Asian movie reviews

Doubles Cause Troubles (神勇雙妹嘜) (1989)

There’s at least one thing this goofy comedy does right, and that’s pit two bickering cousins against each other in a battle of wills when their grandmother dies and leaves them her spacious flat. They’ll only inherit if they live together for a year, so they quickly decide that they’ll do whatever it takes to secure that flat even if it means being petty AF for the next twelve months. And there’s never been a more Hong Kong thing to happen because let’s be honest, who in this city wouldn’t engage in an all-out brawl with their relatives if grandma’s flat was at stake?

This film does more than capitalize on the cultural zeitgeist of 1989 though, which is also that of 2018, and Doubles Cause Troubles is an engaging comedy action thriller triad murder mystery starring Dodo Cheng and Maggie Cheung as Bo, a nurse, and Tai, a stage actress. After taking up residence in their new flat, they meet Ben (Poon Chun-Wai), their grandmother’s tenant. He’s cute and involved in some shady smuggling deal. When he turns up dead before the night is out, the two find themselves the targets of Ben’s associates who think the women know where he stashed the loot. Bad fung shui be damned though because they stay put rather than fleeing their new home.

It’s classic 80s fare with rapid fire verbal comedy and physical gags. The humor eases up in the middle when the script busies itself with the specifics of what Ben did and why Bo and Tai are now being chased, but the film is a non-stop ball of energy tumbling towards the finish. Viper (Hon Yee-Sang) and his gang of Mainland toughs – including one who cruises around in roller skates – keep popping up at the most inopportune moments, unable to take the hint that Bo and Tai are totally clueless about Ben’s dealings. Bo’s admirers, low level gangsters Handsome (Nat Chan) and Fly (Charlie Cho), also help them elude Viper or get in the way, depending. Ben’s handsome brother, Sam (Wilson Lam), adds some order to the proceedings when he shows up but soon throws things out of order when it’s revealed he’s not Ben’s brother at all. Like all good police-triad dramas, the script keeps you guessing about everyone’s loyalties, especially Sam’s. That sneaky hottie is so convincing as a police officer and a double-crossing gangster.

This wouldn’t be a Wong Jing film, and it is, without sexism and misogyny though. The writer-director does what he always does and inserts himself into the movie by playing a lecherous councilor. The guy keeps toilets in his living room that double as seating and storage and orders date rape drugs by the boxful. Thankfully, Maggie Cheung does not actually kiss him and is fully clothed when she collapses on top of him. Girl knows her worth, and she should because she kills in this part. Well, not literally; everyone else does the killing. But Cheung and Cheng both turn out smart, snappy performances. Bo and Tai may be a bit hare-brained, but they keep their cool under the circumstances. They also overcome their animosity and love and support each other like good cousins should. That’s always a win for Hong Kong cinema.

Released: 1989
Dir: Wong Jing 王晶
Writer: Wong Jing 王晶
Cast: Carol Dodo Cheng Yu-Ling 鄭裕玲, Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk 張曼玉, Nat Chan Pak-Cheung 陳百祥, Charlie Cho Cha-Lee 曹查理, Wilson Lam Jun-Yin 林俊賢, Poon Chun-Wai 潘震偉, Kwan Ming-Yuk 關明玉, Hon Yee-Sang 韓義生, Sherman Wong Jing-Wa 黃靖華, Lo Fan 魯芬, Yu Miu-Lin 余慕蓮, Wong Jing 王晶, Dennis Chan Kwok-San 陳國新, Chan Fai-Hung 陳輝虹
Time: 93 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2018

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The Young Boss of the Factory (工廠少爺) (1963)

The alternate title for this 1963 film is Fun in the Factory, and it appropriately describes the first half of the movie, which plays out like a workplace romp. Wong Bun Kap (Cheung Ying-Choi) has just returned from studying abroad and is ready to take his place in the workforce. Since his dad (Lee Pang-Fei) is also the chairman of a company, however, his plans, at least for now, look a lot like whatever Dad has in mind, and Dad wants him to gain some experience on the factory floor before he can move up in the company. If only Hong Kong tycoons could have some of whatever Papa Wong’s having. Dad explicitly says that Ah Kap has had it too easy his whole life and that the boy needs to understand the value of hard work, to which I say, amen.

Not only does Ah Kap totally agree that he’s a coddled rich kid, but he goes all in when his dad suggests that he join the company as a regular factory hand. He’ll live with one of the maids, posing as her nephew, and take on a new name, Chin Tung-Yuen. Since no one has seen Ah Kap since he was a kid, he won’t have a problem when mingling with the hoi polloi.

The plan sounds sensible enough, and it is for a good while. Word leaks out that the boss’s son is among the newest batch of employees, and suddenly everyone’s hot on the game. The ladies saddle up with the fellas and try to figure out if their beau is filthy rich, while the men eye each other suspiciously, unsure if the guy buying drinks can afford a few more rounds. Ah Kap almost gets outed when he doesn’t know what butter toast is, but his female colleague, Tsui Wan (Lam Fung), is confident he is not the favored son when she visits his humble home.

There isn’t much to the story besides this guessing game, and once the novelty wears down, so does the energy. There are a few subplots that get more mileage than they probably should. Wong’s subordinate (Cheung Kwun Min) goes the distance to try to out Ah Kap, going so far as to enlist his goddaughter’s help. One of the factory hands, Yee Keung (Cheung Ching), gets mistaken for the boss’s son and exhausts himself trying to prove otherwise. Cheung has a charismatic presence, and it wouldn’t have hurt to see him in an expanded role.

There’s a lot of potential for physical comedy and wit that’s wasted, and what might be a fun, buzzy film fizzles. The cast can only do so much to keep lighting fires, though Lam Fung does a damn good job with her eyes alone. Cheung Ying Choi is an affable presence, but he fades along with the script. The film gives its audience a little to chew on as a study in character and identity. Anyone who’s had a job will recognize the way colleagues try to try to size one another up based on a person’s proximity to the boss. Too bad this adventure couldn’t be more exciting than real life.

Alt Title: Fun in the Factory
Released: 1963
Prod: Sit Siu-Cheong 薛兆璋
Dir: Lo Yu-Kei 盧雨岐
Writer: Lo Yu-Kei 盧雨岐
Cast: Cheung Ying-Choi 張英才, Lam Fung 林鳳, Cheung Ching 張清, Lee Pang-Fei 李鵬飛, Kwan Hoi-San 關海山, Tam Sin-Hung 譚倩紅, Cheng Kwun-Min 鄭君綿, Sai Gwa-Pau 西瓜刨, Lee Heung-Kam 李香琴
Time: 108 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2018

The Story of My Son (愛的世界) (1990)

story-of-my-son

An early film by director Johnnie To, The Story of My Son is a bleak drama about a family’s descent into poverty that doesn’t so much gnaw at you as it seeks to bludgeon your heart into emotional mush. To and collaborator Wai Ka-Fai pen a script that lurches towards the extreme, offering up any and every device that will earn its characters sympathy. There’s death, financial peril, child abuse, and a feud with the in-laws just for good measure. The film moves at a breathless pace, clocking in at 75 minutes, and leaves you aghast at how everything goes so wrong so quickly.

Fans of late 80s and early 90s Hong Kong cinema will recognize traces of All About Ah Long, released in 1989 and also directed by To and featuring child actor Wong Kwan-Yuen. Both tell about down-and-out fathers struggling to bring up a young son, two in this case, but while the earlier film sought to mend the broken relationship between the boy’s father and mother, played by Chow Yun-Fat and Sylvia Chang, this one tosses aboard anything that might give the narrative some emotional ballast.

Nevertheless, To and Wai have a strong story on hand and actors who more than live up to their roles. Damian Lau stars as Leung, the beleaguered father of two young boys who takes on single parenthood after the death of his wife. Lau channels all his character’s frustration, shame, and utter helplessness, and parcels it out as best he can. This is a movie with big emotions, and even when he veers into histrionics, you can understand where it’s coming from. Leung finds that the demands on him are suddenly overwhelming, allowing him little time to grieve or figure out how to parent on his own. These troubles are exacerbated by his mounting debt, and it’s not ten minutes into the movie when he decides to try his luck at the racetrack. That decision, and his reluctance to seek help from his father-in-law, sets him down an unforgiving path that leads directly into the office of thuggish loan sharks.

Leung’s two children are played by Wong and Cheng Pak-Lam, as older son Kin and younger son Hong, respectively. Both are naturals in front of the camera, making their close relationship an easy sell. Wong especially strikes a fine balance between a worried child trying to make sense of all the changes around him while also intuiting the need to fill in for his absent parents. He is really the heart of the film, the titular son who is desperate to love his father and the one who ends up holding the family together. Cheng gamely plays the part of the preschooler, handling his role better than most young actors. Hong sees what is happening but doesn’t understand the gravity of it. He doesn’t know how to hide his fear and confusion, and Cheng is there laying bare a full range of emotions.

As strong as the acting is, however, the filmmakers can’t seem to rein in their dramatic impulses. There are small affecting moments, like when the family downgrades from their very posh standalone house to a cramped flat. Even though there is no room in the moving van, Kin insists on keeping the bike that his mother bought. Leung’s pain is evident as he makes the quick mental calculation about whether or not to bring it. The sheer tragedy of the piece overwhelms these smaller scenes though and ultimately makes them less affecting. The movie ends up not being a harsh, meditative journey but a tumble off a cliff.

Released: 1990
Prod: Lau Tin-Chi 劉天賜
Dir: Johnnie To 杜琪峰
Writer: Johnnie To 杜琪峰, Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝
Cast: Damian Lau 劉松仁, Wong Kwan-Yuen 黃坤玄, Cheng Pak-Lam 鄭柏林, Lau Siu-Ming 劉兆銘, Ng Man-Tat 吳孟達, Louise Lee 李司祺, Sunny Fang 方剛, Anna Ng 吳浣儀
Time: 75 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2017

b420 (2005)

b420

b420 begins on a hopeful note. Three secondary school classmates in Macau make a video in which they share their dreams for the future, at least the immediate years before they turn twenty. These aren’t lofty aspirations mind you, more along the lines of losing their virginity and the like. But they do point to an adolescent longing, that universal desire to escape into a world that is somehow bigger and better.

We soon see that things haven’t quite worked out. Far from moving up or even on, life is at an uneasy standstill for the girls. It’s not immediately clear what’s become of the three friends, but we learn that Koey (Miki Yeung), the main character, is a dropout who lives her great-grandmother while awaiting the chance to emigrate. She and another friend, who may be involved with Macau’s criminal elements, are no longer on speaking terms and the third is housebound and confined to a wheelchair.

It’s the perfect set-up for a story about teenagers waylaid by reality, possibly left behind by failing institutions and social change that cares little about youth who aren’t the best and the brightest. The film doesn’t push that narrative too much though and instead goes for a teen drama that avoids brooding as much as it does false whimsy. In the uncertainty of youth, the characters find disappointment, friendship, and hope all in equal measure.

While peddling TV subscriptions, Koey befriends Willy (Sam Lee), who is both older and wearier. Having lost or caused the death of important people in his life, he struggles to find a purpose. He’s not so introspective as to realize that though. As Willy and Koey grow closer, their dependable platonic friendship is tested by suggestions that they share romantic feelings. Their mutual friend Simon (Ben Hung) certainly sees it that way. Koey’s long-forgotten childhood acquaintance from ballet school, he still harbors a secret love for her, going so far as to pose as her internet friend. I hope one day we’ll see this for what it is – stalking. In the meantime, Simon comes off as a hapless, lovelorn third wheel, sustained by the hope that Koey will recognize his gentler qualities and turn away from Willy.

The cramped, colorful backstreets of Macau provide some contrasting visuals that mirror the characters’ lives. Buildings and alleyways are at once vibrant and rundown. Koey works at a trinket shop stained with reds and oranges but retreats each night to her great-grandmother’s weather-beaten concrete block of a house.

Writer-director Mathew Tang does a fine job of maintaining tension between all the characters. Lee is a wonderfully restrained, as he often is in independent films, and yet there is an electric charge that runs through his performance. You want things to work out for Willy even if, or perhaps because, he doesn’t deserve it. Hung doesn’t have that same dynamic presence, but Simon’s desperation makes an impression. I would have preferred a better actress to Yeung, who seems to have graduated from the Twins school of acting, which is probably the same as the Cookies school. She overcomes her pouting and whining though as she grows into her role. The ending quickly crescendos into something incredulous and I’m not sure it was altogether necessary. Nevertheless, the various threads come together in an unexpected way that will leave you wanting more of the same from Hong Kong filmmakers.

Released: 2005
Prod: Peter Yung 翁維銓, Kenneth Yee 奚仲文, Philip Lee 李少偉
Dir: Mathew Tang 鄧漢強
Writer: Mathew Tang 鄧漢強
Cast: Miki Yeung 楊愛瑾, Sam Lee 李燦森, Ben Hung 洪展明, Winston Yeh 葉景文, Lee Fung 李楓, Chan Chin-Luk 陳春綠
Time: 88 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2017

Little Witch Academia (リトルウィッチアカデミア) (2013)

little-witch-academia

It’s a stormy October afternoon in Hong Kong, and I’m housebound as a typhoon rages outside. Perfect time to watch whatever is next in my Netflix queue, which happens to be Little Witch Academia. This anime short is one of my few brushes with the genre so I don’t have much for comparison, but I found it a breezy little film that satisfies the Hermione Granger in me. I won’t be rushing to see the sequel, The Enchanted Parade, also on Netflix, but I appreciate this compact package about a girl who learns to have confidence in herself.

The message is wrapped in a story about witches and dragons and superstar chick magicians. A young Akko discovers witchcraft when her parents take her to see Shiny Chariot, a glammed up witch who puts on dazzling shows that leave her audiences in awe. When Akko is older, she enrolls Luna Nova Magical Academy, a muggle in a class full of magic-born girls. Though she has a few close friends, Lotte and Sucy, she is often mocked by the other students for her poor grasp of basic witch skills, like broom riding. She is teased most mercilessly though for her idolization of Shiny Chariot because while Akko is enamored with her conjurations, the wizarding world dislikes Shiny Chariot’s low-brow appeal to the masses. Akko’s classmates argue that her idol gives witches a bad name by relying on attention-grabbing illusions rather than real magic. But what’s real and what’s fake in the witch world? When a treasure hunting exercise results in the accidental release of a dragon, Akko relies on Shiny Chariot’s mantras to try to save her school.

There isn’t anything spectacular about the animation. I wanted the school or the cave where they are looking for treasures to evoke something mysterious and otherworldly, but the artists stuck with boilerplate images. Luna Nova is a single towering column rising above a forest, and the cave is, well, a dark hole. But while that doesn’t bother me, I have always been disturbed by the way girls are depicted in anime. I can practically see up Akko’s school uniform, which stops pretty much where her butt does. Akko’s main nemesis is Diana Cavendish also intrigued me. Brainy, beautiful, blond, and more a woman than a girl, I couldn’t figure out if she was the stereotypical mean girl or the stereotypical hot girl.

Akko is a relatable, bright-eyed heroine though. She’s surprisingly well adjusted; though she knows she’s an outsider, she accepts that role and tries to get on without letting it bother her. Despite the other girls’ disdain for Shiny Chariot, she still knows what she believes. She just needs to put it to better practice. And that would make any Hermione Granger smile.

Released: 2013
Prod: Naoko Tsutsumi
Dir: Yoh Yoshinari
Writer: Masahiko Otsuka
Cast: Megumi Han, Fumiko Orikasa, Michiyo Murase, Yōko Hikasa, Noriko Hidaka, (English Dub) Erica Mendez, Stephanie Sheh, Rachelle Heger, Laura Post, Alexis Nichols
Time: 26 min
Lang: Japanese/English
Country: United States
Reviewed: 2016