CRAZY ALIEN (2019) short review

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Ning Hao’s Crazy Alien caps off his ‘Crazy’ trilogy of Huang Bo-led dark comedies (after Crazy Stone and Crazy Racer) with a box-office bang. After The Wandering Earth, it was the second most successful release of Chinese New Year 2019, and like that blockbuster, it is based – albeit loosely – on a novella by Liu Cixin, A Village Teacher (Ning Hao also cameos in The Wandering Earth, while Lei Jiayin cameos in both). It follows down-on-his-luck monkey trainer Geng Hao (Huang Bo), whose small circus will soon have to close if he doesn’t prove its commercial viability to the manager of the amusement park that houses it. One day, after an aborted inter-species exchange in outer-space, an alien comes crashing into Geng’s circus. Believing him to be a rare monkey, Geng decides to train it, while his friend Da Fei (Shen Teng) tries to convince him to sell it. Meanwhile, the American government (re-named Amanikan government) is sending its special forces to track down the alien. Beyond the A-list but oddly chemistry-free pairing of Huang Bo and Shen Teng, and the passable CGI rendering of the alien creature, it’s difficult to understand the success of Crazy Alien. It’s consistently mean-spirited, but never in a good way: the darkness of its comedy entails mostly caricaturing Americans and their government – as if their perceived arrogance wasn’t mirrored in China – and more uncomfortably, the ill-treatment of animals. It’s not just the alien that’s mistreated by the leads, but also the trained monkey: while it never gets too grievous, it’s still impressively unfunny, and coupled with a video that surfaced of a dog being abused on set, it leaves a bitter aftertaste. There’s also amusing but tired references to Steven Spielberg’s E.T, and to the Monkey King. But with no trace of humanity, no perceivable depth, and a dull stop-and-go pace, Crazy Alien is an oddly inert film. **

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BROTHERHOOD OF BLADES II: THE INFERNAL BATTLEFIELD (2017) review

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Lu Yang’s Brotherhood of Blades was one of 2014’s best surprises, a tightly-scripted, hard-hitting little wu xia pian made on a relatively small budget, and whose muted box-office was compensated by an almost unanimously positive critical response, and a following that has grown in the three years since its release. Now, director Lu Yang is back with a bigger budget, for a prequel – which will be followed by a sequel, following the Infernal Affairs trilogy template – focusing on Chang Chen’s character (with Wang Qianyuan and Ethan Li noticeably absent), and which he again-co-wrote with Chen Shu, while none other than Ning Hao stepped in as a producer.

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NO MAN’S LAND (2013) short review

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Being shelved for four years over censorship issues sounds like a death knell for any film, and yet in the case of Ning Hao’s No Man’s Land, it may actually have been a considerable boon : indeed, the four-years delay meant that the film came out after the comedy Lost In Thailand, which starred two of the leads of No Man’s Land (Xu Zheng and Huang Bo), and thus became positioned as their follow-up to what is still the all-time highest-grossing Chinese film in China. It did however lose its potential status as China’s very first modern-day set western – with Gao Qunshu’s Wind Blast having been released in the meantime – though in truth it is closer to a film noir than a western, with moody voice-over and a cynical outlook on human nature. It tells of an arrogant big city lawyer (Xu Zheng) who travels to the far west of China to plead the case of a falcon trafficker (Togbye), then tries to rush back to the city to close a book deal on that very case. But he runs afoul of the trafficker’s scabby assistant (Huang Bo), as well as spiteful cops, angry truck drivers, and sordid petrol station owners, becoming the de facto protector of a desperate prostitute (Yu Nan) in the process. No Man’s Land often recalls Oliver Stone’s U-Turn, with which it shares an almost fantasmagorical level of bad luck and human scum thrust upon an almost unlikeable main character. And like that 1997 film, it starts out delightfully dark and funny, then loses steam with its thudding cynicism and an overdose of plot turns that are less fresh and witty than the director seems to think. Still, it’s a fun ride with great turns from Togbye as a monolithic bandit and Yu Nan as the only likeable character of the film and the incarnation of the softer side of Ning Hao’s pitch dark vision. ***1/2