Movie Review – Pop Aye

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EXPECTATIONS: A sweet, gentle buddy comedy/road trip film.

REVIEW: Although I am a fan of all film genres and tropes, the specific genre trope that I have an affinity for is the human-fantasy friendship trope. Whether it’s between a human and a horse (War Horse), a human and a robot (The Iron Giant), a human and a mutant super-pig (Okja) or a human and a Totoro (My Neighbour Totoro), a strong bond is a strong bond, no matter how bizarre the circumstances are.

In the case of Kirsten Tan‘s directorial debut, Pop Aye, it’s between a human and a elephant. Unlike Tony Jaa‘s action epic The Protector where the man kills billions of people to get his elephant back from mustache-twirling bad guys, the main lead in Pop Aye reunites with his eponymous childhood pet and tries to take him back to his village. Will the film be as touching as the prior examples or will the film need to be put down?

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Thaneth Warakulnukroh makes his acting debut as Thana, a middle-aged architect, who is bored at work as well as at home with his wife Bo (Penpak Sirikul). One day, as he wanders the Bangkok city, he spots an elephant which turns out to be his childhood pet, Pop Aye.

Faster than you can say “Don Quixote”, he buys Pop Aye and then decides to take the elephant back to the village where they grew up together and into his uncle Peak’s (Narong Pongpab) care. Thus, they embark on a road trip through the rural Thailand to their hometown of Loei Province, Isan.

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Okay, maybe the last statement in the introductory paragraph was a bit mean-spirited but there are many examples out there that are downright terrible like Marley and Me (which is as incorrect as the grammatical error of a title) and the recent film A Dog’s Purpose (why kill off one dog when you can kill off five?). Those films are inferior examples because of the filmmakers insistence in getting every single tear out of the audience that it borders on grievous bodily harm.

Thankfully, Kirsten Tan‘s Pop Aye is on another level in comparison, as Tan provides an amiable, bittersweet and surprisingly surreal piece of work. The subtle and contemplative tone and the script by Tan makes the film more than the sum of its parts.

One of the things the film gets right is the titular character itself, Pop Aye. Named after the cartoon but renamed for copyright purposes and played by Bong and two other elephants, Pop Aye is as contemplative as he is charming. His reactions towards the many bizarre characters in the road trip are funny. But he really stand out when you see his final shot of the film, as he stares into the horizon.

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In fact, the humour in the film is quite sharp. Whether its showing a sex toy to prove a point, seeing the interactions between Thana and Bo or the great spaghetti western-like score by Matthew James Kelly, the film is not without its levity. But overall, the film is basically a low-key character study for Thana.

Thaneth Warakulnukroh gives a great performance as the lead, as he lends the right amount of gravitas, melancholy and restrained jubilation. Penpak Sirikul (last seen in The Hangover Part II) lends a surprising amount of humanity to the role of Bo, who could have easily be seen as a materialistic person.

Other surprises come from the supporting cast, such as Yukontorn Sukkijja as Jenny, a transgender woman whom Thana meets in a nightclub. Her enigmatic presence, her brief exchanges of dialogue and her sharp wit understandably makes her a stand-out to Thana as well as the audience.

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But the biggest surprise is Chaiwat Khumdee as Dee, a vagrant who is content with where he has ended up life. His optimism and modesty and Khumdee’s performance make Dee the best character in the film. His character also offers an opposing view in comparison to Thana, as both have cherished memories that may not be as idealized as they think.

Speaking of what is expected, there are a few surprising curveballs in the narrative that lend a lot of depth to the film, as the journey is more than just revisiting the past, but is more along the lines of sheer remorse.

The film does drag a little bit in terms of its pacing and the destination the film gets to is a bit slight compared to the journey preceding it but overall, Pop Aye is a film that stands out from the pack of human-fantasy genre trope and is worth looking out for.

Quickie Review

PROS

Great performances

Subtle storytelling and filmmaking

Narrative curveballs surprise and lend a lot of weight to the story

Beautifully shot and scored

CONS

The ending is quite slight

Slow pacing

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: Thaneth Warakulnukroh, Bong the elephant, Penpak Sirikul, Chaiwat Khumdee, Yukontorn Sukkijja, Narong Pongpab
Director: Kirsten Tan
Screenwriters: Kirsten Tan

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Movie Review – Wolf Warrior 2

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EXPECTATIONS: A jingoistic and entertaining piece of garbage.

REVIEW: Chinese action star Wu Jing is an actor that I have been following for quite a surprisingly long time. Ever since he was appeared in Tai Chi Boxer, a low-budget martial arts film, he has shown his martial arts skills, but never really standing out from the crowd. It was only until SPL, where he played a formidable and sadistic henchman and fought against Donnie Yen, that was when he was recognized worldwide.

Since then, he has appeared in more movies, playing more villains like in Invisible Target and Fatal Move, and also playing more heroes with ample charisma like in Twins Mission and City Under Siege. It was after all the action roles, he gained an interest in directing, which he achieved in his directorial debut, Legendary Assassin, which was a passable action film that drowned in its self-importance and excessive wirework.

He then tried again with Wolf Warrior, a solo-directorial debut about the Chinese Army fighting against foreign mercenaries. The film was ripe with B-movie goodness, but it never harnessed it due to its low budget, shoddy film-making and excessive (if amusing) flag-waving, leaving the film to be a disappointment.

Now, we have Wu Jing returning to the director’s chair with Wolf Warrior 2, a country-trekking sequel with a bigger budget and input from the makers of Captain America: The Winter Soldier, including the same stunt people and even Frank Grillo. Will the film be a marked improvement over the sloppy original or will it end up being a disaster for all involved?

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After the events of Wolf Warrior, Leng Feng (Wu Jing) returns to his hometown, but he doesn’t get the welcome committee he expected and due to a conflict (among many in the film) he gets sent to prison and expelled from the Chinese Special Forces.

And faster than you can say “Chinese Rambo“, he goes into exile in Africa, drowning in gallons of alcohol and pining over the death of his superior officer/love interest Long Xiaoyun (Yu Nan, in a cameo).

But the peace is interrupted when an uprising occurs and he must retreat to a Chinese destroyer, which strictly evacuates Chinese civilians. But when he overhears guards talking about needing someone to rescue workers at a factory and an important doctor who knows the vaccination for Lamanla (Yes, that’s actually what it’s called), Leng Feng volunteers.

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To be perfectly blunt, no one watches these types of films for the plot; people want to see these films for the action and the momentum that can carry the audience to see more action. And thankfully, Wolf Warrior 2 is a huge improvement over the original in that regard.

Utilizing long takes, a bigger budget and vast locations, Wu really went all out with the fight scenes, which are brutal and hard-hitting; the car chases, which involve driving through a village and a tank battle; and the gun battles which crash, bang and wallop as they should. Action scenes involving drones and an uprising are the standouts in the film, as well as the final fight scene between Wu and Grillo, which is an improvement over the underwhelming climactic fight in the original film involving Wu and Adkins. The opening action scene involves a fight underwater and it is both ridiculous, thrilling and very reminiscent of the climactic fight scene in the Jackie Chan film, First Strike.

There are also many unintentionally hilarious moments which suits its throwback B-movie tone. Scenes with absolutely no care about logic, storytelling or even basic human decency. Like the use of a piece of glass used to kill many people, how Leng stops a rocket in a way that has to be seen to be believed, incredibly offensive portrayal of Africans to the point that it ends up being moronically laughable eg. when an African mother throws an elbow drop on a soldier that would make Dwayne Johnson cringe; and the flag-waving (which isn’t as much as the original) that is taken to its logical conclusion where Wu literally fashions himself as a flagpole to wave the China flag, there is plenty of things to laugh at, and definitely not to laugh with. It is the sheer ineptitude that makes all these moments funny.

But here’s the thing: we’re not living in the 80’s and early 90’s anymore and nowadays, the many things in Wolf Warrior 2 that would have been expected back in the past, would be strongly frowned upon today and rightfully so. The killings of the African people in particular are incredibly excessive to the point of being mean-spirited; some of the portrayals are quite racist and embarrassing (like the elbow drop) and like many of the China-market films (eg. Operation Mekong and The White Storm), China steps into foreign territory to solve something without any assistance from home authorities. Basically, it’s them saying “Get the hell out of our way, we’ll take it from here!”. Some of these criticisms can be overlooked, but there will be people out there who will be offended, if not outraged.

Speaking of outrage, for those who are gung-ho on plot and filmmaking as well as the action, will be laughing at how the story is told. There are numerous plot holes (How does Leng know where the hostages are when he crashes through a building with an SUV?) and contrivances (A character gets cured of a virus overnight), incredibly bad dialogue (A henchman actually cries angrily about manners peoples’ mothers should be teaching) and lapses in basic logic (Injuries heal as soon as they’re inflicted).

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And the performances is just as haphazard as the storytelling. Wu Jing as Leng Feng is a solid leading man, who clearly knows his action and has great presence on screen. It’s a vanity project of his as his character is seen as the saviour of everyone on the bloody planet, but does more than enough in the role.

Regarding the supporting cast, that’s where the acting drops down a notch. Celina Jade, who is famous for the TV series Arrow, works with Wu Jing for the second time after Legendary Assassin is likable and charming in her role as Dr. Rachel Smith, even if she isn’t much of an actress. Frank Grillo, in his limited screentime, exudes some much-needed menace while Wu Gang is quite good as the veteran soldier who aids Leng Feng.

As for Hans Zhang, when I was sitting in a packed theater, when he first appeared on-screen, the audience went hysterical, laughing derisively at his presence. Thankfully, his character is meant to look and act foolish, since he is a fuerdai (meaning rich second generation) and a fanboy of the PLA. But through Zhang’s performance, he comes off as annoying and really should have been killed off. Other performances go from wooden (most of the African actors and henchmen) to downright laughable like Oleg Prudius, who is a hoot as the moody Bear and Ding Haifeng, who shouts an order that made me laugh out loud!

Overall, Wolf Warrior 2 is a marked improvement over its predecessor that provides the requisite thrills and action that one would definitely look for. But its sheer moral ineptitude combined with its throwback B-movie tone makes it one of the most unintentionally hilarious films of the year. Or it could outrage and offend many because of it. You be the judge.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Great action scenes

Plenty of unintentionally hilarious moments

Wu Jing is a great action star

CONS

Moral ineptitude involving racism and propaganda

Shoddy storytelling

Laughable acting

SCORE: 7.5/10

Cast: Wu Jing, Frank Grillo, Celina Jade, Wu Gang, Hans Zhang, Ding Haifeng, Chunyu Shanshan
Director: Wu Jing
Screenwriters: Wu Jing, Dong Qun, Liu Yi

Movie Review – Meow

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EXPECTATIONS: Something that will surprise me, like Stephen Chow’s CJ7.

REVIEW: Benny Chan is known as one of Hong Kong’s most commercially successful directors. With huge classic hits like A Moment of Romance and Big Bullet to his recent blockbusters like The White Storm and Shaolin, he is quite dependable to rely on for action spectacle.

But when Chan branches out to different genres, that is when his films go from decent to disastrous. One of the examples is the sequel to Gen-X Cops, Gen-Y Cops, a film so bad that it made the original look like The Wild Bunch. Filled with abysmal acting, ridiculous events strewn together to resemble a plot and a script that makes Paul Rudd (yes, that Paul Rudd) say the most awful lines (some even in Cantonese!).

Another example is the sci-fi/fantasy flick City Under Siege, which was considered to be Hong Kong’s answer to X-Men, but it turned out to be a disaster, with the expected terrible script, awful acting and unintentionally hilarious make-up effects that would make the Toxic Avenger look like an art installation.

But the two films have one essential factor in common that made them entertaining, despite the terrible quality of each of them: they were both unintentionally funny. They were never comedies, but the films were such disastrous examples of filmmaking, that they might as well have been classified as one.

So when I heard that Chan was making a family comedy about alien cats invading planet Earth, I was both equally appalled and intrigued. Appalled at the fact that Benny Chan would direct such a thing that Wong Jing would shill out any day of the week and intrigued at the fact it could be an enjoyable disaster like the other two entries.

But one thing is for sure: it helps to have an open mind. Does Meow live up to my expectations or even exceed them to become an enjoyable surprise like Stephen Chow’s CJ7? Or will it crash-land and burn up before it even starts the opening credits?

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In the distant corners of the universe, a planet of cats known as Meow exists where its creatures are more civilized than Earthlings. Thousands of years ago, the king of Meow has been sending messengers to planet Earth, hoping to prepare for an invasion. However, over the years, every messenger sent to Earth never returned, which forced the king to put aside his plans.

In the present day, the king decides to re-ignite his plan and selects the bravest and mightiest warrior of Meow, Pudding, as a vanguard to Earth. However, during the journey, Pudding loses a divine Meow device that can resist the particles of Earth and loses his divine powers.

As a result, the lean-built Pudding becomes a giant fat cat Xilili (due to a contrived reason). It is then adopted by a family, which consists of Go-Lee Wu (Louis Koo), his wife (Ma Li), their elder son (Andy Wong) and younger daughter (Jessica Liu). Xilili has no choice but to hide in the Wu household before finding his device to invade Earth.

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Most people have written articles, which say films that consist of pervasive violence and adult content can turn people into psychopaths. To them I say, nay, because it is films like Meow that can turn people into psychopaths. Apart from Kung Fu Yoga (which I thought would never be surpassed as the worst film I have seen so far this year), watching Meow was one of the most insufferable and emotionally harrowing experiences I have ever been through.

To think that most of Benny Chan’s films have unintentionally funny moments in his serious films, it would be feasible to think he would be good at comedy. But in the case of Meow, it shows that he does not have a comedic bone in his body whatsoever. The script is so incredibly stupid and mindbogglingly misguided, that even infants would be insulted.

Who in poo-perfect hell thought that a scene where an alien cat plans to murder a family with a kitchen knife, would be suitable for family entertainment? The only time the film was inching close to laughter is during the dramatic scenes. Like during a scene where one of the main characters trips over, I laughed wholeheartedly. But even with those moments, it was not enough to compensate for the rest.

During the film, I thought to myself, what was going through the minds of Louis Koo and Benny Chan that they would be involved in this film, But alas, it was said in a behind-the-scenes feature that it was Louis Koo’s idea to make a film about cats, due to the fact that he does advertisements for a health and beauty franchise (Mannings) that has a cat as a mascot. And it was Chan’s idea to make it into a feature film about cats in space. If that’s the case, then Louis Koo should get double the blame for his contribution of the cinematic equivalent of ultraviolent dysentery.

In order to find comedies funny, you have to have some sort of engagement with the characters. Clearly, no one involved in the film knew that since the actors in the film all probably thought that to get laughs out of the script is to deliver the lines as loud as humanly possible. And boy, it is like a bunch of needles piercing through your ears and into your brain.

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Louis Koo overacts miserably as Go-Lee Wu (He plays a goalie! Get it?), as he suffers through fart jokes (some literally in his face), pratfalls and lots and lots of screaming. Ma Li (or Mary Ma, as she is credited) loses all of her comedic chops from her prior films like Goodbye Mr. Loser, as she is stuck playing an unlikable harpy while the supporting cast all overact like loonies, that I actually sided with the cat wanting to kill the family. They are all that insufferable to watch.

The only actor in the film that is somewhat tolerable is Michelle Wai. Wai is, in my opinion, one of the most underrated actress in HK, as she has always displayed stellar work, even in the smallest of roles eg. her drug addict role in Insanity. In the case of Meow, she does fine in an unfairly written role as a school teacher and she almost goes out of the film unscathed. She almost acts like a normal human being to the point that I yelled at the screen, pleading her to take me away from the loonies! And yet when the film reaches the end credits, she overacts like all the other loonies. So close.

There are a lot more things to say about Meow, like the xenophobic moments (one character that is meant to be a portrayal of a Thai person is shockingly racist AND homophobic), the ham-fisted approach in conveying a lesson to the audience that filial love trumps all, plot holes (like how does the family afford all the cat food and supplies if they are struggling financially due to Go-Lee Wu being in massive debt?) and even lapses in basic logic (Cats don’t even land on their feet in this film!), but it’s just not worth it.

When parents teach children how to behave themselves, there are some lessons that are taught, which are already known, without prior education. Like how one should not run with scissors or one should not talk to strangers. And now the lesson of not watching Meow should be one of those lessons. Meow is an atrocious piece of garbage and everyone involved in this film should be thoroughly ashamed.

Quickie Review

PROS

You’re kidding me, right?

CONS

**doing a Gary Oldman impression** EVERYTHING!!!

SCORE: 0/10

Cast: Louis Koo, Ma Li, Jessica Liu, Andy Wong, Michelle Wai, Louis Yuen, Grasshopper, Lo Hoi-pang, Lam Chi-chung
Director: Benny Chan
Screenwriters: Chan Hing-ka, Ho Miu-kei, Poon Chun-lam

Movie Review – Dawn of the Felines (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something more melancholic and realistic than the average fare.

REVIEW: Three down, two to go. The fourth entry (for my viewing pleasure) in the Roman Porno Reboot is Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines. No, it is not a cat zombie film, but a melancholic and de-mystified drama that provides a look into the lives of three stranded women, whom we see go through their daily lives as Tokyo sex workers.

Whilst the other entries went for either comedic, arthouse and the serene approach, Dawn of the Felines goes for the realistic approach, and with Kazuya Shiraishi at the helm (whom last did the crime film The Devil’s Path and crime/comedy Twisted Justice), we can be certain this film will hit hard with its subject matter. But will the film succeed in entertaining the audience by living up to the Roman Porno name as well as conveying the director’s distinct touch?

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The film follows the lives of three women in present Tokyo and how they feel stranded due to the circumstances of life, with all three of them being led by the weaselly Nonaka (Takuma Otoo). Juri Ihata plays the homeless Masako, who develops an awkward romance with a reclusive client (Tomihiro Kaku) who hasn’t left his own building in 10 years.

We also have Rie (Michie), who is unhappily married and finds solace in the company of an old man drowning in guilt over his wife’s recent death; and we have single mother Yui (Satsuki Maue), who casually leaves behind her abused son just so she can date an obnoxious comedian (Hideaki Murata).

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First off, the positives. The performances from the cast are all uniformly good, thankfully due to the three leads. Juri Ihata, who is known primarily for being a voice actress, performs well in her first leading role as Masako, as she conveys the weariness, the laid-back attitude and especially the anger of her character very well. There is a scene where she confronts Tomohiro Kaku’s character on top of a building and she expresses her feelings, and it is clearly representative of her talents.

Michie is good as the sorrowful Rie; so much so that she makes her unbelievable subplot quite watchable. The interactions between her character and the old man character are compelling and even shocking at times. The lesser of the three is Satsuki Maue as Yui. Although she plays the selfishness and impulsiveness of her character well, she tends to overact at times, which can take audiences out of the film.

The supporting cast are all fine, with Tomohiro Kaku (best known as the boyfriend in Hana and Alice) proving he can be both enigmatic and inhumane; Hideaki Murata is a pure scumbag as the supposedly funny comedian that Yui cavorts with and Ken Yoshizawa lends presence as the suffering senior who interacts with Rie.

But the biggest standout is Takuma Otoo as Nonaka. Providing some much-needed humour to offset the downbeat story, he perfects the way of the weasel by making him likable as well as repulsive. The facial expressions he comes up with, especially during a scene where he is confronted with the police, are priceless.

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As for the direction, it is well-done, particularly how Shiraishi focuses more on the characters, rather than the story. The sex scenes are executed in a matter-of-fact fashion, rather than aiming for prurience. And for the most part, they signal the stage where the characters are in their development or reveal more of who they are. Like in a scene where Yui sleeps with Murata’s character and she finally becomes intimate with him, leading to a confrontation.

And although the film is well-edited and well-told, the film could use a bit more effort in the lighting, as the badly lit look makes it look unappealing at times. Although, the focus on character pays off in the climax, as the leads do reach their foregone conclusions in a satisfying manner (particularly the subplot of Masako), the film could have used more of a social commentary bent since the story is ripe with potential for it i.e. providing more concrete views on how the leads ended up in the situation in the first place. For example, Masako mentions that she is a university graduate but could not obtain a decent job, leading her to prostitution.

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Overall, Dawn of the Felines is a mostly compelling piece of work that has a much more humane story than one would expect. Saddled with good performances, assured direction and ample explorations into loneliness, the film may be the worst entry in the Roman Porno Reboot I’ve seen thus far, but it is still a worthwhile endeavour.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good acting from the cast

Focus on character pays off in a satisfying fashion

CONS

Lacks a certain something to make it truly stand out

Inconsistent lighting

SCORE: 7/10

Cast: Juri Ihata, Satsuki Maue, Michie, Takuma Otoo, Tomohiro Kaku, Hideaki Murata, Ken Yoshizawa, Kazuko Shirakawa, Kaito Yoshimura, Ryotaro Yonemura, Takaki Uda, Takamitsu Nonaka
Director: Kazuya Shiraishi
Screenwriters: Kazuya Shiraishi

Movie Review – Aroused by Gymnopedies (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Something more poignant and sombre than the usual Roman Porno.

REVIEW: Now we are off to the third entry of the Roman Porno Reboot. Previous entries seen by myself were Sion Sono’s Anti-Porno, which was a surreal, daring and transcendent surprise; and Akihiko Shiota’s Wet Woman in the Wind, which was a hilarious and traditional entry.

And now we have Aroused by Gymnopedies, directed by Isao Yukisada. Yukisada is well-known for his soulful dramatic works like the blockbuster romance Crying Out Love in the Center of the World and queer drama Pink and Gray; and coming-of-age films like Parade and Go!

So when you apply his filmmaking chops to a project such as this, it does sound like it could result in a typical Roman Porno entry. But this is not back in the 70’s and 80’s anymore. We are in the 10’s now and political correctness (whether people like it or not) is in front and center. Considering the above, will Aroused by Gymnopedies be both a good film as well as a representative entry of the Roman Porno Reboot?

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The film follows Shinji (Itsuji Itao), a once-celebrated filmmaker whose reputation was once sterling until his star came crashing down to the point where he ends up making quickie porno films. But when Anri (Izumi Okamura), his lead actress quits, the production stalls indefinitely and Shinji wanders from one supposedly misjudged sexual encounter to the next, pleading for money along the way to get his life back on track.

His actions border on repulsive, sleeping with students, nurses, even his leading actress, for any sign of relief or denial of his current existence. And just when he cannot sink any lower, he relies on his ex-wife to prostitute herself for money to lend to him. But is the money really for the stalled film project, or is it for something else?

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First off, the synopsis does make the film seem as sleazy as one would expect. But Yukisada and his screenwriter, Anne Horizumi, aim for more of a sensitive and sombre tone and for a long while, the tone does seem to be quite jarring in comparison to the prurient feel of the film. Particularly when the piano piece(s) by Erik Satie (referenced in the title) plays over the sex scenes.

But when the film gradually reaches into the final act, Yukisada’s sensitive direction makes perfect sense to what preceded it and the music hits hard thematically and emotionally in the film’s conclusion by becoming an ode to love and loneliness.

The jarring feel also applies to the lead character. Played brilliantly by Itsuji Itao (who’s known for comedic roles), the majority of the audience will be repulsed by him. But Yukisada and Horizumi gradually hint the audience with much-needed backstory, making the audience question what they just witnessed. Without attempting to excuse or change the lead character, Yukisada and Horizumi manage to make Shinji empathetic (if not sympathetic), despite his heartless actions.

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If the film does seem to be a bit of a depressing slog, Yukisada and Horizumi thankfully sprinkle much-needed humour to the proceedings, which includes a setpiece involving a film retrospective gone wrong, that involves the majority of the characters in conflict with each other. The musical score, which comprises of jazz, is a complete and pleasing throwback to the classic examples of the genre, and it adds comic zing.

The female characters, all well-acted by the actresses (particularly Sumire Ashina as rich student, Yuka), are all surprisingly independent and self-sufficient, when compared to the counterparts of the 70’s and 80’s Roman Porno entries. Whether it is to reflect the times or it is the involvement of co-writer Anne Horizumi, it is a step in the right direction.

Case in point, during a climactic sex scene where it seems to involve Shinji, Yuka decides he is no longer needed. A scene like this would never happen back in the 70’s and 80’s, but the fact that it happened in this day of age, it is quite notable.

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As for its flaws, Shinji’s actions may be too repulsive one can take. And the deliberate pacing may be too slow for impatient viewers and those who are expecting exploitation and titillation will definitely come out disappointed.

Overall, Aroused by Gymnopedies is a strange, yet compelling mix of softcore sex and sensitive emotion, which pays off in a rewarding fashion for those who are patient enough for its unorthodox ambitions. Let’s hope the Roman Porno Reboot keeps it up with the remaining two entries, Kazuya Shiraishi’s Dawn of the Felines and Hideo Nakata’s White Lily.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Itsuji Itao gives a great performance as the pitiable, repulsive lead

Yukisada’s direction and Horizuma’s screenwriting lend a certain poignancy that correlates with the prurience quite well

The musical score is entertaining in a throwback sort of way

The final act rewards greatly

CONS

The pacing may be too slow for impatient viewers

The lead character may be too unsympathetic for some

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Itsuji Itao, Sumire Ashina, Izumi Okamura, Yuki Tayama, Mayumi Tajima, Noriko Kijima, Sho Nishino
Director: Isao Yukisada
Screenwriters: Isao Yukisada, Anne Horizumi

Movie Review – Japanese Girls Never Die (NYAFF 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: A fun, anarchic story about obsession and media scrutiny. And of course, YU AOI!

REVIEW: For those who have read my reviews, it is well known that I am a huge fan of Japanese actress Yu Aoi. Ever since I saw her in Hana and Alice (which was my first Japanese film I ever saw), I have been a huge fan of her work; particularly with how soulful and precise her performances are, without any reliance on overacting or histrionics.

But funnily enough, she was just one selling point of this film. Another selling point were the themes of sexual discrimination and misogyny and how it is explored and defined in present-day Japan. Some of my favourite or memorable films of recent years happen to be films set in Japan and were about the same themes i.e. Pun Homchuen & Onusa Donsawai’s Grace and Sion Sono’s Tag and Anti-Porno.

So when I heard about the film, Japanese Girls Never Die, was going to have both Yu Aoi and the same thematic material as the films mentioned earlier, it was just too exciting to pass up. So does the film live up to my expectations? Or will it just end up being in a dark alley, beaten to a bloody pulp?

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The film starts off with a bunch of misfits causing havoc by spray painting stencils of a missing posters. The film also features a gang of high school girls who are infamous for beating up men with baseball bats (A Clockwork Pink? Okay, I’ll stop.). The face on the missing poster is 27-year old Haruko Azumi (Yu Aoi), an office worker who is unhappy at work, at home, and with her unrequited yearning for her childhood pal turned neighbour (Huey Ishizaki), who just happens to be beaten up by the same gang of girls.

A typical day of Haruko is filled with misogynistic and perverted male bosses making inappropriate comments about the age, appearance and relationship status of their female employees, all while trying to hire another female employee. By night, she navigates the stresses of living with her family of three generations, with her stressed mother and her aging grandmother.

We also have 20-year old Aina (Mitsuki Takahata), a spirited and bubbly girl who thrives on fun and excitement. She thinks she has found it in a form of a potential boyfriend, Yukio (Taiga) and the two apparently hit it off. But Yukio has other ideas with Aina, but on the side, he starts off a grafitti team with his friend, the shy Manabu (Shono Hayama) and starts tagging the city. As Aina spots the two, she joins in and they all get inspired by a missing poster that happens to feature Haruko, and a viral sensation is born.

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So basically there are two stories going on and the film is played out in a non-linear fashion, which admittedly  takes quite a bit to get used to the storytelling technique. But when you consider the unbelievable sides (including fantasy and wish-fulfillment plots)  and realistic sides of the story (loneliness, ennui and sexual discrimination) are blurred together, it actually becomes very effective, as it conveys the themes of the story in an entertaining and distinct manner.

And we got through a lot of themes here. Whether its office politics, family dynamics, portrayals of art, gender politics, Japanese pop culture, capitalism and many more, the film is absolutely jam-packed with ideas, with surprising replay value.

A lot of the credit goes to cinematographer Hiroki Shioya and editor Satoko Ohara, whom give the film a distinct look and feel, which applies to all three acts (and stories), leaving them easy to discern.

Even the use of pop culture, which director Matsui uses a lot in his prior films like Wonderful World End, (which is completely evident of perpetuating sexual objectification) is used in a satirical and metaphorical fashion.

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Even with all of the hard work going on display from behind-the-scenes, the film also packs an amazing performance from Yu Aoi. Showing subtlety, restraint and even a certain sense of cool whilst hinting a sense of anger, resentment and hostility, Aoi totally inhabits the character to the point that her screentime has a larger impact than expected. And yes, even with the expected posters and grafitti plastered throughout the film.

Mitsuki Takahata, whom I last saw in Jossy’s, is bubbly and energetic as Aina, and although she might seem a bit petulant at first, she provides a fine contrast to Aoi’s performance, as the two make it easier to see both generations shown offsetting each other very well.

The supporting cast are all good, with the men (including Taiga, Shono Hayama and Huey Ishizaki) giving relatable, yet pathetic performances, while the women (including Akiko Kikuchi and Maho Yamada) make the most out their small roles. Particularly Yamada, who has some of the best and incisive lines of the film.

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As for its flaws, not all of the ideas in the film are explored equally due to there being so many; the storytelling can be a bit off-putting in its intent in its non-linear fashion and the ending is a bit overdone, although it features a great animated cut-scene by Ryo Hirano.

But the message is loud and clear and Japanese Girls Never Die delivers that message in an exuberant, vibrant and even slightly poignant fashion. And with Yu Aoi as the face (and the heart) of its message, the film will linger in one’s mind for quite a while.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastic performance from Yu Aoi

Good supporting cast

Exuberant direction, vibrant cinematography and precise editing

Much thoroughly explored thematic material to mull through

CONS

Overworked ending

Polarizing storytelling

Not all ideas are explored equally

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Yu Aoi, Mitsuki Takahata, Taiga, Shono Hayama, Huwie Ishizaki, Ryo Kase, Akiko Kikuchi, Maho Yamada, Motoki Ochiai, Serina
Director: Daigo Matsui
Screenwriters: Misaki Setoyama, based on the novel “Azumi Haruko wa yukue fumei” by Mariko Yamauchi

Movie Review – The Villainess

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EXPECTATIONS: A career-defining role for Kim Ok-bin. And also, kick-ass action scenes!

REVIEW: Kim Ok-bin is a South Korean actress that I have been following for a long time (not literally!) and I have always found her to be very talented in a variety of roles, like her dramatic film debut in the horror Voice, to her charming and adorable role in the sex comedy/musical Dasepo Naughty Girls and her comedic role in The Accidental Gangster and the Mistaken Courtesan.

But it was when she worked with Park Chan-wook for the dark comedy/vampire film Thirst that she started having an acting emergence. Nailing both dramatic parts, comedic parts and especially the femme fatale parts like a pro, she won many awards for her performance. Ever since then, her roles have gotten a bit smaller than expected, with small roles like The Front Line and Actresses; and she ended up in box office flops like 11 A.M.

Now, after eight years since her role in Thirst, she finally has a leading role in The Villainess, an action extravaganza from Jung Byung-gil, the director from the action/crime flick Confession of Murder. Gathering great buzz from Cannes, including garnering a 4-minute standing ovation, people have been highly anticipating this. Is the film worth the buzz?

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The film starts off with a spectacular 10-minute action scene, entirely shot in POV, as the main character takes down like 40 people through hallways, staircases and even a personal gym, leading to the title card. So it is advised that audiences should not come late to the screenings, as this takes place straight away after the opening credits.

The film is about the story of a ruthless female assassin named Sook-hee (Kim Ok-bin), who from an early age (residing in China, with her father) has been taught to kill. She becomes a sleeper agent for South Korea’s intelligence agency after being caught, which they promise her freedom after 10 years of service. But it’s not all that easy when two men (Shin Ha-Kyun and Bang Sung-jun) from her past and present make an unexpected appearance in her life, bringing out her deep, dark secrets.

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Let’s get to the good and bad already. The good? Kim Ok-bin herself. As seen in The Villainess, she has finally acquired a leading role that is worthy of her talents. Having capable martial arts training before tackling the role, she displays grace and capable physical prowess in her action scenes. Whether she is riding a motorcycle, scaling buildings, firing guns and throwing axes, she easily convinces as Sook-hee, the assassin.

As Sook-hee, the woman within, Kim nails the role with gusto. Lending depth and even a bit of insanity (like her character in Thirst) to her soulful, yet vengeful archetype of a character, she again shows why she made such a fuss back in 2009. If she doesn’t get better roles after this, then something seriously is wrong out there.

As for the supporting cast, they are all fine in the archetypal roles. Shin Ha-kyun (who plays an adversary to Kim Ok-bin for the third time since Thirst and The Front Line) is great as Joong-sang, as he conveys menace in a scary, yet understated manner. Bang Sung-jun is likable and brash as Hyun-soo, a love interest to Sook-hee who is more than he seems. But besting both of the men is Kim Seo-hyung. Playing a mentor character to Kim Ok-bin once again since Voice, she just nails the part of the ice cold personae, as Kwon-sook.

Now, let’s get to the action scenes. Overall, they are fantastic. Apart from the opening scene, there are scenes on motorbikes, buses, edges of buildings, restaurants and other settings, and they are all shot with so much energy and verve that it becomes almost surreal. There’s a scene where Sook-hee tries to escape from a training facility and the way the world uncovers (with smooth editing and long takes) is just so dream-like, it becomes almost enchanting. Some may find it disorienting due to the style utilized i.e. handheld camera shots, so those who suffer with motion sickness be warned.

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Now let’s get to the bad. Or a better word, mixed. The story itself is nothing new; basically an amalgam of prior assassin films like La Femme Nikita and others, but the storytelling is refreshingly free from spoon-feeding and pandering towards the audience, unlike Hollywood blockbusters, which would have characters stand to point at something and explain the plot. But the plot is told with lots of flashbacks that it does tend to get convoluted at times. Thankfully, the story is told with three distinct acts that makes it clear enough for the audience to latch on to.

Also, the drama in the film tends to be quite cheesy at times. Although some of the cheesiness makes sense due to the events of the plot but when it becomes more sincere, some of the drama becomes so melodramatic, that it can be quite laughable. And another flaw (which may be laughable itself) is the level of violence. With the amount of weapons involved including guns, knives, hammers, axes, ropes, cars, hairpins etc; it is bloody, gory and uncompromising, which will both thrill and befuddle, so be warned.

Overall, The Villainess is a much-needed shot in the arm in terms of action films, female-led films, Kim Ok-bin and South Korean cinema. I hope that after this film, both Kim Ok-bin and director Jung Byung-gil will be appreciated for their efforts and move on to do more ambitious work.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Kim Ok-bin gives a fantastic performance

Good supporting cast

Spectacular action sequences

Storytelling is refreshing due to lack of spoonfeeding

The editing and camerawork create a surreal feel

CONS

Cheesiness in the storytelling

The story can be quite convoluted

SCORE: 8/10

Cast: Kim Ok-bin, Shin Ha-kyun. Bang Sung-jun, Kim Seo-hyun, Jung Hae-kyun
Director: Jung Byung-gil
Screenwriters: Jung Byung-gil, Jung Byung-sik

Movie Review – Memoirs of a Murderer (JAPAN CUTS 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: An inferior remake to the energetic and unruly original.

REVIEW: Remakes are always a risky proposition nowadays. While some can be an improvement over the original source, some can be inferior and while some can be distinct that it can stand on its own, some can be unnecessary and can be seen as a cash-grab.

In the case of Memoirs of a Murderer (not to be confused with the 2003 South Korean film, Memories of Murder), it is a remake of the 2012 South Korean film, Confession of Murder, which was an unruly, sloppy yet energetic piece of work. Will the film replicate the pacing and tone shifts of the original or will it go its own way and stand out as a superior entry in the reputations of remakes?

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Back in 1995,  rookie detective Makimura (Hideaki Ito) was involved in a string of strangulations, which unfortunately led to nowhere, and now in present-day Tokyo, the statute of limitations on the crimes is expiring. It just so happens that the killer knows exactly where he stands in regards to the law, and the next day he plans an elaborate press conference exposing himself and announcing publication of his memoir.

It becomes an instant best-seller (if not only due to the controversial content) and the only murderer Masato Sonezaki (Tatsuya Fujiwara) revels in the spotlight. You can guess that the people related to the victims would not be so happy when they hear of the news and they take matters to their own hands. But there is more to the tale when a certain twist comes into the proceedings that eventually turn the tables.

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Does the film stand out in its own way? Yes, but not in a good way. While the original had frenetic pacing and reveled in the ridiculousness of the plot, the remake takes it seriously and plays it straight. While that not may sound bad, but the direction by Yu Irie makes it very bland and to be frank, television-esque.

The cinematography, the production values, the editing etc; all blend together in to make a porridge-like package that does nothing to stand out, making the film tedious and inconsequential. Even though it is set in Japan, very little of the film is reflective of its setting. It is very unfortunate because the source material and the cast end up sinking along with it.

The cast are all fine in their roles and do what they can under Irie’s direction. Hideaki Ito does grizzled cop quite well and is a good compliment to the annoyingly slick Tatsuya Fujiwara. The latter surprises by not relying on his acting histrionics and provides a suitably menacing performance.

The supporting cast are all good in their roles, although the script does not help them much. Kaho, Ryo Iwamatsu, Koichi Iwaki, Misuru Hirata and Anna Ishibashi lend presence and that is basically it.

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There is one major difference in the story when compared to the original and that relates to the twist which occurs in the middle and while the change could have been admirable, it is ruined entirely due to the casting. For those who know who the actor (or actress) is, the casting alone ruins the twist and makes it horn-honkingly obvious.

Overall, Memoirs of a Murderer is an inferior remake as well as a bland film that does nothing to stand out from the crowd and really should belong in television, rather than be a theatrical release. It is quite a shame since lead performances are quite good and the source material seen through Japanese lens could have led to a more compelling project.

Quickie Review

PROS

Good performances from the leads

CONS

Bland productions values and direction

Ruined twists

SCORE: 4/10

Cast: Hideaki Ito, Tatsuya Fujiwara, Toru Nakamura, Ryo Iwamatsu, Koichi Iwaki, Misuru Hirata, Anna Ishibashi, Kaho
Director: Yu Irie
Screenwriters: Kenya Hirata, Yu Irie, based on the 2012 film, Confession of Murder

Movie Review – Okja (Sydney Film Fest 2017)

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EXPECTATIONS: Another fantastic entry into Bong Joon Ho’s filmography.

REVIEW: Okja is a film involving a giant mutated pig. What more do you want? But seriously, in order to understand the hype of the film, you have to know the filmmaker Bong Joon Ho.

Bong Joon Ho is an acclaimed Korean filmmaker who has made some incredible films. And the reason he is so acclaimed is his assured directorial hand in mixing genres that usually do not associate with each other and executes them brilliantly. And he also adds a sense of humour, regardless of how inappropriate the tone of the film is.

His impressive resume so far includes films like the strikingly dark comedy Barking Dogs Never Bite, the comic-confronting crime thriller Memories of Murder, the blockbuster monster film The Host (not the film starring Saoirse Ronan, thank goodness), the old-fashioned mystery-noir Mother and the dystopian epic Snowpiercer.

Considering the critical acclaim that Bong has received, having expectations reaching levels other than high is an understandable reaction. Seeing how this was the closing film of Sydney Film Fest 2017, it was likely that Okja would end it with a bang. Does it?

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An Seo Hyun stars as Mija, a young girl who lives in the mountains with her grandfather (Byun Heebong) and is a caretaker and loving companion to Okja, a giant super pig. Life seems simple enough but that eventually changes when a family-owned multinational conglomerate takes Okja for themselves and transports her to New York, where image obsessed and self-promoting CEO Lucy Mirando (Tilda Swinton) has big plans for Mija’s dearest friend.

With no plan and only her sheer focus, Mija vows to get her back but the journey will be hard going, going through many obstacles like capitalists, fat cats, greedy consumers, demonstrators (led by Paul Dano). Will Mija succeed in bringing her best friend home?

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Just like his earlier films, director Bong deals with a lot of issues and ideas like consumerism, animal rights, the environment and capitalism; all while forming an action-adventure film and a political satire at the same time. Even with all that baggage, it’s a miracle that Okja works as well as it does.

Even though the issues are serious, Bong never backs out from adding a touch of humour into the mix, as he places the targets both the characters and themes and satirizes them with verve. For example, the characters Bostick and Henshall play, who foolishly contribute to their cause by starving themselves to leave a minimal environmental footprint.

But this does not mean Bong doesn’t get straight to the point, as he steers the film into very dark territory, particularly in the final act. This may be the first film that I praise due to the fact that it almost made me throw up.

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All the themes pack a thematic punch as well as an emotional punch, as it adds to the heart of the film, which is the bond between Mija and Okja. The peaceful scenes between the two are executed very well (complete with references to the anime film, My Neighbour Totoro), without being overstated or sappy. There’s even a scene where the family are gathering together to eat and it is reminiscent to one of the scenes in The Host.

There’s a scene where the two take a shortcut back home and it ends up being more than they bargained for. The scene is thrilling, action-packed and skillfully foreshadows what is to come between their relationship.

Speaking of action scenes, they are all gleefully manic, yet intricately composed. There is a scene where Mija arrives in Seoul and single-handedly shakes the corporation, resulting in a fantastic car chase, leading to a shopping center that reaches its beautifully realized climax with the use of “Annie’s Song” by John Denver.

But none of it would be as good as it looks without the cinematography by Darius Khondji, who is clearly embracing the resources of what digital filmmaking can do. The CGI modelling of the creature itself is quite impressive, considering the budget, which is only $50 million.

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The acting from the ensemble cast are all either fun, unhinged or thankfully, genuine. An Seo Hyun, who impressed in the 2010 remake The Housemaid, is the solid rock of the film that keeps the film grounded, as she convincingly conveys both the tough, determined side and the paternal side of her character. The former is shown perfectly during a funny scene where Mija tries to enter the government floor entrance.

On the other side of the spectrum, Jake Gyllenhaal gleefully hams it up figuratively as well as literally. Tilda Swinton vamps it up as well as camps it up as the primary antagonist, Lucy Mirando, and she nails it, as usual while Paul Dano, in an example of off-kilter casting as with Gyllenhaal, is surprisingly cool as the leader of the animal rights group.

The smaller roles from the conflicted Steven Yeun, the fiery Lily Collins, the comically dedicated duo of Devon Bostick and Daniel Henshall, the fatherly Byun Heebong, the weaselly Choi Woo Shik, the subtly menacing, scheming Giancarlo Esposito and the overworked and nasally Shirley Henderson all immensely contribute to the fun.

Like Okja itself, the film tends to lumber a lot, veering in many directions and tones, sometimes going on-the-snout with its themes, and like Gyllenhaal’s character, its rebellious and off-kilter filmmaking may turn people off. But like a roller-coaster, it is exhilarating stuff, and it rarely ever abides to filmmaking conventions and tropes. Okja was a film that had everything I hoped for and I wish more films like this would get made, regardless of where it comes from.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Fantastically rebellious direction from Bong Joon Ho

Mixing of genres and ideas is done really well

The ensemble cast is great

Action scenes are very thrilling

CONS

The filmmaking and Gyllenhaal’s performance will polarize

SCORE: 9/10

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

Cast: Tilda Swinton, Jake Gyllenhaal, Paul Dano, An Seo Hyun, Byun Heebong, Steven Yeun, Giancarlo Esposito, Lily Collins, Yoon Je Moon, Shirley Henderson, Daniel Henshall, Devon Bostick, Choi Woo Shik
Director: Bong Joon Ho
Screenwriter: Bong Joon Ho, Jon Ronson

Movie Review – Kung Fu Yoga

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EXPECTATIONS: An insufferable experience from the once-great Jackie Chan.

REVIEW: Before I get into this review, let’s get the b-word out of the way. I am a fan of Jackie Chan. Ever since I saw one of his films on SBS, I became a huge fan of his due to his incredible dexterity, his creative fight choreography, his amazing stuntwork and his likable aw-shucks persona.

But like every action hero, the thing that defeats them is age, but Chan has always compensated with more creative fight choreography, a sharper focus on acting and and branching out from his likable persona.

But ever since 2009, he’s hit a major snag that has rendered his reputation from being extremely likable to something a lot more polarizing i.e. he became a supporter of Communist China.

Since then, the quality of his films have dropped massively, with very little effort involved from everyone including fight choreography, ill-disciplined use of the high budget and the incredibly childish sense of humour that seems to be present to pander to the China market.

And last but not least, the jingoism and xenophobia is incredibly blatant that it is quite easy to be thrown out of the film. Cases in point: Skiptrace, Shinjuku Incident, Chinese Zodiac, Dragon Blade, Railroad Tigers; the list goes on.

And now, we have Kung Fu Yoga, an action/adventure that seems to be a throwback to the Armour of God films, with all the globetrotting and action you would expect. But can this film break the negative trend or will it sink into it?

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Jackie Chan plays Jack (who else?), a world-renowned archaeology professor, and his team are on a grand quest to locate a lost ancient Indian treasure when they are ambushed by a team of mercenaries and left for dead. Using his vast knowledge of history and kung fu (what else?), Jack leads his team on a race around the world to beat the mercenaries to the treasure and save an ancient culture.

Now that is a simple enough plot that is easy to follow. But boy, is it terribly told. The introduction to the film is incredibly emblematic of this flaw. It involves a five-minute backstory all told in terribly rendered CGI that could have only come from a PS2 game but what is bewildering is that it has absolutely no effect or relevance to the plot whatsoever!

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But hey, who cares about the plot in a Jackie Chan film? All we want is the action! Is the action good in Kung Fu Yoga? Nope, not at all. The choreography looks sloppy, uninspired and worst of all, boring. The stunts obviously look wire-assisted, the CGI implemented looks absolutely atrocious and the sets look incredibly cheap. Nothing in the action scenes thrill or amuse and it just ends up being tedious. When a major highlight in an action scene involves a horrific looking CGI lion in a car, believe me, you’re in trouble.

So, when you have terrible action scenes in a Jackie Chan film, all you have is, well, a whiff of something you’re sure not to like. There’s the xenophobia and jingoism present throughout i.e. how there are no Indians that can find an Indian artifact in India, and can solve the puzzle inscribed on the artifact. In Indian. Or how the film actually has the guts to provide a ham-fisted moral lesson from the Chinese to Indians, about something they read from an Indian artifact! And the character actually says “Stop teaching me about my own country!”

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And there’s also the blatant plagiarism that the film steals from eg. Raiders of the Lost Ark, the Fast and the Furious films, Tomb Raider and the James Bond films. And there are many details that took me off guard. Like, why is there the use of bells in a university? How do you distract wolves with kung fu stances and snowball throwing? Why is it that a gunshot does not echo throughout the ice cave to signal that someone is in the cave? How is it that the ice cave, which is believed to be in the middle of nowhere, have two people come out of the cave through a staircase? With handrails?

Asking all of these, and many other questions, just made me realize that the film didn’t entertain or distract me from any of those flaws. The actors are no great shakes in their performances and most of them were clearly hired for market appeal rather than thespian chops. Or even charisma.

Even for those who are talented, like Eric Tsang, they disappear faster than Jackie Chan’s reputation in Hong Kong. And the tone is all over the place; the film is clearly aiming for family-friendly (or so it says) humour, and yet there are instances of adult language and violence involving deadly animals.

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Now the end credits is actually the best part of the film. And not because it meant the film was over. I personally hated the way they remixed the original song, but the dance number looked very nice and is well choreographed, by Farah Khan no less.

Kung Fu Yoga is a massive disappointment for fans of Jackie Chan, fans of cinema, Indian fans, Indian people in general and is just a complete embarrassment for all involved. Even the Indians didn’t like the film when the film was released there. That tells you what you need to know.

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Quickie Review

PROS

Okay dance number in the end

Eric Tsang in a very small role

CONS

Everything else

SCORE: 2/10

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

Cast: Jackie Chan, Disha Patani, Aarif Lee Rahman, Sonu Sood, Lay Zhang, Mu Qimiya, Zhang Guoli, Eric Tsang, Amyra Dastur, Coco Jiang
Director: Stanley Tong
Screenwriter: Stanley Tong