Raging Fire (怒火, Benny Chan, 2021)

“If you had chased Coke that day, would our destinies have been reversed?” a cop turned villain asks of his righteous colleague, but his friend has no answer for him. The final film from director Benny Chan who sadly passed away last year after being diagnosed with cancer while filming, Raging Fire (怒火) pits a disgruntled police officer wronged by the system against an incorruptible detective but suggests that the real villain is an increasingly corrupt society in which the rich and powerful have a direct line to justice. 

As the film opens, noble officer Cheung (Donnie Yen) is racing towards some kind of altercation in a shipyard but later wakes up next to his much younger and very pregnant wife (Qin Lan). After a years long operation, his team is about to take out a petty criminal involved with a previous investigation which resulted in fellow officers getting sent to prison for excessive use of force. After refusing to to help a wealthy businessman make his son’s drunken car accident go away, Cheung is taken off the case while the raid turns out to have been a trap leaving eight of his friends dead and many more injured. Through his investigations, Cheung begins to realise that his former colleague Ngo (Nicholas Tse), recently released from prison, may be responsible for the deaths of his friends in pursuing a vigilante revenge against the police force he feels betrayed him. 

“This society doesn’t reward good men” Ngo later insists, though his total and relatively sudden transformation from earnest cop to bloodthirsty psychopathic killer seems something of a stretch. Cheung aside, the Hong Kong police force is depicted as infinitely corrupt and working at the behest of the rich and powerful to further agendas not always in the interests of justice. The case which caused so much trouble related to the kidnapping of a prominent financier and the secretary he was canoodling with at the time, the financier’s wife having obeyed the kidnappers’ instructions not to call the police by ringing a government contact instead which is why the operation is covert. Ngo and his team were told to do whatever it took to extract information from a suspect who later wound up dead but were hung out to dry by the superior officer who ordered it. Not unreasonably they see themselves as victims of a corrupt system but care little who might get in the way of their vicious bid for revenge. 

For his part, Chueng is also a thorn in the side of his colleagues because of his refusal to play along with the base level corruption all around him. Dragged to the meeting with the businessman by nervous colleague Beau (Patrick Tam), Cheung sips tea rather than the wine everyone else is drinking and eventually storms out making a point of paying for his exorbitantly priced beverage while refusing to be complicit with systemic corruption. So upright is he that he asks a passing driver if he has insurance before borrowing his car to chase down Ngo and when he himself is accused of breaking protocol the entire squad shows up to petition the disciplinary panel on his behalf. Ngo asks him if the situation would have been reversed had it been Cheung who had questioned the suspect that night, but of course it wouldn’t because Cheung would never have beaten a suspect to death in the first place. 

Chan places this debate front and centre by setting the final showdown in a church currently undergoing renovation, Ngo seemingly judged for his moral transgressions while Cheung meditates on the man he used to be in a bromance montage that laments the tragedy of Ngo’s fall from grace. The battle of wits between the two men, Ngo of course uniquely positioned to game the system he rails against, ends only in futility while the system which created him remains unchanged. Chan shoots with characteristic visual flare sending his compromised cops through a golden hellscape of the contemporary city veering between beautifully choreographed, high octane action sequences including a lengthy car chase through a highly populated area, and procedural thrills tinged with ambivalent social commentary in which justice itself has become commodified while police officers exceed their authority and bow to the rich and powerful. A throwback to classic Hong Kong action, Chan’s final film is a fitting finale for the career of a director taken far too soon. 


Raging Fire screened as part of this year’s New York Asian Film Festival and will be released in US cinemas on Aug, 13 courtesy of Well Go USA.

International trailer (English subtitles)

Heartfall Arises (惊天破 / 驚心破, Ken Wu Pinru, 2016)

Sean Lau Ching-wan and Nicholas Tse are together again after being denied the opportunity to reteam for a sequel to the acclaimed The Bullet Vanishes but if Heartfall Arises (Mainland China – 惊天破  / HK – 驚心破) was intended to repeat the successful buddy cop pulp of Bullet it sadly fails. A very modern tale of chess playing genius detectives, Heartfall Arises tantalises with some bizarre B-movie antics but remains intent on becoming this year’s big arthouse leaning crime thriller. Unfortunately Wu’s highly stylised approach, though often impressive, only serves to highlight the weaknesses inherent in the film’s construction.

Taking the lead this time, Tse plays snappy dresser and maverick cop John Ma who, when we first meet him, is busy giving a chess lesson to a little boy on a park bench while the rest of the Hong Kong police department is hot on the trail of a serial killer, The General (Gao Weiguang), who’s been targeting “evil” corporate big wigs. Ma wades in to save the day but, tragically, he and the killer are caught in a face-off in which both fire their guns at the same time with Ma securing a headshot only to be shot in the heart. Luckily Ma is saved by medical science thanks to a heart transplant from, you guessed it, The General.

Whilst in the hospital Ma meets police psychoanalyst, Calvin Che (Sean Lau Ching-wan), who (besides being another chess expert) has a theory about cell memory and the possibility that personality traits can be inherited through organ transplant. Ma has been relegated to desk work since returning to the police force but gets a chance to return to active duty when a spate of incidents occur eerily mimicking The General’s crime spree. Could his new heart really help them catch a killer, or will Ma too find himself crossing the line from law enforcement to vigilante avenger?

Though the personality transplant logic sets us up for a series of silly B-movie shenanigans, the idea is never treated with anything less than total seriousness. Thus when Ma realises that he suddenly likes spicy food we’re supposed to be worried – doubly so when he starts having visions of a pretty girl he doesn’t know frolicking on a romantic beach, especially as his nice doctor girlfriend has already gone out of her way to tell us she doesn’t mind very much about Ma’s new tastebuds. Figuring out the girl becomes key but, it seems, Ma is incorruptible when it comes to love making this particular drama ally a dead end.

Drama is where Heartfall Arises truly flatlines. Despite having played such a large part in the success of The Bullet Vanishes, Tse and Lau never generate the same kind of chemistry which made their previous collaboration so enjoyable. Both characters are hugely underwritten with Tse bundled into expensive looking fashionable outfits proving a mismatch with his cerebral policeman persona whereas Lau sports a scrabbly chin beard more in keeping with a hipster hacker than an uptight shrink. The cardinal sin is that Heartfall Arises actually pinches one of its central twists from The Bullet Vanishes but does it so clumsily as to completely undermine everything which has gone before.

Heartfall Arises wouldn’t be the first Hong Kong thriller to get away with a nonsensical plot but its relentless pretentiousness robs it of the possibility of escaping rigour through style. Slickly shot, Wu aims for a swanky, upscale noir from the well appointed office blocks to fancy apartments and Ma’s strangely dapper attire but the elite cops vibe remains decidedly low stakes as Ma and Che swap philosophical quotes and talk chess until the potentially explosive finale. A buggy chase in Thailand proves particularly unexciting as Wu fails to make the action scenes compensate for the weakness of the plot, and though he has some intriguing visual ideas they’re often ones which don’t serve the film. Taking itself far too seriously, Heartfall Arises would be more fun if it allowed itself to revel in the ridiculousness of its premise but becomes far too caught up looking at itself in the mirror to notice that the villain has escaped by grapple gun and taken the audience’s suspension of disbelief with him.


HK Trailer (English subtitles)

Cook up a Storm (决战食神, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2017)

Raymond Yip Wai-man’s Cook up a Storm (决战食神, Juézhàn Shíshén) was scheduled to open at Chinese New Year but eventually found itself delayed and awkwardly repositioned as a Valentine’s Day date movie. Something of a rarity, there is no real romance in Cook up a Storm though it may inspire a post-movie visit to the nearest Chinese restaurant with its deeply felt tribute to classic Chinese cuisine and the raucous social gathering that often goes with it. Yip does his best to throw in as many themes as possible from the familiar tradition vs modernity to fathers and sons and the undue influence to China’s new ruling class who possess extreme wealth but (apparently) no taste. Most of these get somewhat lost in the meandering script which eventually falls into a conventional tournament narrative as two very different chefs face off in the kitchen before realising they have more in common than not.

Laidback young man Sky (Nicholas Tse) has inherited the traditional and extremely popular Seven restaurant in a tiny alleyway as yet untouched by the rest of the city’s lurch towards modernisation but all that is set to change when a Michelin starred Korean/Chinese chef, Paul Ahn (Jung Yong-hwa), is given the opportunity to open a high class restaurant right across the street. Sky is not particularly worried as he knows they aren’t chasing the same clientele but Ahn continues to muscle in on his business from outbidding him at the fish market to blocking the entrance to Seven’s restaurant with fancy customer cars.

Seven and Ahn’s restaurant Stella eventually find themselves rivals in a TV cooking competition where Ahn’s modern take prizing innovation and elaborate presentation is directly contrasted with Sky’s traditional skills but there are other conflicts lurking in the background as Ahn’s corporate backers fuss about the marketing and Sky obsesses over proving himself to his estranged father who is currently the “god of cooking” and a world champion celebrity chef.

Half Korean Ahn honed his skills abroad cooking for European royalty and has never quite “got” Chinese cuisine which he finds stagnant, turned off by its fierce traditionalism. Street cook Sky does not care for Ahn’s “tricks” which distract from the simple purity of the food. Yip is pulled between the two extremes, painting the tiny alleyway as unrealistic for trying to stave off the march of time yet seing something to respect in their fierce defence of their community and way of life which is constantly under threat. Ahn, though originally cold and driven, is not quite the villain he seems as he quite clearly recognises a fellow craftsman in Sky and is willing to extend at least a professional courtesy to him even if he doesn’t immediately leap to his defence. After a number of setbacks and reversals, the two men patch up their differences by coming together to fight a common enemy which represents both future and past in the twin pronged assault of the heartless developers and Sky’s soulless father.

Corporate greed is the film’s central villain as these super rich businessmen continue to ride roughshod over the little guy from refusing to queue for a table to threatening to burn the whole place to the ground if they don’t get their way. Ahn, having accepted their offer to run “his own” restaurant quickly discovers that he is just another short order talent fit to be cast aside when another hotshot rears their head. Caring only for money and status, the restaurant owners have no love for food which, in the film’s terms, is the ultimate betrayal.

Betrayed is the way Sky feels towards his long absent father who skipped town after telling him he had no feeling for cookery leaving him with lingering feelings of resentment and inadequacy. Sky is determined to prove his father’s life philosophy wrong by demonstrating that it is possible to be both successful and a good person. Sadly, only one of these is destined to work out for him (Yip’s vision of the new China is not altogether charitable) but then Sky’s idea of “success” is very different to his father’s and to that of the development wave currently washing over his neighbourhood.

In keeping with the New Year theme food is the main focus and Yip does his best to give the simple art of cooking all of the shine it truly deserves piling visual tricks on top of well choreographed action sequences more akin to a martial arts film than your usual food fiesta. The narrative may be a familiar one, two cooks enter everyone leaves full, but then that’s more or less what is expected from a New Year movie. Inconsequential and somewhat throwaway, Cook up a Storm still manages to pack in enough gentle comedy and tributes to the power of community as found family to make up for its otherwise insubstantial nature.


HK trailer (Cantonese with 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.