The Crossing (过春天, Bai Xue, 2018)

The Crossing posterReally, when it comes right down to it, a border is not much more than an imaginary line drawn across a piece of paper intended to bring order to a formless world. People have fought and died over the positioning of such lines for centuries, but then when all is said and done the boundaries which matter most are the internal ones and everybody has their lines they will not cross. An internal war over the nature of that line is very much at the centre of Bai Xue’s melancholy coming of age drama The Crossing (过春天, Guò Chūntiānin which a young girl living a life on top of borders geographical, emotional, and legal, begins to discover herself only through transgression.

It’s Peipei’s (Huang Yao) 16th birthday, but the most important fact about that for her is that she is now of legal working age and can get a part-time job. Peipei’s parents split up some time ago and now she lives with her flighty mother (Ni Hongjie) in Shenzhen while attending a posh high school in Hong Kong where she doesn’t quite fit in considering her comparatively humble background. This is brought home to her by her insensitive best friend Jo (Carmen Soup) who wants the pair to go on holiday together to Japan at Christmas while full-well knowing that there is no way Peipei can get the money together in time. Desperate to go, Peipei has been selling cellphone cases at school and now has her part-time job but it’s all very slow going. When Jo convinces her to bunk off and party with a bunch of ne’er-do-wells she ends up getting herself involved in a cellphone smuggling operation thanks to Jo’s no good boyfriend Hao (Sunny Sun). 

Peipei’s problem is the time old one of falling in with the wrong crowd, but then we most often catch her alone and it’s a lonely figure she cuts through the busy streets of her bifurcated world. Young but tough and angry, Peipei thinks she knows what she’s doing but is caught on the difficult dividing line between adolescence and adulthood and her attempts to claim her independence are filled with determined naivety. Resentful of her mother’s seeming indifference and parade of useless boyfriends, she wants to grow up as soon as possible but it’s not so much the daring and adventure that draws her into the orbit of Sister Hua’s (Elena Kong may-yee) gang of thieves as the camaraderie. Peipei likes being part of a “family”, she likes the maternal attentions of the spiky Sister Hua, and she likes being valuable even if on some level she realises that her usefulness will fade and that her growing loyalty to the gang is largely one sided.

“The big fish eat the little fish. Never trust men” Sister Hua later advises her, and it is indeed good advice if offered a little too late. Peipei knows she’s a little a fish, which is perhaps why she sympathises so strongly with the miniature shark trapped in a tank at the palatial mansion owned by Jo’s absentee aunt. Nevertheless, she tries to swim free only to find herself sinking ever deeper into a murky underworld she is ill-equipped to understand. Her first anxious crossing with a handful of iPhones in her backpack is a fraught affair, but carrying it off without a hitch an oddly empowering experience. Even so, when Sister Hua considers swapping the phones for a gun Peipei hesitates. In essence it’s the same – perhaps it doesn’t really matter what the cargo is, and Sister Hua’s “love” is indeed dependent on a job well done, but the stakes here are sky high. It’s not such a fun game anymore, as Peipei realises spotting a badly wounded gang member hovering outside having apparently received punishment for some kind of transgression.

Meanwhile she finds herself in another kind of interstitial space altogether when caught between best friend Jo and bad boy Hao. Jo, spoilt and self-centred, assumes her family will send her abroad to study and is later shocked by the realisation that her sexist dad thinks she’s not worth it, expects her to marry young in Hong Kong, and intends to invest all the money in her brother instead. Jo didn’t care much for Hao before and even jokingly offered to bequeath him to Peipei when she left, but now all her dreams are crumbling and she suspects he’s losing interest it’s a different story. Playing with fire, Peipei finds herself drawn to Hao who becomes something between white knight and big brother figure in the confusing world of crime until his protective instincts begin to bubble into something else. The pair bicker flirtatiously but also shift into a shared space born of their mutual dissatisfaction and desire to gain access to the Hong Kong inhabited by the likes of Jo whose vast wealth has left her blind to her own privilege.

Peipei crosses lines with giddy excitement, but only through burning her bridges does she begin to discover her own identity caught as she is between Hong Kong and China, between rich and poor, between the going somewheres and not, and between innocence and experience as her exciting adventure in the world of crime eventually blows up in her face. A rather strange title card informing us that efforts to limit smuggling at the border have been redoubled (seemingly ripped right out of the Mainland censor’s notebook) finally gives way to something calmer and more meditative as Peipei awakens to a new understanding of herself and the world in which she lives, looking out instead of up and ahead rather than behind as she resolves to keep moving forward as if there were no more lines to be crossed.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas.

International 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)

Shock Wave (拆彈專家, Herman Yau, 2017)

shock wave posterRecent Hong Kong action cinema has not exactly been known for its hero cops. Most often, one brave and valiant officer stands up for justice when all around him are corrupt or acting in self interest rather than for the good of the people. Shock Wave (拆彈專家) sees Herman Yau reteam with veteran actor Andy Lau turning in another fine action performance at 55 years of age as a dedicated, highly skilled and righteous bomb disposal officer who becomes the target of a mad bomber after blowing his cover in an undercover operation. These are universally good cops fighting an insane terrorist whose intense desire for revenge and familial reunion is primed to reduce Hong Kong’s central infrastructure to a smoking mess.

Some years prior to the main action, J S Cheung (Andy Lau) is undercover with a gang of bomb loving bank robbers. When they decide to load up a few taxis with explosives, Cheung just can’t let innocent people and fellow officers get caught in the crossfire and so he blows his cover and tips the cops off to the weaponised motor vehicles. Head honcho of the gang, Blast (Jiang Wu), is not best pleased especially as his younger brother Biao (Wang Ziyi) gets himself arrested. Flash forward to the present day and Blast has come up with his plot for revenge – placing large amounts of explosives in the Cross Harbour Tunnel and taking everyone in the general area hostage until the authorities agree to release his brother and he’s satisfied himself in outwitting Cheung.

In this at least Shock Wave fits neatly into the mad bomber genre as Blast goes to great lengths to terrorise the public for irrational and entirely selfish reasons. Blast’s original twin motives centre on a need to get his brother out of prison and the need to destroy Cheung but Biao has decided one of the reasons he quite liked being in prison was that Blast wasn’t there and Cheung isn’t really interested in playing Blast’s game. Blast, as his brother points out, is someone who rarely considers the thoughts or emotions of other people, acting selfishly and assuming his own desires are the only ones which matter. This essential selfishness is echoed in a fairly subtle point about the financial impact of the tunnel crisis and how others stand to profit from it while hundreds people remain terrified and captive inside a giant tube surrounded by water which may soon collapse if Blast loses his temper.

Th mad bomber may be a cinematic staple but Shock Wave relies too heavily on familiar genre elements to make much on an impact of its own. Characterisation is often shallow in the hero cop vs insane criminal set up with supporting characters reduced to a single prominent emotion. The inevitable romantic subplot gives Cheung an emotionally fragile, recently divorced school teacher as an angelic girlfriend only to have her experience sudden qualms about getting involved with someone who does such a dangerous job.

Even if the narrative fails to impress, Yau produces an exciting visual spectacle reportedly spending vast sums of money building an exact replica of the Cross Harbour Tunnel. Filled with explosions, gunfights, and high octane action Yau keeps the tension high by turning the dial right down as Cheung and his gang do their thing with cool, calm military precision disarming everything from C4 to unexploded World War II bombs.  At two hours, Shock Wave is pushing the ideal for an action thriller but largely makes its lengthy running time count despite a number of underdeveloped subplots.

A vehicle for Lau who also takes a producer credit, Shock Wave is defined by his performance as the dashing and heroic member of the bomb disposal squad. Jiang Wu’s mad bomber provides hearty support but is never given much to do other than emphasise his villainy with sneering taunts and occasional acts of cruelty. Cheung’s schoolteacher girlfriend Carmen, played by Song Li, is about as generic as they come seeming only to exist for the classic girlfriend in peril plot device but Song and Lau have good chemistry and the relationship does at least help to up the otherwise absent emotional content. Simply put, Shock Wave is an excuse for the ageing Lau to play the action hero once again and he plays it to the hilt. At times frustratingly formulaic, Shock Wave does manage to maintain the tension until the grippingly explosive finale whilst also paying tribute to those who run towards the crisis rather than away from it in full knowledge of the price they may pay in coming to the defence of ordinary people.


Shock Wave was the closing film of the 19th Udine Far East Film Festival and will also be released in UK cinemas from 5th May.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

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)

The Bullet Vanishes (消失的子弹, Law Chi-leung, 2012)

20128291720405212Review of Law Chi-leung’s The Bullet Vanishes (消失的子弹, Xiāo Shī Dè Zǐ Dàn) – first published on UK Anime Network in June 2013.


In 1930’s Shanghai there’s a bullet factory where a young girl has been accused of pilfering. The punishment, it seems, is a cruel and very public trial by Russian roulette where fate, the gods or whoever will judge her innocent or guilty with a simple click or a loud bang. Crying out her innocence to the end, the girl pulls the trigger and presumably never actually hears the outcome as her co-workers look on in horror – she must have been guilty though, right? Or she would have been spared by the immortal powers at be.

Following this horrific incident, other deaths start to occur in the factory – the strange thing is, on examining the bodies, no trace of a bullet can be found (nor any casings at the scene). Some of the munitions workers start to believe the ghost of the poor girl who died must have returned to take revenge – perhaps she was innocent after all. To solve this intriguing mystery, the police turn to two unorthodox detectives – recently transferred former prison warden Song (Lau Ching-Wan) and maverick cop “fastest gun in town” Guo (Nicholas Tse). Neither of these two are buying the “supernatural” explanation and both are determined to get to the truth even if they work in very different ways. The solution is going to be a lot more complicated than anyone could have thought, and will, ultimately, be painful to hear.

Let’s get this out of this way first – yes, the film owes a significant debt to the recent “westernisation”, if you want to put it that way, of Ritchie’s Sherlock Holmes and other Victorian set crime dramas (e.g. Ripper Street) which seek to present themselves as taking place in a totally lawless world denizened by a criminal population that is somehow both repellent and glamourous. Although The Bullet Vanishes is set in 1930s, it still has a noticeably “Victorian” sensibility presenting a world in which rapid industrialisation has brought about mass corruption and a decline in morality. Once again, setting a film in China’s past proves to be a surefire way of getting subtextual criticisms of modern China past the country’s strict censorship regulations.

The murder mystery itself is certainly very intriguing with a series of unpredictable twists and turns. The idea of disappearing bullets might not be a new one, but The Bullet Vanishes manages to find an original solution that is perfectly plausible within its own time setting. Also, the “supernatural” element exists only as an idea and is never seriously entertained as an explanation by any of the investigators – something of a break from the genre norm.

The two detectives seem much more like rivals than partners for much of the film though an awkward sort of camaraderie does eventually grow up between them. Lau and Tse both give excellent performances but Tse in particular who’s often criticised for being a pretty boy trading on family connections, really proves himself with his surprisingly complex Guo. There is, however, the familiar criticism that the female characters are severely underdeveloped and seem almost like a rushed afterthought. Yang Mi gives a lot to the barely two dimensional Little Lark but can’t disguise the fact that the character only exists as a love interest for Guo and that in turn a love interest for Guo only exists so that we can have the “obligatory” love scene. That wouldn’t be so much of a problem if the love scene itself didn’t feel quite so “obligatory” – it could easily have been excised and the film would have remained pretty much unchanged as the scene feels as if it exists purely to satisfy a perceived audience need for romance.

There really isn’t much to fault with The Bullet Vanishes. As a slightly cerebral mainstream period thriller it’s certainly very successful. It has an engaging mystery element, strong characters played excellently by the cast and extremely slick, modern direction. In Song they’ve created a very interesting character who’d be very welcome in a sequel or two. His relationship with female prison inmate, a sort of Irene Adler figure to Song’s cerebral detective, who he’d previously investigated before being transferred was quite an usual idea that would really benefit from further exploration. All in all The Bullet Vanishes is a very impressive and enjoyable period procedural that is truly a cut above its genre origins.