Hong Kong movie reviews

Wing Chun (詠春) (1994)

I was on a Crazy Rich Asians/Michelle Yeoh high when I remembered I had this gem collecting dust like nobody’s business. Yeoh takes on the decidedly working class Asian role of Yim Wing Chun, the legendary founder of the martial art named after her. The film hedges closer to slapstick comedy is about the characters more than it is about Wing Chun, but those hoping for something with a martial arts pedigree will enjoy the performance of Donnie Yen, who also serves as the action co-director.

The story goes, as they often do, that during the Qing Dynasty, there was a beautiful tofu seller who needed to defend herself against men. Wing Chun trained with Ng Mui, a Buddhist nun who developed the fighting technique, and she used the new form to keep guys with bad intentions at bay. The general legend is preserved in here, and Wing Chun is well known throughout her mountain village as a fierce fighter. She pushes back against unwanted advances and marriage proposals but also against the bandits who regularly attack and raid the village.

One day, a woman named Charmy (Catherine Hung) arrives seeking help for her sick husband. When he dies, her only option is to prostitute herself, but Wing Chun is having none of that abusive, patriarchal bullshit. She tricks one of her suitors, the cowardly Scholar Wong (Waise Lee), into paying for Charmy’s expenses, and later Wing Chun’s aunt, Abacus Fong (Kingdom Yuen), hires the young woman to work at their tofu shop. Things are rolling merrily along, save the occasional banditry, when Leung Pok-To (Donnie Yen), appears. Wing Chun’s childhood best friend, he is pleasantly surprised when he spots Charmy at the shop. His heart melts because Charmy is gorgeous, but also because he thinks she is Wing Chun.

There’s nothing like a little cross-dressing to confuse things, and mistaken identity is the source of a lot of the comedy. Wing Chun has taken to men’s attire since it suits her fighting persona and discourages ogling, but Charmy inherits her wardrobe, to the delight of the shop’s male customers and the disappointment of Pok-To, who comes to realize that the Wing Chun he knew and loved before has changed.

The film has a surprisingly strong feminist spirit, and I found this to be the most appealing aspect of the movie. Wing Chun and Abacus Fong alone make a formidable team. Although they differ in temperament, they both take charge and command respect in their own ways. Wing Chun is the first and really only person the villagers turn to when there’s an attack and in one battle, she defeats the bandits singlehandedly. Abacus Fong, meanwhile, is opinionated and blunt, earning her the disdain of men who don’t like that kind of honesty and forcefulness in a woman. However, she knows how to navigate a man’s world and does so because she can and must. Sometimes that means exploiting female sexuality, and while I don’t agree that that’s the best way to go about things, even Charmy is on board. She knows that without Wing Chun’s fighting talent or Abacus Fong’s entrepreneurial skills, she can still play the bashful, naïve Miss Soy Bean in order to sell more tofu and increase business for all three women.

The movie’s feminist appeal is reflected in the fight sequences as well. Cheng Pei-pei cameos as Wing Chun’s master, who prepares her for the final battle in the bandit’s village after they’ve captured Charmy. Now dressed in women’s clothing, she is joined by Pok-To and together they fight it out with Flying Chimpanzee (Norman Chu). Word on the internets is that there is not much actual Wing Chun in this or any of the fight scenes. I can’t tell, but I do love the tofu fight between Wing Chun and a martial arts master (Xu Xiangdong) who wants to teach this little lady a thing or two. They spar over a large block of tofu, trying to break each other but not it, and it becomes clear that the ever elegant and capable Michelle Yeoh will not suffer these fools.

English trailer:

Tofu challenge:

Released: 1994
Prod: Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Dir: Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Action Dir: Donnie Yen Ji-Dan 甄子丹, Yuen Shun-Yi 袁信義, Yuen Wo-Ping 袁和平
Writer: Elsa Tang Bik-Yin 鄧碧燕, Anthony Wong Wing-Fai 黃永輝
Cast: Michelle Yeoh 楊紫瓊, Donnie Yen Ji-Dan 甄子丹, Waise Lee Chi-Hung 李子雄, Kingdom Yuen King-Tan 苑瓊丹, Catherine Hung Yan 洪欣, Norman Chu Siu-Keung 徐少強, Cheng Pei-Pei 鄭佩佩, Chui A-Fai 崔亞輝, Xu Xiang-Dong 徐向東, Jin Mao-Heng 金懋恆, Guo Jia-Qing 郭家慶
Time: 100 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2018

Advertisements

Police Woman (女警察) (1973)

Police Woman will be forever branded as a Jackie Chan film, which is a damn shame because it’s not. Though once retitled Rumble in Hong Kong, an allusion to one of the actors’ most famous films, Rumble in the Bronx, for an American release, this is really a Yuen Qiu movie. Yuen, perhaps most famous for her role as the cantankerous landlord in Kung Fu Hustle, was part of the Seven Little Fortunes troupe, a group of young performers that included Chan, Sammo Hung, and Yuen Wah. They trained at the Beijing opera school, China Drama Academy, under Yu Jim Yuen. Like her contemporaries, Yuen found some early success in movies as an actor and stuntwoman, but unlike her classmates, her career never really took off and she retired after marrying. I wonder why.

The film industry, and sexism, done her wrong, but at least we can revisit her early work thanks to Netflix (well, Hong Kong Netflix). Yuen (credited as Lin Qiu) plays Inspector Ho Mai-Wa, the titular police woman in the film. Mai-Wa is trying to figure out why her sister, Mai-Fong (Hu Chin), ended up poisoned to death in the back of a cab. She teams up with the driver, Chan Kin (Charlie Chin, or Chow Yun-Fat’s Taiwanese twin), and they battle it out with some Mainland gangsters who are caught up in a drug smuggling operation. One of those thugs is nameless Jackie Chan character, a kid whose distinguishing feature is a huge mole that he really needs to get checked out.

Yuen appears briefly in the beginning of the movie, appropriately kicking some ass while undercover, but then disappears as Kin’s story takes over. The gangsters chase him down, beating and harassing him because they think Mai-Fong hid some evidence in his cab that could incriminate them. They keep going on about a purse and can’t take the hint that he has no idea where Mai-Fong might have stashed it. Kin’s the reluctant hero, an innocent, somewhat unwilling participant in all this. His mild manner makes him easy to like, but he’s a college-educated cab driver, not a fighter, and the action always seems to swirl around him.

Things pick up when Mai-Wa shows up, and she and Kin do a little more of the pursuing. This leads them to the gangsters’ hideout and a showdown in which they get help from another woman and Kin’s cab buddies. Mai-Wa doesn’t talk much, but there’s no doubt about who is leading things. Yuen is studied and smart as the inspector, a woman who is used to navigating a man’s world and does so successfully by laying low and being very competent.

In fact, all the women in this film possess the same guile. They are the most interesting characters because of what they have to hide. Mai-Fong, it turns out, is an associate of the gang, drawn into the criminal life in part by her laziness according to her sister. Sao Mei (Betty Pei Ti) is as well. Both are more than the kept or wronged woman. They make decisions of great consequence and courage that end up costing at least Mai-Fong her life. The actors do as much as they can with their brief screen time. The film moves at swift pace, and there’s little attempt to bulk up the narrative or characterization. Even the fight scenes have an economical and perfunctory quality, though they are still fine.

Alt Title: 師哥出馬, The Young Tiger, Rumble in Hong Kong, The Heroine, Here Comes Big Brother
Released: 1973
Dir: Chu Mu 朱牧
Action Dir: Jackie Chan 成龍, Yuen Cheung-Yan 袁祥仁
Writer: Chu Mu 朱牧, Ngai Hoi-Fung 魏海峰
Cast: Yuen Qiu 元秋, Charlie Chin Chiang-Lin 秦祥林, Lee Man-Tai 李文泰, Hu Chin 胡錦, Chiang Nan 姜南, Jackie Chan 成龍, Helena Law Lan 羅蘭, Fung Ngai 馮毅, Betty Pei Ti 貝蒂, Go Yeung 高揚
Time: 80 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2018

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

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