Shu Qi

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

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Love (愛)

love

Love may or may not be Taiwanese director Doze Niu’s answer to Love Actually, but it certainly plays that way. A crowded, multi-narrative picture that explores the ups and downs of love, it’s an elegantly packaged affair, much like that Rowan Atkinson number in Richard Curtis’s film. Niu corrals eight of Taiwan’s biggest, most beautiful stars, which includes himself and technically an actress from the Mainland, and sets them against a chic, cosmopolitan backdrop. It’s high gloss and vibrant hues all around, but if the glamour and good looks of its mostly young stars work to pull in its audience, they do little to heighten the drama; this is a movie first about polish and then about plot.

One of the more challenging situations involves someone heaving himself into a septic tank to prove his devotion to his girlfriend. Otherwise, there are few truly hard decisions to be made here, and the storylines tend towards the garden variety. An actress (Shu Qi) is arm candy for a director (Niu) but finds herself most at peace with a stuttering waiter (Ethan Ruan). He is brother to a cyclist (Ivy Chen) who’s just discovered she’s pregnant by her best friend’s (Amber Kuo) other half (Eddie Peng). The friend is daughter of the director, which brings us back to the actress, who is just ending an affair with an uptight businessman (Mark Chao). His inability to love is tested when he meets an estate agent and plucky single mother (Vicki Zhao) in Beijing.

There’s a real struggle between Chen and Kuo’s characters to do the right thing, once they figure out what that is, and the two actresses dig at the uncertainty that comes with abandoning oneself to love. Peng, however, flops around a bit looking hapless, a guise most of the actors here seem to adopt. Though they have proven their talent elsewhere, they are only as competent as their stories and Niu never really pushes his characters far enough.

Chao, for example, increasingly lays bare his vulnerabilities but never quite closes the emotional gulf between his character and the audience. It’s as if the messiness of despair and heartache just might overpower his tailored image, and so he holds back. The same is true for Shu Qi. Zhao flirts around a little more; her character is a harried woman more concerned with shuttling between her job and her son’s school than making sure every strand of hair is pinned in place. The only character that doesn’t seem to mind being immersed in the swill is a police officer (Wang Jingchun) who gets tangled in Chao and Zhao’s storyline. He has the benefit of not having to look like an Armani ad and comes off more human, and humorous, because of it.

“Love” (愛) theme song by Hebe Tien:

Released: 2012
Prod: Doze Niu 紐承澤; Wang Zhonglei 王中磊
Dir: Doze Niu 紐承澤
Writer: Doze Niu 紐承澤; Tseng Lei-Ting 曾莉婷; Wang Qinan 汪啓楠
Cast: Vicki Zhao 趙薇; Mark Chao 趙又廷; Shu Qi 舒淇; Doze Niu 紐承澤; Ivy Chen 陳意涵; Ethan Ruan 阮經天; Eddie Peng 彭于晏; Amber Kuo 郭采潔; Wang Jingchun 王景春; Lin Muran 林沐然
Time: 127 min
Lang: Mandarin
Country: Taiwan
Reviewed: 2015

Look for a Star (游龍戲鳳)

look for a star

There are three improbable relationships at work in Look for a Star, all of which cross some social boundaries of class, gender, wealth, age, or education and none of which are engaging enough on their own. Three definitely makes a crowd though as this picture struggles to accommodate each couple.

The bulk of the story falls on Andy Lau and Shu Qi. Lau plays Sam Ching, a thrice divorced millionaire and property developer who’s been snatching up land all through Macau. Milan, played by Shu Qi, holds a pretty low opinion of Mr. Ching for turning her city into an overdeveloped playground, but there’s not much she can do as a baccarat dealer and nightclub club dancer. After a sequence of events not fully made clear by the narrative, the two start dating, except Sam withholds his true identity. Anyone can see this isn’t a wise decision, but filmmakers deem it necessary to progress to a second act.

Sam’s second-in-command, Jo (Denise Ho), also gets some action with the help of her boss, but when the initial set-up doesn’t go as planned, she finds herself on the receiving end of some unwanted attention from a polite but clingy migrant worker Jiu (Zhang Hanyu). Chauffeur Tim (Dominic Lam) tries his luck in love as well. Sam arranges for him to go on a date with Shannon (Zhang Xinyi), who seems a perfect match except that she is also a single mother, thus failing to tick off all the right boxes on his list.

It’s an ambitious slate and you get the sense that the filmmakers want to go somewhere deeper with their material. The third act is a blustery show of commentaries on love and compatibility and comes in the form of an incredulous matchmaking program hosted by Cheung Tat-Ming. He (cruelly) highlights the extreme social divide that separates each pair of lovers, and it’s an attempt to expose what some see as the superficial barriers that thwart true love. At the same time, Milan gives an honest but brief perspective on the reality of relationships characterized by such differences.

I’m not a great admirer of Shu Qi’s work, and some of her earlier scenes – dancing by herself in an elevator, performing a kittenish can can – seem to be inserted to up her coquettish appeal. But she really captures her character’s dignity and humiliation after becoming tabloid fodder and the subject of scrutiny by Sam’s company. Zhang Hanyu also commands attention in his small role. He has a quiet but intense magnetism that makes his character understandably appealing.

It’s too bad then that Jiu’s relationship with Jo wasn’t given greater focus. Their pairing is touching but, like most of the emotions in this movie, not lasting. Look for a Star is weighed down by chatty conversations that want to take on more importance than they actually do, leaving the film to start a discussion that stalls shortly thereafter.

“I Do” by Andy Lau and Shu Qi:

Released: 2009
Prod: Andrew Lau 劉偉強
Dir: Andrew Lau 劉偉強
Writer: Theresa Tang 鄧潔明; James Yuen 阮世生
Cast: Andy Lau 劉德華; Shu Qi 舒淇; Denise Ho 何韻詩; Zhang Hanyu 張涵予; Dominic Lam 林嘉華; Zhang Xinyi 張歆藝; Cheung Tat-Ming 張達明; David Chiang 姜大衛; Maria Cordero 瑪利亞; George Lam 林子祥; Raymond Cho 曹永廉; Monie Tung 董敏莉; Rebecca Pan 潘迪華; Ella Koon 官恩娜; Terence Yin 尹子維; Tony Ho 何華超
Time: 117 min
Lang: Cantonese, Mandarin, and some English
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Women from Mars (當男人變成女人)

women from mars

Most Hong Kong movies that comment on gender roles and relations tend to offend my feminist sensibilities, to say nothing of the ones that purposely seize on sexist stereotypes. Women From Mars plays to expectations and does what such films do best – purport to share an enlightened opinion on gender and relationships while reaffirming traditional views in reality. You can almost always expect the man to get his comeuppance. It’s an attempt to show that the male writers, directors, and producers who populate the industry are forward thinking blokes who “get” women and who are self-aware of sexism in society and in their films. It seems, however, that the apologetic tone is more of an excuse to push sexist rubbish onto eager audiences than to atone for past wrongs. After all, this plot device keeps the focus on male character development and leaves women to be mere vehicles for which guys can discover and become their truer, better selves.

I had fleeting hopes that Women From Mars would at least be a humorous exercise with an ever slight potential of satire. A trio of insensitive, philandering men take the scary bus to hell only to win a reprieve and pop back up to earth, sans the family jewels. In order to win back them back, their girlfriends must sincerely declare their love within the month. Think Beauty and the Beast, but with graver consequences. However, the movie manages further insult by not being funny. Worse, it is fifty shades of dull.

Too much time is wasted on chatty exposition, which happens when bad ideas turn into movies. The three poorly drawn characters spend half an hour talking their way into revealing what jerks they are. Tom Kan (Ekin Cheng) is a celebrity hair stylist but spends more time trying to pick up girls than he does cutting hair. Bo (Cheung Tat-Ming), a pet store owner, is perhaps even more unsavory; he preys on women’s naturally sympathetic and gullible nature so that they will buy his animals. His cousin Michael (Michael Wong) at least has a steady girlfriend, Ruby (Ruby Wong), but he comes from some plot-device village where men take care of the thinking and decision-making and women can just shut their pie holes and cover them up with a face mask.

Their behavior is sleazy, aggravating, and juvenile, but sending them to hell to get their parts nipped seems drastic and somewhat pointless. These are not men particularly attuned to their misbehaviors to begin with, and some devilish tomfoolery does little to improve their powers of perception. Indeed, Tom, Bo, and Michael try to cheat their way into getting their ding-a-lings reattached and without giving serious thought to how they ended up in this predicament. The monotony of their pursuit is broken up by a spiteful, cross dressing radio DJ (Wayne Lai) and a station manager (Francis Ng). They appear a lot and don’t do anything important, their main purpose being to set up a big reveal.

A few gags help push the boys along the path to enlightenment but these better succeed in patronizing women. Without their pricks, the three find themselves increasingly prone to self-doubt, mood swings, and a fear of cockroaches. They curl up on a couch and lament their lack of literal and figurative balls. When they predictably get a real taste of womanhood, as defined by the writers, they at last recognize what an emotional and physical slog it is to be female.

The primary effect here is to show that the fairer sex are overly sensitive creatures. Better to have a real man who knows how to tend to their insecurities and needs. This stands in contrast to the girlfriends who, to the writers’ credit, come off as well adjusted adults, albeit with an unusually forgiving taste in partners. Ruby gets the most screentime and exhibits none of the stereotyped histrionics that the men (as women) do.

Still, there’s an air of exceptional tolerance. The film suggests that a few turns in a girls’ room queue and some sympathetic remarks about pregnancy can go a long way in helping guys understand how the other half lives. It’s tidy, reductive and only helps rein in the chauvinistic beasts in the movie world. It’s also bad entertainment.

Released: 2002
Prod: Manfred Wong 文雋; Frankie Ng 吳志雄
Dir: Andrew Lau 劉偉強; Raymond Yip 葉偉民
Writer: Manfred Wong 文雋; Chau Ting 秋婷; Matt Chow 鄒凱光
Cast: Ekin Cheng 鄭伊健; Michael Wong 王敏德; Cheung Tat-Ming 張達明; Audrey Fang 方子璇; Louis Koo 古天樂; Ruby Wong 黃卓玲; Shu Qi 舒淇; Stephen Fung 馮德倫; Kristy Yeung 楊恭如; Pinky Cheung 張文慈; Francis Ng 吳鎮宇; Wayne Lai 黎耀祥; Qu Ying 瞿穎; Josie Ho 何超儀; Bobo Chan 陳文媛; Wilson Yip 葉偉信; Joe Ma 馬偉豪; Jerry Lamb 林曉峰; Roy Cheung 張耀揚; Michael Tse 謝天華; Amanda Lee 李蕙敏; Lam Tze-Chung 林子聰; Angela Tong 湯盈盈; Kingdom Yuen 苑瓊丹; Belinda Hamnett 韓君婷
Time: 92 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

Home Sweet Home (怪物)

Home Sweet Home

Add this to the list of movies that make you want to jump out the window; it’s that depressing. Not exactly a horror film, it starts as a thriller and bleeds into a drama. Regardless, it still challenges, exhausts, and profoundly disturbs. The young and picturesque Cheng family has just moved into their new flat, but things soon sour. Their son (Tam Chan Ho) sees something that sets him wailing and his mother, May (Shu Qi) spies a dark figure through the air vents. They manage, however, to pass a peaceful night. When they are invited to a neighbor’s birthday party the next day, the shy and solitary May reluctantly accepts. But in the chaos of a flash storm, her son disappears, and thus begins a physical and mental chase that leaves everyone wishing they’d just had a better real estate agent.

Unsure at first what to make of the disappearance, the police, led by Lam Suet, think that May might be slightly left of sane, and their suspicions only increase when she starts crawling through the air ducts in search of her son. May insists that someone is scrabbling the dark of the complex with her kid in tow but there’s little proof. She finally manages to get a finger, literally, on some evidence, but this doesn’t ease the mounting skepticism of her mental state. The police do offer up a suspect though, Yan Hong (Karena Lam), and we learn that she and her family were once squatters where the apartment now stands. After her husband died in an accident, she and her son disappeared from the records.

The movie shifts here from a couple of crazy women giving chase to a kind of deconstruction of madness, at least an earnest attempt at one. Yan Hong is, of course, the woman lurching around with May’s son whom she takes as her own, and while she previously had just been someone in serious need of a bath and new clothes, her story pushes forward a larger critique of society. Or again, it tries to. Both women might do well to learn how to win friends and influence people, but their faults hardly merit the cynicism and inattention that envelopes them. After losing family members or facing eviction, they are left even more isolated, their misery compounded by a wholesale breakdown of society, at least for them. The ineffectiveness of all social safeguards – government, neighbors, family – only hastens their flight to the margins and, in the case of Yan Hong, brands her a monster which is the Chinese title for this film.

The moralizing is not too heavy handed and makes this a somewhat effective piece. At the very least, an actual plot and functional characters are in place – though on the latter point I think May’s characterization would have been strengthened by greater interaction with her husband (Alex Fong in little more than a cameo). Maybe because of his small role, however, we have two challenging female characters reinforcing each other, always a cause for celebration in Hong Kong cinema. Even in her distress, May evinces some sympathy for Yan Hong, a feeling reciprocated later on, however briefly. Where the film suffers though is in the emotional avalanche that it unleashes as May’s desperation, fueled by the general incompetence and indifference of those around her, comes to a head. It rightly asks much from its audience but is unable to provide a disciplined response. If the movie imagines itself a vehicle for examining social responsibilities, injustice, and even mental health, it cannot succeed by simply releasing a torrent of misery. Both characters are pushed to such extremes that by the end, there is little left for us to grasp and reshape; the final effect is that the audience becomes just as consumed despair as Yan Hong and May.