HKMDB Daily News

January 16, 2014

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 4, 2013

The Last Tycoon (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 10:58 am

The Last Tycoon
1/2/2013 by Elizabeth Kerr

Multihyphenate Wong Jing, China’s answer to Roger Corman and Russ Meyer, releases his latest film about a man from humble beginnings who rises to become a powerful gangster.

The latest surefire moneymaker from the prolific and profitable Wong Jing, Hong Kong’s answer to Roger Corman and Russ Meyer in one glorious, exploitive package, is a bit of a surprise entry for the multi-hyphenate in that the iron grip it maintains on the hoariest of H.K. cinema traditions works to its favor. The Last Tycoon is the kind of demi-epic the industry cranked out by the dozen in the 1980s and early ’90s and it would appear Wong has found a way to marry the bombastic, sometimes underhanded heroism of that era with the 21st century Mainland-ready version of it. It also appears that Wong actually made an effort for producer Andrew Lau (The Guillotines, Infernal Affairs), and so Tycoon is probably his most polished and entertaining directorial outing in years.

Writer-producer-director-actor Wong’s occasionally inflammatory career dates back to the mid-1970s, and for every goofily titillating romp (the original, less misogynistic Sex and Zen), allegedly triad-glorifying action series (Young and Dangerous) or out-and-out gorefest (Ebola Syndrome) he’s managed a God of Gamblers, Lee Rock and Naked Killer. The Last Tycoon belongs in the latter group, and stocked as it is with major talent — chiefly superstar Chow Yun-fat — that still gets attention regionally, the film should have a decent run in Asia-Pacific. Hardcore Hong Kong/Asia movie buffs will be drawn by both the old-school storytelling and talent, which could help the film gain traction in niche markets and on the genre festival circuit. A healthy DVD life is also not out of the question.

Chow plays Cheng Daqi, a man of humble beginnings that rises in the ranks of pre-WWII era underworld Shanghai to become a powerful gangster — or a more Mainland-friendly “tycoon.” Take your pick. Just as his power peaks, the war breaks out and Cheng feels compelled to use his influence to beat back the Japanese. The story starts during Daqi’s youthful days in Jiangsu (where he’s played by Huang Xiaoming) with his budding opera singer beloved Ye Zhiqiu (Joyce Feng), moves on to his involvement with Shanghai mob boss Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung) and ongoing thorny relationship with a dodgy army officer Mao Zai (always welcome Francis Ng). Years later Daqi meets up with Zhiqiu (now played by Yolanda Yuan) again, kick-starting a love triangle that proves to be the film’s weakest link.

Nonetheless, and against all logic and better judgment, the film functions perfectly as an entertainment. Wong and co-writers Philip Lui and Manfred Wong take something of a kitchen sink stance toward the script: it’s one part historical gangster actioner, one part love story and one part spy thriller (Zhiqiu’s husband is part of the resistance). No single element is fleshed out enough to really make a point but somehow Wong keeps the over packed narrative on track just enough to make it work as a whole. A great deal of credit needs to go to the holy trinity of Chow, Hung and Ng. Chow is thrust into countless deliberate mythmaking and/or myth-affirming action sequences, the least of which is a shootout in a church (including doves) and some honorable thief posturing that recalls an early Chow television series. Hung makes an entrance that could have been ripped from any of his best martial epics. Ng is Ng, holding onto his crown as Hong Kong’s most blissfully menacing actor.

Technically The Last Tycoon is one of Wong’s more accomplished offerings, even with the film’s dire need for a new sound mix to combat the ear-splitting explosions (of which there are scores). The film looks impeccable: the production design, set decoration and costumes are pitch perfect and the Shanghai of the 1930s is convincing. As expected of a period epic there is no shortage of vivid set pieces — a rain-drenched assassination attempt, a brilliantly choreographed theater assassination and the aforementioned church gun fight. Wong manages to recall The Killer, The Godfather, Casablanca and Bonnie and Clyde so shamelessly that what comes out on the other side is a bizarrely comforting bit of nostalgia filmmaking. Box office success in China relies on Daqi’s anti-hero being more “hero” than “anti-” (Daqi becomes a banker a one point, somehow considered less shady than organized crime lord), but regardless The Last Tycoon ends up a diverting romp that makes no apologies for its entertainment for entertainment’s sake attitude.

Production companies: Mega Vision Pictures, Bona Film Group
Sales: Distribution Workshop
Producer: Andrew Lau
Director: Wong Jing
Cast: Chow Yun-fat, Gao Hu, Francis Ng, Huang Xiaoming, Sammo Hung, Yolanda Yuan, Monica Mok, Xie Baoqing
Screenwriter: Philip Lui, Manfred Wong, Wong Jing
Executive producer: Yu Dong, Jeffrey Cheng
Director of photography: Jason Kwan, Andrew Lau
Production designer: Chung Man-yee
Music: Kwong Wing-chan
Costume designer: Ivy Chan, Jessie Dai
Editor: Wai Chiu Chung
No rating, 115 minutes
THR

January 1, 2013

The Last Tycoon (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: — dleedlee @ 12:23 pm

The Last Tycoon
Da Shanghai

(China-Hong Kong)
By MAGGIE LEE

A Tianjin Bona Cultural Media Co. (in China)/Distribution Workshop (in Hong Kong) release of a Bona Film Group Co., Bona Entertainment Co. presentation of a Mega-Vision Pictures production. (International sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong.) Produced by Andrew Lau. Executive producers, Yu Dong, Jeffrey Chan. Co-producer, Connie Wong. Directed by Wong Jing. Screenplay, Wong, Manfred Wong, Lui Koon-nam.
With: Chow Yun-fat, Huang Xiaoming, Sammo Hung, Francis Ng, Yolanda Yuan, Monica Mok, Joyce Feng, Kinny Tong, Yuan Li, Xin Boqing, Hugh Gao, Yasuaki Kurata, Zheng Zitong, Miracle Qi, Han Zhi. (Mandarin, Japanese dialogue)

A nostalgic rags-to-riches yarn about the mightiest crime lord in 1930s Shanghai, “The Last Tycoon” is nonetheless redolent of ‘hood heroics in ’90s Hong Kong cinema. Helmed with musty solemnity by Wong Jing, this expensively furnished production unfolds scene after scene of slow-burning chamber drama, punctuated by potent but never jaw-dropping action. The unhurried approach affords lead actor Chow Yun-fat ample room to deliver a flavorsome perf alongside his ace co-stars, but may hinder the pic from going gangbusters locally. Asian-friendly ancillary is a safe bet.

The screenplay reps a condensed rehash of “Lord of East China Sea” (1993-94), Poon Man-kit’s two-part, semi-fictionalized account of how drug lord Du Yuesheng rose to become a statesman and staunch Kuomintang patron. Despite the film’s streamlined tech package, to which producer-lenser Andrew Lau (”The Guillotines”) no doubt contributed, virtually everything in the story has been said and done before. The result is neither gritty nor hedonistic enough to evoke turn-of-the-century Shanghai as an “adventurer’s paradise,” while the glowing presentation of the central character as an unswerving patriot strips him of any moral complexity.

In 1913, Cheng Daqi (Huang Xiaoming), a fruit seller from Zhejiang province, gets in trouble and flees to Shanghai with the help of KMT spy Mao Zai (Francis Ng). Amid the upheaval, Cheng loses touch with childhood sweetheart Ye Zhiqiu (Joyce Feng), who’s gone to Beijing to study Chinese opera. Cheng plunges himself into the world of gangland streetfighting, and hits the big time after becoming protege of Hong Shouting (Sammo Hung), chief of police and the most corrupt thug in the freewheeling French Concession.

By 1937, Cheng (now played by Chow) not only rules Shanghai’s largest gang but has attained respectability through banking ventures with cohorts Hong and warlord Lu (Han Zhi). With a full-blown war between China and Japan looming, however, various parties vie to exploit his wealth and influence, forcing him to gamble for the city’s survival. To complicate matters, Ye (Yolanda Yuan), now a glamorous diva, resurfaces with her husband (Xin Boqing), whose communist affiliations put her in a precarious situation.

The measured tempo of Azrael Chung’s editing keeps the time-shifting narrative seguing smoothly between Cheng’s youth and middle-age years. Huang’s perf as the naive country boy in the opening act is off-puttingly half-hearted, but he throws himself into the Shanghai-set scenes with do-or-die aplomb. Beset by conflicts of interest and mounting peril, the older Cheng is, by contrast, more frazzled than fearsome.

The action (designed by Lee Tat-chiu) comes in quick but regular spurts, and assumes a grander scale in the film’s explosion-heavy second half. However, the earlier scenes of intimate human combat hold greater dramatic interest, such as a turf war in which cleavers and meathooks are put to vicious use, and a church-set shootout that pays homage to John Woo.

In essence, Wong goes against the grain of mainland commercial cinema’s emphasis on spectacle and pageantry, instead showing a preference for ensemble drama. This is apparent in scenes of Cheng outmaneuvering the crafty politesse of warlords, KMT and Japanese commander Nishino (action veteran Yasuaki Kurata), using negotiation rather than force.

After successive turns as hawkish despots or saintly philosophers, Chow makes an agreeable, even refreshing romantic lead. Still sexy in his 50s (but too old for the role), the actor expertly calibrates guilt and desire in an otherwise trite love triangle involving Cheng, his stoical wife (Monica Mok) and his self-centered old flame. Supporting thesps Hung and Ng also have strong screen presence, despite their superficial and inconsistent characterizations.

Craft contributions, including the steady camerawork and authentic-looking sets, are dependable but short on flair. The most splendid visual element comes courtesy of Jessie Tai and Ivy Chan’s exquisitely tailored and embroidered qibaos and Chow’s distinctive wardrobe, referencing his iconic gangster roles.

Camera (color/B&W, widescreen, HD), Andrew Lau, Jason Kwan; editor, Azrael Chung; music, Chan Kwong-wing, Yu Peng; production designer, Yee Chung Man; art director, Eric Lam; costume designers, Jessie Tai, Ivy Chan; sound (Dolby Atmos /Dolby 7.1/ Dolby Digital), Kinson Tsang; re-recording mixer, Kinson Tsang; special effects supervisor, To Kwok-keung; special effects, Glorious Entertainment Prod.; visual effects supervisor, Vincent Wong, Eman Tse; visual effects, Vfx Nova Digital Prod. Co.; action choreographer, Lee Tat-chiu; line producer, Manfred Wong; associate producers, Angela Wong, Zhang Hao; assistant director, Ho Yiu-leung; casting, Ye Lifeng. Reviewed at Grand Cinema, Kowloon, Dec. 23, 2012. Running time: 118 MIN.

Variety

March 6, 2012

March 6, 2012 [HKMDB Daily News]

CRI: Sun Honglei Awarded the Most Disappointing Actor

The 3rd Golden Broom Awards took place Saturday afternoon, doling out 13 Golden Brooms in total. Lacking in attendance at the award ceremony were movie stars.

Famous mainland actor Sun Honglei was awarded the most disappointing actor for his character as renowned ancient strategist Sun Bin in The Warring States. A-list Hong Kong actress Cecilia Cheung won the most disappointing actress for both her performances in Legendary Amazons and Treasure Hunt.

The Flowers of War, nominated at the Golden Globes, was given a special jury’s version of “the most disappointing movie” award.

CF: The Blame Game

Zhang Weiping, producer of Zhang Yimou’s The Flowers of War, blames Hollywood and the United States press for “Nanjing Massacre denial”.

CF: Flying Swords Lifts Bona Group Results

FBA: Go ahead for Mr. Go

Xu Jiao (Josie Xu) to star in South Korean 3D flick

Wong Jing revealed that Huang Xiaoming has joined the cast of “Once Upon a Time in Shanghai” with Chow Yun-Fat and Sammo Hung. Both Chow and Huang have played the lead character, Hui Man Keung, in TV series versions of the story. Yuan Quan (Yolanda Yuan) and Yuan Li were also named as joining the cast. A Lunar New Year release is planned.

TimeOutHK: Ann Hui interview

TimeOutHK: A Simple Life

Zhou Xun (Sina-gallery)

Andy On will replace Chiu in “Special Identity”. 

Vincent Zhao (Chiu Man-Cheuk) and wife

Zhao and lawyer at press conference where he read a statement defending himself (Sina)

Michael Wong plays an abusive father to his daughter, Janice Man, in “Nightfall”

(Sina)

MSN: A first glimpse at Karena Lam’s daughter

The former actress took her daughter to a renowned kindergarten for an entrance interview

A1: Why should I be afraid? Says Michelle Yeoh

Already svelte and athletic, the 49-year-old former Bond girl lost another 10kg to play the slightly gaunt Nobel laureate in The Lady.

A1: Always a Lady

A1: Jacky Cheung’s wife sexually harassed

Wife of Hong Kong pop singer Jacky Cheung was allegedly sexually harassed twice by a manager of a gym in Hong Kong.

MSN: Cherrie warns woman to stop seducing hubby

Cherrie Ying has warned a woman to stop “seducing” her husband Jordan Chan Siu-Chun.

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