Louis Koo and Lau Ching-Wan square off in Poker King
Two of Hong Kong’s top-rated actors — Louis Koo and Lau Ching-Wan — face off in Poker King, a 2009 film from co-directors Chang Hing-Ka and Janet Chun, the team behind 2008’s La Lingerieand 2010’s La Comedie Humaine. However, whatever promise was held in the casting of these two likable, fairly frequent co-stars nearly gets squandered in the opening act of the film. I would imagine that the first ten to twenty minutes of Poker King would test the patience of even the most die-hard Hong Kong cinema fan. As the film wore on, I was starting to seriously question why either of these guys agreed to do this movie in the first place. Characters are saddled with childish and annoying personalities, the plot seems to have zero forward momentum, and everything just oozes with the stench of lowbrow HK comedy cheese. Luckily for both the film and its prospective viewers, the film gets better, although I’m not sure it makes a whole lot of sense.
One of these men may be the greatest actor of his generation.
In Laurence Lau’s 2006 film, My Name is Fame (read Kozo’s review), Lau Ching-Wan stars as journeyman actor Poon Kar-Fei, a committed artist who has found it increasingly difficult to nab all the plum roles, critical accolades, and/or celebrity status that seemed destined for him after bursting onto the scene with an award-winning debut oh-so many years ago. Just as his career is reaching its lowest ebb, our hero crosses paths with Faye Ng (Mandarin-speaker Huo Suyin, who’s dubbed over — sometimes distractingly — in Cantonese), a young ingenue from the Mainland who seeks guidance from her idol. Relegated to work as an extra, Faye dreams of making it big in the Hong Kong film industry, but doesn’t seem to have a clue on how to achieve that goal.
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.
Lau Ching-Wan and Anita Yuen in C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri
With a few exceptions, it’s somewhat difficult to conceive of a scenario in which a person sees the absolute wrong movie at the wrong time in his or her lifetime. But conversely, it is wholly possible to pinpoint a moment in one’s life when the right film was seen at the right time — a movie that was not only good, but spoke to the viewer personally, perhaps even in reference to something that happened in their own lives sometime in the past or may have been happening at that very moment.
I’ve written previously on this site about how some of Wong Kar-Wai’s films have had just such an effect on me. While I’ve asserted that Wong Kar-Wai has his finger on the collective pulse of disaffected twenty/thirtysomethings everywhere, I also feel strongly that his films often prove to be particularly moving if seen at the right moment in one’s life — especially at a moment of transition or loss. But this is not a trait solely reserved for the cinema of WKW; I find this true of other films from other filmmakers as well. Despite differences in language, nationality, geography, and/or epoch, movies can be transcendent viewing experiences. Not to sound pretentious or sappy, but to me, this speaks to the very power of cinema, of literature, and of art — the power to move people.
Several weeks ago, I had the opportunity to watch Derek Yee’s 1993 film, C’est La Vie, Mon Cheri. I have been a fan of Yee’s directorial work for quite some time now, but this film — I’m embarrassed to say — was one of those movies that simply got away from me. Unless you’re just plain awesome like Kozo, there are very few people in this world who have seen every Hong Kong film that’s ever come out since the early 1980s. Whether we’re talking about movies or books or music, there are gaps in everyone’s knowledge, as “expert” as we might claim to be at times. I have no problem admitting that. Whether it’s missing out on Moby Dick or Bob Dylan or this award-winning Derek Yee film, we only have so much time to go around, so it’s bound to happen. But still, we persevere.
Compiling a top ten list of the decade’s best movies is tough work. There are a ton of great Hong Kong films out there, and some just couldn’t make the cut on so short a list. To compensate for any perceived oversights, I’ve decided to list choices #11-#25. I’m certain that some of my picks might be a little unorthodox or downright surprising, but I’m just going to have to follow my gut here, folks — critical or reader consensus against me be damned.
BEST OF THE REST
11. Time and Tide (2000) — I unabashedly love this movie, and it came very close to making the top ten.Whatever hesitancy I had in embracing Nicholas Tse as a leading man disappeared completely thanks to this movie, as his little brother/big brother chemistry with rugged rock n’ roller Wu Bai (who provides a killer soundtrack) is just part of what makes this movie so good. The other part is the action — in particular, that breathless, suspense-filled sequence that makes up a good chunk of the film’s second half. I’m hard pressed to forget that pulse-pounding tenement assault or the decidedly unconventional baby delivery sequence that caps the film. Time and Tide is an action fan’s dream, and, the last great Tsui Hark movie (so far) – and yeah, I saw Seven Swords.