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August 12, 2013

Unbeatable (Hollywood Reporter review)

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

8/12/2013 by Clarence Tsui

The Bottom Line
Hong Kong’s master of fatalist thrillers takes a break from his trademark doom and gloom to offer a warm and engaging drama drenched with redemption, hope and cracking mixed martial arts scenes.

Action-thriller expert Dante Lam returns with a story about a retired pugilist returning to the ring for the sake of his battered protege, a single-parented girl and himself.

Having established his standing as an influential auteur in Hong Kong in recent years with a string of furiously fatalist thrillers, Dante Lam has now returned to the fold with what could have been an oddity in his oeuvre: an uplifting, humane drama which offers redemption, hope and — perhaps most surprisingly — generous dollops of uncontrived humor.

Not that it’s a bad thing: Striking a neat balance with its (literally) bone-crunching fight scenes and laid-back depictions of the fighters’ emotional ebbs and flows outside the ring, Unbeatable — which won two awards at the Shanghai International Film Festival in June before unspooling as the opening film of the Hong Kong International Film Festival’s summer program on Aug. 13, prior to its general release two days later – is an engaging, poised piece with something for both actioner aficionados and those seeking competent storytelling and engaging personae dramatis.

But Unbeatable does begin as if Lam and his long-running screenwriting partner Jack Ng (plus child-star-turned-writer/producer Fung Chi-fung) are again in for lives caught in meltdown. In a prologue, the three major threads unfold as catastrophes, as each segment concludes with colors fading into monochrome: in Beijing, the young Lin Siqi (Taiwanese heartthrob Eddie Peng) returns home from his backpackers’ trip in Yunnan to discover his tycoon father’s (Jack Kao) business going bust; in Macao, the mentally ill mainland-born divorcee Gwen Wong (Mei Ting) loses her son when he drowns in the bath as she dozes off after yet another binge; and in Hong Kong, the homeless and reckless cabbie Ching “Scumbag” Fai (Nick Cheung) has his taxi and all his belongings set on fire by pipe-wielding loan sharks.

And as the narrative proper commences, the three stories converge. Living in hiding in Macao to escape from his debtors, Fai moves into a room in Gwen’s apartment, befriending her feisty schoolgirl daughter Dani (Malaysia’s Crystal Lee) in the process; taking up a job as a janitor in a boxing club, he witnesses Siqi trying to train for a mixed martial arts competition so as to secure the prize-money to alleviate his father’s financial woes. Taking the young man under his wing, Fai confronts his past as a disgraced champion fighter and, when Siqi receives a shattering, near-fatal defeat, returns to the ring one more time to retain his protégé’s honor and also his own.

It’s true that this basic premise runs along the expected lines of the much-trodden action-drama about marginalized pugilists getting one last redemptive crack at fame, but Unbeatable at least delivers a nuanced protagonist who hardly comes across as a contrived poseur (an example of that being Daniel Lee’s 2000 film A Fighter’s Blues, which couldn’t help shaping A-lister Andy Lau as a fallen Hercules regaining his ego and his virility with his comeback). While much has been written about Cheung’s real-life physical transformation to fit the role, the actor’s effectiveness here lies in his portrayal of a smalltime individual still carrying the scars of his dark past (he is revealed as having been stripped of his success and self-confidence when he was jailed for throwing matches and mixing with the mob while at the cusp of major-league stardom).

His new muscular build is largely out of sight in the film: it’s his natural turn as the scarred Fai, and his earthy performance – most remarkably opposite the equally eye-catching Lee (who won an acting prize alongside Cheung in Shanghai) and also a former fellow fighter (Philip Keung) – keeps Unbeatable’s heart beating. Fai’s mental flashbacks about his spiraling relationship with his deceased mentor adds to one of the recurrent philosophical leitmotifs which ties this film up with Lam’s past work too: it’s all about sons (and the occasional daughter) struggling to recompense for their elders’ mistakes or misconceptions. A young girl pays for her lawyer mother’s confused approach towards her job in The Beast Stalker; The Stool Pigeon’s titular character brushes with his death when his protector fails to protect him; separated-at-birth siblings end up as enemies in The Viral Factor – in Unbeatable, Siqi and Dani are forced to stretch their capabilities in order to attend to their inept parents, to harrowing and humorous effects.

Indeed, it’s this mix of tears and laughter amidst the blood, sweat and broken necks that makes Unbeatable an enjoyable vehicle, and proof that Lam is much more versatile than his past bombastic, doom-stricken spectacles might alone suggest. And with Lam returning to his favorite dark milieus with his next film, the bent-cop thriller The Demon Within, viewers probably might want to take in this light break before Dante lives up to his name and drags everyone off to the inferno once again.

Opens: Aug 15 (Hong Kong, Singapore, Malaysia), Aug 16 (mainland China), Aug 22 (Australia), Sept 18 (Taiwan)
Production Companies: Film Fireworks, with presenters Bona Film Group
Cast: Nick Cheung, Eddie Peng, Crystal Lee, Mei Ting, Jack Kao, Andy On
Director: Dante Lam
Screenwriters: Jack Ng, Fung Chi-fung, Dante Lam, from a story by Dante Lam and Candy Leung
Producer: Candy Leung
Executive Producers: Yu Dong, Jeffrey Chan
Director of Photography: Kenny Tse Chung-to
Action Director: Ling Chi-wah
Music: Henry Lai
Editor: Azrael Chung
Art Director: Cheung Siu-hong
Costume Designer: Stephanie Wong
International Sales: Distribution Workshop (Hong Kong)
In Cantonese and Putonghua/Mandarin
Running time 116 minutes


June 18, 2013

Unbeatable (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , , , — dleedlee @ 10:41 am

JUNE 18, 2013
Maggie Lee

Although “Unbeatable” contains a few pugilist-pic cliches, the storytelling artistry of Hong Kong helmer Dante Lam and Nick Cheung’s powerhouse performance make a raw and compelling experience out of this action-drama set in the world of mixed martial arts. While Lam never loses his grip on the action, he also beautifully modulates his characters’ turbulent ups and downs like musical movements, expressing the protagonist’s motto that fighting is all about setting your own rhythm. Critical opinion is likely to generate very positive word of mouth, but any potential to become a B.O. champ will depend on novelty interest in MMA.

What puts Lam a cut above most Hong Kong genre helmers is that he lets the drama drive the action rather than play second fiddle to it. Inherent in all his films is the idea that life is a battle, and in “Unbeatable,” whose Chinese title mean “Raging War,” the fighting is scarcely confined to the ring. Although Lam pulls no punches, so to speak, in presenting the physical brutality of MMA, his characters’ traumas and personal relationships prove no less engrossing.

Lam’s best films, like “Beast Stalker” and “The Stool Pigeon,” often pit male protagonists from opposite sides of the law against each other, then allow them to develop mutual empathy. In “Unbeatable,” that relationship is reworked into a redemptive mentor-pupil bond in which the protagonists learn from each other while dealing with guilt and penance.

The prologue grimly tracks three people hitting rock bottom. After a carefree holiday in Yunnan province, 30-year-old Lin Siqi (Eddie Peng) returns to Beijing to find his tycoon father (Jack Kao) has gone bankrupt overnight. In Hong Kong, washed-up former boxing champion Chin Fai (Cheung), or “Scumbag Fai” as he’s known locally, is up to his ears in debt. Gwen (Mei Ting), a single mother living in Macau, struggles with mental disorder triggered by a family tragedy.

Fai flees to Macau to take on a menial job at the boxing school run by old friend Tai-sui (Philip Keung) and sublets a room in Gwen’s rundown tenement home. Siqi, who’s also come to Macau, barely scrapes by with back-breaking construction work. To prove himself to his dad, who’s gone into a slump, he decides to enter the world-famous MMA championship, the Golden Rumble, and enrolls in Tai-sui’s school, where he eventually persuades Fai to be his personal coach.

With offbeat humor and warmth, Lam deftly brings these wounded souls into each other’s orbits, with transformative results. Gwen’s daughter Dani (Crystal Lee, splendid) warily opens up to Fai, and their developing bond helps to pull Gwen out of the doldrums. Turning Gwen’s hypersensitivity to noise into a metaphor for her social estrangement, the script builds a devastating chain of events using headphones as a motif, adding resonance to the film’s use of Simon & Garfunkel’s “The Sounds of Silence.”

As Fai cultivates a surrogate family at home, his initially mercenary reasons for coaching Siqi give way to recognition of the rookie’s tenacity and talent. Eventually the film reveals Fai’s backstory, how he threw away his career through youthful folly; in their shared anger, regret and need to prove themselves, these two men strongly recall the leads in Ryoo Seung-wan’s “Crying Fist.” But Lam tempers the genre’s scowling machismo with a lighthearted touch, as when the two men cheekily lock lips while wrestling each other to the ground.

In contrast with the playful, feel-good tone of the training scenes, the matches are thoroughly vicious, underscoring Siqi’s endurance and desperation. Consciously differentiating itself from traditional Western-style boxing or Chinese chopsocky fare, action director Ling Chi-wah incorporates hot MMA moves, like the “lock technique,” rarely seen in Hong Kong films. The exceptional attention to fighting strategies also enhances the film’s feel of technical authenticity; Kenny Tse Chung-to’s camera prowls nimbly around the boxers to catch their swift movements, while his tight closeup shots magnify their pain with punishing intensity. A final-act twist delivers the payoff of not one but two action climaxes.

Lam downplays any attraction between Fai and Gwen, depicting instead a day-to-day companionship that brings out Fai’s protective instincts. In a real sense, the true romance is between Fai and Dani, the film’s toughest fighter, whose optimism reminds adults what makes life worth living; watching the bossy, impish moppet run rings around the uncouth yet good-natured coach is pure delight. Malaysian child actor Lee also played Cheung’s daughter in Lam’s previous film, “The Viral Factor,” and they display an even greater rapport here.

Peng, who showed off his impressive physique in the gymnastics-themed film “Jump! Ah Shin,” is most captivating when he lets his body do the emoting; he has an easy chemistry with Kao and Cheung, but these character relationships don’t deepen sufficiently as the film progresses. Ultimately, it’s Cheung who owns the film, bringing considerable complexity to his portrayal of a flawed, troubled, passionate fighter who still retains the capacity to inspire and be inspired by others. Flaunting a ripped torso from intensive training, Cheung calibrates his fighting style to gain in strength and dignity as Fai gradually gets his act together.

Shooting is mostly confined to the ring, the school and the flat, all of which have a suffocating grunginess, interspersed with romantic, stylishly saturated images of Macau and some atmospheric scenes set on the rooftop. Other craft contributions are controlled and polished.

Reviewed at UA iSquare, Kowloon, June 11, 2013. (In Shanghai Film Festival — competing.) Running time: 116 MIN. Original title: “Ji zhan”

(Hong Kong-China) A Distribution Workshop (in Hong Kong)/Bona Entertainment Co. (in China) release of a Bona Film Group Co., Bona Entertainment Co. presentation of a Film Fireworks production. (International sales: Distribution Workshop, Hong Kong.) Produced by Candy Leung. Executive producers, Yu Dong, Jeffrey Chan.

Directed by Dante Lam. Screenplay, Lam, Jack Ng, Fung Chi-fung, based on the story by Lam, Candy Leung. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Kenny Tse Chung-to; editor, Azrael Chung; music, Henry Lai; production designer, Cheung Siu-hong; costume designer, Stephanie Wong; sound (Dolby Digital); visual effects, Free-D Workshop; action choreographer, Ling Chi-wah; mixed-martial-arts consultant, Henry Chan; line producer, Lo Sheng-ching; assistant director, Jay Cheung Wan-Ching.

Nick Cheung, Eddie Peng, Mei Ting, Crystal Lee, Philip Keung, Jack Kao, Andy On, Wang Baoqiang. (Cantonese, Mandarin, English dialogue)

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