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Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan (2011)

November 30, 2011 2 comments

Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan is a film that could have been very good with a large cash fund made available by producer Jackie Chan. It’s is set in a period of Chinese history where myths combine nicely with what we suppose was the reality, and gives film-makers the chance to really get their teeth into a good story. Set in the eleventh century, we follow on from the television series, the Young Warriors of the Yang Clan where most of the male line of Yang Generals has been wiped out thanks to the usual duplicity of senior court officers. The only General left is Yang Zongbao (Richie Ren) and he’s apparently cut down in a border confrontation with the army of Western Xia at Tianmenguan Pass when Pang (Ma Wu) refuses to send reinforcements (the standard way of disposing of a rival). With the invading army looking a real threat, the corrupt Emperor sends out all the widows plus a token army of men to defend the Song Dynasty from ruin. For those of you not into this particular piece of history, legend says the women of the Yang family were efficient and effective fighters, equally as good as their husbands but, because of the usual sexism of the day, they were always left behind to guard the children. In this case, however, there’s no choice when the Emperor’s command comes in. To protect the last of the male line, Yang Wenguang (Xiao Ming-Yuh), who is designated the leader, Taijun (Pei-pei Cheng), Mu Guiying (Cecelia Cheung) and the legendary Amazons set out for war.

Richie Ren as a warrior and before becoming a guerilla

 

At this point, I would like to be able to say we have an intelligent use of military strategy through which the outnumbered and physically weaker Amazons slowly wear down the invaders, pulling them into situations where their physical superiority will not overwhelm the women. Except the initial battle featuring Yang Zongbao set the tone for the rest of the film. The invaders pulled up just short of the city and attacked it with trebuchets. A few well directed stones brought down the walls at a conveniently limited point and out stepped the Yang hero to keep the invaders at bay. He whirled his guan dao around a bit, seemingly invincible, then ran back inside so he could send off a carrier pigeon to tell his wife he’s in trouble. During this time out, the enemy waited respectfully outside the city. When the bird was released, the enemy also released two predator birds, but two convenient archers on the city walls shot them down. Our hero then walked back out and started fighting again. In other words, it’s laughable as a siege. The walls are breached in minutes and then a few soldiers come forward to fight one man. I hadn’t realised battles were spectator sports for both sides.

Cecilia Cheung as a warrior at bay

 

Anyway, this sets the trend for fights to be very small scale, with ludicrously inept wire work and almost no martial arts skill on display. Wherever possible, these fights seem to be shot on a sound stage with green screen generated scenery around the actual fighters. Frankly, I can’t remember seeing a war film being shot in this incredible way. Under normal circumstances, you have waves of soldiers, backed up by cavalry, charging at each other and generally hacking each other to pieces. These have to be the worst choreographed battle scenes I have ever seen on a big screen. Indeed, most efforts for made-for-television series are better. To add further embarrassment, television companies are usually too professional to speed up the action. Not our director Frankie Chan. Here we have obviously trotting horses moving rapidly across the screen and, wherever possible, the fight scenes are accelerated and cut in a vain attempt to hide the fact most of the women couldn’t fight their way out of a paper bag.

 

But the real highlight comes when a section of our Amazon army gets itself caught in what should be a kill zone. This is supposedly a dead-end canyon. They are herded in and the enemy roll down burning tumbleweeds. Fortunately, the Amazons can retreat into a massive cave system — no attempt has been made to block the entrance. It’s sufficiently massive that everyone can run through it and all the burning bundles can bounce their way through after them. Just when you thought it couldn’t get any more silly, the Amazons run out on to a ledge. There’s a chasm to cross. So, quick as a flash, they take off their chain mail and unravel it, platting the chains into two ropes. Archers then shoot these cables across the chasm, soldiers inch across and lie on top of these wires as the aged Pei-pei Cheng and others walk across their backs to safety.

Pei-pei Cheng as a matriarch getting ready to march to war

 

To cut a tediously long story short, it inevitably turns out that not only did our Yang hero survive, but he was also able to recruit and train guerillas who infiltrate the enemy and cause havoc in various unlikely ways. There’s a little incomprehensible politicking as Pang threatens not to send any reinforcements (again) and then victory as the enemy leader is cut down (although many of the Amazons and the older Yang hero die).

 

Frankly, I can’t imagine what the production team thought they were doing. Absolutely everything is at an unprecedented level of amateurishness. It’s cringeworthy from start to finish. The acting is wooden and, to be honest, I gave up trying to work out which Amazon was which. In any event, the individual characterisation was irrelevant. All the women were required to do was kill a few men, often with blood spurting out from unexpected places, and then perish in these individual acts of heroism. Legendary Amazons or Yang men nv jiang zhi jun ling ru shan is the second worst film of 2011 and you should only pay to see it if you can find humour in completely inept film-making.

 

Life Without Principle or Dyut meng gam (2011)

November 1, 2011 Leave a comment

Perhaps it’s rather depressing to start with a hope that all the films featuring greed as if it’s endemic to Hong Kong are exaggerated. Yet, the more consistently the theme appears, as in The Heart of Greed (2007) by TVB, the more I’m drawn to the conclusion this small country, now run under the “one-China” system, is caught up in the worst excess of the vice. In the West, we’re perhaps more used to thinking of the Gordon Gekko stereotype as representing the worst of our own brand of capitalism, particularly as practised by the banks. Yet it’s daunting to consider the sheer number of Hong Kongers that play the various markets and, if that’s not enough action, then turn to more conventional gambling. Fairly recent research shows about 70% of the population engage in at least one form of gambling with slightly more than half those gambling being under the age of twenty-one. This reflects a widespread belief that “fate” can be controlled in the search for ways of making quick money.

Panther (Ching Wan Lau) defends himself

 

Life Without Principle or Dyut meng gam revolves around a day in the life of Teresa (Denise Ho) a bank employee who faces the daily grind of trying to sell investments to anyone with savings. Her lot is not a happy one because she has to take the abuse when she cold calls, and the anger when the investments she sells fail to deliver the expected high returns. Worse, her sales record is the worst in her team and she knows she will be the next one fired. Her morning then runs with two extremes and one in the middle walking through her door. She has a little old lady (So Hang-Shuen) who knows nothing about investment, but feels the nominal interest rates paid on savings are an insult. After some negotiation, the innocent mark buys units in an investment trust based on the BRIC economies. She’s officially certified low risk. This is high risk investment and we all know it’s not going to work out well. The second client is Connie (Myolie Wu), a police inspector’s wife, who wants a mortgage to buy a flat. This is a no-brainer. Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren) is a civil servant with a solid salary and can afford this loan. The final client is Yuen (Lo Hoi-Pang) a money lender who hoards cash so it’s available to be lent out at high rates of interest. When she tries to sell him an investment, he gives her chapter and verse on why her product is a bad deal. Naturally, she knows he speaks the truth. He’s come to collect HK$10 million but, in a couple of angry telephone calls, this is reduced to $5 million because the borrower is not promising enough security. This leaves $5 million in the hands of Teresa without a signed deposit slip as the moneylender heads off to the underground car park. Sadly, he’s then attacked by a wannabe thief, and they beat each other to death. The money disappears and, miracle of miracles, it looks as though Teresa may be able to pocket the $5 million.

Teresa (Denise Ho) has another bad day

 

It should be said this is a key day in the history of the world’s stock exchanges when the possibility of the Greek Government’s default emerged and the Euro tanked. Bearing this fact in mind, we then have a long flashback which is very badly signalled. Frankly, I was confused as we switched into a completely different narrative thread featuring Panther (Ching Wan Lau), a minder for triad bosses who’s fanatically loyal, as honest as the day is long, and fascinated by patterns in betting behaviour. We first watch him at work collecting hong baos before a celebratory dinner, then follow him as he raises the money to bail out his sworn brother gangster (Siu-Fai Eddie Cheung) who’s been arrested yet again. One of those touched for money is a karung guni man who prospers by collecting paper and cardboard boxes. He’s one of the few people we meet who makes an honest living. He matches the old man in the lift who sees only hopelessness for those at the bottom of the heap yet who’s talked out of committing suicide by Inspector Cheung. Later we have the mirror image of hard work and its just rewards when Inspector Cheung interviews the wannabe robber’s girlfriend (J.J. Jia). She’s aggressively unapologetic for seeing robbery as the best way to get ahead in Hong Kong. Her anger at her boyfriend’s incompetence and unfortunate demise is beautifully judged.

Inspector Cheung (Richie Ren) and Connie (Myolie Wu) thinking about the future

 

Anyway, Panther turns out to be the pivotal figure as he volunteers to help an old friend who runs an intermediate level share-dealing operation. This friend anticipates a market drop and tries to close out his primary account with a triad boss. This attempted hack is immediately identified and he then needs to borrow from the loan shark to cover his losses. Panther is therefore the one who picks up the $5 million after the independent robber is beaten to a pulp.

 

If this was a morality tale, it would be good to report that virtue was rewarded and the sinners were all punished, but life never works out like that. Somehow, career criminals always seem to end up more wealthy than when they started, honest police officers stay poor throughout, and bank employees get fired when they fail to hit their targets. So, through a mixture of well-honed skills, righteousness and blind luck, some get ahead while others are impoverished as the world share markets prove volatile. Although Life Without Principle or Dyut meng gam starts slowly and is confusing when it switches in time, it builds to a conclusion no-one should want to argue with. It’s not a case of just deserts, but director Johnnie To seems to strike the right balance between winners and losers. Think of it as a thriller in that people are killed in the pursuit of money, a police procedural in that someone must make an effort to enforce the law, and a kind of comedy in that for someone to win on a bet, others must lose.

 

Hong Kong director Johnnie To Kei-fung won best director for Life Without Principle and Lau Ching Wan was named best actor for his role at Taiwan’s Golden Horse Film Awards 2012.

 

Other films featuring Lau Ching Wan:
The Bullet Vanishes or Xiao shi de zi dan (2012)
The Great Magician
Mad Detective or San taam
Overheard
Overheard 2

 

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