Tuesday, January 30, 2024

Chinese Double Feature: Rob N Roll & The Storm

I've joked before about how I'm pretty sure that the local multiplexes deliberately schedule things to make people hanging around for a double feature difficult, because folks aren't likely to visit the concession stand, where a theater's real money is made, twice in a single afternoon. Heck, since most places let you pour your own Coke, customers can pretty easily get a refill even if you're not supposed to top off a small soda. They aren't putting guys near the Freestyle machines to explain how they work and watch out for that any more!

But sometimes something slips through:

Look at that - two movies running about 100 minutes, plus the 20 minutes of trailers AMC sticks to the front, so when you get out of one, hit the bathroom, and then make your way back to the lobby, you're not faced with the other thing you want to see having already started or having an hour-plus to kill. It's a beautiful thing.

It's also just enough time to get a snack and soda if you do want one, say because large portions of the Green Line have been shut down all month and it takes a little longer to get where you're going as a result. Although the soda was a weird situation today; Causeway Street doesn't have Freestyle machines because they really haven't re-arranged the way Arclight set the place up at all (the seats and signage are all the same as they were in 2019-2020), but the taps in the concession stand must have been busted or something, because they were just giving people cups with some ice and telling us to go to the bar to get it filled.

Anyway, kind of an odd afternoon at the movies aside from that; Rob N Roll effectively replaced another crime movie co-starring Lam Ka-Tung and Lam Suet (I Did It My Way), which effectively replaced another crime movie starring Andy Lau (The Goldfinger), and my eyebrows went up when I saw "Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee" in the credits. Maggie Cheung doing her first Hong Kong movie in 20 years (and her first film of any kind in ten) would be something you'd have heard about, right? But, no, there are apparently two Maggie Cheungs, much like there are multiple Tony Leungs who were active at the same time. Cheung Man-Yuk is the one most folks have heard about, while Cheung Ho-Yee has had a less prominent career.

Meanwhile, as much as I was kind of bitter at The Storm for grabbing screens at two downtown theaters when one of those could have been showing Alienoid: Return to the Future, I was intrigued when I looked up director Yang Zhigang and discovered I had seen his previous film, but it was an unusual experience. Sadly, I haven't had any chance to revisit Da Hu Fa in the past 5+ years; JustWatch doesn't even recognize its existence. Absolutely crazy to me that movies can play major genre festivals and you just never have a chance to see them again, even when the folks involved make a new one.

Still, if you like animation, The Storm is one to catch; it's visually terrific and based on my almost-review of the other, it looks like Yang has really stepped up his storytelling since then. And, well, maybe you'll be able to find it if you dig around IQIYI in a few months, but maybe you won't. You really never know these days!

Rob N Roll

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2024 in AMC Causeway #4 (first-run, laser DCP)

You know, it feels like I haven't seen this sort of movie - the 97-minute crime story that somehow has 4,097 moving parts - in some time. They were especially popular after Pulp Fiction, as you might expect, although seldom hitting that height, because the clockwork involved is tricky enough without getting something resonant. Rob N Roll has trouble with that; it's chaos from the start more than a well-oiled machine that descends into chaos when something gums it up, but it's still kind of fun at times.

It starts with three things going down in a Hong Kong neighborhood: A major money-exchange robbery led by Mai Lam Tin (Aaron Kwok Fu-Sing); a smaller holdup at knifepoint by Nam (John Chiang Jr.), and the thing the brings out veteran detective Ginger (Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee) and her young partner Fisher (Leung Chung-Hang), the report from retirement-home owner Mo Yung Fai (Richie Jen XIan-Qi) that one of his patients has gone missing, the father of Yung-fai's cabbie friend Robbie (Gordon Lam Ka-Tung). The old man is found soon enough, but Yung-fai gets the idea of executing a robbery to cover expenses, so he has Robbie contact one of his shady fares (Lam Suet) to get a hand on a gun, but he's also supposed to arrange for new passports and a boat for Tin's gang. Also, Nam spots the much larger score which is temporarily dropped in the trunk of Robby's cab while it's getting new tires at a garage, and the folks at the garage have a racket where they steal from the lockers where "Fatty" sets up his exchanges, and…

So, that's a lot, especially toward the start, where you might be trying to file away all the names of the various folks in the retirement home because you'd read a description that suggested "a couple old folks" disrupted a heist led by Kwok's character, and Jen & Lam are not only a year or two younger than Kwok, but there's pretty much equal levels of wear on their characters. And while the filmmakers cannot control that promotion, it's still kind of an awful lot to introduce in a little time, with Nam at least wearing a mask, and a number of paths crossing in ways that don't necessarily make sense as coincidence or something with intent. It mostly fits together - it's actually a pretty impressively edited movie, considering how doggedly it moves forward despite a lot going on - but there are a lot of decisions that seem to come out of nowhere, like the writers were coming up with them on-set.

The thing about movies like this is that even when the story ultimately holds up, it becomes hard to make them more than a series of "and then this happened" unless you've got something really clever, and this one really doesn't: There's never the surprising connection, the random event that sends everything in a new direction, or the performance that makes you care about some loser more than you expected. It's a bunch of odd characters with weird tics bouncing off each other until the machine finally winds down, but even the friendship between these middle-aged two guys trying to provide for their families, which sort of serves as the reason Tin sees them as somewhat kindred spirits, never quite materializes. Stuff just happens, and while that doesn't quite make Rob N Roll mere"content" (ptui!), it really needs that X factor which never quite arrives.

Admittedly, Aaron Kwok is trying, chewing some scenery as a downright crazy gunman from An Nam, but it's not quite the thing you can hang a movie on. That said, it's worth noting that the audience laughed hard at his antics, and I wonder if it's from the longtime Canto-pop star was playing very far against type (I've seen him play parts from villains to the Monkey King, but this seems out there). Few of the other bits even have that much energy, though you can see something in a couple of the supporting characters: Lam Suet's Fatty (I believe this is at least the dozenth time he has played a character named "Fatty") feels like he's been around a few other crimes that got out of control and just wants to stay out of the way, while Maggie Cheung Ho-Yee's Ginger is eager to jump into the sort of case that gets a cop noticed. There's probably a fun spoof of the five-overlapping-crime-stories movie to be made pairing them off, but this isn't quite it.

It's Albert Mak Kai-Kwong's first time in the main director's chair in 13 years or so, although he's spent the interim working as an executive or assistant director on a number of noteworthy films, including a half-dozen or so for Johnnie To, and there doesn't seem to be a lot of rust: He and the action team kick things off with a nifty robbery and as mentioned, he and the rest of the team do an impressive job of making sure the audience gets what it needs. The shell game at the public pool's locker room, for instance, could either be a mess or could slow down out of fear of losing the audience, but it mostly works. I believe he's one of the credited writers, so he may responsible for the mess as much as presenting it as cleanly as possible, but there's a certain old-school Hong Kong appeal to that, reminding me a bit of the crime flicks from previous decades when the level of craft fought with the fact that there wasn't time or budget to be perfectionist.

It's thoroughly okay, from my perch up front trying to follow action and subtitles and take notes on plot threads to help them stick. The Chinese and Chinese-American folks behind me seemed to dig it a lot more,and maybe it works better if you can just relax.

Da Yu (The Storm)

* * * (out of four)
Seen 28 January 2024 in AMC Causeway #4 (first-run, laser DCP)

I occasionally wonder, watching a fantasy from outside my Anglo-American field of reference like The Storm, exactly how much is traditional, how much is referencing other works, and how much is made up of whole cloth. In some ways, it doesn't much matter; the end result is the end result, and Yang Zhigang's storytelling here is impressive. On the other hand, I kind of want to know just how good a job he's doing: This movie does a fair-sized lore dump and then stays running straight to the end, and I suspect that if I saw this under the same circumstances as the director's previous film (with subtitles that were more or less incomprehensible), I'd either have been worse off than someone trying to watch it as a silent or still able to grasp what was happening.

As it starts, young Bun and his foster father Biggie appear to be the only people left in an abandoned village near Dragon Bay. Biggie has told Bun tales of the Big Black Boat which sank containing various treasures, including the Necturlumin Satin, along with an opera troupe; he's been seeking it for years. But a pair of new faces - Liu Ziyan, the chief inspector of her father's army, and her "Uncle Big Hat", healer Liu Hade - arrive just as the Big Black Boat resurfaces, and along with it parasitic Jellieels that eventually make those they come into contact Jellieelsters. Ziyan's father, Liu Duhuan, is obsessed with the Satin, but much more is at stake, as the bird-masked Necturlumin tribe has arrived to counter the Insect Awakening, which could revive the Jellieel King with apocalyptic results. Through all this, though, Bun just wants to try and save Biggie; both were bitten by Jellieels, but while Hade was able to treat Bun quickly, all that Biggie is tangled up in can only make his situation worse.

It sounds like utter nonsense, laid out like that, but Yang lays it out so confidently and with such little fanfare that It's kind of great, a great big fantasy that spends the first chunk adding new bits but never really buckles as backstory gets revealed. The balance between the simple relationship at the heart of the film and the full roster of crazy fantasy stuff never gets out of whack, as Yang does fine work in making sure that every revelation about Biggie's past and present circles back around to how this is going to affect the life he's built with Bun, as well as using the way a kid like Bun can sort of accept new, scary things to keep the story going as more gets added in.

The relatively uncomplicated art style that feels like it exists somewhere between Hayao Miyazaki's and Ralph Bakshi's fantasies reinforces that. The basics are elemental enough that the details need little explanation, and those details are kind of fun, especially the spherical pet bird that nests in the spot where a horn apparently broke off from the oversized helmet Bun wears everywhere, a set of little things that all make sense together. Ziyan has a particularly nice design, hitting a spot that is strict and military but which doesn't have to melt or relax in order to show interest in the little kid. The "umbrellas" which threaten to swallow Biggie and Bun early especially feel like trippy animated fantasy from an earlier decade in how they move from background to foreground, in that one's brain being unable to calculate distance from perspective makes them a bit more dangerous, and the design of the soldiers seem to go from impressive and disciplined to bloated and chaotic as they get in way over their head, especially once they enter a boat that reveals a ton of fun ornamentation inside its almost abstracted exterior.

It also means that when the finale gets weird - which it does! - it sort of works that everything gets a bit lost. It's unabashedly like those sequences in 1990s Disney movies where they're suddenly using the computers for more than coloring and it doesn't quite mesh, only with enough horror influence to harness the uncanny nature of that effect. It's eye-popping, a roller-coaster that keeps finding Bun as the camera swoops around the boat, watching huge supernatural forces crash into each other. It's the one bit where I wondered if this was 3D in China, but finishes up with just enough room for the film to resolve its main business.

All in all, a movie firmly in the category of those where I don't know who in my circle I would recommend it to, but I want to show it to someone.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

Thanks! Thinking about doing this exact double feature tomorrow.