RAILWAY HEROES (2021) short review

Yang Feng’s directing debut Railway Heroes follows the resistance fighters of the Shandong Rail Corps, who relentlessly fought the Japanese invaders during the Second Sino-Japanese War, from 1937 to 1945. A team of railroad workers led by Hong (Zhang Hanyu) conducts sabotage operations against Japanese trains headed for the battlefront in East China, with station operator Wang (Fan Wei) as their source of intel. It’s a much more somber take on that time in history than Ding Sheng’s Jackie Chan vehicle Railroad Tigers in 2016, but not necessarily a more realistic one. Therein lies the film’s problem: it never chooses between being a rip-roaring, over-the-top semi-patriotic spectacle like Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong and Red Sea for example, or being a realistic, reverent historical account like, Feng Xiaogang’s Assembly. There’s merit in choosing the middle ground, but what results in a long simmer of a film. It’s beautiful to look at with its almost monochrome snowbound cinematography (courtesy of the director himself), never less than entertaining thanks to the unimpeachable charisma of Zhang Hanyu and Fan Wei in roles they know like the back of their hand (the rugged leader of men and the jovial yet wily bear, respectively), and it’s capped off by a stunning and bloody action scene across train cars, yet there’s fire missing in the belly of this steel beast. The supporting cast is largely unmemorable and barely fleshed out (either selfless Chinese fighters or smirking Japanese devils), and there’s neither enough action scenes to get the pulse racing, nor enough historical detail to educate. Thankfully, wide-eyed patriotism is confined to a single scene of resistance fighters being sworn into the Communist Party – amusingly, it might be the film’s most bombastic moments, with composer He Min’s fine score thundering away like the Avengers are landing in East China. ***

THE CAPTAIN (2019) review

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In May 2018, on a Sichuan Airlines flight from Chongqing to Lhasa, the cockpit windshield shattered suddenly while the plane was 30,000 feet above the Tibetan Plateau. In the subsequent cabin depressurization, a co-pilot was half-sucked out of the plane and many passengers lost consciousness or succumbed to panic. Yet against all odds, the plane’s pilot (Zhang Hanyu) managed a miraculous emergency landing, with all aboard safe and sound, including the co-pilot. Less than four months later, Andrew Lau was already re-creating these events for the big screen, surely a record when it comes to rushing to cash in on true events.

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WINE WAR (2017) review

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Leon Lai’s second film as a director, Wine War follows two friends who grew up together in an orphanage, Wei Li (Leon Lai) and Zhang Shui (Zhang Hanyu). While the former was adopted by a wealthy Frenchman and now lives an opulent and carefree life as a wine expert in France, the latter stayed in China where he’s now a cop. One day, out of the blue after they’ve lost contact for a while, Zhang Shui calls Wei Li and tells him he’s coming to France and needs his help bidding at the auction of a priceless bottle of wine from the 19th century, made from a secret recipe brought to Europe by a Chinese wine-maker of the Yuan dynasty. The auction is organized by LK (Nan Fulong) and his half-sister Li Fang (Du Juan), the last in a Mongol-Chinese lineage established in France, at their chateau in the Pays de la Loire. But as Zhang Shui arrives in France and is reunited with his childhood friend, it soon appears that there are hidden agendas, and that no one is who they say they are, especially not Fang Changfang (David Wang), one of the other potential buyers.

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OPERATION RED SEA (2018) review

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Just under a year and a half after the success of Operation Mekong, Dante Lam is back with Operation Red Sea, another bombastic extrapolation on real events. This time, the evacuation in 2015 of nearly six hundred Chinese citizens from Yemen’s southern port of Aden during the Yemeni Civil War is spun into a hybrid of Ridley Scott’s Black Hawk Down and Antoine Fuqua’s Tears of the Sun, also closely resembling Wu Jing’s immensely successful Wolf Warrior II with its unbridled patriotism, tank battles and extraction of endangered Chinese citizens in Africa (though it doesn’t count as a rip-off, as it was already done shooting when Wu Jing’s film came out). And so we follow the Jiaolong Assault Team, headed by Captain Yang (Zhang Yi) and operating with the naval support of Captain Gao Yun (Zhang Hanyu, perhaps as the twin brother of his Operation Mekong character Gao Gang?), as it ventures into war-torn Yemen to rescue Chinese citizens – including fearless journalist Xia Nan (Christina Hai) – and foil a terrorist plot to obtain nuclear materials.

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MANHUNT (2017) review

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In John Woo’s Manhunt, a remake of the classic 1976 Japanese thriller of the same title, Zhang Hanyu is Du Qiu, a successful lawyer who’s been working in Japan for a big and shady pharmaceutical company headed by Sakai (Jun Kunimura), who is passing the torch to his son Hiroshi (Hiroyuki Ikeuchi). But when Du wakes up with a dead woman (Tao Okamoto) in his bed, no recollection of what happened but all clues conveniently pointing to his being the murderer, he must go on the run. Hunted by hard-boiled cop Yamura (Masaharu Fukuyama) as well as by two female assassins, Rain (Ha Ji-won) and Dawn (Angeles Woo), who work for Sakai, Du can only rely on the help of Mayumi (Qi Wei), a mysterious woman linked to his past.

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THE FOUNDING OF AN ARMY (2017) review

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After Han Sanping and Huang Jianxin’s The Founding of an Army and The Founding of a Party, what we like to call “the PRCCU” (People’s Republic of China cinematic universe) gets a third installment with Andrew Lau’s The Founding of an Army, which is backed by no less than forty-six credited producers, and more importantly, by the Chinese state. And so in solemn commemoration of the founding of the People’s Liberation Army, ninety years ago, Chinese audiences have been treated to yet another round of episodic, star-studded, title card-ridden, speech-happy propaganda, again with Liu Ye as the charismatic, statuesque, handsome, saintly, selfless, farseeing, and most of all, deeply, deeply humanistic Mao Zedong (note that our use of irony here is about as heavy-handed as the film’s approach to history).

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OPERATION MEKONG (2016) review

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In 2011, two Chinese commercial boats were attacked by Burmese pirates on the Mekong river, while passing through the Golden Triangle, one of the world’s biggest hotbeds of drug production, situated at the intersection of Thailand, Laos and Myanmar. Thirteen Chinese sailors were summarily executed at gunpoint then dumped in the river, while 900,000 methamphetamine pills were found on the scene of the killings. The following investigation and hunt for the man responsible for the massacre, a ruthless drug lord called Naw Khar, is the main narrative thrust of Dante Lam’s Operation Mekong, which follows a team of elite narcotics officers led by Captain Gao (Zhang Hanyu), joined by Fang (Eddie Peng), an intelligence officer who’s been operating in the Golden Triangle for a few years. They soon discover that the drugs were planted by Naw Khar on the Chinese ships, and endeavor to bring him to justice, at the price of many lives.

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