Chinese New Year movie

Panda Express (熊猫大侠)

panda express

Panda Express is only excusable if you’re at a suburban mall and Sbarro’s run out of sausage slices. Under no circumstances should it be consumed otherwise, in any form, including that of the cinematic variety. This moribund Chinese New Year film barely registers a pulse let alone anything suggesting excitement and quite frankly is an insult to holiday films, a feckless Chinese subgenre that already sets the bar pretty low.

The problem does not lie in the story so much as in the telling of it. The plot is digestible and follows the prescribed formula of similar road comedies, but Panda Express is majestic in its dullness. A low-on-his-luck darts seller in the Song Dynasty, Wang Laoji (Liu Hua), has always dreamed of being an armed escort. He gets his chance when an official mistakes him for one and entrusts him with the task of safely delivering a panda. He is to complete the journey within ten days, when there will be a party for the general (Ren Quan). Laoji jumps at the opportunity and sets off on his merry way.

He is soon waylaid by a lady highway robber (A Duo) who wants more than his money; she wants him in her bed. But a Mongolian bandit (Shi Ning), eager to get his hands on some panda meat because he thinks it will make him invincible, interrupts their courtship. A pair of assassins (Li Yu and Li Xiaochuan) also wants to get ahold of our furry friend and makes more trouble for Liaoji, as does Ahao (Deng Jiajia), a sergeant overzealous in her pursuit of animal smugglers. She initially suspects he is part of a smuggling ring until her heart leads her to another conclusion.

The film chugs along at a steady if not exactly express pace for about forty-five minutes, allows for a colorless interlude, and then picks up again when Liaoji finally reaches the town and the feted general reveals himself to be a warmonger. There’s a bit with dancing pandas – that is, middle-aged men donning fuzzy black and white onesies and attempting low-impact jazzercise moves. It’s a scene one might actually spy in China on your average Saturday afternoon walk in the park.

As for the cuddly star of the movie, it is of course not an actual panda but someone in a twenty thousand yuan costume custom-made in Hong Kong. The outfit is a good step above college mascot quality and occasionally squeaks like an oversized carnival prize, but it’s a bit lean and lacks the fluff factor to win the audience over. (I want real pandas, dammit!) In fact, most of the movie adopts the exaggerated comedy styling often found in Hong Kong’s Chinese New Year films, where kitsch and frivolity count. But unlike the better representatives of this genre, Panda Express doesn’t register a laugh a minute, however cheap and unearned, nor does it amp up audience affection. Liaoji’s growing attachment to his cargo will elicit a few “awws,” but it’s all passing sweet.

The superior theme song “Dreaming” (朝思暮想) by the superior Jane Zhang:

Released: 2009
Prod: Chris Liu 劉晶; Li Xiang 李湘
Dir: Wang Yuelun 王岳倫
Writer: Gao Fei 高飛
Cast: Liu Hua 劉樺; A Duo 阿朵; Shi Ning 施寧; Deng Jiajia 鄧家佳; Li Yu 李彧; Li Xiaochuan 李小川; Ren Quan 任泉; Pace Wu 吳佩慈; Li Changyuan 李昌元; He Jiong 何炅
Time: 90 min
Lang: Mandarin, some Mongolian, various dialects
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

Kung Fu Dunk (功夫灌籃)

kung fu dunk

Jay Chou, kungfu, and basketball sound like decent ingredients for a fun if not exactly award-winning film. But that doesn’t turn out to be the case, and in fact, a high school basketball match in a musty gym has more heart and drama than this turkey. Filmmakers fail to turn its star’s oft-professed love for kungfu and basketball into a coherent fantasy, and it’s shameful how flagrantly it ends up violating all rules of good storytelling.

Chou features as the Shijie the Basketball Orphan, abandoned near a basketball court and raised in a kungfu school. He’s an extremely capable student, so much so that he gets locked out one night for showing up a teacher. An encounter with Zhen Li (Eric Tsang) leads him to a club where the pair ends up conning their way through a darts game. That results in a massive fight, and in a matter of 24 hours, Shijie is again kicked out of the school, this time for good.

Zhen Li won’t let any harm come to his new friend though. Having discovered his talent for accurately throwing any object from any distance, he dreams up another con. He enrolls Shijie into First University and hopes to make bank, presumably as agent to this sure superstar. (There are no NCAA regulations to be broken here.)

But Shijie must get through a few hurdles before he can burst onto the collegiate scene, including a one-on-one with the team captain, Ding Wei (Bolin Chen). It’s the first, and last, climactic encounter of the film, and that’s because the remaining matches never really build up to anything. Even the classic showdown that ends the film, wherein Shijie’s former teachers come to his aid, is so absurd and not in keeping with any actual basketball rules that it feels like someone’s cheating. With no sense of league structure or standards to ensure fair competition, there’s little tension or consequence.

This lack of a discernable athletic goal creates an obvious dramatic vacuum that the writers try to fill various subplots. Ding Wei turns out to be a boozy star while his sister (Charlene Choi) is the chipper groupie who’s crushing on the team’s other brooding stud, who only has room in his heart for his dead girlfriend. A better storyline that isn’t pursued with much vigor but that might have been more rewarding is Shijie’s father-son relationship with Zhen Li. But this is also an afterthought, given undue and confusing attention at the end of the film but not throughout. The writers try to convince the audience that Zhen Li really cares for his friend when exploitation seems closer to the truth.

For once, Chou’s presence doesn’t help much. Surprisingly bland in this role, though more the fault of the lifeless script, he fails to give shape to his quiet character, something he’s managed to do in previous films and even music videos. One would expect that the action would make up for these plot and character deficits, but the kungfu and basketball sequences prove less than stunning. Aside from a legitimate fight at the beginning of the movie, the action consists mostly of high wire jumping and dunking. Chou gets a few chances to show off his agility with the ball, but on the whole, the picture doesn’t earn its title.

“Master Chou” (周大侠) – theme song by Jay Chou:

Alt Title: 灌籃, Slam Dunk
Released: 2008
Prod: Yiu Kei-Wei 姚奇偉; Albert Lee 利雅博; Xu Pengle 許朋樂
Dir: Kevin Chu 朱延平
Action Dir: Tony Ching 程小東
Writer: Kevin Chu 朱延平; Lam Chiu-Wing 林超榮; Wang Youzhen 王宥蓁
Cast: Jay Chou 周杰倫; Eric Tsang 曾志偉; Charlene Choi 蔡卓妍; Bolin Chen 陳柏霖; Wang Gang 王剛; Ng Man-Tat 吳孟達; Baron Chen 陳楚河; Leung Kar-Yan 梁家仁; Eddy Ko 高雄; Kenneth Tsang 曾江; Liu Genghong 劉耕宏; Lee Lichun 李立群; Shaun Tam 譚俊彥
Time: 98 min
Lang: Mandarin/Cantonese
Country: Taiwan
Reviewed: 2015

Mr. and Mrs. Incredible (神奇俠侶)

mr and mrs incredible

Whether you’re looking for a Chinese New Year pick-me-up or some superhero fisticuffs, Mr. and Mrs. Incredible is not the movie for you. Never funny enough to lighten the holiday mood or action-packed enough to power through the other days of the year, this Vincent Kok project is a mixed and deflated bag of tired tricks.

Most of the film follows a pair of retired superheroes who are doing their best to live a normal, married life. Ten years after foiling the Pest Four Robbery and saving village women from abusive husbands, Gazer Warrior (Louis Koo) and Aroma Woman (Sandra Ng) have sworn off their superpowers. Instead, they take up identities as Flint, head of the town’s security, and Rouge, owner of a local bun shop.

The couple succeeds in blending in and living a normal life, but as superheroes would do, they are too good at it. They start to feel bored by their mundane existence and decide a child might give their lives renewed purpose. However, a visit to the local doctor reveals that conceiving will not be so easy and suggests that a little more excitement in their lives will help the situation. As if on cue, news arrives that a martial arts competition will be held in the village. At first, Rouge worries that some of the competitors will uncover their identities, but soon she discovers a bigger problem in the form of a young woman named Phoenix (Li Qin).

Ng has made a living in some fabulously over-the-top comedic roles, but sensing a deeper story about love and commitment, she tones down her performance and delivers some emotional honesty not often found in these movies. The actress digs in more than the script calls for and shows a woman who knows her place – and that’s not standing idle next to a philandering husband. She’s a superhero, dammit. While Koo doesn’t attempt as much soul searching with his character, he gamely dresses up and plays the fool when asked. Unfortunately, the film lacks the social criticism and rapid-fire in-jokes that have become a hallmark in recent New Year hits, and the script simply doesn’t serve Koo’s campy comedic skills as well as it could.

With that in mind, writer-director Vincent Kok attempts a third act rescue that depends on a bizarre solar eclipse spell and a power hungry Grandmaster Blanc (played with vein-popping, eye-bulging craziness by Edison Wang). Despite the promise of a martial arts competition, the real showdown doesn’t happen until the last 15 minutes or so. Some of the action ends up in a flurry of close-ups but most of it is channeled a wispy blur of colorful but cheap CGI. Not very incredible at all.

Released: 2011
Prod: Peter Chan; David Chan; Peter Tsi; Chan Po-Chun
Dir: Vincent Kok
Writer: Steven Fung; Vincent Kok; Chan Po-Chun
Cast: Louis Koo; Sandra Ng; Edison Wang; Li Qin; Li Jing; He Yunwei; Wen Zhang
Time: 100 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015