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September 27, 2013

Final Recipe (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 12:48 pm

Final Recipe
9/26/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
A mild, feel-good tale about reconciliation of three generations of a cookery-gifted clan.

Humility, harmony and a lot of heart: the three things that Final Recipe’s protagonists discovered to be essential to a good dish are also what shape the film itself. Steering clear of the boisterous aesthetics of many a past masterchef-contest films – Stephen Chow’s God of Cookery, say, or Jeon Yun-su’s manga adaptation Le Grand Chef – Korean director Gina Kim has delivered a mild, comforting oeuvre which channels a reaffirmation of cultural roots and traditional bonds within a crust of a family-reunited melodrama.

While the presence of Michelle Yeoh (who’s also one of the film’s many executive producers) would help raise Final Recipe’s profile among Chinese-speaking audiences in both Asia and in the US – especially when the film, though taking place among Chinese characters in Singapore and Shanghai, is nearly entirely in English – the on-screen gastronomic pleasures would also ease the film into the now burgeoning food-film chain. Its appearance at San Sebastian Film Festival’s culinary cinema section, to be followed by an opening-film slot at the Hawaii International Film Festival on Oct. 10, is bound to just the first outings in similarly-themed programs, mirroring – to a lesser scale, maybe – the travels of films such as Mostly Martha.

Playing the mastermind of a successful, long-running cooking-competition show – or, as the character Julia is described in the film, the gastronomic “grandmaster” – Yeoh is central to the proceedings. But more as a catalyst, mind, as Final Recipe is essentially a film about generational schisms among the men in a clan: the major ingredient in the formula here is Mark (a vibrant turn from the Canadian-Chinese K-pop star Henry Lau), a Singaporean high-school student whose enthusiasm and gift in preparing food are frowned upon by his chef-grandfather Hao (Chang Tseng), who single-handedly raised him with hopes of getting the boy into university rather than taking over his crumbling restaurant.

Running against past mainstream narratives of scions refusing to (and often finally relenting in) taking over a dated family business, Mark’s enthusiasm lies solely on learning his grandfather’s recipes and admiring, from afar, the career of David Chan (Singaporean-born Chin Han, The Dark Knight and Contagion), an established culinary mega-star of Julia’s Shanghai-based TV show – and a man who also recounts of having to rebel against a vanished masterchef-father who tried the utmost in trying to derail his aspirations for a career in the kitchen.

With his grandfather falling ill and his eatery getting nearer to be shuttered for good – partly due to the old man’s open disdain for customers who disagree with his self-proclaimed “real cooking” – Mark’s gambit lies with using what should have been his university fees and fly off in the hope of winning the $1 million cash prize in the Julia-David “Final Recipe” competition. Taking the place of a Russian contestant who doesn’t turn up, the teenager deploys his youthful spunk (cooking an omelette over burning documents when the stove doesn’t work) and inventiveness (revitalizing the pepper paste in the Korean rice dish bibimbap, or serving noodles as dumplings) to emerge into the final showdown with David – a clash which, as Julia’s introduction illustrates, would look at “what family tastes like”.

It’s certainly not that difficult to guess what the film’s big reveal is, especially when David tells Mark – or “Dmitri”, as he’s known – during a brief meeting in the market that “if you’re my kid, I’ll be very very proud”. But it’s the expectation of reconciliation and reunion that drives Final Recipe – it’s the antithesis of the Gordon Ramsay-style reality TV spectacles – an advocacy of warm, interpersonal concordwhich glosses over some of the logical flaws in the back stories which led to Mark’s and David’s agony and angst.

Despite having her own screenplay reworked by George Huang – a fact which explains Final Recipe resembling a director making a big leap into mainstream-style story-plotting – Kim has shown herself still able to mine some of the themes in Never Forever, her Vera Farmiga-starring 2007 Sundance hit about an American woman recruiting a Korean immigrant to impregnate her so as to save her marriage with her Korean-American husband. Final Recipe is all about turning one’s back on middling cultural fusion and returning to one’s roots. The once London-based Julia would find her success back in China, and so would the Singapore-raised Mark find inspiration (from the Shanghainese street snacks which mesmerized him), his big break and estranged parent there; the young chef’s earthly dishes – derided by an American connoisseur as “peasant cooking” – rings in greater acclaim (from the Asian judges) than the fancy French pretensions of his fellow Japanese contestant Kaori (Lika Minamoto).

Backed with a polished production design and more than competent technical values, Final Recipe – which is backed by South Korea’s CJ Entertainment – is Kim’s ticket to prove her credentials for entry into her home country’s commercial filmmaking arena. And with the Seoul-based major now flexing its international co-production muscles, they might look at Kim with some confidence as she conjures a non-exotic piece out of a territory-trotting narrative, where every place is made to seem like home.

Venue: Online screener (San Sebastian International Film Festival, Culinary Zinema section)

Production Company: CJ Entertainment, in a presentation co-associated with Bang Singapore and A Grand Elephant Production

Director: Gina Kim

Cast: Henry Lau, Michelle Yeoh, Chin Han, Chang Tseng

Producers: Gina Kim, Steven Nam, Yeonu Choi, Miky Lee

Executive Producers: Jeong Tae-sung, Mike Suh, Jonathan Kim, Keiko Bang, Michael J Werner, Michelle Yeoh

Screenwriter: George Huang, based on a screenplay by Gina Kim

Director of Photography: Kim Young-ho, Kim Jun-young

Editor: Steve M. Choe

Music: Mok Young Jin

Production Designer: Darcy Scanlin

In English and Mandarin

International Sales: Fortissimo Films

No ratings, 98 minutes
THR

September 24, 2013

Mothers (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 12:52 pm

Mothers
9/24/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
A riveting documentary that speaks volumes about mainland China’s official family-planning policies and the insensitivity they breed among apparatchiks — and the pain among the masses.

The mind-boggling thing about Xu Huijin’s new documentary Mothers doesn’t lie with the the cynicism which drives low-level apparatchiks in coaxing or coercing women in a small Chinese village to be sterilized. What astounds is the officials’ lack of qualms in allowing their modus operandi to be recorded on tape — they are shown agitating for a longtime refusenik’s children to be kicked out of school so as to get her to relent, and later joke about just grabbing her to go under the knife in the van they’re travelling in — and their on-screen admission how their work is more about fulfilling quotas than the state’s high-sounding population-policy objectives.

This indifference about having their indifference and inhumanity caught on camera illustrates how such dysfunction is now very much ingrained into the bureaucratic or even social psyche; what could have been positioned as villains in melodrama are now shown as just banal servants to a cold political order. And when the film also features the cadres as toddler-loving beings while off duty — one of them oversees a temple commemorating a goddess of child-giving, another dotes on his baby at home when he’s not trying to get women sterilized at work — it’s evident that Xu’s indictment lies with the system rather than just individual antagonists.

Revealing yet restraining from simplistic judgements, Mothers — who has just won second prize at the annual Chinese Documentary Festival in Hong Kong on Sep. 20 — is poised to feature in more festivals and international human-rights-themed programs, after its appearance at home at the Yunnan Multi Culture Visual Festival and then abroad at the Jeonju International Film Festival and then the Sheffield Doc/Fest in Britain.

In the film’s prologue, Xu appears briefly on camera as his voiceover explains how his mother had told him how he, as a second child, “wasn’t supposed to be born”. But he was, amidst a time when the Chinese government was frantic in implementing their family planning policies: city-dwellers could only have one child, and rural citizens have the leeway of having two. Extra babies would bring about a fine; but for those living in villages, women who have given birth to two children are legally bound for sterilization — and just like many of Beijing’s directives, this opens the way to confusion and chaos on the ground, as municipal officials demand party cadres set a definite quota of women which have to be operated on every year.

And Mothers is about how a group of low-level cadres in a small hamlet in the northwestern Chinese province of Shanxi struggle to fulfill that request, as if it’s a divine message they could not defy — a religious metaphor brought to mind when the film begins with images of a bombastic rite celebrating the late Chinese leader Mao Zedong. Leading the way is Zhang Qingmei (pictured), the village’s “director of women’s care” who is at once the officer responsible for getting women sterilized, and also the shaman taking care of the local fertility-themed temple: showing the director and his camera around the shrine, she freely talked about Mao as having “attained sainthood” and is “akin to an emperor” — descriptions which could readily be seen as reactionary, superstitious talk in official party discourse.

Zhang’s beliefs in Mao is just part of the retrogressive attitudes being perpetuated in the village: the film also shows children singing a ditty about a man who tries to kill himself for not being able to “buy a wife”, while the deputy village head Zhang Guohong (yes, the people actually allowed themselves to be named in full) deploys every trick in his bureaucrats’ book in forcing reluctant young mothers to be operated on. What this means is constant bargaining with his charges about the approval of hukou,a domestic registration without which individuals could not enjoy full citizens’ rights in their locale; in another instance, the man is seen actually offering to pay the women to get operated on, so that he could come up with the numbers as dictated to him from above.

With its abundance of telling DV-filmed sequences about the desperation of these officials, and an edit which brings everything together as if it’s a documentary-style thriller, Mothers offers a riveting viewing and a revealing picture of the pain brought about by insensitive political dictums. And the torment can be very real: the documentary ends with the officials’ elusive quarry, a young woman called Rongrong, finally apprehended (probably because of her children being suspended from their studies) and limping her way off the cadres’ van, and then lying sullen and pained in bed.

Xu’s final voiceover — delivered over a static image of the brown, rustic landscape in which the village is located – stated how a leading Chinese government official has hinted at a possible rethink over the now almost three-decades-old “one-child policy”. For the mothers in Mothers and the society they are supposed to be part of, it’s perhaps too late.

Venue: Chinese Documentary Festival, Hong Kong

Production Companies: EVO Productions, CNEX Foundation Limited

Director: Xu Huijing

Producers: Ben Tsiang, Hai Zhiqiang

Associate Producer: Warren Chien

Executive Producers: Shijian, Chang Chao-wei, Ruby Chen

Cinematographer: Xu Huijing

Editors: Liao Qingsong, Xu Huijing, Huang Yiling

Music: Liu Qi

International Distributor: CNEX Foundation Limited

In Mandarin

No ratings, 68 minutes
THR

September 23, 2013

Emergency Room China (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 12:58 pm

Emergency Room China
9/23/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
A gritty, low-budget documentary offering yet another nuanced look at how civil servants — well-meaning medical staff this time — operate amidst red tape and rough and tumble members of the Chinese public.

More than a decade after completing his directorial debut Housie Township, Zhou Hao has established himself as one of mainland China’s most important documentary makers with films that survey the different aspects of how the state works, and also how those working for the state navigate (and exploit) a system addled with fundamental flaws.

Starting in 2010 with The Transition Period (which tracks the daily life of a municipal-level party cadre — complete with sequences about dodgy dealings and all — and then in 2011 and 2012 with the Cop Shop diptych (which explore how police officers perform their duties with a very flexible approach to citizens’ rights), Zhou is seemingly working his way down the power chain. With Emergency Room China — which just won the Best Feature award at Hong Kong’s annual Chinese Documentary Festival on Saturday — he has reached the frontline of social schisms with a look at life among doctors, nurses, ambulance drivers and ever-returning patients at a hospital in the southern Chinese metropolis of Guangzhou.

With its revealing observations about the circumstances in which the ER medics operate, Zhou’s film can be read as a microcosmic view of the problems in mainland China in general: while red tape bounds hospital staff from doing their best to meet their patients’ needs, spiraling social problems add to their woes as they deal with contraband-liquor-related fatalities, a drug addict falling to his death in the presence of undercover cops, people ringing hotlines for help and then refusing to be transported to the hospital, and phony patients (or hypochondriacs?) who hang around the ER every day, requesting medication for imaginary illnesses and talking about pills as if they are bread and butter.

Largely devoid of voiceovers or expositional text providing a context in which these real-life characters go about their business — and hospitals are indeed businesses, given how they are self-financed to the extent that, for example, ambulance drivers and medics earn a living directly from fees paid by patients using their services — Emergency Room China is the gritty observational-style mainland Chinese documentary that is expected to travel widely to festivals. Having first premiered at the Chinese Visual Festival in London in May before returning to Asia with two screenings in Hong Kong last week, the film could well follow The Transition Period (which was picked up by dGenerate Films) to odd bookings in documentary programs in the U.S.

It’s a challenging film, still, both in terms of engaging with the documentation of the mundane and its potentially disturbing imagery of the dying and the dead. But Zhou’s heart as a filmmaker is very much throbbing on his sleeve, a spirit brought to life with the help of Peng Xin’s deft editing of the raw material. The film’s minor aesthetic pitfalls — debate could ensue about how Zhou’s presence might have dictated some confessional chit-chats, and hindered the development of other threads — are easily overshadowed by that enthusiasm.

Venue: Chinese Documentary Festival, Hong Kong
Production Companies: 21stCentury Media, Shanghai Media Group
Director: Zhou Hao
Producers: Shen Hao, Gan Chao
Cinematographers: Qiu Haorun, Zhou Hao
Editor: Peng Xin
In Mandarin and Cantonese
No ratings, 89 minutes
THR

Final Recipe (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 12:32 pm

Final Recipe

9/23/13
By Mark Adams

Dir: Gina Kim. South Korea-Thailand. 2013. 98mins

A warm-hearted story of cooking and families, the glossily made Final Recipe is a frothy, engaging and gently moving story of a family driven apart and finally reunited by a passion for food. Shot in English (with only a couple of scenes in Mandarin) and with the ever-charismatic Michelle Yeoh on-board as both star and executive producer, it has the qualities to play well as well as being a solid seller.

Set against the backdrop of a televised ‘Master Chef’ competition, the film plays on expected notions of family, love and loyalty (with a dash of melodrama added to give it more taste) while also lovingly filming food as it is prepared. Mouth-watering at times, the beauty of the dishes themselves are almost reason enough to make the film enjoyable mainstream fun, though it is given extra weight thanks for a series of enjoyable lead performances.

Gina Kim shoots with a good deal of energy, mixing up the laughs with the pathos and the food with the fun, and making good use of Shanghai and Singapore locations. And while Final Recipe may well, at heart, be all rather predictable, it is also engaging and gently entertaining.

The film opens in Singapore where renowned but rather grumpy chef Hao Chan (Chang Tseng) is struggling to keep his restaurant going. He is desperate for his grandson Mark (a charming Henry Lau) to study engineering and not become a chef, but little does he know tat at heart Mark simply loves food and wants to be like his grandfather and his father (who vanished years earlier) and work as a chef.

When Hao is taken ill, Mark decides to go to Shanghai and try and enter the high-profile televised Master Chef competition, where the winner from hordes of entries wins the chance to cook-off against legendary chef David Chen (Chin Han) to try and win $1 million. He blunders his way into the competition having not realised he needed to formerly apply taking the place (and name_ of a Russian competitor named Dmitri who failed to turn up.

Julia Lee (Yeoh), executive producer of the show and who is married to David Chen, whose career she launched when he was a humble chef from Singapore, begins to watch over Mark and starts to see his talent. She also unearths the truth of his background and his connection (guess what?) between Mark and David. As Mark makes his way through the cookery competition rounds the scene is ultimately set for a showdown between the two chefs.

The heart of Final Recipe may be pure melodrama, but it is a glossy and enjoyable journey. Henry Lau is engagingly fresh-faced and enthusiastic as Mark, while Michelle Yeoh is sheer class as a woman who comes to realise that she needs to bring a family together to heal a rift that she had been part of.

There are some delightful laughs (as well as cool cooking) in the central section as Mark has to team with three other competitors (played by Aden Young, Bobby Lee, Lika Minamoto) to cook as a team, and while Chang Tseng and Lori Tan Chinn (as Mrs Wang, who tends Hao and helps look after the restaurant) plays things much more broadly (and likely appeal to an older demographic) the film is at its core a quite tender and moving tale of a family finally coming together.

Production companies: Grand Elephant, Bang Singapore

International sales: Fortissimo Films, www.fortissimo.nl / CJ Entertainment, www.cjent.co.kr

Producer: Yeonu Choi

Executive producers: Miky Lee, Mike Suh, Keiko Bang, Michael Werner, Michelle Yeoh

Screenplay: George Huang, based on a story by Gina Kim

Cinematography: Young-Ho Kim, Jun-Young Kim

Editor: Steve M Choe

Co-producer: Khan Kwon

Production designer: Darcy Scanlin

Music: Young Jin Mok

Main cast: Michelle Yeoh, Henry Lau, Chin Han, Chang Tseng, Lori Tan Chinn, Aden Young, Bobby Lee, Lika Minamoto
ScreenDaily

September 20, 2013

My Lucky Star (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , — dleedlee @ 11:34 am

My Lucky Star

9/20/2013 by Frank Scheck

The Bottom Line
The luminous Zhang Ziyi is the saving grace of this overly silly and frenetic spy movie parody.

Recalling everything from the ‘60s-era Matt Helm and Flint spy spoofs to such modern-day variations as the Austin Powers series, the Chinese import My Lucky Star at least provides one element of originality by giving a female spin to the genre. This tale of a mild-mannered young woman who becomes involved in an international conspiracy by teaming up with a master spy has an engagingly frothy quality that makes it go down easy. But its overall familiarity should make it a hard sell for American audiences despite the luminous presence of Zhang Ziyi (The Grandmaster, Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon) in the starring role.

The film, being released in North America day-and-date with China, is the first Chinese feature to be directed by an American woman, Dennie Gordon, whose previous credits include many TV series and the feature Joe Dirt.

Reprising the character she played in 2009’s successful Sophie Revenge, Zhang plays an unsuccessful comic book writer and illustrator who makes her living as a travel agent. Much of her day is spent drawing and daydreaming, her elaborate scenarios depicted onscreen via graphic panels and animated segments.

When she wins a trip to Singapore, her fantasies come to life as she meets the dashing secret agent David Yan (Leehom Wang, of Lust, Caution) who’s in pursuit of the “Lucky Star,” a diamond so large that it can apparently be used for destructive purposes. The villainous Charlize Wong (Terri Kwan) plans to use it to blow up Bermuda — the reasons for which, at least for this viewer, were lost in translation.

Sophie soon finds herself embroiled in a series of life-or-death situations, with her helpless bumbling often requiring her to be saved by the ever-resourceful David. Along the way, she attempts to help him in various ways that often exploit her considerable physical charms, most notably when she poses as a stripper to seduce a ruthless arms dealer.

Director Gordon stages the proceedings in glossily slick fashion, with the film benefiting from the visual allure of the two leads as well as such exotic locations as Hong Kong, Singapore and Macao’s Venetian Resort Hotel.

But with a running time of nearly two hours, the overall silliness wears thin rather quickly, and the reductive nature of Zhang’s lovestruck Sophie, who seems mostly interested in whether David is romantically interested in the female villain, doesn’t exactly make her a feminist ideal.

Opens Sept. 20 (China Lion)

Production: Bona International Film Group

Cast: Zhang Yiyi, Leehom Wang, Terri Kwan, Jack Kao, Zheng Kai, Yao Chen, Ruby Lin, Ada Choi

Director: Dennie Gordon

Screenwriters: Amy Snow, Chris Chow, Hai Huang, Yao Meng

Producers: Zhang Ziyi, Lucas Ling, Beaver Kwei, Second Chan, William Cheng

Executive producers: Yu Dong, Zhang Ziyi, Jeffrey Chan

Director of photography: Armando Salas

Editors: Zack Arnold, Ka-Fai Cheung

Production designer: Second Chan

Costume designer: Yi Tang

Composer: Nathan Wang

Not rated, 114 min.
THR

Related article: My Lucky Star: Slapstick rom-com fizzles (CNA)

September 19, 2013

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 12:16 pm

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon
9/18/2013
Maggie lee

Raising the bar sky-high for Chinese blockbuster entertainment, Tsui Hark’s “Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon” lays out a gargantuan feast of 3D spectacle, high-wire martial arts, splendiferous period aesthetics, intelligent sleuthing and even an ancestor of “Pacific Rim’s” kaiju. A prequel to Tsui’s 2010 hit, “Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame,” this mystery-actioner-costumer is energized by a youthful cast and proves more cohesive than the overwrought original. Anticipated fall release is set to raise a tidal wave in domestic B.O., supplemented by monster ancillary potential, though the voluminous historical background may intimidate foreign audiences.

The first production shot in stereoscopic 3D by Huayi Brothers Media, and Tsui’s second 3D project since “Flying Swords of Dragon Gate” (2011), “Young Detective Dee” successfully uses the technology to bring to life the ancient splendor of the Tang Dynasty, an age comparable to the Renaissance for its cultural diversity, international business activity and artistic freedom. Few Chinese films have amassed such a cornucopia of period artifice, yet Tsui also draws on the era’s corruption and political tyranny to hold up a mirror to contempo realities, while his use of political subtext here is subtler and more macabre than usual.

Fire was the central motif of “Phantom Flame,” and as the title of “Sea Dragon” would suggest, water is the key element here. The yarn is set in 665 A.D., during the joint reign of Empress Wu Zetian (Carina Lau) and Emperor Gaozong (Sheng Chien). The country is at war with the Buyeo kingdom, and during one of their sea battles, the Tang navy is crushed by a monster from the ocean depths. Rumors spread that the Sea Dragon (the Chinese equivalent of Poseidon) has been provoked, and Wu orders an investigation by Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng, “Painted Skin: The Resurrection”), head of the Dalisi, an organization tasked with upholding law and order.

Like Barry Levinson’s “Young Sherlock Holmes” (1985), “Young Detective Dee” revisits a master sleuth’s first case to uncover formative life influences. Di Renjie, or Dee (Mark Chao of “Monga,” replacing Andy Lau), arrives in the capital, Luoyang, to serve as a Dalisi magistrate. Lipreading a plot to kidnap Yin Ruiji (Angelababy) the capital’s most beautiful courtesan, he rushes to her rescue, only to be beaten to it by a Kappa, a green, scaly creature that vanishes into a lotus pond.

At nightfall, the Kappa reappears to Yin, who recognizes him as her lover, Squire Yuan Zhen (Ian Kim). A handsome and cultivated scholar, he’s been missing for months from his family teahouse. His transformation offers clues to a court conspiracy that implicates the Dondoers, a fishing tribe living on an island teeming with bats and Tryffids.

The plot cooks up various gimmicks including parasitic infestation and uretic homeopathy, but but unlike the runaway ideas present in some of Tsui’s other works, these devices slot neatly into the script’s overall scheme, also serving as apt metaphors for the corrupt aristocracy. Though the film could be trimmed down from its 133-minute running time, Tsui and co-scribe Chang Chia-lu (who penned the first “Dee”) have exercised greater discipline in crafting a mostly linear narrative. In their hands, the emergence of the titular Sea Dragon delivers a payoff of “Release the Kraken!”-like proportions.

Amid action that flies as swiftly as a Ninja dart, Tsui finds room to to nurture a bromance between Yuchi and Dee, and weaves in a number of amusing anecdotal episodes, as when Dee uses his deductive genius to make prison doctor Shatuo Zhong (Lin Gengxin) his sidekick. Coming off as brilliant, playful and smug in a boyish way, Chao turns out to be a major asset in Tsui’s fledgling franchise, and reps an improvement on Lau’s drily earnest Dee. A solid thesp who rarely overacts, Feng brings quiet integrity to the role of the stern enforcer whose arrogance gives way to admiration for Dee.

Although it’s the catalyst for all the tumult, the beauty-and-the-beast romance of Yin and Yuan remains a secondary matter, as neither Angelababy nor Kim possesses enough personality beyond doll-like prettiness to make the characters’ plight moving. The pivotal figure remains Empress Wu, whose pagoda-high coiffure suggests a gauche rejoinder to the idea of phallic domination; magisterially played by Lau, she could launch a thousand ships with one raise of a pencil-thin eyebrow.

Veteran action director Yuen Bun recaptures the style of gravity-defying wire-fu that Tsui helped popularize in the early ’90s, enhanced with 3D that works seamlessly in the fight scenes, but proves effective in the blurry underwater sequences. For all the elaborate technique on display, the fight scenes do drag a little, enough to make the moves look repetitive.

Production values are lavish. Heady crane shots abound in Choi Sung-fai’s sweeping cinematography, while the richly wrought sets, costumes and murals look radiant throughout.

Reviewed at UA iSquare, Kowloon, Sept. 17, 2013. Running time: 133 MIN. Original title: “Di Renjie zhi shendu longhuang”

Production
(China-Hong Kong) A Huayi Brothers Media, Huayi Brothers Intl. Co. (in China)/Emperor Motion Pictures (in Hong Kong) release of a Huayi Brothers Media, Huayi Brothers Intl. Co. presentation of a Film Workshop Co., Huayi Brothers Media production, in association with China Film Co-Prod. (International sales: Huayi Brothers Intl. Co., Beijing.) Produced by Wang Zhonglei, Nansum Shi, Chen Kuo-fu, Tsui Hark. Executive producers, Wang Zhongjun. Co-producers, Zhang Dajun, James Tsim.

Crew
Directed by Tsui Hark. Screenplay, Chang Chia-lu, Tsui, based on the story by Chen Kuo-fu, Tsui Hark. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Choi Sung-fai; editor, Yu Baiyang; music, Kenji Kawai; production designer, Bruce Yu; art director, Kenneth Mak; costume designer, Lee Pik-kwan; sound (Dolby Atmos, Auros 3D)/re-recording mixer, Kinson Tsang; choreographer, Gao Shan; special effects, Lee Kwan-long; Digital Intermediate supervisor, Lee Yong-gi; visual effects supervisor, Kim Wook; visual effects, Dexter Digital, Mofac Studio, 25 Frame, Weapons Co., Cubic Pictures, Part 2, Illumina, Shangyang Digital Co.; action choreographers, Yuen Bun, Lam Fung; stereographers, Kevin Lau, Gigo Lee; associate producers, Bernard Yang, Helen Li, Addi Ng; assistant director, Michael Fong; casting, Mo Lan.

With
Mark Chao, Feng Shaofeng, Angelababy , Carina Lau, Lin Gengxin, Ian Kim, Aloys Chen Kun, Hu Dong, Sheng Chien. (Mandarin, Dondo dialect dialogue)
Variety

Related article: Young Detective Dee: Chinese fantasy done right (CNA)

September 18, 2013

Something Good (Hollywood Reporter review)

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

Something Good

9/18/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
The political message gets lost in translation in this thriller, thanks to simplistic handling of cross-cultural business dealings and amorous relationships.

Luca Barbareschi might have taken himself out of politics, but his first directorial effort in over a decade shows him steadfastly unwilling to have the politics taken out of him. A thriller revolving around a Hong Kong-set conspiracy among Chinese businessmen to export contaminated milk powder to sub-Saharan countries — in what is dubbed as the “White Africa Operation” — Something Good is brimming with good intentions (as displayed by the expositional text about real-life tainted-food scandals bookending the film) and bubbling with genuine fury.

But passion alone a credible and gripping movie does not make, as the film’s simplistic depiction of its central political premise and its cultural setting reveals a globalization-gone-wrong treatise that subscribes to some of the old-school perspectives about the non-Western “Other” out there perpetuating harm on everyone. While the director’s mainstream audiences at home (who knew of him as the director of the 2002 film The Chameleon, about a moral corruption of a small-town activist scaling the political ladder in Rome) and in other European markets might warm to what they simply see as a well-made thriller, Something Good will probably see its presence in Asian markets restricted to bookings at Italian-themed showcases. (The film made its world premiere on Wednesday as the curtain-raiser of the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s Cine Italiano! program.)

Running on the generic trope of a gangster rediscovering his conscience through love, Something Good centers around Matteo (played by Barbareschi himself), a middle-aged Italian dealer making a fortune from the trading of undocumented and unchecked foodstuffs. After a botched deal on home turf, he flees to Hong Kong with a view of capitalizing on what he sees as the Chinese century — by trying to coax the country’s businessmen to take up the European colonialist’s mantle with their raid on Africa through sales of adulterated milk powder to the impoverished nations on the continent.

Matteo, of course, soon finds himself drawn into a murderous, double-dealing universe which he has had no control over, just as his hard-edged veneer is dismantled when he falls for a local restaurateur Xiwen (mainland Chinese actress Zhang Jingchu) — a romance that throws his profiteering drive into doubt (his new love’s young son died of food poisoning) and also provides a way in from his pursuers from the law and the mob.

It’s perhaps ironic that Something Good is an adaptation of an Italian novel titled I Trust You — a reference to the confidence Matteo and Xiwen show towards each other as their fates become intertwined. So, the on-screen lovers believe each other, but the viewer’s faith in the story is repeatedly challenged as the proceedings get bogged down by Matteo’s underdeveloped relationships — with Xiwen, his expatriate associates (such as Gary Lewis’ heavily-accented Scot) and his sleazy local business partners (played by, among others, Hong Kong veterans Kenneth Tsang and Eddy Ko).

While Arnaldo Catinari’s camerawork manages to play up the Asian metropolis’ unique urban fabric without resorting to the visual exoticization of yore — the film’s location scouting is again the handiwork of October Pictures, the company who also assisted the Hong Kong shoot of The Dark Knight and Contagion, among others — Something Good is still mired in a dated cultural discourse, as many a riveting film — such as, say, Matteo Garrone’s Gomorra — has set a new high standard for situating nuanced human drama amidst complex economic and demographic flows in the world today.

The shortfall is perhaps best embodied by how all the Chinese cast have their voices overdubbed here, even if most of them speak fluent English. Something Good is ultimately a story about an Italian man stranded in a strange land, but Barbareschi’s film could certainly have armed itself with a more sophisticated sheen if it wants to mount a more complex political argument about the moral frailties within the politically-charged business ethos of the modern-day foodstuff production conglomerates. As it stands now, Something Good is limited to be a story about a bad guy lost in a bad food nation, whose chance of redemption lies in his love for someone who cooks well – a skeletal framework which, perhaps, works better as a Mostly Martha-style romantic drama.

Venue: Cine Italiano! Film Festival, Hong Kong

Production Companies: Casanova Multimedia, Rai Cinema
Director: Luca Barbareschi
Cast: Luca Barbareschi, Zhang Jingchu, Kenneth Tsang, Eddy Ko, Michael Wong
Producer: Luca Barbareschi
Executive Producers: Claudio Gaeta, Giulio Cestari
Screenwriters: Francesco Arlanch, Luca Barbareschi and Anna Pavignano, based on “I Trust You” by Francesco Abate and Massimo Carlotto
Director of Photography: Arnaldo Catinari
Editor: Walter Fasano
Music: Marco Zurzolo
Production Designer: Francesco Frigeri
Costume Designer: Milena Canonero
In English, Mandarin/Putonghua, Cantonese and Italian
No ratings, 111 minutes
THR
Related article: Luca Barbareschi Talks About His Crime Thriller ‘Something Good’

My Lucky Star (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , — dleedlee @ 11:34 am

My Lucky Star
September 17, 2013

Zhang Ziyi and Wang Leehom co-star in an entertaining caper that doesn’t take one’s breath away in the romance department.

Maggie Lee

Touted as the first mainland Chinese film from an American female director, Dennie Gordon, and toplined by Zhang Ziyi as an accidental agent chasing after a rare diamond, “My Lucky Star” is wholesome, effortless entertainment that runs smoothly enough but seldom takes one’s breath away in the romance department. Slickly lining up a series of jet-setting hijinks, the film ladles out zany, self-mocking fun, but a hectic itinerary doesn’t give Zhang and co-star Wang Leehom much room to breathe, let alone fall passionately in love. Still, the pic’s perky spirit should generate healthy local biz; it bows Sept. 20 in the U.S.

Initially developed as a prequel to Eva Jin’s “Sophie’s Revenge” (2009), which Zhang produced and starred in, “My Lucky Star” retains little of that film’s spirit or backstory, aside from the heroine’s namesake and her two chatterbox friends Lily (Yao Chen) and Lucy (Ruby Lin). While Jin’s kooky, character-driven romantic comedy was a classic chick pic, “Star” is an adventure-driven caper that will appeal to a family audience, with its unabashedly fantastical plotting and character motivations. But without a strong supporting actress like Fan Bingbing, who gave a scene-stealing turn in “Sophie’s Revenge,” Zhang dominates the film, at times belaboring her role’s less convincing traits.

In a move to bring the glamorous Zhang down to the audience’s level, the film’s four screenwriters have reworked the role of Sophie, previously a feisty manga artist, into a humble telesales travel agent in Beijing. She’s routinely dressed down by her boss for daydreaming and dabbles in drawing cartoons as a hobby. In her doodles, she imagines herself as a hotshot spy rescued from an evil siren with a spider neck tattoo by a James Bond-like fellow agent.

When she wins a free vacation to Singapore, her travel companions Lily and Lucy stand her up at the last minute, giving her a chance to bump into David (Wang) outside the hotel and gate-crash his rooftop party. Not only is David the spitting image of Sophie’s cartoon hero, he is (gasp) an American secret agent on a mission to snag a diamond named “Lucky Star” by sabotaging a transaction between underworld dealer Li Wan (Morris Rong, grotesque) and arms dealer Mr. Gao (Jack Kao, manic).

Clueless and lovestruck, Sophie botches David’s operations at every turn, yet each blunder gives her an excuse to canoodle with the hunk. They team up with cyber-geek Bo (Ryan Zheng) to Hong Kong and Macau in pursuit of the diamond, and eventually the trio come face-to-face with Sophie’s nemesis Charlize (Terry Kwan, gleefully vampish), who has a black widow tattooed on her neck and a desire for world domination.

Whether flubbing a naughty-nurse floor show or slinking panther-like across a bar counter, Zhang displays sufficient comic verve to make the silly gags hit the sweet spot. But no matter how much she sweats at being klutzy-cute, her character’s naivete and romantic longing feel fabricated to win audience sympathy. It’s only when she bitchslaps Charlize or lashes out at her acid-tongued g.f. Xixi (Ada Choi) that she reverts to her more forceful persona, exuding the can-do spirit that Sophie is supposed to embody. (The high camp of Choi’s imperious, crazed Xixi adds some extra bite to the tame romance.)

A certified heartthrob in China, Taiwanese-American actor Wang throws himself into his stunts with manly gusto, but doesn’t let himself go in scenes meant to send up the genre. Hardly out of each other’s sight onscreen, he and Zhang click readily as comrades, but the action-oriented screenplay doesn’t encourage them to open up to each other or connect on an emotional level. There’s nary a sexual spark, even when they’re drifting across the Singapore night sky via parachute, or cuddling together in a getaway van filled with stuffed animals.

Longtime TV helmer Gordon skillfully sets a snappy yet even pace, effectively balancing verbal jokes and campy drama with purely physical stunts as the protags gallivant from one metropolis to another. While the Asian cities are fortunately lensed without kitschy exoticism, however, the locations and sets have no particularly striking visual style; the action sequences (choreographed by Wu Gang) are flashy but not showstopping. As with ”Sophie’s Revenge,” the narration is peppered with animated sequences, but these prove less magical than Jin’s own cartoon illustrations. Zhang’s colorful wardrobe reinforces her endearing eccentricity; other tech credits are pro.

The Chinese title translates as “Extraordinary Luck,” echoing the original moniker of “Sophie’s Revenge,” which means “Extraordinary Perfection.”

Reviewed at Saga Cinema, Solana Lifestyle Shopping Park, Beijing, Sept. 10, 2013. Running time: 113 MIN. Original title: “Feichang xingyun”

Production
(China) A China Lion Film Distribution (in U.S.)/Tianjin Bona Cultural Media Co., Huaxia Film Distribution Co. (in China) release of a Bona Film Group, Beijing Cheers! Cultural Investment Co. presentation of a My Lucky Star Prods. production in association with Wuxi Jinyuan Industry Investment & Development Group Co., Bona Entertainment Co. (International sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong.) Produced by Zhang Ziyi, Ling Lucas, William Cheng, Second Chan, Ming Beaver Kwei. Executive producers, Yu Dong, Zhang Ziyi. Co-producer, Ryan Wong. Co-executive producers, Wang Lifeng, Jeffrey Chan, Lu Guoqiang.

Crew
Directed by Dennie Gordon. Screenplay, Amy Snow, Meng Yao, Sean Huang, Chris Chow, based on a the story by Ming Beaver Kwei, Gordon, Amy Snow. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Armando Salas; editor, Zack Arnold; music, Nathan Wang; production designer, Second Chan; costume designer, Tang Yi; sound (Dolby Digital) Joe Huang; supervising sound editors/re-recording mixers, Joe Huang, Terry Tu; visual effects supervisor, Cui Weichuan; visual effects, Crystal CGI; action choreographer, Wu Gang; line producer, Eric Guan, Jonathan Lim; associate producers, Zhang Hao, Mi Zi; second unit camera, Nathan Wang.

With
Zhang Ziyi, Wang Leehom, Terri Kwan, Jack Kao, Ryan Zheng, Morris Rong, Ada Choi, Ruby Lin, Yao Chen, Max Zhang, Liu Hua. (Mandarin, English, Cantonese dialogue)
Variety

September 17, 2013

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon (Hollywood Reporter review)

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

Young Detective Dee: Rise of the Sea Dragon
9/17/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
The wild abundance of 3D action choreography stirs the senses but couldn’t boost a narrative that flutters from chase to chase, and skirmish to skirmish.

Much has been said about Tsui Hark’s first deployment of stereoscopic cameras in his latest outing, and it has proved to be more than just hype: Upping the grandiose vistas of his 2010 Venice film festival competition entry (and commercial hit), Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame, Young Detective Dee — Rise of the Sea Dragon is a visual spectacle from beginning to end, with the Hong Kong-bred, U.S.-educated and now largely Beijing-based filmmaker cramming chases, fights and monsters into most of its 133-minute duration. But this emphasis on relentless action sequences is at the expense of proper exposition of a labyrinthine story, substantial characterizations and the implicit social commentary that Tsui has taken pride of concealing within his genre-driven work. While the film should generate good returns at home — it opens in the director’s home city on Sept. 27 before bowing in mainland China, in 3D and Imax 3D versions, the next day — hopes of a repeat of the limited-release and ancillary-market success beyond Chinese-speaking markets are not exactly bullish.

One of the major problems for Young Detective Dee is how Tsui, his fellow story-conjurer (and producer) Chen Kuofu and co-screenwriter Zhang Jialu persisted in packing multiple threads into the narrative when the film’s prime objective is seemingly set as providing as much scintillating stereoscopy as possible. The interesting premise of substantiating the origins of the uncontrollable criminal-investigator protagonist’s insubordinate instincts is actually passed on in favor of a narrative about a mischievous man’s endless pursuit of an nearly unending stream of clues, culprits and conspiracies; somehow, the writers are playing the surrealist game of exquisite corpse, devising plot points as they go along and explaining crises away by the convenient imposition of yet another new parasite, poison or powerful weaponry.

The film’s title, for example, refers to a gargantuan (and unseen) creature that has managed to decimate a massive Tang naval armada on its way to respond to an incursion by a smaller neighboring state. But as that effects-laden opening sequence ended and the Empress Wu (Carina Lau, the only cast member from the first film making an appearance here) demanding an investigation into the matter, the sea monster somehow faded away from the narrative. What the young Dee (played here by Taiwanese star Mark Zhao), his Uighur sidekick, Shaluo Zhong (Lin Gengsheng), and his colleague-cum-rival, Yuchi Zhenjin (Feng Shaofeng), have to confront first are gangsters wreaking havoc in the city trying to kidnap the beautiful courtesan Yin (Angelababy), who is being served up as human sacrifice; the woman’s presence then leads to the appearance of a reptilian beast, who was once her lover and the owner of a prestigious tea shop, providing an expensive beverage for royalty and nobility; and it would take further zigzags (involving a search for a mole in the court, the battle against foreign insurgents trying to bring down the Tang Dynasty from within and many a bickering match between Dee and Yuchi) before the titular marine beast eventually returns to the fore, nearly as an afterthought.

Even the film’s high production values — courtesy of the design work by the Hong Kong triumvirate of Kenneth Mak, Bruce Yu and Lee Pik-kwan — could only struggle to distract the viewer away from these flaws in the narrative. Somehow running against the way Dee is shaped in Mystery of the Phantom Flame — he is depicted as a headstrong, anti-authority figure who only reluctantly agrees to support the Empress towards the end of the film — the younger version of the detective is actually a meeker, more subservient version of his older self. With Zhao not exactly boasting sufficient charisma as the more experienced Andy Lau, who played Dee three years ago, or even his onscreen rival Feng here, the upstart detective is imposed with some cartoonish capabilities (he could see the weapons concealed in clothes!) and also provided with incredible life-saving tools (a horse that moves faster in water than on land!)

Not that Young Detective Dee is totally zany: The main theme underlining Tsui’s last franchise — the Jet Li-starring film series revolving around the early 20th century martial arts hero Wong Fei-hung — is still present here, as the filmmaker again attempts to explore an incarnation of the affluent Chinese state as it starts its slide towards material excess (as manifested in the way the elite are hooked on a particular blend of tea) and moral corruption (with the way the courtesan Yin is persecuted first by powerful patrons whom she refused to sleep with, and then the masses who cheer as she is transported to exile and eventual death). It’s just that these observations were episodic and never really entertained coherently throughout, and they couldn’t really compete with the bombastic battles that fill the screen ad nauseam, mutters of discontent drowned out by the monstrous din of heroism.

Production Companies: Film Workshop, Huayi Brothers Media Group
Director: Tsui Hark
Cast: Mark Zhao, Feng Shaofeng, Carina Lau, Angelababy, Lin Gengsheng
Producers: Chen Kuofu, Nansun Shi
Executive Producer: Wang Zhongjun
Screenwriters: Zhang Jialu and Tsui Hark, based on a story by Chen Kuofu and Tsui Hark
Director of Photography: Jimmy Choi
Production Designer: Kenneth Mak
Image Designer: Bruce Yu
Costume Designer: Lee Pik-kwan
Music: Wu Wai-lap
International Sales: Huayi Brothers Media Group
In Mandarin/Putonghua
No ratings, 133 minutes
THR

September 16, 2013

Silent Witness (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 1:16 pm

Silent Witness

9/16/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
A novel attempt for Chinese cinema in tackling the courtroom-thriller genre is weighed down by a denouement defined by an overarching belief in human goodness.

With a story revolving around a powerful political figure and his offspring being put on trial, multiple testimonies being overturned at the stand and courtroom proceedings spiraling into a poisonous expose of trysts and sexual misdeeds, Silent Witness somehow mirrors the very high-profile trials in China of, first, former Politburo member Bo Xilai (who was arrested and indicted for corruption, among other charges) and then Li Tianyi (the son of a top-ranking general and one of five men charged and tried for gang-raping a young woman). Such proximity to actual events unfolding in the country probably plays a part in the film’s steady progress at the local box office — its daily gross since opening on Friday was beaten only by the 3-D Smurfs sequel — and director Fei Xing’s experiment with nonlinear multi-perspective storytelling has certainly offered something new in a country where courtroom dramas are rare and mostly driven by state-sanctioned ideology.

While Silent Witness should be credited for making a step forward in trying to engage the mainland Chinese film industry with genre cinema — in this case, the courtroom-bound crime thriller — its flaws also illustrate the challenges of tackling such productions under a censorship regime that frowns on narratives deviating into any sort of moral ambiguity. While being entertained by all the intriguing twists and turns, domestic Chinese audiences will probably be let down by how Fei — who also wrote the screenplay — allows everyone to eventually emerge with their honor intact, when real-life events actually laid bare legal proceedings in which the accused, the witnesses and even the state itself are treading in pretty murky moral waters.

The film’s English title — as per its more obvious Chinese counterpart, which literally translates to “Observed by the Entire Public” — refers to how the trial of Lin Mengmeng (Deng Jiajia) is to take place: The proceedings — which revolve around the university student’s trial for murder — are to be broadcast live online and through Weibo, the Chinese equivalent to Twitter. The case has attracted much public attention because of the young woman’s background and the nature of the crime she is accused of. She is charged with murdering the starlet girlfriend of her father Lin Tai (Sun Honglei, Drug War), a tycoon with the checkered legal record of having been hit with multiple charges of fraud over the years.

The film’s first quarter is exactly as advertised on the can: It offers the proceedings as seen very much from above board, as state prosecutor Tong Tao (Aaron Kwok, Cold War) cruises to a seemingly easy conviction until defense counsel Zhou Li (Yu Nan, The Expendables 2 and Tuya’s Marriage) throws the case wide open as she manages to provoke Tong’s star witness, Lin Tai’s longtime subordinate Sun Wei (Zhao Lixin) into admitting he murdered the woman as an act of revenge against what he describes as Lin’s long-running affair with his wife.

The film has barely hit the half-hour mark as this happens, so the seemingly bizarre scenario of such a sudden breakdown in procedure, trust and allegiances is nearly destined to be a smokescreen: As the proceedings are rewound to the beginning and retold from different characters’ points of view — first from Tong’s, then from Zhou’s, and finally from that of the mastermind of the whole cover-up — the courtroom drama on show at first is dismantled, as the strange developments that shaped those initial exchanges gradually get embellished and explained, while the individual characters are seen putting behind-the-scenes machinations into place.

Indeed, the lawyers’ pursuit of the truth offers riveting drama, in which the prosecuting and defense teams are seemingly being manipulated in a game plan unfolding out of their control. The sense of helplessness, however, could have been amplified if only Fei could direct his leads from playing up heroism or cynicism to the level of caricature: While Yu’s distant demeanor could be explained by the illogic that defines her character’s move in sacrificing her client (and then herself) for the greater good, Kwok’s performance as a one-man champion of justice and truth ranks alongside some of the more over-the-top turns he has delivered in his career.

But to blame the actor alone for this is perhaps unfair: Kwok’s performance is nearly inevitable given how the film peels away its intrigue to reveal a web of good intentions wrapped around the deceptions placed before the public and the court. It’s perhaps ironic that one of the more damning critiques in the film is how cynical lawyers are happy to whip up public empathy for their clients to help their case, because sensationalism works best for the masses, who (as Zhou says, with a smirk) are “good-natured people.” Silent Witness also plays with the “good-natured” imagination of the viewer, but elects to provide a denouement defined by incredible acts of self-sacrifice. In this sense, Fei’s film stays true to its title: For all its aesthetic merits — Zhao Xiaoding’s camerawork has, with the help of Su Lifeng and Kwong Chi-leung’s editing, heightened the tension on screen as battles and schemes unfold — the film can only offer a taciturn response to the eye-popping manifestations of ugly human nature unfolding in real-life Chinese courtrooms today.

Venue: Public Screening, Shenzhen (released in China on Sept. 13)

Production Companies: Beijing 21st Century Weike Pictures Investment, TIK Films (Beijing) Pictures, Anhui TV, Beijing New Film Association, Inlook Media, Beijing Maite Media,

Director: Fei Xing
Cast: Aaron Kwok, Sun Honglei, Yu Nan, Deng Jiajia, Zhao Lixin
Producer: Xiao Pingkai
Screenwriter: Fei Xing
Director of Photography: Zhao Xiaoding
Editors: Su Lifeng, Kwong Chi-leung
Music: Yang Chuoxin
Art Director: Chen Shikun
In Mandarin/Putonghua
No ratings, 120 minutes
THR

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