Mojin: The Worm Valley (Fei Xing, 2018)

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A prequel to 2015’s Mojin: The Lost Legend, in which a band of intrepid treasure hunters brave mysterious wilds and scary animals in search of a MacGuffin that will cure a curse they picked up during an earlier treasure hunting expedition. Where the first Mojin film had an exceptional cast, led by Shu Qi, Angelababy and Huang Bo, and an intricate plot weaving present-day scenes in New York’s Chinatown, a love triangle amid the Cultural Revolution, and effects-driven action scenes together in an uneasy and ultimately unsuccessful blend of the personal, the political and the ridiculous, Worm Valley is linear all the way through. After a quick setup, including a minimal amount of backstory related in a speech and a visit to a crazy, blind, and sexist old man, the party of six adventurers head into the jungles of Yunnan to discover whatever the thing is they’re looking for.

Also missing from the first film is the cast, which has been entirely replaced by young actors who kind of but don’t quite resemble their forbears, an uncanny valley effect to match that of the film’s CGI monsters and environments. Also gone is director Wu Ershan, and in his place is Fei Xing, making his first film since the 2013 Aaron Kwok/Sun Honglei film Silent Witness. Fei, somewhat surprisingly given Wu’s history with the effects genre, proves much more interesting a director of spectacle, though that may simply reflect a welcome change in the genre’s conventional style. Like last year’s Monkey King 3 and the previous year’s Once Upon a TimeWorm Valley is full of bright environments, lush with greens and pinks and blues: tall grasses and crystalline flowers, flying bugs that burst into flame when touched. Only its initial action sequences are set in the darkness, but even those are well-lit, allowing the digital creations to shine rather than hide in the murkiness of bad effects. As such the film has a cartoonish quality, at best approaching something like the charm of a lesser Ray Harryhausen movie (more Mysterious Island than Jason and the Argonauts or Clash of the Titans).

The Mojin films are based on a highly popular book series called Ghost Blows Out the Light (or alternately, Candle in the Tomb) by Zhang Muye, which has been adapted several times into film and television. There was another film the same year as The Lost Legend, (Chronicles of the Ghostly Tribe) though it didn’t, to my knowledge, get a US release. There have also been three TV/web series adaptations of different books in the series, and another film version is to be expected in 2019, Candle in the Tomb (or Mojin X), starring Zhang Hanyu and Celina Jade and directed by Li Yifan. I imagine that knowing the source material or some of the other adaptations is helpful in filling in some of the backstory and fleshing out the characters, but Worm Valley is at its best when it isn’t concerned about any of that, when it just gives into the straight-ahead thrills of an old school adventure serial, with one literally cliff-hanging sequence after another. The only times the movie slows down over its final hour and a half are for brief moments of rest, some joyous nightswimming and a pre-climax motivational crisis, neither of which have the kind of emotional resonance a serious movie would require. It’s not camp, overblowing genre clichés with Aquaman-ian gusto. But it is almost two hours of pretty people wearing leather and canvas shooting giant alligators with arrows and slicing at razor-toothed fish with machetes.

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People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018)

This film played earlier this year at SIFF,where bopth Evan and Sean reviewed it. But, because of SIFF’s embargo policy, they were only able to use 75 words apiece to do so. I’ve combined those two capsules into this, single review for ease of reference.

Evan:

Life in the People’s panopticon; that’s the idea anyways. Money sloshes around via exploding CGI coins—the digital puss of wealth accretion under authoritarian capitalism—yet the film fails to locate China’s live-stream stars in meaningful social context. Trapped in the machine, but never interrogating 21st century cinema’s central question: how do we watch people watching screens? Talking head aesthetics won’t cut it. It takes a poet to penetrate the human surge beneath the simulacra.

Sean:

Evan is right that there’s nothing in the aesthetic (PBS plus CGI) to match the radical transformations of a life spent online, but I think that’s kind of the point. That despite the newness of the technology and of this form of celebrity, of an economy built solely on loneliness and “prestige”, all the same old principles of exploitation and alienation apply. The virus of capitalism replicating itself anew. Pair it with All About Lily Chou-chou and The Human Surge and then go into the woods and read some Thoreau.

Golden Job (Chin Ka-lok, 2018)

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In the wake of the 1997 Handover, when Hong Kong turned from a relatively independent British colony to a Special Administrative Region of the People’s Republic of China, the Hong Kong film industry, which had been for most of the previous 30 years or so one of the glories of the world, almost completely collapsed. Uncertainty was the primary cause, both in economic and political freedom, which led many of the industry’s brightest talents to seek employment in the United States and beyond (Jackie Chan, John Woo, Tsui Hark, Sammo Hung, Jet Li, Ringo Lam, Michelle Yeoh, Corey Yuen, Ronny Yu, etc), while the excesses of production in the 80s and early 90s, plus infiltration of unsavory, criminal elements into the filmmaking business, led to the dissolution of most of the major production houses that had led Hong Kong’s last Golden Age. But still, the Hong Kong cinema didn’t collapse entirely: Herman Yau kept churning out low-budget horror and gangster films (as he continues to do to this day); Johnnie To founded his own studio, which found a way to produce anywhere from two to six high quality films a year, both popular entertainments and idiosyncratic personal explorations of genre; Stephen Chow, who for much of the mid-90s was the only star who mattered, single-handedly keeping the industry afloat, began directing and produced increasingly ambitious and accomplished work. But above all, the Young & Dangerous series struck a chord with the youth audience, leading to something in the neighborhood of a dozen sequels, prequels and spin-offs between 1996 and 2001.

The Young & Dangerous films, shepherded by director Andrew Lau (an accomplished cinematographer (he shot Wong Kar-wai’s debut As Tears Go By and parts of Chungking Express, he also co-directed the Infernal Affairs films, the first of which came out in 2002), were a cheap, glossy, teen idol-driven, comic book variations on the heroic bloodshed sagas of the late 1980s. Stars Ekin Cheng and Jordan Chan had fancy hair and stylish clothes and a propensity for finding themselves in musical montages depicting the anguish and joy of violent brotherhood. They are wholly absurd and a great deal of fun. Now, more than 20 years after the first installment, director Chin Ka-lok reunites the stars of the series for Golden Job, a maudlin action film about brotherhood among formerly stylish middle-aged men.

Five “brothers”, friends since they were orphans together, work as vaguely immoral mercenaries for hire, kind of like the A-Team, but with more hugging. One of them goes bad and betrays the group, and the others have to, well, not really seek revenge, but do something to fix his errors. The film skirts topics familiar from recent Chinese action films (the pharmaceutical foul play of Woo’s Manhunt and Lam’s Sky on Fire, the paternalism of China’s relationship with East Africa from Wolf Warrior II), but in most ways it is a throwback to those older movies, albeit with much more expensive and impressive action sequences. Director Chin is a former member of Sammo Hung’s stunt team with a long career as an actor and fighter, though this is only his third film as a director in his own right (he did Aces Go Places ’97 with Tony Leung and Alan Tam, and the 2002 Yuen Biao film No Problem 2). His action scenes are solid, if not original. Capable facsimiles of the military maneuverings of Operation Red Sea and vehicle stunts that honestly aren’t all that much worse than what you’d see in a Mission: Impossible movie. It’s just hard to take them seriously because the rest of the film is so generically earnest, its aged heroes so out of step with the times that their posed male laughter and tears play even more absurdly than they did twenty years ago.

The difference isn’t with the film’s earnestness. That was always there in the Young & Dangerous movies: their sentimentality is entirely believed. But what those earlier films also had were brilliant supporting performances, like Anthony Wong chewing up scenery and picking his nose, or Simon Yam at his oiliest, or which served to cut the sap with a bit of irony or acidic cruelty. Golden Job has Eric Tsang being wise and noble as the gang’s father figure, which is a complete waste. In fact, the only actor who seems to be having any fun at all is Yasuaki Kurata, who continues his late career rebirth with a far too brief appearance. His short fight scene is the best one in the film, though it’s also the smallest and probably the cheapest. Clement Cheng and Derek Kwok’s Gallants similarly revived stars of the past now well into middle-age into a genre film, one with its share of sentimentality but also one that updated the genre stylistically and ideologically for a new era. Golden Job plays everything straight, all as it would have been done twenty years ago, and as a result there’s nothing to leaven the soapiness, leaving a bunch of nice action sequences surrounding a sickeningly schmaltzy core.

The Island (Huang Bo, 2018)

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Opening this week at the Oak Tree (which in itself is interesting, as recent Chinese releases have almost exclusively played downtown at the Pacific Place or the Meridian), is the directorial debut of Huang Bo, a comic actor probably best known for playing the Monkey King in Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons. In The Island, he’s reunited with one of his co-stars from that film, Shu Qi, for a fascinating film that’s half adventure/rom-com and half allegory about the different stages of socio-economic evolution.

Huang and his co-workers, thirty of them in all, counting their boss, go off on a team-building trip in one of those buses that go on the water (you know, the ones with a duck face on the front), out of the local harbor and into the ocean. Unfortunately for them, a massive meteor is headed for that very same ocean, which creates a tidal wave that deposits them all on a deserted island, at the very same moment that Huang learns he has won the lottery.

What follows are the usual escapades, familiar from Gilligan’s Island and Lord of the Flies, but structuring it all are the different phases of leadership and economy the survivors follow. Initially, it is sheer physical strength and dexterity that determines power, with the bus driver (played by Detective Chinatown‘s Wang Baoqiang) assuming tyrannical powers because he’s the only one of them able to climb the trees necessary to retrieve fruit. Soon though the society is split, with the (former) boss promising more freedom for his followers, only to essentially enslave them in a wage-labor and currency system, which he manipulates for his own benefit.

The boss is able to get his start because he discovers an old shipwreck full of essential supplies, basically he lucks into an enormous stockpile of capital. The same thing eventually happens to Huang, which he uses to assert his own control, with even more fanciful promises of freedom, this time based on a kind of communitarianism. This too, though will be corrupted by lies and greed, leaving the workers desperate.

What happens next, after feudalism, capitalism, and socialism, is up in the air, and Huang’s vision of a future outside of these systems is slippery at best, essentially fanciful and inevitably tied up with his character’s obsession with Shu Qi, the co-worker he’s had a crush on for years. Over time, she begins to warm up to him, and her faith in his decency forces him ultimately to confront his own corruption.

But despite Shu Qi’s ever-present charm, she isn’t much of a person, serving instead only as a foil or object of desire for the hero. None of the islanders are any more than types, really, which I suppose is the danger of making a film that is driven more by theory than relationships or individuality. Despite that, The Island is fascinating, defying analogy (maybe a materialist Lost? . . .) while being both funny and surprising in its narrative twists and in its ultimate ambivalence towards, well, everything. People, society, economics, religion, fate, politics and so on. A singular work, one not to be missed.

SIFF 2018: The Widowed Witch (Cai Chengjie, 2018)

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A woman survives the explosion at the makeshift fireworks factory that kills her third husband. Now homeless, she wanders in and around the wintery Northern Chinese villages she has called home alongside her young, deaf-mute brother-in-law. The villagers decide that she has magical powers, and she might, but whether she does or not, and whether she believes it or not, the results are much the same: everything goes wrong and everyone is out to screw over everyone else.

As a stark black and white journey through the dark side of society, it recalls Dead Man in style, but more cynical and hopeless. Director Cai Chengjie makes sparing but deft use of color, sometimes highlighting objects (usually light) within the black and white image, other times brightening into full color (the opening sequence, for example, which may be a dream or may be the afterlife). The evocation of a persistent (resurgent?) pre-Taoist, animist worldview existing alongside the deprivations and struggles of contemporary China recalls other recent films that fuse mysticism with the documentary realism and social problem focus of the previous, Sixth Generation filmmakers. Chai Chunya’s Four Ways to Die in My Hometown for example, and Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent.

SIFF 2018: Girls Always Happy (Yang Mingming, 2018)

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Yang Mingming edited Yang Chao’s Crosscurrent, but this film is almost nothing like that one. She stars as well as directs, playing a young woman who has a rough relationship with her mother, with whom she lives (off and on) in ramshackle house in a Beijing hutong (an kind of neighborhood built out of narrow alleys). The two women are both aspiring writers, and they alternate between vehement arguments (over things both big and small) which can get devastatingly cruel, and happy times sharing meals and shopping trips. It’s a fascinating relationship, we don’t normally see a family filled with such evident love and hate. The film never really evolves, and in its stasis, both women are stuck both professionally and romantically in addition to being continually forced back together, it finds a unique kind of misery. It might be a dark comedy, and there are moments of delightful whimsy (in the devouring of food, in Yang’s rides around town on her scooter), enough that the suffocating relationship never feels unbearable.

SIFF 2018: Dead Pigs (Cathy Yan, 2018)

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As overstuffed with ideas both political and cinematic as any debut feature you’re likely to see this year is Cathy Yan’s film about the intersecting lives of a family in Shanghai and its environs and their war with both capital and the very concept of property itself. Vivian Wu plays a hair salon owner (her employees gleefully begin the day with a self-affirming song and dance) who doesn’t want to sell her family home to a big corporation, which has plans to develop the area it into a giant Spanish-themed apartment complex surrounding a replica of the Sagrada Familia. Her brother is a pig farmer who finds himself over-extended with a local loan shark after he falls for an investment scam and all his pigs die in a mysterious plague that sweeps the city (eventually some 16,000 pigs end up dumped in local waterways). His son is a busboy working in the city who meets and falls for a rich girl who becomes disillusioned with her club life after a car accident. The brother needs money and so tries to get his sister to sell her house, and alternately appeals to his son (who he mistakenly thinks is earning big money with a real job) for help. The sister refuses: the house is hers, the property is a part of herself and she cannot conceive of relinquishing it. The son tries to help, but all he can come up with is scamming cash off of driving by running into their cars with his bicycle.

Yan skips deftly between the stories, and the drama is leavened by a light touch and a great deal of comedy, ably waling the line between maudlin and silly. The satire is pointed, both in the amoral greed of the corporation and the sympathetic unreasonableness of the sister. But it’s also brightly colored (thank God for Chinese cinema, one of the few cinemas in the world that has yet to abandon pink and green and red in favor of gray and teal and orange) and knows how to bring everything together for a musical sequence, Magnolia-style.

Yan, who was born in China, grew up in Hong Kong and Washington DC, went to Princeton and got both an MBA and MFA from NYU, clearly has a unique insight into the contradictions of global capitalism in an ostensibly class-free society. While most of the characters are recognizable types (the sister as a variation on Yuen Qiu’s landlady in Kung Fu Hustle, the brother as an older version of the striving workers of Jia Zhangke’s films, the girl in the city a wealthier version of Shu Qi’s club girl in Millennium Mambo), the one that seems to resonate most for her is an American architect, from rural Minnesota, who finds himself in charge of this massive project on the other side of the world, where he doesn’t speak the language and may not even be qualified for the job. He’s the human face of capital, muddling along just like the rest of us, increasingly aware that things in our world are all out of whack.

SIFF 2018: People’s Republic of Desire (Hao Wu, 2018)

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Evan is right that there’s nothing in the aesthetic (PBS plus CGI) to match the radical transformations of a life spent online, but I think that’s kind of the point. That despite the newness of the technology and of this form of celebrity, of an economy built solely on loneliness and “prestige”, all the same old principles of exploitation and alienation apply. The virus of capitalism replicating itself anew. Pair it with All About Lily Chou-chou and The Human Surge and then go into the woods and read some Thoreau.

How Long Will I Love U (Su Lun, 2018)

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It’s been awhile since we had a Chinese release of interest here on Seattle Screens, but this time-travel rom-com certainly fits the bill, the kind of clever, unique popular cinema that the Mainland film industry will hopefully start churning out in greater numbers, as opposed to cartoonish action films packed with stars who have little to offer but a basic ability to look cute on camera. A weird temporal anomaly smushes together a single apartment, occupied by a man in 1999 and a woman in 2018. Lei Jiayin plays the man, a down on his luck young aspiring developer with big dreams for the outskirts of Shanghai and a boss engaged in shady business. Tong Liya is a former rich girl who has fallen on hard times and is desperately in search of a husband to lift her out of poverty.

The special effects and design of the squished apartment (mirror images colliding in a chaos of broken lamps and crushed furniture) united by a door that opens onto one time or another depending on who opens it, are especially striking, a unique twist on the premise of something like The Lake House, to which the film bears a superficial similarity. Like another recent Chinese time-travel film, Duckweed, it hearkens back more to early 90s Hong Kong comedies like Peter Chan’s He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father, in exploring the ways Chinese culture has, and hasn’t changed during an era of more rapid than can reasonably be comprehended modernization. Tong’s grasping materialism is as much a sickness of the 21st Century as it is her own character flaw born of a privileged childhood, while Lei’s more proletarian attitudes and values prove less durable than he’d like to believe when the couple encounter his 21st Century self, a real estate magnate with a dark past.

The couple have a nice chemistry, though Lei, at 34 years old, seems miscast playing a callow 25 year old. In some shots he looks positively middle aged. Tong though is delightful, as she was as the landlady in Detective Chinatown. Director Su has a fine eye as well, she knows enough to just let the colors and actors pop and not drag down the conceit with too much science (the mad scientist who caused the problem (time travel in China as to be result of either a dream or science, no magic allowed). A fun, well put together movie with an interesting approach to an old formula, as with last year’s This Is Not What I Expected, China is rapidly becoming home to the best romantic comedies in the world.

The Monkey King 3 (Soi Cheang, 2018)

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The latest in director Soi Cheang’s saga inspired by the classic novel Journey to the West might be the strangest one yet. The franchise blockbuster has always been a weird fit for the former director of indie horror movies and slick crime dramas, and Cheang’s first Monkey King was kind of a mess, taking place in an almost parodically artificial computer-generated environment when it wasn’t populated by humans in sub-Cats animal costumes, and led by a distractingly fidgety performance by an unrecognizable Donnie Yen. The second film was a big improvement, as the effects were higher quality and more strikingly original, the acting, with Aaron Kwok taking over the title role and Gong Li playing the primary villain, much improved and the story much more in Cheang’s comfort zone. The second one was the first to follow the Journey to the West itself, with the Monkey King designated to help Xuanzang, a Buddhist monk from Tang Dynasty China, travel to India in order to bring back essential scriptures. The plot involves the Tang monk’s efforts to reform the White-Bone Demon (Li), a malevolent creature whom everyone else would prefer to simply destroy. The Monkey King must learn to submit his violent impulses to his master’s compassion, despite his firm belief that he knows best.

The third film in the series opens with an image from the second, the massive skeletal incarnation of the White-Bone Demon glowering over the Earth, and flips it, literally, as we plunge into a film wholly opposite its predecessor. Where the second film was dominated by mountain snow, dark nights, and cruel, demonic violence, this one takes place in lush green riverlands, and its concerns will be romantic and all-too human. Escaping an angry river god in the film’s first moments, the monk and his party (the Monkey King, the reformed pig demon Bajie, the blue-skinned muscle-man Sha, and their magical White Dragon Horse) are thrown, thanks to a wormhole helpfully provided by Buddha himself, into a secluded kingdom populated entirely by women. Men are banned from the kingdom, and the heroes are to be executed on sight but are saved by the young queen (Zanilla Zhao, an earnest waif last seen here in Duckweed), who has fallen in love with the monk. With a few sidetracks (including an ill-considered subplot about obtaining abortions for the men who become pregnant and some spectacular water effects as the river god reveals his own unrequited love story), the rest of the film is about Xuanzang’s desire to remain with the woman he now loves and his need to abandon her to continue his quest.

This is one of the more interesting aspects of the monk’s story, and he really takes center stage here, with the Monkey King relegated to a supporting role. William Feng builds on his strong work in the second film with his most soulful performance yet. The Kingdom of Women story in the novel plays out very differently, with the monk pretending to marry the Queen and then sneaking away, and it’s not one I’ve ever seen adapted before. Though Stephen Chow’s Journey to the West: Conquering the Demons has the monk come to the same realization, that you can’t really renounce anything if you don’t have any attachments in the first place, as the final step in his enlightenment. Choosing this as the next story in the saga I think is a telling choice, especially when one might have expected a more famous subject like the Cave of the Spider Women, in which female demons lure the heroes with the promise of sex and then try to eat them. That would have been more in line with the White-Bone Demon story of the second film. But instead Cheang zigzags into completely the opposite type of story, neatly subverting the misogyny inherent in both the original Kingdom of Women chapter and the popular Spider-Women stories. Once again, Soi Cheang has utterly defied expectations within a single blockbuster film series: from goofy cartoon to bleak action horror to gorgeous romantic tragedy.