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 nominations for the 32nd Annual Hong Kong Film Awards ( HK’s Oscars) were just announced 10 days ago on February 6th. Up for Best Director and Best Film are Soi Cheang for his action thriller Motorway.

Released back in July, I just got the DVD recently. I wouldn’t exactly call it a full on action thriller because most of the action is restricted to automobile chases rather than explosions and gunfire. That means we are long on screaming tires, burnt rubber left on the streets, and dashboard gauges edging into the red zones, but that doesn’t mean it isn’t exciting.

We start with two cops – basically they’re uniformed traffic cops with a bit more than just that going for them.  Of course one is a veteran cop and one is a hot shot younger cop. Sort of like Robert Duvall and Sean Penn in Colors. While these guys are watching for speeders they are often called in by the Major Crimes Unit to assist with roadblocks, chases, and surveillance. In fact they are called The Invisible Squad because they drive unmarked cars. While Shawn Yue won’t remind you of Ryan Gosling in Drive in general, meaning as an actor or a character, but when he gets behind the wheel – he will. One other plus is that we won’t see a smarter-than-you-ever-thought-possible detective throughout the entire film. On the other hand, this being about cops, we do get the impatient bosses otherwise known as captains.

Shawn Yue as Cheung

Shawn Yue as Cheung

Anthony Wong and the aforementioned Shawn Yue are the leads. Of course, Wong plays the nearing retirement Officer Lo. He’s been on the force a long time and he and his wife, played by Michelle Ye, are looking forward to his retirement so they can head out to the beach in Langkawi in Malaysia, or take in some art at The Louvre in Paris. He’s seen it all, done it all, and is at the emotional core of the film. He’d be happy to teach his young partner the ropes – but only if he’s asked. But Yue’s Cheung goes in for silent brooding rather than the acquisition of knowledge.

Yue plays Cheung as a hot-headed younger cop who has trouble following orders, is basically uncoachable, and he thinks he’s God’s gift to women.

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Update:I’m off to explore –


Boss – two episodes of the series 2nd season remain. I will miss the October 12th episode, and I’ll be delayed in getting to watch the finale on the 19th. I plan to cover these episodes – but I will be late.

Nashville – the new ABC music/drama series begins on Wednesday, October 10th at 10:00 PM. At that time I’ll be in Amsterdam, NL, and then, I’ll be in Paris. So I’ll miss the second episode as well. My coverage will begin in-depth with the third episode. I’ve chosen this series as I had a lot of fun doing the recaps and commenting on NBC’s Smash last winter and spring.

House of Cards – this is a new TV series premiering on Netflix on February 1st. Yup, it is politics again – but this time, it is not from the perspective of a cable TV news show. Kevin Spacey and Robin Wright head up the cast. This is a USA version of the British TV series of the same name. David Fincher will direct the first two episodes.

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Turn Left Turn Right

I like most romantic comedies. I don’t mind cute. I like to see the would be lovers, and future couples in nice clothes, and in nice apartments, and in attractive places. I don’t mind if they have good jobs and gobs of money, or they’re so attractive that there’s no way on earth that they would be sad or lonely. Because the opposite of all that is real life.

Anyway, I recently read a wonderful piece written by Didion, my film discussion colleague, over at her site. She did a write-up of Sidewalls, an Argentinian film, and a rom/com that seemed to be rather unique in its anti-rom/com structure, design, and characters.

One of the elements that was stressed by Didion read:

Most realistic of all: they live in tiny shoebox apartments on the same block in Buenos Aires, leading parallel lives. They cross one another’s paths regularly — but how will they learn that they’re perfect for one another? Even in such close proximity, the impersonal forces of urban life would seem to keep them ignorant of each other.

Which served to remind me of a film that I had seen about 9 years ago. It was called Turn Left Turn Right. Set in urban Taipei, we see vast crowds as the city teems with people who even in the midst of a heavy rain, all politely wait at an intersection for the Walk Sign. It is right in the opening minutes of the film that the directors – the internationally known Johnnie To and Ka-Fai Wai  make sure we see their uniqueness which will set our leads apart from everyone else.

In a sea of black umbrellas, we see one of mint green and another of red. You can’t miss them from a distance – and to make sure that we don’t miss these two colorful umbrellas in the crowd, we are going to get a couple of close-ups.

These establish two things immediately. Ms Red Umbrella is a beautiful girl who reads a book while waiting for the walk sign, while standing beneath her umbrella, and in the midst of a rainstorm. This is Eve Choi played by the wonderful Gigi Leung and her character is a skilled translator who works for a Taiwanese publishing firm translating European literature into Chinese.

The guy beneath the green umbrella is John Liu and he’s played by the heart-throb Takeshi Kaneshiro – despite his Japanese name, he is half Chinese and half Japanese but has a Taiwanese nationality. In the film, he plays a struggling musician, a violinist actually. Liu is a magnet and he will attract women without even trying. Directors To and Wai convey this as almost instantly as the light changes, and people begin to cross the street, a beautiful girl runs up and says to John, May I share your umbrella?

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Overheard 2 or When Is a Sequel not a Sequel

Let’s start with the title Overheard 2. Now wouldn’t this title alone lead you to believe that this film would, should, or could be a sequel to Overheard which I reviewed here. Then add in the following:

Same Three Lead Actors – Lau Ching Wan, Louis Koo, and Daniel Wu

Same Directors – Alan Mak and Felix Chong

Same Screenplay Authors – Alan Mak and Felix Chong

Same Producer – Derek Yee

Same Underlying Themes – Covert Electronic surveillance and Insider Trading

I’m not crazy, am I? Every indication would lead us to believe that Overheard 2 was a sequel to Overheard. Only it isn’t. Which brings us to the question: Is this shameless marketing?

In China, there is a state agency which we shall label SARFT. Yes, that is an acronym, and sorry, but no – I didn’t make up the acronym. This agency aka State Agency for Radio, Film, and Television are the folks that decide what is or isn’t acceptable content for the few billion Chinese people. They also oversee the Internet as it pertains to content and access within China.

Now I have already told you that I wasn’t able to access my blog while in Yangshuo in China earlier this month. Now you and I, and possibly a good number of the few billion Chinese people, will find a small barrier/speed bump created by SARFT for Overheard 2.

Lau Ching Wan as stock trader Manson Law

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Life Without Principle – A New Hong Kong Movie

What do a stock broker, actually a bank rep who handles investments for clients, a homicide detective, and a low-level triad enforcer have in common? This is the question that famed Hong Kong film director Johnny To puts before us in his brand new film, Life Without Principle.

Johnny To has received world-wide acclaim  for his stylish and hard-hitting films in the cops and crooks genre but he doesn’t limit himself to just those. In fact, I’ve reviewed a couple of his more recent films – Vengeance which had a relatively low police presence, and Don’t Go Breaking My Heart which was basically a romance. Besides those, I have personally seen close to a dozen of his older films.  That was one of the plusses of living in Manhattan – my proximity to the NY Chinatown where I could easily buy Hong Kong films on DVD. This time I caught his new film, which opened about a month ago on the 20th of October, at a real movie house – the UA Cinema in Taikoo, Hong Kong.

Okay, okay – enough off topic chatter. Let’s get back to the film. The first of the three main characters that we meet is the cop. Richie Jen (below) plays Inspector Cheung. As we first lay eyes on him, he is working a case that he caught. He’s on-site of a fresh murder. One old timer, a pensioner, has murdered another. This event doesn’t get a lot of screen time, but the murderer and the Inspector will cross paths again.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Inspector Cheung’s wife, played by Myolie Wu, is hot to buy an apartment. He thinks they need to discuss it further. But she is vulnerable to the real estate broker’s sale pitch (and not so subtle pressure tactics) about how time is of the essence, and that other buyers are preparing offers. So Cheung and Mrs are looking at getting a hefty mortgage.

Inspector Cheung and Mrs Cheung

Lau Ching Wan (below) plays the triad guy known as Panther. He’s a guy in his 40’s and he’s well known, and respected in the triad world. He serves as a bagman, he sets up dinners, he’s a go-fer, and above everything else he believes in loyalty. Panther will run around trying to raise bail money when that’s needed for one of his associates.He’s a presence in the Hong Kong triad circles, and everyone in his triad is his ‘sworn brother’.

Today, he’s going to need a ton of money and he’ll need to get it fast because one of his triad buddies has been running an internet investment house, and the market is turning, and his buddy’s client has threatened him with mayhem or worse.

Denise Ho plays Teresa, the bank rep here. When we first meet her, she’s attending a sales meeting. She’s not doing well (actually she has the least amount of sales than anyone else on the team), and her boss wants her to amp up her sales figures, or else … she’ll be given the dreaded see-me-after-work notification; a sure sign that one is being fired. So she’s got to get her ass in gear and bring in mucho investment dollars.

Denise Ho as Teresa

So she starts cold calling new people, then when that doesn’t bring in any results beyond her getting some telephonic abuse, she starts contacting her existing clients. This is when the movie both slows down and accelerates at the same time. The first meaningful client is an old lady who isn’t investment savvy at all. Teresa runs her client’s profile and a report  details that she’s definitely a client that should be put only into low risk securities. But this lady is complaining about bank fees, low interest rates, and how she’s struggling on her fixed retirement income. She says she’s willing to take a risk.

Took the bait, hooked, and ready to invest

Teresa recommends an investment fund which is high return/high risk. It is called BRIC – because it invests in Real Estate Mortgages in such countries as Brazil, India, etc. Director To spends a lot of time with this segment – it is almost agonizingly slow. Teresa has to play a video for her client about this investment vehicle, then she has to coach her about what to say because they will need to make a recorded conversation where the client will state flatly that she understands the risk and is very willing to take such a risk. But the old lady is bewildered to a degree and gets her responses confused, so they have to stop and then re-start the recording many, many times.

The second client is Inspector Cheung’s wife. She comes in for a mortgage.

The third client is a loan-shark. Teresa tries to peddle the BRIC to him, but he’s far too savvy. He only uses the bank to keep his money in, and he can calculate the bank fees in his head. When Teresa says he should buy $20 million of the BRIC and pay the bank 2% as a transaction fee – he immediately says, What, and give the bank a 40K fee?  So he’s not about to make a big investment through Denise. He shows her and us how he does far better by means of his loan shark business. He says something along the lines of my money is working for me not for the bank. He actually turns Teresa’s sales pitch inside out and asks her to call if she wants to make money or needs money. That day, he’s come in to withdraw 10 Million HK dollars which he is going to lend out, so while the money is being prepared he chats with Teresa.

The money is brought to her office. While they’re putting it into a big bag, he gets a call. He’s got to run off to see his client. He’s going to take only 5 million with him. He wants the other five million to be put back into the account. Teresa says, you’ll need to fill out a deposit slip. He says, No time, I’ll do it next time. Just hold the money for me. So Teresa has the five million on her desk – she puts it into a cabinet and locks it.

Meanwhile things are in motion both locally, globally, as well as specifically in the bank’s parking garage. Locally Panther’s friend needs a quick influx of cash – so Panther sets off to meet the loan shark.

But there is a snatch and grab in the bank’s garage about to happen – with the loan shark as the target.

Also on this very day we have news of the possibility of a default in Greece, which could trigger a collapse of the Euro, and on stock exchanges all over the world, things will become chaotic.

The beauty of all of this is that Johnny To is able to tie all of this together – The Cheung’s, the loan shark, Panther, Teresa, the old lady in the high risk investment vehicle, a tumbling market, and that 10 million withdrawal, half in Teresa’s  cabinet and half in the loan-shark’s bag.

Johnny To really delivers with this film. You do have sit through some lengthy scenes that will serve two purposes – one to set up the specific characters’ motivations, and 2) to  create and establish that Hong Kongers – from the very wealthy to the old lady living on a fixed income – are all greedy. Everyone wants money, and whether it be for gambling on horse racing, betting on sports, or running an illegal boiler-room financial operation, loan sharking, armed robbery, kick-backs up the line to the triad bosses, or even something as mundane cosmetics, phones, and clothing accessories, or as normal as being a financial rep for a bank – the film shows us that everyone is money-mad.

But for every winning bet there is a losing bet. Sometimes the people who set up long positions in their security holdings make money, and sometimes they lose money. Ditto for the short sellers. Honest cops stay where they are in a struggle, and crooks steal out of greed.

I really liked this drama. In one sense the film starts then you must endure a slowing of the pace all of which is quite deliberate. But then you are going to receive a terrific payoff in terms of viewing pleasure when To’s magic become evident. His pacing, editing, even the music score are just wonderful in this film. Just looking at his shot composition is often breathtaking. This is a brand new film so you will likely have to wait for the DVD or Netflix to get it. But, trust me, it will be worth your time. Of course, maybe you are already in Hong Kong – in which case, go see it right now.

Lost in Time

With my departure time for travel to Hong Kong and then on to Yangshuo, Guanxi Province, China, only hours away, I’d thought I share one of my favorite Hong Kong films with you. You can watch it from the comfort of your own homes, and save the cost of an airline ticket to Hong Kong. Both Netflix and Blockbuster have it as a DVD rental, or you can buy it from Amazon.com or Barnes & Noble.

The film is called Lost in Time. The stars are Cecilia Cheung and Lau Ching-Wan. Directed by Derrick Yee, this 2003 release is not your usual Hong Kong movie. There’s no action, or car chases, shootouts and the like. There’s not a whole to laugh about and when you do laugh, it will be in joy instead laughing at something silly.

To set the film up for you – Cecilia Cheung has the role of Holly Lam or as she’s called on the video’s audio, Siu-Wai. As the film opens we see her waiting at a mini-bus terminal. She’s not waiting for a bus to go somewhere. Instead she waiting at the terminus to hand off a meal to her fiance, Ah Man, who is played by Louis Koo, who drives a mini-bus full-time for a living. Within a minute of the film’s opening, Ah Man’s mini-bus is hit cross side by a truck, and moments later, he dies. We do see Koo as Ah-Man in some flashbacks later on, so while he does die at the film’s outset – this is not the last of what we see of him.

That’s not much of a spoiler – in fact it was how the film was marketed. Holly is stunned – instead marrying Ah Man and becoming the mother to Ah Man’s little son Lok-Lok, or as he is called in the subtitles, Laurie, she’s now an almost widow, as well as a single parent. She decides to repair and drive Man’s mini-bus herself.

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Don’t Go Breaking My Heart

It has been said that there are only two kinds of men in the world: Those who cheat on their wives, and those who want to. At least this is what is said more than once in the 2011 Hong Kong romantic comedy Don’t Go Breaking My Heart. Co-directed by the illustrious duo of Johnny To and Wai Kai-Fai, the film proposes a possibility for us to consider; that there is a third kind of man. At least that is what the film’s female lead wants.

She is Zixin, played marvelously by Gao Yuanyuan. She’s a financial analyst. She’s been dumped by a guy, and nearly sleepwalked herself into a tragic accident with an automobile on a Hong Kong street. At the last second she is snatched out of harm’s way by a seedy, scruffy, wino drunk. He is Fang (Daniel Wu has the role). Turns out he is, or rather was, an award winning architect who burned out on success and now the only thing he looks forward to is his next drink.

She works in an office tower and across the way, in the next building, we find Cheung. Louis Koo has the part.  He is the CEO of an investment bank. He has just two rules (actually three but bear with me a minute). Rule Number One – we never lose money. Rule Number Two – we never forget rule number one. Anyway Cheung and Zixin began a window to window flirtation. Ultimately she agrees to a coffee date with him via post it notes and hand held signs.

But she has forgotten that she made a date a week ago with the down and not quite out architect who saved her life for that very evening.

Meanwhile, Cheung has noticed a very busty babe working two floors below Zixin. She notices Cheung’s window flirtations and thinks they are meant for her. So a second coffee date is arranged at the same place.

Louis Koo as Cheung

There’s some confusion – Cheung is called an asshole (via a handwritten placard) by a thoroughly pissed Zixin after Cheung doesn’t show for their date and she sees him with the bimbo who made him an offer he couldn’t refuse. Meanwhile Fang the architect has taken Zixin’s advice, and decided to get his act together as well as getting his groove back. He waits for her but she never shows.

There’s your set up and there’s your Act One. As Act Two begins we see the fall of Lehman Brothers on a big news screen playing on the side of a Hong Kong Building.

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When you hear about electronic skullduggery, as in wire-taps, hidden voice activated microphones for eavesdropping, sorry – make that surveillance, and surreptitious cameras planted in offices, you might think of, if you are of a certain age, the goings on in a Washington DC office/apartment complex called Watergate, or if you like Asian films, you might think of Overheard, the 2009 police thriller from Hong Kong.

Overheard aka Sit Yan Fung Wan, was co-directed by Alan Mak and Felix Chong,  with Chong also having written the screenplay. These are two-thirds, with Andrew Lau being the third, of the group that created the Infernal Affairs trilogy which later became the inspiration for Martin Scorsese’s The Departed.

We start (literally the movie’s opening images) with a colony of rats, the four-footed kind, scurrying about doing their business in a garbage strewn back alley in the lees of a Hong Kong skyscraper. Within seconds, we are far above this mean street and its night crawling denizens. This places us now in a high floor in this office tower, and a group of agents who work for the Hong Kong Police Department’s Commercial Criminal Bureau (CCB) are scurrying about doing their business which is to plant eavesdropping equipment. The target firm is E & T, a firm whose stock has exhibited such erratic price swings, that the Hong Kong version of the SEC has decided to investigate it.

The cops – Johnny, played by Lau Ching-wan, Gene played by Louis Koo, and Max played by Daniel Wu, are very good at what they do. And to prove it, the film calls for the man whose office they are bugging to make an unexpected late night return to his office while these cops are still in it. The tension is remarkable, and the suspense is truly pulse-pounding.

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