A CITY CALLED MACAU (2019) short review

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Based on a 2012 novel by Yan Geling – and co-adapted for the screen by Yan herself – Li Shaohong’s A City called Macau follows Xiao Ou (Bai Baihe), a casino broker in Macau: she guides wealthy clients around the city, introducing them to games and securing loans for them. Over more than a decade (the film takes place between 2002 and 2014), two of her clients will change the course of her life: property developer Duan (Wu Gang), sucked ever deeper in debt by his gambling addiction and forever making empty promises to come clean, and sculptor Shi (Huang Jue), who goes as far as leaving his wife and child to pursue Macau’s mirage of wealth. With its ploddingly episodic structure (every time the narrative starts building steam there’s a jump forward in time), relentless explanative voice-over from Bai Baihe, trite sense of romance (walks on the beach, floating lanterns…), florid music begging you to feel, and – most damningly – thudding, repetitive storytelling (two hours of tension-free gambling and people getting in and out of debt), A City called Macau is a chore to get through. The drama is hopelessly contrived, with every single man in Xiao Ou’s life becoming a gambler (even her slapworthy son), and not one character seems worth caring for, except perhaps Chin Siu Ho’s Cat, her loyal – perhaps lovestruck – colleague. Xiao Ou herself is a strange and unlikeable mix of catty rashness and hopeless gullibility, with Bai Baihe giving a weirdly tone-deaf performance, mouth agape, permanently looking like she’s just been eating week-old sushi. Wu Gang is much more compelling, Huang Jue is livelier than his usual, and Geng Le makes the most of his short screen-time (as Bai’s ex-husband, also a degenerate gambler, of course), but their characters are merely hand-puppets for the film’s on-the-nose message on the price of gambling. Carina Lau and Eris Tsang make classy cameos; there’s a feeling the film would have been so much more interesting if it had focused on them, a steely, worldly casino owner and a tough, honorable businessman respectively. *1/2

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THE BOMBING (aka UNBREAKABLE SPIRIT, aka AIR STRIKE) (2018) review

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Xiao Feng’s The Bombing was reportedly the most expensive Chinese film at the time it was produced. But after extensive reshoots and accusations of financial fraud (part of a wider tax evasion scandal in China that has had Fan Bingbing as its official face), the film is now being released a full three years after production, without much fanfare despite a massive cast and the participation of Mel Gibson – a man who knows a thing or two about making a fine war film – as an artistic consultant. Set in 1939 during the second Sino-Japanese war, it weaves together three main storylines: U.S Air Force commander Jack Johnson (Bruce Willis), who trains Chinese pilots Lei Tao (Nicholas Tse), An Minxun (Song Seung-heon), Cheng Ting (William Chan) and many others to fend off Japanese air raids (of which there were 268 between 1938 and 1943); civilians in Chongqing trying to live a semblance of a life despite the repeated bombings, with a Mahjong competition being organized in a teahouse owned by Uncle Cui (Fan Wei); and former pilot Xue Gangtou (Liu Ye), tasked with taking a truck carrying precious and mysterious crates to a military base, and who on the way picks up a scientist (Wu Gang) carrying two pigs of a leaner, faster-reproducing breed that may be key in fighting the famine, a nurse (Ma Su) bringing orphans to a school, as well as a shady stranger (Geng Le).

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WOLF WARRIOR II (2017) review

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Two years after the unexpected success of Wolf Warrior helped him regain leading man status, Wu Jing is back as a co-writer, director and star  for the sequel, bolstered with a much bigger budget, and input from the Russo Brothers (of Captain America: The Winter Soldier and Avengers: Infinity Wars fame). He once again plays elite soldier Leng Feng of the Wolf Warrior Squadron: disgraced after nearly killing a man who was threatening the family of a fallen comrade, he is also grieving the loss of the woman he loved, his superior officer Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan), who was killed during a mission in Africa. Now, Leng is living a quiet life by the sea in Africa, but the harsh reality catches up with him when civil war tears the country apart, with a rebel army killing men, women and children. With the Chinese army unable to intervene or extract the small Chinese community that lives in the country, it is left to Leng to find and rescue a Chinese doctor who’s been working on a vaccine for a deadly virus that has been plaguing this part of Africa. Along the way, he meets doctor Rachel (Celina Jade), and must contend with a team of ruthless international mercenaries headed by Big Daddy (Frank Grillo).

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LADY OF THE DYNASTY (2015) review

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A troubled project which started pre-production in 2009 with My Sassy Girl director Kwak Jae-Yong at the helm and Fan Bing Bing, John Lone and Wang Leehom as its leads, Lady of the Dynasty finally reached completion and release in 2015, after a series of starts and stops that saw Kwak replaced by Shi Qing (a man whose sole previous credit is as a writer on the 1989 Zhang Yimou thriller Codename Cougar) on the basis of artistic differences, while Leon Lai and Wu Chun stepped in to replace Lone and Wang, respectively ; Zhang Yimou and Tian Zhuangzhuang (director of The Go Master) chimed in as consultants and get co-directing credits. But for a film that spent so much time in the oven and had so many cooks, Lady of the Dynasty turns out oddly half-baked. It focuses on Yang Guifei (Fan Bingbing), one of the “Four Great Beauties of Ancient China” who has already been the subject of many films and TV series, most notably Kenji Mizoguchi’s Princess Yang Kwei-Fei (1955), the 1962 Shaw Brothers film The Magnificent Concubine and the 2007 mini-series Lotus Garden of Tang Dynasty, already starring Fan Bingbing. Chosen by Emperor Xuanzong of the Tang dynasty (Leon Lai) and his concubine Wu (Joan Chen) to marry their son Li Mao (Wu Chun), she then left him to be a Taoist monk, before being chosen by the emperor to become his concubine. Later, when a rebellion broke out, the emperor fled with her but was then asked to execute her as a scapegoat.

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