Month: January 2015

Crossing Hennessy (月滿軒尼詩)

crossing hennessy

Hennessy Road is the main thoroughfare in Wanchai and bisects the vibrant Hong Kong Island district. Strolling down the street can be like stepping into a Hong Kong tourism video, if you have the right eye for things. Unfortunately, writer-director Ivy Ho lacks a sharpness with the camera that she has with the pen. Her film is one that might have yielded lush visuals to accompany its subjects. Stretches of Hennessy are paneled with glossy skyscrapers across from which sit stubborn pawn shops sweating paint curls. There are walk-ups squished resolutely between luxury apartment complexes while rusty stalls selling electronic bits or fish food bookend certain blocks. Meanwhile, a scramble of gamblers, foreigners, and elderly footballers provide a rhythmic soundtrack to the sights.

Such vividness is lacking in Crossing Hennessy though, and Wanchai instead comes across as a generic part of Hong Kong or any Asian city for that matter. The tram, which famously dings its way from one end of the island to the other, crawls through a few scenes but there’s little significance except to denote that the action takes place in Hong Kong and not in Kowloon or the New Territories.

What Ho fails to capture on camera, however, she compensates with careful attention to her flawed characters, most of whom would make awkward to uncomfortable lunch dates. That is how Loy (Jacky Cheung) and Lin (Tang Wei) are initially thrown together. Loy’s relatives, headed by his strong-willed mother Mrs. Chiang (Paw Hee-Ching), are determined to put an end to his bachelor days, but it’s a hard task given that he’s a perpetual man-child, that fortysomething who still needs to be roused from bed in the morning. They seek out the owners of bathroom supply store (Lam Wai and Margaret Cheung), ostensibly on the other side of Hennessy, eager to find a good partner for their niece, Lin. As far as practicality goes, it’s a good match; Loy’s family runs a household electronics business, so in addition to a new in-law, there’s also the latest model toilet or dehumidifier to be gained.

The first date over dim sum includes all their family members and goes off course when Loy insists on poking happy faces into his custard bun and Lin dresses like a frumpy kid who’s just discovered her mother’s makeup drawer. Still, they meet again out of obedience. There are no sparks, neither from romance nor from great dislike, and in fact, the two spend a lot of time feeling indifferent towards one another

One reason is that Lin is already attached. She’s devoted to her boyfriend, Xu (Andy On), who is serving time for assault, and arranges for his post-release life with care. Meanwhile, Loy continues to long for his childhood sweetheart (Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee), a newly divorced, well-to-do photographer. These are relationships nearing or past their due dates, and it’s not clear how long the partners will hold out.

That’s not how a romantic comedy usually unfolds, which, despite its marketing, this movie is not. There is little rush to show Loy and Lin’s compatibility even when they find a few things to bond over – a love of murder mysteries, their meddlesome relatives, their love lives. Certain audiences will dislike the way the script proceeds at a snail’s pace, but sometimes there is more story in the process of friendship than in a paint-by-numbers romance.

It actually helps, for once, that there is a sizable age gap between the two leads, widening the distance between them and making their relationship all the more improbable. But when they grow closer, it never becomes creepy or perverse, thanks to some nuanced performances. Cheung is adept at playing an emotionally stunted adult haunted by the loss of the two affirming relationships in his life (with his ex and his father, played by Lowell Lo in dream sequences). He overplays it a bit at times, but he conveys the core of his character effectively. At the other end of the spectrum is Lin, and Tang breathes maturity into her character. She has an easy intimacy with Cheung and On even when her onscreen persona does not. The script doesn’t allow her to stretch her part too far, but in holding back, she still lets Lin’s emotions peek through.

A peppery supporting cast adds to the simmering partnership, and Paw is at the center. Brash, demanding, and selfish, she draws attention in every way. You wouldn’t want Loy’s mother to raise you. So it’s no wonder why he’d rather be spoiled by his spinster aunt, a familiar role that Mimi Chu gives aching personality to. Uncle Ching also gets caught in Mrs. Chiang’s net. Danny Lee plays her accountant cum lover, or maybe it’s the other way around, with equal parts adoration and exasperation. They are a whirlwind that occasionally disrupts the stasis, and like the rest of this movie, a reflection of the fits and starts that mark ordinary life.

“Lucky in Love” by Jacky Cheung:

Released: 2010
Prod: Yee Chung-Man 奚仲文; Cary Cheng 鄭劍鋒; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達
Dir: Ivy Ho 岸西
Writer: Ivy Ho 岸西
Cast: Jacky Cheung 張學友; Tang Wei 湯唯; Paw Hee-Ching 鮑起靜; Mimi Chu 朱咪咪; Danny Lee 李修賢; Andy On 安志杰; Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee 張可頤; Lowell Lo 盧冠廷; Lam Wai 林威; Margaret Cheung 張瀅子; Kwok Fung 郭鋒; Gill Mohindepaul Singh 喬寶寶; Ekin Cheng 鄭伊健; Derek Tsang 曾國祥; Maggie Siu 邵美琪; Cheuk Wai-Man 卓慧敏
Time: 105 min
Lang: Cantonese, some Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Look for a Star (游龍戲鳳)

look for a star

There are three improbable relationships at work in Look for a Star, all of which cross some social boundaries of class, gender, wealth, age, or education and none of which are engaging enough on their own. Three definitely makes a crowd though as this picture struggles to accommodate each couple.

The bulk of the story falls on Andy Lau and Shu Qi. Lau plays Sam Ching, a thrice divorced millionaire and property developer who’s been snatching up land all through Macau. Milan, played by Shu Qi, holds a pretty low opinion of Mr. Ching for turning her city into an overdeveloped playground, but there’s not much she can do as a baccarat dealer and nightclub club dancer. After a sequence of events not fully made clear by the narrative, the two start dating, except Sam withholds his true identity. Anyone can see this isn’t a wise decision, but filmmakers deem it necessary to progress to a second act.

Sam’s second-in-command, Jo (Denise Ho), also gets some action with the help of her boss, but when the initial set-up doesn’t go as planned, she finds herself on the receiving end of some unwanted attention from a polite but clingy migrant worker Jiu (Zhang Hanyu). Chauffeur Tim (Dominic Lam) tries his luck in love as well. Sam arranges for him to go on a date with Shannon (Zhang Xinyi), who seems a perfect match except that she is also a single mother, thus failing to tick off all the right boxes on his list.

It’s an ambitious slate and you get the sense that the filmmakers want to go somewhere deeper with their material. The third act is a blustery show of commentaries on love and compatibility and comes in the form of an incredulous matchmaking program hosted by Cheung Tat-Ming. He (cruelly) highlights the extreme social divide that separates each pair of lovers, and it’s an attempt to expose what some see as the superficial barriers that thwart true love. At the same time, Milan gives an honest but brief perspective on the reality of relationships characterized by such differences.

I’m not a great admirer of Shu Qi’s work, and some of her earlier scenes – dancing by herself in an elevator, performing a kittenish can can – seem to be inserted to up her coquettish appeal. But she really captures her character’s dignity and humiliation after becoming tabloid fodder and the subject of scrutiny by Sam’s company. Zhang Hanyu also commands attention in his small role. He has a quiet but intense magnetism that makes his character understandably appealing.

It’s too bad then that Jiu’s relationship with Jo wasn’t given greater focus. Their pairing is touching but, like most of the emotions in this movie, not lasting. Look for a Star is weighed down by chatty conversations that want to take on more importance than they actually do, leaving the film to start a discussion that stalls shortly thereafter.

“I Do” by Andy Lau and Shu Qi:

Released: 2009
Prod: Andrew Lau 劉偉強
Dir: Andrew Lau 劉偉強
Writer: Theresa Tang 鄧潔明; James Yuen 阮世生
Cast: Andy Lau 劉德華; Shu Qi 舒淇; Denise Ho 何韻詩; Zhang Hanyu 張涵予; Dominic Lam 林嘉華; Zhang Xinyi 張歆藝; Cheung Tat-Ming 張達明; David Chiang 姜大衛; Maria Cordero 瑪利亞; George Lam 林子祥; Raymond Cho 曹永廉; Monie Tung 董敏莉; Rebecca Pan 潘迪華; Ella Koon 官恩娜; Terence Yin 尹子維; Tony Ho 何華超
Time: 117 min
Lang: Cantonese, Mandarin, and some English
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Into the Woods

into the woods

Revisionist tellings are the thing these days, and upending popular notions of heroism, chivalry, and romance says something about our willingness to part with the way things are supposed to be and instead see things the way they are. Maybe that’s some of the appeal of reality TV, which pretends to be a reflection of some life, though never one that I lead. There is also the much lauded boom of anti-heroes, mostly men, mostly white, fronting massive hit television shows. We like them because they’re badass, or complex as critics say, but also because they share our penchant for really screwing things up.

So it’s appropriate that Into the Woods, the beloved stage musical, is finally getting the flashy cinematic treatment after years in development hell. A staple for the Broadway set, it sucked the glitter out of fairy tales long before Wicked and Frozen’s far tamer efforts at subversion. Was it worth the wait? I can guess what purists would say but for my money, Rob Marshall’s star-studded film delivers a magical and poignant adaptation that may not equal the stage production but is a worthy substitute.

Into the Woods was always a scattershot story, combining pieces of half a dozen fairy tales to create a new anti-fairy tale. In translating the musical to the screen, James Lapine, who penned the original book, excises a few deaths and romantic liaisons and trims some roles. The result is still sprawling, just less so.

The Baker (James Corden) and his Wife (Emily Blunt) center the story with their desire to have a child. Their neighbor, a hideous witch (Meryl Streep) who cursed the family line, promises to grant their wish if they can collect certain items within three days time. They must find the cow as white as milk, the cape as red as blood, the hair as yellow as corn, and the slipper as pure as gold.

The couple set off into the woods and gradually encounter some familiar characters. Jack (Daniel Huttlestone), of beanstalk fame, is forced by his mother (Tracey Ullman) to sell his beloved cow so that they don’t starve. Little Red (Lilla Crawford) is on her way to visit her old grandmother. Rapunzel (MacKenzie Mauzy) is locked in her tower, and Cinderella (Anna Kendrick) is running to and from the King’s festival.

Each has something that the Baker and his Wife need, and in their desperation, the couple resort to trickery and outright theft to get it. It’s not the sort of thing you’d expect from a sanitized fairy tale, and those fantasies are precisely what Into the Woods aims to deconstruct. There’s a happily ever after, but it occurs midway through the movie, leaving the second act fertile ground for the dashing of dreams.

Director Marshall has the monstrous task of bringing the beast to life and is more successful with this than with his previous efforts in the genre. Whereas Chicago and Nine are characterized by frenetic direction and editing, here Marshall leads with a more patient hand. It helps that the movie is firmly planted in a world given to the magic of musical storytelling. He lets the lyrics and characters dictate the camera’s eye, and it roams leisurely over the impressive set. (It also helps that he didn’t attempt to film in 3D.)

The movie avoids another pitfall that plagues film adaptations of musicals by casting actors who can sing. They might not all have the power of Broadway vocalists, but their voices suit the medium. Blunt, in particular, brings a gentle nuance to her role as the Baker’s Wife and is especially moving in “Finale/Children Will Listen.” Kendrick already has a Tony nomination (for High Society) to back her up, and Huttlestone and Crawford are likewise experienced singers who add perk but much knowing to their young characters. After a middling performance in Mamma Mia!, I didn’t hold out great hopes for Streep, but she lives up to her billing, instilling fear and ache in equal measure. The real discovery though is Chris Pine, who puts his leading man reputation to good use. Not only does he belt out the film’s funniest number (“Agony” with Billy Magnussen), he proves that he’s damn good at comedy. His buffoonish, over-the-top Prince Charming is something to savor.

Of course the real magic is in Lapine’s book and Stephen Sondheim’s music and lyrics. The words and melodies are some of the most haunting and emotional on stage. As disjointed as the story may seem at times, the moments of clarity each character experiences are arresting and ring with truth, ripping the fairy tales from colorful pages and throwing them into reality. There is charm, beauty, and enchantment, but there is also selfishness, greed, and lust. And while the stories we tell try to keep kids’ naïveté intact, Lapine and Sondheim remind you that children see the world around them. They grow up, and they can’t always be protected. Says Little Red after she’s been tempted and devoured by the Wolf (Johnny Depp) and then freed by the Baker, “Isn’t it nice to know a lot, and a little bit not.”

“Careful the spell you cast, not just on children. Sometimes the spell may last past what you can see and turn against you.”

“Agony” by Chris Pine and Billy Magnussen:

“I Know Things Now” by Lilla Crawford:

“There are Giants in the Sky” by Daniel Huttlestone:

“No One is Alone” by Anna Kendrick, James Corden, Lilla Crawford, and Daniel Huttlestone:

Released: 2014
Prod: Rob Marshall, John DeLuca, Marc Platt, Callum McDougal
Dir: Rob Marshall
Writer: James Lapine
Cast: Meryl Streep, Emily Blunt, James Corden, Anna Kendrick, Chris Pine, Tracey Ullman, Christine Baranski, Johnny Depp, Lilla Crawford, Daniel Huttlestone, MacKenzie Mauzy, Billy Magnussen, Tammy Blanchard, Lucy Punch, Joanna Riding, Frances de la Tour, Richard Glover, Simon Russell Beale
Time: 124 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015