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Skin Trade (2014)
2 out of 3 people found the following review useful:
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, 16 April 2015

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.

Less hostage thriller than social satire, this darkly comic crime caper jabs at our society's unglamourous corners with unpleasant - but also uneven - effect, 13 April 2015

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.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
Quintessentially Hong Kong in both humour and character, this non-conformist take on the typical 'cops-versus-robbers' genre is amusingly and exuberantly offbeat, 7 April 2015

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.

3 out of 9 people found the following review useful:
Besides a dignified farewell for Paul Walker, this seventh entry doesn't match the fun, excitement and adrenaline rush of its two immediate predecessors, 1 April 2015

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.

5 out of 6 people found the following review useful:
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, 29 March 2015

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.

1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
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, 26 March 2015

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.

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, 19 March 2015

'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.

Sara (2014)
1 out of 1 people found the following review useful:
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, 15 March 2015

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.

21 out of 34 people found the following review useful:
A immensely satisfying blend of gripping mob drama and thrilling action setpieces that is easily Liam Neeson's most credible work in recent years, 12 March 2015

Before you dismiss the latest Liam Neeson action movie 'Run All Night' as yet another iteration of 'Taken', let us reassure you that there is much more to this mob thriller than meets the eye. True, Neeson plays a former man of violence with a 'particular set of skills' who is forced to employ them in order to save his family, but that's about where the similarities end. Indeed, while that franchise never quite had any ambition than as a glorified B-movie, this latest team-up between Neeson and his 'Unknown' and 'Non-Stop' collaborator Jaume Collet- Serra proves itself as an impressive amalgamation of the Oscar- nominated dramatic skills on which his earlier career was built on and his more recent kickassery.

Brad Inglesby's script starts by giving us a glimpse of Neeson after the fateful events of the titular evening – that is, lying in a forest and bleeding from a shotgun wound – before rewinding sixteen hours before to fill us in. As we soon learn, Neeson's Jimmy Conlon wasn't in a much better state before his most recent run-in with mob boss and childhood friend Shawn Maguire (Ed Harris) that had led to his current predicament. An alcoholic mocked by the denizens at the local pub for farting in his sleep, the former Brooklyn hit-man was once Shawn's trusty right-hand man, but has now been reduced to playing Santa at the latter's son's birthday party for quick cash, which he spends drowning his guilt over the people he has killed and the family he has alienated through the years.

As bad luck would have it, Jimmy's estranged son, Mike (Joel Kinnaman), who only wants to take care of his pregnant wife and two young kids and to have nothing to do with his father, stumbles upon Danny executing two Albanian drug dealers. When Danny turns up at Mike's house, Jimmy intervenes to save his son and ends up killing Danny, setting in motion the subsequent series of events which will see father and son move through New York City while being pursued by Danny's men – including a professional assassin named Price (Common) who has his own grudge with Jimmy – as well as crooked cops looking to stay on Shawn's payroll.

Rather than just skip to the chase, Collet-Serra and his screenwriter Inglesby invest in a more character-driven narrative than may be expected. A pivotal scene has Jimmy confessing to Danny's murder shortly after Shawn returns from the morgue to identify his son's body, which poignantly expresses not just one father's grief (and consequent thirst for revenge) from the death of his son but also another father's paternal instinct to protect his family by whatever means possible. Whereas 'Taken' (pardon the pun) the latter for granted, Collet-Serra wisely lets the polarising dynamic between Jimmy and Shawn define the conflict that ensues, giving both characters and their longstanding friendship turned brutal rivalry both shading and nuance.

Lest it be forgotten, Neeson and Harris are both accomplished actors in their own right, and both manage to find their characters' empathetic core. Collet-Serra understands Neeson's 'particular set of skills' in playing the fallible hero, and gives his lead actor space and breadth to explore his character's vulnerabilities and motivations – even bringing in an unbilled Nick Nolte to add patriarchal weight to the proceedings. Kinnaman doesn't get enough quiet scenes with Neeson for their father-son relationship to develop into something truly compelling, but the actors share a good rapport that give the action scenes added emotional texture.

And in that department, Collet-Serra doesn't disappoint. Reining in the hand-held shots that made the last 'Taken 3' an absolute nightmare to watch even on the big screen, Collet-Serra fashions a couple of impressive sequences that make full use of its New York locale. A thrilling cop-car chase through the streets of Brooklyn easily puts 'Taken 3's' highway chase to shame, while a high-rise apartment complex on fire provides a tense backdrop against which Jimmy and Mike attempt to protect a kid witness. There is also the iconic Madison Square Garden, which provides the scene for a daring escape right after a Rangers-Devils game, and heightens the Big Apple atmosphere while keeping the gritty noir-ish feel of the earlier scenes.

It is certainly tempting to see this as yet another attempt to cash in on Neeson's newfound action hero status, but 'Run All Night' distinguishes itself with some well-filmed setpieces to satisfy the adrenaline-hungry crowd while staying grounded with enough characterisation and good acting for its audience to be rooted with the characters on screen. It is also his best collaboration yet with Collet-Serra, who seems genuinely interested at making a movie tailored to the actor's strengths than simply cashing in on a fad. Even and especially if you were disillusioned with 'Taken 3', 'Run All Night' is a good, solid slab of macho entertainment that should wash away the bitter taste of that over-the-hill franchise.

Chappie (2015)
43 out of 85 people found the following review useful:
Frenetic, overblown, and yet under-developed, this mash-up of 'Robocop' and 'Short Circuit' is a jumbled mess made from recycled parts of much better sci-fi equivalents, 4 March 2015

It's a good thing Neill Blomkamp secured his next directing gig before his latest went into wide release; indeed, 'Chappie' marks yet another costly misstep that threatens to send his career the way of the Wachowskis. Its premise of an artificial intelligence becoming human is by now a familiar one, but rather than build on what its predecessors had to offer, this childish and noisy spectacle fails to develop any of its themes, be it the oft-repeated idea of consciousness or its social allegory of class divisions.

Set once again in Johannesburg in the near future, 'Chappie' opens in the same way as 'District 9' with mock news footage establishing how the police have commissioned an elite team of human-sized droids – called 'Scouts' – from a robotics firm known as Tetravaal to restore law and city and reduce the body count for the force as well. The 'Scouts' are the brainchild of an idealistic inventor called Deon (Dev Patel), whose creation is hailed by his company's CEO (Sigourney Weaver) to the consternation of a jealous colleague Vincent (Hugh Jackman). Unlike the 'Scouts', Vincent own invention dubbed the 'Moose' requires direct human control, and has understandably been sidelined as his company banks its future on greater deployment of the 'Scouts'. Their rivalry is supposed to set in motion a series of events that leads to our titular character taking on a much more heavily-armed 'Moose' in the overblown finale, but any sort of meaningful build-up between Deon and Vincent is cast aside in favour of a gangsta subplot that is frankly misplaced.

Celebrating his love for his homeland's rap-rave group Die Antwoord, Blomkamp has cast both members as low-life gangsters Ninja and Yo- Landi (played by the group's Ninja and Yo-Landi Visser), who in the opening sequence following the scene-setting newsreel are seen to have bungled a heist and now owe their boss Hippo $20 million. To procure the compensation owed, Yo-Landi comes up with the laughable notion of obtaining a remote control so that they can switch off the Scouts. The search for that 'remote' leads them to kidnap Deon, just as the latter has prepped one of the decommissioned Scouts – or 'Scout 22' as he calls it – for his experiment in synthetic consciousness. By simply uploading a data file he created, Deon turns that scout into a thinking and feeling robot who is also taken together with his inventor and earns the affection of Yo-Landi. It is Yo-Landi who gives him the name 'Chappie', and in turn, Chappie calls her 'Mommy' and Ninja 'Daddy'.

Almost the whole second act is dedicated to Chappie's learning as a sentient being, which is disturbing to say the least. On one hand, Mommy teaches him English, reads him bedtime stories and encourages him to go pursue his dreams. On the other, Daddy and his accomplice Amerika (Jose Pablo Cantillo) try to manipulate his fundamental mental constructs in order that he may assist them in their heist of an armoured vehicle. The fact that many of these scenes are played as comedy without any acknowledgment of its anarchic undertones only reinforces just how tone-deaf Blomkamp's movie is, so much so that Chappie's questioning of our human failings – expressed in his confusion why humans break promises and do bad things – rings hollow and even hypocritical.

There is no apartheid allegory here, but it is clear right from the onset that Blomkamp's sympathies still lie with the disfranchised in society. Though that posture may have worked in 'District 9', it feels shockingly misplaced here, in particular since their 'tutelage' leads only to violence, crime and death. It doesn't help that Chappie isn't an endearing character in his own right, coming across as a hyper-active chatterbox without nuance or restraint – and Chappie remains an unrelatable character from start to finish.

Despite his efforts at trying to get his audience to identify with his character's struggle to develop a mind and soul of his own – not just what his 'maker' programmes himself to be or what he has been taught to follow – Blomkamp fails to make good on an intriguing theme that several other filmmakers have explored to much, much better effect before or draw any poignancy out of it. Between Chappie's incessant chatter and Blomkamp's attempt to pack as much diffuse plot into the runtime, there is hardly any space given to explore the intellectual notions that the movie flirts with (but never indulges in any serious manner).

The same idiocy unfortunately extends to its stock character archetypes. Patel's inventor is never given any motivation why he developed a consciousness for his androids in the first place. His rival played by Jackman is no more than a cartoonish villain, and even embarrassing for the A-list actor. Weaver continues a streak of playing the thankless supporting character, but the most ill-advised bit of scripting and casting has got to be the triumvirate of Ninja, Yo- Landi and Amerika/ Padillo, who are not only caricatures through and through but some of the more off-putting ones in recent memory. Sharlto Copley does a capable motion-capture for Chappie, but that work is sadly overshadowed by a character that could absolutely do with an overhaul.

Ditto for the whole picture in fact, which recycles themes from much better genre equivalents and gives them a South African underbelly spin that frankly doesn't work. Blomkamp's flair for staging a propulsive picture (with some help from an equally intrusive score from Hans Zimmer) is still intact, and so is his verve, but 'Chappie' is hyper-frenetic, over-plotted and yet under-developed at the same time. It is not even 'Elysium', which Blomkamp has in recent weeks admitted that he 'f**ked up'. We only wonder what he is going to say about 'Chappie' when he starts doing his rounds for the next 'Alien' movie.

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