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February 12, 2014

Blind Massage (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 2:29 pm

Blind Massage
2/10/2014 by Deborah Young

The Bottom Line
Involving human dramas unfold in a Chinese massage institute run by the blind, in one of Lou Ye’s most engaging films.

Festival director Lou Ye changes pace to show the dignity, sacrifice and joy of the sightless.

Love among the sightless is the engrossing, at times moving, dramatic thread that links multiple relationships in Blind Massage, one of the most convincing films made by Chinese director Lou Ye in recent years. Putting aside the torrid sexual and emotional dramas of works like the 2011 Love and Bruises shot in Paris and his infidelity drama Mystery, he describes these love stories as plain human affairs full of hope and frustration, poetry and banality, straddling an interesting middle ground between realism and imagination. Ye’s auteur reputation should help this Wild Bunch title to find its way to sensitive audiences.

Based Bi Feiyu’s novel,the overlapping relationships in the film have none of the glamorous fatality of glossy Hong Kong costumers, nor the prurient interest of steamy erotica. Though there are passionate scenes of coupling, they are integral to the lives of characters we come to know and care about. This isn’t the flashiest of films, but it has sincerity and feeling that connects to audiences.

An offscreen narrator first introduces Xiao Ma (Huang Xuan), who lost his sight as a baby in a traffic accident that killed his mother. As a teenager he goes berserk one day and tries to cut his own throat, before being sent to a school for the blind where he learns Braille and the art of massage.

It is the golden age of “blind massage”, the narrator informs us, and Xiao Ma ends up in a cheerful institute where the personnel lives and works, run like a big family by its blind director Sha Fuming (Qin Hao who worked on Ye’s Mystery and his gay drama Spring Fever). Fuming is soon joined by his old friend Dr. Wang (Guo Xiaodong from A Summer Palace and Reign of Assassins), who brings with him his also nearly sightless fiancée Kong (Zhang Lei.) The girl becomes a sexual obsession for restless Xiao Ma, until he’s taken to a different sort of massage parlor down the street. In this establishment he is smitten by the young prostitute Mann (Huang Lu). Fuming, meanwhile, falls hard for the attractive Du Hong (Mei Ting), a masseuse who drives him mad. He touches her face and licks his fingers in despair at not being able to see her beauty.

These and other relationships are woven tightly together; their final outcomes are unforeseen. With the novel and Ma Yingli’s screenplay providing the framework, Ye is free to use his camera to describe the world of the blind to sighted viewers. The opening credits are read out loud by the narrator, which alerts viewers that they will be immersed in a foreign world.

Sets are uniformly busy, cramped spaces which give the feeling of living in a fish tank or a turtle bowl. The massage institute’s glass doors that Fuming keeps bumping into are echoed by the glass storefront of the brothel, where girls beckon customers inside. Cinematographer Zeng Jian’s intimate camera avoids clear images in favor of darting, expressionistic impressions, which is probably as close as a film can come to the experience of blindness, while Johan Johannsson’s varied score firmly directs the mood throughout.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (competition), Feb. 10, 2014.
Production companies: Shaanxi Culture Industry, Dream Factory, Les Films du Lendemain
Cast: Guo Xiaodong, Qin Hao, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Xuan, Huang Lu, Jiang Dan, Huang Junjun, Mu Huaipeng, Wang Zhihua
Director: Lou Ye
Screenwriter: Ma Yingli based on a novel by Bi Feiyu
Producers: Wang Yong, Nai An, Li Ling
Executive producers: Lou Ye, Nai An, Kristina Larsen
Director of photography: Zeng Jian
Production design: Du Ailin
Editors: Kong Jinlei, Zhu Lin
Costumes: Zhang Dingmu
Music: Johan Johannsson
Sales Agent: Wild Bunch
No rating, 117 minutes.


The Rice Bomber (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 2:15 pm

The Rice Bomber
2/10/2014 by Elizabeth Kerr

The Bottom Line
Polished but strangely distant drama that has its heart in the right place.

Producer Cho Li’s third directorial effort chronicles the exploits of a Taiwanese farming hero.

With every renaissance comes the one piece that bucks the system, and in the case of Taiwan’s recent surge it’s Cho Li’s The Rice Bomber, a polished and earnest quasi-docudrama based on the exploits of early-00s agricultural activist Yang Rumen. With our collective good supply a hot topic on both consumer and documentary filmmaking (Food Inc., Farmageddon, The Harvest) fronts, the subject matter ensures a fair amount of attention for Yang’s admittedly compelling story. However, the sum doesn’t quite add up to the parts, as The Rice Bomber flits between tones and never generates the sense of urgency it should. That said the film’s combination of strong production value, timeliness and refreshing subject matter from Taiwan (no lovelorn teens with sexual identity crises or mopey existential angst) should give it a healthy life on the festival circuit.

Set during an economically turbulent period in Taiwan’s recent history, the film follows the small town boy from his life on a rice farm in the central Changhua region, to the military service that taught his the tricks of his trade and finally to full blown agitator trying to bring attention to the plight of the island’s farmers. As Taiwan enters the WTO and struggles beneath the burden of a newly globalized food supply, Yang Rumen (Huang Chien-Wei) transforms into an advocate for local farmers. Progressing from letters to the editor, to petitions at government agencies and finally his renowned rice bombs, Rumen (in reality now a major proponent and practitioner of organic farming after 7 years in prison) doesn’t want to hurt anybody, one of the reasons his 17 bombs (which spray rice like buckshot) are planted in reasonably empty spots. That’s not the case of his like-minded friend Troublemaker (Nikki Hsieh), a rich gangster’s daughter who prefers more militant action.

One of the oddities of Bomber is the tonal shifting that frequently stalls its momentum—narrative, emotional or otherwise. Cho inserts news footage to mark important agricultural milestones that are less elucidating than slightly jarring given the frequently sharp visuals and carefully tempered and understated scenes that precede them. In addition, Cho slips into the fantastical when Rumen chats with an imaginary friend, and raises questions as to whether Troublemaker is even real. Cap that off with a few too many montage sequences set to Peyman Yazdanian’s borderline bombastic score and Bomber’s oddly disconnected, unengaging vibe that makes connecting to the situation more cerebral than visceral, and the result is an ambitious statement film that clears its throat and taps you on the shoulder rather than hollers. With the exception of the music, of course.

Regardless the film’s minor flaws, which are wholly subjective, The Rice Bomber is producer Cho’s most accomplished film as a director, and she is clearly committed to the material. And fortunately cinematographer Cho Yong-Kyou comes to the rescue on more than one occasion, capturing the Taiwanese countryside with its bright blue sky and vibrant green fields in a classically unfussy way, making the contrasting dusty brown of the same fields (at the behest of new government policy) quietly heartbreaking—which is the only time the film really gets to hollering.

Producer Lee Lieh, Yeh Jufeng
Director Cho Li
Cast Huang Chien-Wei, Nikki Hsieh, Michael Chang
Screenwriter Hung Hung, Zin Do-Lan
Director of Photography Cho Yong-Kyou
Production Designer Lee Tian-jue
Music Peyman Yazdanian
Costume designer Wei Hsiang-Jung
Editor Qin Mai-Song, Liao Ching-Sung
No rating, 117 minutes


February 11, 2014

Journey to the West (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 7:22 pm

Journey To The West
10 February, 2014
By Jonathan Romney

Dir: Tsai Ming-Liang. France-Taiwan 2014. 56mins

The question “How slow can you go?” is answered with sublime poise (quite literally) by actor Lee Kang-Sheng in Tsai Ming-Liang’s extraordinary Journey To The West (Xi You) - a film that may well be the last word in (and overtly on the subject of) ‘Slow Cinema’. A follow-up to the Taiwanese director’s 2012 short Walker – which originally formed part of the portmanteau film Beautiful 2012 - Journey takes the same premise, a Buddhist monk walking at something slower than tortoise pace, relocates it in Marseille and introduces the always fascinating wild card of Denis Lavant.

The words ‘hypnotic’ and ‘mesmerising’ are over-used with regard to such abstract cinema, but the words genuinely apply in this remarkable venture which is more like a performance or installation art project than an ‘art film’ in the regular sense. Journey is most likely to flourish in very specialised niches, both at festivals and on the art fair circuit, where it should enjoy a prestigious ‘event’ status, especially when screened - as it was in the Berlinale Panorama - on a gigantic IMAX screen, the projection format truly adding a special dimension.

Consisting of only 14 shots of varying lengths - from very brief to a centrepiece of approximately 20 minutes - the film shows two men, narratively unconnected, who finally come together in an extraordinary (and very amusing) sequence that shows off both actors’ physical skills and sense of timing. The film begins with a lengthy close-up in darkness of a largely unblinking Lavant, his weatherbeaten features (down which a single tear eventually rolls) filling the screen like a craggy lunar landscape.

Further shots of Lavant’s face by day are interspersed with the progress of a red-robed monk (Tsai regular Lee Kang-Sheng) as he undertakes a spiritual and physical exercise of walking in extreme slow motion across Marseille, beginning in one of the crumbling, deserted buildings that are a favourite Tsai locale. In some shots, the monk is briefly glimpsed in the crowd, in others he’s at the centre of the image, filling the screen, and sometimes (in shots that confirm Tsai’s status as a deadpan humorist and actor Lee as his Zen Buster Keaton), the monk materialises improbably - passing outside a window or glimpsed in the distance in a mirror.

This very sculptural film makes dazzling use of the mirrored canopy of Marseilles’ Port Vieux Pavillion - in one magically framed shot, making a stretch of waterfront resemble an ‘infinity pool’, and in a teasing sign-off, leaving the viewer searching for the monk in an upside-down crowd, Where’s Wally? style (a touch of delicate jazz piano sneaks in bewitchingly at this point).

Marseilles itself is another star of the film, its population reacting with the players in two shots in particular. One, the film’s centrepiece, has the monk - a silhouette backlit by a shaft of daylight - descending a staircase while passersby ignore, observe or puzzle over him. In the other, he moves past a busy corner bar, while this time Lavant follows him at a distance, also slowly and in pretty much perfect synch.

The film is a tribute to the astonishing physical and mental discipline of Lee Kang-Sheng, one of the great Everyman figures in modern cinema, and to the elegance and mastery of a director whose films represent a subtle, constantly surprising and often moving brand of minimalism that’s entirely his own. Journey To The West shows that style at its simplest and most rarefied, but also, in a gloriously counter-intuitive way, its most directly pleasurable.

Production companies: House on Fire, Neon Productions, Résurgences, Homegrown Films

International sales: Urban Distribution,

Producers: Vincent Wang, Fred Ballaïche

Screenplay: Tsai Ming-Liang

Cinematography: Antoine Héberlé

Editor: Lei Shen Qing

Music: Sébastien Mauro

Main cast: Lee Kang-Sheng, Denis Lavant

Blind Massage (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 4:33 pm

Blind Massage
10 February, 2014
By Fionnuala Halligan

Tui Na, the Chinese title of Blind Massage, is a form of therapy often practiced in China’s medical massage centres for the blind. There are over 50,000 licensed blind masseuses in China, and Bi Feiyu’s best-selling novel, which Ma Yingli has adapted for the big screen, focuses on the lives and loves of the practicioners in one such Nanjing centre. It’s not hard to figure out why Lou Ye (Mystery, Shouzou River) was technically attracted to this project, and he throws every angle of light and darkness at its visual ebb and flow, from jarring moments of high melodrama to the more gentle, blurred edges of love.

With the book well-known in China, coupled with some bravura performances from blind and sighted actors alike, Blind Massage stands to perform well in the domestic marketplace. International reaction may be more divided, however, with some seeking a more coherent piece. While on the one hand, Lou abandons restraint to visually stretch the envelope in an exciting if occasionally confusing way, Blind Massage also has a tendency to trip over into high melodrama. With so many of the ensemble cast given a bloody resolution, Lou’s screenplay can often be careless with his hard-earned credibility.

Lou Ye has enjoyed a chequered history with censorship at home even as he has found consistent support amongst international festivals and financiers. Blind Massage, following on from 2012’s Mystery, is an officially-approved production, however, world premiering in Berlin’s Competition and co-produced by the Shaanxi Culture Industry with Lou’s own Dream Factory. With its cast of characters making their hesitant way through the Nanjing rain, it calls to mind the downpours of Mystery, which seems like an obvious commercial parallel.

Blind Massage fields an ensemble cast of blind masseurs, some played by the sighted, most notably Lou Ye’s regular collaborators Guo Xiaodong and Qin Hao. Spring Fever’s Xuang Xuan and Huang Lu play the angry young blind boy Xiao Ma, who kicks off the film with a botched suicide attempt, and his prostitute lover Mann. Mei Ting is Du Hong, the centre’s beautiful masseuse. They share scenes with blind actors including Zhang Lei as Kong, who has a natural ease.

Guo, whose relationship with the director stretches back to Summer Palace, and Qin, who appeared in Spring Fever, play old college friends who are reunited in the bustling, professional centre run by Dr Sha (Qin). Dr Wang (Guo) has arrived in Nanjing with his partially-sighted fiancé Kong, but their relationship is troubled – her parents will never accept a fully-blind man as her husband, while his brother and parents are in trouble with loan sharks.

Dr Sha, a hopeless romantic and poet in a fruitless search for love, falls hopelessly for Du Hong, who is attracted to Xiao Ma in this slightly soapy scenario. All stories will come to a violent resolution, though, as You’s camera drifts in and out of focus, zooming between light and dark, greys and reds. “The blind are in the light, while the sighted hide in the shadows,” concludes the screenplay, and it is indeed a poignant observation. You Le’s camera illuminates and shades their existence in all its heightened emotions.

Production companies: Shaanxi Culture Industry, Dream Factory

International sales:Wild Bunch,

Producers: Wang Yong, Nai An, Li Ling

Executive producers: Lou Ye, Nai An, Kristina Larsen

Screenplay: Ma Yingli, from the novel by Bi Feiyu

Cinematography: Zeng Jian

Editors: Kong Jinlei, Zhu Lin

Production designer: Du Ailin

Music: Johann Johannson

Main cast: Guo Xiaodong, Qin Hao, Zhang Lei, Mei Ting, Huang Xuan, Huang Lu, Jiang Dan
Screen Daily

February 10, 2014

That Demon Within (Variety review)

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

That Demon Within
FEBRUARY 9, 2014

Action auteur Dante Lam delivers his darkest work to date with this ghoulish supernatural thriller.

Maggie Lee

A psychodrama set amid funeral parlors, graveyards and creepy old tenement buildings, “That Demon Within” owes as much to Hong Kong’s vintage horror genre as it does to the strong noir style of Dante Lam’s superior cop thrillers “The Beast Stalker” and “The Stool Pigeon.” Working from a real-life criminal case but steeping it in ghoulish Chinese supernatural lore, the action auteur turns a policeman’s battle with a Jekyll-and-Hyde personality into an exploration of the evil instinct latent in everyone. The result is Lam’s darkest work to date, one where violence is not just graphic but ugly, and Hong Kong symbolically comes to resemble a charnel house. It should do gangbusters biz in Asian-friendly genre markets, though mainstream domestic audiences may not embrace the grim content as readily as they did his heartwarming 2013 hit, “Unbeatable.”

Set to open April 18 Stateside through China Lion, “That Demon Within” recalls Lam’s “Fire of Conscience” (2010) in the way it draws on fading Hong Kong folk-religious icons in service of a retro aesthetic. Here, Lam invokes the Demon King, a spirit that is associated with the Festival of Hungry Ghosts and, like the fire dragon in “Conscience,” reps a manifestation of one’s inner darkness.

Shrouded in mystery and superstition from the outset, the film opens with a gang of robbers, known as the Demon King Gang, preparing for a heist by burning incense to their chosen idol — a subversion of a scene familiar from other Hong Kong thrillers, in which police and triads alike pray to Guan Yu, the deity of righteousness. Led by Broker (Liu Kai-chi), the crooks get into a loot dispute with freelance thug Hon Kong (Nick Cheung), who is subsequently injured in a police ambush.

Hon stumbles into a hospital where beat cop Dave (Wu), unaware of his identity, gives him a life-saving blood transfusion — to the chagrin of Inspector “Pops” Mok (Lam Kar-wah), who’s bent on putting the gang behind bars before his imminent retirement. Racked with guilt over having saved a man who callously killed his comrades, Dave starts to hallucinate about Hon merging with him as one; upon learning of Hon’s escape, he believes it’s his destiny to track down and destroy his malevolent alter ego.

Meanwhile, Dave’s supervisor Liz (Christie Chen, cold and stiff), notices that despite his faultless performance, he’s been passed over for promotion and shuffled around precincts due to “personality issues.” She enlists her therapist sister, Stephanie (Astrid Chan), to counsel him, unwittingly opening a psychiatric Pandora’s Box during their hypnosis sessions. Dave’s dramatic arc hinges on a mystery related to his unusually close relationship with his ailing grandmother (Fung So-bor) and his traumatic upbringing by a didactic and sadistically strict father (Chi Kuan-chun).

Lam’s best works have always infused action with stirring emotion, and the fight scenes here, though topnotch, are not even the driving force in what is essentially a character study — an anatomy of a tortured sinner who disturbingly resorts to ritual self-flagellation as a form of anger management. Fire is a key leitmotif (no coincidence that the Demon King is also known as “Spirit of the Burning Face”), as visions of human immolation — which could be flashbacks or nightmares — overlap with Hon’s apparition goading Dave into expressing his savage instincts, dragging him into a sort of mental inferno. Images of swirling blank ink dissolving in water stylishly express the character’s fears and gradual corruption.

Although the film was reportedly inspired by notorious police officer Tsui Po-ko, who robbed banks and murdered his colleagues, Lam has shaped his protag as a tragic figure struggling to hold onto his identity and values. Frequently framed in his squalid housing estate, a lonely prisoner behind metal gates and sealed windows, Dave elicits real sympathy. Wu is initially buttoned-up in a way that recalls his past persona as a heartthrob in numerous romances, but he steadily invests the character with palpable pain and unease, as well as an increasingly gaunt, cadaverous physicality. And even as Dave’s mental condition deteriorates, Lam maintains a riveting ambiguity about Hon, whose terrifying presence suggests that demonic possession is not entirely out of the question; though Cheung takes up less screentime than his co-star, his demonic grin all but devours the screen.

The film achieves a truly Stygian vision through the excesses of the Demon King gang, as Dave, under the apparent influence of Hon, sows seeds of doubt among Broker and his cohorts (Lee Kwok-lun and Stephen Au). But these men need little prompting to stab each other in the back, consumed as they are by greed, and smugly unrepentant as they are about their crimes. Theirs is a profession rooted in the moribund world of undertakers and cremators, and production designer Lee Kin-wai conjures a suitably chilling mise-en-scene of funeral parlors, morgues, coffins and arcane rituals. The banality of such evil is neatly captured by Liu as Broker, dialing down his performance to a very pragmatic level of malice.

Tech credits are exemplary, with particular kudos to car stunt designer Thomson Ng for a Grand Guignol gas-station finale with a blazing symbol of hell as its centerpiece. The primarily nocturnal backdrop takes on a nebulous glow in d.p. Kenny Tse’s subtly lit lensing, though blacks dominate the alternately richly saturated and wanly sepia images. Under the editorial supervision of Hong Kong New Wave stalwart Patrick Tam, Curran Pang’s seamless dissolves and complex montages blur the lines between imagination and reality, while Leo Ko’s unnerving score alludes to Chinese ceremonial performances with its drum and gong combinations.

Berlin Film Review: ‘That Demon Within’
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 8, 2013. Running time: 111 MIN. Original title: “Mor king”

(Hong Kong-China) A Emperor Motion Pictures (in Hong Kong)/China Film Group (in China)/China Lion Film Distribution (in U.S.) release of an Emperor Film Prod. Co., Sil-Metropole Organization presentation of a Film Fireworks production. (International sales: Emperor Motion Pictures, Hong Kong.) Produced by Albert Lee, Ren Yue, Candy Leung. Executive producers, Albert Yeung, Song Dai. Co-producers, Cheung Hong-tat, Stephen Lam.

Directed by Dante Lam. Screenplay, Jack Ng, Lam, based on the story by Lam. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Kenny Tse; supervising editor, Patrick Tam; editor, Curran Pang; music, Leo Ko; production designer, Lee Kin-wai; costume designer, Stephanie Wong; sound (Dolby Surround 7.1), Phyllis Cheng; re-recording mixer, Phyllis Cheng; special effects supervisor, Chi Shui-tim; visual effects supervisors, Ho Kwan-yeung, Alex Lim Hun-fung, Lin Chun-yue, Yee Kwok-leung; visual effects, Free-D Workshop; stunt choreographer, Philip Kwok, Ku Huen-chiu; car stunt choreographer, Thomson Ng; assistant directors, Jay Cheung, Jeff Cheung; second unit camera, Samuel Fu Ga-yu.

Daniel Wu, Nick Cheung, Liu Kai-chi, Christie Chen, Fung So-bor, Lam Kar-wah, Andy On, Astrid Chan, Lee Kwok-lun, Stephen Au, Leung Cheuk-moon, Chi Kuan-chun. (Cantonese dialogue)


Journey to the West (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 2:31 pm

Journey to the West
2/9/2014 by Deborah Young

The Bottom Line
A piece of curious performance art as beautifully photographed as it is sleep-inducing.

Taiwanese cult director Tsai Ming-liang takes his snail-paced monk to Marseilles.

One has to ask if the English title of cryptic Taiwanese director Tsai Ming-liang’s Journey to the West is a sly reference to Stephen Chow’s demon-hunting hit of last year, with which it has nothing but the title in common. Instead Tsai returns to his Buddhist monk who walks through the city at a snail’s pace to the general indifference of the populace and, of course, most of the film-going public. Yet there will be followers of this short but patience-trying film, and its message to get off the grindstone of unhappiness and find inner peace will fly at selected festivals after its Berlin premiere. It’s hard to imagine other audiences.

This is the third installment of the series, after the Asian-set Walking on Water (part of the film Letters from the South) and the original Walker (part of Beautiful 2012) with Lee Kang-sheng returning to the role of the stooped, red-robed monk who treads through streets and squares and up and down staircases in exaggerated slo-mo with his fingers in a blissful mudra. All around him Antoine Herberle’s hidden camera captures the bustling life of the city, which in the present case means Marseilles, as busy people ignore him or politely look the other way.

One man, however (played by Denis Lavant), decides to imitate his penitential steps and follows him like a disciple. We have previously seen the man’s suffering face in extreme close-up and profile, in fixed long-held shots emphasizing his unhappy heavy breathing. Now he seems to have found a purpose in life.
The setups are often startling, even witty, like the monk passing by a store dummy or entering an empty screen where red paint literally seems to be drying. Tourists furtively snap his picture and the bemused idlers in an outdoor café watch him until they lose interest. The final shot turns the city upside down in a huge mirror.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special), Feb. 9, 2014.
Production companies: House on Fire, Neon Productions, Resurgences, Homegreen Films
Cast: Lee Kang-sheng, Denis Lavant
Director: Tsai Ming-liang
Screenwriter: Tsai Ming-liang
Producers: Vincent Wang, Fred Bellaiche
Director of photography: Antoine Herberle
Editor: Lei Shen Qing
Music: Sebastien Mauro
Sales Agent: Urban Distribution
No rating, 56 minutes.

That Demon Within (Hollywood Reporter review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 1:00 pm

That Demon Within

2/10/2014 by Deborah Young

The Bottom Line
A cagey mixture of action and horror, with a standout performance from Daniel Wu, will get audiences into the theater.

Cult HK director Dante Lam combines genre thrills and horror elements in a police actioner.

The Hong Kong cops and robbers genre provides an inexhaustible source of inspiration for imaginative directors like Dante Lam, whose police actioner That Demon Within adds enough horror for a respectable Stephen King novel. He stamps his very personal mark of psychological complexity on the protag, shrilly portrayed by American-born HK star Daniel Wu (The Last Supper) in an eerie but highly effective performance. And the Emperor production does not leave out any of the genre must-haves: shoot-outs in the middle of the street, car crashes, a bit of acrobatics and a beautiful policewoman boss worried about the daredevil hero. With all bases covered, including a bow in Berlin as a Panorama Special, the road is open for diversified audiences to enjoy the fun. The movie is being released in the U.S. and Canada on April 18, day and date with Hong Kong.

A seductive title sequence leads us into the den of the Demon King. Behind the old-fashioned rice paper devil masks are a criminal gang led by Hon (Lam regular Nick Cheung from The Beast Stalker and Stool Pigeon), a cold-hearted villain whose own men hate him. Their latest heist has yielded $80 million in diamonds, which change hands so often in the course of the story, it will take a sharp viewer to keep track of who has them at any given moment.

Watching the film, one has the feeling that the streets of Hong Kong are littered with dead pedestrians who had the bad luck to be passing by when the police opened fire on the bad guys. Lam opens on one of these high adrenaline scenes that leave cars riddled with bullets and dead drivers. (And it’s not the last; a similar scene on an overpass later on in the film is even more spectacular.)

In the heat of the shoot-out, Hon tries to escape on a motorbike, but crashes. Seriously injured, he stumbles into a police station for help, so smeared with blood he’s unrecognizable. There, young cop Dave Wong (Wu) dutifully volunteers to donate blood to save Hon’s life. Obviously a mistake, at least in the eyes of Inspector Mok (Ka Wah Lam), who wants him dead. Hon escapes from the hospital without much ado and from that moment the chase is on.

Now for the psychological interest: Dave is a problem cop, a stubborn loner with anger management and paranoia issues and, we gradually discover, much more on his mind. It’s not reassuring that Wu plays him like a nerdy Norman Bates, walking stiffly and bottling up his feelings. His new boss at work is Liz, a smart, pixie-like beauty (Christie Chen) who tries to stay professional but clearly has a soft spot for the guy. Concerned about his nightmares, violent impulses and some episodes of self-flagellation, she introduces him to her psychologist sister, who teases out his considerable childhood traumas under hypnosis.

Working on his own, Dave stays a step ahead of Inspector Mok as he closes in on the Demon King gang. Lam brings horror elements increasingly into play, particularly a recurrent image of people burning to death as human torches and a truly creepy scene in a funeral parlor. The final apocalypse is unapologetically over the top, but as great to watch as the last burst of fireworks.

Though the cops and robbers are so low-tech they seem retro (there’s nary an electronic device in the story), Lam’s filmmaking team deliver thrills on schedule with solid effects, crisp shooting and fast cutting.

Venue: Berlin Film Festival (Panorama Special)
Production company: Emperor Motion Pictures
Cast: Daniel Wu, Nick Cheung, Christie Chen, Andy On, Kai Chi Liu, Ka Wah Lam, Kwok-Lun Lee
Director: Dante Lam
Screenwriters: Jack (Wai Lun) Ng, Dante Lam
Producers: Candy Leung, Albert Yeung, Yue Ren
Co-producers: Hong Tat Cheung, Stephen Lam
Director of photography: Kenny Tse
Production designer: Kin-wai Lee
Editor: Patrick Tam
Music: Leon Ko
Sales Agent: Siehe Produktion
No rating, 112 minutes.

February 9, 2014

That Demon Within (Screen Daily review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 4:42 pm

That Demon Within
9 February, 2014
By Fionnuala Halligan

Dir: Dante Lam. Hong Kong-China. 2014. 112mins

Dante Lam conjures up an inferno in That Demon Within (Mo Jing) a dark twisted trip through one Hong Kong cop’s explosive meltdown. Possessed by the afterlife, Lam’s story plays out in funeral parlours and graveyards where the director’s action and special effects coordinators go about setting the city on fire.

Although it opts for a tricksy narrative with fussy flash-backs and hallucinations delivered in the widest-possible variety of styles, That Demon Within is bleak at its core, a dark, hopeless tale of death, corruption and mental illness shadowed by spectres. Dante Lam is a towering box office presence in Southeast Asia and with Daniel Wu in the lead opposite regular player Nick Cheung the Hong Kong director will test his audience’s appetite for an introspective thriller that blends kinetic action with Taoist superstition when it opens on April 18.

Despite a slightly opaque and somewhat overblown narrative, That Demon Within is a professionally executed production, laden with impressive special effects shots and bone-crunching violence. Some set pieces are particularly innovative, and Lam’s visual manifestations of mental illness are striking. Like Infernal Affairs, two male characters on opposing sides of the good/evil tightwalk lead the charge: Wu as troubled policeman Dave Wong and Nick Cheung as his nemesis, Hon Kong, leader of “the gang from Hell”.

When Hon is injured in a chase during which he murders two policemen, he winds up at the hospital policed by Wong. Not realising who Hon is, the cop donates blood to save his life, an event which begins to tear apart Wong’s carefully constructed world and shatter his all-important beliefs in right and wrong.

It turns out the upright Wong is a copper with a particularly fiery past, and as the dreams, hallucinations and flashbacks mount up, so does the body count - gangsters, family members, policemen, scores of civilians; at times it looks as if nobody in Hong Kong is going to get out of this fast-and-furious film alive.

Much of That Demon Within takes place in the dark including several key action sequences and meetings in the Kowloon Funeral Parlour with “the Gang From Hell”, Hon’s group of robber-killers who use the mask of The Demon King as disguise. Such an extensive use of graveyards, funeral paraphernalia and effigies is unusual for a Hong Kong action film, and may test the superstitious in home markets.

The tortured Wong, meanwhile, is helped by his superintendent and her psychiatrist sister while his efforts to look after his “granny” are prompted by a level of guilt that threatens to crack his fragile psyche, and the film, apart. That Demon Within boasts an inexhaustible visual energy; Dante Lam never lets up and the effects within a single hypnosis montage with its floating scenarios and twisting perspectives, for example, are beyond the scope of many of his Western counterparts across an entire film.

Production companies: Emperor Film Production Company, Sil-Metropole Organisation Limited
International sales: Emperor Motion Pictures,
Producers: Candy Leung, Albert Lee, Ren Yue
Executive producers: Albert Yeung, Song Dai
Co-producers: Cheung Hong-tat, Stephen Lam
Screenplay: Jack Ng, Dante Lam
Cinematography: Kenny Tse
Editor: Patrick Tam
Production designer: Lee Kin-wai
Music: Leon Ko

Main cast: Daniel Wu, Nick Cheung, Christie Chen, Andy On, Liu Kai-chi, Lam Kar-wah, Lee Kwok-lun, Stephen Au, Chi Kuan-chun
Screen Daily

The Midnight After (Variety review)

Filed under: Reprints — Tags: , — dleedlee @ 3:11 pm

The Midnight After
FEBRUARY 8, 2014
Maggie Lee

Fruit Chan makes a delirious return to form with this macabre action-thriller.

A Hong Kong without traffic jams and crowds is a phenomenon eerier than any alien invasion or zombie outbreak, and it’s what the passengers of a minibus have to cope with when they find themselves the survivors of a strange pandemic in “The Midnight After,” a deliriously high-concept and gleefully low-budget horror-comedy that mourns the dissolution of the city’s core values since its handover to China in 1997. Maverick helmer Fruit Chan (“Made in Hong Kong,” “Durian Durian”) bends genre like it’s putty in his hands, distilling the macabre from the everyday and making the apocalyptic seem absurdly matter-of-fact. Fest play is assured, and ancillary prospects in overseas Asian-friendly niches look hopeful.

Since the wickedly grotesque “Dumplings” (2004), the once-prolific Chan has dabbled in short and medium-length films that suggested he might have lost his creative edge. But by adapting Pizza’s “Lost on a Minibus From Mongkok to Taipo,” a Web novel that went viral, Chan has found an ideal vehicle for his deep affinity for his city’s culture. Referencing everything from SARS to “cha chaan teng” (local diners), and even a veiled connection between Fukushima and the Daya Bay nuclear power plant in neighboring Shenzhen, “The Midnight After” reps a hodgepodge of what defines the Hong Kong experience. Blithely unconcerned with subtlety, coherence or the Chinese market, the film sizzles with untranslatable colloquial wisecracks, trenchant social satire, and an ensemble cast of character actors and young up-and-comers at their freaky best. A mercurial ride that is decidedly outside the mainstream, it should nonetheless delight genre aficionados and bonafide fans of Hong Kong cinema.

While playing mahjong, porky minibus driver Suet (Johnnie To regular Lam Suet) gets called in to cover a friend’s night shift from Mongkok to Tai Po, in exchange for deferred payment of a debt. At 2:28 a.m., the red, 16-seat vehicle is filled up and sets out from Kowloon’s busiest urban center for the satellite town in the New Territories. While passing through a tunnel, they sense something is amiss, and sure enough, when they emerge on the other sides, the roads are empty and their destination has become a ghost town.

Four college students become the first of the travelers to succumb to the invisible virus that’s killed everyone else in the city; once the reality of what’s happened dawns on the remaining 13 passengers, some offer interpretations ranging from the improbable to the ridiculous. Their reactions subtly reveal different personal traits, as when the clairvoyant Sister Ying (Kara Hui, insidiously controlling) slips a life-insurance sales pitch into her Photon Belt prophecy.

Cool-headed programmer Shun (Chui Tien-you) manages to decode a mysterious siren that they’ve all heard on their cell phones, cuing a sidesplitting rendition of David Bowie’s “Space Oddity” by an onboard dweeb (played by Jan Curious, vocalist for the math-rock band Chochukmo). The performance of the 1969 song not only serves as the film’s comic high point but also underscores its themes of exile and death, capturing the estrangement that Hong Kong residents often feel from their rapidly changing homeland.

As the characters disperse and regroup, Chan exploits the mass-panic scenario for farce as well as terror, with an original mash-up of epidemic/zombie/sci-fi horror elements that makes “Contagion” and the “REC” franchise look square by comparison. Dream sequences and spooky visions further add to the surreal atmosphere, and the revelation of each character’s dark side culminates in a highly political message about the loss of morality and compassion following a critical transition, as symbolized by their passing through the tunnel. Chan leavens the heavier dialogue scenes with a few punchy action sequences en route to a big-bang finish at once funny, sad, allegorical and provocatively open-ended.

It’s hard to invest such a large raft of characters with much psychological depth or backstory, but the actors manage to come across as quirky yet believably ordinary. Simon Yam stands out as a scuzzy hood, while Chan fixture Sam Lee is always on hand to lighten thing up as a stupefied cokehead. A pleasant surprise is actress-model Janice Man, who morphs from blandly pretty at the outset to skin-crawling by film’s end.

Chan, who’s known for his frugal production values, again makes every penny count, packaging cheap sci-fi elements with high camp, and generating shivers with a mix of real interiors and unglamorous street scenery. His regular d.p. Lam Wah-tsuen handled the guerrilla-style handheld camerawork, complemented by oppressive sound design and edgy music.

Berlin Film Review: ‘The Midnight After’
Reviewed at Berlin Film Festival (Panorama), Feb. 7, 2014. Running time: 123 MIN. Original title: “Na ye ling san ngor jor seung liu wongkok hoi wong daibo dik hung van”

(Hong Kong) A Golden Scene Co. release of a Golden Scene Co., the Film Development Fund of Hong Kong presentation of a Midnight After Film Prod., One Ninety Films production in association with Sun Entertainment Culture. (International sales: Fortissimo Films, Amsterdam.) Produced by Amy Chin. Executive producer, Winnie Tsang, Fruit Chan.

Directed by Fruit Chan. Screenplay, Chan Fai-hung, Kong Ho-yan, Chan, based on the web novel “Lost on a Minibus From Mongkok to Taipo” by Pizza. Camera (color, widescreen, HD), Lam Wah-tsuen; editors, Tin Sup Fat, Toto; music, Ellen Loo, Veronica Lee; production designer, Andrew Wong; costume designer, Phoebe Wong; sound (Dolby Surround 5.1), Benny Chu; visual effects, Different Digital Design; stunt choreographer, Jack Wong; associate producer, Alex Dong; assistant directors, Chan Wai-keung, Nikki Lau.

Lam Suet, Simon Yam, Kara Hui, Chui Tien-you, Wong You-nam, Janice Man, Sam Lee, Jan Curious, Vincci Cheuk, Lee Sheung-ching, Cherry Ngan, Kelvin Chan, Endy Chow, Melody Mak. (Cantonese dialogue)


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

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