What Has Gone Before..
Friday, August 20, 2010
But as I say, mixed feelings, as this post is one I have been looking forward to writing, as it concerns a film that I think is my film of 2010 so far (and yes that does mean I might be doing a Top 5/10 at the end of the year).
"Love in a Puff" sets itself firmly in modern day Hong Kong. Modern anti-smoking legislation has driven the smoking workers to designated areas and alleyways, creating small areas where people enjoy a smoke, while exchanging stories and chit chat. Shopgirl Cherie (Miriam Yeung) stumbles upon a group of such people, including recently dumped advertising executive Jimmy (Shawn Yue). The pair hit it off imeediatley, and the film follows the next 7 days of their lives, as they begin a romantic relationship.
Much has been made of this film's language, which got it the dreaded Cat III rating in Hong Kong, which affected the attendances initially before word of mouth (and the internet) bought people into the cinema. Now sadly, I do not speak Cantonese, and the subtitles that I have are quite possibly not as strong as the words being spoken. Hoever, the wordplay still feels modern and natural to me. The jokes seem genuinly funny, and unlike a lot of Hong Kong comedies, the subject matter seems universal, rather than relying on HK-specific pop-culture.
To be fair, not a lot happens in the film. The two characters meet, walk around a bit, smoke a lot, go to a birthday party, girl leaves her boyfriend, they fall out, etc etc. However, as all Edmond Pang films that I have seen, the gitty, voyeuristic style leaves me gripped and engrossed. Remember, this is the man who got an amazing performance out of Gillian Cheung! Think of it as a cross between Wong Kar Wai and Woody Allen, and if that appeals, I promise you that you will enjoy this. The use of a pseudo-documentary to look inside the various perticipants minds is not a distraction (if not entirely original), it just adds layers to various characters, especially those whore are not directly important to the story.
Shawn Yue gets a lot of love on this blog, and rightfully so. Here he plays a man who is obviously in love with his job - his friends and ex-girlfriend all seem to be based at his company. He seems to be hurting from his girlfriends infidelity, and is naturally worried about the sudden intensity of his new relationship with Cherie. This is maybe not his most powerful role, but it is actually rather nicely underplayed, and most importantly realistic. Miriam Yeung is however fantastic. She is funny, flirty, a good friend, obviously stuck in a dead relationship. Her character seems so well fleshed out, and whilst she is not unttractive, she is not an unobtainable beauty, yet she just glows on the screen - a person you would love to hang around with. For me, this is HER movie.
You do have to let a few things go. Everything moves REALLY quickly - within four days of meeting Jimmy, Cherie is leaving her boyfriend of 5 years, and getting Jimmy to pick her up. I'll take this both as a cinematic short-cut, and maybe a meta-commentary on the speed of modern life. It certainly is an interesting variation on the years that love affairs can take to be requieted in say a Korean film.
It is also a film that may be cursed by some of it's contemporary elements - txt messaging and Facebook are major devices used to move the plot forward - I do wonder how kindly these elements will be thought of in 10 years time.
The smoking subject matter may well concern a few people. For these people, smoking is a huge part of their social lives, and other than reflecting on the effect it has on Cherie's Asthma, the film never once delves into the health aspects. I found this rather refreshing to be honest - smoking is part of these peoples lives, we maybe do not need a public health announcement in EVERY film. This is a film about modern life in Hong Kong for a certain type of 20-something - it is NOT a lecture in the perils of the cancer stick.
In short - this is a funny, charming and utterly beguiling movie. The Highest of Recommendations.
Monday, August 16, 2010
"Accident" is the story in the main of 'The Brain' (Louis Koo), and his small gang - the ageing Uncle (Fung Shui-Fan), Fatty (Lam Suet) and an unnamed girl (Michelle Ye). Together they perform hits, by arranging complex yet untraceable accidents. We start by watching their hit on a triad boss, which although successful, highlights the fractures that have grown within the team. A second hit, this time to help perpetrate an insurance fraud, goes somewhat awry, leading to the death of a team member. Koo's character is already somewhat paranoid, and he starts to believe that either a member of his team is betraying him, or that he is being tracked down by an insurance agent.
One of my favorite films of the 1970's is "The Day Of The Jackal", where we follow the fantastic Edward Fox's assassin through the minutiae of his assassination work. Parts of this film felt like that to me - displaying the hard work, the preparation, and the loneliness of an obviously "bad" character. This film had all that - but also had a little more - Koo's character is wonderfully complex, haunted by a loss of his own, and overcome by the paranoia that the nature of his job entails.
When I first started watching the film, I was expecting a lot more action, but actually the film is measured and calm, yes there are a couple of interesting action scenes, but most of the film is about people, about relationships, about loss. It is a quiet film, with no pumping soundtrack and not a gun on display. To me, this makes it almost uniquely Asian, reminding me of those unusual properties that dragged me into this nook of world cinema.
Although well surrounded by an excellent cast, the film lives or dies on the performance of Koo - who performs admirably. When we meet him, he is already living off the grid, and as the film progresses, we see his calm exterior slowly get chipped away, driven into despair and desperation. There is just enough in the performance to make us feel sympathy for what should be a totally unpleasant character, and when the ending arrives, you feel his joy as the eventual release.
Of course you could criticise the film for relying too much on co-incidence, but for me that is part of the point. The Brain has made a living out of manipulating fate, it is only right that his downfall comes by a true random manipulation of events. He has made a career out of creating synchronicity, but what comes around goes around, and the world ensures that it has its eventual revenge on him.
Don't come to this film if you are expecting the glorious flash and thunder of Hong Kong action movies. In fact, this film has more of a Japanese feel to it than a Chinese one. But, if you want to spend an intelligent 90 minutes watching a bad man collapse under the weight of his deeds, this one comes as Recommended
Thursday, August 12, 2010
"Invisible Target" happily falls into this camp. Originally suggested to me as a way to showcase further evidence of Shawn Yue's range of skills, this is an action film that manages to fuse together some fantastic action with an engaging storyline, along with that thing which always goes down well at Things Fall Apart - heart.
After an excellent precredit setup showcasing the holdup of an armoured vehicle, we are slowly introduced to our cast. Nic Tse is a cop on the edge, one badly affected by the events of the precredit scene, desperate to wreak revenge on the criminals involved, as they accidently caused the death of his fiance. Shawn Yue is an experienced cop, with major anger management issue. Jaycee Chan (yes, the son of Jackie), is a model cop, relativley innocent, yet haunted by the disappearance of his fellow-cop older brother. Events conspire to bring the three together, initially hunting down the gang (led by the very charismatic Wing Ju, and the somewhat more subtle Andy On), but eventually exposing corruption somewhat closer to home.
It is a violent, exciting ride. Director Bennie Chan, has put togther something quite glorious to look at. But look behind the gloss, and you will find a wonderous mix of exciting (yet not too unrealistic) action, plus some excellent quiet moments.
The storyline itself, apart from some interesting diversions, is far from original, but it does make sure it avoids some of the usual cliches. What I think is important, is that all the main players exist on a continum of colour. What do I mean by this? Well to but it simply - there are good people and bad people, but everyone sits somewhere different in how far along the spectrum of light and dark they are. For example, Nic Tse's character is a basically good man, that is able to do bad things, Wing Ju's character is unredeemably bad whilst being totally self aware of that fact, Jaycee Chans character is the most morally white of them all, and so on. Yet all have reasonable story arcs, and are given a chance to fall further from grace, or potentially find some kind of redemption. This is never more obvious in Andy On's character - who despite being a bad person, occasionally shows glimpses of regret.
The other thing which raises the film above the general crowd of HK action movies are some of the interesting directorial desicions made. Some that stick with me are: a highly amusing and somewhat homoerotic male bonding scene, which not only provides some light relief, but also informs you about the characters; another scene that manages in a film FULL of explosions, to actually avoid the opportunity to provide a big bang; and the general rule that most of those who die, actually do so off camera. As I am sure I have mentioned before, I adore such touches in a film, and to be brave enough to occasionally take the road less travelled is to be applauded.
It is a long film, well over 2 hours, but it uses the running time well, spending a long time bringing the 3 principals together, which for me worked. I actually struggled a little following the film in the opening half hour, but as things gradually tied together, I became totally engrossed.
Is it a perfect film? No. The two female characters are woefully underused and underdeveloped, and to be honest, in the second half, Shawn Yues character is reduced to a lot of angry fuming and fighting - although he does get some closure during the credits.
If you look around the net, you will find some very oddly mild reviews about this film, but for me - Highly Recommended
Tuesday, August 10, 2010
"Ip Man 2" continues the story from the first film, exploring the early days of Ip Man and his family in Hong Kong (after escaping Japanese occupation in the mainland). There are two broad strokes to the story - firstly his struggles to set up his own Wing Chun martial arts school because of the influence of the existing schools led by overall master Hung Jan Nam (Sammo Hung) and the corrupt British colonial officials, and secondly a series of fights against a rather brutish and boreish British boxing champion which are being staged for somewhat political ends.
This is a very different film from the first. The story is somewhat more strightforward, and possibly lacks some of the emotional depth of the first. Whilst wonderfully filmed, it lacks a certain something when compared to the first, when the occupation segment blew me away. Donnie Yen is again excellent , adding something new to his portayal - this is an Ip Man who if not broken, has been somewhat bruised by his experiences, and is not quite the calm composed character we met in the previous film.
Other characters return also, and at least two have been affected by their previous experiences in quite different ways. Lynn Hung impresses again as his wife, but my nagging overall frustration was that I wished we spent a little more time with Ip Man and his family. There are moments, but they are far too brief.
The film is a lot more colourful than the first, evoking maybe some of the hope imbued in Hong Kong for these refugees. The soundtrack is also a lot noiser - reflecting that this is a much more action-oriented film (I am told there were MORE fights in the first film, but this one seems to place them far more front and centre, and certainly more crucial to the ongoing narrative).
The action is certainly top notch - whether is is the supremely choreographed fights between Ip Man and the masters of the other schools, or the Rocky-style matchup between the Chinese fighters and the Boxer.
But the film has some major issues. The actors and acting by the non-chinese cast is, well rather ropey. Maybe it is because I am English myself, but I winced every time an English actor opened their mouths. I should be used to this in Hong Kong cinema by now, but they do get a lot of screen time, which makes things worse. Believe me, I know that Britain's colonial past is nothing to be proud of, but the portrayal is somewhat one-dimensional, and this ends up being cartoonish.
It took me a little while to work out exactly what I found so wrong, but it just came to me. The members of the British army seem to be from 1880 - not 1950. Believe me - the attitude and style of the British army in the late 19th century would be far more akin to what we see on screen here - the two World Wars would have certainly changed the psyche a lot.
But of course, I have seen the other side of the coin in far more films with awful portrayals of asian characters in British/American films, so I will just have to accept this. So yes, the film is a little blatant and obvious in flying the Chinese flag, but it isn't quite as painful as the closing moments of the first film.
The film originally was meant to focus on the relationship between Ip Man and Bruce Lee - but sadly this was put on the back-burner for rights reasons, so we are left with a small but entertaining coda giving us a feeling for what might have been. It is nice - possibly irrelevant - but certainly means you leave the movie with a little more of a smile than you might have done without it.
I knew when I started this review, that it was going to be hard to write. I loved the film, but it is easy to pick on the points I found so frustrating. After some contemplation, I do wish maybe the film had spent more time on the first part of the story (which does seem to be brushed aside maybe too quickly) rather than the more generic (but still exciting) anglo-chinese version of Rocky IV of the second half.
So whilst it might not ever quite reach the heady heights of that first film, as an exciting action film, with quite wonderful set pieces, it would be wrong to be too hard on the film. Therefore, this one comes as Highly Recommended.
Thursday, August 05, 2010
I haven’t seen enough Korean movies recently, and was delighted to come across this little beauty.
“Bestseller” tells the story of Baek Hee-soo (Eom Jeong-hwa), a best-selling author recovering from a plagiarism scandal. Her agent sends her to a country house to rediscover her writing spark, but she uncovers a dark secret.
What I love about many Korean movies, is probably the very thing that most people would find frustrating about them – the genre shift. The film starts out as a typical Asian ghost film, with all the attendant atmosphere you might expect, but then halfway through, things shift and it becomes something a little more real world.
Hee-soo is a terrific character to lead a movie – she initially appears to be on the edge of a breakdown, her career and marriage on the rocks, her relationship with her young daughter strained. Then we get a bombshell that in any other film would be announced during the dénouement – but here we get it around halfway. Suddenly we see her in a totally different light, that she is actually the most unreliable of people to anchor ourselves with. Eom Jeong-hwa is probably one of the best Korean actresses as portraying someone on the edge, she is certainly far more than a pretty scream queen.
The film positively drips with atmosphere, making the most of the locations on offer, giving little hints of other movies like “Chaw” and “A Tale of Two Sisters”, and whilst it never reaches the heights of either of them, it comfortably holds its own.
I think the success of the film is that it throws away most of the supernatural elements halfway through (sorta, kinda), which raises it above the crowd. It throws up red herrings a plenty, only to revisit some of them later, leaving the viewer constantly on guard. One in particular is rather brilliantly done, shifting your perceptions of a character first this way, then that way, before eventually showing you that first impressions DO count.
I have actually had this review on hold for a few days, as I was struggling to really understand what so attracted me to the film. It took a discussion with the honorary, distaff member of the Things Fall Apart team to clarify my thoughts. What it is, is that there is nothing about this movie particularly original – all the various aspects you will find elsewhere, but it is held together in such a good way. It is probably not even a great movie, but for sheer quality entertainment, Korean style, it gets my vote.
Sunday, August 01, 2010
It has been a little while since I have posted, but I have been devouring movies at quite a rate. In order to get everything down, I have decided to do this as a selection of mini-reviews, but as always, I reserve the right to revisit these again.
“Go Lala Go” should really be my least favourite. When I think about it, there are so many things I dislike about the film. Based on a best-selling novel, it tells the story of Du Lala, a young Chinese woman who rises up the corporate ladder at a large US Companies Bejing Office. What were my problems with it? Well the rather basic and somewhat unrealistic depiction of corporate culture, the crazy amount of product placement, the trouble I had in believing the central romantic relationship and the overall message all caused me concerns. But I was oddly captivated by the film, drawn in by the acting and direction of Xu Jinglei. Showing herself to be far more than a pretty face, she shows a good command of the camera, equally at home with the Office environment and the lush locations of Thailand. She is equally at home in front of the camera, which makes it such a shame that her co-stars (Karen Mok aside) really cannot live with her. If you liked “Sophies Revenge”, then I think you will find a lot to admire here. Recommended.
And by utter coincidence, Xu Jinglei was also very good in “Confession of Pain”. Bought to you by the team behind “Infernal Affairs”, this is a glossy, high class thriller, that is notable mostly for the chance to see Tony Leung and Takeshi Kaneshiro share some screen time. It succeeds on many levels, but oddly fails in the story execution. The “twist” is revealed so early on in the movie that things are somewhat spoilt. Of course we get to see various characters and motivations uncovered, but the climax of the film is somewhat spoiled because the viewer is so far ahead of the characters. Recommended though.
Speaking of movies that put their twist in the wrong place, “49 Days” really drops the ball. A bit of a mess all round, it never really quite knows what it wants to be, clumsily mixing some quite dark scenes with some bumbling comedy. Pacing is a huge issue with the film, and the “twist” is revealed at a strange point in the film. The real tragedy is that there is actually a rather decent film hiding in here somewhere. Whole chunks of narrative seem wasted, and worse, even though the film relies on characters TELLING us what is going on, a couple of story points are left in the hands of the audience. Maybe it is because I am not Chinese and not really aware of the significance of 49 days and Rhinoceros Horn, but I just ended up feeling Unsatisfied. The most mild of recommendations, Only one for us Gillian Cheung completists.
“Double Tap” on the other hand is a rather excellent little movie that I only watched to scratch my Leslie Cheung itch. It is a film about guns and gunplay, and lets us see a unusual side to Cheung – as a bad guy. It is breathlessly paced, but whilst other films in this post I have criticised for their structure, I really liked the way that this one was put together. The first 30 minutes of the film could easily have been a pre-credit sequence, and it never really bothers with the police procedural side of things. Really interesting with a couple of super set-pieces. Highly recommended.
Finishing off is “Kidnap”. Karena Lam plays against type as a woman driven to kidnap the child of a millionaire in order to fund her husband’s cancer treatment. She unfortunately captures the wrong child. To say too much more would ruin it, but very nicely played all round, especially Rene Liu as the Police Chief caught up in the shenanigans. It works really nicely, and only fails due to an awful bit of CGI in the closing moments that really takes the viewer out of the film in a horribly clumsy way. I also struggled a little with some of the character development which seemed to take place off camera. However, it is a lot of fun, and for the performances alone, this one gets Highly Recommended too.