Tuesday, May 22, 2007

The Lady Iron Chef (Hong Kong 2007)

The Lady Iron Chef (Mei nui sik sung) plays on the popularity of the TVB cooking show "Beautiful Cooking", and also serves as the latest movie from director Siu-hung Chung. Beer girl and part-time model Ceci (Charmaine Sheh) has flat out terrible cooking skills. She is well known for turning even instant noodles into something inedible. Ceci meets and falls in love with wealthy SK (Hacken Lee), an heir to a restaurant empire, but his dominating mother (Bonnie Wong) disapproves of their relationship. She would prefer her son to marry the gourmet chef Jade Rice (Liu Yang). Ceci's dad Souza (Wong Jing) is hoping that his daughter will be able to marry SK, because it's his one-way ticket out of the poorhouse. In order to win over SK's mother, Ceci must beat Jade who is pretty much an unstoppable juggernaut of cooking might! This doesn't sit well with Lady Green (Yuen Qiu), who has an old rivalry with Jade's father and just so happened to once have a "thing" with Ceci's father as well. With the final championship just a month away, will Lady Green's training and Ceci's love for SK be enough to beat Jade and impress SK's mother?

They say imitation is the highest form of flattery. If that's so, then director Siu-hung Chung loves Stephen Chow and his favorite movie of all time has to be God of Cookery. So comparisons to the Stephen Chow classic not withstanding, let's just see what didn't work with Lady Iron. There are a lot of gags and ideas that are rehashed from God of Cookery, but they seem so rushed and poorly executed. The impossible meals are funny at times and some of character's reactions are amusing as well. So this shows us that the idea of people dueling with gourmet dishes can be entering... if done right. That's really where Lady Iron hits that "all-too-familiar" brick wall that we see in Hong Kong cinema as of late. The production comes across as weak, creating so much inconsistency that any potential good ideas just fall flat. The hi-jinks are laced with cheesy CG effects, while relying heavily on incredibly campy jokes and way over-used sound effects that are more annoying than funny. The acting (or lack there of) isn't a selling point either, making it hard to believe that any surprises could possibly be waiting for you in the end. In a movie where you have, more or less, a remake of an idea, they could of least made it enjoyable to watch. In the end, the subject matter doesn't deserve the blame, just the way it was handled. That's ultimatley what makes Lady Iron just too hard to swallow. (Converter)

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Saturday, May 19, 2007

Once Upon a Time in China (Hong Kong 1991)

When it comes to Wuxia martial-arts action, Once Upon a Time in China (OUATIC) is considered a true classic and with just cause. You'll have a hard time finding a better example of what Jet Li is truly capable of on-screen (except maybe Fist of Legend, but this is no place to get into that never ending debate). Wong Fei-Hung would've been proud.

The story takes place in 19th century Foshan, with the legendary Wong Fei-Hung (Jet Li) coming under the realization that China will no longer be the same with foreign forces (American, British, and French) beginning to increase their presence within the region. He is approached by the general of the Black Flag Army in order to recruit and train a 'militia' of men to protect the area from these potential new threats. Aunt Yee (Rosamund Kwan) returns from America almost completely "westernized", much to the dismay of Wong Fei-Hung. After being back in China for awhile, Aunt Yee (not really Wong's Aunt) begins to realize how much she loves her country and just how much damage the foreign element is causing. We then meet Foon (Yuen Biao), who is a member of the Chinese Opera who arrives in town only to be harassed by Sha Ho and his gang who are extorting money from local businesses. Foon falls in love with Aunt Yee, but of course she has eyes for Wong Fei-Hung and wants nothing to do with him. Feeling alone and heartbroken Foon finds refuge with Master Yim (Shi Kwan-Yen), a vagabond who wants to defeat Wong in order to claim status as the best martial artist in town. If Master Yim succeeds, he'll be able to open his own school, which people will want to join because Yim will the best. Due to some unfortunate proceedings with the local authorities, Wong is placed under house arrest, which is a perfect time for Yim to make his move. Wong refuses to fight Yim due to his situation and thus everyone thinks Yim defeated Wong. The Sha Ho gang takes up with Yim and promises to help fund the building of his new martial-arts school. To make matters worse, the Sha Ho gang and Yim form the unholy alliance with the Americans (and their guns), who are sending Chinese women to America for slave labor, in exchange for riches and protection against Wong Fei-Hung. After some dastardly deeds take place, Wong Fei and two of his most faithful recruits, Porky (Kent Chang) and Bucktooth So (Jacky Cheung), are off to rescue Aunt Yee and finish off Master Yim.

Even though the story is based on historical events, the plot itself seems rather over-stuffed with ideas coming from every direction. This results in the film running at about two hours and twenty minutes. That's a bit long for a martial-arts movie. However, Once Upon a Time in China tries to tell a deeper story about the changing social and political climate of China at that time with some fantastic fights throughout to keep you entertained, but it really felt like the opposite. Running-time and an overly busy storyline aside, by no means should you pass on OUATIC if you haven't seen it. Even if you could care less about the story being told, the fight scenes alone are worth the viewing. Jet Li is excellent as Wong Fei-Hung. He displays an array of emotions portraying a man who you can't help but think was really someone special. Yuen Biao, as Foon, doesn't really come across as the goofy sidekick character that was probably envisioned at first (which would explain him being replace in part 2), but he does a good enough job, and we all know the boy can seriously throw down.

Once Upon a Time in China is one of those movies that you really can't help but like despite it's imperfections. The story is interesting enough without being boring, and the actors all do a fine job in their roles. The real reason to watch though, and let's be honest here, is to see Jet Li beat the crap out of countless bad guys. If you aren't a fan of the Wuxia, almost fantasy like martial-arts (think Crouching Tiger or House of Flying Daggers), than it might not be your cup of tea. However, you owe it to yourself to watch OUATIC at least once, and chances are it'll be in your DVD collection shortly after. (Lee)

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Wednesday, May 9, 2007

No Regret (Korea 2006)

Discovering who you really are and finding your place in this world are supposed to be the most exciting aspects about growing up. Other times, they can be the most frightening. Somewhere along the way, we want to find someone to share our journey with. No Regret, a low-budget, independent film from director Lee Song Hee-il, is centered around these very aspects of life. Never mind the fact that the main characters are gay, or that most will refer to it as a "gay-themed" movie, because it's about more than just sexuality; it's about love and life.

Raised in a countryside orphanage for most of his life, 18-year old Lee Su-min (Young-hoon Lee) says goodbye to the only life he's known, heading to Seoul in order to pursue an education in design. After his arrival, he gets a job working at a factory, while also trying to maintain his studies. Along with his already full-schedule, Su-min takes on other "side" jobs to make ends meet. On his shift as a chauffeur, he picks up Song Jae-min (Han Lee) from a bar to take him home and Jae-min is clearly attracted to Su-min. However, Jae-min is not who he appears to be as we learn he's from a wealthy, conservative background, and is even engaged to a beautiful woman. Back at the factory, the powers that be begin letting people go, with Su-min becoming one of the unlucky ones. As he storms out, he sees that the person in charge of the factory is the young man that he took home the other night. He begins hopping from job to job, now focused more on making a living than finishing school. Frustrated, Su-min realizes he'll never make the kind of money he wants by washing dishes and mopping floors, so he sinks as low as he can by taking a job as a male prostitute at a gay bar. He isn't happy with the new career path his life has taken, but the irresistible lure of big money is too much for him to shake. We find out that Jae-min has been trying everything to find Su-min, but Su-min remembers him from the factory and wants nothing to do with him. Jae-min eventually finds Su-min at the gay bar and continues to pursue him in a downright obsessive manner. He's been living a lie his entire life and is ready to throw away everything to be with Su-min. Naturally, Jae-min's family isn't going to accept their son's wishes without a fight.

No Regret presents the old formula of "opposites-attract" in a serious way, with the concept of love being explored to extreme ends. Sure, love is a wonderful thing, but it can also hurt, and even drive people to lengths they never knew they were capable of...sometimes with tragic results. To say that the performances in No Regret are amazing would be an understatement. Young-hoon Lee gives an award-winning performance as Lee Su-min, displaying acting chops and a range of emotion that you'd expect out of a seasoned veteran, not from someone making his film debut. Han Lee is just as impressive as the tortured Song Jae-min, but both actors really seem to put everything they have on the line in these roles and it shows. As his second film, director Lee Song Hee-il really seems to understand that next to a good story, deep and involving characters are the most important things in making a movie great. The film has a great gritty look to it that manages to match the story perfectly. No Regret has a cast that may do things that you might not do, or agree with, but everything plays out in a convincing manner and that's what matters in the end.

Understandably, No Regret isn't going to be at the top of everyone's "must-see" list due to its gritty nature and explicit sex scenes. Heck, let's be honest, many people won't watch it because it's a "gay" movie. I can only feel sorry for those that limit themselves, but I know it's not always easy to step outside your comfort zone. However, if your a person who can do just that, and you're a fan of movies with an engaging storyline and top-notch performances, then I can promise that No Regret will deliver in both areas, and possibly even change your perception of what a great movie can be. (Lee)

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Monday, May 7, 2007

200 Pounds of Beauty (Korea 2006)

It's no big revelation that we live in a largely superficial world where appearances seem to mean everything. People are obsessed with monitoring the daily lives of good-looking celebrities who are a necessity in magazines, commercials, films, and advertisements in general. Occasionally, the entertainment industry seems to exude a hint of guilt at not making enough shows or movies that 'real' people can relate to. Hence the existence for movies such as 200 Pounds of Beauty; a movie that manages to serve up some real comedic moments, while at the same time teaching us a thing or two about the meaning of true inner beauty.

Hanna Kang (Ah-jung Kim) is the 200 pound beauty of the film, and lives a life of extreme contrasts. Her day job consists of singing in a backstage area for an untalented K-pop idol Ammy who soaks up all the credit and fan adoration by lip synching over Hanna's beautiful singing ability. In the evening, she uses her soothing voice to run a phone-sex operation from her humble abode. She doesn't particularly like the job, but she needs the money in order to keep her mentally unstable father (Im Hyeon-sik) in the hospital so he can receive proper care. Back at Hanna's day job, the man running things behind-the-scenes is Sang Jun (Ju Jin Mo), and he seems to really appreciate all of the hard work that Hanna puts into making Ammy's entire existence a success. Naturally, Hanna develops a crush on Sang Jun due to his friendly and appreciative nature, and the fact that he looks like a model doesn't hurt matters. Hanna's best friend Jung-min (Kim Hyeon-sook) advises her that it would be best to dismiss any feelings she might have for Sang Jun. Fraudulent pop idol Ammy gets jealous of all the attention Sang Jun gives Hanna and makes it her goal to humiliate her every chance she gets. After an unfortunate incident in which Hanna overhears some revealing and hurtful information at Sang Jun's birthday party, she completely gives up on life and decides to end it all. A nicely timed voicemail from one of Hanna's regular 'customers' (who happens to be a plastic surgeon) interrupts her suicide attempt while giving her an grand idea at the same time. Hanna blackmails the doctor into performing various surgeries in an attempt to have the life she never had and maybe even win over Sang Jun in the process. One year later, and going by the name of Jenny, she returns to the life of music she left behind in an attempt to grab Sang Jun's heart and take over as the new queen of K-pop.

200 Pound of Beauty is a movie that forces itself to find a unique way of telling the same old story. When you're dealing with a concept of a persons appearance changing drastically, you know for sure that two things will happen: first, that person will become so egotistical that all of their friends from their previous life begin to loathe them, and secondly, that person will also reach a point where they realize that their previous life wasn't so bad after all. In 200 Pounds of Beauty, the same rules apply. So what can be done to deviate from the same old overdone stuff? In this case, we're lucky to have a likeable protagonist through Hanna. She's so genuinely sweet and innocent (before the surgery) that you can't help but empathize with her and hope that everything works out for the best. Ah-jung Kim does a good job at expressing a wide range of emotions and it's fun to watch her adjustment as a new-found "beautiful girl" once the surgery has taken place. Ju Jin Mo plays a suave music executive, but his personality can be conflicting at times. Alternating between hot and cold, it's difficult to know his true feelings and intentions. The supporting cast all do a fine job in their roles (although the plastic surgeon Dr. Lee is hilarious), but this movie is almost entirely about Hanna and the emotional roller coaster her life takes after her physical transformation. Of course Ammy will still be around to make Hanna's life a living hell, so it's not all fun and games.

200 Pounds of Beauty isn't perfect by any means, especially since it manages to stretch itself into an almost two-hour running time, which is almost thirty minutes too long in my opinion. Ninety minutes would've been more than sufficient to tell this story, and with a lot less filler. The ending is what you'd expect, comprised of the big secret of Hanna's true identity being revealed complete with the appropriate "gasps". It's all played out in an incredibly over-the-top fashion, that seems more concerned with tugging at the heart-strings than worrying about creating a realistic moment. However, the film manages to get it's message of "inner beauty" across in a way that isn't overbearing, but still finding the right balance between seriousness and what it is at it's core; a comedy. You'll laugh, possibly cry, and hopefully walk away more conscious of how we should treat one another. (Lee)

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Saturday, May 5, 2007

Twins Mission (Hong Kong 2007)

Twins Mission (Seung chi sun tau) centers on a martial arts school called "Twins", whose members are all twins (get it?). Some of the former members are now performing circus acts, including acrobats Pearl and Jade (Charlene Choi and Gillian Chung). Another former member Lau Hay (Wu Jing), whose twin brother is gravely ill, is commissioned to protect the mysterious "Heavens Bead" from Tibet, with assistance from Uncle Luck (Sammo Hung). However, some evil former Twins members steal the precious bead, prompting Uncle Luck to seek help from ex-Twins leader Chang Chung (Yuen Wah). Chang Chung then sends Pearl and Jade for a mission to uncover the "Heavens Bead". The girls have to fend off the rival twins who try to stop them every bit of the way. The evil set of Twins are after the bead, under the orders of Mr. Mok (Sek Sau). If Mr. Mok has the bead, he'll have leverage with Lillian (Jess Zhang), who owns land that he's after. The only reason she needs it is due to it magical healing properties that will cure her younger sister, Happy (Qiu Lier), who has cancer. Pearl and Jade end up with control of the Bead and try to help Lillian, but Mr. Mok gets the upper hand by kidnapping Lillian's sister Happy. Time for our girls to gear up for a little revenge and rescue.

The Twins are back for their twelfth movie together and boy is this one for the ages. The plot is what one might call a, "train wreck of sorts". There are tons of scenes that seem to exist for no reason whatsoever, and really do nothing to move the story forward in any way. Honestly, they just seem to confuse the viewer. Just when the plot verges on the edge of unbearable, there is a slight break for some action. Before you get too excited, all this means is you now get to see the girls replaced with obvious body doubles while the editing tries it's best to hide the fact that it's really not them. One the other hand, you do get Sammo Hung , Wu Jing, and Sek Sau, who do a pretty good job in their fight scenes, but that's to be expected. That being said, it's still not enough to recommend even to the biggest Twin fan. So in the end Twins Misson throws a lot at you, but the stuff it's throwing is a bevy of bad green screen and C.G. effects, plus tons of "wire-fu" fight scenes that just hurt the final product more than it helps. The Twins Mission is hopefully the last one we'll go on, but somehow I highly doubt it. (Converter)

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Thursday, May 3, 2007

My Wife is a Gangster 3 (Korea 2006)

My Wife Is a Gangster 3 (Jopog manura 3) centers around half Chinese-half Korean, Lim Aryong (Shu Qi) who gets sent to South Korea to "lay low" by her father (Ti Lung), who just happens to be the head of a major Triad gang and is engaged in a bloody power struggle in Hong Kong. In Korea, Aryong meets kindhearted gangster Ki Chul (Lee Bum Soo) who, unaware of her identity, tries to protect her from the legions of thugs hunting her down.

Well, before you get too excited for the third installment in this wildly successful series, you should know that it has nothing to do with the previous films, other than the title and the director (well, from the first one anyway). The first big change is the fact that the female lead is no longer played by Eun-Kyung Shin and has been replaced by Chinese star Shu Qi (The Transporter, So Close, and Gorgeous to name a few). It seems that the trick this time around is location, location, location, by emphasizing the fact that the Chinese main character is stuck in South Korea while having no knowledge of the Korean language. While there, she is baby-sat by three "would be" triad tough guys, led by Ki-Chul. Ki-Chul and his crew hire a translator, Yeon-Hee (Yeong Hyeon), to help communicate with Aryong. They soon get on the same page with Aryong telling them she wants any information they can find on her long lost mother whom she believes is somewhere in Korea. During all of this, the two leads, Ki-Chui and Shu Qi, fall for each other (love knows no language) right in time for her fathers enemies to catch up to her!

My Wife is a Gangster 3 is a mixed bag if there ever was one. It has a popular Chinese film star in a fish out of water storyline with everything needing to be translated and drug out for one hundred and fifteen minutes. The only way I can recommend this is if your a fan of Shu Qi and that's about it. The story is comprised of a paper thin plot and is primarily what you're exposed to for the film's incredibly long (for a comedy) running time. The fact that the poorly choreographed fight scenes are so few-and-far between don't help matters either. The majority of humor in the film is placed on Ki-Chul and his two lackeys as they sit back and receive mistranslated dialogue from Aryong via Yeon-Hee. These jokes get old pretty quick and are relied upon for laughs far too often. By the time the movies finale rolls around, the action and the comedy taking place begin to feel like "too-little-too-late", leaving the viewer feeling ultimately dissatisfied and disappointed in a series that seemed to have so much potential. At this point, I can't say that I'd be too excited at the prospect of a My Wife is a Gangster 4. (Converter)

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Tuesday, May 1, 2007

House of Fury (Hong Kong 2005)

A near perfect example of style over substance, House of Fury marks Stephen Fung's second foray into directing territory. The jokes are clearly aimed at a younger audience, but thanks to some excellent action choreography from Yuen Wo Ping, the end result is a film that's good enough to please hardcore martial arts aficionados and the little ones as well. Families are more than welcome.

Siu Bo (Anthony Wong), an aging widower, works as a practitioner in ancient Chinese medicine at a clinic which is frequented by his close friend Uncle Chiu (Ma Wu). When he's not running his clinic, he's at home trying to deal with his two, near-grown and constantly bickering children, Nicky (Stephen Fung) and Natalie (Gillian Chung). Nicky works as a dolphin trainer at Ocean Park and swoons over his sisters cute friend Ella (Charlene Choi). Natalie, on the other hand, has a significant other in Jason (Daniel Wu), a musician with a bad Cantonese accent who just wants to make a good impression on the family by doing cute things like bringing a baby pig over for dinner. Siu Bo loves to embarrass his children by telling jokes and stories about how life used to be and all of the exciting things he used to do in front of his children's friends. Naturally, his kids never take anything dad has to say as truth and would rather he just shut up. It's a seemingly typical family relationship that's only unique due to the fact that everyone knows kung-fu and they're not afraid to use it! Nicky and Natalie love to squabble with each other and lucky for us viewers, they make it look so good.

A typical day at the 'office' turns into anything but when Rocco (played by questionably talented Michael Wong) shows up to question Siu Bo on the location of a man named Tai Chi Lung. Apparently this Tai Chi Lung is responsible for paralyzing Rocco from the neck down twelve years ago while Rocco was on a mission in the Philippines. Now Rocco has arrived in Hong Kong to return the favor. Siu Bo plays the fool and sends Rocco and his son Nelson (14 year old karate/taekwondo prodigy Jake Strickland) packing. We know Siu Bo is hiding something and suddenly all those stories about being a secret agent and doing undercover work don't seem so far-fetched. Unfortunately for Siu Bo, Rocco knows he's hiding the truth as well and sends his henchman to beat the answers out of him and trash the clinic in the process. Rocco takes Siu Bo captive and now it's up to Nicky and Natalie, with a little help from their friends, to find dear old dad and discover who this Tai Chi Lung is once and for all. The 'third-act' has a surprise(?) twist to it that you really won't care about. After finding out who's who, you'll more than likely just be eagerly awaiting when the next fights going to happen.

Everyone does what's required of them for the sake of the movie, as it's most definitely not a vehicle in which to show off acting chops. It's all very passable stuff for the most part. Anthony Wong is an actor who makes every performance look effortless (and I mean that in a good way). Gillian Chung does a fine job at playing the stereotypical diva-like younger sister, who transitions nicely into a butt-kicking action heroine when the time is right. Stephen Fung does more than adequate with his fighting scenes. Daniel Wu just hangs out most of the time, coming into play later on in the movie in ways in which I can't reveal here, while Charlene Choi manages to stay on screen just long enough to make it a starring role and not a cameo. Jake Strickland, 14 years old or not, can really hold his own and his skills with a bo are pretty amazing. His acting on the other hand was pretty terrible, to the point where you could really believe he was Michael Wong's son. Speaking of which, the real bad guy of the movie, in more ways than one, is indeed Michael Wong as Rocco. Not only is he the villain in the traditional sense of movie baddies, but his horrible acting makes him even more of a threat. He speaks in English only (except for a sentence or two in Cantonese), and you'd swear that he's just reading off the script while the cameras are rolling. The man couldn't deliver a pizza, let alone a line of dialogue. Be afraid dear viewer...be very afraid.

We definitely aren't dealing with an award-winning storyline here either, but anything more than what we get wouldn't be necessary. It really just serves as filler in-between the real reason you're watching in the first place: the fight scenes, and boy are their a lot of them. Seeing as we have the best in the business responsible for planning out the action, that's a good thing. Yuen Wo Ping, together with Stephen Fung's direction, does an outstanding job at making the actor's look like they really know how to fight. To Stephens credit the shots are cut in just the right way so that your not clearly looking at a stunt double performing some of these moves, and the fact that Stephen lets the actors 'breath' by actually showing us the fights is icing on the cake. There is nothing worse in a martial arts film than tight shots where the audience can't even tell whats going on or who's hitting who. Equally as impressive are the close-ups of the actors actually performing some of these well-choreographed scenes, leaving no question of their capability. At times the action relies a little too much on the wires, or cables, or whatever you want to call them, making for some obvious and ugly looking moves, but these instances are more in the minority than majority. The scene at the closed Ocean Park with Nicky, Natalie and two of Rocco's hench(women) was my personal favorite, minus the wire-fu of course.

It's campy and it's childish, but it's also fun and often times entertaining. You couldn't have asked for a better action choreographer than Yuen Wo Ping to give House of Fury and it's 'almost' entireley A-list cast some much needed credibility. However, you could've asked for a better actor to play Rocco. In the end, not even Michael Wong could ruin House of Fury and that's really saying something. (Lee)

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