HKMDB Daily News

December 23, 2013

As the Light Goes Out (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 5:08 pm

As the Light Goes Out
12/23/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
Early suggestions of a nuanced personal drama get overwhelmed by pyrotechnics, red-herring threads and inexplicable plot twists.

Another week, another on-screen depiction of Hong Kong confronting an apocalypse of sorts. Following swiftly on the city’s central business district being reduced to rubble in the cops-and-robbers spectacle Firestorm, young filmmaker Derek Kwok arrives to switch Christmas-time Hong Kong off with an action-thriller that aims to combine explosive pyrotechnics with a taut drama about high-strung, damaged souls.

A joining of forces between two of Hong Kong’s major film production outfits — with Emperor Motion Pictures represented on screen by its star Nicholas Tse (Bodyguards and Assassins) and Media Asia’s presence felt through Shawn Yue (Love in a Puff ) — As the Light Goes Out is a dazzling display of cinematic craft. While one of the most versatile filmmakers in the field today — his filmography includes understated noir (The Moss), pop romance (Frozen), laugh-out-loud comedy (Gallants) and VFX-laden blockbusters (Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, co-directed with Stephen Chow) — Kwok seems to have fallen victim of his own ambitions. By over-burdening Light with one too many unnecessary and undercooked tangents, he and his screenwriters Jill Leung and PhilipYung have distracted the film from becoming simply a neat and simple story about fear, anxiety and guilt among a group of firefighters confronting what should be the defining battle of their lives.

Still, As the Light Goes Out remains markedly more substantial and fulfilling than the Pang Brothers’ visually bombastic but emotionally lightweight blaze-wrestling 3-D spectacle Out of Inferno from just three months ago. Whether Kwok’s film, which unspools in sneak previews in Hong Kong starting Dec. 24 before officially opening in the city on Jan. 2, can generate strong box-office traction depends on the local audience’s willingness to retry the firefighter-drama subgenre, which has been revisited several times on film (most memorably in Johnnie To’s 1997 film Lifeline) and on terrestrial TV serials in recent years. Viewers in mainland China, where the film will bow on Jan. 7, might warm to the film thanks a key subplots driven by two of their own: an earnest and sturdy mainland Chinese with an amazing physique and extraordinary capacity in mapping out smoke-filled buildings, and a perceptive electric Shanghainese engineer defying her cynical Hong Kong supervisor to avert impending disaster.

Kwok’s knack for subverting conventions is very much evident early in the film. In the film’s post-title scene, a voiceover speaks of how Hong Kong is seemingly braving for a doomsday scenario as temperatures hit a whopping 93 degrees on Christmas Eve. Barely has the newcaster’s voice drifted off that burning meteors begin raining down on the city to set it ablaze. And then Jackie Chan, dressed up in firefighting gear, appears — not to save the day, but to invite people to sign up for a career in the fire brigade.

Zooming out of the image, a group of young firemen are seen ridiculing the over-the-top nature of this public service announcement: manning one of Hong Kong’s most far-flung fire stations, the firefighters are seen whiling their time away exchanging easy banter, doing repetitive training drills or making soup.
The last task is the handiwork of Sam (Tse), an officer spending the last day at his posting and facing yet another twist in his spiralling career - a tailspin which began, as shown in the film’s opening sequence, when he and his hot-headed colleague Chill (Shawn Yue) were sold out by their cadet-school classmate Yip (Andy On) in an internal investigation about a botched rescue attempt. Yip has since stolen his rival’s rising-star thunder and, having risen above him to become stationmaster, slyly maneuvers Sam’s transfer to another even more obscure posting.

Thus begins what appears to be an uneventful Christmas Eve for the characters, as Sam’s preparations for departure juxtaposed with the introduction of the film’s many different threads. Ever the rule-breaker for better or worse, Chill is seen driving one of the fire trucks to transport his son to a school visit of a power plant; old-timer Tao (Simon Yam) is given some competition by the arrival of the po-faced (and incredibly strong) former mainland Chinese firefighter Ocean (Hu Jun), with the pair’s meet-cute – their bonding certainly sizzles with homoerotic frisson – taking the form of a stair-climbing race and shaped up by some of the rookies as a showdown between Hong Kong and mainland China.

Tao and Ocean’s professional pair-up is interesting, as it highlights the need for collaboration between the pair (and the two entities they represent) than competition - a notion most certainly at ease with the film’s position as a mainland-Hong Kong co-production (Emperor and Media Asia co-produced the film with China’s Zhujiang Film Group). It’s a thread brought further into focus later in the power plant, where visiting engineer Yang Lin (Bai Bing) emerges as the only dissenting voice when the manager (Patrick Tam) insists in pushing the facilities’ output to the max so as to protect his job but at the risk of reigniting a winery blaze which Sam, Chill and his company have just fought hard to contain.

Up until this juncture, the film remains very promising. The personality clashes reveal characters weighed down by the errors of their past, as seen in Sam’s messy state of mind when he questions his wisdom of that one episode in which he jettisoned his (and Chill’s) by first not doing things by the book, and then the demanding circumstances of the present, when everybody who’s anybody is trying their best (or worst) by staying on-message and in the good grace of the powers that be.

Ironically, As the Light Goes Out begins to veer out of control when it expands into a full-blown disaster movie. With the narrative confined to one single night, too much is allowed to happen after that first fire at the liquor production factory. As one thing leads to another and finally a worst case scenario which leads to Hong Kong falling into a complete blackout, but not before the abrupt death of one of the protagonists; the fact that this incident barely registered throughout the second half of the film highlights how the film is overwhelmed by one too many distracting and unnecessary plot points (most of which aim at consolidating the firefighters’ role also as flawed fathers and boyfriends).

The film also subverts its own early-stage humor about clichéd images of heroism, as cataclysmic situations bring out ever more extraordinary (and unbelievable) deeds. But as the on-screen calamities become ever more awe-inspiring, some of the action scenes have in turn become too quick to be deciphered clearly, rendering some of Eric Lam’s production designer obsolete. The audio-visual cacophony has unfortunately submerged what could have been a tight study of values and virtues in peril, with the film weighed down by an excess of dangling threads, nick-of-time interventions and cliffhanger moments resolved by logic-defying acts.

Venue: Gala Premiere, Hong Kong, Dec. 19, 2013
Production Companies: Emperor Film Production Company, Media Asia Film Production Company, Zhujiang Film Group
Director: Derek Kwok
Cast: Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Simon Yam, Hu Jun, Bai Bing, Andy On
Producers: Albert Lee, David Chan, Zhao Jun
Executive Producers: Albert Yeung, Peter Lam, Li He
Screenwriters: Jill Leung, Philip Yung with Derek Kwok
Director of Photography: Jason Kwan
Editor: Wong Hoi
Production Designer: Eric Lam
Costume Designer: William Fung, Mabel Kwan
Music: Teddy Robin, Tomy Wai
International Sales: Emperor Motion Pictures
In Cantonese and Mandarin
118 minutes


December 21, 2013

Personal Tailor (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , — dleedlee @ 11:02 am

Personal Tailor

December 20, 2013
Justin Chang

Top-grossing Chinese helmer Feng Xiaogang has alternated between romantic comedies and big-budget historical epics with remarkable consistency in recent years, padding out two pleasant servings of “If You Are the One” with an earthquake-themed tearjerker (“Aftershock”) and a wartime famine drama (“Back to 1942″). Back in the laffer realm with “Personal Tailor,” a sly bit of satirical whimsy about a company that brings people’s fantasies of wealth and power to life, Feng has not only continued the trend but fashioned an unofficial sequel to one of his early hits, 1997′s “The Dream Factory.” An easy-on-the-eyes trifle with a few pleasingly sharp edges, “Tailor” is likely too mild and episodic to catch on offshore, though domestically it’s off to a fine start with $13 million — the second-highest opening of all time for a mainland release.

The central conceit of “The Dream Factory” — four friends making money by impersonating any characters requested by their clientele — has been taken to more elaborate situational extremes here. “What you don’t dare imagine, we dare to do,” goes the slogan of Personal Tailor, a company that provides a far more benign version of the services offered in David Fincher’s “The Game,” allowing regular men and women to see their wildest dreams temporarily realized. We get a glimpse of their handiwork in the film’s amusing prologue, in which a woman willingly submits to interrogation, detainment and a six-day hunger strike as the star of her own WWII resistance fantasy, playfully shot in black-and-white.

Personal Tailor is run by Zhong Yang (Feng regular Ge You), the “director of dreams,” and his resourceful employees Miss Bai (Bai Baihe), the “fantastician”; Lu Xiaolu (Li Xiaolu), the “caterer of whims”; and Ma Qing (Zheng Kai), the “spiritual anesthetist.” For all their elaborate titles, however, they’re essentially members of a scrappy, high-concept acting troupe, called upon to wear as many hats as possible, literally and figuratively, in order to satisfy their clients’ demands. From this premise, Wang Shuo’s script strings together three vignettes (well, three-and-a-half), getting in a few modest digs at China’s political, artistic and economic values in the process.

In the first segment, “Honest Instincts,” a chauffeur (Fan Wei) whose previous high-ranking employers were all busted for accepting bribes, decides to test his own moral resilience by assuming the role of a village chief. Local peasants, foreign dignitaries and his own staff, all played by the Personal Tailor quartet (outfitted in an array of costumes by Dora Ng Li Lo), do their utmost to tempt him with financial and even sexual favors, though as Yang tartly observes, the “chief” turns out to be susceptible to a much more banal form of corruption.

Feng indulges in some playful self-parody in the second and most overtly comedic yarn, “Bloody Vulgar,” centered around a massively successful commercial filmmaker (Li Chengru) who, tired of winning awards like the “Pacific Rim Pandering Prize” and “Sell-out Screenplay of the Year,” yearns for low-budget art-cinema respectability. Featuring a brief cameo by Jackie Chan (one of the film’s producers), the tale pokes outlandish if somewhat overstretched humor at the differences between high and low culture. Once again Yang supplies a crucial bit of wisdom, and one of the pic’s best lines: “Chinese films, however bad, are never art.”

The most touching and trenchant of the three tales, “Mo’ Money,” finds the Personal Tailor crew returning a favor to the impoverished Mrs. Dan (Song Dandan), allowing her to play the part of a billionaire for a day. Cloaked in expensive finery and perfume, and spending her $14 million daily allowance on swanky real estate, Mrs. Dan gets an ample taste of the high life, as well as a sense of the dissatisfactions and undesirable obligations that it brings. If this development strikes some viewers as an apologia for the rich, or an argument against social mobility, it’s entirely consistent with Feng’s dryly ironic worldview, acknowledging the sheer difficulty of retaining any sort of principles in a position of power.

While Zhao Xiaoshi’s widescreen cinematography and Shi Haiyang’s production design supply no shortage of visual polish, “Personal Tailor” remains a modest, low-pulse endeavor throughout, meandering from one story to the next and never allowing any of its four principal characters to really come into focus. Yet over the course of its generally absorbing if overlong 117-minute running time, it offers a brief and appreciably sympathetic take on the lure of fantasy, the pleasures of role play and the thrill of commanding the multitudes — which is to say that it’s, among other things, a film about filmmaking.

Film Review: ‘Personal Tailor’
Reviewed on DVD, Pasadena, Calif., Dec. 20, 2013. Running time: 117 MIN. Original title: “Si ren ding zhi”

(China) A China Lion Film Distribution (in U.S.) release of a Huayi Brothers Media Corp. and Huayi Brothers Intl. presentation of a Chonqing Film Group, Emperor Film Prod. Co., Sparkle Roll Media Co., Anhui Broadcasting Corp., SMG Pictures, the One Investment Fund Management Co. presentation, in association with China Film Co-Prod. Corp., of a Huayi Brothers Media Corp., Bon Voyage Film Studio, Huayi Brothers Intl., Beijing Live Planet Film Co. production. Produced by Wang Zhongjun, Liu Guangquan, Albert Yeung, Jackie Chan, Zhang Suzhou, Qiu Xin, Wang Yiyang. Executive producer, Hu Xiaofeng. Co-producers, Zhou Lifang, Li Chaoyang, Su Xiao, Wang Ren. Co-executive producers, Zhang Dajun, Huang Xiang, Albert Lee, Qi Jianhong, Zhao Hongmei, Yang Wenhong, Zhang Jiaming.

Directed by Feng Xiaogang. Screenplay, Wang Shuo. Camera (color/B&W, widescreen), Zhao Xiaoshi; editor, Zhang Weili; music, Luan Shu; production designer, Shi Haiyang; costume designer, Dora Ng Li Lo; sound, Wu Jiang; line producer, Hu Xiaofeng; associate producers, Bernard Yang, Helen Li.

Ge You, Bai Baihe, Li Xiaolu, Zheng Kai, Fan Wei, Song Dandan, Li Chengru, Miao Pu, Du Jiayi, Liang Tian, Li Yong, Guan Xiaotong, Cao Bingkun, Jackie Chan, Wang Baoqiang. (Mandarin dialogue)

December 20, 2013

Personal Tailor (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 4:32 pm

Personal Tailor
12/20/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
The once-almighty social satirist falls flat on return to his favorite genre, with dated jibes, undercooked characters and a lack of empathy for the masses.

“Fulfilling others by debasing ourselves:” so goes the motto of Personal Tailor’s protagonists, a quartet whose business is realizing their clients’ wildest fantasies.

Inadvertently, however, the slogan is oddly prophetic for the filmmaker behind the camera. By delivering a gaudy, incoherent and largely unfunny comedy, director Feng Xiaogang — once the unchallenged master of Chinese festive-season gag-laden blockbusters — has given his rivals much room to shine.

The only people left laughing will probably be Jackie Chan (who actually is one the film’s co-producers and has a cameo here) and Teng Huatao, whose releases next week – the action-thriller Police Story 2013 for the former on Dec. 23; the romantic comedy Up in the Wind for the latter on Dec. 29 – can now unspool without the fear of being overwhelmed by a cultural juggernaut resembling anything like Feng’s output in the 2000s.

Personal Tailor tallied an impressive first-day take of $13.2 million in China on Dec. 19, but critical backlash (which has already been circulating in the country’s vibrant social media) will hamper the producers’ aspirations for the film joining the ranks of China’s big local hits of 2013.

A revisit of the narrative framework of Feng’s own 1997 film The Dream Factory — a sharp satire which propelled the erstwhile first-time director to the forefront of mainland China’s then budding film industry — Personal Tailor belies its bankable A-list cast and lavish production values with ersatz humor and ham-fisted social critique, a despairing mix that underlines the film’s disconnect from the public pulse. Ironically, one of the film’s three stories revolves around a commercial filmmaker’s attempt to attain arthouse credibility by striving break from communal tastes: Personal Tailor is, indeed, a sad example of an once eagle-eyed director losing touch with his audience.

It’s all the more ironic, therefore, that Personal Tailor is Feng’s reaction to the criticism directed at his New Year entry last year, Back to 1942. Based on a catastrophic famine that broke out in central China during the second world war, the dark historical epic was roundly (and wrongly, in my view) condemned for being out-of-sync with the Chinese audience’s cravings for jolly entertainment during the festive period.

The big-budget blockbuster incurred losses for its backers, Feng’s longtime collaborators Huayi Brothers; Feng was derided for turning artistic — yes, artists do take offense from number-crunchers and mainstream filmgoers over such allegations in China. That episode likely contributed to a segment in Personal Tailor where a self-proclaimed “schlock-maker” (Li Chengyu) — who peppers his talk with garbled pseudo-intellectual comments such as “historical fetishism” and “film as the eighth art” — pays for an “authentic” artistic existence by trading in his gaudy lifestyle for a stay in an empty warehouse with only the noise of a metal-grinder for company.

This clichéd and very dated jibe about artistic pretense is hardly the substantial indictment of social mores that Feng once thrived on. Instead, it’s an embittered director venting his anger against anyone (and everyone) who couldn’t understand him. This is where Personal Tailor, written by Feng’s long-time screenwriting partner Wang Shuo, loses its charm: whereas Feng used to laugh with the common people, this time around he’s laughing at them in rowdy rancor.

While The Dream Factory sides with the masses by having four working-class heroes trying their silly best to make everybody happy, Personal Tailor lacks any sense of empathy for the disfranchised. Here, the four largely sneering fantasy-facilitators (with Dream Factory lead Ge You joined by young comediennes du jour Bai Baihe, Li Xiaolu and Zheng Kai) mostly serve as judge and jury for their clueless and unreasonably demanding clients.

This exact situation ends the film’s final segment, as the quartet groans and growls as their customer, a government-employed chauffeur (Fan Wei) paying for an experience of becoming a ranked official, sits in front of them and concedes of his misguided notion of wanting to be tested for his moral integrity (which takes the shape of the team playing help-seeking relatives, bribe-brandishing entrepreneurs and seductive underlings). People will do anything to crack cadres, says Ge’s character, the company leader Yang; just go back to the comfort of driving other people around, chimes in Zheng’s even more cynical upstart Ma Qing. Such is this story’s moral – that the masses could and do everything to corrupt the elite; and that the public needs to be enlightened – as the driver was – about the complex dilemmas faced by those in the upper echelons of power.

The strangely simplistic nature of this message is followed up by the second story about the deluded director — a somewhat pale take on a similar thread in The Dream Factory, in which a film star pays to become an ordinary person and then backtracks because of her inability to ditch the glitz and glamor of celebrity life. Following up on this mockery of the delusions of poverty-stricken grandeur, the third and final story is seemingly designed to bring some cheer to the have-nots; public park cleaner Dan (Song Dandan), who once saved Ma’s life, is gifted a birthday present by being able to play a multi-billionaire for a day – a game that involves her revealing her country-bumpkin traits (when she bumps into an unopened door she is told rich people should never lift a finger to do anything) and suppressed, ugly nouveau riche personality traits (when she really casts her gentle, modest self aside and becomes an all-demanding monster).

After all this charade – which also includes the team going into restaurants and shops after Dan’s visits and apologizing profusely for their “loony aunt” and her proclamations of treating everyone to free meals and buying up all the goods – the decision to end Dan’s day by having her remove her make-up and then slowly amble towards her home down a dark back alley can’t really inject pathos into the bathos.

It’s too late and too little for a film mostly resembling a show of stringed-together skits — it’s perhaps not coincidental that Feng has been recruited to direct the annual Chinese New Year television gala, a variety show comprising an amalgamation of performances from pop and film stars — and one that really never offers a personality study of any kind. Not only are the clients caricatures; the four protagonists are simply sneering ciphers — especially Bai and Li, whose characters (named, unimaginably, as Bai and Li) are simply an underdeveloped extension of their usual on-screen personas (with the former playing her usual rom-com motormouth role, and the latter’s physical features being unhealthily played up).

The awkward (if not excessive formulaic) sentimental final story as embodied in Dan’s fantastic day is followed up by a coda in which the four cynics decide to advocate a “nationwide movement of apology” to ease social tension. And suddenly, the tone changed drastically and the four cynics are seen traveling to different corners of China to say sorry to mother nature: Bai to the Sun for blocking her with all that smog, Li to the woods for excessive lumberjacking, Ma to the ruined grasslands for over-mining of coal, and to a river for having polluted it with all sorts of sewage.

But Feng always seeks the last laugh, with Yang delivering what could have been a punchline – via him talking in a TV vox pop (in the remote rural hinterlands?) about how he actually doesn’t mean what he was saying about doing something about the bigger social good. Nobody’s willing to let go a slight piece of their lot, not to mention to debase themselves, for anyone else, is the idea of what Personal Tailor leaves the viewer with. Whether this actually qualifies as a source of mirth, meanwhile, is anyone’s worrying guess.
Laden with placements for a wide variety of products — from cars to liquor to residential complexes — Personal Tailor offers a sartorial sight (courtesy of Hong Kong costume designer Dora Ng) and visual spectacle (the handiwork of Shi Haiying) to behold, but the style needs some substance. Feng needs to rediscover a fresh way to inject his well-tailored comedy with some soul.

Venue: Public screening, Shenzhen, Dec. 19, 2013
Production Companies: Huayi Brothers Media and Huayi Brothers International, with Chongqing Film Group, Emperor Motion Pictures, Anhui TV, SMG Pictures, The One Investment Fund Management
Director: Feng Xiaogang
Cast: Ge You, Bai Baihe, Li Xiaolu, Zheng Kai
Producer: Huang Chang, Albert Lee, Zhao Hongmei, Yang Wenhong
Executive Producers: Wang Zhongjun, with Liu Guangchun, Albert Yeung, Jackie Chan, Chen Suzhou, Qiu Xin, Wang Yiyang
Executive Producers: Huang Chang, Albert Lee, Zhao Hongmei, Yang Wenhong,
Screenwriter: Wang Shuo
Director of Cinematography: Zhao Xiaoshi
Production Designer: Shi Haiying
Costume Designer: Dora Ng
Editing Director: Xiao Yang
Music: Luan Shu
International Sales: Huayi Brothers Distribution
In Mandarin
120 minutes

December 16, 2013

No Man’s Land (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 12:51 pm

No Man’s Land

December 16, 2013
Maggie Lee

With a nod to the Coen brothers’ jet-black humor and twisty plotting, mainland helmer Ning Hao takes his personal brand of Chinese picaresque to nihilistic levels in “No Man’s Land.” An oater-cum-road-movie in which a lawyer’s misadventures on a lawless Xinjiang highway becomes a metaphor for a society governed by base human instincts, the film delivers white-knuckle suspense and mean action sequences spiked with an undercurrent of misanthropy and outrage. Ning’s acerbic wit has been endorsed locally with a nine-day B.O. haul of more than $27 million; offshore, the pic’s cool noir style and breathtaking desert vistas should draw Asian-friendly arthouse and genre crowds.

Completed in 2009 and scheduled for release six times over the past few years, only to be held back each time, “No Man’s Land” is rumored to have run afoul of China’s film bureau due to its allegedly negative portrayal of police (not noticeable in the current version). It’s impossible to tell from the final screened version how many edits or reshoots it has gone through, but except for a mawkish ending that feels tagged on, the yarn is tautly paced and structured.

Although speculation surrounding the film’s delayed opening no doubt stirred curiosity, it owes its commercial success primarily to the casting. While male leads Huang Bo and Xu Zheng have both appeared in Ning’s hit crime capers “Crazy Stone” (2006) and “Crazy Racer” (2009), it was their pairing in this year’s “Lost in Thailand,” China’s highest-grossing domestic film, that hyped up expectations for this particular outing.

Neither as crowdpleasing as the “Crazy” series nor even classifiable as comedy, “No Man’s Land” is instead a social allegory that harks back to the dyed-in-the-wool cynicism of Ning’s 2003 debut feature, “Incense”; both films portray spineless protags who find themselves shortchanged by an even more immoral society. Compared with that earlier work, this one is less dry and formalistic, expanding the same theme in a more entertaining genre framework. And although it alludes to Hollywood genres, it’s more stylistically coherent than the kitschy fusion of martial arts, noisy farce and Indiana Jones-style cliches represented by past Chinese Westerns set in desert locations, from Gao Qunshu’s “Wind Blast” to Liu Weiran’s “Welcome to Shama Town” and Zhang Yimou’s “A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop.”

“This is a story about animals,” announces the voiceover of protagonist Pan Xiao (Xu), setting up a running motif about man’s instincts toward predation and self-protection. These ideas are underlined by an arresting opening action sequence in which an illegal poacher (Huang) hunts down two endangered falcons in the Xinjiang desert. He is caught by policeman Wang (Zhao Hu) but escapes with the help of his boss, Lao Da (Tibetan thesp Duo Bujie, imposing), who stages a road accident as part of their getaway.

It is to this barren outpost that big-city lawyer Pan is summoned to defend Lao Da against allegations of dangerous driving. When the lawsuit wraps in the defendant’s favor, Pan coerces his client into giving him his late wife’s car as collateral for deferred payment. As the red Mustang roars along the lonely highway, the city slicker who can’t wait to get out of Hicksville unwittingly trespasses into 500 kilometers of no man’s land.

What follows bears some resemblance to Oliver Stone’s “U-Turn,” turning into a freakshow of roughneck nasties, who take turns insulting, scamming, thrashing and seducing Pan. Unlike the small-time crooks in Ning’s crime capers, whose colorful speech and goofy shenanigans give them a touch of quirky charm, the characters in “No Man Land” are physically and morally repugnant. Setting a new standard of grotesquerie in mainland comedy are a scuzzy family of three who run the world’s filthiest rest stop, and two loutish truck drivers whose idea of courtesy is to spit on the windshields of passing vehicles.

Every time Pan invokes the law, he invites more injustice, and audiences may feel torn between deploring his situation and enjoying the comeuppance of someone who routinely bends the law to his own advantage. Though the majority of the narrative is set on one straight highway, the ace car crashes and chase sequences devised by Hong Kong stunt coordinator Bruce Law (“Man of Taichi,” “The Raid 2″) keeps delivering visual thrills, while Pan’s endless reversals of fortunes and the other characters’ elusive comings and goings sustain an air of unpredictability. The appearance of Jiaojiao (Yu Nan), a sassy prostitute who becomes Pan’s unwanted travel companion, finally lends the narrative some human connection and dramatic heft.

Xu’s unscrupulous Pan bears a superficial resemblance to the mercenary yuppies he played in “Lost in Thailand” and its prequel, “Lost on Journey,” but in contrast with those trips, he’s on a less redemptive path. The actor is more low-key than usual here, his character evincing few signs of growth or emotional development, even when his conscience is tested in various life-and-death scenarios.

Playing an ingenue one minute and a hustler the next, Yu convinces as both, but is finally let down by an arbitrary epilogue that reduces her to a platitudinous mouthpiece. Huang amuses with his zombielike mannerisms without skimping on the character’s malevolence, while Duo’s quietly unhinged sociopath recalls Anton Chigurh from “No Country for Old Men.”

The harsh landscape (the film was shot around the craggy dunes of Xinjiang’s Hami region) evokes a godforsaken wasteland where every shred of human propriety has been discarded. Ning’s regular lenser, Du Jie, makes spectacular use of widescreen format to convey the velocity of the driving sequences as well as the vastness of the desert. Production designer Hao Yi’s grimy sets, beat-up vehicles and shabby costumes are totally of a piece with the dusty sepia tones of the imagery, and Nathan Wang’s thunderous, Ennio Morricone-inspired score goes well with the potent sound mix.

Directed by Ning Hao. Screenplay, Shu Ping, Xing Aina, Cu Xishu, Wang Hongwei, Shang Ke, Ning. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Du Jie; editor, Du Yuan; music, Nathan Wang; production designer, Hao Yi; set decorator, Maimaitiyiming Kelimu; sound (Dolby Digital), Wang Gang; re-recording mixer, Wang Gang; visual effects supervisors, Wang Lifeng, Steve Katz, Miao Chun; stunt coordinator, Bruce Law; associate producers, Miao Xiaotian, Ling Hong, Kuan Xiaoze; casting, Li Kai.

(China) A China Film Group release of a China Film Co., Beijing Orange Sky Golden Harvest TV & Film Prod. Co., Beijing Guoli Changsheng Movies & TV Prod. Co., Yinji Entertainment & Media, Beijing Galloping Horse Film Co., Emperor Film and Entertainment (Beijing) presentation, production. (International sales: Emperor Motion Pictures, Hong Kong.) Produced by Han Sanping, Zhao Haicheng. Executive producers, Han Xiaoli, Peisen Li, Shirley Lau, Ning Hao, Yu Weiguo, Lin Fanxi; Co-executive producers, Zhang Qiang, Dan Mintz, Ivy Zhong, Albert Lee.

Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Duo Bujie, Huang Bo, Wang Shuangbao, Sun Jianmin, Yang Xinmin, Guo Hong, Wang Pei, Zhao Hu, Tao Hong. (Mandarin dialogue, Xinjiang dialect)

December 7, 2013

May We Chat (Hollywood Reporter review)

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

May We Chat
12/6/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
The cast’s explosive zeal sidetracked by generous smatterings of melodrama and explicit references to past wayward-youth classics.

Never mind the title’s deferential tenor: May We Chat is possibly one of the most energetic, explosive and, well, expletive-laden films to come out of Hong Kong this year. But it’s also one that generates some exasperation as well: while relentless in its graphic depiction of the amoral universe as inhabited by its three teenage female protagonists — a welcome approach which gives voice to the much-obscured anger and angst of the city’s marginalized youth – Philip Yung’s second feature also constantly falls back on affected aesthetics (such as a recurrent musical leitmotif on piano or the use of slow-motion and sepia-tinged flashbacks) and forced exposition in order to provide some rhyme or reason to the manic and eventually murderous mayhem.

Positioned explicitly as a 21st century take of the 1983 film Lovely Fifteen – Johnny Mak’s juvenile-delinquent drama cuts a marked presence here, with Yung interweaving his film with grainy clips from that perennially relevant classic and even recruiting that film’s two leads to play older versions of their characters — May We Chat appears to be a more combustible and controversial piece, what with its representations of sex, violence and sexual violence.

But unlike Fifteen – made when Hong Kong was spellbound by a ends-of-days, greed-is-good ethos and living it large as a bastion of unfettered capitalism facing an uncertain political future – May We Chat actually proffers a less fatalist view for what lies ahead. It’s a world where, when push comes to shove, hoodlums could (and would) count on the police to save the day, and when the characters’ unruly days would be just a painful chapter in their rite of passage for a more secure and better adulthood.

It’s a mix which will play well to a younger Hong Kong demographic seeking, all at once, visual thrills and some kind of narrative closure, but the film – which premiered at last month’s Hong Kong Asian Film Festival, and is now being shown on press rounds to position its place for a February release and then the Hong Kong Film Awards in April – also represents a missed opportunity for Yung to advance this misbehaving-teens subgenre by showing how this problem is never going to neatly fade away, and that it’s as cyclical as the long line of films about the issue being produced by Hong Kong filmmakers since the 1960s with Patrick Lung’s The Teddy Girls.

Not that May We Chat doesn’t hint, at least slightly, on this. While the cussing, bullying and outright acts of physical harm are all the more unnerving, two of the film’s most disconcerting scenes actually involve what appears to be just some meanness and mischief from elementary-age children. Firstly, there’s a young schoolgirl, still too short to actually comfortably cook a meal at the stove, boasting of a street-wise cynicism well beyond her age, as she talks like an adult when confronting foul-mouthed hawkers and advising others on placing wagers on football matches; then there is the pre-adolescent boy who fails to react at all to his friend’s lewd remarks about his mother and his sister. Both are pointers to future lives to be lived without principles, prologues to an even more scary and heartless generation to come.

But these two pre-adolescents were just thrown into the mix on the side. The main dishes here – and spicy ones they are too – are three late teenage girls flirting with ruin like there’s no tomorrow. There’s the tempestuous Wai-wai (Heidi Lee), who had to attend to both her drug-addict mother and that prematurely jaded younger sister of hers, as well as a hoodlum boyfriend, then there’s the mute Yee-gee (Rainky Wai), whose parents had long abandoned her to her grandmother and now works turns tricks to earn money while not at school. Making up this deadly troika is Yan (Kabby Hui), a poor little rich girl electing to rebel against the affluence brought about by the remarriage of her mother Irene (Irene Wan, from Lonely Fifteen)

What brings them together for the first time is the mobile messaging app WeChat (thus the title), and it’s through the visualization of the use of this device – as the messages were constantly shown on screen in its gaudy, speech-bubble splendor – that Yung addresses the machine-gun and highly narcissistic communication model which shapes the three characters. (For Yee-gee, the app is even more useful as it both helps her articulate herself better, and also in her locating potential customers through a function that could locate fellow users nearby. Its operator Tencent should be relieved: the app was actually depicted as quite useful and easy to navigate.) While a marker of a new generation’s psyche, the app also serves to differentiate them from their elders – that is, the two Lonely Fifteen stars Wan and Peter Mak, the former who could only know what her daughter thinks by listening to her messages, and the latter (playing the bloated, crippled has-been which his past persona has grown up to become) fumbling his way into learning to use it.

Such nuances, however, also come hand in hand with the eye for the urban backdrop which could help reveal the mental landscape of the characters. The wide range of settings – from Yan’s cold-chic white apartment, to the ominous tenements or back-alley staircases in which Wai-wai and his boyfriend wander around – certainly provides the film with a distinct geographical mark, thanks to not just Yung and his screenwriter Lou Shiu-wah but also cinematographer Shi Yue and art designer Janice Chan.

But somehow these merits are also overwhelmed by the director’s concessions to what he has readily admitted to be his first foray into the commercial mainstream: the film critic’s directorial debut, Glamorous Youth, is a promising, subtle independent feature which has landed him a Best New Director prize at the Hong Kong Film Awards. Yung and his screenwriter Lou Shiu-wah’s attempt to drive the story with a new, noir-like angle – the teenagers’ lives only begin to unravel as they try desperately to track down or at least find some meaning in the disappearance of Yan – but this new take is weighed down by melodrama.

For all their tough talk and walk, they are eventually conveniently revealed as merely victims of simplistically-depicted social circumstances; when push comes to shove, their cynical shell would reveal ideal souls who still believe in the power of love (and would go to extremes to avenge for betrayal of that), or sacrifice themselves for friends whom they haven’t known for long. But the one good thing about this is how the three leading actresses – all newcomers to not just acting but also show business in general – are really given a platform to showcase their range and their abilities. Indeed, Yung has managed to harness their youthful zeal to explosive effect, and perhaps this wrath is what May We Chat is all about.

Production Company: Local Production Limited
Director: Philip Yung
Cast: Kabby Hui, Heidi Lee, Rainky Wai, Irene Wan, Peter Mak
Producer: Ng Kin-hung
Screenwriters: Lou Shiu-wah, Philip Yung
Director of Photography: Shi Yue
Editor: Azrael Chung
Art Designer: Janice Chan
Costume Designer: Chung Cho-ting
Music: Rachel Kar
In Cantonese, Mandarin, Shanghainese, Fujianese and Chongqing dialect
100 minutes


December 6, 2013

Firestorm (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 8:38 pm

12/5/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
Ceaseless displays of choreographed firepower undermines what could have been either an undercover thriller or a human drama about justifying ends with desperate means.

Guillermo del Toro did it earlier this year with Pacific Rim, and MichaelBay will try with the fourth Transformers installment in 2014. But with Firestorm, Hong Kong filmmakers have proven themselves to be just as adept at blowing their home city to smithereens onscreen as their foreign counterparts. Living up to its title,Alan Yuen’s directorial debut is a relentlessly fiery pyrotechnical spectacle, climaxing with a protracted heavy-artillery shootout that has Hong Kong’s central business district literally caving in on itself.

While it will be a critic’s dream to interpret this as a metaphor for the capitalism being laid waste – and it’s not really that farfetched of an effort, given how Yuen also deploys an incoming typhoon (which provides the film with its Chinese title) as the symbol of the mayhem to come – Firestorm couldn’t be read as anything more than just an action thriller. In fact, even the plot itself is nearly entirely submerged by car crashes, gunfights and explosions, as the all-around deafening chaos jettisons hopes of the viewer empathizing with the protagonists’ struggle to reconcile their unscrupulous deeds with their good intentions.

The film’s co-producerAndy Lau reprises the role of the po-faced but internally-conflicted police inspector, which he played to perfection in Infernal Affairs, while his co-star (and erstwhile perennial supporting actor) Gordon Lam delivers a standout performance in perhaps his most prominent role to date. Firestorm – which is released in both 3D and 2D formats – should still provide enough interest to bring its backer Bill Kong of Edko Filmsanother hit police film. Still, Yuen and his producers have missed an opportunity to bring to the fore a calibrated contemplation about moral ambivalence in a city quickly losing its bearings – something which underpins the commercially successful Cold War last year.

In the film, the good guys are hapless and exasperated from the beginning: a team of police officers are pushed to drinking and divorce as they toil in vain to secure evidence against a group of robbers running rampant around the city with their carefully choreographed heists. What’s bugging them is the need to do things by the book, as one of them jokes how they used to easily be able to get a confession out of an innocent man, let alone someone whose complicity in a crime is clearly visible.

It’s a comment which serves as the harbinger of the moral dilemma that the film’s major protagonist, Inspector Lui (Lau), would soon have to face. A thoroughly disciplined man who lives and dies by his strict adherence to rules and regulations – this is someone who would insist in dumping a finished lunchbox in a garbage bin even during a stakeout – his principle is slowly eaten away as his targets, led by the showboat kingpin Cao Nan (Hu Jun), continue to elude the law with their canny efforts in removing all evidence which will have them indicted for the crimes committed.

Among those who taunts Lui is the ex-con To Shing-bong (Lam), a childhood friend of the detective who happens to be working for Cao. Resisting Lui’s repeated attempts to badger him into becoming a snitch on Cao’s gang, To’s struggle to retain some kind of normalcy in his life with his girlfriend Bing (Yao Chen) finally leads him to throw his lot with Lui – a wrongly-timed move, as To also confesses of knowing certain things which would render meaningless, criminal even, an extra-judicial act the detective commits in order to bring Cao to justice.

All this is eventually reconciled through the explosive street battle at the end of the film, but only marginally. Well before the fiery finale, the plot points have already been overwhelmed by the bombastic action sequences which, though meticulously choreographed by Chin Ka-lok, would stretch logic to the limit. For all the attention lavished on these scenes, the screenplay takes a hit through pretensions of the epic (such as when a character is made to recite The Lord’s Prayer – backed by stirring music – as his loved one is thrown off a building) and the intrusions of clichés (as seen in the interaction between To and Bing, a character who could use more dimension than just the formulaic hoodlum’s long-suffering partner).

The artifice actually runs against what should have been Firestorm’s strongest suit – that is, the efforts spent in authenticating the film’s Hong Kong roots, as neighborhoods, streets and landmarks are all name checked to provide a sense of geographical and cultural precision to the proceedings. But of course, it’s an attempt easily laid waste by the cataclysmic devastation at the film’s end. It takes more than just gestures of eye-popping force to engage viewers.

Venue: ScreenSingapore (world premiere; opens on mainland China and Southeast Asia on Dec. 12, and Hong Kong on Dec. 19)
Production companies: Edko Films Limited, Sil-Metropole Organization, Focus Films Limited, Good Friends Entertainment, China Dream Film Culture Industry Limited, Ample Ideas International Limited, He Xin Zhongshan Jin Investment Management Company Limited, Elegance Media Guangdong Company Limited, Youku Tudou Inc
Director: Alan Yuen
Cast: Andy Lau, Gordon Lam, Yao Chen, Hu Jun, Ray Lui
Producers: Bill Kong, Andy Lau, Rosanna Ng, Chan Pui-wah, Dele Liu, Cheung Hong-tat, Ren Yue, Zhang Yuancheng, Allen Zhu
Executive Producers: Bill Kong, Song Dai, Andy Lau, TP Lim, Sze Jaime, Aaron Liao, Zeng Yi, Jane Tang, Victor Koo
Screenwriter: Alan Yuen
Director of Photography: Chan Chi-ying
Editors: Kwong Chi-leung, Ron Chan
Production Designer: Renee Wong
Costume Designer: Boey Wong, Man Lim-chung
Music: Peter Kam
Action Director Chin Ka Lok
International Sales: Edko Films
Language: Cantonese (Mandarin for China and Singapore releases)
108 minutes.


December 3, 2013

The Road to Fame (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 5:11 pm

The Road to Fame

December 2, 2013
Ronnie Scheib

A showcase performance of “Fame” at Beijing’s prestigious Central Academy of Drama turns into a portrait of the first generation affected by China’s one-child policy in “The Road to Fame,” Hao Wu’s documentary about the first China-Broadway collaboration. These students — simultaneously “spoiled” and under tremendous pressure, raised in relative affluence but embodying all their parents’ hopes and fears — bring different levels of emotional baggage to the desperate-to-make-it ethos belted out over the course of the show. Empathetic pic could click with assorted TV auds, including China watchers, musical-theater aficionados and connoisseurs of cross-cultural phenomena.

Though Wu never belabors the obvious parallels between the play’s school-set plot and the Chinese drama students’ own situations, he nevertheless bookends his documentary with two moments of congruence between real life and make-believe. At the opening, he films hopeful candidates anxiously scanning the acceptance list for the exclusive academy, then cuts to a scene onstage where fictional “Fame” characters rejoice in their admittance to New York’s High School of Performing Arts. (At the end, the play’s mortarboard-tossing finale also closes the Academy’s graduation performance.)

Wu’s coverage of the students’ “Fame” rehearsals is multifaceted, but what registers most palpably is the desire of these aspiring actors to get noticed by visiting pros from China’s entertainment industry. Curiously, early run-throughs are in English, the troupers thoroughly familiarizing themselves with the original material before transitioning to Mandarin translations. “A” and “B” casts are chosen, a two-tiered strategy somehow at odds with the musical’s inclusive, aspirational spirit. Wu freely intercuts between the two ensembles, sometimes even mid-song. But despite the school’s proviso that later casting changes might be made, time constraints nix any switching, and although both casts are accorded almost the same number of performances, studio recruiters only come out for the “A” team.

Wu’s emphasis on the Academy’s students as representatives of the first generation of one-child families is echoed throughout in interviews with the kids and parents. One rich boy, Zhang Xiao, matter-of-factly shows off his ritzy apartment and myriad pairs of shoes, knowing that his father, a big shot in the music world, will pull strings to pave his way. At the other end of the spectrum, Chen Lei’s parents are poor, cannot understand her ambition and expect to eventually move in with her; Chen, who dreams of emigrating abroad, feels torn, unwilling to hurt them but unable to conform to their expectations. Somewhere in the middle, Fei has a father who proudly celebrates his son’s matriculation at the Academy with a lavish banquet but, at the same time, writes poetry advising him toward modesty and moderation.

Oddly, the parent/child split recalls the mutual incomprehension between the baby boomers of 1960s America, raised in affluence, and their Depression-era elders. But here, a general reverence for family, heightened by only-child interdependence, leads to tension and compromise rather than rebellion.

The instructors at the Academy, who have known severe hardship themselves, consider the students overindulged and unrealistic in their expectations. Liu Hongmei, the main Chinese director of the play, talks about the difficulty of achieving success in a fascinating montage of action scenes from her brief film career as a martial-arts actress, before she opted for teaching. Together with Jasper Grant, the young, gung-ho, impossibly upbeat-sounding American musical director who joins the production midstream, the teachers collude to bring the students down a peg. Grant holds auditions to see which lucky winners will accompany him to Broadway and chooses eight students. Then Liu announces that the promise was a hoax, an illusion — a life lesson, as it were — to the bitter disappointment of Chen, who sees her dream come true and then turn to dust.

Throughout, Hao’s focus on individual students struggling to secure key roles in the production invites viewer identification. A coda, shot three years after graduation, updates their roads to fame, or to its opposite.

Film Review: ‘The Road to Fame’
Reviewed at Doc NYC, New York, Nov. 16, 2013. Running time: 80 MIN.

(Documentary — China) A Tripod Media production in co-production with BBC, VPRO, CNEZ, DR. Produced by Liu Changying, Hao Wu. Executive producers, Jean Tsien, Nick Fraser, Kate Townsend, Barbara Truyen, Ben Tsiang, Ruby Chen, Chao-Wei Chang, Mette Hoffman Meyer. Co-producer, Eric Wong; co-executive producer, Don Frantz.

Directed by Hao Wu. Camera (color, HD), Kai P. Yang, Hao; editors, Jean Tsien, Hao; supervising sound editor, Peter Levin; sound editors, Barbara Parks, William Hsieh.

Zhang Xiao, Chen Lei, Yaoyao, Wu Heng, Fei, Liu Hongmei, Jasper Grant, Xionghui. (Mandarin, English dialogue)

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