HKMDB Daily News

July 15, 2013

Mr. Go (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 8:15 pm

Mr. Go

14 July, 2013
By Jason Bechervaise

Though lacking a strong footing in a sensible script, Mr. Go has enough swing to it thanks to an endearing and captivating computer generated leading character known as Ling Ling - a gorilla with a gift for hitting home runs one after another - marking a milestone in Korean cinema through its jaw-dropping visuals that is bound to attract audiences of all ages when it goes on release in South Korea on the July 17. On the international stage meanwhile, it’s also set to make its mark in other Asian territories, especially China when it goes on release there on at least 5,000 screens a day after its local release (July 18).

Budgeted at $22.5 million the film comes with a significant risk for a Korean film, but with Chinese investment from Huyai Brothers Company accounting for approximately a quarter of the film’s budget, there is a tangible emphasis on the Chinese market. This can be seen through the casting of popular Chinese actress Xu Jiao (2011’s Starry Starry Night), along with its dialogue, which is a combination of Korean and Mandarin that may prove to be essential to the film’s success.

Director Kim Yong-hwa, however, is also careful not to shift all the focus on China as evident through the film’s emphasis on baseball itself that includes cameos from current South Korean baseball stars (Ryu Hyun-jin & Choo Sin-soo) as well as the inclusion of real teams such as the Doosan Bears (a popular team based in Seoul). Crucially, Kim has managed to capture much of the excitement found in the game which is very popular in Korea and replicated it on screen to extraordinary effect.

Based on the classic comic 7th Baseball Club written by Heo Young-man between 1985-87, the film adaptation follows a Chinese 15-year old ringmaster called Wei Wei (Xu Jiao) and her 285kg (628-pound) bat-swinging gorilla (Ling Ling).

After Wei Wei’s grandfather who is her only relative dies in the 2008 Great Sichuan Earthquake leaving vast amounts of debt, she has no choice but to accept a Korean sport agent’s offer (played by Sung Dong-il) to bring Ling Ling to Korea to play baseball for the Doosan Bears so she can save the circus she runs in China and the orphans that inhabit it. Ling Ling otherwise known as Mr. Go becomes an instant hit with the fans, but the gorilla and Wei Wei soon encounter unexpected troubles.

While the film’s noticeable flaws in its script are slightly less pronounced in the first half, as the film becomes increasingly schmaltzy through a number of unnecessary amateurish supporting roles, it’s more challenging to overlook its faults, but Kim’s melodramatic narrative traits as evident in his previous films including 200 Pounds Beauty (2006) and Take Off (2009) have made his features very successful at the box office. Both these films collectively amassed 15 million admissions (approx $88m) locally.

In terms of its visuals, it’s impossible to not acknowledge what Kim and the VFX supervisor Jung Sung-jin have achieved here through Kim’s production company’s own VFX studio Dexter Digital. Ling Ling together with a second gorilla called Lei-Ting who later comes onto the baseball field to also compete have been crafted with a staggering amount of clarity together with copious amounts of emotion and character. When these gorillas, especially Ling Ling who is the first leading character ever to be solely created by VFX in Korean live-action cinema get onto the field, the spectacle is exhilarating, which is further strengthened by its strong adoption of stereoscopic 3D - the first Korean film to be shot in this format – without taking it too far.

Xu is adorable as the 15-year old girl even though she is rather bland at times and Sung Dong-il is more than adequate as the materialist but amusing sports agent, but it’s Ling Ling who steals the show with his undeniable presence both in aptitude and charm. .

With its potentially wide demographic – from younger viewers to older generations – Mr. Go is set to exploit the summer box office window in its local market of Korea, while also holding strong prospects in other Asian territories beginning with China before being released in other parts of Asia including Indonesia, Hong Kong and India in August and September.

Production Company: Contents Eye & Dexter Studios

International Sales: Showbox/Mediaplex, inc,

Producers: Yoo Jin-woo

Screenplay: Kim Yong-hwa, Kim Hyun-chul, Kim Jong-hyun.

VFX Supervisor: Jung Sung-jin

Main cast: Xu Jiao, Sung Dong-il, Kim Kang-woo, Kim Hee-won Kim Jung-tae, Kim Eung-soo, Byun Hee-bong, Joe Odagiri

Tales from the Dark 1 (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 4:31 pm

Tales from the Dark 1

7/15/2013 by Elizabeth Kerr

Hong Kong’s biggest stars and most prominent filmmakers collaborate on a horror anthology based on “Farewell My Concubine” writer Lilian Lee’s novels.

The ghosts that quite literally haunt us are the subjects of the trilogy of shorts in the horror anthology Tales from the Dark 1, a mostly engaging film that harkens back to the glory days of Hong Kong horror in the 1980s.

Anthologies are by definition hit and miss endeavors and often swing wildly in quality from one segment to the next. That’s exactly what happens here, except the producers have wisely managed to bottom load the film so that sitting through the first entry eventually pays off. Based on popular writer Lilian Lee’s series of novels, this first adaptation begins with its weakest link by actor turned director Simon Yam and finishes with one-time indie darling Fruit Chan — experienced in anthology horror from Three: Extremes.

A second installment is scheduled for release in Hong Kong in August featuring entries by Gordon Chan (Fist of Legend, Beast Cops), Lawrence Lau (Queen of Temple Street, Lee Rock) and actor Teddy Robin (Gallants) and if it’s halfway as entertaining as the first part, prospects for genre festival double bills are strong. Moderate box office success should come in Hong Kong, where the cast and filmmakers are household names.

In “Stolen Goods” a frequently unemployed oddball, Kwan (Yam), who is able to see the dead walking around his neighborhood, resorts robbing graves and holding the urns and ashes for ransom to make rent. He meets his match when the supposed cousin of one of his victims agrees to pay. Next up, Lee Chi-ngai’s “A Word in the Palm” is the outright funniest entry of the three. New-agey spiritualist Lan (Kelly Chen) and the reluctant ghost-seer Hon (Tony Leung, Cold War) team up to help the scorned Siu-ting (Cherry Ngan) find peace in the afterlife. Trouble is Lan’s something of a crackpot and Hon is desperate to prove to his wife he’s over the whole ghost thing in order to see his son more. Finally, Fruit Chan’s “Jing Zhe” is the strongest entry and is recognizable as Chan’s work from the first few grimy frames. Veteran actress Susan Siu stars as Chu, a streetside villain basher — she’ll smack a paper effigy of customer nemeses and toss out a few choice words for a fee — who’s compelled to look at her own life choices when the ghost of a teenaged girl (Dada Chan) becomes the last customer of the night.

When Tales 1 kicks off with Yam’s hammy, bug-eyed shenanigans (initially he appears to be channeling his classic Dr. Lamb performance) it doesn’t bode well for the remaining hour. Yam’s forced, contrived images try really hard to convey discombobulated eeriness but mostly just succeed in confusion. His visions (the obese ghost that can’t stop eating even though he’s full, two little girls locked out of their home among others) are dropped into scenes free of context and completely disconnected from the ransom story. It ends exactly as expected and not a moment too soon. Lee’s “Palm” is much better, and a lot of the credit must go to Chen (who knew she was funny?) and Leung as the ghostbusters, and young actress Ngan. Though it flails tonally near the end, Lee does a nice job with the comedy-horror and draws out performances that lift it above its material. Chan, working with his regular DOP Lam Wah-chuen, provides the gore (and he does get creative) in the duo’s typically grotty urban landscape. Chan uses the conventions of horror the way they’re best used — to explore larger issues, here being guilt, responsibility, vengeance and atonement, and Siu is fantastic as the ornery street hawker without a heart of gold.

Producer: Bill Kong, Matthew Tang
Director: Simon Yam, Lee Chi-ngai, Fruit Chan
Cast: Simon Yam, Tony Leung, Kelly Chen, Susan Siu, Dada Chan, Cherry Ngan, Maggie Siu, Felix Lok
Screenwriter: Lilian Lee, Lee Chi-ngai, Fruit Chan, based on the books by Lilian Lee
Executive producer: Bill Kong, Matthew Tang
Director of Photography: Jason Kwan, Wade Muller, Lam Wah-chuen
Production Designer: Kenneth Yee
Music: Kenji Kawai
Costume designer: Shirley Chan
Editor: Kwong Chi-leung, Lee Chi-ngai, Fruit Chan
No rating, 112 minutes

Switch (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 4:27 pm

7/15/2013 by Elizabeth Kerr

Hong Kong star Andy Lau heads a strong cast as a globetrotting spy in search of redemption.

Completely baffling and almost utterly inept, Switch would be bad enough to be good if it didn’t take itself so completely seriously. Ostensibly a heist picture, multi-hyphenate Jay Sun strings together what he may have thought were a series of really cool set pieces that never connect coherently. More reminiscent of a cheesy 1980s cop show than a thriller, the random action sequences and subtitle howlers (not seen since that same decade) start early and never let up. Not even Hong Kong movie star Andy Lau will be able to help Switch’s commercial prospects, which are dire in any territory with taste if the speed at which it vanished from cinemas is any indication.

As can best be determined by gaping plot holes, shoddy editing and illogical narrative construction, Switch revolves around Interpol supercop/spy/thief (it’s never really clear) Xiao Jinhan (Andy Lau) and his quest to get his hands on a priceless Yuan Dynasty painting, one of three that — it seems — an American gangster, a British art collector, a Chinese dowager thug type and a Japanese wannabe Yakuza, Yamamoto (Tong Dawei, American Dreams in China) with serious Oedipal issues, are also looking for. Jinhan has several girlfriends who help him with either his spying or his thieving depending on the girl, among them Lisa (Lin Chiling, Red Cliff), who’s dead but then not and his Hong Kong cop wife Lin Yuyuan (Zhang Jingchu, Peacock), who has absolutely no jurisdiction over the crime. At one point Switch changes focus to concentrate on Jinhan’s reform; the film implies he has a tainted past, but what that might be remains a mystery. Also a mystery? Why Yuyuan stays married to Jinhan when he makes it clear he has no intention of ending his womanizing ways. Oh, there’s also a kidnapping.

Switch was released in two versions, one for Mainland China and one for Hong Kong, and word on the street is that the hatchet job done on the Hong Kong print made the story even more confusing than the widely lampooned Mainland one; the extra details would not have helped. Writer-producer-director Sun directs his feature debut like a film school drop-out with too much cash; he’s clearly got some to play with — locations Dubai and Bahamas came out of the alleged $26 million budget — but zero grasp on story or how to direct actors. Characters come and go, plot threads materialize out of nowhere to no purpose (Who was the little girl in the village? What’s with the all-girl ninja army?). The big moments that should leave an impression consistently fall flat — like Lisa and Yuyuan’s throwdown. When one runs the other through with a sword Roc Chen’s score swells and crashes — and the audience remains deathly, tellingly silent.

Producer: Han Xiaoli, Cui Qiang, Lu Hongshi, Teng Wenji, Xu Chuantong, Shen Yue
Director: Jay Sun
Cast: Andy Lau, Lin Chiling, Zhang Jingchu, Tong Dawei, Siqin Gaowa, Zhang Guangbei, Shi Tianqi
Screenwriter: Jay Sun
Executive producer: Han Sanping, Peter Lam, Jay Sun
Director of Photography: Shao Dan
Production Designer: Otto Cui
Music: Roc Chen
Editor: Du Hengtao
No rating, 112 minutes

Saving General Yang (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 4:19 pm

Saving General Yang
JULY 14, 2013
Maggie Lee

Ronny Yu’s latest delivers reliably robust action but shows little concern for emotional finesse.

Based on a Chinese legend from the Song dynasty about seven brothers who fought Khitan invaders to rescue their father, “Saving General Yang” reps a curious cross between brawny machismo and sexy eye-candy. Veteran Hong Kong helmer Ronny Yu (“Fearless,” “The Bride With White Hair”) delivers reliably robust action but shows little concern for emotional finesse. Nevertheless, the shrewd casting of pan-Chinese pop idols alongside veteran actors lends a hip spin to an old-fashioned tale of chivalry. Pic did middling biz in China, which is showing signs of war-epic fatigue, but sales to Europe and Asia have reportedly been satisfactory.

The historical saga of the Yang family, whose members dedicated their lives to defending the Chinese border from invasions by the Khitan people (nomads from Mongolia and Manchuria), has been recounted in serial novels and opera for centuries, and has also spawned several films and TV series. However, the Yang wives usually took centerstage in prior tellings, as in 2011′s “Legendary Amazons,” helmed by Frankie Chan. Yu recharges the old conceits by bringing the men back to the fore and representing them as spunky, studly dudes rather than straight-laced patriots, giving the film a go-for-broke masculine intensity reminiscent of Andrew Lau’s “Young & Dangerous” (1996). Edmond Wong’s screenplay also brings a welcome degree of narrative coherence to a chronicle that spans three generations in prior versions, singling out one decisive episode that took place around 986 A.D.

While competing for the hand of childhood sweetheart Princess Chai (Ady Ang) in a martial-arts championship, Yanzhao (Wu Chun), the sixth son of Gen. Yang Ye (Adam Cheng), accidentally kills the son of deadly rival Lord Pan Renmei (Leung Kar-yan). When the Khitan forces attack the town of Jinshatan at the northwestern border, a conciliatory Ye agrees to subordinate himself to Pan, who has angled for the position of commander of a 60,000-strong defense army.

Pan orders Ye to lead the vanguard, but retreats as soon as the enemy advances, leaving Ye stranded, and in a rousing battle scene distinguished by sweeping panoramic shots, the general is injured and cornered on Twin Wolves Mountain. He’s held hostage by Khitan commander Yeluv Yuan (Shao Bing), who is bent on avenging his father’s death at Ye’s hands years ago, and who knows that Ye’s seven sons will come to his aid. Ye’s wife, Saihua (Xu Fan), hears of the news and consults a clairvoyant, who delivers an equivocating prophecy: “Seven depart, only six return.” On the night before the expedition, eldest son Yanping (Ekin Cheng) promises his mother he’ll lay down his life to ensure his brothers’ safety.

Riding out with a small brigade, Ye’s sons locate their father with a handful of other survivors. But they’re soon ambushed by the Khitan soldiers, in a breathtaking coup that merges whirlwind movements with thundering explosions, choreographed by Stephen Tung Wai and designed by a Korean special-effects team to show off the speed and ingenuity of Yeluv’s military manoeuvers. From this point onward, director Yu maintains a vigorous pace and a varied range of action setpieces, from chases across treacherous terrain to combat scenes showcasing the Yang brothers’ signature weapons. The violence is unabashedly graphic and bloody, as framed by ace Hong Kong lenser Chan Chi-ying against the majestically barren backdrop of Henan province (standing in for Shanxi).

To make the male-centric plot more palatable to female audiences, the cast includes several pop idols, notably Wu Chun (a former member of boy band Fahrenheit), Vic Chou (from band F4) and Hong Kong it-boy Raymond Lam (“The Sorcerer and the White Snake”). Cheng and Xu anchor the drama with an air of authority as the clan elders, but sadly, there are so few scenes in which Ye and his wife interact with their children, or with each other, that there’s little ensemble acting to speak of. The other wives and handmaidens in the story get no more than a scene or two, and even then, they tend to disappear into the ornate decor. Princess Chai, the story’s catalyst, makes a grand entrance but fizzles out completely after the prologue.

Production design reps one of the film’s most impressive tech elements, reinforcing the Yang clan’s hallowed heritage through ornate architecture and a courtyard designed to look like a coliseum. Other craft contributions, particularly the lighting with its high contrast between indoors and outdoors, are above average for a standard Hong Kong-mainland co-production.

Reviewed at Hong Kong Film Festival (Gala Premiere), March 28, 2013. (Also in Udine Far East Film Festival.) Running time: 103 MIN. Original title: “Zhonglie Yangjiajiang”

(Hong Kong-China) A Pegasus Motion Pictures (in Hong Kong) release, presentation of a Pegasus Motion Pictures Prod. production in association with Henan Film & TV Prod. Group Co., Huayi Brothers Media, Pegasus Film & TV Culture (Beijing). (International sales: Pegasus Motion Pictures Distribution, Hong Kong.) Produced by Raymond Wong, Ronny Yu. Executive producer, Raymond Wong.

Directed by Ronny Yu. Screenplay, Edmond Wong. Camera (color, widescreen), Chan Chi-ying; editor, Drew Thompson; music/music supervisor, Kenji Kawai, production designer, Kenneth Mak; set decorator, Chen Heyong; costume designer, Han Zhong; sound (Dolby Digital), Steve Burgess; supervising sound editor/re-recording mixer, Steve Burgess; visual effects supervisor, Kim Tae-hun, Ryu Hui-jeong; visual effects, Next Visual Studios (Korea); action choreographer, Stephen Tung Wai; second unit camera, Davy Tsou.

Adam Cheng, Ekin Cheng, Wu Chun, Raymond Lam, Vic Chou, Ady Ang, Xu Fan, Shao Bing, Leung Kar-yan, Fu Xinbo, Yu Bo, Li Chen, Li Qian. (Mandarin dialogue)

Man of Tai Chi (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 4:09 pm

Man of Tai Chi

7/12/2013 by Clarence Tsui
Keanu Reeves makes his directorial debut with a multi-lingual China-set fight film starring “Matrix” stuntman turned front man, Tiger Chen.

HONG KONG – The Chinese title of Keanu Reeves’ directorial debut is Tai Chi Xia. It’s a phrase seemingly fraught with contradictions: While the titular martial arts school has been marked for its emphasis on self-defense, slowness and harmony, the third Chinese character refers to fighters active in perpetuating justice through close combat – a label applied in Chinese names for Western superheroes such as Batman (“Bianfu Xia” in Mandarin), Spider-man (“Zhizhu Xia”) or Iron Man (“Gangtie Xia”).

This parallel between Man of Tai Chi and these U.S. comics-turned-film-franchises might be more than just a marketing ploy. Opening in China last week and slated for a release in the U.S. by Radius at the end of 2013, the film adheres to the presently de rigueur interest in tackling the inner schisms of a powerful protagonist struggling with how he is to utilize (and capitalize on) his powers, a psychological conflict heightened by the circumstances the film’s hero has to engage with in 21st-century, cosmopolitan China — a country thriving on speed, with its go-getters defining the country’s moral parameters through their capitalistic drive.

With its toned-down, near-claustrophobic depiction of its leading character’s moral passage through bone-crunching blows, Man of Tai Chi — a project heralded by its major backer, the state-owned China Film Group, as a prime exemplar of a foreign star coming to the country and making an authentic “Chinese” film — actually runs against the upbeat, celebratory ethos which has ruled the roost in Chinese cinemas for the past few months.

Adding to its lack of high-octane blockbuster production values and an established top-billed star — Reeves is more a supporting presence on screen as the villain — its box office traction in China has stalled, and chances for the film to attain mainstream international success are limited. But stuntman-turned-star Tiger Chen’s scintillating execution of Yuen Woo-ping’s action choreography should generate interest among martial arts aficionados around the world hankering for a film filled with po-faced, skull-cracking fights underlined by philosophical musings about the rationale of violence and its discontents.

Those who expect great things from the reunion of this Matrix triumvirate — Reeves befriended both Yuen and Chen for the Wachowskis film series — will not be disappointed by the action on offer; and it’s a very diverse plate too, representing the different “paths” a martial artist could walk down. Ranging from the fluid physical moves which Reeves and Yuen adapted from Tai Chi, to the hair-raising bare-knuckle close encounters the film’s protagonist endures with fighters from around the world — including an unfortunately short sequence from Indonesian actor Iko Uwais of The Raid fame – the fights are ceaseless, relentless and nearly always brutal: imagine a modern-day take on Game of Death, in which mirrored rooms and characterless bunkers replace the Korean pagoda, and one gets close to describing the ambience in which the violence unfolds.

The central question being posed here is what a martial arts expert is fighting for — and how those from a newer Chinese generation should look at what they do, amid the clash and clamor engulfing their earthly existence. It’s this complexity which makes Chen’s character – a version of himself, Chen Linhu, with his given name means “tiger in the woods” – interesting: when not practicing his Tai Chi moves with his aged master (Yu Hai) in a far-flung, rundown temple, Linhu lives in a cramped flat in a Beijing tenement block, braves the Chinese capital’s horrid traffic jams as a delivery man, and tries to improve his English by listening to the radio.

It’s a life he has had no qualms about. He’s shown himself to be more a man of the world, as he admits to his master of his discomfort in holding his energy back with his Tai Chi routines (his school, invented by Reeves and his team, is called Ling Kong, or “emptying your spirit”). He later tells a TV reporter after a martial arts competition that his aspiration is to show the world how Tai Chi “is not just for exercise.”

As Linhu struggles to contain the vigorous beast within himself, the opportunity to get out of his torn-between-two-worlds conundrum arrives in the form of a job offer from self-proclaimed multinational security services operator Donaka Mak (Reeves). Whizzed to Hong Kong by limousine and then private jet, Linhu discovers he is actually being recruited to take part in illegal fights in the city with big financial rewards. Initially rejecting this break, Linhu soon relents to what seems to be a development beyond his control, as he suddenly needs some quick cash to renovate and save his master’s decrepit temple from the State’s urban planners and their bulldozers.

But what Linhu has considered a short-term vocation slowly lets out the dark side of his psyche. Quietly liberated from the no-holds-barred nature of the clandestine contests he participates in at night, his personality by day begins to change, as he talks back to his boss at work, spends his now inflated earnings on (product placement alert!) posh cars and electric appliances for his family, and — perhaps most devastatingly — begins “letting the beast out” (as Donaka urges him to do) in televised public martial arts showcases.

This is perhaps what Reeves, through his on-screen alter-ego Donaka, means when he describes what he’s offering with Man of Tai Chi: a chronicle of how “a person evolves and changes” when placed in drastic life scenarios. Indeed, for all the breathtaking acrobatics shown in the fighting sequences, the film is actually more perceptive when examining, up close, Linhu’s dilemmas in choosing between sticking to his principles and letting his instincts run amok. While Bruce Wayne, Peter Parker and Tony Stark might have, at one point or another, stared at their superhero suits and reflected on the burden they embodied, Linhu’s struggle is the other way round: His decision to break from his meek past is symbolized by his final glance at the gaudy windbreaker he has to wear as a uniform for his deliveryman job.

Rather than being simplistic, Reeves could be charged for being too ambitious in his attempt to add too many layers to his long-gestated directorial debut. Taking a cue out of the paranoia-infused universe of The Matrix, the first-time director attempts to provide a Big Brother/The Truman Show sheen to Linhu’s story by having Donaka’s team produce a running 24-hour broadcast of his new charge’s life as a streaming online show; this critique of cyberspace is undercooked and only exposes how much Reeves and his team are left wanting in their grasp of arguments against Internet technology, mediated culture and simulacra.

And needing to portray the law as eventually gaining an upper hand over the baddies — this is a state-sanctioned mainland Chinese production, after all — the narrative is supplemented by a group of Hong Kong detectives (led by a sergeant played by Karen Mok) trying to close down Donaka’s fight-club operations. Both threads turn out to be superfluous to the proceedings and only serve to distract rather than enhance the main narrative.

The need to appease censors with constructive, politically correct denouements notwithstanding, Reeves has delivered a film that rejects Orientalist cliches; in fact, Man of Tai Chi — penned by Irish screenwriter Michael Cooney — could even be read as a mockery of occidental fascination with Chinese kung fu, with Donaka being the embodiment of the sinister Western svengalis trying to cash in on exotic entertainment featuring a culturally different protagonist. Reeves himself has inoculated himself from this criticism by refusing to give an excessively mystical spin to Tai Chi.

Meanwhile, the setting of Linhu’s every-man, everyday routines as a working-class individual in an ordinary modern metropolis is also crucial: rather than taking place in a caricatured land of kung fu warriors dressed in dragon-emblazoned attire — something Donaka would make Linhu wear in his fights — Man of Tai Chi, at the end of the day, offers a look at the universal struggle faced by a David in the land of Goliaths.

The film is clearly no simple vanity project for Reeves. While weighed down by digressions and contraptions, Man of Tai Chi is an adequate and ambitious effort from a first-time director, who could have enhanced his on-screen philosophical arguments with a bit more depth and done with a touch less of the admittedly riveting man-to-man melee.

Production: China Film Group, Wanda Media, Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, Universal Pictures, Company Films
Cast: Tiger Chen, Keanu Reeves, Karen Mok, Yu Hai, Simon Yam, Ye Qing
Director: Keanu Reeves
Action director: Yuen Woo-ping
Screenwriter: Michael Cooney
Producers: Lemore Syvan, Daxing Zhang
Executive Producers: Han Sanping, Zhao Fang, Ellen Eliasoph
Director of photography: Elliot Davis
Production designer: Yohei Taneda
Music: Chan Kwong-wing
Costume designer: Joseph Porro
Art directors: Fu Yingzhang, Miyuki Kitagawa
Editor: Derek Hui
In English, Mandarin and Cantonese
Running time 105 minutes

July 9, 2013

Man of Tai Chi (Variety review)

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

Man of Tai Chi

Maggie Lee

There’s little in the way of drama, character depth or mise-en-scene to distract from Tiger Chen’s technically dazzling display of human combat in Keanu Reeves’ helming debut, “Man of Tai Chi.” As a vehicle for Hollywood action choreographer Chen to show off his prowess as a gullible tai-chi student lured into underground fight clubs, this China-U.S. co-production is the real deal for hardcore chopsocky fans, and will slot easily into genre ancillary. But Reeves’ workmanlike direction doesn’t boast enough style or originality for this actioner to significantly cross over to the mainstream.

With no confirmed date for a Stateside bow, the Beijing/Hong Kong-set pic premiered in China with only a 12.7% screen occupancy, facing stiff competition from the likes of the phenomenally successful teen drama “Tiny Times” and Johnnie To’s “Blind Detective.” Opening day B.O. produced a lame $872,000, half of what To’s action-comedy earned when it was released a day earlier.

The original idea for this project reportedly sprang from Reeves’ desire to pay tribute to his friend and trainer, Chen (aka Chen Hu). The Sichuan-born martial-arts champion is a protege of esteemed action director Yuen Woo-ping, and was largely responsible for the action choreography on “The Matrix” series, “Kill Bill” and “Charlie’s Angels,” among others. With Yuen taking the reins in “Man of Tai Chi,” Chen provides a thorough overview of martial-arts schools and combat techniques, but as an actor, he doesn’t possess Jet Li or Donnie Yen’s charisma. Similarly, the crew — consisting of American, Hong Kong and mainland Chinese collaborators — does professional work, but delivers neither the spectacle expected of a Hollywood blockbuster nor the quirky charm and kinetic energy of classic Hong Kong actioners.

The theme and storyline are utterly generic — the corruption of a noble spirit by his thirst for winning. It begins with a scene of brutal man-to-man combat in a cell, where fighter Chi-tak (Jeremy Marinas) thrashes his opponent; when he refuses to “finish him off,” as ordered by an unseen game master, he is stabbed by a man (Reeves) in a mask. Led by Hong Kong police superintendent Suen Jing-si (Karen Mok), a SWAT team raids the premises but finds nothing. Jing-si appeals to her chief (Simon Yam) to help locate Chi-tak, who’s actually her mole, but the case is unceremoniously closed.

The masked man turns out to be Donaka Mark, a financial high roller from the U.S. who runs a covert fight club in Hong Kong. In search of a replacement for Chi-tak, he chances upon the TV broadcast of a Chinese national martial-arts championship. Chen Linhu (Chen), sole disciple of the Lingkong School of Tai Chi, impresses him not only with his innovative moves, but also his innocence. Although he holds a stressful, low-paid job as a courier in Beijing, Linhu declines the offer to compete in Donaka’s underground matches, deeming it dishonorable. However, when the temple guarded by his master (Yu Hai) faces demolition unless costly renovations are made, Donaka’s offer of quick cash suddenly becomes easy bait.

To the credit of Reeves and scribe Michael G. Cooney, the film respectfully avoids exoticism or oriental mysticism in its portrayal of its martial-arts milieu, only slipping in small, tolerable dose of Taoist and Qigong philosophy. The fighting never feels repetitive as it alternates between proper Chinese kung fu and a fusion of no-holds-barred, MMA-inflected styles. With its rapid-fire, virtually nonstop mortal combat, the film recalls Gareth Evans’ Indonesia-set “The Raid: Redemption,” although “Man’s” less callous, more humanist approach toward violence is what will prevent it from achieving the same sort of cult success. (“The Raid” star Iko Uwais even makes a guest appearance here as Linhua’s opponent, but his role is squandered, as what should be the crowning showdown is cut short for a less exciting settling of the score with Donaka.)

Chen, who possesses extraordinary strength and agility, convincingly expresses his character’s loss of inner balance and growing bloodlust through body language, moving from the graceful formalism of tai chi to ugly, predatory moves as his opponents become more intimidating. The drawback is that lenser Elliot Davis’ stark framing and unswerving focus on the action tends to give short shrift to the identities and personalities of the other fighters.

Considering how basic the plot is, Derek Hui’s brisk editing keeps the story moving along smoothly enough, but the characters’ interactions are too superficial to engage. When he’s not kicking ass, Chen is wooden around the other thesps, and especially with the vacant Ye Qing as Linhu’s love interest. Only Yu’s sage countenance and dignified poise transcend the elementary martial-arts philosophy espoused here; a revered martial artist who had a memorable role in the seminal “Shaolin Temple” series that propelled Jet Li to stardom, he contributes some of the film’s most magnificent tai chi demonstrations.

As the demonic figure who brings out the dark side of Linhu, Reeves is stiff and expressionless, never really registering as a catalyst for the good-vs.-evil conflict that should have formed the film’s dramatic backbone. As the cop who uncovers Donaka’s nefarious dealings, Mok is given little to work with, but she still shows some spunk and agility when one least expects it.

Famed Nipponese production designer Yohei Taneda gives some of the sets a surreal look reminiscent of “The Matrix’s” cyberworld; others, such as the fighting arenas, remain minimalist and functional. Except for some panoramic shots of Hong Kong’s skylines at night, the city emerges with scant distinct color; by contrast, the Beijing locations feel more authentic, avoiding touristy sights in favor of congested highways and lived-in neighborhoods. The concussive score, mixing techno with Canto-rap and sometimes just blasts of noise, is in keeping with the bombast typical of so many Hong Kong composers. Other tech credits are pro.

Reviewed at Sanlitun Megabox, Beijing, July 5, 2013. Running time: 104 MIN. Original title: “Taiji xia”

(China-U.S.) A China Film Group/Wanda Media (in China)/Village Roadshow Pictures Asia (in Australia)/Radius-TWC (in U.S.) release of a China Film Group, Wanda Media Village Roadshow Pictures Asia, Universal, Company Films presentation of a China Film Group, Wanda Media, Universal production. Produced by Lemore Syvan, Zhang Daxing. Executive producers, Han Sanping, Zhao Fang, Ellen Eliasoph.

Directed by Keanu Reeves. Screenplay, Michael G. Cooney. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Elliot Davis; editor, Derek Hui; music, Chan Kwong-wing; production designer, Yohei Taneda; art directors, Fu Yingzhang, Miyuki Kitagawa; costume designer, Joseph Porro; sound (Dolby Digital); action choreographer, Yuen Woo-ping; stunt coordinator, Chan Siu-wah; line producers, Johnny Lee, Sharon Miller; assistant director, Fei Wong; second unit director, Lee Peipei; second unit camera, Dai Runguang; casting, PoPing Auyeung.

Keanu Reeves, Tiger Chen, Karen Mok, Yu Hai, Ye Qing, Simon Yam, Sam Lee, Iko Uwais, Jeremy Marinas. (English, Mandarin, Cantonese dialogue)

July 1, 2013

Badges of Fury (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 8:53 pm

Badges of Fury

JUNE 28, 2013
Maggie Lee

As a vehicle for Jet Li and rising Chinese thesp Wen Zhang to show off their kung fu and comedy chops, respectively, “Badges of Fury” narrowly passes muster as a silly time-killer, souped up with some wackily conceived action. Mainland-produced but helmed by Hong Kong newcomer Wong Tsz-ming, the film — pairing Li and Wen as bickering cops cracking a serial murder case — coasts along on gags and slapstick, with multiple star cameos the icing on this unnourishing cake. Pic opened strong domestically before being overshadowed by “Man of Steel,” and should have ancillary legs in genre markets.

“Badges” has all the trappings of a film typically released over a Chinese holiday period: a rambling hodgepodge of genres and movie parodies featuring dozens of stars in blink-and-you’ll-miss-’em cameos. Produced by Beijing Enlight Pictures, the company that released China’s biggest domestic hit, “Lost in Thailand,” the film may be dominated by mainland stars, but its style and sensibility are informed by ’80s Hong Kong kitsch and the sort of head-scratching ’90s humor influenced by H.K. multihyphenate Stephen Chow. Curiously, however, neither the setting nor the art direction seems consciously retro.

Li and Wen (“Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons,” “Love Is Not Blind”) have teamed up twice before to convivial effect, first as a father-and-autistic-son duo in “Ocean Heaven” (2010), then as a demon-slaying Buddhist monk and his daffy disciple in “The Sorcerer and the White Snake” (2011). Here, Li plays Huang Feihong, a seasoned detective with brains and brawn, and a tribute to his same-named role in Tsui Hark’s “Once Upon a Time in China” series. Wen is Wang Bu’er, a blundering cop who suffers from delusions of genius. They’re ordered by senior officer Angela Chan (Michelle Chen, “You Are the Apple of My Eye”) to solve the serial “Smile Murders,” so named because the victims are all found with mysterious smiles on their faces.

The first 30 minutes offer a brazenly artificial setup designed to bring on a roster of star cameos: An actor (TV thesp Cheng Kar-wing), a diver (former Olympic diver Tian Liang), a dancer (TV actor and dance-contest champion Tse Tin-wah) and a property developer (Tong Dawei) all fall victim to the killer. One thing the victims have in common is that they all dated and dumped B-list actress Liu Jingshui (Cecilia Liu Shishi).

After a few dumb good-cop-bad-cop hijinks, the story finally gets juicy with the appearance of Liu’s prodigiously busty half-sister, Dai Yiyi (Liu Yan); she’s dating Liu’s old flame, Gao Min (Raymond Lam), and does some rather creepy things with a voodoo doll. Alas, that’s only half of the madcap plot, which continues to pile on wacko characters like grizzled gangster Tiger Crane Lucky (Leung Kar-yan), Liu’s paralyzed uncle (Leung Siu-lung) and his peeping-Tom son (Stephen Fung).

Whenever the comedy starts to sag, the film injects a fight scene (reliably staged by Corey Yuen), which generally does the trick. The 50-ish Li still possesses plenty of stamina, as is clear whether he’s making daring leaps or matching national martial-arts champ Wu Jing punch for punch. The bigger setpieces, such as a group rumble or a showdown at a Chinese opera house, have a nostalgic feel but are no less robustly lensed (by Kenny Tse) and edited (by Angie Lam), although they rely rather excessively on slo-mo and jump cuts.

While the shambolic narrative offers less drama or spectacle than Li and Wen’s previous collaborations, the actors’ chemistry remains intact, thanks to Wen’s unique brand of cluelessness, which helps bring out Li’s snarky side (absent from his straight heroic roles). Taiwanese thesp Chen spends most of the time looking annoyed or stumped, but her vivaciousness meshes well with Wen’s over-the-top clowning. Lee is purely functional and so bland that it’s understandable why so many men would want to ditch her.

Tech credits are average, with sets on the shoddy side. Wardrobe by Shirley Chan is in line with the Wong Jing and Raymond Wong school of costume design, predicated on the notion that no skirt can be too short and no cleavage too visible.

Reviewed at Shanghai Film Art Center, July 24, 2013. Running time: 97 MIN. Original title: “Bu’er shentan”

(China-Hong Kong) A Beijing Enlight Pictures (in China)/Newport Entertainment Co. (in Hong Kong) release of a Beijing Enlight Pictures, Hong Kong Pictures Intl. presentation, Beijing Enlight Pictures, Hong Kong Pictures Intl., My Way Film Co., Intrend Entertainment Co. production in association with China Film Co-Prod. (International sales: Easternlight Films, Los Angeles.) Produced by Chui Po-chu, Abe Kwong, Chan Chi-leung. Executive producers, Wang Changtian, Li Xiaoping.

Directed by Wong Tsz-ming. Screenplay, Carbon Cheung. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Kenny Tse; editor, Angie Lam; music, Raymond Wong Ying-wah; production designer, Alex Mok; costume designer, Shirley Chan; sound (Dolby Digital), Tam Tak-wing, Ken Wong, Phyllis Cheng; special effects, H.K. Screen Art; visual effects supervisor, Li Jinhua; visual effects, Different Digital Design, Digital Intermediate; action director, Corey Yuen; second unit camera, Fu Ga-yu.

Jet Li, Wen Zhang, Michelle Chen, Cecilia Liu Shishi, Liu Yan, Raymond Lam, Stephen Fung, Leung Siu-lung, Wu Jing, Leung Kar-yan, Collin Chou, Cheng Kar-wing, Tse Tin-wah, Tian Liang, Tong Dawei, Huang Xiaoming, Ma Yili, Alex Fong, Stephy Tang, Lam Suet, Josie Ho. (Mandarin dialogue)


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