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Avengers: Age of Ultron (2015)
In character and theme much darker and more complex a sequel than its predecessor, Joss Whedon creates yet another immensely satisfying Avengers chapter
If the first 'Avengers' movie was about building the team, then this one is about tearing them apart.
If you've read the books, you'll know that Ultron's foremost purpose is to put the Avengers in the ground which in writer-director Joss Whedon's interpretation, becomes a symbol of grand irony. After all, Ultron was Tony's idea of creating an artificial intelligence which could protect mankind and so make the Avengers obsolete, a project which he happened to be working in secret with Bruce and his personal A.I. assistant Jarvis (voiced by Paul Bettany). Unfortunately for him, Ultron has taken the obsoletion of the Avengers quite literally, and determined for himself that the only way for mankind to survive is for it to be annihilated and thereby given a chance to evolve.
That the Avengers will face Ultron and his army of replicas is a given, but what truly surprises is the twisty character-driven narrative which Whedon weaves to get to that jaw-dropping finale. You would already have heard of the high-profile additions Quicksilver (Aaron Taylor-Johnson) and Scarlet Witch (Elizabeth Olsen), a pair of tightly-knit Eastern European siblings whose powers of speed and mind control respectively lend their reference here as "enhancements" and besides Ultron, the brother-and-sister pair become the most formidable threat to the Avengers, in particular the latter's psychic powers which she uses on Captain America, Black Widow and Thor to trigger memories of their past and face their personal demons.
While their visions leave them distracted and unsettled, the rest of the team are also forced to confront their own fears. Tony's hubris, once the driving force of his pioneering spirit, could very well be the end of the Avengers and the destruction of everything he's tried to build. Bruce loathes his alter-ego, but recognises that his powers are still a valuable addition to the team, especially in protecting Black Widow, with whom he shares a deepening romantic interest hinted at in the last movie. And freed from the shackles of Loki's spell, Hawkeye is reminded of his mortality as one with no special powers or metal suit other than being an excellent archer, beautifully portrayed in a sojourn at the halfway mark that he makes to his 'safe house' to visit his wife and kids along with the rest of his teammates to recuperate and re-group.
It is no small feat juggling so many characters in the same movie, and yet again, Whedon has pulled it off stunningly. Even though each is part of a larger team, no one fades into it; instead, Whedon lets us get to know each and every one of the Avengers intimately, so much so that you won't feel that you know them any less than you would if they each had their own standalone movie. And out of that character emphasis comes some lovely human moments that make this more soulful and poignant than its predecessor how Black Widow coaxes the Hulk back into human form, that Hawkeye is an All- American family man when not on superhero duty, why Ultron is really Tony's darkest side in the flesh (or metal) gone amok, and fundamentally the burdens that each one of our superheroes carry as a consequence of their powers.
Besides Ultron, Whedon refuses to define any of the characters as "good" or "bad"; rather, he identifies and illustrates their drives and impulses whether is it Tony's phobia or Captain America's old- fashioned sense of duty or even Ultron's Oedipal grudge and uses that to propel the story forward. This is ultimately how the team falls apart, going from the joviality of Thor's favourite party trick (otherwise known as "who is fit to lift the hammer") at the start to the infighting later on over Tony's plan to create yet another superior A.I. to defeat Ultron which ends up in the birth of the red-faced android named Vision (Bettany in the flesh). It is also how Whedon plots the reconciliation of the Avengers with their apparent arch-nemeses Quicksilver and Scarlet Witch, no doubt laying the foundation for the next phase of the Avengers programme and the next two-parter instalment due three years later.
Only when it comes to matching the sheer jaw-dropping spectacle of its predecessor does this sequel become a victim of its own success. Despite hopscotching across the globe from Europe to Africa to Asia and back (culminating in the fictional East European country of Sokovia where it started), Whedon never quite achieves the same feeling of 'wow' that we had watching Loki take out S.H.I.E.L.D's airborne headquarters or unleash hell from the sky onto New York City. Whedon manage to replicate that feeling of astoundment in the much- anticipated Hulk-versus-Hulkbuster sequence, but the next to follow set in and around downtown Seoul is a major disappointment for blurry CGI and bad continuity. And though he tries to replicate the exhilaration watching the whole Avengers fighting together as an entire team, Whedon doesn't quite get our hearts leaping during the final standoff against hordes of replica Ultrons.
If the finale lacks the emotional payoff of the first movie, that's also because Whedon had set himself up with a near impossible task in the first place. That probably explains why the 'Age of Ultron' is at its core a very different movie from the first 'Avengers', not just because of how our superheroes evolve in the face of imminent destruction precipitated by one of their own but also because of the complex psychological themes that Whedon explores here. His ambition is certainly admirable, but it is inevitable that those looking for the same straightforward thrills as its predecessor will be at least slightly disappointed. That said, this is still an outstanding feat by any measure, a riveting blend of intimate character moments and grand action spectacle that remains quite simply, Marvel-lous.
Shamelessly manipulative and yet effectively poignant, this Korean blockbuster melodrama tugs so persuasively at your heartstrings you won't mind letting the tears go
Trust the Koreans to bring the words melodrama and blockbuster into the same motion picture. Indeed, JK Youn's latest film after his record-breaking special effects extravaganza 'Haeundae' sees him tell a family drama over sixty years that spans both the Korean War in the 1950s, the Gastarbeiter programme in mid-60s Germany, the Vietnam War in the 1970s as well as many other momentous periods etched in the psyche of his country's people and each one of these episodes serves as a 'blockbuster' in itself not just in spectacle but emotion. It is no wonder that the film has since gone on to make its own history, becoming the second most-watched film in Korean cinema.
Co-written by Youn and Park Soo-jin, the film opens in the present day with Deok-Su (Hwang Jung-min), his wife Yeong-ja (Kim Yun-jin) and his best friend Dal-goo (Oh Dal-su) who live in the coastal city of Busan, where Deok-su and his family run a small store in the city's Gukje (International) Market. On a walk with his youngest granddaughter Seo-yeon through the Market, Deok-Su recalls an eventful yet tumultuous life journey that starts in the early 1950s. Then a young boy who was one of the hundreds of refugees fleeing the Korean War, Deok-Su loses grip of his younger sister Mak-sun and is separated from his father, who disembarks to look for Mak-sun, as they try to board the SS Meredith Victory, an American cargo freighter that evacuated 14,000 refugees in Hungnam, North Korea.
Arriving in Busan, Deok-soo is looked after by his father's eldest sister but is forced to leave school and support the family by working as a shoe shiner. The rest of the movie unfolds as a succession of perils as he strives to support his family as a young man first, on Dal-gu's suggestion, he signs up with the inter- government Gastarbeiter scheme and is sent to work in the coal mines of West Germany, where he not only survives a mine disaster but also meets his wife-to-be Yeong-ja who was studying to be a nurse; then, he signs up for a non-military position in Vietnam with Dal-gu, where he narrowly escapes the clutches of the invading Viet Cong in Saigon but helps Dal-gu find a wife (Nguyễn Mai Chi) in a South Vietnamese villager that they help evacuate.
True to the template of a blockbuster, Youn's film is constructed around a few major setpieces, each one of them deftly executed with both scope and intimacy so we can appreciate the immensity of the historical chapter as well as what it meant for our lead protagonist Deok-su and to a lesser but no less significant extent his family members and Dal-gu. It is therefore no surprise that Youn chooses as his finale the reunion of thousands of families in a live KBS- televised event back in 1983 including that of Deok-su, who after three decades is finally reunited with his father and sister. Notwithstanding the fact that it is a re-enactment, Youn stages the climax with emotional aplomb; and by that, we mean you better be prepared for plenty of hugs, tears and kisses, perhaps even some of your own in a vicarious way.
Like the best Korean tearjerkers, Youn's film makes no apologies for being unabashedly sentimental, but there is no denying that it is poignant enough to move you to tears. As with his previous movies, Youn demonstrates a firm grasp of mise-en-scene, so even though his core audience will likely have no difficulty identifying with his protagonist's struggles, he stages each one of the four major events with startling realism and, by doing so, pulls you into the thick of history. But most like 'Haeundae', Youn shows a knack for mining human drama potently, ensuring that his key sequences connect not just on a visual level but also on a deeply emotional one.
The accomplishment certainly isn't Youn's alone; in fact, Hwang deserves much praise for doing the heavy lifting as the emotional anchor of the film. It is with his character that we laugh, cry and rejoice with, and Hwang's performance is sincere, heartfelt and affecting. It is even more impressive that he manages to carry the character from his twenties into his twilight years, and with a roster from gangland drama 'New World' to war comedy 'Battlefield Heroes' shows yet again why he is one of the most versatile actors in the industry now. It also helps that he has such an effortless chemistry with Oh, the duo's friendship through the years one of the most endearing relationships in the film.
To fault 'Ode to my Father' for being emotionally manipulative is an understatement; that said, this is melodrama at its finest, coupled with some awe-inspiring scenes of spectacle, which is intended through and through for you to weep along with it. But in the midst of that, Youn delivers a compelling feature that taps respectfully into the wounded Korean psyche of the 1950s to the 1990s from key upheavals that now form the very fabric of their society. There is no doubt why it has been so successful at home, and for everyone else, this is a still an epic blockbuster melodrama which resonates with its universal themes of love, reconciliation and survival.
Skin Trade (2014)
Through and true a hard-hitting B-movie, this union of Dolph Lundgren, Tony Jaa and Michael Jai White is any self-professed action fan's wet dream
Every inch of 'Skin Trade' feels like a B-movie, but the good thing is that it doesn't try to pretend to be more. A passion project of Dolph Lundgren who started work on its script close to eight years ago, it knows exactly what buttons to push to get its core audience satisfied even as it tries to shed light onto a matter close to his heart, i.e. that of human trafficking. So if you're expecting a very angry Lundgren on a revenge rampage, or a mano-a-mano between Lundgren and Tony Jaa, or a similar one-on-one between Tony Jaa and Michael Jai White, we can reassure you that you won't be disappointed.
A brief prologue establishes the mechanics of Viktor Dragovic's (Ron Perlman) despicable business under the guise of offering them employment, the former Serbian national's fourth son Janko (Leo Rano) and his accomplices lure gullible village girls from Thailand, Cambodia and Laos to leave their homes and journey to the city, where they are subsequently drugged and shipped to America and Europe to be sold as sex slaves. Lundgren's Newark police detective Nick Cassidy is tracking Viktor's latest shipment in order to apprehend him and his sons, while Jaa plays a Thai police officer Tony who is onto the same case from further down the food chain.
Their paths cross after Viktor is let loose upon diplomatic pressure and skips town, seeking refuge in a corrupt general's mansion near the Cambodian border. Unfortunately for Nick, Viktor's sons manage to get to his family before fleeing town, so after regaining consciousness from an RPG strike on his house, Nick decides to take his quest for revenge to Viktor. Thanks to Michael Jai White's rogue government agent Reed, Nick is framed for the murder of Tony's partner soon after setting foot on Royal Thai soil. Of course, who's good and who's bad will become clear quite quickly, but Lundgren and his co-writers have specifically engineered enough twists and turns precisely to fulfil their audience's expectations to see each one of the marquee action stars have a go at the other.
Much of the heavy lifting here is done by Jaa, whose speed and agility has not dimmed one bit since his 'Tom Yum Goong' and 'Ong Bak' days. While his Hollywood debut in 'Fast and Furious 7' may have been overlooked because of the crowded ensemble, Jaa's lead turn here will definitely not go unnoticed. His one-on-one with Lundgren in an abandoned warehouse is the film's halfway high-water mark, pitting a lean mean warrior against a much hulkier opponent though there is no question in our minds just who is the one that is the better fighter.
It is no wonder then that Jaa is the one chosen to take on Jai White, the latter a much worthier opponent than Lundgren skilled in the art of kickboxing not unlike Jean Claude Van-Damme in his heydays. The fight between them is brutal and ferocious, choreographed specifically to illustrate the strengths of either actor, and next to the noisy and overblown finale at a remote airstrip that it precedes, is easily the climax that the film deserves to be remembered for. Indeed, while a sizeable amount of the limited budget on which the film is made for has been reserved for explosions and other fireballs, it is the raw thrill of seeing these natural born fighters go at each other knuckle-to-knuckle that is where its charm lies.
And in that regard, Lundgren deserves more credit than what may be apparent. It is no doubt thanks to Lundgren that we get to see Jaa in such a significant capacity not only in a movie that respects the actor's Oriental roots but also one that gives him a role with both the breadth and depth for Jaa to showcase his abilities as an actor and as an action star. It is probably also thanks to Lundgren that the likes of Jai White, Ron Perlman, Peter Weller and Cary- Hiroyuki Tagawa have come together in the same film, a combination that is any self-professed B-action movie fan's wet dream. And it is Lundgren who manages to pull a movie with so many potential clichés together in a respectable fashion as the latter scenes demonstrate, its director Ekachai Uekrongtham has a long way to go in learning how to stage a proper action sequence.
Like we said at the beginning, 'Skin Trade' doesn't pretend to be more than what it is and much as there is a social message in here, it never tries to drive it too hard. Indeed, it is precisely by embracing its B-movie roots that it truly delivers, not just in the fact that it makes no compromises in keeping its action hard- hitting but also by ensuring that its actors are right up there without any doubles performing each and every one of the stunts. More than sex, that is the skin trade which truly matters, and which we suspect its audience will be more than happy to partake in.
Unlucky Plaza (2014)
Less hostage thriller than social satire, this darkly comic crime caper jabs at our society's unglamourous corners with unpleasant - but also uneven - effect
Seeing as how Singaporeans had reacted to a Filipino group's plans to celebrate Philippine Independence Day at Ngee Ann City last year, 'Unlucky Plaza' seems to have struck with eerie prescience at the extent of our xenophobia, especially as it attempts to portray the tension between locals and foreigners through the lens of a Filipino permanent resident in Singapore struggling to make ends meet.
At the heart of writer-director Ken Kwek's darkly comic crime caper is Onassis Hernandez (Epy Quizon), a single father on the brink of financial ruin after the head cook at his restaurant in Lucky Plaza added 'shit' into the chicken adobo and landed six patrons in hospital with salmonella poisoning. As a result, Onassis is hounded by his unsympathetic lady landlord (Pam Oei) for the rent he owes and cannot even afford to ensure that his ten-year-old son Popoy (Christian Wong) has Fruit Loops for breakfast every morning.
On the ostensible other end of the 'wealth' spectrum is smarmy property guru cum motivational speaker Sky (Adrian Pang), a former actor who went by the name of Terence Chia (yes, the similarity with real-life MediaCorp actor Terence Cao is intentional and duly noted) that now lives in a sprawling three-storey bungalow in Stevens Road and drives a Porsche. But, as we quickly learn, Sky is asset-rich and cash-poor, unable to pay off the $400,000 in debt he chalked up with a loan shark. That 'shark' has since been taken over by a PRC syndicate, whose Number 3 man named Xiao Xiong (Guo Liang), literally translated as 'Baby Bear', has come to collect.
Completing the trio of narratives whose paths intersect midway into the story is Sky's unhappy wife Michelle (Judee Tan), who is constantly harangued by her husband to sell her parents' Tiong Bahru flat so that he can pay off his debt. For solace, she starts an affair with her Christian pastor Tong Wen (Shane Mardjuki), whom she eventually plots to run away with to the island paradise of Gili Meno.
Oh yes, Kwek certainly hasn't lost his edge for controversy, the former ST journalist turned scriptwriter of 'The Blue Mansion' who made his directorial debut in 2012 with the banned-then-unbanned- but-with- snips 'Sex.Violence.Family.Values' short and who is making his first feature-length film here. In the first hour, Kwek builds three interesting character studies around Onassis, Sky and Michelle, while serving up critique on some of the most prominent current social issues such as property scams, materialism, church improprieties and heightened nationalism.
And to some extent, Kwek makes good on his own promise in the latter half of the film, where an intersecting chain of events over the course of a single day lead Onassis to hold Sky, Michelle, Tong Wen and Xiao Xiong hostage. Onassis' demands? To see his son and to have a helicopter ready so he can fly himself and Popoy out. As the Malay police officer Azman (Osman Sulaiman) in charge of the situation quickly remarks and which Sky echoes later on, this isn't Hollywood - and it is clear that Kwek intends for the turn of events to be read as satire, not to be taken entirely at face value.
Alas, Kwek fumbles at trying to remain tonally consistent throughout the supposedly tense last hour. On one hand, he aims to amplify the local-versus-foreigner divide by positing that the former would respond by demonstrating with placards reading 'Singapore for Singaporeans' outside the scene of the crisis and tearing down shops that belong to the latter, but hey any Singaporean will tell you how unlikely that is given our strict laws against public assembly. On the other, he tries to find poignancy in each one of his flawed characters' own personal struggles, whether is it to come to terms with their selfishness, infidelity, or hypocrisy. Yet Kwek never quite finds the right balance to accomplish both, so much so that the two end up pulling the film in opposite directions.
At close to two hours, Kwek also cannot quite keep the same tight grip over the narrative. Despite occasional flashes of violence (including a chopped up hand), Kwek fails to replicate the white- knuckle suspense to be expected of any a hostage thriller. You'll find yourself questioning just how much of a crisis it even is when all Onassis has to hold his hostages at bay is a huge cleaver he calls 'Ah Tiong' that was passed down from generation to generation of owner of his Filipino restaurant. In fact, Kwek undermines what visceral thrills his audience might have of watching a hostage drama depicted in Singapore by a prologue at the very beginning, which sees Onassis, Sky and Michelle very much alive and healthy in a TV studio being interviewed by talk show host Anita Kapoor one year after the supposedly harrowing events.
To his credit, Kwek has assembled a great cast for his film. Award- winning Filipino actor Quizon impresses with a restrained and heartfelt portrayal of a working-class man driven to desperation. Pang brings unexpected nuance to a character which we would love to hate. Next to Quizon and Pang, Tan's slightly hollow performance doesn't register as much at the start, but becomes more subtle as she is confronted with the errors of her adulterous ways.
But for all its flaws, 'Unlucky Plaza' is uncharacteristically Singaporean. Yes, its protagonist may be Filipino, but its topics and themes are rooted deeply in our milieu, and with his latest, Kwek has probably cemented himself as one of our most iconoclast filmmakers. Even though Kwek doesn't match his ambition and derring- do with the skill to deliver an equally empathetic film, this mix of thriller and satire still is probably one of the most intriguing local films you'll see this year.
Chung fung che (2015)
Quintessentially Hong Kong in both humour and character, this non-conformist take on the typical 'cops-versus-robbers' genre is amusingly and exuberantly offbeat
Hong Kong cinema is known for its 'cops-versus-robbers' thrillers, but Lau Ho-leung's directorial debut wisely skewers genre expectations for a darkly funny comic romp. Taking the point of view of the 'robbers' rather than the men-in-uniform, Lau tracks the misadventures of a bunch of low-rent ex-cons who reunite for that one final heist, which is to rob a delivery van transporting corpses from across the border that are stuffed with cash. Their grand plan? By disguising a public 16- seater red minibus as a police Emergency Unit vehicle and dressing up as police officers.
However, as Francis Ng's Big F will tell you right at the start, they are not the only ones who have the same design. A rival gang of criminals (led by Philip Keung) also plan to rob the same van, though with an actual de-commisioned EU vehicle and much bigger firepower. Over the course of one fateful Halloween night, our four anti-heroes will become heroes in their own right, discovering their sense of justice as they not only rescue a young girl from their fellow outlaws but literally live up to their uniforms by taking the law into their own hands. Like we said, this isn't your straight- forward 'cops-versus-robbers' shoot-em-up, but hey that is precisely its gonzo charm.
Like Johnnie To's 'The Mission', the camaraderie between the bunch of lovable oddballs gives the film its own character. Big F has just returned from a sixteen year stint in a Malaysian prison, his mullet quite a spectacular sight to behold. Crazy B (Simon Yam) complements him with a demi-afro, his latest employment as a lowly paid attendant at a bowling alley. Johnnie T is a hair stylist at a back alley, his regular clientele mostly hostesses and prostitutes. And last but not least is East L (Mark Cheng), the most respectably employed of the lot who drives his own minibus it is riding on East L's public transport vehicle that Big F gets the idea of playing dress-up after a real EU van pulls up alongside theirs at a traffic junction.
Afraid that his audience may miss the character nuances, Lau gets an eagle-eyed junior officer Tsui (Leo Ku) to describe each one of their distinct personality quirks as he picks up the pieces of their criminal preparations. Big F is brash and a penny-pincher. Crazy B is shrewd and methodical. Johnnie T is slightly OCD. East L is the most loyal of them all. Frankly, Tsui's voiceovers aren't necessary, and betray the insecurities of a first-time director. Indeed, he need not have worried - in no small measure due to the effortless chemistry between the veteran male actors, there is much vim and vigour in the character interplay to convey the same.
The first act not only sets up the crime but also the dynamic between the four partners-in-crime, and it is clear from these scenes that despite their petty squabbles, there is a fundamental bond of brotherhood that binds them together. Because they are such great fun to be with, Ku's sharp-nosed officer almost comes across as an unnecessary distraction though, to Lau's credit, he does give the character some shading as a strait-laced man of the law who can't quite grasp the ambiguities in his profession. Lau also gives Tsui greater purpose in the narrative in the second and third acts, as the latter's fate becomes intertwined with that of Big F's crew and the hard- nosed baddies on and around the deserted mountainous terrain of the New Territories.
What ensues pretty much plays out like a cat-and-mouse-game, as Big F and his rival in crime trade barbs, threats and insults while each holding on to something and someone that the other wants. Their battle of dimmed wits is told with an offbeat exuberance, with some generous but still judicious use of comic- book like split screens, superimposed animation and a jaunty soundtrack to add to its irreverent tone plainly clear from its plentiful use of profane humour (some of which is lost in the Mandarin dubbing, but is still discernible from the subtitles) and it is just as well then that the CGI, especially in the last standoff, looks just as grungy.
It is perhaps understandable that Lau is a better writer than a director. Unlike Fruit Chan's equally eccentric 'The Midnight After', Lau can't quite keep the crazy vibe from slacking in the second act. His framing of the mise-en-scene is also at times awkward, especially his occasional reminders of the citywide cockroach infestation which the movie opened with and which remains only tangentially relevant to the main story. From a scripting perspective however, the subtext is somewhat inspired, and one need not read too hard between the lines to see what Lau is trying to say about the local police force or about 'Mainland corpses bloated with money'. The way the main narrative intersects with the subplots, most notably an ice-cream seller who Big F's crew rescues from two rapists, could also do with some finesse; as it is, these melodramatic moments are tonally incongruous with the rest of the outlandish plotting.
Indeed, 'Two Thumbs Up' has its flaws, but there is something inherently delightful and admirable in Lau's directorial debut in its refusal to succumb to genre stereotypes as well as its amusingly anarchic attitude. It is one of the most original ensemble pieces to come out of Hong Kong cinema in recent years, anchored of course by superb performances from Ng, Yam, Tam and Cheng. At a time when so many Hong Kong films are accused of diluting their identity in order to break into the Mainland market, this comes as a refreshing breath of fresh air, and accordingly deserves a reception worthy of its title.
Furious Seven (2015)
Besides a dignified farewell for Paul Walker, this seventh entry doesn't match the fun, excitement and adrenaline rush of its two immediate predecessors
Vin Diesel may have been the most indelible trademark of the 'Fast and Furious' franchise, but its late star Paul Walker has consistently been the Yang to Diesel's Yin. It is no secret that 'Furious 7' is Walker's final performance, an inevitable consequence of his untimely death in a car wreck last year while filming on this latest instalment was underway.
All we will say is that its writer Chris Morgan has given him as dignified a farewell as we can expect, and as the epilogue made up of footage from each one of the movies past echoed Diesel's personal message of brotherhood and family, be prepared for perhaps the series' most poignant moment ever. This however we will say Walker is front and centre in each and every one of the action setpieces that Morgan and its new director James Wan conceive for a solid but otherwise unspectacular entry which can't quite match the fun, excitement and adrenaline kicks of Justin Lin's two earlier chapters. Oh yes, the filmmakers have pushed the boundaries of logic and gravity to try to top the over-the-top thrills of its two predecessors, but ironically the strain of their effort is more apparent than ever.
Indeed, it is telling when a car chase along the streets of Los Angeles no longer gets our pulse racing in the same way that the first movie did and there is one in particular between Dominic and his arch-nemesis here Deckard Shaw (Jason Statham) that is particularly nostalgic. Rather, it will take parachuting Mustangs chasing after a rogue paramilitary unit up in the Caucasus mountains led by Djimon Hounsou's terrorist Jakande to get us to truly sit up, but let us reassure you that this sequence teased in the trailer ranks among the finest that this muscle-car franchise has offered. It takes close to an hour to get to this point, as Morgan sets up the vendetta between Deckard and Dominic (and as his crew) and set in motion the pieces for their latest adventure.
Frankly, the plot exists only as the narrative glue for the various stunts meant to be the highlight of any 'Fast and Furious' movie. There is no point questioning just why Kurt Russell's shadowy Government agent would entrust a supposedly time-critical mission of retrieving an all-seeing surveillance programme known as the 'God's Eye' and its creator (Nathalie Emmanuel's Ramsey) to Dominic and his men without so much as having his own team to stand by. Ditto for why Dominic would even agree to put his men in such danger despite being promised that they could use the said device to track down Deckard, in particular since the latter seems to show up on his own accord at every turn to foil their plans. We get that the franchise needs to shift gears in order to stay fresh (like how the fifth movie reinvented itself into a heist caper), but this detour into international espionage is far less convincing to say the least.
It also explains why we were not quite taken by the sojourn into the United Arab Emirates capital of Abu Dhabi, compared to say the favelas of Rio de Janeiro in 'Fast Five' or the streets of London in 'Furious 6'. Yes, it does provide the opportunity for Dominic to crash a Lykan HyperSport out through one of the upper floors of the Etihad Towers, float across the Abu Dhabi sky while Deckard fires grenades at him, then smash through a window of a neighbouring tower, and finally skid past a small deployment of Terracotta Warriors but it is so ridiculous even by 'Mission Impossible' standards that one cannot help but react with bemusement than wide- eyed awe. That leaves an overblown finale in the most literal sense of the word, which sees Jakande strike up a convenient alliance with Deckard in order to unleash war on Dominic and his men in the heart of downtown Los Angeles. Between Jakande's unmanned drone and his military helicopter, the urban warfare cannot quite match the white knuckle suspense and exhilaration of a massive bank vault dragged through Rio or an assembly of race cars taking down an airplane as it prepares to take off.
Certainly, Wan had big shoes to fill with Lin's departure, but the helmer (better known for 'Saw', 'Insidious' and 'The Conjuring') who has never taken on a project of this scale misses the mark on several counts. Not only is the action more 'meh' than 'wow', there is too little of the camaraderie between Dominic and his crew which gave the last two films an added 'zing'. Just as sorely missed is the dynamic between Diesel and Dwayne Johnson's Federal Agent Hobbs, the latter of which pretty much sits out the whole movie after being injured by Deckard in one of the early scenes and despite what promise it may have shown, the mano-a-mano showdown between Diesel and Statham cannot quite live up to that between Diesel and Johnson in 'Fast Five'.
After the dizzying heights of the immediate last two movies, it seems inevitable that 'Furious 7' will be at least slightly underwhelming and if not for the beautiful sendoff for Paul Walker at the end, it would be even more disappointing. At this point, the franchise seems to be its own enemy, and if we weren't quite so taken by 'Furious 7', that's because we knew from 'Fast Five' and 'Furious 6' that it could have been much better.
The Con Artists (2014)
A caper that isn't as smart, engaging or witty as it wants itself to be, especially as it rests too heavily on the false laurels of its lead star Kim Woo-bin
By now, Hollywood has pretty much defined a template for capers, one which director Choi Dong-hoon parlayed to both critical and commercial success in 'The Thieves' three years ago. Kim Hong-seon's sophomore feature doesn't stray much from formula, and so it is even more disappointing that it is this mediocre. Yes, that a caper is boring is almost criminal, and indeed 'The Con Artists' leaves its audience disengaged from start to finish, no matter Kim's attempt at trying to keep his flagging action comedy pacey.
Rather than an ensemble, Kim gives too much credit to lead actor Kim Woo-bin's character Ji-hyuck. First introduced as a safe-cracking whiz next to Go Chang-seok's bumbling counterfeiter Goo-in, Ji-hyuck becomes the team's only source of intelligence, devising a plan to stay ahead of his latest employer, the ruthless mob boss Captain Cho (Kim Young-chol). So clever is he that Goo-in need serve no other purpose than to be his comic foil, and his other associate, Lee Hyun-woo's Jong-bae, no ostensible use even as a top hacker whom Ji- hyuck recruits to join his team. It's one thing to be the Danny Ocean of this heist, but quite another to be Ocean's Eleven all in one, which is what Choi has made Ji-hyuck out to be.
Anyhow, as far as set-ups go, Ji-hyuck gets into Cho's crosshairs when the former robs the latter's jewellery shop, making off with millions worth of diamonds. Cho uses that burglary to hold Ji-hyuck hostage in order to conduct a bigger heist, to the tune of a potential US$150 million dollars of black money protected in a highly secure facility located near the Incheon Customs. Needless to say, there is some shifting alliances and double-crosses thrown into the mix, culminating in a final showdown between Ji-hyuck and Cho that reveals the former's vendetta to go much deeper and more personal.
To Choi's credit, the scenes leading up to the heist itself pulse with some degree of suspense, especially as we learn of just how Cho had intended to 'swap' the cash with some worthless coupons he had printed at the timbre company which he had acquired just a few months back. But even in these earlier scenes, there is something missing. For one, the characters seem barely defined. Ji-hyuck is portrayed as somewhat of a loner who had a close father figure and is quite obviously interested in a girl who is some art curator, but these attributes don't quite build into anything coherent, let alone compelling. Ditto for Cho, who comes off as a cartoonish villain incapable of reaching the kid of stature or notoriety which the film wants us to believe that he has.
Alas those looking for the big heist to provide some sort of payoff will also be disappointed. However the facility could be a top security facility is entirely above us, for it seems that our band of thieves break no sweat in breaking into it. Same goes for the cracking of the safe itself, which is over and done with too easily. The rest of the 'bait and switch' lacks the attention to detail that it needs to be convincing, especially as Kim clearly fumbles in juggling several threads at the same time - Ji-hyuck, Cho, Cho's right hand man and the police.
That same shoddiness extends to the rest of the movie as well, as Kim goes through the motion showing how Ji-hyuck had stayed one step ahead of Cho all this while (as if we weren't already fully aware of it). But what makes it an utter disappointment is how the film ends not with a punchline, but with a MacGuffin, which here is in the form of Ji-hyuck's relationship with that father figure whom he only shares one scene with, but which we are eventually told was his very motivation right from the very point he chose to rob Cho's jewellery store. There is no attempt to build any poignancy out of a supposed poignant one, which only serves to leave its audience wanting.
The same can be said of Kim's performance notwithstanding his star turn in the popular drama series 'The Inheritors', his acting here is frustratingly opaque, even more so because the entire film is built around his one character. Choi clearly plays to Kim's fans here, but those who are not already converts will find little to be similarly enamoured. It would certainly do the film every good to spend more time on developing its two criminally underused supporting actors, Go and Lee, both of whose characters we end up being much more curious about than Kim's.
Of all the qualities a caper shouldn't be, perhaps the one that stands out is being dull, but that is exactly what 'The Con Artists' is. Its very title is a misnomer, for all it seems to care about is to glorify its lead star Kim Woo-bin, for which he (naturally) receives top billing. It doesn't give enough for us to care about its characters, and it never delivers on a satisfying payoff, in particular given that its sleight of hand is really quite slight. In the end, what promises to be a caper turns out to be a sleeper, so you'll be best advised to find your escapist fantasies somewhere else.
Shi gu (2015)
Some genuinely affecting moments and nice chemistry between Andy Lau and Jing Boran make up for a scatter-shot narrative that doesn't define its characters well enough
A series of interconnected stories attempt to shed different perspectives on China's child trafficking phenomenon in novelist- turned-filmmaker Peng Sanyuan's 'Lost and Love', the second film in six months (after Peter Chan's 'Dearest') based on the pressing social matter. On one hand, there is Andy Lau's Lei Zekuan, an Anhui farmer who has been on the road on his motorcycle for the past 14 years in search of his lost son. On another, there is Jing Boran's mechanic Zeng Shuai, who was abducted as a child and has been searching for his birth family since.
In addition to Lau and Boran, there is also Ni Jingyang's grief- stricken mother, whose 18-month-old infant was recently abducted at a busy traffic intersection. Besides handing out flyers to pedestrians, she spends her time hanging around the same intersection hoping to get a glimpse of her daughter. Interestingly, Jingyang's character isn't given a name, but there is no doubt she is intended to represent the shock and anguish of countless parents in the days and weeks immediately after their children's disappearance. And to a much smaller extent, Sandra Ng plays her daughter's kidnapper, driven by money to partake in such a heinous trade.
As well-intentioned as the multi-character narrative may be, it is quite blatantly clear just where Peng, who wrote and directed the movie, has her eye on. Indeed, despite opening with a ripped-from- the-headlines story of the abduction of Zhou Tianyu, that arc involving her mother and her kidnapper never quite goes anywhere, so much so that it winds up being an unnecessary distraction that comes literally to its own watery end. Unsurprisingly, Peng spends most of the screen time developing the fraternal bond between Zekuan and Shuai, whose dynamic becomes the movie's emotional anchor.
They meet after Zekuan gets into an accident en route to the Wuyi Mountains and Shuai offers to fix his bike for free, thus beginning a poignant relationship of two kindred souls united by circumstance. To Peng and her actors' credit, neither overplay the sentimentality, allowing their bond to develop slowly but surely into one of gentle but unwavering support. In one of their first scenes together, Shuai blames Zekuan for failing to look after his son, but in one of the later scenes, it is also Shuai who pulls Zekuan away from his washed-up motorcycle on a beach after being thrown into the sea. Theirs is a relationship of complements, culminating in Zekuan's pivotal role in Shuai's eventual reunion with his birth parents.
Between Zekuan and Shuai, it is perhaps surprising to note that Shuai is the more compelling one. Indeed, though much has been said about Andy Lau's gritty performance as the grieving peasant parent, Peng dedicates more detail to her other character, whose desire to be reunited is tempered by ambivalence at what life awaits for him after that reunion, especially because of his emotional attachment to his adopted parents as well as his older step-sister. An excellent sequence typifying this has Shuai relating his adopted father's wish for him to marry his step-sister, just so he can remain in the family legitimately. Such moments illustrate the psychological dilemma facing such individuals, particularly if they have since settled into better lives in their adopted families.
In contrast, Zekuan remains a frustratingly opaque character. Other than his own admission to Shuai that he is afraid to go back to his family empty-handed, there is no other insight to the man who has dedicated more than a decade to such a singular mission. In some of the earlier scenes, Zekuan mounts a banner of Tianyou on his bike to aid in the latter's search, but that act of kindness is never quite expounded into anything substantial. In fact, the second act pretty much sidelines Zekuan as the focus shifts to Shuai's unlikely reunion, leaving only an epilogue involving a group of Buddhist monks in meditation to bring our attention back to this obscure figure.
That is also a consequence of Lau's own unexceptional performance much as it is a departure from the usual 'superstar' roles he is known to play, his acting is convincing without ever being moving. Lau and Boran do have a good rapport next to each other though, which makes their scenes together much more engaging than that of Lau alone. Since we are on casting, we might as well add that the decision to cast comedian Sandra Ng in the role of Tianyou's kidnapper comes up to no more than a gimmick ditto for Tony Leung Kar-Fai's cameo as a kind-hearted policeman whom Lau meets on his way to Quandou.
As a reflection of the reality of child trafficking, Peng also fashions her film like a road movie, with Hou Hsiao-hsien's regular DP Mark Lee Ping-bin providing some stunning images of the rugged beauty of the Chinese hinterland. In many ways, her pacing also follows that of such a journey, which for the most part is leisurely, picking up only in the more interspersed dramatic sequences, such as one where Zekuan's goes on board a floating fishery on a tip that the family's adopted son has a similar scar to that of his own child. That isn't a bad thing in itself, but it does mean that those looking for a more propulsive narrative like that of 'Dearest' will probably be quite disappointed.
No matter that it is coming out so closely to Peter Chan's film of the same theme, Peng's 'Lost and Love' has a lyrical quality that its predecessor never aimed or attained for. Alas her decision to have a multi-strand narrative ultimately makes the film seem scatter-shot and somewhat lacking in momentum, and the fact that most of her characters seem under-developed only reinforces that sentiment. Though it isn't as emotionally powerful as it could have been, there are genuinely affecting moments within, and gives voice to a phenomenon that pleads for wider social redress.
Little Big Master (2015)
Earnest and honest, with a refreshingly down-to-earth performance by Miriam Yeung, this fact-based social drama is moving, affecting and inspirational in its own right
'Little Big Master' is the kind of movie that you'll probably feel bad for disliking even if it were terrible, but thankfully it never puts its audience in that position. A fact-based portrait of a former headmistress from an elite kindergarten who takes up the same role for a meagre payout at a ramshackle village school with just five children in its enrolment, it makes no attempt to conceal the fact that it intends to tug at your heartstrings but by staying true to its subject as well as that of the real-life characters it aims to portray, there is absolutely no need for anyone to find an excuse to love it.
Playing the titular role of Madam Lilian Lui Wai-hung is Miriam Yeung, who gives one of her most down-to-earth and honest performances ever. That is evident right from the get-go, where in the opening scenes, Yeung effortlessly establishes her character as a passionate educator who resigns after the board of the prestigious pre-school she is at disagrees with her dressing down of a parent obsessed with grades. A few months of doing nothing in particular later, Hung chances across a news report on the predicament facing Yuen Tin Kindergarten, which is facing imminent closure by the village council at the end of its current school term if its numbers fall below the critical minimum of five when one of its students graduates.
After making a trip to visit the requisitely and this in case, genuinely adorable kids, Hung agrees to accept a HK$4,500 salary for being the school's headmistress cum janitor cum groundskeeper. The local road sweeper makes it a point every day to say loudly how futile her efforts are. Ditto the rest of the villagers, some of whom have begun accepting bets based on how long they think she will last. And yet Hung doesn't waver in her belief that each child deserves a good education, so she takes it upon herself to ensure not just that the grounds and the classrooms are clean and conducive but also that every one of her students shows up daily for lessons.
Tempting though it may be to O.D. his audience with scenes of Hung and her irresistibly and irrepressibly cute quintet of muppets, director Adrian Kwan doesn't sugar-coat the realities which his story derives from. Indeed, Kwan and his co-writer Hannah Cheung take pains to highlight the working-class backgrounds of each of the tots Siu- suet (Ho Yuen-ying)'s father, played by veteran actor Richard Ng, is a single parent working as a scrap metal collector who is lucky to scrape enough each day to put food on the table for that day itself; Ka-ka (Fu Shun-ying) lost both her parents to a car accident one stormy day and is now cared for by her aunt; Chu- chu (Keira Wang) is afraid to come to school on days when her disabled dad (Philip Keung) loses his temper at scheming land developers harassing him to sign his current house away; and sisters Kitty Fathima (Zaha Fathima) and Jennie (Nayab Khan) have to help their mother in the kitchen where their father works too. As each child takes turns to skip school, Hung pays them a house visit to convince their parents of the importance of a proper education.
There is an important lesson here about the impact that a good educator can make, and Kwan emphasises that point by contrasting Hung's attitude with that of her former CEO's (Sammy Leung), whose chief aim is to capitalise on a pressure-cooker system to earn money from 'kiasu' parents. But Kwan is also careful not to sanctify his subject, hence the attention on developing a subplot related to Hung's marriage with designer Tung (Louis Koo) though she promises initially that they would go on a tour around the world after his contract ends, she fails to tell him when she makes up her mind to stay on teaching at the kindergarten by organising an enrolment drive to keep the numbers going. Yeung's scenes with Koo add a refreshing dimension to her story, depicting a touching example of an ideal marriage built on trust, encouragement and mutual support.
That Yeung manages a modest chemistry with Koo should come as no surprise, since it is just months before that the pair were lovers in 'Don't Go Breaking My Heart 2'. What is quite amazing is the genuine rapport that Yeung shares with her much, much younger co- stars. Their casting from amongst 400 hopefuls who auditioned is spot-on; in particular, the emotional finale set on the very last day of the school term demonstrates how natural the kids are, and we guarantee that only a heartless monster will not be moved eventually. That credit is also Kwan's as well as his producer Benny Chan's (yes, the Benny Chan of 'The White Storm' and 'Shaolin'), who manage to coax such unaffected and even infectious performances from their first-time actresses.
Sure there are deliberate heart-rending moments, but by telling her story as it is and never being emotionally manipulative about it, Kwan dubbed the 'Gospel Director' for his feel-good Christian films 'Sometimes, Miracles Do Happen', 'Life is a Miracle' and 'If U Care ...' does a fittingly elegant tribute to his film's real-life hero. There is no place for cynicism or for that matter melodrama here; rather, this social-based drama that illuminates a cause worth fighting for is moving, affecting and inspirational in its own right. It's a little story of one teacher and five kids all right, but a big one about change, conviction, and making a positive difference.
Chor gei (2014)
Charlene Choi sheds all vanity in a daring and untamed performance that anchors an uneven but compelling film that is a surprisingly better character study than social drama
If you've taken notice of 'Sara', it's likely because of the fact that it has been billed as Charlene Choi's most daring performance yet and to give the former Twin credit, it is her most fascinating one yet. Playing the titular character that spans her teenage years to her early 30s as an investigative journalist, Choi abandons all vanity in an honest and sincere portrayal that embraces wholeheartedly Sara's emotional and psychological vulnerabilities. And yes, she does have a couple of intimate scenes with her co-star Simon Yam but we might as well advise those hoping to see her topless or fully nude to check those expectations at the door, because while candid, they were never meant to be exploitative.
At its core, 'Sara' is a coming-of-age story more than an examination of the Thai sex industry, despite some marketing hype about it being an expose on the latter. Indeed, there are two parallel narratives in Erica Li's screenplay, but no matter what her intentions may have been at the start, Sara's sojourn to the seedy underbelly of the Land of Smiles is but superficial unless seen in the context of her own teenage years. Appropriately then, the film opens with her sexual abuse as a 14-year-old at the hands of her stepfather (Tony Ho Wah- chiu), which her equally despicable mother (Pauline Suen) keeps quiet about because she feels a misplaced sense of indebtedness for having taken her in.
Fast-forward to present day, and Sara is now a plucky journalist who goes undercover as a hostess at a nightclub to expose on the collusion between government officials and real estate magnates. Her article provides too incendiary, and her editor yanks it. Feeling betrayed that her boyfriend (Ryan Lau) kept her in the dark about the editorial decision not to publish her piece, Sara leaves abruptly for a sojourn to Chiang Mai. It is in one of the pubs that Sara meets Angela (Sunadcha Tadrabiab), whom she pays a night for in order to bail her out from spending it with lecherous 'white men' (known as 'falangs') looking for quick one night stands. Sara takes a personal interest to Dok-my's story, which is meant to illuminate the plight of young girls taken from their villages and forced to sell themselves for money.
Frankly, that shouldn't come as a surprise to anyone many human rights organisations and international news media have consistently tried to draw attention to Thailand's sex trade, and 'Sara' adds nothing particularly insightful or poignant. What it does however is to illustrate the parallels with its protagonist's own struggles as a teenager who ran away from home and turned to petty crime on the streets in order to make ends meet. In the same way that Dok-my trades her body in exchange for a better life, so does Sara in the form of an ultimately destructive relationship with the mild-mannered Kam Ho-yin (Simon Yam).
In exchange for getting her into a Band I school (which is Hong Kong- speak for a renowned private school), Sara offers to have sex with the middle-aged education Government official, who is later revealed to not just be keen to keep up the image of a faithful husband at home but also a devoted Christian. The contradictions would be apparent to anyone, but Ho-yin's motivations are intentionally kept obscure as he goes out of his way to look after Sara, including paying her rent for an apartment and giving her an allowance. But as you'd probably imagine, their relationship is hardly straightforward and so, while Ho-yin gets jealous when he spies her journalism school classmate acting fondly towards Sara, he has no qualms trying to keep her hidden from the rest of his life as far as possible. Without any spoilers, it suffices to say that it doesn't end well, as one iteration of the poster which sees Charlene Choi lying in a pool of red should be clear a hint as any.
And yet, the fact that we appreciate the emotions between Sara and Ho- yin is to director Herman Yau's credit. While other directors may be tempted to judge or sensationalise their unconventional affair, Yau treads an impressively objective line in depicting their relationship, such that we do not condemn Ho-yin for clearly crossing a moral line nor be devoid of sympathy when Sara realises that she has fallen in love with him. Li's screenplay doesn't shy away from the ethical conundrums of their relationship; instead, she and Yau keep the character dynamic between Sara and Ho-yin real and believable, trusting their audiences' intelligence to draw their own conclusions if they are so minded to.
Apart from being one of its most prolific filmmakers, Yau is also one of Hong Kong cinema's most socially conscious creative talents, and that same sensibility has enabled him to coax a perfectly naturalistic performance from Choi. With Yau's firm direction, she doesn't overplay the melodramatic moments in the movie, nor short-change her audience when she needs to summon the emotional intensity for her character. Of course, Choi has an excellent foil in Yam, whose subtle low-key acting is just what the script and his character's connection with Sara needs. As an actor, Yam is also ever gracious, letting Choi take the spotlight by underplaying Ho-yin's presence in their scenes together.
Thankfully, Choi does not disappoint, and those who have been fans of hers since her Twins days can attest to how far she has come as an actress. 'Sara' is by no means a perfect film, but it is one of the bolder and thematically challenging films to come out of Hong Kong in recent years, and Choi's commitment to her titular role makes it even more compelling. Just as surprising is the fact that funnyman Chapman To is its producer, but from the looks of this serious-minded and well-intentioned drama, his sensibilities are in the right place.