Wednesday, October 05, 2016

Chinese Action: L.O.R.D.: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties and Operation Mekong

Not to beat the whole "theaters make darn sure double features are hard" thing to death, but I had two hours to kill between these two hour movies, and it was kind of chilly out there. Not as chilly as it would be at the ballgame later, but it chewed up a bunch of time that I could have used in other ways. And, because I had time to have lunch in between (even with the paralysis of too many options downtown), I didn't hit the concession stand at all!

It also put enough distance between the two that it didn't really strike me just how manufactured L.O.R.D. seemed compared to Mekong, which had a real 1980s vibe to it.

Wound up seeing the same previews before both, and it's kind of an intriguing group. It looks like Zhang Yimou has done some nifty 3D work with The Great Wall, and maybe it's just me, but the preview seems much less Damon-centric than it did initially, although I don't think we get a clear look at Andy Lau in it anywhere. Speaking of Lau, including the preview for Mission Milano was mean, because it looks awful funny, but given that it had a 29 September release date at the end, it looks like it may not open here at all. Speaking of being in limbo, WellGo's trailer for I Am Not Madame Boavary still has an October date on it, even though the Chinese release has been delayed and I imagine the American one will follow. Which is a shame, because it looks nifty, and what is that circular image going to be like for more than a minute at a time?

Jue ji (L.O.R.D.: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties)

* * (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2016 in AMC Boston Common #15 (first-run, RealD 3D DCP)

I could have sworn that I'd seem a trailer or stills or some sort of image for L.O.R.D.: Legend of Ravaging Dynasties at some point, and yet it somehow took me by surprise that the big-budget Chinese fantasy was all motion-captured animation akin to Robert Zemeckis's The Polar Express and Beowulf, and not even nominally live-action. The technology has improved enough in the last few years that this isn't necessarily a huge impediment to enjoying the film, at least not the way it was before. The story being a huge pile of nonsense, on the other hand, doesn't help at all.

It starts in a small village in the country of Ashland, where lowly 18-year-old waiter Chiling ("Cheney" Chen Xuedong) is serving tea to a party of magicians hunting a dangerous Soul Beast, his eye particularly caught drawn to Shen Yin (Yang Mi) before a wave of cold starts freezing the entire restaurant, and the pair find themselves dealing with a much larger monster than previously thought. Elsewhere, in the capital city, the three mysterious Priests are giving tasks to their Dukes, the country's most powerful magician. Duke VII, "Silver" Yin Chen (Kris Wu Yifan), is to find his new apprentice, while Duke V, Shan Feng (Yan Yikuan), is to kill the treasonous Duke II, "Dark" You Ming (William Chan Wai-ting). Neither notice that Duke IV, Tereya (Amber Kuo Caijie), seems a little too pleased with these assignments, at least not until Chiling has been identified as Silver's apprentice and he, Disciple V "Lotus" Lian Quan (Fan Bingbing), and Disciple VI Princess Yuka (Jelly Lin Yin), are all sent to retrieve the same horcrux as their primary weapon.

There are more of these guys running around - even with only seven Dukes worth one apprentice each, there's also a mysterious, wraith-like teenager (Emma Wu) at the center of the mystery, and it turns out that these Soul Beasts can be tamed and have their own personalities. There are so many of these magic-users that the civilians are crowded out of the picture very quickly, making things frustratingly abstract as writer/director Guo Jingming loses track of what the entertaining parts of a fantasy world are: While the stakes Chiling, Silver, and the rest start fighting for may actually be higher than tracking down rogue monsters, they're harder to grasp, and by the end of the movie, the Soul Beasts are just things running around in the background. A mythology has been stitched out of what the audience does learn, but when one of the Dukes starts talking about how their battle could threaten a nearby city, it doesn't have the urgency that he is trying to get across.

Full review on EFC.

CHINESE (Operation Mekong)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 October 2016 in AMC Boston Common #12 (first-run, DCP)

If you are looking for some quality violence out of a movie - the sort where trying to downplay what you're seeing by just calling it "action" seems more dishonest than admitting that you sometimes enjoy watching brute force is distasteful - Operation Mekong delivers without much messing around. It's not pretty, it's not particularly interested in using this to make a point about moral gray areas, it's not a character study of a sometimes-violent person. It's a movie about hunting and killing drug lords, and it appeals to the part of the brain that enjoys that quite well.

It springs from an actual incident that took place in October 2011, when the crow of a Chinese vessel traveling down the Mekong River was massacred in the Golden Triangle - an area at the borders of Thailand, Myanmar, and Laos almost entirely controlled by pirates and narcotics suppliers, called "Hell's Gate to the South" despite being a vital waterway. The incident leads to China negotiating a more direct role in policing the region, dispatching Yunnan Narcotics Captain Gao Guang (Zhang Han-yu) to take part in a joint task force, getting intel from Fang Xinwu (Eddie Peng Yu-yan), who has been operating undercover as "Qifu" for several years. Gao's aim is to track down Naw Khar (Pawarith Monkolpisit) and make sure he faces justice in China rather than a local jurisdiction. They have a Chinese SWAT team to aid them, but the fact that Khar's associate Jitpong (Ken Lo) is a fugitive with whom Xinwu has a history could throw a major spanner into the works.

Filmmaker Dante Lam doesn't spend a lot of time on China pushing for and receiving expanded police powers in the region, but enough for it to be noteworthy, in part because it's a reflection on the film's righteous and ruthless point of view - it opens with narration of how drugs are a blight on society while a beautiful young woman whose addiction seems to have drained her empty shoots up, and makes sure to position Naw Khar as not just a criminal, but a warlord who trains child soldiers and has practically enslaved the local population. It is, then, something of a fusion of America's 1950s law-and-order B-movies and Reagan-era action flicks, taking great pains to confer the legitimacy of the former on the rogue/clandestine operations of the latter, some potentially eyebrow-raising propaganda.

Full review on EFC.

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