Fire Dragon

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Giant Fireballs, Volume 2.”

firedragonPrince Six (Tan) is plotting rebellion against the legitimate government, but Ming (Chu) has obtained a piece of compromising evidence from a dying Imperial guard. Before he can deliver it, the seal proving his identity is lifted by Tang Lyn-Yu (Ng), who runs a circus troupe, but has set her amorous eyes on Mind. He returns to the troupe, to try and locate the seal, but also there, undercover, is Fire Devil (Lin), who has been tasked by Six with locating and destroying the evidence of his treachery. However, after her involvement in a battle which leaves a young child orphaned, along with her beginning to fall for Ming, she begins to question whether she is on the right side of the fight. It doesn’t count as much of a spoiler to say that it ends with Fire Devil taking on Six, in a finale which involves so many things blowing up, you’d be forgiven for thinking the title of the film was as given at the top.

As usual, the fight scenes show why Yuen Woo-Ping is the greatest action director in modern cinema. Unfortunately, the bits between the fight scenes, also show why he is not the greatest director in modern cinema; it’s as if all the invention and imagination went into the wire-fu. Yuen appears content for the rest to be told with a series of bland characters (Chu is entirely forgettable, and shows the range of a wardrobe), desperately unfunny stabs at comedic mugging (courtesy of the Empress of Comedic Mugging, Ng, who has basically made her entire career out of that sort of thing), and broad cliché (Taotao the orphan, who could only be more obviously designed to be Adorable with a capital A, if he was carrying a box of sneezing baby pandas). The results are never less than unsubtle, and rarely pass as adequate.

It’s up to Lin to carry the emotional heart of the film, and she does well enough. At one point, Six tells her he doesn’t want her to be a dog, obeying him without question, he wants a hawk, soaring free. I guess he gets his wish: however, considering how that turns out (reminder: a large number of giant fireballs), it probably wasn’t the wisest of similes for him to choose. More exploration of their relationship, e.g. how did she come to work for him, would have been preferred over the less successful element that may well have you reaching for the fast-forward button.

Dir: Yuen Woo-ping
Star: Joe Chu, Brigitte Lin, Sandra Ng, Tan Lap-Man

MPAA reject poster for Sin City 2

According to PageSix.com, the reason given for the ban was “for nudity” — which probably falls into the category of “Well, duh…” – and specifically, “curve of under breast and dark nipple/areola circle visible through sheer gown.” Can’t see why. I quite like it…

The film is out on August 22 [I mention this in case you missed the information on the poster, which would be fairly understandable]. My interest certainly increased.

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Breathless

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“Don’t mess with Texans…”

breathlessThere’s something almost theatrical about this, because virtually the entire film takes place in a single location, the downscale home of Lorna (Gershon), who has just knocked her husband Dale (Kilmer) out with a frying-pan, after discovering he was apparently involved in a bank robbery which netted $100,000. She has now called over her best friend, local barmaid Tiny (Giddish), to try and decide what to do next, with the first step being to find the loot, which Lorna is convinced Dale has hidden somewhere in their home. However, the local sheriff (Liotta) is also sniffing around, being fully aware of Dale’s fondness for armed robbery in his younger days. It’s not long before the dead bodies are piling up, requiring alternative uses to be found for the turkey carver and industrial-strength blender. And that’s just the start of the unpleasantness.

This felt like a chattier version of 2LDK, both in the restricted setting, and its focus on the friendship between two women, which disintegrates over the course of proceedings. There’s also more than a whiff of the Coen Brothers to be found here, in particular Raising Arizona with its dimwitted criminal staggering from one calamity into another. And the opening sequence is shamelessly cribbed from Dexter, cutting together breakfast preparation, in a way that foreshadows the carnage to come. It’s kinda hard to say what Baget is bringing of himself to proceedings. However, Gershon is her usual, impressive self, infusing her character with unspoken backstory, It’s clear the ill-gotten gains represent her last chance to escape the rural hellhole down which her life has spun, and she’ll go to any lengths to make sure she gets her hands on them. Discovering what that means, is the engine that keeps the film going, driven by her performance far more than a script which seems content to shuffle over-familiar elements around, and hope we won’t notice.

With the self-imposed limitations, the movie paints itself into a corner with regard to where it can go. And the result is, when the inevitable twists come along – and, inevitable they are, in the kind of film this sets out to be – they generate not much more than a shrug of indifference. Probably remains worth watching for Gershon’s performance, and some other powerhouses of 90’s cinema trying to recapture their glory days, but only if you can handle a tired and worn-out plot.

Dir: Jesse Baget
Star: Gina Gershon, Kelli Giddish, Val Kilmer, Ray Liotta

Kick Ass Girls

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“Girls just wanna have… Boxing gyms?”

kickassgirls2Boo (Chow) owns a failing boxing gym, and largely survives only by catering to masochistic geeks, with fantasies of being beaten up by Lara Croft, etc. To try and recoup customers driven away by her abrasive style, she hires the bubbly Miu (Lo), as a replacement for childhood friend TT (Yu), with whom she broke up after a spat over a man. Just as Miu brokers a reconciliation, the trio get an unexpected job offer, to work in Indonesia as bodyguards for the mysterious Lady Zhuge (Tong). Except, they eventually discover, this was just a lure to bring them in as fresh meat for her all-female fight club, where they must battle to the death.

The intriguingly-named director is making her feature debut, having been an actress and screenwriter, after getting her start as a teenage DJ on Hong Kong radio. It’s certainly unusual to see this kind of film directed by a woman, but it seems to work, particularly in regard to the characters, who are rather more well-rounded than usual for the genre. GC also plays Zhuge’s Goth personal assistant, who may be the most endearing of the lot, and she nails the cliches of that group impeccably. The film can be divided into three sections. The first is mostly comedic; the second, after the women go to Indonesia, is the least successful, and appears to have strayed in from a chick flick; however, the third includes the bulk of the action, and is a satisfactorily crunchy finale.

There isn’t much of a character arc for anyone, and the interview used as a framing device is a mis-step, since it destroys any sense of suspense, over who will survive and what will be left of them. But I sense that suspense isn’t particularly what this is about; it’s rather concerned with light comedy, moderate martial arts, and lead actresses who generally look good doing whatever it is they’re doing. As such, even if these are undeniably low-hanging fruit, it succeeds admirably, and I’ll admit, I laughed more than I expected, especially in the early going. If this falls uncomfortably between about three different genres, and isn’t great at any of them, by no means is it horrible at them either, and I was more than adequately entertained.

Dir: Goo-Bi GC
Star: Chrissie Chow, Dada Lo, Hidy Yu, Chris Tong


Bonus: Behind the scenes footage

Cleopatra 2525: season one

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“After the apocalypse, crop tops will fortunately not be in short supply.”

When Hercules: The Legendary Journeys ended its run in January 2000, producers Renaissance Pictures looked to replace it, but instead of going with another hour-long show to follow the hit Xena, took the unusual step of making two, 30-minute action series. This was a break from normal practice: half-hour comedies were standard, but for shows like these, it was a format which had not been seen since the seventies. The second was Jack of All Trades, starring Bruce Campbell as Jack Stiles, a wisecracking spy for the US at the turn of the 19th century. The first was radically different: a SF saga, set 500+ years into the future, when robots have driven humanity, literally, underground.

Waking up here is Cleopatra (Sky), a 21st-century exotic dancer who got frozen after a boob-job went wrong. She’s rescued by Hel (Torres, who’d go on to cult stardom in Firefly) and Sarge (Pratt), part of a team fighting the robots, which are known as ‘Baileys’, their human-imitating agents called ‘Betrayers,’ and dealing with the anarchic and dangerous life beneath the surface, guided by a voice in Hel’s head, that organizes the anti-Bailey resistance. [In the original pilot, that voice was Lucy Lawless, but she ended up being replaced by Elizabeth Hawthorne] Cleo gradually becomes part of the team, being the viewers’ voice in the dystopia of 26th-century life, while Hel and Sarge represent the brains and brawn of the team.

cleopatra2525cAll three, however, were clearly selected as much for their visual appeal, and the 25th century is not short of beautiful people – it’s also quite warm, going by the ah, flimsy clothing worn by the trio. Cleo and her former profession fit right in. But taking any of this seriously would largely be doing the show a disservice, because it’s clear it doesn’t take itself seriously. There isn’t really time for that kind of thing, with each episode barely 20 minutes, excluding opening (theme song sung by Torres, a funked-up and lyrically altered version of Zager and Evans’ one-hit wonder, In the Year 2525) and closing credits. There isn’t much time for anything, in fact: both characterization and plotting remain about as scanty as the outfits. Hel is thoughtful but can be distant; Sarge likes shooting things first and asking questions later; Cleo, to be honest, is mostly irritating, coming over as both whiny and rather vacuous.

At least in the first series, the storylines don’t focus on the Baileys as much as I remembered. The heroic trio also find themselves taking on evil clown Creegan, against whom Hel has a personal grudge (for good reason), or psychic Raina, who can not just read your mind, but implant suggestions in it. The latter was a personal favourite villainess, played by Danielle Cormack, who is a veteran from Xena, having played Amazon Ephiny there. That’s true for much of the cast: Sky read for the part of Gabrielle, but also ended up playing another character, Amarice, while Pratt was Cyanne, the Queen of the Northern Amazons. Torres was on the show too, though not as an Amazon. Perhaps more confusingly though, she played Cleopatra – the Egyptian version, not the stripper one.  There’s also a considerable overlap of directors who worked on both shows.

Cleopatra is generally more consistent in tone: that may not necessarily be a good thing, as one of the joys of Xena was seeing it swing from mass crucifixions to musical numbers. It does make Cleo less suitable for binge watching, because the episodes exhibit a certain sameness that grows somewhat repetitive after a while: three was about my personal limit, so not much more than an hour, before the titular heroine started to grate on my nerves. But in the show’s defense, it wasn’t created to be viewed like that, and in 20 minute chunks, generally manages to be energetic and action-packed entertainment. Outside of the Raina episodes mentioned earlier, I particularly enjoyed Run Cleo Run, a take on one of my most beloved films, Run Lola Run, that somehow manages to be even more hyperkinetic than the original – though with a less kick-ass soundtrack.

Star: Jennifer Sky, Gina Torres, Victoria Pratt

The Mini-skirt Gang

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“So glad to have missed the seventies.”

miniskirtDear god, this is awful. The only reason this 1974 film manages the dizzy heights of 1 1/2 stars, is the finale, which is actually a pretty decent burst of comedy action, highlighted by the heroine receiving inspiration from a poster advertising a Peking Opera production of the Mulan legend. Up until then, it’s a rancid piece of film-making, wasting the talents of those involved. Well, the actresses anyway, since Lui Kei provides no evidence, in either his direction or script, that there was any talent present to begin with.

The gang in question are five female pickpockets, led by Ra Liao Liu (Danish actress Tove, whose presence in Hong Kong at the head of these thieves is never explained). When engaged on a job, they cross swords with a pair of bumbling male pickpockets, and inexplicably decide to join forces, even though the men are incompetent perverts. Cue the kind of behavior which would get you arrested these days, played by the movie in attempts at comedy which fall utterly flat. Man, if this is really what the decade was like, it must have been hell to be a woman. The rest of the film is filled with similarly “amusing” high-jinks, along with other scenes which serve little or no dramatic purpose, like the one where the good heart of Ra gets her deceived by a pair of con women, or an extended sequence where the whole gang pretend to be hookers. Oh, hold my aching sides, for I fear they may split.

Eventually, what passes for a meaningful plot finally shows up, as the gang rescue a woman from being forced into prostitution. Of course, the morality on view is a bit dubious, when their rescuee is then made pregnant by one of the men, who refuses to ‘fess up until he is made to believe he had sex with a leper. Yes, the laughs just never stop start in this Shaw Brothers production. Subsequently, her pimps come after them, and that’s what leads to the inadequate redemption of the big final battle, as well as an ending which offers no resolution, consisting entirely of the gang yelling out “We are the weird and crazy thieves!” Maybe that line lost something in translation from Chinese.

I thought my loathing might be strictly personal, but the first review I found called it, “The worst Shaw Brothers film I’ve ever seen, and I’ve seen over 200 of them.” So, not just me, then. Any screen presence Tove and her co-heroines possess, is almost entirely countered by the crude and largely incompetent approach, resulting in a mix of comedy and sexploitation that is neither funny nor sexy. Maybe times have changed, but if this ever seemed other than creepy, change can only be a good thing.

Dir: Lui Kei
Star: Birte Tove, Chen Ping, Nancy Leung, Lee Fung-Laan

Concrete Blondes

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“Would it be churlish to point out they’re not real blondes?”

concreteblondesThis is the story of three young women, sharing a house. There’s Kris (Pope), the sensible and apparently staid one, who works as a tax accountant; her flighty girlfriend Tara (Armstrong); and roommate Sammi (Baird). Tara and Sammi stumble into the aftermath of an apparent gangland shootout, exiting with a bag containing over $3 million in cash. The trio have very different ideas about what to do next, but Kris convinces them the best bet immediately, is to stash the bag in a lock-up, secured by three separate padlocks, with each holding one key, until they figure out if anyone is coming after the money. However, Sammi’s inability to keep her mouth shut proves disastrous, as her boyfriend is $50,000 in debt to local mob boss Kostas Jakobatos (Rhys-Davies), and sees an opportunity to clear the balance, and a lot more. Neither of the men have reckoned with Kris who, it turns out, is much more prepared for the situation than her two house-mates.

The approach to the storytelling feels undeniably Tarantinoesque: we’ll see a scene from one perspective, then crank the timeline back, and see what leads up to it, and the aftermath, from another character’s point of view. This is a mixed blessing. For some scenes, you do go “Ah-hah…” as light dawns; for others, it seems like a pointless exercise – compare and contrast Wild Things, where they saved all these aspects up until the very end, to much greater impact. The other problem is, the characters are not very likeable, particularly Tara and Sammi, who alternate between bitchy and whiny, neither of which are endearing. Kris fares much better, yet her back story is rather implausible and underplayed, in the sense that I’d have liked to hear about it in detail. In some ways, it might have make for a more interesting – and certainly, more original – tale than what we actually get, which is instead, largely a recycled selection of elements and styles from other films, such as Shallow Grave.

I should also point out that nothing matching the cover actually occurs, though by now, I’m quite used to films over-selling the “girls with guns” aspect, probably because of how successful it is. While I can’t honestly say I was bored by the proceedings as they unfolded here, my interest generally remained stuck somewhere in second gear. That may be suitable for pottering around town, but falls well short of adequate for hitting the highway and letting her rip.

Dir: Nicholas Kalikow
Star: Carly Pope, Samaire Armstrong, Diora Baird, John Rhys-Davies

Her Vengeance

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“Revenge, with extra sleaze.”

hervengeanceDirector Lam is responsible for insane cult classic, The Story of Ricky, and if this is more restrained, it’s only by comparison. Casino manager Chieh Ying (Wong) is gang-raped by five sleazebags – and, wouldn’t you know it, they’re the same guys who killed her father. Worse is to come, as a trip to the doctor reveals a rather nasty case of venereal disease, and after some melancholic wandering around which occupies the rest of the first half (and, to be frank, is rather boring), our heroine gets tore into the villains, extracting the titular payback. Though you know the old saying, “She who seeks vengeance, must first dig two graves”? That’s a severe understatement here, because this roaring rampage will end needing an entire cemetery, costing Chieh Ying almost everybody she cares about, from her uncle, a wheelchair bound kung-fu wizard (Lam, best known for the Mr. Vampire series), to her wannabe boyfriend (Wong).

Once things kick off, this is impressive, and it’s clear that Lam does not give a damn about any kind of political correctness. The performances are (surprisingly?) decent, with Wong suitably angsty, and the villains entirely hissable, though their apparent inability to recognize her certainly defies explanation – I’ve never raped anyone, but if I did, think I would likely remember what they looked like. Lam is his usual great self, demonstrating some amazing moves as a crippled master, at one point whipping one of the wheels off his chair, and hurling it at an assailant. The main problem is poor pacing, to such an extent that it feels almost like two separate films, spliced together – and as we’ll see, that is indeed the case in some ways. The film gets credit for not hanging around, and gets the rape out of the way with admirable speed. However, things then grind to a halt for a good 30 minutes, Chieh Ying moping around from Macao to Hong Kong and back again, before eventually getting a job in her uncle’s bar. Your attention may drift away considerably during this spell.

Fortunately, things recover significantly when she starts taking out the trash, with a wicked combination of blades, acid and curtains constructed of fish hooks (!). And that’s not mentioning the F-sized crossbow she and her uncle construct: the poster isn’t quite accurate in the details, but does give you an idea. There’s a wonderfully bleak approach here: while Chieh Ying may get the retribution she has been craving, does it really help? Is she any happier as a result? I sincerely doubt it. If damaged by its unevenness, this remains a good example of “they don’t make ’em like this any more,” as far as Hong Kong cinema is concerned.

Dir: Ngai Kai Lam
Star: Pauline Wong, Ching-Ying Lam, Elaine Jin, Kelvin Wong

Note: there have been a couple of versions of this officially released: one with all the sex and violence, and another where that was cut, but containing other scenes that actually resulted in a longer running-time, by several minutes. Some enterprising individual took it upon themselves to splice the two together, and that’s the version reviewed here.

Code Name: Jackal

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“Too little, too late.”

codenamejackalFor years, an assassin known as “Jackal”, has eluded all efforts at capture, taking out targets before vanishing without trace. However, it seems that retirement is close, when a note is found, apparently left by the killer. This indicates that they are tired of the chase, and will be in a town’s low-rent hotel, waiting for the police. The cop (Han) who has been hunting Jackal is, understandably, wary and suspects a trick, but sets up a stakeout in the hotel to see what unfolds. However, already in one of the rooms there is K-Pop superstar Choi Hyun (Kim)., who had been hoping to hide out for a bit of peace and quite, only to be kidnapped by a rookie killer (Song), hired by his jilted lover. She’s apparently not very good at her job, especially after Choi convinces her he isn’t actually the star, but a celebrity lookalike. Meanwhile, a local cop (Oh) has been drafted in to help with the stakeout, and the hotel staff are proving rather less than helpful, treating the stakeout as a bonus cash-cow to be milked, rather than a chance to help the authorities.

For much of its running time, there is a great deal of sitting in hotel rooms, alternating with scenes of creeping about around corridors. The overall feel is more like a Korean take on British farce, and I sense a good deal of cultural stuff may fly over Western viewers’ heads – for instance, Kim actually is a K-Pop superstar, so issues like obsessed fans and record company executives with ulterior motives probably have particular resonance. It’s just too static to work, concentrating for spells on the burgeoning relationship between novice killer and her victim, then drifting off to the cops and their surveillance operation. What should be the key question – who is the Jackal, and what is their plan? – seems to be all but forgotten until the very end of the film. This is a shame, because this is both interesting and well-considered. Unfortunately, the overall impact is largely to make you wish it had shown up about an hour earlier, with the film developing forward from there with similar energy.

The performances aren’t bad, and there are occasional moments that are genuinely funny. For instance, the police disguise themselves as hotel cleaners so they can check rooms, only for the real employee to insist they actually do the cleaning. But these are only sporadic at best, and the script is generally so weak, in terms both of setting up the central storyline and executing it, that the final 10 minutes aren’t enough to salvage proceedings. You get the sense that a prequel, or a sequel, covering the Jackal’s exploits before or after this particular incident, would have been more interesting.

Dir: Bae Hyeong Jun
Star: Song Ji Hyo, Kim Jaejoong, Han Sang Jin, Oh Dal-su