Tuesday, January 24, 2012

New from China: The Viral Factor and The Flowers of War

Hey, it's been a while since we've seen China Lion open a film in Boston - Love in Space and My Kingdom back in September. Nobody manned up to get 3D Sex & Zen Extreme Ecstacy, and Magic to Win only played a few cities (5 screens instead of the usual 20-ish). It looks like we're going to miss All's Well Ends Well 2012, which is a shame. I don't know that it looks like a particularly good movie, but it seems weird to me that even when movies with Donnie Yen get U.S. distribution, they seem to take the long way around getting to Boston (where he spent some of his teen years and where his family still lives).

Especially considering that based on the usual terrible sample size of one screening, The Viral Factor did pretty well - the best attendence I've seen at one of their opening weekends since If You Are the One 2, and no walkouts - which I've found is not a given with Chinese movies. The Flowers of War had pretty decent attendence as well, even across the river in Harvard Square, although it's apparently not going to make it to a second week (so, see it in the next couple of days if you're inclined). It would be cool if this gave them some momentum.

The Viral Factor

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 20 January 2012 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, digital)

The Viral Factor aims to be a throwback to the pre-Hollywood films of John Woo, combining stylish action with even grander melodrama. And while director Dante Lam likely has more in common with today's John Woo than the one who made A Better Tomorrow, it's fun to see that type of movie again. It's a sort of action weepy, a bit more enjoyable than it deserves to be.

We open with an international task force including Sean Wang (Andy Tien), "Jon" Man Fei (Jay Chou), and his ex-girlfriend "Ice" (Bing Bai) smuggling a scientist who has bred a new strain of smallpox out of Jordan. This, of course, doesn't go well, with Jon losing one friend due to the other's betrayal. He has one of those ticking time bombs of a brain injury himself, but when his ailing mother informs him that there is news of his father and that he has a brother she never told him about, he immediately sets off for Malaysia. On the plane, he meets Dr. Rachel Kan (Lin Peng), who recommends a neurologist she knows, and once there, he not only reunites with father Man Tin (Liu Kai-chi) and niece "Champ" (Crystal Lee), but finds out that his brother Yeung (Nicholas Tse) is a criminal. Who, it turns out, is being hired by corrupt cop Russell (Philip Keung) and the people who took the biologist - and are having him create a new supervirus.

Almost all action movies try to connect with the audience emotionally by adding a subplot that makes things personal or has the hero dealing with something in his relationships or family. The Viral Factor takes this to an extreme, with the bioterrorists' plot not exactly being relegated a nuisance that interrupts Jon's attempts to bring his family together before it's too late, but still mainly pulling him in because despite being just-arrived in one of the most densely populated cities in Asia, Jon just happens to be connected to Rachel and Yeung for reasons entirely separate from the people who lodged a bullet in his head. The movie barely even tries to get any emotion out of the plot with global stakes until it threatens the Man family directly, although that's not unusual - millions could die in a global pandemic, but threaten the hero's family... It's a set of terrible clichés, but this movie owns them, to a certain extent, by focusing on what would logically be side-stories so closely. There's a Greek tragedy not far beneath the bullets and explosions, and the Man brothers coming face to face with everything in their lives up to this point.

Full review at EFC.

Jin líng shí san chai (The Flowers of War)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 22 January 2012 in AMC Harvard Square #2 (first-run, digital)

It sort of makes sense when Hollywood makes a movie about something that happened outside the borders of America and Europe but makes a white guy the protagonist - silly, but understandable. When a Chinese filmmaker decides that his Chinese movie about the Rape of Nanking should star Christian Bale - that's kind of weird. But then, a lot of things about The Flowers of War seem ill-conceived, and Zhang Yimou's ability to occasionally make it work only makes it more problematic.

As the movie opens in 1937, the Chinese capital of Nanking is falling to the Japanese in an invasion and occupation just as ugly as its name implies. While the Chinese army crumbles, several parties are converging on a Catholic Church that they hope will offer sanctuary: The late abbot's teenage adopted son, George Chen (Huang Tianyuan), has about a dozen girls from its convent school who were unable to get on the last boat out; a group including Meng Shujuan (Zhang Xinyi), the girl who believed her father would get them out, that was separated in the confusion; Major Li (Tong Dawei), an excellent sharpshooter who carries the only other surviving member of the unit, a boy too young to be much more than a mascot; and John Miller (Bale), an American mortician sent to handle the abbot's funeral arrangements. They'll soon be joined by a dozen ladies from a local brothel, whose elegant de facto leader, Yu Mo (Ni Ni), learned English when she attended a convent school in her youth. It soon becomes very clear that the church and Miller's white face can only offer so much sanctuary - and the guards posted around the gate by Colonel Hasegawa (Atsuro Watabe) are not exactly for the girls' safety.

The opening minutes of The Flowers of War are a breathtaking series of horrors, as Zhang Yimou combines his penchant for striking visuals with increasingly desperate and tragic situations. It temporarily strands the audience in the surreal environment of the world at war, and if the whole movie was like that, it would be an impressive achievement: two hours of randomness, shell-shock, and almost casual atrocity. Of course, that would be difficult to sustain and even more difficult to sell, so things settle down a little, and then the prostitutes show up.

Full review at EFC.

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