Tuesday, January 16, 2024

Not-Yet Chinese New Year Movies: If You Are the One 3 and I Did It My Way

Back at the Asian film corner, although I Did It My Way was actually upstairs.

I gather both of these movies hit Mainland Chinese screens on 29 December 2023, which means that Andy Lau had two crime movies in theaters that weekend, although they were more staggered in other territories (Hong Kong and North America, at least). If You Are the One 3 even had the sort of New Year's message that usually goes with the Lunar New Year, rather than the western calendar. I like those things; it gives a movie a bit of temporality rather than it being a chunk of content destined to be on the server forever.

Speaking of which… There does not seem to be any way to easily watch the first two If You Are the One movies in the United States before going to the new one. If You Are the One 2 was apparently released on disc here, but that's out of print; and JustWatch not only shows that the sequel is not available on any American service, but doesn't seem to recognize that the first one exists at all. Sure, the usual grain of salt applies - these global releases are not really for folks like me (and, presumably, anyone stumbling upon this blog) who are keen to see mainstream movies from all over the world, but for emigrants and expats - but, I dunno, maybe they'd like to be able to refresh their memories since it's been thirteen years since #2. I suppose the difference it might make in ticket sales is probably not worth what it takes in time and manpower to get these up on Prime or Netflix in various territories ahead of the theatrical release, but it seems like it should be easy enough, especially if you've got someone mailing posters and stuff out, unless theatrical promotion and streaming coordination are separate hierarchies between which communication is difficult.

(And thus ends the first edition of "Jay is puzzled by movie marketing and corporate communication" for 2024)

Both of these are kind of average-ish movies, and in writing the reviews I find myself falling into the trap of wishing they had been other movies, which probably isn't fair. Neither of them really reach their potential, but it's kind of easy to say "this would have worked better" without having to actually get a bunch of actors and technicians to execute it. Still, I've got to feel something would have worked better, and those possibilities are sitting right there.

Fei cheng wù rao 3 (if You Are the One 3)

* * ¼ (out of four)
Seen 14 January 2024 in AMC Causeway #5 (first-run, laser DCP)

First, let me say that if you are building and handing out Shu Qi robots, giving one to someone who can just expect her to walk in the door at some point seems tremendously unfair to the rest of us. Second, I idly wonder how often movie series jumping from being in the present to eight years in the future would entail characters catching up to the actors' ages.

That's sort of what happens here; audiences last saw Qin Fen (Ge You) and Liang Xiaoxiao (Shi Qu) in 2010, as the pair decided to make their "trial marriage" into the real thing. Now, it's 2031, and Qin still lives in their house in Hainan as his 70th birthday approaches, but Xiaoxiao has been away for ten years, having joined an environmental activist group (she sends postcards but has no telephone). Nearby, the robotics business started by his old friend Lao Fan (Fan Wei), "Accompany", is ready to release its first android companions. Fan approaches Fen, saying that a customer has requested one in his image, and also gives him one made to resemble Xiaoxiao. Of course, a demure, obedient Xiaoxiao is not very true-to-life, leading Fen to wonder if its personality could be modified - coincidentally, just as the real thing returns to Hainan as a representative of the NGO, looking for androids to clean beaches.

At times, I found myself wondering if writer/director Feng Xiaogang had a robot screenplay and the studio wanted an If You Are the One sequel, or he had two scripts that weren't working that wound up thrown together, because for long stretches, this has the feel of ideas that just never came together as pre-production was underway and a start date got closer. More likely, neither is true - despite the time jump, it's of a piece with the other movies in the series, all of which have been about Fen and Xiaoxiao trying to minimize the messy randomness of a relationship in one way or another - and this is just a script that never completely comes together. So there's a subplot of a monk with a robot disciple that lasts three scenes and never interacts with the rest of the movie, check-ins with characters from the predecessors that feel obligatory, including a character played by Guan Xiaotong who should be thirty by now (the actress was 13 in 2010), but is played as a teenager or college student because Feng apparently didn't care about the timelines at that point.

It's at least set in a future with bold colors and a more or less optimistic viewpoint; Feng's movies can be fun to look at when he wants them to be. He never seems to have much to say about this world aside from some odd asides when a character is watching the news, or people in general. Maybe not even in particular; though I've only seen the second of these films, it feels like the barbed, difficult-to-love nature of Fen and Xiaoxiao is smoothed out too much, and there might be a story in how this sort of abrasiveness that folks kind of admire in successful young or middle aged people doesn't age well, even if tech makes it easy for them not to mature. It's one thing that it's not the direction Feng goes, but he doesn't have much to say about Fen and Xiaoxiao mellowing over the past 20 years, either.

On the other hand, it's hard to entirely dislike a film with Shu Qi in the cast, and you can feel the movie kick into a slightly higher gear when she is able to do more than play a servile android, and again when the movie redirects just enough to make things more interesting than they had been. She and the filmmakers know that the audience is going to be looking to see if her performance is sufficiently layered from the start, as the twist that would have one curious about giving it a second view is clearly telegraphed. She's up for when Xiaoxiao and her robot double meet, too, making those scenes better than you might expect. If the film doesn't pull together, it's not on her.

Ge You is fine as well, although it would be nice if his character's spikiness was a little more in evidence. He does a lovelorn old man earnestly enough, but it always feels like he could be given more.

It's maybe a bit telling that he and Shu seem to display more chemistry in the New Year's message that plays during the credits - they genuinely seem like friends kind of regretful that they won't do more of these movies in a way that their lovers who have been separated for ten years don't quite manage.

Cim hang (I Did It My Way)

* * ½ (out of four)
Seen 15 January 2024 in AMC Causeway #9 (first-run, laser DCP)

The trouble with so much crime having an online component is that movies like I Did It My Way feature two or three sequences of people hunched over keyboards intently, intercut with visualizations meant to make hacking into servers interesting, for every one where Eddie Peng kung fus the hell out of someone in a wine shop, and the ratio really should be the other way around.

Indeed, we start with HKPD's lead cybercrime investigator, Eddie Fong Ling (Eddie Peng Yuyan), giving a lecture about how much illicit trade has moved online, and how the region's biggest drug lord - Chan Chiu Song (Philip Keung Hiu-Man), known as "Boss" - is moving his entire operation to the internet, with that night's upcoming deal one of their last, best chances to catch him. He's long evaded prison because of the services of barrister George Lam (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) and by delegating most of the street-level work to Sau Ho (Gordon Lam Ka Tung). They may have him this time - Fong has a source in Boss's hacker corps - but even if they do, Lam may be prepared to assume control of the entire operation and bring it fully into the 21st Century.

There's more, of course - I Did It My Way is overstuffed like a lot of Hong Kong movies are, the credits filled with guest stars and special appearances, and either weirdly unbalanced or a whole trilogy crammed into one film: The first chunk, playing like it's on fast forward, could be a tight little movie about two cops of different generations, temperaments, and skill sets trying to build a case against Boss during the hours he can be held without charge; the second kind of treads water for a while, the glimmer of an idea (online "disruption" of conventional drug dealing angering the traditional drug lords the material was stolen from) never quite emerging as the characters' actions make less and less sense; by the time it gets to the thing that feels the most like a fleshed-out idea for a movie - the engaged boss determined to hurt the cops chasing him the way he's been hurt - there's not really time, or enough work put in, to make for the classically operatic bullet ballet it could be.

You'd think cramming all that into one two-hour movie might lead to a non-stop barrage of action, but not quite. The big action moments are executed pretty well for big shootouts even if they often seem to come out of nowhere, like the filmmakers recognized that it was time for things to boil over into violence but couldn't always set it off naturally. Of course, that works well for the film's big martial arts fight, as Eddie Peng just crashes into an assassin played by MJ Chan Chun-Fung as he's about to dispose of a mole and they go at it in impressively destructive fashion, just satisfying in a way that a bunch of young folks saying that hacking something will take 15 minutes (complete with countdown timer!) and then watching lines penetrate a CGI sphere can't really hope to be.

There's a nice set of cop-movie stalwarts in the cast, although it sometimes doesn't quite know what to do with them: When Simon Yam's seasoned superintendent tells a tightly-wound and besuited cybercrime guy like Eddie Peng's character to work with a slovenly but street-smart narcotics detective played by Lam Suet, it should give them much more time to play off each other than what we get (I am absolutely more attached to Lam Suet's character because of 30 other movies than for this one). Andy Lau and Lam Ka-Tung also make an odd pairing, but do as well as they can with roles whose various facets never quite make sense together - how, one wonders, has Sau Ho been at this for seven-plus years with so little to show for it, and how do Gordon's personal sentimentality and ruthlessness in his illicit business mesh?.

The movie's a mess, really, but it's still kind of a good time when the action guys find a chance to do something creative. Mostly, though, it just feels generic, like so many other slickly-shot crime stories trying to find parts for half the Hong Kong Performing Artistes Guild, where this sort of Hong Kong action movie used to be glorious.

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