Asian movie reviews

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

The Sorcerer and the White Snake (白蛇傳說之法海)

sorcerer and white snake

The Legend of the White Snake is a centuries old story that is varyingly about good and evil, religion and superstition, and plain old immortal love. It’s the stuff of movies, and there have been many (notably Tsui Hark’s 1993 Green Snake). This 2011 effects-laden martial arts adventure draws on all of these. In trying to appeal to everyone, however, it fails to truly satisfy anyone. Sorcerer lacks a consistent tone and wraps several films into one.

Parts of this sweeping whirlwind though stir up the emotions with an unsuspecting deftness. I didn’t expect a blockbuster with big box office dreams to turn on the feels, but at least one of the major plotlines resonates with the source material. At the heart of the story are Suzhen (Eva Huang), a beautiful white demon snake, and Xu Xian (Raymond Lam), a simple – and human – herbalist. They fall in love after she rescues him from a lake with a deep, almost otherworldly kiss of life. He thinks he’s dreamed the encounter until she reappears to him in human form.

It seems odd that such an enchanting creature would be so drawn to a humble medicine man and the story jerks forward a little too quickly. But Huang has an ethereal presence that wants to belong in an untarnished landscape like Hangzhou’s West Lake, where the story takes place. The setting evokes a distant fairy tale, and Suzhen desires Xu Xian’s love with such purity and earnestness that one feels the story can’t take place anywhere else.

Their romance is set against a bigger, noisier backdrop though, one literally clanging and crashing with gongs. Jet Li plays Fahai, a monk determined to rid the world of demons. He captures them in all their frightening female forms – and it is women who start all the trouble. Disguised as nymphs and enchantresses, they gently pluck their instruments while looking coyly askance or slink out of bamboo forests wearing bed sheets like some fantasy porn, only to reveal themselves as squawking bat demons. Luckily there is a man to catch these murderous creatures. Fahai eventually deposits them into a large stone medallion, a purgatory of sorts, where demons meditate on their evil ways until they sufficiently repent and are released.

Fahai operates according to strict moral absolutes, which makes him feared and effective but which also leaves him struggling to justify his entire belief system after something happens to gray the line. Li, with his stern demeanor and calculated movements, exudes physical and moral discipline. When Fahai is forced to confront his own fundamentalism, there is an honesty that complements Suzhen and Xu Xian’s devotion.

What doesn’t align as well is a subplot involving green snake Qingqing (Charlene Choi) and her playful attempts to win over Fahai’s acolyte, Neng Ren (Wen Zhang). Once again, Choi is cornered into her default role. Despite being an adult woman, she reverts to her Twins act of yore, flirting and giggling like she’s an eighteen-year-old child bride. It’s distracting and discordant and can only be a self-serving ploy to win a younger demographic. It does match some of the jaunty slapstick, like when Suzhen brings Xu Xian to meet her demon family, animals who transform rather poorly into humans (and Hong Kong all stars). But this goofy, New Year’s-esque tone is a confusing artistic choice that just seems out of place.

The film runs into more problems with its subpar effects. Sorcerer thinks it’s destined for great, international things. A martial arts fairy tale, especially one fronted by Jet Li, might appeal to audiences beyond Asia, but not when it’s propped up with cheap effects that don’t match the epic scale the movie is going for. The opening scene features a fierce fight in the snowy mountains between Fahai and a demon played by Vivian Hsu. The two look like paper cutouts flying across static backdrops in puppet show. A later battle with a bat demon involves such a flurry of CGI that it’s hard to tell what is going on. Focusing the effects on a few choice scenes might have tightened the story rather than spreading it so thin.

Hong Kong trailer:

International trailer:

“Promise” (許諾) by Eva Huang and Raymond Lam:

Released: 2011
Alt Title: It’s Love
Prod: Chui Bo-Chu 崔寶珠
Dir: Tony Ching 程小東
Action: Tony Ching 程小東; Wong Ming-Kin 黃銘健
Writer: Charcoal Tan 張炭; Tsang Kan-Cheung 曾謹昌; Szeto Cheuk-Hon 司徒卓漢
Cast: Jet Li 李連杰; Eva Huang 黃聖依; Raymond Lam 林峯; Charlene Choi 蔡卓妍; Wen Zhang 文章; Vivan Hsu 徐若瑄; Jiang Wu 姜武; Miriam Yeung 楊千嬅; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Lam Suet 林雪; Song Wenjia 宋汶嘉; Angela Tong 湯盈盈
Time: 120 min
Lang: Mandarin/Cantonese
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2016

American Dreams in China (中国合伙人)

american dreams in china

America is where dreams go to die, at least this is what writers Zhou Zhiyong and Zhang Ji will have you believe. A country full of cheats and swindlers, it’s where hard work and talent just lands you a job as a bus boy. But in the 1980s, that didn’t matter; America was the place to be, especially if you were a college student in China. Eager young things flocked to the embassy in hopes of winning that golden ticket – a student visa.

The movie opens with three friends trying to secure that coveted stamp of approval. The timid Cheng (Huang Xiaoming) fails and Wang (Tong Dawei) forfeits his place so he can stay behind with his American girlfriend. Only Meng (Deng Chao) passes, and he bids a tearful farewell. It’s an unspoken truth that he will not return. His destiny is set; there is no failing in that land of opportunity.

But the movie is not Chinese Dreams in America, so there is a reckoning to be had. The friends’ desire to transplant themselves in the U.S. and reap the bounties of the American Dream merely sets the scene for Meng’s disappointing return and their eventual success as owners of a large tutorial center, in China. It’s an aspirational film to the core, but unlike recent entries from the Mainland, this one doesn’t depend on shiny baubles. The characters don’t sport designer clothes or cruise around in their S-Class. In fact, the costumes are hideously taupe and extra effort is made to obscure the stars’ good looks. The film instead tempts its audience with the belief that anyone with a dream and a bit of hard work can make it in China. Call it Horatio Alger with Chinese characteristics.

Loosely based on New Oriental, China’s largest “educational services” company, Cheng and Wang create their own learning institute and call it New Dream, which functions as an obvious motif and, intentionally or not, a nod to the “Chinese Dream.” After their failed bids to study in the States, the two characters are resigned to a life with little social standing or economic mobility. They do what they can to gain some respect and earn a buck but seem to always be treading water. A minor transgression forces Cheng to find new work, and he begins teaching English out of the nation’s first KFC (the irony!). Soon his classes grow so large that he has to set up shop at an abandoned factory, enlisting Wang in the process. To sweeten the rags to riches story, the building has no electricity or roof. If you’ve been to Beijing in the winter, you know that’s dedication.

That the venture succeeds beyond their wildest dreams, is a foregone conclusion. The film employs enough flashbacks and flashforwards, particularly in the first half, to give you a mild case of whiplash, and the device isn’t even necessary since the trajectory is pretty clear. Nevertheless, we see early on that the three musketeers go from poorly coiffed drudges to tutor rock stars, something that actually exists in Asia. Cheng makes the least subtle leap from one end to the other, and while Huang shows a few probing moments of despair, he doesn’t really justify his character’s shoutiness once he’s at the top. Tong and Deng, however, turn in more subtle performances with more difficult parts. Tong’s is more likable, but he’s careful not to make Wang into the film’s attention-grabbing comic relief. The emotional core seems to lie with Deng, who doesn’t so much barrel through his shattered hopes as he does pick up the pieces with quiet, unflinching focus.

If American Dreams had ended with a triumphant closing shot of the company’s stadium rally, it would be no better or worse than any other film about some small potatoes making it big. But in an obvious ploy to rouse the home team (the movie made a cool USD$86.5m at the box office), the filmmakers cap their project with New Dream being sued by American education officials for stealing test preparation materials. Depending on which side of the Pacific you’re standing, this could be a satisfying middle finger to the U.S., an acknowledgement that the American century has passed and that an ascendant, more culturally attuned China will no longer be bullied. Or it might be a somewhat dishonest dig at America’s lack of fair play without acknowledging China’s own dearth of equal opportunities.

Released: 2013
Prod: Peter Chan 陳可辛, Jojo Hui 許月珍
Dir: Peter Chan 陳可辛
Writer: Zhou Zhiyong 周智勇; Zhang Ji; Aubrey Lam 林愛華
Cast: Huang Xiaoming 黃曉明; Deng Chao 鄧超; Tong Dawei 佟大為; Du Juan 杜鵑; Daniel Berkey; Claire Quirk; Tong Lei 佟磊
Time: 112 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015