A or B (幕后玩家, Ren Pengyuan, 2018)

A or B poster 2It’s difficult not to read every film that comes out of the Mainland as a comment on modern China but there does seem to be a persistent need to address the rapid changes engulfing the increasingly prosperous society through the medium of cinema. A or B (幕后玩家, Mùhòu Wánjiā) is the latest in a long line of thrillers to ask if the pursuit of economic success has resulted in the decline of traditional morality. Life is, according to a mysterious voice on the other end of a walkie talkie, a series of choices – A or B, you or me. When someone says they have no choice, what they usually mean is that they have chosen me over you and expect the decision to be understood because if the situation were reversed, you would have done the same.

Corrupt financial billionaire Zhong Xiaonian (Xu Zheng) has been content to justify himself with this excuse. Having ousted his predecessor through blackmail and manipulation, he rose to be the head of a vast corporate empire while Zeng (Simon Yam), his former boss, committed suicide, a ruined and humiliated figure reduced to abject despair by Zhong’s campaign of malicious finagling. Despite his vast wealth, Zhong’s appetite for success remains unsatisfied while his wife Simeng (Wang Likun), disgusted by his ongoing descent into avaricious amorality, threatens to leave rather than watch him destroy himself.

With a number of schemes in operation, Zhong returns home drunk one evening to find his wife gone, collapsing into a restless drunken stupor. When he wakes up he discovers that he is now trapped inside his mansion – the windows have been boarded up and all the doors locked. Finding a walkie talkie in a box, Zhong is messaged by a mysterious voice who tells him that every morning at 9.30 (just as the financial news begins) he will be given a binary choice. Zhong must choose A or B or his kidnapper will set both in motion.

A or B is a complex kidnap thriller, but it’s also the story of a marriage and a metaphor for the compromises of modernity. Zhong, once an ambitious youngster from a humble background, claims he set himself on the road to ruin in pursuit of a “good life” on behalf of his wife. His wife, however, has a wildly different view of a “good life” to that of her husband. Simeng sacrificed her journalistic ambitious of becoming a war photographer to shift into technology in order to better understand Zhong only to be forced to give that up too when her discoveries of his duplicities began to alarm her. What Simeng wanted was less the huge mansion and expensive jewellery than a stable life of ordinary comfort with a loving and attentive husband who strived to understand her in the way she tried to understand him – something Zhong has completely failed to realise in his male drive to get ahead. Simeng threatens to leave, not because Zhong’s increasing moral depravity has killed her love for him, but that through leaving (and taking a number of his shares with her) she may be able to wake him up and put a stop to his headlong descent into amoral criminality.

Zhong has indeed fallen quite far as his first few A or B choices make clear. It doesn’t take him long to decide to throw a lifelong friend under the bus rather than further damage his business enterprise, only latterly making a frantic appeal to his captor to find out what happened to him. Confronted by the very real and often tragic consequences of his “choices” Zhong is forced into a reconsideration of the last decade of his life. Rather than ruminate, his first instinct is for action and so he sets about trying to escape his makeshift cage little knowing that his captor may have factored his ingenuity in to their original plan. He cannot however escape his final responsibility for becoming the man he is and faces the ultimate binary choice – to continue as he is and slide further down the road to ruin, or turn himself in to the police admitting his wrongdoing and pledging to start again on a more comfortable moral footing.

The identity of the kidnapper and their motives may be fairly easy to guess, but director Ren Pengyuan keeps the tension high as Zhong – played by comedy star Xu Zheng flexing his dramatic muscles, battles himself while trying to bridge the gap between the man he’d like to be and the one he has become. Fiercely critical of the empty materialism that has begun to define modern success, A or B insists that there is a choice to be made when it comes to deciding what gets sacrificed in the quest for prosperity. Zhong at least seems to have rediscovered what is important, reaffirming his commitment to an honest, if simpler, life warmed by the humble pleasure of wanton soup delivered by loving hands.


A or B opens in selected UK cinemas on 4th May courtesy of Cine Asia – check out the official website to find out where it’s playing near you.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Dante Lam, 2018)

Operation Red Sea posterDante Lam, a Hong Kong action icon, is one of many to have begun looking North, tempted by the bigger budgets and audience potential of the Mainland. Following 2016’s Operation Mekong, Lam is back on manoeuvres with a second in what may develop into a series, Operation Red Sea (红海行动, Hónghǎi Xíngdòng). Red Sea is not connected to Mekong in terms of narrative and only features a cameo by the earlier film’s star, Zhang Hanyu, who remains firmly ensconced on the bridge of the all powerful Chinese warship while an elite troop of special forces handles the rapidly deteriorating situation on the ground, but it is once again “inspired” by a true story and perfectly positioned to show the Chinese security services in a more than favourable light.

The action begins in 2015 when the Chinese navy wades in to defend a merchant ship attacked by Somali pirates, managing to apprehend the “bad guys” with a minimum of bloodshed before they escape Chinese waters. Having suffered a casualty, the squad are then dispatched to rescue Chinese citizens caught up in an Middle Eastern coup. Their mission is helped and hindered by intrepid Chinese-French journalist, Xia Nan (Hai Qing), who has discovered evidence that a dodgy “businessman” caught up in the attack is in possession of a consignment of “yellowcake” along with a deadly dirty bomb formula which he plans to sell on to the terrorists currently waging war on the city.

Though Operation Red Sea is, perhaps, no more jingoistic than any British or American war film, its focus is more definitively centred on home concerns than an attempt to police the world. The Chinese military exists to defend Chinese citizens, even if those citizens are increasingly scattered throughout an unstable world. This presents a point of conflict between idealistic, and occasionally reckless, journalist Xia Nan whose mission is to stop the terrorists and rescue her friends, and the soldiers whose primary mission is to evacuate Chinese citizens though they hope to be able to provide assistance to citizens of other nations too if their mission parameters allow.

The Jiaolong, elite Chinese special forces, are indeed an impressive fighting force who proceed with military precision but are not without compassion. Informed by a local soldier that the terrorists often force civilians to become suicide bombers, the team’s bomb disposal officer puts himself at great risk to defuse a device and free a man destined to become a car bomb, rather than simply neutralising the threat. Protecting Chinese in peril is the official goal, but on a human level the soldiers are overcome with sorrow and anger for the local population, lamenting that they may have saved some lives but many have lost their homes and they will simply leave them behind to deal with the situation alone when they succeed in their mission of evacuating stranded Chinese diplomatic personnel.

Despite the overtly propagandistic elements which paint the Chinese military as a force for good, fighting bravely for their countrymen overseas, the landscape of war Lam paints is a hellish one full of blood, guts, and scattered body parts. Much of the film plays as a two hour recruiting video for the Chinese navy – it’s almost a surprise there aren’t people waiting with clipboards outside the theatre, but it’s difficult to believe anyone would be in a big hurry to sign up after witnessing the pure human carnage of a foreign battlefield and the very real threats the soldiers subject themselves to all while stoically pursuing their mission, committed to the protection of their nation and people.

Nevertheless Lam’s spectacle is impressive and action choreography unsurpassed. Working on a huge scale with everything from snipers to tank battles, Lam keeps the tension high as the team attempt to adapt to a situation which is rapidly deteriorating leaving them all but stranded behind enemy lines where each and every one of them faces a very real threat of death or serious injury. Despite an overuse of CGI slow motion bullet vision, Operation Red Sea largely earns its bombast with relentless fury, leaving its propaganda aims to dangle the background until the final coda which seeks to remind us that China rules the waves and will protect its citizens and territory wherever they may be.


Currently on limited release in UK cinemas courtesy of China Lion.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

PTU (Johnnie To, 2003)

PTU_PosterMissing gun thrillers have become a mainstay of Asian cinema from Kurosawa’s Stray Dog right up to the Jiang Wen starring The Missing Gun. Less than a year after Lu Chuan’s existential drama, Johnnie To takes a typically ironic look at the same problem as an arrogant yet incompetent officer gets into a disagreement with a gang of thugs and loses his gun just as a particular moment of chaos is about to strike the local gang scene. Set over the course of a single night, To’s film has an ambiguous attitude to its central collection of street cops and detectives as they attempt to recover the missing firearm before it causes more harm than they are able to contain.

A gang of petty thugs led by local bigwig “Ponytail” marches into small restaurant and commandeers the best table, forcing the young man already sitting at it eating his dinner to move further back. A short time later, Officer Lo (Lam Suet) gets into an altercation with a young man outside and then marches in and commandeers Ponytail’s table, forcing the group onto the table behind, and the young man from before onto a tiny perch near the kitchen. Only a few minutes later, Lo gets a call and leaves but is followed by some of Ponytail’s guys while Ponytail stays behind is knifed in a shock execution attempt which threatens to permanently unbalance the precariously held equilibrium of the local underworld scene.

When Lo the leaves the restaurant, he discovers that the first guy who he arrogantly disrespected has thrown yellow paint all over his car but his real problem occurs when Ponytail’s guys start chasing him and he decides to play along, only to slip on a banana skin halfway through his big moment. When he wakes up surrounded by cops, he realises he’s missing his gun and that he has a big problem. Sympathetic nighttime beat cop Mike (Simon Yam) agrees to help him find it out of a sense of solidarity, managing to get his by the book colleague to agree to give them until dawn to sort it all out.

To opens the film with a news report of an event earlier in the evening in which a police officer was killed during a robbery. Some of the PTU guys react with gallows humour only to be shot down by the fairly humourless Mike who reminds them that one of their own died today and they ought to have some respect. That is perhaps why he decides to help Lo, whom all of the other police officers regard as something of a ridiculous embarrassment. A rare leading role for To favourite Lam Suet, Lo is a genial figure of fun whose ongoing self aggrandisement mixed with pure panic at the thought of all his dodgy dealings coming out if he has to report his gun stolen makes for entertaining viewing, especially as his incompetencies are usually of the amusing rather than dangerous kind.

Yet “good guy” Mike is not exactly the beacon of fairness that he first seems. His resentment at being shouldered with a straight laced rookie from HQ, tonight of all nights, is more than just irritation with playing babysitter. Concerned that HQ may have sent a spy to look in on his very own night watch, Mike keeps the rookie in the back away from the less palatable parts of his evening which include getting information out of suspects through torturing their friends, and nearly kicking a guy to death in an alleyway. King of the night, Mike knows each and every dodgy spot and is perfectly primed to track down Lo’s gun through his thorough knowledge of the local gang scene.

Taking the tripartite structure common to many of To’s films, PTU makes full use of the director’s familiar world view in which all outcomes are the result of random acts of fate and unforeseeable coincidence. Thus, Lo slips on a banana skin, an insignificant young man turns out to be of pivotal importance, and everyone keeps thinking their phone is ringing but it turns out to be someone else’s. The gun, the great Mcguffin in all this, is revealed to be an irrelevance, resolving itself in due course just as the real chaos – the all out gang war between two rival Triad clans, brings the evening to a close. At the end of this extremely long night, Lo, Mike, a female police detective investigating Ponytail’s murder, and just about everyone else has their own version of what really happened, but, as to be expected, none of them quite tally with the events we have just witnessed.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (Cantonese with English subtitles)

Echoes of the Rainbow (歲月神偷, Alex Law, 2010)

echoes of the Rainbow posterThe tragedy of childhood is that you can’t quite see it on the ground. Looking back the truth is plainer but it’s also painful, containing all the warmth of those times but also the regrets and irreconcilable longings. Alex Law’s small scale personal tale of inevitable tragedies mixed with intense nostalgia, Echoes of the Rainbow (歲月神偷, Shui Yuet Sun Tau), is deeply sincere and more than earns its turn for the sentimental in its never wavering feeling of authenticity as it paints a picture of a rapidly disappearing Hong Kong and a childhood lived in a big brother’s shadow.

Eight year old “Big Ears” (Buzz Chung) lives with his cobbler father (Simon Yam) at the end of a long, run down street of shop keepers. Amusingly enough, Big Ears’ uncle (Paul Chun) lives at the other end of the street where he cuts hair so the family kind of has the full run of the place, head to toe. While Big Ears whiles his time away daydreaming,  putting a fish bowl on his head and pretending to be an astronaut or indulging in his favourite hobby – kleptomania, his big brother Desmond (Aarif Lee) is busy doing everything right. A tall, strong teenager with more than a passing resemblance to Bruce Lee, Desmond is a track and field star and academically gifted student at the prestigious Diocesan Boys’ School. Big Ears loves everything about his big brother, including his sort of girlfriend Flora (Evelyn Choi).

Law sketches the everyday lives of this ordinary family with the sort of details which randomly recall themselves years later – the tear on his father’s T-shirt from where it hits the end of his chisel, the taste of Autumn Moon Cake, the random conversations with passersby. The small community on this rundown street more is like an extended family in and of itself as the families take their meals on tables outside, each overhearing each other’s conversations and interfering in various family dramas. Big Ears quips that his mum (Sandra Ng) is known as “Mrs. Outlaw” because she’ll talk her way into or out of anything and has a talent for talking people around to her way of thinking, but the warmth and love between his parents is never shaken. Even in the midst of an encroaching tragedy, Mr. Law takes the time to design a pretty pair of ultra comfortable shoes for his harried wife who often complains about her corns.

Seen through little Big Ears’ eyes, the film avoids the bigger picture or any political concerns save for the presence of the corrupt colonial forces as represented by Sergeant Brian who speaks fluent Cantonese but stresses that English is essential for “getting on” in Hong Kong. Sergeant Brian is also going to get one whole box of the moon cakes Big Ears wanted all for himself and his mum has been paying for in instalments for the last few months, but the reason for his visit is a rise in the protection money the local police takes from shop keepers. If the Laws can’t pay it (and they can’t, really) they’ll be evicted. Not that Big Ears would know, but business is bad and the family is spending most of its income on Desmond’s expensive school fees so it’s doubly galling to them when his grades and athletic success begin to decline.

Big Ears is a naughty little boy, but often gets away with it because he’s just so darn cute. His pilfering habit goes largely undetected even though he steals quite ostentatious items like a glowing goblet souvenir from a movie starring his favourite actress whose picture he also sells with a fake signatures attached, a British flag from a nearby base, and even a pottery statue of the Monkey King from an actual temple. Desmond has this theory about about double rainbows that are an inversion of each other – something that could easily work for himself and his brother with Desmond’s essential goodness contrasting nicely with Big Ears’ roguish adventures whilst also speaking for the enduring bond between the brothers.

Even before the literal typhoon rips through Big Ears’ idyllic childhood home, there are signs of trouble on the horizon – firstly in Desmond’s melancholy love story with fellow tropical fish enthusiast Flora who turns out to come from an entirely different world filled with all the ease and possibility so absent from the Law’s, and then in Desmond’s gradual slowing down. The respective catch phrases of Big Ears’ parents signify the twin pillars of the age with his father’s insistence that “nothing is more important than the roof” as he works steadily to keep one over his boys, and his mother’s instances that life is “half difficult, half wonderful” but “you have to keep believing”. Earning a right to melodrama through fierce authenticity, Echoes of the Rainbow does not negate its tearjerking premise but rings it for all of its joy and sorrow, revelling in nostalgia but also in a kind of hopefulness born of having weathered a storm and survived to witness the birth of new rainbows lighting up the sky.


Screened at Creative Visions: Hong Kong Cinema 1997 – 2017

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Raymond Yip Wai-man, 2016)

phantom-of-the-theatreNo ghosts! That’s one of the big rules when it comes to the Chinese censors, but then these “ghosts” are not quite what they seem and belong to the pre-communist era when the people were far less enlightened than they are now. One of the few directors brave enough to tackle horror in China, Raymond Yip Wai-man goes for the gothic in this Phantom of the Opera inspired tale of love and the supernatural set in bohemian ‘30s Shanghai, Phantom of the Theatre (魔宫魅影, Mó Gōng Mèi Yǐng). As expected, the thrills and chills remain mild as the ghostly threat edges closer to its true role as metaphor in a revenge tale that is in perfect keeping with the melodrama inherent in the genre, but the full force of its tragic inevitability gets lost in the miasma of awkward CGI and theatrical artifice.

Shanghai was a swinging, cosmopolitan town in the 1930s. A multicultural melting pot it was both a business centre and a bohemian paradise in which the Chinese film industry flourished. Aspiring film director Gu Weibang (Tony Yang) has just returned from studying in France and is looking for an actress to star in his first project. Attempting to hand his script to the winner of the local awards ceremony, Weibang’s plan is frustrated by some awkward political shenanigans between an older actress, a younger one, and the patron that’s trying to abandon one woman for the other, but Weibang is soon to have more problems on his plate connected to the series of strange deaths which have begun to occur in the “haunted” theatre in which he wants to shoot his upcoming masterpiece.

The mystery element fades relatively quickly as we’re introduced to the very human villain who does, however, behave in an appropriately phantom fashion as he appears and disappears in various locations around the ruined theatre, making use of secret passages and hidden doorways to put his dastardly plan into action. The main thrust of the narrative is the gothic romance between Weibang and his leading actress Meng Si-fan (Ruby Lin) which is complicated both by his existing girlfriend (the pathologist working on the mysterious theatre deaths) and the spectre of the long buried past. The fire which destroyed the theatre 13 years previously resulting in the deaths of a troupe of acrobats lies at the centre of the mystery but places the two lovers on different sides of an unbridgeable divide as powerless bystanders in the newly post feudal world.

Weibang wants to make films about the things people can’t say – an interesting meta comment given that ghosts are still taboo all these years later, but the irony is that film is a seductive dream, a distraction from the reality, a haunted theatre all of its own. Dreams, reality, and cinema begin to overlap as Weibang finds himself playing the leading man and falling for the leading lady in a tragic supernatural romance whilst his creepy setting continues to give up its own ghosts. In the end the only ghosts Weibang and Si-fan will have to deal with are ones of their own pasts. Faced with a final showdown, long buried truths are finally revealed and choices made but the bittersweet ending leaves us on a positive note as those concerned discover the power of forgiveness – that forgiving others is an act of kindness to oneself and revenge little more than the theft of your own life in pointless pursuit of retribution.

Yip places the emphasis on his visuals with a sumptuous, truly gothic aesthetic filled with faded grandeur, Western architecture, and candle lit rooms perfect for suggestive shadows and ghosts which lurk in mirrors. Though occasionally plagued with poor quality CGI and leaning towards theatrical artificiality in its studio bound look, Phantom of the Theatre does succeed in building a generally creepy atmosphere even if failing to reach the giddy heights of China’s finest take on the material so far – A Song at Midnight. Despite the solid visuals, Phantom of the Theatre never achieves the levels of doomladen fatalism and inexorable malevolence which the genre demands nor does it succeed in making its central romance truly matter lending it a slightly underwhelming quality. Still, the impressive visuals and melancholy tone make for a charmingly old fashioned ghost story in which the haunting is all too real.


Original trailer (Mandarin with English/Traditional Chinese subtitles)