Monday, February 08, 2016

Have some sequels for Chinese New Year: The Monkey King 2 & From Vegas to Macau III

I'm not exactly up on my time zones and how Lunar New Year works, but it may have come already by the time this posts, especially in China, where it's a big time for new-release movies, and as those are increasingly arriving in the U.S. day-and-date, a chance for some big Chinese movies to hit here. And, because this sort of action/adventure movie lagged behind romances and dramas, it means that the problem of sequels arriving before their predecessors are available is still a thing with them.

I tried to get caught up, but the order I placed at DDDHouse (a Hong Kong-based retailer that has some insanely good prices) for The Monkey King and From Vegas to Macau II last week didn't ship until this Tuesday, and that doesn't get them across the Pacific and North America in time for me to watch them before the weekend. Of course, it doesn't look like that was a huge deal - both have a lot of cast turnover between entries - so I went anyway.

Sadly, they weren't good, although they were both high-gloss productions shot in 3D (though only The Monkey King 2 screened that way here) with star-studded casts. The auditoria were pretty much empty as well, although that could be because I was seeing 10:30am shows to fit the Boston Sci-Fi Film festival in later. Maybe they were packed in the afternoon and evening.

It's a good thing I have a few other movies coming in that order, though, because I can't say I'm looking forward to catching up on the parts of these series I've missed that much.

Xi You Ji Zhi San Da Bai Gu Jing (The Monkey King 2)

* * (out of four)
Seen 6 February 2016 in AMC Boston Common #10 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

Believe it or not, this is not the first Chinese fantasy sequel I've seen where not having seen the predecessor was no big deal because it starts with "500 years have passed..." This is a good thing, because the first movie in an expected Monkey King trilogy never made it to the U.S. (a recurrent event as day-and-date releases become more common). Given that the general word is that this one fixed some of what was wrong with the first, I'm not necessarily eager to catch up; it's a sleek but dull take on the mythology.

As mentioned, the Monkey King Sun Wukong (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) has been imprisoned within the Five Elements Mountain since the "Havoc in Heaven" he caused in the last film, but prophecy says he will escort a monk to the west to retrieve a set of scriptures, and that happens right away, with Tang Xuanzang (William Feng Shaofeng) removing the spell that binds Wukong only for another to take effect. They soon meet up with a pair of demonic but friendly traveling companions in Zhu Bajie (Xiao Shenyang) and Sha Wujing (Him Law), but another demon along the way will not be so friendly: The White Bone Demon (Gong Li) is about to reincarnate but has no desire to become human again, and it is said that consuming Xuanzang will grant immortality in one's current form.

The clash with the White Bone Demon is just one of many chapters of Journey to the West, though a pivotal one, featuring a sharp conflict between Xuanzang and Wukong - Wukong can see through demons' disguises with his Fiery Eyes of Truth while the naive Xuanzang can only see him killing what appear to be innocent people. It proves to be less material than the movie needs, though, the plot frequently stalls and a detour involving a king who is drinking the blood of children and allowing the demon to take the blame feels more like stalling than an interesting twist. There's a classic structure to this story, but it could do with less repetition and more progress.

If the film drags in terms of story, it undeniably makes an impressive attempt to make up for that visually. Shot and rendered in what appears to be native 3D, The Monkey King 2 doesn't overwhelm with a need to fill the screen constantly - director Cheang Pou-Soi recognizes that a character with Sun Wukong's superpowers needs a lot of open space to play - but the digital creature effects are very high in quality, some of the best to come out of China, with just the right weight as Sun Wukong jumps from cloud to cloud or whips his Golden Cudgel around. Nearly every character spends a fair amount of time in prosthetic makeup, and that looks good as well, transformative but still giving the actors room for expression.

Aaron Kwok has the biggest challenge along those lines; Sun Wukong never disguises himself as human. He's actually taking over the part from Donnie Yen after having played the villain in the previous film, and while I can't say whether or not he is an improvement, he's a match to the challenges of the job, emoting well through a lot of make-up and paying up the character's goofy laughter and kid-movie stuff without ever making him silly or juvenile. Nobody else in the film is really a match to him; Gong Li only briefly dives into the cartoon villainy her White Bone Demon needs, and Feng Shaofeng has a similar problem, never really selling Xuanzang as particularly wise or naive. Xiao Shengyang and Him Law are okay as Xuanzang's other disciples, and Kelly Chen is at least serene as the Goddess seeing the group's tasks.

Sammo Hung is in charge of the action, and I wonder just how much of the staging of the CGI-heavy scenes comes from the guy whose specialty is stunts and martial arts; there really aren't a lot of the high-impact punching-and-kicking sequences he's known for. Or, at least, they get swallowed up by the visual effects, which makes for some pretty impressive bits, especially in the finale, when things go full (digital) Harryhausen with demons fighting skeletons.

The cliffhanger to this one doesn't necessarily imply another massive gap, although the word is that Cheang intends to switch things up again for the finale. Maybe that one will finally get it right, because this one is pretty close - good-looking, fun in spurts, seldom many really bad moments. Chinese filmmakers return to Sun Wukong and "Journey to the West" a lot because there is great material there for all ages, and something that plays as well as this looks could wind up excellent.

Full review on EFC.

Du cheng feng yun III (From Vegas to Macau III)

* ½ (out of four)
Seen 7 February 2016 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

When I saw the first From Vegas to Macau at a festival a couple years ago, I figured that I was just a victim of bad expectations, not prepared for something so silly, especially thinking of Chow Yun-fat as an icon of cool. This time, I knew what I was getting into, so maybe it would go over better. No such luck; as much as the zaniness occasionally appeals, it's sloppy and too self-satisfied to work for long stretches.

It opens with the wedding of legendary gambler Ken Shek's protege Vincent (Shawn Yue Man-lok) to Ken's daughter Rainbow (Kimmy Tong Fei)... Well, not quite; we initially see gambler and arms dealer JC (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) in his mad scientist lair in Thailand, looking at a woman suspended in a bubble and vowing revenge on Ken Shek, which means he's the guy behind the android with a bomb inside it that goes off at the ceremony. This (and the hypnosis, and a tasering) has Ken off his game, although his partner Mark (Nick Cheung Ka-fai) and friend Michael (Andy Lau Tak-wah) are there to help him out.

Andy Lau apparently popped up as Michael in From Vegas to Macau 2 (which, like the first, has not had an official North American release in theaters or on video despite the third being released on both sides of the Pacific simultaneously), reprising his part from Knight of Gamblers, also known as "God of Gamblers II", with the actual God of Gamblers II released in the US as "God of Gamblers Return", and if that sounds confusing, I haven't yet mentioned that Ken is not Chow Yun-fat's character from those films, but that he also reprises his role as Ko Chun, and the two looking alike was apparently explained in the second, which also seems to be where this series went from busting money launderers with slapstick to Ken having "Robot Stupid" as a butler, brains in jars, and explosive androids.

And both of these changes initially seem like great ideas. The movie kicks off with a high-energy theme song previewing the upcoming action, and JC looks like the perfect villain for this sort of thing - larger-than-life but still genuinely threatening. Perhaps more importantly, Andy Lau more or less taking over the lead from Chow Yun-fat seems like a much better fit for the material. Lau seems self-deprecating even when being boastful and clever when being foolish, while Chow has seldom been much of a comedian, and the fact that he's mugging like crazy as Ken is really only funny for as long as it takes to note he's playing against type.

Unfortunately, filmmaker Wong Jing (who co-directs with cinematographer Andrew Lau Wai-keung) seems to have no idea of how long a joke should last. Ken being addled from all the stuff that happens to him in the first act is a good gag, but it just keeps going on and on, getting bigger but not funnier, and when you consider that he's pretty much all that's left from the first movie, a gag that basically sidelines him leaves the movie at sea. Many wheels are spun in the center of the movie as Wong seems to have no idea how to naturally get from the start to the finish, and there are points where characters basically stand aside and watch gags with the audience, giggling like it's a lot funnier than it is. And, wow, does Wong pick the absolute wrong note to end on.

The shame of it is that there's a pretty good cast here that starts to shine when allowed to do their individual things. Andy Lau has already been highlighted as pretty great, but Nick Cheung impresses as well, whether doing broad physical comedy opposite Chow Yun-fat or deadpan breaking of the fourth wall. Li Yuchun gets the "tough girl with short haircut mistaken for a guy" part that's apparently considered a lot funnier in Hong Kong than America, but she runs with it, playing well off everyone she's paired with. That includes Jacky Heung Cho, who does a lot of the heavy lifting in the action scenes. On the other hand, with so many people passing in and out, some wind up severely underused, with the most egregious being Carina Lau Ka-ling, who gets just about nothing to do in her character's comatose state.

This is the 99th film Wong Jing has directed in a mere 35 years, so it's not exactly surprising that it's scattershot rather than meticulously perfected, although it being this much of a mess is still surprising. He's done impressive-enough stuff and has some great collaborators here; there's no reason for it to feel like such hackwork. That this series has cranked out three installments in as many years almost seems like he's trying to milk what he can from it before the fun of seeing Chow return to one of the things that made him a superstar gives way to just how dumb these movies are.

Full review on EFC.

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