Drug War (毒戰, Johnnie To, 2012)

Drug War posterIn the world of the Hong Kong action flick, the bad guys are often the good guys, and the “good guys” not so good after all. Even crooks have their code and there are rules which cannot be broken ensuring the heroes, even when they’re forced into morally dubious acts, emerge with a degree of nobility in having made a free choice to preserve their honour over their life. In Mainland China, however, things are a little different. The bad guys have to be thoroughly bad and the good guys squeaky clean. You won’t find any dodgy cops or dashing villains in a thriller from the PRC where crime can never, ever, pay. And then, enter Johnnie To who manages to exactly what the censors board asks of him while at the same painting law and chaos as two sides of the same coin, each deluded and obsessed, engaged in an internecine war in which the idea of public safety has been all but forgotten.

The film begins with the conclusion of an undercover operation run by Captain Zhang (Sun Honglei) in which he successfully disrupts a large scale smuggling operation. Meanwhile, meth cook Timmy Choi (Louis Koo) attempts to escape after an explosion kills his wife and her brothers but drives directly into a restaurant and is picked up by the police. Timmy soon wakes up and tries to escape but is eventually recaptured – from inside the chiller cabinet in the morgue in a particularly grim slice of poetic irony. Seeing as drug manufacture carries the death penalty in the PRC, Timmy turns on the charm. He’ll talk, say anything he needs to say, to save his own life. Including giving up his buddies.

Timmy is, however, a cypher. His true intentions are never quite clear – is he really just an opportunist doing whatever it takes to survive, or does he still think he can escape and is engaged in a series of clever schemes designed outsmart the ice cool Zhang? Zhang takes the bait. Eyeing a bigger prize, he lets Timmy take him into the heart of a finely tuned operation even playing the part of loudmouth gangster Haha in a studied performance which reinforces the blankness of his officialdom. Zhang is certain he is in control. He is the law, he is the state, he is the good.

Could he have misread Timmy? Zhang doesn’t think so. Timmy remains calm, watchful. Eventually he leads Zhang to a bigger drug factory staffed by a pair of mute brothers who have immense respect for their boss. Suddenly Timmy’s impassive facade begins to crack as he tells his guys about his wife’s passing but it’s impossible to know if his momentary distress is genuine, a result of mounting adrenaline, or simply part of his plan – he does, after all, need to get the brothers to give themselves away. Unbeknownst to Timmy, however, the brothers are pretty smart and might even be playing their own game.

To pits Hong Konger Timmy against Captain Zhang of the PRC in a game of cat and mouse fuelled by conflicting loyalties and mutual doubts. Whatever he’s up to, Timmy is a no good weasel who is either selling out his guys or merely pretending to so that he can save them (or maybe just save himself and what’s left of his business). Zhang, meanwhile, is a singleminded “justice” machine who absolutely will not stop, ever, until all the drug dealers in China have been eradicated. Yet isn’t all of this destruction a little bit much? Zhang doesn’t really care about the drugs because drug abuse wrecks people’s lives, maybe he doesn’t really care about the law but only about order and control, and what men like Timmy represent is a dangerous anarchy which exists in direct opposition to his conception of the way the world ought to work.

There is a degree of subversive implication in the seemingly overwhelming power of the PRC coupled with its uncompromising rigidity which paradoxically makes it appear weak rather than strong, desperate to maintain an image of control if not the control itself. The final fight takes place in front of a school with a couple of completely non-fazed and very cute little children trapped inside a school bus – Timmy does at least try to keep them calm even while using them as part of his plan, but Zhang and his guys seem to care little for the direction of the stray bullets they are spraying in order to win the internecine battle with the drug dealers and stop Timmy in his tracks once and for all. A pared down, non-stop action juggernaut, Drug War (毒戰, Dú Zhàn) is another beautifully constructed, infinitely wry action farce from To which takes its rather grim sense of humour all the way to the tragically ironic conclusion.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼, Wilson Yip, 2017)

paradox posterLouis Koo, possibly the hardest working actor in Hong Kong, has played his fair share of heroic (and not so heroic) cops but you’d be hard pushed to describe him as an action star. Proving nothing if not his dedication, Koo gives it his all as the lead in Paradox (殺破狼・貪狼), the latest in the SPL franchise directed by Ip Man’s Wilson Yip. Yip also directed the first in the series but stepped away for the second, though there is no narrative continuity with any of the films and, confusingly enough, the SPL tag seems to have been dropped from the international title altogether. In any case, what Paradox shares with instalments one and two is a series of intensely kinetic action scenes built around a storm of three incompatible personality types coupled with a quest narrative as Koo searches for clues in the disappearance of his 16 year old daughter.

Yip begins the film inside the memories of Hong Kong cop Lee Chung-Chi (Louis Koo) as he remembers the golden time when his daughter was young and worshipped her dad, crawling into his bed in the morning with a video camera ready for a whole day of birthday fun. Lee buys a cute a silver bracelet with a teddy bear charm but it’s the 16 year old Wing-Chi (Hanna Chan) he gives it to. Lee and his daughter are in a restaurant, not at home, and the air between them is tense. A boy turns up and Wing-Chi introduces him as her boyfriend but if Lee is annoyed things are about to get worse. The pair want to get married because Wing-Chi wants “to keep the baby”. Lee barely reacts save for abruptly stepping away from the table. When he returns he seems as if he’s composed himself, but in reality he has already made a catastrophic error of judgement which will force his daughter away from him.

Wing-Chi goes to Thailand to visit a friend and disappears. Lee goes to look for her, breaking out his best investigator skills and teaming up with local cop Chui Kit (Wu Yue) who is soon to be a father himself, but what he finds there leads him onto a dark path of paternal guilt, regret, and suffering whilst wading through the corruption and cruelty of the Thai underworld.

Though the narrative is, in a sense, unimportant, Yip homes in on the nature of fatherhood and the sometimes difficult or conflicted position a father finds himself in when trying to protect his child. Lee may think he’s “doing the right thing” when he clamps down on his teenage daughter’s plans to start a family of her own way ahead of schedule, but then again perhaps this was not his decision to make and ruining three lives to suit himself is nothing more than selfishness masquerading as love. It is his own actions which send his daughter into the path of danger, and then later decide her fate on a split second decision.

Later, Kit’s father-in-law (Vithaya Pansringarm) faces a similar dilemma when he’s threatened by government big wigs and fears his own daughter (and unborn grandchild) may be in danger if he does not play along. Lee’s quest to find Wing-Chi runs in parallel with that of the local mayor to win re-election, only the mayor has a bad heart which causes him to collapse before an important rally. Shady fixer Cheng (Gordon Lam) decides the mayor needs a heart transplant (seemingly unaware of the complexity of the operation and the time needed for recovery) which all links back to a dodgy American ex-pat (Chris Collins) who operates a large scale meat factory as a front for illegal organ trafficking.

The stories of Kit and Lee are linked by the curious use of the classic Chinese pop song The Moon Represents My Heart made famous by Teresa Teng. The song with its constant references to the “heart” which is also visually represented by the cheerful cards around the mayor’s bed perhaps over does things in the metaphor stakes but does its best to tug at the heartstrings in its insistence on a fathomless love in this case of fathers for their children. Koo’s rage only intensifies the more desperate he becomes as his quest hits continual dead ends punctuated by the discovery of various unpleasant characters lurking not just in the backstreets but in the police stations and political institutions of Pattaya.

The action scenes are visceral and kinetic though Koo makes the most impact when acting with stone cold efficiency, leaving the most memorable sequences to rising star Wu and Tony Jaa whose extremely brief appearance as a psychic / extremely buddhist cop may disappoint those deceived by his top billing into expecting his role to be more than a cameo. Nevertheless, Paradox delivers what it promised in Koo’s unexpected metamorphosis into an ultra cool action star whilst sending his moody cop on a dark journey of the soul as he confronts the depths of his own complicity in the corruption which is consuming him.


Screened as the opening film of Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Co-stars Louis Koo and Wu Yue recorded a new version of The Moon Represents My Heart especially for the film

Teresa Teng’s The Moon Represents My Heart

Three (三人行, Johnnie To, 2016)

Johnnie To is best known as a purveyor of intricately plotted gangster thrillers in which tough guys outsmart and then later outshoot each other. However, To is a veritable Jack of all trades when it comes to genre and has tackled just about everything from action packed crime stories to frothy romantic comedies and even a musical. This time he’s back in world of the medical drama as an improbable farce develops driven by the three central cogs who precede to drive this particular crazy train all the way to its final destination.

Dr. Tong (Zhao Wei), is a tough as nails neurosurgeon. Having arrived in Hong Kong from the mainland at 17, she learned Cantonese, got into medical school and has built a fine career for herself but this same drive means she’s unwilling to delegate and constant overwork is beginning to eat into her statistics. She thinks her day can’t get much worse after an angry patient rants and calls her a quack because there has been a complication with his surgery and he’s currently unable to walk but her next patient, a man with a gunshot wound to the head brought in by the police, is about to add to her already long list of workplace stressors.

Shun (Wallace Chung) is actually almost OK except for having a bullet lodged in his brain. Against all the advice, Shun refuses the offer to have it removed surgically because he’s playing a long game with the police and it’s his one bargaining chip. The police’s story is that Shun grabbed a gun and tried to escape whereupon an officer shot him. However, this turns out to be not quite true and Inspector Chen (Louis Koo) has twin worries – finding Shun’s accomplices and covering up the extreme misconduct committed by his team members.

The original Chinese title of the film, 三人行 which means three people walking, is inspired by the traditional saying that among three people you will always find someone you can learn something from. However, the tragedy of these three is that they’re incapable of learning anything from anyone else and are actually quite disinterested in other people. Tong is always thinking of her targets and can’t bear the thought of losing again if Shun dies of his injuries, but rather than learning to step back and recharge, she continues to push herself to near breaking point. Chen is series of walking contradictions – a lawbreaking policeman, so certain of his own ability to counteract crime that he’s lost all accountability. Shun’s big personality flaw is taking far too much pleasure in his playful scams. He wants to make a phone call so he refuses surgery until he can (quoting Bertrand Russell and throwing the Hippocratic oath back at Tong, already nearing the boil), never quite realising that the delay could very well signal the end of everything.

Tong, Chen, and Shun are three pillars of society – the respectability of the medical profession, the authority of law enforcement, and the inevitability of crime. Tong, the most sympathetic, propels herself into overwork but her selfish need to prove herself to herself puts patients’ lives at risk. The police force which is supposed to represent protection under the law, is shown to be corrupt and little more than criminal in itself. Chen says he can break the law to enforce the law, but what he’s really trying to do is save his own skin after going too far. Shun is simply a sociopathic genius intent on showing off his cerebral prowess to anyone who will give him the slightest bit of attention but like all criminals he’s a goal orientated, short term thinker. Each of the three is, in a sense, moving in their own universe and driven only by their own certainty of primacy.

As much as Three is a crime thriller, psychological character piece, and medical drama, what lies at the heart of it is farce. In keeping with much of his work, To’s world is an absurd one filled with eccentric fringe characters who may be more important than they otherwise appear and, as usual, the final god is luck – a paralysed man attempts suicide by throwing himself down the stairs only to suddenly find he can stand up by himself at the bottom, and Chen’s gun jams several times preventing him from taking decisive action. At one very strange juncture, Shun even tries to escape the hospital by making use of the classic boys own adventure tactic of tying a number of sheets together and using them to climb out of the window. To’s true centrepiece takes the form of a tense, exciting shootout which looks like slow motion but was apparently filmed in real time with the actors moving slowly in perfectly choreographed formation. The improbable scene of carnage, prefaced by bombs going off right, left and centre, is conducted to a the strains of a genial pop song extolling Confucianist wisdom. Beautifully balletic, the bullets hit in real time but the actors react as if stunned, allowing us to fully experience all of their fear and confusion at the centre of such a shocking event.

The man who may have the most to teach us the genial old man with a key stealing habit who erupts into a bawdy song as he’s being discharged. He may have the right idea when he suggests that everyone follow his example and learn to laugh loudly to live a happy life. To reinforces his absurd intentions with intense realism, embracing the ritualistic, “theatrical” nature of the operating room with all of its various performances set atop the heated bloody scenes of bodily gore and coldly metallic nature of the surrounding equipment. To’s gleefully graceful aesthetic is back in force for this tale of lonely wandering planets pushed out of orbit by the imposing centrifugal forces of their rivals. Strange and tinged with absurd humour, Three is To is in a playful mood but nevertheless deadly serious.


Reviewed at Raindance 2016.

Original trailer (English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)

S Storm (S風暴, David Lam, 2016)

s-stormIt’s become almost a cliché to describe a sequel as “unnecessary”, but then assessing how any sequel or, indeed, any film might be deemed “necessary” (for what or whom?) proves more fraught than one might originally think. It might, then, be better to think of certain sequels as “unwise” – S Storm (S風暴), a followup to the similarly named Z Storm is just one such film. Z Storm’s critical reception was, shall we say, lukewarm and did not exactly inspire a burning desire to return to its world of corporate corruption vs different kinds of bickering policemen but, nevertheless, here we are.

Louis Koo returns as ICAC officer William Luk who has the misfortune to see one of his targets assassinated right in front of him. The trail leads him to Hong Kong’s famous Jockey Club and a trading scandal involving illegal behaviour in online football gambling. Being in the wrong place at the wrong time brings Luk into contact with depressed policeman Lau (Julian Cheung Chi-lam) whose sister just happens to work in the bar in which the mysterious hitman everyone is looking for is fond of taking a drink.

Refreshingly, S Storm’s plot is actually very straightforward – bets are being rigged and the people at the top of the tree are in on the plan. Some of them are willing to go try great lengths to stop anyone finding out and spoiling their fun. Cue gangster action and dastardly tricks as the anti-corruption guys try to clean things up. However, S Storm is very much a believer in the power of coincidence. Which is to say, Lau’s sister just happens to wind up fancying the hitman and Luk’s old boss just happens to be right at the centre of the action. Believability is not high on its list of priorities.

Added to the straightforward narrative spine, Lam throws in a number of subplots – the most interesting of them being with the mysterious hitman who visits a photography exhibition for some reason set up in a shopping mall which features scenes from global war zones. It seems our sad but noble hitman was some kind of child soldier (going by his flashback) though this is never fully explored and is rather crudely used to add some kind of spiritual quality to the hitman’s final journey.

Rather than mild rivals, ICAC and CID become awkward friends fairly quickly in the quest to investigate the mysterious deaths and corruption paper trail. Lau is a former gambler with a bad reputation hoping to make something out of himself by solving a high profile case. His relationship with his sister is somewhat strained as she recites the sad story of her upbringing which includes being gang raped by goons looking for a repayment on her brother’s gambling debts (as she improbably shouts out loud to the entire bar in which she works as a way of getting back at her policeman brother who’s asking too many questions). Luk and Lau eventually bond as their conflicting personalities complement each other well enough to create an unbeatable crime stopping team.

What the film lacks in intrigue it tries to make up for with action which it handles well though infrequently. A standout out scene features one of Luk’s female subordinates getting into a fight in a teahouse which is then followed by some fist fighting with the silent yet heroic hitman. Other standoffs are gun based but at least mildly interesting if not particularly original.

S Storm has some odd ideas about character arcs, shifting the most interesting elements to the fringes and thrusting the blandest to the front. plot elements are shoehorned in bluntly and without warning such as a forgotten tussle between Luk and a former associate over a woman which quickly becomes irrelevant. Luk is also given a rather odd character moment when he comes across the dying body of another major character and simply nods, as if identifying with their plight or sympathising believing that they’ve found peace now or some other such nonsense (given that he has never actually met this person and knows nothing of their backstory). The film’s rather abrupt ending in which justice is served but the bodies remain where they fell remains unsatisfying and testifies to the ultimate failure to make the scandal laden content as interesting as it strives to be.


Original trailer (English subtitles)

Line Walker (使徒行者, Jazz Boon, 2016)

When sitcoms make the transition to the big screen, they usually do so by going on holiday. Police procedurals are no different as Line Walker (使徒行者), a cinematic outing for a wildly popular Hong Kong TV Series, proves by throwing its hat into the global ring with a Brazil bound drug based gang war. Taking more than a little inspiration from the classic undercover cop drama Infernal Affairs, Line Walker joins former undercover officer Ding and her handler Q as they receive a mysterious message from a missing operative identifying himself only as “Blackjack”.

Two years ago (as detailed during the TV series), a top Hong Kong detective, Hong, managed to find just enough time before being murdered to wipe all his data relating to officers currently working deep cover. Ditzy cop Ding (Charmaine Sheh) was one such asset, and together with her boyfriend who is also her boss, Q (Francis Ng),  managed to round up and bring all the other operatives save one whose file was corrupted beyond recovery. Therefore when they receive a message written in Hong’s unique code signed “Blackjack” they are cautiously optimistic.

The trail leads them to a corporatised Triad gang currently engaged in the usual Triad business of petty gang wars over drugs, territory, and power. Shiu (Louis Koo) and Lam (Nick Cheung) are best buds and underlings in the organisation with their eyes on bigger prizes. Making a trip to Brazil to broker a drugs deal the pair get themselves into various kinds of trouble which is only compounded by the “Blackjack” issue and suspicions of a possible mole in the gang.

Ding and Q are the only returning characters from the TV series which has received significant upgrades in the big screen jump with the addition of several Hong Kong superstars including Louis Koo and Nick Cheung. Though the central narrative stands alone, there is a degree of assumed familiarity with the ongoing backstory which is at times frustrating for the uninitiated but never much of a barrier. Line Walker does, however, suffer from the common pitfalls of the TV show making the jump into the cinematic world in that it can’t shake the artificial largeness of the small screen.

After beginning with a broadly comic sequence as Ding chases down Blackjack in a Macao casino whilst making time for slapstick pratfalls along the way, the tone progressively darkens until the final, gritty action based finale. Though the banter between the bickering couple Q and Ding is never less than amusing, Ding’s cutesy airhead routine feels out of place with the general tone of the rest of the film especially as she is also supposedly part of a team of elite undercover police officers.

In attempting to up the ante, Line Walker’s scriptwriters have thrown in twists and turns at every juncture as more and more diehard criminals suddenly confess that they are, in fact, undercover police officers. No one is telling the whole truth as double crosses and betrayals dominate the action with an overt Infernal Affairs homage set in the Olympic stadium. Frankly, it all borders on the ridiculous as plot twist plies on plot twist with predictable regularity though it does at least make things exciting.

Exciting is clearly the name of the game when it comes to the action set pieces which attempt to make the most of the cinematic budget. The most high profile of these are the Brazil set sequences filled with shootouts and car chases not to mention precision timed chain reactions of exploding vehicles used as bombs. The physical fights are impressively visceral but occasionally contrived. In one notable instance two men are attacked by a lone assassin armed only with a knife but almost allow themselves to be stabbed for no reason at all. When they do fight back, they do so one on one rather simply taking down the opponent by overwhelming him with their combined strength.

Caught between comedy crime caper and gritty heroic bloodshed, Line Walker can’t make either approach work leading to an abrupt and unsatisfying, if artistically pleasing, finale. Koo and Cheung do their best as the brothers in crime duo each realising that they can’t quite go through with betraying the other, moving from easy banter in the first half to angst ridden glares in the second, but they’re in a different picture from the sunny world of Ding and Q who are still stuck in the TV screen. Though the overworked plot and variable tone create serious problems, Line Walker does at least offer impressive action with a thin layer of comedy even if it fails to hit its emotional target.


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)

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)