HKMDB Daily News

August 30, 2013

Rigor Mortis (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 11:56 am

Rigor Mortis

The Bottom Line
A lavish, heavy-handed retreading and reinvention of Hong Kong and Japanese horror-film tropes, saved from clinical inhumanity by its veteran cast.

8/30/2013 by Clarence Tsui

Produced by J-Horror icon Takashi Shimizu, Hong Kong singer-actor Juno Mak’s directorial debut revolves around a suicidal, washed-up actor’s confrontations with supernatural beings in a dilapidated tenement block.

As a first-time filmmaker, the popstar-turned-director Juno Mak has arrived with his influences sewn brashly on his sleeves.

Set in a dank ambience de rigueur to Japanese supernatural flicks –a visual debt probably owed to The Grudge director Takashi Shimizu,Mak’s co-producer here – zombies and shamen made famous by the cult Hong Kong 1980s franchise Mr Vampire runs amok. And in a nod to the metatextual tropes of Scream or Cabin in the Woods, one of the stars of that seminal horror-comedy classic actually appears here as a washed-up version of himself, sucked into what could be his life’s final achievement as he leads the line in a battle between the human and supernatural realms.

It’s a mix which will be play well to audiences seeking extreme, unflinchingly gory thrills – indeed, a premiere at the Venice Days sidebar will be followed by screenings in Toronto’s Midnight Madness showcase – and also to the Hong Kong cinema aficionados eager to spot some of the city’s veterans in action. Rigor Mortis’ strongest suit lies with its cast. The film comes with lavish (and sometimes distractingly so) digital effects, but it’s the old-timers who are instrumental in injecting humanity and life into the film.

The film begins as strains of Mr Vampire’s haunting folk-tinged theme song play over a shot of a piece of ground strewn with bodies and debris: a charred corpse here, a dying Taoist exorcist there, and finally the bloodied and muddied (and muddled) protagonist turning over – perhaps one last time – as his voiceover begins: “I left this village when I was 13, and became a leading man when I was 16 – I never thought it would be when I hit 50 that I finally become human. They say film stories are absurd – but I think real life is more so.”

The “village” he said he left is not the rustic hamlet ingrained in many a (Western) imagination about traditional Chinese societies, though. As the camera pans upwards at the end of the opening shot, the village is revealed to actually be a tenement block in a government-subsidized housing estate – and it’s here that the main action takes place, as a flashback to the beginning of the tale reveals the lead character moving into of the vacant apartments in the complex.

As the man unpacks his luggage – complete with costumes from zombie-horror films and authentic photographs with Chow Yun-fat and Maggie Cheung – he reveals his past as a one-time movie star who has struggled to maintain both his career and his family. Played by the 1980s A-lister Chin Siu-ho, who was one of the on-screen ghostbusters in Mr Vampire, the has-been actor remains nameless throughout the film, until the end when he’s revealed to be – who else? – “Chin Siu-ho”.

After a failed attempt in hanging himself, the washed-up ex-celebrity finds himself living in a community of retirees whiling away their time as they find their days of “being useful” over. Uncle Yau (Anthony Chan Yau, one of Chin’s co-stars in Mr Vampire), the food-stall owner who saved him from the rope, reveals himself to be a former zombie-hunter whose services are no longer sought; Uncle Gau (veteran martial arts actor and choreographer Chung Fat, who has made a fair share of zombie films in the 1980s too), meanwhile is a sage also providing neighbors with the odd guidance and not much else.

Chin’s frequent encounters with the estate’s resident lunatic Yeung Fung (Kara Wai, At the End of Daybreak) leads to the film’s first all-out paranormal activity – a half-baked component which seemingly exists merely to showcase the long-haired, eye-rolling ghouls which is Shimizu’s specialty – but Rigor Mortis’ central line is driven by another more engaging and fully-formed strand, when a kind, soft-speaking seamstress Aunt Mui (Nina Paw Hee-ching) resorts to ever-more desperate (and deadly) measures to bring his husband (Richard Ng) back to life.

Just as most misguided efforts in the name of love, Mui’s attempts only leads to the nurturing of a monster. And it’s from this that Chin is pitted against the beast, in a last chance saloon (or apartment block corridor) to redeem himself and his much-battered image – or self-image, to be exact, as an end-of-film twist which gives a reinvention of the much-used cliché of seeing the past flashing in front of a dying person’s eyes.

It’s a coda which is curious yet potentially self-defeating, a situation which could have been avoided if the screenplay – co-written by Mak and critic-cum-director Philip Yung and Jill Leung – was more layered with allegory and less dependent on distracting special effects and side plots.

One interesting allegory Mak could have explored more is the (haunted) tenement block as the place people past their prime go to die – with the onscreen version of Chin, which boasts of many similar biographical details of the actor himself, seemingly destined for demise, only to (at least to him) rediscover a sense of worth in what appears to be the margin of society and the dustbins of history.

Here, Mak has provided a platform for Hong Kong cinema’s veterans to shine. And the men here are all eclipsed by Paw’s riveting performance: known for one of the city’s best thespians and an award-winner with Ann Hui’s much-acclaimed 2009 social drama The Way We Are, the actress gives shape to a tortured soul struggling to contain her loss, and to reconcile her horrible deeds so as to prove her love and fulfill her duty as a wife – a situation best manifested in a sustained closed up of Mui breaking down in a mix of fear and self-loathing after a particularly murderous move. Who would have thought that a film called Rigor Mortis could contain such moments of emotional vigor?

Premiere at Venice Days, Sept 4; Toronto, Sept 11
Production Company: Great Sound Creation for a Kudos Film presentation
Cast: Chin Siu-ho, Nina Paw Hee-ching, Anthony Chan, Kara Wai, Richard Ng, Chung Fat
Director: Juno Mak
Producers: Takashi Shimizu, Juno Mak
Executive Producers: Steven Lo, Bernard Lai
Screenwriters: Philip Yung, Jill Leung, Juno Mak
Director of Photography: Ng Kai-ming
Editor: David Richardson
Production Designer: Irving Chen
Costume Designers: Miggy Cheng, Phoebe Wong
Music: Nath Connelly
International Sales: Fortissimo Films
Running Time 101 minutes

Fake Fiction (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 11:45 am

Fake Fiction

8/30/2013 by Clarence Tsui
Bottom Line: Solid performances from Xu Zheng and child star Zhang Zifeng carry a film showcasing an unsure approach in inject harsh social critique into a comedy.

The director-star of China’s highest-grossing homegrown release returns, playing a small-time trickster who regains his conscience in the company of a young girl.

For the past month, Xu Zheng has been nearly omnipresent in mainland Chinese cinemas.

He was first seen in a cameo in the Fan Bingbing romantic comedy One Night Surprise, and then his voice was heard doing Sully’s lines in the Mandarin dubbed version of Monsters University. The proper test for the actor, however, comes with Fake Fiction, his first full-fledged, feature film role after the runaway success of Lost in Thailand – which he starred in and directed.

It’s a surprisingly low-key, mid-budget and highly intimate affair, set mostly within an unnamed seaside city and driven mostly by the growing bond between hustling magician David Ou (Xu) and runaway schoolgirl Diudiu (Zhang Zifeng).

It’s hardly a coincidence that the film’s Chinese title is the same as the long-used translation for Charlie Chaplin’s Modern Times. Just like that 1936 classic, Fake Fiction makes an attempt to chronicle the struggle of the under-class in a society that has seen turbo-charged economic growth. But there’s no place for the Little Tramp’s naivete in the 21st century: the victims have taken up the cynicism of the prevailing system, with Ou more a con-man than an illusionist and Diudiu a troublesome brat who descends on the trickster’s apartment one day, claiming to be his daughter.

The Paulette Goddard character in Modern Times is split into two here: while Diudiu fills the part of the orphan-in-distress, the guardian angel that gives the protagonist a job and an opportunity to thrive is manifested here in the form of Mao Na (Vanessa Wang Xuanyu), a sharply dressed (read: open-necked shirts, short skirts, stilettos) artistic director of the cultural subsidiary of a business corporation – a capacity which belies, as she later admits to Ou, a long struggle starting from her days as a nightclub dancer.

The trio is forced together as Mao commissions Ou to perform a trick that will make a big, seaside religious statue disappear. Thinking of grabbing the initial down payment and run, Ou finds himself duped when his agent actually takes off for Dubai with the money before he can – which leads to the magician having to really make the impossible trick work with Diudiu’s help.

The bickering inevitably is replaced by affection, of course, but there are also moments that actually stray off the formula: one of the film’s odd but effectively disturbing scenes involve Mao being coerced into getting up on a table to dance for the tycoon bankrolling the business deals of her creepy boss (Zhang Songwen). With Ou’s clownish antics failing to deflect the situation, the stand-off only leads to a chastening, dignity-stripping experience.

It’s one of a few scenes that look quite out of place in Fake Fiction’s oddball, odd-couple comedy formula – and it’s also a sign of how the filmmakers tried to approach the material in different ways, but were unable to deliver a coherent style, both in terms of storytelling – the conclusion of the story demands extreme suspension of disbelief from the viewer – but also in terms of visuals. While some of Shao Weihong’s handheld camera work gives certain exterior scenes a gritty, earthier look, the same technique is out of place for the sequences filmed indoors.

But at least Fake Fiction can count on a bankable performance from the perennially charismatic Xu, who is best here when caught in acerbic exchanges with the natural child-star debutant Zhang Zifeng. While not exactly the full-fledged real deal – melodrama still takes a bow here with the now inevitable scenes of a guilty and crying man searching for lost girl in torrential rain – Fake Fiction is a move, a small step maybe, towards comedy motored by the tears of a socially marginalized clown.

Production Companies: Zhujiang Film Group, Dadi Century Films, Light and Magic of China Cast: Xu Zheng, Zhang Zifeng, Zhang Songwen, Wang Xuanyu
Director: Shao Xiaoli (as “Chief Director”), Du Peng
Producers: Liu Hongbing, Liu Yong, Tian Zhenshan
Executive Producers: Lin Hai, Shao Xiaoli
Screenplay: Du Peng, Ning Dai, Shao Xiaoli, Gao Wei
Director of Photography: Shao Weihong
Art Director: Weng Yu Music: Guan Peng
Editor: Jiang Yong
In Mandarin
Running Time 93 minutes

August 28, 2013

The Palace (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 12:08 pm

The Palace

August 28, 2013
This local hit is an exquisitely wrought but moralistic Cinderella story set during China’s Qing Dynasty.

Maggie Lee
Richly cinematic and more tasteful than the average mainland Chinese period costumer,”The Palace” is as exquisitely wrought as a cloisonne vase, but beneath the surface craftsmanship lies a timeworn Cinderella story entrenched in conservative attitudes toward women. Reliably helmed by Pan Anzi and floridly plotted by hit-making TV producer-scribe Yu Zheng, the Qing dynasty-set romance between a palace maid and a prince oscillates between drippy puppy love and bodice-ripping amour fou. The pic has swiftly conquered its targeted adolescent market at home, but audiences outside Chinese-speaking territories may find the package too formulaic.

“The Palace” has collected more than $7.5 million in its first week of domestic release, having been marketed as the offshoot of Yu’s top-rated TV dramas “Palace: The Locked Heart Jade” (2011) and “Palace: The Locked Beaded Curtain” (2012). As the film’s producer, Yu has marshaled a first-rate Hong Kong crew that handles the technical aspects with flair, while visual effects supervised by Rhythm & Hues’ Josh Cole (“Red Cliff,” “Night at the Museum 2″) add an air of fairy-tale enchantment.

Yet despite Yu’s reputation as an expert on Qing Dynasty court sagas, his screenplay interweaves romance, eroticism and royal intrigue without generating much suspense or surprise. By discarding the time-travel elements that made the original TV series playful and refreshing, the material becomes all the more generic in its re-creation of an archaic world where women lie, steal and beg to win men’s fickle favors.

The film is most gripping in its first act, which depicts a tough rite of passage for Chenxiang (Zhang Zifeng), daughter of a minor Manchurian official. At 13, she is recruited to serve as a palace maid at the court of Emperor Kangxi (Winston Chao, “The Wedding Banquet”). Out of scores of hopefuls, she is hand-picked by the chief eunuch (Dickie Cheung), not for her looks, but for her ability to withstand pain — a quality that comes in handy in her later career. Chenxiang is bullied the moment she enters the dorm, but fortunately, the prettier, craftier Liuli (Jiang Yiyi) comes to her aid and becomes her bosom friend. A few brief but chilling scenes describing the fates of over-ambitious palace maids and out-of-favor concubines suggest the cutthroat nature of this imperial harem.

Seven years later, the girls have bloomed into nubile maidens on the lookout for any chance to catch a prince’s roving eye. Liuli (now played by Zhao Liying) sweet-talks Chenxiang (Zhou Dongyu, “Under the Hawthorn Tree”) into joining her on the night shift. While Liuli is busy waylaying Prince Yintang (Zhu Zixiao) and literally thrusting herself upon him, Chenxiang stumbles into a sequestered garden just as Prince Yinxiang (Chen Xiao) saunters in. Chenxiang’s gift for summoning butterflies sets his heart aflutter, as it reminds him of his late mother, Concubine Min (Eva Huang).

Smitten with Chenxiang after their hasty encounter, Yinxiang enlists Concubine De (Vivian Hsu, “The Pillow Book”) to be his matchmaker, but there’s a minor glitch: He doesn’t know what she looks like, as she was wearing a scarf over her face. Cinderella had it easy compared with Chenxiang, who has to jump through so many hoops before Yinxiang recognizes her that it soon becomes exasperating to watch. While Yinxiang’s effusive desire to please his dream girl feels like the stuff of teen fantasy, what’s even harder to swallow is how Chenxiang silently suffers and makes ridiculous sacrifices; her innocence and docility are contrasted with Liuli’s powerful libido and conniving behavior in an old-fashioned virgin/whore dichotomy.

Zhou holds the screen very well, turning an initially daft personality into an angsty but stoical heroine. TV thesps Chen, Zhao and Zhu acquit themselves adequately, but none of them attempt to bring any additional layers to their stock characters . By contrast, established thesps like Chao and Hsu exude an air of respectability in memorable supporting roles.

Production values are exceptionally high, notable in the magnificent mise-en-scene with its hints of danger and mystique, as the thesps, costumed in exquisitely embroidered finery by Bobo Ng, tiptoe around luxuriant chambers designed by Lau Sai-wan. Tsou Lin-yau’s luminous lensing has a velvety texture, while scene transitions are silky-smooth under Cheung Ka-fai precise cutting. Composer Peter Kam eschews his usual thundering beats for a sweet, tuneful score.

Reviewed online, Seoul, Aug. 15, 2013. Running time: 114 MIN. Original title: “Gong suo Chenxiang”

(China) A Wanda Media Co., Cathay Media release of a Wanda Media Co., Hunan Broadcasting System, EE Media, Yuzheng (Shanghai) Film & TV Studio presentation of a Wanda Media Co. production in association with China Film Co., SFC Film Distribution Co., Zhujiang Film Group, EE Media, Like-minded Movie and TV Culture Co. (International sales: Wanda Media Co., Beijing.) Produced by Du Yang, Ye Ning, Lv Huanbin, Zhang Huali, Yu Zheng. Executive producers, Zhao Fang, Yu Zheng. Co-producers, Liu Xiangqun, Pu Shulin, Sun Huaiqing. Co-executive producers, Li Lei, Yang Le.

Directed by Pan Anzi. Screenplay, Yu Zheng. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Tsou Lin-yau; editor, Cheung Ka-fai; music, Peter Kam; production designer, Lau Sai-wan; costume designer, Bobo Ng; sound (Dolby Digital), Wu Jiang, Zhao Yong; re-recording mixer, Zhao Yong; visual effects supervisor, Josh Cole; visual effects, Phenom Films; action director, Guo Yong; line producer, Peggy Lee Kam-man; associate producers, Zhang Yong, Long Danni, He Jin, Yang Le; assistant director, Lanbo Cheuk.

Zhou Dongyu, Chen Xiao, Zhao Liying, Zhu Zixiao, Lu Yi, Bao Beier, Eva Huang, Winston Chao, Vivian Hsu, Zhang Zifeng, Jiang Yiyi, Dickie Cheung, Kingdom Yuen, Lam Tze-chung. (Mandarin dialogue)

August 24, 2013

A Time in Quchi (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 1:51 pm

A Time in Quchi
August 19, 2013

Delicate and poetic, but full of offbeat humor, this coming-of-ager is Taiwanese auteur Chang Tso-chi’s most accessible work to date.

Maggie Lee

Inviting immediate comparisons with Hou Hsiao Hsien’s “A Summer at Grandpa’s” (1984), “A Time in Quchi” finds Taiwanese auteur Chang Tso-chi attaining a new level of subtlety with his lucid, unsentimental observations of a boy’s coming of age during his country vacation. Putting aside the gangsters, invalids and outcasts that have populated his dark, troubled oeuvre until now, Chang touches on profound themes of loss and separation, evoking delicate feelings in poetic fashion; he also evinces a fresh, offbeat sense of humor that makes this his most accessible work to date. A charmed fest life awaits, but commercial potential is slight.

Three decades since the first installment of Hou’s coming-of-age trilogy (followed by “A Time to Live and a Time to Die” and “Dust in the Wind”), post-Taiwan New Wave helmer Chang pays homage to those films and their back-to-nature aesthetics. Yet “A Time in Quchi” is no mere retread of old tropes; it carefully avoids a consciously retro look or any other stylistic affectations.

Following a prologue that invokes the motif of its Chinese title, “Summer Homework,” the yarn unfolds via diary entries written by 10-year-old Guan Xiaobao (Yang Liang-yu), nicknamed Bao, recounting what he did during his vacation. Needing some space as they work out the terms of their divorce, Bao’s parents bundle him off with his younger sister, Seaweed (Lin Ya-ruo), to stay with their grandfather (Guan Guan, aka Kuan Yun-loong) in Quchi, an outlying rural community not far from Taipei.

Grandma passed away a year ago, but Grandpa’s loneliness is carefully hidden beneath his jovial air and feigned peevishness. Eccentric is too conventional a term to describe the old codger, who spends hours painting faces on stones, and even orders Bao to greet one of them as a stand-in for Grandma at the dinner table. The symbolic meaning of his handicraft emerges over the course of the film, revealing the old man’s romantic soul and Zen wisdom.

The first half of the film is punctuated with voiceover excerpts from Bao’s holiday assignment, in which he covers up his discontent with fake, upbeat rhetoric. As he befriends local brats Ming-chuan (Hsieh Ming-chuan), Steamed Bun (Wu Bing-jun), and class beauty Bear (Gao Shui-lian) at the village school, he falls in love with his surroundings and the diary entries begin to pour from his heart. Nothing overtly dramatic happens — the tykes climb trees, catch crickets and rehearse a play — but the rigorously pared-down script and near-invisible camera capture each child’s individuality and myriad moods; what fascinates them becomes just as engrossing to audiences. Here and there, urban-vs.-rural stereotypes are slyly subverted, as when an aboriginal schoolgirl kicks Bao’s ass in a beatboxing match.

At around the 75-minute mark, unforeseen events occur, including a violent typhoon, forcing Bao to cross the threshold into adulthood. Although “A Time in Quchi” is lighter in tone than Chang’s previous works, the fatalistic strain running through those films is also apparent here, turning the story into a meditation on transience. From the implied impact of Grandma’s death on Grandpa to the embittered breakup of his parents’ marriage, or even the rare glimpse of a peacock’s tail, Bao’s experiences teach him that everything comes and goes as abruptly as that typhoon. This truth is expressed in a quietly crushing scene when, instead of comforting Bao at a sad moment, Grandpa advises him to “get used to loneliness.”

The city/country divide that concerned Hou’s generation of artists has intensified beyond recognition, and Chang explores the demise of urban families, epitomized by how Bao is neglected by his parents; he’s lavished with fancy toys, but his sneakers are worn through.

The helmer’s hand is almost imperceptible in the lovely ensemble acting of the young cast, culled from elementary schools all over Taiwan. Bao and Seaweed’s barbed altercations provide the film’s most animated moments, aided by Yang and Lin’s ability to play siblings convincingly; Lin is especially memorable as a puckish little terror. As aboriginal Bear, Gao maintains a noble poise that shines through the poverty and squalor around her.

All tech credits are just right. While human activity is recorded with candid, docu-style realism, idyllic images of the landscapes inspire a Wordsworthian awe of nature. Chang’s works, notably “Zhong Zi” (1996) and “Darkness and Light” (1999), are defined by complex contrasts of light and darkness; here, the play on light is less studied, although the film takes on darker hues in the second half.

Reviewed at Taiwan Independent Film Professionals Assn., Taipei, July 22, 2013. (In Locarno Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 114 MIN. Original title: “Shujia suoye”

(Taiwan) A Chang Tso-chi Film Studio presentation, production. (International sales: Swallow Wings Films, Taipei.) Produced by Kao Wen-hong. Executive producer, Chang Tso-chi.

Directed, written, edited by Chang Tso-chi. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Yuan Ching-kuo, Jacky Chen, Hsu Chih-chun; music, Wu Rui-ran; music supervisor, Philip Volker Werner; production designer, Michael Yang; costume designers, Liu Chia-hsin, Hsiao Yu-wei; sound (Dolby Digital), Hsieh Hui-ching, Joseph Yeh; re-recording mixer, Hsieh Hui-ching; special effects, Lunghwa University of Science and Technology; visual effects supervisor, Zhang Zhao-ming; assistant director, Wang Tzu-chieh.

Guan Guan, Yang Liang-yu, Kuan Yun-loong, Lin Ya-ruo, Gao Shui-lian, Hsieh Ming-chuan, Wu Bing-jun, You Chi-wei, Yao Han-yi, Cheng Jen-shuo, Jin Zi-yan, Prince Star, aka Yen Yong-heng, Jiang Shao-yi. (Mandarin dialogue, Taiwanese dialect)


Go Grandriders (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 1:20 pm

Go Grandriders

August 22, 2013

A warmly ingratiating snapshot of 17 Taiwanese men and women still doggedly riding their motorcycles well into their 70s and 80s.
Justin Chang

A sort of scooter-themed companion piece to 2007′s singing-senior-citizens doc “Young@Heart,” “Go Grandriders” offers a warmly ingratiating snapshot of 17 Taiwanese men and women still doggedly riding their motorcycles well into their golden years. Following these high-spirited scooter enthusiasts on their 2007 ride around the island’s perimeter, Hua Tien-hau’s sentimental, conventionally inspiring film offers good-natured insights on the importance — and the difficulty — of living life to the fullest at any age. Having set local B.O. records last year for a Taiwanese documentary release, it should continue to cheer audiences in its limited Los Angeles theatrical run and DVD release.

The film mixes loosely staged interviews with day-by-day coverage of the riders’ often harrowing 13-day, 730-mile journey organized by the Taichung-based Hongdao Senior Citizen’s Welfare Foundation (also one of the film’s producers). Hua doesn’t delve too deeply into the lives of his septuagenarian and octogenarian subjects, seizing instead on individual moments that gently illuminate years of patient, hard-won experience. One 83-year-old man describes the 13-day, 730-mile trip as the fulfillment of a dream he’s had since his youth, and viewers may discern both a sense of triumph and a measure of regret for having lived his younger years too cautiously.

Although the tone is as lighthearted and celebratory as the title, nudged in an upbeat direction by a somewhat over-insistent score, the specter of mortality hangs heavy over the proceedings. The dangers posed by damaged highways (many wrecked by a recent monsoon) and passing cars are self-evident, and more than once the Grandriders find themselves waylaid by medical emergencies. The team’s captain is hospitalized on the second day due to a low hemoglobin count, and his frustration at not being able to complete the ride with his friends is wrenching.

Elsewhere, a husband and wife treat the journey as an opportunity to celebrate their many years together, something scarcely taken for granted in light of her battle with breast cancer. And in one of the more poignant scenes before the trip begins, a man visits the grave of his wife of 40 years and asks her, winningly, if she’ll come along for the ride.

Before and during the trip, the film paints a wide-ranging if surface-level portrait of Taiwanese customs and hobbies, showing the riders variously engaged in tai chi, calligraphy, Buddhist meditation and Christian prayer as they prepare for the challenge ahead. The sense of delight they take in simple tasks and pleasures is at once infectious and a bit repetitive over the 90-minute running time. “They say elders are like kids,” someone notes at one point, a notion the film doesn’t exactly contradict in shots of its subjects at their leisure, taking time out for a bite of ice cream or wandering through a busy night market.

Enhanced by lovely camerawork from Hua and two other lensers, “Go Grandriders” offers a scenic travelogue of the Taiwanese coast; the abundant motorcycle footage, like the film itself, is sweet but unexciting.

Reviewed on DVD, Pasadena, Calif., Aug. 20, 2013. (In Seattle, New York Asian-American film festivals; 2012 Intl. Documentary Film Festival Amsterdam.) Running time: 90 MIN.

(Taiwan) A CNEX Foundation (in U.S.) release of a Hondao Senior Citizens Welfare Foundation, Merry Go Round Media, CNEX Foundation presentation of a Merry Go Round Media production. Produced by Lin Yi-ying, Xenia Chang, Ben Tsiang. Executive producers, Wang Nai-hung, Hua Tien-hau, Ruby Chen, Chang Chao-wei.

Directed by Hua Tien-hau. Camera (color, HD), Hua, Chang Ying-min, Chang Wei-chong; editor, Li Nien-hsiu; music, Rex Hsieh, Bass Ali, Han Hu, Lai Yu-qian, Huang Yu-hsiang, Wen Tzu-chieh; sound, Tu Duu-chih; line producer, Xenia Chang; associate producers, Li Juo-chi, Wu Su-ten, Erica C.C. Lin; assistant directors, Edward Shen, Huang Wei-chu.

(Mandarin, Taiwanese dialogue)

The Way We Dance (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 1:03 pm

The Way We Dance
8/23/2013 by Clarence Tsui

Adam Wong’s low-budget feature about the rise and fall and rise again of a university street dance crew also doubles as a romantic drama about a rookie recruit, her posse’s leader and a Tai Chi-practising eccentric.

The title says it all: Adam Wong’s film about aspiring young dancers is high on illustrating their athletic and dexterous moves, but very much wanting in providing a refreshing or substantial narrative and full-fledged characters — even though Hong Kong’s street-dance enthusiasts and performers might certainly embrace The Way We Dance as proof of Hong Kong’s standing as buzzing with homegrown talent which could rival that seen in the Step Up or Streetdance franchises.

Not that The Way We Dance is going to make a breakthrough beyond Chinese-language territories anytime soon, other than an odd stop in the film-festival circuit (the film featured at Taipei and Edinburgh during the summer) — and it appears this hasn’t been much of a concern for Wong, a veteran in Hong Kong’s indie film scene with whimsical teen-romances such as When Beckham Met Owen and Magic Boy.

The director and his producers have fashioned the film’s earthliness as its pioneering merit, equating the watching of the film with support of Hong Kong cinema — a line of thought articulated in a fourth-wall-breaking opening voiceover by the film’s central character. It’s certainly a risky approach (for this particular film and for the industry in general) in securing audience goodwill — and sadly the film flounders with protagonists becoming mostly ciphers who also happen to be able to hit cracking moves on the floor.

Differing from its original Chinese title (“Kwong Mo Paai” can be loosely translated as “Manic Dancing Posse”), the film’s English title rings very similar to The Way We Are, Ann Hui’s 2008 movie which, despite (or maybe because of) its low budget, offered a nuanced and moving chronicle of ordinary lives being led in a working-class suburb in Hong Kong — without resorting to the contrived use of cultural iconography parading as local identity. But that’s what The Way We Dance does from the very beginning: its protagonist, Fleur (Cherry Ngan), is shown in the milieu of her family’s traditional tofu shop, surrounded by quirky local characters (lonely old men, eccentric singletons and so on) and of course her dialect-speaking parents.

Not that this backdrop figures that much beyond its use as a visual gag: Fleur swiftly announces she’s off to college and her family, neighbors and roots will soon be largely forgotten in the remainder of the film. This deployment of cultural-clash devices is again seen as Fleur, who left her university street-dance troupe after a falling-out with its diva, takes up Tai Chi to get new inspirations for her thoroughly Western-oriented art. Barring her first well-choreographed skirmishes with the martial arts club leader Alan (Babyjohn Choi) — with whom Fleur inevitably will fall in love — Tai Chi soon recedes into the background and re-appears as caricature.
By treading lightly on some of the more hard-to-handle real-life issues the characters might have to face — Fleur never has to spar with her family; her nemesis Rebecca’s ego-fuelled trek in pursuit of fame in her media-saturated universe only scratches the surface of a very deep-seated problem — The Way We Dance actually keeps running on its abundance of joyous energy and vibrancy with matching music and camerawork. It’s a fortunate upside sprouting from its flaws.

And so it is that the characters offer what they see as revolutionary rhetoric, that they are willing to go to extremes for their ideals – but if only The Way We Dance offered characters really transgressing conservative social taboos or making shattering sacrifices in order to make themselves (and the world) a better place.
The presence of Tommy “Guns” Ly (the leader of the dance collective The Rooftoppers) talking about his tribulations of dancing with a prosthetic leg, and the underdeveloped rite-of-passage for delinquent-turned-Tai-Chi-artist Alan, are probably the closest Wong would elect to acknowledge real problems faced by real people in a world which is quickly caving in on itself.

The film is a entertaining spectacle, no less, but it also inadvertently raises a lot of questions — about how Fleur and her mates are to counter cultural differences in breaking into the mainstream, maybe – questions it doesn’t really bother to answer. Indeed, Wong has revealed to viewers the way the characters danced: the more pressing question which could improve the picture is to ask why.

Production Companies: Eye Front Pictures, Golden Scene
Cast: Cherry Ngan, Babyjohn Choi, Lokman Yeung, Tommy “Guns” Ly, Paul Wong
Director: Adam Wong
Screenwriters: Adam Wong, Saville Chan, Chan Tai-lei
Producers: Roddy Wong, Saville Chan
Executive Producer: Winnie Tsang
Director of photography: Cheng Siu-keung
Music: Day Tai, Afuc Chan
Dance Choreographer: Sing Mak
Editors: Adam Wong, Kevin Chan
Production designer: Ahong Cheung
International Sales: Golden Scene
In Cantonese and English
Running time 110 minutes

August 14, 2013

One Night Surprise (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , — dleedlee @ 7:14 pm

One Night Surprise

August 12, 2013

Fan Bingbing gets to play around with her screen-goddess image in this sweetly whimsical romantic comedy.

Maggie Lee

Cast as a high-strung career woman searching for the man who impregnated her after a drunken one-night-stand, Fan Bingbing gets to play around with her screen-goddess image in “One Night Surprise,” a racy screwball comedy from trend-setting mainland helmer Eva Jin. Remixing ideas from dude-centric Hollywood laffers like “The Hangover” and “Knocked Up,” but retooled for China’s distaff demographic, this date movie is at once sweetly whimsical and full of ballsy sexual wisecracks. Sleek filmmaking, dollhouse visuals and Fan’s international profile could parlay the pic into niche release overseas.

Having directed China’s prototypical romantic comedy with 2009′s “Sophie’s Revenge,” which made her the country’s first female filmmaker to cross the $16 million B.O. benchmark, the U.S.-educated Jin now places Fan squarely in the limelight in the role of Michelle, a 32-year-old ad exec who is by turns ditzy, waspy, plucky and vulnerable, contradictions that the actress embodies with aplomb.

“Sophie’s Revenge,” in which Fan had a supporting role, betrayed a bilious misogyny in the way its women tormented each other to get their man, and “One Night Surprise” is no less punishing toward Michelle, who habitually falls into holes, slips on her heels and slams her head against walls. But the film’s lightly comic tone also conceals a fair measure of insight into the social stigma facing single career women in their 30s (nicknamed “leftover women” in China), who are pressured to put their dreams on hold and marry for money; as noted by Michelle’s bosom friend, “Women’s worth is defined by how much men are willing to pay for them.”

At her Marie Antoinette-themed birthday bash, Michelle loses her head after a few drinks and wakes up disheveled in a hotel room. Forty days later, she discovers she’s pregnant and sets about finding the culprit. Michelle narrows it down to three suspects who turned up at her shindig: figure-skating teenager Jeb (Li Jingfu); seafood-sauce tycoon Tiger (Leon Lai, vulgarly dismantling his matinee-idol image); and her Harvard-educated Chinese-American boss, Bill (Korean-American thesp Daniel Henney, “The Last Stand”). Their confrontations provide ample opportunities for overdone slapstick and naughty sexual innuendo, but there’s also the matter of her incompatibility with any of them, poignantly addressing the harsh reality that she’s not exactly long-term relationship material in their eyes.

Michelle’s ploy to nail dreamboat Bill as the father of her baby give rise to CGI fantasy sequences that, as handled by onetime cartoon illustrator Jin, brim with imagination, whimsy and artistic virtuosity. Fan appears especially guileless and winsome, floating along in a bubble of wishful thinking, only to be cruelly yet hilariously humiliated. As a smooth-talking douchebag, Henney delivers a roguish turn, arguably his most charismatic yet; a scene in an elevator — in which he flirts with Michelle, only to make a louche retreat — reps a master class in comic timing.

Woven into these nonstop comic escapades is the romance proper: Michelle’s courtship by Tony (Hong Kong/Malaysian singer-composer-thesp Aarif Rahman), a co-worker seven years her junior. It’s clear that this caring, devoted hunk is purely a figure of wish fulfillment, but Rahman’s laid-back performance generates a mellow chemistry with the otherwise wired Fan. And although their characters’ relationship blossoms with a road trip paved with improbable contrivances, culminating in a Penang-set epilogue that’s obviously a promotional stunt sponsored by the Malaysian tourist board, the film still manages to end on a fizzy note.

Tech credits, especially Michael Bonvillain’s fluid lensing, are handsomely appointed, though the production design’s twee ornamentation and the crayon-colored visual palette will not be to everyone’s taste. Fan’s wardrobe loses points for its unruly collision of colors, styles and accessories.

Reviewed at UA KK Mall, Shenzhen, China, Aug. 9, 2013. Running time: 107 MIN. Original title: “Yi ye jingxi”

(China-Hong Kong) A Cathay Global Media (in China)/Media Asia (in Hong Kong) release of a Cathay Global Media, Media Asia, Union Pictures presentation of a Draw and Shoot Film, China Film Co-Production, Media Asia Film Prod., China Global Media Co. production in association with China Film Co-Production. (International sales: Media Asia Intl., Hong Kong.) Produced by Peter Lam, Pu Shu Lin, Eva Jin. Executive producers, Zhou Zhe, Nai Shixue. Co-producers, Cheng Yusi, Sylvia Lau.

Directed, written by Eva Jin. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Michael Bonvillain; editor, John L. Roberts; music, Joey Newman; production designer, Robin Peng, Calvin Yu; set decorator, Zoelydia Lee; costume designer, Li Hui; sound (Dolby Digital), Zhu Yanfeng; supervising sound editor, Yang Xiaohui; re-recording mixer, Zhu Yanfeng; visual effects supervisor, Wang Xiaobo, Li Jiyang; visual effects, Pixomondo, Young Art Pioneer; stunt coordinator, Nie Jun; line producer, Chow Xin Yi (Malaysia); assistant directors, Sylvia Liu, Julie Lau.

Fan Bingbing, Aarif Rahman, Daniel Henney, Pace Wu, Li Jingfu, Leon Lai, Xu Zheng, Eva Jin. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

August 12, 2013

Unbeatable (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 6:50 pm

8/12/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
Hong Kong’s master of fatalist thrillers takes a break from his trademark doom and gloom to offer a warm and engaging drama drenched with redemption, hope and cracking mixed martial arts scenes.

Action-thriller expert Dante Lam returns with a story about a retired pugilist returning to the ring for the sake of his battered protege, a single-parented girl and himself.

Having established his standing as an influential auteur in Hong Kong in recent years with a string of furiously fatalist thrillers, Dante Lam has now returned to the fold with what could have been an oddity in his oeuvre: an uplifting, humane drama which offers redemption, hope and — perhaps most surprisingly — generous dollops of uncontrived humor.

Not that it’s a bad thing: Striking a neat balance with its (literally) bone-crunching fight scenes and laid-back depictions of the fighters’ emotional ebbs and flows outside the ring, Unbeatable — which won two awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June before unspooling as the opening film of the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s summer program on Aug. 13, prior to its general release two days later – is an engaging, poised piece with something for both actioner aficionados and those seeking competent storytelling and engaging personae dramatis.

But Unbeatable does begin as if Lam and his long-running screenwriting partner Jack Ng (plus child-star-turned-writer/producer Fung Chi-fung) are again in for lives caught in meltdown. In a prologue, the three major threads unfold as catastrophes, as each segment concludes with colors fading into monochrome: in Beijing, the young Lin Siqi (Taiwanese heartthrob Eddie Peng) returns home from his backpackers’ trip in Yunnan to discover his tycoon father’s (Jack Kao) business going bust; in Macao, the mentally ill mainland-born divorcee Gwen Wong (Mei Ting) loses her son when he drowns in the bath as she dozes off after yet another binge; and in Hong Kong, the homeless and reckless cabbie Ching “Scumbag” Fai (Nick Cheung) has his taxi and all his belongings set on fire by pipe-wielding loan sharks.

And as the narrative proper commences, the three stories converge. Living in hiding in Macao to escape from his debtors, Fai moves into a room in Gwen’s apartment, befriending her feisty schoolgirl daughter Dani (Malaysia’s Crystal Lee) in the process; taking up a job as a janitor in a boxing club, he witnesses Siqi trying to train for a mixed martial arts competition so as to secure the prize-money to alleviate his father’s financial woes. Taking the young man under his wing, Fai confronts his past as a disgraced champion fighter and, when Siqi receives a shattering, near-fatal defeat, returns to the ring one more time to retain his protégé’s honor and also his own.

It’s true that this basic premise runs along the expected lines of the much-trodden action-drama about marginalized pugilists getting one last redemptive crack at fame, but Unbeatable at least delivers a nuanced protagonist who hardly comes across as a contrived poseur (an example of that being Daniel Lee’s 2000 film A Fighter’s Blues, which couldn’t help shaping A-lister Andy Lau as a fallen Hercules regaining his ego and his virility with his comeback). While much has been written about Cheung’s real-life physical transformation to fit the role, the actor’s effectiveness here lies in his portrayal of a smalltime individual still carrying the scars of his dark past (he is revealed as having been stripped of his success and self-confidence when he was jailed for throwing matches and mixing with the mob while at the cusp of major-league stardom).

His new muscular build is largely out of sight in the film: it’s his natural turn as the scarred Fai, and his earthy performance – most remarkably opposite the equally eye-catching Lee (who won an acting prize alongside Cheung in Shanghai) and also a former fellow fighter (Philip Keung) – keeps Unbeatable’s heart beating. Fai’s mental flashbacks about his spiraling relationship with his deceased mentor adds to one of the recurrent philosophical leitmotifs which ties this film up with Lam’s past work too: it’s all about sons (and the occasional daughter) struggling to recompense for their elders’ mistakes or misconceptions. A young girl pays for her lawyer mother’s confused approach towards her job in The Beast Stalker; The Stool Pigeon’s titular character brushes with his death when his protector fails to protect him; separated-at-birth siblings end up as enemies in The Viral Factor – in Unbeatable, Siqi and Dani are forced to stretch their capabilities in order to attend to their inept parents, to harrowing and humorous effects.

Indeed, it’s this mix of tears and laughter amidst the blood, sweat and broken necks that makes Unbeatable an enjoyable vehicle, and proof that Lam is much more versatile than his past bombastic, doom-stricken spectacles might alone suggest. And with Lam returning to his favorite dark milieus with his next film, the bent-cop thriller The Demon Within, viewers probably might want to take in this light break before Dante lives up to his name and drags everyone off to the inferno once again.

Opens: Aug 15 (Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia), Aug 16 (mainland China), Aug 22 (Australia), Sept 18 (Taiwan)
Production Companies: Film Fireworks, with presenters Bona Film Group
Cast: Nick Cheung, Eddie Peng, Crystal Lee, Mei Ting, Jack Kao, Andy On
Director: Dante Lam
Screenwriters: Jack Ng, Fung Chi-fung, Dante Lam, from a story by Dante Lam and Candy Leung
Producer: Candy Leung
Executive Producers: Yu Dong, Jeffrey Chan
Director of Photography: Kenny Tse Chung-to
Action Director: Ling Chi-wah
Music: Henry Lai
Editor: Azrael Chung
Art Director: Cheung Siu-hong
Costume Designer: Stephanie Wong
International Sales: Distribution Workshop (Hong Kong)
In Cantonese and Putonghua/Mandarin
Running time 116 minutes


August 9, 2013

Tiny Times 2.0 (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 6:30 pm

Tiny Times 2.0

August 9, 2012

Just as glossy and shallow as its hit predecessor, this sequel is also a sexier affair that should continue the franchise’s B.O. winning streak.

Maggie Lee

Full of bitchiness, pillow talk and gay subtext, plus skirts that trail for yards, “Tiny Times 2.0″ is a sexier affair than “Tiny Times,” the Shanghai-set tween girl-power fantasy directed and adapted from his own book by Guo Jingming, mainland China’s highest-earning novelist. Though this sequel is just as glossy and shallow as its predecessor, the story gets juicier as the four femme friends transform from kittens to lynxes in the wake of boy troubles and corporate takeovers. A confident manifesto on the materialistic ambitions of China’s post-’90 generation, Guo’s pic should continue the first film’s winning streak at the local box office, followed by a possible Stateside bow.

Adapted from the second installment of Guo’s four-part novel, “Tiny Times 2.0″ is being released earlier domestically than originally planned to capitalize on the boffo B.O. of “Tiny Times,” which broke China’s opening-day records with $11.9 million. The new pic, which drew $8.8 million its first day, is another celebration of champagne-swigging decadence, with enough furs on display to give Brigitte Bardot a heart attack.

But there’s also a fresh sassiness to the characters’ snarky wordplay, and the way they rough up friends and lovers is more faithful to the spirit of Guo’s novels. Sex is not shown, but it’s on everybody’s lips. Casual flings and infidelities sow seeds of discord and spice up the drama, though ultimately they’re treated as minor follies at best, while homoerotic double-entendres and shots of buff, naked torsos rep another source of transgressive fun.

Perhaps spurred by criticism of the first film’s weak storyline, the plot squeezes in enough storylines to fill several seasons of “Gossip Girl.” Four high-school BFFs — Lin Xiao (Mini Yang); Gu Li, aka Lily (Amber Kuo); Nan Xiang (Bea Hayden); and Tang Wanru, aka Ruby (Hsieh Yi-lin) — graduate from university, only to find their friendships severely tested by betrayals and family tragedies. The dense script provides more backstories and stronger character interplay than the first film, but only Gu Li, feistily played by Kuo, has a truly assertive presence here, and her story arc is the dominant one of the bunch.

Shanghai continues to function as a gilded metropolis, but whereas “Tiny Times” centered around a fashion show, parties become the sine qua non of “2.0.” The first act revolves around Gu Li’s extravagant birthday bash, where some dirty linen is unexpectedly aired and nearly all her guests turn against her. The only person who stands by her is her ex, Gu Yuan (Kai Ko Chen-tung), despite having broken up with her under pressure from his overbearing mother, Ye Chuanping (Wang Lin).

An unexpected event catapults Gu Li into the position of chairman of her father’s business empire, which faces a hostile takeover by corporate giant Constanli and Ye’s company. Gu Yi finds herself in a battle of financial wits with Gu Yuan and Gong Ming (Rhydian Vaughan), Lin’s boss and the editor-in-chief of fashion mag M.E. True to the film’s brand-name obsession, Gu Li and Gong’s showdown is fashion-themed, as when she mistakes his Ferragamo suit for Prada — a faux pas drolly represented as something far graver than betting on the wrong hedge fund. Kuo establishes a charming, flirtatious chemistry with Vaughan, whose Gong never sparks with supposed love interest Lin Xiao.

Of the other characters, Hayden’s Nan shows a catty side that temporarily offsets her blandness, while Hsieh’s Tang, previously a self-pitying clown, similarly becomes more interesting when she gets to show some vitriol. The problem of a wan male cast continues to plague the series, and despite the greater emphasis on romance, only Vaughan and Ko stand out.

Tech credits are uneven. Guo has made little progress in taming his gaudy visual style, featuring cheesy slow-motion and soft focus so blurry and oddly lit, one wonders if the lenses have fogged over. The mawkish pop songs seem to take on a life of their own independent of the plot.

Reviewed at UA KK Mall, Shenzhen, China, Aug. 8, 2013 Running time: 115 MIN. Original title: “Xiaoshidai 2.0 zhi qingmu shidai”

(China) A Le Vision Pictures release of a He Li Chen Guang Media, EE-Media, Star Ritz Prods., H&R Century Pictures, Beijing Forbidden City Film, Le Vision Pictures (Tianjin), Le Vision Pictures, Shenzhen Desen Intl. Media, Amazing Film Studio, Comic Ritz Film & TV Culture, Mission Media Investment presentation presentation of a Star Ritz Prod., Desen Intl. Media production. (International sales: Star Ritz Prod., Beijing, Desen International Media, Shenzhen.) Produced by Zhang Qiang. Executive producers, Li Li, Lv Huanbin, Angie Chai, Sunny Chen, Zhao Duojia, Jia Yueting, Ann An, Adam Tsuei, Lv Xiaojia, Zhang Huali. Co-executive producer, Clarence Fok.

Directed, written by Guo Jingming, based on his novel. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Randy Che; editor, Ku Hsiao-yun; music, Chris Hou; music supervisor, Adam Tsuei; production designer, Rosalie Huang; art directors, Tommy Huang, Chen Zilong; set decorators, Guo Pinquan, Tong Yonghong; costume designers, Singing Lin, Hsieh Pei-wen, Mia Chen; sound (Dolby Digital), Tu Duu-chih; supervising sound editor, Agnes Liu, Wu Shu-yao, Li I-chi, Tseng Ya-ning, Yang Shu-Hsi, Chiang Lien-chen, Du Yi-ching; re-recording mixer, Du Tuu-chih; visual effects supervisor, Enoch Chan; visual effects, Herbgarden; line producers, Li Li, Mophisto Shi, Ge Nairong; associate producer, William Qi; assistant director, Hao Fang-wei, Oftendo Huang; second unit camera, Wong Kuo-hsiung.

Mini Yang, Kai Ko Chen-tung, Amber Kuo, Bea Hayden, Hsieh Yi-lin, Rhydian Vaughan, Cheney, Li Yueming, Jo Jiang, Calvin Tu, Kiwi Shang, Julie Ting, Wang Lin. (Mandarin dialogue)


August 7, 2013

The Rooftop (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 5:50 pm

The Rooftop

8/6/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
An over-emphasis on style over substance results in a film trying to thrive on multiple genres and succeeding in none.

Taiwanese pop idol Jay Chou’s sophomore directorial effort revolves around a small town tough’s ill-advised pursuit of a starlet, channeled through a mix of musical numbers, martial arts moves and melodrama.

Usually it’s desperate, first-time directors who, for fear of not having a second stab at their dream job, proceed to stuff their debut with everything they want to say — usually involving a fantastical version of themselves as the protagonists — in every kind of aesthetic (and visual gimmickry) they want to dabble in. So it’s probably a surprise that Jay Chou would do exactly that with The Rooftop, given his experience (this is his second film) and his pedigree (he’s one of the biggest pop stars in Chinese-speaking markets, and boasts a stint in Hollywood courtesy of his turn as Kato in the misfired reboot of The Green Hornet).

Unfortunately, Chou’s artistic ambitions have proved to be misguided, as his genre-hopping mix of musical numbers, martial arts moves and melodrama only ended up glaringly incoherent, and lacking the subtlety and storytelling nous he attained with his surprisingly lyrical 2007 debut The Secret. By reaching for the stars, The Rooftop has caved in on itself, revealing a hollow core within its all-dancing, all-singing and gags-galore veneer.

Hardly setting the home front on fire — the film opened in mainland China and Taiwan early July before bowing in Hong Kong on August 1 — the film is highly unlikely to break out of Asian-themed festivals worldwide (such as the New York Asian Film Festival, where it made its international premiere last month before its Well Go-backed limited release in the U.S. on July 19).

Taking its cues from past genre benchmarks from West Side Story to Kung Fu Hustle, The Rooftop deploys sweeping, widescreen cinematic tropes to bring about the frustrations and dreams of the 20th century urban working-class, their earthiness and care for the collective good deployed as the starting-point of high drama to come. Set in a fictional Chinese-speaking city called Galilee — a place bearing the traits of 1930s Shanghai (with mobsters being the de facto rulers of the realm) and the U.S.-influenced Taipei in the 1960s (as suggested by the hairstyles and favorite haunts of the local street punks) — the film’s title alludes to the sky-high community from which its protagonists hail from, a quartet of young men led by Wax (played by Chou himself).

And the first quarter of the film certainly plays like the “martial arts musical” Chou has promised to deliver, as the Problematic Four attempt to break out of their humdrum life (as workers in a Chinese clinic which offers – what else? – thumping dance shows to help customers down their bitter medication) by getting into skirmishes with thugs as a way to pass the time and also to help one of the gang, the pretty-faced Tempura (Alan Ko), “collect rents” in the name of the local clansman Rango (mainland Chinese thesp Wang Xueqi).

But all these loud, retro-overkill visual antics are soon revealed to be merely the supporting elements to the tragic-romance trope which Chou has previously delivered with poise in Secret. And it’s here that The Rooftop morphs from its original rebellious-youth-flick guise into Notting Hill, as Wax falls in and then out of love with the model-turned-actress Starling (Li Xin’ai) — with the Richard Curtis film’s influence on Chou clearly shown by a sequence depicting the dismayed, heartbroken young man walking around town surrounded by umbrellas, billboards and all kinds of knick-knacks bearing his paramour’s visage.

It’s a scene which speaks volumes about The Rooftop’s flaws: seemingly obsessed with peppering his film with fantastical widescreen grandstanding, Chou has overlooked the need to inject characterization, context and convincing dialog into the proceedings.

Perhaps paying too much time in getting the visual pyrotechnics and mise-en-scene correct, the human element — that is, the acting — has fallen by the wayside too: with Chou letting his ego run wild by playing Wax as a poseur, and Li — who is making her acting debut here — not helping matters with her blank-faced, squeaky-voiced turn.

With Wang and Xu Fan — who plays the four ruffian’s sisterly neighbor Jasmine — getting limited screen time and the two Hong Kong veterans Eric Tsang and Kenny Bee constricted by roles which are more a digression (for Tsang, who plays the cocky herbalist Wax works for) or a type (for Bee, as Starling’s protective father), opportunities for a substantial supporting player to salvage the situation are rendered very thin.

Stripping bare of the bombast, The Rooftop could have served as a competent (if a bit much-revisited) sepia-tinged romantic drama about the hopes and fantasies of a young man who has bitten off much more than he can chew, and is left to reflect on the consequences of his overreaching acts. As it stands now, Chou is actually left to ponder exactly the conundrum his on-screen alter-ego confronts.

Opened in the North American on July 19
Production Companies: Chuang Ying Pictures Entertainment, presented by Evergrande Films, Talent Television Film and Edko Films
Cast: Jay Chou, Alan Ko, Li Xin’ai, Eric Tsang, Wang Xueqi, Kenny Bee, Xu Fan
Director: Jay Chou
Screenwriters: Jay Chou
Producers: Jimmy Huang, Will Liu
Executive producers: Wu Xuedan, Wu Hongliang, J.R. Yang, Bill Kong
Director of photography: Mark Lee Ping-bin
Production designer: Yoshihito Akatsuka
Costume designer: Dora Ng
Editor: Wenders Li
Music: Huang Yu-hsun and Jay Chou
U.S. Distributor: Well Go USA
International Sales: Edko Films
PG, 117 minutes


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