Harashima Daichi

Trail of the Panda (熊貓回家路)

trail of the panda

There’s no getting around it. Pandas are adorable. A-dor-a-ble. Few things can turn my heart into mush like the sight of a chubby little panda cub tumbling down a hill and calling out for its mum like a squeaky toy. I am powerless in the face of these cuddly black and white fuzzballs, and I might as well admit that the sudden surge in oxytocin levels is threatening the integrity of this review.

And this is probably just the reaction Disney is hoping for. The studio’s second film tailored to Mainland audiences, after The Secret of the Magic Gourd, it banks on the universal appeal of China’s greatest, and fluffiest, national treasure. Well, it works, because even if the storytelling is lacking at times, Trail of the Panda has all the right ingredients for a heartwarming, family-friendly film.

It begins in the forests of Sichuan. A twelve year old boy (Daichi Harashima) is orphaned after a fire, and Old Chen (Zhang Qi), a lonely bachelor, takes him in. One day, they play host to a visiting scientist, Feng (Feng Li), who learns that a mother panda has given birth to twin cubs. He reasons that the mother will abandon one and that it will have a better chance of survival, and make a great research subject, if it is brought to a reserve. Feng sets off to capture one of the cubs but loses the trail in a rainstorm.

The boy, Lu, discovers the panda the next day and decides to keep it hidden from Feng and Old Chen. But nursing the injured cub back to health proves to be a tricky task. The cub, which he names Pang Pang, is a finicky eater and Feng’s sniffer dogs have picked up its scent. Despite his difficulties, Lu finds that Pang Pang is the perfect companion. Mute since his parents’ death, he finally opens up to the lost animal, who returns his affections with a playful and friendly attachment he’s never experienced before.

His devotion to Pang Pang makes this film special, and not just because shots of Harashima’s cherubic, rose-tinted face buried in a velvety pile of panda fur registers off the cute scale. Lu feels just as abandoned as his new playmate and wants nothing more than to hold on to their friendship. But his loss helps him recognize that he must help Pang Pang find its way back home. Harashima deserves a lot of credit for the integrity he brings to his character. He’s proven before, most notably in 2003’s Lost in Time, that he can turn on the waterworks both as an actor and in his audience.

The film also gets a lift from the relationship Lu has with Old Chen. This is depicted in glances rather than showy action or long tracts of dialogue, which is fitting for a quiet man who hasn’t quite figured out what kind of relationship he has with the boy. Zhang doesn’t get a flashy role, but he makes a big impact as the only person in the world who cares about Lu.

The film can be forgiven for a few narrative flaws, which cause some scenes to jump unexpectedly to the next plot point. Sichuan’s stunning landscape also seems to be underutilized, with filmmakers relying too heavily on close-ups and unimpressive green screen work. These decisions are understandable, however, as the devastating 2008 earthquake struck during production and destroyed the Wolong Giant Panda Nature Reserve where many scenes were filmed. (The panda that played the mother died in the quake.) Overall, Trail of the Panda remains a solid effort and one that relies on more than fluffy animals to carry it through.

Alt Title: Touch of the Panda
Released: 2009
Prod: Elliot Tong 唐銘基
Dir: Yu Zhong 俞鍾
Writer: Jennifer Liu 劉偉儀, Jean Chalopin
Cast: Daichi Harashima 原島大地; Zhang Qi 張琪; Feng Li 馮礫
Time: 88 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

Crazy N’ the City (神經俠侶)

crazy n the city

Chris, a seasoned beat officer, explains to his new partner on her first day, “Wanchai is a chaotic district. There’s lots of traffic, lots of people, and lots of mentally ill.” Somewhat taken aback, she says that it would be dangerous if they all went crazy, to which he replies, “When I get mad it will be even more dangerous. I can pull out my gun and shoot everyone.”

Lest anyone think that Hong Kong police officers are trigger happy, hypothetical talk about firing a weapon generally stays that way. That’s not always the case when it comes to Hong Kong movies where bullet ballets are a staple. Crazy N’ the City is a vast departure from the dark and highly stylized gangs and guns mayhem though and much of the pedestrian action takes place under sunny skies.

The natural light illuminates the city and characters in a way that softens their harsh edges. Chris (Eason Chan) has grown dejected over the years and is skeptical when rookie Tak Nam (Joey Yung), or Manly, bursts into the department with the enthusiasm a superhero’s sidekick. She attacks her first case, a suspected cat poisoning, with gusto but as the day wears on, finds that her partner has a more apathetic approach to the job.

The movie has a similar unhurried feel, and the camera lingers around the two as they encounter the ordinary and uneventful. Manly helps an old lady push her trolley full of cardboard up a hill guarded by a kid with a water gun. A shop owner suspects a man (Lam Suet) of stealing milk formula. Two teenage girls witness someone exposing himself on the bus. A mentally ill man, Shing (Francis Ng), raids a bra shop. A young woman from the Mainland (Zhang Meng) opens a small massage parlor.

Director James Yuen allows his film to unfold organically. His characters swim in and out of the picture, leaving little splashes and sometimes crashing waves across the narrow streets of Wanchai. It’s a far richer portrait of Hong Kong than we’re used to seeing, and that’s what makes this little film so gratifying. There is a tenderness to the way each character is crafted, the way this tiny square of the city is painted to life. Yuen’s camera shows a closeness that is intimate without being claustrophobic.

People and places brush up against each other, sometimes leaving callouses and sometimes adding polish. Over the course of the movie, Chris blunts Manly’s idealism but in a way that helps her to become a better officer. “We’re policemen not supermen,” he explains. Meanwhile, her dedication gives him license to become more invested in his job. He also gets some help from a serial killer subplot that has a bit of an artificial ring to it, shifting the movie into conventional crime thriller territory.

But Ng, whose character Shing figures prominently in that storyline, gives an emotionally charged performance that makes the generic diversion worth it. He also earns points for sensitively drawing attention to mental illness. His costars, both of whom hold Ph.Ds in histrionics, are affecting as well, giving nuanced, unpretentious portrayals. Yung shows she can act when she’s not trying to blast her way through a scene and handles Manly’s conflicting emotions with well earned sympathy. But Chan is the film’s greatest asset, capturing Chris’s mix of idealism, disappointment, and insecurity from scene one. He is exceptional to watch and betrays his character’s thoughts with the slightest physical details. Hong Kong film would do well with more of this Eason Chan and this kind of movie.

Released: 2005
Prod: Derek Yee 爾冬陞; Henry Fong 方平
Dir: James Yuen 阮世生
Writer: James Yuen 阮世生; Law Yiu-Fai 羅耀輝; Jessica Fong 方晴
Cast: Eason Chan 陳奕迅; Joey Yung 容祖兒; Francis Ng 吳鎮宇; Zhang Meng 張萌; Kara Hui 惠英紅; Ng Yat-Yin 吳日言; Hui Siu-Hung 許紹雄; Waise Lee 李子雄; Chloe Chiu 趙雪妃; Sam Lee 李燦森; Alex Fong Chung-Sun 方中信; Chin Kar-Lok 錢嘉樂; Ella Koon 官恩娜; Lam Suet 林雪; Crystal Tin 田蕊妮; Liu Kai-Chi 廖啟智; Elena Kong 江美儀; Henry Fong 方平; Harashima Daichi 原島大地
Time: 102 min
Lang: Cantonese, some English
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014