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For the uninitiated, 'Drug War' marks acclaimed Hong Kong director
Johnnie To's first crime thriller to be shot in Mainland China, an
understandably wary prospect considering how his usual sensibilities in
the genre are highly likely to run afoul of the Chinese censors. But
fans of the auteur can rest easy To is as sharp as he has ever been
here reuniting with his regular screenwriter and producer Wai Kar-Fai,
delivering a tense and engrossing procedural around a complex anti-drug
trafficking police operation.
To be sure, the subject matter is an extremely risky one after all, the tough stance that the country has adopted towards drugs means that the authorities are only going to scrutinise a movie about that hot- button topic very, very closely. It is therefore somewhat of a miracle that To manages to remain politically correct without ever being preachy, and even better, to mirror the authorities' no-nonsense approach while offering the kind of nail-biting entertainment perfectly accessible to mainstream audiences.
But then again, we should have expected no less from To, and right from the get-go, we are treated to both Wai Kar-Fai's elegant storytelling and To's classy direction. Cross-cutting seamlessly between two seemingly unrelated series of events, To introduces his audience to Louis Koo's Timmy Choi, who is seen driving away from a factory billowing in smoke while foaming at the mouth, gradually losing consciousness until finally he crashes in spectacular fashion through the glass walls of a restaurant. Meanwhile, Sun Honglei's Zhang is on a dilapidated bus going through a toll booth, whose commuters are really mules transporting drug-packed ovules within their body.
When his partner-in-crime panics after their overheated bus pulls to the side just after crossing the booth, Zhang reveals himself to be no less than the very captain of the narcotics squad. At the same hospital where Zhang and the other drug mules painfully excrete their smuggled goods, Zhang runs into an unconscious Choi, covered in skin lesions and bearing the unmistakable whiff of a drug-making operation. Immediately, Choi is put into surveillance, but Choi's identity only becomes clearer when he is brought into questioning, turning surprisingly compliant as he tells Zhang that he is but a middleman between a rich businessman turned drug dealer Boss HaHa (Hao Ping) and a powerful supplier named Uncle Bill.
Even then, Choi remains an enigma we're sceptical of his plea to escape the death penalty in exchange for his cooperation and yet a cautious alliance emerges between the tough grim-faced Zhang and the persuasively suppliant Choi. Keeping the proceedings entirely realistic, To unspools the action through a series of undercover infiltrations, surveillance and stake-outs filmed with the same breakneck urgency and unnerving tension of such real-life operations. Moving from posh hotels to lavish cabaret nightclubs to busy seaports, To switches from location to location without any let-up from a consistently gripping pace.
Yet despite the breakneck pace, each sequence is tautly choreographed. Particularly effective is the pivotal setpiece in the middle section, which sees Zhang masquerading first as Uncle Bill to meet Brother HaHa and then posing as HaHa (the character's signature hysterical laugh included) to meet Uncle Bill's representative. Both close-quarter setups ripple with edge-of-your-seat tension, with Zhang's charade threatening to unravel itself under the villains' scrutiny. Also worthy of mention is the film's climactic shootout in front of an elementary school, as Choi finally reveals his hand as a cool-blooded conniver interested only in his own self-preservation. Though less violent than the usual To actioners, the action is nevertheless exhilarating in its rawness, with To subverting genre expectations of who dies and who prevails.
In true alpha-male fashion, Zhang remains an inscrutable character throughout, defined only by his doggedness when hunting down his targets. Ditto for Choi, who doesn't get any backstory to explain how or why he got into the drug business. Like 'PTU', To keeps his focus singularly on the nuts-and-bolts of the police work at hand, deliberately refusing to let his audience get to know more about any of the characters aside from their relative positions in the unfolding mission. Such a clinical approach may frustrate some viewers, but anyone who's been a fan of his trademark understatement will embrace it along with Xavier Jameux's pulsing score as nothing less than To's brand of cool.
Just as certain to delight fans is a nifty twist late into the story that turns the movie into a reunion of sorts for To's regulars Lam Suet, Gordon Lam, Eddie Cheung, Lo Hoi Pang and Michelle Ye. Of course, that's not to diminish Sun Honglei and Louis Koo's strong lead performances the former bringing gravitas and an unexpected touch of humour when imitating HaHa's over-the-top behaviour to an otherwise stoic role; and the latter playing both cunning and desperate in thoroughly engaging fashion.
And so despite the Mainland setting, 'Drug War' remains a distinctly Johnnie To movie, using the bleak wintry settings of the Mainland city of Tianjin to lend the film and its subject matter a gritty sobering feel. Eschewing the visual aesthetics of 'Exiled' and 'Sparrow', it is also easily his most commercially accessible action thriller of late, with a documentary-like realism that mirrors Derek Yee's style in another drug-themed movie 'Protége'. Like we've said, To's fans will enjoy this as much as his previous works, and this is a movie that demonstrates once again why he is easily one of the best directors in Hong Kong today.
*** This review may contain spoilers ***
So much for its ambition of being a ground-breaking science-fiction
thriller like the first of many twists that you will no doubt see
coming, 'Oblivion' is a clone of other far superior genre classics,
e.g. the little-seen but highly acclaimed 'Moon'. Indeed, much
excitement has been swirling around its plot details, fuelled no doubt
by its long-gestating genesis, but this passion project from 'Tron:
Legacy' director Joseph Kosinski isn't particularly smart or original
to satisfy those heated expectations.
Narrated by Tom Cruise's lead character, a Commander Jack Harper, the story is set sixty years later after a heated war between mankind and aliens has decimated much of the Earth as we know it. Its inhabitants evacuated to one of Saturn's moons, Jack is apparently but one of the few remaining humans, a 'Techie' whose mission is to maintain the drones that are protecting the machines extracting the Earth's remaining resources. Jack's luckier though than most other equivalent sci-fi characters; he's got a female companion Victoria (Andrea Riseborough), who is also his Comms officer maintaining contact with Mission Control aka Sally (Melissa Leo) and watching his back while he is out on his runs.
The opening prologue establishes not only the cataclysmic backdrop but also Jack's inner state of mind, haunted by visions of a distant yet familiar past of him on a busy New York City street and on the viewing deck of the Empire State Building before the Earth's devastation. Reality though is far more sombre, as Jack senses the imminence of some larger danger looming with a sudden spike in the number of crippled drones that have their nuclear fuel cells subsequently removed. That's supposedly the nefarious work of what's left of the warring alien race, referred to as the Scavengers, which prowl the wastelands to destroy any trace of human civilisation.
Anyone with a reasonable amount of doubt will certainly guess that there is more than meets the eye, but Jack only realises that when a rogue signal brings a space shuttle crashing onto the surface of the Earth. Not only does the craft called the Odyssey carry with it some human astronauts in deep sleep, one of them whom Jack risks his life to protect is the girl he glimpses in his dreams, a certain Julia Rusakova (Olga Kurylenko). Truth comes knocking when he escorts Julia to return to the crash site to retrieve the flight recorder but is instead captured by an insurgency led by the enigmatic Malcolm Beech (Morgan Freeman), who urges him to look beyond the obvious.
Fortunately for him and perhaps less so for those of us hoping for some deeper revelation Jack needn't think too hard. No prizes for guessing what sort of resistance Malcolm and the rest of his guerrilla army are fighting, or who Julia was to Jack in his previous life, or even the very nature of Jack's being; even though Kosinki and his writers Karl Gajdusek and Michael Arndt try their darnest to keep their cards close to their chest, the deck that they hold isn't that surprising or outstanding after all. Peripheral details aside, this is essentially the story of one man who thinks he is fighting on the right side of justice, learns that the world that he used to know was a lie, and then decides to switch sides to fight for the resistance. Wait, wasn't that basically the story of 'The Matrix' as well?
Once you accept that this isn't going to be some masterpiece, you'll come to better appreciate Kosinski's treatment. Just as he amply demonstrated with his feature film debut, Kosinski's strength lies in his ability to transport his audience into a richly imagined world full of stunning detail. There is something truly astounding and even humbling about the post-apocalyptic landscapes against which the movie is based - from half-standing baseball stadiums to the ruins of the Empire State Building to the pockets of lush untouched greenery that Kosinski uses in a particularly evocative manner, such that every frame is always visually and emotionally engrossing to suit the mood of the scene.
More significantly, Kosinski has greatly matured as a filmmaker since his first outing. No doubt assisted with a much stronger script than 'Tron: Legacy', Kosinski displays a newfound dexterity in his storytelling, keeping a brisk and engaging pace throughout the movie through a good balance of larger action-packed sequences and quieter intimate moments. At least we can reassure you that if you thought that 'Tron: Legacy' was more style than substance, there is a lot more substance here to match Kosinski's distinctive visual style.
And then of course there is Hollywood's leading man Tom Cruise, who plays a variant of his stoic loner-type characters. Cruise goes for a more subtle performance this time round that fits in nicely with the restrained tone of the film. Although he gets to share more screen time with two beautiful ladies, Olga Kurylenko and Andrea Riseborough, it is his scenes with Morgan Freeman that possess the most zing - pity then that there are too few of those in a film that uses Freeman in no more than an extended cameo.
Certainly, that doesn't feel like the only missed opportunity in a movie whose hype threatens to be its Achilles' heel. More derivative of other seminal sci-fi classics than you would expect it to, 'Oblivion' will disappoint those looking for a genre-defining masterpiece. Instead, what it boasts is a filmmaker well in tune with the sensibilities of the genre, who has taken some of its signature elements and recycled them into something intriguing yet ultimately familiar, and whose eye for detail and spectacle is rather amazing to say the least. It is visually stunning no doubt, and packed with enough intrigue and excitement to make for a captivating leap into a dystopic future.
Twelve years after the events of September 11, Hollywood offers up one
of America's most prominent landmarks for devastation by hostile
foreign elements and if that isn't bad enough, then how about the
fact that it isn't just submitting one, but two different hypothetical
scenarios how such an unthinkable catastrophe might just occur. Yes,
'Olympus Has Fallen' comes as the first of two products of Hollywood
imagination about the fall of the White House the next being Roland
Emmerich's 'White House Down' timed for this summer and besides
having the advantage of being first out of the court, it is also likely
to resonate more no thanks to the current geopolitical climate.
Whether out of prescience or sheer coincidence, first-time screenwriters Creighton Rothenberger and Katrin Benedikt imagine a surprise attack by the North Koreans on American soil just as the South Korean President calls in on ruling American President Asher (Aaron Eckhart) following weeks of rising tensions along the DMZ border. Sound familiar? Well, Rothenberger and Benedikt's clairvoyance goes one step further by adding a nuclear element to the unfolding proceedings, with the Korean terrorists aiming to gain control of a fictional top-secret denuclearisation system by the US called Cerberus.
With the added frisson of timeliness, director Antoine Fuqua's throwback to the retro- thrillers of the 80s and 90s (think Die Hard or Lethal Weapon) acquires a fresh new edge, complemented by his flair for staging over-the-top action sequences. Nowhere is the latter more evident than in the swift, vicious and yet downright exhilarating scene-setting sequence that is thankfully more realistic and coherent than what the trailer hints at essentially a two-pronged attack with the first being an air attack from a low-flying cargo plane and the second being a ground assault from a busload of tourists.
What follows is standard action-thriller stuff done absolutely right, the narrative built around that of a disgraced law enforcement official given a chance to redeem himself by saving the day and of course the President. That hero is former top Secret Service agent Mike Banning (Gerard Butler), who in the opening prologue is made a pariah when a freak accident claims the life of the First Lady (Ashley Judd in a sparkling cameo). Transferred to the neighbouring Treasury building, Mike hopes to get his old job next to the President in the White House back, but his director Lynne Jacobs (Angela Bassett) tells him that Asher is not ready just yet.
Amid the hail of gunfire and explosions, Mike becomes the only point of friendly contact from within the White House, feeding intel to his bosses at the Pentagon including the gung-ho Head of the Joint Chiefs General Clegg (Robert Forster) as well as the Speaker of the House and Acting President Alan Trumbull (Morgan Freeman). And as the terrorists led by the megalomaniac Kang (Die Another Day's Rick Yune) have the President and his aides held hostage in the White House's emergency underground bunker, it will also come to Rick to take down the terrorists one by one.
Comparisons with 'Die Hard' are absolutely valid, but that familiarity in no way diminishes the guilty pleasures one gets from watching Fuqua's film. Best known for directing Denzel Washington to a Best Actor Oscar in 'Training Day', Fuqua has never been one for subtlety, but his lack of restraint accounts for much of the film's infectious thrills. The patriotism is overwrought a tattered American flag falling slowly from the roof of the White House against a flame-red sunset but there's no denying its impact in emphasising the extent of the disaster. Banning's taunts against his enemy are largely cheesy, but they do add gusto to the enmity between him and Kang, particularly in the context of the final showdown in which Banning promises to 'put a knife through Kang's brain'.
Nonetheless all that is just icing for the cake what we are really here to see is Banning kick ass, and indeed Fuqua doesn't disappoint. After that awesome takeover of 1600 Pennsylvania Avenue, Fuqua lets the movie settle into a taut cat-and-mouse game within the many rooms, darkened hallways and secret passageways of the White House, with Banning's previous experience putting him in good stead to outwit and out-manoeuvre Kang's gang of well-trained, black-clad commandos. The ensuing series of close-combat fights are brutal and pulse-pounding, though not without a wicked sense of humour one we particularly enjoyed was that where Banning uses a heavy bust of Lincoln's head to knock a baddie out cold.
The hard-hitting role also gives Butler a chance to return to his R- rated action hero roots from which a certain movie called '300' sprung him into fame. Butler channels his best Bruce Willis here complete with the latter's signature mix of wisecracks and threats but goes beyond a carbon copy of John McClane by putting his physicality to good use throughout the many mano-a-mano scenes in the film. He also has a surprisingly strong ensemble cast for support besides those mentioned earlier, there's also Academy Award winner Melissa Leo as the defiant Secretary of Defense who gets an especially unceremonious treatment by Kang.
But 'Olympus Has Fallen' isn't a movie about niceties nor any sort of nuances; this is an unabashed remake of 'Die Hard' right down to a rooftop adventure gone bad that revels in its desire to satisfy audiences starved of the kind of the tough bloody action that such unapologetically entertaining thrillers of the past used to offer. Yes indeed, the premise that one man should save the day might seem like a hoary cliché, but let's face it, plot and originality are not the priorities here. Instead, Fuqua delivers thrill after thrill with brutal adrenaline-pumping precision, and as a diverting slice of action entertainment, it is as perfect as it gets.
A standard-issue revenge thriller made more compelling by its hot-topic
subject matter, 'Don't Cry Mommy' exploits the grief of a teenage girl
and her mother to make an emphatic plea for South Korean lawmakers to
relook at existing laws that apply to underage sex offenders (i.e.
essentially any teenager below the age of 18). To say that these are
inadequate at the moment is an understatement, especially when one
considers the gravity of the crimes that have been committed in real-
life, and it is precisely because of this relevance that first-time
feature filmmaker Kim Yong-han's movie becomes more than just a piece
Beginning quite innocuously by establishing the key relationship between its main characters the single mother Yoo-lim (Yu Sun) and her sweet demure teenage daughter Eun-ha (Nam Bo-ra) the film mirrors the unexpected nature by which such sex crimes occur. There's little to suggest at the start that we should be wary of the coolly handsome Jo- han (Dong-ho); instead, projecting a quiet confidence beyond his age, we can see why adolescent girls like Eun-ha would be attracted to him. Unfolding pretty much from Eun-ha's perspective from the beginning, we are led to share in her euphoric feelings for him as well as how they eventually lead to a misplaced sense of trust as she accepts his invitation to meet at the school library's rooftop one evening.
Unfolding in a three-act structure, the end of the first culminates in a pivotal turn, with Joo-han and two loutish friends - Pak Joon (Kwan Hyun-sang) and Min-gu (Lee Sang-min) taking turns to rape Eun-ha and film their depraved deed. The second act focuses on Yoo-lim's fight for justice, rejecting the perpetrators' parents' pleas for mercy and pressing ahead for legal action against them. Unfortunately, the judgment of the law ends up favouring the three juveniles instead - not only do the Courts spare Jo-han because Eun-ha had willingly gone to meet him, Min-gu's escapes without a sentence due to insufficient evidence of his culpability while Pak Joon is sentenced to just two weeks of probation.
No thanks to the lax punishment, all three are soon out before Eun-ha can recover from the trauma, setting the stage for a shocking confrontation that will ultimately claim her life. Distraught and despairing, Yoo-lim takes matters into her own hands in the film's third and probably weakest act, turning into a vigilante to exact justice on Pak Joon, Min-gu and Jo-han. To director Yong-han's credit, he does take pains to ensure that Yoo-lim's transformation is as realistic and convincing as it can be, but the manner in which Yoo-lim tracks down each one of the boys proves to be the film's undoing, relying on coincidences and other narrative conveniences to bring the film to what can only be a tragic and bloody end.
Putting aside an otherwise over-dramatic transformation from grieving mother to vengeful killer, this is otherwise a gripping film that paints a poignant picture of the inadequacies within the South Korean justice system. Though clearly biased in terms of where its sympathies lie, there is no denying the significance of the social message it intends to convey, especially in the wake of a string of real-life cases cited at the end from which this film draws inspiration. Though clearly set up for melodrama, Yong-han deserves credit for never letting the proceedings get too heavy-handed to alienate his viewers, applying nuance and restraint in portraying the psychological impact of Eun-ha's gang-rape on both herself and her mother.
Absolutely mesmerising in the role of Yoo-lim is Yu Sun, the TV actress demonstrating her versatility throughout the movie displaying a whole range of emotions from shock to grief to determination and finally to resignation. Just as captivating is Nam Bo-ra, whose 180-degrees turn from cheerful girl to withdrawn victim will tug at your heartstrings. Nevertheless, the film is somewhat marred by pop star Dong-ho's villainous turn, the singer-turned-actor displaying an utter lack of knowledge of emoting, coming off looking just as spaced out in almost every scene he appears.
Yet these flaws don't diminish the fact that this is a movie that packs a message which deserves to be seen and heard. At least for the first hour, it reflects with great poignancy the seriousness of rape whether or not it is committed by a juvenile as well as the loopholes within the existing justice system. Pity then that Yong-han eschews the social drama for more straightforward vigilante thrills in the final act, losing what momentum its earlier hour had accomplished in order to provide more conventional movie-going excitement. Still, there is gripping stuff to be found here, and if you're like movies that leave you with food for thought, this one offers a more than satisfying meal.
This much is history in the eighth year of King Gwang-hae's reign
during the 17th century Joseon dynasty, there was a sudden reversal of
policies that had favoured the aristocracy. Suddenly, the wealthy were
made to pay more taxes and the same burden lightened on both the
peasants as well as the middle-class. The noble were also ordered not
to exploit the poor as slaves, lest they face the wrath of the King.
Strangely enough, it is during this period that the Annals contain
fifteen missing days, preceded by an intriguing entry that reads 'one
must not record that which he wishes to hide'.
Inspired by this fascinating set of events, director and co-screenwriter Choo Chang-min imagine a fantastical scenario along the lines of Mark Twain's seminal novel 'The Prince and the Pauper' and Ivan Reitman's political satire 'Dave' where a look-alike commoner swaps places with the King and thereby institutes badly needed ground-up reforms. The excuse for such a body swap? The threat of assassination, which in the opening minutes is shown leaving King Gwanghae spooked and doubting the trust of even those closest to him the Queen and her brother Yoo Jong- ho.
Under his orders, his loyal Chief Secretary Heo Gyun (Ryoo Seung-yong) finds a doppelganger in Ha-seon, a jester at a courtesan's place who impersonates the King for popular amusement. Barely after his audition, Ha-seon is thrust onto the throne when the King is poisoned and falls unconscious, leading the Chief Secretary to activate the former so that the country does not descend into chaos. What ensues is an enthralling mix of comedy and drama done with a lot of heart, all three elements combining to render this one of the very best Korean films we have seen in a long while.
Indeed, the experience that Chang-min invites his audience to partake is similar to Ha-seon's own transformation. Not used to the life of royalty, Ha-seon initially struggles with its customary practices most notably the lack of privacy and like the awkward adjustments he has to make, the first half of the film goes for a light-hearted tone with generous but genuine laughs. A particular laugh-out-loud sequence has him failing to understand the inordinate amount of attention paid to the daily movement of his bowels, but most of the humour is more subtle but no less amusing especially a running gag where his regular closed-door meetings with the Chief Secretary are interrupted by the need to perform an abrupt switch of positions when his night snack is delivered.
Even in these early moments, it is clear that Ha-seon has more empathy than the real King ever had. This is portrayed in both the smaller moments after learning that his leftovers go towards feeding the Royal servants, Ha-seon specially eats only a basic bowl of bean gruel to leave the rest of the dishes to those who prepared it as well as a more fully fleshed arc that sees him try to restore the rightful presence of the Queen (Han Hyo-joo) in relation to the throne. It is also a perfect precursor for Ha-seon's subsequent transformation, as he grows increasingly unwilling to be just a puppet for the Chief Secretary.
Instead, Ha-seon begins to rule by common sense, putting in place badly needed reforms so swiftly that they stun the rest of his political circle. More importantly, he ends up antagonising the very traitors who had masterminded the King's poisoning, setting the stage for a gripping showdown where not just his identity but his very life is on the line. And yet even in the face of clear and present danger, Ha-seon shows unexpected mettle, choosing instead to stand firm for his beliefs and decisions rather than scuttle away to safety, earning the admiration of the Chief Secretary and the Chief Eunuch (Jang Gwang) who realise that Ha-seon was an even better ruler of the people than the King himself.
Though Chang-min provides a steady directorial hand to the compelling tale, what truly knocks it out of the park is Lee Byung Hun's bravura acting, holding the screen with poise and charisma. As King Gwanghae, he is arrogant, petulant and utterly contemptible; but as Ha-seon, he is lively and charming at the beginning and affectionate and empathetic later on. One of the best and most touching scenes in the whole film has Ha-seon agreeing out of resignation to his advisers' proposal for 20,000 men to be essentially sent to their death to help the Ming dynasty and then retracting it with a most forceful proclamation of his duties as a King of the people; that very sequence a perfect illustration of Byung Hun's regal performance.
Outstanding in their own right too are the various supporting acts, including Seung-yong's righteous Chief Secretary who eventually finds himself caught between a rock and a hard place and Jang Gwang's Chief Eunuch who begins to have a change of heart about the masquerade when he sees the goodness in Ha-seon's rule. Rare is the film that is wonderfully acted by every single cast, and one supposes that this is testament to the power of Byung Hun's own leading anchor.
The top-notch quality of the production is also evident in the sumptuous sets and lavish costumes, which add class and pomp to a brilliantly acted, cleverly scripted and confidently directed film. All the jokes and intrigue isn't just for entertainment; indeed, its message of justice, benevolence and fairness is as true to the rule of governance today as it is four hundred years ago. That relevance gives it real heft, and whether you are a fan of period dramas, we urge you to see what we think is one of the finest Korean movies we have seen, brilliant and beautiful in its humour, poignancy and most of all, heart.
Joining a line of movies about the Yang family generals that has grown
longer than their lineage is Ronny Yu's 'Saving General Yang', an
earnest if slightly underwhelming recount of the bravery of their seven
sons who rode forth into war to rescue their embattled father. As far
as such big-budget historical war epics are concerned, Yu's addition
stands out as an exemplary example of how to do large-scale action
sequences right, though its simplistic story and underdeveloped
characters prevent it from joining the leagues of 'Red Cliff' and 'The
Co-scripting with Edmond Wong (aka producer Raymond Wong's son and writer of the Wilson Yip-Donnie Yen 'Ip Man' movies) and Scarlett Liu, Yu keeps the story straightforward in fleshing out the themes of "忠孝仁 义" translated literally as loyalty, filial piety, humanity and justice which the Yang warriors are supposed to personify. A border war with the Khitans from the North sees the decorated General Yang (Adam Cheng) rising to the call of his Song emperor, but he and his frontline troops are betrayed by their supreme commander Lord Pan (veteran martial arts actor Leung Ka-Ying) when the latter leaves them to fend for themselves upon an enemy ambush. To the aid of the wounded and outnumbered General Yang are his seven sons, each of whom make a solemn promise to their mother (Xu Fan) to bring dad home.
Apart from a red herring by a prophet who foretells that "seven sons will go but only six will return", the plot is generic to the point of being bland. Quickly whittling down the good guys to just General Yang and his sons, what unfolds is a series of cat-and-mouse chases as the Yang clan attempt to evade a certain Yelu Yuan (Shao Bing) and his band of about 100 Khitan warriors, the former of whom bears a personal grudge against the veteran Yang for killing his father in battle years ago.
In order to care about the subsequent fates of the Yang brothers, one must first be able to identify with them and we're not talking about differentiating which actor plays which part. Unfortunately, the characterisation is shallow at best, rarely venturing beyond the badge of loyalty and heroism that every one of the seven brothers is supposed to wear so proudly on his sleeves. Among the seven, more attention is comparatively spent on the Sixth and Seventh Brother (Wu Chun and Fu Xinbo respectively) the former we learn is deeply in love with the Emperor's sister Princess Chai (Ady An) and the latter is portrayed as an impetuous wild card often disobeying his father or his elder brothers' instructions but neither fails to engage beyond a superficial level, except of course if you're already biased for that character based on your fondness for the actor (here's looking at you Wu Chun fans).
Instead, what becomes clear over the course of the movie is that plot and character are just devices for Yu's elegantly staged action sequences with the help of veteran action choreographer Dong Wei of course. The first of these immediately grabs your attention as the Yang warriors overcome their disadvantage in numbers with a smart tactical manoeuvre that literally lights up the sky over their enemies; and the rest that follow are no less rousing. Yu ensures that each of the brothers has his own well-defined personality on the battlefield owing to a certain weapon of choice be it First Brother's (Ekin Cheng) 'guan dao', Third Brother's (Vic Chou) bow and arrow (a la 'Legolas') or Fourth Brother's (Li Chen) twin cleavers. No matter which member of the ensemble cast you are a fan of, rest assured that each gets his own time to shine on the field though particularly memorable is Third Brother's poetic and edge-of-your-seat gripping one-on-one with a rival archer amidst a field of tall grass.
In turn, the who's who of male celebrities in Chinese (and by Chinese, we mean Mainland China, Taiwan and Hong Kong) cinema acquit themselves with competent to impressive physical turns. Deserving of special mention is Wu Chun, whose performance in the film's climax will surely have his fans cheering, and whom brings the right mix of naivety and maturity to a role that grows increasingly significant as the film progresses. There is also plenty for Ekin Cheng's fans to cheer for, as the once immensely popular Hong Kong actor gets probably his meatiest role in recent years that harks back to his 'The Storm Riders' and 'A Man Called Hero' films. And in a rare big-screen appearance, Adam Cheng brings gravitas and depth to his patriarchal character who is both a stern and a loving father at the same time.
Such a star-studded cast is reason enough to see 'Saving General Yang', though one had hoped that Yu and his fellow screenwriters could have adopted a more character-driven narrative that would certainly have made the familiar story a more compelling one. Nonetheless, Yu's first film in seven years after the critical and audience hit 'Fearless' still sees the veteran director bring a solid and assured directorial hand to offer thrilling blockbuster entertainment. As for learning more about the Yang family, that will have to wait for the next Yang Generals movie, which we are sure will not be too long away.
If Channing Tatum was the reason you loved 'GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra',
we might as well give you the bad news that he dies very early in the
film. That's a real shame in our opinion, even if his substitute Dwayne
Johnson is an agreeable presence to be around for two hours. The
chemistry between Tatum and Johnson in the film's opening few minutes
is one of the few things that this loud-and-louder wham-bang exercise
has going for it - in particular a scene in which both rib each other
while playing a video game is easily the most personable moment in the
Still, the fall of Tatum's Duke and the rise of Johnson's Roadblock is but one of the revisions that both Paramount and Hasbro felt were necessary to reinvigorate what was to them a mediocre box-office success relative to the dollars that any one of their 'Transformers' had made. Tatum isn't the only casualty; gone too is previous director Stephen Sommers, whose resume of 'The Mommy' apparently wasn't enough to make 'GI Joe: The Rise of Cobra' a satisfying enough box-office juggernaut, as well as its three writers Stuart Beattie, David Elliot, and Paul Lovett who have been accused by fans of not being in tune enough with the spirit of the franchise.
In Sommers' place is Jon M. Chu, best known for the two 'Step Up' films and that Justin Bieber documentary. Little in his filmography suggests he might bring some flair to the material, and true enough, aside from a cool vertiginous ninja fight scene up in the Himalayas, Chu hardly betters Sommers' own workmanlike treatment. Undoubtedly the highlight of the entire film, that inspired sequence with flying ninjas is unfortunately too brief compared to the rest of the brain-numbing mayhem that we are made to endure, the majority of the film made up of frantic action that will leave you drained.
It isn't just Chu's middling direction that leaves one disengaged; there is also the bland script by Rhett Reese and Paul Wernick. Even if the story is no more than a narrative frame to give continuity to the non- stop destruction, that is little excuse for just how predictable it all gets though we probably should not have expected more just by looking at how plainly the movie's poster separates the good guys from the bad ones. Probably worse than being trite is being callous, which describes how it takes significant real-world issues like the political instability in Pakistan or the dangers of nuclear warfare and turns them into live-action cartoon, especially evident in the way it hardly bats an eyelid after annihilating one of the major cities of the world.
The only improvement the 'Zombieland' scribes bring to the table is some campy humour, which admittedly does help to enliven the otherwise deadening (pun intended) proceedings now and then. Most of these zingers are delivered with the right attitude by Johnson, whose square-jawed heroics are a perfect fit for the movie. Personifying how a G.I. doll would look like in real life and possessing the machismo of a model soldier, Johnson gets both the tongue-in-cheek parts and the 'hoorah' moments on the spot so much so that he can even get away with rallying his fellow Joes by quoting Jay-Z like scripture.
Speaking of cast, it is unfortunate that only one other actor manages to be as entertaining as Johnson. That unlikely candidate is Johnathan Pryce, who is clearly having a good time playing both the real President as well as his impostor. None of the other actors especially not Johnson's teammates D.J. Cotrona and Adrianne Palicki are much fun, and even the introduction of Bruce Willis late into the movie as the retired Joe founder doesn't bring much excitement except for a briefly amusing sequence that showcases his personal weapons arsenal in his very own home.
All things considered, there are ultimately fewer bright sparks than dull sparks in this feeble attempt to inject more life into a franchise that was once meant to replace the 'Transformers' cash cow. Even as brainless summer blockbuster entertainment, it offers relentless action but little real thrills, coming off as a vacuous exercise in engineering destruction on a large scale for the sake of it. A Himalayan wire-ful action sequence and Dwayne Johnson do not a movie make, with little in this sequel justifying its ambition for having tried to be better than its predecessor. And if it isn't clear yet, then let us by categorical in stating that the additional dimension for which the movie was apparently delayed nine months for is but yet one more dimension of dullness.
Is it too soon for yet another story based on the life of the legendary
Wing Chun grandmaster? Well, seeing as how utterly disappointing Wong
Kar Wai's version was, the answer is an empathetic yes. Here to revive
hope that there is still much we have yet to see about Ip Man's life is
Herman Yau's 'Ip Man: The Final Fight', a sequel of sorts to his much
flashier predecessor 'Ip Man: The Legend is Born' that focuses on the
character's middle to later years.
Like Donnie Yen's 'Ip Man 2', this one begins in 1949 as Ip Man (Anthony Wong) arrives in Hong Kong from Foshan to settle into a humble room on the roof of a three-storey shophouse. Thanks to a chance encounter with martial arts enthusiast Leung Sheung (Timmy Hung, better known as son of Sammo Hung), Ip gains a small following of working-class individuals to start a makeshift Wing Chun school without needing to go against his nature to advertise his craft.
It might seem like a motley crew including a policeman (Jordan Chan), a seamstress and union activist (Jiang Luxia), a waitress at a dim-sum restaurant (Gillian Chung), a prison officer (Marvel Chow) and a tram driver but there's no denying their passion to learn, and at least at the start, how close-knit a group they make. Yet the circumstances then don't make it any easier for Ip nor for his students, and it is from casting the fates of Ip and his disciples against a constantly evolving but always tumultuous Hong Kong in the 1950s to 1970s that Yau's film truly comes alive.
Similarities to Alex Law's 'Echoes of the Rainbow' are not unjustified, since Yau clearly evokes the same sense of nostalgia for the period during which the former was also set. Expertly weaving several disparate themes, screenwriter Erica Li deftly paints a vivid picture of a colony rocked by tensions between the unions and their companies, infighting between the various martial arts schools, corruption of the local police and most importantly, the struggle of ordinary folk to make ends meet and provide for their family.
Li draws on these real-life historical contexts to delineate the fates of Ip and his disciples, in particular that of Tang Sing (Chan) and Wong Tung (Chow). Among the disciples, Tang Sing's character is the most fully-fleshed, depicted as a good man caught in a moral crisis between following his conscience (as Ip advises) and the temptations of power and money in his position of authority. Tang's choice to side with the infamous kingpin named Dragon (Xiong Xin Xin) behind many of the illegal activities taking place inside the notorious Kowloon Walled City inevitably entwines Wong Tung, and by extension the entire Ip Man clan that culminates in the titular showdown.
That finale is but one of four thrilling action setpieces, and easily the most gripping and exhilarating one. First within the confines of an illegal boxing ring in a warehouse and then along the exterior windswept alley battered by the onslaught of an imminent typhoon, action choreographers Li Chung Chi and Checkley Sin let the climactic fight between Ip Man and Dragon play out the joy here not solely being from seeing veteran martial arts actor Xiong Xin Xin show off his impressive moves, but also from how Anthony Wong's one-year training in Wing Chun has truly paid off. Of course, that is also apparent from the earlier sequences, in particular one in which Ip Man squares off in a friendly closed-door bout with rival 'White Crane' master Ng Chun (comedian Eric Tsang in a fantastic cameo that shows off his agility quite certainly honed from his former days as a stuntman).
Besides demonstrating a facet of Anthony Wong's acting repertoire that is rarely seen (fun fact the man is a dedicated practitioner of the 'Monkey Fist' style), this portrayal of Ip Man also benefits from the dramatic skills of arguably one of the best actors in Hong Kong cinema today. While Tony Leung's was just like any other of his from other Wong Kar Wai collaborations and Donnie Yen's was probably more stagey than who Ip Man was in real life, Wong's depiction is we dare say the most nuanced that captures both the man's humble dispositions and his internal struggles.
The latter is also thanks to a multi-layered script that doesn't just dwell on the aspects of Ip Man's life that pertain to his martial artistry, but also his personal life in relation to his wife Yong Cheng (Anita Yuen) and his son (Mainland actor Zhang Song Wen). The first Ip Man film so far to pay due attention to what must have been one of his greatest regrets spending the large part of his postwar years apart from wife and son, it just as poignantly reveals his gentle affection for a Shanghainese songstress Jenny (Zhou Chuchu) - despite the veiled objections of his students - that again finds closure in death. Wong is absolutely brilliant in these intimate moments of Ip Man's life, and it's hard to imagine a more befitting actor here to play the role.
In choosing to illuminate the less ostentatious but more relatable characteristics of Ip Man's twilight years, Yau's film truly stands apart from the other four films that have come before it. Less concerned about the legend than the Man behind it, 'Ip Man: The Final Fight' is the most heartfelt one yet about him, with an assured and sensitive directorial hand from Yau guiding a well-written script and a terrific lead performance by Anthony Wong as well as fine supporting acts from Jordan Chan, Eric Tsang and Chuchu. Even though it doesn't have Donnie Yen's star power or the marquee names of Wong Kar Wai and Tony Leung, this is a beautiful film that offers a well-balanced perspective of Ip Man's later years against the rich backdrop of post-World War II Hong Kong
Its posters and other promotional materials may sell it based on skin
and sex, but there is really so much more to former fashion
photographer turned director Mika Ninagawa's sophomore film 'Helter
Skelter'. At the risk of sounding clichéd, what you think you know
about the movie is really only skin-deep, as this adaptation of Kyoko
Okazaki's award- winning manga proves to be one of the most riveting
Japanese films we've seen in a long while - thanks to its bold take on
an absolutely timely subject.
Essentially a cautionary tale on the pursuit of beauty and fame, it weaves a compelling psychosexual horror drama around a fictional celebrity named Lilico. Rather than start at the beginning, Ninagawa introduces her audience to Lilico at the height of her popularity, the latter's flawless doll-like features and to-die-for figure making her the object of desire for young girls around the country. Every teenage girl wants to be like her, and that in turn has made her the subject of intense media interest, which explains her appearance on almost every fashion magazine and her crossover into the world of movies.
Unbeknownst to her adoring fans, everything about her is manufactured well, except her "eyeballs, ears, fingernails and pussy". The extent of her radical makeover is never shown, but hinted at especially with the sudden appearance one day of her sister, a plump and dorky girl whom you would never in your wildest imaginations ever think was related to Lilico. Her individuality stripped completely in order for her to be the vessel of others' desires, Lilico thrives on the affirmation of her adulating fans, most of whom are no less shallow than her.
A more conventional narrative might have opted to paint Lilico as someone we are supposed to sympathise with, but Kaneko Arisa's script eschews such contrivances in favour of a fully formed character study. Much as we might be inclined to empathise with her for being manipulated by her talent agency boss, a domineering mother figure whom Lilico calls Mama (Kaori Momoi), we also learn that she is no angel on the inside, especially in the way that she psychologically manipulates her assistant Michiko (Shinobu Terajima) and the latter's boyfriend Shin (Go Ayano).
Like a tightly coiled spring, Ninagawa carefully builds the tension as Lilico's precarious life unravels bit by bit. Turns out that Lilico's plastic surgery clinic uses illegal and worse, unsafe methods on their clients, and is being investigated by a public prosecutor named Makoto (Omori Nao). Not only does Lilico find her seemingly perfect façade crumbling with black patches, the drug she injects into her body to maintain her decaying complexion gives her hallucinations, her brittle state of mind further battered by her declining popularity following the rise of a new fresh-faced model Kiko (Yoshikawa Kozue).
Truly remarkable is the razor-sharp precision by which Ninagawa portrays the dangers and pitfalls of modern-day society's obsession with beauty and fame. On one hand, the movie criticises the celebrities who would go under the knife just to look more and more like what others would love for them to; on the other, it chastises the hypocritical nature of their fans, who would be just as effusive in idolising them as they are swift in switching loyalties. Without one, there would not be the other, and Ninagawa makes an empathetic point that either is equally culpable for constructing and reinforcing a vision of beauty that is ultimately unattainable.
But more than just social commentary, Ninagawa offers an experience in her film that deserves to be felt. Part of that is the visual palette she has chosen, from the playful colours of Lilico's photography sets to the garishly red-saturated interiors of Lilico's apartment to the simple but no less memorable image of a blue butterfly in Lilico's hallucinations. Part of that is also her stylishly executed shot compositions which combined with some nifty techniques she deploys make for plenty of visual fodder to keep you fascinated.
All that visual trickery would be for naught without a strong character- driven narrative and this is where Arisa's script truly shines. Every character is clearly defined in relation to Lilico whether is it the authoritarian Mama who had helped shape Lilico in the form of her youthful self, or the over-accommodating Michiko whose blind allegiance to Lilico destroys her life, or Lilico's one and only romantic interest Nanbu (Yosuke Kubozuka) who leaves her to marry a politician's daughter and what is especially interesting is the consistent use of a narrative device that where each of these characters gives his or her perception of Lilico.
Such an approach means that a lot hinges on Erika Sawajiri's performance as Lilico, and thankfully she is absolutely stunning in the role. Returning to showbiz after a five-year absence, Sawajiri inhabits the character completely, her brave and utterly committed portrayal of a starlet's fall from the heights of celebrity heavens spellbinding in its intensity. Veterans Momoi and Terajima provide fine supporting acts, but the show belongs absolutely to Sawajiri, letting her audience feel ever so keenly Lilico's fears, insecurities, anxieties, and motivations.
Both as a richly realised character study as well as a critique on today's celebrity culture and obsession over beauty, 'Helter Skelter' rises tall above its soft-porn impressions to amaze as one of the rare Japanese films that works as biting social commentary. Sure, some might argue that it tends to go over-the-top with an almost surrealistic feel, but that very quality makes it all the more mesmerising to examine what is in itself a seemingly ludicrous preoccupation. It is dark comedy at its very best, fascinating to watch every step of the way and perhaps one of the most unique films you'll see this year.
The latest Korean action-thriller to hit theatres in Singapore,
'Confession of Murder' is a gem of a film that can be compared to the
likes of 'Old Boy' and 'Memories of Murder'.
At the heart of this movie is the tale of Detective Choi, whose quest is to capture the one thing that evades him. It's a very human resolve and one that is particularly relatable to the people of our time. We're not all cops searching for a suspect, but very much like Detective Choi, we have that one answer that we seek our entire lives and work hard to find out. The prevalence and influence of the media, plastic surgery, as well as blind devotion to a public figure have all been gracefully written into the script, and so surrounding that story is a context so rooted in reality that it could very well be our own daily lives.
The performances in this film are truly commendable, particularly those of the stuntmen for the deadly accurate execution of the stunts. In particular, the main actors brilliantly brought in the subtle aspects of their characters, in order to bring humanity to a larger-than life drama, effectively giving a hook for the audience to relate to the movie on a deeper level.
There is also dark humor in the movie, which brings some levity into an otherwise dark world that the audience becomes immersed in. One almost feels guilty for laughing, which is a testament to the irony of the humor. What makes the situation on screen so humorous is how exceedingly close it is to what would happen if such a thing were to take place in real-life. Such a thing is almost never portrayed in films for the sake of cinematic impact- but by doing the opposite, 'Confession of Murder' turns itself into almost a satire and criticism of popular culture.
This is one film that defines 'order in chaos' and does so with a great deal of style. The makers of it have taken a complex plot and planned it out with such precision that even to the non-Korean speaking viewer, the story being told is clear and concise. There is no beating around the bush with this film. The pacing is just right such that Confession of Murder never loses the audience's attention, and even at the most tumultuous times of this film (such as one of the many fast-paced dialogue exchanges), details are never lost. Even the action sequences have been tightly-choreographed in order to mould into the complex camera-work and it shows on screen as a beautiful and graceful wedding of skills from both cast and crew.
The twist at the end is also a reminder of what great cinema is and is capable of doing, i.e. shocking the audience by leaving out one aspect of the story and then revealing it at the end only to change the audience's entire perspective of what has happened all along. It is making the audience feel like they should have known better. It also proves the uncomfortable truth that we are capable of being fooled, and that reality as we perceive it is often imperfect.
In this film, the peripeteia then leads to a startling climax which fulfils the purpose of every character in this film before moving down into a resolution which leaves no loose ends untied. Indeed, 'Confession of Murder' is a film indeed worth watching and a tale highly relevant to our celebrity-obsessed times.
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