Gangster Payday

Though I’ve not been in Hong Kong since November of 2013, I try to keep abreast of the best films coming out of Hong Kong. Released back just last November 8th, Gangster Payday stars the long time popular Hong Kong actor Anthony Wong as a mobster/hoodlum and co-stars Charlene Choi as the proprietress of a Hong Kong tea shop.

Wong, who is called Brother Ghost in the film, plays an old school triad gang leader, he’s got his own crew, and he’s got some massage parlors and karaoke bars in his portfolio. He’s also the owner (landlord) of the building that houses the tea shop owned by Mei (Charlene Choi).

Now Brother Ghost wants to step away from the dirty crimes and rackets of loan sharking and prostitution and wants nothing to do with the drug trade. He wants to be legit – or said in other words – he wants to go straight.

But getting out is even harder than getting in. A rival gang leader has stepped into the real estate development business, which seems honest on the surface. But the reality is that they put the muscle on the neighborhood Mom and Pop stores and shops, eventually forcing them to sell or go out of business. Then they step in and buy out the businesses for a fraction of their worth and sell the same properties off to the big developers at huge profits.

Now Brother Ghost has taken a shine to the young Mei. She’s basically inherited the tea shop business and is still learning the ropes, but she is willing to work hard. While Ghost is making it clear to Mei that he is willing to help her fend off the developer who is putting the pressure on her, he also wants to have a relationship with her.

But Mei has taken a shine to Leung who is one of Ghost’s young lieutenants.

So there’s both halves of your story – two men who want the same woman, and all trying to fend off the shark-like real estate developer.

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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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Cold War (2012)

On a particular day, a couple of events occur to set the stage in Asia’s safest city. First a bomb explodes near a movie house, in a busy shopping district in Mongkok. This is followed by a car driving at dangerously high speeds. A police Emergency Unit (EU), a veritable high tech van/comm center, proceeds to give chase. Ultimately the car will careen out of control and crash with the police just a few seconds behind.

The driver is shaken but unhurt, but acts in a drunken manner. The police jump out of their van and beginning questioning the man who is extremely belligerent and resistant. When the police state that they are going to arrest him, he asks for a moment to make call. He calls a judge. Whatever the judge tells the van’s commander, we aren’t privy to, but it is safe to assume, an arrest is not imminent.

The city is Hong Kong, and the film is called Cold War. With the Police Commissioner en route to Copenhagen, Denmark for a high-level international police conference,  the next two highest ranking senior Police Executives are in charge. One is Sean Lau who is the Deputy Commissioner of the Police (Management) and the other is M.B. Lee who is Deputy Commissioner (Operations) and is Acting Commissioner of Police.

What they are facing is the likelihood of the two events not being random at all as they soon find out that the EU Van has gone offline, the police officers’ mobile phones have been shut off, and the van is off the grid and it can’t be raised by normal comm links. With five highly trained officers , and some state of the art equipment on board, the now missing van is said to be fully loaded and in a worst case scenario that assumes all the officers die, with the lost equipment and the death benefits paid to the families, the cost would be in the millions.

And that says nothing about the loss of confidence by the police (and the public) in their ability to protect the city and the citizens.

Sure enough a package is delivered, and left on the sidewalk. Suspecting a possible bomb, the package is opened by a remote-controlled robot. Inside are a mobile phone and a memory card which contains video and voice data stating that they want to trade the van and the officers for a huge sum of money.

Once everyone, the police brass, and we know what is at stake, the film switches gears. It turns out that M.B. Lee’s son is one of the officers being held hostage. So Lee wants to go into full-bore attack mode, here called a Tier One Response.

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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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A Night of Music at The Hong Kong Cultural Center

Day 9 in Hong Kong drifted by. I’ve already written a post on Java Java, and the Shun Tak Center otherwise known as where to get a ferry to Macau. As I said, I’ve seen airports with smaller terminals..

Dinner was at iSquare, once the site of the Hyatt Hotel on Nathan Road, now a shopping mecca. In fact there is an escalator that you can grab right in the MTR Station below. Takes you right up to the third floor of the shopping center. So it makes it easy to shop = even when it rains – and no worries about parking.

Dinner was set for 6:30 at Shanghai Po Po 336. I had some time – So I nipped in to HMV in search of a couple of DVD’s to bring home. When last in Hong Kong in 2011, I had seen Hong Kong’s best director, Johnnie To‘s latest and newest film at the time in a movie theater. That film was called Life Without Principle (click the link for my review).

This time I wanted to pick up the DVDs for Drug War (directed by Johnnie To in 2012) with Louis Koo as the star. The other was Blind Detective which came out just a few months ago in July. Andy Lau and Sammi Cheng were the headliners. But it wasn’t to be. HMV was sold out of both titles.

dvd combo

So back to dinner. It was billed as a Shanghai Noodle house and it was just okay. No restaurant review today readers.

But the big event of the night was at The Hong Kong Cultural Center (above), which is HK’s equivalent of New York’s Lincoln Center. It was a double bill – The Hong Kong Chinese Orchestra (about 77 performers for this show), and a Taiwanese Drum Ensemble called The Chio-Tian Folk Drums & Arts Troupe..

We were in the third row. The good seats. Not quite the front row, but more than close enough to hear and feel the powerful drums. The Majestic Drums was about a dozen or drummers – just one woman. The came out in full martial costumes including one of a kind hair styles, war-like make-up, and each were heavily tattooed on the right arm and shoulders.

They were high energy. Not only did they have to memorize the complete drum and percussion music, but every thing was syncopated, and choreographed. From the large hanging gong, to the man with cymbals, to the rolling drums when the brakes were off, it was simply amazing. Each beat of the drum had a certain arm movement, as well as a specific arm in use. The timing was exquisite.

Beside the make-up, the tattoos, the costumes, they were intense and seemingly war like as in competing. Four on this side, four on that side, a featured performer in the center, plus the two side men – the gong and the cymbals. There were loud war cries like screams as well as the booming drums.

They did four lengthy numbers, and then there was break. At this point, the stage hands had to set up for the entire orchestra. Seats, music stands, and all properly angled to be able read the music and keep an eye on the maestro as well.

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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.


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?


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)


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.


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.


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.


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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