Month: July 2015

My Name is Fame (我要成名)

my name is fame

Art, it is sometimes said, holds a mirror up to society, and that seems to be the case with My Name is Fame. A film about filmmaking, I suspect it inspired introspection within the Hong Kong entertainment industry, which had long praised and relied on the superior talents of Lau Ching-Wan without rewarding him accordingly. In this movie, he plays a skilled but frequently overlooked actor who coaches a newcomer to stardom while trying to not so much revive a critically successful career as to kickstart one. Lau’s efforts earned him his first ever Hong Kong Film Awards gong.

It’s an honor long overdue, so the irony of this role gives fans like me some sweet satisfaction. His character, Poon Kar-Fai, delivers an acting master class to his protégé, and the audience, and Lau showcases the texture he always brings to his characters. There is something flinty behind his thick, hangdog face, and despite Fai’s emotional exhaustion and stereotypical dip into the bottle, one can sense his simmering passion. Never an actor to back down from the integrity of his craft, Fai knows a deal more about storytelling and performance than some of the people running the show. His unwillingness to compromise as well as his expectation that others commit fully to each job doesn’t earn him many friends.

Since his perpetual state of underemployment leaves him with a lot of time, Fai volunteers to chaperone a fresh actress, Faye (Huo Siyan), contracted under his ex’s (Candy Yu) agency. What starts as a one-off act of kindness, however, gradually develops into something deeper. If this was a Woody Allen film, the middle-aged master would school his much younger, wide-eyed pupil not only in the art of acting but romance as well, with emphasis on the latter. But it’s not, and most of the focus stays on their professional relationship. Faye not only learns to be a better performer but also how to navigate the industry, while the ill-tempered Fai, seeing her approach to the profession that has mostly yielded disappointment, re-evaluates his commitment to it.

Huo is expressive in wonderfully slight ways as her character blossoms into a leading actress. The part requires a certain nuance where Faye is shown filming successive takes of a single scene, and Huo delivers each shot with precision. And while the two leads seem oddly matched in physicality and temperament, they blend effortlessly, both the actors and characters giving and taking until they’ve reached some sort of intellectual and emotional equilibrium (see, this isn’t Woody Allen).

These two very accomplished performances (Huo also received a Best Newcomer nomination) are marred, however, by a problem that plagues recent Hong Kong productions – dubbing. There should just be an understanding that actors will be screened in whatever dialect they’ve acted in or, if consistency is required, that a better effort will be made to find actors who can deliver in the necessary language. After first watching the Cantonese track, I was surprised to hear Faye’s reedy voice replaced by Huo’s deeper, less giggly interpretation when I switched to the Mandarin one. The best solution might be a quick finger on the audio button, but even that won’t do full justice to the performances.

Released: 2006
Prod: Henry Fong 方平; Shan Dongbing 單東炳
Dir: Lawrence Lau 劉國昌
Writer: James Yuen 阮世生; Jessica Fong 方晴;Law Yiu-Fai 羅耀輝
Cast: Lau Ching-Wan 劉青雲; Huo Siyan 霍思燕; Candy Yu 余安安; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥; Derek Tsang 曾國祥; Elena Kong 江美儀; Kong Hon 江漢; Leung San 梁珊; Tony Leung Ka-Fai 梁家輝; Ann Hui 許鞍華; Ekin Cheng 鄭伊健; Remus Choi 蔡一傑; Calvin Choi 蔡一智; Edmond So 蘇志威; Niki Chow 周麗琪; Fruit Chan 陳果; Henry Fong 方平; Jo Kuk 谷祖琳; Lau Dan 劉丹
Time: 94 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Oliver and Company

oliver and company

I’m a sucker for anything with kittens, so Oliver and Company earns my good will by virtue of its opening scene. It’s New York City, and Oliver (Joey Lawrence), an adorable orange tabby, watches as his littermates are adopted one by one till he is left alone, forced to fend off rain and human foot traffic by himself. When a scruffy street dog, Dodger (Billy Joel) tricks him into stealing sausages but doesn’t share the loot, the sight of the maltreated kitty brings about another surge of oxytocin.

Loosely based off Charles Dickens’s Oliver Twist, it’s a story primed to take advantage of all your charitable instincts anyway. Oliver quickly falls in with Dodger’s ragtag gang of canine thieves, which includes sultry Rita, dim Einstein, theatrical Francis, and Tito, the scrappy, heavily accented, not at all politically correct Chihuahua. Their loyalty lies with a human caretaker, Fagin (Dom DeLuise), who in this iteration is a sympathetic ringleader compelled to a life of crime more by circumstance than by pure maleficence.

The major conflict revolves around his debt to Sykes (Robert Loggia), a ferocious, cigar-chomping hulk of a man flanked by two snarling Dobermans. In order to repay the money he owes, Fagin devises a kidnapping. After a robbery gone wrong, Oliver has found his fortunes reversed and is taken in by a lonely and very wealthy girl, Jenny. Fagin bets that the girl’s affections for her new pet will help him secure Sykes’s money and holds the kitten hostage.

While never soaring to the artistic heights of its source material or other Disney classics, Oliver and Company is plenty satisfying for a slight seventy-odd minute diversion. It’s true that the animation rarely jumps out and sometimes veers towards Saturday morning cartoon quality. There are also brief moments of theatricality that could be used to better effect. Billy Joel and Bette Midler, who voices Jenny’s prima donna poodle, give the film some serious Big Apple attitude, but their musical numbers deserve something showier and more Broadway than confined set pieces or a succession of close-ups and medium shots. The spunky characters make up for those deficiencies, however. For a film populated with unwanted pets and thieves, there’s a lot of warmth and love, and it’s something young audiences can appreciate without judgment.

Feel that 80s vibe! “Once Upon a Time in New York City” by Huey Lewis:

“Why Should I Worry” by Billy Joel:

“Streets of Gold” by Ruth Pointer:

“Perfect isn’t Easy” by Bette Midler:

Released: 1988
Dir: George Scribner
Writer: Jim Cox, Tim Disney, James Mangold
Cast: Joey Lawrence, Billy Joel, Cheech Marin, Richard Mulligan, Roscoe Lee Browne, Sheryl Lee Ralph, Dom DeLuise, Robert Loggia, Taurean Blacque, Bette Midler, Natalie Gregory, Ruth Pointer
Time: 73 min
Lang: English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2015

Golden Chicken (金雞)

golden chicken

It’s not an ideal time to discover your walls are paper-thin when Sandra Ng, the titular golden chicken – or prostitute in common parlance, breaks out into yet another ecstatic and ostensibly faked moan. I felt it was my neighborly duty to have the mute button on ready in case things got a little too heated, or loud, though in honesty, I should have expected those shrill cries of ecstasy. Still, it’s not quite the Category III sex romp you might be picturing, and Golden Chicken falls on the funny side of the world’s oldest profession. It throws up a few cheap thrills to get the holiday audience laughing but also tries to find its dramatic footing as the film wears on.

The story begins in the present day, which is the tail end of 2002 and just before SARS hitteth the fan. When a power outage traps a broke Kam (Ng) (the Kam or Golden of the title) in an ATM booth with a would-be robber (Eric Tsang), she decides to pass the time by recounting her glorious exploits, and some of the not-so-glorious ones. What follows is a retrospective on twenty odd years of Hong Kong history through the eyes of an unprivileged observer.

A self-described ugly duckling who entered the industry at fifteen, Kam isn’t like the other prostitutes who rely on various physical assets to beguile the customers. Her trick is a spot-on imitation of Jackie Chan’s drunken fist kungfu, which she performs in a sparkling, bodice-hugging dress. As she rides the political and economic changes of the 1980s and 90s, her fortunes rise, then fall, with those of her financially well endowed clients. At one point Kam makes enough money to buy a flat that can accommodate a king sized bed, which is more than I can ever hope for.

But she also remarks on shifts in her line of her work that hint at greater social transformations – the advent of mobile phones and karaoke and more importantly the arrival of Mainland prostitutes. These observations don’t generally serve as a broader social critique; however, the film does slip in some commentary on the indomitable Hong Kong spirit. Ever resourceful Kam never gives up – and never moves up – but keeps on trucking despite the hard times, of which there are many.

Most of her disappointments are in personal relationships, not just with the people she is around but also in their absence. The film is strongest when Kam gets the chance to develop something more lasting than a quick sexual encounter. It’s funny when a bespectacled Eason Chan, the first in a strong line of cameos, shows up as a timid loner and asks Kam to service him in the manner of his ex-girlfriend, but that encounter is more for the novelty of seeing the two actors get frisky in the shower.

The better interactions occur later on, between Kam and nice guy Richard (Felix Wong) and then moody gangster Yeh (Hu Jun). These give both Kam and the story more weight. At one point, she is burdened with an unwanted pregnancy and later, she simply feels like a worn woman. Unfortunately, every time the film begins to settle down, it always recalibrates, bouncing to the next client and/or period in history. It’s easy to lose interest, as I did, when there’s little except the force of Ng’s personality to tie Kam’s life together. The overarching narrative seems to be Kam’s quest to secure her next paycheck, and hopefully a big one. For better, the film doesn’t try to excuse her chosen profession but it also doesn’t do much to explore it, thus lessening the impact of its more emotional moments.

Released: 2002
Prod: Peter Chan 陳可辛; Jojo Hui 許月珍
Dir: Samson Chiu 趙良駿
Writer: Matt Chow 鄒凱光; Samson Chiu 趙良駿
Cast: Sandra Ng 吳君如; Eric Tsang 曾志偉, Andy Lau 劉德華; Tony Leung Ka-Fai 梁家輝; Hu Jun 胡軍; Eason Chan 陳奕迅; Alfred Cheung 張堅庭; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Felix Wong 黃日華; Tiffany Lee 李蘢怡; Crystal Tin 田蕊妮
Time: 106 min
Lang: Cantonese, some Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Mrs Ratcliffe’s Revolution

mrs ratcliffes revolution

Mrs. Ratcliffe’s revolution begins, as I suppose many do, by accident. It’s 1968, and countries around the world are experiencing social and political changes of all sorts. But all is mostly well in Bingley where Dorothy Ratcliffe (Catherine Tate) lives with her husband Frank, two daughters, and brother Philip. Well, that’s not entirely true; Dorothy seems to have settled into a stasis, accepting the unhappiness around her but nevertheless trying to make the best of things.

Her eldest daughter, Alex (Brittany Ashworth), is an art student who’s embraced liberation of every kind and doesn’t appreciate her mother’s prudish attitudes. To her younger daughter, Mary (Jessica Barden), she’s a non-entity, her passionately communist husband (Iain Glen) on the receiving end of all Mary’s affections. She also looks after socially awkward Philip (Nigel Betts), who stays at home fiddling with his necktie contraption. When Frank gets an offer to teach English literature in East Germany, she casts the deciding vote that sends everyone packing.

Dorothy hopes that the change will have a positive effect on the family and jolt her out of her ennui. Perhaps with her husband happily living out his socialist dream, he’ll be less inclined to proselytize at home, and they can enjoy lazy dinners and jazz records instead of focusing on the problems of the proletariat. Of course, Frank’s imagined utopia doesn’t deliver on its promises, and it’s not long before things take a Kafkaesque turn, forcing Dorothy to wrestle back control of her family that has been hijacked in varying ways by paranoid government officials, including sexy homewrecker Frau Unger played by Heike Makatsch (Love Actually) in yet another sexy homewrecker role.

If you only know Tate from her variously offended and offensive characters in her self-titled sketch comedy show, you’ll be pleased to see her very able dramatic performance in this film. She is certainly funny, but the humor here is understated – one-liners and split-second expressions delivered more as punctuation than as loud capital letters. And while Tate shows that she can deliver laughs from across the comedic spectrum, she is just as effective as a mousy housewife, desperate to fulfill her role as wife and mother yet feeling like she has failed at both.

It’s through her eyes that we most clearly see the surreal world they’ve stepped into. Although the film begins with Mary as the narrator, her workers’ paradise perspective is dropped in favor of Dorothy’s neutral view. What she comes to learn about her new home is at first funny and peculiar. A phalanx of choristers materializes out of nowhere, for example, and greets them with a soulless rendition of “My Bonnie Lies Over the Ocean.” But you can’t take these crazy glasses off, and before she knows it, she’s assisting in defections and bribing her own way out of the country. But in the end, the film is less about the triumph of capitalism and more a testament to a woman who gets it done.

Released: 2007
Prod: Hugo Heppell
Dir: Bille Eltringham
Writer: Bridget O’Connor, Peter Straughan
Cast: Catherine Tate, Iain Glen, Brittany Ashworth, Heike Makatsch, Jessica Barden, Christian Brassington, Nigel Betts, Robert Daniel Lowe, Ottilia Borbáth, Fanni Futár, Imola Gáspár, Karl Kranzkowski
Time: 102 min
Lang: English, some German
Country: United Kingdom
Reviewed: 2015

Stormy Night (あらしのよるに)

stormy night

Stormy Night joins a long list of films about forbidden friendships and, despite its origins as a children’s book, is surprisingly philosophical and well suited for adults and kids. The movie runs a little long and lacks a distinctive animation style, which is a little disappointing considering the many landscapes used. It also opts for some mechanical and clichéd Looney Tunes gags, but it’s a touching story that proudly wears its heart on its sleeve. When a goat Mei and a wolf Gabu begin to grow close after taking shelter in the same barn one stormy night, they don’t realize how much their friendship will test their loyalties to each other and to their pack or herd, not to mention Gabu’s stomach.

The traumatic opening scene, rather than being a bad start with the promise of better things to come, sets the film’s complex emotional tone. That the animated story involves a pint-sized goat and furry wolf shouldn’t fool you into thinking this is a lightweight tale. It’s a life or death existence for both friends and their fellow goats and wolves, and the two barely get any respite from the realities they face. Mei and his herd must be remain vigilant lest they become goat chow while Gabu and his pack are on a constant chase to fill their stomachs, especially as winter approaches.

The movie tries to put predators and prey on equal footing, but the wolves still come off needlessly evil. Anyone who’s seen The Lion King will recognize the pack leader’s distinctive eye scar, and Gabu’s dim, yappy friends are exceedingly hyena-like. Even Gabu doesn’t seem all that friendly, though few things do compared to Mei’s dewdrop eyes.

Having found a playmate in one another the two vow to remain firm friends, but it’s not long before they are discovered and chastised for this unnatural friendship. Mei’s herd are convinced he’s been tricked by a wolf so clever he doesn’t even need sheep’s clothing. They tell him that Gabu is only feigning good will in order to better track the herd’s movements. At the same time, Gabu’s wolf pals relay with equal certainty their belief that Mei’s fondness for him will turn to hatred once he realizes that his herd have been eaten by the wolves. Both are sent on a mission to exploit the friendship and uncover the real intentions of their enemies.

The suspicion and animosity that threaten this innocent relationship can be difficult to watch. I didn’t expect to be so overwhelmed as Mei and Gabu waxed lyrical about true friendship, though in doing so I easily recalled any number of real-world hostilities in which the simplicity of two people being together is rendered impossible. While kids may not be thinking about the Israeli-Palestinian conflict, they will at least begin to understand that life is fraught with bitterness but also that love goes a long, long way.

“Star” – theme song by Aiko:

Alt Title: Arashi no Yoru ni
Released: 2005
Dir: Sugii Gisaburō 杉井儀三郎
Writer: Yūichi Kimura 木村祐一
Cast: Nakamura Shidō II 二代目 中村 獅童; Narimiya Hiroki 成宮 寛貴; Takeuchi Riki 竹内 力; Yamadera Kōichi 山寺 宏一; Hayashiya Shōzō IX 九代目 林家 正蔵; Kobayashi Maya 小林 麻耶; Bandō Eiji 板東 英二; Ichihara Etsuko 市原 悦子
Time: 105 min
Lang: Japanese
Country: Japan
Reviewed: 2015