Tuesday, August 11, 2015

Catching up on Chinese Cinema: Only You, Jian Bing Man, and To the Fore

On Thursday, I half-joked about still being in Fantasia mode, finding myself an English-subtitled Chinese in Monreal movie the day after the festival ended because, really, what else do you do with an evening after three weeks of that. Then after taking an overnight bus back Saturday night/Sunday morning, I headed right back out on the Red Line to see Jian Bing Man ("Pancake Man" in English), which is only playing 10:40am screenings at Boston Common right now (plus side: $6.50! minus side: if you're going to be showing movies that early, you need to have donuts or, yes, pancakes at the concession stands). Then the next night it was To the Fore, which had a spiffy-looking preview in front of Jian Bing Man. Given that Ringo Lam's Wild City was also released the same week as Jian Bing Man, that's four new Chinese movies in three weeks playing Boston, and another one opens Friday. That's crazy but awesome.

It's gotten to the point where I'm almost not surprised to have seen a preview for Office (aka Design for Living) before Only You. That is a Johnnie To-directed musical starring Chow Yun-fat and Tang Wei, which maybe a year ago is a thing that would have opened in Hong Kong, then played the festival circuit, then been purchased by Miramax The Weinstein Company, then been re-edited, and then sat on the shelf for an indeterminate amount of time as the distributor tried to find a release window well after all but the most scrupulously honest potential audience members had their own pirated copies. But, no, we're getting that day and date with China.

It's undeniably an exciting time to be a fan of Asian cinema (in larger North American cities, at least); the rate at which things play while there still being buzzed about seems to be accelerating. The part of me that likes all movies kind of finds it odd that it sometimes seems easier for these movies to get booked than American independents with pretty nice casts, but I'm also not going to complain about seeing a thing I like more often.

Ming zhong zu ding (Only You)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 5 August 2015 in Cineplex Odeon the Forum #20 (first-run, DCP)

As Fong Yang (Tang Wei) lays out the backstory for Only You in its opening fourth-wall-breaking minutes, I briefly wondered if it perhaps made a bit more sense with a Chinese background than in the original American movie starring Marisa Tomei and Robert Downey Junior, and then counter-wondered if this idea of the Chinese as relatively superstitious was some sort of holdover stereotype that really has no place in the twenty-first century. I was still thinking about that afterward, which doesn't say much for the impression that the romantic comedy in between made on me.

Fong Yang, who also informs us that her name means "Square Circle", visited two fortune tellers as a teen, both of whom told her that she would marry a man named Song Kunming. Never having wound up meeting one, she became a vet and is now about to marry a dentist, Xie Wei, come January. That is, until she answers the phone while moving into Xie Wei's apartment and it's his high school classmate Song Kunming, who unfortunately doesn't have time to meet up because he's about to fly to Milan. Fong Yang impulsively follows, with gal pal Xiaotong ("Sophie" Su Yan) along both to serve as a voice of reason and as a getaway from her own contentious marriage. They track him to a bar where a scruffily handsome Chinese man (Liao Fan) catches Fong Yang's eye. She winds up chasing after the other Chinese guy in the place, so Xiaotang asks the first to help look for her, and after he and Xiaotang escape some drunken football fans, they wander the city. She tells him about how she's destined to marry Song Kunming, and wouldn't you know it, he says that's his name!

But then, wouldn't you? This movie doesn't have a whole lot going for it, but there are many, many less solid foundations for a romantic comedy than Tang Wei's beauty and charm. She's easily the best thing about this movie, whether slipping into the bedside manner she uses for her four-legged patients while bandaging "Kunming" or fuming over his lies later on, and that's in spite of her playing a character who at one point actually declares that chasing after a man based upon the words of oracles almost two decades earlier is her rebelling against how other people have been making decisions for her all her life. She still comes off as funny, smart, and eventually mature enough to realize what chasing the idea of Kunming halfway around the world is actually about.

Full review on EFC.

Jian Bing Man (Pancake Man)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 9 August 2015 in AMC Boston Common #5 (first-run, DCP)

I doubt that Pancake Man (Jian Bing Man in the original Mandarin) will be a part of the next International Pancake Film Festival (a real thing in Boston and Chicago, look it up!); there just isn't enough pancake content to justify adding a feature to that shorts program, despite the novelty of adding Chinese jianbing to a lineup of American flapjacks, Belgian waffles, and French crepes. On the other hand, if there's a movies about making movies festival, this one is definitely funny enough to earn a place, even if the only one of many celebrity cameos and actors sending up their own image most westerners will recognize is Jean-Claude van Damme.

In it, Da Peng (also known as Dong Chengpeng), played by writer/director Da Peng, is an actor who has become a star playing losers on TV and in the movies, but he'd like to do something a little more serious or adventurous. He may get his chance when fan Wang Hai (Liang Chao) offers him ten million dollars to blow on whatever he wants and then a practically unlimited budget if he'll just cast Du Xiaoxiao ("Mabel" Yuan Shanghan), the actress he is smitten with, in a lead role to keep her from going to Hollywood. She jumps at the chance to star in his movie - a big fan of American superheroes, Da Peng has created "Jian Bing Man", about an alien who pretends to get superpowers from Chinese pancakes after the girl who sells them on the street is kidnapped and brainwashed into being an assassin - but the budget gets cut after a night out winds up with Da Peng the subject of a scandal, and he has already spent the money on a rare diamond for his girlfriend Amber (Amber Kuo) that has gone missing. His desperate plan - hook up with paparazzo Hu Lai (Cui Zhijia) and secretly shoot celebrities as if they were part of the movie.

There are a lot of gags in this movie that involve actors and other celebrities playing some version of themselves, and those not familiar with Chinese pop culture will find a lot flying way above their heads. Take, for instance, the early gags sticking the camera in Liu Yan's cleavage; having no idea who that was, it mostly came off as kind of tacky at first - having her "character" of Da Peng's longtime best friend developed a bit (including jokes about how people say showing her boobs off is her main talent) and seeing that she was playing "herself" made it click. Others like the mid-film appearances by Sandra Ng and Eric Tsang are done so broadly that even those who have never heard of them will laugh pretty hard, though there appear to be many more built around little more than recognition.

Full review on EFC.

To the Fore

* * * (out of four)
Seen 10 August 2015 in Regal Fenway #3 (first-run, digital)

The characters in Dante Lam's latest, To the Fore, often seem like they wouldn't know what to do if they couldn't be professional cyclists, and in a way, the film he made reflects that: When the characters are on their bikes, it's thrilling and electrifying; when they're not,they and the film seem to be struggling to find a reason to get back on the bikes.

The first cyclists we meet are Qiu Ming (Eddie Peng Yu-yen) and Chiu Tian (Shawn Dou), both auditioning for a spot on the Category 3 Radiant team in Kaohsiung, Taiwan. Ming is a cocky fellow who challenges the team's sprinter, Jeong Ji-won (Choi Si-won), right during his audition; Tian more reserved, with impressive stamina. Both quickly prove talented enough to become lead-outs; both also find themselves drawn to Huang Shiyao (Wang Loudan), a cyclist on the Virgo women's team attempting a comeback from a pulmonary embolism. With the eventual goal of being a sprinter on a Category 1 team, they race hard and look for opportunities.

To a certain extent, that fairly generic plot description is all there is; what rivalry develops between Ming, Tian, and Ji-won mostly remains friendly (although Ming certainly demonstrates an ability to tick other people off) and while plenty of things happen between races, it's the seemingly random buffeting of life which doesn't have a climax, resolution, and moral to aim for. Sometimes, that can feel like a waste of time - the Ming/Tian/Shiyao love triangle spends much of its time moving in seemingly arbitrary directions - and other things seem to dead-end. Triumphant reunions wind up transitory, as do the climaxes that highlight a theme.

But, man, when they're racing, does little of that seem to matter.

Full review on EFC.

No comments: