Posts Tagged ‘Andy Lau’

Switch or 天机·富春山居图 (2013)

June 19, 2013 7 comments


In the days when children were more naive and trusting, the television series based on Superman and other comics used to begin with a warning that everything shown on the screen was pretend. Children cannot actually fly. The sad fact evidenced in hospitals around the country was that young optimists were climbing to the top of pianos or, worse, launching themselves out of windows, expecting that wearing underpants on the outside would enable them to soar. Well, they were wrong. Fast forward to a few years ago when a young Jay Sun was watching some Western films in his local cinema. Here were James Bond and Ethan Hunt (Mission Impossible) doing exciting things in cars and aeroplanes. And this young man thought that when he grew up, he would make films just like them. After all, if Westerners could do it, how difficult could it be. All they did was take a few pictures, transfer them to film and then stick the bits of film together using tape. So now we get to see the fruits of his first labour. It’s called Switch or 天机·富春山居图 (2013) and it’s a disaster movie. Sorry. To resolve the ambiguity. The film is a disaster.


There are many reasons why a film may fail and, with one exception, you can see them all on display if you make the mistake of going to see this film. The exception is that much of the cinematography is stylish. This means you can at least find the odd visual treat to distract you from counting all the other ways in which the film is alternately annoying and depressing you. Let’s start with what’s presented to us as the plot. Centuries ago during the Yuan Dynasty, Huang Gongwang painted a scroll called “Dwelling in the Fuchun Mountains”. For reasons not explained, this masterpiece was later cut into two. At some point during the Japanese invasion, a general made a copy of the half he found but, at the end of the war, that’s all his family had left. The original was recovered and later put on display at the Taipei National Museum. The other half is in the Hangzhou Museum, China (or perhaps that’s a copy too). Anyway, the plan is to bring both halves together so, instead of allowing this to happen and providing a single location to attack, violently inclined thieves set out to steal both halves.

Andy Lau going undetected

Andy Lau going undetected

Enter secret agent Xiao Jinhan (Andy Lau). You know he’s a secret agent because he drives one of these large white Hummer-type trucks with a massive microwave transmitter/receiver on the roof so he need never be out of touch with his boss who’s called F (cunningly extracted from the acronym SNAFU). It would not be possible to give our spy a more unobtrusive mode of transport. He’s married to an insurance project director Lin Yuyan (Jingchu Zhang). Appropriately, she’s called in to advise on security for the Chinese end of the operation but her advice is ignored (or not — I’m not sure on the point). Anyway, there are two groups competing with each other to steal these halves. One is Japanese. Yamamoto (Tong Da Wei) is the son of the Japanese general who had the copy made. Watch out for the finger betting scene to see why we’re supposed to think him sadistic and depraved. He’s assisted by a cohort of female warriors led by Lisa (Chiling Lin). There’s also a group of British heavies based in Dubai where they seem to have negotiated carte blanche with the local authorities to do whatever they like with fast cars, helicopters and gun, lots of guns. There’s a third group led by Empress (Gaowa Siqin) but apart from offering smuggling services, their role is uncertain.


OK so here goes. Both halves of the painting are stolen but Super Agent X switches them for copies, or not. It doesn’t really matter because neither of the halves stolen are the originals. But no-one involved knows this apart from F and possibly X. But they switch them anyway because that makes all the bad guys uncertain as to whether they have the originals. I hope you’re clear so far. So the Japanese bad guy and his gals kidnap X’s son and demand X return the half he switched which he doesn’t mind doing because he’s just returning the copy they stole. So there’s a lot of not very convincing fighting and X, ably assisted by his wife, recovers their son and switches the paintings (again) (or not) (I was past caring at this point).

Tong Da Wei preparing X's son for lunch

Tong Da Wei preparing X’s son for lunch


To give you an idea of how inept the fighting is, Agent X and Yamamoto decide to fight to the death with swords so they very carefully put on all that padding you see in the Olympic games and those protective visors so we can’t see their faces, i.e. neither of the actors can fight using swords so the stuntmen have to be disguised for the fight. Even so, the action was filmed in slow-motion and then speeded up which makes it look like a comedy sequence. There’s only one stunt that’s impressive in the entire 120 minutes running tine. A helicopter appears to pick up a car using suction pads and flies across Dubai until it crashes the car into one of these upmarket hotels. Had Andy Lau not run along the beach, jumped into a speedboat, and driven a high-powered sportscar until he crashed through into the foyer of the hotel (and waited for the lift to take him up to where the car had been crashed by the helicopter) he would never have caught up with them and rescued his wife before she fell out of the car seconds before it plunged to the ground below. In other words, the film elevates absurdity into a new art form. As a final reason for not seeing this, the poster image tells you there’s a romantic entanglement to work through. Irresistible Andy Lau is married but has an on-off relationship with Lisa (Chiling Lin) who’s loved by Yamamoto because she looks just like his mother when he was young and fancied her, i.e. his mother (creepy or what?).


So Switch or 天机·富春山居图 (2013) has a largely incoherent and often incomprehensible plot featuring some useless action sequences and fight scenes (albeit that some of the cinematography is quite striking) with gaps between the scenes where the sticky tape holding the film together runs through the projector. Only film students wanting to catalogue all the mistakes as a class project should go to see this film.


A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004)

March 28, 2013 2 comments


A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 (2004) turns out to be a wonderfully engaging film both as a vaguely thrillerish adventure story and as a meditation on what motivates people to act in a good way when the bad way is often easier. Pausing for a moment to think about Buddhism, the underlying theme of the belief system is that many suffer dukkha which usually arises out of ignorance. But once you accept it’s possible to escape this condition, the path becomes clear. So imagine Sha Gen (Baoqiang Wang), a young orphaned boy, who begins to learn the local trade of being a carpenter. When he’s old enough, he’s sent off to work in a crew maintaining one of the Buddhist temples in Tibet. While there, he leads a solitary life. He obviously knows the older men in the crew, but he’s actually more friendly with the wolves who live in the surrounding hills (heavy metaphorical hint in this when it’s shown on screen). Cut off from the wider world from birth, he has no understanding of human nature. So when he decides he’s of an age to return to his village, to marry and raise a family, he sees no danger or threat in drawing all his accumulated pay and boarding a train to return home. You should understand this man is not mentally incompetent. We’re using the word “ignorant” in its least pejorative sense. In his innocence, he trusts everyone he meets, i.e. he does not believe the world is full of thieves, all of whom will steal his money without hesitating.

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good

Rene Liu and Andy Lau as an unlikely force for good


As is always required, the first person from the outside world he meets is Wang Li (Rene Liu). She’s half a steadily performing criminal duo with Wang Bo (Andy Lau). But, after an argument, they’ve briefly separated leaving the opportunity for an encounter between the two souls from opposite ends of the Buddhist scale. She’s been praying at the Buddhist monastery and needs a lift into town. Sha Gen has a pillion just made for a passenger. In this fateful moment, the future dynamic is established. Wang Li adopts him as her little brother and will tolerate no interference with the package of money he leaves so openly in his satchel. Unable to defend him round the clock, Wang Bo must be tempted down from his criminal mountain and accept the role of protector. Under normal circumstances, this would never last, but it so happens that Uncle Bill (Ge You) has a team of seasoned professional thieves on the same train. At first, the femme fatale, Xiao Ye (Bingbing Li) tries to steal the money. When she fails, Number Two (Yong You) and Four Eyes (Ka Tung Lam) try and fail. This becomes an annoyance to Uncle Bill. He would prefer to let the train journey pass off without incident but more open competition emerges with Sha Gen’s money the pretext. This means there are suddenly larger stakes to play for.

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple

Ge You and Bingbing Li as the opposing couple


All this is happening under the watchful eye of a plainclothes police officer, Han (Hanyu Zhang). He has a squad on the train and is intent on catching everyone who deserves to be caught. This places him in something of a dilemma because it’s obvious that Wang Bo and Wang Li are protecting Sha Gen. It baffles him that such committed criminals should suddenly turn over any other kind of leaf so, rather than step in at an early stage, he sits back to watch how the drama turns out. In many ways this is bad because the competition escalates and the animosity grows more heated as Uncle Bill’s crew fail to steal the money. We should be clear about the motives here. Although Wang Li has not suddenly “seen the light”, she has decided she would prefer to stop being a criminal for now. Wang Bo is prepared to go along with this because he’s enjoying the technical nature of the competition. He’s immensely skillful and applying those skills in defence proves satisfying. It’s only at the end that a real choice has to be made. You should watch the film to see whether you think the outcome “feels” right. On balance, I think the ending has everyone get their just deserts or, if we adopt the Buddhist terminology, that everyone finds their own personal way. Some will forever be limited in their outlook on life. Early choices have locked them into situations from which there’s little chance of escape. Others see the world more clearly and recognise when choices can make a difference. In this, of course, we should recognise that not all paths lead to enlightenment, and that ignorance or its absence can take several forms. At this point I could make all kinds of allusions to scorpions and large felines who are never supposed to change their essential nature. But they are incapable of independent thought. With their intelligence (and the help of Buddha) humans can make wise decisions if the circumstances are right. Overall, A World Without Thieves or Tian xia wu zei or 天下无贼 is both intellectually and emotionally satisfying. I recommend it.


The Warlords or 投名狀 (2007)

February 1, 2013 1 comment

The Warlords

The Warlords or 投名狀 (2007) is an epic tragedy out of Hong Kong directed by Peter Ho-Sun Chan. It uses the the aftermath of the Taiping Rebellion in the period between 1850 and 1875 to explore the balance to be struck between individual friendship and the national interests. In a way, this is not dealing with different issues. People become friends for a wide variety of reasons. They stay loyal to each other through thick and thin. But in a way, the nature of the bond between them is always caught up in what they are doing with their lives. If they are lowly peasants living in a war-torn land, the purpose of their combined strength is to survive. If they cannot do so on their own, they rally the villagers and steal food from wherever it can be found. Morality is put aside as food is the greater need. If those who have the food will not willingly share, the need justifies killing them to take the food. It may not be pretty but that’s the way the world works when hunger and death stalk the land.


So here comes the first question. If you rally enough people to become effective in robbing others to accumulate all the supplies necessary to keep the village safe, you attract attention. More starving people come and ask to join your village so they can share in your success, but troops patrolling the neighbourhood may not be so happy with the military potential of your followers. The question is: what price peace? Let’s say troops come to your village and take all the food you have stolen, how do you react? They have guns and a willingness to kill anyone who gets in their way. Because you cannot defend the weak and helpless, you let them take the food. But you have a duty to your people. Suppose you could get weapons, you could defend the village against all who threaten it. This gives birth to the next question.

Andy Lau, Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro swear the oath as blood brothers

Andy Lau, Jet Li and Takeshi Kaneshiro swear the oath as blood brothers


This is a country in civil war. Worse, the power of the Qing Dynasty is corrupt so there’s unlikely to be help from above. That means selling yourself and your brothers to a local lord in return for. . . Well, the local lord is not going to give an unknown, untested group anything. So you have to do a deal. You will fight to take a small city. If you win, you will take all the food and wealth you can pillage. The lord smiles. You fight and win. Your villagers are mostly happy. They now have enough food to last them a year and wealth beyond their wildest dreams. Of course a significant number of the men from the village have been killed. But that was a price worth paying, wasn’t it? Except, here comes the next question.


You have proved yourself formidable. The lord you sold your service to wants more from you. There are other cities to take and battles to fight. Can you deny him? If you do, how will he react? Will he let you live quietly in your village with all your food and wealth? You see, that’s the trouble with roles. Once you fit into a role, you are expected to stay in it. As a friend, you stay loyal. As a villager, you work for the good of all. As a soldier you fight to survive and for the greater cause. As the successful leader, you are given more troops and new targets. In all this, you tell yourself you retain a moral core. You are fighting for peace so that the poor never need fear oppression again. Except in the Qing Dynasty, you should know that’s always going to be a lie. So it all comes down to expediency. For so long as you are a winner in war, all the people within your growing power can be safe. That’s what you tell yourself. But at some point, the Empress is going to see you as a threat. Your power has increased. You are now protecting a large number of people from her. That can never be tolerated. Death is the only release from this cycle because it means you no longer have to fight.

Jinglei Xu is caught in the middle

Jinglei Xu is caught in the middle


Cao Er-Hu (Andy Lau) and Zhang Wen-Xiang (Takeshi Kaneshiro) have organised their village into an armed band of robbers. They meet up with General Ma Xinyi (Jet Li), the lone survivor of a major battle. In early fighting for food, they save each others lives and become blood brothers. Unfortunately, General Ma covets Lian (Jinglei Xu) who has an intermittent relationship with Cao. This makes everything precarious because personal morality will draw the two villagers in a different direction to the general, and sexual jealousy will further drive a wedge between them. People grow into habits and, unless care is taken, habits become obsessions. When you see something you want, the drive to take it grows stronger. That can be for abstract “things” like power or for personal satisfaction (whether just for sex or for the more easily lost love). Andy Lau is a simple man who never really wants to be a hero, but he becomes one because all those around him see an honest man doing his best. Takeshi Kaneshiro is a weaker man who tries to keep the peace between the other two, but ends up being dazzled by the brilliance of the General. He should be the stabilising factor. Sadly he ends up souring the relationships because he loses track of what’s right and wrong. Jet Li is pragmatic. He will do deals with anyone to get the results he wants. He wants to be a winner and, if his blood brothers get in the way, they will have to be sacrificed. He has learned the ways of the Qing court and is trapped by that knowledge and experience. He cannot be honest and loyal because no-one around him before now has ever shown those virtues. He’s incapable of trust. He commands. The others are mere followers.


The result is all rather depressing. There’s a lot of bloody fighting and we see large numbers killed, some in battle and others executed simply because they were soldiers and there was no food to give them as prisoners. Only Andy Lau’s character comes out of all this looking good. Everyone else is a victim of their own selfishness and weakness. If such a tragedy of military adventurism and political opportunism is your cup of tea, The Warlords or 投名狀 will not disappoint. My own preference in storytelling is for something slightly more uplifting.


Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻 or Battle of the Warriors (2006)

January 23, 2013 Leave a comment


Originally titled Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻 (2006) by the Hong Kong studios, this was later retitled for distribution in the West as Battle of the Warriors. The screenplay by director Chi Leung ‘Jacob’ Cheung is an adaptation of a historical novel called “Bokko” (aka “Bokkou”) by Hideki Mori. This was followed by a Japanese manga of the same name by Ken’ichi Sakemi. Both draw on historical accounts of China’s Warring States Period. Putting the question of the contemporary source material behind us, we’re into the period of conflict around 370 BC when the seven competing Kingdoms then making up most of what we now know as China fought over the right to rule. In this case, we’re able to see a major expansionist move by the Zhao army against the Yans. However, the advancing army has the same problem the Mexicans had with the Alamo. Their supply route lies through the small Liang kingdom. If this small military threat is ignored, it could attack the supply route at a critical time and disrupt the Zhao advance. The Zhao Commander Xiang Yan-zhong (veteran Korean actor Ahn Sung-kee) understands his invading army must take the Liang capital and remove all threats.


When he hears of the Zhao preparations for war, the initial reaction of the King of Liang (Wang Zhiwen) is to send for help to the followers of Mozi, a Chinese philosopher. The Mohists believed in universal love and pacifism but were famous for their ability to defend cities against siege attacks. This belief system is not an early version of flower power, but rather a forerunner of socialism in which each individual was considered of equal value and to be treated with respect. This was the complete opposite of the usual power structures favoured by the Kingships. Instead of simple-minded oppression, the people were to be given the benefit of altruism and selflessness. In a revolutionary attack on the usual mechanisms of wealth, money was to be abandoned and gifts avoided. Status and formalities should be ignored and general selfishness condemned wherever possible. It’s surprising such a humanist philosophy should emerge at the same time as Confucianism and Taoism.


When there’s no apparent reaction from the Mohists, the King sends envoys to surrender. They are all killed and the advance continues. As the Zhao army arrives outside the city walls, a lone figure knocks on the gates, announcing himself as Ge Li – a Mohist (Andy Lau). As a political decision, the King surrenders control of the defence to this man but immediately sees problems as Ge Li appoints Zituan (Nicky Wu) as commander of the archers. This is a decision based on competence and not status in the line of command which should have dictated the choice of Prince Liang Shi (Si-won Choi). Disrupting the usual social order sets a bad precedent. Worse, Ge Li speaks directly to the people and gets them to co-operate in rebuilding the internal defences of the city. Thanks to their hard work and the inspiration of Liang Cavalry Chief Yi Yue (Bingbing Fan), the city is able to withstand a full scale attack.

Andy Lau doing his best to keep the peace

Andy Lau doing his best to keep the peace


This is a wonderful two-thirds of a film as the worthless King of Liang and his court twist and turn to find the best way to save themselves while Ge Li devises a comprehensive defensive strategy with the Prince and the Cavalry Chief becoming willing followers. It’s also interesting to see the immediate respect between Ge Li and the Zhao Commander Xiang Yan-zhong. They recognise each other as equals and are prepared to conduct a military engagement respecting human life whenever possible. Although they do not share the same Mohist ideology, they are practical men who see the reality in the Liang Kingship and wish they could be elsewhere and pass it by. All this makes the film so much more interesting than the usual military spectacular. That Ge Li gets the common people to fight in their own defence and protects the enemy troops wherever possible endears him to both sides. Unfortunately, the King of Liang sees Ge Li as a dangerous revolutionary, pushing him aside and ordering the execution of the the Zhao troops who have surrendered. This is rank foolishness because it enrages the Zhao. Whereas they might have retreated, now they are determined to tear down the city, no matter what the cost.


As a military spectacle, there are some rather beautifully choreographed scenes where large troop movements are seen around the besieged city with some equally brutal moments as the fight moves inside the city. Until we arrive in the final reel, I’ve a clear sense of realism from these military manoeuvres. Unfortunately, realism is then cast aside for the final assault on the city. The small Zhao unit remains hidden in the surrounding forest with no obvious way of putting an assault together let alone feeding the troops and keeping them warm at night without the ability to light a fire. For us then to see hot air balloons carrying commandos over the wall is just absurd. It’s as if the Montgolfier Brothers were suddenly transported from the eighteenth century to mount a special forces assault. I’m just about prepared to accept the flooding of the city with the water pressure able to lift soldiers into the air as the water rushes through the tunnels and bursting up into the main courtyard. But how did our digger (singular) manage to construct the link to the lake in such a short time? It’s another complete absurdity. The final scenes of Andy Lau searching for Bingbing Fan in the prison cells as they flood is hopelessly overdone melodrama.


Despite these deficiencies at the end, I’m still prepared to recommend Battle of Wits or Muk gong or 墨攻. There’s an underlying consistency of character in the key players that produces the final tragic outcomes. Call it fate or predestination, the fact that everyone loses something of value is inevitable once the basic situation becomes clear.


Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)

October 20, 2010 3 comments

There’s a delicious moment when I now start thinking about the old “coals to Newcastle” idiom. As a denizen of the named city, I tip my hat to the wiseacres who caught the irony of trade cycles. Indirectly, they were talking about me. I grew up surrounded by coal mines, with pit-head winding gear and spoil-heaps dotting the landscape, but never really thought about the product. I just accepted half my local community worked in the shipyards, and the other half emerged blackened and blinking into the light when the shifts ended. One of these days, I will go back, but it will be in sadness. The shipyards are mostly gone, redeveloped for housing. The pits have been closed for decades — Newcastle really does import its coal these days.

Back in the 1960s, I remember discovering Robert Van Gulik’s stories about Judge Dee. This was one of the early efforts at locating the traditional Golden Age detective story in a different era. In this case, he borrowed from an original Chinese source to locate an investigating magistrate in seventh century China. Based on the real-world character Di Renji, Van Gulik produced a series of stories, rather wooden by modern standards, in which our hero solves crimes and punishes the guilty.

Now we fast-forward to modern times with a film made in China by a Hong Kong director featuring the same “Detective” Dee. Set in about 690 AD, our hero is recalled to investigate two deaths which threaten to interfere with the imminent ascension to the Imperial throne of Wu Zetian. She has been acting as Regent and now assumes the right to become Empress. This completes the circle with a Chinese hero reclaimed from the West and now glorified in film by director Tsui Hark.

As a film about a famous detective, the script had better deliver a good mystery for him to solve. That’s why we pay the price of admission. On this criterion, I’m pleased to report the core puzzle is well constructed. Despite being overlaid with the obvious implausibility of supernatural and fantasy elements, the practicality of the who, the how and the why are elegantly conceived. As is always the case, the pool of suspects is whittled down, and we are soon left with only one real prospect for the villain, but there’s a coherence, if not always logic, to the investigation.

Deng Chao, Li Bingbing, Tsui Hark, Carina Lau and Andy Lau at the 67th Venice Film Festival

I also got what I wanted in Andy Lau’s portrayal of Detective Dee. He’s quietly determined and represents the best traditions of the analytical detective by thinking his way through to the solution of the problems. In this historical context, he’s a political realist and obsessional in his drive to arrive at what he considers the best outcome for the country. Naturally, when thinking fails, he can fight as well. In this, I forgive the supernatural power of his mace of office. Every martial arts expert must have a magic weapon of some kind, and this is understated while remaining highly effective. As to the rest of the primary players, Chao Deng is wonderful as the albino investigator, blending undoubted intelligence and some political guile with a genuinely creepy air of ruthlessness, being prepared to torture a key witness to the first death played by Tony Leung Ka Fai. Bingbing Li is nicely caught in the middle of the continuing conflict between Dee and the woman waiting to be Empress. While Carina Lau shows enough vulnerability as the aspirant Empress to be all-too-convincing. She is only doing what is necessary for the long-term prosperity of the Empire.

At its heart, this is a superb piece of film-making with the first forty-five minutes representing the highest possible standards in every respect. It’s a wonderful balance between a possible supernatural threat set in an environment that is a highly original metaphor for the Tang Empire. There’s a semi-rational explanation for the manner of the deaths — a form of internal combustion induced by phosphorus from an unlikely source — and we are used to the excesses of physical performance achievable by kung fu exponents. All this creates a rich texture for the story-telling. As a setting, the dominant statue of the Empress-to-be, rising in the forefront of the port and overlooking the palace, is a striking image. It’s a form of deification, recognising the transformation of a mere Regent into the Empress with absolute authority. The price paid by a woman fighting her way to the top of the political heap, has been many bodies. Everyone in the way is expendable. It’s therefore not surprising that, as the sun rises and sets, her shadow should fall across the capital city and the court where her political rivals plot her downfall.

But when we get into the second half of the film, the fantasy starts to get in the way. We have an unnecessary kung fu skill of disguise but, far more significantly, the fighting loses its focus when we go down into the Phantom Market and beyond.

Sammo Hung was responsible for the fight choreography which, in the early sequences is very good, as you would expect from an artist with vast experience on both sides of the camera. But it’s when we come to the extended wire work that things somewhat fall apart. There comes a point when people swinging from one side of a set to another becomes rather silly and, unfortunately, this point is reached in this film. In an attempt to cover up the strangeness of the emerging sequences, the scenes are cut togeher in an incoherent way. We are not allowed to watch an emerging battle of skillful martial artists. We simply see people vaguely interacting and possibly chasing each other, but the overall effect in the second half is immensely disappointing. In this, I put the blame squarely on Tsui Hark’s shoulders. What was spectacular in the innocent days of Zu Warriors from the Magic Mountain, has become overstylised and pretentious to modern audiences as the technical side of special effects and stunt work has developed. It’s clear many sequences are included simply because they can now be shot without looking too amateurish. This is hasty and overambitious. A creative mind wanting to push forward, but not prepared to wait for technology to catch up.

Although the end achieves a kind a steampunk magnificence and, to some extent, rescues the overegged fighting and chase sequences between Dee and the villain, I was left feeling somewhat disappointed. The story is good. The cast are all excellent. What a shame the essential element of kung fu fails to deliver. Nevertheless, it’s worth seeing. Whatever its failings in the second half, the director’s intention and over-the-top style are engaging even though flawed. It’s not in his nature to be comfortable with greater realism in the fighting. A shame really. A little more conservatism would have transformed a merely good film into an excellent film.


Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)


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