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Sky on Fire (2016) Review: Or, How I Learned to Stop Loving and Worry about Ringo Lam

December 17, 2016

Upon leaving Sky on Fire, I tried to think about what would be the most memorable thing about the screening. Just as I approached my bus stop, I had to accept it and realize that it was the laughter that erupted after the film’s final scene. Poor Ringo Lam.

Sky On Fire China Poster
If you understand this poster, you still probably will not understand the plot in Sky on Fire

Let’s get caught up: Last time we left Ringo Lam he had returned after nearly a decade away from making feature films, with Wild City. That film definitely did not make anyone’s Best Of list that year, and by my count, in only three results from Google did anyone say “Welcome Back Ringo” in relation to the film. To sprinkle some salt on that wound, one of the post appears to be a duplicate review on another website.

Lam has a lot to prove if he will ever be mentioned beyond a footnote that his City on Fire film was “influential” to Quentin Tarantino’s Reservoir Dogs. Attention reviewers and writers covering Lam in the future: he has other films, folks! Perhaps his name has been tarnished since the 1990s. After a popular string of films such as Full Contact, and the other films like City on Fire and the Prison on Fire series, we can even delve into cult favourites like the edited-to-bits and highly political School on Fire. Or the box office failure but hardcore fan favourite, Burning Paradise, a film that blogger Rob Larsen compared to Blade Runner in terms of production design.

How bad has Lam fallen off? Well, his American productions had him becoming a Jean-Claude Van Damme enabler, making a series of poor films long after the Van Damme was box office gold. His only film for Johnnie To’s Milkyway Productions, Looking For Mr. Perfect, which should’ve been a wake-up for him to join To for his millennium golden period, just sort of plopped out as an odd comedy.

So, surely with the release of Sky on Fire, a film title that even calls out to his golden period of the past, he means business now, right? I am sad to report that Sky on Fire is a complete clunker. Where to start? The main issue is a script which cannot establish characters, a script that does not make us realize the importance of what our main character (played by Daniel Lu) wants (something about stem cells? Blood? Sister?). It’s a shamble and is not strengthened by a cast beyond Lu, who all fail to make any real presence felt. Maybe they do not understand the script either.

For the Lam die-hards (if such things exist), some of his car chases will recall happy memories of the past films like Full Alert, and he hides some CG cars particularly well… until we get to the end of the film, where we enter a tower of a parking garage. This tower is shown casually through the film, but judging by the elevator and scale, is the whole building one large garage? Why!?

It would be easy to blame a story writer, screenplay author or director for some of these problems, but oops, Lam is credited as all three! Thankfully, there have at least been two other Hong Kong films in the recent past that I managed to see theatrically that went over well, specifically, To’s Three and Cheang Pou-soi’s SPL II. It’s just a shame that To can still make solid films that stand on their own, while Lam appears to have peaked in the 1980s or 1990s.

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Johnnie To’s Three Review

July 9, 2016

Before sliding off into a gushy review of Three, let’s take a peek at the Johnnie To’s last trip to a hospital in his film Help!!!. Remember that film? Most don’t.

The popularity of Help!!! seems to surround scene in the trailer where the cast reveals their bras. Kozo of Lovehkfilm.com described the film as “better than a Wong Jing film”, and accurately states that it’s not saying much.

But we’re here to talk about Three. Although early reviews described the film as an action film, it’s more of a thrilling crime melodrama set in a hospital. We are introduced to Dr. Tong Qian (Vicki Zhao), a neuro-surgeon at a hospital. Her record doesn’t seem to be great as of late, as she deals with patients who are either paralyzed or have entered a vegetative state. Qian is lead to a more difficult situation when a cocky criminal Zhang Lixin (an enjoyably hammy Wallace Chung) is brought to the hospital with a bullet logged in his head. He’s accompanied by Johnnie To regular Louis Koo as Inspector Chen, who is interrogating Lixin. Chung’s character has other plans in the hospital, as he is organizing crimes with his fellow gangsters who are robbing banks and even threatening to blow up the hospital (shades of Hard Boiled?). Sounds good, right?

Lo_Hoi-Pang

How can you hate this face?

The film is a bit scattershot. The main plot had a lot of twists and turns which do not seem to affect the main characters enough and some side stories seem to remain more fresh in my mind. Lo Hoi-Pang steals the show as enthusiastic patient who runs around stealing keys. Three screenwriters, with only one To regular, may make a weird stew for a film, but I don’t think Hong Kong cinema fans will mind. Let’s compare this film to another enjoyable but very different flick from Hong Kong, SPL2: A Time for Consequences. Narratively, they are all over the place, which could leave into a confusing watch. However, both films deliver what a genre promises. For the most part, SPL2 provides the action and enough narrative in between to tie it together without being dull. Three is genuinely exciting and thrilling. It contains the strong acting, stylised cinematography, humor (Lam Suet gets stabbed in his arse (shades of…Eastern Condors?)), and troubled heroes and devious gangsters that you would expect in a Johnnie To production. Is it as structured as well as Exiled or the Election films? Not really, but it does deliver the goods despite the narrative confusion and in the hands of less talented director, cinematographer and cast this would crumble. Johnnie To is a director who has a strong enough team that he can overcome the occasionally dodgy script if he at least seems comfortable with the material. I like to assume this is why films like Three work and will find an audience, while Help!!! will only remain on a To completist’s shelf

If you are still reading this far into the review, I’ll assume you are a enthusiastic To fan, or at least curious enough to enter the fandom. There’s been criticism about the excessive CG at the end of the film, but I’d have to say that it isn’t nearly as glaring as the beer can in Exiled. What does stick out like a sore thumb is a cliffhanger scene where certain cast members are hanging for their lives in front of the dreaded green screen void. It’s entirely unconvincing and makes you miss the days where Hong Kong would have real actors in near death situations at twice the height.

Beyond that, Three is a unique new entry for To, that could easily creep into the secondary favourites lists that also include other non typical To films such as Sparrow, Needing You and Office.

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More Poster crap with True Legend

June 12, 2011

Despite almost never updating due to school applications, I assume I have the most read blog in the world that has the film industry shaking in their boots with my every post. Therefore, the company that is releasing True Legend in the United States is only listening to me and hanging on every post. Besides, whenever I complain about their posters, I get a new one. Here’s their third go at the True Legend poster:

True Legend Poster

This is what one calls, “eau de Photoshop“. So much grain, I can barely make it out. At least they got the tip to mention why the average-joe might want to see it due to Yuen-woo Ping’s American work.

But seriously, if they keep it up, this is what the next one will look like.

Horrible film poster lens flare

Mark my words…I’m fully expecting this to be the DVD cover.

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True Legend Trailer and Poster

April 3, 2011

Remember a few weeks back I blogged about three hong kong films having a North American release this year? I was a bit disappointed about how little there was promoting True Legend‘s release. It seems my internet whining has payed off as we now have a poster and a trailer for this film. Rejoice! Let’s have a comparison between how China and America handles the poster.

American Poster Chinese Poster True Legend

It’s fun just to compare these posters for the tone they seem to be going for. The hot orange in the background on the American poster gives me cartoonish vibes while the Chinese poster seems like this could be a dead-serious costume drama. One recent new rule I’ve found is when American companies try to sell an Asian action film in a poster, they must include a dragon stamped somewhere. Not that I’m complaining as it’s better than when they include the song “Kung Fu Fighting” by Carl Douglas in the film somehow. *shudder*

The focus on individual characters is different too as my first glance at the bald-headed central figure (Andy On) gave me zombie vibes. Then again, the last time he worked with Yuen-Woo Ping was on Black Mask 2 and had a goofy get up then. The two apparently did not get along on the set so I suppose this is their hatred for each other visualized. Pretty gruesome.

We must be long past the days of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon as there’s no predominant mention of Michelle Yeoh’s role (image or large text) wise. Remember ages ago when it was difficult not to find some blurb about her being a Bond girl? Sometimes those quotes were bigger than the film’s title. Times have changed! I guess Michelle being around 48 years old also doesn’t help your case. But i’m still excited about seeing her.

On a final poster note, True Legend was shown in China in 3D…sort of anyways as parts of the film were shot in 3D. I’d love to see “Put Your 3D Glasses On Now” printed in Mandarin on the screen but I can’t find any information about it being shown in 3D on the poster or anywhere else online for it’s American release. I’d say it’s safe to assume we are getting it how most film fans would want to see it, in traditional 2D.

The trailer can be viewed here. We get one lovely line spoken by the late David Carradine explaining how I suppose we really feels about Chinese people “Break their necks!”. Typical nonsense and kind of awkward but it’s not like this is the only film that has been marketed this way. The trailer is a bit too empty for me as it doesn’t really suggest how it will stand out from other martial art epics we’ve seen. The inclusion of a scene involving a vein growing on some muscular skin looks a bit more video gamey than probably intended. On a positive note, it does include this final goofy clip of Gordon Liu.

Gordon Liu in True Legend
I’m sold on this film now

For our UK friends, it seems that True Legend has already has it’s premiere in September. Has anyone there seen it? Thoughts?

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The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman Review

March 30, 2011

No one in my town was excited about The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman. I’m basing this on the fact that I was the only one in the theater when I went to see it. The idea of a private screening is a shame though, as parts of the film are so delightfully psychedelic, that I would love to see how a casual audience would have reacted to it.

Not exactly an anthology film, the slightly confusing story of The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsmen starts with a butcher named Chopper (Liu Xiaoye) who falls for Madam Mei (Kitty Zhang), a woman living in the House of a Thousand Flowers. Chopper attempt to get Mei is interrupted by the swordsman Big Beard (Senggerenqin) and is ejected from the brothel. Chopper meets a stranger who carries a cleaver who tells Chopper a story of about a famous restaurant known for it’s glorious eight-course meals. Only the dwarf chef (Mi Dan) knows how to prepare these meals and takes on an apprentice (Ando Masanobu) to teach his secrets. The apprentice however, has a secret vengeful agenda, that comes to place as the chef tells his apprentice the story about Fat Tang and how he came into possession of the special cleaver.

Butcher, Chef and the Swordsmen plot
Fig 1. Plot structure of the The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsmen

Take that Inception! We don’t have dream within a dream but a story within a story within a story. The plot in the film is scattered with the most interesting one being the second cooking themed story involving the chef. I can’t recall the last time that food has looked so good on film. The singularly-named director Wureshan’s background in television commercials must have had some part in this, but I’d also give praise to the Polish DP Michal Tywonluk.

I can’t exactly say who I would recommend this film too. If you are in it just for the action, the fight scenes are an editing mess with so much quick cutting it’s not easy to make out what’s exactly happening…and when you do it’s usually not as interesting. On the other hand, we have humorous scenes that are filmed exactly like a Street Fighter II battle complete with health bars. Wureshan says that he’s mostly influenced by American cinema, but the story in this film feels very Chinese while the energy and pacing feels more Hong Kong oriented. The acting in the film has it’s fair share of mugging and genuine talent, but it suits the story. Oh, and Kitty Zhang on the poster is a bit of a tease.

Kitty Zhang in The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsman

Yes, her rose-printed head is the most prominent one on the poster, but she’s hardly in this. Not that it’s a problem as I throughly had a good time watching The Butcher, The Chef, and the Swordsmen but I can’t say I’m rushing out to see it again or grab it on DVD. If what I mentioned above peaks your interest than I encourage you to seek it out. I’m definitely up for whatever Wuershan will release next time. Maybe cut it down to one story next time?

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