HKMDB Daily News

February 8, 2014

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

February 1, 2014

The Monkey King in 3D (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 4:14 pm

The Monkey King in 3D
JANUARY 31, 2014

Hong Kong helmer Soi Cheang infuses a simplistic, action-driven narrative with inexhaustible energy, but little style or substance.

Maggie Lee

More than three years in the making, and easily the most ambitious cinematic rendition yet of Wu Cheng’en’s 16th-century Chinese epic “Journey to the West,” “The Monkey King in 3D” nonetheless can’t match the technical refinement or storytelling smarts of its Hollywood counterparts. Hong Kong helmer Soi Cheang infuses a simplistic, action-driven narrative with inexhaustible energy, but one expects greater stylistic flair and substance from the veteran helmer behind “Motorway” and “Dog Bites Dog.” Still, this CG-cluttered fantasy epic will still do well if marketed as family entertainment; opening on multiple Imax screens at home, it’s already expected to break Chinese New Year B.O. records.

Chinese viewers will be compelled to compare “The Monkey King” with Stephen Chow’s recent “Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons”; while that film filled in the gaps of Xuanzang’s early life, this one traces the path that led Monkey to become the monk’s disciple. Admittedly, Chow’s humor and brilliantly subversive instincts are inimitable, but the collaboration of four scribes here has nevertheless produced a shallow, juvenile screenplay that plays like “Journey to the West for Beginners,” with borderline-cardboard characters.

The pic kicks off in high gear with an apocalyptic turf war between the deities and demons, rendered in six minutes of nonstop, “Transformers”-style mayhem during which both sides seem less intent on defeating each other than simply smashing the surrounding celestial architecture to smithereens. The deities prevail, led by Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-fat), whose sister, Princess Iron Fan (Joe Chen), pleads for the life of rebel leader Bull Demon King (Aaron Kwok), whom she loves. The couple is banished, along with the whole demon tribe, to Flaming Mountain.

The task of postwar reconstruction falls on the shoulders of goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin), who gives up her own body to fill the cracks in the firmament (don’t ask how). What’s left of her afterward is a pink, Kryptonite-ish substance that falls to Earth and enables the genesis of a primate embryo. And so Monkey is born.

While living inside his bubble, the infant Monkey is befriended by a snowy fox. When he grows up (now by Donnie Yen), he re-encounters the fox in the form of a pretty, fur-clad girl, Ruxue (Xia Zitong). They fall in love, entwining tails like in an old Disney cartoon, blissfully unaware that Bull has other plans for them in his scheme to retake the Heavenly Palace. Meanwhile, the Goddess of Mercy (Kelly Chen) sends Taoist master Puti (Hai Yitian) to be Monkey’s mentor and teach him magic. Unfortunately, Puti is not much of a disciplinarian, and his pupil, now called Sun Wukong, becomes naughtier than ever.

For more than 100 minutes, Wukong goes on a series of adventures, which invariably involve him vandalizing deity property like the Eastern Sea Palace, Jade Emperor’s celestial stable, or the fairy peach grove. Most Chinese kids know these chapters by heart, and there’s no new take here; the only novelty is that the effects are splashier in such a movie adaptation, with CGI so pervasive that one sometimes forgets they’re watching a live-action film.

“Journey to the West” was one of the few ancient classics not branded “revisionist” when the Chinese Communist Party took power: During the Cultural Revolution, in such propaganda films as the animated “Uproar in Heaven,” the Monkey King was celebrated as a role model for Red Guards — an anarchic force of nature that rose up against the ruling elite. In Jeff Lau’s “Chinese Odyssey” series, made on the eve of Hong Kong’s handover to China, the Monkey King was portrayed as an Everyman at the mercy of history, grappling with existential questions.

This current blockbuster incarnation, by contrast, is arguably the most vanilla of the bunch, portraying Monkey/Wukong as playful rather than rebellious, and only a threat to the social order when treacherously provoked. All of which makes him friendlier to a tyke audience, but it provides Yen with little room to flex his acting muscles or otherwise emote effectively; in fact, the thesp looks unrecognizable in his hairy suit and heavy makeup.

Jade Emperor is as majestic and magnanimous as any absolute ruler can get, but it’s a dull role, and Chow’s attempts to enliven it through occasional banter with Wukong come to naught. Kwow looks sexier than one might expect for a man with horns jutting out of his forehead, but his vengeful Bull is one of the flattest roles he’s played. Bull’s accomplice, the three-eyed celestial gatekeeper Erlangshen (Peter Ho), proves the most intriguing and psychologically persuasive character here, essentially a disgruntled employee who’s been denied a promotion or pay rise for several centuries.

Yang Tao and Cheung Man-po’s compositions and the computer illustrations (by more than a dozen vfx companies) boast a geometry inspired by traditional Chinese art, notably in a scene where a pack of flying horses form a beautiful symmetrical pattern in the sky. However, many of the visuals are oversaturated and simply sub-standard, resembling cheap computer-game fare; most annoyingly, the fight scenes are often obscured by scattered debris. The creature design ranges from magnificent to kitschy.

With so much animation crowding the background, the terrific high-wire action (directed by Yen) is frequently upstaged. Production design is sumptuous when it comes to the various heavenly and underwater habitats, but inexcusably slack in its evocation of the hellish Flaming Mountain, which consists of only two sets: a dreary, charred cave interior and a sooty pit.

Film Review: ‘The Monkey King in 3D’
Reviewed at UA Windsor Cinema, Hong Kong, Jan. 30, 2014. Running time: 119 MIN. Original title: “Xiyouji zhi da nao tiangong”

(Hong Kong-China) A Filmko Entertainment, Newport Entertainment (in Hong Kong)/Beijing Anshi Naying Culture Co., China Film Group, Wanda Media (in China) release of a Filmko Entertainment, Mandarin Films Co., China Film Group presentation of a Filmko Entertainment, Shenzhen Golden Shores Films production in association with Zhejiang HG Entertainment Co., Shenzhen Golden Shores Films, Dongguan Boning Entreprise and Investment Co. (International sales: Filmko Entertainment, Hong Kong.) Produced by Kiefer Liu. Executive producers, Kiefer Liu, Zhao Haicheng, Chen Jingshi, Luo Qi, Han Lei, Ye Dewei, Zhang Quanxin, Hou Li. Co-executive producers, Xu Yong’an, Chen Canqiu, Keefer Liu, Harvey Wong.

Directed by Soi Cheang. Screenplay, Szeto Kam-yuen, Edmund Wong, Huo Xin, Dali Chen. Camera (color, widescreen, HD, 3D), Yang Tao, Cheung Man-po; editor, Cheung Ka-fai; music/music supervisor, Christopher Young ; production designer, Daniel Fu; art director, Yang Changzhi; set decorators, Zhang Haiwang, Zhao Zhanli; costume designers, William Cheung, Yee Chung-man, Guo Pei, Lee Pik-kwan; sound (Dolby Digital), Jay Yin; re-recording mixers, Steve Burgess, Chris Goodes; special makeup, Shaun Smith, Mark Philip Garbarino; visual effects supervisor, Kevin Rafferty, Ding Libo, Kim Wook, Kim Jung-hoon, Patrick Kim, Kim Chan-goo, Park Myung-song, Lee In-ho, Li Rui, Shin Chang-dong, Eric Xu, Rita Shi, Fort Guo, Billy Zhuang, Chris Q Yao, Adrian Chen, Jiang Weibin, David Ebner, Jeff Goldman; visual effects, GS VFX, Dexter China VFX, Dexter Digital, CJ Powercast, Idea, Macrograph, Illumina VFX, Wuji LMZ Art&Design, Mad Man, Digital Studio 21, More VFX, Revo Fx, Technicolor, PO Beijing, Studio 51, Lucky Dog, TWR Entertainment, Z Storm, DEVFX, the Resistance Visual Effects; stereoscopic supervisors, Daniel L. Symmes, Keith Collea; action director, Donnie Yen; stunt coordinators, Kenji Tanigaki, Yan Hua; assistant director, Mai Yonglin, Vash Yan; Casting, Liu Shiliu, Liu Sasa.

Donnie Yen, Aaron Kwok, Chow Yun-fat, Peter Ho, Hai Yitian, Xia Zitong, Joe Chen, Kelly Chen, Gigi Leung, Zhang Zilin, Calvin Cheng, Cheung Siu-fai. (Cantonese dialogue)

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


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


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.

(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.

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

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

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”

(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.

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.

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)

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


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

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

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