Seobok: Project Clone


Ki Heon REALLY takes exception to being asked to wear a mask.

(2021) Science Fiction (Well Go USA) Park Bo-Gum, Gong Yoo, Jang Young-Nam, Woo-jin Jo, Byeong-eun Park, Maurice Turner Jr., Kwang-hoon Na, Mi-nam Jung, Eon-jeong Lee, Yang Hee-Woo, Andreas Fronk, Daniel Joey Albright, Han-ji Hyun, Leraldo Anzaldua, Edward Hong, Rebecca Jensen Uesugi, Shogo Miyakita, Erin Nicole Lundquist. Directed by Lee Yong-ju

 

=As our medical technology improves, we begin to approach areas of moral dilemmas that we might never have envisioned even a few years ago. Research on stem cells and human cloning promise breakthroughs in the not-so-distant future, but what will be the cost for developing these lines of science and medicine?

Ki Heon (Yoo) is a former secret service agent for South Korea who has been afflicted with a terminal brain tumor, hence the “former.” He is beset by guilt regarding some shady deeds in his past (which are never fully explored). And yet, his old boss Chief Ahn (Jo) calls to give him one last mission; to escort valuable research from a human cloning experiment to a safer place following the assassination of the American scientist who was involved in it.

Needing to feel useful again, Ki agrees and is surprised to discover that the research he’s escorting is actually a young man named Seobok (Bo-Gum) who is a successful, genetically engineered clone, but there’s more to him than meets the eye; his body manufactures stem cells that can cure any disease, which could render the human race virtually immortal. In addition, Seobok has developed astounding powers of telekinesis, as well as the ability to generate force waves from his body.

They don’t get very far before they are attacked by a group of mercenaries, working for a group that wants control of the clone for themselves. The two fight off the killers, and go on the run, trying to avoid various would-be kidnappers and killers while slowly beginning to develop a grudging bond. For Seobok who has lived his entire life in a lab, the road trip is nothing short of miraculous, whereas Ki realizes that the young man he is transporting holds the key to his own personal survival – assuming they don’t get shot to pieces first.

The filmmakers spend a great deal of time focusing on the moral dilemmas of this kind of scientific research, and there are some truly thought-provoking points brought up. There is an intelligence here that is sometimes hard to find in sci-fi films, especially those that have actions sequences, which this one does, although not so many as you might think. However, when there is action, it is done competently well. The special effects are also pretty nifty.

Yoo, one of Korea’s biggest stars, is best-known to American audiences for his work in Train to Busan. He does some stellar work here, giving Ki layers upon layers; when we first meet him, Ki is wallowing in self-pity and something of a jerk. As we get to know him better through Seobok, we begin to see the pain that has caused him to put up those walls, and understand him a little better as a man. It’s not Oscar-level work, but considering this is essentially meant to be a genre film, it is surprisingly strong.

As I mentioned earlier, there aren’t a lot of action sequences here and for the most part, the movie goes pretty slowly, focusing on the ethical questions. For cerebral science fiction fans, that might well be candy, but for those looking for a space opera-like hoot, they will find it to be a Sour Patch Kid of a film. For what it is, however, it is better than we have any right to expect and for those who like their science fiction to be truly speculative, this is one worth seeking out.

Just a quick note; the film is available both in dubbed and subtitled versions. Not every streaming service carries it in both formats, so be sure you know what you’re getting when you order. The DVD/Blu-Ray edition does contain both versions, so if you still go the physical media route, that might be your best bet.

REASONS TO SEE: Surprisingly thoughtful for a genre film. Strong performances throughout, particularly by Yoo.
REASONS TO AVOID: A little slow-paced and heavy on the exposition.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity as well as some violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: The film was originally set to be an end-of-the-year tentpole release in 2020 for its Korean distributor, but the pandemic delayed release until April 2021, when it debuted simultaneously in theaters and on the Korean streaming service TVING.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, DirecTV, Google Plus, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 3/3/22: Rotten Tomatoes: 85% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Never Let Me Go
FINAL RATING: 7/10
NEXT:
Slut in a Good Way

The Monkey King: Reborn


A pig, a monkey and a monster walk into a bar…

(2021) Animated Feature (Well Go USA) Starring the voices of Bian Jiang, Cai Haiting, Su Shangqing, Lin Qiang, Zhang He, Zhang Lei, Qiang Lin, Wang Chenguang, Song Ming, Feng Sheng, Zhang Yaohan, Bai Xuecen, Qiu Qiu, He Zhang, Zhongyang Baomu, Tu-Te-Ha-Meng. Directed by Yunfei Wang

 

One of the iconic characters in Chinese folklore is that of the Monkey King, a.k.a. Sun Wukong (Jiang). Best-known for his appearance in the 16th century novel Journey to the West (although the character is based on an amalgam of far older myths and legends), he is a trickster prone to quick anger and powerful. Taking offense easily, he is a disciple of the Taoist monk Tang Sanzang (Shangqing).

While on a journey, Sanzang, and Wukong along with the Monkey King’s fellow disciples the pig-like Zhu Baije (He) and the monstrous Sha Wujing (Qiang) come to a shrine where the magic Tree of Life is tended to. The perpetually hungry Baije prevails upon Wukong to steal some fruit from the tree, which he does. The obnoxious caretakers not only blame Wukong for his theft, but also for the theft of fruit which the caretakers themselves stole. This sends Wukong into a mindless rage and in his fury, he destroys the tree.

That proves to be a really bad idea. The tree was the seal keeping the Demon King Yuandi (Lei) imprisoned. Freed, he kidnaps the pious Sanzang and will in three days regain his full power, at which time he will destroy the monk. Wukong, recognizing his complicity in the matter, goes on a quest to rescue his mentor, aided by his two fellow disciples and Fruity (Haiting), a cute-as-a-button gi spirit that sprang up out of the tree and which Wukong initially mistook for a fruit spirit. But the way is long and dangerous, and the foes powerful, particularly the Demon King who even the powerful Wukong may not be able to defeat.

While the movie utilizes elements of the 100 chapter-long Journey to the West, this is a fresh take on the subject, although how fresh can it be considering that in Asia there are over seventeen thousand versions of the Monkey King’s story (which is about how many MCU movies there are, right?). The story is a pretty simple one, although Western audiences might find the Buddhist and Taoist philosophies espoused in the movie to be different and refreshing.

The animation is the star here, with some absolutely beautiful landscapes and a good deal of detail which is lovingly rendered. The battle sequences are absolutely spectacular, particularly the climactic battle between the Demon King and Wukong. Animation fans, particularly those of Asian animation, are going to love this.

Cinema buffs looking for something refined will probably not love this quite as much. The plot is simplistic and the dialogue often redundant. Those with minimal knowledge of the Monkey King’s background will probably find themselves somewhat lost, although children may well not find that to be much of a problem. However, parents should be warned that the fight scenes can be brutal and bloody, and there is a lot of swearing (Wukong is often referred to as “that shitty monkey” by various characters throughout the film) and although it’s not implicitly stated, the film really isn’t appropriate for younger children. It seems to be aimed more at teens and adults, although the made-to-be-a-mascot Fruity seems to be there to appeal to younger audiences. While it might feel like they didn’t have a handle on what kind of audience they were directing the film towards, one has to allow for the cultural differences as way of explanation.

This is a gorgeous film to look at, but the paper-thin plot and sometimes unnecessary dialogue might put some off. My advice is just to watch it and get into the moment, rather than think about things too hard. It’s a movie meant to be experienced rather than analyzed.

By-the-by, the movie is available in two forms – subtitled, and dubbed into English. I saw the subtitled version and the vocal performances are a bit over-the-top, as they tend to be in that part of the world; if you have a preference, be sure that the version you are getting is the one you want. Most of the streaming services carry only the dubbed version.

REASONS TO SEE: The animation is lush and richly detailed.
REASONS TO AVOID: May be too childish for adults and too extreme for kids.
FAMILY VALUES: There is some profanity and violence.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This is the third in a series of animated features released by Well Go and based on Chinese folk tales and myths under the umbrella Fengshen Cinematic Universe. This film is unrelated to the first two, Ne Zha (2019) and Jiang Ziya (2020).
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Google Play, Hoopla, Microsoft, Redbox, Spectrum, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 12/17/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: The Monkey King: Hero is Back
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
The Novice

The Emperor’s Sword


Things are looking up.

(2020) Martial Arts (Well Go USA) Xu Chang Chao, Yilin Hao, Qin Chu Ming, Feng-bin Mou, Ruoyao Pan, Zhao Qihang, Xiaofei Shi, Qiyu Yang, Xu Zhangchao. Directed by Zhang Yingli

The corruption that comes with the pursuit of power is universal. All cultures have stories, legends and myths concerning the relation between the two. Some stories are meant to be parables; others are meant to stir the blood in one way or another.

More than two thousand years ago, the Qin dynasty of China ruled with peace and prosperity. The emperor had in his possession a sword that gave him the power to rule all of China. He also led the Seven Gentlemen – the Brave, the Wisdom, the Polite, The Virtuous, the Valor, the Vigor and The Wise – don’t ask me hy two of the seven had essentially the same quality. After the Emperor’s ascension to the throne, they retired to the Wind Valley, confident that the land was in safe hands.

But all good things come to an end and when the Emperor died just ten years later, an ambitious nobleman named Zhao Gao takes advantage of the situation and massacres the family and retinue of the Emperor’s son, who happened to be the Emperor’s most loyal general. Only the Emperor’s daughter survived, having grabbed the sword – which had now been split into two with one half entrusted to the general’s care – and ran for her life. She was protected by one of the Gentlemen, who discovered what was happening too late to save the general’s family but soon enough to protect the sword.

The daughter and the Gentleman split up, with one going to assemble the other Gentlemen, and the girl to an inn run by an ally. The sword must be taken to a holy shrine, and a reformed thief known as the Ghost will escort her there, but there are many looking for the girl and the sword – including someone that she never expected to betray her.

Fans of classic Wuxia cinema will want to seek this one out. It kind of fell between the cracks a little bit; it doesn’t have any major action stars in it, and by the standards of better-known films it had a much smaller budget. That doesn’t mean it is any less worthy of attention. There is beautiful cinematography – one battle scene is shot in a foggy bamboo forest, for example and another in a temple perched high on a mountain – and fight choreography that is second to none. While some of the digital effects are less satisfactory by our standards, likely out of budget concerns, for the most part this is a beautiful film to watch with gorgeous costumes and sumptuous set design.

While this has the makings of a historical epic, it is all pretty much a fictional tale told amid real-life events. There was, for example, a real Zhao Gao although he was a palace eunuch, not a military man as depicted here, and he did attempt to seize power following the death of the self-proclaimed First Emperor, although he tried more through intrigue than military might. The First Emperor, by the way, was the one who was buried with the Terra Cotta warriors near the present-day city of Xi’an, and while his tomb has never been excevated, it remains one of the biggest tourist attractions in China.

While the movie debuted on the martial arts-centric streaming channel Hi-Yah! Back in July, it is only now making its way to premium streaming platforms and DVD/Blu-Ray release. While the story, with all the different Gentlemen and other players in the drama, may have a few too many characters to keep up with, this is a frenetically-paced and highly entertaining Wuxia that is well-plotted and at times, poignant enough to make it one of the very best movies you’ll see this year. I’m only disappointed that it was not made available for theatrical release; it would have looked amazing on a big screen.

And for those who have an abiding affection for Asian martial arts films, let me take a moment to show Hi-Yah! some love. It has an amazing library of titles, going back to Bruce Lee and the Shaw Brothers, and covering nearly every type of martial arts movie that you can think of. And at only $2.99/month for a subscription, it’s one of the best bargains in the streaming universe. Cinema365 gives it the highest recommendation possible. To sign up for a subscription, click on the Hi-Yah! link below.

REASONS TO SEE: Wonderful fight sequences. Beautiful cinematography. Some really powerful moments.
REASONS TO AVOID: A few too many characters to keep up with.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of martial arts violence and some suggestive material.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vandenberg spent several years as a member of the French Foreign Legion before turning to stunt work and acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Google Play, Hi-Yah!, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/13/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Journey to the West
FINAL RATING: 8/10
NEXT:
The Business of Birth Control

Hell Hath No Fury


Wondering what’s going on.

(2021) War (Well Go USA) Nina Bergman, Andrew Berling, Daniel Bernhardt, Louis Mandylor, Josef Cannon, Timothy Murphy, Charles Fathy, Luke LaFontaine, Alma Andrei, Dominique Vandenberg. Directed by Jesse V. Johnson

Greed does things to people, most of it not very nice. It turns our moral compasses to the “off” position and puts us in a place where we see nothing else beyond our own avarice. It turns us, in short, into assholes.

In the waning day of World War II, Marie DuJardin (Bergman) has just been released from prison. She has been forced to shave her head – not because of lice, but because she had a romantic affair with a German officer, SS Major von Bruckner (Bernhardt). A Swastika has been painted on her dome to let all and sundry know that she is a collaborator. She is forced to go half-naked (wearing only a slip) and is in serious jeopardy of being ripped limb from limb; until she tells a group of American GIs led by Major Maitland (Mandylor) that she knows the location of Nazi gold.

She agrees to take them there, but unknown to either one of them the French resistance fighters who had ambushed her and von Bruckner three years earlier are also on the hunt for the gold – and the Nazis, who are withdrawing from France, do not intend to flee without their gold. It threatens to be a really nasty fight, but who is conning who?

While Marie DuJardin actually existed, her story was spiced up a bit and made more cinematic, so don’t go thinking that this all actually happened this way. It didn’t. Still, Bergman is a real find. A Danish model/actress/singer of Russian descent, her French accent isn’t the best you’ll ever hear, but she makes up for it with oodles of presence, a ballsy action heroine attitude, and a willingness to take herself to emotional places a lot of actresses shy away from. Her presence is so formidable that she can spend most of the film wearing just underwear without it feeling exploitive; she radiates dignity that goes beyond what she’s wearing. Note to the makers of the James Bond films; she’d make an excellent Bond girl no matter who ends up with the role next.

I do give the filmmakers props for getting this made with COVID protocols in place, but you’d never know it watching the movie. Yeah, there are plenty of cliches, the story is a bit convoluted and the twists end up being preposterous but despite all of that the movie grows on you enough that you can overlook the obvious flaws and just take it all in.

This is one of those movies that is slow getting started, but once it does it’s actually pretty entertaining. The trouble is, you have to sit through about 40 minute that are pretty slow-moving, and not everyone has that kind of patience. Those that stick around will be rewarded by a slam-bang finale full of twists and turns (some of them admittedly improbable) that as long as you’re willing to chuck logic out the window, you’re liable to have a good time in spite of yourself.

REASONS TO SEE: Picks up steam as it goes along.
REASONS TO AVOID: Feels convoluted, cliched and occasionally mean-spirited.
FAMILY VALUES: There is all sorts of violence, profanity and some sexuality.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Vandenberg spent several years as a member of the French Foreign Legion before turning to stunt work and acting.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: AppleTV, Spectrum (available on most streaming platforms on November 9, 2021)
CRITICAL MASS: As of 11/7/2021: Rotten Tomatoes: 83% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Three Kings
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Dangerous

The Fatal Raid


Happiness is a warm gun.

(2019) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Jade Leung, Hidy Yu, Min Chen Lin Andrew Kam Yeung-Wa, Kristy Yeung, Aaron Boggs, Jeana Ho, Michael Tong, Patrick Tam, Sin-Hang Chiu, Elaine Tang, Man-kit Yuan, Jadie Lin. Directed by Jacky Lee

 

The “girls with guns” Hong Kong action film subgenre is pretty much what it sounds like; equal parts action and titillation, sort of like Charlie’s Angels with a bit of an edge and a little more cheesecake. For the most part, that subgenre has fallen by the wayside as the mainland Chinese government, which tends to be a little less lenient towards sexuality in cinema, has essentially become overseers of the thriving Hong Kong moviemaking scene. This movie, directed by veteran Jacky Lee, looks to if not resurrect the subgenre, at least pay tribute to it.

An elite Hong Kong police unit, trying to apprehend a criminal gang in Macau, is ambushed leading to a bloody gunfight that leaves numerous members of the team dead. The police brass, as is often the case, hushed up their own role in botching the raid. Now, 20 years after the event, the surviving participants are haunted by the events of that day. Heading back to Macau for a celebration honoring the heroes of the police force, they are led into an ambush with the same gang. Will history repeat itself, or will justice finally prevail?

The plot here is pretty generic and it isn’t terribly well-developed. Most of the emphasis is on the extended gun battles (there are three of them that take place in the film) and less so on developing the characters. The focus seems to be, strangely enough, on Detective Tam (P. Tam) who despite being the lone male on the team becomes the point of focus here – I imagine the #MeToo movement hasn’t made much headway in China just yet. Tam is a fine actor – don’t get me wrong – but if you’re going to cast someone like Jade Leung, who was one of the mainstays of the genre and a terrific actress in her own right – you should damn well make better use of her. As it is, her presence is so commanding as the police inspector that she still manages to steal the film anyway.

Now, I’m not trying to kid myself – most people are going to see this movie for the action sequences and they aren’t that bad. The problem is, they aren’t that memorable either, which is surprising. I have actually seen the movie that this is a sequel to, and there is far more connection between the films than is usual for sequels in the Chinese movie business, which is also surprising. However, the sequel isn’t going to inspire anyone to run right out and rent the film that preceded it which is a shame, because it’s a much better (and much more fun) movie than this one is. The tone here is grim and a bit of a downer, rather than lighthearted and brain-melting, which is normally what you want out of a Hong Kong action movie. See it for the opportunity to watch Jade Leung at work, but there’s not much other reason to take a chance on this one.

REASONS TO SEE: Jade Leung is a compelling presence.
REASONS TO AVOID: The unmemorable plot really drags in the middle third.
FAMILY VALUES: There is plenty of violence, some sex and a fair amount of profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: The movie is a sequel to Special Female Force.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Microsoft, Vudu
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/30/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Iron Angels
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Kipchoge: The Last Milestone

Raging Fire (Nou fo)


Shots fired!

(2021) Crime Action (Well Go USA) Donnie Yen, Nicholas Tse, Lan Qin, Angus Yeung, Patrick Tam, Ben Lam, Deep Ng, Kang Yu, Henry Prince Mak, Tak-Bun Wong, Jeana Ho, Ken Lo, Simon Yam, Tony Tsz-Tung Wu, Kwok-Keung Cheung, Jing-hung Kwok, Ray Lui, Chris Collins, Fung Kwok, Singh Hartihan Bitto, Inderjeet Singh, Cheung-Ching Mak, Yee Tong Directed by Benny Chan

 

When Hong Kong was the action movie capitol of the world, Donnie Yen was one of its principal stars and Benny Chan one of its most talented directors. After the handoff from the UK to mainland China, the Hong Kong film industry, which at its peak produced 200 films per year, was absorbed into the Chinese film industry and became subject to pre-approval by Communist film censors. The by-the-seat-of-the-pants take-no-prisoners action that made it beloved by those who had picked up on just how special those films were became a thing of the past.

But this latest film, starring Yen and fellow HK action star Tse, is a throwback to the style before Chinese action movies became indistinguishable from low-budget American ones. An elite team of Hong Kong police officers, led by Cheung Chung-Bong (Yen) who is as incorruptible as it gets, are after a mysterious band of thieves whose ruthlessness and willingness to spill blood have made them a priority. To Cheung’s shock, he discovers that the thieves are ex-cops led by his ex-partner Yau Kong-Ngo (Tse). Ngo had been sent to prison after a riverside interrogation went sideways. Bong had put him there, and essentially their superiors through Ngo under an entire fleet of busses. He emerged from prison with thoughts of deadly revenge and a moral compass that had turned pitch black.

The two are headed for an inevitable confrontation and while getting there, Chan gives us plenty of amazing action sequences, including a car chase that you’ll have to see to believe, and all sorts of fights, mayhem and gun battles. Yen, at 60, still has plenty of action chops left in him (he was recently cast in the upcoming John Wick sequel) and Tse is one of the most charismatic stars in Asia. Having both of them in the same film is a little bit like Christmas in August.
<

The plot leaves a lot to be desired; we’ve seen it before, not just in big budget American action movies (think Michael Mann) but also in a plethora of Hong Kong crime movies which have made detailing the line between cops and criminals something of a trademark. Also, for a movie that’s roughly two hours long, there is almost zero character development for everyone other than the two leads, which is a disadvantage the film never really overcomes.

But then another action sequence comes along and all is forgiven (there is an interrogation room sequence in which Ngo and Bong have a quiet moment that is the best non-action moment of the film; the movie could have used more scenes like it). One is reminded that at its peak, the Hong Kong film industry was one of the most innovative and imaginative in the world, at times rivaling Hollywood for clever action sequences. For anyone who remembers those Hong Kong action movies of the 80s and 90s with fondness, this one is going to be right up your alley.

REASONS TO SEE: Hyper-kinetic action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The plot is mighty pedestrian.
FAMILY VALUES: There is much violence, profanity and some gore.
TRIVIAL PURSUITS: This would be Chan’s final feature as a director as he passed away from cancer August 23, 2020. He was able to complete shooting and supervise the majority of post-production before his illness prevented any further involvement.
CRITICAL MASS: As of 8/19/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 92% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Heat
FINAL RATING: 6.5/10
NEXT:
Don’t Sell Me a Dog

Undercover Punch and Gun


Philip Ng is feeling boxed in.

(2019) Crime (Well Go USA) Philip Ng, Vanness Wu, Andy On, Nicholas Tse, Joyce Wenjuan Feng, Luxia Jiang, Aka Chio, Shuai Chi, Jia Meng, Aaron Aziz, Suet Lam, Carrie Ng, Susan Yam-Yam Shaw. Directed by Koon-Nam Lui and Frankie Tam

 

One of the biggest criticisms of action movies in general is that they often seem to be little more than excuses to go from one big action set piece to another. Plot and character development often go by the wayside, leaving the audience to marvel at the stunts, special effects and so on. That’s not necessarily a bad thing – great action sequences can often be their own catharsis, but I also can’t blame critics who would like to see actioin movies be better. It certainly wouldn’t hurt to develop the plot a little more, or give the characters some depth besides a few cheeky one-liners spouted at the end of a particularly grueling fight scene.

Xiao Wu (P. Ng) is an enforcer for a drug ring but what he REALLY is, as it turns out, is an undercover cop. During a drug deal that goes south, gunfire erupts between rival gangs of cops and gangsters. During the chaos, the boss (Lam) is killed and Wu ends up in charge. He is tasked to take down Ha (On), a smuggler who not only imports drugs but dabbles in the human trafficking trade – about as much as Apple dabbles in computers. Ha is as ruthless as they come, and Wu along with his buddy Tiger (Wu) are definitely in over their heads.

The producers for the film apparently never heard the old aphorism “too many cooks spoil the broth.” There are no less than two directors and seven writers credited on this film, and it shows. There is an inconsistency in tone that is maddening as the movie goes from slam-bam action to slapstick comedy to dark social drama often within the same scene. I get that Asian cuisine often has a multitude of layered flavors, but that doesn’t always work for movies.

The characters don’t always act as you’d expect which can be refreshing so long as there’s a logic to it. When Wu’s girlfriend is kidnapped, one wonders about the girl; she isn’t in much of the movie until the end where she basically exists in order to be rescued. The saving grace here is that the action sequences, particularly the fights, are really, REALLY good. Ng, who doubled as fight choreographer, is a natural and could well be the next big international action star to come out of the Far East. He has a brooding presence, but doesn’t handle the comedy quite as well.

Then again, the comedy here is mainly of the low-brow variety and often brings the movie to a screeching halt. The comedy is largely centered around Tiger and while Asian audiences tend to appreciate a broader sense of humor than American audiences do, the jokes here are largely painfully unfunny, as when the baddie wips out his cell phone and tells the hero “There! I unfriended you!” Take that.

Sometimes the action sequences are all you really need to make a movie worthwhile, but the sometimes-painful comedy breaks really do bring the movie down overall. There is also a jazzy score that is wildly inappropriate for the film; the movie just isn’t noir enough for it. Action fans, particularly those who love the martial arts films of Asia, are going to flip for it. Also, keep an eye our for Ng – he could be a household name a few years from now.

REASONS TO SEE: There are some nifty action sequences.
REASONS TO AVOID: The wild shifts in tone (particularly the generally unsuccessful attempts at comedy) drag the film down overall.
FAMILY VALUES: There is quite a bit of martial arts violence, as well as some drug content.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: Originally released under the title Undercover vs. Undercover.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, Fandango Now, Hi-Yah, Microsoft, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 6/22/21: Rotten Tomatoes: No score yet; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Infernal Affairs
FINAL RATING: 6/10
NEXT:
Bullied

Deliver Us From Evil (Daman akeseo guhasoseo)


It is twilight for a professional killer.

(2020) Crime (Well Go USA) Jun-min Hwang, Jung-jae Lee, Jung-min Park, Moon Choi, Hakuryu, Park Myeong-hoon, Dae-hwan Oh, Tomonori Mizuno, Young-chang Song, Kosuke Toyohara, Hiroaki Hirakawa, Ito Keitoku, Ken Kurahara, Atsundo Maruyama, So-yi Park. Directed by Won-Chan Hong

 

For an action film to be successful, it doesn’t have to be particularly original, although that certainly helps. When an action movie is well-thought-out, well-choreographed and well-paced, a lack of imagination can be forgiven.

In-nam (Hwang) is a contract killer who used to be a cop. He has just finished his last job before retiring to Panama to live on a quiet beach, but that is not to be. For one thing, the last man he killed, a yakuza named Goreda (Toyohara) has a vengeful brother named Ray, who is better known as Ray the Butcher (Lee). You really don’t want someone named “The Butcher” mad at you, particularly when that person is muscle for the yakuza.

Worse still, it turns out that an ex-girlfriend (Choi) has died and her young daughter Yoo-min (S-y Park) has been kidnapped by human traffickers and taken to Bangkok. In-nam is not helping out because he’s a particularly good guy; he is about as stone cold as they get, but he does have some skin in that particular game. With raving lunatic Ray chasing the ice-cold In-nam, you can imagine that sparks will fly when the two meet.

And sparks do fly. Action fans will be pleased to know that this is as gripping an action movie as you’re likely to see this year, with well-staged martial arts fights and some spectacular action sequences that would do a Hollywood big-budget summer tentpole film proud. This is the kind of movie that doesn’t lack for entertainment.

It also doesn’t lack for action stars. Hwang and Lee are two of South Korea’s biggest stars; they haven’t been in a movie together in eight years, but their chemistry is undeniable. They work really well together, and Hwang does the taciturn, brooding killing machine about as well as anybody, although in the Bangkok heat the man sweats like a politician in front of a grand jury.

Where the movie is lacking is in plot. There is nothing here in terms of story that you haven’t seen before, and sometimes in better movies. How many retiring hit man movies have we seen even this year, where the retiree is drawn back into the business unwillingly? One place where the movie is a little different is that there is a transgender character, Yoo-Yi (J-m Park) who plays In-nam’s translater and girl Friday in Bangkok, where she hopes to make enough money for her gender reassignment surgery. While she’s mostly there for comic relief, surprisingly she is played as more sympathetic than you’d expect, and who ends up being the most likable character in the movie with the possible exception of the utterly adorable Yoo-min.

The movie was one of the top grossing films in Korea last year, having just finished production before the pandemic hit and was one of the few major releases in that country in 2020. With big budget Hollywood movies beginning to peek out from out of their quarantine, this might end up being lost in the shuffle which would be a shame; it is actually quite entertaining and a must for action fans who like their movies at break-neck speed.

REASONS TO SEE: Some spectacular action sequences. Hwang has the surly action hero thing down pat.
REASONS TO AVOID: Somewhat unoriginal.
FAMILY VALUES: There is a truck full of violence and gore (much of it brutal) and some profanity.
TRIVIAL PURSUIT: This is the second time that Hwang and Lee have appeared in the same action film.
BEYOND THE THEATERS: Amazon, AppleTV, DirecTV, Fandango Now, Google Play, Microsoft, Redbox, Vudu, YouTube
CRITICAL MASS: As of 5/28/21: Rotten Tomatoes: 100% positive reviews; Metacritic: No score yet.
COMPARISON SHOPPING: Taken
FINAL RATING: 7.5/10
NEXT:
An Amityville Poltergeist

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