Posts Tagged ‘Hong Kong’

Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨 (2012)

April 26, 2013 2 comments


Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨 (2012) starts off with a drama at sea as a desperate mother takes a sampan across from the mainland to Hong Kong during a storm. The mythology says any child born at sea during a storm is switched to something less human. The mother is a victim of rape by a British sailor. She allows the child to be adopted by a Tanka family. The adopting mother has just suffered a miscarriage and is not sure she can have another child. A boy will help her survive when he grows up. This starts off our hero at the bottom of the heap. Not only is he half Chinese and half Caucasian, he’s a member of the Tanka class, the lowest social group that lives in the floating city of the title. At every point, therefore, he suffers discrimination.

Aaron Kwok and Charlie Yeung assert family values and scatter his mother's ashes

Aaron Kwok and Charlie Yeung assert family values and scatter his mother’s ashes


Structurally, the film then moves us forward fifty years to find our hero, Bo Wah Chuen (Aaron Kwok), the taipan of the British East India Company in the final years of the British colonial rule. He’s married to fellow Tanka, Tai (Charlie Yeung), who feels intimidated by the upward mobility and is uncomfortable when invited to mix with the elite of Hong Kong. When going out to network and socialise, this leaves Bo in the company of Fion (Annie Liu), a woman who’s very comfortable with the international lifestyle of Hong Kong and its ex-pat British community. We then come to the point of the film. At one such party where the Governor of Hong Kong is present, he looks in a mirror and has a mild identity crisis. Here he is, a Tanka boy who has managed to climb so high. We then get an extended flashback to see how this rise has been achieved. However, it’s perhaps appropriate to start off with a general comment about Aaron Kwok’s appearance. One of the slightly pejorative ways in which European foreigners are described is as ang mohs or 红毛. This is a reference to their characteristic “red hair”, i.e. fairer shades of colour. For this film, Aaron Kwok is supposed to be half Caucasian and have “red hair”. This is not convincing. I’m not saying this prevents the film from succeeding, but it’s a visual hurdle of credibility that the film fails to surmount.


As he grows up, he loses the childhood friend who persists in saying she will marry him even though he’s an adopted mixed. His mother played by Josie Ho when young and the local priest want him to get an education. His father objects but, seeing literacy as the way to get a job on land, he persists. This is a major generational clash. The father is deeply traditional and sees the only way into the future for the family through his adoptive son taking over the boat and continuing the life. When he grows older, Bo leaves the boat and meets Tai who makes a living collecting leftover food thrown away by the British Navy. Unfortunately his father is killed on the boat during a storm. This makes Bo the head of the family just as the sixth natural child is born to the family. Now played by Hee Ching Paw, his mother is forced to place four of the children in a home run by a Christian charity as she and Bo can’t afford to look after them. The two youngest are given away to couples whom they hope will care for them. This is all tragic and moving.

Aaron Kwok and Annie Liu flirt with the idea of infidelity

Aaron Kwok and Annie Liu flirt with the idea of infidelity


He gets a job as an office boy because he can read and write in Chinese. The East India Company pays for him to learn English. In turn, he teaches his mother to read and write in Chinese, but she can’t get through the exam to qualify as a sampan “captain” because she can’t afford the hong bao or red envelope containing bribe to the examiner. Then there’s a further crisis because the home looking after the children closes — the American Christian decides to take his charity to Vietnam. Bo tries to get company accommodation but is rejected because he’s not married. That forces the marriage to Tai. We then have a whistle-stop tour through the anti-British riots and Margaret’s Thatcher’s decision to surrender control to the mainland as the film charts his slow progress up through the ranks despite the usual British colonial bigotry represented by Dick Callahan (David Peatfield). This brings us back to the core question. What should he be? There’s no such thing as a Hong Kong citizen. Should he abandon his roots, join the Jockey Club and take British citizenship? He could embrace Fion just as easily. She moves in that circle. His wife doesn’t fit. Of course, once the mainland Chinese take over, he doesn’t fit in that culture either. He’s not merely a Tanka at the bottom of the local pile. He was a despised upstart from a colony when he went to Britain on a business trip. He’s not a communist as understood by mainlanders. He’s just a curiosity that can speak Mandarin with a funny accent.


Director and screenwriter Yim Ho has produced what, in many ways, is a bold film about identity and the importance of family. We need to be clear. For the relevant time, there has been an elite group making money in Hong Kong, but the focus here is on an Everyman. Hong Kong’s identity is still very much in flux as the ex-colony struggles with the practical reality of “one country, two systems”, making this film a kind of parable through which to understand the problems in reconciling the implied promise with the reality imposed. Like Bo, the mass of ordinary Hong Kong people has lifted itself up from its early days of colonial oppression where vast numbers lived in the sampans of the floating city or in poverty on land. The people were abused and then abandoned by the British, so the masses have turned their backs on much of the international life and made a home for themselves as a family on this plot of land. Sooner or later, this group of people will lose much of its original identity. This is not to say the individuals will forget their personal histories. But they will have years of life under Chinese rule giving them new history and a different set of values as the older members die off and the new children grow into adults. As a child growing into a man, Bo fought with his father, rebelled against the traditional way of life, and left the sampan to work on land. He was lucky enough to have both the ability and the humility to work with the British so he got to the top. But that was never as important as remembering that he loved his wife and had a family to take care of. His children may be citizens of the one country China and be happy. Perhaps that’s the hope for the future as the masses now work for a new elite and aim to build better lives. Aaron Kwok is impressive in the only role of substance. All the other characters are simply there to carry the broader narrative forward. It’s a performance worth seeing in a rather pleasing, slightly allegorical drama called Floating City or 浮城 / 浮城大亨.


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.


Wu Dang or 大武當 (2012)

January 20, 2013 4 comments


In the early days of Hong Kong movies, there was a tendency to include “kung fu” competitions as a major theme. This could be between two styles to determine which was the superior or to establish which was the best fighter regardless of style. When Bruce Lee was engineering his breakout into Hollywood, the use of a competition became standard as in Enter the Dragon (1973) and the partial The Game of Death (1978). Thereafter it was everyman and Karate Kid (1984) for himself as Jackie Chan led off with The Big Brawl (1980). with Jean-Claude Van Damme in Bloodsport (1988), Eric Roberts in Best of the Best (1989) and so on, following on behind. These were innocent times and such stories had the merit of appealing both as examples of the different fighting styles and as offering the chance for the audience to cheer as the underdog pulled off an improbable victory, e.g. Kurt McKinney in No Retreat, No Surrender (1986) where we get to blame Bruce Lee all over again. The fact none of the films was even remotely realistic simply added to the fun of it all. When we came into the 2000s, the fighting got more realistic as in Unleashed (2005) where Jet Li fights a number of vicious opponents for Bob Hoskins. It’s therefore disconcerting and not a little depressing to come to Wu Dang or 大武當 (2012). This rather painful effort revisits the theme of a martial arts competition without making even the remotest effort to make the film fit the mood of our modern times.

Zhao Wen-Zhou and Mini Yang back-to-back fighting

Zhao Wen-Zhou and Mini Yang back-to-back fighting


Set in the 1930s, we start off with Dr. Tang Yunlong (Zhao Wen-Zhou aka Vincent Zhao) and his daughter Tang Ning (Xu Jiao) establishing themselves as a caring couple. They are on the way to take part in a martial arts competition run by the Wudang Sect (this is is a fictional martial arts sect appropriately based in a Taoist monastery on Wudang Mountain and much favoured by authors of wuxia fiction). We’re supposed to see our hero as an Indiana Jones figure because his first action on landing in China is to steal a treasure map from a gangster called Paul Chen (Shaun Tam). By a “coincidence”, the map appears to show the location of seven treasures hidden on the mountain. Legend says that whoever can bring the seven treasures together will be able to command remarkable powers, i.e. it’s a rerun of The Touch (2002). In fact, the opening fight is actually quite interesting but, thereafter, the tone is set by the first appearance of Tianxin (Mini Yang). Her motive for flying to Wudang Mountain and participating in the competition is to recover her tribe’s lost sword. Hey, guess what! She has exactly the same map as our dashing professor. This suggests a conspiracy in the works. Her first fight in an aeroplane is laughable and, sadly, almost all the rest of the fighting both within the format of the competition and outside it, is badly choreographed with very poor wire work and the sequences cut in a way obviously designed to hide the weakness of the fighters. If in doubt, the director Patrick Leung Pak-Kin, has blows smash through adjacent timber supports or brick walls with the partitions and ceilings collapsing and clouds of dust hiding the next piece of action. The result is stylised, choppy and complete unrealistic. This rather defeats the exercise if this is intended as a “demonstration” of fighting skills.

Xu Jiao and Siu-Wong Fan compare notes on kung fu tag teaming

Xu Jiao and Siu-Wong Fan compare notes on kung fu tag teaming


As if that’s not bad enough, we also have romantic interludes between our trainee monk Shui Heiyi (Siu-Wong Fan) and Tang Ning, while Tang Yunlong and Tianxin also see great benefit in co-operation. Slowly the story develops as we learn Tang Ning is dying of a genetic disorder. This all makes perfect sense now. She hopes to win the competition against all the top fighter summoned to participate before dropping dead. No wait! Daddy has the fake map and if it leads to fake treasures, he can do the magic thing and cure her. Now that would surely be the optimum heart-wrenching way of ending the film and inducing the maximum amount of nausea. Can this be what will happen?


Then when you think it can’t get any worse, it gets worse in the same way as Storm Warriors, with one of these mystical transformation sequences that takes itself far too seriously and becomes laughable. Magic can be a very effective enhancement to the general fantasy feel of wirework kung fu fighting. With people flying through the air with the greatest of ease thanks to the amount of chi they control, it’s a small step to have them formally invoking godlike powers as the next evolutionary step. But unless this is done with great imagination or kept short, it quickly becomes boring and incomprehensible. Since we can’t be sure how the villain learned this magic (after all, it has not been done for centuries and there isn’t exactly a Magical Transformation for Dummies book lying around) and no-one really knows what the end point of the process is supposed to be, all we get are lines of power and whizzing thingamagummies flying around the body of the villain. Initially, this makes him invulnerable but, when he has to go ten rounds with the best of three falls, three submission or a KO with the professor, the end is certain.


Taken overall, Wu Dang or 大武當 would probably have been considered a reasonable film from Hong King in the 1980s. In 2012, it’s tedious and dull.


Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)

November 24, 2012 10 comments

Cold War or 寒戰 (2012) shows the film-making talents of Hong Kong at their strongest and weakest. Sadly, the weaker elements win out and, although this is a not unsuccessful film, it’s a clear failure. So what’s it about? Ah, now that’s a very good question and the primary cause of the failure. We have the screenwriting and directing credits shared between Lok Man Leung and Kim-ching Luk. A partnership can work very well because it ensures the script appears on the screen in its most polished form. Often an independent director can take a different view of the script and make changes, sometimes for the better. In this case, the first half of the film bowls along with interest high. This is inherently exciting both in physical and political terms. A bomb goes off, diverting police resources and focusing attention on the district of Mongkok. During this time, a mobile response unit arrests a drunk driver who is probably a judge’s son. He has just written off a high-end car and has to be physically restrained. It’s never explained what happens to the arrested man nor what consequences flow from the incident. All we can say is that the five officers in the unit are later taken hostage and their van “disappears”. Since the judge’s son is not taken hostage, there must have been a handover to other police units but this is never mentioned or explained. This suggests the only reason for this action sequence is to allow Kim-ching Luk to demonstrate the experience he has developed as Second Unit Director on sixteen films including the recent Korean hit, The Thieves.

Tony Leung Ka Fai confronts his own demons


Anyway, once a ransom demand is made, the responsibility for the “incident” is seized by Waise Lee (Tony Leung Ka Fai). In the absence of the Commissioner who’s out of the country, he declares a state of emergency and mobilises all Hong Kong’s finest in an operation he code-names “Cold War”. This is actually a breach of operational guidelines because his son Joe K C Lee (Eddie Peng) is one of the five hostages. There’s supposed to be no emotional tie between the senior officer in charge and any significant person involved in an investigation. The next most senior officer, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) therefore organises the votes among the key senior officers to depose Lee and assume the responsibility as the next in line. This is the difference between Old and New School. Waise Lee represents the tradition of the police force. Although his father was a senior policeman, he started off on the streets as an ordinary officer and worked his way up on merit. Sean Lau is the new breed. He’s highly educated and has been fast-tracked up the management hierarchy as an effective administrator. This is the source of resentment from the Old School officers and although his style is very inclusive and has produced a more efficient force, there’s a faction that would prefer the street-smart Waise Lee to become the next Commissioner. Thus, during the initial stages of the film, we can see the investigation as a crystalisation of the fight over the future of the force. Should it become “professionalised” with outsiders parachuted in as senior officers based on generic management expertise, or should it retain the career path for any officer to get from the beat to the top on merit?


As the investigation proceeds, the Independent Commission Against Corruption (ICAC) receives a tip-off from an unknown person in the police force. It alerts them to the fact this crime could not have been committed by an outsider. It requires specialist insider knowledge. The young Billy K.B. Cheung (Aarif Rahman) takes on the task of investigating, but quickly comes to focus on Waise Lee and Sean Lau. The alternative scenarios are that Waise Lee is masterminding the hostage drama to enhance his own reputation, or that Sean Lau is corrupt and doing it for the money. In due course, four of the five hostages are recovered, a senior officer dies in a shootout, and a big slice of the ransom money is taken. Billy Cheung interviews both officers but neither of them are impressed, calmly pointing out there’s absolutely no evidence of their involvement. It’s at this point that the film falls to pieces. Forensic evidence suggests several lines of inquiry, a car bomb kills the Treasury Officer who was responsible for signing out the ransom money. There’s a big police raid with lots of explosions and massive firepower from the SWAT team. The casualties are mounting. In the end, there’s some kind of explanation and an arrest is made but, to be honest, I’m still unclear about the motive. My gut tells me this was just a criminal who was in it for the money. Any other side effect was window-dressing used as a pretext to recruit the right people to make the whole thing work.

Aaron Kwok finding it can be tough when you take the responsibility


Frankly I despair of Hong Kong film-makers. They seem to favour lack of coherence as a virtue. All the majority do is cobble together a general idea to start themselves off and then think up justifications for fights and explosions. There’s little regard for credibility as one thing leads on to the next. Stuff happens until we get to the end and then there’s a vague explanation as if no-one in the cinema really cares what was going on so long as there were enough fights and explosions of increasingly destructive power. This is a tragedy. The initial set-up of the political infighting in the police has great potential but it’s completely wasted because, at the end, I have absolutely no idea why some officers were killed. What makes all this even more frustrating than usual is the propaganda asserting the Hong Kong justice system as the pinnacle of perfection, relying on the common law system, with the best police force in the world making the city a completely safe environment. This is after we’ve seen terrorist bombings, shootings and explosions. Hardly the best advertisement for a safe city. All the principal actors are excellent with Tony Leung Ka Fai and Aaron Kwok outstanding. As you watch, there’s a wealth of talent on display in what proves to be a very good ensemble performance. If only it had been in service to a credible plot, I would have been cheerleading from the front. As it is, I left the cinema deeply disappointed. The fact Cold War or 寒戰 is left with a cliffhanger showing the team expects to make a sequel is all the more dispiriting. It seems optimism is alive and well and living in Hong Kong.


Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010) also featuring Aarif Rahman
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012) also featuring Eddie Peng
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012) also featuring Eddie Peng


Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012)

October 30, 2012 2 comments

Tai Chi Hero or 太极2英雄崛起 (2012) proves the old adage that, if you travel with hope in your heart, you are doomed to arrive disappointed. The first half of this saga distributed as Tai Chi Zero was great fun, mixing different styles and playing the part of the joyful iconoclast. Unfortunately, since this is the steampunk half, it runs out of steam. I would not go quite so far as to say it’s boring, but there are certainly patches where the people around me were yarning extravagantly. This is a shame because at its heart, Tai Chi Hero is one of these rather pleasing message films that deserves a better delivery. So what’s it about?

Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao), Master Chen (Tony Leung Ka Fai) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) face the Chinese army


We left our village enjoying the wedding of our potentially happy couple Yang Lu Chan (Yuan Xiaochao) and Chen Yunia (Angelababy) and rejoin as the knot is tied and Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng), the long-lost brother, and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) return. This sets the basic theme. The first episode is very much about China’s under attack from the foreign devils. In playing the race card, the director Stephen Fung and scriptwriter Kuo-fu Chen are looking for nationalist fervour, uniting the largely expected Chinese audience against the cultural invaders. As a foreigner, I was rooting for the Chinese village, preferring the underdog to prevail when it has right on its side. This episode shifts the focus to the Chinese and although there is a contribution made by the British (and Germans through their artillery pieces), this is more about China coming to terms with itself and deciding what kind of future it wants. Put another way, the use of tai chi as a soft fighting style becomes a metaphor for the approach the Chinese leadership must take to minimise damage to its people and their culture. If we wanted to stretch the metaphor, we would be thinking about casting Hong Kong as the returning son having learned different ways while under foreign control. The two can rebuild the family relationship but only through mutual respect, not by main force.

Chen Zai-Yang (Feng Shaofeng) and his mute wife (Nikki Hsieh) approach Chen village


So, albeit in a heavy-handed way, the central story is about family and the shift in emphasis as the old settle into traditional ways while the young look for novelty. In this, Tony Leung Ka Fai is pivotal as the Master of the Chen village. His role is to maintain balance between the old and the new ways. Except he’s shown as having failed in his relationship with his oldest son. Naturally, as a proud new father, supremely confident in his own kung fu skills, he wanted to pass on the fighting style to his children. Sadly, the oldest boy had no real interest in fighting. He was a dreamer, destined to become an inventor, translating the visions of childhood into adult reality. This is where the “real” steampunk comes into play. He has two major innovations to offer us. The first falls into the class of augmentation. He was never motivated to actually learn how to fight, so he’s developed a clockwork-driven set of clothes and boots to wear which enable him to perform some of the standard moves. It’s an early version of The Tuxedo which enabled Jackie Chan to become an expert. However, Chen Zai-Yang outdoes himself with the magnificent flying machine. Not only does it make the efforts of the Wright brothers look primitive, it matches some of the modern fighter-bombers in being about to drop bombs and strafe troops on the ground with rockets. As Qing Dynasty hang-gliders go, this is in a class of its own. Add in the wonderfully baroque German cannons and we have quite a visual feast during the set-piece battle between the Chinese army sent by corrupt officials encouraged by Duke Fleming (Peter Stormare) and the Chen village.

Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and his British master Peter Stormare


In narrative terms, there are three acts. In the first, the returning son attempts to displace his father and turn the village over for demolition to allow the railway free passage. This is reasonably effective, using local superstitions to frame the newcomer Yang Lu Chan as a jinx likely to destroy the traditions of the village. Fortunately, Master Chen sees through his son’s deception and we move into the second act which is the arrival of the Chinese army outside the village led by Fang Zijing (Eddie Peng) and the fight led by Master Chen. The final third is set in the capital city as Yang Lu Chan proves his kung fu skills in an escalating series of fights until we get to the rather elaborately staged duel with Master Lin (Yuan Biao) above the kitchen where the Prince’s meal is being prepared. Sammo Hung deserves a lot of credit for seamlessly referencing the different preparation and cooking activities below in the fighting moves above. The sequence leading up to this fight is somewhat perfunctory and the resolution of the railway issue is, I suppose, an amusing go-with-the-flow tai chi solution. Indeed coming back to the message of the film, the family is reconciled, the married couple seem to have achieved some degree of happiness, and the East India company still lurks in the background with plans to make something new out of the failure named Zijing — a third episode is apparently planned.


I suppose I should not be surprised that a modern Hong Kong film should proclaim tai chi as a political philosophy in which the soft integration of all significant elements in the environment becomes the way in which to overcome obstacles. It’s the gentle way of winning by finding the route of least resistance, of using the enemy’s strength against itself. It’s a good way of showing that errors from the past can be corrected and new ways of forging the future can be discovered. I just wish the fun of the first episode had been retained. This is worthy and, in parts, dull. Some of the fighting is quite good but a lot of it is surreal and cut in a way that prevents you from seeing how the effects are supposed to be achieved. It has moments that are spectacular, but much of it is routine kung fu fare. Perhaps if I had not so enjoyed the first, this would have seemed better. If the team do get around to making a third, let’s hope they can recreate the innovative approach of the first.


For the review of the first part, see Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012).


Other films featuring Tony Leung Ka Fai are:
Bruce Lee, My Brother (2010)
Cold War or 寒戰 (2012)
Detective Dee and the Mystery of the Phantom Flame (2010)
Tai Chi Zero or Taichi 0: From Zero To Hero 太極之從零開始 (2012)


Crazy n’ the City or Sun gaing hup nui (2005)

October 15, 2012 Leave a comment

One of the more revealing issues for fiction to tackle is mental illness. No matter how much we Westerners might try to deceive ourselves that we’ve made significant progress in our reaction to those who are mentally ill, there remains a reservoir of prejudice and fear. It colours our social reactions to those we encounter in our everyday lives. In part, the prejudice is born of the misconception that the mentally ill are likely to be violent. The fear comes from seeing the thin line between socially acceptable and different behaviour. The more honest among us acknowledge how little it would take to push us over that line. In Crazy n’ the City or Sun gaing hup nui (2005), director and screenwriter James Yuen has crafted a script that explores different levels of social disorder. As a film set in Hong Kong, it should represent the best side of Confucianism, i.e. focus on the personal peace and harmony flowing from each person accepting their allotted place in the fabric of society. So family members are filial and, in all aspects of their daily lives, they internalise their private feelings, knowing that speaking out may disrupt the general air of harmony. As a social and political philosophy, it’s relatively easy to fit in if your mental health is good. But, because behaviour may not always match expectations, there’s an additional stigma if the failure to conform is involuntary. A film-maker has a loud megaphone and access to a mass market. With the right film, there can be a positive effort to encourage a change in social attitudes rather than trotting out the same stereotypes that will simply confirm the stigma. The challenge, therefore, is to craft a parable from which viewers can draw lessons for their own lives. The difficulty lies in the need to avoid being preachy hence this story being dressed up as a police procedural.

Francis Ng reflecting on his head injury


Still young but seasoned police officer, Chris Chan (Eason Chan), draws the short straw of Liu Tak Nam (Joey Yung), the enthusiastic rookie, on her first day. One of the more notorious individuals on their beat through Wan Chai is Shing Wong (Francis Ng). He has a tragic backstory that left him suicidal and profoundly depressed. Although he was talked down from the roof, the only result seemed to be the addition of schizophrenia. He walks the streets with a dead phone clamped to his ear, constantly talking to old friends, acquaintances and his long-lost wife. He helps foreign tourists by giving them directions and explaining something of Hong Kong’s architectural past, he’s fixated by the lingerie shop he used to run, and is convinced he still owes money to a loan shark (Henry Fong). As all good parables should, the community is shown as tolerant. Rachel (Kara Hui), his sister who runs a newspaper stall, does her best to look after him. The loan shark does not accept his repeated efforts to pay off the loan. His old school friend who runs a mobile phone business humours him when he complains the phone does not work. The lady who runs the lingerie shop is frustrated, but does not call the police.


Unfortunately, Shing’s world view is threatened from three sides. In another of his cameos, Suet Lam has the thankless role of throwing himself off a tall building and dying. This is what Shing avoided, but watching this death leap shakes him. A divorced woman moves into the flat above and begins to run a legitimate massage business, and a serial rapist and murderer begins to kill women. Throughout, our pair of police officers walk the streets. Chris Chan has given up all ambition. He passively moves through life, doing his best to avoid any situation in which there might be conflict or make paperwork for himself. He watches the burning enthusiasm of the rookie and recalls he was once the same but, initially, sees no reason to change. However, when they are called to a bus in which a man has exposed himself to two older school girls, he’s sufficiently roused to subdue the flasher as he tries to escape. This public demonstration of judo skills provokes the girls to invite him to give lessons at their school. After a very successful session, he goes with a small group for a meal and, after talking, sends two girls home. One becomes a victim of the killer and the other precocious seventeen-year old makes him think about his lack of interest in the future.

Eason Chan and Joey Yung agreeing to disagree


All this boils up into a slightly overwrought climax in which Shing’s desire to protect the woman upstairs proves dangerous, and Chris Chan remembers what it feels like to want to make a difference in life. In the aftermath, Shing makes something of a recovery and returns to a more competent level of performance — Confucius would be proud of him. Chris Chan puts his name forward to the promotion board and Liu Tak Nam sets out to conquer a handsome motorcycle cop (Alex Fong). It’s interesting to watch Lam Suet, Henry Fong and Benz Hui, veteran of film and TVB, pitch in with cameo performances. The familiarity of their faces is somehow reassuring in an uncertain world. As a film, I think Crazy n’ the City or Sun gaing hup nui (2005) goes as far as it can. Made in 2004/5, Hong Kong was still very much in the cultural melting pot and films cannot be too controversial in such times. As a gentle push in the right direction, this is a success. The only drawback to an otherwise competent script is the lack of credibility in the relationship between Francis Ng and the newly arrived masseuse, and the suddenness of his recovery to provide the required “happy ending”. Taking altogether, it’s a reasonably entertaining way of passing 90 minutes.


Mad Detective or San taam (2007)

September 25, 2012 Leave a comment

Mad Detective or San taam (2007) is an ingenious, if slightly tedious and ultimately flawed, police procedural out of Hong Kong, directed by Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai who shared the screenwriting credits with Kin-Yee Au. The point of the film is to strike a balance between three usually distinct subgenre elements. In conventional plots, when the police investigate a crime, the detective works diligently to solve the case, where necessary engaging in violence — hopefully only in self-defence. In this instance, however, our “hero”, Inspector Ho Ka On (Andy On) is a young and very inexperienced detective who’s somewhat out of his depth. Yes, he’s had an exemplary track record through the academy, but the real world is far more challenging than he ever imagined it could be. Caught up in a complicated case in which a detective has disappeared, but his gun has been used in a series of robberies, he decides to contact an older detective for help. This despite the fact this man was forced to retire on mental health grounds. So we meet Inspector Chan Kwai Bun (Lau Ching Wan) who cut off his ear as a leaving present when his then boss retired. It’s not unusual for fictional detectives to suffer varying degrees of mental disability. The device adds to the suspense element: will the detective solve the crime despite being as crazy as a loon. However, this detective’s mental health problems are complicated by what may be a type of supernatural ability. It’s at this point that the basis of the film gets somewhat confused.

Inspector Chan Kwai Bun (Lau Ching Wan) shoots to kill


We’re used to the idea of profilers who are able to put themselves in the shoes of the criminals and get insights into their characters and motivations. There are various ways in which this empathetic process are conducted. Some walk around the crime scenes, talk with surviving witnesses, and generally look at the ceiling until analytical inspiration strikes. This man Bun is far more active, physically replaying the crimes, where necessary using his finger as if it was a gun and threatening to shoot people. The camera shifts point of view so we see the detective re-enacting the crimes on the street, in a bank, a convenience store, and so on. But we also see the crimes as he sees them, and understand why he’s able to make the deductions. However, not only does he recreate crimes in his mind, he’s also accompanied by a woman he believes is his wife. They have a very strong relationship with her able to give him a better sense of balance about the world. Finally, he sees people not as unique individuals, but as the embodiment of sometimes multiple personalities. This is somewhat confusing because, for example, when he looks at the police officer, Ko Chi-wai (Ka Tung Lam), who was the partner of the missing detective, he sees seven separate personalities. Each one of these personalities is given a physical reality when we see Chi-wai from Bun’s point of view.

Inspector Ho Ka On (Andy On) feeling desperate


In a scene near the end, we have a rerun of the shootout in a room of mirrors. This is a terrible cliché but, in this instance, it’s more interesting because, as the mirror fragments fall to the ground, we get to see different characters reflected in the shards. It represents a compelling way of capturing the notion that a person’s mind can be fractured into separate personalities. However the directors couldn’t make up their minds how to use the different elements. The result is a confusing lack of consistency which prevents the film from achieving any degree of coherence. There should be a rigorous separation of points of view so that we only see the alternate personalities when Bun is actively involved in each scene. That way we can understand how and why he relates to the young detective as if the latter is literally a young boy and why the fictitious woman has replaced his real-world wife. But we see different personalities offering help and advice when he’s not in shot. These “characters” appear in the cast list. Hence, for example, Suet Lam and Jay Lau play two of the personalities “existing” within Chi-wai’s mind, and we see them interacting and talking to Chi-wai. This breaks the convention and spoils the logic of the film. Are we to assume Chi-wai and other characters have comparable multiple personality disorders when we see the world from their point of view? The directors can’t have it both ways. Either everyone is crazy and has multiple personalities, or the ingenuity of the plot device with Bun able to detect multiple personalities is lost.


This is a shame because the disappearance of the police officer and the continuing use of his gun are the basis of an interesting puzzle to solve. With more discipline to show the mind of a mentally disordered retired detective at work, Mad Detective or San taam could have been a very good film. Sadly, it just ends up being a bit silly.


Other films featuring Lau Ching Wan:
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan
The Great Magician
Life Without Principle
Overheard 2


Forest of Death or Sum yeun (2007)

September 17, 2012 Leave a comment

Forest of Death or Sum yeun (2007) is ostensibly set in Thailand — it’s a Hong Kong film and, despite China’s efforts to make the newly reacquired territory a bigger better place to live, there’s no actual room for what’s supposed to be a large forest. A relocation to a more expansive location with an all-Hong Kong cast is therefore in order to get this film made. Now the question for director and screenwriter Danny Pang is how many ways he can make a forest seem spooky for, as is often the case with a Pang film, whether solo or as the brothers, this is a thriller with a police procedural theme leading into a supernatural horror sequence and ending with science fiction. And therein lies the key problem with the film. If the director had decided to make a film in just one of these genres, it could have been very good. But the naturalism of the police investigation with the backing of a scientist working with plant biology is immediately sacrificed when it morphs into what looks, at first sight, to be supernatural, and then is completely destroyed by the science fiction explanation at the end. This is not to say that I instinctively reject detective stories that end up dealing with supernatural or science fictional threats. There have been films where consistency of tone makes the transition between the genres work well, e.g. Fallen (1998) in which a series of murders can only be explained if the detectives believe in angels, or Predator 2 (1990) in which the detective gets to fight for his life. But Forest of Death has no such consistency. It just jumps from one genre to another without feeling the need to bridge.

Qi Shu looking good in the greenery


So let’s get to the plot, such as it is. As the title suggests, a lot of people have gone missing or died in this forest. The largest percentage are suicides but, early in the film, Commissioner Wong (Suet Lam) sends Detective C C Ha (Qi Shu) to investigate the rape and murder of a fellow detective. Fairly quickly, she identifies Patrick Wong (Lawrence Chou) as the most probable killer. The problem is how to prove it. In a parallel thread, Shum Shu-hoi (Ekin Cheng) is trying to develop the technology to communicate with plants. This goes somewhat beyond the usual measurement of electrical fields, and suggests the possibility of the practical exchange of messages so long as the plants learn how to understand human emotions. He’s involved with May (Rain Li) who, as an investigative television journalist, is trying to make a name for herself by investigating the forest. Finally, we have the creepy old guy who lives on the fringes of the forest. Mr Tin (Siu-Ming Lau) whose granddaughter is one of those who has gone missing.

Ekin Cheng looking for a plant to talk with


When you put all this together, Detective Ha asks Shum to talk to the trees in the forest while Mr Tin keeps muttering darkly that no good will come of it all. We then have apparently supernatural things happening in broad daylight which is mildly innovative. Too often film-makers wait for night and hide third-rate special effects in the shadows. This has leaves falling, wind blowing, sudden fog appearing and trees apparently moving around as our accused is led into the forest and, with the press looking on, suddenly finds himself compelled to confess to the murder. It’s patently silly. With more bodies turning up, May wonders off into the forest in despair, thinking Shum has dumped her in favour of Ha. When she “disappears”, Ha, Shum and Mr Tin go in on a rescue mission when all is conveniently explained in science fiction terms (and the forest spits May out as being the wrong type).


If you think aliens would be fascinated by aspects of human psychology and so would sit patiently in a Thai forest waiting for people with the right mental characteristics to wander into their flytrap for scientific investigation, this is the film you’ve been waiting for. But if, like most sane people, you think aliens would sit quietly in a large city with a high suicide rate and pick up test subjects unobtrusively, then you need not bother watching this film. It will insult your intelligence. Put another way, Forest of Death or Sum yeun has cardboard characters and wooden acting in one of the daftest science fiction films of the decade and, unless like me, you have a death wish and so plumb the depths of cinema hoping to find the unheralded gems, you should give this a miss.


Other films directed by Danny or Oxide Pang:
Sleepwalker or Meng you (2011)
Storm Warriors or Fung wan II (2009)


Nightfall (2012)

Nightfall (2012) is a rather frustrating film by Chow Hin Yeung Roy who directs and shares the screenwriting credits with Chi-long To. It’s trying so hard to be dark and serious in playing with themes about the power that can come to those with status and reputation, while those lower down in the food chain are often left as victims of the system. It should also be about revenge and the fact that, under the right conditions, there can be redemption for past sins. But it all gets sucked down into a well of confusion and although we can bring good clear water out of that well by the individual bucket, there’s no continuity of supply. We’re cast adrift at the beginning of the film and never allowed to empathise with any of the key characters.


So let’s talk about the film’s real themes. In the Hong Kong under the British, the main societal values were monitored or controlled by the ex-pats. For example, Han Tsui (Michael Wong), a great musician, might be lionised and given a certain level of protection. He could maintain an external reality of perfection. So, when his daughter Eva (Janice Man) was raped and murdered, the police would be sure to beat a confession out of Wong Yuen-yeung (Nick Cheung) the young man found in the house. Even though he might protest his innocence, our musician would be able to afford a top British barrister who could argue the case that the sentence of twenty years was the bare minimum for such an obvious and serious crime.

George Lam (Simon Yam) looking for relationships


In the opening sequences, we’re shown scenes before the initial death and during the time Wong spends in jail. In particular, there’s a fight in the showers between Wong and three other prisoners. Although Wong is injured, the other three are more seriously damaged. Yet it’s never clear why we see this fight. It’s possible that Han Tsui paid the three to kill him. He may simply have made enemies in jail. But the only sure thing we can glean from this is that he’s a tough street fighter. There’s no attempt made through explanation to engage our sympathies for him as a victim or to see him as a monster. It’s exactly the same when he leaves prison at the end of his sentence. We see behaviour which might be that of an obsessional stalker of young women, or it might be a man in pursuit of revenge. When he also takes an interest in the senior detective George Lam (Simon Yam) and later attacks one of the female detectives in her home, he may be showing himself as a man with a completely different agenda. Without any clarity, all we can do is watch as George Lam slowly unpicks the past case and unravels the truth of what happened both twenty years ago and after Wong’s release from jail. There’s no way for us to feel any sense of injustice if Wong was wrongly convicted because of the way he’s shown as acting on release.

Wong (Nick Cheung) a hard man behind bars


It’s also not clear why we’re given this particular backstory for George Lam. There’s a very deliberate parallelism to show him having lost his wife through suicide and bringing up a daughter of the same age as both the initial victim and Zoe (also played by Janice Man) the current daughter of the musical family. There are comparable tensions over dating. As an authoritarian father, Han Tsui warns his daughter against any fraternisation with the male sex. Lam’s daughter takes a boyfriend into her bedroom at home and tells her father to accept the reality of her coming of age. There’s no sign this set of coincidences creates any insights for the detective or in any way affects the relationship between the detective and the suspect. The only possible justification is as an excuse for making him more interested in cold cases. Just as he wants to prove his wife’s death was a murder rather than a suicide, he wants to spend time looking back at other old cases in the hope of finding injustice and correcting the record.

On-on Yu and Janice Man trying to make sense of it all


So there we have it. We can’t see this as a revenge story because, until near the end, we don’t know whether there’s actual cause for Wong to hate Han Tsui or his wife played by On-on Yu. Similarly, we can’t see it as a film about redemption because we don’t know what the past sins might be and therefore engage with the sinner as he or she struggles with the need to admit the error and make it right. All we can say is that, over the course of 108 minutes, we do eventually find out who did what to whom and why. I won’t spoil it for you. It’s a tragic story. But, to be honest, although I did end up understanding who the real victims were, Wong’s later behaviour is just irrational. Are we really supposed to think this set of experiences has caused a fine mind to engage in such a senseless endeavour? This leaves me with the following advice.


Nightfall is a puzzle film and, if you enjoy trying to put the pieces together, this will produce a not unpleasing experience for you. But what should have been a great emotional heart beating at the core of the film is missing. That’s a terrible shame. This could have been a really great film. Simon Yam and Nick Cheung are perfectly cast and, with the right script, we could have seen both men moving towards a satisfactory result for all involved. As it is, all we have is an ending with one note of hope — Simon Yam’s detective finally lets go of his wife’s case and accepts the possibility of a new relationship with one of the female detective in the team. Quite what his daughter will make of this is left unspoken.


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