The Legend of the Naga Pearls (Yang Lei, 2017)

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In what has been a strong summer for Chinese language releases here in Seattle (with Our Time Will Come, Wolf Warrior 2, Meow, Once Upon a Time, and The Adventurers following SIFF’s minifestival of Hong Kong films and their presentation of the restored Taipei Story last week), Legend of the Naga Pearls shrugs its way on screen for the last week of August. The latest in a string of fantasy films built around special effects and photogenic stars, it’s set in the universe of Novoland, which is apparently a popular fictional construction in China, home to more than thirty novels by various authors. This story follows 25 years after a war between humans and the villainous Winged Tribe. A gang of evil former Winged People are trying to assemble a weapon with which to unleash a horde of deadly flying tapirs (seriously) on the human population, which has built their city, Uranopolis, atop the ruins of the Winged Tribe’s city in the clouds. A rag tag team of adventurers unites to steal the key item first. They include the daughter of a good Winged Person, the callow son of a human prince, and a thief with a mysterious blue mark on his hand that turns out to be connected to the eponymous MacGuffin.

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The Adventurers (Stephen Fung, 2017)

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Almost thirty years after A Moment of Romance, Andy Lau still looks impossibly cool riding a motorcycle. He does it here as the lead of a small gang of jewel thieves in Stephen Fung’s heist movie, his first film since the lunatic double punch of 2012’s Tai Chi 0 and Tai Chi Hero. Those films are the most successful yet adaptation of the comic book steampunk aesthetic to the kung fu film, supplementing its basic conceit with a breathless storytelling verve: the on-screen titles introducing the film’s stars all end in exclamation points. The Adventurers finds Fung in a much more relaxed mode, the idiosyncratic personal expression bound within the generic form of a movie designed to meet audience expectations rather than defy them. To this end he’s helped immeasurably by Lau, who has spent much of his long career making otherwise interminable movies watchable (for example Ringo Lam’s laziest film, also called The Adventurers, released in 1995) and Shu Qi, who’s undeniable greatness as an art house actress (Millennium Mambo, The Assassin) tends to overshadow, in the West, a sparkling, magnetic movie star charm (as in Ringo Lam’s goofiest film, 2003’s Looking for Mr. Perfect). The two great stars, ably supported by a multinational cast of veterans (Hong Kong’s Eric Tsang and France’s Jean Reno) and relative newcomers (Zhang Jingchu from China and Tony Yang from Taiwan), enliven what is blatantly a Mission: Impossible knock-off (Reno of course featured in the first film in that series, while Zhang was in the latest one, a performance which amounted to nothing but a superfluous 30 second pandering to the Chinese audience).

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Once Upon a Time (Zhao Xiaoding, 2017)

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The intersection between myth and teen drama, between cartoon wuxia and soap opera, with a dash of Hitchcock just to make things interesting, Once Upon a Time is unlike anything likely to play on Seattle Screens this year. The directorial debut of longtime Zhang Yimou cinematographer Zhao Xiaoding (he shot all of Zhang’s films from House of Flying Daggers through The Great Wall), it’s as lushly gorgeous as anything in higher profile releases like Journey to the West: Demons Strike Back, with acres of peach blossoms, castles in the clouds, and godlike beings morphing freely into animals. The story is adapted from a 2008 online fantasy novel called Three Lives Three Worlds, Ten Miles of Peach Blossoms by Tang Qi, which may have been plagiarized from an earlier online fantasy novel called The Peach Blossom Debt by Da Feng. (You can read about the allegations and compare some evidence for yourself here. I can’t read Chinese, so I can’t judge if it is outright plagiarism or simple imitation. The fact that both works were published online and that in Da Feng’s the romance is homosexual (LGBT depictions are officially banned on television and online media in China) makes the issue particularly complicated). The novel was also adapted earlier this year as the Chinese TV series Eternal Love starring Mark Chao and Yang Mi.

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Wolf Warrior 2 (Wu Jing, 2017)

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Somewhat surprisingly, Wu Jing’s Wolf Warrior 2 is smashing box office records across China, on pace to overtake last year’s The Mermaid as the number one Chinese film of all-time. Wu is probably the greatest Chinese martial arts star of his generation, best known here in the US for his starring role in SPL 2: A Time for Consequences, which the best action film to play here last year. He both stars and directs, as he did with Wolf Warriors, released in 2015. In the first one, he plays Leng Feng, a badass soldier who gets recruited into the Wolf Warrior brigade of the People’s Liberation Army, an elite special forces unit. During a training exercise, he and his squadmates are attacked by a multiethnic band of vicious mercenaries led by Scott Adkins who was hired by a drug lord seeking revenge on Leng for murdering his brother, and also as the cover for a scheme to steal a virus that only kills Chinese people. The film is an unabashed propaganda piece about the skills, technology and valor of the PLA, but it’s got a lot of cool jungle action and it moves along quickly.

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Our Time Will Come (Ann Hui, 2017)

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The most anticipated, and almost assuredly the best, World War II film of the summer, by one of the greatest filmmakers of the past forty years, opens here tomorrow exclusively at the Pacific Place: director Ann Hui’s Our Time Will Come. Based on true events in the resistance against the Japanese occupation of Hong Kong, the film is so effective at its generic thrills, the suspense and action sequences and quiet moments of melancholy patriotism and laments for lost comrades that form the core of the resistance/war film, everything from For Whom the Bell Tolls to Army of Shadows, that one almost doesn’t notice that she’s radically revised one of the most masculine of genres into a story about the unbreakability of women.

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SIFF 2017: Have a Nice Day (Liu Jian, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

The second feature from director Liu Jian is an animated network-noir that in its amoral glee at the interconnected machinations of crooks and losers recalls early Tarantino, or at least his Korean imitators. A bag of money is stolen and passes through many vicious hands in dingy, bleak sections of a city at night (the pale, grimy animation recalls a hungover Duckman), a world away from the glitzy capitalist paradises of recent Chinese urban rom-coms.

SIFF 2017: God of War (Gordon Chan, 2017)

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Note: as this film is under embargo until its release in the Seattle area, here are exactly 75 words.

It’s the King Hu film I can never quite remember, The Valiant Ones, remade as PRC propaganda, all national, class and gender unity in the face of foreign aggressors (in this case: samurai masquerading as pirates in Ming China). The action is mostly very good, but there isn’t nearly enough Sammo Hung and Vincent Zhao (The Blade) weirdly looks like Jimmy Fallon now. Veteran kung fu/ninja star Yasuaki Kurata is exceptional as the samurai leader.

This Is Not What I Expected (Derek Hui, 2017)

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One of two romantic comedies that tried and failed to unseat the powerhouse Fast & the Furious 8 at the Chinese box office this past May Day weekend, This Is Not What I Expected opens here on Friday, a week after its counter-part Love Off the Cuff. It’s a totally pleasant film that surfs gently on the charm of its lead actors, recalling at times the softer screwballs of the 1930s, or more exactly the modern imitations of those classics. It’s essentially You’ve Got Mail, but where the two leads secretly communicate not via letters or emails, but through food. Zhou Dongyou, who was exceptional last year in Derek Tsang’s SoulMate, plays a manic pixie who repeatedly runs afoul of aloof billionaire Takeshi Kaneshiro (aging nicely more than 20 years after Chungking Express and Fallen Angels). Kaneshiro is a fastidious foodie, a buyer and seller of hotels who checks into an aging inn somewhere in Shanghai and finds all of the food lacking. Except, that is, for a soup made by Zhou, known to Kaneshiro only as the woman who mistakenly vandalized his truck in an act of revenge for her roommate. Kaneshiro and the chef refuse to meet each other, instead using the peculiar qualities of food to bond.

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The Great Wall (Zhang Yimou, 2016)

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The Great Wall, an experiment in co-production between Hollywood and China, opens with the spinning globe of the Universal Studios logo, its computer-generated image rotating slowly as it zooms in on the eponymous defensive fortification, helpfully orienting the hoped-for American audience by showing them where exactly the nation of China is located. Matt Damon is our audience surrogate, a white man on the road to China to trade for (that is, steal) gunpowder, heretofore undiscovered in Christendom. He encounters The Wall and learns that it is designed not to defend against the horse archers of the Mongolian steppes, but rather vicious alien lizards that hatch every 60 years and attempt to eat everything in sight: half giant iguana, half locust, half cicada. The well-organized and color-coordinated Chinese soldiers manning The Wall are initially suspicious of Damon and his friend, played by Pedro Pascal, but eventually they join the fight in a series of entertaining spectacles leavened by a few moments of such beauty that you remember that this is a Zhang Yimou film after all.

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Railroad Tigers (Ding Sheng, 2016)

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January is the greatest movie month there is. Not only are we in the lesser metropolises of America finally granted access to tardiest of the previous year’s award hopefuls (see this week’s Silence), but via studio counter-programming logic, we also get Hollywood’s most interesting action films. The bloated prestige actioners get released in the summer (your Marvels and Nolans), while a handful of unstoppable forces stake their claim to winter break (the Star Warses and Camerons), while the suits and bean-counters push the films they don’t know how to exploit to the shadow of Oscar season. This is the month of Paul WS Anderson (his Resident Evil: The Final Chapter opens at the end of the month). It’s also blockbuster season in China, with big titles being released at Christmastime and especially at Lunar New Year, which falls between the end of January and the end of February (it’s January 28 this year). Two years ago the big early January Chinese import was Tsui Hark’s The Taking of Tiger Mountain, last year it was Donnie Yen’s Ip Man 3. This year, we’ve got Railroad Tigers, opening this week at the Pacific Place.

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