Sunday, May 22, 2011

Two sides of Andrew Lau & Shu Qi: Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen and A Beautiful Life

People in show business work in China. Andrew Lau, for instance, has 40 credits as director on IMDB since 1990 (including his second English-language feature for later this year). Shu Qi is credited there for 64 movies since 1996, and while many of those are likely smaller roles, it worth noting that both listings are likely quite incomplete; because IMDB is by and large crowd-sourced, and most of that crowd is in the US and UK, non-English language films in particular often have incomplete data. As an example, A Beautiful Life has two entries, one for both its Chinese and English names, and both have very sparse data, not even including Shu Qi, arguably the star of the movie.

(Aside - get on this stuff, China Lion! If you're going to distribute movies in the United States, it really behooves you to make sure that there are full entries for them at IMDB; that's the first place people go when an unfamiliar movie appears in listings.)

Doing so many movies likely gives filmmakers a chance to do different things, at least - to look at them side by side, you might not believe that Legend of the Fist and A Beautiful Life were the work of the same filmmaker. There are similarities - Shu Qi plays the female lead in each (and hits some of the same notes in her performances), and Anthony Wong has a supporting part - but they're different genres, and while Legend is a heightened, constructed reality, Life is very down to earth. Both look beautiful - Lau is also a cinematographer, photographing Legend and likely having at least some input on how Life was shot. Based on just these two movies, I might suspect that drama is more up Lau's alley, but the guy did also co-direct the Infernal Affairs movies, so I suspect Legend is just him being a little off that month.

It's an interesting coincidence that the two movies opened the same day in Boston; while A Beautiful Life opened day-and-date, Legend of the Fist followed more of a conventional foreign-film track - it opened in China, played the Toronto Film Festival, got acquired, opened in New York, and then made its way to Boston a month later. As I've said before, I'm not sure how viable a plan that is in general any more - Chinese pirates are fast and this put eight months between the movie's Hong Kong release and it playing Boston. It still got a fair crowd, though, possibly from the local-guy angle. A bit disappointing that it wound up being digital projection, likely from the consumer Blu-ray or DVD being released next month; seeing compression artifacts on the big screen is not cool at all. Here's hoping that it did well enough for the Brattle to schedule more Asian action films again; I gather they were at one point a staple of the theater, but that seems to have faded as those movies have become more readily available as opposed to cult films that one really has to search to find. A Beautiful Life had a scattered audience when I saw it, perhaps a bit disappointing compared to If You Are the One 2 and considering that nothing but Pirates 4 opened this weekend, but better than some other "crowds" I've seen for Chinese openings in Boston Common.

Well Go seems to realize that the traditional import system is less effective; they've announced that their next major acquisition, the Jackie Chan-starring 1911, will open in the US day-and-date with its Chinese release.

According to China Lion's website, their next release seems to be The Founding of a Party in mid-June, and... Good luck with that. As much as it will probably be a star-studded, epic thing, I wonder who the audience is. Americans don't particularly like Communism in general, and I strongly suspect that a good number of Chinese-Americans (the usual audience for these releases) are here because they want nothing to do with the Chinese Communist party. It's been impossible to miss the increasing nationalism that's been popping up in Chinese movies over the past few years as Hong Kong gets absorbed and the trend toward bigger-budget blockbusters seems to make filmmakers more beholden to state-controlled studios, but a movie about the founding of the Party seems like almost hubristic egotism.

Jing wu feng yun: Chen Zhen (Legend of the Fist: Return of Chen Zhen)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2011 in the Brattle Theatre (special engagements)

Legend of the Fist: The Return of Chen Zhen starts off in a familiar way, with text explaining a bit of Chinese history, this time involving how Chinese laborers served in Europe during World War I. Most aren't trained as as soldiers, so they're getting pinned down and picked off, until Donnie Yen's Chen Zhen suddenly remembers that he's a kung fu superhero. Then things get kind of awesome. It's a shame this doesn't happen more often, because the movie could occasionally use some more of this sort of larger-than-life fun.

Seven years after that battle, Chen Zhen has returned to Shanghai using the name of a fallen comrade. It's a contentious time, with Japan looking to expand its influence on the mainland, European powers making their presence known, and local factions splintered and fighting among themselves. In Shanghai, the Casablanca club is the center of everything, and owner Liu Yutian ("Anthony" Wong Chau-sang) brings Chen on as manager and partner. Information seems to be leaking from the Casablanca to Colonel Takashi Chikaraishi (Ryu Kohata), but can Chen Zhen find the source of the leak before the Japanese run through everybody on their "death list" - especially with the club's sultry headliner Kiki (Shu Qi) certain that "Qi" is more than he seems.

The Chen Zhen story is a popular one; the character has been played by Bruce Lee (Fist of Fury) and Jet Li (Fist of Legend; co-written and directed by the new film's screenwriter, Gordon Chan); heck, Yen himself played Chen in a TV series fifteen years earlier. This movie in many ways feels more like a sequel to those projects than a remake of them; it's mentioned that Chen Zhen fakes his death because he's wanted for killing the man who murdered his teacher, more or less how Fist of Fury and Fist of Legend end. That Chen apparently fakes his death twice - once in Shanghai and once in Europe - is unfortunately an example of how sloppy Chan's script is. Perhaps a Chinese audience will have more familiarity with the basic story and thus be better equipped to fill in the blanks, but it too often seems like Chan has more ideas than he has room for. For instance, a lot of time is spent on two Chinese generals negotiating (with a third, unseen one referenced quite a bit), but all this talk never really matters. We're quite deliberately pointed to the scarring copper bracelets that the soldiers in the opening segment wear, but then we never really see the scars and the bracelets that do matter are more or less unrelated. The last act is really just a complete mess until the inevitable showdown between Chen and Chikaraishi (and half the Japanese army).

Full review at EFC.

Mei li ren sheng (A Beautiful Life)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 20 May 2011 in AMC Fenway #12 (first-run)

You've got to sort of admire a movie like A Beautiful Life. It's filled with characters that could easily be defined by how they are handicapped or burdensome, and yet it's not a pity-baiting exercise. Well, not more than any other romantic drama; that's their stock in trade. The point is, even when things start going bad, it's more a film about people we like than people we feel sorry for, and that makes up for a few flaws.

Li Peiru (Shu Qi) moved to Beijing from Hong Kong to start work as a real-estate broker a year ago; Fang Zhendong (Liu Ye), "Dong" to his friends, has been a policeman there for fifteen years. They meet outside a karaoke bar, a plastered Peiru needing Dong's help to get home, and since he's a good guy, leaving a party early so that he can make sure his little brother Zhencong (Tran Liang) is okay, he helps her out, even when she's looking for help cooking for her married boyfriend. She finds herself taken with Dong, and likes the withdrawn Zhencong and his mute would-be girlfriend Xiaowen (Fairy Feng), but the drinking is only part of her troubles, and they may consume her even though Dong is going to find himself in need of support himself.

It's a somewhat specialized skill, but Shu Qi plays drunk well (interestingly, she played a character I called "boozy" in her last movie with director "Andrew" Lau Wai-keung). She's sexy and funny at first, but always gives the feeling of someone careening out of control. It's a tricky role, I imagine, as we get to know Peiru by her being demanding and taking advantage of Dong pretty shamelessly, but Shu pulls it off in a way that highlights her as being ambitious and energetic as much as selfish, and she is able to work the moments of Peiru being low or honestly charmed by the Fangs and Xiaowen to show another side of the character without making her feel schizoid.

Full review at EFC.

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