Movie Review – Blind Detective

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun romantic comedy OR an entertaining detective yarn? Who the hell knows?

REVIEW: Andy Lau, Sammi Cheng and director Johnnie To reuniting for a film after nine years of waiting? “Hell, yes!” was my first impression when I heard about Blind Detective. But reading sources and news about the film, it was a bit disconcerting that the film was a mystery, something that Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng had never collaborated on before. And the hesitance changed to borderline puzzlement when I saw the trailers. One of the trailers markets the film to be a serious mystery film filled with implications of cannibalism, murder and other disturbing details. But another trailer markets the film as a Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng lovefest. So which one is it? Well, after viewing the film, it turns out that the film is both the latter and the former. Bound to give whiplash to those not familiar to films of Hong Kong, Blind Detective both delights and befuddles me in the best ways, that is reminiscent of the best of the slipshod 90’s Hong Kong cinema.

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Andy Lau stars as Johnston (or Chong Si-teun), the titular blind detective who is self-employed after leaving the force due to his unfortunate ailment. Known as a legend in the police force (as well as being boasted by himself) to the point of being taken advantage of by his former partner, Szeto Fatbo (amusingly played by Guo Tao), he goes after cases that pays well for his financial benefit as well as his guilty pleasure of sensual delights: food. Sammi Cheng plays Goldie (or Ho Ka-tung), a police inspector who lives on her parents’ trust fund and is physically capable for her job, but not intellectually so. The two meet while foiling (using improvised dancing?) a man who had planned to pour Hydrochloric acid on unsuspecting bystanders.  She hires Johnston to school her on the art of investigation as well as to find a missing girl, who is a former friend of Goldie’s from 20 years ago. The two are on the case and they also go on other cases involving a man killing his workmates over money, an incredibly tall woman who had robbed five jewellery stores and a cannibalistic serial killer (played by the scene-stealing Philip Keung Ho-man) who had murdered young women over a long span of almost two decades.

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You gotta give credit to director Johnnie To for a film like Blind Detective, especially in a time of Hong Kong films losing their distinct identity due to China co-productions and aping Hollywood blockbusters. What could have been another romantic comedy that appealed to the China market (much like the Don’t Go Breaking My Heart films), not only did To make a distinct Hong Kong film, but he made a farcical romantic comedy that revolved around murder. That’s one hell of a challenge he set out for himself. And on that note, he mostly succeeded. The film can be seen as a melange of almost every Johnnie To trademark. Having the two leads and their delightful chemistry, the distinct stylish look (reminiscent of PTU), the off-kilter storytelling (reminiscent of Mad Detective), the disturbingly grisly violence (reminiscent of Running on Karma) and even some gun-play (the distinct blood squibs are present), Blind Detective is a film that will delight Hong Kong Johnnie To fans. As for fans who make up his international fan-base, they will probably leave the film befuddled. The overacting of the leads is so loud, so insistent and so assaultive, it will definitely turn off some people. The tone shifts are so abrupt that you could hear necks cracking in the cinema. And the storytelling is not assured as Johnnie To’s previous films, due to the many plot holes (i.e. How can a person survive in a locked closet for 27 days?) and many subplots, adding to the overlong running time. So what is it that makes Blind Detective enjoyable despite of its flaws? The cast, for one.

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Known as the Tom Hanks and Meg Ryan of Hong Kong, the two rekindle their chemistry, that was so prominent in the previous films, as if no time had passed. Everything from their conflicts (both verbal and physical) and their bonding to their declaration of feelings for each other, it is still a delight to see both of them on-screen together. But seeing this a a Johnnie To film, they both give fantastic individual performances. Andy Lau is very convincing as a person afflicted to blindness and he overacts his ego in such an entertaining way, that it almost feels genuine. His character is a selfish buffoon who gradually sees the errors of his ways, but Andy Lau’s charisma smooths the rough edges of the character. It was nice to see Lau play a character instead of just playing himself (i.e the disastrous Switch). Sammi Cheng is even better as the combative police detective, as the role evidently shows that her acting has improved over the years in terms of her dramatic chops. Essentially the brawn to Andy Lau’s brain, she handles the physicality of the role really well, especially when she encounters the cannibalistic serial killer. The chemistry is so palpable, that it makes the overacting seem surprisingly human, and it even overcomes the fact when you realize the age of the actors (I’m looking at you, Charlene Choi!). One problem about the pairing though is the romance. In their previous collaborations, their love for one another was always seen and felt. But unfortunately in Blind Detective, it is told through dialogue, which makes the romantic angle a bit of a disappointment.

The supporting cast are fine, with a few standouts. Guo Tao is both dopey and amusingly tough as Szeto Fatbo, while Gao Yuanyuan is alluring in a small role as Tingting, a ballet teacher Johnston fancies. Lam Suet is hilarious as a murder suspect who is addicted to gambling but by far the best standout is Philip Keung Ho-man as the cannibalistic murderer. Wearing the victim’s clothes (whom are female, by the way) and looking incredibly grimy, he is both funny and scary in the role.

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Another plus for the film is Johnnie To’s enthusiastic direction. The cinematography is sleek and garish, the handling of the comedic scenes are reminiscent of mo lei tau at times and the crimes are depicted in a realistically brutal fashion. And there are some surprises that are quite smart to witness. Like how the characters attempt to solve cases. The characters attempt to act out, in a very exaggerated fashion, the many hypotheses of how the crime takes place and see if they can piece out the elements of motive, modus operandi and so on. It can be seen as a comedic riff on the investigative methods of Mad Detective or a funny commentary on method acting, but it pays off for the benefit of the story. It is moments like this that make the film fun and also distinctively Hong Kong. Even the slipshod moments of the film (i.e. errors in the subtitles, the excessive overacting, the tone shifts) have a nostalgic quality that made it quite receptive to Hong Kong audiences.

Blind Detective is an ambitious Johnnie To entry (in terms of his romantic comedy work) that can wildly entertain as well as polarize people, but for those who can handle the tone shifts and the overacting will have a lot of fun. Just don’t watch this film on an empty stomach.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performances and chemistry between Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng

Johnnie To’s enthusiastic direction

Has a distinct Hong Kong feel that is nostalgic and warm

CONS

Overacting and tone shifts will polarize

Overlong running time

Storytelling is not as assured as To’s previous efforts

Romantic angle, while well-done, is not as affecting as To’s previous Lau-Cheng efforts

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Andy Lau Tak-Wah, Sammi Cheng Sau-Man, Guo Tao, Gao Yuanyuan, Zi Yi, Lang Yueting, Lo Hoi-Pang, Bonnie Wong Man-Wai, Lam Suet, Philip Keung Ho-Man, Chow Ka-Sing, Renee Lee, Tsui Chi-Hung, Stephanie Che Yuen-Yuen, Mimi Chu Mi-Mi, Bonnie Xian
Director: Johnnie To Kei-fung
Screenwriter: Wai Ka-Fai, Yau Nai-Hoi, Ryker Chan, Yu Xi

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Film-momatic Flashback – Magic Cop

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EXPECTATIONS: A kick-ass martial arts film…with some magic.

REVIEW: Boyi Bolomi! For people that don’t know what that means, it is a term that Wu Ma uses in the classic HK fantasy film, A Chinese Ghost Story, while exploiting his Taoist magic against fantasy creatures. Why am I saying it? Because the same Taoist fantasy genre (which is apparent in other HK fantasy films like Rigor Mortis or Encounters of the Spooky Kind) apply to Stephen Tung Wai’s film, Magic Cop. A spiritual sequel to the popular Mr. Vampire films and starring mainstay Lam Ching-ying, Magic Cop adds a fresh coat of paint to the Taoist fantasy genre by placing it in a modern setting and adds a lot of different humour from the fish-out-of-water situations to create an insanely frenetic, yet incredibly fun HK film, that would be perfect for neophytes of early HK cinema.

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Lam Ching-ying stars as himself Uncle Feng, a cop/ghostbuster whose specialty is solving the more fantastical cases, which involves ghosts and demons of the like. One day, an old lady comes to ask him to go to Hong Kong Island to return the body of her daughter, a stewardess killed by the police after being suspected of being a drug smuggler. But what was strange is that the stewardess was killed before her return to Hong Kong, which Feng finds out that the stewardess was used as a living corpse, controlled by a drug smuggler who also specializes in magic. Enlisted by Ma (Wu Man, in a cameo), with the help of the skeptical Detective Lam (Wilson Lam Chun-yin), Sergeant 2237 (Michael Miu Kiu-wai) and Feng’s niece, Lin (Wong Mei-wah), Feng is on the case to catch the Japanese drug smuggler (Michiko Nishiwaki).

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As for the story, Magic Cop has a plot that has been done countless times, but thanks to Stephen Tung Wai’s direction, the imagination on the Taoist monk scenes and the supporting cast, the film is fun from beginning to end. Wai’s film direction is good, with good pacing (although it takes quite a bit to really begin) that adds energy to the film, but it is Wai’s action direction that stand out. Wai’s action direction has always been about efficiency rather than flash (see the Jet Li film Hitman and his choreography in films like Reign of Assassins) and it shows in Magic Cop. The martial arts scenes are brief, concise and thrilling, but they are not the highlight of the film. The highlight of the film is the Taoist monk scenes that are integral to Feng’s detective work. Not willing to spoil all of them, here’s a hint of one. There’s a scene where Feng uses a henchman as a string puppet via Sergeant 2237 and as the Japanese drug smuggler finds out, she uses henchman as a string puppet via the henchman, culminating in a entertainingly off-kilter sequence that will have audiences laughing and surprised at its audaciousness. The supporting cast are all playing stereotypes (the skeptic, the believer, the damsel-in-distress) but they are all game in their roles, although Wilson Chin can be quite annoying at times, especially when he flirts with with Feng’s niece, Lin, sometimes IN FRONT of Feng.

As for the lead, Lam Ching-ying, he has been typecast in roles like in Magic Cop for many years, thanks to the Mr. Vampire franchise and while it is known that he did not want to be just known for these types of roles at around the nineties, fortunately, he does not seem to be tired out in Magic Cop. Still amazingly authoritative, tough and charismatic, Lam still grounds the film (and its many fantasy antics) so that it makes the film immersive enough for the audience to get into. One unfortunate flaw about his performance is that he does not do much of his martial arts stunt work, as it is quite obvious that he had stunt doubles for most of the stunts. Whether it was age or his fatigue towards his typecasting, it still affects the film quite a bit.

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But Magic Cop is not just a martial arts film; it’s also a fantasy film, a horror film, a mystery and a comedy. And it’s pretty damn good at all of those genres. The comedy can be sometimes sophomoric (there’s a scene involving a fart joke), but there are many scenes of fantastic physical comedy. It is quite apparent, especially in the climax where the team simultaneously screws up/advances towards defeating the villain. Props involving pincushions and fire extinguishers are used to hilarious effect. What also adds to the humour of the film, perhaps quite unintentionally, is how out-of-date the film is. Detective Lam’s apartment screams the Eighties and it feels like going into a time capsule.

Despite the nit-picks in the pacing, minor annoyances in the characters, the stunt doubling and the obvious gaffes in the low budget, all of the positives add up to a fantastic time at the movies. Magic Cop is an imaginative thrill ride that makes me kind of sad that due to current Hong Kong films losing their local identity (due to China co-productions), there are very few films like it.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The Taoist techniques are a blast to watch
Lam Ching-ying fits this role like a glove
Action scenes are incredibly fun, fast-paced and hilarious
Supporting cast are good sports, with a cameo from Wu Ma
Combines genres (cop thriller, black comedy and fantasy) incredibly well to make a fun experience, just as good as the original Mr. Vampire

CONS

Those expecting hardcore martial arts will be a bit disappointed
Wilson Lam’s performance can be a little annoying
Obvious stunt doubles for Lam Ching-ying
The low budget can really show at times

SCORE: 9/10 (One of my personal favourite films from Hong Kong. A HK fantasy classic alongside A Chinese Ghost Story and Zu: Warriors from Magic Mountain.)

Cast: Lam Ching-Ying, Wilson Lam Chun-Yin, Miu Kiu-Wai, Wong Mei-Wah, Michiko Nishiwaka, Wu Ma, Billy Chow Bei-Lei, Chan Chi-Leung, Wong Yuk-Hang, Sung Yat-Lin
Director: Stephen Tung Wai
Screenwriter: Tsang Kan-cheung

Movie Review – Flying Colors

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EXPECTATIONS: Nothing truly inspirational, but hopefully a likable, funny and entertaining film.

REVIEW: Biographical films, especially ones that revolve around triumphs of the human spirit, can range from truly inspirational (The Pursuit of Happyness) to award-bait films (the dull and manipulative The Blind Side) to unmitigated disasters (the agonizing Patch Adams). But very few of those films show a comedic side (in a very twisted way, The Wolf of Wall Street) and this is where Flying Colors comes in. Refusing to take an overly serious detour and dwelling on the absurd (yet true) side of the real-life story of student Sayaka Kobayashi and her mentor Nobutaka Tsubota, Flying Colors is crowd-pleasing entertainment for the masses with plenty of help from the likable leads and Nobuhiro Doi’s sensitive direction that makes the story more than just TV drama fodder into something that is quite inspirational, for an underdog film as well as an biographical film.

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Kasumi Arimura (last seen as the female lead in Strobe Edge) stars as Sayaka, who is a social misfit who has gone through multiple school transfers due to her lack of social skills in making friends. She occasionally gets herself into trouble (at one point, she is suspended for carrying cigarettes) but what really stops her in her tracks is her lack of education. Technically a second-year high school student, her intelligence level is that of a fourth grader. As her university entrance exam veers closer, her mother (Yo Yoshida) sends her to Seiho Cram School, where Sayaka meets Yoshitaka Tsubota (Atsushi Ito). Having heard of her situation, he takes her to his own hands to make sure she enters the university of her choice, Keio University, which happens to be the hardest to get in. Facing many obstacles, like the discrimination of her peers, her berating father (Tetsushi Tanaka) who calls her an airhead. as well as herself, she becomes determined that she will succeed.

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Does she succeed? Of course! It wouldn’t be a famous true story if she didn’t. And it’s right there in the title of the source material based on the true event (loosely translated as How a Gal at the Bottom of the Class Managed in One Year to Raise Her Standard Score by 40 Points and Pass the Entrance Exam to Keio University). But movies with predictable plots are still worthwhile viewing if the execution is above reproach and this is where Flying Colors succeeds with… you know the rest.

First off, the actors. Having been a bit annoyed with her overly cutesy performance in Strobe Edge, Kasumi Arimura is fantastic as Sayaka. Showing way more acting chops than one would anticipate, she plays both ditsy and determined sides of her character with aplomb. But it is not her eagerness in her performance that makes her stand out, it is her subtlety that makes her memorable. Her portrayal could’ve easily have been seen as a cartoon but she makes her character surprisingly human. Atsushi Ito is great as Yoshitaka, a geeky school head who has patience levels through the roof. The two compliment each other really well and their tutorials are by far the best moments in the film. Shown with amusing animation overlays and unbelievably absurd moments of obliviousness (the Santa Claus joke had me in stitches), I’m still laughing thinking about it. The supporting cast all fill their roles nicely, with the standouts being Yo Yoshida and Tetsushi Tanaka as Sayaka’s parents. The latter gives punch to the drama scenes with Arimura capably keeping up.

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Another factor that makes the film rise above its predictability is the direction by Nobuhiro Doi. Having only seen one of his films (the amazing Be With You), Doi places the same subtle approach to Flying Colors as he does to the latter. The film could’ve easily have been manipulative, cheap and agonizingly didactic, Doi manages to turn it into something inspirational, funny and emotionally rewarding. There’s a scene later in the film where Yoshitaka, alongside Sayaka, stands up to her high school teacher, who had previously frowned upon her. Surprisingly, it never comes off as cheesy but it comes off as cheer-worthy. All the simple themes, like triumphing through adversity, are handled with a light touch (like the lack of distracting music or overacting, monologues and overt didacticism) and it makes the film a lot more effective in the climax.

The film is satisfying overall in what it sets to achieve, it does have a few flaws that do affect the film slightly. For example, some of the jokes are very esoteric that they could only be known to the Japanese (the English subtitles clearly struggle with translating some of them). And for those expecting a serious portrayal of a true story such as this will be disappointed. The predictability could also be a turn-off for some since one can easily recite every major plot point from beginning to end. But for those looking for a film by walking the path rather than knowing the path (Matrix reference, hehe.) will be rewarded with a very funny and inspirational film. I can’t wait to see what other films Kasumi Arimura does next.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The leads are immensely appealing, likable and easy to root for (Kasumi Arimura plays her character’s klutziness and her progression very well, without looking fake)

Simple themes still hold up due to Doi’s sensitive direction, without hammering the message to the audience, leaving them satisfied

Visual cues add fun to the light tone and the mood switches are handled well without losing traction of the storytelling

CONS

Some of the jokes are too esoteric to mainstream audiences (the English subtitles are partly to blame)

May be too predictable and unbelievable for some (even when the film is based on a true story)

SCORE: 8/10 (Same old inspirational underdog story about conquering impossible odds, bolstered by an interesting true account, incredibly appealing leads and Nobuhiro Doi’s subtle direction.)

Cast: Kasumi Arimura, Atsushi Itō, Shūhei Nomura, Yūhei Ōuchida, Kokoro Okuda, Morio Agata, Ken Yasuda, Airi Matsui, Tetsushi Tanaka, Yō Yoshida
Director: Nobuhiro Doi
Screenwriter: Hiroshi Hashimoto