Tony Leung Ka-fai

Tai Chi Hero (2012, Stephen Fung)

Tai Chi Hero basks in its extravagance. Whether it’s the kung fu fighting, the battle scenes (these are different types of scenes) or just the imaginative steampunk gadgets, Hero always invites the viewer to enjoy what it’s creating.

And when Fung has to come up with something different? He does. And he does a great job with it. I had to take a step back and think about the big choice he makes, but it’s the right one-the only one he could make for the film.

He does turn back on the extravagance a little with a final gag, however.

Hero directly continues the previous entry (Tai Chi Zero), complete with an opening flashback of memorable events. It probably stunts the drama a little, which involves Eddie Peng’s wiener-boy of a villain plotting against the peaceful village as his ex-girlfriend (Angelababy) tries to teach her platonic new husband (Yuan Xiaochao) kung fu. Her father (and Yuan’s friend) Tony Leung Ka Fai tries to help out, but he’s got his ne’er-do-well eldest son (Feng Shaofeng) back in town.

Most of the film plays like a soap opera, since it is such a direct continuation of the previous one, but director Fung always keeps it light and fun.

The biggest problem is after Yuan gets good at kung fu… Angelababy stops being such a driving force in the picture. There’s also Feng running away with the first half or so of the film.

Still, Hero works out.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Fung; screenplay by Cheng Hsiao-tse and Zhang Jialu, based on a story by Chen Kuo-fu; directors of photography, Peter Ngor, Lai Yiu-Fai and Du Jie; edited by Cheng, Matthew Hui and Zhang Weili; music by Katsunori Ishida; production designer, Timmy Yip; produced by Wang Zhongjun, Wang Liqun and Zhu Jing; released by Huayi Brothers Media.

Starring Yuan Xiaochao (Yang Lu Chan), Angelababy (Chen Yunia), Tony Leung Ka Fai (Uncle Laborer), Eddie Peng (Fang Zi Jing), Nikki Hsieh (Sister-in-Law) and Peter Stormare (Flemming).


Tai Chi Zero (2012, Stephen Fung)

Presumably the Zero in Tai Chi Zero‘s title indicates a second installment is forthcoming, because this one ends on two cliffhangers. The film joyously embraces its artificiality–there’s no attempt at making the kung fu fighting seem realistic; instead, director Fung concentrates on making it look good and drawing attention to that effort. The opening titles all have annotations, informing the viewer where they might have seen cast members before. The method makes Zero a lot of fun, when it otherwise might not be.

It’s not a particularly fun story. Yuan Xiaochao plays an orphan who ends up in a possibly villainous army, his commander knowingly endangering his life because of a mysterious kung fu-enabling ailment. He journeys to an idyllic village, hoping to save his own life, where he’s met with derision from the townsfolk.

Meanwhile, Eddie Peng plays another outsider who’s never been accepted, but now he’s back to build a railroad through his old village.

Angelababy is the girl; she pines for Peng and constantly kicks Yuan’s ass with the kung fu he desperately wants to learn. All three give good performances, especially Peng. And Tony Leung Ka Fai’s great as Yuan’s reluctant friend.

While the film’s constantly trying to be amusing–and it succeeds almost all of the time–the technical achievements are significant. The photography’s fantastic, as is Katsunori Ishida’s music. Katsunori toggles between grand melodramatic scoring and playful action instantly.

It’s hard to hold the problematic ending against Zero. It’s just too fun.

2/4★★

CREDITS

Directed by Stephen Fung; screenplay by Cheng Hsiao-tse and Zhang Jialu, based on a story by Chen Kuo-fu; directors of photography, Peter Ngor, Lai Yiu-Fai and Du Jie; edited by Cheng, Matthew Hui, Zhang Jialu and Zhang Weili; music by Katsunori Ishida; production designer, Timmy Yip; produced by Wang Zhongjun, Daniel Wu and Zhang Dajun; released by Huayi Brothers Media.

Starring Yuan Xiaochao (Yang Lu Chan), Angelababy (Chen Yunia), Tony Leung Ka Fai (Uncle Laborer), Eddie Peng (Fang Zi Jing), Shu Qi (Yang Lu Chan’s Mother) and Feng Shaofeng (Chen Zai-Yang).


Missing (2008, Tsui Hark)

As Missing‘s end credits rolled, I could only think one thing–this movie is actually going to end. After the two dozen false endings in the third act, it really does feel like it’s never going to stop. There’s probably a post-credits tag, but I’ll never know.

Missing is a mix of Harry Potter, The Sixth Sense and Vanilla Sky. I don’t know why it’s got Harry Potter in there, but it does. There’s some stupid mysticism somewhere in it. Maybe a fight between ghosts or the promise of one. Whatever.

Strangely, until the last act–the big Vanilla Sky reveal (and I’m not feeling bad about spoiling this movie, because even after I say Vanilla Sky, I’m not even getting into those twelve false endings and the final twist)–Missing is completely watchable. The psychologist who sees ghosts following some kind of hypnosis drug? It’s kind of a good time killer. But Missing doesn’t just kill time, it somehow becomes light itself–infinitely long. Even when the movie isn’t bad, it’s long.

Some of the problem–well, technically, all of the problem, but I’m only going to cover some of it here–is how much Tsui Hark loves this movie. There are inexplicable voiceovers about the importance of the sea–both for environmental reasons and experimental psychotherapy. Or something along those lines. It all sounds like bull, so it’s hard to keep track.

His composition is fantastic and he has some great camera moves, but his script is something else. It’s not even neat in the way it all ties together. There are loose ends and the entire, end of the second act twist only works because he’s been deceiving the viewer the entire time. For one of the first times, I finally understood what Leonard Maltin meant when he complained about The Usual Suspects–you get to the end of the movie and it’s clear there wasn’t any reason to watch it. At the end of Missing, there’s this strange third act attempt to slap a big melodramatic romance onto the movie, but it doesn’t matter anymore… the dumb thing is almost over (finally). And it’s turned the protagonist into a brain-damaged simpleton and took the focus away from her, so what’s the point?

The acting in Missing is mediocre. Again, Tsui’s fault. Angelica Lee is never believable as a someone holding an MD, but she does the terrified thing pretty well. Once she turns into the simpleton… it gets painful. Isabella Leong is unimpressive throughout (occasionally, she has eyeshadow to act for her). Chang Chen is good, as is Tony Leung Ka Fai in a too small part.

Missing‘s such a good looking film, such a well-made one, there’s probably some argument for watching it–at least until the end of the second act. Then with the first big twist… well, I’m a little embarrassed I didn’t stop it. But I wasn’t expecting the third act to last three hundred minutes of the film’s two hour running time.

0/4ⓏⒺⓇⓄ

CREDITS

Written and directed by Tsui Hark; director of photography, Sakamoto Yoshitaka; edited by Yau Chi Wai; music by Ricky Ho; production designer, Kenneth Mak; produced by Tsui and Peter Chan; released by Mandarin Films Distribution Co.

Starring Angelica Lee (Dr. Gao Jing), Isabella Leong (Chen Xiao Kai), Chang Chen (Simon), Guo Xiaodong (Dave Chen Guo Dong), Tony Leung Ka Fai (Dr. Edward Tong) and Zhang Zhen-yue (Haiya Amu).


Ashes of Time (1994, Wong Kar-wai), the redux edition

I never know how to describe Ashes of Time. The first–and probably last–time I tried, I described it as a mix of Magnolia and Crouching Tiger, Hidden Dragon. As difficult as it is to describe, it’s got to be impossible to advertise–a character-based martial arts film, where fight scenes lack any visceral impact. Wong stylizes them, but not for any entertainment value. Given he’s become a more recognized and marketable filmmaker since the film’s initial release, as this “redux” edition started, I wondered if he’d tried to make it more palatable to any of the fans he picked up following that Norah Jones music video he made.

Pleasingly–and surprisingly–he did not. Ashes of Time is as hostile to the passive filmgoer as ever.

What’s most amazing, in terms of the narrative, is how Wong approaches his storytelling. The film opens with a few minutes, then skips ahead an indeterminate period of time. Wong separates the film into seasons (a possible addition to the redux edition, but I’m not sure) and, at the third of five seasons, foretells the protagonist’s future. It’s a strange and wonderful move, playing with the point of storytelling–if the reader knows the ending at the beginning, it’s going to change how he or she experiences the narrative–but to reveal the ending as an aside, it’s an entirely different effect. In Ashes of Time, it contributes to the film’s surreality.

The film’s visual style is one of its most hostile features. Set in a panoramic desert, in a small village, Wong never shows the village in an establishing shot. The desert never gets a vista shot for narrative’s sake. There’s only one time he even comes close and then it’s to emphasize the shot’s singular presence in the film. Much of the film takes place inside Leslie Cheung’s house, which is occasionally seen from the exterior but certainly not long enough to give the viewer any real sense of it.

There’s a wonderful scene between Cheung and Brigitte Lin where it’s nothing but close-ups.

The film’s actors have a rather awkward task here. There are lots of monologues, lots of close-ups–Maggie Cheung basically just has a long, single shot monologue. They’re in ornate costumes, playing these historical, mythic characters, but delivering these humanizing, rendering lines. In addition to delivering the majority of these monologues, Leslie Cheung narrates almost all of the film–both exposition and internal reflection–giving him the hardest task.

Both the Tony Leungs–Chiu Wai and Ka Fai–have good roles. Chiu Wai has the flashier role, but the importance of Ka Fai’s performance gradually comes through. Lin’s excellent, as is Charlie Yeung in a smaller role. Maggie Cheung’s monologue–her delivery of it–is invaluable.

While Christopher Doyle’s photography is–as always–wonderful, it’s the editing here. William Chang and Patrick Tam out do any expectation. Ashes of Time gets better as it moves along, every pitch perfect. The omnipresent musical score–from Frankie Chan and Roel A. García–transports the viewer into Wong’s created world. While he based it–loosely–on a novel, what Wong does in Ashes of Time is create a setting the viewer cannot be familiar with, but can’t be foreign in either. It’s an immersive experience, one requiring active participation with wonderful result.

4/4★★★★

CREDITS

Directed by Wong Kar-wai; screenplay by Wong, based on a novel by Louis Cha; director of photography, Christopher Doyle; edited by William Chang and Patrick Tam; music by Frankie Chan and Roel A. García; production designer, Chang; produced by Jeffrey Lau, Jacky Pang Yee Wah and Wong; released by HKFM Releasing.

Starring Bai Li (Hong Qi’s Wife), Jacky Cheung (Hong Qi), Leslie Cheung (Ouyang Feng), Maggie Cheung (Brother’s Wife), Carina Lau (Peach Blossom), Tony Leung Chiu Wai (Blind Swordsman), Tony Leung Ka Fai (Huang Yaoshi), Brigitte Lin (Murong Yin / Murong Yang) and Charlie Yeung (The girl).


A-1 Headline (2004, Gordon Chan and Chung Kai-cheong)

A-1 Headline is a good, old fashioned newspaper movie. There’s the conflicted editor, the smarter than he gets credit for photographer, the amusing guys around the office. Even the newspaper office looks like a good movie newspaper office: rows of desks, yellowing fluorescents, and antiquated computers. Unfortunately, it just doesn’t have a particularly interesting mystery. The actual investigation, once underway, is the least compelling part of the film, but A-1 still manages to be compelling. However, the characters are compelling. The story is not engaging at all. A handful of important questions go unanswered and I could tell early on there’d be no satisfactory answers to them. It’s just constructed wrong. What starts as a workplace conspiracy mystery ends as a nice little newspaper film, with a little romance no less.

Besides that lack of an engaging plot, there’s little wrong with A-1 (except a lot of the music, which sounds like something from a 1980s commercial). It’s funny, the character relationships develop in interesting ways… It’s a little short in some parts, but overall it’s a fine length since that lack of engagement would get tiring. The acting is particularly good, especially Anthony Wong Chau-Sang, who gives a deep performance. A-1’s borderline cutesy in many ways (mostly because the lead character, Angelica Lee, is a fashion reporter and the introduction to the character requires it) and the film has a fanciful air to it, which the intrusive music doesn’t help, but Wong really brings something to it. It’s not quite his film, but he’s the whole reason to watch it. The rest of the cast is good, with Lee turning in a really nice performance, even when she stops being the center of the film.

Nice is an odd adjective for A-1, but it seems to fit. While the film doesn’t work out well–it’s still all right, but doesn’t decide its thesis until… I don’t know, the last scene–it’s well-made and full of characters who are worth spending a boring ninety-five minutes watching.

2.5/4★★½

CREDITS

Directed and written by Gordon Chan and Chung Kai-cheong; director of photography, Nau Yee-shun; edited by Cheung Ka-fai; music by Johnny Njo; produced by Allan Fung; released by Panorama Distribution Co.

Starring Anthony Wong (Fei), Angelica Lee (Ling), Edison Chen (Kei), Tony Leung Ka-fai (Tsang Tat-si), Eric Kot (Ma) and Lam Ka-tung (Tong).


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