Shadow (Ying)


Here comes the rain again.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Chao Deng, Li Sun, Ryan Zheng, Qianyuan Wang, Jingchun Wang, Jun Hu, Xiaotong Guan, Lei Wu, Bai Feng. Directed by Yimou Zhang

Perhaps the most acclaimed film director to come out of China is Yimou Zhang, whose wuxia classics Hero and The House of Flying Daggers have thrilled art house moviegoers for more than a decade. However more recently, missteps like his anglicized The Great Wall failed to connect with mass audiences. However, his latest is a return to form. Garnering massive critical acclaim from its debut at last year’s Venice Film Festival, the movie is once again familiar territory for the great action director, set during the Three Kingdoms period in China.

Commander Yu (Deng) is the beloved general of the Pei Kingdom’s armies who was gravely wounded in battle with the nearly invulnerable General Yang (Hu). However, he appears to be well on the mend and his somewhat prevaricating King (Zheng) is surprised to discover that his impetuous Commander has picked a fight with the man who recently wounded him with the city of Jing, which had been lost to the invaders of Yang Kingdom, going to the winner.

However, the King doesn’t want these events to lead to war so he instead offers his sister (Guan) as concubine to Yang’s son (Wu). What the King doesn’t know is that the Commander isn’t who he appears to be; he is a commoner named Jing (also Deng) who is serving as the real Yu’s shadow, or impostor. Yu has schemed to use the fake Yu as a diversion while a handpicked army of renegades retakes the city. Knowing that this will not only embarrass the king but also lose him what political capital he might have with the nobles, Yu expects to take the throne for himself. Complicit in the dealings is Madame (Sun), Yu’s devious wife. The machinations are almost Machiavellian – some would say Shakespearean.

Zhang as a director is known for his extravagant use of color but he goes in entirely the opposite direction here. Greys and whites and blacks make up the majority of his palate, giving the film an almost black and white look to the point that at times I wondered if he hadn’t shot the film in black and white. Extraordinarily, he did not – everything here is about production design and costuming. In itself it’s an incredible achievement. However, it does get distracting at times. There is also an awful lot of dialogue which isn’t of itself a bad thing but it forces us to be reading the subtitles rather than taking in the marvelous visuals. I’m not often an advocate for dubbing but here is an example where it might have gone better had they gone in that direction.

There is a good deal of gore here but the martial arts sequences are elegantly staged, often using the ubiquitous rainfall as an ally – Yimou even posits umbrellas being used as a weapon, giving the battles an almost feminine grace and a touch of whimsy – a group of battle-hardened warriors slide down a city street in overturned umbrellas in a kind of martial arts waterslide effect. In all, this is a return to form for Yimou and a must-see for any fan of Asian cinema, particularly of the wuxia variety. While it is for the moment on the Festival circuit, it is expected to be in limited theatrical release in May and through the summer. Start bugging your local art house programmer to book this one now.

REASONS TO SEE: The film is epic in scope. The ending is full of twists and turns and has a fair amount of gore for those who love that. The zither duel is absolutely spellbinding.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie lacks color particularly in the palace scenes, a bit of a switch for Yimou.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts and war violence and some brief sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The black and white tones that most of the film is shot in is meant not only to emphasize the relationship between light and shadow but to also follow in the style of Chinese ink wash paintings.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 91% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The House of Flying Daggers
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Bring Me an Avocado

The Mermaid (Mei ren yu)


"Ursula? Where?"

“Ursula? Where?”

(2016) Fantasy-Comedy (Sony International) Chao Deng, Jelly Lin, Show Luo, Yuqi Zhang, Pierre Bourdaud, Ivan Kotik, Tsui Hark, Kris Wu, Kai Man Tin, Ke Bai, Yang Neng, Bo Xiaolong, Mei’e Zhang, Lianshun Kong, Zhang Wen. Directed by Stephen Chow

As we continue to wreak havoc on our environment, it only stands to reason that eventually our environment will wreak back. One can only take so much crap before fighting back.

Self-made entrepreneur Liu Xuan (Deng) has purchased the land surrounding the Green Gulf to create his own sanctuary there. However, that darn marine life insists on staying so Liu gets his top scientist (Kotik) to create a device that will send the local marine life fleeing for its life – a kind of a super-sonar that causes fish to explode, their faces to become badly burned and all sorts of other nasty consequences.

There is a colony of mer-folk who live in the Gulf who are none too happy about this turn of events. After legal means of preventing Liu’s deprivations fails spectacularly, their leader – a mer-octopus named Eight (Luo) who also happens to be something of a pop star – decides to kill Liu to save his family. He enlists comely Shan (Lin) to seduce Liu, a notorious lady’s man, and lure him to the mermaid lair in a wrecked ship on the shore of the gulf where the angry octopus will seal the deal.

At first things go badly; the mermaids and mermen have absolutely no concept of human beauty, so Shen comes off looking more deranged than desirable. However, when approached by predatory Ruolan (Zhang), a partner in the Green Gulf project who wants to seal the deal with a physical liaison with Liu, who decides to use Shen as leverage. However, despite the deadly plot, he doesn’t count on falling in love with Shen. Nor does she count on falling in love with him.

So things are now FUBAR in both camps and of course, this being a Stephen Chow movie, the fur is going to fly – or in this case, the scales – and there’s going to be plenty of sushi and human carnage before it’s all over.

This is the highest grossing film in Chinese history, although it was only released a few months ago and was competing with Star Wars: The Force Awakens so it’s a pretty impressive accomplishment assuming its legitimate (there has been some controversy over China’s fast and loose box office numbers). The movie pushes a little bit the boundaries of what is acceptable in Chinese culture, being a little critical of the role that business plays in the despoiling of our planet, something that is seldom talked about openly in China.

Chow, who lately hasn’t been appearing in his own films the way he used to a decade ago, has a very broad style which syncs well with the Chinese sense of humor. Think silent movies; a lot of the humor comes from exaggerated facial expressions and from almost slapstick situations. Some Westerners tend to find this humor unpalatable and do be warned that while there are many genuinely hysterical scenes in the film, not all of them are going to appeal to our cultural humor.

The CGI is a little on the cheesy side as bodies go flying through the air. Be warned that this isn’t up to the standards most Hollywood films adhere to in terms of effects, but nonetheless the movie is still good looking and above all, fun. I was tickled by the irreverence and the broad strokes – there’s a teppanyaki scene that is one of the funniest single scenes I’ve seen in any movie anywhere this year.

This won’t be for everyone and even fans of Asian cinema in general might raise an eyebrow or two at some of the madness that transpires here, but I must have been in the right frame of mind for this because I enjoyed it immensely. Go in and just let the silliness wash over you like a velvet wave. It’s not meant to have too much brain power applied to it, even though there are some serious undertones to the movie’s message, which came to me mostly after the final credits and to be honest never really disturbed me during the course of the movie’s silliness. And what better way to get a point across than through a sneak attack?

REASONS TO GO: Fun is the rule of the day. Some really hilarious moments.
REASONS TO STAY: Moments of cheesiness. Some of the humor may be a little too broad for Western tastes.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and over-the-top gore, although not terribly realistic.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The interiors were shot in a former glass factory in Shenzen.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/29/16: Rotten Tomatoes: 90% positive reviews. Metacritic: 70/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT: Bunny the Killer Thing