HKMDB Daily News

June 27, 2013

Young Style (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 2:17 pm

Young Style

JUNE 26, 2013
Maggie Lee

An up-to-the-minute look at the pressure-cooker environment of Beijing high schoolers prepping for college entry, “Young Style” is one of the most charming films of its kind. Mainland helmer Liu Jie eschews the arthouse trappings of his litigation-themed works “Courthouse on Horseback” (2006) and “Judge” (2009) in favor of relaxed spontaneity, treating teen crushes and schoolboy friendships without corniness or moralizing. The tightly written pic skips along breezily with hardly a dramatic lull, and should be welcomed by fests open to more mainstream work. The absence of a starry cast, however, may limit local B.O.

Chinese films have often depicted first love in conflict with academic goals; the most accomplished examples are all set during the transitional years after the Cultural Revolution and before full-scale economic reform, such as Wang Xiaoshui’s “Shanghai Dreams” (2005), Xie Dong’s “One Summer with You” (2006) and Zhang Yimou’s “Under the Hawthorn Tree” (2010). Even the current crop of early ’90s campus-set hits, like Vicky Zhao’s “So Young” and Peter Chan’s “American Dreams in China,” carry this strain of wistful nostalgia.

Though Liu cites Wang’s “Beijing Bicycle” (2001), which he lensed, as an influence, “Young Style” stands apart from its precursors for the utterly contempo manner in which its youthful protags relate to adults and to their peers. Liu, who reportedly engaged in 14 months of field work in high schools, vividly portrays an age group that, unlike past generations, is untouched by any historical or political upheaval, and therefore seems more naive in some ways, yet more sophisticated in others.

The dramatic opener sees 16-year-old Ju Ran (Dong Zijian) announcing “Today, I’m in love” as he plunges from the railing outside his window. Rewind to his high-school graduation photo session five days earlier: Standing before his graduating high-school class, 16-year-old Ju Ran (Dong Zijian) recites a speech, really a love manifesto, to Jingjing (An Jing), whom he’s secretly worshipped for three years. They run away hand-in-hand but are stopped in their tracks by Ju’s mom, Wenli (Yong Mei), who scathingly rebukes Jingjing for jeopardizing her son’s future. Surprisingly, the 18-year-old girl’s retort proves even more caustic, and becomes the catalyst for Ju’s reckless act five days later, which he fortunately survives.

Ju takes his college entrance exams in a state of lovestruck distraction, and becomes the only student in his class to fail. Jingjing, on the other hand, is accepted by the prestigious Fudan U. in Shanghai, and Ju vows to get admitted there next year to be near her. With wry humor, Liu recounts a magical experience for Ju, in which the humiliation of having to repeat his final year is gradually assuaged by new friendships, greater follies and even a cute admirer, Xiaofan (Qie Lutong).

Despite its characters’ varying romantic attitudes — Ju’s childish fixation, Jingjing’s self-possessed coquettishness and Xiaofan’s coy infatuation — the film’s foremost preoccupation is with the school system. Teachers give speeches in which they hilariously insist that getting into a top university is the be all and end all of life, while parents often bear the brunt of their children’s academic performance — “Even divorce can wait,” ordered the headmaster.

Although it drolly mocks this sort of collective exam obsession, the film faithfully depicts China’s competitive society and avoids contriving any easy resolution, concluding instead that unless they’re fabulously rich or well connected, students have no choice but to keep their noses to the grindstone. Hence, the central relationship here is really that between Ju and his mom; his growing acceptance of her expectations and his parents’ marital problems mark his coming of age.

Sobering as this sounds, “Young Style” also celebrates the students’ boundless, fun-loving energy, which breaks out no matter how their elders try to tame it. Anchoring the appealing cast is promising young lead Dong, who limns the comical and serious sides of Ju’s puppy love with equal conviction. The supporting actors are assigned rather stereotyped roles by comparison, such as the spoiled rich boy (Jiang Xueming), the budding queer (Gao Haoyuan), the hard-working peasant boy (Li Tianhao) and the dorky clown (Tan Chufeng). Nevertheless, the amateur thesps pull it off with natural charisma and sparky, improvised dialogue.

But the dramatic anchor of the film is Qin as Ju’s homeroom teacher, Ms. Sa, who’s the embodiment of tough love. It’s a performance that could easily have slid into caricature, but while Ms. Sa projects a sardonic exterior, she also makes her concern for her class discernible. Her finest moment comes in her revelatory farewell speech, in which she gives an impassioned defense of her teaching methods.

The film is elegantly lensed by Zhang Hao and precisely edited by Hou Hsiao-hsien regular Liao Ching-song, with a profusion of lush closeups of fresh faces, or shots of the boys’ naked torsos, which accentuate their vitality and budding sexuality. Other craft contributions are fine except an overly cheery score whose beats are noticeably dated.

Reviewed at Shanghai Film Festival (Focus China), June 20, 2013. Running time: 90 MIN. Original title: “Qingchun pai”

(China) A China Film Co. release of a Hubei Huangguang Radio Digital Media, China Film Co., Hubei Fareast Superior Television Media presentatio and production in association with China Movie Channel, Far East Excellent Co. Produced by Zhao Haicheng. Executive producers, Han Sanping, Fan Congzheng, Ding Dong.

Directed by Liu Jie. Screenplay, Liu, Gao Shan, Zhu Zhu, Tian Xiaowei. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Zhang Hao; editors, Liao Ching-song, Gao Shan; production designers, Zhang Jianlin, Ye Guangzhen; music, Jiang Han; sound (Dolby Digital), Tu Duu-chih.

Dong Zijian, Qin Hailu, An Jing, Qie Lutong, Jiang Xueming, Gao Haoyuan, Li Tianhao, Tan Chufeng, Yong Mei, Jiao Gang. (Mandarin dialogue)

June 25, 2013

Badges of Fury (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , — dleedlee @ 12:44 pm

Badges of Fury
6/24/2013 by Deborah Young

Hong Kong action star Jet Li takes a backseat to young co-star Wen Zhang in a local cop spoof featuring a pantheon of star cameos.

From the first scene with an antsy young Hong Kong cop hopping around in a kilt disguised as part of a Scottish dance group, followed by a raucous free-for-all in which his man gets away, Badges of Fury stakes out its territory as broad laughs dressed up with some watchable if not remarkable fight sequences. What’s hot here is the cast and a shower of star cameos that should boost local box office in Hong Kong and China. Though top billing goes to Hong Kong action idol Jet Li as an aging cop who’s tired of the routine and longs for retirement, the story centers around youngsters Wen Zhang as a hot-shot rookie and Michelle Chen as his relatively straight superior. Outside Asia it is unlikely to roll far.

In a lot of ways, the well-paced script by Carbon Cheung (A Chinese Ghost Story) seems aimed at spoofing a lost bumbling cop genre, updated to the bare minimum with modern car chases and policewomen in shorts. Making his directing bow, Wong Tsz-ming brings real affection to his silly detectives, who are on the trail of a serial killer who leaves all his victims smiling. The “Smile Murders” turn out to be linked by an unhappy young actress (China’s Cecilia Liu): all the victims are her ex-boyfriends. But wait! They’ve all been stolen by her sexy, envious, unscrupulous sister (Ada Liu), who likes to stick pins in a voodoo doll representing her famous sister. In the end, it hardly matters who killed the guys, as long as the action keeps coming.

Jet Li fans may be disappointed to see him warming the bench so often in favor of the irritating but more energetic young Wen, but Li does come to the rescue of his cocky teammate in several well-staged scenes, spritely edited by Angie Lam. Another surprise is Michelle Chen, the disturbing romantic lead of Ripples of Desire, in a comic sidekick role that proves her versatility. A dozen famous faces from Hong Kong and mainland cinema turn up in walk-on roles, including luminaries like Josie Ho, Wu Jing and Tong Dawei, who plays the Japanese arch-villain in Switch.

Venue: Shanghai Film Arts Center, June 23, 2012
Production companies: Beijing Enlight Pictures, Hong Kong Pictures International
Cast: Wen Zhang, Jet Li, Cecilia Liu, Michelle Chen, Ada Liu, Wu Jing, Tong Dawei
Director: Wong Tsz-ming
Screenwriter: Carbon Cheung
Producers: Chui Po-chu, Abe Kwong, Chan Chi-leung
Executive producers: Wang Changtian, Li Xiaoping
Director of photography: Kenny Tse
Production designer: Alex Mok
Music: Raymond Wong Ying-wah
Costume designer: Shirley Chan
Editor: Angie Lam
Sales: Easternlight Films
No rating, 98 minutes

Useless Man (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 12:42 pm

Useless Man
6/21/2013 by Deborah Young

The inventive film for the festival elite stands out in a Shanghai sidebar.

A brilliant technical tour-de-force, the Chinese art film Useless Man has such boundless energy and invention it can be forgiven being so rooted in local history and idiom that its story slips into obscurity for long patches. The difficulty posed by its multi-layered, fast-talking screenplay will prevent it from being an easy choice for Western festival programmers, much less commercial distributors. Yet the wild, atmospheric tale of a smug young idler who falls for a beautiful con artist in 1930s Tianjin announces a major new talent in director Zheng Dasheng. He also presented the star-crossed love story Falling City, which was shot nearly at the same time recycling the same sets, in the Shanghai film festival’s Spectrum sidebar. Both are worth consideration for sophisticated showcases, with Useless Man having the edge.

Signaling the historical setting as a lost world is a dazzling opening sequence in which the camera pans over archival photos accompanied by realistic city sounds. The whole film is recounted in a dim speakeasy to an audience of men in 1930s dress by a traditional Chinese storyteller. His witty language conjures up Tianjin in the years leading up to the Japanese invasion in 1937, painting the city as a prosperous town full of café life, back street dealers and loafers. His tale comes alive onscreen as the camera switches from rich sepia tones to color.

It comes as a surprise to find out the hero of the story is Su Er Ye, a grinning, overfed young fellow wearing a spotless khaki robe, played with broad humor and an ample range of facial expressions by TV presenter Guan Xincheng in his first screen role. In another culture Er Ye might be called a combination busybody, troublemaker and street inspector, strutting around town tricking people into inviting him to lunch and paying him for small scams and playing practical jokes. One day he bumps into Yu Qiuniang (Yang Miao), a deliciously malicious young lady posing as a bride, and love is born. While Er Ye courts her and she, more practically, plays up to a rich and powerful admirer (Zhang Jinyuan), they team up in a con game that involves an unidentified corpse fished out of the river. Qiuniang now poses as the dead man’s widow and threatens to sue a shopkeeper; Er Ye, her secret ally, presents himself as a mediator, pretending to represent the shopkeeper’s interests. To make the lawsuit seem real, they get the scheming editor (Li Hongchen) of a daily newspaper involved, and here the story starts to spin into murky waters, at least for those following the lightning fast subtitles.

As the horizon darkens with war clouds, everyday tricks and cheating are no longer an innocent sucker’s game but turn into serious business. Yet once again the script and direction take an unexpected turn in a beautifully ironic ending, funny and poignantly melancholy at the same time. Though Guan’s comic idler is never depicted as a victim or even as a clown-turned-hero, the actor draws sympathy with his big face and shabby clothes, even before his bravura stand in the final scene. He makes an appropriately humorous pair with the petite spitfire Qiuniang, portrayed by Yang with arch aplomb.

Much of what is admirable about the low-budget film is in its stunning visuals, courtesy of cinematographer Jeffrey Chu, which gracefully combine with stylized VFX, like Chinese newsprint rearranging itself on the screen or a bright red cloak swirling through a whole sequence shot in black and white.

Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (Spectrum)
Production company: Magic City Entertainment Co.
Cast: Guan Xincheng, Yang Miao, Zhang Jinyuan, Li Hongchen, Zheng Fushan
Director: Zhang Dasheng
Screenwriters: Wu Bin, Jin Yuxuan, based on a novel by Lin Xi
Producer: Ge Xiaozheng
Executive producer: Sun Yan
Director of photography: Jeffrey Chu
Production designer: Wu Bin
Music: Zhe He
Editor: Gao Bing
No rating, 90 minutes.

Switch (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 12:37 pm

6/21/2013 by Deborah Young

Hong Kong star Andy Lau adds kung fu to China’s answer to James Bond

While the James Bond franchise has started to focus on character development and serious acting, China’s entry into the international espionage market, Switch, gets back to basics with an army of sexy female assassins guarding an invincible villain, futuristic electronics used without budget worries and the world’s most expensive branded cars and hotels – plus a great deal of acrobatic kung fu.

As directed by producer-turned-filmmaker Jay Sun Jianjun, the overall effect is more retro camp than cutting edge, accounting for the critical beating the film has taken since its June 7 release. Yet the film’s detractors have caused few injuries at the box office: the movie soared to the top until being deposed by Man of Steel this weekend. The reason is probably that, in spite of its far-fetched plotting, blatant product placement, outré characters and set design, etc., Switch is still an amusing, well-produced two-hour romp through Asia and the Middle East with jaw-dropping set pieces filmed in Dubai, China and Tokyo.

The movie can also bank on the power of craggy-faced Hong Kong superstar Andy Lau, who at 51 has lost none of his charismatic screen appeal. In the role of a larger-than-life secret agent whose mission, entrusted to him by the mysterious “F,” is to unite two halves of a priceless scroll in time for an international shindig, he references not only 007 (evident from the opening credits onward) but also Tom Cruise’s skyscraper stunts in Mission Impossible: Ghost Protocol, all in an Asian martial arts idiom.

The action begins in Dubai, where a nasty band of British evil-doers plans to steal an ancient scroll long ago torn into two parts. One half is stored in an art museum in China, the other in Taiwan, and they are to be officially reunited in a joint Chinese-Taiwanese exhibition which serves as a background countdown to the action. Competing for the treasure is the main villain of the piece, the young Japanese yakuza boss Yamamoto (Tong Daiwei), sporting a long blond pony-tail and living in a gadget- and girl-filled mansion that would make Goldfinger feel the need to redecorate.

Though the Taipei museum looks like the Fortress of Solitude, it’s child’s play for the Brits’ radio-controlled drone to open the roof like a can-opener, deactivate the sensors and make the heist. Yamamoto’s squadron of acrobatic women in black catsuits also turn up on ropes, but they are temporarily defeated. Interpol agent Xiao Jinhan (Lau) and Lin Yuyan (Zhang Jingchu), the agent for a global insurance company who happens to be his attractive wife and the mother of his son Baobao, are in charge of retrieving the missing half of the scroll and safeguarding the one in China.

The first stop is a lavish banquet thrown by a disturbing old lady called the Empress (Siqin Gaowa), who is also interested in the painting and who offers to help Yamamoto. But instead of following her, agent Xiao is ordered by F to fly to Dubai, where he will be working with a glamorous new partner, Lisa (Lin Chiling). In spite of Xiao’s chaste wedded state, she serves as his chief love interest. Xiao gallantly solves the issue with the memorable line, “My heart is fully booked, but my body is still taking reservations.” Still he nobly resists Lisa’s charms, which Lin takes beyond seduction to hint at a bit of real feeling for the guy. In comparison, in the fairly thankless role of Xiao’s wife, sensitive actress Zhang Jingchu feels more like a police teammate as she fights by his side in an emergency.

Interestingly, there are no on-camera sex scenes in the film; even Yamamoto’s perverted taste for Oedipal S&M with a giant portrait of his mother hovering in the background is conveyed through suggestive costumes and poses.

Writer-director Sun has a playful feeling for kitsch and alternates the traditional Chinese elegance of Hangzhou and Fuyang with Dubai landmarks like the Burj Al Khalifa building and the Burj Al Arab and Atlantis Palm luxury hotels, the site of an anthology-worthy car chase through the hotel that has to be seen to be believed. The Disneyland-like style of the Middle Eastern locations jives perfectly with the film’s basic pop aesthetic of decadence and hedonism. In this vein, the near-constant display of the female body in cheesy, barely-there costumes seems aimed at getting a laugh as much as titillating the audience. But in the long run, the over-abundance of deadly beauties in stiletto heels and transparent mini-skirts pulls down the quality considerably, even in the finely choreographed fight scenes credited to Robert Francis Brown and Zhang Peng.

Venue: Shanghai Film Festival (Focus China), June 21, 2012
Production companies: Beijing Pegasus & Taihe Ubiquitous Intl., China Film Co., Media Asia Film Production
Cast: Andy Lau, Chiling Lin, Tong Daiwei, Zhang Jingchu
Director: Jay Sun
Screenwriter: Jay Sun
Producers: Shen Xue, Zhao Haicheng, Lorraine Ho
Executive producers: Zhao Minghui,Han Sanping, Jay Sun, Peter Lam
Director of photography: Dan Shao
Production designer: Otto Cui
Music: Roc Chen
Costume designer: Lawrence Xu
Editor: Du Hengtao
Sales: Media Asia
No rating, 122 minutes.

June 21, 2013

Switch (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 11:06 am


June 17, 2013
Maggie Lee

With its gravity-defying stunts and logic-resistant plot twists, its kinky couture and kinkier sex, “Switch” dishes out splashy thrills so indiscriminately, it winds up feeling like a theme park with more distractions than attractions. Sending a star-studded cast of actors from Hong Kong, Taiwan and China on a globetrotting adventure to snatch an antique scroll, mainland helmer Jay Sun’s blockbuster is eye-popping but also a bit of an eyesore; it epitomizes the kind of so-bad-it’s-good kitsch that will sill well in genre ancillary. Pic opened strong on the mainland despite abysmal word of mouth, and only the complete absence of self-parody will prevent it from achieving cult status. Vociferous criticism on China’s microblogs have ironically raised the film’s profile.

To Western auds, “Switch” may suggest a cheesy knockoff of the “Mission: Impossible” and James Bond series, though Sun’s anything-goes script boasts a smattering of Asian influences, from Bollywood to the art-theft subgenre exemplified by Korean helmer Park Hee-kon’s “The Insadong Mysteries” (2009) to Hong Kong Interpol adventures like Jingle Ma’s “Tokyo Raiders” (2000). In fact, it’s best viewed as a flashier, tackier companion piece to the “Naked” series scripted and produced by Wong Jing.

Sun, who studied music and photography in the U.S., contributed to the first wave of contempo mainland romantic comedies by producing the popular “Call for Love” (2007) and its 2008 sequel, “Fit Lover.” The ragtag style in “Switch” echoes the omnibus structure of those two films while further indulging the director’s glossy tendencies. The flashy, tacky result comes close to flirting with camp, although it ultimately takes itself too seriously to work as pure escapism.

In Dubai, operators of a British smuggling ring hit on the idea of stealing the precious Yuan Dynasty painting “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains” by Huang Gongwang. During the Ming Dynasty, the scroll was ripped in two halves, now kept separately in Taipei’s National Palace Museum and Hangzhou’s Zhejiang Art Museum. But another has designs on the artwork: Toshio Yamamoto (Tong Dawei), the grandson of a Japanese general who died trying to steal it during WWII. He dispatches his foxy assassins to nab the Taipei half of the painting, but the Brits beat them to it.

Hong Kong special agent Xiao Jinhan (Andy Lau) receives orders to retrieve the stolen piece for a state ceremony that will be held to rejoin the two halves. Incidentally, his wife, Yuyan (Zhang Jingchu), is an insurance company executive assigned to guard the painting’s other half in the Zhejiang Art Museum; she does so by installing a security device that can also microwave popcorn. Yamamoto heads to Hangzhou to meet “the Empress” (Siqin Gaowa), a freakier female version of Fu Manchu, who promises to procure the scroll. Meanwhile, Xiao teams up with Agent Lisa (Lin Chi-ling) but Yamato’s rollerblading babes prove a menace.

The film’s English title is apt, as not only does the painting get switched many times, but the characters change identities, allegiances and locations with abandon. From a fencing match that breaks all rules of continuity to “Mission: Impossible”-style peel-off masks, “Switch” is littered with so many hokey “what was that about?” moments that making sense of the plot becomes a pointless exercise, a problem exacerbated by choppy editing. And for all the brouhaha about the titular painting, there’s not even one closeup of it.

Lau gives his all to the role of tough action hero and suave romantic lead, while Zhang’s attempts to retain her dignity as a kickass agent and loving wife are compromised by the titillating French-maid costume she has to wear constantly. Lin seldom convinces as a leading lady, rehashing the decorative poses that got her through a recent spate of romantic comedies.

Tong clearly relishes subverting his upstanding-character persona as Yamamoto, a peroxide-blond criminal whose sadomasochism and raging Oedipal complex are traits rarely explored in mainstream mainland films. Indeed, in his sendup of Japonaiserie, Sun almost seems to be trying to outdo Takashi Miike’s V-cinema period or Nikkatsu’s Sushi Typhoon series; the action scenes involving Yamamoto are borderline racist and proudly sexist with their sleazily dressed femmes, nasty violence and garish sets.

The fight sequences, designed by Robert Francis Brown and Zhang Peng, are so on-the-nose that they have a certain wackiness, especially those set in Dubai’s Burj Al Arab Hotel. Shao Dan and action lenser Don McCuaig handled the swooping camerawork, lending an opulent sheen to their long shots of city skylines and lush lakeside imagery. Roc Chen’s score makes showy use of classical music, especially excerpts from Elgar’s Cello Concerto, to enigmatic but unvaried effect. The film was released in China as a 3D conversion, but the version caught in Hong Kong was in 2D, with nine minutes trimmed from the mainland original.

Reviewed at Palace APM, Kowloon, June 10, 2013. Running time: 112 MIN. Original title: “Fuchun shanju tu”
(China-Hong Kong) A China Film Co. (in China)/Media Asia Film Distribution (in Hong Kong) release of a China Film Co., Pegasus Entertainment, Media Asia Film Prod. presentation of a China Film Co., Pegasus & Taihe Ubiqitous Intl., Media Asia Film production. (International sales: Media Asia Film Intl., Hong Kong.) Produced by Han Xiaoli, Cui Qiang, Lu Hongshi, Teng Wenji, Xu Chuantong, Shen Yue. Executive producers, Han Sanping, Jay Sun, Peter Lam. Co-executive producers, Liu Changle, Weng Weijun, Yan Xiaoming, He Shiping, Jack Liu, Ye Zhen, Jiang Hao, Wang Ruihang.

Directed, written by Jay Sun. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Shao Dan, Don McCuaig; editor, Du Hengtao; music, Roc Chen; production designer, Otto Cui; art director, Ji Peng; costume designer, Lawrence Xu; sound (Dolby Digital), Lu Ke; visual effects supervisor, Yang Penglu; 3D visual effects supervisor, Chuck Comisky; action director, Robert Francis Brown, Zhang Peng; line producers, Shen Xue, Lorraine Ho; second unit directors, Brown, Zhang Peng.

Andy Lau, Lin Chi-ling, Zhang Jingchu, Tong Dawei, Siqin Gaowa, Shi Tiangqi. (Mandarin, Cantonese, Japanese, English dialogue)

June 18, 2013

Unbeatable (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 10:41 am

JUNE 18, 2013
Maggie Lee

Although “Unbeatable” contains a few pugilist-pic cliches, the storytelling artistry of Hong Kong helmer Dante Lam and Nick Cheung’s powerhouse performance make a raw and compelling experience out of this action-drama set in the world of mixed martial arts. While Lam never loses his grip on the action, he also beautifully modulates his characters’ turbulent ups and downs like musical movements, expressing the protagonist’s motto that fighting is all about setting your own rhythm. Critical opinion is likely to generate very positive word of mouth, but any potential to become a B.O. champ will depend on novelty interest in MMA.

What puts Lam a cut above most Hong Kong genre helmers is that he lets the drama drive the action rather than play second fiddle to it. Inherent in all his films is the idea that life is a battle, and in “Unbeatable,” whose Chinese title mean “Raging War,” the fighting is scarcely confined to the ring. Although Lam pulls no punches, so to speak, in presenting the physical brutality of MMA, his characters’ traumas and personal relationships prove no less engrossing.

Lam’s best films, like “Beast Stalker” and “The Stool Pigeon,” often pit male protagonists from opposite sides of the law against each other, then allow them to develop mutual empathy. In “Unbeatable,” that relationship is reworked into a redemptive mentor-pupil bond in which the protagonists learn from each other while dealing with guilt and penance.

The prologue grimly tracks three people hitting rock bottom. After a carefree holiday in Yunnan province, 30-year-old Lin Siqi (Eddie Peng) returns to Beijing to find his tycoon father (Jack Kao) has gone bankrupt overnight. In Hong Kong, washed-up former boxing champion Chin Fai (Cheung), or “Scumbag Fai” as he’s known locally, is up to his ears in debt. Gwen (Mei Ting), a single mother living in Macau, struggles with mental disorder triggered by a family tragedy.

Fai flees to Macau to take on a menial job at the boxing school run by old friend Tai-sui (Philip Keung) and sublets a room in Gwen’s rundown tenement home. Siqi, who’s also come to Macau, barely scrapes by with back-breaking construction work. To prove himself to his dad, who’s gone into a slump, he decides to enter the world-famous MMA championship, the Golden Rumble, and enrolls in Tai-sui’s school, where he eventually persuades Fai to be his personal coach.

With offbeat humor and warmth, Lam deftly brings these wounded souls into each other’s orbits, with transformative results. Gwen’s daughter Dani (Crystal Lee, splendid) warily opens up to Fai, and their developing bond helps to pull Gwen out of the doldrums. Turning Gwen’s hypersensitivity to noise into a metaphor for her social estrangement, the script builds a devastating chain of events using headphones as a motif, adding resonance to the film’s use of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.”

As Fai cultivates a surrogate family at home, his initially mercenary reasons for coaching Siqi give way to recognition of the rookie’s tenacity and talent. Eventually the film reveals Fai’s backstory, how he threw away his career through youthful folly; in their shared anger, regret and need to prove themselves, these two men strongly recall the leads in Ryoo Seung-wan’s “Crying Fist.” But Lam tempers the genre’s scowling machismo with a lighthearted touch, as when the two men cheekily lock lips while wrestling each other to the ground.

In contrast with the playful, feel-good tone of the training scenes, the matches are thoroughly vicious, underscoring Siqi’s endurance and desperation. Consciously differentiating itself from traditional Western-style boxing or Chinese chopsocky fare, action director Ling Chi-wah incorporates hot MMA moves, like the “lock technique,” rarely seen in Hong Kong films. The exceptional attention to fighting strategies also enhances the film’s feel of technical authenticity; Kenny Tse Chung-to’s camera prowls nimbly around the boxers to catch their swift movements, while his tight closeup shots magnify their pain with punishing intensity. A final-act twist delivers the payoff of not one but two action climaxes.

Lam downplays any attraction between Fai and Gwen, depicting instead a day-to-day companionship that brings out Fai’s protective instincts. In a real sense, the true romance is between Fai and Dani, the film’s toughest fighter, whose optimism reminds adults what makes life worth living; watching the bossy, impish moppet run rings around the uncouth yet good-natured coach is pure delight. Malaysian child actor Lee also played Cheung’s daughter in Lam’s previous film, “The Viral Factor,” and they display an even greater rapport here.

Peng, who showed off his impressive physique in the gymnastics-themed film “Jump! Ah Shin,” is most captivating when he lets his body do the emoting; he has an easy chemistry with Kao and Cheung, but these character relationships don’t deepen sufficiently as the film progresses. Ultimately, it’s Cheung who owns the film, bringing considerable complexity to his portrayal of a flawed, troubled, passionate fighter who still retains the capacity to inspire and be inspired by others. Flaunting a ripped torso from intensive training, Cheung calibrates his fighting style to gain in strength and dignity as Fai gradually gets his act together.

Shooting is mostly confined to the ring, the school and the flat, all of which have a suffocating grunginess, interspersed with romantic, stylishly saturated images of Macau and some atmospheric scenes set on the rooftop. Other craft contributions are controlled and polished.

Reviewed at UA iSquare, Kowloon, June 11, 2013. (In Shanghai Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 116 MIN. Original title: “Ji zhan”

(Hong Kong-China) A Distribution Workshop (in Hong Kong)/Bona Entertainment Co. (in China) release of a Bona Film Group Co., Bona Entertainment Co. presentation of a Film Fireworks production. (International sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong.) Produced by Candy Leung. Executive producers, Yu Dong, Jeffrey Chan.

Directed by Dante Lam. Screenplay, Lam, Jack Ng, Fung Chi-fung, based on the story by Lam, Candy Leung. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Kenny Tse Chung-to; editor, Azrael Chung; music, Henry Lai; production designer, Cheung Siu-hong; costume designer, Stephanie Wong; sound (Dolby Digital); visual effects, Free-D Workshop; action choreographer, Ling Chi-wah; mixed-martial-arts consultant, Henry Chan; line producer, Lo Sheng-ching; assistant director, Jay Cheung Wan-Ching.

Nick Cheung, Eddie Peng, Mei Ting, Crystal Lee, Philip Keung, Jack Kao, Andy On, Wang Baoqiang. (Cantonese, Mandarin, English dialogue)

June 5, 2013

So Young (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , — dleedlee @ 12:22 pm

So Young

6/5/2013 by Elizabeth Kerr

Before Peter Chan took a nostalgic and a selective tour through the 1980s in American Dreams in China, actress Zhao Wei (Shaolin Soccer, Red Cliff, Painted Skin) dominated Mainland box offices with her $100 million-plus grossing So Young, a similarly themed look back at China’s rambunctious early 1990s, when economic reforms were sweeping the country and the future was changing minute to minute. Anchored by an engaging performance by Yang Zishan in her first lead role, Zhao’s film proves the actress turned director adept with images and actors. She has constructed what would have been called a “women’s picture” in the 1950s that has nonetheless tapped an underserved market. Curiosity regarding Zhao’s directorial debut could lead to moderate success in the region but Asia-focused festivals will be So Young’s primary audience.

So Young begins with engineering student Zheng Wei (Yang) heading to the (unnamed) big city to attend university and join her childhood buddy and sweetheart Lin Jing (Han Geng), only to find he’s left the country. Now independent and in a new environment, she drinks away her woes one evening with her new roommates in the dorm: class beauty Ruan Guan (Jiang Shuying), nitpicky Li Weijuan (Zhang Yao) who’s all about keeping up appearances and Zhu Xiaobei (Liu Yase), the resident tomboy who could be read as a lesbian (she has short hair after all, a classic movie symbol of sexuality). They become fast friends and create their own support network for the various trials and tribulations they face. As is typical of movies about women coming into maturity, each has her boy troubles.

Aside from being surreptitiously dumped, Zhang Wei has a suitor in persistent rich kid Xi Kaiyang (Zheng Kai), but fixates on standoffish architecture major Chen Xiaozheng (Taiwanese actor Mark Chao, Monga). Their relationship serves as the narrative core, but describing it as odd would be an understatement. After Xiaozheng insults Zheng Wei’s dignity (he gave her a shove after she tinkered with a model while in his room), she begins a campaign to actively humiliate him before moving on to stalking. It’s supposed to be charming and feisty, and Xiaozheng is supposed to be cold and unlikeable, but it’s hard seeing her behavior as less than obnoxious. Evidently he thinks it’s charming because they eventually fall madly in love, and his decision to go to the United States devastates her.

Zhao and screenwriter Li Qiang, who adapted Xin Yiwu’s novel To Our Youth That Is Fading Away (the English title is a reference to a song from Brit-pop band Suede’s first record), do a nice job of illustrating the bond between the four young women as well as recreating the time period with help from production designer Li Yang; it feels like the early-’90s, with the exception of a lack of black attire for the Suede fans. Zheng Wei is an effective manifestation of the changes within China at the time, moving from timid new kid to confident, experienced woman. Though the other characters are sketchier, they’re sketched with pinpoint precision that’s underpinned by the actresses. Zhang gives Weijuan’s fastidiousness nuanced, empathetic meaning that also proves generous in nature, and Jiang sneakily gives Ruan Guan the kind of depth rarely afforded the pretty girl archetype. Only Liu, whose big moment comes when she takes her rage out on shop owner that insulted her dignity (more insults) by assuming she’s a thief, remains a bit of a question mark. If it’s the short hair that led to the thieving accusations it raises the specter of LGBT discrimination, but it’s an issue that remains on the periphery. Unfortunately the male characters don’t fare as well, with a late film surge by the blustery Zhang Kai (Bao Beier) the sole exception.

But then So Young makes a sudden three-year jump. As the decisions of youth come back to haunt the women, the optimism of the past gives way to the compromise and disappointment of the present. Ruan Guan perhaps more than the rest bears that burden, as she struggles with the idea of marrying a man she doesn’t love instead of the man she does, philandering long time lover Zhao Shiyong (Huang Ming) and pays a tragic price for it. Once again Zheng Wei is caught between the safe choice and the passionate one when both Lin Jing and Xiaozheng re-enter the picture.

So Young would have been well served by ending before the misery of adulthood set in. The film’s first 90 minutes make for a complete enough film that the bloated, soapy final 40 become a distraction from Zhao and Li’s careful character construction earlier on. It’s been rumored that Zhao’s original cut clocked in at three hours, and so in that light the rushed, half-baked feel of the last act becomes clear. But even with more time the “adult” segment of the film feels out of place, tonally and stylistically. Thankfully Zhao makes the most of her cast, who carry the film farther than it has a right to go.

Producer Stanley Kwan, Chen Rong
Director Zhao Wei
Cast Yang Zishan, Jiang Shuying, Zhang Yao, Liu Yase, Mark Chao, Zheng Kai, Han Geng, Bao Beier, Huang Ming, Wang Jiajia
Screenwriter Li Qiang, based on the novel by Xin Yiwu
Executive producer Han Sanping, Zhang Jun
Director of Photography Li Ran
Production Designer Li Yang
Music Dou Peng
Costume designer Zhao Feng
Editor Chan Chi-wai
No rating, 131 minutes

June 4, 2013

So Young (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , — dleedlee @ 11:19 am

So Young

JUNE 2, 2013
Maggie Lee

A lyrical ode to youth at its most fearless and foolhardy, “So Young,” the helming debut of one of China’s best-known actresses, Vicki Zhao (“Painted Skin: The Resurrection,” “Shaolin Soccer”), is accomplished on technical and dramatic levels. Harnessing a topnotch crew that includes Hong Kong master Stanley Kwan as producer, Zhao’s ’90s college romance throbs with an urgency and elan that mirror her protagonists’ heady experiences with first love. Even though the film’s momentum is halted by a messy coda, its overall exuberance will linger with the female target audience. Boffo domestic B.O. is still going strong, and the pic should shine in Asia-friendly markets beyond.

Having earned approximately $114 million locally in a little more than a month, Zhao’s Beijing Film Academy graduation assignment reveals a sure grasp of filmmaking fundamentals developed over the course of a 15-year acting career, yet still boasts the fresh voice of a newcomer. Zhao’s casting choices are particularly astute, as she offsets the star power of Taiwanese A-lister Mark Chao (“Monga”) and mainland pop idol Han Geng (“My Kingdom”) with the freshness of two lesser-known female leads, Yang Zishan and Jiang Shuying. The resulting performances offer a diverting mix of charisma and offbeat candor that only get dampened in the last 30 minutes.

The screenplay, adapted from Xin Yiwu’s romance novel “To Our Youth That Is Fading Away,” bears the hallmarks of scribe Li Qiang’s style in the way it depicts the Deng Xiaoping era with vivid detail and a nostalgic sense of yearning. The film strikes a magical note at the outset with an opening dream sequence that projects Zheng Wei (Yang) as several fairy-tale heroines; in her childlike imagination, she is both poor little match girl and spoiled princess. In reality, she’s a civil-engineering student newly arrived at a university in Nanjing, where she’s assigned to share a room with alabaster beauty Ruan Guan (Jiang), tomboy Zhu Xiaobei (Cya Liu Yase) and neat-freak Li Weijuan (Zhang Yao). Zheng catches the eye of goofball Zhang Tianran (Bao Beier) and rich kid Xu Kaiyan (Zheng Kai), but gets competitive with campus goddess Ruan.

Zheng’s real motive for choosing this college is to be near her childhood crush, a final-year student named Lin Jing (Han). Before she even has a chance to find him, however, he leaves to study in America; heartbroken, Zheng confides in Ruan, who proves surprisingly supportive. Later, visiting Xu one night, Zheng unintentionally gets into an argument with his roommate, architecture major Chen Xiaozheng (Chao), and the two become sworn enemies. When she’s unable to get him out of her mind, she realizes that she’s fallen in love with him.

Although the story’s various emotional entanglements are drawn from standard romantic tropes, the characters’ innocence and spontaneity, observed here with sympathetic irony, keeps the scenario from devolving into banality. Plunging headlong into love, Zheng is like a sweeter, less calculating version of the saucy, go-getting heroines seen in hit Chinese romantic comedies such as “Sophie’s Revenge” and “Finding Mr. Right.” Sure, she’s self-absorbed and temperamental. But considering the story is set in socially conservative early-’90s China, Zheng’s shenanigans, whether she’s making a scene to annoy Chen or throwing herself into his arms, manifest a level of courage and idealism in tune with the spirit of reform that’s shaking up the country. Yang, a force to be reckoned with, carries the film confidently.

Other distaff characters are also granted fuller personalities than one would normally expect from such supporting roles. In one wrenching episode, in which she bails out her wimpy, unfaithful b.f. (Huang Ming), Ruan demonstrates unexpected resilience and stoical devotion, belying her placid exterior. Meanwhile, hot-blooded Zhu, who can’t stand being looked down on, stands in memorable contrast to the shrewd, money-minded Li; both characters hail from impoverished backgrounds, and they embody different ways in which people of their generation deal with growing class chasms.

The acting is nuanced and involving across the board, although the male actors have a hard time making their mark, as they’re all playing hopeless wusses here. Chao fares best as the romantic lead, walking an intriguingly ambiguous line between nerdy and arrogant, aspirational and self-serving.

For 90 minutes, “So Young” has the spry, elegant pacing of a waltz, tightly embracing the viewer in its depiction of all-consuming love. Just when the drama reaches a high point with the characters’ graduation, however, the narrative jumps ahead three years; it’s clear Zhao intends to show youthful dreams crushed by rat-race reality, but it takes a lumbering 40 minutes to get the message across. Peripheral figures suddenly emerge to haunt the main characters, but it’s too late for the audience to become invested in them, and the gratuitous plot complications and excessive dialogue become emotionally exhausting.

Visually, there’s a stark contrast between the lustrous, vibrant colors of the campus scenes and the wintry, monotonous hues of the post-college era, practically severing the story into two films. Tech credits are otherwise excellent, especially Li Yang’s production design, which paints a charmingly retro picture of the grubby, crowded dorms and canteens of a Chinese university in the ’90s; the sets and city shots in the later reels have an anachronistic, contempo look. Dou Peng’s melodic string score, sparingly used, accentuates the film’s classical feel.

Reviewed at UA iSquare, Kowloon, May 31, 2013. Running time: 131 MIN. Original title: “Zhi women zhong jiang shiqu de qingchun”

An H.S. Media (Beijing) Investment, China Film Co. presentation of a Pulin Prod. production, in association with Beijing Enlight Pictures, Beijing Ruyi Xinxin Film Investment, Beijing Maxtimes Cultural Development, TIK Films, Shanghai DuKe Books, Tianjin Lehua Music Cultural Broadcasting. (International sales: Golden Scene, Hong Kong.) Produced by Stanley Kwan, Chen Rong. Executive producers, Han Sanping, Zhang Jun.

Directed by Vicki Zhao. Screenplay, Li Qiang; based on the novel by Xin Yiwu. Camera (color, widescreen), Li Ran; editor, Andy Chan; music/music supervisor, Dou Peng; production designer, Li Yang; costume designer, Zhao Feng; sound (Dolby Digital), Zhu Yanfeng; visual effects, Spin; associate producer, Chen Rong; line producer, Zhang Qiang.

Yang Zishan, Mark Chao, Jiang Shuying, Han Geng, Zhang Yao, Cya Liu Yase, Bao Beier, Zheng Kai, Wang Jiajia, Huang Ming, Tong Liya, Pan Hong. (Mandarin, English dialogue)


Full Circle (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 11:09 am

Full Circle (Fei Yue Lao Ren Yuan)
6/2/2013 by John DeFore

SEATTLE — A feel-good geriatric dramedy that behaves as if having a formula eliminates the need to develop characters and give them motivations, Zhang Yang’s Full Circle cheers on residents of a Chinese nursing home who enter a televised talent contest. Friendly but unsubstantial, the import has little to offer Western viewers whose senior-friendly options have recently included such high-wattage titles as the Terence Stamp/Vanessa Redgrave vehicle Unfinished Song, a SIFF entry that The Weinstein Co. will bring to screens later this month.

Xu Huanshan plays Ge, who is forced from home when his wife dies and must squeeze into a nursing home with old friend Zhou (Wu Tianming). There, his pal has already pitched residents on an idea that seemingly came from nowhere: They will create a costumed pantomime routine and make a cross-country trek to perform on the local equivalent of America’s Got Talent. Zhou has his reasons, revealed midway through the film, but the quick enthusiasm of his volunteers is unmotivated, throwing the film into full gear after only a few seconds of scene-setting.

After subjecting Ge to a couple of indignities designed to quickly make him reliant on his new neighbors, the film focuses on the construction of a routine that is baffling to Western eyes. A young Chief Nurse (Yan Bingyan), who in reality would surely embrace any project that got her patients excited in such a low-impact way, becomes a naysayer, canceling their plans for fear that something will happen; the dancers’ adult children unanimously refuse to consent, prompting residents who are clearly capable of making rational decisions to complain about being denied autonomy.

So they sneak out, buying a rusty bus for a wholly predictable road trip where decades-old familial grudges will be healed and (spoiler alert) someone will die — but not, of course, before the gang gets a moment in the sun to prove that old folks are people, too.

Tech values are fine, and the cast (most in their seventies or older) is a good deal better than the material they’ve been given by their director, whose films include 1999’s Shower.

Production Companies: China Film Co., Desen International Media Co.
Cast: Xu Huanshan, Wu Tianming, Li Bin, Yan Bingyan, Niu Ben, Han Tongsheng
Director: Zhang Yang
Screenwriters: Huo Xin, Zhang Chong
Producers: Ann An, Li Li, Zhang Quiang
Director of photography: Yang Tao
Production designer: An Bin
Music: San Bao
Editor: Yang Hongyu
No rating, 104 minutes

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