The Paper Tigers


Cobra Kai has nothing to be worried about.

(2020) Action Comedy (Well Go USA) Alain Uy, Ron Yuan, Mykel Shannon Jenkins, Roger Yuan, Raymond Ma, Jae Suh Park, Peter Adrian Sudarso, Yoshi Sudarso, Gui DaSilva-Greene, Matthew Page, Yuji Okumoto, Andy Le, La’Tevin Alexander, Phillip Dang, Ken Quitugua, Brian Le, Kieran Tamondong, Ray Hopper, Jozaiah Lagonoy, Annette Toutonghi. Directed by Quoc Bao Tran

 

Those of us who were around back then remember Spielberg’s version of growing up in the 80s and 90s. Idyllic, suburban existences in which you make the best friends you’ll ever have. Those movies have generated a kind of subgenre of nostalgia that is with us even to this day – not just from Spielberg, who rarely if ever does those sorts of movies anymore, but in movies and TV shows that mine such films as The Goonies, E.T. and The Karate Kid.

But even Ralph Macchio grows up which has led to a successful TV show based on the movie called Cobra Kai. This movie has little to do with the Netflix show, but audiences of that show may well find this movie to be their cup of tea. Danny (Uy) is finding mid-life to be a crisis. A divorced dad who sees his son (Lagonoy) only occasionally and as his ex-wife Caryn (Park) has come to expect, generally ends up disappointing him when he does get together. Danny wasn’t always like that though; as a teen, he was part of the Three Tigers, disciples of Sifu (another term for sensei) Cheung (Roger Yuan). Danny was Seattle’s version of the Karate Kid, so phenomenal was his speed that he was known as Danny Eight Hands.

But now his buddy Hing (Ron Yuan) has come to him with terrible news – Sifu Cheung is dead and it looks very well like he might have been murdered. The two round up the third tiger – Jim (Jenkins), who of the three of them was the only one to stay in shape, but is training MMA fighters and has lost the discipline that his teacher instilled in him. The three feel the need to bring their Sifu’s killer to justice, but they’ll need to load up on the Ben-Gay and Advil if they’re going to do any sort of butt-kicking.

Much of the comedy is derived from the three men’s age and lack of physical prowess. Although Jim is still relatively fit, he’s still a middle-aged man and he’s just not up for competitive martial arts any longer. Both Danny and Hing are woefully out of shape and although Hing has some healing powers that he learned from Sifu Cheung, he also has a bad knee following a construction accident and has ballooned into a pear-shaped couch gelatin. Danny fares even worse; his memory tells him he’s got lightning-quick reflexes, but his 40-year-old-plus body tells him those days are long gone. For someone whose martial arts prowess was a source of pride (and maybe even arrogance), it’s quite a blow to the ego.

The fight sequences are good enough, and while the plot is a bit stale (the Shaw Brothers made a cottage industry out of this sort of tale back in the 70s) the gung-ho attitudes of the actors as well as a genuine chemistry between the three of them gives the viewer something to hang their gi on. However, the humor and the over-emphasis on the deteriorating physical condition of the Three Paper Tigers becomes a little bit repetitive and maybe a little too broad for some tastes. Still, this is a movie that has a tremendous amount of heart at the center as even when half your life has gone by, it’s still not too late to fulfill the potential you had as a kid.

REASONS TO SEE: There’s a good deal of heart here.
REASONS TO AVOID: The comedy may be a bit too broad for some.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence and profanity including racial slurs.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Quitugua, who plays the film’s villain, was also the movie’s fight choreographer.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/10/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 68/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Cobra Kai
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Sweet River

Better Days (Shaonian de ni)


Bullying is, sadly, universal.

(2021) Drama (Well Go USA) Dongyu Zhao, Jackson Yee, Fang Yin, Ye Zhou, Yue Wu, Jue Huang, Yifan Zhang, Yao Zhang, Xinyi Zhang, Allen Zhao, Xuanming Gao, Xintong Xie, Ran, Luyun Heliao, Bozhan Ju, Yingming Wang, Wellong Li, Zhongyu Guo, Dian Liu, Hu Pang, Xueping Liu, Meehz Chen, Mingyang Zhang, Meixi Wang, Yong Liu, Rumeng Liao. Directed by Derek Tsang

 

I think that it’s a given that people of a certain age – including my own – do not understand just how much pressure is on teens these days, how much they are expected to perform, particularly in certain cultures, from an academic and social standpoint. It is a wonder that everyone below the age of 18 hasn’t had at least one nervous breakdown by now.

In China, there is additional pressure if you can believe it. Getting into a good college is dependent on the student’s performance on a two-day long entrance exam known as the Gaokao exams; they are like the SATs on steroids. High school seniors are drilled endlessly on these exams which determine the placement of students in good universities, or less so. A student’s entire future rides on these exams, as well as the honor of their family and their school. Failure is unthinkable, and kids have been known to crack under the pressure.

One such hurls herself from a third story balcony into the rocky courtyard below, leaving a bloody mess for her fellow students to gawp at and take cell phone pictures of. That is, until her only friend Chen Nian (D. Zhao) lays her jacket over the corpse. It is a tender and decent gesture, but it puts Chen directly in the crosshairs of resident mean girl Wei Lei (Y. Zhao) and her posse of acolytes. Now Chen is being bullied.

It isn’t as if Chen isn’t under extraordinary pressure to begin with. Her mother (Wu) ekes out a living on the edge by selling illegal contraband. One step ahead of the law and about half a step ahead of creditors, she is often absent, leaving Chen to fend for herself and study on her own. “Graduate from a good college and we can escape this hellhole,” mommy tells her on a rare visit. I’m sure that helps Chen study harder, right?

But Chen knows what the right thing to do is, and she puts her nose to the grindstone, but when she sees a young teen boy being beaten savagely, she calls the police. Xiao Bei (Yee) is nothing if not grateful. Even though he never graduated high school and lives as a low-level thug on the streets, he determines to be Chen’s protector. Despite themselves, the two begin to develop strong feelings for each other. Meanwhile, the bullying of Chen intensifies, leading to an assault. The school, focused on the upcoming exams, is ineffectual particularly since Wei Lei’s parents are well-connected. The cops are well-meaning but also ineffectual. So as things escalate, something is bound to go wrong. Can Chen survive in the pressure cooker?

This amazing film almost didn’t make it to these shores. At it’s debut at the 2019 Berlin Film Festival, it was suddenly and without explanation, pulled as Chinese censors seemed to take a dim view of the portrait of the way young people are treated (one girl, suspended from school, is smacked around by her father in front of the entire school). There is an unspoken indictment of the Chinese method that promotes excellence at any cost. It also depicts students being crushed by the pressure. It is at the least an unflattering portrayal of the Chinese education system.

But just as inexplicably, the Chinese allowed it to be released and it did marvelous box office just as the pandemic was starting to hit. It’s based on a popular online novel, The film is beautifully shot by cinematographers Saba Mazloum and Jing Pin Yu. What you’re going to remember, however, is the startling performance by Dongyu Zhao, whose sad face is often expressionless, but her eyes and body language tell us everything we need to know. When her friend commits suicide, she is the only one to exhibit any sadness or remorse. It’s stunning work.

But the movie really drags, particularly in the final third where the story jumps around a bit. Much of the movie is told in flashback but we’re not really told by whom – I assume it’s an adult version of Chen as a teacher, but that’s never explicitly said. An opening title card also explains that the problem with bullying is a global one (which it is) and not explicitly a Chinese issue, although given the pressures placed on students I’m sure that contributes to the problem. A closing title card explains that since the movie was set the Chinese government has taken steps to address the problem, including punishing schools and bullies. I wonder if that isn’t treating the symptoms rather than curing the underlying cause of them.

REASONS TO SEE: Raw and intense. Dongyu Zhao gives a wonderful performance.
REASONS TO AVOID: Overly long and occasionally tedious.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some violence and mild sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: One of the nominees for the upcoming Oscars for Best International Film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 4/11/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 83/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Mean Girls
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Tiny Tim: King For a Day

Max Cloud


A Max Cloud family Christmas portrait.

(2020) Science Fiction (Well Go USAIsabelle Allen, Scott Adkins, John Hannah, Lashana Lynch, Eliot James Langridge, Franz Drameh, Sally Collett, Jason Maza, Tommy Flanagan, Sam Hazeldine, Andi Osho, Shirin Daryale, Martyn Ford, Finley Pearson, Geraldine Sharrock, Craig Lambert, Nigel Black, Ruth Horrocks, Lois-Amber Toole.  Directed by Martin Owen

 

There is something innocent about old-time 16-bit videogames. Maybe because we were so much younger when we played them; or perhaps it was because the games themselves were simple, good versus evil types of things, uncomplicated and perfect escape from whatever was troubling us, be it school, parents, girlfriends, jobs, or lack thereof.

Sarah (Allen) is an obsessive gamer. Her favorite game du jour is The Intergalactic Adventures of Max Cloud, featuring the titular character (Adkins), a cocky lantern-jawed space hero saving the galaxy from nefarious master criminals with his trusty sidekick Jake (Langridge), the ship’s cook. However, Sarah’s dad (Hazeldine) thinks Sarah shouldn’t be playing videogames quite so much and it is a source of conflict between them.

As Sarah plays the game, she finds a hidden character, the Space Witch (Maza) – who is more accurately a space wizard, but to each his own – who somehow zaps Sarah from the real world into the game – into the body of Jake. Sarah’s best friend Cowboy (Drameh) – who is most assuredly not a competent gamer – stumbles onto the girl-within-a-game scenario and the two of them figure that the way to get Sarah back into reality is to win the game. That’s not as easy as it sounds, since Cowboy pretty much sucks at gaming and has to take frequent pee breaks. Coming after Max and Jake/Sarah is the Revenger (Hannah), a ruthless villain trying to escape from the prison world that Max crash landed on, and his right-hand flunky Shee (Lynch) who has plans of her own. Together, the two of them could end Sarah’s game permanently if she’s not careful – and if Cowboy doesn’t come through.

\There is just enough chutzpah here to carry the movie through, for the most part. Adkins has been a talented, underrated action star for the latter half of the last decade, and he proves to have some pretty solid comedy chops. Overall, with it’s primary color palette and sly shout-outs to the games of our misspent youths (or those of our parents), the movie retains a kind of goofy charm that is truly insidious. You might find yourself liking the movie in spite of its flaws.

The production values aren’t too bad when you consider that they are deliberately going for a certain retro-videogame look. The cast is strong and I’m not just talking about Adkins; Drameh and Hannah both have solid genre pedigrees and many of the rest of the cast cut their teeth on some impressive projects. There is a good deal of scenery chewing going on here, but the situation kind of calls for it, you know?

And there are flaws galore. The movie is overburdened with subplots, and underutilizes Adkins who has a physical presence that the movie could have used. There are also a few too many cliches and the cheese factor here is off-the-scale. Still in all, the movie is mindless, harmless good fun, just like the video games of yore – you Millennial whippersnappers have no idea what you missed.

REASONS TO SEE: Possessed of its own offbeat charm.
REASONS TO AVOID: You may end up overdosing on the cheese.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Ike White’s father played keyboards for Ella Fitzgerald.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and sci-fi video game violence.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/23/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 64% positive reviews, Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jumanji: Welcome to the Jungle
FINAL RATING: 5.5/10
NEXT:
Girl Lost: A Hollywood Story

Synchronic


Two EMTs shooting the breeze.

(2020) Science Fiction (Well Go USAAnthony Mackie, Jamie Dornan, Katie Aselton, Ally Ionnides, Bill Oberst Jr., Natasha Tina Liu, Martin Bats Bradford, Devyn A. Tyler, Betsy Holt, Lawrence Turner, Shane Brody, Walker Babington, Sam Malone, Hawn Tran, Carl Palmer, Rhonda Johnson Dents, Adam J. Yeend, Ramiz Monsef, Matthew Underwood, J. Lamb, Sophie Howell. Directed by Justin Benson and Aaron Moorhead

 

One of the advantages of being a mainstay in the MCU movies as Anthony Mackie is, is that he has the option to fill his down time between MCU epics with movies of his choosing. The downside is that people might see him more as a second banana instead of a lead, so when he does spectacular work as a lead, people might be surprised.

They shouldn’t be. Mackie has been a terrific actor for years now, and he shines in just about every role he takes on. Here he plays Steve, a New Orleans EMT, working the night shift with his partner Dennis (Dornan). Steve is a bit of a party animal, never forging any kind of relationship save with Dennis; Dennis, on the other hand, is a family man with a wife (Aselton) who is becoming exasperated with Steve, and teenage daughter Brianna (Ionnides) who is growing more difficult by the day.

The two have been seeing an increase in gruesome deaths which are connected with the designer drug Synchronic. At the same time, Steve receives some bad news and is forced to face his own mortality. And when he discovers that Synchronic has an unexpected quality that has to do with the disappearance of Brianna, Steve realizes he is the only one to get his partner’s daughter back home.

I’m being deliberately vague here about the nature of what Synchronic does and how it shapes the plot because, quite frankly, the less you know going in the better. I will say that a healthy suspension of disbelief is absolutely necessary, and a willingness to accept some lapses in logic. That said, the plot is a doozy and the concept a thoughtful one.  Mackie shines here in a bit of an anti-hero role; Steve is a bit of a curmudgeon and an equal bit of a jerk, but when the chips are down he’s as loyal as they come, so there’s that.

The cast is rock solid and the special effects are, considering the low budget, pretty impressive, but it is Mackie that is the reason you’ll want to see this. It’s fairly thought-provoking sci-fi but as I said there are some “huh?” moments which do bring the movie down some. Benson and Moorhead excel at creating an atmosphere and there is a definitely desperate vibe here, but the movie does take it’s sweet time getting going and the ending is a bit of a groaner. That said, though, this is a pretty solid mid-fall film that is likely to get traction once word gets out about it.

The movie is currently available in select theaters around the country. A VOD release will be coming soon.

REASONS TO SEE: Mackie channels Will Smith in a good way.
REASONS TO AVOID: A bit slow in developing.
FAMILY VALUES: There is profanity throughout, some violence, bloody images and drug use.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the fourth directorial collaboration between Benson and Moorhead.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 10/25/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 81% positive reviews, Metacritic: 68/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Jacob’s Ladder
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Six Days of Darkness begins!

Train to Busan Presents Peninsula


More zombie goodness.

(2020) Action/Horror (Well Go USA) Dong-Won Gang, Jung-hyun Lee, Re Lee, Hae-hyo Kwon, Min-Jae Kim, Gyo-hwan Koo, Do-Yoon Kim, Ye-Won Lee, Daniel Joey Albright, Pierce Conran, Geoffrey Giulliano, Christopher Gordon, Bella Rahim, John D. Michaels, Milan-Devi LaBrey. Directed by Sang-ho Yeon

 

In an age of pandemic, a zombie plague sounds almost passé. Still, if it’s anywhere as good as the first film, Train to Busan was, this should make for some rip-roaring entertainment guaranteed to take our minds off of COVID. Is this what the doctor (or plague virologists) ordered?

After the zombie plague outbreak detailed in the first film has spiraled out of control, Jung Seok (Dong-Won), a Korean soldier, tries to get his sister and her family aboard the last ship leaving the Korean peninsula.to safety in Hong Kong. On the way to the dock, he passes a family begging for help but he puts his survival face on and eaves them behind. He gets his family on board the ship, but the plague breaks out there and claims his sister and nephew.

In Hong Kong, Seok is racked with guilt over not being able to protect his sister, whose husband Chul-Min (Do-Yoon) also blames Seok. They have been marginalized, stateless and penniless, working for a criminal gang who have a job for them – to return to Seoul and pick up a truck full of cash and gold that the gang had abandoned there when the pandemic got out of hand.

It turns out that the zombies aren’t the only dangers in Korea. Chul is captured by a squad of soldiers who had been abandoned on the Peninsula led by the maniacal and quite mad Captain Seo (Gyo-hwan) and his bloodthirsty Sgt. Hwang (Min-Jae) and Chul is made to fight zombies in a kind of Thunderdome meets The Walking Dead gladiator extravaganza. Seok is rescued by Min Jung (Jung-hyun) and her two daughters, part of the family Seok left to die on the way to the harbor. Together they must find the truck and Chul and get out alive – no easy task in the quarantined Korean peninsula.

The claustrophobic feeling of the first film is largely missing, and that’s a shame – it was one of that film’s most powerful elements. While there’s much more of an expansive canvas here – bringing to mind George Miller’s Mad Max movies as well as John Carpenter’s Escape From New York – it lacks the immediacy and character development of the first film and seems to be much more involved with scenes of swarming zombies in full-on attack mode. To be honest, the zombie sequences tend to be the best ones in the movie. It slows down to a crawl in between them, with much being made of Seok’s guilt feelings and Chul’s anger towards Seok.

The director of both Train to Busan movies, Sang-ho Yeon, is best known in the States for his animated features (among others, a Train to Busan prequel Seoul Station. It is unsurprising that the CGI has a cartoon-ish look to them, and there is an awful lot of CGI, particularly in the third act. I can’t speak for Eastern audiences, but to Western eyes the difference is really noticeable and not in a good way. Still, there are enough entertaining elements to keep this movie at a mild recommendation status.

It is one of the few new films currently playing in theaters. It is not currently available for home viewing, although if you want to wait awhile, that is certain to change. Those feeling comfortable enough to venture out into theaters and who live in places where movie theaters have reopened can give it a whirl but be aware that it isn’t playing in every multiplex available. Locally, the film can be seen at the Regal Winter Park Village, the Regal Pointe Orlando, the AMC Disney Springs and Cinemark Universal Citywalk.

REASONS TO SEE: The action sequences remain top-notch. Adds an element of gleeful sadism that is a change from the first.
REASONS TO AVOID: The movie drags between action sequences. The CGI is obviously CGI.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all kinds of violence and zombie carnage, as well as a heaping helping of gore as well as some scenes of kids in peril.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Although this is the second live-action film in the Train to Busan franchise, it is actually the third film overall – the animated Seoul Station is also set in the Train to Busan universe.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/24/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 56’% positive reviews, Metacritic: 50/100
COMPARISON SHOPPING: World War Z
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
The Stand: How One Gesture Shook the World

House of Hummingbird (Beol-sae)


A conversation on the landing.

(2018) Drama (Well Go USAJi-Hu Park, Sae-byeok Kim, Seung-Yun Lee, In-gi Jeong, Sang-yeon,  Son, Su-Yeon Bak, Sae-yun Park, Yun-seo Jeong, Hye-in Seol. Directed by Bora Kim

 

The most recent Best Picture winner at the Academy Awards was a Korean film, which gives you an idea just how vital and thriving the film scene is there. Korean directors are unafraid to take chances with oddball humor, or unspectacular thematic material handled in a quiet, reverent manner.

Eun-hee (J-H Park) is 14 years old in 1994, and lives in Seoul with her baker father (I-g Jeong) and her distracted, depressed mother (Lee). Eun-hee has not been doing particularly well at school, being forced to go to “cram school” to get her language grades up. With her best friend Ji-Suk (S-y Park), she goes out to juvenile karaoke clubs, experiments with kissing and occasionally shoplifts. In the meantime, the World Cup dominates her father’s attention as does the bakery which is dangling on the precipice of failure. A North Korean dictator dies, leaving the people of Seoul to wonder if war is coming.

Her cram school tutor Young-jii (Kim) is the only adult that gets the desperately lonely Eun-hee. Betrayed by her friends, marginalized by her parents, ridiculed by her schoolmates and beaten by her older brother (Son) who is under tremendous pressure to pass his exams and get into college which would all but assure him of a decent job.

Eun-hee is used to not being taken seriously, but she has aspirations of being a cartoonist and she might not necessarily be as dumb as she’s made out to be. However, the challenges in her life grow exponentially as a mysterious growth behind her ear might be serious, requiring an operation that could leave her face partially paralyzed. On top of that, her relationship with Young-ii is growing more complicated and a family tragedy rocks her world. It’s nothing, however, to the tragedy that is fast approaching.

Although Bora Kim has been making short films for more than a decade, this is her first feature-length film and it has the taste of autobiography to it. The film has had an acclaimed Festival run, winning awards at both Tribeca and the Berlinale. The film deserves the accolades; this is a smart, affecting film that looks critically at Korea’s patriarchal culture and through Eun-hee tries to find a young girl’s place within it.

There is a realism here that is refreshing; the sexual exploration of Eun-hee isn’t particularly sweet but fumbling and awkward. She is a definite scholastic underachiever (to which I could relate) while at the same time having a definite goal in mind. Seoul, which at the time was undergoing a building spree and had become a world economic center is definitely a character in the film; clearly the director feels affection for it especially in the way her cinematographer Kook-hyun Kang shoots the urban scenes through almost a nostalgic haze.

Kim takes her time telling the story and isn’t afraid to meander a little bit, but that is anathema to American audiences who prefer their storytelling taut and efficient. Kim prefers to allow the story to unfold at its own pace although there are times that I did wish she’d get on with it. Americans, right? In any case, this is an impressive feature debut for a talent who seems destined to be one of the very best in a film scene that is crowded with talented young directors.

The film is currently available via virtual cinematic experience which benefits local art house cinemas and is being handled by the good folks at Kino-Lorber. Click on the link below to find the nearest theater benefiting from its run; for Floridians, theaters currently promoting the film include the Movies of Lake Worth and the Movies of Delray in Miami, the Corazon Cafe and Cinema in St. Augustine and the Tampa Theater here in Central Florida.

REASONS TO SEE: Ji-Hu Park is an engaging lead. A slice of life in the Korean working class.
REASONS TO AVOID: Attention-span challenged American audiences may find it long.
FAMILY VALUES:  There is some profanity, sexual situations and domestic violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: A line about wanting to be a cartoonist in the letter from Eun-hee to her teacher Young-jii was taken directly from director Bora Kim’s adolescent diary.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Virtual Cinematic Experience
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/126/20: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: 79/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Seoul Searching
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
Cold Pursuit

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

Burning (Beoning)


That which reminds us of things we can’t bear to look at must sometimes be burned.

(2018) Mystery (Well Go USA) Ah-in Yoo, Steven Yeun, Jong-seo Jun, Soo-kyung Kim, Seung-ho Choi, Seong-kun Mun, Bok-gi Min, Soo-Jeong Lee, Hye-ra Ban, Mi-Kyung Cha, Bong-ryeon Lee, Wonhyeong Jang, Seok-chan Jeon, Joong-ok Lee, Ja-Yeon Ok. Directed by Chang-dong Lee

 

Human relationships are by their very nature complex, particularly when sexuality is part of the equation. Sometimes we find someone who we can’t believe could possibly be interested in us; other times we see things in someone that they don’t see in themselves. All the while, our desires burn brightly within us.

Jong-su Lee (Yoo) is a country bumpkin living in Seoul. Hailing from the farming community of Paju, near the DMZ that borders North and South Korea – so close in fact that the propaganda broadcasts from the North can clearly be heard in Paju – Jong-su has managed to get himself an education and yearns to be a writer, admiring American authors like William Faulkner and F. Scott Fitzgerald.

To make ends meet while he writes his novel, Jong-su works as a delivery boy. One day he accidentally encounters Hae-mi Shin (Jun) who grew up with him in Paju although he scarcely remembers her. Where he is colorless, she is vibrant; where he is taciturn she is outgoing and she is energetic where he is lethargic. She is everything he’s not and everything he wants. To his surprise they strike up a friendship which turns into something more. She is getting ready to go on a previously planned trip to Africa and needs him to watch her pet cat; he agrees.

While she is gone, he haunts her apartment, missing her presence and her sexual energy. There is some evidence of a cat – a litter box that fills with poop, a bowl that he fills with food which is empty when he comes back – however he never actually sees the cat whom she names Boil on account of that she found him in a boiler room.

Jong-su has had to move back to Paju in the meantime – his father has been arrested for assaulting a government official and eventually is convicted and sent to prison. Jong-su must take care of the family farm. When he receives a phone call from Hae-mi that she needs to pick her up at the airport, he is overjoyed – until she materializes with a new boyfriend, the wealthy Ben (Yeun) in tow. Ben is a handsome, charming, and charismatic sort and Jong-su is certainly aware that Ben is more attractive as a boyfriend in every way conceivable. Ben seems to enjoy Jong-su’s company and often invites Jong-su to parties and on dinner dates with him and Hae-mi.

Outwardly Jong-su seems okay with this arrangement but inwardly he is seething and when he boils over and yells at Hae-mi, she breaks off communication with him. After a few days of frantic calling, Jong-su begins to realize that nobody has seen Hae-mi since then. He begins to get an uneasy feeling, particularly when Ben confesses while high that he likes to burn down abandoned greenhouses for kicks. Suddenly Jong-su is beginning to wonder if there isn’t more to Ben than meets the eye.

Chang-dong Lee is considered one of South Korea’s most gifted and respected directors. His films tend to be deeply layered, very complex and sublimely nuanced. In many ways, Burning is his most accessible work to date. Still, there is as with all his works much more than meets the eye which is saying something given the often breathtaking cinematography.

The triangle at the forefront of the movie has some delicious performances. Yoo has the rubber-faced expression of a comedian but rarely varies it beyond befuddlement and bewilderment. He is a child-man in a fast-paced world of naked consumerism; he is the Nick Carraway to Ben’s Jay Gatsby (the film even references the book directly), fascinated and yet envious. Jong-su becomes obsessed with Ben, first as Hae-mi’s new paramour and later in a different way after the girl’s disappearance.

Yeun, who most American viewers will remember as the good-hearted Glen from The Walking Dead has a very different role here. He is part of the one-percent and has all the arrogance that you would expect from those used to getting everything they want. He also can be cruel, sometimes inadvertently but one has to wonder if he doesn’t know exactly what he’s doing. Ben is, after all, a very bright young man. Yeun does a bang-up job here.

Jun leaves the most indelible impression. Hae-mi is both desperately lonely and wonderfully outgoing. She is very sexual but very naive at the same time. She is a hot mess from a personal standpoint and she breaks the heart of Jong-su who in their last scene together throws it back in her face. She is an enigma, never more so when she disappears and one wonders if she, like her cat, was not real to begin with.

The movie takes a definite turn after Hae-mi goes missing; it goes from a romantic Dramedy to a mystery which seems to be the crux of the film. When a friend who had previously seen the movie asked me what I thought of it, I responded “It’s like getting two movies for the price of one” and so it is but this isn’t such a wide turn that the audience is left with whiplash. Rather, it is an organic change that allows the viewer to go along for the ride without getting too uncomfortable.

This was South Korea’s official submission for the Best Foreign Film Oscars this year and while it didn’t make the shortlist – despite being a favorite to do so – it certainly deserved to do so. There is a purity to this work that transcends cultural lines; I do believe that one can feel the truth in it regardless if you are Korean, American or from anywhere else. Some truths are universal after all.

REASONS TO GO: It’s like getting two films for the price of one. The filmmakers wisely leave a lot of aspects to the imagination. The audience is never 100% sure of what took place in the film.
REASONS TO STAY: The first third of the film is a bit of a slog.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a good deal of profanity as well as sex and nudity and some shocking violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This was the first film to be directed by Chang-dong Lee since Shi in 2010.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 1/22/19: Rotten Tomatoes: 95% positive reviews: Metacritic: 90/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Girl on the Train
FINAL RATING: 8.5/10
NEXT:
Dolphin Kick

Jonathan


You’re never alone when you’re a schizophrenic.

(2018) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Ansel Elgort, Suki Waterhouse, Patricia Clarkson, Matt Bomer, Douglas Hodge, Souleymane Sy Savane, Shunori Ramanathan, Joe Egender, Ian Unterman, Alok Tewari, Jeff Kim, Alaska M. McFadden, Ramses Torres, Teo Rapp-Olsson, Julie Mickelson.  Directed by Bill Oliver

 

Most people have facets to their personalities. They aren’t just one thing; not just a party animal, not just a career person, not just a mama’s boy (or girl). We are most of us several different people whose varied personalities make up our one personality. What would it be like if the different personality traits turned out to be different and separate consciousnesses, battling one another for control?

That is the situation Jonathan (Elgort) is in. By day he is a ramrod-straight, obsessive draftsman for an architectural firm where he is just on the cusp of breaking into an important role. By night, he is a laid-back physical guy who drinks, hangs out with friends and is messy. Essentially, Jonathan and his other self John are twin brothers inhabiting the same body. They have been cared for nearly all their lives by the wise and maternal Dr. Mina Nariman (Clarkson) who often acts as a kind of mediator between the two brothers.

There are rules they must follow, mainly because they don’t want their secret discovered although to be honest I was never clear as to why they couldn’t let anybody know what they were going through. The boys each dictate a video diary which the other one reads when they “wake up” before recording their own diary when they go “to sleep.” That way, both brothers are prepared for the reactions neighbors and acquaintances might have for them.

The problems begin when John falls for a pretty barmaid/cocktail waitress named Elena (Waterhouse) and doesn’t tell Jonathan about it. When Jonathan finds clues that there’s something that may be going on, he hires a private investigator (Bomer) to figure out what’s going on. When he discovers the truth, he is furious and insists that John end the relationship. John refuses and so Jonathan takes it upon himself to do it for him by telling her the truth. She naturally thinks John is schizophrenic and breaks things up, which causes a rift between the brothers, a rift that only deepens when Jonathan finds himself falling in love with Elena himself.

The brothers’ 12 hour control “shifts” (John gets 7pm through 7am to be conscious, Jonathan from 7am to 7pm) is regulated by a doohickey which is where the science fiction element comes in. While this is set in a recognizable present day, the cold and sterile environs of the office Jonathan works in, the apartment he lives in, and the doctor’s office he visits weekly give an almost dystopian THX-1138 feel to the movie. In fact, the visuals are so antiseptic at times the movie feels nearly colorless and emotion-free. That’s a reflection of Jonathan’s cold and calculating personality, and it is through his eyes we primarily see the events of the movie.

Elgort has mainly been cast in teen heartthrob roles although from time to time he has shown glimpses of raw talent. This is his best performance – or performances – to date. The two twins are definitely separate personalities and Elgort looks comfortable and believable in both of them. Waterhouse has to react to both halves of the Jonathan whole and she does so admirably although fairly colorlessly. She isn’t given much personality to work with and mainly exists in the film as a fulcrum to spark the dissension between the two personalities.

For the most part the script is smart, refusing to take shortcuts and in fact nicely mapping out the rules of the world Jonathan exists in. Yes, there may be a sci-fi doohickey involved but it’s more of a MacGuffin than a focal point. That keeps the tech from getting too distracting.

This is definitely aimed at those who prefer thought-provoking science fiction over space operas. Critic Warren Cantrell of The Playlist even discusses the Freudian implications of the two separate Johns (you can read his analysis here) which is a fascinating interpretation and not wrong at all. As things start to break down for Jonathan, the color palate for the film grows more diverse – more food for thought.

In short (too late), this is a well-developed well-considered movie of the type we don’t get enough of these days. It’s a solid feature debut for Oliver and while some may find the sterility of Jonathan a bit off-putting, those who like to exercise their grey matter may find this film a decent workout.

REASONS TO GO: Elgort pulls off a difficult task. The script is intelligent and well-thought out.
REASONS TO STAY: Some may find this too sterile and intellectual.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a brief picture of blisters that may be a bit disturbing for the squeamish.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT:  This is the third time Elgort and Waterhouse have appeared together – they were also both in Insurgent and Billionaire Boys Club.
BEYOND THE THEATER: Amazon, Fandango Now, Fios, Google Play, iTunes, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/19/18: Rotten Tomatoes: 65% positive reviews. Metacritic: 62/100.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Daniel
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
See Know Evil