The Brink (狂獸, Jonathan Li, 2017)

the brink posterDesire makes beasts of us all. Longtime assistant director Jonathan Li makes his feature debut with a waterborne pulp noir which takes on more than a hint of gloomy sea shanty in its musings on sailors, their eternal brotherhoods, and ocean owned souls. The Brink (狂獸) mixes metaphysical drama with the more usual procedural tropes as a wounded, maverick cop chases his prey through hell and high water, refusing to acknowledge that his own “recklessness” is the single cause of the chaos he currently finds himself embroiled in.

The exhilarating opening sequence tracks around a ruined building before finding ruthless cop Sai Gau (Zhang Jin) engaged in a brutal fight with a suspect who later lands right on his police car after careering out of a top floor window. In addition to the death of the suspect, Sai Gau’s recklessness also causes the death of a fellow officer and sees him suspended from the police force after being charged with possible manslaughter. Six months later he’s absolved of guilt, released, and reinstated but clearly not forgiven by his colleagues and superiors who continue to regard him as a liability.

Hair dyed blond, Sai Gau sets about investigating a notorious gold smuggling operation operating under the cover of the local fishing trade. Meanwhile, smuggling underling Gui Cheng (Shawn Yue) has learned he’s about to be sidelined by his adopted father figure in favour of a feckless biological son and suspects his boss is about to have him offed. Gui Cheng preempts the situation by taking out the son’s guys and replacing them with his own before turning his would-be-assassin’s knife (or more accurately harpoon gun) back on him only for Sai Gau to arrive and ruin everything, unwittingly kicking off a series of unfortunate events for all concerned.

Li sets up Sai Gau and Gui Cheng as inverted mirrors of each other – hence Sai Gau’s ridiculous blond hair which sets him apart from the darkness of the long haired Gui Cheng. Where Sai Gau is all impulsive, instinctual action, Gui Cheng is calm and distance personified. Gui Cheng rarely speaks and when he does he’s concise and to the point, whereas Sai Gau, while not especially loquacious, is a classic wisecracker who speaks without thinking and is unafraid of the consequences of his words. Yet both men are also playing against themselves – Sai Gau has adopted the teenage daughter of the man he killed but refuses to allow himself to care for her, whereas the otherwise heartless Gui Cheng seems to have an intense yet platonic relationship with his female sidekick.

Twin betrayals set Sai Gau and Gui Cheng on an inevitable collision course leading towards a tussle over the gold which becomes more symbol than pure financial gain. Gui Cheng, once so calm and calculating, becomes fixated on harvesting what’s his, turning the buried treasure into his personal white whale while for Sai Gau it becomes the symbol of a long buried evil, a cursed charm designed to lure men to their doom by sending them into the centre of a storm it knows they cannot survive. Gui Cheng believes himself blessed by the goddess of the sea and that the gold is his for the taking, but it is ultimately the sea which claims him as he attempts to defy the elements to stake his claim on the cursed treasure which it has already swallowed. Sai Gau claims no particular spiritual affiliation but the gold, and its corrupting influence, reawakens his sense of morality as he becomes as convinced that the gold is evil as Gui Cheng is that it is his salvation.

The gold turns men into the “wild beasts” of the Chinese title though the English one seems to place them on the “brink” of losing themselves at any given time. Highly stylised, Li’s Hong Kong is one of neon lit darkness in which it is always raining and the air hangs heavy with despair and impossibility. The action scenes are impressively choreographed sequences of balletic beauty captured with Li’s gift for unusual composition and an urgent energy which acts as a harbinger for the coming storm. Pure pulp noir, The Brink has an almost Lynchian sense of lurking darkness creeping in from another, more mythical world the kind of which sailors sing about in their shanties and only talk about by candlelight.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (dialogue free, English captions)

Soul Mate (七月与安生, Derek Tsang, 2016)

soulmateLike the rest of the world, China, or a given generation at least, may be finding itself at something of a crossroads. The past few years have seen a flurry of coming of age dramas in which the melancholy and middle-aged revisit lost love from their youth but Derek Tsang’s Soul Mate (七月与安生, Qīyuè yǔ Anshēng) seems to be speaking to an older kind of melodrama in its examination of passionate friendship pulled apart by time, tragedy, and unspoken emotion. The story is an old one, but Tsang tells it well as its twin heroines maintain their intense, elemental connection even whilst cruelly separated.

Qiyue (Sandra Ma Sichun) and Ansheng (Zhou Dongyu) met at 13 years old and quickly became inseparable. Ansheng, a free-spirited and energetic young girl, came to the aid of the shy and bookish Qiyue but was herself in need a kind of rescue thanks her unusual family circumstances. The child of a busy single mother, Ansheng was often left to fend for herself but Qiyue’s parents are goodhearted people and keen to take on the additional responsibility of caring for their daughter’s only friend. However, the usual cause of tension arrives when 18-year-old Qiyue falls for the handsome Jiaming (Toby Lee). Ansheng, feeling a little jealous and left out, has complicated feelings towards her friend’s boyfriend who seems to be attracted to her further complicating the already intense relationship between the three. Not wanting to break her friend’s heart, Ansheng decides it’s time for her to embrace her free-spirited nature and hit the road even if it takes her away from the most important person in her life.

Years later, Ansheng is a respectable office worker. Jiaming, now a city boy himself, is stunned to spot her on a train even if his attempts to thrust a business card into her hand are met with less than enthusiastic reception. No longer in touch with Qiyue, Jiaming like much of the country has been fascinated by an ongoing web novel, Qiyue and Ansheng, which Qiyue has apparently been writing and is hoping Ansheng knows how to get in touch with her. Sadly, she does not. The three friends appear scattered but how could such intense relationships have ended so abruptly and finally?

Necessarily close in their youth, the two girls are a classic case of opposites attracting as the quiet and thoughtful Qiyue idolises her impulsive, extroverted friend. Their initial separation comes at cost as it pushes each into their opposing sides – Qiyue pursuing her education whilst planning an early marriage, and Ansheng living life on the road hooking up with shady guys and cadging meals by out drinking louts. A disastrous trip brings the differences home as the shared awkwardness regarding their relationships with Jiaming frustrates their essential intimacy and threatens to throw up an unscalable wall between the two women.

Jiaming does his best to get in the way, vacillating between the two girls and ultimately making what is probably the best decision but in the most cowardly and selfish of ways. The two eventually find themselves out of sync, just as Ansheng is thinking of settling down, Qiyue finds the strength to spread her wings but somehow or other they are perpetually kept apart. The film goes to great lengths to emphasise the platonic nature of the two women’s relationship despite the obvious tension between them but it’s difficult not to read Ansheng’s ongoing struggles as a tragic case of a woman in love with her oblivious best friend. Later on the film presents the interesting idea of a nontraditional family in the two women raising a child which is almost their own thanks to the extremely tight triangular relationship of their teenage years, yet it quickly undercuts it with a perfectly executed dramatic twist.

Drawing beautifully nuanced performances from his lead actresses, Tsang crafts an affecting tale of the power of female friendship which transcends all obstacles in its essential unbreakable quality which brings both joy and pain to each of the women even in their inevitable separation. Drawing inspiration from acclaimed Japanese filmmaker Shunji Iwai who is also thanked in the end credits, Tsang moves beyond Hana and Alice for a deeper kind of sadness found in a shot echoing Iwai’s thematically similar Love Letter suggesting the essential melancholy of an enduring yet severed connection.


Soul Mate was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love Off the Cuff (春嬌救志明, Pang Ho-cheung, 2017)

love off the cuff posterJimmy and Cherie, against all the odds, are still together and in a happy longterm relationship in the third addition to Pang Ho-cheung’s series of charming romantic comedies, Love off the Cuff (春嬌救志明). Following the dramatic declaration at the end of Love in the Buff, the pair have continued to grow into each other embracing each of their respective faults but after all this time Jimmy and Cherie have to make another decision – stay together forever or call it quits for good.

The major drama this time around occurs with the looming spectre of parenthood as Cherie’s long absent father and Jimmy’s “godmother” suddenly arrive to place undue strain on the couple’s relationship. These unexpected twin arrivals do their best to push Cherie’s buttons as she’s forced to re-examine her father’s part in her life (or lack of it) and how he may or may not be reflected in her choice of Jimmy, whilst Jimmy’s Canadian “godmother” makes a request of him in that he be the father of her child. Jimmy, a self confessed child himself, does not want anything to with this request but is too cowardly to hurt the feelings of a childhood friend and is hoping Cherie will do it for him. Cherie is wise to his game and doesn’t want to be trotted out as his old battle axe of a spouse but at 40 years of age children is one of the things she needs to make a decision on, another being whether she wants them with Jimmy.

Cherie’s father was an unhappy womaniser who eventually abandoned the family and has had little to do with any of them ever since. In his sudden return he brings great news! He’s getting married, to a woman much younger than Cherie. Building on the extreme insecurities and trust issues Cherie has displayed throughout the series, her faith in Jimmy crumbles especially after she intercepts some interestingly worded (yet totally innocent) text messages on his phone which turn out to relate to an unfortunate incident with their dog. Jimmy’s reliability continues to be one of his weaker elements as the behaviour he sees as pragmatic often strikes Cherie as self-centered or insensitive. Things come to a head during a disastrous getaway to Taipei in which the couple are caught in an earthquake. Cherie freezes and cowers by the door while Jimmy ties to guide her to safety but his efforts leave her feeling as if he will never value anything more than he does himself.

Moving away from the gentle whimsy of Love in a Puff, Cuff veers towards the surreal as the pair end up in ever stranger, yet familiar, adventures including a UFO spotting session which goes horribly wrong landing them with community service and accidental internet fame. A real life alien encounter becomes the catalyst for the couple’s eventual romantic destiny as does another of Jimmy’s grand gestures enlisting the efforts of Cherie’s father to help him win back his true love. Cherie’s troupe of loyal girlfriends even indulge in some top quality song and dance moves in an effort to cheer her up when it’s looking like she’s hit rock bottom though, improbably enough, it’s Yatterman who eventually saves the day.

Supporting cast is less disparate this time around relying heavily on Cherie’s dad and Jimmy’s godmother but Cherie’s friends get their fare share of screentime even if Jimmy’s seem to fade into the background. Cherie never seems to notice but one of her friends is in love with her and is not invested in her relationship with Jimmy, constantly trying to get her to come away on vacation to a nostalgic childhood destination, but most of the girls seem to be in the dump camp anyhow loyally making sure Cherie thinks as little about Jimmy as is possible lest she eventually go back to him.

Trolling the audience once again with the lengthiest of his horror movie openings (so long you might wonder if you’ve wandered into the wrong screen), Pang begins as he means to go on, mixing whimsical everyday moments of hilarity with surreal set pieces. It’s clear both Jimmy and Cherie have grown throughout the series – no longer does Jimmy skip out on family dinners with Cherie’s mother and brother but patiently helps his (future?) mother-in-law figure out her smartphone as well as becoming something like her errant father’s wingman. Things wrap up in the predictable fashion but it does leave us primed for the inevitable sequel – Love up the Duff? Could be, it’s the next logical step after all.


Love off the Cuff was screened at the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival.

Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

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

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

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

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

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

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

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


Original trailer (no subtitles)