Monday, March 01, 2021

Chinese New Year 2021: Endgame and A Writer's Odyssey (plus Hidden Man)

Happy Lunar New Year for those who celebrate! A bit late, but the last year's been the last year, so I didn't get to the first of the two holiday releases that CMC is importing to the USA until its second week, and then my brain wouldn't come together to write them up until almost a week later. It's a bummer that so far, it looks like these are the only two we're getting, with the massive hit Detective Chinatown 3 not making it over. Whether that's because Warner has the distribution rights (as they did with #2) and Wanda doesn't want any part of their HBO Max deal, or because Wanda doesn't see American theaters as worth the effort, I dunno. Heck, maybe they're being socially responsible and not releasing movies that will get people into theaters until America gets its spread more under control.
Anyway, A Writer's Odyssey and Endgame have been the #3 and #4 movies in China for the weekends of the 12th and 19th, making $113M and $43M respectively, which is a pretty nice haul except that #1 and #2, Detective Chinatown 3 and Hi, Mom, have each made $620M in that time frame. It's mind-boggling, because it can be very hard for Americans to grasp just how enormous China is, especially when it's setting records like that.

I wonder if those movies are better that the ones we got, because both Endgame and A Writer's Odyssey are cases where you can see the material for better movies underneath what are fair and entertaining ones. To a certain extent, I wonder if they're unsatisfying to me because I'm not part of the target audience and what seems to me like avoiding things is presenting them in coded fashion. Still, the ways these movies twist to avoid censorship can be kind of screwy. Take the finale of A Writer's Odyssey:


There's been a bit of exposition about how Li Mu has set up an elaborate frame job to make it look like Guang Ning has killed Lu Kongwen because he's a nut who thinks Kongwen was involved in child trafficking, ridding himself of the author who is a threat as the son of his former partner on top of how his fantasy world is linked to the real one, and Tu Ling holds him off saying basically "let them keep writing, I want to see if what they do in the other world will actually kill you". Then there's a big crazy fantasy action sequence, and when it returns to the real world... We don't find out what happened to Li Mu at all. It's kind of a funny demonstration on how we look at screen violence - it's okay for fantasy heroes to slay a demigod in a boss battle, but taking action that results in the deliberate killing of the villain is a no-no, and because this draws a line directly between them, you can't actually show the results of it. In an American film, we'd probably call it cowardly and hypocritical, but for a country with the kind of censorship China has, it's just what you do to get around them. I generally find that sort of thing disappointing, but it's as much my perspective as the film.


I also kick-started the weekend by getting Hidden Man off my shelf; it's probably been there since it was a new release. Not a LNY movie, but that sort of big spectacle. It was okay, but also kind of compromised at points. It was kind of wild to look on IMDB and see that at one point Kevin Spacey was in it before the censors demanded most of the espionage material be removed. You can see that in the end result, as there's a lot of things mentioned toward the beginning that don't wind up mattering much (one character's daughter seems important but fades into the background) and maybe the harsh resolution as the background events start catching up (a character's dramatic suicide seems far out of line with their behavior and level of shame).

If nothing else, though, that weekend gave me some impetus to see related material - the Japanese and Korean movies that Endgame remade, the Brotherhood of Blades movies from the maker of A Writer's Odyssey, and the first two "bullets" movies from Jiang Wen. I'm sure the first pair will be tricky to track down, while I may split the Blades ones, getting a local Blu-ray but a 4K from Hong Kong. For the latter, it's kind of crazy how either interest or profitability of Chinese action has dropped off in the USA - Let the Bullets Fly is out as a Blu-ray from Well Go, but Gone with the Bullets only got a DVD from Sony, and Hidden Man just hasn't made it here yet, despite Jiang theoretically getting a higher profile after Rogue One. Surprisingly, I can't find a HK version for Gone either. This stuff just seems to either just not reliably get an easy release or evaporate.

Ren Chao Xiong Yong (Endgame '21)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2021 in AMC Boston Common #18 (first-run, DCP)

I've seen Endgame described as a Chinese remake of a Korean film which was itself a remake of a Japanese film, and it's not so much that things have been lost in translation as the edges have been sanded off. It's got a fine, well-tested premise and the basics of the jokes are known to work, but I'd be surprised if the Chinese crew added that much to what the previous filmmakers came up with.

The high-concept premise has unsuccessful actor Chen Xiaomeng (Xiao Yang) visiting a public bath right when another man (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) slips on a bar of soap and lands on his head. Xiaomeng, already considering ending his own life and remembering how nicely dressed the other man was, switches locker keys and uses the money he finds in the man's car to pay off his debts - until he finds out that the man has survived but has retrograde amnesia, and he can theoretically keep this luxurious new life. There's a catch, though - Zhou Quan is a hitman, and after having her husband disposed of, client Hui Hui (Huang Xiaolei) would like "Mr. Z" to take out his pregnant mistress Zeng Jiurong (Cheng Yi). Meanwhile, "Chen Xiaomeng" is released from the hospital to an unfamiliar apartment, but makes a friend in Li Xiang (Wan Qian), a single mom and newsmagazine writer who needs a subject for a new feature article.

It seems like there's a really clever or zany movie to be made with this premise, but the various bits of it don't wind up playing off each other very well. The thread with Chen living the cushy life of a rich assassin doesn't cross over with Zhou living his enough, and the film often seems neutered in other ways. It's self-aware enough to play like one of a comedy that spoofs conventions except that the filmmakers don't seem to know much else and fall back upon them. The Chinese "Crime Can Not Pay" dictate makes the end a lot messier than it has to be (while also requiring hilariously thorough mid-credits pieces making sure that the audience knows that the system dealt with everybody who deserved it to the exact letter of the law) while undercutting what may be any sort of theme about how each could benefit from some part of the other's lives. There's a brutal observation or two to be made here but the filmmakers don't seem to have the stomach for it, and a ready-made barb early on about Li's readers looking for lurid stories of "amnesia, abortion, and love triangles" is not the set up it should be.

The biggest problem, though, is that it is unbalanced. Andy Lau's character is presented as having been a ruthless hitman before the amnesia, but Lau portrays him as completely good-hearted and earnest and ironically a far better actor than Chen because he's trained to be a master of disguise who vanishes into his character, eventually lecturing his counterpart on why he's not a good actor when they do meet. Xiao Yang, meanwhile, is mugging for the camera and never gets the material that would play to how Chen is both good-hearted and desperate, especially since director Rao Xiaozhi and his co-writers seldom give him the chance to succeed because folks expect gangsters to be flamboyant and dramatic. Both of these actors should be getting a certain combination of sincerity and absurdity to play, but it never works out that way.

They are game for what the filmmakers give them, though, and the movie comes alive when the script hits a quality comedy set-up, even if there are just as many maudlin ones meant to be heartwarming but which don't work nearly so well in a movie that has at least made motions toward acknowledging the medium's artifice. There's one goofy moment involving a ball-pit that makes me wonder what the movie would be like if the whole thing were along those lines, and a side-story going on during the climax that would play even more enjoyably peculiar if it were played off the high-stakes material going on at the same time a little better. It's also worth noting that the women who get to play eccentric but straightforward characters are often a lot more entertaining than the male leads: Wan Qian nails how Li Xiang is good-hearted and funny but also no fool in relatively few scenes, and Huang Xiaolei seems to have a grand old time chewing scenery in what the subtitles suggest is defiantly broken Mandiran as the sort of low-class foil who may be ignorant of a lot but has a sharp mind for what she does know. It would have been a lot more fun to have sparks fly between Xiao's "Mr. Z" and her rather than the sketchily defined Jiurong.

It makes for enough of a mess to make one curious to see the original Japanese and Korean versions, or ponder an English-language remake, all responding to their industries' own particular tropes. In a way, Endgame does that in how it's restricted by how far a crime movie made in China can go, but it never shows the satirical courage necessary to properly bite the hand that feeds it.

Also at eFilmCritic

Ci sha xiao shuo jia (A Writer's Odyssey)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 21 February 2021 in AMC Boston Common #16 (first-run, DCP)

I doubt know if it works this way in China or if the Brotherhood of Blades movies were big enough to merit it, but A Writer's Odyssey feels like when someone scores a surprisingly big hit and gets to make their dream project without a lot of people saying no. It is two or three different ambitious movies merged into one by means of a high concept that needs just as much attention on its own, and is as a result predictably all over the place. It is, at least, the sort that can't help but be intermittently entertaining because filmmaker Lu Yang is swinging so big and so much is going on.

It starts with Guang Ning (Lei Jiayin), a broken man living off the grid haunted by both dreams of a fantastical city and the kidnapping of his daughter Tangerine six years ago, and how he strikes back by forcing a semi full of trafficked kids off the road with uncannily well-aimed rocks, only to have the police think he is one of the criminals. He's busted out of custody by Tu Ling (Yang Mi), Chief Information Officer of the Aladdin Group, who has a strange offer: They believe that they have located Tangerine by applying facial recognition to the pictures taken by their smartphones, and will reunite them if Gaung kills author Lu Kongwen (Dong Zijian) before he livestreams the conclusion of his novel in three days time. Why? Well, Aladdin founder Li Mu (Yu Hewei) has been incapacitated every time Kongwen has mentioned his villain Lord Redmane's old head injury flaring up, and if Kongwen kills him at the story's climax...

That is, of course, not all - Guang Ning has been chosen in part because his unlikely disabling of that truck is no fluke; he can throw stones with impossible power and accuracy, seemingly changing their direction in mid-air, and he's not the only person with superpowers Li has found. Li Mu himself seems to be a Steve Jobs type building up a cult of personality, and Chinese viewers will find it almost impossible to miss that "Aladdin" is awfully similar to "Alibaba", one of China's largest companies with its fingers in everything from internet services to banking to entertainment (including this movie!), though I'm not sure how specifically Li Mu maps to that company's founder Jack Ma. On top of that, a fair amount of time is spent in the world of Kongwen's novel, which has its own lore detailed enough to not just be a generic stand-in. That's something like four different genre movies, from sword & sorcery to superheros, all mashed into one, and for all that the film does an admirably smooth job of moving from one to another, it seldom gets very far down into any of them. There's a whole paranoid thriller to be made on how sinister an organization with the reach of Aladdin is but it's taken for granted when not useful, for instance; the philosophical ramifications of whether Kongwen is tapping into a parallel world with linked doppelgangers or creating it aren't much pondered, even when a battle in the fantasy world has hundreds of casualties, or even how this world's Kongwen has the power to captivate and maybe influence millions despite both Li Mu and Redmane being able to exert more direct control. There's this terrific metaphor at its center but by having Kongwen as a character, the viewer can actually see the writers screwing around with plot devices like they matter more than the bigger themes.

But when Lu throws everything he's got at the movie - and that's a lot; I couldn't really read the end credits but the logos imply that it was filmed with Imax cameras and optimized for Imax 3D - it can be a visual feast, full of exciting high concepts. The audience only dips in and out of the fantasy world occasionally, but Dong Zijian's questing hero version of Kongwen is enjoyable as a protagonist with a hint of whatever the Chinese for Mary Sue/Marty Stu is, and one gets the impression of the sort of enjoyably detailed world-building that could believably suck fans in. That Kongwen's got sentient, parasitic armor that leapt to him from a defeated opponent, the sidekick he acquired is pursued by spiffily designed warriors, and an almost throwaway image of flying dragons that are actually linked pods that function like hot-air balloons feels like the sort of thing that most movies would save as the centerpiece of a finale.

The "real world" pieces are, frustratingly, not quite so compelling, with that Kongwen such a generic dork that viewers will spend a long time wondering why a superpowered assassin is apparently necessary - and, truth be told, the movie would be about a half-hour long if Guang Ning didn't also feel the need to figure this out. For all that the film is built around Lu Kongwen and Li Mu being on a collision course, they both tend to be at the sidelines of what the audience sees. It's not a bad decision, since Lei Jiayin is a solid base for the movie as Guang Ning, and aside from him handling most everything the filmmakers throw at him, it's a neat trick to see a familiar story told from the point of view of the conflicted adversary with hidden depths. With him playing protagonist, Yang Mi gets that adversarial role, impressive during the action (along with a solid stunt team) and icily charismatic enough that it's a shame she doesn't have an opposite number in the novel, just to see another side of her.

It is, in fact, just good enough to make me wonder if some of the sloppiness is deliberate, especially when the action in the other world reaches its climax. Its characters are inspired writers, but not necessarily presented as talented ones, so when a giant boss battle is going on in the other world while the walls are closing in in reality, the final set piece seems impossibly improvised despite being piled high with meticulously executed CGI. It's a strange spot midway between camp and attempted cool, swinging toward both haphazardly, crowd-pleasing enough but also bizarrely chaotic and amateurish at points. On the other hand, the whole thing is whatever was bouncing around the filmmakers' heads, bolted together haphazardly, and that's often fun and frustrating in equal measures.

The rest of the movie is like that, if not to the same spectacular degree. It's full of ideas that don't entirely fit together, with none of them getting all the time they need to breathe, and enthusiastically being that sort of movie doesn't make being decent at a lot of things add up to being great. A Writer's Odyssey is, instead, a strange mosaic built out of some nifty pieces.

Also at eFilmCritic

Xie bu ya zheng (Hidden Man)

* * ¾ (out of four)
Seen 19 February 2021 in Jay's Living Room (off the shelf, Hong Kong Blu-ray)

Hidden Man is the third of writer/director/co-star Jiang Wen "bullets" trilogy, with a detour to Hollywood to be part of Rogue One in between, and it's got to be sort of an odd sensation, doing this sort of sprawling epic in the shadow of the sheer amount of resources Disney was throwing at Star Wars. It almost seems to have Jiang trying to do too much even without making more than the usual effort to include a Western audience, making for a packed, frantic, but often pretty enjoyable bit of period action.

It starts with a martial-arts master celebrating his birthday by betrothing his daughter and his adopted son Li Tianran, only to have someone crash the party - Zhu Qianlong (Liao Fan), a former student the Master has disowned for working with the occupying Japanese forces. He and compatriot Ichiro Nemoto (Kenya Sawada) slaughter the whole family, or so they think - Li escapes and is found by American doctor Wallace Hendler (Andy Friend), who adopts him and sends him to America to study medicine. Fifteen years later, in the 1930s, "Bruce Hendler" (Eddie Peng Yu-Yen) returns to Beijing to work alongside his father in the hospital and support the resistance on behalf of the American government. And, of course, to seek revenge on Zhu, now the chief of police, and Nemoto, now the leader of a gang of assassins. An ally will supposedly reveal themselves with a codeword, but is it Zhu's mistress Tang Fengyi (Summer Xu Qing)? Lan Qingfeng (Jiang), a businessman with his hands in a little bit of everything, legal or not? Guan Qiaohong (Zhou Yun), a master seamstress going through painful rehab to reverse the foot-binding done to her as a child? Any of them could also be working for the Japanese, or the Nationalist armies, and "Bruce" must keep his true identity secret, as Zhu has framed him for the murder of his master.

Jiang and company hit the ground running and don't ever stop for very long, finding skimpy reasons for Li to either get into fights or do the sort of running and jumping on rooftops that has similar energy - and when a physical confrontation isn't warranted, he gets into arguments or pushes at people in a way that suggests he never learned much about not calling attention to himself lest he blow his cover. Even when the story calls for him to lie low later on, he gets the sort of itchy feet that has him seemingly spending more time visiting Guan than hiding away. It's the sort of headstrong hero Gordon Liu used to play without the arc that has him learning discipline at the Shaolin Temple, and while it's kind of obnoxious, Eddie Peng generally finds a way to play Li Tianran so that his bull-headedness is wrapped up with having his eyes on the prize, with a certain cockiness that comes from feeling like he's taken in the best parts of both his Chinese and American backgrounds that crosses over into arrogance just often enough that the audience can enjoy when he faceplants because of it. There's a lot about this guy that should rub the audience the wrong way, but doesn't quite, which is a good thing: There's a lot of Bruce/Li (rimshot) in this movie, and it would collapse if he burned out his goodwill early.

He's got a fun ensemble to work against, too, most notably Liao Fan, who does a nice job of making Zhu both a preening villain with delusions of grandeur - he believes himself a descendant of the Ming Dynasty whom the Japanese will restore to the throne - and dangerous ruthlessness, well-matched in a fight with Peng but also just generally a dangerous and cunning loose cannon. Zhou Yun is an equal whose Guan is smarter and more grounded than Li, enough to throw off sparks and play off Peng entertainingly when the pair grow more aligned, with Xu Qing playing a different shade of that as a woman who is well aware of what she can get with just the possibility of sex. Andy Friend acquits himself much better than most folks in his situation do - he's one of those Westerners that shows up in Chinese movies with relatively few acting credits because it's harder to tell how well someone acting in a foreign language is doing, but he's apparently picked up enough in a career doing everything else around the movie business to communicate Hendler's parental angst well, and both he and Peng are comfortably bilingual enough that their arguments and banter can bounce between languages as needed.

It's a lot going on and moving fast, but Jiang and the martial-arts team of Kenji Tanigaki and Yan Hua build some great set-pieces, and even when there's not punching, kicking, or shooting going on, they're maintaining a high energy level. A lot of it is played light and fast-paced enough to get a laugh right up until the point where things get real, quick enough to get past a lot of things the plot skips past. Some of that is because the local audience likely knows more about the real events in the background, and some is because the film was retooled at points to get a pass from the film board. It's slickly produced and has nice effects when needed, although it's sometimes stretched.

I'd love to see the original cut of this, because it's not difficult at all to see where subplots were cut out and the film had to be put back together, but that's not exactly likely. What's left is fast and exciting, enough that I'm excited to go back and see the other two films in the set.

Also at eFilmCritic

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