Firestorm (2013)

Firestorm is an action thriller out of Hong Kong. It came out in late 2013 and was shown at three festivals here in the states this spring – Dallas in April, and San Francisco and Seattle just last month. As a starting point, there’s an armored car heist, and there’s a shootout in the city streets, just like in the 1995 action thriller Heat. I think we shall probably have this film in our theaters later this year.

The key point is that Firestorm has way more firepower than Heat. Bigger shootouts, bigger explosions, this film’s second or alternative name could be ‘Pyrotechnics‘. On the other hand, Heat had plenty of character development to keep you involved between the action set pieces. Firestorm makes a stab at it – but is really not all that concerned with developing characters.

The story is simple. Hong Kong mega-star Andy Lau plays HKPD Inspector Liu, and a guy that Liu went to school with, Tou Sing Bong, is played by Gordon Lam. Liu went into the police for his career. Bong went into crime, and as the film opens, Bong and another con have just been released from prison at the same time.

Bong has a girl friend waiting for him. She’s desperate for Bong to go straight. She’s even hooked him up with a job as a chef in an upscale restaurant. But we know his heart isn’t in cooking. But after protesting, he agrees. But the siren song of big time heists is too strong for him.

Liu soon after has to deal with the armored truck heist. And car chases, and a raid in an apartment block which, like we saw in the Johnny To  2004 thriller Breaking News. I could be wrong, but it seemed like in every action set piece, cops and swat teams went flying due to grenades being launched at them. In every car chase, how did they end? Right – with airbags deployed.

In one sense, which I will call the action factor, this movie has it all.

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The Blind Detective (2013)

As a long time fan of Hong Kong Film director Johnnie To, I was pleased when I read of his latest film, The Blind Detective, before leaving for a trip to Hong Kong at the very end of October. Sadly, I was unable to purchase the DVD at any of the bigger retail stores in Hong Kong, as every where I looked for the DVD, they were all sold out.

When I returned home, I was able to  track down the DVD on Ebay. I ordered it, and received it, and was eager to see it. This is the fourth pairing of the films stars – Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng – as the stars in a Johnnie To production. At one time, early in the last decade, Andy and Sammi were the reigning King and Queen of the Hong Kong movie industry.

Beginning with Needing You (2000), Love on a Diet (2001), then Yesterday Once More (2004), this twosome was as bankable as any two screen actors working together at the time. While not quite on a par with Spencer Tracy and Katherine Hepburn – Lau and Cheng sold many tickets together.

The Blind Detective reunites them as the working stars in a Johnnie To film. And the results are that this is a mixed bag. Some of it is excellent driven by the remarkable on-screen chemistry of Cheng and Lau. That’s the rom com part.

Then there’s the police procedural part which is driven mostly by Lau’s now blind, and now retired as an official police detective, who is surprisingly named Johnston, recreating crime scenes from the police reports, and his imagination; and also with Cheng’s (who is a police woman named Ho) physical assistance.

Johnston is in it for the cold case reward money which is how he makes a living these days. Ho is in it because she has a missing person case of her own, her friend Minnie had gone missing years back, and Ho, seeing Johnston in action wants to learn from him and possibly use him to help find Minnie.

But wait – there’s more.

Let’s add in the fact that Lau’s Johnston is a foodie. As we have seen before in these Lau-Cheng-To films – eating and drinking to excess is to be expected. On screen nausea is something you can bank on; it is anything but the unexpected. By the way – if you get a chance, have a look at a great Johnnie To cop film was called Expect the Unexpected. It came out in 1998. But back to our film – so don’t be surprised when each of the leads has a ‘puke’ scene.

There was one very funny scene. After Ho had to put Johnston up at her apartment because he had drunk to excess the night before. He awakens the next morning needing to piss badly. After stumbling around the unfamiliar apartment – yes, there’s plenty of that ‘blind man tripping and falling humor’ in the film – Johnston stumbles into Ho’s bathroom where she is having a nice bubble bath. She’s shrieking.

Ho: Get out! I’m taking bath! Get Out! I’m in the bathtub! 

Johnston: (also shrieking) – I have to pee! Where is the toilet?

Ho: Over there. At your nine o’clock.

Johnston (finds it and relieves himself): Relax, I am blind. Can’t see a thing!

Ho: But I’m not blind!

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Drug War (2012)

In China,
Manufacturing Over 50 Grams of METH
Will Get You the DEATH PENALTY.
Timmy Choi Has Manufactured TONS.

In acclaimed director Johnny To‘s film Drug War (2012), early on, Timmy Choi played by Louis Koo, is captured by the cops after his lab blows up killing his wife and her two brothers. Choi was also on the scene, but he survives the explosion, but his subsequent car crash into a restaurant leads to his arrest. That’s how we meet Choi.

Meanwhile, Police Captain Zhang  played by Sun Honglei is on an undercover assignment on an inter-city bus that is carrying a bunch of drug mules cross-country. Of course the mules have ingested the drug pods, and will have to expel them for the police at the hospital. This is beyond realism. almost more realistic than you might want. However, we don’t see see the actual expulsions.

But that’s how we meet the two leads.

In his interrogation, Choi is told that he will soon be executed. I don’t wanna die, he says. Is there anything I can do?

Louis Koo as Timmy Choi

Louis Koo as Timmy Choi

Of course there is. The cops want more than just Choi. They want to bring down the whole cartel. Choi is tasked with leading the cops to the heads of the cartel, and to set up a sit down with them bringing along the undercover cop as his buyer. Choi will be wearing some high-tech video and audio micro transmitters of course, and the stakes are high. Very high, or said yet another way – Choi as well as the undercover cop, Captain Zhang, were soon going to be in grave danger. Yes, the question about grave danger, first posed by Jack Nicholson in A Few Good Men certainly applies here – Is there any other kind?

Choi is truly between a rock and hard place. If he screws the cops, they will track him down and kill him. I shouldn’t have to say that by screwing the cartel, Choi is also signing his own death warrant.

Have a look at the trailer –

There’s your set up.

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The Grandmaster (2013)

The Grandmaster by Wong Kar Wai is a beautiful film visually. Breathtaking actually. But it is more about the cinematic arts than the telling of a story. It is also more about style than substance. And I believe that the title is a tad misleading.

I knew going in that Tony Leung was cast as Ip Man, a legendary Chinese martial arts instructor. Even the poster said, “Inspired by the True Story of Bruce Lee’s Master.”

Yes, Ip Man would train Bruce Lee in real life, but Ip Man is not the Grandmaster. The real Grandmaster was the father of Gong Er, the character played by Zhang Ziyi.

An old and famous teacher of Martial arts – Gong Yutian wants to extend his legacy to South China and Hong Kong and asks for candidates. Among which is Tony Leung as Ip Man.

At the Gong home, Ip Man and Gong Er have a fight to establish something – I’m not exactly clear, but the rules were that if any part of the house was broken or damaged, the winner would be the opponent who did not break something.

So Leung and Ziyi Zhang swirl, and leap, and throw their punches, kicks, and elbows in a match that seems less squared off than more of a tidal flow. However, upon a heavy landing, Ip Man caused a separation in the floor boards, in effect breaking the floor. As such, Gong Er was the winner. But the two remained friends.

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Love In the Buff

Are you bugged by the anti-smoking laws in most big cities – no smoking in bars, no smoking in restaurants, no smoking in your office, and in many cases, no smoking in certain outdoor areas, etc.

Due to these strictures and the vagaries of law-enforcement, smokers have to find back alleys or side streets to smoke in and this leads to people meeting unexpectedly and even forming relationships.

There was a film made about this and it was called Love In a Puff. It was released in March of 2010.

Our film review today is the sequel and it is called Love In the Buff. The time frame of this film is six months after Jimmy and Cherie had not only met and hooked up, but had begun a live-in relationship, which was now on its last legs, or said another way – the last few moments.

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Our setting is Hong Kong. Cherie is played by Miriam Yeung. She’s a 30-something and she works for a big multinational cosmetics chain, Sephora. Jimmy is played by Shawn Yue, and his gig is advertising. So what’s going on with these two?

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Jimmy and Cherie are long past the hot and steamy stage, are now in the stage called major disillusionment. The next to last straw is when Jimmy is out with his buddies and forgets all about the dinner Cherie arranged as a birthday party for her mother at a nice restaurant. After another bit of quality time between them is blown off by Jimmy’s working (these things happen)

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and by Jimmy not calling or texting. Cherie has had enough. By the time Jimmy gets home – all that waits for him is a few cold dumplings left over from the outing and a note that is the modern day Hong Kong version of Dear John.

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So Cherie is out of the relationship.

Jimmy decides to take up an offer to live and work in Beijing. So just before leaving for the airport he calls Cherie to say goodbye. Off he goes. and on the plane, he meets a cute stewardess called You-you.

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Soon enough, Jimmy and You-you are an item.

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The Bullet Vanishes

Let’s start with a crackling good mystery. People are shot. Some in front of witnesses. Yet forensics can’t make a case of death by gunshot. Why? Because without a major piece of evidence – the bullet – the cause of death cannot be ascertained only assumed.

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At a local munitions factory, a woman is accused of stealing a box of bullets. Is she fired? Are the authorities brought in to question her. Neither. She’s offered “The God’s Will Resolution.” Basically, she must play a one-round game of Russian Roulette. If she is innocent, God will spare her from blowing out her own brains and everyone would return to work. If she’s not innocent…well, the case would be opened and closed right then and there.

Let’s make it a period drama. Set it in the 1930’s. Lots of men in long overcoats, newsboys caps, or fedoras. Plenty of pistols and tommy guns. Big cars that look boxy and black.

We will need a couple of heroes for the film. One is a local cop who is known as being the fastest gun in the area. The other is a brilliant detective known for both his eccentricities and amazing investigative and deductive powers.

Add in a beautiful woman doctor of forensics as the Medical Examiner (M.E.). And a little exotica in the form of a mysterious fortune-teller. Spice it up with dance halls, opium dens, and houses of pleasure. Then set the whole story in Tiancheng Province in China. They call this film – The Bullet Vanishes.

If we were pitching the story to investors we might describe it as something along the lines of CSI meets Sherlock Holmes with a hint of Miller’s Crossing and Last Man Standing. Actually, TBV only resembles those films based on style and look rather than subject. I’ve used those films as examples only in a general sense of saying that the costumes and cars, the guns and gals, the science, and the period settings of those films are as good a way of describing The Bullet Vanishes as any other.

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A Simple Life

Directed by Ann Hui and written by Susan Chan and Yan-lam Lee, who also produced the film, this film was Hong Kong’s official entry for the 2012 Oscars. The title in English is A Simple Life.

The story is similarly quite basic – Deannie Yip , a fine veteran Hong Kong actress, plays Ah Tao, who has been in the service of one family for about sixty years (and four generations) as a nanny/maid/cook/housekeeper. While most of the family has emigrated to the West, the oldest son Roger, played by Andy Lau, has remained in HK. Roger is a very successful film producer. He’s always on the run scouting out locations in China, or taking meetings with directors and actors, he is away from home about as often as he’s in town.

Ah Tao handles the laundry, keeps the apartment clean, cooks, and shops for Roger. She’s well-known in the neighborhood, and the merchants play tricks on her but with affection. We understand that she cares for Roger’s well-being when she chastises him for eating ox-tongue:

You want more angioplasty? Forget about it.

But Ah Tao maintains her place. She wouldn’t think of sitting at the dining table with Roger, or eating with him in the living room while he’s watching tv. She will eat standing up in the kitchen instead. They work well together – when she hears Roger getting ready to leave for a trip, she makes her inquiry simply.

Ah Tao: How long this time?
Roger: Just two days

Roger in his way appreciates all Ah Tao does for him. But Ah Tao suffers a stroke. She becomes impaired, and in the aftermath walks with a quad-cane. But her mind is sharp. She tells Roger that she doesn’t want to be a burden for him. She will live in a nursing home in the area. And pay for it herself.

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The Flowers of War

The Flowers of War has been reported to be the most expensive film ever produced in China. I’ve seen the numbers and they are in the range of 100 Million US dollars.

Directed by Zhang Yimou, this epic film is about courage and sacrifice set against the ravages and horrors of war in 1937 in Nanjing, China. This film also marks the first time that a Western Actor has the lead role in a Chinese production.

The film has a limited opening playing only in a short list of select cities (just 21 theaters nationwide) beginning on Friday, January 20th, 2012.

Since it is not playing anywhere in Florida, I have to hope that it will achieve a wider distribution later on, or I’ll have to wait for the DVD to review it.

Christian Bale (an Oscar winner for The Fighter and he starred as Batman in The Dark Knight) has the lead role. He plays a traveling mortician, attending to the dead, while not an adventurer, he’s kind of a wayfaring dissolute man who happened to find himself in Nanjing, and at the church, when the Japanese troops attacked the city in December of 1937.

By circumstances unknown to me, so I’ll call them luck and fate, he and a group of frightened Chinese Catholic schoolgirls and another group made up of a dozen beautiful courtesans, find themselves trapped inside a walled compound, a home to a cathedral – which they hope will afford them safety from the marauding soldiers. Bale’s character, John Miller, will take up the role of the church’s priest, donning the clothing and vestments of a recently killed priest for the impersonation.

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What Women Want (2011)

First we will set the stage. We are in Beijing, China, the time is present day, and most of the action will take place in and around a top-tier ad agency. Andy Lau plays Zi Gang Sun, an ad executive who is on a seemingly terrific career path.

He’s not only an eligible bachelor, but he revels in it. He’s unofficially – the hottest guy in the office. He’s also a male chauvinist, and his skill is in selling products to men. Girls working there fawn all over him, that is when they’re not flirting with him, or creating scenarios where they can bump into him.

On his way to the office one day – he meets a beautiful woman in the elevator. He offers to buy her a coffee, and she says she only drinks water. You can see the attraction. His for her is written all over his face, and she’s intrigued too, only she’s not so outgoing about it that you can easily tell what she’s thinking. She is Li Yu-long and she’s played by Gong Li. Lau’s Mr. Sun doesn’t know it, but she’s just been hired by his firm to become the Executive Creative Director of the firm – a position that he thought he would be promoted into that day.

After his boss, the firm’s CEO’s broke the news to him that Li got the job instead of him, he heads back to his office, where his staff had a surprise party set up for him – a celebration on his promotion. That he didn’t get. He dismisses them. Sorry guys, not today. Maybe sometime in the future.

The next morning, there’s a big meeting scheduled in the conference room to introduce this Li. Sun makes a bet with one of his buddies, that this Li, whoever she is, will look like a man. Soon after Li walks in and sits down. Sun goes over to chat her up.  He still hasn’t a clue as to who she is. He only knows that she is the woman from the elevator from yesterday. “Oh – you also work here?‘, he says, amping up the wattage of his smile.

When Li takes off her glasses, Sun says, “You look good without your glasses.”

She replies, “You also look good … without my glasses.”

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