Sunday, September 02, 2012

New from China: Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and The Bullet Vanishes

Amazing - two Chinese movies playing a theater in Boston at once, both good, and a holiday weekend giving people a little extra time to see them. It's a Labor Day miracle! Everyone living near a place playing these movies should go be a part of it!

I mentioned last week that I'd hoped to see the Chinatown audience come out to support these movies more, but that really didn't seem to happen for the shows I attended. Flying Swords had a few people scattered, although I admittedly saw that at a bit of an odd time - they let me out of work at 3pm, so I was able to make a 5pm show; The Bullet Vanishes was very quiet, with people going in and out at points.

I don't generally look at box office stuff or get too concerned about the business side of things, but I kind of wonder whether these two got a fair shake. I am pretty sure Flying Swords had to scramble for screens at the last minute - the original plan was to open in NY/LA this week and expand to other cities on the 7th before more or less getting swept out by Resident Evil 5. Then Paramount claimed the weekend of the 7th for Raiders of the Lost Ark, and though I'd been getting publicity emails about this one, I didn't realize it had gotten pushed back to the 31st everywhere until the last minute, and while I haven't seen that many movies at Boston Common lately, none had a trailer for this thing that, to me, sells itself (Jet Li! crazy action! IMAX 3D! Look at this thing!!!). Similarly, China Lion often seems to do a terrible job piggybacking one release to the next. The Bullet Vanishes had a trailer for Bangkok Revenge, but there was nothing for it on Girlfriend Boyfriend, and their websites for both Bullet and Bangkok are empty shells (Bangkok doesn't even have IMDB or AsianWiki pages).

The price doesn't help; I paid a combined total of $28 to see these movies, both before 6pm and in less-than-packed theaters, and I suspect relatively few people in the target audience can do this. Unfortunately, both of those movies were more or less locked into Boston Common - Indomina went IMAX-exclusive with Flying Swords rather than try and get it on other 3D screens or even premium ones like RPX; China Lion has a deal with AMC. And it is practically in Chinatown, so even if AMC still had screens in Harvard Square and Copley Place (that maybe charged reasonable prices), it still wouldn't really make sense.

I'm a broken record on this, but it frustrates me. I've long been one to argue that movies, while the price has gone up, are still pretty good entertainment value for your dollar, but I really can't say so anymore without adding a caveat of "if you know where to look". Maybe I'm missing the good crowds these get at the 11am shows because I really do try to support these things with my dollars, but booking these movies on the most expensive screens in town despite their being a bit of a risk for the general audience and a good chunk of the expatriate audience not having a lot of money, without much advertising support, just does not seem like a recipe for success.

Anyway, as I said up top - these movies are quite a lot of fun, and I hope like hell that somebody local plays Vulgaria when it supposedly has a U.S. release later this month and that we get Jackie Chan's Chinese Zodiac pretty close to day-and-date this December. Honestly, Flying Swords of Dragon Gate and The Bullet Vanishes are two of the most entertaining movies playing right now, pretty darn slick and mainstream (other than being in Mandarin). If you're going to buy a movie ticket this week, you'll get your money's worth and cast a vote for decent movies no matter what the origin.

Long men fei jia (Flying Swords of Dragon Gate)

* * * ½ (out of four)
Seen 31 August 2012 in AMC Boston Common #2 (first-run, Imax-branded 3D)

Foreign movies often take a while to open in the United States for a number of reasons, and while the eight months since Flying Swords of Dragon Gate (Lee Men Fei Jia) opened in Hong Kong actually isn't terribly egregious, the reason in relatively unique: Distributor Indomina was looking to for a window when the movie could play in Imax 3D, a plan that was nearly foiled at the last minute. Happily, that didn't happen, and those who like crazy Hong Kong action should catch it while they can; it will be fun on video, but Jet Li kicking butt on the giant screen is a rare treat.

As the movie opens, Zhao Huai'an (Jet Li) isn't headed to Dragon Gate Inn; the rebel swordsman is fighting the forces of the East Bureau (one of two separate unchecked government authorities), specifically Eunuch Wan Yulou (Gordon Liu). This attracts the attention of the West Bureau's Eunuch Yu Hautian (Chen Kun), who is also tasked by the Emperor's first concubine to track down pregnant maid Su Huirong (Mavis Fan), who is rescued by Ling Yanqiu (Zhou Xun), although she claims to be Zhao. A curious Zhao follows Su and Liang to Dragon Gate (the best way out of China), where the West Bureau intends to cut them off. Most of the guests are leaving because of the threat of a once-in-three-generations sandstorm, but not Cheng Xaiwen (Kwai Lunmei) and her gang of Tartars, while treasure hunters Gu Shaotang (Li Yuchun) and her partner "Wind Blade" (a dead ringer for Hautian) are late arrivals.

So, yeah, pay attention; those are just the leaders, and many of them have enough partners, henchmen, and soldiers to fill the fight scenes out quite well. Folks impersonate each other, some characters mistake women for men, or just presume based on their fighting prowess (the ladies in this movie are all pretty badass), and to be totally honest, I'm not sure whether "Ling Yanqiu" is that character's actual name or the name of someone else she's impersonating (which apparently ties into 1992's New Dragon Gate Inn, to which this is technically a sequel despite the two not sharing any cast members). It's a busy, busy movie but writer/director Tsui Hark actually makes things fairly easy to follow, mashing the various storylines together with a dispatch that is at once crude and elegant.

Full review at EFC

Xiao shi de zi dan (The Bullet Vanishes)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 September 2012 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, Sony Digital 4K)

Lapsed EFC/HBS contributor David Cornelius recently lamented on Twitter about the demise of the mystery movie in Hollywood, and the best thing I could point him to was a Chinese movie that will likely be more considered a martial arts flick than a detective story. I'm not certain the mystery is still a popular genre with Chinese audiences - like Dragon, The Bullet Vanishes (Xiao shi de zi dan) could be marketed as an action movie - but their filmmakers are giving us some good whodunits.

Our sleuth in this case is Song Donglu (Lau Ching-wan), a prison guard in 1920s/1930s China who has made a habit out of investigating prisoners' protestations of innocence even if he has to put his neck in a noose to figure out what sort of ligatures in creates in those early days of forensics. Someone figures out that he'd be better used preventing wrongful convictions than overturning them, and makes him a detective in Tianching. For his first case, he's teamed with Captain Guo Zhui (Nicholas Tse), whose quick draw with a gun disguises a keen mind, to investigate the murder of a foreman at the local munitions factory owned by Mr. Ding (Li Kai-chi), suspicious because the bullet seems to have disappeared after killing the victim. With plenty of suspects/potential victims - including Wang Hai (Wu Gang), whose skill with a gun may match Guo's, and the factory workers who tell local fortune teller "Little Lark" (Yang Mini) a ghost story - Song, Guo, and junior partner Xaiwu (Jing Boran) have their work cut out for them.

Mystery stories were different back in the day, before the likes of CSI made everyone more obsessed with DNA testing than uncovering motives and untangling alibis. The Bullet Vanishes is a bit anachronistic in some regards - the detectives spend more time consulting lady coroner Li Jia (Yumiko Cheng) than may have been likely in the Christie Age, and that's not the only way Guo and Song obsess over physical evidence versus shoe leather. It's still a fun throwback in other ways, with the ultimate solution coming from asking the question "who benefits?". The puzzle of the phantom bullets is a nifty one, too, clever enough for this member of the audience to smile when the detectives figure it out.

Full review at EFC

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