March 1, 2009
May 22, 2013
20 May, 2013
By Lee Marshall
It’s obvious that Johnnie To and his cast had a lot of fun making this over-long meld of the Hong Kong auteur’s two main modes, investigative drama and rom-com. But although it serves up a few laughs and a couple of set-piece scenes that To completists will want to cut out and keep, Blind Detective is a decidedly minor offering from the director of The Mission and last year’s impressive mainland-set Drug Wars.
Played for laughs, in the broadest sense, the film is little more than a local-box-office-oriented procedural rom-com workout for ultra-bankable local stars Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng, who last teamed up on To’s big 2004 hit Yesterday Once More. But perhaps Blind Detective – unlike the director’s enjoyable and well-crafted Mad Detective of a few years back – was never meant to travel much beyond Asian markets. In the last few years,
To has set a pattern of making two or three films a year, only one of which is an obvious crossover festival pleaser. It’s a mark of the increasing reverence with which the Hong Kong director is regarded in cineaste circles that Blind Detective got selected for Cannes even though it’s clearly not his auteur outing for 2013.
Lau plays Chong (‘Johnston’ in the English subtitles), a brilliant but tetchy retired detective who despite having gone blind four years earlier continues to use his other senses and formidable deductive powers to solve crimes, thus eking out his disability pension with bounty payments. Cheng is Ho, a junior crime squad cop who is keen to learn from a man she idolises – not only as a detective, it’s clear from the get-go.
The two come into contact when Chong solves an acid attack case; in order to keep him close, Ho tells her sightless love interest the story of a childhood friend, Minnie, who disappeared one day years before, and hires him to find her. It’s not long before he’s moved into her swanky apartment so he can give more attention to the case.
However, Chong and the audience both get distracted by the other cold cases he’s still chasing for the bounty money – one being a morgue murder which provides one of the film’s few genuinely hilarious sequences involving a hammer, a motorbike helmet and a TV set.
Most of the time, however, the acting is overdone and the humour grating, particularly in a cringe-worthy scene involving a flirtatious grandma. Chong is also distracted from Ho and his investigations by his love of food: this is a film so in love with the preparation and consumption of tripe, Wagyu beef, sharks’ fin soup, noodles and teppanyaki that it makes one hungry just to watch it.
Chong’s blindness provides much of the film’s comic momentum. It’s mostly predictable stuff: after Ho boasts of her athletic and combat skills, for some reason never thinks to use his hands to check her figure and face until the end.
The production values provide some comfort, especially the atmospheric lighting, Lau’s smart suits and Cheng’s frequent changes of outfit, and Hal Foxton Beckett’s swoonily retro sixties-style soundtrack. But these are meagre consolations in a film that, despite its culinary obssessions, is more tiresome than tasty.
Production company: MilkyWay Image
International sales: Media Asia Film Distribution
Producers: Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai
Executive producers: Peter Lam, Albert Yeung, Song Dai, Han Sanping, Li Shaohong
Screenplay: Wai Ka Fai, Yau Nai Hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi
Cinematography: Cheng Siu Keung
Editor: Allen Leung
Production designer: Bruce Yu
Music: Hal Foxton Beckett
Main cast: Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng, Guo Tao, Gao Yuanyuan, Zi Yi, Lang Yueting, Lo Hoi Pang
May 21, 2013
5/20/2013 by Neil Young
Hong Kong superstars Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng reunite for their seventh big-screen collaboration in Johnnie To’s comedy thriller, premiering in Cannes’ Midnight Screenings.
Hong Kong director Johnnie To’s search for laughs takes him from cornea to cornier in Blind Detective (Man tam), a cartoonishly broad mashup of genres that mistakes hectic shrillness for comic energy. But as the first collaboration of HK superstars Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng in nearly a decade, it has the makings of a solid summer box-office proposition in the territory — especially in the wake of To’s 2012 money-spinner Drug War. Overseas commercial prospects are much dicier, but To’s cultish reputation among international cinephiles makes it easy to envisage more than a smattering of festival bookings over the coming months.
This is the seventh collaboration overall between the versatile Lau and sparky Cheng, and their fourth with To — the last time that the so-called “box office golden team” worked together was 2004’s Yesterday Once More. And while multi-award-winning singer/actor Lau has maintained his usual Stakhanovite work-rate in the interim, ‘Queen of Pop’ Cheng’s big-screen appearances have been more intermittent — To’s Romancing in Thin Air was touted last year as a ‘comeback’ role.”
And once more, the duo make for an appealing double act: Lau as former cop Chong (Anglicized as ‘Johnston’ in the Cannes subtitles) and Cheng as serving-officer ‘Goldie’ Ho. Chong/Johnston lost his sight four years ago. Since then, he’s made a living from the bounties on long-abandoned cold cases. Chong/Johnston’s heightened remaining senses are less of a factor in his success than his remarkable, quasi-supernatural powers of deduction, which involve projecting himself mentally into crime scenes to understand the thought processes of the perpetrators.
He schools Ho, who has lightning-quick reactions and bull’s-eye aim, in his unorthodox approach — which sees the pair dressing up in all manner of zany costumes as they immerse themselves in their “roles” like overzealous method actors. The actual crimes under investigation, which include a morgue murder and a serial killer targeting lovelorn young women, are primarily an excuse for elaborate, spookily-lit flashbacks and incongruous bloody violence, especially in a third-act sequence in a psychopath’s charnel-house lair.
At such junctures, To relies heavily on Lau’s and Cheng’s well-established screen presence, though even this expert duo are sometimes allowed to go too far over the top, just as some of the supporting performances cross from the broad to the embarrassingly amateurish. It doesn’t help that two actors, including Zi Yi in the quite important role of Johnston/Chong’s ex-partner ‘Szeto Fatbo,’ have had their lines awkwardly post-dubbed by other performers.
This quaint relic of old-style East Asian cinema stands in contrast to the widescreen slickness of Siu Keung Cheng’s widescreen cinematography, which exerts appeal throughout this punishingly overlong, overcooked confection. Stir in frequent helpings of larkish blind-man slapstick and what results is a misshapen and unsatisfying stew of different genres.
This isn’t the screen’s first example of a sightless investigator, of course. And viewers with long memories may recall that neither of Blind Detective’s two main U.S. tube forerunners — James Franciscus vehicle Longstreet (1971-72) and Steven Bochco’s Blind Justice (2005) — made it to a second season.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Out of Competition - Midnight Screenings)
Production companies: Media Asia, Emperor
Cast: Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng, Suet Lam, Zi Yi, Guo Tao, Gao Yuanyuan
Director: Johnnie To
Screenwriters: Ka Fai Wai, Nai Hoi Yau, Ryker Chan, Xi Yu
Producers: Johnnie To, Ka Fai Wai
Executive producers: Song Dai, Peter Lam, Han Sanping, Li Shaohong, Albert Yeung
Director of photography: Siu Keung Cheng
Production designer: Bruce Yu
Editors: Allen Leung, David Richardson
Music: Hal Foxton Beckett
No MPAA rating, 129 minutes
May 20, 2013
May 20, 2013
A serial-killer thriller wrapped in an unruly slapstick comedy with generous servings of food porn, “Blind Detective” is a deranged and delirious smorgasbord of a movie. Even devotees of Hong Kong genre master Johnnie To and his frequent collaborator, producer/co-writer Wai Ka-fai, may not be entirely sure what to make of this unusually demented romp, a madcap mystery-romance that sustains a light, bouncy tone and a decent hit-to-miss laff ratio even in scenes involving strangulation, dismemberment and cannibalism. The vigorous if overlong result should keep To’s international fans entertained, but may skew more cultish than his recent record-setter, “Drug War.”
Perfectly positioned in Cannes’ midnight sidebar, “Blind Detective” makes a goofy companion volume to To’s 2007 thriller “Mad Detective,” also built on a high-concept Wai premise about an eccentrically gifted/cursed sleuth. In this case, the role of Chong, the blind detective of the title, is a showcase for star Andy Lau’s most unhinged, physically nimble performance in some time; whether he’s stumbling into furniture, waving his walking stick excitedly or sniffing out a crook’s telltale scent, the actor seems to be enjoying himself to no end.
Chong is brilliant but also testy and demanding, and he’s got a sizable chip on his shoulder after his condition forced him to leave the Hong Kong police force years ago. He’s ideally paired with Tung (Sammi Cheng), an eager-to-please rookie cop who’s looking to beef up her investigative skills, and who turns out to be on the same manic wavelength as her chosen mentor. One of the pic’s most enjoyable funny-freaky motifs — reaching a giddy peak of insanity in an early sequence involving a hammer, a helmet and a TV set — is the duo’s insistence on reconstructing each crime in painstaking fashion, going so far into the process that it no longer resembles detective work so much as an over-the-top Method acting workshop (one that necessitates numerous changes of wardrobe, courtesy of costume designers Steven Tsang and Stephanie Wong).
One soon loses track of all the genres traversed by the cheerfully nonsensical plot (scripted by Wai and three other writers), which finds Chong and Tung initially foiling a rooftop acid attack by a serial offender, then teaming to solve the long-ago disappearance of Tung’s childhood friend Minnie and other cold cases. Also woven into the overindulgent two-hour-plus running time are Chong’s crush on a tango dancer (Gao Yuanyuan) and ongoing rivalry with a police chief (Guo Tao); a love triangle featuring a pregnant woman (Eileen Yeow) and a teppanyaki chef (Ziyi); and not one but two twisty, nightmarish climaxes. All this is coordinated and choreographed with such rambunctious physical gusto and relentless, near-balletic feats of slapstick that “Blind Detective” comes perilously close to resembling a dance musical of sorts, ushered playfully along by Hal Foxton Beckett’s alternately romantic and frenzied score.
Lacking the elegance and finesse of To’s best recent work (including “Sparrow” and “Vengeance”), it’s an unapologetically lowbrow, screw-loose effort, with a cheaper, more functional look to Cheng Siu-keung’s 35mm lensing and other aspects of the production (shot in Hong Kong with brief detours to Macau and the Chinese city of Zhuhai). Yet the film has its own wickedly inventive sense of style. Chong may not be able to see, but he can imagine plenty, and much of the story’s ghoulish humor derives from his habit of visualizing and communicating with murder victims, their ghosts intervening to help him solve each crime in trial-and-error fashion. Allen Leung’s editing simply dazzles here as it weaves between reality and imagined flashbacks, keeping past and present, the living and the dead on one crazy continuum.
This is the seventh time Lau and Sammi Cheng have been paired romantically onscreen and the first time since To’s 2004 romantic comedy “Yesterday Once More.” The actors’ high-spirited chemistry thus comes as little surprise, and their sometimes grating but endearingly energetic performances suggest they’re as tickled by their reunion as their fans are likely to be. Audiences are advised not to go in hungry, given all the Chinese cuisine on mouth-watering display throughout; Lau’s Chong seems to be stuffing his face in every other scene, and surely this is the first time a killer has been unmasked while stir-frying bok choy.
Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Midnight Screenings), May 20, 2013. Running time: 129 MIN. Original title: “Man tam”
(Hong Kong) A Media Asia Film Distribution release of a Media Asia Film Prod., Emperor Film Prod. Co., Sil-Metropole Organization, China Film Co., Beijing Rosat Film & TV Prod. Co., Media Asia Film Distribution (Beijing) Co. presentation of a Milkyway Image production. Produced by Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai. Executive producers, Peter Lam, Albert Yeung, Song Dai, Han Sanping, Li Shaohong. Co-producers, David Chan, Albert Lee, Lam Ping Kwan, Han Xiaoli.
Directed by Johnnie To. Screenplay, Wai Ka-fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi. Camera (color, widescreen), Cheng Siu-keung, To Hung Mo; editor, Allen Leung; music, Hal Foxton Beckett; production designer, Bruce Yu; art director, Horace Ma; costume designers, Steven Tsang, Stephanie Wong; line producer, Elaine Chu.
Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng, Guo Tao, Gao Yuanyuan, Ziyi, Lang Yueting, Lo Hoi-pang, Bonnie Wong, Lam Suet, Philip Keung, Eileen Yeow. (Cantonese, Mandarin (Swatow dialect), Portuguese dialogue)
May 19, 2013
American Dreams in China
An aspirational drama about how three deadbeat college chums built a business empire by teaching English, Peter Chan Ho-sun’s “American Dreams in China” is attractively packaged and moderately enjoyable, but nonetheless comes across as ersatz and indulgently retro. On one level, this wry look at entrepreneurial drive and the toll it takes on friendship can be viewed as the Chinese version of “The Social Network.” However, notwithstanding some insight into China’s love-hate sentiments toward the U.S., Peter Chan Ho-sun’s account of the country’s three-decade rags-to-riches history is so obviously drawn from his own coming-of-age in ’80s Hong Kong that the film lacks a contempo pulse.
With new president Xi Jinping’s political slogan “Chinese Dream” becoming a global media catchphrase, some China watchers in the West may pay attention to how the film’s commercial dreams translate Stateside. Local B.O. has been strong so far, with opening-day returns totaling $3 million.
Born in Hong Kong and educated in Thailand and the U.S., Chan captured the zeitgeist of Hong Kong at the cusp of its handover in 1997′s “Comrades, Almost a Love Story,” and he again juxtaposes his characters’ rising fortunes with landmark historical events here. Yet his perspective on China remains that of an outsider, observing without much genuine personal experience or affection.
It begins in 1985, during China’s national study-abroad craze, a time when undergraduates are infatuated with America and believe it’s their only hope of a good future. Three close buddies at Beijing’s prestigious Yanjing U. — Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming), Wang Yang (Tong Dawei) and Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao) — have comical yet fateful interviews with U.S. immigration officials. Naive country boy Cheng’s visa applications are repeatedly rejected; cinephile/ladykiller Wang foregoes his application to stay home with his American g.f., Lucy (Claire Quirk); and golden boy Meng coasts through his interview and takes off for New York, hoping to land on the cover of Time magazine.
Cheng sleepwalks through a college post teaching English, while his high-flying g.f., Su Mei (supermodel Du Juan, exquisitely unapproachable), gets the coveted visa. When he’s fired for moonlighting as a private tutor, Cheng starts coaching students for their SAT and GRE exams. Eventually he reunites and teams up with Wang and Meng, and their out-of-the-box yet accessible English-teaching curriculum becomes a lucrative national franchise called New Dream. Yet success also breeds dissent, and their partnership is endangered when Meng insists on getting their company publicly listed, against Cheng’s wishes.
“American Dreams in China” marks Chan’s return to contempo character drama following a string of historical blockbusters he either directed (“The Warlords,” “Dragon”) or produced (“Bodyguards and Assassins,” “The Guillotines”). In a manner reminiscent of his cheesy, breezy 1993 dramedy “Tom, Dick and Hairy,” an undue proportion of “Dreams” is set on campus, where the characters bond over their shared zeal for learning English (Cheng recites from not one but several editions of English dictionaries), a zeal fueled by everyone’s urgent belief that English opens doors to untold opportunities in an age of economic reform.
While mainland scribes Zhou Zhiyong and Zhang Ji provide cheeky, period-specific colloquial dialogue, the weak chemistry and considerable age difference among the leads are all too apparent; their relationships exude neither convincing camaraderie nor the giddy excitement of youth. Even the romantic interludes are flimsily drawn, and there’s a missed opportunity in the case of Wang and Lucy’s affair, as the film fails to explore East-West cultural exchange in a more intimate context.
The film’s second half gets racier with an eye-opening, almost fairy-tale-like take on how ad-hoc ideas in China can spin off into national enterprises, if catering to the right market. Intentionally or not, the subject has a real-life model in education mogul Li Yang, whose unconventional methods of mixing English lessons with self-help philosophy and strident nationalism were captured in Sixth Generation helmer Zhang Yuan’s 2003 docu “Crazy English.” Even the way Cheng, Wang and Meng exploit their individual histories in the classroom have roots in Li’s own larger-than-life personality and teaching strategies.
Chan could have attempted a more flamboyant and satirical approach; instead, each of his characters has an earnest personal vision, making their growing conflict more dramatically engaging as the story progresses. This is in keeping with the paradigm shift observed here: from striving to master English in order to find success overseas, to seeing the lingua franca as a means to level the global economic playing field.
As in “The Social Network,” legal proceedings frame the drama, as New Dream is sued by U.S. educational authorities for helping Chinese students cheat on entry exams. It’s here that Chan succumbs to crowd pleasing tactics, devising a jingoistic climax for the protags to score a victory against their American plaintiffs, who are presented as stereotypically arrogant, self-interested and prejudiced.
As the nebbishy loser crowned “Godfather of Foreign Study,” despite having never gone abroad, Chinese heartthrob Huang (“The Guillotines,” “The Last Tycoon”) gives a likable if superficial performance as the story’s most human character, falling short on gravitas even as his Cheng gains in moral stature and confidence. Tong (“The Flowers of War”) offers the most subdued presence, but also the most solid, and Deng (“Assembly”) is adequate in an often unflattering role. The real problem is that none of the thesps can pronounce intelligible English to save his life.
Christopher Doyle’s mellow lensing doesn’t leave any stylistic impression, while the art direction and costumes are so meticulous as to look artificial, rather than recreating the mood of changing times. Overall, tech credits are pro; the original title means “Chinese Partners.”
Reviewed at Olympian City, Hong Kong, May 8, 2013. Running time: 110 MIN. Original title: “Zhongguo hehuoren”
(Hong Kong-China) An Edko Films (in Hong Kong)/China Film Group Co. (in China) release of a China Film Group, We Pictures presentation of a We Pictures production in association with Stellar Mega Films, Media Asia Film Prod., Yunnan Film Group, Edko Films, Beijing Jiu Yang Sheng He Science and Technology. (International sales: We Distribution, Hong Kong.) Produced by Peter Ho-sun Chan, Jojo Hui Yuet-chun. General Executive producer, Han Xiaoli. Co-executive producers, Qin Hong, Peter Lam, Zhang Lun, Bill Kong, Ma Ku-ho.
Directed by Peter Chan Ho-sun. Screenplay, Zhou Zhiyong, Zhang Ji, Aubrey Lam. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Christopher Doyle; editor, Qiao Yang; music, Peter Kam; Sun Li; costume designer, Dora Ng; sound (Dolby Digital 5.1).
Huang Xiaoming, Deng Chao, Tong Dawei, Du Juan, Daniel Berkey, Claire Quirk, Wang Zhen. (Mandarin, English dialogue)
“Driving Miss Daisy” this ain’t, but a wealthy Hong Kong woman and her mainland Chinese chauffeur do make a small, indefinable connection as they go through their own financial meltdowns in “Bends,” Hong Kong helmer Flora Lau’s observation of China-H.K. relations. Aesthetically, Lau’s debut is beautifully assembled by a top-pedigree production crew, but it remains a modest accomplishment in scope and impact. Although the film radiates festival appeal, its lack of strong dramatic incident will hinder it from making a dent in the domestic market, even with A-list leads Aloys Chen Kun and Carina Lau onboard.
Fai (Chen) is a mainland Chinese immigrant who has obtained Hong Kong citizenship. Due to the intricacies of Hong Kong law, however, his pregnant wife, Tingting (Tian Yuan), has no right of abode; she cannot live with him and is ineligible for healthcare. She and their young daughter, Haihai, shuttle secretly between Hong Kong and Shenzhen. As Tingting’s delivery draws near, she and Fai find themselves between a rock and a hard place, threatened by a hefty penalty for forfeiting the one-child policy in their homeland, yet unable to afford hospital fees in Hong Kong.
Fai’s employer, Anna (Lau), is the bored, pampered wife of rich businessman Leo (Lawrence Cheng), who one day disappears without a trace. Beginning with suspended credits cards, frozen bank accounts, her daughter’s unpaid boarding-school tuition, and finally the sale of their tony apartment without her knowledge, Anna falls into a downward spiral (made frighteningly real by Lau) that serves as a suggestive allegory of the city’s surface glitter and shaky foundations.
Anna’s attempts to make ends meet are deliberately paralleled by Fai’s scramble to finance his wife’s delivery through an illegal birthing service in China. Anna sells stocks, spiritual charms and antiques, while Fai hawks spare parts from Leo’s Mercedes and has them secretly replaced with cheap Chinese knockoffs. A more experienced helmer might have jazzed up the narrative with a bit of black humor or developed more meaningful exchanges between the two protags before building up to the moment when their fates finally intersect.
Although she’s been given little character depth or personal background to play, Lau exudes pathos and grace, whether in her insistence at keeping up appearances with her high-society friends, or in her pathetic superstitions. Gorgeously bejeweled and outfitted by Miriam Chan, with style advice from William Chang, she’s impossible to take your eyes off. As a result, her pain registers more acutely than that of Fai’s, even though his situation is more dire; Chinese heartthrob Chen never quite convinces as the meek working-class lad, and Tian likewise projects only moods, without a trace of personality.
Christopher Doyle’s luminous, fluid lensing offers visions of spacious rooms and empty highways rarely seen in crowded, bustling Hong Kong, reinforcing Anna and Tingting’s loneliness and isolation. Sparse dialogue and haunting music lend an alienating effect; other craft contributions are also excellent. The original Cantonese title translates as “Crossing the Border,” with the implied double meaning of “Crossing the Line.”
Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard), May 18, 2013. Running time: 95 MIN. Original title: “Guo jie”
(Hong Kong) A Shadow Puppet Prod., Film Development Fund of Hong Kong, A Priori Image, Bago Pictures, Love Streams Agnes B. Prod., Post Production Office presentation of a Bends production. (International sales: Wild Bunch, Paris. Asian sales: Gaga, Tokyo.) Produced by Nansun Shi, Yu Tsang. Executive producer, Albert Tong.
Directed, written by Flora Lau. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Christopher Doyle; editor, Lau, Alexis Dos Santos, Aq Lee; music, Patrick Jonsson; music supervisor, Shin Yasui; art director/set decorator, Jean Tsoi; costume designer, Miriam Chan; sound (Dolby Digital).
Carina Lau, Aloys Chen Kun, Tian Yuan, Lawrence Cheng, Stephanie Che. (Cantonese, Mandarin, English dialogue)
May 18, 2013
5/18/2013 by David Rooney
Carina Lau and Chen Kun star in Flora Lau’s melancholy drama about a Real Housewife of Hong Kong and her personal driver, both facing crises.
Writer-director Flora Lau’s debut feature Bends is a slow-moving but ultimately affecting mood piece about two people at opposite ends of the economic spectrum, each navigating difficult crossroads. Distinguished by understated lead performances from Carina Lau and Chen Kun, and by the coolly elegant visuals of cinematographer Christopher Doyle, this is a quiet film that reflects in human terms the uneasy symbiosis of Hong Kong with mainland China.
The action takes place on either side of the Hong Kong-Shenzhen border. Anna Li (Lau) is a stylish housewife who has put her humble roots behind her, living in luxury since marrying a powerful businessman. With her daughter away at boarding school, she spends her time lunching with other well-heeled wives or organizing charity events. But the precariousness of that existence is exposed when her husband disappears under a cloud, unhelpfully canceling her credit cards.
Across the border in a shabby Shenzhen housing block, Anna’s driver Fai (Chen) faces a dilemma as his pregnant wife Ting (Tian Yuan) nears the birth of their second child. Rather than risk heavy fines for violating China’s One-Child Policy, Ting is forced to hide in the apartment out of sight of their neighbors, while Fai struggles to find financial and logistic solutions to get his wife across to Hong Kong and into one of the overbooked maternity hospitals.
Director Lau’s storytelling sense sometimes lacks clarity, making the audience do more guesswork than perhaps is necessary. But the parallel situations of the two protagonists are effectively balanced, each of them intuiting something of the other’s distress without ever articulating it.
As Ting turns sullen with cabin fever, Fai grows more desperate. He tries his luck at gambling and then starts selling off parts from his employer’s Mercedes, substituting them with cheap replacements. Anna resorts to superstition, hiring a feng shui consultant to rearrange the apartment in the hope that it will bring order to her house. Gradually, she is forced to face reality and begin cashing in her valuables.
The scenario could easily have turned schematic, but the director handles it with delicacy, and her two main actors convey a lot in performances with remarkably few outward displays of emotion. The ever-magnetic Carina Lau is particularly lovely. Anna puts a brave face on things in her chic dresses and expensive accessories, but her designer shades can’t mask the fear and humiliation in her eyes as the façade crumbles.
While it bears little resemblance in tone or subject matter to his work, Bends is perhaps influenced by Wong Kar-wai in its languorous rhythms and in the prowling grace of Doyle’s crisp camerawork. A prominent credit thanking Wong’s regular production designer William Chang indicates that he likely had a hand in shaping the look of the film, with its sharp distinctions between the two worlds.
Venue: Cannes Film Festival (Un Certain Regard)
Cast: Carina Lau, Chen Kun, Tian Yuan
Production companies: Shadow Puppet Productions, Film Development Fund of Hong Kong, in association with A Priori Image, Bago Pictures, Love Streams Agnes B. Productions, Post Production Office, Tomson International Entertainment Distribution
Director-screenwriter: Flora Lau
Producers: Nansun Shi, Yu Tsang, Melissa Lee, Ken Hui
Executive producer: Albert Tong
Director of photography: Christopher Doyle
Production designer: Jean Tsoi
Music: Patrick Jonsson
Costume designer: Miriam Chan
Editors: Flora Lau, Alexis Dos Santos, Aq Lee
Sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong
No rating, 97 minutes.
8 May, 2013
By Tim Grierson
Delicately rendered but thin dramatically, Bends brings together two characters from different economic backgrounds who share emotional similarities that neither one of them realses. The feature directorial debut from Hong Kong filmmaker Flora Lau engages our sympathies even if it never quite evolves beyond a simple, heartfelt message about our dependence on one another, no matter our station in life.
Bends will cater to art houses and film festivals, relying on both positive reviews and audience interest in the movie’s exploration of the relationship between Hong Kong and China, which is dramatised through its central characters. The presence of acclaimed cinematographer Christopher Doyle may also help boost the movie’s international profile.
Bends stars Carina Lau as Anna, a wealthy housewife living in Hong Kong whose driver Fai (Chen Kun) lives in Shenzhen in China. Anna doesn’t know much about Fai’s life, consumed as she is with hiding any evidence from the outside world that her absent husband has refused to get in contact and that her finances are quickly evaporating. Meanwhile, Fai has very different problems: His wife (Tian Yuan) is pregnant with their second child, but he can’t take her across the border to a good hospital in Hong Kong for the delivery because she’s a Chinese citizen.
Working with Doyle (a frequent lenser for Wong Kar-Wai), Lau has crafted a drama that’s both visually and emotionally lovely. Incorporating an understated, gentle tone, the filmmaker clearly cares about her two characters, opting not to portray Anna as a spoiled, aloof villain but, rather, as a woman only slowly coming to the realisation that her lavish lifestyle is fleeting. Much of the poignancy in Anna’s story comes from her unwillingness to let on to anyone that she’s in financial trouble, making it difficult to know if her brave face is a calculated act or a genuine denial of her situation.
As for Fai, he doesn’t resent Anna for her wealth — she actually treats him rather well — but his need to arrange for a hospital bed in Hong Kong for his wife requires him to raise money any way that he can, even if it means from underneath his employer’s nose. Still, Lau never tips her hand regarding which of these people we should be rooting for. In fact, the film’s generosity is such that the writer-director subtly argues that neither of these people needs to suffer — and that perhaps if they helped one another, both would be better off.
The parallel storylines going on in Bends would seem to be a metaphor for Hong Kong’s uneasy connection to China, a union fraught with tension. But despite the movie’s hopeful tone, the story’s underlying problem is that it works more as a metaphor than as a gripping piece of cinema.
There’s a drawn-out, repetitious quality to both Fai’s and Anna’s dilemma, with little surprise or escalation of the stakes. Granted, major plot twists might have clashed with the movie’s generally tranquil, melancholy tone, but Bends never quite builds — it simply arrives at its climactic moment, which is the question of whether Fai can sneak his wife into Hong Kong to give birth.
While there isn’t much of a narrative here, the two leads are effortless at portraying worried souls who, through no real fault of their own, find themselves in very different binds. Carina Lau is impressively composed despite the growing chaos in Anna’s personal life, while Kun radiates a calm assurance no matter how dire Fai’s home life becomes.
Through their equally compassionate performances, they underline the film’s strongest point: Both of these characters are perhaps too wrapped up in their own woes to recognise and appreciate the agonies experienced by the other person, even though they spend so much time together. That sentiment isn’t quite enough to make for an engrossing film experience, but it suggests a filmmaker capable of deep emotional sensitivity.
Production companies: Shadow Puppet Productions Limited, Film Development Fund of Hong Kong, A Priori Image, Bago Pictures, Love Streams Agnes B. Productions, Post Production Office, Tomlinson International Entertainment Distribution LTD, Bends Limited
International sales: Distribution Workshop, email@example.com
Producers: Nansun Shi, Yu Tsang, Melissa Lee, Ken Hui
Executive producer: Albert Tong
Cinematography: Christopher Doyle
Production designer: Jean Tsoi
Editors: Flora Lau, Alexis Dos Santos, Aq lee
Music: Patrick Jonsson
Main cast: Carina Lau, Chen Kun, Tian Yuan
Americian Dreams in China
5/17/2013 by Elizabeth Kerr
Veteran Hong Kong director Peter Chan returns with a familiar rags to riches story spanning 30 years and beginning in 1980s China.
Ever since he burst onto the Hong Kong film scene in 1994 with He’s a Woman She’s a Man and later Comrades: Almost a Love Story, producer-director Peter Chan has been one of the industry’s most identifiable voices. While not as issue-driven as Herman Yau or possessed of Johnnie To’s urban cool, the more romantic Chan has been a constant in an industry in flux. Chan’s latest film, American Dreams in China, is a carefully modulated and calculated film by a veteran with an eye firmly toward cracking the burgeoning mainland cinema market, which he started dabbling in back in 2005 with the romantic musical Perhaps Love.
It also embodies what everyone was concerned about when it was learned Iron Man 3 would bend to Chinese media rules and regulations and include four specially produced minutes—and tailoring creativity for special markets in general. American Dreams is a film purely for Chinese audiences, but how it plays there remains to be seen. It strokes the right egos and sends the right messages, but whether that’s enough to make it a hit is anyone’s guess. Mainland audiences aren’t quite that easy to “speak” to, as the negative reaction to the bonus material in the aforementioned Iron Man attests. More to the point they won’t be pandered to.
American Dreams in China has little in the way of marketability outside Mainland China. Though Chan’s name is likely to generate interest in overseas festivals, its pedestrian filmmaking (you would never know Christopher Doyle was cinematographer) and heavy handedness with its subject matter could keep it out of more than a few. Limited release in Asia could come on the back of regional familiarity with ubiquitous cram schools and language centers.
The film begins during the period of sweeping economic reforms in China in the 1980s. The bookish farm boy Cheng Dongqing (Huang Xiaoming, Ip Man 2), the ambitious, self-assured Meng Xiaojun (Deng Chao, The Four) and the slightly flaky, poetic Wang Yang (Tong Dawei, Lost in Beijing, Red Cliff), are three friends studying at university in Beijing and simultaneously prepping for American visa interviews. Wang is the first to be granted one but forfeits it to stay with his Western girlfriend, and Cheng is repeatedly denied one. Only Meng actually gets a study visa, and as he’s leaving he tells his friends he has no intention of returning to China.
The film then heads into standard rags to riches territory, following Cheng and Wang as they build a massively successful school, New Dream, from the ashes of Cheng’s misfortune (his girlfriend got a visa too, and Cheng lost his university teaching job for tutoring on the side) and Wang’s innate ability to connect with students, often through Hollywood movies. Across the Pacific, Meng is having little success living the America dream and is reduced to bussing tables to makes ends meet. Despondent, he goes home and joins his friends at New Dream. And as films like this go, the trio’s relationship frays, fractures and finally reforms under the weight of the men’s disparate goals and motivations.
American Dreams spans almost 30 years, so while all this is happening, Chan inserts references to major moments in contemporary Chinese history into the story: Beijing’s first KFC in 1992 becomes Cheng’s first classroom; the 1999 bombing of Chinese embassy in Belgrade sees the trio forced to defend themselves against angry mob charges of being traitors for running an English (meaning American) school; New Dream really enters the competitive big leagues around the same time Beijing is awarded the Olympic Games in 2000. Conspicuous in its absence is the Tiananmen Square protests/massacre of 1989.
Chan has managed some pithy observations about the perceptions commonly held among Chinese of Americans and vice versa, but take away the revisionist history and the preaching, however, and American Dreams is simply another quasi-coming-of-age story (albeit about adults) who see their bond tested by power, money and ambition. That it is allegedly based on a true story (of the Beijing New Oriental School) doesn’t make it any more interesting; the language education industry doesn’t exactly reek of thrilling corporate espionage and there are countless equally amazing business success stories in the new China, though admittedly not one quite as widely known. And the film’s lingering whiff of propaganda adds a bit of texture to the film, but in the end it’s not didactic enough to be a (more engaging) polemic. Chan has played down almost everything.
So it comes down to how compelling Huang, Deng and Tong are and how well their dynamic carries the story. Tong fares best as the sensitive guy stuck in the middle of an increasingly hostile relationship between his friends. The moderator is often the weak link, but Tong does a respectable job of conveying frustration and weariness. Huang and Deng have less luck though. Huang’s transformation from mealy-mouthed “loser” to board room tyrant doesn’t quite ring true, and Deng’s insecurity masked as arrogance make him shrill and demanding, not complex.
To’s Drug War and Leung Lok-man and Luk Kim-ching’s Cold War proved filmmakers could adhere to China’s rules and still make a film with a voice, however subtle. American Dreams in China proves Chan has a handle on what he needs to do to get a coveted Mainland release, but it also hints at a one or the other creative process.
Producer: Peter Chan, Jojo Hui
Director: Peter Chan
Cast: Huang Xiaoming, Deng Chao, Tong Dawei, Du Juan, Wang Zhen
Screenwriter: Zhou Zhiyong, Zhang Ji
Executive producer: Han Sanping
Director of Photography: Christopher Doyle
Production Designer: Sun Li
Music: Peter Kam
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Qiao Yang
Sales: We Pictures
Production company: China Film Co., We Pictures, Stellar Mega, Media Asia, Yunnan Film Group, Edko Films
No rating, 110minutes
May 17, 2013
A Touch of Sin
17 May, 2013
By Fionnuala Halligan
Jia Zhang-ke’s A Touch Of Sin is clearly fuelled by an anger that mirrors the tone of his very first underground film, Xiao Wu. This time, however, Jia is not shooting under the radar, and he brokes no misunderstanding. A Touch Of Sin conveys a more overt contempt for China’s moral bankruptcy - root and branch - that should pose problems for the director on a personal level.
This violent denunciation of the world’s economic engine has also provoked a change of style for the Shanxi-born director, previously the darling of the more rarified end of the digital arthouse. Its seductive aesthetic – while preserving some of the director’s cherished naturalism – is a riposte to the elaborate frames of Jia’s Fifth Generation predecessors. Relating four true-life stories from the pages of Chinese newspapers, A Touch Of SIn is also extremely violent. It is, in essence, a vision of the underbelly of today’s China which, fuelled by headlines, may attract much wider audiences for Jia overseas, even as it causes outrage at home.
Using professional actors including Jiang Wu and Wang Baoqiang, A Touch Of Sin is a larger, much more ambitious production than Jia has previously attempted (his last film at Cannes was 24 City in 2008, while Still Life won the Golden Lion in 2006. Many still remember him best however for The World, set in a Beijing amusement park). His films have always tracked his country’s rapid development, always with a critical eye. But this, in particular, is a bristling film; with anger, colours, affluence, landscapes which jut into the frame, both natural and man-made.
It’s also a road movie in the tradition of the wuxia genre, a homage paid in the title (to King Hu’s A Touch Of Zen). Migrants jostle from province to province. Private planes, high-speed trains, fancy Western cars and primitive motorbikes share the roads with the Chinese zodiac symbols of a tiger, oxen, a horse, a snake (directed by Tsui Hark, according to the credits), reminding us that the struggle is an enduring – if not eternal - one. Chinese opera singers cry: “Do you understand your sin?”
Jia relates four stories in the film, which track southwards through China, starting in the agricultural province of Shanxi and ultimately reaching Dongguan, a town in Guangong province. In Shanxi, a statue of Mao looks over the town square in where Dahai (Jiang Wu) bridles at the death of collectivism and the riches of the town’s mayor who has profited by the sale of the coalmine. Down south, in Guangdong, where prostitutes dance in skimpy PLA uniforms and thigh-high boots to patriotic songs, such ideas might even seem quaint.
Jia sees a China plagued by questions that individuals can only answer with violence. These also include a violent migrant worker with a gun who visits home over Chinese New Year, a receptionist at a sauna who is assaulted by a rich client; and a young factory worker moving from job to job in Guangdong. In the film’s press notes, Jia says all these stories are well-known at home in China. By adding them together, he assembles a force with which he repeatedly assails the viewer.
Jia works again with his regular Hong Kong cinematographer Yu Lick-wai who rises to the challenge of the director’s ambition from the very first frames – of vibrant green palm fronts, an over-turned truck filled with tomatoes, and a mysterious explosion. The colours pop and the artifice works side by side with the naturalism. Even as the repetitive messages of violence and dislocation come to lose some of their effect by the final frames, Jia’s outrage is the diving force that he musters to deliver a significant change in direction.
Production companies: XStream Pictures, Office Kitano, Shanghai Film Group Corporation.
International sales: MK2, www.mk2.com
Producer: Shozo Ichiyama
Executive producer: Jia Zhang-ke
Cinematography Yu Lik-wai
Music: Lim Giong
Main cast: Zhao Tao, Jiang Wi, Wang Baoqiang, Luo Lanshan
A Touch of Sin
MAY 16, 2013
Not exactly your grandmother’s Jia Zhangke movie, “A Touch of Sin” marks an arresting but unpersuasive change of pace for a filmmaker hitherto lauded for his placid, perceptive snapshots of contemporary China (“Still Life,” “The World”). Once again exploring the many varieties of social, political and economic oppression at home, Jia crams together four very uneven stories of four troubled individuals, all climaxing in horrific acts of violence that send the film swerving into Grand Guignol territory. Likely to court solid arthouse attention, plus some controversy despite its official Chinese sponsorship, this is unquestionably Jia’s most mainstream-friendly work, if also his most schematic and, blades aside, least penetrating; its ripped-from-the-headlines relevance is decidedly at odds with its giddy geysers of blood.
Many of the purist auteurists who have made the writer-director such a celebrated figure on the international stage may well reject his seventh feature on aesthetic grounds alone. For them, the real sin will be that Jia has abandoned the docu-fiction experimentation of 2008′s “24 City” in favor of a relatively robust narrative, replete with the sort of balls-to-the-wall brutality more typically encountered in the work of Quentin Tarantino or Takashi Miike.
Others may argue that Jia has merely rendered explicit the convulsive undercurrents present in his work all along, exploring the extreme consequences of local corruption and neglect, rampant greed, poor labor conditions and countless other social ills fueled by China’s economic miracle. Allowing content to dictate form, he has adopted a pulpy and accessible realist style in order to tackle some of his country’s most notorious recent tragedies on a broad, panoramic canvas. (Among the incidents either fictionalized or mentioned here are a deadly high-speed train accident in 2011 and the suicides of 18 Foxconn factory employees in 2010.)
In any event, there’s a certain pleasure to be had in seeing a revered auteur go off the disreputable deep end, and there’s no denying “A Touch of Sin” packs a visceral wallop — particular in the first and bloodiest of its four loosely connected yarns. On a dusty stretch of China’s northern Shanxi province (Jia’s birthplace), a disgruntled miner (Jiang Wu) goes around verbally abusing the corrupt village officials who have cost him his livelihood; not until he arms himself with a rifle are his threats and accusations taken seriously. A gun also figures into the film’s less involving second segment, set in the southwestern city of Chongqing; there, a dead-eyed migrant worker (Wang Baoqiang), who has returned home for his mother’s 70th birthday celebration, makes a singularly productive if lethal discovery.
The protagonists of the next two vignettes register as considerably more human and sympathetic. Most of the film’s acting opportunities go to Jia’s wife and regular muse, Zhao Tao, cast here as a sauna receptionist (based in the central Chinese province of Hubei) who makes the mistake of giving her married lover an ultimatum. If nothing else, the outcome of this melodrama puts a knife-wielding Zhao at the center of one of the film’s more indelibly blood-spattered images.
Nineteen-year-old Luo Lanshan, the sole non-pro actor among the four leads, gets the film’s limpest role as a mild-mannered kid who drifts from one soul-crushing job to another in the industrial city of Dongguan, well known for having China’s highest concentration of sex workers. This final tale does allow Jia to get in some wickedly satirical jabs — particularly in a few scenes at a high-end brothel peddling young women in sexy military uniforms — before attempting to tie the stories together in a sub-Kieslowskian narrative framework.
Rather than employing his customary long shots, the director keeps the camera in unsparing proximity to the often murderous action, rendered all the more potent by Yu Likwai’s crisp digital lensing and Matthieu Lac Lau and Lin Xudong’s sharp editing. Yet just as the horror of senseless real-life violence tends to frustrate and overwhelm any effort to understand it, so these onscreen bloodbaths wind up muddling the script’s attempts at narrative explanation; the characters’ fatal decisions seem by turns inscrutable, inevitable and arbitrary, making for neither effective psychology nor effective sociology.
As usual, Jia excels at finding the poetry in dislocation and decay; the strongest motif here is the sense of these itinerant workers continually and hopelessly on the move, often framed against crumbling ruins and construction zones as they wander in search of a reason to keep going. Densely populated though it must be, this is a China where everyone seems horribly alone.
The film is also rich in cinematic reference points, and not just because of the titular homage to King Hu’s 1971 wuxia classic, “A Touch of Zen”; attentive audiences will find a certain resonance in the casting of Jiang, who starred in Zhang Yimou’s banned mainland epic “To Live,” and Baoqiang, from Li Yang’s brilliant coal-mine thriller “Blind Shaft.” The allusions extend to Jia’s body of work as well: A traveling theater troupe evokes his 2000 epic “Platform,” while a Three Gorges Dam interlude can’t help but recall “Still Life.” Viewed in context, these images feel like hopeful reminders of the past, gestures at an accomplished oeuvre to which this restless talent cannot return quickly enough.
Reviewed at Cannes Film Festival (competing), May 16, 2013. Running time: 133 MIN. Original title: “Tian zhu ding”
(China) An Xstream Pictures (Beijing), Office Kitano, Shanghai Film Group Corp. and MK2 presentation in association with Shanxi Film and Television Group, Bandai Visual, Bitters End. (International sales: MK2, Paris.) Produced by Shozo Ichiyama. Executive producers, Jia Zhangke, Masayuki Mori, Ren Zhonglun. Co-producers, Eva Lam, Qian Jianping, Gao Xiaojiang, Zhang Dong.
Directed, written by Jia Zhangke. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Yu Lik-wai; editors, Matthieu Lac Lau, Lin Xudong; music, Lim Giong; art director, Liu Weixin; sound designer, Zhang Yang; associate producers, Kazumi Kawashiro, Yuji Sadai, Liu Shiyu, Jia Bin.
Jiang Wu, Wang Baoqiang, Zhao Tao, Luo Lanshan, Zhang Jiayi, Li Meng. (Mandarin dialogue, Shanxi, Sichuan dialects; Cantonese dialogue, Hunan dialect; English dialogue)