HKMDB Daily News

January 31, 2013

Lost in Thailand (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 10:38 pm

Lost in Thailand

31 January, 2013
By Edmund Lee

Lost in Thailand has recently become the highest-grossing Chinese film of all time. Helmed by veteran comedy actor Xu Zheng (in his directorial debut) and opened locally in mid-December 2012, the low-budget road movie is, when considered in context, a savvy attempt at wacky entertainment in a severely censored market that simply wouldn’t allow for such vulgarity as The Hangover – or its 2011 sequel, which may be a better point of reference owing to its Thailand setting.

What we end up with here is a neatly packaged series of jokes which are often funny, but mostly pretty tame by western standards; if an innocent verbal exchange pondering whether ladyboys are actually male could tickle your funny bone, Lost in Thailand would be your essential viewing. Despite its colossal domestic success, it’s hard to envision a strong overseas interest for what is essentially a fairly formulaic genre exercise. The film opens in Hong Kong today.

Played by the film’s producer-writer-director, Xu Lang is a career-driven businessman who’s on the verge of inventing a magical petroleum enhancer ‘Supergas’ and being divorced by his oft-neglected wife (Tao Hong). Inadvertently joined on his flight to Bangkok by Wang Bao (Wang Baoqiang), a dim-witted pancake maker who treats the actress Fan Bingbing as his imaginary girlfriend, Xu Lang takes advantage of his new acquaintance’s lack of resources after losing his own passport, which naturally brings all sorts of travel inconveniences.

Meanwhile, the protagonist also has to fend off the relentless pursuit by his college friend-turned-deadly rival co-worker Gao Bo (Huang Bo), as the two – with Wang Bao tagging along – race from Bangkok to a remote temple in Chiang Mai to track down their big boss Mr Zhou, who has in his hands an authorisation letter that would decide the fate of the potentially lucrative Supergas.

The slapstick humour in Lost In Thailand is hardly vicious but occasionally very effective. Among its relentless parade of comedic situations are a harmless dig on Bangkok’s – and Beijing’s – bad traffic, a trite gag in which a character is being bitten on the butt by a snake, as well as a running joke in which Xu Lang is inevitably prevented from reading the map of his destination.

Above all the silliness, however, it is the movie’s sincerity towards its characters that has really resonated in its many, many paying audiences in mainland China. Rather than dealing with the thrill-seeking, hedonistic bunch of characters that have lately become a Hollywood staple, Lost In Thailand offers its audience three ordinary folks who just want to reconsider their priorities in life and serve their families better. And you just can’t argue with that.

Production companies: Beijing Enlight Pictures, YYT Media, Luck Road Culture Communication, Huang Bo Studio

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

Producers: Xu Zheng, Abe Kwong, Chan Chi-leung

Executive producers: Wang Changtian, Li Xiaoping

Screenplay: Xu Zheng, Shu Huan, Ding Ding

Cinematography: Song Xiaofei

Editor: Tu Yiran

Art direction: Hao Yi

Action directors: Chan Shek, Lee Chi-kit

Music: Zhao Yingjun, Deng Ouge, Howie B

Main cast: Xu Zheng, Wang Baoqiang, Huang Bo, Tao Hong, Fan Bingbing
ScreenDaily

January 12, 2013

The Grandmaster (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 1:07 pm

The Grandmaster
11 January, 2013
By Edmund Lee

Forget about any preconceptions you may have on Ip Man and, indeed, genre conventions. Barely illuminating as a biography and quietly anticlimactic as a kung fu epic, The Grandmaster, Wong Kar-wai’s years-in-the-making project on the real-life Wing Chun master who famously trained Bruce Lee, is nonetheless a kind of cinematic feat. It is at once loyal to the Hong Kong director’s aesthetic sensibilities and the myriad of martial arts traditions that he’s gone to exhaustive length to pay homage to.

As one of the world’s pre-eminent auteurs of the past two decades, Wong, with his latest effort’s more traditional pacing and top-notch action choreography, looks to have finally found a level of commercial success that’s previously alien to him on his home turf. The film opened in mainland China and Hong Kong this week to very handsome opening box office figures; it will next go on general release on January 18 in Taiwan, to be followed by its international premiere on February 7, when the film will screen out-of-competition as the Berlinale’s opening film.

A sumptuously visualised yet unevenly narrated martial arts drama, The Grandmaster explodes into life with its pre-credit action sequence, in which Tony Leung Chiu-wai, playing Ip Man as a smirking man about town, sees off an incessant flow of challengers in a dimly lit alley drenched in rain. The scene’s staging may bring to mind a similar setting in the Matrix trilogy, which shares the same action choreographer in Yuen Woo-ping, but the moves in this set-piece – and, indeed, the rest of Wong’s film – are rendered with even more clarity and sophistication. Aided by the precise cinematography of Philippe Le Sourd, it’s possible for the audience to recognise the intensive training that the main actors have gone through in their characters’ respective fighting style.

In terms of narrative flow, it is to the director’s credits that he doesn’t once rely on the customary Japanese villains – the kind of stock characters that have been heavily utilised by the other action biopics on Ip released in the last few years, such as the two Wilson Yip-directed, Donnie Yen-starring Ip Man movies, as well as Herman Yau’s 2010 ‘prequel’ The Legend Is Born: Ip Man – to drive the story forward. As if being pulled back by the gravity of Wong’s insular world of romantic yearning and regrets, the film, in spite of an action-packed first half, climaxes not with a showdown fight but a peaceful heartbreak.

In fact, there will be love for The Grandmaster, which appeared to be quite a thematic detour for the auteur when the biopic was first announced a decade ago. While not nearly scaling the emotional heights of In The Mood For Love, the new film is essentially a decade-spanning would-be romance in which Tony Leung, perhaps in an unintended twist, isn’t even the most captivating actor in the story; that honour goes to Zhang Ziyi, whose defiant yet disheartening performance against Leung in 2046 finds its perfect reverberation in this film.

The year is 1936 and the martial arts community in Foshan, an affluent city in southern China, is growing restless over the imminent retirement of Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang) at the helm of the Chinese Martial Arts Association. In the hope of finding a worthy successor, the northeastern master sets up a battle of wit with the best fighter from the south – this happens to be Ip Man – and gracefully passes on his authority when the newcomer wins the duel. Incensed by the blemish on her father’s invincible reputation, however, Gong Er (Zhang) seeks out Ip for a follow-up contest – only to clandestinely fall for the married man in the film’s most intimately staged battle.

The unspoken affection between Ip Man and Gong Er will subsequently prove futile, as the former’s livelihood is severely interrupted by the Sino-Japanese War, while the latter, originally engaged to marry, is forced to give up everything to avenge her father’s death at the hands of a former protégé, Ma San (Zhang Jin). In typical Wong Kar-wai fashion, Ip and Gong drift apart towards their destinies for the next decade and a half, before finally – and very briefly – meeting again to contemplate what might have been. Taking the place of his leading lady’s cheongsam in In the Mood for Love, the director’s perfunctory chronicle of Ip Man’s life here seems to function less as an account of the man’s legacy than a marker of the passage of time.

As a biopic, indeed, The Grandmaster is almost pedestrian to a fault. Ip’s background and life philosophy is expounded through the character’s own voiceover, often from a bafflingly omniscient perspective, while the only substantial relationship that he has developed in the film – aside from Gong Er – is that with his wife, who is played by Korean actress Song Hye-kyo in no more than a few nearly-wordless sequences.

Scattered with worldly philosophical musings by veteran martial artists, The Grandmaster may be described simultaneously as a mediocre attempt at biography and an engrossing slice of wisdom that poetically encapsulates the martial arts tradition in which Ip was deeply entrenched. It’s simply not always possible for the audience to know what Mr Ip is thinking – or feeling.

The amendments of the film’s English title in the past few years – from Grandmaster to The Grandmasters back to the newly confirmed The Grandmaster – may also hint at the subtle changes in Wong’s conception of his ambitious tale. Only Tony Leung and Zhang Ziyi are currently billed in the opening credits, while the rest of the high-profile cast, including Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan and Song Hye-kyo, end up in parts that leave quite a lot to the audience’s imagination. In particular, Chang’s character The Razor, who is allegedly one of the masters, has a grand total of three scenes throughout – one of them being clearly at odds in tone with the rest of the film, and none being directly connected to the story of Ip.

Rumours continue to persist that Wong finalised his edit in great haste for the local release. (There are noticeable signs: the release dates were repeatedly postponed, a few days at a time, in the past couple of months; there are two different prints in circulation in Hong Kong cinemas, one being with English and Chinese subtitles and the other with only Chinese subtitles.) Seeing that the current version of The Grandmaster – at 130 minutes – was reportedly trimmed down from a four-hour rough cut, fans may hang on to their faintest of hope that the notorious perfectionist will be tempted to return to the editing room for an alternative cut. After all, last time he tried – with Ashes of Time – it had only taken Wong 14 years to finish.

Production companies: Jet Tone Production, Sil-Metropole Organisation

International Sales: Fortissimo Films, www.fortissimo.nl/Wild Bunch, www.wildbunch.biz

Screenplay: Wong Kar-wai, Xu Haofeng, Zou Jingzhi

Original story: Wong Kar-wai

Cinematography: Philippe Le Sourd

Editor: William Chang

Production designer: William Chang

Music: Shigeru Umebayashi

Action choreographer: Yuen Woo-ping

Main cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Zhao Benshan, Zhang Jin, Wang Qingxiang, Song Hye-kyo
ScreenDaily

January 11, 2013

The Fruit Hunters (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 3:28 pm

The Fruit Hunters
9 January, 2013
By Mark Adams

Dir: Yung Chang. Canada. 2012. 95mins

If ever a documentary would have benefitted from ‘smell-o-vision’ it is Yung Chang’s fascinating and rather tasty film, which is a filmic feast in a number of ways, and certainly makes any viewer want to head out of and wallow in the wonderful world of exotic – and even rather ordinary – fruit.

As well as following ‘fruit hunters’ as they criss-cross the world in search of new or lost variations the film also takes a few subtle digs at multinationals and monoculture.

Taking its inspiration from Adam Gollner’s 2010 book of the same name, Montreal filmmaker Chang (who made Up The Yangtze) travels the world in pursuit of some of the world’s most unusual, and often most tasty, fruit, drawing attention to its sensual nature while also celebrating those who have an obsession for growing and searching for fruit. The film screened at the Palm Springs Film Festival.

And while stars of the film are the fruit themselves, The Fruit Hunters even has a dash of Hollywood class, with actor Bill Pullman featuring prominently through the film. He is a fruit obsessed fellow – though admits to having lost his sense of smell – and tries to convince his neighbours to create a community orchard in the Hollywood Hills. He is a genial and charming personality, and in amidst the search for exotic fruits offers a nice sense of down-to-earth enjoyment for the product.

As well as following ‘fruit hunters’ as they criss-cross the world in search of new or lost variations (as one comments, “it is exhausting to love a mango”) the film also takes a few subtle digs at multinationals and monoculture, and the fact that many fruits that appear in supermarkets are grown in a ‘permanent global summertime’ and grown to look - rather than often taste - the part.

Chang also delves into the history of social impact of fruit. The fact that Haas avocadoes came from a tree owned by postman Rudolph Haas; Bing cherries named after Chinese immigrant Ah Bing, who was sent back to China from the US; clementines were grown by French missionary in Algeria Father Clément Rodier and that a Chinese emperor saw his dynasty ruined because of his concubine’s obsession with the finest lychees.

Where Chang makes a slight misstep is when he turns to actors and effects animation for a series of historical re-enactments, but while these scenes tend to hamper the flow of the film rather than enhance it they don’t detract from the fact that The Fruit Hunters is a fascinating and thoroughly enjoyable documentary that is likely to find a welcoming home at festivals around the world as well as intriguing niche distributors.

Production companies: Eye Steel Film, National Film Board of Canada

Contact: National Film Board of Canada, www.nfb.ca

Producers: Mila Aung-Thwin, Katherine Baulu, Bob Moore

Screenplay: Yung Chang, Mark Slutsky, Mila Aung-Thwin

Editors: Hannele Halm, Omar Majeed, Mila Aung-Thwin

Cinematography: Mark Ó Fearghail

Music: Olivier Alary, Johannes Malfatti

With: Bill Pullman, Marie-Alice Depestre, Li Li, Kyle Allatt

ScreenDaily

The Grandmaster (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 1:50 pm

The Grandmaster
Yidai zongshi

(Hong Kong-China)
By MAGGIE LEE

A Sil-Metropole Organization, Jet Tone Prod. (in China/Hong Kong/Macau)/Annapurna Pictures (in North America) release of a Sil-Metropole Organization, Jet Tone Prod., Block 2 Pictures, Bona Intl. Film Group presentation of a Jet Tone Prod., Sil-Metropole Organization production. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam/Wild Bunch, Paris.) Produced by Wong Kar Wai, Jacky Pang. Executive producers, Chan Ye-cheng, Megan Ellison, Ng See-yuen, Song Dai. Directed by Wong Kar Wai. Screenplay, Wong, Xu Haofeng, Zou Jinzhi, based on a story by Wong.

With: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhang Ziyi, Zhang Jin, Song Hye-kyo, Chang Chen, Wang Qingxiang, Cung Le, Lo Hoi-pang, Liu Xun, Leung Siu Lung, Julian Cheung Chi-lam. (Mandarin, Japanese dialogue)

Venturing into fresh creative terrain without relinquishing his familiar themes and stylistic flourishes, Hong Kong auteur Wong Kar Wai exceeds expectations with “The Grandmaster,” fashioning a 1930s action saga into a refined piece of commercial filmmaking. Boasting one of the most propulsive yet ethereal realizations of authentic martial arts onscreen, as well as a merging of physicality and philosophy not attained in Chinese cinema since King Hu’s masterpieces, the hotly anticipated pic is sure to win new converts from the genre camp. Wong’s Eurocentric arthouse disciples, however, may not be completely in tune with the film’s more traditional storytelling and occasionally long-winded technical exposition.

With a first-rate production package and glamorous casting, notably the luminous Zhang Ziyi trumping co-star Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Wong’s 10th feature might be his first to win over a mass Chinese audience. Set to make its international bow as the opening-night entry at the Berlin Film Festival, where Wong will serve as jury president, the film has already sold to key markets through Fortissimo Films and the Wild Bunch. It’s set to be released Stateside through Megan Ellison’s Annapurna Pictures, with Ellison credited as a producer on the film.

Five years in the making and reportedly 16 years in gestation, “The Grandmaster” is the latest in a string of period chopsocky films (”Ip Man,” “Ip Man 2,” “The Legend is Born — Ip Man”) centering on the life of the martial-arts master who taught Bruce Lee and popularized the Wing Chun kung fu style around the world. However, Wong’s interpretation stands apart from its predecessors by taking a less conventional biopic route. Offering an eye-opening pageant of martial-arts schools and their radically different exponents, the multistranded but generally linear narrative never dedicates itself entirely to charting Ip’s achievements. Instead, by focusing on his encounters with other fighters, the film arrives at the enlightened realization that there is no single “grandmaster.”

This idea is demonstrated in the opening sequence, when Ip (Leung) remarks: “Kung fu equals two words: horizontal and vertical. The one lying down is out; only the last man standing counts.” Just turning 40 when the film begins in 1936, Ip is an entitled Cantonese gentleman of leisure who lives in Foshan, a popular hub for martial-arts experts from all over the country. This presents numerous opportunities for duels, and the film’s entire first hour feels like a breathless succession of action sequences, accompanied by one-liners of worldly wisdom couched in kung-fu terminology.

Ip’s most significant duel is with Gong Baosen, who has come from Dongbei (then Manchuria) to choose an opponent for one last fight before retirement. Gong’s real intention is to discover young talent and bring it into the limelight, but his match with Ip is not resolved in a way that satisfies Gong’s daughter, Er (Zhang) who is extremely proud of her family’s invincible track record. She tries to teach Ip a lesson, which only brings them closer together.

Something bordering on mutual attraction develops, but the film leaves it oblique, their feelings merely hinted at by the poems they exchange throughout the story. Rather abruptly, the two are separated for more than a decade by war, and narrative interest shifts almost entirely to Er. Driven by the principles of honor that made her challenge Ip, she pits herself against Ma San (Zhang Jin), her father’s defiant disciple, to defend the reputation of the Gong family. Er’s initial pride is offset by a revelation of inner strength when she makes a great sacrifice in order to defeat Ma.

Years of extensive training for this film have enabled the protags to look extremely convincing as masters of their art. Zhang’s moves combine grace and confidence, raising the bar from her perf in “Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon,” but even in the dramatic scenes, she’s the center of attention, limning extreme emotional changes as she undergoes a series of tragic upheavals.

By contrast, Leung, the helmer’s frequent muse, lacks his usual intensity here: His Ip Man reveals few distinct characteristics in the early scenes except humility, and shows little emotional variation even as he falls on hard times. Even less satisfyingly handled is the peripheral character of Razor (Chang Chen), a violent and enigmatic drifter whose purpose in the story is so underexplained that he could easily have been excised, despite figuring into one fabulously shot and fought action scene.

Compared with the typically free-flowing structure of Wong’s films, “The Grandmaster” is more straightforward and coherent, with only one (well-placed) flashback. While the fight scenes ensure there’s hardly a lull in the first half, the second half feels hastily stitched together, rendering Ip’s relations with his wife (South Korean thesp Song Hye-kyo) patchy.

Some of the helmer’s artsy trademarks — introspective soliloquies, the sense that the protags are trapped in stasis — have been replaced by ideas more grounded in practical experience, with characters who don’t hesitate to act. In developing a world of strict decorum that is nonetheless predicated on constant competition, Wong clearly benefited from the collaboration of co-scripter Xu Haofeng, here transplanting such elaborate fighting theories from his own films “The Sword Identity” and “Judge Archer” to less cryptic effect.

Having previously grappled with his personal experience as a Shanghai-to-Hong Kong emigre, the filmmaker here applies that theme to a broad historical canvas that deals with the Chinese diaspora and its impact on national identity and the continuity of cultural heritage. Even as the last quarter is suffused with a languid melancholy and heartbreaking loneliness that recalls “In the Mood for Love” and “Ashes of Time,” unrequited love is represented in the context of two irreconcilable ways of life — to survive by biding one’s time, or to burn out by living in the moment.

Tech credits are aces, reflecting a stately, unified aesthetic with a stark palette dominated by blacks, whites and grays. Lensers Philippe Le Sourd (”7 Pounds”) and Song Xiaofei (”Design of Death”) accentuate balletic movement in the fight scenes by shooting from a dazzling variety of angles and at different speeds. They also contrast the austere beauty and expansiveness of Dongbei’s snowy outdoors with the Western-influenced opulence of the South, as re-created in production designer William Chang’s deliberately flashy interiors. Shigeru Umebayashi’s sweeping classical score sometimes swells above the action and dwarfs its impact, but the use of regionally specific songs as period markers helps counter that effect.

Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Philippe Le Sourd; editor, William Chang; music, Shigeru Umebayashi; production designer, Chang; art director, Tony Au; set decorator, Yuan Zi’an; costume designers, Chang, Lv Fengshan; sound (Dolby SRD), Chen Guang; supervising sound editor, Robert McKenzie; visual effects supervisor, Isabelle Perin-Leduc; visual effects, BUF Compagnie; action choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping; chief martial-arts consultant, Wu Bing; Wing Chun consultant, Ip Chun; line producer, Helen Li; associate producer, Michael Werner; second unit camera, Song Xiaofei. Reviewed at UA KK Mall, Shenzhen, China, Jan. 8, 2013. (In Berlin Film Festival — opener, noncompeting.) Running time: 130 MIN.
Variety

Shanghai Calling (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — dleedlee @ 1:38 pm

Shanghai Calling
1/10/2013 by John DeFore

The Bottom Line
By-the-numbers romance has some property by the Yangtze it would like to sell you.

Daniel Hsia outsources romantic comedy in this lightweight tale of love among expats.

A rom-com where finding love is less important than acknowledging the up-and-comingness of China’s largest city, Daniel Hsia’s Shanghai Calling is boosterish enough to have been ghost-written by that town’s Board of Tourism. Small flashes of wit aren’t sufficient to distinguish this generic feature, or to broaden its appeal beyond those Sino-American immigrants who may find its table-turning premise amusingly novel.

Daniel Henney plays Sam Chow, a thoroughly Westernized second-generation Chinese-American who, thinking he’s about to be made partner in his NYC-based law firm, is instead sent to run their new Asian office. His fish-out-of-water errors in Shanghai are made considerably less amusing by Sam’s condescension to those around him, especially the two capable women — office assistant Fang Fang (Zhu Zhu) and relocation specialist Amanda (Eliza Coupe), a blonde American fluent in Mandarin — trying to help him get acclimated.

Sam’s cultural cluelessness is soon matched by professional disaster, when his cellphone-manufacturer client sees tech innovations he has licensed ripped off by another firm. Realizing only locals (like the “mayor of Americatown,” a fast-food restaurateur played by Bill Paxton) can help him shut the pirates down before he loses his job, Sam reluctantly employs Awesome Wang, an unassuming journalist who moonlights as a fixer for the expat community.

Strike “expat” and make that “immigrant”: In between the connect-the-dots beats that soon draw Sam and Amanda together, the script finds numerous opportunities to explain that Shanghai isn’t the Siberia Sam believes it to be — that it’s a land of opportunity where modest fry cooks transform themselves into politicians, men with ideas become industrial titans, new lives are begun.

China is also a place where distinctive cinematic visions can be found, drawing on local sensibilities to produce work that barely resembles Hollywood fare. Shanghai Calling, despite its China-proud proselytizing, clearly still believes in American superiority where storytelling is concerned.

Production Company: China Film Co., Ltd., Americatown LLC

Cast: Daniel Henney, Eliza Coupe, Geng Le, Zhu Zhu, Alan Ruck, Bill Paxton

Director-Screenwriter: Daniel Hsia

Producer: Janet Yang

Executive producers: Xia Zheng, Zhao Yu-Ting

Director of photography: Armando Salas

Production designer: Yu Baiyang

Music: Klaus Badelt, Christopher Carmichael

Costume designer: Wang Haiyan

Editor: Pamela March

No rating, 100 minutes
THR

The Grandmaster (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 1:23 pm

The Grandmaster
1/9/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
A scintillating mix of explosive action choreography and suppressed emotions, but it could have used more work on consistency in tone and character development.

Prior to The Grandmaster’s barnstorming pre-credit fighting sequence, the film’s main protagonist, Ip Man (Tony Leung Chiu-wai), is heard expounding his own view toward martial arts to an unseen friend. “Don’t tell me how good your skills are, how brilliant your master is and how profound your school is,” he says. “Kung fu: two words. One horizontal, one vertical — if you’re wrong, you’ll be left lying down. If you’re right, you’re left standing — and only the ones who stand have the right to talk.”

It’s a line that sums up Wong Kar-wai’s much-anticipated historical martial arts epic. The Grandmaster, which will open the Berlin International Film Festival on Feb. 7, is an action-packed spectacle for sure — indeed, the film contains some of the most dazzling fights ever seen onscreen, courtesy of the action choreography of Yuen Woo-ping (of The Matrix and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon fame) — but the Hong Kong auteur is seemingly more preoccupied with the introspective verbal exchanges between his battle-hardened warriors.

While martial arts aficionados will find fulfillment with the fights — complete with more-than-explicit primers from some of the fighters themselves about the specialties of the art they practice — Wong’s art-house fanbase also will find much to savor, with the leading characters oozing the kind of longing that defines the filmmaker’s oeuvre. The suppressed affections between Ip and Gong Er, the young, headstrong northeastern fighter played by Zhang Ziyi, doubtless will mesmerize festival audiences converted to Wong’s aesthetics through In the Mood for Love.

And beyond yearning of the romantic kind, The Grandmaster also is an evocation of the yearning for home from drifting individuals, with Hong Kong becoming a haven for fighters living out their last years after their forced departure from a politically tumultuous China (it’s hardly coincidental that the idea of the film was conceived as the director was putting final touches on Happy Together, his 1998 film about two Hong Kongers living in self-exile in Buenos Aires just around the time of the former colony’s transition to Chinese sovereignty). It’s a sentiment which should play well with audiences in the director’s hometown. If they are patient enough to draw such meanings from the film, that is.

Since Wong first announced the project in 2002, the life of Ip Man — a real-life master who was responsible for the development of the Wing Chun school of martial arts, of which a teenage Bruce Lee was a student — already has found its way to the screen with Wilson Yip’s Ip Man and Ip Man 2. Offering a more straightforward account of Ip’s life, those films are distinctly more accessible than The Grandmaster, with actor Donnie Yen generating critical acclaim not just for the action but also for a measured performance revealing the man behind the moves.

This has certainly left a mark on Wong’s pursuit of The Grandmaster, with recurrent reports through the years of how the director was working to move his brainchild away from being just an Ip Man biopic. The project has traveled under the title of The Grandmasters for a certain period of time (the pluralistic title remains on the poster at the main Web page of Wong’s production company Jet Tone Films). Indeed, it would have been a more appropriate title: While Ip’s perception of the world somehow frames the narrative — through voiceovers accounting for his background and his observations of life and characters around him — the final two-hour cut dedicates sizable screen time to Gong Er’s story, with other masters weighing in with their own philosophical and physical nuggets as well.

The film’s first half-hour is definitely Ip’s (and Leung’s), though. Set in Foshan, the section first lays down Ip’s backstory, with his narration about his childhood and his marriage juxtaposed with images of a young Ip being initiated into martial arts by his teacher Chen Heshun (played by Yuen Woo-ping himself) and then intimate sequences of Ip’s contented domestic life with his wife Zhang Yongcheng (Korean actress Song Hye-kyo). Ip’s voice then leads the viewer to the Golden Pavilion, a lavishly appointed establishment, and brothel, which serves as a 1930s version of the tavern in old-school martial arts films.

Ip is contracted into a duel with Gong Yutian (Wang Qingxiang), a martial arts master from northeastern China looking for a last fight (and a consolidation of the supremacy of his school over its southern rivals) before he retires. When Ip emerges victorious, Gong’s daughter, Gong Er, challenges Ip to a fight to restore her clan’s reputation. She satisfies her hunger for a win, but also finds herself subjected to another craving: With her and her opponent’s limbs winding up all entangled (and some parts of the fight shot beautifully in slow motion), their yearnings begin.

But it’s at this point that Ip recedes into the background and Gong Er is allowed to take over. Shifting to her hometown in Japanese-occupied northeastern China in the late 1930s, the story kicks into play again as Gong Yutian dies after a confrontation with Ma San (Zhang Jin), his estranged ex-protege. Gong Er vows to avenge her father’s murder in the face of much disparagement from her misogynist elders, who tell her to let things lie and get married.

In one of their last meetings, Gong admits to having once harbored amorous feelings for Ip. But it’s a confession that leads to nothing. Just as significantly, she also tells Ip about what her main regret in life is — that she has yet to see life as it is, and asks Ip to do so on her behalf.

Ip has survived all to tell the tale, albeit in a solitude shared by many of Wong’s forlorn protagonists in previous films. Putting Ip in a suit and tie in one of the film’s final scenes, it can be said that Wong might be evoking Chau Mo-wan, the fictional 1960s martial arts novelist whom Leung plays in In the Mood for Love.
When asked about the challenge of adhering to deadlines — postproduction of the film reportedly was finished just in time for its world premiere in Beijing on Jan. 6 — Wong said in a press conference that he would have spent “a couple of months more” editing the film if he could. It’s easy to agree with him on the need for this: While this domestic-release version is a sight to behold, Wong struggles to channel his original vision into a limited time span. (His first rough cut, which reportedly came in at four hours long, easily could appear later somewhere as a redux, as his Ashes of Time did in 2008.)

While Zhang Ziyi’s Gong Er is more or less complete and coherent, the same can’t be said of some of the other characters, such as Chang Chen’s Razor, an expert of the Bagua school who is supposed to be another of the grandmasters. Song Hye-kyo’s Madam Ip has only a cursory presence and is basically rendered invisible in the film’s second half. It’s a situation brought about reportedly by the long gestation of the film — rumors are that the Korean actress couldn’t fit additional filming into her schedule — but it also undermines Wong’s efforts to provide a fully realized, nuanced account of Ip’s emotional torment.

Still, The Grandmaster offers audiences much to marvel at visually. Production designer William Chang Shuk-ping has come to Wong’s aid with sumptuous sets, ranging from the pompous Golden Pavilion to the stunning snowscapes in which Gong Yutian’s funereal march takes place. Philippe Le Sourd’s cinematography brings Yuen’s scintillating action sequences into sharp focus — a crucial factor given Wong’s penchant for close-ups that can seemingly reveal a universe in the burning tip of a cigarette.

True to Wong’s style, The Grandmaster is infused with melancholy and a near-existentialist resignation to the uncertainties of fate. Even though we know that Ip eventually will prosper — Wing Chun is now one of the most well-known martial arts schools in the world — Wong’s version of Ip ultimately is a portrait of a sad, isolated figure. Wong seems to be saying that Ip may be the last one left standing, but he is not necessarily the one who wins, after all.

Production companies: Jet Tone Films and Sil-Metropole Organization
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-wai, Zhang Ziyi, Chang Chen, Wang Qingxiang, Zhang Jin, Zhao Benshan, Song Hye-kyo
Director and Story: Wong Kar-wai
Screenwriter: Zou Jingzhi, Xu Haofeng and Wong Kar-wai
Producers: Wong Kar-wai, Jacky Pang Yee-wah
Director of photography: Philippe Le Sourd
Action director: Yuen Woo-ping
Production and costume designer: William Chang Shuk-ping, Alfred Yau Wai-ming
Editor: William Chang Suk-ping
Music: Shigeru Umebayashi

THR

January 4, 2013

The Last Tycoon (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 10:58 am

The Last Tycoon
1/2/2013 by Elizabeth Kerr

Multihyphenate Wong Jing, China’s answer to Roger Corman and Russ Meyer, releases his latest film about a man from humble beginnings who rises to become a powerful gangster.

The latest surefire moneymaker from the prolific and profitable Wong Jing, Hong Kong’s answer to Roger Corman and Russ Meyer in one glorious, exploitive package, is a bit of a surprise entry for the multi-hyphenate in that the iron grip it maintains on the hoariest of H.K. cinema traditions works to its favor. The Last Tycoon is the kind of demi-epic the industry cranked out by the dozen in the 1980s and early ’90s and it would appear Wong has found a way to marry the bombastic, sometimes underhanded heroism of that era with the 21st century Mainland-ready version of it. It also appears that Wong actually made an effort for producer Andrew Lau (The Guillotines, Infernal Affairs), and so Tycoon is probably his most polished and entertaining directorial outing in years.

Writer-producer-director-actor Wong’s occasionally inflammatory career dates back to the mid-1970s, and for every goofily titillating romp (the original, less misogynistic Sex and Zen), allegedly triad-glorifying action series (Young and Dangerous) or out-and-out gorefest (Ebola Syndrome) he’s managed a God of Gamblers, Lee Rock and Naked Killer. The Last Tycoon belongs in the latter group, and stocked as it is with major talent — chiefly superstar Chow Yun-fat — that still gets attention regionally, the film should have a decent run in Asia-Pacific. Hardcore Hong Kong/Asia movie buffs will be drawn by both the old-school storytelling and talent, which could help the film gain traction in niche markets and on the genre festival circuit. A healthy DVD life is also not out of the question.

Chow plays Cheng Daqi, a man of humble beginnings that rises in the ranks of pre-WWII era underworld Shanghai to become a powerful gangster — or a more Mainland-friendly “tycoon.” Take your pick. Just as his power peaks, the war breaks out and Cheng feels compelled to use his influence to beat back the Japanese. The story starts during Daqi’s youthful days in Jiangsu (where he’s played by Huang Xiaoming) with his budding opera singer beloved Ye Zhiqiu (Joyce Feng), moves on to his involvement with Shanghai mob boss Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung) and ongoing thorny relationship with a dodgy army officer Mao Zai (always welcome Francis Ng). Years later Daqi meets up with Zhiqiu (now played by Yolanda Yuan) again, kick-starting a love triangle that proves to be the film’s weakest link.

Nonetheless, and against all logic and better judgment, the film functions perfectly as an entertainment. Wong and co-writers Philip Lui and Manfred Wong take something of a kitchen sink stance toward the script: it’s one part historical gangster actioner, one part love story and one part spy thriller (Zhiqiu’s husband is part of the resistance). No single element is fleshed out enough to really make a point but somehow Wong keeps the over packed narrative on track just enough to make it work as a whole. A great deal of credit needs to go to the holy trinity of Chow, Hung and Ng. Chow is thrust into countless deliberate mythmaking and/or myth-affirming action sequences, the least of which is a shootout in a church (including doves) and some honorable thief posturing that recalls an early Chow television series. Hung makes an entrance that could have been ripped from any of his best martial epics. Ng is Ng, holding onto his crown as Hong Kong’s most blissfully menacing actor.

Technically The Last Tycoon is one of Wong’s more accomplished offerings, even with the film’s dire need for a new sound mix to combat the ear-splitting explosions (of which there are scores). The film looks impeccable: the production design, set decoration and costumes are pitch perfect and the Shanghai of the 1930s is convincing. As expected of a period epic there is no shortage of vivid set pieces — a rain-drenched assassination attempt, a brilliantly choreographed theater assassination and the aforementioned church gun fight. Wong manages to recall The Killer, The Godfather, Casablanca and Bonnie and Clyde so shamelessly that what comes out on the other side is a bizarrely comforting bit of nostalgia filmmaking. Box office success in China relies on Daqi’s anti-hero being more “hero” than “anti-” (Daqi becomes a banker a one point, somehow considered less shady than organized crime lord), but regardless The Last Tycoon ends up a diverting romp that makes no apologies for its entertainment for entertainment’s sake attitude.

Production companies: Mega Vision Pictures, Bona Film Group
Sales: Distribution Workshop
Producer: Andrew Lau
Director: Wong Jing
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Gao Hu, Francis Ng, Huang Xiaoming, Sammo Hung, Yolanda Yuan, Monica Mok, Xie Baoqing
Screenwriter: Philip Lui, Manfred Wong, Wong Jing
Executive producer: Yu Dong, Jeffrey Cheng
Director of photography: Jason Kwan, Andrew Lau
Production designer: Chung Man-yee
Music: Kwong Wing-chan
Costume designer: Ivy Chan, Jessie Dai
Editor: Wai Chiu Chung
No rating, 115 minutes
THR

January 2, 2013

Lost in Thailand (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 12:25 pm

Lost in Thailand
Ren zai jiongtu zhi tai jiong

(China)
By MAGGIE LEE

Huang Bo, Wang Baoqiang and Xu Zheng in “Lost in Thailand.”

A Beijing Enlight Pictures Co. release of a Beijing Enlight Pictures Co., YYT Media, Luck Road Culture Communication Co., Huang Bo Studio presentation of a Beijing Enlight Pictures Co., YYT Media production. (International sales: Golden Network Asia, Hong Kong. ) Produced by Xu Zheng, Abe Kwong Man-wai, Chan Chi-leung . Executive producers, Wang Changtian, Li Xiaoping. Directed by Xu Zheng. Screenplay, Xu, Shu Huan, Ding Ding.

With: Xu Zheng, Wang Baoqiang, Huang Bo, Tao Hong. (Mandarin, Thai, English, Japanese dialogue)

Scoring more than $160 million in three weeks to become China’s highest-grossing domestic film ever, “Lost in Thailand” is a boisterous, joyously hokey comedy that connects with auds through its explicit desire to please. Helmed by lead actor Xu Zheng, the $2.2 million-budgeted follow-up to 2010’s modest hit “Lost on Journey” is unexpectedly well honed for a debut feature. Peppering this feel-good road movie with the perkier thrills of a cat-and-mouse chase, Xu draws sparks from a talented comic trio cast as three Beijingers on an accident-prone journey to Chiangmai. Boffo B.O. should stoke offshore ancillary interest.

Having clocked nearly 30 million admissions (it’s poised to challenge China’s two top-grossing films, “Avatar” and “Transformers: Dark of the Moon”), this lightweight entertainment is no masterpiece, but has proven a refreshing antidote to the year-end glut of blockbusters.

Written and directed by Hong Kong duo Raymond Yip and Manfred Wong, “Lost on Journey” starred Xu and Wang Baoqiang in an odd-couple road pic modeled on “Planes, Trains & Automobiles.” Relocated to a foreign country, the sequel sacrifices its predecessor’s strong regional color for broader attitude and greater narrative whimsy. Playing new characters, Xu and Wang retain the oddball dynamic they had as men of different class and values, but the plot devices that bring them together feel more scripted. Thankfully, this is offset by the decision to bring character actor Huang Bo into the mix (he previously teamed with Xu in “Crazy Stone” and “Crazy Racer”), creating a more complex synergy.

An energy-company exec who helped develop a miracle fuel called Supergas, Xu Lang (Xu) is determined to secure the patent before his colleague Gao Bo (Huang) does, and he tries to track down reclusive prexy Zhou to buy out his stake. When Xu learns that Zhou has retired to a temple retreat in Chiangmai, he books the next flight to Thailand, unaware that Gao is hot on his heels. On the plane, he is besieged by friendly overtures from fellow passenger Wang Bao (Wang), an onion-crepe chef armed with a tourist’s to-do list that rivals “Eat Pray Love.”

Although Xu can’t wait to get rid of Wang at Bangkok Airport, circumstances and self-interest conspire to make him take on the doofus as an unlikely travel companion. The first big comic setpiece takes place in a deluxe hotel (riffing on a similar setup in “Journey”). The highlight is a farcical bedroom sequence that crosscuts between two wildly incongruous activities, the bawdy effect of which is enhanced by the three thesps’ expressive body language; still, the tasteless jokes directed at transvestites will make many auds cringe.

From that point onward, Wang and Xu get into one scrape after another as they traverse the Thai hinterland, while Gao keeps leaping out of nowhere to sabotage their activities. Amid the din of fast-moving dialogue and slapstick, the narrative pauses for a serene scene of Thai locals hoisting airborne lanterns into the sky, one of the film’s numerous reminders to stop and smell the roses — a message that seems to have struck a chord with busy mainland auds.

This theme also lends philosophical depth to the comical clash of mindsets between Wang and Xu: One lingers to absorb every new experience, while the other can’t wait to reach his goal. One’s bottomless desire to please is met by the other’s crabby displeasure. Xu’s eventual shift in perspective, though formulaic in nature, still packs an emotional wallop.

Wang’s flamboyant character has broad appeal as an outre variation on the gullible hicks he played in “Blind Shaft,” “World Without Thieves,” “Mr. Tree” and “Lost on Journey.” Xu plays the dyspeptic go-getter with barbed wit, softened with a hint of self-doubt. The most mean-spirited role falls to Huang, who proves as irrepressible as Wang in his determination to have his way.

The tech package is garishly slick; the postcard Thai locations, though pleasant, mostly serve to advance the plot.

Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Song Xiaofei; editor, Tu Yiran; music, Zhao Yingjun, Deng Ouge, Howie B; art director, Hao Yi; set decorator, Wu Changhua; costume designer, Hao Yi; sound (Dolby Digital), Dong Xu; re-recording mixer, Wang Gang; visual effects supervisors, Zhao huijie, Li Ming; action choreographers, Chen Shuo, Lee Chi-kit; line producer, Zhang Jiaku; assistant directors, Chen Shuo, Feng Xiaonan; casting, Joey Napop Sarasit. Reviewed at UA KK Mall, Shenzhen, China, Dec. 28, 2012. Running time: 105 MIN.

Variety

January 1, 2013

The Last Tycoon (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 12:23 pm

The Last Tycoon
Da Shanghai

(China-Hong Kong)
By MAGGIE LEE

A Tianjin Bona Cultural Media Co. (in China)/Distribution Workshop (in Hong Kong) release of a Bona Film Group Co., Bona Entertainment Co. presentation of a Mega-Vision Pictures production. (International sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong.) Produced by Andrew Lau. Executive producers, Yu Dong, Jeffrey Chan. Co-producer, Connie Wong. Directed by Wong Jing. Screenplay, Wong, Manfred Wong, Lui Koon-nam.
With: Chow Yun-fat, Huang Xiaoming, Sammo Hung, Francis Ng, Yolanda Yuan, Monica Mok, Joyce Feng, Kinny Tong, Yuan Li, Xin Boqing, Hugh Gao, Yasuaki Kurata, Zheng Zitong, Miracle Qi, Han Zhi. (Mandarin, Japanese dialogue)

A nostalgic rags-to-riches yarn about the mightiest crime lord in 1930s Shanghai, “The Last Tycoon” is nonetheless redolent of ‘hood heroics in ’90s Hong Kong cinema. Helmed with musty solemnity by Wong Jing, this expensively furnished production unfolds scene after scene of slow-burning chamber drama, punctuated by potent but never jaw-dropping action. The unhurried approach affords lead actor Chow Yun-fat ample room to deliver a flavorsome perf alongside his ace co-stars, but may hinder the pic from going gangbusters locally. Asian-friendly ancillary is a safe bet.

The screenplay reps a condensed rehash of “Lord of East China Sea” (1993-94), Poon Man-kit’s two-part, semi-fictionalized account of how drug lord Du Yuesheng rose to become a statesman and staunch Kuomintang patron. Despite the film’s streamlined tech package, to which producer-lenser Andrew Lau (”The Guillotines”) no doubt contributed, virtually everything in the story has been said and done before. The result is neither gritty nor hedonistic enough to evoke turn-of-the-century Shanghai as an “adventurer’s paradise,” while the glowing presentation of the central character as an unswerving patriot strips him of any moral complexity.

In 1913, Cheng Daqi (Huang Xiaoming), a fruit seller from Zhejiang province, gets in trouble and flees to Shanghai with the help of KMT spy Mao Zai (Francis Ng). Amid the upheaval, Cheng loses touch with childhood sweetheart Ye Zhiqiu (Joyce Feng), who’s gone to Beijing to study Chinese opera. Cheng plunges himself into the world of gangland streetfighting, and hits the big time after becoming protege of Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung), chief of police and the most corrupt thug in the freewheeling French Concession.

By 1937, Cheng (now played by Chow) not only rules Shanghai’s largest gang but has attained respectability through banking ventures with cohorts Hong and warlord Lu (Han Zhi). With a full-blown war between China and Japan looming, however, various parties vie to exploit his wealth and influence, forcing him to gamble for the city’s survival. To complicate matters, Ye (Yolanda Yuan), now a glamorous diva, resurfaces with her husband (Xin Boqing), whose communist affiliations put her in a precarious situation.

The measured tempo of Azrael Chung’s editing keeps the time-shifting narrative seguing smoothly between Cheng’s youth and middle-age years. Huang’s perf as the naive country boy in the opening act is off-puttingly half-hearted, but he throws himself into the Shanghai-set scenes with do-or-die aplomb. Beset by conflicts of interest and mounting peril, the older Cheng is, by contrast, more frazzled than fearsome.

The action (designed by Lee Tat-chiu) comes in quick but regular spurts, and assumes a grander scale in the film’s explosion-heavy second half. However, the earlier scenes of intimate human combat hold greater dramatic interest, such as a turf war in which cleavers and meathooks are put to vicious use, and a church-set shootout that pays homage to John Woo.

In essence, Wong goes against the grain of mainland commercial cinema’s emphasis on spectacle and pageantry, instead showing a preference for ensemble drama. This is apparent in scenes of Cheng outmaneuvering the crafty politesse of warlords, KMT and Japanese commander Nishino (action veteran Yasuaki Kurata), using negotiation rather than force.

After successive turns as hawkish despots or saintly philosophers, Chow makes an agreeable, even refreshing romantic lead. Still sexy in his 50s (but too old for the role), the actor expertly calibrates guilt and desire in an otherwise trite love triangle involving Cheng, his stoical wife (Monica Mok) and his self-centered old flame. Supporting thesps Hung and Ng also have strong screen presence, despite their superficial and inconsistent characterizations.

Craft contributions, including the steady camerawork and authentic-looking sets, are dependable but short on flair. The most splendid visual element comes courtesy of Jessie Tai and Ivy Chan’s exquisitely tailored and embroidered qibaos and Chow’s distinctive wardrobe, referencing his iconic gangster roles.

Camera (color/B&W, widescreen, HD), Andrew Lau, Jason Kwan; editor, Azrael Chung; music, Chan Kwong-wing, Yu Peng; production designer, Yee Chung Man; art director, Eric Lam; costume designers, Jessie Tai, Ivy Chan; sound (Dolby Atmos /Dolby 7.1/ Dolby Digital), Kinson Tsang; re-recording mixer, Kinson Tsang; special effects supervisor, To Kwok-keung; special effects, Glorious Entertainment Prod.; visual effects supervisor, Vincent Wong, Eman Tse; visual effects, Vfx Nova Digital Prod. Co.; action choreographer, Lee Tat-chiu; line producer, Manfred Wong; associate producers, Angela Wong, Zhang Hao; assistant director, Ho Yiu-leung; casting, Ye Lifeng. Reviewed at Grand Cinema, Kowloon, Dec. 23, 2012. Running time: 118 MIN.

Variety

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