HUNT DOWN (2019) short review

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From director Li Jun, a respected TV director (2018’s Peace Hotel) who had his big screen debut three years ago with the slightly wobbly Chinese-Korean thriller Tik Tok, Hunt Down follows Zhao Hongyu (Jiao Junyan), a narcotics cop reassigned to the ‘art and relics’ division (which fights tomb-raiding and relics-trafficking) because her estranged Wan Zhenggang (Fan Wei) is closely linked to a suspected trafficker of relics. Posing as a delinquent, she is to reunite with her father – whom she hasn’t seen in years – to better investigate the case. While the unsuspecting Wan does all he can to mend bridges with his daughter, his new wife Lin Baiyu (Chen Shu), an influential TV personality, is both angry and suspicious at the new arrival in the family. Shaking up its thriller formula in a few interesting ways – a non-linear structure peeling the plot like an onion, the unusual ‘tomb-raiding’ angle – Hunt Down also benefits from an excellent lead trio: Fan Wei is superb as a conflicted scholar, a role with too many shades of grey to count, Jiao Junyan matches him as the spunky cop trying to navigate both an investigation and her own family turmoil, and Chen Shu is a delight as a powerful, seductive, dangerous stepmother right out of a fairy tale (Song Yang, as the cop in charge of the investigation, makes much less of an impression). Yet the aforementioned non-linear structure and unusual setting can’t hide the fact that, once unfolded, this is a rather rote and ordinary plot peppered with faintly ridiculous elements (a phone application that can authentify ancient artifacts…), and Li Jun’s direction is painfully workmanlike, especially in one or two limp action scenes. **1/2

THE FINAL MASTER (aka THE MASTER) (2015) review

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The Master is the third film of Wu Xia author, martial artist, film critic, Taoist scholar and film director Xu Haofeng, after the intriguing but often willfully abstruse The Sword Identity (2011) and Judge Archer (2012). Adapted once again from one of his short stories, it takes place in 1932 and follows Chen Shi (Liao Fan), a Wing Chun master from Guangdong who arrives in the northern Chinese city of Tianjin with hopes of opening a martial arts school. While arranging a marriage of interest with a young waitress (Song Jia), he’s also initiated by aging grandmaster Zheng (Chin Shih Chieh) to the city’s rules on opening a new school: he who wishes to do so must first defeat eight of the nineteen established martial arts schools. However, if one were to manage such a feat, he would then have to be defeated and cast out of Tianjin, to preserve the city’s martial arts reputation. Thus Chen Shi is advised by old master Zheng to find himself a pupil that he will groom, and who will then fight on his behalf – and be cast out instead of him. Chen chooses an ambitious and gifted young coolie (Song Yang) to be his disciple and scapegoat, the first move in a protracted game of Go involving not only the outsider master and his pupil, but also old master Zheng, his former disciple (now a KMT Admiral’s aide), and the powerful head of Tianjin’s martial arts syndicate (Jiang Wenli).

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