Month: August 2013

The Fantastic Water Babes (出水芙蓉)

fantab water babes

I usually wouldn’t enjoy a film with a title like this, unless it was a biopic about Gertrude Ederle or a documentary about competitive female swimmers and body image. It’s neither, so I’m surprised that I found the movie palatable.

Praise needs qualifying though, lots of it. For starters, no one’s watching this movie for plot. The eponymous water babes, Gill (Chung) and Mei Mei (Ma) – and their attendants (Chau and Huang), are at odds because Gill’s boyfriend is cheating on her with Mei Mei. Gill tries to drown herself but comes to her senses when she spies the sea deity Guanyin (Olympic diver cum actor Tian).

This may not stop the average Hong Konger from ending his or her life, but Gill is from Cheung Chau, an idyllic island most notable for its annual Bun Festival, and maybe its pirate cave. Here, legend has it that you will be granted superpowers if you see the god/goddess underwater. In order to prevent her from trying to take her own life again, Gill’s friends and all the eccentric islanders trick her into thinking she can do the impossible. This is supposedly done in an endearing and not at all exploitative sort of way.

With revenge still on her mind, Gill finds herself at the launch of a “water babes” swim competition, which is being endorsed by celebrity swimmer Chi-Yuen (actual celebrity and Olympic swimmer Fong). She spots Mei Mei and agrees to enter, with Chi-Yuen’s help. Rather than being a charming heartthrob though, he turns out to be a right ass, prompting Gill to kidnap him and force him to train her and her friends.

Alex Fong makes an amusing cad, and it’s refreshing to see pop stars attempting roles that don’t align with their public image. He gets the meatiest part as a self-absorbed cityslicker who grows to appreciate the sincerity of others. Gillian Chung, meanwhile, has greater difficulty balancing an innocent girl-next-door character with her actual character. I am only partly alluding to the Edison Chen photo scandal that delayed this movie’s release for two years. More relevant is the fact that Chung was 27 when she filmed Water Babes and should not have been presented as a chirpy ingenue. There are fleeting moments of exaggerated teen rom-com convention that poke fun at the genre and actors but not enough to confuse this movie with satire.

This leaves the real star of the movie, Cheung Chau. The delicious cinematography and art direction paint a quiet village, rich in tradition and populated with generous if quirky folks (including a delusional Stephen Fung character who thinks the loan sharks are after him). The wistful images of hidden Hong Kong reminded me of an early Chung film, Just One Look (一碌蔗), also set in Cheung Chau. That movie is far superior, but both capitalize on the scenic island and its history and play like a love letter to rural Hong Kong. If the writers had just excised the swimming competition, The Fantastic Water Babes would have been, well, fantastic.

Gillian Chung and Alex Fong’s “For Life” (一生一世).

Released: 2010
Prod: Jeff Lau 劉鎮偉
Dir: Jeff Lau 劉鎮偉
Writer: Jeff Lau 劉鎮偉
Cast: Gillian Chung 鍾欣桐; Alex Fong 方力申; Eva Huang 黃聖依; Hyper BB 茜利妹; Chu Fun 朱薰; Simon Lui; Stephen Fung 馮德倫; Tian Liang 田亮; Natalie Tong 唐詩詠; Ma Yue 馬閱; Chrissie Chau 周秀娜; Patrick Dunn 鄧梓峰; Jacqueline Law 羅慧娟; Calvin Sun 孫祖楊; Bianca Liu 廖羽翹
Time: 89 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2013

Love You 10,000 Years (愛你一萬年)

10000 years

Love You 10,000 Years – Another attempt by Vic Chou at being a “real” actor, or what I wish he’d say to me every night. [Switching off fangirl.] This movie follows his well-received performance in the television series Black and White (痞子英雄) in which he played against type as a roguish police officer. He continues to veer from his sweet ‘n’ sensitive image, here by looking like a dirty, crumpled piece of paper.

Chou doesn’t shed the boy band persona completely though; he plays Qifeng, a rock musician with the Electro Monkey Boys who also has serious commitment issues. None of his relationships lasts more than three months, and after each breakup, he goes back to bumming around with his mates.

Meanwhile in Japan, Sakurada (Kato) has two job offers. She is hired by way of a marriage proposal to be the wife of her longterm boyfriend; she sensibly declines. A company gives her a more reasonable position, which she accepts, but she must spend three months in Taiwan to brush up her Chinese. Sakurada jumps at the opportunity to explore a new place and to escape her parents.

Things get off to a perfect rom-com start, which is to say they begin miserably. She gets drunk on her first night, crashes Qifeng’s show, and then smashes his guitar. Her second night is just as unlucky when the two end up on a bus driven by a vengeful henpecked husband. He leaves them stranded in the middle of nowhere, a very good place to begin a romantic relationship, or a murder spree.

It’s the former, and soon, Qifeng and Sakurada decide to try out a tidy three month affair. They draw up a contract outlining the terms of their romance, including a clause that stipulates a fine for prematurely ending the relationship. Living together proves to be more difficult than they anticipate, however; Sakurada berates Qifeng for his lack of good housekeeping skills while he cannot tolerate her nagging.

Neither the script nor the direction takes full advantage of Chou and Kato’s endearing chemistry, and their characters’ feelings for each other vacillate from hot to cold. Individual moments between the two come across genuinely but the relationship as a whole doesn’t reveal itself as naturally as it could have. The movie is also hurt by a protracted ending that keeps the leads apart for fifteen minutes too long.

Nevertheless, Love You 10,000 Years is a fun film that utilizes many tools in its genre. It’s spiced with musical interludes and punchy cartoons, and the movie is especially buoyed by the charm of its supporting cast. Na Dou steals a few scenes as a cross-dressing landlord while Moon Wang, of Meteor Garden fame, takes an amusing turn as a Chinese language teacher. Sakurada’s foreign adventures will also be familiar to those who have worked or studied abroad in Asia, except for that falling in love with Vic Chou bit.

“Love You 10,000 Years” by Vic Chou

“I Fell Asleep Thinking of You” by Vic Chou

Released: 2010
Prod: Peggy Chiao 焦雄屏
Dir: Toyoharu Kitamura 北村豊晴
Writer: Jian Shi-Geng 簡士耕
Cast: Vic Chou 周渝民; Kato Youki 加藤侑紀; Moon Wang 王月; Mimura Takayo 三村恭代; Na Dou 納豆; Huang Teng-Hui 黃鐙輝; Li Bo-En 李伯恩; Hao Lei 郝蕾
Time: 108 min
Lang: Mandarin, Japanese
Country: Taiwan
Reviewed: 2013

Esquire Runway (時尚先生)

esquire runway

Both the Chinese and English titles of this movie promise suave men, seductive women, and sleek couture. In fact, the Chinese title is the same as that of Esquire magazine in China, and incidentally, this fashion film is backed by the company that owns it and a number of aspirational lifestyle magazines (including Cosmopolitan and NatGeo Traveler).

So you can think of Esquire Runway as a glossy moving centerfold, which is what many Mainland films aim for these days. Li Jiawu (Fong, aka the Chinese Richard Gere) is a newly instated men’s magazine editor. He mingles with A-listers, including his ex-girlfriend Ye Qing (Kong, aka the Chinese Julia Roberts), cozies up to wealthy backers in candlelit restaurants and cigar lounges, and wears diamond cufflinks because, hey, he is played by Alex Fong.

Jiawu is not particularly liked in the industry though, so when he decides to organize a male model contest, he must solicit help from Ye Qing. She agrees to be a judge but only so that she can sabotage the event. She enlists her androgynous younger sister Liaoyu (Zhang Jing) to enter with aim of embarrassing her former partner and forcing him to resign.

It’s a delightful and devious little plan until one considers the many obstacles of going Twelfth Night on an Esquire shoot. Presumably chests, of either sex, will be bared. But as this is a movie, nothing stops Liaoyu from cementing her position. In the meantime, Ye Qing reconsiders her feelings for Jiawu and reveals deeper reasons for wanting revenge on her former lover.

Sparks are slow going though, and the physical and material desires that Esquire magazine elicit are largely absent. Each scene features pretty people against pretty palettes, and there are many set details that suggest luxury. But there is not much in the script or acting to suggest intimacy, either between the characters or with the audience. Lv Yulai does a sympathetic turn as Ye Qing’s friend, assistant, and secret admirer Jianing, and Kong holds her own in a few soap opera moments (e.g. weeping over a DQ Blizzard on a lonely and rainy night). The desired effect of forwarding an affluent 21st century Mainland China is better achieved and felt by flipping through the magazine.

View the trailer here. Eason Chan’s “No Need to Speak” that plays at the end credits. (A film MV version is included on the DVD.)

Released: 2008
Alt Title: Mr. Mode
Prod: Zhang Xiaodong 張曉冬
Dir: Qiao Liang喬粱
Writer: Jin Renshun 金仁順, Tang Xiaosong 唐小松, Zhou Zhou 周周
Cast: Alex Fong 方中信, Kong Wei 孔維, Zhang Jing 張靜, Lv Yulai 呂玉來
Time: 100 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2013

Nobody’s Perfect (絕代雙嬌)

766534glm005d_01

A truism: nobody’s perfect. Few people make perfect movies either, so here we are. This Patrick Kong film takes the Freaky Friday body switch formula and adds little to the catalogue. It’s the usual cautionary tale of examining one’s own faults and changing for the better, except with Hong Kong pop culture references thrown in for local flavor. And with Kong’s two Gold Typhoon starlets, Stephy Tang and Kary Ng, you can bet someone’s going to start out a high-decibeled diva before getting her comeuppance.

This honor goes to Tang, who plays the condescending, harpy celebrity gossip peddler Alexandra. She is insufferable to the people around her and (in no way a statement on paparazzi and/or tone-deaf depictions of women) a danger to society. In one scene, she nearly runs over a woman before telling the poor old lady to die.

Several octaves lower but no less excitable is her foil Alexis, played by Ng. She is the Cinderella of sorts, mocked by her former classmates, rejected by her crush, and spurned by her brother’s fiancée’s family. But, damn, is she sweet.

In a “blink and you miss it” moment, the two switch places and proceed to encounter all the difficulties one does when inhabiting another’s body. Alexandra needs to find a way to maintain her gossip portfolio with no help from the naïve Alexis. Alexis meanwhile wants to save the family’s traditional bridal business from being bought out (again, not a commentary on shrinking family businesses in Hong Kong), but Alexandra’s quick temper threatens to further escalate domestic tensions.

Ideally, there would be more to say about the plot, but this isn’t that sort of movie. Though I might put Nobody’s Perfect out there as another example of shameful racial insensitivity. Chrissie Chau disguises herself in smudgy blackface as a helper, Alexandra is christened “Underwear,” the benevolent Filipina maid, and then there’s the equivalent of a few ching chong jokes for good measure.

The real novelty of this movie for Hong Kong film fans is more likely cheekier turns by Tang and Ng. The two are like wind-up toys let loose, clattering rapidfire insults and curses. They seem to have graduated from the innocent schoolgirl role to the college coed one, a step up one supposes. Still, neither maximize the acting challenge such plots offer, and a weak script is equally at fault. Ng doesn’t carry the sweetheart baggage though and slips more readily in and out of the two parts. But it’s okay, Stephy; nobody’s perfect.

 

Released: 2008
Prod: Paco Wong 黃柏高
Dir: Patrick Kong 葉念琛
Writer: Patrick Kong 葉念琛
Cast: Stephy Tang 鄧麗欣; Kary Ng 吳雨霏; Sammy Leung 森美; Chelsea Tong 唐素琪; Tin Kai-Man 田啟文; Regan Cheung 張惠雅; Crystal Cheung 張紋嘉; Winky Lai 黎美言; Joey Leung 梁祖堯; Mimi Chu 朱咪咪; Kelvin Kwan 關楚耀; Terence Tsui 小肥; Ken Lo 盧惠光; Ben Cheung 張嘉倫; Angela Au 區文詩; Harriet Yeung 楊詩敏
Time: 105 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2013