Movie Review – The Mermaid

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EXPECTATIONS: A hilarious and off-kilter experience. What else can you expect from Stephen Chow?

REVIEW: ANOTHER STEPHEN CHOW FILM?! I would probably faint and feel dehydrated but I have a review to write. Oh yes, the newest film from comedic genius/director Stephen Chow. First off, Chow, alongside Jackie Chan, Jet Li and Chow Yun-fat, was one of the major factors that got me into Hong Kong Cinema. I have been a huge fan of his work ever since I was six years old, when I first watched his action/comedy film, Fight Back to School II. His egotistical attitude, flair for physical comedy and his verbal expertise had such an impact on me; I wholeheartedly credit him for attaining my sense of humour. And his best films (God of Cookery, Love on Delivery etc.) are usually the ones that he directs (or co-directs), so when I heard he would not be starring in his recent films, I was very reticent, but Journey to the West – Conquering the Demons proved me wrong and his distinct comedic sensibility and compelling genre mixing direction are still intact. Again, he directs but does NOT star in his latest film, The Mermaid. Earning the credit of being the highest-grossing film in China mere months after Monster Hunt, does it deserve its sterling reputation?

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Deng Chao stars as Liu Xuan, an egotistical billionaire playboy tycoon who purchases the Green Gulf, a wildlife reserve, for a sea reclamation project. Working alongside Ruolan (Zhang Yuqi), they acquire powerful sonar technology to get rid of all sea-life in the area. But little do they know, is that there is a populace of merpeople and many of them are either injured or have died from the use of the sonar. Now inhabiting an abandoned shipwreck in the Green Gulf, the merpeople, led by Octopus propose a plan to assassinate Liu Xuan. Taking Liu Xuan’s playboy personality as an opportunity, the merpeople recruit Shan (Jelly Lin Yun) and train her to socialize among humans to eventually meeting up with Liu Xuan. But little does she know when the two meet, the two would form a romantic relationship that will spell out the fate of the merpeople.

When I heard that Chow was making a film about mermaids, I thought it would be a twist on the romance formula that is The Little Mermaid. But it turns out that it is more than that. Not only is it a Stephen Chow comedy and a romance film, it is also an environmental message to the people about the damage the world has suffered. And not being one for subtlety, Chow shows a minute-long montage of it in the beginning of the film, but fortunately, that is about as preachy as it gets, as the film is in support of the story and the message, not vice-versa. It is also notable that Chow throws away expectations of the mermaid genre to great effect. For example, Shan never grows legs when she ventures on land, so she ends up with a very goofy walk and sometimes uses a skateboard. Another example is that Shan is absolutely oblivious of how beautiful she is and uses her sex appeal (or lack thereof) like a siren to ill effect. It is inventive touches like this that make the film stand out.

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But let’s get to the nitty-gritty. How is the comedy in the film? I am happy to tell you that the comedy is still there and it is thanks to Stephen Chow’s direction and the wonderful cast of newcomers (to Chow’s oeuvre) and regulars. Jelly Lin Yun gives a star-making performance as the ridiculously lovable Shan, that is very reminiscent of actress Shu Qi as well as the lovable loser archetype that Chow would usually play (like in Love on Delivery, Shaolin Soccer and Kung Fu Hustle) or even Zhang Yuqi’s performance in the Stephen Chow-produced/co-written Jump. Her chemistry between Deng Chao is great from a romance standpoint as well as a comedic standpoint, but her physical comedic chops are so good, I literally choked at one point. There’s a scene where she is using her mermaid weapons to kill Liu Xuan and she fails miserably, with hilariously cruel results.

Speaking of hilariously cruel results, Show Luo gives an even better Stephen Chow impression than he did in Journey to the West – Conquering the Demons, which is reminiscent of the deadpan Stephen Chow archetype (like in Fight Back to School) and he has one of the best moments in the film where he pretends to be a hibachi chef. The treatment of his character would make the director of Oldboy blush. Deng Chao is great as Liu Xuan and he seems to be having a lot of fun getting into the playboy attitude. His character is also reminiscent of the egotistical archetype that director Chow would usually play. As for Zhang Yuqi, she usually plays the eye candy in movies (even in her debut film, Cj7), but she showcased some great comedic chops in Tsui Hark’s All About Women. It was a surprise for me to see her in The Mermaid since she and Chow were in a lawsuit involving contractual obligations. But her performance in The Mermaid, she is the vamp incarnate. She literally owns the screen every time shows up, and it is shocking to see how far she’s come, especially when you compare her to her incredibly genial performance in Jump. Her character is cliched as far as it can get, but she relishes the material she has and goes all the way.

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Speaking of those in conflict with Chow, actor Tin Kai-man had bad things to say about him in a past interview about him being cheap and he had not worked with him since Jump, almost 8 years ago. In The Mermaid, he has a funny cameo as a museum visitor who cannot hold in his laughter. I do hope this is a beginning of past collaborators coming back to work with Chow again. Other cameos include acclaimed director Tsui Hark as Uncle Rich, a name that tells everything and show-stealing Zhang Wen, who had played the lead in Journey to the West – Conquering the Demons. His cameo alongside Chow collaborator Lee Shing-cheung resulted in one of the funniest scenes in 2016 so far. The sheer absurdity of the story and plot is put into focus in this one scene and is all the more hilarious for it. Like the scene involving the assassination and the hibachi chef scene, Chow’s sense of humour tends to revolve around the cruel treatment of his characters and just when you sense how cruel the physical gags can get, it will just make you laugh even harder. All of the Chow hallmarks are present: Bruce Lee influences, cross-dressers, the use of a restaurant stool, Japanimation sense of timing, Looney Tunes sense of humour (characters literally take out props from nowhere) lovable losers rising up, egotistical people falling from grace, “uglified” female characters (at one point) and the use of classical Chinese music. The Fist of Fury theme and the theme from Legend of the Condor Heroes 1983 (Part 3) are used to great nostalgic effect as well as getting the emotional conflict across.

But there are some nagging problems in the story that distract more than amuse, like the pleasing of Chinese censors. Foreigners in the film (consisting of Westerners and Japanese) are villains and are even portrayed as insane. Though that can be amusing at times (like a darkly amusing joke involving a selfie), it just comes off as xenophobic. It also affects the Stephen Chow archetypes that he is trying to achieve. Deng Chao’s character was meant to be the egotistical savant suffering a fall from grace (like in God of Cookery, King of Beggars and Sixty Million Dollar Man), but the hard-edged humour that usually goes along with it has dulled. The CGI is also surprisingly cheap, considering that the CGI in Shaolin Soccer, Kung Fu Hustle and CJ7 were much better, that it is quite hard to take seriously in the dramatic parts of the film, particularly the climax.

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But overall, The Mermaid is a fantastic comedy, a out-of-this-world romance, an important environmental message that truly deserves its success, beating out every other Chinese New Year film with ease. The Little Mermaid (2017) remake has some big shoes to fill after this.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast all give great performances

The film’s sense of humour brings lots of laughs

Some surprising elements

CONS

Inconsistent CGI

Obvious China censorship

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Jelly Lin Yun, Deng Chao, Show Luo, Zhang Yuqi, Kris Wu, Lam Tze-chung, Zhang Wen, Tsui Hark, Lee Shing-cheung
Director: Stephen Chow
Screenwriter: Stephen Chow, Kelvin Lee, Ho Miu-kei, Lu Zhengyu, Fung Chih-chiang, Ivy Kong, Chan Hing-ka, Tsang Kan-cheung

Movie Review – Back to the North

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EXPECTATIONS: A drama with great potential drowning in China film censorship.

REVIEW: Before I start reviewing the film, I like to make a few things clear about the context of the story of the film. Over in China, the government had passed a law called the One-Child Policy, which basically means: one family, one child. Since the law was passed, the term “lost family” was coined after families were stuck into tragedy after losing their one and only child and according to statistics, the figure for such a happening has risen up to 76,000. How do I know this? It’s stated in the film. And while it helps to know this context, Back to the North is a drama revolving around the bonds of family and what binds them together throughout the many obstacles and problems of life, set within the Chinese political backdrop which references the One Child Policy. But does it compel as a film as well as political commentary?

Nan Sheng stars as Xiao Ai, a young textile worker who hides a secret of having a terminal disease from her parents, whilst going through a phase of her life which can finally make her independent and dwell into the outside world. Conversely, her parents, consisting of her loving mother Liu Qing (Su Yijuan) and her hard-working, yet absent father Ai Liang (Ran Weiqun), are also keeping a secret from Ai, which is that their relationship is suffering. Having to put on a façade for their daughter every time the two meet, it becomes more apparent to Ai. Not worrying about her deteriorating health, Ai worries more about her parents’ fate. Having thoughts about passing away before they do, she brings up the idea to her parents of having another child. But are her parents willing to put aside their differences and prepare to go to great lengths for the sake of their dying daughter?

What is first apparent from the very first shot of the film is how influenced Liu Hao is of other filmmakers. The narration of the first scene is similar to the work of Wong Kar-wai, which can be more jarring to the films’ already understated tone. Even the low-frame rate look that Wong uses is noticeable in some shots. The musical score (credited to Wan Yenmeng) is not your typical Chinese score, but is surprisingly reminiscent of French music, which can seem a bit mismatched at times. Speaking of French, the beautiful black and white cinematography is also reminiscent of the French Film Wave. The scenery of China is reminiscent of Jia Zhangke, which conveys a complimentary contrast between the industrial setting and the country setting. But despite all of the references to other filmmakers, director Liu adepts an assured touch to this film that makes it distinctively his. It really helps that the story (that he also wrote) and the context explores themes that is rarely looked upon, especially for family dramas and for films in China.

The actors certainly add a lot of credibility to the film with their understated performances. Nan Sheng portrays the perfect balance of childlike naivety and world-weariness of Xiao Ai, as she goes through her tumultuous journey while Su Yijuan is convincing as mother Liu Qing, especially during dinner scenes alongside Nan. Ran Weiqun is good as father Ai Liang, but he does not stand out when compared to the women. The cast benefit from director Liu Hao’s subtle approach, as they are able to bring life to their characters with very little dialogue and a lot of focus on physical acting. The dinner scenes involving the three leads are compelling to watch, as it is very immersive to witness what these characters are going through, with very little exposition.

As much as I liked the film, there are some caveats that keep the film from greatness. First of all is the pacing. Although it was necessary in the film, there are some scenes where there is very little happening on-screen that just unnecessarily pads the running time i.e. a scene in the country where a vehicle moves slowly towards its destination. I am also conflicted towards the ending. While the story does reach a touching conclusion, the postscript bothered me. For Western viewers, it does provide some needed context, but in the long run, the film already does convey what it needed to convey, in terms of its themes, so the extra moment at the end just dulls the power of the story a little bit. It could have been more beneficial to the film if it cut the postscript out just to not seem like the film has a political agenda. It just comes off as conflicting and can leave the mainstream viewer befuddled.

But Back to the North is a worthwhile film that has great performances, striking cinematography and shows many signs that director Liu Hao will become a great filmmaker over time.

Note – The song “Forgotten Time” by Tsai Ching, which is featured in the film is well known as the song that is prominently featured in the Infernal Affairs films.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give fantastic performances

Director Liu Hao’s film influences make a great imprint in his work, whilst providing his own directorial touch

Refreshing themes in the familial drama genre are explored very well

Great cinematography

CONS

The pacing can be very slow at times

The postscript hinders the power of the ending quite a bit

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Luo Xiaoyi, Nan Sheng, Su Yujian
Director: Liu Hao
Screenwriter: Liu Hao

Movie Review – A Farewell to Jinu

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EXPECTATIONS: A off-kilter comedy with a heartwarming side. Plus, FUMI NIKAIDO!

REVIEW: Suzuki Matsuo is a very talented man that not only is he a film director, but he is also a director of theater, novelist, actor and even a screenwriter. But unfortunately, I can only judge him from his work on film. His previous films (consisting only of three) were strikingly unconventional pieces of work (the energetically bizarre romantic comedy Otakus in Love; and the compellingly schizophrenic Welcome to the Quiet Room) and I hoped that A Farewell to Jinu (Jinu means money) would be like the latter, especially with the talented cast on display. Fortunately, it is exactly what people would expect of Matsuo’s work in terms of a bizarre premise, weird yet hilarious characters and a spirited sense of humour. But unfortunately, it still has his weaknesses on display, which is a bit of a disappointment.

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The slice-of-life (or to be accurate, hysteria) story begins with Ryuhei Matsuda as Takeharu, a bank clerk who has a strange allergy to money due to a traumatic incident at the bank. Because of his allergy, he decides to move to a village called Kamuroba, Tokyo, living in a shack. He is welcomed with open arms due to his youthful looks, considering the town is mostly populated with pensioners. The characters consist of Yosaburo (the manic Sadao Abe), the mayor of Kamuroba, his wife Akiko (the sweet Takako Matsu), teenager Aoba (the sassy Fumi Nikaido), god Nakanussan (the imposing Toshiyuki Nishida who really plays a god) and many others.  Insisting that he will work for food instead of money, he works at Akiko’s grocery store. Soon, the town learns of Takeharu’s allergy and begin to see him in a different light. To make matters worse, the town also learns that Takeharu is quite wealthy (with 6 million yen, approximating around $50000 US), so Aoba, who is working alongside a gangster with laughably bad fashion and style (the amusing YosiYosi Arakawa), tries to seduce the money out of him. From there, Takeharu goes on a wild ride all to avoid his fear. Will be run away or will he fight back?

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First off, let’s talk about the bad. In all of Matsuo’s films, there is a major flaw that brings the quality down, which is the storytelling. The majority of the film feels like a bunch of skits joined together to make a feature-length film and it shows. Very little of the storytelling feels organic and it can be jarring or even overbearing at times. Speaking of overbearing, the film contains too many subplots that it drags the running time to 2 hours, which is not really suitable for a comedy. Plus, the subplots are so plentiful; it threatens to overcome the character of Takeharu of his leading man status (similar to the main character of The Raid 2). It doesn’t help that the tone of the film changes in the second half of the film, which becomes a bit too serious, losing some of the film’s humour.

But despite of all those flaws, A Farewell to Jinu is still an entertaining ride, thanks to its surrealistic sense of humour, the wonderfully game cast/characters and some surprising pathos. How can you not be the least bit amused when you discover a premise about a man who becomes allergic to money? Working with director Matsuo for the second time, Ryuhei Matsuda puts his acting skills to good use as Takehara. In other words, his understated acting provides giggles and surprising sympathy to the role, who could have easily been seen as a bit of a dull dolt. The physical comedy that Matsuda pulls off is very funny, considering he’s the comedic straight man out of the cast. Sadao Abe handles his role really well, especially when his character reveals his true side. Takako Matsu plays the nice wife role effectively although she could’ve played the role in her sleep and Fumi Nikaido is sexy and funny as Aoba, who has an odd relationship with Takehara that is more like double-crossers than love interests. But the biggest standout is Toshiyuki Nishida (who I’ve nostalgically enjoyed in the TV series, Monkey), whose character is hilariously worshiped by the townspeople as a god. Even the small supporting roles are ably played, with Hairi Katagiri and YosiYosi Arakawa standing out with their peculiar characters.

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The humour of the film is delivered from many types, from the dialogue (a character’s crack about Hairi Katagiri’s appearance had me laughing), the physical (Matsuda’s allergy bouts are hilarious) to raunchy (thanks to Fumi Nikaido) the meta (director Koki Mitani gets referenced) or just plain strange (Aoba’s “serious” injury), but surprisingly, not only are the gags are very funny, but they are all organic to the situation at hand, if not to the actual story. But from such a ridiculous premise, there are some surprising moments that ring true to the audience, particularly Japanese viewers. It’s no secret that Japan has gone through tough times over the years like the 2011 earthquake and tsunami, (which is often reference in films like Himizu and The Land of Hope), but in A Farewell to Jinu, there is a positive message about the use of money in the world that rings true and is delivered with enough subtlety, without coming off as didactic or cheap. And despite the flaws in the storytelling and the many subplots, the ending, while a bit overlong, does complete all the story threads in a satisfying fashion, especially when it comes to the character of Nakanussan.

A Farewell to Jinu is a weird yet highly amusing comedy that is, disappointingly, on the same level as Matsuo’s previous films, but the talented cast, the sense of humour and the premise makes the film worth watching.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast all give great performances

The film’s sense of humour brings lots of laughs

Some surprising elements

CONS

Inconsistent storytelling

Overlong running time

Changes in tone hinder the film’s humour

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Ryuhei Matsuda, Sadao Abe, Takako Matsu, Fumi Nikaido, Toshiyuki Nishida, Hairi Katagiri, YoshiYoshi Arakawa, Suzuki Matsuo
Director: Suzuki Matsuo
Screenwriter: Suzuki Matsuo, based on the manga by Mikio Igarashi

Movie Review – Surprise: Journey to the West

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EXPECTATIONS: A quickie cash-grab to get in on the current Journey to the West craze, thanks to the Year of the Monkey.

REVIEW: Monkey Magic! First off, I am not a huge Journey to the West fan, but I have seen lots and lots of incarnations whether on TV/film, but I have never read the famous source material. Not only because there are so many adaptations of it, but it has become a huge influence on popular culture. For example, Dragon Ball, by Akira Toriyama was inspired by Journey to the West, from the staff that Goku uses and even the cloud that he uses to travel on. Hell, even the new martial arts TV series, Into the Badlands, starring HK star Daniel Wu is loosely based on the novel. But my first experience of Journey to the West was the cult classic TV series, Monkey, which I had watched from old cassette tapes. Ever since I heard the incredibly catchy theme song by Godiego (who did the music for HAUSU!), I was hooked and I proudly own them on DVD. From my count, there are 5 film adaptations coming out in 2016 alone, and I had just watched one that came out in cinemas in December. It was a surprise box office hit in China, especially with its lack of star power and budget, but does the film itself live up to its title?

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The film starts off with the original team, consisting of Buddhist monk Tang Seng (Wilson Chen) and his disciples, the Monkey King Sun Wukong (Liuxun Zimo), sandman Sandy (director Joshua Yi) and the pig demon Piggy (Mike D. Angelo), who are on their journey to bring scriptures back from India. And on the way, they see magic being conjured above a small town called Stone Ox. From there, we are taken back a day, and we meet Wang Dacui (Bai Ke, who reminds me of a younger Huang Bo), a selfish, annoying cake delivery boy, who uses his minuscule talents as a demon (who can grow flowers) to scare the village to his advantage. He lives a peaceful life, whilst annoying other villagers, as well as his boss, Su Xiaomei (Yang Zishan, great in So Young and 20 Once Again) who has a low tolerance for any sort of hi-jinks. All is fine until a tiger demon attacks the village and the handsome local hero, Murong Bai (Ma Tianyu) saves the day. Unfortunately, he can only hold them back for so long, only to be held back by a dark secret. Sooner or later, it is up to Dacui, Xiaomei and others to deal with the evil that is threatening the town.

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Despite the fact that I’ve mentioned that the character of Dacui is selfish and annoying, most of the characters are selfish and annoying. But it is purely be design. Most adaptations of the source material had characters portrayed in a goofy fashion, and this film is no different. Most adaptations are usually portrayed as side-quests, a self-contained story that happens during the actual journey i.e  the Shaw Brothers films. Or they could be seen as a radically different interpretation of the source material i.e A Chinese Odyssey films. This film is the former. With some amusing touches of post-modernism (like a joke that references monikers of Hollywood names; the use of the term ‘horcrux’ from Harry Potter is used for some odd reason and there’s a karaoke scene too) and a surprisingly old-school approach (not a lot of CGI is used, especially when compared to other recent adaptations), the story is enjoyable to experience, and director Joshua Yi imbues it with energy and verve. Even the tone shifts between silliness and seriousness are handled with a deft touch that never feels truly jarring. One scene between Dacui and Xiaomei set in the nighttime is alternately comical and romantic in the right ways. Another scene involving Tang Seng, Piggy and Sandy shows them sending a message to Dacui of help, but Dacui interprets it as an epiphany is hilarious thanks to the editing as well as the handling of tone. It helps that the characters are worth following.

While the established characters are portrayed quite faithfully, the new characters are distinct enough to stand out on their own, becoming more likable and even identifiable as the story goes, even with its surprisingly short running time. Most of the thanks goes to the cast. Bai Ke is endearing goofy as Dacui who eventually matures and Bai portrays the transformation in a honest way. Yang Zishan is great as Xiaomei, exuding a lot of spirit as the love interest, and thanks to the script as well as her performance, her role actually becomes a lot more substantial as expected, which pays off in dramatic ways. The chemistry between Bai and Yang is palpable enough to care and enjoy, especially when they get antagonistic towards each other. The supporting cast are good in their roles, with Wilson Chen using his pretty-boy looks well as the effeminate Tang Seng and Mike D. Angelo as Piggy being amusing with his conversations among the others as well as Ma Tianyu who’s funny as Sun Wukong, without excessive overacting. There are some nice cameos from Eric Tsang, Tong Liya and others.

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As for the storytelling, the pacing is fast and furious, with just the right amount of downtime for character interactions/minor character development, but the film is all about entertainment, and it delivers on that front. But there are some flaws that prevent the film from becoming a great film. For example, most of the humour is very reminiscent of films directed by Stephen Chow and Jeff Lau that it can feel very derivative at times. Also, the post-modernism can get a bit annoying at times (the use of Hollywood monikers Scar-Jo and J-Law are used for no legitimate reason) and the political incorrectness can throw people off (all gay people and cross-dressers are hilarious for some reason). The action scenes in the film are done well enough, but they suffer from over-editing, which makes them a bit of a blur. Lastly, the climax of the film is a bit anti-climactic in how it resolves. It was a bit too quick for my taste.

Overall, this wasn’t as annoying or insufferable as I thought it was going to be, since comedic films from China tend to lean on these three factors: excessive overacting, jarring product placement and embarrassing political incorrectness. At least the first factor suits the tone of the film while the second factor gets hilariously lampooned in the end credits and the third factor didn’t bother me as much as I thought it would. Surprise: Journey to the West was just that: a minor surprise. If the rest of the Journey to the West films were like this, it might not be a bad way to go.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Game cast add life to the proceedings

The director adds energy and verve, with some good touches of humour (the end-credits lampoon product placement)

Nice twists in the story add great humour as well as make the film more substantial than expected

CONS

Annoyances like some overacting, political incorrectness and post-modern moments

The climax is a bit anti-climactic

Over-edited action scenes

SCORE: 6.5/10

Cast: Ke Bai, Zishan Yang, Tianyu Ma, Zimo Liuxun, Wilson Chen, Joshua Yi, Mike D. Angelo, Eric Tsang, Winston Chao, Tong Liya
Director: Joshua Yi
Screenwriter: Joshua Yi, based on the novel “Journey to the West” by Wu Cheng’en