Saturday, May 28, 2016

Stuff from China: Phantom of the Theatre, MBA Partners, SPL 2 (Kill Zone 2)

In a chorus that's going to get repeated a lot over the next few days/weeks, I wanted to write these up in a more timely fashion, but it just wasn't happening, and but at least SPL 2 is still available on-demand while Phantom, having also received its American distribution via WellGo, will at least get a timely home-video/streaming release.

Seeing these three come out over consecutive weeks certainly highlights how much of a bummer it is that we don't see nearly as many Hong Kong movies coming out as ones from the Mainland; SPL 2 has this great "anything can happen" feel that the others just don't manage, even though the HK guys making Phantom of the Theatre are trying their damnedest.

Not much else to say other than this: I kind of had no idea when Phantom of the Theatre was taking place because I am terrible at judging cars and fashions and the like, so I noted that a movie theater marquee was showing the Tom Mix silent 3 Gold Coins in the "13 years ago" flashback, looked that up, and arrived at the bulk of the movie taking place in the mid-1930s. Which makes sense, with the theater marquee proudly proclaiming its modern sound capabilities, although I kind of figured it had been abandoned for longer.

Mo Gong Mei Ying (Phantom of the Theatre)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 8 May 2016 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

Making a horror movie in China is not an easy thing; though one occasionally sneaks through, the supernatural is on the censorship board's "don't" list, despite the fact that, as a character in Phantom of the Theatre attests, ghosts are a terrifically rich metaphor for the past catching up with people. Of course, this character is also trying to shoot his film in a haunted theater, so his production has other problems a mite bigger that seeming like it can't tell exactly the story the filmmakers want.

The Shanghai theater in question has, by the mid-1930s, earned enough of a reputation that the police won't chase a pickpocket when he dashes in, only to be confronted by ghosts that seemingly burn him from the inside out, puzzling coroner "Phyllis" Fei Lisi (Huang Huan). Shanghai was, for a time, the center of the Chinese movie industry, and while Pan Ruyu (Natalie Meng Yao) is feted as the local "film queen" at a local ceremony, up and coming actress Meng Sifan (Ruby Lin Xin-ru) gets just as much attention for being named "Miss Photogenic" - most notably from Pan's lover, producer Tang Shirao ("Jungle" Lin Jiang-guo). Tang won't give much attention to would-be director Gu Weibang (Tony Yang You-ning), the would-be director, until he convinces Sifan to star. Then Tang steps up to bring in heartthrob Liu Kang (Wu Xu-dong) as the male lead. Weibang has a personal reason to want to shoot his movie there - as a child, his warlord father Mingshan (Simon Yam Tat-wah) had rented out the theater for a birthday party, leading to the tragedy that gave the place its reputation.

Writers Hana Li Jing-ling and Sandra Yang Mei-yuan have a bit of a tendency to overdo things a bit; for instance, Lisi being Weibang's girlfriend at the start doesn't do enough to bring her into the story and acts as a drag when sparks start to fly between Weibang and Sifan later on. Then there's the necessity to hold the supernatural at arms' length, which runs the risk of what happened with Mojin a few months ago, where the alternate explanations necessary to placate the censors that there's nothing paranormal going on are even goofier than "a ghost did it". It crowds out what is actually a pretty decent haunted house story, not shy about having The Phantom of the Opera as an ancestor but vey much its own thing, with a little more more going on in both the present and past than one might expect. That gives the filmmakers plenty of time to lay out broad hints, have a few scares, and maybe thin out the cast a bit before laying all the cards on the table and leading up to a final confrontation.

Full review on EFC.

MBA Partners (aka Miss Partners)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 8 May 2016 in AMC Boston Common #19 (first-run, DCP)

I just spent a few minutes Googling a couple of things from this movie on the off-chance that it's based upon a true story - it's set a few years in the past and has its characters highly visible during real-life events - just in case I found myself saying that something that actually happened was far-fetched. That doesn't seem to be the case, so those are just odd choices in a movie that's otherwise enjoyably lightweight.

Though the title refers to partners, the film initially focuses on Lu "Xiaoxi" Zhen-xi (Yao Chen), who grew up in the southern part of China looking up to a merchant uncle (Lam Suet) driven out of business by more professional competitors. She goes to New York with her boyfriend (Wang Yi-bo) to study business, but is deported after working as a street hawker to pay the bills. She can't afford to actually enroll in the China Asia International Business School back home, but lands a job as the personal assistant to Professor Meng Xiao-jun (Aaron Kwok Fu-sing) and is able to audit his classes. Seeing overlap between one of Xiaoxi's business plans and those of two of her classmates, Meng asks them to work together, although they're not exactly compatible personalities - Gu Qiao-yin (Tiffany Tang Yan) is looking for a rich boyfriend and Wen Qing (Hao Lei) is already an important part of her husband's company (though perhaps becoming less so with a new young thing in the picture). Still, with the help of Xiaoxi's lifelong friend-who-obviously-has-a-thing-for-her Niu Jun-cheng (Jerry Li Chen), they build an e-commerce business built on personal service for women.

Does this film really need Qing and Qiao-yin? So much of the start of the movie is dedicated to relating Xiaoxi's history that when the other two partners are introduced, it's almost too late for them to be considered important parts of the story, and not only does their camaraderie never quite become the heart of the movie, but it takes up just enough air that there's not a whole lot of room for the love triangle between Xiaoxi, Xiao-jun, and Jun-cheng to develop, if that's what it's going to be. They're good characters, and there's probably a pretty good story to be told about how Qing and Qiao-yin see each other and work together, but it doesn't quite work as part of Xiaoxi's story.

Full review on EFC.

Saat po long 2 (Kill Zone 2)

* * * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 13 May 2016 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, DCP)

The standard "you don't need to see the first to enjoy the sequel" comments apply more than usual with Kill Zone 2 (Saat po long 2 in Cantonese, Sha puo lang 2 in Mandarin) - it retains a couple of cast members from the first, though in different roles, with the main connection being that both are unusually good fusions of gritty crime movies with high-octane martial-arts action. The "sequel" may not be quite the instant classic of Hong Kong action cinema that its predecessor was, but when the fighting starts, it gets close.

This one supplies the action between Hong Kong and Bangkok, opposite ends of an organ-smuggling ring run by Hung Man-Tong (Louis Koo Tin-lok), an ironically sickly man who needs a heart transplant, though the only compatible donor is his brother Man-biu (Jun Kung Shek-Leung). Police lieutenant Chen Kwok-wah (Simon Yam Tat-Wah) has managed to embed his nephew Chan Chi-kit (Jackie Wu Jing) into the gang, but a disastrous rescue attempt leaves the police mistaken on which Hung is the gang leader. Meanwhile, in Thailand, prison guard Chai (Tony Jaa) has a daughter (Unda Kunteera Yhordchanng) with leukemia, and Kit is the only match they've found for her bone marrow - but he has no idea that prison warden Ko Hung (John Zhang Jin) is Man-Tong's partner, and the new Chinese prisoner who doesn't speak any Thai is there for his role in keeping Man-Tong from taking his brother's heart.

The first film in this series was a strong crime melodrama, and while the second doesn't quite reach the same heights, it's got the combination of nastiness and elegance that many genre films aspire to: Writers Jill Leung Lai-yin & Huang Ying may set up obvious parallels between the heroes and villains in their desperation to medically extend life, but they let it simmer rather than having it lead to faux-philosophical discussions, letting the fact that the villans will use this for leverage rather than feel a moment of sympathy make them even more vile (although the film's opening moments leave little chance of receiving sympathy). Director Cheang Pou-soi applies a moody filter to that emotion, lingering over the grimy environs and tainting any potentially upbeat moments by having the brightest scenes take place in a children's cancer ward, and even then, the good guys find things cramped while Man-Tong has access to large, clean spaces. He knows when to linger on sadness and speed up to enhance desperation, making death and cruel fate lurk in every corner.

Full review on EFC.

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