further complicates the matters and soon an intricate web of lies unravels with tragic consequences.

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