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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ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 4 (1993) short review

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In 1993, Wu Shu champion Vincent Zhao had the uneasy task of replacing Jet Li as the iconic Wong Fei Hung in a fourth installment of Tsui Hark’s Once Upon A Time In China series, following a highly successful trilogy of films. Once Upon A Time In China IV (henceforth Ouatic IV) is not actually directed by Tsui Hark, but by Yuen Bun, who had choreographed the action in the third film. The film is on a smaller scale, and its story, while still musing on themes of national pride and foreign influence, is both more anecdotal and a rehash of the second film’s plot (with the ‘Red Lantern’ sect replacing the ‘White Lotus’ sect). Zhao is an adequate replacement : he’s not as charismatic as Jet Li, but his martial arts ability and grace doesn’t suffer by comparison. The problem is that the film features drawn-out scenes of lion-dancing, a venerable tradition that must be stunning in real life, but tends to bore this writer on screen, and despite the stunning design of some of those parade ornaments, is a weak substitute for actual fight scenes, which are too scarce here. Elsewhere, Jean Wang provides a fine replacement for Rosamund Kwan’s absent Aunt Yee, and Xiong Xin Xin is close to stealing the film away from Zhao with his humorous performance (complemented of course by his awe-inspiring kicks). But like the former film, Ouatic IV lacks a proper villain, with Chin Kar-Lok and Billy Chow forming a striking but grossly underused duo of baddies. An entertaining but forgettable installment. **1/2

PLAYBOY COPS (2008) short review

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Two cops, one from the mainland (Chen Kun), one from Hong Kong (Shawn Yue) ; one is dating the other’s ex-girlfriend (Linda Chung), and they’re both on the trail of a scorpion-tattooed killer. The films starts as an insufferable prance-off between Chen and Yue, the former all douchey smiles and false modesty, the latter proud and sullen but gooey-hearted. At this point their “investigation” doesn’t matter much, as they mostly trade weak barbs, vie for the girl’s affections and fight Xiong Xin Xin in a fun cameo. Then the killer is outed and it is revealed Chen Kun has a bullet lodged in his head that could kill him anytime : these plot turns lead to a stark tonal shift as the film goes from breezy buddy movie to brutal thriller. That shift makes it a bit more interesting, as does a Danny Lee cameo that serves to flesh out Yue’s character a bit. In the end, as directed with glitzy, superficial flair by Jingle Ma, Playboy Cops is a serviceable time-waster, which depending on the circumstances of your watching it can either be a good or a bad thing. **

MILLION DOLLAR CROCODILE (2012) short review

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Announced as the very first Mainland Chinese creature feature, Lin Lisheng’s Million Dollar Crocodile is actually more of a comedy, with only a few (attempted) scares along the way. A big crocodile escapes from the restaurant backyard where it was supposed to be slaughtered and cooked. On the way back to its former habitat, it swallows Barbie Hsu’s bag, which contains her savings of the past 8 years. The pixellated saurian thus finds itself trailed by the shrill Taiwanese star, as well as an underdog cop (Guo Tao), the seedy restaurant owner (Lam Suet, God bless him), the owner of its former zoo (the excellent Shi Zhaoqi) and a little boy who befriended it (Ding Jiali). This gallery of characters is fun enough (and there’s a cameo from a very funny Xiong Xin Xin) that the film unfolds passably, going from droll situations to mildly tense predicaments, meekly trying to get a crocodile-conservation message across while flaunting its arguably well-rendered creature (though it is not always seamlessly integrated to the live-action). In the end you get the feeling nobody quite knew what Million Dollar Crocodile should be exactly. **

 

WONDER SEVEN (1994) review

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A gang of seven martial artists/bikers (whose more recognizable members are Kent Cheng and Xiong Xin Xin) working for the law who butt heads with a rogue agent working for an international crime organization. That’s about all I remember of the plot, and I saw the film last week. What I do remember : when this film was made, in 1994, director/choreographer Ching Siu-Tung’s action style was being overused in Hong Kong cinema, and overextended by its instigator ; Wonder Seven is a prime example of that. Never mind the lack of a discernible dramatic structure (outside of the fact it all ends in climactic overkill), the non-existent characterization that means that the titular “Wonder Seven” are even less subtly delineated than the Seven Dwarves, or even the puzzling attempts at humor : while these faults aren’t a fixture of Hong Kong cinema, they are at least recurring defects in the more commercial section of that industry, that can often be ignored through sheer sensory elation. But here Ching’s style has reached a point where it was not only feeling very redundant at the time, but still today out of the context of its release looks and feels tired and over-indulgent.

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BUTTERFLY LOVERS (2008) short review

This featherweight retelling of a classic, Romeo and Juliet-like legend (already filmed in Tsui Hark’s The Lovers) is directed by the master of glitz, Jingle Ma, with a sure commercial hand but little in the way of a vision or even basic originality. Wu Chun and Charlene Choi are star-crossed lovers while Hu Ge is the bitter third wheel whose scheming precipitates a strikingly artificial tragic end. Charlene Choi is exceedingly cute, and estimable people like Ti Lung, Xiong Xin Xin or Fan Siu-Wong add a dash of gravitas and martial arts in supporting roles, but Butterfly Lovers remains as bland as its male lead, charisma-challenged Wu Chun. Falsely advertised under the title Assassin’s Blade and with an action-packed cover in some places, it is a corny affair that only really succeeds as eye-candy (and ear-candy, thanks to Chiu Tsang Hei’s score). **

ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA AND AMERICA (1997) review

After his dispute with director Tsui Hark led to his leaving the Once Upon A Time In China franchise and being replaced by Vincent Zhao in the following two films, Jet Li finally came back to his signature role of Wong Fei-Hung in this fifth sequel, directed by Sammo Hung Kam-Bo and produced by Tsui Hark himself. In Once Upon A Time In China And America (heretofore OUATICAA), we meet Wong Fei-Hung in the American far west, on a carriage headed to a small town where his disciple Bucktooth is founding a clinic (named Po-Chi Lam, after Wong’s own clinic in China). With him are franchise regulars Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) and Clubfoot (Xiong Xin Xin). On their way they help out Bill (Jeff Wolfe) a stranded cowboy, who develops a growing sympathy for the Chinese, which is not the case of everyone else in the town, the Chinese immigrants being endlessly segregated and submitted to arbitrary restrictions. But when the carriage is attacked by Indians, Wong hits his head on a rock while trying to rescue Aunt Yee, and his body goes adrift in the nearby river. When he wakes up, he’s in an Indian village and has lost his memory. The plot thickens as a wolf-loving outlaw and his gang rob the town’s bank and the law turns to the Chinese immigrants as scapegoats.

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ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA 5 (1994) review

  Jet Li’s departure from the Once Upon A Time In China series that had made him a superstar didn’t stop producer/director Tsui Hark from proceeding with the franchise, thus recasting the central character of Wong Fei-Hung with another Mainland Wushu champion, Vincent Zhao. This led to a fourth episode, directed by a Yuen Bun, that ended up being far less successful than any of the Jet Li installments. It did have fixtures of the franchise like Max Mok’s Leung Fu or Xiong Xin Xin’s Clubfoot, but the absence not only of Jet Li, but also of Rosamund Kwan’s Aunt Yee, another major character in the franchise, coupled with uninspired direction, made it look like a bargain bin iteration of the Chinese hero’s adventures. And so for the fifth episode, Tsui Hark returned to the director’s chair, signed his protege for the lead role again, managed for Rosamund Kwan to return, but more importantly tweaked the formula of the series a little bit by making it more akin to a serial, mostly by including pirates and a treasure into the mix.

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