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Capsule Reviews

Heavenly Kings    (2006)
 Boy bands are everywhere. Peopleís reactions to boy band music range from amazement and awe to disgust and hatred, but it is an undeniable aspect of popular culture, doing its part to fulfill the dreams of teenage girls and line the pockets of music industry masterminds.
Yet how much do we really know about boy bands? What is it like to belong to such a group and what happens behind the scenes? Following Conroy Chan, Andrew Lin, Terence Yin, and Daniel Wu, The Heavenly Kings divulges everything that Hong Kongís star-making machine is afraid to tell. Shot from a fly-on-the-wall perspective, this documentary details the rise, fall, and ultimate success of an unlikely modern-day Asian boy band comprised of established actors who cross over into the music industry as ALIVE. From learning how to sing and dance to developing their own marketing strategies, the entire process is laid out for all to see in this no-holds-barred film.

 Yes, for those who have seen the movie and still wonder The Heavenly Kings is a real mock documentary, a surprising and rare film genre within the Hong Kong cinema industry, usually laden with silly comedies, tearjerkers and frenzied action flicks. Those who havenít watched yet should be prepared for serious awe and mind games as the form of the film is a tad disturbing.

All started when (real life) actor Andrew Lin had an idea to create a fake HK boy band, called Alive, with his real life friends Daniel Wu, Terence Yin and Conroy Chan. The main objective was to infiltrate the music industry and shed light on its darkest secrets. The project dragged on and in a nutshell, after a few years, it became a kind of documentary on the inner workings of the music industry called The Heavenly Kings and directed by Wu. The film with a rough edge and a real-TV feel follows the six-month venture of Daniel Wu and his mates, Conroy, Terrence ad Andrew. They play themselves trying to become the next hot thing for real.

-- Might contain spoilers --

More than a Cantonese version of This Is Spinal Tap, The Heavenly Kings exposes local obnoxious practices or at least confirms some open secrets of the music circle. Supposedly, such secrets could be extrapolated to the film industry.

The first half of the movie follows the lads working on getting a record company deal, making an EP and globally creating buzz around their act. From what they encounter and what we see emerge a series of tactics devised over the years by the entertainment industry people. Read a series of guidelines to enable anyone to gain access to success. No talent required here as long as there is enough nerve and bluff involved.

First, one needs not to know how to sing to be a pop singer in HK. Nowadays, sound engineers have at their disposal a wonderful tool called Audio Tune, which makes grannyís expectorations sounds like Pavarottiís vibratos.
Second, to finance their music video (MTV is the term employed in HK), the acts should make money first, by accepting endorsements for instance. So they fill their piggy box in with ad money so as to shoot their own MTV to promote their music. Not the other way round. It is counter-intuitive but itís all about creating a buzz and selling an image before selling music.
Third, a singer in HK has to be able to dance or at least pretend he/she can.
Fourth, look is paramount and a display of ridiculous and so called tailor-made design costumes on stage leads the audience to believe they had good value for the expensive tickets they purchased.
Fifth, the media can be manipulated, used and abused, and lied to. It doesnít matter, as ďmost media in HK donít check their factsĒ (as Terence Yin said in our interview) and they just want a topic to write about. If a lie is repeated constantly it becomes a truth, we learn.
Sixth, it is common practice to hire the services of professional fans - for as little as HKD 500 per fan - for special events and live shows.

After the band exposes these strategies one after the other it becomes rather evident that record companies are in the game to make money. That we knew. But itís clear too that they are no oneís friends and they will blatantly try to rip off artists. Usually the contract terms are ridiculous such as a 10-year binding deal with a 50 per cent commission fee. Companies claim they will invest a lot in the artist over the said 10 years, hence the 50 per cent, while actually sponsors will be paying for most of the expenses. The contract needs to be signed on the spot, of course, not time for reflection is allowed.

The above points constitute the first part of the film and provide some entertaining, shocking or even mortifying moments, such as when the Alive members try some so-called easy dance steps or when a stylist attempts to sell them his silly outfits for their show. Here the four artists genuinely try to step in the music industry and film the process to share their findings.

The second part of the film delves more into the psychology of each member and elaborates on the whys, adding an extra layer. This less descriptive and more emotional part helps the viewer to empathise with the four singer wannabes. Indeed, a whole documentary on the subject in its most usual form would have been tedious. Itís obvious at this stage that The Heavenly Kings is on the fence between a fiction feature and a documentary film.

To add more style to the enterprise, some stylish animated interludes made by an artist called Ko Fai appear every so often. They convey the mood and feelings of each member in specific situations. It is purely visual but reveals much more than any Ďreal lifeí situation shot or recorded dialogues. These intermissions are a stark contrast in style with the video-shot documentary sequences.

This part is a departure from a first half that had a more investigative/documentary approach. The Alive members then appear as more human and easy to relate to. That said, Wu, the director and not the actor, stressed off camera to his friends that they should come across as extreme versions of the images of themselves the local media feed members of the public. So Terence Yin is irresponsible and a party-goer who has a weakness for the weaker sex. Conroy Chan is just a fat untalented guy known for being Ďthe husband of Josie Hoí (heiress to the Ho empire of casinos in Macau). While Daniel Wu is a control freak. The four guys play themselves, but itís not really themselves; they play a role adapted from their real live and that has been scripted.

Mixing the documentary with more drama and injecting themselves into the subject they investigate blur the boundaries between reality and fiction even more. This mixture can sometimes cast doubts on the genuine intentions of the film-makers and simply on the truth being told here. Yet, every so often, some fragments from serious, as in real and truthful, interviews with respected members of the entertainment industry are injected throughout (with singers Jacky Cheung, Miriam Yeung, Nicolas Tse and Karen Mo; and with producers/music writers Paul Wong and Jun Kung) and they legitimate the group discourse. These interviews root the film discourse into the reality, or a reality, of the industry. Phat Chanís and Kim Chanís smart editing fuses all these elements together to offer a film wherein any truth revealed seems to be THE truth.

Everybody felt for this. After watching the film journalists left the theatre angered and flabbergasted as they realised theyíve been had, tricked at their own game. They had been used to launch the short career of Alive. But the game of manipulation orchestrated by Wu and his friends - all overseas educated Chinese who undoubtedly learnt to think outside the box - is also a game of manipulating, double-guessing and outsmarting the audience. Wuís film brings the audience face to face with their own gullibility. How much truth are we told and how come it all look so real and believable? After the first incredible revelations, can the film-goer, who now understands he was cheated by the entertainment organizations for years, believe what the film has to say?

Despite all his scheming, Wu also achieved self promotion and managed to cast all his co-stars and himself under a different light. They touch the audience who in turn relate with their persona --real or manufactured, we canít really tell anyway.

So real documentary or fake fiction, which is it? With this film Wu deservedly pocketed the HK Film Award for Best New Director, because cinema is manipulation and Wu has achieved a coup. ďWho is manipulating who?Ē becomes the question du jour.

More info on the film can be found in our Interview with Terence Yin.
Thomas Podvin 1/26/2009 - top

Hong Kong Bronx    (2008)
 A talented cast cannot save this generic genre title from falling below even mediocre standards due to an under-developed script, muddled directing, bad special FX, and no worthwhile outcome. Itís unfortunate because if it had been fashioned from the right creative mould, this could have at least been an entertaining new chapter in the triad / gangster genre and, while not contributing anything new, would have provided a simple but stylish popcorn movie. Unfortunately, Hong Kong Bronx falls below even this standard, making it a disappointing outing from a team of people who are capable of far better.

The story follows Neil (Jordan Chan), an ex-gang boss who has recently been released from an eight-year prison sentence. Upon arriving home, he has vowed to take care of his two younger sisters and lead a clean and law-abiding life. Along with his best friend, Fai (Timmy Hung, Sammo Hungís kid), a former brother in the triad who has also gone clean, they slowly develop a renovation company, dreaming of success through legitimate business and looking forward to the quiet life ahead. At the same time, Johnnie (Ricky Chan), an up-and-coming local gang boss, attempts to demonstrate his tough hand in order to sway the triad elders to vote for him as leader in the forthcoming election. One method he adopts is to intimidate, bully and generally make life miserable for Neil, who had previously been highly respected in the triad prior to his prison sentence. HeĎs now passive and uninvolved and will not retaliate against Johnnieís actions. A secondary plot follows Neilís sisters becoming involved with the gang element in their new high school, which acts as an ironic reminder every time Neil attempts to discipline them, as they throw his criminal past right back in his face. A parallel story shows the dilemmas of a local working class man (Kenny Wong) whose girlfriend has a gambling addiction and is deeply in debt to Johnnie and his associates. He also has a son who is bullied at the same school that Neilís daughters attend, and is subsequently bullied into becoming a low-level errand boy for the local gang. Eventually these stories collide, entirely as a result of Johnnieís sadistic and evil ways and so a heap of category III content builds into a highly predictable revenge partnership between Jordan Chan and Kenny Wong.

As one could easily tell from the plot, this is hardly the most original or ground-breaking concept put together under this done-to-death genre. There are countless examples in other films that show even without deep content or innovative ideas, the simplest execution can still hit all the right buttons with fans of the genre. The main problem with Hong Kong Bronx is that it tries to be too many different things at once and doesnít successfully engage with any of them at all. The opening credits and subsequent action scenes later in the film use anime-style action slides interspersed with the real action of the live actors. This appears a little too close to the introduction sequence in Young and Dangerous, but even in that example, was not over-done as it was here. The action scenes in Hong Kong Bronx are cartoonishly violent, with CGI blood spraying in every direction Ė some of the gratuitously over-the-top execution highlights include Jordan Chan cutting off a gangsterís head with a homemade sword, hacking off someoneís arm which flies at a group of screaming girls, and cutting someone in half, straight down from head to waist. What is unclear for the majority of these scenes is how seriously an audience is meant to take all this. For scenes such as these, which feature a pounding rock soundtrack playing over this comical blood-splattering retribution, a darker, more comedic tone would seem obvious. Yet there are other scenes involving rape and child violence that are treated with sentimental slow-motion camera work and sad, orchestral music. In short, the film switches between fast-paced pop promo, dark gangster thriller and category III exploitation picture. This lack of distinction in the style and target audience, more than anything else, seems to suggest an indecisive approach as to the type of film the creative minds were trying to put together.

Without doubt, Jordan Chan is the centrepiece for the film, but even he is far from being at his best. Then again, a better project would undoubtedly serve him better, and for those who have seen him in recent titles such as Escape From Hong Kong Island and Wo Hu, he is clearly one of the most versatile young actors today. This fact further emphasises how he is unfortunately let down here. The only other actor who demonstrates some degree of charisma in this film is Ricky Chan, who manages to turn in a loathsome performance as Johnnie, an exceptionally evil villain. He is a relatively new actor but seems to have the look and acting style to take him far. Despite other notable faces appearing elsewhere, including Kenny Wong and Wong Tin Lam as a triad elder, the lack of any real direction in the story and the underwritten script donít allow a great deal of substance or development to take place. The best portions of dialogue are found in the light-hearted, humorous banter that takes place between the two ex-criminal friends, played by Jordan Chan and Timmy Hung. Unfortunately; this alone cannot save a title which feels like it was created by a team of first-time amateurs.

Arguably, director Billy Chung would do far better to strip an old-fashioned genre down to its bare-bones and expose the key elements of the formula, rather than blow it up into something as loud and over-the-top as to resemble a 90-minute music video rather than a feature film. Fans of both the triad genre and any individual herein are advised to avoid Hong Kong Bronx as it contributes nothing worthwhile in either innovation or entertainment. Substantially better work can be found elsewhere on the filmographies of anyone involved with this film.
Mike Fury 10/22/2008 - top

Noble House    (1988)
 It's stereotypical, it's bombastic but it's also a lot of fun. And that's just the novel. Based on Clavell's seminal Noble House, this mini series/TV event manages to capture most of the shenanigans and drama of the source material, and has a heaping amount of Hong Kong thrown into the mix. The story of the premier HK trading house, aka Noble House, aka the famous real-life Jardines, is a cheesy yet quality-infused treat those with a fondness for the overpriced gem of Asia can't afford to miss.

 They say youíve never been to Hong Kong if you havenít read James Clavellís classic page turner Noble House, and this reviewer tends to agree.

Often derided for its bombastic plot and over the topness, Noble House remains none the less a gripping read and true statement of love for the city and culture comprising Hong Kong, even though ask most locals and they wonít know what youíre talking about. Indeed, Noble House is more for those transplanting to the city, but not for those reading from afar Ė most of the nuances and cool factor are lost on people who donít actually live there.

Now, Noble House was made into a TV mini series twenty years ago, and that one has recently appeared on DVD, and at long last, we say. The short and quick of it is that if you have any feelings about Hong Kong and any degree of familiarity with the place, youíll enjoy this version. However, if youíve never been and donít really care, itíll probably be wasted on you.

Clavellís work, which includes likewise grandiose Shogun and Tai Pan (all occur in the same universe), is always a joy to behold, whether in writing or on the screen, and Noble House is no exception. The main draw here is the sheer addictive nature of the manís writing Ė itís like Dynasty or Dallas only with a good dollop of mostly credible history thrown in. Well, at least credible in the sense that it fits in very well with the multitude of characters and story arcs.

This was more of a mean feat, of course, in the huge novel Ė Noble House came in at over 1000 pages and was action packed to the hilt. In that respect, the Gary Nelson-led TV production deserves respect, since they succeeded in cramming most of that into just six hours.

They also did something interesting with the setting. While Clavellís original story was set in early 60ís HK, the show takes place in the late 80ís, and does a good job with the update. Characters frequently refer to the looming 1997 handover, ponder its consequences and make predictions. A complete subplot involving Soviet spies was taken out, I guess because they decided it was no longer relevant Ė although disappointing from a cold war nostalgia standpoint, it was a clever choice.

But above all else, anyone whoís read the book will be impressed at how the locales look like what you imagined before Ė no doubt helped by the fact that they shot almost everything on the ground in HK. And the effects are pretty impressive, this must have been a big deal on TV back then, but honestly I canít remember! Just behold the floating restaurant scene Ė very well done!

Whatís the story about? Got a few hours? Well, you get Pierce Brosnan back in his Remington Steel days as tai pan Ian Dunross of House Struan, or the titular Noble House (Jardines in real life). Heís struggling to keep the company ahead of the ravenous HK pack against the usual backdrop of intrigue, conniving and greed. Besetting him is rival Quinlan Gornt (John Rhys-Davies) of Rothwell-Gornt (aka Swire), whoís trying to depose the Noble House and take over. This character is infinitely nastier on TV than he was in the book, one alteration we donít really understand. Two Americans also enter the fray, upstart tycoon Linc Bartlett (Ben Masters) and his VP Casey Tcholok (Deborah Raffin). Both are in town scouting for opportunity, but thereís a lot more than meets the eye.

A whole range of supporting characters are on hand, including police, triads, bankers and a couple of lovelies like a very young Tia Carrere and Suzie Wong - OK, Nancy Kwan. Most do an adequate job, but Pierce Brosnan is just too stiff and appears lacking in range. Additionally, for something so obviously set in Hong Kong, the production has a surprisingly small number of local talents on show Ė actually, Iíd say none. Maybe they were trying to send a message?

They also toned down the very prominent theme of racism that was readily found in the novel, likely to appease primetime TV censors. Thereís almost no swearing, several characters from the book didnít make it or were drastically altered, and the back-story was indeed trimmed down.

But if youíve read the novel, you must watch this and I guarantee youíll at least like it. Itís one of those enjoyable romps you wonít easily put down, and being familiar makes it even easier since it doesnít feel as goofy. Plus, anyone living in HK owes it to themselves to indulge in Noble House Ė Nelson and crew did good capturing both the feel of the place and the mood of the period. This really does feel and act like what I imagine Hong Kong to have been like in the 80ís.

Donít listen to the doubter and haters Ė Clavell, who personally supervised the productionís screenwriting, was a scribbling machine and did the writing profession proud, outrageously cheesy names or not. Itís too bad he passed away young Ė Iím sure todayís Hong Kong would have provided him with ample inspiration.

If you can forgive the occasional soap opera super-tack assault and the awkward soundtrack, Noble House is a pretty enjoyable marathon, the main drawbacks being the DVD editionís mediocre appearance and dearth of special features.

Rating: * * * Ĺ

Tv Series Directed by Gary Nelson (1988, 355 minutes, English)
Lee Alon 6/16/2008 - top

Forbidden Kingdom    (2008)
 A 21st Century American teenager takes a spellbinding, dangerous journey into martial arts legend in the new action/adventure epic FORBIDDEN KINGDOM. While hunting down bootleg kung-fu DVDs in a Chinatown pawnshop, Jason (Michael Angarano) 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.

 The feng shui for this one wasnít really all that great from word one Ė bound to be a big release that at this juncture audiences in Asia see as generic, wannabe fare for Westerners, while viewers in the West consider it overly stereotypical and too late an arrival, almost a decade after the major mainstream success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. And if it hasnít occurred to you nearly eight years have passed since that classic came about Ė yep, weíre getting old!

But look beyond these obvious hurdles and Forbidden Kingdom is really an enjoyable movie if you try to overlook certain flaws. In fact, itíll work best with exactly the kind of demographic its main protagonist belongs to Ė impressionable kids with a love of kung fu cinema and little or no actual experience with the issues and facts at hand.

Such is the existence of Jason Tripitikas, a hapless Southie geek whoís like the uncool version of Will Hunting, only he loves Hong Kong actioners, so heís OK in our book. Done well by Michael Angarano, Tripitikas is a compromise character Ė yes, heís white, but no, heís not what moviegoers in Asia would identify as a typical American, so thereís less chance of a backlash. Yes, we notice these things. Just like we noticed the plot rehashes the old ďputting order into chaosĒ theme so familiar from other wuxia pictures, only this time in a Western-crafted movie, and just in time for the Olympics.

At any rate, Tripitikas is a regular at a local store down by what appears to be Chinatown, where he frequents a Hopís Pawn Shop, an emporium straight out of the Gremlins era. Now, weíve never met anyone called Hop, but we have been the movie nerd exclaiming ďChinese - No English SubtitlesĒ many, many, many times, so this wins major credits for authenticity.

After a big-time ruckus at Hopís, Tripitikas sort of becomes a failed Neo and drops off a roof directly into a Shaw Brothers/King Hu et al version of ďAncient ChinaĒ. There, all the essentials converge. He meets a drunken master in the form of Jackie Chan, who the reviewer now officially likes after watching him in this movie. Itís by far one of his better outings, and the more mature but lighthearted stuff he can be really good at when heís not doing mindless comedy. Tripitikas then joins with gorgeous Golden Sparrow, an obvious allusion to Golden Swallow and Come Drink with Me. Sheís done by youngster Liu Yifei, who although truly beautiful and talented, is trying too hard to be Zhang Ziyi. Rounding up the good guys, Jet Li plays warrior monk Lu Yan and Sun Wukong aka the Monkey King, and he, too, does well.

Most of the acting is pretty good, extending to the villains. Collin Chou does a hyperbolic evil warlord, and his right hand woman is no other than our Li Bingbing. She looks awesome as a twisted Bride with White Hair, but doesnít quite get to the standards set by Her Wuxia Highness Brigitte Lin.

The story is replete with nods and tributes to numerous classics, and plays out like just the kind of illusion an excitable loner would cook up after getting hit on the head. In this regard, Forbidden Kingdom is surprisingly subtle and may be interpreted in several ways, something you donít expect it to do.

What you do expect is a given number of pitfalls, such as a trite, overdone story form and a whole bunch of clichťs. Theyíre all here. But does consciously falling into a trap constitute a mistake? Enough with the strategic thought.

Sure, youíll wince quite often as this unfolds, especially when the bumbling Westerner gets made a fool of and Asian people around him insist on acting like characters out of a comic book. But itís all supposed to be that way and is (hopefully at leastÖ) in good fun. And please donít be offended by the decidedly textbook title Ė itís also a clichť within a story about clichťs, so what can you do?

The dialog, while again rather expectable, isnít half bad and does have its moments Ė even funny ones. And the fight choreography is pretty good, gladly not relying too heavily on CGI. Forbidden Kingdom is a good looking package, but to its credit avoids the ridiculously lush vistas. Instead, itís got heaps of craggy Wudang-like mountains, and those we love.

To say this is a masterpiece would be too much propaganda even for old China hands like us. Maybe if youíre a first time martial arts viewer, Forbidden Kingdom may be breathtaking. Who knows. For the 99% who arenít, itís a pleasant, professionally made movie that, again -- hopefully -- doesnít take itself too seriously. And it does have that Li vs. Chan matchup, which is a bonus.

Lee Alon 5/6/2008 - top

Three Kingdoms - Resurrection Of The Dragon    (2008)
 The Three Kingdoms story gets treated to an A list cavalcade of names but suffers from a rendition lacking in flair and passion.

Andy Lauís been making war movies like theyíre going out of style, but his latest is a long arrow shot off the almost-classic A Battle of Wits, the anti-war actioner with the humane moral we liked so much.

Three Kingdoms, which to its credit is at least somewhat historically accurate, is very much removed from anything to do with discouraging carnage. In fact, itís one of those patriotic affairs where the opening sequence (yet again) bemoans the landís splintering into hostile polities, and the need to consolidate.

Not only have we seen exactly this kind of rhetoric a million times before, weíve seen it in what feels like a million better, more fun movies. This Three Kingdoms isnít about fun, itís a laborious film whose greatest achievement is squandering tremendous star power on trivialities and a formulaic story.

Just to make sure you know, itís got Andy Lau, Sammo Hung, Maggie Q (why canít she just be Margaret Quigley we donít know), our beloved Andy On, Ti Lung AND Yu Rong guang. Even with all of these obviously talented and well-trained professionals on board, Three Kingdoms still ends up a disappointment. And we wonít even go into this being a DANIEL LEE flick. Yes, one of our fave directors in HK and the guy that kindly gave us awesome fare like Black Mask and Dragon Squad.

OK, itís not all bad. The basic premise is entirely trite but could have worked had it been treated well. We have one Zhao Zilong (Andy Lau), a regular guy from Changsha who joins the army in defense of his kingdom, one of three main ones competing for primacy over the realm. Yes, itís the story straight out of the novel and previous iterations, more or less, with sort of the same characters. Zhao Zilong befriends senior troop Luo Pingan (Sammo Hung), who guides the younger man into combat, where Zhao promptly proves his mettle and proceeds to rise through the ranks until making it as a nigh on invincible hero general.

Along the way he meets a cast of warriors, including Andy On and Vanness Wu in supporting and ultimately unfulfilled roles (and some awkward hairwork on the part of makeup). On the opposing side, we find Maggie as ďwarlordessĒ Cao Ying, aided by her general Han.

None of these characters get sufficient room to breathe and grow, resulting in something more akin to Konamiís Dynasty Warriors Ė thereís constant hacking and slashing, with protagonists hard to believe since theyíre so powerful but with no likable goal. The only motivation seems to be a jingoistic ďunite the word by killing everyoneĒ, which is fair enough, but not enough to make a film good.

The battle sequences arenít the best, and youíve sat through much more exciting ones very recently. Thereís some good CGI blood splattered all over the shop, which is an added bonus, but the inverse ninja law here simply isnít as amusing as it usually is Ė the two Andies go through so many enemy black armors itís literally not funny anymore, proof positive that if you want to make a massive swordplay movie, either endow it with a strong, heartfelt message, or render it a la the insane wuxia of the early to mid Ď90ís. As it stands, Three Kingdoms is like Zhang Yimouís Hero without the pretty, artistic visuals and buzz power, or like Musa without the visceral grit and cynicism.

On the plus side, Three Kingdoms ends by mentioning the Jin dynasty, one of historyís less remembered mainland dynasties. Yes, we get to avoid another heralding of Qin Shihuang.

This isnít trying to go heavy-handed on the movie. Iím sure filmmakers worked hard and meant well, but the end result isnít satisfying Ė not even close. For sure weíll be getting better stuff soon both from the director and his cast. Skip this one, you wonít be missing much.

Lee Alon 4/15/2008 - top

Fatal Move    (2008)
 In the violent world of Hong Kong's triad, one false move can be fatal. A series of unexpected misfortunes challenge gang leader Sammo Hung and his mob, eventually leading to a bloody gangster war. Sammo Hung and his gang are moving closer to destruction as their every move backfires on them - a drug deal turns bad, a kidnap victim is murdered, and a secret mission turns into a savage shoot-out with the police. Who is the mastermind behind these evil plots? Will Sammo be able to defy fate and survive? (Kam & Ronson)

 Thereís no guarantee in life that another day means another dollar, but you can pretty much count on a new Simon Yam movie coming along. And here he is again in a triad story, but donít let the fact bring you down or put you off: this is actually a cool movie, marrying as it does serious underworld scheming with fantasy violence. Itís kind of like the Infernal Affairs trilogy condensed and on crack.

Fatal Move is a Category III for violence only Ė and itís indeed relatively bloody, even if much of the gore is cheap CGI. This is no Hostel, but nonetheless the body count is impressive and the range of physical outrages quite extensive, including one torture scene where Simon not only says itís pain time, but also does most of the inflicting in person.

The result of all this bears some similarity to last summerís Invisible Target, although Fatal Move isnít as compelling or refreshing, nor are its characters quite as appealing. It also has crooks masquerading as cops, a raid on a police station and a SWAT/SDU team being made fools of, and does possess considerable talent Ė in addition to Yam, we get Sammo Hung and Jacky Wu Jing, both very capable performers, albeit not in their strongest outings here. This is especially true for Jacky Wu Jing, whose looney-aggressive act appears lifted directly from SPL, only not as sincere. Sammo gets very little time to show off his moves, yet does well as clan leader Lin Ho Lung, a veteran criminal who for once bothers with differentiating between ďtriadĒ and ďmafiaĒ, a point rarely noted on the big screen.

The story begins with Boss Lin celebrating the birth of his first son, and allís well Ė his deputies Ah Tung (Simon Yam) and Tin Hung (Jacky Wu Jing) seem to have things under control, while his female right hand person Soso (Tien Niu) maintains the books balanced and the money flowing in.

This being a triad actioner, calm isnít the primary directive, and quickly things go sour as internal conniving and treachery become the order of the day on top of pressure from ever-present cops, led by Danny Lee as Inspector Liu, and with Lam Suet throwing in a cameo for some tragic-comic relief.

Soon the choppings, sword slashings, bludgeoning and outright gunning down of cronies by the van load commence, accompanied by a rather convoluted string of double-dealing and treachery that affects all involved parties. Although this means the characters arenít totally flat and do have motivations, this facet of the story is left somewhat under-developed and thus results in mild confusion. As a consequence, the ending, which has a couple of supposed stunner-twists, fails to stuff the bucket, as they say, instead coming across as a bit of a red herring in fancy evening wear. This applies to many parts of Fatal Move Ė even at two hours it still feels cut in many instances, like they had to remove scenes at the last minute or something.

Overall, director Dennis Law (who did Fatal Contact before, also with Wu Jing) supervised a competent project here. This is a worthy addition to an already heavily populated herd of jiang hu [triad] flicks, and Fatal Move is all-told a memorable and visceral release thatís unlikely to go down as a classic despite being a solid viewing with a healthy dose of both Election-like gangland politics and comic book hyperbole. Weíd say go for it, itís one move youíll live to not regret.
Lee Alon 2/29/2008 - top

Exodus    (2007)
 Yuan is a poor and quiet girl from Taiwan who got married and settled down in Hong Kong. However, her marriage was soon over and she is separated from her husband Bing. One day, Bing goes missing and the police looks for Yuan to record statement. Ye is a policeman who happens to be involved in an earlier case where Bing is caught for peeping in the washroom. Bing had earlier explained to Ye that he had discovered an incredible secret: a lot of women were planning secretly to destroy men and they were exchanging their ideas in the washroom. Ye was feeling bizarre about the whole case, as whenever he found some evidence, they would go missing at a blink! Ye soon developed feelings for Yuan and the both soon discovered that Bing was killed because he knew too much about the secret organization. The both are in danger too... (twitchfilm)

 Letís skip the formalities and build up, Exodus is a capable addition to Hong Kongís minimal catalogue of conspiratorial psychedelia, and even though it also stars Simon Yam, it actually gets the job done very well, unlike his bigger release from last year, Eye in the Sky.

Yam returns to his cop roots for another foray, but here we have one of the cityís more recognizable actors in a decidedly indie release thatís not very well known and has been given none of the limelight treatment many lesser releases have received.

Exodus is a tense, paranoid affair with an undercurrent of madness thatís very subtle. Thereís nothing overwhelming about the story or action, but after watching the whole thing youíll have to reflect and conclude it was well worth the time and effort.

So, we have Simon Yam as a cop again. Sure, but not the glamorous type heís done in many instances in the past, but rather a regular beat walker of twenty years, with apparently no ambition and even less sympathy from his superiors. This Sgt. Tsim happens to be married to a wealthy young woman (Annie Liu from Ah Sou), complete with a mother in law thatís quite the nag, going on and on about how a real man should have his own business, etc.

Tsim (full name Tsim Kin-Yip, which probably has more than one meaning if you ask the filmmakers) is posted to suburban Tai Po, an area that offers several interestingly desolate and rundown location opportunities. One evening, or night, Tsim takes over a deposition from another cop, only to realize heís happened on a corker: alleged sex maniac Kwan Ping Man (excellent Nick Cheung) was arrested for some peeping tom action, but claims to be investigating a wide conspiracy by women to kill all men.

As ludicrous as this may sound, Tsim immediately warms to the notion, and begins to look into matters. He also starts to notice a variety of clues and other suspicious occurrences around him, a gradual process the movie does very well. Thereís almost no drama Ė Exodus is about subtlety, and this it achieves marvelously. The transition into paranoia and conspiracy-spotting is seamless.

I wonít spoil it for you, but there are a few minor surprises along the way. The main thing here is the viable mood and very flowing storytelling that Exodus pulls off. Itís a rarity in Hong Kong these days, and in fact has always been: for the surreal, one always had to turn to the mainland or Taiwan, HK has always been almost entirely about the fast and the cashious, even in its movies. But when this one opens and what you get are a bunch of barely-clothed guys beating up a hapless victim with hammers while wearing goggles and snorkels, well, you canít help but nod the nod of warm acceptance.

Plus, we also have the long-awaited return of leggy actress Irene Wan, whoís on board and carries out her duties well.

Director Edmond Pang (credited as Pang Ho-Cheung) has delivered the goods, making sure the film features a multitude of elements to ensure multiple viewings become warranted: for example, this reviewer would like to know why thereís so much eating going on in Exodus? Seriously, of its ninety minutes, at least ten are spent taking in food.

Go figure it out Ė itíll be rewarding.
Lee Alon 1/28/2008 - top

In Love With The Dead    (2007)
 While a bit too late for Halloween and by no means a spectacular movie, this latest Danny Pang product, leading up to The Eyeís transformation into a Hollywood remake, is by no means a bad release, and has its fair share of little triumphs.

For starters, the handful of thespians on show here all perform well, especially leads Shawn Yue and Stephy Tang. Yue does a marvelous job, even further cementing himself as Hong Kongís strongest male actor. Tang is also good, surprisingly creepy in a film that succeeds in throwing at least one major curveball, namely where the basic premise takes us.

Sure, the Pang connection is a dead giveaway, but still, many viewers will think theyíre looking at a romantic tragedy when it starts. The setup is there and the horror doesnít get going till a much later point in the story. And itís a basically good premise: Tang plays Wai, a young woman diagnosed with cancer. Her life partner Ming (Shawn Yue), who loves her and her little kid sister more than anything, goes the distance and gladly sacrifices his career as a designer so he could spend more time with them.

This invariably leads to his dismissal and search for a new gig, which in turn becomes an opportunity to hook up with old childhood friend Chu Fong Ting, now a fully developed and decidedly gorgeous executive. Thatís when things go awry and the film takes that inevitable turn towards grossout land. Be warned, one scene in particular will have you skipping a few meals, and kudos to Stephy for agreeing to do the repulsive honors.
In fact, this one is probably the scariest, most disturbing release from the Pang collective. That still doesnít mean itís terribly frightening, but effective use of darkness and light adds volumes to proceedings, as does the superb soundtrack, once again contributed by Pangís usual Thai collaborators.

So we have good acting from everyone involved (even the brief hello from Patrick Tam works well), potent atmosphere, a few genuine moments to take home with you, and effective movie magic.

What we donít have is a solid punchline. Unlike the deceptive opening portions, you could see the ending coming from miles away, and one has to conclude the writers and director really didnít mind or even intended for this to be the case. As a consequence, forget about any Sixth Sense-esque revelations.

But in the context of horror releases from HK, In Love with the Dead not only features one of the more original and intriguing titles, itís also more heartfelt and intelligent than the rather mediocre average, and as such definitely warrants perusal.
Lee Alon 12/6/2007 - top

Naraka 19    (2007)
 "Naraka 19" is based on a popular teenage thriller fiction by Choi Tsun about a mobile phone game called Naraka 19 - The 19th of Hell. In this terrifying story, the nightmare begins for Rain, who is living in a dorm with her three best friends - Eva, Mandy and Violet. Rain notices that Eva is always sending text messages late at night, and seems to be addicted to her phone. One day, Rain receives a text message from Eva with the message "Help me" and later finds Eva dead in a gruesome manner. However, Eva's mobile phone keeps receiving the mysterious messages and Rain discovers that one of them says "Game Over". Whoever receives this text message would then turn up dead. What game are they playing and who would be the next victim?
(Grand Brilliance Sdn. Bhd.)

 Itís a sad thing when you need to recycle the Pang Brothersí Re-Cycle, for that one to begin with wasnít much more than impressive CGI vistas and little in the way of story.

Naraka 19, apparently titled so to make us think itís one of those high-schooler oriented Japanese horror flicks, admittedly has more atmosphere to it than Re-Cycle did, but its visuals donít come close and in terms of story itís just as shallow.

This Gillian Chung vehicle purveys only one major thing: mood. It was shot mostly in Hong Kongís Chinese University campus in the hills overlooking Shatin, and as such is eerie and foreboding in a way. But beyond this and a few instances of excellent cinematography, Naraka 19 (referring to the 19th level of hell) is a pale, clumpy haired afterthought with almost no lasting power.

They also apparently decided to be inspired by Flatliners, since here too characters are pulled into a vicious game where their worst memories come alive and haunt them to a bitter end. Since most of Naraka 19ís target audiences are too young to remember 1990, this can be overlooked.

But A-Giuís lackluster performance here canít. As college student Rain, she experiences first hand how a demented horror-survival game, based on the wonderful plot device of cell phones, whisks away her friends to some nether realm where they one by one meet with grisly outcomes.

Of course, Rain also gets involved, but the same canít be said of Gillian. Acting-wise, sheís probably even less appealing here than in 49 Days.

Patrick Tam Yiu Man makes an appearance as Dr. Yan, a university shrink thatís either trying to help the girls or quite the contrary. Also into the mix are thrown cop Inspector Yip (Shaun Tam, whoís the best among all performers here) and Bonnie Sin Sik Lai as Rainís friend Mandy. Sheís also pretty decent, but her fear of monkeys does grate after a while.

A few harsh words must be uttered regarding the productionís decision to go with Nokia as sponsors. Forget the product placement; weíre cool with that, but cell phones as the main engine for a story? Isnít that so 2001? And the exaggerated clicking sounds whenever a phone gets picked up or used are just too over the top.

So the basic premise of fears coming to life and biting people in the posterior doesnít cut it, what else? Well in a proper B movie the women would be hot and get a bit naked, but of course this doesnít happen in HK movies. Effects and graphics? Some of them are OK, but nothing particularly artful or memorable ever transpires, weíre sad to report. The imagery is kind of generic, even though thereís a story arc about European cultists and lunatic-fringe artisans that doesnít get fully explored. Even a cameo by Twin Charlene doesnít help much.

Naraka 19 is by no means a horrible film. It has virtually no merit but nor does it outright suck. If you have nothing better to get you in the mood some late, rainy evening, you could do worse. For more significant product from director Lai, check out sentimental The Floating Landscape.
Lee Alon 11/19/2007 - top

Sun Also Rises    (2007)
 Divided into four sections, looks at four different forms of passion--madness, sex, dreams and violence--following four interlocked stories that span four decades involving a mentally ill woman, a young farmer, a school teacher, a nurse, a Chinese man who used to live overseas and his wife.

 One major thing works against The Sun Also Rises. Its attempt to revisit the surreal mystery genre on a mainland China backdrop faces stiff competition from arguably among the best catalogs in that precise brand of storytelling, as the country witnessed a flood of excellent entries in this form circa the late 90ís to early 2000ís.

Anyone whoís ever seen Lunar Eclipse, Where Have All the Flowers Gone, Chicken Poets, Dazzling, I Love You, Spring Subway and quite a few others, will easily tell you this. Also, our friend Jiang Wen, although definitely a superb actor and major contributor to the recounting of tales, is probably better when heís poking serious fun at something, to wit In the Heat of the Sun and the unforgettable Devils at the Doorstep.

When it comes to psychedelia he may not be our first choice, as his previous brush with something similar, albeit as an actor in Green Tea, wasnít really all that hot. And in The Sun Also Rises, we have him as a director, which means heís had more to do with the project, yet the result doesnít feel all that strong. Itís in many ways akin to The Missing Gun, another one of his projects and also a decent if uninspired venture.

For Sun Also Rises, Jiang enlisted his own wife, Zhou Yun, probably taking a leaf out of Chen Kaigeís manuscript in this sense. She plays a wacky southerner in some unnamed remote village who goes nuts over a pair of fish-ornamented shoes that never seem to stay put yet always come back, or are somehow found. This comes much to the dismay of her son, a young villager especially good with an abacus (Jaycee Chan). He tries to keep her from going crazy, to no avail, until she proceeds to dig strange holes in the ground, go floating on the river and generally get up to all kinds of irrational mayhem. Nothing seems to help, nor ease her anguish as she keeps calling to someone named Alyosha.

In a different story arc, we move to another part of China (each story takes place in a compass bearing, no place names with the exception of a Beijing cameo), where academics find themselves in a bizarre twist of passion. Here, Jiang Wen and Anthony Wong play what are presumably educators in a secluded rural campus, while Joan Chen does a horny doctor who gets everyone worked up. There are accusations of perversion and hints-a-plenty that this is taking place during the Cultural Revolution.

The third segment in this multi-threaded affair brings a few of the characters together as Jiang Wen and his on-screen wife (Kong Wei) are sent off to the southern village to be ďre-educatedĒ in the proper ways of hard work, all under the tutelage of Jaycee Chanís character. Here too lust plays a role, but no caution, itís all friendly in the end.

Finally, the fourth part brings clever closure to the stories, featuring pretty much all the main characters and having that ďAh! Thatís what that was all about!Ē effect to a large degree, which is nice. However, it also has Zhou Yun deliver among the most screechingly irritating scenes in movie history. The Sun Also Rises is one of those OKíish movies that somehow leaves you thinking thereís a couple more viewing in it, so go ahead, give it a chance, you may learn something.

It also fields some of Jiangís old gags from previous movies, another boon, but isnít as witty as some of the other works heís been in and basically has no strong message that we could discern. And unlike those other surreal pictures we discussed earlier, this one opts for bombastic presentation thatís completely unlike the understated beauty the genre craves. It makes us think the Kunming department of tourism had a hand in this.

But still, give it a shot, you may enjoy what you get.

Lee Alon 10/23/2007 - top

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