Month: April 2012

Dummy Mommy Without a Baby (玉女添丁)

There must be a Discovery Health show about women who fake pregnancies, and I imagine reactions would include generous doses of condemnation, anger, and betrayal. Sympathy in these cases is best left for another series. But in Hong Kong, one can make an entire movie out of this deception with the end goal of championing the swindler, even – or especially – if that person happens to be Miriam Yeung.

In this unconventional underdog story, Fong Lai-Kuen (not to be confused with Yeung’s character of the same name in the Love Undercover series) feigns her pregnancy after getting the pink slip at her advertising firm. According to a curious Hong Kong law, a pregnant employee cannot be fired for a period of 10 months, so Kuen milks her new status for all it’s worth and enlists her good friend and colleague Dina (Niki Chow) to aid in the cover-up. The two try to use this stunt to get back at their villainous boss Monica (Pauline Yam), though most people would probably see Monica as a reasonably demanding superior with exceptional standards. Kuen is redeemed and the mean boss is put in her place when an actual expectant mother and athletic wear company owner Mrs. Ho (Eileen Cha) selects Kuen’s ad campaign for the Beijing Olympics. Mrs. Ho also chooses Kuen as the spokesperson because hey, moms-to-be buy basketball jerseys too. Their partnership leads to some close calls that we will call comedy, such as one involving a poolside ultrasound. Similar cheap and predictable laughs follow.

Amidst this set of hijinks is a chaste three way between Kuen, Dina, and Ming (Edison Chen), the big boss’s son. Edison is as inoffensive as possible here, thus making Ming a palatable, even compassionate, character. It also helps that Ming wants to be a pastry chef instead of an ad exec. Swoon. When he learns of Kuen’s impending single motherhood, he immediately offers her free room and board at his mansion, which she shamelessly accepts. Their relationship is purely platonic, however, which means Dina can chase Ming and preserve her friendship with Kuen.

But at some point, this caper is bound to implode, and when even Edison is put off by your bad behavior, you know you’ve crossed the line. The exuberance of Miss Yeung and Miss Chow is not enough to compensate for their characters’ misdeeds. As witness to their trail of manipulation, fraud, and assault, I found myself cheering more for these ladies to land in Stanley than to cleverly claw their way out of their own mess. If the filmmakers were aiming for a cynical yet humorous critique on Hong Kong’s working conditions, then Miriam Yeung, at this stage in her career, was not the most convincing casting choice.

Prod: Joe Ma Wai-Ho 馬偉豪; Ivy Kong Yuk-Yee 江玉儀
Dir: Joe Ma Wai-Ho 馬偉豪; Albert Mak Kai-Kwong 麥啟光
Writer: Joe Ma Wai-Ho 馬偉豪; Taures Chow Yin-Han 周燕嫻; Sunny Chan Wing-Sun 陳詠燊; Law Yiu-Fai 羅耀輝; So Bo-Ling 蘇寶玲
Cast: Miriam Yeung Chin-Wah 楊千嬅; Edison Chen Koon-Hei 陳冠希; Niki Chow Lai-Kei 周麗琪; Pauline Yam Bo-Lam 任葆琳; Eileen Cha Siu-Yan 查小欣; Wyman Wong Wai-Man 黃偉文; Sammy Leung 森美; Hui Siu-Hung 許紹雄; Cheung Tat-Ming 張達明; Moses Chan Ho 陳豪
Time: 90 min
Lang: Cantonese
Reviewed: 2012

Marriage with a Liar (婚前試愛)

Some movies exist to shed light on the nature of young love and marriage. This movie exists so that Chrissie Chau, Carol Yeung, Him Law and Z.O. can shed their clothes. And that’s really all there is. No need to pretend otherwise as the first thing you see when the end credits roll is a giant thank you to Playboy condoms. Of course perceptive viewers may find a vague plot involving an impending wedding between Kiki (Chau) and Jerry (Lau); the liars and the lying, meanwhile, are easier to spot.

It didn’t have to be this way though. Young people have affairs, sometimes right before their wedding day, so the story warrants its celluloid treatment. In this movie, Kiki and Jerry both get comfortable with a passing stranger. Kiki beds Jack (Z.O.), who saves her from a bumbling bar assault, while police officer Jerry seemingly violates some ethics code by sleeping with Bobo (Yeung), whom he meets on duty after accidentally swapping phones. But director Patrick Kong strays in the execution, and the result is a patchy, hollow glimpse at what happens when marriage partners are unfaithful.

One of his big missteps is the misuse of flashbacks, which he employs throughout the film. The shifts in time help to layer the deceit and expose the anatomy of an affair, but they are poorly edited. When the tale returns to real time, the gaps in storytelling become even more apparent. This problem is especially acute after Jerry and Bobo part ways. One intertitle later, it is wedding night. Since the cheating right before marriage dilemma is a primary issue in this movie, it would seem that the absence of three days is a significant omission.

The flashbacks also keep the two leads separated for a good 65 minutes of the movie. (Jerry does not even make an appearance until the 20 minute mark.) This leaves only brief phone interactions with which to reconstruct the pair’s relationship and obscures Kiki and Jerry’s motivations for cheating. Better actors may have aided the otherwise absent character development, but Chau, Law, et al. are varying degrees of incompetent. When she is not framed for the looking, Ms. Chau spends the better part of her screen time barking and more than lives up to the controlling, insecure stereotype that the media has led to believe constitutes most of Hong Kong women. Law fares slightly better, if only because one feels sorry for Jerry for putting up with the nagging Kiki.

With the audience little invested in the characters or the progression/regression of the couple’s relationship, the ample IIB raciness should provide generous distractions. Kong capitalizes on the assets of his lead quartet in ways he couldn’t with the waifish and schoolgirlish Stephy Tang, his usual muse. For some, that’s worth the price of admission.

Prod: Wong Jing 王晶
Dir: Patrick Kong Pak-Leung 葉念琛
Writer: Patrick Kong Pak-Leung 葉念琛
Cast: Chrissie Chau Sau-Na 周秀娜; Him Law Chung-Him 羅仲謙; Z.O. Shen Zhi Ming 沈志明; Carol Yeung Tsz-Yiu 楊梓瑤; Jacquelin Ch’ng Si-Man 莊思敏; Timmy Hung Tin-Ming 洪天明; Charmaine Fong Hiu-Man 方皓玟; King Kong 金剛; Evergreen Mak Cheung-Ching 麥長青; Anjayliya Chan Ka-Bo 陳嘉寶; Dada Lo Chung-Chi 盧頌之; Gill Mohindepaul Singh 喬寶寶; Eddie Law Tin-Chi 羅天池
Time: 85 min
Lang: Cantonese and Mandarin
Reviewed: 2012

Kung Fu Hip Hop 2 (精舞门2)

My excuse for watching Kung Fu Hip Hop 2 is that I was scammed into a 30 month cable contract and now have a buffet of bland movies at my fingertips. This gem happened to be on and I didn’t feel like going out. Wrong decision – much like this movie is a series of misguided choices. Let’s start with the title, which implies some type of martial arts action. Quash that notion now though as there are only fleeting moments of anything resembling kung fu. There is also the suggestion that this is a sequel; it is not. Jordan Chan and Fan Bing Bing of the original Kung Fu Hip Hop have turned elsewhere. As with the first movie, however, this is a Mainland China production that aims to net a pan-Asian audience by bringing in “stars” from the greater China region. It may also be an attempt to show the Chinese moviegoing public that street dancing and hip hop are art forms and viable outlets for personal expression. Bold, if this is actually the case, but the filmmaking fails to support this cause.

The elements are in place for a passable hip hop dance movie though, a genre that operates by some simple conventions. Wealthy Mianmian (China’s Miss Maxim 2008 Zhou Qiqi) enjoys a tame relationship with her surprisingly affluent Latin dance instructor Ranqiu (Hong Kong TVB actor Michael Tse). They are preparing for an international competition and want to add a few hip hop elements. Why? Because the story must move forward. She enlists the cuddly Letian (Taiwanese actor Chen Bolin) to help out but is put off by what she sees as his lack of form and respect for “proper” dance. The posh princess starts to soften though as Letian b-boys his way into her heart. Love triangle, set. Add to this a mix of warring crews – Letian’s Encore versus the ominous Gambler China, some intense battles, preferably in an abandoned warehouse – see the first 10 minutes, and a nasty character who wants to come between our heroes and their love of dance – a boxy, cigar chomping scoundrel.

There isn’t much of a formula beyond this, so why does this movie fall flat? Simply, there is no passion for hip hop, which is a philosophy well beyond the assemblage of icons and images presented here. Hip hop, specifically expressed through dance, cannot be constructed with trucker caps, baggy clothes, graffiti, and the token black guy. Nor is the ethos effectively conveyed through epileptic camerawork and throbbing bass. In fact, the glaring absence of an actual soundtrack suggests that this film is a facade, its filmmakers more invested in the appearance of an American art form and its associations than the music itself. At one point, Ranqiu “battles” Letian and company in a half-choreographed clap-off that baffles more than it inspires. Then in the climactic scene, which takes place in one of China’s sleek pantheons to modernity, the dancers are buffered by a ring of polite fangirls waving blinking signs.

Authenticity can translate across cultures, but the value(s) must remain the same. Respectable dance movies require a certain intensity, a sense of laying everything on the line. Other iterations of this story work because the characters are pushed to the limit and are left with only dance and music. Take the Hong Kong movie Give Them a Chance, which featured far more mediocre dancing (I mean, Andy Hui, seriously?), as an example. Those kids needed hip hop; it wasn’t just a pasttime or even a fervent hobby. In this movie, Wangzi (um, portrayed by…Wangzi), a member of Letian’s crew, sells his moves in order to earn money for his sick mother. He offers a faint taste of that desperation, but Letian dismisses his friend and simply lets him be. This forces the movie back to the maudlin romance and weakens the tension needed for a powerful final battle.

This inadequate attempt at mimicry could have been helped by a stronger cast, but anchor Chen Bolin, who reminds me of a bloated, cartoonish Takeshi Kaneshiro, merely brought cuteness, not chemistry, to his character. Having come fresh off a Laughing Gor marathon, I was also looking forward to seeing Mr. Tse in a different role, especially since he has actual dance training. But he often gets dwarfed on the big screen and thus did nothing to impress on the film’s dynamics. Finally the social critic in me sees a squandered opportunity for a fresh look at the genre. This could have been a Step Up (or Street Dance, Honey, Save the Last Dance, or [insert dance movie here]) with Chinese characteristics. Mianmian is one loaded lady, and her status among the nouveau riche contrasts sharply with Wangzi’s struggles. The fleeting intersection of these disparate classes hardly exposes the tender divide that is increasingly a concern for the party and national stability, however. Maybe we’ll just have to wait for Kung Fu Hip Hop 3.

HK Title:
Dir: Bowie Lau Bo-Yin 劉寶賢
Cast: Berlin Chen Bolin 陳柏霖; Michael Tse Tin-Wah 謝天華; Zhou Qiqi 周奇奇; Wangzi 王子; Shi Tianqi 石天琦; Cheng Yi 程伊; Lin Zhenghao 林正豪; Lu Xiner 鲁昕儿; Chen Jia陈加; Blackston James
Time: 89 min
Lang: Mandarin
Reviewed: 2012

Beach Spike (熱浪球愛戰)

A cursory glance at a poster, trailer, or cast list for Beach Spike would suggest a rather revealing portrait of beach volleyball. As with most Hong Kong films however, one’s enjoyment is generally proportional to one’s expectations. I figured this particular movie would amount to an hour and a half exhibition of Chrissie Chau and Jessica C’s assets, juxtaposed with volleyballs for added bounce. I’ll venture to guess that most others expected the same, and while I personally am not too keen on the idea, I’m sure this would satisfy a good many. So, I was pleasantly surprised that the flesh show was balanced out with what can be reasonably called a plot. Additionally, I quite liked Miss Chau’s attempt at acting. Yes, it’s all about expectations.

The movie rolls off to a quick start. In speedy succession, we are introduced to cousins and local volleyball heroes Sharon (Chau) and Rachel (Teresa Fu), the latter’s other half Water (Jazz Lam), and his layabout storeowner father (of course Lam Suet). They are an easy going, beach loving lot but experience an unfortunate run-in with their wealthy neighbors: sisters and, coincidentally, volleyball powerhouses Natalie (Jessica C) and Natasha (Phoenix Chou), brother Tim (Him Law), and Mama Bro (actual actress Candice Yu). Tim though is cut from a different cloth than his snobby sisters, and that would be the sympathetic and non-Eurasian bolt. Although he shares a warm relationship with his family, they don’t approve of his slumming and shun him after he befriends Sharon. The two factions are further strained because Mrs. Bro wants to push forward a development plan that would result in the demolition of the beachfront and its businesses. At this point you may be wondering how volleyball fits in. It turns out that the locals rescued Mrs. Bro and her now deceased mister from a kidnapping some years back so she is loathe to destroy the beach and their livelihoods. Enter Natasha, who casually suggests that they settle the deal through a volleyball match. This is the obvious course of action.

You can already guess how this movie is going to end, but you probably can’t figure out how Tim is related to his family; he resembles neither his sisters nor his very Caucasian father (Bey Logan) and clearly did not attend an English-medium school. And no, there is no suggestion that he is adopted or a step or half-sibling. Meanwhile on the filmmaking end, viewers may be baffled and embarrassed by the horrendous English dialogue. Tony Tang (writer/director), contact me; I’ll edit for free next time and save us all a bit of awkwardness. Just as perplexing is the shift halfway through the movie into kung fu territory. This was either a) an attempt to contrast the “Western” training techniques of Natalie and Natasha with the more…indigenous methods of the local gals, or b) a commercial attempt to attract another demographic. Still more, someone forgot to invoke the mercy rule regarding sports slow-mo. It was funny seeing Chrissie Chau’s face ripple from the aftershock of a volleyball hit, but the repetitive training scenes and final match rivaled extended Nike and Gatorade adverts.

Then there is the thing called acting. This movie boasts a healthy range of mediocrity, from the groan (Phoenix Chou) to the “meh” (Teresa Fu) to the shrug of approval (Him Law). Bookending the main cast are Jessica C and Miss Chau, and again, one refers back to one’s expectations. Both belong to that contemptible category – the lang mo, or pseudo-model, a much reviled, though often revered, part of the Hong Kong entertainment industry. Mostly known for their racy pictorals and getting their kits off at video game conventions, these lang mo have already set the acting bar to sea level. Imagine my shock then when Jessica C plunged that bar to Titanic lows with her performance here. It was all the more regrettable because hers was actually an interesting character. Although Natalie nursed an unreasonable prejudice against the poor kids in town, she struggled to reconcile that with a genuine love for her younger brother. A challenging character may have been too much to ask for…and so we have Chrissie Chau. And let me go on record as saying that she is not that bad. I’m even amenable to the claim that she is a promising actress. I don’t know if it’s her lang mo background which has led to her being roundly assaulted by the tastemakers, but she conveys a natural sense of the underdog, someone who is easy to root for. It remains to be seen whether this ability to elicit empathy will translate to other roles, but in Miss Chau’s defense, Shu Qi started in less than illustrious settings and managed to work her way up to a Hong Kong Film Award. So, someone give Chrissie Chau acting lessons and a multi-dimensional character (I know that’s a lot to ask for), and she might produce something better than Beach Spike.

Released: 2011/Reviewed: 2012

Nine Girls and a Ghost (九個女仔一隻鬼)

The good news is that this movie is not the cesspool of awful I long imagined it to be. For a few fleeting moments, I was mildly charmed, and I can at least excuse the teen lot for wanting to see their favorite “singers/actors” projected on a very large screen. Of course the bad news is that the movie is longer than those few moments, and I’m no longer a lovestruck adolescent. Nevertheless, I managed to power through this tour de farce starring lead Cookie Stephy Tang as Kaka, a supremely spoiled brat who sweet talks her father into buying her a Mini Cooper. She soon discovers that it’s haunted, but luckily the ghost looks like Edison Chen – and he literally bubbles out of the exhaust pipe. Kaka quickly makes the most of her supernatural friend and uses him for all sorts of unscrupulous schemes, including cheating on an exam and in a basketball game. She and her friends later enlist him in taking down their PE teacher as well, but thankfully, this is a ghost with a conscience. It turns out that Marco, as our spirit is called, used to be a dickish executive who excelled in two things, making money and making people feel miserable, before crashing to his premature death. He therefore wants to help Kaka and her cookie crumbs formulate some moral code so that they become a touch more virtuous and learn how to rely on their own talents and hard work.

That’s right – one of the takeaways of this movie is that Edison Chen/Marco is a civilizing influence on young girls. This may be the only lesson though. While the movie flirts with character development, the overall effort is too inconsistent to elicit any sympathy. Instead, the overriding emotion is more akin to agony. Hong Kong girls seriously need a new publicity manager because films like this one are not doing them any favors. The whole box of Cookies is insufferable. They lie, cheat, and blackmail their way through life; they are selfish, disrespectful, and manipulative, even towards their own family. Kaka gets bonus points for taking advantage of her philandering father and verbally abusing her stuttering older brother (Cyrus Wong). My problem is not so much the absurdities of a teenage imagination nor am I suggesting that Hong Kong cinema whitewash all these characters into immaculate, obedient girls. But surely the constant and mind-numbing drumbeat of this snippy adolescent female stereotype cannot be what even the target audience wants. I am willing to tolerate some degree of bad acting and can step over a few gaping plot holes, both of which this movie offers in abundance, but my little Hong Kong heart dies a bit every time a young female character spends most of her screen time whining in near dog decibels. Sure, Hollywood spits out similar tales by the dozen, but theirs is a much bigger market for mediocrity, and relatively (key word) far more alternative voices and images find their way into the media.

Released: 2002/Reviewed: 2012