SWORD MASTER (2016) review

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As an actor, Derek Yee had gotten his break playing handsome swordsmen in numerous Shaw Brothers film, including Chu Yuan’s Death Duel (1977). As a director however, he has mostly favored contemporary, urban and often gritty fare. Now in a full circle he offers Sword Master, a remake of Death Duel co-produced and co-written with Tsui Hark, whose early career had seen him help Hong Kong cinema move past the classicism of Shaw Brothers films, but whose recent films have tried to both recapture and update their narrative and technical tenets. This interesting pair-up has yielded a flawed but stimulating film.

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ULTERIOR MOTIVE (2015) review

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Ulterior Motive is Arthur Wong’s first film as a director in 28 years ; his last directorial effort had been the enjoyable, hard-hitting In The Line of Duty  3 in 1987. Not that he has been slacking off in the meantime : Wong is one of Hong Kong and China’s most illustrious cinematographers, having lensed everything from The 36th Chamber of Shaolin and Once Upon A Time In China to The Warlords and Painted Skin. We encourage you to have a look at his filmography, it’s a head-spinning list of some of the most gorgeously-shot films in Hong Kong and China. For his return to the director’s chair, he has chosen a noirish thriller about a rich heiress (Qin Lan), whose husband (Archie Kao) and daughter are kidnapped and held for ransom. The cop in charge of the investigation is her ex-boyfriend (Gordon Lam), an acutely intuitive sleuth who quickly targets her father (Simon Yam) as a prime suspect, after finding out troubling similarities between this kidnapping case and one he was involved in 20 years ago, that ended in murder.

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CHOY LEE FUT KUNG FU (2011) review

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A few years before Donnie Yen gave him an opportunity to demonstrate his actual kung fu skills in The Iceman 3D and Kung Fu Jungle, Wang Baoqiang already demonstrated his martial arts proficiency in John Ching’s Choy Lee Fut Kung Fu (not to be confused with Choy Lee Fut, a film starring Sammo Hung and his son, that came out the same year). Wang plays Danny (Wang Baoqiang), a young martial arts enthusiast who arrives in Hong Kong to head a school of Choy Lee Fut (a combination of Northern and Southern Chinese kung-fu systems) owned by his wealthy father (Ng Man Tat). At the airport, he’s swindled out of his wallet and phone but is given help and shelter by a young woman (Michelle Ye), much to the chagrin of her jealous boyfriend (Miu Tse) and her kind but suspicious mother (Kara Hui). With an important boxing match coming up, Danny is trained by a master of Choy Lee Fut (Norman Tsui), while the school’s janitor (Wong Yat Fei) tries to locate the second half of an old martial arts manuscript, which contains a map to a treasure map.

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FLAMING BROTHERS (1987) review

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Surfing on the Heroic Bloodshed wave initiated mostly by John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow films, starring one of the genre’s biggest stars in the person of Chow Yun Fat, written by Hong Kong cinema luminaries Wong Kar Wai and Jeff Lau, Joe Cheung’s Flaming Brothers has a pedigree that’s hard to ignore. Chow Yun Fat and Alan Tang star as brothers (in the sense that they’re orphans who grew up in poverty looking after each other) who’ve made it big in the Triads. But while Tang looks to solidify his position and broaden the scope of his operations, Chow simply wants out, having rekindled a childhood love (Pat Ha), a catholic nurse who is averse to violence and the Triad lifestyle. When Tang’s feud with a mob boss (Patrick Tse) escalates irreparably, Chow must choose between love and brotherhood.

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CITY WAR (1988) review

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The poster boy for the game-changing phenomenon that was John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow in 1986 may have been Chow Yun Fat, a moderately famous actor catapulted to icon status, but the real heart of the film was not Chow, it was the friendship between his character and Ti Lung’s. Indeed the pairing of Chow Yun Fat and Ti Lung was so brilliant, their chemistry so complete, it’s no wonder they were reunited just one year after their A Better Tomorrow characters went out in a blaze of glory. Directed by Shaw Brothers veteran Sun Chung (a lesser-known director from that stable but also one of the most interesting), City War is obviously a riff on Lethal Weapon which had come out the year before, and whose pairing of two cops, one by-the-book, one a mad dog, is replicated here, though with an interesting twist. In Lethal Weapon the mad dog cop is a loner, and the by-the-book one is a family man ; here it’s the reverse. Another interesting reversal of expectations is that Chow Yun Fat, whom based on his A Better Tomorrow persona you’d expect to play the loose cannon, here plays Chiu, a cop who likes to play it safe, while Ti Lung is the hot-headed, authority-averse one.

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SEA WOLVES (aka IN THE LINE OF DUTY 7) (1991) short review

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Sometimes marketed as the 7th installment in the In The Line Of Duty franchise (and indeed, 90% of Cynthia Khan’s filmography could be from that franchise), Sea Wolves actually puts an emphasis on Gary Chau (a D&B Films protégé whose career never took off) and Simon Yam, as two Vietnamese friends separated by fate after emigrating to Hong Kong: Yam joins a gang of modern-day pirates who prey on Vietnamese boat people (how is that a logical step for a Vietnamese immigrant?), while Chau loses his sister in a pirate raid by that very same gang, subsequently finding himself stranded in Hong Kong, deprived of his memory by a nasty fall on his head. Cynthia Khan comes into play as a tough female cop on the trail of the pirate gang, and Norman Tsui adds another fine bad guy to his scintillating repertoire of villainy. For one hour the film noodles around pleasantly but unfortunately not thrillingly, with some tame comedy and slightly overwrought drama, but also thankfully the welcome grit and efficiency that can be expected from those late eighties, early nineties action films churned out by the D&B film company. Ultimately though, only the ever-reliable Simon Yam, the beautiful Cynthia Khan and a brutal, thrilling final action scene on a boat elevate Sea Wolves slightly above mediocrity. **1/2

WHAT PRICE SURVIVAL (1994) review

The one-armed sworsman is a fixture of Chinese cinema, from the original Shaw Brothers trilogy directed by Chang Cheh and starring first Wang Yu, then David Chiang, to countless crossovers (including Zatoichi vs. the One-armed Swordsman) and variants (for instance The One-armed Swordsmen or The One-armed Swordswoman). But by 1994, when Daniel Lee’s What Price Survival was released, it had all but disappeared, due in part to the fact it had been done to death, and in part to the fact that Wu Xia Pan’s and costumed epics in general weren’t that popular anymore during the eighties.

What Price Survival is Daniel Lee’s very first film and, as he wrote it, one of his most personal. Its setting is contemporary, but in a timeless way by which people still carry swords. Visually, as with any Daniel Lee film (save for the odious Black Mask), it is a treat : gorgeous snowy landscape captured by Lee’s DP of choice Tony Cheung, dozens of men in black long coats wielding swords, two lovers playfully fighting through lonely rays of light in an abandoned mansion… Narratively however, the struggle for coherence begins.

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