The Emperor’s Sword (乱世之定秦剑, Chen Hao-nan & Zhang Ying-li, 2020)

Can you ever truly preserve peace peacefully or will human greed and envy always triumph over a simple desire for comfort and safety? Chen Hao-nan and Zhang Ying-li’s wuxia drama The Emperor’s Sword (乱世之定秦剑, Luànshì zhī Dìng Qín Jiàn) situates itself at a moment of historical chaos in which the Qin Emperor, having ended the Warring States period through universal unity ten years previously, has died. In order to ensure peace throughout the land, his sword was melted down and recast as two with one residing in a palace and the other with trusty general Meng. Ambitious courtier Zhao Gao, however, has his mind set on usurpation having wiped out most of the previous regime hellbent on retrieving both of the swords in order to secure his grip on power. 

Unfortunately for him, Meng managed to send his daughter Xue away from the falling castle with the sword in hand instructing her to take it to the Tomb Keepers of Qin. Luckily for her, she runs into Jilian, one of the famed “Seven Gentlemen” who were once students of her father’s most of whom retreated to the Red Valley once the wars ended hoping to live lives of peace. Xue’s father brought her up to be kind and considerate, always thinking of others first, but she wonders if there’ll ever be a day with no more war when everyone is free to live happily together. The remainders of the Seven Gentlemen find themselves conflicted, some wanting to help Xue while others are reluctant to involve themselves in worldly conflict having had enough of war, but their belief that they could isolate themselves from external chaos turns out to be an illusion even if it were not also a contravention of their moral code not to stand for justice when the kingdom is threatened. 

A secondary dilemma is that the man hunting them down is in fact one of their former brethren who entered the service of usurping lord Zhao. Conflicted himself, Tian meets with Jilian each essentially asking the other to back off, not get involved in this particular fight, but that’s not something either of them can do leading to a series of emotional showdowns filled with tragic romance, betrayed brotherhood, and divided loyalties. In an echo of Xue’s advocation for a kinder world if one informed by the values of jianghu, Jilian claims he serves the Meng because they really care about the people, unlike Zhao it’s implied with his authoritarian lust for power. Yet in essence the two men have the same mission, not wanting anyone else’s life to be ruined by the chaos of war, only Tian has chosen the iron fist as a means of preserving peace while Jilian has opted for a less oppressive vision of a settled future. 

Still our heroes find themselves in a precarious position as they attempt to stop Zhao Gao completing his evil mission by getting his hands on both the swords. Making the most of their meagre budget, Chen and Zhang choreograph some impressive action sequences as Jilian becomes a veritable one man army taking on hordes of Zhao’s minions while making his way towards the man himself. Xue meanwhile does perhaps become something of a damsel in distress, largely unable to defend herself and reliant on the assistance of Seven Gentlemen foster son Han Jue, appointed to protect in a compromise measure though the expected romance never quite materialises even as she begins to push him towards a more mature contemplation of a better world of peace and justice. She is however pursued by a dogged female assassin with brotherhood issues of her own who remains hot on her trail despite the fecklessness of her evil middle manager boss Lord Wei who is every inch the cowardly wuxia villain. In true jianghu fashion, the good guys don’t always win and are heavily punished for the contraventions of their codes but eventually permit good to triumph over evil in successfully conveying the sword to a more just custodian. 


The Emperor’s Sword is released in the US on Nov. 9 on digital, blu-ray, and DVD courtesy of Well Go USA.

US release Trailer (English subtitles)

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)

Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Ryoo Seung-wan, 2021)

“You think we can accomplish more together?” the North Korean ambassador incredulously asks of the South, realising that if they’re to escape their desperate situation they will temporarily have to put ideology aside. Ryoo Seung-wan’s latest big budget action drama Escape from Mogadishu (모가디슈, Mogadishu) finds the diplomatic staff of a newly democratic South Korea ironically caught up in another nation’s much less peaceful revolution while perhaps confronted by the duplicities of their globalising ambitions even as they realise the North may already have the upper hand when it comes to cultivating relationships with authoritarian regimes. 

As the opening title cards explain, having successfully transitioned into democracy and fresh from its Olympic success the South Korea of 1991 was keen to claim its place on the global stage by joining the UN. Knowing that African votes are important in the process, the ambassador to Somalia, Han (Kim Yoon-seok), is determined to ensure he has that of President Barre in the bag before he finishes out his term. Unfortunately, his attempts are frustrated firstly by a lack of cultural knowledge in his home nation as witnessed by the inappropriate gifts they’ve prepared for the president which include expensive alcohol despite the fact Somalia is a muslim nation, and secondly by the North Koreans who seem to have cultivated a closer relationship with the ruling regime and are keen to ensure South Korea does not get its seat at the UN. 

Meanwhile, it becomes increasingly clear that there is unrest in the country with rebel forces intent on deposing the despotic regime of a military dictator and installing full democracy. The circumstances are in a sense ironic, the rebels and the ordinary citizens who later stage an uprising are only doing the same thing South Korea itself has recently done only they are of course doing it in a much less defensible way with widespread violence culminating in an entrenched civil war. The staff at the embassy therefore find themselves in a difficult position. “At home they turn innocent students into communist spies, think they can’t do that here?” a conflicted staff member advises uncertain as to what to do on realising they may unwittingly be harbouring a rebel soldier while diplomatically unable to declare a clear side. All they can think to do is play a tape from their welcome event describing themselves as friends of the Somalian people in the hope of deflecting rebels’ the anger. 

Nevertheless, the rebels have declared all foreign presences as their enemies for their tacit support of Barre’s regime. Han is certainly guilty of that in cosying up to the government in the hope of winning their vote, while the North Koreans fare little better despite being accused of secretly trafficking weapons to the rebel army while the rebels complain that foreign aid has only been used to facilitate Barre’s ongoing oppression. When the North Korean Embassy is destroyed and the Chinese have already left, the North Koreans are left with no choice other than the unthinkable, asking the South for help. The South, however, is conflicted. If they let them in they’re in danger of breaking the National Security Law and in any case they aren’t sure they can trust the North. “I hear they’re trained to kill with their bare hands” one of the ladies exclaims even doubting the children. But if they refuse to open the gate it means certain death for those who are, if not their fellow countrymen, then in a sense fellow Koreans. 

Based in historical fact, Ryoo’s high tension drama is in essence a division film which makes a strong case for the united Korean family even as the two sides remain somewhat distanced despite making the practical decision to trust each other in order to survive and escape. To do so they each have to make unpalatable political decisions, the South Koreans allowing others to believe the Northerners intend to defect in the hope of additional help from their own side and the wider diplomatic community. Given the opportunity to leave alone, Han nevertheless insists on making space for the North Koreans too unwilling to simply leave them behind. The North Koreans, meanwhile, reveal the reasons they could not defect even if they wanted to in that many of them have been forced to leave children behind in Pyongyang as hostages to ensure their continued obedience to the regime. Han may have gained a degree of enlightenment in realising there are sometimes “two truths” but there’s also an undeniable poignancy on realising that however much they’ve shared, the two men will never again be able to acknowledge each other in public, escaping Mogadishu but forever divided. Shooting in Morocco, Ryoo fully recreates the terror and desperation of being trapped in an unpredictable, rapidly devolving situation while allowing his divided Koreans to find a sense of commonality as they band together in order to escape someone else’s civil war.


Escape from Mogadishu opens this year’s New York Asian Film Festival on Aug. 6 and will thereafter screen at cinemas across the US courtesy of Well Go USA

International trailer (English subtitles)

The Divine Fury (사자, Kim Joo-hwan, 2019) [Fantasia 2019]

Divine fury poster 1“If you have faith you have nothing to fear” the veteran priest explains to his protege in Kim Joo-hwan’s The Divine Fury (사자 Saja). The hero is not quite so sure. A tale of grief and resentment, The Divine Fury revels in supernatural dread, but makes plain that the origins of evil lie in the human heart and that it’s a failure to forgive that invites the darkness in.

A brief prologue introduces us to the young Yong-hu whose mother passed away shortly after he was born. His doting dad leaves him at home alone at nights while he works as a regular beat cop. Unfortunately Yong-hu’s earnest father is killed one evening by a rogue driver, leaving the boy orphaned and alone. Though his dad had been careful to take him to church and explain to him about the power of prayer, Yong-hu feels distraught and betrayed by a god who refused to listen and took his dad anyway even though he prayed as hard as he could. Vowing never to set foot in a church again, Yong-hu refuses to believe in anything at all.

20 years later, he’s a world famous MMA star with vengeance on his mind. Plagued by voices telling him to go back and take revenge on the priest who told him everything would be OK, Yong-hu (Park Seo-joon) buries himself in violence and superficial pleasures. Everything changes on the flight back from an international bout when Yong-hu has a dream of his father in which he grabs a cross and wakes up with stigmata on his right hand. When doctors can’t explain his strange injury which refuses to heal, he turns to a shaman who tells him that he is rife with demonic energy and is only protected by the shining goodness of his father’s wedding ring which he still wears on a cord around his neck. Perhaps surprisingly, the shaman advises him to follow the cross and go to a church at a certain time where a man will help him. The man turns out to be father Ahn (Ahn Sung-ki) – a Vatican-based exorcist currently in the middle of a case so difficult it’s sent his assistant running for the hills in terror.

Anyone who knows anything about exorcism in the movies knows you need an old priest and a young priest. Ahn is more or less resigned to working alone, exorcism is no longer cool with the youngsters it seems, but nevertheless remains keen to court the enigmatic Yong-hu and his all powerful demon banishing hand. Yong-hu, however, remains reluctant. He doesn’t believe in God and resents the old priest as a symbol of all that’s betrayed him. Gradually he begins to warm to Ahn, seeing in him a kind of goodness as he selflessly battles the forces of evil and releases the tormented from their supernatural oppressors even if it might take longer to help them escape their darkness. Meanwhile he continues to hunt the “Dark Bishop” who feeds on fear and negativity in order to secure his own immortality.

Ahn is fond of saying that there’s a reason for every torment and that it’s all part of God’s grand plan. As far as the film goes, he may very well be correct at least in providing the mechanism for Yong-hu’s eventual path towards re-embracing his faith. Still missing his father and nurturing intense hurt and resentment, Yong-hu invited the darkness in, beginning to hate where he should have learned to forgive. As Ahn tells him, you can’t hate something you never loved which might explain why the darkness has never been able to fully consume him. Still battling his father’s absence, Yong-hu remains doubly conflicted, falling into an easy paternal rhythm with the older man yet also resenting him both as a potential father figure primed to betray and as a symbol of the Church in whom no he longer trusts.

Kim shifts away from the comedic banter which made Midnight Runners such an unexpected treat for something more melancholy as his heroes ponder the wages of grief and the demands of responsibility. Cynical, Yong-hu forgot his father’s ghostly instructions to him to grow up to be a good person who helps others and stands up to those who harm the weak (like demons) but eventually comes to reconnect with his dad’s essential goodness when realising that he’s been guided onto a unique path as an MMA star with a magic demon vanquishing fist. Having conquered the evil inside him and accepted his father’s legacy, Yong-hu is ready to take on the forces of darkness with a divine fury of his own while saving the souls of those in peril from threats both earthly and supernatural.


The Divine Fury was screened as part of the 2019 Fantasia International Film Festival. It will also be released in cinemas across the US and Canada courtesy of Well Go USA from Aug. 16.

International trailer (English subtitles)