HKMDB Daily News

October 25, 2012

Feng Shui (Screen Daily review)

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Feng Shui
22 October, 2012
By Mark Adams

A powerful and absorbing drama driven by a quite wonderful lead performance by Beijing-born actress Yang Bingyan, Feng Shui is a strikingly fine film about the hardships of life. On paper it all sounds less than original, but director Wang Jung has crafted a memorable film that is likely to be picked up for art house distribution and is a shoe-in for festival awards.

The story of a working-class woman and how she deals with the hardships life throws at her – as well as the strident attitude she has to those around her – could so easily have veered into melodrama, but this is gripping family drama at its very best. The film had its world premiere at the Tokyo International Film Festival.

The lead character Li Baoli is a complex, charismatic, tough and aggressive figure, but thankfully Yang Bingyan (who featured in 2009’s Memory Of Love) brilliantly shoulders the film – quite literally in the second half, that sees her working as a market porter, carrying heavy packages on her shoulders – and delivers a wonderfully nuanced performance. Her character veers between sad and vitriolic, but she is never less than watchable.

The film opens delicately in the bedroom, with Ma Xuewu (Jiao Gang) brushing off the attentions of his wife Li Baoli. They are about to move to a new apartment the next day and they have to be up early he says. The next morning the film lays out their relationship.

She is a tough-talking woman who negotiates the moving cost, berates the movers and shouts at her husband and young son. Ma Xuewu’s middle-management job at a factory in Wuhan (this part of the film is set in the 1990s) has secured them the new flat, and Li Baoli’s confrontational manner is based on how she thinks she can control her husband and those around her.

On their first night in the new flat, though, Ma Xuewu announces he wants a divorce. In her own tough-love way she tries to win him round, but is till harsh to him, while she has little time for their son, with her only comments to him asking if he has done his homework.

Ma Xuewu starts to fall for a colleague at the factory, but Li Baoli suspects what he is up to and follows them to a hotel. In anger, she calls the police anonymously and says there is prostitution going on. The upshot is that he falls out of favour at the factory, eventually loses his job and decides to take the only way out he thinks open to him.

The film then switches forward 10 years. During this time Li Baoli has been working as a yoke-bearer porter in the market, using all the money she has to help her son’s education. But her constant working has driven a wedge between herself and her high-achiever son, and while she feels she is doing everything for him, he harbours anger about his father and as he readies himself to go to university decides he wants nothing more to do with his mother.

The working-class woman who sacrifices all often crops up in Chinese cinema, but Li Baoli is a refreshingly complex character. Beautiful but brittle, hard working but foul-mouthed and unable to see what is happening around her as she single-mindedly rolls up her sleeves and gets on with things. Yang Bingyan is wonderful in the role, making a seamless transition from passionate and angry young mother through to a stoical porter, weighed down by life.

The film’s title comes from comments by her best friend from her home village (a women who has an unhappy marriage with a wealthy man) who says Li Baoli’s new apartment has bad Feng Shui and that “10,000 arrows pierce the heart” of the flat. She blames the apartment – Li Baoli just puts it down to hardness of life.

Production company/sales: Beijing Antaeus Film Co Ltd.,

Screenplay: Wu Nan, based on the novel by Fang Fang

Cinematography: Liu Younian

Editor: Feng Wen

Production Designer: Bai Hao

Music: Yang Sil

Main cast: Yan Bingyan, Jiao Gang, Chen Gang

October 11, 2012

The Thieves (Hollywood Reporter review)

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The Thieves
by Deborah Young

The top-grossing Korean film of all time comes to the U.S. amid comparisons to “Ocean’s Eleven.”

A sparkling heist film tricked up with imaginative action scenes and 10 fully developed characters who keep the ball rolling, The Thieves is a stylish and entertaining caper. Dubbed South Korea’s answer to Ocean’s Eleven, the story does indeed revolve around a daring casino theft and a playful band of robbers, in this case all ace criminals.

Directed by heist-meister Choi Dong-hoon (The Big Swindle) and featuring a swinging A-list cast, it has topped 13 million domestic admissions to become the most-watched Korean film of all time.

Apart from generating a great deal of romantic chemistry, the glamorous cast of characters are as fast with barbed wit as they are nimble on their feet or, as the case might be, flying through the air, climbing up the side of a building or dangling by wires. The fact that each of them is memorably individualized marks a tribute to Choi and Lee Gi-cheol’s carefully penned screenplay as well as the acting talent. Adding a modern note, the actresses get equal time and respect as pros in their field.

Although the plot unfolds at the speed of light and the viewer needs to be very quick-witted to follow it, this isn’t Shakespeare, and missing out on a few story points won’t diminish the fun.

It all begins with a Korean gang’s plans for a big heist in Macau with a band of thieves from Hong Kong. Director Choi has a magician’s touch in keeping multiple balls in the air while making the impossible seem vaguely plausible. A big part of the sleight of hand is the joking tone of the dialogue and goofy action that always seems on the verge of cueing an entrance by Inspector Clouseau and the Pink Panther, as the action scenes get wilder and wilder and romances and betrayals get even more entangled. The technical work always hits the mark, with the musical score adding tension or ironic comment as needed.

Venue: Busan Film Festival
Opens in U.S.: Friday, Oct. 12 (Well Go USA)
Cast: Kim Yun-seok, Kim Hye-soo, Lee Jung-jae, Gianna Jun, Simon Yam, Kim Hae-sook
Director: Choi Dong-hoon No rating, 135 minutes

October 6, 2012

The Assassins (Screen Daily review)

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The Assassins

6 October, 2012
By Edmund Lee

Chow Yun-fat has been ageing gracefully in the past decade, and the Hong Kong star once again lends his bearded imperial impression to the generically titled The Assassins, the latest in a long line of movies that took a chapter out of the transitional period (around 220 AD) between China’s Han Dynasty and Three Kingdoms era, which is known throughout the Chinese-speaking world with its romanticised version, the classic novel Romance of the Three Kingdom, and its countless screen adaptations, with John Woo’s two-part Red Cliff among the most notable.

Opening locally in late September (right before China’s National Day holidays), Zhao Linshan’s directorial debut performed moderately in the mainland’s cinemas and made a disappointingly minor impact on the Hong Kong box office. A solid if unremarkable take on the final years of the famed warlord Cao Cao, this bleak historical tale could benefit significantly – at least for its upcoming overseas release – from the addition of new title cards explaining the historical context at the film’s start, as well as slowing down the existing one that concludes the film, which aims to explain the characters’ eventual fates but flashes by so quickly it’s near-unreadable to most viewers.

With the main action alternating between the royal capital Xudu and Cao’s estate in Yecheng, in which his military base, Bronze Sparrow Tower (also the Chinese title of the film), is situated, the film instead opens, about a decade ago, to a mysterious slave camp for captured children training to be future assassins of Cao.

Among these victims of fate are the good-looking Ling Ju (Liu Yifei, who provides the voiceover narration) and her childhood lover Mu Shun (Japanese actor Hiroshi Tamaki): the former, owing to her resemblance to the legendary beauty Diao Chan, is assigned to serve Cao personally, while the latter is castrated and sent to serve as a eunuch in the emperor’s court. The two would form an unlikely romantic triangle with Cao.

The lovebirds’ doomed affair, however, proves peripheral to the core of the tragedy: the vicious power struggle between Cao Cao (played by Chow), his son Cao Pi (Qiu Xin-zhi) and Emperor Xian of Han (Alec Su), the last emperor of the Han Dynasty whose frivolousness and incompetence has seen him indignantly become a nominal ruler and led Cao Cao to assume control over the empire. With the astrological prediction of an impending dynasty change lurking behind everyone’s mind, the film follows the assassination attempts by Emperor Xian’s strategists on Cao, often aided by the convenient lack of interference by his own son, who privately wants the throne to himself.

While it’s more concerned with its protagonists’ emotional agony than being an action-driven epic, which it isn’t, The Assassins (Tong Que Tai) – with Zhang Yimou’s regular cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding behind the camera – nonetheless has its moments of visual wonders, including exquisitely composed shots seen through opaque mirrors and a startling late-night scene in which assassins float on a web of tightropes in mid-air.

Zhao’s endeavour to paint Cao Cao as a flawed tyrant has made a sympathetic anti-hero out of Chow Yun-fat, even if his character’s unequivocal respect for his defeated former rivals, such as the great warriors Lv Bu (Diao Chan’s lover and, as a late twist reveals, Ling Ju’s birth father) and Guan Yu (whose fabled tale is most recently retold in The Lost Bladesman), is another aspect of this engaging tragedy that’s destined to be lost to an uninitiated audience.

Production companies: My Way Film Co Ltd, Intrend, Changchun, Co-creative Film, Enlight Pictures

International sales:

Producer: Lou Yi

Screenplay: Wang Hailin

Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoding

Art direction: Yohei Taneda

Action director: Li Donghao

Music: Shigeru Umebayashi

Main cast: Chow Yun-fat, Liu Yifei, Qiu Xin-zhi, Alec Su, Hiroshi Tamaki, Annie Yi

October 5, 2012

Cold War (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , , , — dleedlee @ 12:16 pm

Cold War
October, 2012
By Jason Bechervaise


Opening this year’s Busan Film Festival, Cold War is a refreshing Hong Kong crime thriller that provides enough enjoyment that should help secure a wider-audience, but suffers from an overly convoluted plot.

The film’s appeal is further expanded owing to the film’s local stars: Tony Leung Ka-fai (2005’s Election) and Aaron Kwok (Divergence, 2005), which should help drive sales across the Asian region and possibly further afield, but neither is able to deliver the necessary performances to make them stand out.

The film follows two Deputy Chiefs, Lau and Lee who are both seeking the top position on the Hong Kong police force. After five police officers are taken hostage, it’s left to Lau and Lee to solve the case, but they both have different approaches, which ultimately leads to failure. What ensures is a realization that they have become pawns in a more treacherous game.

After building a strong reputation for their contributions on a number of films, debut directors Longman Leung (credits include Vengeance, 2009) and Sunny Luk (who worked as an assistant director on 2006 film Isabella 2006) are keen to exploit their visual talents, which is evident throughout the duration. The film includes a number of well-executed set-pieces, but lacks a fine polish in places due to some rather poor CGI. Nevertheless, its strong and vibrant aesthetic does make up for some of the film’s flaws.

Produced by internationally renowned Bill Kong (Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon (2000), it has real potential to perform well in Asian markets, but its sloppy storytelling may hinder its success in some other territories.

Production Companies: Edko Films Limited, Stars Shine Blue Sea Productions Limited

World Sales: Edko Films Limited,

Producers: Bill Kong, Dai Song, Ryuhei Chiba, Hugh Simon.

Editor: Chi-Leung Kwong

Music: Peter Kam

Main Cast: : Tony Leung Ka-fai, Andy Lau, Aaron Kwok, Eddie Peng, Aarif Rahman, Charlie Young & Ka Tung Lam

October 4, 2012

Almost Perfect (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 8:14 pm

Almost Perfect
by Justin Lowe

Kelly Hu and Edison Chen co-star in a New York-set rom-com about a woman struggling to reconcile a budding romance with the expectations of her demanding family.

A decade after her 2002 debut Face, which starred Bai Ling, filmmaker Bertha Bay-Sa Pan returns with her sophomore release, a mildly amusing you-go-girl dramedy featuring Kelly Hu. Niche markets may respond to Hu’s name recognition and nostalgia for Pan’s first feature, while a supporting role for Hong Kong heartthrob and scandal-magnet Edison Chen suggests the film has some export potential in Asia, although domestic theatrical returns will likely be sparse.

Vanessa Lee (Hu) lavishes attention on her career as the nonprofit administrator of a music-education organization established by her reluctantly retiring dad (Roger Rees). Most of her free time appears to be devoted to placating her quarrelsome family, including her workaholic mom (Tina Chen), high-strung fashion-designer sister Charlene (Christina Chang) and irresponsible newlywed brother Andy (Edison Chen), who’s hiding out at her New York-borough loft after bailing on his recent marriage.

Mid-30s and still unmarried, Vanessa’s single state hardly spares her from her family members’ romantic disasters, which she’s constantly called upon to assuage, as her parents’ constant bickering runs their marriage aground, her sister’s commitment issues send men running, and her brother’s immaturity leaves him searching for any excuse to avoid returning to his jilted wife.

Despite the drama and dysfunctionality surrounding her, Vanessa gets the chance for a nearly normal relationship after she runs into Dwayne (Ivan Shaw), an old friend of her brother’s who’s still crushing on her years later. In no time they’re deep into coupledom, notwithstanding the aggravating distractions of Vanessa’s family, but when Dwayne starts talking about taking their relationship to a new level, it’s her chance to overcomplicate romance.

Pan showed a deft touch for character and tone with her drama Face, skills that are less evident here. While the broad outlines of a romantic comedy are identifiable, the schematic script has the feel of a TV sitcom that’s been shoehorned into a feature format with the requisite family conflict, boyfriend angst and career challenges. Pan gains points for her hesitancy to dwell on issues surrounding the characters’ ethnicity, but the lack of specificity and backstory also renders the narrative essentially generic.

Fortunately the filmmaking proves less distracting and although hardly distinguished it’s serviceable enough, although budget limitations begin to show around the edges with unremarkable production design and limited locations.

The performances are the film’s primary strength, particularly the casting of Hu in a nominally more serious dramatic role than her typical appearances, which she fills out nicely within the limitations of the script. Even with considerably less feature exposure, Shaw’s well-collected demeanor agreeably grounds his nice-guy character. Non-fans may barely register Edison Chen’s role, which goes from perfunctory to played-out with too few beats in between.

Editor Sheri Bylander neatly stitches together the conventionally shot footage, although an appealing indie-pop soundtrack could have been tasked to greater advantage.

Opens: Sept. 21 (Eleven Arts)
Production company: Slew Pictures
Cast: Kelly Hu, Ivan Shaw, Christina Chang, Tina Chen, Edison Chen, Roger Rees, Kristy Wu, Alice Callahan, Allison Mackie, Natalie Gold
Director/screenwriter: Bertha Bay-Sa Pan
Producers: Derrick Tseng, Riva Marker, Bertha Bay-Sa Pan
Executive producers: Jim Chu, Balazs Nyari, Eric Nyari
Director of photography: Sam Chase
Production designer: Wing Lee
Costume designer: Jenny Gering
Editor: Sheri Bylander
Music: Jeff Martin
Not Rated, 106 minutes

Cold War (Hollywood Reporter review)

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Cold War
by Deborah Young


The exciting Hong Kong actioner stars Tony Leung Ka-fai and Aaron Kwok as rival police commissioners.

BUSAN – When the main cop says “Cold War is a terrible title for this operation,” one can’t help feeling first-time writer-directors Leung Longman and Sunny Luk winking at the audience in this bold actioner with piquant political undertones.

Hidden, and not too subtly, amid the excitingly paced chases, explosions and shoot-outs is commentary on Hong Kong’s status, laws and changing identity 15 years after the oft-mentioned handover to China. Though the political metaphor is potentially controversial for Chinese orthodoxy, it’s a winning combination that should get both the critics and mainstream Asian audiences behind the film, and a particularly savvy choice to open the Busan Film Festival.

The style is pure quicksilver procedural, with much undigested plot thrown at the viewer at the speed of a don’t-look-back videogame. The main players are two deputy HK police commissioners: dapper hotshot Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok of Divergences) and hard-liner M.B. Lee (an unrecognizably aged Tony Leung Ka-fai of The Lover) who’s pushing retirement age. While the chief commissioner is out of the country, Lee has been appointed acting commissioner with all the enormous power it entails. Although both men want to work for the good of Hong Kong and the safety of its citizens, their conflicting perspectives explode over a serious crime that takes place in the opening scenes.

A bomb blasts through a crowded film theater. At almost the same time, an arrogant drunk driver speeds through the city’s freeways and totals his car. When a police van loaded with five cops arrives on the scene, it’s hi-jacked and vanishes from police radar. Despite all the expensive, sophisticated technology at their disposal, the police can’t find their own van. Lee’s son is among the kidnapped officers, raising concern he can’t act objectively. And so it seems: he hotly declares a major state of alert and then harshly refuses to let his press officer (straight-talking actress Charlie Yeung) release info to the public. This breach of “the rules” causes his rival Lau to step in with a legal stratagem, political support from above, and some arm-twisting.

A brief glimpse of an officer using water torture on a suspect during interrogation at police HDQ passes as routine, but raises uncomfortable questions. Yet in general, the HK police are portrayed as hyper-efficient and far less corrupt than in most American TV series. True, there is one bad apple in the barrel, a mole who is passing info to the criminals, but he will be caught and punished.

So there are no angels on either side, but most viewers will realize they are meant to side with the good-looking, ever-serious Lau, who is now in charge of “operation Cold War.” His mentor, the Secretary of Security for the Hong Kong Security Bureau (played by star Andy Lau in a brief cameo), gives him full powers, but there’s something even above him – the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC), established under British rule and Commonwealth laws. Their investigation into how the crisis was handled overrides everyone else. It’s put in the hands of a young, brilliant, maddeningly green hotshot (actor-singer Aarif Rahman) who arrests first Lau and then Lee before learning “the rules of the game.” This conflict between institutional powers becomes a running theme, even as the fast and furious action scenes continue.

In the role of Lau, Kwok projects wide-eyed earnestness, though he wins sympathy points for being constantly forced to make hard decisions, especially after a huge ransom is demanded for the missing cops. Whereas Tony Leung plays up Lee’s Marine sergeant style, like sending a SWAT team to storm a suspicious ship in the harbor, Kwok’s Lau foregoes the muscle and uses logic and deduction to outwit his mysterious opponents. Lau’s monotonous seriousness and Lee’s unflinching toughness both signal their integrity, however.

It can be said in the film’s favor that it is a rare example of genre in which the death of a minor character pulls the heartstrings, thanks to its being underplayed. It is an even rarer in characterizing people by the books they’re reading. This invention-within-convention bodes well for the future of tyro directors Leung (an award-winning production designer) and Luk (a well-known assistant director) both working under the guidance of veteran producer Bill Kong.

Their understanding of on-screen action keeps tension high scene after scene, blending confidently into character development and their reflections on Hong Kong’s balance of power. What doesn’t gel is the overly complicated plot that becomes an impossible challenge to untangle as the story progresses. A climactic scene involving fireworks exploding on the roof of a tall building is totally baffling and looks tacked on, though it is spectacularly shot.

D.P.s Jason Kwan and Kenny Tse drain the color out of the cinematography, leaving only shades of gray, but their sweeping crane and aerial shots of nighttime Hong Kong and its neon-lit buildings are gorgeous and exciting. Action work is heart-stoppingly professional, pumped up by Peter Kam’s over-used score that sounds a bit like Bernard Hermann on steroids.

Venue: Busan Film Festival (opening film), Oct. 4, 2012
Production companies: Edko Film, Stars Shine Blue Sea Productions
Cast: Tony Leung Ka-Fai, Aaron Kwok, Andy Lau, Eddie Peng, Aarif Rahman, Charlie Yeung, Lam Ka Tung, Chin Ka Lok, On Andy, Yin Terence
Directors: Leung Longman, Sunny Luk
Screenwriters: Leung Longman, Sunny Luk
Producers: William Kong, Matthew Tang, Ivy Ho, Catherine Kwan
Executive producers: William Kong, Song Dai, Chiba Ryuhei
Director of photography: Jason Kwan, Kenny Tse
Production designer: Alex Mok
Costumes: Stephanie Wong
Editor: Kwong Chi-Leung
Music: Peter Kam
Sales Agent: Edko Films
No rating, 102 minutes

October 2, 2012

Due West: Our Sex Journey 3D (Variety review)

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Due West: Our Sex Journey 3D


A China 3D Digital Entertainment (in Hong Kong)/Dream Movie Australia (in Australia) release of a China 3D Digital Entertainment production. (International sales: China 3D Digital Distribution, Hong Kong.) Produced by Christopher Sun. Directed by Mark Wu. Screenplay, Lam Fung, Wu, based on the online story “Dongguan Wood” by Xiang Xi Murakami Haruki.

With: Justin Cheung, Gregory Wong, Mark Wu, Mo Qi Wen, Celia Kwok, Jeana Ho, Jessica Kizaki, Daniella Wang, Eva Li, Angelina Zhang, Tony Ho, Lily Ng, Sit Lap Yin, Wylie Chiu. (Cantonese, Mandarin, English, Japanese dialogue)

Opening as a reasonably amusing “American Pie”-like account of a randy Hong Kong teenager’s sexual awakening, “Due West: Our Sex Journey 3D” gradually becomes flaccid as its protag enters adulthood and seeks fulfillment in bawdy houses on the mainland. A parade of buxom beauties in birthday suits guarantees robust domestic and regional B.O. for this China Digital Entertainment production, but pedestrian scripting and direction make it unlikely to outperform the company’s 2011 hit, “3D Sex and Zen: Extreme Ecstasy.” Pic opened Sept. 20 in H.K., Australia and New Zealand. North American release details are pending.

Like “Sex and Zen,” “Due West” can expect to attract auds from mainland China, where, owing to censorship issues, the film is not skedded for release. In a novel marketing approach recalling bygone days of gender-segregated, exploitation-movie tent shows, some Hong Kong cinemas will be offering “women only” screenings.

The source material is a popular series of Internet stories by pseudonymous author Xiang Xi Murakami Haruki that satirized conservative Hong Kong society while drawing attention to the sex industry in nearby mainland city Dongguan.

Narrating the story of his life thus far, twentysomething Frankie (Justin Cheung) first appears as the nerdy teenage son of a disciplinarian mother (Lily Ng) and subservient father (Tony Ho). Driven by raging hormones and supplied with adult viewing material by cool buddy Wang Jing (Sit Lap Yin), Frankie feeds his sexual fantasies via Japanese adult-video star Jessica Kizaki before losing his virginity in a drunken haze that ruins a budding romance with nice girl Zoey (Mo Qi Wen).

The humor here is more cheeky than raunchy, with the notable exception of a very funny gross-out scene in which Frankie’s onanistic activities wreak havoc at a family mahjong game. Laughs are in much shorter supply once Frankie enters his 20s and finds himself stuck in a sexually frustrating relationship with clean-freak Zeta (Celia Kwok). Reunited with Wang Jing (now played by Gregory Wong) and egged on by gas-bag co-worker James (helmer and co-scripter Mark Wu), Frankie winds up in Dongguan bordellos, where he beds a succession of beautiful working girls including Fish (Jeana Ho) and Celia (Daniella Wang).

Screenplay by Wu and Lam Fung at least attempts to wedge some analysis of male-female relationships between bedroom bouts, but Frankie’s commentary on the meaning of his frisky behavior and longing for true love has a bland, heard-it-all-before ring to it. Thesping is adequate, even though the cast consists almost exclusively of models with limited acting experience, but the name of the game here is naked flesh, and the pic keeps its promise with a bountiful supply of bodacious bodies.

Acquiring a sheen lacking when the actors are clothed, Howard Cheung’s stereoscopic photography of intimate activity shows the spectacle in simple, effective wide shots and avoids disorienting closeups that helped kill off the first wave of 3D skin pics in the ’70s. Other technical elements are OK.

Camera (color, HD, 3D), Howard Leung; editor, Cheng Wai Lun; music, Victor Tse; art director, Tony Yu; costume designer, Rennie Tse; sound (stereo), Ken Wong, Ip Siu-kei; 3D director, Henry Chung; visual effects, Legendtoonland; associate producer, Allen Chan; assistant directors, Amen Liu, Brenda Wong. Reviewed at Palace Nova Eastend Cinema, Adelaide, Sept. 20, 2012. Running time: 119 MIN.

October 1, 2012

Life of Pi (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 6:01 pm

Life of Pi

A 20th Century Fox release of a Fox 2000 Pictures presentation in association with Dune Entertainment and Ingenious Media of a Haishang Films/Gil Netter production in association with Big Screen Prods. and Ingenious Film Partners. Produced by Netter, Ang Lee, David Womark. Executive producer, Dean Georgaris. Co-producer, David Lee. Directed by Ang Lee. Screenplay, David Magee, based on the novel by Yann Martel.

Pi Patel - Suraj Sharma
Adult Pi Patel - Irrfan Khan
Gita Patel - Tabu
Writer - Rafe Spall
Cook - Gerard Depardieu

A literal crouching tiger is merely one of many visual wonders in Ang Lee’s “Life of Pi,” a gently transporting work of all-ages entertainment that melds a harrowing high-seas adventure with a dreamy meditation on the very nature of storytelling. Summoning the most advanced digital-filmmaking technology to deliver the most old-fashioned kind of audience satisfaction, this exquisitely beautiful adaptation of Yann Martel’s castaway saga has a sui generis quality that’s never less than beguiling, even if its fable-like construction and impeccable artistry come up a bit short in terms of truly gripping, elemental drama.

Following its opening-night world premiere at the New York Film Festival, the Nov. 21-slated Fox release should find itself in exceedingly friendly B.O. waters at home and abroad. That the film was lensed in 3D should further boost its prospects, and discerning viewers will be pleased to note that the format has been used here to artistically as well as commercially productive ends.

Published in 2001, Martel’s Booker Prize-winning bestseller was widely deemed unfilmable due to its allegorical thrust and, more crucially, its prolonged focus on a teenage boy and a tiger spending 227 days adrift in the Pacific. Fortunately, Lee and scribe David Magee (”Finding Neverland”) have extracted the book’s inherently cinematic qualities, turning Martel’s vivid wildlife descriptions into a feast for the eyes; the film’s sheer beauty is so overwhelming, so vibrant in its use of color, as to become almost cloying at times.

The visual lushness is apparent from the opening shots of Pondicherry, India, a former French colony where Santosh Patel (Adil Hussain) and his wife (Tabu) operate a zoo. The younger of their two sons is Piscine (played by Gautam Belur and Ayush Tandon at ages 5 and 11, respectively), a bright, curious child whose sense of mischief is tempered by his unusual reverence for God.

The humorous highlights of the boy’s upbringing — how he wisely shortens his name to Pi and becomes a devout Hindu, Christian and Muslim — are recounted by his middle-aged, modern-day counterpart (Irrfan Khan). Dreamlike dissolves help ease the script’s shifts between past and present, which feel clunky and prosaic even as they lay the groundwork for the slippery metaphysical questions that will arise later.

Fortunately, the framing device disappears almost entirely at the 40-minute mark, as the story proper starts and the picture truly begins to cast a spell. Having decided to sell the zoo and move to Canada, the Patels find themselves, along with a few remaining animals, aboard a Japanese freighter that swiftly capsizes in a thunderstorm, leaving 17-year-old Pi (Suraj Sharma) the sole human survivor as he manages to climb into a lifeboat.

It’s an astonishing sequence, rendered all the more so by the lucidity of the direction; rather than resorting to herky-jerky lensing and editing, Lee uses relatively long takes, smooth cuts and seamlessly integrated f/x to navigate the viewer through the action. Even as the waves heave and roll (to especially fearsome effect in 3D), the film finds room for isolated moments of haunting poetry, such as the sight of the ship’s ghostly white lights descending into the abyss.

Once the storm retreats, Pi realizes a few zoo denizens have made it onto the lifeboat, although the food chain soon dictates that the only remaining animal onboard is a ferocious 450-pound Bengal tiger, incongruously named Richard Parker. Pi realizes he’s going to have to tame the tiger, a thinly veiled metaphor for his own inner beast, and as the days stretch into weeks and months, the relationship between these two unlikely companions shifts movingly, and almost imperceptibly, from mutual wariness into something as close to love as the laws of interspecies friendship can allow.

Despite such severe dramatic limitations, there’s no shortage of incident and surprise, even when Lee isn’t rattling the audience with shots of the tiger lunging at the camera. The film’s engrossing, often amusing midsection amounts to a practical illustration of survival-at-sea strategies, as Pi constructs a raft that provides some physical distance and protection from Richard Parker and finds ways to supplement his dwindling store of water and rations. Sharma, a non-pro making a terrifically engaging screen debut, underwent considerable weight fluctuations for the role, and he compellingly manifests Pi’s physical sufferings while maintaining a persuasive rapport with his four-legged co-star (achieved almost entirely through CGI and modeled after four actual Bengal tigers).

Lee and d.p. Claudio Miranda approach the technical challenges with similarly intense commitment. Shooting in the world’s largest self-generating wave tank (with a capacity of 1.7 million gallons), they turn their visual restrictions into virtues. The nimbly circling camera is forever finding compelling angles on the action, sometimes bobbing gently above and below the water’s surface, conveying a sense of perpetual motion that might test some of the more sensitive stomachs in the audience. Yet the images just as often have a classical stillness and grandeur, as in a scene of bioluminescent fish illuminating the water at night, or an otherworldly shot of the boat gliding atop the ocean’s smooth, glassy surface.

In these moments, “Life of Pi” embodies its protagonist’s spiritual devotion, infusing a tale of peril, isolation and loss with a genuine sense of grace and awe at the majesty of creation. The overall effect of such exalted yet artificially achieved visuals is to loose the boundaries of conventional realism and steer the picture into a magically heightened realm, immersing the viewer in the story without losing sight of the fact that a story, in fact, is all it is.

For all the splendor of the craftsmanship on display, from David Gropman’s eye-popping production design to Mychael Danna’s Indian-inflected score, what’s missing is a certain in-the-moment urgency. Compressing nearly eight months into roughly 75 minutes of screentime is a tricky task, and one never gets a sense of the agonizing duration of Pi’s experience, especially since the film tastefully sidesteps most of the raw, physically extreme details that made the novel so visceral. As much as it teems with color and creativity, “Life of Pi” could have used a bit more grit, substance and a touch of the grotesque. Even its warm-hearted plea for religious faith feels, in the end, like so much pantheistic fairy dust.

The film was reviewed from an unfinished print (identical to the version that will play NYFF) with complete end credits and excellent sound and picture quality, apart from some infrequent aspect-ratio disparities that will likely be finessed before release.

Camera (Deluxe color, 3D), Claudio Miranda; editor, Tim Squyres; music, Mychael Danna; production designer, David Gropman; supervising art director, Dan Webster; art directors, Al Hobbs, James F. Truesdale; set designers, Easton Smith, Sarah Contant, Huei Chen, Huei-li Liao, James Hewitt; set decorator, Anna Pinnock; sound (Dolby/Datasat/SDDS), Drew Kunin; sound designer, Eugene Gearty; supervising sound editors, Gearty, Philip Stockton; re-recording mixers, D.M. Hemphill, Ron Barlett; visual effects producer, Susan MacLeod; visual effects, Rhythm & Hues Studios, MPC, BUF Compagnie, Crazy Horse Effects, Lola VFX; survival/marine consultant, Steve Callahan; tiger trainer/consultant, Thierry Le Portier; stunt coordinator, Charlie Croughwell; associate producers, Michael J. Malone, Kevin Buxbaum; assistant directors, William M. Connor, Cliff Lanning. Reviewed at 20th Century Fox Studios, Los Angeles, Sept. 27, 2012. (In New York Film Festival — opener.) Running time: 125 MIN.

All Apologies (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — dleedlee @ 5:55 pm

All Apologies
28 September, 2012
By Fionnuala Halligan
Dir: Emily Tang. China. 2012. 88mins

Emily Tang hones in on the tragedy provoked by China’s one-child policy - or, at least, the once-child way of thinking - in the old-fashioned, somewhat faded All Apologies, a film which feels dated in its treatment even while being apparently based on true modern-day events.

Not a million miles away from the “womens’ films” of the 1940s and ‘50s in both style and content, All Apologies is set in a small village in Guangxi province and the city of Guilin in Southern China, an unusual shooting locale chosen by Tang, a Chinese director who splits her time between Beijing and Hong Kong.

Tang last produced A Perfect Life in 2009, a film that was backed by Jia Jianke and selected for several major festivals. The no-frills All Apologies bowed in competition in San Sebastian and without much in the way of vigor or immediacy, seems destined for festival sidebars and perhaps as a cautionary tale in domestic screenings.

Yonggui (Cheng Taishen) is a well-to-do construction foreman first seen enrolling his young son Zhuang in the city’s top school - his wife Yun Zhen stays in the village where cheeky yong Zhuang is a reluctant scholar.

Their neighbours across the road are Quaoyu (Yang Shuting) and Henan, the considerably less-affluent parents of little girl Yaya, who barely make a living running their grocery store. In unfortunate accident, in which all the participants are clearly blameless, Henan’s vehicle over-turns, killing Zhuang and all but crippling the taciturn shopkeeper.

Much screaming ensues through the village, and eventually a judgment is made that a payment of 120,000 yuan will settle the score, but the long-suffering Quaiyu and Henan don’t have even a tenth of that to pay their affluent neighbours. Yonggui, meanwhile, realises he won’t have another child as his wife has been sterilised - so he rapes Quaiyu with the hope of getting her pregnant, believing the resulting child will compensate for the loss of Zhuang. He succeeds.

Acting credits are adequate throughout All Apologies, and production values solid but unremarkable, despite the odd flash of Chinese scenery in the village juxtaposed with the rivers of Guilin. Tang does succeed in humanising the plight of all those onscreen, but All Apologies is a drama without much underlying heft, or, surprisingly given the events which transpire, emotional resonance.

Production company: Sunny Sky Culture And Media Investment

International sales: PAD (Producers Alliance for Distribution),

Producer: Yiang Jian

Screenplay: Emily Tang

Cinematography: Lai Yiu-fai

Editor: Baek Seung-hoon

Production designer: William Kwok

Music: Roger Lin

Main cast: Cheng Taishen, Tang Shuting, Liang Jing, Gao Jin

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