Movie Review – The Vanished Murderer

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun, yet compelling mystery with many shamelessly derivative moments, expected of director Law Chi-leung.

REVIEW: Law Chi-leung has always been a peculiar director. Although he makes polished films, with great production values and commercial polish, he does have one flaw that stands out like a sore thumb. His constant plagiarism of Hollywood works. Whether it is the constant stealing of other people’s musical scores (Koma, Kidnap, The Bullet Vanishes) to even replicating an exact scene (The Bullet Vanishes), Law Chi-leung has the talent, but it seems like he does not trust himself to deliver a fully satisfying film. And now, we have The Vanished Murderer, a sequel to the 2012 hit, The Bullet Vanishes, with Lau Ching-wan and Jiang Yiyan reprising their roles as Inspector Song and Fu Yuan respectively. Is the film a respectable sequel as well as a film that stands on its own merits? Or will it fall to the usual flaws and problems that Law Chi-leung succumbs to?

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The film starts off with a rip-off of The Shawshank Redemption, when Fu Yuan, who was imprisoned in the first film due to murder of her husband, escapes from prison. She is still drawn to Inspector Song and decides to meet him. Inspector Song, being in his position of having feelings for Fu Yuan as well as his civic duty, decides to arrest Fu Yuan. She surprisingly accepts her fate but as he is about to cuff her, a man suddenly falls out of the night sky to his death and Fu Yuan disappears. Clearly, this is more than just coincidence but what is the reasoning for Fu Yuan leading him to this caase? Inspector Song teams up with his petulant childhood sweetheart (Li Xiaolu) to find out who the vanished murderer (or murderers) are. Potential culprits include dopey cop Mao Jin (Rhydian Vaughan), cancer-inflicted morphine addict Professor Hua (Gordon Lam), whom he had a relationship with Fu Yuan as well as the big easy (or easys?), Gao Minxiong, a corrupt businessman the victim had protested before he died, and his son, who also happens to be in shady dealings.

The film starts off with a rip-off of The Shawshank Redemption, when Fu Yuan, who was imprisoned in the first film due to murder of her husband, escapes from prison. She is still drawn to Inspector Song and decides to meet him. Inspector Song, being in his position of having feelings for Fu Yuan as well as his civic duty, decides to arrest Fu Yuan. She surprisingly accepts her fate but as he is about to cuff her, a man suddenly falls out of the night sky to his death and Fu Yuan disappears. Clearly, this is more than just coincidence but what is the reasoning for Fu Yuan leading him to this caase? Inspector Song teams up with his petulant childhood sweetheart (Li Xiaolu) to find out who the vanished murderer (or murderers) are. Potential culprits include dopey cop Mao Jin (Rhydian Vaughan), cancer-inflicted morphine addict Professor Hua (Gordon Lam), whom he had a relationship with Fu Yuan as well as the big easy (or easys?), Gao Minxiong, a corrupt businessman the victim had protested before he died, and his son, who also happens to be in shady dealings.

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If you are thinking that this story sounds quite convoluted, don’t worry. It gets worse. If there’s one thing to get out of the way before viewing this film, it is suspension of disbelief. In other words, lack of logic. The Vanished Murderer has no logic whatsoever. Plot holes are everywhere and the story is jam-packed with details that the storytelling is incredibly frenetic that if you even blink while watching, you would probably miss a plot point. Not to mention the pointless subplots involving hypnosis. And also, the villain himself (Or herself? Or themselves?). The film-makers spell out the villain(s) with the subtlety of a sledgehammer but their motive does not make sense, like the film itself. Even the involvement of Inspector Song in this case makes no sense and how he was ensnared into the nefarious plot. How could he be all part of the plan unless his involvement had something to contribute to the plan?  It would have made more sense if the character of Fu Yuan was the lead of this movie. My head hurts at even the thought of analysing the story, let alone actually doing it right here in this review. To be honest, it almost feels like the film is in service of its political statements than the story itself. There is a scene in the film that involves workers fighting back against the system that could not be more blatant, insistent and metaphoric of current problems of Hong Kong and China if the film’s shelf life depended on it.

So why, in plu-perfect hell, do I not hate this film?  There are so many details in the film that are just random in inclusion and execution that it actually does entertain. For example, Inspector Song apparently has the ability to communicate with horses. I am not kidding, and it culminates into an action set-piece that involves cops chasing Song and Fu Yuan on a horse and leading to a scene ripped off from the 2013 Korean blockbuster, The Berlin File. But the set-piece entertains due to its sheer ridiculousness and the actors playing it straight. Speaking of set-pieces, the same goes for the climax on a speeding train. Never has a hat been used on film that made me laugh cheerfully than it has been used in this film. Even the musical score by Chan Kwong-wing (which is partly stolen from The Mist/Legend of the Guardians and Leon: The Professional) is surprisingly catchy and adds to the overall fun of the film. It actually had me whistling the tune days after I watched the film. It is this type of playfulness that makes the film more entertaining than it has any right to be. And despite the messy storytelling, the production values are great. Alongside the musical score, the special effects, the cinematography, the lighting, the set design and costumes all look great and are consistent with the time-frame of the first film.

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The main actors certainly help the proceedings and even add some emotion that really should not work in a film as slipshod as this. Lau Ching-wan is not as quirky as he was in the first film, but it is a good decision since the film itself really compensates for it. He is still compelling though and the same goes for Jiang Yiyan, whose enigmatic and alluring presence is still a highlight in the two films. The chemistry between the two is still present and actually grounds the film quite a bit despite the flaws mentioned earlier. Li Xiaolu, famous for her acting debut in Xiu Xiu: The Sent Down Girl, is also a welcome addition simply because she provides an amusingly cute contrast to the other serious performances, minus Chinese-Tom Cruise doppelganger Rhydian Vaughan, who is just plain dopey. The rest of the cast are fine, if unimpressive, in their performances, although Pauline Suen stands out just for her appearance alone.

Whether you will enjoy The Vanished Murderer depends wholly on your view on the “half-empty, half-full glass” analogy. You have a film that has many playful details, good performances and great production values. But you also have a film that has numerous plot holes, absolutely no logic, many moments of film plagiarism/needless subplots and a political agenda that is delivered without restraint. If you can ignore the latter factors, then you will enjoy The Vanished Murderer. Just don’t give the story any thought. You’ll just give yourself an aneurysm if you do.

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Quickie Review

PROS

The cast give good performances

Great production values

Many entertaining moments and details

CONS

Messy storytelling

Forced political agendas

No sense of logic whatsoever

SCORE: 6/10

Cast: Lau Ching-wan, Jiang Yiyan, Gordon Lam Ka-tung, Lulu Li Xia0-lu, Rhydian Vaughan, Guo Xiao-dong, Pauline Suen Kai-kwan
Director: Law Chi-leung
Screenwriter: Yeung Sin-ling

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Movie Review – Eddie the Eagle

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REVIEWER’S NOTE: Basically, the first paragraph of this review is a cut-and-paste of part of a review I wrote for the Japanese film, Flying Colors. I chose to do this because they are both similar in terms of genre and execution.

EXPECTATIONS: Cool Runnings meets Billy Elliot.

REVIEW: Biographical films, especially ones that revolve around triumphs of the human spirit, can range from the truly inspirational, i.e. The Pursuit of Happyness; to award-bait films like the dull and manipulative The Blind Side; to unmitigated disasters like the agonizing Patch Adams. But very few of those films show a comedic side i.e. in a very twisted way, The Wolf of Wall Street and this is where Eddie the Eagle comes in. Refusing to take the story in an overly serious way and dwelling on the absurd side of the true story of Michael “Eddie” Edwards, Eddie the Eagle is crowd-pleasing and fun entertainment for the masses with plenty of help from the likable leads and Dexter Fletcher’s sensitive direction that makes the story more than just afternoon TV fodder and turns it into something that is quite inspirational for an underdog film as well as an biographical film.

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Rising star Taron Egerton stars as the titular character, an incredibly optimistic yet under-talented 22-year old who dreams of being an Olympian, to the annoyance of many, especially his stern father (Keith Allen). After many setbacks like peer pressure, lack of talent and criticism, he decides to become a ski jumper and sets off to Germany for training. Through his disastrous self-training, a drunken snow groomer Bronson Peary (Hugh Jackman) tells him to give up. Eventually, given their shared shunning from the other jumpers as well as Eddie’s insistence, they team up and try to get into the Winter Olympics in Calgary. Does he succeed? Of course! It wouldn’t be a famous story if he didn’t! And it has been well documented by Olympic broadcasts, interviews and even a book written by Eddie himself. But movies with predictable plots are still worthwhile viewing if the execution is above reproach and this is where Eddie the Eagle soars. Yes, the pun is definitely intended.

First off, the actors. Having exceeded my expectations in Kingsman: The Secret Service, Taron Egerton does it again in Eddie the Eagle. Egerton exudes a lovable, yet eccentric presence that could have ventured through cutesy and annoying territory, but he ends being identifiable and even relatable. It helps a lot to have Hugh Jackman as your coach. Basically reprising the scumbag-authority role like in Real Steel, he shares great chemistry with Egerton and the two have many funny moments like using actress/bombshell Bo Derek as a sexual reference of training motivation and they also have compellingly dramatic moments that can really stir the audience. The supporting cast all give fine performances but do not really stand out from their archetype roles, with notable exceptions of Christopher Walken as Peary’s mentor and Edvin Endre as Matti “The Flying Finn” Nykanen, who has a great scene with Egerton in an elevator.

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The director by Dexter Fletcher is unsurprisingly (or surprisingly, if you have seen his earlier films) light, considering the true story, and like Egerton’s performance, it rarely feels like it panders to the audience that it comes off more nostalgic and inspiring than overly obvious. I really loved the musical score by Matthew Margeson. It is so nostalgic and reminiscent of the 80’s (when the story is set) that I was in heaven whenever I heard it. The use of Van Halen’s Jump in the climax was just icing on the cake.

But in a biographical film such as this, there are plenty of flaws. The dramatized parts (and there are many) are just there to add drama, and they come off as embarrassingly clichéd i.e. the competitors/bullies, the authority figures etc. A LOT of people say that is very similar to the 1993 film, Cool Runnings. It is a very valid point but what is rather funny is that the two events happened concurrently and Eddie the Eagle even references it at one point. The predictability can be a turn-off to some and even the feel-good and wholesome tone can be a bit much, even for me.

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But overall, Eddie the Eagle is a fun time at the movies and it might even inspire you to take up jumping. I jumped from the top of the cinema stairs to the floor so it obviously worked on me.

Quickie Review

PROS

Taron Egerton and Hugh Jackman make a great duo

Surprisingly inspirational, thanks to Dexter Fletcher’s sensitive direction

Fantastic score and soundtrack

CONS

Predictable in every sense of the word

Too much drama for the sake of drama

The wholesome tone can be a bit much

SCORE: 7/10

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This review can be also seen at THE IRIS. Visit the site by pressing the picture above.

Cast: Taron Egerton, Hugh Jackman, Christopher Walken, Iris Berben, Mark Benton, Keith Allen, Jo Hartley, Tim McInnerny, Edvin Endre, Marc Benjamin, Jim Broadbent
Director: Dexter Fletcher
Screenwriter: Simon Kelton, Shaun Macaulay; based on the true story of Michael “Eddie” Edwards

Movie Review – Chongqing Hot Pot

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EXPECTATIONS: Absolutely none. But it does have Bai Baihe. =)

REVIEW: Bad luck. We all get it some time or another and on the day I saw this film, I certainly got my fair share of it. To be honest, I had no intention of seeing this film at all. That day, I was meant to see an early screening of Midnight Special, directed by Jeff Nichols, but due to errands finishing later than expected, lousy phone GPS/reception, getting lost in new surroundings, I missed the screening and to think the bad luck ended, I even forgot a simple rule of not bringing outside drinks into the cinema, wasting $5. Not wanting to waste a whole afternoon, I decided to watch Chongqing Hot Pot (without my refreshing and quenchable drink). Despite knowing the cast, I had no idea what the story was about and went in without any preconceptions or expectations of any kind. Little did I know, the characters in the film had a lot of their fair share of bad luck and because of that, I related to their plight. And to add the silver lining to the equation, I enjoyed the small-scale film.

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The film starts off in a very rainy day, and a bunch of people are doing a bank robbery, amusingly wearing masks of characters in Journey to the West. The robbery goes off quite well, despite their getaway driver getting caught by the police in a serendipitous fashion. But when one of the robbers finds something in a safe, we find the link between the bank to the four leads of the film. Chen Kun plays Liu Bo, a down-on-his-luck young man who lives with his worrying mother and his senile grandfather. He has a massive gambling debt and is a co-owner of a hot pot restaurant build inside an old bomb shelter. His two co-owners/high school friends, the impulsive Xu Dong (Qin Hao) and the dopey, yet loyal Four Eyes (Yu Entai) are in dire situations himself, with Xu Dong being henpecked by his wife over the phone, while Four Eyes is planning to move back to Beijing. As the three are digging through their cave/restaurant for an extension, they accidentally dig a plot hole into a bank vault filled with red pockets money. Seeing it as their exit strategy of their plight, they ironically have to plan an exit strategy of getting away with the money. Coincidentally (or is it fate), they find out that an old high school friend/potential flame, Yu Xiaohui (Bai Baihe) works at the bank and they collude with her on the heist. But does the heist go as planned with gangsters chasing Liu Bo on his massive debts, the police on their trail and a weight of bad luck on their shoulders?

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Despite being marketed as a heist film, it is really more about the camaraderie between the four leads, and the cast are great with their archetypal and underwriten roles. Chen Kun, whom I have always seen as a pretty boy and nothing more, cuts a surprisingly world-weary appearance and does elicit sympathy as Liu Bo. Bai Baihe (whom I have had a crush on since Love Is Not Blind) is great as Yu Xiaohui, as she gives the romantic backstory more power than it really had and she makes it quite easy to see why Liu Bo does what he does in the film. Qin Hao does not have much to do as Xu Dong, but he makes the most of what he has and he delivers a few zingers that were quite funny, whether it was making fun of Chinese accents or always asking Buddha for help. Yu Entai gets a few touching moments as Four Eyes, especially when he helps his friends get out trouble or when he starts to feel nostalgic of the high school days.

Director Yang Qing has crafted a genre film here, but it has a few inventive touches that make it stand out from the pack. A healthy dose of dark humour is peppered throughout the film like a simple action of picking up a cleaver but only ending up pulling the handle. Or the use of the Journey to the West masks that have a massive payoff in the climax that perfectly exemplifies the characters. The heist itself is turned on its head due to how the characters collide and it is marvelous to watch. The musical score was also pleasant to hear and the use of Air by Bach was also a nice touch that adds a melancholy to the characters, despite their questionable actions. I also loved the cinematography, especially when it is set in the night-time, when all the neon lights shine and gives the environment a post-norish feel, similar to South Korean films like Oldboy or even the recent Chinese film-noir, Black Coal Thin Ice.

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While the cast and production values are great, it is the script and some of the directorial choices that gives the film a sour taste at times. For example, the pacing in the first and parts of the second act is really slow at times, especially when it story goes through the romance, and that is quite a problem considering that the film is only 94 minutes. It can also be quite predictable at times, especially at the end of the climax. Let’s just say that it definitely is not the first time that I have seen the solution and fate of a particular character being dealt that way, especially within a China film. It is quite disappointing that the predictability happens due to China-censorship, especially when the heist itself is actually quite unpredictable and has palpable tension. There are also the tone shifts, which can be quite abrupt, as it can go from cheeky to romantic to downright brutal at times. Plus, the use of a love letter in the film comes off as cheesy, but hey, aren’t all high school romances like that? And it is for Bai Baihe, so I am already down for it.

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Despite those flaws, Chongqing Hot Pot is a hearty meal with enough spice and meat to savour most audiences out there. On an irrelevant(?) note, did this film foretell a new cast for another Journey to the West film adaptation? Because if the filmmakers did, I would definitely flock to it.

Quickie Review

PROS

The cast are more than capable in their archetypal roles

Inventive touches in the story

Fantastic cinematography

Musical score and editing are above reproach

CONS

Pacing problems

Tone shifts may irk some

Supporting characters are underwritten

China-censorship adds predictability to the story

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Chen Kun, Bai Baihe, Qin Hao, Yu Entai
Director: Yang Qing
Screenwriter: Yang Qing

Film-momatic Flashback – The Man From Hong Kong

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EXPECTATIONS: A retro piece of action/martial-arts schlock.

REVIEW: An action/martial arts film set in Australia? Sounds like a hell of a lot of fun. Directed by schlockmeister Brian Trenchard-Smith, director of such cult-classics like BMX Bandits, Turkey Shoot, Stunt Rock and Dead End Drive-In, The Man From Hong Kong was his second theatrical film and was making a big splash for the Australian film industry at the time. The film was the first co-production between Australia and Hong Kong and it had a rare occurrence of having an Asian lead, in this case, Jimmy Wang Yu, best known for the martial-arts classics, One-Armed Swordsman and Master of the Flying Guillotine. It also stars George Lazenby as the main villain, best known for his one-time stint as the British agent, James Bond. After the James Bond stuff, his career went through a downward spiral, eventually leading to roles in Hong Kong films, showing his capable stunt background and eventually leading to The Man From Hong Kong. It is also has fight choreography from a then 22-year old Sammo Hung Kam-bo, who is known for being a fantastic martial artist working alongside Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao and even the man himself, Bruce Lee. So with all these elements in the film, does it all add up?

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Jimmy Wang Yu (dubbed by veteran actor Roy Chiao) stars as Fang Sing-ling, an inspector from the Special Branch of the Royal Hong Kong police force. After he has one of his activities in the horizontal and vertical refreshment industry (courtesy of Ros Spiers and later, Rebecca Gilling), he is sent to Australia to bring back a drug smuggler (Sammo Hung Kam-bo) for extradition. But when the drug smuggler gets taken care of (not a spoiler), Fang ends up staying in the land down under longer than expected. With the help of two Aussie Cops (Immortan Joe Hugh Keays-Byrne and Roger Ward), they follow the trail of crime to an all-powerful kingpin, gun-runner, drug-peddler, martial artist, racist and all-round badass Jack Wilton (Daniel Craig George Lazenby). Will Fang defeat Wilton at his own game of martial arts and stop his EVIL ways?

The answer is: OF COURSE! But when has that stopped a movie from having some fun? And fortunately, The Man From Hong Kong has that in spades. Director Brian Trenchard-Smith clearly utilizes a light, self-referential tone to the formulaic crime story and the film is all the more entertaining for it. Clichés and conventions are switched around and it makes more of a refreshing experience. One example is how much carnage and destruction Fang Sing-ling makes. Cars get smashed, buildings get destroyed, the whole shebang, and yet it is hilariously brushed off as a stereotypical outlook against Asians. Another example, when was the last time we saw an Asian action lead having a very active sex life on film? Well, in this film, Jimmy Wang Yu, not only has one, but two sexual partners. It is clear that Trenchard-Smith was going for a James Bond vibe for the character of Fang Sing-ling and it works, especially with the sexual innuendos that make fun of the stereotypical image of Asians. One line that was said in a sex scene had me in stitches. There’s also a romantic montage that comes off as hilariously cheesy, complete with horse riding, picnics and lovey-dovey moments that would feel right at home as a commercial for menopause. I also liked the cinematography by Russell Boyd. The film looks vibrant and colourful for an action film such as this and it does show remnants of a soon-to-be Oscar winning cinematographer.

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Enough about the love, let’s get to the action. Jimmy Wang Yu portrays his character as a force of nature and his reliance on brutality rather than grace or agility makes for some entertainingly messy fights, thanks to Sammo Hung‘s fight choreography. There’s an action scene that evolves from a chase scene into a kitchen fight, between Fang and a bad guy (played by veteran stuntman Grant Page) and it starts off in a routine way, but the tension is raised as the knives come in and it is entertaining to see the two go at it at such an elongated time. As good as that fight scene is, it does not top the fight scenes between Sing-ling and Wilton. George Lazenby looks like he’s having a lot of fun as Wilton, relishing his racist attitude towards Wang Yu and embracing the stunts that he has. Well, maybe not the stunt where he is set on fire; similar to the stunt that Jackie Chan did in Drunken Master 2. That would have really pissed him off.* Hell, there’s even a fight scene on top of Ayers Rock! Nowadays, this will never, EVER happen. Films can’t even film 100 feet near there now, so the action scene is one of the many moments that makes The Man From Hong Kong such a cult classic. Another moment that can be seen as throwaway in today’s standards is a part when a car explodes, and a flying sheet of metal flies ever so dangerously close to the camera.

As much fun as the fight scenes are in the film, it is the car chase preceding the climax of the film that is the most impressive. Filmed without permission and permits* (like the guerrilla filmmaking suggests), the car chase involves tons of property damage and vehicular warfare involving other cars, billboards and even an entire house! With just cameras mounted on mirrors, dashboards and car-roofs, such beautifully orchestrated chaos can be ranked alongside other fantastic car chase sequences like in Bullitt and Mad Max and others. Funnily enough, Quentin Tarantino had stated that he is a big admirer of director Brian Trenchard-Smith and in one of Tarantino‘s films, Death Proof, the climactic car chase sequence looks eerily similar to the one in The Man From Hong Kong, that it almost comes off as grossly derivative.

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If there’s any problem with the film, it is the script. It goes along in a very predictable fashion that it does take the fun out a little, particularly during the first act. It does not help that some of the jokes/lines of dialogue can be seen as racist, but that could be just be me, drowning in the sea of political correctness today. And aside from Jimmy Wang Yu and George Lazenby, none of the supporting actors stand out in any way, and yes, that includes Hugh Keayes-Byrne and Roger Ward, two of the most likeable and talented veteran Australian actors today, making the most out of very little they have from the script.

But overall, The Man From Hong Kong is a fantastic piece of cheesy, schlocky fun that has fantastic stunts, a cool hero and villain, colourful cinematography and a light, self-aware sense of humour that makes the film soar Sky High.**

* Facts that are true from the fantastic documentary, Not Quite Hollywood.

** Reference to the classic song, Sky High by Jigsaw.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic action scenes

Jimmy Wang Yu and George Lazenby are terrific in their roles

Fun, self-aware tone adds much entertainment value

Fantastic cinematography

CONS

Can be racist at times

The story is very predictable and formulaic

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Jimmy Wang Yu, George Lazenby, Ros Spiers, Hugh Keays-Bryne, Rebecca Gilling, Frank Thring, Bill Hunter, Sammo Hung Kam-bo
Director: Brian Trenchard-Smith
Screenwriter: Brian Trenchard-Smith