Tony Leung Chiu-Wai

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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Mack the Knife (流氓醫生)

mack the knife 2

Mack the Knife has the meandering plot of an extended TV serial, and it takes its time going places, if indeed it is going anywhere at all. There’s no driving narrative behind this drama; instead, the movie relies on the strength of its characters to sustain its 100 minute running time. The cast and writers largely do a good job of it, but those wanting more than talking heads will prefer other options.

Star Tony Leung Chiu-Wai does most of the heavy lifting as the unorthodox Dr. Mack Lau who runs a clinic in a seedier part of town. He doesn’t care much for the prestige of his profession and shares an easy rapport with those on the margins who make up his patients and neighbors. These are petty thieves, young women who seek a quick abortion, and old folks who just need to pass their time. Leung has the grungy, unshaven appearance of someone who needs a cold shower, which helps him look the part, but he also slips easily into the role with a deft combination of humor, recalcitrance, and sober awareness.

Besides his patients, Mack’s main interactions are with his friend, Chiu (Lau Ching-Wan), a police officer with a similarly lackadaisical approach to his job. Chiu’s primary dilemma is his entanglement with a Mainland prostitute, a plot device that hardly gets a new airing. And while Lau lends his character real affection, this storyline is too put on from him to overcome.

That leaves Andy Hui as the idealistic Dr. Sam So, a Médecins Sans Frontières type who dives into the shittiest urban clinic he can find the day after graduation. Hui is perky and naive enough to make his mostly one-sided romance with a cancer patient (Hilary Tsui) believable if a little hackneyed, but I found Sam’s dynamic with the seasoned Mack more interesting to watch as the realities of the profession become more pronounced for the young doctor. Alex To provides additional counterweight as Mack’s rival, Dr. Roger Jor, a slick surgeon who overcompensates because his skills in the operating room don’t match Mack’s. A love triangle featuring Christy Chung and a Merchant Ivory-like garden party also heightens Roger’s jealousy.

With its web of doctors, patients, police officers, criminals, and lovers, Mack has echoes of TVB’s classic show Healing Hands, though this movie predates it by a few years (both boast a very loungy 90s jazz soundtrack, however). Leung’s performance in particular gives significance to the mundane, but ultimately, the film is too static to have a lasting effect.

(The poster below does not approximate the tone of this movie.)

mack the knife

“Crazy” by Tony Leung:

Released: 1993
Alt Title: Dr. Mack
Prod: Lee Chi-Ngai 李志毅
Dir: Lee Chi-Ngai 李志毅
Writer: Lee Chi-Ngai 李志毅
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Lau Ching-Wan 劉青雲; Andy Hui 許志安; Christy Chung 鍾麗緹; Alex To 杜德偉; Hilary Tsui 徐濠縈; Eileen Tung 童愛玲; Law Kar-Ying 羅家英; Gigi Leung 梁詠琪; Richard Ng 吳耀漢; Jordan Chan 陳小春; Lawrence Ng 吳啟華; Wong Hei 王喜; Wyman Wong 黃偉文; Jerry Lamb 林曉峰
Time: 99 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father! (新難兄難弟)

he aint heavy hes my father

“One for all and all for one!” is a phrase we don’t hear much of these days, outside of the latest Three Musketeers adaptation, but it was once the go-to slogan of Union Film (translated from the Chinese「人人為我,我為人人.」), the studio that dominated Hong Kong’s post-war cinema and boasted some of the greatest screen talents in the city’s history. Through its varied productions, Union was best known for promoting a sense of community. Their films were populated by people who shared each others’ joys and hardships and who united with a can-do spirit. As for those greedy, self-interested folks who sacrificed the common good just to improve their own lot, there was always a comeuppance, for compassion wins out in the end.

A look around today’s Hong Kong explains why people feel nostalgia for that past. The unceasing pursuit of wealth, the win at all costs mentality, the shameless materialism – it’s not the most humanizing set of values. Although He Ain’t Heavy, He’s My Father! is already 20 years old, it continues to speak to the disillusionment that economic prosperity brings. That Peter Chan and Lee Chi-Ngai firmly tie their work to the Union tradition is doubly satisfying for Hong Kong film history fans like myself.

In general, the plot mirrors those of many older movies and revolves around Cho-Fan (Tony Leung Ka-Fai), a boisterous young man whose generosity earns him the respect of everyone in his neighborhood. Well, it also revolves around Chor Yuen (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai), Cho-Fan’s money-loving son. He hops back in time thanks to some Mid-Autumn Festival magic and tries to understand his overly charitable father, with whom he never got along. In addition, he meets his mother, Laura (Carina Lau), a woman willing to sacrifice her considerable inheritance for the man she loves. Family relations are complicated when Chor Yuen and his grandfather, Lord Watson (actual Chor Yuen), conspire to earn a tidy profit off the down-and-out residents of Memory Lane.

There are plenty of familiar scenes and archetypes, which you’ll recognize especially if you’ve seen the classic In the Face of Demolition (危樓春曉), one of the Hong Kong Film Archive’s 100 Must-See Hong Kong Movies. Other tenants include Ah Chuen (Lawrence Cheng) whose gambling addiction threatens to destroy his family and Lynn (Anita Yuen), the good-hearted girl with bad luck who becomes the object of Chor Yuen’s affections. Plus, plenty of minor characters glide in and out, with a young, and poor, Li Ka-Shing (Waise Lee) getting particular attention. However, no matter one’s status or difficulty – and there are plenty, all are drawn by the comfort that they’re in it together. No one ends up abandoned.

Most of the names are cribbed from those of real actors, and some of the parts correspond to the onscreen persona of their namesakes. Lynn, for example, substitutes as Tsi Lo-Lin who often played gentle female roles. Yuen slips perfectly into character. Meanwhile, the broad chested Ng Cho-Fan, Union’s great moralizer is responsible for immortalizing the “All for one…” line in In the Face of Demolition. It’s a scene Ka-Fai, who has a tendency for the dramatic, replicates with gusto. He brings out Cho-Fan’s booming personality in grand fashion and has the lean look of a steady pillar amidst social chaos.

There are a couple father-son combos as well, Lee Hoi-Chuen and Lee Siu-Long being the most famous. Chuen, the elder, was a popular actor whose son, better known as Bruce Lee, also had an acting gig or two. Another Union regular who often played the reticent, learned type was Cheung Wood-Yau, and he appears in the same manner here. The meta moment occurs when his son, director Chor Yuen (who was mentored by the great director Ng Wui), is introduced to Chiu-Wai’s character.

Some might find this endless self-referencing tiresome, but it works as more than a cheap gag. The film lacks the black and white seriousness of its predecessors and instead relies on comedy to achieve a similar effect. By recalling Union’s films so closely, the movie manages to absorb some of those values. He Ain’t Heavy definitely wears its heart on its sleeve. It’s more than the sum of its gimmicks though and earns its emotional payoff. Lau is a delightfully spirited Laura, and it’s easy to see why Cho-Fan is charmed by her. Chor Yuen’s warmth towards his father and Cho-Fan’s love for the man he doesn’t realize is his son also create some truly touching moments. Unlike recent Chinese New Year hits that similarly try to elevate community over the individual, the climax of this movie doesn’t swell with melodrama. And I can’t argue with a film that says we need to look out for each other.

“Tell Laura I Love Her” by Tony Leung and Tony Leung:

Released: 1993
Prod: Peter Chan 陳可辛; Claudie Chung 鍾珍
Dir: Peter Chan 陳可辛; Lee Chi-Ngai 李志毅
Writer: Lee Chi-Ngai 李志毅
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Tony Leung Ka-Fai 梁家輝; Carina Lau 劉嘉玲; Anita Yuen 袁詠儀; Lawrence Cheng 鄭丹瑞; Helen Yung 翁杏蘭; Anita Lee 李婉華; Chor Yuen 楚原; Pang Mei-Seung 彭美嫦; Michael Chow 周文健; Waise Lee 李子雄; Lawrence Ng 吳啟華
Time: 98 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

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

Blind Romance (偷偷愛你)

blind romance

Wing (Tony Leung Chiu-Wai) finds out the hard way who his real friends are, and it turns out he doesn’t have any. When he and his wealthy father get in a devastating car accident that leaves Wing blinded, his half-brother (Johnny Tang) and step-mother take the opportunity to seize control of the family assets. Suddenly he is left without any cash and without his money-grubbing starlet girlfriend Chi-Sum (Lau Gam-Ling), who promptly leaves him for his brother.

You would think that someone as cool and genial as Tony Leung, or a character played by him, would have no shortage of pals to the rescue, but Wing seems to lack social aptitude, and the only people who stick by him are his uncle (Joe Junior) and Chi-Sum’s fawning assistant Tung Tung (Chingmy Yau). Except that Wing mistakes her for his private nurse Man Man, a somewhat manipulative situation that she’s okay with.

Tung Tung is actually the main character of the movie, and because she’s played by Yau, it’s easy to believe that she’s the charming girl next door who does everything right, including taking care of her brother (Eric Kot) and grandfather (Roy Chiao). But when it comes to Wing, Tony Leung he is so dazzling that she just can’t keep her shit together. Until she discovers that he cannot see, and suddenly the prospect of getting close to him seems realistic.

The movie tries to take the question of whether true love is blind to its literal conclusion, which is not as crafty a gimmick as it supposes. There is one moment of high romance (at about the 1’07” mark) that caught me unawares and set my heart alight, but mostly it’s slow burning embers. The romance between Tung Tung and Wing moves quickly and only makes up part of the film’s thesis. I’d rather it draw out that relationship and plant a few more bumps along their path. I’d also rather the movie not equivocate blindness with stupidity. But this movie is what it sets out to be – a tidy romantic comedy.

“Secretly Loving You” (偷偷愛你) by Tony Leung:

Released: 1996
Prod: Wong Jing 王晶
Dir: Victor Tam 譚朗昌
Writer: Not a Woman 不是女人
Cast: Tony Leung Chiu-Wai 梁朝偉; Chingmy Yau 邱淑貞; Eric Kot 葛民輝; Jay Lau 劉錦玲; Roy Chiao 喬宏; Johnny Tang 鄧兆尊; Dennis Chan 陳國新; Ha Ping 夏萍; Joe Junior; Pak Yan 白茵
Time: 99 min
Lang: Cantonese
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014