Tag Archives: Asian Cinema

Cinema-Maniac: Outlaw: Gangster VIP (1968) Crime Movie Review

Crime cinema is one of the most interesting genres for me, but typically also one I spend the least amount of time exploring in my area of interests. Quality films in the the crime genre are abundant so that’s not a issue for me. What is are usually the kind of stories that can be told in this genre, and how typically I don’t find myself caring much about these crime stories leading characters. I find the amount of memorable character, for me, even harder to find as after a single film I never seen them again. However, as I venture more in depth into foreign (outside of the US for me) cinema I learn there take on the subject I find a bit more interesting. Hence, my venture into the first of six (one of five films to come out in 1968) in the Outlaw: Gangster VIP franchise.

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Hey, did you know 2 out 3 Japanese men don’t know how to wear the sleeves in their clothing. Crazy right?

Outlaw: Gangster VIP follows Yakuza Goro Fujikawa (played by Tetsuya Watari) becomes disenchanted with his lifestyle after serving three years in prison, and seeing a changed Japan. Starting off strong, Outlaw: Gangster VIP shows a glimpse of Goro rough life as a child during the opening credit sequence, and the film never loosen its dramatic grip on you. Establishing early on in the film characters history, motivation, and displaying Goro contrast of his rough exterior compare to his inner kindness. At 90 minutes, Outlaw: Gangster VIP is very bold, and ambition in narrative storytelling is quite a successful accomplishment. Nearly everything in the film from a writing perspective works better than the film probably intend it too.

For example, throughout the film snippets of certain characters are given to the viewers at different points in the story. These snippets are later expanded on as the film progresses into discussing it themes on violence, loyalty, and moving forward through a slow pace. In particular, the character Takeo Tsujikawa (played by Mitsuo Hamada) embodies all these themes greatly. Serving somewhat as a surrogate of the new youth idolizing the life of the Yakuza while Goro Fujikawa is the wise old veteran trying to set him on the right path. Several scenes in the film illustrate why Goro wants to set Takeo on the right path, and as well facing the consequences that comes from his misguided view on the Yakuza lifestyle. It’s a classic dynamic you’ve seen in many films, and here it works all the same.

Continuing on, another aspect of the film that greatly serves it narrative are the characters, and the interactions they have with one another. A no brainer of course, but the dialogue, and the discussion among the characters in the film feel so natural. It doesn’t come across as if the film itself is dictating how these character talk. Rather, it’s the characters themselves moving the story forward, and their storied history. The way the character speak to each other, and how they react to an individual does as much to convey character traits as much as the spoken words.

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What’s with that look? I swear we didn’t have the dog for dinner last week.

If there’s any area Outlaw: Gangster VIP falters in is the romantic subplot involving Goro, and Yukiko Hashimoto (played by Cheiko Matsubara) is only half convincing. From Yukiko point of view her romantic feelings for Goro is sensible with what’s reveal about her in the film. However, from Goro perspective his romantic feelings for Yukiko don’t add up entirely. It simply comes off as a facade to get out of a uncomfortable situation. It’s a spoilerific scene that makes Goro yearn for Yukiko be questionable. Aside from that small drawback, the film plays out without a hitch. The seemingly large cast of characters never become too much to keep track off. It balances the small human aspects of it story without it losing itself with this Yakuza gang war that develops in the background. In spite of its many theme, and relatively short length at 90 minutes there’s always something important in occuring in the film. Finally, thematic exploration especially since by the end of the film you end up with a film that’s a lot thoughtful than the name would imply into a nice package.

Tetsuya Watari plays Goro Fujikawa (a character based on a real ex-gangster) in the first of many ventures. Watari excels in this portrayal of the Goro in both the physical, and emotional aspect required of him. His exterior, much like the character, is rough, and his line delivery shows no hint of a gentle soul. However, his eyes tell a different story whenever the camera focuses on him. Goro is a layered, and therefore Watari switching between contrasting personality for the same character feels natural. You will believe that Tetsuya Watari can defend himself against a  against an entire gang of knife wielding Yakuza by himself relatively well because of his commanding on screen presence. Simply put, Watari creates an quite an iconic character for the crime genre, even if the series as a whole is relatively unknown as of this writing.

Another noteworthy performance is by Mitsuo Hamada who plays Takeo Tsujikawa. He’s given more ranging material compare to Watari, but given a less layered character to portray. However, is able to hold his own much like Tetsuya Watari. Tsujikawa portrayal is more expressive of his overall turmoil, and happiness that his character faces. Relying less on body language, but doesn’t take away anything from his scenes. Whenever Tetsuya Watari ain’t the main focus Mitsuo Hamada is a fantastic choice to share the spotlight with. His scenes often relies on his comedic timing, and dramatic chop to make scenes. It’s a delicate balance that if done incorrectly a scene would have easily appeared too comedic, or too dramatic. Understanding this delicate balance, Hamda knows exactly how to deliver his lines in every scene. Plus, the times he shares the screen with Watari makes for some splendid bit of acting, as well as make for some of the best moments in the film in terms of writing.

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Trust me, no stills from the film’s action sequences can do them rightful justice.

In terms of supporting cast members, besides Mitsuo Hamada, there’s Kyosuke Machida whom in spite in being in the film as much as Hamada, but he gets to shine in some heavily dramatic scenes. Tatsuya Fuji also gets a small part as Suzuki, but unfortunately his role is also brief ending before making much of an impression. Same thing for Yoshiro Aoki, although he’s more of the lacking variety sort since he’s villain of the film, and has to appear more scummy regardless of the scene he’s in. Yet, in spite of the small roles the supporting cast receives they all turn in good performances with what little they’re given. Finally, there’s Chieko Matsubara, and Kayo Matsuo whom are the only ladies of any noteworthy roles. They play the supportive ladies which tended to be common in films in general during the 60s, and earlier. Both actress do fine in the role, but only in her final scene does Chieko Matsubara get to deliver a good scene. However, her co-star Kayo Matsuo despite appearing less leaves a bigger impression. Helps with the fact her scenes in the film tend to be other topics instead of constantly delivering dialogue on how much she wants to stick with her man.

Finally, this review (and any other on this film for that matter) would do a huge injustice if not mentioning action coordinator Kakuo Watai, and cinematographer Kurataro Takamura. Firstly, Kurataro Takamura eye for visuals gives the film plenty of classic wide shots, and long takes to absorb late 1960 Japan. Making the film look very beautiful throughout many points in the film. I would even say thanks to the visual choices made it visuals have gotten better with time. There’s also the action sequence by Kakuo Watai which surprisingly are impressive considering the year it was made in. Granted, like with action sequences during this era of filmmaking there’s the usual suspects of spotting actors standing waiting for their cue to perform in the sequence. All the film’s set pieces have these issues made easier to spot thanks to the long takes, and white shots, but they don’t diminished the elaborate (for the time at least) set pieces. Being an obvious highlight of the movie, even if they’re more over the top in comparison to the rest of the film. The execution of them, and staging of these action sequences ensures it warrant a viewing from any viewer. Lastly, the score by Harumi Ibe is pretty good. Fitting tonally whenever it’s used, and sometimes adding more impact to a scene.

Outlaw: Gangster VIP is a slow drama thick with great storytelling, and a fantastic cast of characters. Director Toshio Masuda crafted a film that age extremely well visually, and narratively. Many of the themes in the film are given careful thought in how they’re explored while also never forgetting about its characters. Balancing the large scope gang war with the human element thrown in you have a film huge in its scope that succeeds in what it sets out to do. That’s also including the technical achievement of the film which at times, along with everything else working in great cohesion with each other, will make you forget you’re watching a 50 plus year old film.



Cinema-Maniac: Extraordinary Mission (2017) Action Crime Movie Review

Extraordinary Mission follows undercover police officer Lin Kain (played by Xuan Huang) who attempts to take down a drug trafficking syndicate from the inside. The first half of Extraordinary Mission is standard undercover cop happenings; main character is in too deep in his current assignment, deal goes wrong escalating the undercover job, rising up the ranking earning the big boss trust, collusion in the police force, and other familiar territory. It’s these familiar traits while well executed thanks to pacing do make the viewer wonder for an hour if it’ll lead anywhere rewarding. Another drawback is the main character Lin Kain isn’t as compelling compare to the supporting characters. Lin Kain is simply the hero of the film with the position of an outsider put into a situation with characters whom all have a history with each other. Supporting characters are fleshed out, have clear motivations, and a rounded arc that is completed by the end of the film. These developments come in slowly, though do pay up in favor of the narrative. For example, the film’s main villain, Eagle (played by Yihong Duan), is surprisingly given more depth to him than initially introduced. Not only that, but his backstory makes him somewhat sympathetic in the story. Somewhat because you know he’s still in the drug selling business.

Lin Kain, as implied earlier, is the protagonist who has the least going for him out of the major characters. His backstory, and reason for becoming a cop is looked into, but not a whole lot to make him a fleshed out character. One flashback with just one tragic event doesn’t do enough to convey Lin Kain much as a character. He simply comes across as a nearly flawless hero with a strong sense of duty. An attempt to give him a flaw is made by making him addicted to drugs. However, it’s a plot thread is simply mentioned in passing in dialogue after a certain point. Seeing Lin attempting to overcome drug addiction is something that helps the viewer bridge a stronger connection with him, but it’s simply making something come across more significant than it actually is in practice.

Still from a good scene introducing to the film’s villain in the movie.

Regardless how good the film turned out in the end both fans of crime films, and action cinema will find the flick overall polarizing in its narrative. An action junkie will find it to have too little action spread out through the film with a lead whose underdeveloped, and crime film fans would find it familiarity meandering to sit through. What the script writing does accomplish with ease is blending action cinema, and crime drama into a singular vision. The sillier aspect of the action side of Extraordinary Mission, like a seemingly unkillable villain who can take multiple gunshots does not contrast strongly against the crime drama vision. Expertly using crime drama familiarity to as an excuse to eventually provide good characterization, and using action cinema setups to provided the entertaining set pieces. In tangent of that, it operates on action cinema logic hence no mention of the passage of time in the film, and the resiliency of the heroes bodies despite what they endure during the climax. While also using the crime drama aspects of it writing to keep the story moving forward at a good pace. In spite of its major writing issues, Extraordinary Mission is clearly written by a person who knows how to work well in different genres, and know how to best combine them to their strength.

Xuan Huang takes on the leading role of Lin Kain delivering a very good performance despite some of his characters limitation. Huang excels in humanizing Lin Kain more than the script does playing off the cool, and collected side of Kain with ease. Another positive is Huang has a plenty of range as an actor so not only is he convincing while performing his action sequences, but is versatile in portraying Lin Kain more vulnerable side convincingly. Huang does such a good job as a leading man it makes it that much easier accept the same character you see struggling not to take drug is also the same character easily killing dozen of henchman in the climax.

The standout performance of the film is Yihong Duan as the film’s villain Eagle. Much like Xuan Huang, Duan delivers a good performance making a great flick duo on screen. He’s on par with Huang in the acting department; however, is able to crafts a carefully balanced character. Never going into the melodramatic Duan provides the sympathy his character demands. His mannerism differs greatly from the rest of his co-star typically speaking in a calmly, collected gesture regardless of context. Another appreciated aspect of Duan performance is never entering into the over the top. Much like Huang who would have been for to solely play a tough hero, Duan also doesn’t take it easy solely coming across as evil in his portrayal.

Only other noteworthy supporting actor is Jiadong Xing who plays Li Jianguo who does a good job who brings thing around in terms of creating a good actor trio. Jiadong holds his own fine with the two leads sharing convincing chemistry with them. While the silent Yueting Lang gets a thankless role. She remains silent for virtually the entire film, and her character ends up going nowhere. Lastly, the actor Ding Yongdai whom plays Zhang Haitao is the only other noteworthy character. His role is small, but well acted. Though, not enough to believe he can shot a gun flawlessly for being imprisoned as long as he has.

The climax just make Xaun Huang look like a badass.

Action choreography is handled by Chung Chi Li whom over the top nature in action is kept in line thanks to director Alan Mak. The action in this film, for the most part, aims for realism while the physical feats of its performers have no limitations. Creativity is very high in the two action sequences in the beginning of the movie. Starting up with a single man drug bust before going into a car chase. There’s also a brief gunfight involving Xuan Huang meant to display his proficiency with a gun compare to the criminals. After this shootout, it pretty remain inactive on the action front until you get a flashback of a particular event in the story.

Finally, the film biggest selling point to casual viewers is the action climax which makes up around the last 25 minutes of the film. In this climatic actions sequence proficiency is made very clear between the heroes, and the villains. Despite their enemies larger numbers, our heroes use less bullets firing their weapons, and using cover constantly to avoid getting shot. The professionalism is obvious as the criminals are constantly moving around making up for their lack of skills for fire power. It’s a strange thing to compliment since many action movies do the same of proficient heroes vs sloppy evil henchman, but it’s rarely taken into account when it comes to choreography as much as it is here.

The climax is constantly moving from one area to another not just on foot, but eventually on vehicle which offer some cool moments. Either be it a cool shot of Xuan Huang on a motorcycle with a explosion behind him, Xuan Huang on top of a vehicle dodging bullets while taking out some henchman, or one cool looking car crash. It doesn’t try to constantly up the antics during climax, but slowly escalate into cooler, and cooler moments making the final impression the film have you be a positive one. Only drawback is notable usage of CGI, but they are rare in their usage in this sequence. Lastly, Alan Mak direction is fantastic in the movie blending two genre together for a visually coherent film through, and through. There’s only one jarring moment in the film that happens in the film which involves drawings coming to life into, but aside from that one moment Mak direction work fine.

Extraordinary Mission tackles very familiar territory for half of it run, but eventually is able to turn it around to make it a far more interesting character driven story, and displaying some exciting action in a very lengthy climax to end things on a high note. Genre fans of both crime, and action cinema will find individual aspects polarizing. However, anyone who likes both genre equally will witness a film that does a fine job of combining the two.


Cinema-Maniac: City Kids (Ren hai gu hong) (1989) Crime Drama Movie Review

One of the many joys, and misfortunes of seeking out lesser discussed anything is the experience of it. From witnessing a very cool action climax in The Dragon Family (1988) to finding a surprisingly great movie in Return Engagement (1990) make going through the slough of bad films worth the endeavor. City Kids (Ren hai gu hong) from director Michael Mak is one film that sadly is another name on the increasing list of forgotten films not worth digging up.

City Kids attempts to tell a story about delinquency in youth Third Lam/Chor-san (played by Max Mok) as a refugee from China fleeing to Hong Kong, and the tragedy of his life. The film’s story is done no favor by the editing, but before getting to that whole fiasco, in terms of writing the film does too much in to little time. It wants to cover a life, and a significant portion of it just comes across as a cliff notes version of events. For example, Third Lam doesn’t have a good relationship with his cousin, but only in one very brief scene do they ever exchange dialogue showcasing their trouble relationship. Another example would be the lack of a father figure in Third Lam’s life. In the story, the closest person to fitting that bill would be Big Skin Chuen (played by Shing Fui-On), but once Big Skin Chuen purpose in the story is served there’s no time spent reflecting on his influence on Third Lam’s life. Instead, the film immediately moves on to the next important event in Third Lam life. By not providing anything substantial there’s no one to relate to as a character. Third Lam is simply representing delinquency with a rough upbringing on a purely surface level, and just using that background to tell its viewer anyone can turn over a new leaf no matter how far you’ve fallen in life. A well intended message that likely won’t impact its viewers because of how shallow it characters feel.

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I must have misremember The Karate Kid.

With Third Lam suffering from a cumbersome collection of undercook ideas this also works against the more stable emotional core of the story. Throughout the film, Third Lam best friend Sas (played by Andy Lau) is shown to have significantly impacted his life in the worse ways possible. However, the film never portrays Sas friendship as one of pure negativity, nor one of an over controlling figure. The writing perfectly balances Sas as being his own individual, and not placing blame solely on him for the course that Third Lam’s life took. Sas is simply an individual struggling through the same ordeals as Third Lam, but tackles delinquency in a different manner. Fulfilling his role as a contrast to Third Lam in its exploration of delinquency.

The purpose Sas serves in the story works well, what deteriorate Sas positive contribution is the melodramatic writing in the heavier scenes involving Sas, and Third Lam. In the middle of the film, Sas, and Third Lam are force to fight each other in prison to settle a gang dispute. Portraying the fight as a tragic moment being the only time these two ever harmed each other in their entire life. However, before this scene the film shows two times how Sas action inadvertently forced Third Lam to be in the situation he’s placed in. Making whatever beating Third Lam gives to Sas to be unintentionally justified. It works against the intention of the sceneas neither character harbor bad will towards each other after the fight. Rendering whatever dramatic weight it was meant to have mute.

In City Kids it’s not just the larger picture that fail to deliver any dramatic weight, but also what should make up the smaller human moments. For example, Third Lam romantic subplot is one that could have been delved deeper into, but after a while is unable to flesh it out further pass the halfway point. For as sloppy as the romantic subplot is handle it’s nowhere near as bad when regards to Third Lam family members, and his issues that surround them. At least with the romantic subplot there were efforts to develop it. Thanks to a large part of Sas acting differently towards women in contrast to Third Lam allowing enough material to come full circle making the sequence where both discuss about their love life work dramatically. Third Lam family issues, much like the rest of the film, is in its own inability to develop good material with its lead by himself. The largest offense is the plot twist revealing who’s Third Lam father is, and it happens fifteen minutes before the movie ends. Not only is the reveal pointless, but nothing poignant can be done with the little remaining time it does have.

Um, who are you again?

The only time the film had any good moments were when it slow down in the final ten minutes of the movie. I would like to discuss the final moments of the film, but they’re significant plot points, and that would spoil the only worthwhile moments in the film as a drama. In particular the final two minutes before the credits started rolling I found effective. Despite the rush nature to explore Third Lam life, finally seeing him think about his actions while possibly choosing to continue his downward spiral in his life I found engaging. There was conflict, there was reflection on it, and it wasn’t rushed which is why I was engaged. There wasn’t any sort of time allotted to other important events within the story that captured my attention, and sadly there’s no fixing them. It was simply rushed with too many undercooked story elements to be an effective crime/drama about delinquency.

When it comes to acting, same with the score by Richard Lo, it’s simply modest. There isn’t any performance in the film that stands out in any negative, or positive manner. The best bit of acting comes at the end of the film when Max Mok displays an eruption of several of pent up rage, and sorrow in the final moments. It’s also the only time I felt music, acting, and cinematography complemented each other wonderfully.

Max Mok as Third Lam is serviceable as a leading man. He’s capable when it comes to the lighthearted scenes with natural charisma, but when it comes to the dramatic scenes he’s struggle to be convincing. Unable determine in part of a scene should he deliver an emotional response. For example, when Max Mok character finally meets his ex-lover in prison to learn about what happens to the baby. What Max Mok was attempting to get across in this brief scene is uncertain. His line delivery doesn’t suggest sadness, and his body language can be misread as confusion, or plain juvenile. Mok other dramatic scenes also suffer similar issues in terms of how Mok chooses to deliver the material, but improvements are visible the longer the film goes on.

My typical reaction when this movie attempted drama.

Max Mok co-star, Andy Lau who plays Sas, fairs a bit better overall, but both really shine with their onscreen chemistry. Given that a majority of the film they spent together both are able to make lackluster material believable. Unlike the screenplay, when both Mok, and Lau are on screen regardless of the scene tone both portrayal comes off as genuine. It’s the elements that surround their scenes that hold them back from.

In a crime/drama film about delinquency it would serve the story well if it completely disregarded the three short choreographed action sequences it has in the final act. The choreography in them are fine, but when the rest film attempts to be realistic without any over the top elements it stylistically conflicts with each other.

Finally, the biggest detriment to City Kids is hands down the editing by Hung Choi. Typically when it comes to movies regardless of quality a majority of the time I don’t even pay attention to the editing. The few times that I do it’s either because of its seamless flow enhancing the viewing experience (like Blade Runner 2049), or when masterful editing is absolutely integral to the film success (like Christopher Nolan’s Dunkirk) does editing in film ever register with me. However, the same doesn’t apply to bad movies as it’s rare that I contribute an entire film problems to the way it was edit. As you know, I then suddenly saw this film which now I can use as a future example on how not to edit a movie.

The most obvious issue in the film editing is there are times in the film where a cut won’t simply just transition to a new scene in progress. On a few occasion Hung Choi (the film’s editor) for who knows what baffling reason would pause the current scene, slide in the new scene paused, and after a couple of seconds resume the new scene. It was jarring to see such an issue not get fixed, and yes, this editing mess up is even on the film’s own DVD release which I own a copy of. Another thing Hung Choi does too frequently is cut away from a scene too quickly. I mentioned a scene earlier with Max Mok, and how he is uncertain to act in a scene where he learns unsettling news about his child. A reason why the scene doesn’t work is because Hung Choi fades into another scene very quickly instead of lingering on Max Mok performance for a bit longer to let the scene properly finish. In return, it makes Max Mok clumsy performance of the scene more noticeable.

Not a good sign if there’s this many prisoners in the showers.

Another is that early on in the film Choi splices in too many significant sequences together making it story’s intention muddle to the viewer. Hung Choi lack of knowing when to begin, and when to end a scene is consistent throughout the film. For example, Choi decides that instead of letting a scene of two best friends force to fight each other just play out without any theatrics he feels cheesy music, slow down footage, and splicing in scenes from earlier in the movie would add dramatic weight to the film. Obviously it didn’t work out how he wanted. Finally, the biggest drawback to his editing is the inconsistency of scenes length in the film. Granted, what film is going to have every scene be the same length, but in City Kids it’s very noticeable seeing minutes be kept on characters picking up girls while only allocating seconds to dramatically significant scenes. Choi simply doesn’t understand in this film when his influence is required.

City Kids fails as a drama with a unclear direction on how to properly explore youth delinquency. A rush pacing prevents Third Lam from feeling like a fleshed out character while side characters in the story don’t offer much to the story beyond their introduction to the story. Another facet to its negative quality is the editing by Hung Choi really bringing it down despite the best efforts of Max Mok, and Andy Lau to bring out the best quality of a lackluster screenplay. As hard as Max Mok, and Andy Lau might try they can’t overcome rush pacing, and bad editing. Michael Mak’s City Kids gives the impression that it should have been more than what it ended up being.


Cinema-Maniac: The Dragon Family (1988) Chinese Movie Review

In 1986, in China that is, a little film known as A Better Tomorrow by John Woo was released. The influence the film had in its region film industry is an understatement, and often credited as setting the template for the heroic bloodshed genre. Due to its unpredescant success due to having virtually no advertisement at the time marking its influence on several films, and filmmakers at the same time to capture the same gold. Thus, today’s film in question is one of those films that is heavily influenced by A Better Tomorrow. Like many other films at the time, many try to capture the magic of the film that inspired them, but couldn’t duplicate the critical, or financial success. However, in spite of its heavy influence The Dragon Family (1988), unlike other films of a similar nature, is able to stand as a good film outside of A Better Tomorrow’s shadow.

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So, this is how the movie got funded.

The Dragon Family follows the leader of a group of 4 triad families on their decision go straight and stop dealing in drugs, 3 of the 4 follow suit, but the 4th decides to continue with their illegal dealings, and frame the son of the boss to climb up the ranks. During my viewing of the film it became very evident that this film’s premise wasn’t going to live up to its full potential as I would have hoped it would. The groundwork is laid here for a gripping, and compelling crime epic with a few action scenes thrown in for a good measure of thrills. However, due to its run time of 90 minutes everything from characters, story, and themes come off as cookie cutter. For example, you get the usual blood brothers (A Better Tomorrow), followed by a betrayal by someone high ranking in the triad (Flaming Brothers), death of a loved one orchestrated by traitor triad (Tragic Hero), and an explosive finale involving the traitor (A Better Tomorrow again). This outline is simple to follow, and its formula is predictable for those familiar with these kind of Hong Kong action films post the release of A Better Tomorrow. 

Same thing applies for the characters as you have the wise old veteran whom everyone looks up to as a father, the young hot headed trouble maker who can’t go straight, the youngest member who has bright future ahead of him coming back into the criminal fold, the loving collected mother, and so forth. Sadly, almost all of the characters don’t have much to them beyond these descriptions. Only a few characters whom survived past the sixty minute mark receive any added characterization, but even then it leaves much to be desired.

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Cameraman: “You’re joking right? This ain’t your entire family?”

Fortunately, everything else that is streamlined is in favor of the film, and the viewing experience. Much like the vein of a similar movie I recently reviewed, City War (Yi dan hong chun), it starts out like crime drama at first for around fifty minutes of its runtime. However, the difference is plain as day; the pacing is brisk, and scenes are to the point not prolonging any obvious plot points. Spending the first half entirely setting up events, and characters before its goes in the realm of a action revenge flick. Cookie cutter characters are sympathetic in their cause as well as not reaching higher than it knows it can actually achieve in its length. Something that’s quite baffling since Eddie Chan Shu-Chi, and Yuen are credited for the screenplay, and the story are credited to Lau Kar-wing, Clarence Yip, and Wong Jing making the total of five writers who worked on this. In its modesty, you’ll also find a film that actually tries to add some depth to the topic of vengeance. It doesn’t end up going anywhere meaningful, but the characters history in the field of crime, and some of them attempting to achieve a better life gives it some worth.

The cast listing for the film is ridiculously long, and they include Alan Tam, Andy Lau, Max Mok Siu Chung, Ken Tong Chun Yip, Norman Chu Siu Keung, Michael Miu Kiu Wai, William Ho Ka Kui, Lisa Chiao Chiao, Stanley Fung, Kent Cheng, Ku Feng, Lau Kar Wing, Shing Fui On, Philip Ko Fei, Wayne Archer, Charlie Cho Cha Lei, Kara Hui Ying Hung, Blacky Ko Sau Leung, Nick Masters, O Chun Hung, Pak Man Biu, and Sin Ho Ying. Yeah, that’s quite the cast, and especially attention grabbing for anyone who explores Hong Kong action cinema. In spite of the large cast it’s surprisingly easy to summarize the quality of acting within the film. The older the actor is the better the performances turn out. Granted someone like Shing Fui-On whose villain like appearance lend itself to Fui-On smooth portray a criminal wouldn’t find it difficult to disappear into his small role. Same with O Chun-Hung who portrays a father like figure to the younger generation could easily sell viewer on his portrayal thanks to his appearance as well. However, with the two examples given you wouldn’t be far off in thinking the older cast members make good out of general onenote roles.

The Dragon Dragon Family 3

Younger actors like Andy Lau, Max Mok/Mok Siu-Chung, and Alan Tam completely take the lead once the film gets over the halfway mark. Before then, these three actors are still in the film, but the film attempts to give equal screen time for other actors to get in their stuff in a good move that, especially if you go in blind, will make you wonder the outcome of characters throughout the film once the action hits. Out of Andy Lau, Max Mok, and Alan Tam the best performance is easily given by Alan Tam. Unlike a majority of his co-stars, he’s given more range to portray a more dynamic character who can at least allow him to come off as responsible, caring, and eventually brave. Andy Lau, and Max Mok portrayals follow largely the same trajectory. However, all three actors can equally share praise in performing their action scenes, along with some of their other cast members. Lau especially whom puts his body through quite the endeavor for the audience amusement. What saves this film from others A Better Tomorrow wannabe is Lau Kar-wing fine direction as never once throughout the film is he, or any of his crew ever confused on what type of film they are making, and when in the story they are making such a film.

The action choreography is handled by Chia-Liang Liu who won an Golden Horse (Taiwan/China equivalent to the Academy Awards) for Jackie Chan’s The Legend of Drunken Master (1994) renowned for its famous final fight sequence. It’s a factoid that will go largely ignored for the average movie viewer, but won’t be ignored is Chia-Liang Lui craftsmanship of action sequences. Lui first action sequence, which doesn’t appear until the second act, ensures to reward the audience, in particular action junkies, patience with a good shoot out. In this sequence, in a small room dozen of people are simply massacre heighten by tension thanks careful craftsmanship of seeing attempt after attempt of people trying to escape, or survive fail one after another. This first set piece does an excellent job displaying how harsh the criminal world can be.

The second action sequence, in vein of the first one, is also centered around survival/escaping from setting where the sequence takes place. Taking place at night, the choreography, and cinematography keeps the action at a distance, but also capturing the helplessness of the situation as the characters you follow struggle to stay alive. Showing in true desperation using household objects around them to fight off goons. Unlike the first action sequence, this one is more reliant on fight choreography, though is one sided for this sequence.

Yep, don’t like criminals at all.

Without a doubt, the standout sequence in this entire movie is easily the finale of the film. Combining gunplay, and several uniquely choreographed fight scenes together all in one sequence. Unlike the previous two sequence, the climatic action sequence is a all, or nothing setup. The gunfight it starts off with isn’t just cover, and shoot, but constantly moving around. Despite the constant movement of the gunfight the cinematography never loses sight of the action, and editing makes it all flow seamlessly. It’s quite an exciting sight seeing a gunfight that while quick has a lot going on in it besides ducking, and shooting. Once the guns are finally scrapped the fight sequences take over, and this time fights are even. Requiring the actors to take some serious painful falls, and throws through some rough objects to demonstrate the rough confrontation. Succeeding in truly ending the film on a high note.

The Dragon Family is the kind of film that makes you wish it was more fleshed out in its writing on all fronts, but in the end turns out to be a fine way to spend 90 minutes on. The few action sequences it offers are the true standout of the film while everything else does enough to not drag down the experience. Those familiar with Hong Kong action cinema post A Better Tomorrow will find familiarity in the material it threads on, but also find an enjoyable action flick. It won’t ever surpass the film that inspired it, but unlike many other imitators, The Dragon Family won’t remain the shadow of its inspiration.

Final Rating: 7/10

Random Factoid

I didn’t know where to place this random factoid, but if you look up posters for The Dragon Family (1988) you’ll notice Andy Lau headlines the movie. No surprise since even now Andy Lau is still a big name. However, what you likely didn’t know is that within the year 1988 Andy Lau headline 10 movies! The reason I didn’t put this random fact into the review itself is because I felt it ruined the flow of the review, and distracted from it.

Cinema-Maniac: City War (Yi dan hong chun) (1988) Chinese Heroic Bloodshed Movie Review

City War (Yi dan hong chun) follows two buddy cops; the calm, and collected Dick Lee (played by Chow Yun-Fat), and the hot-headed Ken Chow (played by Ti Lung) in their everyday life when drug lord Ted Yiu (played by Norman Chu) is released from prison seeking vengeance. Despite the classification on numerous film sites calling City War (Yi dan hong chun in Chinese) an action film it doesn’t offer much in terms of action. It’s two-third crime drama sprinkled with comedy with the final act switching gear to an action driven resolution. To a certain degree, anyone familiar with Korean action cinema will feel familiar this type of structure for an action film. However, in this is an instance where the film stumbles in being a drama having no pay off for your patience. It knows what it wants to be, and what it needs to do to pull off its own story, but not how to get there. Having a jarring jump between Dick Lee more comedic centric scenes to contrast Ken Chow more dramatic scenes. There’s nothing like the smooth transition of seeing Chow Yun Fat going on a date to smoothly transition into Ti Lung arresting a criminal with grim music playing. Unfortunately, for the film the dramatic scenes usually incorporate one detrimental flaw each differently preventing these scenes from having the full effects they should.

The officer is just as confused as I am with Ti Lung clothing.

For example, half of the motivation for Ted Yiu (the film’s villain) vengeance is that his balls were shot off. I would like to be joking, but since the film is subtitled there’s no mistaking what I (and other viewers) have read. The serious delivery of this revelation comes off as unintentionally silly since balls being shot off is held to the same significance as someone important in Ted Yiu’s life getting killed. This plot point could have been taken seriously if there was more added to it. Only once does the film do anything with this plot point, and it ain’t much. Ted Yiu, while having sex, with his girlfriend suddenly reminds him of that incident, and that’s it. Something like Ted Yiu possibly wanting kids in the future would have made this silly motivation easier to embraced. This whole “shot off my balls” motive undercuts the other half of Ted Yiu motive for vengeance which is enough to maintain the serious tone of the story. You can also probably make an accurate guess on what Ted Yiu other motivation is if you’re familiar with Hong Kong action flicks when it comes to cops vs. crooks.

A major hindrance in the film is the lack restraint on the film’s listed three writers. Portions of City War will have scenes that feel like they go on far longer than they actually should. For example, a scene where Dick Lee goes on a blind date, and shows him joyously interact with his blind date. The intention of the awkwardly comedic scene is clear, but lingers what feels like minutes of Dick Lee interacting with a character who doesn’t make another appearance in the film. For a while, it forgets it’s mostly a crime drama becoming a romantic comedy in the second act before returning to crime drama without ease. Given the film had three writers it certainly comes across that the film didn’t have a unifying vision, nor cohesion in combining several ideas together.

Hm, I wonder if these are the bad guys?

There’s also the in your face subtlety of some its dialogue that attempt to provide some sort of commentary about law enforcement. There are three instances where the film characters would simply say something along the line of (paraphrasing) “More regulations are making it harder for good police officers to capture criminals”. Now imagine that, but put even more bluntly because the film will sprinkle these odd dialogue at random moments. When this happens, the film comes to a complete halt just to make sure you, the audience, like this sentence, get the point of what is being said to you. It would have been less damaging if the film actually bothered showing the consequences of going against these regulations instead of just ending abruptly like it did. Another reason this commentary does not work is everything within the story goes of it way to justify going against these regulations. Without a balance depiction the commentary comes off tacked on. Yes, it also contains a strictly follow the rules, promotion seeking lieutenant as a bonus whose only purpose is shove the film’s point about laws preventing cops from capturing criminals.

City War final act is where the action finally comes into place, but lacking the emotional resonant intended. A major reason for this is Ken Chow is hardly shown doing anything else besides police work. Ken Chow is meant to serve as the film emotional center given the events that transpired; however, Ken Chow is hardly shown interacting with anyone else besides Dick Lee when it’s not job related so the importance of anyone else in his life does not come into fruition. Ken Chow lost is meant to be sad just because it’s meant to be sad. Ringing a hollow feeling when he decides to take justice into his own hands. Another issue is regarding his attitude towards anyone giving him any kind of opposition. Certainly doesn’t help him, along with everyone else, naturally act impulsively stupid in order to force itself to tell the story it wants.

A rare still of unscripted laughter of both Chow Yun-Fat (left), and Ti Lung (right) when reading about the film’s commentary on police regulations.

The ending is something that just happens abruptly. Granted the main conflict is resolved, but it makes the instances of characters bluntly talking about how difficult it is for police officers to do their job seem pointless. Another downside to the abrupt ending is the absence of weight. Due to the final act being action driven from scenes of tragic loss; character reflection would have been acceptable to linger on are glossed over. Making two acts worth of character building go to an immediate waste in favor of showing people getting blasted with bullets.

Chow Yun-Fat, and Ti Lung performances are easily the best part of an otherwise misguided film. These two actors, whom worked together in John Woo’s A Better Tomorrow (1986) basically play the reversal of their characters from that film. Yun-Fat plays the calm, and collected Dick Lee while Ti Lung plays the hot headed Ken Chow. Ti Lung is given the heavy lifting duty of carrying the film drama almost entirely himself. Being able to make a character that lacks depth sympathetic through his performance. He never over states, or over deliver in any of his scenes. Chow Yun Fat is varied in his performance, but is given some bad comedy to work with. He’s able to make some of the jokes passable while at other times you just want him to shut up. Despite the stupidity of Chow Yun Fat, and Ti Lung characters both actors are able to prevent them from becoming hateable. When on screen together both Chow Yun Fat, and Ti Lung raises the quality of the film, even if it is briefly.

Coming soon…no wait this man has no balls.


Norman Chau whom plays the villain Ted Yiu plays his part with a straight face. Only once in the film is he allowed to humanize his character, and it’s when he’s outside of prison for the first time in ten years. After that point, he’s just straight evil leaving his performance on auto pilot. His mannerisms, facial expression, and dialogue delivery remains the same throughout its entire runtime.

In terms of action for what little there is the choreography is fine. The first action sequence at Ti Lung character’s house has a goon tearing up Lung’s house with a barrage of bullets before it eventually becomes a somewhat grounded fight scene. Hand to hand combat is mostly one sided with Lung character barely being able to hold his own. There’s no complex fighting of any kind done in this scuffle as the most elaborate it gets is Ti Lung kicking the villain goon, and while he’s falling the goon shoots some glass. Despite the small apartment the stunt work is commendable as the two actors bodies aren’t afraid to get tossed around. As typical of 80s, and 90s action flicks glass anything is not spared from destruction.

Can’t blame these two for not liking the turns of events.

Finally, the climax where the remainder of the violence finally unfolds is somewhat interesting. Chow Yun Fat goes to interrupt a deal at a bus terminal starting off with Chow Yun Fat being a one man army against an entire gang. In fashion of other movies of this era, Chow Yun Fat can run into a barrage of bullets without getting hit, nearly always hitting the goons trying to kill him, and just barely dodging bullets when the action choreography is going into a new part of its staging. Unlike in nearly all of John Woo films, when Chow Yun Fat actually gets shot in this film working it way into the action choreography without adding much to it. Instead of intensifying the climax seeing Chow Yun Fat in a wounded state fight for his life. Chow Yun Fat just limps for a couple of seconds, and that’s all. Same thing also applies to actor Ti Lung who in spite of receiving a direct hit with an axe to his body moments later is able to swing that same axe with ease to kill a person seconds later. A couple of more seconds later, does a some very brief fighting making the axe wound pointless. When it comes to the final confrontation it feels empty overall due to the lack of rising action. Also, the lack of applying injury to the action choreography certainly adds to that problem too. Finally, the score of the movie works just fine when it’s needed. Nothing that’ll stick with you (especially for me) once the film has ended.

City War (1988) is unable to fashion a compelling crime drama for two-thirds of its total time to columinate into an explosion of bullets filled emotions in its final act like intended. The pacing is an hindrance either lingering on scenes longer than it should have, or rushing moments that should have been significant. The action sequences that are packed at the end of the film start off well before making whatever action it does have feel hollow no matter how much the film wants to emphasize the emotion that you should be feeling. It’s a sloppily made film that had the potential to draw in crime film, and action fans. Instead, it’s a film that is unable to function cohesively enough for either type of viewer to like.

Rating: 4/10

Post Review Note:

Also, if you do plan on seeing City War regardless of my negative review I strongly recommend you avoid looking up any trailers since it spoils the biggest turning point in the film, and sets up unrealistic expectation it’s going to be an action heavy film instead of the drama it is for the majority of its run.

Cinema-Maniac: I Saw the Devil (2010) Review

If there’s another genre that had a bigger fall from grace it would be the horror genre. Much like the action genre, allot of fans can agree the 80s was where it peaked in popularity. However, horror can still continue to push the boundary of what is acceptable both visually, and from a creative perspective. How much is too much when it comes to blood, and gore. How in depth of an character exploration can you create before you begin thinking like a killer. Horror has the ability, more so than other genre, to put viewers in a uncomfortable situations, and even scare them in some cases. As someone who doesn’t see allot of horror movies it’s unfortunate very few horror films from the 90s, and 2000s didn’t entice me in viewing the genre without a preconceived notion. What made matter worse is despite having seen very few horror films, most of what I was exposed to by friends, and family were generally trite films within the genre. There were eventually films that won me over like 1931 Frankenstein, The Texas Chainsaw Massacre from 1974 (the only horror movie to scare me to date), and George A. Romero’s original Dawn of the Dead which is my all time favorite zombie film. That’s why I’m happy to write about I Saw the Devil. A modern horror film that is hybrid with a psychological thriller, and succeed for all the right reasons work as well it should have.

Choi Min-sik: “Mmm, I could use this arm for a pie.”

I Saw the Devil is about a secret agent exacting revenge on a serial killer through a series of captures and releases. While not entirely a horror film, one admirable trait that I Saw the Devil accomplishes far better than general horror films is contextualizing the blood, and gore. Too often do many films within this genre disregard characters, and story for the sake of bloodshed. The film is deliberately slow paced for this singular reason. For starter, it slow pacing helps it create an atmosphere of dread over it’s main Kim Soo-hyeon (Byung-hun Lee). What it also allows for is to display impatience within Kim Soo-hyeon witnessing him losing sleep over finding his wife’s killer. Showing Kim Soo-hyeon will do anything in his position in the name of vengeance. Splicing scenes of both Kim Soo-hyeon, and Kyung-chul (Min-sik Choi) current activities in the film to never lose focus of time. Showing the two men psychology are similar in certain ways, but makes it easy to determine who the film wants you to sympathize with as Kim Soo-hyeon is going after killers while Kyung-chul goes after women to kill.

Another aspect of the story that is appealing is putting a twist on a familiar premise. In some horror films, if the victim of the deceased faces with the killer it’s either save until the climax, or becomes a film where the victim tortures the killer until someone dies in both scenario. By the end of the first act, the film victim Kim Soo-hyeon confronts killer Kyung-chul in which, surprisingly a choreographed fight scene ensues. After this confrontation, the film still continues by using a hunter, and the hunted mentality for its characters. At certain points in the film, this mind game between the two characters are discussed in the film. One attempted to be persuaded to simply let up on the vengeance, and ponder if there’s any value in it. For another he receives a taste of his own medicine while also deriving pleasure of how to get under the skin of whoever chasing him. In terms of characterization enough is given about Kim Soo-hyeon to understand his action. Simple things like having a wife, and caring for his family is as deep as it goes for Kim Soo-hyeon as a person. It’s enough to give an idea of his mentality before he decides to take revenge, and seeing how his act of revenge ultimately affects eventually becomes a dynamic characterization.

Come at me bro!

The same cannot be said for those it represent as killers since the film never bother exploring the psychological aspect of what can motivate its criminals to do the things they do. There’s a cannibal in the film who loves eating people, but that’s about as deep as it goes. All the criminals function as criminals. They’re meant to be evil for the sake of being evil in order to take pleasure in their deaths. It could be debated the intention was to to debate in the act of revenge itself is justified, but on the other hand the film does not lay down any ground work for greyness. Nothing is more evident of this than the usage of its female characters. From the victims perspectives they respect women as people, but every time a criminal interacts with a woman it’s with the intent to do whatever the criminal desire to do with them. It’s portrayal of representing both sides is one dimensional at best. Just fine for a revenge fantasy film, but when the script tacked on a family aspect to Kyung-chul character it says it wanted to be something more thought provoking. Made even noteworthy when it wants to use Kyung-chul family to get across a specific agenda that doesn’t work out since they’re only included in one before popping back up again. It hard see the film for anything other more than just a piece of revenge fantasy where viewers takes satisfaction in seeing its main character harm criminals.

Other issues within the film are specifically connected to the horror genre itself. Moments in the film required higher suspension of disbelief in order for the film to function the way it wants too. One of these problematic plot point is not Kim Soo-hyeon not killing his wife’s murderer when he’s given three good opportunities to do so. It’s given context, and established motivation for why Kim Soo-hyeon won’t simply kill Kyung-chul. What is not explained in the film is how Kyung-chul manage to find personal information of Kim Soo-hyeon within a quick span of time. There’s no mention in the film he’s connected with anyone in the police force, nor has ties with many criminals that can provide this information. Another issues comes in the form of useless police officers for the film both as characters, and narrative devices. Within the film, the police officers biggest contribution is making an arrest after Kim Soo-hyeon has another encounter with Kyung-chul. As far as usage go they give minimal remarks on how they dislike killers receiving medical treatment in a hospital despite their crimes, and does not provide additional characterization for any of the criminals. A miss opportunity for the police officers is providing a semblance of a man hunt. Rarely is there a mention of the police making progress of finding a suspect who is going after serial killers. There’s is a moment where it seems like the police are close to tracking down Kyung-chul, but it ends up being forgotten plot point. I would mention that the police did provide Kim Soo-hyeon information needed to track down his wife murderer as a positive from the police inclusion, but he’s a secret agent so information gathering wouldn’t be as difficult to obtain if he was an ordinary citizen.

Choi Min-sik ain’t happy with this buried alive prank. 

I Saw the Devil is entirely reliant on talent of two highly regarded actors from Korea who are Choi Min-sik, and Byung-hun Lee. Choi Min-sik as the psychaotic Kyung-chul is a  performance that is show stealing. Portraying a psychopath whose proud, and takes pleasure in the accomplishment of his killings. Embodying the truest essence of a killer without going over the top. Choi Min-sik subdue portrayal makes his character much more memorable because of it. Coming off as human as possible making it believable in one moment he holds your best interest to then later on want to chop you up into pieces. Withholding any urge to exaggerate his mannerism, and body language. At the same time, despite how often the viewer will see him get abused, Min-sik is a talented actor that he’s still manage to make his character despicable. The character of Kyung-chul has remotely no essence of any likable traits, yet Choi Min-sik understanding of his character paints a clear understanding of his mentality. In the all best possible ways, Choi Min-sik delivers a performance is very impressive to see unfold as much as it is capable to make you immerse within the film.

Byung-hun Lee who plays isn’t too shabby himself in the film either. Lee does a excellent job displaying a character whom seem to have all life sucked out of him. Remaining calm in any situation, even when to face with the killer. Despite displaying a humanless exterior for most of the film when the situation demands it Byung-hun Lee, in a few scenes is able to be emotional. There’s a final moment as the film closes where in a single moment Lee be expresses how mentality broken his character has become. When it comes to the sequences that require to fight him against actor Choi Min-sik, and neither of whom are expert in martial arts their performance of these sequences can fool anyone. Especially Byung-hun Lee whose swift movement can make a viewer further believe he encompasses his perfectly. As for the rest of the cast they’re at best character actor being good at playing off that one specific trait of their characters. It’s no exaggeration when saying the film is essentially a showcase for actors Choi Min-sik, and Byung-hun Lee than. Given the film aims that’s not a negative. The (I’m surprise to have) stunts work in the film are have good work put into them, and in certain scenes amaze by its creativity.

I’m huntin wabbits!

The film is directed by Jee-won Kim who also has a writing credit in the film. His direction in the film is basically flawless. Despite sporting a beautiful look thanks to Mo-gae Lee it still manages to create scenes that master of the horror genre would be proud off. One important tool in Kim framing of a horror sequence is lightning, and showing specific details of the environments. In the opening sequence, Jee-won Kim makes it clear how helpless one of Choi Min-sik victims is in the environment. A recurring feeling Jee-won Kim goes for is making the viewer feel trapped in certain environments. Rarely showing what’s on the outside of an car, or building when a horror set piece is in place. His usage of wide shots is minimal in the film mostly being reliant on close on medium, and close ups whenever in buildings, and cars. What it accomplishes is not showing any blind spot to where an escape route is possible. Another aspect Jee-won Kim avoids is the common horror trope of people tripping while they run. Since there isn’t a high death count that never becomes an issue. If there’s any moments where Jee-won Kim becomes indulgent it’s mostly towards horror fans. He makes up for the lack of kills by going all out in showing good practical effects of body parts, makes sure lots of blood is spilled, and doesn’t cut away from hard to watch sequences. There’s a scene there you see a character cutting off an Achilles tendon, and the viewer sees the entire process. Another standout sequence execellent direction revolves around Choi Min-sik riding in a taxi with suspicious characters. Without being specific, this particular is carefully constructed to be bloody displaying Choi Min-sik stabbing people multiple times in a taxi, and having little blood spill on the camera as it spins around taxi. Jee-won Kim is relentless where it counts, but not overboard to the point where it’s indulgent on blood, and gore.

I Saw the Devil is wonderful combination of horror, and a psychological thriller understanding the best of both genre. The horror elements allows it to go into dark places as well as be bloody in presentation. Balance elegantly with the psychological mind games of two characters who simply hate each other guts to fuel it story after its first act. It’s a wonderfully twisted cat, and mouse game even when it’s clear at points it wants to be more than just revenge fantasy entertainment. On a technical level alone it offers two great performances from two good actor which alone makes it worth viewing. If you haven’t seen a good usage of horror within films, or simply a fan of horror movies I Saw the Devil will satisfy viewers who simply want the blood, and gore, while also offering viewers who are looking something more than just meaningless bloodshed.


Cinema-Maniac: The Man from Nowhere (2010) Review

In the action genre it’s difficult to find a universal meaning for what classifies a great action movie. For some it could simply mean the film in question has plenty of violence to satisfy adrenaline junkie. While for others it could simply mean the story took it time to make the preceding events meaningful if it comes of the cost of little violence being shown. If there is a middle ground in the genre it’s often not dictated by it main character, but rather the writer. Anyone who writes action films must understand their main character thoughts, and physical limitations (if any) before the presence of a threat ever appears. If not accounted for this crucial building block can misguide the writer. For example, if the writer is attempting to do the everyman hero archetype correctly than viewer exposure to seeing them perform superhuman feat, and surviving multiple impossible scenarios will serve against the everyman hero archetype. There’s also the argument that the action genre already peaked unable ever surpass the classic films whose influence is still present in the genre today. I on the other hand would say since the 80s the genre has been improving in certain areas, especially when it comes to crafting characters, and stories that never loses the viewer attention even when no violence seems presence. Jeong-beom Lee’s film, The Man from Nowhere/Ajeossi, understands the genre, but thanks to smart choices in the script, and execution of a familiar template creates a film that embodies the best aspect it genre at it most meaningful.

Go make me a sandwich you emo!

The Man from Nowhere follows a quiet pawnshop keeper with a violent past taking on a drug trafficking ring in hope of saving the child who is his only friend. Our leading character is Tae-sik (Bin Won), who on the surface is the every man action hero archetype who seems distant from people. In the action genre, the mysterious loner who some innocent person (usually a child or navie young woman) befriends by being persistent isn’t new in films. What matter most when it comes to familiar ideas, and plot devices is the usage of them. In The Man From Nowhere it gets virtually everything right about good writing from the very first scene. Setting up story elements that will later be expanded into greater significance as it progress. It sets up important story pieces for about half an hour establishing its central relationship with simple key scenes, and setting up intrigue in Tae-sik without directly revealing anything about him. You know from the premise Tae-sik cold attitude towards his neighbor child isn’t without reason. How writer, and director Jeong-beom Lee uses this plot device correctly was not reserving, displaying Tae-sik emotional attachment solely for its climax. By doing this, Jeong-beom Lee film benefits from this decision since it allows Tae-sik to be further developed as a character, and let the film not be reliant on showing the cold hearted protagonist become emotional for its central storyline.

It’s first thirty minutes are significant to how well the story is structure. Starting off like a character drama before switching gear in its second act to be an action thriller. For example, one moment in the film shows Tae-sik paying his respect to a woman whom nothing is revealed about. As the film eventually reveals Tae-sik connection to this woman the pieces fall into place for his attachment towards his neighbor daughter Jeong So-mi (Sae-ron Kim). It becomes a meaningful revelation since before Tae-sik past is revealed he is shown to care for Jeong So-mi. Another example of a well executed plot device is from a simple phone call. It’s between two criminals where a simple exchange is in placed to move the story forward. What detail is given, but not placed directly at the viewer attention is a snippet of dialogue. In context, it does more than move the story forward as a couple lines is given more significant later in the film. One of the best part of the story is how plot devices are more meaningful by the way they were used, and when to use them at the right time. The only serious issue to be found with the writing in its first act is in a scene where Jeong So-mi talks to Tae-Sik in a alley. It’s basically the equivalent of Jeong So-mi breaking the fourth wall to tell the audience to feel bad for her since she has a terrible life. It doesn’t help that the way it filmed explicitly shows Jeong So-mi character turning around, and describing how she is use to being neglected. It’s a heavy handed moment despite being well acted by Sae-ron Kim.

Freeze…get it guys cause it cold, and raining?

Once the story kicks in it never lets up, nor does it undermine the importance of focusing on characters. As it story expands into something larger Tae-sik becomes more developed as the film progresses. Another positive of the film is never forgetting about its characters preventing itself from oversimplifying the conflict. While it is easy to know whom to cheer for in the film, the execution of it the story makes it clear that a good guy, or a villain is not just a label certain characters carry. Succeeding in giving characters small traits that attempt to make them more human than just an obstruction of its main character goal. The film weakest character are easily the policemen whom serve to reveal information on the current situation, and discovers details on the protagonist of the film. What Jeong-beom Lee accomplishes through his writing, and choices is delivery an action film that places equal importance on providing a good story as well offering familiarity within the genre. Action junkies, and casual viewers will probably know the beats of this specific premise, but it’s much more than a well written film. It’s a step forward for the genre that often recycles ideas by giving it more depths than what was expected of it in the past. Displaying a willingness to take the genre to greater heights in a different way.

Actor Bin Won takes the lead as the quiet, hardened pawnshop keeper. Striking a balance between the everyman, and the cold character he display on the surface. One contributing factor to his performance is being able to balance the material he’s given with ease. Won does not deliver his dialogue emotionlessly when he speaks. Knowing through his delivery how to properly express himself in the context of certain scenes. When it comes to scenes where Bin Won has to display other range of emotion it feels consistent for the character. Bin Won does not overact in any facet of his character so he is never too robotic sounding, nor too emotional when it demands him. Another advantage to Bin Won performance is seeing him performing the action sequences himself. There’s a stunt in the film where Bin Won is an executing a leap from the second storey of a building, leaping through the window followed by a roll on the ground to break his fall, and all done in one swift take. Moments like these further emphasizes not only Bin Won ability as an actor to commit to a role, but further makes his character more involving knowing the actor himself is performing these scenes blurring the line between actor, and character. 

Little girl. You begging doesn’t work like this right?

Actress Sae-ron Kim does well in the role of playing the film naive, persistent child Jung So-Mi who befriends the quiet pawnshop keeper. She makes her character sympathetic, and in the few scenes she shares with Bin Won they play off each convincingly. Never once does she come across as pouty, or annoying the film. It’s remarkable that in her young age in the film, she actually has an understanding of how to deliver her material properly. Kim Hyo-seo plays Hyo-Jeong (So-Mi’s mother) is in few scenes, but contributes to the film nonetheless. Her few moments in the film shows the actress playing a struggling mother. Despite the length of time she’s actually makes good use of her time. Then there’s Kim Hee-Won, and Kim Sung-Oh both of whom do a good job in their roles. Usually in action movies whenever an actor is given a villainous character they go all out. However, both Hee-Won, and Sung-Oh performances are grounded making their characters more human. By portraying them as criminals it helps take them more seriously if they simply went out to be comically evil.

The supporting cast in general places good effort into the film no matter the size of their role. Actor Thanayong Wongtrakul is probably the last actor worth mentioning in the film. Wongtrakul plays Ramrowan who’s basically the adversary of the film protagonist. Like his other co-stars whom play criminals, Wongtrakul performances is also grounded making his character more memorable than it would have been otherwise. The film score is composed by Hyun-jung Shim. His score does include the bombastic sound one might expect from the action genre, but the noteworthy tracks are the ones that evoke feeling of a different genres, or uses unorthodox instruments to compose an epic sounding soundtrack despite its modern setting. Two outstanding tracks from the film are Chain of Mystery that evokes feeling of uneasiness perfect for a horror film, and the tracked named after the film itself. Thankfully, director Jeong-beom Lee knows when to implement the soundtrack to emphasizes a scene to make it more impactful, and when not to use too.

Maybe it wasn’t a good idea to just chill here until one guy arrived.

From a technical standpoint Jeong-beom Lee film has the polish look of a blockbuster. Tae-yoon Lee cinematography is simply beautiful to look at, even during the film’s darker moments. Lee isn’t afraid to show the few instances of darker material thus giving the conflict a greater sense of weight. Thankfully, Jeong-beom Lee also knew to use shots of dark material sparingly so the effect wouldn’t diminish over time. When the film finally gets to the action scenes they are well worth the wait. Despite the gap between action scenes, and length between them all of the set pieces aces good filmmaking techniques. Not only does Lee use long takes of his actor performing the action sequences, but make sure to never lose the audience. The film first fight scene last less than a minute, but the performance, and the way it shot doesn’t diminish it’s a good action scene. Bin Won convincingly performs the fight in the speed it was required to pull it off. The film’s climax is easily the film’s most memorable sequence. Not only contextually is it the most satisfying set piece since the film builds up to this moment, but the actual action scene by itself is well choreographed. It doesn’t exaggerate Bin Won ability within the scene, and does a good job in giving multiple performers within in the scene something to do. So you won’t see an actor in the background simply seeing the hero killing someone making it also feel grounded. There’s also some practical blood splatter effect in the film for added effect in its brutality. When the film gets to the knife fight between the hero, and his adversary it’s more believable than one might expect. The blades of the knives barely clash with each other with the fight sequence playing more on overpowering the other opponent. It also doesn’t last too long to take away from the serious tone of the scene.

The Man from Nowhere excels in execution, and delivery of its own material creating a must see film. There are films I shower with endless praise, and there’s also films I personally would recommend reader to check out, even if it means they might trust my viewpoints on films less if we disagree. This is a film I would personally recommend to anyone reading this. While it does the carry the label of an action film, and contains familiar story beats the execution makes the film more meaningful than the simple label of being an action film. It might not succeed in making you emotionally invested, but an action film like this that places equal importance on good characters, and story as well as providing of what expected of it within the genre are commendable traits. Standing as a good example of pushing the action genre forward in a positive direction, and offering more than what audiences demanded of such films from the past. It’s a masterpiece in the genre, and is one of the most satisfying (and crowd pleasing) film the genre has produced.


Cinema-Maniac: The Admiral: Roaring Currents (2014) Review

The Admiral: Roaring Currents was a film that I never heard off, until I did research, and discovered it’s the highest grossing film in South Korea (as of now), and it the first South Korean film to make over 100 US million dollars internationally. Financially successful The Admiral: Roaring Currents is impressive on a business standpoint. From an artistic standpoint it also caught my attention. Since I live in the US, it’s weird learning that a country highest grossing film is not based on an established property, or an entry in a franchise. After learning this I looked up a trailer, and once again traits of a significant movie showed. It’s international appeal was evidence borrowing traits of a Hollywood blockbuster presenting the idea that this film is epic in emotions, epic in battles, and just historical epic filmmaking. So with my exposure to the film I decided to check it out since everything seemed in its favor. That is until the film start, and you realize beside being a expensive cinematic piece of Korean patriotism. It’s also a film that lacking in evoking epic emotions like what seen on screen.

Korean Film
Stare men! Stare into the readers souls!

The first hour of the film is meant to set up the characters, stakes, and provide context for the massive naval battle that will occupied the second half of the film. Unfortunately, instead of being the grand, historical epic film it desperately wants to be it comes across as a hollow blockbuster with a historical backdrop. One thing that is made immediately clear within the film is that it paints complex political issues into a simple battle of black, and white. Showering itself in national pride proudly portraying Koreans as the good guys, and showing the Japanese they fight as the villains. Given the premise down to the bare minimum is 12 Koreans ship battling 330 Japanese ships which is best comparable to the story of David, and Goliath. It’s quite the underdog setup that if it was presented morally grey could have resonated with any audience regardless of nationality.

In the film, it makes a clear case the Japanese are evil. A Korean character says in the film their enemy (the Japanese) steal their provisions from civilians, and use children for target practice. With this single scene the film throws away any intention of representing both side equally. It would be acceptable if it ended simply by showing Japanese killing children, but the film continues showing Japanese in a negative light. Characters aren’t better off either. You could deduce whatever Japanese character is in the film is going to be presented as evil. However, the Korean characters aren’t compelling either. The film the person is centered on, Admiral Yi Sun-sin (Choi Min-Sik), receives most of his characterization through text in the first two minutes of the film. Yi Sun-sin is touted as a double agent, is tortured, and remove from his position. Afterwards, he gets reinstated because the nation of Korea needs him if they want to lose to the Japanese. With this information being the first thing you learn about Yi Sun-sin where his character could have gone is intriguing alone. As you probably come to expect from me reviewing films of this quality it’s usually not the case. Sun-sin character receives traits like contemplation of his life, national pride, and to engage in the massive battle. These contemplative thoughts aren’t explored to any great depth. They get a mentioned in one scene, and then done.

Remember the Battle of Thermopylae men? Well, they are all cowards compare to me. 

Another character that ends up uneven is Lee Whe (Kwon Yool) who ends being the audience gateway to learn more about his father Yi Sun-sin. The conversations between these two character are the closest the film goes into character exploration. It’s easy characterization painting a clear picture of differing positions between the two. Seeing them interact with each other is interesting due to conflicting feelings on what should be done in the battle. Lee Whe understands his father, but doesn’t see the scenario in the same light he does. Leading to moments where Yi Sun-sin explains his reasoning to put his worries at ease. It display the strong bond between the two character to be able get along no the difference in thoughts in a dire situation. This relationship between father, and son never grows into anything emotionally gripping, nor tell the audience anything about Lee Whe as an individual. All of Lee Whe character is tied to what his father does in this current moment of his life so history between them not in this specific event, and time is not explored.

Finally, the last character worth mentioning is Im Joon-Young who is a spy for Yi Sun-sin (Jin Goon) who sole purpose is to gather intel on the enemy. Aside from showing a small glimpse of the Japanese oppressing the civilians of the land they conquered this is about as far as this character is taken. There’s a subplot of his possible deaf lover which would be something compelling to see, but the first time she appears on screen is to tell her man goodbye. There’s no flashbacks, or a scene where the two interact as a regular couple so it ends up being meaningless in the film narrative.

A major writing issue with the film is the Turtle Ship itself. In the film, it’s established that this ship is essential in Admiral Yi Sun-Shin strategy in fighting against a large vessel of 330 ships with his mere forces of 12 warships. What advantage, and capabilities the Turtle Ship has over a regular warship is never explained. One would think a crucial detail like that would at some point be discuss in the film. It would have been fine if the film mentioned if it had stronger armor, better canons, or anything that explains what it’s better than an average warship. It would have better correlated why Yi Sun-Shin is intent on battling with it, and so crucial in his plan.

Roaring Currents_07
During production, the cast, and crew celebrated Burning Men by burning the sets.

The second half of the film consist of a massive naval battle, and yes it is awesome. It’s during this naval battle where the scale, the bombastic soundtrack, and overblown exaggerated drama create the film most engaging material. Becoming easy to lose yourself with the events of the film. Aspects of the naval battle itself are not without criticism. Like mentioned, the overblown drama during the battle is extraordinary. In the film, there’s a romance subplot that doesn’t get much attention so when that subplot conclusion comes narratively it is hollow in feelings. It also breaks character consistency since in one scene this character is shown doing sign language to talk to her lover, but during the naval battle knows what her lover is saying even he’s too far away from land to read his lips, and was presumed to be deaf. Another aspect of the battle is it will test your suspension of disbelief. Admiral Yi Sun-Shin virtually beats more ships then he likely would have as his ship survives one unlikely scenario after another. The most over the top example comes when Admiral Yi Sun-Shin ship is corner from three sides, and Sun-Shin has the idea to use canon fire to propel his ship away from being cornered. Describing this moment is far different from actually seeing it for yourself. Whether or not it’s possible for such a thing to happen I can’t comment on since I’m no physicist.

Despite the numerous issues with the extensive naval battle itself I would still defend it for being the best part of the film. Unlike the previous hour, this naval battle is focus, and gets everything right in creating a thrilling atmosphere. There’s no talk of politics. Just a epic battle that engulfs itself with extreme emotions, and patriotism. It also uses simple moments like citizens witnessing the battle itself, and reacting to it to further get lost in the moments of battle. These moments eventually correlate into an morally uplifting scene for the Koreans, and a boosting excitement for non-Korean viewers. The very lengthy naval battle in this film will go down in film history as one of the best ever filmed. Now I might as well talked what happens after the naval battle since I more or less cover the entire movie story. If it ended with the moment between father, and son, the film rating wouldn’t have changed, but the actual ending will leave some scratching their head as to why that was the closing moment the film ended on. Since nothing was established about the Turtle Ship seeing one in action doesn’t scream excitement unless you know about the Turtle Ship.

I lost count at 54 men killed.

The film stars Choi Min-sik as Admiral Yi Sun-sin who is a terrific actor in general. In this film he puts another top notch performance. He gives his character more complexity than the actual writing itself. A simple gesture of Min-sik delaying an immediate response tells the audience there’s a lot on this person’s mind. Min-sik plays the role seriously embodying his character perfectly inspiring his men with his words to keep fighting, bold in displaying a man hardened by war, and portraying a person who reputation doesn’t make him a larger than life figure. While the film is an extraordinary underdog story Choi Min-sik portrayal of Admiral Yi Sun-sin keeps him as human as possible. So no matter what extreme scenario the character survives Choi Min-sik performance makes it easy to accept. Also, he’s Choi Min-sik, if any Korean actor deserves one film that tells everyone “I’m awesome” it’s him.

Known Yool is decent in the role of Lee Whe. His chemistry with Choi Min-sik is excellent with both actors working great of each other. Known Yool is more varied in his expressions compare to Choi Min-sik because of the material he’s given. While good, Yool doesn’t embodied his character the same way Choi Min-sik does whom he shares many scenes with. Jin Goon is okay in his role as Im Joon-Young. He doesn’t leave much of an impression because of screen time, though his shining moment is during the naval battle. Now I do like to spend time talking about as many actors as possible so they too can get credit even if the contribution is small, though this film does me no favor. Cho Jin-Woong, Ryoo Seung-Ryong, and Kim Myung-Gon are all Korean actors playing Japanese characters speaking in the Japanese language incorrectly. The Korean actors don’t make the proper pronunciation of Japanese words when speaking as sometime within the same pronounce the same words differently. It’s quite jarring, though largely will go unnoticed for those who don’t watch many films from Asia. The remaining important actors includes the likes of Kim Tae-Hoon, No Min-Woo, Ryohei Otani, Park Bo-Gum, and Lee Jung-Hyun whom all give one note performances. One has to be silent, another has to be the concern lover, and another has to be angry. With their simple portrayals they won’t live much of an impression.

The film’s director, Kim Han-Min, did an excellent job overall. His only major criticism in his direction is misusing composer Tae-Seong Kim bombastic soundtrack in the whole film. When nothing narratively, or visually impactful is happening Kim Han-Min will have Tae-Seong music playing in it. Moments that could have been effective without music lose their impact. However, in the second half the usage of music is spot on. Another aspect of Kim Han-Min direction is spot is the naval battle itself. CG is noticeable, but for the most part keeps the action up close. Despite the large scale of the battle never once does Han-Min makes the audience become confused in what’s going on. He always creative in bringing in new ideas into the naval battle making sure it never becomes boring. This naval battle is probably going to be the technical achievement of his career. Another aspect worth praising is the film stellar cinematography bringing to life some memorable images, and the sets, and costume designs are good as well.

The Admiral: Roaring Currents is an epic film without equally sweeping engagement. As an historical film it simplifies the actual events into good vs evil. There’s no shame in the film hiding patriotism, nor the unequal portrayal of the enemies. Along with with story pieces, and character that don’t have much to them to captivate the viewers before the massive naval battle ensues. These aspects of the film will test audiences forgiveness for its writing shortcomings. If you take it as a piece of entertainment you might find it a decent diversion with the naval battle being the clear highlight of the film. No matter what way you might decide to view the film from there’s no escaping it could have ended up better, though maybe years from now a filmmaker will use this film as a template to make the masterpiece it couldn’t become.


Cinema-Maniac: No Tears for the Dead (2014) Review

On the surface U-neun nam-ja/No Tears For the Dead in English simply looks like another polish Korean action film. Well that is correct, but the man behind it, director/writer Jeong-beom Lee is famous for doing a film named The Man from Nowhere (US English title). It was the highest grossest film in Korea in 2010, and gained international attention that only a handful of Korean films have reached. There’s a (as expected) Indian remake named Rocky Handsome set to release somewhere in 2016, and (typical reaction) an announce US remake of the film. With these remakes it’s safe to say The Man from Nowhere cemented its place in Korean, and action cinema. Another thing that occurred was it made Jeong-beom Lee a talent on everyone’s radar. Unless you’re Jee-woo Kim (I Saw the Devil), Joon Ho Bong (Gwoemul), or Chan-wook Park (Oldboy) the Western world will more than likely forget great filmmakers if they fail to follow up on their success. If they do prove their big hit wasn’t a fluke, than they might get a call from Hollywood to direct a film in English language production. Jeong-beom Lee won’t join the likes of his other peers as No Tears For the Dead is not a good film, let alone one that comes close to matching half of the traits that many loved about The Man From Nowhere.

Getting into the rhythm of making my new rap album. Crying Bullets.

No Tears for the Dead is about a hit man traumatized from accidentally killing a young girl during a job, and is given the mission to eliminate her mother. The killer for hire who becomes remorseful is a premise that grants leeway in exploring themes, and character traits that would otherwise be ignored in the action genre. Aspects like the protagonist becoming accustomed to taking lives, addressing how the character views change on the matter on killing growing older, and in some instance showing an inability put it behind them for a normal life. These are aspects for these kind of characters could be explored helping to create an action film that could be more meaningful than good guys killing bad guys. However, an hour into the film you’ll realize nothing within that span of time ends up becoming meaningful. For the first hour, the film is more in line of a drama setting up the pieces before changing gear into an action film for its later half. What is problematic about this is, within the first ten minutes, the film relays the information of what’s protagonist Gon (Dong-gun Jang) has to find for his boss, and that Gon is guilty about murdering an innocent child. Scenes beyond these ten minutes beat you over the head with the fact Gon feels guilty for killing a child. If you didn’t understand within the first ten minutes of the film then the film will dedicate an hour to make sure you get plot point.

Gon guilt over killing a child isn’t contemplative in the way it’s written. There is one flashback inserted into the film that show Gon past, and his drug addicted mother (Kim Ji-Sung). What purpose this flashback serve is not clear as Gon decision on whether or not to kill the mother, Mo-Kyung (Kim Min-hee), is determined by his past experiences. There isn’t any monologue, nor a discussion he has with the other characters as to why he made the decision that he did. The most that get elaborated on this is Gon saying “I’m tired”, but exactly what aspect of his old ways he’s tired off doesn’t come across plainly. Before Gon utter those words he kills a couple of people, and after uttering those words one would assume Gon stops killing for the remainder of the film. Except for the fact Gon makes a bomb to take out one of the goons who is trying to kill him which derails that possibility. So even when grasping at straws there’s no depth to the theme the film brings up on redemption, and killing. Another aspect of this writing that fell through was lacking scenes incorporating Gon with his mother. His mother is never given a name, never shows what led his mother to the situation she’s in, and how this led to Gon becoming a gun for hire. As a character, Gon mother has little value in the story, and as a plot device isn’t developed further then when it’s introduced.

Want to know why I’m angry lady? It’s hard finding a still without me holding a gun.

Then there’s the interaction between Gon, and Mo-Kyung which instead of building on what’s established only reiterates the same point in the first hour. Gon is guilt ridden for killing Mo-Kyung’s daughter, and Mo-Kyung is dealing with it in her own way. Their interaction could have developed them both into more complex characters, but alas it does not. Aside when Gon, and Mo-Kyung meet in an elevator there’s no scenes of them interacting like regular people. Gon observe Mo-Kyung from the sidelines. Having already mentioned the lack of monologue preventing an understanding of what Gon is thinking leads to pure speculations. Connecting loose dots while stimulating does not amount to much if there’s nothing concrete to connect them together. Gon does have a complete character arc, but there’s not much to his character. The whys he suddenly feel guilty about taking lives is left blank, as well as other aspects of his character. Other issues also include the script making a big deal of the desired item in question when found being made into a big deal when it reveals, even though the first ten minutes confirmed what the item is, and who likely has it. A subplot involving the police ends up contributing little to the story as well as other characters whom contribute little in the long run. The second half of the film is more like an action movie, but the lack of emotional resonate from the buildup makes the ensuing violence lacking in weight to what was presented. It’s first half got across it does not want to be a piece of mindless action which conflicts with the brainless approach in viewing the film second half. Then there’s the film’s ending which plays against expectation. It’s a good ending completing Gon arc, though the other underdeveloped elements prevent from staying in the mind.

So you want me to kill a man? Pfft. I’m head of security at Jurassic World in my spare time.

Now time for some actual compliments for what the film did correctly. Starting with the man behind it Jeong-beom Lee. He’s confident in his craft which is evident throughout the film. His selection of shots, with the help of cinematographer Mo-gae Lee, gives the film a sleek look. There’s also good stunt work, and fight choreography in the action sequences. Jeong-beom knows how to film action, and using shaky cam accordingly. Usually adding to an action scene than obscure the set piece. Another aspects of these action sequences is they come mostly in the form of hand to hand to combat. While some of the scenes require leap in logic when it comes to how characters survive none of the action sequences suffer any serious issues. There’s a fight scene that has actor Jang Dong-gun fighting in a small hallway that is very inventive. Using the small space to create a sense of enclosure, and Jang Dong-gun character skill in hand to hand combat to convincingly turn an outnumbered fight in his favor. The one set piece that emphasizes gun fighting is staged elaborately. Usually in gun fights you’ll have the duck, and cover approach which is boring if not done right. However, Jeong-beom Lee one only gun fight makes use of the actors moving across the environment besides narrowly dodging bullets. Jeong-beom made sure to show one character shooting while going to cover, and the person who being shot at not testing his luck for a kill. The gun fight also have the actors moving to different level of a single building visually adding a nice change in scenery in the set piece. Lee makes the right choice to keep the action sequences small, and manageable never going to big making them work as well as they do. As a director, Jeong-beom does nothing wrong from the selection of music that fits the tone, to editing action sequences to make as coherent and wisely framed as possible, and putting trust faith into his crew which shows through out with good production values.

Leading actor Jang Dong-gun is the best part of the film. His performance is complex putting his all into his character. Coming across as both a no non-sense assassin in body movement, and getting across he’s a troubled soul through his eyes. Never once in the film is Jang Dong-gun afraid to reveal the more emotional side of his character. Dong-gun performance is more compelling than the actual film. There’s several scenes in the film where Dong-gun is silent, but thanks to the way be expresses himself through facial expressions, and body movement what his character feels comes across clearly. He also performs in the action sequences convincingly not being afraid to take a couple of hits. Regardless of what Jang Dong-gun is shown doing on screen he’s the easily the best actor in the film.

Don’t worry about us. We do very little to help you.

Kim Min-hee has the second largest role in the film. Her character visibly goes through more series of emotions. For the first hour of the film nothing about her performance is noticeable since her character is all over the place, and Kim Min-hee is unable to make her character come across as putting up a facade like the writing intended. However, pass the forty minute mark of the film Min-hee shows a gradual mental downfall of her character. Slowly showing her character becoming broken in her state.

Supporting cast includes the likes of Brian Tee whose solid in his role. Tee is simply meant to be the adversary to the hero of the film, and nothing more. For the role, Tee is also convincing in his performance in the action scenes he’s in. Anthony Dilio is plays one of Tee’s henchman, though the only noteworthy thing about his performance is speaking in Korean, English, and Spanish (only in scene) in a single movie. Dilio only meant to look tough aesthetically. Same thing applies to Alessandro Coumo who is only aesthetically needed for his small role. Byun Yo-han, and Jun-Seong Kim deliver one note in his performance which fine because of the characters they play. Not so much for Jun-Seong Kim who has more screen time making his lacked in varied expressions noticeable. Finally, there’s Kim Hee-Won who shines in the final act of the film, though doesn’t leave much of impression anywhere else in the film.

No Tears for the Dead (2014) has a polish look, and good set pieces, but hampered down by bad writing, and actors who are unable to elevate the material. It has good setup to create meaningful characters, and has the desire to provoke the viewers unlike your average action film, but sadly aimless writing, humorless story, lack of depth presented in its theme, and lack of emotional resonates makes the entire film self-conflicting for the whole run. No matter what way you attempt to view the film from there’s always more issues than positives in the writing. It’s too serious to be entirely brainless, but it’s lack depths to punch the viewer with a series of emotions like it wanted. Dong-gun Jang, and the action sequences are the only consistently high quality aspect of the films, but whenever one isn’t on screen the film is unable to stand as strongly. Despite the conflicting material, Dong-gun Jang performance was a highlight of the film no matter what he was doing. Unfortunately, the good qualities wasn’t enough to save the film from being a messy film that couldn’t live up to its potential.


Cinema-Maniac: Once Upon a Time in Shanghai (2014)

Expectations of Martial Art films have changed significantly over the decades. The days of getting cheesy English dubs for live action Martial Art movies are gone now with most home video releases of offering people to see them in their original language. Even when the films do receives English dub they are not as silly as what was release in the 70s. Another thing that also changed over time was the fight choreography implementing the environment as part in the fight during the 70s, and then pushing martial artists body limits during the 80s. An era which created plentiful of Martial Art classic films giving rise to legends Jackie Chan, Yuen Biao, and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo. Then came the 90s where some Chinese talent went oversea to find success in Hollywood. While the quantity of great martial films wasn’t as high as in the 80s the quality of them improved with some offering more complex plot lines. However, while there is more to the history of the subgenre than my broad generalization there’s no mistaking during the 2000s that China dominance over the Martial Arts subgenre dwindle as legendary talents were aging, and therefore not perform like they use too. Once Upon A Time In Shanghai wants to be a one of those classics from the subgenre heydays in a time where characters were kept simple, and emphasis on fight choreography was the norm. While it is an homage to those kind of films martial art films of the past. Once Upon A Time In Shanghai doesn’t ignite the same kind of feelings of those earlier films it loves.

Once Upon A Time In Shanghai tells the story of a laborer who moves to Shanghai in the hope of becoming rich. From that synopsis, if you’re familiar with crime films that contain an immigrant as the protagonist there’s no need tell readers what to expect. While it is a classic story to tell in the crime genre of immigrant hoping to make it big in foreign land it’s also been told countless of times. It’s telegraphed from the overly strong, naive country-bumpkin protagonist Ma Yongzhen (Philip Ng), the young ambitious new criminal on the block Long Qi (Andy On), the father whose disapprove of the criminal lifestyle Master Tie (Sammo Hung Kam-Bo), the young woman who eventually falls in love for the naive protagonist Tie Mei (Luxia Jiang), and a few singular purpose background characters. Making these characters arcs more predictable is adding martial arts replacing gun wielding gangsters for fists, and axes. Instead of touching on the subject of family there are few discussions about honor, and fighting. Retaining the classic story of beat of crime families uniting to eliminate a great threat that could overthrow them in power. So forth is the nature of the film to ooze old fashion cinema on everything. What this ends up creating is a typical story that aims to pay homage without changing anything. If you’re not familiar with these kind of stories the undercooked plot beats won’t make it engaging. Containing the moments you would expect from hero Ma Yongzhen becoming good friends with Long Qi after a fight, the two new friends talking about dreams on a bridge at night looking at the stars, and Ma Yongzhen given the option to run away when things become chaotic. The scenes are in place for creating good material, but the rush nature of a script that had too many ideas don’t allow time to develop them to their fullest effect.

The silent fart. Philip Ng deadliest technique.

The first signs of trouble in the script appears before the title card does. There’s text that (paraphrasing) says that Shanghai is a city of dreams for the people of China, and hard work can get you the life you want, but the thousand of youths coming into Shanghai are tempted to take the easy way out to by becoming gangsters. This text is delivered while dramatic music plays in the background, the film grayish color filter to show some harshness in the situation, and showing the viewers a crowded deck filled with immigrants with their head held down. This sets up the idea it’ll be touching on the realistic issues dealt with achieving the “American Dream” (well, in this case the “Shanghai Dream”) with martial arts as a bonus. Then it shows a grown man taking away a Potato from a starving girl which naturally makes one wonder how the immediate harsh tone will be followed up with. PUNCH! Out of nowhere a single punch is all it take to conflict with the tone established leading into a heavily edited fight scene. A fight scene where our main character kicks two baddies several feet from the ground is an odd contrast after seeing a deck of depressing looking immigrants. Now there was a better way to transition into the fight scene. Some simple dialogue of the grown man rudely stating he’s still hungry with our hero telling him to give it back to the little girl. When the grown man says no giving the signal to his buddy to prepare for a fight would have allowed the filmmakers to keep the fight scene, and transition into fight scene more smoothly. However, this opening never bothers bringing up why the grown man stole the Potato simply assuming the viewer will make assumption this immigrant is bad for stealing food from a little girl. Though, without context given in the scenario it could easily be interpreted as a grown man getting back food stolen from him.

I’m guessing Andy On paycheck is the reason the film has a grayish color filter.

The rest of the film follows a similar pattern of issues. There’s a scene early in the film where our hero helps an old man who stole opium from a gang, but the old man the protagonist helps goes nowhere. Then, there’s the romance aspect of the film which is underdeveloped. Our protagonist spends more time with his boss than he does his love interest. Also, there’s a subplot of our hero meeting up with his brother which disappears as it goes on. If a plot point is not underdeveloped it’s either forgotten about. The only aspect of the writing that works to any degree is Ma Yongzhen bracelet. His bracelet was given to him by his mother, and was given words of wisdom that would remind of Ma Yongzhen not to kill. It’s a simple motive where the outcome of the bracelet is telegraphed, but it was executed just fine. It’s just a shame there’s not much depth in it usage. A simple solution to the writing would have been to make the story longer, though given it wanted to be an homage script writer Jing Wong probably felt being derivative was the best bet. To his credit, the movie does progress naturally, and knows the classical story beats of old fashioned cinema to mirror classic martial art films from the era. However, by simply placing those classical story beats into the film his lack of understanding shows when he has no idea what made them work in the first place. While the film is superficially reminiscent of some classic martial art films with similar stories like Bruce Lee’s The Big Boss (1971), and Shaw Brother’s Boxer from Shantung (1972) it doesn’t build on its inspiration. It just ends up being typical in how it unfolds, and average as an homage that doesn’t illustrate what made its source of inspiration classic films in the sub genre.

Philip Ng seen here channeling his inner Bruce Lee.

Philip Ng takes center stage portraying Ma Yongzhen in a role that is more demanding of his looks than his acting skills. Appearances wise, Philip Ng nails the expressions of a country bumpkin in his naivete optimism. Switching between badass martial artist, and your average joe seamlessly. Another aspect of his look that works to his advantage is fitting the bill of coming across the average joe. Sporting a look that is reminiscent of Bruce Lee from The Big Boss, and Jackie Chan from Battle Creek Brawl. When he performs in the fight scenes he’s convincing, though not impressive for his lack of speed in performing the fights. What Ng doesn’t share among the likes of Bruce Lee, and Jackie Chan are the charisma of those actors. Try as he might, but Ng simply comes across as trying to hard to look cool, especially in the end of the film. In terms of line delivery he’s okay. He doesn’t have the timing to be funny, nor the lack of understanding to ruin a joke. Ng doesn’t come across as someone threatening when he fights, but is alright in the moments he’s not need in combat. For the role Ng is in it’s adequate, even if lacking star power.

Next up is Andy On who plays Long Qi. His performance is also adequate. On doesn’t demonstrate very difficult emotions as scenes don’t linger much on complex emotions. However, he has style, and doesn’t phone in his acting. Much like Ng, Andy On fighting is convincing in the few times he fights. He also has good chemistry with Philip Ng making what scenes they share together the film best offering in terms of acting. It’s where the best moments come from as the two really sell their friendship, even if the writing is not up to par. Both actress Michelle Hu, and Luxia Jiang don’t get much to do in the film beside looking pretty. They’re both the love interests to perspective characters caring for their lover, and showing concerns. Not much to discuss. There’s also no well known legends in the west martial art film stars Kuan Tai Chen, and Hark-On Fung whom presence in the film are not noticeable unless you know your martial art films. Now if you’re exciting to see well known martial art legend Sammo Hung Kam-Bo, who gets top billing, he is barely in the film. Hung Kam-Bo doesn’t get to show much of his acting, and fighting prowess’s in the film as he fights only briefly in one scene. Unless you’re a fan of martial art films the lack of screen presence from Tai Chen, Hark-On, and Sammo Hung Kam-Bo will seem insignificant, but for those who do know them will make their inclusion in film lackluster of wasted talent.

I used to be a magnificent butcher, but now I just cook food. 

The fight choreography is done by Yuen Woo-Ping whom name would be selling a point to fans of martial art films. Unfortunately in this instance a master of fight choreography isn’t at his best. A reason for this being with the exception for two, all the fight scenes are one sighted leaving no opportunity for counter moves, or complex maneuver to perform for the actors. Another aspects of the fights that take away from the fight choreography is them being overly edited. All the fight scenes have tempered speed which tends to ruin the flow of a fight scene when switching between fast, slow, and back to regular motion frequently. Applied with quick editing that changes up shots the editing doesn’t play to the fight scenes strength. If the speed of the fights weren’t tampered with Philip Ng (who performs in most of them) isn’t a quick a performer. Usage of wires are noticeable in some instances as one might take notice that defying physics, and taking yourself seriously don’t go hand in hand.

Noticed I didn’t put any stills of fighting. Here’s one.

There’s a fight in the film that is done in one take which sounds impressive until I tell you the post production work that ruined it. The one take fight scene is sped up while typical for the film is more noticeable in this sequence. If performed well, and on time than the sequence wouldn’t need alteration. Then, there’s not framing half of the sequence correctly as there is moment where it does not show Philip Ng fighting against actors. The camera gets to close barely capturing some of Philip Ng blows as it continuously spins around until the fight scene ends. Before the fight scene occurs there are only three people visible ready to fight, but as soon as Philip Ng attacks, and the camera spins around more actors are suddenly in frame. This also creates a continuity error, though that isn’t anything unexpected for action scenes. Everything else in the film is adequate. For a film paying homage you’ll get the shots you expect, and the same applies to the music. Not much to be surprised by as director Ching Po Wong made generally safe choices. His only truly questionable is making the entire film gray instead of black & white. In few scenes there’s some semblance of color so it’s jarring why Po Wong simply didn’t choose to filter the film in black & white.

Once Upon A Time In Shanghai is wholly average as a movie, an average showcase of martial arts, and average anything you could think off. It takes the classic ideas associated with the “American Dream” in a crime a story along with the classic imagery one would expect from this kind of story. All without throwing its own flare to familiar ideas. As an homage it doesn’t disrespect old fashion cinema, but at the same time does nothing to represent the best elements of old fashioned cinema. Having too much on its plate, and not enough time to make all the ideas it has be put to good use. If you only want to see it for the action the fight scenes are edited heavily with motion of speed being played with in all of them, and virtually every fight being one sided in the favor of what the story demands. Choreography wise it’s okay with a few making little use of what’s in the environment, but the actors performing them aren’t as skillful as the stars they pay homage to. This movie doesn’t falter seriously, but neither excel in anything at the same time either.