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… On this day, I see clearly, everything has come to life.

Note: This blog expresses only the opinions of the blog owner,
and does not represent the opinion of any organization or blog
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Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

Thoughts on IT HAD TO BE YOU

As my hot flight attendant girlfriend is away (probably out two-timing me), I’ve got nothing to do but walk Tobias, my imaginary dog, come home, make some horribly expensive coffee, put on a Faye Wong CD and cook myself some instant noodles after putting on a wig and my late wife’s dress. With all that done, I have some time on my hands to share some thoughts on IT HAD TO BE YOU.

IT HAD TO BE YOU
後備甜心

Directors: Andrew Lo Wang-Hin, Maurice Li Ming-Man
Cast: Karena Lam Ka-Yan (Jill), Ekin Cheng Yi-Kin (Jack), Eric Tsang Chi-Wai (Jason), Harvey Hu Bing (Chi On), Bobo Chan Man-Woon (Grace), Nicola Cheung Sun-Yu (Moon), Kiki Sheung Tin-Ngor (Jill’s Mom)

PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: After watching a slate of “Chinese epics made for the international market”, a depressing Ann Hui film and a decent attempt at a classic HK action film, I was ready for something light. My OMNI-2 “Super Cinema Night” recording of IT HAD TO BE YOU seemed to fit the bill. IT HAD TO BE YOU is an UFO film so you have to expect a star-studded cast, interesting characters, a solid story, great production values and a glossy urban setting. After all, UFO is responsible for some films that I look back upon fondly: HE AIN’T HEAVY, HE’S MY FATHER (a classic starring the two Tony Leungs), LOST AND FOUND and the under-appreciated AND I HATE YOU SO. Of course, UFO has had their share of misfires — like TWELVE NIGHTS and LAVENDER — but, generally speaking, the UFO label means quality HK romance/drama just like the Milkyway label means quality HK action/drama.

AFTER THE MOVIE: IT HAD TO BE YOU turned out to be one of those middling films that’s somewhat disappointing but not particularly vexing. It doesn’t lend itself to penetrating analysis so, instead of a full-blown review, I’m just going to write some bullet points on stuff I liked and didn’t like then wrap everything up with a few words.

THE GOOD:

- Karena Lam Ka-Yan doing the cute schtick. If you like Karena Lam and you enjoy watching actresses doing the cute schtick then this is the film for you. From beginning to end, Lam has the “pedal to the metal” on the cute accelerator. This means, of course, that if you don’t like the cute schtick, then Karena Lam’s performance is going to grate on you. More on this later …

- Ekin Cheng Yi-Kin turns in a solid performance. As Kozo over at LoveHKFilm points out in his review, ol’ Noodle sheds his usual “thirtysomething teenager” persona for a mature, level-headed guy persona. This is a welcome development as “Mr. Badminton” turns 40 (40!) this year and watching him continue to play overgrown teenagers would be as disconcerting as watching Kevin Spacey, great as he is, play a twentysomething Bobby Darin in BEYOND THE SEA.

- Kiki Sheung Tin-Ngor gives a nice performance as Jill’s Mom. One thing about UFO Films, there are always some solid supporting characters and Kiki Sheung’s role is no different. By making Sheung’s character deaf, the filmmakers allowed for a nice variation on the typical “leading lady’s Mom” character. You’re probably tired of hearing me say this but seeing Kiki Sheung play a Mom in this film makes me feel old since I used to watch her play hot girl roles in 1980s TVB series.

After some time away, Sheung has rejoined TVB and can currently be seen with Cecilia Yip Tung, David Chiang Dai-Wai and Sheren Teng Sui-Man in the TVB series THE FAMILY LINK (師奶兵團). The series is being billed as a Hong Kong version of DESPERATE HOUSEWIVES.

- Bobo Chan Man-Woon makes a noble bid to join the likes of Kitty Ting Hao (THE GREATEST CIVIL WAR ON EARTH) and Valerie Chow Ka-Ling (CHUNGKING EXPRESS) in the Hong Kong Movie Hot Flight Attendants Hall of Fame. Lost in the crowd of young HK starlets, Chan retired from the entertainment circle in 2006. As evidenced by her role in this film and her ad for the MTR, it’s too bad because I thought she had an air of maturity to her that gave her a leg up on the bubbly, girly-girl types. For example, I wouldn’t scoff at the idea of Chan playing a lawyer like I would, did, when I heard Gillian Chung Yan-Tung was playing one in 49 DAYS. In case you were wondering, Chan is currently on a path taken by many of her HK starlet predecessors: involved in a relationship with some rich, business-type guy.

THE BAD:

- Karena Lam doing the cute schtick. Like the fine line between love and hate and the fine line between genius and insanity, there’s a fine line between endearing and annoying. In this film, Karena Lam not only crosses that line, she leaves it a speck in the horizon of her rear-view mirror. When you combine the overdone cute act with character quirks like her penchant for charades and her imaginary dog Fluffy, her character loses the sympathy that a leading lady in a romance film needs. Instead of feeling bad for Jill’s plight as “the other woman”, all you’re thinking is that she’s a ditzy dope who deserves to be in the situation that she finds herself in.

- Ideas and setups that fizzle instead of sizzle. In addition to setting the cute meter for Karena Lam’s character at 100, IT HAD TO BE YOU is filled with plot points and setups that are intended to add charm and romance to the film but are so clearly calculated that it kills the mood instead of enhancing it. The three biggest offenders are:

  • Jill’s imaginary dog. This bit really hurts the credibility of the Jill character and the damage that it does isn’t worth the payoff at the end.

  • A sequence where Jack and Jill, unbeknownst to the other, sing to a Faye Wong at the same time. The scene is intended to show the audience that the two belong together because they have some sort of great cosmic synchronicity but, by this point in the film, everyone knows that already. As a result, it ends up being a piece of cinematic verbosity that disrupts the momentum of the movie.
  • Eric Tsang Chi-Wai’s character in drag. This bit is supposed to set up Jack and Jill for an Oprah “Moment of Enlightenment”™ about life and love but it’s too forced and strained for it to be meaningful.

Just as every magic trick has a pledge, a turn and a prestige, every romantic comedy has a situation, a complication and, hopefully, a post-romantic comedy afterglow (a term coined by an old girlfriend from my university days describing the “toasty warm” feeling you get after a good romantic comedy). IT HAD TO BE YOU has an imaginative situation (two people who can be labeled the “third party” in a romantic triangle) but the complications are too laboured and contrived to amount to any post-romantic comedy afterglow. With Ekin Cheng, Karena Lam, Harvey Hu Bing, Nicola Cheung Sun-Yu and Bobo Chan in the cast, it’s a good film for stargazing but if you are hoping to get a romantic buzz, you’re better off looking elsewhere.

MISCELLANEA:


- When I used to eat French Fries, I liked them without ketchup. I usually ate them with some salt and some pepper. I’d always thought that slathering ketchup on a fry smothered the taste of potato making eating fries meaningless. I mean, would you listen to an iPod while you’re sitting in a theatre watching a movie?

Anyway, what does this portend for my love life? Does it mean that I actually don’t want love in my life? I guess I’ll have to head over to Temple Street some day and consult a fortune teller.

- Fire Lee Ka-Wing plays a character named “Fatty”. I hope it’s not because people think he’s fat but because Lam Chi-Chung (or someone of similar proportion) was originally cast for this role and the powers-that-be were too lazy to change the character’s name after Lam dropped out.

- The greatly under-appreciated CRAZY N’ THE CITY must have made a deeper impression on me than I thought because once I saw Yan Ng Yat-Yin, I half-expected Chloe Chiu Suet-Fei to pop up on the screen. I have an OMNI-2 recording of COCKTAIL (the Hong Kong movie, not the Tom Cruise one) lying around somewhere. It has both Chloe Chiu and Bobo Chan in it. I think that’s next up on the queue.

- Seeing Nicola Cheung Sun-Yu made me look up what’s she been up to since I got put on the DL. With no movie or TV credits since 2005, there are reports that she got a day job and supplements her income by doing ads and showing up at store openings and promotional events. There are also reports that she’s going to marry her rich boyfriend in October or November 2007. Then again, there’s also a report of her rich boyfriend out on the town with another woman.

- From the “Learn Something New Every Day” File: Lo Meng, my favourite entertainment circle muscle man, has an English name — Turbo. Jet, obviously, was already taken.

Image Credits: United Filmmakers Organization (IT HAD TO BE YOU), Cathay Organisation Holdings Ltd. (THE GREATEST CIVIL WAR ON EARTH), Jet Tone Production (CHUNGKING EXPRESS)

Thoughts on THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT and SPL

Apologies, again, for the long delay between posts. I’m still struggling with finding my writing mojo. For the past week, I have been working on a post about CURSE OF THE GOLDEN FLOWER but it isn’t ready yet for publication. I’m unhappy with the tone of a section in it about Zhang Yimou because it reads like I have a grudge against him. It feels like I could have easily started off the section with: “Hello. My name is Inigo Montoya. You killed my father. Prepare to die.”

I certainly don’t have a grudge against Zhang and I definitely don’t want to come off like I do so the post is parked in my Blogger draft folder awaiting further work. I hope to have it ready to go before the Chrysanthemum Festival.

In the meantime, here are some thoughts on a couple of movies I watched this past holiday long weekend here in Canada: THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT and SPL.

THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT
姨媽的後現代生活

Official Website: http://www.postmodernlifeofmyaunt.com/
Director: Ann Hui On-Wah
Cast: Siqin Gaowa (Ye Rutang), Chow Yun-Fat (Pan Zhichang), Lisa Lu (Mrs. Shui), Vicki Zhao Wei (Liu Daifan)

PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: None. Apart from some early reports in 2005 that Chow Yun-Fat was “coming back” to star in an Ann Hui On-Wah movie, I missed all the media coverage about this film. I picked up this title mostly to see Fat-Gor in something other than a Hollywood film or a “Chinese epic made for the international market” and because, at eight dollars, the Mainland DVD was conveniently priced for the Leung treasury.

I only developed a pre-conceived notion when I got the DVD. Looking at its cover (right) and reading the little blurb on the back, I came away with the impression that I was in store for a light comedy-drama. The movie description suggests a “late-in-life romance” between a quirky, divorced senior and a “mysterious stranger” who meet in a park. The romance is then jeopardized because the “stranger” may or may not be a con-man. Coupled with the cover image featuring a comically-harried Siqin Gaowa, a charming-looking Chow Yun-Fat, Vicki Zhao Wei [still known mostly for playing the bubbly Little Swallow in (MY FAIR PRINCESS a.k.a. PRINCESS RETURNING PEARL, 還珠格格)] and a collection of background characters who look like they are the Shanghai equivalents of the townies from GILMORE GIRLS, most people would be inclined to expect something like AS GOOD AS IT GETS but from Chinese and female perspectives.

AFTER THE MOVIE: Numbed by the unyielding melancholy of the final third of the film, the only thing I was thinking when I pressed the stop button on my remote was that the phrase “don’t judge a book by its cover” can easily be extended to DVDs. Instead of a quirky, heart-warming comedy-drama, viewers are treated to the sad tale of a vibrant, independent woman transformed by circumstance into a lifeless, defeated automaton.


The “bait-and-switch” type trick that the DVD cover perpetrates will undoubtedly gall unsuspecting viewers who were conned into watching the movie. However, I suspect that those who come into the film with eyes wide open will also be disappointed.

There are many movies out there where, going in, you know that things are not going to end well. LETTERS FROM IWO JIMA, the German film DOWNFALL (about the last days of Adolph Hitler) and the HBO movie WIT (starring Emma Thompson as a professor who learns that she has terminal cancer) come to mind. There’s a poignancy to those films where, even though the subject matter is depressing, you walk away feeling re-assured about the human condition. This is not the case with THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT. From about the halfway point on, the movie is unrelenting in its sadness as its protagonist, Ye Rutang, has her emotional, financial and physical well-being stripped away. In films of this ilk, there is usually some point, some nuance to the downward sprial that gives the film some insight but in THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT, the point appears to be missing.

There are elements that suggest that there is a method in the sadness. The two “harvest moon” scenes and the relationship between Ye Rutang and her young nephew Kuan Kuan (the only time Ye Rutang perks up in the last half of the movie is in her scenes with Kuan Kuan) hint at something. However, the hints are too faint and make no impact. Ultimately, the only message the viewer gets is “life sucks sometimes” — a message that most people likely already understand without having to pay for and sit through an 111 minute movie.


Other things that don’t really work in the film:

  • The plot point that Ye Rutang abandoned her young family to start her life in Shanghai is touched upon but never explored. You would think that a revelation of that magnitude would lead somewhere but it doesn’t.
  • Similarly, Vicki Zhao Wei’s character has a scene or two that seems to be conveying something but, again, the resonance is too faint and there is no pay off. In fact, the scene where she is taking a smoke break during work feels like a tacked on “let’s get Vicki Zhao a Golden Horse nomination” moment. Actually, that whole “Vicki Zhao at work” sequence seems to me to be entirely superfluous to the movie.
  • Chow Yun-Fat’s character, Pan Zhichang, is somewhat inconsistent. Alternately charming and buffoonish, the character screams “fictional creation” rather than “credibly-rendered human being”. There are moments where Chow’s broad acting would elicit chuckles or contemptuous eye-rolling were it not for the fact that it was the legendary Chow Yun-Fat hamming it up on the screen.

Leaving aside room for the possibility that those immersed in Mainland culture may pick up on meaningful nuances that those of us outside of the Mainland cannot, I am hesitant to condemn THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT with “not recommended” status. However, I can safely say that it is probably for devoted arthouse fans and Chow Yun-Fat, Vicki Zhao Wei or Ann Hui On-Wah completists only. Casual fans aren’t missing anything by passing up on this movie.

MISCELLANEA:

  • Another sign of the inexorable nature of time: Chow Yun-Fat is now old enough to play an “old man”. The first time I saw him, he was playing an idealistic Beijing University student forced into the Shanghai criminal underworld. Now, he’s playing an 阿伯 (”Ah Bak”, “old man”). Hard to believe that the thirtieth anniversary of SHANGHAI BEACH (上海灘) is only two years and change away.
  • There’s a “FACE Audio and Video” logo that pops up intermittently on the top left-hand corner of the screen throughout the movie. What’s up with that? Did I somehow end up with a well-made pirated DVD or does this sort of thing happen often with Mainland DVDs? This is the first Mainland DVD that I’ve watched. I usually get the Hong Kong versions.

SPL (SHA PO LANG)
殺破狼

North American title: KILL ZONE
Official Website: http://www.shapolangthemovie.com/
Director: Wilson Yip Wai-Shun
Cast: Simon Yam Tat-Wah (Inspector Chan Kwok-Chung), Sammo Hung Kam-Bo (Wong Po), Donnie Yen Chi-Tan (Inspector Ma Kwan), Wu Jing (Jack), Liu Kai-Chi (Wah), Danny Summer (Sum), Ken Chang (Lok)

PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: SPL was released before I was diagnosed so I was around for all the media hype surrounding the film. The publicity machine made it sound like it was a return to the mid-1980s/early-1990s Hong Kong action movie heyday (no CGI, no cameo appearances by EEG pop idols, no mercy sir!). Todd over at Twitch called the film: “… one of the finest films to emerge from Hong Kong ever. Period.”

On the other hand, I remember the film getting killed by some posters at its Mov3.com discussion board. I also remember that SPL didn’t break the benchmark HK$10 million mark at the HK box office so the ol’ Sanney-sense started tingling and I suspected that the film would likely fall somewhere in between the high praise and the pessimistic murmurs from the crowd over at Mov3.

Despite the tempered expectations, I held high hopes for the film due to the fact that I’ve been a longtime fan of both Simon Yam Tat-Wah (even during his GIGOLO AND WHORE, DON’T STOP MY CRAZY LOVE FOR YOU period) and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo. Also, I’ve had a soft spot for Wilson Yip ever since he had that great streak of BIO-ZOMBIE, BULLETS OVER SUMMER and JULIET IN LOVE from 1998 to 2000. Sadly, Leon Lai Ming and an orangutan stopped the run cold with SKYLINE CRUISERS (official site). If you haven’t seen them yet, BIO-ZOMBIE, BULLETS OVER SUMMER and JULIET IN LOVE are three of the better “diamond in the rough” type films from the post-Handover era. Of the three, I liked BULLETS OVER THE SUMMER most but BIO-ZOMBIE is a whole lot of goofy fun.


AFTER THE MOVIE: Sad to say but I think I fall more on the side of the fickle folks over at Mov3 than I do with Todd from Twitch. I would rate SPL somewhere in between mediocre and good rather than good or great — a C+, maybe a B- but definitely not an A and certainly not “… one of the finest films to emerge from Hong Kong ever. Period.”

SPL is an amalgam of three Hong Kong movie sub-genres: the one fateful day/night genre (think ONE NITE IN MONGKOK or THE LONGEST NITE), the heroic bloodshed/honour among men genre (think John Woo movies from the mid-1980s/early-1990s) and the well-tread cops-and-robbers genre. Movies from those genres like ONE NITE IN MONGKOK, A BETTER TOMORROW, HARD-BOILED, EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED and THE LONGEST NITE are the “Rolexes” of Hong Kong cinema. SPL is a “Lolex”, a finely-crafted imitation but one that doesn’t stand up to closer inspection.

The critical difference between the “Rolexes” and SPL is pacing. The credibility of the story-telling in SPL is reminiscent of the credibility issues and plot holes found in HARD-BOILED and THE LONGEST NITE. However, those films had the energy and pacing to keep you engrossed and exhilarated until the end. It was only after the movie that you begin to think: “hmmm, wasn’t it a little ridiculous that Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s character survived that shotgun blast to the chest?”. SPL, by contrast, has energy-sapping sections that plod along giving you the opportunity to wonder about things like:

  • The unit headed by Simon Yam’s Inspector Chan have footage of Wong Po (Sammo Hung) beating the undercover cop before someone else shoots him. Isn’t that sufficient evidence to show that, even though Wong Po didn’t pull the trigger, he was complicit in the crime? I’m not exactly sure about the details of the criminal justice system in Hong Kong but it seems to me that Wong Po would have been eligible for some jail time on the basis of the tape even before Chan and his boys decided to doctor it. Who cares what charge you get him on just as long as you do get him — right? Isn’t this a clear-cut “Eliot Ness nails Al Capone for tax evasion” situation?

  • At least twice in the movie, Wong Po is shown to have a legion of henchmen just hanging around on the street in front of his high-rise crime headquarters. Yet, when Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen) arrives after phoning and telling Wong Po that he is coming only ONE guy, Jet (Wu Jing), is there to stop him. Was there no time for a sequence where Donnie Yen effortlessly dispatches anonymous low-level associates before moving on to the sub-boss and then, ultimately, the boss? Wasn’t that how the narrative arc went in the classic Bruce Lee action movies? Didn’t anyone involved with SPL remember the scene in THE BIG BOSS where Bruce Lee says: “Just keep away. Go on. It’s not your fight. Beat it or I’ll kill ya’ …”? How hard would it have been to shoot a brief sequence like that? Seems to me that a film that purports to be “an action classic” should have a detail like that covered.

  • Don’t get me started on the whole “Inspector Chan has brain cancer” sub-plot. We’d be here for days.

The pacing flaw in SPL reminds me of a great boxer whose skills have been diminished by age. No longer able to dominate and dictate the action for the entire fight, he lays back and relies on occasional flurries of punches to try to “steal” rounds by impressing the judges with furious, flashy spurts of action. Similarly, SPL is punctuated by some great action sequences but, for the most part, plods along flat-footed. Like the great boxer who has devolved into just a good boxer, SPL is not “great” just merely OK. It is a decent time at the movies and certainly worth a watch but it does not deserve to be placed in the pantheon of great Hong Kong action films.

MISCELLANEA:

  • (Spoiler warning, skip this point if you haven’t seen the film.) Was anyone surprised that Wong Po (Sammo Hung) wasn’t dead after Inspector Ma (Donnie Yen) suplexed him onto the table? As soon as the camera moved in for a tight shot of Donnie Yen and stayed there, I’m sure 90% of viewers realized that Wong Po was going to sit up like The Undertaker and start fighting again.

  • To get a sense of where I fell on the SPL opinion spectrum, I read a bunch of reviews and, to my surprise, discovered that Donnie Yen has a bit of a reputation for being a “preening schmoe”. More than one of my fellows web writers mocked Yen’s “pretty boy” acting abilities. Where does this reputation come from? I’ve seen Yen in a bunch of films from ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA II and DRAGON INN through to HERO and SEVEN SWORDS and, while he’s never going to give you Tony Leung Chiu-Wai level acting, he’s not the worst offender when it comes to on screen preening. Heck, back when I had a thing for Kitty Lai Mei-Han and Margie Tsang Wah-Sin (two of Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s ex-girlfriends) I even watched Yen’s TVB series A NEW LIFE (命運迷宮). He ain’t that bad. At least he’s a “legitimate bad ass” when it comes to fight scenes and action sequences — unlike some other “pretty boys” I could mention.
  • I don’t buy the argument that a CAT-III rating prevented SPL from breaking the HK$10 million mark at the Hong Kong box office (it ended up with a HK$7.5 million take). A CAT-III rating certainly wasn’t an impediment for ELECTION (HK$15.5 million). In spite of the problems with piracy, illegal downloads, the regrettable prejudice amongst HKers against Hong Kong films and plain ol’ general indifference, good movies tend to find a paying audience. SPL just wasn’t that good.
  • Should I give Wilson Yip’s DRAGON TIGER GATE a go? The promotional pictures over at Mov3 scream “stupid and over-produced” but it’s another Wilson Yip/Donnie Yen collaboration. It also has the always entertaining Yuen Wah in it. I’m on the fence. Anyone care to tip me over to one side or the other?

Image credits: Beijing Poly-bona Film Publishing Co. Ltd. (THE POSTMODERN LIFE OF MY AUNT), Golden Harvest (SKYLINE CRUISERS, THE BIG BOSS), Abba Movies Co. Ltd. (SPL)

Thoughts on Isabella: The Movie, The Dog and The Girl

Though they have improved since I last mentioned them back in December, my mind-grapes are still not yet producing any sweet wines. My attempts at a formal review of ISABELLA all turned out to read like they were written by the guys who write CAT-III movies for Sophie Ngan Chin-Man and Grace Lam Nga-Si rather than the refined prose of Cicero. I have to hand it to Kozo, Tim Youngs and Kenneth Brorsson up in Scandinavia for consistently churning out review after review of Hong Kong movies. (I should also mention the crew from Hong Kong Cinema: View from the Brooklyn Bridge: Big Brian and YTSL.) After starting and stopping a few attempts at an ISABELLA review, I developed a deepened respect for those who can express their opinions without giving away what happens in the movie.

Abandoning the formal review, I have decided to go with the new-fangled, 21st Century, “running diary” format. A few words of warning: The running diary contains spoilers (so click here if you want to get to the non-spoiler part) and my “observations” are only slightly more insightful than Paris Hilton saying “that’s hot”. Instead of offering penetrating analysis, I’m hoping to create the sense that you are sitting on the couch watching the movie with me — a pot of Ti Kuan Yin tea on the coffee table in front of us. I would offer you some potato chips, nachos, pretzels, popcorn and wasabi-flavoured rice crackers but, these days, I don’t have enough saliva to lick a stamp so I don’t keep that stuff around any more. There is, however, some strawberry ice cream in the freezer.

On with the show (timings are approximate):

isabella_1.jpg

0:00:36: The “Not Brothers” logo is so big, I thought for a second that I put the wrong movie in the DVD player. Speaking of production company logos, I’ve always thought the one for One Hundred Years of Film is pretty cool — with the spikes and the picture of Guan Yu.

isabella_6.jpg

0:02:45: See, the “Isabella” title card is 1/3 the size of the “Not Brothers” logo.

0:02:57: Who’s that creepy glasses-wearing guy hitting on Isabella Leong Lok-Si? Shawn Yue Man-Lok? Man, those “I usually don’t like these places” and “give up the forest for a tree” pick-up lines are so lame. What’s next? “If your right leg was Christmas and your left leg was Easter, would you let me spend some time up between the holidays?”

“There’s a quiet cafe in Taipa” … but by “cafe” I mean my bedroom and “Taipa” I mean my flat.

0:06:04: Look at all those bottles of Carlsberg beer on the table. I wonder if they are sponsors.

0:07:21: Is that Isabella Leong lying naked next to Chapman To Man-Chat? Ewww … she’s 18, 19 years old so she’s of age, but still, ewww …

0:08:08: Wow, look at that gut on Chapman To. You can tell this isn’t one of those disposable “idol” films, no idol would let themselves look unflattering on screen unless it was for a serious film or they were going for an acting award.

0:09:48: An intertitle advancing the plot by using history. Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung used history and intertitles in AV as well. I wonder if this is going to become a part of the Edmond Pang movie drinking game, joining such Pang staples as the main characters smoking like a chimney and brief shots of the back of Tim Youngs’ head.

0:10:42: Watching Anthony Wong Chau-Sang eat is making me hungry for hotpot. This scene between Wong and To is an interesting way to fill-in plot though.

0:12:59: Isabella Leong’s character isn’t 18 yet. Great, statutory rape. Are we supposed to like Chapman To’s character? If we are, then this isn’t the way to make him sympathetic.

Ordering her to deny ever sleeping with him? What a gentleman.

0:14:07: Hmm … she’s his daughter and her name is Cheung Bik-Yan. Hmm …

0:15:08: That looks like one of the Boy’z — Stephen Cheung Chi-Hang. I wonder how Boy’z are doing. If I recall correctly, Kenny Kwan Chi-Ban left and EEG got a new guy to work with Stephen Cheung. Boy bands, the kind that are pre-fabricated by music studios and not the ones that start up organically in a garage band or something, are so hard to get going. After all, you just have to go see the definition for “boy band” in the Urban Dictionary to get a sense of how most people see them. I wonder if Boy’z are still riding Twins’ coattail. Things to add to the “got to Google” list after the film.

0:16:37: Now Isabella Leong is making me hungry for spaghetti.

0:16:47: Did Cheung Bik-Yan just admit to having sex with someone she knew was her father? Incest. I haven’t been this grossed out since Octavia went down on Octavian.

0:17:36: Now we have a shot of Chapman To smoking next to a slot machine. This is one of the things that bug me about Edmond Pang films — a lot of smoking. I think the characters in AV did this too. I’m with Paul Fonoroff on this one — it’s neither sexy nor cool.

isabella_2.jpg

0:17:47: Hmm… simplified Chinese on the slot machine buttons. I thought traditional Chinese was used in Macau? Oh well, another sign of simplified’s growing encroachment on the territory of traditional. The only time I was in Macau, 1987, I was too young to be allowed into casinos so I can’t say for sure that they haven’t always been simplified. I seem to recall that there were slot machines on the ferry to Macau as well but, again, I was too young to be allowed in the roped-off section. Another thing to Google after the film.

0:18:23: For a guy who just found out he slept with his daughter, Shing (Chapman To) is taking it pretty calmly. If it was me, I’d be all nauseous and looking desperately for the memory-wiping service from ETERNAL SUNSHINE OF THE SPOTLESS MIND.

0:19:18: Ah, so Shing didn’t sleep with Isabella, er, Bik-Yan. It was a hooker. He’s already a crooked cop who fathered a kid when he was a teenager. Incest would have made the character completely unsympathetic and virtually irredeemable.

0:21:54: Isabella Leong’s doing a pretty good job of acting. I don’t think she has a huge screen presence though. Her “screen magnetism” isn’t leading lady level screen magnetism. Your eyes aren’t immediately drawn to her when she’s on screen. Nevertheless, she’s pretty good. A pleasant surprise because with the EEG and pop idol baggage, you sort of expect something different than what you are getting here.

0:22:25: Hey, it’s Jim “you f–kin’ stupid generation” Chim Sui-Man playing the landlord. The “Jim Chim appearance” is another addition for the drinking game.

Still waiting for the Tim Youngs appearance.

0:23:03: Maybe I’ve watched too many years of LAW & ORDER and NYPD BLUE but I can’t believe the Jim Chim character let Shing up into Bik-Yan’s apartment because it was “police business”. Let’s see, Shing has got a bandage on his forehead and blood on his shirt. How many cops do you see walking around like that? You’d think as cantankerous as that landlord was, he’d tell Shing to come back with a search warrant instead of caving in to Shing’s demands.

0:25:25: Isabella Leong is yelling out “Isabella” without a “Chinglish” accent. I’m guessing this means she didn’t grow up in Hong Kong.

0:28:12: The “Missing Dog” poster is written in traditional Chinese so I guess that Macau doesn’t use simplified after all. Then again, this is a movie so who knows? I’m still going to have to hit Google after the show.

0:28:21: Seeing all those “Missing Dog” posters on the wall just gave me a flashback to the scene in CRAZY N’ THE CITY where Eason Chan Yik-Shun and Joey Yung Tso-Yi are taking down posters as Francis Ng Chun-Yu is putting them up. Good times. Do yourself a favour, if you haven’t seen CRAZY N’ THE CITY yet, look for it. Time well spent.

0:29:25: Shing shows that he’s willing to let Bik-Yan stay with him by just handing her a pillow and a blanket.

Communicating without talking. They’re already a normal Chinese family!

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0:31:06: Is that Josie Ho Chiu-Yi? She looks so different here than from what I’ve seen of her before. Then again, I haven’t really seen her in anything but the papers since TVB’s A ROAD AND A WILL (香港人在廣州) and that was, gosh, ten years ago.

0:33:00: Here’s Anthony Wong eating again. Now, I’m hungry for noodles. I’m not sure if moving the story along using intertitles and these Anthony Wong scenes is such a good idea. It’s making the movie a bit nebulous.

Looking at the photo of Isabella, Bik-Yan and Bik-Yan’s mom in the “Missing Dog” poster, Anthony Wong’s character says: “Which one am I looking for?”

Anthony Wong kills me.

0:35:29: Shing: Condoms? I don’t use them.

Bik-Yan: I know, or else I wouldn’t be here. I don’t want a sister.

Burn!

0:36:32: Here’s Shing buying a gun. Are the Gods of Foreshadowing making an appearance? Introducing a gun in the story … this can’t be a good development for Shing.

0:38:11: Carlsberg beer again. They’ve definitely got to be a sponsor.

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0:38:55: Nice symbolism with Bik-Yan and Shing lugging her bags, in unison, down the street. Father-daughter starting to click and get in rhythm.

0:40:00: Derek Tsang Kwok-Cheung as a nerdy-looking student. He also looks off enough to whack Shing. Another appearance by the Gods of Foreshadowing?

0:40:09: Bik-Yan is ironing her school uniform.

Does this mean we’re going to get a shot of her wearing it? You know, for the uniform fetishists out there?

0:40:39: There’s the gun again. The Gods of Foreshadowing are starting to rumble …

0:40:47: … and here’s the uniform shot for the fetishists. The way Bik-Yan is referring to Shing as “her man” is a little creepy.

0:47:28: Bik-Yan: “I won’t say anything until my lawyer arrives.”

Nice.

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0:48:18: This is a nice little scene with Isabella Leong singing along to Anita Mui Yim-Fong’s 夢伴 (Dream Companion). The lyrics, about not being able to recapture the past, matches up quite nicely with the plot points of the movie.

Is anyone else having a flashback to the scene where Natalie Portman sings to Jean Reno in LEON (aka THE PROFESSIONAL)?

0:51:58: More father-daughter bonding … more Carlsberg bottles.

0:52:56: Shing helps a drunk Bik-Yan to bed.

Nice parallel to the stumbling-to-bed scene at the beginning of movie.

0:56:53: Bik-Yan is singing “Dream Companion” again. “Mom loved this song.”

Not surprising since it dovetails perfectly to the situation Bik-Yan’s mother found herself in. Ugh, this is making me feel old. I remember getting the cassette — back in the ancient times before CDs and mp3s — that “Dream Companion” is on — 壞女孩 (Bad Girl). I was at the HK Coliseum for one of the then record-setting 28 concerts Anita Mui held in late 1987. I can’t remember if she performed “Dream Companion” but I remember she did “Bad Girl” and “Why, Why, Tell Me Why?”. I also remember her “Arabian princess” look and Grasshopper making an appearance. Man, this means that I may be old enough to be Bik-Yan’s father. Sigh …

1:05:17: I know Bik-Yan is trying to drive all the other women away but acting like Shing is her lover is creepy.

This “Bik-Yan and Shing’s women” sequence is going on too long. I just paused the DVD to see who’s winning the curling game at the Tournament of Hearts between Team Prince Edward Island and Team Manitoba. Jennifer Jones of Manitoba is leading Suzanne Gaudet of PEI by a score of 8 to 2. It’s the seventh end so it’s pretty much over for PEI. OK, back to the movie …

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1:08:16: Carlsberg has definitely got to be a sponsor. A girl wearing a Carlsberg shirt has just shown up at the door carrying a bag filled, naturally, with bottles of Carlsberg beer.

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Actually, the Carlsberg product integration isn’t that bad. It’s fairly subtle in this movie. It’s not a DRINK DRANK DRUNK situation. In that movie, you had signs for Prime Credit Limited in the background and billboards CGI-ed into the movie. The only way it could have been more noticeable is if the following exchange happened:

Michel (Daniel Wu): Can I have some cash? I need money to buy supplies for the restaurant.

Siu-Man (Miriam Yeung): I just spent our last $1000 on fixtures.

Michel: But how can a restaurant function without food?

Siu-Man: I know, we can get a small business line-of-credit from Prime Credit Limited — a subsidiary of Standard Chartered PLC. I hear they offer low-interest loans geared toward entrepreneurs like us, one of their many innovative financial products and services aimed at delivering tailor-made and flexible solutions to customers.

Michel: Do you think we qualify?

Siu-Man: We should. I’ll check their website, PrimeCredit.com.hk, for details. Or I could talk to some of their friendly and courteous staff at one of the 31 branches they have in Hong Kong, Kowloon and the New Territories.

Michel: Excellent. It would be great if we could get financing from Prime Credit Limited.

1:09:18: That’s some fake-looking vomit. Sadly, I know because I became intimately acquainted with vomiting last year.

1:10:30: A lingering shot of Isabella Leong’s legs. She’s also wearing a school uniform. Am I supposed to be turned on? Because I’m not. Is it because I’m not in the demographic that would find Isabella Leong sexy or is it because Isabella Leong doesn’t burn up the screen? I think it’s the latter because a shot of Crystal Liu Yifei in a similar situation would probably seize my attention.

1:11:03: The Gods of Foreshadowing smile as “Portuguese food” (a.k.a the gun) makes another appearance.

1:11:50: This lighthouse sequence is supposed to signify something but I’m too dim to see it. Can someone out there enlighten me?

1:17:09: The Gods of Ominousness have taken over from the Gods of Foreshadowing as some bad guys deliver a message to Shing. I fear we’re headed for a tragic ending. When it comes to dramas, Hong Kong Cinema is the Lucius Vorenus of cinemas — given a choice between a happy outcome and a miserable outcome, always pick the miserable outcome.

1:20:59: More creepy talk, from Bik-Yan, of Shing as her lover rather than her father. Derek Tsang is a pretty decent actor. He’s completely different here than he was in AV. Finally, a “son of …” actor that makes you forget he’s a “son of …” actor. By the way, if you didn’t know, Derek Tsang is Eric Tsang Chi-Wai’s son.

1:21:52: “As long as it is presentable, it’ll do.”

Nice callback to the 拜神 (worshipping spirits) scene at 0:59:00.

1:25:08: Hey, it’s Vincent Wan Yeung-Ming! Miu Yan-Fung (苗人鳳) from TVB’s crappy 1999 remake of FLYING FOX OF THE SNOWY MOUNTAIN. So Shing isn’t Bik-Yan’s father. Interesting.

1:27:20: Ella, Bik-Yan’s mother, comes out from the abortion clinic not seeing young Shing.

I thought for sure we’d see Young Shing hiding behind a wall or something as the camera pulled away. It’d make his seem like less of a jerk and further his redemption arc.

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1:29:21: Bik-Yan starts crying and says, “don’t leave me”, to Shing after revealing that she found Isabella.

Perhaps the cisplatin has eaten away the sentimentality cells in my heart because this scene is leaving me cold. I know it’s supposed to be a moment of great emotion but I’m just hitting here with my eyebrow cocked like a Vulcan saying: “fascinating”. Again, maybe it’s because I’m dim, but the Isabella the Dog symbolism isn’t doing anything for me.

1:32:05: Shing tosses the gun away into the reservoir.

I guess we aren’t going to get a tragic ending after all.

1:32:55: Derek Tsang’s character, the nerdy school guy, confronts Shing in an alley.

Maybe I spoke too soon. This looks like a “I’m going to save Bik-Yan by knifing her evil boyfriend in the gut” situation.

1:33:50: Ah, so it wasn’t a tragic knife scene but an Oprah “Moment of Enlightenment”™ scene.

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1:35:12: Dinner sequence between Bik-Yan and Shing.

This whole sequence is filed with symbols of change — from the story behind the Rolex to the home-cooked meal (instead of the take-out that they ate at the beginning). It’s a nice scene but it would have been more powerful if the Rolex was introduced earlier in the film. You know, if Shing told one of his lady friends not to touch his Rolex or something. Here, the Rolex bit sort of feels tacked on.

1:36:20: “Promise me, when I get out, let’s quit smoking.”

So the smoking is a symbol too. OK, but it was still a bit annoying to see on screen — especially since Bik-Yan’s mother died from lung cancer. You’d think watching a loved one die of lung cancer would be a powerful deterrent against smoking.

1:43:30: Bik-Yan sobs as she holds Isabella.

This dog thing still isn’t doing anything for me. Why isn’t it working? I’ve got two eyes and a heart.

1:44:35: Bik-Yan is still creepily referring to Shing as her man. What’s that about?

Credits: Pauline Yeung was the “tea lady” for this film. It’s not the kind of credit you’d see in a Hollywood film. One of the things you have to love about Hong Kong.

Tim Youngs shows up in the “producers would like to acknowledge” section. Does this qualify as a Tim Youngs appearance for the Edmond Pang movie drinking game? Yes, I think it does.

By the way, in case you were hanging on the edge of your seat, the Jennifer Jones rink won 9-4.

CLOSING THOUGHTS: With ISABELLA, Edmond Pang Ho-Cheung continues his climb to the top ranks of Hong Kong movie directordom. It is, without question, a well-made film. The music, the lush cinematography and the acting are all first-rate. However, the storytelling left me cold. The father-daughter plot and Shing’s arc of redemption were supposed to be emotionally moving but somehow ended up feeling empty and shallow. My brain registered all the tugs at my heart strings and sent the appropriate messages to my heart telling it to feel something at the end of the film but, somewhere along the way, there was a malfunction at the junction and all my heart felt was that I should watch WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES — another bad man-turns-good movie set in Macau — again someday. I think the problem lies in the writing for the Bik-Yan character. She doesn’t feel authentic. She seems more like a vehicle for the film’s agenda than a credible, actual person and — in a film like ISABELLA that relies heavily on mood and atmosphere — it disrupts the rhythm and flow of the movie.

Nevertheless, watching ISABELLA is an enjoyable experience. You don’t go away feeling resentful about having wasted your time. A sentiment, sadly, that I’ve felt all too often after watching a HK film. Moreover, the scene where Bik-Yan sings “Dream Companion” to Shing is being enshrined in my pantheon of “Memorable Hong Kong Movie Scenes” alongside scenes like: the standoff between Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Mad Dog in HARD-BOILED, Chow Yun-Fat and Ti Lung looking down at Hong Kong’s night-time skyline in A BETTER TOMORROW, Anthony Wong Chau-Sang hitting the top of the car in INFERNAL AFFAIRS, the climactic shootouts in EXPECT THE UNEXPECTED and PTU, the almost rape scene in WHERE A GOOD MAN GOES, the scene where Yuen Qiu and Yuen Wah reveal themselves to be masters in KUNG FU HUSTLE and Faye Wong breaking into Tony Leung Chiu-Wai’s apartment in CHUNGKING EXPRESS.

As for Isabella Leong Lok-Si, it’s too early in her career for anyone to crown her or condemn her. She gave a good performance in this film but I wonder if it’s a case of underpromise and overdeliver. With ISABELLA, you have a situation where a widely-hyped prospect that EEG has been grooming for years (I remember translating articles about Isabella Leong way back in 2002 when she was a mere 14 years-old) coming off the commercial crapfest that was BUG ME NOT! starring in a movie with the cutie-title ISABELLA. Naturally, you go in thinking that this film is going to stink like previous pop idol movies. Imagine Mariah Carey’s GLITTER being called MARIAH or Britney Spears’ CROSSROADS being called BRITNEY. But then, against expectations, you get a serious film with a serious performance and you end up thinking to yourself: “wow, this girl has got game.” I wonder, though, if this perspective is making people overestimate Isabella Leong’s abilities. It’s sort of like how a football team follows-up a 2-14 season with an 8-8 season. An 8-8 record is still mediocre but, compared to 2-14, it’s pretty good.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m not trying to be a “crow-mouth” (烏鴉口) caw-cawing and pooh-poohing Isabella Leong. She’s part of the Leung/Leong/Liang clan so I’m rooting for her and hoping she does well. I’m just saying let’s hold off on anointing her as the next Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk or the next “Box Office Queen”. First, as I said during the running diary, I don’t think she has leading lady type screen charisma. She doesn’t command your attention like Zhang Ziyi or Shu Qi or Cecilia Cheung Pak-Chi. Second, I think her singing is more Robin Sparkles “Let’s Go To The Mall” than Anita Mui “Debts of the Heart” (心債). Third, I don’t think she’s as popular as she appears. EEG “froze” her back in October for “temper tantrums”. If she was popular and, more important, profitable, EEG wouldn’t have suspended her. Using another sports analogy, if the star player on a team gets arrested for a DUI, management usually says: “oh, we can’t cut him, ‘innocent until proven guilty’, ‘we have to let due process play out’ and all that”. However, if a back-up player finds himself in trouble with the law, it’s usually: “he’s a cancer on the team, we have to cut him immediately”. The fact that EEG thought they could afford to freeze her means that she probably isn’t raking in Twins money or Joey Yung money. She’s since been reinstated, however, so maybe her clout is growing. EEG initially announced that her suspension was to last a year but it ended up being only three months.

In any event, there is no doubt that Isabella Leong has great potential. Here’s hoping that her management makes judicious decisions that allow her to maximize her potential both artistically and commercially. Here’s hoping that she doesn’t succumb to the “too much, too soon” syndrome and end up finding herself in a Lindsay Lohan situation. So say we all … at least all of us Leungs.

Reader Feedback Time: What did you guys think of the running diary format? Too inane?

I’d love it if someone would share their opinion and enlighten me on the lighthouse scene and the whole dog allegory thing.

Do you think Isabella Leong has high-wattage screen charisma?

Plus, if you were moved by ISABELLA and think that I’m a cold-hearted bastard for not feeling anything, maybe you could help melt my icy heart by telling me how this film got to you.

Image credits: Media Asia (ISABELLA), Long Shong Entertainment Group (DRINK DRANK DRUNK)

 
 
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