Wilfred Lau Ho-Lung

The Sniper (神鎗手)

the sniper

If we learn anything from The Sniper, it’s that Hong Kong’s crack shooters are beefy, bare-chested men. They wear tanks on occasion, but clothing, as a general rule, distracts. And it goes without saying, no girls allowed. This is a boys club, whose elite members include Richie Ren, Bowie Lam, Huang Xiaoming, and photo scandal era Edison Chen. I mention the latter because Chen’s dalliances had a direct and significant impact on the film, delaying its release for a year and forcing major revisions to minimize his role. The resulting picture may be more pleasant to watch without Chen’s mugging but also leaves some narrative loose ends.

In the movie’s opening frames, OJ (Chen) proves himself to be a talented sharpshooter. He is recruited to the elite sniper team where he quickly rises to the top of his class. Hartman (Ren), his commanding officer, is impressed but also sees much arrogance in his young padawan. He is reminded of a former classmate and colleague, Lincoln (Huang), who showed similar skill and scorn before leaving the force under a cloud. In this much edited version, OJ is not the protagonist so much as he is a mirror to Lincoln, and he’s not a character one misses when he’s off screen. Chen seems to possess one expression in his acting repertoire, and it’s lazy smugness, making OJ seem more like a cocky kid than someone you want on your side of a hostage situation.

The film is better when it focuses on Hartman and Lincoln’s rivalry, and there is plenty of tension between the two to sustain the 90 minute running time. Ren’s steely commander barks, squints, and sweats a lot just to drive home his toughness, but he’s also motivated by the need to prove his abilities, if only to himself. It turns out that he may have contributed to Lincoln’s dismissal and imprisonment after a standoff with the criminal Tao (Jack Kao) resulted in the death of a hostage. In the subsequent investigation, no one on his team corroborated Lincoln’s testimony, and Hartman’s silence proved especially damning.

Upon his release four years later, Lincoln is thirsting for revenge. He lures Hartman to a shootout in Central where the latter witnesses a violent prison transfer escape and is largely helpless to assist his fellow officers. Lincoln, now aligned with Tao and his men, including Big Head (Liu Kai-Chi), uses his superior sniper skills to bring down his rival.

There’s a lot of ego getting in the way of good judgment here. The only one who makes sound, non-adrenaline-induced decisions is Shane (Bowie Lam), Hartman’s second and the only officer who reaches out to Lincoln. The increasingly antagonistic relationships stem from everyone’s unwillingness to even hint at apology, which doesn’t bode well for teamwork. Hartman’s jealousy is really the source of his pride, and Lincoln thinks his abilities justify his aloofness. The clashing egos create some real fireworks in the final shootout, a scene lifted from a video game and a showcase of slow-motion heroics.

The movie is not all style though and does touch on the psychological implications of being a top sniper. But even more interesting is the fallout of the inquiry that sent Lincoln to prison. The filmmakers hold back a little too much and only really explore its effect on both Hartman and Lincoln in the final act, leaving a lot of the earlier action to be little more than frenzied chases. The film benefits most from Huang’s performance. He plays an appropriately tortured soul but the script does too good a job of reigning in his turmoil to give a more lasting impact. Ren similarly dances around the issue of guilt and again the writers exert more energy on the guessing game than on conscience.

Released: 2009
Prod: Candy Leung 梁鳳英; Cheung Hong-Tat 張康達
Dir: Dante Lam 林超賢
Writer: Jack Ng 吳煒倫
Action Director: Yuen Tak 元德
Cast: Richie Ren 任賢齊; Huang Xiaoming 黃曉明; Edison Chen 陳冠希; Bowie Lam 林保怡; Liu Kai-Chi 廖啟智; Jack Kao 高捷; Mango Wong 王秀琳; Michelle Ye 葉璇; Wilfred Lau 劉浩龍; Lam Chi-Tai 林至泰
Time: 87 min
Lang: Cantonese, some Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2015

Romancing In Thin Air (高海拔之戀II)

romancing in thin air

Here lies a love story. Quiet, tender, heartbreaking. It’s an unassuming film in a cinematic landscape used to screaming out its merits. Director Johnnie To and writers Wai Ka-Fai and Yau Nai-Hoi are no strangers to the showy style that dominates a certain class of Hong Kong movies, but here, they opt for a gentler approach that privileges emotion over polish. What results is one of the most moving films I’ve seen from this territory in awhile.

Set in the washed out hills of Yunnan, Romancing In Thin Air folds around itself several times over. It is a story of a woman beset by loss. Seven years after her husband Tian (Li Guangjie) dashed into the woods to search for a missing boy, Sue (Cheng) awaits his return, except everyone knows he will not come back. Only she holds on to that hope and preserves whatever traces of his life that she can. Tian’s broken piano must stay that way and his truck repaired to a state of half-disrepair.

Meanwhile, Hong Kong film star Michael Lau (Louis Koo) is suffering his own loss but of a different kind. His film star fiancée (Gao Yuanyuan) left him at the altar for her old boyfriend (Wang Baoqiang), a coal miner from her home village. Michael goes on a drunken bender through the Mainland and finally stumbles into Tian’s guest lodge where Sue works. The isolated retreat turns out to be what just what he needs, but Sue is the one most altered by the new circumstances.

Romancing In Thin Air would be a decent love story if it ended there, but the movie offers more. It is equally about the transformative power of art and cinema in particular. On her own, Sue is reluctant to confront the reality that her husband is likely dead. When she sees one of Michael’s films, however, the grief it reflects allows her to imagine a life without her husband.

That isn’t the only instance of a film within a film though. The movie’s Chinese title (高海拔之戀II) indicates not a sequel to an actual picture but to one that Michael makes about Sue and Tian and his time in Yunnan. In the end, it is the experience of seeing her life onscreen that helps Sue move on. The movie postulates that film is not a medium that draws down or puts constraints on reality; rather, it is where it begins.

Those blurred borders are further examined through Sue and Michael’s relationship. It turns out that she is a massive fan of his, so much so that Tian won her over by imitating him. When Michael does enter her life, fiction and reality collapse on each other. Sue wants to recreate an iconic scene from his movies and asks him to chase after the sunset with her on a motorcycle. He says that it’s something that only happens in the movies, but they do it anyway, just as she and Tian did years earlier. In another movie, Sue would be a neurotic fangirl desperate to live out a fantasy. But here, the act of imitating art generates love and healing.

It’s easy for the film to lose itself in meta-layers, so what keeps it grounded are the performances. There is a lively cast of supporting characters, with Tien Niu standing out as the resident doctor. Koo is also in fine form, though he doesn’t have to stretch himself to play a Hong Kong superstar. He’s best when he cedes the screen to Cheng for she is the emotional core of this film. The actress best known for her comedic work is sterling in this dramatic role and singularly carries the film. Beneath Sue’s cool appearance is someone raging against the stillness of a life interrupted. Her performance captures all the sadness, joy, and redemption of this beautiful film.

“Do Re Mi” – theme song by Sammi Cheng:

Released: 2012
Prod: Johnnie To 杜琪峰; Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝; Gordon Cheung 張國立
Dir: Johnnie To 杜琪峰
Writer: Wai Ka-Fai 韋家輝; Yau Nai-Hoi 游乃海; Ray Chan 陳偉斌; Jevons Au 歐文傑
Cast: Sammi Cheng 鄭秀文; Louis Koo 古天樂; Gao Yuanyuan 高圓圓; Wang Baoqiang 王寶強; Crystal Huang 黃奕; Wilfred Lau 劉浩龍; Li Guangjie 李光潔; Tien Niu 恬妞; Sun Jiayi 孫嘉一; Yeung Yik 楊奕; Fu Chuen-Kit 傅傳傑
Time: 114 min
Lang: Cantonese, Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014

DIVA (DIVA 華麗之後)

diva

When crystal-voiced singing recruit Red (Mag Lam) steps into manager Man’s (Chapman To) office, she compares it, favorably, to a deluxe karaoke room. “Well, today’s Hong Kong singers sing like karaoke amateurs,” he responds. Point. Which is why entertainment conglomerate EEG’s involvement in this project might seem a little curious. At a glance, DIVA is a movie that peels back the glittery façade of Hong Kong’s music industry. That makes the label that most successfully packages fresh-faced teens of dubious talent (see Twins, Boyz, William Chan, Edison Chen, et al) the unlikeliest candidate to turn the cameras on itself.

But lest you think EEG has entered a new era of transparency, it has too much vested in the project to make a meaningful statement on the industry. Besides relative newcomer Lam, the film features Joey Yung, the brightest star in EEG’s galaxy, essentially doubling as herself. Yung plays J, Hong Kong’s top singer who’s suffocating under her overmanaged life. When she gets the chance to go off radar during a performance in the Mainland, she happily slips away. J finds refuge in the arms of a blind masseuse (Hu Ge) and warms up to life beyond the frenzy of superstardom.

In contrast, Red willingly climbs into the rabbit hole when Man plucks her from a dead-end string of nightclub stints and kids’ costume parties. Lam, who’s had her own ups and downs in her short career, thankfully avoids playing her character as the wide-eyed ingenue. Red knows that her powerhouse voice is meant for something bigger and is willing to give the entertainment industry a try, but her boyfriend (Carlos Chan) resents the demands her newfound fame places on their relationship.

It’s something the young couple might have had a serious talk about beforehand, but this movie doesn’t trust its characters enough to work through the fussy details. As a result, conflicts in DIVA end up feeling manufactured in order to make a broader comment on entertainment’s dark side, in that there is one. Passing references to sexual exploitation, for example, get brushed aside once the point has been made (maybe to sidestep EEG’s own allegations of abuse).

And where the movie lacks in script, it fails to make up for with acting. Yung is more charismatic in her concert making-of videos than she is here. Though the film takes pains to present J as a normal person, the actress translates her character’s natural fears and frustrations into a series of disinterested gazes. Her story takes up much of the screen time but never seems to be the film’s focus. Meanwhile, Lam’s part may be less emotionally taxing, but she manages to do more with it. To’s morally loose manager breathes the most life into the film. Despite Man’s many manipulations, the actor still generates good will by the the sheer effectiveness with which Man slides through his schemes and demands.

Absent great depth of character, however, the more unseemly aspects of the industry lack the weight to make this movie an industry exposé, which is probably not what EEG was counting on anyway. There are hints that this might be a graduated version of Diva…Ah Hey!, a 2003 production that also starred EEG hitmakers and commented on the appearance of talent. In the end, that might be what Hong Kong entertainment does best these days. After all, the most memorable part of this film are the excellent visuals. The camera catwalks through the scenes, and this is a movie clearly shot by people who know how to make stars look good.

“Chasing Kites” (追風箏的風箏) by Joey Yung and Mag Lam:

“Are U Okay” by Mag Lam:

“Like Love Songs” (如情歌) by Mag Lam:

Released: 2012
Prod: Chapman To 杜汶澤
Dir: Heiward Mak 麥曦茵
Writer: Heiward Mak 麥曦茵
Cast: Joey Yung 容祖兒; Mag Lam 林欣彤; Chapman To 杜汶澤; Hu Ge 胡歌; Carlos Chan 陳家樂; Bonnie Sin 冼色麗; Fiona Sit 薛凱琪; Wilfred Lau 劉浩龍; William So 蘇永康; Kara Hui惠英紅; Matt Chow 鄒凱光; Venus Wong 王敏奕
Time: 102 min
Lang: Cantonese, Mandarin
Country: Hong Kong
Reviewed: 2014