The Eight Hundred (八佰, Guan Hu, 2020)

“Enjoy Shanghai. Enjoy Your Life” reads a neon-lit sign in the art deco paradise of Shanghai in the 1930s. Across the river, however, a war is raging. Guan Hu’s The Eight Hundred (八佰, Bābǎi), the first Chinese film to be shot in IMAX and boasting an unprecedented budget of US$80 million, was the last in a series of movies to be ignominiously pulled from a festival slot, the opening night of the Shanghai International Film Festival no less, for “technical reasons”. In this case, most have interpreted the nebulous term as a squeamishness on the part of the censors’ board to the fact that the film celebrates the heroism not of the PLA but of Chiang Kai-shek’s Nationalist Revolutionary Army who put up the last stand during the fall of Shanghai, securing a warehouse on the opposite side of the river from the British Concession knowing that there was no hope of stopping the Japanese, but hoping that their defiance would inspire foreign powers over to the Chinese side. 

The action opens in October 1937 shortly after the outbreak of the second Sino-Japanese War. Shanghai is falling and the Japanese will soon be on their way towards Chiang’s capital, Nanking. Nevertheless, the Japanese have resolutely avoided encroachment into the foreign concessions for fear of inflaming international relations in ways which might be inexpedient for their current goals. As a diplomat later puts it, war is always a matter of politics. Ordered to hold the line, the last remnants of the NRA are expected to die as an act of political theatre. There is no practical benefit to their sacrifice save the vindication that they went down fighting, their moral righteousness a tool to garner sympathy firstly with the international community who might be persuaded to intervene at an upcoming conference in Brussels (which is finally postponed because of a corruption scandal engulfing the Belgian PM). 

In Guan’s retelling, however, it is a much more domestic audience which becomes the ultimate target. A contrast is repeatedly drawn between behind the lines China, a wasteland of fire and rubble, and the glittering lights of the foreign concession with its billboards for Hollywood movies, famous actresses surveying the scene while the sound of opera both domestic and Western wafts over the river and business carries on as normal in the large casino run by an eccentric short-haired madam dressed in a Western suit. Cynical journalists chase the story from the comparative safety of a balcony above the bridge, chiding the Chinese reporter, Fang (Xin Baiqing), who has also been working as an interpreter for the Japanese, that he acts as if this war is nothing at all to do with him. The heroism of the 800 is the key to unlocking the latent patriotism of those living in the dream of the foreign concession where war happens only across the water, in another world no more real to them than a movie. They stand by the water and they watch, increasingly grateful to the soldiers for their protection until they too remember that they are also Chinese and this war is also their war. Women extend their hands towards those retreating across the bridge while the Peking opera turns its drums to the rhythms of war and the casino madam gives up first a flag and then a large stash of morphine hidden in her safe for probably obvious reasons. 

The flag might be one of several explanations for the censors’ squeamishness in that it is obviously now the flag of Taiwan and reminds us that these men are members of Chiang Kai-shek’s NRA, more often characterised in ideological terms as traitors rather than heroes. They are not however saints in the propaganda movie mould and it is even perhaps suggested that they are not much better than the Japanese, ruthlessly executing their own men as deserters and using prisoners of war as target practice for untrained, nervous recruits (the Japanese meanwhile publicly dismember their prisoners with the intention of intimidating Chinese forces). The youngest of the soldiers is only 13, a farmer’s son pulled off his land with his older brother who was tricked into the war machine by the desire to see the shining city of Shanghai and perhaps travel to England. Some of them try to run, torn between the desire for escape and a responsibility to their fellow men, each eventually fully committed to their forlorn hope determined to hold the warehouse if only to prove that they held the line for as long as it could be held. 

That same diplomat encourages commander Colonel Xie (Du Chun) that what he does here will be remembered, and that his men are the “real Chinese people” in another statement that probably rankled with the censors. Repeated references to legendary general Guan Yu paradoxically link back to the contemporary context as the narrator of a shadow play echoes that the Han restoration rests with the young while an angry soldier rants about planting a flag on Mount Fuji as revenge for everything they’ve suffered, making the case for the resurgent China beholden to no one something echoed by the moving scenes juxtaposing the ruined warehouse with the ultramodern city which now surrounds it. Yet Guan opens with a peaceful image of pastoral serenity which stands in stark contrast to the chaos of war as his numbed camera slowly pans between one scene of carnage and the next. Men blow themselves up, cry out for their mothers, send letters home, and call out their names as they die to prove that they existed while a beautiful white horse runs wild in the vistas of desolation. Unashamedly patriotic despite its slightly subversive context, The Eight Hundred presents war as the meaningless chaos that it is, but also lionises the men who fought it in the mythic quality of their heroism as they alone stood their ground and finally convinced others to do the same.


The Eight Hundred is in UK Cinemas from 16th September courtesy of Cine Asia.

UK trailer (English subtitles)

The Bravest (烈火英雄, Tony Chan, 2019)

The Bravest poster 12019 is an important year for China’s Communist Party. Not only is it the 70th anniversary of the founding of the People’s Republic, but it’s also the centenary of the May 4th Movement which saw Chinese students protest against increasing foreign influence. To mark the occasion, Bona Film Group is set to produce what it calls the “China’s Pride Trilogy”, or as the less generously minded might see it, a trilogy of propaganda movies of which The Bravest (烈火英雄, Lhuǒ Yīngxióng) is the first. While China’s military has frequently taken centre stage in the nation’s increasingly jingoistic action movies, The Bravest is the first to focus on the heroic efforts of the fire service, which in China is operated by the army.

Inspired by a real life fire which broke out in Dalian, Liaoning Province in July 2010 and adapted from Mongolian author Bao’erji Yuanye’s book “Tears Are the Deepest Water”, The Bravest follows a collection of differing brigades who come together to battle a raging fire which has engulfed a coastal oil refinery. When we first meet our heroes, the Special Squadron, they’re in the middle of rescuing a little girl from a fire in hotpot restaurant. Though the operation is initially successful with the girl rescued and the fire extinguished, the owner has neglected to inform the fire fighting team that the back room is full of propane tanks, which is something he probably should have mentioned. One of the team is killed in the ensuing explosion while captain Liwei (Huang Xiaoming) is knocked out and thereafter removed from active duty while he deals with PTSD related to the incident.

Flashing forward, we’re told that if the wrong quantity of chemicals are added to the oil running through the refinery then it could catch fire, which it eventually does. The problem isn’t just the potential economic effects or even the possibility of a large scale explosion causing widespread infrastructure damage and loss of life, but that there is a possibility that the fire will release cyanide gas which has the potential to kill everything within the surrounding area. In the immediate aftermath of the fire breaking out, the harbour brigade, Special Squadron, and the tinpot rural team Liwei has been demoted to are all summoned to help but, unusually considering this is a propaganda film designed to praise the emergency services, are largely ill-equipped to deal with such a large and potentially hazardous incident.

Nevertheless, they live up to the movie’s name, bravely wading into harm’s way to minimise the damage. Meanwhile, mass panic is quickly overtaking the city as people begin to become aware of the potential danger through their smartphones or messages from someone connected to the refinery which is, after all, the economic centre of the area. Economics are partly what’s on the mind of the refinery’s chief who is often less than truthful with staff at the command centre, deliberately keeping information from them in an effort to control the situation and avoid being the guy who plunged an entire province into poverty. He does however give himself brownie points for sticking around when similar big wig villains in disaster movies usually get on their private jets and leave the emergency services to it. He’s joined by a selection of party officials who also break with cinematic tradition by standing next to the firefighters, a little way back from the frontline but very much still in harm’s way as they attempt to ensure a satisfactory outcome for all. In the hospitals too, doctors and nurses remain at their posts treating the injured rather than tending to their own wellbeing.

The focus is, however, the heroically altruistic actions of the firefighters who disregard their own safety in order to ensure that of others. Thankfully, in the real life incident no one was killed but in Movieland no one is that lucky and The Bravest remains remarkably unafraid to indulge in obvious foreshadowing such as poignant scenes of familial discord and even one pair of firefighters rushing to the scene still dressed in their outfits from getting their wedding pictures taken. Sad salutes and moments of silence are the order of the day while the firefighters divide up the hazardous duties by volunteering those with siblings so parents will be protected should the worst happen. Unashamedly melodramatic, there’s no denying the sheer spectacle of The Bravest’s cleverly crafted fire effects or its mammoth scale, even if it never manages to escape its nakedly propagandistic genesis. 


Currently on limited release in UK/US/Canada/Australia/NZ cinemas.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Love in the Buff (春嬌與志明, Pang Ho-cheung, 2012)

love in the buff poster2010’s Love in a Puff was a delightfully low-key, slow burn romance in which two lonely smokers found each other over a back ally rubbish drum and a series of aimless text-based and ambulatory conversations. Jimmy and Cherie were both so diffident, fearful, and emotionally restrained that their grand love affair ended on a positive if ambiguous note, promising only to continue in forward motion. Where is there to go in a sequel? The same place again, apparently. Or, more precisely, Beijing.

So, Jimmy (Shawn Yue) and Cherie (Miriam Yeung) have found true love, moved in together and are very happy. Except, Jimmy is still Jimmy and Cherie is still Cherie and so there are problems. Things come to a head when Jimmy forgets a dinner arrangement with Cherie’s family, invites her to a beach party that turns out to be a work engagement, and then unwisely tries to win an argument by “reminding” her who plays the bills. Unsurprisingly, when Jimmy returns home Cherie has gone back to her mother’s. Jimmy takes a job in Beijing and starts dating an air hostess only for Cherie to also get an unexpected transfer to the mainland capital.

More or less following the pattern of the first film but with the roles of the protagonists reversed, Jimmy and Cherie find themselves falling back into the same old routine as they’re marooned in an unfamiliar city. Jimmy, still immature and self-centred, may have started an accidental relationship with a stewardess his friend intended to molest on an aeroplane, but it’s essentially superficial (at least from his side) and once again he finds himself texting Cherie whilst bored with his girlfriend’s elegant friend set. Cherie, not over Jimmy (much as she’d like to be) and perhaps regretting her over hasty grand gesture, begins a tentative relationship with a sensitive millionaire, Sam (Xu Zheng), whose only defects seem to be an old-fashioned idea of chivalry and the fact that he is extremely bald.

Despite Sam’s obvious goodness, Cherie can’t let Jimmy go and is ultimately disappointed to find that some of his childish strangeness has rubbed off on her – in fact, the very qualities which Sam finds attractive are ones she associates with Jimmy. Back to sneaking around, bickering, and exchanging cryptic text messages the pair are left to wonder if anything has really changed. The problems are exactly the same – neither one is willing to trust the other enough to make a real go of things. Cherie, still a little over sensitive about the (very small) age difference between herself and Jimmy as well as her ticking clock, resents being made to feel like the old ball and chain when Jimmy plays the coward in lying to her to go out drinking with friends. Jimmy still fears confrontation too much talk to Cherie in a straightforward way and so they’re locked in continuing cycles of passive aggressive drama.

Once again Jimmy and Cherie are the main draw though their friends take on a slightly larger role. Eunuch (Roy Szeto) remains Jimmy’s worst enabler as he urges him to make a series of bad decisions in making a life in the mainland capital, though there is a potential happy ending for Cherie’s “plain” friend Brenda (June Lam) whose lack of looks was the butt of such mean-spirited humour in the first film. Transposing the action to Beijing Pang takes another look at modern love with its marriage markets full of old women sitting in parks with signs selling the virtues of their sons not to mention the terrible blind dates but even if the actions of the central couple lean towards the sordid as they re-engage in accidental adultery, the romance is always gentle, innocent, and sincere. Jimmy and Cherie bonded in a puff, but now they have to learn to love each other “in the buff”, warts and all or call it quits.

Pang wisely drops the documentary conceit though maintains the laid-back aesthetic and whimsical music as the ballad of Jimmy and Cherie continues. The various cameo appearances threaten to derail the low-key style of the drama but once again Pang manages to capture something youthful, fresh, and heartfelt even if not moving very much beyond the original.


Original trailer (Cantonese with traditional Chinese/English subtitles)

Mission Milano (王牌逗王牌, Wong Jing, 2016)

mission-milanoDespite its title, Mission Milano (王牌逗王牌, Wángpái Dòu Wángpái) spends relatively little time in the Northern Italian city and otherwise bounces back and forth over several worldwide locations as bumbling Interpol agent Sampan Hung (Andy Lau) chases down a gang of international crooks trying to harness a new, potentially world changing technology. Inspired by the classic spy parodies of old, Wong Jing’s latest effort proves another tiresome attempt at the comedy caper as its nonsensical plot and overplayed broad humour resolutely fail to capture attention.

The film opens with its strongest scene as Andy Lau’s bumbling Interpol agent Sampan Hung escapes from a Parisian hotel room after being attacked by a machine-gun wielding, cross-dressing French maid. Like much of the rest of the film this sequence is not particularly connected to the subsequent goings on, but on his return to China Hung begins investigating reports that a top technology firm run by the descendants of a famous Robin Hood inspired criminal is about to unveil a new bio product known as Seed of God. During the meeting, the Swedish professor presenting the research is kidnapped by a Japanese vigilante group known as Crescent which Hung believes is working for the evil worldwide organisation KMAX. Teaming up with the tech firm’s CEO Louis Luo (Huang Xiaoming), Luo’s sister (Nana Ouyang), and sidekick (Wong Cho-lam), Hung sets out to retrieve the technology before it falls into the wrong hands.

Seed of God is a bioengineered crop which can flower even if thrown on stony ground. All it needs is water and away you go – instant mango tree wherever and whenever you want. This discovery could end world hunger, but it would also be very bad news for anyone involved in traditional agriculture. Hung and Luo recognise the danger and neither want to see this new technology end up with KMAX who would not be particularly interested in applying it ethically.

Originally reluctant teammates, Hung and Luo build up a buddy buddy relationship through competitive games before eventually agreeing to work together. Luo does most of the hardline fighting while Lau’s Hung backs him up with splapstick-style comic relief. Though often mildly exciting, the action sequences have a comedy vibe dominated by Hung getting thrown into ladies’ bathrooms or knocked back on his behind by a skilled lady assassin while Luo keeps losing his glasses to a particularly mean opponent. Unfortunately, Wong relies heavily on CGI for many of the action set pieces beginning with the obvious rooftops of Paris backdrop, right up to the sports car meets heavy duty lorry incident in the middle and aeroplane based finale.

The humour itself has a heavily retro feel filled with sexist jokes such as Hung crashing into hotel bedroom containing a confused topless woman in the opening sequence and a seduction section in the middle in which a key asset is wooed using her teenage love of Alain Delon and supposed desperation for male attention. Hung is clearly modelled on Bond and even has the agent number 119 though in truth he’s more like Maxwell Smart meets Inspector Gadget with his clean cut nerdiness and ubiquitous trench coat. He even has a Q-style tech specialist (named Bing Bing so we have the “classic” Li vs Fan joke) who’s made him a killer phone with every kind of spy feature conceivable including lightsaber, but can’t actually make a phone call. Add in genre tropes of unusual weaponry and laser filled corridors, and Mission Milano is looking very uninspired.

Despite its Italian destination, Mission Milano employs a frequent musical motif that it is distinctly Spanish – another clue to how all at sea the film is in terms of coherence. A minimal stab at romance between Luo and a friendly agent on the other side, and Hung’s ongoing pining for his ex-wife who left him because his world saving habit was just too stressful, attempt to add some character drama to the piece which remains lukewarm in approach to its cast. Lau turns in an uncharacteristically large performance, grinning and gurning his way through the lacklustre script,  but not even his presence can heal the many problems plaguing the film. Never as funny as it desperately wants to be Mission Milano is a trying experience which, although intermittently amusing, (thankfully) proves instantly forgettable.


Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

League of Gods (3D封神榜, Koan Hui & Vernie Yeung , 2016)

league of godsOften, people will try to convince of the merits of something or other by considerably over compensating for its faults. Therefore when you see a movie marketed as the X-ian version of X, starring just about everyone and with a budget bigger than the GDP of a small nation you should learn to be wary rather than impressed. If you’ve followed this very sage advice, you will fare better than this reviewer and not find yourself parked in front of a cinema screen for two hours of non-sensical European fantasy influenced epic adventure such as is League of Gods (3D封神榜, 3D Fēng Shén Bǎng).

Based on a classic Chinese text – the Ming Dynasty epic Investiture of the Gods by Xu Zhonglin, League of Gods begins with its despotic monarch, King Zhou (Tony Leung Ka-fei) and the story of how it was he came to lose his soul to Black Dragon and fall under spell of the nine-tailed fox, Daji (an underused Fan Bingbing). The couple have kidnapped Wizard Jiang (Jet Li), who may have been the only one with the knowledge to end their demonic rule – if it weren’t for the fact he’s subject to an anti-ageing curse and keeps regressing each time he uses his powers. Nevertheless, a group of warriors from Xiqi attempt to rescue Jiang and a group of orphan children who are also being held prisoner though their partial success leads them to undertake a new mission to find the Sword of Light which may finally help them to cut through the darkness and restore their kingdom to glory.

The primary bearer of this quest is Lei (Jacky Heung) who is second heir to the Wing Kingdom though also an embarrassment to his father because unlike his countrymen, he’s never been able to find his wings and fly like the rest of his brethren. Jiang entrusts him with three bags to help on his journey, one of which contains “magic grass” (ahem!) which is basically a healthier version of Clippy, the second a CGI baby version of once ruthless warrior, Naza, and the third a baby Merman who had his spine removed by Naza to stop him growing up and just wants to go home. Lei runs into automaton spy and tragic love interest Blue Butterfly (Angelababy) who does at least lend a degree of pathos to the proceedings and Louis Koo also turns up riding a giant panther, which is quite a ride, it has to be said.

The biggest problem facing League of Gods is one common to every fantasy film – that is, constructing a fantastical world which is still 100% internally consistent and completely believable throughout. League of Gods throws so much information out so quickly that it’s impossible to keep a handle on everything that’s going on, let alone try to work out how all of these various warring kingdoms fit together. There is a lot of story to go around, and directors Koan Hui and Vernie Yeung have recruited a host of China’s biggest stars to help tell it. This obviously means that some stars are appearing for mere minutes with barely anything to do save show their face, making an already bloated premise overloaded beyond any sustainable level.

Narrative excitement has largely been sidelined in favour of visual flair but League of Gods is constantly let down by poor quality CGI some of which might look more at home in a late ‘90s video game. League of Gods operates as a kind of hybrid movie, mixing heavy CGI animation with live action actors but can’t decide just how po-faced it really wants to be. Lei is accompanied on his quest by a fearsome warrior, Naza, apparently an arrogant and dangerous criminal who has been imprisoned in the body of a toddler. This CGI baby grins, burps, farts, and high kicks his way out of trouble in a decidedly bizarre fashion with his grown up language offered from a cute baby face. Naza is countered by his sometime enemy – an adorable Merman baby who just misses his dad but seems to have no other purpose so it’s a mystery why Jiang gave Lei this particular bag. Magic Grass is obviously an advisory figure, but is an apt way to try and explain what’s going on.

League of Gods moves from set piece to set piece with some muddled character development along the way as Lei finds love and develops his wings but never makes any kind of attempt at unifying its disparate plot strands. Squandering the talents of its extremely high level of A-list stars, League of Gods relies of campy fun to get by but is far too serious to make the most of its over the top potential. Disappointingly, after it’s intense build up League of Gods refuses to stage its finale – ending on a cliff hanger which is heralded by the most ridiculous evil laugh offered by a despot clutching a baby which is actually the regressed form of his rival and a formerly powerful wizard. It sounds good, but it isn’t. Read the small print, sign with caution.


US release trailer (English subtitles)