Zodiac Killers (極道追踪, Ann Hui, 1991)

Melancholy exiles seeking a better future find only futility in the dying days of the bubble economy in Ann Hui’s 1991 gangster drama, Zodiac Killers (極道追踪). The English title is admittedly misleading, there’s seemingly no connection to any kind of “zodiac” and no hint of conspiracy murder except those forced by the world’s enduring cruelty, though the Chinese is perhaps equally so meaning something like “yakuza pursuit” which is accurate but only to a point.

The hero, Ben (Andy Lau Tak-wah), has come to Tokyo from Hong Kong to study film but rarely goes to classes, preferring to learn how to make money instead. Making the most of the then affluent city, he works as a tour guide for Chinese tourists, dutifully delivering the men to the strip clubs of Shinjuku in the evenings for kickbacks and giving his boss a kicking when he tries to stiff him out of the agreed amount, heading to his second job in a kitchen immediately afterwards. “Man does not live to make money only, you must learn to spend it too”, he explains to his friend, Chang (Tou Chung-hua), persuading him to come hang out in a swanky bar they’ve been invited to by Ben’s shady relative Ming (Suen Pang) who is currently trying to make it as a yakuza by marrying the boss’ mama-san sister Yuriko (Junko Takazawa). It’s at the bar that Ben first sets eyes on Tieh-lan (Cherie Chung Chor-hung), a young woman from the Mainland in Tokyo studying at a Japanese language school and working as a hostess to make ends meet though as she points out “not every Chinese girl likes to work here”, instantly offending Ming but interestingly not Yuriko who seems sympathetic if embarrassed. 

All of them are in Tokyo because at that moment in time Japan looked like the future, though the window was rapidly closing. Tieh-lan is beginning to wonder why she came. Her friend Mei-mei (Tsang Wai-fai) has ended up in an unwanted sexual relationship with the man who sponsored their visas, Harada (Law Fei-yu), who nevertheless continually sexually harasses Tieh-lan. “Why did we come here?”, Tieh-lan asks Mei-mei, “for our future or for men? You can debase yourself at home, why have you come to Japan to do it?”. Ben later asks something similar of Ming who freely admits that he is prepared to sell his body for influence, “satisfying” Yuriko in order to buy influence with her brother and be admitted into his yakuza clan. The Tokyo they inhabit is one steeped in exile. They surround themselves with other Chinese migrants, be they from the Mainland, Hong Kong, or Taiwan, and congregate in the seedier parts of Shinjuku living on the fringes of society, working as bar hostesses, or gangsters, or in kitchens. For Ben whose bachelor pad student dorm is adorned with posters of Bruce Lee and Rocky, his purpose is more adventure and youthful longing for freedom than escape which is why he makes a point of ignoring his loving mother’s phone calls, but even he struggles to find what he needs on the unforgiving streets of a hostile city. 

That hostility is first brought home to him by a gang of ultranationalist bikers flying the imperial flag one of whom threatens him with a samurai sword (a moment which is tragically echoed in the film’s nihilistic conclusion). They are not, however, the only ones feeling displaced, as a heartbreaking cameo from golden age star Kyoko Kishida as an ageing geisha makes plain. Asano (Junichi Ishida), the melancholy yakuza with whom Tieh-lan has fallen in love much to Ben’s disappointment, declares himself “always a loner”, returning to Tokyo after years of exile in South America. An orphan, Asano laments that the beach he visited as child no longer exists and the city he’s come home to is changed beyond all recognition. Perhaps for that reason he falls for melancholy exile Tieh-lan as they bond in a shared sense of hopeless rootlessness. 

With the surprise introduction of Asano, Hui transitions into the moody noir with which the film opened, shots of Andy Lau plaintively looking back at the shore from a boat on the open sea intercut with Cherie Chung walking sadly through an empty, neon-lit city. Asano hoped for reconciliation but found only betrayal, there can be no home for exiles even if they return. The trio’s broken dreams find their final expression in the nihilistic violence of a non-existent yakuza war. Asano’s final gesture was one only of futility, no one wants to hear his inconvenient truth because the clans in question have already made “peace” and are intent on working together for future prosperity. “Your heart is too soft for this wicked world” Ming says of Ben but it’s a statement that rings true for them all, living life by movie logic in which good will eventually triumph. Ming sees no point in returning to Hong Kong because he’d be a nobody, tragically believing that being a gang boss’ brother-in-law is close enough to somebody in Shinjuku. Only Chang, who came to Japan to look for his missing sweetheart, manages to keep himself safe but largely, as we later find out during a rather bizarre sequence featuring a surprise outdoor porno shoot, because he does not yet know that his dream is futile too. A chronicle of a world in collapse, Zodiac Killers leaves its marginalised heroes with no place left to run, permanent exiles denied safe harbour sailing towards a promised horizon with no land in sight.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Shock Wave 2 (拆彈專家2, Herman Yau, 2020)

“Anger can destroy everything” according to the voiceover opening Herman Yau’s Shock Wave 2 (拆彈專家2), a thematic sequel to the original Shock Wave once again starring Andy Lau as a Hong Kong police bomb disposal officer battling serious threat to the island’s transport infrastructure but also picking up themes from the pair’s subsequent collaboration White Storm 2 in which the veteran actor had starred against type as a Batman-esque billionaire vigilante fighting a one man war on drugs. The villains here claim they want “change”, but in reality want little more than to burn the world, enraged by its refusal to recognise or remember them consumed as they are by wounded male pride. 

The hero, Fung (Andy Lau Tak-wah), finds himself suffering from amnesia after encountering the second serious accident of his professional life. When we first meet him, he’s essentially playing the same role as the first film, a cheerful, slightly cocky bomb disposal expert with a potentially reckless streak born of his willingness to risk his own life to save those of others. When he’s injured on a job, tricked by a random booby trap while trying to free a trapped cat, and loses his leg he reacts with characteristically upbeat stoicism quickly adjusting to his new prosthesis and determined to get back to work, training intensely with the help of his friend Tung (Sean Lau Ching-wan) who was also injured in the same blast only not so seriously. Despite passing all the fitness criteria Fung is fobbed off with an offer of a desk job in police PR, refused a return to the bomb squad as the panel quite openly admit not so much because they feel his disability impairs his ability to do the job as they fear public blowback should something go wrong and they be blamed for having hired a disabled person in the first place. 

It’s less a sense of discrimination than unfairness that fuels Fung’s growing sense of anger and resentment not only towards the police force but towards society in general which he now feels regards human beings as little more than disposable tools. He rejects the sense of himself as “disabled”, internalising a sense of societal shame keen to remind everyone that he is not impaired proving himself capable above and beyond the force’s criteria but is still rejected while Tung, who suffered only minor burns, is permitted to return to duty and even gets a promotion. His friends later recount that he became a different person after the accident, angry and embittered as if at war with the world. 

Yet after encountering a second accident, Fung loses his declarative memory which is to say he still has his everyday skills such as walking around (including using a prosthesis), getting dressed, brushing his teeth, using a computer and presumably the mechanics of bomb disposal but no longer remembers his own name or how he ended up in hospital now at least implicated in an act of major terrorism. Without his memories, Fung is a blank slate, freed from all the trauma and resentment that may have pushed him towards the dark side and returned to the innate goodness of a soul untouched by the world’s cruelty. The question is, which way will he turn, back towards the darkness or further into the light as the Fung they once new who willingly risked his life for others? In any case, he finds himself potentially misused by his well meaning ex Pong Ling (Ni Ni) who engages in some dubious psychology involving false memory implantation to convince him that he’s been working for the Hong Kong police undercover, hoping to engineer a softer landing for him than the realisation that he may be responsible for the deaths of at least 18 people as a member of an anarchist sect going under the apt name of “Vendetta”. 

Like Fung, the leader of Vendetta is an angry man resentful of having been forgotten by someone he cared about who had simply grown away from him. He rages against the world partly as a consequence of his aimless privilege having discovered his wealthy family made their money peddling opium with the assistance of the colonial authorities, but also as a direct result of childhood bullying and frustrated male friendship. Vendetta claims it wants to stop the world from getting “worse”, but all it really has is anger and the intense hurt of wounded pride. These men refuse to be “KO’d by this sick society” but in the end all they want is to be seen, to be recognised and remembered. To ease their sense of belittlement and impotence, they plan to burn the world by literally severing connections with it. 

Yau takes aim at the various systems which generate this kind of anger, hinting at the shockwaves of ingrained societal discrimination even if Fung internalises a sense of stigmatisation in his intense need to prove himself free of “disability”. Robbed of his memories, Fung’s anger dissipates allowing his natural capacity for selfless heroism to resurface along with a healthy desire to reflect on his own behaviour, at least as much as can he rely on the sometimes duplicitous vagaries of memory both his own and that of others as he searches for the truth of himself and his “vendetta” with the world. Torn between risking his life to save others and blowing it all to hell, Fung ends up doing both, sending shockwaves throughout his society in a deeply ambivalent act of personal and societal redemption. 


Shock Wave 2 is available to stream in the UK until 12th May as part of the Chinese Cinema Season. It will also be released on DVD/blu-ray on 7th June and digitally on 14th June courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK release trailer (English subtitles)

Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳, Wong Kar Wai, 1990)

“I used to think a minute could pass so quickly, but actually it can take forever” laments a lovelorn heroine in Wong Kar Wai’s melancholy ‘60s romance Days of Being Wild (阿飛正傳), somehow neatly encapsulating the director’s entire philosophy. The heroes of Days are obsessed with minutes, seconds, hours, years, the barely perceptible passing of time. Clocks pervade the frame, their violent ticking the most prominent element of Wong’s strangely barren soundscape, a constant reminder of a life slowly etched away ceaselessly beaten towards an inevitable conclusion. 

The hero, Yuddy (Leslie Cheung Kwok-wing), describes himself rather poetically as a bird without legs cursed to fly and fly meeting the ground only once at the moment of his death, an overly sentimental metaphor for which he is later taken to task by the equally rootless Tide (Andy Lau Tak-wah), a former policeman turned sailor who wonders if it’s just a line he uses to seduce lonely women with boyish sadness. We might wonder the same thing as he picks up the lonely Li-zhen (Maggie Cheung Man-yuk), a Macao émigré apparently unable to sleep, by telling her she’ll see him in her dreams before forcing her to look at his watch for a whole minute as if that after 3pm on April 16, 1960 were now a sacred date forever etched in time. She thought that sounded “so sweet”, but as he later tells her Yuddy is not the marrying kind and she too is trapped inside that moment, often framed behind bars or the tiny window of her box office booth before the door is cruelly slammed on her romantic delusion seemingly by automatic operation of the clock. 

In a twist of fate, Li-zhen meets Tide during his previous life as a policeman when she makes a fairly embarrassing attempt to get back together with Yuddy after he reacts coolly to her suggestion of marriage only to discover him with his new love, cabaret dancer Mimi (Carina Lau Kar-ling). “I’m not gonna be as stupid as her” Mimi insists flouncing out of his apartment only to find herself just that, making a desperate visit to Li-zhen at the stadium after the affair has ended to tell her to her back off only for the rather unsympathetic Li-zhen to point out they’ve both been deceived, “he treats all women the same”. 

A perpetual lothario Yuddy moves from woman to woman without touching the ground, but his rootlessness is seemingly born of maternal disconnection in his ambivalent relationship with the Hong Kong sex worker who raised him but refuses to disclose the identity of his Filipina birth mother supposedly a noble woman who for unknown reasons paid a foreigner US$50 a month to raise her son. Like the other women in Yuddy’s life, Rebecca (Rebecca Pan Di-hua) does her best to tie him down, apparently unwilling to reveal his origins in fear he’d leave her, but also mirrors him in her constant quest for affection bought from a series of younger men and apparently one older who threatens their relationship in inviting her to a new life overseas. Ironically enough, she soon tells her son to “fly, fly as far as you can” all the way to the Philippines, though Yuddy already suspects he’s been a flightless bird all along, dead from the very beginning.

Yuddy’s search for closure and identity ends disappointment and a painful lack of resolution, as does the nascent romance between the policeman and the box office girl, her mistimed phone calls amounting to a literal missed connection while Tide ponders lost love from foreign seas, and Mimi tragically chases the ghost of Yuddy all the way to Manila pined for by Yuddy’s self-conscious friend Zeb (Jacky Cheung Hok-yau) left behind alone. Trapped in the timeless present, they are each denied either past or future, lost in a lovelorn dream of perpetual longing. As if to ram his point home, Wong shows us another clock and then another man we’ve never seen before (Tony Leung Chiu-wai) as he gets ready for an evening out, crouching slightly in what appears to be a shallow, sub-divided garret making it clear that these stories have no endings, flying and flying until they hit ground and seemingly born in the air. A woozy, zeitgeisty journey through mid-century loneliness, Wong’s second feature leaves its melancholy heroes consumed by nostalgia for an ill-imagined future unable to escape the cruel tyranny of an interminable present. 


Transfer: Among the more faithful of the recent 4K restorations, Days of Being Wild nevertheless shifts to a slightly greener hue in keeping with the house style adopted for the series, adding to Wong’s sense of melancholy nostalgia and perhaps in keeping with Doyle’s original artistic vision.


Days of Being Wild is currently available to stream in the UK via BFI Player in its newly restored edition as part of the World Of Wong Kar Wai season.

Original trailer (unrestored, English subtitles)

Moon Warriors (戰神傳說, Sammo Hung, 1992)

“In fact, some stories are true. Especially the heartbreaking ones” according to a melancholy fisherman in Sammo Hung’s tragic wuxia romance, Moon Warriors (戰神傳說). Arriving in the middle of a fantasy martial arts boom, Moon Warriors boasts some of the biggest stars of the day in a beautifully composed tale of intrigue and derring-do as well as featuring an A-list creative team with such high profile talent as Mabel Cheung, Alex Law, Ching Siu-Tung, and Corey Yuen also involved in the production. 

Somewhere in feudal China, 13th Prince Shih-san (Kenny Bee) is on the run after being usurped by his evil brother, the predictably named 14th Prince (Kelvin Wong Siu) who burnt down his castle and has been following him throughout the land razing villages wherever he goes. Accompanied by trusty bodyguard Merlin (Maggie Cheung Man-Yuk) who is silently in love with him, Shih-san is desperate to get in touch with the Lord of Langling (Chang Yu), also the father of his betrothed princess Moony (Anita Mui Yim-Fong), in the hope of uniting their forces to retake the country together. Meanwhile, goodhearted yet eccentric fisherman Philip (Andy Lau Tak-Wah) is doing a spot of hunting in a bamboo grove during which he notices Shih-san and the others wading into a trap and leaps to the rescue, helping to despatch the black-clad assassins. As Shih-san is badly injured, he takes them back to his cheerfully idyllic village, serves them the local delicacy of spicy shark fin soup, and generally befriends them before 14th Prince’s goons track them all down again at which point he takes them to his secret hideout which turns out to be an ancient temple dedicated to Shih-san’s emperor ancestors. 

We find out just how evil 14th Prince is when he gets his minions to kill all of Moony’s ladies-in-waiting and dress up in their clothes to mount a sneak attack on the Langling estate while holding on to the pretty kites Moony was flying before the gang arrived. Though petulantly flying kites seems like quite a childish activity for a princess about to be married off, Moony more than holds her own in the fight even if finding it difficult to deal with having killed someone for the first time. Sent to protect her, Philip is less than sympathetic, but after a few arguments, a near death experience, and some magic glitter, the pair begin to fall in love, which is a problem because Moony is betrothed to Shih-san. 

What develops is a complicated love square in which Merlin pines for Shih-san who seems more interested in Philip, while Philip repeatedly tries to leave the group because of his conflicted loyalties and a feeling of inferiority as a peasant suddenly mixed up in imperial intrigue and forbidden romance. Moony tries to give him her half of a precious jade talisman which plays beautiful music, but her melancholy suggestion that it will sound better with his flute than with the other half which is held by Shih-san flies right over his head. Shih-san, meanwhile, who was spying on them talking, suddenly decides to give him his half too, leaving Philip holding the whole thing. Merlin, as it turns out, has a series of interior conflicts of her own that leave her resentful of just about everyone except Shih-san. 

Eventually, however, nowhere is safe from the destructive effects of political instability and Philip’s fishing village is soon a target for the vicious 14th Prince, ensuring he enters the fight with the help of his improbable best friend, a killer whale named “Sea-Wayne”. Before the romantic dilemmas can be resolved, the courtly intrigue collapses in on itself, fostering an accidental revolution in the literal implosion of an old order, suddenly becoming dust as in some long forgotten prophecy. In a strange moment of flirtatious smalltalk, Philip had remarked that legend has it the flowers in these fields are only so beautiful because they grow on top of bodies buried far below, something he later discovers to be more than just a fanciful story. 

There might be something in the tragic tale of two branches of elites destroying each other in order to take control of a disputed territory while the ordinary man is left behind alone to reflect on the fall of empires, but perhaps that’s a reading too far in a melancholy wuxia of 1992 and its unexpectedly gloomy ending in which true feelings are spoken only when all hope is lost. Nevertheless, with all of its high octane fight scenes, painful stories of romance frustrated by the oppressions of feudalism, and surreal killer whale action, Moon Warriors is a strangely poetic affair as doomed love meets its end in political strife.


Trailer (no subtitles)

Lost and Love (失孤, Peng Sanyuan, 2015)

Because of a series of interconnected social factors, the trafficking of children has become a widespread problem in contemporary China. Many of these children are simply abducted from wherever they happen to be and handed over to brokers who are often working with organised crime. Some of the children are sold on to orphanages working with various organisations who facilitate international adoptions which fetch a high price, but the major demand comes from depopulated areas of rural China who, suffering under the One Child Policy, need more children to help them on the farm or perhaps because their birth children were female and they need a male heir. In any case, though child trafficking is an open secret, very few abducted children are ever traced and reunited with their parents. 

Peng Sanyuan’s debut film Lost and Love (失孤, Shī Gū) does not dwell on the causes of China’s child abduction problem but on the pain and suffering it inflicts on parent and child alike. Lei Zekuan’s (Andy Lau Tak-wah) son Da was taken from his home at two years old. Zekuan has spent the last 15 years travelling all over China chasing every lead desperately trying to find him but drawing a blank at every turn. Turning to modern technology, he’s hooked up with a group of concerned citizens who are always on the look out for missing kids and the gangs that maybe handling them. Though many people are sympathetic towards him and touched by his unrelenting search for his son, there are others that Zekuan meets who, meaning well, ask him if perhaps it’s not better just to let it go and move on. After all, it’s been 15 years. Da was only two, he probably won’t remember his home or family and may not even know he is adopted. Zekuan, however, cannot bring himself to give up, convincing himself that he will one day be reunited with his son while touched by the plight of other parents in the same position, adding the face of a child he sees on a missing poster abducted just recently to the flags on the back of his bike on the off chance that someone might have seen her too. 

Zekuan’s zeal is in part repaid when he’s run off the road and rescued by a young mechanic who sets about fixing his bike. Zeng Shuai (Jing Boran) is touched by Zekuan’s quest but also a little irritated by it. As he later confesses to him, he was an abducted child himself, though too old to have been Zekuan’s son. Taken at four, all he remembers is a suspension bridge, a bamboo grove, and his mother’s hair worn in a long plait. He wonders if his parents ever looked for him in the same way Zekuan looks for his son, but also harbours a degree of resentment towards them for being so careless as to “lose” him. Zekuan assures him that his parents surely miss him dearly and are praying for his return, prompting the young man to consider setting off on a journey to look for the place where he was born, accompanying Zekuan along his way. 

Shuai says that his adoptive parents cared for him well and clearly loved him, but he has also adversely suffered through being an “abandoned” child in ways other than the emotional. Because he was bought illegally, Shuai has no legal status and cannot apply for an ID card which means he had only limited access to education, is unable to apply for exams, cannot get married, cannot open a bank account, and is barred from advanced transportation like planes and trains. Part of the reason he desperately wants to find his parents is to reclaim his identity so he can lead a full life, no longer confined to an underclass of people who legally speaking do not exist and have no rights. 

Yet what’s also obvious is the pain he feels in being disconnected from his roots. Taking the same journey but at cross purposes, the two men generate an easy paternal bond, becoming anxious when they lose each other in crowded markets and having fun messing around washing cars for the money to keep moving forward. But having talked to so many other grief-stricken parents, Zekuan is wary of making a mistake. In one village he’s guided to a boy who fits all the criteria and is said to be living a miserable existence with parents he doesn’t get on with. A kind of connection is made with the young man who perhaps has been hoping that someday someone will come to find him, but the scar which had given Zekuan so much hope turns out to be on the wrong foot, prompting him to doubt himself, wondering if perhaps he’s forgotten which foot it was after all these years and it really might still be him.

That dream is spoiled by the unexpected intervention of the adoptive mother who, unlike the distant father, fights furiously for the rights to her son. The boy seems just as crestfallen as Zekuan, and the sense of heartbreak is all consuming. Asked for advice, a Buddhist priest uses fancy language to tell Zekuan that if he doesn’t look for his son then he’ll never find him, but has no more idea than anyone else if he’ll ever be found. All Zekuan can do is console himself with the search so that when he finds his son he can tell him that he never gave up looking.


Hong Kong release trailer (English subtitles)

Dragon in Jail (獄中龍, Kent Cheng Jak-Si, 1990)

“For the poor life is a punishment” according to Henry (Andy Lau Tak-Wah), the embattled hero of Kent Cheng Jak-si’s Dragon in Jail (獄中龍), a subdued heroic bloodshed offshoot in which a poor boy and rich kid meet in juvie and become best friends for life even though fate seems to have very different paths in store for them. Less a critical expose of the cruelties of an increasingly stratified society than an ode to intense male friendship, Dragon in Jail puts its hero in a different kind of cell as he tries to escape the triad net but finds himself ensnared by past crime and present rage. 

Rich kid Wayne (Kenny Ho Ka-King) ends up in a reformatory for pulling petty stunts supposedly because he doesn’t like it that his widowed mother has remarried. Different from the other boys, he’s immediately hazed and asked for his gang affiliation, only he doesn’t have one. Tough boy Henry stands up for him, roping in his other friend Skinny (John Ching Tung) to take on the cell’s Mr. Big after which the boys become firm friends as they study together to sit their A Levels while inside. Wayne wasn’t planning to take his exams as a way of getting back to his mother, but Henry convinces him that education is the one way to show the world who’s boss. The boys come top in their class, Wayne gets out and decides to go the UK to study law, while Henry serves out the remainder of his sentence in an adult prison, sentenced to four years for manslaughter after accidentally killing a triad member during a fight over protection money at his family’s kiosk. 

Despite the differences in the scope of their possibilities, Henry and Wayne remain good friends, but once Henry gets out of prison he’s nothing much to look forward to. His hopes of attending a university are dashed by his defeatist father who thinks education is pointless and blames him for the failure of their business, while he struggles to find steady employment as a man with a criminal record. Eventually he decides to work as a mechanic by day and a cram school teacher by night with the aim of saving enough to apply for uni at later date so he can marry his longstanding girlfriend, Winnie (Gigi Lai Chi). Skinny, meanwhile, gets out of jail and heads straight back to the triads, trying to convince Henry he should join too. Henry doesn’t want to, but faces constant harassment from Brother Charlie (William Ho Ka-Kui), the boss of the man he killed in the fight. When his little brother is badly burned in a triad attack, he decides his only option is to become one himself to earn the protection of Boss Sean (Leung Gam-San) who mediates an uneasy truce with the psychopathic Charlie. 

When Wayne returns from the UK after graduating law school, Henry is married and a father-to-be living in a swanky apartment having risen in the triad ranks, but he’s also a hotheaded opium addict still sparring with the very present Charlie. “I’m a bad egg! I deserve it!” Henry wails on being confronted by Wayne who points out that it was he who was always encouraging him to study so that no one would ever look down on him. Henry thinks he’s not good enough to be Wayne’s friend and fully expects to be abandoned, but after some strong words of defence from Winnie, Wayne comes around, resolving to help get his friend off the stuff. The problem is the sense of futility which has already set in. Henry has become what everyone expected him to be, a thuggish triad, because they convinced him he could become nothing else.

Winnie berates Henry for keeping his sorrows to himself, remaining sullen and resentful at his inability to escape the triad world for an honest life of safety with his new family, though he once told Wayne that he should “speak up if you feel unhappy”. Despite everything the intense friendship between the two men endures. Cheng adds to the faintly homoerotic tone by shooting his early prison scenes with a lingering romantic gaze, while Wayne seems to pine for his broody friend, affirming that “no matter what you are, you are my buddy”. A caged dragon, Henry’s vengeance is swift and brutal but he retains his nobility even in the depths of his despair, eventually taking refuge in an unconditional friendship which transcends the forces which imprison him.


Fagara (花椒之味, Heiward Mak, 2019)

Fagara poster 2“We remember the bad and forget the good” a regretful mother laments, trying to find the right words to connect with her emotionally distant daughter. Heiward Mak’s adaptation of the Amy Cheung novel Fagara (花椒之味, Hjiāo zhī Wèi) melts a subtle One China narrative into a heartwarming meditation on unexpected connections and the modern family as three women from three cultures discover an instant and easy bond, meeting as sisters in adulthood united in a shared sense of hurt and disappointment but learning to find the good among the bad as they process the legacy of their late father and the pain he left behind.

Harried middle-aged travel agent Acacia (Sammi Cheng Sau-man) spends her days fending off junk calls and booking discreet getaways for executives going on “business trips” with their secretaries. So, when she gets a panicked message that her estranged father Ha Leung (Kenny Bee) is in hospital she naturally assumes it’s a scam, only it’s not – she needs to get across the Harbour to Victoria Hospital, but in a motif that will be repeated finds it difficult to get a cab willing to take her. By the time she arrives, it’s too late. Her dad has passed away. So little does she know about him that she has to double check what year he was born on his driving licence, passed to her by a young man working at her father’s “family” hotpot restaurant.

On charging his phone, Acacia is shocked to discover that he’s been exchanging text messages with two other young women, apparently his daughters from other relationships in Taiwan and on the Mainland. Thinking they ought to at least know, Acacia invites them to the funeral, which, embarrassingly enough, she has arranged as a Taoist ceremony because she was unaware her father was actually a Buddhist (something apparently known to some of the other guests only they were too polite to say). Meeting for the first time and setting aside their mutual resentments, the three women find an easy connection, uniting to save the restaurant by figuring out Ha Leung’s secret recipe for his famed Fagara soup.

Though Mak largely minimises the obvious political allegory in favour of the human story, it’s impossible to miss the message that these three women are all daughters of the One China, let down by a well meaning but flawed “father” who nevertheless loved them all if imperfectly. Given the current tensions, some might find the implications of that message trite at best, but you can’t argue with the positivities of finding common ground as children failed by distant paternity, or as Acacia puts us, “regardless of the choice he made, he hurt us all”.

Cherry (Li Xiaofeng), the daughter from the Mainland, counters that she was never “hurt” because she was never anyone’s “choice”. Abandoned twice over, Cherry has lived with her grandmother (Wu Yanshu) since her mother remarried in Canada, leaving her behind. A young woman of her times, she’s staked everything on Instagram fame, rejecting the idea of marriage in favour of perpetual independence but unselfishly. The most family oriented of the sisters, she is determined to take care of her grandmother even while she tries to push her away partly in vanity, afraid to let her see the vulnerability of ageing, and partly not wanting to feel as if she’s trapped her granddaughter in a life of servitude to an old woman that will leave her lonely in her own old age.

Acacia meanwhile also remains lukewarm on the idea of “family”, resentful towards her father and insecure in her relationships, breaking up with a meek but supportive fiancée (Andy Lau Tak-wah) because he was only ever bold enough to say he was “OK” with getting married. Striking up a friendship with a cheerful doctor (Richie Jen Hsien-chi) who knew her father, she meditates on her future while trying to sort out her complicated feelings about her father’s “family” hotpot shop.  What she discovers is that her father, while useless at the business of family, had a gift for the family business, turning the hotpot shop into a makeshift community offering second chances to those who couldn’t find them elsewhere.

Uncle Leung, as they called him, was also the only one to encourage Taiwanese daughter Branch (Megan Lai) to follow her dreams when everyone else told her to give up and settle down. Unlike Acacia and Cherry, Branch has a relationship, albeit a strained one, with her mother (Liu Juei-chi) who, as she reveals to Acacia, struggles to connect with her daughter, never quite knowing the right words to say, always striking on the ones sure to work the wound. Heavily coded as gay, Branch is aloof and closed off, literally shutting a devoted young woman out of her life, but begins to brighten on connecting with her sisters, shifting from silent but deeply felt sadness at the funeral to a cheerful solidarity helping to make the restaurant a success. Of course, it turns out that the secret ingredient in the soup was memories of everyone Ha Leung had loved, literally a “family hotpot”. Finally learning to remember the good as well as the bad, Acacia finds the strength to forgive her father, seizing her independence and driving off into a freer future full of possibility but with her sisters, in spirit at least, right alongside her.


Fagara was screened as part of the 2019 Five Flavours Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The White Storm 2: Drug Lords (掃毒2天地對決, Herman Yau, 2019)

132134ti38vkkj3p299ni8The war on drugs comes to Hong Kong care of Herman Yau’s latest foray into heroic action, White Storm 2: Drug Lords (掃毒2天地對決). In the grand tradition of Hong Kong movies adding a random prefix to the title, Drug Lords is a “thematic” sequel to Benny Chan’s 2013 hit White Storm, which is to say that it shares nothing at all with Chan’s film save the narcotics theme and the participation of Louis Koo who returns in an entirely different role. What Yau adds to the drama is a possibly irresponsible meditation on vigilante justice and extrajudicial killing which, nevertheless, broadly comes down on the side of the law as its dualist heroes eventually destroy each other in a nihilistic quest for meaningless vengeance.

A brief prologue in 2004 sees depressed Triad Yu Shun-tin (Andy Lau) abandoned by his girlfriend who can no longer put up with his gangster lifestyle and inability to break with his domineering mob boss uncle. Meanwhile, across town, flamboyant foot-soldier Dizang (Louis Koo) scolds one of his guys for supposedly selling drugs in the club, only to be picked up by Shun-tin’s uncle Nam (Kent Cheng) and severely punished for getting involved with the trafficking of narcotics. Nam orders Shun-tin to cut off Dizang’s fingers as punishment, which he does despite Dizang’s reminder that they’ve been friends for over 20 years. Conflicted, Shun-tin makes amends by driving Dizang to the hospital with his fingers in a freezer bag, but by this point Dizang has had enough. To teach him a lesson, the Triads also tip the police off to raid the club, during which the wife of squad leader Lam (Michael Miu) is killed by a drug addled patron.

15 years later, Shun-tin has left the Triads and become a successful businessman married to a beautiful lawyer/financial consultant (Karena Lam) with whom he has started an anti-drugs charity, while Dizang has become Hong Kong’s no. 1 drug dealer, operating out of a slaughterhouse as a cover. The trouble occurs when Shun-tin learns that his former girlfriend was pregnant when she left him and that he has a 15-year-old son in the Philippines who has become addicted to drugs. Drugs have indeed ruined Shun-tin’s life, if indirectly. His grandfather was an opium addict, and his father died of a heroine overdose (which is why his Triad gang swore off the drugs trade). All of which means he has good reason for hating drug dealers like Dizang, but his sudden admiration for Duterte’s famously uncompromising stance on drugs is an extraordinarily irresponsible one, especially when it leads to him embarrassing the HK police force by offering a vast bounty to anyone who can kill Hong Kong’s top drug dealer – a deadly competition that, like extrajudicial killings, seems primed to put ordinary people in the firing line.

As Lam tells him, the situation is absurd. Shun-tin’s bounty means Lam will have to spend more time offering protection to suspected drug dealers than actively trying to catch them while it also leaves Shun-tin in an awkward position as a man inciting murder and attempting to bypass the rule of law through leveraging his wealth. Indeed, as a man from the slums who’s been able to escape his humble origins and criminal family to become an international billionaire philanthropist he shows remarkably little consideration for the situation on the ground or the role the kind of ultra-capitalism he now represents has on perpetuating crime and drug use, preferring to think it’s all as simple as murdering drug lords rather than needing to actively invest in a creating a more equal society.

Meanwhile, Dizang continues to lord it about all over town and Lam finds himself an ineffectual third party caught between summary justice meted out by a man who thinks his wealth places him above the law and a gangster on a self-destructive bid for vengeance against the Triads he feels betrayed him, including his old friend Shun-tin. Truth be told, the “friendship” between Dizang and Shun-tin never rings true enough to provoke the kind of pathos the violent payoff seems to be asking for while the film is at times worryingly uncritical of Shun-tin’s vendetta, suggesting that the police are ill-equipped to deal with the destructive effects of the drug trade. Nevertheless, even if it’s to placate the Mainland censors, Yau ends on a more positive message that reinforces the nihilistic, internecine nature of the conflict while hinting, somewhat tritely, at a better solution in the sunny grasslands of the child drug rehabilitation centre Shun-tin has founded in Manila. That aside, Drug Lords is never less than thrilling in its audacious action set pieces culminating in a jaw dropping car chase through a perfect replica of the Central MTR subway station.


The White Storm 2: Drug Lords is currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of Cine Asia. It will also screen as the closing movie of the 2019 New York Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Chasing the Dragon (追龍, Jason Kwan & Wong Jing, 2017)

chasing the dragon posterWhen it comes to Mainland China anything goes so long as you set your movie before 1949. In Hong Kong it seems the same thing is true only the cut off date is 1997. Wong Jing and Jason Kwan’s surprisingly glossy Chasing the Dragon (追龍) follows two giants of 1960s Hong Kong in Crippled Ho whose life was previously brought the screen in 1991’s To Be Number One, and crooked (but only in a nice way) policeman Lee Rock who is played by Andy Lau – the very same part he inhabited in a series of films over 25 years ago. Marking a first time collaboration between martial arts superstar Donnie Yen and veteran leading man Lau, Chasing the Dragon firmly points its finger at the rotten roots of colonial corruption which, apparently, allowed such lawless times to endure in order to reap their copious rewards.

In 1963, Crippled Ho (Donnie Yen) smuggles himself into Hong Kong from the Mainland along with three of his friends and his little brother Peter. The boys find it hard to get honest work and are largely existing as hired muscle – or rather they’re supposed to get paid $30 to stand at the back make the local gangster’s gang look more impressive than it really is. One fateful day they get hired by Will, Grizzly Bear’s fixer, to hang around at a supposed confrontation with rival gangster Comic only this time the fight, which has been organised to put a damper on the birthday celebrations of crooked police chief Ngan, breaks out for real. Crippled Ho and the guys are skilled fighters who’d really rather avoid getting involved so they steal some police uniforms and try to escape by blending in but they’re caught by vicious British cop Hunter (Bryan Larkin) and nearly beaten to death before being rescued by the less corrupt Lee Rock (Andy Lau).

This first confrontation sets the tone for the remainder of the film as Crippled Ho, a vicious, ruthless, and ambitious gangster is repeatedly plagued by Hunter – the typically racist, corrupt, incompetent, greedy, and amoral sort which seems to define British officialdom across the Empire. Empire is the big enemy here (though it’s easy enough for one Empire to stand in for another) as pictures of the Queen reign supreme and men like Hunter think they can do whatever they like because colonial life is cheap. Lee Rock knows his place with the system and is content to play it. He warns Ho that pretty much anything goes, but the Brits are off limits because it’s the authorities that are bankrolling this illicit economy and any attempt to bite the hand that feeds threatens to bring the entire system crashing down.

As revealed in Ho’s opening voice over, ’70s Hong Kong was a haven of corruption in which the authorities collaborated with the Triads partly as a way of appeasing them but also as a way to make money. Unlike his incorruptible buddy, Lee Rock is as corrupt as they come – setting himself a target of $500 million and becoming actively involved in the drugs trade. He does, however, have his limits and makes sure to always play within the “rules”. The rules go awry when Rock decides to try deposing an unpredictable gang leader in favour of a more stable one and gets trapped inside Kowloon Walled City only for Ho to come to his rescue in answer of their debt of loyalty.

Despite their positions at opposite ends of the spectrum, Lee Rock and Crippled Ho generate a genuine brotherhood during the ten years which see their ascent to the top of the Hong Kong criminal tree. The launch of ICAC in 1974 which aims to eradicate corruption across the board threatens to bring the party to an end with its obvious desire for efficacy in refusing to hire the same old stooges who will do nothing, and actually arresting some of the most notorious abusers of power. Wong and Kwan end the film with a frankly ridiculous statement that thanks to ICAC and the retreat of the British, corruption has now been completely eradicated from Hong Kong along with colonial rule. Yet, in keeping with censorship guidelines, both Rock and Ho are allowed to appear in an epilogue sequence in which they have an emotional conversation revealing the ways crime has not paid for them in the way they hoped it might.

Dripping with period detail and thankfully reining in some of the more outlandish elements and unwise comedy Wong is often known for Chasing the Dragon is also a surprisingly bloody affair as ears are sliced off, severed heads appear in boxes, and the gang engage in a series of action packed set pieces many of them set in the famed Walled City. Yen and Lau play two sides of the same game while their intense bond is shaken by the need for revenge and a suspicion of betrayal. Wong Jing redeems himself with the assistance of the ever reliable Kwan in a star studded tale of corrupt yet noble criminals daring to rebel against oppression by embracing its amoral rules.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

International trailer (dialogue free)

Shock Wave (拆彈專家, Herman Yau, 2017)

shock wave posterRecent Hong Kong action cinema has not exactly been known for its hero cops. Most often, one brave and valiant officer stands up for justice when all around him are corrupt or acting in self interest rather than for the good of the people. Shock Wave (拆彈專家) sees Herman Yau reteam with veteran actor Andy Lau turning in another fine action performance at 55 years of age as a dedicated, highly skilled and righteous bomb disposal officer who becomes the target of a mad bomber after blowing his cover in an undercover operation. These are universally good cops fighting an insane terrorist whose intense desire for revenge and familial reunion is primed to reduce Hong Kong’s central infrastructure to a smoking mess.

Some years prior to the main action, J S Cheung (Andy Lau) is undercover with a gang of bomb loving bank robbers. When they decide to load up a few taxis with explosives, Cheung just can’t let innocent people and fellow officers get caught in the crossfire and so he blows his cover and tips the cops off to the weaponised motor vehicles. Head honcho of the gang, Blast (Jiang Wu), is not best pleased especially as his younger brother Biao (Wang Ziyi) gets himself arrested. Flash forward to the present day and Blast has come up with his plot for revenge – placing large amounts of explosives in the Cross Harbour Tunnel and taking everyone in the general area hostage until the authorities agree to release his brother and he’s satisfied himself in outwitting Cheung.

In this at least Shock Wave fits neatly into the mad bomber genre as Blast goes to great lengths to terrorise the public for irrational and entirely selfish reasons. Blast’s original twin motives centre on a need to get his brother out of prison and the need to destroy Cheung but Biao has decided one of the reasons he quite liked being in prison was that Blast wasn’t there and Cheung isn’t really interested in playing Blast’s game. Blast, as his brother points out, is someone who rarely considers the thoughts or emotions of other people, acting selfishly and assuming his own desires are the only ones which matter. This essential selfishness is echoed in a fairly subtle point about the financial impact of the tunnel crisis and how others stand to profit from it while hundreds people remain terrified and captive inside a giant tube surrounded by water which may soon collapse if Blast loses his temper.

Th mad bomber may be a cinematic staple but Shock Wave relies too heavily on familiar genre elements to make much on an impact of its own. Characterisation is often shallow in the hero cop vs insane criminal set up with supporting characters reduced to a single prominent emotion. The inevitable romantic subplot gives Cheung an emotionally fragile, recently divorced school teacher as an angelic girlfriend only to have her experience sudden qualms about getting involved with someone who does such a dangerous job.

Even if the narrative fails to impress, Yau produces an exciting visual spectacle reportedly spending vast sums of money building an exact replica of the Cross Harbour Tunnel. Filled with explosions, gunfights, and high octane action Yau keeps the tension high by turning the dial right down as Cheung and his gang do their thing with cool, calm military precision disarming everything from C4 to unexploded World War II bombs.  At two hours, Shock Wave is pushing the ideal for an action thriller but largely makes its lengthy running time count despite a number of underdeveloped subplots.

A vehicle for Lau who also takes a producer credit, Shock Wave is defined by his performance as the dashing and heroic member of the bomb disposal squad. Jiang Wu’s mad bomber provides hearty support but is never given much to do other than emphasise his villainy with sneering taunts and occasional acts of cruelty. Cheung’s schoolteacher girlfriend Carmen, played by Song Li, is about as generic as they come seeming only to exist for the classic girlfriend in peril plot device but Song and Lau have good chemistry and the relationship does at least help to up the otherwise absent emotional content. Simply put, Shock Wave is an excuse for the ageing Lau to play the action hero once again and he plays it to the hilt. At times frustratingly formulaic, Shock Wave does manage to maintain the tension until the grippingly explosive finale whilst also paying tribute to those who run towards the crisis rather than away from it in full knowledge of the price they may pay in coming to the defence of ordinary people.


Shock Wave was the closing film of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival and will also be released in UK cinemas from 5th May.

Original trailer (English subtitles)