The Wandering Earth 2 (2023)

The Wandering Earth 2 (2023)

Director (and co-writer): Frant Gwo

Cast: Andy Lau, Jing Wu, Zhi Wang, Yanmanzi Zhu, Xuejian Li, Ning Li, Sha Yi, Zhang Yi

Humans built huge engines on the surface of the earth to find a new home. But the road to the universe is perilous. In order to save earth, young people once again have to step forward to start a race against time for life and death. – IMDB

Following 2019’s The Wandering Earth based on novel of the same name by Cixin Li who is also involved as co-writer on the screenplay, The Wandering Earth 2 is a sequel but a prequel story as the story dials back to how the Earth started wandering and all its hoops that it had to go through giving purpose to the father character in the original film and what happened to create the separation. Dedicated to Man-Tat Ng who has unfortunately left this world (but was added in two scenes with what I expect is some computer magic) but was a huge part of The Wandering Earth, this sequel involves many layers which builds a foundation of both the history but on the many angles of science, astronomy and engineering, the world and the politics. On many levels, the concept and premise is a good angle. It definitely feels like a trend to build a story and to create a sequel that acts as a prequel. While the detail and the depth of every element of The Wandering Earth 2 is very much appreciated, the 3 hour runtime does feel like it ends up losing its footing somewhere in the middle for a little bit before going into its big finale and could have benefited from a tighter edited film.

Looking at the story as a whole, there are many elements because of its phase by phase approach in its history and recount of events that make it very memorable especially since it follows Jing Wu’s character Liu Pei Qiang from both his work and how he meets his family and how the main character of its first film comes to be. The other side is Andy Lau’s character Tu Heng Yu who is a supporter of the other project Digital Life Project because of the loss of his daughter and the desire to be able to give her a complete life but is restrained to follow with the new orders. On the other side is the political showrunner as the representative of China who is an elderly gentlemen Zhou played by Xuejian Li and his assistant Xiao Xi played by Yanmanzi Zhu who backs strongly the Moving Mountains Project despite its strong disapproval from the public including some extreme efforts to destroy what is already built in one part which is one of the best scenes as it allows Jing Wu to show off some of his martial arts. The different characters reveal a different angle of the situation and they all come together in the end in probably one of the most touching scenes when the older crew takes on the dangerous mission to defend the younger generation. The idea of the premise is definitely commendable and honestly, it does stand well and I wouldn’t even know what to edit out but perhaps some of the little moments here and there could be more condensed.

Despite the pacing suffering because of the long runtime (which in my opinion happens a lot with lengthier films), there are still a lot of well-executed elements. Much like the icy landscape in the first one which builds up its world, this future of Earth is still a rather grim place but the big operations and leaps in engineering development is another level of creativity especially with its incredibly visually stunning scenes with the space elevators. The imagination and perspective of the world building is truly astounding and its what made its first film so good since the suspension of belief and using our minds to imagine this future is really amazing even if its also conflicting. It is also supported by an engaging score and the cast is pretty decent as well.

As listed above, the cast is a group of veteran actors from Hong Kong actor Andy Lau who has done an extensive list of films of all genres. This role actually feels very good for him and fits his older and more mature self and almost in some parts becomes a rather selfish person even if he redeems himself in the end in a rather bittersweet ending. Jing Wu is best known for his role in SPL and Wandering Earth 1 and 2 has truly shed a new light of a more emotional character. However because this is a prequel, his character loses the overall surprise element as we all know he makes it out in the end or else he wouldn’t be in the first film. This is also a key issue with making prequels after their original films. While I haven’t seen Xuejian Li in anything else as Mainland China cinema is still rather new to myself, the actor is incredible as the firm political leader who has full faith in his decisions. His assistant however is an underrated actress from her previous roles in the main female lead in Unrequited Love (currently available on Netflix Canada), and the much more conflicting role in River Flows To You and here even as the assistant, she shines as her character goes through character development where as her boss gets older, her confidence also builds by the end where she can handle the political scene on her own. The character designs are all really good including Sha Yi who previously I’ve only seen in Chinese variety shows but delivers a very nice side of his story both as the mentor of Jing Wu’s character but delivers that breath of fresh air needed between the increasingly tense and dangerous situation.

Overall, The Wandering Earth 2 is pretty decent. It keeps a lot of the strengths of its first one from world building, visuals and its imagination for the future of Earth. Its a grand idea to move Earth around in the solar system and to make the elements work, its pretty thought out (at least for myself whose forte is not in engineering). The characters are pretty well-strctured and has a lot of room for development which is a benefit of the long runtime. Its only fault is the almost 3 hour runtime which makes the whole affair feels dragged out in the middle especially when things slow down to the more melodramatic moments which could have been more condensed. If you enjoyed The Wandering Earth, this one should still be a fun time.

*The Wandering Earth 2 is exclusively in theatres and IMAX since January 22nd*

*Screener provided by Well Go USA*

Warriors of Future (明日戰記, 2022)

Warriors of Future (2022)

Director: Yuen Fai Ng

Cast: Louis Koo, Sean Lau, Carina Lau, Nick Cheung, Kwan-ho Tse, Guopeng Wan, Philip Keung, Janice Wu

A meteorite brings an extraterrestrial life to the earth. When powerful alien creatures threaten humanity, Commander Sing Lee’s elite forces are almost wiped out, and the surviving soldier Tai Loi discovers an even bigger conspiracy. – IMDB

Originally set for the late Benny Chan to direct, Warriors of Future is the directorial debut of visual effects artist Yuen Fai Ng who has been part of some very successful Hong Kong films. Produced by Louis Koo and funded by his company, he also takes on one of the leading roles as Tai Loi and gathers up an impressive cast both from Hong Kong and China. Warriors of Future is also one of the first (if not the actual first) “hard sci-fi” film from Hong Kong which uses their own CGI technology. Its a groundbreaking film for the Hong Kong film industry.

There really isn’t anything in terms of visuals that can hinder Warriors of Future. Sure, you can see a bunch of sci-fi and post-apocalypse film inspirations as well as the action and sequences also having some superhero films inspiration. Its never an actual fault to pay homage to films that helped inspire a passion project especially as a debut project for a production company. The visuals for the most part flow really well and there are some fantastic world building and enemy design here. It is no doubt an impressive film on the visual front and it probably has its director and his background to thank for that.

Looking at the story, it does feel a tad more empty. While none of the characters get fleshed out too much, the film never seems to rely too much on needing to know more than what info they provided. The film is about its sci-fi and its task at hand: the countdown before the horrible Plan B takes effect. This film is meant to be a gripping action-packed fun time and it delivers on that. Some elements probably didn’t need to be there like meeting the little girl (Aliens inspiration perhaps?) but its meant to add to the story emotionally, albeit a tad emotionally manipulating. Where this film might have more script problems is that it is very by the books and predictable. Nothing truly happens that feels like a surprise.

What does bring the film together other than some cool alien creature design and a very nicely done for dilapidated Hong Kong plus some great action bits, its the incredible cast. Thats whats great about having the resources to get the cast to fit the right roles and this film is stacked from Louis Koo, Sean Lau and Philip Keung as good friends with the latter having a falling out which made some fun bickering, along with a guest appearance with Nick Cheung as the commander in chief and Carina Lau as the colonel who is giving all the final orders and decisions for the mission plus Kwan-ho Tse as the scientist. Everyone delivers some great performances and lifts up the story even if it has its flaws.

Overall, Warriors of Future is a groundbreaking moment for Hong Kong cinema in general. It might not have enough backstory for character depth and the script has its flaws with lack of surprise, but the cast, the world building, visuals and CGI and the action especially with the exoskeletons which almost feels like watching someone play a video game all more than makes up for it by creating a fun fast-paced entertaining film experience.

Found (2021)

Found (2021)

Director: Amanda Lipitz

The story of three American teenage girls-each adopted from China-who discover they are blood-related cousins on 23andMe. Their online meeting inspires the young women to confront the burning questions they have about their lost history. – IMDB

Found is a 2021 Netflix documentary which talks about three Chinese girls that were adopted to US to different families in different states but finds they are blood-related cousins through an ancestry DNA test by 23andMe and through their various conversations decides to reach out to a Chinese genealogist to look for their roots from their orphanage to where they were left and potentially seek their parents to get some answers as they get ready for their trip to China together to get to their own family history more.

Found is a really great topic to explore. As China recently approved their three child policy in 2021, the one child policy may feel like a good while ago but cannot be forgotten as many children were given up during this time due to the hefty penalties for having more than one child. This lead to a lot of families giving up their children leaving them in bustling areas in front of government buildings or streets creating stories like the ones of these three girls. The documentary does a great focus on how detailed the genealogy research is especially the in-depth research and even the emotional burdens as they follow her to meet various potential matches.

The first part plays a lot around the researches and communications from the genealogy while the second part follows the girls as they go through this China trip that leads them to meet the ladies who took care of them at their adoption centers or the places that they were left while also exploring the country itself. Breaking it down, the first part gives a lot of back story primarily as the genealogist follows the different leads and talks to the different potential match. At the same time, being a girl born in China, she also shares some of the mentality behind the gender of a child in the society in certain family structures. At the same time, her research and results also contrast with the mixed emotions behind the adopted girls as they discuss their feelings towards this whole situation.

The documentary plays on a few elements and shows the genealogy and how it is rather hard to find matches especially in face of strong laws that perhaps stop parents from wanting to find the children that they have given up but it does focus on both of sides of the story. While it doesn’t specifically reference the details of the one child policy, the different conversations also sheds some light on the people most affected by this law to its penalty. Its a rather thorough documentary and these three young girls also learn quite a bit from following their roots and doing their trip together and get some kind of closure, the whole situation feels both touching and amazing and perhaps a nice story for others to decide whether they want to try to seek out their own roots and explore their place of origin, whether or not finding their parents is really up to chance.

Genuine human emotions, heartwarming and a decent look at these three adoption stories as well as the genealogy portion of searching for answers and root all culminate together in this documentary. Its well-made and hits the points fairly well. While it doesn’t dive very deep into the one child policy, it still gives enough information to share these girls’ journey and perhaps, the results aren’t so important as the very fact that their one decision brought them each other and gave each other the courage to go get in touch with their roots by simply going back to their homeland and seeing the little bits of what was found.

Fantasia Festival 2020: Chasing Dream (我的拳王男友, 2019)

Chasing Dream (我的拳王男友, 2019)

Director: Johnnie To

Cast: Jacky Heung, Keru Wang

Tiger, an aspiring MMA fighter, meets young Du, whose dream is to become a singer. Together they go from audition to audition as they try to get Du into the talent show Perfect Diva. And at the same time, Tiger tries to quit the ring – but leaving turns out to be harder than expected. – MyDramaList

With 70 director credits under his belt according to IMDB, Johnnie To has a huge array of movies under his belt spreading over many genres even if a lot of people will first remember mostly his action or crime titles. Coming back from a 3 year hiatus, Johnnie To’s latest offering is a sport and music comedy about chasing dreams. As it follows two people in debt to the same loan shark ending up living together to pay off their own debts doing random jobs while each pursuing their own dream. Tiger (Jacky Heung) fights these cage battles for the loan shark boss who ends up using his roommate Cuckoo Du as his bargaining chip and he ends up giving in each time to help her achieve her dream to win Perfect Diva, a singing competition. Something about this story is a little silly and been there done that and yet there’s this charming element about how its all put together especially with the array of characters, the comedy point and how its a little bit silly at times being rather reminescent of the 90s Hong Kong comedy.

Chasing Dream

Johnnie To doing this sort of movie adds quite a bit of charm no doubt. He brings in some great comedy points while executing some incredible scenes that feel a little over the top and yet manages to keep it entertaining. Of course, comedies are always subjective so what works for might not work for you. The use of the music element actually works out all the ways especially during a specific singing training scene to prepare Cuckoo for her competition as Tiger calls in a bunch of favors to be her band while trying to help her find her diva style that would fit her as he wheels in food for hotpot while throwing out different popular American singers and Cuckoo imitates their performance and singing style. It sounds a little ridiculous but actually the scene works out really well. All that culminates to a huge Bollywood style musical flash mob scene that is absolutely awesome. However, the movie isn’t all fun and laughs but still packs in a lot of drama especially on the side of Tiger as his boxing matches get more intense and the matches become harder to watch as his character really does connect and stand out the most in the entire film. Jacky Heung shines in this role as Tiger.

To be honest, Chasing Dream is almost back to the basics. Its a simple storyline. The plot points are fairly predictable. Inspirational tales about chasing dreams and going through a lot of obstacles has been done tons of times. The relationship between Cuckoo and Tiger is unique and its because of these two characters that the story stands out so much. The ridiculous comedy, the bright and entertaining bits balances well with the drama of highlighting what is the most important. Especially with a final ending scene that gives major homage to Rocky. Its hard to not slowly be taken over by this movie but then I’m also a sucker for music and chasing dreams movie so watching a movie titled exactly what it is seems like a solid win and Chasing Dream surprisingly not only met my expectations and exceeded it.

TV Binge: Put Your Head on My Shoulder (致我们暖暖的小时光, 2019)

Put Your Head on My Shoulder (致我们暖暖的小时光, 2019)

Put Your Head On My Shoulder

Cast: Fair Xing, Lin Yi, Daddi Tang, Zheng Ying Chen, Zhou Zi Xin, Yi Sha, Zhou Jun Wei, Zhang Hao Lun, Jie Bing

As Si Tu Mo’s graduation is nearing, she is confused about her future plans. She tries out all sorts of things all the time and is unable to make her own decisions. Her ordinary days are suddenly shaken up when the genius Physics student Gu Wei Yi appears in her life. The two accidentally end up living together and chaos begins. – MyDramaList

Watch on YouTube or Netflix (as of December 11, 2019):

QUOTES/SCENE

Put Your Head On My Shoulder

STORY

Set in the same universe as A Love So Beautiful (review) with some characters that actually overlap as they get mentioned in the little details here and there, Put Your Head on My Shoulder is an adaptation of a novel written by the same author as the previous one.

This world of stories is all about quick and light-hearted romance whether its boy chases girl or girl chases boy, more so the former in this case, which adds a lot of fun tidbits here because we have a genius scientist who doesn’t know much about the whole outside who ends up meeting a girl who is almost the opposite of him but bubbly and positive. Just as she learns how to face up to her own future, her appearance changes him as he starts doing the silliest of things to get her attention including a lot of searches for weird tips from the internet. While the story itself is fairly generic as most of these TV dramas tend to be, this one has some fun surprises in simply highlighting the awkward mind of a scientist when met with love. It also is a step further into the future as this one sees the two in their final year of university and getting ready to head into the work life or pursuing higher education.

LENGTH/PACING

Episodes: 24
Episode length: 45 mins approx.

Put Your Head On My Shoulder has the perfect formula for being a good length in episodes and series length. Its one that has enough episodes to create good pacing for both its leads and still have time for the supporting characters to have their stories and adds enough depth to care but never drags on with any element of their life as the scenes progress just like the relationships and the feelings for each other.

And if you think that this 24 episodes isn’t enough, you can even watch an extra story here (which isn’t available on the Netflix version):

CHARACTER/CHEMISTRY

Situ Mo & Gu Wei Yi

Put Your Head On My Shoulder

The main focus for the show is the two main leads, Mo Situ (Fair Xing) and Wei Yi Gu (Yi Lin). These two steal the show because of not only their chemistry with each other but the fact that they both are peculiar but also very fun characters that stand well alone and makes things even more sweet or hilarious whenever they are together. In many ways, they are the typical opposites attract because Gu Wei Yi is just an introvert scientist/researcher who is very set in his own ways whereas faced with Fair Xing’s more direct and noisy attitude and completely not interested in his scientific knowledge that it becomes this curious discovery that brings a lot of joy into his life and it challenges the side of him that wants to keep learning more about her and the way she acts. It brings in a lot of funny awkward moments in after episode snippets (just like A Love So Beautiful) and also more and more cute and sweet moments as they start finding their rhythm together.

Wang Shan & Fu Pei

Put Your Head On My Shoulder

Being roommates and best friends of the previous couple, this relationship became the aftermath of the beginning of Fu Pei and Mo Situ’s friendship and possible relationship that never happened and in the process brought forth this friendship and eventual feelings for each other. The supporting relationship is very much in the background but these two characters actually are the one that is the bridge to A Love So Beautiful and builds the link together. These two have a different type and style of relationship and while its not completely necessary, it has its fun moments.

Parents, Friends and Love Interests

As with more dramas and their relationships, the use of their parents and the various personalities is a staple. In this case, they both have a very opposite type of personality while each of them both hoping that they could both be together, a rather open-minded concept for Chinese parents to let single young adults (boy and girl) but its a nice change in times sort of parents which is pretty fun most of the time to watch as they aren’t that frequently used here.

Put Your Head on My Shoulder

However, the funniest bits of the show does go to the other scientists at the lab, Lei Zhou (Hao Lun Zhang) & Professor Jiang (Jie Bing) helping Wei Yi Gu with his romantic problems as they usually just make it worse and think too alike for Mo Situ to understand their intentions. The three become this bromance bond that truly has so many comedic moments that adds into the fun.

Put Your Head On My Shoulder

Of course, what drama would be complete without even the slightest form of someone trying to come between the relationship even if its only at the literal slightest level of interest as Mo Situ starts her internship and ends up being the main assistant on set for any advertisement related by this growing star, ZhiCun Lin (Jun Wei Zhou). He never becomes quite the intrusion and was relatively underused but still the scenes with him were still rather fun.  On the side note, I really do like Jun Wei Zhou quite a bit from this first acting gig and really hope that he will have more of this although he’s more in the psychological analysis (as that’s his academic forte and his part in Dream Space) as well as singing or songwriting or something of the sort.

OVERALL

Much like its previous series set in the same world, Put Your Head On My Shoulder is a feel-good series. Its positive and down to earth. Its not exactly doing anything too different but the writers who put together the character of Wei Yi Gu really did try to get into a mind of being the awkward scientist who sees the world in a new light because of this girl that suddenly ends up housing with him and awakening some feelings and learning about a world other than one where he runs his own life. Its fun and sweet and comedic and well-balanced. Its one that can be watched over and over again and just feel all happy to see these two whether together or apart or as friends as well as those supporting roles around them, who all add a little something.

MAIN THEME

Fantasia Festival 2019: White Snake (2019)

White Snake (2019)

White Snake

Director: Amp Wong & Ji Zhao

Voice cast: Xiaoxi Tang, Tianxing Yang, Zhe Zhang

White Snake is a 2019 Chinese fantasy animated film about a thousand year old white snake spirit who loses her memory and falls in love with a boy from a snake-catcher village.

White Snake is the first made in China animated film by Warner Bros. in collaboration with Beijing animation studio Light Chaser. It retells the story of the Legend of the White Snake, one of the most popular stories that have been adapted into many forms of art and entertainment from TV series to movies to opera, so on so forth. What makes White Snake stand out is that it is somewhat of an origin story for the White Snake spirit and how her love story came to be.

In fact, the story starts off with the White Snake spirit called Blanca sent from her snake clan to defeat the evil General who wants to absorb the vitality and souls of snake spirits so that he can have black magic and use it to achieve immortality and fails in the process. Being saved from Xuan and brought to the snake-catcher village, her amnesia makes her believe that she is human, discovering her powers and finding her memories back gradually. Caught between her sister Verta who has promised to bring her back, the snake clan who believes that she has betrayed them and the General hunting her down for her thousand year soul, her feelings for Xuan grows stronger but at the same time, she is faced with having to fulfill her duties for her “species”. White Snake ends where most White Snake retellings would start.

The White Snake story is familiar territory for those who know Chinese folklore. However, the animation world of China isn’t. This is where White Snake truly shines: in its visually stunning animation paired up with its use of traditional Chinese music. The details from every dandelion fuzz flying through the air of the movement of its nature and especially in the outstanding movements of its characters, their expressions and even more so, the impressive action sequences makes White Snake an exercise of art. It adds in some Chinese painting elements in the opening scenes and the backdrop that resembles the landscape of Chinese paintings for example. Its stylistic and beautiful.

The story doesn’t take the easy path either, despite its frequent retelling. Those familiar with the story will definitely see where the romance scenes will go and the torturous love between them, however while the film spends a lot of time between Blanca and Xuan, its more of a natural progression of their knowledge of each other (for the most part) and a quest to find her memory. At the same time, its more about the General’s evil ambitions as well as the usual stereotypes of breaking the barriers between whether being a spirit, most often seen as evil is different depending on their nature. At the heart of it, the romance isn’t forced and connects easily. While these two main leads are the heart of the story, its hard to not feel that the standout characters are comedic relief, Xuan’s dog who is given talking abilities called Dudou as well as the sly fox spirit who runs the Precious Jade who is literally two-faced in her design, reflective of the image of the cunning and attractive nature in fox spirits in Chinese folklore. Plus, there are a lot of creative iterations of creatures to give it an extra boost in uniqueness.

White Snake is a spectacular animated film. It has a lot of elements that make it great form visuals to creative retellings while still doing justice to the origin story of how Blanca meets Xuan and finally leads to the more normal telling of The Legend of the White Snake. Its not only an animated film but a creative way to share Chinese folklore to the rest of the world in a charming way.

TV Binge: The Chamber of Secrets Escape 密室逃脱:暗夜古宅 (Season 1, 2018)

Moving away from movies for today, we’re taking a look at a Chinese TV game show called The Chamber of Secrets Escape.

Playlist: https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=HxeBkIJb4qE&list=PLUM8x224JrX9wa0S9MatA4vQ-6v8Qm_x6&index=10

The Chamber of Secrets Escape (Season 1, 2018)

the chamber of secrets escape

Host: Ma Ke

Cast/Guests: Danson Tang, You Ming Huang, Yi Xuan Zhou, Zhi Yuan Xia, Xi Yue Cao, Xiao Yu Lu, Wen Han Li, Mei Ren Wang, Han Yu Gao, Amelie Xu, Bo Wen Wang

This is an ancient style chamber escaping reality show which the celebrity guests are to use their wits to pass each checkpoint and also whether they show good teamwork or working together against the opposing team. – My Drama List

***I’m going to say sorry in advance that the show is only in Chinese. I have the urge to use the Youtube translate thing and do it but I currently don’t have the time to commit to that yet. ***

With a total of 10 episodes, this season is a quick and fast one to go through. The Chamber of Secrets Escape : The Dark Night is all about pitching a group of people into different elaborately built puzzles with different back stories and different goals and twists in the escape room game. The eliminated participants have to go run this corridor of darkness which literally is a 100 metre corridor where you are being chased by a dog. Its a race between getting to the ladder at the end to salvation. The winners of the show have a donation made in their names to a pre-selected school in the country.

The Chamber of Secrets Escape

The host himself is Ma Ke who does a nice sinister feeling as he welcomes the participants and leads them on the journey as a behind the scenes sort of puppet master. I think that was the feeling this started as and even in the first or second episode, it felt that way on how the game set the tone of how it was more about the psychological aspect of it as it talks about how when people are faced with dangerous situation how their human nature would react. Granted these are actors and celebrities, I do wonder whether there is some aspect of it staged beforehand and the environments are controlled as well but they do give them leeway to be fairly exciting. Its one of the reasons that makes this so much fun to dive into.

The Chamber of Secrets Escape

The puzzles here can be fairly hard to put together. At the same time, the show has a definite focus on the game show human nature and opposing and teamwork and trust emphasis that the viewers only get glimpses of the puzzles so it isn’t one to sit down and have time to figure out. However, this is a game show so the human relationships here are put as priority to add in drama and suspense. I do love how the show defines some of its main participants like Danson Tang and You Ming Huang, who are there for 9 of the 10 since the 10th episode changed all the familiar faces from before. The dynamic of three of the most frequent participants definitely breathed life into the show.

Overall, its a fun experience. As with some of the other game shows on this channel in the same family, its one that makes me want to participate in real life in some of these maps. Maybe not the zombie ones because even if I knew it was fake, it would still be creepy. The budget behind these sets and stories and puzzles look so great and its what brings these stories to life and creates the atmosphere.

Fantasia Festival 2017: Free and Easy (2016)

Free and Easy (2016)
Director: Jun Geng

Director: Baohe Xue, Benbin Gu, Gang Xu, Liguo Yuan, Xun Zhang, Xuxu Wang, Zhiyong Zhang

When a traveling soap salesman arrives in a desolate Chinese town, a crime occurs, and sets the strange residents against each other with tragicomic results. –IMDB

A peddling monk, a soap salesman, a reforestation ranger: What do these three characters have in common? Add in a God-loving man who is seeking for his disappeared mother, a jack of all trades kung fu instructor and a tough landlady. Throw together two cops who really seem to be both careless and clueless and this creates the mix of a 99 minutes Chinese movie set in desolate area in Northeast China. Free and Easy is an odd piece altogether. Is it trying to be comedic with its dry  humor? Or is it a societal statement about the world we live in pushing those into paths they don’t really choose no matter how good or bad they are? Perhaps, its a crime story when one of the characters die. Just like the story its telling, maybe the genre also steps somewhere in a grey area.

Free and Easy is however an interesting piece of cinema to talk about. With so many characters on screen, we mostly focus on the soap salesman and the monk at the beginning. The cops are the other end of the spectrum as they truly feel useless in their positions or simply bored. They talk constantly about things they probably shouldn’t and then they also take antibiotics like its candy. Not the authorities that we’d imagine them to be. In a community like this one, desolate and forgotten, even the cops are useless, it is a statement on how everyone has their own way to fend for themselves and survive day to day. They are thrown into circumstances that we eventually realize aren’t quite them however, it is all a sense of digging out that part of them that they need to live. The soap salesman and monk eventually have some insightful conversations throughout the movie that truly point us into knowing them more. Just as the reforestation ranger obsesses over who cut down his trees and we start seeing his mellow character go through a myriad of reactions to the situation. However, with the amount of characters here, the focus moves quickly through them. Their personalities, their facades, their conversations, their tricks all come together as what defines this world because we never know any of them well enough to know their history or even their story. We only know what they are now and those few days in this desolate area.

While, Free and Easy slowly progresses its story and it feels disjointed throughout the majority of it and there isn’t really a character to bond with, one of the best aspects is its landscape and cinematography. The way that the director composes their shots, capturing the wide angles and pulled out space. It truly expands on the desolate and emptiness in this area. Perhaps, it also is done to create a parallel for these characters who each have their own issues and all don’t seem to keen about what life they are in now. No one truly seems happy. However, the scenes here truly capture so much atmosphere and is structured carefully to capture exactly what it wants and hides some of the details off screen. One of the best scenes do go to one of the cops confronting four of the characters as they keep moving on and off screen.

Honestly, there isn’t a lot to say concretely about Free and Easy. The story needs a little more work particularly for the pace they are going at. The sound design is nice and the cinematography captures so much of the atmosphere and the area despite it being desolate and empty. The characters are plentiful but never fleshed out. The dry humor definitely is there however, it never seemed to work enough although humor is rather subjective. Free and Easy is a statement piece about society, at least from the first watch, it definitely seems to be leaning the most in that direction. Its a lot of reading between the lines and listening to the dialogue and conversations. Its a movie for those that enjoy dry humor, slow-paced and reading between the lines.

Personally, this doesn’t feel like a movie that I was meant to like. I do think for its vagueness in many of the issues, it makes it more thought provoking to figure out what they are trying to say. What message is it all about? I’m honestly kind of in between with this one.

Book Review: The Water Rat of Wanchai (Ava Lee #1) by Ian Hamilton

Out of a totally spontaneous venture to the bookstore a while back, I bought this book which is the first of a series called The Water Rat of Wanchai.  Why I chose it is because it is set using a female protagonist who is Chinese-Canadian and well, Wanchai is in Hong Kong.  I always like to venture into these sort of books, even though this one, I’ve never heard of before.  Peculiar enough is that the author is not Chinese so I was interested in how authentic the interpretation of it would be. Lets get started with the plot!

the water rate of wanchai coverAva Lee is a Chinese-Canadian forensic accountant living in Toronto.  She affiliates her business with a close family friend called Uncle who is in Hong Kong.  Her job is to take on contracts from people who have had money stolen from them and track down where it has gone, in exchange her service is a commission of the amount she was able to collect back, in full or not.  This time, she is sent to take care of business of a friend of Uncle’s who swam down from mainland China when China was in turmoil.  Its a relationship and bond that can’t be broken.  She needs to help his relative Andrew Tam seek out money that he lent out for a wholesale fish import business that had gone bad and the owners were completely off the radar.

The Water Rat of Wanchai is a very smart novel.  It approaches it in a way where our strong female character leads us onto a journey where we learn about her abilities and how she uses certain qualities to get what she wants with her extremely sensitive observation and analysis skills.  The only issue I had was that at times, Ava Lee was too tough.  Tough to a point where its unrealistic even though the novel aims at possibly being more realistic as its set in very real places around the world.  Sometimes, Ava Lee can also be a character where her feminism is slightly overbearing.  As much as those characteristics may hinder her character, we do get a few surprises to her character.

The most intriguing part of the novel is how the investigation proceeds.  It really pulled me straight into the action and every step of the way, it kept me wondering what Ava Lee would do to solve her problems.  Going into foreign countries and having to deal with other cultures and their own set of politics as well as using many resources to trace where she had to be next to try to retrieve the money.  In many parts, I actually sensed the urgency of the situation and by the end, the book had turned into a page-turner.

The Water Rat of Wanchai has a lot of good features to it and its compelling and engaging to read.  It is a page-turner and a pretty good mystery novel.  Ava Lee is an interesting character to put on paper.  She shows a lot of Chinese values and qualities enveloped with the Canadian born values to mesh into someone who can transform herself to be likable in certain situations.  Forensic accounting would’ve been what I’d have wanted to do if I had become an accountant so to me, it had a even deeper meaning and stronger connection.  I like investigation and analysis in stories and this one did a very good job at it.

Definitely recommend it! As for me, I’ll be looking for the second one in the series soon!

Fantasia Festival: The Last Tycoon (2012)

I finally made it to see my first movie of the film festival.  I am organizing my time to see a few more as I start feeling better gradually 🙂  Although I did miss the one that I anticipated the most, I did end up finding a few that I missed the first time I was looking at the whole list of movies.  Last night, I went to see the historical crime thriller The Last Tycoon! Let’s check it out!

the last tycoon posterDirector: Jing Wong

Cast: Chow Yun-Fat, Sammo Hung, Francis Ng, Xiaoming Huang, Monica Mok

Cheng Daqi (Chow Yun-Fat)  is one of the biggest mob bosses in Shanghai in 1937.  From the time when he was just a poor boy (young Daqi by Xiaoming Huang) working at a fruit stall at the countryside, he rises up after seeking refuge in Shanghai from being framed for killing his boss and afterwards being saved by a secret service soldier Mao Zai (Francis Ng), who also teaches him how to kill.  In Shanghai, he uses his guts and courage to move up in the underworld mobs and eventually is taken as an apprentice under Mr. Hong (Sammo Hung), one of the biggest gangsters in the early 1900s who is also a police captain.  As he uses his quick thinking to help his master and then saves him from the new General, he rises up to be Mr. Hong’s sworn brother and together they earn money and get involved into different types of businesses until 1937 when they are asked to help against the Japanese invasion by the secret service unit there.  At the same time, Daqi’s old flame ends up in Shanghai with her husband who also has a secret agenda.  Daqi now has to worry not only for himself and his family but also make the choice to save his country and also balance it between his old love.

the last tycoon showdown

Fantasia categorized this as a historical crime thriller.  I hold out on that a little mostly because I’m not completely sure if there is a historical factor to it.  For one, the invasion of the Japanese did in fact happen and I believe my mom told me that one of the characters there is based on a true historical character.  I still have to do a bit of research on it. Regardless, this was very much an action thriller packed with a whole lot of underlying political values and morals in both a coming of age as we watch how Cheng Daqi moves up to become one of the biggest mob bosses in the underworld of Shanghai and also the struggles to maintain a balance between making the right choices of becoming allied with the Japanese as they invade Shanghai (and China as a whole) or to use the power he had to conquer and defend. It was also a story of brotherhood and loyalty.

The last tycoon chow yun fat

Chow Yun-Fat’s character was definitely refreshing.  Its been a while that he has been in an action thriller where we see him fully engaged in action to fight and shoot.  He is absolutely a great actor and in this flick, he leads it very well.  Even his younger self played by Xiaoming Huang, which I came to learn from my mom and is also in real life an actor that Chow Yun-Fat has taken under his wing to teach him better acting skills, was pretty impressive.  Cheng Daqi needed someone to reenacted by someone with the tough and calm charisma that Chow Yun-Fat can bring especially when faced with the scheming parties that surrounds him in this flick. He had so many good quotes also! This one was in the trailer:

I’ve never been afraid of anything in my life…except being a traitor. – Cheng Daqi (Chow Yun-Fat)

Another one they used in the Cantonese version final trailer:

I personally would want to rewatch it in Cantonese because thats the original language of the movie even though I saw this in Mandarin.

the last tycoon daqi hong mao

Sammo Hung had a smaller role in The Last Tycoon.  However, Francis Ng as Mao Zai who plays a controversial and pretty intense character who is a government commander who also has some secret service type of description behind it.  I’m a huge fan of the peculiar characters that Francis Ng chooses to act.  He always lives up to them and he brings exactly that, character. There’s always some new charisma that he can bring on screen and this one was no exception.

the last tycoon huang xiaoming

On the reigns of this movie, we have director Jing Wong.  I’ve reviewed a few movies by him before and he is one of my absolute favorites as he directed most of the Stephen Chow movies and this is the second movie he collaborates with Chow Yun-Fat after God of Gambler.  He makes this movie with a lot of style.  As we enter into Shanghai, we see the contrasts of lights and architecture and just the glamour of all the fame with the nightlife and the mobs underworld.  The setting is just so nice to look at.

the last tycoon chow yun fat shanghai background

Aside from that, we open with beautiful music that reminds of the era that its set in.  The soundtrack in general matches the scenes perfectly.  Whether its the songs that they chose during certain scenes or the background music that makes this movie feel majestic, courageous and maybe even a bit patriotic.

This probably won’t be the best Chinese action movie that I have seen but it does have an amazing style that director Jing Wong brings to it.  Chow Yun-Fat comes back with not only action but plays the role of Cheng Daqi in an outstanding way.  With him, Xiaoming Huang is an amazing young actor that portrays the guts and courage and desire to rise up from the younger Cheng Daqi.  Francis Ng brings in the intensity in the movie.  Its a pretty awesome movie in general and definitely worth a watch! 🙂