Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2016)

phantom-of-the-theatreNo ghosts! That’s one of the big rules when it comes to the Chinese censors, but then these “ghosts” are not quite what they seem and belong to the pre-communist era when the people were far less enlightened than they are now. One of the few directors brave enough to tackle horror in China, Raymond Yip Wai-man goes for the gothic in this Phantom of the Opera inspired tale of love and the supernatural set in bohemian ‘30s Shanghai, Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Mó Gōng Mèi Yǐng). As expected, the thrills and chills remain mild as the ghostly threat edges closer to its true role as metaphor in a revenge tale that is in perfect keeping with the melodrama inherent in the genre, but the full force of its tragic inevitability gets lost in the miasma of awkward CGI and theatrical artifice.

Shanghai was a swinging, cosmopolitan town in the 1930s. A multicultural melting pot it was both a business centre and a bohemian paradise in which the Chinese film industry flourished. Aspiring film director Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) has just returned from studying in France and is looking for an actress to star in his first project. Attempting to hand his script to the winner of the local awards ceremony, Weibang’s plan is frustrated by some awkward political shenanigans between an older actress, a younger one, and the patron that’s trying to abandon one woman for the other, but Weibang is soon to have more problems on his plate connected to the series of strange deaths which have begun to occur in the “haunted” theatre in which he wants to shoot his upcoming masterpiece.

The mystery element fades relatively quickly as we’re introduced to the very human villain who does, however, behave in an appropriately phantom fashion as he appears and disappears in various locations around the ruined theatre, making use of secret passages and hidden doorways to put his dastardly plan into action. The main thrust of the narrative is the gothic romance between Weibang and his leading actress Meng Si-fan (Ruby Lin) which is complicated both by his existing girlfriend (the pathologist working on the mysterious theatre deaths) and the spectre of the long buried past. The fire which destroyed the theatre 13 years previously resulting in the deaths of a troupe of acrobats lies at the centre of the mystery but places the two lovers on different sides of an unbridgeable divide as powerless bystanders in the newly post feudal world.

Weibang wants to make films about the things people can’t say – an interesting meta comment given that ghosts are still taboo all these years later, but the irony is that film is a seductive dream, a distraction from the reality, a haunted theatre all of its own. Dreams, reality, and cinema begin to overlap as Weibang finds himself playing the leading man and falling for the leading lady in a tragic supernatural romance whilst his creepy setting continues to give up its own ghosts. In the end the only ghosts Weibang and Si-fan will have to deal with are ones of their own pasts. Faced with a final showdown, long buried truths are finally revealed and choices made but the bittersweet ending leaves us on a positive note as those concerned discover the power of forgiveness – that forgiving others is an act of kindness to oneself and revenge little more than the theft of your own life in pointless pursuit of retribution.

Yip places the emphasis on his visuals with a sumptuous, truly gothic aesthetic filled with faded grandeur, Western architecture, and candle lit rooms perfect for suggestive shadows and ghosts which lurk in mirrors. Though occasionally plagued with poor quality CGI and leaning towards theatrical artificiality in its studio bound look, Phantom of the Theatre does succeed in building a generally creepy atmosphere even if failing to reach the giddy heights of China’s finest take on the material so far – A Song at Midnight. Despite the solid visuals, Phantom of the Theatre never achieves the levels of doomladen fatalism and inexorable malevolence which the genre demands nor does it succeed in making its central romance truly matter lending it a slightly underwhelming quality. Still, the impressive visuals and melancholy tone make for a charmingly old fashioned ghost story in which the haunting is all too real.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Lacuna (醉后一夜, Derek Tsang & Jimmy Wan, 2012)

lacunaWaking up in a strange place with absolutely no recollection of how you got there is bad enough. Waking up next to a total stranger is another degree of awkward. Waking up not in someone else’s apartment but in a department store furniture showroom is another kind of problem entirely (let’s hope the CCTV cameras were on the blink, eh?). This improbable situation is exactly what has befallen two lonely Beijinger’s in Derek Tsang and Jimmy Wan’s elegantly constructed romantic comedy meets procedural, Lacuna (醉后一夜, Zuì Hòu Yīyè). An extreme number of unexpected events is required to bring these two perfectly matched souls together, but the love gods were smiling on this particular night and, once the booze has worn off, romance looks set to bloom .

Shen Wei (Shawn Yue) and Tong Xin (Zhang Jingchu) wake up undressed and with their arms around each other, but with no recollection of what exactly led them to this position. Awkwardly dressing and getting ready to part ways as quickly as possible, the pair are stunned to realise they’re trapped in a department store. Things get weirder when Shen Wei gets back to his hotel room to find it full of passed out revellers before arriving at work where his co-workers have a lot of questions about the previous night’s activities which seem to have been live blogged on the Weibo account of a well known actress.

Meanwhile, Tong Xin has returned home to feed her cat, but remembers she was carrying a large amount of money that her boss wanted her to give to a woman in a bar, and she can’t remember what happened to it. Shen Wei has also forgotten where he parked his car but a more serious problem occurs when he’s contacted by the police who are very keen for both Shen Wei and his “girlfriend” to come and pick up the “pet” they were so keen to find the night before. Luckily Tong Xin’s Weibo account is linked on the photos so he manages to get in touch with her in the hope that she can help him figure out what on earth happened last night.

Rom-coms thrive on coincidences, but luckily for Shen Wei and Tong Xin, the stars have aligned to allow them to find each other in midst of the busy Beijing nightlife despite the fact that neither of them seem the type to be particular frequenters of it. Both are, in different ways, a little lost. Shen Wei is a mild mannered Hong Konger slightly adrift in the mainland capital, whereas Tong Xin has just gone through a (seemingly amicable but perhaps painful) breakup and is also at a crisis point in her unsatisfying career which has her playing errand girl to a hack director with a scandal hanging over his head in the form of a affair gone sour with the aforementioned Weibo-ing actress – Qiqi (Mia Yam).

An anonymous night of passion is an out of character surprise for both of these otherwise straight laced, serious minded city dwellers. Both hugely embarrassed and a little bit stunned, reconnecting was never a likely prospect. Forced to get together to try and figure out their respective problems resulting from the previous night’s activities, the pair get the chance to relive their initial whirlwind romance, perhaps leading to something deeper and more substantial than just a mad one night stand. Gradually piecing together the details including random lamas and licking bull frogs with gangsters, it’s clear the pair have shared a very strange night together though its conclusion in a romantic “dream” apartment helped to showcase bashful Shen Wei’s romantic side and if all of this really does go somewhere they’ll have a heck of a story to tell the grandkids.

The “lacuna” in the their memories wasn’t the only thing missing in their lives, though it has helped each to perhaps find something to plug some of those empty spaces. Both Shen Wei and Tong Xin are left looking for something literal, but also seeking something less tangible which may have just found them thanks to the improbable coincidence of both “enjoying” an out of character night of heavy drinking, brought together by their mutual inability to hold their drink. Elegantly photographed with its series of disparate locations from upscale nightclubs to grungy dive bars and dusty construction sites, Lacuna’s whimsical approach somehow makes all of this craziness seem perfectly plausible adding to the sweet and heartfelt tone and restoring faith in playful, genuine romance even in a busy and increasingly disconnected capital.

Original trailer (no subtitles)

Knife in the Clear Water (清水里的刀子, Wang Xuebo, 2016)

knife-in-the-clear-waterTharlo producer Wang Xuebo looks north in this rare cinematic showcase for China’s Hui people, a largely Muslim ethnic group concentrated in the rural North West. Using a cast of non-professional actors, Knife in the Clear Water (清水里的刀子, Qingshui Li De Daozi) marries a neorealist aesthetic with a Tarkovskian poetry as a widowed man faces the coming end of his own life largely through his self identification with his faithful bull, about to be sacrificed in the name of dead for the pleasure of the living. Setting religion to one side, this tale of rural poverty and people eclipsed by a landscape that’s as unforgiving as it is beautiful has an infinitely timeless quality even if this traditional way of life is just as moribund as the bull which drives it.

The family matriarch has died. Mild mannered paterfamilias Ma Zishan (Yang Shengcang) is now alone, bereft of both family and purpose. His wife may not long be dead, but there is the 40 day anniversary memorial to think of. Even if old Ma is not in the mood, Ma’s son, Yakub (Yang Shengcang – different actor, same name), is eager to make sure his mother has a fitting send off to mark her long years of sacrifice and toil. They could kill a chicken or perhaps a lamb, but with all the extended family coming in it might not be enough. Why not, he suggests, slaughter the family bull? They can’t afford to buy a new one, but the bull is already old and slow and no longer makes a good return on the resources needed to maintain it. Ma does not want this, but is powerless to refuse given all the financial and cultural concerns bound up in his son’s request.

All things considered, Ma had few pressing concerns in his life. He was not wealthy but he did not starve and does not seem to be unhappy in his lot other than his growing existential worries. Poverty is the normal way of things, but given the extreme need all around him, can Ma really conscience his son’s intention to spend lavish sums on a funeral feast which is intended to celebrate the dead – his own wife whom he would like honour, when his younger brother approaches him for rice in desperation at the thought of not being able to feed his pregnant wife? Touchingly, Ma visits a relative who relates a story of having met his wife in the marketplace not so long ago and lent her some money to buy a pair of shoes she’d been admiring. The woman meant to tease her by suggesting she ought to be able to buy anything she liked with her son’s fancy job in the city but could see Ma’s wife was upset as she sadly confessed that her son had his own family to think of and so she couldn’t bring herself to ask him for money.

Ma would have liked his son to return and farm the land as he, and generations before him, had done but Yakub tells him the life is so much better in the city – work is plentiful and much easier than tilling the soil in this inhospitable terrain. A scene of the family quickly whipping out the buckets and basins to harvest water during a sudden storm may reinforce the reasons he wouldn’t want to return but there is something serene about Ma’s simple life of prayer and farming which neatly contrasts with his son’s comparatively frenetic and nervous approach to life, caring more about the spectacle and less about the meaning.

This is perhaps why he acts so insensitively regarding the bull despite his father’s unusually sentimental attachment to it. Aside from being a long standing companion, as silent and pliant as Ma himself as they plough the fields and walk the mountain roads together, the bull serves to remind Ma of his own impending fate – an unwilling sacrifice to an unforgiving landscape. Ma, about to be put out to pasture himself, can see a kindred spirit in this weary beast, chained and cajoled, cruelly discarded now he’s outlived his usefulness. The bull, like Ma seems to be aware of his fate leading its master to wonder if, like the old story, it has seen the reflection of a knife in clear water warning of what is to come. No longer eating or drinking, the bull may not last until the fateful ceremony but whether its abstinence is a kind of self purification or a symptom of total despair, Ma is unable to say.

When the time comes, Ma turns away, wandering through the snowy, grave filled landscape alone until he finally becomes lost to us. The land swallows him, his chain may have been severed but he’s anything but free. Wang’s 4:3 framing is apparently inspired by Tarkovsky, as well as the painters Andrew Wyeth and Jean-Francois Millet, and his images do often have a classically inspired beauty reliant on static camera and noticeably contrived composition which may be at odds with the otherwise naturalistic approach. A sad tale of an old man and a bull contemplating the end of their world, Knife in the Clear Water is a familiar journey into the dying of the light but one no less well expressed for all of its subtlety and emotional weight.

Available to stream online from Festival Scope until 20th February 2017 in conjunction with International Film Festival Rotterdam.

Short clip from near the beginning of the film (English subtitles)

Railroad Tigers (铁道飞虎, Ding Sheng, 2016)

railroad-tigersTrains! They seem to be the latest big thing in Chinese cinema, but at least Railroad Tigers (铁道飞虎, Tiědào Fēi Hǔ) has more rolling stock on offer than the disappointingly CGI enhanced effort which formed the finale of The Vanished Murderer. The latest collaboration between the iconic but ageing Jackie Chan and director Ding Sheng, Railroad Tigers is a kind of western/war movie in which a gang of robin hood style railway bandits decide to get involved with the resistance movement during the ongoing Japanese invasion in 1941. Keeping the action to a minimum and stepping into the background for this comedy ensemble caper, Jackie channels Keaton but makes sure to backup this humorous yarn with a degree of pathos for these fatalistic patriots.

Ma Yuan (Jackie Chan) is a railway worker at a large interstation currently operated by the Japanese. He and his men hatch elaborate plots to raid the incoming supply trains for foodstuffs and Japanese military equipment, but what they’re mostly doing is laughing at their captors rather than actively opposing them. When they return home one day to find a wounded resistance soldier collapsed in their courtyard, the game changes as they decide to help him complete his “secret” mission to blow up a local bridge. Eventually teaming up with a local noodle shop owner who used to be a dashing, sharp shooting hero bodyguard for a defeated warlord, the gang take on the entirety of the Japanese military in Manchuria armed with little more than good humour and hope.

If you were hoping for a nuanced take on the Japanese forces operating in China in the quite climactic year of 1941, you’d best look elsewhere because Railroad Tigers is another bumper outing for the “comedy Kempeitai” who, on the basis of the evidence here provided, could not successfully occupy their own uniforms for any great length of time. Hiroyuki Ikeuchi plays the local commander, Yamaguchi, with the necessary degree of moustache twirling, scenery munching hamminess which the ridiculous set up requires before being joined by the evil and improbable presence of a top female Kempeitai officer, Yuko (Zhang Lanxin), who mostly exists to provide the icy steel so obviously absent from her completely ridiculous countrymen. By and large the gang’s opposition pose very little real threat from the stationmaster who’s always in trouble for smiling too much, to the buffoonish soldier who fails to complete his harakiri because it looks too painful.

Somewhere between the classic western train robbery set piece and the derailment dramas familiar to the resistance movie, Railroad Tigers positions itself as a broad comedy in which it’s slapstick humour rather than high octane thrills which take centre stage. Thus Jackie takes down opponents by jokingly unloading their guns or accidentally knocking them over the side of the train. Enemies are downed as much by trickery as by skill, with several meeting an ignominious end such as being shot in the bum or simply running away. What it lacks in innovative action, Railroad Tigers makes up for with silly comedy set pieces making the most of the real-life father son comradery between Jackie and the recently disgraced Jaycee such as in a slapstick interrogation sequence where they argue about their distinctive noses and which of them is the most handsome.

Wildly uneven in terms of pace, Railroad Tigers takes its time to get moving as we’re introduced to the members of Ma Yuan’s team and their various oppositing counterparts, many of them under drawn in the already crowded rosta. Ding signposts each of the major players with a comic book style illustrated splash featuring names and occupations which is echoed in the stylishly illustrated title sequence and handful of animated segments which follow as well as in the video game style mission heading title cards. Inexplicably, the film begins with a modern day framing sequence of a young boy on a school trip to a train museum in which he wanders off and climbs inside a train, finding the flying tiger marker chalked on the coal hatch. Otherwise redundant and offering little concrete value, the sequence seems only to exist as an excuse for a ten second cameo from one of Hong Kong’s biggest stars. Still, even if far too long, old fashioned in execution and occasionally plagued by substandard CGI, Railroad Tigers does offer enough silly humour and low stakes action to make it fun for all the family, even if guilty of overdoing the patriotic fervour in its lightweight approach to a traumatic era.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Underground Fragrance (地下・香, Pengfei, 2015)

underground_fragranceThe original Chinese title of recent Tsai Ming-liang collaborator (Song) Pengfei’s debut feature 地下・香 (dìxìa・xiāng) has an intriguing full stop in the middle which the English version loses, but nevertheless these two concepts “underground” and “fragance” become inextricably linked as the four similarly trapped protagonists desperately try to fight their way to better kind of life. Recalling Tsai’s dreamy symbolism, Hou Hsiao-Hsien’s romantic melancholy, and Jia Zhangke’s lament for the working man lost in China’s rapidly changing landscape, Pengfei’s film is nevertheless resolutely his own as it chases the ever elusive Chinese dream all the way from dank basements and ruined villages to the shiny high rise cities which promise a tomorrow they may never be able to deliver.

Yong Le (Luo Wenjie) is just one such young man, trying to buy a future by raiding the past. He has a small van he uses to “reclaim” furniture and sell it second hand. One day he has an accident whilst working which costs him his sight. Finding it difficult to manage in the cramped, noisy corridors of the subterranean cavern he is currently living in, Yong Le strikes up a friendship with his kindly new next door neighbour, Xiao Yun (Ying Ze), who helps him with some of his everyday problems like telling the time and finding food. Xiao Yun is currently working as a pole dancer in a seedy club which she longs to quit and is hoping to bag a salesgirl position at a new development office.

Yong Le is also friends with an older man, Lao Jin (Zhao Fuyu), who lives above ground with his wife (Li Xiaohui) in a large, old fashioned courtyard style house. Lao Jin and his wife are the only remaining residents of the village, the rest of which has been knocked down already after the other homeowners settled with the development company for what they considered the best deal they could get. Lao Jin, however,  thinks it’s worth holding out and has been “in negotiations” for eight years. Dreaming of a mega payout he can use to by a fancy city flat and be a big shot at last, Lao Jin has already run through his savings and is dangerously close to losing everything.

In a rather pointed piece of symbolism, Xiao Yun walks past a large mural with the slogan “Run Towards Your Dreams” prominently displayed in the middle. Later, this same wall will be reduced to rubble, a handful of brightly coloured stones marking the spot where once a village stood. Xiao Yun and Yong Le have very different dreams to those of Lao Jin, reflecting the way that even aspiration has shifted with the generations. He wants the fancy penthouse life for himself and his wife, even if it means selling their furniture and sacrificing his wife’s beloved white rooster, but all Yong Le and Xiao Yun want is out of the dingy basement and into a cleaner sort of life.

Yong Le and Xiao Yun may begin to fall in love during his period of blindness, but it’s a luxury neither of them can afford. There’s a slight irony in the fact that Xiao Yun who’s come to hate the men who visit her bar, some of them trying to buy more than a show, becomes attached to a man who cannot see her, but her desperation to escape her dead end life before it’s too late means she can’t afford to hang around for romance to bloom. A heart stopping moment sees the sight restored Yong Le unexpectedly end up at the bar where Xiao Yun dances, but having been blind the entire time he knew her, he doesn’t recognise the woman on stage (though to his credit he does not particularly look). Pulled apart by the increasing harshness of the economic environment, romance is an unattainable dream for those like Yong Le and Xiao Yun, drifting around from one thing to the next barely able to touch the ground let alone live on it.

Pengfei’s camera operates with a formalist grace, putting architecture at the forefront of his storytelling. From the ruins of a village to lie of the as yet unfinished high-rise future and the dank, dangerous underground world of the casual drifters always aiming for something better, the landscape gives voice to the often despairing nature of life on edges of a society where the rate of change threatens to leave vast swathes of its citizens behind. Adding a touch of the surreal such as a supremely timed return of the electricity in which Lao Jin’s attempt to oust a noisy owl with fireworks lines up with his peking opera record, or the couple’s later attempt to woo the developers with a musical performance of their own (another demonstration of the way their old world customs have become obsolete), Pengfei undercuts the ever present melancholy with a dose of whimsical irony. Wistfully romantic, and dreaming of a better, fairer society Underground Fragrance is a snapshot of a world in flux in which even the most essential of human connections can become lost in the crowd of faces all running towards tomorrow.

Currently screening for free on Festival Scope as part of their Torino Film Lab selection.

Trailer from Venice (English subtitles)

De Lan (德蘭, Liu Jie, 2015)

Set in 1984 in a rural Chinese backwater, De Lan (德蘭) is named not for its central character, but for his first love – a mountain woman far from home in search of a missing relative. Tasked with following De Lan (De Ji), Wang (Dong Zijian) finds himself entering a strange new world which he is incapable of fully understanding, not least because he doesn’t speak the language. A wordless love story between the tragic De Lan and the adolescent Wang is destined to end unhappily, but will affect both of them in quite profound ways.

Wang’s father has been missing for three months, and what’s worse is that around 2000 yuan went missing with him. Mr. Wang had been the loans officer for the local party office in this dreary mountain town and now the best idea anyone has come up with is for Wang to take over the position and pay back the missing money with deductions from his wages (this should take around ten years). Hardly fair, but what can you do? Wang’s first assignment is to take an audit of a mountain town where the residents have a lot of outstanding payments. Seeing as they’re heading to the same place, Wang is to accompany a mountain woman, De Lan, who had been travelling around local towns looking for a missing person but has now run out of money and must go home alone.

Wang is told to trust De Lan when it comes to the terrain, but that he should keep control of the food supplies in case she tries to run off. All things considered, the people at the foot of the mountains, aren’t very well disposed to those at the top. Wang is young and unused to walking such long distances, frustrating De Lan with his inability to keep up and frequent needs to rest. Nevertheless a kind of mutual affection seems to build up between them but largely goes unspoken and unacknowledged. Finding himself installed in De Lan’s home, Wang begins to feel very awkward indeed, unable to work out the strange family dynamic between the gruff man with the lame leg, ancient blind old woman, and the feisty De Lan.

Wang has, after all, been sent to the town to collect on loans – an entirely pointless enterprise as no one here has any money. Wang’s father was a much loved presence, mostly because he always came with cash and never pressed them on repayments. His son, with a father’s debt around his neck, is not quite so nonchalant. Calling a village meeting with no notice, Wang makes it clear he won’t be following his father’s lax approach and will not be issuing any new loans, rather he will be calling in the old ones. This does not make him popular in the village.

Eventually he changes his mind and decides to flash some cash but his worst assumptions are confirmed when the villagers, far from using the money they claimed to so desperately need to survive to invest in their businesses, club together to buy all the booze in the surrounding area and have a giant party. Originally put out by their trickery and De Lan’s ongoing unavailability, Wang suddenly finds himself trying some of their liquor and joining in with a dance around the fire. Perhaps learning to adjust to the Earthy, less ordered way of life, Wang has embraced the new found freedom of the place, but he will also discover that it only runs so deep.

De Lan’s life has undoubtedly been a difficult one which she faces with stoic resignation. Shared between two men and longing only for a child, De Lan has very little say in anything that happens to her yet she was able to set off all alone to look for her missing person. During the trip, De Lan is dismayed when a teenage boy in a home they spend a night in makes a vulgar comment about her body, leading her to try to leave as soon as possible only for Wang to pledge his protection. De Lan is aware of the dangers of the road, as well as the constraints placed on her life, whereas as Wang is still naive enough to think his physical strength and government position would be enough to keep De Lan any safer than she would be alone.

As Wang’s feelings for De Lan grow he fantasises about saving her from this strange, cold household though he barely stops to ask himself if saving is really what she wants. Unable to speak the local dialect, Wang necessarily needs to rely on look and gesture which is largely how he and De Lan have come to communicate – a pure kind of dialogue without need of words. Wang’s love for De Lan is destined to cost him dearly both in financial and emotional terms. A beautifully sad tale of frustrated first love set against the picturesque Chinese countryside and inside it’s much less pretty political system, De Lan is the story of one man’s transition from adolescence to manhood through heartbreak, filled with quiet, yet intense, emotion.

Reviewed at the 2016 London East Asia Film Festival.

Trailer (English subtitles)

Mission Milano (王牌逗王牌, Wong Jing, 2016)

mission-milanoDespite its title, Mission Milano (王牌逗王牌, Wángpái Dòu Wángpái) spends relatively little time in the Northern Italian city and otherwise bounces back and forth over several worldwide locations as bumbling Interpol agent Sampan Hung (Andy Lau) chases down a gang of international crooks trying to harness a new, potentially world changing technology. Inspired by the classic spy parodies of old, Wong Jing’s latest effort proves another tiresome attempt at the comedy caper as its nonsensical plot and overplayed broad humour resolutely fail to capture attention.

The film opens with its strongest scene as Andy Lau’s bumbling Interpol agent Sampan Hung escapes from a Parisian hotel room after being attacked by a machine-gun wielding, cross-dressing French maid. Like much of the rest of the film this sequence is not particularly connected to the subsequent goings on, but on his return to China Hung begins investigating reports that a top technology firm run by the descendants of a famous Robin Hood inspired criminal is about to unveil a new bio product known as Seed of God. During the meeting, the Swedish professor presenting the research is kidnapped by a Japanese vigilante group known as Crescent which Hung believes is working for the evil worldwide organisation KMAX. Teaming up with the tech firm’s CEO Louis Luo (Huang Xiaoming), Luo’s sister (Nana Ouyang), and sidekick (Wong Cho-lam), Hung sets out to retrieve the technology before it falls into the wrong hands.

Seed of God is a bioengineered crop which can flower even if thrown on stony ground. All it needs is water and away you go – instant mango tree wherever and whenever you want. This discovery could end world hunger, but it would also be very bad news for anyone involved in traditional agriculture. Hung and Luo recognise the danger and neither want to see this new technology end up with KMAX who would not be particularly interested in applying it ethically.

Originally reluctant teammates, Hung and Luo build up a buddy buddy relationship through competitive games before eventually agreeing to work together. Luo does most of the hardline fighting while Lau’s Hung backs him up with splapstick-style comic relief. Though often mildly exciting, the action sequences have a comedy vibe dominated by Hung getting thrown into ladies’ bathrooms or knocked back on his behind by a skilled lady assassin while Luo keeps losing his glasses to a particularly mean opponent. Unfortunately, Wong relies heavily on CGI for many of the action set pieces beginning with the obvious rooftops of Paris backdrop, right up to the sports car meets heavy duty lorry incident in the middle and aeroplane based finale.

The humour itself has a heavily retro feel filled with sexist jokes such as Hung crashing into hotel bedroom containing a confused topless woman in the opening sequence and a seduction section in the middle in which a key asset is wooed using her teenage love of Alain Delon and supposed desperation for male attention. Hung is clearly modelled on Bond and even has the agent number 119 though in truth he’s more like Maxwell Smart meets Inspector Gadget with his clean cut nerdiness and ubiquitous trench coat. He even has a Q-style tech specialist (named Bing Bing so we have the “classic” Li vs Fan joke) who’s made him a killer phone with every kind of spy feature conceivable including lightsaber, but can’t actually make a phone call. Add in genre tropes of unusual weaponry and laser filled corridors, and Mission Milano is looking very uninspired.

Despite its Italian destination, Mission Milano employs a frequent musical motif that it is distinctly Spanish – another clue to how all at sea the film is in terms of coherence. A minimal stab at romance between Luo and a friendly agent on the other side, and Hung’s ongoing pining for his ex-wife who left him because his world saving habit was just too stressful, attempt to add some character drama to the piece which remains lukewarm in approach to its cast. Lau turns in an uncharacteristically large performance, grinning and gurning his way through the lacklustre script,  but not even his presence can heal the many problems plaguing the film. Never as funny as it desperately wants to be Mission Milano is a trying experience which, although intermittently amusing, (thankfully) proves instantly forgettable.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)