Monday, July 02, 2018

Chinese Cinema: The Leakers & Animal World

I didn't get a chance to take advantage of it because I had stuff to do and baseball to watch, but AMC actually scheduled the two Chinese movies they opened this weekend in a way that you could do a double feature without a whole lot of fuss, which is really unusual for them. Their usual plan is to make sure one starts at the other's halfway point, thus encouraging you to see them on separate days and thus visit the concession stand twice, rather than just maybe refill your large soda, but maybe with their Stubs A-List thing, they're hoping people will burn through their 3 movies a week quickly and then pay for a fourth. I dunno, I suspect if I understood the movie exhibition business I wouldn't be programming computers for a living.

Kind of a weird pair of movies, and not just because I wound up liking the Mandarin film a lot more than the Cantonese one. I think part of that is just me not being terribly fond of Herman Yau, who made The Leakers; from what I gather, his best work is in the horror genre, but that hasn't really made its way across the Pacific the way his action movies have. There's a bit of a "work fast and cheap" feel to this one that a certain amount of slickness covers, but even with a few decent CGI explosions, I do wonder how much all the news broadcasts are covering for not being able to shoot something.

It was also the first thing I've seen distributed by "Tangren Cultural Film Group", which is an Australian company that has apparently started moving into distributing Asian movies in North America when they can get the rights. There's a preview for another one of theirs in the current group being attached to Asian movies, which is interesting because despite the Chinese subtitles, it sure looks like a Chinese/Japanese/Thai mix.

Then there was Animal World, which had me going back and forth on because it kind of looked dumb from the poster, especially with the "Guest Star" and "Special Appearance" credits for Zhou Dongyu and Michael Douglas, which often indicate something shoehorned in, even though I quite liked the filmmaker's previous movie (Go Away Mr. Tumor). Like that one, which really tries to have things both ways by playing up the crazy flights of fancy its characters take while also slapping "This Is Not a Zombie Film" on their horror-looking posters, there's a lot of crazy action that only exists in the characters' heads, enough that I bet if I saw a trailer I'd be ticked when the actual movie became a bunch of people playing rock-scissors-paper.

But I liked it, and I can see a mixed crowd of manga fans, folks who like star Li Yifeng, and people who want to know what the heck Douglas is doing in this eating it up at something like Fantasia or Fantastic Fest. I'd kind of love to see someone give director Han Yan a big Hollywood budget. But make no mistake, this thing is strange as heck.

Of course, being that nuts means it had two of my favorite credits of the year: One for "Logic Adviser" and one for "Super Cool Anime-Style Clown Animation and Design", and, folks, you generally don't see both of those on the same movie.

Xie Mi Xing Zhe (The Leakers)

* * (out of four)
Seen 30 June 2018 in AMC Boston Common #4 (first-run, DCP)

The Leakers is the sort of movie that it can sometimes be difficult to actually call out as bad. It manages to tell its story, after all - the cast does their jobs; you know who did what by the end, and why; and the machinations aren't that much more ridiculous than the standard conspiracy thriller. Maybe that's part of the problem; the skeleton is so familiar that even the twists are expected, and how great can a thriller that never does anything unexpected be?

It starts promisingly, with a scene of truckloads of mosquitoes being released in the Malaysian countryside by men in biohazard suits, followed by people falling over sick in the middle of the city. It's the VR-23 strain of the ZIKV virus, and two reporters who became friends in university - Danny Song (Sam Lee Chan-sam) of the local New China News bureau and Carly Yeun (Charmaine Sheh See-man) on the Hong Kong Daily - are investigating. A new antiviral drug - "MD5" from Amanah Pharmaceuticals - shows promise, but that company's founder Teo Jit-sin (Kent Cheng Jak-si) is in the middle of a nightmare - the board puts a stop to his plans to donate the drugs needed, his first son and heir apparent is one of two suicides being investigated by detective Lee Wang Ken (Julian Cheung Chi-lam), and second son Chun Yan (Wilfred Yau Ho-lung) has disappeared in Hong Kong, possibly in collection with outlaw group "The Leakers". Wang Ken follows his trail - and that of Chun Yann's sister-in-law Phang Zhen Mei (Chrissie Chau Sau-na) to Hong Kong, where he teams with local detective Wong Dai Wai (Francis Ng Chun-yu).

That sounds potentially exciting, but it's not - it feels like writers Erica Li & Eric Lee and director Herman Yau often seem to have made key scenes from a decent thriller but can't put it together. Take that opening scene - it's genuinely sinister, a fine lead-in to some enjoyably hammy seizing up and flopping around, but kind of wasted, because this being a nefarious plot is never on the characters' radar until the end, so this stuff in shadows with faceless operatives who are separate from the people with lines. On top of that, a lot of the story is delivered via TV screens and news programs, and none of it seems necessary - it's either repeating what we already know, explaining something obvious, or material that would be much more interesting coming from the people involved - making the movie feel padded and the characters feel passive, like the most important activity happened off-screen.

Mostly, though, it's boring, giving a talented cast little to do. Characters fill the exact amount of space the plot needs, even if it means they're introduced late or sidelined for half the movie, and it makes their actions also feel like just what's necessary, not something they must do for themselves. Charmaine Sheh, for example, makes a good first impression as Carly even as she's given little to do early on, and is convincingly passionate later on, but barely gets the moment where her characters' skills and passion really gets play. First-billed Francis Ng doesn't show up until relatively late and though he's nicely frazzled, he and Julian Cheung never find quite the right buddy-movie chemistry. Chrissie Chau is in and out much too quickly, and only Kent Cheng really gets a meaty character - Teo Jit-sin's purpose in this movie is clear, but Cheng is good enough to make a viewer doubt things will go the obvious route.

There is some action, and it's not bad - prolific director Herman Yau calls on a pretty good car-chase guy in Thomson Ng Hoi-tong, so that when the action goes in that direction, it's exciting and often creative - a bit toward the end where one of three cars involved stalls and must be pushed or stopped by another could pay a little more attention to the terrain, but it's far enough from the standard that one wishes it were part of a movie with a little more budget and which was good enough to show it off. The fights remind one that even a bad Hong Kong movie probably does this better than anyone else, and Yau is able to call on Jack Wong Wai-leung, who handled some of the action on Wu Jing's Wolf Warrior 2. Things are fast but clear, with long takes and impacts that look like they hurt, enough to raise an eyebrow when things don't cut

It's raw competence that you can't help but wish was in the service of a much better thriller. There's no part of this one that's actually bad, but also not nearly enough that's genuinely good. A few good scenes help disguise that this movie seems to have been shot from a script that never got past the outline stage, but there is just too much missing.

(Previously on EFC)

Dongwu shijie (Animal World)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 1 July 2018 in AMC Boston Common #3 (first-run, DCP)

Animal World is exactly my kind of insane, a Chinese-language adaptation of a Japanese comic that shows an incredible initial flair for stylized action and eventually trades it in for game theory and other math. It's got an impressive cast that for some reason includes Michael Douglas, and some of the slickest effects work I've seen in a Chinese movie. Is it the sort of weird that translates to a bigger audience than a Chinese movie usually gets overseas or becomes a crowd-pleaser in its native land? I have no clue.

It follows Zhang Kaisi (LI Yifeng), who was the smartest kid in school, but who as an adult works as a clown in an arcade and has violent, vivid hallucinations when he gets emotional; on top of that, his mother is in a coma and he has to borrow money from nurse and girl-next-door Lin Qing (Zhou Dongyu). Another old friend, "Big Shrimp" Li Jun (Cao Bingkun), offers him a chance to make some money flipping an apartment, but it means mortgaging Kaisi's mother's place. Instead, he winds up brought in front of "Anderson" (Douglas), an American loan shark who offers him a chance to win his debt back aboard the "Cruise Ship Destiny", where he'll be one of a hundred competing in a high-stakes game of rock-paper-scissors.

Which, in filmmaking terms, sounds absolutely insane. Writer/director Han Yan (adapting a manga by Nobuyuki Fukumoto) spends the first leg of the movie boosting some relatively-basic scene-setting material with memorably hallucinatory bits of action in much the same way he did when making romantic comedy Go Away Mr Tumor, and it's quite effective. From the start, we're plunged into a mind unsteady enough to be dangerous but we also get the feeling that he's generally maintaining control, and the visuals of it are terrific: Some top-notch visual effects companies are at work, the "Killer Clown" avatar is just the right blend of frightening and absurd, and there's a car chase sequence that's both so dizzying and easy to follow that it could come out of the Wachowskis' Speed Racer. It's a heck of a way to set things up for the real meat of the movie.

That main event is kind of gloriously absurd. The interior of Destiny is a fantastic, stylish environment that probably looks great in Imax 3D (though it only got a 2D release in Boston), but it takes some guts to go from that hyper-kinetic opening and then spend the rest of the movie playing rock-paper-scissors like it's a game of skill. The thing is, it kind of works; the rules that make this a game of resource allocation are laid out clearly, an early and obvious attempt to game the system is thwarted in a way that means Kaisi and his allies have to outthink the competition to get out alive, and the mathematical gambits he thinks up are illustrated with the same visual flair shown in the early action sequences (if the first half is Han capturing the fast action of manga, the second is him translating its decompresseed, highly-visual exposition to screen). It may go on a bit too long in the end, but for a while it plays out like the best high-stakes poker games on film, except that it's perfectly natural for folks to get up, show their hand, and interact with their opponents.

It also sneakily lets Li Yifeng grab the movie and make it his without the crutch of his clown costume and visual effects; it's a bit tough to tell through subtitles, but he seems to handle the mathematical material confidently and generally handle Kaisi's rocky emotional state well. He's got a number of good foils in Cao Bingkun, Su Ke, Wang Ge, and Alberto Lancelletti, all well-suited to the particular sort of allegiances and/or betrayal their characters build with Kaisi. Zhou Dongyu is credited as a "guest star", which seems like an odd thing for a movie that presumably stands alone, but it fits; Liu Qing is not on the Destiny but her scenes with Li Yifeng certainly help build a solid foundation for his character. Something similar is the case with Michael Douglas: He's certainly a higher-end foreign villain than I can recall any other Chinese film having (although the bar is probably Frank Grillo in Wolf Warrior 2 and Mike Tyson in Ip Man 3), but it's a good investment; even if he's not doing his best work, he's still not making the audience laugh when he opens his mouth and he projects a casual air of satisfied superiority as well as ever.

For all that "Animal Kingdom" makes a very watchable movie out of some bonkers material, I suspect that a lot of people will check out once they realize that most of the big, CGI-filled action scenes are not meant to be taken literally, or will eventually decide that the hero applying game theory to an amped-up version of rock/paper/scissors is not actually exciting. I hope not, though; it's a surprisingly fun flick, one of the more enjoyably oddball international blockbusters to come around in a while.

(Previously at EFC)

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