HKMDB Daily News

August 31, 2012

Tai Chi 0 (Hollywood Reporter review)

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Tai Chi 0
by Deborah Young

Victorian age steam energy meets kick-ass martial arts in a wacky, hyper, head-on collision, Tai Chi 0, an exuberant attempt to weld steampunk to kungfu in a big-budget Chinese actioner. Successful? Hardcore teenage fantasy fans and video-gamers may find director Stephen Fung’s brand of irreverent comedy irresistible, but viewers past the youngest demographics will tune out to the threadbare comic book-style story and childish characters, though not without a few amazed laughs at the inventive audacity of the project. The first of a promised trilogy produced by China’s Huayi Brothers (Tai Chi Hero is announced for later this fall), it will be released in Australia and Asia following the film’s Venice and Toronto bows, and in the U.S. in October by Variance Films.

From the creators of the hybrid hit Shaolin Soccer and the visual marvel Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Tai Chi 0 takes a decidedly more laid-back approach to story-telling. The opening scene makes a comic virtue out of its disjointed editing, as it introduces goofy but likable young hero Yang Luchan (wushu star-turned-actor Yuan Xiaochan), known as “the Freak” on account of a small horn of flesh
protruding from his head. This, it turns out, is the mark of a martial arts genius. When hit on the horn, he turns into a raging demon fighter undefeatable in battle. Everything is humorously signalled in letters superimposed over the screen, a technique used throughout the film that grows old rather quickly.

Suddenly a flashback to Luchan’s babyhood is required. In one of Fung’s best gags, it’s filmed as a spoof on silent films with dialogue written in old-fashioned inter-titles. As Luchan’s mother, the lovely face of Shu Qi appears, first of Tai Chi’s parade of star cameos. (Actors are duly announced with on-screen pop-up credits.) Convinced of her son’s potential as a future kung fu master, she steals from her elderly husband to ensure his future, with tragic consequences.

Back to the battle. After losing his master in a firestorm perpetrated by the Imperial forces, Luchan escapes in search of the legendary Chen village, where he plans to learn unique local tai chi techniques that will make him a master. The only hitch is that the villagers refuse to teach outsiders, and each time he applies for lessons, he’s soundly beaten by young and old alike, in amusingly off-the-wall action sequences choreographed by the renowned Sammo Hung. Only a solitary old workman (Tony Leung Ka-fai) befriends him and, although he can’t teach him, wisely advises him to copy the moves of his attackers.

Among the host of characters who live in Chen village is charming Yu Niang (rom com star Angelababy), daughter of the elusive master that Luchan is seeking. Her imperturbable expression and graceful tai chi moves reduce his body to a pulp while they capture his heart. Unfortunately for him, she’s already in love with Anglophile Zijing (heart-throb Eddie Peng), who appears dressed to the hilt in a waistcoat and stovepipe hat, while Yu Niang tries to impress him in an empire dress and braided hair. Zijing’s new-fangled ideas from England are snubbed by the Chen traditionalists. He’s supposed to personify the evil Western industrial revolution that is about to overrun China, but in its typically careless, wishy-washy style, the film also suggests some innovations like electricity and the gramophone might not be so bad.

Zijing’s villainy is finally clarified when he reappears inside a steam-run metal monster hell-bent on destroying the village. It’s manned by English soldiers and captained by Claire, a deliciously frilly British officer he plans to marry. At this point the script is truly out of control, but audiences who have followed it this far will probably not fret about the details. There are plenty of gags still to come, including a fruit and vegetable battle with more Imperial forces, and marvellous cogs and gears to admire inside the steam monster which echo, on a much smaller scale, the extraordinary sets of Tsui Hark’s Detective Dee.

The film ends abruptly with end credits rolling at unreadable, breakneck speed, then a Hollywood-style trailer for the sequel, when the umpteen loose ends will presumably be tied up.

Venue: Venice Film Festival
Cast: Yuan Xiaochan, Angelababy, Eddie Peng, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Shu Qi
Director: Stephen Fung
Screenwriter: Kuo-fu Chen

August 30, 2012

The Bullet Vanishes (Variety review)

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The Bullet Vanishes
Xiaoshi de zidan
(Hong Kong-China)

By Maggie Lee

A China Lion Film Distribution (in U.S.)/Le Vision Pictures Co., Emperor Motion Pictures Distribution (Beijing) (in China) release of a Emperor Film Prod. Co., Le Vision Pictures Co. presentation of a Film Unlimited Prod. production. (International sales: Emperor Motion Pictures, Hong Kong.) Produced by Albert Lee, Zhang Zhao, Derek Yee, Mandy Law. Executive producers, Albert Yeung, Jia Yueting. Co-producers, Catherine Hun, Shan Dongbing. Directed by Lo Chi-leung. Screenplay, Leung, Yeung Sin-ling, based on a story by Yeung.

With: Sean Lau, Nicholas Tse, Mini Yang, Wu Gang, Liu Kai-chi, Jiang Yiyan, Chin Ka-lok, Boran Jing, Yumiko Cheng, Xuxu, Liu Yang, Wang Ziyi. (Mandarin dialogue)

Taking a page from the careful plotting of Nipponese detective stories, then transplanting the template to a Chinese period setting rife with social resonance, “The Bullet Vanishes” boasts a level of narrative control and artistic finesse rare among such endeavors. Unraveling paranormal murders in a bullet factory, Hong Kong helmer Lo Chi-leung sheds the shock tactics of his best-known horror-thrillers, “Inner Senses” and “Koma,” to pursue an expositional approach, and pulls it off by casting quietly engrossing leads Sean Lau and Nicholas Tse. Robust opening in China followed by a U.S. bow proves demand for cerebral Asian genre fare exists.

The story is set in Tiancheng prefecture during China’s warlord era (around the 1920s). Prison superintendent Song Donglu (Lau), known for his obsessive probing of his inmates’ motives, is summoned by police chief Jin (Wu Gang) to investigate an inexplicable murder in the local bullet factory. The foreman, Chen Qi (Liu Yang), has been hit by a bullet that went through his skull and made a dent in the wall, but it’s nowhere to be found. Soon afterward, mysterious graffiti on the factory grounds warns of the curse of the “phantom bullet.”

Rumors spread about the vengeful ghost of factory girl Yan (Xuxu), who was accused of stealing and coerced into a game of Russian roulette with the boss, Ding (Liu Kai-chi). As predicted, more deaths by gunshot occur, but the bullets are always strangely missing.

Teaming up with sharpshooting detective Guo Zhui (Tse) and Little Lark (Mini Yang), a fortuneteller moonlighting as informant, Song uncovers layers of corruption that rattles the hypothesis he’s dedicated to prove: “There are no born villains, just good people turned bad.”

In a case-within-a-case, Song entertains a discourse on “the perfect crime” with Fu Yuan (Jiang Yiyan, icily captivating) an inmate convicted of murdering her husband (Chin Ka-lok). Craftily weaving clues into this subplot (with flashbacks shot in stylized black-and-white, like a silent film), Lo makes Fu’s clinical premeditation reinforce the moral ambiguity running through the film.

Transcribing such classic concepts as the locked-room murder, as well as the deductive processes and speculative re-enactments favored by Japanese mysteries, Lo and Yeung Sin-ling’s screenplay will have no problem holding attention. However, except for a bold stunt utilizing ropes and a pulse-quickening gunfight in the last 15 minutes or so, the pacing is too even-keeled to deliver any edge-of-your-seat tension. This may be why both the final unlocking of mysteries and even the twist ending feel underwhelming despite their cleverness.

The blueprints for the doggedly persistent Song could be famous fictional detectives like Keigo Higashino’s Galileo or Seishi Yokomizo’s Kousuke Kindaichi, while there’s a Holmes-Watson dynamic to his partnership with Guo. The strength of Lau’s and Tse’s perfs lies in their conscious effort to underplay the eccentricity of their roles, instead conveying their flawed humanity. The distractingly voluptuous Yang gives maximum oomph to a token femme role, making her fling with Guo a steamy diversion from the drier investigation scenes. Similarly, the delightful flirtation between forensic doctor Li Jia (Yumiko Cheng, svelte) and detective Xiaowu (Boran Jing, likable) could have taken on more dramatic weight.

Tech package is a treat. The lighting creates an ambience that’s almost Victorian in its haunting play of shadows, and Chan Chi-ying’s lensing takes full command of widescreen and elegant tracking shots to underscore the oppressive atmosphere of prisons, factories and police stations. This is reinforced by somber color tones, accentuating the bleak textures of rust, brick and faded wall paint.

Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Chan Chi-ying; editors, Kong Chi-leung, Ron Chan; music, Teddy Robin, Tomy Wai; production designer, Silver Cheung; art director, Lee Kin-wai; set decorator, Wong Wai-ming; costume designer, Stanley Cheung; sound (Dolby Digital), Phyllis Cheng; re-recording mixers, Cheng, Lam Siu-yu; visual effects supervisors, Enoch Chan, Tse King-ho; visual effects, Herb Garden; action choreographer, Li Chung-chi; line producers, Man Cheuk Kau, Zhong Wei; assistant director, Dickson Leung. Reviewed at Emperor Motion Pictures screening room, Hong Kong, July 12, 2012. Running time: 103 MIN.

The Bullet Vanishes (Screen Daily review)

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The Bullet Vanishes
8/30/2012 by Frank Scheck

A stylish period thriller set in 1930’s Shanghai, The Bullet Vanishes is one of the more striking Chinese imports from the fledgling distribution company China Lion. This detective story about a series of murders in which the bullets seem to disappear after being used bears no small debt to Guy Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes flicks. But its clever plotting and beautifully designed production more than merit its trip to the West.

Said murders are being committed in, where else, a bullet factory, led by a venal boss and his vicious henchman who once forced a female worker suspected of stealing to play Russian roulette, with tragic results. Now her ghost may be exacting revenge, although cerebral-minded detective Song (Lau Ching-wan) and his partner Guo (Nicholas Tse) look for a less supernatural explanation in an investigation that includes such fascinating scientific experiments as the testing of ice bullets that melt after impact.

Viewers may ultimately become lost in the overly complicated labyrinth of a narrative, not to mention dialogue so fast and furious that one needs to be a speed reader merely to keep up with the subtitles. But director Lo Chi-leung also includes enough impeccably staged action set pieces and elaborate shootouts to entertain viewers who may have given up trying to follow everything that’s going on.

Providing some emotional heft to the proceedings is a social consciousness that is particularly evident in the character of Guo, who freely expresses his views about society’s poor treatment of the lower class.
The film’s visuals, from the gorgeous period costumes to the elaborate recreation of the city’s gritty environs, are consistently striking. And as the two detectives, Ching-wan and Tse, deliver the sort of slyly entertaining performances that make their characters memorable enough to warrant a sequel.

Opens: Friday, Aug. 31 (China Lion)
Production: Unlimited Production Limited
Cast: Nicholas Tse, Lau Ching-wan, Yang Mi, Boran Jing, Liu Kai-chi, Wu Gang, Yumiko Cheng, Wang Ziyi
Director: Lo Chi-leung
Screenwriters: Lo Chi-leung, Yeung Sin-ling
Producers: Albert Lee, Zhang Zhao
Director of photography: Chan Chi-ying
Editors: Kong Chi-leung, Ron Chan
Production designer: Silver Cheung
Costume designer: Stanley Cheung
Music: Teddy Robin, Tomy Wai
No rating, 103 min.

Tai Chi 0 (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 10:42 am

Tai Chi 0
30 August, 2012
By Mark Adams

Dir: Stephen Fung. Hong Kong China. 2012. 95mins

Big, bold and glossy and blending comic-book style effects with martial arts mayhem - and with a little steampunk aesthetic thrown in for good measure – Stephen Fung’s enjoyably off-the-wall action film is a real guilty pleasure big screen experience and despite more than a few mis-steps really does deliver.

Tai Chi 0 – or Tai Chi Zero as its on-screen credit reads, which makes more sense given its upcoming sequel is titled Tai Chi Hero – sensibly never takes itself (or its genre) overly seriously and is simply there to deliver special effects driven kinetic martial arts action. And deliver it does.

The film, directed by actor-turned-director Stephen Fung (Gen-X Cops), screened out of competition at Venice (the festival always likes to throw in a wild and crazy martial arts film into its mix, last year it was the probably more bonkers The Sorcerer And The White Snake), is intended to be the first in a trilogy that details – extremely loosely – the story of Yang Luchan, the inventor of Tai Chi.

The film opens – in familiar martial arts epic style – on the battlefield, where the focus is Lu Chuan (Yuan Xiaochao), known since he was born as ‘The Freak’ due to the fact he was born with an small horn-like bump on the side of his head that when hit turns him into a martial arts demon for a brief time, but leaves him drained and increasingly ill.

Advised that he needs to find training on a form of inner kung fu, he seeks out the remote Chen village and a master to teach him. But the villagers forbid teaching their style of martial arts to outsiders, and repeatedly fight him off. He has several run-ins with the beautiful Yuniang (Angelababy, whose real name is Angela Yeung Wing), who is the granddaughter of the master, who seems to have vanished from the village.

Things are doubly complicated due to the arrival of Yuniang’s long time fiancé (Eddie Peng), whose has studied in London and now wears Western clothes and is working with the rail company to deliver a railroad through the village.

Unsurprisingly the locals aren’t too thrilled about the arrival of the railroad – just like in any Western that has used a similar storyline – and reject his plans. He is a man with a mission, though, and arrives back at the village inside a massive steam-belching, iron-plated, machine that trundles towards the village laying train track in its wake, and guarded by a squad of gun-toting soldiers.

It is a wonderfully styled bit is Victorian steampunk construction (rather reminiscent of the contraptions in Wild, Wild West, but in a good way), and naturally acts as a plot device for Lu Chuan - who is being advised by a mysterious local ‘labourer’ (Tony Leung Ka-fai) – to try and save the village and also win-over Yuniang.

The film is littered with playful and often mischievous cinematic quirks – ranging from usual slo-mo and wire work through to filters and a silent film homage – though most odd are part-animated sequences that refer to video games and scores (in a similar fashion to Scott Pilgrim vs The World) and a unique way of introducing new characters – when they make their first screen appearance there is a caption (and an arrow pointing to them) detailing their cast name, along with actor’s real name and what they might be best known for…whether it be a martial arts champion from a specific year, or in the case of the cameo by Infernal Affairs’ director Andrew Lau, a caption simply explaining he is ‘Andrew Lau, director of Infernal Affairs’.

The cinematography and production design are excellent, though despite its freewheeling nature Tai Chi 0 is not without its faults. Some of the dialogue is overly stilted and Yuan Xiaochao tends to act with enthusiasm rather than technique, plus a romance subplot between Eddie Peng’s character and a British woman (his equal at the railroad company and attired similarly in manly Western clothes) never convinces, and for some reason is fumblingly performed in English.

The film ends with essentially a trailer – or at least a series of extracts – for sequel Tai Chi Hero, which hints at further training for Lu Chuan at the (by the look of it) increasingly tender hands of Yuniang, and plenty of action scenes, with actor Peter Stormare to be spotted briefly in amongst the new cast members.

Production companies: Diversion Pictures Ltd., Huayi Brothers Media Corporation

International sales: Huayi Brothers International,

Screenplay: Cheng Hsaio-tse, Jialu Zhang

Cinematography: Ngor Chi-kwan, Lai Yiu-fai, Du Jie

Editors: Cheng Hsiao-tse, Matthew Hui, Zhang Jialu, Zhang Weili

Production designer: Yip Kam-tiam

Music: Katsunori Ishida

Main cast: Yuan Xiaochao, Angelababy, Eddie Peng, Tony Leung Ka-fai, William Feng, Shu Qi, Feng Shaofeng

August 27, 2012

The Silent War (Variety review)

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The Silent War
Aug. 26, 2012
By Maggie Lee

A Mei Ah Entertainment Group (in Hong Kong/China) release of a Mei Ah Film Production Co., Mei Ah Media (Beijing), Zhejiang Golden Globe Pictures Co., Wanda Media Co., Mei Ah Entertainment Development presentation of a Mei Ah Film Production Co., Pop Movies production. (International sales: Mei Ah Entertainment Group, Hong Kong) Produced by Ronald Wong, Charley Zhuo. Executive producers, Li Kuo-hsing, Li Guo-lin, Karen Fu, Song Ge, Chiu Shun-ching. Directed, written by Alan Mak, Felix Chong, based on the novel “Plot Against” by Mai Jia.

With: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhou Xun, Wang Xuebing, Mavis Fan, Dong Yong, Pal Sinn, Lam Wai, Carrie Ng Ka-lai, Tang Qun, Henry Fong Ping, Zhang Haiyan, Jacob Cheung Chi-leung. (Mandarin dialogue)

The dots and dashes don’t connect in “The Silent War,” a ’50s Chinese spy thriller that examines the interception of government intelligence via radio frequencies. Hong Kong helmers Alan Mak and Felix Chong’s first foray into propagandist “main rhythm” filmmaking maintains a relatively engaging dramatic arc, but ultimately fails to create a riveting interface between the protagonist’s extraordinary aural powers and the science of eavesdropping. Dismissing it as a glorification of the Chinese Communist Party, Hong Kong auds tuned out, but mainland B.O. has been a roaring success with $30 million. Main plug for overseas markets is topliner Tony Leung Chiu-wai.

Pic is adapted from “Ting feng zhe” (which translates as “Listener to the Wind”), the first installment of the three-part espionage novel “Plot Against” by Mai Jia, a sort of mainland John le Carre. Mak and Chong’s screenplay significantly simplifies the plot, and benefits from the addition of a strong female character played by Zhou Xun. Still, the result lacks the sensationalist thrills and emotional heft of “The Message,” Gao Qunshu’s 2009 screen adaptation of another Mai novel.

The subject here can be seen as an extension of the co-helmers’ other works, notably the “Overheard” and “Infernal Affairs” series, exploring themes of double dealing, surveillance and mind reading, though the contempo intrigues and moral dilemmas explored in those films are absent in this period setting.

After China’s Civil War ended in 1949, the Chinese Communist Party maintained a tenuous grip in big cities and remained under threat of retaliation from the deposed, Taiwan-based Kuomintang (KMT) government. None of this is lucidly conveyed in the dizzyingly edited opening sequence, which gets off to an abrupt start at a Hong Kong high-society ball, where femme fatale Zhang Xuening (Zhou) flirts with Guo Xingzhong (Wang Xuebing, wooden), the playboy son of a shipping magnet. This is followed by a hasty scene shift to a mountainous area in southern China, home of the CCP’s 701 Bureau, where trained experts scan radio frequencies to pick up and decipher the enemy’s encrypted messages.

Identifying himself as the bureau chief, “Devil,” Xingzhong attempts to remedy the sudden disappearance of 120 channels they’ve been tapping by sending agent Xuening (Zhou), codenamed 200, to Shanghai to recruit Luo San’er (Pal Sinn), a piano tuner with legendary hearing. Xuening discovers it’s actually Luo’s blind sidekick, He Bing (Leung), who’s ultra-sensitive to low-frequency sounds, and takes him under wing.

A warm, playful chemistry between the astute agent and the sneaky layabout suffuses the early stages, with Leung’s mischievous touches enlivening scenes of Bing’s initiation and ideological awakening. Although the perfs are lackluster compared with what the thesps have delivered elsewhere, the four-way romantic longing among Xuening, Xingzhong, Bing and Morse code specialist Shen Jing (Mavis Fan, wan) achieves a degree of poignancy. A number of Hong Kong character actors well known in the ’80s and ’90s, namely Carrie Ng Ka-lai, Lam Wai and Henry Fong Ping, pop up briefly, but their roles are too functional to evoke anything beyond cinema nostalgia.

What bogs down the film isn’t its morally black-and-white representations of CCP and KMT agents, or its “Motherland uber alles” stance, which only starts to jar in the final reel. Rather, it’s the long, inert scenes focused on radio telegraphy; although Morse code is crucial to the plot, its technical workings are not explained in an interesting manner. The suspenseful action typical of this genre is reduced to one well-staged escape sequence in a concert hall, and the finale, which promises an explosive showdown, becomes a procedural letdown.

Overall tech package is well appointed. Choice of authentic period interiors, embellished by elegant set decoration, proves visually interesting enough to offset tepid shots of telegraph-tapping protags. A critical flaw is the thunderous orchestral music and clamorous sound effects that surge whenever Bing tries to listen for something significant, all but drowning out any vivid evocation of his sensory experience.

Camera (color, widescreen), Anthony Pun; editor, Curran Pang; music, Chan Kwong-wing; production designer, Man Lim Chung; set decorator, Lee Kwan-lung; sound (Dolby Digital) Traithep Wongpaiboon, Nopawat Likitwong, Kaikangwol Rungsakorn; supervising sound editor, Likitwong; re-recording mixers, Wongpaiboon, Likitwong; visual effects supervisor, Alex Lim Hung Fung; visual effects, Free D Workshop; action coordinator, Dion Lam; assistant directors, Felicia Tang Ning, Yang Huan; second unit director, Jonathan Liu; casting, Liu Bin, Zhang Xiaomin. Reviewed at AMC Pacific Place, Hong Kong, Aug. 19, 2012. Running time: 119 MIN.

August 19, 2012

The Thieves (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 3:25 pm

The Thieves
18 August, 2012
By Jason Bechervaise

With its impressive choreographed set-pieces and compelling script, together with a smartly chosen ensemble cast that includes a number of iconic names from across Asia, The Thieves hits all the right notes to become one of the most talked-about films of the summer. It may owe much of its success to the tried and tested formula found in Steven Soderbergh’s ‘Ocean’s’ series, but much like his previous caper films (Tazza: The High Rollers and The Big Swindle) director Choi Dong-hoon is able leave his own mark.

The film has performed exceptionally well in its home market of South Korea, amassing just over two million admissions ($13m) on its opening weekend, and has recently broken the 10 million ticket barrier (approx $64m) in just three weeks, as it remains on course to become one of the most successful local films of all time.

Furthermore, given its pan-Asian cast, which includes local superstar Gianna Jun, as well as Hong Kong’s Simon Yam and Malaysian actress Angelica Lee, it’s set to continue to attract a number of buyers from across the Asia-Pacific region. Also noteworthy is the number of Asian locations used in the film as well as the multilingual dialogue, which may also entice buyers as it is set to hit film festivals beginning with Toronto next month.

The film follows a group of thieves led by Popeye (Lee Jung-jae) as they team up with a Hong Kong crew brought together by Macau Park (Kim Yun-seok) to steal a $20 million diamond that’s being kept in a casino in Macau, but as the narrative unfolds, it becomes clear they all have their own personal agendas.

In terms of the film’s plotting, it’s perhaps difficult to differentiate The Thieves from any other heist film, but Choi along with scriptwriter Lee Gi-cheol collectively put together a dynamic script that’s full of wit and energy. Crucially, it allows many of the cast, though not everyone, a bit of room to breathe so they can fully develop their respective characters. Gianna Jun in particular has benefited enormously from her role in this film, as she’s been able to showcase her talent following a number of miscasts.

Technically, the film isn’t quite flawless, but overall, it is hard to fault its well-crafted set pieces, superb sound-design and vibrant soundtrack that compliments the film’s strong visuals.

It may not boast an array of originality, but makes up for its shortcomings in its solid execution, and while it’s unlikely to perform as well in other markets, it should make an impression.

Production Company: Caper Film

International sales: Showbox/Mediaplex, Inc.,

Producer: Ahn Soo-hyun

Screenplay: Choi Dong-hoon, Lee Gi-cheol

Cinematography: Choi Young-hwan

Editor: Shin Min-kyung

Music: Jang Young-gyu, Dal Palan


Main Cast: Kim Yun-seok, Kim Hye-soo, Lee Jung-jae, Gianna Jun, Simon Yam, Kim Hae-sook, Oh Dal-soo, Kim Su-hyun, Lee Sin-je, Derek Tsang

August 17, 2012

When Night Falls (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — dleedlee @ 8:42 pm

When Night Falls
by Stephen Dalton

LOCARNO - Closely based on real events, this stern docu-drama from the young writer-director Liang Ying offers an intimate psychological portrait of a grieving mother whose son faces the death penalty for a notorious multiple-murder case. Produced by the Jeonju Digital Project offshoot of South Korea’s Jeonju International Film Festival, the story casts a coldly critical eye on the Chinese justice system, and has inevitably ruffled feathers in Beijing. It also won the Golden Leopard awards for Best Director and Best Actress at the Locarno Film Festival last weekend, although this artfully understated tale of revenge may proved a little too cold for audiences outside festivals or Chinese current affairs circles.

When Night Falls is bookended with a montage of still photos showing the real subject of the story, the convicted killer Yang Jia. In between we see lightly fictionalized, elegantly composed scenes in which Yang’s mother Wang Jinmei (An Nai) sleepwalks through the last days of her son’s trial. Because the case has become a high-profile cause for human rights protestors, reporters and supporters shadow Wang constantly, often pushing her to the point of irritation. In between routine daily errands, she makes futile phone calls begging old friends for help, attends grim legal hearings and rages pitifully against the bureaucratic machine.

The grisly killing spree behind When Night Falls is not depicted on screen, only described in subtitles and fragments of dialogue. Yang Jia was an unemployed 28-year-old man arrested in Shanghai in 2007 for the petty crime of riding an unlicensed bicycle. After a rough interrogation, including alleged beatings, he tried to sue the police for mistreatment. When this failed, he stormed a police station in suburban Shanghai armed with knives and petrol bombs, stabbing nine officers, six of them fatally. Throughout his subsequent trial, his mother was incarcerated in a mental hospital by the authorities for 143 days, kept in the dark about her son’s crimes, unable to aid or defend him.

Yang’s divisive case earned unusually sympathetic media interest in China, inspiring street protests, tribute songs and intense online debate. The dissident artist Ai Weiwei even produced a documentary about him. Human rights groups protested irregularities in his treatment, notably an official refusal to examine the defendant for mental illness. Such was Yang’s folk-hero status that his trial was delayed during the Beijing Olympics to avoid negative coverage, but he was finally executed by lethal injection on 26 November 2008.

Filmed in long static shots, When Night Falls is the most discreet and elliptical kind of political statement.
Indeed, the reaction of the Chinese authorities to Ying’s film has been more dramatic than anything he shows on screen. Effectively exiled to Hong Kong, the director has now been warned he faces arrest if he returns to the mainland. His wife and parents have been harassed by the Shanghai police, while shadowy figures even offered to buy the film’s copyright in order to prevent its Jeonju premiere in April. The screening went ahead anyway. Beijing’s clumsy attempts at censoring a low-key indie feature have only boosted its global profile and political impact enormously.

In the light of such state-sponsored bullying, it feels churlish to criticize When Night Falls for its minimal entertainment value. But the pacing is painfully slow in places, while the lack of factual background seems to undermine Ying’s intention to illuminate an infamous injustice. His thin script does not put a clear case for Yang’s innocence, fragile mental state, or mitigating circumstances. More detail, more context, more argument on both sides would have been very welcome.

The film’s English title is also a little clumsy, making it sound like a generic noir thriller – a more accurate translation from Mandarin is “I still have something to say”. This may well be true, but a better film could have told us a lot more about Yang’s shameful, sensational, shocking story.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival screening, August 7
Production company: Jeonju International Film Festival
Cast: An Nai, Kate Wen, Sun Ming
Director: Liang Ying
Producers: Xu Qian-chun, Peng Shan
Writer: Liang Ying
Cinematography: Ryuji Otsuka
Editor: T Wai-wing
Sales company: Jeonju International Film Festival
Rating TBC, 70 minutes.

August 16, 2012

Memories Look at Me (Ji Yi Wang Zhe Wo) (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — dleedlee @ 6:51 pm

Memories Look at Me (Ji Yi Wang Zhe Wo)
8/12/2012 by Stephen Dalton

First-time director Fang Song’s prize-winning docu-drama offers more doc than drama.

LOCARNO - A talk-heavy trawl through a family’s shared memories, this low-key Chinese docu-drama has just won the Best First Feature prize at the Locarno Film Festival in Switzerland. The pace is gently hypnotic and the topic fitfully interesting, but the format will test the patience of all but serious art-cinema fans with its narrow focus and chilly film-school minimalism. Theatrical prospects seem thin outside of further festival slots and specialist screenings for culturally curious Sino-philes.

Fang Song is a young director who previously acted opposite Juliette Binoche in Hou Hsaio-Hsein’s 2007 drama Flight Of The Red Balloon. Her debut feature is the first fruit of a new film investment and production partnership between Xstream Pictures and Beijing-based Yihui Media, established last year by the filmmaker Zhang Ke-Jia, whose own films like Platform and 24 City offers bittersweet snapshots of contemporary China that blend elements of fiction and documentary.

Memories Look At Me employs a similar hybrid technique, albeit in an even more austere and meditative manner. Song’s film is not billed as documentary, but it features the director and her parents, all with their own names, all apparently playing themselves. Beginning with Song’s return home from Beijing to the modest family apartment in Nanjing, it is mostly composed of long conversations filmed in single static shots inside the apartment. The director herself is ever present, usually hovering at the edge of the frame, gently drawing memories from her mother, father and brother.

The core conversational topics here are universal enough to make sense to a global audience: family ties, careers, relationships, children, and old friends, lost loved ones, weddings and funerals. But Chinese audiences will probably feel a deeper connection to culturally specific touches, such as ritual respect for long-dead ancestors and the central importance of food in any social gathering.

Featuring a single exterior scene, Memories Look At Me is a bracingly ascetic experience, but it may prove emotionally engrossing to patient viewers. There are flashes of comedy, such as when Song and her mother wrestle with a chicken, and unexpectedly moving moments, notably a meeting with family friends whose daughter is dying of cancer. Discussion of healthcare insurance and the changing urban landscape provide a mildly interesting window into contemporary Chinese society. Recurring images of Song’s parents sleeping becomes a motif, lending the film a light sprinkle of visual poetry.

But Song’s low-budget labour of love is also ploddingly tedious at times, a self-indulgent scrapbook of personal anecdotes that will have little future interest to anyone beyond immediate family members and social historians. Families all over the world lead similar lives of tangled emotions, bittersweet regrets, everyday triumphs and random tragedies. But this is not exactly news, and certainly not riveting cinema.

Venue: Locarno Film Festival screening, August 6
Production company: Xstream Pictures
Cast: Cast: Yu-zhu Ye, Di-jin Song, Yuan Song, Fang Song
Director: Fang Song
Producer: Zhang Ke-Jia, Fang Song
Writer: Fang Song
Cinematography: Dong-pei Guan, Wen-cao Zhou
Editor: Fang Song
Sales company: Xstream Pictures
Rating TBC, 91 minutes

August 14, 2012

Kamera Obskura (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — dleedlee @ 8:09 pm

Kamera Obskura


A Pelikula Red, Obskura Partnership, Cultural Center of the Philippines, Cinemalaya presentation of a Pelikula Red, Filmex production. (International sales: Pelikula Red, Manila.) Produced, directed by Raymond Red. Screenplay, Red, Pen Medina.
With: Pen Medina, Joel Torre, Nanding Josef, Abe Pagtama, Suzette Ranillo, Ping Medina, Irene Gabriel, Lou Veloso, Bert Habal, Archie Adamos, Madlen Nicolas, Teddy Co, Cesar Hernando, Ricky Orellana. (Tagalog, English dialogue)

A fictitious Filipino silent film is unearthed and unspooled in “Kamera Obskura.” Creating a “lost” movie about a prison escapee who acquires a magical movie camera and becomes a political pawn, helmer Raymond Red succeeds marvelously in conceptual and visual terms, but his soundtrack strategy is likely to sharply divide audiences. World-preemed at Cinemalaya, where it won a director prize, “Kamera” looks set for limited theatrical exposure locally and high visibility on the fest circuit.

Real-life Filipino film archivists Teddy Co, Cesar Hernando and Ricky Orellana call a press conference to announce that an old film has been discovered in a warehouse. Minus credits and its final reel, the technically sophisticated black-and-white feature is thought to date from the late 1920s or early 1930s, a barren period in Filipino cinema. With tantalizing mystery surrounding its authorship and precise date of production, the movie is presented without interruption for approximately 70 minutes.

Red and his technical team expertly capture the look and feel of silent cinema with the first images of Juan (Pen Medina, also co-scripting), a bedraggled prisoner who has served 20 years in solitary. Crawling through a tunnel into a dank cell, Juan uses a tiny shaft of sunlight and his spectacle lenses to create a camera obscura effect and “see” the outside word.

Managing to escape, Juan ventures into a striking vision of Manila that mixes postcard-worthy colonial-era landscapes with futuristic design, recalling Everytown in “Things to Come” (1936). Drawn to a photographic shop called Kamera Obskura, Juan foils a robbery with a movie camera that emits a ray, causing the offenders to disappear. Given the magic device and led to a monolithic office block by the shop’s owner (Abe Pagtama), Juan is told to enter this place where “everything will come true.”

What follows is an engaging yarn about power and corruption, as Juan’s journey through the maze-like building brings him into contact with a fat-cat politician (Joel Torre), an apparently honest champion of workers’ rights (Nanding Josef) and a slinky mystery woman (Irene Gabriel). Visuals evoking classics of German expressionism and Russian formalism are marvelous to behold, but some auds may be put off by the musical accompaniment.

Eschewing piano music, composer Diwa De Leon opts for electronica, reminiscent of 1950s synthesizer experiments, and heavy slabs of ’80s-style European industrial rock. An announcement in the opening seg that a brand-new score has been added would easily have paved the way for auds to accept such a radical departure from what’s generally accepted and expected when watching silent films. As it stands, the music draws unnecessary attention to itself and frequently breaks the spell — so beautifully cast elsewhere — of a buried treasure being opened for the first time.

Pic closes on a lovely note celebrating the wonder of cinema and underlining the importance of film preservation.

Camera (B&W/color, HD), Red; editors, Red, Pablo Biglang-Awa; music, Diwa de Leon; production designers, Daniel Red, Cesar Hernando; art directors, Mikey Red, Roy Red; sound (stereo), de Leon; visual effects supervisors, Edrie Ocampo, Biglang-Awa; visual effects, Eovfx; associate producers, Butch Jimenez, Suzette Ranillo, Henry Frejas, Mac Alejandre, Mon Confiado, Paolo Villaluna, Ocampo, Biglang-Awa, Medina, Abe Pagtama. Reviewed at Cinemalaya Philippine Independent Film Festival (Directors Showcase — competing), July 23, 2012. Running time: 83 MIN.

August 11, 2012

When Night Falls (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — dleedlee @ 2:16 pm

When Night Falls
Dir/scr: Ying Liang. South Korea-China. 2012. 70mins

8 August, 2012
By Dan Fainaru

Yet another product from the Jeonju Digital Project, Ying Liang’s attempt to expose the fallacies of the Chinese system and shatter the benign image of the Chinese policemen, falls short of its intentions, simply by being too stylised, officious and self-righteous for its own good.

Looking for all purposes as an experiment, it should be treated as such. Placing it in a prestigious international competition does it a disservice, by generating expectations it cannot really fulfill. The film premiered at the Locarno Film Festival.

The story of When Night Falls (Wo hai you hua yao shuo) is a shocking one to be sure. A young man riding an unlicensed bicycle is arrested by the police, beaten up and, when finally released demands justice. He is railroaded time and again until, out of sheer exasperation, he takes a knife, enters a police station in Shanghai and kills six cops before being apprehended.

When his mother is told her son is in trouble, she is sent to a mental hospital, kept out of circulation for the next 143 days, allowed to see her son only once during that period, and finally told that her son has been condemned to death for crimes that she had known nothing about until that moment.

That, at least, is the version provided for Ying Liang by the mother, Wang Jinmei (played on screen by An Nai), a version that is never contradicted - or confirmed for that matter - by any other source. Though, in all fairness, a documentary made by Ai Weiwei’s studio has already brought the case, which took place in 2008, to the attention of the Chinese internet audience.

The film is a re-enactment of the mother’s tale, with actors taking up the parts of the real people. The entire film is shot in long, fixed, static set-ups, mostly moody and dark, visually interesting but drawing attention away from the subject itself.

Given the fact that the abundant dialogue makes it ever more difficult for a Western audience to follow the finer points of the various arguments brought on screen, and one is entitled to wonder, for instance, whether the mother accuses the regime of “framing” her son, as the subtitles seem to indicate or is protesting that she could have helped his case and explain his acts, had she been given adequate time to prepare his defense.

Ying Liang, whose Taking Father Home was one of the more pleasant surprises in Rotterdam 2005, is certainly capable of much more.

Production company/sales: Jeonju International film Festival,

Produce: Ying Liang

Cinematography: Ryuji Otsuka

Editor: T Wai Wing

Main cast: An Nai, Kate Wen, Sue Ming

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