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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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Righting Wrongs Review

September 21, 2013

When people think of Corey Yuen, their thoughts turn to two things: Jet Li’s partner in crime and the person in question when text is tattooed across a DVD cover shouting, “From the Director of The Transporter.“ For me, Yuen is probably just as important as Tsui Hark for getting Hong Kong films up to American production standards. Where Tsui Hark was importing Hollywood visual effects artists for Xu Warriors From the Magic Mountain or producing films for up and coming directors, I feel Corey Yuen always had an international audience in mind and was doing it in his own way.

Need proof? Corey Yuen was the first New Wave Hong Kong directors to make an American production via the (Fist of B-list favourite) No Retreat, No Surrender, a film that just missed being a big hit by premiering at 11th place in the American box office when released. But hey! It still beat John Woo to the punch for directing in the United States. Corey Yuen’s second film as director was the multi-titled Yes, Madam!, which was the debut film of white American Cynthia Rothrock. Rothrock’s role was probably producer Sammo Hung’s idea, but they still had the lone white American who could showcase her martial arts chops well enough for her stand out as being a token white girl in these types of films. People still talk about Rothrock today, right?

In the same year as No Retreat, Corey Yuen starting working on what would be one of his most memorable Hong Kong Films: Righting Wrongs. For this film, my theory is that Yuen was reaching out to an American audience. Yuen not only got Rothrock front and center again, but there’s also Canadian kick boxer Peter “Sugarfoot” Cunningham who Yuen worked with on No Retreat as well as stunt actress Karen Sheperd who Rothrock gets in a fancy foot chase with. Of course, the film’s real star is Yuen Biao, but even with him as the star, the film still has more ties to American productions. Biao has even stated that Righting Wrongs’ production was planned early on, allowing for less of the “make-it-up-as-we-go” spirit of other Hong Kong action films of the era. It’s far less scattered than Yes, Madam! and this planning is evident.

Righting Wrongs also is a big change from Yuen’s previous Hong Kong production Yes, Madam!, as it’s nearly free of the “wacky” Hong Kong comedy that takes up a lot of Yes, Madam!’s running time. Even the film’s villain, played by Melvin Wong, acts without the usual scenery- chewing habits of other pulpy baddies, thus marking his character more realistic and memorable. In comparison to Yuen’s previous films and other Hong Kong films of the era, the story is played far more straight, which I believe was done as Yuen had a foreign audience in mind. Clearly, Corey Yuen was Hong Kong’s flag-waving all American patriot.

corey-yuen-american-patriot
Corey Yuen: All-American

That’s probably an overstatement, but the American influences are hard to miss and it’s still one of his better films Yuen has directed in America or Hong Kong. Righting Wrongs succeeds due to its successful action scenes, which are a huge step-up from what appears in No Retreat, No Surrender and Yes, Madam! in their intensity and creativity. I was entertained enough to forgive the occasional rusty editing. Take this car park battle with Yuen Biao. The audience I watched it with got some giggles when the car impossibly gets some air time when it leaps out one of the car park windows, but after witnessing the mayhem, the car could have sprouted wings and flew off and I wouldn’t have so much as batted an eye.

Another freeze-frame worthy scene involves some very obvious stunt doubling for the major cast members in the action scenes. It becomes especially amusing during the scenes where Rothrock is doubled by a Hong Kong male stuntman. Take a look:

cynthia-rothrock-stunt-double-above-the-law
I like how he shaved his legs. That’s stuntman commitment.

Other separations from the norm include a rare woman vs. woman fight scene. Yuen films the women respectfully and not merely for titillation as it’s free from faux-orgasmed “oohs” and “ahs” of films like Charlie’s Angels. Then again, who knows if that was even running through Yuen’s mind? He did direct So Close over a decade later which has a somewhat famous fluffy bathroom scene, so it’s hard to view Yuen as any sort of filmmaker with a female-empowerment message to get across. [Note: Sorry for linking to a video titled “Hot Asian Chick bathtub fight (catfight)”, but everyone needs at least one sketchy thing in their browser history.]

So what’s holding this film back from being known as well as something like The Legend of Fong Sai Yuk? It’s had a weird life on home video with multiple titles and the current Hong Kong Blu-ray’s subtitles are a complete mess, making it’s plot frustrating to follow. The film’s plot isn’t helped by a side-story involving Wu Ma which doesn’t effect the main plot significantly or compliment the action scenes in any way. Worst of all, like Yes, Madam! previously, it has a needless bummer of an ending involving the death of pretty much every likable character in the film. Who screwed that up? Barry Wong is credited as the screenwriter for both of these two Corey Yuen films, so is he the culprit? Or did someone’s contract demand “no sequel” and decided everyone should die? Who knows!

I doubt there will ever be any serious critical analysis of Righting Wrongs released written, nor will it receive a 30th Anniversary re-release anytime soon, so my questions will probably remain unanswered. However, it’s a film that is very easy to recommend to fans of Rothrock, Corey Yuen, and of course, Yuen Biao. I’d recommend the Dragon Dynasty DVD (where it’s titled Above the Law) over the Hong Kong blu-ray due it’s better subtitles and bonus features. It’s a solid action film – just fast-forward as soon as you see Wu Ma – and you’re set!

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John Woo’s Unfinished Projects

May 30, 2012

Woo Van Damme New Film
John Woo with Jean-Claude Van Damme. Picture from at least 100 years ago.

It’s been at least two posts since I’ve written about John Woo. He’s been pretty quiet since the release of Red Cliff which still demands a larger fanbase. I think hardcore fans skipped out on it theatrically knowing it wasn’t the full cut and the interest in Chinese epics has dwindled since we are long out of the era of Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon or Hero. Woo’s slow down in production had me a bit worried, especially after hearing him deny having throat cancer doesn’t help much. He had a tonsil tumor removed before February this year as well and is not getting much progress done on his romance film Love and Let Love. Whether this film gets off the ground or not, it can be placed in the large pile of projects that Woo had put on hold. I’ve tried to make a complete list compiling what is currently in the works and films that are no longer in play.

Kickin’ off with the films that are currently in the lengthy period known as “pre-production”:

John Woo’s Le Samourai

Nearly any article that mentions a mild history of Woo always brings up either Le Samourai or Jean Pierre Melville’s influence on him. It’s hard to overstate, and would make me wonder how Melville would react to such love from directors like Woo or Johnnie To. According to French director Jacques Rivette (who hated Woo’s Face/Off but loves Luc Besson), Melville apparently always wanted to have disciples so I’d suppose he would be proud to have such followers. I don’t think there’s any real reason for Woo to remake Le Samourai as he’s already nipped the best bits of it for The Killer ages back. It would also be an American film which only makes me imagine Nicolas Cage in the Alain Delon role and Rihanna as the nightclub singer. It’d be a big step up from her work in Battleship probably, but we’ll have to wait and see if anything new comes from this project.

John Woo’s Marco Polo

There’s very little information about this one, but Woo is interested in another historical film about Marco Polo, specifically his relationship with Kublai Khan. I’m not Chinese history expert (and neither is Woo from his story in Red Cliff) but from drawings of Kublai, I think Lam Suet should co-star. If he’s working his historical romance now, I think three in a row would be a bit much to ask of Woo. Cut it out with the historical films already.

John Woo’s Flying Tigers

Here’s Woo being slow to the punch again. Zhang Yimou’s Flowers of War was first to be the big popular film that was a Chinese production with an English-language actor (Christian Bale). This could be why it’s been at least a year since we’ve heard anything about Flying Tigers which was about an American Volunteer Group and the 14th Air Force during World War II. This would have been a film starring Tom Cruise which Woo hasn’t worked with since, well, the worst film in the Mission Impossible series. As no one has spoken about this film in quite a while, I can only assume it’s been shoved back. Tom’s very busy doing his hair metal movie anyways.

John Woo’s Youth of the Beast

This one I was the most excited for a number of reasons. First, it’s Woo’s return to the gangster genre, his first since…well, I suppose either Hard Boiled or A Bullet in the Head. Has it been that long? Second, it’s a film that Woo hasn’t already basically done unlike Le Samourai Woo has stated that he is a fan of the Japanese yakuza genre, but hasn’t explicitly noted how Youth of the Beast or any of Seijun Suzuki’s films have influenced him. Lastly, it’s a film that not everyone knows. Youth of the Beast is generally considered higher-tier Suzuki from his fan-base but it’s not quite as popular as Branded to Kill or Tokyo Drifter. The only problem? The film will probably be American as it’s plot now involves a “western outsider” and a two groups of gangsters: Russian and Japanese. Woo’s American films’ aren’t my favourite’s, but I’m still quite curious.

That’s a lot on Woo’s plate so that bastard better get well and get filming as soon as possible. He has left projects off long enough or has turned down films which would’ve have interesting results. Let’s quickly dash through the list of films that Woo has passed up.

John Woo’s King’s Ransom

Anticipating King’s Ransom is nostalgia from the 90s. In a perfect world, this should have been Woo’s first project in the United States as it was reportedly going to star Chow-Yun Fat and be written by the Face/Off writers Michael Colleary and Mike Web. This film has been in talks since the 1990s and Woo has finally given up the idea of directing it. The latest news on King’s Ransom is that it will be directed by Milky Way alumni Patrick Leung who also worked with Woo as a second unit director on The Killer and Red Cliff. In the book John Woo: The Interviews, Woo states the script has changed on King’s Ransom, so I don’t think we’ll be seeing any Face/Off-esque dialouge directly translated to Mandarin anytime soon.

John Woo’s Metroid

Video games aren’t movies. Movies based on things where a protagonist who is generally mute sound like bad things to base your film about. Either way, Woo has purchased the rights to a film version of the Metroid series around 2006. This was pretty shocking for me to hear about at the time as Woo seems to dislike science fiction. He even turned down the original script to Face/Off which he found to be too science fiction oriented in 1993. His only real step into the science fiction arena was in Pay Check which isn’t anyone’s favourite Woo film. No one has really discussed anything about Metroid relating to John Woo since the announcement of him buying the rights to it in the mid-2000s, but I have a hunch that any paper Woo signed relating to this project is gathering dust in a closet.

John Woo’s Goldeneye

I don’t even no the accuracy of this one as the only mention of it I can find is in Christopher Heard’s book Ten Thousand Bullets which has a lot inaccurate information. According to the book, MGM offered Woo a chance to direct GoldenEye in the 1990s even before he signed on to make Broken Arrow which is a nearly forgotten film. Woo apparently took on Broken Arrow as a way to try to learn how to use special effects…so if you’re a fan of pre-Matrix post-Terminator 2 special effects, there’s a copy in a bargain bin somewhere with your name on it. GoldenEye, and the James Bond universe is probably something Woo shouldn’t have tackled in the long run. James Bond is an institution and you can’t really change those films too much and get away with it. Neither the producers nor the James Bond fans would really be happy with that. Woo would’ve been held down by the restraints of what requires a Bond film to be a Bond film at that time and not really get any of his own ideas really placed within it. But it’s still not as strange as the next film Woo had been considering.

John Woo’s Phantom of the Opera

I have just stared at the heading of this section for a minute trying to even think about what to write here. Woo has long pined for the chance to direct a musical film or as he describes it as “his action musical”. There’s little information in this one within the Ten Thousand Bullets book and the John Woo: The Interviews books stating that John Travolta suggested the idea to him. Woo reported that “it somehow didn’t work out”. Even more nuts is Woo was also in the running to direct Chicago, remember that film? No one cares about Chicago anymore. Woo had already signed on to direct Mission Impossible 2 at that time, so there was no chance of going through with it.

Woo’s a director with a long history mixed with rumors, classics and films ideas that need to be done as soon as possible. I don’t know how ill Woo may really be, but I’m hoping for good news and good films in the future. In the meantime, I’m going to see if Paul Verhoeven is planning to make another film before he turns 100.

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Vote in the Lovehkfilm.com best films of the 1980s!

February 25, 2012

Flag of Hong Kong pre-1997
1980s Hong Kong Flag

Greetings and Salutations to all who read this still. Just a quick post before I get into lengthy discussions on the merits of the films of Rudy Ray Moore. If you like action films, you are bound to like Asian cinema. If you like Asian cinema, you know it goes beyond action films. To help expand the word on Hong Kong cinema, I am promoting one of my favourite film sites,Lovehkfilm.com. The reviews are humorous, self-aware and escape all types of fan-boy knee-jerk reactions that sometimes occur with such country or genre specific film sites.

One of the features on the Lovehkfilm.com I frequently return to is their Best of the Decades polls which readers nominate their best films of the decade. It’s a good reference for those taking their first baby-steps into Hong Kong cinema and for seasoned vets who need to seek out the more forgotten titles. The site has already done lists for the the top 100 of the 1990s and the top 50 of the 2000s and are currently doing one for the 1980s. If you have an e-mail, you can vote so it’s easy as just following the instructions here. Be sure to take time and think of not just films you think are obviously the best but films you think that deserve more respect or support. I’m looking forward to the results and hearing about what your votes are. Be quick though as the poll closes on February 29th. Get out and vote!!

That’s all for now, I’ll try to get back to real posts on my own content sometime in the near future. Get out and vote!

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