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Capsule Reviews

Rush Hour 3    (2007)
 Rush hour 3 is probably not the most eagerly anticipated sequel in film history, but the series has until now been popular with Jackie Chan & action comedy fans alike. Needless to say, when it was announced Brett Rattner would return to direct another instalment I was of course excited to see the team reunite once again for perhaps a final time.

When I think of what I really enjoy about the cinema experience as a whole, of course I have many favourite actors, but above all I really enjoy a film from my favourite and respected directors. To see the latest film by Wes Anderson or Jim Jarmusch is a real thrill for me. Brett Ratner is one of the popular filmmakers who doesn't fall into that group.

After Rush Hour came out, he became known as one of the best for box office draw, and was able to follow up that success at least one further time with Rush Hour 2. However rather than it being the Director at the helm of the film calling the shots, Ratner was open to admit that he allowed Jackie and Chris Tucker to 'do their thing' in terms of action and ad-libbed dialogue (something that shot Tucker into the top dollar wage bracket as well).

When it came to making Rush Hour 3 Rattner had two very solid films to build from, the original Rush Hour had not only the very enjoyable story and partnership of Chan and Tucker, but also was extremely slickly produced, and looked amazing; Cinematographer Adam Greenberg was also responsible for the amazing visuals for Terminator 2 (for which he was nominated for an Academy Award). And were Rush Hour 2 followed suit, the newest instalment clearly falls far short of the standards set by the first two.

Without the style, experience and ability of the team around him, Ratner is reduced to making a cheap looking, hit and miss comedy that although laugh out load at times, sometimes just completely misses the mark. I know that fans tire of Jackie Chan's often typecast behaviour in films, but that's not the case in RH3. You will never see him doing so many sexual and toilet related jokes! I kid you not, the bottom of the barrel was really being scraped out here, especially when it comes to the character of Roman Polanski, who's part in the story is really shameful. Again, what was Ratner thinking?

To summerise, go see it if you are expecting no more than very slow action from Jackie, hardly any fighting (unless you count Chris Tucker being made out to be tougher than Bruce Lee during the finale) almost no plot, with certainly no mystery, sexist, racist jokes, and toilet gags. If you love Jackie and want to see the team together one last time, despite the very low production values, Rush Hour 3 is an 'ok' bet for a night out. But please Brett, no more.

William Blaik 8/20/2007 - top

Running On Karma    (2003)
 Hong Kong superstars ANDY LAU (Infernal Affairs, House of Flying Daggers) and CECILIA CHEUNG (One Nite in Mongkok, The Promise) give award-winning performances in this offbeat murder mystery helmed by acclaimed director JOHNNIE TO (Election, Throwdown). Biggie is a buffed up monk who is clairvoyant. When his friend is murdered, Biggie rejects his faith in search of a more colorful life. However, Biggie's unusual gift soon arouses the interest of his biggest fan, Policewoman Yee, who agrees to help Biggie find his friend's murderer. Winner of 3 Hong Kong Film Awards including Best Picture, RUNNING ON KARMA is a stylish action drama with a touch of zen. (Tai Seng)

 This collaboration of Johnnie To and Wai Ka Fai brings forward a new visual and lyrical style from the team that previously spearheaded such titles as A Hero Never Dies and Fulltime Killer. Acting as more of a spiritual and metaphoric tale rather than one that relies on action and a fast pace, Running on Karma works extremely well on many levels and provides the audience plenty to decipher.

One of the most frequently referenced features of the film is the ‘muscle suit’ that Andy Lau wears for the majority of the story. While looking realistic, this arguably intends to symbolize an essence of his character, ‘Big’, the former monk turned male stripper who abandons his old code when a close friend is brutally murdered. Yet he is haunted by eerie images that depict the cause and consequence of people’s deaths, and can see that someone’s life will soon end because of a seemingly unrelated chain of circumstances in a former life. After meeting a female cop (Cecilia Cheung) when the club where he performs is raided, he assists her in catching the killer in the case she is working, using his ‘karma’ to see events surrounding the murder that no ordinary human could.

Having discovered a mutual, but unspoken, affection for one another, ‘Big’ saves her life while she pursues a criminal, but realizes her death was meant to happen - according to the laws of karma. Haunted by conflicting emotions, he remains detached until she accepts her own fate and decides to hike into the mountains thought to be home to the man who killed Big’s friend years before. She decides that if death is inevitable, she would rather it happened doing something good and exposing the killer, bringing justice for Big. In a state of desperation, Big furiously runs into the mountains and seeks to challenge what is thought to be destiny. Big could not possibly be prepared for the events and the transformation that will follow.

Running on Karma has many subtleties, particularly in the later stages of the film, that will undoubtedly create debate and varied interpretation in audience members, but ultimately it is what makes the film such a vast and varied experience. It is cinematically stunning to watch, and includes some incredible urban and rural locations, all contributing to the conflicting metaphors of the whole film – Andy Lau’s highly developed physique, to Sun Ko, the mountain killer’s starkly different appearance. The spiritual, at times supernatural style of the film offers a variety of perspectives that could probably be better appreciated even more upon further viewings.

The film deservedly picked up 3 Hong Kong Film Awards, including Best Picture and Best Actor for Andy Lau, who does give an extremely deep performance that is full of conflict and subdued passion. Fans of Johnnie To will not be disappointed by yet another strong entry in an already excellent back-catalogue. Running on Karma is a perfect example of visually rich, quality filmmaking and excellent writing going hand-in-hand to create something pretty special – something that those of us in the west have to venture away from our domestic market to really experience.
Mike Fury 8/8/2007 - top

Invisible Target    (2007)
 The rise of Ronin Gang, a band of notorious robbers changed the lives of three policemen drastically. Each of the three policemen: Fong (Shawn Yu), King-ho (Jaycee Chan) and Chan (Nicholas Tse) have their own stories but are motivated to achieve a common goal: to bring Tien (Jacky Wu Jing), the leader of the Ronin Gang to justice.
Non-stop, intelligent action and good performances from an impressive cast make this one a very promising release.

 Summer again and probably most of you think Flash Point is the one to watch this season. Maybe, but now it sure has its work cut out for it, with an amazingly satisfying, over the top, touching and down right honorable release from dear old Benny Chan. Mr. Chan’s New Police Story was an admitted wink at good action things past, and Invisible Target bears the same hallmarks of quality only much better implemented.

Ostensibly, it’s a promising flick with a strong cast finally heralding the return of two of this reviewer’s fave tough guys: enigmatic and oft crazed Shawn Yu and sulking, intellectual trouble maker Nicholas Tse. Of course a lot could still go wrong but it dawns on one that Invisible Target is an awesome movie right from the first scene when they proceed to blow shit up with extreme prejudice smack in the middle of Hong Kong’s Central business area, namely Queen’s Road.

Yes, Eye in the Sky had a heist taking place in the same locale, but that one was pale and forgettable. Here we have a ballsy depiction of crooks on the loose that brings a tear to the most jaded of eyes as you sit there reminding yourself that this isn’t merely how they used to make them, here they are, making them like that in this day and age. Oh yes, just like New Police Story, Invisible Target has kick ass villains, headed by martial artist Wu Jing, whose deranged but respectable streak was previously flexed in SPL. The guy’s simply spectacular as a bad guy, as is cool dude Andy On. Andy shone in New Police Story alongside Daniel Wu, and here he’s even better, adding a sensible, human side to his nefarious character. Indeed, the antagonists here are all well done and conspicuously Putonghua speakers. Hmmm. Regardless, they help make Invisible Target an excellent release you must not miss out on.

As we behold, the baddies wreak havoc in jolly HK, setting in motion a storyline that has Inspector Tequila-inspired Shawn and Nicholas go after them with a vengeance, aided by Jaycee Chan who for once is truly impressive and adds much to the story. The three cops engage with the demented robbers across a variety of locations, using fists, feet, guns, cars and a variety of other tools. This movie is a field day for makers of breakaway glass everywhere, as literally not a single sheet remains intact for more than a second.

Invisible Target isn’t a dour-faced, overly serious affair, it gets the balance between crime drama and lunatic fantasy just right as cops and robbers leap huge heights and take more punishment than your average WWII battleship could ever hope to withstand. With good supporting appearances from Sam Lee, Lam Suet and even Aaron Kwok, this is out and out a fun, thrilling and gripping film. It’s aggressively cartoonish at times but always professional and never coming across ridiculous. It’s also atypically long for its genre or for Hong Kong releases in general, coming in at a hefty 130 minutes, which still isn’t close to enough.

In the end, good triumphs but there really isn’t any evil here, as even the vilest of people seen in the story has an explanation for what they do and a tale to tell, which is an added bonus not to be overlooked. Plus, how can you say no to the first SDU sighting in a long, long, long time? Yes, they return to battle Wu Jing and his crew, and of course promptly get their posteriors handed to them.

Invisible Target is a frenzied, beautiful assemblage of classical themes (there’s even a British cop in the briefing room like in the good old days), gorgeous stunts, mind-boggling explosions, intricate fight scenes and ever-shattering glass partitions. The macho-sensitive cast is a perfect fit and we’re delighted to see them together and on screen again. In fact, aside from giving logic and physical reality as we know it the finger, there’s nothing wrong with Invisible Target and I, for one, can’t wait to get my hands on the DVD version.

Invisible? Anything but! Don’t wait for Flash Point, get your summer kicks right here, right now.

Lee Alon 7/23/2007 - top

Eye In The Sky    (2006)
 In a dangerous game of cat and mouse, the rookie Bo, on her first assignment, finds herself up against a jewelry robber who passes his time on the tram playing sudoku. When her target nearly kills her mentor, she tries to apprehend the culprit on her own. (Source: HKIFF)
Although hinting at conspiracy theories, this film is actually a very basic heist story with an emphasis on surveillance and fatherly figures.

 Forget about the intriguing posters for this one. For those expecting a sophisticated updating of Enemy of the State or some such paranoid-conspiracy theory number, much disappointment lies ahead. And it didn’t even take Big Brother to stamp out any creativity in the project. Seems like Eye in the Sky fell victim to its own hushed and brief proviso, amounting to one of the most perplexingly short and underwhelming releases so far this year.

Expectations run high as Tony Leung Ka Fai and Simon Yam saddle up to what by all rights could have been so much more. Opening sequences do bring with them fleeting glances of the delightful hi-tech, surveillance-rich spy mood the movie’s promotional material sort of wanted you to buy into, but that’s the extent of titillation they managed here.

We soon realize Eye in the Sky is nothing more than yet another cops and robbers affair, and not even remotely one of the more poignant you’ve never seen. It does come across that director Yau Nai Hoi previously worked with Johnnie To and his crew on stuff like The Mission and Expect the Unexpected, but apparently on his own he can’t match those classics.

Instead, we get a minimal story, paper tiger villains who crumble all too soon and a fatherly good cop character that seemingly can’t die. That last one really pooped the party, which sounds mean, but after building up the melodrama in an almost-touching scene having the guy come back from the dead is simply awkward.

So both Simon Yam and good old Tony Leung fail to make a lasting impression here, but what about the supporting cast? Well, a mixed bag as usual. Kate Tsui is Little Piggy, a new recruit to the HKPD’s surveillance unit (SU), a gathering of people with the knack to be anyone, anywhere and anyhow. They even know where you buy your saltines and soda. That aside, Tsui is OK for some scenes, but overall there’s no raving about her output in this film.

Likable soap opera Wayne Lai does his best and is impressive, but gets about ten seconds on screen so what can you do? Likewise, Maggie Siu (PTU) is cool as a constantly-cussing commanding madam, albeit doesn’t get explored much beyond. To its credit, Eye in the Sky does have numerous instances of the beloved F word, and finally a classic shootout-with-vans-on-a-deserted-Hong Kong-overpass type of deal between the crooks and bemasked tactical unit cops. Not bad that one!

Sadly that last exclamation does not apply to the rest of the movie. Eye in the Sky is simply not worth getting excited over nor keeping your peepers peeled for.

Rating: 6/10
Lee Alon 6/28/2007 - top

Single Blog    (2007)
 Sex or love, which is more important? There are three female flat mates: Vivian is frivolous, Kitty is prim and proper, and Mei Wah is ditsy. Through new experiences of love and sex, they find themselves. Three women, with three different love and sex experiences, tell us that sex and love cannot be separated. Women’s talk always makes you lose in thought.

 At the complete risk of sounding like a worn record, here’s another example of old fashioned Hong Kong filmmaking saving an otherwise mediocre release. There’s hardly anything unique per se about Single Blog, and even its title is completely irrelevant, but the movie does revive, or more like mimic, what used to pass for traditional comedy in the world’s previously third-largest cinema hub, and so it is watchable.

We said the title is irrelevant, and indeed we didn’t notice anything even remotely bloggish about Single Blog. Sure, it has a cast of single young women experiencing the various aspects of sex life in HK, but a blog? Forgive us if we missed something, but that seems rather unlikely given the short runtime and rather shallow story on display. At most you have the characters talking to the camera to recount their oh-so profound discoveries about sexual existentialism, but there’s no online presence anywhere. The only computers are a couple of Macs at an office that nobody even uses on camera. Bummer.

Rain Lee (lately observed in the excellent On the Edge) leads a trio of females cruising around in a version of the city where people in apparently mundane jobs can afford a huge apartment on exclusive Stubbs Road (on the way to Victoria Peak) and everyone insists on shopping Calvin Klein no matter what. As attractive yoga instructor Kitty, Rain Lee discovers to her shocked dismay that her boyfriend isn’t as faithful as previously was believed to be the case, launching her on a romp through a hormone-infused gauntlet of casual encounters and meaningless sex. The message? Live life while you can and never look back. Noble enough, but don’t count on Single Blog to deliver Cartesian lessons in philosophy. Instead, it’s packed with surprisingly risqué content, often depicting one on one, steamy action in a borderline Category III fashion that’s quite uplifting. Kitty’s backed by her two friends, the salacious floozy Vi (Jo Kuk) and good-girl gone lesbian Mei Wah (Monie Tung), who gets it going with her upper class lady boss when life’s other avenues of gratification offer no solace.

Cameos from pretty boy Raymond Wong Ho Yin and his Love Undercover colleague, stalwart Hui Siu Hung, affirm Single Blog’s status as harkening back to the good old days of HK raucous comedy. This is brought up to date with the appearance of more recent celeb notables like Carl Ng (the horny silent cop from Colour Blossoms), who stops by for a helpful bit part. There’s gags aplenty, some actually funny (check out the love hotel shuttle bus scene -- pretty hilarious!), others adequate. But it never gets boring, and with fortification in the form of clothes flying off lithe bodies and bed covers cresting and falling via the wonders of male anatomy locomotion, who’s to complain?

In the end, it boils down to role reversals, taking chances with your romantic escapades and finding bodily magnetism in the most unexpected places. Were it rendered in the contemporaneous held-back, timid and overly politically correct version of HK comedy (the variety geared primarily towards puritan mainland markets), Single Blog would have been a disastrous waste of time. Thankfully, it isn’t like that at all: this movie at least tries to be fun, does the most with its restrictive rating, and, while not exactly a memorable gem, can be a reasonable addition to your Hong Kong comedy collection given the genre’s sad state as of late. Another lesson? Everything in life’s relative.

Rating: 6/10
Lee Alon 6/6/2007 - top

Whispers And Moans    (2007)
 Coco (Athena Chu) is a veteran mamasan, whose career in the sex trade industry has seen better days. Coco discovers that one of her regular johns is seeing transvestite prostitute Jo (Don Li), and another one (Kenny Wong) is starting to develop an interest in other working girls. Even worse, Coco contracts a venereal disease, and discovers that she may have infected her young daughter. Club girl Nana (Mandy Chiang) receives a marriage proposal from her longtime boyfriend, who unfortunately has no idea what she does for a living. Her sister Aida (Monie Tung) is in even worse straits; having lost her standing at the hostess club due to her drug use, Aida descends to the role of streetwalker. With Mainland prostitutes attracting more customers, and the hostess club in danger of closing down, where can these career working girls find hope? Meanwhile, a social worker (Yan Ng) shows up at the club, proposing a "Sex Workers Union" to restore dignity to the working girl life... (Tai Seng)

 Director Herman Yau has done a lot of growing up since putting together the rather ho hum Ebola Syndrome back in the mid 90's, a trend affirmed not long ago by superb gangland classic On the Edge. He's back with another positive turn, this time at the wheel of a sober, almost nostalgic look at the realm of prostitution in Hong Kong and the realities faced by those employed by the extensive industry.

And an industry it is, something the movie really wants to get across and succeeds, as it does in entertaining viewers while disseminating its message. Overall, we are thus graced by a pleasant romp that has none of the sexuality one might anticipate due to the subject material, instead opting for a few solid character performances and a run blessedly free from awkward gaffes and rough spots.

The premise is really simple. Zoom in on a typical HK "nightclub", presumably in Tsim Sha Tsui although as much is never outright revealed. We peek at the behind the scenes element to begin with, as the two madams of the house, Coco (luscious Athena Chu) and Jenny (Candice Yu from Sworsdman II and Infernal Affairs) rally the troops for another night of fun-filled debauchery. It appears business isn't as good as it used to be back in the "good old days", with Hong Kong's getting closer to the mainland not helping matters. Clients have cheaper, more attractive options available up north, and local working girls are compelled to share their business with recent arrivals from the provinces.

On top of all that mood of change and end-times, an enthusiastic activist hounds the ladies, trying to get them organized in a sort of union and encouraging awareness of the rights sex workers are entitled to. This theme is rather topical, and something often discussed in Hong Kong these days, as are the aforementioned mainland chicks.

Probably the main protagonist in Whispers and Moans is Nana, a local girl who's involved in prostitution for reasons not explicitly described in the movie, although her underprivileged background and poverty-stricken upbringing probably have much to do with the decision. Done by Mandy Chiang, Nana's not the most appealing of the characters on display here, and her nonchalant, low-motivation demeanor seems more fitting of a teenager working a mall retail gig. Perhaps this is another way of telling us there's really no difference between sex workers and the employees of any other industry.

Nana contends with taking care of a drug-addicted best friend who's also working at the club, a love interest who's completely oblivious of her nocturnal activities, and an overarching sense of aimlessness. The main threads at play in Whispers and Moans involve fear of infection and guilt at exposing loved ones to the shady realities of the biz. However, there's no overly emotional exploitation here, and absolutely no pandering to prostitute stereotypes. They're just normal people, not rotten to the core or with a magical heart of gold lurking beneath. Although in possession of a decidedly simple story, Whispers and Moans does well in depicting the lives and times of its characters, even though we only get to stay with them for a mere ten days.

The Category III slapped on this one likely is due to the gorgeously rich language employed by the various personas. It kind of makes up for the lack of cuss words so typical of Asian-based movies. Indeed, there's lots of F bombs throughout, and one character (the seriously sexy Happy) does one better and goes on a multi-lingual, five minute tirade that'll behold you kissing the screen with glee. Don't expect nudity, ‘cause you won't get more than the ladies in bikinis, and not skimpy ones at that. There's no hanky panky to save you life in Whispers and Moans, and it likewise only suggests, very briefly, the well-known involvement of organized crime in the sex industry.

The focus here is on the characters, and since they're all convincing, even Patrick Tang as an annoying gigolo, that's a good thing. This is a very unashamed look at the so-called underbelly of society, and in its small, subtle way challenges this conception and leads one to question where the real underbelly may in fact reside.

Check it out. (8/10)
Lee Alon 5/25/2007 - top

Ming Ming    (2007)
 MingMing (Zhou Xun) is a 21st Century martial arts princess and lady Robin Hood who steals for love. Her Prince Charming is D (Daniel Wu), a maverick fighter and irresistible rogue who posted this challenge to his swarms of female admirers – give him 5 million dollars and he'll run away with his benefactress to Harbin.

MingMing loses no time to rob Underworld boss Cat (Jeff Chang). In an act of whimsy, she takes away a curious looking box as well. Little does she knows that the box hides the invaluable. While fleeing from Cat's henchmen, MingMing runs into Nana (also played by Zhou Xun). Not only is Nana a virtual look-alike of MingMing, she is also one of D's girlfriends. MingMing makes Nana the scapegoat for her theft and takes off with the box. However, MingMing's secret admirer Tu mistakes Nana for her, and becomes her guardian angel.

 Getting a veteran of movie videos and commercials to direct a feature film is invariably a risky proposition. The results can shine or literally suck, and the last thing any sophisticated audience needs these days is another jittery, two hour-long mishmashed affair that looks like a Taiwan pop music video from hell taken to an extreme.

With Susie Au, a first-time movie helmswoman with a resume full of pop productions, that scenario was all too likely to become reality. In fact, her directorial debut Ming Ming seems to have reached a compromise in this respect. Its first twenty minutes are so painfully nonsensical and over stylized you can't help but cringe in anger, yet after those initial phases of ridiculous OTT poppiness blow over, the project reveals itself as quite enjoyable. Get past the obvious attempt to rekindle interest in Kill Bill's Hong Kong heritage through transparent "references", and beneath lurks a passably interesting escapade.

On the upside, Ming Ming delivers characters that surprise with their ability to grow and evolve over the course of a relatively short, and frequently very vacuous, release. Heading the cast is Zhou Xun, who fittingly enough plays two separate and identical looking protagonists. Ms. Zhou has displayed a mixed bag of performances in the past, shining in Where Have All the Flowers Gone and Beijing Bicycle, but irritating with exaggerated acting in films like Suzhou River.

In Ming Ming, she's both. As the titular character, Zhou does a vaguely Trinity-meets-The Bride, disaffected assassin that puts a whole new spin on beads and rosaries. Instead of guns, she launches marbles at her adversaries, cutting a swath of destruction through the henchmen of arch mobster Brother Cat (Jeff Chang). This happens after Ming Ming purloins a sum of money from the gangland boss, funds to be used in financing a new life for her with sulking hunk Ah D. The latter, a fist-fighting mob enforcer, is conveyed by Daniel Wu in a thoroughly disappointing part. We've gotten used to seeing quality and sincerity from Daniel, and in Ming Ming he just doesn't have those virtues on display.

Back to the story. Oddball luck brings together wide-eyed triad lackey Ah Tu (Tony Yang) and Ming Ming twin Nana as the money gets misplaced, changing hands and ending up with these two apparently totally unrelated individuals. On the run, Nana and Ah Tu take over the movie and show it does have merit. Both Zhou Xun and Tony Yang proceed to deliver very respectable performances, showcased by way of dialog and mood-setting scenes on the way to and around Shanghai.

Yang impresses as innocent, loyal and loving Ah Tu, certainly adding to the young actor's portfolio. Zhou Xun truly dazzles those in attendance as the genuine Nana, a character doing the actress far greater justice than the cardboard cutout silhouette that is Ming Ming. And who knew Ms. Zhou is so fluent in Cantonese? Yes, language plays an important part in Ming Ming, and for that we salute the production team. Cantonese, Putonghua and Shanghainese all find room herein, that last one to a large degree from the sensuous mouth of long gone but never forgotten lovely Kristy Yeung, a Shanghai native herself. Yes, she has returned! Although a small cameo, it's still awesome to have her around again.

Ming Ming further contains some highly enjoyable music, and is generally well-produced. Those frenzied opening sequences we could have easily dispensed with, but in the end an Armageddon-esque debacle is averted just in time for a bona fide twist ending that, for a change, puts the various plot pieces together with grace rather than rushed clumsiness. This isn't the new benchmark for indie cinema, but it gets the job done and should be viewed by all appreciators and supporters of filmmaking in Asia and movies in general. It's also proof positive that first impressions can be deceiving, so please, don't despair, stick with it and you will be rewarded.
Lee Alon 4/29/2007 - top

Spider Lilies    (2007)
 Takeko keeps a framed design of the spider lily flower on the wall of her tattoo parlor. The design was literally cut from the flesh of her father, after he was crushed to death in an earthquake. The image of the spider lily tattoo is the last cohesive memory of Takeko's traumatized brother, Ching, who is no longer able to recognize anyone, including his sister. Takeko has the same tattoo of the poisonous flower on her body in the hope of helping Ching remember and bridging the gap between them. Webcam girl Jade visits Takeko's tattoo parlor, looking for sexy decoration to excite her clientele. Entranced by the tattoo of the spider lily on the wall, Jade gives Takeko her business card and invites her to visit her on her website where she professes her love for the tattoo artist. Finally, jade asks takeko to give her the same spider lily tattoo to bring her closer to the object of her desire.

 Almost in the same league as Yonfan's rather atrocious Colour Blossoms, Spider Lilies drives the point home that you can make cutting edge cinema without the edge, or much in the way of cutting. It's a Taiwanese film, which in this day and age is becoming a novelty at an alarming pace, but more than that tidbit, we can find very little in the way of the noteworthy here.

You should know that ostensibly Spider Lilies is also a lesbian-themed story, but in every aspect this is nothing but a plastic ploy to lure in the easily seduced and gullible. In several ways we have here a repeat of fellow recent Taiwan release Eternal Summer. Then it was gay men getting the shortchange treatment, now we have the same thing with women. Zero Chou presents, for your non-existent edification, a tale likely to titillate at most a fifteen year old. They managed some of the art house stance, but in the end this results in a most inane, simply uninteresting foray.

The Hong Kong angle comes in the form of Isabella Leung (Bug Me Not !, Isabella, Diary), here sporting her most butch look yet. Although somewhat likable in her previous jobs, Isabella in Spider Lilies is listless and lacking in most departments. Either her heart wasn't into it or the whole lesbian drama pitch didn't quite appeal to her sensibilities. She does a Taipei tattoo artist who's shy, reclusive and in charge of a mentally-challenged younger brother, played by John Shen, who thankfully grants the movie its only thespian-related redeeming feature. Isabella's character, oddly named Takeko but supposedly hailing from Hong Kong, soon hooks up with disaffected youth Jade (Rainie Yang from fondly-recalled Meteor Garden). The latter lives with her grandmother and has a whole list of grievances due to being left behind by her parents and life in general. Sure, the grandmother component works well and is touching, but otherwise Jade as a protagonist is just as unmoving as her counterpart Takeko.

The two women share a past and lots of inadequately covered angst, with Jade working as a webcam girl while Takeko keeps her father's legacy alive with a unique tattoo of a spider lily emblazoned on her arm. Jade also wants to acquire this very design, which leads to Takeko exploring internal feelings of the issue via flashbacks and rather minimal discourse with the spunky Jade. Well, if there's little discourse to write the homebase about, is at least the intercourse memorable? In a word, no. They kiss and feign doing the nasty close to the end, but just as Eternal Summer reminded us not long ago, there's a gulf measured in light-years between showing sexual content and making ticket buyers think they're about to see sexual content.

This cynical expectation-building seals Spider Lilies' fate. With a weak story, ho-hum acting and an overall dearth of relics to take away from the theater with you, this one kind of makes Colour Blossoms look good, come to think of it. At least there we got a bit of Teresa Cheung's mammaries. No, Spider Lilies is no AV masterpiece and should be stricken from the playlist of even the most mundane and timid GLB movie festival.

Amazingly for a pseudo-indie release, not even the soundtrack and cinematography produce moments of inspiration. That's just as well, since it makes passing on Spider Lilies much easier. Believe us, avoid it and you won't be missing out on anything good.
Lee Alon 4/16/2007 - top

Twins Mission    (2007)
 A Tibetan Dzi bead, en route to Hong Kong for an exhibition, is stolen by a mysterious gang. Linked to a long-lost cult called the Gemini clan, Lucky, the guardian of the Dzi bead, along with his adopted son Hey, try to persuade the clan's leader to help them track down the thieves. Refusing to be involved, the Principal summons instead the Clan's former members - Twins - to retrieve the bead. (GSC)

 Sheer loyalty and affection for the Twins has brought us to this one. Not only do the two lovelies represent the beloved Xbox 360 in Asia, they've also grown quite a bit since the early 2000's, when they were unbelievably annoying in fare like Summer Breeze of Love. Intervening years have seen them partake in more involved projects and become deeper rooted in "serious" acting, to wit Charlene's recent Diary and Gillian's role in 49 Days. Well, maybe this has worked better for A-Sa (Charlene to the uninitiated), but you get our drift.

Rejoice, then, for all that progress has now been swiftly given a kick in the boot and almost sent packing with Twins Mission, third entrance in the eponymous Twins cinematic franchise, and one that doesn't necessarily have anything to do with the previous two. While the first Twins Effect was a capable film, starring favorite sons Ekin Cheng, Edison Chen and Anthony Wong, this new release has hardly any meaningful highlights to recommend it. Stroywise, you get the same old tricks and excuses to send the dashing heroines by way of all kinds of menacing baddies and hazardous situations, with little else going on.

This flies in the face of the talent deposited within. Aside from the maturing Twins themsleves, who are not as irritating as their younger selves from six years ago but hazardously close, Mission has Sammo Hung with his cigar-munching habits, a fact that has long-standing martial arts fanatics cheer as he enters the stage. However, even mighty Sammo can only do so much, and he's been in a couple of duds over the last few years. Here he's just as affable as ever, albeit in too limited a capacity to affect salvation. Similarly, Jacky Wu Jing brings his usual subdued charm and kick-ass gong fu prowess to the fore, and may every action star be like him. But potent he may be, one thing he's not is a superman. There's no helping a run of the mill movie even with all the skilled fighting in the world.

Another unexpected boon are bona fide twins Mona and Lisa Ch'ng, brash and alluring as a pair of evil lookalikes who attack the goody two shoes titular Twins (who, of course, look nothing like each other) at every possible Guangdong turn. Yes, Twins Mission doesn't even have actual Hong Kong locales as best we could tell, pulling an X Files by relocating production across the border to cheaper environs.

But since the technical aspects of this motion picture are at least acceptable, and the martial arts choreography quite impressive, one has to surmise it's the screenplay that took the greatest budget hit, since Twins Mission has a most minimal story. A gang of scheming, hostile twins (including the super sexy Mona and Lisa- check them out!) holds up a train carrying a mysterious Tibetan artifact, which then accidentally makes its way to Hong Kong (most likely de facto Shenzhen). This is where our intrepid non-biological Twins join the adventure, aiding and abetting Lau Hey (Jacky Wu Jing) and Lucky (Sammo) as they fight to get the magical object back to prevent some unexplained calamity. The artifact has great healing powers and is thus coveted by many, including greedy developers and an innocent, H2-driving beauty (Jess Zhang) who needs it for her way-too-young sister.

Yuen Wah makes repeated appearances as both the main villain and the Twins' mentor and Principal. There's a bit of going on about how some twins go down the good path while others become twisted (like Mona and Lisa, don't forget), and in the end almost every character seems to have some doppleganger or other, but none of this makes the slightest bit of difference. As don't a few enjoyable comic relief moments featuring surprising ethnic diversity and an amusing Steven Cheung. Even in its comedy, Twins Missions come out short.

You can go into this affair expecting an action bonanza and emerge disappointed, for in spite of a few good sequences, it isn't all that. You could also sit back and behold the pretty young women on screen and come out satisfied, but then again that's not saying much for longevity. We're just hoping to get more servings of Mona and Lisa soon, that's the bottom line here.

Rating: * * *
Lee Alon 2/22/2007 - top

Protégé    (2007)
 Andy Lau plays drug lord Jong who portrays himself as a businessman. His pregnant wife (Anita Yuen) does not know about his illegal drug business. Nick (Daniel Wu) is an undercover officer who had spent the last eight years penetrating into the core of Jong's drug sales ring and is working his way up to be Jong's closest aide and 'protégé'. Meanwhile, Louis Koo and Zhang Jingchu (as Jane) plays husband and wife who are both linked with the drug business, with Jane herself being a drug addict. Louis Koo as a drug trader and the heartless husband even uses their 3-year old daughter in traficking drugs. In her struggle to quit drugs, Jane is entangled in an affair with both Jong and Nick.

 Talking about ratings may not be the most appealing of review openers, but the Hong Kong ratings board just makes it so easy. Either they hand out restrictive ratings like Spring Festival red pockets, or they blithely choose to ignore stuff that in other markets would have raised red flags, and none too festive at that.

Which one is the lesser or greater evil, that's up to each viewer to decide

Protégé contains some very explicit drug use depictions and a pervasive mood of terror more fitting in a genuine horror flick. Frankly, there's more scary content here than in the typical Asian frightener. Thus, we're counting our blessings that the board didn't notice. Maybe they just missed this one? Well, whatever the case may be, you shouldn't.

This is a powerful movie, coming from a powerful team of filmmakers headed by Derek Yee, Hong Kong's greatest directorial hope right now and the guy that gave us the excellent One Nite in Mong Kok and Drink, Drank, Drunk. Naturally, his latest brings back Daniel Wu for another round of effective temperance and reserved menace, although this time the guy is accompanied by the type of performances that tend to drown out the most potent of thespians.

Seriously, sit down to behold Protégé and enjoy Oscar-caliber acting from some unexpected, surprising angles. As often happens, it's not the leads that shine more than everyone else, but rather their supporting cast. It helps to have the film bestowed with melodramatic but subtle visuals, heaps of startling moments of violence and a distinct aversion to holding back. All these combine to a product of impressive properties, even if it doesn't tell the most innovative of stories.

And the story is where Protégé could have done somewhat better. It fields a slightly formulaic recounting of the antics of undercover cop Nick, who over the course of seven years managed to infiltrate the drug producing enterprise of appliance seller cum chemist Banker (Andy Lau). The criminal mastermind isn't just adept at shirking narcotics and customs agents, he's also a dedicated family man and suffering from diabetes-related kidney problems. Thus, the Banker's looking to leave his business in the right hands, trusting Nick with the job (hence the title).

But Nick is a man of conflicts and everyday alertness to the suffering this world purveys left and right, and so begins to notice his pretty female neighbor (Zhang Jing Chu) and her delightfully cute little girl as they exist in poverty's uncool squalor. Aside from cooking up a few instant noodle packs to keep them from starving, Nick also realizes the neighbor is quite seriously on the needle and hooked on heroine, the same substance he's been in effect helping the crime syndicate put on the streets for years.

His moral dilemma becomes acutely obvious when the neighbor's de facto husband (Louis Koo) shows up one day and proceeds to cause trouble. There begins Nick's resolution to truly bring his beloved mentor down, having decided that it's not merely doing business when you're making your money keeping people addicted and weak.

There's a substantial component of valuation to Protégé as it delves into the reasoning behind drug dealing, using narcotics and the things these contrast with, such as loyalty, family ties and the path each individual either chooses or is forced onto.

None of it is really too deep, but you won't mind, since the movie dishes out whatever ammunition it was given with great aplomb and style. As mentioned before, it's no ordinary crime also-ran. There's more here to do with various horror and mystery genres than with the average triad epic, but that's only the beginning. From quite early on one comes to respect Zhang Jing Chu's uber-believable performance, she's that good. From the wracking convulsions of trying to kick the habit, through the fake frailty of needy junkies to the heart-breaking desperation of a mother, she's got it all down pat brilliantly.

And words can only begin to describe Louis Koo's input. The guy's just so good this writer almost went out of the theater to go get him a statue. He's so adept at suspending disbelief it takes a while to even recognize him for the slick pop star you thought he was. But that's all over with now that we've seen his full range. The man simply shines and it breaks us up that, like almost all Hong Kong motion pictures, the world at large will dismiss this occurrence as secondary to other sources.

That's the thing with Hong Kong actors, we get so used to seeing them in Mahjong Girlfriend 12 and My Left Ear Loves Demons 5, and then they come out with this brutally touching sort of quality. Go figure.

There's also memorable scenes with crime movie veteran Liu Kai Chi (SPL, Colour of the Loyalty, Infernal Affairs 2), whose semi-demented jocular conduct fits perfectly with the role of a cruel but sympathetic customs agent.

On the downside, Protégé doesn't bring anything new to the collective literal psyche, it just tells an old story better than most. It does commit the sin of stereotyping, not only with respect to the tormented cop and lovable crook brackets, but also when showing a trip the two take to Thailand, where everyone's either a warlord or a demure, destitute supplicant.

But such minor glitches are easily forgiven in an otherwise amazing release. Watch it and learn a thing or two. Class not dismissed.
Lee Alon 2/15/2007 - top

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