HKMDB Daily News

November 30, 2013

Control (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 8:46 pm


11/29/2013 by Clarence Tsui

With its swooping VFX views of a menacingly metallic metropolis and a desperate man kissing his lover goodbye before fleeing pursuing thugs down dank alleyways - all to the electronic beats of Dan the Automator and Andre Matthias - the opening sequence of director Kenneth Bi’s latest film appears to have see the Hong Kong helmer leaving his past family dramas of Rice Rhapsody and The Drummer far behind and entered the world of sci-fi-tinged noir.

But despite its hyper-stylized mise-en-scene, amped up action scenes and multiple twists, Control’s futuristic sheen fades quickly and its dark enigma drains away to be replaced by increasingly ordinary early 21st century crime involving ordinary, caricatured villains in the decidedly non sci-fi settings of warehouses and car parks.

This transformation from fantastical dystopia to everyday crime drama sums up Control. The potentially refreshing premise quickly reverts to conventional action-thriller mode. The film’s final twist, which tries for a The Usual Suspects-style shock, flounders while still being careful to appease Chinese censors with a strict moral line.

Release in mainland China on Nov. 21, Control has failed to set the box office alight, earning just $6.2 million while audiences in its young demographic flock to Hollywood imports The Hunger Games: Catching Fire and Gravity. With its screens now drastically cut ahead of the bow of star-studded Chinese-language action blockbuster The White Storm, Bi’s film will probably have to look to Singapore and Malaysia, where it opens next month, for hopes of better returns. Surprisingly, a release date in Hong Kong – where a bulk of the film was shot and where its star Daniel Wu is well-known – has yet been confirmed.

Wu plays Mark, a hapless insurance salesman coerced into committing criminal acts by a voice barking down orders through his headset. The mysterious man, who somehow has commandeered the city’s surveillance cameras, takes control of Mark’s life and fashions him as a proxy for his dirty deals.

The film appears to be banking on Wu’s on-screen charisma and proven box office drawing power but the star is actually undermined by a screenplay (which Bi adapted from an original story by Jack Messitt) which forces our protagonist to continually shift gears as he acquires one ally after another. First there’s his high-school flame Jessica (Yao Chen), then private eye Moon (Feng Jiayi) and finally the fretting low-life Jeff (Halo Bojie). It’s a case of the more the messier and the film’s final big reveal struggles to explain why Mark and all his companions fit - or, to be exact, get themselves to fit - into the mysterious villain’s grand scheme.

Control also suffers from a lack of development of its central character. Instead of the transformation from bumbling banality to accidental hero – seen in the similarly-themed films Collateral or Hong Kong’s very own Connected – Wu’s Mark remains the handsome, poised professional throughout, even after being tied up in a warehouse and receiving a nasty beating from thugs Tiger (Simon Yam) and Devil (Leon Dai).

Compared to previous films in which a goody-two-shoes character is forced to act like a felon - say, the way Jamie Foxx’s cabbie grows into the role of a cold-blooded hitman in his confrontation with Javier Bardem’s criminal kingpin in Collateral - Mark’s “performance” as an experienced mobster while doing his controller’s bidding is far too natural. Here, Bi is actually missing the opportunity to provide some darkm comic relief to the proceedings. But the absence of these small gestures sums up Control’s unwieldy nature. Its high concept is never really fully realized with broad strokes that pay little heed to the nuances required by its complex plot.

Production Company: Diversion Pictures, in a presentation by Sil-Metropole, Huayi Brothers Media, Kbro Media, Celestial Pictures, Media Asia and Le Vision Pictures
Director: Kenneth Bi
Cast: Daniel Wu, Yao Chen, Leon Dai, Chao Bing, Hao Bojie, Wai Ying-hung, Simon Yam
Producers: Stephen Fung, Daniel Wu, Stephen Lam, Rosa Li
Executive Producers: Song Dai, Dennis Wang, Cai Mingzhong, Ross Pollock, Peter Lam, Zhang Zhao
Screenwriter: Kenneth Bi, based on the story “Remote Control” by Jack Messitt
Director of Photography: Roman Jakobi
Editors: Cheung Ka-fai, Kenneth Bi
Music: Dan the Automator, Andre Matthias
Art Designer: Alex Mok
Image and costume designer: Tina Lau
Action Choreographer: Chin Ka-lok
International Sales: Huayi Brothers
In Mandarin
90 minutes

November 25, 2013

The White Storm (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 5:27 pm

The White Storm

November 24, 2013
Jay Weissberg

A trio of BFF cops find their ties strained following a flubbed operation in Benny Chan’s enjoyable but routine shoot-’em-up “The White Storm.” More in keeping with the action helmer’s strengths than his previous “Shaolin,” the pic reunites him with three of Hong Kong’s charismatic high-wattage actors, and if its tale of an undercover narc trying to bring down the most powerful drug lord in the Golden Triangle sounds familiar, at least it has some rousing sequences to balance the sense of deja vu. Strong returns can be predicted when “Storm” is released domestically in early December.

Chief inspector Tin (Sean Lau), covert agent Chow (Louis Koo) and probationary inspector Wai (Nick Cheung) have been buddies since way back, their camaraderie occasionally tested by the job but always patched up by singing a few bars of their old song. Together they’re working on busting a local hood with connections to an Indonesian cartel; Chow is looking forward to wrapping it up so he can be around when his heavily pregnant wife, Chloe (Yuan Quan), delivers.

Just when Tin is ready to move in with his team, he gets a call from the commissioner aborting the operation. Chow is furious, as this means he has to remain a plant. The higher brass now want them to go after the big cheese: Eight-Face Buddha (Lo Hoi Pang), a major heroin supplier operating on the Thai-Cambodian border. Tin and Wai convince Chow to do his duty, but Chloe can’t take any more disappointments and tells him to move out.

In Thailand there’s a power struggle between Tin’s team and the local police who want control of the operation, but after a Thai mole is discovered passing info on to Eight-Face, the Hong Kong cops take charge. Chow’s still ambivalent, though, upset that he’s lost his family and angered by Tin’s duty-is-all mindset; shortly before they’re meant to make the big pinch, Chow (still undercover) calls Eight-Face’s men warning them it’s a setup. This is a weak plot point, since surely Chow could guess the ruthless cartel wouldn’t simply back down.

Whatever its logic, the twist allows Chen to stage the most spectacular scene in the pic, when Eight-Face’s helicopters come roaring across the jungle plain, guns a-blazin’. The ensuing carnage is edited swiftly yet clearly, with rat-a-tat-tat energy, as Tin’s plans go spectacularly wrong and in a tense moment, he has to sacrifice one of his friends to save the other. The choice haunts him even five years later and, despite a major demotion, Tin remains determined to go after Eight-Face Buddha one more time.

“White Storm” overdoes the shootouts, piling them on indiscriminately until they practically lose meaning except as calculated sops to the action crowd. Aside from the helicopter sequence, there’s another strong scene when the Thai mole is discovered and hell breaks loose, but otherwise there’s a sameness to it all, and a final act set in a nightclub lacks the elegantly choreographed carnage Johnnie To brings to similar finales (though fight choreographer Li Chung Chi also worked on To’s “Vengeance.”).

More original are the compelling protags, from Tin’s driven sense of invulnerability to Chow’s wounded pride and Wai’s good-natured loyalty. Of the three actors, Nick Cheung (“Unbeatable”) is the standout, his chameleonlike switch following an unexpected (and unbelievable) shift giving the role a compellingly potent energy. As usual in Chen’s pics, women get the short end of the stick.

An opening montage of nightclubs, city streets and cocaine is so standard it may as well be rentable stock footage, but once the movie gets going, the visuals have a pacey flair, and the helicopter shots are especially well done. However, using Nana Mouskouri’s “Amazing Grace” during a funeral scene wasn’t the best idea, and the few scenes in English are stilted.

Rome Film Review: ‘The White Storm’
Reviewed at Rome Film Festival (noncompeting), Nov. 18, 2013. Running time: 133 MIN. Original title: “Sou duk”

(China-Hong Kong) A Universe Entertainment presentation of a Sirius Pictures Intl., Sun Entertainment Culture, Bona Film Group, Golala Investment, Sil-Metropole Organization production. (International sales: Universe Film Distribution, Hong Kong.) Produced by Benny Chan, Alvin Lam, Wendy Wong, Stephen Lam. Executive producer, Daneil Lam. Co-executive producers, Chau Cheok Wah, Yu Dong, Song Dai.

Directed by Benny Chan. Screenplay, Chan, Manfred Wong, Ram Ling, Wong Chun, Tam Wai Ching. Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Anthony Pun; editor, Yau Chi Wai; music, Nicolas Errera, Rubberband; production designer, Chong Kwok Wing; costume designer, Joyce Chan; sound (D-Box/Dolby Atmos/Dolby Digital), Kinson Tsang, Yiu Chun Hin, Chow Yuk Lun; visual effects supervisor, Ng Yuen Fai; visual effects, Fat Face Prod.; fight choreographer, Li Chung Chi; line producers, Chan Sing Yan, Zhang Hao, Sze Yeung Ping, Chaipat Sitthisarankul; administrative producers, Alex Dong, Jeffrey Chan, Dong Pei Wen, Ren Yue, Cheung Hong Tat; assistant director, Yiu Man Kei.

Louis Koo, Nick Cheung, Sean Lau, Yuan Quan, Lo Hoi Pang, Ng Ting, Yip Berg, Lam Kwok Pun, Kenneth Low, Hugo Ng, Treechada Malayaporn, Marc Ma, Shi Yanneng, Law Lan, Lee Siu Kei, Vithaya Pansringarm. (Cantonese, English, Thai dialogue)


November 15, 2013

Doomsday Party (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 6:29 pm

Doomsday Party
11/14/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
A first-timer’s attempt at lambasting social injustice is tempered by the use of a contrived plot and melodramatic clichés.

Among the characters in Ho Hong’s film is a perturbed ex-schoolteacher who spends his days surveying press cuttings documenting Hong Kong’s brewing social turmoil. It’s perhaps apt that he’s played by Ho’s showbiz-veteran mentor-producer Teddy Robin. With its spirited but insubstantial depictions of one too many threads for a two-hour film, his protégé’s self-styled social-critique drama skims the surface of Hong Kong’s social turmoil like a montage of newspaper headlines.

Revolving around a group of characters whose erstwhile coincidental connections are eventually heightened as they find themselves trapped in a bank after a botched robbery, Doomsday Party – an award-winner at the Hong Kong-Asia Film Financing Forum project market in March – is a showcase of ambition for first-time feature-film director Ho, as he and his three co-screenwriters attempt to weave a labyrinthine narrative laying down the interconnected nature of the many aspects of Hong Kong’s problems.

But the youthful fury driving Doomsday Party has proved to be the film’s very undoing: the filmmakers’ inexperience has rendered the high-concept multi-linearity a conceit, while the initial rage against Hong Kong’s ruling machine – as espoused by the frantic re-enactments of mass demonstrations and constant news-bulletin-style voiceovers speaking of yet another political impasse – quickly dissipates to reveal clichéd romantic or familial melodrama at its center, a flaw that Cheng Siu-keung’s potent cinematography and Wenders Li’s kinetic editing could only struggle to salvage.

While the film could gain considerable traction at home by positioning itself as a genuinely local-flavored production, it will probably not match Robin’s previous hit Gallants, a more fully-formed production (and directed, admittedly, by the more experienced duo of Derek Kwok and Clement Cheng).

While likely a general allusion to Hong Kong’s social and political landscape, the title of Ho’s film is most evident in the pre-credit, thriller-style sequence, when the story seems to skip between a bomb threat at the government headquarters besieged by demonstrators and two bomb-wielding robbers holding up a bank.

As opening credits drifts off, the tension and intrigue also drop, and don’t return for a long time. We must wait as Ho rewinds the proceedings and introduces the characters and their cliched back stories. There’s the bank teller Wan-yee (Kay Tse) struggling with a moral crisis brought on by her job hawking insecure financial investments, and the affairs of her cram-school entrepreneur boyfriend Victor (Wilfred Lau). There’s Wan-yee’s ex-paramour, the frustrated cop Ho (Paul Wong), whose gradual loss of eyesight is a problem for his investigation into a series of bomb attacks – the work of the self-styled vigilante Lang (Kelvin Kwan) and his associate, a feisty street punk Fish (Fish Liew).

Added to the mix is a parliamentarian (Cheung Kwok-keung) operating on dodgy political motives and fretting over an extra-marital affair with Maggie Chan’s affluent socialite Rebecca, who – surprise, surprise – happens to be related to one of the characters as well. And there’s Teddy Robin’s schoolteacher, haunted by a student who committed suicide, and furious about losing his life savings when his financial investments (coerced by a former student who now manages Wai-yee’s bank) crashed and burned.

At once complicated in the characters’ meandering links and simplistic in their embodiment of Hong Kong’s somehow much more intricate socio-economic schisms, Doomsday Party barrels on, with the proceedings increasingly reliant on contrived coincidences. By the time the film returns to the ending that was shown at its start, the wrath has subsided and its pretensions of an edge have fallen off completely. The protests and political commentary have become merely a backdrop for a story about love, respect and sacrifice.

This loss of focus is echoed by the post-credits sequence of the cast all dressed up in wacky costumes and singing an irony-free track called “Let’s Party”; a deserving coda, perhaps, for the young filmmakers who have, admittedly, stretched their limits for the first full-length feature. But the frivolity would only work well if Doomsday Party were a satire; in this concession to create a ripple with the audience, it only undermines the seriousness the filmmakers seem to want their film to be regarded with.

Production Company: Film Plus Plus Production
Director: Ho Hong
Cast: Paul Wong, Kay Tse, Teddy Robin, Kelvin Kwan, Wilfred Lau
Producers: Kwan Wai-pang (Teddy Robin), Ho Hong, Roddy Wong
Screenwriters: Ruby Law, Joe Chan, Grace Mak, Ho Hong
Director of Photography: Cheng Siu-keung
Editor: Wenders Li
Music: Teddy Robin, Tommy Wai
International Sales: Why Entertainment (Asia), All Rights Entertainment (outside Asia)
In Cantonese

November 7, 2013

Finding Mr. Right (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 5:35 pm

Finding Mr. Right

November 7, 2013
Justin Chang

Unwieldy and exasperating, but not without a certain pushy, ingratiating charm, Xue Xiaolu’s smash hit “Finding Mr. Right” turns out to have a bit more on its mind than its generic romantic-comedy title would suggest. Over the course of its leisurely 122-minute running time, this slick, saucy tale of a spoiled mainland princess who travels to Seattle to give birth manages to address the pressures of pregnancy and parenthood, the challenges of life in a foreign country, the temptations of material wealth, and the wan but enduring charms of “Sleepless in Seattle.” The whole thing might collapse were it not for Tang Wei’s irrepressible lead performance, redeeming an initially unbearable character through the sheer, unbridled force of her personality.

Having grossed a massive $85 million on home turf since March, the film will be much more of a niche offering Stateside when it bows Nov. 8. Nevertheless, as one of the year’s big Chinese B.O. success stories, it plants Xue firmly on the map as a mainland filmmaking talent to be reckoned with (she made a prominent 2010 debut with the Jet Li starrer “Ocean Heaven”). For all the clumsy moves and openly derivative story elements she trades in here, the story has a cultural specificity that gives it a unique feel and a small measure of dramatic heft, and its jumbled parts are stitched together with a brazen confidence that feels of a piece with the winning spirit of its protagonist.

That would be Wen Jiajia (Tang), the mistress of a wealthy Beijing tycoon; he’s sent her on an all-expenses-paid trip to Seattle, where she plans to give birth to their love-child away from prying eyes back at home. The very picture of bratty self-entitlement, Jiajia is an intensely dislikable piece of work. Upon her arrival in the chilly Washington suburbs, she immediately begins heaping abuse on her patient driver, Frank (Wu Xiubo), who takes her to a home maternity center run by the kindly Mrs. Huang (Elaine Jin). There, Jiajia wastes no time in making a nuisance of herself, barking outrageously inconsiderate orders and throwing wads of cash around to ensure that they’re enforced.

As you’d expect, Jiajia’s comeuppance arrives right on schedule, just in time for the holidays. When her lover stands her up at Christmas and later cuts off her cash flow, she must learn the hard way that money isn’t everything while facing the prospect of raising her child alone. On hand to facilitate these lessons is Frank, a divorced dad who gave up a successful medical career in China to come to the U.S. With his quiet, tolerant demeanor and sad-sack goatee, he couldn’t seem a less likely match for the proud, vivacious Jiajia, which of course makes their eventual union even more of a foregone conclusion. (Naturally, she hits it off with Frank’s daughter, Julia, played at different ages by sisters Song Meihui and Song Meiman.)

As predictable as the outcome may be, Xue’s patchwork script is in no hurry to get to its “Sleepless in Seattle”-inspired romantic climax, the inevitable culmination of its endless visual and verbal references to that Tom Hanks-Meg Ryan perennial. But first, there are babies to be born, relationships to be reconciled, Western-pop-scored montages to be edited. There is no shortage of topical touches, acknowledging the rise of “birth tourism” among wealthy foreigners and critiquing the rampant consumerism of modern China. The film’s heart seems to be in the right place even at its most confused, as when it presents a warm, affirming portrait of a lesbian couple, then trots out a swishy gay stereotype a few beats later.

Against considerable odds, it’s Tang’s initially grating, ultimately winning performance that sustains this messy but endearing enterprise from start to finish. Sentenced to a five-year ban from Chinese productions in 2007 after her participation in Ang Lee’s racy “Lust, Caution,” the actress looks fully rejuvenated here, seizing into this material with such vigor and ferocity that you can almost see her delighting in her newfound freedom. She may not be a natural-born comedienne (the script gives her precious little to work with in that department), but her dramatic chops are considerable: Tang shrewdly treats Jiajia’s redemption as an extension rather than a reversal of her fighting spirit, her loneliness giving way as she thaws and thrives in her makeshift American community.

As Jiajia’s love interest and foil, Wu (best known for the Chinese TV series “Before the Dawn”) goes arguably too far in the opposite direction, coming across as stoic and recessive to a fault. Nevertheless, Frank’s fundamental decency more than shines through, and as the sole male character with any significant screen time, he doesn’t exactly face stiff competition for the titular honors.

Chan Chi-ying’s high-definition widescreen images have a sharpness of detail that makes up for the somewhat televisual framing and camera movement. The largely Vancouver-shot production has a fine feel for Pacific Northwest suburbia, contrasting with the shimmering urban panoramas of Beijing glimpsed in a few brief scenes. (The original Chinese title translates as “Beijing Meets Seattle.”) The score, however, never stops elbowing the viewer in the ribs, often swooping in to signal a dramatic shift before the plot point in question has fully registered.

Film Review: ‘Finding Mr. Right’
Reviewed at DGA Theater, West Hollywood, Nov. 6, 2013. Running time: 122 MIN. Original title: “Beijing yu shang xiyatu”

(China-Hong Kong) A China Lion Film Distribution (in U.S.) release of an Edko Films, Edko Beijing Films, BDI Films, Beijing Harmony & Harvest, Communication Media, China Movie Channel presentation. (International sales: Edko Films, Hong Kong.) Produced by Bill Kong, Mathew Tang, Lu Hongshi. Executive producers, Bill Kong, Hao Lei, Susan Ma, Yan Xiaoming. Co-producers, Shan Tam, Sara Zhang, Yue Yang, Wu Yakang.

Directed, written by Xue Xiaolu. Camera (color, HD, widescreen), Chan Chi-ying; editor, Cheung Ka-fai; music, Peter Kam; production designer, Yee Chung-man; art director, Simon So; set decorator, Athena Wong; costume designer, Dora Ng; sound (Dolby Digital), Dennis Chan; re-recording mixer, Yiu Chun-hin; special effects coordinator, Rob Paller; visual effects supervisor, Tang Bingbing; visual effects, Base FX; line producer, Michael Parker; associate producers, Wayne Jiang, Yang Guojun, Jessica Chen; line producer, Michael Parker; casting, Judy Lee.

Tang Wei, Wu Xiubo, Haiqing, Mai Hongmei, Elaine Jin, Song Meihui, Song Meiman. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

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