Mainland China movie reviews

All About Women (女人不壞)

all about women

All About Women is one wacky, overlong explosion of feminist, romance, fantasy weirdness that you’re either going to appreciate for its eccentricity or hate for its incoherence or, in some cases, both. The brainchild of Tsui Hark and cowriter Kwak Jae-Yong (My Sassy Girl), this two-hour film about three women and the pursuit of love is badly in need of an editor no matter how you approach it. But it also tries to hack out a new course for traditional romcoms, and such vision gets some credit given the recycled junkyard that is Hong Kong cinema these days.

In order to begin to appreciate what Tsui is doing though, you need to plow through the first hour, and this is where the film will lose most of its audience. The three main characters are introduced in a disjointed opening, beginning with scientist Fanfan (Zhou Xun), who suffers from selective sclerosis. This makes her freeze in awkward positions at awkward moments, but it’s the least of her problems. Conforming to stereotypes of socially inept scientists, Fanfan needs serious help when it comes to guys and is working on pheromone stickers that will take the clumsiness out of love. Tanglu (Kitty Zhang), meanwhile, is her opposite. Also embracing a familiar archetype, this sexy, power dressing she-devil renders men useless whenever she marches down the corridor. She closes deals but worries that her beauty is bad for business and that she is not being taken seriously. Last up is Tieling (Guey Lun-Mei), the scrappy, emo rock-chick-poet-boxer of the group. She also has a long-term imaginary relationship with model X (Godfrey Gao) because a) it makes sense later on, and b) who wouldn’t?

It’s a madhouse as these eccentric personalities scramble around their professional and love lives. Increasingly, their paths intersect. Fanfan sets her eyes on a moody rocker (Stephen Fung) whose backside resembles the last subject of her infatuation. He happens to work with Tieling, while she has caught the attention of Tanglu’s meek assistant, Qiyan (Eddie Peng). It isn’t until some of these characters literally crash into each other that the story seems to gain momentum. A mix-up involving Fanfan’s pheromone stickers results in some Midsummer’s Night-like consequences that have the three women questioning what they want out of a partner and of love.

The characters that Tsui and Kwak craft don’t exactly pass the Bechdel test, but they end up being more than the sum of their quirks. This is due in part to the strength of the writing and directing, which eventually move beyond sheer absurdities. The film’s latter half is a lot more challenging than the usual “will they or won’t they” scenario precisely because the love matches have been manipulated by Fanfan’s patches. Each character in her own way is trying to distill love into one formula, whether it be in chemical form or as a romanticized ideal. However, they find that the heart can’t be simplified.

There’s a fair amount of offbeat humor in this, and the actresses get a lot of credit for adding a sympathetic dimension to their parts that is not found in the script. Despite her character’s robotic nature, Zhou is surprisingly funny and at ease with her eccentric role. I was also impressed by Zhang’s ability to turn Tanglu into more than a shrill maneater, and Guey similarly made Tieling’s romantic fantasy seem endearing rather than obsessive.

Considering the movie is called All About Women, it might be expected that the love stories suffer. The male characters get a bit of space to pine or sulk – or in the cases of Gao and Alex Fong Chung-Sun, look flawless and unattainable, but the overall chemistry between the sexes is hit and miss. Much like the rest of the film. Demanding audiences may be more appreciative of the effort and more willing to dig to find the characters, but it retains the feel of an experimental piece, albeit a fresh and fun one, that needs more workshopping.

Released: 2008
Prod: Tsui Hark 徐克; Huang Jianxin 黃建新; Nansun Shi 施南生; Elvis Lee 李程
Dir: Tsui Hark 徐克
Writer: Tsui Hark 徐克; Kwak Jae-Yong 곽재용
Cast: Zhou Xun 周迅; Kitty Zhang 張雨綺; Guey Lun-Mei 桂綸鎂; Alex Fong Chung-Sun 方中信; Stephen Fung 馮德倫; Godfrey Gao 高以翔; Shen Chang 沈暢; Eddie Peng 彭于晏
Time: 120 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong/Mainland China
Reviewed: 2015

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

The Silent War (聽風者)

the silent war

The Silent War promises a lot. It’s a period film beautifully wrapped in the earthy tones of 1949 China still suffering the birth pangs of nationhood. A blind piano tuner is recruited to help locate radio frequencies and listen in on encrypted messages being transmitted by the Kuomintang, and he is guided by Xuening, a capable and steely taskmaster. Tony Leung Chiu-Wai and Zhou Xun front the film while Alan Mak and Felix Chong, the duo responsible for the Infernal Affairs and Overheard trilogies, pen and direct.

Yet for all its creative assets, this movie never really gets off the ground as a spy thriller or a romance, both of which it tries to juggle. Based on the novel Plot Against by Mai Jia, the danger of the spy game is barely perceptible when translated to the screen. Much of the action is reduced to panning shots of Bing (Leung) twisting knobs and staring through milky lenses, a look of disquieted concentration etched into his face. When Xuening goes undercover and tries to suss out a KMT ringleader, there’s about as much suspense as an awkward game of mahjong, which is exactly how the scene unfolds. As far as heart-stopping action goes, the most exciting moment is unrelated to espionage and happens early on when a gang of thugs brandishing giant cleavers chase a philanderer through a music hall.

Part of the fault lies in the characterization of Bing, whose superhuman hearing abilities stand out but little else. The film limits him to a largely sedentary role and tries to compensate by putting him in sort of a romantic rectangle with Xuening, her superior (Wang Xuebing), and a Communist decoder with KMT ties (Mavis Fan). But so much is left not just unsaid but unemoted that the climax rings hollow. Added to that is Leung’s interpretation of his character, a somewhat testy grump. He opts for levity and, in an odd misstep for an actor who handles somber historical leading man roles with ease, plays Bing like a forlorn schoolboy. Zhou fares better as Xuening and delivers a more consistent performance. She and the film are strongest when she goes head to head with Wang, two top spooks engaging in conspiratorial whispers.

The Silent War is at least visually impressive, particularly when Bing tries to interpret a series of transmissions in order to deduce the identity of an elusive spyhead. The sequence has a ghostly quality that does a better job of heightening the mystery than the script. But for a film about sensitivity to sound, this one lacks a strong sound design. Except for a few deliberate scenes that emphasize Bing’s aural experience, his key moments are washed away by grandiose scoring. The music matches the overall tone of the story, but this wastes opportunities to focus on Bing and tease out his emotions. One could interpret that as a way of satisfying the censors; this is a Hong Kong film made for the Mainland market, so rousing nationalism is largely subdued save for a final red bang. Or it could be miscalculation, one of many that resulted in a more cohesive and stirring trailer than movie.

Mandarin track trailer:

Released: 2012
Prod: Ronald Wong 黃斌; Charley Zhuo 卓伍
Dir: Alan Mak 麥兆輝; Felix Chong 莊文強
Writer: Alan Mak 麥兆輝; Felix Chong 莊文強
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Zhou Xun 周迅; Wang Xuebing 王學兵; Mavis Fan 范曉萱; Dong Yong 董勇; Lam Wai 林威; Jacob Cheung 張之亮; Tan Lap-Man 單立文; Carrie Ng 吳家麗; Henry Fong 方平; Tang Qun 唐群; Cheung Hoi-Yin 張海燕
Time: 120 min
Lang: Cantonese/Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014