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.

Full review 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.

Full review on EFC

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