Before I proceed with an in-depth discussion of Princess D, a 2002 film directed by Sylvia Chang and Alan Yuen, I need to mention a far less entertaining American film I recently viewed. For reasons too boring to explain, I had the distinct displeasure of watching Did You Hear About the Morgans?, a 2009 romantic comedy starring Sarah Jessica Parker and Hugh Grant. The film was impossibly bad, as the two actors seemed to be operating solely on auto-pilot — with SJP (as I’m told she’s called) channeling an only slightly modified version of her Sex and the City character and Hugh Grant recycling that stammering, excessively blinking English gent character he’s been using since the early 1990s. Not only did the two actors possess zero chemistry, but they were unable to convey in any way, shape, or form that their characters did love, do love, or even will love each other by the time the end credits rolled.
My purpose of this extended digression is merely to emphasize just how vital chemistry is to the success of a romantic film. Casting popular actors with toothy grins and throwing them in a few comic situations cannot make up one iota for the lack of genuine sparks between characters. Princess D does not suffer from this same problem, although it’s far from a perfect film. It is by no means one of the Great Films of Hong Kong cinema, but it’s not a total disaster either despite tanking at the HK box office. Instead, I find it to be both an effective and affecting romantic drama, despite its flaws.
Today, news outlets like The Hollywood Reporter, NPR, and ABC News are carrying an Associated Press story that discusses Johnnie To’s many upcoming film projects. According to journalist Min Jin’s article, To has made a calculated decision to shoot light romances geared specifically toward the China market rather than make the kind of films he’s become more famous for — those slick urban crime thrillers that have earned him not just critical praise, but a cult following of fanboys and girls internationally.
In addition to 2011’s Don’t Go Breaking My Heart, To is currently working on High Altitude Romance II, a film which stars Louis Koo, Sammi Cheng, Huang Yi, Gao Yuanyuan, and Wang Baoqiang. Although the title is alleged to be a direct translation of the Chinese title, that doesn’t really explain what happened to the seemingly non-existent High Altitude Romance I.
In any event, the bigger news (at least to me) was the revelation that To will be reuniting his Needing You/Love on a Diet/Yesterday Once More co-stars Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng for a comedy geared for Mainland Chinese audiences. Rounding out To’s projects is a brief mention of a third film in the Milky Way Image pipeline, a project tentatively titled Lethal Gold, which is set to star Lau Ching-Wan and Richie Ren — that is, if certain scheduling issues can be resolved.
However, central concern of this AP article isn’t so much the number of projects, but To’s reasoning for doing two, possibly three romantic comedies in a row. In a totally pragmatic, but no less depressing statement, To explains the change:
“This is intentional. We need to cultivate that market. It’s difficult to do that with the kind of movies we typically make. In order to avoid problems and excessive edits with the censors, we are making softer movies like love stories and comedies,” To told reporters. “If we make a crime movie or one of our more personal films, there will be more obstacles.”
Unlike some Hong Kong cinema fans, I don’t necessarily need The Mission Part VII from Johnnie To and Wai Ka-Fei, but it’s sad to see that serious concerns over censorship are preventing him from making more personal films. I sincerely hope that this strategic attempt to a) avoid getting their films cut to shreds by censors and b) make some dough back for their investors doesn’t result in largely impersonal, soulless crap.
I guess we’ll get our first glimpse on March 31st when Don’t Go Breaking My Heart is released to theaters. The film stars Louis Koo, Daniel Wu, Gao Yuanyuan, Lam Suet, and J.J. Jia. If you’d like to see a trailer for the film or perhaps read Media Asia’s unnecessarily excessive and spoiler-filled plot synopsis, click on the link below.
Overheardstarts out so deceptively low key that I was just about ready to write off this 2009 Alan Mak/Felix Chong film within the first fifteen minutes. Sure, the stars are in place early on — Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Daniel Wu — but none of their onscreen actions really resonate in any palpable way. The film just seems so damn cold and clinical. But then, things start to evolve slowly and meticulously, as you find yourself gradually involved in each characters’ personal dramas — ranging from petty to life-changing to dire. And that’s when the plot kicks into motion.
In the film, Lau Ching-Wan, Louis Koo, and Daniel Wu play cops who do high tech surveillance work for the Commercial Crime Bureau. One day, Gene (Koo) and Max (Wu) capitalize on an illegal insider stock tip they overhear during a night of eavesdropping. Max erases the tape, but their team leader Johnny (Lau) figures their plan out and tries to bust them. But through a series of events, Johnny is pulled into their little gambit, which eventually pays off lucrative dividends. Unfortunately, the three of them are going to have to outwit both the cops and the crooks if their going to make out with their sizable little “heist.” Somehow, a delightfully out-of-place Michael Wong figures into the story as a nefarious gangster/businessman/philanthropist (!).
The film is engaging from the moment the protagonists make their move on the insider stock tip right up until the last ten minutes of the film when the unthinkable happens. How can this possibly proceed as a Michael Wong film? Well, it does, amounting to a largely satisfying conclusion.
I’m not going to pretend that I understood even half of the stock market jargon in the film, but it’s a credit to filmmakers Mak and Chong for making me feel like it doesn’t really matter. The film moves at a swift pace once the ball starts rolling plot-wise, and it has a lot of interesting things to say about the law, surveillance, and trust.
In baseball parlance, Overheard isn’t an out-of-the-park home run, but it’s a solid double. For a more detailed critique, take a look at Kozo’s review on the main site.
If you have yet to see Derek Yee’s Drink-Drank-Drunk (2005), you might be surprised to learn that it isn’t really a film about the joys of alcoholism, despite what its title, premise, and pre-release advertising might have led you to believe. Instead, this romantic comedy centers on a beer hostess — Siu-Min (Miriam Yeung) who may be able to hold her liquor, but is getting a little long in the tooth for her job. Soon, she meets Michel (Daniel Wu), a globe-trotting chef specializing in French cuisine whose restaurant just isn’t connecting with the locals. While drinking his sorrows away, Michel ends up sleeping it off at Siu-Man’s apartment. After the impromptu sleepover, the two become fast friends and — not surprisingly — faster lovers.
Fan Bing-Bing and Jackie Chan in Derek Yee’s Shinjuku Incident
Derek Yee’s dark 2009 drama Shinjuku Incident is getting a limited stateside release courtesy of the folks at Barking Cow Distribution. For now, the film is showing in California, Hawai’i, New Jersey, New York, and Washington. Click here for specific theater listings. I’ve actually already seen the film, albeit on a Singapore Airlines flight, but if I get a chance, I might catch a screening at the AMC Van Ness 14 here in San Francisco. The airline version seemed to be slightly edited for violence, although I don’t think seeing the reinstated footage would do much of a difference in terms of altering my opinion of the film.
In rereading Kozo’s original review, I have to admit that I concur with much of what he has to say. Shinjuku Incident does try to be, as he writes, “an immigrant drama and a gangland thriller.” For what it’s worth, I really liked the immigrant story much more than I did the “emerging criminal empire” angle that emerges halfway through. Part of the reason for the film’s difficulty in transitioning well between the two genres is the casting of Jackie Chan. To be fair, he does a fine job in the role, but — through not fault of his own — he simply can’t transcend his iconic onscreen persona. Jackie Chan’s character, Steelhead, does some very bad things in this movie, but it’s easy to forgive him because of that familiar, affable “I don’t want any trouble” personality he’s cultivated in a myriad of films in the last two decades. We shouldn’t be giving his character a pass during these moments, but strangely, even the worst crimes all feel very justified.
Since Kozo recently asked the readers of LoveHKFilm.com to send in a list of their favorite Hong Kong films of the last decade, it got me to thinking about what my top picks would be if I had to come up with a list of my own. That bit of brainstorming turned into – wouldn’t you know it? – my very own top ten list! Originally, I planned to talk about twenty-five Hong Kong films that I really, really liked, but after hashing out all the flicks I could possibly mention, I soon realized that this would be too big a task to complete in so short a period of time. I mean, I should be spending my holiday celebrating Christmas and the New Year (not to mention passing my qualifying exams for the PhD), right?
So, I’ve whittled down my choices to cover what I think are the top ten Hong Kong films of the last decade. Be warned — when I say “Top Ten,” my definition lies somewhere between “best” and “favorite.” As with any list, my personal biases will become blatantly obvious, and I make no apologies for them.
Some of you may bristle when you see that this list is not filled to the brim with all of Johnnie To’s creative output between 2000 and 2009. I’ll try to address the reason for this potential ”oversight” if any of To’s films actually make it onto my list. Similarly, you might see a slight bias in favor of films that came out in the early part of the decade. The reason for this inclination is simple — I think they made better films back then (or at least more of them anyway). If that makes me sound like a gruff old timer, so be it.
In any event, the list is meant as a) a fun little celebration of the last decade of Hong Kong cinema and b) the perfect jumping off point for you to discuss your own top picks in the comments section. So don’t take ‘em too seriously, enjoy the walk down memory lane, and, of course…
10. Infernal Affairs (2002)
Andy Lau and Tony Leung Chiu-Wai square off in an iconic scene from Infernal Affairs
If Infernal Affairs 3 had been a better movie, I would’ve bent the rules and listed all three films here as a trilogy. Although the third film has grown on me (like a fungus!), it’s not nearly as good as the first two entries in ”The Legend” (as the series was billed in HK advertisements. I think they meant to say ”saga.”). I’m sure some people might have a beef with this choice because they think Infernal Affairs 2 or Colour of the Truth is a better film. While I acknowledge that both films are solid genre flicks, I find that I have little interest in revisiting either of them when perusing my own back catalog of Hong Kong movies. To put it bluntly, the first Infernal Affairshas something that those two films simply don’t possess – across-the-board star wattage.