Wu Kong (悟空传, Derek Kwok, 2017)

Wu KongAs it stands, contemporary Chinese cinema is veering dangerously close to Monkey King fatigue. Stephen Chow brought his particular sensibilities to the classic Journey to the West before Donnie Yen put on a monkey suit for Cheang Pou-soi, both of which were quickly followed by sequels. Eddie Peng is the latest to pick up the staff for Gallants’ Derek Kwok, though this is a much more youthful incarnation of the iconic hero, acting as a kind of prequel to recent incarnations and as a coming of age tale for the titular “demon” as recounted in the popular online novel Legend of Wukong by Jin Hezai. Told in grand style, Kwok’s Wu Kong (悟空传, Kōng Zhuàn) is a star studded box office extravaganza but embraces both extremes of its family friendly, mainstream blockbuster thrills.

So, Sun Wu Kong (the Monkey King), as you know, was born from a stone atop Mount Huaguo  – a remnant of a giant who attempted to battle the heavens but was defeated. Heaven fears the existence of the mischievous demon and determines to destroy him but he’s saved by a teacher who gives him a human form and the name Sun Wu Kong. Devastated by the destruction of his homeland, Wu Kong (Eddie Peng) vows revenge on the Heavens and travels to voice his concerns in person. Resenting his “destiny” Wu Kong focusses his attentions on destroying the divine astrolabe which ascribes fate to all beings, but little does he know that its guardian, Hua Ji (Faye Yu), wants his heart for herself so that she might rule all of Heaven and Earth.

Kwok opens with a beautifully designed sequence modelled after traditional chinese ink paintings in which he recounts the pre-history and birth of the demon later known as Sun Wu Kong. Unlike some other recent attempts to tackle this famously fantastical world, Wu Kong boasts fabulously high production values as well as much better special effects than most Chinese blockbusters, and it helps that Eddie Peng is not burdened with spending the majority of the movie in prosthetics.

Nevertheless for all the lack of actual plot, there is a lot going on and the brisk pace of the exposition filled opening is hard to follow (but, thankfully, details are unimportant). As in his other adventures, Wu Kong ends up with a collection of friends and enemies including love interest Azi (Ni Ni) – the equally rebellious daughter of Hua Ji who has just returned from 100 years in “re-education” exile and fiercely resents her mother’s cruel and controlling nature. Likewise her half brother, Erlang (Shawn Yue) has also arrived home at just the right/wrong moment and is conflicted in his views towards the Heavens – wanting to be accepted as a true “immortal” but also wanting to protect his little sister, so obviously unhappy with the ruling regime. Two more cohorts appear in the gadget laden Juan Lian (Qiao Shan) – a kind hearted man with a hopeless crush on Azi, and the lovelorn retainer, Tian Peng (Oho Ou), still pining after his childhood sweetheart who was exiled to the mortal world.

Much of the central drama occurs after Wu Kong, Erlang, and Tian Peng destroy “The Bridge of Destiny” and are cast down to the mortal world themselves along with Juan Lian and Azi. Finding themselves in a desperate village which happens to be on the former site of Mount Huaguo, the five start to believe they’ll never be going home and discuss staying to help the villagers defeat the “Cloud Demon” which has been stealing all their water. Interacting with the villagers teachers each of them some vaiuable lessons, but “destiny” is still waiting, and trying to change the fate of these desperate people may have disastrous, unforeseen consequences.

Once again, Wu Kong’s battle lies in the Heavens and may end up costing more than it gains. Kwok’s direction is conventional in one sense, but also manages to add a youthful energy which befits the film’s message. Wu Kong’s rebellion is the same as many a young a man – against a pre-ordained fate. As he puts it in the punkish final title cards, he will not be blinded by the sky or bound by the Earth – he will decide his own destiny and will never submit himself to the authority of any god or Earthly power. Attempts at melodrama largely fall flat, as does the unwise decision to shift to fantasy sequences for moments of high emotion, not to mention the inclusion of a sappy pop song to really ram home the theme of tragic romance, but whatever Wu Kong’s failings it succeeds brilliantly in its primary objective as an admittedly vacuous summer blockbuster primed to speak to the hearts of hemmed in teens everywhere.


Currently on UK release at selected cinemas.

Original trailer (Mandarin with English/simplified Chinese subtitles)

Call of Heroes (危城, Benny Chan, 2016)

call of heroesA blast from the past in more ways than one, Benny Chan’s Call of Heroes (危城, Wēi Chéng) is a western in disguise though one filtered through Akira Kurosawa and Sergio Leone more than John Ford. Filled with Morricone-esque musical riffs and poncho wearing reluctant heroes, Chan’s bounce back to the post-revolutionary warlord era is one pregnant with contemporary echoes yet totally unafraid to add a touch of uncinematic darkness to its wisecracking world.

1914 – three years after the collapse of Chinese feudalism and warlords rule the land, each vying for power and terrain but taking little account of the displaced people in their path. The residents of Stone City find this out the hard way when notorious general Cao Ying wades into town and conducts a widespread massacre seemingly for the fun of it. Plucky school teacher Bai Ling manages to escape with some of her pupils even whilst other teachers and children are being summarily executed by Cao’s troupes.

Having left with nothing and walked miles, Bai and the children are near starvation when they stop into a noodle house to share a single bowl. Unfortunately the noodle house is about to be robbed but fortunately one of the diners is bearded wanderer Ma Feng (Eddie Peng) who isn’t up for anyone disturbing his serious food coma. Impressed with Ma’s skills, the kids and Bai make their way to Pucheng where Bai has a cousin but Cao is still on the warpath and trouble has a way of tracking good people down.

Pucheng (the name of which literally means ordinary town), is watched over by the noble sheriff Yang Kenan (Sean Lau Ching-wan) though the protective garrison has been sent to the front leaving them with only a skeleton defence. When a mysterious visitor arrives in town and proceeds to shoot dead a man, woman, and even a child, Yang arrests him but when the killer turns out to be Cao Ying’s unhinged son, a number of questions arise. Yang is committed to justice – no matter the man’s name, he ought to pay for his crimes. Yet, Cao Shaolun’s presence is sure to attract his father’s attention and so many of the townspeople feel it might be better to let Cao Shaolun go. Placate a tyrant and undermine the idea of justice by failing to enforce the law or sign your own death warrant by standing up for your principles, it’s a frontiersman’s dilemma.

The references to classic Hollywood westerns are obvious enough, particularly when the narrative takes a turn for the High Noons as Yang finds himself standing alone as the sole resistance to the oncoming militia man threat. Though the townspeople do not exactly turn on Yang in the same way they turn on Kane, they clearly choose appeasement over war. Yang’s dedication to justice is purehearted, there’s little hint of personal vanity in his decision to stand up for the rule of law but only the knowledge that folding now is the same as bowing to Cao’s tyranny.

Though introduced as a possible protagonist, Ma Feng takes a far smaller role in the action than might be expected. Clearly channeling Mifune’s Sanjuro, Peng’s wisecracking drifter and cynical, reluctant hero is almost at odds with the serious business of law vs politics over in Pucheng. His character centric subplot of conflict with a former friend who works for the other side is insufficiently developed to support the emotional weight it’s intended to carry and sometimes feels like a distraction from the main narrative though the great pot mountain based martial arts set piece is certainly one worth waiting for.

If Peng’s Ma Feng feels slightly misplaced with his cynicism and comic stunts, Louis Koo’s hammed up villain Cao Shaolun is in an entirely different film altogether. Wildly over the top, Koo plays Cao Shaolun as a permanently amused psychopath, all crazy eyes and manic laughter. A self consciously cool guy, Cao Shaolun dresses in white and murders innocents with a golden gun all the while knowing he can do as he pleases simply by the virtue of his name.

Shot with a heavily digital aesthetic, Call of Heroes’ evidently high production values are sometimes reduced to a televisual quality or otherwise let down by substandard CGI. The fight scenes themselves are filmed with an old fashioned rigour filled with innovative and exciting choreography and are refreshingly humour free. Like the best westerns, Call of Heroes contains its own parable in that the best weapon against tyranny is a strong and righteous populace but the final stretch almost undermines its noble aims by presenting what is either a revolutionary spring lead by the people for the people, or a worrying case of mob justice.

Prone to narrative dead ends in setting up major characters only to sideline or kill them off unexpectedly, Call of Heroes has a frustrated quality in not being able to decide whether it wants to be a serious call to arms for standing up for what’s right in the face of overwhelming force, or a comedic romp in which a cocky drifter sorts everything out by accident. Either way, Call of Heroes does provide a number of genuinely exciting martial arts set pieces even if floundering slightly in-between them.


Original trailer (Cantonese with Traditional Chinese/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)

Cold War (寒戰, Longman Leung & Sunny Luk, 2012)

cold war

Reworked from a review first published by UK Anime Network in June 2013.


Listen up!  You’re going to have to pay attention to this review because there’s an awful lot going on this film. If there were a prize for most subplots squeezed into 102 minutes there wouldn’t even be room for any other candidates on the nominations list. If you like your HK action thrillers super complicated (if a little on the ridiculous side) and filled with some truly explosive (!) action sequences Cold War (寒戰) is definitely up your street.

Whilst a major explosion rocks a busy public area in Hong Kong, a crazed drunk hurtles through the streets before crashing his car into the central reservation in a quite spectacular manner. Apparently unharmed, he then rants at the traffic police that his uncle is a judge so they can’t touch him – a quick phone call seems to indicate he might be mistaken in his uncle’s feelings towards him but in any case the situation changes dramatically as the police are suddenly ambushed and kidnapped. The kidnappers then attempt to ransom the officers and equipment to the HK police authorities who are already a source of some press interest regarding possible corruption and general incompetence. It is imperative that they regain their men and capture the culprits as quickly as possible to avoid their reputation being even further damaged.

However, there is also considerable friction between the leading players at HQ and some uncertainty over who is favoured to become the new police chief – the young bureaucrat or the grizzled street veteran. This situation is further complicated by the fact that one of the missing patrolmen is the son of current section chief MB Lee (Tony Leung Ka-Fei). His subordinate, Sean Lau (Aaron Kwok), feels this makes him unsuitable to lead the current investigation and so seeks to have Lee removed from his post and take over the position himself. The pair also attract the attention of an officer at ICAC who’s convinced one or both of them must have more to do with the case than it seems, meaning each is effectively fighting a war on three fronts – firstly trying to rescue the police officers, then unmasking the perpetrators and finding out what they want with the HK Police force, and finally sorting out who’s up for the top job at police HQ whilst also keeping Internal Affairs off their backs.

No matter which way you put it Cold War is still extremely convoluted and fails to make all of its various plot elements hang together in a coherent way. It’s also unfortunate that the culprit is a little predictable (largely thanks to the actor’s mustache twirling performance) but when the final reveal does come it’s baffling in its pettiness, not to mention the total implausibility of such a complicated plan. Perhaps its unfair to criticise a film like this for having a problematic plot structure, perhaps fans of the action genre don’t look for finely crafted plotting as much as they look thrills and technically impressive action sequences – after all, we can’t all be Infernal Affairs.

It has to be said that Cold War does deliver in the action stakes with some extremely high production values which surpass even the heights of previous HK action films. From the opening car crash to the motorway car chase and explosive finale there are several simply jaw dropping moments throughout. When it comes to the big and brassy set pieces, Cold War is pretty much unrivaled but perhaps lacks the personal, intimate touch of other genre favourites. Tonally it walks a fine line between a sort of quirky humour and slightly absurd feeling where you can’t be sure whether you’re actually watching a comedy or not – some viewers may find all this a little too silly but others may revel in its ironic tone.

Cold War is certainly a flawed film, a little ridiculous but nevertheless enjoyable. It seems as if it also wants to make serious points about the justice system, media and police force but ends up pulling all its punches. If you stop to think about any of the plot, it makes very little sense but if you can let that go and just enjoy the superb action sequences and great performances from the leads Cold War is definitely one of the more impressive action thrillers to come out of HK in recent years.


 Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)