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The Four, 四大名捕, or Si Da Ming Bu (2012)

July 27, 2012 2 comments

This has been a deeply frustrating experience. I like the original story on which The Four (2012) or Si Da Ming Bu is based, and even though the television version was drawn out too far and contained some unfortunate missteps, I went to the cinema prepared to like the big screen wuxia version. Indeed, the first five minutes seem to promise much. The cinematography and shot selection is particularly impressive as crane shots change the angle over street scenes and we follow a CGI bird as it flies over the roof tops to the Palace where we get our first view inside Department 6. This is the top policing agency in the Song Dynasty, and it both runs a spy network and has a paramilitary approach to the process of arrest. Obviously it can be a dangerous business to go up against potentially powerful kung fu masters, so this is SWAT with shields and spears ready to lock together to contain difficult unarmed (sic) criminals.

Heartless (Yifei Liu) looking emotionless

 

Anyway, the major problem surfaces almost immediately. I had great difficulty in following the plot. Usually, I have everything nailed down as I watch a film, but this time I emerged from the cinema and had to exchange notes with my wife while we tried to work out who was on which side and why people might have been doing whatever they were doing. Eventually, we arrived at a basic grasp of what we think happened, but we still can’t decide quite what the villain was aiming to achieve. I can’t bring myself to believe this was a plan to kill the Emperor, royal princes and the nobility because there just aren’t enough bodies (literally) available to see the assault through once the fighting begins and the capital is alerted. Worse, even if the Emperor’s army

Cold Blood (Chai Deng) looking hot

were to be defeated, there seems to be no planning for any kind of takeover. If you are planning a coup, you need a major team of people ready to step into key roles, taking command of tax collection, the military and other key departments of state. Yet all we ever see is one guy and some minions who start off counterfeiting the coinage and, when there’s an investigation, it escalates into an attack on the Prince. This seems completely illogical because there was a plan in motion to infiltrate Department 6 and, once that was under control, the villain could more or less do what he wanted without anyone investigating him. There was every reason not to attack the Prince, particularly in such a spectacular way.

Chaser (Ronald Cheng) useful if you’ve lost someone in a crowd

 

So after our family powwow, this is what we think happens in the first part of the film. We watch the arrival of a new group of female investigators led by Ji Yaohua (Jiang Yiyan) in Department 6. She, her second-in-command called Butterfly and the others who occupy screen time lolling around naked in a sauna (can’t think why they do that), are infiltrators sent by the villain Lord An (Wu Xiubo). The plan is slowly to kill all the more senior officers and allow them to rise through the ranks until they control Department 6. We then get into a pissing competition between Department 6 and the early version of the Divine Constabulary as to who has the better right to track down those responsible for the outbreak of counterfeiting in the capital. At this point, Zhuge Zhengwo (Anthony Wong Chau-Sang) (with Sheren Tang in attendance to bring “free” food and wine from her Inn to feed the constabulary family) has his adopted “daughter” Heartless (Yifei Liu) and Iron Fist (Collin Chu) in place as constables. In the first major attempt to arrest one the the leading villains, Zhuge Zhengwo quickly identifies Chaser (Ronald Cheng) in the crowded inn as Constable material and saves him from arrest by Department 6. The final recruit comes courtesy of Department 6 which sends Cold Blood (Chai Deng) as an undercover agent. We then get the traditional bonding sequences as our four find reasons to fight each other so they can be embarrassed into being friends.

Iron Fist (Collin Chu) can put together a wheelchair out of scrap metal

 

Now a few words about the titular four. Personally, I’m always in favour of realism when it comes to fighting abilities. This does not mean I’m against wire work and the more balletic moves. But I think reliance on supernatural skills is lazy. This might be different if we were watching a Marvel or DC Comics blockbuster. We accept Professor Xavier in his wheelchair using mutant psi powers because the whole is intended to be science fiction. Similarly, Wolverine’s ability to grow hairy and throw people around using super strength is vaguely credible because we’ve seen what he had to go through when William Stryker replaced his bones with adamantium. However, seeing Heartless in her wheelchair use telekinesis and telepathy is not really playing the fantasy game. Similarly, Cold Blood’s ability to turn into a wolf, or Iron Fist’s ability to wield fire is not the same as using steampunk technology to weaponise the wheelchair or being good with a sword. Lord An gets in on the mutant powers with the manipulation of both fire and ice. Even Zhuge Zhengwo turns out to be Magneto with an ability to pull metal needles out of inconvenient places.

Lord An (Wu Xiubo) with ice and fire on tap

 

At every turn, this plot either grinds to a halt while the emotional Heartless and Cold Blood, the wolfman, decide whether their shared love of a puppy makes them suitable sex partners, or we get the completely redundant introduction of zombies. Yes, there’s a zombie plague in the original story as one village falls prey to an infection, but this is recruiting active and motivated soldiers from the ranks of the dead. There’s no explanation of how they are capable of fighting in an orderly way. There’s also a major distinction between the first fight involving one zombie which survives a major assault by the best humans can bring to bear until Chaser accidentally triumphs, and the massed ranks which are mown down rather more easily by all-comers.

 

Directors Gordon Chan and Janet Chun should have had people on set telling them when the plot made no sense. It costs little or nothing to spend an extra moment making sure we get a clear view of people or a short explanation of why they act as they do. Merely making the film look good is never enough on its own. If directors can’t communicate a coherent plot, all they do is lose the audience’s interest. In fact this happened around us with many giving up and texting their friends until the next action set piece came along. The Four (2012) or Si Da Ming Bu is not recommended unless you’re into wuxia regardless of plot.

 

For a review of the television series, see The Four or Shao Nian Si Da Ming Bu (2008)

 

Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (2010) — episodes 12 to the end

December 12, 2011 Leave a comment

With the help of a little brandy in my coffee, the story trudges on with a new theme as locusts threaten the crops. Naturally, everyone except Hong Bo Kei, (Sheren Tang), Chai Kau (Wayne Lai) and a few old farmers in the fields who remember the last plague, want to see the warning signs. So Hong Bo Kei orders an early harvest even though this will mean losing about 80% of the planting. She reasons it’s better to have something than nothing. Everyone else thinks she’s nuts and ignores the threat. Chai Kau and the loyal workers then build decoy grain storage to deceive the local people into thinking there’s enough rice to feed them all. In the midst of all this, Cheung Kiu (Elliot Yue) revives and, as the locust swarm descends, listens to the lies of Yan Fung Yee (Susan Tse) about how Cheung Bit Man (Pierre Ngo) has been the saviour of the business. As intended, the local people are deceived by the granaries and the panic subsides. A friend then tells Chai Kau it was Cheung Bit Man who engineered his capture by Pang Hang (Lee Sing Cheung). Now, in the midst of all the chaos, Chai Kau is out for revenge.

Sheren Tang and Wayne Lai join the rebellion

In due course, Pang Heng catches his nephew and mistress without their clothes on. He then blackmails Hong Bo Kei into paying a large sum of hush money. She obviously wants to avoid Cheung Kiu being upset. Unfortunately, Cheung Bit Man gets all excited when he gets home and blurts out a completely distorted version of reality. At this point, his mother takes matters into her own hands and beats him black and blue — a remedy that should have been routinely applied from an early age. This keeps him in the home although he’s hanging by a thread. Meanwhile, Chai Kau and Hong Bo Kei conspire to displace Pang Heng’s monopoly on the river route. Fortunately, the Prince (Kwok Fung) reappears to find out why rice is more expensive when it comes from this part of China. When he discovers the protection racket, he orders open competition on the river route. For different reasons, this leaves both Cheung Bit Man and Pang Heng plotting revenge. Meanwhile, even though he’s only got a few episodes left to live, Cheung Kiu goes off into the countryside to get his third wife Lau Fong (Kara Hui) to come back. Pang Kiu (Kiki Sheung), the second wife, decides she can’t stand living in the same household as Hong Bo Kei so, when Cheung Bit Mo (Kelvin Leung) her son is due to take the exams to enter the civil service, she goes off with him.

The mountain men are now paying Chai Kau to plot their dominance of the water route and, to rub Pang Heng up the wrong way, our hero takes in the ex-mistress who is out on the streets begging. Wedding bells are in the offing here as for Cheung Bit Ching (Ron Ng) who’s lining up to marry the confidence trickster who cheated him when they first met. Meanwhile, Cheung Bit Man has hired three assassins who wait in the shadows to kill Chai Kau. On the night of his wedding celebration, they carry his drunken form to the lake, stab him and throw him in, weighted down with a rock. Back in the mainstream plot, Cheung Kiu has formally made two wills and left them with the Price while, in an adjoining province, the Taiping Rebellion is starting and the Longhairs have begun their onslaught. This now threatens the second wife and her son. With Chai Kau still missing, the mountain men rally to fight Pang Heng, but Hong Bo Kei talks them out of a direct attack. When she confronts Pang Heng, he tells her of the three assassins he has seen about town. Further investigation finds Cheung Bit Man paying them off. The problem is evidence. As the Qing Dynasty sends troops to confront the rebels, the local Magistrate tries to extort rice from Hong Bo Kei. She refuses, but Yan Fung Yee and Cheung Bit Man offer him a bribe to help them grab the business when Cheung Kiu finally dies.

Pierre Ngo sets fire to the grain store

With Cheung Kiu finally dead, the corrupt wing of the family now tries simple fraud to seize the business, but the Prince is on hand to see Hong Bo Kei remains in charge. Chai Kau now re-emerges (how disappointing he didn’t actually die) and promises revenge. With Cheung Bit Man released from jail for lack of evidence on the murder charge, Chai Kau is plotting a murder of his own despite Hong Bo Kei’s attempts to dissuade him. The Longhair rebels may be coming our way having incidentally killed the second wife. With any luck, they will kill the entire cast before things get any more awful. While we wait for the rebels, Cheung Bit Man finds out Chai Kau is alive and sets a trap to kill him, but our hero turns out to be bulletproof as well as stabproof. The Longhairs kill the leader of the mountain men so the wounded Chai Kau is promoted to Boss. He’s determined to make a profit and keep Wuxia safe. He makes another attempt to kill Cheung Bit Man, but Hong Bo Kei persuades him not to do it and the boy runs into hiding. When the rebels finally arrive, it turns out the General is a childhood friend of Pang Heng who’s put in charge of the local militia. A trap is set by Yan Fung Yee to get Hong Bo Kei out of the way but, not surprisingly, it fails. Nevertheless, the calm following the General’s arrival is disturbed.

Anyway, it turns out these rebels are awfully nice chaps (not at all as portrayed in the history books) and, once Hong Bo Kei and Chai Kau have set the General straight on who the good guys are, Pang Heng has to do the dog walk (albeit with pig bones), while Yan Fung Yee and Cheung Bit Man run off with the money they had buried under a tree in the family house’s garden. As the troops loyal to the Qing Dynasty approach, the General shoots himself in the head and those who have been collaborating to ensure the safety of Wuxia debate how to avoid being killed. In the end, they run off with the retreating rebels except the Qing troops come prematurely and they are cut off.

Now comes retribution from the Qing troops and, with the corrupt magistrate’s return, the Yan Fung Yee and Pang Heng show is running again. This time, Hong Bo Kei and Chai Kau are hauled off to jail. This prompts the mouse-like Lau Fong to make the dangerous journey to Nanking to fetch the Prince. She gets the message through but dies in the attempt. The Prince’s arrival sees everyone back in the right place except Chai Kau now has consumption and feels like death is imminent. Cheung Bit Man is out of control and, egged on by Uncle Pang Heng, they decide the raid the family home and burn down the rice stores. Unfortunately, Bit Man contrives to mess up even this simple task and burns to death. The robbery is more successful and Pang Heng briefly escapes with the family jewels. There’s then a terrible melodramatic ending as Yan Fung Yee raves in front of what’s left of the household, explaining how her son burned himself to death but was not a bad boy. This leaves her less than fully sane in her mother-in-law’s care. For us, there are just two things to resolve. The keys get handed over to Cheung Bit Ching, allowing fourth wife to retire, and Chai Kau goes off with Father Brown. It seems Western medicine is arriving in China and may be able to save him. At the last moment, his wife tells Hong Bo Kei to go in her place and the two soul mates have two years of happiness before the consumption finally drags him off.

Frankly, this has been an embarrassingly bad serial with the thinnest of plots and everything apart from an opening sequence showing the Prince travelling across country and the ending by the river done on the cheap in the same sets. This seriously limited the scope for drama with hammy acting coming to the fore with Pierre Ngo as Cheung Bit Man growing more obviously insane as the episodes passed, Lee Sing Cheung as Pang Heng rolling his eyes, curling his lip and trying to look tough as the local triad boss, and Susan Tse as Yan Fung Yee contriving to look like the wicked witch except when her hair got all mussed up at the end. Ron Ngo wasn’t given much to do and poor Wayne Lai had a thankless role with him running hot and cold at the beginning and then getting all noble at the end. Only Sheren Tang emerges with any credit. She did at least come over as sincere.

For the review of the first episodes see: Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (2010) — episodes 1 to 11.

Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (2010) — episodes 1 to 11

November 20, 2011 2 comments

Far be it for me to start off along the expected route but, as I begin watching this series, I’m immediately reminded of Safe Guards or Tie Xue Bao Biao, which was aired by TVB in 2006. This is a story about a family running a successful business with succession issues. It’s always the way when you have sons, in this case, the competent one who can save the business is adopted and so hated by the natural heirs. Perhaps this overlap in my mind is inspired by the presence of Kwok Fung who was the patriarch of the family in Safe Guards and plays the pivotal Prince in the first episodes of Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (broadcast by TVB in 2010). Another figure reappearing is Wayne Lai who was the patriarch’s brother in Safe Guards and now appears as Chai Kau, an inexperienced and temperamental man learning fast how to survive in a big city. When we get to the third wife, Lau Fong it seems she was an armed guard and uses the same knife-in-the-shoe trick. There’s an amazing loss of confidence in this character who’s shown physically fighting in a flashback, but has become a frightened mouse by the time this series starts.

Hong Bo Kei (Sheren Tang) as the loyal matriarch

Yes, in Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong there’s already something deeply familiar about the set up with three stepbrothers — Cheung Bit Man (Pierre Ngo), Cheung Bit Mo (Kelvin Leung), and Cheung Bit Ching (Ron Ng) — one of whom is obviously devious and somewhat corrupt, the dim one and the competent one. At the start of the first episode, there are three wives — Yan Fung Yee (Susan Tse), Pang Kiu (Kiki Sheung) and Lau Fong — for the wealthy rice producer and dealer Cheung Kiu (Elliot Yue) and a fourth Hong Bo Kei (Sheren Tang) is added. Needless to say, this fourth wife is obviously going to be the saviour before and after her husband falls into a coma. This is not to predict this is going to be a boring rerun. In fact, Safe Guards was somewhat poor so it’s not a high bar to jump over.

The mainland Chinese are also fairly contemptuous of this new serial, seeing an overlap with The Grand Gate Mansion or Da Zhai Men which is also about a Qing Dynasty family business dealing in TCM. It ran for some 80 episodes and followed the generations through to the 1950s. In that it has a matriarchal rather than a patriarchal figure, it’s perhaps slightly closer to Rosy Business in style but rather more ambitious in coverage through time. The mainland dramas tend to focus on the historical period as much as the drama, ensuring we get a good view of the struggle the characters have to survive. The Hong Kong equivalents pay less attention to the history and just get on with the story.

Chai Kau (Wayne Lai) running hot and cold

So here comes that story. Hong Bo Kei is the only survivor of a magistrate’s family who took the Emperor’s rice to feed the starving poor. She’s been working in the Prince’s home as a cook but now marries into the rice magnate’s family. As the first-born son, Cheung Bit Man thinks he’s entitled to inherit, pays the men below market rates and cheats them whenever possible. When he asks the men how to increase rice production, Chai Kau tells him to kill all the birds. Fortunately, Hong Bo Kei is able to stop this and so avoid the inevitable famine. Cheung Bit Man son took the credit for the idea and so gets the blame. Kidnappers then take Cheung Bit Mo (only his mother would notice this loss). Hong Bo Kei takes command and, with the help of Chai Kau, tricks the kidnappers into running away. When Cheung Bit Man tries to take yet more credit, his father gets so angry the disinheritance now looks a certainty. With famine in adjacent provinces, the local triad run by Pang Hang (Lee Sing Cheung) the brother of the second wife, demands a 30% increase in shipping costs. Chai Kau has been humiliated by the triad boss three times and wants revenge. He proposes to move the rice across the land. It’s more expensive but better than paying more to the triad.

Yan Fung Yee (Susan Tse) as troublemaker in chief

Except it would be wiser to contact known gangsters on the route before setting off. That way, you can buy safe passage. What we actually have is a stupid attempt to run the blockade and have the rice stolen. Now our intrepid Chai Kau has to use his wiles to get the rice back. Frankly, this is tedious and uninvolving. But, when the new armed guards bring the rice into town, it sets up the potential for intergang rivalry. Yet this fizzles out as a compromise is reached with the delivery being split between the two gangs. We then get into the tired plot situation of the owner of the business dropping into a coma without making a definitive arrangement leaving control of the business to Hong Bo Kei. Yan Fung Yee convinces Pang Kiu into turning against Hong Bo Kei. Lau Fong is, as usual, annoyingly weepy and submissive. After some interminable twists and turns, Hong Bo Kei is confirmed in charge. This is a serious waste of two hours.

Ron Ng and Kelvin Leung: the good and the dim

At this point, we get into a tiresome subplot involving Chai Kau. Pang Heng has a mistress who is routinely unfaithful with Cheung Bit Man. He persuades her to seduce Chai Kau and then summons Pang Heng so the man can be caught in flagrante delicto. Yet again Hong Bo Kei has to save him. This time Pang Heng and his gang propose to torch Chai Kau. Once the immediate threat is over, the town shuns Chai Kau as a rapist so he’s thinking of running away to hide with the gang in the hills. This gang is proposing to go straight and run a haulage business. They want Chai Kau’s skills to make it a success. Yan Fung Yee then incites the second wife to frame some servants for theft. The idea is to drive out everyone loyal to Hong Bo Kei. Meanwhile, the old master just lies there with an occasional twitch of a finger to prove he’s still alive.

I take it back. Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong makes Safe Guards or Tie Xue Bao Biao look good. Both TVB serials are made on the cheap with threadbare stories. The reason for giving the nod to Safe Guards is that it was first in time with this plot and it did have slightly better production values. I suppose I will watch this to the end — I am, after all almost halfway through — but I will need plenty of alcohol to get me through.

For the review of the second half see: Rosy Business or Jin Guo Xiao Xiong (2010) — episodes 12 to the end.

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