Month: April 2010

Cop Unbowed (誓不低頭)

I’m usually wary of any Hong Kong movie that features more than two major TVB stars at a time, so I should have avoided this one with its quintuple threat of Alex Fong, Yoyo Mung, Michael Tse, Sam Chan, and Leila Tong. But what can I say, I like to live dangerously. The movie has a promising start. Cop Lam Long (Fong) rides in on a motorcycle one dark, rainy night wielding a long-ass sword, and a baseball cap. He’s greeted by a mob boss Mr. Dick (Eddy Ko) and buddy Fung (Tse) who have his wife Ka Wai (Mung) bound and dangling from a clothesline. Fung accuses Long of killing his boss’s very young girlfriend (Tong) to cover his own crime, and after much bloodshed and slow-mo swordplay, Long kills Fung, rescues his wife, and speeds away. Bad ass.

But then the movie actually begins. Fast forward 10 years and Long is running a small seaside restaurant. He and his wife share a warm but quiet relationship; each remains haunted by the past (she also suffered a miscarriage) and tries to insulate him/herself. Long’s disinterest is countered by his energetic friend Curry (Chin Ka Lok) who works at the restaurant along with his younger cousin Yuki (Yu Chiu). Curry spends an inordinate amount of time getting into fights, one of which prompts a teenage punk hyperactive enough for a Twins movie to pester Long into recognize him as a godson. The ubiquitous Lam Suet also pops in and out as Long’s police buddy for no reason except that Lam Suet is in every movie. When Hau (Sam Chan) finally enters as the restaurant’s new hire, the stage is set for some truly intense moments of revenge, betrayal, and maybe even more sword fights. But then the movie is left to mold for the next 40 minutes. We get glimpses of Mr. Dick who still wants Long’s head, an innocuous romance between Yuki and Hau, and some questionable fish metaphors but nothing in the way of plotting that drives the story to an inevitable climax. Instead, the characters remain largely static before rushing headlong into a predictable and poorly executed ending.

Sam Chan bears some fault for this. He has potential, as evidenced by later scenes, but he’s still a television lightweight and in no position to have entire plots pivoting around his characters. Hau is supposed to be one of Long’s primary antagonists and it would have been exciting to comb through the generational and cultural rifts (Hau was raised and educated in the West) between the two. Excepting a few scowls though, nothing Sam Chan does indicates any tension in that relationship; he seems more like a quiet kid who frowns a lot rather than someone with an agenda and enough resentment to fuel it. Likewise, Yoyo Mung wastes what little she’s given to work with. She’s a fair actress but lacks charisma, especially the kind that should sustain her through a 90 minute film. She comes off better on the small screen where she has the luxury of 20 episodes to develop a character. Chin Kar-Lok, on the other hand, overcompensates with antics that are amusing but a little too overwrought for this film. This seems to be the case with Yu Chiu as well, who seems well-suited for comedies. As with too many female characters in Hong Kong cinema, hers exists just to look cute and to pine after the new guy, a role she easily fills. The strongest performance here belongs to Alex Fong, and not just because I like to see him sport the wife beater. He does his trademark brooding act, something he always manages with sincerity. The man deserves so much better than the B movies he’s usually propping up. When he gets a compelling script, he can center a film (One Nite in Mongkok) and when opposite top actors, he always holds his own (Lifeline, Your Place or Mine).

Nevertheless, the main shortcoming is choppy storytelling. There’s some good camerawork that hints at something better but even average mob dramas need a plot worth the hour and a half. Half the film is spent in dull anticipation, with an over-reliance on angled close-ups of a ticking clock, silent dinners between Long and Ka Wai, and Hau looking like a sullen schoolboy, while the comedic presence of some of the minor characters disrupts more than lightens the mood. Nice try, but better luck tomorrow.

The Heavenly Kings (四大天王)

The Fantastic Four

Daniel Wu and company ham it up and form a boy band, replete with coordinating pastels and dopey dance moves. But their foray into the world of Cantopop is more than some new kids on the block trying to make it big. Rather, the erstwhile singing sensation known as Alive set out to expose the industry’s machinations, whether in music or the marketing of, with the resulting quasi-mockumentary as their vehicle. The success is debatable but the film is an amusing, over-the-top diversion.

The dubious idea first comes to Andrew Lin as a way of boosting his sagging career, and he lures a few friends who might help the cause. Daniel Wu (beloved action hero, romantic lead, and L’Oreal facial cream spokesperson) is at the top of the list followed by Terence Yin (the snarky bad guy in bad movies) and Conroy Chan (whose biggest acting credit to date is marriage to actress Josie Ho). Incidentally, none save Yin would even qualify for a local singing contest much less a lush recording contract – and they don’t get one, at least one that requires less than a 10 year commitment. But that’s merely a pebble on Alive’s path to super stardom. They drum up a scheme, one that includes illegal downloading, to generate publicity for their first single.

The plan pans out and the media bites, but the artificial bounce to their singing career doesn’t last long. The band needs cash for music videos, concerts, and blinking fan signs, so it’s off to a noxious wedding photo promotion shoot. Then their manager, concerned about the lack of a cohesive image, invites a Liberace-channeling fashion designer to propose a few outfits, all of which get a big fail. It’s their mini-tour though that the strain of being pop princes really start to emerge. Chan and Yin prove themselves to be regular party animals, something that doesn’t sit well with resident anal retentive Wu or the staid Lin. As the inevitable personality clash threatens the group, the audience wonders, will Alive make up or break up? Will the boys remain friends? Will Andrew Lin actually get a job after this?

The bigger question, really, is whether any of this matters. Is this the expose that will save Hong Kong entertainment from synergetic black hole of EEG and Gold Label, the city’s two main pop factories? Director Wu enlists the aid of various industry insiders, including producer Davy Chan, songwriter Paul Wong, singers Miriam Yeung and Karen Mok, real Heavenly King Jacky Cheung, and repeat offender Nic Tse, to help us navigate the treacherous and unseen netherworld of Hong Kong musicdom. They paint quite an unflattering and disheartening picture for anyone who actually cares about artistic integrity – and that’s where this caper starts to unravel. Those interested in quality output already understand the overly manufactured nature of the industry, so the movie hardly breaks new ground. And those who would be surprised by these revelations are probably the ones who thought Alive’s first song Adam’s Choice was a bit of musical genius.

Yes, the film provides some healthy, well-earned laughs; these guys know how to have a good time and the animated sequences are off the wall. But that said, it appears to suffer from a case of multiple personality disorder. It wants to bill itself as a devastating indictment on Hong Kong entertainment but remains very much a product of the same system it sets out to critique. The whole cast of characters just proves how inbred the industry is. Is Nic Tse, platinum member of EEG, the best guy to ruminate on artistic integrity? EEG, the same company that introduced us to Twins, Boy’z, and Edison Chen – music and movies! Daniel Wu meanwhile has had his share of those generic, throw away pop culture collaborations that he attacks here. I sense that the men of Alive are trying hard to be subversive, but what they reveal instead is an industry leaves little room for maneuvering. In the short run, they pull a fast one on the city, but it grows increasingly difficult to differentiate reality from the pretense of it, as they prove when their song nets a Best Song nomination at the Hong Kong Film Awards.

Which leads me to think, maybe Alive really doesn’t care and Andrew Lin really does just need a job. That would explain the fair amount of toilet humor, literally, and general frat boy stunts. They seem to derive more pleasure out of jerking everyone around than anything, and one gets that sense as the film nears its end when Lin unleashes some moments of brilliant deadpan. Maybe that’s the best, least cynical way of looking at this. At one point, Miriam Yeung suggests that the industry is one big game. You’re going to get played, so the only way to succeed is to accept the rules and play along. Although Alive doesn’t play by all the rules, they certainly don’t change any, and the game goes on.

(Alive + HK indie bands performing @ 26th Hong Kong Film Awards)