Thursday, February 4th, 2010
In the last installment of this two-entry catch-up of 2009 movies, I wrote about 4 films that Kevin Ma reviewed and I didn’t. Here are 5 more movies that I didn’t review, written up here in glorious, snarky and completely unprofessional blog review format. Try to contain your excitement and/or anger. Eason Chan didn’t, and look what happened to him:
“As soon as my nose stops bleeding,
your website is going down!”
Onward and upwards:
“You do NOT make fun of my hair! Got that?!?”
Viva TVB! Hong Kong’s leading entertainment monopoly threw their hat back into the movie arena with this “prequel” to their hit drama E.U., which tells the backstory of Michael Tse’s undercover cop/gangster character Laughing Gor. Laughing Gor was apparently so popular on E.U. that when he died midway through the drama, it created an outpouring of support. Laughing Gor must be pretty kickass.
Well, Laughing Gor might have been hot stuff in E.U. but in TURNING POINT he takes a backseat to the scene-stealing antics of Anthony Wong and Francis Ng. Both overact, but deceptively. Wong does so via his bizarre wardrobe and completely unnecessary character tics, whereas Ng does it via a blustery triad character who turns out to be pretty damn awesome. When people discuss who Hong Kong’s best actor is, it’s fair to throw both Anthony Wong and Francis Ng’s hats into the ring. This time Ng emerges victorious, with both he and Wong earning a decisive victory over the comparatively uninteresting Michael Tse.
The film itself? Entertaining despite being over plotted and full of egregious product placement. Considering its TVB backing, TURNING POINT is fun, above-average stuff that more-or-less earned its status as one of the year’s highest-grossing locals films. Herman Yau isn’t the flashiest director around, but he knows when and where to take control of his films. With TURNING POINT, he goes smartly commercial. That, and the super-packed cast (Including Yuen Biao. Yuen Biao!), make this one of the year’s better diversions.
I give this 7 out of 10 sticks of Anthony Wong-endorsed lip gloss.
“Aim for the fat guy in the third row.”
Johnnie To, we love you, but when you get too self-referential it can get a bit trying. VENGEANCE earned some critical disapproval because it pretty much tread on Johnnie To’s old territory, recycling themes of brotherhood, honor, and the age-old “I’m losing my memory” trope that seems to appear in at least one Hong Kong film per year. Not one to tire of a good thing, To and co-conspirator Wai Ka-Fai revisit the quirky, ironic hitman genre with VENGEANCE.
The generic elements aren’t hard to catch. VENGEANCE involves a French chef (Johnny Hallyday) who was once a FULLTIME KILLER, but now he seeks FINAL JUSTICE against the EXECUTIONERS who put his daughter (Sylvie Testud) in the hospital and her family in the morgue. A HEROIC TRIO of gangland assassins (Anthony Wong, Lam Suet, Gordon Lam) offers to HELP him with his MISSION while risking being EXILED by their over-the-top triad boss (Simon Yam). However, the chef is RUNNING OUT OF TIME thanks to a BULLET IN THE HEAD that may result in a SCARRED MEMORY. Yes, Johnnie To was not involved in all those films. Sorry for stretching this joke out.
VENGEANCE is actually better than the disappointment that its enlarged expectations might engender. Its action sequences are somewhat ridiculous, the storyline lathered in Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fai’s trademark irony, and there are glaring errors in continuity and logic. Also, some touches are just flat-out cheese. At the same time, VENGEANCE is stylish, creative and more fun than it really should be. This is Johnnie To in EXILED mode, i.e. delivering something for the fans, with the two films containing a similar amount of self-amused, postmodern action movie touches. It is pretty much a retread from To, but a fairly acceptable one.
Let’s look at it this way: would people prefer a mix of RUNNING OUT OF TIME and EXILED, or do they want another LINGER? I’d actually go for another NEEDING YOU, but I’m sure many people in Europe and North America would prefer my fiery death before Johnnie To stooped to that. So yeah, VENGEANCE is good enough for Milkyway fans. For now. And hey, Gordon Lam and Lam Suet are dubbed by Terence Yin and Conroy Chan. The film also introduces a fine solution to dirty dishes: skeet shooting! Just for those touches, VENGEANCE is the very definition of awesome.
I give this 6 out of 10 bullet-riddled jackets.
THE FOUNDING OF A REPUBLIC
“You appeared in SNIPER? What the hell were you thinking?”
As good as a movie about the founding of the Chinese Communist Party could possibly be, and I say that with all sincerity. FOUNDING OF A REPUBLIC is a commercial for Mao Tse-Tung (Or is it Mao Zedong? Someone tell me before I’m arrested.), but it’s interesting and even a little surprising, actually making both Mao Tse-Tung and Chiang Kai-Shek into sympathetic, likable guys. Chiang Kai-Shek is actually more compelling than Mao Tse-Tung here, a very unexpected move from the filmmakers. Many of the other characters are merely names or ciphers, but since they’re played by a who’s who of Chinese cinema actors, any star-gazing audience should not complain.
Ultimately, the whole thing turns out to be a whole lot better than the “our way or the highway” film that FOUNDING OF A REPUBLIC threatened to be. There’s a lot that’s flawed - needless roles, pointless “moments” and some ill-placed humor - but overall, this is a decent historical panorama that can intrigue uninitiated audiences. That is, if those audiences are prepared for a 150 minute epic about a bunch of meetings. Really, that’s what this film is: lots of people talking, talking, before moving elsewhere to talk some more. Sometimes there’s some tension, but usually it’s resolved by someone talking to someone else. If you can handle that, then this movie delivers more than a bunch of babbling. It’s well made, has oodles of pretty (and not so pretty) faces, and provides some human drama beneath the political maneuvering and pontificating.
For an even easier recommendation, ask yourself this: do you like China? Or do you loathe China? FOUNDING OF A REPUBLIC will not change the mind of either side, so if you adhere to one opinion staunchly then you’re already halfway to liking or hating the film. The other half of the equation? Whether or not lots of dialogue puts you to sleep.
My rating: 7 out of 10 quick cat naps in the the cinema.
Wong Ka-Jeng at the 10th Anniversary
screening of PARA PARA SAKURA
KJ contains the best character in any film this year - he just happens to be a real person. Music prodigy Wong Ka-Jeng (or KJ) is a real piece of work, and a guy that you can like while simultaneously being annoyed with. It’s easy to appreciate his musical talent and drive for perfection - though that appreciation is tempered by the amusement or apprehension gleamed from the self-righteous emotions and possible twisted personality that he displays. A charismatic, self-absorbed iconoclast, KJ would be a great movie character. However, this documentary pretty much reveals why movie characters only work in the movies - because in real life, those people would be hell to hang around with.
There are some choices made in Cheung King-Wai’s documentary that earn a raised eyebrow. Cheung manipulates information and audience knowledge, revealing some should-be-known information in near-narrative fashion. Such technique is not always kosher in the supposedly impartial world of documentary, but KJ is a strong and very moving film, and ably conveys the complexities and even tragedies associated with being a talented, mercurial human being. KJ is about a talented, self-centered, insufferable jerk and it makes you care, sympathize and even admire him - and that’s a real accomplishment. The crying at my screening rivaled the bawling I witnessed at DEPARTURES.
FYI, I was not among the crying. The only movie I’ve ever cried at was THE WESLEY’S MYSTERIOUS FILE, because someone I knew saw me there. I killed him afterwards.
I give this 9 crying violinists out of 10. And I’m probably being mean.
BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS
“Nic, it’s just Edison! You don’t have to kill him! He’s not worth it, man.”
This is the tale of two movies. The first movie: a rousing political thriller about a conspiracy to take down Sun Yat-Sen, and the brave, sometimes average individuals who band together to protect him from death - which, by the way, will destroy more than just one man. IT WILL END THE FUTURE OF AN ENTIRE NATION. Wow, that’s drama, and it’s especially potent with a fat rearview mirror telling us that Sun Yat-Sen was a successful rabble rouser. He who writes history decides what matters. This first movie is intriguing and involving, despite some odd casting choices and a somewhat overwrought nationalism.
The second movie? A balls-to-the-wall action epic about some kickass martial arts masters who somehow can take down armies of Chinese people in finely-tailored western suits while also bravely facing their own deaths - all because they know that what they do will decide the fate of a nation. Once again, a rearview mirror is fully in effect, but who cares when the action includes NBA giant Mengke Bateer (3.4 ppg, 2.5 rpg) dunking melons on some bad guy’s head, while China popstar Li Yuchun (0 ppg, 0 mpg) whales away with fetching tomboy ferocity. There’s also a man called Donnie, who kicks so much ass that it’s shameful. One major action sequence involves super wirework and a battle cry from Donnie Yen that he stole from one of his earlier movies. BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS also introduces us to a matchup for the ages: Donnie Yen vs. Horse. It doesn’t matter who loses - the audience wins either way.
The bad news: neither of these halves really fits together comfortably, because the whole thing is told with such overwrought self-importance that it misplaces its historical relevance. At the same time, the film engages and entertains enough that it can easily get some audiences to do their own research on what was true and what was not. Those who aren’t interested in history at least get Nicholas Tse, who better win something for his affecting turn as a simpleton rickshaw driver who volunteers to have his ass kicked by Hu Jun because IT WILL SAVE A COUNTRY. I really didn’t care if the bodyguards saved Sun Yat-Sen, but I cared a hell of a lot whether or not Nic Tse would make it to the end. And I cared about Leon Lai because he stole Ekin Cheng’s hair and moves from A MAN CALLED HERO. BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS does enough well to earn a thumbs up.
Long story short: BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS is a modern, overwrought equivalent of a ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA movie. This is an action-packed epic that plays fast-and-loose with history in order to impress, educate and entertain. Does it do so evenly? Not at all. Convincingly? Sure - if you want a tense historical drama that transforms into an emotionally-charged action movie AND if you’re perfectly cool with Donnie Yen trying to heist the whole thing when the third act rolls around. BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS won’t make my Top 5 of 2009, but Top 10? It may squeeze in.
I give BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSIN 8 out of 10 unfortunate CGI horses.
That’s it for this catch-up entry! After this, it’s back to the overwritten, boring and stodgy reviews at the main LoveHKFilm.com site. You know, the part of this website that fewer people read.