Cold War 2 (Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2016)

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Picking up right where their 2012 hit film, which featured an all-star cast and swept the Hong Kong Film Awards, left off, Longman Leung and Sunny Luk present another suspenseful tale of corruption and double-dealing in the highest echelons of the Hong Kong police department, its two institutional halves at (cold) war with each other. On the operations side is The Other Tony Leung, a tough man of action, of the “break the law to enforce the law” type valorized in Hong Kong cinema since at least the mid-1980s. On the administrative side is Aaron Kwok, emotionless, calculating and fiercely determined to uphold the letter of the law. The two wage a Crimson Tide-esque battle of wills over a tense hostage situation, in which an Emergency Unit van and its five police officers have been captured by unknown criminals. Kwok wins out and assumes command of the force, and the second half of the film follows his investigation of the terrorists, leading to the arrest of Leung’s own son, played by Rise of the Legend‘s Eddie Peng, as the ringleader. But, in a cliffhanger ending, Peng’s accomplices demand his release: they have now kidnapped Kwok’s wife.

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From Vegas to Macau III (Wong Jing, 2016)

Relentless director Wong Jing’s latest farce has less of a plot than either of the first two films in the series, and is even less tethered to reality, in action, story, setting or character. It’s a bunch of shiny effects thrown at aged stars of the 90s, old movie and TV references (Chow Yun-fat spends awhile thinking he’s in Heaven Sword and Dragon Sabre, a ping-pong match with Jacky Cheung calling back to Johnnie To’s The Eighth Happiness, a little joke about Nick Cheung’s award-winning performance in Unbeatable, a whole sequence set in a prison with leftover costumes from Prison on Fire, even the central romance is Jacky Cheung’s unrequited love for Carina Lau, ala Days of Being Wild, etc etc*).

Of course the whole thing is a riff on the God of Gamblers series, with Chow playing a dual role as the original character and this newer farcical incarnation, kind of as if his amnesia-induced split personalities in that first film had developed into two separate realities. Andy Lau unites them (as he did the original series and Steven Chow’s parody of it), reprising his role as the Knight of Gamblers, but his performance bears no relation to that original character: he’s merely a vehicle for dumb slapstick jokes (a literal pie in the face, peeing baby robots) and inside jokes about Lau’s own career. It’s a movie that breaks into a song or an extended effects-driven bit of action, or a series of dumb mostly unfunny jokes at any opportunity. But there’s something liberating about Wong’s indifference to normalcy.

*Movie loses a half a star because the two dying robots didn’t crawl past each other like at the end of The Killer.

Office (Johnnie To, 2015)

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The world of Office, the latest from director Johnnie To, is a world without walls. Or, rather, a world where walls do nothing to differentiate space. It’s hard to tell where one place begins and another ends. Each scene takes place in a largely artificial environment where geometric figures and shapes suggest the outline of a room; this strategy essentially means that at any given moment there’s tons of action happening on multiple planes of the frame. Whether it’s a hospital room, a character’s apartment, there is no personal space. There’s only a series of transparent chambers where only emotional/financial transactions can take place.

Chow Yun Fat plays Chairman Ho. While his wife is in a coma, he’s been having an affair with CEO Chang for the last 20 years (played by Sylvia Chang, the film is an adaptation of her 2009 play, Design for Living), and his daughter, Kat, is now working at an entry-level position to gain knowledge of the business. One of his underlings tries to get an accountant to cook the books. Meanwhile Lee Xiang, played by Wang Ziyi (Lee for Ang Lee, Xiang for Dream – aspirational!), also starting at the company, just wants to make a good impression, achieve his dreams and ride that direct elevator to the 71st floor. The film uses all of them to explore certain attitudes and ways of living in capitalist society by testing their bonds after the 2008 crash.

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A Better Tomorrow II (John Woo, 1987)

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The following is an adaptation of a review of A Better Tomorrow II I wrote for my website a couple of years ago.

A Better Tomorrow was a massive hit for the Cinema City studio, director John Woo and the film’s producer and co-writer, Tsui Hark. As such, a sequel was inevitable. But almost immediately problems began. Chow Yun-fat’s character had died at the end of the first film, but a sequel without the man who’d become the biggest star in Hong Kong was unthinkable. So, of course, they decided his character Mark had a twin brother that nobody bothered to mention in the first film. The film is most horribly marred though by a new character, a former Triad gone straight named Lung and played by Dean Shek (a comedian and one of the founders of Cinema City). After Lung is betrayed by one of his underlings, Shek goes crazy and ends up in an insane asylum, where he is found by Mark’s twin brother Ken who nurses him back to health in tedious and endless scenes where Shek refuses to eat. Shek’s performance in these scenes is abysmally broad, so much so that it out-balances his later scenes, when he’s returned to his apparently bad motherfucker real self. The film’s most bizarre food-related scene, though, is a notorious one in which Ken, a restauranteur in New York, is shaken down by some mafia hoods and harangues them in badly-dubbed English, with Chow giving his loudest DeNiro impression while the dubber channels Pacino (note that since I wrote this in 2013, I’ve read that this scene is entirely performed by Chow and not an anonymous voice actor, but I don’t know that I believe it). (The best part of the scene is at the end, where a cop shows up, sees Ken trying to force the mafia guys to eat some rice at gunpoint and tells the hoods, “You’d better eat it!”)

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A Better Tomorrow (John Woo, 1986)

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After an up and down decade as a director for hire in the last days of the Shaw Brothers, working alternately in the wuxia and wacky comedy genres, John Woo finally hit it big in 1986 when he teamed up with Tsui Hark and the Cinema City studio to remake Patrick Lung Kong’s 1967 drama The Story of a Discharged Prisoner. One of the most influential films of the past 30 years, A Better Tomorrow established the formal and thematic template for a new era of crime movie: everything that has followed, from Woo’s follow-up masterpieces The Killer and Hard-Boiled to the triad films of Johnnie To, to myriad international imitators, has in some way been a response to it. Its impact on the Hollywood film has been less specific but no less real: raising the stakes of athleticism and complexity in action sequences, the bullet ballet being much more adaptable to the limited physical skills of American actors than Jackie Chan’s kung fu.

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