HKMDB Daily News

November 26, 2012

Feng Shui (Variety review)

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Tokyo
Feng shui

(China)
By ROB NELSON
Nov. 26, 2012

A Beijing Antaeus Film Co. production. Produced by Dong Ruifeng, Wang Qiuyang, Zhang Huijun, Mu Tiejun. Executive producers, Yan Xiaoming, Zhang Baoquan, Xie Xiaojing. Directed by Wang Jing. Screenplay, Wu Nan, from a novel by Fang Fang.
With: Yan Bingyan, Jiao Gang, Chen Gang. (Mandarin dialogue)

Grimmer as it goes, “Feng shui” begins as a black comedy about a wife’s hilariously extreme intolerance of her milquetoast hubby before segueing into a sacrificial-mom meller a la “Stella Dallas.” Set in the Chinese city of Wuhan in the ’90s, Wang Jing’s handsomely appointed pic won’t convert nonbelievers in soap operatics, but the suitably immoderate dedication of Yan Bingyan in the lead is impressive indeed, and those with a taste for tales of mothers who give all to their brood while getting nada in return will be well rewarded. The film’s snail-like pace could well prevent wide exposure, however.

Though a friend of the movie’s crabby, yoke-bearing heroine, Li Baoli (Yan), suggests that bad feng shui might be to blame for her poor relations with husband Ma Xuewe (Jiao Gang), the director leaves little doubt as to why Xuewe runs into the arms of another woman. A startling midpoint twist reformulates the family’s dynamics to emphasize Baoli’s devotion to the scholastic success of her kid — who, in pure women’s picture fashion, loathes his working-stiff mom and the very yoke that feeds him. Tech credits are, ironically or not, upper-class.

Camera (color, widescreen), Liu Younian; editor, Feng Wen; music, Yang Sili; production designer, Bai Hao; sound, Wang Changrui. Reviewed at Tokyo Film Festival (competing), Oct. 22, 2012. Running time: 119 MIN.

Variety

An End to Killing (Variety review)

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An End to Killing
Zhi sha
(China-South Korea-Japan)
By MAGGIE LEE
Nov. 26, 2012

A Universal Pictures Intl. Entertainment (in France/U.K.) release of a Shandong Film Studio, China Film Co., Shandong Wohan Culture and Media Co., Shandong Film & TV Group Co. presentation of a Shandong Film Studio, China Film Co., Shandong Wohan Culture and Media Co., Shandong Film & TV Group Co., SCS Entertainment production, in association with Inner Mongolia Film Studio, Ningxia Film Group. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Wang Ping, Ring Wang, Shen Wugang. Executive producers, Shen Wugang, Yoo Eun-jung. Co-producers, Satoru Iseki, Lee Joo-ick. Directed by Wang Ping. Screenplay, Ran Ping.

With: Zhao Youliang, Tu Men, Park Ye-jin, Geng Le, Yu Shaoqun, Li Xiaoran.
(Mandarin, Mongolian, Khitan, Uyghur, Kyrgyz dialogue)

A fascinating historical anecdote about a Taoist priest’s mission to halt Genghis Khan’s conquests is recounted in ponderous textbook fashion in mainland Chinese helmer Wang Ping’s “An End to Killing.” Despite its pacifist claims, this 13th-century saga revels in military regalia, bloody battles and martial rumbles; just as well, since the ideals of “children and world peace” spouted here are as generic as those voiced by Miss Universe contestants. Nevertheless, the breathtaking natural vistas and lavish production values impressed Universal Pictures Intl. Entertainment enough to acquire this $12 million Chinese-Korean-Japanese co-production for release in France and the U.K.

In 1217, an aging Genghis Khan (Tu Men) leads his invincible army, pushing westward from an empire that extends from Mongolia to Afghanistan. As he cradles his young grandson on his horse, he imparts to him his “eye for an eye” credo, even as his troops succumb to the bubonic plague, shown in a stunning image of soldiers toppling from their horses like dominoes. Still, the incorrigible conqueror refuses to accept the inevitability of death, and dispatches a convoy to China to request the counsel of Qiu Chuji (Zhao Youliang), a Taoist priest believed to know the path to immortality.

The convoy, led by Gen. Liu Zhonglu (Geng Le), rolls into Shandong province, where the reclusive Qiu is less than thrilled by the invitation. Though rumored to be more than 300 years old, the septuagenarian Qiu has nonetheless divined that he’s got only 300 more days to live. When Liu threatens to raze his village, the priest reluctantly agrees to accompany them, along with disciple Dao’an (Yu Shaoqun, “Forever Enthralled”), bringing a coffin as luggage.

The roughly 12,000-mile journey takes two years, and will feel nearly as long for auds, spanning half the film’s running time. Arduous as it seems, it also reps the story’s most entertaining segment. An encounter with a voluptuous Khitan innkeeper (Li Xiaoran) channels the intrigues of “Dragon Inn,” followed by two ferocious fight sequences against Uyghur assassins that make effective use of rugged, mountainous terrain. Equestrians will delight in setpieces featuring thousands of horses in spectacular motion.

Liu the haughty warrior also becomes likably humbled in the company of Qiu, who teaches him to respect life by honoring death. Their exchanges render the later ones between Qiu and the Khan somewhat redundant; in fact, the eventual meeting of these two polar opposites generates no sparks, due not only to the platitudinous dialogue, but also to the film’s chauvinistic notion of Han Chinese “civilizing” warlords. Thankfully, Qiu’s role in the reconciliation of a rift between Khan and his beautiful, passive-aggressive wife (played with glacial melancholy by Korean thesp Park Ye-jin) lends some substance to their relationship.

While Tu lends Khan a majestic countenance of inscrutable composure, Zhao leaves a faint impression as the venerated sage. It doesn’t help that Ran Ping’s inconsistent screenplay sets out to de-mythologize a figure popularized in martial-arts novels such as Louis Cha’s “Legend of the Condor Heroes,” yet makes him perform all kinds of hocus-pocus for dramatic effect.

Tech credits are sterling, except for some gratuitous and shoddy CGI. The scenery of rare locations in Ningxia, Gansu and Inner Mongolia, captured by Sun Ming’s old-school lensing, is a wonder to behold. Plaintive Mongolian songs are expressively integrated into Japanese composer Kenji Kawai’s too-dominant score.

The Chinese title comes from a quote by Qing Emperor Qianlong, who praised Qiu for “stopping slaughter with a single utterance.”

Camera (color, widescreen), Sun Ming; editors, Zhan Haihong, Stanley Tam; music, Kenji Kawai; production designer, Tong Yonggang; costume designer, Na Risu; sound (Dolby 5.1), Wang Danrong; re-recording mixer, Zhu Yanfeng; dance choreographer, Wu Lanhua; visual effects, Mofac Studio, Madman; action directors, Oh Sea-young, Jiao Xiaoyu. Reviewed at Busan Film Festival (A Window on Asian Cinema), Oct. 5, 2012. Running time: 108 MIN.
Variety

November 18, 2012

Judge Archer (Screen Daily review)

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Judge Archer
by DAN FAINARU
NOV. 18, 2012

Dir: Xu Haofeng. China. 2012. 95mins

An art house kung fu movie may sound like a contradiction in terms, but it is the only fair way to describe this ambitious production, with its remarkable art work, spectacular locations, fine cinematography, lively musical score and featuring a number of interesting themes, all of it bogged down by a broken narrative that defies all the rules of continuity. Some may appreciate the challenges writer-director Xu Haofeng takes on – as well as his partial achievements - but even they will finally have to concede he does not succeed completely.

Similar to the approach of Westerns portraying the end of the Wild West era and everything it symbolised, Judge Archer, which takes place in the early part of the 20th century, deals with the end of the martial arts age, when the highly sophisticated ancient traditions where brutally pushed aside in China by the introduction of gunfire and explosives. No longer a necessary art or science, its usefulness obliterated by more radical means of destruction, kung-fu lost its significance only to be resuscitated by the movies towards the end of that century in a far more flamboyant version through the work of such stars as Bruce Lee and other.

Xu, a novelist and a researcher on this subject goes back to what, according to him, is the authentic kung-fu, a minimalist version far removed from the show-off performances of his screen predecessors. Taking place in the early days of the Chinese republic, the plot follows a young man (Song Yang) who escapes from his village after being cruelly beaten up and witnessing the rape of his sister by the local Landlord.

He finds refuge in a monastery where he is calmed down and on his being released, he lands the riskiest job of them all – he becomes the Judge Archer, the arbitrator whose role is to settle down the conflicts between the various Martial Arts Academies, each one of them serving a different war lord. Needless to say, this means not only must he be wise, just and impartial but also able to defeat anyone who might dispute his decisions.

Though the film never makes it clear how interested this Judge Archer is in any aspect of justice, it certainly explores his fascination with the opposite sex. Erdong (Yenny Martin), no mean fighter herself, using such varied weapons as a piece of string and a dagger, wants him to revenge the death her father, while another, Yue Yahong (Li Chengyuan), a Chinese opera singer and no fighter at all, just flashes happy and sad smiles, but also proves to be as deadly dangerous as the other.

How all these elements link together remains pretty much of a mystery all through the film, and why some people are fighting others is rarely clear, but at least Judge Archer and several of his opponents are given ample chance to display their dexterity at kung-fu duels, and once in a while they are even allowed to use their lances. The techniques of archery are mentioned, but any great displays of sheer acrobatic virtuosity is strictly banned. Explosions at the end suggest martial arts have outlived their purpose, but why this should happen is never clear.

The truth is that many of the answers can be found in the press book accompanying the film, providing ample explanations about the political and military strife in the country. But since press books are not distributed along with the admissions to the paying audience, placing them in a press book is not good enough. Though there could be no complaint with regards the look of the film and the way each individual scene is staged and directed, the final job of putting it all together still remains unpolished with even the performers seemingly rather stunned by the roles they perform.

Production company: Beijing MTM Cultural Media

International sales: Golden Networks Asia, www.goldnetasia.com

Producer: Xie Run

Cinematography: Tony Wang

Production designer: Xie Yong

Music: An Wei, Wang Fan

Main cast: Song Yang, Yu Chenghui, Li Chengyuan, Yenny Martin, Zhao Cheng
ScreenDaily

Drug War (Variety review)

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Drug War
Du shan

(Hong Kong-China)
By BOYD VAN HOEIJ

A Milkyway Film production in association with Beijing Hairun Pictures, Huaxua Film Distribution, CCTV 6 Movie Channel. (International sales: Media Asia, Hong Kong.) Produced by Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai. Executive producers, Liu Yanming, Gu Guoqing, Yan Xiaoming. Directed by Johnnie To. Screenplay, Wai Ka-fai, Yau Nai-hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi.
With: Sun Honglei, Louis Koo, Huang Yi, Gao Yungxiang, Wallace Chung, Hao Ping, Gan Tingting, Cheng Taishen, Li Zhenqi, Guo Tao, Li Jing, Xiao Cong, Gao Xin. (Mandarin dialogue)

Hong Kong action maestro Johnnie To takes his genre filmmaking savvy to the mainland in “Drug War,” a nail-biter that’s actually quite light on action but so well-scripted and shot, it’s nonetheless edge-of-your-seat material. Co-penned by regular collaborator and fellow Milkyway producer Wai Ka-fai, To’s procedural follows a group of Chinese cops who get a busted drug-factory owner to work with them on a complex sting operation in and around Tianjin, China’s fourth-largest metropolis. More realistic than the helmer’s prior actioners, the pic should prove a refreshingly different good time for To’s genre fans worldwide.

Billed as the director’s first action film set in mainland China (his recent romantic comedies already crossed the border), “Drug War” doesn’t much feel like his Hong Kong-set crimers (”Election,” “Sparrow”), despite the fact that it stars To regular Louis Koo (convincingly dubbed into Mandarin). Violence is only sparingly used, reportedly to comply with censorship rules, and what’s there isn’t particularly stylized, in keeping with the film’s generally gritty tone.

The always reliable Koo plays Timmy Choi, whose amphetamine production plant has exploded, and who’s now on the run, literally foaming at the mouth. A scene in which he loses control of his car and crashes into a glass-fronted restaurant is about as action-packed as the film gets in the first hour. Instead, To pays minute attention to a covert anti-drug operation overseen by Capt. Zhang (mainland star Sun Honglei, “Lethal Hostage”), who recruits Choi — who’s facing the death penalty — so police can trace his pipeline.

The early going effectively crosscuts between Choi’s increasingly erratic driving before his crash and an elaborate operation run by Zhang’s team at a highway tollbooth, where a bus full of drug mules is intercepted. The subsequent scene at a hospital, where Timmy is taken following his accident, and where police are forcing the mules to, um, extricate their smuggled goods, brings the two stories together and underlines To’s commitment to detailed realism.

The film’s midsection sees Choi introduce Zhang to his contacts in two subsequent meetings, with Zhang adopting a false identity in both encounters. The setup is impressively constructed and written, especially the inspired idea to let Zhang play the shady figure he’s met in the first meeting, the hysterically laughing Brother Haha (Hao Ping), during the second rendezvous, offering Sun the perfect opportunity to show off his acting chops. To’s directorial mastery also comes into full view here, infusing a real sense of menace, tension and even humor into two long scenes that essentially show a small group of people sitting around a table talking.

Shot in cold-paletted widescreen by To’s regular d.p., Cheng Siu-keung, the pic offers some visual spectacle in one scene set in Tianjin’s enormous seaport, where all the boats are ordered to move out at the same time, and in another featuring a shootout at a factory run by deaf-mute employees (Guo Tao, Li Jing). This latter sequence is staged sans musical accompaniment, almost skirting documentary territory. That said, the pic generates some laughs, courtesy of Brother Haha’s over-the-top behavior, as well as the deaf-mutes, and an almost farcical subplot involving two stoned drivers (Xiao Cong, Gao Xin). Though they provide comic relief, these storylines tend to undermine the otherwise matter-of-fact tone.

To is more interested in the nuts and bolts of high-level police work than in getting auds inside the heads of the characters, and he plays things in a coolly detached mode throughout, a feeling further reinforced by the film’s bleak wintry settings. This clinically observant approach is particularly clear in the prolonged final shootout, which deliberately ignores the usual rules about the fates of heroes vs. villains, and also tastefully refrains from exploiting a dramatic situation to manipulate audience sympathies. The result simply feels arbitrary and messy, and therefore all the more real.

Tech package is top-drawer, with Xavier Jameux’s percussion-heavy score further helping to maintain rhythm and tension.

Camera (color, widescreen, 35mm-to-HD), Cheng Siu-keung; editors, David Richardson, Allen Leung; music, Xavier Jameux; production designer, Horace Ma; costume designer, Boey Wong; sound (Dolby Digital), Ricky Yip; line producer, Elaine Chu; action director, Yick Tin Hung; second unit director, Soi Cheang; assistant directors, Lo Kam Fu, Jeff Cheung, Jack Lai; casting, Ma Jie, Guo Zhongyu. Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (competing), Nov. 14, 2012. Running time: 105 MIN.
Variety

November 16, 2012

Drug War (Hollywood Reporter review)

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Drug War
11/16/2012 by Deborah Young

In Drug War, Hong Kong genre master Johnnie To gives a superlative lesson on how to give an updated, thoroughly engrossing twist to the classic cops-and-robbers chase. Following his relatively action-less financial thriller Life Without Principle (currently Hong Kong’s nominee for Oscar candidacy), To cuts a sweet slice of genre cake that pits the balletic efficiency of police operatives against the wiles of organized crime lords and leaves few characters standing by its bloody end. The first action film To has shot in mainland China, it brings a reported budget of $16 million of cool to the mainland, where drug stories are very, very rare. Shot and acted with flair, it has the look of a potential hit for its opener in China and HK this December. Genre film or not, its premiere raised the temperature of competition at the Rome Film Festival considerably.

Reteaming with his regular screenwriter and co-producer Wai Ka-fai (A Hero Never Dies, Fulltime Killer), To cuts to the chase, as it were, jettisoning all plot elements that don’t directly relate the battle of Sphinx-like police captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) and his nemesis, the handsome young drug lord Timmy Choi (Louis Koo.) Choi is introduceed in a simple but highly effective opening scene, weaving down the highway at high speed while foaming at the mouth, until he crashes through the glass walls of a restaurant in a spectacular end-of-ride.

Elsewhere, a dilapidated bus approaches a highway toll booth, under the watchful eye of a foxy young woman attendant, Xiao Bei (Crystal Huang.) Suddenly, the poor-looking bus passengers panic and make a run for it, and she leaps out to lead a surprise anti-drug operation, capturing them all. They have swallowed capsules of something potent and are made to painfully expel them while unsympathetic cops look on.

The stone-faced Xiao Bei, it turns out, works for Capt. Zhang, who head one of the coolest undercover narcotics teams on film. Telling Choi he’s sure to get the death sentence (in China it seems that producing 50 grams is sufficient, and he’s manufactured tons), they convince him to play ball and walk Zhang and Xiao Bei into the lion’s den. Masquerading as the jovial mega-drug dealer HaHa (Hao Ping) and his moll-wife, the two cops infiltrate a top level meeting in a swanky hotel, surrounded by an organization whose choreographed efficiency would make M’s MI6 blush. Switching costumes and hotel rooms with split-second timing, the police look like a regimented version of the Oceans Eleven team, complete with micro-cameras on cigarette holders.
Zhang discovers Choi runs a secret drug lab on the outskirts of the city, where an explosion has killed his wife and her brothers. Only later do the police uncover a second hidden factory where Choi’s loyal team of deaf-mutes fabricate the white stuff (whether heroin or coke is of little import to the story.)

The action proceeds at a consistently fast pace, pushed by the pulsating beat of Xavier Jamaux’s music with barely space for a breather. Choi’s battered face begs the police to believe he’s on their side, but his shifty eyes speak otherwise. A harbor sequence confirms the screenplay’s ability to re-invent genre clichés in a last, tension-heavy masquerade where $30 million in heroin gets bartered in the midst of a fleet of fishing boats.

The satisfying end takes place in a wild and woolly shoot-out in front of an elementary school, a bloodbath so punishing that the good guys and bad guys can hardly be distinguished anymore. Perhaps that’s the point, however: the thing the links the cops’ silent teamwork and the criminals’ ruthless organization is the blinders they wear, excluding everything from their line of sight except their “mission.”

While the cast plays dead serious, etching their very distinct characters through action, To takes a playful approach shuffling the story elements and confusing the audience. Superior stunt-work gives even the most violent battles a realistic look, while scenes are swept along on an elegant stream of breath-taking shots and cinematography.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (competition), Nov. 15, 2012.
Production companies: Hairun Movies & TV Group (China), Milky Way Image Company (H.K.)
Cast: Louis Koo, Sun Honglei, Huang Yi (Crystal Huang), Michelle Ye, Lam Suet, Chung Wallace, Gao Yunxiang
Director: Johnnie To
Screenwriters: Wai Ka-fai, Yau Nai, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi
Producers: Johnnie To, Wai Ka-fai
Executive producers: Liu Yanming, Gu Guoqing, Yan Xiaoming
Director of photography: Cheng Siu-keung
Production designer: Horace Ma
Editor: Allen Leung
Music: Xavier Jamaux
Sales Agent: Media Asia
No rating, 107 minutes.

THR

Drug War (Screen Daily review)

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Drug War
16 November, 2012
By Lee Marshall

Hong Kong auteur Johnnie To’s first action film to be shot in mainland China is gritty, uncompromising and hugely exhilarating. It feels like a step forward for a director whose more recent bullet ballets – in particular Sparrow (2008) and Vengeance (2009) – had started to feel increasingly stylised. There’s nothing mannered about the anti-trafficking police operation charted in Drug War (Duzhan): perhaps mindful of his need to prove to the censors that he’s taking narcotics seriously, To spends less time choreographing conflict and more charting, at a breakneck pace, the messiness of a nasty, vicious war.

It’s proof of the maturity of the Chinese production sector that it has bankrolled a film that comes on like The French Connection meets The Wire, and features several scenes of in-your-face (and in-their-noses) drug use.

Of course, mainland audiences may not be given the benefit of a domestic release, but elsewhere this feisty, pugnacious number will positively benefit from its pioneering location, among international cineastes curious to see the mean streets of the New China. To followers and Asian genre fans should embrace the film warmly, and auxiliary prospects look upbeat. The film was shoehorned into the Rome film festival at the last minute.

To’s determination not to glamourise his subject is clear from the get-go, when after a stake-out at a motorway toll booth that nets a haul of drug mules, we’re shown, in grubby detail, the painful excretion and washing of the drug-packed ovules these peasant pawns have swallowed. In the same hospital, Timmy (Koo, dubbed into Mandarin) is being kept under police watch while being treated for skin lesions caused by an explosion at the drug factory he operates. Re-apprehended after an escape attempt, a convalescent Timmy offers to help police narcotics unit captain Zhang (Honglei) in return for commutation of his death penalty (which is automatically handed out to large-scale drug producers and traffickers in China) to life imprisonment.

So begins a wary partnership between the tough yet circumspect old police officer and Louis Koo’s entrepreneurial young drug lieutenant, who helps to set up a meeting with his boss Brother HaHa (Ping), named after his trademark laugh. The jeopardy factor is nicely upped when, in order to get to the higher echelons of the drug supply and distribution chain, Zhang starts to impersonate Haha, supported by serious young policewoman Yang Xiaobei (Yi) in the role of the drug baron’s flouncy floozy wife. Helped by two out of town cops who have been trailing a lorry full of drug factory chemicals, Zhang’s team begin to home in on shadowy Uncle Bill (Zhenqi), who may or not be the regional drug world’s Mr Big.

Surveillance operations, stake-outs and undercover infiltrations succeed each other at breathless speed, taking us from luxe hotels to a drug factory presided over by two deaf-mute brothers to new-rich Chinese nightclubs with glam cabaret floorshows. The film is set in and around Tianjen, Beijing’s rapidly growing seaport, which is presented here as a place of savage, unregulated modernity. A scene in which Zhang, posing as Brother HaHa, orders the whole Tianjen fishing fleet out to sea to impress Uncle Bill, is rich with symbolic resonance, as we see dozens of merry Peoples’ Republic pennants flapping in the wind as the boats set sail, apparently at the beck and call of a sleazy drug baron.

Not since PTU (2003) and Breaking News (2004) has To really got under the skin of a working police unit to this extent. There’s not much psychological shading, to be sure, but little observations like the dash of the two out of town cops to urinate by the side of the road when they’re finally given time off by superior officer Zhang wryly nail the trials of the job, and the team exudes loyal esprit de corps without the need for heavy buddy-love dialogue.

It’s this understated solidarity, and the higher stakes of crime and its prevention in mainland China, that make the shootouts (especially the final school bus sequence) feel a lot more bruisingly than the urban gun dance of Sparrow or Exiled. The dirty realism is amplified by To’s use of natural light and anyway-they-fall camera angles: with almost a TV look at times, Drug War does its best to avoid the conventional noirish atmosphere and Hong Kong gangster aesthetic that To himself helped to define.

Production companies: Beijing Hairun Pictures Co Ltd, Huaxia Film Distribution Co Ltd, CCTV 6 Movie Channel

International sales: Media Asia Group Holdings Ltd, www.mediaasia.com

Producers: Johnnie To, Wai Ka Fai

Executive producers: Liu Yanming, Gu Guoqing, Yan Xiaoming

Screenplay: Wai Ka Fai, Yau Nai Hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi

Cinematography: Cheng Siu Keung

Editor: Allen Leung

Production designer: Jackson Ha

Music: Xavier Jamaux

Main cast: Sun Honglei, Louis Koo, Huang Yi, Gao Yunxiang, Wallace Chung, Li Guangije, Hao Ping, Gan Tingting, Chang Taishen, Li Zhenqi, Guo Tao, Li Jing
ScreenDaily

November 14, 2012

Back to 1942 (Variety review)

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Back to 1942
By JAY WEISSBERG

A Huayi Brothers Media Corp. (in China)/China Lion Film Distribution (in U.S./Canada) release of a Huayi Brothers Media Corp., Huayi Brothers Intl., China Film Co., Chongqing Film Group, Emperor Film Prod., Media Asia Film Prod., Sil-Metropole Organization, Zhejiang Films & TV Group, Anhui Broadcasting, Hunan Broadcasting System, Shanghai Media Group, Beijing TV Station presentation, in association with China Film Co-Production Corp. of a Huayi Brothers Media Corp., Huayi Brothers Intl., Bon Voyage Film Studio production. (International sales: Huayi Brothers Intl., Beijing.) Produced by Wang Zhongjun, Han Sanping, Liu Guangquan, Albert Yeung, Peter Lam, Song Dai, Wang Yiyang, Wang Tongyuan, Zhang Suzhou, Ouyang Changlin, Qiu Xin, Wang Xiaodong. Executive producers, Hu Xiaofeng, Chen Kuofu, Wang Zhonglei. Co-producers, Han Xiaoli, Liu Wanli, Shirley Lau, Stephen Lam, Ni Zhengwei, Li Chaoyang, Zhang Yu. Co-executive producers, Zhang Dajun, Zhang Qiang, Zhao Haicheng, Huang Xiang, Albert Lee, Lorraine Ho, Ren Yue, Xia Chen’an, Zhao Hongmei, Zhang Huali, Yang Wenhong, Zhao Duojia, Gao Chengsheng. Directed by Feng Xiaogang. Screenplay, Liu Zhenyun, adapted from his essay-memoir “Remembering 1942.”

With: Zhang Guoli, Chen Daoming, Li Xuejian, Zhang Hanyu, Fan Wei, Feng Yuanzheng, Xu Fan, Adrien Brody, Tim Robbins, Yao Jingyi, Peng Jiale, Li Qian, Yuan Huifang, Zhang Shaohua, Wang Ziwen (Xingxing), Zhang Mo, Zhao Yi, Zhang Shu, Tian Xiaojie, Ke Lan, Zhang Guoqiang, Yu Zhen, Zhang Chen’Guang, Lin Yongjian, Duan Yihong, Ke Lan, Liu Lili, James A. Beattie, Du Chun.

The emotion that was joined to spectacle in Feng Xiaogang’s mega-blockbuster “Aftershock” is exchanged for generic suffering and a few big yet uninvolving fighter-jet strafings in the helmer’s “Back to 1942.” Reportedly costing $35 million, Feng’s epic is set during the horrific Henan famine, when drought and the threat of a Japanese invasion were exacerbated by lamentable judgment from the Nationalist government. Shifting between individual suffering (performed, not felt) and extended political and business deliberations, the pic displays its budget but not its heart. China Lion will release the film in the U.S. and Canada day-and-date with its Nov. 30 mainland rollout.

Adapted from an essay/family memoir by novelist Liu Zhenyun, credited as scriptwriter, “Back to 1942″ shines a light on a chapter of Chinese history little known in the West, overshadowed by WWII (conceded in the narration) and the Great Famine 16 years later. Approximately 3 million people died of starvation in Henan in 1942-43, and while Feng largely sticks with two families, one rich, the other poor, he’s also thrown enough extras into the Korea-lensed scenes to approximate a sense of mass tragedy. If only he’d focused on the drama rather than the spectacle of misery, he might have delivered a genuine heart-tugger instead of this dutifully crafted marathon.

Lord of the manor Fan (Zhang Guoli) is a wheeler-dealer willing to regretfully sell out his starving tenants to keep his wealth. When the locals riot, he and his family hit the road with other refugees in search of food and protection from threatened Japanese attack. Neither comes from the Chinese army, which has received orders from Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) to commandeer grain for the soldiers.

Time magazine newshound Theodore White (Adrien Brody) tries to convince Chiang of the severity of the famine, but the Generalissimo, as he was known, expresses concern yet does little to alleviate the suffering. Meanwhile, starving refugees flee northwest but find no relief. Fan loses his mother (Liu Lili) and daughter-in-law (Li Qian) to hunger, and his wife to a Japanese air attack. His former tenant Xialu (Feng Yuanzheng), still deferential, has similar tragedies, which force the remaining members of the two families together on an equal basis.

The scenes of suffering have a plodding feel, largely because along with their predictability is a constant awareness that beneath the increasingly threadbare clothes are actors who get to scrub their well-fed faces each evening. Not that the performers should suffer, of course, but “Back to 1942″ rarely gets across true emotion. More believable are the frequent business deals being made, even among people who’ve reached the limit of endurance; the constant horse-trading conveys more about the Chinese character than the pic says about Chiang and his motivations.

Easily disposable are scenes of Tim Robbins half-heartedly attempting an Irish accent as Father Thomas Megan (the real priest was born in Iowa); Brody fares slightly better. Occasional battle sequences, with Japanese planes first bombing and then strafing refugees as well as the city of Chongqing, offer the requisite explosions and noise, but feel thoroughly standard in execution. Similarly, visuals are precisely what’s expected yet nothing more, including the usual muted tonalities, almost black on brown, too often favored by historical epics equating seriousness with a lack of color.

Camera (color, widescreen), Lu Yue; editor, Xiao Yang; music, Xiao Jiping; production designer, Shi Haiying; art director, Sun Li; costume designer, Tim Yip; sound (Dolby Atmos), Wu Jiang; visual effects producer, Chang Hongsong; associate producer, Bernard Yang; line producer, Hu Xiaofeng; assistant director, Ying Tong. Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (competing), Nov. 11, 2012. Running time: 144 MIN.
Variety

November 13, 2012

Back to 1942 (Hollywood Reporter review)

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Back to 1942
11/12/2012
by Deborah Young

Top box office director Feng Xiaogang depicts the 1942 famine in China in a spectacular epic produced by the Huayi Brothers.

The grand vision and sweeping scope of the Huayi Brothers’ $33 million Back to 1942 yield some stirring scenes but not much emotional impact, in director Feng Xiaogang’s epic reconstruction of the deadly famine that struck Henan Province during China’s war with Japan, leaving 3 million dead of starvation while Chiang Kai-shek’s government largely looked the other way. This is another key piece of historical documentation of the horrors linked to the Second World War and an important political acknowledgement on the part of China. Yet there is surprisingly little emotional resonance with the well-drawn and acted characters, making it a tiring two and a half hour trek for filmgoers who don’t have a stake in the history it recounts.

Obviously aimed at the international marketplace, but ultimately of little avail, are two American actors in the already unwieldy cast: Tim Robbins as a Catholic bishop in China and, more plausibly, Adrien Brody as the noted American journalist and “China Hand” Theodore White. Both characters seem tacked on as an after-thought to Liu Zhenyun’s screenplay, especially Robbins’ walk-on scene as the Irish Father Megan, who consoles a Chinese missionary (Zhang Hanyu) whose faith is shaken by the horrors he has seen. Brody’s White is fitfully woven into the story as the classic eyewitness with a camera; it’s not a very original or compelling role, yet he does seem to influence history by pleading with Chiang Kai-shek to send relief to the starving masses and embarrassing him with his pieces in Time magazine.

But these two men are quite marginal to the epic story, which casts its net wide over a huge cast of historical and fictional characters. Top Chinese boxoffice director Feng, who made a name as an actor in hits like Kung Fu Hustle before directing big budget productions like If You Are the One and the earthquake epic Aftershock, directs this relentless exposé of horrors with panache but less empathy than, say, Wang Bing’s 2010 The Ditch, a memorial to the million Chinese caught in the political purges of the 1950s and deported to forced labor camps.

As the story begins, a great drought is in progress and the walled village of Yanjin in central China is running out of food. When a band of hungry farmers threatens to attack, rich property owner Fan (Zhang Guoli) agrees to feed them, but secretly sends for the guards. This sets the stage for the first big action sequence, a spectacularly filmed fight for food in which many are killed and the village is torched.

Fan, his family, their stubborn servant Shuang Zhu (Zhang Mo) and his tenant Hua Zhi (Xu Fan) are forced to set on the road with the other survivors or starve to death. (Some 10 million became displaced persons in this period.) Though they have a cart and more millet than the other wretched refugees, their supplies dwindle fearfully after a month on the road and the social distance between the Fans, their tenants and servants begins to evaporate. Their long march eastwards to the province of Shaanxi is filled with death and misery. Falling in with some retreating Nationalist Chinese soldiers, they are targeted by Japanese warplanes and are almost wiped out in an extended, edge-of-seat bombing sequence that is masterfully shot and edited.

Intercut with the refugees’ march, political figures of the day meet and make fateful decisions. There is proud, image-conscious Chiang Kai-shek (Chen Daoming) and his elegant wife Soong May-ling, the dismissive American ambassador Clarence E. Gauss, the dignified but helpless Henan governor Li Peiji (Li Xuejian) and others who fail to relieve the human disaster.

It is curious that, despite the fine cast lead by Zhang Guoli as the humbled landowner Fan and many touching scenes underlining their tragic plight, the story unfolds more like a reconstructed documentary with thrilling battle scenes, than a heart-wrenching tale about the Chinese people’s capacity for resistance in the tradition of Zhang Yimou. In the absence of important female characters, the story has only the stoic, dignified Fan to provide the viewer with an emotional link to the refugees and doesn’t offer the pay-off needed for this long a film.

Tech work is very high quality throughout and rises to the challenge of filming what looks like thousands of extras on screen at the same time. Adding convincing realism to the visuals is sure-footed cinematography in restrained grays and browns by Lu Yue, known for his work with Zhang Yimou, and costume designer Timmy Yip’s padded rags which envelope the refugees head to foot.

Venue: Rome Film Festival (competition)
Production companies: Huayi Brothers
Cast: Zhang Guoli, Adrien Brody, Tim Robbins, Xu Fan, Li Xuejian, Zhang Mo, Wang Ziwen, Chen Daoming, Alec Su, Hsing Alfred, Zhang Hanyu, Duan Yihong, Qiao Zhenyu, Lin Yongjian, Du Chun, Zhang Guoqiang, Zhang Shaohua, Lu Zhong
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Screenwriter: Liu Zhenyun based on his novel
Producers: Wang Zhonglei, Zhang Heping
Executive producers: Wang Zhonjun, Chen Kuo-fu, Wang Zhonglei
Director of photography: LuYue
Music: Zhao Jiping
Costume designer: Timmy Yip
Editor: Xiao Jang
Sales: Huayi Brothers
No rating, 143 minutes
THR

November 12, 2012

Back to 1942 (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , — dleedlee @ 8:19 pm

Back to 1942

12 November, 2012
By Dan Fainaru

One of the two Far East surprise films on display at the Rome Film Festival, Feng Xiaogang’s sprawling $35 million production, the most elaborate, richly endowed effort of the Chinese film industry this year, is likely to mark up another success in the director’s long list of national hits.

The production spares no effort in reconstructing the ravages of the 1942 Henan famine which claimed the lives of more than three million people, spelling in great detail all the atrocities endured by the victims of the three year drought, which combined with locusts, earthquakes and epidemics to plague the province.

At the same time, Liu Zhengyun’s script, based on his own essay Remembering 1942, beyond evoking the terrible events also underlines the responsibility of the corrupt Chiang Kai-Shek’s regime, which, instead of doing something about it, was busy debating how to keep the tragedy out of the world’s eyes while exploiting it to its advantage in the war against Japan and in its struggle to grab a place among the nations deciding the future of the world after WW2.

An imposing, technically sophisticated achievement, Back To 1942 (Yi Wu Si Er) covers a lot of ground and deals with a large cast of characters, but somehow, as if to confirm the old saying that one man dying is a tragedy but a million deaths is a statistic figure, it is rather the size of his film and the dexterity that went into its making which will affect Western audiences more than its contents.

Feng, whose past record includes such Chinese blockbusters as Assembly and Aftershock, selects a series of representative characters to follow on the harrowing 105 day march from Henan to Shaanxi in the west. First there is a rich landlord, Fan (Zhang Guoli) who will be forced to join the convoy of destitute refugees going westward, and his loyal servant Shuang Zhu (Zhang Mo) who follows him almost to the end of the journey. Fam will lose not only his properties but also his son, then his daughter-in-law, his wife and his newborn grandson, before having to sell his beloved younger daughter, Xingxing (Fiona Wang) in order to survive another day. Shuang will share all of his master’s miseries and marry - for one day only - a widow who he must sell out the next morning in exchange for the food that will keep her children alive.

And there’s more. Time Magazine reporter Theodore White (Adrien Brody) who breaks the famine story in the west to the great embarrassment of the Kuomintang regime; Father Sim (Zhang Hanyu) who loses his faith in a God that allows such miseries to take place, and Catholic priest Thomas Megan (Tim Robbins) who helplessly looks for a satisfactory answer. The discussion between these two is not unrelated to topics associated with the Holocaust in Europe.

And finally, among the rulers, there is province governor Li Peiji (Li Xuejian) whose half-hearted attempts to bring some relief to the suffering are sardonically thwarted and Chiang Kai-Shek himself (Chen Daoming), the all-powerful Generalissimo manipulating through wars and natural disasters with only one goal in mind, preserving his own power and reputation at whatever cost, even if it means sacrificing a whole starving province to the Japanese armies so that the responsibility rest on their shoulders.

Labels are inevitable in these conditions. The masses of tattered, emaciated peasants are obviously the heroes, the ruling class sampling delicacies while millions are wasting away around them are the villains and the Japanese are the soulless murderers.

Splendid camera work and richly imaginative production design offer a breathtaking study in grey – the entire picture takes place in winter with the sun entirely banished from it – with flashes of red fire and black smoke adding to the terrifying images. Though both American actors look rather uncomfortable in their roles, the Chinese cast is mostly up to the challenge, with Chen Daoming’s Choang Kai-Shek a particularly blood-curling performance as the man to fear and hate. A saga that will, no doubt, be cherished at home but most likely be filed abroad as yet another lesson in modern Chinese history. Finally, for the film publicists’ records, this was not the most tragic famine China has experienced - that one took place later, between 1958 and 1962, when at least 15 million (to quote official numbers) lost their lives.

Productions companies: Huayi Brothers Media, Huayi Brothers International, Bon Voyage Film Studio

International sales: Huayi Brothers Media, sales@huayimedia.com

Producers: Wang Zhonglei, Chen Kuo-fu

Executive producer: Wang Zhongjun

Screenplay: Liu Zhenyun

Cinematography: Lu Yue

Editor: Xiao Yang

Production designer: Sun Li

Music: Zhao Jiping

Main cast: Zhang Guoli, Chen Daoming, Li Xuejian, Zhang Hanyu, Zhang Mo, Fan Wei, Feng Yuanzheng, Tim Robbins, Adrien Brody, Fiona Wang
ScreenDaily

November 8, 2012

Tai Chi Hero (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — dleedlee @ 12:10 pm

Tai Chi Hero
8 November, 2012
By Edmund Lee

Picking up immediately where Tai Chi Zero has left off, the second instalment of Hong Kong actor-director Stephen Fung’s steampunk martial arts trilogy shows an encouraging restraint in its stylistic approach and finds a much sharper focus on its storytelling.

When taken together, the first two films of the trilogy is provisionally an origin story of real-life tai chi legend Yang Luchan (played by Wushu champion Yuan Xiaochao as an idiot in Zero), and practically a straightforward action comedy in which its simpleminded hero earns both lucidity for his mind and refinement of his uncontrollable talent for the martial arts.

After heroically halting the plan of a western railroad company to tear down the Chen village – renowned for its Chen-style kung fu, which is forbidden for outsiders – Luchan is married (conveniently) to master Chen Changxing’s (Tony Leung Ka-fai) daughter, Yuniang (Angelababy), as a last-gasp effort to save the young man from the unforgiving elders, who firmly believe in a long-standing myth that the clan will be obliterated once their martial arts are learned by anyone outside.

The prophecy is established in a brief flashback sequence, featuring cameos by Patrick Tse (in heavy makeup) as a former master and Daniel Wu (in heavier makeup) as a formidable Buddhist monk. It’s a notable piece of trivia that the Tai Chi movies are the first titles of the recently established production company Diversion Pictures, which Wu and Fung co-founded.

The mayhem then follows in the shape of a revenge plot by Zero’s villain, Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng), who’s here teaming up with Peter Stormare’s Duke Fleming of East India Company in another attempt to tear down the village, using Luchan’s background in the anti-Qing dynasty Divine Truth Cult as an excuse.

In a minor reversal in theme from that of the first movie, which awkwardly treats western modernity as a source of chaos, Hero also sees the return of master Chen’s science-obsessed eldest son, Zaiyang (Feng Shaofeng), who was abandoned by his father as an adolescent but comes back eventually to save the day with his own mechanical inventions.

While Zero may turn off some viewers with its frivolous script, repetitive use of onscreen texts and an exhaustingly hyperactive visual scheme that might find a better home in comic book fantasies, Hero is a rather more absorbing period actioner that culminates in an impressive showdown fight between our hero and a kung fu master (played by the esteemed action choreographer Yuen Biao) – and, thank goodness, not another giant machine.

The good news, in other words, is that Tai Chi Hero finally ends up what a proper martial arts film should be; the bad news – at least for those who just want to see a good fight between two normal humans – is that the planned last chapter of the trilogy looks all set to take a dramatic turn into sci-fi drivel, with a post-credits trailer hinting at a mysterious organisation of biologically-enhanced humans.

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

International sales: Huayi Brothers International, www.hbpictures.com

Screenplay: Chen Kuo-fu

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

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

Production designer: Tim Yip

Music: Katsunori Ishida

Action director: Sammo Hung

Main cast: Yuan Xiaochao, Angelababy, Eddie Peng, Tony Leung Ka-fai, Feng Shaofeng, Peter Stormare, Daniel Wu
ScreenDaily

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