The Last Affair (花城, Tony Au Ting-Ping, 1983)

“Why choose Paris?” a mysterious voice inquires. “Because it’s Paris” comes the slightly depressed reply. In terms of the movies, the City of Light has an undeniably romantic reputation, but those who go there are often drawn more towards the darkness. Art director Tony Au Ting-ping’s distinctly European directorial debut The Last Affair (花城) helped to launch the film careers of then TV stars Chow Yun-fat and Carol Cheng Yu-ling and finds a lonely young woman trapped in an unhappy marriage travelling to Paris alone for a friend’s wedding only to discover that you cannot escape yourself through romantic delusion. 

The dejected Ha-ching (Carol Cheng Yu-ling) once eagerly studied French after school with her best friend Bing (Pat Ha Man-lik) in the hope of travelling through Europe but married young and never got the opportunity while Bing moved to Paris and is about to marry a Vietnamese man who owns a family-run restaurant. Looking back at an old photo of the pair of them together, she laments that she was once young and full of dreams but is now middle-aged and filled with disappointment. Bing is surprised that Ha-ching has come to Paris on her own, but she deftly changes the subject, apparently unwilling to talk about her husband, Wai-ming seemingly a representative of an empty elitism of the newly prosperous society. Later she writes him a letter she doesn’t have the courage to send informing him that her trip to Paris has convinced her that she never loved him and she doesn’t see how their present relationship could continue. 

In any case, Wai-ming is supposed to arrive just before the wedding but perhaps only because he’s also going to a big architecture conference in Lyon. When he eventually turns up, he’s extremely rude to Bing and her fiancé who is obviously irritated but making a tremendous effort to be polite while Wai-ming makes a fuss about the quality of the hotel, snapping at Ha-ching that she should have booked the Georges V because it’s not as if they don’t have the money while endlessly droning on about himself. In short, it’s not difficult to see why Ha-ching is unhappy. 

Before he arrives, however, she starts to see a different future fuelled by ideas of European romance after locking eyes with handsome violinist Kwon-ping (Chow Yun-fat) busking in the subway. Awkwardly, Kwong-Ping turns out to be a member of Bing’s circle of friends, and the pair quickly hit it off, beginning a passionate affair. A phone call to his apartment from a French woman, however, has Ha-ching feeling uncertain. She has fallen in love with Kwon-ping and is intending to throw her life away for him, but he likes to have a good time in the bohemian bars of the city whereas she’d rather stay in cooking Chinese food to make them both feel more at home. Artists and dreamers all, the people at the bar make her uneasy. She’s always wanted to know how to find true happiness and has a feeling most of those at the bar are the same, never quite finding it and left with a terrible sense of incompleteness. In truth, she’s a little more conventional than she’d perhaps assumed.

That sense of existential displacement is something that, on the surface of things at least, doesn’t seem to bother Kwon-Ping, but then again perhaps explains the momentary monogamy of his womanising in which he loves them when he’s with them but forgets them when he’s not. For many, Paris seems to be the city of broken dreams. Melancholy art student Siu-tong is forced to make ends meet painting “traditional” furniture designs to European tastes while trying to make it as an artist. Bing’s fiancé is casually dismissive of those who paint for money by the river, but Siu-tong is left with no other choice, dismissed by the furniture maker and finding that all of the talk of his getting a solo show was just that. His girlfriend went back to the Philippines to study, worried he’d forget her, while he’s too ashamed to tell her that he’s giving up and going back to Hong Kong to be an art teacher. 

Bing, meanwhile, has troubles of her own, preparing to get married but perhaps getting cold feet in settling while still hung up on old love. She can’t forgive Kwon-Ping for his womanising ways, but is too close to the matter to be able to talk to Ha-ching even if she can tell that there’s something not right with her old friend. Unable to accept that Kwon-Ping is not a one woman sort of man, Ha-ching begins to go quietly out of her mind, falling out with Bing while resentful of her husband and certain she does not want to return with him to her old life in Hong Kong. She meets a Canadian-Chinese man travelling Europe alone and making ends meet through selling handicrafts along the way, but ultimately reflects that solo travelling is not the path to happiness at least not for her and is therefore faced with the impossibility of witnessing the implosion of her romantic delusion. Framed in the grandiose tones of avant-garde opera, Ha-ching’s existential despair takes a much darker turn than might originally be expected, but is perhaps in keeping with Au’s overtly European arthouse aesthetics. 


The Story of Woo Viet (胡越的故事, Ann Hui, 1981)

Displacement and a legacy of violence conspire against a young man attempting to escape the trauma of war in the second in Ann Hui’s “Vietnam trilogy”, The Story of Woo Viet (胡越的故事, AKA God of Killers). Starring a young Chow Yun-fat as Chinese-Vietnamese refugee headed to Hong Kong with a hope of making it to the US, Woo Viet’s story suggests that violence may be impossible to escape in a world increasingly corrupted by human indifference while only crushing disappointment awaits for those who live on dreams alone. 

After years fighting for the South Vietnamese army, Woo Viet (Chow Yun-fat) is one of many young Chinese-Vietnamese men attempting to escape through claiming asylum in Hong Kong so that he can eventually apply for a visa to the US. The reasons he needed to leave are readily apparent. Even on the overcrowded, primitive boat on which he arrives in Hong Kong, Woo Viet has already witnessed several atrocities in which fellow passengers were dumped overboard, killed, or marooned on isolated islands. He has become the surrogate father to a little boy who is now alone on the boat because his dad was killed by the guards, and subsequently becomes a target for Viet Cong “special agents” after they strangle his friend in his sleep for having seen something he shouldn’t have.  

Luckily, Woo Viet has a friend in Hong Kong, a female “penpal” Lap Quan (Cora Miao Chien-Jen) who sent him letters he rarely answered all through the war. After Woo Viet is forced to kill a special agent in the refugee camp in order to ensure his own survival, he finds himself relying on Lap Quan to help him organise a fake passport. He no longer has the luxury of waiting to do things properly, he needs to leave the country as soon as possible. The fake passports available are, for some reason, Japanese meaning he has to learn to at least sound plausible by picking up a few handy phrases to fool the border guards. It’s in the language classes that he meets fellow refugee Shum Ching (Cherie Chung Chor-hung) who is travelling to the US because a former customer who has already emigrated told her that he wanted her to come no matter what the cost. The problem is the HK trafficker has not been honest with either of them. Woo Viet may have a decent shot at actually making it to the US, but the girls are to be sold on at the first available Chinatown, which in this case is Manila where they’re waiting for a connecting flight. Having bonded with Shum Ching, Woo Viet surprises the traffickers by giving up his chance to go to America to stay in the Philippines to try and rescue her. 

“Whichever Chinatown it is, I think my situation will be the same” Woo Viet writes back to Lap Quan, keeping up a correspondence which becomes increasingly dishonest as he struggles come to terms the shattering of all his dreams. Trapped in a Philippine Chinatown, he discovers the only way he can save Shum Ching is by serving the gangsters that “bought” her from the HK trafficker. Yet, also in his letter to Lap Quan he claims that “it is much simpler to kill people here compared to Vietnam”, while suggesting that the reason his situation is “the same” in Chinatowns the world over is that he has no real identity and can therefore “solve people’s problems with no problem” which is why he’s ended up working as a hired gun for HK gangster Chung. 

Even so, he still harbours hopes of making it to the US when he’s made enough money to “redeem” Shum Ching who is already dreaming of finding a tiny house for them both where she can cook him proper Vietnamese food. While in Manila, he’s partnered with a slightly older man, Sarm (Lo Lieh), who came from Hong Kong a decade earlier. Woo Viet thinks he should have earned plenty of money after a decade making kills for Chung, so he doesn’t understand why he’s still here rather than off somewhere else enjoying a better life. He still doesn’t quite see that Sarm is a vision of his possible future, a man so beaten down by life that his only goal is to drink himself into an early grave. Sarm no longer believes in a future for himself, but he wants to believe in one for Woo Viet, and so he tries to help him but brotherhood, like love, is no match for the casual cruelty of the world in which they live. 

Woo Viet’s floating rootlessness is perhaps an echo of a potential anxiety in a Hong Kong facing its own sense of displacement with the handover less than 20 years away, as perhaps are his feelings of hopelessness as he attempts to write himself into a better future in his now constant letters to Lap Quan in which he somewhat insensitively talks of his love for Shum Ching born precisely out of that same sense of rootless desperation. Soon after they meet, the pair attempt to visit a flower market at night but their romantic moment is disrupted by another refugee couple being caught and dragged away by police, instantly throwing a fatalistic shadow over their innocent connection. All Woo Viet wanted was an ordinary settled life, perhaps adopting that orphaned little boy from the refugee camp and bringing him with them as he and Shum Ching claim a better life in the US, but even small dreams are seemingly impossible in a world in which the predominating force is not love or compassion but violence.  


The Occupant (靈氣逼人, Ronny Yu Yan-Tai, 1984)

There’s no such thing as a reasonably priced apartment, and so when you find one that seems strangely spacious for the rent, it’s prudent to wonder why that might be. Yes, that’s right, your dream apartment may in fact be haunted! Going a bit meta, Ronny Yu Yan-Tai gets in on the comedy ghost game with The Occupant (靈氣逼人), a tale of supernatural suspense starring Taiwanese-Canadian actress and singer Sally Yeh as a young woman returning from Canada for a three week stay to work on her dissertation researching “Chinese superstition”.

Having not thought to book ahead for her accommodation, Angie (Sally Yeh Chian-Wen) is shocked to discover that hotel rooms in the Hong Kong of 1984 are in no way cheap. Locked out of even the cheapest flea pits, she decides to try renting an apartment only to run into the slimy Hansome Wong (Raymond Wong Pak-Ming), an unscrupulous estate agent/used car salesman. Angie spots an apartment sitting on his board that’s in her budget and asks to see it. Hansome is delighted because it’s been on the market ages, but what he doesn’t disclose is that the reason it’s so cheap is that the place is haunted. Angie is originally quite confused by the fact her furniture seems to move back to its original position all by itself, and irritated by loud noises such as a woman singing and a couple having an argument late at night, but on being told that she’s the only resident by the decidedly creepy caretaker (Yam Ho), decides she’s not really bothered if the apartment has another occupant besides herself and anyway it might be quite useful for her thesis. 

Very much in the Wong Jing vein, much of the early comedy revolves around Hansome’s cringeworthy attempts to worm his way into Angie’s life. Luckily for her, he says, Hansome is a very “superstitious” person and so offers to show her around all the best “superstitious” sights of the city, particularly a local temple where they seem to do every kind of taoist ritual going. The problem is that Angie can’t seem to get rid of him. He even pulls the trick of saying that he left something behind in her apartment so he can come in and retrieve it, only to get his arm trapped in a priceless vase. Hearing about the ghost he vows to stay the night and protect her from the boogeyman, but he didn’t count on the real thing turning up and expelling him from the apartment in exasperation with creepy men everywhere. 

Meanwhile, Angie is actually quite taken with a handsome policeman she runs into at the airport, but incorrectly assumes he’s a “sex maniac” because he was only hanging out with her as camouflage for surveilling another woman who turned out to be a pickpocket. Valentino (Chow Yun-Fat) is an honest cop, which is why he ends up getting asked to take some time off after discovering a fellow officer visiting an establishment they were raiding on a tip off that it was employing underage girls. Like Hansome, Valentino has also taken to Angie, if in a slightly less creepy way, and the three of them eventually get together to try and solve the ghost problem (not that Angie actually has much of a problem with it). 

On investigation, Angie discovers that the previous occupant of the apartment was a nightclub singer who apparently shot herself after a failed affair with a married man who wouldn’t leave his family. She becomes ever more obsessed with the dead woman, Lisa Law (Kitman Mak Kit-Man), despite the warnings from Valentino’s former policeman turned taoist priest buddy (Lo Lieh) who tells her that the ghost most likely bears a grudge and will try to engineer a reprise of her tragedy using a susceptible subject. Yu has fun parodying some of the genre staples like magical charms supposed to ward off ghosts which get mysteriously lost at critical moments, but edges towards a real supernatural dread as the curse takes hold, swallowing our trio in a bizarre recreation of the past which accidentally reveals a long hidden truth and helps to alleviate the ghost’s anger. In her frequent voice overs recorded on a dictaphone, Angie reveals that she came to Hong Kong with a low view of “Chinese superstition” but thanks to her experiences now has a new appreciation for the power of the supernatural. Ghosts it seems can’t be exorcised so much as appeased, ignore them at your peril.


Original trailer (no subtitles)

Office (華麗上班族, Johnnie To, 2015)

Johnnie To office poster 1Can love and capitalism walk hand in hand? Perhaps not, at least in Johnnie To’s beautifully choreographed musical exploration of high stakes finance and moral bankruptcy, Office (華麗上班族). Adapted from Sylvia Chang’s stage play, Office situates itself on the edge of an abyss as the 2008 financial crisis edges its way towards Hong Kong while enterprising businessmen try to figure out how to ride the waves even if that means standing on someone else’s shoulders as they sink deeper into the moral morass that is the modern economy.

Top Hong Kong trading company Jones & Sunn is about to go public. CEO Winnie Chang (Sylvia Chang) has long been running the show for her boss and lover, Chairman Ho (Chow Yun-fat), who has promised her a sizeable dividend once the floatation is complete. Meanwhile, two new interns have just joined the company, eager to make their marks in the corporate world and ensure they survive their three month probation. Bright-eyed and bushy-tailed Li Xiang (Wang Ziyi), “Lee like Ang Lee, Xiang like dream”, just wants to work hard and get rich so he can live a nice life, while his colleague Kat Ho (Lang Yueting) has just returned from studying economics at Harvard and appears to be slumming it in a lowly internship while (unconvincingly) pretending to be from a humble background. The funny thing is no one seems to pick up on the fact Kat has the same surname as the company’s owner, or they might have figured out she’s the boss’ daughter either forced to learn the trade from the ground up or working as a spy among the regular employees. In any case, Li Xiang is smitten.

Love, it seems, is the destabilising force at the centre of this great machine. CEO Chang, an all powerful woman in a male dominated industry, rules the office with a will of iron but allows herself to be manipulated by Ho with whom she has been having a longstanding affair. Ho has a wife in a coma, but neither of the pair object to the office gossip which brands Chang as “Mrs. Ho”, seeing it only as cutely romantic rather than a slight on Chang’s very real authority. Meanwhile, lonely in Ho’s lack of serious commitment, Chang has also been sleeping with her favourite underling, the feted David (Eason Chan), who in turn is getting fed up with feeling like a spare part who’s hit the peak of his career. Unbeknownst to Chang who may have taken her all-seeing eye off the ball, David has started playing with fire in gambling with company money and losing badly. As a counter measure, he’s begun romancing lovelorn accountant Sophie (Tang Wei), who unlike Chang, is still facing the work/home dilemma in that her fiancé back on the Mainland is pressuring her to give up work and settle down.

Li Xiang is very keen on following his “dreams” which in the beginning are charmingly naive – he wants a nice life for himself and the ability to pay off his friends’ debts (seemingly for entirely altruistic reasons, not as an excuse to show off). Slowly, however, his new world begins to corrupt him. He’s irritated that he’s not allowed to ride the executive elevator and badly wants in, but is still green enough to chivalrously cover up for Kat’s mistakes, while Kat is so clueless that she forgets turning up to work in designer outfits and in a chauffeur driven car is going to blow her cover. Li Xiang sees through her, but only to the nice part – it never really occurs to him she’s a mole or planning to betray Mrs. Chang who is kind of her step-mother. Chang isn’t blind to office politics. She sees Li Xiang take the blame for Kat and even likes him for it. She also likes his “originality” and plans to take him under her wing for her new expansionist plans but finds herself once again blindsided by all the difficult romantic drama bubbling under the surface of coldhearted capitalism.

David and Sophie decide they want to start a “love revolution”, but David has already gone to a dark place and his romantic confession is immediately followed by a manipulative request to get Sophie to help him with his nefarious plans. Meanwhile, Li Xiang’s gradual descent into corporatism begins to sour Kat who’d taken a liking to him because he wasn’t like everyone else. They didn’t mean to do it, but they’ve betrayed themselves and others in their relentless pursuit of conventional success. Drunken salarymen at a local bar ask themselves what all of this is for when their kids don’t recognise them and they barely recognise themselves, yet no one quite has the guts to get off the corporate train and go do something else.

In To’s elaborate set design, no one is ever truly able to leave the office. An elegant construction of neon and steel, the abstract theatricality of To’s artificial universe only underlines its essential meaninglessness – something the Office’s denizens eventually come to understand whether they choose to stay or not. As Chang quips, smart guys control money and stupid ones are controlled by it, but she herself is wise enough to know when the game is up and it’s time to move on. Did love destroy the system or did the system destroy love? Beautiful melodies telling us terrible things, To’s anti-capitalist musical crushes its earnest heroes under the wheel of progress while they dance blithely all the way over the edge.


Office screens in Chicago on Oct. 5 as part of Asian Pop-Up Cinema.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Women (女人心, Stanley Kwan, 1985)

Women posterThings are changing in ‘80s Hong Kong, but when it comes right down to it are there really any more choices than there were in the past? Stanley Kwan would become known for his fiercely female led filmmaking and his debut, Women (女人心), is indeed a statement of intent if heeling close to the Shaw Brothers house style and possessed of a particularly mid-80s kind of cynicism. Marriage falls under the spotlight but for all of its minor oppressions and petty aggravations the net seems almost impossible to escape.

Kwan opens with a strangely cheerful family scene which quickly turns sour as housewife Bao-er (Cora Miao Chien-Jen) is excluded by her husband, Derek (Chow Yun-Fat), and son, Dang-dang (Leung Hoi-Leung), who close the bathroom door on her before declaring a pissing contest. Irked, Bao-er finds herself mildly enraged by the sight of her husband’s undies and decides to take this opportunity to tell him she wants a divorce. She’s found out all about Derek’s fancy woman Sha-niu (Cherie Chung Cho-Hung) and has had enough. Decamping to her mother’s with Dang-dang in tow, Bao-er finds herself the latest member of her friends’ “forever happy single women’s club” but remains conflicted when it comes to considering the further direction of her life.

The “forever happy single women’s club” is itself somewhat confused in its outlook in that most of Bao-er’s friends are not really intending to remain single forever but are hoping to find a new partner, if perhaps also enjoying playing the field while they look. None of them are really very happy with the status quo and the various get-togethers at which they enjoy lavish buffets and copious amounts of alcohol are mostly filled with bawdy discussions about men and sex, much to the consternation of the rather uptight Bao-er. 

In fact, Bao-er’s “refinement” seems to be one of the chief issues in her marriage which is perhaps why Derek has found himself intwined with a clingy free spirit who quickly moves into the family home and does her best to stake a claim on little Dang-dang but is unwilling to keep house with the consequence that the apartment is quickly overrun with old newspapers and empty food cartons – a sight which fair breaks Bao-er’s heart when she’s forced to visit only to be presented with some of Sha-niu’s patented “spicy soup”. During a candid conversation with her mother, Bao-er reveals that throughout her married life she’d gone to great lengths to preserve her feminine mystique only for Derek to take off with a woman prepared to let it all hang out. Her mother, broadly supportive of her choices, advises her to think carefully about her future. If the marriage was unhappy then it’s best to call it quits, but if Sha-niu is just a passing fad then perhaps she’s one worth putting up with in the absence of other options.

Bao-er’s mother seems to think that ignorance is bliss when it comes to a healthy marriage, but as a “modern” woman, Bao-er expected more. Even so, despite not requesting alimony (she only wants money to cover Dang-dang’s expensive private school fees), we don’t see Bao-er looking for work though it’s also clear she isn’t looking to remarry in the immediate future. Like many of her friends, Bao-er seems to have her doubts about living as an “independent” woman and continues to be irritated by Derek’s relationship with Sha-niu even while attempting to firmly close the door on her marriage.

The end of the relationship does however give her an opportunity to consider what it is that she wants, even if middle-class conservatism ultimately wins out. This is particularly true of an unexpected attraction to a lesbian friend which she chooses not to pursue seemingly because of the social taboo. Despite being fully out and accepted by the group, Terry (Cheung Yin-Gwan) is also pitied by some of the other members who believe she is locked out of the conventional family life most of them are looking for because she is looking for a woman and not a man. Even if it’s true that Bao-er can only really be fully herself with her female friends, she and the others still hanker after male companionship and do not feel complete without it.   

The major theme which emerges is that marriage and family are essential, if imperfect, and must be maintained even if perhaps superficially as the closing text which conveniently condones Derek’s poor behaviour while allowing Bao-er her “revenge” implies. A slightly cynical point, to be sure but undercut by Kwan’s sense of empathetic irony which asks what other real choices Bao-er has while refusing to condemn her for the ones she eventually makes. Socially conservative as it may be, the fact remains that possibilities are bleak for women of a certain age in ‘80s Hong Kong which remains a playground for men like Derek while women like Bao-er and her friends are left with only complicit means of personal rebellion.


Women screens as part of the 2019 Chinese Visual Festival on 5th May at King’s College London where director Stanley Kwan will be present for a Q&A.

Celestial Pictures trailer (English subtitles)

Project Gutenberg (無雙, Felix Chong, 2018)

Project Gutenburg poster“Sometimes a fake can be better than the real thing” intones mild mannered counterfeiter Lee Man in Felix Chong’s cineliterate thriller Project Gutenberg (無雙) . At first glance, Project Gutenberg would seem to have nothing at all in common with the archival programme from which it takes its name but perhaps there is something in its continual questioning of whether a facsimile can replace an original. Chong plays with perception, narrative, and a human need for authenticity but most of all with the legacy of heroic bloodshed as a melancholy young man attempts to rewrite his own history with himself in the lead.

In the late ‘90s, Lee Man (Aaron Kwok) is languishing in a Thai jail from which he manages to get himself rescued by scraping blue powder off the walls and creating an expert forgery of a postage stamp to send a letter of help. Soon after he gets himself picked up by the Hong Kong police who want his help tracking down a notorious counterfeit currency trafficker known only as “Painter” (Chow Yun-fat). Lee is scared witless because Painter has a habit of ruthlessly hunting down associates who talk – something which is well known to HK police inspector Ho (Catherine Chau) who is after him because he killed her Canadian policeman boyfriend. Painter also murdered the fiancé of Lee’s old flame Yuen (Zhang Jingchu) who is the woman he sent the letter to and who has come to his rescue. Which is to say, the situation is much more emotionally complicated than one might expect.

Through flashback, Lee elaborates on how he came to get mixed up with crime. He and Yuen were living on love in 80s Vancouver trying to make it in the art world. While Yuen’s work began to gain traction, Lee’s was going nowhere. Technically proficient, his paintings were thought soulless and derivative but his talent for mimicry soon brings him to the attention of master forgers and thence to Painter who needs someone with expert skills for his next project – forging the US $100 bill.

Lee tells his tale with melancholy relish, dwelling on his days of youthful abandon with Yuen to the extent that Ho interrupts to declare herself disinterested, advising he skip the prologue and get to the bit where Painter shows up. Painter, a suave yet unpredictable criminal type, determines to help Lee become “the leading man” he knows he can be, but to be fair all anyone is ever interested in is the intensely charismatic Painter. As it turns out, there are more reasons for that than it might at first seem, but in the end Lee’s internalised feelings of inadequacy are still the fuel to his fire. Unable to find artistic success, forgery offers Lee the life of a skilful craftsman and he feels himself to have found his niche but in betraying his artistic integrity he also risks forever losing the woman he loves.

Painter has a weird obsession with Lee’s love life, assuring him that once the deal is done he will help him win back Yuen. “A man who gives up on love is destined to fail at everything” Painter tells him. Lee, however, repeatedly gives up on love. He refuses to fight, embraces his own sense of inferiority, and resolves to live on in misery falling ever deeper into Painter’s world of surrealist crime. Leaving aside Painter’s strangely homoerotic relationship with his protege, Lee’s life gets still more complicated when he becomes involved with a woman, Sau-ching (Joyce Feng), who falls in love with him in Thailand and, for complicated reasons, ends up with Yuen’s face thanks to plastic surgery and name thanks to a fake passport. Painter taunts him with a facsimile of his love but berates him for settling for a substitute while Sau-ching resents getting the Vertigo treatment from a man who refuses to let a failed love fade.

Almost offended by her betrayal of true love, Inspector Ho probes Yuen about her fiancé, asking if he was merely a “substitute” for Lee. Yuen asks if the next man Ho will fall in love with will merely be a “substitute” for her fallen colleague to which Ho fires back that there will never be anyone else because her love is “irreplaceable”. Yuen scoffs at her strangely naive romanticism and Ho does indeed appear to meet an echo of her former love in someone new carried once again on noirish cigarette smoke. If you can’t be with the one you love, love the one you’re with the old adage goes but it turns out that inauthentic romance is the hardest kind to bear.

Chong lets Lee’s retelling of his history play out like a heroic bloodshed movie in which Chow re-inhabits the classic characters of his youth. An unreliable narrator, the movie in Lee’s mind is one of honour and glory in which he still cannot allow himself to take the lead. Chong over eggs the pudding with a series of twists and reversals, undercutting all that’s gone before and muddying his message in the process but there’s no arguing with his high stakes style as he turns a simple crime story into an interrogation of authenticity and the power of personal myth making.


Screened as part of the 2018 London East Asia Film Festival.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

The Monkey King (西游記之大鬧天宮, Cheang Pou-soi, 2014)

Monkey King (donnie yen) posterEverybody knows the story of The Monkey King. His “journey to the west” has been reimagined by everyone from Tsai Ming-liang to Akira Toriyama but, all power to them, no one has yet had the courage to stuff Donnie Yen into a monkey suit to fully recreate the legend. Cheang Pou-Soi’s The Monkey King (西游記之大鬧天宮) rectifies this problem but makes up for it by adding a lot more to the already overcrowded arena. Based on a few early chapters of the story, this first of three Monkey King films could best be classified as an origin story as it retells the events which eventually see Sun Wu-kong imprisoned underneath Five Finger Mountain for 500 years.

Basically, a long, long time ago there was a war between gods and demons after which a fragile truce was formed. The demons were defeated and exiled from Heaven which is repaired thanks to the sacrifice of Princess Nuwa (Zhang Zilin) who transforms herself into crystal tears, one of which births a strange divine creature who has a long and arduous journey ahead of him. Emerging from his crystal egg, The Monkey King (Donnie Yen) returns to lead his people before being discovered by a monk who seeks to train him and make sure he remains on the path of the light. Now renamed Sun Wu-kong, The Monkey King finds himself summoned to the heavenly court where he causes a bunch of trouble and becomes swept up in the Demon King’s ongoing plot for revenge.

A super high budget production, The Monkey King is a live action/animation hybrid even beyond that of any recent Chinese fantasy blockbuster. Utilising green screen for the majority of backgrounds, Cheang also adds in a menagerie of strange creatures including supernatural dragons before the final fight develops into a complete CGI fest as a giant cow and super powered monkey duke it out for the rights to define their world. Rendered in 3D the battles are a whirl of brightly coloured mythic action but it’s often a confection too sweet to be to be truly satisfying, backed up only by a very variable quality of animation.

The film’s true standout element is in the surprisingly nuanced performance of Yen who completely becomes The Monkey King right down to his animalistic gestures. This being a family film he’s much more of a recalcitrant fun lover than someone who likes to cause trouble, but nevertheless trouble is usually what you get if The Monkey King pays you a visit. He is, however, hampered by the slightly incongruous obviousness of his monkey suit given the more abstract designs afforded to other characters. Despite the inherent strangeness of his appearance, Yen is afforded the opportunity to do some quality acting alongside killer fight sequences even if he’s often let down by the lacklustre script and production design.

The origin story of The Monkey King is a necessarily long and complicated one but even so, Cheang seems to have decided that coherence is unnecessary when his audience knows the story so well already. Consequently, the potential romance between Son Wu-kong and the fox spirit Ru-xue is inadequately backed up given its importance to the central narrative whereas other characters appear for such little screen time that they almost seem like excuses to add yet another famous name to the poster. Meandering from one episode to another, the film makes little attempt to maintain engagement between its large scale set pieces, becoming over reliant on its parade of well known personages.

Despite the gravitas offered by Chow Yun-fat and the intense villainy of Aaron Kwok’s poisonous antagonist, The Monkey King remains a fairly silly exercise, a visual sugar rush which seems primed to put viewers off their tea whilst leaving them with a slight headache to boot. Playing best to small children and family audiences, The Monkey King’s only selling point is in the surprising (and almost unrecognisable) performance of Yen as its titular hero whose good hearted japes are sure to be appreciated by the young of heart everywhere. The Monkey King will return, but hopefully with a little more maturity as his quest nears its iconic destination, or at least with a little more finesse.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Cold War 2 (寒戰II, Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2016)

coldwar 2Cold War 2 (寒戰II) arrives a whole four years after the original Cold War rocked Hong Kong with police corruption scandals and fantastically convoluted internal plotting. Heroic policeman Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok) may have won the day, even if he ultimately had to compromise himself to do it, but the police van is still missing and MB Lee (Tony Leung Ka-fei) is still lurking in the background. As is his son, Joe (Eddie Peng) – languishing in prison but apparently still with the resources to cause trouble whilst behind bars.

Joe Lee has Lau’s wife kidnapped, forcing Lau to compromise himself by giving in to his demands all of which culminates in an intense subway set piece in which Lau inadvertently ends up handcuffed to an exploding smoke bomb while Joe Lee escapes. Embarrassing is not the word. Lau now looks bad, and old rivals have their eyes on the police chief’s chair. An enquiry is currently underway into goings on at police HQ lead by top lawyer Oswald Kan (Chow Yun-fat) but his impartiality is severely damaged when one of his own is caught in the crossfire whilst investigating Joe Lee’s nefarious activities.

Like the first film, Cold War 2 is an intense interpersonal thriller though this time the enemies are even closer as the old boys network becomes the means by which commissioners are unseated and installed. Service records are everything – Lau is unpopular with his colleagues because he started out at ICAC and has never served as a rank and file policemen. From one point of view, this makes him an ideal candidate because he has no personal ties to the body of serving officers but his rivals despise him for this very reason. He isn’t one of them, does not have first hand understanding of front line policing, and most importantly is not a part of their interconnected layers of military style brother-in-arms loyalties.

Lau’s predictable miscalculation regarding Joe Lee creates an opportunity to get rid of him and take back the force. “Save the police” is a message which is repeated over and over as the plotters attempt to win others over to their cause, insisting that Lau has lost the media battle for the hearts and minds of a public now trained to be afraid of their police force. Lau is the continuity candidate – mistakes have been made, but his stately manner and apparently steady hands may yet win the day. Those same hands are getting dirtier by the second, but they’ve been brushing the morally grey, not (yet, at least) immersed in the red of innocent blood like those of the corrupt top brass at police HQ.

If the plotting is intricate and filled with double crosses and betrayals, directors Luk and Leung have ensured a steady stream of explosive action sequences to accompany the ongoing cerebral games. Cold War also had its share of action packed spectacular set pieces but Cold War 2 may surpass them with the surprise factor alone including one shocking multi-car pileup inside a tunnel in which cars, buses and bikes go flying before an all out fire fight ensues. Lau’s constant gazing at the “Asia’s Safest City” signs which adorn police headquarters (right next to the metal detectors you need to pass through to get in) has never looked so melancholic and drenched in irony.

It’s a battle for the soul of the police service, but it’s being fought as a dirty war. Lau is the decent and honest man forced to behave in a slightly less honest and decent way, even if for the best of reasons. His rivals are running on pure ambition and pettiness. Despite their claims they do not have the interests of the people of Hong Kong as their foremost concern. The corruption stems far further back than anyone might have previously guessed and is more or less coded into the system. The police van and equipment are still missing and the central plotters are still in place. This is a partial victory at best but then what kind of action fest wouldn’t leave a door open for a sequel. The cold war maybe about to turn hot, but you can rely on the steely eyed Police Commissioner Sean Lau to be there, ready and waiting, when the first shots are fired.


Original trailer (English Subtitles)