Hong Kong 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

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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

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

Confession of Pain (傷城)

confession of pain

Confession of Pain had the misfortune of arriving on the heels of the critically and commercially successful Infernal Affairs trilogy, released in the early 2000s, which recalibrated Hong Kong film standards for the new century. This film featured many of the same principals, including directors Andrew Lau and Alan Mak and writers Mak and Felix Chong as well as star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai. So it wouldn’t be overstating things to say that expectations were high, or that the result was a grand disappointment.

Granted, it’s hard to follow up on a hit series that went on to become an Oscar-winning adaptation directed by Martin Scorsese. Confession of Pain tries to one up the intense cat and mouse game that fueled the creators’ previous effort with another catch-me-if-you-can mystery. Unfortunately, it gets derailed by overambitious plotting. At its most basic, the film is a murder mystery. A wealthy man (Elliot Ngok) is bludgeoned to death along with his manservant (Vincent Wan). Inspector Lau (Leung) tries to solve the crime with the help of his ex-cop friend turned private investigator, Bong (Takeshi Kaneshiro), and bring some closure for the victim’s daughter, Susan (Xu Jinglei), also his wife.

If the murder is unspectacular, the unraveling of this mystery certainly is not. The killer is revealed about twenty minutes into the film, and that’s when things get a little fancy. Instead of the traditional whodunit, the story keeps its audience guessing about motive. In this way, it trends towards a character study. There’s enough stillness in the storytelling and camerawork to allow viewers space to pick apart the murderer and why he or she committed the crime.

At least this is the idea. It’s an intriguing and novel twist to the genre, especially for filmmakers on the vanguard of popular art cinema. The trouble is that absent a motive, it’s hard to give any meaning to the performances. Leung is cool and detached as Lau, effortlessly flinty as an officer who doesn’t blink twice when dispensing justice on a rapist. Leung the charmer is also on display though through tender gestures towards his wife. The actor holds his character’s duality in one consistent performance, allowing a strain of malevolence to underline everything. This shiftiness isn’t confined to a single person, and Susan’s coldness towards her father, embodied by Xu’s chilling stares, also points towards a dark path down which everyone seems to be heading. There are a lot of places to hide one’s secrets. Bong is eager to dig around, but as a recovering alcoholic who blames himself for a personal tragedy, he does little to liven the mood.

Their individual behavior begs explanation and fails to crescendo towards more concrete characterizations. But the plot is structured so that too many hints about the murderer’s intentions would bring things to a hasty conclusion, for the movie and the killer. So until the big reveal snaps quickly into place at the end, things shift into a prolonged limbo. Appearances by Chapman To and Shu Qi are supposed to help, somehow. To plays another investigating officer and brings what he usually brings to a piece – comic relief and bluster, but Shu does precious little as a chipper beer girl and is about as welcome as a squawky clarinet. Her role in particular clashes with the story’s darkness – the title translates to “Hurt City.” On this account at least, the filmmakers succeed; the internal struggles of the characters find little relief in the landscape, their images juxtaposed against long shots of Hong Kong at dawn or midnight when the city is at its loneliest and most abandoned.

Released: 2006
Prod: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達
Dir: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Alan Mak 麥兆輝
Writer: Felix Chong 莊文強; Alan Mak 麥兆輝
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Takeshi Kaneshiro 金城武; Xu Jinglei 徐靜蕾; Shu Qi 舒淇; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Elliot Ngok 岳華; Vincent Wan 尹揚明; Emme Wong 黃伊汶; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥
Time: 110 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

My Name is Fame (我要成名)

my name is fame

Art, it is sometimes said, holds a mirror up to society, and that seems to be the case with My Name is Fame. A film about filmmaking, I suspect it inspired introspection within the Hong Kong entertainment industry, which had long praised and relied on the superior talents of Lau Ching-Wan without rewarding him accordingly. In this movie, he plays a skilled but frequently overlooked actor who coaches a newcomer to stardom while trying to not so much revive a critically successful career as to kickstart one. Lau’s efforts earned him his first ever Hong Kong Film Awards gong.

It’s an honor long overdue, so the irony of this role gives fans like me some sweet satisfaction. His character, Poon Kar-Fai, delivers an acting master class to his protégé, and the audience, and Lau showcases the texture he always brings to his characters. There is something flinty behind his thick, hangdog face, and despite Fai’s emotional exhaustion and stereotypical dip into the bottle, one can sense his simmering passion. Never an actor to back down from the integrity of his craft, Fai knows a deal more about storytelling and performance than some of the people running the show. His unwillingness to compromise as well as his expectation that others commit fully to each job doesn’t earn him many friends.

Since his perpetual state of underemployment leaves him with a lot of time, Fai volunteers to chaperone a fresh actress, Faye (Huo Siyan), contracted under his ex’s (Candy Yu) agency. What starts as a one-off act of kindness, however, gradually develops into something deeper. If this was a Woody Allen film, the middle-aged master would school his much younger, wide-eyed pupil not only in the art of acting but romance as well, with emphasis on the latter. But it’s not, and most of the focus stays on their professional relationship. Faye not only learns to be a better performer but also how to navigate the industry, while the ill-tempered Fai, seeing her approach to the profession that has mostly yielded disappointment, re-evaluates his commitment to it.

Huo is expressive in wonderfully slight ways as her character blossoms into a leading actress. The part requires a certain nuance where Faye is shown filming successive takes of a single scene, and Huo delivers each shot with precision. And while the two leads seem oddly matched in physicality and temperament, they blend effortlessly, both the actors and characters giving and taking until they’ve reached some sort of intellectual and emotional equilibrium (see, this isn’t Woody Allen).

These two very accomplished performances (Huo also received a Best Newcomer nomination) are marred, however, by a problem that plagues recent Hong Kong productions – dubbing. There should just be an understanding that actors will be screened in whatever dialect they’ve acted in or, if consistency is required, that a better effort will be made to find actors who can deliver in the necessary language. After first watching the Cantonese track, I was surprised to hear Faye’s reedy voice replaced by Huo’s deeper, less giggly interpretation when I switched to the Mandarin one. The best solution might be a quick finger on the audio button, but even that won’t do full justice to the performances.

Released: 2006
Prod: Henry Fong 方平; Shan Dongbing 單東炳
Dir: Lawrence Lau 劉國昌
Writer: James Yuen 阮世生; Jessica Fong 方晴;Law Yiu-Fai 羅耀輝
Cast: Lau Ching-Wan 劉青雲; Huo Siyan 霍思燕; Candy Yu 余安安; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥; Derek Tsang 曾國祥; Elena Kong 江美儀; Kong Hon 江漢; Leung San 梁珊; Tony Leung Ka-Fai 梁家輝; Ann Hui 許鞍華; Ekin Cheng 鄭伊健; Remus Choi 蔡一傑; Calvin Choi 蔡一智; Edmond So 蘇志威; Niki Chow 周麗琪; Fruit Chan 陳果; Henry Fong 方平; Jo Kuk 谷祖琳; Lau Dan 劉丹
Time: 94 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015