Shadows (殘影空間, Glenn Chan, 2020)

Are humans innately good or innately evil, and when we do good do we do it altruistically or to make ourselves feel better? These are all questions which occur to an idealistic yet conflicted forensic psychiatrist in Glenn Chan’s twisty psycho-noir, Shadows (殘影空間). Burdened both by a medical condition which apparently conveys a kind of superpower and by her own unresolved trauma, Ching (Stephy Tang Lai-Yan) wants to believe that people are at heart good but is herself caught in a complex web of manipulations in which even her well-meaning interventions may have unintended consequences. 

Ching’s big case is that of a 34-year-old social worker, Chu, who suddenly bludgeoned his entire family, three generations of women, to death with one of his many trophies which had a small heart on its top before calling the police and jumping over his balcony. As he only lived on the second floor, Chu survived but appears remarkably nonchalant about his crime. Police officer Ho (Philip Keung Ho-man) brings in Ching to figure out if Chu was really in a state of mental distress when he committed the murders, or if his certainly survivable suicide attempt is part of a smokescreen to help him evade justice. Possibly caused by a brain tumour, Ching’s special power is the ability to insert herself into her patients’ traumatic memories which is where she hears Chu recall a mantra that all humans are selfish and only think of themselves. This statement is meant not as censure but affirmation, Ching recalling a similar sentiment uttered by a rival psychologist, Yan (Tse Kwan-Ho), whom Chu had also been seeing, to the effect that mental imbalance lies in an inability to embrace one’s shadow self including “negative” impulses such egotism. 

In truth, the investigation into Chu’s case soon recedes into the background more or less forgotten as Ching embarks on an ideological battle with Yan who, we are told, has recently returned from many years living in the individualistic West and is peddling a kind of hyper individualist will to power which she regards as abetting his patients, a surprising number of whom go on to commit violent crime. Yan argues that humans are born evil and that the individual has the right to be selfish, abandoning conventional morality to pursue their own desires including those which necessarily harm others. Ching believes she’s doing the opposite, yet her attempt to help a victim of domestic violence by convincing her that she has the right and power to escape her abusive familial environment eventually places her in the same position as Yan. 

Given her own traumatic history, she may have to consider there’s something in Yan’s assertion that her intentions are also “selfish” in that she helps others in order to help herself feel better. When her investigation leads her, somewhat improbably, towards a serial killer with a Silence of the Lambs-esque taste for “beautiful” corpse tableaux she exposes him doing something much the same, claiming that he’s “saving” elderly people from the pain and suffering of old age but in reality trying to make himself feel better for failing to prevent the suffering of someone he loved while selfishly avoiding the pain of losing them. 

Determined to prove Yan is a serial killer by proxy manipulating his patients by encouraging them to embrace their darkest desires, Ching fails to see the degree to which she is also being manipulated, possibly for much longer than she might have realised. Yan’s patients refuse their responsibility towards others, rejecting the consequences of their actions in insisting that everyone makes their own choices. His hyper individualist philosophy might be seen as a stand-in for the increasingly selfish impulses of a previously collectivist society, a shift away from conventional morality towards the primacy of the self, yet it also darkly suggests that altruism is also cynical and born either of guilt or the selfish desire for reciprocity. In the end the verdict is in a sense left to a legitimate authority, Ho asked to decide if he thinks Yan is a crazed libertarian mad scientist, or if Ching is merely a traumatised and deluded woman pursuing some kind of personal vendetta. Featuring fantastic production design and stand out performances from Stephy Tang and Philip Keung, Shadows has no easy answers for the nature of the human soul but nevertheless casts its various protagonists on a noirish journey through the traumatic past guided only by duplicitous voices and ambivalent authority. 


Shadows screens at the BFI Southbank on 25th July as part of this year’s Chinese Visual Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

One Second Champion (一秒拳王, Chiu Sin-Hang, 2020)

“All things in their being are good for something” little Yan is told by a sympathetic TV presenter slightly unconvinced by his short-lived celebrity as the “One Second Wonder”. It may not sound like the most complimentary nickname, but in this case it’s intended in the kindest sense referring to the kid’s uncanny ability to see into the future if only for one second. As a child he’d told the TV audience that he wanted to grow up and find a way to use his superpower to contribute to society, but now a dejected middle-aged man the hero of Chiu Sin-Hang’s One Second Champion (一秒拳王) is something of a loser, imbued with a sense of defeat and not quite so much trading on past glory as using his “superpower” as a party trick to earn extra cash. 

As he tells us, Yan (Endy Chow Kwok-yin) was born during a storm, a power cut threatening his new life and leaving him apparently dead for one second to which he attributes the cause of his strange ability. All things considered, however, being able to see one second ahead is almost useless. What good is it to predict the winning lottery numbers or the winner of a horse race if you’ve no time to buy a ticket or place a bet? A nerdy sort of child unfairly thrust into the spotlight as the “One Second Wonder”, Yan has become a defeated middle-aged man working in the bar of an old friend while trying to pay off gambling debts accrued trying to raise the money for an operation for his son, Chi-leung (Hung Cheuk Lok), who is deaf. His total lack of self-esteem is rammed home when Chi-leung points out a classmate who’s been bullying him, often ripping out and damaging his hearing aid. Though Yan vows to talk to the school and the boy’s parents to sort it out, he quickly backs own even trying to force Chi-leung to apologise to the bully in front of his equally intimidating mum. 

The one arena where seeing one second ahead may in fact be valuable is in the middle of a fight which is what brings him to the attention of aspiring boxer Shun (Chiu Sin-hang). Faced with esteem issues of his own, Shun struggles in the ring partly due to his asthma and partly ongoing anxiety as a result of trauma having seen his dad behaving strangely after a fight. Aside from personal success, his desire is to resurrect his dad’s old gym, eventually teaming up with Yan after hearing of his strange ability and hoping his success might help attract more members. In this positive environment, Yan starts to regain a sense of confidence, getting a smart new haircut and paying more attention to personal grooming, while impressing his young son with his unexpected success not to mention reflecting that his “useless” ability might not be so useless after all. 

But then, after a traumatic incident he fears his special powers may be gone and is faced with another choice in whether to continue boxing as a “real” boxer or go back to the defeated life he used to live. Boxing shouldn’t be about gimmicks, according to a young pretty boy star (Chanon Santinatornkul) with an ironic, if sometimes cruel, devotion to the craft marketed like an idol by his ambitious manager, but Yan has to wonder if there’s more to him than the “One Second Wonder”. The conclusion that he comes to is that, as the TV presenter had said, everything’s good for something, one second can make a huge difference, and every choice you make counts. Win or lose, what matters is making the most of your time so why wait when you could start right away. A soulful tale of self-acceptance, the power of mutual solidarity, and the restorative qualities of physical discipline, Chiu Sin-Hang’s warmhearted drama is an ode to forging your own destiny, one second at a time, while remaining true to yourself. “Our superpower is never giving up” Yan tells his young son, no longer so afraid of the sound of his own heart beating, as they walk off into the sunset One Second Champions win or lose. 


One Second Champion streams worldwide (excl. China/Spain/Canada) until 2nd July as part of this year’s hybrid edition Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese 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)

The Way We Keep Dancing (狂舞派3, Adam Wong, 2020)

In a Hong Kong already under threat, a small community of artists finds itself torn over how best to preserve their culture and way of life amid the seemingly unstoppable wave of gentrification that threatens to engulf them in Adam Wong’s quasi-sequel to his 2013 hit The Way We Dance, The Way We Keep Dancing (狂舞派3). Cheekily titled The Way We Dance 3 in the original Chinese, The Way We Keep Dancing takes place in an alternate reality in which a part two has already been released and follows the fortunes of alternate versions of the earlier film’s stars as they each fight their own battles while finding themselves conflicted over the future direction of their community. 

As the film opens, rapper Heyo (Heyo) receives a tip-off from a friend that the disused industrial building in which he and others are illegally squatting is about to be raided by the police. Later talking to a journalist, he explains that the “apartment” only has a sofa because sleeping there would technically be against the code of usage for former industrial buildings, though it’s obvious that he does indeed “live” there. A member of the “KIDA” (Kowloon Industrial District Artists) community he like others is acutely aware of the increasing gentrification of the local area which threatens to push bohemian artists like himself further out of the city. Yet no one seems to have come up with a united means of resistance, previous protests apparently having proved largely ineffective. 

It’s perhaps for this reason that he, along with the dance stars “returning” from the first movie, is later convinced to begin working with the Urban Renewal Bureau on a new project entitled “Dance Street” which, they are told by YouTuber mastermind Leung (Babyjohn Choi), will bring public attention to the local dance subculture and give them greater leverage to preserve their place within the community. Not all are convinced, however, with other local artists deriding them as sell outs conspiring with the developers who are, after all, subverting everything they stand for in repackaging hip hop and street culture to make it marketable to a mainstream audience of the kind that will eventually be buying and investing in the upscale apartments they presumably plan to build after tearing down disused industrial structures. This conflict comes to the fore when Leung gets the gang involved in promoting a new “Hip Park” which will apparently have a skate bank and graffiti area crassly commodifying the unique creative spirit of the Industrial District while deliberately confining it to a single location, sanitised and controlled. 

Meanwhile, aspiring dancer Hana (Cherry Ngan Cheuk-ling) has become a minor star since the release of The Way We Dance and its sequel, a popular celebrity with a small internet following. Somewhat naive and swept along alternately by her agent Terese and the persuasive Leung, she finds herself torn between her loyalty to her old dancemates and the demands of her rising fame. Terese makes it clear that the agency is only really interested in her while she keeps trying to find opportunities for her friends but also finds herself an accidental figurehead of the Dance Street movement because of her minor celebrity. Like others she is convinced that collaboration is the answer, not quite understanding its duplicities until directly confronted by the odious “call me Tony” head of the development board who embarks on a crass down with the kids routine in order to sell his new brand as a hip urban space for trendy young professionals while the artists are pushed even further into the margins. 

There is perhaps a further meta commentary to be read into Wong’s gentrification debate in the light of Hong Kong’s changing status and relationship to the Mainland in which many feel the local character and culture is being slowly erased. In any case, though including a series of large-scale set pieces, Wong concentrates less on dance than the plight of the KIDA community shooting shaky handheld footage of Heyo as he wanders the city in search of inspiration but encounters both hostility and disappointment from his fellow artists before eventually making the decision to rebel against the Dance Street project and his own unwilling complicity with its slightly dubious aims. Nevertheless, even if slightly ambiguous Wong eventually returns his dancing heroes to their roots as a small boy whose dreams may have been dashed by Leung’s thoughtless machinations dances defiantly amid the ruins . 


The Way We Keep Dancing screened as part of the 2021 Osaka Asian Film Festival.

Original trailer (English / Traditional Chinese subtitles)

Images: Golden Scene Company Limited © 2020

29+1 (Kearen Pang, 2016)

29+1 posterYou know what they call women over 25 in China? “Christmas cake” – no one wants you after the 25th, so you’re condemned to sit on the shelf for all eternity like a piece of overproduced seasonal confectionary (a silly analogy because Christmas cakes, at least English ones, may outlive us all). Christy Lam lives in Hong Kong, not mainland China, and so her worries are a little less intense but still the dreaded 30 is causing its own share of panic and confusion in her otherwise orderly, tightly controlled life. In 29+1 Kearen Pang adapts her own enormously successful 2005 stage play about the intertwined lives of two very different women who happen to share a birthday and are each approaching the end of their 20s in very different ways. By turns melancholy and hopeful, 29+1 finds both women at a natural crossroads but rather than casting them into a bottomless pit of despair, allows each of them to rediscover themselves through a kind of second adolescence in which they finally figure out what it is they want out of life.

Christy Lam’s (Chrissie Chau) morning routine is fairly well entrenched. The alarm clock ticks over from 6.29 to 6.30 and she rises, goes through her beauty regime, decides on an appropriate outfit for work, eats a low cal breakfast and then heads out. A month before her 30th birthday, Christy begins to feel restless but her life is good – she has a long-term boyfriend and she’s just received a promotion at work where she is both liked and respected for her talents. So why does she feel so…unsatisfied?

Like the grim harbinger of encroaching doom, the rot has already set in as symbolised by a leak in her apartment which has created a nasty stain on her pristine white walls and even spread to some of her precious handbags. Her landlord pledges to look at it, but unbeknownst to Christy his wife has sold the apartment she’s been renting and she’s being kicked out with no notice. The landlord suggests moving in with her boyfriend but this proves unattractive for several reasons and so Christy ends up house sitting for a friend of the landlord’s nephew who is spending a month in Paris giving Christy some breathing space to figure things out.

Offering frequent asides to the audience, Christy’s acerbic observations of modern life and the expectations placed on women are both familiar and extremely funny. Running through her daily routine with wry irony, it’s clear Christy resents having to jump through all these hoops but also accepts them as just a part of being 29 in 2005. Catching a bus the morning after finding the leak in her apartment, she finds a former professor, now an insurance salesman, sitting across the aisle. After somewhat tactlessly remarking that she looks “completely different” from her college self, the professor then goes on to ask all the impolite questions people ask 29-year-old women as regards her job and marital status before getting into pension plans and mortgages. His insurance pitch proves a hit, and every other youngish woman (and one man acting on behalf of a little sister) picks up one of his information packs too.

At work at least, Christy is faring a little better. Unexpectedly receiving a promotion from her infinitely likeable if hardline boss, Elaine (Elaine Jin), Christy feels conflicted. The job is everything she thought she wanted, but suddenly she feels out-of-place – disconnected from her former colleagues and only now picking up on the immense gulf between herself, preparing to enter middle age with strict diets and bundling up to fight the aggressive air conditioning, and the new recruits – cheerfully wolfing down cakes and sugary drinks, dressed only in their light summer dresses and gossiping or boasting about slacking off even to the boss’ face. Despite her success Elaine is an approachable and friendly woman, prepared to give some real advice to her young protégé to the end that there are choices involved in everything and sometimes it comes to the point you need to make them rather than let things drag on.

Choices are things Christy’s avoided making, despite approaching life with an intense need for control. Facing several crises at once from her father’s Alzheimer’s to a strained relationship with her boyfriend of ten years, Christy is forced into a position she might not have welcomed but grudgingly admits may actually have been for the best. The apartment she ends up living in temporarily belongs to a young woman named Wong Ting-lok (Joyce Cheng) and, in contrast to Christy’s former home, is filled with a quirky sense of personality from the large Eiffel Tower of Polaroids pinned to the wall to the Leslie Cheung VHS collection and large number of vinyl records all of which Christy is welcome to enjoy. It is, however, Tin-lok’s “autobiography” that comes to capture her attention.

Tin-lok is a woman defined by her love of life and innate talent for cheerfulness even in adversity. Unlike Christy, her life has been less marked by the conventionally “successful” as she’s held down the same casual job in a record store run by a former celebrity for the past ten years and has never had a proper boyfriend despite her close friendship with Hon-ming (Babyjohn Choi) – the nephew of Christy’s landlord. Sometimes her lack of progress gets her down which explains the diary and the Polaroids – she likes to record her “achievements” in a more concrete way, but Tin-lok is, broadly, at home with herself. A recent crisis striking just as Christy’s had, prompts her into action – doing the things she’d always wanted to do in the knowledge that every moment is precious and there is no time to waste.

Pang gradually shifts into a kind of magical realism as the lives of Christy and Tin-lok begin to merge with Christy experiencing the life of Tin-lok from a first person perspective. Both women re-live old memories, inserting their current selves into a long passed era and looking back at it both with wistful nostalgia and the immediacy of unforgotten feeling. Christy’s trusted taxi driver laments that young people don’t know how to fix things anymore, every time something breaks they throw it out and buy a new one. Christy is learning how to make repairs to fractured dreams but thanks to some help from the resilient warmth of Tin-lok, finally figures out that things fall into place when you let them and you don’t have to make all your decisions based on what others have already decided for you.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)