The Island (一出好戏, Huang Bo, 2018)

the island poster 1Comedy seems to have regained its bite of late. Filmmakers seeking to deliver pointed barbs at the modern China are pulling away from the traditionally safe areas of the period drama for a natural home in satire which for the time being at least is running rings around the censors’ board, albeit in a subdued fashion. The directorial debut from comedic actor Huang Bo, The Island (一出好戏, Yìchū Hăoxì) offers a mini lesson on the perils of untapped capitalism, tyranny, propaganda and “fake news” agendas in the form of a genial romcom in which a nice guy loser makes himself the king and wins the heart of his fair princess only for his empire to crumble under the weight of his own conflicted moralities.

On the day a meteor may or may not be on course to fall to Earth, dejected middle-aged office worker Ma Jin (Huang Bo) is off on a “team building” trip with his colleagues which involves a lengthy journey on an aquatic bus. Ma seems to owe money to just about everyone but swears he will soon pay them back, meanwhile he’s also hoping to get close to office beauty Shanshan (Shu Qi ) on whom he has a longstanding crush. At long last, it seems like Ma’s ship has finally come in – on checking his lottery numbers, Ma realises he’s the jackpot winner and can probably quit his boring job as soon as they dock, possibly even sweeping Shanshan off her feet as he does so. Alas it is not to be as seconds later the meteorite strikes engulfing the duck boat in a tsunami and eventually marooning the entire party on a deserted rocky island somewhere in the middle of the sea.

Huang wastes no time mocking modern consumerism. Ma Jin is now a millionaire but it couldn’t matter less. Likewise, slick boss Zhang (Yu Hewei) is at a similar impasse. He’s supposed to be in charge, an innovator and entrepreneur with all the ideas and a clear path to success but he is stunned and can only scream into the ocean while vowing to use his vast wealth to buy a new ship. The passengers look for leaders, some sticking with their social superior Zhang while others start to flock to the energetic bus driver Wang (Wang Baoqiang) who offers more practical solutions having discovered an abundant crop of fruit trees during an early exploration of the terrain. Wang used to be a monkey keeper and quickly assumes control with an authority born of strength and dominance as well as the withholding of the means to survive from those who do not submit to him.

It’s not long before some of the passengers long to be free of his oppressive yoke and the ideal opportunity arises when capitalist boss Zhang chances on a ready supply of capital in the form of a shipwrecked, upside-down boat which is laden with supplies. Ma Jin and his cousin Xing (Lay Zhang) follow Zhang who later institutes a market economy using playing cards for currency which offers the illusion of freedom but traps the employees in a system of capitalistic wage slavery while Zhang gets “rich” at the top of the pile. Ma Jin and Xing eventually grow disillusioned with their increased status at Zhang’s side when they realise he doesn’t have a plan for getting off the island and has given up on the idea of returning to civilisation.

Pitting two sides against the other, Ma Jin manages to create unity under a system of communism with capitalist characteristics (you see where he going with this?) in which he reigns as something like first among equals. Ma Jin’s “communist” utopia filled with laughter, song, and impromptu dance sequences is only born when he realises he’s missed the date to claim his lottery ticket and that there’s nothing worth going back for whether civilisation still exists or not. With his new found status, he’s finally able to get close the emotionally wounded Shanshan but becomes increasingly conflicted as the “fakery’ required to keep his regime in place begins to weigh on his mind, especially when a boat is spotted on the horizon and the entire system seems primed to crumble. Ma Jin gives in to his worst instincts at the instigation of his even more corrupted cousin who brands the boat visionary a false prophet, a madman who can’t accept the wonders of the new regime.

Only when confronted with Shanshan’s genuine emotion for the man he was pretending to be does Ma Jin wake up from his embittered fever dream to realise the dangers of the world he has created out of his own sense of inferiority, and particularly the harm done to his cousin who perhaps always felt a little oppressed just by him. The message is however compromised by Ma Jin’s otherwise positive realisation that lack of money was not as big a barrier to his success as lack of self confidence and avoidance of truthful emotional connections which of course undermines the central criticism of the increasing inequalities of modern Chinese society just as the ironic coda undoes the anti-consumerist message. Nevertheless, though overlong The Island successfully marries its romantic comedy core with its satirical aspirations thanks to the committed performances of the always radiant Shu Qi who invests the underwritten Shanshan with the necessary levels of wavering earnest while Huang Bo brings his usual hangdog charm to the role of the corrupted everyman.


International trailer (English subtitles)

Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Chen Sicheng, 2018)

Detective Chinatown 2 posterBox office smash Detective Chinatown successfully pulled off the difficult feat of merging amusing buddy cop comedy with a holiday setting and intriguing cerebral mystery. Given the success of the first film it’s no surprise that the boys are back in town, or, as teased in the finale, in New York where another strange crime awaits their particular talents. Firmly a Chinese production taking place in an American city (though one using American crews), Detective Chinatown 2 (唐人街探案2, Tángrénj Tàn Àn 2) tries its best to maintain its unique character while shifting into American crime thriller territory, even if hampered by a stereotypical view of its target culture and some decidedly ropey English language dialogue.

Qin (Liu Haoran), now apparently a student at the police academy, has been tricked into coming to New York for Uncle Tang Ren’s (Wang Baoqiang) wedding to his love interest from the first film, Ah Xiang (Tong Liya). When he arrives, however, Qin quickly figures out that he’s in a room with some of the world’s best detectives – Ah Xiang left Tang Ren for someone with more money and so Tang Ren wants Qin to help him solve a mysterious New York murder for the reward promised by one of the victims’ grandfathers, a Chinatown gangster named Uncle Seven (Kenneth Tsang). Qin likes a good mystery so sticks around though the situation becomes decidedly more complicated after he finds and discounts the main suspect, Song Yi (Xiao Yang), leaving the trio on the run from the authorities, other detectives vying for the reward, and Uncle Seven’s guys some of whom have their own ulterior motives.

The most satisfying element of Detective Chinatown lay in the genuinely intricate nature of its locked room mystery and elegance of its resolution. Detective Chinatown 2 shifts away from the classical style of a European drawing room mystery for something altogether flashier and more American in keeping with its setting. It is, however, guilty of more than the faults of its genre in heavily signposting its solution from the midway point leaving any serious thriller fan twiddling their thumbs waiting for the penny to drop with ace detective Qin. Though a secondary twist offered after the killer has been unmasked helps to undercut the disappointment of such an anticlimax, it is not quite enough to compensate for the crushing obviousness of the central mystery.

Likewise, where Detective Chinatown existed firmly within a small Chinese enclave of Bangkok where everyone knew everyone, the move into the metropolis of Manhattan robs the film of its small-town charm. Despite the “Chinatown” tag, Chinatown itself is not a big player and as both of our guys are now full outsiders in another culture, we’re treated to a much less nuanced take on local stereotypes with several running gags likely to raise audience hackles with their tone-deaf approach to visualising the multicultural city. All of that aside, shooting in Central Manhattan with American crews also means much less creative freedom leaving the set pieces perhaps less impressive in terms of scale and ingenuity while the cinematography occasionally feels much more like standard American television than a big budget Chinese comedy.

Nevertheless the odd pairing of loudmouth Tang Ren and the comparatively subdued Qin, whose powers find even more impressive means of visualisation as he literally lifts buildings off a map and moves them round, remains the key selling point even though each half of the pair is also subjected to a bizarre round of sexual harassment from a biker boss with a tiny Chinaman fetish to a kung fu master with possible Alzheimer’s respectively. Though Chen generally relies on slapstick, the gags have a decidedly topical flavour – a police chief with terrible hair who makes off colour jokes and wants to build a wall to keep out all the annoying Chinese guys he can’t be bothered to deal with, for example, or the repeated references to immigration and the various dangers faced by those who’ve come from somewhere else and are trying to make a life for themselves. Yet the guys also keep running into people who unexpectedly speak Mandarin – perhaps a sign of the equally unexpected elevated status of Chinese visitors and their all important economic power. Detective Chinatown 2 is a mild disappointment after the duo’s impressive debut, but nevertheless does enough to spark interest in the teased Tokyo-set third instalment.


Currently on limited UK cinema release courtesy of Cine Asia. Screening details for UK, Germany, Australia, and New Zealand available via official website.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案, Chen Sicheng, 2015)

detective chinatown posterCrime exists everywhere, but so do detectives. When one young man fails his police exams because of an unfortunate impediment, he seeks refuge abroad only to find himself on a busman’s holiday when the relative he’s been sent to stay with turns out to be not quite so much of a big shot as he claimed and then gets himself named prime suspect in a murder. Detective Chinatown (唐人街探案, Tángrénj Tàn Àn) is one among many diaspora movies which find themselves shifting between a Chinese community existing to one side of mainland culture, and a mainland mentality. This time the setting is Bangkok but second time director Chen Sicheng is careful not to surrender to stereotype whilst also taking a subtle dig at men like uncle Tang Ren who can unironically refer to Thailand as a paradise while indulging in many of the aspects which might leave other residents with much more ambivalent emotions.

Qin (Liu Haoran), a young man with a fierce love of detective fiction, has his dreams shattered when his interview to get into the police academy is derailed by his stammer and an unwise tendency towards reckless honesty. His doting grandma who raised him suggests Qin take a holiday to take his mind off things by going to stay with his uncle who is, apparently, a hot shot detective in Bangkok – Qin might even get some valuable experience whilst thinking about a plan B. Sadly, uncle Tang Ren (Wang Baoqiang) has been sending big fish stories back home for years and though he claims to be the best PI in Chinatown, he’s really a petty marketplace fixer with a bad mahjong habit and a side hustle in “finding” lost dogs. When Tang Ren accepts an errand to transport a statue from a workshop, he accidentally finds himself the prime suspect in the murder of the sculptor who is himself the prime suspect in a heist of some now very missing gold. Qin, tainted by association, vows to use his awesome detective skills to find the real killer (and the gold) to clear his uncle’s name whilst generally serving justice and protecting the innocent.

Despite the fact his secret is clearly about to be exposed, Tang Ran greets his long lost relative with immense enthusiasm (which is, as it turns out, how he does everything). Wang Baoqiang commits absolutely to Tang Ren’s cynical good humour attacking his larger than life personality with gusto though one has to wonder why Qin’s poor unsuspecting grandma thought Tang Ren would be a good guardian for her teenage grandson, especially as his first act is to take him to a strip club and spike what might actually be the first real drink of his life. Qin, quiet (that stammer) and introspective, is not a good fit for the loud and brassy world of insincerity his uncle inhabits, but forced into some very challenging situations, the two men eventually manage to combine their respective strengths into a (hilariously) efficient crime fighting team.

Meanwhile, Qin and Tang Ren are also contending with some serious political shenanigans in the local police department. Two Chinese cops are currently vying for a promotion and the job has been promised to whichever of them manages to identify the murderer and locate the missing gold. Luckily or unluckily, cop 1 – Kuntai (Xiao Yang), is a good friend of Tang Ren’s and doesn’t want to believe he is secretly some kind of criminal genius (but could well believe he killed a guy by mistake). Cop 2 (Chen He) is a hard-nosed (!) type who, for some reason, dresses like a cowboy and has a crush on Tang Ren’s landlady (Tong Liya) with whom Tang Ren is also in love. What this all amounts to is that everyone is stuck running circles around each other, trapped inside the wheel of farce, while the gold and the killer remain ever elusive.

Qin, finally beginning to overcome his stammer, puts some of his hard won detective nouse to the test and eventually figures out what’s going on but, by that point, he’s also warmed to his uncle enough to let him do the big drawing room speech. Filled with slapstick and absurd humour as it is, Detective Chinatown is also a finely constructed mystery with an internally consistent solution that offers both poignancy and a degree of unexpected darkness when the final revelations roll around. It is, however, the odd couple partnership between the sullen Qin (secretly embittered) and larger than life Tang Ren (secretly melancholy) that gives the film its winning charm, ensuring there will surely be more overseas adventures for these Chinatown detectives in years in to come…


Currently available to stream in the UK & US via Amazon Prime Video.

Original trailer (English subtitles)

Kung Fu Killer (一個人的武林, AKA Kung Fu Jungle, Teddy Chan, 2014)

kung fu killerKung fu movies –  they don’t make ‘em like they used to, except when they do. Kung Fu Killer (一個人的武林, AKA Kung Fu Jungle) is equal parts homage and farewell as its ageing star, Donnie Yen, prepares to graduate to the role of master rather than rebellious pupil. What it also is, is a battle for the soul of kung fu. Just how “martial” should a martial art be? Is it, as our antagonist tells us, worthless with no death involved or will our hero prove the spiritual and mental benefits which come with its rigorous training and inner centring transcend its original purpose? Of course most of this is just posturing in the background of a lovingly old fashioned fight fest complete with a non-sensical plot structure motivated by increasingly elaborate set pieces.

Yen plays Hahou Mo, a martial arts master and instructor to the HK police who hands himself in one day covered in blood and confesses to having killed someone. Three years later Hahou is a man of peace, paying for the accidental death of an opponent by patiently waiting out his prison time. However, when he sees a news report about a serial killer with martial arts ability targeting fellow martial artists he goes on a violent rampage trying to get the attention of the police. If they’re going to solve this crime, they’re going to need someone who knows the martial arts world intimately and Hahou spies an opportunity to earn his freedom through helping someone not so unlike himself realise the error of their ways.

In keeping with the genre, its not so much of a whodunnit as a whydunnit and so the crazed murderer is unmasked fairly quickly. Fung Yusau (Wang Baoqiang) is determined to be number one in each and every discipline, taking on the accepted masters and besting them every time, even going to far as to leave a sarcastic trophy on every body. Hahou once shared his ambition, his reckless need to prove his skill is the reason his life has gone the way it has after all, but the two men share fundamentally different beliefs about the nature of their art. Fung Yusau believes martial arts exist for the reason of killing people – fights in which both challengers live are, to him, pointless and incomplete.

Even if Hahou once harboured the same desire to prove his skills superior to all others, his was a more internal quest. For him, at least now, kung fu is a sacred art of self improvement which can be used for self defence but is essentially about learning to live a harmonious life. Having learned from his own misfortune, he knows the folly of being no. 1 – in that it’s an essentially lonely and insecure place to be. Martial arts should be used to kick down walls and build bridges, his desire is to move forward in togetherness teaching people how to be happy rather than working against each other in an unnecessary and artificial kind of competition.

The police need Hahou’s help because the martial arts world is so essentially alien to them. Despite a shared culture, this insular universe is something which they know nothing about and is so dependent on interpersonal knowledge that no degree of wikipediaing is likely to help them understand it. Only by learning from those with direct knowledge and able to guide them through the particular thought processes of the killer will they stand any chance of being able to catch him. However, the strangely alternative nature of the martial arts universe also makes trusting Hahou and the veracity of his information a big ask for hardheaded cops.

Yen wisely cedes most of the action to Wang Baoqiang other than in the early prison riot sequence and final showdown. The fight scenes are innovatively choreographed and always exciting, except perhaps for going overboard with CGI especially during the motorway set finale during which the additional speeding cars become an unwelcome reminder of just how much less is at stake than during the heady Hong Kong heyday of death defying stunts. Still, the relative quality of the action goes a long way to covering for the otherwise under developed story elements.

A nice fusion of the classic and the modern, Kung Fu Killer wears its love on its sleeve with a final credits sequence celebrating the various Hong Kong greats who’ve all contributed to the film in some way even if in more of a spiritual capacity. Necessarily an exercise in genre, Kung Fu Killer makes no claims to breaking new ground or doing anything particularly interesting, but does provide ample scope for a celebration of Hong Kong action cinema as well as the handing of the baton from Yen to Wang as each showcases their respective martial arts prowess.


Original trailer (English Subtitles)