Month: June 2010

Final Romance (願望樹)

After pairing up for Gen Y Cops, one of the greatest disaster movies ever – in that the movie was…a disaster, director/producer Benny Chan and actor/singer/photographer Edison Chen team up once more in the name of art. Instead of robots, explosions, and Paul Rudd, however, this time they opt for something a bit more subdued. The result is a simple, if dull, exercise in teenage romance, though at times it tries to be a little more.

A somewhat sympathetic Edison leads the mismatched cast that includes steely award winner Simon Yam, model and non-Chinese speaker Amanda Strang, offbeat character actor Sam Lee, and occasional TVB actress Cindy Au. Thankfully they don’t all converge at once thus allowing the film to get off to a respectable start. Rich girl Jean (Strang) arrives in snowy Japan against her father’s wishes and nursing a serious heart condition. She’s there to deliver her deceased sister’s ashes to her boyfriend but does not realize that he too has prematurely kicked the can. In his stead is brother Dik (Chen), a lowly car mechanic, who is also toting an urn of his brother’s ashes. The two experience some obligatory run-ins and misunderstandings before discovering each other’s identity, thus paving the way for an engrossing adventure in teen idol love.

Or so it would seem. Despite some obvious clichés to exploit – forbidden romance, heart disease, absent parents, the story completely stalls upon the characters’ return home. The initial hesitancy between Jean and Dik, though plodding, was at least reflected in the quiet of the mountainous Japanese landscape. However, framed against a nondescript Hong Kong, which in this movie consists of a car garage and Jean’s villa, their lingering attraction dissolves into something tedious. Dik’s unwelcoming encounters with Jean’s daddy and the estate gatekeepers coupled with her resignation at an impending wedding with her own cardiac surgeon have the energy of a dead sloth. Even their chatty best friends largely disappear, taking most of the dialogue with them. Director Alan Mak stretches what should have been a 10 minute sequence into an exhausting 80 and fills the extra time with repetitive and inconsequential shots of the somber couple, and some street racing. Yes, it seems that Mak, occasionally bored by the teen romance, was simultaneously trying to inject some energy into the picture, storyboard for Initial D (which he would later direct), and audition Edison for that same movie. And although the idle pacing may have been an attempt to mirror both the couple’s longing and the emotional distance between Jean and her father and fiancé, the story and characters remain too static to hold one’s attention for the length of the film. The same is true for Jean’s heart problems, probably meant to be a metaphor for her relationships except that she is so inert that we forget to care.

The overall situation is not helped by the so-called actors. While Amanda Strang’s expressionless face may impress on the catwalk, she’s an energy vampire onscreen. Edison Chen, meanwhile, succeeds in looking less smug, so count that as a victory. He tries his hardest to be that simple dude who just wants the hot chick to “ride in [his] car” but mostly sticks to what he does best – smirk, snarl, and generally look sullen. The remainder of the cast put in the standard paycheck performances, but it’s doubtful a better effort would have lifted this movie beyond the teenage masses. If anything rescues the film, it’s the occasional piano refrains and the washed out blue-gray cinematography of the Japan scenes that quietly draw the viewer into Jean and Dik’s relationship. But the sparsity of the story, and acting, is a bit like watching falling snow – beautiful at times but also numbingly dull.

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Love @ First Note (戀愛初歌)

If you enjoyed Nine Girls and a Ghost, then Love @ First Note will be the height of cinematic excellence. For everyone else, it’s just like an EEG picture – but with less attractive people. Seriously kidding, folks. I joke because I love. I’m actually a big fan of both Kary Ng and Justin Lo and freely confess to owning their CDs, and this DVD. That doesn’t mean that I think the resident talents of Gold Label should be making movies though. In what seems like an excuse to take on the EEG powerhouse, Paco Wong (Gold Label’s supreme agent/manager) lobs the kitchen sink in Albert Yeung’s (EEG’s big man) direction. Not only does he stuff the picture with Alex Fong, Justin Lo, and all 4 Mini Cookies, he also makes room for cameos by Leo Ku and George Lam, who records under parent company EMI. (Leo Ku has since jumped ship to EEG.) Now that’s talent. Alas, he seems to have forgotten to include a story and acting lessons with that package. Luckily this won’t affect the target audience.

Ms. Ng and Mr. Lo share screen time as neighborhood buddies Kristy and Kei who are confused about life and love. Both have ‘troubled’ single parent homes; Kristy’s Lam Suet dad spends his days drinking and rolling around in bed since his wife died while Justin’s mom is a lowly seamstress getting yelled at by the rich ladies on the block. The two use music and each other’s company as an escape, thus setting us up for adolescent love triangles and a full-length soundtrack. As the story unfolds, Kei grows increasingly attached to his childhood friend while Kristy, for reasons unknowable to the thinking masses, harbors a secret crush on supposed stud Tony Wong (Alex Fong). Because really, who wouldn’t be impressed by someone who wears a white sports coat and scavenges for used Barry Manilow vinyls?

And so the movie goes. Kei loves Kristy, Kristy loves Tony, and Tony loves his daddy’s black card. It’s all rather generic and forgettable, which is why it doesn’t really matter that Stephy and Theresa (co-Cookies) make brief appearances as major bitches out to spoil Kristy’s fun or that a wannabe gangsta who sings Cantopop love ballads steals songs and tries to hit on our combat boot-wearing heroine. For consistency’s sake, Miki pops up randomly because she’s also a Mini Cookie and that makes 4. Much like her role in the music group, however, she serves zero purpose.

All this makes for an awkward movie, not because teenage love is awkward, but because the whole film moves like a sluggish dress rehearsal. At places, the rhythm of the scene is broken by actors waiting to hit the beat. The script also has an unfinished feel to it, as if they accidentally used the first draft as the shooting script. Little happens because the characters require it but because it’s necessary for the plot to reach a concluding point. The actors, if they may be called that, don’t help the situation, though their subdued underacting is far more palatable than the histrionics usually on display in teen movies. That Kary Ng doesn’t whine, squeak, or look like she’s been dipped in Sanrio allows her to be a far more sympathetic lead. Her performance has a certain charm and honesty but one that fails to save the dull script and lackluster direction. Justin Lo, meanwhile, appears in his first movie, and it shows. His list of faux pas ranges from the forgivable (excessive smiling) to the criminal (pairing a Yankees cap with a Red Sox shirt). At the end of the day, the movie brings nothing to the genre, but there are worse ways to waste an afternoon – you could watch Nine Girls and a Ghost.

Death Curse (古宅心慌慌)

A “horror” movie, possibly because Twins and Boy’z share a double billing. I imagine the movie gods over at EEG and Co are running out of ways to stuff multiple stars in a film so they’ve come up with this delicious slice of stupid. Charlene Choi plays sassy (read: bitchy) Ding Si who regularly lashes out at the adoring mail man (Laurence Chou) who regularly reads her mail. They find that her father whom she has never met has summoned her to a family reunion. On arriving at his massive estate out in the boondocks, she discovers a gaggle of her brothers and sisters (you guessed it, the other Twin, Boy’z, plus Raymond Wong and others) previously unknown to her. Unfortunately, the happiness is cut short because their father has just died. This hardly affects Ah Si, however, who is just angling for her inheritance. Enter Lawyer Cheung played by Alex Fong – as in his first name is Lawyer – who’s executing the will. He informs the brood that Papa Ding left them oodles of money, the estate, and some fruit trees but that they must partake in a few crazy rituals before anyone gets their share, namely gathering at midnight for the next seven days to light incense and then hugging each other. Yes, hugging each other. This pleases some of the lot, like Ding Bat (Steven Cheung) and Ding Ling (Gillian Chung), who just want everyone to get along. Hothead Ding Lik (Raymond Wong) meanwhile is the male answer to Ah Si; he would rather bond with his father’s money than with his siblings. Then there is the other Boy(‘z), Ah Mo (Kenny Kwan), whose main purpose is to throw in some cracks about an unintentionally incestuous relationship between him and Ah Si a few summers back.

The movie quickly vaults into juvenile horror that mostly involves hallucinations and Papa Ding’s dead body, which for some reason is propped in a chair in what appears to be an air conditioned cabin. Nothing happens in the way of plot much less characterization for the next hour. No one seems to give a rip about their dead daddy, and they instead tumble from one creepy hijinks to another. The scares are pretty generic and inconsequential and could have been shuffled or replaced entirely. The only thing that saved this movie was a somewhat predictable ending done with such cheeky relish that I couldn’t help cracking a few smiles. The last twenty minutes delivered on the promise of an intriguing albeit ridiculous premise of a family reunion between pubescent strangers. Alright, delivered might be a bit strong, but the climax goes the distance with some of the movie’s absurdities. At one point, the guys find themselves literally going crazy in a locked cage. A somewhat incapacitated Si has the antidote – honey – but is just out of reach. She nevertheless manages to dip her foot in it which means, yes, a couple of rabid boys must lick honey off Charlene Choi’s toes. Also, the requisite feel-good popstar ending is achieved and mostly palatable because the mush factor dissipates quickly. Still, the movie straddles spoof and pseudo-seriousness without settling on either or on a consistent middle ground. That probably suits the EEG crowd but means this horror-comedy on training wheels is passable fare for the rest.

Home Sweet Home (怪物)

Home Sweet Home

Add this to the list of movies that make you want to jump out the window; it’s that depressing. Not exactly a horror film, it starts as a thriller and bleeds into a drama. Regardless, it still challenges, exhausts, and profoundly disturbs. The young and picturesque Cheng family has just moved into their new flat, but things soon sour. Their son (Tam Chan Ho) sees something that sets him wailing and his mother, May (Shu Qi) spies a dark figure through the air vents. They manage, however, to pass a peaceful night. When they are invited to a neighbor’s birthday party the next day, the shy and solitary May reluctantly accepts. But in the chaos of a flash storm, her son disappears, and thus begins a physical and mental chase that leaves everyone wishing they’d just had a better real estate agent.

Unsure at first what to make of the disappearance, the police, led by Lam Suet, think that May might be slightly left of sane, and their suspicions only increase when she starts crawling through the air ducts in search of her son. May insists that someone is scrabbling the dark of the complex with her kid in tow but there’s little proof. She finally manages to get a finger, literally, on some evidence, but this doesn’t ease the mounting skepticism of her mental state. The police do offer up a suspect though, Yan Hong (Karena Lam), and we learn that she and her family were once squatters where the apartment now stands. After her husband died in an accident, she and her son disappeared from the records.

The movie shifts here from a couple of crazy women giving chase to a kind of deconstruction of madness, at least an earnest attempt at one. Yan Hong is, of course, the woman lurching around with May’s son whom she takes as her own, and while she previously had just been someone in serious need of a bath and new clothes, her story pushes forward a larger critique of society. Or again, it tries to. Both women might do well to learn how to win friends and influence people, but their faults hardly merit the cynicism and inattention that envelopes them. After losing family members or facing eviction, they are left even more isolated, their misery compounded by a wholesale breakdown of society, at least for them. The ineffectiveness of all social safeguards – government, neighbors, family – only hastens their flight to the margins and, in the case of Yan Hong, brands her a monster which is the Chinese title for this film.

The moralizing is not too heavy handed and makes this a somewhat effective piece. At the very least, an actual plot and functional characters are in place – though on the latter point I think May’s characterization would have been strengthened by greater interaction with her husband (Alex Fong in little more than a cameo). Maybe because of his small role, however, we have two challenging female characters reinforcing each other, always a cause for celebration in Hong Kong cinema. Even in her distress, May evinces some sympathy for Yan Hong, a feeling reciprocated later on, however briefly. Where the film suffers though is in the emotional avalanche that it unleashes as May’s desperation, fueled by the general incompetence and indifference of those around her, comes to a head. It rightly asks much from its audience but is unable to provide a disciplined response. If the movie imagines itself a vehicle for examining social responsibilities, injustice, and even mental health, it cannot succeed by simply releasing a torrent of misery. Both characters are pushed to such extremes that by the end, there is little left for us to grasp and reshape; the final effect is that the audience becomes just as consumed despair as Yan Hong and May.