DESIRE GAME (2019) review

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Ambitiously, Guo Tao has made science-fiction the genre of his directing debut, Desire Game. In it, he plays Guo Shi, the brilliant creator of the Butterfly, a still-in-development, revolutionary virtual reality system. But when his daughter falls to her death while entranced in the immersive effect of the Butterfly, he withdraws from public life and scientific research, becoming estranged from his wife (Mei Ting) and leaving his partner (Fan Wei) in charge of their company. One day, a young woman (Gai Yuexi) whose car broke down takes shelter at his villa; she then seduces him, only to be found dead in his car a few hours later. Guo Shi understands he’s being framed for murder, and can only rely on the help of his former disciple (Jiang Chao) and a homeless girl (Zhang Zifeng).

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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. **

DREAM BREAKER (2018) review

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While investigating the mysterious disappearance fifteen years before of her father (Tong Dawei), a pioneer in virtual reality, Jiang Han (Chen Duling) finds herself trapped in Souldream, an illegal and dangerous VR game he designed, where players can fight one another for points which allow them to indulge their desires. There, she’s helped by Nan Ji (Song Weilong), an expert player who is himself on the trail of his uncle (Archie Kao). Directed by Han Yan (not the Han Yan who helmed Go Away Mr Tumor and Animal World, mind you), Dream Breaker benefited from the artistic input of visionary, subversive Japanese filmmaker Sion Sono, though it only shows in a few visions of kooky, gaudy chaos.

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THE SECRET OF IMMORTAL CODE (2018) review

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A (very) rare Chinese sci-fi horror film, Li Wei and Zhang Nan’s The Secret of Immortal Code is set in the middle of the 22nd century: the Rafael pharmaceutical company, headed by the enigmatic Doctor Yao (Zhao Lixin), claims to be close to perfecting a cure for cancer, and proposes to cryopreserve – for a price – patients in the final stages of the disease, so that they may survive until the cure is finally ready. Yet 20 years later, it seems no closer to delivering the promised drug, and families are suing for commercial fraud. Lin Ziqi (Liang Jing) is in the same situation: her cancer-stricken sister Yuqi (Landi Li) has been in cryo-sleep for 18 years. One day, she receives a notification that Yuqi has been unplugged for no reason, which gives her only a few days to live. When she confronts Doctor Yao about this, he invites her to join him on a sea expedition to the Arctic, when a Rafael research station may hold the key to finally perfecting the cure.

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BLEEDING STEEL (2017) review

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On a fateful night in 2007, UN Special Forces agent Lin (Jackie Chan) is faced with a cruel dilemma: to be with his daughter Nancy in the hospital as she desperately clutches to life in the final phases of leukaemia, or to protect Doctor James, a geneticist who entered the witness-protection program after creating for an arms dealer a biochemical weapon whose formula, in the wrong hands, could bring about international chaos. Doctor James has been targeted by Andre (Callan Mulvey), a soldier enhanced with that biomechanical invention. Having painfully chosen international security over his daughter, Lin barely survives an attack by Andre that claims the life of most of his team. The same evening, his daughter dies. Fast forward thirteen years later, and Nancy is apparently still alive, attending high school under the watchful eye of Lin, who poses as a cafeteria worker at her school. Nancy is beset with recurring nightmares, and little does she know that she is the target not only of Andre and his right-hand woman (Tess Haubrich), but also of Leeson (Show Lo), a thief who found her profile in the files of a successful fiction writer.

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RESET (2017) review

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Produced by Jackie Chan and directed by Korean helmer Yoon Hong-seung aka Chang, Reset unfolds in the near future, when time travel is becoming a reality: the discovery and use of portals to parallel universes allows scientists to experiment on sending living tissue back in the past – though only two hours back for now. Xia Tian (Yang Mi) is part of a research team that is on the verge of a major breakthrough, when her son Doudou a kidnapped and held for ransom by a mysterious man (Wallace Huo). If she wants to get her son back, she is to deliver the man all of her research. But even after she complies, her son is killed, and she has no choice but to send herself back two hours in the past to try and save him. With every failed attempt she starts again and in doing so, she creates multiple versions of herself, all dead set on rescuing Doudou.
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IMPOSSIBLE (2015) short review

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A mind-bogglingly ill-conceived and misguided film, Sun Zhou’s Impossible tells of a truck driver (Wang Baoqiang), who encounters a powerful alien entity named Muah Muah that’s the shape of a tennis ball but very powerful, and has come to earth to study its inhabitants. The entity provokes the curiosity and greed of various people including the truck driver’s boss (Xiao Shenyang) who’s bankrupt and owes money to loan sharks, his long-time customer (Xin Zhilei) who’s in the dilemmas of unplanned pregnancy, and a scummy rival (Da Peng) who seeks to further expand his successful business and wants to control Muah Muah’s powers. Impossible never chooses what it wants to be: its humor is resolutely lowbrow, essentially a combination of relentlessly mugging actors (Xiao Shenyang and Da Peng are on a constant mug-off) and cutesy pratfalls (Muah Muah was clearly conceived to catch on in a Minion sort of way), yet the film revolves around the traumatic loss of a child, and milks it relentlessly for tears in its second half. The ‘studying earthlings’ subplot is merely a footnote and yields not one single clever observation, while the film occasionally switches to jarring violence: this is a film that has a cute, chipmunk-voiced alien AND a scene of dental torture. In the final stretch the weirdness goes off the charts, as it borrows from District 9 (a man mutates horribly into a tentacular alien) and, even more risibly, from 2001, A Space Odyssey (let’s just say there’s a foetal space trip). And despite being an unhinged oddity, the film still manages to be preachy, telling us how parents should care for their children and sometimes we must be able to let go of the past. A teaching we’ll gladly apply to this film. *