HKMDB Daily News

February 8, 2014

The Midnight After (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , — dleedlee @ 4:55 pm

The Midnight After
8 February, 2014
By Flossie Topping

The Midnight After is a quirky apocalyptic horror from Hong Kong indie director Fruit Chan, who returns to the Panorama section after his success with Dumplings, which premiered in 2005.

Adapting the web-series turned best-selling novel Lost On A Red Mini Bus To Tai Po by a writer who goes by the pen name “Pizza”, we follow 17 Hong Kongers as they travel by night bus to Tai Po, a market town on the outskirts of the city. Things become mysterious when the bus passes through a tunnel, and emerges into a completely deserted street. The group soon starts to question whether they may be the last 17 people alive.

Set against a backdrop of neon lights and whizzing traffic, Chan and cinematographer Lam Wah-tsuen successfully capture the bustling city in all its glory. However, it is the diversity of characters that make the film so engaging, trapping together a potbellied gambler (Lam Suet) a cokehead (Sam Lee, Made in Hong Kong) and a psychic insurance saleswoman (Kara Hui), to discuss their fate in an abandoned Michelin-starred restaurant.

Black comedy comes in bursts when the characters start to be killed off in odd circumstances, some contracting the plague and others simply turning to stone and crumbling into dust. Odder still, the group find that the only clue that they’ve been given from their enemy is the lyrics to David Bowie’s Space Oddity, sent to them in Morse code on their phones.

Fans of Chan’s will warm to his unique sense of humour and many pop culture references, such as having his characters play Candy Crush and air guitar with a mop, but to a wider audience, the randomness of events and gratuitous violence may leave them pining for a more fixed genre or plot structure. The Midnight After may be best suited to a domestic audience.

In his earlier films, Chan made numerous references to Hong Kong’s relationship to China and its burgeoning identity. This too, carries on with that theme, delivering a distinct local flavor whilst also throwing in commentary about Hong Kong’s zombie-like masses and the lasting effects of the SARS virus and the 2011 nuclear meltdown in Fukushima, Japan. During the film we are told “Hong Kong doesn’t do sci-fi”, but Chan has successfully defied genre conventions here.

Production companies: The Midnight After Film Production, One Ninety Films Co.

International sales: Fortissimo Films

Producer: Amy Chin

Executive producers: Winnie Tsang, Fruit Chan

Screenplay: Chan Fai-hung, Kong Ho-yan, Fruit Chan, based on the novel “Lost on a Red Minibus to Taipo,” by Pizza

Cinematography: Lam Wah-tsuen

Editors: TinSupFat, ToTo

Production designer: Andrew Wong

Music: Ellen Loo, Veronica Lee

Cast: Wong You-nam, Janice Man, Simon Yam, Kara Hui, Chui Tien-you, Lam Suet, Cheuk Wan-chi, Lee Sheung-ching, Sam Lee, Cherry Ngan, Melodee Mak, Jan Curious, Ronny Yuen, Kelvin Chan, Endy Chow
Screen Daily

The Monkey King (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 2:54 pm

The Monkey King
2/7/2014 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
A flat and surprisingly unengaging 3-D revisit of a now much-adapted story.

Hong Kong A-listers Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-fat and Aaron Kwok headline director Soi Cheang’s 3D origins story for the primate hero of classic Chinese novel “Journey to the West.”

The common Cantonese phrase “moon tin sun fat” — which translates as “Gods galore in the sky” — is used to refer to a chaotic state of struggling to get a handle on numerous loose ends. It’s a more than apt description for Hong Kong director Soi Cheang’s largely mainland Chinese-financed take on the classic 16thcentury Chinese fantasy novel Journey to the West. Focusing on the rite of passage of the story’s primate hero Sun Wukong, The Monkey King is filled to the brim with gravity-defying saints and sprites zipping across the screen in a litany of kinetic 3-D action sequences. But the stellar imagery hardly makes up for the film’s underwritten narrative, half-baked characterizations and emotional gimmicks.

Finally finished after many a mooted release over the past two years — the film’s production actually began in 2010, before Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons, which released to commercial acclaim this time last year – The Monkey King credits four screenwriters and two directors of photography. Surveying the result, the project indeed feels as if too many talents spent too much time dragging the film in different directions, without it ever coming to a satisfactory, full-fledged end. Leaving many of the story’s themes of kinship, betrayal and revolution untapped, the film is also weighed down by a lack of experimentation in style and storytelling, not to mention a dearth of innovation or precision in its slapdash 3D digital effects.

All those missed opportunities, however, have since been glossed over by the film’s booming performance at the box office: released on Jan. 30 over the Lunar New Year holidays in mainland China, the film broke Iron Man 3’s opening-day record in the country and has since taken $90.4 million there. A sequel is now in the offing, with the producers confident enough to have already hinted at the prospect onscreen by bookending the film with a monolog by Yuanzhuang (voiced by Louis Koo), the monk who would lead the monkey on a trip to secure holy scriptures in the next installment. Outside China, the presence of names such as Donnie Yen and Chow Yun-fat might appeal to Asian cinema aficionados, but a limited release will likely be the way forward for a piece that would need more stylistic innovation to avoid paling before its Hollywood counterparts.

Having established himself as one of Hong Kong’s most promising young auteurs with festival entries such as the Johnnie To-produced Accident and Motorway, Cheang might sense the irony of scoring his most commercially successful hit with a film on which he didn’t (or couldn’t) impose his own creative imprint — apart from the faint strain of a dehumanized lead protagonist struggling to engage with stifling social norms, a Cheang hallmark.

The monkey king (played by Yen, nearly unrecognizable in heavy make-up and/or digitally enhanced attire) begins the film blissfully unaware of his supernatural roots, as he leads his life as a mischievous chieftain of a tribe of primates in a small cave, using his exceptional dexterity to pick fruits and impress his charges. But his origins are accounted for well before he is introduced onscreen. During the film’s prolog – a high-octane, all-destructive battle between the upstanding Jade Emperor (Chow) and the horned, evil-incarnate Bull Devil (Aaron Kwok, Cold War) – the former is banished to exile by the latter, and the goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) reconstructing the world with crystals generated from her body.

The monkey’s embryo is nurtured within one of these crystals, a paranormal beginning that leads to a sage, Puti (Hai Yitian), taking him away for some training and guidance. Bestowed with the name Sun Wukong and now seeing a much bigger world he might play with, he goes on to terrorize other deities (such as his destruction of the East Sea Palace, where he secures his legendary cudgel) and unleash bedlam in the Jade Emperor’s kingdom (where he briefly serves as the master of sovereign’s royal stable, an official appointment going horribly awry).

All this monkey business is played out over a darker conspiracy bubbling underneath, as Bull Devil attempts to avenge for his defeat with plans for another offensive at the heavenly realm. Defying discord with his wife (Joe Chen) – the Jade Emperor’s younger sister who eventually becomes the famed Iron Fan Princess – Bull prepares for his attack, as he secures inside help from “Erlangshen” Yang Jian (Peter Ho), the warrior god seeking a step up in the celestial hierarchy after spending most of his years as a gatekeeper. Aware of Wukong’s abilities and divine destiny, Bull also plants white-fox spirit Ruxue (Xia Zitong) into his life, with the hope of using the pair’s growing bond to incite the monkey in rebelling against the Emperor.

Somehow, these marginalized figures’ struggles with their lot all fall through the cracks, as the aspects of humanity they represent — piety, ambition and love — never really get substantially articulated. Then again, even the major characters come across as distinctly lackluster, with the Jade Emperor lacking poise, Bull short of menace and the Monkey King himself appearing mostly like a jester capering about, void of the subversion which defines him both in the original novel and also in the many modern film and TV adaptations of the tome. For all their glimmering costumes — designed by a foursome comprising the newly Oscar-nominated William Chang (The Grandmaster) — this triumvirate of god-like characters come across as distinctly two-dimensional protagonists struggling to find some lyrical life in a three-dimensional spectacle. It’s all much a deity about nothing.

Venue: Public screening, Hong Kong, Feb. 6, 2014
Production Companies: Filmko Entertainment, Shenzhen Golden Shores Films in a presentation by Filmko Entertainment (Beijing), Mandarin Films, China Film Group, Beijing Wen Hua Dong Run Investment and J Star Film, in association with Zhejiang HG Entertainment, Dongguan Boning Enterprise and Investment, Shenzhen Golden Shores Films, Filmko Entertainment
Director: Soi Cheang
Cast: Donnie Yen, Chow Yun-fat, Aaron Kwok, Peter Ho, Joe Chen, Hai Yitian
Producer: Kiefer Liu
Executive Producers: Kiefer Liu, Zhao Haicheng, Chen Jingshi, Luo Qi, Han Lei, Ye Dewei, Zhang Quanxin, Hou Li, with Harvey Wong, Cheng Keung-fai, Han Sanping, Mu Yedong, Zhang Quanyin, and co-produced by Xu Yongan, Chen Canqiu
Screenwriters: Edmund Wong, Huo Xin, Szeto Kam-yuen, Chen Dali
Directors of Photography: Yang Tao, Cheung Man-po
Editor: Cheung Ka-fai
Production Designer: Daniel Fu
Art Director: Yang Changzhi
Costume Designers: William Chang, Yee Chung-man, Guo Pei, Lee Pik-kwan
Music: Christopher Young
Action Director: Donnie Yen
Visual Effects Directors: Kevin Rafferty, Ding Libo
Stereoscopic Designer and Cinematographer: Daniel L. Symmes
International Sales: Filmko Entertainment
In Cantonese (Hong Kong version)/Mandarin (mainland Chinese version)
No rating, 119 minutes

The Midnight After (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 2:42 pm

The Midnight After
2/7/2014 by David Rooney

The Bottom Line
The chaotic transition of Hong Kong is fodder for suspense- and scare-free horror in this tiresome comic strip of urban cataclysm.

Seventeen random souls are thrown together in a public transport vehicle that somehow gets spared when the rest of humanity vanishes in Fruit Chan’s genre blender.

Fruit Chan made his name as a director with a series of provocative independent films in the late 1990s that commented on the handover of Hong Kong sovereignty to China. But he stumbles with The Midnight After, an indigestible post-apocalyptic stir-fry that sacrifices any sociopolitical allegory about reunified Hong Kong and its place in 21st century Asia to wild tonal inconsistency and clumsy genre mishmash. Adapted from a popular novel about the last 17 people in a suddenly vacated city inhabited by millions, this toxic mess works neither as broad satirical comedy nor as sci-fi horror, which are the two stylistic camps where it loiters longest.

The source material, Lost on a Red Minibus to Tai Po, originated as serialized web fiction by an anonymous writer who goes by the pen name Pizza, before being published as a novel in 2012. The appearance of the word “lost” in the title may be a nod to the ABC television series of that name, given that the characters find themselves in an alternate universe full of malevolent threats and disorienting dreams of pre-disaster life, seemingly with an inexplicable time lapse. But the mysteries as depicted here are too convoluted to invite much scrutiny.

Chan and cinematographer Lam Wah-tsuen effectively capture the human cacophony of one of the world’s most densely populated areas in a fast-motion opening that provides a quick glimpse of the key characters in frenetically cut establishing scenes.

A slobby loudmouth gambler (Lam Suet) gets a late-night call to fill in for a minibus driver friend on a route to Tai Po, a former market town turned new community. His passengers are played by a mix of Chan regulars, veteran Hong Kong actors and new-generation stars. The group includes a cokehead, a bickering married couple, a blowhard failed gangster, a fortune-telling insurance broker, a tech expert, a vintage vinyl dealer, an incognito thief, a bottle-blond pretty boy stood up by his girlfriend, a matching female counterpart and a handful of college students.

The first bad omen is an accident they pass in which a couple that almost boarded the bus has been killed. But the major mind-bender occurs when they travel through a tunnel and all the other traffic vanishes, emerging on the other side to find a ghost town. Phone signals are dead, Internet activity has frozen, and as panic mounts among the passengers, the fortune-teller (Kara Hui) starts spouting theories about having entered the Photon Belt, where their destinies are now intertwined.

The loss of spirituality, the escalation of economic instability, the squandering of cultural wealth, the emergence of a drug-addled “zombie” race, disillusionment with the political system, distrust of technology and depersonalization of society are among the countless half-baked themes touched upon as people start combusting or crumbling like rocks. Not to mention raping and maiming.

The chief clues about their limbo come from an unknown caller’s coded message that links to David Bowie’s “Space Oddity,” a song then heard multiple times, evoking space travel and imperiled isolation; and the appearance of a young Japanese man in a gas mask, who summons associations with the SARS epidemic and makes oblique references to the nuclear meltdown at Fukushima. But rather than solving the enigma, the film is more concerned with acknowledging all that’s at risk of being lost in the relentless march forward, suggesting not just traditional laws and ethics but ultimately humanity itself.

With a more controlled director at the helm, that strand might have acquired some poignancy. But The Midnight After is all over the place, lurching from goofball comedy to pulpy horror to mawkish melodrama as young leads Wong You-nam and Janice Man mentally revisit their romances. Even with a fuller understanding of all the local references, this would doubtless still be an overblown, noisy, curiously inept movie from a filmmaker who shows only fleeting command of the material.

Early on, one of the minibus passengers warns that splitting up is how folks get killed in horror movies, while later, somebody remarks that Hong Kong doesn’t do sci-fi. But there’s precious little wit in the film’s attempt to upend genre conventions. The most interesting thing about it is seeing vast expanses of the digitally evacuated city, an image that says a lot more than any of the yappy characters.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production companies: The Midnight After Film Production, One Ninety Films Co.
Cast: Wong You-nam, Janice Man, Simon Yam, Kara Hui, Chui Tien-you, Lam Suet, Cheuk Wan-chi, Lee Sheung-ching, Sam Lee, Cherry Ngan, Melodee Mak, Jan Curious, Ronny Yuen, Kelvin Chan, Endy Chow
Director: Fruit Chan
Screenwriters: Chan Fai-hung, Kong Ho-yan, Fruit Chan, based on the novel “Lost on a Red Minibus to Taipo,” by Pizza
Producer: Amy Chin
Executive producer: Winnie Tsang, Fruit Chan
Director of photography: Lam Wah-tsuen
Production designer: Andrew Wong
Music: Ellen Loo, Veronica Lee
Costume designer: Phoebe Wong
Editors: TinSupFat, ToTo
Sales: Fortissimo Films
No rating, 123 minutes

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