The Wandering Earth (Liu dang di qiu)


I wann go to cool places with you.

(2018) Science Fiction (CMC/NetflixJing Wu, Chuxiao Qu, Guangjie Li, Man-Tat Ng, Jin Mai Jaho, Mike Kai Sui, Hongchen Li, Jingjing Qu, Yichi Zhang, Haoyu Yang, Zhigang Jiang, Huan Zhang, Jiayin Lei, Arkadiy Sharogradskiy, Hao Ning, Yi Yang, Hexuan Guo, Zhonzhao Li, Zixian Zhang, Zachary Alexander Rice, Marvin Bouvet, Luoyi Tao. Directed by Frant Gwo

 

It is not a matter of much debate that the greatest cinematic epics come from Hollywood. However, it is also true that Hollywood isn’t the only game in town any longer, and bustling film industries in India, China, Japan and Thailand are showing signs of giving the U.S. of A. a run for its money.

And I mean that in a literal sense. The Wandering Earth, based on a short story by Hugo-winning author Cixin Liu, posits a near-future when the sun is discovered to be changing into a Red Giant much sooner than anyone expected. In less than a century, the solar system is going to be vaporized by the expanding star that once gave us life. A hastily convened consortium of world governments decide that rather than leaving the planet behind and finding a new one, we would attach ginormous engines to the equator to stop the spin and then blast us away from our current place in the universe and using Jupiter as a slingshot, head us out towards Alpha Centauri and a new life…arriving in about 2,500 years.

The problem with this scenario is that without the sun’s warming rays, which we would lose the further out towards deep space we got, things are going to get mighty cold. What’s left of humanity is going to be sheltered deep underground; the surface has become a frozen wasteland a la The Day After Tomorrow and lantern-jawed heroes crew a multi-national space station that acts as kind of a tugboat for the planet. I’m not really sure on that point; a lot of the plot is a bit murky and difficult to follow. Im not sure if it was a translation issue, or if crucial scenes got left on the cutting room floor.

But a funny thing happened on the way to Alpha Centauri – we got caught by Jupiter’s gravitational well and are headed for a not-so-pleasant Jovian encounter. It looks like even after all the careful planning the human race is going to die after all – unless someone saves the day.

The film, if you haven’t already guessed, is a product of the People’s Republic of China and so it is the Chinese who are the heroes in the movie. That’s okay by me – after all, when Hollywood makes global catastrophe films the heroes are generally American, right? However, the characters are either bland and unmemorable, or are archetypes rather than characters; the badass military hero, the brilliant computer nerd, the obnoxious little sister, the bitter and rebellious son – all are given almost no background here. It’s hard to be invested in anyone that comes on the screen.

Also being a Chinese film, the movie espouses Chinese values – that it is required of the individual to sacrifice for the good of the State – which will run counter to a lot of American individualist types. Also, it is true at this moment of time the Chinese aren’t in favor particularly with the conservative side of the aisle, so American audiences have not flocked to stream this puppy on Netflix, which is the only place you can see it currently in the States.

The special effects dominate everything here and some of them are spectacular – and why wouldn’t they be when a consortium of effects houses including WETA of New Zealand are pitching in to help – but it gets to the point that all the visual eye candy begins to overwhelm the senses.

My main gripe here is the logic and the science. Supposedly vetted by the Chinese Academy of Sciences, I kept going back to the amount of power it would take for the Earth to escape the gravitational pull of the Sun and what that kind of force would do to the Earth’s crust. Not to mention that the atmosphere would eventually freeze solid once it passes a certain point in the solar system, and what that might due to underground cities in terms of pressures on the crust. A lot of the plot hinges around things happening because the script said so. I felt that the suspension of disbelief became too much to handle.

But if you’re in the mood for a special effects-laden sci-fi extravaganza that you haven’t seen yet, there is something to recommend it in that regard. After all, this is the second-highest grossing Chinese film of all time (as of publication) and that’s saying something. Also to be fair, the plot is no dumber than any you’ll find in a typical Hollywood sci-fi epic, but the too-large ensemble cast and the humongous amount of sci-fi tropes that appear here makes this the kind of movie that might have been better-suited to SyFy than Netflix.

REASONS TO SEE: Big dumb fun with some occasionally breathtaking effects.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is just too ludicrous to ignore.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some violence, sci-fi action and kids in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the story is fictional and Franz isn’t real, the facts about Freud’s last days in Vienna are largely as shown.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Netflix
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 69% positive reviews; Metacritic: 57/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Space: 1999
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT:
Easy Does It

Lady Detective Shadow


Up on the rooftops.

(2018) Martial Arts (Dark Coast) Shang Ring, Zhang Pei-yue, Qi Jing-bin, Zhang Ren-bo, Qiu Yun-he. Directed by Si Shu-Bu

 

In China, Wuxia films are a staple, much as superhero films are here and westerns were in the 50s. They made some brief cultural impact with the success of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon back in 2000 (and the legendary fight choreographer Woo-Ping Yuen who perfected wire work and is responsible for the graceful fight sequences in that film reportedly worked on this one) although it was to be, sadly, merely a brief moment in the American sun.

This film features Shang Ring in the title role as an itinerant Sherlock Holmes-like detective who travels throughout China solving whatever mystery comes her way. In the desert badlands of an, a string of brutal murders have been committed and the prefect of the city is sure that bandits from a neighboring town which is run by bandit gangs are to blame. Certainly, the evidence points in that direction as there is a literal convention of gangs occurring in an inn on the edge of town where the detective is staying along with her comic relief assistant (program note: none of the roles have been matched with the actors playing them in any literature I’ve been able to find other than the lead role). The Lady, whose given name is Sima Fei-yan, happens to be the niece of the city prefect who urges her to solve the crime for him. It also gives her a chance to catch up with the prefect’s son whom she grew up with and was at one time sweet on.

The closer she gets to the truth, however, the more she realizes that she is getting involved in something much larger than a mere serial killing. She is on the verge of unlocking an ancient secret that could mean life or death for those she cares about most.

Like many Wuxia films, the plot can be hard to follow sometimes and the subtitles roll across at light speed, sometimes too fast for even readers who are fairly speedy to make out. Characters show up in the film whose sole purpose is to kick the McGillicuddy out of somebody (or have it kicked out of them). The acting is over-the-top, the dialogue clunky and the special effects are often rudimentary at best. Some cinephiles turn their noses up at Wuxia for those reasons but true lovers of the genre realize that’s part of their goofy charm.

Most of the genre’s Western fans tend to come for the fight sequences and to be honest they won’t be disappointed, although they won’t be blown away either. This was a low-budget affair and at times it shows, whether on the lack of star power or the occasionally incomprehensible special effects decisions – just FYI guys, when horses gallop in the desert they leave a contrail of dust in their wake.

As entertainment goes, this is fun to watch if you understand the genre. Those who despise Wuxia films will likely not be converted to the cause watching this. Those that love them and forgive them their occasionally many sins are likely to find this a worthwhile investment of their time. Those unfamiliar with the genre and who are looking for an introduction to it, this probably isn’t a worthy starting point but at the same time it does maintain a lot of the elements common to most Wuxia films. One gets the sense that the producers were hoping to initiate a new franchise with this. It wouldn’t surprise me at all if they were successful in that goal.

REASONS TO SEE: The action is non-stop, just the way it should be.
REASONS TO AVOID: The story can be hard to follow and the special effects are weak.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of martial arts violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This movie was initially made for Chinese television.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, FlixFling, Hoopla, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/24/19: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon 2: Sword of Destiny
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Sides of a Horn

Long Day’s Journey Into Night


The more that things change, the more that they decay.

(2018) Mystery (Kino-Lorber) Wei Tang, Jue Huang, Sylvia Chang, Hong-Chi Lee, Yongzhong Chen, Feiyang Luo, Meihuaizi Zeng, Chun-hao Tuan, Yanmin Bi, Lixun Xie, Xi Qi, Ming Dow, Zezhi Long, Jian Jun Ding, Kailong Jiang, Kai Liang, Chuanren Lin, Xizhen Liu, Tongfu Long, Zhonglan Luo, Zhengfu Meng, Hongyue Pan. Directed by Gan Bi

 

Funny thing about dreams; they’re often more real to us than what we perceive as reality. Dreams reveal our true selves – the good, the bad and the ugly. Dreams can be beautiful, but dreams reveal the lives we wish we had led.

Luo Hongwu (Huang) is returning to the Southwestern China town of Kaili which he had lived in much earlier days of his life. He has returned there after the death of his father, the ne’er-do-well gambler nicknamed Wildcat (Lee). Luo finds a photo of a woman (Tang) hidden in a broken clock and vaguely remembers a relationship with someone who looked like her – and her name might have been Wan Qiwen. He goes in search of the woman.

Along the way he interacts with a rogue’s gallery of oddball characters from a crusty hairdresser (Chang), a precocious 12-year-old boy who lives in an abandoned mine, and assorted pimps, thieves, hookers, thugs and cops. Luo finds himself in a movie theater and sits back to watch the movie in 3D, putting on his 3D glasses. That’s when dreams become reality, and vice versa.

If you think I’m being deliberately vague about the plot, you’re not wrong. The thing is that this is something of a stream-of-consciousness film which has a kind of dream logic to it in which the laws of physics might just be suggestions. Director Gan Bi hit the critical radar in 2015 with his debut feature Kaili Blues which contained a single 40-minute tracking shot. He outdoes himself here with one that lasts close to an hour – in 3D yet – that takes up the entire second half of the film. It is a magnificent technical achievement but in the immortal words of Ian Malcolm (as spoken by the equally immortal Jeff Goldblum) he was so busy figuring out if he could he didn’t stop to think whether he should.

Bi is a visual wizard and the shots are so thoughtfully framed, so beautifully lit and the production design so exquisite that you realize that he’s heavily influenced by the great Chinese director Kar-Wei Wong. It’s a beautiful movie to watch and if you’re tempted to avoid reading the subtitles altogether and just let yourself float among the images, I wouldn’t blame you. In fact, I think that’s a good way to approach this movie because the dialogue is absolutely superfluous.

Movies in many respects are dreams given form and I don’t know about you but some of my dreams would make shitty movies. This is a long (nearly two and a half hours), slowly paced and often confusing film that, like a dog trying to settle down in its bed for a nap often turns round and round on itself before settling down, only to get up again and do the same thing all over again. In that respect this isn’t a movie for everybody except the most esoteric and avant garde of filmgoers. Mainstream audiences aren’t going to like this very much.

There is a very Noir tone to the film which is welcome; it is set in a city where the rainfall is constant, like Seattle on steroids. As a result, there is a sense of decay and entropy to the surroundings where water is wont to break through walls and create nifty little waterfalls. Most of the characters smoke like chimneys and not just because everyone in China seems to be a chain-smoker but because smoke and water go together as motifs. Incidentally, despite the title there is no connection here that I could see with the classic Eugene O’Neill play.

This should be approached as fine art; very subject to interpretation. The story isn’t the important thing which is something that will have most mainstream moviegoers headed for the exits. What matters here is the tone, the vision, the feeling and the thoughts provoked, but don’t say we didn’t war you about the whole art thing.

For readers in Miami the movie is currently playing this week at the Cinematheque before taking up residence at the AMC Sunset Place. Keep an eye for the visual cues as to when to put on your 3D glasses; there’s a brief graphic informing the audience to put on their glasses when you see the main character put on his.

REASONS TO SEE: The shot composition is outstanding. There is a definite Noir feel to the film.
REASONS TO AVOID: It’s a bit of a slog, figuratively and literally.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of sensuality and a crazy amount of smoking.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Chinese moviegoers felt misled by the marketing campaign which billed the film as a Noir mystery and less as an art house experience leading to a good deal of Internet backlash.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/30/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 93% positive reviews: Metacritic: 88/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Into the Void
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Postal (2019)

Master Z: Ip Man Legacy (Ye wen wai zhuan: Zhang tian zhi)


Jin Zhang and Michelle Yeoh have a tete a tete.

(2018) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Jin Zhang, Dave Bautista, Michelle Yeoh, Tony Jaa, Patrick Tam, Xing Yu, Naason, Chrissie Chau, Yan Liu, Henry Zhang, Brian Thomas Burrell, Kevin Chang, Adam Pak, Yuen Wah, Adel Ali Mohamed, Mathieu Jaquet. Directed by Woo-Ping Yuen

 

The Ip Man series of films (currently at seven and counting – another one is set for American distribution in July) have yielded big box office success in China and Hong Kong over the years. The series revolves around Ip Man, the revered and legendary martial arts master whose claim to fame in the West is that he mentored Bruce Lee. Most of the Ip Man movies revolve around the master defending the citizens of Hong Kong from the excesses of the corrupt British colonialists and deadly local criminal gangs. Although highly fictionalized accounts of the master’s life, the popularity of the series in Asia is undeniable.  It was inevitable that a spin-off would be created. Does it deliver on the action goods as the original series did?

Wing chun master and formerly the head of a prestigious school Cheung Tin-chi (J. Zhang) lost a closed-door match to Ip Man (the only connection to Ip Man and an outrageously tenuous one at that) and has been reduced to beating up people for a low-life criminal (Wah). Disillusioned by the way his life has turned out, Cheung elects to walk away from fighting. He opens up a tiny grocery store and sets about raising his rambunctious yet precocious young son Fung (H. Zhang) himself.

Nana (Chau) is hooked on drugs and is deeply in debt to local crimelord Kit (Chang). He is the hot-headed younger brother of Cheung Lok matriarch Kwan (Yeoh) who yearns to take her criminal enterprise legitimate, much to the consternation of Kit and her underlings who in the words of one, only know crime. Nana’s soon-to-be sister-in-law Julia (Liu) pays off Nana’s debt. She is the sister of Fu (Naason), one of the leaders on Hong Kong’s notorious garish Bar Street. He owns the successful Gold Bar, where Nana – his fiancée – works as a waitress and Julia sings. Kit though is not satisfied with the principle being paid off; he ants the interest too and refuses to release Nana. The feisty Julia manages to yank Nana away and the two women flee don an alleyway trailed by a pack of Kit’s goons here they run into Cheung making a delivery.

The goons are no match for Cheung, who now finds himself having acquired the enmity of Kit who firebombs Cheung’s store in retaliation. Cheung and his son, who lived above the store, have no place to go so the compassionate Julia puts them up and Cheung gets a job as a waiter at the Gold Bar. Still, Kit isn’t finished with them and when he goes too far leading to tragedy, Cheung knows he won’t get justice through the corrupt police ho are in the pockets of Kwan and Kit. Justice must be acquired the old-fashioned way.

The thing about most martial arts films is that the plot is pretty generic, the acting over-the-top and the characters barely developed at all and this is true of Master Z. However, Jin Zhang (also known as Max Zhang) is a charismatic lead who could appeal to audiences in much the same way as Ip Man’s Donnie Yen does. It doesn’t hurt to have Yeoh, easily one of the most accomplished actresses in the globe and a terrific martial artist in her own right, on the marquee. Tony Jaa, the spectacular fighter from the Thai series Ong Bak cameos as a mysterious assassin employed by various factions in the Hong Kong criminal underground, as well as former WWE wrestler Dave Bautista as a vicious racist restaurateur who is the drug supplier for Kit. Bautista’s British accent is a mite unconvincing though.

The real stars here are the production design and the fight scenes. Bar Street which in its day was a garish cross of Times Square and the Vegas strip. Recreated on a sound stage, it is a fantasy land of light and motion and a perfect place to stage spectacular fight scenes. The film is set in the early 60s judging from the costumes and the hair style of the women (lots of beehives and bouffants). While the era is inexact in some ways, the look is undeniable eye candy.

Despite having one of the greatest martial arts fight choreographers in history in the director’s chair, the fights are curiously uneven. The first in which Cheung encounters Kit’s goons in the alleyway is surprisingly tame; the next one, among the neon signs of Bar Street, is spectacular. Yeoh and Zhang have some nifty fights including one with a whiskey glass which they endeavor to pass from one to the other without spilling a drop. However, the climactic fight between Bautista and Zhang is once again not as thrilling as it might have been. When the fight scenes are at their best, though, they are stupendous.

There is certainly potential for sequels to Master Z and it did quite well at the box office when it was released in China earlier this year. In all fairness despite the star power in the cast (and behind the camera) the movie doesn’t really add much to the genre but it is entertaining in its own right and that’s enough for the martial arts enthusiast like me.

REASONS TO SEE: The production design is dazzling. Michelle Yeoh is always worth the price of admission.
REASONS TO AVOID: Some of the fight sequences (like the first one) don’t measure up to the show stoppers. The plot is pretty generic.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a whole lot of martial arts violence, some mild profanity as well as drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although the character of Ip Man (played in the series by Donnie Yen) doesn’t appear in the film, Yen remains on as a producer for it.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/13/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews: Metacritic: 72/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Ip Man 2
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Ramen Shop

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

Dead Pigs


Old Wang comes charging to the rescue!

(2018) Dramedy (China Lion) Vivian Wu, Haoyu Yang, Mason Lee, Zazie Beetz, David Rysdahl, Meng Li, McColl Cowan. Directed by Cathy Yan

 

In the “that’s something you don’t see every day” department, thousands of dead pigs were discovered floating in the waterways near Shanghai back in 2013. That was enough to give Chinese-American director Cathy Yan plenty of inspiration.

Old Wang (Yang) is a pig farmer who lives well beyond his means. While he happily supplies the insatiable need for pork in the city, he discovers all the money which he has invested in the stock market has been absconded with by his broker. Suddenly broke and in debt to loan sharks, he first visits his sister Candy Wang (Wu), the successful owner of a beauty salon for the dough. She’s having issues of her own however; a big development company is putting together a new multi-use complex and her property is the last one not to sell. All the others have been bulldozed so there is no neighborhood left but Candy stubbornly clings to the old, creaking and falling-apart house. Her brother begs her to sell so they can split the proceeds but Candy refuses.

Next Old Wang heads to his son Zhen (Lee) who he believes is a successful businessman. However, Zhen has been hiding the truth from his father; he’s merely a waiter at a suckling pig restaurant. He has also developed a crush on poor little rich girl Xia Xia (Li) who is diffidently going through life from one party to the next, sure her friends love her and shocked when she finds out that they don’t really care. Sean Landry (Rysdahl) is the ex-pat American architect for Golden Happiness which is heading the development threatening Candy’s home – ironically it is to be a recreation of a Spanish village. Sean has some skeletons in his closet of his own – he might have overstated his qualifications on his resume just a tad. He’s hoping this project will leapfrog him to the wealth, power and happiness he’s been chasing. Chasing Sean is Angie (Beetz) who runs a kind of dating service for affluent foreigners in Shanghai.

All will come to a head as the five entwined stories come together. The story ends on kind of a Hollywood-type ending that most film buffs will sniff out a mile away but that doesn’t take away from the pleasantly quirky debut that Yan has concocted with her feature debut. Veteran actress Wu steals the show, being the conscience of the film and despite her sometimes acerbic and grumpy persona, she has genuine reasons for taking the hopeless stand she does. Young Mason Lee, son of director Ang, shows some promise as the young besotted waiter and fills the screen with a kind of quiet decency that bodes well for a leading man future. Beetz who has begun a pretty solid climb to stardom herself is solid in little more than a cameo.

The film is nicely photographed by Federico Cesca and utilizes its Shanghai location nicely from the futuristic but largely sterile cityscapes to the much of the rural pig farms to the stark landscape of the bulldozed development-to-be. Antiseptic office spaces, kinetic nightclubs and fashionable restaurants also look dazzling under the watchful eye of Cesca.

This is what I would consider a twisted comedy with black accents but with enough heart to allow the flaws to be overlooked. It is certainly apropos and a parable of modern Chinese life – socioeconomic gaps, the loss of tradition in the rush to modernize, and the importance of family. This is definitely a solid debut and Yan a talent to keep an eye on.

REASONS TO SEE: It’s a very quirky film in all the right places. The cinematography is very nice.
REASONS TO AVOID: The ending is a little bit on the Hollywood side.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a little bit of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Zhangke Jia, who directed Ash is Purest White which is also playing the Miami Film Festival, executive produced this film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/6/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: No score yet
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Kung Fu Hustle
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
The Nightingale

Ash is Purest White (Jiang hu er nü)


A loaded gun will get everybody’s attention.

(2018) Drama (Cohen Media Group) Tao Zhao, Fan Liao, Yi’nan Diao, Xiaogang Feng, Casper Liang, Zheng Xu, Yibal Zhang. Directed by Zhangke Jia

Qiao (Zhao) is the girlfriend of gangster Bin (Liao) and as such commands a position of high status in Datong, the provincial city in which she lives. When her boyfriend is attacked by a gang of vicious, bold youths she fires a gun into the air to stop the violence. She ends up being the one arrested for possession of an illegal firearm but despite the police interrogation, she doesn’t give up her boyfriend (it’s his gun). She’s sentenced to five years in prison. When she is released, Bin is nowhere to be found – in fact none of those who were part of the Jiang hu, the fraternal order of the underground who follow a rigid code of loyalty are to be found either. She hears that Bin has left the criminal life and has a new girlfriend; she sets out to find him, trying her best to survive in the meantime. Eventually she does find him and he is a different person as is she; therefore, they part and she heads back to Datong where it all started.

This latest film from virtuoso director Zhangke Jia takes Chinese gangster movies and turns them into a sprawling epic, but not in the sense of a Godfather film. This is more of an emotional epic that follows Qiao through her journey through triumph, betrayal, vindication and disappointment. As China goes through enormous changes in the 17 years in which this film takes place, so do the characters try to adjust – not always successfully. That’s kind of a hallmark of Jia’s films as is Zhao, his real-life wife who stars in many of his films. She is extraordinary here.

Some American viewers may not have the patience for a film like this; the pacing is very deliberate throughout and although there are some well-choreographed fight scenes and moments of vivid wonder, for the most part Jia is content to simply let things unfold at their own pace. Nevertheless, this is a wonderful movie that while not Jia’s best is certainly not a disappointment in the least.

REASONS TO SEE: There is an epic feel to the entire film. Zhao delivers a tremendous performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie is slow-moving particularly throughout.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity and some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Jia pays tribute to John Woo by utilizing the theme song from The Killers throughout the film.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/4/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews: Metacritic: 79/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mr. Six
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Sorry Angel

The Looming Storm ( Bao xue jiang zhi)


Rainy days and murders always get me down

(2017) Thriller (Century Fortune) Yihong Duan, Yiyan Jiang, Yuan  Du, Chuyi Zheng, Wei Zheng, Lin Zhang, Xianliong Li, Yan Qu, Yujie Su, Chao Sun, Chaofun Fu, Shuo Du, Gi Song, Shaodong Jiang, Qiao Cho. Directed by Yue Dong

1997 was a red letter year for China, no pun intended. It was the year Den Xiaoping, then the president, passed away and a more reform-oriented government went into effect. It was of course also the year Hong Kong was returned to Chinese control after having been in the purview of the United Kingdom for a century.

In that year Yu Guowei (Duan) was the security chief in Smelting Plant #4 in an industrial town in rural China. He has just been given the model employee award for going a year without allowing any petty theft in the plant. Respected by management, liked by his fellow employees, Yu fancies himself something of a detective and when a trio of women turn up murdered in town, he is eager to help the weary Captain Zhang (Du) who doesn’t want Yu’s help at all.

But Yu sees himself as a superior police officer to Zhang and the contemptuous Officer Li (C. Zheng) and believes that solving this case will win him a spot on an actual police force. With his fawning assistant Xiao Lu (W. Zheng) – who insists on referring to his box as “Maestro” – at his side, Yu makes like Sam Spade and looks for the usual suspects or at least the unusual ones. Based on his own instincts – which aren’t that bad – he starts looking for someone taking an unusual interest in female factory workers.

He finds one in a hooded man who has is apparently keeping an eye on the various factories in town. After a foot chase with the hooded man ends badly, Yu resolves to take down his prey and uses former prostitute Yanzi (Jiang) as bait. He sets up the girl, whose aim in life is to open up a salon in Hong Kong, with a salon in the center of town. This despite the fact that Yu, along with almost all of the smelting factory’s workforce has been laid off; the State is getting ready to close the factory as part of China’s modernization and move towards globalization. Yanzi is genuinely very grateful but doesn’t understand why Yu refuses physical affection. There is a palpable air of something tragic building and when the climax finally unfolds, it’s not what we would expect – but tragic nonetheless.

Dong sets the film in an unnamed town in the middle of muddy moors in a place where the sun never ever shines and it rains almost non-stop. This gives the film a noir-ish feel and while there are other elements of noir as well, this isn’t strictly that kind of film. There is a good deal of social commentary going on in the subtle way that Chinese filmmakers insert commentary into their movies.

Duan has the perfect hangdog look that belies his eager beaver attitude although once it becomes evident that he isn’t as good a detective as he thinks he is and his world begins to fall apart the expression becomes a source of pathos. Likewise, Jiang is bright and lively, an absolute refreshing respite from the overwhelming oppressive atmosphere of the film – although that atmosphere is part of what sets this movie apart. This is truly a place where nothing good ever happens and it is evident in the way the residents trudge through the muddy streets, not even bothering to protect themselves from the rain any longer. China is changing and these are the people getting left behind. Like Yu, they all have the certainty in mind that life is nothing but a perpetual disappointment and is something that is to be endured rather than enjoyed. That’s not as rare a mindset as I think we’d all like.

The movie is a little long (nearly two hours) and the ending very drawn out but for all that the pacing, while slow, isn’t necessarily a drawback; I remained enthralled by the story all the way through. This was another of the standout films at this year’s New York Asian Film Festival; it might be a bit dreary in tone but it won’t leave you feeling waterlogged.

REASONS TO GO: While the pace is slow the story is so fascinating you never lose interest. Yihong Duan has the perfect hangdog look. The dreary setting fits the mood perfectly.
REASONS TO STAY: The ending drags on a little bit.
FAMILY VALUES: There are some disturbing images, violence, profanity and sexual content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Yue Dong has been a cinematographer for most of his career; this is his first foray into directing a full-length feature.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/13/18: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet: Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Se7en
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Microhabitat

Operation Red Sea (Hong hai xing dong)


The Sea Dragons are here to kick ass and slurp noodles and they’re all out of noodles.

(2018) War (Well Go USA) Yi Zhang, Johnny Huang, Hai-Quing, Jiang Du, Luxia Xiang, Sanâa Alaoui, Fang Yin, Yutian Wang, Guo Yubin, Henry Mai, Yu Dawei, Fenfen Huang, Nisrine Adam, Faical Elkihel, Ren Dahua, Hanyu Zhang, Noureddine Aberdine, Cai Jie, Qiang Wang, Bing Bai, Siyan Huo. Directed by Dante Lam

For awhile there it felt like the good ol’ US of A had the market cornered on chest-thumping military action films. Well, move over Uncle Sam; China has earned themselves a seat at that particular table with this big budget modern day warfare look at an elite squad (not unlike Seal Team 6) in the Chinese Navy.

The movie starts out with them rescuing a Chinese merchant vessel from Somali pirates. Captain Phillips much? In any case, no sooner have they mopped up that operation when they are urgently diverted to the North African (fictional) country of Yewaire which is suffering through a revolution being orchestrated by a terrorist organization called Zaka. Sure they want to set up their own intolerant theocracy there but there is a much more sinister motive; they’re trying to get at a supply of yellowcake, a type of weapons-grade Uranium. With that, they would be able to make a terrifying number of dirty bombs that could potentially wipe dozens of cities from the face of the map.

But then they take some Chinese civilians hostage and anyone will tell you that’s a really bad idea. The squad – called Sea Dragons – is sent in and put to work rescuing their citizens, preventing the terrorists from getting the yellowcake and in general saving the day while looking pretty dang good at it.

Like Hollywood hits 13 Hours: The Secret Soldiers of Benghazi, American Sniper and Lone Survivor, Operation Red Sea is as much entertainment as it is recruitment video – some might say propaganda (and they wouldn’t be far wrong). The military, in this case the Chinese military, is portrayed in a totally badass light with plenty of macho testosterone-laden one-liners meant to portray just how badass they are although the dialogue “Tom Yi: Give ‘em Hell!” is as cringe-inducing as a similar line from a World War II war flick is today. Kind of makes you want to slap a dame on the butt and give the Krauts what for although the Krauts here are the 21st all-purpose villain Arab terrorists.

There is a significant difference between this film and American versions however; for one thing, the Sea Dragons aren’t really given much individual character. For them and apparently the Chinese military in general as well, it’s all about the team and not the individual. The snipers here aren’t getting into one-on-one battles with their opposites pretty much although there is a little bit of that; the whole “Army of One” campaign that the US Army ran a few years back would have never played in China. Individualism is Western weakness; sacrificing for the good of society is much more desirable and that really sums up our societies in a nutshell.

Consequently there really aren’t a lot of standout performances here although the Chinese actors on display here are much more restrained than we normally see from Chinese films. One place they’ve definitely improved are on the battle sequences; utilizing Korean effects houses (the best at these kinds of effects in the business) the battles look realistic and terrifying. There’s a boatload of gore and I’m talking about an aircraft carrier, not a dinghy. Fingers are blown off, jaws are unhinged, people are perforated, stabbed, shot, burned and eviscerated and from time to time, heads are lopped off. The carnage can be pretty intense so be mindful of that if you are sensitive to such things.

This is going to feel a lot like movies you’ve seen before if you’re an American although if you’re Chinese chances are this will be much more unfamiliar ground. If the flag-waving and chest-thumping may be a little bit too bizarre for you coming from a Chinese film, it might be understandable. Not that long ago a movie like this would never have been picked up for American distribution; the Chinese military would not carry much of a resonant rooting interest for American audiences – the fact that not one Chinese civilian gets killed in this film is no accident. The message is that Chinese citizens are perfectly safe while the military is around which is some powerful stuff if you’re a citizen of the People’s Republic.

The entertainment value is pretty strong though and even though it is a bit of a different attitude than similarly themed American films there’s still the visceral enjoyment. To quote the legendary Big Jim McBob and Billy Sol Hurok, a good many things get blowed up real good. This film, playing this week at the New York Asian Film Festival, had a limited theatrical release this past February and will be available on various streaming services as well as on home video effective July 24th. If you like your war movies with all the gore and none of the angst, this one is for you.

REASONS TO GO: The action sequences are well-plotted. The movie is entertaining throughout.
REASONS TO STAY: It may be a little too long for some American audiences. It feels like a fairly standard American military action B-movie.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as strong and often bloody violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is loosely based on the evacuation of Chinese citizens from the port town of Aden during the Yemen Civil War of March 2015.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 7/2/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews. Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Navy SEALs
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Respeto

The Great Wall


Matt Damon steels himself.

(2017) Adventure (Universal/Legendary) Matt Damon, Tian Jing, Willem Dafoe, Andy Lau, Pedro Pascal, Hanyu Zhang, Lu Han, Kenny Lin, Eddie Peng, Xuan Huang, Ryan Zheng, Karry Wang, Cheney Chen, Pilou Asbæk, Numan Acar, Johnny Cicco, Yu Xiantian, Bing Liu. Directed by Zhang Yimou

 

The battles that shape the future of humanity don’t always take place in plain sight. Sometimes they remain hidden away whether to keep people from panicking or because it suits the leadership of those involved to have those battles take place behind great walls.

William (Damon) and Tovar (Pascal) are European mercenaries who are tasked with going to China to obtain gunpowder, a technology not yet available in the West. Along the way their party is attacked by a vicious iguana-like monster that William slays. As they venture further into China they are captured and taken before a general (Zhang). Most of the commanders including Lin Mae (Jing), the general’s right hand, believe these men to be thieves come to rob China of her secrets but the general is impressed enough with William’s feat of monster slaying that he refrains from executing them but the men are imprisoned as the army of the Nameless Order are on the eve of a desperate battle – one against an overwhelming army of those same creatures that William slew only in vast numbers.

The two Westerners are befriended by Ballard (Dafoe), a former Jesuit who has been retained by the general as a translator. The odds are against the army and if the monsters who are called Tei Tao break through the Great Wall, there is nothing between them and Beijing and from there they can go onto overrun the entire planet. William, recognizing that here is finally a war worth fighting, sways Lin Mae and soon the two are planning the final stand against the horde but William observes a means where the day might yet be saved.

Yimou is one of China’s most revered directors, best known in the West for his amazing opening ceremonies at the Beijing Olympics but among film buffs he has a resume that includes some of the most visually impressive films of the last 20 years. Given an astronomical budget by Chinese standards, one of the biggest stars in Hollywood and the backing of a major studio it is not surprising that this was a movie I’ve been anticipating for the past few years. Unfortunately, despite all the elements in its favor the movie proves to be a disappointment.

The CGI creatures are unconvincing and look like CGI creatures. There’s nothing organic about them. We see entire hordes of them swarming like ants and the bird’s eye view of the swarm should be terrifying or at least intimidating but it comes off looking phony. If you’re going to fight monsters, they should at least look like they are actually alive and dangerous.

The chemistry between Damon and Pascal is nearly non-existent; the banter between the two sounds forced and unconvincing. Damon affects a bizarre accent that sounds like an Irishman who’d lived half his life in Nebraska. His Boston Irish accent in Good Will Hunting was far more authentic. I get a sense that Pascal is frustrated that his character has little or no depth to it and ends up being a generic second banana. They could have gotten a banana to play the role for all the personality the writers gave the part.

The color-coded armies that make up the Nameless Order are far more impressive and when Yimou is directing major battle sequences with soldiers bungee jumping upside down into the very mouths of the creatures the movie is far more thrilling. While he set design is largely muted, Yimou gets to go extravagant on his Forbidden City sets and he seems more comfortable with those.

This is a movie that fails to showcase Yimou’s visual sense to its fullest and inserts a badly miscast Damon in a role that seems to exist mainly to placate studio bosses unsure of making a movie made in China with a mainly Chinese cast as a tentpole; in fact, the release date was eventually moved to February after it appeared this was going to be a summer or Holiday release. That proved to be a wise move. Maybe someday a studio with a little bit more sense will let Yimou make an epic movie with a Chinese cast without having to insert a Western actor into the mix. I don’t know that American audiences are ready for that but they seemed to be all right with Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. A great movie will find its audience.

REASONS TO GO: Yimou has one of the most cinematic eyes in the history of movies.
REASONS TO STAY: The movie overall is kind of a hot mess.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence of a fantasy/war nature.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Lau and Damon played the same role in Infernal Affairs and the Martin Scorsese remake The Departed respectively.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/6/17: Rotten Tomatoes: 35% positive reviews. Metacritic: 42/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Hero
FINAL RATING: 5/10
NEXT: Mine