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Archive for the ‘Simon Yam Tat-Wah’ Category

Three Views On Chinese Movies In The 2000s: Part II

Before continuing with the look back at the movies of the 2000s, a few thoughts on some news tidbits that have emerged lately:

1. Hong Kong Film Awards Nominations

I said it the day after last year’s awards and I still believe it to be true in spite of the buzz for Wang Xueqi’s work in BODYGUARDS AND ASSASSINS:  Simon Yam will win a Best Acting award at the HKFAs this year.  It may be a “lifetime achievement” type deal but I think he’s due.  He got two nominations in the Best Actor category this year for NIGHT AND FOG and for ECHOES OF THE RAINBOW so here’s hoping …

More thoughts on the HKFA nominations:

- Nice to see Zhang Jingchu get nominated for her solid performance in the grim tale that was NIGHT AND FOG.

- As a fan of schlocky HK comedies of the 1980s and early-1980s, it’s great to see Stanley Fung Shui-Fan get a Supporting Actor nomination for ACCIDENT.

- Biggest snub: Why no Supporting Actor love for Michael “Stone” Wong’s work in OVERHEARD?  He made that movie 25% better with his channeling of Stallone’s Rocky Balboa Italian twang in his introductory scene and his cheese-tastic delivery of “I got my own car!” at the end. :lol:

Michael Wong Man-Tak in OVERHEARD

2. 2010: The Year of EDC

This is probably only amusing to me because I have the mind of a randy teenager but I couldn’t help but chuckle when I read the following on Edison Chen’s blog:

2010 promises to be a big year for ya boi EDC
i am going to be coming back HARDER than ever

Talk about unintentional comedy.  The capper is that he capitalized “harder”.  Does anyone NOT think of those infamous photos after reading that?

3. Edison Chen: “Why was I the bad guy?”

In an interview in the Chinese version of GQ, Edison Chen said that he still doesn’t understand why he was the bad guy in the Sexy Photos Gate scandal.  He said: “… was I really a bad person? I wasn’t. People just needed a scapegoat”.

He’s right.  He was a victim of a crime.  However, he presented himself as a hip-hop, bad-boy type which plays well to his target demographic but not so well to the broader, more conservative, mainstream Chinese audience.  So it’s not surprising at all that the general public turned against him.  Put it this way, it’s wrong to hit someone in the head with a steel chair but people cheer anyway when a heel character in pro-wrestling gets nailed with one because it happened to somebody who presented himself as a “bad guy”.

It’ll be interesting to see if 2010 will be remembered for a Chen resurgence or if it ends up being more like the Summer of George.

4. Gilllian Chung’s comeback continues

Gillian Chung continues on the comeback trail with an EP, a movie and a Mainland television series coming down the pipe.  Yet, it feels like she’s still fighting border skirmishes rather than making any serious assault on the capital.  Sorry, THE FOUNDING OF A REPUBLIC remains on the brain.  An EP isn’t exactly the same as a full album and a concert series.  The movie isn’t exactly a high-profile project slated for a big holiday release and the Mainland television series is a Mainland television series.

When you read her interviews, it’s clear that the comeback narrative her handlers at EEG have settled upon is “more mature, tough, resilient, plucky girl who is holding her head up high and refusing to let the scandal keep her down”.  It’s puzzling, then, that they are allowing her to hang on to that “naïve and innocent” schtick.  In articles that popped up last month about her new movie with William Chan Wai-Ting, she talks about being “embarrassed” because she had to do a kissing scene with Chan.  Is that the kind of talk you hear from tough, resilient girls?

Trying to do “tough and resilient” while hanging on to “cute and innocent” won’t work.  If Ah Gil wants substantial success on the comeback trail, she’s going to have to go full-bore on “tough and resilient” and drop the innocent act.  Besides, the “cute and innocent” road is still littered with the skeletons of Sexy Photos Gate like the Highway of Death was littered with the carnage of the First Gulf War.  All she’s doing when she plays “cute and innocent” is reminding people why she is on the comeback trail in the first place.

Now, fans of Ah Gil are probably thinking: “What are you talking about?  EEG is re-uniting her with Charlene Choi and Twins have a concert series and a new album coming out.  Isn’t that an indication that EEG thinks the comeback is going strong?”

EEG may, in fact, feel that way but I believe the re-unification of Twins is more about seeing if there’s any milk left in that cash cow and less about restored faith in Gillian Chung’s star power.  I think EEG is re-uniting Twins in spite of Gillian Chung’s situation rather than because of it.  It would, after all, be nutty to celebrate the 10-year anniversary of Twins in their 11th year.  I’d wager EEG is looking at a boost in Ah Gil’s profile as a possible collateral benefit of the Twins reunion rather than as the main impetus for it.

5. Jackie Chan in THE SPY NEXT DOOR

I was all ready to beat my chest in mourning for Jackie Chan’s career after reviews came out uniformly crushing THE SPY NEXT DOOR (it currently sits at 8% on Rotten Tomatoes).  Then, a week later, The Rock came out with THE TOOTH FAIRY and it occurred to me that the villain in this story shouldn’t be Jackie Chan for cashing in and taking the paycheque.  Only a naïve and innocent fool would refuse to sell a tiny fraction of their dignity for a multi-million dollar payday.  The culprits are movie studios that have failed to realize that it’s been twenty years since KINDERGARTEN COP made US$91.4 million and that it did well because it was more a “cops and robbers” film than a kids’ movie.

Here’s hoping we don’t see Bruce Willis in MY GRANDFATHER IS A HERO or Jason Statham in a remake of MR. NANNY.

6. Skynet/Cylons one step closer to taking over humanity

With the unveiling of a life-sized sex robot named Roxxy at the Adult Entertainment Expo in Las Vegas in January, can the Cyberdyne Systems Model 101 or the Cylon Centurion be that far away?

Roxxxy The Sex Robot

RANDOM NONSENSE:

After seeing Simon Yam’s performances in ELECTION and NIGHT AND FOG, I think the HK Movie Gods should decree that if you want to show a character is a bad guy, just show him fishing.  After what Yam’s characters did in those two movies, “Fishing = Evil” is now the equivalent of Blofeld stroking a white cat in Bond movies, the Snidely Whiplash moustache and Spock with a goatee in “Mirror, Mirror”.  If perpetual movie good guy Jackie Chan ever has occasion to play a villain, all the director has to do is show a goateed Big Brother fishing while playing with a white cat.

Enough ado, let’s get on to the without further … my list of the “Best Films of the 2000s”.

Previously: Three Views On Chinese Movies In The 2000s: Part I

6. RIDING THE TIGER

Writer/director Herman Yau Lai-To brings his deft, low-key touch to the high octane Sexy Photos Gate scandal in this “ripped from the headlines” film.  By eschewing the sex part of the scandal and focusing on the fame part, Yau offers a contemplative look at the nature of celebrity and how it really is like “riding a tiger into battle”.  It’s great when the tiger is with you and you’re able to easily do what you want on the battlefield.  It’s not so good when the tiger turns against you and you have no control over what happens.

OK, OK that film never happened. I just wanted to throw some appreciation towards Herman Yau.  While he doesn’t blow you away with his films like Wong Kar-Wai or Johnnie To, he does offer up solid work and is, in many ways, the “quintessential” Hong Kong director.  He makes movies, like TRUE WOMAN FOR SALE, that tell Hong Kong stories.  He also works in genres that are entirely “of Hong Kong”.  Movies like GONG TAU and SPLIT SECOND MURDERS are unique to the HK movie industry, they can’t be made anywhere else.

Yau started off the 2000s strong with the Buddy Film Creative Workshop films KILLING END and NIGHTMARES IN PRECINCT 7.  He had a bit of a lull in the middle of the decade with ASTONISHING and DATING DEATH but he bounced back with a solid run that began with ON THE EDGE.  If you’re not familiar with the work of Herman Yau, get yourself to the local Chinese video store and pick up a few of his films.

5. KUNG FU HUSTLE

In the 2000s, Stephen Chow made three of the top-10 grossing HK movies of all-time: KUNG FU HUSTLE (HK$61.2 million currently number one), SHAOLIN SOCCER (HK$60.7 million, currently number two) and CJ7 (HK$51.4 million, currently number seven).  So, you have to figure that one of Chow’s films has to be on the list.  Sitting at number one and number two, it’s basically a coin flip between KUNG FU HUSTLE and SHAOLIN SOCCER.  Like any good comrade — just checking if you’re reading Mainland censors — I side with the people and KUNG FU HUSTLE.

While SHAOLIN SOCCER had the bigger laughs and more significance as a milestone of Stephen Chow’s career, KUNG FU HUSTLE is the more accomplished film because it had a higher degree of difficulty.  SHAOLIN SOCCER could hang its comedy bits on the backbone of a conventional “underdog sports team” plotline.  KUNG FU HUSTLE was built entirely on film craftsmanship intangibles like charisma, tone and rhythm.  It could have easily all gone wrong but, instead, it all went right.  Look at some of the elements of the film: a dance number introducing the villains, a protagonist who disappears for a large chunk of the movie and sequences that belong more in a Looney Tunes cartoon than a smash kung fu flick.  Usually, those elements congeal into a lame and cheesy mess but Stephen Chow somehow combined them into a mesmerizing classic that thoroughly engages the audience.

4. ELECTION

Continuing what he started with Milkway Image in the late-1990s, Johnnie To had a prolific 2000s with commercial successes like NEEDING YOU, personal projects like THROWDOWN and SPARROW and philosophical pieces like RUNNING ON KARMA.  Three to five of his films could legitimately be placed on any “Best of the Decade” list of HK films but I chose to put ELECTION on this one because - twenty, thirty, fifty years from now - ELECTION is going to be the one most HK film fans will recall.

 Cecilia Cheung and Lau Ching-Wan in LOST IN TIME

3. (tie) LOST IN TIME / THE WAY WE ARE

The two best “Hong Kong stories” films of the 2000s.  One conventional, the other unconventional, both provide a fascinating glimpse into the day-to-day rhythms of Hong Kong life.  They show that Hong Kong isn’t just about gangsters that struggle for power or cops chasing bad guys, it’s also about normal people just trying to get through the day the best they can.  They show that Hong Kong isn’t teeming with playboys, golddiggers, gu wat jai (古或仔), psychopaths, super cops and mad detectives.  Instead, it’s filled with normal, decent people like the minibus driver who helps out a overburdened woman burning the candle at both ends, the fruit lady from the supermarket who recognizes that her neighbour is lonely and the father who seems hard-hearted but, in actually, just can’t admit how much his daughter means to him.

The movies also contain two brilliant “show, don’t tell” sequences that are enshrined in my pantheon of all-time great HK movie scenes.  In LOST IN TIME, there’s a sequence that shows Cecilia Cheung’s character going through her day balancing her job as a minibus driver and her role as the caregiver to her dead fiancée’s son.  In THE WAY WE ARE, the compelling scene showing Chan Lai-Wun’s character cooking dinner is the embodiment of Bruce Lee’s notion of “emotional content”.  Both are simple segments yet they express many complex ideas and sentiments.

2. INFERNAL AFFAIRS

If there was a “Hong Kong Division” for my “Most Valuable Film of the 2000s” blog post, the choice would clearly have been INFERNAL AFFAIRS.  With HK$55 million in box office earnings, the movie currently ranks fifth in the list of top 10 highest grossing HK films of all-time.  It spawned a prequel and a sequel and it acted as a defibrillator to the ailing heartbeat of Hong Kong cinema.  From Kozo’s review of the film:

Cries of “Box Office Miracle” were trumpeted by Hong Kong’s so-called fourth estate, which advanced the opinion that Hong Kong Cinema was revived.

It put Alan Mak and Felix Chong on the map which led to movies like INITIAL D, MOONLIGHT IN TOKYO, CONFESSION OF PAIN, LADY COP AND PAPA CROOK and OVERHEARD.

Like CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON, my pick for “Most Valuable Film of the 2000s”, INFERNAL AFFAIRS also had influence internationally:  A Hollywood remake, THE DEPARTED, finally earned Martin Scorsese a long-deserved Best Director Oscar.

1. (tie) IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE / LUST, CAUTION

Through exquisite film craftsmanship and outstanding acting, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE and LUST, CAUTION are two movies that offer insightful looks into the nature of love and human connection.  I made them co-number ones because a couple of things keep me from picking one over the other.  First, LUST, CAUTION isn’t a “pure” Hong Kong film.  Second, IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE feels like a 1990s movie to me.  I actually did a double take when I looked up its release date and saw that it was September 29th, 2000.  I could have sworn it was released in 1999.  I probably feel this way because, back when I had my own site, I was translating articles about the production at least two years before it was released.

Moreover, as much as it pains my inner Vulcan to admit, 2046 sullied my affection for IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE.  While they are two separate movies and I shouldn’t let one affect my view of the other, I just can’t like IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE as much after seeing 2046.  What seemed exciting and stylistically cool in 2000 seemed tired and tedious just four short years later with the release of 2046.

Going off on a tangent, if you take anything from away from those films, it has to be to have a carpe diem attitude towards love and prospective mates.  If you like somebody and there seems to be a good chance that they like you, take a shot and do something about it.  Otherwise, you may end up whispering your regrets to a hole in the wall at Angkor Wat or, even worse, facing a firing squad.

Tony Leung Chiu-Wai in IN THE MOOD FOR LOVE

Going off on another tangent, there has been a decade long debate about what to name the 2000s.  Some have suggested the “Naughts”, others have said it should be the Oughts.  Then there are the “Zeroes”, the “Double Zeroes”, the “Os” and the “Twenty-Ohs”.  If you take a look at my list of the decade’s best HK films, you’ll see that my cousin Tony stars in the top three movies.  Call me biased but I think the decade should be called “The Leung Dynasty”.

Next time: The part I had the most fun writing: “Personal Favourites of the 2000s, uh, The Leung Dynasty.”

Image credits: Film Unlimited (Michael Wong), 69adget.com (Roxxy the Sex Robot), China Star Entertainment (Cecilia Cheung, Lau Ching-Wan), Jet Tone Productions (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai)

Quick Thoughts: 28th Hong Hong Film Awards

I should be doing a news links post but, in honour of Jackie Chan, I’m going to yap my flap and continue to expose to everybody just how much of a fool I am …

Thoughts on the 28th Hong Kong Film Awards:

- IP MAN winning the award for Best Film has to be the biggest upset in quite a while.  It’s doubly shocking considering that THE WAY WE ARE was on a run with wins in the Best Director, Best Screenplay,  Best Actress and Best Supporting Actress categories.  I think you have to go back to the 17th HKFAs for an upset of this magnitude when Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk took home Best Actress for THE SOONG SISTERS.  If memory serves, Jacqueline Wu Chien-Lien (EIGHTEEN SPRINGS) and Carina Lau Ka-Ling (THE INTIMATES) were the heavy favourites so it was a shock to many when Maggie Cheung won for a performance many considered perfunctory for a woman of her talents.  I may be misremembering (™ Roger Clemens) the broadcast but I’m pretty sure that you could hear people in the crowd jeering immediately after Cheung’s name was announced.

I suppose I could go on a long rant now about how the IP MAN win was a travesty but I’m a tired, old man.  I’m feeling a lot like Walsh at the end of CHINATOWN when he tells J.J. Gittes: “Forget it, Jake.  It’s Chinatown.”

- Putting on my fortuneteller’s outfit, I’ve tossed the joss sticks and divined that, 52 weeks from today, we’ll be celebrating a Simon Yam Tat-Wah win for Best Actor.  Judging from what I’ve read in the papers and on Chinese discussion forums, I think his performance in NIGHT AND FOG is the leader in the clubhouse for next year’s awards.  As he has been nominated eight times for an acting HKFA and has yet to win, I believe he will also be a heavy sentimental favourite.  So, forget about investing in Anacot Steel and head over to Macau or your favourite offshore gambling website to put down a few shekels on Simon Yam on the HKFA Futures board.  You and your wallet will be thanking me next April. :-)

A note from Manny Kok, Sanney’s Kozo Entertainment Group manager: This blog is intended for entertainment purposes only and does not constitute financial or investment advice.  The Kozo Entertainment Group and its subsidiaries do not condone gambling.  All readers who ignore this disclaimer do so at their own risk.  In no event shall the Kozo Entertainment Group be liable for any damages (whether direct, indirect, punitive, incidental, special, consequential or otherwise) arising out of, or in any way connected with, the use of this blog.

- Speaking of Simon Yam, those pants on the red carpet … yeesh.

Simon Yam on the red carpet

- Carol Cheng … still gettin’ it done.

Carol Cheng at the 28th HKFAs

- Ooh, la and la: Tang Wei, Kitty Zhang and Monica Mok (OCEAN FLAME).  Hard to believe that even a schmoe like me has seen two of those three ladies in the buff.  The HK entertainment circle is where amazing happens … not the NBA.

Tang Wei on the red carpet.

Kitty Zhang on the red carpet.

Monica Mok on the red carpet.

Back soon with a news links post and some thoughts on Jackie Chan, once again, stuffing his nimble foot in his big mouth.

Image credits: Sina.com

28th Hong Kong Film Awards Preview: Best Actor and Best Actress

The signs are all here.  The sweet showers of April have pierced the drought of March.  The Ram has run half its course through the Zodiac and Zephirus, with his sweet breath, has breathed life into the tender crops.  It’s mid-April and time to preview the Hong Kong Film Awards.

These aren’t my predictions for the awards, rather they reflect what my votes would have been if, by some fortuitous machination of the Universe, I ended up getting a ballot.

Let’s start with the Best Actor and Best Actress categories …

* * * * *

The nominees for Best Actor are:

MY VOTE GOES TO:  Nick Cheung Ka-Fai (THE BEAST STALKER)

Nick Cheung in THE BEAST STALKER

Of the five nominated performances, the one by Nick Cheung shows the most range and the most depth.   Moreover, of the five, his job is the most difficult.  On one hand, he has to create enough tension as a villain to move the story forward. On the other — for the “one stone, many ripples” theme of the movie to work — he has to generate enough sympathy from the audience so that they care about the story behind his relentless Terminator-like menace.   Cheung pulls off both tasks with great aplomb.   If he does not win the award on Sunday night, it will be a major injustice.

Why?  My cousin Tony, Simon Yam and Louis Koo all turn in fine performances but their roles were not challenging as they’ve all given similar performances before.  In HERO, Tony Leung portrayed a man of strategy and action in a historical epic.  Over his long career, Simon Yam has played so many suave and sophisticated criminals, he could probably do it in his sleep.  As for Louis Koo, Kozo summed it up best in his review of RUN PAPA RUN:

… Koo has yet to become a truly accomplished actor, but he has cornered the market on certain character types.  Among them are the weak macho hero, the hen-pecked playboy, and other variations on the comically emasculated drop-dead gorgeous male.  What makes Koo so special at the above roles is he can play them while retaining audience identification and sympathy, making him a likable lout that’s less than a caricature and more than a simpering loser.  Basically, if you need an actor to play a character like Lee Tin-Yun, Louis Koo is your go-to guy, as he can wring comedy and even some affecting emotions from potentially weak, easily-assailed men.

Last but not least, Donnie Yen is a different kettle of fish.  He successfully reins in his natural “preening schmoe” tendencies but his portrayal of Ip Man is more like Jean Claude Van Damme playing Frank Dux in BLOODSPORT than it is Philip Seymour Hoffman winning an Oscar for his portrayal of Truman Capote in CAPOTE.  I can’t say this with 100% certainty but I’m 99% sure that Yen’s portrayal of Ip Man bears very little resemblance to the real-life Ip Man.  As I said when I shared my thoughts on the film, Yen wasn’t playing Ip Man, he was playing a Chinese superhero fighting against the evil Japanese.

* * * * *

The nominees for Best Actress are:

MY VOTE GOES TO: Barbie Hsu (CONNECTED)

Barbie Hsu in CONNECTED

This category presents a real head-versus-heart dilemma for me.  My head says that Bau Hei-Jing, daughter of all-time great Bau FongBau Fonggave the best performance but, in my heart of hearts, I think I would toss my vote to Barbie Hsu.  Objectively, CONNECTED is merely a well-made popcorn movie and Barbie Hsu’s performance isn’t overwhelmingly superior to that of Bau or the other nominees.  However, it stuck with me.  About a month after I watched CONNECTED, I sat down to watch THE BEAST STALKER.  Whenever Zhang Jingchu popped up on the screen as the “mother with a child in peril”, I couldn’t help thinking: “Zhang Jingchu is really doing a nice job here but she isn’t even coming close to matching Barbie Hsu in CONNECTED.”  It’s a purely idiosyncratic reason to vote for Hsu but hers is the performance I liked the most in this category.

Another reason my heart beats out my head is that something about Bau Hei-Jing’s performance in THE WAY WE ARE bothers me.  After the film, Bau’s Mrs. Cheung remains opaque.  The audience doesn’t learn much about her beyond the fact that she’s a hard-working, magnaminous, straight-arrow.  We don’t know why she avoids visiting her mother in the hospital and, apart from one brief snippet, she doesn’t show any emotion.  Granted, many people don’t show much emotion in real life but you’d think there would be a shade here or a shade there to give the audience some insight into what makes Mrs. Cheung tick.  The screenplay may be more at fault here than Bau Hei-Jing but the nagging inscrutability of the Mrs. Cheung character helps tip my vote over to Big S Barbie Hsu.

Bau Hei-Jing in THE WAY WE ARE

As for the rest of the field, Prudence Lau delivers a striking performance as a drug-addicted prostitute in TRUE WOMAN FOR SALE.  However, at various points throughout the film, she lays it on a bit too thick so that puts her performance in the “good, really good, but not great” category.  Zhou Xun shows some allure while playing a heart-eating demon in PAINTED SKIN but it’s a role that doesn’t have award-winning gravitas.  I suppose you could say that the same thing applies to Barbie Hsu and, you know what, I wouldn’t argue with you but what can I say besides Hsu’s performance really connected with me.  In any case, the prevailing winds seem to be blowing towards Bau Hei-Jing for the win.

Now, you’ll notice that I haven’t mentioned Karena Lam or her work in CLAUSTROPHOBIA.  Well, that’s because it doesn’t come out on DVD until April 30th so I won’t be able to see it until well after Sunday’s ceremony.  To get some insight on how Lam fits into this puzzle, let’s call our old pal Kozo on the Neway Karaoke LoveHKFilm.com hotline:

Phone ringing … and ringing … and ringing … and ringing …

KOZO: Hello.

SANNEY:  Hi.  Sorry to bother you on a busy work day but I’m putting together my annual HKFA preview posts and I’ve run into a bit of trouble because I won’t be able to see CLAUSTROPHOBIA until after the awards ceremony.  I was wondering if you’d give everyone a little insight into how Karena Lam stacks up against the rest of the field in the Best Actress category.  But first, I was wondering if you’d like to talk about those pictures of you that got floated out on the Internet …

KOZO:  That’s in the past, I want to talk about the future.  I’m marrying my secret girlfriend of 20 years later this month …

Speaking of my secret girlfriend, I really enjoyed Karena Lam’s performance in CLAUSTROPHOBIA.  The film can be frustrating thanks to Ivy Ho’s opaque storytelling, which requires the viewer to “read between the lines” far more than most films starring popstars do.  Lam’s performance is subtle yet compelling, and Lam pulls it off without big speeches or regular outbursts of emotion.  CLAUSTROPHOBIA asks its actors to create characters far beyond what’s on the scripted page, and Lam does that for both her character AND Ekin Cheng’s.  If acting assists were an actual statistic, then Lam would get one here.

As for her chances come Sunday, Karena Lam’s are small.  I doubt she’ll pull out a win for CLAUSTROPHOBIA as it’s a movie that people respect rather than really like. I think the award is Bau Hei-Jing’s to lose, with Prudence Lau being the only one who can upset her. In a related prediction, either Nora Miao or Chan Lai-Wun will win for Best Supporting Actress. Call it the “Susan Shaw factor”.

Image credits: Emperor Motion Pictures (Nick Cheung, Barbie Hsu), TVB (Bau Fong), Class Limited (Bau Hei-Jing)

Thoughts on SPARROW

Since it’s fresh in my mind and because I’m ready to get down to writing after enjoying Breakfast Special C at the local diner, here are some thoughts on Johnnie To’s latest opus SPARROW:

SPARROW
文雀

Director: Johnnie To Kei-Fung
Cast: Simon Yam Tat-Wah (Kei), Kelly Lin (Chung Chun-Lei), Gordon Lam Ka-Tung (Bo), Lo Hoi-Pang (Mr. Fu), Law Wing-Cheong (Sak), Kenneth Cheung (Mak)

Synopsis: They are known as the “sparrows” or Hong Kong’s street slang for “pickpockets”. They work in group, lifting wallets from unsuspected tourists, until one day an irresistible woman of unknown origin appears before them, requesting the gang to steal a key for her. The set-up begins to unravel itself when the mission completes. The pickpockets realise that this exotic beauty has been slowly leading them onto a path of no return.

PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: It’s been a long wait for this movie.  I remember translating an article about SPARROW way back in 2004.  Johnnie To was at the Cannes Film Festival for a screening of BREAKING NEWS and he revealed that he was developing a film about Stephy Tangpickpockets that would star Simon Yam Tat-Wah.  What else was happening in the entertainment circle around that time?  Edison Chen was getting mocked by teenagers on the streets and Stephy Tang Lai-Yan had yet to break out of the Cookies/Mini-Cookies jar.  So yeah, it’s been a long wait.

I’m hoping that the long, anticipation-filled wait hasn’t ratcheted up my expectations too high.  I’ve purposefully avoided reading reviews so I have no idea about the critical reception.  It’s Johnnie To, hero of Hong Kong Cinema, so I expect, at the very least, a decent film.  I’m also pre-disposed to liking the story of the film because I’m a fan of the “honourable criminals” genre — with the legend of Robin Hood, the BBC show HUSTLE, the classic Hitchcock film TO CATCH A THIEF and Chinese films like RUNNING OUT OF TIME and A WORLD WITHOUT THIEVES being favourites.  I like this genre so much, sitting through the atrocious HUDSON HAWK didn’t dampen my enthusiasm for it.

I’m also hoping that SPARROW gives Simon Yam Tat-Wah a role with which he can win the HKFA Best Actor award next year.  I’ve said it before and I’ll say it again:  Now that Lau Ching-Wan has won one, Simon Yam is next in line on the “veteran actor who deserves to win a HKFA Best Actor award” list.

AFTER THE MOVIE: This is probably a weird thing to say about a movie but I found SPARROW to be an exhausting experience.  I think it had to do with spending most of the film swinging on an emotional pendulum between frustration and elation.  Parts of SPARROW — with its luxurious composition and jaunty soundtrack — were fabulous.  Other parts were so opaque, it even tried the patience and goodwill of a stalwart Johnnie To fan like me.  I’ve watched the climactic pick-pocketing scene multiple times, zaprudered it with the 1/16th slow motion function, yet I still can’t figure out the chain of possession for the passport that Kei (Simon Yam’s character) and Mr. Fu (the villian) were fighting over.  Stultifying sections notwithstanding, SPARROW is ultimately a worthwhile film experience.  It’s a feast for the eyes and, in the end, most viewers will feel satisfied by the time the credits start to roll.  I caught myself smiling as the film closed with the sight of Kei and his cohorts riding off into the sunset on Kei’s bicycle.  Put it this way, it’s not a 2046 situation where most viewers were likely left dazed, confused and alienated by a director who seemingly went out of his way to be inscrutable.

Still from SPARROW

Whether or not you like SPARROW will depend largely on what you look for in a film.  If you fancy yourself a film connoisseur who appreciates great technical filmmaking, then you will definitely get a kick out of the exquisite art direction, lush visuals and fine acting performances.  If you are more of a “meat and potatoes” viewer with decidedly conventional tastes then the challenging yet thin narrative of the movie will probably turn you off.  Think of SPARROW as fine dining.  It has excellent presentation and a cornucopia of flavours that will excite your taste buds.  However, the portion is small and it isn’t very filling.  If you can be satisfied with just the simple experience, then SPARROW is for you.  If you are looking for something that will leave you feeling wholly satisfied, SPARROW probably won’t fill the bill.

MISCELLANEA:

- There isn’t anything particularly outstanding about Simon Yam’s performance as the prototypical “charismatic criminal” so it’s unlikely he’ll be winning any Best Actor awards off of SPARROW.

- With the exception of his final scene in the limousine, I really enjoyed veteran actor/TV personality Lo Hoi-Pang’s performance as Mr. Fu.  One of the small joys often found in Johnnie To’s movies is how he casts minor, veteran celebrities in roles be it Fiona Leung Ngai-Ling in NEEDING YOU, Jackie Lui Jung-Yin in THE MISSION, Ellen Chan Nga-Lun in EXILED, Wong Tin-Lam in THE LONGEST NITE or, my favourite bit of nostalgic casting, 1970s star Wong Chung in ELECTION.

Wong Chung in ELECTION

- While watching the many glorious shots of Kelly Lin in the film, I couldn’t help thinking that Lin has come a long, long way from when Wong Jing brought her into the Hong Kong entertainment circle in 1999 for THE CONMEN IN VEGAS.  Searching the archives of my old website, the first time Kelly Lin pops up is in a report from February 6th, 1999.  Lin was on location in Las Vegas shooting the formulaic Wong Jing gambling/action/comedy flick.  Billed as the “new Chingmy Yau Suk-Ching“, she was introduced to the media along with fellow Wong Jing recruits Jewel Li Fei and Meggie Yu Fang (Yuk Fong).  Lin was touted as the entertainment circle’s next hot sexpot star, Li was going to be the next female action star while Yu was going to charm audiences with her sexy “jade-babe” (玉女; Chinese equivalent of “girl next door”) appeal.  Based on that ignominious introduction to the HK viewing public, most would have pegged Lin to have a career trajectory where she would flame out after a short run as a minor “it girl”.  Yet, here she is almost ten years later starring in what is essentially a Johnnie To art film and with a HKFA Best Supporting Actress nomination in the bag for her work in AFTER THIS OUR EXILE.  Who would have guessed?

Kelly Lin Jewel Li Meggie Yu
From left to right: Kelly Lin, Jewel Li and Meggie Yu on location in 1999 shooting THE CONMEN IN VEGAS. Click on photo for larger image.

This also shows how hard it is to become a star in the entertainment circle.  Of Lin, Li and Yu only Lin has gone on to a major career.  Since 1999,  Jewel Li has appeared in a handful of action movies and is currently playing Tsang Yau (one of Wai Siu-Bo’s wives) in a Mainland TV adaptation of THE DUKE OF MT. DEER.  As for Yu, she parlayed the attention she got from THE CONMAN IN VEGAS into a lead role in the CAT-III film TEMPTATION OF AN ANGEL.  After that, she returned to her native Taiwan and established a career as a television actress/personality.  She has since gone on to motherhood.

Add on to that the fact that reigning pop queen Joey Yung Tso-Yi was the only one to emerge from EEG’s “Three Little Flowers” (Yung, Grace Ip, Lillian Ho Ka-Lei) and you get the sense that the odds of “making it” in the entertainment circle are about the same as the odds of survival for cheetah cubs in the wild.

In case you were wondering what happened to the other two “Little Flowers”, Lillian Ho dropped out of the entertainment circle in 2002 after a bid to promote her in the Taiwanese market failed.  She is currently married to Lucky Dessert heir Wong Yat-King.  I’ve written about Grace Ip (Yip Pui-Man) in the past.

- From the moment Simon Yam gets dressed to the moment the pickpockets divide the fruits of their labour haul in the car, Johnnie To makes the life of a petty criminal seem pretty cool.  I wonder if he can do the same thing for blogging.  Are you looking for a challenge Mr. To?  How about filming the LoveHKFilm bloggers as they majestically strike the keys on their keyboards?  How about you work your magic and make rolling a mouse around on a mousepad look like the coolest thing ever?  Based on SPARROW’s opening sequence, I’m willing to bet you could make geeks like me, Kozo and The Golden Rock look like gods. :-)

Image credits: Hong Kong Digital Vision (Stephy Tang), The Sun (Kelly Lin, Jewel Li, Meggie Yu circa 1999), Milkway Image (Still from SPARROW, Wong Chung in ELECTION)

27th Hong Kong Film Awards Preview: Best Actor

Previously: Best Film

Like the situation in the Best Film category, if LUST, CAUTION had qualified for this year’s HKFAs, there is little doubt that Tony Leung Chiu-Wai would be well on his way to winning a sixth HKFA Best Actor title. Leung’s performance in the film is outstanding. Without the benefit of big scenes or big speeches, Leung impressively conveys his character’s thoughts and feelings with small gestures and small expressions. He even manages to fill the film’s infamous sex scenes with so much emotion and tension that it’s impossible to argue that the scenes were included just to draw a box office crowd with the promise of some titillation.

The nominees, minus Tony Leung Chiu-Wai, are:

Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing (THE DETECTIVE)
Andy Lau Tak-Wah (THE WARLORDS)
Simon Yam Tat-Wah (EYE IN THE SKY)
Jet Li (THE WARLORDS)
Lau Ching-Wan (THE MAD DETECTIVE)

5. Andy Lau Tak-Wah (THE WARLORDS)

Back when I was getting treatment for cancer — sometime in between round five and round six of chemotherapy — I got a delightful gift basket and a wonderful package of cards and letters from people I met over the years while running my old website. There were get-well messages from, among others, YTSL (Yvonne Teh of bc Magazine), Paul Fox (who used to run Cantonkid.com), Tim Youngs (of Another Hong Kong Movie Page and cameos in Pang Ho-Cheung films), my pal John Charles, Jennifer and Laura from San Francisco and, of course, our beloved Kozo (the Lord and Master of LoveHKFilm). Since I lost all of my Eudora inboxes and address books in the Great Hard Drive Crash of ‘07 (but mostly because I’m a terrible person and a lazy, lazy man), I haven’t properly thanked many of the people who wished me well. If anyone out there sent me a get-well message but didn’t receive a personal note of acknowledgement and thanks from me, please accept my apologies. My bad manners belie the fact that your cards, letters and e-mail messages really helped pull me through a difficult time. It was really great to know that I was loved and appreciated.

What does this have to do with Andy Lau and his Best Actor nomination? Well, included in the package of cards and letters was a get-well message from the Heavenly King himself! I was stunned — though, based on stories of Andy Lau’s many good deeds, I shouldn’t have been surprised — that a big star like him would take the time to write little ol’ me a note of Get-well note from Andy Lauencouragement. Needless to say, it was a huge shot in the arm so even if a future edition of Next Magazine publishes photos of Andy Lau eating “rejuvenation” dumplings made from baby flesh, I’d still have something good to say about him. That said, he shouldn’t have been nominated for his performance in THE WARLORDS.

Lau’s performance can, at best, be described as workmanlike. At worst, an argument can be made that Lau was unconvincing and ineffective. The main problem is that Lau is badly miscast for the role of Cao Er-Hu. The real-life Cao was, as I understand it, chivalrous and loyal but quick-tempered with a rough-hewn disposition that helped drive his wife into the arms of the more refined Ma Xin-Yi. Lau naturally projects a suave and sophisticated image so when the story calls for him to behave brusquely, he has to strain to make it convincing. An intense Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, Tony Leung Ka-Fai or Francis Ng Chun-Yu type of actor should have been cast for this role not a “cool as a cucumber” Andy Lau or Simon Yam Tat-Wah type.

Speaking of whom …

4. Simon Yam Tat-Wah (EYE IN THE SKY)

Had he been nominated for his intricate performance in EXODUS, Simon Yam would rank higher on this list. Unfortunately, it’s hard to consider him a serious contender for the Best Actor award based on his performance as Surveillance Unit leader Dog Head. The problem does not lie in the quality of Yam’s work, it lies in the quality of the Dog Head character. There is little depth to the role beyond the “grizzled veteran who takes a newcomer under his wing” that audiences have seen in countless movies. The performance is fine but the role has a very low degree of difficulty. Besides, it wasn’t even the best acting performance in the film — that would belong to the work done by Tony Leung Ka-Fai as meticulous gang leader Shan.

3. Jet Li (THE WARLORDS)

Jet Li in THE WARLORDSBuilding upon his commendable performance in FEARLESS, Jet Li continues to evolve as an actor with his work in THE WARLORDS. Instead of playing his usual seemingly invincible fighting hero, Li does a creditable job portraying a flawed late-Qing era army general. It’s a solid individual achievement but it doesn’t rise to the level required of an award winner. It would have been interesting if the powers-that-be behind THE WARLORDS didn’t play it safe and unleashed Li to play a duplicitous, greedy schemer who stabs his sworn brother in the back for personal gain instead of the conflicted nobleman who compromises his morals for “the sake of the people”. Regrettably, no one will know if Li would have been able to meet the challenge.

2. Lau Ching-Wan (THE MAD DETECTIVE)

On an objective scale, Lau Ching-Wan should rank higher on this list. Inspector Bun, Lau’s character, is one of the tent poles of THE MAD DETECTIVE and if he doesn’t get the audience to buy that he is a detective with a “special ability” then the high-concept film has no chance of working. While he succeeds in convincing the audience, subjective factors put him in the second spot on this ranking. First, the other shoe never drops with his character. Inspector Bun is a brilliant cop whose gift is as much of a curse as it is a blessing but that’s where the character development ends. Nothing else really happens with him after his ability to see “inner personalities” is revealed. Second, the Inspector Bun character is just another variation of the kind of quirky, offbeat personality that viewers have seen Lau play many times before. THE MAD DETECTIVE provokes and challenges audiences but it certainly doesn’t challenge Lau Ching-Wan’s acting abilities. Third, Lau won last year so it feels like it’s someone else’s turn to win the top prize. Namely …

1. Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing (THE DETECTIVE)

Last year, Aaron Kwok was the heavy favourite to win in this category for his role as a deadbeat dad in AFTER THIS OUR EXILE. As a result, it was a pleasant surprise when Lau Ching-Wan won because he was sentimental favourite — the “entertainment circle veteran who deserved to win a Best Actor HKFA at some point in his career” (a mantle that he has since handed to Simon Yam). However, if one gives it a little thought, Lau’s victory wasn’t the HKFA equivalent to Martin Aaron Kwok in concert February 2008Scorsese winning a Best Director Oscar for THE DEPARTED. Lau truly deserved to win because he played his character in MY NAME IS FAME so well, it’s impossible to imagine any other actor in the role. By contrast, several actors could easily do a comparable job to Kwok in AFTER THIS OUR EXILE.

This year, the shoe is on the other foot. While Lau gives a flashier performance in THE MAD DETECTIVE, Kwok deserves to win because he absolutely owns his “loser private detective” character. From the first shot of him waking up to the catchy “Me Panda” to the last shot of him finding satisfaction in solving his case, flamboyant Heavenly King Aaron Kwok totally disappears behind a rumpled, sad-sack facade. Like Lau and his character in MY NAME IS FAME, it’s difficult to picture anyone other than Kwok playing C+ Detective Tam. While THE DETECTIVE and the Tam character don’t have the typical award winner gravitas, it’s a worthy substitute in a year where the best performance didn’t qualify.

Image credits: Applause Pictures (Jet Li); Xinhua (Aaron Kwok)

 
 
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