Month: July 2013

Para Para Sakura (芭啦芭啦櫻之花)

para para

You may familiar with with the two pint-sized whirlwinds from Essex, Sophia Grace and Rosie, who occasionally do a bit on Ellen Degeneres’s show. These chatty children make notably witty and grown-up observations (see tea time with celebrities and various field reports) to the delight of many. Para Para Sakura is the opposite of that. Two grown-ups try their best to mimic primary schoolers, and it’s questionable who is thrilled by this act.

Aaron Kwok stars as Philip, a dance instructor with little confidence in life and love. This stems in part from a family curse that condemns him to bachelorhood. He is also handicapped by colorblindness and sees everything in grayscale. That’s pretty hard (or easy, depending) to imagine when you consider Kwok’s normal wardrobe.

Things brighten when Yuriko (Cheung) waltzes into his life. Philip knows she’s the one because she appears as a blazing ball of fuchsia in his colorless world. The audience knows she’s the one because they both behave like frivolous children. Though she takes the form of a grown woman, Yuriko giggles nonsensically, as women who populate Hong Kong cinema are wont to do, and teases the bumbling Philip with a schoolgirl’s zing. This causes him to regress to a similarly infantile state, and he is reduced to whining about things like finding a bathroom in time. Kudos to the creative team for their brave stand on equality; Hong Kong men, you apparently act like dolts too.

Luckily though the smitten Philip has stellar dance skills, which he uses to win over Yuriko and to fight off a gang of men in black who are tailing the pair. Yuriko, it turns out, is a wealthy heiress trying to bail on her wedding, so the family bodyguards are sent to retrieve her. It’s not very clear why she doesn’t want to marry her betrothed, except that he seems far too mature for her. Nor does it seem sensible for the flighty Yuriko to take to Philip, who is dull even by his best friend’s (Ah Niu) estimation.

Thankfully character development is not the selling point of this movie. This film takes advantage of Hong Kong’s obsession with all things Japanese and indulges in the para para dance craze. Parts of it play like an arcade DDR come to flash mob life while others simply showcase Aaron Kwok’s elasticity. The one truly refreshing thing about this movie is the earthy Shanghai setting. Rewatching this in 2013, it’s nice to see a Chinese city that doesn’t need to dazzle with the veneer of modernity.

Released: 2001
Prod: David Chan 陳錫康, Li Zhu-An 李竹安, Sasaki Kyo 佐々木享, Patricia Chong 莊麗真
Dir: Jingle Ma 馬楚成
Writer: Susan Chan 陳淑賢
Cast:  Aaron Kwok 郭富城; Cecilia Cheung 張柏芝; Ah Niu 陳慶祥 (阿牛); Han Xue 韓雪; Wong Cho-Yiu 黃祖耀; Tien Niu 恬妞; Kazuhiko Nishimura 西村和彦; Seung Yik-San 湯亦晨; Sueyoshi Rika 末吉里花
Time: 101 min
Lang: Cantonese with Mandarin and Japanese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2013

Tara Road

t road

Maeve Binchy’s novel Tara Road appeared on Oprah’s Book Club list in 1999. Charles Dickens’s A Tale of Two Cities is also on that list, and I know which one I’d rather see adapted for tv and film. (Tom Hiddleston as Sydney Carton and Charles Darnay?!) But Maeve Binchy is a less taxing on the audience and the budget so Tara Road it is.

In typical Lifetime movie of the week fashion, it tells the story of two women who brood over man issues, do something wild, and discover their stronger selves. Irishwoman Ria (Williams) has it all – a husband who looks like Iain Glen, two talented kids, and a plush property. Just when she wants to expand the family, dastardly, duplicitous Danny (Glen) reveals he’s going to leave her for that sexpot from Love Actually (Makatsch).

On the other side of the Atlantic, Marilyn (MacDowell) can’t get over the death of her son from a motorcycle accident. She distances herself from her husband (Zirner) who would rather turn outward to deal with the tragedy. Alienated, alone, trapped by memories of her son, Marilyn does what any woman would do in her situation. She rings up a stranger on the other side of the world and proposes to switch houses with her for a couple months.

Off they go, hoping that new environs will provide some clarity and direction. Each woman is aided by the others’ friends. Ria finds a gaggle of loud and nosy but well-meaning neighbors – they are American, after all – who inject some spontaneity and spirit into her life. Meanwhile, Marilyn eases back into reality through quieter interactions with Ria’s charming friends, including restaurateur Colm, played by Stephen Rea.

And you might be wondering, why is Stephen Rea in this frivolous movie? I suspect if you were a woman who’s loved and lost, you would want his dulcet voice to calm you. He also had the more interesting backstory in Binchy’s novel, but that gets cut, to no ill effect. Another difference for fans of the book is a matter of focus; the movie is better balanced by giving equal screentime to the two stories. At least this way, it’s like two Lifetime movies, and all the feel-good lessons about friendship and self-empowerment, for the price of one. If that’s how you like spending a Saturday evening, this movie’s not a bad deal.

Released: 2005
Prod: Miron Blumental, Noel Pearson, and Sarah Radclyffe
Dir: Gillies MacKinnon
Writer: Cynthia Cidre and Shane Connaughton
Cast: Olivia Williams, Andie MacDowell, Maria Doyle Kennedy, Iain Glen, Stephen Rea, Brenda Fricker, August Zirner, Heike Makatsch, Virginia Cole, Sarah Bolger, Johnny Brennan, Bronagh Gallagher
Time: 97 min
Lang: English
Country: Ireland
Reviewed: 2013

Driving Lessons

driving lessons

Like the driving test you just nearly passed except that you nicked the curb, forgot to turn on the blinker, and failed to parallel park. You wouldn’t suspect anything by looking at the cast list though. Julie Walters and Laura Linney are able anchors, Rupert Grint is the most natural if not the flashiest actor of the Harry Potter trio, and Nicholas Farrell is as reliable as he is versatile. But their combined effort can’t rescue the movie from its lumpy plot and weak characterization.

Laura Linney is the most ill-used amongst all the actors, portraying a shrill mother and wife to shy son Ben (Grint) and henpecked vicar husband Robert (Farrell). Laura (Linney) wields her family’s religion with proficiency and uses it for emotional blackmail. She takes advantage of Ben’s learner’s permit and forces him ferry her to and from trysts with the charismatic and handsome new cleric Peter (Milburn) as part of his driving lessons. Linney is capable of playing a witchy antagonist, but the only skill she employs here is that of barking tart one liners. “Mobiles give you cancer!” “When you went with that actress, you left God’s house!”

Julie Walters fares a little better, but her performance as a retired and slightly loony thespian Dame Evie Walton is also given to caricature. It’s no wonder that the socially ill-adjusted Ben, whom she has hired as a personal assistant, doubts their working relationship. He stays on in part because Evie offers him respite from his domineering mother but also because she treats his literary ambitions with seriousness.

Walters takes her usual English quirk act and dials it up a few notches, as if being more eccentric would give this film more personality. It does, ever so slightly. Her crumbling Dame Evie pushes Ben to shed his timidity via spontaneous camping trips and readings in Edinburgh. These herky-jerky adventures culminate in a Bible school drama with Ben as the eucalyptus tree.

The perpetually awkward Grint is typecast but a good fit nonetheless. He does not make much of an effort to break from his Ron Weasley role (as opposed to say Daniel Radcliffe who famously bared his bits in Equus), so think of his character as Ron trying to make it in Muggleworld. He best captures the naive confidence of a 17 year old when he confronts his father about his parents’ relationship. “You should have talked to me. I’d have understood. I’m a poet. I understand the power of words.” Indeed, but even poets must be in want of an audience.

Released: 2006
Prod: Julia Chasman
Dir: Jeremy Brock
Writer: Jeremy Brock
Cast: Julie Walters, Rupert Grint, Laura Linney, Nicholas Farrell, Michelle Duncan, Oliver Milburn, Jim Norton, Tasmin Egerton
Time: 98 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2013

If U Care… (賤精先生)

if u care

Gino Cheung (Chan) is one of those people who will be reincarnated as a cockroach. He is a vile, selfish human who has no compassion for anyone. He terrorizes and humiliates his subordinates and denigrates his superiors. He can’t even be bothered to donate a few cents for flag sales (Saturday morning street corner charity drives).

Gino, however, won’t be reincarnated because, surprise, this is a Christian movie (from writer-director Adrian Kwan who also gifted Hong Kong with Sometimes, Miracles Do Happen [天使之城], The Miracle Box [天作之盒], and Team of Miracle [流浪漢世界盃]). And because this movie is predictably about redemption and second chances. Will Gino see the light and amend his ways? Will others forgive him for his many transgressions? Of course; the important questions for this movie are how and why.

The answers lie in one of the wackier plot devices you’ll come across but one that is unexpectedly used to good effect. He gets in a car accident that sends his hand flying through the windshield. When he recovers, he finds that it is possessed with supernatural abilities; when he touches someone else, he can hear their thoughts and experience their emotions. For the first time in a long while, Gino begins to feel empathy for others.

His change of heart is helped by a few encounters with his childhood friend, Gillian (…played by Gillian). She has fulfilled Gino’s wish of becoming a firefighter so that she can help others. Yes, that’s right. Gillian Chung is a firefighter, right up there with notable cinematic firemen Lau Ching-Wan and Alex Fong Chung-Sun. Besides her penchant for rescuing people, she also motivates him to reform by being the kindest, most compassionate person ever.

Alas, Gillian, both the character and the actress, is perfect to the point of dullness, though that matters little because she is mostly a conduit for Gino’s redemption. Chan’s portrayal is harder to tolerate. He spends a good half of his screen time in an epileptic fit, which the audience is supposed to take as some humorous Jim Carrey-esque homage. He is more effective when he tones down his antics, revealing an adult who doesn’t like what he’s become but who still struggles to be a gentler person. The non-denominational message rings clear as (church) bells in the end, and don’t feel guilty if you’re a bit more hopeful as the credits roll.

“This Time, Next Year” (明年今日) by Eason Chan

Released: 2002
Prod: Benny Chan 陳木勝
Dir: Adrian Kwan 關信輝
Writer: Adrian Kwan 關信輝, Chit Ka-Kei 戚家基; Wai Mei 惠美
Cast: Eason Chan 陳奕迅; Gillian Chung 鍾欣桐; Candy Lo 盧巧音; Rain Li 李彩樺; Eric Kot 葛民輝; Hui Siu-Hung 許紹雄; Patrick Tang 鄧健泓; Lam Suet 林雪; Tats Lau 劉以達; Yoyo Yiu 姚詠雯; Bonnie Wong 黃文慧; Lawrence Chou 周俊偉; Willie Wai 韋家雄; Winston Yeh 葉景文; Ching Long 程朗
Time: 106 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2013

The Jade and the Pearl (翡翠明珠)

jade and pearl

TVB, Hong Kong’s television monopoly, tests the limits of its audience’s tolerance with this hastily conceived charade, which it named after its Chinese and English language stations, respectively. Even the most dedicated fan, of which I am one, will find this sprawling mess of a movie difficult to defend.

For one, it’s an ill-begotten marriage between TVB and EEG, an equally monstrous entertainment conglomerate that caters to the masses by settling for the lowest common denominator. This co-production does not assume inadequacy, and I enjoy offerings by both companies, but it does mean a surfeit of beautiful and questionably talented young people. If The Jade and the Pearl was to be successful, it would have needed a strong story or clever script, something to emphasize the actors’ talents wherever they may lie.

As it stands, the best part may be the karaoke-ready theme song “Always Here” (一直都在) by TVB’s in-house composer Tang Chi-Wai (鄧智偉). It certainly isn’t the expansive plot, which lacks enough focus to propel it through its 104 minute running time. The action initially revolves around the happy-go-lucky Princess Yan (Choi), who is sent off to some far-flung land to marry an insignificant prince. She is escorted by General Ching (Lam), and one can safely predict what will transpire between the two during their long journey.

What no one expects is Joey Yung to appear as a bandit in pirate garb. But she does, and this is where the movie’s television roots show. After a short, dispassionate chase, the general is captured and the princess gets knocked out. When she comes to, she doesn’t remember a thing. Fortunately, a peasant storyteller (Wong) takes her in and the simple princess begins to enjoy the rustic life. Meanwhile, Ching still longs for Yan but must contend with the affections of pirate Joey.

The film does not have the luxury of 30 episodes with which to develop its characters and their relationships. So, if you make it as far as the climax, chances are you haven’t invested enough emotion to care what becomes of these broken hearts. More skilled leads would probably help the situation, but this movie is clearly interested in showcasing idols not actors. Everyone looks appealing and fulfills his or her role: Lam is the sensitive heartthrob, Wong is his honest but homely rival, Yung is the quirky, needy rebel, and Choi is forever the squeaky pubescent Twin whom everyone wants to coddle. This formula’s kept TVB and EEG afloat for years, so unless more people stay away from movies like this one, not much will change.

Released: 2010
Prod: Ng Yue 吳雨; Chan Hing-Kar 陳慶嘉; Amy Chin Siu-Wai 錢小蕙
Dir: Janet Chun Siu-Jan 秦小珍
Writer: Chan Hing-Kar 陳慶嘉; Cheung Fan 張帆; Ho Miu-Kei 何妙祺; Li Wai-Fuk 李瑋褔
Cast: Charlene Choi Cheuk-Yin 蔡卓妍; Raymond Lam Fung 林峰; Joey Yung Tso-Yi 容祖兒; Wong Cho-Lam 王祖藍; Ti Lung 狄龍; Chapman To Man-Chak 杜汶澤; Carlo Ng Ka-Lok吳家樂; Tien Niu 恬妞; Lam Suet 林雪; Wong Yau-Nam 黃又南; Tats Lau Yi-Dat 劉以達; Steven Cheung Chi-Hang 張致恆; 6 Wing 陸永; JJ Jia Xiaochen 賈曉晨; Hui Siu-Hung 許紹雄; Matthew Ko Kwan-Yin 高鈞賢; Benjamin Yuen Wai-Ho 袁偉豪; Kenny Kwan Chi-Bun 關智斌; Ken Hung Cheuk-Lap 洪卓立; Cilla Kung 樂瞳; Macy Chan Mei-Si 陳美詩; Christine Kuo Yun-Hui 苟芸慧; Sire Ma Choi 馬賽; Jess Sum Cheuk-Ying 沈卓盈; Katy Kung Ka-Yan 龔嘉欣; Mavis Pan Shuang-Shuang 潘霜霜
Time: 104 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2013