Month: August 2014

Kung Fu Chefs (功夫廚神)

kung fu chefs

It’s hard to fault a movie for delivering exactly what its title promises. Indeed, Kung Fu Chefs caters to those oft neglected fans of fighting foodies. Sammo Hung and Louis Fan bring kung-fu credibility, the food looks delectable, and everyone wants to get their hands on something called the Dragon Head Blade. Even the story largely makes sense. You really can’t ask for more.

Well, you could ask for better acting. Hung plays one of the titular chefs, Wong Bing-Yi, a village head who is kicked out and loses possession of the Dragon Head Blade, a glorified butcher’s knife, when someone (who is played by his son, Timmy Hung) sabotages a community dinner and gives everyone the runs. The veteran actor brings a fatherly calm to the kitchen chaos, which is important because he shares a lot of screentime with Vanness Wu, who is not the most skilled thespian.

Wu plays Ken, a student at what appears to be a kung-fu cooking school. Upon graduation, he seeks out the legendary chef Master Sam at the Four Seas Restaurant. Wu struts his way through the film, producing a pensive gaze here, a frustrated snarl there. He reins in the expat punk act and limits his slacker style to tank tops, knit caps, and embarrassing facial hair. A better actor would have given the part and the film more depth, but the fast-moving plot is enough to keep one distracted.

Yi and Ken arrive at the Four Seas only to discover that Master Sam has died, leaving his elder daughter Qing (Cherrie Ying) to run the business. Her role is a bit limited, and though Qing makes some sound decisions to keep the Four Seas afloat, she mostly stands around. Her sister Ying (Ai Kago) has a better time of things, not least because she has her eyes on Ken. Ying’s job is to play up the younger sister bit and whine a lot, which Kago does well.

Yi and Ken inadvertently cause its chef to leave in disgrace, and he ends up at the King of Cantonese, a sprawling restaurant group headed by Yi’s nephew, Joe (Louis Fan). Joe spends much of his time growling from his iron throne. He is nursing a decades-long grudge against his uncle whom he blames for his father’s shame and failure.

Things come to a head at the Best Chef of China competition where Yi and Joe’s restaurants and chefs do battle with duck, oxtail, cabbage, and soup, among other ingredients. In the meantime, there is actual fighting, and generous portions of it. Action directors Yuen Cheung-Yan and Yuen Shun-Yi make the most of knife-wielding cooks and prop-filled pantries to stage the fight scenes, which culminate in a frenzied faceoff between uncle and nephew.

Overall, not bad when you consider the other options. There are some unnecessary special effects and a few inconsistencies in tone and style, but those don’t interfere too much. This one earns its stars for providing 90 minutes of mild entertainment.

Released: 2009
Prod: Jeremy Cheung
Dir: Ken Yip 葉永健
Writer: Wang Bo 王博; Simon Lui 呂志虔
Cast: Sammo Hung 洪金寶; Vanness Wu 吳建豪; Cherrie Ying 應采兒; Ai Kago 加護 亜依; Louis Fan 樊少皇; Timmy Hung 洪天明; Lam Tze-Chung 林子聰; Bruce Leung 梁小龍; Xing Yu 行宇; Wu Jianfei 吳建飛; Ho Kwai-Lam 何貴林
Time: 91 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

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What Women Want (我知女人心)

what women want

What Women Want is another entry in the list of unremarkable remakes of unremarkable movies. In both this version and the Mel Gibson original, a sexist adman acquires a supernatural ability to read women’s minds after he experiences a freak accident. He uses his newfound power for personal and professional gain, trying to boost his stock among his female cohorts as well as his bosses. He gets a shock though when he realizes that women don’t think he’s quite the Romeo he imagines himself to be and when he is passed over for promotion in favor of a newly hired female creative director.

Transplanting the Chicago storyline in Beijing doesn’t seem to have altered the source material as writer-director Chen Daming has generated a near carbon copy of the 2000 film. It turns out that sexism is a universal language and one spoken fluently by people the world over. A film like this one may be even more relevant in the Chinese working place, where some basic legal protections, such as those regarding discriminatory hiring practices, are not always in place. Li Yilong (Gong Li) is a capable businesswoman in every regard, and placing her at the center of the film is not a bad way to draw some attention to the issue.

Another good choice is that of Gong as leading actress. She embodies much of the progressive Chinese woman, or at least the idea of one propagated by the film industry. The international star infuses her role with maturity and class and does so without crystallizing into a glass vase. It’s her first role since the 2006 effects spectacle The Curse of the Golden Flower, and in this pared down movie, Gong fleshes out Yilong with every tool available. Even in the dubbed Cantonese track, she metes out her character’s delight, tenacity, confusion, and anger. Her performance is easily the best thing about this and a welcome reward for the tedium of this two hour exercise.

Yet for all the film does to show what women want, there also appear to be some conflicting messages. Yilong earns the movie points as a female character with emotional depth and a life and career with, but not dependent, on men. This is something women want, but I suspect what they also want is to not have to look like Gong Li. Her figure hugging wardrobe, and that of the other female office workers, of course looks fabulous on her and speaks to one type of female empowerment, but even within the business class, not everyone aspires to be the “beautiful two-legged panther” archetype. Which highlights a problematic moment when an American suitor played by Russell Wong delivers the supposed compliment. Though spoken in English, the line may still be lost in translation as sexually charged animal comparisons doled out on a first date don’t earn favor in my, or any of my female friends’, book.

The gender politics is not where the film suffers most, however. It is simply too long, treading and retreading the same territory. The movie’s supposed cleverness derives from the internal monologues overheard by Sun Zigang (Andy Lau), but this device, not entirely novel to begin with, already begins to lose its force several scenes in. Zigang quickly establishes his reputation as a lecherous sleazeball who tries to smooth talk his way in and out of every situation and soon learns that he is reviled by almost everyone, including his own daughter.

The movie banks on its star power to save it from its own monotony, and while Gong holds up her end of the deal, Lau’s performance could use more emotional charge. He certainly has the star wattage to power the film, but his performance has a tinny ring as he pays more attention to Zigang’s style than to his inner life. The actor gives an alluring show as he slips into fishnets and slides on some ruby red lipstick, but like the character, Lau is too wrapped up in the appearance of things. He may sing and dance better than Mel Gibson, but he can’t generate the tenderness and fallibility to make Zigang a redeemable character.

One thing Lau can do well though is fit comfortably in the swank of Beijing, and director Chen does his best to amplify the film’s gloss and polish. Besides adapting an American story, he also imitates the urban glamour of similar romantic comedies. The movie’s not just a showcase for the modern Chinese woman but also for the modern Chinese city.

(This Mandarin language trailer uses Andy Lau’s voice, but he is dubbed on the Mandarin track on DVD.)

“Slip Away” by Andy Lau:

Released: 2011
Prod: Albert Lee 利雅博; Chris Liu 劉晶
Dir: Chen Daming 陳大明
Writer: Chen Daming 陳大明
Cast: Andy Lau 劉德華; Gong Li 鞏俐; Hu Jing 胡靜; Banny Chen 陳志明; Yuan Li 袁莉; Russell Wong 王盛德; Mavis Pan 潘霜霜; Zhu Zhu 朱珠; Du Juan 杜娟; Li Chengru 李誠儒; Anya 安雅; Tao Jia 陶佳; Osric Chau 周逸之; Wang Deshun 王德順
Time: 116 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2014

Hacks

hacks

Hacks clocks in at 48 minutes, making this one off comedy short on running time and, as it stands, even shorter on humor. Penned by Guy Jenkin, who was also responsible for the family sitcom Outnumbered and tv news satire Drop Dead the Donkey, it attempts to wring a few laughs out of the News of the World phone hacking scandal. But it appears that real life is hard to beat, and the excesses portrayed here seem tame compared to the depravity practiced by the NOTW gang.

The show is not so much a satire, much as it may want to be, as it is a depiction of events viewed through wacky glasses. The players are so thinly disguised that the legal department must have had their defenses drawn well before airing. Stanhope Feast is probably the most recognizable, with Michael Kitchen doing his best facsimile of a certain Australian media mogul. Kitchen adopts Mr. Murdoch’s pouchy demeanor and snarl to great effect while Claire Foy as the Sunday Comet’s ruthless journalist cum editor Kate Loy, and Stanhope’s favorite, recalls a similarly fierce reporter. The bright young thing eats her staff for breakfast, lunch, and dinner. Kayvan Novak of Fonejacker fame gts to use his comedic and voice talents as the newsroom’s most shameless ethical blackhole, a hack who breaks every rule without compunction. Outside the office, Alexander Armstrong plays David Bullingdon, a Tory MP with eyes on the PM prize; he also happens to live very near Jeremy Clarkson.

It’s admittedly amusing to see send-ups by such capable actors, but Hacks doesn’t add much besides some punchy one-liners. I found devilish joy in Kitchen’s irreverent performance. Best known as the reticent and exceedingly decent police detective Christopher Foyle in Foyle’s War, he runs in the opposite direction here, declaring, “When I need help, I’ll light a distress flare and stick it up my ass, alright? Bugger off.” But how does one top Wendi Deng’s infamous pieing smackdown? Ho Chi Mao Feast (Eleanor Matsuura) simply can’t improve on that absurdity, though the show tries and in doing so becomes a throwback dragon lady stereotype.

There are flashes of humanity for some of the characters. Loy spends many a restless night haunted by the voices her hacking victims, and the Comet’s lone standard bearer of journalistic ethics Ray (Phil Davis) tries to set her right. But the verdict is out and few are willing to rush to a tabloid editor’s defense. Stanhope’s beleaguered son Connor (John Hopkins) tries to lay the blame on his overbearing father. The ruse almost works, until you realize who you’re sympathizing with.

This jaunty tap dance along the line separating the real and the barely fake can only sustain itself for so long, which probably accounts for the abbreviated running time. The show is careful not to tread too closely to the victims, and as a result, just lampoons the figures already being eviscerated by the broadsheets. It doesn’t really reveal anything we don’t already know and feel about this mess. If you’ve kept up with the actual headlines, those will more than fit the entertainment and self-satire bill.

Released: 2012
Prod: Jimmy Mulville
Dir: Guy Jenkin
Writer: Guy Jenkin
Cast: Michael Kitchen, Claire Foy, Phil Davis, Alexander Armstrong, Kayvan Novak, John Hopkins, Celia Imrie, Nigel Planer, Lisa Greenwood, Eleanor Matsuura, Stella Gonet
Time: 48 min
Lang: English
Country: United Kingdom
Network: Channel 4
Reviewed: 2014

The Beast and the Beauty (야수와 미녀)

야수와 미녀

A homely guy falls in love with a beautiful girl and doesn’t much mind his looks because she’s blind. But when she gets an eye transplant, he decides he’s too unattractive for her and pretends to be on an extended work assignment in Hawaii, leaving room for his high school rival and resident hottie to make his move.

Scenarios such as this one generally get cataloged under saccharine storylines I despise. Blindness as a plot device to elicit sympathy smacks of cheap storytelling and does more to reinforce stereotypes than to break them down. But leave it up to Korean filmmakers to make this movie worth watching.

Voice actor Dong-gun (Ryoo Seung-bum) is all manners a wonderful boyfriend to Hae-joo (Shin Min-a). He shields her from the rain, ties her shoelaces when they come undone, and flies paper airplanes off the roof with her. Despite this, he has no confidence in his rough visage, and when Hae-joo regains her sight, he quickly arranges a plastic surgery fixer upper before he is willing to see her.

Dong-gun is of course not monstrous looking at all; Ryoo gives his character a schlubby charm that would endear him to many a girl. It’s a role that could easily have sunk into the pathetic though. Dong-gun gets several chances to set it right with Hae-joo but never grabs the opportunity. Ryoo breathes life into Dong-gun’s tortured hesitations and makes his self-doubt both amusing and very human.

Shin, who might be Cherrie Ying’s Korean sister, also delivers a dazzling performance. She spends a lot of time as the girl of everyone’s dreams, capturing not only the attention of Dong-gun but also that of dishy policeman Jun-ha (Kim Kang-woo) and the tatted members of the Dragons gang. She gets on the receiving end of some patronizing behavior, especially from Dong-gun who thinks he needs to create a perfect world for her, but Shin brings out Hae-joo’s flinty side and shines especially in the ending scenes.

Kim rounds out the cast and likewise lives up to his part as the handsome, successful rival to Dong-gun. Yet the suave Jun-ha also has a tentative side that one doesn’t usually see in such characters. He can’t figure out why Hae-joo doesn’t go for him and manages to express his frustrations in a way that doesn’t come off as conceited.

The actors’ measured approach makes this movie a touching romantic comedy, satisfying with some true laugh out loud moments – including a humorous turn by Ahn Kil-kang as a gangster with a grudge – and a lot of heartfelt romance.

Released: 2005
Prod: Lim Seong-yong
Dir: Lee Gye-byeok 이계벽
Writer: Han Jeong-hyeop 한정협; Hwang Jo-yoon 황조윤
Cast: Ryoo Seung-bum 류승범; Shin Min-a 신민아; Kim Kang-woo 김강우; Ahn Kil-kang 안길강; Ahn Sang-tae 안상태; Yun Jong-shin 윤종신
Time: 102 min
Lang: Korean
Reviewed: 2014

Please Teach Me English (영어완전정복)

please teach me english

Please Teach Me English gets off to a fast start. Yeong-ju (Lee Na-young) is a young public official who gets sent to an English learning center after she is unable to assist a disgruntled foreigner. She and her motley band of classmates try their best to spit out difficult English sounds and words under the direction of their Australian teacher Cathy (Angela Kelly). But for Yeong-ju, or Candy, learning English soon takes a backseat to attracting class clown and playboy Moon-su, aka Elvis (Jang Hyuk), who doesn’t reciprocate the attention and instead has eyes for Cathy.

The first half hour is fun, punchy comedy. The movie takes on a cartoonish tone, literally through the use of cartoons, but also with speech bubbles, imaginary video game scenarios, and lots of over-the-top humor. Lee does a delightful turn as the plain Jane who tries to be subtle about her affections and fails miserably. Though filmmakers hide her good looks behind chunky glasses and a choppy haircut, Lee’s comedic skills allow her character’s goofiness to shine through. She is matched by Jang, who takes what might have been a rascally one-note lothario and instead creates a sensitive if sometimes outlandish loner who is desperate for some positive reinforcement in his life.

The beginning is also wildly entertaining for people who have taught English in Asia or for those who have struggled to learn English there. The film spreads the laughs around and pokes fun at both sides of the classroom and the tutoring industry. On her way to her first lesson, a dizzying cloud of English churns noisily before Candy’s eyes. She’s petrified at the thought of learning the language and doesn’t understand why everyone’s so obsessed with it. “What’s wrong with being born in Korea and only knowing Korean?” she asks. Kelly gets a meatier role than most foreigners are afforded in these types of films and shows Cathy to be a well meaning but often frustrated teacher who may need to brush up on her pedagogy. It’s familiar and truthful and very playful.

Unfortunately, the remainder of the film doesn’t follow through, and the movie quickly loses steam after the initial batch of jokes. It runs at least a half hour too long and, like a slow English lesson, needlessly treads over familiar territory. Rather than making each scene count, too much time is wasted on rehashing earlier character and plot points. What starts as a spirited chase between Candy and Elvis powers down just when it should kick up, and the love story gives way to a more dramatic subplot about Elvis’s sister who was given up for adoption.

The movie’s tone definitely jumps around in the second and third acts, but it’s the pacing and not the comedic and dramatic shifts that are the problem. Elvis’s testy relationship with his mother, who takes out her family frustrations on him, makes him a more interesting and sympathetic romantic lead than usual. Their attempts to reconnect with his sister is actually a touching twist to an otherwise routine comedy.

However, it throws the film, or at least these filmmakers, off balance. This is a movie about learning English, specifically the people who do, but does it want to focus on timid Candy, who tries to conquer language and love, or blustery Elvis, who puts on a show in order to do a son’s duty? Or does it want to be about both? The film stretches you in several directions and only manages to settle on anything at the very end, but the endearing performances by Lee and Jang will be enough to tide you over.

Released: 2003
Prod: Choi Jeong-hwa
Dir: Kim Sung-su 김성수
Writer: Noh Hye-yeong 노혜영
Cast: Lee Na-young 이나영; Jang Hyuk 장혁; Na Moon-hee 나문희; Angela Kelly; Kim In-mun 김인문; Hwang Hyo-eun 황효은; Jeong Seok-yong 정석용
Time: 118 min
Lang: Korean, English
Reviewed: 2014