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Heavenly Mission

(left) Ekin Cheng, and (right) Niki Chow and Stephen Fung
Chinese: 天行者
Year: 2006
Director: James Yuen Sai-Sang
Producer: Shan Dongbing, Henry Fong Ping
Writer: James Yuen Sai-Sang
Cast: Ekin Cheng Yee-Kin, Alex Fong Chung-Sun, Stephen Fung Tak-Lun, Julian Cheung Chi-Lam, Ti Lung, Eric Kot Man-Fai, Niki Chow Lai-Kei, Lai Yiu-Cheung, Hu Jing, Wong Yau-Nam, Huo Siyan, Carl Ng Ka-Lung, Zhang Yi, Liu Jie, Kwok Fung, Berg Ng Ting-Yip, Henry Fong Ping, Samuel Pang King-Chi
The Skinny: Chan Ho-Nam gets out of prison and tries to go straight. James Yuen's triad drama features a decent storyline and direction, and never proves uninteresting. However, the characters are not fully developed, the plot sometimes unbelievable, and the themes occasionally pandering. Entertaining but underwhelming.
by Kozo:

Hong Kong's greatest accidental superstar, Ekin Cheng, returns to familiar territory in director James Yuen's Heavenly Mission. The man formerly known as Chan Ho-Nam plays Autumn Yip, a seasoned triad who's just completed an eight year tour of duty in a Thai prison. Previous to his incarceration, Autumn was reportedly fiery and a bit wild. The leather pants-wearing bad boy got nabbed by the authorities during a massive machete melee on the streets of Bangkok, where he protected a sexy female arms dealer named Doctor (Hu Jing of Drink-Drank-Drunk). Now out of prison, Autumn is apparently a changed man, and possesses the calculating demeanor of an overly serious high school teacher. The first thing he does after getting out of the joint is to go see Doctor to secure a multimillion dollar loan - which he obtains with the promise of a 200% return on investment in just a year's time.

What could this once legendary triad be planning? The media fuels the speculation, trumpeting Autumn's return from the slammer on the front page. Immediately, the cops get involved; anti-triad cop Ming (Alex Fong) thinks Autumn will step out of line soon, and forms a team of investigators to shadow Autumn upon his return to HK. Autumn certainly acts suspicious; he corrals a bunch of his ex-triad buddies (played by Eric Kot, Julian Cheung, and Lai Yiu-Cheung, among others) into helping him invest his multimillion dollar loan into a supposedly legitimate corporation designed to go public and make tons of fast cash on the stock market. Autumn achieves this by getting a media makeover, appearing as a charitable benefactor who respects the elderly, kisses babies, and gives money to the poor. Within days Autumn Yip becomes the media sensation du jour, leading to increased confidence by the public and the ridiculous notion that people would actually pony up large sums of venture capital to join his business.

As the days pass, Autumn's Q-rating continues to rise, meaning even more pressure on Ming. Autumn's out there making a good name for himself and earning public support, and the cops can't help but interpret Autumn's saintly behavior as a metaphorical middle finger directed at them. But the cops aren't the only ones unhappy with Autumn's return. A bunch of Autumn's former triad brothers are nonplused by his good guy act, leading to plenty of grousing during dimsum gatherings. Enter mid-level triad boss Ghost (Stephen Fung), a particularly emotional fellow who seems to be more obsessed with Autumn than his hot girlfriend (Niki Chow). Ghost and Autumn cross paths thanks to their mutual relationship with Boss Hung (Ti Lung), and something about Autumn rubs Ghost the wrong way. Once Ghost decides he doesn't like all this nice-guy reformed triad stuff, he decides to take the fight to Autumn, and he's not above using chicanery, kidnapping, or other non-righteous means to do so. Meanwhile, Ming must decide who's the worse criminal, Ghost or Autumn. All this plus plenty of shots of Ekin Cheng brooding.

 When Autumn first gets out of the slammer, he says he's going to do something "big", which almost seems to hint at something illegal. No dice; before too long it's obvious that Autumn's big plans are all from the heart. Autumn is your ultimate pious gangster, a reformed bad guy who desperately wants to do good, and will even resort to such laughable lessons as "stay in school", which he instructs Ghost to do to prevent a life of eternal thuggery. Ekin Cheng gives Autumn earnest integrity, but provides little depth of emotion, such that it's really hard to see that he's changed so much from his supposedly sordid past. Autumn is supposed to have been one rough bastard, so some display of tortured inner emotion may be appropriate. However, most of the time Ekin Cheng just seems mildly preoccupied, like a guy who's thinking about the stack of papers sitting on his desk at the office. At the same time, Cheng is a natural for the role because, well, he's Chan Ho-Nam. At this point in Hong Kong Cinema history, Ekin Cheng qualifies as an icon, and Heavenly Mission milks Cheng's iconic presence for everything it's worth. It's easy to buy Cheng as Autumn Yip because if we don't, then we spit on the Hong Kong Cinema classics of the past decade. Minus For Bad Boys Only, of course.

Iconic is a word that also applies to Ti Lung, who brings grizzled presence to the role of Boss Hung. Heavenly Mission possesses a very large cast of Hong Kong Cinema names, and many make an impact. Decent turns are had from Eric Kot, Julian Cheung, Wong Yau-Nam, and Huo Siyan (of My Name is Fame), among others. Alex Fong gives Ming convincing charisma and emotion, which is good because Fong frequently has to play off the stoic Ekin Cheng. Faring worse are Carl Ng, who overacts as Ming's loose cannon subordinate, and Stephen Fung, who can barely make Ghost more than a two-dimensional baddie. The film places great weight on the Autumn-Ghost relationship, with a parallel drawn between the person Autumn once was and the person Ghost currently is. However, it's a detail that's hard to buy, because the actors are so far apart in their portrayals of their characters. Ekin Cheng is too stoic and righteous, whereas Stephen Fung is too emotional and even detestable. If the film's themes were to carry appropriate weight, then we should want Ghost to "stay in school", just like Autumn wishes. However, given Ghost's behavior for the majority of the film, the likely response is to hope that he gets what's coming to him, and preferably with a tire iron.

Also, some of the film feels unbelievable. Autumn Yip and friends get their company listed on the stock market almost immediately, and Autumn's rise to respectability seems far too easy to take seriously. The righteous themes of Heavenly Mission feel too earnest and simplistic, with much of the expected complexity never touched upon. What seems to be important in the film is Autumn Yip's big plans, and not Autumn Yip himself, which represents a missed opportunity on the filmmakers' part. The character needs to be more than a nominal figurehead that everyone chases, but that's all he appears to be. Still, writer-director James Yuen manages to create some tension with his characters and situations, and the film is technically quite solid. Heavenly Mission is the second film from BMA Productions, and the company is clearly trying to put out quality work, hiring solid film professionals who actually seem to care about stories and characters. The film does feel rather disappointing because James Yuen's last film was the excellent Crazy N' The City, and BMA Productions first film was the also excellent My Name is Fame. Heavenly Mission doesn't come close to either of those films, and more than anything represents an unrealized opportunity. However, we'll give them points for trying. (Kozo 2006)

Availability: DVD (Hong Kong)
Region 0 NTSC
Joy Sales Film and Video Distributors
16x9 Anamorphic Widescreen
Cantonese and Mandarin Language Tracks
Dolby Digital 5.1 / DTS 5.1
Removable English and Chinese Subtitles

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