HKMDB Daily News

January 31, 2014

Lake August (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 4:03 pm

Lake August (Na Pian Hu Shui)
1/25/2014 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
The film is an engaging depiction of small town ennui.

With his two previous features, Yang Heng has established himself as China’s premiere slow-cinema operator: mostly set in his ancestral rural lands in the province of Hunan, both Betelnut (2006) and Sun Spots (2010) take delinquent-drama genre premises – the first one with two young men stealing mopeds and extorting children for money, the second with a protagonist running into trouble with local gangsters – and reduce them to the point of nearly becoming merely a litany of tableaux.

Now that Yang has relocated from Beijing back to his hometown (of Jishou), his output has become even more minimalist. The long takes and static cinematography are still there, but there’s no longer even a faint hint of crime or confrontation – or even a plot for that matter. True to its simplistically denotative Chinese title – Na Pian Hu Shui, meaning “That Stretch of Water in the Lake” – Lake August is a two-hour meditation on small town ennui, something which reveals a lot about the other side of Chinese life beyond the international headlines about the country’s rapid lurch towards turbo-charged cosmopolitan capitalism.

With its eye for the picturesque and the psychological complexity its austere appearance belies, Lake August should find a warm reception in international festivals dedicated to screening fresh indie productions such as Rotterdam, where the film received its world premiere on Jan. 24, as well as many an Euro-American event with an interest on Chinese indie filmmaking. International distribution might be limited to that for academic use, though, something dGenerate Films did with Betelnut.

Yang’s decline to show the smallest of on-screen dramatic gestures could be seen in the film’s opening scene, when a naked, middle-aged man – with his back to the camera – is seen drinking and bawling away on a boat in the middle of a lake. He staggers to rise, hollers some more, and the screens cuts to black with his jumping into the water heard but not seen. The suicide is addressed in the next (long) shot but only as a young man is seen attending a funeral; originally trained on his expressionless presence, the camera slowly turn to reveal a funereal rite on the plain, captured exasperatingly as in a painting.

Of course, there is no exquisite mourning on the young man’s part. That lack of emotions at the rite is a personality trait, and Ah Li (played by Tian Li) is the epitome languor which Yang specializes in showing: this is someone who doesn’t care when his window gets broken, dabbles in stale food and beer rather than getting fresh ones, falls asleep while watching hardcore porn, and barely reacts when his girlfriend announces she’s getting married to someone else.

Something inside might be brewing, but the viewer will never get to know – and he at least does something when he decides to take a break from his confined existence (there’s construction work all around his dilapidated tenement block) and visit the countryside, where he lodges at a boarding house in the middle of a lake, reconnects with old classmate Monkey (Yao Maosheng) and his distressed mistress Ah Fang (Shang Xiaoling). Again, the trio idles around amidst smoke and liquor, until Monkey’s need to go home to his wife leads to a spark between Li and Fang.

It’s a plot point which resembles Sun Spots – in which a similar love triangle also arises – but Lake August doesn’t even deliver that small altercation which emerges four years ago. So it is that Monkey and Fang has a big bust-up, but when Li comes into the picture any link-up and split-up simply happens: things, like colors, fade or appear, just like the final surprise which sees the young man finally committing to another stage of his life through the unlikeliest encounter.

That final twist – if one could call it that – is only alluded to, with the film’s last (long) take driven by a conversation across a flat, a new and tidy one with a baby and a retiree providing some hint about the progress of Li’s life after an unshown passage of time.

It’s a mise-en-scene which illustrates Yang’s ability to show rather than tell: assisted by cinematographer Wang Wei and editing consultant Marie Pierre Duhamel, the director sometimes manages to wring the maximum out of a minimalist shot and camera movement – such as when a young couple rowing about a pending abortion gets on the bus and then Li gets off, a ruse which might allude to the man’s past life and misdeeds. Within the tranquility, Yang has concealed meaning and vigor, ready to be drenched from this cinematic stretch of time and space.

Venue: International Film Festival Rotterdam (Spectrum), Jan. 24, 2014

Production Company: All Ways Pictures, Xiangxi Yangheng Image Workshop

Director: Yang Heng

Cast: Tian Li, Shang Xiaoling, Yao Maosheng, Yan Lin

Producer: Kong Lihong, Yang Heng

Screenwriter: Yang Heng

Director of Photography: Wang Wei

Production Designer: Liu Jinhou, Wang Mazi

Editor: Yang Heng, Marie Pierre Duhamel

Sound Designer: Yin Jie

Music Composer: AC97 Band

International Sales: Kong Lihong

In Hunanese

No rating, 113 minutes

THR

Web Junkie (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 3:59 pm

Web Junkie

1/26/2014 by Duane Byrge

The Bottom Line
A startling look at China’s Internet addiction centers.

China has declared that “Internet addiction” is a clinical disorder. It is called “electronic heroin,” befitting the seriousness of the malady. To counter this spreading malaise, the Chinese government has established a network of rehab centers to “reform” the “junkies.”

Filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia probe this phenomenon, jarring viewers with an inside look at one of these “reform” centers, as well as shedding light on the mindset of these Internet “addicts.”

The usual suspects: lonely, introverted teenage boys. The motive: virtual reality exceeds their humdrum lives. Characteristically, they are alienated from their parents and, thanks to China’s one-child law, they have no siblings. In short, this so-called “Internet Addiction” is both a social phenomenon and obsessive disorder.

These “addicts’” social and personal life is embedded in the Web. On the Internet, they can triumph and establish relationships, which they seem incapable of doing in “real” life. In this provocative film, we see the centers are, essentially, boot camps. The facilities are a combination jail and military barracks. The “patients” wear camouflage-style uniforms and are regimented. Their rehab is relentless: a grueling mix of exercise, discussions and, on occasion, meetings with staff and parents.

Not surprisingly, most are hostile to the degradation, which only seems to intensify their dissatisfaction with the “real” world. While Web Junkie reboots to a “happy” ending — one inmate leaves the compound, presumably cured — we can only expect that the rate of recidivism will be high for this dubious “cure.”

Production companies: Shlam Prods., Know Prods.
Directors: Shosh Shlam, Hilla Medalia
Producers: Shosh Shlam, Hilla Medalia, Neta Zwebner-Zaibert
Director of photography: Sun Shaoguang
Music: Ran Bagno
Editor: Enat Sidi
No rating, 74 minutes

THR

Web Junkie (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 3:45 pm

Web Junkie
January 26, 2014
A bizarre and entertaining documentary about China’s attempts to reprogram its Internet-addicted youth.

Dennis Harvey

Set in the first nation to classify Web addiction as a clinical diagnosis, “Web Junkie” takes a look at the Chinese government’s attempt to stem this “No. 1 public health threat to teenagers” via rehabilitation camps, where such afflicted youth (apparently mostly boys) are subjected to a mix of traditional therapy and militaristic discipline. From what we see, these rather old-school attempts to address a very 21st-century problem are none too successful. But with filmmakers Shosh Shlam and Hilla Medalia granted extraordinary access to one facility, they make for a bizarre and entertaining documentary that should appeal to fest programmers and arts/educational broadcasters around the globe.

This particular center on the outskirts of Beijing is among more than 400 built so far to treat “troubled” teens. Of course, they don’t think they’ve got a problem, even if some confess to going days on end without food or sleep to play “World of War,” neglecting their studies, lying to their parents to sneak off to the Internet cafe, etc. But the elephant in the room appears to be a generation gap: Parents raised in strict service to the Communist Party, family and work are utterly baffled by their disrespectful offspring, whose exposure to other cultures and consumerist values online makes those priorities seem boring or irrelevant.

Nonetheless, all this is taken very seriously by the adults — albeit much less so by the youngsters, who abide by the facility’s rules only because it makes life easier and will probably get them home faster. It’s hard not to wince (and laugh) when one boy, asked “What did you do (to be sent here)?” sobs, “I used the Internet!” Certainly none of them fit a Western notion of delinquency beyond standard adolescent rebelliousness. As the gap widens between this society’s interest in controlling a conformist population, and the encouragement toward free (if often frivolous) thought that Internet access spurs, China faces a crisis: How can it continue to globalize its economy without the next generation of citizens globalizing themselves?

The group therapy sessions we see between children and parents seem a genuine if sometimes clunky attempt at bridge building. On the other hand, some of the instruction feels as corny to the kids as it does to us, cautioning that the Internet is “electronic heroin” and that friendships with other alienated kids online are illusory. Nor does it help that most of the residents have been tricked, drugged and/or physically forced to come here, pitting them further against their parents. When we see the seemingly average, personable teens talk among themselves in their dorm rooms, their bonding under adversity and ridiculing of the program don’t suggest major behavior modification is imminent. As they see it, the world their elders live in is the real problem. “Reality is too fake,” one says.

The brisk, lively technical package is well turned in all departments.

Reviewed at Sundance Film Festival (World Cinema — competing), Jan. 19, 2014. Running time: 79 MIN.

Production
(Documentary — Israel-U.S.) A Schlam Prods. and Know Prods. presentation in association with Yes Docu, Impact Partners, Warrior Poets, Chicken & Egg Pictures, Tribeca Gucci, New Foundation for Film and TV. (International sales: Dogwoof, London.) Produced by Hilla Medalia, Shosh Shlam, Neta Zwebner-Zaiberg. Executive producers, Jeremy Chilnick, Morgan Spurlock, Dan Cogan, Jenny Raskin, Eve Ensler.

Crew
Directed by Shosh Shlam, Hilla Medalia. Camera (color, HD), Sun Shaogang; editor, Enat Sidi; music, Ran Bagno; sound, Li Zhe.

With
Wang Yuchao, Xi Wang, Gao Qunce, Tao Ran. (Mandarin dialogue)
Variety

As the Light Goes Out (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 3:44 pm

As the Light Goes Out
January 30, 2014

Hong Kong helmer Derek Kwok delivers a gritty, authentic and stylish take on the firefighting genre.

Maggie Lee

Dispelling much of the smoke around most cinematic depictions of firefighting, “As the Light Goes Out” reps an authentic-looking entry in the genre, delving into its characters’ physical ordeals and psychological hangups with gritty realism. Up-and-coming Hong Kong helmer Derek Kwok imbues his pyrotechnic spectacles with noirish flair and a sharp sense of danger, though an excess of technical exposition at times douses the story’s momentum. Although it underperformed in China, the pic has spent three weeks atop the Hong Kong B.O. with a cume of more than $3 million, and should continue to burn bright in Asian markets.

Outclassing last year’s overwrought fire-disaster blockbusters (Kim Ji-hoon’s “The Tower,” the Pang Brothers’ “Out of Inferno 3D”) “As the Light Goes Out” offers a welcome reality check in a genre that typically extols team spirit, as Kwok tracks the ongoing rivalries and betrayals among a close-knit firefighting squad, as well as the red tape and internal politics that hinder their work. As in his past work, from his 2007 debut, “The Pye Dog,” to 2013′s “Journey to the West” (co-helmed with Stephen Chow), the director demonstrates his knack for creating offbeat characters propelled by unusual dramatic arcs. With the exception of a few sketchily portrayed senior officials, most of the individuals here come off as bracingly human; they may act out of insecurity, complacency or blind trust, but none are inherently corrupt.

During a mission, station officers Sam (Nicholas Tse) and Yip (Andy On), and senior station officer Chill (Shawn Yue), agree to assume joint responsibility for a risky move instigated by hotheaded Sam. But when they’re threatened with discipline by their superiors, Sam and Yip wimp out, letting their leader, Chill, take the rap. A year later, the three are reunited at Lung Ku Tan fire station, but their friendship has soured. Yip, who’s good at schmoozing with his higher-ups, has moved up the ladder, while Chill, demoralized by his unfair demotion and failed marriage, just punches the clock. Sam, smarting from guilt over his disloyalty, has developed a fire phobia.

A few days before Sam’s transfer to another post, a fire breaks out in a rundown residential block, plunging the whole operation once more into internal strife. With his daring, unorthodox rescue methods, Ocean, a new duty officer from mainland China, incurs the dislike of old guard Major Pui (Simon Yam). The suppressed animosity among Sam, Yip and Chill bubble over as each man plays by his own rules. The arduous mission provides a foretaste of greater calamities, culminating in a full-blown explosion at a nearby power plant on Christmas Eve.

The chain reaction leading up to the big blast takes rather tortuous narrative shape, its dramatic intensity at times smothered by long-winded conversations loaded with professional jargon. Nevertheless, the lengthy buildup does allow ample time for complex subplots that initially divide the characters but eventually bind them together: Yip and Sam’s ongoing feud ceases once they’re trapped in a perilous scenario that reveals Yip as more than just a go-getter, while a grudging mutual admiration develops organically between Pui and Ocean. Even Man (Patrick Tam), the control-freak manager at the power plant, is not treated as an outright villain. Still, the polished screenplay (by Kwok, Jill Leung and Yung Tsz-kwong) succumbs to melodrama in the final stretch, trafficking in more conventional forms of sacrificial heroism and male bonding.

Kwok’s stabs at realism are not limited to the vivid background details he brings to each location; drawing from accounts by retired fireman Sam Ho, he makes audiences aware of the scope and difficulty of a firefighter’s tasks. Under Roger Li’s marvelous stunt choreography, these men look as dexterous as acrobats or trapeze artists, even laying their bodies as human planks across a fiery abyss. Kwok ably executes elaborate scenes of destruction, conveying a monumental sense of space through Jason Kwan’s imposing wide-angle shots of warehouses and engine rooms. But the director demonstrates even greater finesse in exploring his protagonists’ feelings of alienation and vulnerability, expressed in moody hallucinations that make poetic use of ghostly lighting and curlicues of smoke.

Tse, Yue and On give full-throttle performances, though it’s strange to hear On speaking English amid a Chinese-speaking ensemble. Hu, who’s emerging as the mainland thesp most naturally integrated into Hong Kong ensembles in recent H.K.-China co-productions, adds emotional shadings to a stereotypically noble role; Yam, the embodiment of dapper charm, is miscast as a dowdy old trooper, straining hard to hit the right notes of jocularity. Notwithstanding the functional presence of a female engineer (Bai Bing), women are exiled to the periphery.

Eric Lam’s production design maintains a consistent look with a cool black color scheme, while the disquieting sound mix mimics the noise of heavy panting. Fronted by a bluesy score, the soundtrack hits an unexpectedly romantic chord with a song by Bizet during a fantasy sequence near the finale. Other tech credits are pro.

Reviewed at Emperor Motion Picture screening room, Hong Kong, Dec. 23, 2013. Running time: 115 MIN. Original title: “Gow for ying hung”

Production
(Hong Kong-China) An Emperor Motion Pictures (in Hong Kong)/EMP Distribution (Beijing) (in China) release of an Emperor Film Prod., Media Asia Film Prod., Zhujiang Film Group presentation of a Golden Gate Prods. production. (International sales: Emperor Motion Pictures, Hong Kong.) Produced by Albert Lee, David Chan, Zhao Jun, Catherine Hun, Julia Chu. Executive producers, Albert Yeung, Peter Lam, Li He.

Crew
Directed by Derek Kwok. Screenplay, Kwok, Jill Leung, Yung Tsz-kwong. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Jason Kwan; editor, Wong Hoi; music, Teddy Robin, Tomy Wai; production designer, Eric Lam; art director, Li Tze-fung; set decorators, Law Shing-chiu, Lai Wai-kwan; costume designers, William Fung, Mabel Kwan; sound (Dolby Surround 7.1), Phyllis Cheng; supervising sound editor, Viola Chan; re-recording mixers, Phyllis Cheng, Nip Kei-wing, Ip Siu-kei; visual effects supervisors, Henri Wong, Hugo Kwan, Walter Wong, Cecil Cheng, Eddy Wang-hin Wong; visual effects, Post Production Office, Creasun Digital Intl. Co., Menfond Electronic Art & Computer Design Co., Parabucks Co.; fire and car stunt coordinator, Roger Li; pyrotechnics, Fok Kam-tong; line producers, Ray Chan, Kingman Cho, Lo Sheung-ching; assistant director, Lemon Liu; second unit director, Clement Cheng; second unit camera, Jimmy Kwok.

With
Nicholas Tse, Shawn Yue, Simon Yam, Hu Jun, Andy On, Bai Bing, Patrick Tam, William Chan, Liu Kai-chi, Vincent Lo, Andrew Lau, Jackie Chan. (Cantonese, Mandarin, English dialogue)
Variety

January 23, 2014

Golden Chicken sss (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 1:04 pm

Golden Chicken sss
1/20/2014 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
A shapeless feast of gags that falls short of preceding installments.

A decade-old Hong Kong sex-worker comedy receives a reboot, driven by star cameos and a flood of cinematic pastiches, showbiz inside-jokes and pop-culture references.

Midway through the first part of Golden Chicken sss — a film that provides a comical chronicle of what is supposed to be a day in the life of Hong Kong’s modern-day call girls — the lead character, the prostitute-turned-pimp Kam (Sandra Ng), breaks through the fourth wall to say that those who are looking for a substantive account of the rise and fall of Hong Kong’s hostess-in-excess nightclubs are probably watching the wrong movie. “You should go and watch Golden Chicken and Golden Chicken 2,” Kam says in the voiceover, referring to the first two classic Hong Kong sex-worker comedies in the series, which have been perceived by many as offering both endless entertainment and also a stirring look at the ebb and flow of the city’s fortunes during the past four decades.

Apt advice this is, indeed. Slated for release during Hong Kong’s Chinese New Year holidays and directed by Golden Chicken co-screenwriter Matt Chow, Golden Chicken sss is, like the profession at its center, all about offering no-strings-attached gratification. Essentially a string of pastiches of other films (from 2001: A Space Odyssey – yes, you’ve read it right – to recent local hits such as The Grandmaster and The White Storm), references to pop culture and politics (spanning tired gags about the Japanese sex industry and shallow digs about social discontent against the city’s government) and numerous stellar cameos (with many of Hong Kong’s A-listers mocking their past roles and, in the case of Donnie Yen and Louis Koo, their public personas), Golden Chicken sss flirts with the Hong Kong film fad for the risqué (which rang tills ringing for Vulgaria) but offers little substance.

It’s a satire of half-hearted, cheap and dated shots, with hit-and-miss jokes struggling to give the film some kind of coherent form or style. Opening in Hong Kong on Jan. 30, the film will struggle to compete with the other comedies released on the same day, as they all aim to cash in on the long Chinese New Year break. And with its very localized humor, export potential is minimal perhaps apart from Asian-themed festivals.

One of the more bizarre distraction in Golden Chicken sss is the way the unwieldy proceedings at times cast the film’s protagonist (and, in a way, its star) away from the spotlight. While producer Peter Chan (who is also Ng’s life partner) and director Samson Chiu have gone to great lengths to recruit Hong Kong’s biggest (male) stars to prop Ng up in the first two Golden Chicken films — with most of them playing customers whose demeanors illustrate the challenges Kam has had to confront in different epochs of her (and Hong Kong’s) life — the makers of this latest installment, which is produced by only Ng herself, have somehow placed the character in a place where her presence is nearly arbitrary. The non-existent narrative basically renders her as a mere bystander as other people’s problems unfold.

It would still be a sufficiently engaging approach if the side-characters had their issues properly addressed as they step into the broach. But somehow Kam/Ng’s sacrifice is apropos to nothing as the serious stuff is left underdeveloped (such as two clownish sex workers who let their masks slip – just for a bit – when no one’s looking) or played out as a cliché (with Nick Cheung, he of Unbeatable and The White Storm, playing a mobster trying to acclimatize to 21st century life with Kam’s help after spending more than a decade in jail). The last thread — which is slowly brought to an all-singing happily-ever-after finale de rigueur to the traditional festive-comedy genre — is especially awkward, with Kam being sidelined so much that at times it looks like something from an altogether different movie.

While Ng can no longer count on generating the accolades she received for the first two films — and it’s fair to note that much of the film’s pre-release publicity has focused on the the pursuit of curvature rather than consciousness on the actor’s part — Ronald Cheng and Ivana Wong, who play the two escorts who briefly connect when they discover each is just playing the fool to earn a living, are the eye-catchers of the day.

Therein perhaps lies the film’s inadvertently-placed message, but one directed at Hong Kong’s film business rather than the sex industry: what does it say about the status quo when Cheng and Wong, who both began their careers as accomplished singer-songwriters, find an audience only through over-the-top performances of playing the jester – with the former actually getting awards galore for his turn as a crazed, foul-mouthed gangster in Vulgaria and the latter more well-known for her sitcom roles than her music? It’s a tale of suppressing the tears and carrying on regardless of the indignities – a theme that the first two Golden Chicken films brought forth. A big more of this would have given Golden Chicken sss the soul it needs, or a glimpse of the zeitgeist those earlier films seemed to reveal and in turn shape.

Venue: Press screening, Jan. 19, 2014 (opens in Hong Kong, Jan. 30)
Production companies: One Cool Production, Treasure Island Production
Director: Matt Chow
Cast: Sandra Ng, Nick Cheung, Ivana Wong, Ronald Cheng
Producers: Sandra Ng
Screenwriter: Matt Chow
Director of Photography: Edmond Fung
Production Designer: Man Lim-chung
Costume Designer: Lee Pik-kwan
Music: Alan Wong, Janet Yung
Editor: Azrael Chung
International Sales: Treasure Island Production
In Cantonese, Mandarin and Japanese
No rating, 100 minutes

THR

January 16, 2014

No Man’s Land (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 12:39 pm

No Man’s Land
1/14/2014 by Elizabeth Kerr

The Bottom Line
A bleak and completely engaging Chinese neo-western thriller that works on almost every level.

Thieves, snobs, hot-tempered smugglers and petty mercenaries are among the unsavory characters that populate the arid No Man’s Land, a nihilistic and fatalistic romp on modern China’s bleak side. The latest by mainland filmmaker Ning Hao, who made a splash with his comedies Crazy Stone and Mongolian Ping Pong, is that rare movie that can pull off making such aggressively unlikeable people compelling. It’s familiar genre stuff—the average Joe caught in a situation spiraling out of control—but Ning takes such pleasure in exploiting its conventions the end result is a darkly humorous comment on disintegrating morality and unchecked, rampant selfishness.

Relegated to release limbo after running afoul of China’s SARFT, No Man’s Land finally hit Chinese screens in December with little in the way of explanation but great box office fanfare, hauling in over $20 million in its first week. Shot in 2009, the film was deemed inappropriate and “depraved,” and in the interim, Ning went on to make the bland but serviceable Guns and Roses. No Man’s Land is a welcome return to form for Ning (more likely Guns was a deviation in the service of penance), a pitch-black comedy-thriller reminiscent of the Coens and early John Dahl, though what version of the film this is and what’s been cut is anyone’s guess. Engaging performances, spectacular visuals and Ning’s name above the title should garner strong festival interest across the board, and release in Asia and targeted markets overseas isn’t out of the question.

The wide-open Gobi desert landscape serves as the perfect dusty, barren backdrop for the action as well as an indicator (hoary though it is) for the characters’ moral landscape. In the grand tradition of the urban neo-western that would rival anything unfolding on the Texas-Mexico border (what Ridley Scott’s The Counselor and Zhang Yimou’s Blood Simple retread; A Woman, a Gun and a Noodle Shop aspired to) No Man’s Land starts with a vicious falcon poacher (a suitably stoic Duo Bujie) and his right hand man (Huang Bo) trapping a bird. The criminal pair has a run-in with a local cop that winds up dead, and next thing you know the poacher is in jail. Enter arrogant lawyer Pan Xiao (Xu Zheng), arriving in the backwater town to represent the poacher pro bono, fully expecting to generate headlines that will lead to fame and fortune.

All that is a set up for a classic scenario wherein one bad decision—an unreported traffic accident—is the catalyst for a personal and professional nightmare that includes a pair of angry truck drivers (Wang Shuangbao, Sun Jianmin), a ramshackle truck stop run by a price-gouging pervert (Yan Xinming), a young prostitute desperate to get out the Podunk “town” (Yu Nan), a bitter cop (Zhao Hu) on a mission to mess with Pan and a horse. Pan’s every decision is a bad one or the wrong one, and as he digs himself deeper and deeper into a moral and ethical quagmire rooted in greed and ambition, it becomes painfully clear there’s no way out for him, and by extension, the everyman Ning has him representing.

Unlike Jia Zhangke’s similarly nihilistic SARFT-challenging A Touch of Sin, Ning has a better understanding of genre convention and how to manipulate it, and though the film shines a glaring light on how little life is valued in modern mercenary China, Ning is having a gleefully nasty time with it. The cast is also uniformly adept at getting a handle on their characters, and the best segments put viewers on edge predicting how each is likely to react to given situations. As the truck stop owner’s wife, Guo Hong creates a vivid busybody-for-profit in just a few scenes, making her fate simultaneously inevitable and surprising. Huang is particularly amusing as the partner in crime that’s had it with working with idiots, and though Pan is just a reprehensible as the rest, Xu manages to shade him, if not totally redeem him, as the story progresses. It isn’t a spoiler to say no one comes out of the story intact, but the film does end on a vaguely hopeful note, though nothing that would negate all that came before it.

No Man’s Land could use some streamlining; there are segments that would benefit from brevity and Ning often winds up belaboring his point. But Du Jie’s outstanding cinematography—of the opening panorama, a nighttime canyon chase and the final ghostly frontier town as just a few—and Nathan Wang’s evocative Sino-western score make the film’s dead zones bearable.

Opens: General release, China
Production company: China Film Co., Beijing Orange Sky Golden Harvest, Guoli, DMG Entertainment, Galloping Horse, Bad Monkey
Distribution company: Emperor Motion Pictures
Producer: Zhao Haicheng, Han Sanping
Director: Ning Hao
Cast: Xu Zheng, Yu Nan, Huang Bo, Duo Bujie, Wang Shuangbao, Zhao Hu, Yan Xinming
Screenwriter: Shu Ping, Xing Aina, Cui Siwei, Wang Hongwei, Shang Ke, Ning Hao
Executive producer: Ning Hao, Yu Weiguo, Lin Fanxi
Director of Photography: Du Jie
Production Designer: Hao Yi
Music: Nathan Wang
Editor: Du Yuan
No rating, 117 minutes
THR

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 12:15 pm

Once Upon a Time in Shanghai

1/16/2014 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
White-knuckle action scenes belie a dearth of flesh-and-blood drama.

Newcomer Philip Ng and a cast of mostly martial-arts veterans star in producer Wong Jing’s second Shanghai-set, 1930s gangland actioner in as many years.

Throughout his career, Hong Kong screenwriter-director Wong Jing has been known for making tills ring by milking fads dry – and true to form, his latest film is a prime exemplar of that modus operandi. Wasting no time to follow his bigger-budget, Bona-backed 1930s gangland drama The Last Tycoon – which took $24.5 million during its month-long run in China just a year ago – he has now returned with a similarly-themed but modest-sized production shaped to capitalize on the recent demand for action-filled bromances, demonstrated by the critical and commercial success of films like Dante Lam’s Unbeatable.

It’s no surprise, therefore, to see scant originality in Once Upon A Time in Shanghai, whether in its title (the Sergio Leone/Tsui Hark-aping English handle is accompanied by an original Chinese version – E Zhan – taking its cue from that of Unbeatable and Johnnie To’s Drug War), premise (it’s a reworking of a story twice adapted on film and thrice as a TV series) and patriotic leanings (with typical caricatures of Japanese villains probably designed to exploit the nationalist sentiments invoked by the current Sino-Japanese political standoff over the Diaoyu Islands).

For all its flaws — ranging from thin characterization in Wong’s screenplay to director Wong Ching-po’s heavy-handed deployment of slow-motion trickery and stirring muzak — Shanghai flickers only through Yuen Cheung-yan’s action choreography, ably brought alive by a cast featuring the martial-arts genre’s prime upstarts or elder statesmen. With their fights basically burning expressways to each other’s (and the viewers’) skulls, Shanghai should play well to hardcore kung-fu aficionados as an exotic artifact, what with its “pedigree” of revisiting a Shaw Brothers classic (namely Chang Cheh’s The Boxer from Shantung, from 1972). It’s perhaps a raison d’etre that explains its surprising presence at International Film Festival Rotterdam, where it will make its international premiere in the Spectrum section entry next week.

Just like The Boxer from Shantung (and the 1997 film Hero, also a Shaw Brothers production), Shanghai refashions the real-life 19th century martial arts expert Ma Yongzhen into a fighter caught in the crossfire of the titular city’s chaotic mob wars in the 1930s. Unlike in these previous incarnations — where the character succumbs to the temptations of power and money as the modern-day metropolis eats into him — Shanghai’s Ma is purity personified a la Bruce Lee in Fists of Fury. Rather than going through some kind of rite of passage, the penniless country boy (played by Philip Ng, a Chicago-educated martial arts actor getting top-billing for the first time) here remains steadfastly principled, a perennial beacon of moral light burning undimmed even as he befriends the ambitious wannabe Godfather Long Qi (Andy On, Cold War). Instead of revealing some kind of evil id under his new best friend’s corrosive influence, Ma — who continues to live in a back-alley ghetto presided over by the righteous master Tie (Sammo Hung) — actually converts Long, with the latter slowly growing into a good gangster as they go to war against a triumvirate of old-school, opium-hawking mobsters (played by Yuen Chuen-yan himself, Fung Hak-on and Chen Kuan-tai, the original Ma Yongzhen in Boxer from Shantung) and their Japanese backers.

It’s a simplistic, wafer-thin narrative that belies an early pretense of an epic about a tumultuous episode in Chinese history (the film begins with a heavily-stylized opening sequence in which images of a ship’s hold packed with ailing and worse-for-wear émigrés play backdrop to on-screen texts speaking of people rushing to “a city of dreams” where “only the strong survive”). It’s telling that the first impression of Shanghai that wows Ma isn’t the vistas of the famous Bund; instead, he (and the viewer) is made to marvel at the city’s splendor through the very limited image of a well-attired couple kissing in a back alley as a single limousine passes by behind them. Rather than an intentional avoidance of visual bombast, this scene only serves as a template of the thinly-layered proceedings to follow. For all its bone-cracking action sequences, Shanghai is in general as undercooked as its special effects.

Just as the ample flying axes and machetes — inexplicably, no one uses a gun in this film — suggests a 3-D project unrealized, the half-baked story struggles to generate a complete engagement with the characters’ trials and tribulations in a merciless, fatalistic haven of criminality, and (as we now know) eventual occupation by a brutal invading power. Once upon a time, Ma Yongzhen’s story was deployed as an effective morality tale and kickstarted the golden age of the gangster genre in Hong Kong filmmaking; here, it’s turned into a spectacle and not much else.

Venue: Public screening, Hong Kong, Jan. 16, 2014
Production Companies: See Movies, Mega-Vision Pictures, Henan Film & TV Group, Henan Film Studio
Director: Wong Ching-po
Cast: Philip Ng, Andy On, Sammo Hung, Hu Ran, Chen Kuan-tai, Yuen Cheung-yan, Fung Hak-on
Producers: Wong Jing, Connie Wong
Executive Producers: Wong Jing, Wong Ai-ling, Zong Xuejie, Li Yan
Screenwriter: Wong Jing
Director of Photography: Jimmy Wong
Action Director: Yuen Cheung-yan
Art Director: Andrew Cheuk
Costume Designer: Connie Au Yeung
Editor: Wenders Li, Wong Mo-heng
Music: Anthony Cheng, Hubert Ho, So Wang-ngai
International Sales: Mega-Vision Pictures
In Cantonese
No rating, 97 minutes
THR

January 11, 2014

Up in the Wind (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 2:39 pm

Up in the Wind

1/7/2014 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
Early moments of sharp and observational drama give way to a forced, feel-good finale.

As an aspiring Shanghai-based lifestyle magazine writer trying to lift herself beyond her small-town roots and modest means, Up in the Wind’s protagonist is somewhat adrift in 21st Century China’s rapidly shifting social landscape. The same could be said of Teng Huatao’s film: While boasting wry and engaging laments about the country’s struggling social climbers — a theme that the director has played to perfection in his 2009 taboo-tackling TV series Dwelling Narrowness (Wo Ju) — the melancholy middle is offset by plot devices deployed to swerve the proceedings back to the trajectories of a commercial genre movie.

While contemplative enough to probe delusions of cosmopolitan grandeur — the hint at Shanghai as a harsh social milieu could well position the film as an antithesis to the urban fairytale depicted in the teen-worshipped Tiny Times films – Up in the Wind is eventually brought down to earth by stuttering storytelling and a final quarter hour of ersatz melodrama, which somehow negates some of the questions being raised at the first half of the film. Not exactly the airy rom-com that brought Teng (and his screenwriter Bao Jingjing) commercial success with their previous effort Love Is Not Blind, which brought in $57.8 million at the Chinese box office, Up in the Wind shouldn’t generate as much traction in the country, and since opening on Dec. 31, it’s grossed $10.6 million.

Marketed largely as a romantic comedy of sorts, Up in the Wind actually doesn’t include a very distinct romance at its core. The film’s lead character Cheng Yumeng (Flowers of War star Ni Ni) is seen bickering with and finally warming up to spoilt rich kid Wang Can (Jing Boran), but words of empathy, acts of encouragement and a final gift void of any romantic connotations are the only things that are exchanged between the pair. Retaining the sentiment shaping Bao’s novel A Travelogue, Or A Guidebook, this framework is a nice counterpoint to how the emerging “chick-flicks” in China are all about young urban women nabbing a great guy and a great job, mostly in that order of priority. In Up in the Wind Cheng is allowed to go through a Nepal-set rite of passage with her thoughts mostly focused on getting her own bearings correct, as she struggles to stick to her ideals or fulfill her dreams in the brights lights of Shanghai.

Her tribulations are mostly shown in what could be seen as Up in the Wind’s prologue, as Cheng’s big-city existence is laid out. The film opens with her taking a high-class restaurant’s head chef to task, in fluent English, for the most minute flaws in the restaurant’s food and decor. But after her performance ends, it emerges that Cheng is merely a guest at a dinner hosted and attended by rich young women living off their tycoon parents’ fortunes. Cheng takes the subway home, after being dropped off by the limousine she rented as bluff, to her small apartment in an old, elevator-less tenement block.

Her awakening to her sorry state on the social ladder is soon made complete when her editor (Liu Zi) takes her off a long-planned assignment to Tuscany and assigns her to one on Nepal — but not before directing a thorough tirade at a resistant Cheng, which ends with the young writer being told that, as a smalltown girl, “you should have very low expectations of what bliss means.” Subsequent conversations between Cheng and her boss have a similar tone: in yet another invective delivered over the phone after Cheng fought to write a realistic view of Nepalese life, the editor roared: “It’s your job to write as if you’re living it up on 25k a month, when you are just a 2k-earning nobody.”

The most effective parts of the film perhaps lie in these scenes in which Cheng is basically put in her place on the bottom rung of the ladder. Perhaps less convincingly, cinematically speaking, are the awkwardly-placed, black-and-white flashbacks: smacking of soap-opera aesthetics, they show the young writer reflecting on the high ideals she aspired to in journalism school and breaking down as she talks to her parents over the phone while watching other families spending quality time together.

The visual canvas certainly opens up when the story relocates to Nepal, as Cheng and her fellow travelers — including Wang, the naïve young woman Li Meilan (Liu Yase) and a motley crew of bumpkin tourists — embark on trips to Kathmandu and then Pokhara. Apart from the odd, undercooked blue-screen shots and the now nearly-de-rigueur on-screen depictions of tweets and online exchanges, the movie manages to extend its visual template with Cao Dun’s camerawork on lives being lived elsewhere.

It’s in Nepal that Teng and Bao dare to question the horrid banality of Chinese sightseers by actually bringing a local character (and his culture) to the fore. Tour guide Rasin (Ge Sang) scuffles with Wang when the latter insults a living goddess and then asks his charges whether “all of you don’t believe in anything.” The entourage then disperses, muttering how the itinerary is no fun as the schedule doesn’t allow them time to do some shopping.

Later on, the local angle also takes on some significance in the narrative, as a demonstration seeking better rights for the lower class (something Bao said she encountered herself in Nepal) is woven into Cheng’s escapade, the “fighting for our dreams” slogans serving as a metaphor for her own priorities in life.
It’s nearly inevitable that Wang, who confessed earlier on that his trip to Nepal is a facade to get in his father’s good graces after a botched wedding, would emerge as the somehow altered boy-done-good, as the film concludes. While Wang’s exchanges with Cheng contain many an acerbic nugget, which reveal the class-oriented schisms in China — the arrogance of the rich, the anguish of the have-nots and the desperate attempts of the latter to at least feign the pedigree of the former — he remains a very thinly-sketched character bordering on a caricature, complete with his swift (and insufficiently explained) rediscovery of his conscientious self.

This is just one illustration of the film’s unconvincing attempt at dressing up Cheng’s simple and potentially moving summery tale about someone traveling in an emotional winter — a melodramatic enhancement that both Ni and Jing couldn’t grasp. The complications of some conventional drama, complete with the changing relationship between a rowing pair and a stirring climax, probably weigh down Up in the Wind’s main storyline exploring a young urbanite’s doubts about surviving modern life. And amidst the beautiful setting of the film’s end — when Cheng and Wang, now best buddies, travel to the top of a mountain so that the much-oppressed small-town girl could finally get a taste of flying — her fury about being trodden upon by the one percent is lost. So all is not well, but carry on nevertheless: it’s all about going home and fighting the same fight, albeit in better spirits, a perking up which Yang Zhijia has certainly helped deliver with sugar-coated production design.

Cheng’s forgetting of life’s injustices at the film’s end probably mirrors one of the put-downs she suffered at the hands of her editor: “You’re trying to talk to me about fairness — it’s so funny. I’ll tell you where you can get that — head down to the ground floor, turn right and walk a few blocks, and there it is, the law courts.” The pursuit of social justice, of course, belongs to another movie altogether, with Teng’s odd moments of relevatory dialogue here serving merely as reminders of real-life distress experienced outside of the narrative.

Production Companies: Perfect World Pictures (Beijing), Beijing iTime Productions, iCinema, Edko Films (Beijing) in association with China Film Group and Youku Tudou
Director: Teng Huatao
Cast: Ni Ni, Jing Boran, Liu Yase, Liu Zi
Producers: Chen Rong, Teng Huatao, Hao Wei, Zhong Shi, Bill Kong, Han Sanping, Gu Yongjiang
Screenwriter: Bao Jingjing, based on her novel A Travelogue, Or A Guidebook
Director of Photography: Cao Dun
Music: Ding Wei, Lin Chaoyang
Production Designer: Yang Zhijia
International Sales: Edko Films
In Mandarin and Nepali
107 minutes

THR

Firestorm (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 2:22 pm

Firestorm
Maggie Lee
January 7, 2014

Laying waste to everything with blaring 3D effects, “Firestorm” plays more like a disaster movie than a crime saga, given its risibly implausible story of a policeman fighting mainland Chinese robbers on the rampage in Hong Kong. Helmer-scribe Alan Yuen makes every scene go bang and boom, burying his potentially compelling subject — a law enforcer’s quandary when justice crumbles under brute force — under so much CGI rubble. This being the most extravagant (though not the most technically polished) Chinese 3D blockbuster in recent release, pic boasts whiz-bang B.O. in China and currently holds top spot in Hong Kong cinemas.

Although Yuen has helmed a B-grade romance (1994′s “Touches of Love”) and shares writing-directing credits with Sylvia Chang on the cyber-love story “Princess D” (2002), he is best known for scripting Benny Chan’s blockbusters, including “New Police Story” (2004), “Rob-B-Hood” (2006) and “Shaolin” (2010). While these hits succeeded by prioritizing action and spectacle over plot and character, Yuen’s shortcomings as a screenwriter are apparent in “Firestorm,” with its uneven pacing and pedestrian storytelling. Still, the director has unmistakably absorbed some of Chan’s skill at handling large-scaled productions, a slightly messy look in the large crowd scenes notwithstanding.

Yuen’s ambition is evident in his decision to set the pic’s biggest shootouts on Hong Kong’s congested streets. The first and most rousing of these depicts the robbery of an armored vehicle, masterminded by mainland racketeer Cao Nan (Hu Jun, smugly menacing). Responding to a tipoff by a stool pigeon, senior inspector Lui (Andy Lau) has assembled his veteran team to bust these crooks.

The clash between the two sides — a propulsive, bloody affair made even more cataclysmic by the typhoon hitting the city — is interrupted when a stray car rams into the fray, enabling the key perpetrators to flee. The driver, Bong (Lam Ka-tung), who’s fresh out of jail, happens to be Lui’s high-school classmate. In one of the film’s few subtle moments, the two old friends have a catch-up chat, rife with innuendo that leaves no doubt that Bong is involved in the heist.

As Lui is bent on putting Cao behind bars, the latter simply ups his game. A police raid on his gang’s hideout erupts in a crossfire of “Diehard” proportions, and some audiences may wonder if the scene is set in a Hong Kong residential block or a Chechnyan war zone. That’s just a warm-up for the protracted grand finale, during which the robbers, led by loose-cannon ex-con Paco (Ray Lui, like a manic jester), try to loot another armored vehicle, only they behave more like suicide bombers.

For all the novelty of seeing Queen’s Road Central, Hong Kong’s swanky downtown, turn into a bomb site, none of the crash-bang gunfights and car explosions live up to the tension and surprise of the opening highway sequence, while some of the more contrived developments are derivative of scenes in the Korean tsunami-disaster film “Haeundae.” Also: Armed to the teeth as they are, doesn’t it cost them more to buy all that artillery than what they’re stealing?

If greater care had been taken with the intertwined character arcs of Lui and Bong, it might have provided enough dramatic substance to offset the sensory overload. Lui’s despair is initially affecting, as he watches Cao deviously maneuver his way around the law while his henchmen massacre innocents in cold-blooded fashion. However, Lui’s climactic switcheroo lacks psychological buildup, relying instead on a soapy subplot involving his retired informant Keung (Philip Keung, operatic) volunteering for “one last job.”

While Lau simply seems to be playing himself so long as Lui is in hero mode, he’s less convincing once his character sheds his ideals. By comparison, Lam turns in an ace perf, playing Bong with rapscallion charm, and suggesting how he fell into a life of crime only because it’s less taxing than making an honest living. He generates sparks with mainland thesp Yao Chen as his feisty and steadfast wife, Bing; despite the corniness of Bong turning over a new leaf for the love of a good woman, his eventual transformation feels authentic and moving.

“Firestorm” harks back to ’90s Hong Kong police actioners, and also tips its cap to “Infernal Affairs” in the way it depicts cops and robbers as each other’s alter egos. But the film most significantly recalls the seminal “Long Arm of the Law” (1984), reflecting the anxieties of Hong Kong citizens whose faith in law and order is shattered by the army-trained criminals pouring across the mainland border. Interestingly, the depiction of PLA-soldier-turned-entrepreneur-crook Cao as a suave planner-leader, more efficient than Hong Kong hothead Paco, suggests an updated notion of Chinese social mobility.

The expense of the 3D effects, courtesy of Taiwan’s Free-D Workshop, is visible in every frame, but the texture of some of the images, especially of flames and flying debris, is surprisingly coarse. Likewise, while the car stunts are fast and furious, action director Chin Ka-lok has done more thoughtful, sophisticated work elsewhere. Other tech credits, such as Peter Kam’s pounding score, Kinson Tsang’s booming sound mix and Chan Chi-ying’s swooping camerawork (much less subtle than Chan’s lensing in “The Bullet Vanishes”), are pro but on-the-nose. The film’s Chinese title means “Windstorm.”

Reviewed at the Venetian, Macau, Dec. 13, 2013. Running time: 119 MIN. Original title: “Fung bo”

Production
(Hong Kong-China) An Edko Films (in Hong Kong)/Xian Sil-Metropole Film Distribution (in China) release of an Edko Films, Sil-Metropole Organization, Focus Films, Good Friends Entertainment, China Dream Film Culture Industry, Ample Ideas Intl., He Xin Zhongshan Jin Investment Management Co., Elegance Medai Guangdong Co., Youku Tudou presentation of a Focus Film production. (International sales: Edko Films, Hong Kong.) Produced by Rosanna Ng, Chan Pui-wah, Dele Liu. Executive producers, Bill Kong, Song Dai, Andy Lau, T.P. Lim. Co-producers, Cheung Hong-tat, Ren Yue, Zhang Yuancheng, Allen Zhu. Administrative producers, Stephen Lam, Simon Li, Jaime Sze, Chen Bing, Yvonne Lui.

Crew
Directed, written by Alan Yuen. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Chan Chi-ying; editors, Kwong Chi-keung, Ron Chan; music, Peter Kam; production designer, Renee Wong; costume designer, Man Lim-chung, Boey Wong; sound (Dolby Digital), Kinson Tsang; re-recording mixer, Tsang; visual effects supervisor, Yu Kwok-leung; visual effects, Free-D Workshop; action director, Chin Ka-lok; line producer, Fan Kim-hung; associate producers, Y.C. Kong, Sze Yeung-ping, Alice Yeung, Jessica Chen, Wang Feng, Gao Rui, C.L. Chan.

With
Andy Lau, Lam Ka-tung, Yao Chen, Hu Jun, Philip Keung, Ray Lui, Michael Wong, Kenny Wong, Terence Yin. (Cantonese, Mandarin dialogue)

Variety

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