Mr. Six (Lao pao er)


Father and son have a little heart to heart.

Father and son have a little heart to heart.

(2015) Drama (China Lion) Xiaogang Feng, Hanyu Zhang, Qing Xu, Kris Wu, Yi Feng Li, Hua Liu, Ju-Gang Bai, Shan Jiang, Jing Liang, Nuo Lu, Hao Ning, Yuxian Shang, Zeru Tao, Hewei Yu, Yi Zhang, Yishan Zhang. Directed by He Guan

NYAFF

There has always been a disconnect between the young and the old. In every culture, the youthful have had difficulties relating o the elderly, and vice versa. In the 60s, the term “generation gap” was coined and there are no signs that things have changed.

In Beijing, there are a collection of alleyways called hutongs that were built once for the diplomatic corps that worked in the foreign embassies nearby at the turn of the 20th century. These alleyways have collective houses surrounding them; they are charming but are mainly inhabited by less well-to-do folk these days.

Among those folk is Liu Ye (Feng) who is better known around the neighborhood as Mr. Six (it is never explained how he acquired that nickname). He was at one time a hoodlum, although he seems content to exist selling things in his shop and leading a life under the radar. He has the respect of everyone in the neighborhood – including the police – and often is turned to when disputes need to be settled. He is something of a Don Corleone but without the impressive Long Island compound.

He hangs out with his friends with colorful nicknames, including the somewhat slow but loyal Lampshade (Liu) and the feisty brawler Scrapper (H. Zhang). He also has a somewhat interesting romantic relationship with his neighbor Chatterbox (Xu). He doesn’t have a ton of money but then again he doesn’t need much.

That is, until his son Bobby (Li) went all stupid on him and started sleeping with the girl of street racer and scion of a corrupt politician Kris (Wu). Although Bobby and Mr. Six are estranged, Mr. Six feels honor-bound to negotiate his son’s release and help clean up his mess. However, Kris proves to be somewhat arrogant and demands 100,000 yuan (about $15,000) rather than the 2,000 yuan that Mr. Six brought with him. And when Lampshade tries to help but makes matters worse, Mr. Six is forced to bring his old gang back together again to take on the young street racing gang, knowing that the cops won’t help since these are all sons of businessmen and politicians and are basically untouchable. As an added complication, Mr. Six is having some fairly serious heart issues that may sideline him from the fight. And then there’s the fact that Bobby doesn’t want anything to do with his father…*sigh* kids today, right?

Some movies are roller coaster rides from the get-go and others are slow burners; this is the latter kind of movie. It starts out at a very quiet and slow pace and builds. You would think that the subject matter would make this more of an action film, but there’s actually very little of that which might upset action movie junkies somewhat.

Feng is a solid presence, laconic and menacing and brooding at times, but never a figure of pity. One reviewer compared him to Charles Bronson and I suppose that works but for me, he was a little bit more stoic than Bronson was. He is the moral center of the movie, a man of strong convictions but one can’t forget that his convictions allowed him to harm innocents as well. He is a complex character and Guan allows us to get to know him thoroughly. He may well be the most fascinating character we’ll see at the movies this year and one of the most interesting ever.

The movie largely starts out as a slice of life in the hutong and I really liked that. I’ve actually visited a hutong in Beijing and found it fascinating. Da Queen and I got to see how people live in China and it was one of the highlights of our trip. You don’t get a sense so much of the hustle and bustle of life in a metropolitan city the size of Beijing; this is a much slower pace of life.

There is a scene in the movie in which Bobby and Mr. Six are sitting in a tiny noodle shop having a meal and the two are trying to make some sort of common ground between them. It is an amazing scene, a very real discussion between two men who have little in common but their love for each other as father and son. Each is sure the other is wrong-headed and that they are in the right; each doesn’t know how to navigate a trail that they can both walk on. It’s mesmerizing and heartbreaking at the same time because so many fathers and sons have the same failings.

There are some moments that are a little bit bizarre, as when Feng goes after the street racing gang and it feels like the scene should have been in Furious 7 rather than this film, and there are other moments that have that feeling that they came out of different movies, plunked themselves down for a moment and then went back to their original location. These moments are a bit jarring and may throw you out of the mood of the film for a short while, but stick with it. As a slice of life this film works on every level.

REASONS TO GO: A slice of life from Beijing’s hutongs.  The film has a mythic quality to it. Feng delivers a powerful performance.
REASONS TO STAY: There are odd moments that almost seem like they came from other films. It lacks the action to satisfy fans of that genre.
FAMILY VALUES: A goodly amount of profanity along with plenty of violence, some sexuality and partial nudity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Feng is not only an actor, but is one of China’s most popular directors.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/8/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 80% positive reviews. Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Term Life
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT: Nuts!

The Karate Kid (2010)


The Karate Kid (2010)

Jackie Chan explains to Jaden Smith why his forearm isn't as long as the Great Wall of China.

(Columbia) Jackie Chan, Jaden Smith, Taraji P. Henson, Rongguang Yu, Zhenwei Wang, Han Wenwen, Shijia Lu, Luke Carberry. Directed by Harold Zwart

Relocating to a different place, particularly one with a vastly different culture, carries with it inherent feelings of loneliness and isolation. These feelings can be exacerbated if you’re the victim of bullying.

Dre Parker (Smith) has seen his world turned upside down. First, his father dies. Now, his mom (Henson) is being transferred by the auto manufacturer she works for in Detroit to their new plant in Beijing, China. All Dre knows is that he has been ripped away from everything he knows and cares about to live in a strange new place where nobody speaks English, the food is weird and funny, terrible smells waft about at any given moment.

Initially he finds some solace in the violin prodigy Meiying (Wenwen) who actually does speak English, and the lone Western friend Harry (Carberry) that he finds in his apartment complex. However, his relationship with Meiying attracts the attention of Cheng (Wang), the school bully who happens to be the best Kung Fu student in the class of Master Li (Yu), a brutal sort who believes that Kung Fu is meant to be the means not only to victory but complete annihilation.

The beatings that Dre gets from Cheng and his gang become progressively worse until what appears to be the beatdown to end all beatdowns is interrupted by the taciturn handyman Mr. Han (Chan) who as it turns out is a Kung Fu master. At first, Han is reluctant to train Dre but when Han is backed into a corner by Master Li, he agrees to train Dre for the open Kung Fu tournament that is coming up soon.

Dre’s attitude is not the easiest to get along with and both his mom and Mr. Han are frustrated with him but as Dre learns to let go of his preconceptions and find his inner stillness, Dre undergoes a metamorphosis from a scared little boy into a strong, courageous young man.

The movie is based on the 1984 film of the same name, with Chan taking on the Oscar-nominated role that Pat Morita made into an icon, and Smith assuming the mantle left by Ralph Macchio. In many ways, the movie is almost a reverent remake of the first film; while not note-for-note, it certainly captures most of the main highlights of the movie and references them sometimes obliquely but usually in a pretty straightforward manner.

Chan has made a career of being a bit of a clown; while nobody can doubt his martial arts skills, he has always played characters on the light side, with a healthy dose of self-kidding. This is far from those kinds of characters, as Mr. Han has a dark secret that haunts him which gets released with some prodding from Dre. There is a scene in a car midway through the movie which is as impressive as any work that Chan has ever done.

Director Zwart also makes good use of the Chinese landscape, with beautiful vistas of mountains, lakes, as well as magnificent shots of iconic locations like the Great Wall and the Forbidden City. China is a gorgeous country (having seen it firsthand only a month ago), and it is certainly one of the selling points for the film. Da Queen was particularly nostalgic about a scene set in a Beijing hutong, a specific type of alleyway where there are groups of traditional courtyard houses and is one of the most charming aspects of Beijing life.

Jaden Smith, so good in The Pursuit of Happyness is somewhat inconsistent here.  He has some moments that resonate emotionally in a realistic way, and then others that don’t ring as true. Da Queen thought more highly of him than I did; she seems to think he has a very bright future ahead of him and honestly, I don’t see why not either.

Kids seem to like this movie a great deal, and there’s good reason for that. Jaden is pretty appealing in most of the movie and the Kung Fu is pretty spectacular for those who haven’t seen some of the better examples of Chinese martial arts movies. The ending, while predictable, has a nice little twist in a nod to the original film and you’ll definitely leave the theater with a good feeling inside. One can’t fault a movie for accomplishing that alone; those expecting more may wind up disappointed.

REASONS TO GO: Heart-warming in its own way with a particularly strong performance from Chan. Beautiful cinematography of Chinese locations and monuments.

REASONS TO STAY: Smith’s performance is a bit uneven and those who saw the first film are going to feel a sense of déjà vu.

FAMILY VALUES: There are some pretty intense scenes of bullying and violence and a couple of bad words, but all in all most audiences should be okay with it, and it certainly would make a good jumping off point for conversations with the kids about bullying.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The scene of the woman mesmerizing the cobra on the dragon statue while in the crane position is a tribute to the original film, in which Ralph Macchio defeats the Cobra Kai with a move from the crane position.

HOME OR THEATER: Some of the vistas of China are amazing and should be seen in the theater.

FINAL RATING: 6/10

TOMORROW: Blind Date (2009)

The Warlords (Tau Ming Chong)


The Warlords

A blood oath is taken.

(Magnet) Jet Li, Andy Lau, Takeshi Kaneshiro, Jinglei Xu, Bao-ming Gu, Xiaodong Guo, Zhaoqi Shi, Dong Dong Wang, Kuirong Wang, Zongwang Wei, Bo Zhou. Directed by Peter Chan

Blood brotherhood is not a bond to be taken lightly. It is a vow that infers a relationship that is as close – if not closer – than blood. It is a bond that lasts until death.

In the 1860s China was in the throes of its own civil war. The Taipeng Rebellion had torn the country in two and the weak, ineffectual Ching Dynasty was hampered by political bickering and in-fighting from gathering a large, effective Imperial Army. When General Pang Quingyun (Li) leads his army into battle against the Rebels, the supporting army led by General Ho withdraws about 30 miles away and refuses to help. Pang’s army is slaughtered and he is the only survivor, escaping by playing dead which is a very shameful act in the culture of the Chinese military.

Dazed and self-described as dead inside, Pang wanders aimlessly with fellow refugees until he collapses to the ground from his injuries. He is taken pity upon by a beautiful woman named Lian (Xu), a young woman who had been sold into a brothel but had run away to avoid it. She nurses him back to health and a bond forms between them, leading to a sexual relationship. He wakes up one morning and she’s gone.

He waits for her for some time but when she doesn’t come back, he goes searching for her. He comes upon a village which, like most villages of the time is beset by extreme poverty and starvation. He sells his sword and most of his things and goes to find some sustenance. As he does, a group of bandits rides in led by the charismatic Wen-Xiang (Kaneshiro). The bandit announces that whoever should fight for them would be well-fed and proceeds to hand out food, most of which had been stolen. Wen-Xiang notices Pang’s fine boots and picks a fight. When Pang acquits himself well, Wen-Xiang invites him to join them.

Pang is taken to an even more poverty-stricken village where the bandits are holed up. They are greeted as conquering heroes by the villagers. Wen-Xiang’s brother Er-Hu (Lau) also returns at the same time. Er-Hu is the nominal leader of the bandit tribe. He takes a liking to Pang, but explains he really can’t have him stay in the village because of his military background. He agrees to let him stay the night but Pang must go in the morning.

During the evening, Pang discovers that not only is Lian in the village, she is also Er-Hu’s wife. Before he can even speak to her, the village is attacked by a group of the Ho army who steal back all of the village’s food. During the skirmish, an old woman is killed. Because the Ho army has guns (the bandits are armed only with swords, bows and arrows and farming implements), Er-Hu can do nothing.

Pang proposes that the bandits join the Ching army where at least they will be armed and fed. In this way, they can protect the village better. Er-Hu is reluctant but is at last persuaded by Wen-Xiang. The two of them, with Pang, take a blood oath to become blood brothers. Their lives will become entwined from then on, each vowing that none will harm the other on pain of death.

The three bandit warlords are taken before three lords of the Ching court, including the smooth but politically savvy Lord Jiang (Kuirong) who agrees to take the new army in, dubbing them the “Shan” brigade. Pang is made their general and they are ordered to take Chun City. A supporting army of 1,500 troops is sent to augment the 800 bandits. The general of the supporting army confides to Pang that his army is there for show only and that he won’t risk having his army annihilated by the Rebel Army and leading his Lord defenseless. Pang realizes his band of bandit brothers is on their own and through bravery and sheer guts, beats the vastly superior rebel army.

The Shan brigade is given more and more difficult tasks and as they prove successful, the scheming courtiers give it less and less support. A rift is also growing within the three Warlord brothers on how to fight, with Er-Hu wishing to fight more honorably, while Pang and Wen-Xiang leaning towards expedience and a big picture. Pang’s original goal of justice for the poor seems to be falling by the wayside, at great cost to his soul. How will these blood brothers triumph through overwhelming odds?

Very few can do big epic movies these days the way the Chinese can. It takes a great deal of organization and lots of money; less in China than is needed here (which is why these types of movies aren’t made here often). Director Chan, who is better known for romance movies, wanted to explore the love between brothers and the bond between men. It’s new territory for him and he for the most part is successful.

I also have to say a few words about Jet Li’s performance. He shows more emotional depth than he has ever shown in any movie previously and it’s a bravura, reputation-making role. He is called upon less to do the wonderful martial arts moves he is known for (although he does have a few left in him) and he is looking much older in this role than he ever has (although I think that’s intentional). Still, he shows the shame at some of the deeds he’s done, the anger and frustration at the political gamesmanship that is costing tens of millions of lives, and the love he feels for Lian. It’s definitely the kind of thing that can change people’s perception of him.

In fact, this is well-acted across the board. The relationships, particularly those among Pang, Er-Hu and Wen-Xiang, are totally believable and if that central relationship doesn’t work onscreen, the movie falls apart.

Needless to say the relationship works. While the pacing of the movie drags somewhat in the middle third, when the pacing picks up the movie is at its best. The grander, epic scenes work extremely well and the scenes of the degradation and poverty of the village are extremely effective, but it is the main relationship between the three men that you will leave this movie remembering.

REASONS TO GO: Li delivers his most powerful performance yet. There is an epic scope to this that has some resonance.

REASONS TO STAY: The movie drags a bit in the middle.

FAMILY VALUES: There is a great deal of bloody violence and one scene of sexuality. Those who are sensitive to battlefield bloodshed or advised to steer clear.

TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is based on an actual unsolved murder of a government official named Ma Xinyi, but his name was changed so as not to upset his descendents, who believe their ancestor was actually a good man.

HOME OR THEATER: This is most definitely an epic and some of the scenes need a big screen to convey their power.

FINAL RATING: 7/10

TOMORROW: Max Payne