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Archive for the ‘Movie Reviews’ Category

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)

Thoughts on BANGKOK DANGEROUS (2008)

Having set up a fall guy to take the blame in case this post goes south, I’m ready to share some thoughts on the BANGKOK DANGEROUS remake.

BANGKOK DANGEROUS (2008)
Official Site: http://www.bangkokdangerousmovie.net/
Directors: The Pang Brothers (Oxide Pang Chun, Danny Pang Fat)
Cast: Nicolas Cage (Joe), Shahkrit Yamnarm (Kong), Charlie Yeung (Fon), Panward Hemmanee (Aom), Nirattisai Kaljaruek (Surat)

Synopsis (from Yahoo! Movies): The life of Joe, an anonymous assassin, takes an unexpected turn when he travels to Thailand to complete a series of contract killings. Joe, a remorseless hitman, is in Bangkok to execute four enemies of a ruthless crime boss named Surat. He hires Kong, a street punk and pickpocket, to run errands for him with the intention of covering his tracks by killing him at the end of the assignment. Strangely, Joe, the ultimate lone wolf, finds himself mentoring the young man instead whilst simultaneously being drawn into a tentative romance with a local shop girl. As he falls further under the sway of Bangkok’s intoxicating beauty, Joe begins to question his isolated existence and let down his guard–just as Surat decides it’s time to clean house.

BANGKOK DANGEROUS posterPRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: None.  This movie only popped up on my radar when the trailer for it was shown when I went to a screening of THE BANK JOB back in April.  As it stars Nicolas Cage, whose recent track record is dubious at best, I was going to pass on this film but I caught a glimpse of the fabulous Charlie Yeung Choi-Lei in the trailer so I knew that I’d have to see it when it came out.

I haven’t even seen the original BANGKOK DANGEROUS.  To be honest, while I have the DVD of ABNORMAL BEAUTY lying around somewhere, the only Pang Brothers movies I’ve seen are THE EYE and THE DETECTIVE.  I have nothing against Danny Pang and Oxide Pang, it’s just that, as a rationalist/skeptic Scully type, I tend to stay away from ghost/supernatural movies unless the word “erotic” is somehow involved.

I’m going into the movie hoping that it will be good and that it will be a good showcase for Charlie Yeung.  Yeung starred in two of my favourite Hong Kong movies from the 1990s: DOWNTOWN TORPEDOES and TASK FORCE.  Sadly, the DVDs for both films are out of print but it’s worth your time to go hunting for the odd copies that may be still be sitting on a video store shelf.  Between the two, TASK FORCE is definitely the one you should work harder to acquire.

AFTER THE MOVIE: Average — that’s the word that comes to mind when I think about the film.  BANGKOK DANGEROUS tells an unremarkable variation of the standard, run-of-the-mill “jaded hitman is on his last job” story.  It features some decent acting and is competently made though there are instances where it has that annoying herky-jerky, murky look which used to be cool but is now mostly irritating.  The film is mildly entertaining but there are times when it drags along like one of those 50-episode TVB dramas that only has 30 episodes worth of plot.  It’s not a bad film but I wouldn’t call it good either.  Unless you are a rabid Pang Brothers fan or you can see it at a second-run theatre for $4 or less, wait until this becomes one of those 7-day rentals that you can get for a couple of bucks.

Charlie Yeung in BANGKOK DANGEROUS

MORE THOUGHTS: Saddled with a thankless deaf-mute love interest role, Charlie Yeung does the best that she can with a ludicrous character.  She does a good job of emoting without words and has some fabulous close-ups but her character (Fon) and the relationship she has with the Nicolas Cage hitman character (Joe) is so far-fetched, you not only have to suspend disbelief, you need to hire a hypnotist to temporarily disable the higher-functioning parts of your brain.  As I said earlier, I went into the movie with a lot of good will for it and Charlie Yeung.  I wanted to like it but from the moment Fon first interacted with Joe, I couldn’t help rolling my eyes at the improbability of the situation.  To wit:

- Despite being deaf and mute, Fon readily and enthusiastically takes on customer service at her work.  I think 99% of people with her physical situation would be doing behind-the-counter, non-customer service duties.

- Without a hint of hesitation, Fon agrees to go out with Joe even though he looks a little creepy and seems a little shady.

- Fon takes Joe home to meet her family yet still hasn’t asked him what he does for a living.  I don’t know about you but, whenever I meet someone new in a social situation, the “what do you do with your life” question comes up within fifteen minutes.

Perhaps I’m being harsh and overly nitpicky but there is no credible core to the Fon character.  Even though Charlie Yeung tries her best to breathe life into Fon, it just doesn’t work because the character is too inauthentic and too unbelievable.

SECOND THOUGHTS: I went to the movie with my friend Jay and his lovely bride Keri.  As we left the theatre, I asked Jay what he thought of the film.  Unequivocally, he told me that the movie stinks.  When I said that I thought it was OK, he said that bkk_dangerous_org_poster.jpgif I had seen the original BANGKOK DANGEROUS, I’d realize that the 2008 version is a steaming pile of poo.  Intrigued by Jay’s emphatic reaction, I went to the local Blockbuster store on my way home and rented the DVD.

After watching the DVD, I have to agree with Jay.  The BANGKOK DANGEROUS remake pales in comparison to the original.  As Sanjuro pointed out in his LoveHKFilm review of the film, the original is a “satisfying” film experience while most people can take or leave the remake.  In the original, the hitman — and not the love interest — is the one who is deaf-mute.  This makes the original eminently more … uh … original and compelling than the remake.

Why would the Pang Brothers kneecap their original premise and make the questionable decision to turn the love interest into the deaf-mute?  Money.

In an article that was published in the International Herald Tribune on July 13th, 2006, the following passage reveals the reason behind the change:

While the original production was made on a $400,000 budget, the budget this time has ballooned to $45 million, and Oxide Pang admits to being under pressure to make some changes to the script. The original script calls for the lead actor to play a deaf-mute hit man.

“We’d like to keep him the same, but we understand that from a marketing purpose Nic needs to have some lines,” Pang said. “So what we’re going to do is transform his girlfriend into a deaf- mute. By switching the roles, the drama of communication between two people will remain the same.”

I hate to be a Monday Morning Quarterback but the remake would have been better and, ultimately, more profitable if the Pang Brothers stuck to their artistic vision and kept the original premise.  Instead of offering the 3,337th iteration of “burned out hitman looks to get out after one last job”, they could have offered mainstream Western audiences something different and unique.  You can just imagine the extra buzz the film would have received from the talking heads on ET/THE INSIDER/EXTRA/ACCESS HOLLYWOOD.  They all would have gushed breathlessly about how Nicolas Cage plays a deaf-mute.  As the guys in TROPIC THUNDER indelicately point out, handicap roles in movies draw attention.  By taking the deaf-mute aspect away from the hitman and putting it on to the love interest, the Pang Brothers ruined the hook that gives the original its spark.  Instead of a potential source of commendation, it’s now a definite source of derision.

MISCELLANEA:

- While I have done some traveling, I pretty much live a “frog at the bottom of a well” existence.  So, I have to ask: Are strip clubs in Bangkok any where near as lavish as they are depicted in the movie?  The last time — actually the only time — I was in a strip club, the place smelled like stale beer and the girls were, at best, sixes.  None of them were as hot as Aom and her colleagues.  Some of them had more tattoos than a Japanese yakuza.

- XX vs XY: I mentioned earlier that I went to the BANGKOK DANGEROUS remake with my friend Jay and his wife Keri.  Keri came along just because it was something to do.  She isn’t exactly a fan of the action genre.  Still, her reaction to the movie caught me off guard.  When asked what she thought of the movie, this was her only response: “You know that scene in the temple?  The deaf girl (Charlie Yeung) had visible panty line.”

CHINESE LESSON OF THE DAY:

frog_idiom.gif

井底之蛙 is a Chinese idiom used to describe someone who does has a very limited outlook.  It’s derived from this Chinese fable.

Image credits: International Entertainment Group (BANGKOK DANGEROUS remake movie poster, Charlie Yeung), Film Bangkok/Pang Bros. (BANGKOK DANGEROUS original movie poster)

Say Goodbye To Hollywood

I was going to do a post about watching my first TVB series in many, many years but, for once, I thought I’d be timely and share a few thoughts on THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR.

THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR
Official Site: http://www.themummy.com/
Director: Rob Cohen
Cast: Brendan Fraser (Rick O’Connell), Jet Li (Emperor Han), Maria Bello (Evelyn O’Connell), Michelle Yeoh (Zi Juan), Luke Ford (Alex O’Connell), Isabella Leong (Lin), Russell Wong (General Ming), Anthony Wong Chau-Sang (General Yang)

Synopsis (from Yahoo! Movies): Explorer Rick O’Connell to combat the resurrected Han Emperor in an epic that races from the catacombs of ancient China high into the frigid Himalayas. Rick is joined in this all-new adventure by son Alex, wife Evelyn and her brother, Jonathan. And this time, the O’Connells must stop a mummy awoken from a 2,000-year-old curse who threatens to plunge the world into his merciless, unending service. Doomed by a double-crossing sorceress to spend eternity in suspended animation, China’s ruthless Dragon Emperor and his 10,000 warriors have laid forgotten for eons, entombed in clay as a vast, silent terra cotta army. But when dashing adventurer Alex O’Connell is tricked into awakening the ruler from eternal slumber, the reckless young archaeologist must seek the help of the only people who know more than he does about taking down the undead: his parents. As the monarch roars back to life, our heroes find his quest for world domination has only intensified over the millennia. Striding the Far East with unimaginable supernatural powers, the Emperor Mummy will rouse his legion as an unstoppable, otherworldly force… unless the O’Connells can stop him first.

Craig from THE MOLEPRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: Due to a “life’s too short” situation, I haven’t seen the first two Mummy movies. I’ve always intended to see them as I like goofy action movies and Rachel Weisz but I’ve always had other things to do or other things I wanted to see. Quite simply, I just haven’t gotten around to watching the movies. Case in point, in anticipation of the August 1st release of THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR, I borrowed the DVDs for THE MUMMY and THE MUMMY RETURNS from my friend Roger. However, I got caught up watching episodes of THE MOLE that I recorded while I was away in Europe. (By the way, I think Craig is the mole.) As a result, I went into THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR completely cold — I had no idea about the back story of the O’Connells or the whole Mummy saga. I’m going to the movie mostly to check out the Hollywood debut of Isabella Leong and the work of Jet Li and Michelle Yeoh. Before I went to the theatre, the movie was sitting on a 9% rating over at Rotten Tomatoes so I was not expecting much.

AFTER THE MOVIE: Unlike the majority of the critics at Rotten Tomatoes, I don’t think the movie stinks. It’s not as bad as the 9% rating suggests but I wouldn’t go much higher than 49%. It’s a pleasant diversion that’s definitely not worth theatre money or even new release video rental money. It’s the type of movie you wait to watch on TV or save for when you need a movie to complete a “four for $10″ bundle deal at the video store. The action scenes are competent but uninspired and the comedy reminded me of some of the slapstick and wordplay that Jack Tripper did on THREE’S COMPANY — good for a small chuckle or slight smile but not much more.

MORE THOUGHTS: Before I get to my thoughts on Isabella Leong’s performance, I have to say that the one thing that really bothered me about the film was its depiction of 1940s Shanghai. I think the glamorous Shanghai shown in the movie died around 1937 after the Battle of Shanghai between the Japanese and the Kuomintang. If I recall my Chinese history correctly, by the 1940s, ballrooms and nightclubs were turned into places where people were being interrogated, tortured and killed. I don’t mean to be a Debbie Downer, I’m just saying that if you know your Chinese history, this is something that might stick in your craw during the movie — that and the notion of Brendan Fraser and Maria Bello being old enough to have a son that looks like Luke Ford.

Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong in THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR

Now, for the centrepiece of today’s post, how did Isabella Leong fare in her Hollywood debut? As a fan of HK entertainment, I always hope that an entertainment circle talent makes it big in Hollywood because, in a rising tide floats all boats sort of way, it invariably brings attention and exposure back to the HK entertainment industry. Therefore, it saddens me to say that Isabella Leong’s performance in THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR was unimpressive and, barring a huge stroke of fortune or favour, it’s unlikely she’ll develop a solid Hollywood career.

To make any sort of splash in Hollywood, a “foreign” actress has to give an outstanding performance that makes people run to their computers, go to IMDB or Google, and look up every thing they can find about her. I think this happened with Michelle Yeoh when POLICE STORY 3: SUPERCOP was released in North America and certainly when TOMORROW NEVER DIES came out. It definitely happened with Zhang Ziyi after CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON and, to a lesser extent, with Shu Qi and THE TRANSPORTER. The only thing that is distinctive about Isabella Leong’s work in THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR is that it is distinctly unremarkable. I don’t think Jessey Mengtoo many people will be doing computer searches trying to find out who played “Michelle Yeoh’s daughter”. In fact, if there was a bookie who took action on this sort of thing, I’d bet that Jessey Meng (the actress who plays the dedicated girlfriend of Anthony Wong Chau-Sang’s General Yang) gets more Google/IMDB hits out of this movie than Isabella Leong.

I think the movie highlights the major flaw in Isabella Leong’s game: she has low screen charisma. She doesn’t have that intangible quality that makes viewers sit back and take notice. Her lack of screen magnetism is something I sensed in ISABELLA and I don’t think it improved with SPIDER LILIES even though a lesbian tattoo artist should have been a charismatic, attention-grabbing role. When she popped up for her cameo in SIMPLY ACTORS, it took me a couple of seconds to recognize her. It’s still early in her career but, if this was an election, the NBC News Decision Desk would be getting ready to declare that Isabella Leong has no screen presence.

With the exception of THE EYE 10 and MISSING, I believe I’ve seen all of Isabella Leong’s work and I can’t think of an instance where her screen chi pierces the screen, commands your attention and demands that you fixate your eyes on her. Most great actresses have at least one of those moments during their careers. I think I can safely say that Isabella Leong hasn’t had one yet. I’d be happy to be proven wrong about this so if anyone out there in HK entertainment nation can point out a moment that Isabella Leong captivates the viewer’s attention, I’d love to hear about it.

MISCELLANEA:

- If you are at all familiar with some of the intense work that Anthony Wong Chau-Sang has done in HK, it’s hard to accept him as a villain in THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR. Something in the way he delivers his lines in English robs him of his menace. I don’t know if you’d notice it if you haven’t seen his HK movies but, if you have, it’s quite noticeable. When he spoke for the first time in the movie, the three Chinese guys sitting two rows behind me laughed out loud. I knew what they were feeling because I was having a flashback to Wong’s goofy “all the world’s a stage” bit in SIMPLY ACTORS.

- There isn’t much to be said about Jet Li’s performance in the movie. To say that he “mailed it in” isn’t exactly accurate. I’d call it a “living off the fat of the land” situation. Over the past ten years, he’s established a reputation, a brand over here in the West and THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR is a case where he is harvesting the crop he first sowed back in 1998 with his work in LETHAL WEAPON 4. You can’t fault a guy for reaping the benefits of past hard work.

I will say I’m happy to see that, like the final fight scene in LETHAL WEAPON 4, it still takes more than one good guy to overpower a villainous Jet Li.

Michelle Yeoh in THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR

- Michelle Yeoh continues to show why she is the class of entertainment circle actresses working in Hollywood. In the hands of a lesser talent, the scene where she calls on the dead to rise up and fight would have seemed cheesy. Michelle Yeoh actually makes it seems kind of cool.

Also, going back to the Isabella Leong has no screen charisma discussion, the opening scenes for Michelle Yeoh in THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR define screen presence. Isabella Leong does not have that kind of screen magnetism and that’s why I don’t think she’ll make it in Hollywood.

Image credits: ABC (Craig from THE MOLE), Universal Pictures (Michelle Yeoh and Isabella Leong), MGM (Jessey Meng)

Travelin’ Man

Much to my embarrassment, I have to begin with a familiar refrain: Apologies for the long gap in between posts. My cousin Tony recently married his longtime girlfriend in, of all places, Bhutan so I’ve been on the road slowly making my way to the remote mountain region by plane, train, automobile and, for the last few rugged kilometres, yak. The ceremony was fantastic but Bhutan isn’t easy to get to so everyone in the Leung clan sort of wished that he had the wedding at a Marriage Registry office like everyone else.

I am, of course, kidding. I didn’t go to Bhutan for the Tony Leung Chiu-Wai-Carina Lau Ka-Ling wedding but I have been on the road. I’m back home from a trip to England and Italy. I had a fabulous time made all the more enjoyable because it was my first significant trip in more than ten years and, naturally, because of what I’ve been through in the last little while. I savoured every minute — even the moments I was crammed like a sardine in the London Tube during rush hour. I didn’t mind the tight, smelly, sticky situation one bit because I consider myself very, very lucky and very, very blessed just to be able to have the experience.

As I am a bit of a history buff, I went to many famous sites and often had moments where I was enveloped by a pervasive sense of history. When I stood in front of Stonehenge, I could picture pre-historic men working together to drag those massive stones. When I surveyed the panoramic countryside view from the “Pink Terrace” at Chartwell (the family home of Winston Churchill), I was blown away by the fact that the legendary Churchill used to enjoy the very same view. In Rome, when I visited the Temple of Julius Caesar, I couldn’t believe that I was looking at the funeral pyre of one of the men who helped expand the Roman Republic into the Roman Empire.

Stonehenge
Stonehenge

View from the Pink Terrace at Chartwell
View from the “Pink Terrace” at Chartwell

The Funeral Pyre of Julius Caesar
The Funeral Pyre of Julius Caesar

Longtime readers will know that I enjoy the fartsy side of life just as much, if not more, than the artsy side. So, contrary to the paragraph above, my trip wasn’t all about historic sites, I made my share of pop culture pilgrimages as well. When I went to the famous Colosseum, I could barely concentrate on what the tour guide was saying because all I was thinking was: “wow, that’s where Chuck Norris stood in WAY OF THE DRAGON“. Even though I knew that the climactic Norris-Bruce Lee fight from the film was shot on a soundstage, I was looking for the spot where the fight would have taken place. I also resisted the urge to yell out: “Tang Lung, you are a very brave man! Tang Lung, the man you just saw will kill you! Tang Lung, you are trapped!”

Chuck Norris in WAY OF THE DRAGON

I made another pop culture pilgrimage to Rome’s Piazza Navona — the location of the scene in WAY OF THE DRAGON where Nora Miao lectures Bruce Lee about being too uptight around foreigners. For about ten minutes, I sat on the bench in front of the Fountain of Four Rivers where Bruce Lee sat but, sadly, no Italian beauties like Malisa Longo showed up to bring me back to her apartment. I like to think that it was because the Fountain of Four Rivers was closed for restoration since, as the movie demonstrated, handsome Chinese guys like myself are irresistible to Italian beauties. :-)

Piazza Novana in WAY OF THE DRAGON
Piazza Navona in WAY OF THE DRAGON

Italian Beauty Malisa Longo
Italian Beauty Malisa Longo

blee_nmiao_mlongo_wod.jpg
Nora Miao, Bruce Lee and Malisa Longo

Fountain of the Four Rivers
Fountain of Four Rivers closed for restoration

Enough about me … since this is nominally a blog about Hong Kong entertainment, I better earn my keep and talk a little bit about the entertainment circle. I dragged my friend Ah Wing away from his three-year old daughter and one-year old son this past weekend for a screening of THE DARK KNIGHT. While everyone else was interested in seeing the highly-hyped sequel to BATMAN BEGINS and the vaunted Heath Ledger performance, I was interested in seeing if the rumours that Edison Chen Kwoon-Hei was cut from the film were correct. I suspected that he was still in the film but that he would have a very, very small role. I pegged the over/under for the number of lines for the man with the hand worth HK$500,000 at 2.5. If I were a betting man, I would have placed a small wager on the under.

As it turned out, I would have collected on my bet because Chen only had two lines. Since he wasn’t even on screen for one of those lines, I don’t think the role will have Hollywood beating at his door as his performance definitely was not a Jet Li in LETHAL WEAPON 4 situation.

Speaking of “Sexy Photos Gate”, reader Mark — who is supposedly teaching English in Japan but is probably there stalking Miki Nakatani (oh wait, that’s what I would do if I was in Japan) — sent in an e-mail to let us know that “Sexy Photos Gate” has even been a source of inspiration for the prodigious Japanese adult video industry. In June, an adult video titled “Leaked Photos! Former Boyfriend Films Private Intercourse!” was released by Alice Japan (go here for the official websiteWarning: Adult Content).

Back to THE DARK KNIGHT … I don’t know if I can join the chorus of those proclaiming it to be an Oscar-worthy masterpiece. I have decidedly mixed feelings about it. The film is indeed very good but it’s also a little too long and very dark and very pessimistic. Perhaps expectation is playing a part in my perception of the film. I was anticipating a repeat of the “hell yeah!” feeling I had after seeing BATMAN BEGINS. I was not expecting to be gut-punched with a shockingly somber movie. When I walked out, I didn’t feel like I’d just seen a superhero movie, I felt like I’d just seen GOTHAM ON FIRE — the followup to Ringo Lam’s intense and depressing movies CITY ON FIRE, PRISON ON FIRE and SCHOOL ON FIRE. I suspect I’m not alone in feeling stomach-punched because, apart from the laughs inspired by the Joker’s disappearing pen trick, the crowd in the theatre was deathly quiet and, when we came out, we all had dazed expressions on our faces.

That’s all for today, I’ll be back sometime in the next sixty days with a post about TVB.

By the way, if you picked me up at the airport and I circled your car and said: “BMW? Mustang? It’s a Rolls!” would you think I was funny or weird? When my cousin picked me up at London’s Heathrow Airport, I did the car bit from WAY OF THE DRAGON but all I got was a puzzled look because she hadn’t seen the film. I did, however, achieve a small victory by eliciting the Nora Miao “just get in the car” face from my cousin. Good times.

car_wod.jpg

Image credits: Sanney Leung (Stonehenge, Chartwell, Temple of Julius Caesar, Fountain of Four Rivers), Golden Harverst (WAY OF DRAGON screen shots)

Thoughts on THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM

Some thoughts on THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, but first, a couple of housekeeping notes:

Apologies for the gap in between posts, I overextended myself a little bit with the HKFA preview blog post series. Plus, I’m a lazy, lazy man.

Apologies also to the HKFA Prediction Contest entrants. I’m sorry that it’s taken almost as long to announce a winner as it has for Zimbabwe to announce the winner of its presidential election. Without further ado, the winner of the contest is:

Robert Mugabe of Harare, Zimbabwe

For his prize, Mr. Mugabe selected a TWINS EFFECT lanyard from the House Where Words Gather prize vault … Just kidding. The winner be announced in the next blog post.

… And now, back to our regularly scheduled programming …

THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM
Official Site: http://www.forbiddenkingdommovie.com/
Director: Rob Minkoff
Cast: Jackie Chan (Lu Yan/Old Hop), Jet Li (The Silent Monk/The Monkey King), Michael Angarano (Jason Tripitikas), Crystal Liu Yifei (Golden Sparrow), Collin Chou (The Jade Warlord), Li Bingbing (Ni Chang)

Synopsis (from the official site): A 21st Century American teenager takes a spellbinding, dangerous journey into martial arts legend in the new action/adventure epic FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. Shot on location in China, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM marks the historic first-ever onscreen pairing of martial arts superstars Jackie Chan (RUSH HOUR, DRUNKEN MASTER) and Jet Li (FEARLESS, ONCE UPON A TIME IN CHINA), and features the awe-inspiring action choreography of Yuen Wo Ping (THE MATRIX, CROUCHING TIGER HIDDEN DRAGON). While hunting down bootleg kung-fu DVDs in a Chinatown pawnshop, Jason (played by Michael Angarano - “24″, “Will and Grace”, LORDS OF DOGTOWN, SEABISCUIT) makes an extraordinary discovery that sends him hurtling back in time to ancient China. There, Jason is charged with a monumental task: he must free the fabled warrior the Monkey King, who has been imprisoned by the evil Jade Warlord. Jason is joined in his quest by wise kung fu master Lu Yan (Jackie Chan) and a band of misfit warriors including Silent Monk (Jet Li). But only by learning the true precepts of kung fu can Jason hope to succeed - and find a way to get back home.

PRE-CONCEIVED NOTIONS: I hate to admit this but beyond loyalty to my people and a slight fascination with Crystal Liu Yifei, there weren’t too many compelling reasons for me to plop down $11 to see THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. Yes, it is the first major collaboration between Jackie Chan and Jet Li but the plot synopsis brought flashbacks of that awful THUNDERBIRDS movie from a few years back — where a cool idea was turned into a steaming pile of poo by corporate thinking concerned more with making a marketable commercial product than a good movie.

forgetting_sarah_marshall_poster.jpgIn fact, had I gone to the theatre on opening weekend, I probably would have seen FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL instead of THE FORGOTTEN KINGDOM. FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL got a glowing review on AT THE MOVIES WITH EBERT & ROEPER and SUPERBAD was the most fun I had at the movies in 2007. However, snow and freezing rain kept me from the theatre and — in the days that passed — my interest in seeing FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL waned as tepid feedback emerged from opening weekend moviegoers. Moreover, I figured that going to THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM was something I could do with the Old Man (my Dad, not Bill Adama) that didn’t involve some form of dim sum.

AFTER THE MOVIE: When a movie combines bending of the space-time continuum with a “rat teaches the art of the ninja to four turtles” type premise, the only way you can measure it effectively is to ask: Is it enjoyable? Fortunately, for the cause of Chinese talent in Hollywood, the answer is mostly yes as Jackie Chan and Jet Li deliver likeable performances that generate enough affection and goodwill to overcome the clumsy plot, clunky dialogue and two cheesy modern-day segments that bookend the film.

Fans of Big Brother Jackie and Jet Li should come away satisfied but kung fu cinema aficionados may feel a twinge of disappointment as they leave the theatre. A kung fu film collaboration between Jackie Chan and Jet Li should have been better than THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. It shouldn’t have been saddled with the goofy “teenager from Boston has to save ancient China from a despot” story. It’s sort of like Al Pacino and Robert De Niro finally agreeing to collaborate on a mafia film only to see them end up playing crime bosses who settle their differences after becoming friends while coaching their respective daughters through some Lamaze classes. THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM is well-produced, pleasant, mildly enjoyable entertainment but you can’t help but wonder what might have been.

MORE THOUGHTS (WARNING: contains minor spoilers): A film of THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM’s ilk doesn’t lend itself to penetrating analysis so I’ll simply share some of the things I liked about the film and some of the things I didn’t like about it. I liked:

jackie_jet_kingdom.jpg- The way Jackie Chan and Jet Li were billed equally. Kudos to the person who came up with the idea.

- The opening title sequence — which featured poster images of kung fu film icons like Bruce Lee, Gordon Liu, Chen Kuan-Tai, Lau Kar-Leung, Cheng Pei-Pei and the “Five Venoms” among others. Not only is it a nice tribute, I think it serves as a signal to kung fu film fans that the filmmakers recognize the rich heritage of kung fu cinema.

- The affable performances by Jackie Chan and Jet Li. Taking on the divergent dual roles of The Monkey King and The Silent Monk, Jet Li shows flashes of his HKFA Best Actor skills by being playfully puckish while as The Monkey King and stern but warm-hearted while as The Silent Monk. Jackie Chan, meanwhile, gives an energetic effort that brings back fond memories of his Lunar New Year film glory days and serves to highlight how lethargic his performance was in RUSH HOUR 3.

Things I didn’t like include:

William Zabka- The modern-day South Boston segments that bookend the film. Since I am a sap, the only thing I liked about it was the appearance of 21st Century Golden Sparrow. The rest of the modern-day stuff was painfully cheesy. The street gang — complete with horribly-done Southie accents — is so cliche, the guys in WEST SIDE STORY snapping their fingers and singing “when you’re a Jet, you’re a Jet all the way” end up having more “street cred”. To make matters worse, the gang leader (played by Morgan Benoit) is so over-the-top, it’s hard to take anything that happens seriously. I’m not sure if the fault lies with Mr. Benoit or with production. If I had to pick one, I’d go with the latter because even 1980s movie bully William Zabka in his prime would have looked bad in the cornball modern-day sequences.

- The way the film had Lu Yan do the basal exposition. Lu Yan, Jackie Chan’s character, is given the responsibility of explaining the situation in ancient China to Jason (the Boston teenager created to expand the marketable demographics) and, by extension, the audience. As is widely known from the DVD extras of past Jackie Chan films, Big Brother Jackie learns most of his lines phonetically so his delivery is shaky at best. Combined with the clunky “the naughty Monkey King thrice repelled the Jade Warlord” type dialogue, some audience members may have difficultly getting into an already far-fetched story.

MISCELLANEA:

- For the sake of my fellow ham sup lo, I feel obligated to say a few words about twenty-one year-old Crystal Liu Yifei. Known primarily to Chinese audiences as a TV actress, Liu spent part of her childhood in New York City before returning to China to study at the Bejing Film Academy in 2002. She burst onto the scene in 2003 with a captivating performance as Wong Yu-Yin (王語嫣) in HEAVEN DRAGON THE EIGHTH EPISODE (CCTV’s adaptation of Louis Cha’s DEMI-GODS AND SEMI-DEVILS). In 2006, she cemented her status as a rising star after she received much acclaim for taking on the Crystal Liu in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOMrole of “Little Dragon Girl” (小龍女) in THE RETURN OF THE CONDOR HEROES (another CCTV adaptation of a Louis Cha novel). Both series received high ratings and allowed her to expand her career with opportunities in music and film.

Playing Golden Sparrow, Liu gives a solid performance in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM but prospects for further opportunities in Hollywood appear doubtful. While it was the top earner in North America on its opening weekend, THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM did not catch fire like CROUCHING TIGER, HIDDEN DRAGON. In addition, there’s been very little buzz about Liu. When he reviewed THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM for AT THE MOVIES WITH EBERT AND ROEPER, Richard Roeper did not fawn over Liu or co-star Li Bingbing like he does normally with the likes of Gong Li and Zhang Ziyi. Instead, he referred to them generically by praising them for their “fabulous kung fu babe-ery”.

Liu, however, does have the ability to be a crossover talent. She has screen presence and she speaks English adequately (there’s even a slight hint of “Valley Girl” in her English). It will be interesting to see if Liu or Isabella Leong Lok-Si (who has a role in the upcoming THE MUMMY: TOMB OF THE DRAGON EMPEROR) make a dent in Hollywood. My guess is that neither will make a significant splash but it will be something to track over the next few years.

Crystal Liu in HEAVEN DRAGON THE EIGHTH EPISODETo those who’ve seen Liu in both HEAVEN DRAGON THE EIGHTH EPISODE and THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, is it my imagination or does Liu seem younger in THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM even though she is five years older? I remember being intrigued then horrified after watching Liu in the CCTV drama. Intrigued because she looked fabulous as Wong Yu-Yin then horrified when I learned she was only 15 when she shot the show. To this day, just making eye contact with her stills from HEAVEN DRAGON THE EIGHTH EPISODE makes me feel like a pedophile. Now that I’ve seen THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM, I can reassure myself by rationalizing that her costuming in the TV drama made her look like she was in her early-20s. Isn’t that right? Please, somebody, agree with me. :-)

- Tired of getting hassled by bullies while on your way home from a DVD run to the local Chinatown video store? Avoid the perilous journey and shop online at YesAsia where you can get DVDs of titles from A-1 HEADLINES to ZU: WARRIORS FROM THE MAGIC MOUNTAIN. They even offer free shipping to anywhere in the world! YesAsia — providing refuge to bullied film geeks since 1998. :-)

Image credits: Universal Pictures (FORGETTING SARAH MARSHALL poster), The Weinstein Company (THE FORBIDDEN KINGDOM poster, Crystal Liu), Columbia Pictures (William Zabka), CCTV (Crystal Liu)

 

 
 
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