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

A Simple Life (桃姐)

ASL main Poster5

A Simple Life is a love story, not the effusive kind brimming with laughter or smothered in kisses and certainly not the romantic kind, but one that strips love down to its elemental nature and shows it in its barest form. Its two protagonists appear to keep a distance that’s easy to dismiss; they are, after all, servant and master. But behind their sometimes cold interactions is a deep affection that overcomes their social positions.

Ah Tao (Deanie Ip) has served the Leung family for sixty years. Orphaned at a young age, she once again finds herself alone. The only member of the family left to take care of is Roger (Andy Lau), a film producer who frequently travels to the Mainland for work (the story is based on the memories of the real-life Roger Lee, the movie’s co-writer). The rest have emigrated to America and rarely return to Hong Kong. Ah Tao walks with a slight shuffle and pauses between staircase landings. She is long past retirement age, though no one seems to have paid attention to that. And so without any relatives or identity beyond that of the Leung family, she stays on as their caretaker.

She has also, without Roger’s realization, become his most enduring relationship. They have a shorthand that plays out wordlessly, mime-like. When he sits down for breakfast, Ah Tao has already set out his meal, sans a bowl of soup which she places moments later into his outreached hand. For someone like myself who was brought up to do her own damn chores, and in adulthood to cook her own meals, there’s a level of discomfort in seeing the two silently glide through the scene. There are no polite nods of acknowledgement or even mumbled “thank yous” to pierce the quiet.

That dynamic quickly shifts, however, when Ah Tao suffers a stroke early on the movie. Roger is at her hospital bedside when she tells him she’s quitting and wants to move into a retirement home. He throws up a few words of protest that do little to dissuade her and then takes up the dry task of finding a suitable residence. He settles on one mostly because it is run by an old friend (Anthony Wong) who cuts him a deal and promises Ah Tao special treatment.

The role reversal reveals the depth of their attachment to one another. Roger is far more attuned to maintaining relationships on a film set than he is in his own home (and gets help from cameos by Tsui Hark and Sammo Hung), and at first, his doting seems obligatory. But despite his characteristic reserve, his feelings for his longtime servant and surrogate mother begin to surface. He and his friends call her up and reminisce with genuine fondness. He teases her about a flirty resident (Paul Chun) only for her to shoot back with questions about his fallow love life.

At the same time, Ah Tao allows herself to assume a different role in Roger’s life. She takes quiet delight when he’s mistaken for her godson, a misunderstanding he doesn’t bother to correct. When they sit huddled on a floor combing through a chest of her belongings, it is a scene of ritual remembrance undertaken by parents and children. They relive shared memories and she passes on those he does not recall. Their closeness is emphasized by a visit from his mother, who brings formality but not familiarity to the dynamic.

The film’s strength lies in director and co-writer Ann Hui’s discipline. She has a poetic eye that shies away from the showy moments of the story and instead focuses on the after-effects. Ah Tao’s heart attack, for example, happens off-screen as does the death of another nursing home resident. Hui’s camera sifts through the landscape and seems to stumble on details almost accidentally, lingering on something or someone just long enough to show curiosity but not too long to gawk at its subject. When Ah Tao first enters the home, she spies a row of residents strapped to their chairs. A woman gumming a sippy cup catches her attention, and Hui politely turns away after a few seconds, capturing Ah Tao’s reaction in the process.

There is also restraint in tone for a setting rich in opportunities for social criticism. Hui allows for points of commentary, such as when Roger attempts to cut through the nursing home’s obfuscation, but this ultimately isn’t a campaign for better treatment of the elderly. It’s a film about love but also about variations on that theme -loneliness and growing old. A Simple Life is neither oppressive in its portrait of old age nor does it try to overcompensate with excessive optimism.

Besides Hui’s direction, the performances also merit praise, and Ip and Lau have been rewarded generously. Ip nabbed the Best Actress gong at the Venice Film Festival for her role and both were lauded at various Asian award ceremonies. I’m not sure how many actresses in Hong Kong would age up to play Ah Tao, but Ip does so unabashedly and flawlessly. It’s not that her mannerisms remind you of your grandmother, though they do, but that she gives tremendous life to a character who’s done her best to hide herself. She throws some wicked side eye besides. Whereas Ip’s performance demands attention, Lau is at his most unobtrusive. Like much of the film, his acting is understated, a single man accustomed to being in the shadows of show business and even his mother’s presence. Elena Kong also deserves recognition as the daughter of a resident who feels the Learian burden of proving her love for her mother. In a movie filled with bursts of poignancy, her subplot might best exposes the pain of love and family.

Released: 2011
Prod: Roger Lee 李恩霖; Ann Hui 許鞍華; Jessica Chan 陳佩華; Nansun Shi 施南生; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達; Stephen Lam 林炳坤
Dir: Ann Hui 許鞍華
Writer: Susan Chan 陳淑賢; Roger Lee 李恩霖
Cast: Deannie Ip 葉德嫻; Andy Lau 劉德華; Qin Hailu 秦海璐; Wang Fuli 王馥荔; Paul Chun 秦沛; Leung Tin 梁天; Hui Siu-Ying 許素瑩; Hui Pik-Kei 許碧姬; Elena Kong 江美儀; Yu Man-Si 余文詩; Jason Chan 陳智燊; Anthony Wong 黃秋生; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Eman Lam 林二汶; Lam Yee-Lok 林以諾; Queenie Chu 朱慧敏; Tsui Hark 徐克; Sammo Hung 洪金寶; Jim Chim 詹瑞文; Francis Mak 麥潤壽; Lawrence Lau 劉國昌; Gung Suet-Fa 宮雪花; Helena Law 羅蘭
Time: 118 min
Lang: Cantonese, some Mandarin, English, and Korean
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

2 Become 1 (天生一對)

2 become 1

2 Become 1’s greatest value is as a public service announcement for breast cancer awareness. And inasmuch as I favor helping women recognize the importance of regular checkups and anything that lessens the stigma of breast cancer, I heartily endorse this movie. It shouldn’t feel as bold as it does, but it’s a rarity in a Hong Kong film landscape that tends to skirt around such concrete issues, especially those facing women. So kudos to this film for not only including a female character with breast cancer but for making it, and not a daffy romance, the central issue.

That’s not to say love isn’t in the air, or that the movie isn’t daffy. 2 Become 1 still qualifies as a romance, and it’s through this angle that Bingo (Miriam Yeung), an uptight marketer, finds out she has the disease. She and Vincent (Richie Ren) spot each other twice in one night and promptly end up in bed together, but just long enough for him to feel her up and discover a lump. She doesn’t know he’s a doctor, however, and assumes he’s a pervert. Nevertheless, she heeds his warning and gets herself checked out.

When her tests come back positive, Bingo goes through various stages of grief, though not always in the prescribed order. At various points, she accepts her diagnosis with a positive attitude, tries to reason her way to better health, and decides she’d rather just end it all. Yeung captures Bingo’s conflicted emotions at critical moments – when she first learns she has cancer and then finds Vincent hanging around in the waiting room, when she tries to tell her boss so that she can take sick leave, when she reconnects with a lost love under trying circumstances. But she’s not skilled enough of an actress to stitch her dramatic scenes with her comedic ones, and Bingo ends up being an inconsistent and not always empathetic character. A relationship she handles relatively well is the one Bingo has with her family, where there’s plenty of talking but little communication, and Yeung does a better job balancing her comedic tendencies with the subject matter.

Unfortunately, the movie takes an unnecessary turn south with Ren’s character. Not content to leave him in a supporting role, Vincent gets a ridiculous subplot that trivializes Bingo’s story. His initial experience with her left him so traumatized, on level with 9/11 and the Indian Ocean tsunami survivors, that he’s gone flaccid. He inserts himself back into Bingo’s life not out of concern for her so much as he believes that dating her will help him overcome his erectile dysfunction.

That is clearly done for laughs, as is a scene where Bingo’s fey friend helps her do a self-exam. The humor doesn’t stand out but has its uses in a society that isn’t comfortable talking so openly about breast cancer. It helps also that Yeung and Ren tackle the subject without reservation. Still, I probably would have enjoyed the movie more if attempted to treat the story in a more personal manner. Too often the script reads like a public health department info sheet and checklist, and if that’s what they’re aiming for, I might as well have watched an actual PSA. At least that’s shorter.

“Fated” (天生注定) by Miriam Yeung and Richie Ren:

“You’ll Shine Again” by Justin Lo:

“A Song a Day” by Justin Lo, and my favorite part of the movie:

Released: 2006
Prod: Johnnie To 杜琪峰
Dir: Law Wing-Cheong 羅永昌
Writer: Andrew Fung 馮志強
Cast: Miriam Yeung 楊千嬅; Richie Ren 任賢齊; Jo Kuk 谷祖琳; Guo Tao 郭濤; Victoria Wu 鄔玉君; Justin Lo 側田; Maggie Siu 邵美琪; Chun Wong 秦煌; Lily Li 李麗麗; Ai Wai 艾威; Florence Kwok 郭少芸; Gordon Lam 林家棟; Fung Hak-On 馮克安; Eddie Cheung 張兆輝; Hui Siu-Hung 許紹雄
Time: 97 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015