Friday, February 09, 2018

Finishing the Series I: Sha Po Lang 3: Paradox, Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City, The Monkey King, The Vanished Murderer

My shelves of media are what you might call a large number of ambitious projects all jammed into the same space, the inevitable consequence of my being paid well enough to get a copy of any movie or book that interests me despite knowing that I probably don't have time to actually watch or read them. It's gotten to the point where a sort of decision paralysis sets in as soon as I do have a couple of hours, the same sort of thing that has me wasting a couple hours in the morning when I'm on vacation because the city I'm in has so much to offer. I've taken to constantly reorganizing my to-read shelves graphic novels to pull the unread volumes of series that had a new entry toward the front, but the main effect of that is to emphasize just how far behind I'm falling.

With the movies, I'm trying to take a more practical approach. Find a theme, go through the unwatched material, post about it. Basically, program myself a repertory series like you'd find at a cinema, only it always starts at the most convenient moment and extends as long (or short) as you'd like. That led to watching a bunch of 3D stuff toward the end of last year. Right now, I'm going with "entries in series that I haven't watched yet".

That one actually had its genesis in my first order of Hong Kong Blu-rays a couple years ago, when previews for The Monkey King 2 and From Vegas to Macau 3 started playing at Boston Common despite neither predecessor having gotten an American release (though I had seen the first From Vegas to Macau at Fantasia a couple years earlier). They didn't make it to my house on time, so they wound up sitting on the shelf until I found myself ordering Sha Po Lang 3: Paradox.

As much as I try to watch a lot of it, I don't really follow Asian cinema like I do American stuff, so I mostly don't know things exist until they slap me in the face by having a trailer show up, or appearing in a festival program, or in this case, my getting an email newsletter from an online store that says "SPL 3" somewhere. Having enjoyed the first two, my reaction is basically "how has this appeared on video somewhere in the world without me having a chance to see it on a big screen?" And while I'm clicking buttons to order it, I do find myself stopping short - what if it's because it isn't very good? A new SPL movie that came out in Hong Kong theaters in September would be something Fantasia, Fantastic Fest, Well Go, Chopflix, etc., would jump on, right? Maybe it's just bad timing - the producers wouldn't give it to Fantasia two months before release, the Drafthouse guys don't really do much with Asian movies, and I guess those weeks might have been kind of crowded. Still, it's a testament to how used to instant gratification we've got where Chinese movies are concerned that this delay made me suspicious when twenty years ago, we would have been grateful for what scraps we got.

Fortunately, the movie was okay. More disappointing pictures have shown up in local theaters the same week they opened in China, but I kind of see why Well Go and Chopflix didn't release it theatrically. Kind of surprised that Well Go doesn't have a disc up for pre-order, though.

I kind of figured to go in reverse-alphabetical order after that, just based on how unwatched discs were piling up, which made Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City next up. The perfect excuse soon came up, too: Donald Trump's first State of the Union address wreaked havoc on local television schedules - and, really, guys-who-run-WLVI, why did you bump Black Lightning for that? Aside from how there would be lots of folks in the Boston area looking for counterprogramming, you'd think that particular show would have an audience not interested in his nonsense. Anyway, I joked on Twitter that in a choice between SOTU and a Takashi Miike movie about a ridiculous superhero who wakes up in the future and must fight a pop idol extracted from his worst impulses, it was an easy choice. It was not necessarily a great movie, but every Miike thing has at least a few scenes that amaze in their insanity, and it was nice to spend an evening being amused by absurdity rather than riled up by it as many were.

Worth mentioning: This thing has been sitting on my shelf so long that, even though it's a Blu-ray Disc, the packaging is DVD-sized. I don't recall whether Funimation was offering two separate SKUs for the packaging, but the thought process seemed to be that it would look more sensible next to the DVD-only release of Zebraman like that, or that most of their releases would still be standard-def with an HD version as a bonus.

I jumped out of order for The Monkey King, figuring that I probably wouldn't drill down that far by the time movie The Monkey King 3 hit theaters for Chinese New Year, and even though the second served as a reset for the series, that was what the disc was there for. It wasn't good, unfortunately, although it had some nifty 3D bits. It was still better than The Vanished Murderer, which I ordered because I liked the first and the second didn't show up in the US. That one was just generally bud, even if it did a lot of the surface things well enough to recall its much better predecessor.

I was going to finish this batch up with Tremors 5, but it looks like I've run up against the start of the Boston Sci-Fi Film Festival and then vacation, so it will be a couple of weeks before I get back to this project. By which point, it's entirely possible I'll change the plan up because a plan that asks you to jump right into Tremors spin-offs without the people who created it is kind of suspect.

Sha po lang: taam long (Paradox)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen on 20 January 2018 in Jay's Living Room (finishing the series, HK Blu-ray)

So far as I know, no North America distributor has yet bought up the rights to the latest entry in the "Sha Po Lang" franchise, renamed it Kill Zone 3, and waited until nearly a year after its Hong Kong release to release it, and that's both kind of surprising and kind of not: As much as noteworthy Chinese movies have been getting same-day (or at least quick) releases abroad in recent years, and this series is certainly noteworthy, this entry is a different beast, less focused on the martial-arts action and more on the dark, underlying themes.

It continues the series' tradition of starting fresh with each entry, with characters from the previous film in different roles. In this case, Louis Koo Tin-lok plays Lee Chung-chi, a Hong Kong detective who tends to still think of his daughter Wing-chi (Hanna Chan Hon-na) as a little girl, although she's not that pre-schooler any more, breaking the news that she's in love and pregnant as Chung-chi is buying her dinner for her sixteenth birthday. Inspector Lee does not take that well, and soon Wing-chi has run off to Pattaya, Thailand, to visit a friend who works there as a tattoo artist (Iris Lam). She goes missing, and Lee convinces local detective Chui Kit (Yue Wu) to let him tag along on the case. It turns out that she's been kidnapped by organ traffickers led by ex-mercenary Sacha (Chris Collins), and the mayor needs a new heart.

Louis Koo is a big star in Hong Kong, but he's not primarily a kung fu guy like the previous stars of these movies (Donnie Yen, Wu Jing, and Tony Jaa). He can play intense with the best of them, and doing so forms the backbone of this movie, from the tightly-coiled rage as Lee discovers just how grown-up Wing-chi is to his determination upon discovering who is responsible for the horrific ordeal she's been put through. It's not a terribly broad range of emotion to play, but Koo finds the right nuance for each scene to keep Lee from just being a set-jaw robot with one operating mode; whether Lee is pushed further into despair or given a temporary glimpse of hope, it feels authentic right down to a moment visiting Chui's wife in the hospital where he still seems focused but not unable to grasp what others are also going through. The crime film industry cranks out enough cops like Lee Chung-chi every year that it's tough to make a new one stick out, and while Koo may not manage that, he doesn't often misstep and the movie gets the job done because of him.

Full review at EFC

Zeburâman: Zebura Shiti no gyakushû (Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen on 30 January 2018 in Jay's Living Room (finishing the series, Blu-ray)

Zebraman 2: Attack on Zebra City came out three years before The Purge, and that you didn't hear the fans of Japanese pop culture in general and the prolific Takashi Miike in particular grumble is that the thing they have in common is an indication of just what a shotgun approach Miike can take to making movies: Though he had slowed down from his earlier insane pace, he was still cranking out two features a year, and not all of them are exactly carefully crafted. Zebraman 2 bounces between ideas and gags like Miike's career as a whole does, but at that scale it's more randomness than variety.

After the events of the first Zebraman movie, titular superhero Shin'ichi Ichikawa (Sho Aikawa) has become a hounded public figure, unable to return to his job as a disrespected third-grade teacher and abandoned by his family. One day, he finds himself in the grasp of a mad scientist, spun in a bizarre centrifuge, and then he wakes up fifteen years in the future, amnesiac, and wouldn't you know it, it's almost "Zebra Time" - the five minutes at 5am and 5pm in Zebra City (the former Tokyo) when all crime is legal and even encouraged. He's found riddled with bullets by Junpei Ichiba (Naoki Tanaka), an actor who used to play Zebraman on TV, and taken to a clinic run by Kohei Asano (Masahiro Inoue), one of his former students. There he's told that mad scientist Kozo Aihara (Guadalcanal Taka) is mayor and his daughter Yui (Riisa Naka) is the city's mascot, a pop-star "Zebra Queen". Ichikawa and Yui are connected somehow, and the latter is looking for Sumire (Mei Nagano), a little girl who still has one of the green alien parasites Zebraman defeated fifteen years ago inside her.

It's not hard to see where Miike and writer Kankuro Kudo (who also wrote the first) are going with this, because they are not shy about dropping dialogue about needing to balance black and white, or separating evil elements from good, throughout the entire movie. It's not a bad way to go with the idea, especially with Ichikawa having an all-white costume while Yui is in black for much of the movie, but it's something that probably has to be given a bit more thought than color choices which themselves are more or less abandoned in the last act so that Zebraman can have a cool black costume rather than the deliberately silly but memorable one from the first movie. It's the sort of superhero-movie philosophy that sounds kind of weighty - you can scratch your chin and say, yes, Kudo and Miike are trying to say something here - but is actually kind of an inch deep and jettisoned when it comes time to actually examine how Zebra Time supposedly decreases overall crime or when some other shiny object crosses their paths.

Full review at EFC

Xi you ji: Da nao tian gong (The Monkey King)

* * (out of four)
Seen on 3-4 February 2018 in Jay's Living Room (finishing the series, 3D Blu-ray)

I'm not sure whether Monkey King Sun Wukong has been more ubiquitous as an on-screen character in recent years or if it's just a matter of more Chinese films coming to international audiences' attention and the guy suddenly seeming to show up every six months. That seems more likely, because one would think this film being a DC-movie type disaster (not well-liked but making too much at the box office to be considered a failure) would otherwise put the kibosh on not just Cheang Pou-soi's planned trilogy but other planned takes on the story; instead, everybody else kept going while Cheang found a way to make The Monkey King 2 but basically start from scratch. It's certainly not hard to see why the filmmakers more or less discarded everything about this movie before making its two sequels; this version of The Monkey King just does not work and even though some of its most visible elements aren't really the problem, you kind of need to show that you're making changes rather than doing it quietly.

This one starts out well before the "Havoc in Heaven" part of the Monkey King mythology, with a war between deities and demons that the former eventually wins, with the Jade Emperor (Chow Yun-fat) casting would-be usurper the Buffalo Demon King (Aaron Kwok Fu-shing) down into a fiery hellscape. Heaven has been so damaged, though, that goddess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) changes herself to crystal in order to pull it back together, with one fragment falling to Earth and birthing a powerful demigod with the form of the monkeys in the area. Seeing the potential for both virtue and vice in this Monkey King (Donnie Yen Ji-dan), the sage Master Puti (Hai Yitian) takes him on as a pupil, naming him "Sun Wukong". Still alternately egotistical and naive, Wukong is able to be convinced by the Buffalo Demon King to demand his place in Heaven, which would give disaffected guardian Erlangshen (Peter Ho Yun-tung) a chance to lower the defenses and let the demons attack again.

The star would be the most visible change when the sequel came out, but it's worth mentioning that Donnie Yen doesn't really make a bad Sun Wukong here. He's buried under a ton of prosthetics, but he nails the childish combination of innocence and petulance that the Havoc In Heaven phase of this character needs, and his emoting through all the latex and fur sells the film's last act. He doesn't really get a chance to show off his martial arts prowess as well as one would hope, despite being both star and action director - the movie is so larger-than-life and full of CGI and wire work that it's tough to see choreography in the fights - but his physicality works for the character. It's not hard to justify switching him out for Aaron Kwok in later movies, since Kwok's Buffalo Demon King is the best thing inn this one, projecting self-assurance and righteousness as he tricks Wukong and recites his grievances even while still maintaining the sneer that makes him clearly the film's villain.

(It ultimately worked out for the best; Kwok played a more mature, hardened Wukong well in #2, and maybe if Yen is making Monkey King movies, he doesn't do Rogue One, and who'd want that?)

Full review at EFC

Xiao shi de xiong shou (The Vanished Murderer)

* ¼ (out of four)
Seen on 5-6 February 2018 in Jay's Living Room (finishing the series, Blu-ray)

The Bullet Vanishes was a nifty little period mystery that featured the most entertaining variation on "she stabbed him with an icicle" to come about in a while, and it seemed to draw a decent crowd, so it was something of a surprise when this sequel - from the same creative team and looking just as slick - didn't also open in North America the way its predecessor did. Finally watching it, the reason why is clear - the new film is wall-to-wall nonsense, and only rarely the impressively bizarre sort.

It opens with former guard Song Donglu (Lau Ching-wan) being called back to prison to investigate the escape of Fuyuan (Jiang Yiyan), who apparently left the smitten detective with a nifty puzzle when she decided to escape custody, then sending him a letter saying she's in the city of Xiang and to come find her. The unusual arrest - he finds her at the grave of a family friend and then she takes him to watch Professor Huo Hua (Lam Ka-tung) lecture on philosophy - is cut short when a man jumps to his death in front of them, his shirt carrying a message protesting businessman Gao Minxiong (Guo Xiaodong). Fuyuan takes that opportunity to escape, but constable Mao Jin (Rhydian Vaughan) finds Donglu and the one-time fiancee he met on the train, Chang Sheng (Li Xiaolu), standing over the body. Donglu sees something suspicious about the whole set-up, leading the three to work together to investigate the connection this apparent suicide has to both other crimes and Fuyuan.

Screenwriter Yeung Sin-ling does seem to have a pretty solid idea of how this all fits together; what she doesn't seem to have is a coherent plan for Donglu and his team to actually figure it out and do something about it. A whole lot of weight is carried to letters and number puzzles from Fuyuan that contain secret clues as far as the plot is concerned, and there is a sudden interest in hypnosis at one point so that the history Songlu and Sheng Chang share can come out all at once rather than being teased or revealing itself as it becomes relevant. And it's not even that the movie director Law Chi-leung makes of Yeung's script often jumps from point A to point E without what seem like fairly necessary stops in between; the film actually has multiple levels of dumb: It is possible to spend so much time annoyed that the movie never offers a solution to the problem of how Fuyuan got out of her cell when the tunnel she dug proved to be a red herring that it doesn't occur to the viewer to wonder just how the heck she was digging a tunnel from an upper floor in the first place.

Full review at EFC

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